Reflections on Genesis: Chapter 1 (redux)

Well, I survived my first (adult) Bible study session. Actually, oddly enough, this is really the first one I’ve attended and here I am leading it. But all in all it went well, I think (if I do say so myself). The discussion was interesting and thoughtful. Dare I say … adult?

It also cemented for me the particular philosophical interpretation of Genesis put forward by Mr. Kass. That is, Genesis 1 (creation version 1) is a story about God’s creation of the Universe and “Days” refer not to time but to ontology, i.e., phases of taxonomic separation. That ontology is to emphasize that the universe can intelligibly approached by the human intellect. That we are made in God’s image, which primarily means we do those things which God does (and as other creatures of His creation do not) such as create, bless, name, separate and make intelligible.

Given the frequent comments and lively discussions with some self-declared atheists on this site lately, my guess is that there should be little objectionable to be found in this accounting. So at this stage of Genesis, I’m guessing, contrary to popular misconception, there should be little to be found in Genesis 1 that would ruffle the feathers of your average atheistic bird. No? Yes?

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6 comments

  1. I’m not sure what you’re trying to say with the “phases of taxonomic separation,” but, contrary to the Biblical story, for example, birds came after land animals, not vice versa. Also, of course, in reality, the sun formed before Earth did.

    One may always retreat to innocuous statements which are unfalsifiable. I could easily form a religion based on Winnie the Pooh, reading it allegorically and taking philosophical gleanings out of it. I’d never argue that the Bible isn’t a work of literature from which we may learn a great many things.

  2. Mark says:

    JA,

    See the diagram in the previous post on Genesis. Days correspond to the branches in the tree. Day refers therefore not to chronological day or even time, but the stages in the separation. In this reading then the account of Creation is not historical but conceptual. Separation is a recurrent theme (motif) in Torah and the OT (Tanakh?) and furthermore is repeated many times in that short chapter, giving support to this particular interpretation. The progression of “Days” (and what is done) follows each day adding an additional branching and that branching/taxonomy gave rise to the ordering of what happened at each stage. Hence birds/fish are mentioned prior to terrestrial animals because they are separated at that same stage (the penultimate separation dividing non-terrestrial from terrestrial (fish/fowl from the remaining which are then split as in God’s image (man) or not (other animals)).

    This statement is, as noted earlier, not “innocuous” or even vacuous. It happens to coincide with the strongly held beliefs of not just Jews and Christians, i.e., that the world is intelligible. Or does “innocuous” just mean “a statement that is not in dispute”?

  3. Hence birds/fish are mentioned prior to terrestrial animals because they are separated at that same stage (the penultimate separation dividing non-terrestrial from terrestrial (fish/fowl from the remaining which are then split as in God’s image (man) or not (other animals)).

    Ok. Seems like a pretty tortured reading, but whatever floats your boat. To my mind (and according to evolution) fowl have more in common with land animals than with fish, but one can always draw a line between any three items arbitrarily. Also, one must ask why Genesis gives an account that sounds temporal if it was intended ontologically.

    What I take from this is that you will always be able to interpret a verse to be unfalsifiable. Therefore, the whole Bible will be unfalsifiable.

    That’s all well and good, but then do you interpret all verses to correspond to your own interests and desires? Does “eye for an eye” mean what it says, or does it mean “the financial equivalent of an eye for an eye?” What are your criteria for deciding?

    If all you’re doing is hanging your own meanings on the words, what’s the point of the words in the first place?

    What technique are you using, in other words, to figure out that Genesis is describing ontologies rather than reflecting the authors’ mistaken guesses about the history of the world? How do you know that technique is reliable? From where does it come?

  4. Mark says:

    JA,
    It’s more a tortured reading because I’m a poor expositor … this interpretation is found in Kass book linked in the prior essay. It’s not original with Mr Kass however, he cites Umberto Cassuto and Leo Strauss I can give you references if you’re going to chase it down. It is indeed a somewhat new reading, but the argument isn’t as tortured as you might think (although it is definitely taking a philosophical vs any other type of reading of the text).

    For a possible answer on why chronology would be given instead of taxonomy/ontology … I’d answer perhaps those ideas weren’t so different 3000+ years ago. As Scientific/historical methods were not in vogue, but perhaps taxonomic/ontological reasons such as separation might be more seen as important causations and that logical reasons seen as more important to relate and also connected directly to the physical. However the logical reasoning behind the text remain and importantly in that case, the Day -> taxonomic level idea is what remains in the text for us today.

    I’m still unsure about what you keep harping on “unfalsifiable”. Do you ask such questions of Plato in the Republic? When Socrates considers whether he should or should not drink the hemlock … is falsifiablility of his reason at question. In Plato’s Cave in the Republic how do you interject objections of “falsifiability” into that account? And note, the Cave account is philosophy not to be just “valued as literature”.

    Furthermore there is in fact, in this interpretation a falsifiable (and perhaps false) statement being made. That is, that the universe is intelligible. I’m going to write a bit about that tonight.

    To put your (repeated) underlying question in technical theological terms, you’re asking my to define my hermeneutic. In this case (for this particular Bible study) we are, as I’ve said before, using a hermeneutic which reads the text as meant to impart philosophical answers about the relationships between man, God, and the world. It is that meaning I’m seeking in this case.

  5. So at this stage of Genesis, I’m guessing, contrary to popular misconception, there should be little to be found in Genesis 1 that would ruffle the feathers of your average atheistic bird. No? Yes?

    I was responding to this.

    I don’t have a big problem with the interpretation you’re giving. I don’t have a problem with Genesis as literature or jumping-off point for philosophy. I do have a problem with the 50%+ of Americans who think Genesis is literal history and want to impose their views on our public classrooms, but I guess that’s a different subject.

  6. […] 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 […]