What sort of writing is Genesis?
The first three chapters of the book of Genesis – the Judeo-Christian* creation myth commonly called the story of Adam and Eve – is associated today with a disregard for facts. That disregard for facts may take a heavy form in which the overwhelming evidence of modern biology and geology is denied in order to maintain a literal reading of these chapters (hereafter just referred to Genesis). Alternatively it may take a lighter form in which the facts are deemed less important than the moral truths of Genesis as if higher truth and mundane fact could be held as mutually exclusive fields.
I don’t think either the heavy or light kind of disregard for the facts honours the original authors because I think Genesis was an attempt to observe the facts of its own time. Then Genesis aims to do something quite excellent with these observations. Genesis tries to organize them in a way that gives meaning to its reader's present life. The greatness of that task is not recognized today if we simply say that Genesis can contradict the facts and stand.
This post was inspired by reading a defense of Genesis based on the argument that literalism wasn't a necessary position. That's correct; a totally literal reading of Genesis with days pre-existing the sky is just silly. It is a minority position in Judaism and Christianity. But neither does Genesis belong to an entirely different dimension of truth. Even a metaphor needs to be translatable – days can mean epochs for example, taking a fruit from a tree could even mean gaining religion. The Roman Catholic position is that we don't need to accept Genesis as science but we should accept it as history nonetheless - just in poetic language. If that was a solution with the Genesis account we could stop there, but its problems with modern observable reality are more qualitative.
So why bother replacing Genesis? Some people may with a shrug suggest we simply move on to the scientific account as if the age of creation stories can be considered behind us. But a purely scientific account would include all the data in the universe. For all the time it would take to tell it, such a perfectly scientific account would fail to address the key question of any creation story – who we are and what that means. Its story would be bereft of beginning, end and any plot.
The scientific account as it stands therefore needs to be woven into a narrative. Its facts need organization around us – the audience of its tale. For that to happen “us” needs to be defined. That’s what would turn it into a history.
Finally there are the moral truths of Genesis – the values which are implied from the story. Again these values rest on facts and can't be explained in the same way when the facts aren't there. However a purely factual account is not going to deliver these values – or any values – without a lot of narrative work (distancing it from a purely factual work).
Genesis is a story. It's a story about observable facts – which makes it more than those facts but also reliant on them.
How is Genesis broken?
By facts I mean observable reality that you and I can show each other. That “showing” may not be easy – it might require a demonstration of erosion or evolution on a smaller scale to prove a larger case but it can be done. It might also involve seeing ourselves or other animals in a certain light. Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall have shown us a side to the great apes that obliges us to recognise our similarities (while not ignoring real differences). Nuclear bombs and global warming show us our world is finite and fragile. Whatever the reasons (and science should not take all the credit for changes in ideas like animal rights or gender equality) we do not see exactly what the authors of Genesis see.
Firstly lets consider, what “facts” Genesis attempts to deal with;
- Humans are different to other animals but also the same in
many ways. We uniquely have religion and language (we name animals)
– allowing us to create the eternal spaces of ritual. Our minds
definitely feel eternal. Yet we die like other animals – no matter
what rituals we perform.
- Life is basically good (generally preferable to the
alternative) – but also full of sorrow and death. The greatest
sufferings are caused by inter-human strife. We also carry the
burden of shame about our bodies unlike any other animal.
- All humans despite differences seem to be related – we are
one species. Women are different to “us men” (Genesis was
probably written by and largely for men) but still the same animal.
We share the same flesh so to speak. No other creature can be
company to “us” like a woman.
- Increasingly it’s harder to argue that humans are
especially different to other animals. We are at least not the only
personalities on the planet. Elephants mourn, monkeys use tools,
mice sing and so on. We may even be only presuming that other
animals have no “religion”. It therefore seems purely
self-referential to put our species into a unique position.
- A part of the above is the recognition that “we” in
reference to our species has not always been our species. If there
are two categories – human and animal – then we were animal
once. And we might evolve differently in the future. This undermines
our special status as a species which is deeply assumed in Genesis.
In Christian theology it is called the special creation of humans.
- Goodness and evil aren’t possible to separate in the
natural world. What Genesis treats as something outside perfection –
death in particular – has never been absent from life. Instead
death and violence is observably part of the state of things, in the
fossil record, well before any proto-human comes on the scene. This
is where the scientific
account differs from Genesis'
with the greatest impact for Christian theology.
In many forms of
Christianity this idea that
humans ruined creation through the introduction of sin is
profoundly fundamental to their
understanding of salvation (and justification for hell). However
it no longer matches our observations.
