Genesis: Where It All Begins (2)
Approaching Genesis and the Bible
No one approaches the Bible and just “reads it as it is.” We come with all kinds of assumptions about what kind of a book it is and how we should read it.
In this second part of our series, I would like to suggest a few fundamental principles we might bring to the opening pages of the Bible to help us as we prepare to read them.
One: No matter what your commitment to the divine nature of the Bible, remember it is a human book as well.
A lot of people out there want us to come to the Bible imagining that, because we say it is God’s word, we don’t read it in the same way we do other books. But God did not write the Bible, people did. It was not dropped out of heaven or dictated by the Holy Spirit to people who were merely conduits through whom God spoke divine words. The mystery of divine revelation and inspiration is that God chose to reveal himself through the stories, poems, prophecies, and records of real people who passed them down from generation to generation, preserved them and gathered them together, and edited them into a collection of “books” we call the Bible. They used various literary genres of their day to communicate their experience of God. Ultimately, the community of faith accepted the authority of these “books” and pronounced this collection to be sacred scripture for the people of God.
God “speaks” to us through human writings. We read them with the same literary approach we use in all our reading. As with other books, readers must try to understand:
- what genre of literature we are reading,
- how what we are reading fits into the big picture and themes of the whole collection,
- and, at least in a general sense, what the author/editor’s intent was in including this particular text and presenting it in the way it has been written and edited.
(Of course, there are meditative and contemplative ways of reading the Bible as well, but these fall more properly under such categories as prayer and spiritual formation.)
Two: Remember that the Bible is an ancient book.
One implication of this fact is that we must try to read this text through pre-scientific eyes. The author and original readers of this passage knew nothing of Ptolemy, Copernicus and Galileo, Newton or Einstein. They knew only the world they observed. If you had spoken to one of them about something as basic to us as “the universe” or “planet Earth,” he would have had no concept of what you were saying.
For example, Genesis 1 opens with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” That sounds all cosmic to people like us, who have access to the wonders of space, who view them through the Hubble telescope, and who understand the concept of our solar system, where planets orbit around the sun. This gives us a much more sophisticated mental picture than someone in ancient Israel would have had.
Genesis 1:1 more likely carries the sense of “In the beginning God created the skies and the land.” An ancient Israelite would have heard these words (not likely, by the way, that many would have read them) from the standpoint of an earthly observer’s.
In our imagination, when we read Genesis 1 we’re like the Apollo 8 astronauts, orbiting the moon and looking back at the magnificent blue ball of planet Earth. In other words, we imagine that the author is taking us to some divine balcony seat where we can view the action from a cosmic point of view. However, the chapter is actually written from the vantage point of an ordinary human being on the ground, observing a landscape split by the horizon into the regions above and below. Imagine that ancient Israelite, standing there with arms outstretched, saying, “Look, everything you see, from the ground to the sky — God made all that!”
Three: Remember that the Bible is Israel’s Story
We must try to read this text through the eyes of its first audience and as part of the entire book that was given to them. The First Testament was put together during and after the Babylonian Captivity, which ended about 500 years before Christ.
The Exile, after the Exodus, was the most formative experience in the history of Israel. Losing their land, temple, and kingdom provoked an identity crisis in the Jewish nation. In Babylon, where they could no longer practice their religion at the temple, the process of gathering, composing, editing, and forming writings from Israel’s history began. Synagogues were founded where reading, teaching, and prayer became the primary forms for community worship.
The scribes and teachers who led the communities in Babylon had a daunting task — to preserve Jewish identity while living as captives in a foreign land. It was a pastoral task as well — to help the people of God come to terms with why the Exile happened and to begin to imagine what God had in store for them in the future.
The story that begins in Genesis 1 is told as the first installment of the Story of Israel in the pages of what Christians call the Old Testament. A careful reading of Genesis 1-11 shows a distinct Babylonian flavor in the material as well as many emphases that would have been instructive to that community of exiles.
So, when you open the Bible to Genesis 1, expect to:
- Find texts that use a variety of forms of human literature to reveal God and people’s experience of God.
- Find an ancient text that reflects ancient perspectives about the world, including a pre-scientific perspective.
- Find a text that tells the story of Israel, designed to help the exiled Jewish people understand why the Exile happened and what they should hope for in the future.