Interpretation of The Book of Genesis is heavily contested within the church. It is also used as a source of ridicule by those who wish to attack the church. How and why should we read it?
Our culture assumes that if we pull something to pieces we will understand it; if we understand how it is put together, then we know all about it.
This works well for building bridges. It doesn't work for literature. Scripture is literature.
But into the text we go, so often, assuming Genesis Chapter 1 is a story about how God did things, rather than a story about the nature of God and the nature of our existence.
We are not helped in this process by the insistence of fundamentalists that the story is about how God did things, and that it is an historical and scientific description of how things happened.
We also tend to forget how vastly different the background of this story is from our own culture. Water, deep, land… (Genesis 1) all these words may have nuances which are very different to our expectations. What associations did they have for the original storytellers, for the people who wrote them down centuries later, and for Jesus' people? Such associations may change over time. To think we can read the text without wider reading and learning, is naïve at best.
Added to this, is the fact that the story is not a simple unbiased newspaper report of what happened, so to speak. (There is no such thing) Like all stories, the story is told for a reason— in short, it is biased! The storyteller has a purpose; what was it? If we do not consider what this purpose may be, we are again, at best, naïve.
We need also to be aware of why we are reading the text. What do we bring to it? What do we seek from it?
I am reading the story because it is part of my Scripture. It is one of the stories of my people. It reflects their understanding of who God is, and what God is like. But this is not an issue of simple allegiance; we are not called to allegiance to a people, but to a person.
James Allison says that Jewish people would ask of a new acquaintance, "Who is your Rabbi?"
You see, one of the factors which blinker us in our reading of the Scriptures is our modern presupposition that the authors of these ancient texts, and thus the texts themselves, are somehow primitive, and that we are much more sophisticated than they. Because of this we read the texts of Scripture as if they were examples of incompetent history, or bad geology, or fictitious palaeontology, and fail to see what is really going on in them. So here I would like to suggest that ancient authors, such as those alive at the time of Christ, were well aware of something we moderns have come to pride ourselves on knowing: that texts can be made to mean more or less whatever it is that you want them to mean. Therefore, for ancient readers, even more than the question “What does the text say?” the question was: “How do you read it?” or “What is your interpretation of it?” And that meant, as they well knew, “Who is your rabbi? Through whose eyes do you read this text?” (James Alison Jesus the Forgiving Victim, Essay 2)
Who teaches us how to read and interpret the text of scripture? In my case, the Rabbi is Jesus.
This fact has two serious implications.
The first is that Genesis is Scripture. It is not "Old" Testament. It is relevant today, and is not superseded, if it is read with his eyes; it his eyes which tell us what may no longer apply to us. Not to read it, is not to read the Christ! We do not read Old Testament only to interpret the Christ, because it gives us some cultural pointers for interpretation— although we do read it for that reason. We read it firstly to hear him! It is part of his word to us. That is; Old Testament is far more than a context for the New Testament. Jesus is formed by it. It is his Scripture, and was also the Scripture of the early church. It is part of what he teaches us. It is the text our Rabbi uses.
The second implication is that we must read as Jesus reads.
Genesis is not a tribal document in the fundamentalist sense. Young Earth Creationism is indeed a case of appallingly wrong exegesis, and scientific nonsense. But even more than this, before this, Young Earth Creationism is a sign of loyalty to the tribe.
Read Genesis differently from the tribe, and you will not belong. To read Genesis (and other texts) differently from the tribe, and to be shunned, can feel like dying, which is why, I think, some people hold (publicly, anyway) to such obvious nonsense. They are not making a statement of sense, but a statement of belonging and identity.
We are not called to loyalty to the tribe, but to loyalty to the one whose priority was not controlling American culture, but loving others. He judges us by praxis, not by orthodoxy; cf Matthew 25:31-46, The Story of the Sheep and the Goats, and Luke 10:25-37; The Story of The Compassionate Samaritan Who Loved God with His Whole Heart.
Elizabeth Gilbert catches the difference between being Christ-like, and being tribal, very well.
From the family came all your basic social welfare needs— not just companionship and procreation, but also food, housing, education, medical care, and, perhaps most importantly, defence. It was a hazardous world out there. To be alone was to be targeted for death. The more kin you had, the safer you were… These extended families grew into tribes … but the New Testament— which is to say, the arrival of Jesus Christ— invalidated all those old family loyalties to a degree that was truly socially revolutionary. Instead of perpetuating the tribal notion of the "chosen people against the world," Jesus (who was an unmarried man, in marked contrast to the great patriarchal heroes of the Old Testament) taught that we are all chosen people, that we are all brothers and sisters united within one human family. (Elizabeth Gilbert Committed ppp107-108 Bloomsbury eBook.)
And about that dying:
It is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering that everyone has to experience is the call which summons us away from our attachments to this world. It is the death of the old self in the encounter with Jesus Christ. Those who enter into discipleship enter into Jesus' death. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Discipleship and the Cross pp 87)
We are to leave the tribe even if it kills us.
After all this, how are we to read? How do we begin? It says in Genesis 2:4 at the end of the first creation story:
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
So to gain some initial context, I will ask how other peoples of the time thought about "the generation of the heavens and the earth." Otherwise, I will be reading in a cultural vacuum, and merely inserting my own ideas into the text, rather than being informed by it.
Andrew Prior 2016
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