Showing posts with label Genesis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Genesis. Show all posts

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Third Creation Narrative (Genesis 5)

I wrote in late May about the supposedly dull genealogy at the beginning of Matthew's gospel (which can be found here), and it would seem that Genesis 5, entirely dedicated to genealogy, is another dull chapter. I think that appearance is misleading.

I had a look to see what some important Christian figures had said about this chapter to get a more rounded view, so I had a look at John Calvin's commentary on Genesis: nothing about the genealogy itself, just a little about the opening phrase and on the very ending, connecting it to the Flood, plus a paragraph or two on Enoch. This seems a general trend, though I only had a cursory glance. To remedy this, I would like to give a sketch of why I think Genesis 5 is a third creation account (after Genesis 1, Genesis 2) and why it is a fascinating story which sets the scene for the enigmatic verses at the beginning of chapter 6.

We must first ask a question: what does a creation narrative contain, and what issues does it seek to address? These accounts contain explanations of origins, of where the audience came from. Although the term is anachronistic if read back into the times of the ancient Israelites, they seem to set up a certain metaphysical perspective on the world, or more narrowly on humans' role in it. Thus, Genesis 1 presents a highly theocentric metaphysical view of the world, where everything is at a word away from God's command, everything is ordered and tidy, and humankind has a great dignity as well as the task to be fruitful and have dominion over the Earth. Genesis 2, on the other hand, which truly does stand alone in a sense (though is obviously made more rounded with Genesis 1) is a very anthropomorphic picture of God's hand in creation, with God hand-crafting humankind from the earth of the ground, and is said to "plant a garden in the east" (2:8). Combined we see God as entirely transcendent and beyond everything, and at the same time God as walking with us and bringing about growth in our midst - "imminently transcendent."

I propose that Genesis 5 is similarly a creation account: it begins with God once again being said to create man, in the likeness of God, male and female he created them, then he blessed them (v. 1). In this way, it echoes directly the similar statement in Genesis 1. Except unlike what we learn in Genesis 2, Adam is not said to father Cain, but Seth. Cain is completely forgotten, and interestingly, Eve is also forgotten - neither appears again in the Hebrew Bible, though they are both mentioned in the Christian New Testament.

In fact, there's not much mention of anything going wrong in Genesis 5 at all. The harshness of life suggested by the curse in Genesis 4 seems forgotten. The fratricide of Genesis 4 between Cain and Abel seems forgotten, as everyone seems to live peacefully. The line of Seth which came about almost as a fruit of that murder seems to be doing just fine. Calvin makes a long point about death, but I think for the original audience, un-immersed as they were in the eternal life and "death as the curse of sin" theology of centuries later after God's revelation in Christ, the long life and numerous children spelled peaceful success for the children of Adam in the line of Seth.

The line of Seth contrasts itself with the line of Cain directly as even the names resemble, or are even copied: Cain-Cainan, Enoch-Enosh, Irad-Iared, Mehujael-Mahalel, et cetera. Cain's Enoch had his name attached to a city, whereas Seth's Enoch walks with God. Lamech of Cain and Lamech of Seth also contrast similarly.

This would all be accomplished if the text said "lived a long life" after each patriarch, and left it at that. There seems to be no precedent for having details about when the first son (note the text has females but it is the first son which is mentioned in each case) was born or how old exactly the men were at their time of death. It indicates a great longevity - one I admit that I am unsure about - but it is nonetheless fairly superfluous.

What then are the numbers for? I dare say there is some of the typical symbolism in various of the numbers, such as the "perfect" 777 years of Lamech. These do not concern me presently, so I would instead like to point out three things which I find interesting which one discovers when one plots the lives of these men on a time-line:

I did not attempt to draw this entirely to scale, but the recorded events do occur in the correct order spatially.

First, note the green zone, where everyone in the line of Adam through Seth lives concurrently. Here the community of the line of Seth lives peacefully among each other, as far as we can tell, and coexist amicably with all their children. For about a century and a half, everyone from Adam through to Seth's Lamech coexist.

Then the red line, and this is the crucial second point: the curse of sin rears its ugly head, and death finally enters the world naturally. The murder of Abel was death at the hands of another human, and perhaps the curse was restricted to Cain's line, but suddenly this line is painfully aware of their own mortality. Close to a millennium since Adam came into the world, and now it is clear: humankind is destined to die.

I must stress this point of surprise, the jolt that comes from Adam's, and soon after Seth's death: it will be important to understand Genesis 6's cryptic starting verses, but it is even more important for understanding my third point: Noah is born into the mortal world. Note how the red line has everyone except Noah being born before the knowledge of humankind's mortality. Noah is the first person to be raised with the understanding that part of what it means for a person to live is that at some point they die. For everyone before him, death has been at most the consequence of active human violence. Once again, this will be crucial for understanding the figure of Noah throughout the Flood narrative.

