Genesis One: Beyond Fact and Fiction

Most of the squabbling about creation/ID/evolution centers on the creation story found in Genesis 1. If you haven’t read it recently, follow this link , take a few minutes and refresh your memory about what the story says and what it doesn’t say. 

 I propose that much of our confusion about what to make of this text originates in our asking the wrong set of questions about the text.

What if we set the science questions aside for a moment and ask instead:

  • What does this passage tell us about God?
  • What does this passage tell us about men and women?
  • What does this passage tell us about the relationship between God and human beings? *

Asking different questions can give us different answers.  Genesis 1 becomes the story of a single creator, carefully and intentionally creating a good universe. God creates and provides for humankind.

This view of the creator and the cosmos contrasts with the dominant views of other cultures in the ancient middle east. Scholars spend their entire careers reading and studying these texts and there are all sorts of Internet sources (some better than others). But check here and here for information about the Babylonian creation story. There are also translations of the text available on line.

Ask the same questions of the Babylonian creation story. What does this tell us about the gods? What does this tell up about human kind? What does this passage tell us about the relationship between the gods and human beings?

The Babylonian view is it is a violent world, filled with wars and destruction. Humankind is created to serve the gods.

Ancient Babylon and ancient Israel have very different views of the world. Remember everyone else in the ancient world are polytheists, except for Israel. But beyond that, how the gods or God relate to the world and humankind is very different. In Genesis 1, Israel proclaims a unique view of creation. In a very real sense Genesis 1 is a statement of faith.

As I wrote last week, this text received it’s final form at or just after the Babylonian Exile. Israel has been soundly defeated, and the “best and the brightest” were carted off to Babylon. The exiles are confronted with a big, prosperous, rich Babylonian culture. The temptation to assimilate into the dominate culture must have been overwhelming. The place on earth were God is present to Israel, the Temple has been destroyed. It is a time of cultural and theological crisis. Has God abandoned Israel? Since Israel has been defeated by Babylon, has Israel’s God been defeated by the Babylonian gods?

Genesis 1- as statement of faith- says NO. Our God, the God of Israel is the creator. The sun and moon and stars are not gods as the Babylonians supose, they are the creation of the true God. The true God, the creator God of Israel has been and continues to be in control of the world.

The devistating experience of the Exile causes Israel to think seriously about who God is and how God acts. Not everything Israel believes about God is found in Genesis 1. The story doesn’t end after one chapter. But Israel firmly declares who God is in relation to the universe, the world and humankind. 

I know some of you are still saying, what about the science? Didn’t the original audience believe this was how, physically how, the universe was created? And if this is the word of God, isn’t Genesis 1 then, how the creation happened?

 Genesis may reflect the best understanding of the physical creation available to ancient audiences. I don’t think we should be surprised or alarmed by that. I find John Calvin is quite helpful here. As he writes in his Commentary on Genesis, these texts were written appropriate to the understanding of its first audience. It makes no sense for Genesis 1 to speak of things beyond their comprehension. In Scripture, God comes to us, reveals God’s self to us, in ways that we can understand.  If Genesis were to be written today, the science would be different. Through modern science we have discovered much- but not all- about the origins of the universe and humankind.  But the purpose of the text, to tell us about God and about humankind and about the relationship between God and humankind would be the same.

I’d like to know, what do you think?

  * From: Dick Murray, Teaching the Bible to Adults and Youth,  Abingdon Press, 1993, page 41.

There is much more that can be said about all of this. For more information, the resources I listed last week are still good sources. In addition, Thomas Cahill’s book, The Gifts of the Jews  is quite helpful, particularly for understanding ancient near eastern culture and religion.

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5 Responses to “Genesis One: Beyond Fact and Fiction”

  1. thefuerstshallbelast Says:

    Very good. I’ve always felt like the problem with our reflection on Genesis 1-11 is that we rarely get around to asking the questions the ancient Jews were asking.

  2. mswint Says:

    I appreciate your faith and your thoughts. I too am writing a blog entitled “Science and Religion” ( http://religionisscience.wordpress.com/ ).

    I take gentle exception with your suggestion that “we set the science questions aside for a moment”. I believe strongly that science – good science that is – is merely the device that can provide the ‘how’ and ‘why’ to the Bible’s ‘what’. I believe that the scriptures correctly tell us about the world and our place in it. What the Bible does not do is tell us is how and why those things are so. For example – Moses relates, in the first two pages of Genesis, that the earth was first covered completely by water and then that the waters were gathered together and the dry land appeared. He does not tell us how this was brought about, only that it occurred. For centuries science got the land mass formation theories wrong and then in 1965 they finally struck upon the theory of Plate Tectonics which PERFECTLY describes the actions that Moses saw.

    Another example – though a bit more obscure – is the account, a few pages later – of the Lord’s edict that men should no longer live as long as the early patriarchs had lived i.e. 950 years or so. Most people think that this is pure fantasy or mis-translation or simple myth. However, if we scour the geneologies found in Gen 10 – 11 we see that the reduction in lifespans from Noah’s 950 years to Aabraham’s 175 years occurred over a period of a thousand years with each generation (more or less) living shorter and shorter lives. To me this indicates some natural process that was set in motion by the same physics that triggered the flood.

    Just because an event has an explanation doesn’t mean that God didn’t direct it! Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to assume that God is God expressly because he has understanding and command of all the physical laws of nature (both discovered by us and those laws yet to be discovered?) rather than because he is not bound by them? Ddoesn’t God claim to be a God of order? The parting of the Red Sea by Moses was miraculous not because it parted but rather because it parted when Moses needed it to part. History has shown that due to some unique wind patterns of the area, the Red Sea has parted 7 times in history. The miralce is that for something that has happened only 7 times in recorded history, it happened exactly when Moses needed it and commanded it. How did Moses do it? The scriptures say that the wind blew! The elements had to respond to Moses’ command some how, why not through physical processes that allowed for such response. Alternatively, if the elements did not need to follow physical law than why did the Biblical account need to indicate that the wind blew at all?

