I doubt there is a book in the Bible more argued-over than Genesis. In the red corner we have the creationists and literalists insisting that every word is true, and to believe anything else is tantamount to heresy.
In the blue corner are all the people who think it is a load of old junk and can’t possibly be taken seriously.
And then there are all the people milling about in the middle, with strange or sensible views: you pays your money and you takes your pick.
I love Genesis – all the arguments don’t really bother me, as I believe that it can give us a profound understanding of what God is like, and how we are in relationship to Him. Every time I go back to the text something else shines out like a jewel, to deepen and broaden my understanding.
One of the things I love about it, is its poetry. That first chapter is written in such a way that, even in translation, I am awed by its beauty and power.
So I am delighted to have found Robert Alter’s translation of Genesis. Alter is a professor of Hebrew, Jewish by background, not a Christian, and his translation is an attempt not only to capture the Hebrew as exactly as possible, but also to be faithful to the Hebrew poetry and literary skill of the original. Although there are loads of accurate translations out there, he’s the only person I’ve come across to pay attention to the literary side as well.
I’m reading him in conjunction with a translation and commentary by John Goldingay, an English prof (used to teach Hub!) who is Christian.
His theory is that Genesis is a kind of parable. Jesus told stories which were not literally true, he says. We are not meant to believe that there really was a Good Samaritan. The story is told with a purpose, like all parables – in this case, to treat all people as our neighbours, whether we like them or not.
Treating Genesis as a parable is not the same as treating it as a ‘myth’, which implies that it is not true. Thinking of it as a parable takes it more seriously than that, and respects the text. I can’t bear commentaries that don’t respect the text – I guess that’s a hangover from my days as an English student. We take Shakespeare’s text seriously, and don’t hack it about just because we may not like what he says. How come we think it’s OK to do that with the Bible?
Goldingay applies this idea of the parable to Genesis. If we understand it as a parable, he says, teaching us truth about God, then all the arguments about whether the world was made in 6 days, etc etc are no longer relevant. What is relevant, is the truth that it conveys.
I’ve not come across this approach before. I do like it. Time for a think …