Qui supprimé le joug imposé aux dieux ses ennemis, qui a créé l’humanité pour les libérer, le miséricordieux qui a le pouvoir de donner la vie ! Enuma Elish (mythe de la création babylonienne)
Observe le jour du repos, pour le sanctifier, comme l’Éternel, ton Dieu, te l’a ordonné. Tu travailleras six jours, et tu feras tout ton ouvrage. Mais le septième jour est le jour du repos de l’Éternel, ton Dieu: tu ne feras aucun ouvrage, ni toi, ni ton fils, ni ta fille, ni ton serviteur, ni ta servante, ni ton boeuf, ni ton âne, ni aucune de tes bêtes, ni l’étranger qui est dans tes portes, afin que ton serviteur et ta servante se reposent comme toi. Tu te souviendras que tu as été esclave au pays d’Égypte, et que l’Éternel, ton Dieu, t’en a fait sortir à main forte et à bras étendu: c’est pourquoi l’Éternel, ton Dieu, t’a ordonné d’observer le jour du repos. Deutéronome 5: 12-15
Ainsi furent achevés les cieux et la terre, et toute leur armée. Dieu acheva au septième jour son oeuvre, qu’il avait faite: et il se reposa au septième jour de toute son oeuvre, qu’il avait faite. Dieu bénit le septième jour, et il le sanctifia, parce qu’en ce jour il se reposa de toute son oeuvre qu’il avait créée en la faisant. Genèse 2: 1-3
Le sabbat a été fait pour l’homme, et non l’homme pour le sabbat. Jesus (Mark 2: 27)
C’est là un des grands problèmes de la décolonisation. Les dominés se réapproprient le discours du colonisateur pour le retourner contre lui, construire leur propre identité et légitimer leur combat. Pour affirmer leur unité, ils se définissent par référence à l’élément le plus simple : la couleur de la peau, ou la négritude chère à Aimé Césaire et Léopold Sédar Senghor. Ce faisant, ils ne sortent pas du système et s’enferment dans le piège d’une identité que j’appelle « chromatique ». (…) Les nationalistes ont récupéré cette identité et l’ont inversée pour démontrer que l’Afrique a une civilisation et une histoire, la négritude. Mais l’acceptation de cette définition chromatique a empêché de voir que les Africains forment des groupes aux intérêts très variés, plus ou moins accommodants avec le pouvoir colonial. Jusqu’à aujourd’hui cette vision raciale produit des effets pervers : quand un bourreau est africain et noir, on a du mal à le traduire en justice pour peu que les juges soient blancs, alors que ce serait l’intérêt des victimes qui peuvent être noires. (…) La vision « chromatique » de l’Afrique aboutit à une vision fausse de l’esclavage. La traite ne se limitait pas à la vente de Noirs à des Blancs dans des ports africains. Elle englobe la manière dont les esclaves étaient « produits » à l’intérieur du continent et acheminés sur la côte. Ce système atlantique était une organisation globale, qui mettait en relation, dans un partenariat asymétrique mais intéressé, les compagnies européennes avec des élites africaines. Celles-ci utilisaient la traite pour redéfinir les rapports de pouvoir sur le continent. (…) Dans n’importe quelle ville africaine, je suis frappé par la coexistence entre le grand nombre de 4 × 4 de luxe, et l’usage d’un moyen de transport qui remonte au néolithique, la tête des femmes. Cela signifie que les élites, au prix d’une violence extrême exercée sur les populations, s’emparent des ressources du pays, les exportent, et dépensent les recettes ainsi dégagées en achetant à l’étranger des biens d’une totale inutilité sociale autre que symbolique de leur capacité de violence. Ils ruinent les pays en pompant la force de travail des corps subalternes qui sont réduits à la misère. La réponse de la partie la plus dynamique de ces populations, c’est la fuite, les pirogues vers l’Europe. (…) A l’époque, des compagnies européennes apportaient en Afrique des biens tout aussi inutiles et destructeurs, comme la verroterie, l’alcool et les armes. Elles les remettaient aux élites qui organisaient la chasse aux esclaves. Déjà, le pillage permettait aux élites d’accéder aux biens de consommation importés. Aujourd’hui, le système s’est perfectionné puisque les esclaves se livrent eux-mêmes : ce sont les émigrés. (…) Si vous voulez comprendre le système de la traite négrière, observez le comportement actuel des élites africaines. Pourquoi nos systèmes de santé et d’éducation sont-ils aussi vétustes ? Parce que les élites ne s’y soignent pas et n’y éduquent pas leurs enfants, ils préfèrent les pays du Nord. Leur système de prédation ruine les campagnes et contraint les populations à s’exiler. Au point qu’aujourd’hui, si vous mettez un bateau dans n’importe quel port africain et proclamez que vous cherchez des esclaves pour l’Europe, le bateau va se remplir immédiatement. Certes, ce système fonctionne au bénéfice des multinationales, mais il n’existerait pas sans des élites africaines. A l’époque de la traite négrière, l’alcool et les fusils achetés aux Européens leur permettaient de se maintenir au pouvoir. Désormais ce sont les 4 × 4 et les kalachnikovs. (…) A l’époque de la guerre froide, les leaders africains jouaient déjà l’Occident contre le communisme pour obtenir le maximum. Aujourd’hui, ils peuvent miser sur la Chine, l’Inde, l’Iran, contre l’ancienne puissance coloniale, mais ils conservent leur culture de prédation. Pour les peuples africains, cela ne change rien. Tant que nos élites se contenteront de multiplier leurs partenaires pour leur livrer les matières premières et non développer la production, elles reproduiront le système qui a mis l’Afrique à genoux. (…) On était parti de l’idée que la toute-puissance de l’Etat appuyée sur un parti unique allait assurer le développement. On allait rattraper l’Europe en 2000 ! Par référence à la toute-puissance de l’Etat colonial, on a fétichisé l’Etat. Cela s’est avéré totalement inefficace parce que le groupe qui s’est emparé de l’Etat s’est servi de son pouvoir pour accumuler des richesses en étouffant l’initiative privée. Dès la fin des années 1970, le système a capoté. Les anciennes métropoles ont délégué le soutien financier au FMI et à la Banque mondiale qui ont disqualifié les Etats et promis le développement par le marché. Cela a produit des catastrophes encore plus graves que l’Etat. (…) On a « ONGisé » les sociétés pour suppléer les services publics. Ces organisations ont structuré la société civile, mais elles ont été récupérées par les élites. Les groupes qui détournaient l’argent de l’Etat accaparent désormais les ressources des ONG pour financer d’inutiles colloques ainsi que des flottes de 4 × 4, symboles de la néocolonisation de l’Afrique et agents actifs de détérioration de son environnement. (…) Certains intellectuels contestent radicalement le fonctionnement des Etats, mais c’est pour mieux négocier leur place. Du jour au lendemain, ils se retrouvent ministres du pouvoir qu’ils vilipendaient la veille. L’idée selon laquelle on accède aux ressources non par le travail mais par la simple posture politique est profondément ancrée. (…) L’Afrique est le seul continent où la majorité de la population n’a pas envie de rester. Cette situation est liée au choix des élites africaines qui, au moment de la traite, ont détruit l’artisanat et la métallurgie, préférant acheter le fer venu d’Europe, soumettre et vendre ceux qui auraient pu assurer la production. Ce mépris des productions locales reste flagrant. Quand le président sénégalais Abdoulaye Wade reçoit le khalife des mourides, il lui offre non pas des chaussures fabriquées au Sénégal, mais un tableau fabriqué en Iran, son chef du protocole insistant devant les caméras sur ce point. (…) Nous avons toutes les ressources pour nous en sortir. Allez dans n’importe quel marché à 5 heures du matin, vous verrez des centaines de femmes qui suent sang et eau pour nourrir leur famille. Nous n’avons rien à apprendre du point de vue du courage physique. Notre problème, c’est ce groupe qui a militarisé les sociétés africaines à partir de la traite atlantique en connivence avec les compagnies européennes pour insuffler cette culture de prédation. Ibrahima Thioub (université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar)
