1. The Genesis Texts
One has to distinguish between the physical world-view that seems to stand behind the biblical texts and the religious message that the texts attempt to communicate. From the perspective of contemporary science, the physical world-view reflected in the texts is best described as archaic (namely, the opening chapter of Genesis with the description of the first six days of cosmic history. There is here a massive contradiction between Bible and modern science). But the religious message involved in the texts may yet be rich and important for human understanding. Historical and textual criticism helps us understand the religious message behind the texts.
Taking into account the historical criticism, one sees the opening chapters of Genesis as coming from two different traditions. The older tradition, known as the Yahwist tradition because of the name it uses most commonly for God, is understood to begin with Genesis 2: 4b. This tradition dates back to the 10th century BCE. The more recent tradition, known as the Priestly tradition because of the identity of its author or redactor, is dated at the time of the Babylonian Exile, which is around the 6th or 5th century BCE, or shortly thereafter.
The Priestly Account: opens the book of Genesis in its present form. It is this account that begins with a description of the familiar six days of divine creative activity followed by the seventh day of divine blessing and rest (Gen 1: 1 – 2: 4a). The creative work of God is expressed with the Hebrew word bara. This word is used in the Bible only for divine activity, and it singles out such activity as unique and different from all creaturely activity. In this case, it is an activity which simply places a beginning for all that exists in the world. The author uses another metaphor for this divine activity; namely, the metaphor of divine speech. “Then God said: let there be…”
This remarkable text opens our vision to an orderly world that in tis essence is declared by the Creator to be good; and, indeed, very good (Gen 1: 31). One hears nothing of the matter/spirit dualism found in some Hellenistic philosophies and some Near Eastern religions. Creation is not just a question of spiritual existence; it is an issue of material existence as well. While humanity is deeply related to the rest of the created order, God has a particular aim for the human race. Humanity is created in the image and likeness of God. “Then God said…in the divine image he created him…that move on the earth” (Gen 1: 26-28).
According to the wide consensus of contemporary exegetes, this is probably best seen not as a statement of the essence of human nature, but as a statement of a function. It points to humanity’s relation to all other living creature and to the earth as a whole. Human beings are intimately inter-woven with the rest of the created order. The role of humanity is to live in such a way that the loving creativity of God will become manifest within the created order through human relations with other humans and with the non-human world. The life-style of humans should reflect in the world the loving, creative care of God for all of creation.
Contemporary exegetes affirm that the function of the divine image refers to both the male and the female in this text. Both share in the same divine given task with respect to the created order.
The Priestly account reaches its high-point with the symbolism of the seventh day. God has finished the work of creation and now rests on the seventh day. “So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all the work that had been done in creation” (Gen 2: 3).
This may be seen as legitimation of the Jewish practice of Sabbath required by the Torah in as far as this practice may now be seen to be rooted in the very origins of the world and inaugurated by the Creator God of the entire world. Torah belongs to the very structure of creation. This may be seen also as a reminder to the people of their obligations to God the Creator symbolised by the Sabbath, for those who live according to the Torah live in harmony with the primal order according to which God has created the world.
The Yahwist Account: beginning in Genesis 2 is very different. While the Priestly tradition seems to be concerned primarily with the creative relation of God to the world and to all in it, and with humanity’s place in the world, the Yahwist tradition seems to be primarily concerned with the failure of humanity to live up to its God-given task. There is a widespread agreement among exegetes that the point of departure for the writing of the material in the Yahwist account is not the experience of some eye-witness of the beginnings of human history. It is, rather, the present experience of the writer reflecting on the mystery of human experience as he finds it in his own time and place.
Assuming that the author is a member of the Jewish people, we can envision him to be reflecting not only on his personal experience, but also on the experience of his people over the centuries. From this perspective he lays out what may be seen a description of the polarities of human history not only as they may be seen in the case of the Hebrew people, but as they may be seen in human history as a whole. From this perspective it would be misleading to look to these texts as source of information about some paradisal situation at the beginning of history.
While the description of creation of humanity in the first chapter seems to emphasize the dignity of humankind, the text of the second chapter describes humanity graphically in terms of the earthly roots through which humanity is tied to the earth. God is here described as an artist fashioning a human form from the clay of the ground and breathing into it the breath of life (Gen 2: 7).
