Interpreting Genesis 2 and 3 (I)

What is history?

To pose the question, especially as it relates to the second and third chapters of the book of Genesis is to go to the root of a controversial issue. Presently, many Christians are seeking a satisfactory answer to the question of history in Genesis 2 and 3. Whereas in former years they accepted the literal interpretation that Christ was born forty centuries after Adam and Eve were created, they now believe that the human race is much older than the traditional figure of 4,000 years. If in Genesis 2 Adam is introduced as a human being speaking Hebrew, who calls his wife Isha, a derivative of the Hebrew word ish (man), indications are that the writer of Genesis does not relate factual history as a reporter on the scene but as a prophet who interprets visionary revelation in terms acceptable to the times in which he lives.

That the question concerning the history of Genesis 2 and 3—often it is a question of the first eleven chapters of Genesis—is not a question of today or yesterday in Reformed circles is evident when we briefly consider the doctrinal controversies in the Gereformeerde Kerken of the Netherlands during the years 1917 to 1926. In these years, the names of Rev. J. B. Netelenbos and Dr. J. G. Geelkerken were very closely connected with the interpretation of history in chapters two and three of Genesis.



Rev. J. B. Netelenbos

In 1919, the question concerning the historical criticism of Scripture was formulated by Rev. J. B. Netelenbos, at that time minister of the Gereformeerde Kerk in Middelburg. From the hand of this minister came the brochure, The Basis of our Faith, in which he disputed the doctrine of verbal inspiration. Wrote Rev. Netelenbos, “It must not be understood as if Cod imparted inspiration word for word. This is the point of view of those who defend mechanical inspiration. If we continue in this trend of thought, only the divine factor in the Scriptures is recognized, the human factor is denied. We must take account of the human imperfections in the Scriptures and therefore make a distinction between the essence and the external appearance of the Scriptures, between the truth which God has revealed and the images and forms which the writers of the Scriptures use to express that truth. God did not inspire these images; He did inspire the appearance relative to the distinctive personality of the prophet, the environment in which he lived, etc. Thus the formulation of the thoughts of God in the Old Testament is oriental. I accept the facts of Genesis 2 and 3; that is, there has been a fall which through temptation and sin came from the world of devils to the human race. However, this fact is reported in oriental form, viz. in mythical form.”

The Synod of the Gereformeerde Kerken meeting in Leeuwarden the following year (1920) declared that Rev. Netelenbos’ view of organic inspiration was incorrect because both thoughts and words, both content and form are inspired by God. Synod declared the view of Netelenbos to be in conflict with the Scriptures and with the confessions of the Church (notably, the fourth and fifth articles of the Belgic Confession). Synod declared that Rev. Netelenbos propounded teachings which affected the authority of the Word of God, that they undermined the assurance of faith, and that they caused the certainty of hope to be relinquished.

Rev. Netelenbos, in making the distinction between form and content of the Scriptures, taught that with respect to Genesis 2 and 3 such facts as paradise, the trees, the serpent in its speaking as well as in the curse received were, for him, no evidence of historical reality but rather indications of an oriental manner of speaking.

Synod deposed Rev. Netelenbos. Yet deposition of a minister who raised questions, among other things, concerning the historicity of the. fall did not end the doctrinal controversy in the Netherlands. Only a few years later, the matter differently formulated was introduced again, this time by Dr. J. G. Geelkerken.

Dr. J. G. Geelkerken

In the evening service of Sunday, March 23, 1924, Dr. J. G. Geelkerken, minister of the Gereformeerde Kerk of Amsterdam, preached a sermon on Lord’s Day 3 of the Heidelberg Catechism in which he explained the details of Genesis 3. In this sermon Dr. Geelkerken said, “If God, then, gives us His revelation about this, He speaks of the state of heavenly glory and of the state of perfection in words borrowed from our present earthly dispensation. Otherwise we would not be able to understand anything of it; then He would speak to us like someone speaking to a blind person about colors. Also, it is often difficult to decide how all the details which Genesis 3 gives us have to be interpreted. There are almost just as many expositions as learned expositors. Think of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the serpent and the speaking of the serpent, the tree of life, etc.”1

When this sermon was delivered, at least one person, Mr. M. Marinus, in the audience disagreed and in due time registered a complaint with the consistory. This body, however, was of the opinion that the complaint was unfounded. But when Mr. Marinus brought his case to Classis Amsterdam and this classis not only accepted his appeal but brought it to the Boor of the Particular Synod of North Holland, the matter became of general concern to the denomination. At the request of the Particular Synods of North Holland and North Brabant, a general synod met in special session the 26th of January to the 17th of March, 1926 in the city of Assen.

