How to Read Genesis 1–11
Asking Better Questions with C.S. Lewis
ABSTRACT: The opening chapters of Genesis often get swallowed up in modern discussions about the age of the earth or the extent of the flood. Reading these chapters wisely requires not getting sidetracked from the original context and audience. Genesis 1–11 forms the introduction to the Pentateuch, the books of Moses given to Israel to guide them in covenant faithfulness in the promised land. By understanding the nature and purpose of these chapters (an outcome achieved by asking the right questions), Christians today are strengthened to fight against temptation and to pursue our calling in the world as the people of God.
If we want to be good readers — of whatever it is we’re reading — we try to get what the author aims to give us. Depending on the author, we might do more than that: we might find ourselves making connections the author doesn’t, or we might disagree on matters small or great. But we show respect to an author if we start with what he meant us to get.
When it comes to the Bible, our approach is similar and a bit different. The Bible is a sacred text, claiming authority from God, and believers accept that claim. That doesn’t make the process of reading the Bible simple, but it does enlist our cooperation. After all, the Bible, for all its theological unity, is a library of diverse books, each of which can do different things to us and for us and do them in different ways. I’m going to look specifically at one part of the Bible, Genesis 1–11, a part that holds plenty of interpretive challenges. (I dare to hope that the ideas here can be extended to other parts of the Bible, but that’s for another day!)1
We should approach any biblical passage with the conviction that God inspired the Bible to be the right tool for its job. If we can get a good idea of what kind of tool our passage is, we can discern what job God intended it to perform. And that means we need to be willing to adjust what we’re looking for and be willing to find other ways of addressing some questions.
Let me sum up what I hope you’ll get from this essay: If we want to be good readers, we must cooperate with the author, and to do so requires that we exercise a disciplined imagination. And thankfully, some ideas from C.S. Lewis point the way.
The writings of Lewis have taught me, in addition to good thinking, skills in good reading. I begin with the opening line of his lectures on John Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost, where Lewis puts the interpretive task into a nutshell:
The first qualification for judging [and interpreting] any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is — what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used.2
Here Lewis draws our attention to three aspects of a work of literary craftsmanship:
- What it is: What is its, say, literary form, style, and register?
- What it was intended to do: What effect does the work aim to produce in its users?
- How it is meant to be used: What kind of users are envisioned by the work? What knowledge and beliefs do they share with the author? What kind of social setting is the normal locus of use?
But since we’re talking about the Bible, we have to add another question: What does it mean for us to believe and appropriate this work today? This additional element will enrich our thoughts about Lewis’s second and third questions.
1. What Is Genesis 1–11?
So, what is Genesis 1–11? The first thing to say is that these chapters are part of the book of Genesis — in fact, the front end, and Genesis is the front end of the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses. The books of Moses serve as a kind of constitution for Israel, God’s people whom he chose so that, through them, he could bless the whole world (see Genesis 12:1–3; Exodus 19:5–6). This constitution comes in the form of a continuous narrative, which gave to ancient Israel a Big Story: it explained who they were and why they were in the world, and it invited them to take their place in the story as it went on from there. For Christians, it is part of our Big Story as well. Everyone notices that Genesis 1–11 is a narrative, a story of persons and events. But it’s part of a larger story, and it serves to get the larger story underway.
Genesis 1–11 is a narrative, but not all narratives are the same. This narrative certainly doesn’t aim to be complete: no matter how much time we think these chapters cover, there were many more events that the narrator didn’t tell. Indeed, all narratives are selective, and no biblical narrative claims anything like comprehensiveness (not even the Gospels; see John 20:30–31). Beginning in Genesis 12, there is much more narration for a much shorter time span, so the sparse narrative of Genesis 1–11 creates for us a sense that the events lie in the distant past.
Not only that, but the events, coming early in the story, set the stage for everything that follows. The world we see has a mixture of beauty and danger and hardship. Why is that? Why do people have so much trouble doing right? Why must we approach God through so many ceremonies that deal with sin and impurity? Why are there so many families or clans in the world, and why do they speak so many different languages — and yet why do they seem so similar? Can we really be a vehicle of blessing to them all?