To conclude, allow me to return to the idea of Genesis 5 as a creation narrative, and more importantly, how it answers the question that such an account raises: this genealogy presents humans as being first and foremost in the likeness of God, who created us and bestowed us with his blessing. Humans are fruitful creatures, who have children and live long lives. Except there's something horribly wrong - the reader knows full well that there was a curse pronounced on the first couple, Adam and Eve, and that life is therefore finite. This third and final creation account is practically an attempt at forgetting the weight of sin, at erasing all sin from history. This is why Eve, the woman who was tempted, is not mentioned, or Cain and Abel, or indeed anything evil. It thus foreshadows the Flood, where in a catastrophic way creation tries to renew itself by putting to death all the evil that has passed.

Yet it will not work. No amount of historical revisionism will suffice to change the fact that humans are mortal because of sin. With the Flood we shall see that even forcefully removing everything that has gone wrong in the past to try and start afresh will fail: sins must be forgiven, not simply forgotten. It will take the waters of baptism, not just of the Flood, gushing from the side of Christ on the Cross, to erase sin.

Note of gratitude: to the amazing work of Leon R. Kass that I discovered recently, many of whose comments are loosely paraphrased here. In particular, I refer to his commentaries in "The Beginning of Wisdom." He in turn claims to be indebted to Robert Sacks. Thanks to them both.

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Cain and Abel (Genesis 4)

The story of Cain and Abel goes something like this: Adam and Eve have two children, Cain and Abel, who become a farmer of the land and a shepherd respectively. One day, Cain brought some of his harvest to God, and Abel took the firstborn of his flock as well as some of their fat. God was pleased with Abel, but showed no regard for Cain. He got angry and:
The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (vv. 6-7)

Cain goes out into the field with Abel and kills him. Then:
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (v. 9)

God gives Cain a curse for killing his brother which involves exile from the land where Abel was killed, hardship in labouring the land, and being a fugitive wandering the earth. Cain says the punishment is too great, that whoever sees him will kill him, and then God says that whoever kills Cain will suffer sevenfold, giving him a mark for such protection. Cain left then and settled in the land of Nod, where he had intercourse with his wife and conceived Enoch in whose name city was built. A string of generations later and Lamech comes along, this time with two gives, who each gave him children. Lamech says:

“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
    you wives of Lamech, hearken to what I say:
I have slain a man for wounding me,
    a young man for striking me. 
 If Cain is avenged sevenfold,    truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (vv. 23-24)

Finally, Adam and Eve have another child, Seth, and the chapter ends saying that around this time "people began to call upon the name of the LORD." (v. 26)


Narrative is interesting but difficult to exegete, and stories such as this one are clear examples of the difficulties encountered. Stories do not necessarily have a point to make with everything that happens, their teachings are not explicit and what exactly the major thesis of the story is can be difficult to determine. Allow me, then to comment on the portions I have quoted above in particular.

Cain did a grievous wrong to Abel, that much is clear. This story is not so much about condemning a particular sinful act so much as it is about illustrating the effects of the sinfulness of humankind. God asks Cain a very simple question - Cain is angry, and in the context of the offering given God asks "will you not be accepted if you do the right thing?" This is obviously a rhetorical question to make the point that God is pleased when people do the right thing. Quite simple really. Is that easy to do?

If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it. (v. 7)

Sin is always waiting to claim souls. It desires to claim the person, but we are called to master it. Who can truly master sin? Only Jesus, who on the cross conquered it. Yet regardless, Cain is told that he must master it. Is it possible to not sin? In each case one may avoid sin, yes, but I think that ultimately, if sin so crouches at one's door, it will finally get in, and it will finally conquer. It is absolutely crucial to recognize, however, that one struggles with sin on a case by case basis, and that sin is never truly inevitable. One may never complain "God, it was only possible that I sin!" because it is always possible not to sin.

Some mathematics might illustrate this point well: the probability of resisting some temptation is fairly good. How about two temptations? Still alright. But as the number of temptations faced add up, the probability of avoiding all sin becomes smaller and smaller, such that ultimately, it is practically impossible to never have sinned. That, at least, is the idea behind mastering sin. In practice, we are not even very good at resisting a single temptation, even though nonetheless it is strictly speaking possible. St Paul makes this point in the first letter to the Corinthians:

God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it." (1 Cor. 10:13b)

Therefore, no sin is inevitable.


