Friday, February 28, 2014

Another View In the Creation Debate: A Review of John Sailhamer’s Genesis Unbound

Writing is hard work. It takes time, effort, concentration, and inspiration. Although the last one is the only quality that is arguably unable to simply be generated, I have heard it said many times in some form or another that one should work himself towards feeling inspired rather than waiting to feel inspired before working. Simply being honest, after spending those other qualities on my family, work, and other projects, I would rather spend my free time watching an episode of Sherlock, playing an old video game (such as Blades of Steel), taking yet another personality quiz on buzzfeed, or reading. But the formation and articulation of one's ideas and thoughts is important, so to the keyboard I come once more.

Fortunately, I have something I truly believe is a worthwhile contribution not only to my blog and personal growth, but to ongoing and current issues in theology. Specifically, this post will be a review of John Sailhamer's Genesis Unbound. In reviewing his work, I hope to expose his views to many (although relatively few will probably read this actual post) who are probably unaware of his take on Genesis 1 and 2.

Prior to writing this post, I did a brief (and I stress BRIEF) Google search for reviews of the book. Most of the reviews I found were done by personal bloggers like me or were written by individuals associated with unaccredited bible colleges and seminaries. Also, most of the reviews I could find were quite short, were based on the first edition of the book, and did not interact much with his major assertions. Although I am no more qualified to provide decisive insight than such reviewers, I do believe Sailhamer's views warrant a deeper consideration. While I do not believe much changed from the first to second edition, my review is based on the later and I will do my best to present a more thorough view of Genesis Unbound.

Before I get into the meat of the review, I want to say that I found Sailhamer's book exhilaratingly intriguing. In fact, I would say it is one of the most interesting tomes on biblical studies I have read in quite sometime. After reading it though, I am aware that his views are relatively unknown, much less considered, by the Christian community at large. With that being the case, I feel that the least I could do is to offer my take on the book.

The Problem of Limited Options

In our world today, it seems as though Christians are given a very small set of options. They can hold to a young earth view of creation, which sees the earth as 6,000-10,000 years old, in which the account of Genesis 1:1 through chapter 2 is seen as encompassing the whole cosmos. Or they can hold to a less literal reading of the chapters in which the days of the creation week are interpreted as ages in time (the Day-Age view) or where perhaps there is thought to be a long gap of time between Genesis 1:1 and the rest of the chapter in which the earth become chaotic (the Gap Theory). This latter view may also entail a belief in some form of the theory of evolution, generally known as “Theistic Evolution” (the idea that God created everything, but used evolution as a process of creating species of animals and mankind; NOTE: I completely reject this idea, and no where does Sailhamer affirm it).

Ken Ham and Bill Nye's
debate from Feb. 4, 2014
There are difficulties on both viewpoints. On the more literal side, represented in popular culture by figures like Ken Ham and the ministry Answers In Genesis, modern science seems to argue against a young earth. Also, there are questions as to whether or not Genesis 1:1-2:4 were intended to be read in such a literal fashion with regards to time (e.g., genealogies often include only the important figures within the Biblical narrative). On the other side though, there is nothing that explicitly clues readers in to a “figurative” reading of the text; the text is presented as if it is literal history. In other words, for people to theorize on a “gap” between Genesis 1:1 and the rest of the chapter, or to posit the idea that the days are ages of time, is just that–theory. It does not arise out of the text naturally but is rather placed on the text from the mind of the reader (which is bad interpretive practice!). 

With these views, it can seem that Christians are in a bit of an unavoidable quandary. However, are these options (painted with a broad brush stroke, mind you), the only ones available? Must we choose between claims that are difficult to sustain in the face of contemporary science or ones that undermine the straightforward, reading of Genesis 1 and 2? Or is there a better way forward, namely one that takes the reading of Genesis 1 and 2 seriously (and literally) that also stands strong in the face of the evidence available? According to Sailhamer, the answer to that second question is a resounding YES.

