13 April 2008

Sunday School: The Story Of Our Genesis . . . Literally

I happen to have a long and abiding interest in theology. I guess that's why I studied it at William Tyndale, a non-denominational seminary that has since closed its doors after a rather awkward incident concerning the abuse of government grants . . . but that's another story. Anyway, I've decided to occasionally move outside politics to explore theological and/or Biblical issues on this blog because, well, just because I want to do it. Besides, theology and politics tend to intersect more often than love bugs in June.

One theological firestorm that I admit I've never understood is the ferocity with which some Christians battle over assessing the level of literal interpretation with certain Old Testament stories. I'm sure that a number of my Fundamentalist friends expect me to spend some time dog paddling in the lake of fire for my failure to take a literal interpretation of many of their favorite holy yarns. I've been asked, "what's your problem? Don't you think the Bible is historically accurate?" The fact is that I think there are a number of historical books in the Bible, it's just that books like Genesis are not among them. Nor were they ever intended to be.

I'll begin in the beginning. I've always found the creation story fun to think about since there is such a broad range of interpretations. Naturally, there are those who don't give a fig leaf about it because they think it's all silly nonsense. One of their favorite tactics is to point out the discrepancies between Genesis chapters 1 and 2, commenting that the Good Book can't even keep it together for two chapters. Others take the opposite extreme, proposing that the Creation story should be taken absolutely literal, with six twenty-four hour days of transcendent toil followed by generations of human failure. Some will even go so far as to claim that the poetic reference "and the evening and the morning were the [first] day" tagged to the end of each day proves that they were 24-hour periods, conveniently ignoring the fact that the "great light" that defines our 24-hour cycle (i.e., the sun) wasn't created until the fourth day.

Now I happen to believe in the creation story, but I don't believe it was intended to provide a play-by-play of what happened after God broke the heavenly huddle and decided to get busy. I mean, am I really to believe that God created everything in only six days when all of science points to an ancient, evolving planet? And if you think that's fast, somehow Adam was able to name all of the world's animals on day six. And what about that Adam and his lovely wife Eve. Were they really the first couple and we're all inbred cousins or were they simply an artistic representation of humanity's beginning? After all, "Adam" is Hebrew for "humanity."

Let's keep going. We all know Adam and Eve had a couple of kids and that the mean one (Cain) decided to off the divine daddy's boy (Abel) so he was kicked out of the garden and somehow found a wife . . . where did Cain's wife come from? No wait, he wasn't kick out of the Garden because Adam and Eve had already been booted for eating fruit, which is a part of the tale that most of us have probably always found suspicious. I mean, as Jim Gaffigan put it, would you really give up paradise for an apple? Maybe if it were pie or perhaps a deep dish of lip-licking strawberry shortcake.

That brings me to Satan. How did he find his way to the stage in this drama? We read in Revelation 12 that he was cast out of Heaven along with some other nasties, one of whom would eventually set Linda Blair's head spinning, but there is no mention of his crash to Earth in Genesis. God creates the world, sticks his dust-born children in Eden and suddenly Satan is there slithering around and offering knowledge. Which just raises another question in my mind, did the author of Genesis really expect his readers to believe that there had been a time when snakes talked to naked people in gardens?

So no, I don't believe the story was ever supposed to be taken literally, but I don't understand why that should infuriate some fellow Christians. Or, worse yet, make them believe that I am somehow diluting the message of the Scriptures. The fact is that whether you take the Genesis story literally or figuratively you will still end up with the same message from God. From this tale of creation we learn about our relationship with God and our relationship with the rest of His handiwork. We discover that:

  • God created us
  • We are earthly creatures and commanded to serve as custodians of our world and its inhabitants
  • There is temptation in our lives
  • We are weak creatures and, left to our own devices, we will fail
  • Redemption comes through God

There are a number of stories that we could discuss in this same vein. Was there really a Noah who collected every animal, two-by-two, for a giant sleepover on a big boat? I don't know, but it doesn't matter. That story teaches us that God keeps his promises, which is a truth we should reflect on every time we see a rainbow. Did Jonah actually get swallowed by a big fish? No idea, but it's a whale of a tale to explain that God gives us second chances. Did Samson whack an army of Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey only to become harmless as a kitten after his haircut? Don't ask me, but his saga sends the message that finding true strength requires reliance on God.

While there are certainly historical facts in the Bible, I believe it is clear that God loves a good story and uses them to teach us spiritual truth. Jesus carried on that tradition with his parables. The fact that some of them may just be stories does not diminish their potency, rather, it increases their accessibility.


  1. Nikki said...

    I think talking religion could be more dangerous than talking politics. As far as Adam and Eve and what transpired in the garden being literal, I have no idea. Though the symbolism suggests that it is. The reason Eve was in fact misled by the "serpent" was because possibly (this is a hypothetical) the serpent deceived her into thinking he was God. The symbol of the serpent was also used by Moses on a staff for the children of Israel to be healed. He told them to look at it, the serpent, and live, meaning look to God and live and be healed physically and spiritually...thus today we have the medical field using the same snake on a staff symbolizing the healing power of the profession. Perhaps the snake took on a false indentity to trick Eve and therefore making her trust his lie. The serpent was merely a symbolic metaphor representing the trickery satan in fact used to get Eve to eat the fruit, therefore she and Adam died a spiritual death and were separated from God having eated the forbidden fruit. We all separate ourselves from God by "eating that which is forbidden" or by sinning. heavy post! :)N

  2. Freadom said...

    The sun wasn't created until the 4th day. This is an impeccable post. This is exactly how I feel about religion, only you worded it 1,000 times better than I ever would have.

    I have always believed that you can believe in science, evolution and the like while still being good Christians.

    I could go on.

  3. Khaki Elephant said...

    You're right, Nikki. The serpent is a common and nearly universal symbol of danger (though few cultures have seen it as power and protection). When Moses raised the serpent in the wilderness he turned the symbol on its head, illustrating that the poison bites of this world can be assuaged by faith. In Greek mythology it was the staff of Hermes (the caduceus) that led dead souls to rebirth in the afterlife (again, death and life). I think the Genesis writer delivered volumes placing this symbol right after the creation narrative.

  4. Khaki Elephant said...

    I'm with you, Freadom. Too many Christians try to use the Bible as a science text book when that was never the intent. It is a guide to living, not to the origins of life. Why couldn't God's "intellegent design" include a dynamic world that eveloves?

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