Monday, February 21, 2011

Genesis 1 (2004)

I studied the Book of Genesis in 2004, and maybe also in early 2005. But I'll just put "2004" in the titles as an approximate time-frame, and I'll probably be guessing at the years that I studied the other biblical books.

Here are some points about Genesis 1 in my notebook:

1. In my notebook, I start with a quote by Joel Rosenberg, who wrote the notes for Genesis in the HarperCollins Study Bible. Rosenberg states:

"Remarkably, the story's order of life-forms resembles that of our modern theory of evolution: vegetation, swarming creatures, fish, birds, animals (mammals) and human beings."

Rosenberg doesn't say what the implications of this are. And, in my notebook, I don't try to come up with any implications. I just liked what Rosenberg said, and so I wrote it down! I think, though, that my views on Genesis 1 in 2004 were pretty much the same as my views today: Genesis 1 was a view about how the world began, which means that I don't buy into that whole "Genesis 1 wasn't written as a statement of history or science" spiel. In my opinion, Genesis 1 was believed to be historical by the person who wrote it. But modern science contradicts Genesis 1! And yet, maybe I can still try to glean some theological meaning from the chapter---on the purpose of the universe, for instance. But I'm not big on trying to reconcile the Bible and science, for I think that such an approach compromises both. I prefer to let the Bible be the Bible, and to let science be science!

But, if we let the Bible be the Bible, and we notice that the Bible overlaps with science, that's pretty cool! I'm just not sure what the implications of that are. Is the implication that Genesis 1 is advanced scientifically, and is therefore divinely-inspired? But Genesis 1 also appears to differ from modern science in areas. Unlike Genesis, modern science says that the sun existed before the earth, and that the earth existed much longer than 6,000 years. Moreover, Genesis 1 overlaps with its ancient Near Eastern environment on points---for instance, in its presentation of a deity splitting the waters and dividing them between the heavens above and the earth beneath, and creating by word. Marduk does these things in Enuma Elish, a Babylonian creation story.

2. Here, I synthesize stuff by Nahum Sarna and Sharon Keller, a professor I had at Jewish Theological Seminary. I'm not sure which points are from Sarna and which are from Keller, but here's what I say:

"God is exalted [in Genesis 1] while the 'gods' of other nations are demythologized and de-deified. The sun (which is called a 'light' but not 'shemesh,' since the latter word is close to the name of a sun god) is not the source of light and vegetation, for God creates these things before he creates the sun. God, unlike Mesopotamian deities (and yet perhaps like the Egyptian creator god Ptah) does not have a birth: he just is. God also creates the sea-monsters, the ferocious agents of anti-creation in the ancient Near East and elsewhere in the Bible. Although Genesis 1:26 ('Let us make man') seems to contradict extreme monotheism, Genesis 1 presents creation as the product of God."

I guess that I still buy into a lot of that: Genesis 1 is a polemic against paganism. The Hebrew Bible has plenty of polemics against paganism, so Genesis 1 could be one more!

But what is the implication of God creating the sea-monsters, the agents of anti-creation? That God is the author of evil? Or that God has evil under control, for it came from him, and he may use it for his purposes---which are good and orderly?

3. Drawing from Sarna, I state: "God's image in Egypt applied only to the Pharaoh, yet the Bible democratizes the notion to include all men. We are therefore not to kill or curse other human beings (Genesis 6:6; James 3:9). Sarna also notes ancient Near Eastern examples where image means representation; we as humans are representatives of God."

I agree with this---though, nowadays, I'd replace "the Bible" with "Genesis 1," since the Bible is a diverse book, and not all of it is particularly democratic. In those days, I was eating up this stuff about biblical democratization of the image of God because it implied (in my eyes) that the Bible was superior to other ancient Near Eastern religions---and, to me, that implied its divine origin. Nowadays, I'm not sure if I'm on that page. I wonder what historical factors contributed to the author of Genesis 1 arriving at the notion that all human beings---and not just kings---are created in God's image. Once Israel lost its monarchy, it may have been receptive to democratization, for Isaiah 55 (according to a number of interpreters) applies the Davidic promises to all of Israel. Fine, but why would an Israelite author democratize a concept such as the "image of God" so that it encompassed all people, Jew and Gentile? Of course, the exile was also a time when the Jews were gaining a deeper appreciation for the concept that God was to be the God of all peoples---although, at the same time, there were strands of nationalism, as Jews sought to preserve their own identity against assimilation.

