Nov
2013

On Being Earthlings, Part 4

Tuesday, November 19th was the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, perhaps the most important speech in American history.

Lincoln delivered his address as part of a ceremony to dedicate the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania as a national cemetery, although as he famously said,

in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

Those men, from the north and from the south, who fought and died at Gettysburg did not do so as part of anyone’s grand strategic design.  No one had intended to fight a battle at Gettysburg.  The armies of George Meade and Robert E. Lee chanced to meet there, however, on July 1, 1863, and so the battle was joined.

After two days of bitter fighting, the Federal troops were in control of the high ground.  Lee sent George Pickett, with some 15,000 men, in a desperate charge against Winfield Scott Hancock’s troops, entrenched on Cemetery Ridge–though James Longstreet and others on his staff warned that the charge could not succeed.

As Lee had been warned that it would, the attack failed utterly: Pickett’s charge was repulsed, with terrible casualties–two-thirds of his division were killed.

When Lee ordered Pickett to rally his division as a rear guard against the Union troops “should they follow up their advantage,”  Pickett tearfully responded, “General Lee, I have no division now”  (Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol 2, Fredricksburg to Meridian [New York: Random House, 1986], 568).  The battle was over, the Union had gained a much-needed victory, and though the war would drag on for another two years, the Confederate cause was lost.

So, what does any of this have to do with Genesis 3?  The connection lies in General Robert E. Lee’s response to this catastrophe.

Lee said immediately to Pickett, “This has been my fight, and upon my shoulders rests the blame. . . . Your men have done all that men can do.  The fault is entirely my own.”  As Lee rode about the battlefield, ordering his troops for retreat, he said it again and again: “It’s all my fault.”  “The blame is mine.”  “All this has been my fault.  It is I who have lost this fight, and you must help me out of it the best way you can.” (Foote, Civil War 2, 568)

Lee’s words are so striking precisely because they are so rare.  Sadly, we are far more accustomed to hearing folk refuse to shoulder blame or to take responsibility for their actions, whether on the national news, in our communities, or in our own homes.

The second Genesis creation story, as we have seen, is an etiological narrative, aiming to explain the world we see around us by reference to its beginnings.  So it is little wonder that in Genesis 3:12-13, when God asks if the woman and the man have eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge, instead of owning up to the fact, they try to pass the blame one to someone else.

The man declares, “The woman you gave me, she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate” (Gen 3:12).  So, he not only blames Eve, but God, who had brought her to him!  Some later traditions accept this argument, and place the blame for sin–the human condition of estrangement from God, the world, and one another–upon the woman.

The woman in turn blames the snake: “The snake tricked me, and I ate” (Gen 3:13).

God, however, buys none of this.  No one in this story succeeds in passing the buck!  As the narrative unfolds in Genesis 3:14-19God holds each character accountable, and each character suffers the consequences of choices made.  

First come the consequences for the snake. Described when we first encounter it as “the most intelligent of all the wild animals that the LORD God had made” (Gen 3:1), the snake is now

cursed
        out of all the farm animals,
        out of all the wild animals  (Gen 3:14)

The curse on the snake comes in two parts.  First, it loses its limbs, and its ability to speak:

On your belly you will crawl,
        and dust you will eat
        every day of your life (Gen 3:14).

Once again, etiological features of this story come to the fore.  Why don’t snakes have legs?  Why do they crawl on their bellies?  Why do they keep sticking out their tongues and licking the ground? The short answer, in this ancient story, is that snakes are cursed.  Because of their involvement in humanity’s disobedience, they must crawl on the ground and continually lick the dust–which is also why snakes no longer talk.

The second aspect of the curse turns to another etiological feature: why do snakes bite?  Why are they poisonous? Why do we hate and fear them? The LORD God declares,

I will put contempt

    between you and the woman,
    between your offspring and hers.
They will strike your head,
        but you will strike at their heels (Gen 3:15).

In Genesis 3, notice, the snake is just a snake.  True, it doesn’t start out like the snakes that we know, but the narrative explains how that change happened.  From the first, the snake is introduced as one of the animals God has made–the most clever among them, yes, but still an animal.  The curse reiterates this: among all the animals that the LORD has made, both wild and domestic, the snake is now the lowest–the most cursed.

