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9-5: John Sailhamer Weighs In, Part 2

Biblical Chronology, Vol. 9, No. 5
Copyright James B. Jordan 1997
May, 1997

We continue our analysis of John Sailhamer’s book *Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account* (Multnomah Books, 1996), which argues that Genesis 1:2ff. is not about the creation of the whole world, but about the preparation of the Land of Eden, which is also the Promised Land.

The Land

Dr. Sailhamer begins chapter 4 of his book with a discussion of the word for "earth" or "land" used in Genesis 1, the Hebrew word *’erets.* What he argues is that the "earth" in Genesis 1:1 refers to the whole cosmos apart from the angelic heavens. Then on verse 2 he argues that the meaning of "earth" shifts to a particular land, the promised land, which is Eden.

He begins by warning us not to read Genesis 1 in modern terms. The "earth" in Genesis 1 is not planet earth as opposed to the other planets and the sun and stars. Rather, the "earth" in Genesis 1 is the habitable land, as opposed to the seas (and, I might add, to the wilderness). The word *’erets* or "habitable land" can be used for the whole world or for the particular land of a particular people. With all of this we have no quarrel.

Then, however, Sailhamer gets to his main thesis, which is that the "earth, land" of Genesis 1:2ff. refers to the particular land of Eden, which he submits is also the promised land today called Palestine. He presents four arguments.

First, he says that "the close relationship between the first two chapters of Genesis supports a localized view of the `land’" (p. 50f.). He states that Genesis 1 & 2 are about the same events and have the same setting, but from differing perspectives. No argument is presented for this; Sailhamer simply asserts it at this point. In chapter 8 of his book, however, Sailhamer presents his arguments for this point, and we shall get to them in due course. For now, let us allow Sailhamer to direct the flow of argumentation.

Sailhamer provides no arguments here, but we may make one comment. It is certainly correct that Genesis 1 & 2 are quite closely related and are parallels. But, I shall argue, the parallel is not one of identity but of analogy. The microcosm of Genesis 2 is a copy of the macrocosm of Genesis 1.

Second, Sailhamer argues that the original land was west of Babylon, and thus was Palestine. He starts in Genesis 11:1, where the whole "earth/land" had the same language. The next verse says that as "they" journeyed east, they came to Shinar and built Babel there. Sailhamer believes that those who built Babel, the "they," are the same as "the whole earth/land" of verse 1. But there are good reasons not to agree with him here. Just four verses earlier, in 10:30, we read of certain Hebrews who moved east. Ignoring the chapter break, which is not part of God’s word but was added by men, we can easily see that those who were journeying east were these Joktanite Hebrews. Arriving in Shinar, they joined with Nimrod’s Cushites and built Babel (10:8-10).

Genesis 11:1 means that all human beings descended from Noah, all people on the earth, had the same religion and the same language. The Hebrews were representatives of the human race, being the direct carriers of the religion-bearing responsibility assigned to Shem (9:26; 10:21). The rebellion of these Hebrews at Babel had consequences for the whole race of mankind, just as did Adam’s original sin. It is in this context that God calls a faithful Hebrew, Abram, to carry on the task of Shem and Eber (Hebrew).

[For an extensive discussion of this matter, see my essay, "Babylon & the Babel Project," in *Studies in the Revelation* issues 11-12 (1996), available from Biblical Horizons , Box 1096, Niceville, FL 32588.]

Sailhamer proposes that the "whole earth" of 11:1 is a "whole land of people," and these people moved east to Babylon. Where did they come from, he asks? Well, to the west is Palestine, so that is where they originated. He then goes back to Genesis 3:24 and 4:16 to show that movement away from God is signified by and originally manifested as eastward movement. Now, this is very true, but it does not in the least indicate that the movement is away from Palestine, or that Palestine is Eden. The Ark landed, after all, in the mountains of Ararat, which are not in Palestine. Thus, what area these people came from as they journeyed east cannot be ascertained.

