Over the years my family established a number of birthday traditions. One of these traditions was that we would all have supper together, eating the favorite meal of the person having the birthday, and after the meal my mom would tell that person’s birth story. Even though after a while we knew each other’s stories well, it was still a highlight to hear it told again. My birth story goes something like this: That evening Mom and Rachel, my older sister, were watching Dad play basketball in a community league and during the game Dad injured his knee. When they came home dad still had some chores to do out at the barn, but lied down on the couch for some rest while mom put Rachel to bed and got to finishing some dishes that needed washing. During the dish washing, and as dad fell off to sleep, mom started having contractions. She kept washing the dishes, watered the flowers, and then woke up dad as things started getting more intense for her. Dad hobbled off of the couch down to the barn to finish the chores. At the time we had a house phone and a barn phone so Mom could call Dad if she was thinking they needed to head to the hospital right away. After a while, mom felt like it was time, but every time she would pick up the phone to dial she would start to have another contraction such that she would have to hang up and wait until the pain was gone before she could try to dial again. This was well before the days of push button phones and speed dial. Eventually she gets the number dialed, talks with Dad, he hobbles back to the house, they call Grandma Lehman, Mom’s mom, to come stay with Rachel, they head to the hospital and I’m born less than an hour after they check in.
This story has meant different things to me at different points in life. Initially I think I liked it because it was dramatic and kind of funny picturing dad hobbling around with the cows while mom was unsuccessfully trying to dial those seven magic numbers to the barn. In junior high and high school and college, when I was heavily involved in sports, I liked that a basketball game played a part in how I came into the world. Being competitive, I also liked that I arrived faster than my other siblings. More recently, being able to place myself better in my parents’ position, I have appreciated how this story shows Mom’s care to put the house in order and her strength to bear through those contractions by herself in the house. I appreciate the way this story brings out my Dad’s involvement in the different worlds of recreation, work, and family. And I also appreciate the fact that our family sits down around a table together and tells these stories and that they give us a sense of where we come from. I love that I have a story that is passed down from another generation telling me something about who I am and who we are. Because it is told in almost the same way every year it acts like a liturgy of sorts, where we all know the words and relish hearing them again as words that inform and form us.
Genesis One, the opening chapter of our scriptures, contains an ancient birth story that has had a profound impact on how we think about where we come from and who we believe we are. It is a sweeping account of the heavens and the earth coming into being through a God whose word is as good as deed. To speak light is for light to be. Famously, it is structured into seven days, with the first six days culminating in the creation of the human creature, who, both male and female are created in the image of the Creator. The entire creative process climaxes in a seventh day, a Sabbath, Shabbot, which means to cease, to rest. “And on it God rested from all the work that God had done in creation.”
For the last century plus, this text has gotten stuck in between what we could call the secular/biblical literalist divide. Since Darwin’s Origin of the Species the scientific community has compiled more and more data that reveals that our earth, and our universe, has evolved through a slow, gradual process covering billions of years. One response, the secular, has been to see Genesis as an example of outdated bad science where humans who knew little about the origins of the cosmos came up with an explanation that made God the creator of everything. Now that we know more about our evolving universe we are no longer in need of this God and certainly no longer in need of this story. To this many people of faith have responded by re-asserting the authority of the Bible, God’s Word over human knowledge, with the belief that true faith involves an acceptance of a consistent literal interpretation of scripture, including six days of God creating the universe.
We in this area of the country may hear more than others about this ongoing clash with the recent construction and opening of the creation museum in Petersburg, Northern Kentucky. Just last week the Enquirer reported that the museum is receiving more business than expected, over 100,000 people in the first two months, and is looking to expand parking.
Anytime an argument gets framed in either/or type of thinking, either it is false and irrelevant or it is literally true, there is failure of imagination that happens. In this case a failure to recognize ways that the scriptures, and specifically Genesis One, can express profound truth, without having to be literal accounts of actual historical events. So how might we allow this passage to get unstuck from the narrow secularist/biblical literalist conversation, and, to use a pun, to place it in a different light, perhaps even a light closer to the intention of the text? Put another way, how can we embrace open ended scientific inquiry and continue to claim this as a birth story?
One of the first rules of biblical interpretation, and the interpretation of any text, is to look at the historical context out of which it came. Scholars now know that the Ancient Near East abounded with various birth stories of how the world came into being, creation myths. We sometimes use the word myth to refer to something that isn’t true, but a better use of the word myth is for something that is so true that it characterizes the very structure of reality. A creation myth was a story that told a culture about why their present day world was the way that it was and what that meant for how they should order their lives. One theme that many of these creation myths of the Ancient Near East held in common was that they were incredibly violent, often telling of a brutal conflict where a male warrior God goes to battle and defeats a female divine being, usually depicted as a sea dragon or the sea itself.
One of the most influential creation myths of the ancient near east was that of the Babylonians. Their birth story told that in the beginning were Tiamat, the chaotic deep salt waters, and her husband Apsu, the fresh waters. Tiamat and Apsu give birth to younger gods who eventually start making a lot of noise such that their parents plot to destroy them. But, the plot is discovered and one of the younger gods kills Apsu, the father, and his wife Tiamat vows revenge. Eventually the younger gods turn to the youngest, Marduk, for salvation. He pledges to fight the powerful Tiamat if the other gods will make him chief and obey his every command. After a violent battle, Marduk defeats the watery deep chaos monster Tiamat and out of her corpse creates the universe. Marduk then reigns supreme over his creation with all the other gods serving him. Walter Wink names this as a primary example of the myth of redemptive violence, the belief that violence is necessary for having power and that we are saved through this violence. Wink believes this myth, this birth story, is the one that most people in the world still believe.