L’Enuma Elish est un mythe babylonien ou mésopotamien de la création racontant la lutte entre le chaos et l’ordre cosmique. Il s’agit essentiellement d’un mythe du cycle des saisons. Il est nommé d’après ses premiers mots et était récité le quatrième jour du festival du nouvel an de la Babylone antique. L’histoire de base existe sous des formes diverses dans la région. Cette version est écrite en akkadien, un vieux dialecte Babylonien et présente Marduk, la divinité protectrice de la ville de Babylone. Une version antérieure similaire en sumérien ancienne a pour héros Anu, Enil et Ninurta, ce qui suggère que cette version fut adaptée pour justifier les pratiques religieuses dans le culte de Marduk à Babylone. Cette version a été écrite dans le courant du XIIe siècle avant J.-C. dans l’écriture cunéiforme sur sept tablettes d’argile. Ils ont été trouvés au milieu du XIXe siècle dans les ruines du Palais d’Ashurbanipal à Ninive. George Smith a publié ces textes en 1876 comme la « Genèse chaldéenne ». En raison de nombreuses similitudes avec le récit de la Genèse, certains historiens ont conclu que le récit de la Genèse était simplement une réécriture de l’histoire babylonienne. Par réaction, beaucoup de ceux qui voulaient conserver le caractère unique de la Bible ont prétendu soit qu’il y n’avait aucun parallèle réél entre ces récits ou que les récits de la Genèse avaient été écrits en premier, et que le mythe babylonien avait emprunté au récit biblique. Cependant, il y a simplement trop de similitudes pour nier toute relation entre ces récits. Il existe également des différences importantes qui ne doivent pas être ignorées. Pourtant, il y a peu de doute que les versions sumériennes de l’histoire ont précédé le récit biblique de plusieurs centaines d’années. Au lieu d’opter pour les deux extrêmes de la dépendance totale ou d’aucun contact quel qu’il soit, il est préférable de voir les récits de la Genèse comme la libre utilisation des métaphores et du symbolisme d’un ensemble culturel commun pour affirmer leur propre théologie au sujet de Dieu. Dennis Bratcher
Le mythe de création babylonien, Enuma Elish, décrit une grande bataille entre les dieux, principalement entre Mardouk, le champion des dieux et Tiamat, l’océan primitif ou le « profond ». Parfois Tiamat est dépeint comme un grand serpent, le dragon du chaos ou le dragon de la mer. Mardouk surmonta ses forces et Tiamat et brisa son corps en deux parties pour faire le ciel, les étoiles, le soleil et la lune de la moitié et la terre de l’autre. Du sang du mari battu de Tiamat Kingu, un des dieux moindre, Ea (Enki) créa ensuite l’humanité pour être les serviteurs des dieux afin qu’ils n’aient plus jamais à travailler à nouveau.
Enfin, Kingu a été mis en évidence et tué, et de son sang, Marduk a formé des êtres humains pour servir lui et ses alliés afin qu’ils n’aient plus jamais à travailler. Après tout cela, la famille construit une belle maison dans lequel Marduk pourrait se détendre. Ils appelèrent l’endroit de Babylone, et reposant de Marduk et ses amis, manger et boire, alors que tout le monde chante les louanges de la grand libérateur Marduk par récitation 50 noms qui lui donna un hommage.
Les Israélites emprunté le langage culturel de Canaan, parce que cette langue était le meilleur, peut-être le seul, moyen à leur disposition dans leur contexte culturel pour formuler des observations sur le monde physique et les liens de Dieu à ce monde. Il n’y a pas d’autres catégories de pensée pour décrire ce que nous appelons les processus « naturels ». En fait, il n’y a aucun mot équivalent dans la langue hébraïque pour ce que nous entendons par « nature ». Les Israélites ne pouvaient pas parler de la « nature » comme un ensemble de forces naturelles. Il ne pouvaient parler que de Dieu. Pourtant, ils diffèrent radicalement des Cananéens et des cultures environnantes en refusant de considérer comme synonymes Dieu et le monde physique. Ils n’utilisaient pas les mythes pour articuler leur compréhension de Dieu. Ils n’avaient qu’un niveau historique et donc se séparèrent de l’Antiquité. Mais les Israélites n’ont pas quitté leur culture. Ils ne firent pas de percées radicales dans l’observation du monde physique. Si on les laissait au langage du mythe que de parler du monde physique, même quand ils l’ont compris en termes de création de Dieu. Ils utilisaient, non pas le contenu et les hypothèses du mythe lui-même, mais le langage du mythe pour témoigner de la relation de Dieu au monde physique comme créateur et libérateur. Dennis Bratcher
Les mythes parlent de quelque chose sur le plan cosmique, en essayant de décrire les forces invisibles qui façonnent l’existence humaine. Cependant, la Bible n’est pas directement mythologique, parce que la prémisse fondamentale de l’écriture, découlant de l’expérience d’Israël de Dieu est que Dieu se révèle dans l’histoire. Il n’est pas « là-bas » à un certain niveau cosmique, mais se révèle ici où nous vivons comme des êtres humains. En contraste frappant avec la mythologie des Cananéens, Israël a commencé à développer une vue très incarnée de Dieu très tôt dans son histoire. Cela ne signifie pas qu’Israël ait abandonné rapidement tous les vestiges du polythéisme ou la vision du monde mythologique qui lui est associée. Il faudra aux Israélites près de 800 ans de lutte acharnée pour tracer clairement ce nouveau chemin d’accès entre les nations. Pourtant, ce qui était souvent la voix de la minorité en Israël compris, c’est que Dieu avait choisi d’entrer en relation avec l’humanité dans l’arène où nous vivons. Israël savait ce qu’il savait au sujet de Dieu non pas parce qu’il avait projeté ses idées « là-bas » quelque part, ou spéculé sur ce que Dieu était, ou ce qu’il pourrait être, ou devrait être, ou ce dont ils avaient besoin qu’il soit. Ils savaient quelque chose au sujet de Dieu, car à un moment donné dans l’histoire humaine, un groupe de personnes se trouvait au bord de la mer des roseaux avait vu Dieu à l’œuvre. Et en tant que chrétiens, nous savons ce que nous savons au sujet de Dieu, non pas parce que nous sommes devenus plus sophistiqués dans nos spéculations ou notre enquête scientifique que les Israélites, mais parce qu’à un autre moment, un autre groupe de personnes se trouvait sous une croix et sur une tombe à l’extérieur de Jérusalem et a vu Dieu à l’œuvre dans l’histoire humaine.
