By Richard James Fischer, 227 pages, $16.04, Univ Press, ISBN 0-7618-3807-4.
Historical Genesis is one of the most ambitious books in theology in a long time. Richard Fischer tries to do the nearly-impossible – wed the biblical account of our origins to the science of secular universities. He does so without deconstructing the Bible or cutting corners on scientific research.
In fact, the erudite Fischer, trained in both science and theology, links science, theology, and current archeological research about Mesopotamia. While a lot of the reading, necessarily detailed, can bog the reader down, the book reads like a mystery novel, with Fischer as our chief detective who takes us on a geographical and historical odyssey.
Fischer did his homework, as he shows how how ancient Sumerian king lists which claim that their kings lived for 30,000 years were actually using the sexagesimal decimal system or some form of counting that we no longer use or understand.
Fischer contends – politely though firmly - that previous generations of Christians have misinterpreted Genesis. Adam did not father all of humanity, but entered the “stream of humanity” at about the time that Biblical fundamentalists themselves reckon he started things up. Adam, a kind of Abraham, fathered an enormous group of peoples, which the author calls Adamites.
Historical Genesis helps the reader see how Genesis reflects the culture of the surrounding, non-Adamite peoples. Canals from surrounding rivers watered the Garden of Eden, as they did everywhere at this time in Mesopotamia. People in this region had to pollinate date palm trees by hand, and many settlements had their own sacred date palm tree. Eden's forbidden tree reflected these significant trees, found on countless cylinders of the time.
The author accepts the common scientific assertion of the impossibility of a world-wide flood. Where did all the water go, if it were to have covered up even the highest mountains? How could an olive tree start to grow so quickly that the dove from Noah's Ark could find a branch?
Fischer sticks zealously to his idea that Genesis is an historical document. He investigates the Tower of Babel from the bountiful archeological remains of ziggurats, which were ancient Mesopotamian towers originally built, ostensibly, for people to escape from the floods that occurred so frequently in the low-lying plain. In some cases, these ziggurats eventually gained religious significance.
Fischer's knowledge extends to Hebrew, which he shares step-by-step with the reader:
“If we take into consideration allowable interpretations of the Old Testament, and understand 'land' when it often says 'earth,' and 'hills' in many instances where we read 'mountains,' coupled with thinking in terms of 'much' and 'many' when we read 'all' and 'every,' and with an awareness of the Hebrew penchant for perfect or prophetic numbers, we should understand how a Mesopotamian regional flood has been misunderstood as a global cataclysm.”
Fischer genuinely respects Christians and their traditions of Bible interpretation. He also respects the Bible and its writers. In fact, that esteem for the original intentions of the biblical writer seems to have driven him to start his scientific-biblical-archeological-theological investigations in the first place.
Genuinely fascinated by the Bible story, Fischer offers interesting theological musings:
“The biblical, archeological, and anthropological evidence corroborates spared human populations who were outside the Mesopotamian valley and outside of God's covenant. God 'winked at' their ignorance (Acts 17:30), but targeted the Adamite population in particular, obliterating those who were answerable and willfully obedient.”
Although Historical Genesis notes the frequent nature of flooding in Mesopotamia, these words reflect a theological understanding of The Flood. Fischer aims to dig up the scientific, archeological, and biblical truths – because for him these will buttress the traditional theological truths of Christianity, which he serves.