The Synod of Assen did not work hastily, did not quickly formulate a declaration and did Dot lack in patience and love. Nevertheless, when Geelkerken had expressed his thoughts during the synodical meetings as well as in his brochures, Synod drafted a statement which Dr. Geelkerken was asked to sign. This doctrinal statement of Assen 1926 reads,

The undersigned has taken cognizance of the statement of Synod that the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the serpent and its speaking, and the tree of life must be understood in the actual or literal sense according to the obvious intention of the scriptural account and that they therefore were sensorially perceptible realities, and that thus the opinion of Dr. Geelkerken -that one can dispute whether these matters and facts were sensorially perceptible realities without coming into conflict with the authority of the Holy Scriptures as confessed in articles 4 and 5 of the Belgic Confession—must be rejected. The undersigned declares that he will conform to this decision, shall accept without reservation the scriptural account of Genesis 2 and 3 ‘in the sense designated’ by the synodical statement, and shall make it basic to all that he teaches in this matter.2

Dr. Geelkerken refused to sign the statement. In respect to the doctrine of organic inspiration, Geelkerken maintained that the Old Testament was written by and for orientals. When Synod asked him the question whether in his opinion the content of Genesis 1 to 3 had been influenced by circumstances peculiar to the writer’s times, he asserted that the writer of Genesis 1 to 3 made use of contemporaneous imagery; that is, the author expressed divine revelation in terms understandable to the people among whom he lived. According to Dr. Geelkerken, the use of such imagery to express the truth of the creation and fall of man has nothing to do with the historical trustworthiness of the Paradise account in chapters two and three of Genesis. Concisely. he did not dispute the fact of the creation and fall of man but he wished to have exegetical freedom in interpreting this fact. He did not wish to be disqualified because of an exposition which was different from the one approved by the Church. Therefore, Dr. Geelkerken withheld his signature.

Synod upon advice of its judiciary committee suspended Dr. Geelkerken for three months; but when he and his consistory refused to heed this synodical injunction, Synod deposed him.

Again, the deposition of a minister who raised questions concerning the interpretation of the first three chapters of Genesis did not end the doctrinal controversy in the Netherlands. Although the Gereformeerde Kerken officially remained true to the statement of the Synod of Assen, yet after some 45 years the issue once more became a subject for discussion. The Synod of Apeldoorn of 1961–1962. upon request of one of the ministers, decided to appoint a committee to see whether the doctrinal statement of Assen 1926 should be reviewed. When this committee two years later advised Synod that the Assen statement should be revoked, many expressed disagreement with this advice. Synod of Groningen of 1963–1964 declared that “the doctrinal statement of the Synod of Assen 1926 no longer functions adequately within the Church.” Therefore, a new committee was appointed. which was given the mandate “to consider the question whether—and if so, in how far—the doctrinal statement of Assen 1926 must be disregarded and eventually be replaced by other statements, especially because of the present views on the first chapters of the book of Genesis, particularly in connection with the sentiments expressed in the creeds.”

It was evident that the doctrinal statement of Assen 1926 could not simply be disregarded, for the committee appointed to consider this matter came to Synod two years later and requested that the mandate, if the question were to be settled in good order, be formulated differently and that the committee be extended. The Synod of Middelburg 1965–1966 appointed nine committee members and changed the mandate to this extent that the committee should reflect on the character of authority inherent in the Scriptures. The committee members were Dr. G. C. Berkouwer, Dr. W. H. Gispen, Rev. K. C. ldema, Dr. J. L. Koole, Dr. A. D. R. Polman, Dr. N. H. Ridderbos. Dr. J. Schelhaas, Dr. D. van Swigchem, and Rev. S. van Wouwe.

Eight committee members have drafted and signed a majority report, presented to the Synod of Lunteren 1967, and one member, namely Dr. J. Schelhaas, has written a minority report.

Majority report

The point at issue in the Geelkerken controversy was not so much the question concerning the authority of the Scriptures as the quest for knowledge. In 1926, Geelkerken called attention to Christian scholars engaged in Biblical research, who are able to cast more light upon Scriptural accounts which, as yet, do not lend themselves to a lucid interpretation. And now, more than forty years later, the results of Biblical research are applied to an understanding of the first three chapters of Genesis, as far as their place in history is concerned.