There is an interesting play on words. In Hebrew the word for ground is adamah and the name of that which is formed from the ground is adam. It appears that Adam is not first of all a proper name, but a description of the earth roots of humanity. It might be fair to see this as a way of modifying the temptation to over-state the exalted dignity of humanity in the first chapter. It can be seen also in relation to what is said later: “The Lord God took the man and settled him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and care for it” (Gen 2: 15).
The text goes on to describe how God surrounded Adam with all sorts of animal life, since it is not good for him to be alone. When none of those animals prove to be a suitable partner for the man, God then formed the woman from the rib of the man (Gen 2: 21ff). What is described as the failure of Adam and Eve is best seen not as something that happened once and for all at the outset of human history, but rather as something that is always present in human experience. And Genesis 3 is best read in the wider context of the biblical text up to Genesis 11. The failure of Adam and Eve is described as a failure to deal with limits appropriately. From there, we see the history of humanity as one of mistrust, fratricide, enmity, and discord. Human find it hard to deal with the other and have a driving tendency to push beyond appropriate limits. The description leads us to the disaster of the flood. The story of Noah leads to a covenant in which the fidelity of God is symbolised with the cosmic sign of the rainbow. From there, the symbol of human pride that leads to the widespread division of people and their inability to communicate in a healthy way.
Instead of looking at this narrative as a source of information about specific individuals and events, it might be more helpful to envision it as the overture to an opera. As a well-crafted overture either set the general mood or actually lays out the principle themes and characters of the opera that is to follow, so the biblical text lays out the basic themes that are constantly enacted throughout human history. The real intent of the text is not to describe specific events and particular individuals of the past. It is, rather, to describe the present situation of humanity as a whole. Humanity is taken from the earth, but is called to a noble destiny. From the beginning, however, humanity has failed by pushing beyond the limits of human nature in the desire to make humans the final arbiters of good and evil. But even in the face of human failure, God does not desert creation. The promise of Genesis 3: 15 will eventually be seen as the proto-evangelium; the first announcement of a saviour.
Thus, if we read the text as a unit from Genesis 1 – 11, we discover a remarkable, dramatic movement. The text begins with a vision of the fundamental harmony of the order of creation; the creative action of God brings order out of chaos. Humanity is integrated into the world in many ways. Rooted in the earth, humanity is called to a God-given responsibility for the good of the whole. We have then seen this juxtaposed with the violent disruption of that order and a near-return to chaos through inappropriate human interventions. Finally, in the story of Noah we discover a new creation placed under the cosmic sign of the rainbow as the sign of God’s everlasting covenant with creation. From here the text moves through a list of genealogies on to the account of Babel, and then quickly to the call of Abraham. The overture has been completed. Now the drama of patriarchal history will begin.
2. Prophetic Reflection
A major theme that stands out in the prophetic tradition is the conviction that the creative power of God manifests itself in a dramatic way in the history of Israel. The God who has created them as a people, who has liberated them from Egypt, and who is with them as a saving presence in their journey to the Promised Land is a the Creator God who has called the whole of reality into existence and sustains it as its creative Ground. This creator God is with Israel even in the tragedy of the Babylonian Exile and through the mouth of the prophets promises liberation anew and restoration of the people in its homeland. The creative power of Yahweh is contrasted sharply with the impotence of the gods. “Thus says the Lord, Israel’s King and redeemer… to fear and shame” (Is 44: 6-10).
The prophetic vision uses all the language and symbolism of the Mosaic experience to envision the future. This is particularly clear in Deutero-Isaiah and Trito-Isaiah (Is 40 – 46). We see here a typological correspondence between beginning of Israel’s history as a people and end of history, now projected in rich eschatological imagery. There will be a new creation, and the law will be written on the flesh of human hearts and not on tablets of stone. Behind this movement is the movement to the high monotheism of later Judaism. The God of this people is eventually seen as the God of all creation and of all people.
By creating Israel anew out of the chaos of the Exile, God reveals the original divine power to create order out of chaos. Creation language serves as the language to speak of the restored Israel (Is 62: 1-12). It serves also to evoke the vision of a future which will be a “new creation,” “new heavens and a new earth” that brings God’s world to its final perfection (Is 65: 17ff). With this we see how the biblical vision looks to the future fulfilment as the goal of God’s creative activity.
