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"Chapter 11: Genre of Genesis"


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We feel great need of the genre approach when we read Genesis, chapters 1-3. We already saw that Pius XII deplored excessive looseness in the application of genres to Genesis. He insisted that the first eleven chapters of Genesis, "even though they do not fully match the pattern of historical composition used by the great Greek and Latin writers of history, or by modern historians, yet in a certain sense-which needs further investigation by scholars-they do pertain to the genre of history."

So let us try to carry out the desire of Pius XII. Those chapters of Genesis pertain to history in that they do relate events that really happened. They present the facts within the special framework of a story, however. We might even call it a stage setting. Hence Genesis 1-11 is historical in that it tells what really happened, chiefly these: God made all things; in some special way, He made the first human pair; He gave them some command (we do not know what the command was-the garden and the fruit are part of the stage setting); they violated the command and fell from favor.

GOD MADE MAN IN SOME SPECIAL WAY. St. Augustine, in his commentary on Genesis (De Genesi ad litterams 6.12.20), rejected a simplistic interpretation of these Scriptures: "That God made man with bodily hands from the clay," wrote Augustine, "is an excessively childish thought .... we should rather believe the one who wrote it used a metaphorical term, instead of supposing God is bounded by such lines of limbs as we see in our bodies."

In this same vein, Pius XII wrote: "The Magisterium of the Church does not forbid that the theory of evolution about the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existing and living matter be investigated and discussed by experts in both fields, so far as the present state of human sciences and sacred theology permits-for Catholic faith requires us to hold that the human soul is immediately created by God. This is to be done in such a way that the reasons on both sides for and against, be weighed and judged with due gravity, moderation and temperance, provided all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church.... They go too far in rash daring who act as if the origin of the human body from pre-existent and living matter were already fully proved by evidence discovered up to now and by reasoning on that evidence, as if there were nothing in the sources of divine revelation calling for very great moderation and caution" Humani Generis, DS 3896).

In summary, then, we are permitted to study evolution scientifically and with theological care, but we must not say that the evidence is such that the theory is fully proved at present.

That caution was written in 1950. Has scientific evidence developed to the point that evolution has now been proved?

The "Research News" section in Science magazine for November 21, 1980, gives a long report on what Science calls "a historic conference in Chicago [that] challenges the four-decade-long dominance of the Modern Synthesis." The Modern Synthesis is the belief that "Evolution ... moves at a stately pace, with small changes accumulating over periods of many millions of years." The report tells us that "a wide spectrum of researchers-ranging from geologists and paleontologists, through ecologists and population geneticists to embryologists and molecular biologists-gathered in Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History" to consider evolution.

The Modern Synthesis came under heavy challenge, for: "The problem is that according to most paleontologists the principle [sic] feature of individual species within the fossil record is stasis, not change.... For the most part, the fossils do not document a smooth transition from old morphologies to new ones. 'For millions of years species remain unchanged in the fossil record,' said Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard, 'and they then abruptly disappear, to be replaced by something that is substantially different but clearly related.'"

The result is a shift. The evidence that was supposed to support evolution-gradual changes in the fossil record, of one species into another-has been found almost entirely lacking. So, do the scientists drop the theory of evolution once they find that the evidence is not sufficient to prove it? No, they make an adjustment in the theory instead: "The emerging picture of evolutionary change ... is one of periods during which individual species remain virtually unchanged, punctuated by abrupt events at which a descendant species arises from the original stock." In other words, there has been a whole series of flukes, sudden leaps from lower to higher. What is the proof of this? If there was anyone at the conference who knew, that person failed to speak up.

Newsweek (November 3, 1980, pp. 95-96) summed up the same meeting this way: "In the fossil record, missing links are the rule.... Evidence from fossils now points overwhelmingly away from the classical Darwinism which ... [says] that new species evolve out of existing ones by the gradual accumulation of small changes.... Increasingly, scientists now believe that species change little for millions of years, and then evolve quickly, in a kind of quantum leap-not necessarily in a direction that represents an obvious improvement in fitness. The majority of 160 of the world's top paleontologists, anatomists, evolutionary geneticists and developmental biologists supported some form of this theory of 'punctuated equilibria.'"

Pius XII is still right: there is no proof. But we may discuss evolution as long as we admit this fact, and as long as we do not make the theory atheistic. Sadly, there seems to be a tendency of this kind in many scientists. Thus, according to the article in Science, at one point Niles Eldredge of the American Museum of Natural History, New York, found himself "countering accusations of monotheism." Really, to suppose that beings can lift themselves by their bootstraps, adding higher perfections that they receive from nowhere, is untenable on the grounds of reason alone, even without the help of religion.

Closely related is the question of polygenism, the theory that our race descended not from one pair but from several. The task of proving this scientifically is awesome, probably impossible. One would have to find the oldest human remains and be sure they were human. Where there is evidence of ritual burial, especially with artifacts, one may be sure that the remains are clearly human. Otherwise it is often impossible to know. Scientists still differ over the recent fossil skeleton of "Lucy." But to prove polygenism, one would have to be certain that the remains are human and, further, that they are so close to the origin of the race that, considering geographic distribution, they could not have come from one pair.

We are still countless miles from having such proof. In fact, Science News (August 13, 1983, p. 101) reports that Allan Wilson of the University of California at Berkley now holds that "we all go back to one mother, living 350,000 years ago.... Wilson found 110 variations in the mitochondrial DNA of 112 individuals in a worldwide survey." (Mitochrondria are the power-producing structures of cells. They contain 35 genes that are passed directly from mother to child, hence Wilson did not speak of a father.)