But even if we could be sure that they came from the region of Palestine, that would not show that the pre-flood land of Eden had the same location.

Third, Sailhamer says that one of the major themes of the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses) is God’s gift of the promised land to His people. If we really grasp this, he says, it will make sense that Eden was that same land. Moses has the promised land in view as he writes Genesis 1-2, Sailhamer assumes. But this is highly unlikely. Genesis 1-11 does not concern the priestly people of Israel, who are given the promised land, but the universal history of humanity. To be sure, the promise of a garden-land is important in both histories, but that they must be the same location is not important. Noah planted a vineyard after the Flood, a new version of the original garden planted by God. Was this in Palestine also, or in the region of Ararat?

Moreover, we must challenge the notion that "Moses wrote Genesis with the Sinai covenant in view." Sailhamer spells out this view on p. 87, where he asserts: "The writer of the Pentateuch wrote Genesis 1 primarily because he wanted his readers to understand something about God and the nature of the covenant He made with Israel at Mt. Sinai. At the center of that covenant was the promise of a homeland for His people (Deuteronomy 5:32-33). Already in the first chapter of the Pentateuch the author directs the readers to God’s concern for that land." I can only assume that by "the writer" Sailhamer means Moses.

Yet, nowhere does the Bible ever say that Moses wrote Genesis. It was part of the corpus of five books that Moses put in the Tabernacle, but he is never said to have been its author. I suggest that Joseph wrote Genesis. Moses may have edited it somewhat, but the likely author is Joseph, in my view. And who can say I am wrong? There is no evidence either way. Thus, we must not assume that Genesis was written at Mount Sinai, or that the Sinaitic covenant was directly in view in the writing of Genesis. There is simply no reason to believe such a thing.

And even if Moses did write Genesis, we have no grounds for assuming that he wrote it with the Sinaitic covenant directly in view. To be sure, the history recorded in Genesis lays the foundation for later events (though it is well-rounded and complete in itself, ending with the entire world coming to Joseph for food, and thus presenting a very positive picture of a restored kingdom of God). And if Moses wrote Genesis, the later events would be in the back of his mind. But to assert that Mount Sinai is in the foreground of the meaning of Genesis is to assert something for which there is simply no evidence.

Fourth and finally, Sailhamer says that later passages of scripture assume that Eden is the Promised Land. He begins with a very serious misinterpretation of Jeremiah 27:5-6, which reads:

5. "I have made the earth/land, the men and the beasts which are on the face of the earth/land, by My great power and by My outstretched arm, and I give it to the one who is upright in My sight.

6. "And now I have given all these earths/lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, My servant, and I have given him also the wild animals of the field to serve him."

Now, Sailhamer rightly points out that "all these lands" refers in context to Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre, and Sidon in Jeremiah 27:3. But he also asserts that "the earth/land" of verse 5 must refer to the land of Israel. If it referred to the whole earth, he argues, it would be an error, for surely God did not give the whole earth to Nebuchadnezzar.

Yet verse 5 does not say that the whole earth is to be given to Nebuchadnezzar. It only says that God disposes of the earth and gives it to whomever He pleases. In fact, "the one who is upright in My sight" must ultimately be Jesus, and He does indeed receive the whole earth. In other words, verse 5 establishes the principle that God is Lord over all the earth, and verse 6 says that certain parts of the earth, certain lands, are given to Nebuchadnezzar.

Moreover, contrary to Sailhamer’s argument, verse 7 immediately goes on to say this: "And all the nations shall serve him, and his son, and his grandson, until the time of his own land comes; then many nations and great kings will enslave him." So, it would seem that in a sense God DID give all the lands of the earth to Nebuchadnezzar — at least all the earth in the horizon of the people of that time.

Thus, Sailhamer’s attempt to force Jeremiah 27:5 to refer to the land of promise, and then also to Eden and then also to Genesis 1, is completely without foundation. It is not the land of Judah that is in view at all, but the whole earth.