Ce fait sépare non seulement l’écriture des mythes de l’antiquité en lui donnant une base solide dans l’histoire humaine, il souligne également deux aspects de la compréhension de la Bible et de ces récits de la Genèse, qui sont cruciales. Tout d’abord, les préoccupations des Israélites qui ont écrit ce matériau avaient à voir avec comment ils venaient à réconcilier avec cette compréhension radicalement nouvelle de la déité, et comment cela pourrait être vécu dans le monde dans lequel ils vivaient. Les gens qui ont écrit L’Ecriture, qui ont signalé et réfléchi sur les choses qu’ils avaient vues et entendues, cette personne ou une collectivité qui a écrit la Genèse, qu’ont-ils essayé de communiquer ? Qu’est-ce qu’ils essayaient de dire ? Quelles préoccupations se trouvaient derrière les confessions de foi qu’ils faisaient au sujet de Dieu ? Ils étaient les plus susceptibles de ne pas essayer de nous parler de l’évolution, ou d’attaquer la science ou d’enterrer des codes secrets dans le texte au sujet de la troisième guerre mondiale ! Ce qu’ils devaient dire était quelque chose qui dirait aux gens que Ba’al n’est pas Dieu ! Que Baal ne fait pas pleuvoir. Que Baal ne contrôle pas le monde. Ils avaient besoin de déplacer les gens au-delà de la superstition et de la magie comme façon de comprendre la Déité. Ils avaient besoin d’affirmer le Dieu qu’ils avaient rencontrées dans l’Exode de telle sorte que les gens adorent et servent au lieu de fréquenter les temples de Ba’al et d’essayer de manipuler le monde par la magie.
Le seul arrière-plan qu’ils avaient pour ce faire au niveau de la communication était la culture dans laquelle ils vivaient. Donc ils ne vont pas nous donner des explications scientifiques sur ce qui fait pleuvoir qui répondrait à nos esprits du XXIe siècle. Ils n’avaient que deux choix. Si quelqu’un demandait à un Israélite de l’ancien Testament, « ce qui fait pleuvoir? », ils auraient dit soit « Ba’al fait pleuvoir » soit « Dieu fait pleuvoir. » Il n’y n’avait tout simplement aucun autre moyen de le dire ! Pourtant, quand ils commencent à décrire comment Dieu fait pleuvoir, ils décrivent un Dieu monté sur un nuage de tonnerre du désert, c’est-à-dire qu’ils diraient si ils étaient Cananéens adorer Ba’al. Ils nous raconteraient du pareil au même, sauf que c’est Dieu dont ils parlent plutôt que de Ba’al. Ces perspectives culturelles sont le seul cadre de référence qu’ils ont ; ils ne peuvent pas décrire le monde ou Dieu en termes de nos perspectives modernes, afin qu’ils utilisent le seul langage et symboles et métaphores, qu’ils doivent témoigner de cette foi radicalement nouvelle en un Dieu créateur unique. Dans quelle autre culture pourraient-ils écrire à part la leur ? Si nous ne leur permettons pas dans le texte biblique, alors nous devons faire d’autres hypothèses au sujet de l’Ecriture qui nous dépasse immédiatement le texte et son propre univers. La prise en charge doit alors être, sous une forme quelconque, qu’ils n’écrivent vraiment pas beaucoup le cas échéant de la Bible et au lieu de cela, Dieu a écrit ou leur a dit ce qu’il fallait écrire. Pourtant, après avoir examiné attentivement le texte, avec toutes les particularités de la langue hébraïque, avec toutes les métaphores qui ont des parallèles dans le monde culturel antique, avec tous les problèmes qui sont bien enracinés dans les problèmes de l’antiquité, je pense que c’est une erreur de faire de telles suppositions. Peut-être que le texte dit plus là dans leur culture que nous ne l’imaginions, si nous l’écoutons attentivement. Dennis Bratcher
Attention: une libération peut en cacher une autre !
En cette nouvelle journée de Sabbat qui commence …
Où la Bible célèbre la libération, par l’Eternel notre Dieu, du peuple hébreu de l’esclavage d’Egypte …
Comment ne pas voir, avec Dennis Bratcher, cette autre libération rappelée par la Genèse …
Celle du Dieu créateur qui nous délivrait du dieu esclavagiste babylonien Mardouk …
Qui lui prétendait libérer les dieux en asservissant les hommes ?
Genesis Bible Study
In this series of studies in Genesis, we will begin with some preliminary considerations about how we view Scripture and how we go about reading and studying the Bible as Scripture. Of course, this involves a lot of issues that move outside the Genesis narratives. But they are issues that directly impact how we understand these particular passages. There are a lot of issues that could be covered. However, rather than trying to cover all the ranges of possibility for interpretation and try to define what is or isn’t right or wrong with all of the possible perspectives, this study instead will concentrate on one particular way of hearing the biblical text. It is not presented as the only way, nor even the best way, but only as one method by which we can hear the biblical message perhaps in new ways.
The Problem of Modern Thinking
In this first lesson I would like to focus on some principals or ways of thinking related to how we read and interpret Scripture. I think we need to do this before we move into actually working with the Genesis passages, because how we come to Scripture and the way we think about Scripture as we come to it, affects how we can hear it and what we get out of it.
