Note from CM: I’d like to devote Tuesdays to some meditations on Genesis for awhile. It has been in studying the Hebrew Bible, and Genesis in particular, that I have come to appreciate a much more “Jewish” sense of the biblical story than much Christian theology acknowledges. N.T. Wright has done the same in the NT.
This journey of interpretation began for me in seminary in the 1980s under John Sailhamer, and it continues today under the guidance of scholars like Peter Enns. Pete himself has said that nothing has changed his perspective on the Bible more than studying under Jewish scholars and those who have brought out the Hebraic emphases of scripture. Consider this series my way of celebrating 35 years of an altered and ever-growing perspective.
This first piece is a re-edited version of a 2013 post. It represents my attempt to capture the meaning of the creation account in liturgical form. Many think Genesis 1:1-2:3 was, in fact, originally a liturgical text. I have rephrased it to bring out the significance of its ancient Hebrew priestly message.
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Genesis: Where It All Begins
One: Listen Up, People! Our God Reigns!
A Reading/Performance of Genesis 1
Listen up, people! Our God reigns!
And God makes all things good!
Let me tell you about our God.
Way back in the beginning, God put everything that is in its place.
That’s right, I said God brought order to everything!
It was God, the true and living God.
Not the pretender “gods” of Babylon or any other nation.
God alone is the One who brought order to the chaos.
He made the darkness light and stilled the raging seas.
At one time, this old world of ours was a wasteland,
No place we could call “home.”
It was dark as dark could be and covered with turbulent waters.
Now in Babylon, they’ll tell you stories,
Stories about how their gods were fightin’.
That’s why everything was so crazy chaotic.
Then, out of all that fussin’ and fumin’ and fightin’ one god won,
And that’s how we got our world.
Don’t you believe it!
Here’s how it really went down —
When the world was dark and the waves were crashin’,
God’s Spirit was hoverin’ over that chaos like a mighty wind,
He blew just like the gale that parted the Red Sea.
You remember that, don’t you?
There we were, in the wilderness,
No place we could call “home.”
Waters were threatening us, our enemies comin’ up on us.
That’s when God divided the waters for us, people,
And led us to the good land.
Well, it happened the same way back in the beginning, sisters and brothers!
Now let me tell you all about it.
One day God stepped into that wild darkness and said, “Light!”
He made himself some room in time so he could work.
Called the light “day” and saved the dark for nighttime.
Now I want to hear you say, “That was good!”
Congregation: That was good!
Next day, God did something about all those ragin’ waters.
He said, “Get these outta my way!”
And made himself some space to work in.
God formed a metal ceiling, my friends,
And put some of those waters up there
So there wouldn’t be so much on the land.
Then on the third day God took the waters down here
And ordered ’em into a deep valley so they were all in one place.
And just like at the Red Sea, folks could walk on dry land!
Just then God spoke again and things started growin’ —
All kinds of trees and plants
Sproutin’ all kinds of food to eat
Just like the Promised Land!
Now I know you’re gonna say, “That was good!”
Congregation: That was good!
Day four came along and God said,
“I want this world to be my temple, my palace,
Because this is where I’m going to reign.”
So he hung some lamps on that metal ceiling
To remind us down here that we’re in God’s Holy Place,
And to help us remember the times
When we should come and worship him.
That’s what the sun, moon, and stars are, my friends.
They are not “gods” like others tell you —
They’re the bright and pretty signs that us to the true God.
And I know you will want to say, “That was good!”
Congregation: That was good!
On the fifth and sixth days, God filled his temple with life.
Just said the word, and life started appearing!
He filled the waters with fish and living creatures.
He even put old Leviathan there, the great sea monster.
Now the Babylonians will tell you
You awaken that monster, and you’ll have chaos on your hands.
But I want you to know, he’s just another fish in the sea.
God made birds too, to fly around under the ceiling.
Then he put all the animals on the land.
Filled his temple with life!
Gave them his blessing!
Now wasn’t that good?
Congregation: That was good! That was good!
God had one more thing to do on that sixth day.
My sisters and brothers, he wanted some priests
To represent him in his Temple.
So he made human beings, men and women.
That’s right, people like you and me!
Put them in his temple,
Gave them his blessing,
Provided everything they needed,
And said, “Be my rulers here on earth.
Be fruitful and multiply,
Take care of this Temple,
Overcome anything that tries to oppose it,
And let everyone everywhere know
That I am King.”
Now that’s more than good, isn’t it?
So let me hear you say, “That was very good!”
Congregation: That was very good!
There was only one thing left for God to do.
On the seventh day, he sat down on his throne.
“Oh, this is a good day!” God said.
My work of putting things in their place is done.
All is well in the sky and the land that form my Temple,
And I am on the throne.
I think I’m a-gonna rest, thank you very much.
Maybe you should too, you know.
