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Some issues just don’t go away. The biggest concerns facing the world today are modern versions of old ones.
This post argues that the first chapter of Genesis has its own distinctive take on them. And it’s right.
The concerns I have in mind are:
Environmental destruction. Climate change and Covid are examples of what goes wrong when we fail to respect our proper place on Planet Earth.
Inequality. For the last 40 years, in most of the world, the rich have been getting richer and the poor poorer. It has happened all through history.
War. The world’s nations are a long way off learning how to live together in peace.
Every society has its way of reflecting on these things. How do we relate to the world around us? How do we relate to each other? How do we relate to distant foreigners? Every society has its own characteristic answers.
Interpreting Genesis 1
I don’t read Hebrew, so I am following the majority view of Hebrew scholars to the best of my ability.
Unfortunately, Genesis 1 has become controversial because of the evolution debate. It says God created the world and its different forms of life in six days.
It’s a red herring. When assessing literature from another culture, we have to recognise that they made assumptions we don’t make. The authors of Genesis took for granted that every form of life must have been created by God. What they were positively affirming was the kind of god who created them. The focus of the text is theological, not zoological.
What it opposes
To understand what they were positively claiming, it helps to know what they were opposing. When we compare Genesis 1 with other creation texts from the ancient near east the point becomes clear.
Anthropologists tell us our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in small equal communities, sharing their possessions. Wherever agriculture developed the surplus food got creamed off for the ruling class. They employed armies and tax collectors to enrich themselves at the expense of the peasants. Agricultural societies grew increasingly hierarchical.
Most surviving creation texts from the ancient near east were designed to justify the hierarchy. A good example is the Enuma Elis, the creation epic of the neo-Babylonian empire. In this poem the gods wanted servants to do the housework for them: to cook the sacrifices and maintain the temples. Within this theology, every plague, flood, drought and military defeat could be interpreted as punishment by the gods for inadequate sacrifices. The peasants must give more. The real beneficiaries, of course, were the ruling classes.
Wars of conquest were justified in a similar way. Assyrian texts tell us that Assur, the supreme god, had become supreme by fighting and defeating other gods. He was therefore rightly the god of the whole world. As such he appointed the king, who had a parallel duty – to fight and defeat other kings.
Attitudes to the natural environment were thereforce conflictual. The world is designed to be pleasant for the gods, not for humans. For most humans, life is a constant struggle to propitiate the gods. Poverty and suffering are taken for granted.
In these Mesopotamian theologies we are of course hearing the voices of the rulers. We can see in them three major claims about the nature of human life.
Environmental threat. The world is designed to benefit gods, not humans. Humans are constantly threatened, always needing to propitiate the gods.
Hierarchy. Inequalities of power and wealth are permanent impositions of the chief god.
War. Just as the chief god established order by defeating other gods, it is the duty of the king to establish order by defeating other kings.
It is a gloomy account of the human predicament. It tells us that if there are any possibilities for making our lives more pleasant we will have to find them for ourselves – despite the way the world is designed.
What it affirms
Around the edges of those agricultural empires were societies more or less clinging onto older, more egalitarian values.
It’s possible that the first chapter of Genesis was written as a direct reaction against Babylonian theology by exiles from Jerusalem. Anyway it must have been written in full knowledge of it.
By comparing it with those imperial texts we can see what the authors of Genesis 1 were positively affirming.
The natural environment, instead of being a constant threat, offers security. The world is designed to be just what we need for a good life. God doesn’t need anything from us. We have been given life for our own sakes. There is a proper balance between work, rest and celebration.
Instead of hierarchy, equality. God created humanity as a free gift, and has filled the world with the resources we need. Whenever some are going without, it’s because others are taking more than their share.
Instead of war, harmony. The free gift, the blessing, is for everybody in the world. Just as God has no enemies in heaven, we do not need enemies on earth.
As an account of the human condition there couldn’t be a greater contrast with the imperial theology of Assyria and Babylon. Of course we don’t need to read much further in the Bible to find imperialist values reappearing, but that is another story.
Later Jewish editors decided that that first chapter of Genesis would make a good preface:
– to the laws commanding kings to protect the poor;
– to the prophets condemning kings for not obeying the commands;
– and to the histories attributing the Exile to the disobedience of the kings.
Western society today has inherited many of its values from Christianity; but increasingly, other values are taking its place.
After the Second World War there was a major international attempt to create better ways for countries to relate to each other.
To tackle international hostilities, it seemed best to increase trade. That way, every country would benefit from peaceful relations with its trading partners. So now we have countless lorries driving ever-greater distances to carry coals to Newcastle, and the air we breathe is full of toxins.
To tackle poverty, rather than take from the rich it seemed easier to increase production all round. So now we need bigger houses to store all our stuff. Land and oceans are full of rubbish. We have ever-increasing numbers of billionaires who still want more money.
Then, protecting the environment wasn’t on the agenda. Now, we can see that those policies have been destroying it. Meanwhile that international vision has declined as national hostilities have increased; and we have grown used to ever-increasing numbers of homeless and starving people, even in the richest countries.
This decline in our values has not been accidental. It has been driven by power struggles. The beneficiaries, determined to keep it going, offer alternative values. Instead of equality, the talk is of meritocracy and what people ‘deserve’. Instead of peace and harmony, competitiveness and ‘defending the nation’s interests’. In this culture there are a few winners and many losers. When Donald Trump dismissed his opponents as ‘losers’, as though losers just don’t matter, he expressed an attitude that has been growing everywhere.
Will we ever manage to bring wars to an end? Will we ever reach the stage where everybody has enough good food to eat, clean water to drink and clean air to breathe? Will we ever live with each other as equals, so that nobody has power to oppress others? I don’t know. But to even hold that vision before us, we need to believe it’s possible. We need to believe the world is designed to work like that. Despite what has happened so far, if the first page of the Bible is right we have reason to hope.