Monday, December 27, 2010

Baptism of the world

I've set a new ambitious goal for myself: to blog through the entire Bible. Hey, it's been done before. My goal is to force myself to read through it quickly, rather than slowly and in detail. It's very easy to miss the forest for the trees, especially surrounded by an American evangelical tradition which delights in sermons based on two or three verses. There's so much to talk about just in looking at the big picture, rather than obsessing over every last detail. In this discussion I hope to avoid any and all discussion of inerrancy, inspiration, or even biblical authority. Not that those discussions aren't important; I just don't particularly care about them for my purposes here. I really just want to see what happens when I treat the Bible as a whole story, using the knowledge of the particulars which have already been ingrained in me as well as the many various influences that I've had in my intellectual development.

These are all merely notes, not essays, and I though I will try to tie each post together thematically, no attempt will be made to give a definite structure to these notes.

Genesis 1-11

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." It is significant to me that the ancients had a sense of order moving from least to most complex. God doesn't start with nothing; the earth was already a "formless void," i.e. there was already some material to work with. If God spoke the universe into being ex nihilo, the Genesis account apparently doesn't describe this. What is described, however, is a process of bringing order to the material creation. It is very significant that it is a process. It doesn't take place in one day (much less a single instant), but seven. This is God's work week, and each part of the structuring of his world takes an entire work day.

The significance that this is a process cannot be overstated. The Greeks stumbled over this. Surely all the various parts of creation are ordered together, so that all of its parts depend on one another, none of which may be removed. In Genesis we see a progression of order. The first and most fundamental structure to come into being is time--day and night. This fundamental structure gives order to the rest of the narrative itself, with each new structure being assigned to a particular day in God's work week. The next structure to be created is a "dome" to separate the heavens from the earth (or the "waters from the waters"). All of this takes place rather slowly--two out of seven days are devoted merely to this rather basic ordering of the cosmos. Finally, on the third day, the waters under the sky are gathered into one place so that dry land can appear, and vegetation appears. It's clear that this vegetation is the first "life" to appear, yet it's not clear to what extent it is really alive--it doesn't have the "breath of life" in it, as will the creatures which come into being on days five and six. On the fourth day, the sun, moon, and stars are ordained to govern the progression of time which has been established. Thus four whole days have been devoted merely to building an order in which it is possible for life to flourish--nothing with the "breath of life" in it has yet come into being. Yet at each stage in this slow progression, we read that "God saw that it was good." Creation was good long before humans or even animals arrived on the scene.

On day five God declares, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky." The phrase "Let the waters bring forth" is interesting. God does not deliberately place each creature where he wants it; the waters bring forth creatures freely, just as the birds are free to fly across the sky as they please. Likewise on the sixth day God says, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures." To these new living creatures God gives the charge, "Be fruitful and multiply." (This was not, we may add, given to the vegetation.)

Finally God creates human beings in his "image" and "likeness," to have "dominion over" the creatures, and "male and female" he created them. (Sex is not mentioned with reference to the animals.) Like the animals, humans are charged to "Be fruitful and multiply," but also "to fill the earth and subdue it."

On the seventh day God rests, which involves a blessing. Each part of his creation was good, but now he has stopped to see all of it, and sees that it is very good.

Interesting little verse, this Genesis 2:4--"These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created." In this creation account, God doesn't simply place things where he wants them. He calls the heavens and the earth to bring forth descendants. He calls the seas to bring forth sea creatures, the sky to bring forth birds, and the earth to bring forth vegetation and land animals. And he calls human beings to cultivate the earth. God invites his creations into the process of continued creation. Creation is not a centralized act; it is a process handed down to those things already created. God is not merely designing a temple for himself; he is designing a world for his creatures and, in part, by his creatures.

Thus God creates humans to continue the work of creation by being fruitful, multiplying, and cultivating the land. We are given our choice of food, except for one prohibition: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Our beginning is marked by freedom; our only prohibition is meant to save us from death.