Particularly the first three or four chapters of Genesis have tended to be battle grounds for all kinds of speculation, some good and some bad, some helpful and some extremely divisive in the community of Faith. The goal here is to move beyond the debates and the battles and hear anew these passages as the living and active word of God for the Community of Faith. By allowing the debates and controversies to dominate, and to stake out certain positions ahead of time and then come at the text through those positions simply guarantees that we will end up discussing things about the text yet never really get to the message of the text itself. We end up talking all around the text about what it should be, what it ought to be or, what we think it is and never really get to the point of hearing what the text itself is actually saying. I simply think that it is time for us to hear what the text itself says in relation to the Community of Faith that is bearing witness to us about its encounter and journey with God. That, I think, is what it means for the Bible to be Scripture for the Christian community today.
[The following comments refer to the graphic Three Triads of Biblical Interpretation. It might be helpful to print off that graphic or have it cached in the browser for quick reference in the following discussion.]
What we tend to do as we casually read Scripture is to approach the Bible as if it were a sequentially written historical account that is simply recounting events for us to follow through history. On the accompanying graphic, The Three Triads of Biblical Interpretation, this is illustrated in the far left hand column, in assuming that we read the Bible on that level of the history, the event, the individual stories. From this perspective, when we read Scripture we think we are accessing the Bible, entering into the biblical message, on that level of the historical event. We than move from historical event over to application to our lives (on the chart the « down » arrows on the right side that lead to « Application for Spiritual Living Today »). We tend to think that the historical event relates directly to how we apply it to our lives: so as this happened to a certain individual, so it works that same way in our lives today.
Dealing With the Actual Shape of the Biblical Text
I think there is a serious problem with how we come to Scripture in this way of thinking, and I would like to suggest a different way of approaching Scripture. A much easier way to talk about this and illustrate it is to begin in the New Testament, since the difficulties with this assumption are much easier to demonstrate from the Gospel accounts where we have parallel accounts of the same events. Often we approach the Gospel narratives with these same assumptions, that we are reading a sequential historical account that is simply telling us in a matter of fact way what happened, what Jesus said and did. This is reinforced if we happen to be using a « red letter » edition of the New Testament. When we read those narratives and we see the words of Jesus in red, it is easy to assume that we are reading the actual words that Jesus spoke, especially since they are in quotation marks in our English Bible (none of the three languages in which the Bible was originally written, Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek have quotations marks; those are added by translators to conform to English usage, and are sometimes solely at the discretion of the translator where they are placed).
So, we read the text with the mental assumption that these are the very words of Jesus. This assumes that we are entering the Gospel accounts through the left side of the chart, through the level of historical event. In terms of simply reading the story as a historical narrative that superficial level of reading presents little difficulty.
However, when we move to study of the text for its theological message it raises serious problems. There are many places in the New Testament Gospels where we read the red letters, and then turn to a parallel passage in one of the other Gospels and find something different in some way. For example, we can read something in Mark’s Gospel and find notes in the margin directing us to the other Gospels where a parallel account is recorded. Yet when we turn to the parallel, for example to Luke, we find that there are differences. Sometimes there will be differences of single words, sometimes there will be differences in whole sentences, sometimes it will be in a totally different historical context, or sometimes the event will be in different setting or location.
Take for instance, in Luke, the return of Jesus to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth (Lk 4:16-30). If we compare that event in Luke with the versions of Matthew (13:54-58) and Mark (6:1-6), there are significant differences in how the incident is reported and what is recorded that Jesus said (John does not tell us about this incident, which raises the same question from a different perspective; that is, why did John omit this incident?). For example, Luke tells us about the passage Jesus read from the Isaiah scroll, a feature omitted in both other accounts. Also, the comment that Jesus made about being accepted in his home town is very different in Luke than in Matthew and Mark. In fact, even the words differ between Matthew and Mark.
And it is interesting to note the very different placement of this event in the story line of the Gospels. Matthew and Mark both place this event well into the Galilean ministry of Jesus after he had performed many specific public acts. He had raised the dead (Jairus’ daughter), had healed the lepers, had cast out demons particularly around the area of Capernaum, and then had returned to Nazareth. Yet in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ return to his hometown is the first public thing that he does after his baptism. Luke knows of other activities of Jesus, but he clearly wants us to see his return to Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry. In Luke, Jesus first returned to Nazareth and was driven away from his hometown, and then he expanded his ministry into the area around Capernaum by casting out the demons and raising Jairus’ daughter. It is obvious with a little careful reading that not only are the words of Jesus different in Luke, the chronology is also very different.
Significance and Importance for Faith
What this tells us is that we are not really listening to the kind of history that we might think we are by only a superficial reading. It is not that this is something less than history, in the sense that it is based on the real life activity of Jesus. But it is not the kind of matter-of-fact reporting of details that we would expect in a carefully constructed, scientifically investigated, data-based reporting of historical fact. Obviously, something very different is going on in these writings, and it is a serious mistake to think that we are simply reading the same kind of history book that we would write to report the data of event.
What I would like to suggest is that we take these features of the biblical text seriously and direct our attention to what the biblical text itself actually does in telling these stories, rather than trying to impose on the biblical text our ideas of what it ought to be in terms of modern history writing. Here is the observation that will underlie this study: what we have access to in Scripture is not directly historical event, but the testimony of the community of faith to the ongoing significance and importance for Faith of that event. It is that significance and importance for Faith that the biblical witness is communicating, not just the historical details and data.
When we pick up this book, this Bible, we need to realize that it is a piece of literature, it is a writing. It is the written testimony of the community of faith as that community has already interpreted the significance and importance of the biblical events. In other words, we do not have direct access to the left column of history and event; we only have access through the middle column of literature and author and community as they bear witness of things they have seen and heard (1 John 1:1-4). The middle column suggests that what we have in Scripture is not directly the historical event but someone telling us about the historical event. What we have in the Bible is testimony in the form of literature. The access that we have to Scripture is on the level of literature, of reading what people, what the community of Faith, are telling us.
That still has connection to history. One of our primary faith affirmations as Christians, along with Jews, is that God has revealed himself in history. That means the Bible is not mythological, like the myths of the Greeks, Romans, and Canaanites that simply personified the processes of nature into gods and then told stories about those gods as if they actually existed someplace in the cosmos. The Bible is anchored solidly in human history, which is simply another way to say that we believe God revealed himself directly in human history. He doesn’t operate on some cosmic abstract level like the gods of the Canaanites or Romans, but he really meets people where they are. So that historical level is valid and important. We believe that Jesus walked in a physical body, in a physical place, at a physical time in human history; that’s why we talk about the Incarnation. God incarnated himself and revealed himself in history. It is not a myth or a story about the gods that helps explain why the physical world works the way it does.
Scripture as Testimony
Yet, what we have in scripture is a community of faith’s testimony to that history, not the history itself. For example, John’s Gospel, as well as the First Johannine epistle (referenced above, 1 John 1:1-4), clearly tells us that the author is selecting certain events and writing about the things that he has seen and heard. That is testimony. But it is testimony aimed at a specific purpose, and that purpose will shape how the story will be told, what is included or excluded, even to how events are remembered, arranged, and connected together, even to how the words of Jesus are remembered and told (since contrary to modern thinking, in the ancient world exact words were not recorded, but the intent or the message was remembered).
