Talking Genesis with Peter Enns

I’m in a familiar place, McInnis Auditorium, getting ready for Peter Enns to start his talk on Genesis and the Ancient Near East context.

I already had to help him get his mac working with his laptop, glad I was hear (he traded me an autograph for it).  And here we go, Dwight Peterson is doing intros.

Peter Enns is preaching a class at Eastern now… yay for my old school.

Peter doesn’t sermon paint (hee hee hee).

Four important issues in the Modern Study of Genesis:

  1. Philosophy: Enlightment
    • (suspician of ecclesiastical authority)
      • Spinoza tried to undermine the Church by undermining Scripture (to free up Judaism, btw)
  2. Biblical Studies: Source Criticism
    • rethinking the Bible from within
      • People began asking questions about why there seems to be different and repeated stories.
      • Source Criticism tried to explain Genesis
    • the Bible is a product of a developmental process (post-exilic)
      • The idea of one author was no longer accepted
      • The Tanakh was put together over a long period of time as traditions were passed on, and written down.
    • e.g. Pentateuch, Isaiah, Psalms
      • Pentateuch is considered to be post-exilic product (Jerome around 400 AD already had the seeds of this idea in place)
      • What people freaked out about was the idea that the Law was post-exilic “fabrication”
      • How many Isaiahs?
      • Psalms are very clear in their compiled nature (DSS have variation late)
  3. Biblical Stuides: Archaeology
    • Rethinking the Bible from without
    • Comparative religions
      • similar ancient texts to stories in the Bible
      • what to do with those texts (which are invariably older)
      • Comparing religions (setting Israel in context) – we ask, “What’s so special to our book?”
  4. Science: Geology and Evolution
    • Everything got re-thought
      • Geology uprooted diluvialism (my research, not his)
      • Death was around before humanity was apparently on the earth.
    • Evolution seems to displace humanity as the pre-eminent species
    • Enns is not of the opinion that Science and Genesis need to be meshed (two different genres.

Enns, “For Christians, the 19th Century was a rough century.” (paraphrase George Wills)

Problem is that Christians work from a pre-modern standpoint – and so the four points were threats that had to be held at bay.  Genesis was always the focus – all the points of modern Biblical studies start there.

Enns is putting Hebrew into it’s Semitic context (Jim, you’d like this and could probably argue with it).

Out of the Northwest Semitic Lanugage family – a direct descendant of Canaanite.

Biblical Hebrew morphs into Mishnaic – Medieval – and Modern Hebrew.  It’s not a special language it’s quite common.

Temples, priests, sacrifices (like the Biblical ones) appeared long before Sinai (and even Abraham was sacrificing on altars pre-sinai).  Israel’s format for sacrifices was not significantly different.

Prophets were found in other cultures as well, they functioned central (in the court) and peripheral (yelling from without).  Book to read Prophesy and Society in Ancient Israel by Robert R. Wilson (1984).  One thing that was unusual in Israel was the presence of central prophets who were critical of kingship (a distinct trait).

Kings were similar to ANE ideologies:

  • The king as “sons of God” – mediators of the high god of the culture
  • They protected the people
  • They maintained justice and mercy (not abstract)
  • They modeled wisdom

In their modeling they tried to desplay the presence of Gods.

Laws were similar:

Moses and Hammurabi (1700 BCE) have similarities  – case laws were very similar.  The notions of law seem to be just the way that ANE cultures worked so when Israel came along they codified laws that reflected their setting.

Genesis Issues: Creation and the Flood

Creation: Enuma Elish (discovered in 19th Century – people went ???)

  • 18th Century BCE (Hammurabi?)
  • Marduk as the supreme God
  • numerous similarities to Genesis 1, including the division of the waters above/below and the firmament (he needs to sermon paint, he just said he should have had an image of the cosmology of the Enuma Elish on a slide – I’m happy)

Gilgamish and Atrahasis Epics (Flood)

  • Numerous similarities to the Genesis flood – including the building of an huge boat (with specific dimensions – the waterproofing with tar, the release of birds, the boat coming to rest on a mountain.

What the problem?  Genesis doesn’t to be unique, and so maybe it’s not inspired.

Three Responses

  • Dismissive of Genesis (“liberal” position)

Modern scholars proved that genesis is myth, and that proves that Christianity is a lie

  • Defensive of Genesis (“fundamentalist” position)

Since Genesis is the world of God, it doesnt’ matter what hte ANE texts are like, Genesis is different. (they always lose, it’s not either/or)

  • Synthetic (are Hegelian dialectic, arrgh arrrgh)

Genesis fully participates in the mythic context of the ANE (Ancient Near East, btw), and it is also the word of God.  They are not antithetical – and Evangelicalism is changing.

Incarnational approach to the Bible’s non-Uniqueness

Jesus is divine:human

Jesus divinity: Birth, John 1, Equality with Father, Yahweh passages, authority

Jesus humanity:  Jesus was clothed, ate, breathed, slept, spoke aramaic, had limited knowledge, share ancient perspectives?, “faulty” knowledge? (mustard seed problem)

Jesus humanity (sinless): Is the fact that he shared ancient perspectives or had limited knowledge an example of his humanity or a reference to the fact that he wasn’t perfect (and was therefor sinful)?  People freak out there.

Bible is divine:human

Bible’s Humanity – everything in it refelcts eh historical context of the events of the author’s lives.  Does that extend to: historiography, faulty science, myth?

Enns, “No, it’s not a perfect model, it’s a model – they all break down.”

