Finding a better story 2

Since I have this unfortunate tendency to start a series and then never finish it, I’m not going to make any promises about how long this will go, how many installments it will have, or even if it will be all that coherent. However, I went back and re-read my “Finding a better story” entry from a few days ago and decided I really needed to elaborate more on some points in it and on the Biblical, historical, and philosophical background of some of the statements contained therein. In some ways this could be seen as an attempt to formulate a more comprehensive statement of what I believe about the church and theological politics, or it might just end up being a collection of thoughts related to the idea – we’ll see what happens.

A great many people today read Genesis with little-to-no knowledge of the historical context in which the stories compiled into the final form we have today were composed, or of the social realities of the world to which the texts witness. In our modern penchant for finding the one meaning that stands outside of time and is universally true in all contexts, we have come up with all kinds of applications for the text that have very little to do with the message it was actually written to communicate in the world in which it came into being. Understanding that message is extremely important if we are to understand its place in the Biblical canon and more appropriate applications for the text today.

I’m not going to attempt to undertake a full-on commentary on the whole book of Genesis, but there are a few particular highlights I think need to be hit, with a keen eye on the ancient near eastern context, in order to better understand the book and the important role it plays in the canon and in the formation of the Christian story. In many ways, Genesis is far more than just a prologue to the story of Israel (which itself is far more than simply a prologue to the story of Jesus).

The first and possibly most important highlight is the account of creation in Genesis 1:1-2:3. This may surprise some people to read today, but there is absolutely no indication in the text that the creation story is intended to be a scientifically-accurate depiction of the processes by which the world came into being. The 20th century debate over creation vs. evolution could hardly have been further from the author’s mind. Rabbinical and scholarly interpretations of the creation story have differed widely from ancient times until now on how literally, versus symbolically or allegorically, the account should be taken, and there has never been a consensus on how closely the events depicted therein had to match the facts of natural history for the story to be theologically true – and this long before the advent of modern science.

The likely reality is that Genesis 1:1-2:3 was originally composed as a liturgical text for use in worship rituals. Its form generally corresponds to other texts from ancient Mesopotamia that were used for this purpose, and it is highly probable that the purpose of the Genesis creation account was precisely to provide an alternative imaginative basis for conceiving of God, the place of humans in the cosmos, and the ordering of society than the mythologies of other ancient near eastern nations.

It’s difficult to date the composition of Genesis as a whole, much less its component stories, with any precision. The book contains much that is likely of great antiquity, going back to more than 1000 BC (if not centuries earlier), as well as marks of editing from later periods, possibly as late as the exilic and post-exilic periods. The creation account in Genesis 1 could have been composed at pretty much any time between the 12th and 6th centuries BC, give or take. The worldview it challenges was certainly dominant for at least that span of time.

The single work from ancient Mesopotamia that most closely resembles Genesis 1 is the Enuma Elish, a Babylonian creation myth. In the ancient world, there was not the separation of “religion” and “politics” we supposedly have today. Instead, the usual function of what we call “religion” was to give storied support to political, social, and economic structures. The religio-politico-socio-economic structures formed a tight web, the glue that held cities and nations together. Enuma Elish was performed every year in Babylon at the spring festival as a ritual re-enactment of the myth, and so the story was of great importance in determining the accepted nature of society in the Babylonian empire.

To understand Genesis 1, it is necessary to understand not just the Enuma Elish, but the broader worldview the myth underpinned and the forms of social organization it legitimated. In Biblical times, the strength of a nation’s gods was viewed as directly proportionate to the strength of the nation. If a nation was powerful and prosperous, its gods were mighty. If one nation conquered another, its gods were revealed to be stronger than the gods of the defeated nation. So Egypt’s gods were the most powerful, and then when Egypt declined and Assyria rose to prominence Assyria’s gods gained preeminence, and so on (a framework that greatly aids our understanding of the Exodus narrative!).

Furthermore, almost universally in the ancient near east, members of the ruling, priestly, and in some cases other economically powerful classes were seen as having some kind of special relationship to the gods. For example, the Pharaoh of Egypt was viewed as the manifestation of the god Horus, who was reborn into each new heir to the throne. In Mesopotamia, the term “image of god” (Hebrew tselem elohim) was a technical term that ascribed attributes of at least representative (and perhaps inherent) divinity to those who were deemed images of gods. To be the image of a god principally meant two things: 1) that the person who was image of the god mediated the god’s presence wherever he was, and 2) that the authority of the god was re-presented by that person. So to say that the king of Babylon was the image of the god Marduk (as he was held to be), was to say that Marduk’s presence was seen with the king, and also that the king’s rule represented the authority of Marduk, who took on the role of king of the gods and creator of earth (contrast this with the Genesis statement that all humankind is made in the image of God).

