Showing posts with label Pentateuch. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pentateuch. 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.