BIBLICAL CHRONOLOGY

  
Vol. 10, No. 1 James B. Jordan, 1998 January, 1998

 

WALTKE ON GENESIS ONE

by James B. Jordan


Those who read last year's essays probably realize that I intended to wind up our study of the historicity of Genesis 1 with the last two essays. Gathering all these together for publication as a book, I sent the manuscript to a scholar who is not sympathetic to the literal view. I did this, of course, because I wanted to be sure that I had treated my opponents fairly. He replied that I should not take Meredith G. Kline as the main exponent of the Framework Hypothesis because Kline is a somewhat eccentric theologian. Rather, I should have dealt with the far better work of Bruce Waltke.

So, to Waltke we shall go.

The relevant essay is Bruce K. Waltke, "The Literary Genre of Genesis, Chapter One," published in Crux 27:4 (1991):2-10. Since this essay is evidently regarded as one of the most powerful statements of this position, we shall take it up in detail, even though doing so will involve some repetition of arguments already presented.

To begin with, let me write some words in praise of Bruce Waltke. Waltke is a brilliant "nuts and bolts" language scholar, and he has done much work of tremendous benefit to the Christian world. His articles in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia and the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (of which he is one of the three main editors) are rightly regarded with the highest esteem, and his co-authored (with M. O'Connor) Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax is the seminal text on this important topic. Moreover, Waltke is a man of open mind, who was willing to abandon his earlier dispensationalism for covenant theology, moving from Dallas Theological Seminary to Westminster Theological Seminary, before going on to Regent College. Moreover, early in his career Waltke published arguments that the foetus is not a human being from conception, and thus that abortion is not necessarily always wrong; but frankly reversed his opinion after further study, doing so in the most public forum he could find, the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in 1975. (I should add that back in the 1960s and 1970s, evangelicals were divided on the abortion issue, largely because the matter had not been studied.)

All of which is to say that Dr. Waltke is a man for whom I naturally have the greatest esteem as a scholar and as a Christian man.

But I don't think he's right about Genesis 1. In fact, I submit that his essay is an unhappy instance of Homer nodding.


WALTKE'S PREFACE

Dr. Waltke begins his essay with a Preface. He introduces his subject by saying that Genesis 1 (i.e., 1:1—2:3) needs desperately to be heard in the social sciences classroom, but instead it is being heard in the hard sciences classroom. Instead of seeing the implications for theology and society in Genesis 1, Christians are usually stuck debating the cosmological meaning of the passage. Dr. Waltke pits the two against each other as if we cannot have both.

Now, of course there is no need to pit the two against each other. Genesis 1 has implications for many, if not all, fields of endeavor. Moreover, it really is not correct to say that evangelicals have not applied Genesis 1 to the "social sciences." Any reading of creationist literature will find plenty about social Darwinism, and about the other social and cultural implications of evolution, along with statements about the relevance of Genesis 1 in these areas.

Perhaps we should go light on Dr. Waltke at this point, however. It is not always easy to find a good introductory lead-in to an essay, and maybe all Dr. Waltke is trying to do is raise the issue in a general way.

Dr. Waltke does, however, go on to write that the question of whether Genesis 1 belongs with the hard sciences or the social sciences depends on its genre as literature. He states that the purpose of his essay is to help us identify the genre of Genesis 1, and that in so doing we shall find that it was never the intention of Genesis 1 to tell us how God actually brought the universe into being.


THE GENRE QUESTION

Genre studies seem all the rage in many evangelical scholarly circles today. We are told that there are many different genres of literature in the Bible: narrative, poetry, etc. We are supposed to identify a given passage in terms of its genre and then read it accordingly.

Now at first glance there is nothing apparently wrong with this procedure. If we reflect a moment, however, we can see that there is a large problem, and that is that the Bible is authored by God Himself. Just as God is beyond the limitations of human life, so God's Word is beyond the limitations of human cultural writing styles. The believer has to begin by affirming that the Bible transcends all genre considerations. Our human writings, like our human lives, are limited, partial, specialized, particular expressions of God's life, which is unlimited.

If we look around the ancient world, we may find various kinds of literature: satires, love poems, sagas, myths, law codes, and the like. Each of these is pretty specialized and particular. When we look back at the Bible, the temptation is to try and find such genres in the Bible as well; and this is exactly what unbelieving scholars do, since they believe the Bible is a piece of merely human religious literature. When we actually look at the Bible, however, we don't find any "pure" examples of any of these genres. The "law code" of Exodus 21-23 is only superficially like the law codes of the ancient world; it includes many things that don't belong in a law code, and is really more of a sermon from Yahweh. Similarly, the Song of Songs is far more than a love poem, alluding as it does to the architecture of the Temple and to the geography of the promised land. Some parts of the Bible, like the Psalms, are pretty clearly poetic, and some parts are pretty clearly narrative prose, but the writings of the prophets tend to fall in between.

