Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Dueling Interpretations of Genesis 1

In my internet perambulations, I came across this article and, by fortunate happenstance, the one I reproduce below.

Many Christian fundamentalists impose a literal interpretation on Biblical myth, thus missing the larger moral messages and rejecting later scientific discoveries, a mistake most apparent in their reading of the Genesis creation story, as the Rev. Boward Hess explains.

By the Rev. Boward Hess

The important message of the Genesis 1 creation story has been lost in debates about how all things began. In some religious teachings, people have been led to believe that Genesis 1 is about God’s creation of all things out of nothing, an interpretation that transforms this marvelous myth into an inaccurate history report.

Myths address questions of values and morals – why, not when or how. They are not history and are not to be read to satisfy scientific inquiry. Myths are commentaries about life and are found in every civilization. They are simple to remember, and their roots predate written language.

The roots of the Genesis 1 creation story can be traced to Babylonian mythology. In Babylonian mythology, Tiamat is the creative force of the universe, the female spirit who gives birth to the gods and, ultimately, to all living things. Marduk, the male king of the gods, betrays Tiamat’s trust and kills her. This represents the recognition of the need for femininity in creation that gives way to male control of that which was created.

In the sixth century BCE, a small group of Israelites was forcibly taken to Babylon and enslaved. In that context, they were confronted by Marduk, Tiamat and Babylonian mythology. What we read in Genesis 1 is a thoughtful theological response to that myth.

By the time of this Babylonian captivity, Israelites had become monotheistic, meaning their God was the one and only God, a male God who reflected a patriarchal political system. However, it is obvious that a male alone lacks creative power; females are the source of life, and it is a profound limitation of a male god’s power.

The Genesis 1 creation myth recognizes the inherent limitation, so it interprets God’s work not as creative but as dominating and controlling nature and the feminine creative force. God operates by commanding the feminine source to bring forth certain things. The source is no longer personified, but God is not the source of creation. Genesis 1 confronts the problems not by having separate male and female powers with different spheres of influence (female: creation; male: control) but, rather, a male God who commands a depersonified creative force. God says, “Let there be light,” “Let there be a vault in the heavens,” “Let there be sun and moon,” “Let the waters teem,” “Let there be vegetation.” Only rarely is he described as creating or making, and this description only occurs after God commands the creation. In other words, God creates something only by demanding that the waters—adapted from Tiamat—bring it forth. God dominates and commands the creative force, but God is not himself the source of creation. God does not create order to hold chaos at bay; God commands chaos to bring forth everything that exists. This is a crucial difference since, on this view, chaos is not something to oppose but something to manipulate and control.

Further, God controls by creating separation. The formless chaos serves no useful purpose for God or his creation, and so God divides the whole into controllable units. Just as God cedes control of creation to Adam by having Adam name all the animals, God controls by separating, distinguishing, naming, and knowing creations. This division and control is represented by separation: On the first day God “separated the light from the darkness;” On the second day he “separate[d] the water [in the heavens] from the water [on the earth].” God separates the dry land from the waters, and later separates the night from the day. God's purpose is to make things useful to himself and humanity.

God’s power is command, control, and domination. God commands, and the result of each command is described as “good” or “very good”. God does not do good in order to achieve an end (say bringing order into chaos), but God commands in order to do things he considers useful. Good is utility to God and to God's human creation. This indicates that humans should control and dominate the creative forces around us, to bend them to our will for our own purposes. In particular, the life-giving power of women must be subjugated to the control of men in order to bring about the particular order and items that God views as good.

The Babylonian myth sees the feminine as the creative force and shows the male, at least temporarily, destroy that force of creation. The Israelite God takes control of the creative force, but not by its destruction or death but by harnessing its creative power in service of the masculine. In short, God enslaves the earth, turns it to his own ends, and tells humanity—males in particular—to do the same, to “rule over” the earth, the sea (metaphorically, the creative force of femininity), and all the plants and animals that survive on the land and sea. Humanity is to “fill the earth and subdue it” in the way God has done already. Mankind is made in God’s image as dominator and subjugator who should use the world for his own ends.

Thus, Genesis 1 carries an essential truth for Judaism, Christianity and Islam – that man must command and dominate the universe and that this domination is good. The universe is created for humanity's use, and it is good to use the universe solely for our own ends. Centuries later, Jesus clearly said, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10: 34-37) Both the Old and New Testaments emphasize control and domination of the creative force of chaos. Chaos itself is neither good nor bad, but conflict, controlled by God, Jesus or Man, can be good when it serves Man's ends. When Jesus brings chaos, it is a good creative force; when God controls the watery chaos, that force is a force for a good creation. Man should not necessarily oppose chaos but be willing to cause conflict and chaos for his own ends.

Some Christian believers attempt somehow to find a tradition of peace and love for others in their sacred text, but they face a great dilemma: How can one ignore the command of Jesus to make war on our enemies and disrupt our own households, to divide brother against brother? Chaos is the creative force of the universe, the feminine, the loving, the giving. God’s treatment of chaos is to control it, and by controlling it and turning it to our own ends, we are doing God’s work, the greatest good. None of this places particular value on peace, and, indeed, control of the environment could easily undermine the possibility of peace.

I cannot tell that there is any reason, independently of what we want to be true, to prefer one interpretation over the other. (To paraphrase Raymond Smullyan) Doesn’t this suggest that there is something a little bit wrong with interpreting religions metaphorically?

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