He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (v. 9b)

I wish to make a comment on this, because Cain seems to think that the answer is no, hence the rhetorical question. In reality, the answer is yes, we are our brothers' keepers. We must therefore take due consideration to care for our brother - obviously not murder him - and look out for him. This is all very well and good, but how does this apply to us? Very simply - one must care for the sin of another. If one's brother indulges the flesh sinfully, why might ask, am I my brother's keeper? Well, yes. So the sin of another is one's own concern.

If Cain is avenged sevenfold,    truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold. (v. 24)

This is pride of a rather interesting sort. First, why is it pride? It is such because Lamech thinks of himself important enough to have eleven times as much "protective vengeance" than Cain, indeed, he boasts to his wives of his superior protection. Second, why is it interesting? The original protection was because Cain practically pleaded with God saying that he was not able to bear his punishment. Now Lamech is saying "if Cain got it, then I get it even more!" without pleading with God at all.

Lamech's logic seems to be that Cain killed his brother out of envy, but he killed out of self-defence (see v. 23). Therefore, he is more worthy of God's protection than Cain. Sadly, I think prides of this type are rampant and often subtle; "I deserve it" and "I'm not as bad as X" both come from this same root of pride. 


"At that time men began to call upon the name of the LORD." (v. 26)

Here is my closing remark: amidst the murder of Abel and the murders committed by Lamech, his pride as well as the wrongdoings that inevitably must have occurred, there is some hope from the line of Seth. He will be our focus when we see that his descendent, Noah, will find favour with God.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Effects of the Fall (Genesis 3:7-24)

Before we get to what happened after the first sin, I want to bring to mind something that was said when everything was still perfect:

"And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed"

"Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves."  (3:7 - directly after they eat of the fruit)

Sin is the violation of a command of God, and this is the working definition in the first books of Genesis. But sin and wrongdoing are not identical sets of actions: things can be wrong without being sin, it seems, because although the first thing (as we shall see) that the first pair does when they eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is cover themselves up, because they thought it was wrong, they were naked beforehand. So it cannot be the case that what is wrong is necessarily sin, or it would have been sin to be naked. No no, sin requires there to be a law against it, as St Paul says in his epistle to the Romans (which will be commented on in about seven months).

 "They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ Then the LORD God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’"(vv. 8-13)

This depiction of God is highly anthropomorphic, and I suggest that we are meant to consider this in an allegorical sense because of this - not robbing it of truth, but not sending out archaeologists to try and find "the God footprints" either.

When God asks where the man is, he answers with fear. Why is the man afraid? Part of this anthropomorphic nature of this depiction of God is that he does not strike fear into the hearts of humans, as happens in other sections of the Scriptures. The man was not afraid of God before he ate from the fruit - but now something has changed. Man is is afraid, because now, man is guilty. Man is guilty because now he feels shame at being naked - and this raises the question: "who told you you were naked?", or in other words "how did you find out it was wrong to be naked?" The next question asked by God is not completely rhetorical, in that I think God is asking the man with some degree of sincerity - but the important bit is how then the man responds, and it illustrates one of the more common themes of sin in human history: blaming someone else. In my opinion, there are few things that separate us from God quite as much as our inability to accept that our wrongdoings really are ours. Objections to Christian doctrines that take the form "how can God blame me for this?" or "if God had done this for me, I would not have done that wrong" have root in the same problem, which is our recurring inability to say "I did wrong - and perhaps there were some factors involved that did not help, but I am at fault here."These separate us from God because we cannot be reconciled without forgiveness, and we cannot accept forgiveness unless we admit that we require it.

This "blaming of other" is in its fullest form here, because the man blames God for giving the woman in saying "This woman whom you gave to be with me" (v. 12), and then the woman for being the active cause in saying "she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate." (v. 12). Notice that the man does indeed admit that he ate - but he seems to try and exempt himself from guilt by pointing out that it was brought about by something over which he had no control, and so others are at fault, really. As I said, this lies at the heart of the problems that face us all in reconciliation.

Though that was said of the man, the woman did much the same, so I will not comment on it. Instead, I shall proceed to the more long-lasting consequences of their sin:

The Lord God said to the serpent,

‘Because you have done this,
    cursed are you among all animals
    and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
    and dust you shall eat
    all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
    and you will strike his heel.’

