What kind of account is Genesis 2-3?
29 Jan 2019
In church this coming Sunday we're going to be continuing our series thorough the early chapters of Genesis (this week Genesis 2:4-17) - but as we come to the events of the Garden of Eden, it is worth asking the question: what kind of account are we dealing with? Is it (as some suggest) a myth, never intended to be read as real history? Or is it real history told in a highly sybolic non-literal way?
The first thing to say is that the account clearly includes real historcal and geographical details. For example the naming of rivers - the Tigris, the Euphrates, and so on. The formula 'this is the acount of the heavens and the earth' (2:4) is used again and again in Genesis as a section marker to introduce narratives that are clearly intended to be understood historically (5:1; 6:9; 10:1 and so on). Furthemore, the New Testament takes the event of the Garden as speaking of real history (e.g. Romans 5:12-21). On the one hand then, we can't dismiss these chapters as a timeless myth.
But at the same time we must recognise that these accounts clearly contain an unusual amount of symbolism - items intended to speak of deeper realites. The Garden seems to stand for the presence of God. Nakedness and fig leaves express truths about relationships and the impact of sin on our relationships. The Bible itself clearly understands the serpent as being much more than a reptile (see Revelation 12:9; 20:2). Not to mention the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil which are so clearly about much more than merely supplying the family fruit bowl. The use of symbolism in this account is obviously a whole lot higher than in most Bible narrative.
Putting these two things together, then, perhaps the best way to understand Genesis 2-3 is to think of it as an account of real history told in a non-literal way? There was a real historical Adam (Romans 5). The Fall was a real historic event. But the events are told in way that makes use of a high degree of symbolism - items such as serpents, and trees, and fig leaves designed to speak of deeper realities.
Material based on The First Chapter of Everything, Alasdair Paine (Christian Focus Publications, 2014)