The lover affirms the reality and the otherness of the beloved. Love does not seek to collapse the beloved into terms of itself… when applied to reading texts, this means that the text can be listened to on its own terms.
I determined to start with a different quotation above, as is my habit in most articles, but the one I used for the first post in this series nicely captures the essence of what I’m going to say next; loving the Bible means listening to it on its own terms.
This appears to be simple, but it’s probably more difficult than it looks (though not impossible). Thousands of years have passed since the texts that make up the Bible were penned, languages used to write it have died out, genres of literature have fallen out of style, and its cultural milieus have been eclipsed by others. Although we are members of Scripture’s intended audience, we think very differently than the initial ones.
Listening to the Bible on its own terms requires some work.
Some Christians disagree. They say that the Bible is pretty much straightforward and that its plain meaning is easily deducible so that it can be understandable and formative for everyone. While I agree that the Bible truly conveys God’s heart and that it exists for everyone, I’m worried that saying “the Bible is straightforward” in the context of disagreement often functions as little more than a defense of one’s own reading.
We receive the words of the text into our own unique lives and try to make sense of them according to what we know- that’s what the audience has been doing from the beginning. The danger is that we’ll sometimes hear things we want to hear instead of what’s being said, and while it is impossible to read the text with complete objectivity, we do our best to listen to what the Bible is actually saying and then go from there.
The Bible speaks about life, but it does not give us a scientific account of its origin.
Mostly because the people writing and reading the texts lived long before the advent of modern science. Genesis does not function as a science book, nor does it intend to. Insisting that it is scientific does exactly what loving the Bible tries to avoid- we “collapse it into ourselves” and enlist it to fight in foreign wars.
However, let me make one thing clear: even though I don’t believe Genesis 1-3 describes how life originated scientifically, I do believe that God inspired Genesis and that God communicates truth through it.
It’s just that God uses the language of the people, and, for an early audience, that did not include things like spontaneous organization, genetic mutation, exaptation, or even DNA. Their understanding of the cosmos was different than ours. Their conception of the world looked something more like this-
The things that God communicates through Genesis are cast in the terms of an ancient worldview, and it’s an unscientific one.
There are two accounts of creation in the first three chapters of the Bible (Genesis 1-2:3 and 2:4-3:24), and they give us certain pictures of how God created the world with its stars, animals, and humans. These biblical pictures make most sense to me when they are seen together with similar pictures (other ancient accounts of creation). It’s sort of like playing cards; the function of an individual card, like a Queen or a 10, is better understood in the context of a whole deck than on its own. The similarities/differences between Genesis and other ancient texts give us a better understanding of what Genesis is saying.
The following thought might help orient you for what’s next: thousands of years of civilization had passed before a word of the Bible was written. Peoples with culture and history and religion had risen in all their glory and fallen before greater ones, which led to others, and on down the line. Then there was Israel. The contents of Genesis were written in the middle of an unfolding world history… a history to which Genesis had something to say and a history which shaped the way Genesis said it.
The Babylonians and their Enuma Elish (18th – 16th century BCE) were a big part of that history. The Sumero-Babylonian culture was considerably older and more powerful than Israel’s, and their religion wielded much influence over the area surrounding the land that the fledgling nation would come to inhabit.
A quick look at this ancient, neighboring account of creation rewards us with a bit of historical context.
This text has been called the Enuma Elish after its first Babylonian words meaning “when on high.” It gives an account of the two primeval gods, Apsu (fresh water/male) and Tiamat (salt water/female), whose offspring (lesser gods) kill them and create the world with Tiamat’s body. Babylon is at the center of the universe in this story and humans are created solely to serve the gods and feed them, that they might be placated.
When the sky above was not named,
and the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsu, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamat, the mother of them both,
Their waters were mingled together,
And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;
When of the gods none had been called into being…
From here, the story goes like this-
- The co-mingling of the waters (Tiamat and Apsu) produce other gods
- The younger gods are loud, so Apsu determines to kill them
- Ea, one of his kids, decides to kill Apsu first and takes his place
- Ea and his lady friend give birth to Marduk
- Tiamat prepares to take vengeance and Marduk accepts a challenge to battle
- They begin to fight and at the most crucial moment Tiamat opens her mouth to eat Marduk, but he forces a wind into her stomach, inflates it like a balloon, and shoots an arrow into her, “splitting her heart”
- He then creates an orderly world – splitting Tiamat in two “like a shelfish”, making one half the sky and the other half the ground, in order to limit the waters
- He sets up the gods in the sky (stars, moon, sun)
- Then Marduk sacrifices the god Kingu (one of Tiamat’s allies) and uses his blood to make humans
Blood I will mass and cause bones to be.
I will establish a savage, ‘man’ shall be his name.
Verily, savage-man I will create.
He shall be charged with the service of the gods,
that they might be at ease!
Marduk then makes Babylon the center of the universe with humans for servants and this entire story is replayed each year with the King of Babylon sitting on the throne as Marduk’s representative.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind [or Spirit] from God swept over the face of the waters (Gen 1:1-2)
God’s wind (like Marduk’s) hovered over the primordial waters (like Tiamat and Apsu). In the first Genesis account, it is not this pantheon of gods which create the world out of struggle, but the divine action of an uncontested Being. In the verses that follow, God creates an expanse to limit the waters and places the sun and moon in the sky (a la Marduk). Interestingly, God does not name the sun nor moon, probably because they weren’t to be worshiped as gods – like they were in the Babylonian epic. People are then created in God’s image (reminiscent of “divine blood”) and are given the earth (quite a big difference from the whole savage-human-slaves thing).
The second account in Genesis also features connections to the cosmic understandings behind Enuma Elish when you compare them:
These are the generations
of the heavens and the earth when they were created,
in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.
When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature (Genesis 2:4-7).
The operative understanding of the universe is similar in these accounts (beginning with the chaotic waters – when no bush or marsh yet existed). Genesis, however, stands as a very unique claim against its rival epics.
There are other connections between ancient literature and the Bible (i.e. Gilgamesh), but that will have to take up the space in some other post. Looking at the Enuma Elish at least places Genesis in its general context – we’re beginning to collect the other cards in the deck.
But why would God use the language/culture/tradition of ancient Israel and its neighbors? Well, why not? How else would God communicate with them? The truth that God reveals in Genesis is shown by contrast with competing creation accounts. Humans are not the byproduct of some god’s death, but are made in God’s image. Humans are not slaves that exist to feed the gods, rather God gifts them the earth (and vice versa). Religion does not merely serve the interests of the empire, but seeks to emulate the character of a loving God.
This is one aspect of the truth of Genesis.
Pressing it into the service of arguments over evolution, however, largely misses the point that God is making.
I suspect that this post won’t “seal the deal” for many of my Christian brothers and sisters, but hopefully it’s the beginning of an explanation as to why loving the Bible for what it is has led me to conclude that it doesn’t address scientific origins. In the next post, I’ll offer up an exploration of the science surrounding evolution in an effort to make this picture a bit clearer. After that I’ll address a few theological consequences and concerns in a final post.
The bottom line for me is that God uses tools – a tool (human culture/tradition) to communicate truth and a tool (evolution) to create life.
Hopefully I’m not being a tool for thinking so.
- Pete Enns: The scientific consensus is not something to “have faith in” (Internet Monk)
- Evangelicals and Evolution: expecting from the Bible what it’s not set up to deliver? (Peter Enns)
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