Making sense of the Bible

Can we make sense of the biblical stories of creation?

 

Introduction:

 

One of the great sorrows of our contemporary Christian living is the way in which the Hebrew Bible has become lost in our understanding of the saving works of God.  That which we generally refer to as the Old Testament would be better described as the Hebrew Bible as it is the Bible used by the Jews (called the TANAK) but also taken up as an essential part of our own Christian traditions. Even using the word old is confusing as it suggests that it has little or no relevance for today's new world.  Many would believe that the New Testament has replaced the Old Testament and so while it has some good readings in it, it is not a necessary part of modern Christian living.

 

What most Christians do not realize is how this was one of the early heresies of the ancient Church - promoted by Marcion who died in 160AD. 

 

Marcionism is the theological doctrine teaching that the God of the Old Testament was the father of evil.  He was oppressive, and a lesser and distinct reality from the God of the New Testament who is characterized by love and forgiveness. This grows out of Gnostic thinking where lesser gods are involved in the world, and the true supreme God is far above, inaccessible.

 

What we need to appreciate is how the Hebrew Bible is very much a part of what we call The Bible.  It is a part of our own Christian Sacred Scriptures and a fundamental part of the way we understand Jesus, his place in God's saving plans and the foundation principles and purpose of the Church in our world today. 

 

The Biblical accounts of creation:

 

The biblical accounts of creation are found in the collection of books we refer to as the Pentateuch (often called the five books of Moses).  They are a part of what the Jews call the Torah - the Law in the thinking of many Christians.  But the word Torah/Law means a great deal more than just "law".   It covers functions such as instruction and teaching and offers accounts of those key elements that make up the identity of what Israel became.  Most people - believers and many unbelievers alike - have at least some knowledge of the bare bones of the creation story:

·       The world was made in six days.

·       Adam and Eve were the first humans and Eve was made from the rib bone of Adam.

·       They had two children - Cain and Abel and the older son Cain killed Abel.

·       They were tempted by Satan who took the form of a snake.

·       They ate of the forbidden fruit (an apple?) and were kicked out of Eden.

·       People lived for enormously long periods of time (didn't Methuselah live for 900+ years and others lived for hundred and hundreds of years?).

·       Some mysterious giants had sex with some young women.

·       God sent a flood to the earth to punish sinners but saved Noah to build an ark and take in two of every kind of animal in with him.

·       The people built an enormously high tower in Babel but God was angry with them and they were scattered around the earth, each creating their own language.

 

The stories are told over and over again and it is amazing how even non-believers used their take on these stories as a way of speaking of the Bible as a whole, as if every biblical book was the same kind of literature, addressing the same ancient communities and put together by a single writer.   As these creation stories could not possibly be "true" (science  has debunked them ) so the whole Bible is "tainted" and can be dismissed.  Until the Enlightenment (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), people believed these stories to be "true", that  they represented reality, both scientific and historical.  Few, if any, would ever contemplate questioning the facts set down in those narratives.  It was all very much in line with the science of the time.  One scholar - Archbishop James Ussher of Dublin - was able to calculate the age of the earth (he did this around the year1650).  In Ussher's calculation, the earth was 4004 years old.  This calculation came out not all that long before Charles Darwin was spruiking his great work On the Origin of Species (1859).  He offered not only a much earlier dating of the earth but also included his theory of evolution.  For Darwin there was no precise moment of creation.  All living things evolved through natural processes.   Thus was born the idea that there could be no coming together of science and Scripture with many scholars using science to "debunk" the truth of the Bible.  While this created joy among many atheists, it created confusion and concern in the minds of many of those whose faith relied upon the "truth" of the Bible.  If creation can be challenged then can't the same questioning be applied to everything in the Bible?

 

Sadly, today, some 150+ years after Darwin's bombshell, the division between science and the Bible goes on unabated and many, including many faithful Christians have minimized the role the Scriptures play in their day to day lives of faith.  Even our Church leaders - Bishops and priests - ignore it, relegate it to a pious collection of writings that are imprisoned in the ancient past, are limited by their paternalistic origins and offer nothing more than guidelines to modern Christian living.  If it is unreliable in its presentation of the science of creation, then how can it be trusted when it talks of morality?

