Thursday, July 30, 2009

Genesis 1 and pagan cosmologies (updated)

When the Babylonian creation accounts first came to light over a hundred years ago, they caused quite a stir because they had some notable similarities to Genesis 1-11. Some scholars argued that this showed the Biblical accounts to be a reworking of earlier forgotten pagan accounts, and therefore presumably not reliable or divinely inspired. More recent scholars have pointed out not only the similarities but also the striking contrasts between the narratives. It now appears that Genesis 1-11 was written primarily to refute certain pagan notions. Emphasizing the similarities rather than the differences between Genesis and pagan accounts would be like thinking that Copernicus' heliocentric theory is nothing more than an extension of Ptolemy's geocentric thinking. (By the way, probably the best book on this topic is Understanding Genesis: The Bible by Nahum Sarna.)

Genesis 1's cosmology establishes the Judeo-Christian world view. Since a world view is something we look through rather than look at, it is hard to see its importance unless it is contrasted with a different world view. But Genesis 1 has dominated western thinking so much that all other cosmologies were forgotten for a millennium; it takes effort for us to appreciate how revolutionary it must have been when it was written.

The Enuma Elish is a Babylonian poem which was recited every year during the New Year festival which celebrated the power of the Babylonian gods over the forces of chaos, and the security of the Babylonian system that rested upon those gods.

When on high the heaven had not been named,
Firm ground below had not been called by name,
Nothing but primordial Apsu [fresh water] the Begetter,
and chaos Tiamat [salt water], She Who Bore them All,
-–their waters commingling as a single body–-
No reed hut had been matted, no marsh land had appeared,
Uncalled by name, their destinies undetermined–-
Then it was that the gods were formed within them.

So begins the Enuma Elish. Our most complete copy of this poem dates to about 1100 BC, but it includes material which is much older, coming from the Sumerians more than a thousand years earlier.

Tiamat and Apsu beget a series of deities, including the sky Anu. Apsu then is angered by his children and conspired to kill them all. The god Ea son of Anu strikes down Apsu and becomes the chief god. He also conceives Marduk, the principal god of the Babylonians. Anu then rouses Tiamat to revenge for killing Apsu, and Tiamat sends terrifying monsters to fight the other gods and destroy them. Ea and Anu are too frightened to face Tiamat. Marduk, in exchange for the supreme authority over the gods, agrees to fight Tiamat.

Then the lord [Marduk] raised the thunderbolt, his mighty weapon,
He mounted the chariot, the storm unequaled for terror,
He harnessed and yoked unto it four horses,
Destructive, ferocious, overwhelming, and swift of pace;
Poisoned were their sharp teeth...
He posted on his right the Batterer, best in the mêlée;
On his left the Battle-fury that blasts the bravest,
Lapped in this armor, a leaping terror,
With overpowering brightness his head was crowned;
With a magic word clenched between his lips,
A healing plant pressed in his palm, this lord struck out.

The dramatic, heroic poem goes on to describe how Marduk kills Tiamat, and cuts her in two. With half of her body he forms the sky (note the reference to the waters above the sky here, as in Gen. 1), and half the oceans beneath. Marduk sets in place various deities as stars in Tiamat's body in the sky, and orders them "to mark off the days" and keep time.

Many other pagan cosmogonies from the ancient near east are similar: gods are born, there is a battle between the gods, and one god becomes supreme and destroys the others. Canaanite mythology had a similar saga of conflict with the monsters of chaos and the eventual triumph of Baal. Modern readers are probably more familiar with the similar Greek myths of the Titans and their struggle with the Zeus and the Olympian gods. In all these accounts, the creation of the world is a more or less accidental consequence of the outcome of the battle between the gods. The body of the dead god formed the world and the sky.

The nature of God: monotheism makes faith possible

The creation narrative in Genesis 1 has a few superficial similarities to the Babylonian account. For example, it starts with salt water ("Tiamat" is possibly a cognate of the Hebrew word tehom, "the deep"). The water is separated into the waters above and the oceans. Stars are for a calendar.

