Last week, I began reading my yearly read through the bible using this lectionary (I’ve never actually read through the entire bible in one year and this plan will, in fact, take me two). As I did so, I found I had an accumulating set of questions related to various historical, literary and theological issues raised by the text. I hope to record these questions each week and try and provide ways of approaching and answering them briefly (some of which I hope to come back to over time). Perhaps these are questions that you’ve wrestled with, in which case, please do feel free to provide your noughts via a comment.
Since, I believe, we are not only encouraged to ask questions of the scriptures but also let it ask questions of us, I also aim to provide a brief reflection on a part of the week’s reading that struck a chord or challenged me in my discipleship.
This first week features quite a few questions, most of which cluster around the Old Testament passages. A few are provided below (and a full list at the end). I haven’t had enough time to research these as I’d like owing to personal circumstances (I’ve just become a father!) so these are first stabs.
Old Testament (Genesis 1-9)
1. 1:27: Why do the authors refer to God in the first person plural?
There are obvious later trinitarian implications and assumptions that Christians can and should make (the Epistle of Barnabas and Justin Martyr are among the earliest to see Christ as involved in creation). But what did the ancient near-eastern authors of Genesis think when referring as making a collective decision? Is God actually considered to be plural? Gunkel thought that the particular source might have inherited this view though admitted that the authors wouldn’t have held to this view. Others see the plural used as an instance of the famous “royal we” or a kind of self-encouragement used by a single entity.
The most likely option, as from Philo onwards (see Wenham, WBC p.27), is that this is a decision that God makes before a divine council. It is the action of the one God declared to the angelic court. Wenham puts it this way (p.28): “’Let us create man’ should therefore be regarded as a divine announcement to the heavenly court, drawing the angelic host’s attention to the master stroke of creation, man”. There’s more exploring for me to do here on the related subject of monolatry in the Hebrew bible.
2. 3:1-24: What is the fall? That is, what do Adam and Eve do that is wrong?
Is the fall, as Philip Pullman makes famous in his Dark Materials Trilogy, the result divine jealousy over man’s assumption of the knowledge between good and evil? Before we dismiss this too easily, there is a problem, from the divine perspective, with man knowing the difference between good and evil since in doing so they become like “one of us” (i.e. like the angelic court and God only in this way, that is only insofar as they discern between good and evil). And with access to the tree of life, they potentially could have lived forever (see 3:22).
Yet the core problem is assumed moral autonomy, divorced from God’s decrees. That is, the root of the issue is man deciding what is right without reference to God’s revealed will (see Ezekiel 28 where the king of Trye assumed himself to be “wise as a god”). Man takes an action without reference to God, and assumes to know what is best. Pride and self-sufficiency seem to be the original sin, according this ancient text. The assumption of divine knowledge, which Pullman sees as a positive is in fact the source of our woes.
There is also a strong emphasis on will, desire and affection in this account. In 3:6, Eve sees that the fruit looks good to eat (taste), and to the eye (sight; cf. 3:5), and “desirable for gaining wisdom” (desire). The problem is not sensory perception or desires per se, but, as the prayer book puts it, the fact that we order them according to our own wisdom. As the Prayer Book puts it, sin at root is when we “follow too much the devices and desires of our own hearts” without God getting a look in.
3. Genesis 7: Did the flood recorded happen?
I take the Genesis account to not be an account of human origins (and certainly not a scientific one) but an account of nature and its deeper significance (an aetiology). As Patrick Millet puts it, “Creation myths are not about how the world came to be; rather, they are about the nature of the universe. For the ancient Israelite author, the nature of the universe is patterned. The universe is orderly”.
Having said that, there are clear historical kernels in the account. One of these, I think, is the flood narrative. Numerous sources, including most famously the Atrahasis account, record a flood. Whether this was global or local we do not know. But it seems plausible that rather than inventing an event, ancient Near Eastern authors knew of a flood and reflected—in very different ways—on its theological significance.