At the end of John’s Gospel he tells us: « There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the whole world could not contain the books that would be written. » (Jn 21:25). And he had already told us earlier in the book: « Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written that you might come to believe [or « go on believing »] that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you might have life in his name. » (Jn 20:30-31). He is selective and he represents a community of faith that is choosing certain aspects of history and interpreting them to instruct us in the faith. The focus is not on duplicating the exact events that happened in all their details, or even in getting the chronology of events all sorted out or making sure that the exact words of Jesus were repeated. The intent was to bear witness to who Jesus was and to call people to faith based on their acceptance of that witness. The writing serves that purpose, not the interests of our modern curiosity for historical data or details.
So, our access to Scripture is on the level of literature, which means we are really entering at the center column of the chart. As we read and study the biblical text, we are listening to literature written by an author who represents a community of faith. We are listening to the testimony of a community. That has several implications.
The biblical text is not direct reporting of history, it’s not just facts. Sometimes people make the comparison that history is like football scores because there is no interpretation of football scores. They are just data. But any sports fan will quickly tell you that the score does not always tell you the story of the game. In fact, the score may not at all reflect what went on in the game itself, or even the significance of the game.
What we are listening to in Scripture, at least in terms of the Gospels, is a community of faith picking and choosing events based on how that community of faith understood their significance, and what that community wanted or needed to say in relation to its own location in history. They knew the significance because they knew the end of the story. When we start reading in Luke, for example, the account of Mary at the birth of Jesus, we need to realize that Luke knows the end of the story when he tells us about those events. He is not writing it as it unfolds but he knows about the crucifixion and the resurrection. In fact, if Luke wrote the book of Acts as most scholars believe he did, he also knows about Pentecost and the origin of the church. Luke is actually writing somewhere around the year AD 80, or about 60 years after the crucifixion.
What Luke tells us about the birth of Jesus is shaped and guided by what he knows came later. So when he tells us that the Holy Spirit came to Mary, or the Holy Spirit came on Jesus at his baptism, or that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, or that Jesus returned from Nazareth in the power of the Spirit (features which the other Gospels omit!), we know that Luke is telling us those things from the perspective of the work of the Spirit at Pentecost and in the early church. He wants us to know the story from the perspective of God’s total work in the Incarnation, something that Mary or Elizabeth could not possibly have known at the time from their perspective. And he is emphasizing aspects of that significance that none of the other Gospel writers do. That means that we are not really listening to Mary and Elizabeth, but we are listening to Luke interpret those events from far the other side of the resurrection for his own purposes in the community of which he is a part. That is a crucial observation in understanding how to read biblical literature for its theological message!
The third (right hand) column on the chart simply says that the bottom line of what we are doing is theology. The reason we are studying Scripture is so we can learn something about God. We enter the biblical text on the level of literature as we listen to the community of Faith interpret and bear witness of the historical revelation of God. Yet, the purpose of listening to their testimony is to understand what they tell us about God, about ourselves, and our relationship with God so we can apply it today in our lives. We can understand, not just how God worked with them at a certain point in the past, but how he works with us now so we will know how to live, the application for spiritual guidance today.
The Implications of a Literary Approach
Now, it will be helpful for us to consider some of the implications of looking at Scripture through the lens of testimonial literature rather than trying to find historical details. Several observations will help us as we work thorough Genesis. One observation that we are not used to making as we look through the lens of historical reporting is that things are not always exactly as they appear on the surface in Scripture; it does not always just mean what it says!
This is one advantage of thinking literature as we read Scripture, because that lets us be sensitive to such literary features as sarcasm, irony, word plays, and narrative technique. It raises questions such as how an author in a community uses literature to communicate. That raises other issues, such as taking seriously the kind of literature with which we are dealing as a tool for helping us understand it. For example if we read Gulliver’s Travels and think we are reading a history of England, we are going to conclude some strange things about English history and never really hear what the author wants us to hear. Or if we pick up C. S. Lewis and read the Chronicles of Narnia or his space trilogy and think we are reading history on the one hand, or simply children’s fantasy on the other, we will have badly misunderstood the writing. Both assumptions will cause us to miss the beautifully true allegory of the Christian faith.
As a side observation at this point, we need to realize that there are two different levels of how we can read Scripture: exegetical study and devotional reading (See the article Devotional and Exegetical Reading of Scripture). Many people read scripture devotionally from a particular life situation as a means of communion with God. That is often reflected in statements like « God gave me this verse, » or « This passage has always meant a lot to me. » It is not that those insights or valuing of the biblical stories are wrong; it’s just that the « meanings » may not at all be related to the text itself because they are meanings imposed onto the text from a particular need and a particular life situation. And those « meanings » will most often differ widely from person to person even on the same verse since they are not really based on an understanding of the text itself.
Part of the reason we develop methods and techniques for exegetical study is to develop a common ground and common ways of reading the text. Hopefully, that will allow us to hear what the author is saying without going in all different directions or imposing our own needs and meaning onto the biblical text. That will not always happen, since we all work with certain assumptions and all come at the biblical text from a certain life situation that shapes what we ask and how we hear the answer, but hopefully in exegesis there is a little more common ground. I don’t think we can, in most places in Scripture, simply pick up the text and read it and understand the depth of its message. That does not say that we cannot understand Scripture or that it can’t impact our lives and change us. But it does suggest that to probe the depths of the truth of Scripture, and for it to become the living and active word of God, we will have to put out some effort to hear the testimony beyond our preconceived ideas and what we already think it means.
Theology as Story: The Role of Narrative
Since many of the guidelines we will be using in this study are covered in the article Guidelines for Interpreting Biblical Narrative, I won’t take the time to repeat them here. I will simply make a few additional observations and then address questions on the discussion forum that might arise from it.
Almost all the passages that we study in Genesis will be narrative, or will occur in a narrative context (e.g., genealogies). I have used the terms « story » and « narrative » interchangeably simply to designate a particular type of literature. « Story » does not suggest that it is false of fiction, only that it is narrative as opposed to prayer or prophecy or other types of literature.
Even by identifying this type of literature as narrative gives us some parameters for interpretation. Most narrative, especially narrative from the world of the Ancient Near East, intends to do something other than describe how things really are or « what really happened. » Our scientific methodology tends to use descriptions to try to duplicate external reality. For example, if I were to ask someone to describe something or if I would ask someone to describe another person, we would try to describe the external « reality » of the other person in terms of physical appearance, such as how many feet and inches tall they are, what color of hair they have, etc. We would use physical descriptors to try to describe them in time and space and physical reality. It would probably take us a little while to get around to describing them in terms of more abstract qualities, who they are as persons beyond external appearance such as personality, likes and dislikes, etc., the qualities of the person.