    Every time our scientists make some Earth shaking discovery we say they are unlocking the secrets of God. Is that just rhetoric or do we innately understand that real power comes from knowledge. If God is all-knowing shouldn’t he be the most powerful? I don’t think we should set science aside, I don’t think God does.

    Just a few musings on the subject. Thank you for listening.

  3. Nancy Says:

    Thanks both of you for your comments.
    mswint: I am always glad to find another person who shares my belief that science and religion are not fundamentally at odds. I have visited your blog and I think your approach could be quite helpful for some people.
    Personally, while I agree that there are many places where the Bible accurately describes natural phenomena, I think we need to be careful with how we interpret this. It is so easy for us to move from noticing where Scripture and science “say” the same thing to thinking that science proves Scripture and Scripture validates science. If we are not careful, we slip into the “look the Bible gets the science right so the rest of the Bible is right too.” Or the Bible gets the science wrong so the rest of the Bible is wrong. By the way, I’m not saying you personally do this, I’m saying that its just too easy for us to do if we are not very careful.

    So my preference is to focus on what the Bible tells us about God, about humankind and about the relationship between God and humankind. I think that approach helps me stay faithful to the purpose of Scripture and helps keep me from using science to prove the veracity of the Bible.

    Thanks for being willing to discuss.

  4. Nathan Gaver Says:

    The mystery of ancestral descent

    This is tale which tells what recessive genes hold, what inbreeding cause’s and what degenerate animals look like.

    A male lion breeds with a female tiger, makes a liger of great size!
    2

    a male leopard breed with a female lion brings forth a leopon. Which not only has the size and strength of the lion but also has the climbing abilities of the leopard.
    3

    All that has so far been said, is recognized by science.
    4

    Now into the realm of what has not yet been ‘validated’ (by science).
    5

    All the other cats are said to interbreed
    from time to time.
    6

    The division of Species is based on the idea that, only members of the same ‘Species’ can indeed breed.
    But if all cats ( including the Egyptian house cat) can breed, they are not different Species but only subspecies of the original cat.

    Now, if the liger is bigger and the leopon is of the same size and better. Then it comes to reason that the original cat from off the Ark was a super cat.
    Scientists say that the “extra” abilities that come out of these ‘hybrids’ are caused by “recessive genes”
    Recessive Genes are created by inbreeding.

    Now here is the part that might interest a historian.

    Gen 7:2

    “Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the male and his female: and of beasts that are not clean by two, the male and his female.”

    In this I think that the clean animals were allowed to descend without inbreeding and therefore pure. While the others were forced into inbreeding, which caused their abilities to go into ‘Recessive genes’. The ancients had enough trouble with the lions, tigers, etc. So this might have been set to preserve man. Did you know that in India they breed the wild dog with the wolf to get a bigger breed. This alone means nothing, except that there is a story whcih appeared shortly after the flood. No later that 500 years, or 600, or 700, etc, after the flood. The story told of a great king who had wolves so great that his men were able to ride upon them, for they were far greater than any horse.

    Maybe I’m going nowhere, but if only two cats, two dogs, two bears, etc, walked off the Ark. Then I say that it would immediately force inbreeding, which in turn would force abilities to go into recessive genes. And (to the point) would force the super Cat to degenerate into the lion, tiger, leopard, cheetah and house cat that we have today.

    I’m sorry I couldn’t help joking and calling the lion and tiger a degenerate.

    “In the production of pure breeds of sheep, cattle, hogs, and horses inbreeding has frequently been practiced extensively, and where in such cases selection has been made of the more vigorous offspring as parents, it is doubtful whether any diminution in size, vigor, or fertility has resulted. Nevertheless it very frequently happens that when two pure breeds are crossed, the offspring surpass either pure race in size and vigor.”

    Sudden Origins by Jeffrey H. Schwartz

    The tiger is either a pure breed are a degenerate species!
    Or I say.
    They are one and the same..!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Else, the reason why the clean were in sevens as opposed to the others.

    Genetic research (and this basic reasoning and breeding) has shown that every type of wolf, dog, fox and coyote etc. came from the 1 original wolf.
    Scott, John Paul and John L. Fuller Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog
    Behaviour of Wolves, Dogs and Related Canines (Hardcover) by Michael W. Fox

    Mitochondrial Eve (mt-mrca)

    “Mitochondrial Eve is the ………..common ancestor (MRCA) of all human via the mitochondrial DNA pathway . In other words, she is the MRCA found when ancestry of all living humans is traced back in time, following only the maternal lineage. Mitochondrial DNA pathway is equivalent to maternal lineage, because Mitochondrial DNA is only passed down from mother to child, never father to child. [1]”

    Camel-Llama-alpaca

    All known subspecies of the “horse” are known to breed!

    1 Last thing.
    this theory is observable & testable, in that you can breed new ‘breeds’ of dogs in just a few years. But each of these will have less ‘ablities’ than the last.

    Just take 2 dogs (of your choice) & place them in a zoo. Now there children will be fine but as there children breed with each other you will see the same thing happen. Only it will go ten times further than before.

    Kentish Son

    I am sending this into the world because I want to get the word out.
    Please spread the word.

  5. The rules we play by « Conversation in Faith Weblog Says:

    […] previous posts on Truth, see here. For previous posts on reading Genesis, see here, and here and here or put, “genesis”, “biblical interpretation”, “creation” and […]

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