I made this place for you, to bless you now and forever.”
And that, my sisters and brothers,
Is the true story of creation.
God took the chaos —
Shaped it and filled it, formed it and put it all in its place.
Then God put us here to take care of it —
While he sat down on his throne to rule.
So listen up, people!
No matter what they tell you,
Our God reigns! And God makes all things good!
And I don’t care what kind of chaos you’re livin’ in.
Maybe you think you just don’t have a home anymore.
Maybe you think those Babylonian gods are winning.
But I’m here to tell you, it’s just not true.
So, let me hear you say it!
Our God reigns! And God makes all things good!
Congregation: Our God reigns! And God makes all things good!
30 thoughts on “Genesis: Where It All Begins (1)”
I didn’t read this post until Wednesday and Christiane beat me to it at the top of the comments.
I thought immediately of God’s Trombones, a book by James Weldon Johnson. Unfortunately, I didn’t read this post until Wednesday and Christiane beat me to it at the top of the comments. What surprises me is that absolutely no one else m motioned it.
For those who haven’t read them, I heartily recommend the books of Joseph Telushkin on Jewish Wisdom and Jewish Literacy. These are extremely well-done and informative.
Thanks, Ted! I’ll do that. I love Heschel as well.
Mike, during the early 80s while you were studying under John Sailhamer I was at Gordon taking a bunch of OT courses under Marvin Wilson, who had revolutionized his methods by discovering Judaism through various rabbi friends and incorporating that into his OT lectures, also referring constantly to the NT, making sense Jewishly of the teachings of Jesus and Paul. I encourage you to check out some of Marv’s work. He’s still around, and I think just retired this year.
One of the best courses I ever had was Modern Jewish Culture, and I’m frustrated that my two girls who went to Gordon never signed up for that or any of Marv’s courses. I mean, why else even GO there???
Also, read Abraham Joshua Heschel. Next to the bible, he was Marv’s inspiration.
but supposing the ‘parody’ was another ‘version’ of something that taken far back enough into ancestral history, derived from a similar ‘story’ . . .
in short, you wonder if there was an original ‘prompt’ so old that no one could remember who or how or where it came from, but this original ‘prompt’ shows up in the shared ‘Story’ details of the many cultures in a geographical area
an ancient oral history . . . . mangled by variations? or enhanced by those variations?
with as much to learn from the differences as from the similarities?
Here’s another (and more lighthearted) take on Genesis; a famous 1980s juggling act by a Philip Welford. I remember seeing this some 30 years ago, but didn’t find an online copy until now:
It needs to be said.
Thanks to the likes of Ken Ham, there’s a LOT of bad versions of Genesis 1 floating out there. Not only that, but cleaving to the bad version has become Salvation-Level Dogma.
John Barry, I’ve done that with google translator. C’est un hoot.
Yes, thanks for the link.
Wait. Chaplain Mike wrote that? Cool.
HUG, I’m with you. I wouldn’t limit the Image of God in us to our ability to create, but I think that’s an important part of it, and often overlooked. I think God wants us to be co-creators with him. I mentioned that to a professor once when I needed a topic for a paper, and he said, “You should write on a theology of work! And it was not a suggestion. So vocation can be seen as co-creatorship, and part of the Imago Dei.
btw, the professor was David Wells, and the paper didn’t go very well.
This is too good to stay on a blog.
I’d like to see you actually (1) publish it or (2) get to use it at your church or in your duties as a chaplain.
Burro, thanks for the link. Good “stuff” to ponder. So many issues to ponder, why do M and M’s melt in you mouth and not your hand?
Jack Par use to do a routine were he had several people who spoke different languages in a line, he started a simple story , they each translated it in private to the next person who spoke 2 languages , so it went from English to French, , then French to Russian and so on. The last person translated and told the story in English, it was barely recognizable .
So the great mystery to many would be , who is Jack Parr? However it shows the more a story is retold in a different language in a different culture you lose a lot in the translation. Like an eyewitness the first time they recant a story it is probably what they really remember correctly.
that’s a little over my pay grade, but here is an Antiochian priest’s take on it.
CM, I like your poetic/performance paraphrase of Genesis 1. It has a nice Eugene Peterson-ish feel to it. (I wrote similar-feeling paraphrase of Psalm 23 following a study of Phillip Keller’s “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.)
A CONVERSATION echoing from generation unto generation, NOT a Dictated Chronological Checklist of FACT, FACT, FACT.
I’ve written some imaginative fiction; I know something about storytelling.
Genesis: Where It All Begins
Now THAT expresses the original Jewish intent of the text!
A STORY of How We Began, not a scientific checklist!
A Story that parodies the Mesopotamian Creation Myths of the goyim around them!
In a magazine interview around 20-30 years ago, Mormon SF author Orson Scott Card said (from memory) that “The ‘Image of God’ is the ability to create — We were MEANT to be Creators!”
