Notes on Genesis 1-11: Epoch 1

I read through Epoch 1 of my Chronological bible a while back as part of my ancient history book club reading.  Epoch 1 consists of Genesis 1-11 and includes the creation account, the fall, and the stories of Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, and the Tower of Babel.  A lot of time is covered here in a few short chapters.

This is the first time I have read through this section of the Bible from a historical standpoint, and the first time I’ve read it since reading other historical creation accounts.  I have a lot of thoughts, some that are easy to share and others that I don’t really know how to put into words.  If you have done a similar study and have some light to shed here, please leave me a comment.  I’m (obviously) not a Biblical scholar and will probably need to do additional reading to make sense of some of this.

I’ve never been a die-hard “old earth” or “young earth” Christian.  I don’t really understand the need to take one stance or the other, and it tends to put me off when people are so entirely sure of exactly how things happened.  I guess I’m okay with the idea of some mystery around the origins of the earth, how God created it, how long he took to do it and what methods he used.

One thing I have picked up from my ancient history reading so far is that the people that lived thousands of years ago didn’t think about things in the rational and logical ways that we do now, especially out here in the West.  We don’t combine the factual and the supernatural in our accounts of history.  Our greatest rulers and world-changers aren’t thought of as part-god or as epic heroes who completed amazing, super-human feats.  They are just exceptional humans who did exceptional things.  But the oldest written historical accounts blur the lines between the mortals and the immortals.  Gods walk on the earth.  Some have half-human children.  Some kings rule for thousands of years.  Others go on amazing journeys and live to tell wild, supernatural tales.  But these same mythical figures have at times been found to be real kings, real people who left behind real evidence of their existence.  So we believe that they really did exist, but that their history is not completely factual; it is shrouded in myth, and so we take what facts we can from it and treat the rest as the telling of an ancient story that was so important, so real to the people who told it, that it became embedded in a culture and lived there for centuries.  They are myths that contain important truths and serve important purposes.  We don’t write our histories like this anymore.

After reading other historical accounts and then reading the Biblical accounts of creation, the flood, and the tower of Babel, I am left wondering how much of it is a figurative truth and how much is a literal truth.  And my biggest question is this: why would this ancient history of the Jewish people be written in a factual, logical, western way (isn’t this the way most Evangelical Christians read it?) when the histories of all other cultures from this time period were not?  Maybe a well-versed Christian reading this can comment on this for me.

I know that Christians vary in the ways they interpret the old testament.  Even going back to the very beginnings of Christianity there are differences in interpretation of these first accounts.  I don’t feel that there is any real way to know, and what is making sense to me at this stage of the journey is to view these early old testament accounts in the same way that other accounts from that time period are viewed: as containing literal facts as well as figurative truths about our beginnings.  But I’m not finished yet, and I’m sure my views will change as I go.  I also don’t believe that literal truths are more important than figurative truths.  Anyone who loves books and stories as much as I do knows how powerful figurative truths can be.  🙂 Sometimes they are more powerful than all of the facts in the world could ever hope to be.

Moving on… another thing I have noted is that although the Bible is very old, it is not the oldest written document in existence.  Copies of Babylonian and Sumerian stories have been discovered that are possibly over a thousand years older than estimated date of 1500-900 BC when the first chapters of Genesis were written.  Again, no one really knows the dating for sure and there may be other documents that haven’t been uncovered.  But regardless, this was an interesting discovery for me, and something I never learned at church.  I feel like most of the Christian theology I have been exposed to has been so far removed from a historical context that it is difficult for me to reconcile some things now as I finally put the puzzle pieces together.  This is one reason why I am classically educating my children – they will never have to go through this process.  The puzzle of how everything fits together will be built for them piece by piece as they grow up.

I also found it interesting that the Sumerian King List lists a great flood, and that, just like in the Biblical account, the life span of humans was much longer before the flood than after the flood, eventually shrinking to the 120-year (or so) maximum that we know now.  A historian would say that this means that both cultures came from the same literary setting /environment.  A “young-earth” Christian would say this means that these matching accounts are proof that the earth’s atmosphere was different before the flood and that the same conditions that let humans live to an advanced age allowed the existence of dinosaurs at the same time.

Some of the places in the Bible are easily placed in the historical context, while others, such as the exact location of the Garden of Eden, are harder to pinpoint.  My chronological Bible tells me that Babel is the Hebrew form of the name Babylon and that the tower they were building was probably a ziggurat.  Why didn’t I know this?

I will talk more about the differences between the Biblical creation and flood stories and those of the Sumerians/Babylonians in a separate post.  The comparison deserves a post of its own.  🙂

Overall, this read-through left me with many questions, but I’m mostly okay with that.  There are several truths that I can take away from these stories no matter how they are interpreted.  First, that God created us in his own image, and not to be his slaves (as the Babylonians believed was the purpose of their creation) but to be in communion/relationship with him.  We humans wanted to go our own way and have been out of true communion with God ever since.  God’s ultimate desire is for us to return to him.  I am willing to embrace the mystery of most everything else, but am also excited to find potential answers as I continue with my reading.

4 CommentsLeave a comment »
  • March 10, 2011 Reply
    cara said:

    Interesting! Looking forward to hear more about what you learn..

