Saturday, September 21, 2013

Most Insidious Of All

Every creation myth is really a story of destruction.
I can hear voices.
Then listen-- you might learn something.
That's not accurate. The Judeo-Christian Genesis is pure creation. There was only void before. Nothing to destroy.
Ha. No. You're forgetting the point of the whole story. That myth is the most insidious of all. The destruction actually comes at the end.
The Judeo-Christian myth begins in the void but ends with the expulsion from Eden. It's the destruction of Paradise.
The destruction of peace.
- God is Dead #1
by Jonathan Hickman, Mike Costa, and Di Amorim

People possess a tendency to read texts and stories as if they were always the intended audience, no matter the origins of the story. This is especially true of American Christians and our approach to the Bible. We approach the stories as though they were written specifically for modern day Westerners, despite the fact that they were composed thousands of years ago and half a world away.

My experience with Evangelicals indicates that our most prevalent approach to interpreting scripture is by reader-response criticism. This is the incredibly basic technique of reading a verse or passage (often not even within the context of the larger chapter or book) and asking oneself, "what do I think this means?" This is both reckless and stupid and probably goes a long ways in explaining the backwards state of many Christians today.

Now, sure, the argument can be made that the Bible is a living, breathing document that can speak personally to individuals through the workings of the Holy Spirit. I would agree with that. But if that is the main (and, dreadfully, sole) means of how we read scripture, then we are neglecting so much of what makes the Bible have any significance at all: context.

I have heard many preachers claim that the Bible is simple and easy to understand. It's not complicated at all. And that is simply not true. Sure, it probably makes it easier to attract converts, but it is nothing short of deception. For some reason we have gone to great pains to dumb down the Bible and our understanding of it to our own great detriment.

Dear reader, you're probably yelling out, "Mitch! You have ranted for some length now about lack of context in our reading of the Bible. But what does that have to do with creation myths, as the above Daily Quote would imply this is supposed to be about?"

Good question! And thank you for being so engaging. When we avoid context of the Bible, we assume that, say, the creation myth was the only such myth around of any significance. We get the impression that the Bible was written and passed along in a vacuum without any influence from the rest of the world. Look at how we approach the creation account in Genesis today. People only seemed to be concerned with the science of it. We spend all our time trying to prove or disprove how creation might have scientifically occurred within the framework of the story. But that only makes sense if it originated in this age with the intent of explaining the science of it.

In their book An Introduction to the Old Testament, Temper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard remark, "It is striking to observe, in the light of the discussion of the past century and a half, how little the text is concerned with the process of creation."1 We become so consumed with trying to understand creation through a 21st century context that we completely miss the original Ancient Near East purpose of story. Some of you might get disgruntled that I keep referring to creation as a myth or story instead of a historical, scientifically accurate account. This is by no means a dismissal of the veracity of Genesis. Instead, a story holds the potential to surpass literal, historical accounts as true. Such is the power of something being story true.

The story in Genesis was not the lone creation myth in the Ancient Near East. All the surrounding cultures and nations had their own myths and these certainly influenced the Hebrew story. But not entirely in the way you might think. According to Longman and Dillard, "...the creation account should be studied in the context of ancient Near Eastern, particularly Babylonian and Ugaritic, texts. From Babylon, we have the creation text known as the Enuma Elish, which describes the god Marduk's victory over the sea monster Tiamat and his forming, from her dead body, the heavens and the earth."2 A prominent theme in other creation myths is creation as an act of violence. Gods and goddesses kill each other or monsters and from the carnage the world and its inhabitants are formed.

Destruction must first occur before creation. But in Genesis, the God of the Bible creates in a different, more peaceful way. Rolf Rendtorff, in his "brief" yet still highly dense book, The Canonical Hebrew Bible: A Theology of the Old Testament, comments on this topic of creation through violence. "There is a mythological tradition behind this," he writes, "according to which the creator God had to win the world in a struggle with Chaos. But here, in the first chapter of the Bible, God does not have to fight. He speaks (v. 3)."3 When we are so obsessed with intelligent design and arguing about the scientific mechanisms for life's origin, we miss the point of the story. That point being, "Hey, you guys over there! You say your god had to engage in violence and horrible acts to create the world. But our God...our God just spoke. And it was good."