While the similarities are real, the differences are much larger, and the differences are what would have been noticed first by ancient audiences. It should be obvious to even a casual reader that the world of Genesis 1 is utterly different from the world of the Enuma Elish. Probably the most obvious difference is that Genesis 1 has no conflict. In comparison with the poetry of the Enuma Elish, Genesis 1 is a dull, plodding list. There is no violence and there is no sex. The mythological accounts of cosmology are frankly much more interesting as a story than anything in Genesis 1 or 2. But the fact that Genesis 1 is boring is what makes it so exciting. Reading a gripping drama is pleasurable and interesting, but living in one is unpleasant and terrifying.

Drama depends on conflict. Now we do not see the world as populated by independent, disagreeing, and unpredictable entities, but the ancients did. Gods were as unpredictable as weather; in fact, that's what caused weather. The supreme deity barely managed to keep all the fractious gods in line. There were lapses where his will was not obeyed, and there are limits to his power. This is the main plot device in the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aneid, and various other classical myths such as the Prometheus story. The same is true of mesopotamian stories such as the Atrahasis Epic and the flood story in the Gilgamesh epic, and many other ancient works. In most of these epics, it is sometimes better for humans when the supreme deity's will is not obeyed. For pagans, no deity could be trusted; even if there were a deity with the character, he did not have the power. In contrast, if the Genesis 1 cosmology is true, the creator can be trusted because his will is always done. There are no limits to his power, and no one can stand in his way. Living by faith is impossible without monotheism.

This point is reinforced by what Genesis 1 does not mention. Genesis 1 goes out of its way to avoid even naming other possible actors. In other scriptural discussions of creation (e.g., in Proverbs or Job) we hear that Wisdom and the angels were in some way involved. But mentioning them here would weaken the argument that the author is making, that there are no other gods involved, because people from a polytheistic background would automatically think of angels or wisdom as distinct gods. Similarly, the sun and the moon are not even named. This is probably because they were widely worshiped in the ancient near east, and the author of Genesis wishes to demote them to mere created objects. So he calls them just "the greater light" and the "the lesser light". Such a slight on the celestial bodies would stand out to an ancient audience.

In the same vein, in 1:21 it says "God made the great sea monsters"--which would have been understood in ancient times as the sea monsters who were the imagined incarnation of frightening pagan deities, the monsters of chaos (like Tiamat). God made those too. There is no danger that these personifications of chaos will again swamp the creation--God made them.

Another difference between Genesis 1 and the other ancient cosmologies which would be blindingly obvious to a person in the ancient near east is that God has no origin. Most other ancient cosmologies are primarily cosmogonies (i.e., stories about the origin of the gods), and the origin of the visible world is usually an afterthought. Set against this pagan background, the omission of any history of God makes a powerful statement. "In the beginning, God created...": the fact that the God whom we worship now is the same God who was there at the beginning, without any development, is important for living by faith. If God changed in the past, then he might change in the future. If God changes and develops, then we cannot trust in his plan for all time--he might change his mind. The unchanging nature of God is often celebrated later in the scripture, because it gives us hope. "I, Yahweh, do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed." (Mal. 3:6)

Vital to every mythological creation account is sex between the gods; all over the ancient world, sex seems to have been regarded as something that has power over even divinity. Once again, the Genesis account is completely different: sex is something that God created, not a fundamental force in the universe apart from God which controls even him. It should therefore be subservient to him. This is part of the foundation for biblical sexual ethics.

The nature of the universe

Another fundamental difference between Genesis and other ancient cosmologies is the clear separation between God and what he made. The world that is created is not part of a god (as in the Babylonian account), or something that proceeds from a god (as in several Egyptian accounts), nor is the universe equal to god (as in Stoicism and Hinduism and other pantheistic religions); instead, the world is something separate from God, that he created. The universe itself is not divine, nor does it have any divine essence.

What difference does it make whether God created the universe or God is the universe? It is obvious to everyone that the world has some serious flaws right now. If the world is divine, then God is the problem, and there is no hope that the world can improve. The best that we can do is to accept suffering (Stoicism or Buddhism), or to withdraw (e.g., to stop being reincarnated, as in the Hindu concept of Nirvana). But if the world was created by and is separate from God, then the Creator can make things new again. The entire Christian hope of redemption of the world depends on the concept of God as creator separate from and superior to the universe.