John Sailhamer
In Genesis Unbound, John Sailhamer attempts to present readers with a view of Genesis 1 and 2 that takes the text at its own word. In other words, he draws out the meaning that is in the text itself and is supported well by its own grammar and context within the larger Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible). His essential contention throughout the book is that Genesis 1:1 refers to the creation of the entire cosmos, and that Genesis 1:2 through chapter 2 highlight and detail the preparation of the Garden of Eden, which is also within the Promised Land. I will now attempt to set forth his view by going over what I perceive to be the major assertions he makes in the book.

Genesis 1:1 Is NOT a Summary Statement

Sailhamer rightly notes that Genesis 1:1, regardless of how one interprets the remainder of the chapter, is generally taken to be a title or a summary statement, with the rest of chapter 1 through 2:4 detailing how God created the heavens and the earth. According to the author, such a reading of Genesis 1:1 is errant and misinformed. Rather than being a summary statement, Genesis 1:1 presents one stage and part of creation, with 1:2-2:4 presenting a second stage of creation. Although this may sound like some variation of the “Gap Theory,” or a “Day-Age” view of creation, it is actually quite different. I will now explain how with the several headings that follow.

“In The Beginning” Describes Literal History, But An Indefinite Amount of Time

One of Sailhamer’s first claims about Genesis 1:1 and the rest of the chapter is that the Hebrew word, reshyt, translated as “beginning,” is often misunderstood. Within the Bible, it is always used to convey an extended but undetermined amount of time rather than a specific moment in time.1 As examples he gives the following:2
  • Job 8:7, where the term is used to refer to an unspecified period of time in Job’s early life
  • Genesis 10:10, which refers to the early part of Nimrod’s kingdom
Although the above are only two examples of the use of the term, they make the point that it refers to an indeterminate period of time. 

The Two Stages of Creation According to Sailhamer
The Hebrew Word For “Earth” Is Better Translated As “Land.”

In most any major English translation of the Bible, Genesis 1:1 reads something like "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" (ESV). Interestingly though, the Hebrew word eretz, translated "earth," more often than not simply refers to land in which humans dwell. It is the same word used to refer to the Promised Land which will be given to Abraham's descendants. In fact, Sailhamer goes so far to say that from 1:2 onward, any time the word translated "earth/land" is used, it refers to the Garden of Eden, which is also within the Promised Land. Consequently, the word for “heavens,” shamayim, is better translated as “sky.”

What allows Sailhamer to make such a grandiose claim? He gives the following four reasons1 why eretz is not only better translated as "land," but also why it specifically refers to the Promised Land/the Garden of Eden:
  1. The close relationship between the first two chapters of Genesis supports a localized view of the “land.”
  2. The biblical location of “the land” with respect to the city of Babylon “in the east” indicates that throughout these narratives the author has in mind the promised land.
  3. The central theme of the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible) is the Sinai Covenant and God’s gift of the land.
  4. Later inter-biblical interpretation clearly saw the promised land as the focus of the creation account.
Regarding the last point, Sailhamer gives Jeremiah 27:5 as an example, which in the ESV reads “It is I (God) who by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth, with the men and animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whomever it seems right to me.” In the context of Jeremiah 27 though, it is very clear that “earth/land” refers specifically to the land of Israel and Judah, as God is about to give it into the hands of Nebuchadnezar the king of Babylon. Comparing Jeremiah 27 with Genesis 1, it is clear that the “land” is the same in both accounts.4 Although this is but one example, it is a very clear one. But if eretz is better translated as “land” and shamayim as “sky,” what does this mean for Genesis 1:1?

Genesis 1:1 Describes The Creation of the Cosmos and the Earth At Large

Although it is tempting to see Genesis 1:1 merely as a title or summary statement, it describes a distinct part of creation. In fact, it describes the creation of all that exists apart from mankind. This is because of a literary device within the verse known as a "merism." A merism is a combination of two contrasts or extremes to form a single, total idea.5 As an example, Sailhamer quotes the first part of Psalm 139:2 which says "You (LORD) know when I sit down and when I rise up" (ESV). In this verse, the phrases "when I sit down" and "when I rise up" combine to communicate the singular idea that God knows everything about David.6 In the same way, the words for "sky" and "land" come together to form the singular idea of all created things, the cosmos and all that exist within their sphere aside from mankind. Thus, everything aside from mankind and perhaps certain types of plant and animal life are already present on the earth in Genesis 1:1, prior to the Creation week of Genesis 1:2-2:4. We will see more reasons as to why this is the case in the headings that follow.

