How to Teach Genesis 1  – Part I: Don’t Begin with “In the Beginning . . . “

Given that my post How to Teach Genesis 1 in 30 Minutes remains one of my most popular posts, I thought my readers (new and old) might appreciate a little more detail and a slower walk through the process.

While my previous post was aimed at a single session, this series will hopefully aid those who teach introductory or survey courses either in an academic or church setting.

Related Posts: Why Seven Days?Review of Michael Cosby’s Interpreting Biblical LiteratureHave Sex and Eat: The First Two CommandmentsWhen is a Snake not Merely a Snake?Review: Pete Enn’s Inspiration & Incarnation 1

Mistakes to Avoid:

Mistake 1. Beginning with Genesis

Do not begin with Genesis. As I have stated elsewhere, I think the majority of textbooks and biblical overview courses make a pedagogical error in beginning with “In the beginning . . . ” In any other subject, you teach the basics first before you jump into the really difficult material. You don’t jump into Hamlet before you teach grammar and the basics of poetry.

What’s a rhyme? What’s a simile? What’s a metaphor? Am I reading a comedy or a tragedy? If Romeo & Juliet is really a love story, then why do they die in the end? If Hamlet is a tragedy, why are there so many funny moments? Is that another dirty joke? Err, I mean, Is that more ribald humor? How come the clowns aren’t funny?

Why not start with Genesis?

First, Genesis is a hotbed for controversy in our contemporary context. Many students have been taught implicitly or explicitly to be on the defensive when it comes to modern scholarship and Genesis 1-3. So, why should they trust you about your views of Day 1 on day 2 of class? Moreover, even those students who have questions about the meaning of Genesis are often afraid to ask because they fear conflict, ridicule, etc. Even with the approach I take, many students wait until after class or office hours to ask questions, test out ideas, or voice concerns.

Second, Genesis is the proving ground for so many critical theories that students are being suddenly confronted with complex and confusing theories like form and source criticism. They have no foundation or framework for understanding the significance or rationale for these erudite theories.

In teaching Romeo & Juliet to high shoolers or undergrads, do you begin by introducing Christopher Marlowe? Maybe that’s what happens and why people tend to think being “star crossed lovers” is a good thing. I would begin by reading a few sonnets. Then I would give them an overview of the story.

For the Bible, I provide an overture. I take one class session to simply tell the basic OT narrative from Abraham to the rise of the Roman Empire. I tell them a story with a beginning, a middle, and a cliffhanger ending. I also assign the illustrated children’s book The Big Picture Story Bible by David Helm to reinforce the basic narrative.

So, if not with Genesis, then where do I begin?

I begin with Proverbs and Psalms.

For a textbook that takes this alternate approach, see Michael Cosby’s Interpreting Biblical Literature.
Cosby focuses on helping students to understand the various biblical genres. He begins with Proverbs and Psalms before moving to short narratives, Jonah & Ruth. In this way, you can introduce source, form, and other critical approaches before getting to Genesis and the potentially off putting and confusing ideas like J, E, P, & D. You also introduce various genres and the common literary devices employed by the biblical authors.

Keeping my overall goals in mind, I draw attention to the theme of creation in Wisdom literature and carefully select Psalms that will aid students along the way. (I have used the Creation montage from Terence Malick’s Tree of Life as it visually represents the LORD’s response to Job.)

Historical Psalms: I intentionally assign and spend time with Psalms that recount the history of Israel. In this way, students are already being introduced to the basic chronology of the Former Prophets, the key figures, and the most significant events. Oh, Abraham comes before David!

Creation/Exodus Psalms: With Genesis 1 in mind, I intentionally assign Psalms that describe YHWH as the Creator. I show how for Israel it is often difficult to tell whether they are writing/singing about the beginning of the world (Creation) or about the beginning of the nation (Exodus). These concepts are further developed as we look at Jonah’s ‘great fish’, other mythical elements and literary exaggerations. This background content helps the students with what Pete Enns helpfully calls “genre recalibration.”

In drawing attention to the various portrayals of God as Creator in the OT (and NT), mistake number two has already been avoided.

Mistake 2. Beginning with Extra-Biblical Sources

The same students who are on the defensive, wittingly or unwittingly, are wary of extra-biblical materials. In popular culture and in a great deal of scholarship, including many of the leading textbooks,  the use of comparative literature is often presented in such a way that the similarities are emphasized over the differences. Those who have been explicitly warned about “secular scholarship” are going to have a difficult time hearing anything other than an undermining of the authority and reliability of the Bible. “Look, the Bible is just like any other ancient myth.” That’s a half-truth.

Is a Spaghetti Western just like any other Western?

So, again, begin with the Bible before introducing other Ancient Near Eastern texts like the Enuma Elish and the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Textbooks often point out that there are two creation accounts in Scripture Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. However, there are many more than that. There are more Psalms, some of the prophets recall creation, Job, Colossians 1, John 1, etc. When I show that therer are mutliple poetic accounts of creation in Scripture and that these accounts are not easily harmonized (nor should they be), many of the students are well into the process of “genre recalibration” before we get to Genesis 1.

I like to have them read Psalms like 77 & 89. Is this describing Creation or Exodus? Did god literally rip open a sea monster named Rahab and feed the corpse to people in the desert? Was a guy named Jonah really swallowed by a large fish? Metaphorically, what might the fish represent? Was the city of Nineveh really that big? Did the Assyrians and their animals really repent? Okay, so what genre is Jonah?

My rationale is that I am building on the trust that many of my students have when it comes to Scripture. Now, when we get to Genesis 1, we are reading it in the broader canonical context and have some knowledge of biblical genres with which to compare it.

Only after we have gotten the main points of Genesis 1 do we then turn from the trusted and more familiar texts of Scripture to the other ANE texts. The students are in a better position to understand, interpret, and evaluate (preferably in that order) these alternate accounts of the creation of the cosmos.

Some of the differences are stark. For instance, the God of Israel does not masturbate the gods or the cosmos into existence. In Genesis 1, human beings aren’t made from the excrement and blood of defeated gods in order to slave for the divine pantheon, etc.

Next Post: How to Teach Genesis 1 – Part II: Seeing Creation/Exodus Themes in the Psalms

Note: Book links will take you to Amazon.

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