The events of the first two chapters are especially distinct and incomparable: God brings the world into existence, populates it with plants and animals, and makes humankind to rule over it. The writing style, especially in Genesis 1, is also distinctive: the stately rhythms, the repeated “and there was evening, and there was morning, the nth day,” the broad-stroke taxonomies of plants and animals (no farmer could put these to “practical” use), the high-level name for the sky (“expanse”), and God’s “rest” on the seventh day — which rest the ancients (including New Testament writers) took to be the ongoing history of the world — all these features have led some to call the passage a “poem,” or, better, “poetic prose.” The best label for it is “exalted prose narrative,” and that label will help us as we wonder how these early chapters relate to some of the questions about science and history that we cannot avoid.
Bible writers have all taken these events to be history, but we must be careful about that word. It simply means the people really existed and the events really happened, but it doesn’t prejudge how the author might have represented them. For example, he might use pictorial elements or leave things out. He can portray the sky as if it were an extended surface, without meaning for us to treat that as if it were “scientific.”
2. What Was Genesis 1–11 Intended to Do?
If you listen to some people, you’d get the impression that God inspired these stories so that we’d have something to argue about! How long ago did these events happen? How long did it all take? What kinds of “evidences” might we find in scientific research? In my judgment, the text really doesn’t do much to answer these questions in detail, though it does set some boundaries.
We already touched on some of what the passage was intended to do when we saw that it serves as the front end of the constitution for the people of God. But there are a few other purposes we need to add.
Light to the Nations
First, the people of Israel are about to follow Joshua into the land, where subsequent generations will live. Genesis 1–11 sets out the aspirations for the ideal human community, both in its positive presentation (“the image of God,” Genesis 1:26–27; walking with God, Genesis 5:22) and in its depiction of the horrors that follow the fall of our first parents (murder, bigamy, and vengeance, Genesis 4; corruption and violence, Genesis 6:11; hubristic seeking of a “name,” Genesis 11:1–9) — in spite of which God still seeks to bless “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3) with knowledge of himself.
After Genesis come the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, which are filled with all manner of laws and regulations. These laws deal with human nature as we find it in a post-fall world; they take for granted that even among the people of God there will be those who do wrong, and they provide remedies for the civil, criminal, social, and religious predicaments that arise. They don’t generally describe the ideal community; they rather protect it against violations.3 What we call the “ceremonial” material is there to guide the priests in maintaining Israel as a holy community of worshipers.
But if these laws do not depict the ideal community, where do we learn what that community is to be like? First and foremost from the creation story: humans were made to know and love the one true God, Maker of heaven and earth, and to form communities in which the embodiment of God’s own character is realized. Academics dispute the meaning of the terms image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26) and puzzle over why there is no exposition of them in Genesis. But there is if we are attentive.
The creation story (Genesis 1–2) presents God going through his work week as if he were an agricultural laborer. God works for six days, “resting” after each day’s work (evening followed by morning brackets the nighttime, the daily rest of the worker), and has his whole seventh day given over to holy “rest” (Genesis 2:1–3). In all his work of creation, he exercises authority, creative thought, generosity, and artistry. Israel, in their life in the land, were to see themselves as aiming to embody these very qualities in their work, families, and communities.
More broadly, the ideal human community is one in which the imitation of God’s character (such as “steadfast love and faithfulness,” Exodus 34:6) flourishes among the members. This kind of community would serve as an invitation to the rest of humankind to come and be blessed (Deuteronomy 4:6–8; 1 Kings 8:41–43). Even though these other peoples adhere to false deities, God remains committed to bringing them to his light and calls Israel to join him in that disposition.
Loving, Loyal People
But there is something else: when I read Genesis 4–11, I recognize many features of life as I encounter it and feel shame as well as sorrow. When I read Genesis 1–2, I see something pristine and beautiful, and I feel an ache for the loss that Genesis 3 brought. Deep within me — and, I suspect, within most people — is the mournful yearning to know God without barriers, to participate in a community of fellow worshipers who share in this great task of learning to embody, in our finite way, the very character of our Maker.
Genesis 1–11 is there to help ancient Israel and the modern Christian aim for that life. But it also begins the great work of preparing them to meet temptations to defect, to assimilate to the mighty nations around them with their higher cultures and superior power. Its goal is to recruit, and to foster, a people loyal to the true God and his ways.