What I am suggesting here is that the Bible is primarily concerned with qualitative description, and only rarely if ever directly concerned with physical appearance except as a function of that quality. -1- For example, Saul is described as being head and shoulders above all the rest of the people (1 Sam 9:2). We translate that into our way of thinking as a reference to how tall he was, and would probably start trying to figure out how many feet and inches (or meters) that would be. But in the narrative thought world of the Old Testament, his height was not a matter of appearance, and therefore physical description, but was a way metaphorically and in a narrative context to say something about the quality of the person; that is, they only told us this bit of detail as a metaphorical way to describe him as a leader (more obvious in 1 Sam 10:23-24).
Likewise, David is described as having a ruddy complexion which doesn’t just describe the color of his hair or complexion but tells us he is a very young, analogous to our expressions « red-faced kid » or « wet behind the ears. » This feature is evident in several ways in biblical narrative, even showing up in the Hebrew language itself. In Hebrew there are no single words for color as simple abstractions; color words are words that relate to objects in life that exhibit that color, and when those terms are applied as descriptors in narrative, they become metaphors for aspects of objects that go beyond pigmentation.
For example, to say gray in Hebrew we would use a word that would also mean « old. » Or, to put it the other way, to say « old » we could use a word that means « gray » (e.g., Gen 42:38, Deut 32:25, etc.). The same is true of other colors: green for freshness, newness or youth (Gen 1:30, Jud 16:7. etc.), blood for red which is then used to refer to violence, etc. This simply suggests a different way of thinking, a different approach to reality. All of those descriptors we read about in the Old Testament are not just physical descriptors, they are quality descriptors. They are not trying to draw for us a picture of the external world, but they are trying to involve us in understanding what it is like on an experiential level. Biblical narratives are not trying to duplicate external reality, they are trying to share experience and then call us to respond to that experience.
Features of Narrative: Two Horizons
Narratives have particular features that can be used to identify them as narrative. The type of literature, the genre of literature called narrative, can usually be identified by three major features: a setting, characters, and a plot or the flow of the story that moves from stasis (or equilibrium) to conflict to resolution (climax and dénouement) to anticlimax or restored stability. Sometimes even recognizing these features of a narrative is important in understanding the message of the story.
The setting includes the historical, cultural, and social context of the narrative, and sometimes will even include aspects like geographical location that are factors in the narrative. One of the most difficult aspects of setting with which readers of Scripture must come to terms in understanding biblical narrative is that there are always two different historical contexts at work in the story. First, the setting of the narrative itself must be taken seriously as the immediate context of the story. It does not matter whether the context is improbable or illogical, because the setting of the story itself tells us how the story is to be heard. Some passages may require an attempt to find out more, if possible, about the historical setting in order to understand the narrative, but it must be kept in mind that the historical setting is just that: a setting. The truth or message of the passages does not lie in the historical setting.
The second setting of the narrative is the setting of the narrator telling us the story. He is situated in his own historical, cultural, and social context, and we need constantly to be aware of the « voice » of the narrator in the story. We will miss much of the significance and message of the story if we forget the role of the narrator, or forget that often the events or narrative being presented is being recounted by an author, a community, sometimes hundreds of years after the events themselves are presented as occurring.
This is easy to see in much of the historical material of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, which are obviously telling Israel’s history from the perspective of the Babylonian exile. We have already observed the same features at work in the Gospel narratives, in which the Gospel writers are recounting the narratives about Jesus 60, 80 or 100 years after he lived. That means we have two historical settings and two political realities with which to deal. For example, it is fairly obvious in John’s gospel that they are hearing and telling the events about Jesus’ life in the context of various severe persecutions in the church under which they were suffering toward the end of the first century. They are applying the Gospel message to the needs of that community at that time, and understanding that second context helps us understand the biblical text in John.
These two time references of the setting of the story and the setting of the narrator are sometimes called the two horizons of the text. It is a wise and skilled reader of Scripture who is constantly aware of both horizons. There is also a third time frame that we must consider in interpreting biblical texts. That is the time frame of the reader, us, as we bring yet another horizon or perspective to the text. Sensitivity to these different time frames of the text will not guarantee a correct interpretation, but neglecting them will almost insure an inadequate if not wrong interpretation.
As we will see, cultural setting will also play a very large role in some texts, as in the first chapters of Genesis. That cultural setting is not obvious directly in the text, but when we become sensitive to the cultural context in which the Israelites lived who are telling us this story, the features of the text that seem obscure take on new clarity. How we hear certain kinds of words and metaphors comes from a cultural background, and we have to realize that the cultural background of the biblical text is not ours, and that it is simply assumed and not explained in the biblical text.
At this point, we will have to put forth some effort to understand the world of the ancient Israelites. Sometimes it is hard for us to realize that the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is an oriental book. We live in a Western culture. The thought world of Oriental culture is radically different from the thought world of Western culture, particularly when we recall that there is a period of three thousand years between us and that culture. We have to keep reminding ourselves that this is not our world, and this is not our culture. Again, this does not mean that we can’t understand Scripture; it simply means we are going to have to put out some effort to understand the cultural background. They were writing from within their culture for that time. They were not writing three thousand years in the future for our time and our culture. That’s why they are not writing about evolution in Genesis 1; that’s 3,000 years in their future. They were not concerned with evolution in Genesis 1. They were not concerned with our problems nor were they trying to answer the questions we would ask.
The next question is, with what were they concerned? What were the issues facing that community? The answers to this crucial question will begin to emerge as we work thorough the Bible study. The clues to those concerns are in the biblical text that we will be studying, if we continue to remind ourselves that the authors of this text were Israelites who lived 3,000 years ago! They lived in a radically different world than the one with which we are familiar. Yet, they encountered God in ways that allowed them to understand him and bear witness to us of that understanding, an understanding that we still affirm as true after 3,000 years! It is that truth that we seek to hear anew in this Bible study.
1. « One of the most interesting features encountered in the reading of the Old Testament is the almost complete absence of visual descriptions of person or objects. In reading the description of the Garden in Eden, we search in vain for a pictorial view. In the description of Noah’s ark we completely fail to form a mental picture of what the ark looked like based on the biblical description. And even the more intricately detailed description of the building of the tabernacle and its furnishings fails adequately to describe the Tabernacle visually. » Dennis Bratcher, « Hebrew Thought Forms, » Unpublished Master’s Thesis, 1977.
