Saturday, July 17, 2010

Psalm 104 and the Early Chapters of Genesis

Psalm 104 is a creation psalm, but a unique one. It actually reiterates the description of events of creation week step by step; it's essentially the earliest commentary on Genesis 1. This allows us to check our interpretation of Genesis 1 to see if it's in accord with Psalm 104; if it's not, then we should go back and check to see where the misinterpretation lies.

The significance of this is that one of the things that fuels the claim that science and Christianity are at odds with each other is that some Christians insist on interpretations of the Bible which blatantly contradict the discoveries of modern science. If the problem lies in the interpretation rather than what the Bible actually teaches, this would be an important point in the debate. Of course, there are other responses one can give to the science vs. Christianity metanarrative; for example, the Bible was never intended to provide a comprehensive description of the world, nor has it been historically understood to do so. As David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers write, "The notion that any serious Christian thinker would even have attempted to formulate a world view from the Bible alone is ludicrous."

One significant difference between the two texts is that Genesis focuses on what was created and Who did the creating. The Psalm, however, also addresses the why: why did God create this? Its point is to show how God is in charge of his creation, and that each part has a role to play in his overarching purpose.

Here are the main parallels between Psalm 104 and Genesis 1:

1. Ps. 104:2-5/Gen. 1:1 -- Creation of the universe
2. Ps. 104:6-9/Gen. 1:6-10 -- Formation of dry land
3. Ps. 104:14-17/Gen. 1:11-13 -- Creation of plants (for men and animals)
4. Ps. 104:19-23/Gen. 1:14-19 -- Establishment of the heavens as calendar “markers”
5. Ps. 104:24-30/Gen. 1:20-25 -- Creation of animals

Point 2 is interesting. Genesis 1 describes how the early Earth was totally covered with water, and that God brought the land out of it, raising the seabed above sea level in certain places. Psalm 104 describes this same event, but includes another point that Genesis doesn't make: "You set a boundary they [the waters] cannot cross; never again will they cover the earth." So after God created dry land, there was never a time when water completely covered it.

This doesn't conflict with Genesis 1, but it does conflict with how many people understand the flood chapters. It's often thought that Genesis 7-8 is describing a global flood. But Psalm 104 does not allow this interpretation. The flood could not have been global, since after God first formed the dry land, he promised to never again allow it to be completely covered with water. The flood, therefore, must have been a local event, which presumably destroyed the local ecosystem and the human race who hadn't spread out to cover the earth yet.

The only way out of this is to claim that, perhaps, Psalm 104 is not referring to the establishment of dry land during creation week but to the flood itself. In fact, this is how most commentaries that I've read understand it. Part of the motivation for this is that, after the flood, God promised to never destroy the human race by flood again. Thus, the promise in Psalm 104 to never let water cover all the face of the earth is allegedly the same promise God made after the flood.

However, the parallels between Psalm 104 and Genesis 1 confute the idea that these texts are describing the same promise. Essentially, this would require us to believe that Psalm 104 parallels Genesis 1 regarding the creation of the universe; then jumps ahead to describe the flood; then jumps back to Genesis 1 where it left off; then skips over the account of the creation of dry land (which just happens to sound exactly like what Psalm 104 is describing); then continues paralleling Genesis 1 as if the hop, skip, and jump hadn't happened. This is an incredibly ad hoc explanation; you could defend just about any interpretation using such tactics.

Another interesting issue is point 5. This describes God's creation of the animals. Genesis 1 includes the detail that God gave the earliest humans and animals plants to eat. From this, some conclude that they only ate plants. This accords with the idea that carnivorous activity -- where animals kill and eat each other -- is a result of the fall of humankind, and was not a part of God's original creation plan.

Psalm 104, however, includes carnivorous activity as part of his purpose in creation, referring to God's providence in the predator-prey relationship. Verse 21 states, "The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God". Moreover, a few verses later, this and other aspects of God providing for his creation are called "good": "These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things" (vv. 27-28). This recalls the repeated statement in Genesis 1 where God, after creating something, calls it "good". This strongly suggests that there wasn't some sort of vegetarian mandate in effect prior to the fall of humankind.

A similar passage is in Job where God challenges Job by asking him if he can do everything God does. In 38:39-40 God says, "Do you hunt the prey for the lioness and satisfy the hunger of the lions when they crouch in their dens or lie in wait in a thicket?" Since this comes in a list of things of how God provides for his creation, it means that God is the one who brings other animals to the lion for it to kill and eat as the lion waits in a place hidden from them. This doesn't explicitly tie it to creation week as does Psalm 104, but it still removes the claim that it's contrary to God's providential ordering of the universe.

A potential escape hatch is that Psalm 104 refers to many things that weren't in effect during creation week. The bodies of water, for example, are there so people can build boats and sail on them (v. 26). But this ignores the fact that the Psalm is describing what the various stages in creation are for; he is describing why he created the various things he did, using Genesis 1 as a blueprint. Thus, he reiterates the order of things in Genesis, but then adds how each stage of creation paved the way for future stages, even those stages not a part of creation week itself.

But then couldn't the same thing be said of the lion hunting it's prey? That, after all, is a current phenomenon, and we do not necessarily have to ascribe it to creation week. The problem with this is that, in addition to being a creation psalm, Psalm 104 is a praise psalm. That is, it's describing the good things God has done, not the negative result of sin or the fall. The psalmist praises God for providing the lion with its food (that it kills and eats) and calls this good, just as Genesis 1 calls the various stages of creation good.

Of course, both of these claims open up a can of worms. There are other objections to the claim that animal death was present prior to the fall of humankind; there are other arguments that the formation of land in Psalm 104 is referring to the flood chapters, not Genesis 1. Nevertheless, I think this Psalm is a good starting point. It opens doors that we may not realize are open because of common interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


James said...

Fascinating. Using the later bits of the bible as commentary on the earlier bits seems to be an underused resource. Are there any other examples of this, beyond the obvious OT references in the NT?

Jim S. said...

Yes, certainly. Much of the later OT reiterates the time of the Patriarchs, the captivity in Egypt, the Exodus, David's reign, etc. This is also true of the early chapters of Genesis. For example, the separation of the waters below from the waters above in Genesis 1:6-8 is sometimes interpreted today to mean that God surrounded the earth with a water canopy. But two passages in Proverbs suggest that the phrase "the waters above" simply refers to clouds and precipitation. Proverbs 3:19-20 states that "By wisdom the LORD laid the earth's foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the deeps were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew." Referring to God's laying of the earth's foundations and setting the heavens in place obviously hearkens back to the creation account in Genesis 1. "The deeps were divided" sounds exactly like the separation of the waters below from the waters above, and "the clouds let drop the dew" obviously refers to precipitation.

Similarly, Proverbs 8:27-29 states "I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep." Again, "when he set the heavens in place" clearly refers back to the creation account in Genesis 1, and "clouds above" and "fountains of the deep" immediately brings to mind the concept of the waters above and the waters below, thus demonstrating that the waters above refer to clouds.

Anonymous said...

The recapitulation in Psalm 104 doesn't seem to me to be an out and out recapitulation of Genesis. Rather, it flows from the generally understood sequence of creation, with David's own additional commentaries sprinkled in to make the larger points he is trying to make. I see no startling evidence concerning the flood, in one direction or the other.

Jim S. said...

Well, I disagree. Once you acknowledge that the establishment of dry land in Psalm 104 refers to its first formation, as described in Genesis 1, then you're stuck with the fact that the author of Psalm 104 specifically states that God promised that the waters would never cover all the land again. Saying it's just a general sequence with David's commentary on it simply doesn't take away from this.

Jim S. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.