Thought for the week - 12 February
"This is the story of the making of heaven and earth when they were created."
At first sight these words from the book of Genesis, today’s Old Testament reading, seem fairly straightforward. "This is the story of the making of heaven and earth." This second chapter of Genesis purports to be a straightforward account of how God created the universe, the heavens and the earth; and for centuries most people were quite content to accept the story at face value, as an account of how God went about making the universe. Indeed there are people who still do accept that these early chapters of Genesis describe how everything was created by God. After all this is what the bible says: "this is the story of the making of heaven and earth when they were created." And it is a rather homely story of creation, with God forming man from the dust of the earth just as we might make a model from clay.
But there are problems in accepting that this is a straightforward scientific account of how things actually were made. Over the last hundred years or so research in geology, biology, physics, chemistry and all the sciences have shown that creation is not quite as simple as the account in Genesis suggests. Although it must be said that there is not, as yet, any scientific agreement about how the world came into being, and it is doubtful whether there ever will be.
But it is not just the last hundred years of scientific research that has questioned the scientific nature of the Genesis story. Biblical scholars, literary scholars, theologians and philosophers have been saying for many years, that to read these Genesis stories as scientific accounts of creation is to misread them. Nor do you need to be a scholar to recognize this. A simple, thoughtful look at these early chapters of Genesis would be enough to tell you that this is not how is could have happened. If you read the first two chapters of Genesis you will find that there is not one account of creation but two. And the two stories are quite different in character, reflecting different backgrounds. A further interesting fact is that although these stories come right at the beginning of the Old Testament, they are in fact quite late writings, placed at the beginnings of the Old Testament history by way of a preface. Furthermore, there are many parallels to them in the writings of the ancient middle-east. The technical name for these stories is myth. That is not to say that they are false or untrue in a scientific or historical sense. Rather it is to say that they are not historical or scientific accounts of creation at all. In fact it is difficult to see how anyone could write a historical account of the creation.
In saying that these stories are myth we are saying that the truth that they contain is not scientific or historical truth. There are forms of truth other than scientific and historical truth. And myths can contain very important and fundamental truths indeed. This is certainly true of the myths contained in the early chapters of Genesis. The truth they convey, religious and theological truth, is every bit as, if not more, important as scientific and historical truth,
A closer look at the second account of creation, that we heard in our Old Testament reading, will reveal several important truths about God and his relation to his creation.
1. The first thing to say is that whilst Genesis might not be able to give us an accurate scientific account of how anything was created it can tell us why.
The Bible begins by telling us in no uncertain terms that it was God who created everything that is. In other words the universe did not create itself; and is not the result of some random chance. The bible is quite clear about this. The universe is created by the deliberate will and act of God. God spoke and it was created. From our limited vantage point the universe around us might seem to be a mass of impersonal chaotic forces. This might seem to be the case. The reality is quite different. Behind everything that exists, creating it and sustaining it in being is the God whom Jesus taught us to call "Our Father." We owe our existence not to any blind impersonal force, or random chance, but to the God who is above all else personal. The universe has been created by personality. This in itself suggests that, despite contrary appearances, there is some aim, some purpose, some object in creation, since personality does not act aimlessly and without purpose. We in our own lives make plans, have aims, and reach for objectives. How much more so the God who creates and sustains in being all that is.
2. Because the personality of God is behind all creation it comes as no surprise that God did not create a world devoid of personality. He peopled his creation. That is, he created the human person to be an important and integral part of the universe. So important, the book of Genesis tells us, that he commissioned man to be his co-agent in creation. He gave man a responsibility in and for creation. In the mythical terms of the book of Genesis, he put man in the Garden to till it and care for it. He gave to man the task of naming the animals. This responsibility in and for creation is always ours. The writer knew about ecology before the word was even thought of! Environmental issues concern us because God has laid a responsibility on us for his creation in which we share.
3. The next thing to notice from the story is that man, by nature of his creation, is not meant to be a solitary individual. Man is a communal animal: he lives in society. In the words of the story: "The Lord God said, 'It is not good for the man to be alone. I will provide a partner for him." Man is intended to be a social being living in community. One of the greatest sins against creation in our own age is the crippling and heartbreaking loneliness that so many people experience. To place all the emphasis on the individual and his or her rights is to ignore the fact that God created man in partnership: in partnership with himself and with each other. Nor should we overlook the partnership between man and woman; between man and wife. Male and female are created to be complementary to each other, not in opposition to each other, nor to be the same as each other.
A famous politician once said that there is no such thing as society. That politician was wrong, and dangerously wrong. The cult of the individual is dangerous.
We are now reaping the rotten fruit of the excessive emphasis on the individual and his selfish rights. One of the truths that the Genesis myth conveys is that man is created a social being. The underlying truth of the story is that man finds his true being not in a solitary, individual existence, but in society. To reject our fellow human-beings, to deny any responsibility for them is, in the end, to reject and deny our own humanity and nature which were given to us in creation.
The creation stories in Genesis might be neither science nor history, but they are certainly true; and the truth they contain we neglect to our peril. What the world needs to hear is the truth. The truth is this: that it is God who brings everything into being; that it is he who sustains it in being; that he has a purpose for his creation; and that we are part of that purpose. If as a society we are ever to halt the increasing lawlessness that we encounter all around us we need to emphasise these truths that the Genesis stories present. Perhaps, above all else, we need to emphasize the personal responsibility that is laid on each individual as he plays his own part in God's creation. We can't escape that responsibility: it is ours by virtue of our creation. In denying our own personal responsibility for our own actions and for the needs of others we are denying our own humanity.
Genesis might not be science or history; but it is certainly true. "All of human life is there." Come next Sunday and listen to the next exciting episode in Genesis chapter three which tells how, right from the very beginning, man has tried to deny all responsibility for his sinful actions, blaming everyone and everything rather than himself. You can't get truer than that!