Teaching Genesis at Institute

I’ve taught a class just on the book of Genesis a few times, in a few places. We spend a lot of time on the first 10 chapters or so. The second time (from whence these notes), few students had a science background, and only 1-2 had previous experience with me. Most of the points below I have developed further in the course.
(For the original posts and comments, see here. As printed below, they are slightly edited, but not updated/corrected)

Week 1- Introduction

I introduced myself and established some formal bona fides. The more important informal trust that comes from personal experience and knowing someone will come over time, I hope. I had students express what had brought them to the class, what they hoped to discusses, or nagging questions or issues in Genesis. As expected, questions ran the gamut, but no one expressed a desperate struggle trying to “square evolution with the story of Adam and Eve that I had to take literally as a Mormon.” Time passed quicker than expected, and I moved into some intro material for the following week.

The purposes of the class dovetail with the approach, to understand Genesis as an Israelite might have and in process, answer some questions and make sure we’re asking the right kind of questions.

“Many Bible accounts that trouble the inexperienced reader become clear and acceptable if the essential meaning of the story is sought out. To read the Bible fairly, it must be read as President Brigham Young suggested:

Do you read the scriptures, my brethren and sisters, as though you were writing them a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand years ago? Do you read them as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them?’

This is our guide. The scriptures must be read intelligently.”
– Elder John A. Widtsoe, Evidences And Reconciliations

The first thing to note is that most Israelites would have interacted with Genesis differently, in two concrete ways. First, most Israelites couldn’t read, and even if they could, it’s unlikely they could afford their own copies of Hebrew scrolls, time-consuming and expensive to produce. The written word simply was not preeminent, and they likely encountered scripture aurally.

More importantly, they were natives of Hebrew but we have to deal with Genesis in translation. Consequently, we’re going to use several translations other than the KJV, which was an excellent translation…600 years ago. (Handout on Is the KJV a Good Translation?)  I passed around my Jewish Study Bible and Robert Alter’s Genesis volume, as well as a comparative translation handout of Genesis 1:1-3, which we’ll discuss more later. It’s useful to compare multiple translations, and I’ll be teaching the class primarily out of my Hebrew Bible.

Now, as we talk about Genesis and especially the creation accounts (as there are multiple in the Bible), we also need to talk about the relation between the KJV text, the Book of Moses creation text, Abraham creation text, and the temple. (We will talk about the temple explicitly in general and appropriate ways using what has been approved elsewhere, and sometimes implicitly.) In order to do that, we need to understand what the JST is and is not and common LDS assumptions about it. (Short handout on the JST.) Briefly put, many people assume the JST is simply Joseph Smith restoring text that disappeared from the Bible due to The Apostasy or not being “translated correctly.” While that may sometimes be the case, it is likely not so for most of it; regardless, we need to be aware of making simplistic assumptions. And this is necessary, because the Book of Moses is the JST to Genesis 1ff.

We then talked about the spectrum of General Authority approaches to Genesis 1-4, with Brigham Young on the far left, Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce McConkie on the far right, and David O. McKay in the middle. Basically, there’s no revealed consensus on how to read Genesis, though in more recent decades, there’s seemingly a trend in one direction. Without revelation, many views are possible, and we need to appropriately recognize the grey areas per BYU’s directions to RelEd professors. (Handout.) At that point, there was a good question about prophets and how teaching the class and doing my research has affected my testimony, and I talked about assumptions and the need to recognize both the human and the divine (i.e. inspiration and revelation) in our Church leaders; it’s just as dangerous to make assumptions of infallibility as it is to assume there is little to no inspiration among our leaders. Even Elder McConkie has said that

“With all their inspiration and greatness, prophets are yet mortal men with imperfections common to mankind in general. They have their opinions and prejudices and are left to work out their problems without inspiration in many instances.”

-Mormon Doctrine, “General Authority”

He humorously talked about himself from that perspective. (Old post of mine, Elder McConkie, Fallible Humorist? and unedited transcript of his address, Are the General Authorities Human?)

For next week, the assignment is to read and compare the Genesis, Moses and Abraham creation accounts, looking for differences and similarities. Parallel text.

Week 2- Digging in.

Most of the class came back. The material in this lesson was largely groundwork for the next few weeks, which means students don’t see immediate payoff.

Summary: we’re going to start reading Genesis against other creation accounts, particularly the Babylonian Enuma Elish, to see the doctrinal arguments it made.  In order to build up to that, I present three main points: 1) Whatever portion Moses may have written of Genesis 1 is now unrecoverable, and its current form dates to much later (likely around the Exile c.600 BCE). 2) The Book of Moses creation account neither proves Moses wrote our Genesis account nor is it an independent witness to an earlier version of Genesis 1. 3) The Book of Abraham Creation account also does not seem to be an independent witness to an ultimate pure creation account.

These three main points were prefaced with three principles.

