I’ve more or less completed my scheme of reading Genesis and Mark’s Gospel in tandem, which started on 01/01/2015 and can be accessed from my archive. Today I want to write about Genesis from the point of view of Christian theology. As usual the daily headline is a reminder of the world we live in.
The Creator God
Above all Genesis identifies God as the creator of an ordered universe, earth sun moon and stars, peopled by living things that can reproduce, in which all is good and shares God’s blessing.
So, was the storyteller stupid? Had he not witnessed the struggle to survive amongst the animals, the desire to dominate among humans, the effects of violence, illness, poverty and age?
Of course he had, as his narrative shows. We should be careful here. His story tells us that God made a perfect world, except his mistake in making humans in his image with the capability of doing evil. The story in its first 11 chapters shows God stumbling in the wake of his disobedient creature, attempting to punish it into a better obedience, without success. But this is a comic- cuts God, a cartoon figure of failure. We need to ask ourselves about the nature of the creation stories. Are they a beginning in time or an image of God’s continuous creativity through time. I think the latter. Creation is what God is doing now, in the storyteller’s now in Israel eight centuries before Christ, in my now in Dundee, Scotland, 2015.
Seen in this light the first eleven chapters of Genesis are a profound set of stories about the difficulty in conceiving a creator God who desires to bless his creation with goodness, when the most evident feature of his world is a creature whose thirst for knowledge as power generates all the good and the bad things of human culture, from music to murder. Can human arrogance perhaps be controlled by death, sweated labour and pain in childbirth? No, it can’t. Can human violence be stopped by banishing killers from their own community and outlawing the blood feud? No, it can’t. Can the whole process be cleansed by wiping most of it out and starting again with the best available family? No,indeed no.
In the face of these negatives how are we to think of the creator who saw that all was good? We must I think consider what we call the creation story as a revelation of God’s purpose in the evolution of the cosmos, giving existence to beings which are separate from him yet blessed with his/her goodness. The way in which God goes about this business is then seen in chapters 12- 50 of Genesis, in which it becomes evident that God desires the active partnership of human beings in the process of creating a good world. Such a partnership has to start small because it is based on mutual knowledge and trust, as depicted in the sagas of the forefathers.
It is common enough for theologians to say that Genesis makes the creation of the cosmos a prelude to the story of Israel; more accurately it makes Israel part of the story of creation. Israel exists so that creation may be completed.
Theologians who have insisted the blessing is original rather than sin are right, even if they have often shown an unbiblical optimism about human nature. Original blessing is an attribute of God not of humanity. God is all goodness, continually creates goodness, and confronts evil with goodness. Human beings who trust God’s goodness become agents of goodness by virtue of their decisions and actions. God acts towards his chosen humans with respect and affection. His blessing of them does not mean that they always receive it in full, or abide in it at al times. They have to learn to trust it. God does not manipulate them, nor can they manipulate God. It is a relationship which persists through individual and family lives and is transferred to subsequent generations. But it always requires active participation; the blessing is not a possession. The Baal Shem commented that we say God of Avraham, God of Yitzkah, God of Yaakov, rather than God of Avraham, Yitzkak and Yaakov, because each of the fathers had to bind himself to the divine unity, as each of us also must do.
How does God’s goodness deal with outright rejection and evil? The key stories here both involve Avraham. The first is the drama of Sodom and Gomorrah. Avraham, informed of the impending destruction of them, questions God’s goodness. How can God destroy the innocent with the guilty? Must not the judge of all the earth be just? In this great and humorous dialogue God agrees that he will be bound by principles of justice and mercy. He will not destroy the city if there are found ten good people in it. In the end, as there are not even ten, the city is destroyed while the innocent are rescued. God’s goodness presents an inviolable front to evil. Normally human evil will not confront God directly and will continue to exist in God’s patience, but goodness can destroy arrogant evil and sometimes does so. The punishment is seen as just. Even the beloved partners of God are to fear him. Fear is not the end of wisdom but it is the beginning of it.
The second is the story of the binding of Yitzkak, in which God shows that only those who know that children are God’s blessing rather than a human right are fit for the goodness that God wants to give to their families. God’s goodness is terrifying because it can demand more than a person’s life, even the life of one’s dearly loved child. Avraham meets the rigour of God’s apparent demand with the rigour of his trust; he does not believe that God will force him to do this, but in any case he trusts God’s goodness. God deals with evil by creating people who have the steel to stand up for his own intolerant goodness. (God’s goodness may be patient, compassionate, forgiving, redemptive, but it is not tolerant of evil.)
Now I have to prepare for a funeral. More tomorrow.