From the viewpoint of Scripture, Pius XII said, in Humani Generis: "Christians cannot embrace that opinion ... since it is by no means apparent how this view could be reconciled with things which the sources of revelations and the acta of the Magisterium of the Church teach about original sin, which comes from a sin really committed by one Adam, and which, being transmitted by generation, is in each one as his own."

Of the scholars who sincerely wish to follow the Church, some think that this statement completely rules out polygenism; others, who also seek to be loyal, think that its careful wording leaves a door open by saying that polygenism cannot be accepted because it is not clear how to fit it with Scripture and official teaching. They think that if a way could be found to make it fit, the objection brought by Pius XII would be dropped.

A special problem with these chapters of Genesis is the account of how Eve was made from a rib of Adam. Pope John Paul II explained excellently in his audience of November 7, 1979,1 that Genesis 1-3 is "myth." Scripture scholars often describe the genre of Genesis 1-3 in that way, but they do not mean what most people think of on hearing the word myth. As the Pope explained, "the term myth does not designate a fabulous content, but merely an archaic way of expressing a deeper content."2

Within this framework, the Pope then explained the rib scene: "The man (Adam) falls into the 'sleep' in order to wake up 'male' end 'female'.... Perhaps... the analogy of sleep indicates here not so much a passing from consciousness to subconsciousness as a specific return to non-being (sleep contains an element of annihilation of man's conscious existence), that is, to the moment preceding the creation, in order that, through God's creative initiative, solitary 'man' may emerge from it again in his double unity as male and female.... It is a question here of homogeneity of the whole being of both."3 The Pope adds: "It is interesting to note that for the ancient Sumerians the cuneiform sign to indicate the noun rib coincided with the one used to indicate the word life."4

St. John Chrysostom, centuries ago, in his Homily on Genesis (2:21), moved in the same direction as the Pope, without being able to work it out fully. He called the rib episode a case of synkatabasis, divine adaptation to our needs. "See the condescendence of divine Scripture," says Chrysostom, "what words it uses because of our weakness. 'And He took,' it says, 'one of his ribs.' Do not take what is said in a human way, but understand that the crassness of the words fits human weakness."

If we work within this same framework of genre, we can find other remarkable insights into the content. Let us retell the episode in our own words so as to bring out these points.

Eve is in the garden one day. Along comes the tempter and says: "This is a fine garden! Do they let you eat the fruit of all these trees?" Eve replies: "Yes ... oh, pardon me, not the one over there. God said if we eat from that one, we will die." The evil one responds: "He said that? Can't you see He is selfish, holding out on you? Why, if you eat that fruit, you will become like gods. He does not want anyone else to get what He has." So Eve looks at the fruit and says, "I can just see that it is good."

Eve's words imply: God may know what is good in some things, but here I can see for myself This is good, even if He says it is not.

Here the ancient theologian of Genesis was telling us that every sin is, at bottom, pride. God may know some things, but I know better here and now. My senses tell me for certain what is good.

After Adam and Eve sinned, God calls: "Adam, where are you?" Adam says, "I hid myself because I was naked." Then God asks Adam, "How did you find out you were naked if you did not eat the forbidden fruit?"

Adam and Eve were naked both before and after the first sin. But before sinning, that fact did not disturb them. Afterwards, feeling ashamed, they hurriedly improvised some covering from leaves. What seems to be implied is this: Man, if God had given him only the essentials of humanity, no added gifts, would have had to work to control his drives. Man has many drives in his body, each legitimate in itself, each working towards its own satisfaction. Each operates automatically, blindly, taking no thought for the well-being of the whole man. So, there would be need for mortification to learn to tame them. The sex drive, especially, is unruly. It can start up without a man wanting it to start.

But, clearly, before the Fall, Adam had no such problem. His sex drive was not rebellious. It could operate, but only when he told it to, not before. But after the Fall, that drive began to take over, to operate without his willing it. Hence the feeling of need for cover.

Before the Fall, Adam had had what we might call a coordinating gift, a power that made it easy to keep all his drives harmonious and in subjection to his reason and will. After the Fall, he lost that coordinating gift. And, inasmuch as feelings, especially strong ones, can pull on one's judgment, the result of sin was that the mind was darkened and the will weakened. We, descendants of Adam, did not inherit the special gift. Adam and Eve had thrown it away by sin; they no longer had it to give.

Having lost God's favor, His grace, their descendants could not inherit it. To be born without grace in the soul is to be in a state of sin. In the infant, that state is not the child's own fault; in the adult sinner, that person is culpable. To lose God's favor means that what is said in John 14:23 cannot come true: "If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him." In theological language, this means that the soul will lack the divine presence it had in sanctifying grace. Adam and Eve lost this favor, and so this grace. Their descendants were born without it. They begin their earthly lives without the divine presence within their souls that is the uncreated aspect of sanctifying grace. That is what is meant by original sin.

St. Paul, under inspiration, in Romans 5:12, saw this in Genesis, and the Council of Trent authoritatively interpreted it thus (DS 1514).

(Of course this does not preclude the fact that Adam, Eve, and their descendants could, after the unfortunate start, regain that favor and grace.)


1 [Footnotes for this chapter missing. Probable reconstructions follow:] See Pope John Paul II, Original Unity of Man and Woman, Catechesis on the Book of Genesis (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1981), the audience of November 7, 1979.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.

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