The vision of a future fulfilment would be taken up the apocalyptic literature. Here one looks forward to a dramatic conflict between the powers of evil and the power of good. In the eschatological victory of God, the power of evil will be definitely broken. The present age of turmoil in the old creation will give way to a new age of peace and harmony in the new creation.
3. Wisdom and Psalms
If the material we have discussed above is concerned extensively with the mystery of salvation and the history of God’s saving interaction with the Hebrew people, the Wisdom literature, while not ignoring the question of salvation (Ps 78; Wis 10: 11), shifts the reader’s attention more to the religious significance of the world of God’s creation. In the context of religious systems which tend to divines the cosmos, or particular things within the cosmos, the authors of the biblical texts are concerned with emphasising that, for all the beauty and wonder of the created order, the world is not divine. Rather, its beauty points to an even richer beauty in the reality of God who is Creator of the world, but not a part of the world. From this perspective, we might understand the great hymns of praise found in the Psalms. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it…” (Ps 24: 1-2). And: “By the Lord’s word the heavens were made; … and it stood in place” (Ps 33: 6, 8-9).
The whole of Psalm 104 is a sustained eulogy of God the Creator. The author relates the creative action of God to all dimensions of the world. Full of wonders as it is, yet the world is not God. “How manifold are your works, O Lord! … in his works” (Ps 104: 24, 31).
Of particular significance for our reflections is the way in which the development of Wisdom reflections eventually lead to a personification of wisdom. “For Wisdom is mobile beyond all motion, and she penetrates and pervades all things…” (Wis 7: 24-27). The book of Proverbs offers a moving reflection on wisdom: “The Lord begot me, the firstborn of his ways… the sons of men” (Prov 8: 22-31).
In this literature the focus is more on the present beauty and magnificence of the created world, and not so much on the historical acts of God as Israel’s saviour as noted in the prophetic material. Ti is not hard to understand why Jewish Rabbinic commentators tended to identify wisdom with the “beginning” of Genesis 1: 1, in which God created all things. This in turn will shed light on Paul’s Christology, and the tendency to connect Wisdom with the incarnation of the Word, and thus see Christ as involved in creation “from the beginning”. The same can be said of the prologue of John’s Gospel.
Conclusion: As we look over all the Scriptural material of the Old Testament, we can say that, granted the distinction between the religious message of the Scriptures and the physical world-view within which it is projected, the message is rich and profound. The historical-prophetic material amounts to a challenge to trust in the goodness and love of the Creator God and the work of creation despite the pain and trials of human history. The Wisdom tradition is a sustained call to sing the praises of the Creator for the great work of creation.
Clearly the physical vision of the world involved here is often mythical and archaic in character. If we focus our attention on the concrete details of the diverse accounts, we will find it impossible to come to a unified picture. For example, the Priestly account describes the creation of the world-order and all its inhabitants, and finally presents the creation of humanity. The Yahwist, on the other hand, describes the creation of humanity, and then describes God creating the beings that are to surround humanity. If these are to be taken as accounts of natural history, they can hardly be harmonised. Yet the redactor of the present text places the two accounts in immediate juxtaposition. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real intention of the redactor is to convey a message other than the concrete details of the stories. If we follow St. Augustine, physics is not the message of the Bible. The real point of the texts is a religious message which offers insight into the meaning of existence. It is a sustained effort to encourage humanity to take up existence with a sense of gratitude and praise of the Creator.
In this case, it follows that if the message of the Bible is not about the physical details of creation at its beginning, then the insights of science concerning cosmic origins need not be seen as contradicting the message of the Bible.
As regards the religious vision, the following points can be singled out:-
- God is viewed as sovereignly free, creative power who is the source of order in the world.
- The creative activity of God embraces the world from the beginning to the end of its history.
- The created world is in essence good.
- Humanity has a special role to play in this world of God’s creation.
- While the physical view of the world is that of a static order reflecting God’s stability and fidelity, the biblical vision sees a dynamic vision of history as the interplay between divine freedom and human freedom.
- The problem of evil enters the picture primarily in the form of moral failure through the activity of human beings.
- With that moral evil, human beings find themselves at odds with one another and with the world around them in as far as they are at odds with God.
Salvation is, in essence, the completion of God’s creative work with the world and humanity.