An Identity Crisis and a Cosmic Jerry Springer (Reading Genesis, part 3)

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).

Ancient Stories

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

enumaelishLike 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.

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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”.

churchless-coverThe 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.

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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.

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Indiana Jones and A Tale of Two Books (Reading Genesis, part 2)

George Lucas and Indiana Jones couldn’t have made a better story. In a library that had not checked out a book in several millennia, archeologists discovered stacks of clay tablets in an ancient language.

In the early 1850s, archeologists excavated the library of a Babylonian king (Ashurbanipal) in the ancient city of Nineveh. The trove of clay tablets was treasure. There were records of laws and administration. There was literature. And in the religious texts, there was a story of creation.

In the story, order is created out of chaos.

In the story, light exists before the creation of the sun, moon, and stars.

In the story, the sequence of creation is division of waters, dry land, creation of lights, creation of humanity – all followed by a time of rest.

This Babylonian creation story is called Enuma Elish (from the opening phrase “When on high”). Enuma Elish is dated at 2000 BC, but it appears to have originated in even older Sumerian stories (3000 BC).

It was a bombshell at the time. Enuma Elish was far older than the Genesis creation story. Until the discovery of Enuma Elish, the Genesis creation account was unique. Not only was Genesis not unique, it wasn’t even original.

And to top it off, just a few years later (1858), Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species.

Stop the ride, we’re getting dizzy. roller_coaster_scream

Genesis After Darwin

Just as mid-nineteenth scholars/theologians were grappling with Enuma Elish, here comes Darwin. Popular lore presumes that all scientists immediately discounted everything about Genesis, while fundamentalist Christians (who were not bright enough to understand the science) held to it.

Reality was a bit more complex. There were churchmen and scientists who rejected Darwin’s claims for a variety of reasons which were not always religious. At the same time, a group of 717 “gentlemen” – many of whom were leading scientists of the day – signed a document affirming “science as a gift from God” and that “the author of both (science and scripture) would not allow them to ultimately contradict” (David Wilkinson, in Reading Genesis After Darwin).

As far back as the time of Isaac Newton, British scientists questioned a 6,000 years-old earth. Even in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, geologists had demonstrated that the earth was far older than the 4004 BC start date popularized by Bishop Ussher. Scientists and theologians in the nineteenth century debated the specifics of geologic history, but Christian writers who believed in a young earth were the exception, not the rule.

Even Darwin did not set off an immediate religious firestorm – Darwin was not the first to suggest the idea of evolution. Darwin was ground-breaking because he described the mechanism of evolutionary change (natural selection).

Most nineteenth century Christian leaders and scholars were not all that upset about the evolution of plants and animals. They weren’t all that upset about a very ancient earth. They were not even upset about a non-literal reading of Genesis. The upsetting part was the idea that human beings were in the story, too. To many Christians, the idea of humans sharing a common history with all life diminished the dignity of humans. How could man be a moral being if he shared history with the common animals?

 

Even so, B.B. Warfield, founder of the Princeton School of Theology (which birthed the American fundamentalist movement), said this:

I do not think that there is any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation, either given in Genesis 1 and 2 or elsewhere alluded to, that need to be opposed to evolution.

Other scientists, including the noted botanist Asa Gray, saw God in the elegant process of evolution.

In the Christian world contemporary with Darwin, evolution was not collectively panned. There was a sense that because God was revealed ultimately in Jesus, the Christian faith was not dependent on the design argument (D. Wilkinson, Reading Genesis After Darwin)

A Tale of Two Books

The publication of Darwin’s Origen of Species on the heels of the discovery of Eluma Elish forced a conversation on Biblical interpretation like never before.

Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, and again the concurrent publication of two books is driving a conversation among Christians.

Richard Dawkins, a British evolutionary biologist and go-to guy for contemporary atheism, published his best-seller The God Delusion in 2006. Dawkins makes no bones about it – “scientific creationism”, “intelligent design”, and of course, a literal Genesis, are complete nonsense and unworthy of attention, except for ridicule.

That same year, another best-seller – The Language of God – was published by an American who will go down as one of the premier scientists of our generation – Francis Collins. Dr. Collins led the Human Genome Project, now heads the National Institutes of Health, and is a frequent public voice for all that is cutting-edge in science. Dr. Collins is also a committed and vocal Christian.

Like Dawkins, Francis Collins has no interest in making Genesis a science textbook.

Unlike Dawkins, Francis Collins believes that the Bible enriches our understanding of science and science helps us better interpret and understand scripture (Reading Genesis After Darwin).

Dawkins argues that modern science is completely incompatible with belief in God. Ironically, many Christians agree with him.

Collins (and many scientists like him) are authentic examples of why that isn’t so.

 The Options

In a twenty-first century conversation, Christians have three options for reading Genesis:

Option One – Reading Genesis Literally and Historically. Option one reads the opening chapters of Genesis and interprets exactly as written. The entire cosmos was created in six 24-hour days. All life was created separately and specially. The earth is about 6,000 years old, based on genealogies in Genesis. No additional considerations are needed because the text is taken at face-value. There is a sense of security in believing “what God says and not what man says”.

But for those who read Genesis literally and historically, there are things that cannot be ignored. A literal belief means a stand against the vast, vast majority of modern science and scientists. It means a stand against the science that is trusted for medical care, disease research, agriculture, aviation, engineering, and energy. The science concepts that explain the origin of the cosmos and development of life on earth are the same concepts that support our modern lives. If young-earth creationism is true, modern science collapses. Literalists have to own the contradiction.

Option Two – Forcing Modern Science into Genesis. Option two wants to find modern science in the Genesis creation story. In order to account for an old earth, some have suggested that there is a huge gap of time between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. Others have proposed a “day-age” solution where the days of creation are actually millions of years. “Intelligent Design” is a well-organized, well-funded movement that recognizes a very old earth, but holds to special creation of living things in the sequence found in Genesis.

This option attempts to take science seriously, but still treats the Genesis creation story as a scientific account. This option has both theological problems and scientific problems. For example:

  • most agree that the meaning of “day” in Genesis is a real, 24-hour day
  • the order of appearance in Genesis of different kinds of living things conflicts with genetics and the fossil record

Option Three – Making Peace with Genesis and Modern Science. In Reconciling the Bible and Science: A Primer on the Two Books of God, Lynn Mitchell and Kirk Blackard explain that nature and the Bible are God’s two books – his two revelations. Both books reveal truth about God. Here’s Mitchell and Blackard:

No conflict exists between biological evolution and the belief that God is the source of all there is, with a creative plan that includes natural consequences and divine governance over a continuing and ever changing process…the theory of biological evolution, based on empirical evidence, makes no claim as to why life originated or who was or is the moving force.

Next up in this series on reading Genesis:

How do the ancient Babylonian creation stories differ from the creation story in Genesis? Why is it important?

How was Genesis intended to be read and understood? How would the original hearers have heard the creation story?

 

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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.

***************

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