Sunday, December 27, 2009

Is the Book of Genesis Parable or Literal?

My rule of literary interpretation is that in the context of prose, language of prose is to be taken as prose unless otherwise stated.

In poetic literature, poetry wouldn’t necessarily be suddenly taken as prose in the context of poetry.

Every parable that I can think of in the Bible, the context itself states that it is a parable or a song. But nothing in Genesis suggests that the creation story isn’t prose. None of the other Scriptures take the creation story as being parabolic either. In the absence of literary evidence, the onus of proof that the story is not to be taken literally is with those who claim so.

Genesis and Fables

Some have suggested that the book of Genesis was corrupted by being mingled with a collection of fables, during the Babylonian Captivity.

My initial thoughts on that hypothesis are that it is almost impossible that such a significant corruption of Scriptures could have occurred during the Babylonian captivity.

The Captivity lasted only 70 years. In fact, when the temple began to be rebuilt, some of the old men still remembered the old temple. The Law was read daily to the people who returned to Jerusalem in the first wave of returnees. Daniel also had access to the Scriptures in Babylon. So we know that multiple copies of the original Scriptures were available during that time period, both in Jerusalem and in Babylon.

The Scriptures were to the Jews the most valued national treasure. The sense of value that they placed upon their Jewish Scriptures and genealogies would have been heightened even more during their years in foreign captivity – especially since the temple was robbed of its material treasures.

So this doesn’t leave very much time or opportunity for the most sacred document of the nation to become corrupted beyond recognition and without dispute and without trace.

Even if some individual at the time wrote a corrupted version of the Scriptures in Babylon, he would not have been able to destroy all the copies of the true Scriptures in such a short time because multiple copies of the true Scriptures already existed both in Jerusalem and in Babylon at the time.

Jewish people didn’t stop reading the Scriptures during the Captivity. Daniel is an example of that.

When the first wave of Jews returned (under Cyrus’ orders) to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, the Law was read aloud to all the people daily.

Since many of the old men still remembered the original temple, these men would also have been on high alert if they noticed that the Scriptures being read to them had suddenly been changed from what they remembered. They wept when they saw that the new temple wasn’t as grand as the old one – they also would have surely reacted if they noticed that Babylonian fantasies were now intermingled with the pure story that was passed down to them by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob!

If such a major corruption occurred so quickly and so thoroughly, one would think there would be a historical record of conflict arising over which version ought to have been accepted as legitimate. But to my knowledge there is no historical record that any controversy existed at the time regarding the canonicity of the Scriptures.

If a new version suddenly appeared during the Captivity, how is it that the original version suddenly became lost, never to be discovered – and that the new version was never disputed by the Jews?

It might have been possible if the Captivity endured for a millennium - but it lasted only 70 years. It might have been possible if only one copy of the Scripture existed and if it was in the hands of the elite - but many copies existed and all the people were familiar with their content. It might have been possible if only few people remembered the days before the Captivity – but many still lived to remember.

Therefore it seems to me that the version of the Scriptures that survived the Captivity is more than likely the same version that existed in Israel before the Captivity.

So if the Captivity didn’t afford enough opportunity for the creation story to be turned into fable, when else could such a corruption have occurred?

Not before the Captivity either.

Not during the Patriarchal period. It can be derived by studying the genealogies, that there were as few as only three to four personal links from Adam all the way up to the time when Israel came to sojourn in Egypt. So the story would have been reliable even if it was only passed-on orally, let alone in writing.

Not during the sojourn in Egypt. During the 430 years in Egypt, it is clear that the Jews continued the patriarchal practice of recording genealogies. So they would have guarded the writings of their forbears too.

In fact, when I looked at the genealogies today, I was staggered to notice how few generations existed between the time when Israel came to sojourn in Egypt and the emergence of Moses. Hardly any!

Once again, the generations involved are so close that the record would have been reliable even if it was only transmitted orally, let alone in writing – especially considering how closely-knit the Israeli identity became during their years in virtual solitary confinement in an Egyptian suburb! All the sons of Jacob and their descendants lived together in such close proximity and their national identity and heritage was forged.

The opportunity for some individual Jewish person to add Egyptian folklore into their treasured genealogical records hardly existed. The surge of family ancestral knowledge and heritage would have snuffed out his weak ideas real quick!

And then came the mighty signs and wonders against Egypt; the Red Sea parted; the mighty Egyptian army was destroyed; Israel was delivered; all the surrounding nations feared the God of Israel; Mount Horeb smoked and shook and the Pentateuch was written.

Not during the period of the Judges. A very short time afterwards came Samuel and all the prophets, who also wrote. Scriptures were preserved by prophets, priests, kings and by the hearts of the people.

This leaves the 400-year inter-testament period as the only other time period in which the creation story may have been turned into fable. But once again, as I will show, I can’t see how it was reasonably possible then either.

After the return from Captivity when Ezra taught the people the Law, we saw the emergence of the synagogue in which teaching priests read the Law every Sabbath all across the land.

Anna the prophetess was already “of great age” when Christ was born. She would have learned to read many years before this, let’s say 60BC. By the time she was reading, the alleged changes must have already been made and accepted beyond controversy and all original manuscripts lost. That’s a small window of opportunity for such a sweeping change to have already been accepted and become entrenched in Jewish thought and literature. Even if the Dead Sea scrolls hadn’t been discovered, that would still be unlikely.

The book of Genesis was found 24 times amongst the Dead Sea scrolls. No major changes there. Written about 150BC (if you accept current dating methods), that narrows down the window of opportunity even less for a corruption to have occurred after Ezra.

It narrows it down to – what, about 250 years? This means that at the time when the oldest Dead Sea scrolls were written, there would still have been people alive all over Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, who still personally knew people who personally had met priests who had been taught by Ezra’s disciples. And yet we would be saying that the corrupted version had already become canon in that short period. Not only is it unlikely – it’s impossible.

Even if all the original Scriptures were destroyed, the oral and family traditions would have been so strong that a new version of the Scriptures could not have been accepted so quickly, so thoroughly, without controversy, without trace.

By this time synagogues were everywhere. Copies of the Scriptures were everywhere, even in Greek. Jewish patriotism was at a peak. Everyone was looking for the Kingdom of God to come. Never were the Scriptures so prolific.

In the absence of literary, archaeological and historical evidence; in the absence of likelihood; in the absence of motive, weapon or opportunity – the onus of proof that the creation story was corrupted and mingled with fable sometime during any of these periods is with those who claim that it was.

As for me, with my current (limited) knowledge, I don’t see a better-informed option than to take the creation story literally.

I believe in the inerrancy of the Scriptures in their original language.

My faith is based not on my intellectual ability to explain the Scripture, but on the power of God.

If there is some rule of common sense by which the creation story can’t be taken literally, or by which it can be proved that the story has been corrupted at some later stage, then the integrity of the patriarchs and the whole of Scripture would, by the same rule, also be suspect.

Our faith would be in vain. And we would yet be in our sins – without hope and without God in the world. We would be suffering needlessly. We Christians would be the most unfortunate people in the world.

But even so, my faith is not based on any of the above logic alone – but on the power of God.

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