Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Unpacking Creation...! (Part I)

Soooo... my predicted and anticipated crash-and-burn came a day later than I expected. I was still apparently buoyed by adrenaline and paint fumes on Monday ... but yesterday - kaput! Didn't help that we hit 109 degrees (this is OREGON, people...!). After weeks of going-going-going, and 3 days of being "on" continuously, my true (though not extreme) introvert nature decided that it was going to recover, no matter what plans I had in mind (I was going to prime the remaining 50+ items currently choking my front parlour). "Not so" declared my body. My body deigned yesterday as "blobishness day" ... in which I sat around, utterly unmotivated to move. Even my brain was vegetative. In previous times, I would become frustrated by such a state, examine it, and fix it ... yesterday, I did something different ~ I fully noticed, observed and accepted my blobishness. "Ah," I said within the depths of my vegetative brain ... "this, is what IS." And so it was. I therefore just reveled in my blobishness. It was a totally nonproductively-productive day..!

Now, where the heck did I leave off...?

I remember wanting to delve into Creation ... seeing it through new eyes, perhaps ... or just trying on a different perspective, just to see how it fits...?

I've most recently read the perspective put forth by Marcus Borg in his book, "Reading the Bible AGAIN for the First Time". I'll do my standard quoting-and-commenting format, and see what unfolds!

- Ancient Israel's stories of the world's beginnings in the first eleven chapters of Genesis are among the best-known parts of the Bible. Major battles about the factual truth of these stories have marked Western culture to the modern period. Prior to the birth of modernity in the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, the factual truth of Genesis was accepted in the Jewish and Christian worlds without controversy, even though its stories were not always read literally. Theology and science alike took it for granted that the earth and its continents, mountains, oceans and varieties of life were created in very much the same form in which we now find them - the time of creation ranged from 6000 BCE to 4000 BCE.

(I find it fascinating to discover how people in times past thought - what they believed to be truth. It seems that we imagine that the way we believe now, is the way folks have always believed ... but it's just not the case. Our current "traditional" theology, that which accepted by the majority of Evangelical churches, is only about 200 years old...!)

- The nineteenth century was a time of intense conflict between science and the Bible. Geology and paleontology soon began to point to an immeasurably older earth. The challenge to the factual reading of the Genesis stories of creation was intensified by Darwin's argument for evolution in 1859. While some Christians adjusted quickly to the new scientific claims and integrated them into a nonliteral reading of Genesis, others felt that the truth of the Bible and Christianity were under attack.

(In previous centuries, science and Christianity clashed over the geocentric vs. heliocentric understanding ... it was a *doctrine* of the church that the earth was the center of the universe -- and the church was wrong. That should humble us in our stance upon doctrines..)

- [Borg then describes his own childhood/teen years as a time of wrenching conflict, as his awareness of science threatened his long-held literal view of Genesis, and thus how it impacted the rest of the Bible.] I now see these chapters quite differently. Reading them through the lens of historical scholarship and with sensitivity to the meanings as metaphorical narratives has enabled m once again to see them as profoundly true stories. And because their propose is not to provide a factually accurate account of the world's beginnings, it is beside the point to argue whether they are actual or mistaken factual accounts. They are not God's stories of the world's beginnings, rather, t hey are ancient Israel's stories of the world's beginnings.

(That is profound to me ... the whole Bible, including Genesis, is not a scientific/historic/literal account of *facts*, but a gradual unfolding of how humans viewed God, and thus themselves!)

Some interesting statements Borg makes about Genesis:

- The first 3 chapters of Genesis contain 2 stories of creation, written about 400 years apart. The first one, Gen 1:1-2:3 (the Priestly or "P" story), was likely written in the 500's BCE. The second one (Gen 2:4-3 - the Yahwist or "J" story) was written earlier, around 900 BCE ("J" is used for Yahwist, as it was a German who came up with these labels, and Germans pronounce J like a "Y" - your free foreign-language tidbit for the day...!).

- In the P story, God creates in a succession of "days" (though how there could be a 24 hour "day" prior to the creation of the sun, remains a mystery...! Hmmm, perhaps it wasn't meant to be literal?). A "day" is more of a span of time, than of a literal day as we know it. I found this interesting:

Day One (Light) corresponds to Day Four (sun, moon, stars)
Day Two (Water/Sky) corresponds to Day Five (sea life and birds)
Day Three (Dry Land) corresponds to Day Six (land creatures and man)

It sounds a bit like poetry, no..? ;)

- The J story is different; it focuses on the creation of humankind and barely treats the creation of the world at all. It doesn't mention light, or firmament, or sun, moon or stars, or animals -- instead it begins with humans, of "adham" - a Hebrew word meaning "humankind" and often translated "man."

(More on this later ... down below.)

(now, catch this)

- The P story portrays humankind as the climax of creation by having people created last, after everything else. The J story gives humankind priority by having people created first, before vegetation and animals. In the P story, humans as male and female are created simultaneously; in J, the creation of woman comes later.