To the woman he said,
‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you.’
And to the man he said,
‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
    and have eaten of the tree
about which I commanded you,
    “You shall not eat of it”,
cursed is the ground because of you;
    in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 
 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.’
(vv. 14-19)

This has been commented on extensively, so I urge you readers to look up a commentary, specially one of a church father. I want to make a few points, but these will be more things to consider:

1. The traditionally Christian interpretation of the serpent as the devil is odd in this section, because in talking about the serpent's descendants, the implication is that the consequences will reach far beyond the death of the serpent. Even if we ignore this clear implication (it's also implied of the woman, which is true enough), then it is still unclear who exactly the descendants of the devil are. Are they demons? How were they conceived? And many more like these. It is furthermore unclear how the curse of going on the belly translates to the devil, as well as a few others.

2. The man's curses come from him listening to his wife. As a practical application, we are therefore divinely advised against this (I am joking on this point). I think this verse should be understood as listening to one's wife above and before God - which is a reasonable thing to be against.

3. These curses, to first degree and broadly speaking, can be thought of as the breakdown of relationships: between woman and nature, between man and nature, between woman and man, and between humans and the divine. There's more to it that that, and the childbearing one does not fit naturally into that categorization, but it is certainly of note that with sin, these relationships are broken.

"The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all who live. And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them." (vv. 20-21)

The naming is interesting here for a few reasons: man had already been naming things for a while now (it was his first job, whilst he searched for a companion), so it is curious that it took so long to find her a name (a proper name - ie, a personal one). Second, and perhaps to nuance that point, she was named before: "woman", in chapter 2. So why a second naming? Third, she is named mother of all who live, even though St Paul will say millennia later that Adam brought death[1]. This is not a contradiction, of course, but an interesting contrast between the supposed result of sin and the name "Eve", which sounds very similar to the Hebrew word for "living."[2] 
Leaving the issue of the naming, it is also interesting to see God's providence in the clothing of this couple. I may be horribly wrong, but I suspect there is some symbolic meaning to it which eludes me - could it be that "before they were clothed with glory, now they are clothed with skins", as some have said? Is it merely a symbol of God caring for even the banished sinners? I am not sure.

Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’ (v. 22)

The best I can muster right now to understand this verse, and it seems legitimate, is to say that God could not, in good conscience, give immortality to a flawed moral agent such as this first couple. He will be saving humanity - but he would only be damning humanity to eternal fallen-ness if he let them have life everlasting now.


Overall, I want to make renewed note of how formulaic this sin has been: it had all the key aspects to the temptation, it showcases the effects and it displays the behaviour that follows from the sin (which is similar but not the same as the more general term "effects of sin"). I think this is particularly fitting to how I interpret this passage in light of the whole of Genesis: the writer has to explain why the good world that God has created does not seem good, and the answer he gives is "humans sin". The role of this narrative is to explain why God cannot be blamed for the corruptness of creation, and we will see in weeks to come how other ancient near Eastern stories are going to be adapted to fit this theme, in particular, how Noah's flood explains natural catastrophe in terms of God's just anger with human evil - at least, a particular mega-flood of which there were many legends, many attributing it to capriciousness on behalf of the gods. The point of this section, therefore, is to explain how creation got bad when it was made good by a good God.

And to this effect, noting also how generic and general the committed sin is, I think that this man and woman are really symbols of us. Whether they were real people or not is, at this point, unclear, because the point can be made if they are figureheads of us or actual people. In terms of what the Bible says, how later writers of Scripture use Adam and Eve is going to shed far more light on the issue than this passage here. Nonetheless, we should think of this couple as if they were us, because if this story says anything, it says "the reason we can't have nice things is that humans commit wrongdoings," and insofar as we are humans, it is our fault that the world is the way it is. There is nobody else to blame.

[1] Adam is the word for man in Hebrew - the NRSV translators decided to use "man" throughout Genesis 2-3, but after many centuries this man is going to be spoken of as if he had a personal name "Adam." This usage is similar to saying Eve's name was "Woman."
[2] The writer of Genesis was brilliant both at naming his characters and subtly changing the names so that it only sounded like the thing being punned with.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Sin of the Fall (Genesis 3:1-7)

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” ’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. (vv. 1-6)

This passage raises a set of questions that is only explained years and years later, and that is, who is this serpent? Does he know what he is doing? Did God make him this way? Although I'm inconsistent with this rule, I'll avoid trying to make speculations right now, because the text does not give this information.

The serpent opens with a simple enough question as to what exactly it was God had commanded. Some translations add "really", and make it sound like this question is made to raise doubt - but although it is possible that this effect is produced, the text does not read that way. The doubt will come from the lie that the serpent tells the woman, enticing her to desire the fruit, since the question really only makes the woman reaffirm what was God said...roughly.

