|Vol. 10, No. 3||© James B. Jordan, 1998||March, 1998|
STANLEY JAKI ON GENESIS ONE
by James B. Jordan
Stanley L. Jaki, Genesis 1 Through the Ages (London: Thomas More Press, 1992).
Stanley Jaki is the author of numerous books on the history of science and on the dependence of true scientific inquiry on Christian revelation. There can be no doubt but that his work is among the must useful performed in the latter part of the 20th century. He is a Roman Catholic priest of the Benedictine Order. His theological position is, thus, not that of evangelical Protestantism, nor is it that of the most conservative streams in the Roman Catholic communion. He believes, for instance, that Genesis is a post-exilic document (p. 62). It would seem, then, that an examination of his views would be out of place in a series of studies of evangelical views of Genesis 1. Because of Jaki's prominence, however, I have deemed it important to take a look at what he has to say.
His book is over 300 pages long, and consists of eight lectures, which simultaneously comment on Genesis 1 and provide a history of interpretation. We shall selectively review the book, making comments as we go.
BARA': CREATE OR SLASH?
In the first lecture, Jaki argues that the verb translated "create" in Genesis 1:1, 21, and 27 does not mean, in Hebrew, "create out of nothing." Rather, he argues, the root meaning of the verb, bara', is to "slash," to perform an action with suddenness and immediacy.
Jaki is both right and wrong. It is true that bara' means "slash," but only in the Hebrew Piel voice. (The Hebrew verbal system is based primarily on voices, or "modes" or "stems" as they are sometimes called.) In the Piel voice, the verb bara' can have a human subject, and means "cut down, slash." In the Qal voice, which is the foundational voice, it only has God as subject, and means "to do a wondrous work." Jaki argues his case by citing only the few places where bara' is used in the Piel, and says nothing about the many cases where it is used in the Qal. In fact, a noun taken from bara', b-ri'ah, means "new thing, wonder" in Numbers 16:30.
In a way this is a minor criticism, since Jaki affirms that the theological meaning of bara' is "create out of nothing." That is clearly what God did, he assures us. Nevertheless, when we are confronted with such rather sloppy exegesis, we are led to caution regarding what else Jaki may have to say about the grammar and syntax of Genesis 1. As it turns out, he actually has little to say.
IS GENESIS 1 HISTORY?
Jaki continues by saying that Genesis 1 is very systematic in its presentation, and highly structured, and that "it is precisely that character of it that suggests its being something else than history, which is never told in such a systematic fashion, partly because its chain of events hardly ever reveals a system" (p. 8).
Is that so? The story of Babel in Genesis 11 is structured as a chiasm. The whole book of Kings is structured as a chiasm. So is the book of Matthew. The extraordinary literary structuring of these and many other narratives in the Bible does not take away from their character as history, whether or not they provide a "system." (Studies of these passages are available from Biblical Horizons. Write to email@example.com for more information.)
Jaki then refers to Psalm 104, which is about God's providential government of the created world. He states that unlike Genesis 1, the psalmist "is far from being intent even on presenting at least some touch of systematic approach, which is very evident in Genesis 1" (p. 10). In fact, however, Psalm 104 proceeds systematically through the seven days of creation week.
Jaki does point out contrasts between the way God is presented in Psalm 104 and other passages that allude to creation, and Genesis 1. But the notion that Genesis 1 is distinguished by being "systematic" is wholly without warrant. Genesis 1 is indeed very systematic, but that fact does not even hint that it is not to be taken as real space-time history.
On page 27 Jaki begins a discussion of what genre of literature Genesis 1 should be regarded as. Since it is not about a conflict between two powers, it is not "history." It is not a poem or a hymn, a moral exhortation or a parable, a prophecy or a list. So what is it, according to Jaki? He tells us that the "unusually systematic character" of Genesis 1 suggests that it "contains a literary device to make explicit the message about the total dependence of all on God." He continues: "Written as Genesis 1 was in such a way as to instruct and enlighten the uneducated, that device had to be such as to be instinctively grasped by them."
Which raises the question: Just how uneducated where the Hebrews? And how unenlightened were their contemporaries? Jaki spends time showing that the cultures around Israel, and the Israelites, used the metaphor of a tent for the world, as well as (we may add) the metaphor of a house, and other metaphors. He seems to think that this is all they knew, or cared to know, about the world. In fact, however, and Jaki knows this, the ancients knew that the world was round, and did not in fact float upon a great sea under a hard dome. The knew that the starry heavens had depth, and that moving stars (planets) were at various distances from the earth. As regards the Hebrews, Abram was a well-educated ruler of a sheikdom from the city of Ur, and the Hebrews were the architects and artisans of Egypt. These people were not uneducated and unenlightened as regards the physical structure of the universe, though they did not know as much about it as we know today, thanks to our telescopes. This error of understanding runs through Jaki's book like a thread (see p. 62, for instance).