Principle 1) Inspiration/revelation does not dictate form or genre (loosely defined). I take as a given that the scriptures are inspired. We find in them differing forms: from poetry and songs, to narratives, geneaologies, legal material, building instructions, letters, sermons, etc., and virtually none of this material is “historical” in a modern sense. (Our modern assumptions about “history” are very recent, and they are not the same assumptions the scriptural authors labored under.)  In other words, inspired material can take various forms. Of particular interest (and as an easy intro), let’s look at parables. These take a realistic narrative form, but the most interesting aspect is that they are non-historical. That is, if a certain man did not actually go down to Jericho, was not in fact robbed and beaten, then ignored by an actual priest and an actual levite, then helped by a real Samaritan, is the parable false? I haven’t met anyone yet willing to answer yes to that question, and Israelites/Jews likely would agree. What this means is we have an inspired kind of non-historical scripture, in which historical questions are irrelevant to the validity of the “doctrine.” (The 1st Presidency unofficially expressed this view with regards to Jonah and Job 100 years ago.)

Many times in the Church we use “true” when we really mean “historical” and that can cause problems. Typically, the very next question I get has to do with the Book of Mormon, as if I’ve created a slippery slope, but that’s note the case; judgements on the necessity of history should be a question of genre, not disbelief, and understanding that scripture is an anthology of different kinds. Each book of scripture and subsections must be evaluated separately. See my argument here.

Principle 2) Prophets routinely reapply, reinterpret, and recontextualize the past. This is the principle of adaptationWhile this principle is found throughout the Bible and early Christianity and Judaism, the paradigm example for Mormons is 1 Nephi 19:23, in which  Nephi flatly tells us he is about to reinterpret Isaiah and apply it to a new context.  “I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.”  When students have trouble grasping this point, the following dialogue often helps.

“Allowing for a little Semitic hyperbole, were ‘all scriptures’ written for or about the Nephites? Was Leviticus written with the Nephites in mind? Psalms? Jeremiah? And yet, Nephi says he likened all of them to his people. That suggests he recognizes and is telling us that he’s applying them in ways they hadn’t been written for, that Isaiah’s primary topic in those chapters was not Nephi’s people.”

Elder McConkie approved of this principle, that later interpreters often are re-interpreting, giving newmeaning to something old;  Nephi “gave, not a literal, but an inspired and interpreting translation. And in many instances his words give either a new or greatly expanded meaning to the original prophetic word.” He also mentions Moroni “improv[ing] on” Malachi and New Testament authors reinterpreting or retranslating Old Testament passages. (“Keys to Understanding the Bible” in Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie, ed. Mark L. McConkie, 290-291. Emphasis mine.)

Principle 3) It might be true that “the Gospel is simple”… but everything else is complex. One can debate the first half of this phrase, but it’s a concession added to a general warning that as our studies into scripture, history, and doctrine become deeper and more mature, we should not expect utter harmony and simplicity, any more than we should expect upper level studies of physics, literature or history to be simple. As one of my BYU mentors used to say, “you can have it all or you can have it consistent, but you can’t have both.” The readings from my Standard Packet are useful here.

Assuming or bracketing those principles for further discussion later, let’s look at Moses, Abraham, and Genesis.

[And here I taught material developed better here.]

1) The Book of Moses.

Using our parallel JPS/KJV/Moses/Abraham handout from last week, I asked about differences between the KJV and Moses texts.

We found a 3rd-person to 1st-person switch (“And God said” > “And I, God, said”), and some small additions. At least for Genesis 1, then, there is little difference. The Book of Moses is the JST to Genesis 1, and most people assume that means the JST is pure textual restoration; in other words, we expect that Moses wrote the text in the Book of Moses, then the Apostasy and “not being translated correctly” happened, resulting in our presumably messed-up KJV text. However, that’s a highly problematic assertion. Robert Matthews and other conservative, BYU-associated JST scholars don’t think JST is pure textual restoration. Moreover, several other things seem to weigh against the Book of Moses creation account  being the original and the KJV the derivative version.

First is the process. When writing the JST, Joseph didn’t start with a blank slate. He started with an open KJV, and then (simplifying here) added and removed from it. In Matthews’ words, the JST “was not a simple, mechanical recording of divine dictum, but rather a study-­and-­thought process accompanied and prompted by revelation from the Lord.” At least twice, Joseph would retranslate a passage and get a different translation. Similarly, we have passages in which the Book of Mormon and the KJV agree, but the JST changes the text. Again according to Matthews, Joseph at one time declared the JST finished and ready to publish, but apparently kept working. “Although the translation of the early chapters of Genesis was initially revealed and recorded between June 1830 and February 1831, it is clear that the Prophet Joseph Smith continued to revise and modify this material until his death in 1844.” (My emphasis.) The process makes it difficult to regard BMoses as an ultimate corrected original, as much as inspired prophetic thinking about the text.

This goes to the purpose of the JST. Joseph was commanded to retranslate the Bible, but I’m convinced God’s purpose was not that he wanted Joseph to give us an Ultimate Corrected-Text Bible. Rather, I think this command was meant to drive Joseph back into the scriptures to study and ask questions. Many of our distinctive doctrines and practices come directly from the process of Joseph working on the translation, asking a question based on a passage, and getting a long revelation in return: D&C 76 (three degrees of glory), and 132 (eternal marriage/plural marriage) are prime examples from D&C, as are baptism for the dead.

