Monthly Archives: August 2007

Genesis lesson 5

Genesis: Folklore of Faith:  Lesson 5: The Serpent (Genesis 3) Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church; Originally aired on October 16, 2005

 

Yom Kippur:               In our last lesson we looked at Genesis 2, the story of the creation of Adam and Eve. I forgot to mention that our timing of these discussions is very appropriate. Two weeks ago, while we were discussing creation and the garden of Eden, our Jewish friends were observing the start of new year—Rosh Hashanah. That celebration focuses on the start of creation itself. It is a yearly reminder for Jews that the earth is a gift from God that humans are allowed to enjoy so long as we live righteously and justly. We saw that theme in Genesis, which mentions that there were two trees in the middle of the garden: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

            Ten days after Rosh Hashanah is the holy day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. According to rabbinic tradition this is the day when God closes out the account of the previous year. The wrongs that you have done become part of your permanent record to be read on the Day of Judgment. In the days before Yom Kippur, you are urged to made amends with any person you have harmed in the previous year so they may forgive you. And on the day of Yom Kippur you fast and present yourself before God, asking for mercy.

Uniqueness of Genesis 3:      With that in mind, it is appropriate that today we turn our attention to Genesis 3, the first story in the Bible about sin and atonement. There is no story quite like this in the entire Bible. Unlike much ancient literature, the Bible is really quite down to earth. There may be some symbolic dreams and prophecies, but for the most part Bible stories have people talking and acting like people. This is the only story where a talking animal is a major character. The only other animal I know of that talks in the Bible is Balaam’s donkey, and he doesn’t really carry on a conversation. But here in Genesis 3 we have a serpent which is intelligent and eloquent. That should give you a clue about how to read this passage. It is unlikely that this story was ever intended to be read as literal history.

This is one story that may have been over interpreted through the centuries. This story has been central to much Christian theology and preaching, and it has been a rich subject for Christian art and literature. Judaism doesn’t place as much weight on this story as Christianity does. For the rabbis, it was an illustration of the persistent human dilemma of whether to follow the teachings of God, the Torah, or to follow one’s own desires. The rabbis taught that all humans, including Adam and Eve, have two wills which compete for dominance: the will to obedience and will to rebel. We see this struggle in Genesis 3. It is our struggle every day.

The Fall?        The early Christian theologian Tertullian read this story in a different way. Drawing upon the teaching of Paul in the New Testament, Tertullian argued that this was the story of the corruption of the human race. Humans had been perfect until Eve ate from the tree. Tertullian blamed Eve for making humans sinful, and he claimed that this sin of Eve was communicated to her descendents through sex.

This event was called the Fall, and it is the reason that humans are mortal. Human beings are conceived in sin and are sinners from birth because of Eve. All humans die, but worse, they are also dammed by a just God even before they are born because of original sin. But the merciful God sent his son to rescue humans from their corruption. Christ, who was conceived without sin, became the perfect sacrifice for sin. He made atonement for the original sin of Eve and the sins of all her children. For Christians then, the Day of Atonement is Good Friday.

Other theologians built on Tertullian’s teaching and created an entire theology based on the idea of Fall and Redemption. The Fall became an important way of understanding our world. One of my favorite New Yorker covers had Adam and Eve being forced by an angel to rake mountains of leaves. It was titled “the Fall.”

Debates:         The big debate among Christian theologians until recent years was over the details of the story. Just what was Eve’s sin? Was it eating the fruit? Was it listening to the tempter? Was it her desire for the fruit even before she picked it? Was it disbelief since she doubted God’s judgment? Was it giving the fruit to Adam? Was it questioning God? Was it pride and the desire to be like God?

They even debated the significance of the fact that Adam and Eve were naked before Eve ate the fruit but were ashamed afterwards. Many early theologians decided that somehow or another sex was the focal point of the story. Many theologians argued that before the Fall Adam and Eve were chaste; with sin came sex.

            Augustine was not convinced of this, but he agreed that this story was really about lust. From early times then, the idea of the Fall or Original Sin became linked with sexuality and Christianity has never recovered. Many Christian sects, like the Shakers, adopted celibacy because they wanted to return to the original purity of Eden. Catholic priests take vows of celibacy in order to be pure enough to serve at the altar. Based on his own experience as a priest and monk, Martin Luther argued that enforced celibacy merely causes people to become obsessed with sex and often leads to abuse. Unfortunately, this is part of our daily news today as more evidence of abuse by priests is made public.

Biological Corruption?           Although Protestants encouraged marriage rather than celibacy, they also focused their theology on this idea of the Fall. Adam and Eve’s actions corrupted the race and only the death of Christ could bring salvation. This is the primary reason conservative Christians in the 20th century rejected the theology of evolution. Adam and Eve had to be real, living people or the story of the Fall of humankind and the redemption of Christ would be undermined.

If Adam and Eve are metaphorical, conservative Catholics and Protestants believed, then the redemption of Christ might be seen as metaphor rather than fact. In the modern period, great weight was placed on the historicity of this story because of centuries of Christian theology that defined sin as a biological thing. Thanks to Tertullian, Augustine and others, sin had become a sexually transmitted disease, a contagious inheritance of the original parents.

            This aspect of Catholic teaching actually grew more extreme in Protestantism. Calvinists adopted the idea that the Fall had completely destroyed the image of God in humans. They spoke of utter human depravity. All people are sinners incapable of any good action on their own. Every virtue is merely a mask for selfishness, pride, lust, and other sins. Modern philosophers and economists who insist that individuals only act out of self-interest are drawing on Calvinist theology of the Fall of humankind in Eden, even though they would never admit to that publicly. Not all theologians, preachers, and believers bought into this interpretation of Genesis, but it continues to dominate Christian doctrine.

Culture:          The Puritan poet John Milton turned these verses in Genesis into one of the great epic poems of the English language in his “Paradise Lost.” In composing his poem, he drew upon more than a thousand years of speculation about creation and the Fall. Much of the poem takes place in heaven with the rebellion of Lucifer. Many critics have pointed out that Lucifer is really the central character of Milton’s poem, which is odd since Satan is a very minor character in the New Testament and only makes one appearance in the Old. But over time Christian theologians increasingly used Satan as a way to explain sin and suffering in the world. All was perfect in Eden until Eve yielded to temptation.

            The story of Adam and Eve even lends itself to Country and Western music. As the song “Fox on the Run” says: “Now everybody knows the reason for the fall; Woman tempted man down in paradise hall. This woman tempted me, and she took me for a ride. Now like the lonely fox I need a place to hide.” Younger listeners might be interested to know that this song was also recorded by the rock group Barenaked Ladies, which is oddly appropriate since it involves Eve. So with all of this tradition from Milton to Bluegrass to influence us, it can be a little hard to read the story as it is rather than as it appears in art, literature, catechisms, and sermons. So, let’s try to hear the story afresh.

            We will continue with Genesis 3 next week because it is such a rich story, and it is one that some of you have been discussing since you were in Vacation Bible School. Let’s start today by looking at the characters as they actually appear without all the background that Augustine and Milton offer.

The Serpent:  We have four speaking roles in this story, don’t we? There is Adam, Eve, the Serpent, and the LORD. We’ve met three of them before, although Eve did not say much in Genesis 2. It is the serpent who is new to the story. I hope you noticed in reading that the serpent is nowhere identified as Satan, Lucifer, the devil, a demon, Beelzebub, or any other member of the infernal regions. There is no prelude to this story about an archangel named Lucifer who leads a revolution against God and who is defeated by Christ. All of that is part of the contribution of Gnosticism to Christianity.

