The blog has been examining the book of Genesis alongside the Gospel,of Mark. The series is complete apart from the summing up on which I am now engaged. Readers can access the series from my archive, starting 01/01/ 2015 .
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Both works use a style akin to magical realism, in which apparently unnatural events are sobrly narrated as if they required no explanation, while more natural events occupy the larger part of the narrative. Journeys, both within and beyond the land promised to the descendants of Avraham, are a structural device in both works, pointing the audience towards their overall significance: the story of the forefathers must end in Egypt, the story of Jesus must end in Jerusalem, because both of them are places of enslavement and liberation, death and life.
Within the larger structure of the works, the narrative is episodic, although the episodes are often longer in Genesis than in the Gospel. Characters are introduced through encounters, the nub of which is often a speech or dialogue. Although characters often tell lies or conceal the truth, nevertheless their humanity is revealed in their words. They speak from the heart for good or ill, but hardly ever reveal themselves fully, leaving the reader with a sense of their human richness and dignity.
Human beings are presented as free agents, making crucial decisions for which they must take responsibility, but always within the context of God’s desire to bless the world through them. The relationship between human agency and God’s creative planning is subtly depicted: in no way are the human agents reduced to puppets, yet they often find that God has gotten ahead of them and opened a track for them to follow.
That raises the issue of how ‘God’ is depicted in these human stories: the answer is, as another character. The storytellers’ delicacy means that God is never confused with human beings, God is always the creator and father who enables goodness. Yet he/ she is revealed as personal, that is as a centre of thinking, feeling, decision and action. As I noted yesterday the storytellers use the name ‘God’ in an exploratory rather than a dogmatic manner, which allows them to test out the meanings of this human word in a critical way, so that certain meanings can be rejected and others modified, over the course of the complete work. Is The God of Genesis the slightly harraased creator who finds himself overtaken by his human creature’s inventive wickedness and has to engage in ever greater acts of punishment, or is he the source of blessing who knows that his goodness can only be transmitted to the world through his human creatures, and who therefore enters into an intimate partnership with them? Is the God of Mark the father who declares his delight in his son Jesus or the one who abandons him to a terrible death? Those who want to smooth over these contradictions out of a sense of pious decency have failed to reckon with the savage honesty of biblical narrative, which insists on grappling with facts, however disturbing they may be.
The relationship between human beings and this God can be described in the words, trust and doubt. There is no issue as to whether God or Gods exist; rather the issue is whether the God of Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov, or the God and father of Jesus can be trusted to bring blessing to those who trust in him. ‘Testing’ therefore is integral to the stories as human beings test God’s reliability, and God tests theirs. The result is the silent grief of Avraham on the journey to the mount of sacrifice or the vocal agony of Jesus is the garden of Gethsemane. The ability to trust God without denying the pain it brings is highly prized by the storytellers.
The expected blessings are not ‘religious’, and can be summed up on the Hebrew word ‘shalom’: peace, health, and the flourishing of life. This seen in the fruitful flocks of the forefathers and in the restored health of those touched by Jesus. Even the blessing of eternal life mentioned in the gospel is happiness rather than pious contemplation.
I have emphasised the characteristics which are common to Genesis and Mark but they are of course very different. Genesis is the story of how God creates a partnership with the forefathers of Israel in order to solve the problem of having made a creature capable of disobedience and evil. Mark is the story of how God engages in battle with human evil in his human son Jesus, suffering its effects in order to defeat it.
I shall add some final reflections on these two stories in the next two days.