Second, Joseph Smith told us how he understand the original version of Genesis 1 to read, and it doesn’t match the BMoses. (Here I borrow from David B., whose original argument is no longer online.)

Towards the end of his ministry, the Prophet Joseph declared that prior to the days of uninspired tampering, the earliest version of Genesis 1:1 read: “The head one of the Gods brought forth the Gods” (Teachings, 348).
Now, if we consider Moses 2:1 in light of this teaching, a verse which would, if the Book of Moses contained a restored original text, reproduce the earliest version of Genesis 1:1, we gain the following insight:

“And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto Moses, saying: Behold, I reveal unto you concerning this heaven, and this earth; write the words which I speak. I am the Beginning and the End, the Almighty God; by mine Only Begotten I created these things; yea, in the beginning I created the heaven, and the earth upon which thou standest” (Moses 2:1)

And there we have it. No mention of heads, or of gods, or even of councils. Moses 2:1 revises Genesis 1:1 to simply read as a first person divine narrative. So clearly even if we ignore the implications of biblical scholarship and simply rely upon the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith himself, when it comes to the Book of Moses, the JST does not restore an original text.

In other words, I’m happy to assert that the Moses creation account is inspired and I love the doctrine it gives us, but its inspiration doesn’t imply it is either ultimately “correct” or the original restoration of the KJV text (by which I mean, the Hebrew behind the English translation.)  I also limit this in scope to the creation account parallels.

2) The Book of Abraham

Again on the comparative handout, we note that the Book of Abraham creation account (hereafter simply “Abraham”) diverges sharply from places where Moses and the KJV agree. Students noticed several of these. Loosely speaking, Abraham was published in 1842, while Moses dates to early 1830s. Between those two, Joseph Smith studied Hebrew (1835-6), which turns out to be hugely relevant. When we look at differences between Abraham and KJV/Moses, they often match Joseph Smith’s Hebrew grammar and lexicon, which we have. In reduced form, Abraham – JS’ Hebrew= KJV/Book of Moses. This suggests, again, that KJV English forms the base, but this time Joseph is reading in and interpolating his understanding of Genesis 1 in Hebrew over whatever was the Book of Abraham. I’ve collected numerous examples, some of which require explanation that I lack the time to type up in sufficient detail. Here’s a sampling.

Abraham 4:1 Students noticed that we have a plurality of gods here. The Hebrew reads ‘elohim (that’s a long vowel at the end, sounds more like “FEMA” than “him”), Moses and Genesis have “God,” Abraham “the gods.” Joseph Smith had learned about pluralization in his Hebrew.

“I once asked a learned Jew, “If the Hebrew language compels us to render all words ending in heim[-im] in the plural, why not render the first Eloheim plural?” He replied, “That is the rule with few exceptions; but in this case it would ruin the Bible.” He acknowledged I was right….In the very beginning the Bible shows there is a plurality of Gods beyond the power of refutation. It is a great subject I am dwelling on. The word Eloheim ought to be in the plural all the way through—Gods.” (June 16, 1844) History of the Church Volume 6, p. 476

Abraham 4:2 Originally read in Times&Seasons “faces” of the water, while the KJV/Moses reads “face of the water.” The Hebrew ‘al-peney has been understood as a plural, just as Seixas translates it in his grammar. (panīm “face” is plural in form, but always translated as singular. Hebrew idiom.) Abraham gets harmonized in 1888 to singular “face.”

Abraham 4:4 (Very abbreviated discussion) “”they divided the light (or caused it to be divided)” Here the text appears to follow Seixas by translating hibdil as causative when in fact it’s the basic non-causative verb.  Hiphil verbs tend to be causative, but sometimes we have idiomatic verbs that don’t appear in the Qal/pa’al/g-stem, like this one, and should not be translated causatively. Seixas several times contrasts the (not really) causative hibdil “causing to divide” with the (non-existent) Qal badal. I know it’s tough to follow the argument without knowing any Hebrew grammar, but this one really stands out. Kevin Barney talks about it a bit here.

Abraham 4:6 Moses+KJV “firmament” but Abraham “expanse” as a translation of raqiya’. Seixas’ several times translates this word as “expanse.” This example carries over into the facsimiles, where Fac. 2 #4 has the explanation “raukeeyang, signifying expanse or firmament over our heads, but in this case, in relation to this subject, the Egyptians meant it to signify Shaumau, to be high, or the heavens, answering to the Hebrew word Shaumahyeem.” Of note here and elsewhere in the facsimiles is the amount of Hebrew used, which all follows the minority pronunciation of Josiah Seixas. Raukeeyang (raqiya’), gnolaum (‘olam), shaumahyeem, all are Hebrew words given using Seixas Sephardic pronounciation/transliteration scheme. (Qamets= au, ‘ayin= gn/ng, etc.)

The kicker? The Hebrew language did not exist in Abraham’s day. He certainly didn’t speak or write in it, so its presence (short of Joseph Smith reading it in) is difficult to account for. (Kevin Barney has a good paper that would account for it, though that’s not the thrust of his paper.)

