The book of Genesis says that when Adam and Eve ate the fruit they were told not to eat, their eyes were opened. They saw everything in a new light and in a new way. They saw things they had not been able to see before. They understood things that once were beyond their understanding. Their eyes were opened.
As we prepare to conclude this series of messages on the early chapters of Genesis, I hope your eyes have been opened as well. I hope you are seeing these stories in a new light and are beginning to understand and appreciate them in new ways.
You don’t have to agree with every interpretation I’ve presented to you. Indeed, some of these interpretations have been contradictory, just as some of the stories in Genesis are themselves contradictory.
Thinking the stories through and playing the contradictions against each other are part of the joy of biblical interpretation. Too many of us are stuck in the fundamentalist mindset. We think that there is only one correct way to interpret any passage of scripture, and of course it’s the way I interpret it, and even the slightest deviation from my version is not only wrong wrong wrong but it’s probably inspired by Satan.
These three and a half chapters of Genesis have been the subject of constant interpretation for the last two to three millennia. Rabbis have delighted in debating the meaning of these stories. They’ve delighted in debating the grammar itself – what the individual words and sentences mean in their original language and how to best convey that meaning in the language and thought patterns of their day.
When you sit down to eat later today, will you debate today’s scripture reading and my interpretation of it over the dinner table? Not likely. One of the most interesting books I’ve read recently is The Grammar of God by Aviya Kushner. She grew up in a small Jewish community in rural New York state. Hebrew was her first language. She recalls many meals when family members discussed the week’s scripture readings in detail and argued, sometimes heatedly, over grammar and meaning.
As a young adult, she was shocked when she read her first English translation of scripture. The translators seemed so sure of themselves, and yet so often, she thought, they were clueless about the nuances of a passage’s meaning.
This endless debate is what the rabbis meant by “reading Torah.” It’s not just reading. It’s close interpretation. It’s interpreting, and debating and exploring the mysteries of the text, trying all the while to move closer to what God has to say to us through it, and always realizing that multiple readings of the text often yield several ranges of meaning, sometimes readings that are complementary, and sometimes readings that are contradictory.
When we attempt to assign any biblical passage one single meaning for all time, we are simply not being faithful to the text or to the God who gave it to us. As Jacob wrestled with the angel at the River Jabbok, we have to wrestle with each text to see what new insights God might bring to us through it.
I hope you’ve been wrestling with these texts. I know I have. And I will continue to wrestle with them, because I’m sure there are many insights within them that haven’t yet been revealed to me.
What follows are some insights that have been revealed to me – mostly through the scholarship and careful reading of others.
I call these gleanings. Biblically, gleanings are the what’s left in a farmer’s field after the harvest. Poor people who have no land are allowed to forage for these leftovers. Some of the gleanings I have collected are big insights. Some are just leftovers. I number them only to make it clear when I’m moving from one to another.
1. As the first book of the Bible for both Jews and Christians, Genesis has a unique stature in our understanding of scripture. It shapes our understanding of everything that follows.
2. Genesis was written to people of another language and another culture and another time, and it does not always ask the same questions about the world that we do. Some of its concerns are not our concerns, and some of our concerns are not its concerns.
Much of our theology is speculative filling in of the blanks in places that may have been left blank for good reason. Our certainly about how we fill in those blanks may betray the intent of the text, so we should always “mind the gaps” but not foolishly cover them up.
3. The first chapter of Genesis declares, as did English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” (God’s Grandeur)
4. Genesis affirms without hesitation that God is the creator of all that is, and that only God is creator. As Christians, we believe that all parties of the Trinity participate in creation – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In the Genesis story, the Father is represented by Elohim and Yahweh Elohim. The Son is not visible, but the Apostle Paul reminds us that “all things were created by him … and through him and for him” (Colossians 1.15-16 CEB). The Holy Spirit is right there at the start, hovering over the chaotic Deep, anticipating what comes next.
5. We tend to get hung up on some mostly imaginary conflict between faith and science. We are distracted from the meaning of Genesis by endless debates over origins – six days versus billions of years, evolution versus special creation, and so on.
Genesis is more about the purpose of creation than the process of creation. It describes creation in the terms of its time, just as we try to describe our world in the terms of our time. We should not be surprised that they are different.
We can safely ignore all talk about how if there is one tiny error in Genesis or anywhere else in the Bible, the whole thing cannot be trusted. That’s poppycock, whether it comes from the mouths of fundamentalists or atheists, neither of whom have much understanding of the Bible and both of whom seem determined to undermine its meaning by focusing on trivia rather than the core message.
6. A key theme of Genesis is freedom. God creates in pure freedom. God does not have to create anything, but God chooses to create, out of love for what is being created. God creates in freedom and love, and God gives creation freedom as well, hoping that the love will be returned.
For example, God gives plants and trees the freedom to develop on their own. They become God’s subcontractors in creation. God also gives animals a certain amount of freedom, and even more to humans, who are created in the very image of God, as God’s representative in creation.
7. God has a purpose and a will for creation, but God will not force that will upon God’s creatures. We always respond to God in freedom. God tries to guide us to God’s purpose, which is our good, but God will not compel us to comply. If we go astray, God acts to redeem us, but God will never coerce us to return to the right way.