One thing interesting about the woman's response is that it is not quite right. She has given herself a rule that is stricter than what God actually said, as far as we know, that only prohibits eating. A pastoral note can be made from this, in advising people against taking the commands of God beyond their scope, in any way. For instance, though Jesus is clear that lust is equivalent to adultery of the heart, it does not follow that admiring the beauty of another is forbidden. There may be a fine line between admiring and then twisting that admiration to an inordinate desire of a sexual nature, but it is also the fine line between sin and not sin. It must be clear to us that every time one thinks of someone else "woah, they have great eyes!", one is by no means being unfaithful to one's spouse. It is only when one then goes on to desire that person for oneself that it has lustful overtones. This is crucial if we are to avoid despair, and indeed, retain confidence that God's sanctifying grace really is at work.

Even so, the woman's response is roughly correct. Death is to follow from eating of the fruit, and here comes the lie: the serpent coaxes her in saying "there will be no punishment, it is no big deal. In fact, look how desirable it is! What gains it would bring if you ate! God only said that because he does not want the best for you." This mirrors temptation exactly, I think. In essence, we sin because we think that there will be no punishment, or not that big a punishment. We sin because we desire what is forbidden, and we think it will bring us something we lack and need. Finally, and here is the theological aspect to it, we sin because although we know that a good God would find it reprehensible, we become convinced that God is somehow withholding something from us, and that we would be better off disobeying. No sin is ever committed when we truly believe that we will be worse off when we sin, no sin is ever committed for something unappealing. Some have suggested that the essence of sin is mistrust of God, but though this is a useful generalization, these three aspects on which the serpent lie more fully spell out the root of all sin.

The Second Creation Account (Genesis 2)

Although for the ancient Israelites Adam and Eve are not particularly prominent figures, Christian theology values them enormously. We value them because in Adam we see a type[1] of Christ, a parallel drawn in particular by St Paul in the epistle to the Romans, chapter 5. I will not for now discuss that passage in Romans - I will get to it in due time, but the typological parallels that are relevant will be drawn. I will also only note the differences with Genesis 1 where relevant.[2]

"Then the LORD God formed man [Hebrew adam] from the dust of the ground [Hebrew adamah], and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being." (v. 7)

The author is using a play on words here between "adam" and "adamah", the word for "man" and the word for "ground." This is a sort of humbling message, specially after Genesis 1 where we get the importance of being in the image of God and having dominion over the earth. This foundational truth[3] is important to grasp, and we are reminded of it every year on Ash Wednesday when we have the priest draw the cross in ashes on our foreheads and say much the thing that is said in this verse. 
 "The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, 'You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die." (vv. 15-17)

Having established that God is in no way indebted to man, we see that still God gives to him everything he needs - he asks only that man refrains from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for his own sake. If man eats from the tree, then on that very day, he will die. This is a losing of the divine life, not of the earthly life - for us creatures, to have the divine life requires the earthly life, the biological life, but it is certainly distinct. It is completely false to transpose the statement and say that biological life means one has divine life. St John's gospel uses the word life in this way, as the divine life, since even those condemned still have life, in some sense.

Summary of verses 18-22: The man names all the animals, but none are quite a suitable partner, so God makes woman from the man's rib. Then we read:

"Then the man said,
‘This at last is bone of my bones
   and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
   for out of Man this one was taken.’

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed." (vv. 23-24)

God continues in his providence, having already given man everything he needs physically, he makes woman, the companion of man, who together can be mutually fulfilling. An incredible mystery is found here, because St Paul (or whoever wrote the epistle to the Ephesians) is going to take this and make it apply to the relationship between Christ and the Church. Let us make one point very clear: this relationship sets up the mystery, but it is not in itself part of the mysterious oneness of the body in marriage - the man and the woman here were the same flesh beforehand also.

"And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed." (v. 25)

I think this verse has some key information about the nature of sin, too, and also helps us understand what St Paul writes in the epistle to the Romans about the law and sin. I will comment on this, however, in relation to what happens after they eat of the fruit, when I comment on Genesis 2.

A take home point:

So far, everything is written so as to be thought of as perfect. This is, quite literally, paradise, the garden of Eden. In the context of the book of Genesis, we are meant to think of it this way - but we're also meant to have a problem. We, as human beings that live in the real world, have absolutely no experience of God in this way, or of the perfection of paradise. Both Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 have problems which the Enuma Elish, the epic of Gilgamesh, Sumerian myths and any other number of creation (and soon, flood) stories avoid easily: we have a perfect God, yet the world seems far from perfect. Throughout the next 10 chapters in particular, but throughout Genesis as a whole, the writer is going to have to treat the problem of evil in a way no previous religions had to. The reason for evil is going to have to be something other than God himself - and we shall get to what the writer says in Genesis 3.

