A Very Modern Creation Myth.

 

Genesis 1 is a work of defiance and faith.  It probably arose among the humiliated and defeated Jews of the Babylonian captivity, as a take down on the claims of the ancient Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish.

It portrays the history of the earth, as God directing by his Word, the development of that which He had created in the beginning.  It is a claim by a member of an enslaved race that it is the God of his or her people, not Marduk, the high god of their captors,  that is the God above all other gods.

It is also a declaration of human rights.  In the Enuma Elish human beings are created from clay and the blood of a slaughtered god, to be the slaves of the gods.  In Genesis 1, God, makes humans, male and female, in His image to have dominion over the world.  All people, not just some, are chosen by God to be sovereign rulers of the world.

The creation story is divided into working days.  An evening and a morning constitute in hot climates the working day, and God is shown as  carrying out his creation during normally constituted working days, and resting on the seventh. A working pattern suitable for all those made in the image of God.

The original state of the earth in Genesis, is not the chaos of the Enuma Elish which needs to be overcome by violence, but formlessness which needs to be directed. God called the light into being, but he named both the day and the night, thus indicating that both are under his control. The same applies to the dry land and the surrounding waters.

When he calls into being the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day and the lesser to rule the night, they are not named, but there is no need to.  God has already established His authority over the day and the night.  These exist only as markers to divide the day and the night, and to divide time up into seasons.  Their rule consists only in enabling a calendar by which humans can plan their lives. There is no reason to kowtow or attempt to placate them.  Their rule is a service.

The God of Genesis 1 works with his creation, rather than imposing his authority through force.  And this is the model for dominion given in Genesis 1, rather than the abusive model of the Enuma Elish.

Genesis 1 is an attack on the theology of the Babylonian Empire.  Its very first words, ‘In the Beginning,’ serve to highlight the Johnny come lately status of Marduk, who appeared very late in the pantheon of the Babylonian gods.

Marduk’s claim to high position was that, quite late in the story that the Enuma Elish tells, he stirred up the waters of Tiamat the Ancient Chaos, and then slaughtered her. His claim to high position is by right of conquest.

In Genesis 1, the female spirit of God is there from the very beginning moving in a feminine way upon the waters. (Hebrew like French is a language that assigns gender to its nouns, it also assigns gender to its verbs.)

Based as it is on Enuma Elish, it is reasonable to assume that the cosmology of Genesis 1 reflects that of Ancient Babylon.  This is not the message of the writer. This is a story about the relationship, between God, and his Creation.  And in this story, the role that Marduk, acquired through violence in the Enuma Elish, dominion over the earth, is freely given by God, to all humans male and female. All humankind is welcomed into the pantheon of gods. To us, all of us, is given the dominion of the earth.

The theology of the Babylonian Empire, redemptive violence, was also the theology of Christendom.  The belief that dominion can be acquired and kept by violence led to religious wars and the horrors of the inquisition, and its protestant equivalents. It is the theology of empire.  It was the theology of the British Empire, the theology that became incorporated into the theory of evolution, through Spencer’s slogan, ‘Survival of the fittest’.  A misunderstanding of this slogan, which merely means, that those inheritable  characteristics which increase the probability of  an organism  successfully breeding, are those which are likely to survive and increase in a given population; has led to the notion that science has shown us that the world is truly, ‘dog eat dog’. That we are all engaged in an endless struggle with the other, and that violence is the only way to peace.

It is a worldview driven by the desire for power, and by fear, and to those who are in its thrall it seems to be merely the truth.  The other way, seems to be only so much pie in the sky.  The message of Genesis 1 no sounder than its cosmology.

In fact it is probable that they aren’t even aware of the message, as the cosmology has been understood as the main theme of Genesis 1, and long since subsumed into the might is right theology that drove Christendom.

This is the theology that was defended by William Gladstone, the  G.O.M., the Grand Old Man of Victorian Britain’s politics, or as his political rival Benjamin Disraeli had it, God’s Only Mistake. When he  engaged in a series of debates with the famously straight speaking Darwinian, Thomas  Huxley  on the subject of the scientific accuracy of Genesis 1, the order of creation that he chose to defend, wasn’t that acquired by a straight forward reading of either science or scripture. It was instead both seen through the distorting lens of ‘The Great Chain of Being,’ a hierarchical structure, much more suited to the case he was making than either Genesis or the fossil record.

My understanding of Gladstone’s argument is that he regarded the Bible as the guidebook to human morality, and that he claimed that the similarities between Genesis 1 and modern science were proof of the divine inspiration of that guidance.  The morality he espoused was the imposed from the top variety of Victorian Britain, not that of Genesis 1;  and, as Huxley lost no time in pointing out, the order of creation he proposed was consistent with neither Genesis 1, nor the discoveries of modern science.

Basically Gladstone argued that God nearly got the order right.  He made two different stabs at describing that order.  The latter of these was that the Bible and science were in agreement, that life on earth had developed as follows: plants, fish, birds, beasts and then man.

Huxley wasn’t slow in pointing out the lack of respect to the Supreme Being implied by Gladstone’s argument.