Right here we see set before us the controlling theme of all of scripture: we are given the choice between life and death. Life is full of nearly limitless freedom. We may eat of any fruit in the garden, save one. That one tree is the tree that leads to death. And what is that tree? The tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

This is ominous. Our downfall, and eventually our destruction, comes from the desire for the knowledge of good and evil. I used to be embarrassed by this. Would God really cast us out of the Garden of Eden because we wanted to know too much? And yet now I think I understand what this prohibition is all about. Just like in the story of the Tower of Babel later on, our downfall is our hubris. We think that having more knowledge means having greater satisfaction for our desires. Yet precisely the opposite proves true. Once we were naked and unashamed. Then we were naked and ashamed; our knowledge only did us harm. In some sense, the wisdom of Genesis 1 and 2 is far greater than any other wisdom there has ever been. Humans may seek after something more than life, but in many ways we are fools for doing so. Life is fundamental. Life needs no justification. Life is its own reward. The entire story of scripture is marked by this sad realization: humankind was given the offer of eternal life, and we turned it down because we wanted more. Little did we realize that these other desires are incompatible with our desire for life.

So we listened to the serpent, ate of the tree, and were banished from Eden, sent out into a cursed and painful world. To confirm that our choice really was death over life, the first child of the human race murders his younger brother. This first murder also highlights the misguided effort of humans to control their own situation. Cain envied Abel, for Abel's sacrifice was more pleasing to God. Cain was unable to submit to such an outcome; so he sought control by killing his brother. This desire for control and retaliation gets decidedly out of control as the race of humans are corrupted more and more by lusts of various kinds. The very humans who were created to cultivate the world and continue God's work of creation by bringing new life into it are instead doing just the opposite, killing one another and inclining their thoughts toward evil continually.

Enter Noah. There is at least one man whom God will accept as righteous. God floods the whole world, destroying every living thing except for Noah and all that Noah brought into the ark. The world has been baptized, cleansed from all of its impurities. This baptism has been once and for all, as indicated by the covenant in Genesis 9, marked by the sign of the rainbow. God is ready to start anew with his creation. He gives humankind another chance to choose life.

This act of baptism (the flood) is marked by ceremonial instructions: human beings are not to kill one another, and the penalty for killing must be death. Life is to be held sacred, so that even though animals may be eaten, blood may not be eaten--that is the life of the animal. In the Old Testament, life is sacred, and whatever is sacred is to be taken with utmost seriousness. The failure to take life and death more seriously than our own desires was the very first and most fundamental mistake we made as humans, a mistake which God intends to correct through a series of commands throughout the law.

The baptism of the world creates a new order. Now flesh may be eaten (but not the blood), and a new crop is planted. The first crop to be harvested in the new creation is the vine: Noah plants a vineyard, drinks wine, and gets drunk. This scene quickly goes bad, as Ham becomes the cursed son of Noah for dishonoring his father. The Bible takes these genealogies seriously, and they are used to explain ancient Near East political feuds. What we may gather from this story and these genealogies is that even in the new order, after the world has been baptized, it has not been perfected. The initial cleansing did not destroy evil; it merely showed God continuing to create, and to resist the destructive desires of the humans whom he banished from Eden.

What better illustration of God's resistance to our destructive tendencies than the Tower of Babel story? It's fascinating how language plays the crucial role in allowing our hubris to take control. Language represents reason and knowledge. Indeed, I know of no better polemic against rationalism than Genesis 1-11. Both in the Garden of Eden and at the Tower of Babel, God opposes our presumption that through reason and knowledge we can deliberately construct the civilization pleasing to us. Genesis 11:1-9 flies in the face of modernism, and probably represents most of what secular humanists detest about religion. Yet I find it an invaluable allegory for our time; it always frightens me how much humans are seeking to construct for themselves based on the presumption that our reason alone is sufficient.

1 comment:

  1. A couple of thoughts:

    First, I don't know that it's entirely fair to say that God starts with pre-existent stuff. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void..." - this doesn't, to my ear, read as though the author meant "In the beginning, God took the formless, void earth and made things out of it." It's the later verses that describe that; a more logical reading is, "In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth - now, the earth He created started off formless and void..." It may seem like niggling, but I do think creatio ex nihilo is there. Your main point still stands, of course - with the important corollary that what God creates has an eschatology and teleology, which is to say it doesn't start in the form He finally intends for it to reach.

    As for the "knowledge of good and evil" concept, I think Doug Wilson's treatment of it here is helpful in presenting the various issues in understanding why this particular grasping after knowledge was such a problem. It tends, again, to reinforce and clarify your understanding of these chapters - the fundamental error is to seek knowledge (both intellectual and moral/ethical) on our own and in our own time rather than to be taught by God.


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