Reflections on Genesis: Chapter 1

As I mentioned last week, one of the topics I’ll be blogging about this week, reading Genesis from a philosophical perspective. Monday evenings I’m leading a bible study which will last 4-5 weeks. Each week we will basically be discussing one chapter per week. This study draws heavily from Leon Kass’ The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, which I recommend highly for any interested reader, even you atheists 😉 .

What does a philosophical reading of Genesis mean?
By a philosophical reading, this simply means to read the book trying to understand what wisdom is being imparted by the author in the text. It is as opposed to a historical, anthropological, confrontational, reverent, or strictly theological reading of the text. Importantly, one need not grant special wisdom or place (like “this is the word of God”) to the text on this reading. Instead, we must grant that the author intends to impart this meaning and that we might initially grant that he has wisdom to impart. At the end of the exercise we might decide on whether this teaching is beneficial or might be taken to heart.

A starting example, verse 1

In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.

What can we glean from this short passage. This is an odd way to begin perhaps, What is meant by “God”? What is said here? What does this answer about God and the universe?

  • God existed prior … hence outside the universe.
  • Creation was not “sexual” as in other myths, i.e., cosmogony and theogony are rejected. The sky did not beget the earth and so on.
  • Polytheism is rejected.
  • God is not the world/universe, i.e., rejecting the deity of stars, earth, sun, and oceans.

The rejection of alternative views is not done polemically by asserting what is flawed with the other views, just confidently stating the authors (unique at the time) viewpoint.

On the other hand, this start triggers, thus far unanswered questions:

  • What comes next?
  • Are we to understand the cosmological and/or metaphysical are related to the moral and ethical?
  • Does the imperative for us to follow Gods commandments flow from his status as Creator?

This questions are not answered directly, but arise here from the manner of the start of this text.

Verse 2

and the earth was then welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovered over the waters,

Mystery is not relieved in this next verse but deepened. Our author seems to imply that prior to creation, those prior to creation, is rightly shrouded in mystery. Modern cosmologists don’t speak of it either. As readers, we may desire that this mystery be unshrouded, but we might be relieved that it doesn’t speak of things which Men cannot know. This might be the start of a reason to trust the text?

Parallel structure … the Days

Going on we get the “days” in largely parallel structure.

  • Day one – light and separation of light and Dark (named Day and Night).
  • Day two – the firmament, vault of sky (Heavens) which separate the waters above and the waters below.
  • Day three – separation of gathered terrestrial waters from dry land, Seas and Earth + vegatables put forth by the earth.
  • Day four – the lights in the heavens (the greater and lesser and the stars)
  • Day five – fish and birds
  • Day six – terrestrial animals + man

This account is anthro-centric or at least earth-centered. There are no gods and godesses. No other divine presences or actors.

But what do we take the rest of this to mean? What is “Day”?

In the list:

  1. Light
  2. heaven*
  3. earth (dry land) and plants
  4. lights (heavenly)
  5. fish and fowl
  6. land animals and man*

(*) is to note that these two, heaven and man are the only things not noted as “good”. What is meant here by “good”, surely not moral/ethical good. More likely good as in the sense of “well made” for its purpose and finished. Man and the heavens may not be “good” here because. If the story of Man is not yet finished, could that be why he is not “good” at this stage in the story?

A Hierarchical Example based on Separation

Here is a diagram (copied from Kass pg 34) showing one idea of how separation creates hierarchy in this text.

Kass pg 34

With this notion, the account of Genesis while poetic is when studied a rational and intelligible account of creation. Not mythic or historical (sensual?). This idea of the world, that is in agreement with what we observe (being from a religious text notwithstanding), that is our world is indeed an articulate world, with different degrees of freedom and fixedness.

Comments then on Evolution

Man here is the ultimate work of creation. The last of the creatures mentioned given a special place.

Image of God … in what sense? God’s activities and “powers” exhibited in Genesis 1, God creates, speaks, names, blesses, and hallows. God is concerned with goodness and the perfection of things.

What might Good mean in Genesis 1. How does this stand in relation to evolution.

  • This account discloses a hierarchical world and intelligible principles. It is an ontological account serves a moral intention, that is to show the incompleteness and ambiguity of the human and the non divinity and moral irrelevance of the entire visible cosmos.
  • This account is not in direct opposition to evolution because its account is not historical but ontological, ethical, and theological. It cannot therefore be refuted by historical or scientific basis. It is not myth or poetry but metaphysics and ethics.
  • However, Kass suggests that scientific views evolution may deny the intelligibility and primacy of species (the separation noted in Genesis) and the importance and uniqueness of man. And in that sense it might be in opposition, but I’m not expert enough on evolution to know how notions “kind” and “species” which arise from Genesis are denied by evolutionary theory.

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3 comments

  1. […] I’ve been intending to mention this since last week’s Christian Blog Carnival came out, but I’ve been distracted. Mark Olson at Pseudo-Polymath has started a series on Genesis from a philosophical perspective. The first entry is Reflections on Gensis: Chapter 1, and he has now posted the second entry, Reflections on Genesis: Chapters 2-3 (part 1). […]

  2. […] claims about the nature of Creation, for example that the visible creation is intelligible (see this and the followup, here). Faith in this ontological claim is what makes science […]

  3. […] my preference ontological as in Leon Kass’ The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis … see this and this) is pretty much also adiophora, i.e., a difference that make no […]