In an article in the New Yorker, humorist Paul Simms invites us to imagine the God of the Hebrew Bible as an enthusiastic user of social media, like so many of us are today. God is a blogger. God has a blog.
So imagine: God has just created the universe. And then God reaches for God’s MacBook—and puts God’s thoughts about it out there, for all the world to see.
Here’s what God (according to Paul Simms) has to say:
Pretty pleased with what I’ve come up with in just six days. Going to take tomorrow off. Feel free to check out what I’ve done so far. Suggestions and criticism (constructive, please!) more than welcome.
And now, the comments. Here’s the first:
Not sure who this is for. Seems like a fix for a problem that didn’t exist. Liked it better when the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep.
Hmm. Maybe not so constructive, as God had hoped.
Then there’s this comment:
Going carbon-based for the life-forms seems a tad obvious, no?
Uh oh, the trolls are starting to pile it on….
Here’s yet another:
The creeping things that creepeth over the earth are gross.
And then this:
Why do they have to poop? Seems like there could have been a more elegant/family-friendly solution to the food-waste-disposal problem.
Always a critic, huh?
Unfocussed. Seems like a mishmash at best. You’ve got creatures that can speak but aren’t smart (parrots). Then, You’ve got creatures that are smart but can’t speak (dolphins, dogs, houseflies). Then, You’ve got man, who is smart and can speak but who can’t fly, breathe underwater, or unhinge his jaws to swallow large prey in one gulp. If it’s supposed to be chaos, then mission accomplished. But it seems more like laziness and bad planning.
Other Gods begin to chime in:
There’s imitation, and then there’s homage, and then there’s straight-up idea theft, which is what Your thing appears to be. Anyone who wants to check out the original should go to http://www.VishnuAndBrahma.com. (And check it out soon, because I think they’re about to go behind a paywall.)
Finally, some troll leaves this comment:
That’s “God’s Blog” for you—from writer Paul Simms. Hilarious. And, in its own way, very instructive, for it points to one of the biggest questions of all: Is the world, even with all its pain and hurt, ultimately good?
Or is it an “epic fail,” after all?
Today I want to talk about how the ancient Israelites explored this through the stories told in the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis. Such stories as: The Creation. Adam and Eve. The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Cain and Abel. The Flood, Noah’s Ark and God’s vow never to destroy life again. The Tower of Babel. These stories are some of the best-known parts of the Bible, which all together make up ancient Israel’s “primeval history” focusing on all of humankind.
Big questions we’re dealing with today….
And to understand how the ancient Bible writers approached them, let’s start with a bit of history. As scholar Marcus Borg reminds us, in his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, we want to know our Bible history because it adds dimensions of crucial meaning that we just can’t get to from a surface reading of the text. We also want to know our Bible history, says Borg, because people naturally tend to project all sorts of meanings on scripture—read all sorts of stuff between the lines—but knowing the history helps to limit this tendency and keep it healthy.
We must know the history!
So: one part of history we need to know is this: how the ancient Israelite culture wasn’t operating in a vacuum. The ancient Near East (roughly corresponding to today’s Middle East) saw the rise of empire after empire: the Egyptian, the Sumerian, the Akkadian, the Hittite, the Assyrian, the Babylonian, the Achaemenid—and every one had stories, and such stories couldn’t help but influence how Israel told its own.
One theme common in a lot of these cultures is that of a great flood destroying the world, and so we see the Bible telling a version of it which has striking parallels with versions coming from other places. The story of Noah and the flood is just not unique with the Bible.