Now, the Book of Abraham is extremely complex, and I don’t claim to have a firm grasp on most of it. The implications of this are limited in scope.  These things cannot prove the Book of Abraham is non-historical, whether in part or whole, and such is neither my purpose nor belief. What it strongly suggests is that a) Joseph Smith was doing what prophets have always done, participate in and give shape to the inspiration and revelation that comes through him and therefore b) we cannot simply assume that Abraham creation text represents a purer or earlier form of creation text that God independently gave to Abraham and then Moses. Rather, it seems to be the text of Genesis as adapted and interpreted by Joseph Smith, and embedded into the Abraham text. Here’s a handout summarizing this.

 So what about Genesis (or the Pentateuch) itself?

It was written down/edited long after Moses. How do we know? The text itself, mainly. First, the language of the text is the Hebrew of the 8th century, not early/archaic Hebrew.  Second, it’s all in the 3rd person, and contains accounts like Moses’ death. Third, it’s filled with updated/anachronistic people, like the Philistines (Genesis 26:1, they don’t arrive until significantly later) and the city of Dan (in Gen. 14:14, which won’t be named “Dan” until the tribe of Dan gets there, after Jacob, who comes at least 4 generations after Moses. It’s like the pioneers going to “Utah” which didn’t exist at the time they went.) Fourth, there are all kinds of phrases indicating that it was written by someone both in Israel ( since Moses did all this stuff “on the other side of the Jordan”) and much later, with time phrases indicating differences or continuity between Moses’ day and theirs (“still to this day”  “at that time, the Canaanite was in the land” but they’re not anymore). Here are some introductory articles; “Source Criticism” from the conservative but balanced Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch; John J. Collins section on Pentateuchal authorship from his Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, a college textbook; A summary article from Joseph Blenkinsopp  “The Documentary Hypothesis in TroubleBible Review, 1:04 (Winter 1985); and an old introductory handout I used for my Faith and Knowledge presentation years ago. If you’re trying to get a handle on source criticism from an LDS perspective, this is highly recommended.

In summary, it’s clear that Genesis has been heavily edited. By whom and for what purpose, at least with regards to Genesis 1? Answering that will also answer doctrinal questions to which the Israelites needed answers, one of our topics next week.

Week 3- Genesis 1 and Enuma Eliš 

Enuma Eliš is often called the Babylonian Creation Account or Epic, but that misleads into thinking that its purpose was simply to convey information about creation. (This assumption is likely carried over from assuming the same thing about Genesis, and is equally false.) Enuma Eliš, rather, explains how Marduk became the chief deity of the Babylonian pantheon.

When first published in the late 1800s, the similarities between Enuma Eliš and Genesis 1 were so obvious that (combined Protestant assumptions and German anti-semitism), some claimed that Israelites simply borrowed Genesis from Enuma Eliš “whole cloth.” Since then, more nuanced views have prevailed. While there is no major consensus on the relationship, three things are commonly agreed upon; The roots of Enuma Eliš long predate the Israelite version, one cannot study Genesis seriously without taking Enuma Eliš into account, and at the very least, Genesis and Enuma Eliš  “breathe the same air.” Here is Enuma Eliš from the Context of Scripture (You can see the cuneiform of one version here in pdf, with explanation of the first few lines.

We did a very selective summary of Enuma Eliš, and pointed out that the pre-creation combat with the watery chaos/deity/sea monsters therein is also found in the Bible. (Handout of passages taken from this post.) We then looked at Genesis 1 and saw that although multiple elements of Enuma Eliš are found there in the same order, there is very clearly NO pre-creation battle, and those things which are warring deities in Enuma Eliš are simply creations of Israel’s God in Genesis 1. Specifically (and selectively), we begin with temporal clauses (“When on high…” and “When God began creating the heavens and the earth), pre-existent cosmic waters (Tiamat/salt water; tehom/”the deep”), darkness, and wind/spirit. The waters are then separated, a solid roof (Tiamat’s hide, the raqiya/firmament) put on to keep out and restrain those waters from entering into this space, and this is the general conception of the universe or cosmic geography among both Israelites and their neighbors.

Even Deseret Book on Genesis obliquely mentions Enuma Eliš, in Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament.

the power and significance of these stories [of creation in Genesis] can be best appreciated when they are compared with the ancient creation stories that were known in cultures surrounding ancient Israel. In the last 150 years, archaeologists working in the Near East have uncovered hundreds of thousands of records from the ancient world.  Scholars have identified in these records many examples of creation stories from Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan that give us insight and understanding of the ancient worldviews about creation.

What is the doctrine here?

