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Why Genesis 1 should be taken literally

Robinson College Chapel, 22.1.2017



Well, New year, new hope, possibly a new historical epoch.  For those of a gloomier disposition – we might fear it is the end of history.  Although, if you know your political philosophers, you know that the End of History already appeared in 1989.


But cast your minds back, if you will, to ancient history.  To a time when the nation wanted to be great again.  The nation had once been dominant, powerful and proud – but over time it had lost most of its territories and pretty much lost its sovereignty.  The nation was being controlled by unelected bureaucrats hundreds of miles to the east, in a land that cared little for our own nation.  A time when immigration had become the major issue, the biggest refugee crisis in living memory.  And a majority of dominant voices opted to take back control – which is exactly what happened.  


I refer of course, to the nation of Judah in the year 586BCE.  To take back control, Judah revolted against Babylon and forged an alliance with Egypt.  The Babylonian war machine promptly rumbled into Judah and steamrolled its way through Jerusalem.  The Temple was destroyed and the inhabitants were dragged away into captivity in the city of Babylon itself – where they remained in exile for the next two or three generations.


The trauma these exiles experienced was compounded by the trust they had always invested in the Temple in Jerusalem – the meeting place of heaven and earth, the dwelling place of Yahweh – their deity.  But like all other petty states in the region – they had been crushed beneath the weight of the Babylonian superpower.  Their trust in the Temple had clearly been misplaced, and their deity – like all other tribal deities – had been defeated by the superior might of Babylon.  So off they went, as prisoners – to the capital of the world’s dominant power. For the people of Judah (the only surviving region of Ancient Israel) it was indeed the End of History. For the people of Israel, it was time to learn their true place in the Cosmic order of things.  And that began as they were exposed to a new political propaganda… and that propaganda came in the form of a creation narrative.


The Babylonian creation story is called, ‘Enuma Elish.’  I re-read it yesterday, and it’s brilliant –According to Enuma Elish, violence is written through the fabric of the created order. The goddess Tiamat was slaughtered by her offspring, and from the blood of her dismembered body, humans are formed to serve the gods as slaves.  It’s not the most heart-warming story.  But, as Quentin Tarrantino would say, it does seem true to life.  The world is horrible, and unfair, and violent – and though there are pleasant interludes of fluffy kittens on youtube, pretty sunsets on aeroplanes and David Attenbrough’s voice on television, such moments are fleeting and destined to be engulfed by cold, unsympathetic, unending darkness.  Enuma Elish articulates this worldview of inescapable and ultimate violence.  It is a piece of literary propaganda, designed to explain why violence is everywhere, why might is right, and why humans must resign themselves to their apportioned state in the violent cycles of the cosmos.  Conquered peoples had to learn how to accept their status as conquered peoples.  But … some of the Jewish exiles in Babylon had developed a dogged immunity to oppressive ideology.  And, they were gloriously incapable of behaving as though they were conquered, as though they were the helpless devotees of a defeated deity.


Among the exiles, counter-propaganda began to circulate.  It was so brilliant, it could have been penned by the 45th president of the United States!  In all seriousness, to quote the new president, “I went to an Ivy League school. I’m very highly educated. I know words, I have the best words. I have the best…”  End.  Quote.  Of course it’s been ridiculed and mocked by the unreflective punditry of today’s media machine, but heard in context it forms part of a monologue that is disturbingly coherent, uncomfortably convincing – and above all – subversive of the prevailing propaganda.  But – whoever wrote these words from Genesis was even better with words than Donald Trump.


And in the form of poetic, prophetic, counter-propaganda – into a world where violent gods ruled all and conquered nobodies accepted their place – came the words, ‘In the beginning, Elohim created the heavens and the earth.’  In poetic form, comes the subversive counter claim that violence did not have the first word and will not have the last.  Far from being a universe in the grip of warring deities using humans as pawns – there is something more primordial than gods, something beyond the realities of the immediate, some form of power more effective than coercion.


To turn this into some form of proof that God created the cosmos in 7 days is a complete failure to take Genesis literally.  Today, it is not only creationists that declare we should read Genesis this way – but militant scientific atheists, who claim that the refusal of modern Christians to believe in a 7 day creation, is to water scripture down and not take it literally!  Aha – if you’re going to “pick and choose” which bits are metaphor and which are fact – it undermines your entire belief system.   The trouble is, whenever you read something literally you have to pick and choose.  To read literally is to recognize the genre of a text, its function in context, the occasion of its authorship, its perceived authorial intent.  To ignore all of this, is to read illiterally, to water down the text, to protect oneself from its explosive claims.  If we read any text as though it were timeless, it becomes harmless and pointless.  We are then forced to picture God leaning down from a cloud, ‘Hey Moses – have you got a pen?  Well pull up a floorboard and let’s do science.  Here’s how it all began…’


To take the first Genesis creation account literally, does not mean that we follow John Lightfoot, the 17th Century Vice Chancellor of this University, who calculated that God created the universe on Monday 10th November, 4004BC … at 9 o’ clock in the morning.  


To take Genesis literally, is to recognize the subversive nature of a text, designed to encourage a beleaguered people.  To recognize the beautiful structural simplicity of the poetry, where the first day is coupled with Fourth, the second with the Fifth, the third with the Sixth – culminating in the Sabbath.  To realize that for these exiles, their disastrous circumstances did not spell the End of History and the end of their people, as it did for so many others.  To entertain the author’s claims about something bigger than gods, something other, transcendent, beyond the immediate – underpinned history.  Of course, in this creation account the focus of this God might well appear to be a distant, aloof, deity removed from the petty troubles of human plight – but it is balanced with a second creation account, which begins with Yahweh stooping to the ground and getting his hands dirty as he scoops up the soil.  But that is a different text, a different literature with a different literary purpose.  The only way to understand these accounts, is to take them literally, to take them seriously as literature.