Later tradition identifies the snake in the garden with Satan.  But the text itself explicitly does not do that.  Further, some Christian interpretations regard Genesis 3:15 as a prediction of the coming of Christ: the Devil will strike at his heel, wounding him on the cross, but Christ with his resurrection and at his return will crush the enemy’s head.  But this too is nowhere in the text before us.  As Reformer John Calvin observed in his commentary on this passage,

other interpreters take the seed for Christ, without controversy; as if it were said, that some one would arise from the seed of the woman who should wound the serpent’s head. Gladly would I give my suffrage in support of their opinion, but that I regard the word seed as too violently distorted by them; for who will concede that a collective noun is to be understood of one man only? Further, as the perpetuity of the contest is noted, so victory is promised to the human race through a continual succession of ages. I explain, therefore, the seed to mean the posterity of the woman generally. 

Genesis 3 is not science.  Herpetologists are happy to explain to us that snakes sense the presence of prey or enemies in large part by “tasting” the air and the ground–that is why they stick out their tongues.  They will also assure us of the importance of snakes as predators in the ecosystem, and tell us that while we should be respectful of any wild animal, most snakes are neither venomous nor aggressive.

Genesis 3 isn’t history, either.  This is not the account of how sin entered the world, to be passed down ever since through the human bloodline like blue eyes or a predisposition to schizophrenia.  This is a narrative describing what human beings are like, and setting forth the consequences of our choices for ourselves and for our world.  In the story world of Genesis, the woman and the man alike attempt to pass the buck, refusing to accept blame or responsibility.  But the buck proves to be unpassable!  God holds every character in the narrative accountable.

For the woman, the consequence of her accountability is suffering:

I will make your pregnancy very painful;
            in pain you will bear children.
You will desire your husband,
        but he will rule over you (Gen 3:16).

This is the first mention anywhere in these creation accounts of the subordination of women to men.  Notice, though, that it is presented not  as God’s intention, but as a consequence of human rebellion.

Just as the woman suffers in bringing forth life from her womb, so in this story the man suffers in wresting life out of the ground:

cursed is the fertile land because of you;
        in pain you will eat from it
        every day of your life.
Weeds and thistles will grow for you,
        even as you eat the field’s plants;
    by the sweat of your face you will eat bread—
        until you return to the fertile land,
            since from it you were taken;
            you are soil,
                to the soil you will return (Gen 3:17-19).

Again, these are etiological features of the story: why is childbirth so difficult and dangerous?  Why are there thorns and thistles and weeds?  Why is life so hard?

But finally, the biggest question is also the hardest one: why do we die?  As we saw last week, in the garden the woman and man have access to the Tree of Life: they need never die.  But now,

the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to farm the fertile land from which he was taken.  He drove out the human. To the east of the garden of Eden, he stationed winged creatures wielding flaming swords to guard the way to the tree of life (Gen 3:23).

Without access to the life-giving fruit of the tree, women and men will now die–just as God had said they would, should they eat from the forbidden tree of knowledge.  Next time, we will think about what the significance of that action might be.  But for now, we will focus on the consequences of this act.

Leaving the garden of Eden behind, the woman and the man now enter a world like the world that we know, where life can be brutal and hard, where pain and suffering are sad realities, and where all of us must, sooner or later, die.

But unlike the snake, the woman and the man are not cursed!  The ground is cursed, but they are not.  Indeed, God cares for them, covering their nakedness with garments God makes from the skins of animals (Gen 3:21).  In the end, this story is about God’s desire to be in relationship with us even when we spurn that relationship. We are not cursed, spurned, or rejected by God, even though the consequences of our actions wound our world and one another.

The season of Advent is nearly upon us, when we celebrate the promise of Christ’s coming.  In Jesus, God takes on our very being, and offers us God’s own; in Christ, we share in the Divine life!

No less than Adam, or Eve, or even the snake, we must take responsibility for our own actions: the buck stops here.  But Jesus has come to take that burden, and to give us a new heart, a new life: indeed, to take us into a new creation, in which all things are become new (2 Cor 5:17).

 

AFTERWORD

The Bible Guy wishes all and sundry a very Happy Thanksgiving!  I am off to the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and then to spend the holiday with family; this blog will resume in December.

 

Sep
2013

Which Creation?

Close readers of Scripture recognized early on that God creates woman twice in the opening chapters of Genesis.  The first creation of woman is described in Genesis 1:27 (CEB):

God created humanity [Hebrew ‘adam] in God’s own image,
        in the divine image God created them,
            male and female God created them.