Sailhamer also refers to the promises that the people will "return to Eden" after the exile (Isaiah 51:3; Ezekiel 36:35; Joel 2:3) as evidence that Eden and the Promised Land are in the same location. But this is to mistake symbolic language for literal, historical language. Exodus 15:17 says that the Promised Land is a new Eden planted by God, but that does not mean that the Promised Land is in the same location as the original Eden.

Conclusion: Sailhamer has failed to present even a prima facie case for thinking that the location of Eden was the same as that of Canaan. For all I know, of course, they might have been the same, but our author has given us no sound arguments for making such an identification.

[I must say, however, that linking Eden with Canaan makes a whale of a lot more sense than trying to link it with Mesopotamia, which is what is most often done.]

The Edenic River(s)

Sailhamer returns to the matter of Eden and Palestine in chapter 6 of his book. He argues that the four rivers of Genesis 2:10-14 form the boundaries of the land of Eden, and that these are also the boundaries of the Promised Land (p. 72). There are two problems with this.

First, the Promised Land extended only to the Euphrates River on the east, while the Tigris is mentioned also in Genesis 2:14, and it is to the east of the Euphrates. The area between the Euphrates and the Tigris was NOT part of the Promised Land.

Second, the text of Genesis 2:10 specifically states that the four rivers were NOT the boundaries of Eden or of the Garden of Eden. "And a river was flowing from [the land of] Eden to water the Garden, and FROM THERE it divided and it became four headwaters." These rivers carried Edenic waters OUT of the Garden to four locations, signifying we may suppose the four corners of the earth.

Thus, it would seem that the land of Eden CANNOT be the same as the Promised Land. If we draw back the present lines of the Tigris and Euphrates to a common source, we wind up in the region of Ararat, wherefrom Noah began the second world. This would seem to be the location of Eden as well, on high ground whence rivers arise and down from which they flow.

An Eden in Ararat or Turkey receives further evidence from the other two rivers. Sailhamer says that the Pishon, which is mentioned first, cannot be located because the land of Havilah whither it flowed cannot be located for certain. But there seems to be little doubt but that Havilah is somewhere in Arabia, likely in the Sinai Peninsula, due south of Canaan. This emerges from Genesis 15:18 and 1 Samuel 15:7, because the land of Shur is on the east side of Egypt. Accordingly, the Pishon is the Jordan river, before it was stopped up by the Dead Sea at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It was while in Havilah that Israel found the bdellium-colored manna and the gold and onyx used to built the Tabernacle and the High Priestly garments (Genesis 2:12; Exodus 25:7; 28:9-12; Numbers 11:7).

Similarly, since the Gihon went down to Cush (Ethiopia), it ran parallel to the Jordan east thereof. This river no longer seems to exist after the Flood.

At any rate, if we draw lines from the Jordan northward to where it would intersect the lines drawn from the Tigris and Euphrates, we come to Turkey, Armenia, or the region of Ararat. [For more on this, see my book *Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World.*]

I cannot, of course, be absolutely certain of the region of Ararat, but it is certain that Sailhamer has not successfully made a case for the land of Eden’s being the land of promise.

Moreover, one might just as well make a case for Lebanon as Eden. The garden in Canticles is clearly an extension of the original Garden, a restoration and an historical advancement-transformation thereof. I don’t think anyone disputes this. In Canticles 4:15, we read of "a garden spring, a well of living water, and streams from Lebanon." Trace the Jordan northward and you immediately come to the mountains of Lebanon. As Eden was the source for the river in the Garden, so Lebanon is the source of the river in Solomon’s garden. A study of the relationship of Lebanon to Solomon’s garden in Canticles will only confirm this analogy. The same kind of relationship is seen in Ezekiel 31:3-9. Now, I am not myself arguing that Lebanon was the location of the original land of Eden. I am only pointing out another and different symbolico-literary association with Eden that is found in the Bible. If we are going to follow Sailhamer’s mistaken attempt to turn these symbolic associations into geographical verities, Lebanon is as good a candidate as Canaan.

