Genesis Unbound | Review

Posted on April 23, 2013


John Sailhamer. Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account. Multnomah Books, 1996, 2011. (270 pages)


Quick Introductory Note

In this study blog, I generally post my highlights and underlines for the purpose of documenting the key phrases and ideas of the book and add a few interactions and reflections at the end. This read, however, has more to critique than usual, and it is my personal “thank you offering” to a friend who gave it to me as a gift. (Thanks Cody! Very thoughtful, and I appreciate our meeting and discussions.)

Overall Evaluation: Disappointing.

While there are philosophical approaches that are to be commended, and a few critiques that are well worth considering, there are also statements that contradict his own approach, inaccuracies in a few data points, unsubstantiated assertions, confusing verbiage and phraseology, and his conclusions are more problematic than the questions he “solves.” It almost feels as if his “literary” approach and philosophy (or biased theology?) has both substantiated and undermined what he is attempting to do in the book. This, in my estimation, is the book’s (and thesis’s) weakness, preventing the author and reader from really understanding how the actual text fits in his overall framework.

If I’m being nit-picky, the format of the book seems backward (that it should have begun with the content found in the Appendices), and the inserted shadow boxes on various topics like YEC (Young Earth Creationism) and hominids are quite distracting, disappointing, misrepresentative (partly because they are so short), and have little to nothing to do with the content he is addressing.

Concessionary Disclaimer: The book was first published in 1996, almost 17 years ago, and much has been developed and changed even in this short period of time. I do not know how much was edited or redacted for the 2011 edition, however, that time frame may have played a factor in some of what I’m going to critique. In addition, given the potential audience, and the publisher (Dawson Media), there may have been limitations on what the author could have explored or stated.

To Be Commended … However,

I believe we often read the first two chapters of Genesis with a set of unexamined assumptions. … Like it or not, Genesis in the English Bible is “bound” by those assumptions. A major part of my task in this book is to loose those bonds and release the chapters to speak for themselves.” (13)

Well said. The problem is that throughout the book there are hints that Sailhamer’s theology inserts itself in such a way as to hinder potential readings of the text that may be perfectly valid. Nowhere in the book does Sailhamer address his own unexamined assumptions and lay those out for the reader in a clear and cogent manner. I do believe that Sailhamer’s honest goal of “releasing” the text to speak for itself — on its own terms — is his aim. However, as I will attempt to illustrate, he releases the text from one traditional interpretation and replaces it with his own imposing interpretive lens. He essentially unbinds the text from one set of assumptions only to bind it with another set. And, he does so with a level of absolutism and certainty which leaves the reader and the text with little room for other possibilities (like his discussion on myth and poetry).

Genesis Unbound will argue that a common modern understanding of the first two chapters of Genesis is simply wrong. (15)

Yup. Great. But the standards by which he measures that it is wrong are his own assumptions and theology. This is a common mistake I see in a lot of writing, and I will show examples below in the details.

We must listen carefully to the perspective of Scripture, trying hard to distinguish between what we see in the text and what is actually there. Failure to do so can lead to serious error. (27)

The ethic of listening carefully and distinguishing well is good. However, the statement that “failure to do so can lead to serious error” is, again, judged by the assumptions of Sailhamer. What constitutes “error?” The statement itself betrays a standard by which the entire work seems to be measured.

The Details

Okay, let’s do the hard work.

If Genesis 1:1 is merely a title for the rest of the chapter, then we are left with the uncomfortable discovery that the passage does not tell us when, or who, created the earth. If Genesis 1:1 is merely a title, then Genesis 1 does not teach the traditional concept of “creation out of nothing.” That does not invalidate the idea that God created the world “out of nothing” (as Hebrews 11:3 clearly teaches), but it would mean that the notion of ‘creation out of nothing’ is nowhere taught in Genesis 1. (25) (my underline and emphasis)

Here we see the first example of an imposing assumption. First, Hebrews 11:3 is in the context of faith (πιστις) and contrasts that which is seen (βλεπομενον) from that which are not visible (μη εκ φαινομενων). To say that Hebrews 11:3 “clearly teaches” “creatio ex nihilo” betrays his own ethic of letting a text speak for itself. Another treatment of Hebrews is necessary before making that claim. In addition, notice the phraseology, “traditional concept” and the following of what is underlined. Isn’t the goal to “unbind” the text from these traditions to let the text speak for itself?

