Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: The Creation Stories
In his recent article in the New Yorker, writer Paul Simms invites us to reimagine the Hebrew Bible story of God’s creation of the universe as taking the form of a blog: “God’s Blog.” Here it is, together with a couple user “comments”:
UPDATE: Pretty pleased with what I’ve come up with in just six days. Going to take tomorrow off. Feel free to check out what I’ve done so far. Suggestions and criticism (constructive, please!) more than welcome. God out.
Not sure who this is for. Seems like a fix for a problem that didn’t exist. Liked it better when the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep.
Going carbon-based for the life-forms seems a tad obvious, no?
The creeping things that creepeth over the earth are gross.
Why do they have to poop? Seems like there could have been a more elegant/family-friendly solution to the food-waste-disposal problem.
Unfocussed. Seems like a mishmash at best. You’ve got creatures that can speak but aren’t smart (parrots). Then, You’ve got creatures that are smart but can’t speak (dolphins, dogs, houseflies). Then, You’ve got man, who is smart and can speak but who can’t fly, breathe underwater, or unhinge his jaws to swallow large prey in one gulp. If it’s supposed to be chaos, then mission accomplished. But it seems more like laziness and bad planning.
There’s imitation, and then there’s homage, and then there’s straight-up idea theft, which is what Your thing appears to be. Anyone who wants to check out the original should go to http://www.VishnuAndBrahma.com. (And check it out soon, because I think they’re about to go behind a paywall.)
And that’s “God’s Blog” for you—from writer Paul Simms. Hilarious. And, in its own way, very instructive. A reminder, once again—even in joking form—of the very real temptation to make the stories of the Bible God’s stories and not the stories of the people of ancient Israel from three thousand years ago. Bible stories are not God’s stories but people’s stories—people gathering around the fire, the hearth, the altar; people gathering as they have always done in all times everywhere, speaking from the heart about deepest concerns; people giving voice to their best sense of the cruelty and beauty of life; people seeking out truth and meaning.
Today I want to talk about how the ancient Israelites did this through the stories told in the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis. The Creation. Adam and Eve. The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Cain and Abel. The Flood, Noah’s Ark, and God’s vow never to destroy life again. The Tower of Babel. Some of the best-known parts of the Bible, which all together make up ancient Israel’s “primeval history” focusing on all of humankind, asking universal questions like
Where does it all come from?
What is the nature of reality?
What about human nature?
Why is being human so hard?
Is it all an “epic fail” (just like one of the blog comments said)?
Big questions we’re dealing with today—
And to understand how the ancient Bible writers approached them, let’s start with a bit of history. As scholar Marcus Borg reminds us, in his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, we want to know our Bible history because it adds dimensions of crucial meaning that we just can’t get to from a surface reading of the text. We also want to know our Bible history, says Borg, because people naturally tend to project all sorts of meanings on scripture—read all sorts of stuff between the lines—but knowing the history helps to limit this tendency and keep it healthy. Gotta know the history!
So: one part of history we need to know is this: how the ancient Israelite culture wasn’t operating in a vacuum. The ancient Near East (roughly corresponding to today’s Middle East) saw the rise of empire after empire: the Egyptian, the Sumerian, the Akkadian, the Hittite, the Assyrian, the Babylonian—and every one had stories, and such stories couldn’t help but influence how Israel told its own. One theme common in a lot of these cultures is that of a great flood destroying the world, and so we see the Bible telling a version of it which has striking parallels with the others. The story of Noah and the flood is just not unique with the Bible.
On the other hand, there are times when ancient Israel chose to tell its stories in ways very different from the cultures surrounding it. Take this creation story from the Akkadian empire, written hundreds of years before the ancient Israelites wrote theirs:
“When the god Enlil was the boss, the gods were burdened with toil, they lugged the work basket. The god’s work basket . . . was big, so that the toil was heavy, the straits were great. Enlil, having charge of the earth, put the other gods to work digging the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. One night, tired of their condition and at the instigation of one of the gods, they burned their tools and surrounded Enlil’s house. (A little like today’s Occupy movement—there is indeed nothing new under the sun.) The striking gods complained that the work was killing them and that they would not continue. Hearing this, Enlil burst into tears and offered his resignation. At this point Enki (another god) proposed a compromise. The gods would create man to bear the burden of work so that the gods would be free. So with the birth goddess, Nintur, Enki used the flesh and blood of the strike’s ringleader (killed by the other gods [doesn’t pay to be the ringleader, right?]) to fashion clay into seven male and seven female embryos in the “house of destiny.” After nine months, humanity was born, and immediately, they were put to work” (adapted from Thorkild Jacobsen, “The Treasures of Darkness,” Yale University Press, 1967).
