In this discussion I am taking another look at the early chapters of Genesis, on their own terms and as seen in the light of the rest of the Old and New Testaments. This is based on a talk I gave at my church. Although I discuss basic science, I am doing this without reference to the accounts of Big Bang cosmology or evolutionary biology, which have often been seen as competing with the Genesis account.
This first part is, however, focused on a different perspective of Genesis 2-3, without any scientific reference.
Part 1. Interpretations of Genesis. The story of the Jews
Part 2. The Genesis of the world
Part 3 What the lion said about St.Francis. It’s not about ostriches.
Part 4 Intention of reference to the natural world in Genesis 1
Part 5 The key message of Genesis 1 is… Conclusion
Interpretations of Genesis
How do we interpret Genesis 1-3 ? The following are the main hypotheses people of many views have come up with:
- It is a story (or stories) constructed by primitive superstitious people to explain a puzzling universe – this idea is usually advanced by atheists, but some Christians have also subscribed to it.
- It is an historical record of the physical origins of the world/universe and mankind – this position is advanced by creationists and many Christians.
- It is an history of the Jews, and their relationship with God – many Jews hold this view.
- It is a document about who Yahweh, the God of Israel, is.
The story of the Jews
Consider point 3, the story of the Jews, for a moment. A short video clip by N.T. Wright at <http://biologos.org/blog/on-genesis-2-and-3> suggests a reading of Genesis 2 and 3 that would have made sense in the period leading up to when Jesus lived.
God promised Abraham a land he had prepared to be the honoured possession and dwelling place of Abraham’s descendants, who were going to be as hard to count as the stars in the sky or the sand grains on the seashore. The land was described as “flowing with milk and honey”. They were the people of promise, the people who were favoured with God’s own presence, first in the pillar of fire and cloud, then in the special Presence in the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle (the Shekinah, Exodus 25:8, 40:34-38), and finally with the blessing and resting of God in Solomon’s temple.
For the LORD has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling, saying, “This is my resting place for ever and ever; here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it. 15I will bless her with abundant provisions; her poor I will satisfy with food. Psalm 132:13-15.
A lot of the country’s wealth – gold and precious or semi-precious stones, including those like onyx in the High Priest’s garments – were vested in the Temple. God’s people, however, had responsibilities. God commanded them to maintain right relationships with himself and with each other, to keep themselves pure from idolatry and the knowledge of the pagan gods around them. This covenant with God they disobeyed, after being tempted to worship pagan gods by (among other things) the pagan women they married. They did this time and time again, until, as God had promised in Deuteronomy, he punished them by exiling them from the land, from the temple, and hence from the certainty of his Presence in the Holy of Holies, as the Temple was destroyed. There as they sat around the rivers of Babylon, the Tigris and the Euphrates, they wept as they remembered the loss of the promised land, Zion, the city of God, the temple and the presence of God (Psalm 137:1).
Now look at Genesis 2. God places the man and the woman in the garden he has prepared for them, a land flowing with rivers – among which are named the Tigris and the Euphrates – rich in gold, onyx, fruits and every good thing. God rests: John Walton suggests this may well refer to his presence (as in Psalm 132 above) dwelling/resting with the man and the woman, with whom he “walks” in the garden in the evening. But there are responsibilities – they can eat of anything except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And, tempted by the serpent, the woman first disobeyed and then led the man to do the same, failing to keep their covenant, so God exiled them from the garden, from the tree of life, and from his presence.
Do you see the parallels? A land God had prepared flowing with promise, nourishment and wealth, blessed by the presence of God, temptation coming via womankind, a covenant disregarded, and exile from the land and the presence of God. Did Adam and Eve set the pattern that Israel followed, or is there more connecting the two stories than just precedent?
It is possible to tell the same story in very different ways. You may have read The Life of Pi, a novel that details how a young man, travelling by ship with his family’s zoo, survives a storm on a raft with a tiger, a hyena and a wounded zebra and some frightening interchanges between them. At the end, a very different and shocking interpretation of events emerges. Pi talks to an insurance agent and he says:
“So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with the tiger or the story without?’
And when the agent confirms which story he prefers, Pi says to him:
...“Thank you. And so it goes with God.'”
The Life of Pi, Yann Martel
We could ask in relation to the story of Israel’s promised land, disobedience and exile: Which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with the crafty serpent or the story without?
At one level I can see that Genesis 2 and 3, the story of Adam and Eve and The Fall, as it is called, could be an encapsulated and heavily symbolic representation of the story of Israel – the preparation, the promise, the presence, the failures and the exile. It is also a story about all of us. This doesn’t exclude Genesis 2 and 3 describing an historical situation prior to Israel’s story, but there are certainly strong parallels.
Genesis chapter 1 is not the same kind of passage. It is grand, and overarching, and God is the main subject, rather than man. Genesis 1 is the subject of much conflict about the nature of the Creation story. So what about the hypothesis (point 2) that this is an historical account of the physical events in the creation of the universe? I will consider this in Part 2.