The people of ancient Israel understood their beginning in terms of their liberation from bondage in Egypt and eventual settlement in the land of Palestine. Through this experience they came to understand themselves as chosen by God for a special purpose. As they looked back beyond their beginning as a people, to the time of their ancestors, they discerned God's presence in a way that prefigured their calling as a people. But as they looked back to the time of creation itself, their questions became even more fundamental.
The stories that seek to explain God's presence in the beginning of time, and so God's purpose throughout time, were collected by the ancient Israelites into the first portion of the book of Genesis. These tales are told not so much to explain how creation took place, but to explain why creation took place. The contradictions in these tales are of little concern, and thus suggest that we need to look beneath the literal meaning of the stories. At a symbolic or intuitive level, these ancient stories may speak to us not only of the first time but also of our own time.
Genesis 1:1-2:3, The First Creation Story.
In the first creation story in Genesis the heavens and the earth are created in an orderly manner out of darkness and chaos. The sequence of events is unscientific in that there is daylight and vegetation before the sun is created. Moreover, the language of the text is a bit troublesome to those who would interpret it literally. The oldest Hebrew and Greek texts have God saying (in Hebrew or Greek, of course, not in English), "Let us make man in our image," suggesting that the tale comes from an early time when people believed in a pantheon of divine beings. It is also interesting that in this tale only plants are given to men and women for food. The tale affirms that the Creator of the universe has brought order out of chaos and that everything created is good.
God was weary after the work of the week of creation, as are many men and women weary at the end of a week's work. So, God rested on the seventh day. Thus the Sabbath tradition of ancient Israel was written back into the very beginning of time by those who wanted to ensure there would be a day of rest for the weary and also a significant role for the Israelite priests.
Genesis 2:4-3:24, The Second Creation Story, Adam and Eve.
The second creation story is set in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley (which today is in Iraq). In this tale the "LORD God” is depicted as a being who walks, forms a man from the dust of the ground, breathes into him the breath of life, plants a garden in a place called Eden, and puts the man in it.
LORD stands for the Hebrew letters YHWH, and as Hebrew is written without vowels it is not clear how to write out this “name” of God in English. The word “Jehovah” is one version, where the Y is replaced with a J and three vowels are added. The word “Yahweh” is also a common English translation. As the Israelite and later Jewish rendering of Genesis did not identify how this holy name should be pronounced, in Hebrew it was replaced with the word “Adonai” which means “Lord.” In many English Christian Bibles, JHWH is printed as LORD to distinguish it from the use of Lord, which in the New Testament refers to Jesus as the risen Christ.
In this second creation story man is created before any plants are created, which contradicts the sequence of events in the first creation story. God gives the fruits of the garden to the man to eat, but tells him not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Then God creates a helper for the man, a woman, so that the man will not be alone. A serpent in the garden tells the woman that she will not die if she eats the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but instead will be like God, "knowing good and evil." She eats and gives some to the man who eats as well. Then, the story says, "the eyes of both were opened, and they knew they were naked." (Gen. 3:7)
The rest of the tale is very familiar. When God finds the man and the woman concealing their nakedness, and so knows they have been disobedient, God banishes them from the garden into a land where they have to labor to live. The moral appears to be a simple one: those who disobey God will be punished. Yet this conclusion conceals the mysterious character of the tale and the more important lesson to be learned in its telling.
The tale explains the nature of temptation. The woman is tempted by the serpent, who is described in the text only as "more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made." (Gen. 3:1) The temptation is that those who eat the forbidden fruit "will be like God, knowing good and evil." (Gen. 3:5) The words of the serpent are not a lie, but true, for the fruit imparts knowledge to the man and woman who eat it. They know themselves differently, they recognize their nakedness, and so they clothe themselves.
The point of the tale seems to be that we are tempted to do things, which appear good and may well be good, but if we succumb to this temptation we may find the results are not as we anticipated. In the story God's warning is clear: "of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die." (Gen. 2:17) In the garden of Eden man and woman are free to choose whether or not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The serpent does not trick them or mislead them. He says they will not die from eating the forbidden fruit, and they do not. Instead God banishes them from the garden so that they will be unable to eat of the fruit of the tree of eternal life.