On the other hand, there are times when ancient Israel chose to tell its stories in ways very different from the cultures surrounding it. Take this creation story from the Akkadian empire, written hundreds of years before the ancient Israelites wrote theirs:
When the god Enlil was the boss, the gods were burdened with toil, they lugged the work basket. The god’s work basket . . . was big, so that the toil was heavy, the straits were great. Enlil, having charge of the earth, put the other gods to work digging the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. One night, tired of their condition and at the instigation of one of the gods, they burned their tools and surrounded Enlil’s house. The striking gods complained that the work was killing them and that they would not continue. Hearing this, Enlil burst into tears and offered his resignation. At this point Enki proposed a compromise. The gods would create man to bear the burden or work so that the gods would be free. So with the birth goddess, Nintur, Enki used the flesh and blood of the strike’s ringleader (killed by the other gods [doesn’t pay to be the ringleader, right?]) to fashion clay into seven male and seven female embryos in the “house of destiny.” After nine months, humanity was born, and immediately, they were put to work. (adapted from Thorkild Jacobsen, “The Treasures of Darkness,” Yale University Press, 1967).
That’s how the Akkadians saw it. Humans were created to be slaves of the Gods. Now, yes, as we have already seen, and just as one of the comments in “God’s Blog” says, the ancient Israelites often imitated other sources, even stole them outright. But here we have a notable example of a storyline that the Israelites wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. No, says the Hebrew Bible, the truth is very different: God created humanity not out of a sense of weariness and for the purpose of enslavement, but out of a sense of the goodness of life and a desire for humanity to have a share in it. The Bible thus says, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it…. [And] God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. […] And on the seventh day God finished the work he had done, and he rested….”
It’s this last part that proves my point on how radically different the vision of the ancient Israelites was from its neighbors. The purpose of creation—where it’s all going—is not meant to be a relentless grind but a graceful rhythm of work and rest, a graceful dance of body and spirit, an invitation for every one of us to receive this gracefulness into our lives.
That’s what it’s meant to be.
In fact, the more you look at the mythologies of other neighboring cultures, the more radical the vision of the Hebrews turns out to be.
Take the Achaemenid Empire, which conquered the Babylonians in 539 B.C.E. The Achaemenids (and the Babylonians too) taught the view known as Zoroastrianism. Essentially, this is the view that sees the world as a scene of warfare. A scene of cosmic dualism. You are either a Child of Light, or you are a Child of Darkness. And life is a condition of warfare. Every choice you make proclaims what side you are on. When you die, you’ll be judged, and the judgment determines whether it’s hell for you—or heaven.
Does this picture ring any bells for you?
It’s tone—its basic vision—is one we deal with on a regular basis, because certain versions of Christianity and Islam did in fact take up this ancient vision and adapted it to their own purposes. Because Zoroastrianism is an intoxicating vision. It lines up with one aspect of human psychology, which is the persistent tendency to always look for an enemy to blame, something or someone to scapegoat.
But the ancient Hebrews rejected it outright. The story of the Fall of Adam and Eve is certainly their way to explain the origin of evil. But this is light years away from saying that ultimately the world is a scene of warfare and people are fundamentally moral soldiers whose fight against the other side (which is totally evil) must be never ending and can never allow for times of rest….
No. For the Hebrews, creation is ultimately good. There is indeed work to be done and evil to heal, but there must also be a time to rest, and to enjoy what can be enjoyed.
Again, as the Bible says, [And] God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.
But now, let’s shift gears and engage the creation stories of the Bible from a different angle. Put historical context to the side for a moment, and just read the text, going from the very first sentence on down, all the way through. Read the text like that and the first thing we learn is that God created humankind male and female. In other words, God created them simultaneously.
But keep reading. Read down a little farther, and all of a sudden the Bible says something very different: that God created Adam first, and then God started to feel worried. This is when the Bible writers put these words in God’s mouth: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” At which point the Bible portrays God creating the animals—bat, butterfly, dolphin, tiger, falcon, snake, wolf, and all the rest—but with the express question of whether one of them could become Adam’s ideal partner. Which of course turned out to be a bust. So, God made Adam sleep, and God took one of Adam’s ribs, and from that rib, God made Eve.
The Bible really says this, right after it has just said that God created man and woman simultaneously.