  • March 11, 2011 Reply
    Lisa said:

    There was some stuff on this in one of the chapters of books I was reading and I immediately thought of it as I read this post. From Light from the Christian East:

    The distinction between the Creator and the creation is foundational in Eastern Orthodoxy. While Western Christian theology also recognizes the difference, Eastern Christianity has freighted it with greater significance, not only for teaching about creation and its relationship to God but also for much of the rest of Orthodox doctrine. Further, where Western Christian theologizing has allowed for a variety of approaches to the unlikeness between God and the creation, some amounting almost to a denial of that unlikeness, the Orthodox manifest a common emphasis that knows subtle shadings but allows for no transgression of the distinction.
    For Orthodoxy, the importance of this distinction becomes clear as we consider our human inability to conceive of and speak appropriately about God in his relationship to the creation. In pondering creation, the Christian comes to the first words of Scripture: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1 RSV). Like all the rest of Scripture, this passage assumes the existence of God. But when human beings attempt to think or speak about the existence of that God who created all things, we inevitably end up using categories bounded by our intellectual capacities–to be specific, in the question of creation, we make use of time concepts which human thought cannot transcend. Our existence as creatures is ineluctably bounded by time; we can neither conceive of nor speak about an existence unbounded by time. But time has no necessary existence; it came to be as part of God’s creation. Only God has existence in and of himself, and his divine being is not bounded by time. Even so, it is not uncommon to hear someone speak about God existing “before” creation, although time itself came into existence with creation. There could be no “before” before creation. All we can responsibly say about God “before” creation is that God is.
    Beyond specific time limitations in our thought, our discussions about God and creation indicate that our rationality cannot escape being bounded by the existence of the creation itself. In speaking about “before” creation, we cannot properly say that there was “nothing else.” To speak in that fashion already assumes the creation in which the anything “else” came into being. Again, we cannot say that there was nothing “outside of God”–speaking in this way also assumes the presence of the created. There was neither darkness nor light, neither void nor anything else “in addition to” God. Even to say that “only” God existed “before” creation is misleadling; speaking in that fashion also assumes the existence of the creation with which we are familiar…
    This Eastern Orthodox understanding of creation and of its relationship to the Creator offers Western Christians intriguing perspectives on how creation was good, how it was to develop and how the redemption of Christ relates to the creation. Eastern Christian teaching reminds us of the tremendous gulf between the Creator and his creation, emphasizing his utter transcendence in powerful fashion. At the same time, it points out the Creator’s absolute immanence in and with his creation in its every aspect, from the beginning of creation, through all the vicissitudes of time and all development and change, and unto the full manifestation of the new heavens and new earth. There is much in the Eastern Orthodox understanding of the relationship of the Creator and his creation that can enrich our Western Christian perspectives about God and his relationship to the creation of which we are part and in which we live.
    In addition to this general stimulation, the distinctive Orthodox perspectives presented in this chapter open up possibilities for helping Western Christians in some of the difficulties we encounter in our discussion of the relationship of the Creator and the creation. There are doubtless several ways in which these Orthodox distinctives might offer such assistance. The three suggestions that follow are meant to be suggestive, not exhaustive, of the Orthodox resources in this regard.
    For one thing, the Orthodox emphasis on our human inability to conceive of and speak about God and creation together could help us escape the sometimes acrimonious “creation versus evolution” arguments that so often have bedeviled reflection on the creation among Western Christians over the last century or so. From the perspectives of Orthodoxy, the first chapters of Genesis do not explain creation. Creation was God’s act, and no amount of human intellectual ingenuity could ever account for it, nor any human words capture it. The terse affirmations made in Genesis 1-2 do not amount to explanations or even descriptions, from an Orthodox perspective; they confront us with the declaration that all that is came from God. In presenting the entire universe as God’s creative handiwork, Orthodoxy excludes all thought of an evolutionary process operating outside of God, to be sure. Equally, it precludes any arrogant claim to comprehend from the first chapters of Genesis how God brought everything into existence. What Scripture presents is the declaration that God made all that is, without any attempt to clarify how all came into being. The opening chapters of Genesis present what must be wondered at, not what can be fathomed. They offer stimulation for common praise by all those who believe in him, not material with which we should brow-beat fellow believers whose ideas about the way in which God may have accomplished that work differ from ours.
    Further, even if God had explained it to us, could we have understood it? What language could God borrow to explain to mere creatures the act of creation so that we could comprehend it? If his ways and thoughts are beyond ours (Is 55:8-9), should we not offer humble praise for his creation and what he has told us about it, rather than fighting among ourselves as to who best comprehends how God brought all things into existence? Is the beginning of Scripture intended to satisfy our intellectual curiosity about “how,” or is it to invite us to celebrate “what” and “who”? Western Christians could learn a bit more humility in speaking about creation and God from their brothers and sisters in Eastern Orthodoxy–and perhaps, as a result, learn better how to appreciate our brothers and sisters in Western Christianity too.

    OK, sorry for the long bit of Orthodox propaganda… just thought it related well. 🙂

    • March 11, 2011 Reply
      Virtual Pilgrim said:

      Interesting, Lisa. I guess that is kind of how I feel about it. Arrogant is the right word – I think it is arrogant to assume that you can know and understand how God created the world. I like what that excerpt says about the Genesis account being a weak human explanation for the awesome work that God did. Thousands of years after this account was written, we are still learning more and more about our universe and the most profound thing we have learned is that we will never know all there is to know about it – it is beyond comprehension. It is exciting to speculate, to ponder all of the amazingness of it all, to entertain theories and make new discoveries, but when people try to transform guesses into facts and then build an entire worldview around it – I just don’t get it. What is wrong with keeping your theology open to multiple scenarios? Why do we have to have a nice, pat answer to everything?

  • March 11, 2011 Reply
    RICO said:

    Cool post

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