Yesterday I raised the issue of how one should read Genesis. I introduced John Walton’s commentary on Genesis and noted my debt to his teaching on these issues. In today’s post I said I would tell you what he believes about talking snakes. Walton believes the text of Scripture should be taken at “face value.” (44-46) This involves three issues: 1) the nature (genre) of literature issues, 2) cultural background issues, and 3) focus of revelational issues. Regarding genre issues he says,
“What about narrative? As with genealogy, we must try our best to understand how narrative works in Israel rather than assume it works the same as it does in English. The narrative style can be used for mythology, epic, folktale, parable, and fable as well as for history. As a result, identifying something as narrative is not the same as identifying it as history. Sometimes it is difficult to asses what expectations the narrator has of his audience, making literary analysis to no avail. For instance, we easily label Jotham’s narrative in Judges 9 as fable because trees talk there, and we all know trees don’t talk.
“By the same criterion, some have concluded that Genesis 3 ought also to be considered fable because of the talking serpent. Obviously the issues are complex. If we are going to take the text at face value, we must go beyond a single criterion and ask what the Israelite audience believed about it. In this case, neither literary analysis nor understanding of the culture gives a clear indication of how the Israelites heard this narrative. Continuing revelation, however, suggests that they did not understand it as fable because in the rest of Scripture the surrounding narrative (trees, garden, temptation, sin) is all taken with the seriousness of fact (Rom. 5:12-14, 2 Cor. 11:3, 1 Tim. 2:13-14). Thus, taking this particular narrative at face value precludes classifying it as fable, despite the presence of literary elements that may otherwise point in that direction.” (45-46)
Some will accuse Walton of trying to have his cake and eat it too. He’s willing to label Judges 9 as fable because “we all know trees don’t talk” but this same line of reasoning won’t work in Genesis 3 because of later revelation from the New Testament. Others, like Peter Enns, are not convinced that Paul’s use of Adam should imply that Paul believed in a historical Adam. [Correction: Since this post I’ve been informed that this is not Enns’ view. He does believe that Paul thought Adam was historical. My apologies for misrepresenting Dr. Enns.]
These issues are being raised fresh for me. I found an interesting quote from Augustine while reading The Language of Science and Faith.
“In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.” (77-78)
As I move forward in my study I’m taking the wise counsel of Augustine. Do I really believe in talking snakes? At this point in time I’m still persuaded that Walton is right and I read the passage at face value. I am, however, very interested in reading Peter Enns’ forthcoming book The Evolution of Adam. It is due to release this month.