Although the creation is not divine, it is good. This assertion also has far reaching consequences. Later Greek thinkers tended to regard the material world as a mere poor copy of the nonmaterial world, the world of Platonic "forms" or ideals, where there was true perfection; the physical body was seen as a hinderance which would gladly be sloughed off. Still later, gnostics thought that matter is intrinsically evil; a bad god imprisoned our spirits in matter, and our hope is to rise above the material existence and enter the world of pure spirits.

Although the author of Genesis likely does not have these gnostic theologies in mind as he writes, this text nevertheless clearly contradicts these ideas, with important consequences for us. The simple Christian practice of thanking God for our food would make no sense if we did not believe that matter is a good creation of God. The body is not unnecessary or bad; far from it! The body is a good creation of God, and we cannot be what God intended us without it. This is why the ultimate Christian hope is resurrection from the dead rather than a disembodied existence in heaven; we long to be clothed with our new bodies, as Paul says, not to be unclothed (2 Corinthians 5:3). A mere nonphysical existence after death would be a defeat for the creator. Only resurrection of the physical body can swallow death up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:54).

The world view established by the Genesis creation account makes possible the Christian hope in God's good plan. More on this later....

Friday, July 3, 2009

The new Adam and the new humanity

What does it mean to be human? This is obviously a vast topic, but the best starting point in the Bible is Genesis 1, where God says, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." After making man, he "blessed them and said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."

From this passage, we see that what makes man human is that he is in God's image, as opposed to the animals, which are made after their own kinds. Clearly we are like God in some important way, unlike the animals, and clearly the the image of God is connected with ruling over the world. I think that it is best to say that the image of God is the likeness of man to God which enables him to rule. This consists of the intellectual ability to rule (planning, speech). It also consists of the character to rule, which is the main focus of the biblical discussion.

The image of God is also connected with sonship. Consider Genesis 4:1: "Adam had a son in his own likeness, in his own image." This is the only other place in the Bible where the phrase "in his own image and likeness" appears, and I think we are to understand the sons of God as those who bear the image of God. (Adam is explicitly called the "son of God" in Luke 3:37.) A son is to be like his father, and a son will do what his father does.

God created man as the keystone of his creation, and gave him the charge to rule, and in the same passage blessed all of creation. I think it is not a stretch to say that God gave man the charge to rule so that all creation would be blessed. But when Adam fell, he brought curse to the entire creation instead of blessing. Creation is now waiting in eager expectation for the unveiling of the sons of God (Rom 8:19-20) who will liberate it from its bondage to decay. What God is doing in redemption is creating a new humanity which will accomplish God's original plan to bring blessing. At key stages in redemptive history, the scripture is careful to connect the people of God with the blessing of creation.

When God calls Abram, he tells him to "leave your country, your people, and your father's household" (Genesis 12:1). He says it three times, so it must be important. There is more involved here than just leaving behind the idolatrous influence of his family (Joshuah 24:2). Leaving family behind was very unusual in the ancient world, where family gives a person his identity. Family ties define one's connection to the rest of the human race. (This is one reason why genealogies are so important in many cultures.) When Abram turns away from his family, he loses his connection to the rest of humanity, and that is the point: the family of Abraham will be a new humanity.

God promises to bless Abram and to make him a blessing, a clear allusion back to the blessing of creation. It is through Abraham that the blessing of God will reach the ends of the earth. Abram also will have many descendants, corresponding to God's blessing to Adam to "be fruitful and multiply". (In fact, his offspring "will be like the dust of the earth," which is perhaps an inverted allusion to God's curse on Adam that he would return to the dust.) Abraham's descendants will "rule over the gates of their enemies" (Genesis 22:17), corresponding to Adam's charter to rule. Abraham is given the land, which Paul understands to mean the whole earth (Romans 4:13), not just the land of Israel.

It is the descendants of Abraham, the children of Israel, who are referred to as the sons of God (Exodus 4:22). Note also the reiteration of blessing as part of the covenant (e.g., Deuteronomy 28) and the curses that follow if the people refuse their calling, just as with Adam. The people of Israel are intended to be the new humanity who accomplish God's purpose.