The second account of the creation of woman is the familiar story of Eve in Genesis 2:21-23, where God causes a deep sleep to come upon Adam, performs major surgery, crafts the woman from the man’s flesh, and brings her to him.

Traditional Jewish interpreters made sense of this tension by proposing that God created not one but two wives for Adam.  According to Jewish legend, the first wife, whose creation is described in Genesis 1, was called Lilith.

The legend says that Lilith was beautiful, but willful and vain, refusing to submit to the authority either of God or of Adam.  So, she was booted out of the garden.

God then created Eve: a second, presumably more pliant wife, made from Adam’s own stuff – hence, the story of the creation of woman in Genesis 2.  As for Lilith, she became a creature of the night: a seductress who tempts holy men in their dreams and gives birth to demons and monsters.

Though the story of Lilith is of course a legend, it points us to the tension within these chapters: clearly, something odd is going on in the opening pages of Genesis!

Genesis 1 begins, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth— the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters” (Gen 1:1-2).  The phrase “the heavens and the earth” is repeated in Genesis 2:4a, in what sounds like a summary statement:  “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created.”   Immediately after this apparent summary, we read, “On the day the LORD God made earth and sky . . .” (Gen 2:4b)—the same expression, but flipped on its head.  Another account of beginnings appears to follow (Gen 2:4b-25).

Is it possible, then, that in the first two chapters of Genesis we have two distinct accounts of creation, one in Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a and a second in Genesis 2:4b—25?  For millennia, we have read the text as though Genesis presented us with a single account of beginnings: one creation story.  But could it be that we have not one creation story, but two?

We can assess this idea, and explore how these texts relate to one another, by posing to these two passages a series of questions.

First, How is the Divine addressed in each passage?  In the English translation of Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a, the creator is called simply “God.”

The Hebrew word is ‘elohim, which literally means “gods.”  In Hebrew, however, the plural can be a way of indicating majesty.  So, while ‘elohim does mean “gods” sometimes, it is commonly used as shorthand for “God of gods” or “God above all gods.”  In Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a, this is consistently the way the divine creator is addressed.

But in Genesis 2:4b—25, we find not only “God” (again, ‘elohim), but also the expression “LORD,” in all capitals.  That is the way that most English translations represent the personal Name of God, YHWH.

Like the repetition of “the heavens and the earth” bracketing 1:1—2:4a, the two different names used for the Divine in our passages are suggestive.  But we can push further to ask about the “stuff” of creation: What does the Creator make things out of?

This may seem an odd question.  Haven’t we been taught that God creates out of nothing?  Later Jewish and Christian theologians and philosophers talk about creation in this way because of their high view of God. If God is indeed God, then God is not an object in the world of time and space: certainly, then, God must have called all that is into being. Therefore, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians alike talk about Creatio ex nihilo: that is, God creating the world “out of nothing.”   

However, that is not what Genesis 1—2 is about. The question posed by these chapters is not, “Where did the world come from?” Ancient people really did not care how the world began.

What they wanted, and needed, to know was something more immediate and pressing: is there a meaningful order to reality?  Can I plant my crops and know that the rain will fall, the sun will rise, the seed will sprout and germinate, and the harvest will come?

Ancient people knew all about solstices and equinoxes.  Though they did not understand how this happened, they were fully aware that every year, when the autumnal equinox rolls around, the day and the night are of equal length (hence, “equinox:” that is, “equal night”).  But every night after that the nights get longer and longer, and every day after that the days get shorter and shorter, until finally we come to the winter solstice: the longest night and shortest day of the year.

Every human culture in the world recognizes the equinoxes and the solstices, and for a very important reason. After all, how can we know that this time around, the nights won’t just keep getting longer and longer and longer until everything is swallowed up in night? How can we know that this time around the air won’t just continue to get colder and colder and colder until everything is swallowed up in an endless winter of darkness and death?

Can we be certain that the wheel will turn and that the cycle will continue?  In short: does the world make sense?

The opening verses of Genesis record, ““When God began to create the heavens and the earth— the earth was without shape or form” (Hebrew tohu wabohu; Gen 1:1-2).  This “formless void” (the NRSV rendering of the verse) is further described as “the deep sea” (Hebrew tehom) and “the waters” (Hebrew hammayim; Gen 1:2).  In Genesis 1:1-2, then, the state of things when God began creating was chaos, without order or pattern, represented as tossing, shifting, formless water.