- Genesis' treatment of gender has been used to claim
patriarchy as part of a natural design – Adam is made first and
Eve as his “help-mate.” Yet few people now doubt that any “first human” had
both a mother and father. There was no boy's world first. We also
now understand patriarchy to be a typical but not universal
development in human societies and not grounded in the nature of men
Note: I think there’s plenty of evidence that patriarchy doesn’t work well. The outcomes of organizations with the highest degrees of patriarchy are usually the worst for children, women and even men. I just have to resort to faith to reject a “spiritual” patriarchy which doesn’t need any evidence to argue its case precisely because evidence is irrelevant to its merit.
Other people reject that Genesis supports patriarchy. In fact they locate patriarchy in the consequences of our expulsion from paradise (although even there it can be used to oblige us to accept it). For them patriarchy is not a part of ideal life in Genesis but in fact repudiated by it. I think they should accept that Genesis contains an unnecessary potential to say that men are the image of God while women are the image of men. That’s a reading which has plagued society with the oppression of women and the unhelpful elevation of men. While it might be a misreading, its not an insane misreading. Genesis could easily be written better to preclude this conclusion.
Genesis also doesn't need to have it be a woman to be the one who tempts Adam to eat the fruit after having a chat with a deceiving serpent. No less a church father than the Apostle Paul used this special guilt to justify women being subservient to men;
1 Timothy 2: 11-15 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
To be fair to Paul it's not an idiotic conclusion to draw if you hold that Genesis is true. The chain of fault behind the eating of the fruit reads like it should have meaning but it hasn't added anything but woe to gender relations.
While we're at it: A wish list for any creation story.
Entrenched patriarchy isn't the only problem to come from Genesis. “Green” readings of Genesis are entirely possible but have to do some complicated gymnastics around certain passages;
Genesis 1:28 God blessed them and said to them,“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Genesis was written too early for people to appreciate that the globe has limits. “Fill the earth” was also never imagined as a network of superhighways and boxstores with no room for subsistence farming. Something which acknowledged our earth's finitude in the face of human exploitation would be ideal in any new creation myth.
That's possibly going to be an even greater challenge for a story reflecting the scientific account. In a long world history in which countless species have become extinct how do we value the preservation of biodiversity today? How do we describe the loss of the White Rhino without reference to it's special creation? Should our current ecosystem be especially valued if such an ecosystem is not what any God intended but merely one iteration of the environment? Tough questions.
I definitely want to include something that checks our human destructive potential. We have the ability to be like terrible Gods and we need something that gives our finger pause over that button. In Genesis we are humbled beneath our creator. Gratitude is supposed to balance entitlement. That's something for other stories to consider how to include; gratitude and balance with or without a divine Creator.
Lastly we should recognise that the notion that we all bear the image of God has been used historically to defend human rights for all. Characters like Bishop Desmond Tutu have used this idea to challenge racism and homophobia. Although our Catholic Prime Minister fails to see it, this language argues for an equality between any asylum seeker and Gina Rhineheart. Without a special status for the human species will we undermine arguments for human equality and dignity? What can we write that matches the facts to make a case for human rights?
We shouldn't underestimate the task of replacing Genesis. In fact engaging in the task gives me fresh respect for the story. It does some hard philosophical work.
Also just superficially, that seven days thing, from a writers perspective, is gold. It has marvelous rhythm. Its not easy to write a creation story that has adequate gravitas without sounding overblown. My partner is currently sitting on her own opening paragraph in case I steal it.
More seriously mirroring the daily life of the community – the seven day week – in the form of creation allows audiences to ritually re-experience their origins in ordinary life. That's magnificent writing and I challenge anyone today to achieve something even remotely similar.
That wasn't rhetorical. I'm actually inviting submissions. Send me links to stories of our creation which you feel are up to scratch or if you don't know any then write your own. I'll publish them here or link to them if I feel they can do the job.
In a little while I'll even publish my own.
*Rabbinical Judaism divides the Torah into weekly readings. The first reading called Bereshit covers the first verse to halfway through chaper six of Genesis. I've chosen the first three chapters of Genesis to focus on due to my perception of their emphasis in Christianity and subsequently Western culture.
Christian readings of this story are also informed by first century theology in ways that aren't obviously in Genesis and not shared by Judaism. The Apostle Paul teaches the idea of Jesus as a second Adam correcting the error of the first which makes an actual Adam and Eve more crucial.