            What we have in the biblical text is a story of a talking snake. In fact, it is a snake with legs, which we don’t see these days. (And I, for one, am glad of that!) We aren’t told if the other animals in the garden could talk. Some have proposed that this is implied in the story since animals were made to be companions of Adam originally. This idea of talking animals in Eden is one reason that C. S. Lewis made the animals talk in Narnia. That is all beside the point, though. We’re dealing with a metaphorical story here that uses the tools of all such stories, including talking animals.

            In order to understand the story, we need to enter into the world of the story – to suspend our disbelief and focus on the text. All we know from the text is that the snake was the most intelligent animal in Eden and it could talk. It is not clear how to translate the Hebrew for “intelligent” here since the various English words we can use have different connotations. There was a time, for instance, when clever was considered a complement; now it is a bit insulting. Likewise the words crafty or cunning indicate a type of intelligence that is immoral and destructive.

            It makes a difference if a newspaper says, for instance, that Karl Rove is “the smartest man in politics” or “the most cunning political operative in history.” And it makes a difference if the snake is called wise, smart, crafty or cunning. Since we interpret Genesis 3 as the story of the Fall of humans into sin and suffering, translators usually describe the serpent as cunning or crafty rather than wise or clever. The Hebrew is less clear in its judgment on the snake, but I think most would agree that the snake tempts the woman. It is a tempter who inflames a desire in the woman she didn’t have before, much like any good salesman.

The snake begins with a simple question about God’s commandments. He appeals to Eve’s intelligence first, and she replies that God gave them the freedom to eat of every tree but one. “On the day that you eat of it, you will die,” Eve quotes to the snake, who refutes her. It says that she will not die if she eats. The serpent tells Eve that she will be as wise as God if she eats from the tree. And that is the last we hear from the snake.

Temptation:    A question and a statement. Not quite the stuff of the Exorcist, Omen, or dozens of other horror movies that portray the Evil One. Not even the stuff of classic Christian art and architecture. No whiff of sulfur accompanies the serpent’s appearance to Eve; just a question and a statement. This is very much the way real life works, isn’t it? Much of the harm that humans do in this world begins with nothing more than a question and statement—a conversation in one’s own head. We don’t have to imagine a time in history when snakes walked around tempting innocent women in order to appreciate the powerful insight of this little story.

            How often in your own life have you had a conversation with the clever little snake in your own mind? How many times have you said, “Would it really be wrong to this? Would I get in trouble?” How many times have you seen a commercial that says: “Las Vegas, what you do here stays here” and convinced yourself it is true? How many people in government have listened to the voice of ambition and power rather obeying their responsibilities, convincing themselves that a little corruption, a little theft, a little lying, a little evasion wouldn’t matter? And then came Hurricane Katrina.

How many people in business listened to the crafty voice of ambition and greed and status rather than obeying their duties to stockholders, customers, employees, and the public? And then came Enron, Haliburton, Tycho, and others. We don’t need the Westminster Confession and all the trappings of Milton to make sense of Genesis 3. All we need is a newspaper and a mirror. In our next lesson we’ll continue with Genesis 3, looking at the character of Eve.

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Genesis lesson 4

Genesis: Folklore of Faith: Lesson 4 – Adam and Eve (Genesis 2) Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church; originally aired on October 9, 2005

Introduction:               Today we turn our attention to Genesis 2, one of the most intriguing and controversial chapters in the Bible. Many of us grew up with the story of the Garden of Eden. I remember the felt-board we had in Sunday School with cut-out figures of Adam and Eve. Even then it struck me as a bit odd that they were always standing behind waist-high bushes. Now it strikes me as a bit odd that Adam and Eve are almost always depicted as white-skinned people with modern haircuts. One has to wonder why, especially since the story is set in Iraq, but we tend to project ourselves onto biblical stories; and thus Adam and Eve become nice suburban parents. It can be hard to read the Bible with fresh eyes when we have all of those early images implanted, but let’s take a closer look.

            It is also hard to read the Bible as it is because we tend to get obsessed over questions that the original stories just don’t address. In the Middle Ages one of the burning questions of biblical scholars was whether Adam and Eve had navels since they didn’t have parents. Today the pointless debate is whether the story of Adam and Eve belongs in a biology class. That debate diminishes science and scripture both. Let’s step back from our childhood Sunday School classes, from medieval theology, and even from debates over school curriculum and just look at the story that has come down to us through the centuries.

J-Source:        One of the first things you probably noticed in reading is that the style of this story is quite different from the first chapter of Genesis. That was a majestic hymn of creation originally sung by the priests of Israel. Genesis 2 is a story. Adam and Eve sounds like a story told by a wise man or woman sitting by the campfire. It has characters, dialog, and dramatic flow. If you close your eyes, you can probably picture the storyteller giving this story year after year, much like the troubadours who sang the sagas in former times.

            Many scholars believe that the story of Adam and Eve was part of a long narrative that served as the national epic of Judah before it was skillfully incorporated into the book of Genesis. Scholars call this long narrative “J,” and many people consider J to be the work of a literary and theological genius who reworked traditional tales in profound ways. The literary scholar Harold Blum even wrote a book on J, despite the fact that scholars still disagree over whether such a book ever existed.

            One of the reasons for proposing that there was a book of J is that some of the passages of Genesis refer to God as elohim, as we saw last week with Genesis 1. Other passages consistently call God by the name he revealed to Moses: YHWH (probably pronounced yah-whey). Years ago scholars thought this was pronounced Jehovah. In most English translations of the Bible the name YHWH appears as LORD in capital letters, which indicates that the translator put in a word which is not in the original text. LORD is used because pious Jews would not say the sacred name YHWH for fear of taking it in vain. They said adonai, or lord, instead. Modern translators adopted that same practice, but LORD is in all capitals. Many scholars see the YHWH verses in Genesis as originating in the J source.

God:    Regardless of the origin of this passage, most readers recognize that the style and tone of the second chapter of Genesis is quite different from the opening chapter. In the first chapter of Genesis, God is like Captain Picard on Star Trek. He says, “Make it so,” and it happens. In the second chapter, God becomes a gardener, planting trees in a garden. He is a potter making things from clay. He is herdsman bringing animals before the man. In short, God in Genesis 2 and 3 is literally a down-to-earth character moving within his creation. The technical term for portraying God with human characteristics is anthropomorphism, which is Greek for “in the form of a human being.” We portray God and other things in human form all the time; we just don’t always call it be anthropomorphic. The truth is that it is difficult for us to understand God without being anthropomorphic.

            But to be honest, the image of God in Genesis 2 really bothered Jewish and Christian thinkers for centuries. Throughout the Bible, we are told that it is wrong to make images of God, or to worship created things, or to limit God to human qualities. If God is infinite, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and eternal, how could he be walking around a garden and playing in the clay?

Ancient theologians, like Philo of Alexandria and Augustine, argued that Genesis 1 gives the true picture of God as the majestic transcendent creator. This agreed with many strands of ancient Greek philosophy which had turned away from the myths to a more rational view of God and nature. Influenced by Greek philosophy, ancient Christian and Jewish theologians taught that Genesis 2 is speaking metaphorically. The anthropomorphic description of God is metaphor rather than a literal portrayal of God. Calvin called this part of God’s condescension to human understanding.