Moreover, Biblical narrative prose often contains assonances and alliterations, not to speak of intricate literary structures like chiasms. Notice for instance the breathy, windy sound of Genesis 2:7b in Hebrew: "of dust from the ground and He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living soul" — "aphar min hadamah vayipahh b-apaiv nishmath hhayim va-y-hi ha-adam l-nefesh hhayah." You can hear the wind and the dust. (N.b., my transliteration of the Hebrew does not conform to the usual method, but is designed so that any reader can say it aloud.)

All of which is to say that the Bible transcends questions of genre. When God speaks (e.g., Leviticus, Isaiah), it is beyond genre; and when God inspires human writers (e.g., Genesis) it is also beyond genre.

Having said that, we can give back with the left hand what we have taken with the right. There are "shadows" of genres in the Bible, but only shadows. Some parts are "more like" sagas, love songs, poems, narratives, etc.; but only "more like." To assume that we can "peg" a particular section of the Bible into a particular genre, and then interpret it in the "light" of that genre, is an unBiblical procedure, and will surely blind us to much of what is in the text.


WALTKE ON THE PURPOSE OF GENESIS 1

In the second section of his paper, Dr. Waltke addresses the purpose of Genesis 1. He begins by telling us that the original audience of Genesis 1 was Israel in the Wilderness at Sinai. The author was Moses. Moses, under Divine inspiration, provided the creation story to undergird the covenant being made at Sinai.

Now, this is entirely specious. Obviously Dr. Waltke believes it, but there is no Biblical evidence for this notion. Yes, it is very commonly believed that Moses wrote Genesis, though the Bible never says that; but even if he did, we have no reason to think that the "purpose" of Genesis was to be a preamble to the Sinaitic covenant. For one thing, such a reading of Genesis elevates the Sinaitic covenant above the Adamic, Noahic, and Patriarchal covenants, which are lowered to the status of mere preliminaries. Certainly each covenant is preliminary to the one that follows it, but that does not mean that the record of those covenants was written at the time of the later covenant.

We might just as well assert that the entire first seven books of the Bible were written by Samuel as an historical prologue to the Kingdom covenant. Indeed, some have argued exactly this (e.g., Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy in his lectures on Historiography). After all, Genesis 36 seems to have been finished at a time far after Moses. Aalders writes, "in Gn. xxxvi.31 at the commencement of a list of Edomite kings we read: `and these are the kings that reigned in the land of Edom, before there reigned any king over the children of Israel'. This can have been written only at a time when Israel actually had a king. It is not a theoretical anticipation of the possibility of a future kingship like Dt. xvii.14 ff., but has its starting-point in the reality of an Israelitish kingdom. So these words cannot have been written before the reign of King Saul." (G. Ch. Aalders, A Short Introduction to the Pentateuch (London: Tyndale, 1949), pp. 106f.

There is not a whit of Biblical evidence that Moses wrote Genesis. The Bible never states or even implies that he did. In fact, there is good reason to believe that he did not, though he probably added some touches to it. First of all, it can be stated as a rule that Biblical writings were produced immediately after the events they described were completed. If Moses wrote Genesis, it was 144 or so years after the last event in Genesis. (Joseph died in 2369 AM, and Israel came to Sinai in 2513 AM.)

Second, if Moses wrote Genesis, that means that the Hebrews in captivity did not have any Bible from God to read and meditate upon. All they had, perhaps, was "oral tradition." There is no reason to believe in such an oral tradition, however. Rather, God's words to Moses in Exodus 3-4 & 6 seem to indicate that the people knew about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and that implies writings.

(Some people have the idea that the Israelites were an uneducated people in Egypt. Hardly. They were the architects and artisans of Egypt, and obviously many of them were able to read and write.)

Third, evangelical scholars like Wiseman and Harrison have argued that Genesis is made up of sources marked out by the statement "these are the generations of x." These booklets, they suggest, existed in a series and were unified to form the book of Genesis. Whatever the ins and outs of this theory, it makes a lot more sense than the notion that Moses composed Genesis from scratch at Sinai. It makes a great deal of sense in terms of progressive revelation. It means that Adam knew how God created the world; that Noah new about creation and Adam; that Abraham knew about creation, Adam, and Noah; etc.

Now, I imagine Dr. Waltke would agree with some of what I have stated above, but he still wants to maintain that Moses composed Genesis 1 with the Sinaitic covenant in mind. What that means is that neither Noah nor Abraham had the information in Genesis 1, and thus could not order their lives in terms of it. Is this a reasonable view to advocate and maintain?

Make no mistake about it: Dr. Waltke and those like him (and there are many) are arguing that Genesis 1 did not exist before Moses wrote it (under inspiration, of course). Genesis 1, they maintain, was not part of the thought-world of the patriarchs.