Moreover, there is nothing at all complicated or difficult to understand about the notion of long eons of time, and of evolution. In fact, all the other cultures of the ancient world projected long eons of time before the coming of humanity, eons in which mythic beings fought and died, out of which "evolved" humanity. If God had described the evolution of the universe in a way similar to what modern people usually believe, the Hebrews would have had no difficulty understanding it. They knew that small things grow up to become big things, and that simple things grow up to be complex things. Evolution is just an (illegitimate) extrapolation from such observable phenomena. God could easily have described the origin of the world in evolutionary terms if He had wanted to if He had actually made the world that way!
Jaki does not answer the question as to the specific "literary device" that he submits must be present in Genesis 1. He only returns to this question in the final lecture.
In the meantime, Jaki turns to the history of interpretation of Genesis 1. He intends to show that the interpretation of Genesis 1 has been constantly and rather consistently flawed by "concordism." By concordism, he means the attempt to square Genesis 1 with science, whatever science is current at the time the interpretation is produced. He insists that Genesis 1 must be understood in Biblical terms, not scientific ones.
In point of fact, however, most of the concordism discussed by Jaki is not an attempt to square Genesis 1 with science, but with philosophy. Attempts to square Genesis 1 with science only became an issue in the 19th century. Before that time, "science" was largely philosophy.
Jaki is completely correct. Genesis 1 cannot be squared with any "neutral" science of any age. There are two possible reasons for this, however. One is that science, in the nature of the case, cannot deal with origins, because science deals with observation and ratiocination, and the pre-human world cannot be observed. Therefore, we are left either to speculation or to revelation. In Genesis 1 God tells us how He made the world such is the orthodox Christian understanding.
The other possibility is that Genesis 1 does not intend to tell us about the origin of the world at all, but is a symbolic passage giving us a picture of the world. This is Jaki's answer, because he believes (wrongly) that science can indeed deal competently with the questions of origins (except for the bare fact of creation itself). He accepts the highly speculative and ungrounded notions of modern science, the modern interpretations of things observed in the world, buried in the ground and floating in outer space in short, the evolutionary interpretation. Thus, Jaki wants to say that Genesis 1 does not have anything to do with science, except as providing the presupposition of all science, the creation of the universe by God. Genesis 1 says that God created the world, but then describes the world symbolically.
A HISTORY OF INTERPRETATION
So Jaki turns to a history of interpretation, to show the errors in the tradition.
In his second lecture, Jaki surveys the approaches of Philo, who tried to bring Genesis 1 into concordance with Plato; of Moses Maimonides, who tried to bring Genesis 1 into concordance with Aristotle; of the Kabbalists, who were pantheists and pretty much ignored Genesis 1; and of other Jewish thinkers through the ages. Oddly, he overlooks Samson Raphael Hirsch, though he does review the commentary on Genesis by Umberto Cassuto. As regards the latter, Jaki states that the literary features and rhythmic repetitions Cassuto sees in Genesis 1 would not have been noticed by the simple people to whom it was addressed. How he knows that is a good question! After all, even if most of the people were "simple," why does Genesis 1 have to be ONLY for them? And if these "simple" people heard the passage read over and over again, would they not pick up the rhythms of its language?
In his third lecture, Jaki surveys the interpretations offered by the early Church writers. His survey is interesting. It shows that the early Church firmly believed in a literal six-day creation week, though many preached the passage typologically and/or allegorically. Some, such as Basil, tried to reconcile the passage with the scientific-philosophical thinking of their day, but never denied its historicity. Augustine was an exception. He held that the work of the week of creation took place instantaneously, because of a verse in the apocrypha that he took to mean that. The cosmogony in Genesis 1, however, he took quite literally, and expounded at length on what it meant as regards the actual arrangement of the universe. All this Jaki finds regrettable.
(The Wisdom of Ben Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus, says in 18:1, "He who lives forever created the universe." In the Latin version that Augustine used, however, this statement was mistranslated as "He who lives forever created all things simultaneously.")
