January 17, 2014

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: Stories in the Book of Genesis

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

The Book of Genesis begins, “In the beginning.” It really is about the beginning, and what is in it was chosen to provide the foundation for all that will follow.

The first 11 chapters discuss the time of creation and our earliest human ancestors while chapters 12-50 begin the stories of the Jewish patriarchs. The stories in the first part describe some sort of model, for good or bad, of the proper relationship of God to the world of humans.

Many of the stories are like others that are known to have existed in Mesopotamia. They are meant to tell us that God created all things and found them good, and, although evil followed, goodness will prevail.

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

Catholics do not believe that creation necessarily happened as either account states. Neither the Book of Genesis nor any other biblical book is a scientific treatise. Its message is theological, not scientific.

The message that the stories in these chapters 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 God saw 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 that drowned everyone except those in Noah’s ark. The account in Genesis is almost identical to one of the stories in the ancient Babylonian poem The Epic of Gilgamesh. In that poem, though, the survivor of the flood was Utnapishtim rather than Noah, and Utnapishtim achieved immortality after the flood while Noah did not.

God then began again with Noah and his family, making a covenant with Noah that he would never again destroy the world by a flood. 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 with compassion by showing mercy and a new blessing.

Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the wicked generation of the flood, the sons of Noah, the people who build the tower of Babel, all were given signs of God’s love and bountiful providence as they filled the Earth. Yet each generation rose in disobedience.

Genesis also tries to give the genealogy from Adam to Noah and then from Noah to Abraham. The long ages attributed to the men are similar to the fantastic ages given to 10 kings in Babylonian myths. We are then prepared for the arrival of Abraham. †

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