In the story God says, "man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil." (Gen. 3:22) By disobeying God and following the advice of the serpent, man and woman leave paradise and become as we are. They become fully human. Their punishment is that they will have to work hard to live and women will labor to give birth to children. Their punishment is life as it is and has been and likely will be. The serpent's punishment is that he will crawl on the ground and be hunted by man, which also is simply the way things are. The story tells us not only that we will be held responsible for our choices, even when we cannot know their consequences, but that to be ourselves in this world we will be separated from our Creator.
Unlike the first story of creation, which told us that God ordered life in the universe, the second story tells us that men and women order their own lives by the choices they make. It was their choice to disobey God and eat the forbidden fruit that led to what we might call "the human condition." The story reveals that God made human beings mortal but able to become like God — by knowing good and evil — and so able to do both right and wrong, although not always able to tell the difference.
This story has been used to identify the voice of temptation with the Devil, but the snake that tempts the man and the woman with the truth is a creature of God's making. Perhaps this is why in the prayer addressed to God, which Jesus taught his disciples, we find the words: "and lead us not into temptation." (Mt. 6:13)
Genesis 4:1-16, The Cain and Abel Story.
With the departure from the garden of the man and woman, now called Adam and Eve, comes new life. Adam and Eve have sex and she conceives and bears Cain and then Abel. Cain becomes a shepherd, whereas Abel becomes a farmer. When God favors the sacrificial offering of Abel over that offered by Cain, the older brother is jealous. So, Cain kills Abel.
Cain's punishment is swift for once more God banishes the sinner. However, God puts a mark on Cain to protect him from those who might try to kill him. This text is a problem for those arguing that the Bible must be read literally, as we know only of Adam, Eve, and Cain and in all creation. So, so once Abel is dead, who would try to kill Cain? And how are we to explain that Cain, who goes to live in the land of Nod, east of Eden, marries and fathers children? But these inconsistencies in the text are not of concern to those who told this ancient story, which implies they told it for a reason we have yet to discern.
The moral of the story seems obvious. Killing is wrong, and God will punish those who take human life. As with the story of Adam and Eve, however, we need to look more closely, if we are to understand what the tale has to tell us about the killer and his God.
Cain was angry because God favored his brother. He was angry with God, not Abel, but he either failed to realize this or, if he did, was unable to bear it. So, he took out his anger against Abel, who in the story of humanity is the first of many scapegoats. God had told Cain that if he did well he would be accepted, but also that "sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it." It would seem that Cain is the victim of temptation, and that once again God plays a part in the nature of the temptation.
The story does not indicate that God's favor for the offering made by Abel was based on any merit on Abel's part. We are not told that Abel was good, or that Cain was bad. We are only told that God favored the one over the other. It is God's choice to favor the one brother over the other that leads to the temptation of Cain, who is the one lacking God's favor.
Cain is responsible for the death of his brother, because he chooses to do what is wrong. Yet, in the story God is responsible for the testing and temptation of Cain, and thus at least in part for the wrong that was done.
It has been said that the tale of Cain and Abel reflects the ancient struggle between nomadic herdsmen and farmers, and this may be true. Yet, the story also speaks to the ever present reality that some people do better in life than others — not for any observable reason based on merit, but because that’s the way things are. Those who fare less well may feel unfairly treated and may strike out at those who are more fortunate. Their anger is really with God, but like Cain they can hardly admit this. So, they strike out at others and in the process bring judgment down upon their heads, either in the ensuing warfare of clans and tribes and nations or in the curse of guilt and self-hatred.
Cain's punishment is just, as is the punishment of humanity for its sin, and yet there would be no sin without the inequities of life that appear to come from God. Iin Genesis God creates an inequitable world. The God who brings us to account for our sin is the same God who creates the conditions for our sin.
Genesis 6:5-9:28, Noah and the Flood, the Rainbow, the Curse.