Second, Sailhamer’s conclusion here is not text based but rather theology based. Why can it not be okay that Genesis 1:1 doesn’t teach creatio ex nihilo? While the doctrine may still be true, it violates the fundamental hermeneutical principle of Sailhamer himself to “unbind” the text from our interpretive impositions. Later, when he talks more about Genesis 1:1, he will state that all things were created in that first verse. Fine. But his rigid framework does not allow for the possibility of Genesis 1:1 as a title, nor does it take into consideration that perhaps the Bible actually doesn’t teach a doctrine that we’ve held on to for so many years. And, given the hermeneutic, that must be okay if that is what the text and author is communicating.

Yet if we are to understand Genesis 1 correctly, we must first read it on its own terms — without attempting to reconcile it with current scientific views. The full, rich, theological message of Genesis 1 and 2 must not be lost in an attempt to harmonize them with modern science. When we know what the biblical view is, only then can we attempt to correlate it with science. (31)

It is this statement that is going to cause the majority of the problems in the rest of Sailhamer’s treatment. It is to be commended that readers of Genesis ought not attempt to harmonize an interpretation with modern science. It is also to be commended that the rich theological message ought not be lost in that attempt. However, a) throughout his book he makes statements of scientific reconciliation, and b) it is unclear what the distinctions are between “reconcile” and “correlate” in the relationships with science.


1. What does Genesis Unbound suggest about the age of the universe? …there is no way to limit the duration of the word ‘beginning’ (Hebrew, reshit). (32)

The whole point of using reshit to convey the concept of “beginning” (when other terms were readily available) is to leave the duration of time unspecified. … I contend that two distinct time periods are mentioned in Genesis 1. In the first period (the “beginning,” Genesis 1:1), God created the universe; no time limitations are placed on that period. In the second period (Genesis 1:2-2:4a), God prepared the garden of Eden for man’s dwelling; that activity occurred in one week. (33)

Sailhamer’s interpretation of reshit (ראשית) having no time limit is a nice way of thinking about it. But given what we’ve understood about ancient creation narratives, this seems like a surface observation, and one that is attempting to reconcile with the science. There was no discussion at all about bereshit (בראשית) meaning “head” or “source” or “the beginning,” and all the possibilities of that term. To just simply discuss the time implications of this word leaves much undiscovered about the word.

The other problem is that Sailhamer offers no further explanation as to what he means by “occurred in one week,” a time frame that is going to force him to reconcile that with the scientific record. His “literal and historical” framework that he is going to defend doesn’t provide much clarity or explanation as to what “one week” really means in his framework. Is it “sun rising and setting seven times” week, or is it a “theological” week, or is it an “ordering” philosophical assertion? There are many options, and no real understanding, even to the end of the book.

2. What does this interpretation suggest about the supposed long period of growth and development in the history of the universe, particularly the geological time periods on earth? (33)

Sailhamer writes in this section that,

…much of the process described by modern scientists fall into the period covered by the Hebrew term ‘beginning.’ Within that ‘beginning’ would fit the countless geological ages, ice ages, and the many climatic changes on our planet. (33)

What is bothersome about this is the invocation of some scientific “correlation” or “reconciliation,” though it’s difficult to tell which he is doing here. Regardless, the reason why the original ethic — to avoid scientific reconciliation — was commendable is illustrated in this phrase. First, he is going to move from these long “epochs” of history to a “literal” seven day period in one verse, quite a hefty imposition. Second, many of the activities in those seven days of Genesis are, from a scientific sense, happening in those long epochs. Third, the foundation upon which he is building his case for an unspecified period of time in 1:1 and a specified period of time in the rest of the chapter is interpretive, and binding. It is quite possible, using his own “unbinding ethic,” that even the “literal” seven days have no time constraints simply because they’re not talking about time. The text may be talking about something entirely different from a “literal seven days.”

…the biblical creation account can be viewed as a sort of early polemic against atheism. (33-34)

This is the first statement that makes sense. He spends less than a short paragraph on this concept, and it’s unfortunate that more could not be said in this direction.

3. If God created the universe over billions of years “in the beginning,” what was He doing in “the week” that is recounted in the rest of Genesis 1? (34)

To this, Sailhamer asserts,

God is at work preparing the land for human habitation. (34)

While this perspective is a nice one to consider, there are problems and inconsistencies with his analysis of the words eretz (ארץ) and asah (עשה) that I will address later.

If God created the whole of the universe “in the beginning” of Genesis 1:1, then why does He need to create the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day? Why does He need to create the plants and animals on the third and fifth days? (34)

This is an example of the questions and problems that are raised with Sailhamer’s approach. In addition, Why the move from global to local? And if that is so, then does not the local “promised land” approach pose problems for such global/universal concepts such as the gathering of the waters, the emergence of land, the luminaries to light “the land,” and the creation of “humanity,” (אדם)?

