Saturday, August 27, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 1

Finally, Genesis 1, the book where it all began... *so excited*

IN THE BEGINNING, the Hebrew beresheth, the Greek genesis, from which this book derives its title. The very existence of a "beginning" has caused much philosophical and theological strife over the years. The fact that there is a beginning to creation (the word "creation" itself implies a creative act, before which this "creation" did not exist), and yet God himself is before creation. As others have pointed out, the sentence simply assumes the pre-existence of God. No explanation is given for so many things. "Where God came from", "why God is creating anything", "how does God create the universe". All of these points are left seemingly unanswered, and wise men ponder the answers thereof.

Minor nit point before I move on. The common translations all say, "the heavens and the earth", where "heavens" is pluralized. This implies that there are multiple heavens, but only a single earth. This is, at least implicitly, a sort of rejection of extraterrestrial (ET) life, because God only created a single earth in this story.  Of course, as one studies the book of Genesis you learn that the book contains numerous omissions (such as the questions I listed above), so such an omission does not in truth mean that ET does not exist. However, what it does mean is that the existence or non-existence of ET is most likely not important to human meaning, because otherwise it would probably be addressed. Onwards.

GOD CREATED. What a bold act. I love this part because textually it is extremely compact and action-oriented. This really gives me a sense of the boldness and strength of God, that with no statements of hesitation, fear or reluctance, he positively creates the world out of nothing.

The earth is without form, yet God was moving. God was moving in preparation for the coming of the word.  And God spoke, and creation almost explodes into existence. Again we see the forcefulness of God's actions in that his mere words suffice to bring about creation and order. For every act of God that is listed in Gen 1 is an act of bringing about separation, which means order. Organizing reality by separating disparate elements from each other. Light from darkness, water from air, ground from water, and then from that foundation he fills each realm with life and guardians: the sky with lights, the water with fish, the ground with plants, and the air with birds. Each realm is filled with a suitable form of creation that can be sustained by it and shape it in turn.

In all of these matters, God has absolute power to align creation through what amount to royal edicts, simple verbal (after a fashion) declarations that have immediate forcefulness. Furthermore, when you investigate the Hebrew, you see that this chapter uses the "majestic plural" for God. Instead of the singular El, it uses the plural Elohim. This is characteristic of royalty, and it further amplifies the sense of power and authority that comes from God in this passage.

There is a pattern here in Genesis 1 where God creates a series of realms and then populates them.  These realms are: the heavens (verse 1), the sky (verse 6-8), the waters (verse 10) and the dry lands (verse 10).  These realms are then populated in turn with vegetation on earth (verse 11), the lights (or stars, moon and sun) populating the heavens (verse 14), fish populating the waters (verse 20), and then the earth is populated again with a list of things: creeping things (i.e. insects), the cattle and their kind (mammals), the beasts of the earth (miscellaneous?) (all of these verse 25), and then mankind in verse 26, who dwell in land but are declared rulers over all of the populations of the world in the three realms of earth, sky and water.  A notable omission here is dominion over the heavens, which is the only part of creation that man does not rule (with respect to this particular declaration).  This is not to say that man would not in some future time be given rulership over the heavens, but he does not have it here and this is for God to decide.  The separation of the natural world into these three realms (plus the heavens) is a recurring motif in the bible, alongside the juxtaposition of heaven and earth (which we see in part in verse 1 of this chapter).  This juxtaposition is a figurative parallel of the juxtaposition between God and man, who are represented by heaven and earth accordingly, since God is the ruler of heaven and man (as here) is declared the rightful ruler of the earth.  (In this case the word "heaven" has two valid meanings depending on the context: it either refers to the heaven of God, the spiritual realm of God's kingdom, or the heaven of the earth, the sky.  These two meanings are used in turn to suit the purposes of the author.  This ambiguity exists in verse 1, possibly intentionally.)  Of course, as we discover the rulership of man is subordinate to God's rulership over all creation, and we will also discover that the rulership is conditional on man's obeisance to his divine sovereign (to continue the metaphor).  These motifs are most commonly found in the poetic literature such as Psalms, but will also appear elsewhere, as we will see.

What we also see in this chapter is a telescoping specificity as we progress through the realms of creation.  By this I mean that the creations described get more and more specific as the passage continues.  To wit, in verse 1 we see the creation of "the heavens and the earth", which is the whole sum of all physical creation (and arguably even spiritual creation).  By verse 9 we are dealing with the waters gathering on the earth, which is a tiny fraction of the whole creation, but it is the tiny fraction that is most relevant to the lives of man.  The lives of man is the next layer of specificity, as God focuses in beyond the general creation of animals and birds to detail the creation of a particular species, and more than that, of a certain individual of that species, made in the likeness of God.  By chapter 2, the story has already progressed beyond the "general creation" of life, the universe and everything, and into the details of the lives of these first few people.

As a side note, this renders a scientific analysis of Genesis 1 rather difficult because science (as a general matter) is more interested in generalities than specificities, so as the scope of Genesis tightens, its applicability diminishes.  The tight scoping and lengthy dialog around the creation of man in particular leaves a scientific analysis groping for the Big Bang theory from the first 5, cryptic verses, which is a tall order even under ideal circumstances.  But it also shows why a scientific analysis often fails to find anything interesting is that the text is clearly most interested in presenting the creation and coronation of man, and it is written in a pre-modernist mindset.  In short, the author is not trying to present a scientific theory, he is presenting a history of life and how we got from "there" to "here" but primarily using a story-based and moralistic framework and not a modernist "objective" framework of naturalism.  The story of Genesis 1 through 3 is a story about moral or spiritual laws, not natural laws.  To try to draw naturalistic theories out of it is like trying to draw water out of a stone: stones do not have water, nor were they made to bear water.  You should try to read Genesis for what it was written for, and if you're looking for naturalism, your best bet is to look elsewhere.