Other chronological details appear to have more theological and symbolic significance (for instance the timing of the flood and its duration and the design of the ark have particular significance when read against contemporary myths). Others, such as the geographical specificity of the rivers in the garden might signal the authors’ awareness of the tradition that there was a paradisal garden in modern day Iraq and that the God of Israel created it. Does this mean that this is where the first primordial couple lived? I’m really not sure.
New Testament: John 1-5:24
4. 4:10 What is the water of life?
I was struck by the parallels between the various “one on one” encounters Jesus has early on in John’s gospel (Nicodemus and the woman at the well being he two most obvious). In both, Jesus’ interlocutors fail to grasp the deeper (or we might say, spiritual) significance of what Jesus is saying, though the Samaritan woman surely does better than Nicodemus.
- Jesus speaks of spiritual birth (being born again/from above) while poor Nicodemus is left wondering how an adult can re-enter his mother’s womb.
- Jesus speaks of having one’s spiritual quench thirst by receiving the living water (the spirit, see John 7:37-39) while the woman asks for water that will mean she does not have to draw from Jacob’s well in the heat of the day.
The water of life is the gift of God (see 4:10), the Spirit which, if one receives (“asks for”), one receives eternal life. One thing I’m interested in looking more at is beliefs about the Spirit of God in the intertestamental period (the gift of God I recall was considered to be Wisdom, Sophia, as well as the Law). This raises further question for me to look into, including an historical one: where does John’s focus on the Spirit (from which it gets the name, the Spiritual Gospel) come from? And it also raises theological questions about the relationship between the world and the Spirit and whether or to what extent (and in what way) John has a dualistic conception of human nature and the cosmos.
Discipleship Reflection on Genesis 1-3
There are no shortage of points for reflection from this week’s readings. Take the following:
- There’s the constant refrain “come and see” in John’s gospel which seems like a lovely catchphrase for discipleship-centred mission (i.e. mission that is focussed on catechising and introducing people to the riches of faith in Christ as opposed to banging on about mission in such a way that invites people to nothing…a bit like a hollow ring donut).
- Speaking of questions that scripture asks of us, Genesis 3-4 feature several questions God asks of characters in the narrative. As do the Johannine passages
- Where are you? (Gen 3:9) Where is your brother Cain? (4:9)
- What have you done? (3:13; 4:10)
- Do you want to be well? (John 5:6)
- But the different point which I have been reflecting on comes from Genesis 1-3. It is the way that the first couple both beautifully mirror as well as tragically fail to live up to their task of living according to the image of God. One way of glimpsing this is with the series of verbs used in the narrative. The first two constructive (or creative) actions man mirrors. But then things start to fall apart as human beings perform the same actions and yet to fundamentally destructive ends.
|Naming||1:5, 8 etc||2:15, 19-20|
|Exercising dominion||1:3 and from the creative acts of God||2:28 (animals blessed and yet are not commanded to exercise dominion)|
List of Questions
- 1:30: were the authors of Genesis recommending vegetarianism?
- 2:10-14: first mention of geographical specificity. What are we to make of these details if we are dealing with an aetiological account?
- 2:21: why the rib? Symbol of closeness of man and woman?
- 4:23: Who did Lamech kill?
- What is Cain’s sin?
- 5:21: Why did Enoch live fewer number of years? And why was he taken away?
- 6:1-4: what is this purpose of the Nephilim/Sons of God tradition?
- 6:14-16: is there any significance to the design of the ark?
- 7:1: is the basis of the entry on to the ark righteousness?
- 7:11: why do the authors give such a specific date for the flood?
- 1:16-17: What is John’s view of law and grace?
- 1:18: Has no one really seen God? OT Examples
- 3:13: Has the Son of Man already gone into heaven?
- 4:2: So does Jesus baptise or doesn’t he? (see ch. 1)