[1] I use type in the typological sense.

[2] Differences abound, but since Genesis 1-11 does not attempt to write history in the conventional sense, it is not a matter of particular importance.

[3] I don't wish to poke too much fun at my young Earth creationist brethren, but they seem to miss that humans were made from the ground if and when they say things like "evolution destroys the dignity of humans by making them a product of the natural world." The theory of evolution may not be found explicitly in the Bible, but the idea that we are made from the most earthly of things - literally, the earth of the ground, certainly is.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

The First Creation Narrative (Genesis 1)

I considered using the text of Genesis 1 to make my point about science-and-the-Bible (here), but upon reading it carefully, I decided against it. A thoughtful study of this text alone seems to indicate that the task of the writer is not so much to give an account of how stuff came about, since we are not really told what happened. Nor should we expect to find an ancient document concerned chiefly with material origins, because this is simply not the most prominent issue. The ancient near East has many examples of creation myths, so it is not quite right to say that "why there is something rather than nothing" is a completely irrelevant question - but nonetheless, the focus seems to be rather different. In this text, we have a story which tells more about God and his attributes, over and above something seemingly irrelevant to the text, such as "where was the light from if the sun is made on day three, but night and day are separated on the first day?", or "did Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, hit his head on the dome of verse 6?" These are very silly questions once we begin to realize the kind of things that the text tries to tell us - and conversely, those that it does not.

Genesis 1 was written in a time where the first listeners would have been versed in another creation story, the Babylonian "Enuma Elish". The highly memorable beginning of the first verse of Genesis 1, "In the beginning", echoes the beginning of the Enuma Elish, which opens similarly (with "enuma elish", from whence the story gets its name). The imagery and the motifs, the structure and expressions all find a parallel in the Enuma Elish. To some extent, this is where the similarities end, because the writer of Genesis 1 is going to take these ideals and apply them in a radically different way - this literary polemical tactic is going to inform us of what exactly the author is trying to say. I have read the Enuma Elish, and so am able to understand the incredible contrast that is made - within the same literary structures, just to make the point clearer.

With this in mind, let us begin, but first with the beginning to the Enuma Elish:

When the sky above was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsû, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamat, the mother of them both,
Their waters were mingled together,
And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;
When of the gods none had been called into being,
And none bore a name, and no destinies were ordained;
Then were created the gods in the midst of heaven.

This sounds a bit like the start to Genesis 1, which goes:

In the beginning when God created ["began to create"] the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God [or "while the Spirit of God"] swept over the face of the waters.

The first thing to say is, if we want to get a doctrine of creation ex nihilo, we better go somewhere else in the Bible, such as the epistle to the Hebrews. Genesis 1 reads more like it is saying "at the start", in the original language. The next thing which becomes very clear from this parallel reading is that God does not come into existence. The Enuma Elish has more of a theogony, a story of how the gods came into existence, with the created world around us being a side-product. But although Apsu and Tiamat are not gods, rather mere personifications of fresh water and salt water respectively, one might still wish to say that these stories are fundamentally similar, up until now. I think this is actually the point - we shall start from common ground, author and reader, storyteller and audience. From here on, the stories are going to diverge massively in theology.

In Genesis, God speaks, and things are made. In the Enuma Elish, the gods fight and things are produced. In Genesis, God makes purposefully, according to his good pleasure, and then he says as much in declaring it "good". In the Enuma Elish, violence is fundamental to creation, and reality is not really of a good or bad nature, it just is, and poor ones are those who get stuck in it!

Genesis 1 has a rhythmic nature, with every day having this structure of God speaking, it being so, God seeing that it was good - evening, morning, the nth day. It has a structure, of making and filling. As a polemic piece, its structure is both similar in terms of things being created in stages, but extremely different in regards to what happens in each one. 

But if we only got that out of Genesis 1, then we would have missed the biggest point. Yes, our ancient Israelite mindsets (since we are placing ourselves in their shoes) are being dramatically overthrown as our polytheistic conflict-beginnings are being replaced by a transcendent and ultimate one God, who speaks to make - no violence, no catastrophe, just a word, and it is so. Yet the most profound thing that is said in this piece is, in a sense, about us.

In the Enuma Elish, we humans also come in near the end, but we come in to serve the gods because they got lazy of doing all the work themselves. We are divinely made slaves to relieve the gods of their labours. In Genesis 1, even were all the sanctity, the purposefulness and the goodness of God's creation to be completely ignored, we would still learn something phenomenally new about ourselves: we were made for our own sake - God lacks nothing, yet makes us, and gives first not orders but blessings. Then, our task is not an arduous job, but some might argue another blessing: "be fruitful and increase in number." (v. 28) God makes provision for us, giving us "every seed-bearing plant which is on the face of the earth, and every tree that bears fruit with seed." (I do not think this means humans were made to be vegetarians, but such an interpretation is at least plausible.) God has made humankind in the image of God, endowing us with a sanctity and inviolable nature; this matter of fundamental importance, the image of God, is to be the reason why killing another human is wrong, "for in the image of God has God made mankind" (Genesis 9:6).

