Continued from part 1, on the meaning of “very good”
Updated Wednesday, June 3, 2015: I completely forgot to include perhaps the most crushing problem for creationism—the existence of clean and unclean animals in Noah’s day.
If there is one place the Bible seems to come down hard against predationism and in favor of creationism, it’s in Genesis 1:29-30, in conjunction with Genesis 9:1-4:
1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 and God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that scurries on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.
9:1 And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. 2 The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that scurries on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. 3 Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. 4 But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.
On the face of it, this certainly seems to imply very strongly that God gave plants for food in the original creation, and only gave meat after the flood. If that is the implication, then we have to weigh it against the evidence for predationism which I’ll be presenting as I develop this series. If the evidence pulls in different directions, then we need to make some tough calls. But is this the case?
One of the pesky things about exegeting the Bible is how it was originally written by and for people who had very different ways of expressing themselves than we do. And one of the peskiest of these differences is that our society values what you might call numerical precision in discourse—the kind of thing you see in journalistic reporting, or even more in legalese. We want to be certain that when we say something, we state it very carefully and very accurately, and that we qualify it very carefully and very accurately. To overstate or understate, or fail to mention an exception or qualification, is often seen as untruthful.
This is called “low-context” discourse. We like to spell everything out so there can’t be any misunderstanding. We don’t like to take things for granted or make assumptions. We like to be explicit about exceptions or qualifications that attenuate our position. Blanket statements and hard rules are not kosher.
Because we write this way, we expect other people to write this way. Even if they lived 3,500 years ago in Israel and spoke Hebrew.
But low-context discourse is not some kind of moral imperative—it is simply a social agreement. It is etiquette. This becomes quite apparent when we think about how we talk versus how we write. When we talk to friends or family, we very often abandon a lot of these rules and adopt a “high-context” mode of discourse. Because we know each other, and we have a lot of established beliefs, opinions, expressions and the like to rely on, we may make statements that sound much less guarded and much more unequivocal than we would if we were writing them for a mixed audience. To take a very basic example, I might tell a friend that a movie sucked and it’s not worth watching; but in a written review I would be more careful and rely on more objective measures.
What’s rather interesting is how social media is changing this. For instance, memes are extremely high-context: they make very simplistic, exaggerated statements for the sake of rhetorical effect. They are funny precisely because of their oversimplified nature—it is the hyperbole, the lack of nuance, the deliberate way they ignore exceptions, the studied indifference to qualifying conditions or extenuating factors, that makes them amusing. If you tried to qualify or explain them, they would lose their rhetorical effect. And even people who lack the contextual knowledge to understand the punchline of a meme are still intuitively aware that the format itself is not intended to be journalistically accurate or balanced.
I’m not suggesting the Bible contains statements on a par with internet memes. Rather, I’m pointing out that even in our own culture, not every statement everywhere is a low-context, journalistically-reported, carefully-qualified, scientifically accurate one. There are many occasions for high-context statements where exceptions are overlooked, qualifications are ignored, and balance is not the point. We often use high-context discourse when we want to create some rhetorical effect—we deliberately oversimplify or overstate for the sake of driving home our point. And there is nothing illegitimate about doing that if the point itself is one worth paying attention to.
Hebrew culture was much more universally high-context than ours. They spoke and wrote in high-context ways. People were expected to fill in the blanks for themselves, based on a shared pool of background knowledge that everyone assumed. Hence we have statements like:
- “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Matthew 10:11-12)—which is set in “contradiction” to Matthew 19:9, which mentions the allowance of divorce for marital unfaithfulness. But in a high-context culture, exceptions were expected even when they were not stated. So there is no contradiction.
- “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). People puzzle over the many unqualified comments Jesus makes in John’s gospel. How can they be true? Well, in high-context discourse, exceptions and qualifications were assumed without needing to be stated. The Gospel of John is especially high-context.
The relevance of all this to God’s provision of food in Genesis should be obvious: in high-context discourse, exceptions are often assumed without being mentioned. Indeed, one aspect of an event may be deliberately omitted in order to emphasize another, depending on the thematic intentions of the author. This goes a long way toward explaining what look to us like discrepancies between Genesis 1 and 2, or between events like the withering of the fig tree in Matthew 21:10-22 and Mark 11:11-26.
So the question is…
Is there a thematic factor that would motivate Moses to exclude the provision of meat in Genesis 1, even if meat was on the menu for animals and/or humans?
Well, actually yes, there are at least three…
1. A universal provision
Just as the point of the creation account is not to exhaustively enumerate everything God made, but rather to summarize his ordering it into a habitat for man, so the provision of food is not intended to exhaustively enumerate every kind of food God gave, but rather to summarize his bountiful provision. The language is by no means exclusive; it does not say God has given only plants. Rather, the point is that he has given every plant, so that every creature will have plenty to eat.
