Creation: Understanding the Drama of Genesis 2-3

Cropped portion of “Bleiglasfenster in der Pfarrkirche Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles in Paris” from GFreihalter. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license via Wikimedia Commons
Cropped portion of “Bleiglasfenster in der Pfarrkirche Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles in Paris” from GFreihalter. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported via Wikimedia Commons

Genesis was a very subversive text in its time, and in today’s context we often fail to understand its full significance. This was the message of a lecture by the biblical scholar Ernest Lucas at the Faraday Institute earlier this month. This is the last in a series of three from the Faraday summer course. If you want to find out more, the videos and audio of most of the lectures will be appearing on the Faraday website over the coming weeks*.

"Jiroft tabriz museum" from Fabien Dany - personal picture. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
“Jiroft tabriz museum” from Fabien Dany – personal picture. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Ancient Near-Eastern culture** often used images of a well-watered paradise, of people made from clay plus a divine element, and a tree of life. Wisdom and immortality were highly sought after, and there was also the ambiguous significance of the serpent. Snakes could symbolise wisdom, the occult, or even evil.

So the ancient Jewish origins story also makes use of these images, but subverts them for the author’s own purposes. People are made from clay – not to serve the Gods as slaves, but as precious royal image-bearers. Paradise is a place where those people come into relationship with God, and seeking wisdom for selfish reasons leads to great evil.

The Genesis account*** is highly structured, like the folk stories and educational literature of its time. It uses anthropomorphic language – God’s action is presented on the scale of a human drama – and it focuses on the formation of a society. Human beings are depicted as God’s representatives, created to be in relationship with him and worship him. The human plight is the result of our own rejection of God, and can only be restored by seeking true wisdom.

Winged genie with spath-(pollen), and pollen/spath-bucket before a Tree of Life panel-(at other museum), giving its blessing."Blessing genie Dur Sharrukin" from Jastrow (2006). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Winged genie with spath-(pollen), and pollen/spath-bucket before a Tree of Life panel, giving its blessing.”Blessing genie Dur Sharrukin” from Jastrow (2006). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Figurative literature can have a real historical event behind it, but the main purpose of this text is to convey theology or ontology****, not chronology. For example, on day six animals and people are described as being made from the dust – or produced by the land – and being given the breath of life. God then chooses mankind to ‘till and keep’, or ‘serve and preserve’ the earth. So as I’ve mentioned before, Genesis shows that our specialness comes not from our unique physical properties but from our relationship with God and the responsibilities that we have.

For Ancient Near-Eastern people, the truth of a text was functional. Does it help me cope with some aspect of life today? People believed that something existed by virtue of its having a functional or societal role, not its material properties. So for example when Adam is asked to name the animals, this is unlikely to refer to a moment when a man sat down and decided what to call every creature he could see. The context of this section of Genesis 2 is as part of God’s search for a partner for the man, so the purpose of the naming story is to highlight the fact that the only suitable partner for Adam is a woman.

The worldview of Genesis was so starkly different to the other creation stories of its time that it sparked a revolution. More specifically, the fact that science flourished in the West is partly down to Christian theology. An un-created, rational Creator made an ordered world, and made people in his image. It makes perfect sense for those people to explore the world and expect to understand it.

Cropped portion of “Bleiglasfenster in der Pfarrkirche Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles in Paris” from GFreihalter. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license via Wikimedia Commons
Cropped portion of “Bleiglasfenster in der Pfarrkirche Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles in Paris” from GFreihalter. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported via Wikimedia Commons

So although Genesis is a difficult and seemingly primitive story, it contains such depth of meaning that it has been transforming society from its first telling right up to the present day. The challenge is to do the text justice by interpreting it as fully as possible. We may not have the key to every aspect of its symbolism, but its main messages are clear: God is present, and he created us to walk with him.

