The Many Layers of Genesis 1: Part II

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The Many Layers of Genesis 1: Part II
from The Manifold Beauty of Genesis One: A Multi-Layered Approach
by Gregg Davidson & Kenneth J. Turner

Layered Truth in Scripture

A critical aspect of our mineral example is the complementary nature of each discovery. Blue coloration under one light does not challenge or negate pink coloration under another frequency of light. If asked whether our fluorite crystal is pink or blue, we might playfully answer Yes!

We find an analogous principle at work in Scripture. Two examples follow—one looking forward to a promised messiah and one looking back to events from Israel’s history.

Example 1: Isaiah’s Messiah

Early in the book of Isaiah, the prophet speaks of a messiah who will come as a conquering king. A child will be born who will sit on the throne of David, establishing his kingdom forever (Isa. 9:1–7). The description of this coming king includes breaking the rod of the oppressor, burning up opposing armies as fuel for a divine fire, and dividing the spoil. Such words were likely the reason why many of the Jews expected Jesus—if he was truly the Messiah—to take up the sword against Rome, and why the mother of James and John asked that her sons be seated to Jesus’s right and left in his coming kingdom.

The misunderstanding of the true ministry of Jesus came, in part, from focusing on only one of the messianic layers in Isaiah. Reading ahead, the same prophet speaks of a gentle servant who will not raise his voice in the street, or snuff out a smoldering wick until justice is established on earth; a man who will be a light to the Gentiles, opening eyes that are blind and freeing captives from prison (Isa. 42:1–9). And still another layer is revealed in the well-known “suffering servant” passage of Isaiah 52:13–53:12. Here we find a description of the Messiah lacking physical beauty, despised and rejected, a man who would know suffering and pain, who would be crushed by God for our iniquities and cut off from the land of the living.

Isaiah was not confused whether the Messiah would come as conquering king, gentle healer, or propitiatory sacrifice. All are true, each representing a different layer of understanding, leading to a deeper, richer understanding of how the Messiah did and will yet come.

Example 2: Sarah and Hagar, history and analogy

A second example draws attention to different perspectives from different biblical authors on the same set of characters and events: Sarah and her maid- servant Hagar. In Genesis, God promises a son to Abraham, but his wife Sarah is barren.[1] Not trusting things to change, especially given her advanced age, Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham to produce a son on her behalf (Gen. 16). Years later, Sarah herself conceives and gives birth to her own son (Gen. 21). At one level (one layer), this is a simple narration of historical events and interactions with God in Israel’s past. At another level, it provides a moral lesson that God is faithful and sufficient to fulfill his promises, even when it seems impossible to us. Still another layer is God’s intention of setting a people apart for himself, starting with the intentional selection of Abraham and Sarah.

But what if someone were to suggest that while this story is indeed historical, we can also now understand it allegorically? You might protest that it cannot be both, until being reminded that the “someone” we speak of is the apostle Paul (Gal. 4:21–31). Without denying the historical nature of the text, Paul nonetheless ascribes a deeper, symbolic meaning to the story, saying “this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants” (Gal. 4:24).[2] Hagar (the slave woman) represents the old covenant, and her son represents children born according to the flesh (the present Jerusalem). Sarah (the free woman) represents the new covenant, and her son represents the children born of promise (the Jerusalem above). Thus, the same story conveys different layers of truth: historical, moral, and symbolic. Each layer of understanding adds to the richness of the text.

With all this in mind, we will explore a series of possible layers of truth derived from the opening chapter of Genesis. No layer will be presented in competition with the others, as is commonly found in books with titles like Four Views on [insert theological issue]. Rather, they are presented as complementary perspectives. One might think of these layers like overlapping tiles on a roof. In one sense, each tile is independent of the others. A single tile exists on its own as something real and genuine. But one tile does a poor job of shedding rain. When joined with others, the entire structure beneath is sheltered from the storm. The image of overlapping tiles serves as an apt metaphor for a second reason. While each layer will draw out something unique from the creation story, the textual or archaeological support for one layer will sometimes also serve to support another. Arguments used to defend each layer will overlap.

We said possible layers above, for we will not suggest or argue with certainty that every detail of every layer we describe was intended by the original writer or by the ultimate Author. You may find as you read that some of the layers or their parts resonate with your understanding of God’s character and written Word, while finding others less convincing. Our primary thesis, that Genesis 1 contains layers of truth, is not dependent on all of our proposed layers being accepted, or that every element within each layer be affirmed. It is not an all- or-nothing proposition. The manifold beauty of the text should be apparent even if only a subset of the layers is embraced. In a similar vein, we make no claim that the layers we present exhaust all possibilities.

 

[1] Abraham and Sarah’s names were still Abram and Sarai at this point in the story (Gen. 16).

[2] Biblical scholars disagree whether Paul’s use of the word allegoreo in Gal. 4:24 fits the technical sense of allegory, typology, or something else. The point we make of multiple layers of understanding is not dependent on resolving this question.


This post is adapted from from The Manifold Beauty of Genesis One: A Multi-Layered Approach
by Gregg Davidson & Kenneth J. Turner, released October 28th 2021. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

See and celebrate the multilayered grandeur conveyed by the first chapter of Genesis

The first chapter of the Bible’s first book lays the foundation for all that follows about who God is and what God is like. Our technology-age fascination with the science of origins, however, can blind us to issues of great importance that don’t address our culturally conditioned questions. Instead, Genesis One itself suggests the questions and answers that are most significant to human faith and flourishing.

Geologist Gregg Davidson and theologian Ken Turner shine a spotlight on Genesis One as theologically rich literature first and foremost, exploring the layers of meaning that showcase various aspects of God’s character:

  • Song
  • Analogy
  • Polemic
  • Covenant
  • Temple
  • Calendar
  • Land

Our very knowledge of God suffers when we fail to appreciate the Bible’s ability to convey multilayered truth simultaneously. The Manifold Beauty of Genesis One offers readers the chance to cultivate an openness to Scripture’s richness and a deeper faith in the Creator.

 


Authors:

Gregg Davidson (PhD, University of Arizona) is a professor and chair of the School of Geology and Geological Engineering at the University of Mississippi. His other works include Friend of Science, Friend of Faith.
Kenneth J. Turner (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is professor of Old Testament and biblical languages at Toccoa Falls College. His other works include The Death of Deaths in the Death of Israel.

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About Author

(PhD, University of Arizona) is a professor and chair of the School of Geology and Geological Engineering at the University of Mississippi. His other works include Friend of Science, Friend of Faith.

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