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Against the Literalists

Osborn begins with the first chapters of Genesis, in an acute, reverent reading that yields some surprising insights. He offers a long list of verbs for God's creation in Genesis 1 and 2—verbs as varied as "breathe," "form," "call," and "fashion." "The creation of light is.... ex nihilo, instantaneously and strictly by divine fiat. The Lord spoke and it was so. However, when we arrive at Genesis 1:11, we find that God ... recruits and involves what he has already created in the next acts of the unfolding drama. 'Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself,' God says.... The earth itself therefore participates as an obedient servant to God in the creation process/event..... The earth is charged with a task. The earth brings forth." (25-26)

Later, he states: "The key refrain Let—'Let there be,' 'Let the waters,' 'Let the earth'—should serve as a clarion signal that God's way of bringing order out of chaos involves not only directly fashioning or controlling but also granting, permitting and delegating." (27)

Regarding the six "days" of creation, Osborn agrees with literalists that the Hebrew word yom means "day" "in the sense of a literal twenty-four-hour period rather than a symbolic eon or age as in allegorical readings." But, "Few literalists would conclude, however, from the numerous references in Scripture to the 'hand' of God—an equally literal word—that the Creator of the universe possesses a physical body." (49) He points out that "very good" and "good" are nowhere else interpreted as "perfect"—and that there are other words in Hebrew that communicate perfection, such as a word commanding that animal sacrifice be "without defect." Osborn suggests that "very good" means just that—as a school, or family, or church may be "very good," while still in process.

Of course, all these points and many others are worthy of discussion. Osborn's objection is not so much to literal interpretations per se, as to the literalists' insistence that their way of reading Scripture is the only way to read Scripture—that they alone honor God and revere the authority of the Bible. What they revere, he tries to show, is philosophical "foundationalism": the belief that everything, whether in matters of science or literary interpretation, depends on one clearly marked foundation, which cannot be critiqued. Biblical literalists assert that their understanding of Genesis as a document yielding scientific knowledge is the only foundation for all truth. Even if Scripture must be subjected to elaborate special pleading and intellectual gymnastics in order to fit this understanding, the underlying theory cannot be questioned. Osborn's tour through the first two chapters of Genesis tries to show that the harmonizing approach of most literalists, trying to make the two accounts fit into one, actually ends up twisting the Bible in order to make it "indubitably, infallibly and incorrigibly scientific." (70)

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