October 21, 2017

THE LITERAL INTERPRETATION OF GENESIS 3 (Part 1)

John Mincy

This is Part 1 Part 2 ♦ Part 3

For centuries most of Christendom believed that a historical Adam and Eve sinned in a real garden by means of the deception of a real snake. According to a recent survey, however, almost three-fourths of the members of America’s protestant churches do not believe that Adam and Eve were historical persons. The early chapters of the Bible form the foundation upon which the rest of Scripture is built, and any question about the historicity of early Genesis, whether in the name of scientific information or Biblical knowledge, is a serious matter.

The majority of Christian theologians now reject the literal Fall, and conservative theologians also are doubting and denying that Genesis 3 has to be taken as literal history. Why do theologians feel the necessity of reexamining the early narratives of Genesis? What effects do their conclusions have upon their whole Biblical theology? Does Biblical exegesis determine the historical character of Genesis 3? How historical does Genesis 3 have to be theologically? Is there another method of interpretation which explains scientific information and Biblical knowledge better? These questions suggest the magnitude of the problems associated with the examination of the literal interpretation of Genesis 3.

To examine the literal interpretation is to examine the method which looks for the ordinary meaning of a passage or phrase of Scripture and accepts that as the sacred Author’s meaning unless certain objective principles lead one to ascertain a figurative meaning. The great modern interpreters who have given a literal interpretation of Genesis 3 are Martin Luther, John Calvin, Carl Keil, Edward J. Young, and H. C. Leupold. These interpreters do not always exactly agree (Keil is most literal), but there is astounding agreement on even the details when one considers that the authors span a period of nearly four hundred years.

THE TEXT

What evidence is there in the text itself in favor of or opposed to literal interpretation? To the dismay of the destructive critics there are no major textual problems with this ancient passage, and neither is there any inherent critical problem. Dividing this chapter on the basis of textual reasoning is being abandoned. It stands as a well-defined and well-preserved unit with 2:4ff.

Not being able to challenge what the text says, liberal theologians, as well as some conservative ones, suggest that the story does not mean what it says, but is only a mythic or symbolic story. The basic characteristics, the contents, and the quality of Genesis 3, however, differ greatly from those of myth. Myth cannot be validated as the genre of this early narrative. Although there are figurative elements in Genesis 3, there is not sufficient evidence to show the genre to be that of a symbolic story. The mythic view interprets the story as a psychological explanation of the common human situation. The symbolic view agrees with the mythic that Genesis 3 gives us no description of the earliest humans, but does teach the reality of a historical fall. What really happened no one knows, but something definitely happened. The mythic and symbolic views agree on one point at least: what is written in Genesis 3 does not give us a description of what happened.

To the contrary, Genesis 3 and its immediate context have the characteristics of historical narrative. The historical data of Genesis 1-11 are astounding. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., writes, “There are 64 geographical terms, 88 personal names, 48 generic names and at least 21 identifiable cultural items … in these opening chapters.” (New Perspectives on the Old Testament, ed. J. Barton Payne, p. 59) The writer of early Genesis appears to be narrating the story of how everything was in the beginning. He traces in story form the development of the first human societies, and thus provides the historical background of the patriarchs. Arthur C. Danto explains that “historical writings consist chiefly of historical sentences, and are further distinguished by the fact that a considerable number of the historical sentences which compose them employ, as grammatical subjects, proper names … or definite descriptions of individual human beings who actually existed … There are in addition, what I shall term social individuals, individuals which we may provisionally characterize as containing individual human beings amongst their parts. Examples of social individuals might be social classes, national groups, religious organizations, large-scale movements, and so on” (Analytical Philosophy of History, p. 258). Each of these characteristics is present in the early narratives of Genesis.

The toledot formula (“these are the generations of”) appears eleven times in Genesis, dividing the book into ten sections. This formula is the key to the unity and development of this Book of Beginnings. The formulas mark the beginnings of new ancestral lines, lines which ultimately reveal the Messianic genealogy. That Genesis 3 falls into the pattern of the toledot formulas is a strong argument for its historicity. There is little doubt about the historicity of the Patriarchal period and later. Neither should there be any doubt about Genesis 3, because Moses included it in the chronological framework upon which he builds.

GENESIS 3 AND OLD TESTAMENT CROSS-REFERENCES

What is the relationship of Genesis 3 to other Old Testament references? There are over two dozen references outside Genesis which have relationship to the Fall narrative. The witness of the Old Testament to Genesis 3 includes not only definite references to the details of the Garden narrative (Job 34:15; Isa. 65:25: Ezek. 28) but also an emphasis upon what happened there, the transgression of the man Adam (Job 31:33; Ezek. 28; Hos. 6:7). The prophetical writings often appeal to the literalness and certainty of early Genesis events to insure belief in the literalness and certainty of present and future events (Isa. 24:5; 54:9). Beyond this, these references cannot be viewed simply as repetitions of a symbolical or mythical story, but are appealed to and are used in the same manner as other literal historical occurrences. And there is evidence that what happened in the Garden is the first link.

The frequency of references to the Fall narrative in the Old Testament is very favorable when compared to that of other events and persons. The Flood is mentioned outside Genesis 6-9 only in Isaiah 54:9. The tower of Genesis 11 is without reference in the rest of the Old Testament. The name of Moses appears in the prophets in only five passages. Elijah is mentioned only in Malachi 4:5.


John Mincy holds an MA and PhD from Bob Jones University. He served as a missionary pastor in Singapore and is now pastor emeritus of Heritage Baptist Church in Antioch, California.

This article is an abstract of a significant dissertation of a doctoral candidate in the graduate school of Bob Jones University. First published in Biblical Viewpoint, Vol. VIII, No. 2, November 1974, pp. 145-153, by Bob Jones University. Used by permission.

Upon completion of Part 3, Proclaim & Defend plans to make the entire article available in pdf format for your reference.


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