Further reading

* Click the grey downward pointing arrow in the date column to bring up the most recent talks.
** The area roughly corresponding to the Middle East today, which back then included the civilisations of Egypt, Babylonia, Mesopotamia and Canaan, which are referred to in the Bible.
*** Up to chapter 11 verse 27, when the genre changes and the world depicted becomes recognisable as contemporary Near Eastern society.
****The nature of being.

All Creation Worships God: The Impact of Science on Theology

Woutergroen, 2008; Jens Maus, 2010. Wikimedia
Woutergroen, 2008; Jens Maus, 2010. Wikimedia

If all truth is God’s truth, then science must have an impact on our theology. This was the central message of theologian Steve Motyer’s seminar in the God in the Lab evening series at London School of Theology (LST) earlier this year.

Having taught theology and counselling for a number of years as part of his role at LST, Motyer is all too aware of the connection between mind and brain. Neuroscience is showing that Continue reading

The Usefulness of Imagination – Jennifer Siggers

For mathematician Jennifer Siggers, imagination is vital to both her work and faith. In today’s podcast Jennifer explains why she expects to find a solution to the biological problems that she is studying, and why a Christian should be enthusiastic about doing science.

To find out more about Jennifer’s work and faith, and the importance of imagination, beauty and awe in both science and Christianity, see God in the Lab: How Science Enhances Faith (Monarch, 2015).

On Seurat, Science, and Faith: The Value of Theology in the Lab

Source: webexhibits.org
Source: webexhibits.org

How does theology contribute to science? This is a question that developmental biologist Jeff Hardin has answered many times. I met Jeff several years ago when I first interviewed him for the God in the lab book, and was immediately intrigued to learn that he has studied both of these subjects. In today’s guest posts, he explains his own perspective on science and theology.

As Americans go, I’m a bit of an odd duck. Before my PhD in Biophysics at the University of California-Berkeley, I received a Master of Divinity degree, focusing on theology and philosophy. For me, it is important that theology and science fit together, not just as an intellectual exercise, but Continue reading

The Trees Clap their Hands: What does it mean to say that creation praises the Creator?

trees dolomites birch crop
© Ruth Bancewicz

Are the Bible passages about trees and rivers that clap their hands, and mountains that burst into song simply metaphors about how creation inspires people to praise God, or does the non-human creation actually worship God in some unconscious way? This is the question that Mark Harris, lecturer in Science and Religion at Edinburgh University, asked in his seminar at the Faraday Institute earlier this year. This is particularly relevant to the current series of posts on how a scientist’s faith is enhanced through their own work, and links to Jeff Hardin’s own thoughts on how learning more Continue reading

Jellyfish: Beauty, Ecology, Wonder and the Bible

© David Patras, Creative Commons license 3.0
© David Patras, Creative Commons license 3.0

How can faith and ecology work together? Dr Robert (Bob) Sluka, a marine biologist who works for the Christian conservation organisation A Rocha, has given a lot of thought to this question. In today’s guest post he shares his thoughts on integrating the Bible and science, prompted by a family day at the beach.

A few weeks ago our family spent the weekend at the seaside. The beach, in England, in January, is not the most inviting place. However, we were all needing to see the ocean and indeed half our family ultimately heeded its siren call to jump in. Continue reading

Star Gazing

© Ben Earwicker, www.garrisonphoto.org
© Ben Earwicker, http://www.garrisonphoto.org

What kind of star did the Magi think they were following? Coming from east of the Holy Land, they may well have been from Babylon or Persia, both of which had a rich tradition of astronomy. They would probably have had a very sophisticated understanding of the movements of the heavenly bodies. On the other hand, they (understandably) knew nothing about plasma and the nuclear fusion that powers every star in the sky.

The idea of tracking a great flaming ball of gas and energy might sound less romantic than the wise men’s tale, but it does stir the imagination. To my mind, the formation of a vast and ancient universe is a magnificent prelude to the visit of God himself in human form.

2014 has seen an unprecedented level of space exploration. Continue reading