A final point that needs to be mentioned is that societal structures in ancient near eastern nations were ordered to be earthly representations of the mythic divine reality. The myths explained not just how things got to be the way they were, but why it was necessary that things were that way. In other words, the myths legitimated the world in which the people whose lives were ordered by those myths lived.

The next time I write on this theme I’ll explore the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish, in order to demonstrate the mythic underpinning of the dominant modes of society in the ancient near east and enhance our understanding of how Genesis challenged that worldview and the order of life according to it.

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5 Responses

  1. It sounds like you have read an awful lot about the Bible, but not too much of the Bible. The original Hebrew texts were very precise in stating there was morning and evening between the creation days clearly indicating a literal 24 hour period had occured, and was intended to be represented by the statements. Of course over-educated folks have spent much time and effort smearing this over with wordy explainations which you have documented very well. But there are folks out here in the real world who have examined both the Biblical claims and the crafty disclaimers of great so-called Bible scholars, and we find the theories you present as more weighty facts than the plain and simple truths of Scripture to be quite silly.
    I have read where you can’t understand why people make the virgin birth a litmus test of orthodoxy, and that pretty much sums up why you can’t understand Christianity. If Jesus Christ’s father is not God, who is His father? Bill? John? It seems you don’t think it matters who Jesus Christ’s father is, but it sure does matter. Jesus claimed that God was His Father. So He is either telling the truth, or He was a raving lunitic liar. I know you are going to educate me on how the Bible has been changed by people to mean something different than it says it means, but I’m not sure what great authority it is that makes you so sure of this deception. You can’t trust what the Bible says, but you CAN trust someone with a huge pile of degrees who shares the “real” truth with you?
    I would rather have you call me narrow-minded and under-educated because I believe the Bible, than to have your light-weight version of “faith” that is made up of a lot of stuff that doesn’t really matter. You talk a lot about how you have really figured out about what really matters in life and eternity, but it is all based on what a bunch of non-believers have to say about the unreliability of the Bible, and the reliability of their pick-n-choose tidbits gleaned from scripture and sprinkled with scholarly non-sense.
    Your version of the gospel sounds almost identical to the faith of Judas Iscariot. Jesus in His first coming did not come to conquer the world with His kingdom, but to die on the cross for our sins, in our place, so that by faith in Him and God’s Word we could be redeemed from sin. Then as His obedient disciples to live in a world where both redeemed and unsaved people coexist in a world of two different kingdoms. Government is a necessary evil in this world of two kingdoms to subdue the lawless unsaved people of this world, to keep peace as best as possible in an imperfect world. When Paul was arrested he didn’t tell the government that they had no right to imprison him, but he did tell them they were wrong to do so because he was simply being obedient to God’s Law, which was no harm to Peace.
    I believe you should spend less time bashing God’s Word and more time reading and studying it. Ask Him if it is true or not, He will reward seekers of truth with an answer my friend. Best wishes in your search for truth.

  2. I like the concept of the creation account being used as a song to redeem the Israeli culture from the pagan rituals surrounding them, and that it was sung in direct retaliation against the Babylonian story (wasn’t that the one where humanity was directly created to serve the gods? I read it so long ago that I can’t quite remember). Given the pattern of the creation account, it could easily be chanted and sung, and as they were more than likely an oral tradition culture, this would be the best way to remember.

    I totally believe the creation account is literal, but I also like considering this as a piece of artistic poetry, of a weaving together to remind the people of God that yes, you are a chosen people simply because God Himself breathed into you a breath that is all sustaining, all nourishing, a breath that created something from nothing. I’d say that’s a revolution if I ever saw one.

  3. Glen,

    I have indeed read quite a lot of the Bible. I spent a great amount of time and effort learning Greek and Hebrew so I could read the Bible more closely, with greater attention to the details that often escape us in our modern separation from the ancient cultures that produced the scriptures and our separation from the original texts due to our different language.

    I know what yom means. I also stand by my statement that the text was not intended to convey a correlation between the events described in the text and the actual processes by which the universe came into being. To insist that they must is to ignore completely the purpose of the texts in their ancient context and the role they played in an Israel that was surrounded by hostile pagan powers who lived according to a very different worldview than that which was commanded by the Lord of all creation, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

    Words like “day”, “morning”, and “evening” are used throughout the Bible with poetic intent. The only reason people insist this cannot be the case in Genesis 1 is because they don’t realize the difference between modern scientific discourse and ancient liturgical poetry.

    Furthermore, you make a lot of assumptions about me in very bad faith. For example, had you read just a few more articles in my blog you would be forever dispelled of the notion that I think I have things all figured out. I would argue unceasingly that the Bible has largely not been corrupted, that we can have great confidence that the text we can read today is almost entirely like what was originally written, and that even translations based on less-reliable Greek manuscripts, such as the original King James Version, still have at their roots a textual base that is so close to the original as to be entirely reliable, once one learns to read the Elizabethan-style English (which to my mind is largely superior in many ways to the English spoken in America today).