3. How Is Genesis 1–11 Meant to Be Used?
To answer the question of how the passage is meant to be used, let’s think a little about the first audience. The text invites us to picture the people who are to follow Joshua into the promised land as that audience. Every future generation of Israel — and of Christians too — are the heirs of this first audience. While many features of our daily experience differ from theirs, the story still forms us.
And what was the daily life of these folk? They belonged to communities: families, clans, tribes, and the whole people. Their daily life consisted of subsistence agriculture, tending animals and growing crops to feed their household year by year. (The modern developed world is an anomaly in human history. The lifestyle in the Little House on the Prairie books is closer to theirs than it is to ours!) We mustn’t think that they were just simple farmers, however; you need a lot of knowledge and savvy to survive forty years in the Sinai wilderness.
They knew a lot. They already knew, as “primitive” peoples generally know, that it takes a man and woman to make a baby and that families and clans ideally work together to raise children. They knew that other peoples had stories about the world’s origin and purpose, stories that centered around multiple deities with competing interests.
As humans, they certainly faced temptations to steal, to backbite, to exploit, to disbelieve. And as peasants, they were utterly dependent on external conditions like the weather, the fertility of their animals, and even the fertility of their own families. Palestine gives you just the right combination of soil type, latitude, and climate cycle of rain and sunshine to allow you to grow certain kinds of crops and raise certain kinds of animals. You depend on the rains coming in the fall, starting soon after Rosh Ha-Shanah (the biblical Feast of Trumpets), and finishing in the spring (around Passover). And you need enough of it to fall, about 23 inches (the same as London). Then, of course, you worry about pests, not to mention invading armies or marauding bandits. And you need a stable social system with reliable justice.
How do you ensure the reliability of this pattern? The deities that other peoples worshiped promised to do exactly that — to give the right mix of rain and sunshine, to make the livestock fertile, to bring babies safely into the world (and lots of them), and to avenge violations of the social order. It’s easy for us, when we read the prophets, to think how stupid the people of Israel were to resort to these other deities, including them along with the true God in their worship. Yes, such idolatry was wrong, but we should understand how vulnerable these people were to the temptation.
Now, there is a long and distinguished tradition of readers in Judaism and Christianity who have seen just this point about the audience and their needs and have read Genesis in its light. One of them was John Colet (1467–1519), the premier English theologian and man of letters at the dawn of the Reformation. In a series of letters to his friend Radulphus, he put it thus (in a passage that C.S. Lewis loved and cited several times, mistakenly attributing it to Jerome):
Moses arranged his details in such a way as to give the people a clearer notion, and he does this after the manner of a popular poet, in order that he may the more adapt himself to the spirit of simple rusticity.4
If we are to read Genesis 1–11 wisely, we must ask how its parts fortify such folk in their loyalty to the Lord and resistance to temptation, and then ask how it does the same for us.
And how was Genesis 1–11 to do the fortifying? I just saw the cover for a new release of an old book on reading the Bible; it has a picture of a young man sitting on a chair with his Bible, alone. (A related book has a young woman in a lounge chair alone with her Bible.) Now, personal Bible reading is valuable; I wouldn’t do without it. But in ancient Israel, a believer encountered the Scriptures primarily as it was read aloud and expounded by a priest in public worship — initially every seven years (Deuteronomy 31:9–13), and eventually in the weekly Sabbath “holy convocation” (Leviticus 23:3), portion by portion (cf. Leviticus 10:11; Deuteronomy 33:10).
We have some biblical examples of public readings at crucial moments in Israel’s history, such as before King Josiah’s reforms (2 Kings 23:2) and as the restored community pledged to be true to God under Ezra’s leadership (Nehemiah 8:3). These are moving scenes, and we can guess that they were heightened examples of what we should normally expect: the public reading helps the community to refresh its sense of identity: This is who we are. This is where we came from. This is why God called us into being. This is how we got to where we are now. These are the aims we should be striving for.
