Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Questions (and answers) on early Genesis, Part I

If you are a Catholic who attends daily Mass in the Ordinary Form – or if you are a faithful reader of the Magnificat or other Lectionary-based publications – you will have noticed that the Church has recently been (and will continue to be) reading from the early portions of the book of Genesis. The first eleven chapters of Genesis (the time from creation to Abraham) are filled with fascinating events and stories. Moreover, even a casual read of this portion of the Bible will give rise to many difficult questions. Here, we intend to raise and answer at least a few of the questions. However, as Scriptural commentary is, by nature, open to many (perhaps infinite) possibilities, we will simply attempt an answer rather than the answer.
Rather than trying to cover every verse, we will focus instead on certain specific points which may provide the reader with some new points for personal reflection. Our commentary is not dogma (though there are certain dogmas which we will follow), it is simply the beginning of an explanation.
Obviously, it would be most beneficial if we all took the time to re-read these eleven chapters – nothing can substitute for direct contact with the Word of God (in Scripture and Tradition).

6 days of creation? (Genesis 1:1-2:3 and Genesis 2:4-25)
First, we will address a very obvious and often discussed question: Did God really create the world in six, twenty-four hour days? It seems that there are three basic interpretations open to the Catholic: 1) God created the world in six, twenty-four hour days. 2) God created the world in six periods of time, which are called “days” but may in fact have been millennia or some other vast amounts of time. 3) The “six days” are metaphors which do not tell us anything about either the time or the historical order of creation.
Scientifically, it seems that the first option (six, twenty-four hour days) is difficult to hold. Theologically, there are some difficulties with the second option (“days” standing for “ages”); since Genesis 1 says that man was created after the animals, birds and fish, but Genesis 2 specifies that he was created before these others. Nevertheless, both options are still open to the Catholic (that is, neither have been rejected by the Church).
St. Augustine (and, it seems, St. Thomas), however, held for the third option – the “six days” of Genesis 1 have nothing to do with time at all, but are a metaphor. St. Augustine held that Genesis 1 was a metaphor for the way in which the angels came to understand God’s plan of creation. Thus, the order of the “days” is not the historical order of creation, but it is the order in which the angels understood God’s work. Moreover, the Doctor of Grace has a most edifying explanation of the recurring phrase, “Evening came, and morning followed.” The Saint refers this to the “evening” and “morning” knowledge of the angels – the evening knowledge is the infused knowledge which they have by nature, while the morning knowledge is that which that have through the grace of the beatific vision.
How deep the riches of these first two chapters of Genesis!
Did a snake really speak? (Genesis 3:1-5)
We may consider the account of the temptation and fall of man. We ask: Must the Catholic believe that a snake actually spoke to Eve? Commenting on the words of Scripture – Now the serpent was more subtle than any of the beasts of the earth which the Lord God had made. – St. Augustine states: “This serpent, however, could be called the wisest of all the beasts not by reason of its irrational soul but rather because of another spirit – that of the Devil – dwelling in it.” Thus, the Saint proposes that the snake was made to speak through the possession of Satan, who used the snake as an instrument through which he spoke. And, just as we rightly say that a man speaks to us through a phone (and not that the phone itself speaks); so too, in this case, while we may say that the snake spoke and tempted, it is more accurate to say that Satan spoke and tempted through the snake, which he used as an instrument.
In any case, it is clear that there is no scientific reason to presume that the fall of man as recorded in Genesis 3, when properly understood, is a mere legend.
What was the “mark of Cain”? (Genesis 4:15)
And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, that whosoever found him should not kill him.
There has been much speculation about the “mark of Cain” – especially in relation to various forms of racism. For a time, some (mostly fundamentalist) Christians held that the mark of Cain was the darkening of his skin; intimating that all of the modern colored races descended from Cain. This cannot be the case – if for no other reason, we can assert that all the descendents of Cain would have been destroyed in the flood (according to a strictly literal read of Genesis 7-9), thus it is clear that no one on earth today is a descendant of Cain. [correction: please see the comment of dcs at 3:18pm, Feb. 16. Ham's wife may have been a descendant of Cain.]  
What then was the “mark”? The Douay-Rheims Bible Commentary on this verse states: “The more common opinion of the interpreters of holy writ supposes this mark to have been a trembling of the body; or a horror and consternation in his countenance.” St. Ambrose adds that the mark was given in order that none should kill Cain, as a sign that evil has not yet been destroyed or removed from the earth – “For evil is augmented and amassed by the practice of evil, and it exists without moderation or limit, fights through guile and deceit and is revealed by its deeds and by the blood of the slain, even as Cain also was revealed.”
Did people really live hundreds of years? (Genesis 5)
Adam is said to have lived 930 years, Seth 912, Enos 905, Cainan 910, Malaleel 895, Jared 962, Henoch (or Enoch) lived 365 years “and he walked with God, and was seen no more: because God took him,” Mathusala 782 years, and so forth…
As we consider these extensive life-spans, we may wonder whether the Catholic is bound to take these years as historical facts. It seems that, again, we have three options: 1) The years are historical, 365 day years. 2) The “years” are measurements of time different from (and shorter than) the modern year. 3) The term “year” is a metaphor and tells us nothing at all about the length of time these men lived on the earth.
One problem with the second option (that “year” means some time shorter than the modern year) is that, while this can “solve the problem” of accounting for the extreme length of Adam’s life – estimating that a “year” really only means about one tenth of a modern year, so that Adam lived to be about 93 years old – this would then cause great difficulty in accounting for the extreme shortness of the lives of other figures – for example, Lamech is said to have lived 595 “years,” but this would only be 59 modern years. Are we to suppose that all the early Patriarchs lived into their 80’s and 90’s, but that all the later ones died in their 50’s and 60’s? Possibly, yes.
On the other hand, most of the Fathers (and scholastics) seem to presume the first option: That the Patriarchs lived for extremely long periods of time. Perhaps, we might assume that, as more sin entered the world, the life expectancy of human beings became shorter and shorter. This is our own opinion.
Finally, it is also possible to maintain that the “years” are a metaphor for virtues or graces or good works, or something else of that sort. This is certainly an option, though I have never found it expressed by any Father of the Church or scholastic theologian.
Questions (and answers) on early Genesis, Part II
Obviously, there are many more points we could have discussed – certainly, the Protoevangelium’s promise of the Messiah deserves a series of posts all to itself. What we have mentioned, however, are points that seemed particularly fruitful for some short and simple commentary.
In Part II, we will consider the events leading up to the flood, the flood itself, and what comes after … Have “fallen angels” ever procreated with human women? What did Noah do to find favor with God? What really happened at Babel?  


