BIBLICAL CHRONOLOGY
 
Vol. IX, No. 4 James B. Jordan, 1997 April, 1997

 

JOHN SAILHAMER WEIGHS IN (I)

by James B. Jordan


Does the chronology in the Bible begin with the creation of Adam or with the creation of the universe? That is the question we are exploring this year. In January and February we took up the "Framework Hypothesis" as advocated by its most scholarly and powerful exponent, Dr. Meredith G. Kline. We found it wanting. We shall also be taking up the "Day-Age Hypothesis" in due course.

At this point, however, we take up the view propounded by Dr. John Sailhamer, Professor of Old Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Dr. Sailhamer is an evangelical, Bible-believing Christian, as are all those with whom we are interacting in these essays. He is a respected scholar who has served as Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and who has served on translation committees for two recent Bible translations.

In 1996, Dr. Sailhamer's book Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account appeared from Multnomah Press. In it, he advocates the notion that the creation account in Genesis 1 is a record of the preparation of the Garden of Eden, not a record of the preparation of the whole earth. Genesis Unbound is courteously written and undogmatic; Sailhamer is setting forth his interpretive hypothesis for the larger Christian community to examine.

In brief, Sailhamer proposes that Genesis 1:1 tells us that God created the heavens and the earth at some time in the past. We don't know when, and it might have been millions or billions of years ago. Then Genesis 1 continues by telling us that in the recent past, God spent six literal 24-hour days working miracles to prepare the land of Eden and its garden for Adam and Eve to live in. Thus, Sailhamer's thesis offers a new and interesting resolution of the conflict between modern science and Biblical revelation. I predict that it will become more attractive as it gains circulation.

As many readers know, I have devoted a great deal of attention to the Garden of Eden in my long-running series of essay-letters entitled "Trees and Thorns" (available from Biblical Horizons, Box 1096, Niceville, FL 32588). Thus, I was very interested to see if Dr. Sailhamer could make a convincing case for this "new" view. It is, after all, always possible that "six-day creationism" has not properly understood the text of God's revelation. We must always be open to the text above all else, and not blindly cling to familiar traditions, whatever they may be.

I am convinced, however, that Dr. Sailhamer has not made a compelling case, and that this "new" approach is a dead end. I hope that my critique is here presented as courteously as Sailhamer presented his thesis.

To begin with, let me make a few general observations. First, this book is written in a quite popular style, and though the arguments are clearly presented, I think that a "meaty" matter such as this deserves better than a "milky" presentation (Hebrews 5:12). Sailhamer generally does not take up possible objections to his assertions. This may be because his enthusiasm for his approach blinds him to such objections. Whatever the case may be, I found his presentation here to be somewhat lacking in scholarly force.

Additionally, the book has no index, and the notes are not to be found at the bottom of the page, but rather are placed inconveniently at the end. These are a sure signs that this is not a "serious" book but a "popular" one. And that is too bad. For this thesis to be taken seriously, the publisher should have presented it in a more serious format. I shall endeavor, however, to interact with the book at serious level that its thesis warrants.


NOT QUITE NEW

Sailhamer points out that his approach is not quite brand new. He writes, "The medieval Jewish commentator Rashi understood most of the account of Genesis 1 as a direct reference to God's preparation of the promised land." He goes on to point out, though, that Rashi had an axe to grind. This was the time of the crusades, when the question of who had the right to Palestine was crucial. Rashi wanted to make the case that God created the promised land (Eden = Palestine for him) and gave it to the Jews (p. 215). (RASHI is an acronym formed from the initials of RAbbi SHlomo Izchaki, or in English, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, 1040-1105.) According to Sailhamer, Rashi was followed later on by the eminent Puritan-era scholar John Lightfoot (p. 216).

A fuller discussion of the history of this view is desirable. I don't have the resources to check out the little information Sailhamer provides, but my Jewish commentaries make no mention of this approach. The lengthy (2232 pp.) ArtScroll Tanach Series commentary on Genesis does not mention it, though it summarizes what all the preeminent rabbis, including Rashi, have to say about every topic. [See Bereshis: Genesis: A New Translation With a Commentary Anthologized from Talmudic, Midrashic, and Rabbinic Sources (Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 1977).] The great orthodox Jewish commentator Samson Raphael Hirsch makes no mention of this view, and neither does the great modern Jewish commentator Umberto Cassuto.

Now, Sailhamer does not imply that his view is found commonly in Jewish commentaries. It appears, however, that nobody but Rashi and possibly Ibn Ezra ever held this view. Certainly, the rabbinic community over the ages has not been impressed with it, since they don't even take it up as a possibility.


