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 CommonsAncient 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.

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.
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.

7 thoughts on “Creation: Understanding the Drama of Genesis 2-3

  1. lysastrata12 September 7, 2015 / 10:23 pm

    Mat not have a key to every aspect of the symbolism? Sure we do. Scripture interprets itself.

    Like

    • Ruth M. Bancewicz September 8, 2015 / 5:15 pm

      Thanks for the comment. I understood ‘scripture interprets scripture’ to mean that if the Bible is internally consistent – which I believe it is – other passages should shed light on a text, and help understand it. Even so, there are some passages that need other knowledge to help understand them – archaeology, history, knowledge of the surrounding culture and so on. I don’t think that’s too controversial a claim!

      Like

  2. Billie Lyn Jensen October 26, 2015 / 7:45 pm

    According to Einstein, “The more universal a concept is the more frequently it enters into our thinking; and the more indirect its relation to sense-experience, the more difficult it is for us to comprehend its meaning; this is particularly the case with pre-scientific concepts that we have been accustomed to use since childhood.” [Einstein]

    The book of Genesis seems to enter into our thinking often enough, either as a source of inspiration or a source of irritation. If God, defined as a supreme being , created the book of Genesis, then any human interpretation of that book will be limited, because, if we could see all that God sees, it would negate the existence of some entity superior to ourselves. In other word, it is difficult to comprehend the full meaning of anything a supreme being has to say.

    Since we are limited in the number of ways we can interpret the “word of God”, how many valid interpretations of the book of Genesis must be exhibited before they lend credence to the existence of some “universal concept” found within its pages? Rather than state the number that a “non-academic” has found over the last 35 years, I’ve chosen to include a single example in order to demonstrate the compatibility of science and the book of Genesis.

    This comparison in done on the molecular level and involves the Noah family, its resemblance to a histone octamer, and the building of a molecular-Noah’s-ark during an event of cellular division called “mitosis.”

    Please note that a “cubit” is defined as the length of a forearm. In our earthly world, a cubit is approximately 18 inches long. However, in a molecular world, a cubit is the length of a nucleotide. Nucleotides are used as measurements in the field of molecular biology and are considered to be the building blocks for DNA and RNA. The size of one “nucleotide arm” is 1 nanometer (nm). It should also be noted that, a molecular-Noah’s-ark is more commonly known as a “chromosome.”

    (At this point, I sincerely hope that the spacing between the following two columns remains in tact after I complete this comment.)

    Dimensions of Dimensions of a
    Biblical-Noah’s Ark Molecular-Noah’s Ark

    There are 3 levels to the ark. There are 3 levels to the packing algorithm
    (i.e., the steps which condense the DNA).

    There are 10 cubits between In the first level, there are 10 nm (i.e., the
    the levels of the ark. diameter of a histone) between each level of
    histone packing.

    One of the dimensions of the There are 50 nm worth of DNA base pairs
    ark is 50 cubits. wrapped around each histone octamer.

    One of the dimensions of the The second level of packing involves wrapping
    ark is 30 cubits. the beads around one another, creating a
    solenoid structure with a diameter of 30 nm.

    One of the dimensions of the The third level of compaction is the folding up
    ark is 300 cubits. into loops measuring 300 nm. This level is
    often called the scaffolding matrix.

    The idea that there can be an equivalency between the Biblical event of building Noah’s “ark” and the scientific event of building a molecular “ark” is interesting in and of itself, but consider the following: There are many such “equivalencies”.

    Have you ever compared the 23 male chromosome with the 23 patriarchs? The creation of Eve from Adam with the creation of X and Y gametes from an XY male germ cell? The fruit of the garden of Eden with mitochondria?

    If you haven’t, I hope this small amount of information ignites the creativity to do so.

    Sincerely,
    Lyn

    Like

    • Ruth M. Bancewicz October 27, 2015 / 2:28 pm

      Thank you for your other comments Lyn. Your comment had to be approved before it appeared online, so that was the reason for the delay.

      Like

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