Genesis, creation, and two very different portraits of God (or, you can’t pin God down)

Marc Zvi Brettler, Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Literature at Brandeis University, and also one of my co-authors on The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously, recently posted some thoughts at TheTorah.com on the two creation stories in Genesis and how each portrays God differently.

I think this will be of some help to many of you. He lays out succinctly (1) how to tell that there are in fact two creation stories, and (2) the different portraits of God in each.

He concludes by saying that the Bible as “a polyphonic text—a work that speaks in many voices… is the strength of the Bible rather than a weakness.” He continues,

Different people relate to one or another of these divine portraits—some of us are drawn to an approachable God, and being that is more be like us, while for others, a majestic, distant deity is more “Godlike.” Sometimes this can even shift with time and need—the very same person may sometimes need to connect to a God who walks about the Garden at the breezy time of the day (Gen 3:8), while at other times they may need to connect to a God who insists that all is ordered and in its place, good, indeed very good. Post-biblical Judaism used interpretation to discover different images for God in the Bible—no two parshanim or philosophers shared identical images of what God was like.  But this inability to pin God down, to create one single, uniform, univocal image of God already has strong roots in the biblical text itself. 

Bottom line for Brettler: You can’t pin God down. The Bible tells us so.

Note how a Jewish reading celebrates diversity in Scripture–even diverse portraits of God–whereas Protestant readers, particular evangelicals and fundamentalists, tend to seek a singular, unified voice in Scripture–and do some fretting when they don’t find one.

Jewish readings of Scripture see diversity as a property of a sacred, inspired text. Conservative Protestants see it as a characteristic that is incompatible with divine inspiration and thus needing to be “solved.”

Personally, I have long thought that a Jewish approach to diversity in Scripture is preferable, given the degree of theological diversity that is self-evident in Scripture itself–the two creation stories being only a small sampling of that. That is why chapter three of Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament deals with theological diversity.

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Brettler is also author of numerous other books, including How to Read the Jewish Bible, and co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament. He is also cofounder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) -TheTorah.com.

  • Jerry Shepherd

    Hi Pete. I don’t draw the same conclusions as Brettler does with regard to diversity; but, of course, in addition to fiat creation in Gen 1, and hands-on creation in Gen 2, a third model to set alongside these two is the slay-the-monster creation account in Pss 74, 89, or other psalms where there is no monster is present, but the waters themselves are personified. Rather than seeing these three pictures as “a little something for everybody,” I prefer to see it as “everything for everybody.” That is, all three portraits are necessary to properly conceptualize the deity, whatever tensions there may be.

    • Trevor Morgan

      You just made me go and read those passages. I’d love to hear more about the ‘slay-the-monster’ creation account.

      The end of Job, too, is a creation account I think, and actually longer than Genesis 1. So it’s odd that it gets such little attention.

      • Ben S

        Check out Greg Moberly’s Return of the Chaos Monsters: and Other Backstories of the Bible, which includes a very nice chapter on the chaos monsters lurking in the watery background of Genesis 1.

      • Jerry Shepherd

        Trevor, in addition to what Ben S mentioned, some other resources you could check out are Mary Wakeman, God’s Battle with the Monster; John Day, God’s Conflict with the Dragon and the Sea; and Bernard Batto, Slaying the Dragon: Mythmaking in the Biblical Tradition

    • Auggie

      Of course there is no reason to think that the Hebrews actually believed that that YHWH fought a sea dragon. You have to infer that from some shaky inferences and the interpretation of ANE texts. It is probably better to view the use of the Yam/Leviathon/Rahab ideas as polemics. If you read the text of Ps. 74 you can see that the author has put the “cosmic” battle that happens in dream time for pagans in to salvation history. It seems that the splitting of the seas that the “my God of old” did is the Exodus from Egypt. Again polemical context. No reason to attribute absurdities to scripture here.

      • Jerry Shepherd

        Auggie, you are correct that there is a polemic purpose in passages like Pss 74 and 89, and these imagery should not be taken literally. But the creation accounts in Gen 1-2 are also symbolic, also polemical, and also not to be taken literally. So I still see the three accounts as alternative ways of conceptualizing the creation. At the same time, they are not exclusive alternatives; so all three accounts have to be used in forming a portrait of the deity.

