Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the Scientific Naïveté of the Ancient World in Genesis 1
The sun, planets and angels and the firmament. Woodcut dated 1475.

The sun, planets and angels and the firmament. Woodcut dated 1475.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote an amazing, tiny commentary on Genesis 1-3 titled, Creation and Fall, Temptation. He once boasted that it was better then other commentaries that were many times longer. It is a refreshing and helpful explanation of those pesky and contentious passages in the proto-History. This book is Bonhoeffer at his best, and if you ever desired to have a short introduction to Genesis that is accessible for your friends, yet surprises scholars, this is it!

In Genesis 1:6-10, the Ancient Near East Cosmology is presented to us. In the Bronze Age, there was believed to be a firm layer in the sky, that held a celestial ocean overhead, and in this firmament were the stars, and the Sun rolled across this firmament, and there are many other features that I won't describe now. Many Creation Myths have been discovered that are older than the Biblical Narrative and have striking similarities to Genesis: the most famous being the Babylonian Epic, Enûma ElišThe striking similarity with the Babylonian, Sumerian and ANE Creation Myths, show that Genesis is truly an Ancient document and had an origin in this time period, even if it is younger. However, the similarity also raises the question of Genesis uniqueness and the possibility of accepting Genesis as straight forward literal history as we are familiar with today.

The older 'orthodox' interpretation of Genesis 1-3, and all of the proto-history, has been to reconcile the peculiarities and oddities of these verses, especially Genesis 1:6-10, with modern Cosmologies. The father and exemplary of this reinterpretation was the genius of John Calvin, that explained this passage by explaining that the ocean above firmament recored to clouds.

In the following refreshing and honest selection of Bonhoeffer's commentary on this particular text, Genesis 1:6-10, he isn't vexed by bible difficulty but accepts the text as it is incarnated. This means that Bonhoeffer understands that the Word of God and the Doctrine of Creation is revealed to us through the humble form of the ANE Cosmology. In no way is Bonhoeffer dismissing the Word of God, or mocking it, but faces the maelstrom of this challenging texts and sails effortlessly through it.


[Genesis 1.6-10] And God said, ''Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters." And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day. And God said, "Let the waters under the heavens be gathered to­ gether into one place, and let the dry land appear." And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

Here we have before us the ancient world picture in all its scientific naïveté. While it would not be advisable to be too mocking and self-assured, in view of the rapid changes in our own knowledge of nature, undoubtedly in this passage the biblical author stands exposed with all the limitations caused by the age in which he lived. The heavens and the seas were not formed in the way he says: we would not escape a very bad conscience if we committed ourselves to any such state­ment. The idea of verbal inspiration will not do. The writer of the first chapter of Genesis is behaving in a very human way. Considering all this there is apparently very little to say about this section. And yet something completely new occurs on this next day of creation. The world of the fixed, the firm, the unchangeable, the unliving comes into being.

It is characteristic that those works of creation which are most distant and strange to us in their fixedness, immutability and repose, were created in the beginning . Unaffected by human life the fixed world stands before God, unchangeable and undisturbed. An eternal law binds it. This law is nothing but the command of the Word of God itself.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, Temptation, pg30


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