Picture yourself floating in the ocean.  There is no land in sight.  It is night: the sky is overcast, so that there is no moon and no starlight.  All you can see, all you can imagine, is the endless rise and fall of the water, the tossing of the waves, and the wind blowing over the deep. That is the way Israel’s ancient priests imagined the beginning of things.

It all begins with shapeless, formless water.  But God imposes order on that chaos. The implicit question in Genesis 1, then, is not, how did the world begin, but rather, does the world make sense?  God establishes order and meaning in place of disorder and meaninglessness.

When we turn to Genesis 2, we find a different image.  Here the heavens and the earth are presupposed; God has already created them, offstage.  This account begins, “On the day the LORD God made earth and sky—before any wild plants appeared on the earth, and before any field crops grew, because the LORD God hadn’t yet sent rain on the earth and there was still no human being to farm the fertile land. . .” (Gen 2:4b-5).  Here, the earth is like a dry field, with nothing growing and no rain. 

But God permits water to bubble up from beneath the earth, and moisten the surface of the ground (Gen 2:6).  What happens next is the chemical reaction that every two year old learns: water plus dirt equals mud. 

Out of the mud, the LORD begins to create: “the LORD God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life.” (Gen 2:7).  The LORD God forms the human (Hebrew ‘adam) out of “the fertile land” (Hebrew ‘adamah).  Similarly, the LORD forms “all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky” out of the ground (Gen 2:19).  The Hebrew term ‘adamah, means “soil” or “arable land:” ground you can till and plant (“fertile land,” as the CEB renders it).  The very close similarity in sound between Adam, the human, and ‘adamah, the soil, is no accident: Hebrew loves puns!  Adam is the mud man, formed from the ground.  So while Genesis 1:1-2:4a begins with water, in Genesis 2:4b-25 the LORD forms the human and the animals from the ground.

This leads us directly into a third question to pose to these two passages: How does the Divine create?  In Genesis 1:3, we read, “God said, ‘Let there be light.’”

Again in verse 6, we read, “God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters to separate the waters from each other.’”  This pattern continues throughout the chapter (compare Gen 1:9, 11, 14, 20, 24). In this passage, clearly, God speaks the world into being.

But when we turn to Genesis 2:4b-25, we find a different way of thinking about the means by which the Lord creates.  In Genesis 2:7, the Lord God formed the human from the ground. 

Likewise in 2:19, “the LORD God formed from the fertile land all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky”  The verb translated “formed” in the CEB is the Hebrew word yatsar: the term used for what a potter does (see Jeremiah 18:11). 

In Genesis 2, the LORD is like a potter, forming the human, the animals, and the birds from the ground: getting the Divine hands dirty, and fashioning intimately and directly what the LORD creates.

The fourth and final question we will pose to these two passages is, What is the order of creation?  The first thing that God makes in Genesis 1 is light (Gen 1:3-5). God calls light into being by pronouncing its name: God says, “Let there be light”—in Hebrew, yehi ‘or; that is, “Light, be!”—and light is.

Genesis 1:1—2:4a imagines creation as taking place over the span of a single week.  Light is created on Day One, and everything else that comes into being is made over the course of six days.  The last creative act of God, performed at the end of the sixth day, is the creation of human beings (Gen 1:26-31).  In Genesis 1:1—2:4a, humanity is the climax of creation.

However, if Day Six marks the climax of creation, Day Seven is its culmination: the Sabbath, the day of rest, of worship, and of study. In Genesis 2:1-4a, even God rests on the Sabbath day!   According to Genesis 1:1—2:4a, then, creation itself has a sabbatical logic.  Sabbath is part of the structure of reality, woven into the warp and woof of the cosmos.

Now consider the sequence of creation imagined in Genesis 2:4b-25. Here, the first expressly described creative act of the LORD is the forming of the human.  We are expressly told that this took place, “On the day the LORD God made earth and sky,” and “before any wild plants appeared on the earth, and before any field crops grew” (Gen 2:4b-5).  In Genesis 2:5, then, we are expressly told that there were no plants when the human was created.

In Genesis 1, plants are created at the end of Day Three, while humans are created at the end of Day Six.  But in Genesis 2, plants are created later, as the story unfolds, for the human: the LORD God plants a garden in Eden in order to provide food, a place of dwelling, and meaningful work (Gen 2:8-15).