Literal or Metaphorical:        Even today there are very few biblical literalists who read Genesis 2 and 3 absolutely literally. They do not believe that God was literally “walking in the garden in the cool of the evening,” for instance. It is certainly good theology to distinguish between God and our metaphorical descriptions of God, but we don’t want to lose the beauty and drama of the biblical story. God is very much a participant in the drama of Adam and Eve. One of the reasons we know and love this story is because God is portrayed in such human terms. But once you acknowledge that the portrayal of God in this story is a metaphor, then there is no reason not to view the whole story as a metaphor. When we do so we find that this is a very rich and profound discussion about human life and happiness.

            We lose much of the meaning of the story when we try to make it a historical account of the origin of the species. Remember that this was originally written for a bronze-age culture. If we get hung up on the question of whether Genesis 2 is a factual account, then we will lose the truths the story is trying to communicate, just like we could get a misleading understanding of God if we used these verses to declare that God has hands and feet.

A Second Creation Story:      When we read Genesis 2 in its own right, we get a different image of creation than we had in Genesis 1. The opening line “In the day that the Lord God created the earth and the heaven” is the beginning of a new creation story. There are many reasons for thinking that this is a new story rather than just a continuation of the first. For one thing, the order of creation is quite different in Genesis 2 from Genesis 1. In the first story we saw that humans were made after plants and animals, but in this story the human being is made before plants and apparently before animals. Also, the world was a watery chaos in Genesis 1, but is dry in Genesis 2.

Unlike the first story, the second creation account refers to a specific location. Four rivers are mentioned, but only two are identifiable today: the Tigris and Euphrates. These rivers are still in the news, and it is clear that the story is placed in the Middle East. One river flows around the land of Cush, which was the Hebrew word for Egypt, making some believe that it might be the Nile, but other scholars think it is referring to a region of ancient Babylon. In any case, it has proven impossible to make the geography of Genesis 2 fit what we know of the ancient world. Most likely these rivers are just elements in a story, not points on a compass. In any case, the story is set in Mesopotamia. Unless, of course, you are Mormon, then it is in Missouri.

Breathe of Life:         Genesis 2 is mainly about human beings, and it is interesting that their creation is different from the first story. Last week we saw that male and female were created together, but in this story the man is created before the woman. This raises the question of why are there two differing accounts side by side. I think this is a wonderful example of how the final author of Genesis used his sources with great respect. It also demonstrates to me, at least, that there stories were never meant to be taken as factual accounts.

            According to the story, God makes Adam out of the clay. The King James’ translation of dust is not accurate here. God took wet earth and molded it into a human being and then blew his own breathe into the lungs to awaken the human. Throughout the Bible, by the way, life is defined as breath. That which breathes is alive. To be pro-life in Biblical terms is to be positive toward breathing things. After God gives the breath of life to the human he has formed out of the earth, he plants a garden in a place named Eden, which means “lush.” And he takes Adam, the Earthling, and puts him in the new Garden.

Eden and Work:         Contrary to popular ideas about the garden of Eden, this was not a playground. The story states clearly that the human was to till the ground and care for the garden. Labor is not viewed here as a burden placed on humans because of sin; it is part of the original plan for human life. It is to be a joy and pleasure. This is a message we’ve generally rejected in the modern world. The message we receive each day is that work is toil and trouble instead of being meaningful and enjoyable.

We think it odd if someone leaves happily for work on Monday morning, and many employers go out of their way to make labor oppressive. Our Moravian ancestors rejected this way of thinking, in part because of the witness of Genesis. In the old Moravian villages like Salem (now Winston-Salem), there was almost no unemployment because labor was something worthwhile. I picture Adam, like the old Moravians, singing while he worked in the garden.

Alone in Paradise:      But there was something not good about life in the garden. The earthling, Adam, was alone. And so God made animals for the man. If you try to take Genesis 1 and 2 both literally, you run into all kinds of problems with this verse since the animals in Genesis 2 were made after the man. Read separately and metaphorically, though, we get an important message from each story.

Here Adam is the one who names the animals. God makes them, but he lets the human have the divine power of naming them. In other words, we share in God’s creative work. But no animal was a suitable partner for Adam. The rabbis had very fanciful explanations for why this was the case, but the general agreement was that a man needs a woman and not an animal. The rabbis also recognized the difficulties of relating Genesis 2 with Genesis 1:27, where male and female were created at the same time.

This is why the Jewish legend of Lilith was born. Some of the rabbis taught that Adam’s first wife, in Genesis 1, was named Lilith, but Lilith believed that she was the equal of Adam and refused to be obedient to him. When Adam complained to God about his difficult wife, God banished her from Eden and she became a demon who eats children. If you’ve ever wondered by Frazier Crane’s wife on TV was named Lilith, that’s why. After Lilith was exiled, God created Eve. That legend demonstrates that people have gone to great lengths to make Genesis 1 and 2 go together!

Men and Women:      I find it interesting that many people use Genesis 1 to say that what was created last was best, meaning humans, but they do not use that same reasoning in looking at Genesis 2. If we say that what’s made last is best, then we have to say that the pinnacle of creation is not man but woman. This idea has appeared on several emails and bumper stickers: Adam was a rough draft.

All joking aside, it is impossible to avoid gender issues when discussing Genesis 2 and 3. This is in part because of the nature of the story itself, but it is also because of how this story has been used for 2000 years to define women as subordinate to men. People have read much into this text that is not there as a way to oppress women. This clouds our reading and thinking. There is a long history of people looking to the Holy Book to justify domination and oppression of others rather than letting the Scripture challenge our selfishness and sinfulness. That is most apparent in our reading of Genesis.          

            I think it is best to read each story in its own right, and when we do, we are struck by the poignancy of the phrase, “it is not good that the man should be alone.” So the LORD God decides to make a partner suitable for the man. The word helper here is interesting. Elsewhere in the Bible God is called a helper for humans using the same Hebrew word. It is not a word of submission, like assistant or underling, but refers to someone who can be helpful and active. The old King James word “helpmeet” is often misused. It means a helper who is meet, meaning suitable, for the man. Clearly the woman in this story was to be a helper and companion, someone to share the work and joy of the man. A helpmeet is a partner, not an appendage.

Adam’s Rib:   Now we come to the fun part of the text. The lonely Earthling falls asleep and God reaches into his side and pulls out a rib in order to make a woman. You will sometimes read that men have one fewer rib than women, but that’s not true. Men and women normally have 12 pairs of ribs, although it is not uncommon for individuals to have an uneven number. But that is the wrong kind of question to ask of a text like this. We’ve already seen the rabbis and early church theologians recognized that this account of the creation of Eve is metaphorical. So let’s look at it as a story rather than trying to make biological assumptions.

            For over two thousand years Jewish and Christian scholars have asked why it was the rib of Adam that was taken to make his companion instead of another of the body. The most likely explanation is that it is because the ribs protect the heart and inner organs. Eve was made from the inner-most self of Adam rather than an extremity. Their partnership was to be one of intimacy and devotion. It was to produce life and joy. The woman is portrayed as the Great Mother, but she is not like one of the pagan gods. She is a woman, human just like the man.