Genesis 1:2-2:4 Describes the Preparation of The Garden of Eden

Although I’ve already given some reasons for this above, there are some additional points to this. One is that the phrase typically translated as “formless and void” in Genesis 1:2 merely means "uninhabitable" or “wilderness.” In other words, the idea being conveyed is simply that the “land” was not fit for man to live in.7 Also, the term ”good" as used throughout Genesis 1:2-2:4 does not mean "inherent value or goodness as a quality" but rather “good in the sense that it is beneficial for mankind.”8 Finally, the simple juxtaposition of Genesis 1 with Genesis 2 strongly suggests that the land in the former is related closely to the Garden in the latter.9 My next major heading also factors into this assertion.

Everything Mentioned In 1:2-2:4, Except Mankind, Was Already "Created" In 1:1.

There are many specific reasons that go into proving this point, so I will try to focus only on some of the ones that stood out most to me. First, it is important to understand that throughout Genesis 1, there are two important words used to describe God’s actions that differ from one another–the terms “make” (Hebrew: asah) and “create” (bara). The term “make” carries the idea of putting something in order rather than creating from nothing.10 

Regarding the first day (Genesis 1:3-5), Sailhamer discusses the issue of light supposedly existing apart from the sun (as a traditional, young-earth interpretation of Genesis 1 would require). However, as we have already mentioned, all the cosmos including the sun, moon, and stars, was created “in the beginning.” But how can we be sure? Sailhamer clarifies the reasons for readers when he states that the language of Genesis 1:3 does not describe light coming into existence for the first time; rather God is, in effect, commanding the sun to rise. As examples, he shows that the same Hebrew phrase is used to describe the sunrise in other places of the Bible (Exodus 10:23; Nehemiah 8:3; Genesis 44:3).11

Concerning the second day (Genesis 1:6-8), Sailhamer raises a question that has surely ruminated in the minds of his readers when he asks, “Why does God have to ‘make’ the sky, land, and seas during the following week if He has already created them ‘in the beginning’?”12 He plainly states that when Genesis describes God “making” the sky and the land on the second day, it carries the idea of “making” a bed, i.e., putting it in order.13 This, by way of implication, extends to everything that is “made” in days one through six. There are, however, some exceptions, including mankind, which we will discuss momentarily.

I greatly anticipated Sailhamer’s discussion of the fourth day (Genesis 1:14-19), given the fact he has already argued the sun, moon, and starts were created in Genesis 1:1. Genesis 1:14 in the ESV reads “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night.” Most every major English translation follows this reading. The “let there be” could imply that they were not there before. But Sailhamer states this is not the case in the Hebrew. He asserts that the Hebrew would be better translated “let the lights in the expanse be for separating the day and night.” Thus God was not creating the sun, moon, and stars here, but rather was delineating their purposes within creation.14

Now onto the sixth day. It would be tempting to lop mankind in with everything else. It would be easy to think that since everything else was made in Genesis 1:1, mankind would have to have been as well. However, we are able to discern from the rest of Genesis (and the Bible for that matter) that all human beings are descendants of Adam and Eve.15 Not to be under-considered also is the obvious textual fact that humans are created in God’s image rather than after their own kind like all other creatures.

Now, one may point to Exodus 20:11 and say that this verse counters Sailhamer’s understanding of Genesis 1. However, in that particular verse, a merism is not used; it is simply a summary of God’s activity within the creation week of preparing the Garden of Eden for man to dwell in.16 Thus it ultimately agrees with the view set forth by Sailhamer.

The Garden of Eden Was Likely Somewhere In the Promised Land, the Land of Israel.