5. What does this interpretation say about the origin of the human race? Were human beings also created “in the beginning?” If so, why are they created again on the sixth day?” Are there two kinds of human beings — those created “in the beginning” and those created on the sixth day? (36)

It would seem at this point that one would recognize the problems one is creating with one’s framework. This is an excellent example of how Sailhamer explains one idea, only to have to re-explain the implications of his idea. We’ll get to more details later when we discuss his explanation of the word bara’ (ברא).

In this section, there are several troubling statements,

Genesis insists that all human beings as we know them are descendants of Adam. (37)

False. First, Adam (אדם) may mean “humanity,” a related cognate to adamah (אדמה) and dam (דם), “ground” and “blood” respectively. Second, given the usage of the word אדם in Genesis 1, and the proverbial “Cain’s wife” problem, Genesis does not insist that all human beings as we know them are descendants of Adam. Genesis does insist that all human beings are created in God’s image and likeness.

…nothing in Genesis 1 and 2 contradicts modern science. According to the Bible — just as in modern scientific theories — human beings arrived on the scene very recently in geological history, fully developed culturally and linguistically. (37)

This statement is really unfortunate, unnecessary, antithetical to his own “non-reconciling” ethic, and if read in the way one would most naturally read his statement, false. First, we perceive that humans evolved both culturally and linguistically. That is not hard to concede, as many theological interpretations of the Old Testament de facto use this cultural evolution as part of the hermeneutical framework (e.g. Slaves, Women & Homosexuals by William Webb). Second, again, why is he attempting to reconcile science and the Bible at all, much less so early in his work?

6. Where do we put the dinosaurs? Were they created “in the beginning,” or were they created on the fifth or sixth day? (37)

It’s getting worse. First, why not just put the dinosaurs in the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous eras? (Okay, that was a bit snarky, I apologize. But the reason I include it here, is because he states at the beginning about not reconciling science and the Bible, and yet, this is all he’s doing here.) Second, his jab at evolution is really unnecessary, and frankly unintelligent:

Yet there is no reason to suggest that God’s work of creation followed the course outlined by modern evolutionary theory. The theory of evolution, especially in its classical Darwinian form, has undergone fundamental challenges and adjustments in recent years. As long as it maintains that God was not or could not have been a factor in the process, it falls under the critique of the first statement of the Bible: “God created the heavens and the earth.” (37)

It’s hard to even address his assertion in that statement. Second, he does not really answer the question, but simply posits that they were created “in the beginning.” Two things. First, if you’re going to posit a thesis, you must defend it well, and stick to it. The question itself is invalid according to his thesis, and it is perplexing why this is one of the “six” key questions. Second, because of that, the fact that he addresses a question about dinosaurs hints that what Sailhamer is doing here is not really an analysis of Genesis, but rather a polemic against atheistic evolution under the guise of doing an in-depth, literary analysis of Genesis.


This is where the major problem is illuminated. Not only does he betray his own ethic, but in these three paragraphs, Sailhamer is not just attempting to reconcile science and the Bible, he is suggesting that the Bible ought to be primary over science:

In trying to understand the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2, we should be guided by what the text itself says, not by attempts to reconcile the text with the ever-changing views of modern science. Once we grasp a clear picture of Genesis 1 and 2, we can then apply their meaning to the important questions which modern science raises. (38)

First, views of Genesis are themselves ever-changing. And, changing views is actually the strength of science and faith, that we learn, discover, and grow more. Second, (and this is going to sound like a broken record), this entire statement seems completely antithetical to his “non-reconciling” ethic posited on page 31. Third, how can we “apply their meaning to the important questions which modern science raises?” Addressing the implications in this statement is going to require several tomes of philosophical work, so suffice it to say here, it may simply be that the application ethic is completely misappropriated. In other words, what Genesis is doing has as much to do with modern science as Aesop’s Fables have to do with Zoology. And to suggest that the “meaning” of Genesis can be applied to “science” illustrates that Sailhamer may not know in what kind of philosophical pool he is swimming.

[The remainder of this review will be a mixed bag of quotes, reflections and comments.]

Part 2 Genesis Reconsidered


…throughout the Bible the Hebrew term for “begining” (reshit) is the same word used for “the beginning” of the reign of a king. (44)

The author could have used a Hebrew word for “beginning” similar to the English word “start” or “initial point” (for example, rishonah or techillah). (45)

Nuances should be considered with this. First, the word rishonah (ראשונה) is actually a cognate of bereshit (בראשית). Second, the word techillah (תחלה) is also used in the Bible to mean “source,” “beginning,” (Proverbs 9:10), etc.