From an Israelite perspective, especially one living in or under Babylonian rule and influence, the doctrine was that Israel’s God was The God, that these other things were not gods at all. This was Doctrine with a Capital D, centrally important to their concerns. Especially when Israel had been subued by Babylon and the temple destroyed, it was a real theological challenge. Had Marduk defeated Yahweh? Was Yahweh indeed God? What had happened? We tend not to understand the attraction of polytheism, or the illogic of monotheistic religion then, since it is mostly what westerners encounter today, sohere is a brief defense of polytheism. Today, polytheism doesn’t make a lot of sense to us because we live in a different culture. So here’s a useful analogy. You all use certain services and functions in your daily life. You have water. You have your recycling pickup. You have your electricity, you have your plumber, you have your car mechanic, your cable TV, your Internet access, your handyman. Now, imagine that you move into a new house. And the same guy comes and hooks up all of these services. Imagine that every service in your new house came from the same company. And not only the same company, but the same guy. And that this guy was the local mechanic, grocer, policeman, garbage service, and doctor. You would have trouble believing that one person could do all these things. And that is basically the situation of ancient near Eastern people. We think of the cosmos as a machine that God runs or set up. Ancient near Eastern people, by contrast, associated a different god with each service, function or aspect. The deity was the function, and vice versa. Ra/Re is both the Sun and Sun God. There were weather gods, fertility gods, local regional gods, etc. How could one deity be in charge of everything? And what if he really wasn’t? What if your child died or your crops failed because you’d failed to appease some other God? (Think of Paul and the altar to the Unknown God here.)

Some of this is reflected in the Bible. It might surprise you to find out that a volume called Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (a prominent academic reference volume) runs to nearly 1000 pages. It was inconceivable to think of one God performing every function, but that is what the Israelites proclaimed, even though many of them couldn’t quite maintain that exclusivist faith at times.

Week 4Genesis and Enuma Eliš continued

We began  with a review of some of the similarities we talked about last week.

Similarities–  Both 1) Open with temporal clause. 2) pre-creation darkness 3) pre-creation cosmic waters 4) wind/spirit 5) division of the waters to create space for human existence 6) a solid “roof” created to restrain the cosmic waters from reentering that space.

There are also stark differences, which generally fall under the category of semi-polemical monotheistic reinterpretation. That is, while Genesis shares with Mesopotamia (as well as all the other ancient Near Eastern cultures we know of) a very different conception of the physical universe and some other elements, it differs sharply in who’s in charge.


  • Lack of combat– In contrast to Enuma Eliš, other creation accounts, and other parts of the Old Testament, creation is portrayed as being free of combat with other deities or cosmic waters/chaos.
  • Monotheistic. – Things which are deities in creation accounts elsewhere are downplayed, removed, and made to be creations, such as sun, moon, stars, sabbath, the waters, and the “great whales” or cosmic sea monsters associated with the deified cosmic waters. See my post here.
    • Well, kinda sorta monotheistic, at least by comparison with its neighbors. Israelites likely believed in existence of other divine beings, though none really offered a challenge to Yahweh.  This is probably reflected in the several “us” passages (Genesis 1:26-27, 3:22, 11:7, etc.)  Unlikely interpretations of the plurals include 1) the “royal we” which does not exist elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible or the ancient Near East (though it does in the Koran!),  2) a plural of deliberation (which is possible but seems to be ruled out by the Hebrew grammar of 3:22) and 3) The Trinity, an early Christian interpretation. Most scholars today go with a reference to God’s Divine Council, a topic much discussed in LDS scholarly circles. (I wrote my senior paper on it at BYU, but see here, here, Michael Heiser’s Evangelical response published by FARMS, David Bokovoy’s response to Heiser, and a final word by Heiser, who has a helpful introduction to the topic. )
  • View of humanity. In Enuma Eliš,  humankind is created from blood of a slain rebel deity (associated with Tiamat), whereas in Genesis mankind is of clay and divine breath. In Mesopotamia, only the king was said to be in the image of deity, whereas in Genesis all humans
    share God’s image and likeness. While this may refer to human form, the more important sense is that one acts in God’s place; to be in God’s image is to represent God in some sense. By comparison, then, Genesis is quite humanistic and optimistic about human nature.

One student wisely tried to restate everything I’d done to that point, and I realized I’d left out something very important. Genesis 1 was not taken whole cloth from Enuma Eliš and rewritten as an Israelite one. Rather, Genesis 1 probably represents a long Israelite (oral?) tradition (probably including Genesis 2-3 and Psalm 104) that, in its final form as we have it, both drew upon and reacted against Enuma Eliš, in order to counter its doctrine and make it culturally viable. 

The important thing to realize here is that much of the significance of the account is lost when we try to read it in a vacuum, in absence of its ancient context.

I then wrote Genesis 1:1-3 on the board with some Hebrew left in it, and went through it.

When ‘elohim began to bara’ the heavens and the earth (the earth being tohu-and-vohu, darkness upon the face of the Abyss, and a wind from ‘elohim rachaph-ing over the waters), ‘elohim said, “let there be light.”

The first thing to notice is that Genesis 1 uses ‘elohim exclusively, where 2:4ff uses jehovah ‘elohim as an odd combined singular. LDS usage of these two terms to designate Father and Son is not derived from the Old Testament, nor should we read it in there. It’s a convention that arose, as far as I understand, with James E. Talmage. Until then, LDS tended to use the terms with much more ambiguity. Joseph at least sometimes used ‘elohim as a plural, and the Kirtland dedicatory prayer (D&C 109) which addresses Jehovah several times becomes much less troublesome when we realize that the term is probably referring to God the Father there. As late as 1961 (as pointed out by John Tvedtnes and Barry Bickmore), David O. McKay could refer to “Jehovah and his Son Jesus Christ”. Or, put much less specifically, “The scriptures do not always specify which member of the Godhead is being referred to in a given passage.”- Doctrines of the Gospel Student Manual, 6.

