As I’ve mentioned, the last couple of weeks have been filled with Genesis for me. A deep immersion in the first creation story, looked at through several different lens, produces a story that only adds to my awe and wonder at those who constructed this amazing text.
For at least two hundred years, it has been well known that Genesis, as part of the Pentateuch, is the product of many hands, but especially there are four traditions represented, the Yahwist which is oldest, the Elohist, the Deuteronomist, and the Priestly. The Priestly tradition was constructed after the exile, in other words between the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. It is believed that the P constructed the framework of the Pentateuch, i.e., worked out the placement of the various stories from oral traditions that had reached near final polishing in written form.
Thus, it is hard to assign a “writer” to any portion of the creation story of Genesis, other than the generic “P” appellation. Still, it is nearly impossible not to be suitably impressed by the high level of theological development evidenced by the tradition as well as the high intelligence exhibited. It denotes, in utter fairness, something that can be rightly called “inspiration,” a imprimatur of sorts given by God, that indeed, there is something very basically true and right about what is said.
Of course, this cannot be taken too far. The stories were never meant, it is believed, to provide any kind of actual factual historical evidence of the how of creation. John Paul II very famously alluded to that some years ago when he said, “The bible is not meant to tell us how heaven was created, but how to get there.” Of first importance was the why of creation, and more important yet, the who of creation. It is a story of Creator creating creature as Walter Brueggemann suggests.
I have heard others say that there is “proof” of the first creation account being factual, in that it agrees with present historical evidence produced by both astronomy and evolutionary theory about the stages of creation. A simple reading of the passages Gen 1-2:4a belies this conclusion. It also tends to disprove the oft pushed theory that God creates ex nihilo.
The beginning includes an initial something, not nothing. There is a darkness over the face of the waters. The waters are dangerous and chaotic. God brings light first. Recalling that the exiles at this time are in Babylon, faced with many local deities some of which are sun and moon, the Priestly source is quick to dispel that at least the sun is the source of light. No God is, and creates this first. Darkness existed and God pushes back the darkness and harnesses it, locating it apart from day. He creates a dome which serves as the firmament, (actually a metal domed or hammered bowl) to separate the waters into those below and those above the dome. This of course is something rather odd, and frankly is in opposition to the second creation story.
In the minds of the ancients, the earth was thought to be a flatten disk. So the waters are harnessed and located around the edges of the disk on the third day, and dry land appears. God then creates vegetation. And it is clear that there are no meat eaters, either animal or human considered at this point. All are to live in harmony. Only after this does God create the stars, and specifically the sun and moon, though they are deliberately left unnamed to further make it plain they have no power themselves.
Following this sea creatures (plants were not considered “life” as such by the ancients), birds and finally mammals. Then of course humankind is created. God speaks directly to humans in their creation, whereas he has not spoken to any other created thing.
Of great curiosity is the use of the plural. “Let us make,” “in our image.” Much is made of the word, image. It seems that God meant more than to make us in his spiritual image, yet we accept today that God is not corporeal, but Spirit. Some scholars suggest that we are more akin to to a likeness of God in the sense of a statue in the realm when the king cannot be there. Man (generic human) is God’s representative on earth. Yet the us, our usage, denotes that while we are like God, we are also not like God, or the image at best is blurred.
The concept of God in a council of gods is not new, nor not uncommon in the Bible. There is reference in one of the psalms to the “council of gods.” While by the time of the Priestly tradition, monotheism seemed well formed, there was still a recognition of their being other gods, they were just subject at best to Yahweh-Elohim. The Hebrew Testament is replete with references to these gods, and to proving of course that Yahweh was vastly more powerful.
The redactor masterfully creates from the known writings and oral stories a perfect fit for those who were now coming out of exile, but who had been divorced from an Israelite state for generations. This powerful story explains that no matter their life experiences in Babylon, they can trust that God is the true source of everything that is, and commands all the forces of nature and life. God gives fertility, light, food, and all else. People are reminded that their God, the God of the Exodus, has from the beginning made an irrevocable covenant and that they are still his chosen. And most importantly they are reminded that all happens by God’s will, which cannot be overcome. Thus, their exile, was part of a greater plan, and signals no abandonment by God.
These lessons have and do resonate down to us today. It is essential that we not get bogged down in archaic and simplistic explanations of creation and miss the true import of the work. It establishes forevermore the creator-creating-creation format. It makes crystal clear the closeness of this relationship, and the appropriate location and response of God to creature and creature to God. Covenant is established and cannot be broken by human error, for God is gracious, and has given his “good” to his creation.
Humans are understood to stand in the stead for God as his representative. And since God’s response to creation is loving, gracious, forgiving, and so forth, so must ours be to that which we are responsible for–the earth and all it contains. In this short but hugely packed section, we see the entire import of how we relate to one another, to all life, and to our God. We obey in gracious acceptance, willingly as images of the Creator.
One cannot help, no matter the difficulties in assigning authorship to a specific person, which we cannot, in concluding that the theological conclusions of the final redactor were indeed inspired by God. With huge intellectual powers, overlaid with a genuine radical openness to God, the writer manages to set down truths that are still revered and honored, and deeply believed some 2500 years later.
While, the creation story 2 will in some ways contradict or bring tension to this theological frame, it will provide it’s own inspired conclusions that are every bit as valid and rich today.
I have not even begun to do the text justice of course. One could write a hundred pages and in some sense one would still merely have touched the surface of the impact of this opening gambit. I mean only to convey some of the sense of wonder I am swirling in these days, as I revisit some old analysis, and gain new visions of God’s awesome relationship with us the created being.