For those who want a change from the Gospel
2 before Lent – Genesis 1:1 – 2:3
Different cultures at different times have sought to answer that great eternal question: How did we all get here? In the pages of our OT we have three such stories, each coming from a different time or place, and now in 21st century Britain we have a fourth. They are all ‘myths’, a technical term not for something which isn’t true, but rather for a story we use to tell us truths. We don’t have to believe the story, but what it tells us might still be useful. Neither are we meant to ask practical, scientific questions about it. We all know the story of Pandora’s box, and we all understand the truth that once evil is unleashed in a situation it is next to impossible to box it up again. But to ask when she actually opened the box, or whether the box was made of wood or metal, or whether the lid slid off or was hinged, is to miss the point altogether. That’s why so many non-Christians have found some of the Bible a big turn-off for them: they want to ask scientific questions about creation, while what the text presents is a completely different kind of literature.
The earliest myth we see in the OT is not Jewish, but Babylonian. No doubt Israel came across this story while they were in exile in Babylon in the 6th century BC. The chief god Marduk was locked in mortal combat with Tiamat, a great sea monster, but managed to cut her in half, creating the heavens and the earth out of the two bits. Of course the Jews didn’t believe a word of it, but in the same way in which we might refer to Pandora’s box, they used this language to talk about their God. So the third account, which is our lectionary passage for this week, is based heavily on this Babylonian myth, except that it is Yahweh who fights against the chaos and evil. The word used in Gen 1:2 for ‘the deep’ is the same word as Tiamat, the name of the Babylonian sea monster, and in other places in the Bible the same creature is called Leviathan or Rahab. In each case we see her being killed, crushed or cut up by Yahweh. It’s the equivalent of saying ‘Only Jesus can put the lid back on Pandora’s box!’
But not content with that, the Genesis 1 account continues to use the Babylonian religion to demonstrate that actually Yahweh is the only God. All the things which were objects of worship, sun, moon, stars and so on, are really there because God put them there. They wouldn’t exist without him. So in fact this particular account is a piece of polemical writing, intended to attack an erroneous point of view. If any of you Israelites have in any way absorbed the worldview of the people amongst whom you are living in exile, you need to hear this: there is only Yahweh, and all the things which those people bow down to and worship are nothing at all. Anything which exists, in heaven or earth, is there because our God put it there. So don’t you ever forget that.
Just for completeness, the other two creation stories come from Genesis 2 and the 19th century. The story in Gen 2 dates from around 500 years earlier than today’s passage, when Israel thought they were the bee’s knees under David’s reign, when everything was going wonderfully well and humans were supreme in an age of prosperity and peace. Note how in Gen 2 the man is the centre of the story, while in Gen 1 God is. Adam is made first, and everything else is made for his pleasure, including, finally, his wife. In Gen 1 brings human beings onto the stage only at the very end of the process, both as the crown and climax of creation, but also almost as an afterthought. The different cultures which wrote these stories saw things very differently. The people at the time of Gen 1 were sadder and wiser, and hod a lot more humility.
And of course the myth we tell ourselves today is the story of evolution by natural selection, first propounded by Charles Darwin in 1859. This account is slightly different, in that we now have ‘science’ which tells us this is actually the true story, but personally I find this account every bit as unconvincing as the Jews found the story of sea monsters and gods. Evolution is taught as fact in our schools, while to my mind it is just another story which our age tells itself, emerging from a culture where we believe that the human race is god and that through our enlightenment and through science we can and will eventually know and therefore control everything, thus making any kind of religious God redundant. The ‘Big Bang’ theory is just that: a working hypothesis. We all know those pictures of evolving animals, but what we don’t have is any evidence not just for horses getting bigger, but for a butterfly turning into a giraffe. Evolution within species seems pretty self-evident, but between them it is a lot less convincing. So maybe Gen 1 is as relevant as ever as a piece of polemic, reminding us of our humble place in creation, and the reign of God over all the created world.