In opening his account of creation with the phrase “in the beginning,” the author has identified the creation as a prelude to the history of God’s dealings with humanity. … “At the head of this history stands the creation of the world as its commencement, or at all events its foundation.” – Franz Delitzsch (47)


To summarize, the usual meaning of eretz is simply “the land” and not “the earth” as in most English translations. For the most part, it refers to a specific stretch of land in a local, geographical, or political sense. Often it means simply “the ground” upon which one stands. As such, it is frequently used interchangeably with another common Hebrew word adamah (that is, “arable ground”). (56)

Couple problems with this. First, eretz (ארץ) is extremely flexible in usage. It is used frequently, yes, for specific locations, but it is also used as a generic term to mean “country,” or “place,” or “earth” (e.g. Psalm 24:1). Given that it’s used over 2,000 times in the Hebrew Bible, it’s going to be hard to narrow the definition as Sailhamer does. Second, even in Genesis, the word is used differently, such as day 3 when “the land” (ארץ) is separated from the seas (ימים).

On page 57, Sailhamer even quotes Genesis 11:2, the “land” (ארץ) of Shinar, explaining that “…if you traveled east from ‘the land,’ you wound up in Babylon.’ (57) Well, according to Sailhamer’s study, if you traveled east from “the land” (ארץ), you would really end up in “the land” (ארץ) of Shinar. So, even in his example, there are inconsistencies.

In discussing “merism,”

The expression “sky and land” thus stands for the “entirety of the universe.” It includes not only the two extremes, heaven and earth, but also all that they contain — the sun, the moon, and the stars; every seen and unseen part of the universe; the seas, the dry land, and the plants and animals that inhabit them. (62)

But according to Sailhamer’s treatment of the word eretz (ארץ), this is “localized.” Again, this is inconsistent.

…if the sun is meant to be included int he merism “sky and land” in Genesis 1:1, then it is natural to assume that the sun was created already in the first verse. If that is so, then the “light” of verse 3 is simply the light of the sun. Such an understanding of the phrase appears to be the most natural assumption of the author and also the most natural reading of the text. (64)

But why, and by what means? This reading suggests then that nothing was created after 1:1, but only “put into place.”


Although these pictures can find support in the English expression “without form and void,” they are unlikely to arise out of the original Hebrew phrase tohu wabohu. Were it not for the Greek notion of “primeval chaos,” the phrase never would have been translated that way. (69)

Rather than “formless and empty,” such a translation conveys the idea of “unihabitable” and “wilderness” — the correct sense of the Hebrew phrase. (70)

I’m not sure I’m understanding fully. It seems to me that the traditional translation and Sailhamer’s suggestion are quite synonymous. And, in using a previous ethic he used, there are perhaps better words for “wilderness,” [e.g. “yeshemon” (ישמון) and “midbar” (מדבר)].

Even a quick reading of the Hebrew text reveals an obvious wordplay between the terms tohu (“deserted”) and tob (“good”). Before God began His work, the land was “deserted” (tohu); then God made it “good” (tob). (70)

Perhaps. We must note that the spelling and cadence are quite different: תוהו and טוב. Compare that with Isaiah 5, where justice (משפט) and bloodshed (משפח) and righteousness (צדקה) and outcries (צעקה) are compared. Much closer.


Viewed from the context of the entire Pentateuch, the garden of Eden foreshadows the tabernacle where Israel was to meet with God. (75)


The problem comes in the “Location of the Garden” section where he states, “the garden was planted in Eden, which was apparently a site larger than the garden itself. If the phrase ‘on the east’ refers to Eden itself, the garden was on its eastern side.” (76) Immediately after that he says, “Our concern here, however, is not with the physical location of the garden of Eden but with the textual identity of the garden.” (76) But then he proceeds to give us more details on the physical location of Eden and that there is a “specific place” in the mid of the author, namely, “the promised land.” He then identifies it “with certainty” because he names the Euphrates and the Tigris. (77) This kind of inconsistent and contradictory writing is what makes reading this book so frustrating.

God’s promise of the land to the patriarchs is thus textually linked to His original “blessing” of all humanity in the garden of Eden. (78)

Nice. This can be affirmed.

By establishing a connection between the promised land and the garden of Eden, the Genesis narratives reveal something quite important about God and His purposes in creation. They tell us that God’s purposes remain the same. What He has accomplished in creation He will do again in His covenant promises. (79)

Again, well said. It is perplexing how these wonderful theological conclusions are mixed in so haphazardly with his other textual analysis ethics. If he had stuck with this one strain as the interpretive lens, there would be far less internal conflict in this book.