Many scholars hold that the Genesis One account came out of the Jews experience of being exiled into Babylon. The Babylonian creation myth told the Babylonians, and everyone else, who they were and how the world should be ordered. In a world where the chaos of floods and droughts and war constantly threatened civilization, Babylon and its god Marduk, had conquered and reigned supreme. Babylon was born out of violence and continued to live through conquering the nations around it and creating its empire out of the corpse of those nations. Their creation myth was for them not just a story, but a liturgy that they would retell every year on the News Years festival, a birthday story, telling them about where they came from. And every year the king of Babylon would be reinstated as the image of the god Marduk ruling on earth. And the myth of redemptive violence was imprinted again in people’s minds.
The Jews — first, in their own land, were confronted with the overwhelming power of the Babylonian army which eventually destroyed their temple and carried many of them away to live in the capital of Babylon. Then, in Babylon, were confronted with the overwhelming power of the Babylonian creation myth that described a world where the Babylonian god Marduk and his earthly image the king conquered all and ruled all. It would seem to be a true story. The Jews and their nation of Judah were just another small part of that defeated corpse out of which Marduk was fashioning his world. Every year they would have heard that liturgy being recited and see Marduk’s image, this Babylonian king, lifted up as supreme.
Imagine then, what kind of contrast this Genesis birth story would have in such a context. Recited by the Jews as a counter liturgy to the liturgy of the empire. What is the nature of our world? Where do we come from? Who and what carries real power?
“In the beginning, Elohim, the God of all nations, created the heavens and the earth.” The account is surprisingly peaceful. There is no conquering or killing necessary. The power to create here is given to the power of speech, the power of language, the power of the spoken word to persuade. God’s word, “Let there be light, let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, let the earth bring forth vegetation” God calling out to the created order and the created order responding with joy. “And it was so.” And the joy of the creation in turn filling the creator with Joy. And Elohim saw that it was good. This is a very different picture of the kind of world we live in. One that surely required great faith on the part of those Jewish captives living in Babylon.
Verse two tells of darkness that covered the face of the deep. The Hebrew word for deep is “Tehom” very likely a reference to Tiamat, the watery abyss. It continues, and the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters. The spirit of God, Ruach Elohim, just as easily translate breath of God or wind from God, is feminine in Hebrew. The image here is one like a mother bird hovering over her nest, the spirit of God hovering over her world she is about to speak into being. Whereas the Babylonian story and the Babylonian empire were extremely patriarchal needing to defeat the mother Tiamat in order to rule, here the Spirit of God is hovering over Tehom, out of which will emerge all that is.
Perhaps one of the most important and theologically rich statements in this account is when God says, “Let us make human kind in our image, according to our likeness…So God created the human creature in God’s image, in the image of God they were created, male and female God created them. And God blessed them…” Who bears the image of God and the power and responsibility that goes with that. Is it the king, the ruler of the empire, who has power to conquer and rule? Or is it every human creature, male and female who has been blessed from the beginning to be God’s image bearer?
I like to imagine a scene in ancient Babylon, inside a Jewish home, sitting around the table after a meal. Perhaps it is even during the Babylonian New Years festival, while the myth of redemptive violence, the battle between Tiamat and Marduk, is being retold with Marduk again destroying his enemy and out of her defeated body creating the cosmos and the civilized world and Marduk’s image bearer, the king getting exalted again. Around this table the mother and father recount what they believe to be the birth story of the world to their children. They start quietly “In the beginning when Elohim, created the heavens and the earth…” There is some smiling that goes on with the mention of Tehom, the great deep, and the mothering spirit hovering, waiting. And as the parents continue to speak with deep faith and authority the children begin to get a sense of how these words, and God’s words, create light in darkness, vegetation out of a barren landscape. As a family liturgy I can imagine the whole family saying the certain repetitive lines together. “And God saw that it was good.” “And there was evening and there was morning.” And since I’m about to be the father of two girls, I imagine that when they get to the part about being created in the image of God, a title usually reserved for the male king, there is a slight dramatic pause in the mother’s voice when she says with a smile, ‘So God created the human creature in God’s image, male…and female.’ And the young daughters are filled with a sense of holiness and awe that they too bear the image of the Creator.
In this light, Genesis One as a counter-liturgy to the liturgy of empire, we have a birth story that we need to continue recounting and believing. If our culture insists that we must continue to conquer with violence so that we can create a new world out of the corpse of the old, we can proclaim that humans are not inherently violent and that we are going against the grain of God’s good creation in our training and carrying out of warfare. If our culture insists that power can only be expressed as coercion and domination, we can live believing that creative power can be expressed through the spoken word and persuasion. If ever anyone tries to elevate one gender or one nationality or one race or economic class above another, we carry out our lives believing that we are all created in God’s image and therefore all have inherent dignity and worth.
This, of course, doesn’t directly address the creation/evolution debate and certainly doesn’t fit neatly into either category of secular or biblical literalist. Creation/evolution is a conversation worth having, but not the primary conversation that Genesis One is concerned about. The threat to our well-being and our faith does not come from the scientific outlook on the world. We need not fear the desire to look deeply into our own history and origins and the evolutionary findings that have come out of this. In fact, this desire to explore and know can even be seen as a part of God’s goodness dwelling within us, a way that we love God with all our minds. The real threat to our faith and well-being comes from buying into the myth of redemptive violence. It remains a powerful birth story and many can’t even imagine an identity outside of it. Yet we are a part of a new creation that God has been speaking into being since the beginning of time. Our birth and rebirth, we believe, are gifts to be received with gratitude, not possessions to be hoarded and defended with violence. God speaks with joy and we have the opportunity to respond with joy as this creation comes into being. A creation that is good, very good indeed.