Revisiting the Days of Genesis: A Study of the Use of Time in Genesis 1-11 in Light of Its Ancient Near Eastern and Literary Context. By B.C. Hodge. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011, xxxvii + 172 pp., $23.00 Paperback. ISBN 13: 978-1-60899-597-4.
Modern scientific theory, particularly the theory of evolution, has so permeated the culture that its influence can be seen in areas of study beyond biology. In few places is this more evident than in the interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis. A literal, seven-day creation stands at odds with what is considered modern scientific understanding of the origin and age of the earth. Many who hold a high view of the Scripture have long struggled with how to reconcile the text with the conclusions of science, while others simply ignore the controversy, rejecting either science or the text completely. In Revisiting the Days of Genesis: A Study of the Use of Time in Genesis 1-11 in Light of Its Ancient Near Eastern and Literary Context, B.C. Hodge weighs in on the debate by examining the literary and theological function of time within the primeval history of Genesis. Hodge seeks to move past what he considers a false dichotomy between a natural and supernatural understanding of the text, which he believes misses the intended point of the narrative.
In chapter 1, Hodge gives a more detailed explanation as to how Genesis 1-11 may express mythical events and still be considered true. He does not insist that the book is completely mythological. In fact, he shies away from the term “myth” because of the negative connotations associated with the word. He prefers instead the phrase “cultural symbolism” to express those literary elements that are present in the text and represent a symbolic expression of a theological truth. This is an important distinction, since Hodge never denies the truth of the text. While the stories may not be portrayed in a historical manner, per se, they are tools the author uses to express theology. Hodge likens this to “historical fiction” movies, such as Braveheart, which take artistic liberties with the events “to give greater meaning and significance to the director’s contemporary audience” (5). If the text has been written to artistically and symbolically express a greater truth, then the use of time within the narrative may be used to the same effect. This is an important element to Hodge’s argument, and he insists that to read the Scripture in a different way is to do injustice to the text.
In the rest of the book, Hodge discusses specific issues related to temporal language in Genesis: the days of creation (Chapter 3); the use of “day” in Genesis 2:4b (Chapter 4); the death sentence given to the first couple (Chapter 5); the genealogies of Genesis (Chapter 6); and the days of the Flood (Chapter 7). In each of these, his conclusions are based on an interpretation of the language of Genesis from a cultural-symbolic perspective. That is, Genesis was written utilizing images and symbols intended to portray a certain theology that ancient readers would have understood.
Hodge is a graduate from the Moody Bible Institute and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Currently he is studying at Westminster Theological Seminary, pursuing a Th.M. in Biblical Hermeneutics. His underlying argument that the book of Genesis should be read in light of its intended meaning and purpose is well taken. His chapter on the history of interpretation (Chapter 2) is particularly useful in putting the discussion in perspective. He demonstrates that the history of orthodoxy has allowed a non-literal view of the time portrayed in Genesis 1-11. This is a noteworthy corrective against those who would condemn a believer who might not hold a literal view. Further, the way Hodge reconciles his understanding of the days of Genesis with the authority of the text is valid and instructive. If nothing else, it allows the reader who may not have considered anything but an absolutely literal view of the days of Genesis insight into another method of hermeneutics.
Hodge is correct to insist that the text of Genesis is a product of an ancient mind with ancient concerns and should be read accordingly. In supporting his argument, Hodge utilizes ANE texts to demonstrate parallels in thought and usage of temporal language, and the texts are generally well used. Of particular help is his argument concerning sanctuary language in the creation and garden account. While this is not a new view, Hodge is to be commended for providing a well-organized explanation. The only negative in his use of ANE texts is his decision to provide a transliteration of the sources within the text of the book’s text itself. While he does provide a translation immediately after each section, the inclusion of the transliteration is distracting.
The absence of a discussion of the New Testament understanding of the days of Genesis (or temporal language in the Old Testament) is disappointing. In his treatment of the history of interpretation, Hodge moves from the Second Temple period (e.g. Philo and Jubilees) to the Patristic writers. Is the New Testament silent on this topic? If so, the silence could be instructive—the lack of silence would be even more instructive, and Hodge gives no explanation why he overlooks it.
Further, there are several questions he leaves unanswered. For instance, if the death promised to the first couple is simply expulsion from the land (as he argues in Chapter 5), why the repetition of the phrase “and he died” throughout chapter five; if the line of Seth was to represent the seed of the woman against the seed of the serpent (in Cain), what are the implications of the sin of Ham after the flood, particularly since Cain’s line is cut off? While these questions are not decisive flaws in his argument, they are weaknesses that need to be addressed. Of further note is his reading of Genesis 2-3 in view of God’s struggle over chaos. While there is some evidence for this, Hodge tends to read too much implication into the evidence.
While Hodge argues that the days of Genesis 1-11 are better read literarily and theologically, he goes too far at times in assigning figurative meaning to time in the Old Testament. For example, he reads the various occurrences of forty and seven (whether days or years) within the Old Testament as figurative, and not literal time. This applies to several examples of seven days of cleansing and forty days of trial throughout the corpus. So also the forty days that Jonah waited to view Nineveh’s destruction are not literal. As he writes, “Are we really to believe that he sits there for forty days in the scorching hot sun until he realizes that God is not going to destroy it?” (137) This seems to betray an interpretive factor behind Hodge’s argument that is not necessarily germane: believability.
While these weaknesses are noteworthy, they do not ultimately distract from the overall work. This writer recommends the book to anyone who is grappling with providing a relevant and contextual interpretation of Genesis. Whether one agrees with his conclusions or not, Hodge’s interpretation seeks to ask the correct questions of the text. In so doing, he well-illustrates how Genesis is a product of its own time and culture and how it may be read accordingly. While he might not change the mind of anyone who would argue vehemently for a literal understanding of the days of Genesis, he does provide a calming voice in what is often a harsh debate.
Published in volume 10.2 of the Midwestern Journal of Theology.
William K. Bechtold III is presently pursuing his Ph.D. in Old Testament at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as an adjunct professor and research fellow.