One nuance that is awesome to consider is the feminine “it” in Genesis 2:15 when the word for garden, גן is masculine. Sailhamer suggests it is a reference to “the Law” התורה (ha Torah). (82) That’s a nice interpretation, and is worth considering.


Yet if it was wrong to read the Bible if it represented the Ptolemaic system, it is equally wrong to read the Bible as if it represents the Einsteinian universe. While the Bible may in fact reflect precisely the modern view of the universe, the evidence should come legitimately from the text; it should not be read into the text from the dictates of science. In other words, the text must be read from a proper context. (87)

And, we’re back to the frustration. First, the entire treatment Sailhamer gives to Genesis is antithetical to the underlined portion above. Second, this statement subtly suggests that the text can be read scientifically. But isn’t the point that it ought not be read that way. Agree, that it should be read from a proper context. And from that context, it must be considered that scientific categories are foreign to the Genesis motif.

The rest of this chapter is disappointing for it’s lack of scholarly fortitude.

Regarding ANE (Ancient Near East) creation accounts, Sailhamer refers to Enuma Elish (not by name) making the claim that “the world was viewed through everyday experiences such as life and death, famine and feast, war and peace.” (88)

Most biblical scholars agree that there is little basis for assuming the biblical writer used or had access to any known ancient Near Eastern creation myth. (88)

True, but if you look at the original source, John Walton’s Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context, we discover that the argument is the absence of evidence. Thus, we must be careful not to conclude what Sailhamer does that the question of borrowing “has been decisively resolved in our day.” (88) I consider this a bit sloppy.

Though many have assumed that the Bible shares the worldview of the ancient orient, the creation accounts we have from that period are all distinct from the Bible. They are distinctly poetic and manifestly mythological. The biblical account, by contrast, is thoroughly narrative in form and decidedly non-mythological. (89)

There is more here than Sailhamer gives space for. As is, this segment is full of mere assertions without much scholastic support. This statement (p.89), also hints at some contradiction. In reading Enuma Elish and the Epic of Gilgamesh, I surmise that some would find it difficult to make such clear distinctions.

The author of Genesis 1 wants to show that the stretch of land which God promised to give Israel in the Sinai Covenant — the land where Abraham and his family sojourned, the land of Canaan — was the same land that God had prepared for them at the time of creation. It was in that land that God first blessed mankind and called upon men and women to obey Him. It was in that land that the Tree of Life once grew and God provided for man’s good and kept him from evil. In the narrative of Genesis 1, we are thus given an account of God’s original purposes with humanity. (91)

This is another great theological insight, but we must be careful not to locate it too specifically as he has done before.

Thus creation and covenant, or creation and redemption, are the central themes of the Pentateuch. One aspect of God’s dealings with the world — creation — cannot be fully understood without the other — the covenant. (93)



The fact that the account of creation focuses on the promised land in no way limits its universal scope. It only limits its perspective, and to understand it correctly we must read it from that perspective. (101)

The work done in this chapter is fairly innocuous in regards to the other critiques I’ve given above. However, it is perplexing why here he talks about “universal scope” and “limited perspective,” when in the beginning of the book, he makes the claim that the Genesis 1 account is quite limited to the Promised Land. Not sure what to make of this statement in light of his predominant thesis.

In working six days and resting on the seventh, God established a pattern for mankind’s own work and rest. Just as God worked six days, so also man was to work six days. Just as God rested on the seventh day and called it holy, so man was to rest on the seventh day and treat it as holy.

As the biblical writer thus put it, God deliberately worked for six full days to provide an example for mankind’s labors. The picture we see of God in these chapters is a father setting an example for his children. The prophet Hosea alluded to this when he said God “taught them to walk by leading them in his own footsteps” (Hosea 11:3). (104)

The problem with this is that throughout, Sailhamer argues for a “literal and historical” reading of the six days. But here, he seems to offer a “metaphorical” or “theological” reading of Genesis 1. And nowhere does he reconcile these two things in his writing. To say it was a “literal” six days invokes a whole host of other issues that he doesn’t address, and yet he concludes here with something quite symbolic, illustrative, and seemingly poetic and mythical, a sentiment that is contrary to his previously stated propositions.


Can we think of Genesis 1:1 as a title? I believe there are at least three reason why such an interpretation is not likely.