But if I supposed the “Mosaic writer” to be inspired, as Mr. Gladstone does, it would not be consistent with my notions of respect for the Supreme Being to imagine Him unable to frame a form of words which should accurately, or, at least, not inaccurately, express His own meaning. It is sometimes said that, had the statements contained in the first chapter of Genesis been scientifically true, they would have been unintelligible to ignorant people; but how is the matter mended if, being scientifically untrue, they must needs be rejected by instructed people?

Thomas Huxley  Gladstone and Genesis 1886

He also pointed out that the plants described in Genesis 1 as occurring in the latter part of Day 3, are advanced plants, which don’t appear in the fossil record until well after the first fish. They are flowering plants the angiosperms, which turn up in the fossil record in the second half of the Mesozoic Era, the age of dinosaurs.

Curiously enough the scientists of today tell us that when the Mesozoic Era began, all the land was gathered together into one continent, Pangaea, which had the mother of all continental weather systems – a dry land. And that consequently all the seas were one sea, Panthalassa.  The conditions described as existing at the beginning of day 3, in Genesis 1.

So  the science in Day 3, provided you understand the word day to mean a long period of time, and the use of evening and morning to be somewhat poetic, appears  to meet Huxley’s minimum standards, for  consistency with its having been inspired ,  by the Supreme Being.

Continuing in the same frame of reference:

The Mesozoic Era ended with a bang. Around 65 million years ago an asteroid collided with the earth, throwing up clouds of dust into the air sufficient to block out the light and heat of the sun, and put a stop to photosynthesis.  This event is associated in the fossil record, with a mass extinction which wiped out among other things, the dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and great sea reptiles.

If the writer of Genesis 1 had had access to this information, he or she could have used it as a counterpoint to the very political point that was being made in  the cosmology of Day 4.  At this point in the narrative there is a redivision of day and night, marked by two great lights, presumably the sun and moon, with the stars also appearing in the sky.   These heavenly bodies are representations of the rulers of this world and their God given role is to produce a stability and structure, that allows the rest of God’s creation to get on with fulfilling the roles that God has assigned to them.

(And yes, there is an analogy with modern science. Before the asteroid collided with the earth there would have been an extra light in the sky, and this would have been followed by a period of darkness. Day 4 could be interpreted as a return to normal service.  But this is unlikely to be the point the writer was making.)

It took a while for the earth to recover from the end Mesozoic extinction event.  It was around 10 million years before the first whales evolved to fill the ecological niches vacated by the great sea reptiles.  There was a radiation of modern type birds at around the same time as the whales. At the second half of day 5, in the Genesis account, God is portrayed as creating great whales, and living creatures.  He is then portrayed as communicating directly with them, something he doesn’t do to the birds.  If you take this literally and interpret it in the light of our modern knowledge, then the most likely interpretation is that the living creatures were in fact the smaller whales.

The  radiation of modern type bovidae (cattle) occurred in the grasslands that developed, much later  from about 10 million years ago. The hominins, our immediate ancestors also inhabited these grasslands.  Human Beings first appeared about 200,000 years ago. At the beginning of Day 6, the earth is portrayed as bringing forth, the living creature, cattle, the beast of the earth and the creeping thing. Only one of these creatures is readily identifiable, the cattle.  And modern type cattle proliferated with the grassland that also gave rise to our hominin ancestors.

The term living creature used here, is the same that is used for the living creature of the water, and it can also be interpreted as living soul.  The earth is credited with bringing forth the living creature, but that group is not later included in the list of those creatures that God made. Living creature can be interpreted as a catch-all term for the creatures of the other three groups.  But it could equally, and more in line, with modern science, be understood as a term for, the creature that God chose to remake to have dominion over the earth, Man in the Image of God. The latter interpretation being the one that is consistent with the findings of modern science.

There are a surprising number of similarities between our modern scientific understanding of how the world developed, and the ancient accounts of Genesis 1.  Even the firmament, which is placed between, the waters above, and the waters beneath in Day 2 provides no problem if you understand it to be that which developed into the open firmament of heaven that the birds are portrayed as flying across in Day 5. I think there is  sufficient to meet Huxley’s  standard for divine inspiration.

However the cosmology of Genesis 1, is the medium not the message.  Its message is political, advocating respect for the human, and delineating the role of government as an agency for the maintenance of  stability and structure.  Even without the amazing coincidences, it is consistent with divine inspiration.

It’s message is consistent with that of psychologist, Brad Bushman.

I’ve been studying aggression for about 30 years, and I’ve seen that the most harmful belief that a person can have is that they’re superior to others,” Bushman said. “Men are better than women, my race is better than your race, my religion is superior to your religion. When people believe they’re better than other people, they act accordingly.”

He hopes that more research can help us understand where narcissism comes from, and perhaps help us to stem the tide. “If people could believe that everyone on the planet is part of the same human family, and deserves the same respect, so many problems would be solved,” he said.

Rachel Feltman You only need a one-question test to identify a narcissist. Washington Post August 2014.

 

The message of Genesis 1 is embedded in a story that fits in surprising detail with our modern understanding of the earth’s history. It’s message that all humans  are of infinite value, bearers of the image of God; and all entitled to play their part in the ruling of the earth; is one that the world, caught as it is in the narcissism of power, still does not hear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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