I may add that in this chapter and the one that follows (chapters 6 & 7), Sailhamer points out some significant correlations between the land of Eden and the promised land, and between the garden of Eden and the Tabernacle. There are many, many such correlations, but they are thematic and theological, not geographical. It is abundantly clear that the promised land is a new Eden, and that the Tabernacle courtyard is a new garden, but these relationships say absolutely nothing about geography. They are irrelevant to Sailhamer’s case. To be sure, these correlations can fit his case, but they fit just as well without his attempt to link Eden and Canaan geographically.

Heavens and Earth

Back to his chapter 4 now: Sailhamer argues that ordinarily the word "heaven" means "sky." This is quite true. He then argues that the phrase "heavens and earth" is a unit and means "the whole universe." Granting his point for the sake of argument, we then follow him to the assertion that since God made heavens-&-earth in Genesis 1:1, He also made the sun, moon, and stars then, because they are in the heavens (pp. 57-58). Later on, he will argue that God also made all plants and animals in Genesis 1:1, "in the beginning period" (on which, see last month’s issue of Biblical Chronology).

I see two major problems with this. First, if Sailhamer wants to say that God made everything during the "beginning period," then that must include man as well. Accordingly, the man put into the Garden (Canaan) in Genesis 2 may have been a special man, but there were already men around. Ah, but it turns out that Sailhamer wants to make an exception for mankind. He wants to say that God made everything except man during the "beginning period." But there is absolutely no way Sailhamer can have it both ways. If God made the first man on the sixth day, then He made the first fish on the fifth day, and the sun on the fourth day. If God made "everything" during the "beginning period," then man was also made then. Exegetically and logically, Sailhamer has no grounds for making man an exception to his scheme.

Second, Sailhamer seems to think that the heaven of Genesis 1:1 is the same as the heavens where the sun is located. But Genesis 1:8 says that there is a second heaven, the firmament heaven, and v. 14 says that the sun is located in this second heaven.

Moreover, if Sailhamer be correct, so that the heaven created in Genesis 1:1 is just the sky above, then what about the angelic heaven? When was it made? That there is such a place, and that it is not the starry universe, is clear from many passages of Scripture, and it has always been assumed that its creation is given in Genesis 1:1.

Yet it seems that Sailhamer would want to include the angelic heaven in Genesis 1:1, since he tells us that the phrase "heaven & earth" means "everything." But if the angelic heaven is in view in Genesis 1:1, then nothing is implied about the sun, moon, and stars, for these are not part of the angelic heaven.

The traditional view is quite clear and simple. In Genesis 1:1, God made the angelic heavens and the cosmos. This original "earth" was undifferentiated, but God acted to separate this original "earth" into sky, sea, and land/earth. We now have two heavens and two earths: the original angelic heaven and the new sky-heaven within the cosmos, and the original cosmic earth and the new land-earth within the cosmos. These parallels emerge from a simple reading of the text. After the fall of man, we also have two seas: the sea within the cosmos, and the abyss of hell. Thus, we can diagram it this way:


sky land sea

(heaven earth deep)

Sky, land, and sea are parts of the EARTH that correspond to the greater HEAVEN, EARTH, and ABYSS.

Conclusion: Sailhamer seems confused about what the original heavens and earth included. Did they include the angelic heaven or not? Is the later sky-heaven part of the original heaven or part of the original earth? Perhaps Sailhamer will be able to untangle this for us as we go along. At this point, his case is more and more unconvincing.

Formless and Void

I hate to criticize an author who is so friendly and amiable in his presentation, but theological argument has to be rigorous, and so we must move on and see if Sailhamer can rescue his thesis with other information and arguments.

