G is for Genesis 12–50

We have already met the opening three chapters of the book of Genesis in the earlier posts on Creation and Fall. The book of Genesis falls into two unequal halves. Chapter 12 initiates a new turn of events in the book as it follows on from the flood narrative. Up to this point Genesis reads very much like a prehistory which accounts for the way things are in the world. In chapter 12 the concern with origins continues but at a much more specific level—it is with Abram that the story of the nation of Israel starts. In this chapter the founding father of the nation of Israel is introduced. Abram, later to be renamed Abraham, hears the voice of God and embarks obediently on a journey from his home of Ur of the Chaldees to what will become Israel. This is the start of God’s dealings with Abram which indicates that he is chosen by God to be the first of the Patriarchs. His son Isaac and his grandson Jacob, later renamed Israel, are the foundation of a people who will become the nation of Israel.

A large part of the story of Abram is the covenant that God makes with him. This covenant takes place in two stages. The first stage in chapter 15 takes place whilst Abram is facing the challenge of being childless. This is ironic in that a key part of the covenant promise that God describes is that that Abram’s descendant will inherit what is often termed the promised land—God says ‘on that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates’ (Genesis 15:18). In the second stage, Abraham has a son but one born not to his wife Sarah but to Hagar, an Egyptian slave. As part of this more detailed unfolding of the covenant promises, God promises that Abraham will have a son by Sarah, and that it is this son from who his numerous descendants will come.

The stories involving Abram are just as foundational to the biblical story as the earlier chapters of Genesis but now we see that God is unfolding a complex plan. The promises of Land, along with descendants beyond counting, and the ultimate blessing of the nations are clearly long-term in nature. In many ways this covenant is a prelude to the covenant with Moses mentioned above in the post on the Deuteronomic History. Genesis a key religious marker, male circumcision, is introduced. The act of cutting foreskin is a literal echo of the cutting of a covenant in Genesis chapter 17.

The stories of Abraham’s son Isaac and his grandson Jacob contain similar elements to those of Abraham himself. Like most biblical narratives they are open to interpretation. The Hebrew Bible presents the story but often leaves readers unclear as to what to do with the story.

F is for Fall

Right on the heels of the two creation accounts in Genesis 1–2 there follows the story of what is often termed ‘The Fall’. This familiar story of the Garden of Eden, Adam, Eve and the serpent poses an interpretive challenge. Just as with the Creation accounts, translating Genesis 3 into straightforward propositional truth tends to pit science against the Bible. We should also note that seeing this story as in some sense symbolic or mythical poses different challenges. It is however this latter approach that I find sensible.

There are a number of reasons why this approach seems necessary to me. One example will serve for this post. What are we to make of the cursing of the serpent by God? What else is going on in this account about why snakes have no legs, and crawl on their bellies? Surely this has to be mythopoetic language and if so, the whole story must function in the same way. The challenge of seeing the narrative as imagery does however beg the question ‘How do we equate the symbolic language with the theological concept of the fallen nature of humanity?’ Throughout much of Church History theologians have taken Genesis 3 at face value and have built ontological arguments on it—the most famous of these being Augustine’s doctrine of original sin.

In contrast a more mythical interpretive paradigm does not provide a cause-and-effect account of how it is that human beings have collectively chosen their own path and have a broken relationship with God. For some this lack of mechanism is unnerving as it leaves unanswered questions. And yet more positively the very lack of a mechanical account resonates with the wonderful mystery, that though science can explain much about biology, including genetic evolution, it cannot provide a metaphysical account of ‘the world’ except for the singular possibility that there is no purpose to ‘creation’. Is ‘The Fall’ an account of the first two people making a bad choice that echoes through eternity—accounting for the broken relationship between man-and-man, man-and-woman, humanity-and-creation, humanity-and-God? Or is it a mythic statement of the way things are, a state of affairs which it is difficult to refute?

One way of looking at Genesis 3 is to note that it sounds like something of a prequel to Exile. The account of Genesis 3 concludes with Adam and Eve being exiled from Eden. When viewed in this way the history of exile, the mythopoetic imagery of Fall are mutually enriching and the common experience of human beings cohere into a theology of being strangers in a strange land. We are all lovers of those who share our humanity and yet we are unable to live this out with consistency; simultaneously in awe of the world around us and yet sowing the seeds of its destruction; day-by-day seeking self-fulfilment but discerning that something is absent.

Opening ourselves to a rich nuanced interpretation of The Fall (and Creation) is the start of a journey to a new worldview and this possibility turns into a exilic pilgrimage to the Promised Land, the heavenly Eden. It does this in a way that asks as many questions as it provides answers.

C is for Creation

There is no escaping the centrality of the theme of Creation in the Hebrew Bible. Not only is it encountered on numerous occasions, both explicitly and implicitly, but it is also the point of departure of the book of Genesis and therefore the whole Hebrew Bible.

In the previous post we considered two polar opposite approaches to the Hebrew Bible and their respective presuppositions. These were scientific atheism and highly conservative Christianity. Both conservative Christian approaches and militant atheism share a tendency to translate the two accounts of creation found in Genesis 1–2 into propositional truth. In this way the outcome is either:

  1. The Bible’s account of creation is so at odds with astronomy, geology and evolutionary biology that the biblical account is false, or
  2. The Bible’s account of creation is so at odds with astronomy, geology and evolutionary biology that these sciences are wrong.

Of course there are alternatives. These alternatives centre on considering what these texts are—i.e. they are not a series of straightforward propositional truths. This is not to question their potential for conveying truth but rather to recognise that there is something more complex at work in these texts and that their interpretation is richer than a series of true/false statements. I want to suggest that an initial reading of the two accounts of creation in Genesis 1–2 which recognises their cultural milieu indicates two useful starting points.

Firstly, there is a poetic dynamic to the accounts:

  • They are highly rhythmic and stylised—for example the six fold refrain of ‘. . . and there was evening, and there was morning . . .’ (see 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23 and 31).
  • There is word play—for example the use of ‘adamah as earth (as in topsoil) in 1:25 and 2:6 and the use of ‘adam as the first man (earth creature) in 2:7.

Some poetic features are lost in translation but the rhythm and form are readily apparent.

Secondly, the two creation accounts in Genesis and other elements of Genesis 1–11 are part of a number of Ancient Near-Eastern texts which deal with origins. They arose in a context which saw a number of accounts for the origin of the world and explanations of the way things are. For example, there are Akkadian, Egyptian and Babylonian creation stories. These Hebrew accounts provide their own unique answers to the questions being asked at that time.

Of course even when such considerations are handled sympathetically these texts can still be dismissed as wrongheaded, but the way we can dismiss or embrace them is richer than polarising modern science against ancient text as propositional statements which capture timeless truth. The possible ‘thicker’ readings lack the simplicity and closure of the ‘thinner’ alternatives. They raise questions as well as provide answers. The central claims of Genesis 1–2 provide the presuppositions underpinning the whole of the Hebrew Bible—that the Hebrew God, Yahweh, created the universe and that humankind are, at some level, special within this creation. There is no scientific proposal here which can be tested. Rather, this is elegant use of the possibilities of poetry to populate the imagination with rich theological images. This thicker possibility leads us to wonder and perhaps argue about how we interpret the account—how do Adam and Eve fit with the scientific consensus? As a Christian who is also a scientist I welcome the fact that neither scientific consensus nor the Bible trumps the other at the outset of a process of critical evaluation and consideration.

 

Further reading

For a stimulating scholarly exploration of the centrality of creation in the Hebrew Bible see Herman Spieckermann, ‘Creation: God and World’, pp. 271‒292 in The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion (ed: John Barton), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016