  • Rick

    Wouldn’t this fall into the “we can know God sufficiently but not exhaustively” category?

    • Agni Ashwin

      I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

  • Brian P.

    What if children’s Sunday school went more like this: Here’s one person’s story and what he thought what God is like. Here’s another old story and what this person thought God might be like. How are your stories like this? How are they different? What do you think God is like? Pete, what’s sad about a topic such as this is that really this dialogue should be had more in the context of Sunday School curriculum and training than anything having to do with higher education. Maybe some day they’ll learn about the historical contexts, energies and essence, apophatic theology, and more. Never mind… What was I thinking… Put another Veggie Tales DVD in.

    • melissia

      That sounds like a powerful teaching method.

      Let’s not use it. Teaching is satanic.

      • Brian P.

        Yes. But talking tomatoes are Godly, Biblical, and more. Now where is my hairbrush again?

  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

    Enjoyed reading Brettler’s article; thanks for sharing.

    You said: “Protestant readers, particular evangelicals and fundamentalists, tend to seek a singular, unified voice in Scripture–and do some fretting when they don’t find one.”
    Actually, in my experience as a former fundamentalist-evangelical I have seen very little fretting among them. What I most often find is harmonization. If the Bible says conflicting things about God (or any issue), then both are correct. There are quite a number of books written for no other purpose than resolving ‘alleged’ inconsistencies.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    “e concludes by saying that the Bible as “a polyphonic text—a work that speaks in many voices… is the strength of the Bible rather than a weakness.” He continues,
    Different people relate to one or another of these divine portraits…”

    I like that, this is wonderfully formulated!

    But I think it is time for enlightened Evangelicals to realize that God does not speak to us less with other Christian books than with the Bible.

    Cheers from Europe.

  • dangjin

    There are NOT two different creation accounts in the Bible. I wish people would get off that lie and seek and accept the truth of the matter. They are NOT different views of God as God describes himself in only one way, who he really is.

    The Bible is not an existential document where people get to put up their interpretations of who God is. It is a book that leads people to put aside sinful ideologies and see the reality–the truth.

    Once you stop disobeying God by listening to those who do not believe, and start listening to those who do believe then you may see the truth.

    • Bryan

      People do get to “interpret” who God is. As human beings we do not have access to immediacy. There is no other way.

    • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com/ Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist

      Well, since you say so…it must be true.

  • Emily

    Dangjin, you’re illustrating the point that Peter Enns is making. You’re displaying the exact type of argument based on denial and inflexibility that defines the fundamentalist. Just because fundamentalists cannot see diversity in God–or God in diversity–does not mean it isn’t there. Interesting how atheists are often the only ones criticized for not believing in something they can’t perceive, even though fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals tend to limit themselves in the same way.

    • Auggie

      Yeah, those damn fundamentalist and their damn logical consistency. Can you explain to me why it is bad to ask questions of logical consistency? Does theology get a free pass when it comes to the rules of syllogisms?

  • http://ASimpleAndSpiritualLife.Org/ Francis

    First, it needs be that one REALizes that “The Light” of Genesis 1:3 was “The Beginning of The Creation of Our Father and GOD”, “The True Light which enlightens every man born into the world”, “the glory The Messiah had with Our Father and GOD before the world began”! (Revelations 3:14, John 1:9; 17:5)

    For if one doesn’t comprehend the beginning how then can one understand that which follows?

    http://asimpleandspirituallife.blogspot.com/2010/06/1st-day-of-creation.html

    http://asimpleandspirituallife.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-word-of-god-let-there-be-light.html

    And in spite of the lies told by so many religious ones, for so long, concerning The Creation Accounts in Genesis chapters 1 and 2, “Light” overcomes the blackness of such darkness!

    Thankfully! Our Father and GOD, HE IS ALIVE! And HE still communes with HIS children, and is yet able to reveal that is needful unto them!

