Genesis 1: Comparative Analysis of Terrence Fretheim and Bill Arnold

Posted: August 20, 2012 in Old Testament
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Written in poetic prose, Genesis 1 contains a rhythm and rhyme that provide a certain meter to the content.  This rhythm strengthens the overall sense of orderliness inherent in God’s ordering of tōhû wābōhû.  Other creation narratives from the ancient Middle East contain many parallels with the Hebrew narrative.  Arnold maintains that Genesis 1 is not explicitly polemical in nature to these other narratives.  He does recognize the parallels and suggests that it is implicitly polemical.  At this point, Arnold seems to be splitting hairs.  First, nobody can really know if this was or was not the intent of the author.  Second, we can recognize that it is polemical, whether that is the intention or not.

Fretheim agrees with Arnold by stating that God acts in entirely different ways in Genesis 1 than does Marduk and the other gods of ancient Middle Eastern creation narratives.  The gods of the other nations are violent, whereas Genesis 1 describes God as merely speaking to simultaneously command and invite Creation into being.  God does not struggle with chaos.  The watery deep is not like Tiamat, but is invited to cooperate with God.  Fretheim also uses science to back up his position concerning chaos.  Although chaos is randomness, that randomness falls within certain boundaries.  There is orderliness that proceeds from chaos, although it still may not be predictable.

Arnold states: “What God has created in vv. 3-5 is time, which is more important than space for this chapter” (39).  Although time may be an important part of the Creation (i.e., seasons and days), space plays an equally important part in the process.  Day 1-3 is the creation of space, which is then filled on days 4-6.  Day 7 can even be framed as a creating of “space” for rest.  Life does not happen without the proper “space” in which life can be sustained.  Fretheim contests that light and space are inseparable dimensions, contra Arnold.  Both are vitally important aspects of Creation that enable life.

Fretheim employed the imagery of the cosmos being formed in the likeness of the tabernacle.  Each day moves you closer to the Holy of Holies, embodied in the Sabbath.  Although I had thought about the tabernacle being a microcosm of the Creation, I had not considered the reverse in Genesis 1.  This is a powerful image in that all of Creation is gathered in this symphony of worship, where life is created, blessed and sustained.  Thus, space seems to be equally important!

In connection with this imagery, Genesis 1 revolves around the number seven.  The first sentence is made of seven words, the second has fourteen, and the third sentence has thirty-five.  Overall, there are 469 words, which is a multiple of seven.  “God ‘saw and pronounced creation ‘good’ seven times; ‘earth’ or ‘land’… appears twenty-one times; ‘God’ is repeated thirty-five times.  There are also seven days of Creation.  Seven is a significant number in this passage, connoting wholeness or completion.  Fretheim notes the differentiated order that is represented in this number’s use and how that reflects the character of the whole passage.

The phrase “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness,” has been interpreted in a number of ways.  Typically, the Christian faith has understood this in Trinitarian terms: Father, Son, and Spirit conversing.  Another way to understand this is to say that there is a heavenly host that is being referred to here.  I have heard both of these positions before; however, I was unaware of a third possibility.  Arnold suggests that God is simply deliberating with God’s self “about the creation of humankind… God himself decisively steps in to make humankind” (44).  This seems only mildly different than the Trinitarian formulation.

Fretheim, on the other hand, understands this to be a heavenly host rather than God’s inner dialogue and deliberation.  Fretheim bases this interpretation on other passages in the Old Testament that record the “heavenly council.”  According to Fretheim, the heavenly host has been replaced by humanity as “God’s new pantheon.”

Overall, both Arnold and Fretheim have strengths and weaknesses in their interpretations of Genesis 1.  Fretheim couples his interpretation with scientific undergirding to help shed light on the complexities of creation.  This also happens to be the weakness of his argument, especially given the changing nature of science.  This potentially limits some of its future usefulness.

Arnold offers a less holistic view of the passage.  Most of his commentary on Genesis 1 focuses on its similarities and dissimilarities with the ancient creation stories (i.e., Enuma Elish).  Although this is an important thing to consider, his argument is weak in trying to show that Genesis 1 is not explicitly polemical.  As noted above, that is not something that can be proven.  We only have the text as it is now… which is polemical when read with the other ancient creation stories.  This detracts from Arnold’s interpretation.  However, Arnold does provide some contrasts to Fretheim that allow you to see other available options.

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  1. […] Genesis 1: Comparative Analysis of Terrence Fretheim and Bill Arnold […]

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