Sunday, September 23, 2012

What If We're All Wrong About Genesis 1?

I spend a lot of my time arguing (with myself as well as with others) about what Genesis 1 means. After all, it's the first words you read in the Bible, and it literally covers all of creation in its scope. Whatever the conclusion, I start from the conviction that Genesis contains multiple layers of truth, and learning to read those words is more complicated than the child's process of learning to read: they're translations from another language, they're thousands of years old, they're more poetic than prosaic, and the ancient texts don't even bother to include the vowels. So it's a problem more complicated than the most complicated Doctor Who episode. Still, both Doctor Who and Genesis are fascinating because they're complicated; it's their puzzle-like nature that makes the best parts the best parts.

But for all the debates about what Genesis says about the events of creation (that happened, at any rate, before any human was around to observe them); for all the sturm und drang about the ancient terms like "firmament" (which, needless to say, implies something "firm" up where we know there is empty space); and for all the people leaving and coming to different faiths from the results of interpreations of these texts, I just heard a talk that made me wonder, what if we're all wrong? Not wrong in content, necessarily, but wrong in emphasis? What if what really matters about Genesis is another point entirely, one that does not negate arguments about creation but rather goes in another direction entirely?

The talk that sums this up best is a half-hour lecture (less if played at 2X) by Paul H. Seely at the recent ASA national meeting in San Diego, titled "Why the Framework Hypothesis Does Not Work and What Does." You can listen to it here.

In this pithy little talk, Paul Seely* argues against the framework hypothesis, which basically says the six days in Genesis are a poetic device to organize nature into heavens, sea/sky, and earth, and then to fill each of those domains with, respectively, stars, fish/birds, and plants/animals. Now, when most people argue against the framework hypothesis, they say that instead, we should read Genesis 1 as a literal sequence of events, organized chronologically (then there's the question of how long the timescale is, what each word means, how X could come before Y when X depends on Y ... ). Interpretations that run the gamut from the framework hypothesis to literal six-times-24-hours creation basically assume that this text is focused on creation itself. Seely changes the focus when he says, what if Genesis 1 is as much about the Creator, and as much about us, as it is about creation? And if Genesis 1 is for us, maybe it's as much about how we should work as it is about how God worked.

It should be clear when we look at the ancient Hebrew terms that we're scratching our head for exactly what they mean. One of the biggest headscratchers is how could light be made, and morning and evening, before the sun and stars were made? Seely's answer is, because when you're working you need light. That's what everyone understood back then. So for God to work, first he made light so he could work. He was showing us how to work, and he put it in terms we (back then) could understand -- just like Jesus came to us using terms we could understand. It's a basic fact about God that he pursues us and meets us where we are, speaking Hebrew to the Hebrews.

If this is so, the most important thing about Genesis 1 is not what these weird Hebrew vocabulary words mean so we can sequence what kind of creatures were here first, although that may be an interesting puzzle. Did the placement of dinosaurs in the sequence of creation really matter to the ancient Israelite? Is the sequence of Genesis 1 supposed to be some kind of hidden Bible code (like a DVD's easter egg), so that only after 5000 years we could finally look back and see, hey, they didn't know what it was about but we do! Or is what science can see (at last) not the most important thing at all? After all, the text gives us five verbs at the end of the sequence in a massive repetition: "God ended his work," "he rested," "God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it," "he had rested." Last I checked, none of us can create a universe -- but we all work and we all rest. We all choose how to rest, and we can all choose to rest once every seven days.

What good news! It's a holy thing to rest! This is something to shout from the housetops. And I'm not kidding.

There's good puzzles, and real truth, in knowing that God worked to create creation. Thinking about how the Genesis 1 days are ordered can complement our scientific observation that creation too is organized and ordered. I think this insight is so important that I'm thinking of writing a whole book about how the world was ordered by chemistry, in fact. I believe Genesis 1 contains truth on that level. But the usefulness of that insight is more limited than an insight about how you should organize your work, day in and day out. For those of us not actively writing a book about creation or investigating the science of origins, what we really need to know is that God himself rested after six days of work, so we should too. The other stuff is secondary, or at least more infrequent.

Resting is deceptively hard. Both me and my first-born boy have trouble going to sleep with all the thoughts, memories, even regrets of the day whizzing around through our heads like a little hamster on a wheel. To bring the good Doctor back into it, one of the best parts of yesterday's Doctor Who episode ("The Power of Three") was when the Doctor had to wait -- and ended up driving himself and everyone around him crazy, like a five-year-old with a sugar high. He couldn't wait. Neither can we. But God says we need to when he says we need to rest.

Every time we sleep we die a little death and become completely dependent on what is beyond our control. Maybe that's why the stories of those who die in their sleep are so unsettling. It could happen anytime. We are most vulnerable when we sleep, and we are that way one-third of our lives. Actually, we're that way our whole lives; we just don't always know it.

One of my basic rules is, if we want to understand Genesis, we need to look at Psalms, and Psalms backs me up on this. In Psalm 127 I find that this attitude is at least part of what we should take away from Genesis 1 -- and if we aren't maybe we're reading it wrong. I'll close with these thoughts on dependency and rest:

Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it;
Unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows;
For so He gives His beloved sleep.

[More thoughts on rest and Genesis, but from the standpoint of Hebrews, found here.]

* = I realize that many others have indeed made this argument, but I'm speaking from my own experience, which has heard those other voices but not really heard them till listening to Seely's argument all at once.

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