 

This situation has not been helped by those well-meaning scholars who have tried to produce a scientific form of creationism: as has happened in the USA with the battles to have creationist teachings included in school curricula.  Others have spent decades looking for the place the Ark came to rest on Mt Ararat (there was one woman we met in Cooktown in far north Queensland who believed the Ark had landed somewhere along the coast near that town).  Others have hunted for the place of the Garden of Eden and still more have  worked out how an Ark could (or could not) have been built to carry that many animals.  But all of this and the million and one other examples of similar ventures have been a monumental waste of time and money.  Worse than that, they misrepresent the nature of the biblical narratives and their role and purpose in the overall Biblical message.

 

Few genuine biblical scholars today would argue that these narratives were factual accounts setting down for the readers the reality of how the world began.  They are to be read as mythological presentations of how the Hebrew peoples understood the beginning of creation and their place in it.  They can also be understood as a prehistory of Israel.  They tell the story of the origins of the human race and in so telling those stories, prepare the ground for the history of the nation of Israel itself, a story that begins with the call of Abram and Sarah.  What this tells us is how these narratives were never meant to be understood as "factual" history. 

The biblical books have a theological order

 

It is of great importance to understand that the order of the books we find in the Bible is in no way indicative of the order in which they were written and edited.  Israel as a people came into existence at the time of the Exodus (13th century) and the writing of the creation story in chapter 2 of Genesis dates to a period some three hundred years after these events.  Chapter one of Genesis is even later, coming together sometime in the 500s BC.   It was the events of the time and the situation in which the nation found itself that helped shape what was written and the manner in which it was written.  To understand how this is worked out scholars make use of what is called the Documentary Hypothesis and while there are some problems in trying to apply it in a rigorous manner, it does provide a useful, working understanding of the nature of our Pentateuch.

The Documentary Hypothesis sees in the writings of the Pentateuch evidence of it being a composite of at least four separate and coherent sources.  These are generally understood to be:

    • The Yahwist - J - (J from the German word for Yahweh) - gets its name because it uses the name Yahweh for God.  J appears to have been composed in Judah around 950 B.C.
    • The Elohist - E -  The name is derived from  E's use of Elohim (the Hebrew word for "God") when it is referring to God.  It appears to have been composed around 850 B.C.  
    • The Priestly editor - P - P has a special interest in matters liturgical and those things that were of importance to priests and to the life of worship of the Jews.  Most scholars would date P from the 587 exile to Babylon or shortly after.
    • The Deuteronomist - D - D is essentially the Book of Deuteronomy. 
    • see https://carm.org/documentary-hypothesis for a fuller set of explanations.

                                                               The Priestly (P) narratives

The Priestly story (referred to in studies as P) opens with the earth as a formless void.  That is reality before God becomes involved.  Over this chaos and darkness hovers the Spirit of God.  Into this reality steps God the Creator and the whole of the universe is created in six days.  Light is created on day one, the firmament (the dome of the sky) on day two meaning the waters above are separated off from land beneath.  On the third day the waters on the earth are separated so that dry land is formed, followed by the appearance of vegetation.  Day four sees the creation of lights in the sky - sun, moon and the stars.  On day five there are sea animals and fish and birds in the air.  On day six the animals of the land are created and at the close of that day we have man and woman who were created in the image and the likeness of God.  On the seventh day God rests.

 

P was written around the time of Israel's exile into Babylon (587), an exile that lasted for nearly fifty years.  After this period a small group of the remaining exiles and their families returned home to Jerusalem to live in the land God had given to them but this time living under the rule of the King of Persia.   What would have been one of the major concerns of this small group of people?  It would have been how they managed to maintain their distinct identity when so much of what they thought of as being distinctly characteristic of God's people Israel had been lost, tarnished or was now being governed by foreigners. 

 

One of these distinctive characteristics of the Hebrew peoples was the Sabbath day as a rest day.  It had been celebrated long before the time of the exile but when they were in Babylon and upon their return it took on a more significant role.  It helped define who they were.  We can now ask the question:  why creation in six days? with a different rationale in mind. The answer to that would be to reinforce the divine origins of the Sabbath rest.  It was not written to be an account of the length of time it took for God to create all of those things but as a way of strengthening Israel in a time their faith was being tested.

 

Ancient Middle Eastern cosmology was radically different to that held by our modern scientific world of today.  The earth was very much at the centre of all things and over the earth there was a dome (the firmament) separating off the heavens from the earth below.  That is what it looks like if we glance up into the sky.  It is a bit like a bowl over the earth and the heavenly lights make their way across this dome.  Out of this bowl comes the rain, pouring down upon the earth from windows that are opened up in the firmament.   That was reality for the people of that time and it found its way into the biblical stories but it is not something any of us would accept today.  But the "truth" of their physical cosmology is not what the Truth of chapter one depends.

