Friday, September 02, 2011


Sometimes I wonder why things are the way they are. Today I want to ask your thoughts on a particular question to see if you can help me understand. Why has it become so important that Genesis chapters one and two be interpreted literally? Why those particular chapters? This is not a science and religion question. This is a Bible interpretation question.

Many of us who take the Bible seriously believe that if our lived experience conflicts with what we believe a particular Biblical text says, we need to re-evaluate our interpretation of that text. It seems intuitively clear to us that there should be some congruity between the “real world” and what we believe God is communicating to us through the Bible. Of course sometimes the point of contact is that our ways and God’s way are quite different- but even then what is said about the human condition rings true to our experience.

Let me give you a couple of examples. A plain, literal reading of Mark 11:24 and Matt 18:19 suggests that if we and a couple of others, seriously, thoughtfully ask God for something or ask God to do something that those prayers will be answered. Now, I don’t know about you, but my experience is not that simple- I ask, God gives. It just doesn’t happen all that often to me or to anyone I know.

Now some of you are already forming a response to my example by thinking of an alternative understanding text. You might be thinking ,the plain reading of the text says this but it can also be read to mean something somewhat different, something more complex, more nuanced. And that is my point. When my experience of prayer doesn’t match what I think the Bible says, I re-evaluate my interpretation. I don’t assume my experience is false. I don’t assume the Bible is bunk. I assume my interpretation is flawed and needs to be rethought.

Here’s another example. In Matthew 10:34, Jesus says “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” This statement is not in harmony with other things Jesus says. Such as blessed are the peacemakers. Love your enemies. And so on. Our experience of Jesus in the rest of the gospel doesn’t match with the plain, literal meaning of this text. So we have to think again about what Jesus might mean in Matt 10:34.

If you have spent much time in Bible study, it’s very common for someone at the end of the session to say something like, “I’ve read that story a hundred times. I always thought it was about A and today because of our discussion, it seems to be about B. I have never thought about it from this perspective before.” Someone thought they understood the meaning of a text and as a result of discussion and hearing other people’s experiences and their own experience, a new understanding emerges for them.

We change what we think various texts mean fairly often based on how our experiences and the text interact.

So here’s the question. Why are some of us so opposed to reinterpreting Genesis one and two? If a plain reading of the text doesn’t match with experience, in this case evolutionary biology and cosmology, why wouldn’t it be appropriate to adjust our interpretation of it? Changing our interpretation does not mean we do not take the Bible seriously. It does mean we don’t take our interpretation so seriously. We allow for interpretive mistakes, we allow for growth in understanding, we allow for nuance and complexity. Perhaps we even allow ourselves to say we don’t fully understand.

So here again is my question. Why, for some of us, are the first chapters of Genesis exempt from any re interpretation that moves away from a plain literal reading?

I’d like to know, what do you think?

Cross posted at Conversation in Faith


Stushie said...

Why not? Nothing is impossible with God.

Sarahlynn said...

Stushie, indeed.

Nicely, thoughtfully reasoned and written, Nancy.

Anonymous said...

Your earlier examples compared scripture A against scripture B to widen your understanding of scripture A. When looking at Genesis 1&2 you compared it to evolutionary biology and cosmology. It's not _exactly_ the same thing. I usually avoid trying to make that wide of a connection. That's just me...

Nancy said...

melick, Thank you for your comment. It looks like I wasn't particularly clear in what I was saying.(And I appreciate you pointing that out.) I agree with you that Genesis is not evolutionary biology and cosmology.In my estimation Genesis is not about the physical creation of the universe and we need to consider interpretations that are theological and that do not try to shoehorn Scripture into science. I'm trying to encourage us not to try to make connections between science and Genesis.

Nancy said...

Stushie, I may be misunderstanding your comment... Why not continue to read Genesis one and two as factually accurate science? Or why not reinterpret Genesis?