For those who want a change from the Gospel
2nd before Lent – Genesis 2:4b-9,15-25
We are familiar with the idea of ‘Creation Myths’ – stories which different cultures tell to explain how we all got here. What is less well known is that the Bible contains three different ones, two from Israel and one from Babylon. The last one is never endorsed, but it is often alluded to, in those passages which have God cutting some kind of a sea monster in half or crushing its head. This is like us telling the story of Pandora’s Box: we don’t believe for one minute in its literal truth, but we can see really clearly the point the story makes, that once evil is let out it’s impossible to shut it back in again. But the passage set for us today provides the oldest Israelite creation story. If you’ve been listening to my podcasts on the Wilderness Journey, you’ll be familiar with the idea of there being different sources behind our Bible, written at different times. The more familiar creation story, in Genesis 1, is thought to come from the Priestly source, and to date from after the exile, maybe the 5th century BC. But Gen 2 is older, probably from around 1000 BC, and the differences between the two stories shed light onto the cultures which told them.
The reign of David, around 1000 BC, marked the golden age for Israel. Things were going really well for the nation, with a (largely) godly king, great prosperity, peace from enemies, and a great expansion of the empire. ‘We’ve made it!’ seemed to be the watchword of a nation who had only 300 years ago been slaves in Egypt. So the story begins with man, and the rest of creation is there to serve him. Plants for beauty and food, animals for companionship, even the woman, are created for the benefit of the man. The Genesis 1 account comes from a later time when the nation have again been exiled into slavery, but have now returned to their own land sadder but wiser. Humans are now not the starting point, but the last word, taking their place among the rest of the created order with much more humility than they have in Genesis 2.
The original story in Genesis 2, though, tells us some important truths about ourselves. In his care for the human race God provides all that we need, including some things which are less obvious to us. The chapter reads a bit like the famous ‘hierarchy of needs’, psychologist Abraham Maslow’s attempt to chart what we need to flourish and in what order. So in v.5-9 God provides the basic essentials of food and water, without which life is simply impossible. It is interesting, though, that he also provides beauty, something which he also deems essential for a good life. We seldom recognise that one, particularly if we live in an inner-city concrete tenement somewhere. Then, in v.15, God provides work and purpose. Even as a recently retired person, I still need purpose in my life, which is partly why I keep churning out blogs and podcasts every week! Talk to unemployed people, and they will tell you how empty and unfulfilled their lives are, particularly if they don’t find purpose elsewhere, for example through volunteering. Note as well that work is meant to be a delight, with good things growing from it, and not the production-line drudgery which is the lot of so many.
Then comes another need which we have but seldom recognise: limits. V.16-17 set some limits beyond which it is forbidden to go. Freedom is never freedom if it is without limits, and it is vital for human flourishing that there are some places we do not go to. It is a tragic paradox that while humans were meant to control and care for nature, so many have become controlled by it, addicted to plants like tobacco, grapes and hops, poppies and cannabis. Rather than ruling over the plant kingdom, so many are ruled by it. Genesis 3 is going to tell the sad story of the choice to step beyond those limits, a choice which affects all of us every day.
Then God provides harmony and companionship. The idea is for the humans to live in good relationship with the rest of creation. I’ve never been a pet person, but I do know how important animals are to many people, and what well-being they can bring. But God’s final gift is perhaps the greatest, as he provides companionship which goes way beyond your pet moggy: he provides love. The man recognises that with another human being, complementary to him, there is a relationship which no animal is capable of providing, a union of mind, spirit and body.
As I have written this blog I have become aware of people I know who for a variety of reasons are not currently in receipt of these precious gifts. Some are hungry; some lead ugly lives; many are purposeless; many more are lonely or at enmity with others. Maybe this passage reminds us to give thanks more fulsomely for what we have received from God, and to pray and work for those who have received so much less.