David is given a similar blessing: seed, a special relationship with God, authority, land. Note particularly 2 Sam 7:19, which can arguably be translated, "Is this your charter for humanity?" (See Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology, pp. 152-155.) The kings of Israel are called "the son of God" (e.g., Psalm 2; 2 Samuel 7:14); they are the representative head of the new humanity, and the commission and the blessing are focused on them (e.g., Psalm 72: "All nations will be blessed through [the king]", referring back to Genesis 12).

Daniel 7 is God's plan for humanity. (It is a development of the same theme earlier in Daniel; chapter 2 is about humanity's destiny, and chapter 4 is about how proud humanity's boasts make it less than human.) Daniel 7 portrays the kingdoms of men as ravaging beasts--they are not even human. Men in their sinfulness and violence have sunk to the level of animals: they do not have the character to rule. But then "one like a son of man" is given the final authority to rule over the entire earth. The contrast between the man and the animals is strikingly reminiscent of Genesis 1. The angel interpreting the vision explains that the meaning of the son of man is that "the saints of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever"--the truly human people will rule. This passage is particularly interesting because it highlights the divine likeness of the "son of man" (he comes with the clouds, and people worship him), and yet it connects it with the people of God. This tension between the "son of Man" as a divine person, and the "son of Man" as collectively the people of God is not resolved until the New Testament, where the "Son of Man" is in fact the Son of God, the exact image of God, and his people who are in his likeness and rule with him.

Though the Old Testament presents Israel as the new humanity, it is only as a type (a foreshadowing), not the reality. Israel, as is apparent from her record, behaves very much like the old humanity. The real change begins with Jesus and the coming of the Spirit, and is still continuing today. Of course, like Israel, the church does not often act as the true humanity, but with the Spirit it has the potential to do so, sometimes does now, and is guaranteed to do so in the future.

In the New Testament, it is Jesus who is the truly human person, because he is the exact image of God. A number of passages compare him with Adam (most obviously Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15). The gospels show how he was tempted as Adam was in a garden (and also in the wilderness, the opposite of a garden), but he obeyed. He wears a crown of thorns, symbolically bearing the curse. Pilate and the soldiers jeeringly proclaim him as king, but what they say is ironically true: Jesus is the ruler of the world. And Pilate, in another ironic act with much deeper significance than he realizes, brings Jesus out dressed as a king, and says, "Behold the man!" (John 19:5) That John intends this an allusion to Genesis 1 is likely given the other allusions to Genesis 1 nearby: this happens on the sixth day of the week, a day which is ended by Jesus' loud cry, "It is finished," and then comes the sabbath. The point is that in the death of Jesus, God has created the new humanity. Jesus has accomplished what God intended, and is ruling as God intended for man.

After his resurrection, Jesus breathes his Spirit into the disciples (John 20:22), which is an allusion to God breathing the breath of life into man in Genesis 2. (Also the Spirit came as a mighty rushing wind at Pentecost, which is likely an allusion to Genesis 1:2--now the whole world is being re-created, with the new humanity first rather than last.) After announcing that "all authority is given to me" as it was in part to Adam, he gives them the commission to "go into all the world and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19). This is essentially the same as saying "Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it."

Now we are the sons and daughters of God, and it has not yet appeared what we will be (1 John 3:1ff), but we will be like him when he appears. We, Jesus' brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:11), are putting on the new man, which is being made in the image of our creator (Colossians 3:10). These and other New Testament passages about the image of God are primarily about having the character of God. We will one day rule the world with Jesus, the way God intended for Adam to rule; but we must have the character to rule.

The climax comes when Jesus has finally subdued the earth, as Adam was supposed to: "He must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.... For it says, 'he has put everything under his feet.'" (1 Corinthians 15:25ff, quoting Psalm 8.) Paul here takes what was said of humanity in general, that humans rule over the earth because God intended it that way, and applies it to Jesus in particular (as the new Adam), and explains it as the goal of history. The last Adam, unlike the first, "will himself be subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all." In the end, the curse that came from Adam's action is undone, the tree of life is again accessible, and the redeemed people of God rule over the earth as God intended (Rev. 22:1-5).

[Material for this was gathered primarily from W. Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology, and N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, both of which are well worth reading for their insights into the development of key themes of the Bible from beginning to end.]