8. Genesis offers two very different creation stories. The first one is a magnificent hymn of creation. In the second story, God literally gets down in the dirt to make animals and humans. Placed side by side, these two creation accounts show two aspects of our experience of God – God as transcendent and God as immanent, God on high far away and God up close and personal.
Both aspects of our experience of God are good and necessary. They remind us that God is not a one-dimensional person but someone who watches over us from afar even while walking with us hand in hand.
9. All humans, male and female, are made in the image of God. Our origin in God makes all humans of special worth and significance. All humans are created equal. All races and ethnic groups and nationalities and other divisions are secondary to our primary identity as representatives of God.
10. God has granted humans dominion over all other living things. We are commissioned to “fill the earth and subdue it.” That doesn’t mean pillage it. It means cultivate it, nurture it to completion.
In Hebrew, the word “dominion” has connotations of shepherding. We are shepherds of the earth and its creatures. Stewardship is another good image. As stewards of God’s creation, made in God’s image, we act on God’s behalf, and our actions should reflect God’s will for all, not our selfish will for ourselves.
11. We are intended to “serve and protect” our world. Environmental activist Wendell Berry has written a book titled What Are People For? In it he says: “The ecological teaching of the Bible is simply inescapable: God made the world because God wanted it made. God thinks the world is good, and God loves it. It is God’s world; God has never relinquished title to it. And God has never revoked the conditions … that oblige us to take excellent care of it.” (Wendell Berry, What Are People For?)
12. When God created the universe, God declared that it was all good – that is, suited for its purpose. And when God created humans, God pronounced the whole thing very good. Later, though, God concluded that it is not good for the human to be alone. Indeed, to faithfully mirror the nature of God in whose image we are made, we must live as a diverse community of males and females and many languages and cultures.
That’s one of the lessons of the story of the Tower at Babel, a story we did not look at. When humans think too much alike, when everyone speaks the same language, so to speak, we tend to fall into sin.
13. God’s free love sets us free to become the persons God wants us to be. We are meant to be free to live authentically human lives in a world that is optimized for the flourishing of everyone.
14. We are all meant to live in freedom. And all clearly means all. God gave humans dominion over the rest of creation, but not over one another.
Many bigots try to use Genesis to support various forms of domination and subjugation, chiefly the subjugation of women and people of color. All these campaigns are based on specious uses of scripture, especially several verses in these early chapters of Genesis.
Don’t fall for these Bible abusers and their toxic notions of God’s intent for humanity. God made all humans in God’s own image, male and female, no color or ethnic group excluded. Those who say otherwise are liars.
15. One very clear implication of all this is that our world is totally messed up. But then, you knew that, didn’t you?
All of our social orders are based on some form of domination by the privileged over those who are declared to be undeserving because of some bogus criterion such as sex or race or eye color, frizziness of whatever.
Born into such systems, we do not question the validity of their claims over us until we read Genesis with new eyes, or until we read the gospel of Jesus Christ. And then we realize that God’s magnificent plan for creation has gone awry, and the consequences for humans, for animals, for our environment and for very our future are potentially ghastly.
California is burning. It won’t be the last conflagration, or the last killing drought, or – as we have seen here in in the Midwest, in Missouri and Nebraska and Iowa, the last spring flood that won’t drain way. The way we have destroyed our environment is only a symptom of the larger disease.
16. We call that disease “sin.” Sin is fundamentally alienation – alienation first and primarily from God, but also alienation from other humans, from the rest of creation, and, finally, alienation from our very selves.
We think we can do it ourselves. We think we know best. We are fundamentally wrong. We cannot trust ourselves. We need to trust God.
God seeks our trust. We seek security. Because we do not trust God, we look for security in all the wrong places, starting with our own hearts, which cannot be trusted until they have been turned to God. In the end, we are all like Adam and Eve, trying to hide from God with loincloths made from fig leaves. We can’t hide from God any more than we can hide from ourselves.
Finally, 17. God will not punish us. God is not in the punishment business. But God may allow the consequences of our sin to unfold. And the consequences of our sin are too scary to consider.
We dare not think that it is too late for us. Yet we have clearly failed to fulfill the mandate of our creation. God gave us a purpose for being, and we have done a poor job of living up to that purpose.
Some religious leaders who have their heads in the sand point to the rainbow as a sign that God will never again destroy all creatures with a flood. But a Genesis-style worldwide flood is not one of the chief dangers we face because of global climate change. Coastal and local flooding are. We may well see a rainbow in the sky as the Missouri River and its tributaries wipe out a significant portion of the Midwest.
This may not be God’s will. But it is a possible consequence of human sin. Pray for the salvation of God’s good creation, so magnificently described in the opening chapters of Genesis. Pray that God’s intent for creation will be realized, as promised in the book of Revelation, the enigmatic book at the other end of our Bible. Pray that the promises of both Genesis and Revelation will be fulfilled.
Pray that God’s intent for creation will not be subverted by our sin. Pray for salvation and redemption. And act on those prayers until we find our freedom and future restored by the grace of God.
“Gleanings” is a message in the series “Genesis: In the beginning…” preached Nov. 10. 27, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas, by the Rev. James Hopwood; the text is Job 38.