Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Genesis Creation Stories

Possibly no part of the Bible arouses more controversy and strong feeling than its opening two chapters on the creation of the world.  In one corner of the cultural boxing ring we have those who regard those chapters as a literal description of how the world was made (with some exegetical wiggle room about the definition of the word “yom/ day”, and therefore about the age of the cosmos), and in the other corner we have those who regard such Creation Science (as it has been called) as self-evident nonsense, regarding Creation Scientists themselves as medieval obscurantist throwbacks.   In this contest much time is spent arguing for or against “the Theory of Evolution”.  I suggest that though it makes for great cultural theatre, both sides are misreading those opening chapters, which can only be read correctly when anchored in their cultural context.
            John Walton, Old Testament prof at the evangelical Wheaton College, has done just such an anchoring job, and the results of his research can be found in his books Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament and The Lost World of Genesis One.  Following him, I would suggest that the creation stories do not intend to teach science or update the cosmology of its original audience.  The Hebrews who first received these stories shared a cosmology similar to everyone else in their day.  They believed (for example) that the sky was solid (a belief reflected in the Septuagint term for “firmament” in Genesis 1:6, stereoma, defined by one lexicon as “the solid part”), and that it was this solid sky which separated the waters above from the waters below.  We moderns know that the sky is not solid, and so like to imagine that “the waters which were above the sky” must refer to clouds.  In fact in doing so we read our modern cosmology into the text throughout, with a well-intentioned eisegesis.  (We see such eisegesis in the visual depiction of the creation in the 2014 film Noah where the divine command “Let there be light” was fulfilled in an original “big bang”, when in fact it was fulfilled in the creation of time.  Read the text carefully:  the light was called “Day”, and was contrasted to “Night”.) 
It seems that God was content to leave this ancient Near Eastern cosmology intact.  He did not intend to give lessons in geography or astronomy, or teach that the world was round and of great age.  These lessons would have meant nothing to their original hearers and done nothing to change or enrich their lives.  God had more revolutionary and important lessons to teach in those early chapters, lessons which did not involve proclaiming a new cosmology which would only have bewildered its original hearers.
Foremost among those lessons was this:  that their God, the deity worshipped by an obscure Hebrew set of tribes, was the creator, owner, and sovereign over the whole earth.   Other pagan cosmologies mentioned a number of gods, and all of these are conspicuously absent from the opening chapters of Genesis. There Elohim (or Yahweh Elohim as He is called in Genesis 2:4) is the only One involved in the earth’s creation.  The other gods, the deities of the rival nations, do not even warrant a mention, doubtless because they were nothings, phantoms, idols.  The subtextual message?  “Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3). This message needed to be heard, both then and now, as the People of God felt themselves powerless before greater international forces and mightier tyrannies.  Israel need fear nothing, for their God was Lord of heaven and earth.
Another lesson involved the dignity of man.  In the other ancient cosmologies, man was simply the provider of food for the gods, the keeper of their temples.   The king was made in the divine image, and might be properly regarded as the son of the deity, but the common man (and still more, the common woman) was of no account and of little worth.  Against this cultural background, the Genesis creation stories declare that both the common man and the common woman were made in the divine image.  Humanity did not exist simply to feed the gods; they existed as God’s regents and viceroys on the earth.  They existed to subdue the earth and have dominion over it in God’s Name, which is what it meant to be God’s image.  And note please:  women shared this dominion equally with men (Genesis 1:27-28).  The Genesis text proclaimed not only the monotheistic sovereignty of God, but also the revolutionary dignity of the common person.  The lowest mud-covered peasant working the fields was God’s image, created to rule in His place.  It was a more important lesson than any merely astronomical one, and a lesson we have not yet learned. 
Perhaps we should return to the opening chapters of Genesis and read it with fresh eyes and a teachable heart.  We are tempted to look out over a world terrorized by ISIS and rent by defections from the European Union with trepidation, and conclude that perhaps things are beginning to spin out of control.  It is not so.  Our God is still sovereign over the nations and directs the affairs of the world to fulfill His own hidden purposes.  He who first created the world has not abandoned it, nor gone on some long heavenly Sabbatical.  He continues to reign over His the creation.  Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.  As we work to do His will in the world, we can let our hearts find peace in that sovereignty. 


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