It is difficult to overstate how much restraint a card-carrying Bible nerd like me has to use in order to hit just the highlights of the creation narrative(s), but that’s what I aim to do. I could spend months unpacking stuff I’ve read over the years about the first few chapters of the Bible, but I really don’t want to fall down too many rabbit holes.
For these Sunday morning posts, I want to eventually cover as many interesting places in the Bible as I can, and it won’t do to get bogged down in the details of any one passage. I figure I can always come back to a passage and dig a little deeper whenever time permits or the mood strikes, and over time I intend to incorporate as many reader insights and resources as I can collect so that down the road I can potentially put all of this into a single volume. Feel free to chime in and add as much as you like into the comments, and I’ll do my part in stealing liberally to share in future treatments of the same subject.
A Story That Wasn’t Written for You
The first few words of the Bible jump right into a story without much explanation at all.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…
Whoa, now. Wait a minute. Which God are we talking about, and how many of them are there? In fact, what is a God, anyway? And what does it mean by “the heavens and the earth?” So many questions. I’ll get to those in a second.
The reason this particular passage doesn’t answer any of those questions is that this story wasn’t written down to introduce outsiders to a religion they’ve never before encountered. This passage is a written record of a story that was told and retold around campfires and dinner “tables” for centuries among a people and culture who already knew what they were talking about. It wasn’t written for scientifically curious English-speakers living in the 21st century, and to approach it as such does a great disservice to the text itself.
It sure would be nice if more evangelical Christians understood that, wouldn’t it? I mean, it is supposed to be “their” book after all, yet they can’t seem to accept this most basic detail because to do so would weaken some of their most basic theological assumptions. The Christian message hinges on a linear narrative in which 1) God makes everything, 2) humans mess it all up, and 3) Jesus comes to clean up our mess.
The particular way in which they tell the story hinges a great deal on the (now very outdated) belief that there was one original human couple who broke a rule and subsequently broke the rest of the universe, somehow. If you go back and revise your understanding of how that first story was meant to be read, it could disturb the very foundation of the evangelical Christian narrative. They know this, and that’s why they can’t let go of their prior ideological commitments.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I told you this would be difficult.
A Story That Evolved
It’s ironic that fundamentalist readers of the Bible so often deny evolution since the literalist view of creation is itself a later species which evolved from earlier understandings which maintained nothing of the sort. I don’t think the ancient story tellers really thought they were giving a literal blow-by-blow scientific explanation for the creation of the world, but modern readers come to the story looking for precisely that. I know I was taught to see it that way.
But even the original story itself shows signs of earlier versions which fundamentally disagree with the premise of the whole story.
Take for example the use of the word “Elohim” for God. There are many names for God given in the Old Testament, each one surrounded by distinctive thematic elements, leading a majority of modern scholars to believe these give us clues into the literary sources of the first few books of the Bible (for more on that, you can read about the Documentary Hypothesis, also known as the JEPD Theory). But this word for God in particular is strange because its form is plural. In ancient Hebrew, nouns that end in the suffix -im are typically plural. If we didn’t know any better, we would conclude this religion at one point in time believed in multiple gods, not just one.
In the beginning, gods created the heavens and the earth…
That would certainly comport with the Ancient Near Eastern context out of which the Abrahamic religion originally emerged. Other religions of the region were polytheistic, and taught that universe was formed out of a cosmic battle between competing gods. Many of those religions taught that each competing god ruled over a particular sphere or category of the world (sky, ocean, crops, weather, fertility, the sun, etc).
What makes this religion unique among its competitors is that it ascribes authority for each and every one of those spheres to the same god. In a way, that’s the whole point of this creation narrative. It wasn’t told and retold (and later written) in order to lay out a technical description for how the world was made. It was a reworking of a very old (but, to them, very familiar) genre of origins with a polemical twist that set them apart from their neighbors: They had one single god in charge of everything, not just one particular category. This god was in charge of the sky, and the water, and the land…in other words, pretty much everything that they knew there was.
Signs of Earlier Versions
Despite the monotheistic innovation of Abrahamic religions, we still see signs of earlier influences all over the Old Testament. For one thing, right here in the first chapter of Genesis, we read God speaking to, presumably, himself.
Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.
Evidently being “in the image of God” means ruling over everything the same way that God rules over everything (the sea, the sky, the ground). That will become relevant in later passages in the Bible, but for now I have to stop and point out the obvious: It says let US.
When I was a kid, I was taught to read this as a prooftext for the doctrine of the Trinity. Christian theology teaches that God is somehow one “being” but still three different “persons” (as if that makes sense in any way, shape, or form). But that aside, it strains credibility to maintain that the ancient Hebrews, who were decidedly monotheistic, told and retold this story for centuries with a trinitarian reference woven into the text.Another popular theory I was offered was that God was talking to the angels here. So now evidently angels are made in the image of God as well, and also we are in some way made in the image of angels. I’m not even sure where they were going with that one unless they simply meant that we have spirits in us, and maybe after we die we will be able to fly around like the angels can? I’ll spare you the deconstruction of that premise, because frankly, the prospect bores me to tears.