1. In the original the first verse is a complete sentence that makes a statement, but titles are not formed that way in Hebrew. In Hebrew, titles consist of simple phrases.

I would contend this. The Psalms are filled with “titles” and they are often long sentences. Second, could it not be argued that seven words (בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ) is a “simple phrase.

2. The conjunction “and” at the beginning of the second verse makes it highly unlikely that 1:1 is a title.

Agreed. Except, …

3. Genesis 1 has a summary title at its conclusion, making it unlikely it would have another at its beginning.

The ending phrase in Genesis 2:4 is contended. First, we are uncertain of where it actually belongs in the text, and this is a mystery we will most likely never know, especially since it begins with the phraseology, “these are the generations/accounts,” (אלה תולדות). Second, the ending phrase reverses the “heavens” and the “earth,” such that it would argue for an inclusio-kind of poetic structure. Third, the following phrase begins with the “and” that Sailhamer refers to in #2. So, if he’s going to argue that #3 is a summary title, that invalidates his argument in #2, and vice versa (this happens in 1:2 to v.3 and 1:4 to v.5).

What’s interesting, is that the next page he says,

The purpose of the opening statement in Genesis is twofold: It identifies the Creator; and it explains the origin of the world. (112)

In theological terms, this can be commended and affirmed.

On p.113, we start to enter the danger zone, again…

The first word, bereshit, translated “in the beginning,” tells us that God created the universe over a period of time, not in a single instance. The length of that period of time is not specified. It could have been as long as billions of years or as short as a few days or years. Given what appears to be true about the age of the earth, it is likely that millions or billions of years transpired during this time of “the beginning.” When my children ask me where the dinosaurs fit into the biblical account of creation, I tell them they were created, lived, and became extinct during “the beginning.” (113)

*Sigh. Okay, yes, the length of that period of time is not specified. Then, in accordance with his own ethic, he ought to stop trying to harmonize it with any scientific discovery and let the scientific data tell us the age of the earth and the location of dinosaurs in what era. “In the beginning” may be a good sentimental, theological answer, but it ultimately evades the consecutive inquiry of “when,” and leaves the reader perplexed and wondering what he’s really trying to do in this statement.

This is betrayed, yet again, with what comes next…

We are thus forced by the logic of the text to exclude humans from the world created “in the beginning.” (114)

This is just a blatant internal contradiction. In the creation of ADAM (אדם), God uses both bara (ברא) and asah (עשה) which are used throughout the chapter, the latter term of which Sailhamer suggests is not an act of creation but rather an act of functioning.


When Genesis 1:3 says, “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ ” it means, in effect, “God said, ‘Let the sun rise.’ ” The phrase “let there be light” doesn’t have to mean “let the light come into existence.” (118)

What?! First of all, the verbs used (יהי ויהי) are ontological and existence verbs, and have no reference whatsoever to the sun rising, (מזרח השמש), (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:5; Psalm 113:3). Second, the examples he uses to substantiate his point do not use the same phraseologies, and are of different contexts and genres altogether.

Exodus 10:23 – ולכל־בני ישראל היה אור במושבתם

Nehemiah 8:3 – מן־האור עד־מחצית היום

Genesis 44:3 – הבקר אור


On the second day, however, nothing was made which directly benefited mankind. … something is considered “good” only if it directly benefits mankind. (127)

This makes no sense. Day 3 includes the phrase “it was good” twice, once for the seas, and the second for the seeds. Day 4 includes the separation of day and night as “good.” Day 5 are winged birds, and in v.31 God look at “everything he had made and indeed it was good” (וירא אלהים את־כל־אשר עשה והנה־טוב מאד). Why would not day two, the expanse between the waters — an atmosphere that I would surmise greatly benefits mankind — be excluded. I suggest there is something else going on here that what Sailhamer suggests.


The author of Genesis 1 was thus not merely recounting past events, he was also building a case for the importance of obeying God’s will. (133)

Perhaps. But to substantiate his argument, using flood and water language, he states the following.

To appropriately understand this narrative from the author’s point of view, we should not think of the “oceans” when we read that God named the “pools of water” the “seas” in Genesis 1:10. In Hebrew, any “pool” of water — regardless of the size — is called a “sea.”

The passage itself makes it clear that we shouldn’t ahve oceans in mind when it describes the waters being gathered together “into one place.” The waters didn’t gather into “many places,” but only “one place.” The text is very precise here. it clearly views the “pools” of water” as those “seas” which cover the promised land even today, namely the “sea” of Galilee, the dead “sea,” and the great “sea” to the west, the Mediterranean Sea. In Hebrew, each of these “pools of water” is called a “sea.” In the biblical writer’s understanding of the waters which fill those “seas,” they were all gathered together in “one place” — that is, in (and alongside of) the promised land.

