Re defining Creation

The following is the answer that Bob Brinsmead gave to a friend who sent him an article in which Alice Bellis summarised “Rethinking the Interpretation of Genesis 2:4b-3:24” by Lyn M. Bechtel (In A Feminist Companion to Genesis, edited by Athalya Brenner, 17-117.  Vol. I. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993)

The above article can be seen in full below Bob’s comments.

By:  Robert D Brinsmead

I have read many recent attempts to re-interpret some things found in the Bible. Sometimes they remind me of my attempt to re-interpret the doctrine of the Investigative Judgment which Barnhouse and Martin mocked as both “a face-saving philosophical phenomena” and ”flat, stale and unprofitable.” After 20 years hard work to give meaning to the 1844 event, I saw that I was trying to vindicate apocalyptic rubbish.

I see papers trying to reinterpret the creation story of Gen 1 to fit a modern worldview of space/time – as if the writer, being inspired, must have been writing about the understanding of the Cosmos  that came with the science of Copernicus, Galileo, Einstein, Hubble and the rest.  Of course that is not true.  The best scholars have shown that the Priestly author of Genesis l  had a certain primitive and now long discarded worldview, and then wrote to explain how that came to be. He saw the earth in terms of a dome on a great sea below and a great sea above (both being blue).  He wrote to show how God separated the waters below from the waters above.  The poetic description of God’s acts of creation was written with a degree of majestic elegance as fitting the awesome event, but at the same time his view of things was as unrealistic as a child’s view of Santa Claus.

Then I have read new attempts to reinterpret the book of Revelation because its raw depiction of vengeance and bloodshed has become somewhat of an embarrassment.  These re-interpretations try to give the last book of the NT a much softer and more “Christian” image not so obviously at variance with the spirit of the non-violent, forgiving Jesus.

Then too some scholars are becoming aware that the biblical doctrine of the atonement by the bloody sacrifice of Christ does not sit well with a more advanced moral consciousness. Not only that, but  the doctrine has borne some bad fruit like the American penal system. It creates the impression too that God settles the great issues of time and eternity by  a resort to some form of violence, in this case by a bloody human sacrifice to propitiate God’s anger against human sin..

 But then the OT frequently depicts Yahweh as all too prone to fits of violence and rage against humanity – like casting them out of Eden into hardship, suffering and death onto a cursed earth for all generations to come on account of our first parent’s one false step. Then God  wipes out the whole human race save for one family in the great Flood, or kills about 30,000 of the Chosen People during their journey to the Promised Land, or orders them to repeated acts of brutal genocide during the early settlement in Palestine.  On another occasion God is depicted as killing thousands of innocent people with a plague in the time of David because King Saul had mistreated the Gibeonites. The plague did not stop until the seven sons of Saul were brutally hanged up to make a bloody atonement for their father’s sin.  The OT prophets tell us that God actually sent  the ruthless armies of Assyria and Babylon to burn Israel’s cities, to kill their children, to rape their women and to carry the survivors into captivity far from their own land.  This was an indiscriminate brutality inflicted on men, women and children alike, a kind of violence that was out of all proportion to any human failure to keep the law of Moses. In all, the OT depicts God’s involvement in more than 600 acts of violence.  Could a reader be excused for making the conclusion that the violence of God is the main theme of the OT?  But beyond all this, the violence of God is supremely on display in two eschatological events, namely, the offering up of God’s own Son as a bloody human sacrifice to pay for human sin, and casting the great mass of mankind into the fires of an eternal Hell.

Anyway, the Mennonite scholars are now wrestling with the Biblical doctrine of atonement to soften it and to make it more acceptable by a re-interpretation that makes it more in harmony with the teaching of Jesus about non-violence and non-retaliation.   In all these cases, these re-interpretations are being done by Biblicists who somehow regard the Bible as a holy icon that must vindicated.

 I am not impressed by any of this.  If the Bible in places advocates crude and less than acceptable ethical practices or beliefs, then we should frankly acknowledge this rather than excuse it or try to harmonize it with other parts of the Bible that are more acceptable.  Rather than jump through all these hoops and loops to uphold the Bible, it would be  much more honourable to say what Thomas Jefferson said, namely,  that the Bible contains some diamonds that we can pick out from  a great dunghill of inferior ideas.  In short, what the re-interpreters are doing is trying to put lipstick on a pig.

 So let us now look at this attempt by yet another author to give us a re-interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-3. This very old story is re-interpreted in the light of modern insights into human psychology and modern standards of gender equality.  From one point of view, this feminist’s paper is a fun read and informed by some good insights.  I enjoyed reading it.  But the presentation ignores the age and culture in which Genesis 3 was written, and it ignores the context which proves that the story cannot possibly support her interpretation.  Her commentary tells us much more about the author and her worldview than it tells us about Genesis 2-3.

