Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Genesis 1:26-31

26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

29 And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.

30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.

31 And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.

Whew. You could write a book about these verses. You could make understanding their impact on history your life's work. For an enlightening compare and contrast, see my earlier post about the Peacemaker of the Ho De No Sau Nee:

His view was very different from the view of Jews and Christians . . . about the relationship between humans and the creator. He did not believe that the creator had given humans dominion over the earth. On the contrary, "The principle of righteousness demands that all thoughts of prejudice, privilege or superiority be swept away, and that . . . the creation is intended for the benefit of all equally, even the birds and animals, the trees and the insects, as well as the humans. . . . Nothing belongs to humans, not even their labor or their skills, for ambition and abilities are also the gifts of the creator. Therefore all people have a right to the things they need to survive, even those who do not or cannot work, and no person has a right to deprive others of the fruits of those gifts.

I will leave the Peacemaker's idea as the last word on that particular issue for now, although we will no doubt come back to the implication of these verses very often.

Then there is the interesting assertion that humans are made in God's image. I have to presume that the Hebrews meant this literally -- that God has two legs, two arms, a penis and an anus, that he burps and farts, wipes his mouth on his sleeve, the whole thing. (That's what the Greeks thought about their Gods, so why should the Hebrews be any different?) Perhaps he has exceptionally refined manners, but on this the Bible is silent. Of course we also note that he is male.

If the phrase is not meant literally, then what does it mean to say that we are made in God's image? Obviously we don't share the powers of God, and we certainly don't share the mind of God -- Christians often say, in fact, that it is unknowable. Perhaps a reader has a suggestion.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Genesis I, 6-25

6 And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.

7 And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.

8 And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

9 And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.

10 And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.

11 And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.

12 And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

13 And the evening and the morning were the third day.

14 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:

15 And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.

16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.

17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,

18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.

19 And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

20 And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.

21 And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

22 And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.

23 And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.

24 And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.

25 And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

I won't belabor the internal oddities -- for example, we have evening and morning before the sun and moon are in the sky; the cosmological misconceptions -- there is no firmament of heaven, though I suppose the ancient Hebrews thought there must be one, with water above it, because the firmament occasionally sprung a leak and down came the rain; nor the faulty chronology -- terrestrial vegetation before marine life, and for that matter before the sun and the moon.

We already know that this story is purely imaginary, since they had no information about these matters. So the interesting question is why they imagined it in this particular way. The function of the lights in the sky, aside from giving light, is to mark the seasons and the years. Unlike many, if not most ancient people's, the Hebrews don't make a big deal out of the sun. It has no special powers, it isn't awesome, there is no personality or minor God behind it, it's just an artifact of the creator God. The same for the ocean, the earth, the animals and plants. All are mundane. Only God is powerful.

At the same time, the cosmos is not somehow a manifestation of God, or permeated by his personality. It's something that he made, which is apart from him. We don't even know exactly where he lives, from what perspective he regards this creation, or how he reaches into it to mold its components or affect events, but clearly he is somewhere outside of the whole thing, looking upon it, and evaluating it. Evidently he's up in the sky somewhere, beyond the stars. Fortunately, he likes what he made, or perhaps he would have trashed it and started over.

You hardly need to hear it from me that this is very different from the God or Gods of other ancient peoples who we know about. Other people saw specific deities associated with the major (and often minor) constituents of nature, such as sun Gods and sea Gods, or spirits animating the individual rocks and trees and rivers; or a pervasive divine force in all of nature. Within the first few sentences of the Pentateuch, the unique conception of what was eventually to become the dominant spiritual orientation of not only the Middle East, but also European culture, is already apparent. As we go on, we will see how the consequences of this metaphysic unfold for the Hebrews, and ultimately for us.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Genesis I, 1-5

1. In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.
2. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
3. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.
4. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
5. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

In ancient times, people everywhere of course wondered how the world they knew came to be, and they made up various stories about the creation. Most people imagined some powerful being or beings as the creator, but unlike the Hebrews, they did not all see this creator or creators as continuing to rule over the creation.

Nowadays, we know that the Hebrew creation myth explains the creation of a universe that does not actually exist. The world the ancients were trying to explain was the one perceptible to their senses, but their senses were playing tricks on them. In the first five verses of Genesis, we can already note several errors.

First of all, saying that God created the heaven and the earth is like saying that God created the earth and a single atom of carbon off the coast of Madagascar. The assumption that everything we see when we look up, and everything we find around us on the earth, are of roughly equal importance, seemed to make sense to people who had no idea how far away are the sun and the moon, and especially the stars. The sun is one of 100 billion or more stars in our own galaxy, which is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies within the observable universe. The earth is as close to nothing as anything can be.

What is more, the earth, we now know, came into being around 9 billion years after the heavens, more than three quarters of the time from the so-called Big Bang until now. (I do not like the term Big Bang, which is highly misleading. I prefer to call it the Initial Singularity, the IS, which is scientifically accurate. I don't know why cosmologists don't do the same.) So the earth, sadly, gets a demotion in time as well in space.

Some people try to say that the creation myth in Genesis is at least metaphorically consistent with reality, if we presume that the "days" may have been, in fact, of any arbitrary length, including billions of years. It is true, according to our most credible theories, that the universe was originally opaque to light. Photons were not able to travel freely through space until about 380,000 years after the IS, when the universe cooled sufficiently. (The so-called cosmic background radiation is the relic of that moment.)

However, that obviously does not accord with the biblical chronology, for the earth, the sun, and indeed all of the stars did not yet exist. On the other hand, if the myth is held to refer to the light of the sun, that existed before the earth came into being. And even people who do not choose to believe all that will concede, I presume, that darkness and light are not "divided." Rather, day and night result from the rotation of the earth; the sun shines continually, and it is always day on half of the planet, and night on the other half. This was true throughout the development of the earth, by accretion of smaller objects.

Some religious people do accept the scientific version of cosmic and geological history, but nevertheless hold to the idea that the creator God inspired the biblical belief in a guided process of creation, however crudely the ancients may have mis-imagined it. Surely a creator is necessary, else where did all this come from? But that just begs the question. The moment described in Genesis cannot be the beginning after all, for God already existed. Where did God come from? And what was God doing before the creation? Eternally contemplating his own non-coporeal navel? Or playing with other universes? God the creator is no answer to the mystery of the cosmos, but only kicks the question down the road.

Nor, of course, is the Initial Singularity an answer. Scientists will be the first to admit that they do not know why it happened, or where the stuff of this universe came from. They can only observe what is around them and make deductions about its history. But scientists, at least, have that humility, along with the ambition to find answers. They are not content with ignorance, but inspired by it.

In contrast, people of faith are at the same time,arrogant enough to think they know everything, and sufficiently feckless to be, not just content, but proud to be utterly ignorant about the object of their greatest obsession, the imaginary God.