At this point, does the word “schizophrenic” come up for anyone?
But there’s more: Earlier in Genesis we read that the endpoint of creation was rest: God resting, humankind resting, God seeing that everything he had made was very good, and wanting us to join in. But but but … just a few passages later, the Bible goes on to tell a very different story. How, after the creation, there’s no rest, and God continues to be busy. Specifically, he’s busy commanding the newly created Adam and Eve to avoid eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the garden of Eden. God continues to be busy, and God ultimately sets into motion a sequence of events that (at least according to the Bible) explains why the world, originally good, became a scene of endless suffering. God says Stay away from the Fruit, and then God disappears. Into that vacuum enters the Serpent, who tempts the innocent Adam and Eve to eat the Fruit. They fall victim, God finds out, God becomes enraged, God expels them from the safety of the Garden.
It’s like a domino effect: the expulsion from the Garden; then Cain and Abel and the very first murder; then the proliferation of evil in humanity and the need to cleanse the world via the Flood; and then on and on; extending all the way to this very day, this very moment, and we are busy, so busy, with all the stories of violence and greed and misery.
But where is our Sabbath in all of this? How does all this fit in with “And God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good”?
I don’t know about you, but speaking for myself, I was very slow to ask these kinds of questions. Didn’t matter that, as a high schooler, I’d carry a Bible with me everywhere, read it all the time, underlined, made notes, memorized, recited—all with the understanding that what I was doing was studying words straight from the mouth of God, to be taken literally.
I thought I knew the Bible, until I went to seminary. University of Chicago, 1999. First day of class, professor points out that there are, in fact, TWO creation stories in the book of Genesis—Genesis 1 through 2:4 and Genesis 2:4 through 3:24—one editorially glued on to the other so as to give an appearance of seamlessness UNLESS you look closer. The first envisioning the absolute beginning as a scene of endless, depthless waters; the second envisioning the absolute beginning as a rainless, sterile desert. In the first, God creates cleanly through the spoken word, through a sheer act of poetry; in the second, God creates by getting his hands dirty; he grabs a piece of earth, he breathes into it the breath of his very life. In the first, humans are created last; in the second, Adam is created first before all other life forms. In the first, male and female are created at the same time; in the second, man first, then woman.
My University of Chicago professor pointed it all out clearly, clinically, dispassionately, while I’m sitting there in my chair in a state of heavy ragged breathing, eyes bugging out, trying to comprehend how in the world I ever could have missed it.
And now, it makes me laugh. It makes me think that whoever wove together the various story traditions of the book of Genesis must have had some Unitarian Universalist DNA in them. Some editor who placed two fundamentally incompatible stories right at the start of the Bible—right at the start of the whole thing—as if to say, “All ye who enter these pages, WAKE UP! Abandon all hope of absoluteness and literality! Go deeper! Be more profound in your thinking! This is myth, folks, in the sense of ‘it never was but always is,’ not science but simply telling the truth about what it means to be human.”
Some editor we will never know, suggesting all of this, winking at us down through the ages….
But why are the stories so very different? Scholar Marcus Borg helps us begin to understand. Drawing on contemporary Biblical scholarship, he points out that the two stories were composed at very different times in ancient Israel’s history, for different purposes. The first story—the one where Adam and Eve are created at the same time, after all the other animals–was written during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile, from 587 to 538 BCE. During this period, ancient Israel was under the thumb of the Babylonian Empire, had lost its independence, its pride. But with the Exile coming to an end, it was time for Israel to tell a new story, one that would strengthen its weakened sense of identity and inspire it to greater things. In particular: since the Sabbath was a characteristic practice of ancient Israel, to have God engage in it in the story is to give Israelite customs absolute and universal validity. Furthermore, it was a truism in the ancient Near East that if your nation had been conquered, as Israel’s had, then your god was conquered too. Your god was weak. So when ancient Israel composed a new creation story, it was its way of reaffirming God’s power, a way of saying, Our God is not weak but strong. Our God is truly Lord of all Gods.
