Monday, May 08, 2006

Scripture as Shakespeare?

We should laugh out of court anyone who approached Hamlet primarily with a view to improving his knowledge of Danish history, or Henry V as a source of knowledge of fifteenth-century England.
-- R.J. Coggins, “History and study in Old Testament study”, in Journal for the study of the OT
Coggins' argument is that just as we would not do this with Hamlet, therefore we ought not to approach Genesis that way either. Both are fictional texts that we should not turn to for factual historical information.

But Coggins' argument assumes that the historical events which Genesis refers to are irrelevant to Genesis' value. This is not the case. While Henry V and Hamlet do not appeal to factual history as the grounds for our response of belief, Genesis and those texts which cross-reference it do.

Take Isaiah 51:1-2 for instance:
Listen to me, you who pursue godliness, who seek the Lord! Look at the rock from which you were chiseled, at the quarry from which you were dug! Look at Abraham, your father, and Sarah, who gave you birth. When I summoned him, he was a lone individual, but I blessed him and gave him numerous descendants. (NET)
Isaiah appeals to the factuality of historical events to substantiate and base one's faith that YHWH will restore and bless his people today or tomorrow. If Abraham and Sarah did not factually exist and did not factually become the father and mother of many nations from an inability to do so, then Isaiah's appeal to trust in Yahweh to do so again with his people is worthless.

Genesis and the Old Testament texts therefore, as opposed to Hamlet and Henry V, appeal to factual historical events. If one choses to approach Genesis as they would Shakespeare, it is not because Shakespeare and Genesis ask the same response from us, but because we have accepted the former and rejected the latter.


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