            This story of Adam’s rib provides a nice symmetry that is sometimes ignored. Man is born of woman but the first woman was born of man. In essence, Eve was birthed from the side of Adam. She is called flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, just as children partake in the flesh and bone of their mothers. The Bible is often condemned as a sexist book, and yet one of the opening chapters of the Bible portrays man in rather feminine terms. Next week we’ll see that Eve also has some very masculine qualities. I’ll leave you to ponder this further.

            The story of the creation of Adam and Eve ends with an affirmation of marriage and sexuality. Though many Christians through the ages have tried to mute or even alter the meaning of Genesis 2, it is fundamentally a rousing affirmation of the fact that a man and woman leave their homes and form a new relationship with each other that is so intimate they may be called one flesh. Sexuality was part of the original blessing in the garden; the man and woman were naked and without shame. Shame only enters into the story of humankind in chapter 3.

            In our next lesson we’ll discuss in detail Genesis 3 and the story of the snake. For now though, let’s leave Adam and Eve happy and working together in the Garden. Let’s leave them free and without shame as they delight in the world that God has made. May this story of original blessing and mutual devotion offer us guidance as look for peace and happiness in our lives as the sons and daughters of the earth.

Moravian Identity – Lovefeast

Living Our Gifts – Moravian Identity

Delivered at Home Moravian Church Aug. 19, 2007

We’ve been away in England for a couple of weeks, and it is good to be back with you. I bring you greetings from our brothers and sisters in the Fetter Lane, Hornsey, Fulnek, and Baildon congregations and from Bob Hopcroft, the president of the PEC of the British Province. While we were in England, Sarah was able to attend the Moravian youth camp and learned new camp songs. She also taught them the “Lovefeast” song written by Brother Rick Sides. I’m not sure what impact that will have on the British Province.

I’ve been asked to say a few words this morning about Moravian Identity, and I think my family’s recent experience is a good example of how Moravians live this particular gift. Unlike churches that define themselves around a particular doctrine, Moravians identify themselves as brothers and sisters. We do not always use those words today, but the meaning is always there. My family was welcomed in a foreign country, not as Americans but as brothers and sisters from America. I knew I was in a Moravian church in London, not because of distinctive architecture, but because someone sat with me to make sure I knew what to do in the service. She, in turn, knew I was Moravian because I knew some of the hymns and stood for communion. The Moravian congregations in London are filled with people from Antigua, Jamaica, Trinidad. When they arrived, they were welcomed as brothers and sisters, and in turn welcomed us.

This morning we are sharing a lovefeast in commemoration of August 13, 1727. That first Moravian lovefeast helped shape our identity as Moravians. That was the day when the residents of Herrnhut recognized, celebrated, and lived their identity as brothers and sisters in Christ. When discussing Moravian identity we should always begin, as they did, with our primary identity as followers of Jesus. Moravians call each other brother and sister because we believe that Christ has brought us together into the household of God..

In a few minutes, members of the congregation will bring coffee and buns into the sanctuary. We call them “dieners” from the German word for servant. They are servants of Christ who will pass food and beverage to the person at the end of each row. That person passes the food to the next person. When everyone is served and we have asked Christ’s blessing, then we will eat together as brothers and sisters. In other words, no one eats until all have food. There are many sermons preached in that simple fact.

So, what is the gift of Moravian identity? We are people who have brothers and sisters with every color of skin. We are people who sing our faith and live in peace. We are people who believe that the best way to worship Christ is to feed friends and strangers and welcome them into the household of God. We are people who believe deep in our hearts that Christ did not come to give us dogmas; he came to welcome us into the household of God. Moravians do not pretend to be perfect; we simply try to live in the love of Christ and share that love every day. Moravians are indeed “lovefeast people.”

Genesis, lesson 3

Genesis: Folklore of Faith: Lesson 3- The Image of the Creator (Genesis 1:26-2:4)

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church (Originally aired Oct. 2, 2005)

 

Creator God:              Our last discussion ended with a brief discussion of the creation story in Genesis 1. But that first creation story leaves us with many questions: what is the relationship of God to the natural world? Does Genesis 1 mean that God is a distant creator who brings existence out of nothing by his command? Generally this is what Christian theologians have taught. God is the transcendent monarch removed from what he has made. A few philosophers and theologians, though, have disagreed and followed the thought of Baruch Spinoza, the most brilliant glass grinder in history. Spinoza was kicked out of the synagogue for arguing that God and nature are the same thing. God is in all things that exist. This is called pantheism.

            More recently, theologians like Paul Tillich argued for the idea that God exists apart from nature but infuses all nature with his being. He called this panentheism, and it is growing in popularity. Some theologians have gone even farther in saying that God is so involved in his creation that he changes along with creation. There is a process in creation that affects the development of God. This process theology has had a major impact on the ecological movement.

When I was a brash young seminary student, a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the door. They told me that God is like an engineer who made a great machine that he controls and can disassemble. The world and humans are merely machines controlled by God, according to those two nice ladies. Then they asked me my ideas about God and creation, and I decided to tell them. I learned that I am a magician. I made two women disappear just by speaking!

            What I told them is that unless Spinoza is right and nature is the same as God, the infinite God had to make room for creation to occur. Before the events described in Genesis 1, there was only God. In the beginning: God. Period. God then voluntarily limited himself to make room for creation. God made something other than God so that he could be in relationship with what he had made. So creation, like redemption, came through the self-sacrifice of God, not through the domination of God. Years later I discovered that this idea is central to a form of Jewish thought known as Lurianic Kabala, so I wasn’t alone in thinking this.

            To be honest, though, I’m still working out my theology of creation, and I think it is impossible to settle these arguments just from Genesis 1. Personally, I am moved by the opening statement of Genesis that the spirit of God hovered over the waters. Ruach in Hebrews means spirit or wind. It can also mean breath. I think that translators miss the significance of the word of God being breathed over the waters of creation. God imparts his own creative power to creation itself. So, while God may indeed be seen as the majestic creator overlooking creation, we should also acknowledge that the creator works on intimate level within creation. This idea of God’s intimacy with nature becomes more important on to the sixth day of creation when God makes human beings, which is our major theme for this morning.

Genesis 1:26-31         The first thing that careful readers notice about this passage is that God speaks in the plural. “Let us make humankind in our image.” One of the things that I love about the Bible is that it includes so many things that cause problems for theologians and preachers who try to make it fit their doctrinal systems. If there is only one God, as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam teach, then who is God speaking to in this verse? This has bothered rabbis, preachers, and ordinary believers for over 2000 years.

            There is no certain answer, but there have been many explanations offered. One of the most popular among the rabbis is that God was speaking to the angels who were created before the events of Genesis 1. Other interpreters have noted that the word translated as “God” in Genesis is the Hebrew word Elohim, which is a plural noun. If translators were really literal, they would translate Elohim as Gods rather than God. Others have pointed out that God could be speaking in the royal “we,” as when Queen Victoria said “we are not amused.” Unfortunately, this is the only place where God speaks this way in the Bible.

Plurality in God:         It was not long after the time of Jesus that Christian theologians saw Genesis 1:26 as evidence that God was a Trinity from the very beginning. Some developed this idea further. Comenius, for instance, believed that the original image of the Trinity was implanted in the human mind. If this is the right interpretation of Genesis, then it means that there was a message in Genesis that was not apparent until hundreds of years after it was written.

