Inigo Montoya sums this lesson almost perfectly.
Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.
Actually, I don’t feel we can even sum up here. There is far far too much to say about the content of these chapters, their interpretation, the reappropriation in Moses, and nature of the these texts, or explicitly observe in passing the things the manual asserts (like problematic Mosaic authorship), hints at, or ignores (like Joseph Fielding Smith’s strong statements about the nature of the creation accounts)… It seems like nearly every line would require multiple paragraphs. This isn’t an exaggeration, but genuine frustration; when I’ve taught Genesis for Institute, we spend multiple weeks on Genesis 1-3, and my book-in-progress on Genesis 1, I’m trying to keep to under 300 pages.
The manual compresses most of creation into one lesson (!) but spends five lessons on Isaiah. Modern western society has a lot of relevant issues, ideas, and conflicts that revolve around Genesis (science v. religion, evolution, education, the role of men and women, etc.), but comparatively very little in Isaiah. And yet, that’s where the manual spends its time.
But let’s look at relative length, compression, and importance a different way; Christians have traditionally put a lot of theological weight on creation but especially Adam and Eve, and yet they are rarely (if ever) mentioned again in the Old Testament. Creation and fall are given three gap-filled-but-densely-packed chapters, but the story of Joseph in Egypt gets thirteen chapters! (That would be Genesis 37-50, for the full resolution of the story.) What does that tell us? Why so little and so much? Is that simply all they had on creation? Did the story of Joseph in Egypt have more importance than creation for the Israelite prophets? Or is it possible that three chapters is all that was necessary to convey whatever doctrine was intended to be there?
This lesson virtually compels us to take Elder Holland’s advice.
It’s better to take just a few good ideas and get good discussion–and good learning–than to be frenzied, trying to teach every word in the manual. … An unrushed atmosphere is absolutely essential if you are to have the Spirit of the Lord present in your class. – “Teaching and Learning in the Church,” Ensign, June 2007, 91.
So what can we do in 45 minutes? I choose today to focus on two points. I choose these because they
- do not differ at all from the text of Genesis.
- illustrate the interpretive power of comparing Genesis to other ancient Near Eastern creation accounts and cultures.
- have doctrinal relevance for us today.
- are relatively novel. People have heard the same thing so many times that a little well-grounded novelty suffices to make them sit up and pay attention, and fool them into thinking a merely good lesson was brilliant.
The two points are these
1) God says several times that creation is good, even “very good.” What does this mean?
2) What does it mean that we are created in God’s image and likeness?
Most LDS interpret “image and likeness” in Genesis 1:26-27 to be about God’s anthropic nature, that humans resemble God in physical plan. This seems to have been general Israelite belief. Marc Brettler says of this passage that
The word tzelem [“image”] elsewhere always refers to a physical representation. For example, the book of Ezekiel uses tzelem when it referes to “men sculptured upon the walls, figures of Chaldeans drawn in vermilion” (23:14) or when it accuses Israel of fornicating with “phallic images” (16:17)…. It always signifies a concrete entity rather than an abstract one. This is not surprising since the Bible (in contrast to most medieval philosophical traditions, both Jewish and Christian) often depicts God in corporeal terms… God is [depicted in Ezekiel 1:26-28] as a physical being, who has an image in “the semblance of a human form.”- How to Read the Bible, 44.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with this interpretation* but there’s something more that is significant, I think. Among Israel’s neighbors, this kind of language was sometimes used, but only in regards to royalty, not humankind in general. Kings in Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt were said to be the image of deity, and thus functioned as his representative and extension of his power on earth. Genesis thus elevates all of mankind, male and female, black and white, slave and free to the same level as kings, as representatives of God on earth in a sense. This is a high view of humanity. Hold on to this idea.
Six times in Genesis 1, God pronounces creation or some aspect of it to be good. Significantly, the seventh time, God pronounces creation “very good.” I suspect a profitable conversation could be had over what kind of “good” creation is or what “good” means here (moral? Aesthetic and beautiful? Functioning as it ought to be?), and whether creation is still “good” in the same way after the events of the Garden, and so on. In his Genesis commentary, John Walton points out
Ṭob [pronounced like toe with a v on the end, meaning “good”] is broad enough in Hebrew to extend to the moral/ethical realm as well as potentially serving as a comment on the quality of workmanship, to name just a couple of possibilities. In Genesis 1 the meaning of “good” can be judged by asking what “not good” implies. The biblical text knows of one thing that is not good: “It is not good for the man to be alone” (2:18). If this contrast points us in the right direction, as I believe it does, “good” suggests that a thing operates according to purpose.
