Friday, March 1, 2013

Genesis 1:1 - 3:24


Right out of the gate we are faced with the fact that we are not dealing with a literal, historical, factual, scientific account of the origins of the world, animal species, and the human race.

First, there is the external evidence of science which contradicts a literal reading of Genesis 1-3.

Second there is the internal evidence. There are, clearly, two separate accounts of creation here and the two cannot be easily reconciled. In fact, I'd say they can't be reconciled at all.

The first account is found in Genesis 1:1-2:4.* It tells how God created the heavens and the earth in 6 days, capped his work with the creation of human beings, and then rested on the seventh day.

The second account, which begins at 2:5 tells how God created the first man, Adam, from dirt and the first woman, Eve, from one of Adam's ribs.The man and woman were placed in the Garden of Eden, but exiled from it because they ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There is a talking snake in this story, which might be a strong hint that it is not intended as a factual account.  That snake, by the way, is not identified as Satan. That tradition arose later.

In the first century CE, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, noted that these are two discrete accounts and suggested that they represent two separate creations. The first creation was a spiritual creation of platonic ideal forms. The second creation was the creation of the material world. This, of course, imposes a Greek philosophical framework on a Hebrew text. It goes far beyond what we actually read in Genesis. I am not suggesting in any way that Philo was right. I only mention him to highlight the fact that Genesis 1:1-2:4 and Genesis 2:5 ff. are two different creation stories.

A close look at some of the details of these two accounts shows that they do not reconcile with one another and were probably never intended to. For example, in the first account God creates animals first and then creates human beings. Men and women are created simultaneously. In the second account, the human male is created first, then the animals, and then the human female.

Why would the Bible begin with two divergent creation stories? The book of Genesis, in fact, the first five books of the Bible, are composite texts. The stories we find in them were collected, compiled, merged, and redacted. Surely the people who put Genesis into its final form were aware of the differences between these two creation narratives. But they must have felt that both stories were important and so they preserved them both.

Now, if Genesis 1-3 is not history or science, what is it?

I would say that these chapters are theology. In fact, I would call them narrative theology. They are stories that tell us something about God, especially in relation to creation.

Some of the positive assertions that I find in the first creation story (Genesis 1:-2:4) are:

1. God is creator.
2. Creation is good.
3. Human beings, female and male, are made in the image of God.
4. The human creation is "very good."
5. Cycles of work and rest, labor and sabbath, are built into creation.

I have an unresolved question about the first creation account. Is the repetitive structure of the 6 days of creation poetry? A mnemonic aid? A sort of legalistic (i.e. deuteronomistic) boiler plate? Or something else?

Theological assertions from the second creation account (Genesis 2:5 ff.) include:

1. Human beings desire human companionship.
2. There is a hubristic human tendency to wish to be gods.
3. Our life in this world is not all we might hope. This is not the Garden of Eden.
4. God continues to care for his human creation. God made clothes for the exiled Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21).

I believe that Adam (the name means "human") and Eve (which means "mother," i.e. the mother of us all) represent the whole human race. Their story is our story.

One last note: the notion of original sin is nowhere explicit in the story of Adam and Eve. I believe that all human beings are sinful and, to some extent estranged from God, but a doctrine of genetically acquired sin is no more intrinsic to this story than the creation of platonic forms is to Genesis 1:1-2:4.

What about you? How do you read?

Tomorrow's passage: Genesis 4-7.

*This is probably a good point to note that the chapter and verse divisions we find in our Bibles are not original to the text. They were added later and, while they make navigating the Bible simpler, they can also be somewhat misleading. The divisions are artificial and occasionally nonsensical. It would make much more sense if the first chapter of Genesis ended with the first creation account at 2:4.

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