Showing posts with label Moses. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Moses. Show all posts

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.

Preliminaries to the Study of the Pentateuch

There are about a thousand different issues that need to be thought through in the texts of the first five books of the Bible, and they start popping up from the very first verse. Christians in particular can have a really difficult time going through the Old Testament because we are exceedingly unaccustomed to the kind of literature it has - narrative, not didactic material.We try to get the text to answer the question "how does this apply to me?" and can get into some knots, jumping over flaming hoops backwards to try and get an "application." That's not to say there is no application question to be asked - it is simply going to be found in a manner quite different to how one would find "what St Paul is telling us," were we to read a Pauline epistle.

The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible are traditionally ascribed to Moses, although scholars mostly agree now that this idea of authorship is somewhat outdated [1], and other theories have taken its place. The most prominent of these is a four-source theory, that says that the Pentateuch is made up of four sources labelled J, E, P, and D. I do not speak ancient Hebrew (in any of its forms), I am not a Hebrew Bible scholar, and so I cannot truly comment on the merits of this theory. Nonetheless, I wish to point out that the final editors of these texts (according to one version of the theory, the writers of the priestly source were the ultimate redactors) had a theological point to make, and that these texts do not read as a poorly made collage of different sources. Instead of trying to pick apart which source is which, it is of far more benefit to Christians to understand the richly textured world of the final product - all the while understanding that there is not one author. This point is readily understood, since we are accustomed to saying things like "John and Paul use that word differently" or "James means something different by 'justified'" - we know that words can be built up to have different meanings in materials from different authors, and it is this point I wish to emphasize from the JEPD theory. We will understand the text differently -ultimately, more fully - if we grasp that passages where the Hebrew word "YHWH" denotes God, and others where it is "Elohim" that is used for him, really do have a subtly different focus. Yet although we distinguish between Paul and John, Matthew and Luke, and all the rest of them, we Christians ought not fall into the trap of saying "I am a Pauline Christian", or others "I am a Johannine Christian", or even "I am a Jesus Christian" (meaning they adhere strongly to one or more of the gospel accounts, or epistles). To do so would be to have picked apart the Bible too much for any spiritual use. Such a fragmented Bible may be of interest to the scholars, but to the Christian, it profits little.

So those two vital points must be made before considering the Old Testament, but the Pentateuch in particular - that it is of a genre largely unused in the New Testament, and that, for the Pentateuch, one person's pen did not write the whole. One last point which seems at times forgotten is that these books are written in a historical and cultural context which is entirely different to ours. Some of the ideas which to them appeared self-evident will be exceedingly difficult for us to grasp, their questions will be totally distinct to those we might ask. So the last point is this: we must ask the text what information it wishes to convey, and not demand it tell us what it does not contain. To do so, we ought to consider the audience, the culture, the time and the place of its writing. Armed with these preliminaries, we may now go on to Genesis.

[1] Not to say all old things are wrong, which seems to be the implication of this expression. I mean simply that uniquely Mosaic authorship is the traditionally held dogma which is now viewed with as having a certain naïveté these days, now that we know significantly more. This still does not rule out Mosaic authorship, particularly as it is sometimes seen as heroic to doubt religious things which rest on much stronger evidence than more secular beliefs.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Matthean Infancy Narrative (Part 2)

If anybody does not think that Matthew 1 presented Jesus as king, then they might have a bit of a tough time understanding why the wise men come to Jerusalem asking "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?" (v. 2)

Now, there are two ways (at least) we can understand the literary effect of including the wise men in the narrative. First, we could view them as being St Matthew's way of introducing Herod and the role he plays. Though a valid understanding, since these men do not have any kind of role after chapter 2, I contend that this gives us a very shallow view. The second seems more likely:

Matthew 1 is about King Jesus, finally come, the true son of David, here to save his people from their sins. Now, even in this chapter, we begin to see the role the book of Isaiah is going to play in how Jesus understands and explains his ministry. Since St Matthew gives no reference to Isaiah other than saying "the prophet", I think it fit to infer that the audience in question would have had a decent grasp of the Old Testament (although he makes reference to Jeremiah explicitly in 2:17 before quoting him). I believe St Matthew has passages such as Isaiah 60 in mind, or perhaps Isaiah 49, where the message of salvation finally goes out to the nations. The wise men here represent the first of these peoples who will flock to Jerusalem, flock to the holy mount Zion and hear the word of God. Right now, these men pay homage to the king of the Jews...but why? I think St Matthew is foreshadowing here the inclusion of the gentiles. Perhaps he is even saying "look, even the pagans pay homage!" before he shows us how the Jews themselves will react to Jesus and his teachings. In that sense, he foreshadows also the Jewish rejection of Jesus as the Messiah.