I’m still just marveling that traces of an earlier polytheism are preserved right there in the text for us. And that is precisely what they are. They are artifacts from an earlier time indicating for us today that this religion evolved from earlier ones, and it bears a number of vestigial traits which tell the story of how it came to be. Later on in the Old Testament we will discover the Israelites returning to their polytheistic roots only to be whipped back into monotheistic compliance by the powers that be (or were).
There is even evidence that earlier iterations of the God of Abraham had a wife (or at least a consort) named Asherah. From time to time the prophets had to get onto the people of Israel for setting up “Asherah poles” alongside their officially approved worship paraphernalia. When I was a younger reader (and still committed to a belief in divine inspiration), I assumed the Israelites absorbed this perversion of their religion through osmosis, as it were, by virtue of their mixing and mingling with the surrounding Canaanite cultures.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that most of the stories of early Israel were completely made up, and that prior to their emergence from Canaanite culture, there was no Israel to speak of.
My God is Bigger Than Yours
If you follow the modern “atheist movement” at all, you know that a growing number of atheists are convinced that Jesus never existed. They are “mythicists” where the historical Jesus is concerned, and they have at least two legitimate biblical scholars whose work supports their conclusion. I don’t belong to that camp.
But I am a thoroughgoing mythicist where pre-Canaanite Israel is concerned, and I do not believe anyone resembling Moses ever existed. I’ll give my reasons for that in a later post, but the shortest version is that we have virtually no archaeological or historical evidence to support any of it, and there should have been at least a little. As it is, there is none, and in this particular case the absence of evidence really is evidence of absence.
The reality is that the Hebrew people seem to have first emerged from Canaanite culture in the tenth or eleventh century B.C.E., quite a number of centuries after the supposed Egyptian captivity, wilderness wanderings, and conquest of Canaan. We find no evidence of violent conquest, nor do we see any historical support for their existence as a people prior to their gradual cultural differentiation at that time.
All of this indicates for us today that this monotheistic religion didn’t really start out that way. It took from the stories around it and refashioned them into a separate identity in which one god in particular, Yahweh (who was likely a god of war), ruled over them all. This god (or God) wasn’t in charge of just one arena or sphere, he was in charge of all of them. And more to the point, everyone else’s gods have to bow to this one, even if it means killing off anyone who disagrees. Bonus points if they happen to live on farmable soil, because that really belongs to Yahweh as well. Isn’t that convenient?
“As long as there has been one true God, there has been killing in his name.” –The DaVinci Code
But enough about that. Let’s get back to the main point, which was about why this chapter and story exist in the first place.
Taking the Bible on Its Own Terms
As an atheist, I no longer subscribe to a belief in supernatural books. Letting that go was a freeing development for me. Now I am able to consider so many competing viewpoints and perspectives on religion and on the Bible without feeling so emotionally invested in protecting the book from, well, itself.
But even a supernaturalist can appreciate that the Bible, even if it were inspired by God, should be taken on its own terms. And as such, it doesn’t really do a service to the Bible to superimpose onto it an expectation about which questions it should answer. It doesn’t really help anybody to try forcing the Bible into addressing questions it was never designed to answer.
The first few passages of Genesis weren’t written to explain the mechanics of how the world was made. They were written as a polemic against neighboring cultures (and perhaps against its own earlier forbears) in order to posit that one single God, rather than many, was responsible for creating the world (however it was that he did it). It was also borrowing heavily from its own temple cultus in order to structure the narrative development, laying out each phase of creation according to the design of the temple itself (more on that thesis here).
It wasn’t written as a scientific or technical explanation for how the universe or the planet earth or the plants and animals and people on it came to be. That interpretive grid only showed up a few decades ago in response to the rise of Darwinian thought among the sciences, and it has produced some laughably absurd results.
Oh, there’s so much more I want to say about all of this, but I’ve already gone into more detail than I intended to use, and I’ve only really made it past the first sentence. Welp.
Tune in next time for another installment of my Sunday morning Godless Walk Through the Bible to see what we tackle next. I’ve got a handful of friends who are going to help me do a little digging, and some of them may just write their own pieces (I’d love that). There’s so much to go over, this could go on for a really, really long time.
One more thing: Check back here later today for an audio version of this post. I’m going to be experimenting with a couple of things for this particular series, including reading them aloud for folks who would rather listen on their drive to work or wherever. I’m also going to make a PDF version of each post available in a link at the beginning of each post (also here). That way, if you suffer from ads crashing your browser as much as I do, you’ll have another way to read the post without making that happen.
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