Here is the thing to take away from this: the way God wants things, is very good. We shall see why exactly it is not so now in the chapters to come.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Scientific Argument against the Bible

Much could be said about the Bible's lack of regard for how the world really works, how it really began and how many other things came to be. Some have said that the Bible has simply collected an array of folk legends, while others claim those legends to be true in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Does science give us a tool to point out the backwardness of the Bible?

To answer that question, we shall need to examine exactly what it is which seems so out of sync with reality. We can grab the infamous creation story in Genesis 1 and the story of Noah's flood. There is undeniable evidence that the universe is many billions of years old, that the Earth is a few billions of years old (hence, that neither were created in short periods of hours or a week), as well as there being absolutely no reason to believe, from a scientific perspective, that there was ever a global flood that wiped out all the living creatures on the Earth, with the exception of some in a boat. Needless to say, we now know that the incredible diversity of life did not come about at some exact moment some half a dozen thousand years ago, but over a much longer time via processes described by biology. The argument would then be:

1.  Any person, collection of persons or document(s) that assert the aforementioned falsehoods is wrong and errant. (P implies Q - asserting these things implies the asserter is wrong)
2. The Bible asserts these things. (P: Scripture does indeed document those stories.)
3. Therefore, the Bible is wrong. (Q: therefore, by modus ponens, the Bible is wrong)
 Stripped of rhetoric and word play, this is what the argument is. Evidently, one can embellish the argument by calling the Bible "a collection of Bronze age myths", but really, the point Christopher Hitchens makes with that remark is that the Bible is old, it was written before humankind knew very much about how the world operates and therefore, people should move on from such nonsense.

Actually, even though I reject the second premise entirely, I would not be particularly distressed even if the conclusion was true. So what if we have an errant Bible? So what if it is wrong about cosmology and biology? Indeed, in the next entry when I discuss the historical argument against the Bible, this conclusion may well be inescapable. For this particular version of the argument, it seems to clearly fall down at premise 2.

Am I going to justify that statement? Nope! What I will instead do is cite this survey from the United States which indicates that most of the denominations of Christianity do not declare there to be any reason to believe that there is a conflict between the Scriptures and modern science, including cosmology, geology and evolution.
Some denominations look like "Pac-men", but I think the Roman Catholic Statement has it best:
"It is important to set proper limits to the understanding of Scripture, excluding any unreasonable interpretations which would make it mean something which it is not intended to mean."
And also the Church of England's:
"There is nothing here that contradicts Christian teaching. Jesus himself invited people to observe the world around them and to reason from what they saw to an understanding of the nature of God (Matthew 6:25-33)."
 Whether or not you agree with the Roman Catholic Church's dogmatic stances, they have a very prudent and un-dictatorial view of the Bible and science.

If you would like to know how I myself understand these passages (which are incredibly rich once you stop trying to get them to say something they do not), feel free to shoot me an email.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Why the Old Testament Cannot be Waved Away

Two days ago I wrote some "fairly unorthodox" (among Christians) views on the Bible - I used it as it can undeniably be taken; a historical document. Unfortunately, although some early Christians (sometimes called Marcionites, after Marcion, who had this goal) tried to get rid of the Old Testament as distinctly human, if we are to grant Jesus authority, then we must grapple with how he uses the Old Testament. It cannot be ignored easily.

The most common argument however, is not from Jesus' use, but from St Paul's letter to Timothy. In it is the famous verse (2 Timothy 3:16-17): "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." It would perhaps be nice to say this includes the New Testament, but given the context of the preceding verses, it is clear Paul speaks of the Old Testament (the only sacred texts he would have been able to study in his childhood). We see that Paul and Jesus, as well as many others, have a high regard for the Hebrew Bible - but what use do they make of it? This is the crux of the matter. How should Christians today understand and apply these Jewish texts?