This doesn’t imply that he did not give other foods; rather, he is illustrating the sweeping scope of his provision by appealing to a “lowest common denominator”—to something that every animal can eat. Even carnivores can, and sometimes do eat plants—and we have no reason to doubt they ate them more prior to the fall (I’ll discuss speciation and evolution in more detail another time). But not every creature eats meat. So if the point is to emphasize God’s general provision, it makes sense to focus on plants.
2. An orchard context
God is speaking to Adam and Eve, who he created in an orchard (or garden) sanctuary, where they would have eaten plants. Now, that isn’t to say they couldn’t have eaten meat just because they were in an orchard—but certainly the main thing one would tend to eat would be vegetable products. And if you were introducing someone to the orchard you had made for them to live in, that is what you would naturally focus on.
If you wished to then add that your provision of food extends to all terrestrial creatures, doing so would naturally reflect the initial context of your provision. Yet this wouldn’t in any way imply that other kinds of foods were not available.
Moreover, given the orchard context, we shouldn’t assume that God is speaking about all terrestrial creatures in the first place. “Every animal” that Adam and Eve would know about would be every animal God placed in the garden. To suppose that he placed lions and bears in the orchard simply begs the question in favor of creationism. It presupposes that predationism is false by assuming that lions and bears ate plants. But if predationism is true, God would not have placed such predators in the sanctuary of the orchard—and so his provision of plants for food would not have extended to them in anyway. Again, this seems awkward to us because we are unaccustomed to high-context literature—but notice how such an interpretation meshes cleanly with God’s lack of a provision for sea creatures. Why does he not mention them? Not because he has not provided food for them. Rather, because he is speaking to Adam and Eve about every animal in the orchard—and you don’t find sea creatures in orchards. But you don’t find predators in them either.
3. A contrast between provision and prohibition
There’s a big, giant, honking, obvious thematic element running right the way through Genesis 2 and 3—chapters which, incidentally, come right on the heels of the provision of food in Genesis 1. Compare Genesis 1:29 to Genesis 2:16-17:
And Yahweh God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
This reiterates the provision of food in order to set up a contrast with the one thing Adam cannot eat. The gift is compared with the ban, so we can see how extremely small a thing it was for God to reserve one tree—one tree—out of the whole garden. “You can eat aaaaaall of these—just not this.”
Now since the prohibited item was a fruit, if he wished to establish a contrast between the provision and the prohibition, it would make thematic sense to couch the provision in terms of plants as well. Not only is it natural to speak this way, but it creates a rhetorical balance.
For example, if I am going out with my daughter and I don’t want her to wear a particular dress, I might say, “You can wear any dress in your wardrobe except the one with the stain on it. That one is not appropriate for going out.” Yet my reason for saying it in this way is not to imply that she cannot instead wear pants, but rather to naturally match what is allowed to what is disallowed. I am formulating how I state what is allowed by first considering what it is I wish to disallow.
So if we take Genesis 1 and 2 as thematically linked—as I believe we should—and if a major theme that links them is provision versus prohibition—as I believe any Christian must agree in view of what happens in Genesis 3—then there is good reason to think the provision is deliberately couched in vegetarian terms to emphasize that contrast, rather than to imply that meat is off the menu. In high-context discourse this would be implicitly understood.
The natural question arises at this point: If meat was on the menu prior to the fall, or even prior to the flood, then why would God tell Noah, “as with the plants, I now give you everything”?
And that’s a very good question. God establishes a comparison between the way he gave plants, and the way he is now giving animals. It’s natural to read that similarity—especially if creationism is on your mind—as follows:
“I originally gave you all the plants; now I give you all the animals.”
But this is not the only way, or even the most plausible way, to read it. We could equally understand it as:
“I originally gave you all the plants; now I give you all the animals.”
I have supplied “all” here in my paraphrase to emphasize that the question is about the manner in which the provisions are compared, and there are two very plausible manners God might have in mind. Is the comparison a contrast between the contents of the provisions—plants versus animals—or is it a similarity between their extents—all plants and all animals?
How can we adjudicate between these competing interpretations? Well, again, we should look for thematic links across the text. The former interpretation makes the provision of meat seem like a standalone comment, unrelated to what came before. But the latter links it explanation-wise to a theme which has been important in the flood account:
In Genesis 7:2, God instructs Noah to take pairs of unclean animals, but seven pairs of clean ones. Now watch carefully—I have nothing up my sleeve: it is not Moses who says to his reader that Noah took different numbers of clean and unclean animals. It is God who says to Noah to take different numbers of clean and unclean animals.
