Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Creation and Evolution 1: Gen. 2:4b-25

Well, it’s Sunday night in my part of the world, so it’s time for some serious Bible study.  I need to say a few introductory things about my approach to the biblical texts:  I accept the basic outline of the “Documentary Hypothesis” on the formation of the Pentateuch.  That is, Genesis-Deuteronomy were NOT dictated verbally by God to Moses.  The books are unsigned and only were called “The Five Books of Moses” in post-Exilic Israelite religion (early Judaism)–a tradition that had, nonetheless, been settled for some time by Jesus’ day.  (No, I do not think that Jesus’ ref. to biblical citation in the Pentateuch or Torah as “Moses says” means that Jesus was giving omniscient or supernaturally-informed confirmation of Mosaic authorship!) The Torah or Pentateuch as we know it was compiled of various written sources (scholars have traditionally called these the J, E, D, & P sources or the Yahwist/Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly sources) from different strands of Israelite tradition.  Those sources themselves were often based on oral tradition, stories that circulated by word of mouth for generations before being written down. (Note: The latter does not make a purportedly historical account necessarily unreliable.  It has been shown that oral cultures can accurately transmit whole libraries of data for centuries.  Changes can and do creep in slowly, but oral cultures are conservative and audiences will correct even one word being out of place in a traditional story. )

Scholars identified these sources in the Pentateuch by looking at differences in writing style, repetitions, vocabulary differences, etc.  For instance, the J or Yahwist source, which is the oldest source, consistently uses YHWH for God (reflecting a time before Jewish tradition held that God’s name was too sacred to be spoken aloud–that any mention of it risked breaking the commandment against taking the divine name in vain) whereas the E source prefers to use the term El or Elohim.  Those who reconstruct the history of transmission believe the P or Priestly writers had the final editing–after the Exile, led by Ezra and his scribes.  There may have been a core of the Torah that was written by Moses (perhaps with input from those around him like Aaron, Miriam, and Joshua), but there is also much older and much later material in the “Books of Moses” as we have them in our Bibles.

I mention all this as background to saying that there is not one but two “creation stories” in Genesis.  My summary above will be old hat to those with seminary education–and even to many laity–but it will be new to some readers of this blog as is clear from a few comments on the previous post.   There will some critics who reject the above and will therefore reject my interpretation of the Genesis texts.  Please do not misunderstand me: I am NOT claiming that they are uninspired or not God’s Word, etc. Nothing of the sort.  But to interpret the creation stories in Genesis rightly, we need to see them against their historical background–to see what the biblical writers were arguing for and against. They were NOT arguing for or against any scientific explanations of human origins.

As I said, there are 2 creation stories in Genesis:  The first is Gen. 1:1-2:4a and the second is 2:4b-25.  The second account is the older account.  It is from the J document and is, in fact, based on much older oral tradition. The story, which is part of the larger Adam and Eve saga, represents some of the oldest material in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) and probably was written down in the early monarchical period–sometime around 950 B.C.E.  I am examining it first because I think it will help to see what the P writers did in placing the E creation story (Gen. 1:1-2:4a) first in the Torah ( a move that was reinforced when the Torah was placed first in the canon–so that Scripture for both Jews and Christians BEGINS with the P creation story).

Initial observations:  This story has a flowing writing style appropriate to that of a saga.  There is a different order to creation–first man, then the plants and animals, then woman–from the first story.  We begin not with a watery chaos, but with a barren wasteland.  This creation story probably has its infancy in the days when Israel’s Hebrew ancestors were desert nomads–thus, creation is a garden very like an oasis. 

“Man,” adam (not yet a proper name) is pun on “earth,” adamah.  This is our first clue that we are not dealing with anything purporting to be an eyewitness-type historical account: The symbolic names. “Adam” for the earth-creature that becomes “man,” and “Eve” meaning “mother of all living.” These are obviously representative figures rather than simple individuals.

There are many mythic elements–by which I mean “magical” elements that recur in similar narratives in different cultures around the globe:  magical trees with great prizes (in this case, eternal life and the knowledge of good and evil), talking animals, etc. 

The larger story is what anthropologists call etiological–i.e., it explains how things commonly done “now” (the time of the storyteller or the writer) began–why women leave their households to become part of new households with their husbands; why snakes crawl on their bellies and apparently eat dust; why people and snakes don’t get along; how the wearing of clothing began, etc. 

All this is clearly to say that those who told this story and those who wrote it down and included it in our Bibles were NOT asking scientific questions.  They were asking about God and humanity and our relation to each other and the world (as they knew it).  By the time of the early monarchy when this was written, Israel was in conflict with surrounding nations who all had their own gods and goddesses.  The constant question was “Who is this YHWH of yours anyway!” since Yahwism was relatively new to Canaan.  The initial Hebrew answer, of course, was that YHWH was the liberating God of exodus who brought them out of Egypt! But the Yahwistic writer of Gen. 2 is claiming more: That the Liberator God is not just the tribal god of Israel, but the Creator of the world and Humanity!  This is quite a claim to make against Canaan’s fertility gods–a claim of former desert nomads who, now that they are settled agrarians, could be tempted to adopt the gods and customs of those who have been farmers for much longer than Israel has.

Boldly this story from J says that YHWH the Liberator is the Creator of ALL–and portrays that act of Creation as an act of love and intimate care.  Adam is formed of the ground, the dust–a humble substance, but some creation myths have humans formed from much worse–from excrement or (as we’ll see in the next installment) from the body of a slain goddess, etc.  Adam is lovingly created and given a fertile and hospitable home, given animals to name (an act of authority–in contrast to many creation myths in which humans must name themselves after more powerful creatures). Then woman is made from man in an act of love–affirming the essential unity and partnership of the sexes.  And since this story is part of the larger Adam, Eve, Cain and Able story, etc., the J writer is also boldly affirming that God created humans good–not evil. The origin of evil is not given (the idea that the serpent was Satan is from later tradition), but it is clear that it is not God’s fault, but humanity’s–from our misuse of our freedom.

Thus, this early creation story also links Creation to Salvation History. 

This is narrative theology–it is theological truth in mythic form.  It is neither a scientific account nor meant to rival any scientific account.  This will become even clearer when we turn to the other creation account in Genesis–before looking at creation passages from elsewhere in Scripture.


November 5, 2007 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, progressive faith, science & faith | 13 Comments