(Well, blow me away...! HOW did that escape me?!? Read Gen 2:4-25, and see for yourself ... no plants, no animals ... man first, woman out of man, and then the animals... wow! What *else* has the traditional rendering prevented my brain from seeing...?)

- Israel told these stories to express her deepest convictions about God and the world, and about what is often called "human nature" - that is, what we are like, and what our lives "east of Eden" are like. The question is: WHY did ancient Israel tell the stories this way?

(Borg then unpacks all of this ... it's rich and meaty, and SO worth exploring. It may take me a few days to share it all, without being overwhelming, as is my tendency...! Stay with me in this ... my suspicion is that I won't be the *only* one both blown away and blessed by what can be discovered here...! Heeeeere we go!)

- The P story (which is the first one in the text, but the latest one chronologically), was written during or shortly after the exile into Babylon, in the 500's BCE. Because the Jews had been diminished in numbers during the exile, they believed it to be critical to firmly adhere to the Law (& thus to please God and prosper) - they wanted to preserve their identity as a people. They saw sabbath adherence as absolutely crucial -- the priests who oversaw them wanted to make the point that even God observes the Sabbath (by resting on the 7th day). Rather than this being intended as a literal account of how long creation took, the six-day creation story was meant to reinforce the importance of the Sabbath.

(Again, wow. What a difference a bit of historical context makes, no?)

- Ancient Israelites thought of the earth as the center of the universe. In the P story we read about the "dome" and the "firmament". We read of God "setting the sun moon and stars in the dome." While this doesn't fit with our modern scientific understanding, it very much fits the ancient experience. The sky *looks* like a dome over our heads. It appears that the sun moon and stars rotate around us. Water does come down from this dome as rain and snow. Far from providing us with an understanding of the universe that can be reconciled with modern or postmodern science, the cosmology of the P creation story simply reflects the way ancient Israel thought things were. Israel told the story this way because she thought of the universe this way. Thus it is Israel's story of creation, not God's story of creation.

(Of course. How could I not see this sooner...? What made me think that the Creation account, and the whole Bible for that matter, was lifted out of the human experience, literally-dictated by God, preserved from all possible error, and delivered to my lap and mind, pure and totally untainted by human impact...? Oh yeah - Christianity told me that. And I swallowed it. Whole. Without questioning. How much *richer* to read it in this other way!)

- [This part is really cool!] The P story of creation was likely adapted from an ancient Israelite liturgy or hymn of praise to God. It's use of repeating phrases suggests refrains such are found in hymns and liturgies. Each of the following is repeated seven times:

"God said, 'Let there be ..."
"And it was so."
"And God saw that it was good."

Moreover, the six days of creation suggests six stanzas.

We do not expect hymns to provide accurate factual information. The language of hymns is the language of poetry, metaphor and praise. Creation cannot be described, but it can be sung. Thus, the book of Genesis and the Bible as a whole begin with a hymn of praise to God as Creator. It is difficult to imagine a more appropriate beginning.

(LOVE it..! I'd never seen that before ... I'd been taught to accept it all at face-value, absolutely literally, and I missed the beauty of it!

- The origin of the P story in the time after the Babylonian conquest adds one more dimension of meaning. In antiquity, when a nation was conquered by another nation, it was commonly thought that the god (or gods) of the victorious nation had defeated the god of the vanquished nation. To many - Babylonian and Jew alike - it looked during the exile as if the gods of imperial Babylon had triumphed over the God of Israel. The opening line and the central claim of the P creation story defiantly assert that the God of Israel is the creator of heaven and earth - of all that is. The story affirms a "counter-world," an alternative world to the world of empire. This affirmation is a theme that runs through the Bible from beginning to end.

- [Back to Adam...] Adam is not a proper name in ancient Hebrew - no one else in the Bible is named Adam. It's a common noun, adham, meaning "humankind." It's also a play on words, as it comes from adhamah, meaning "ground or "dust". It suggests that the author of Genesis is thinking not of a specific human, but of *everyman* ... the implication being that the Genesis story is not the story of a particular person(s) but of *everyone*.

(Selah ~ Pause on that one for a moment...!)

- Eve is also not a proper name in Hebrew - it means "mother of all living." "Garden of Eden" also has a symbolic meaning: it means "garden of delights" (and, by extension, Paradise). Living in a semiarid climate, the ancient Hebrews pictured paradise as a green and bountiful garden filled with streams of flowing water.

(I notice that we humans tend to project perfection and utopia into our past, and into our future ... this seems to me to be a denial of the present moment. Because we see ourselves as separated from God and from one another, we experience pain in the present ... we remedy this by dwelling on that idyllic "garden", and/or upon the utopic "millennial reign" -- in doing so we entirely miss the metaphorical understanding of both, and of how we can enter in to that *more real* spiritual reality which is the Kingdom of God ... at hand, within, in our midst ... but not seen with observation - it's spiritual, beyond the five senses, beyond "proof" ... it must be experienced to be believed...)