Now this is a completely different kind of creation story! Yes, the ancient Israelites often did what one of the blog comments from earlier suggested (imitate other sources, even steal them outright), but then there are times when the Bible vision stands out as utterly unique. According to the Bible, God created humanity not out of a sense of weariness, for the purpose of enslavement, but out of a sense of the goodness of life, and a desire for humanity to have a share in it. “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it…. [And] God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. […] And on the seventh day God finished the work he had done, and he rested….” It’s this last part that absolutely proves my point on how radically different the vision of the ancient Israelites was from its neighbors. The point of creation—where it’s all going—is not a relentless grind but a graceful rhythm of work and rest, a graceful dance of body and spirit, an invitation for every one of us to receive this gracefulness into our lives.
Just a remarkable vision, once you know a little history and context.
But now, by this time, if you’ve been following really closely, you might be wondering about something. We just heard the ancient Israelite creation story saying that God created humankind male and female—he created them simultaneously. But but but … doesn’t the Bible ALSO say that God created Adam first? Doesn’t the Bible portray God as saying, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner”? At which point God created the animals—thinking that one of them (bat, butterfly, dolphin, tiger, falcon, snake, wolf, or something else) might become his ideal partner. Which of course turned out to be a bust. So God made Adam sleep, and he took one of Adam’s ribs, and from that rib, God made Eve. Doesn’t the Bible also say this? So which is it: man and woman created simultaneously, or man created first, and woman later?
Have you been wondering about this?
We also just heard that the endpoint of creation was rest: God resting, humankind resting, God seeing that everything he had made was very good, and wanting us to join in. But but but … doesn’t the Bible ALSO tell a story that’s the opposite of rest? As when God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and thus set into motion a momentum that continues to this very day: momentum of moral ambivalence and complexity which the serpent represents; momentum of freedom and desire and choice; momentum of our expulsion from the garden, with all its shame and guilt and suffering; momentum of Cain and Abel, of the Flood, of The Tower of Babel, extending all the way to this very day, with its own stories of violence and greed and misery; momentum of perpetual lessons and perpetual learning, growth of wisdom, growth of insight. Where is our Sabbath from all of this? How does this fit in with “And God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good”?
Well, I don’t know about you, but speaking for myself, I was very slow to ask these kinds of questions. Didn’t matter that, as a high schooler, I’d carry a Bible with me everywhere, read it all the time, underline, make notes, memorize, recite—all with the understanding that what I was doing was studying words straight from the mouth of God, to be taken literally. Didn’t matter. I thought I knew the Bible, until I went to seminary. University of Chicago, 1999. First day of class, professor points out that there are, in fact, TWO creation stories in the book of Genesis—Genesis 1 through 2:4 and Genesis 2:4 through 3:24—one editorially glued on to the other so as to give an appearance of seamlessness UNLESS you look closer. The first envisioning the absolute beginning as a scene of endless, depthless waters; the second envisioning the absolute beginning as a rainless, sterile desert. In the first, God creates cleanly through the spoken word, through a sheer act of poetry; in the second, God creates by getting his hands dirty; he grabs a piece of earth, he breathes into it the breathe of his very life. In the first, humans are created last; in the second, Adam is created first before all other life forms. In the first, male and female created at the same time; in the second, man first, then woman. My University of Chicago professor, pointing it all out clearly, clinically, dispassionately, while I’m sitting there in my chair in a state of heavy ragged breathing, eyes bugging out, trying to comprehend how in the world I ever could have missed it.