At this point in the narrative, all these waters are not yet teeming with life. They must be filled with appropriate creatures — the fish and “swarming creatures” of the fifth day. (134)

So many problems. First, it is true that “pool” (מקוה) doesn’t mean “ocean” but rather a “gathering” of water. But his manipulation of “one place” to mean the three seas that touch the land of Israel is only possible if you first start with his presupposition of the promised land as the focal point of the narrative. If, however, it is global, then the oceans are completely viable options for interpretation.

Second, if the author is really talking about the promised land bodies of water, and that they are going to be filled with “appropriate creatures — the fish and ‘swarming creatures,’ ” that excludes the Dead Sea (ים המלח). Too many complications.


There are major problems with this chapter. First, he begins by talking about “plants and vegetation” being “created” on the third day before the creation of the sun. But the entire paradigm of his programme is that everything was created in Genesis 1:1. Why the dilemma?

Second, he says,

In the Hebrew text of verse 14, God does not say, “Let there be lights in the expanse to separate the day and night…” as if there were no lights before His command and afterward they came into being. Rather, according to the Hebrew text, God said, ‘Let the lights in the expanse be for separating the day and night…” (emphasis original)

Um, “ויאמר אלהים יהי מארת ברקיע השמים להבדיל בין היום ובין הלילה…” It says both. (1:14)


For example, on the fourth day God speaks, but He does not “make” anything. (142)

Um, “ויעש אלהים את שני המארת הגדלים” Yes he does. (1:16) It is really difficult to get on board with Sailhamer when he gets these statements wrong. Perhaps he is simply reinterpreting the terms, but if so, he needs to make that more clear in his writing.

I would like to affirm a few things he does say,

The writer is intent on showing that the whole world depends on the word of God. (142)

God alone is the Creator of all things and worthy of the worship of His people. (143)

But how he gets there is very disappointing.


Each new stage in creation is thus marked by the special Hebrew verb bara, “to create”: the universe (1:1), the living creatures (1:20-21); and humanity (1:26-27)

Fine. But didn’t he just say earlier that all things were created in 1:1?


Sailhamer addresses the “mysterious ‘us'” in 1:26, but simply does so quite cursorily. Perhaps it’s best summed up,

…the divine plurality expressed in verse 26 can be seen as an anticipation of the human plurality of the man and woman. (155)


The narrative is quite clear that human beings have no biological antecedents. … The narrative is also quite clear that the first man and woman were essentially identical. (162)


This narrative deliberately negates the notion that man’s origin might be connected with the divine. Man’s origin was from the dust of the ground — earth dust, not star dust. (164)

Sailhamer suggests that we’re not a “heavenly creature” in that sense. Fine. But *grr, the statement “earth dust, not star dust,” is problematic, for if we really understand the nature of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, etc., we recognize that we are star dust, scientifically speaking.

I disagree with Sailhamer that Adam names his wife, (p. 165), as the word used there is specifically “called,” and there is a palpable absence of the word “name” (which doesn’t come until chapter 3).

Genesis 1 and 2, understood within the broader context of the Pentateuch, paint a brilliant picture of the good land God prepared for the blessing of His people. When these chapters are understood both as preparation for and a preview of the Sinai Covenant — the way I believe the author intended them to be understood — many of the troublesome questions that have vexed modern readers simply disappear. (166)

But as we have seen, Sailhamer’s approach and treatment is extremely problematic.



Interpretations, whether ancient or modern, must be evaluated by how well they enable us to explain the text. Do they help us understand what the text means? Or do they overlook important features of the text?

Studying various approaches to the opening chapters of Genesis — no matter how antiquated they may appear — is important to understanding the bible and its relationship to science. (170)

Again, see p.31.

The next several chapters are surveys of various interpretations.

1. Evangelicalism has continued to resist the underlying assumptions of Darwinian evolution.

2. Evangelicalism has continued to look for areas within the modern scientific consensus which either correspond to or correlate with the biblical view of creation.

3. Evangelicalism has continued to find clues within the biblical text itself as to the nature of creation and the meaning of Genesis 1 and 2. In that regard, evangelicalism has followed the lead of the earliest reformers and the biblical writers themselves. They have allowed Scripture, not science, to interpret the meaning of Scripture.

In this book I have been attempting to address the larger question of the Bible and science by focusing specifically on this third concern. The biblical text itself has been our constant focus. What are the internal clues to its meaning? What is the biblical author attempting to say?