    The 1st Creation account states in Genesis 1:26 “GOD said, Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness”……. So GOD created man in HIS Own image, in the image of GOD HE created him, male and female created HE them.”

    The 2nd Creation account states that “YHVH God formed man from the dust of the earth.” (Genesis 2:7)

    The 1st Creation account does not give the details of what GOD used to create man, yet stated that man was created in “HIS(GOD’S) Own image!”(Genesis 1:27)

    And The Messiah testified “GOD IS A SPIRIT!” (John 4:24)

    Continued @ http://asimpleandspirituallife.blogspot.com/2012/05/two-creation-accounts-in-genesis-1-2.html

    • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

      Thanks for the link! It is a pity the commenting system is that bad on such type of blogs.

      • http://ASimpleAndSpiritualLife.Org/ Francis

        Bad commenting system?

        Please tell me why, for the links were to a blog that i maintain.

        • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

          I don’t like blogspot, but this has nothing to with you personally :=)

          Cheers.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I await the day when I will be driving through rural Tennessee and see a billboard with a different take on one of those “divinely attributed but not really found in the Bible” quotes:

    “There are different strokes for different folks” -God

  • James

    I’m happy for a “polyphonic text” that helps us comprehend an incomprehensible God. Fascinating that the first chapters of scripture lay out great themes (like the transcendence and imminence of God) right up front. “Theological diversity” does not mean we end up in total confusion over the nature and purposes of God. It means we bow in the presence of multi-faceted Splendor.

  • Auggie

    It is nice to see that we can substitute “polyphonic” for “contradiction”. Orwellian double speak even works well in theology. How about that!

    I don’t really care if “jewish” interpretation allows for contradictions. Why does that make it virtuous? How does that help us if there are contradictory notions of God and his attributes in scripture? I guess we should just close our eyes really hard and beeelieeve.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    I love your point here.

    As one effort to save my belief in (or “relationship with”) God while slowly exiting Christianity, I attended a synagogue. My first pleasant shock there was that during Schule, men would sit around and argue from very different perspectives and all were felt to be OK. Such diversity was not tolerated at the Evangelical College community where I still lived.

    I guess in theological terms, this is called “Bibliology” — how a Christian views the Bible. Your emphasis on reform here is excellent.

    On my blog, I crafted this image to show the Evangelical/Fundie view of their scriptures:

    • http://ASimpleAndSpiritualLife.Org/ Francis

      Not “bibliology” but the theo’ry’logy of those whose god is naught but those “colored marks written on a dead tree and bound in fabrication”!

      So it is that religion, and the religious ones have their portion in the destruction of Creation (air, water, land, vegetation, creatures) and the perversion of that which is Spirit(Truth, Light, Life, Peace, Love, Faith, Grace, Hope, Mercy, Wisdom,,,,,,, ALL that is Truly GOOD)!

      http://asimpleandspirituallife.blogspot.com/2009/07/simply-progress-so-called-is-destroying.html

      For history has revealed, and yet reveals, that multiplied BILLIONS have been killed and enslaved (in physical chains at times, yet primarily in the chains of strong delusion that are the commandments and doctrines of men) in the name of the god(s) of this, or that religion…….

      Proving the fruit of death and enslavement is bore of religion’s way,
      because life is but a pawn in the wicked game they play!

      “Come out from among them and be separate!” (II Corinthains 6:17)

      Not just pagan catholicism and her harlot christian daughters, but ALL religion (except James 1:27)!

      http://asimpleandspirituallife.blogspot.com/2008/10/pure-and-undefiled-religion.html

      Faith will not create a religion for The Faithful are Family! (Eph 3:15)

      http://asimpleandspirituallife.blogspot.com/2011/07/family-of-faith-or-system-of-religion.html

      http://asimpleandspirituallife.blogspot.com/2013/10/religion-is-anti-messiah.html

      Seems you’re on the way out, yet there are many who “come out” physically yet remain bound in the chains of strong delusion that is religion’s way!

      So it is they but serve time in the prison that is this world!

      Yet while breath is, Hope IS!

      For Truth IS! Miracles do happen…….

      Father Help! and HE does……


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