ON TO SAILHAMER

There are two ways we can proceed in dealing with Genesis Unbound. One is to take up a few crucial arguments presented in the book and discuss them. The other is to take up the book at length. I have opted for the latter.

The reason is that, as I mentioned above, Sailhamer's approach is new, different, intriguing, and will prove attractive. The proofs against the "Framework Hypothesis" and the "Day-Age Hypothesis" have been around for several generations, but these views continue to have wide circulation among educated Christians for a very simple reason: the pressure of modern scientific hypotheses (presented as facts). Supposedly we KNOW that the universe is billions of years old. Supposedly we KNOW that the red-shift in the spectra of distant stars is caused by their travelling away from us at high speeds. Supposedly we KNOW that the speed of light is constant. Supposedly we KNOW that the dinosaurs were exterminated by a "nuclear winter" caused by the impact of a large meteorite upon the earth. Supposedly we KNOW that animals and manlike beings existed on the earth well before 4000 or 10,000 BC. The "Framework Hypothesis" and the "Day-Age Hypothesis" are attempts to get around the fact that Genesis 1 seems obviously to contradict these assertions of modern scientific theory. These two ways of reading Genesis 1 are, however, exegetically implausible, and have been shown up as erroneous many times. They "save science for Christ" at the expense of sound hermeneutics, at the expense of the rather clear statements of Genesis 1.

Now comes Sailhamer. It looks as if we can have our cake and eat it too. Sailhamer takes Genesis 1 literally, as a series of miraculous events over the course of six days. He does this by limiting the geography of Genesis 1 to Eden-Palestine (which he equates). Since, according to him, Genesis 1 is not concerned with the creation of the universe, there is no apparent conflict between most modern scientific hypotheses and the Bible.

Moreover, Sailhamer is a noted scholar. His arguments will look very good to those not equipped to think them through. His book is popularly written, presented in friendly paperback rather than in intimidating hardcover, and published by a respected and well-distributed evangelical publishing house. The opening pages of the book contain (carefully guarded) statements of recommendation from numerous evangelical scholars. For all these reasons, I predict that Sailhamer's approach will grow in popularity and acceptance, at least among laypersons, over the coming years. And thus I think a detailed analysis is warranted.


IN THE BEGINNING

After two introductory chapters, Sailhamer begins his exposition of Genesis 1 with chapter 3, entitled "In the Beginning." He argues that the word "beginning" does not mean a point of time, but a period of time. From this he argues that the "beginning" may have lasted millions or billions or even googols of years, before the work of six days that follows in Genesis 1. Let us now consider his arguments.

He writes: "The Hebrew word reshit, which is the term for `beginning' used in this chapter, has a very specific sense in Scripture. In the Bible the term always refers to an extended, yet indeterminate duration of time, not a specific moment. It is a block of time which precedes an extended series of time period. It is a `time before time.' The term does not refer to a point in time but to a period or duration of time which falls before a series" (p. 38).

As evidence for this, Sailhamer points to Job 8:7, where "beginning" refers to the earlier part of Job's life before disasters overtake him. Also, he points out that the first year of a king's reign is counted from the official beginning of the year, and he states that the time between the death of the previous king and that official date is the "beginning" of the new king's reign. (He says that the king's reign dates from the first day of Nisan after he comes to the throne. I have argued that it is the first day of Tishri, the beginning of the civil year. This does not affect Sailhamer's argument. By the way, it seems that this official way of reckoning only applied to Judah's kings, not to Israel's. At any rate, the last year of David's reign was the "zero" year or, according to Sailhamer, the "beginning" of Solomon's.)

Sailhamer also argues that if a particular point in time were meant by "beginning" in Genesis 1:1, a different word would have been used. "The author could have used a Hebrew word for `beginning' similar to the English word `start' or `initial point' (for example, rishonah or techillah)" (p. 41).

Finally, Sailhamer seems to take this back just a bit when he writes, concerning a point-beginning, "Such a concept, however, is not likely to be connected with reshit, the Hebrew word actually used in Genesis 1:1" (p. 42).

Now, what shall we make of this? At the outset I think it is significant that none of the numerous exegetical commentaries available to me make any mention of this matter. Nor do Hebrew lexicons and theological lexicons. It does not seem to have occurred to anyone else that reshit has to mean a period of time rather than a point of time. By itself, of course, this does not make Sailhamer wrong, but it does mean that the burden of proof is on him to make his case. And at this point I return to the point made above, which is that the popular style of this book has excluded the kind of extended technical argumentation this is precisely needed at this point.

First, while reshit is sometimes used for a period of time at the beginning of something, it is also used (contrary to Sailhamer) for a point-beginning, as in Deuteronomy 11:12, "...a land concerning which Yahweh your God is caring for her continually. The eyes of Yahweh your God are on her from year's beginning even to years's end." The years in Israel had a definite beginning on the first day of the first month, and a definite end on the last day of the last month.

