Today's post is the last of a four-part series by theologian, historian and Christian apologist Dr. John P. Dickson, dealing with the history and interpretation of Genesis 1. Dickson's paper first appeared in 2009 as "The Genesis of Everything: An historical account of the Bible’s opening chapter," at Christians in Science and Technology(ISCAST), an Australian organisation dedicated to exploring the interface between science and the Christian faith. As that title suggests, it urges us to treat the early chapters of Genesis as a literary and historical statement, and listen carefully to it on those terms.
This post features Dickson's argument that "the subversive intention of Genesis 1 reaches its climax in its description of the place given to men and women in the world by the Creator."
Man in Enuma elish
As I said earlier, Enuma elish essentially recounts a primeval war of the gods. The eventual victor is a young deity named Marduk. He and his armies destroy the patriarch and matriarch of the gods and out of the bloody remains create the various items of the universe. The gods who had supported these vanquished foes were sentenced to an eternity of servitude, collecting and preparing food for the victors.
Here is where human beings come in. The defeated gods begin to complain about the sheer indignity of being used merely to fetch food for other gods. They petition Marduk to create some other creature better suited to a life of slavery. The idea pleases Marduk and so, out of the goodness of his heart and the pools of blood left over from the battle, he fashions a man, a being whose central task in life is to serve the gods with food offerings:
When Marduk heard the complaints of the gods, he said: ‘I will establish a savage, 'man' shall be his name. He shall be charged with the service of the gods, that they might be at ease!’ Out of Kinju’s blood they fashioned mankind. Marduk imposed the service on mankind and let free the gods. (Enuma elish, Tablet 6)22
The clear ‘message’ of the story is that humans ought to know their place at the bottom of the divine scheme of things. Their role is to serve the needs and pleasures of the gods.23
It is against just such ancient views of humanity that our passage has something striking to say. According to Genesis 1, men and women lie at the centre of the Creator’s intentions and affections for the world. The theme is conveyed in a number of ways.
Interruption of the rhythm
First is the deliberate interruption to the rhythmic structure of the chapter. I mentioned earlier that each creative scene follows a careful four-fold pattern: a creative command followed by a report of the fulfilment of the command, an elaboration of creative detail, and a concluding day-formula. What I did not say is that in the final scene this pattern breaks down. Verse 26, which describes the creation of humankind, is introduced not with a creative command but with a divine deliberation, a pause in the rhythm of the text which tells us that something special is about to happen. God does not say ‘Let there be man’ as we should expect from the pattern set up throughout the chapter. Rather, the Creator declares to himself: ‘Let us make man in our image.’ The break in the rhythm is obvious and flags to readers that they have arrived at something special, a climax in the message of the chapter. The contrast with Enuma elish is striking. Humans were last in the list of creative acts in Enuma elish because they were an afterthought. They are last in the list of creative acts in Genesis because they are the highpoint of the account. The same point was highlighted by Philo two thousand years ago (Philo 77-82).
Men and women in the ‘image of God’
The contrast with paganism deepens in the elaboration of the act of human creation. In Enuma elish the first man, as we saw, was fashioned out of the blood of the vanquished god, Kinju. The man, in other words, was a product of the loser’s left-overs, to put it crudely. In Genesis 1, however, we are told that men and women were created in the very image of God. Verse 27 makes the point emphatically:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Gen. 1:27)
The phrase, ‘the image of a god’ was used in two related ways in antiquity.24 Firstly, it was used of the many statues of deities set up throughout pagan cities. These were regarded as representatives, ‘images’, of the divine presence. The second use of the epithet was in relation to kings. Ancient cultures, particularly Egyptian and Babylonian, described their kings as divine ‘images’. The idea was similar to that in connection with religious statues. Kings were considered divine representatives or ambassadors. They exercised the rule of the gods over the people. Genesis 1 appears to endorse this notion of the divine ambassador but it does so in a democratised fashion. According to the author, all people, not just kings, have been fashioned in the image of the one true God. Notice also that v.27 makes a point of including both male and female persons within the image of God.
Human beings are not the product of a defeated god’s blood; they are divine representatives, created to exercise God’s careful rule over the creation, to ensure that his interests are realized in the world.25
The service of God
There is another striking point made in these paragraphs. I noted earlier that the purpose of humanity according to Enuma elish (and other pagan myths) was to serve the gods with food offerings. In light of this, Genesis 1:29 may well have sounded very odd to ancient ears. Having urged men and women to exercise the divine rule over the earth, God then offers food to them:
Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth ... They will be yours for food.’ (Gen. 1:29)
God serves us. What a subversive thought this was in ancient times! It is a theme which reaches its climax in biblical tradition in the equally radical notion of Christ’s offering of himself for the sins of the world. What Genesis conveys metaphorically, Jesus would embody historically. But, of course, that goes beyond the scope of this paper.
Conclusion: Genesis and the search for meaning
I have argued in this paper that the author of Genesis 1 would not have been aware of the assumptions that would be brought to his text years later by six-day creationists and scientific materialists. He was not concerned with how the universe originated. Rather, he sought to answer the more urgent questions of antiquity: (1) From whom did the creation originate?; (2) What is the nature of that creation?; and (3) What place do men and women occupy in the creation? I have frequently noted the exposition of Genesis 1 by the 1st-century Jewish intellectual Philo of Alexandria. In the conclusion to this work On Creation he lists the five things the author intended to teach us in the opening chapter of Scripture: (1) that God has existed eternally (against the atheists, Philo says); (2) that God is one (against the polytheists); (3) that the creation came into being and is not eternal; (4) that there is one created universe not many; (5) that God’s good Providence originally fashioned and currently sustains and cares for the creation. The one who embraces these five truths, says Philo:
will lead a life of bliss and blessedness, because he has a character moulded by the truths that piety and holiness enforce (Philo 172)
For Philo, in other words, Genesis 1 answers philosophical, existential and theological questions. It is not concerned with the physical mechanics of origins.
The French philosopher and Nobel Laureate, Albert Camus (1913-1960), once contrasted scientific truth with philosophical truth. The one was valuable, he said, but not worth dying for. The other was central and very much worth living and dying for: ‘I therefore conclude,’ he wrote, ‘that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions (Camus 1960). I have argued above that Genesis 1 must be understood in just this context. In its highly literary form and against the backdrop of competing pagan claims the Bible’s opening chapter declares not a scientific truth of moderate importance but a bold answer to this ‘most urgent of questions’.
21 In fact, in Egypt, Amon-Re, the Sun-god, was said to rule the entire Egyptian pantheon, a collection of no fewer than 2000 deities.
22 This same basic story, though in more detail, is narrated in Tablet 1 of the Babylonian Atra-Hasis Epic which dates about the middle of the second millennium BC. On this see Millard (Millard 1994 pp. 114-128).
23 The ancient practice of placating deities with food offerings derives from stories such as this.
24 There are all sorts of philosophical suggestions about what it means to be made in the ‘image of God’. Some take the phrase as a reference to our critical faculties, others to our moral perception; still others take it to mean we possess a spirit just as God is a spirit. The historical analysis above, however, offers a more cogent interpretation.
25 It’s precisely this logic that leads to the words added in v.26: ‘let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air’ and so on. The point is reiterated in v.28: ‘God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground”.’
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