- There are a number of suggestive parallels between the narrative flow of the J story and Israel's history:

Like adham, ancient Israel was created in a dry land (through the covenant with God in the Sinai desert).

As in the case of adham, a prohibition came with the covenant and gift of the land, with the threat of expulsion if the prohibition was violated.

More speculatively, the tempter is a serpent, a common symbol of Canaanite fertility religion, which was the primary temptation to infidelity to God tat Israel faced in the land.

The J story may thus have a prophetic edge to it: if Israel abandons the covenant of faithfulness to Yahweh she faces expulsion and exile from the land/garden that God had given to her.

(Am I the only one who finds this to be fascinating? It brings in so much food for thought to the Creation stories...! Tomorrow I'll start with a rather provocative quote from Origen - did he make any other sort?!? - and discuss how myths are really GOOD things...! Stay tuned!)

Shalom, Dena


BigMama said...

I admit, that the two "main characters" of the creation story are "man" and "mother" makes it difficult for me to see this as a literal event. Add to that the ridiculous amount of scientific support for evolution and it just falls apart for me. What is most frustrating for me personally is when it's packaged as some kind of litmus test for belief in Christ's redeeming work. Please don't make me choose between "believing the Bible" or "believing evolution" because I'm not about to abandon acceptance of the the latter.

My personal favorite theistic evolutionist is Ken Miller, author of "Finding Darwin's God." I've found him to be really exceptional confronting the lies of YEC/ID.

Dena said...

I'm with you here. It's not a case of "either/or" but of "both/and" (it always is...). It's just a matter how *HOW* to read the account. I've heard some Creationsists say that the earth is young (since the Bible *must* be read liteally/woodenly), and that God put fossils and the entire geological record there to "test our faith." OR, that the "devil" planted the "false evidence" to deceive us. So, we have the "devil" now as creator (dualism!), or God misleading us ... doesn't quite pass the BS test for me.

I see that we're given intelligence, and our senses with which to help us discover truth - we're to use them. When I start with the foundtion of the glorious-and-good nature of God, and the awareness of the tendency of man to rely upon a skewy perspective, it all falls into place for me.

Thanks for the book-recommend -- I haven't read that one, though it sounds intriguing. I do believe I'm doing my part in keeping up the economy via! ;)

(lovely to have you chime in - I've always been challenged by, and have learned SO much, from you sharing your perspective!)

Shalom, Dena

jackfate said...

I find very fascinating indeed! I discovered Borg and read this book six or eight years ago and my eyes were opened like yours. This understanding is much more inspiring than the literal, factual approach.

For me, the Exile to Babylon is central to understanding the bible… indeed, if it were not for the Exile we would not have a bible!

jackfate said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dena said...

Hi Jackfate! I'm glad you're another delightedly-disillusioned one...! Ain't it grand (despite the fallout)?

Funny - I wouldn't have been ready 6-8 years ago. I would've been decrying this as heresy, and likely maligning and shunning the ones who would promote it. So, on one hand, I understand the reactions of those who beieve they must defend the story they've been told (believing it to be "non-negotional and absolute truth"), even as I fully am aware, and grieve over, the way in which those who claim the name of Christ (Love Himself!) use fear and manipulation as motivators in a "relationship" with God.

Still, God is drawing all men to Himself, and leading us all into all truth, as we can bear it.

May we increase our "bear-ability"...!

(now I've got that Jungle Book song stuck in my head!)

Shalom, Dena

jackfate said...

The P story continues with Adam and Eve being cast from the Garden to the east. This is a reference to Israel being taken into captivity in 586 bce to Babylon, east of Jerusalem. But what does God do? Abandon them? No, God takes care of them. The message being, God will take care of you in exile just as he took care of Adam and Eve. You are God's creation and chosen and he will not leave you alone in a strange land. It is a story to and about the southern kingdom of Judah.

The northern kingdom was conquered by Assyria 150 years or so earlier and disappeared into the gene pool. Brilliant people with foresight aplenty, priests, did not want that to happen to Judah. It was at this time, during the exile, like you mention in your review, that the Sabbath was emphasized along with dietary laws, holy days and seasons… laws and regulations to keep them separate from the culture of Babylon. Their worst fear was that the exiles would assimilate into the empire of Babylon. Some did. But many returned when Persia conquered Babylon and Cyrus allowed captives to return to their homelands. It was at this time that Cyrus is referred to as “God’s anointed” (Messiah) in the book of Isaiah.

It is easy to understand why many did not want to return to Jerusalem. It was a several hundred mile trek across desolate and dangerous territory. They had been living in Babylon for two or three generations and had a descent life there. They were comfortable with the benefits of empire. They had assimilated.

There is a lesson here for us “empire dwellers.” Have we assimilated? Have we allowed ourselves to be comfortable with the domination of empire? Have we given ourselves over to the ways of empire, its theology, its hubris?