In his fourth lecture, Jaki surveys the interpreters of the Middle Ages. He shows the great influence of Plato and Aristotle on these thinkers. Although they all seem to have taken the six days as a literal week, they expounded the chapter in largely philosophical terms.
In his fifth lecture, Jaki turns to the age of the Reformers, both Protestant and Catholic. Jaki does not have much use for the Reformers, who as he says replaced the Pope and the Church with the Bible. He does note that they took Genesis 1 quite literally, and were quite clear that if the scientists don't agree, the scientists are wrong. Catholic expositors continued the same kinds of trends as those of the Middle Ages, though often paying closer attention to the actual text. All took the six days as a real historical week.
At this point it should be noted that Jaki's history, valuable as it is, continually focuses on what he regards as the two big problems in Genesis 1. The first is that Genesis 1 teaches, according to him, that a hard shell firmament exists over the earth, above which are waters. Thus, he always wants to know what an expositor has to say about the firmament, because for him the firmament is only a figure of speech. The second is that Genesis 1 says light was made on the first day, while the sun was made on the fourth. Jaki sees this as a "contradiction" that indicates that Genesis 1 is a literary picture, not an historical account of a real creation week. Thus, he always wants to know how this "problem" is handled by expositors. He finds it regrettable that the expositors detect no problem with it.
In his sixth lecture, Jaki deals with the post-Reformation expositors who wrote in the dawn and aftermath of the age of science. Once again he is disappointed to find that most take the six days quite literally. He criticizes Archbishop Ussher's chronology of the Bible as if it were a new thing. In point of fact, no one in the entire history of the Church had ever questioned the accuracy of Biblical chronology, and many, many chronologies had been constructed from it. In fact, one reason nobody questioned the six days of creation was that everyone knew that the world had been made around 4000 BC.
In his seventh lecture, Jaki discusses the various attempts to square Genesis 1 with scientific geology proposed during the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the "day-age" notion and the "ruin-reconstruction" (gap theory) notion, and various flood theories. He ends by gently disparaging the scientific creationists, while praising them for at least clinging to the basic fact that God is the creator of the universe.
It is clear from Jaki's history and his remarks along the way that he adheres to that fundamental proposition of modern science which holds that present processes and observations reveal the nature of past events, a doctrine usually called "uniformitarianism." This uniformitarianism is precisely the issue at hand, for it is an assumption that is wholly arbitrary. What the Bible teaches is that God created the universe miraculously around 4000 BC, working with it miraculously for one week to bring it to its present general condition, and setting in place the processes of the world that we presently observe. The Bible also teaches a world-wide flood that devastated the world, after which it came back to life. If this is true and obviously I believe it is then the uniformitarian assumption is simply wrong.
JAKI'S PROPOSED SOLUTION
The last lecture provides us with what Jaki thinks Genesis 1 is about. As we mentioned above, he sees Genesis 1 as presenting the world as a tent, the firmament as the roof of this tent, with waters around the world above and below. He states that this picture of the world is completely true, though not a scientific description of the cosmos, because this is how the world actually appears and functions in our lives.
Now, Jaki is completely correct. The Bible DOES present this picture, and this picture fits with Genesis 1. Where Jaki is wrong, I submit, is in his belief that this is ALL Genesis 1 is doing. Genesis 1 presents a true and accurate description of how God made the universe, over the course of one week, a description that is equally true and valid in both the symbolic and the literal universes of discourse.
In terms of genre, Jaki submits that Genesis 1 is an example of presenting a topic by stating the whole, and then illustrating the whole by presenting its major parts and the major items in each part. One of the "parts" of Genesis 1 is time, and God's government of time, presented in the picture of the seven days of a week. Thus, Genesis 1 is picture, not history.
Jaki's study is valuable not only as a history, but as a caution against trying to read too much into Genesis 1. Genesis 1 presents a simple and direct statement about how God created the world (and not merely, contra Jaki, a symbolic description of that world). While the narrative of Genesis 1 contains and implies vast depths, few of these have anything to do with the kinds of questions that a true and proper science addresses. Rather, the chapter describes the world as we see and experience it, both as a tent/house and as a real cosmos.
Jaki's study is marred by his failure to understand fully the limitations of scientific inquiry, and by his consequent disparagement of any attempt to take Genesis 1 as a recounting of actual events. It is also marred by his failure to deal with Biblical chronology, which affirms that human history began around 4000 BC. It is this fact, more than any other, that has forced expositors to hold to a recent and miraculous creation of the universe and its features.
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Copyright 1998, James
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