Genesis Bible Study
Historical and Cultural Background
There are two major hurdles that often prevent us from hearing the stories in Genesis. First, we tend to think that Israel emerged in a vacuum, fully formed and totally mature, nearly Christian, in their religious thinking. There are a lot of other factors that go into us making this assumption, such as ideas about the nature of Scripture forged in the 19th century (AD!), but the effect is that we have a hard time seeing Scripture against the cultural and historical background of the people who wrote it. Second, partly because of some of those same factors, we tend to assume that the Bible is directly addressing our concerns. We tend to spiritualize the text into addressing our questions without first asking what questions the text itself is actually addressing.
Both of these hurdles will take some effort to surmount, especially in these first chapters of Genesis, which are overlaid with centuries of interpretations and which have become battlegrounds for all sorts of religious wars. In addition to the guidelines expressed earlier, the goal here is to look at the biblical text in terms of: 1) the cultural and historical background of ancient Israel, especially as it shapes concerns and affects communication, and 2) the concerns with which that biblical community is dealing in the text, seen against the cultural and historical background and expressed in how the text tells its story. (See Guidelines for Interpreting Biblical Narratives). Two further principles will also guide this analysis: 3) the text is primarily theology, telling us about God, humanity, and their relationship; and 4) the text itself and its background are the primary object of analysis, with the guideline « stick to the text » intended to exclude interpretations imported from systematic theology or doctrinal assertions.
The Cultural Setting of the Ancient World
Let me begin by telling a story about a man named Apsu. Apsu was an old, gray haired man married to Tiamat. They had lots of children and grandchildren and even some great-grandchildren who all lived around him. Apsu needed his rest and liked to take long afternoon naps. One day he stormed to his wife complaining that the younger children were so boisterous day and night that he could never get enough rest. Tiamat had noticed the rowdiness of the kids as well, but she was a little taken aback at Apsu’s solution. He had decided that to silence the kids so he could get some rest that he would simply kill all the noisemakers and be done with it.
But before he could carry out his plan, one of his great-grandsons, Ea, found out about it. Catching Tiamat away from the house, Ea used his magical powers to cast a spell over Apsu. When he was asleep under the spell, Ea stole the symbols of Apsu’s position over the household, and killed him as he slept. Ea then settled into Apsu’s house and intended to take control of the family.
When Tiamat returned home and discovered that Ea had killed her husband she was enraged. She began assembling some of the children who supported her and prepared to do battle with Ea to take vengeance on him and his family for their treachery. She took a new husband, Kingu, and appointed him as commander of the army she was assembling. She also enlisted the aid of all the dragons and sea monsters, snakes and wild animals to help her fight Ea.
In the meantime Ea found out about the planned attack from Tiamat and her followers. He was understandably depressed that all the children seemed to be following Tiamat and that he found himself outnumbered. He sought out the counsel of his remaining allies, who agreed that Tiamat must be stopped, but none were able to face her. Finally, his advisors suggested that Ea consult his son Marduk, who was greatly respected in the family, to see what he would do. After being told of the problem, Marduk was scornful that a mere woman would come against Ea with weapons. He agreed to do battle with Tiamat, but only if he would be elevated to the head of the family. Ea and the children agreed and gave him great power, so Marduk took charge of the campaign.
He sent word challenging Tiamat who accepted in a fit of rage. The battle was fierce, but Marduk unleashed a magic wind that partially disabled her, and then with a well placed arrow, Marduk killed Tiamat. He immediately enslaved all her followers, including her husband Kingu. After tying up the lifeless body of Tiamat, he smashed her head with a mace, and then severed strategic arteries so that her blood ran all over the ground. Then he split her body in half. With one half Marduk formed the sky and with the other half he made the earth, with boundaries and guardians to keep each in its place. He continued making the stars and the sun and moon to establish seasons, months, and years. The children were all assigned roles in making certain that the boundaries were observed and his instructions carried out.
Finally, Kingu was brought out and killed and from his blood Marduk formed human beings to serve him and his allies so that they would never again have to work. After all of this, the family built a fine house in which Marduk could relax. They named the place Babylon, and Marduk and his friends rested, eating and drinking, while everyone sang the praises of the great deliverer Marduk by reciting 50 names that gave him homage.
Now, in case you have not already figured it out, this is the Babylonian (or Sumerian) myth of creation known as the Enuma Elish (« when on high, » from the first words of the poem). It occurs in two different forms, but the basic elements are the same. The seven tablets of this poem were discovered in the ruins of ancient Nineveh in the vast library of the Assyrian king Asshurbanapal (7th century BC). However, these texts were based on earlier Sumerian versions of the poem from as early as 2,000-1,700 BC, the time of Abraham and Hammurabi of Babylon (read the full text of the Enuma Elish).
Israel Among the Nations
This is the cultural background out of which the Israelites came. Basic elements of this Babylonian myth and the world view that underlay it became the Ba’al myth in Palestine and surrounding areas. And of course, Ba’al worship supported by the Ba’al myth was the arch rival of worship of God among the Israelites. In our world of scientific investigation and the millennia-old worship of a single deity, we sometimes dismiss myths as simply false without realizing how incredibly important they were to ancient peoples. Myths were ways to describe how the physical world exists and what makes it operate, or to express complex social relationships.
The Enuma Elish is far more than a fanciful story. It is actually a carefully crafted story about the cycle of seasons, an attempt by ancient people to give some coherence and order to a world that they did not really understand in terms of cause and effect. The myth of Marduk is a cosmology, a story told to describe what they observed about the physical world. Marduk represents Springtime and the fertility of the land that Spring brings. Marduk is a god who brings Springtime when crops grow and when livestock give birth. Especially in Canaanite forms of the story where Ba’al is the hero (in Assyria Marduk was replaced by Asshur, the patron deity of Assyria), he is the Spring rain that brings life and newness into the land after the dry season. As such, Marduk represents the stability and security of a world that is safe and stable. Both Marduk and Ba’al are fertility gods that promise newness and continuing life.
Tiamat represents winter, or in Canaanite forms of the myth the dry season, and the barrenness and threat that winter brings. She was also personified as the primeval ocean, the deep, the unordered forces of chaos that threaten to engulf the order and stability of the world. In this role, she was also portrayed as a great Dragon or Serpent of the Deep. Her companions are the uncontrolled waters of Flood, River, and Sea.
To ancient people, it was a real threat that spring and the spring rains might not come. That represented a threat to the very existence of humanity. The battle between Marduk and Tiamat was a way to express the cycles of seasons, the struggle between chaos and order that the people experienced as they waited for the renewal of Spring. That battle was an annual event, incorporated into the worship rituals of Near Eastern culture. Marduk had to kill Tiamat every Springtime or Winter would continue to rule. There would be no rain, crops would not grow, grass for the livestock would not sprout, nothing would survive. That battle was played out every spring in the great worship festivals in the Temple of Marduk in Babylon. Marduk had to be alive and be crowned king so that rain would come. The concern in the myth was not so much with the creation, as it was with the defeat of Tiamat and the reign of Marduk.