The story of Genesis 2- 3 is a very old one . It existed in many versions around the nuclear Near East cradle of civilization.  It is clear from Genesis 3: 14-19  that the story seeks to answer some basic questions that these people in early history asked about the human condition: Why are humans the only creature that  experience the shame of nakedness?   Why is human survival beset by hardship and toil, and why does the earth seem cursed to bring forth thorns and weeds?  Why does a woman, more than other creatures, have great difficulty in childbirth, and why does she live in subjection to male authority? (In that early culture a female first belonged to her father and then to her husband). And most of all, why is it that humans must all die rather than live forever – like the snake that keeps on living through shedding its skin, as the ancients believed?   All these basic Why’s are raised in Genesis 3:14-19, and the story of Adam and Eve is crafted to provide answers to these questions.

 This primeval story has lived on to exert an unfortunate influence.  It became the basis of all classical apocalyptic thinking about a world in the kind of decline that can only be remedied by the violent intervention of God to save some and to destroy the rest of mankind in some end-time events.  The NT authors understood the story correctly when they used it to place a woman in a subordinate role to male authority. According to Genesis 3,  that was part of the original curse put upon humanity by reason of the Fall . And St. Paul understood the story when he used it to teach that death passed upon all mankind as a result of this original sin (see Romans 5:12-19).

 Rather than trying to re-interpret this teaching of St. Paul, I will simply say that piece of his teaching is contrary to the clearest evidence of both history and science which establishes beyond all reasonable doubt that death was part of the natural process for millions of years before humans walked the earth.  And further, that Homo sapiens did not begin human history in a garden Paradise, but in the far more inhospitable environment somewhere in pre-Stone Age Africa. Depending on Genesis 2-3, St. Paul certainly got it wrong about sin and death, just as he got it wrong about God requiring a supreme blood payment for sin that would enable God to forgive us. Death is the order of nature, it is part of our DNA, and God is the author of death as much as God is the author of life. It is a grave mistake to make humans feel that death is somehow God’s punishment for human sin, or as Luther was all too prone to emphasize, a manifestation of God’s wrath.

 There is, however, one great insight we may learn from St. Paul.  He taught that when one is led by the Spirit of God, one is not under the Law (Galatians 4:22). In the context of this passage, Law (nomos) means the Jewish Torah or Holy Scripture (graphe) – which in other places he also calls the Written Code (gramma).  To live under the Law/the Scripture/a Written rule of life, he says, is like being in jail, or living as a slave, or as a minor under pedagogic instruction.  This is not being free to be truly human as humans are meant to be. In principle, this teaching of Paul means that we should not be bound to live under the Bible in general or Paul in particular.  Today there are 30,000 Christian denominations simply because if one tries to take the Bible as a comprehensive rule of life, there are 30,000 ways to read it, and 30,000 jails waiting for human inmates.

Alice Bellis’ summary of Bechtel’s view.

“In the first state of human development, Adam names the animals. Adam is not aware of sexual differentiation at this point. He is learning to differentiate himself from the outside world. The naming process does not indicate control over the animals, only his awareness of difference. He is a very young child.”

“In the next stage of development when the female is created, Adam becomes aware that there are boys and girls, but no sense of shame is present. In Gen. 2:25, Adam and the female human are naked and not ashamed. They are children, with a dawning awareness of sexuality. Later, they become aware of their nakedness.”

“Now they are adolescents. They have not fallen, rather, they have moved toward full human consciousness, freedom, maturity, socialization, and individual identity in relation to the group.”

“The tree of life represents a child’s view of life, a view that cannot comprehend death. The tree is fine for children but not for adults. That is why the tree is not prohibited for the children Adam and Eve. Once they have matured, they cannot go back to the immature understanding of life. It would not be healthy.”

“The tree of knowledge of good and evil, which represents the beginning of the maturation process into adulthood, is only prohibited for children. God commands the children Adam and Eve not to eat of it, with the warning that the consequences will be death. We usually interpret this to mean that death will follow,  but this is not what happens when Adam and Eve eat. Thus it is better to interpret this to mean that those who eat will become aware of the reality of death. That is what gradually happens as we mature.”

“In traditional interpretations, the snake is a symbol of evil. In the ancient Near East, however, the snake had many positive associations. It symbolized wisdom and the human potential for discernment. The snake in Genesis is shrewd, but not in a negative sense. The snake is streetwise. It corrects the human understanding of God’s words about the consequences of eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It tells them they will not immediately die, and it is right. The snake emphasizes the positives of eating, that is, knowledge like God’s, and it is right.”

“After the humans mature, they are ready to enter the world where they will take up their life’s work, the work God intended  them to do from the beginning. Although Bechtel sees the story as androcentric, she does not believe it is sexist. In addition, her reading has the advantage of placing life in the real world in a positive light. It is not a punishment for sin, but the world God created for mature men and women to share as partners.”

Quoted from Alice Ogden Bellis, Helpmates, Harlots, Heroes: Women’s Stories In The Hebrew Bible, (Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), pp. 56-57.