Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Biblical Cosmologies, Part 3: Pentateuchal Portraits – Genesis 1b

An essential aspect of exegesis is recognition of a text’s sitz im leben. Sitz im leben can be loosely defined as “context.” The term is German for “situation in life” or “life setting.” In exegetical endeavors the modern reader of ancient texts is apt to read modern-day questions, issues, perspectives, etc. into the text. A reading that retrojects modern-day exigencies into an ancient text is eisegesis—interpretation reflective of the reader’s own ideas or biases rather than true to the authentic reading of the text. Eisegetical readings abuse texts by stealing or covering up the meanings most authentic to an ancient text.

Disciplined consideration for a text’s sitz im leben is one means through which the modern-day reader can avoid abusing the text. Attempts to construct scientific ideas on the basis of Genesis 1 are certainly eisegetical abuses. Such uses of Genesis exhibit little or no consideration for its sitz im leben and hence for how the ancient Hebrew reader would have understood the text. Additionally, through eisegetical excess, such scientific ideas are not based on the text itself; rather, they are based on a select, idiosyncratic, highly-contingent *interpretation* of the text. Through jettisoning an authentic sitz im leben, such readings are guilty of eisegesis.

Genesis 1 is composed in the rhetoric of soft polemical diatribe. It is written against the backdrop of antecedent polytheistic cosmogonies. The exigency of the composer was not that of 21st century Creationism in any of its flavors. Rather, the composer sought to provide a morally and religiously monotheistic, non-idolatrous reworking of existing myths for the desired goal of religious purity and functional etiology. To posit any other goal is to eisegetically abuse the text in the interest of modern exigencies.

Genesis 1:6-8

ו וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי רָקִיעַ בְּתוֹךְ הַמָּיִם, וִיהִי מַבְדִּיל, בֵּין מַיִם לָמָיִם. ז וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-הָרָקִיעַ, וַיַּבְדֵּל בֵּין הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מִתַּחַת לָרָקִיעַ, וּבֵין הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מֵעַל לָרָקִיעַ; וַיְהִי-כֵן. ח וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לָרָקִיעַ, שָׁמָיִם; וַיְהִי-עֶרֶב וַיְהִי-בֹקֶר, יוֹם שֵׁנִי.

6 And spoke Elohim, let there be firmament-rakia in the midst of the waters, and
let it separate the waters from the waters. 7 And made Elohim the
firmament-rakia to divide between the waters from below the firmmanet-rakia and
between the waters which [were] from above the firmmanet-rakia—and it was so. 8
And called Elohim to the firmament-rakia, “heavens.” And there was evening and
there was breaking, day two.

The reader will recall that the ancient Sumerian-Babylonian cosmology, like that in Genesis 1, began with the victory of the hero-god over the waters of chaos depicted in the dragon Tiamat. The hero-god of the Sumerian-Babylonian cosmology divides the dragon of chaos in two. Each half is used to hold water-symbolic of primordial chaos-at bay. Likewise, in Genesis, Elohim gains victory over the primordial waters, no doubt through an unmentioned combat with the watery chaos dragon. Such a combat is not specifically mentioned in this text, though other biblical portraits of creation do depict such a combat. Consider Psalm 74:12-14 for an example:

"You divided the sea by your strength; by your power you cleaved the
sea-monster in two, and broke the dragon's heads above the waters; you
crushed the many-headed Leviathan…"

Through conspicuous refusal to mention the dragon deity (other than the reference to T’hom-Tiamat in vs. 2), the author of Genesis 1 realizes that the reader, in her sitz im leben, is more than likely familiar with antecedent cosmologies. As a result, the author assumes that the reader will inject her meanings into the hegemony that Elohim gains over the waters.

With new-found hegemony over the original aqueous chaos, Elohim divides the waters. In so dividing the waters, the text specifies the purpose for the firmament-rakia: to hold the waters (chaos) in place. The author identifies the localities of the waters: above the firmament-rakia and below the same. To the ancient reader the hegemony of Elohim over chaos is described through the construal of the firmament-rakia. This same reader understood the firmament-rakia as a solid structure that vaulted the observed heavens.

Verse eight identifies the firmament-rakia as heavens-shamayim. In so doing, the author and reader understand that the solid structure of the firmament-rakia is also called heavens-shamayim. It is unnecessary and eisegetical to read modern ideas of heavens as “open space” into this passage.


Andrew T. said...

Peter, it can be argued that if the Torah is divinely inspired, interpretation according to the sitz im leben is not appropriate 100% of the time. Perhaps it is HaShem's will that we interpret His Genesis allegory in a progressively different fashion as our understanding of science develops. Details like how many generations there were between Adam and Noah and the impossibly long lifespans of such early characters are not meant to be taken literally. The early chapters of Genesis are allegory, not literal history.

My 2 cents.

Peter said...

Hello Andrew,

By removing the sitz im leben one steps away from the only objectively-directed basis for interpretive consensus. If we all approach the text as modern readers, each generation will come away with meanings as different and likely amiss as the next.

Now, I realize that midrashic readings plummet the text for moral meanings and lessons, and I realize that rabbinic legal hermeneutics follow set rules, and I am not discounting the value of such. Such readings, though, should not discount ancient readings as technically the rabbis would agree though there is, however, a general distaste for scholarship among run-of-the-mill Orthodox rabbis.

Though, back to your premise about inspiration: if the text is inspired shouldn't the reader first try to discern how the text fit into its receptive context--what issues or questions were being addressed? Of all readership, unfortunately, those committed to a high view of inspiration (plenary inspiration) are generally the least likely to ask these questions.