A few citations from the majority report will be sufficient to elucidate.

“Moreover, also the content of Genesis 2 and 3 gives us occasion to understand these chapters not as the ordinary writing of history. Of old, expressions which ascribe human characteristics to the Lord God have been noticed in these chapters. God ‘formed’ man ‘of the dust of the earth’ and ‘breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen. 2:7). “And Jehovah God placed a garden eastward,” (Gen. 2:8). It is clear to us, that this anthropomorphic way of speaking about God must not be understood in the true sense. But why must the character of a description of sensorially perceptible realities be attributed to all the other details in Gen. 2 and 3? We would rather say that these anthropomorphisms, which do not occur to such an extent in any other Biblical passage, completely give the first chapters of Genesis their own character….

To clarify our proposition that Genesis 2 and 3 occupy a place apart in biblical historiography, we finally review somewhat closer what Genesis 3 relates about the serpent. According to the conception current among us, the serpent in this story functions as the instrument of the devil. In no wise do we wish to say that this conception is incorrect; yet in our opinion, one can hardly speak of the obvious intention of Genesis 3. Nowhere does Genesis 3 call the serpent the instrument of the devil—it does not speak at all about the devil.

Furthermore, we must not forget that, in view of the facts related in the Old Testament, the personal existence of the devil was revealed only in a much later phase of Old Testament revelation. Therefore it is not an unquestionable fact that the author of Genesis 3 knew.of the personal existence of the devil. The question arises: if the author had known of the existence of the devil and if he had wished to portray the serpent as an instrument of the devil, why then did he not say so?

For example, it is conceivable that someone who subscribes completely to the historicity of the fall advocates the following conception. The author of Genesis 3, who naturally addressed himself first of all to the people of his times, has made use of the imagery of the serpent which throughout the ancient world was regarded as the embodiment of demonic forces in both a good and a bad sense. By using this oriental pattern of thought, the author of Genesis 3 was interested in portraying the appearance of the force of evil; he was not interested in portraying, actually, the appearance of the serpent. This he makes clearly known, he it indirectly. The serpent, in fact, is called more subtle than any beast of the field, yet further in the story there is no trace of actual serpent subtlety.

In its speaking, the serpent plainly shows its enmity to God and man; it displays supernatural knowledge and an initiation in the secret of the tree; and it possesses the psychological gift of deceiving—something which makes one shudder.

If one actually applies the verdict of the serpent, he cannot see it as punishment and curse because the serpent does live as a cursed animal among the beasts of the field. If one wishes to see this verdict as punishment and curse, he will come into conflict with Isaiah 65:25 (The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith Jehovah).

When in the continuing course of God’s revelation full light is shed upon the author of temptation, the serpent and the devil are clearly identified (John 8:44; I John 3:8; Rev. 12:9; 20:2), yet there is no indication anywhere that satan used the serpent as an instrument to deceive man.

Many difficulties which one faces when he ascribes a literal interpretation to the serpent are removed when he identifies the serpent with the devil in the light of God’s progressive revelation. Such difficulties are the necessity of admitting to crafty, subtle and wrong capacities of animals existing in the state of perfection (the context of Gen. 3:1 demands the idea of “cunning,” “crafty”); the necessity of linking the subtlety of the serpent as a characteristic of the animal and the suitability of the serpent to serve as an instrument of the devil, even though the story does not reveal anything of this subtlety; and the necessity of regarding something as punishment which is no punishment, and subsequently introduce a discrepancy between Genesis 3 and Isaiah 65:25.”3

The committee members who have presented this majority report did not request Synod to sanction the above conception of Genesis 2 and 3, for they realized that such a view of these chapters evokes many probing questions. The Synod of Lunteren 1967 considered the majority report but also gave full attention to the minority report, in which Dr. J. Schelhaas carefully analyzes and conscientiously opposes the arguments set forth in the majority report.

Minority report

Dr. J. Schelhaas, the writer of the minority report, defends the doctrinal statement of Assen 1926 and does so after a documented discussion on the inspiration, the infallibility, and the trustworthiness of the Holy Scriptures. Unequivocally he maintains that according to our Reformed confessions, the inspiration of Holy Writ signifies that the Scriptures in all parts are infallible and trustworthy and that they as originally delivered to us are without inaccuracies. Also, he asserts that we ought to subject ourselves to everything which the sacred writers convey to us because of the ultimate authority of Holy Writ in all areas, also that of natural science.