I submit that the most likely composer of Genesis was Joseph or one of his contemporaries. Joseph could have composed the book of Genesis out of the earlier inspired books, all but the last verse (just as Moses did not write the last chapter of Deuteronomy). I suggest that this book of Genesis was the Bible of the Hebrews in captivity. It was the light to their feet, and provided them the hope of a deliverance to come.

Since there is no direct evidence either way, my view is at least as good as Dr. Waltke's. In fact, my view is better because it conforms to the way God always works in history, giving His people a book at every stage of covenantal history.

Dr. Waltke continues by quoting from scholars who assert (he writes that they "argue," which they don't) that Moses wrote Genesis 1 to argue against the nature-gods of the pagan religions. Supposedly Genesis 1 has an apologetic thrust, directed against other gods and forces, asserting that there is only one God, and that He is the Creator of all things, etc. Now certainly Genesis 1 can be used that way, but what evidence is there in the text of Genesis 1 that this is its purpose? The answer is: none. There is nothing in Genesis 1 that implies that it has an apologetic purpose. This notion is read into the text, not read out of it.


GENESIS 1:1

Dr. Waltke's next section deals with the contents of Genesis 1. He begins with Genesis 1:1, and he tells us that this verse is a summary of the rest of the chapter, not simply the first event in the chapter. Because of the importance of his argument, we shall cite him in full:

First, "heaven and earth" is a hendiadys (a single expression of two apparently separate parts) denoting "the cosmos," the complete, orderly, harmonious universe. For example, the hendiadys "kith and kin" indicates all of one's relatives. More specifically, the hendiadys is a merism, a statement of opposites to indicate totality, like the compounds, "day and night," "summer and winter."

Now the elements of a compound must be studied as a unit, not in isolation. The hendiadys, "heaven and earth," cannot be understood by treating "heaven" and "earth" as separate elements any more than "butterfly" can be decoded by investigating "butter" and "fly" in isolation. (p. 3).

Well, in isolation from everything else in the Bible, and in isolation from the rest of Genesis 1, this might make sense. It is true that heaven and earth are two sides of one cosmic coin, and so the phrase might just mean "cosmos." How do we know, however, when to take a phrase like this as a hendiadys and when to take it as two distinguished things? We can only know from context, not from the words themselves.

So what does the rest of the Bible teach us? It clearly teaches that there is a separate realm called heaven where the angels hold court with God and receive their marching orders, and to which the saints go after Jesus' ascension. In other words, the Bible teaches us that heaven and earth are two realms, with different functions in history and in the total cosmos. There is thus no reason whatsoever for denying that Genesis 1:1 specifically refers to these two realms.

Moreover, even in Genesis 1 itself we find that God called the firmament "heaven," and that this firmament-heaven is the place where the sun, moon, and stars are located. Is this the same as the "heaven" of Genesis 1:1? No, because there is water above this firmament-heaven. Where is that water located? Well, later in the Bible we see a sea of ice around the heavenly throne of God. Thus, the narrative text of Genesis 1 clearly assumes that there is a created throne-heaven as well as an "earth" that, in the largest sense, is the lower cosmos including the stars.

In conclusion, there is no hendiadys in Genesis 1:1. Dr. Waltke may say that there is, but saying it is so does not make it so. The traditional reading of the verse is consonant with the rest of the Bible and with the rest of Genesis 1, while Dr. Waltke's reading is simply a gratuitous assertion.

Dr. Waltke's second argument is that the verb "create" refers to the finished cosmos, not to a state before its completion. Dr. Waltke argues that the cosmos was not finished until the end of the seven days, so that Genesis 1:1 must be a summary introductory statement. By no means is this a sound argument, however. What Genesis 1:1 says is that God created the heavens and the earthly cosmos. This was definitely a one-time event, and a finished one. The rest of Genesis 1 shows us God working with the earthly cosmos to bring it forward from glory to glory, starting out the historical process that His image, humanity, is to complete. We notice that at each stage of His work, God saw that it was good, so that the universe was "completed" at each stage. The completed universe that God made at the beginning was formless, empty, and dark, but it was still good and was still a completed act.


GENESIS 1:2

Turning to verse 2, Dr. Waltke states that at the time the cosmos was created, the earth was tohu wabohu, "unformed and unfilled." Then he asserts that this phrase is also a hendiadys, meaning "utter chaos." He cites E. Jacob's Theology of the Old Testament: "where it [tohu wabohu] is met (Is 34:11; Jer 4:23), [it] denotes the contrary of creation and not merely an inferior stage of creation." (p. 4).

To which we reply: "No, it doesn't." For one thing, Jacob's statement makes no sense. There is no "opposite" or "contrary" of creation. There is only an opposite of order and life and fullness, which is disorder, death, and emptiness. Isaiah 34:11 and Jeremiah 4:23 do not speak of some opposite of creation itself, but rather of the dissolution of the order of creation back to its original condition.