Thus, it is context that determines the precise nature of the "beginning" spoken of. In Genesis 1:1, the "beginning" is the creation "out of nothing" of the cosmic heavens and earth, as Sailhamer himself argues. Moreover, Sailhamer himself argues that "create" is a unique, punctiliar act of God (pp. 247-250). Thus, it would seem that the "beginning" in Genesis 1:1 has to be a point of time, not a period of time.

Now, while I did not find Sailhamer saying it in these precise words anywhere in his book, it seems that his view is this: During the age of "beginning," God did a number of miraculous punctiliar actions. At some point, for instance, God "created" the animals (see his chapter 14). Thus, a Sailhamer-esque paraphrase of Genesis 1:1 might be, "During the beginning period, God created all the things in heaven and on earth." As I have pointed out, however, we have as yet found no compelling reason to insist that the "beginning" must be a period of time.

Second, while reshit can be used for a period of time at the beginning of someone's life or reign, I do not find any place where it clearly refers to the Year Zero of a king. The few times it is used for the "beginning" of the reign of a king, nothing indicates that this technical time period is in view (Jeremiah 26:1, 27:1, 28:1, 49:34). In fact, as Sailhamer has to admit, Jeremiah 28:1 speaks of the fourth year of Zedekiah as part of the "beginning" of his reign. Now, Sailhamer makes a great deal out of his argument here. He says that the "beginning" of the king's reign is an indeterminate period, which is followed by numbered years. He makes this an analogy to Genesis 1, an indeterminate period followed by numbered days. But there is no evidence I can find that the Bible uses "beginning" this way with regard to kings. Sailhamer provides no citations to support his assertion. Thus, I submit that he is simply wrong in this argument.

Third, Sailhamer is correct that if all Genesis 1:1 wanted to say is that God created the heavens and earth at a point in time at the beginning, rishon or techillah would have been better. But that does not mean that reshit was used to indicate a period of time. In fact, unlike these other two words, reshit can also mean "first" in the sense of "chief," "the principal thing," or "firstfruits." Now, it would be wrong to translate Genesis 1:1 as "The chief thing God created was the heavens and the earth," because the preposition "in" tells us that we are speaking of time. But it seems clear that the author of Genesis 1:1 wants us to understand that not only did God make the universe at the beginning of time, but also that this act was the fountain from which everything else flowed. Thus, reshit rather than one of the other words was used.

Let me expand on this observation. Reshit is used, I suggest, because of its connection to firstfruits. The first-fruits were brought before God on the Sunday after Passover, the same day as God created the heavens and earth (Exodus 23:19; Leviticus 2:12; 23:9-14). Exodus 20:9-11 says that God worked for a week to set a pattern for His image, humanity. The law of firstfruits tells that the first part of our labor, done on the first day of the week, is to be given to God. Only after we have given the first part to God may we eat of the rest of the harvest of our labors. This, I submit, is the true analogy to Genesis 1:1. God does not give His firstfruits to anyone, since He is supreme. Man acknowledges God's supremacy by giving God his firstfruits. Man's firstfruits signify the whole "heaven and earth" produced by man, God's image. The use of reshit in Genesis 1:1 sets up this correlation, and fully accounts for why reshit rather than some other word is used here. Thus, one dimension of Genesis 1:1 would be "As the firstfruits of His creation, God made the heavens and the earth." This, however, is a secondary implication of the use of reshit in Genesis 1:1, because the word "in" clearly implies time and temporal sequence.

To sum up, reshit is not used in Genesis 1:1 because the writer wanted a word that implies a period of time. Rather, it is used because the writer wanted a word that implies firstfruits.

Finally, if Sailhamer were correct that "in the beginning" refers to a period of time, I really don't see why that time cannot include the six days as well. As mentioned above, Sailhamer does not prove that a "beginning" is a time before a numbered sequence. Thus, on his presuppositions, I submit that the "beginning" might just as well include the six days — in which case the six days are at the beginning of time.

In conclusion, Sailhamer argues that the word translated "beginning" always refers to an indeterminate period of time before other events. We have seen that this is not the case. He also argues that if a point of time were meant by "beginning" in Genesis 1:1, certain other words would be better. We have seen that this would be true IF all Genesis 1:1 meant to communicate was the idea of a punctiliar beginning. In fact, however, the author chose reshit because of its broader nuances of meaning. Finally, since it is the creation "out of nothing" that is being spoken of in Genesis 1:1, there really can be no doubt but that a punctiliar event, the first event in time and history, is in view.

END



Copyright 1997, James B. Jordan
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