Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The true message of Genesis 1-3

Pope Francis has recently declared the truth of the Big Bang and evolution. Responses to this have been mixed, I suppose: some claim that the Pope contradicts Genesis and rejects the biblical teaching; others are glad to hear that the Church is progressing and modernizing. My impression is that this latter point of view is just ignorant; I thought the Catholic church affirmed both scientific theories for a while now. It was a Catholic priest who came up with the Big Bang in the first place! I think that the former point of view, however, is also ignorant.

Understood in the context of ancient near eastern creation mythology, my impression is that the purpose of the creation myth in Genesis 1 is not to give a strict chronology of creation. Thus I was taught in seminary, and thus -- so I am told -- is the opinion of many scholars. Rather, the creation myth is organized the way it is for the sake of giving a picture of the world, and of the relations between it, God, and humanity. There is nothing about the chronology of Gen 1 that is significant, except perhaps for the fact that it is modeled after the Sabbath practice (see Levenson's discussion in Creation and the Persistence of Evil).

What is important in the creation account of Genesis, however, is the picture that it gives of God's relation to the world and to humanity. This becomes especially clear when we compare it to the creation myths that neighboring societies had. Consider, for example, the creation of humanity as told in the Babylonian Atrahasis myth. In this story, there were two classes of gods, the laborers and the upper class. One day the laborers grow tired of doing all the hard work, so they start to riot and disrupt the peace and quiet of the other gods. In order to solve the problem and go back to bed in peace, the gods decide to create humanity from the blood of a sacrificed scapegoat god. They say: Let her create primeval man, so that he may bear the yoke . . . Let man bear the load of the gods! (tr. Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia, p. 14).

On this view of things, humanity has no special place in the heart of the gods. Humans are not created for any other purpose except to do hard work and engage in backbreaking menial labor that the gods themselves got tired of doing. The relation between the gods, furthermore, is intrinsically one of economics and pragmatics: if you sacrifice to them, do them a favor here or there, there may be friendly to you. They have no special commitment to you as such, however, and there is hardly a pride or care on their part as creators for the human race.

We can also see how this view of things affects the social sphere. Those upper classes of society, closer as they are to the gods and the representatives of the divine, are consequently within their rights to oppress the lower classes. The lower classes are made to do the menial and difficult slave work to which they have been condemned; the upper classes are like the gods in that they get the easy life to themselves, the jobs to be done having been delegated to others.

Compare this with the story we find in Gen 1-3, where God creates -- not out of any need, not out of any desire to find someone else to do his work for him, but simply out of the power of his word and out of love. He creates everything with its proper place in which it can flourish and be happy: the fish in the waters, the birds in the air, the animals on the solid ground, the vegetation in its various places, etc. What is more, he creates humanity in his own image so that humanity can care for and tend to the created order. God loves humanity especially, and confers on it this great gift and responsibility: the call to become like God and to care for the world given it as a gift.

On this view of things, the relation between God and humanity is one of unconditional respect and benevolence. Human persons are all like sons in the image and likeness of God their Father. They were created to be like him and to enjoy his work. Here the dominant metaphor is not one of master-slave or employer-employee; it is familial: God is the Father and humans are his children, made in his image to be like him. This means, too, that God creates humanity for our own sake, not to get anything out of us. Indeed he needs nothings, since his power is so great that he can bring anything into being merely by speaking it!

You can see how this would affect the political sphere as well. Rulers, because their position of authority is one modeled after God's authority over all creation, are called to be like God. This doesn't mean they get all the gifts and honor and glory while not doing anything; this doesn't mean they get to oppress them in the lower classes while they live an easy life of relaxation and parties. On the contrary, they are to provide for each person and to ensure that they have their needs met.

Here, then, is one of the important messages of Gen 1-3. It has nothing to do with the age of the earth or anything of that sort, but it does have everything to do with how we see ourselves in relation to the world, to each other, and to God. God is not in competition with us, he is not against us, he does not relate to us on fundamentally economic terms. On the contrary, he relates to us as a Father, and he has given us this gift: to be like him in caring for one another and for the creation at large. He cares for our good and he created us for own sake, not for some gain he might get out of us.  And when we are in the image and likeness of God, when we are acting as we were created to act, we embody this same goodness and unconditional benevolence.