    I never said my education makes me better than anyone. Not only that, but I would never presume that someone who has not been educated in the same way as I have is for any reason less trustworthy than I am. Quite the opposite, really – as you are a pastor and a father and have been so for quite some time, I would rather assume that you possess much trustworthy wisdom that comes from experience that I have not yet had the chance to have.

    Your comment about my supposed thoughts on the virgin birth, though, makes me wonder if you understood at all what I meant by that. My point, which I may not have sufficiently explained, was that the virgin birth is a lesser matter than other aspects of the Christian faith, particularly the incarnation, atonement, and the resurrection. Some people say that the virgin birth is directly tied to the incarnation, but Mark and John both present Jesus as the incarnate Son of God without reference to the virgin birth. I also said, in that message, had you bothered to read the whole thing, that I saw no good reason to deny the virgin birth as a matter of faith if you believe in a God who does things like raise the dead. The only reason to disbelieve would be if one believes that such things simply do not happen. I do believe such things are possible, because with God all things are possible.

    As for the rest of your comment, you make so many unfounded bad-faith assumptions about my thinking that I really don’t see any reason to engage further. I honestly have no idea where you got that stuff, and the only conclusion I can draw is that you haven’t read anything I’ve said on the matter, and that you just assume the worst about me because you don’t like one thing I wrote.

    Perhaps it’s your accusation that I’m spending my time “bashing God’s word” that set me off the most – I don’t spend any time “bashing God’s word”. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying to cultivate a faith seeking understanding.

    If you want to really engage what I actually think, instead of making unfounded assumptions, I can direct you to some things I’ve written that spell it out more clearly. At its root, what I believe is that Jesus is Lord, and that all of history exists only under his Lordship, and that it is only through Jesus that God’s promise of new life and a covenant relationship with God is possible.

    Peace,
    Jason

  4. Hollie,

    One nitpicky detail – I think it’s better to say “Israelite” with regards to ancient Israel and reserve “Israeli” for discussions about modern Israel, as much harm has been caused by confusion regarding the relationship between modern with ancient Israel. I say this particularly because I know you’ve attended a Calvary Chapel church and there are a lot of people within the CC movement who, in my experience, do confuse the two, sometimes to the point of nearly equating them. This is a serious error with terrible consequences, as certain ongoing issues in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict demonstrate.

    I don’t mind if people connect Genesis with a scientific, factual accounting of how the world came into being. It bothers me not a bit if they do so, so long as they recognize that is not the primary function the text serves in its ancient context, and as long as they don’t tell me I’m a bad Christian because I don’t think that is the case. 😉

    you are a chosen people simply because God Himself breathed into you a breath that is all sustaining, all nourishing, a breath that created something from nothing. I’d say that’s a revolution if I ever saw one.

    You hit the nail right on the head here. You’re exactly right about the revolution of creating something from nothing. The exact point of the prophetic references to God as the creator in the later Old Testament and also in the New is that God is the one who creates something from nothing, brings life out of lifelessness, and if God did it in the beginning, then we can trust his promise to bring redemption and new creation in the time of fulfillment. In fact, if one holds to the view that the Pentateuch reached its final form during the exilic or post-exilic period, which I’m not sure about but I tend to lean in that direction, then the creation account itself carries exactly that connotation. Reciting the creation story in worship is not just a remembrance of what God has done, but a hopeful affirmation of what God will do.

    What we tend to miss, though, even when we catch that, is that what God has done, is doing, and will do inevitably brings those who follow God into conflict with the powers and principalities in the world that follow a different story. God’s revolution is the “original revolution”, to use a title by John Howard Yoder, which is to say it is that for which creation was made and to which it strives, but the fallen-ness of the world makes it a place where the new creation is revolutionary.

  5. I have no idea what Glen was writing there. It was so jumbled and disorganized it was hard to track. He starts off attacking Jason over the meaning of yom which was not a part of anything Jason wrote regarding scientific reading of Genesis 1-2 (I purposefully chose “scientific” over “literal” because one can read it literally without taking it scientifically).

    He then goes on to call Jason a heretic over his suggestion that Mary’s sexual history doesn’t necessarily relate to orthodoxy.

    Judas Iscariot was brought up for some reason. Not quite sure what that was for.

    But then Glen rambled on about Paul submitting to ruling authorities, as if that contradicts anything Jason has ever written.

    I’m thoroughly confused. This last bit about “bashing God’s word” is especially troublesome considering Jason spends his days learning God’s word, and understanding the implications of God’s word in the 21st Century American life.

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