            The fact is that we know little about the inner nature of God. We are not going to go in depth into the Christian doctrine of the Trinity today, but I do want to point out that the Trinity is about God’s relationship to human beings. Our ancestors in faith encountered God as Father, Son, and Spirit. It is because of the incarnation of God in Jesus that we proclaim faith in the Triune God, but we don’t really know what God is apart from his relationship to us. Karen Armstrong argues that part of the meaning of the doctrine of the Trinity is that God is fundamentally a mystery that we cannot define. For nearly two thousand years Christians have proclaimed faith in one God in three persons, which shatters all logic and forces believers to recognize that God is beyond our categories of speech and thought.

This recognition of mystery brings us back to Genesis 1. It is interesting that medieval Jewish commentators acknowledged a plurality within God. They spoke of the Shekinah, or presence of God, almost as an independent diving being, much like the Holy Spirit. It is also interesting that Shekinah is a feminine word. It is possible that “Let us make humankind in our image” indicates there is multiplicity within the creator. We always want “God” to be a single answer on a multiple choice test, but when we consult the Bible we find that God is an essay answer that leads both to greater understanding and more questions.

The Image of God:                 Yet the focus of these verses is not just on God but also on humans. The Hebrew word adam is a generic word here, which is often mistranslated as “man.” It is closely related to the Hebrew word for ground or soil. The most literal translation, I think, is one that should appeal to younger listeners interested in science fiction. Adam means an Earthling, and in Genesis 1:27 the Earthlings come in male and female form.

             “God created humankind in his own image; male and female he created them.” This is one of those verses ignored by many so-called biblical literalists, but there it is in black and white. According to this account of creation, both men and women are made in the image of God. Next week we’ll look at the other story of the creation of humans, and the ways interpreters have tried to reconcile these two stories. But for now, let’s focus on the significance of this statement that male and female are made in the image of God. Whole books have been written on this verse and the many ways it has been translated and understood.

            This is one of the most important ideas ever conceived. Humans are made in the image of God, but we first have to ponder the meaning of “image” here. What is an image? Basically, an image is a likeness. In Latin and English, it is related to the word “imagination,” which means to form a mental picture. I like the idea that humans are an expression of the imagination of God. But image is more than that. The word image also refers to what you see in the mirror. It is a reflection of you, though sometimes distorted. Paul uses this language when he speaks of seeing in a glass darkly. Image also refers to the picture of the king that was stamped on coins. The image was a physical representation of the king’s presence.

            It is possible that all these ideas are behind this simple statement in Genesis. According to Genesis 1:27, the sons and daughters of the earth have something of the divine in their nature. We are somehow different from all other living things because we mirror God in the world, or we represent God. This image probably does not refer to our physical appearance. Certainly the Greeks viewed the gods as bearing the image of the human body, but that doesn’t fit the rest of the Bible which teaches that the creator God is invisible. It is much more likely that it is the human mind and soul that bears the imprint of God.

            What is this imprint? Genesis gives a clue. Up to this verse 27, what do we know of God? God creates, God speaks, God names, God orders, God plans for the future, God encourages life, and God blesses the world. It makes sense to me that this tells us about the image of God that humans bear. Humans think, create, speak, name, order, love, and plan for the future. We do these things and we should do these things because this is our essential nature. Moreover, humans are called to be like God and encourage life and bless the world God has made.

Humanity:       And here we come to an idea that may be surprising. Many theologians have rejected this idea, but I believe that Genesis teaches us that we are most like God when we are most truly human, and we are most human when we act toward creation as God acts. We are to use our reason and our remarkable powers to care for what God has given. We are to limit our own appetites and desires in order to make room for creation to take place around us. We are to exercise a benevolent dominion over other living things, just as God does.

We can go further in pondering the meaning of the image of God. It is very important that the Bible does not teach that some people are made in the image of God, but not others. It does not say that God created the Jews in his image or the English or the Americans or the whites or the blacks or the Asians or men only or only the healthy. Humankind itself bears the image of God even though this becomes obscured through diseases of the mind and body, including the diseases of a society that dehumanizes the poor, ignorant, and neglected. We are the ones who tarnish God’s image. I am always bemused by the fact that many “Bible-believing Christians” reject the plain teaching of Scripture that all humans are equal in God’s eyes. Souls and minds do not come in racial colors.

            This idea of the image of God was the central issue behind the early opposition to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. It is interesting that it was religious liberals and social progressives who generally opposed Darwin in the 19th century. Among them was Samuel Wilberforce, the son of William Wilberforce—the man who was mostly responsible for freeing slaves throughout the British Empire. Samuel recognized that Darwinism could be used to justify racism, slavery, military aggression, and the worst forms of cut-throat capitalism. Wilberforce was wrong about the science of biology, but he was prophetic in his warning of the evils that can result when humans no longer view themselves and each other as the image of God. Ideas of racial progress and “survival of the fittest” played important roles in some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. The misuse of Darwin’s theory demonstrates that it is not just theology that can be distorted for destructive purposes. Science can also be an ally in the service of hatred, greed, and oppression.

            In mentioning Wilberforce and Darwin, we need to remember that Genesis is about theological truths and our responsibilities before God. It is not about modern science, but it is about how we live our lives. It is a part of our faith commitment and ethical orientation to the world that we affirm that all humans are made in the image of God.

            Seventeenth century Calvinists were uncomfortable with this claim that all humans bear the image of God. They emphasized the fallen state of humankind as a way to highlight the need for salvation. For Calvinists, the fall erased or completely defaced the image of God that humans being. They talked about “utter depravity” as a way to convince people of the need for a redeemer.

Many evangelicals still talk this way, but I think this is a rejection of the plain teaching of Genesis. This is not a description of an ideal human state before sin; it is a statement about human nature. We are made in the image of God and still bear that image. I was pleased to find that the old Moravian Church did not accept the Calvinist idea of utter depravity. The image of God was a major part of Comenius’ theology.

Ethics: Moravians, like our Jewish brothers and sisters, based our ethics on a profoundly simple understanding of creation. Treat all people as those who bear God’s image. Look for God in every person you encounter. Think how differently we would raise our children, speak to our spouses, treat our employees, and live in society if we let every single person remind us of God, our creator and judge.

In times of war governments work very hard to dehumanize and even demonize the people on the other side in order to make it easier for soldiers to kill them. What if everyone who believes in the Creator refused to demonize the opposition? What if Jews, Christians, and Muslims with one voice said to every person in the world: “You are the image of God, and your life is sacred to me.”

Sabbath:         There is one further aspect of Genesis 1 that we can only note briefly this morning. Contrary to popular belief, the symbolic seven days of creation did not end with the creation of humans. It ended with the creation of the Sabbath. A day of rest was structured into the very nature of creation, according to Genesis. In the New Testament, Jesus says that the Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath. This is very wise.

The key thing about the Sabbath is not that it is the seventh day of the week but that God recognizes that humans need to rest regularly. We need to let go and let God run the world on occasion. The Sabbath is the day of the week that reminds us that the world turns without us and that we need re-creation. Those of us infected with the “Protestant Work Ethic” do not take seriously the divine mandate that you need to kick back and do nothing for awhile. And we need to let others rest too. In other words, the Bible rejects the notion that we should be doing something twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

We’ve come to the end of the first account of creation, and you’d surprised at what I left out of the lesson for today. There is much more to contemplate, but I hope that you see that this great song of creation holds important theological affirmations and important questions. But we don’t need all the answers before we start treating every human as a bearer of the image God or before we learn to take time to do nothing.

Thanks

Just want to say thanks to Tripp Fuller who set this blog up for me! Tripp is a recent graduate of Wake Forest Divinity School.