Enns, “Oh, and by the way, I didn’t make this up – this is old in the Church” (umm, examples would be nice – I’ll ask that later I hope)

Crud, the Eastern guest service timed me out at an hour! Arrrgh!

We’re taking questions now.

Someone’s askng the “If evolution is true when did sin happen? question….

Enns is ok with evolution (duh?) – unfortunately no one’s been doing the project of dealing with the “when did sin/death enter into the picture?” question because people have been working from a combative question.  There is a theological problem – what do you do with NT Adam typology.

Next question: what do you do with geneaology in Enn’s synthetic (I&I) approach?

Enns:  The purpose of Genesis 1-11 is theologically set up the narrative to reveal the people who would “reverse the curse.”  He believes that Genesis 1-11 is back-written from it’s later experiences and realities.

Someone is currently asking a question that reveals how the Evangelical™ methodology is bankrupt – “If it’s myth and shares ideas with the ancient world, then how I can get anything that’s applicable to me out of it?”

Enn’s is being gentle, I’d just respond with Martin Luther…

ROFL, Enns just made an off-hand reference to Spinal Tap!

Enn’s point is that this is accomadation – God speaks in the way people speak (Calvin, “God spoke baby talk to us”), BTW, that’s a theological term with one specific definition.

I would like to take a class with Enns… he’s fun. Or maybe I’d just like to drink coffee with him and talk for several hours…

I’m going to shut down now – I’ll try to ask my question and get it on this post later…


  1. Thanks for blogging this talk. I did have the privilege of being one of Enns’s students for both his OT Intro and Poetry & Wisdom classes. He is indeed a phenomenal teacher and very easy to listen to.

    I now serve as the webmaster for Pete’s site (http://peterennsonline.eom). Be watching there; some big and exciting changes coming in the weeks ahead!

  2. wezlo says:

    Thanks Mark – it was good to sit in on the session and talk with Dr. Enns for a bit after it’s conclusion. I actually found out about the Eastern Lecture because I subscribe to Peter’s RSS feed (and none of my Eastern contacts told me it was happening – grrrr).

  3. Wes –

    I was curious about this comment:

    “What the problem? Genesis doesn’t to be unique, and so maybe it’s not inspired.”

    With regards to the flood, isn’t the non-uniqueness of Genesis evidence of its authenticity? If there was a global (either earth-wide or human-wide) flood, shouldn’t we expect most cultures to have accounts of them? And in fact, flood stories do tend to pop up in nearly every culture studied.

    I’m not sure that the “defensive” position needs to not be “synthetic”. This seems to be the way Josephus handled it – he fully relied on other cultures’ reporting of events and used it to demonstrate the truth of the Hebrew scriptures.

    The issue of Genesis 1-11 being a theological setup is that such a setup would not be very useful to the ones receiving it – most of the OT doesn’t deal with the theological ideas in Genesis 1-11 (of course I haven’t heard his lecture so I’m probably missing something).

  4. wezlo says:

    That should be, ““Genesis doesn’t [appear] to be unique, and so maybe it’s not inspired.”

    The problem is that it used to be considered that Israelite scripture and religion was unique in the world of the ANE. The more texts and ruins uncovered seemed to undermine that assertion and led to the question, “Well, why is our book any better than these other book.”

    That’s one of the problem that led to the Modernist-Fundamentalist divide within Biblical studies.

    As for the flood, no. I think Peter asserts, and I would agree with it, that the near universality of flood imagery in the world shows that the ancients had a theological concept for water as a sign of chaos.

    The external data doesn’t support a global flood (I know that creation scientists still want to posit diluvialism as the cause of the earth’s features, I don’t buy it even a little bit and find the assertion misguided at best) – and the text itself portrays elements of hyperbole (did the bird really fly over the whole earth?). I don’t hold to a literal global flood, so the idea that the data doesn’t support one just makes me shrug.

    I disagree by your assertion in “defensive” need not be “synthetic” – the defensive notion looks at the notions of both modern biblical studies and science as threats to be combated – Enns’ “synthetic” approach allows them to be part of the conversation on Scripture – this is what got him canned at Westminster and it’s what makes conservative evangelicals label him “liberal” or “heretical” even though neither of those two descriptors really apply to him.

    “The issue of Genesis 1-11 being a theological setup is that such a setup would not be very useful to the ones receiving it – most of the OT doesn’t deal with the theological ideas in Genesis 1-11”

    I did miss 15 minutes of the lecture when eastern’s wifi tossed me out… but you didn’t miss anything on this.

    The idea that Genesis 1-11 is a theological prologue is part of the heartbeat of the Reformed tradition, which Enns’ is part of. Meridith Kline’s “Kingdom Prologue” (which takes the idea over the edge a bit to be honsest) was a big work for conservative reformed folk in the 20th Century. So the idea isn’t new by a long-shot.

    In actuality, the OT is all about dealing with the problems presented in Genesis 1-11, it’s the engine which drives the entire narrative. I’m not sure how you don’t think it would be useful, it sets up the world into which Abraham is called.

    1. jimgetz says:

      Likewise, Rolf Knierim more temperate theological position, which sees YHWH’s role as liberator predicated on that of creator in his work The Task of Old Testament Theology.

      Additionally, Gen 1-11 also helps provide a cosmological setup for later parts of the Pentateuch.

      E.g. the cosmological categories put in place in Gen 1 are needed to explain food laws as set out in Lev 11 (see Mary Douglas’ work in Purity and Danger ).

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