Let’s face it. Scripture is often very difficult to understand & interpret. Anyone who states otherwise probably hasn’t read it very thoroughly or is glossing over the difficult passages. As Christians we may agree that the bible is divinely inspired, and agree that it is God’s revelation, but we will often disagree on what the inspired author actually meant, and what specifically God’s revelation reveals. So it is no surprise that Christians can on the one hand share a commitment to the integrity and divine inspiration of the Genesis creation stories, but on the other hand arrive at radically different conclusions on how these stories should be interpreted.
Interpreting Genesis 1 to 11: Introduction
To faithfully and fruitfully interpret scripture, particularly puzzling sections of the bible, it is helpful to understand the background of the biblical author, the culture of day, and the context in which the message of scripture would have been received. This is particularly true of the early chapters of Genesis since the worldview of these authors, and the cultures they describe, are so vastly different from our own. As Gordon Glover’s post indicates, modern ANE scholarship has shed new light on the worldview of the biblical authors and their audience.
Although most Evangelicals (including many Evolutionary Creationists) have traditionally interpreted Genesis 1-11 as an historical narrative, most would also agree that the divine message goes beyond, and is much more important than, simply teaching history and science. So leaving aside the question of historicity, what message is being conveyed by the early chapters of Genesis? What important and eternal truths should we take from these narratives? Does the context of ANE culture help clarify the message the inspired authors intended to convey?
A Radical Prologue
The first eleven chapters of Genesis are a natural sub-unit of the book. It can be viewed as a prologue to the rest of the Genesis, and indeed the Pentateuch; it is an introduction to the accounts of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, and the giving of the Law. The stories recorded in these early chapters show strong similarities to ancient Mesopotamian myths, accounts that were almost certainly recorded prior to the writing of Genesis. Although the narratives and scientific worldviews portrayed in Genesis are similar to these Mesopotamian myths, the theology it contains is radically different. In fact, Genesis is a complete repudiation of Mesopotamian pagan assumptions about God, humanity, and the world.
The Mesopotamian view of Creation
The ancient Mesopotamian accounts include stories about the creation of the gods, gods that included the sun, the moon, the stars, and sea monsters. Creation was not an account of the forming of matter, but of the ordering of eternal matter. According to the Mesopotamians, matter pre-dated the formation of the gods. The myths recount events in the lives of the gods, including their internal bickering, wars, and even the murder of the primary god by his progeny. These events showed that the Mesopotamian gods were far from perfect or even good; they displayed characteristics of selfishness, vengefulness, and capriciousness. Man was created as somewhat of an afterthought, and his primary purpose seems to have been to feed the gods.
A global flood account was also part of the Mesopotamian mythology. The gods had become tired of the noisiness of humanity, were concerned about human overpopulation, and thus brought about a flood to destroy their own creation. However, once the flood started, it soon raged beyond the control of the gods and they became terrified for their own safety. When the flood finally subsided, a lone human survivor was found, saved not because of his righteousness, but because he was the favourite of one of the lesser gods. The primary god was in fact quite surprised to find him alive. The theme of the story of man following the flood was one of progress. Even though he started out quite humbly, he advanced beyond these modest beginnings. There was great optimism for humanity improving itself even further.
The Hebrew view of Creation
The theology of the early chapters of Genesis stands in stark contrast to that implied by other Near Eastern primeval history. Rather than many gods, there was but one God. The Hebrew God was not one of the pantheon, but Lord of the universe. This was no local deity concerned with the internal politics and religious rites of a single nation. Rather than being part of nature, this God was the primary cause of nature. Rather than ordering pre-existing matter, he created it. Everything, including objects the Babylonians viewed as gods (eg. sun, moon, stars, sea monsters), was created by him and was subservient to him. There were no stories about God. The Genesis record contains no theo-biography; God simply was. God was both omniscient and omnipotent; there was no need for him to be afraid of his creation, or even surprised by anything. He was in complete control. Finally, God was good, and loved his creation. Rather than treating it as a useful object, he genuinely cared for it. Rather than being capricious and unpredictable, God was an orderly divinity that could be trusted.
The Genesis view of humanity was also quite different from the view held by the Hebrews’ neighbours. Rather than an afterthought, man was the apex of creation. Rather than a functional slave, he was created in God’s image, held a place of honour, and was given the responsibility of caring for the rest of creation. God went out of his way to provide for man (food, a wife, clothing) rather the other way around. Unfortunately, man was disobedient to God. Man’s problems are and were a result of this disobedience. Rather than being optimistic like the Mesopotamians about man’s progress, Genesis was very pessimistic about his ability to progress on his own. The story of the Tower of Babel is a scathing satire on Babylonian claims that their ziggurats were reaching upwards to the gods. In fact, God needed to descend to reach their towers. Rather than demonstrating a powerful and growing civilization, these towers symbolized confusion. On his own, man could not reach God or solve any of his problems. It was only through God’s faithfulness that man had any hope at all.
A God of Love, not Violence
Finally, one needs to appreciate that for the ancient Hebrews, the violence evident all around them was not an inherent feature of Creation. As Lesslie Newbigin states in “A Walk Through the Bible” (Hat Tip to Fire and Rose):
The first chapter of Genesis was almost certainly written during the time when Israel was in exile in Babylon. And we must picture these writers as slaves under the shadow of this mighty empire with its palaces, fortresses and temples. Babylon had its own account of creation, as we know from the work of modern scholarship. It was a story of conflict, battle and bloodshed. Violence was the theme underlying the whole creation story as the Babylonians understood it.Conclusion
The writers of Genesis had a quite different picture of God. They were the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. They knew God as the redeemer God, the God who had saved his people from bondage. And they had a totally different picture of God’s creation—not as the result of violence but as the action of a God of love and wisdom who, out of sheer love, desired to create a world to reflect his glory and a human family to enjoy his world and give back his love.
Creation is a doctrine shared by all Christians. As part of the good news, we need to proclaim the message of creation to a fallen world. Our creation story in Genesis communicates truths about God and humanity, truths revealed by God through the writer of Genesis to all of humanity, in all cultures, in all places, and throughout all of history. Although the message is contained in literature that is accommodated for an Ancient Near East mindset, it is not truth relevant for this culture only.
Genesis speaks to a world consumed by violence, selfishness, and greed. It speaks to a world that is convinced there is no purpose. It speaks to a world that thinks human reason can overcome any problem, and that humanity can “rise above our evolutionary impulses”. In short, it speaks to our world too. Though the truth in Genesis is contained in a vessel that is foreign to a modern, science-oriented culture, it is a truth that modern man desperately needs to hear. Let’s make sure the world hears this message, and not the one that is garbled, tainted, and damaged by a dogmatic insistence and focus on specific scientific claims.