Second, we see that pre-creation, the primordial waters are already there (Abyss/tehom, “the deep”), and God creates from it, not from nothing i.e ex nihilo. (Ex Nihilo handout.) Even the NT picks up on this in 2Pe 3:5

“They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water.”

The heavens and earth constitute a merism, expressing totally through two opposing extremes, “day and night” “A to Z” “alpha to omega”, etc., meaning “everything.”

What state is it in? Before creation it is tohu and vohu, a phrase which does not mean “empty,” but
non-productive, purposeless, having no place.” And here, I begin to draw heavily on Evangelical Old Testament scholar John Walton and his theory of functional creation, which I’m still mulling over, but has much merit. It’s been talked about several places among the LDS blogs (Dave has three posts here, LDS Science Review here, here, and here for a sampling) Walton has been working on this for years; most recently in a scholarly volume, a popular volume (Google preview, PDF preview), various articles on Creation and Cosmology (from Dictionary of the Old Testament:Pentateuch), his commentary on Genesis (which I’m mostly enjoying), and older works. To get a good overview (and really, you should, because its explanatory power can’t be summarized in a paragraph or two), listen to this lecture of his (mp3).

As a result of the Scientific Revolution, modern westerners conceive of ontology (the nature of being or existence) as material, but ancient Near Eastern cultures had a functional ontology; to exist meant to have a function within an ordered system.  Creation is the process of bringing something into existence. In other words (to greatly simplify), Genesis 1 isn’t interested in material origins or where stuff came from; Creation is about taking the non-functional and assigning it functions, not manufacturing. Everything was there, mostly in place, and God assigns functions and functionaries throughout Genesis 1. We’ll talk about it more next week, but here’s an analogy.

A corporation doesn’t exist just because it has a building or a sign out front. Think of God as CEO, and the building is already there. What he does is assign employees their jobs, how they’ll interact, and what they’re supposed to do; once all of those are in place, the CEO takes his seat in the head office, and opens for business. Now everyone knows what to do, the company can begin to carry out those functions as assigned, as assured and watched over by the CEO.

Bara’ then, the word translated as “create” may well, under the hood, mean something like “to assign a function within a system.” Prior to being bara‘ed, it would be tohu and bohu, functionless. Walton lays this out in great detail with plenty of evidence from within the Hebrew Bible and texts from the surrounding civilizations. It solves a multitude of problems, and I’m quite excited about it.

What happens on Day 1, is that God “creates” Time; that is, he “divides” the light from the darkness. These are not physical things that can be spatially divided, like rocks in a jar. However, we can also understand the verb to mean “designate, distinguish” based on its usage elsewhere in Hebrew, and this makes all kinds of sense. If that seems like a stretch, consider our usage of the spatial term “set apart” in the LDS church. When we set someone apart in a new calling, we give them a new function within an ordered system, we designate or distinguish them differently than we did before. We begin with a period of darkness, then God calls for a period of light, which he designates “day” and the period of darkness “night.” The cyclical period of dark/light are assigned the function of Time. The functionaries of Time (sun, moon, stars) and further related functions (marking of holy days and seasons, etc.) will be so designated on day 4.

Week 5- The Days of Genesis and moving on

Tonight we finished off Genesis 1 and introduced the second creation account in Gen 2.

Seven Days (c.f. this post.)

It’s long been noticed that days 1-3 parallel days 4-6. Walton argues that days 1-3 create three primary and basic functions, while 4-6 create functionaries that either carry out those functions, or carry out their own within the parallel sphere.

Day 1 creates the basis of Time, the cycle of night/day. This is simply the function; the functionaries who carry it out are designated on day 4.

Day 2 creates the basis of Weather, which mostly means precipitation. That is, Israelite cosmology held as per Genesis that there were waters below which were connected to the sea, and waters above, with the waters above held back by a solid dome, the firmament or raqiya. Rivers, springs, and flooding (the regular inundations of the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates) came from the waters below, and the raqiya was the control sluice of the waters above. If too little water was allowed through, drought and destruction. Too much, and you get Noah’s flood (which specifically mentions the cosmic waters above and below and the raqiya). Just enough, and plants grow.  As an aside, God is probably seen here as equivalent to the Sumerian>Akkadian>Aramaic gugallu/gogal, the “canal-inspector” or “sluice-master” of the heavens.

Day 3 creates the basis of Agriculture. The dry land emerges from the waters, and specific mention is made that plants have the basis to reproduce, that their seed is in them.

Day 4 provides the functionaries who carry out the function of Day 1, namely the sun, moon and stars. These establish “the calendar with particular reference to the determination of the dates of the sacred festivals.”(Whybray, Oxford Bible Commentary, among others.)

Day 5 creates the inhabitants of the functional area of day 2, birds that fly upon the face of the raqiya, and  aquatic animals for the waters below. (Nothing was observed or thought to inhabit the waters above.) Their function is to multiply and fill the earth. Of particular note are the “great whales” of the KJV. These are tannīn (Dictionary of Deities and Demons article), semi-mythical sea monsters like Rahab and Leviathan, “the Dragon” of Isaiah 51:9-10. This is the only place Genesis repeats the verb bara’ “to create” “to assign a function within a system” emphasizing that these things are not independent deities but creations of God, who has put them into their set place. Tannin is translated as Dragon elsewhere, such as in Isaiah 27:1 and 51:9 (see post here.)