Another possibility: Suppose that Israel came into being as a result of a peasant revolt, as some scholars have argued. With these sorts of roots, it's not surprising that there would be a strong current of democracy within ancient Israel---a view that all people, regardless of their social class or their position---were valuable, since they were made in God's image.

Or maybe God did have something to do with a biblical author arriving at the notion that all human beings were made in God's image. Certainly God can elevate people's thoughts to higher ideas! But why didn't God do this all of the time, for God allowed a lot of oppressive mindsets to exist within the Bible? The answer may be that God doesn't treat us like robots, but like human beings.

On Genesis 6:6 and James 3:9, the reason I cited those verses was that I was looking for some motivation to love people. I've often been more comfortable with "just me and God," but, once other human beings are brought into the picture, I begin to get uncomfortable. I like passages that say that I should avoid doing harm to others because they are people of value---and Genesis 6:6 and James 3:9 are like that. The former says that we should not kill others, and the latter says that we should not curse them. But the Christian teaching that I should reach out to others and sacrifice myself for them? I find that difficult!

Does the concept that people are made in God's image make me love them more? I'm not sure. The concept is pretty abstract, to tell you the truth. I should love people because they look like God, or because they resemble God in certain attributes (i.e., intelligence), or because they represent God as rulers and custodians of creation? Those things do not make people lovable! Plus, I like animals better than I like people. What helps me to love others is the realization that all people are loved by God and, like me, have selves---with the wants and needs that having a self entails.

4. I draw here from Matthew Henry. (I may even draw from his language, albeit with some paraphrasing on my part):

"Creation reveals the beauty, majesty, wisdom, thoughtfulness, and love of God---contemplate creation, and we worship. All things, even the less glorious moon, perform a function. God's creation in Genesis 1 reveals aspects of God's new creation. God shines light into our hearts, giving us illumination and understanding (II Corinthians 4:6). He does not make us perfect at once but he works through stages, the latter becoming better than the former. He recreates us after the image of God so that we might be transparent reflections of his love and righteousness (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10). He speaks, and the new creation occurs, meaning he is the sole source of salvation (though we, like God, are to contemplate our work)."

The part about creation revealing God's nature appealed to me, for it's rather inclusivistic: in Genesis 1, we've not yet gotten to the point where you have to believe in Christ or burn in hell for all eternity. You just look at God's creation, and you see his good attributes. One can do this apart from a Christian context! I think that's why I liked that aspect of Matthew Henry's comments then, and that's why I like it now.

I was hoping back then that God would change me, and that's why I mention that stuff about "new creation" and becoming a reflection of God. Nowadays, I don't worry about that a great deal. A lot of it has to do with spiritual burn-out: praying and believing in God alone did not make me better. I was still shy, introverted, and afraid. And, even then, that part about contemplating my work (or spiritual activity) did not resonate with me, though I wrote it down in my notebook because it sounded like a clever interpretation of Scripture. I looked at myself, and I saw flaws. And when I looked within, I didn't see light or understanding, for I hated Christianity: its God did not strike me as unconditionally loving. Yet, I still felt a need for God's love and peace, and that's why I was performing religious functions in the first place. But I doubted that I could change. Over time, I wondered if God could change me, or even wanted to do so.

Nowadays, I pray to God to cope through situations. I still run into despair, but there's also hope within me. I cling to a God of unconditional love, regardless of what I read in the Bible, or hear from certain Christians. Is God changing me? Maybe he is, little by little (as Matthew Henry says). But it's good for me to gain guidance from other people rather than just waiting for God to zap me and make me better. Often, I wonder if I'm making any progress---if I'm going anywhere! Life often feels like it's one step forward, and one step back. But there are plenty of times when I ask, "Why worry about it?" Why not just enjoy life, instead of thinking about how good or bad I am?

And maybe I should contemplate creation more. I'm not sure if it will always lead me to a loving God, since nature can be pretty strange (as God demonstrates to Job). But perhaps I should try it some day, to see what I find!

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