Longman and Dillard agree with Rendtorff. "The theme of Genesis 1 and 2 is not how God created but that God created the creation, and that he made it from no preexistent stuff (creatio ex nihilo) in contrast to the beliefs of the other Near Eastern religions."4 The story in Genesis is a counter to other creation stories. And the God of Genesis trumps other gods because he had a better way to accomplish creation.

But now we can actually get to the point of this Daily Quote. I find it interesting that Jonathan Hickman has this character argue that in Genesis the creation myth ends when Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden. If so, then the Genesis version might well be the most insidious creation myth of all. It starts with hope and peace and ends with despair and hardship.

But is the expulsion from Paradise where the creation myth ends? To me, a simple reading of the text (see what I did there? If not, read the first few paragraphs again!) leads me to think that creation ends on the 7th day when God rested from the act of creating. But I can understand the argument that the fall of humanity marks also the fall of God's perfect creation. So, does creation end when God is done creating, or does it end with that creation falling apart?

Alternatively, if you are going to go past God's rest for the conclusion of creation, I wouldn't necessarily stop with the immediate repercussions from Adam and Eve's disobedience. For even within this downfall of humanity there is still glimmers of hope. We can take two tracks with this. The first is the flood narrative that eventually follows. The story of Noah and the flood can be looked at as everything going wrong and God wiping the slate clean. But not everything is lost or destroyed. Noah and his family are spared. Animal life is preserved. There is a continuation from the creation pre-flood and the new, post-flood world. "Indeed, by emphasizing the importance of the flood, it is possible to recognize the connection between the creation account and the flood narrative, thus establishing a three-part pattern that moves from Creation to Uncreation and then finally to Re-creation."5 An extended version of the creation story in Genesis that includes the flood narrative also ends on a hopeful note.

The second track also includes a hopeful note, and it involves taking the expulsion from Paradise and not looking at it as insidious but as opening the possibility for redemption. If getting kicked out of Eden is the end of creation, it is also the beginning of humanity's path back towards God. Rendtorff says the creation story is not finished. "Its continuation is found in a narrative (ch. 3) in which it is no longer God who is the active part, but where it is his creations who begin to act in their own right. Thus begins, as it were, the story of humanity, and it begins with the "fall from grace."6

If we include the events in Eden, as well as humanity's removal from it, in the creation story, then maybe the creation mythology of Genesis has yet to end. We are still dealing with the fallout from that removal, and again, it is not necessarily as insidious as the character in God is Dead would believe. Similar to Rendtorff's view, Longman and Dillard write, "The garden of Eden represents everything that men and women have lost due to their sin in the past and everything they yearn for in the present. The account of the fall (Gen. 3) triggers the whole history of redemption that concerns most of the rest of the Old and New Testament."7 We can take this another step further, but it does require injecting blatant Christian interpretation into a Hebrew text. Though the interpretation can be disputed, Longman and Dillard acknowledge the claim calling the curse upon the snake found in Genesis 3:14-15 as "the Protoevangelium, the earliest statement of the gospel of salvation."8 If we take this course, then the expulsion from Paradise actually includes the promise of eventual redemption for mankind.

In the end, I can understand multiple readings of the creation story in Genesis that do not end in "destruction." Instead, they end with hope and promise. But I can also see how someone could take the position in the panel at the top of the page. It is just not necessarily the position I hold.

But then again, Jonathan Hickman is the guy who wrote Pax Romana, so who am I argue?

Buy God is Dead at your local comic book shop or online at TFAW!

1 Temper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 57.
2 Longman, 52.
3 Rolf Rendtorff, The Canonical Hebrew Bible: A Theology of the Old Testament (Ledierdorp, The Netherlands: Deo Publishing, 2005), 14.
4 Longman, 57.
5 Longman 58.
6 Rendtorff 15.
7 Longman 61.
8 Longman 61.

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