Taking Genesis 1 Literally

No doubt the language in my title evokes a certain kind of expectation about the ensuing discussion, a discussion that raises the controversial subject of evolution and the merits of reading Genesis in conflict or harmony with the current scientific consensus of the history of life and the universe. This expectation indicates how far our discussions of Genesis 1 have drifted from the concerns of the text. Debates concerning evolution neglect the functional significance Genesis 1 attaches to the components of creation, the least of which not being humanity! Literally speaking, Genesis 1 is a divine imperative that should fundamentally shape the worldview of humanity.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. (Gen 1:28-30)

Tapping into the agrarian worldview of the Hebrew Bible, Ellen F. Davis hones in on the imperative facing humanity in the text of Genesis 1 (Chapter 3, Seeing With God: Israel’s Poem of Creation, 42-65). She makes a passionate argument that this imperative is rooted in Israel’s agrarian perspective. It is of no little significance that the imperative concerns the fruitfulness, not just of humanity, but of their interaction with the earth. They are not merely given food, but food which yields seed (זֹרֵעַ זָרַע zorea’ zara’). The use of the verb “to conquer,” a word that evokes in our memory of the conquest of Canaan (Num 32:22-29; Josh 1:18), reminds us of a land that is not their own, one that is exceedingly fruitful but only for those who honor it (i.e. observe the laws in the Torah that regulate the proper relationship between the human and the land).

Perhaps it is fair to argue that our modern industrial agricultural system captures the imagery of conquest, that we are fulfilling the divine imperative by “conquering” the earth. Yet our system does not recall the imagery referred to above, but rather that of the violence by which Canaan’s conquest was achieved. Our society’s modern agricultural system makes a mockery of a productive and fruitful relationship between the human and the land. It must be remembered that even Israel’s conquest was a once-for-all moment in history, not a self perpetuating system of violence (see here). Indeed, such violence is unsustainable, which is precisely how informed and concerned individuals are describing our modern methods of agriculturalism (cf. eg. Michael Pollan; Francis Moore Lappé).

Taking Genesis 1 literally has little to do with theories of cosmic origins and everything to do with the way in which we respond to the imperative laid before us in the text. The true literalists will be concerned with the way their lifestyle incorporates them into the system God has created, the one in which the land is dependent on the human who is, in turn, dependent on the land–and both are dependent upon God. Maintaining the viability of this system while reveling in its “good”ness is the ultimate literal reading of Genesis 1.


6 thoughts on “Taking Genesis 1 Literally

    1. Yes it does. Davis’ thesis is that agrarianism is not merely a reflection of the life setting of the biblical writers, but that it belongs to their basic ethical worldview, one that people of faith should be open and willing to adopt. In other words, the biblical ethic supports a local agrarian economy and condemns economies like our own. I am withholding judgment for now though I must admit that I am predisposed to be sympathetic based on my critical view of industrialized agriculture, capitalism, etc.

  1. “Taking Genesis 1 literally has little to do with theories of cosmic origins and everything to do with the way in which we respond to the imperative laid before us in the text.” Your suggestion in this post places (likely) too much emphasis upon the function of Genesis one and not sufficient upon the ontology of Genesis one. I find it to be comparable to the doctrine of the trinity that treats God as only related to our needs and not to His own divine being as He exists within His own trinitarian being forever praised and adored. I would agree that too often a literalistic reading of Genesis one fails to see anything in the chapter beyond a scientificesque explanation of origins (much to the neglect of the theology and divine mandate of the chapter). But we should not ignore that there are some claims about the origins of creation as well as claims upon the creation.

    I do actually appreciate having our attention drawn to different emphases within the narrative, but wonder if there is not (almost always) some neglect of the others when one is overemphasized…and thereby the Scriptures are over-simplified and the layers are dissected without attempting to comprehend the whole in a sort of tension.

    1. My language is obviously polemical and hyperbolic. Many people take Genesis 1 literally by not believing in evolution (a passive act) and fail to recognize the imperative in the text demands an active response. To take Genesis 1 literally requires and active response, not a passive one, which is why my language, I believe, is perfectly justifiable.

  2. The scriptures do not allow themselves to be taken as both patently false concerning the observable world while credible about the untestable:

    John 3:12 If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?

    In other words, why accept as factual what Moses said about agrarianism, or what have you, when his description of the structure of the abyss, sky and land are demonstrably grossly incorrect? That is silly, is it not?

    1. You have to consider the intent of Moses’ communication.

      The sentence above is a perfect example of what I am talking about. You spoke of Moses writing Genesis 1 in your post. Rather than informing you that Moses is not very likely to have written Genesis, particularly Genesis 1, I just played along because the important point I wanted to make was that one might choose to focus on some things that are more important than others. Certainly the God of the Hebrew Bible is not ignorant that there is no firmament, but why is it beneath him to speak to ancient Israelite as though there is a firmament? The intent of the literature is not to serve as a science text book, but rather as a theological treatise.

      Likewise, if I go into a church and begin teaching, and if people start talking about Moses writing Genesis, I may or may not choose to correct that understanding that until I have developed a relationship with the people and determine that it is an important understanding to correct. So no, I would disagree, it is not silly.

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