Last week, I wrote about what I think is the most important book in my life, and probably the most important book for understanding how to read the Bible: Through New Eyes.
You can find that book for free right here (and I would encourage you to download and read it).
We are continuing that journey today with Chapter 1.
The Six Days of Genesis 1
Jordan starts us off right at the beginning of the world, and shows us that the days of creation are absolutely pivotal to understanding the rest of the Bible. It is not just that it is important to know the beginning, like any story, but that the symbolic meaning of the days and everything that takes place in them is crucial.
This cannot be overstated.
If the six days and all that takes place in them is not on the front of our mind, and are not the starting point of understanding the symbolism of water, light, stars, moon, trees, fish, birds, beasts, etc., we are going to miss a ton of what the Bible is saying.
Jordan outlines the two ditches interpreters of Genesis 1 have fallen into for millennia. The first ditch is to take it literally but shoehorn the days to fit contemporary scientific views. The second ditch is to admit it does not fit contemporary science and relegate it to allegory. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard Christians desperate for the approval (for some reason?) of the “I [expletive] love science” crowd will realize that since Augustine held to an allegorical view of the creation story, that this means we have all the justification we need to say the world is billions of years old and Adam’s dad was a monkey.
We don’t have to do either.
Jordan puts his cards on the table here, he is a young-…. He elaborates on this point in his book, published over a decade later, Creation in Six Days (which is page-for-page the very best exegetical defense of young-earth creationism available). The quick point that he makes in TNE is this: ultimately the question of “what are you going to believe, the Bible or contemporary science?” will rear it’s head for the Christian. It is unavoidable. You can maybe try to dodge it in Genesis 1 (which I think is extremely foolish, because a historical Adam is not a trivial doctrine in the Christian faith, but fundamental to Christian soteriology), but it will show up somewhere. “Science” tells us that the Resurrection and Virgin Birth are just as impossible as a world created in six days, six thousand years ago. Trying to make Genesis 1 fit is to just kick the can down the road.
As an aside, I should point out that the past twelve months have been a banner year for Scientism. The great myth that science is inexorably progressing towards Star Trek: The Next Generation utopia just around the corner, and is not merely a cowardly herd of thousands upon thousands of apparatchiks in lab coats who exist to provide religious certainty to pliant, exploitable masses has never been this laughably false. “Science” is mostly fake. I’m joking, but I am also serious.
For Jordan, the temporal sequence of the six days is of the utmost importance. The symbolic significance of days, six days, and the events of each of them is critical to having an understanding of Biblical symbolism. And Symbolism, not Hebrew and Greek, is the actual language the Bible is written in.
The Language of Visual Appearance
Ancient men did not speak, write, or think about the world as we do. If it seems like I keep repeating that point, I am! Not just the Bible, but think of the visual descriptions all throughout the Homer: “the wine-dark sea” or “rosy-red fingers of the golden dawn.” Jordan points out:
Genesis 1 is written in terms of visual appearances, not in terms of scientific analysis…
…the language of visual appearance in Genesis 1 serves to establish a visual grid, a worldview. By writing in terms of visual appearance, the Bible sets up categories of visual imagery. Unfortunately, modern readers often have trouble with this. We who live in the post-Gutenberg information age are unfamiliar with visual imagery. We are word-oriented, not picture-oriented. The Bible, however, is a pre-Gutenberg information source; while it does not contain drawings, it is full of important visual descriptions and imagery. This visual imagery is one of the primary ways the Bible presents its worldview.1
Genesis 1 presents the world the way an ancient man would look at it. Up there in the sky is a great light. Down here there are animals that creep along on the ground. Fish swim in the sea, etc., etc. There is nothing about them that is not literal. Genesis 1 is literally describing these things the way that they are.
One of the reasons ancient literature is totally different than modern literature is entirely practical. Before Gutenberg, it was possible to read every book in the library. Making books was incredibly expensive and labor-intensive. Just to have the materials to produce a book cost a ton. Before the technology to produce massive quantities of paper (which enabled the revolution of the printing press to take off), you have to use vellum parchment—animal skins—the production of which is costly then as now. If it cost you a hundred bucks or more per page to write a book, you would hold every single word, phrase, sentence, and paragraph absolutely dear.2 You would maximize the amount you could communicate with the extremely scarce available space, and to do that you would employ symbolism. Every, single word is carefully chosen like an artist choosing the exact right tile for a mosaic.
Ancient and medieval literature abounds in numerical symbolism, large parallel structures, intricate chiastic devices, astral allusions, sweeping metaphors, topological parallels, and symbolism in general. Modern literature, whether fiction or non-fiction, is almost always written in a straight line. You don’t have to go back and forth in such books to unpack allusions or get ‘hidden” messages. In other words, you don’t have to study such books in a literary fashion. You just read them and get the message. Ancient and medieval literature, however, must be studied.3
But this study must be done carefully. This leads Jordan to the next section…
Rules for Interpretation
There is an awful lot of “Biblical symbolism” stuff out there that is, quite frankly, really very bad. And often many people think of this when they come to careful expositors like Jordan, so he sets down some clear rules, some guardrails, that prevent wild speculation.
Biblical symbolism and imagery is not a code. When the Bible wants to make a point that can be made literally, that is what the Holy Spirit-inspired writers will do.
Biblical symbols do not exist in isolation. The Bible presents a complete and unified symbolic world that begins in Genesis and proceeds from there. The meaning of the various symbols do not exist on their own or in a particular way in one or another book exclusively.
Biblical evidence is required to establish symbolic meaning. Ancient pagan literature can be helpful, but can never be foundational to symbolic meaning in ancient literature. This is without question the single-biggest problem with Michael Heiser’s hermeneutic. He often uses Ancient Ugaritic literature as though it were on par with Holy Scripture. Others will do the same with Ancient Greek. Pagan sources are helpful in understanding the world the Bible is in, but cannot rule our interpretation of it.
Historical exegesis and systematics always check wild speculation. If no one anywhere has believed something about a certain passage, and you are the very first to ever see it that way, that is some extremely dangerous territory to be treading. Reading scripture with the church throughout the ages does not mean everything about the Bible has already been discovered in the last 2000 years, but it does mean that interpretation must be done within this great conversation.
Biblical symbolism must be interpreted in terms of Biblical presuppositions and philosophy. Here Jordan is drawing a stark contrast between the Alexandrian school of allegorical interpretation in the ancient church, which, unlike modern men, did see the Bible in terms of symbol, but their interpretation was governed by the Platonism, and they shoehorned every symbol they saw to fit Plato’s system.
The student of Biblical imagery must be alert to the work of other scholars. Jordan does not elaborate upon this point very much, but we should keep this in mind. There is now far more excellent Biblical exegesis being done with an eye to these things than ever before, and reading scripture together with these men sharpens your eye, like sitting in a deer stand with seasoned hunters help you to see a trophy buck a long way off that you’d have missed. At some point, I will compile a list of great contemporary exegetes.
The Bible is not written in terms of modern science or philosophy. To a great extent, the Bible is written in the pregnant language of imagery. Genesis 1 describes the creation of the world in the language of appearance, and this sets up for us a visual, worldview grid. The world and its contents are not a bunch of random facts but were created with a design and purpose.4
I plan on putting out one of these chapter summaries every Monday until we finish the book. If you find value in these, please let me know in the comments, and share them with your friends. I think this book is so incredibly important, and I want to do what I can to get it in front of as many people as possible.
TNE, p. 12.
You would not slop together incoherent pablum like much academic output today, such as this for example.
TNE, p. 14.
ibid., p. 17.