In this story God becomes dissatisfied with the way men and women are living on the earth and decides to destroy all life and begin again. Choosing a just man to spare, God orders Noah to build an ark and to bring into it his family and animals of every species. Then God causes a great flood to cover the earth to wash away its sin. When the flood subsides, Noah and his family leave the ark and resettle the land.
Noah becomes the new Adam, the first man of the new creation. God blesses Noah and then gives to him every animal, as well as every plant, for food. This story thus overrules the commandment in the first creation story that gave only plants to men and women for food. Finally, God promises never again to destroy all the life on the earth, and we are told that the rainbow is to be a sign of this covenant between God and all creation.
It would seem that if the purpose of the flood is to rid the world of sin by preserving only one righteous man, there would be no need even to talk about not starting over again. Yet, in the concluding passages of the flood story, which are not frequently read, we discover that Noah has planted a vineyard, made wine, and become drunk. While lying drunk and naked, Noah is seen by his son Ham. And when Noah awakens from his stupor and learns that his son has seen him unclothed, he lays a curse on Ham's son, Canaan.
Once again life on earth is marked by errors, anger, and curses. It would seem that God has accomplished very little with the great flood, and we can only wonder about the reason for the tale. Rather than affirming God's power over creation, the story suggests that God is not able to start over with a sinless world. The moral appears to be that life will be as it always has been, and that men and women will continue to use their freedom for ill as well as good.
The story refutes the claim that destructive natural phenomena are acts of God. Yet, although we may understand the causes of natural phenomena more clearly than three millennia ago, it is still a mystery why some people are destroyed by nature and why others are not.
Men and women of faith continue to affirm that God plays a part in what happens on the face of the earth, but it seems impossible to find a simple moral conclusion explaining the relationship of God to creation. In the story of the flood, God promises never again to destroy all life on the earth in order to start over. Nonetheless, the story also seems to reveal it would be futile for God to try.
Genesis 11:1-9, The Story of the Tower of Babel.
The last tale of the beginning is again set in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley. We are told that all the peoples descended from Noah now speak one language with few words. And on the plain of Shinar a group of peoples settle and build a great city. Soon they begin to erect a tower "with its top in the heavens" to make a name for themselves. Then the Lord comes down, confuses their language so they cannot understand one another, and scatters them over the face of the earth.
This story is a way of explaining the diversity of language and people on the earth. It is also taken to refer to Babylon because the city is called Babel, which in Hebrew means literally "gate of God," but in this story is interpreted as a pun on the Hebrew verb "to confuse.” Again, the moral seems to be that when people seek to define life apart from the purposes of God, then God will respond with punishment. But the tale may contain a more hidden meaning as well.
If we read the story carefully it is hard to see what the people of Babel have done to deserve such a judgment. By building a city they have developed from a tribe into a more complex society. Their effort to build a tower up to the heavens is not described as an intentional challenge to God, but as a way of achieving some recognition among other peoples. One is reminded, for example, of the spires of the Gothic churches that mark European civilization, rather than of any defiant gesture.
The people of the city want only to avoid being scattered across the earth. They want their civilization to succeed, and they know that for it to succeed something must hold them together. They want what we want, and what all peoples want. If in building the tower they fall into sin, then theirs is the sin of us all.
The story tells us that the LORD destroys the city and the tower because it was "only the beginning" (Gen. 11:6) of what the people would do. The Lord apparently does not want the people to succeed and to develop more complex civilizations. Or, at least the LORD is jealous of the initiative and creativity of the sons and daughters of Noah, who earlier in the story of Genesis were made in the image of God. "Come, let us go down," God says, "and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." (Gen. 11:7)
The decline of a great civilization, the destruction of what appeared to be a great human achievement, is interpreted in the tale as the LORD God’s judgment. But it is a jealous judgment, not a profound one, which may simply mean that this is the way life is — arbitrary and unjust.