The writer of this report is not at all averse to Biblical research conducted in the last forty years and which today occupies a venerated place. But in regard to interpreting the Scriptures, Dr. Schelhaas, heeding the advice of Abraham Kuyper, affirms that the exegete must bring out of the text its true meaning exegesis is never a bringing into the text something from without, even though material from extra-Biblical sources may at times induce one to question a current conception. To be sure, Biblical research has not provided one unassailable fact which invalidates any statement in the Scriptures.

The trend of thinking fostered in the majority report is restrained by Schelhaas’ Scriptural approach to the arguments pertaining to Genesis 2 and 3. Systematically, Dr. Schelhaas reviews each proposition and, for example, writes:

“That Genesis 2 and 3 contain many human characteristics ascribed to God is not unique, for such language is also used with respect to Jacob, Abraham, Moses, Elijah and others. That such expressions may not be understood literally is evident because we can speak about God only in human terms. God infinitely excels man and that which is human. When we explain expressions which describe human characteristics we may never forget God’s majesty. However, the matter is different when it concerns expressions about man, animal, nature, and human history. This could be written in a manner which is common to us. The story about man, animal and history ought to be understood literally, unless basic Scriptural objections prohibit a literal interpretation. If one understands the anthropomorphisms about God literally, then he forfeits reality; if one does not understand what is said about man and the Garden literally, he is out of touch with reality.

Therefore, expressions which ascribe human characteristics to God cannot at all serve as an objection to the literal conception of the four details in Genesis 3 mentioned by Assen 1926 (that is, the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the serpent, the speaking of the serpent, and the tree of life).

Explicitly Genesis 3:1 mentions that the serpent is an animal. One cannot escape the unassailable reality of that information as long as he believes the word of the inspired writer, unless one can prove from Holy Writ that the author meant something else with his lucid statement about the serpent.

The Hebrew word, translated subtle, can very well be rendered clever; in view of Genesis 1:31, this is the acceptable meaning of the word. That the rest of the story does not elucidate the cleverness of the serpent is not necessary. The choice for the serpent may have been occasioned because of this cleverness, and thus the reason for this choice has become evident. Also, with this interpretation, mentioning cleverness is in itself sufficiently explained.

To ascribe a profounder meaning to the history in Genesis 3 is simply a demand of that which is written. ‘{he serpent is an animaL However, it speaks words which no animal can conceive. Therefore, it must be accepted that the serpent has been used by a certain evil one, possessed with great intelligence, to be able to direct his attack on man. This is not a putting something into the text, but an exposition of the text.

Neither can the demonic forces as they appeared outside of Israel serve as an explanation, because no demonic force has ever been portrayed in this manner outside of Israel.

To conceive of such an attack far excels human capability. Also these indirect indications confirm the explanation that the serpent has been the instrument of satan.

When people first began to know about a personal devil cannot be ascertained. The date of composition of the book of Job cannot be determined. That which was said later can very well have been known earlier. Speculations about the time in which people knew of a personal devil therefore have no value, because in Genesis 3 we have to do with a direct revelation of God.

They who doubt the four particulars in Genesis 3 have as yet failed to gather Scriptural evidence to prove that those particulars were not sensorially perceptible realities. They have failed to give an acceptable interpretation of Genesis 3 without challenging the authority of Holy Writ and yet disregarding the sensorial perceptibility of the serpent, of its speaking, and of the two trees…”4

In short, Dr. Schelhaas claims that the impossibility of maintaining the doctrinal statement of Assen 1926 must be proven from the Scriptures. But since there is no Scriptural evidence, the validity of the Assen statement must be affirmed.

What is history? And particularly, what is history in chapters 2 and 3 of the book of Genesis? History means that which happened, but it can also mean a description of that which happened. What kind of a description is given in the first chapters of Genesis? These are some of the questions asked today.

There is also Assen 1926. And unless scientific investigations and Scriptural research prove that a literal interpretation of Genesis 2 and 3 is no longer acceptable, the doctrinal statement of Assen 1926 stands. Besides, if it is true that Assen 1926 can no longer be maintained because the doctrinal statement does not function adequately, then it is also true that the doctrine of the infallibility of Holy Writ is robbed of its essence, meaning and power.

1. Acta der Buitengewone Generale Synode van de Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland, Kampen, J. H. Kok, 1926, Bijlage p. 37.

2. Op. cit., pp. 53f.

3. Rapport Assen. Utrecht, A.K.B., pp. 7f.

4. Op. cit., pp. 8f.

Dr. Simon Kistemaker is Professor of Bible at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.