Genesis, lesson 2

Genesis: Folklore of Faith   Lesson 2 – Creation (Genesis 1:1-2:4a)

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on September 25, 2005

Introduction:               I wish I could begin this lesson by saying “It’s been a quiet week,” the way Garrison Keillor does on the Prairie Home Companion, but the truth is that it has been an anxious week. After the devastation of Katrina and the revelation of serious flaws in our emergency response system, I know that the country watched the rise of Hurricane Rita with considerable fear. I chose Genesis for study long before I knew that we would be facing major natural disasters, but the choice has been timely.

Theological Poetry:    This week we will look closely at the opening chapter of Genesis. This is a very orderly account as well as a poetic one. Last week we talked about the origin of this text. Picture this being sung in the Temple in Jerusalem by the priests of Israel after the people were allowed to return from Babylon. Even today in church, we sometimes read it aloud this way. It has a liturgical call and response that mirrors the calling of God and the response of creation. One person recites the action of God. Another recites that there was evening and morning, numbering the days. Think what is was like 2500 years ago when the priests sang these words while the people rebuilt their society after devastating tragedy. These are words of hope in the midst of destruction.

Genesis sings the song of creation, and let the people say, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good!” I find it very helpful to recognize that Genesis 1 is a liturgical poem, not a scientific textbook. It presents some of our most important theological affirmations in a manner that is both beautiful and memorable. You can almost hear the orchestra playing in the background as you read it.

            There are great advantages to presenting theology in the form of music or poetry, as Nikolaus von Zinzendorf knew three hundred years ago. It is easier to remember poetry than prose, for one thing. Poetry engages more than just one’s reason; it connects to the heart. Plus it is a communal event rather than private reading. Poetry makes theology a matter of life, not just something to repeat on a final examination. The repetitions in poetry reinforce the central meaning of the text and help make it a part of one’s own consciousness. What is repeated is important, and in Genesis 1 that is the simple phrase: “And God saw that it was good.”

Goodness of Creation:           This is a very bold claim that was different from the perspective of many people in ancient times. Many of Israel’s neighbors viewed the natural world as an enemy. Some went so far as to declare that the world was the result of a cosmic mistake. As you probably know, around the same time that Genesis 1 was written, Prince Siddharta in India decided that the physical world, with all of its change, suffering, and confusion is actually an illusion. In Buddhism, which was founded by Siddharta, only the mind is real, and the path to enlightenment begins with overcoming the illusions that cause suffering.

            Christianity teaches something different about the world. It is not illusion, it is a creation. God is the creator of the heavens and the earth, and more importantly, Judaism and Christianity teach that this creation is good. Notice that Genesis 1 does not say that some things are good and others are evil. Every thing that God made is good and is blessed by the creator. It can be hard at times like this to affirm that nature is good. Nature remains dangerous, but the Bible affirms that nature is fundamentally good.

            It is important to remember that hurricanes, blizzards, and earthquakes are part of the working of nature. We are the ones who choose to ignore the dangers of nature. We are the ones who drain the wetlands, damn the rivers, build in flood plains and on fault lines, cut down the rain forests, and fill the atmosphere with more carbon dioxide than nature can process. And then we are shocked when nature does not do our bidding.

            Part of the message of Genesis 1 that Christians have often ignored is that nature has an existence independent of humans. For centuries theologians taught that God made the universe for human use. Things that were not useful were seen as evidence of the fallen aspect of nature. But this is a misreading of the opening chapter of Genesis. God made the heavens and the earth, and humans are just one part of what God has made. My daughter often asks me why God made mosquitoes. I tell her that mosquitoes are there to keep us humble. They remind us that nature has its own existence apart from us. Of course, the mosquito has no problem answering the question of why God made humans.

Science:                      Genesis 1 is a profound and important part of Scripture, but in recent years, it has been the subject of much controversy in America. I doubt that any passage of Scripture has been debated more in courtrooms and classrooms than this story of creation. The issue is generally presented as one of science versus religion or faith versus reason, and both sides in the debate have made some pretty extreme claims through the years. This is too big a topic for one Sunday School class, and we’ll probably be coming back to it from time to time. But first of all, let me say that as far as I can tell, the Moravian Church has never had a problem with science or the pursuit of knowledge.

            Secondly, I want to put Genesis 1 into its original context so we can see that it played an important role in the development of science. The Israelites had heard many stories about the origins of the universe from their neighbors. Egyptians, Canaanites, and Babylonians all had their myths about the beginning of the earth. In fact, the account in Genesis 1 is very similar to the Enuma Elish, the creation story of the Babylonians. That myth actually gives the same basic order of creation as we find in Genesis 1 but in a different way. It tells about the god Marduk who slew his mother, Tiamat, who represented chaos. He divided watery Tiamat in two and placed a dome in the middle to separate the waters above from the waters below. Then he made dry land appear, and so forth.

            Genesis uses some of the same ideas as the Babylonian story, but is quite different. Nature was not formed by some bizarre struggle between the gods; it was created by the word of God according to a rational order. God’s word in the Bible represents the will and mind of God. In other words, the natural order reflects the thinking of God. Christians have no trouble affirming an intelligent design to the universe as a statement of our faith. Since humans share in the nature of God, we believe that we can understand our world.

            This idea of the predictability and orderliness of the universe is the fundamental faith conviction of all the natural sciences. The universe has an order that humans can perceive. When Einstein made his famous quip “God does not play dice with the universe,” he was making a statement of faith about science that reflects the Bible’s statement of faith about creation. For over a thousand years, Christian theology and natural science went hand in hand. One reason Christianity became the dominant intellectual force in Europe was because it offered a more rational explanation for the universe than pagan religion and even pagan philosophy.

            Things gradually changed as the Church gained political power and as the universities became entrenched in their commitment to Aristotle’s writings. As you know, when Galileo challenged the scientific theories of his day, he was accused of heresy by the Inquisition. He defended himself by pointing out that God had written two books: Nature and the Bible. We need to read them both carefully. As you know, the Catholic Church did not accept Galileo’s arguments. In fact, his writings were condemned by the Vatican until the late 20th century, but Protestant thinkers like John Amos Comenius embraced Galileo’s idea of two books of revelation and actively encouraged the development of modern science. Newton’s laws of gravity were hailed by many preachers as a vindication of the biblical view that the natural world is made by a rational deity.

            After 1800 though, it was increasingly obvious that the two books of revelation differed on a number of points. Geologists learned that the planet earth is hundreds of millions of years old, not thousands of years. Astronomers discovered that the heavens are more vast and wonderful that dreamed of in ancient times. Biologists learned that there are millions of species of animals and millions more that are extinct. Archaeologists learned that human society is about 6000 years old, just as Genesis says, but that human beings have been around for millions of years.

            By 1900 Westerners were divided over reading Genesis 1. Fundamentalists began to stress the literalness of the account in ways unheard of in previous ages. Some even argued that God intentionally left deceptive information in nature in order to tempt people into rejecting the Bible. For some Americans rejecting scientific evidence became a sign of faithfulness. They defined faith as a rejection of plain reason, something Christianity had never done before. I find that preachers who shout the most about “the truth” are the most willing to ignore plain facts they don’t like!