There are two major parallels between the Garden of Eden and the tabernacle/temple. First is the
fact that just as Israel was to have a tabernacle/temple in the midst of the Promised Land where they would meet with God and worship Him, so the garden lay in the midst of a land and was a place where Adam and Eve were to have special fellowship with God and worship Him. Secondly, in the same way that the people of Israel would dwell safely in the Land so long as they obeyed God’s commands, so would Adam and Eve have been able to stay in the Garden as long as they followed God’s directives to them.17 Far from merely being coincidental, the parallels subtly communicate that the Garden of Eden and the Promised Land are closely related geographically. The boundaries and borders that are associated with the Garden of Eden are also similar to the ones later used to describe the borders of the Promised Land.18

Why Aren’t Sailhamer’s Views More Widely Known and Considered?
Matt Chandler and Jared
Wilson reference Genesis
 in their popular
book The Explicit Gospel.

Although his views seem unknown to many, this may merely be due to the fact that no one else seems to have articulated them so well as Sailhamer. Also, ministry leaders no less well known and respected than Matt Chandler and Jared Wilson have publicly supported Sailhamer’s views by quoting from Genesis Unbound.19 With this being the case, one may justifiably wonder why the perspectives espoused by Sailhamer are not more widely known and taught within Bible colleges and seminaries at the very least, much less preached in the local church.

One reason may be that it is simply too different from views historically held by the church and would be seen by conservatives (with whom I myself would readily identify) as too close to liberal views for comfort. This is my best guess as to why his particular view on Genesis 1-2 is less well known and studied than others. 

Final Thoughts

All in all, I thought Genesis Unbound was a pleasantly fresh take on Genesis 1 and 2, and more importantly, focused on the text of the Bible itself. So many approaches to Genesis today start with claims of science and work their way backwards to the text, rather than starting with the text and letting the Bible speak its own voice. This to me is the primary strength of Sailhamer’s approach.

I believe he also makes some of the deeper levels of reasoning (i.e, arguments based on Hebrew phraseology and grammar) accessible even to lay-readers. It is written at a fairly attainable level, and could be studied even as part of a Sunday school class in a local church. Yet the majority of his assertions are bolstered well with evidence. 

One thing I do wish is that Sailhamer would have gone a little further in Genesis and considered the Great Flood of Noah’s day. Although his purpose was not to interact with scientific claims as such, I would love to have heard his take on the Hebrew of Genesis 6-9 and any bearing it might have on the evidence we have available today. Perhaps Sailhamer may later put something out on this.

Although I cannot definitively say I think his view is “THE ANSWER” in the debates surrounding Genesis 1-2, I definitely feel his argument ought to be in the mix. His view takes the Bible as seriously and literally as any other; it also happens to fit better within the context of modern science than some views out there. Anyone who is interested in studies on creation should read this work.

1 John Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound 2nd Ed. (Colorado Springs: Dawson Media, 2011), 32-33, 42.
2 Ibid., 42-43.
3 Ibid., 56-59.
4 Ibid., 59-60.
5 Ibid., 62.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid., 70.
8 Ibid., 126.
9 Ibid., 98-99.
10 Ibid., 116.
11 Ibid., 121.
12 Ibid., 115.
13 Ibid., 115-116.
14 Ibid., 140.
15 Ibid., 360-37.
16 Ibid., 114-115.
17 Ibid., 75.
18 Ibid., 77-79.
19 Matt Chandler and Jared C. Wilson, The Explicit Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 96-97.


Zack Davis said...

Just for accuracy, your pic of the promised land is wrong. The Dead Sea has only one river coming out of it, not two. The Euphrates was much further east of the promised land.

Anonymous said...

Just another compromiser. God did not need billions of years to create the universe.

Zach Kennedy said...


And where did Sailhamer or I say that God did need billions of years? I understand holding to your opinion though, I really do. It does, on the surface, seem like a compromise. But keep in mind that Sailhamer is not trying to make the Bible fit science; he's simply trying to bring out meaning from the Hebrew text.

I'll allow yours for an example, but future anonymous posts will not be accepted.

Tom said...

Thanks for the informed and thoughtful review!

Larry said...

Thanks for your work

Back to top!