 

Some scholars see in Genesis 1 hints of an ancient liturgy for the praise of God.  Evidence of this is the sevenfold repeating of the key idea in the narrative and it is not difficult to imagine this being sung in a choral setting:

God said, "let there be..."

And so it was.

And God saw how it was good.

If it was in fact a hymn we should not be reading it as some kind of scientific paper on creation, just as we would not expect to interpret our own Church hymns as being representative of our scientific beliefs.   They use poetry, metaphor and the language of praise and not scientific tables and theorems.    

 

It is not difficult to imagine how this kind of thinking became a national necessity at the time of the exile to Babylon.  Here were God's people crushed in war and exiled from the very land given to them by their God as a sign of covenant faithfulness.  The gods of the Babylonians had shown themselves to be of greater power than the God of Israel.   What better way to counter this impression than chapter 1 of Genesis!   Israel's God is not just the God of the Hebrew people but is God also of the entire earth and of all peoples.  Yahweh is Lord even over Babylon and her gods and these creation myths tell of the real world - one in which God rules supreme.

 

 

 

The narrative of the Yahwist (J) - 2:4ff

 

In this second of the creation stories there is very little information on the process of creation itself.  All attention is focussed on the creation of the man and the woman.  It opens with God creating adam (which is from the Hebrew word for humankind and not used here as a personal name).   The whole of this part of the narrative is found in a single sentence: 2:4-7... In the day that YHWH  God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up - for YHWH God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground - then YHWH God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.  While P had the man and the woman as the high point of creation, the last things to be created, for J they represent the opening works of God's creative activities, coming before even the animals and the plants.  It is also worth pointing out that in P man and woman were created together, whereas in J the man was created first and the woman was taken from out of the man's side.  The plants are created so that adam could eat and the animals placed into the garden to give adam some company.  As none of the animals proved to be suitable companions God then created the woman - eve.  Once again, this is not the woman's name but is a word referring to her role in the long line of women who would come after her.  She is their mother.

 

The humans could eat of any of the trees in the garden apart from the one set aside by God, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  If they ate of the fruit of that forbidden tree they would most surely die.  Then along comes the snake who sweet talks the man and woman into questioning what God had commanded.  They were convinced how it would be good to have the knowledge of good and evil with the snake promising them they would be like God.  And so they ate and with the eating came a significant transformation of their way of life.  They had to cover their nakedness with clothing and because they were afraid they tried to hide from God.  Punishment for eating followed on quickly from this sinful act - women gave birth in pain and the man had to work hard in an unproductive soil if he wanted to produce enough food for them to eat.  They were thrown out of the garden and an angel placed at the entrance to stop them coming back into paradise. 

 

We know that J was using language in a symbolic way, that adam for example, was not a common name in Hebrew.  It is a word used to speak of all of humanity, all men and women on the earth.  J uses a play on words to bring out its meaning.  Adam comes from the adamah, the dust of the earth, from the soil of the earth.  Men and women are living dust, not just the Jews but all people.  It is a characteristic of being human.  Similarly, the word eve is not meant to be the name of a person.  It means the mother of all living.  The garden in which they lived was called Eden (meaning the garden of wonderful things) and for a people used to struggling in desert environments, what better way to describe paradise than as a rich, fertile, water-filled garden?

 

We need metaphorical lenses

 

Arguing how we need to read the biblical texts with a metaphorical lens is nothing new.  The great Christian biblical scholar Origen (3rd century) was an advocate of the idea that we needed to have a range of ways of reading a biblical text, that they had much more in them than their literal or historical reading would suggest. In his significant work de principiis 4.1.16 (this is available online and is added to the end of our present essay) he notes how there were many countless instances of the recording of events that were said to have occurred but which in fact did not literally  take place.  In this he adds how the gospels themselves are filled with the same kind of narratives.  While he strongly affirms the historicity of the Bible, he sees something more in its writings than scientific and historical reporting.

 

While we might want to recoil from this kind of thinking because it might call into question our understanding of the Bible as being "true" and "inspired", great Christian thinkers, saints and martyrs much closer to the time when the Bible itself was coming together as an inspired work, perhaps better understood the nature of those writings.  Origen has been called one of the greatest biblical scholars in history and yet he had no problem in dealing with the metaphorical nature of biblical texts.  While times he may well have put too much emphasis on metaphors, it does not mean we should abandon metaphor altogether. 