A comparative approach, as we took with the question of image and likeness, answers the question “what does good mean” in a different and interesting way. While God explicitly pronounces aspects of creation good and the totality very good, outside of Israel, creation and mankind’s place in it was not always so rosy. In one text, for example, existence belonged largely to deity. Mankind was created because the lowest class of gods no longer wanted to do any work, so humans are created as slaves to serve all the needs of the gods. Humans became too loud, though, and all the gods (with one exception) want them killed. In another text, humankind is created from the blood of a traitorous deity who is slain for his rebellion. If this were a seminar, I’d have to support this point much more, but you get the picture; Genesis takes a very generous view of humanity.
The contrast in both of these aspects is instructive; among Israel and its neighbors, Israelite theology was much more humanistic and favorable to humans and their place in the universe. Creation was good, not only were humans not slaves, but all humans were created in the image of deity, not just royalty.
Just as Mormons today interpret Genesis 1:26-27 about image and likeness to make distinctive doctrinal points in contrast to others (in our case, about the nature of God), Genesis made distinctive doctrinal points in contrast to others. This is best summed up by one scholar/pastor/blogger, as if Genesis itself were speaking to these other creation accounts and the theology they represent.
You [non-Israelite creation theologies] say the universe, and humankind’s place in it, is the result of a struggle between immoral and amoral deities the end-result of which is not favorable to humankind at all; I [Genesis] say that a single all-powerful God created a universe that is good and reflects well on its Creator, who made it as a habitat for humankind, the object of his blessing.
* It would be overreaching to assume “image and likeness” is equivalent to D&C 130:22 from which we learn that “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as a man’s.” Why? Telling us that God is in human form tells us that he is not a jackal-headed deity, or a winged-sphinx deity. But it does not necessarily tell us that his human form is “of flesh and bones as tangible as a man’s.” It is possible to conceive of a deity in human yet (in some way) non-physical form. For more on what the phrase “image and likeness” might mean, see this article about the Tell Fekheriye inscription. The first half is about the implication for what Eden means, the second half on our phrase.
- Ex Nihilo, or creation out of nothing. This is a standard theological belief among most Christian, Jewish, and Islamic groups, though it developed after the close of the biblical canon. Here’s a relevant Institute handout of mine.
- Pronunciation note The manual includes this citation. “The Prophet Joseph Smith said: “The word create came from the [Hebrew] word baurau which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize; the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship. Hence, we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos–chaotic matter” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith). Baurau is better written bara, and pronounced like bar-rah instead of rhyming with bow-wow. Joseph Smith’s Hebrew teacher was an Eastern European Jew with a particular pronunciation/transliteration of Hebrew, different than most Biblical Hebrew grammars today.
- Differences between creation accounts I was happy that the manual asks how the creation accounts of Moses, Abraham, and Genesis differ. It’s a great question, and a very productive one to explore. Then I was very frustrated with the short, simplistic answer offered. Here are the creation accounts arranged in parallel, without any commentary. See also my discussion of some differences here.
- Genre and form- Let’s remember that the Book of Moses is the JST of Genesis. Whatever Genesis is, the JST is. That is, adding/subtracting from the text of Genesis, as the Joseph Smith did in writing the JST, does not change the nature of Genesis. If that’s not making sense, think of the parable of the good samaritan. If the JST added text to the parable of the Good Samaritan, it wouldn’t change its nature from being a parable to a historical text. This is also true for presentation. A movie of the Good Samaritan, though seemingly much more real than black and white text, is still a parable. Whatever creation is in the scriptures, making a filmed version of it doesn’t change its genre nor does the JST adding and subtracting from its text.
- What is the JST? I have a section on it in this article here. Skip towards the end, and follow the footnotes. NB: There are some errors in the footnotes that will be fixed in the final print version. If I get an updated pdf, I’ll post it.