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

Creation and Evolution 2: Gen. 1:1-2:4a

The later creation story in Genesis, the Priestly account of Gen. 1:1-2:4a, is placed first in our Bibles.  It comes from the time of the Exile.  The Northern Kingdom of Israel is gone–destroyed by the Assyrians–and the Southern Kingdom of Judah has seen most of its inhabitants (and all of its leaders) deported into various parts of the Babylonian empire–while peoples from other conquered nations have been moved to the Holy Land of Canaan.  The devastation upon the national psyche of the people is best seen in Psalm 137: a bitterness and grief so deep that the Psalmist actually prays at the end for people kill Babylonian babies by beating their heads against rocks. (The unknown psalmist had probably seen Babylonian soldiers do that very thing to Israelite babies!)

In the ancient world, wars on earth were thought to mirror wars in the heavens between rival gods and goddesses.  We see this, for instance, in Homer’s The Iliad, where the various gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon take sides in the war between Greece and Troy.  The usual interpretation of national defeat by a stronger army was that the invaders’ god had defeated the god of the conquered people.  This was how the Babylonians saw their conquest of Judah: Marduk, the Chief god of the Babylonians, was stronger than YHWH and had defeated YHWH, allowing Babylon to defeat Judah.  The Babylonians encouraged the captive Exiles to see things in the same way so that they would give up Yahwism (i.e., developing Israelite religion, which was growing into what is today Judaism) and give up their identity as Jews and blend in as faithful citizens of Babylonia.

As the years of the Exile dragged on, the temptation to give up and merge (as the Northern Kingdom had given up and merged earlier with Assyria) must have been tremendous.  The Priestly Creation Narrative (Gen. 1:1-2:4a) is one part of a theological resistance to that temptation. 

The Babylonians had their own Creation myth which can be read in their Scripture, the Enuma Elish.  Here, the act of creation is war.  Marduk leads the gods to kill the mother goddess Tiamat (chaos waters–sometimes pictured as a dragon). The heavens and earth are made in some versions of the story out of the body of Kingu, Tiamat’s consort, and, in other versions, out of the body of Tiamat herself.  Humans are then made from this mess to be the slaves of the gods.

Genesis 1, the Priestly creation story is a theological rebuttal to this story–and a bold one.  El (God) creates not by violence, but by simply speaking.  Order appears out of chaos as a result of God’s Word (not as a result of military imposition of order).   Everything has its place and its time.  The language used here is not that of narrative saga, as in the Gen. 2 J story, but a liturgical, almost hymnlike language (“there was an evening and a morning the first day,” etc.) .

The Hebrew terms used for the various portions of creation (and of the watery chaotic “deep” that precedes it) are chosen to be very similar to the Babylonian names for their gods and goddesses:  e.g., t’hom, “the deep,” is very close to “Tiamat.” But in the Gen. 1 account, these are not gods and goddesses or monsters, etc., but just portions of the world that God creates–or from which God creates in the case of the watery deep.  The Priestly writer(s) of Gen. 1, in a very real sense, demythologize Creation–or rather, they provide a counter myth, a truer myth. 

The categories of the created order as the Israelits knew it are created in the first three days:  Heavens and earth, Day and Night,  land, seas.  In the second three days, these are populated: Sun and Moon, stars populate the day and night; birds populate the skies/heavens; fish populate the seas; crawling animals populate the land.  

Now, there is another dimension here which must not be missed: Babylon is the origin of astrology as we know it in the West today. (Other astrological systems were created in China, etc.) To the Babylonians, who already believed that they were slaves of the gods, the sun, moon, and stars ruled over their lives.  They had no free will.  The Priestly writer of Gen. 1 denies this: The sun rules only the day–not humans.  The moon rules only the night, not humans.  And the stars? They don’t get to rule anything.  The Hebrew makes it seem like a divine afterthought, “And he also made stars.”  Poof.  Astrology has no power.  Stars are just part of God’s creation–nothing more and nothing less.  They do not determine human lives.  (Whenever I see Christians today read horoscopes–even “just for fun,” I am horrified that they would submit to this pagan ideology in place of biblical freedom. I have made it a point not to even know my zodiac sign and I stop everyone who tries to tell me what it is.  I have no time for such nonsense.)

Then, at the pinnacle of creation, God makes humans–not as slaves out of the body of some slain god or goddess, but “in the image and likeness of God.” What a bold theological claim for an exiled, conquered people to make! And, in this version, men and women (ish and isha) are made at the same time. Both are made in the image of God. Some have taken the secondary creation of woman in Gen. 2, along with the man’s naming of her, to be an implication of sex subordination. (But, for a rebuttal of such a reading, see Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. ) Even if that is the right way to read Gen. 2, by placing Gen. 1 first, the Priestly writers were emphasizing the equality of the sexes (despite the subordinate position women had in Israelite society and in its cultic life presided over by the Priestly class!)–both equally made in the image and likeness of God!

What a great message! What powerful things we must learn about God and creation from Genesis 1!  But none of those things are scientific.  The P writer did not know that the stars were suns, nor that the sun was created before the earth, etc.  The P writer did not know that the moon was a big hunk of rock torn from the earth, nor that the earth was round.  The P writer thought of the heavens or skies (“firmament”) as a big brass dome with windows for rain to come to earth.  The P writer did place the creation of animals before that of humanity, but he (they?) knew nothing of the evolution of species–nor did he/they CARE!  The interest of the biblical writers was elsewhere:  Affirming the sovereignty of God (despite the claim that God had been defeated by Marduk) over all–a sovereignty exercised in a calm, effortless, nonviolent creation.  Affirming the goodness of all creation with everything in proper order.  Affirming the uniqueness of humanity as a special creation—not because we have no biological connections to other animals, but because God’s universe creating Word has declared us “image and likeness of God.”  As such, we have nothing to fear from the investigations of astronomers, geologists, and biologists.  Atheists like Richard Dawkins can claim that Darwin disproves God, but we have no reason to agree! Darwin’s discoveries–and those of his successors–tell us about our origins from a scientific viewpoint.  But Genesis affirms the theological truth that God is behind it all and God’s providence is the real power in our lives.

November 6, 2007 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, Hebrew Bible/O.T., progressive faith, science & faith, theology | 16 Comments