Day 6 creates the inhabitants of the functional area of day 3, land animals including humans. While humans are also told to multiply and fill the earth, they are given another function which overlaps with being in God’s image; humans are to “have dominion.”

Day 7 is the most important day of creation, even though nothing gets “created.”  On that day, following the functional interpretation, all the employees have been trained, the schedule set up, and  God takes up his position in the cosmic temple, the control center, the CEO’s office, and the doors open for business. The functionaries can start carrying out their functions. What did God do the 8th day and the 9th day and so on? Same thing he did on the 7th, ensure stability of the functions and functionaries. What would happen if God abandoned the temple? Order begins to break down. (See Ezekiel 10, for God leaving the temple in Israel and the concordant destruction.)

Or, to borrow another of Walton’s metaphors, functional creation is a bit like a computer. We don’t care so much about the hardware it’s running on, who built it, or where it came from. Hardware without software is worthless.  The first six days are basically getting the software installed, the routines and subroutines and programs to run. Day 7 is when the computer is turned on and begins to be used.

If not Moses, who?

We spent some time in week 2 talking about relationships between the accounts of Moses, Abraham, and Genesis, and left it by saying it was clear the current text dated long after Moses. But if such is the case, who gave Gen 1 its current form? The general consensus is, Israelite priests, sometime around the Babylonian exile. General readings about source criticism are applicable here, but more particularly, Genesis 1 reflects priestly interests, priestly vocabulary, and priestly structure. (very quick summary below)

Priestly vocabulary– Priests did not just carry out temple rituals (we’ll talk about creation and temples in a later session), but were also responsible for teaching the law; Ezekiel, an exilic priest, lays the blame for the exile on priests ceasing to do so, particularly ceasing to distinguish between holy and unholy (Eze 22:26). That Hebrew term for distinguish is the same word translated as “divide” in Genesis 1, and tends to be used in priestly contexts, since they were interested in separating and dividing the holy from the unholy and maintaining distinctions.

Priestly interests and structure– Genesis 1, as noted before is a temple text, in which God’s cosmic temple is constructed and where he takes up residence on the seventh day. The tabernacle and later temple have strong ties to Genesis 1. The 7-day structure in it may come from the temple (i.e. priestly) context, in that temples were often built, dedicated, or otherwise connected to periods of 7 days or 7 years. ( For example, Solomon’s temple was built in seven years, dedicated in the seventh month, and the ceremony lasted seven days, and was followed by a seven day feast. Baal’s temple was built in seven days. The temple in Gudea cylinder B was dedicated in seven days.) The 7-day structure may come from the Sabbath context (as I discussed briefly here). Either way, the introduction of the day structure is a priestly innovation and characteristic. Priests were the ones with particular interest in holy vs. unholy, blessings, Sabbaths, holy days and holidays (or more generally, the calendar). No other creation text in or out of Israel structures creation per se according to days.

This is the best accounting for the 7-day structure. The popular “day-age theory” (option 3 in the Institute manual) is based on 2 assumptions:

1) The creation described in Gen 1 is primarily or exclusively material.

2) The nature of the creation account described is historical/scientific in nature, i.e. a concordist assumption.

Together, these two assumptions say, “whatever we know about the material creation of the universe *must* be what Genesis 1 is describing. Therefore, the days in Gen 1 must represent extremely long periods of time.” Neither of these assumptions can be fully justified. Walton presents strong arguments against assumption 1 (and I have not really represented his arguments), and assumption 2 finds counter-arguments even in the Ensign, though only weakly (it still makes some general historical assumptions).

“Genesis does not give a detailed history of the Creation. Instead, it teaches basic principles…. When discussing the Genesis creation story, what teacher has not been pressed with these questions: How was the earth created? How long did it take? Were there dinosaurs before Adam? How was Adam created? And numerous others. Is it possible that most of these questions completely miss the mark? As Elder James E. Talmage said, “The opening chapters of Genesis, and scriptures related thereto, were never intended as a textbook of geology, archaeology, earth-science, or man-science.” (“The Earth and Man,” p. 3, address delivered 9 Aug. 1931 in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. Copy in the Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.) Instead of trying to squeeze out information that doesn’t seem to have been in the Genesis account in the first place and may not have been revealed yet (see D&C 101:32–34), let’s look at a few of the most important things that we can learn from Genesis…”

– -George A. Horton Jr., “A Prophet Looks at Genesis,” Ensign, Jan. 1986, 40

Theological diversity

I wrote “42” on the board, with sparkly beams coming out of it. This is the answer to life, the universe and everything. Many of us think this is how revelation works. A prophet is granted a vision, God takes him into God’s Ultimate Reference Library, and shows him The Answer and then the prophet comes down and says, ’42, everyone.’ And then 300 years later, another prophet gets shown ’42’ and comes down and says ’42, everyone!’  We expect that scripture is a revealed record of God’s view on something. Therefore, all scripture should be harmonious. Does God change? Does God harbor multiple opinions or change his mind? So goes the apparent reasoning, or, more likely, unconscious assumption.”