Moreover, Isaiah and Jeremiah are speaking to the situation after the rebellion of man, not to a situation of the good creation as it came from the hand of God. To import the nuances and connotations of these later passages back into Genesis 1:2 is hermeneutically impermissible.

Additionally, nothing in the phrase implies chaos. Is a lump of clay "chaotic" just because it has not yet been formed into a vase, or a man? Is an empty room "chaotic"?

Dr. Waltke, however, has decided that the original world was in some evil sense dark and chaotic. "The Genesis account, however, teaches only that God brought the pre-Genesis darkness and chaotic waters within his protective restraints, not when or how they happened." (p. 4). In other words, God had created the universe at some earlier time, and it had fallen into chaos and darkness. Now, in Genesis 1, God is making it anew.

This is all based on reading into the phrase tohu vabohu meanings and connotations that it does not carry. There is nothing per se "negative" about the condition tohu vabohu as it originally came from the hand of God. Dr. Waltke is pushed to this "ruin-reconstruction" view of Genesis 1 by erroneously importing nuances from the use of this phrase in other contexts. The fact is that both of these two words are seldom found in Hebrew literature, so that we must pay especial attention to the contexts in which they are found. Clearly they will not imply the same thing in a creation passage as they imply in a judgment passage.

Now, is this phrase a hendiadys, or are two distinguishable aspects of the primordial creation in view? To answer that question we look first at the terms themselves, and then at the context of Genesis 1.

The adjective "bohu" is found only three times, and only in conjunction with "tohu." The latter is found 21 times. A survey of several passages will bring out the meaning.

In Deuteronomy 32:10, God is said to have found Israel in a desert land, in the howling waste of a wilderness, according to the NASV translation. Now, does this phrase imply emptiness or disorder? The context tells us. Verses 8-9 tell us that God separated Israel from the nations and set boundaries. God Himself was their boundary according to the second half of verse 10. Thus, the implication of "tohu" is that of boundarylessness, formlessness.

In Job 6:18, "the paths of their course wind along; they go up into tohu and perish." Again, the notion is that of formlessness. The winding, curling paths lead nowhere. Lack of structure is the idea. The same idea is in Job 12:24-25 and Psalm 107:40.

The lack of any boundary is also the implication of Job 26:6-7, "Naked is Sheol under Him and Abaddon has no covering. He stretches out the north over tohu, and hangs the earth upon nothingness." There are no boundaries between God and the parts of His creation.

Isaiah 24:10 uses tohu to mean confusion or chaos.

Isaiah 29:21 uses tohu to refer to confusing, misleading arguments.

Isaiah 34:11 uses both tohu and bohu, "He shall stretch over it the line of tohu, and the plumb line of bohu." In context, both chaos and emptiness are being discussed, so it seems likely that tohu alludes to the chaos and bohu to the emptiness.

Isaiah 40:17 says that God regards the nations as less than nothing and as tohu. Again, in context this seems to mean that the nations are not boundaried and measured off like God's own people, as the passage begins with verse 12 and concerns such boundaries and measurements. The same is true of the context of the word tohu in verse 23.

In Isaiah 41:29, the molten images are wind and shapelessness (not emptiness). The shaped idols have no shape. The same thought is found in 44:9.

Isaiah 45:18 reads:

For thus says Yahweh, who created the heavens. (He is the God who formed the earth and made it. He established it and did not create it a tohu, Formed it to be inhabited.)

At first glance, it seems that tohu is parallel to "inhabited," so that here "tohu" means "empty." (E. J. Young argues for this in his Studies in Genesis One.) If sheer emptiness were in view, however, other words would be better. I suggest, in view of the use of tohu here, that it is not inhabitation by some sheer mass of people and animals that is in view, but rather the kind of orderly inhabitation that the Bible presents as good.

In Isaiah 59:4, tohu is used for the confusion caused by lies and deception.

Finally, in the famous passage Jeremiah 4:23, the prophet looks "on the earth, and behold, tohu va bohu." The ensuing verses speak first of chaos, as the mountains quake and move about, and then of emptiness, as the men and birds flee.

Now, what our survey has shown is that the traditional rendering of Genesis 1:2 is entirely correct. The earth was unstructured and empty.

Second, the context of Genesis 1 shows that tohu vabohu is not a hendiadys. The work of the six days clearly shows separate and distinct acts of forming and filling. God forms the world by dividing it into specific zones and setting up boundaries. He also populates it. These are two different things that take place as different actions by God. Thus, even if "tohu vabohu" were a hendiadys in some passages, it cannot be one here. The earth was (a) formless and also (b) empty, and God acted to change each of those states of affairs.


END


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