            For their part secularists rejected the Genesis account as mere myth-making. Some philosophers argued that religion was always opposed to science, which is simply untrue, and that faith must be abolished. Yes, there are fundamentalist versions of atheism! The Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee was the most celebrated skirmish in this previously unheard of war between faith and science, but the truth is that most Christians in America in the 20th century had no trouble seeing Genesis as metaphor rather than scientific fact. By the end of the century, the Vatican also adopted this point of view. Genesis and science offer separate, but equally important, views on the natural world.

Day 1:             There have been many creative attempts to reconcile Genesis 1 and modern science, but a close reading of the text shows that would be a mistake. Let’s look carefully at the story itself. But first I need to note that one of the most controversial points of biblical translation is how to translate the first words of Genesis. We say usually, ‘In the beginning, God created.” But it could be “When God began to create.” Most scholars are convinced that this verse refers to an on-going process of creation. Creation did not end with seven days, but is a continuous process guided by God. Also, it is not clear whether Genesis 1 refers to creation “out of nothing” or that God brought creative order to the pre-existent chaos. In either case, the second verse indicates that the earth was watery at the beginning.

            Then comes the creation of light itself even though there is no source for the light. There was light before there was a sun. In fact, there was day and night before there was a sun. Many people miss this when they read. The early church fathers recognized that this was not literal language. They read this passage symbolically, and emphasized that light comes first because God’s word always illuminates. Interestingly, modern science has given a little support for the idea that light as energy preceded the origin of the universe.

Day 2:             On the second day, God divided the waters. The King James Version says that he placed a “firmament” between the waters and called it sky. In the Revised Standard Version it is a dome. The New International Version is a little too clever in calling the sky an “expanse.” The Hebrew clearly means a solid object. In ancient days, when children asked, “Why is the sky blue?” the answer was, “Because there is water up there. “Why does it rain?” “Because the windows in the sky open and the water falls down.” As late as the 1960s there were people who believed that space travel was impossible because the rockets would have to break the dome above our heads. When Genesis 1 was written, this was the scientific knowledge of the day. There are waters above us and waters below us.

Day 3:             On the third day the waters receded at God’s command, and dry land appeared. This is hardly the account given by geologists about the formation of continents. Nor does it help us predict earthquakes and tsunamis. I think most of us watched NOAA for predictions about Hurricane Rita rather than relying on television preachers! After land appeared, plants sprang out of the ground. Notice that this was before the sun was created. If we read Genesis 1 literally, as some ask us to, we have to teach that plants existed before the sun and moon, which would make no sense really.

Day 4:             This is hardly scientific, but what was important for the litany was that the sun and moon appear in the middle of the week as a repetition of the creation of night and day. This is poetry. If you read carefully, you’ll notice that the importance of the sun is not photosynthesis or heat; it is to mark time. Remember, the priests were in charge of keeping track of time so that the community could observe the necessary religious festivals and make sure that crops were planted on time. More important, in contrast to the Greek philosophers, the priests of Israel proclaimed that the sun and moon are inanimate objects made by God, not gods themselves. Again, this is a step toward modern science away from mythology.

Day 5 and 6:               After the creation of time comes the creation of sea life, the birds of the air, and on the sixth day, land animals were created, each according to its kind. Notice that humans are created on the same day as other animals. I don’t know why people are offended that science indicates that humans have a great deal in common with other mammals. Genesis 1 agrees.

In concluding, let’s take note of the fact that Genesis 1 was not written 2500 years ago to combat modern science. It was written to combat ancient mythologies. The point of the story is that the universe was created good and is rational. The priests of old Israel, guided by the spirit of God, used the scientific knowledge of their day to communicate the message that God is the creator and that God’s creation is good.

            Once we recognize that Genesis 1 is metaphorical rather than scientific, it becomes revelation for us again. It reveals important things about God, human existence, and the world. Along with our ancestors in faith, we can proclaim that God has created all things in an orderly fashion and that all God has created is good. We can celebrate the fact that the universe has its own relationship with the creator independent of humans. Ordinary believers can join with scientists in expanding our understanding of the complexity and interconnectedness of the natural world.

We can stand in awe as we contemplate the true immensity of the universe and the billions and billions of stars and planets. We can rejoice in the beauty of the earth while worshiping the creator rather than the creation. And we can rejoice that God has made us out of stardust and given us minds to study the wonders of his creation. Let the people say, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” And let us dedicate ourselves as believers to the daily task of keeping creation good.[1]


[1] The major resource for this study of Genesis is the commentary by Terence E. Fretheim in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994).

Genesis: Folklore of Faith, lesson 1

Genesis: Folklore of Faith

Lesson 1 – Introduction and Overview

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church

Originally aired on September 18, 2005

Introduction: We’re together today to begin our study of the Book of Genesis. Genesis is one of the most important books written in the history of the world, and it continues to offer us profound insights into the mysteries of God, creation, and human existence. Many of you saw the Bill Moyers ten-part television program about Genesis on PBS, which was very good and thought-provoking.[1] Incidentally, Moyers is a Texas Baptist—but I think Moravians can adopt him as a kindred spirit. After all, the Wake Forest Divinity School has adopted this Moravian on their faculty. The Moyers’ series on Genesis demonstrates just how exciting this book is once you get past the fruitless debates about literalism. Genesis provides the church with some of our most important theological convictions, but it also speaks to universal human themes. I once had a student from Thailand who read Genesis for the first time in one of my classes. She was amazed by the book. It wasn’t what she had expected from talking with Christian friends.

But Genesis is also one of the most difficult and complicated books ever written. In some ways it is like one of these so-called postmodern novels that shatters the normal rules of narrative and plot. There is an overall structure to Genesis, but it is not an easy book to sit down and read straight through. Through the years I have known many people, Christian and non-Christian, who resolved to read the Bible straight through but could not even get through Genesis. It is a difficult book.

            So in this class I hope to help you read Genesis with new understanding and appreciation for the ideas it contains. To begin with, we need to recognize that the reason Genesis is both profound and confusing is that it is not the product of a single writer. It is not like most books today where someone slaves away in private assembling thoughts in a single coherent narrative. Genesis was centuries in the making. The idea that the book was written by Moses during the wandering in the wilderness was first proposed centuries after Genesis was written. The book itself makes no such claim. It is an anonymous book, and when we read through we can see that there are many different types of literature in Genesis, some of which are far older than others.

Crafting Genesis:  For the past 150 years biblical scholars have tried to unravel the many strands of literature in Genesis. Until about 30 years ago, scholars confidently identified three original sources of Genesis, which they labeled J, E, and P, but there is no longer a real consensus on the different parts. Genesis is more complicated than those three sources pieced together. I won’t bore you with all of the detailed scholarly debate, but I do hope that you will see, as we read through and discuss the book, that Genesis was assembled by a master craftsman from many different materials. This unknown craftsman was a person of deep faith and understanding. There are places where we can still see the stitches and seams that he left, but for the most part we have a final product that has its own form and beauty.

            What makes the book doubly complex is that some of the materials the final editor used were also woven by previous writers from many sources. At one time there may have been a single narrative that told the story of the kingdom of Judah from the time of Adam to King David, for instance. Scholars call that narrative J because it always calls God by the name YHWH (probably pronounced yah-whey), which in German starts with a J. In the King James Version this name was Jehovah. But that long epic tale of the kingdom of Judah included other narratives, such as the story of Joseph, which at one time was probably a separate story. And the story of Joseph itself was put together from several earlier stories.

