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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Some Thoughts on Genesis Readings in Morning Prayer

The book of Genesis is interesting and unique’. It has a different tone then the rest of the Bible in that there are more “mythological” elements. This is, in part, because it was composed (humanly speaking) to contrast ancient Jewish beliefs about “beginnings” with their ancient neighbors’ stories. The competitive explanations of reality and the competitive cults of worship were all contemporary to those people. That is the context for reading and understanding the writings. Genesis serves as a partial account for “where things come from.” The stories are often self-contained vignettes without explanation for the elements that do not fit in. This is why in the story of Cain, for example, which is about sibling rivalry, sin and punishment the sudden appearance of a wife begs the question: where did Cain get a wife? Who are the people Cain fears will kill him? And how does Cain build a city when the world consists of his mom and pop and a baby brother (Seth) and his wife. [The Bible does not say.]  Probably the best answer to such questions is that the story is “about” something else. It is not about explaining other things which interest us.
A more openly ‘mythological’ story is Genesis 6:1-4 which seems to come out of nowhere. Suddenly sons of god and human women are procreating Nephilim (who are mighty men, maybe giants). Sounds so much like Hercules that one feels an impulse to say there might be a common link. In other ancient cultures stories of divine beings interacting with human females exist. The pre-Abrahamic roots of Israel means those stories were part of the literature with which Israel had to engage.
Most of us are most familiar with American Indian tales of ‘beginnings’ and the Greek myths. The Bible is human language, which means, although DIVINELY INSPIRED, it is also human and shares characteristics of other human writings.
 In the beginning of the Lord of the Rings the narrator recounts the “history” of the inhabitants of Middle Earth with a focus on the Ring of Power. The author, Tolkien, was a devout Catholic and energetic and intellectual Christian. His grand opus was intended to communicate Truth (and his Christian faith shaped what he wrote). “Middle Earth” the fictional setting of this fictional story is literary what Mediterranean means. Europe is somehow encountered in the story of hobbits, elves, and talking trees. Tolkien’s experiences as a soldier in WWI and a citizen of England in WWII also impacted his writing, and those experiences are veiled within his creation. All this to say that Truth in any narrative is always in dialogue with myth as well as analytical, positivist history.  This description of the process is most helpful: And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth. And for two and a half thousand years, the ring passed out of all knowledge. We have only a whisper here and there of the ancient roots of all things.
The Genesis stories are composed of very ancient narratives (written and oral), but they are written in a new context with its own set of threats to faith. In our own time we need to ask, “What is God saying here?” Knowing what it meant and understanding literary types is a great tool for understanding. Such a question is different from trying to defend the text as modern history. I know why people feel compelled to do it, I have such a desire within me, but at times letting God be God means letting go of my preconceived notions about history and realizing that modern history did not exist in ancient times…
So I read the story and understand its meaning; in the midst of all things a divine purpose is being realized.

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