Dr. John Sailhamer's 1996 book, Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account (Multnomah) is 250 pages of worthwhile reading. The book is laid out in four parts: 1- Genesis in Controversy, lays the groundwork by discussing the modern fissure between faith and science and raises the questions which will be answered in the forthcoming sections. Part 2, Genesis Reconsidered, discusses the Biblical chronology as described in Genesis 1-2. Sailhamer calls it the "heart of the book" which he hopes will enable us to live in peace, as believers, with science. Part 3 is a brief exposition of Genesis 1:1-2:4a (what was once denominated the "Priestly Account" of creation by scholars of a bygone day). Part 4 is a brief discussion of the function of one's world-view in the interpretation of Scripture and how one must be aware of that world-view to avoid a skewed reading. The book concludes with an epilogue and notes. There are, scattered throughout the book, various "sidebars". The book is well-bound and though paperback, seems to be well constructed.
The basic premise of the book, I think, can be summarized in one sentence: Science and a correct reading of Genesis 1:1-2:4a are not contradictory but complementary. Sailhamer suggests that the word "beginning" in Genesis 1:1 holds within itself the key to a correct reading of the text. The word can be understood to refer to the boundless (or not) ages before God "prepared" the Earth for human habitation (as described in Genesis 1:2-2:4a). Thus the dinosaurs, ice ages, and geological strata can be traced to this "beginning" while the presence of humankind on the earth takes place only after this extended period of "beginning". Thus, Sailhamer would suggest, science can rightly deal with this "beginning" period without fearing that faith will be contradicted because it is only with the creation of man and God's preparation of the earth for human habitation that concerns the author of Genesis 1:2-2:4a (taken by Sailhamer to be Moses).
The whole of Sailhamer's argument seems to hinge on a couple of premises: 1- that science and faith need to be reconciled, and 2- that his interpretation of "beginning" in Genesis 1:1 can achieve this reconciliation.
As to the first premise the natural question arises: why do science and faith need to be reconciled? This apologetic molief that Genesis is history and not theology (or as the Germans put it, Historie and not Geschichte). This premise is questionable at best. The notion that the Biblical writers were interested in history seems doubtful. They were interested, as Sailhamer rightly notes, in how God came to prepare a wonderful world for human habitation. This is a theological question, however, and not a historical one. Using Genesis as history (or Historie) instead of reading it theologically is like using the Bible as a mathematics text or a music theory text or a civics text. Though the Bible contains music and civics, it is surely not about those things- it is about God and His relationship to humankind. I would suggest, then, that there is no need to reconcile the Bible and science because they are about two totally different subjects. They need no more be reconciled than apples and oranges.
As to Sailhamer's second premise, that "beginning" means an extended period of time (or not), I can simply say that in normal use the Hebrew word simply cannot bear such a "timeless" interpretation. The word bereshit -- beginning -- occurs 5 times in the Hebrew Bible; here at Gen 1:1, Jer 26:1, Jer 27:1, Jer 28:1, and Jer 49:34. When one looks at how the word is used in Jeremiah, one discovers that it means simply "at the start". I.e., at the start of Jehoiakim's reign, etc. This points to a definite time and place, and not to an indefinite period which stretched out over millennia! To adopt Sailhamer's reading we would have to conclude that the beginning of Jehoiakim's reign lasted a very long time. This is logically erroneous and unnecessary. How, after all, can the beginning point of anything be extended into infinity? The beginning point of a line is just that, a point. Normal usage should prevail when one interprets a word.
If one overlooks these presuppostional errors on the part of Sailhamer, then one can benefit a great deal from his work. If one must have a well laid foundation of demonstrable presuppositions, then one may well enjoy this book very much; but will have a nagging question throughout the reading.
These criticisms aside, this is a very readable and enjoyable text. It is pleasant to see a gifted author set forth his ideas clearly (even if one cannot adopt his presuppositions!). This book deserves to be read; and it deserves to be thought through!
Copyright © Quartz Hill School of Theology. All Rights Reserved.