Although the human seems to have in the garden everything required for life, something more after all is necessary: “Then the LORD God said, “It’s not good that the human is alone. I will make him a helper that is perfect for him [Hebrew ‘ezer kenegedo]” (Gen 2:18). The LORD at first sets out to make an ‘ezer kenegedo for the human,  “a helper that is perfect for him,”  by going back to the drawing board–or more accurately, to the mud pile!  “So the LORD God formed from the fertile land all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky and brought them to the human to see what he would name them. The human gave each living being its name” (Gen 2:19).  By giving the animals their names, the human completed their creation.

In Genesis 1, birds and fish are created on Day Five (Gen 1:20-23).  The land animals, both the wild and domestic animals and the “crawling things” (the Hebrew remes refers to those things that either have too many legs or not enough: what we used to call “creepy crawlies” when I was a boy), are made on the morning of Day Six (Gen 1:24-25).  Humans are made at the end of the sixth day, as the climax of creation.  But in Genesis 2, the human is created before the animals.  Indeed the animals, like the plants, are created for the human, in the quest to find an ‘ezer kenegedo.

But none of the animals can fill the role of ‘ezer kenegedo: “a helper that is perfect for him.”  The human is still alone.  Recognizing that more extreme action is called for,

the LORD God put the human into a deep and heavy sleep, and took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh over it. With the rib taken from the human, the LORD God fashioned a woman and brought her to the human being (Gen 2:21-22).

When he sees her, the delighted man says,

This one finally is bone from my bones
        and flesh from my flesh.
She will be called a woman [Hebrew ‘ishah]
        because from a man [Hebrew ‘ish] she was taken (Gen 2:23).

The creation of humanity brackets Genesis 2: God’s first creative act is to fashion the human (Hebrew ‘adam) from the ground, and God’s last creative act is to fashion the woman (Hebrew ‘ishah) from the man (Hebrew ‘ish).

When we listen closely and carefully to Genesis 1 and 2, it becomes evident that we really are looking not at one story of creation, but at two. One account, in Genesis 1:1-2:4a, imagines creation over the span of a single week.  God speaks the world into being, and humanity is the climax of creation, the last thing made.  In the second, in Genesis 2:4b-25, the LORD fashions the human, and fashions the animals and birds, forming them like a potter, from the soil.  The human is the first thing that the LORD makes; everything else is made for the human. The creation of humanity, male and female, brackets the story: the man as the first creative act of the LORD God, the woman as the last.

If we try to collapse these two passages into a single account, the text resists us.  One common attempt to harmonize the passages is to suggest that Genesis 2:4b-25 is a detailed expansion of the thumbnail description of Day Six from Genesis 1.  But even setting aside the different ways of referring to the creator and the different ways of describing God’s creative activity in these chapters, the sequence does not work: Genesis 2 explicitly says that there were no plants when the human was made, and that the animals were made after the human.  Collapsing the stories doesn’t solve our problems; it only creates different problems.

If we come to Genesis 1–2 seeking answers to our questions about how the world began, we will go away frustrated. Since there are two different, distinct, and separate accounts of creation in these chapters, they cannot both be factual depictions of how the world began.  If I say, “I believe the Genesis creation account,” the next question must be, “Which creation: the first account, or the second?”  But of course, we don’t have the leisure of choosing one or the other: there they both are, right at the front of our Bibles, presented to us in our canonical text of Genesis.  The biblical text itself will not let us read Genesis 1–2 as a factual account of the beginning of the world.

Once we understand that Genesis 1:1—2:4a and 2:4b-25 are two different stories, however, we can consider how they relate to one another positively and creatively: not through some kind of artificial harmonization, but by seeing how these two accounts echo and resonate with one another.

William Carl, president of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, is a gifted preacher and a trained musician who understands the value of dissonance, in music and in Scripture.  When music is all consonance, Carl observes, it is boring, even irritating (think of the sugary bubble-gum pop songs that, in spite of yourself, stick in your head and drive you up the wall)!  Good composers know that to create texture, you need discord to enrich and accentuate the harmonies. It is surely no accident that right at the very beginning of Scripture we find not only consonance, but also dissonance: two different ways of thinking about who God is; two different ways of thinking about our world and about who we are.