Except that this is not always what happens. The problem is, sometimes prophets say 40, sometimes 43, sometimes 4.2. And in fact, revelation rarely seems to work this way, revealing the ultimate answer, even when that revelation consists of how to act, i.e. legal material (“do this” “don’t do that” “never eat pork” “you can totally eat pork”) or what to believe, i.e. “doctrinal” or propositional material (“2+2=4” “there are four lights” “the afterlife is bisected into heaven and hell.” “the afterlife is made up of 3 heavens and one hell, and one heaven might be further subdivided.”)

This leads to inconsistency, or in more friendly terms, what Peter Enns calls “theological diversity” and we Mormons really really don’t like that. The first thing we run to is our over-used safety net called “not translated correctly.” We assume that any major or minor differences or contradictions (and contradiction is often within the eye of the beholder) within scripture, or between scripture and modern practice/doctrine/tradition means that whatever it is (baptism, temple marriage, word of wisdom), obviously had to be there in the past and was removed by a shifty-eyed scribe, or happened to drop out of the text. And there may well be occasions where that is the case, but I think they’re rare.

We can account for theological diversity in other ways that are less defensive, more productive, and ultimately more conducive to faith. The lines between these are a bit blurry and overlapping, depending on what example one wishes to take.

Line-upon-line – God works from where we are and gives us the next step or two, like successive models of physics. While we tend to think the modern Church sprang fully formed from the head of Joseph Smith in 1830, studying history shows that often, even with clear revelation, there are progressive steps of understanding and implementation, as well as clarifying revelation. For a short intro, this 1979 Ensign article by James Allen is excellent. Otherwise, the history of the Church from 1890-1930 (I’m told an updated edition is in the works)  shows the transition well.

Accommodation– God speaks in ways we can understand, using our language and cultural framework. He also gives us commandments that are within our reach, though it may be a stretch. Brigham Young and lots of others inside and outside the Church have talked about this.

Enculturation– Whether God encultures a message and then gives it to the prophet, or the prophet receives revelation that filters through him and his culture, the end result is the same; scripture is tied to a time, place, language and culture. To really understand it, we need those things as well. A similar message revealed in a different time, place, language, or culture is going to be at least slightly different. For God to achieve his ends in one place or time may require different commandments than another place or time.

Human perspective/assumptions/error/historiography– While it may be inspired, ultimately scripture filters through human perspective. There is a purpose for writing something down or passing down an account a particular way. Sometimes we get multiple accounts of the same thing, but for different purposes or with different emphasis. We need to couple this understanding with another: even those parts of scripture of a historical nature follow ancient historiographical methods, which differ sharply from modern assumptions about history and history writing. We tend to assume that a written history has little purpose beyond mechanically recording what *really* happened, what was *actually* said.  Anciently, people had much looser expectations, and history wasn’t history unless it had meaning. That meaning was often shaped by the author/editor.

Think of the Four Gospels, which bring differing and occasionally contradictory perspectives (what day was Jesus crucified?) Or better yet but less familiar, think of Samuel vs. Chronicles, which tell the exact same stories, but from two very different perspectives. The stories of the establishment of Israel, David, and Solomon in Samuel were written BEFORE the destruction of the temple and virtual destruction of Israel as a nation-state and people; Chronicles was written afterwards, under very different circumstances. This is a useful summary. (part 1, part 2) Mormon does this on one occasion as well, telling the same story twice from two different perspectives. (See here for some early Grant Hardy looking at it.)

Misunderstanding of the nature of revelation, i.e. it’s MEANT to be there– This gets me back into the “42” idea. Take Proverbs 26:4 “Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.” Clear unambiguous direction, right? Easy enough to internalize and follow? Fair enough, let’s keep reading. Proverbs 26:5, the very next verse, says “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.” Huwuh? So, which one should we do?   Flanders also had a problem with diversity, assuming that revelation would ONLY provide one perspective. “I’ve done everything the Bible says, even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff!”
Sometimes there is not a “right and wrong to every question” as the hymn goes, but God gives general and even contrasting principles and leaves it to us to apply them to our circumstances. Though he had very harmonistic views opposed to the idea of theological diversity, Elder McConkie ran with this principle of using best judgment, saying that even prophets

are left to work out their problems without inspiration in many instances.

Mormon Doctrine, 547.)

Early Rabbis who noticed diversity and contradiction viewed it as God’s hint to the close reader that something important was hidden there in the text, a bit of a textual easter egg. (See James Kugel’s intro in How to Read the Bible). While I don’t go that far, I do think it’s useful to note differing perspectives and inquire as to their source and purpose. Noticing things like that and asking questions is an important aspect of scripture study and note-taking.

Peter Enns has a good chapter on theological diversity here, in his Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament.

3 thoughts on “Teaching Genesis at Institute

  1. Ben

    Every seminary student should get this curriculum.

    Should we all lobby the Church Office Building to make that happen?! (I’m mostly kidding. I assume that wouldn’t work.)


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