Certainly, families were expected to discuss the material: “You . . . shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:7). This everyday teaching, I think, depended on the faithful reading week by week, and it put into action the members’ responsibility to love God deeply and sincerely, with all their heart, soul, and might (Deuteronomy 6:5–6).
God’s People in God’s Story
Now we can pull everything together and answer the questions that C.S. Lewis posed to us: What is Genesis 1–11? What was it intended to do? How was it meant to be used?
We have in Genesis 1–11 the beginning of the Big Story that defines Israel, but that also defines everyone. The basic shape of that Big Story includes God making a good creation. That creation was then marred by the human fall into sin, but God is active in his world to redeem his human creatures and all that they affect. He will bring all the world to final judgment and complete fruition on the last day. That’s why the account was to be read in gathered public worship, where the people want to be most truly themselves. It’s also why the story is told in such an attractive fashion: to grab their imaginations and to hold their loyalty.
They also should allow this Story to help them admire the God who made the world. The mountains and valleys, the forests, the rivers and plains, the deserts, even the seas — the God who redeemed them from Egypt and called them to be his faithful people made all these marvels. The plants and animals living in these balanced ecosystems are an incredible work of craftsmanship! God doesn’t view the world as a rival for our affections; we can love and admire him more fully as we love and admire the world he made. (Now, an Israelite would have been mostly concerned with figuring out how to farm well; we have the advantage of adding to that the development of science, which opens up even more avenues for wonder.) The deities other peoples served were at odds with each other, but the one true God rules the world in truth and grace, and he made us all to know and love him.
In this light, we can see that Genesis 1–11 doesn’t really concern itself with specific scientific theories about the objects or events it describes — it’s not outmoded ancient science, and it’s not authoritative science that sets itself against modern theories. Rather, Genesis 1–11 reinforces the boundaries that good critical thinking has set for such theories — especially when it comes to questions of human uniqueness and God’s action in the world. We know full well that we are different from every other animal and that it took something extraordinary on God’s part to bring into being the world and living things, especially humankind. Genesis reinforces that intuition by taking it for granted. Good science is the disciplined and critical study of the world around us; it doesn’t of itself have to exclude God or miracles.5 And science is done by scientists, by human beings who must satisfy the criteria for good thinking, and who are not usually experts in fields outside their specialty.
So, what constitutes reading Genesis 1–11 wisely? How do we cooperate with God’s intention as expressed through Moses, exercising a disciplined imagination? We start by putting ourselves in the sandals of the first audience, our spiritual forebears (even we Gentile believers have been grafted into Abraham’s family; see Romans 4:11; 11:17). What concerns of theirs do these chapters speak to? How do they enlist the loyalty and admiration of these peasants to the true God and fortify them against fear and temptation? How do they shape the people’s stance toward other ethnic groups of humankind, fostering a sense of being in the world as a vehicle of blessing to the Gentiles? How do these chapters form in them aspirations for an ideal community that combines the sacred and the benevolent and nurtures a yearning to imitate God?
The apostles have taught us Christians to see ourselves as heirs of Israel’s privileges and calling (1 Peter 2:9–10), as was promised long ago in the Hebrew Scriptures (Romans 1:2–6). We are scattered among the nations and do not live in a church-state nexus as ancient Israel did. How does Genesis 1–11 build our loyalty to our Maker and Redeemer, who has shown more to us than he did to ancient Israel? How do these chapters help us to stand firm in the face of temptations to assimilate to the powerful cultures around us so that, instead, we can be salt and light among them? How can our churches serve as communities that enable the imitation of God to flourish? How can we talk openly about the raw wound in every soul, that yearning for what God made us for, and rest assured that there is an answer for that yearning in God’s redeemed family?
May God make us wise with his own wisdom.
I have written a fuller discussion of these matters in Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1–11 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018). ↩
C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (1942; repr., New York: HarperOne, 2022), 1. ↩
On this point, see Gordon Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004); and Christopher Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004). ↩
John Colet, Second letter to Radulphus, in Frederick Seebohm, The Oxford Reformers (London: Longmans, Green, 1869), 51 (italics original). Sample Lewis references: C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1958), 109; Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 33; etc. ↩
Though we should be careful how we talk about God and miracles in relation to the scientific enterprise. See chapter ten in Collins, Reading Genesis Well. ↩