Davidson, Gregg and Kenneth J. Turner. The Manifold Beauty of Genesis 1: A Multi-Layered Approach. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2021. 210 pp. Pb; $22.99. Link to Kregel Academic
This new book on Genesis 1 from Kregel Academic represents a biblical theological reading of Genesis one. Each chapter in The Manifold Beauty of Genesis 1 represents a theological interpretation of the creation story. Although they do not deny Genesis 1 is a literal creation story, the authors are more interested in the theology of the creation story than relating the seven days of creation to any scientific theory. Although the principal topic is Genesis 1, the chapters provide a full canonical perspective for each theological topic.
Gregg Davidson is a professor and chair of the School of Geology and Geological Engineering at the University of Mississippi. He contributed to The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth (Kregel 2016). Kenneth Turner is professor of Old Testament and biblical languages at Toccoa Falls College. His Ph.D. dissertation was published as The Death of Deaths in the Death of Israel: Deuteronomy’s Theology of Exile (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and edited the Daniel I. Block festschrift (Eisenbrauns, 2013).
The first two chapters of this book lay out their method. Using the metaphor of geological layers, the authors suggest scripture often contains many layers of truth. For example, Isaiah’s messianic prophecies can be interpreted as a prediction of a king who will break the power of the oppressor (Isaiah 9:1-7). But those same prophecies include the suffering servant (Isaiah 52:13-53:12). The second chapter offers a second analogy for a theological reading of Genesis. Comparing the genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3, they argue that both are true, even if there are some differences. Ancient eastern cultures often use numbers symbolically in ways that western culture does not. That Matthew has three groups of fourteen in his genealogy and Luke has seventy-seven names from God to Jesus is significant theologically. “Truth claims of the Bible should not be measured against literary norms of a culture 2000 years removed” (20). Drawing the analogy to the creation story in Genesis 1, the authors wonder about the separation of light and darkness twice in the chapter. How can there be light (1:3-5) before God creates the sun (1:14-18)? The numbers three and seven are pervasive in the creation story. Both observations point to the theology underlying the creation story.
In the introduction, the authors are clear that none of their suggested layers are entirely new. This is true, each of their suggested layers draws on previous scholarship, as demonstrated by footnotes to both ancient and contemporary literature. They argue the themes presented in this book are complementary, they all “contribute to and reinforce the unified message of Genesis 1” (11). The authors agree with the Chicago statement on biblical inerrancy, but understand a distinction between the literal meaning and a literalistic interpretation.
A potential objection to a theological reading of Genesis 1 is the motivation to harmonize Scripture and science. The authors point out that literary understandings of Genesis 1 were popular long before apparent conflicts were raised by science. Both Origin and Augustine believed in the authority of Scripture but also wrote figuratively on the days of creation. In addition, many of the biblical scholars they cite in the course of the book specifically disavow evolution (39). Some readers may be challenged by the assertion that Genesis 1 can teach seven different themes. For example, how can the days in Genesis 1 be literal, but not literal? How can the days be both sequential and not sequential? Throughout the book, the authors stress that these are not seven competing views of Genesis 1, but layers of meaning that are all present in the text. They do not want to assert that one is more important than another, including a literal reading of the seven days of creation.
The rest of the book explores seven layers of meaning in Genesis 1, highlighting various aspects of biblical theology. For each layer, the authors present a theological reading of the creation story, followed by several challenges and responses. For example, “this view is new, so it can’t be true,” or “this view is too complicated to be plausible” (140-41). In each case, they briefly deal with potential objections to the theological reading. Chapters end with a series of discussion questions useful for classroom or small group Bible study.
First, Genesis 1 can be read as a song. In this chapter, the authors highlight the literary and poetic framework of the first chapter of Genesis. There is a parallel structure to the days of creation, with the first three days dealing with the formlessness of creation by giving it proper form, and the second three days dealing with the emptiness of creation, filling it with various things (birds, fish, animals, humans). I first encountered this idea in Allen Ross, Creation and Blessing (Baker, 1996), although this is a common view.
Second, the creation story can be read as an analogy. Although the content of this chapter is the biblical theology of work. In Exodus 20:8-11, Israel was to consider the creation week a model, or an analogy, for the human rhythm of work and rest (43) and the idea of Sabbath is embedded in the creation story itself. The authors will return to the idea of Sabbath in their chapter on Genesis 1 as calendar.