God's Presence in the Beginning
The tales of the beginning contained in the initial chapters of the book of Genesis describe events at the beginning of time. However, the authors of these tales are less concerned with how life evolved as it did, which is the proper question addressed by modern scientists, than with why life evolved as it did, which is the question addressed by members of religious traditions. If Scripture is understood in this way, there need be no conflict between scientific understandings and religious affirmations.
Scientific descriptions of life on earth do not preclude religious wisdom that the presence of the Creator is hidden in the continued mystery of that life. The tales of the beginning are therefore not simply stories of a time long ago, before we understood life in a scientific way, but are tales of every time. Thus, the insights that we glean from them will be as relevant to us as these meanings have been to people in all ages.
The tales tell us about ourselves. We are both created and creative, we are brought into the world and make our world, and like God we have power over creation, but like God our power is limited. We are subject to the order of nature, but are nonetheless free to make our own choices, to will our own lives — if not to determine all the consequences of the life choices we make.
Not all good choices, however, lead to good consequences, for us and for others, even as God's choice to create life resulted in both good and evil. We are not only free, but we cannot avoid our freedom, even when our choices are severely limited. Whether we choose to act or not to act, we cannot escape the conclusion that not acting is as fraught with consequences as acting, and in both cases some of the consequences will be unforeseeable and even destructive.
Believing that God would have us do only good and not evil, or rather would have us live so that only good and not evil is the result of our life choices, we must admit that we are unable to live as God wills and thus are guilty of sin — which means falling short of what we hope for and believe is right. We are angry with God — secretly because we are afraid to admit it, but really angry with God for making us so that we are unable to avoid being sinful.
Thus, much of our jealousy and violence stems from our anger with God. Yet, we focus our anger on those among us who appear to be more blessed and who thus elicit in us the feeling of being less in the eyes of God than we ought to be. We know deep down that we are being tempted, and that if we succumb we will have to pay a price. However, we find ourselves unable to resist the temptation to see ourselves as more important than others, even if they may have more of the benefits of life than we have.
We share with God the desire to start over, to create a new Adam, to clear away the mistakes of the past, to begin anew. Yet, we know that this is a fantasy, a dream, and a temptation to sin the more. For there is no way to recreate the world, no way to alter life so that we can be free and not sin, and no way to resist all temptation to be like God. If God could not start over, as the tale of Noah suggests, then we cannot start over.
Therefore, we must come to accept that life will be as it has been. The creativity that fosters our achievements will lead as well to our troubles. Our success will also sow the seeds of our failure, and every gain will involve a loss. Yet, the greatest mystery is not that life is as it is, but that it is at all. Seeing this, perhaps we will be grateful for what is.
God is the source of life and death, the creator of pain as well as pleasure, the author of the story of humanity in all its despair and grandeur. Genesis tells us that God made us creative and gave us the freedom to choose between good and evil, yet designed life so that we could not know all the consequences of our actions. God ordered things so that temptation would follow us every moment of our lives, and so that injustice and inequity would dog our decisions.
The tales of the beginning do not tell us that God is responsible for what is good in life and that a Devil is responsible for what is bad. Instead, they tell us that God is involved in all the good and bad of life, which is to say that we cannot exclude God from life as it is without being unfaithful. God is involved in our lives, as they are. We are never alone.
This is frightening, as God is so often arbitrary or unjust in these tales of the beginning. One might well conclude that we would be better off without God. Yet, thinking such a thought does not change reality. Adam and Eve, Cain, the sons of Noah, and the people of Babel all might have wanted to be alone in the world, in order to have life as they wished. But it was not to be.
The choice to be alone in life, to have life the way we want it, to be free of responsibility and the judgment that comes with responsibility — this is a temptation, not a real choice. We are free, but not as free as we think we would like to be. Creation is not like that.
Genesis 1:1-2:3 First creation story.
Genesis 2:4-3:24 Second creation story, Adam and Eve, the fall.
Genesis 4:1-16 Cain and Abel story.
Genesis 6:5-9:28 Noah and the flood, the rainbow, the curse.
Genesis 11:1-9 The tower of Babel.