Saturday, May 11, 2013

Blogging through the Bible: Genesis 1

Perhaps the best place to start when writing about the book of Genesis is with an affirmation of the authority of Scripture.

Most famously asserted in the Latin phrase sola Scriptura, the doctrine of Scriptural authority in the Protestant tradition asserts that the Bible is the final authority on matters of holiness and salvation. Any teaching that purports to explain how humanity may be reconciled to itself and to God, must square with the revelation contained in Scripture. Tradition, contemporary claims of revelation, pastoral teaching and personal insights, all have to square with what the Bible actually teaches.

That's it. Sola Scriptura does not mean that the Bible should assume primacy in matters of mathematics, genetics, history nor even poetry. The books are understood best in the cultural linguistic context in which they were written, and in the original sense of the letter.

In this vein, it is important to remember that the earliest chapters of Genesis were not written as a textbook account of the origins of the world. The ancient culture that produced the book of Genesis wasn't looking for the source of the hibernation instinct common to lower animals, an explanation of the fossil record, nor were they carefully detailing how God created the cosmos ex nihilo.

Contemporary readers may find those things in these stories, but the people who told these stories told them for the same reason we tell stories today: to instill cultural, religious and personal values; to provide a sense of identity; and to ponder the deep mysteries of life. That is the sense that I want to explore these stories.

Beyond that, the opening scenes of Genesis are interesting for a few reasons, one of the most obvious is the structure.

To begin with, there are the famous two creation stories in Genesis. I know some people point this out as a flagrant contradiction, since man is created on the sixth day in Genesis 1, and is listed as first in the created order in Genesis 2; and I know other people argue that it's nothing of the sort. Blah, blah, blah.

The first chapter of Genesis regularly refers to "God"; the second regularly refers to the "Lord God." A lot of times we don't notice this sort of thing, because we automatically see these both as names of God, who admittedly has a hefty roster of names. Still, more than a century ago, a Bible scholar noticed that this particular variant continues all the way through the book of Genesis (and beyond), with the writer sometimes using the Hebrew elohim, and other times using the Tetragrammaton, YHWH. If you remove these passages from one another, you're left with two complete, parallel passages, one about Elohim and the other about YHWH.

What can I say about these passages that I haven't already said a million times before in a million different blog posts? Well, for starters, I guess, the Elohim passage is more transcendental than the YHWH passage. By this I mean it describes God as creating the world by the power of his word -- in contrast to a similar Babylonian myth, where Tiamat and Marduk brought the world into being through their conflict -- and we're given a sense of the inherent goodness of the world that God has created.

That admittedly doesn't sound very groundbreaking or original a thought. In traditional Christian thinking, after all, the events of Genesis 1 take place before the Fall of Man, when evil entered the world. But if we look at the Elohim account on its own, separate from the YHWH passage, the text gains a new import. It's not a meditation on the world that was, the world that Adam screwed up and cost us forever; it's a meditation on the world that is, a good world teeming with life in the sea, in the sky, and upon the ground, and each facet of that world, each river, each stream and vernal pool, each blade of grass illuminated in the afternoon sun, and the sweet crunch of each apple, was created by God for us and for our benefit. Not in a world that was lost, but in a world that still exists.

There's a lot that can be made of this, both good and bad, in terms of humanity's dominion over the earth. A few days ago when the subject of factory farming briefly surfaced, an acquaintance of mine remarked that he really doesn't give a toss about the chickens that lay eggs or provide us with drumsticks on a Tuesday evening, since they are animals and exist to give us meat. That's an extreme though common view that has some roots in this passage, though it's worth noting that this passage expressly does not authorize killing animals for their meat, and though I can't say I think much of anyone who sees his authority as bestowing the right to do whatever he wants to those under his authority. Kings who oppress their subjects usually find their kingdoms collapsing under them.

In that vein, it might be worth noting that the Genesis 1 creation account follows a structure of two sets of three days. The first day brings light and day, the second day brings sky (the Hebrew cosmology here indicates that the sky physically separates the water on the earth from water above the sky, and that rain comes when God opens doors in the sky -- something I've yet to hear a convincing creationist argument address, though I digress) , and the third day brings dry land and plants.

The second cycle of three days follows the pattern of the first cycle of light, sea and sky, and dry land. On Day Four, God creates the sun and the moon to maintain the light from the first day; on Day Five, he brings forth birds to fly through the sky and sea creatures to move through the waters under the sky; and on Day Six he creates land animals and he also creates man.

This is significant because the first cycle lays the ground for that second cycle to build upon. Without the light, there is no use for the sun, moon and stars. Without the sky and the waters, there is nowhere for the birds or the sea creatures to live. Without dry land, there is no space for animals. And of course, all this leads the way for humanity, men and women, the pinnacle of the created order. A king who oppresses and exploits his subjects poisons the source of his power and military might; a human atop a ladder who insists on kicking out the steps below him, will have no way to get down safely when the ladder begins to fall.

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