As for the second creation story—the one where Adam is created first, and then the animals, and then Eve last of all; the one which features the Garden of Eden and the Fall—this one was actually written three hundred years before the first. It’s much older. It comes from the time when people like King David and King Solomon ruled. It was from a time when ancient Israel is trying to remember its origins: as a people originally born in a harsh land and promised a far different land of milk and honey; a people invited into a relationship with God governed by rules to follow; a people tempted all the time by the competing religious visions and traditions of its Caananite neighbors; a people who pridefully broke the rules and indeed suffered harsh consequences.
Does it bother you that, in this second creation story, the Serpent gets such a bad rap? It does to me. But again, look to the historical context: the serpent was a Caananite fertility symbol, representing sexuality, wisdom, also immortality. The ancient Israelites knew exactly what the serpent in the story represented. The Bible was saying, stay away from that. Stay with your Israelite culture and folkways. Don’t break the rules that Moses laid down, which dictated how to be a faithful Israelite. Don’t do it, or God will have God’s revenge!
In short, the two creation stories in the book of Genesis are quite different because they were written at different times and for different purposes. But (and this is my final observation for today) there is nevertheless great wisdom in both of them that does indeed speak to all times and purposes.
Beyond their historical significance, beyond the absolutely incompatible details, there is a metaphorical richness to the stories that can speak to us all.
Especially in how the two stories are told together. Following the Bible’s lead, what if, in trying to explain the meaning of our lives, we always sought to tell these two different kinds of stories, and tell them simultaneously?
And so, one of the stories about our lives we would always tell would sound like the creation story that appears second in the Bible: the one that speaks to the basic human predicament of having to learn through trial and error; how we all enter the world innocent like Adam and Eve and we are free but naive and we make choices and some serve us well but others do not and we suffer….. This same story, which predicts how temptation will slither up to you exactly when it feels like you’ve got your life together, your relationship is steady, your work is steady, you got a good rhythm going, but then BAM! the serpent—and it takes you into yet another place of trauma and suffering and confusion and the opportunity to learn and grow …. As poet Naomi Shihab Nye says,
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
That’s the poet. We must suffer to learn.
And the danger here is that when we are in a place of suffering, it becomes so very tempting to start telling ourselves the same story that the Akkadians told themselves thousands of years ago, that life is basically a burden and humans were created to be slaves of the gods. Or, to start telling ourselves the ancient Zoroastrian story, that the world is nothing but a battlefield, and we are soldiers who need to grit our teeth and fight to destroy whoever seems against us, who is the enemy…..
When life turns chaotic, and stories like these start to tempt us, this is exactly when it’s time to tell the creation story of the Hebrews that appears first in the Bible. The first creation story: the one that affirms the sheer sacred mystery at the core of our lives, the inherent worth and dignity and goodness that is fundamentally there even when we don’t see it and we don’t feel it. When we just feel like it’s all an epic fail.
Tell the second creation story, yes, but never fail to tell the first too, because then we remember that we are not God, that our immersion in the stresses of life is just that—an immersion, a myopia, a perspective that is too up close to what is going on so that we aren’t seeing the bigger picture, we aren’t seeing how the different pieces might be coming together, we are just not vast enough to contain and reconcile all that we experience.
Therefore, what right have we to condemn the universe?
Tell the first story, the “and God saw it was good” story, because then we are hopeful that there is a point of view that CAN see everything: everything we think pathetic, everything we think unworthy, everything we think shameful and unspeakable—and from that point of view, we might say along with God that Creation ultimately is good, it is all very good indeed. Even with all the pain and all the confusion and all the injustice and all the hurt, yes, life is worth living.
There is so much to save, yes, but never forget to savor.
The Creation is no epic fail.
Not at all.