Third, Genesis 1 is often described as a polemic against the gods of the ancient Near East. Genesis 1 is an origin story which is in some ways comparable to Babylonian, Egyptian or Mesopotamia mythology. But there are important distinctions. For example, Genesis highlights human worth as image bearers of God. Another major distinction is God considers his creation good, something missing from ancient near eastern creation stories.
Fourth, the creation story is often related to a larger theme in biblical theology, covenant. Following Daniel Block’s Covenant: The Framework of God’s Plan (Baker, 2021), the authors observe that the idea of covenant plays a critical role in the biblical narrative. After comparing the Mosaic covenant with the form of a Hittite vassal treaty, they briefly describe Abrahamic and Noahic covenant. For many, the creation covenant might be described as a “royal land grant.” Adam is like a vassal placed in the Garden of Eden to perform certain tasks for the sovereign. In a land grant, when the vassal fails, they are exiled from the land. When Adam broke the clear commandment of God, he was exiled from the Garden of Eden. This has become a pervasive theme in biblical theology in recent years, for example, see Matthew S. Harmon, Rebels and Exiles: A Biblical Theology of Sin and Restoration (IVP Academic 2020) or L. Michael Morales, Exodus Old and New: A Biblical Theology of Redemption (IVP Academic 2020)
Fifth, Genesis 1 is sometimes compared to a temple. Following Greg Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission (IVP Academic 2004) or John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (Zondervan, 2009), the authors compare the biblical description of creation with ancient Near Eastern temples, especially the idea of a cosmic mountain where the gods lived. They point out many texts drawn from the whole that compare the original creation to the garden of Eden. This cosmic temple is the unique place of God’s presence as well as the place of God’s throne, where his priestly inhabitants live and serve him. There are several parallels between descriptions of the Garden of Eden and Solomon’s temple (helpfully summarized in several charts). Looking ahead to the end of the canon of Scripture, they draw attention to the new heavens and new earth in Revelation 21-22 as a restoration of the original creation (see also Harmon’s Rebels and Exiles).
Sixth, Genesis 1 can be read in the context of calendars, or, to put it differently, a biblical theology of time. The chapter surveys the importance of festivals and liturgical dates in the law and draws analogies to how these times are associated with Noah’s flood, the Exodus and the wilderness wanderings, and the creation story. Once again, several charts helpfully illustrated these points. The chapter follows Michael LeFebvre’s Liturgy of Creation (IVP Academic, 2019).
Seventh, the creation story introduces an important theme found through the Old Testament, Land. The authors are following John Sailhamer and Seth Postell in this chapter, but there are other biblical theologies of land, such as Walter Bruggeman’s The Land: Place As Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith (Fortress, 1977), Oren R. Martin, Bound for the Promised Land (IVP Academic, 2015) and Benjamin L. Gladd, From Adam and Israel to the Church (IVP Academic, 2019). In this chapter, the authors draw some analogies from the Garden of Eden to the promised land, but the main comparison is between Adam and Israel. Just as Adam was to serve as a priest in the temple (the garden of Eden) Israel was to be a kingdom of priests. Comparisons between Genesis 1 and the Law are summarized in two detailed charts (150-51). Adam’s failure anticipates Israel’s failure to be priests, but it also opens the door to future messianic hope. This is signaled as early as Genesis 3:15, but also in the blessing of Jacob (Genesis 49), and the rescue from Egypt (Exodus 15), the second generation in the wilderness (Numbers 24), and in the curses and blessings of the law (Deuteronomy 32- 33).
Conclusion. Each of these seven layers are excellent introductions to a full monograph on the biblical theology of covenant, temple, or land, etc. These are all popular biblical theology themes, as illustrated in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series or the Essential Studies on Biblical Theology series (both IVP Academic).
As expressed in the introduction to the book, the authors hope readers will appreciate the grandeur and beauty of the creation story after reading this book. But they also want readers to recognize that a proper understanding of Genesis 1 is not limited to a single perspective. The creation story reflects the manifold beauty of God’s creation in its diverse theological aspects.
Thanks to Kregel Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.