Those who know me well know that I have a special interest in some of the weird parts of the Bible. Those parts that seemingly do not fit well into our 21st century notion of God and faith and religion. I sometimes call these the “burnt ends” of scripture – like those over cooked bits of BBQ (which are, to some of us, the best parts!). One such section of scripture is the first eight chapters of Genesis: Creation Stories, the Fall, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood. A colleague recently asked me, somewhat incredulously, “Why do like that part of the Bible so much?” This entry is an attempt to distill a simple answer to that question.
Most of Genesis can be seen as a historical mythology: the calling of special individuals like Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob to create a holy people, a unique statehood of believes, the nation of Israel. This is not unlike the stories we tell about George Washington crossing rivers and cutting down trees: mythologized events that provide a unique and simplified narrative about the origins of our country. George Washington and the well-known Founding Fathers aren’t the only people (and maybe not even the most significant people) involved in the establishment of this country. When we tell those familiar stories about those familiar white men (by and large) we participate, for better or worse, in a type of mythology. With the exception of the first eight chapters, that’s what Genesis is. Those first eight chapters are a bit different though because they are not historic, they are pre-historic!
Prehistory concerns a time before written records were kept. How old are the pre-historic parts of the Bible? That’s very hard to say. As an oral history of stories passed down and refined over many generations, my best guess is 25,000 years; but, I think that’s rather conservative. Regardless, these stories are old – much older than we realize. And, modern thinkers seem to struggle with things that are that old. We have a dangerous tendency to see our pre-historic ancestors as naïve biological cousins trapped in a primitive worldview by their lack of scientific understanding. I imagine, if they could see us, they may think us naïve in our unshakeable trust in all things rational. We need to wipe the fog from our glasses when we read these ancient texts.
As one compelling thinker puts it:
The Bible is, for better or worse, the foundational document of Western civilization […] the product of processes that remain beyond our comprehension. The Bible is a library composed of many books, each written and edited by many people. It’s a truly emergent document – a selected, sequenced and finally coherent story written by no one and everyone over many thousands of years. The Bible has been thrown up, out of the deep, by the collective human imagination, which is itself a product of unimaginable forces operating over unfathomable spans of time.
Allow me to put it simply, when I read the Bible’s first few stories, I am amazed and my faith is encouraged because of the collective imagination of our prehistoric ancestors. Our ancestors inhabited a world much different than ours. The concept of “life expectancy” was overshadowed by the realities of “death expectancy.” Nature was a chaotic beast. Every day was an opportunity to survive, or die trying. Modern humankind has forgotten that reality too much it seems. In light of all this, our prehistoric church creates a story about a uniquely benevolent God. The first words (logos) uttered by God are “Let there be light.” It follows immediately that God looks at the light and considers it to be good. “Days” later, God looks at human kind and consider us to be “very good.” It seems to me that the development of a benevolent God is, without question, the most revolutionary idea in the vast pre-history of humankind.
When we read Genesis, we are too quick to only see destruction. We sometimes only see the flood and miss the God who saves creation and seals it with a colorful bow of light – a weapon, a bow, turned away from earth. We sometimes only see the murder and miss pre-historic lessons of proper living in relation to God and each other. We sometimes only see the fall and miss the launch pad of salvation.
When we encounter our oldest stories of faith and only see an archaic deity of destruction, we risk missing out on one of the greatest treasures religion has to offer: the sharing in an ancient faith tradition that looks into the immensity of darkness and yet claims a God who says “Let there be light.” Read Genesis again. Behold that God is indeed very good. Don’t throw the burnt ends away. After all, you might find them to be the best parts.