Clay, and CM: The Masoretic text is, I believe, a product of the 6th-10th centuries, a time period when, for all intents and purposes, the conversation referenced above was complete, at least as far as the Jews were concerned. Interpretation forms a great part of what the Orthodox refer to as Tradition, with a capital T. Reading through the Mishnah, the production of which must have been the primary preoccupation of the Jewish elite in the times from the Hasmonean commonwealth to the bar-Kochba revolt, I have the same feeling I have when I read the Koran – there is much that is bright and brilliant, and of great use for the understanding of its adherents, but you have to say along with the sons of the prophets “there is death in the pot, o man of God”.
As to the reason why the Orthodox don’t, in general, study Hebrew, that question is kind of above my pay grade. Fr. John Whiteford can field it.. Hellenism is, speaking broadly, kind of a problem in the Orthodox church. Greek culture was the Global Pansexual Regulatory Utopia of its day, and its intellectual impact on the Jews was far greater than that of the Babylonians or the Persians. Certainly, the few passages we have in the Palestinian canon written in Aramaic presage the coming of the ‘times of the Gentiles’, a cracking of the Semitic egg so that the yolk within could be shared by all.
As someone who has a some training in the Hebrew text AND an affinity towards some aspects of Eastern Orthodox theology, I’m struck by Mule’s revelation. Where can I read more about that?
Mule, I agree that there is a vibrant conversation within Judaism, and actually, that’s part of the attraction, because it helps us understand that the Hebrew Bible in particular also reveals a conversation between competing interpretations, for example, between Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job, or between Kings and Chronicles, the prophets and the Torah. The LXX is itself a part of that conversation, as is the Masoretic text.
Somehow, though, during the Exilic and Post-Exilic periods, the community produced what we know as the OT, at least most of it, so I think studying the OT in particular should begin with trying to grasp the perspectives of that community.
Those are fair questions and good observations. Have you considered popping over to Pete’s blog to ask him? What is the rationale for Orthodox scholars not studying Hebrew?
Why study under Jewish scholars and seek a ‘Hebraic’ emphasis in Scripture? Which Hebrews’ thought should you be following? It was during the late Persian times and after the impact of Hellenism that Rabbinic Judaism began to diverge from what was to become the Church. From my readings of the post exilic prophets and writings, it appears to me that there were several strands of ideology acting upon the Jewish commonwealth at that time. In Ezra and Nehemiah we see a concern for racial purity, that the Jews should not marry outside the congregation.
It is also at this time that we see the beginnings of the synagogue worship and a relative decline in the importance of the Temple cult. By the time of John the Baptist, it appears to me that the separation between the inheritors of the Temple traditions and ‘this rabble that knoweth not the Law and is accursed’ was almost complete. After the destruction of the Temple, the Pharisees and their descendants were the only ones that survived.
(Once again reminding you all that the Orthodox do not study Hebrew and use the LXX as an authoritative text, albeit our view of Scriptural authority is less lawyerly than most groups’. I often wonder what Dr Enns would make of that. Maybe someday he’ll address it.)
I can see the attraction. Rabbinic Judaism produces the finest ethical thinkers in the world, better even than the Romans, who are not slouches, and Protestants love ethics…
Stories are one of the places where language and creativity come together. The other is poetry. It’s not an accident that the Bible is full of both. Stories are how we make time meaningful. Poetry is the art of using patterned language to make beautiful and/or memorable impressions of things that are otherwise hard to grasp or describe.
Tolkien has a lot to say about humans as “sub-creators” – creating things as copies of, and in response to, God’s creation, because we are His children, made in His image, and so we naturally are drawn to do what God does, in our limited way. Check out his essay “On Fairy-stories” for a fuller explanation.
My own feeling, heavily influenced by Tolkien, is that language and creativity are what set us apart from God’s other creatures, and so storytellling, which combines the two, is an essential human act.
an excerpt from ‘The Creation’
a poem by James Weldon Johnson
” . . . Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled Him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image;
Then into it He blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul. ”
We need ‘story’ as much as we need theology.
Whether it’s a spoken liturgy or a poem or myth or saga or the Book of Genesis, there is something about ‘story’ that fills a collective human need.
We want to know more than we have the capacity to comprehend, but still we want to KNOW. And maybe there is some truth to the idea that in our DNA, we carry genetic memories of ancient days that find a way into our (sub)consciousness?
Is there more to ‘story’ beyond the ability to ‘entertain’ ?
Is human imagination a more intricate gift to us from the Creator?
Have we overlooked human imagination as another way God is communicating with us?
Even the question makes me smile.
CM, Loved it , just brings a context that I believe is relevant . Nothing new in the words per sec but such a new perspective. Thanks.
Of course one of my favorite movies is Tora, Tora, Tora so I know a lot about Tora from 1941 on.