May 4, 2007

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The message in the first chapters of Genesis

John F. Fink(Third in a series of columns)

Genesis, the first book of the Bible, begins, “In the beginning,” which are also the first words of the Prologue to John’s Gospel.

Genesis can be divided into two parts. The first 11 chapters discuss the time of creation and the earliest humans while chapters 12 through 50 describe the traditions of Israel’s earliest ancestors. The first part is myth, with every story describing some sort of model of the proper relations of God to the world of humans. In the second part, the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs relate individual events that shaped the special identity of Israel.

Here are the differences between the two parts. The first part is set in time that is before human history. Its exact place is vague—somewhere to the East. The persons seem like symbols—nothing is known of their lives. Many of the stories have the form of myths like others that are known to have existed in Mesopotamia. Most of the events take place in a supernatural setting unlike our own. And the purpose deals only with the beginnings of humanity long before Israel’s time.

By contrast, the second part of Genesis is set in historical times well-known to ancient records. It takes place in Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt. The persons have names and engage in actions typical of the second millennium B.C. The stories are largely saga-like or epic history narratives similar to oral lore of tribal groups. The major stories keep events close to the type of experience all human eras share. And the purpose is to trace the direct tribal and clan ancestors of Israel.

Genesis had more than one author. It’s a complex work. The final editor, whoever he might have been, used several sources or literary traditions. There are, for example, two accounts of the creation, one in the first chapter and the other in the second chapter.

The message that the myths of chapters 1-11 tries to convey is that there is a tension between God’s goodness to the earth and the human response of disobedience or sin. The first three chapters tell the story of God’s creation, which was very good, but also the first human sin. The fourth and fifth chapters show how the evil of sin spread through the world. God then decided that he must begin again, so he sent the great flood. He then began again with Noah and his family. People again multiplied across the earth, but sin persisted.

There’s a general pattern to these stories: God acts lovingly toward humanity, people disobey God and sin, God announces punishment, the punishment is given and God ends in compassion by showing mercy and a new blessing.

Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the angels and the women, the wicked generation of the flood, the sons of Noah, the people who build the tower of Babel, all are given signs of God’s love and bountiful providence as they fill the earth. Yet each generation rises in disobedience. †

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