And now, it makes me laugh. It makes me think that whoever wove together the various story traditions of the book of Genesis must have had some Unitarian Universalist DNA in him. Some editor who placed two fundamentally incompatible stories right at the start of the Bible—right at the start of the whole thing—as if to say, “All ye who enter these pages, abandon all hope! That is, abandon all hope of absoluteness and literality! Go deeper! Wake up! Be more profound in your thinking! This is myth, folks, in the sense of ‘it never was but always is,’ not science but simply telling the truth about what it means to be human.” Some editor we will never know, suggesting all of this, winking at us down through the ages….
But why the stories are so very different? Scholar Marcus Borg helps us begin to understand. Drawing on contemporary Biblical scholarship, he points out that the two stories were composed at very different times in ancient Israel’s history, for different purposes. The first story—the “Let there be Light!” story—was written during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile, from 587 to 538 BCE. During this period, ancient Israel was under the thumb of the Babylonian Empire, had lost its independence, its pride. But with the Exile coming to an end, it was time for Israel to tell a new story, one that would strengthen its weakened sense of identity and inspire it to greater things. And so: since the Sabbath was a characteristic practice of ancient Israel, to have God practice it in the story was and is a powerful way of reinforcing its value. Furthermore, it was a truism in the ancient Near East that if your nation had been conquered, as Israel’s had, then your god was conquered too. Your god was weak. So when ancient Israel composed a new creation story, it was its way of reaffirming God’s power, a way of saying, Our God is not weak but strong. Our God is truly Lord of all Gods.
As for the second creation story—the “Adam and Eve and Garden of Eden” story—it was actually written three hundred years before the first. It’s much older. It comes from the time of the monarchy in ancient Israel—rulers like David and Solomon. A time when ancient Israel was trying to remember its origins: a people born in a dry land, given a different land of milk and honey, invited into a relationship with God governed by rules to follow, tempted all the time by the competing religious visions and traditions of its Caananite neighbors, and subject to dire consequences should Israel break the rules. Do you see how this parallels what’s happening in the second creation story? The image of the serpent is particularly fascinating: the serpent was a Caananite fertility symbol, representing sexuality, wisdom, also immortality. The ancient Israelites knew exactly what the serpent in the story represented. Stay away. Don’t break the rules, or bad things are gonna happen!
The two stories are different, written at different times and for different purposes. But (and this is my final observation for today) there is nevertheless great wisdom in them that speaks to all times and purposes. Beyond their historical significance, beyond the absolutely incompatible details, there is a metaphorical richness to the stories that can speak to us all. Especially in how the two stories are told together. Following the Bible’s lead, what if, in trying to explain the meaning of our lives or of a part of our lives, we always sought to tell the two different kinds of stories, and tell them simultaneously?
One would always be like the second creation story: the one that speaks to the human inevitability to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; the one that puts its finger on the unquenchable yearning at the core of our human freedom; the one that portrays the deep, soulful desire in all of us to jump right into messes of one kind or another; the one that predicts how a serpent will always pop up when it feels like you’ve got your life together, your relationship is steady, your work is steady, you got a good rhythm going, but then BAM! the serpent—and it takes you into yet another place of passion and craziness and confusion and it feels like once again you’ve been exiled from the Garden and you feel like you are dying and you hope—you hope—that somehow you will be born anew.
That’s when it’s time to tell the first creation story. The one that affirms the sheer sacred mystery at the core of our lives, the inherent worth and dignity and goodness that is fundamentally there even when we don’t see it and we don’t feel it. When we just feel like it’s all an epic fail. But we nevertheless breathe, and keep breathing. When all else fails, that’s what we do. Perhaps the true sin of Adam and Eve was in having but a shallow understanding of the meaning of good and evil but thinking it deep enough to justify action; taking but a small bite of the Apple but thinking themselves as wise as God in judging the true worth of things. Tell the second creation story, but never fail to tell the first, because then we remember that we are not God, that we are not vast enough to contain and reconcile all that we experience, that we have no right to condemn. Tell the first story, because then we remember that there is a point of view that CAN see everything: everything we think pathetic, everything we think unworthy, everything we think shameful and unspeakable—and in the context of all that is, this is what God will say. God will say, “This is my creation, all things have their proper place in the economy of life, and indeed, it is very good.”