As noted, in Palestine this became the myth of Ba’al who was also the god of rain and the god of Springtime. In Palestine there must be rain at a certain time of year to make crops grow. Ba’al as the god of rain (called « Rider of the Clouds » in some texts; cf. Psa. 68:4) was personified as a thunder storm sweeping in from the desert, bringing rain, and making life possible in that part of the world. The worship of Ba’al in Palestine involved imitative magic in the form of ritual prostitution and other fertility rituals. The idea was that Ba’al needed to be sexually aroused so that the rains would come, the crops would grow, and the people survive. (There are other OT connections to this cultural background, such as the agricultural images used for women producing offspring; they are either fruitful or barren.)
In this mythical way of conceptualizing the world, Tiamat and the various images of uncontrolled water or dragons or sea monsters associated with her, represented disorder or chaos in the world. Marduk (or Ba’al or Ashur) in this mythology was the one who brought stability and order to the world, and guaranteed human existence. The role of human beings was to be sure the gods were happy and had what they needed so they would do the things necessary to ensure humanity’s continued existence. Yet, the gods had no direct relation to human existence since they were simply the personified forces of what we would call nature. Human existence was more the « fallout » from the activity of the gods, which further underscored the need to be sure the gods were happy and content.
Israel’s New Path
There is much more to the mythological cultural background of the ancient world, but perhaps this brief overview will provide a context to begin examining the Genesis narratives. (For more information see Speaking the Language of Canaan and links there). Myths speak about something on a cosmic level, trying to describe the unseen forces that shape human existence. However, the Bible is not directly mythological because the basic premise of Scripture arising from Israel’s experience of God is that God has revealed himself in history. He is not « out there » on some cosmic level, but has revealed himself here where we live as human beings.
In stark contrast to the mythology of the Canaanites, Israel began developing a very incarnational view of God very early in its history. That did not mean that Israel quickly abandoned all the vestiges of polytheism or the mythological world view associated with it. It would take Israelites nearly 800 years of fierce struggle to chart clearly that new path among the nations. Yet, what was often the minority voice in Israel understood that God had chosen to enter into relationship with humanity in the arena where we live. Israel knew what she knew about God not because they projected their ideas out « there » somewhere, or speculated about what God was, or what he might be, or ought to be, or what they needed him to be. They knew something about God because at one point in time in human history a group of people stood on the banks of the Reed Sea and watched God at work. And we as Christians know what we know about God, not because we have become more sophisticated in our speculation or our scientific inquiry than the Israelites were, but because at another point in time another group of people stood beneath a cross and at a tomb outside of Jerusalem and saw God at work in human history.
That fact not only separates Scripture from the myths of the ancient world in giving it a solid basis in human history, it also points to two aspects of understanding the Bible, and these Genesis narratives, that are crucial. First, the concerns of the Israelites who wrote this material had to do with how they were coming to terms with this radically new understanding of deity, and how that would be lived out in the world in which they lived. The people who wrote Scripture, who reported and reflected about things they had seen and heard, this person or community who wrote Genesis, what were they trying to communicate? What is it they were trying to say? What concerns lay behind the faith confessions they were making about God? They were most likely not trying to tell us about evolution, or attacking science, or burying secret codes in the text about World War III! What they needed to say was something that would tell people that Ba’al is not God! That Ba’al does not make it rain. That Ba’al does not control the world. They needed to move people beyond superstition and magic as the way to understand deity. They needed to affirm the God whom they had encountered in the Exodus in such a way that people would worship and serve him instead of frequenting the Ba’al temples and trying to manipulate the world by magic.
The only background they had to do that on the level of communication was the culture in which they lived. So they are not going to give us some scientific explanation about what makes it rain that would satisfy our 21st century minds. They only had two choices. If someone would ask an Israelite in the Old Testament, « What makes it rain? », they would either say « Ba’al makes it rain » or they would say « God makes it rain. » There was simply no other way to say it! Yet, when they start describing how God makes it rain, they described God riding in on a thunder cloud from the desert, which is what they would say if they were Canaanites worshipping Ba’al. They would tell us the same thing the same way, except that it is God they are talking about rather than Ba’al. Those cultural perspectives are the only frame of reference they have; they cannot describe the world or God in terms of our modern perspectives, so they use the only language and symbols and metaphors they have to confess this radically new faith in a single Creator God. What other culture could they write in except their own?
If we do not allow this in the biblical text, then we must make other assumptions about Scripture that immediately move us beyond the text and its own world. The assumption must then be, in some form, that they didn’t really write much if any of the Bible and instead God wrote it or told them what to write. Yet, after looking closely at the text, with all the idiosyncrasies of the Hebrew language, with all the metaphors that have parallels in the ancient cultural world, with all the concerns that are thoroughly rooted in the problems of the ancient world, I think it is a mistake to make such assumptions. Maybe the text says more there in their culture than we have imagined, if we listen to it carefully.
Second, this material was not written as it happened, but was written long after anything described here, to address the perspective and concerns of the people who were writing it (this is the principle of the « two horizons » mentioned in last week’s lesson). If we are not deliberate in our thinking, we sometimes assume that there were scribes sitting over in the corner of the Garden of Eden writing this all down (or, as mentioned above, that God simply told people what to write). Yet, this was likely written long after the Israelites had encountered God at the Reed Sea, probably around the time of David near 1000 BC, with the final form of the stories as we have them in Genesis dating to the period after the exile (c. 500 BC).
After the Israelites had encountered God in the Exodus and at Sinai, after they had spent years struggling in the wilderness, after they had entered the land and been confronted with the Canaanites and their fertility religion, after centuries of struggling to come to terms with the nature of this God who was not at all like the mythical gods of the people in the land, they looked back and wondered how they had come to that place.
They had learned things about God over some 800 years of history because God had revealed himself to them through that history. If God was God and not Pharaoh; if God was the kind of God who could hear the cry of oppressed slaves, bring plagues upon Egypt, part the waters of the Reed Sea, give manna in the desert, bring water out of a rock, knock down the walls of Jericho, help them defeat the Canaanites and settle in the land promised to Abraham hundreds of years earlier; if he is that kind of God, what is rain to him? It was only a short step to conceptualize God as Sovereign Creator, and to conclude that Ba’al was nothing but a stick of wood! Yet there were people who found the appeal of Ba’al worship overwhelming, and the faithful worshippers of God needed to express a profound faith in God that decisively rejected Ba’al as a competing deity. It is this purpose that the opening chapters of Genesis serve. And in some ways, that message may have more relevance for our modern world than we sometimes imagine!