 

One of our difficulties today is with the idea of a myth.  They are thought to be akin to fairy tales that may have a message in them but are in no way true.  They are false, mistakes in the way the world is viewed and as such are not to be taken as seriously as we might read an historical narrative.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

 

Myths are not science, are not meant to be ways of explaining reality or events and are not primitive mistakes in trying to explain the world and the existence of certain things.  Myths are human attempts to talk about the relationship between the human and the divine.  They relate our world to the sacred, of the mystical relationship between our human existence and God.  This is why they so often talk about the beginning of the world and creation, where the world came from, why it is here and how it will end.  In so doing they do not use scientific and historical language as we understand it, preferring instead to speak in nonliteral language.  They can do this because they are not concerned about facts but rather about meaning.  Because they speak of the God we cannot know, they need to have a language of their own.

 

This means myth is not to be understood as being the opposite to reality.  Myths are true even if they are not literally true.  They bring the truth alive in ways and forms the human mind can absorb and to which it can relate.  As Borg expresses this, myth is poetry plus, it is not science minus and when we read the Pentateuch in this manner, what we find is not a treatise on the creation of the world but a genuine divine revelation that makes sense for every generation of believer, for those in the world of science and fact history as well as those who are seeking to discern what it is God is saying to those who believe.

 

Conclusion:

 

Nothing said so far should diminish the truth of the Bible or limit its crucial role in the lives of all disciples of Christ.  In every page we hear the voice of God, even if they are not the exact words of God.  In learning to read the Bible in different ways to the ways with which we have become familiar, we are being led by the Spirit to hear again what it is God is saying to the Church.  As we shall see in the next essay, it allows us to proclaim with great confidence the Truth of the Bible without having to try and prove every little detail in the face of science and archaeology.  It is a collection of works that are a literal gold mine for theology and spirituality, revealing to us the saving nature of God, our nature in relation to God, creation and each other and it helps us to understand the meaning of our life on this planet along with our ultimate fate beyond the grave. 

 

                                                   Addendum:                             de principiis 4.1-16

 

4.1.16. Nor was it only with regard to those Scriptures which were composed down to the advent of Christ that the Holy Spirit thus dealt; but as being one and the same Spirit, and proceeding from one God, He dealt in the same way with the evangelists and apostles. For even those narratives which He in­spired them to write were not composed without the aid of that wisdom of His, the nature of which we have above explained. Whence also in them were intermingled not a few things by which, the historical order of the narrative being interrupted and broken up, the attention of the reader might be recalled, by the impossibility of the case, to an examination of the inner meaning. But, that our meaning may be ascertained by the facts themselves, let us examine the passages of Scripture. Now who is there, pray, possessed of understanding, that will regard the statement as appropriate, that the first day, and the second, and the third, in which also both evening and morning are mentioned, existed without sun, and moon, and stars - the first day even without a sky? And who is found so ignorant as to suppose that God, as if He had been a husbandman, planted trees in paradise, in Eden towards the east, and a tree of life in it, i.e., a visible and palpable tree of wood, so that anyone eating of it with bodily teeth should obtain life, and, eating again of another tree, should come to the knowledge of good and evil? No one, I think, can doubt that the statement that God walked in the afternoon in paradise, and that Adam lay hid under a tree, is related figuratively in Scripture, that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it. The departure of Cain from the presence of the Lord will manifestly cause a careful reader to inquire what is the presence of God, and how anyone can go out from it. But not to extend the task which we have before us beyond its due limits, it is very easy for anyone who pleases to gather out of holy Scripture what is recorded indeed as having been done, but what nevertheless cannot be believed as having rea­sonably and appropriately occurred according to the historical account. The same style of Scriptural narrative occurs abundantly in the Gospels, as when the devil is said to have placed Jesus on a lofty mountain, that he might show Him from thence all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them. How could it literally come to pass, either that Jesus should be led up by the devil into a high mountain, or that the latter should show him all the kingdoms of the world (as if they were lying beneath his bodily eyes, and adjacent to one mountain), i.e., the king­doms of the Persians, and Scythians, and Indians? Or how could he show in what manner the kings of these kingdoms are glorified by men? And many other instances

similar to this will be found in the Gospels by anyone who will read them with atten­tion, and will observe that in those narratives which appear to be literally recorded, there are inserted and interwoven things which cannot be admitted his­torically, but which may be accepted in a spiritual signification.

 

Texts of all of the Fathers are easily found online and most good translations come with notes and commentary.  The above is from http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/04124.htm but there are others also available.  Just type in the document you want. This document is here:  http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/origen122.html

 

Bishop Michael Hough, Linton, 2017

 

 

 

 


Posted 13 October 2017 in Blog
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