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Reading Genesis 1 in Context: Old Testament Timeline continued

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Last time we talked about getting a grasp of the overarching Old Testament story. We looked specifically at the way the invasions and conquests of the Assyrians and Babylonians (detailed in 2 Kings) dramatically changed the course of Israelite history and the way these events generated many of the books of the Old Testament. For this exercise we are going to zero in on a related but slightly different category, a text that was added to an older Old Testament story in light of the Exile event.Genesis 1 is one of the most well known texts in the entirety of Scripture. Short of certain specific sayings of Jesus (like the Beatitudes or the Sermon on the Mount) or the Ten Commandments it might be the best known specific section of Scripture. Its also the center of a great deal of debate, especially at the intersect of faith and science. But as with any text we read we have to keep certain parts of the context in mind. When we read a specific section of Scripture we actually have three different layers of text going on.

1) The words themselves. When we read Scripture we are interacting with the specific words of the Bible (or usually a good English translation of the actual Hebrew or Greek). This element doesn’t really change. The words are the same today as they were a decade or a century ago.

2) The context of the words. Every word of Scripture is written for a time and place different than the one in which we currently live. Paul wrote to largely Gentile Christian churches in the 1st century Mediterranean world. Isaiah and his students wrote for exiled Jews in approx. the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. Revelation is written to 1st and 2nd century AD Christians suffering under specific Roman persecutions. These contexts help us to understand imagery and language which is unfamiliar today. By looking at other writings in the same period and understanding the worldview of those communities we can better translate those texts to today’s terms.

3) Our own context. Whenever we read Scripture we’re bringing our own world into it. Scripture is historically specific but in God’s consistent character (the God of the earliest OT is the same God as the God of the NT and the God of today) we learn about God’s vision for us and our world. Scripture is also a product of God’s work as well as a human author. The original context is important (or it wouldn’t have been written that way) but God’s Spirit breathes life into the words in ways that go beyond another historical document. So God’s word also speaks to where we are today and the situations we face.

These three pieces together help make up a good reading of Scripture. So how does our Old Testament timeline help us understand Genesis 1? Well Genesis 2 is actually the older version of the story. It existed long before the Genesis 1 version. So why did the Israelite communities need a new version? Well based on specific phrases in the text and the historical record of texts (the way ancient collections of the biblical texts show slight changes over time) we can date Genesis 1 to the Israelite community in exile in Babylon, around the 7th or 6th century BCE.

The Israelites needed a new text because they had been utterly defeated. In the ancient world getting defeated didn’t just mean your army was weak, it meant your gods were weak. The Israelite poets and priests and sages had been taken away into a foreign land, surrounded by towering idols and they were being mocked and harassed day after day, told that the idols had triumphed over their god. That they were abandoned now and with the temple in ruins, far from home, their god could no longer hear them.

Psalm 137

Lament over the Destruction of Jerusalem

1 By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

They were defeated in a way that had never happened before. The old words had been shattered just like the walls and the temple. The old words had been ground into dust and sand during an endless captive journey from Israel to Babylon. The old words had been silenced by the songs of Marduk and Nebo, the Babylonian gods who had delivered the Israelites to the Babylonians. And it was not just any song. The Babylonians had their own Creation song. The Enuma Elish. Which told of how the great god Marduk violently conquered the waters and brought forth the creation from the blood and gore of dead gods. Of how Marduk set all the stars and lights in the sky for the gods to reside there. And it gave it in a day by day account.

We read Genesis 1 and hear a story about science books and big bangs and evolution. Because we come to the text with only the first and third layer, the words themselves and our needs and concerns. We are prone to seeing science because that is the culture we’re coming from. But when we add in the middle piece, the context, and we look at the words and phrases in light of where they come from the meaning shifts. The storyteller and author isn’t worried about literal days and scientific processes.

This song is a resistance song, a song of rebellion against violence and idolatry. The Israelites are answering a question.

“Where is your god? Why have you been abandoned? What meaning is left for you in the world when our gods of violence have delivered you into our hands?”

And they reply with Genesis 1. “Our God is the God of all the Creation, He made the promised land and the desert in which we wandered and Babylon where we have been exiled. This world and all its beauty was spoken into life and order by the voice of our God, not the violence of yours. We are all of us made for dignity and true life, made in the image of our God. We were not born to be slaves of you or your gods. God created everything, the earth and the seas and the stars and they are good but they are not God. We are not alone or abandoned even here in Babylon”

Their new song answered new questions. And those answers, when we see them in their original context, still speak to our world today. The world around us is fundamentally good (even when it is skewed by brokenness), people are beloved by God and good (even when they too are skewed by brokenness). The world is intended for peace and growth, not violence. It doesn’t help us much with dinosaurs and cosmological events but these words still speak to us today, rooted in what they first meant to a people struggling to find God in suffering in a distant time and place. When we can bring together the words of Scripture, the world in which they were written and read and our concerns today we find that Scripture is still alive and speaking to us, ancient words coming to life in new ways (informed by the old!) to answer and teach today.