            As we go through Genesis, we’ll see that some of the contradictions and repetitions that confuse modern readers are there because the final author of Genesis was using his materials with great respect and love for the faith tradition. Rather than erasing anything that did not fit with his narrative, the way a modern author or editor does, the final author of Genesis kept the integrity of the original stories even as he brought them together in a grand picture of the beginning of human history and the relationship of God and humankind. The complexity of Genesis is a tribute to the faithfulness of its author.

A Book of Faith:        From time to time we’ll focus in very closely on particular stories to understand their special meaning, but we’ll also pull back so that we can see how they fit in the grand scheme of Genesis. Throughout this study though, I want you to read for yourself. I want you to see what is in the text we have and let it speak to your heart and mind. Genesis was written for the ancient Israelites after their return from the Babylonian captivity, but it continues to be an important part of the Jewish and Christian religions.

            The best evidence for the divine inspiration of Genesis is that it continues to speak to people of faith who seek to live according to the will of God in this world. Readers of Genesis have too often exhausted themselves trying to make it all consistent and literally true. In doing so they have robbed the book of its God-given power to inspire and transform our lives today. Paul’s statement that “[t]he letter kills but the spirit gives life” applies very much to our reading of Genesis. We are going to try to unlock the life-giving spirit of this inspired text.

Babylonian Captivity:            I mentioned that Genesis in its final form originated after the Babylonian captivity. For those of you unfamiliar with the history of Israel, let me explain that a little bit. In the days of Moses there was no Bible. In some ways that statement is just common sense, but in other ways it is very surprising. We are so accustomed to thinking of Judaism and Christianity as religions of the Book that it is a little odd to realize that the roots of our religions go back to a time before books. The history of the written text goes back to the laws of Moses.

            Now from the time of Moses until King Saul, Israel was a loose confederation of tribes, each with their own traditions, laws, and stories. But these traditions, stories, and laws were interrelated, and the tribes gathered regularly for major religious festivals where they told and retold sagas of their people and their God. Sometime around 1000 BCE, the tribes decided to elect a king and establish a single nation called Israel. We know that the priests of Israel were in charge of the laws and the cultic observances, and they kept the written records. They also used stories of the Exodus and the giving of the law in teaching the people. The priesthood was older than the temple, and those written records became part of the temple tradition. And we have some of this priestly tradition in Genesis.

            We also know that there were prophets from earliest times who spoke on behalf of God to call the people to remember the covenant. Some of the prophets had assistants, like Baruch, who wrote their words down for future generations. The laws of the priests and the words of the prophets are older than Genesis itself. It appears that there were also storytellers who functioned like sages in every tribal society. Wise men and, most likely, wise women told the important stories at night by the campfire or on special holy days. Like priests, sages, and prophets in every age, the thinkers of Israel made use of the common knowledge of the day to communicate their ideas. We can find traces of the culture, poetry, and science of the Canaanites, Egyptians, and Babylonians throughout Genesis.

            After the reign of Solomon, the kingdom divided. The northern kingdom was called Israel and the southern kingdom was Judah. About 700 hundred years before the birth of Christ the northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the merciless Assyrian Empire, but the literature of Israel was taken to Judah where it was blended with the laws and stories of Judah. But in 586 BCE Judah was in turn defeated by the Babylonian Empire. King Nebuchadnezzar took the leading citizens of Judah back to Babylon and razed Solomon’s temple to the ground. This was the greatest disaster of Israelite history. For over 40 years the intellectual, political, and economic elites of Judah lived in Babylon while Jerusalem fell into ruins.

            During these 40 years, prophets like Ezekiel and Isaiah tried to make sense of what had happened by reminding the people of their unrighteousness. They also encouraged the people to trust that God would restore the nation. Some of the temple musicians sang out in grief: “By the waters of Babylon, where we lay down,” the author of Psalm 139 laments. Priests and scribes in exile collected the laws from the time of Moses to the time of the exile to preserve them for the future. Scholars wrote down much of the history of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, as well as the stories of the ancestors, so that future generations would remember.

            And through it all, the people of Israel tried to maintain their identity as the people of God living in a foreign land. They wanted to insure that their children would not worship the Babylonian gods and forget YHWH. They remembered the ancient story of the Exodus when God sent a deliverer who led them out of slavery and into a promised land. In short, what we call the Old Testament began to be written during and after the exile.

            When King Cyrus of Persia defeated mighty Babylon, he allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and establish a government. They rebuilt the temple, but not as grandly as Solomon. The priests took charge of worship and restoring order in Judah. Later the Persian king sent Ezra the Scribe to Jerusalem to establish the law of the Jews. Most scholars are convinced that the ancient Jewish tradition that Ezra assembled the Torah is basically correct. Much of what we know as the Old Testament was written under the guidance of Ezra and his colleagues in the 5th century BCE. In other words, the Old Testament, including the first five books, was written after the Babylonian Exile. That event overshadows everything in the Old Testament, including the book of Genesis.

Remembering Beginnings:    Genesis is not the oldest part of the Old Testament. In its final form, it is more recent than most of the prophetic books, and perhaps even more recent that Judges and Samuel. But it includes material that is much older. And it was placed at the beginning of the Scriptures for one very important reason; it belongs there. It is the book of beginnings, which is what Genesis means. Genesis is the result of centuries of theological reflection on the meaning of the history of Israel and the nature of God. In its final form, Genesis reflects the teachings of the priest, prophets, and sages. We will see that there is a repeated theme of exile and restoration in Genesis that interprets the Babylonian exile and return. Genesis also reflects what the Israelites learned from their neighbors over the centuries as well as what they rejected.

            This is all evident in the opening eleven chapters of the Genesis, which tell of the origins of earth, human beings, and society. We will see that there are big differences between Genesis 1 and 2 in their stories of creation, but they share a common theological perspective. Both deal with a fundamental affirmation that God is creator and that the creator cares about his creation, including humans.

            This affirmation is so deeply woven into the fabric of our consciousness that we forget how radical this idea was in the ancient world. Genesis 1 and 2 were written in the midst of a polytheistic world that told the origins of the world as the history of the gods. That is what we call mythology. Genesis 1 and 2 is something different. It is theology; the story of the one creator God and his relationship to humankind. Walter Brueggeman says that the point of the story is that the Creator creates creation, which is a little redundant but true. [2] Genesis was not written to combat modern science; it was written to combat polytheism and unrighteousness.

Reading Genesis:      I enjoy the new translation of Genesis by Stephen Mitchell, but I encourage you to also reread them from the NIV or the RSV or even the King James. In fact, I almost chose the King James Version for today because it is such powerful poetry. I remember what it was like hearing those words read from outer space when I was a child. We’ll go into more detail on this in our next lesson. Just let the words sink in.

            As you read, notice the style and rhythm of these words. This is a very orderly account as well as a poetic one. Can you picture this being sung in the Temple in Jerusalem by the priests of Israel? Even today in church we sometimes read it aloud this way. It has a liturgical call and response that mirrors the calling of God and the response of creation. One person recites the action of God. Another recites that there was evening and morning, numbering the days. And the people respond, and God saw that it was good.

Moravians of all people should understand and celebrate the fact that Bible begins in poetry and song. What better way to remind the people of the goodness and power of God as they struggled to rebuild their society after horrifying tragedy than through poetry and song. Genesis sings the song of creation, and let the people say, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good!”


[1] Bill Moyers, Genesis: A Living Conversation (New York: Doubleday, 1996).

[2] Walter Bruggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982).