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Friday, November 2, 2012

Reading the Creation Narratives after the Exodus

Every once in a while, I have an epiphany. Well, maybe not an epiphany, but an occasional moment of clarity. Like our meme friend, Sudden Clarity Clarence.

Aaaanyway, as I stood in the kitchen doing dishes while my wife was out at a football game with her mom, two things come to mind. First, my wife and I don't exactly fall in line with traditional gender roles, as is evidenced by the previous sentence. Second, and more importantly, I have a realization about a possibility concerning the purpose of the Genesis creation narratives. If this is unoriginal, I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest; it's nigh impossible to have an original idea about the Bible.

But before my epiphany I feel the need to lay out a few of my assumptions. First of all, I'm not a Young Earth Creationist. Christians have been wrong about science before (flat vs. round earth; geocentric vs. heliocentric solar system; etc.), and we have moved on from past mistakes. We haven't quite got around this one yet, but odds are it's only a matter of time. Second, I read Gen 1-2 with the lens of comparison to other ancient near-eastern creation myths and try to understand it in terms of Israel's understanding of itself. In the context of being monotheistic and coming out of a centuries-long enslavement in Egypt, it sort of makes sense that the author(s) of Genesis would produce a story similar to those around them, but with the twist that their God is the one true God (Deut 6.4, for starters). Third, the literary artistry of the creation narratives is beautiful, especially with the parallelism between the first and second halves of the six days in ch. 1. (1-light::4-sources of light; 2-water and air are separated::5-creatures who inhabit water and air are created; 3-land is formed:: 6-land-dwelling creatures are made.) Fourth, we're not the first people in history to wonder whether Gen 1-2 are historical and conclude that they're not. Consider Philo of Alexandria and Origen. Finally, I believe that the Bible is written with purpose, not to teach us history (in the strict sense of "this is what happened"), but to teach us about God. The basic question to ask when reading a biblical text is, "What does this say about God?" And I think this is a pretty good way to read Gen 1-2, since they're in the Bible (FYI). These are where I'm currently at with Gen 1-2. Now you know.

When I do the dishes, I like to rock out. I'm okay with silence, but silence makes a drudgerous (made-up word of the day) task drudgerouser. I find dishes more tolerable if I got my jams goin'. As the music is going, a certain song comes along: "More" by Matthew West. (If you've never heard it, go here.) Sung from God's point of view, West claims God loves people and the person to whom he sings more than anything else he created. It's a magnificent thought, and one I like to be reminded of. As this song is playing, a thought comes to mind.

What if the creation narratives have included in them the purpose of exalting man above the rest of the created order? In these stories, God does not pursue a relationship with birds, trees, the ocean, or light. He pursues mankind. Fortunately, this idea does not change whether a reader holds the traditional view that Moses wrote the Pentateuch or the Documentary Hypothesis. The fact remains that the materials were written and/or gathered after the events they record, and not during them. This being said, let's read Gen 1-2 in light of Israel's captivity in Egypt. (For the sake of convenience, I'll just say "Moses" instead of "the author/editors".) It has been said that the 10 Plagues on Egypt were God's judgment upon the various gods of that people. Blotting out the sun's light is a judgment on Ra, and so on. After several centuries of slavery, the Israelites would likely have been accustomed to hearing worship of the sun, the Nile, and any of the deities listed in that fun song from The Prince of Egypt. The point is, they're used to ordinary things being revered. In addition to the strict monotheism of Israelite theology, the exaltation of man in the creation narratives further reinforces that the image of God is not found in the stars or among insects, but in man. If the image of God is found in Adam and Eve, why would anyone worship a river or a cat?

What if the exaltation of man in the creation narratives also serves the purpose of exalting God? God is already awesome by the end of 1.1, having made the heavens and the earth. But how much more awesome is he to the person who hears this message: "God made everything, and that was pretty good. But it wasn't until he made you that he said, 'Well, that's hard to top! I'd better stop there!' And he called it a day." (Pun totally intended.) Man was the greatest of God's made things. Not the sun, for it can be darkened; not the river, for it can be transformed; not the sky, for it can bring destruction upon all you hold dear. But man, made in God's image, worships only that which is above him, and nothing else, for all else is beneath him. "I love you more," says he, "so why chase after what is inferior? Seek first me, and you shall be blessed. Seek first me, and you will have sought what is highest. Seek first me, and you shall have fulfilled your purpose as my image."

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