dcs said...

Fr. Reginaldus, some of those who held to the "curse of Cain" taught that Ham's wife was a descendant of Cain.

CM7 said...


Are the 3rd options listed in your post really options if the historical nature of the text is not accepted? From my study, it seems like the metaphor option is possible only if one still affirms the history of what the text is describing.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@dcs (3:18pm),
Yes, I had overlooked that possibility.
I will add a note to your comment in the body of the article itself.
Thanks for the insight!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@MichaelP (4:08pm),
The spiritual sense must be founded on the literal. But metaphor (properly understood) is part of the literal sense.

So, no, metaphors do not require us to affirm that the words are first meant historically...
For example: "The Lord is my rock" does not mean that there is an historical rock, which we then use as a metaphor for God.

The "history" behind the creation metaphor is that the angels really did come to know God's plan of creation.
The "history" behind the life-span metaphor (which I don't actually hold was truly a metaphor) would be the real virtues that these real people had.

I hope that this makes some sense...
Peace! +

CM7 said...


The "history" I refer to is the real event taking place, regardless of how we understand it. A lot of times, only a spiritual or metaphorical meaning is taken by people while excluding the entire event from history, as if it were legend or myth. Is this proper thinking on my part?


CM7 said...

Also, Father,

I am strictly talking about Genesis, not obvious metaphors elsewhere in scripture. The PBC seems to go out of its way to make sure that the Genesis account can venture into metaphor/symbolism as long as the history of the event is affirmed. This was to keep people from claiming it was simply mythological. Have I read the PBC's declarations on Genesis properly?

Pax Christi,

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

MichaelP (4:48 and 5:45pm),
In the cases of the two "metaphors" that I have mentioned, there would be "real events taking place" -- the angels really did come to know the plan of creation, and creation really did happen (though not necessarily in the order or time of Genesis 1).
Adam and company really did exist and live some time (though not necessarily those long years).

To say something is a metaphor is very different from claiming it to be myth or legend -- you are quite right on this point: Genesis is not pure myth, it is real history (but sometimes the history is told through metaphors).

Hence, when it says that God "walked" in the Garden (Genesis 2 and 3)-- we are not to think that God became incarnate and literally/historically walked in the Garden. Rather, this is a metaphor for the historical fact that God was with Adam and Eve.

I hope that this helps. Peace. +

Regine said...

Fr. Reginaldus,

Thank you for this article. It is most enlightening and I can't wait for part II. I have a question to ask you because I have read a commentary before that said that Cain was condemned to the life of a nomad in the land of Nod. And since the nomads were protected from attack only by the law of the avenger, God put upon Cain a mark equivalent to tattooing which identified the clan of the nomad and hence, served as Cain's protection. Is this explanation valid?

Nick said...

I've been studying Noah recently, and found that the delude is a perfect foreshadowment of the new creation: the waters over the earth is like the purification of the Universe, the sending of the dove is like the sending of the Holy Spirit, etc.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Yes, I think that the explanation you have proposed is certainly a valid option...in fact, it seems to be hinted at in the text itself -- the mark was given so that none should kill Cain [hence, it is a protective mark...in some sense]. +

@Nick, There is much to meditate on regarding Noah and the Flood -- certainly it is a sort of natural recreation; I like how you connect it with the supernatural recreation given through Christ. +

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