I’ve more or less completed by reading of Genesis and Mark’s Gospel which began on 01/01/2015 and can be accessed from my archive. Today there are some thoughts on Genesis, tomorrow some on Mark before I start a new project.
THE CREATOR GOD
Genesis begins with a creation story which depicts a world that God thinks is good. What’s wrong with his God or this narrator? Is he insensible to human evil pain and mortality?
Of course the narrator knows very well about these things, so we have to assume his creation story is not intended as a fait accompli but as a picture of what God is always doing: enabling existence, establishing order, blessing his/ her creation with goodness.
Chapters 4-11 of Genesis show the difficulty of conceiving how God’s goodness can work in the world we know. Can it restrain human evil by hard labour for men and women and by death? No, it can’t. Will it get rid of murder by banishing the offender and proscribing revenge? It will not. Will a fresh start be secured by wiping out most of what was there and beginning all over again? No, indeed.
Human beings are shown to be capable of recalcitrant wrongness. The story of Adam and Eve shows how the root of evil is an arrogance which will not accept God-likeness as a gift but must possess it through conquest. This drive towards knowledge as power is depicted as productive of profound evil if given its head, leading to the condition where ‘ every plan of their hearts was evil all the day.”
Nevertheless human beings are not depicted as utterly corrupt or incapable of goodness. Human culture can use knowledge for both good and evil, for farming and fighting, for music and murder.
Just when it seems that all models of God’s goodness working in the world are unfeasable, the storyteller reveals his radical solution: God works by persuading human beings to cooperate with his continuing creation of a good world. We should never underestimate the daring of this solution. This is not how Gods are supposed to work! If God needs human cooperation, what’s the point of being God? This cosmic democracy is only found in the Bible and even there it is often forgotten. The image of God as absolute monarch, which has been tested to destruction in chapter 4-11 of Genesis, continues to have an appeal to people like the prophet Amos and the reformer John Calvin.
Genesis chapters 12 -50 however tell the story of God’s extraordinary experiment of engaging human beings in shaping the world. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah can be seen as a classic exposition of this partnership. It begins with God’s sense that he should let Avraham know what he intends to do about the corruption of these cities. Avraham then insists that God should be ruled by his own goodness, that the judge of all the earth should be just and merciful. Patiently and humorously God agrees to the successively more stringent demands that Avraham makes and even although the minimum of ten decent people is not found, mercy is shown to them. But the destruction of unrepentant evil doers is viewed as just.
The partnership of God and Avraham is depicted as real, but it does not compromise the initiative of God’s goodness, which may forgive, or show patience with, but will not tolerate evil.
Human beings are dependent on God’s goodness, but God is dependent on human trust which will not be given to God if he is not just. This a subtle theology which has been in sufficiently used in current theological debate. Genesis shows God forging a partnership which will help him create blessing for all creatures.
Human beings respond to Gods somewhat peremptory call in a variety of ways : hearing, seeing, journeying, speaking, building, covenanting, choosing; all of which add up to trusting God. Hearing and seeing take place in the human mind rather than through the eyes and ears but are nonetheless vivid for that. Journeying is particularly oriented towards the land of Canaan and within it, as the place in which Avraham’s descendants will become a blessing to the world, but other joiurneys such as Adam and Eve’s away from Eden or Yaakov’s to Harran are also responses to God. The audience gets the message that God is not static but present everywhere, while also travelling with his people. Speaking with God is one of the great inventions of the storyteller. Sometimes this is in response to God’s speech, but at times the human partners take the initiative. No special piety is used in these conversations. Partners are speaking about a common enterprise. This free speech is much later claimed by St. Paul as the fruit of a common enterprise (koinonia) with God, through Jeaus Messiah.Building is of sacrificial sites or pillars which remind people of significant moments in the partnership with God. Covenanting, that is, declaring a formal agreement between partners, is called ‘cutting a covenant’ because it is usually accompanied by animal sacrifice. It signals an agreement by which partners expect to be bound. Choosing involves the human agent deciding to hold to God’s goodness and justice in some worldly situation where they might do otherwise. Avraham accepts the hill country of Canaan rather than the cities of the plain, which Lot demands. Yaakov distances himself in disapproval of his sons’ massacre at Shekhem. Yosef forgives his brothers rather than wreaking his vengeance on them. These are the choices through which God’s blessing comes to his people, because they make real the goodness of God in the land of the living. They add up to a trust iwhich honours God not in ritual but in spirit and truth.
While not ignoring the human capacity for evil, a sober humanism characterises these stories.
THE PROMISED LAND
Doubtless the storyteller expected the audience to be fellow Jews living in Israel or Judah, aware of the traditions of the conquest of the land. It is therefore significant that none of the nation’s fathers is shown as taking land by force but rather negotiating with other tribes so that they can co-exist in peace. At times the story is at pains to note legal rights to bits of land, such as the family burial place at Makhpela, and these have a part to play in the fuller occupation of Canaan. But these are peaceful people who recognise the potential for conflict and try to avoid it. Even when Avraham has to resort to violence to recover his people and goods from looters, he refuses to enrich himself at the expense of the defeated.
I think that this peaceable settlement is depicted as a critique of the violent ethnic cleansing depicted in for example the book of Joshua. It is probable that in fact the Jewish tribes settled in Canaan without great violence; and that the ferocious divinely-commanded slaughter so beloved by Sunday School teachers is a piece of destructive ideology read back into official history. As such it has done immense harm, not least in modern Palestine. The witness of the Genesis storyteller is a useful counterblast.
I could say much more, but I hope my readers will go back to this great book and re-read it for the pleasure of engaging with good theology.