Herod also appears only in this section in St Matthew's gospel, and his reaction to the wise men is interesting: verse 3 reads "When king Herod heard this he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him." Herod is scared because he knows very well that the Jews are awaiting a king from the line of David, and he can be no such king. Herod has a sort of paranoia that some more active Israelite will plunge a knife in his back or slip something in his drink - so clearly, he is not happy when somebody comes to ask for the king of the Jews. This needs to be dealt with.

Before getting to how Herod deals with this, however, I should comment on the second half of the verse - why is Jerusalem frightened?An anachronistic answer might be that they fear the Messiah will rebuke them, and so they fear his coming. I think it far more likely that Jerusalem is more scared of what Herod will do with this information. Indeed, it is not pretty. Herod tells the wise men to inform him of Jesus' location, and deviously plans to kill him. This is not strictly stated in the text, but Herod is not being very open about this ("Herod secretly called for the wise men..."), and also it is reasonable to infer from what Herod does when this first plan is thwarted - more on that in a moment.

The wise men come to the child Jesus and bring him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh from their treasure chests, all with joy. I contend, although there is much room for disagreement, that these gifts are meant to be reminiscent of Solomon, the man with the most gold, and frankincense/myrrh only appear together, to the best of my knowledge, in the Songs of Solomon (see 3:6, 4:6, 4:14). This interpretation fits well with St Matthew's royal portrayal of Jesus, and how the wise men treat him as king, yet the reference may well be obscure. Others have suggested that gold symbolizes his kingship, whereas frankincense his divinity, and myrrh his Passion and death. as myrrh was sometimes used with as a burial ointment (see John 19:39). This was the interpretation of St Irenaeus, and his allegorical interpretation is sound doctrinally, so I have no problem with it. [1]

The most memorable thing that Herod does within the Bible is the massacre of the innocents, but because of no extra-biblical evidence for such a horrific act, some scholars have suggested that it never happened. From a literary standpoint, it is not senseless to have this story here, since one of the the images that St Matthew takes from the Old Testament and applies to Jesus is Jesus as the New Moses (which we shall get to in particular with the sermon on the mount, which reminisces of Mount Sinai). Moses also lives in a time where the authorities are killing children, and Moses also escapes (this is narrated in the book of Exodus). Although more historical evidence would be preferable to properly establish its occurrence, we must understand that Bethlehem is not a very large village, and so the number of children killed would most likely be very small, and it is completely possible that such an event was not newsworthy to later historians, through whom we have no record of it. Herod's evildoings were numerous enough and much more notable in other instances, that this particular one may well have passed under the radar.

One final comment should be made on typology in this passage, because the Isaiah passage earlier and the Hosea passage of verse 15 both seem to be taken wildly out of context if we suppose that St Matthew is using them as proof-texts, or prophecies yet to be fulfilled that come to fruition in Jesus. The verse from Isaiah, in context, seems to be referring to king Hezekiah, who does appear to rescue Israel from various evils (see 2 Kings 18, in particular verses 1-6). The Hosea passage, in turn, refers to the already accomplished (even by the time of Hosea) calling of Israel (God's first born son, Exodus 4:22) out of Egypt. How then, does Jesus fulfil these finished prophecies? The answer is typology. King Hezekiah indeed rescued Israel from various evils, and King Jesus does all the more. Hezekiah is "God With Us", and Jesus, so much more! Jesus is therefore a "type of King Hezekiah", but an ultimate type - ie, the fulfilment of that prophecy. Hosea is not even being prophetic in the quoted verse, and yet just as Israel was called out of Egypt, so too the true and eternal first-born son of God, Jesus, is called out of Egypt. We should not fall into the trap of thinking that Jesus makes them come true in the sense that they were still open-ended - nor must we forget that Jesus really is the king that rescues us from evil, that he is "God with us" and that he is the Son of God.

[1] At some point in church history distinctions began to be made between different levels on which the text spoke, and each level gave rise to a way of understanding it. One of these was the allegorical, which does not mean that St Irenaeus was a liberal theologian, simply that he was not reading it as simple history, but also as a literary work. The distinctions were not entirely exact, but in broad strokes some medieval theologians would have a four level system: the literal sense, the allegorical sense, anagogical sense and the moral sense.