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).

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  • Will Phillips  On August 15, 2007 at 8:49 pm

    I stumbled here thanks to a random web search.

    I very much enjoyed this article! At the beginning, you stated “Originally aired on September 18, 2005.” Is this a class that was taught two years ago? If so, do you have notes or was the class taught directly alongside a book that you could direct me to?

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