Then Yahweh said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate, and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and his mate, and seven pairs of the birds of the heavens also, male and female, to keep their offspring alive on the face of all the earth.” Genesis 7:1-3
The existence of the clean/unclean distinction in Noah’s time is a critical problem for
Well, to a Hebrew reading the text it primarily meant the animal could not be eaten. Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14:3-21 are both about which animals a Hebrew can eat. You might think cleanness is related to sacrifice—that Noah took extra clean animals to sacrifice them. And certainly some clean animals are also sacrificial animals. But where the Bible talks about the clean/unclean distinction, it is not in terms of sacrifice, but in terms of diet for the sake of cultic holiness. Conversely, where it gives guidelines for sacrifice, such as in Leviticus 1, it does not talk about the cleanness or uncleanness of animals. It presupposes the animal will be clean, because it presupposes that it comes from one’s flock—and of course you wouldn’t own animals that made you ritually unclean by eating them! But while the sacrificial and dietary categories overlap, they are nonetheless distinct. A fish was clean to eat—yet it was not a sacrificial animal. An antelope was clean to eat—yet it was not a sacrificial animal.
So cleanness is simply not a sacrificial category in the Bible. Sacrificial animals were clean—but they were only a subset of all the clean animals. Cleanness was a dietary category.
Now, Genesis 7 clearly indicates that there were animals which were clean and unclean to Noah. But if cleanness is about which animals you can eat, then Noah was eating animals. Or at the very least, it was commonplace for people of his day to eat animals. But this makes the creationist reading of Genesis 9:1-4 nonsensical. God cannot be giving meat as food for the first time if people were eating meat already. Rather, the provision must be about which animals Noah could eat.
God is giving the animals “as” the plants in the sense that Adam and Eve could eat all the plants, and now Noah can eat all the animals. So Genesis 9:1-4 is a removal of the clean/unclean distinction.
This links the initial provision and the second provision in a thematically satisfying way, while doing justice to the text. It is also a logical provision, since meat would be scarce after the flood. The creationist view lacks any strong thematic linkage, and can’t make sense of the existence of clean and unclean animals in Noah’s day.
The Genesis 9 provision is linked to man’s creation mandate
Another issue which bolsters the previous point is how creationists assume that meat being given after the fall is significant. But this is a presupposition brought to the text; it is not stated in the text. There is nothing in Genesis 9 that requires us to understand this provision as being an accommodation to a fallen world. In fact, the implication is to the contrary because this is a renewal of the creation mandate to have dominion over the animals—and it is because of this dominion that the animals shall fear us and we shall eat them.
So rather than linking carnivorism to the fall, Genesis 9 is linking it to the creation mandate. This being the case, what reason do we have to think that eating meat is inconsistent with the creation mandate prior to the Fall? The only way to make that connection is by assuming the very thing which Genesis 9 is supposed to prove.
If eating meat is consistent with the creation mandate, then even if man did not eat meat prior to the fall, there’s no particular reason to think that was never going to change. Adam and Eve were well looked after in the orchard—but if they had not fallen, and had instead ventured out to fulfill their mandate of ruling the world, their situation and needs would have changed.
This brings us to a third problem:
Even if man did not eat meat prior to Genesis 9, the text says nothing about animal predation
This is a fairly notable problem because the creationist claim is much stronger than “man did not eat meat before the fall.” I can tentatively agree with that claim, yet thoroughly disagree with the creationist view in general, which is that there was no prelapsarian animal death whatsoever.
The fact that Genesis 9 doesn’t speak to the provision of food for animals demonstrates that the creationist case is built on some notable assumptions, rather than on what can be definitively exegeted from the text. The common assumption that Genesis 9 is also implicitly referring to what animals may eat is much like the common assumption that Romans 5:12 is also implicitly referring to animal death. The text simply doesn’t say that.
Disconnects between Genesis 1 and 9
There is an obvious parallel between the end of Genesis 1 and the beginning of Genesis 9. But there is also an obvious dissimilarity, and that is in which animals are omitted in Genesis 1 but included in Genesis 9.
Apparently, in the original provision, fish didn’t get anything to eat. And in the renewed provision their lives got even harder as they became food for man. In a later installment I’ll discuss how sea creatures present a monumental challenge to the creationist view, but here my point is somewhat more modest—and returns me to my central thesis, which is the illegitimacy of exegeting a strict, exclusive view like creationism from a high-context text which often assumes unstated exceptions, and expects the reader not to treat it strictly or exclusively:
If the original provision of plants for food excluded the largest group of animals on the planet, then the creationist argument is simply not airtight (or watertight, as the case may be). It has a gaping hole in it. Because even if all terrestrial creatures had a vegetarian diet prior to the fall, there is no textual basis for saying that all creatures whatsoever had such a diet. But this completely undermines the assumptions which drive so much of the creationist exegesis: namely, that prelapsarian predation is simply not on the cards; therefore we must interpret the provision of food in exclusive terms. If the original provision contains such a notable omission, it simply cannot be taken as the kind of exclusive provision that creationists read it to be.