Although Jesus' regard for Scripture is often cited as evidence by literalists and inerrantists, Jesus does not seem to take the Hebrew Bible literally in the sense that it is used today. The people that are meant to be inspired by God to write the Biblical documents use it in an odd way. I shall cite some uses from the gospel according to St Matthew, because it is the most Jewish. They are not exhaustive, and I recognize that often the Old Testament is used as we would expect it to be.
  • Matthew 1:23. This is a quotation from Isaiah 7:14, and unless one looks up the source, it may seem convincing. But upon opening the book of Isaiah at chapter 7, we see that this does not appear, in context, to be about the coming of the Messiah. The Messianic prophecy does not come until later in that book. The writer of this gospel has taken clear poetic license to quote this verse.
  • Matthew 2:15. This is from Hosea 11:1, but in context, this again is a reference to something different. In Hosea, God personifies Ephraim (Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel) as his son. It does not seem to be the case that Hosea spoke of Jesus. The author has taken a liberty here.
  • Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Here Jesus takes it upon himself to deepen the severity of the Law, and in one section (5:38-48), he even overrides and changes it! The first case is with the so-called law of talion: "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" - Jesus then says no! Do not resist an evil person (which is the same as saying, do not take his eye for yours, or his tooth for yours). If he strikes you on the cheek, do not strike back, but instead, offer the other! This change of the law may seem to be more moral or noble, but there is (almost) no denying it is a change.

    However, the next bit of law he changes is even more startling, because it appears far more clearly to be a contradiction: "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Now, the spirit of the idea of staying well away and uninvolved with enemies is clear from the surrounding passages of Leviticus 19, but "hate your enemy" is not stated verbatim there, whereas "love your neighbour" is.
  • Matthew 19. This passage on divorce uses Genesis, where the supposed "first couple" appear. It is used at times to prove Jesus took Genesis 1 as a literal account of history and science, as well as to verify the historicity of the figure of Adam. But Jesus does not, in fact, do any such thing. Jesus gives as the reason for not divorcing that "in the beginning they were made male and female" (which is a fact, as far as anyone can tell, since Homo Sapiens have always been divided by sex) and then continues "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh" (which is the quotation). Here note that this cannot be about Adam and Eve as a literalistic reading of the passage would give us. Adam and Eve had no parents, and they were one flesh quite literally, in that one was made from the other - they cannot, therefore, "become" one flesh. They already are.
I hope it is clear now that very often the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, is used in ways we do not expect. Yes, Jesus has the authority to add his own - but see how this is understood best as the finality of revelation in Jesus. The authors of the New Testament use the Old in ways that are unexpected - so above all, we must take humility in how we interpret it.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Why assume the Bible?

In the last entry, I just took the Christian tradition of thinking that the Bible is authoritative for granted. Most people raised Christian probably have a fairly easy time assuming Biblical authority, but I do not. So how do I understand the Bible?

Starting with the Old Testament, we see the ancient Israelites struggling to understand God. From Genesis, where ancient near Eastern myths were altered in light of the theological truths to be explored (monotheistic theology, a perfectly moral God, with omnipotence) it is clear that the Jews (not yet with this name) were having a very hard time coming to grips with how a perfect God could do any of the things that appear so readily, so abundant, but also quite decidedly bad. The beginning (well, Genesis 2-3, since Genesis 1 is about there being only one God, one Creator and all other things being simply created) shifts the blame from divine shoulders to human ones, and at the end, in Genesis 50, Joseph explains how the evils of being almost killed, then sold in to slavery, ultimately resulted in God's plan being fulfilled - "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."

On and on we see Israel gaining understanding of the divine. Yes, God does seem to play a large role in this, and a lot of the Old Testament, though not a majority, contains alleged quotations. Mixed in with all the divine revelation, however, is a very human tone, and very human passages. God's word? In part, but not the whole.

"Well, you can say that, but it just means you are becoming judge over Holy Scripture, keeping what you want and disregarding what you do not!", I hear some people exclaiming. This is a mostly baseless claim. If I were a Jew, then it would surely be a very pointed comment, but the Bible is about revealing God, and Christians understand the God was ultimately and with finality revealed in person, in the flesh. We now have the complete revelation without the noise of human revisionism.

The other side of the spectrum might then exclaim "Ah, but who knows whether Jesus actually said these things?", and the answer is simple. We do. Not because of some pragmatic "God would not leave us alone in the dark" argument, but because of the study of history, and how that shows beyond reasonable doubt that the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are quite reliable as historical documents at the very least. We can have great assurance that, for the most part, Jesus of Nazareth did say the things that are collected there, and if you are a Christian, then most likely you can join me in also believing that many of the miracles (though perhaps not all) were, indeed, done by Jesus, God the Son, whilst he walked the Earth.

 I may, at some time, address some popular arguments for Biblical inerrancy, but this at least is clear: as critical historians, we can figure out a lot of what Jesus said. And from there, if one is (or decides to become) a Christian, we can live our lives in light of that.