They were supposed to be God’s chosen people, a light to the nations.
They were supposed to have possession of a land.
They were supposed to worship in a glorious temple.
They were supposed to have a son of David on the throne forever.
Instead, they were carted off in humiliation, their capital and temple in ruins. Instead of being a light to the nations, they were ridiculed by them. David’s dynasty was dead and buried, and never again would a son of David sit on Israel’s actual throne.
The exile to Babylon was the most traumatic event in Israel’s national history. The returned exiles, joining the rag-tag survivors who weren’t carried off, struggled with national self-identity:
“Who are we? Are we still the people of God? After all these years and after everything that’s happen to us, are we still connected to the Israelites of old – the people to whom God spoke and covenanted?”
Post-exile Israel wanted identity. They wanted restoration. If they could not go back to the glorious past, they would bring the glorious past into the miserable present.
It was in this context that the Old Testament as we know it took shape. Oral traditions, ancient records, documents and liturgies were compiled and organized into the “books” of the Old Testament. The experience of the exile framed and interpreted Israel’s ancient stories.
The Old Testament is not history in the sense that twenty-first century people understand history. It is instead:
… a document of self-definition and spiritual encouragement: “Do not forget where we have been. Do not forget who we are – the people of God.” (Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam).
As far back as two hundred years before Christ, biblical interpreters realized that the first five books of the Old Testament, specifically Genesis, did not come down to us composed of whole cloth. Multiple, often contradictory versions of stories in Genesis have made Bible students dig deeply for centuries.
Trying to force a modern understanding of science into ancient documents misses lots of boats. Not only do we miss the message intended by the original authors and compilers, we also force the Bible to be something it is not – a scientifically accurate natural history of the earth.
The mid-nineteenth century was an uncomfortable time for Christians. Archaeologists unearthed documents with creation stories and flood stories from the ancient near-east, eerily similar to Genesis but predating Genesis by millennia. And in the same ten-year span, Charles Darwin added insult to injury when he demonstrated that humans share a common ancestry with all life.
But modern science wasn’t going to go away, and neither was the archaeological evidence.
The people and the nation of Israel did not spring up isolated on an island. Israel grew and developed surrounded by its near-eastern neighbors. Israel shared similarities in language, governing, family structure, agricultural practices, and understandings of how the world worked with all of the other Mesopotamian people of that time.
Why should Israel be different? Why would Israel, unlike everyone else in the world, escape the cultural influence of its neighbors?
The stories of Israel are similar to the creation stories of other Mesopotamian people because they share a common culture and a common framework for understanding the nuts and bolts of how the world began.
An Ancient Framework
Like Genesis, the ancient Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish, begins with watery chaos. The divine spirit in both Enuma Elish and Genesis exists independently of matter. In both creation stories, darkness precedes creation. In both, light is created before the sun, moon, and stars.
In Enuma Elish, the goddess Tiamat represents the chaos. The word for chaos in the Hebrew of Genesis is linguistically similar to Tiamat.
In Enuma Elish, Marduk is the king of the gods and creator of human beings, and he is also Tiamat’s great-great grandson. After lots of loud inter-god family fights, throwing chairs and plotting revenge, Marduk “tames” the chaos (Tiamat) by slicing her body in half. Marduk then uses half of her body to hold back the waters, creating the heavens and the earth. In Genesis, God creates a solid dome (the firmament) to hold the waters in place.
Enuma Elish is also like Genesis in the order of creation of dry land, the sun, moon, stars, and humans, all followed by a time of rest. Enuma Elish is written on seven tablets; the Genesis story occurs in seven days.
Israel, as a people of its time and culture, understood beginnings according to this framework, but told the story differently. Israel told the story differently because they were the people of God – the true Creator God.
To the ancient Babylonians, cosmic matter always existed. The gods arose from that matter and created the earth. Israel told the story of an eternal God who existed before matter and who brought matter into being from nothing.
There is no cosmic battle between warring gods in Genesis: God tames the chaos, but chaos is impersonal, not a god or goddess. God alone created the world by an act of his sovereign will, not as the result of a Jerry Springer-like family feud.
Most ancient people personified and worshiped the sun, the moon, and the stars. They personified and worshiped animals, rivers, and groves of trees. They worshiped kings and mighty men as gods.
But not Israel. The story told by Israel declares that there is one creator God of all. The sun, the river, and the Pharaoh are not gods – they were created by God.
Genesis and Science
If we want to have a meaningful conversation between evolution and Christianity, we must hear Genesis in its ancient voice, not impose upon it questions it will not answer or burdens it will not bear (P. Enns, The Evolution of Adam).
If the Genesis creation story is literally true, all of modern science collapses – not just biology.
If we try to “read between the lines” of Genesis to find modern science (a la Intelligent Design), we are still trying to make Genesis something it is not.
Genesis cannot bear the burden of modern science because it isn’t science.
The Big (Church) Chill
When you look at who’s going to church in America and who’s not, right now the fastest growing group are those who have been active church-goers in the past but are no longer in a church. In their just-published book Churchless (2014) the Barna Group calls this demographic the “de-churched”. Currently, one third of Americans are “de-churched”.
The reasons for de-churching are varied and nuanced, but “the church is antagonistic to science” is a consistent theme. Young adult dropouts (and older ones as well) believe that the church is out of step with modern science and even anti-science. Young adults struggle to reconcile their faith with a desire to enter a science-related profession.
The de-churched are having their own sort of identity crisis:
“Who are we? In light of modern science, can we still be the people of God?
The drop-outs aren’t looking for quippy, confident answers about believing God rather than scientists – they are “seeking an honest conversation about reality” (Churchless, 2014).
An honest conversation about Genesis would be a good start. The Genesis creation story can be truth without being factually true.
I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and
night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because
the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.