It is only from that perspective that evangelicalism can hope to forge a viable view of the relationship of science and the Bible. (197)

Not bad. But again, I’m not clear how this works with his statement on p.31. In addition, I would perhaps suggest that the relationship between science and the Bible ought not be a biblical problem with biblical answers. There are philosophical and ontological questions to answer first.

Translation involves an interchange of meaning, both at the level of the individual words and at a higher level, the level of a whole text. Since language is the primary tool by which human beings express their view of the world, translation often involves moving between quite different views of the world. (200)

It is perplexing how this sentiment did not take more center stage of his treatment. There were too many assumptions at the beginning of his book, and throughout that seem to violate this ethic stated far later in the book on p.200.

The final words before the end:

All of our views on this important topic ultimately fall under the same judgment as the opinions of the so-called authorities in the days of the Prophet Isaiah. When confronted with the views of the scholars of his day, the prophet advised, “Go to the Law and the Testimonies” — that is, “Go to the Scriptures themselves.” And if the views of the scholars don’t conform to the words of Scripture themselves, “then there is no light at all in their opinions” (Isaiah 8:20).

And there the matter must rest. (232)

Quite a sour note to end on, and a dishonest one at that. First, the “scholars” of Isaiah are spiritualists, necromancers, and idolaters, a far distant category from the “scholars” of science. Second, “there the matter must rest?” Seriously? The conversation is done? Taken at the worst possible interpretation, this is arrogantly affirming of his interpretation. Taken at it’s best, it eliminates the thinking and wrestling with God and science that we all ought to affirm.

This final clause also betrays the very work he’s doing from his predecessors.


The treatment here is the same as the other segments. Just a few excerpts and comments:

Sometimes the word “myth” is used in a quite different sense. “Myth,” as sociologists and anthropologists sometimes understand it, is merely a cultural mechanism by which groups of people identify themselves. (241)

Then why is this not applied more further to Sailhamer’s treatment of Genesis, or even reasoned as a possibility?! Ah, here’s why:

The term “myth” is thus an ambiguous word. For that reason it is not an appropriate description of the literary characteristics of Genesis 1, nor is it a clear and distinct way to describe the overall purpose of the creation account. (243)

So is absolute clarity the metric?

But then Sailhamer does something oddly fascinating and welcoming:

The Genesis creation narrative is thus a story intended to portray a historical truth that lies beyond the actual story itself and its world. (246)

…we simply do not know where the story of creation in Genesis 1 came from. (250)

History is a result of creation. It cannot be the framework within which we understand creation. To understand creation we must have a larger framework than mere “history.” We need a “mega-historical” framework. We need a history that includes but extends beyond the ranges of mere history. (251)

Simply because the creation narratives are greater than history does not mean they should not be read realistically and literally. It simply means that to understand the literal meaning of Genesis 1, one needs a kind of investigation that contains categories that both include and are greater than everyday experience. To say Genesis 1 is “history” is to limit its meaning to our own historical experience. To say Genesis 1 is “mega-history” means it is to be understood as a realistic and literal depiction of realities that transcend our own historical experiences. (252)

This is fantastic. It is, once again, amazingly perplexing why this doesn’t dominate the work and treatment of Sailhamer on Genesis 1! Really! Why is this not the opening chapter, and the framework he uses throughout his book. This is where disappointment sets in. He is simply inconsistent in his methodology and ideology, and it is concerning that many will read the first 2/3rds of a book to miss out on this last portion of which should possibly be the primary ground work.

I maintain that the Genesis narratives are to be understood literally and realistically. They describe real events in literal terms. We can understand them from our own experiences of the world because many of God’s acts in creation were analogous to events in our own day. We should not lose sight of the fact, however, that the event of creation were not ordinary events. They were, from a human perspective, unique and unrepeatable acts of God. They were the basis of the existence of the world which we now know and understand through science. Without creation there would not be a world. Our world, however, cannot be traced back to the divine act of creation. Science and history will always be separated from the divine acts of creation. Science and history are always concerned with the world that now exists, while creation is concerned with the existence of the world. “Mega-history” is the notion that God has revealed a history of creation in literal and realistic narratives. (256)


Of course, such a belief flies in the face of modern science, with its dogma of the eternality of the material world. (257)

It’s statements like these that really turn off anyone educated in the sciences. It’s statements like these that evidence why theologians should stop making presumptive statements about science.

Biblical scholars have traditionally understood the word (bara) to mean “to create out of nothing.” (258)

But אדם was created from the עפר.

Posted in: Bible, Reviews, Theology