In chapters 5 and 21 of his book, Sailhamer argues that the phrase "without form and void" is a mistranslation. He states that this mistranslation goes back to attempt to accommodate the Biblical account with pagan notions of a primeval chaos. The pagans believe that originally there was an unformed mass of material in existence, which then the gods or the demiurge worked over to bring the present ordered cosmos into existence. Sailhamer thinks that many early translators were operating with this kind of thinking in their background, and that they set in motion an erroneous tradition of translation that still warps our English versions today.

Sailhamer asserts that the Hebrew phrase *tohu vabohu,* rendered "without form and empty," actually means nothing more than "wilderness." And as such, the reference is to a particular spot on the earth, which God makes into the fruitful land of Eden.

Now, Sailhamer is correct that *tohu* can be used for an empty space or a wilderness, but it can also mean "confusion." The *Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament* (Moody Press, 1980) states on p. 964b, "It refers to a desert wasteland in Deut 32:10; Job 6:18 (see ASV, RSV); 12:24b = Ps. 107:40b; to a destroyed city in Isa 24:10 (see also 34:11); to moral and spiritual emptiness and confusion in I Sam 12:21 (twice) and several times in Isa (29:21; 41:29; 44:9; 45:19; 59:4); and to nothingless or unreality in Isa 40:17, 23; 49:4;" and possibly Job 26:7.

So, what is the nuance of the term in Genesis 1:2? Sailhamer and some commentators take it as defined by the following term, with which is it paired. *Bohu* means empty. So the phrase means "very empty" or "a total wilderness."

The big, fat problem with this approach, which Sailhamer does not even mention, is that Genesis 1 rather obviously follows an outline set up in 1:2. The earth is formless, empty, and dark. This sets up the discussion that follows, to wit:

First, God takes care of the darkness problem in a preliminary way by creating light.

Second, God takes care of the formless problem by separating waters above and below and putting the firmament between them, and then by separating land and sea. These actions take place on Days 2 and 3a, and are linked not only thematically, but by the fact that the situation is not pronounced good until the second act of forming is completed on Day 3a.

Third, God takes care of the emptiness problem by creating grain plants and fruit trees, on Day 3b.

Fourth, God takes care of the darkness problem permanently by creating the sun, moon, and stars, on Day 4.

Thus, days 2-4 take up in series the three problems outlined in 1:2. Then, days 5-7 are show God blessing various parts of the world He has organized.

Accordingly, the passage itself explains what is meant by *tohu vabohu,* and it means just what the traditional translations say it means: formless and empty.

There is no need to see the original formlessness of the earth as a primeval chaos. There was already some shape to the creation, because the land was under water, and there was some kind of space above the water even then. For God’s purposes, however, the world was without form, or formless.

This formlessness seems to have particular relevance to the sea. Originally the sea covered the land. Then God took part of the sea into the angelic heaven, and put the rest of it below the land (i.e., lower than the land). The filling seems to have particular reference to the land (Day 3b), and the lightening seems to have particular relevance to the heaven or sky (Day 4).

Now I really do have to complain against Sailhamer here. Virtually every discussion of Genesis 1 takes up the "forming and filling" aspects of the passage. True, few seem to see that there are three problems, not just two, in Genesis 1:2. But apart from that, Sailhamer has to know that the usual interpretation distinguishes the problems of formlessness and emptiness — yet he does not discuss this interpretation at all. He simply leaps to the conclusion that a "wilderness" is all that is in view, and then uses this to argue for his notion that only the land of promise is in view in Genesis 1.

Thus, Sailhamer does not make a case for his position at all. He simply asserts it. He ignores the strong case against it at this point. Even though this is a popularly-written book, there is simply no excuse for this omission. One could charge that Sailhamer is just trying to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes.

Conclusion: Genesis 1 as a whole makes very clear that the traditional translation, "formless and empty" is quite correct. Sailhamer’s contention that nothing more than an empty wilderness is in view here is without foundation.