Continuing with an analysis of the realms of creation, we also see that the creation story is inherently geocentric and ultimately anthropocentric.  This is an obvious correlation to what I've said just above, because Genesis 1 is not the story of the creation of the universe (even though it includes that): the creation of the universe is its beginning, but the creation of man is its end.

The culmination of chapter 1 is found in verse 26-27, where it says:

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him;male and female He created them.

So, a few points here. First, God creates man both male and female. This obviously precludes any possible sense of the superiority of one gender over the other. It implies both the differences (that they would be listed separately) but also the similarities (that we are both "man") which have bound us as people together for the entirety of human existence.

Second, nearly the first thing that God says about man is that man is delegated royal authority over every realm of existence on the earth: the sea, the sky, and the dry land. Notably missing is the heavens, but this is a minor point compared to the overarching importance of human dominion. This passage is the fundamental origination of all human authority, so it deserves more attention than I can afford to give it.

You can dig through the archives of this blog to see some older (and more general) material I have written about power and authority, but what I will say now is that humans were given authority over the earth. We can use this power to either bless the earth and bring life, or destroy it and bring death. It can almost go without saying that right now there are groups of people who are doing both at different times. But I believe that it is our collective responsibility to choose life for the earth and to act to bring that about through various means, both physical and perhaps even more importantly, spiritual means. In my opinion, the spiritual authority that we hold is even more important than the physical authority. I don't have time to teach all about spiritual authority, but just know that it is as easy and simple to activate our spiritual authority as it is for God when God speaks and brings about creation. We have the latent power to do the exact same thing through regal declarations, though this power is not always active nor always understood. Moving on.

Third, Man is created in the likeness of God. There are few ways I can overstate the significance of this, and even the Bible repeats it a few times for emphasis, in how it affects our identity as people, our relationships with God and with creation, or the broader questions of the meaning of life and existence. It is absolutely fundamental in its implications.

I will list a few implications, and leave the many others for a reader's exercise. First, it makes God fundamentally relatable. Because we are created in his image, we have an underlying capacity to understand God and for him to understand us. This is because of the intrinsic similarity, which allows for us to experience empathy for one another.

Second, and related to the statements about authority, the similarity to God means that we have been imprinted with God's characteristics, such as love, power, authority, righteousness, immortality, etc. Just think of every characteristic of God and know that that is either a latent or active characteristic of ourselves, though often in a diminished capacity. Think of it like a smaller bowl in the shape of a larger bowl. We can't hold as much water as the larger bowl, but we have the "characteristic of holding water", which not every shape does. There are many shapes that do not have this property at all, but we do. We just can't do it as much as the larger bowl. It's the same way with things like, for instance, omnipotence. No, we are not currently all-powerful, but we have the characteristic of power and authority, and through experience and maturity it's something we can grow in.

Third, it has the implication that we are children of God. Just as children are made in the image of their parents, so are we made in the image of God. So not only does it imply the capacity to relate to God, but that similarity itself implies a relationship with God. So we have the capacity to relate to God and in the same sentence we have a relationship to fulfill the latent capability. This is why I call it the basis of human existence: we are children of God who can relate to him as such. Moving on.

God blessed them, God gave them direction for their lives, God gave them relationships to himself and to each other (more details on that in chapter 2) and God gave them food. It all sounds like a pretty good deal; and it is. The graciousness and kindness of God cannot be overestimated. With that, I will move on to chapter 2. :)

P.S. Some people make a really big deal out of the supposed "6 days of creation" and use this in combination with the genealogies that follow to date the universe to around 6000 years old. Without remarking as to the accuracy of this theory, that entire discussion seems to really put a tremendous amount of emphasis on what is a fairly insubstantial element of this otherwise profound passage. In other words, I just think there's a lot more important stuff going on than some silly attempt to date the universe from what is pretty obviously not intended to be a scientific text.


Anna Tan said...

Ha. About the 6-Day creation thing - I really don't understand why people are so uptight about this literal-creation thing.
If you believe God is almighty and powerful, does it make a difference if he created the earth in actual 6 24-hour days or in figurative 6 days (which could be 6,000 days, if you reference psalms/2 peter comparisons)?

Anyway, I tend to read Genesis 1 as a myth-type oral retelling rather than a literal account.

Daniel S. said...

Hi Anna, thanks for the comment!

Right. Of course, much of the argument about 6 days of creation isn't really about 6 days of creation. It's actually about people trying to affirm (in their view) the authority of the bible. "If there aren't 6 days of creation, then the whole bible is a lie" kind of stuff, which ties the authenticity of the bible to this one particular interpretation of this one particular passage. I think that is a big reason why people get uptight about it.

My opinion is that Genesis is pretty clearly not a modern scientific-historical text, and I think it's a serious mistake to interpret it as such. Part of me agrees with you, that I think it's unlikely to be a literal account, but an even larger part of me thinks that it is irrelevant to the interpretation of the text. I think we can learn everything we need to know about God, humanity and creation by simply reading it and understanding what God is trying to say, rather than trying to piece it together into a cosmological theory, which it is not supposed to be.

So, my interpretive philosophy is to try to understand the author's intent with a passage rather than trying to cram the text into my own idea of what "a book" is supposed to be.