Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The World's First Disaster (Genesis 3)

If the first two chapters of Genesis give us an understanding of how all things came about, chapter three gives us an account of how it all went wrong. It also holds out the hope of all things being put right again.

The story here is very obviously allegorical, at least to my mind – I have yet to encounter a real serpent that can actually talk.

Picture it. Adam and Eve (as she was soon to be named) enjoy idyllic surroundings and the company of God. Everything, except one thing that God clearly warns them is dangerous, is available to them. They want for nothing. They are happy. Then along comes a character with a question for them, 'Did God really say...?'

This is a question that we all face in our lives, in one form or another. For those of us who believe, it may well be 'Did God really say...?', or, 'Is it really all that wrong to...?' Sometimes, because of the legalistic, Pharisaical mentality that can pervade churches, the question is not always an unreasonable one... For those of us who don't believe, it is perhaps a more direct, 'Why don't you...?'

Anyway, Eve fielded the question (actually a distortion of the truth) well, correcting the questioner with the known facts: we can eat from any tree but not this one because if we do we'll die. The serpent then questions the facts and lowers the bar by posing an alternative outcome: You won't die; you'll become like God. (It is interesting to note that Satan (represented in the story by the serpent) is depicted later in the Bible as aspiring to be like God, and here places exactly the same option before God's Pride and Joy.)

Now, Eve knows God. She thinks he is more than cool. Wouldn't it be great to be like him? Listen to the cogs whirring... I can be like God if I eat this. I can make my own mind up about what is right and wrong, just like he does. It doesn't kill him. Why would it kill me? Deceived, and self-convinced, she eats.

We don't really know how long it took for the fruit (not an apple) to have an effect. She obviously did not drop dead on the spot. You can hear the next line of reasoning. 'Hey, Adam. I just ate this fruit. It tastes great! And look! I didn't die. God got this one wrong! Try some.' And so he does.

The first effect of knowing the difference between good and evil is guilt: knowing you did wrong and you cannot undo it.
  • Try to cover it up . . . God pitches up.
  • Better still, hide . . . Doesn't work.

The next effect of knowing good from evil is looking for someone to blame.
  • Adam blames Eve.
  •  Eve blames the serpent. 
  • Poor serpent . . . No-one to blame.
The next effect is consequences. Your choices, whoever you may blame, remain your choices (and no-one had a gun to their heads here) and the consequences, whether good or ill, are yours too. Except they are not limited to you. The serpent is cast down to the dust; Eve (and all women ever since) gets to go through painful labour (all that knowledge needs a big head to hold it) and a damaged relationship with her man; Adam (and all of us ever since) has to struggle to meet their needs. Not only that, the whole earth feels the impact. On top of that, they get to die. Not immediately, of course, but inevitably. How so?

I seems the serpent was right. God now says, 'The man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.' This is obviously, to God's mind, dangerous knowledge for a finite, created being. So dangerous that it has to be limited. Cut them off from the source, the Tree of Life, to which they hitherto had free access.

The rest, as they say, is history. We have made choices that have evil consequences ever since and the world still pays the price. Yes, we have made some good ones too but somehow...

Why did God put the tree in the garden in the first place? He could have saved a lot of bother if he hadn't. Maybe there is a sense in which the garden itself is allegorical of God in all his fullness. God wanted, and still wants, his whole self to be known by man, without hiding anything. He gave fair warning: 'This bit of me is dangerous for you. Trust me, not your own ideas. Don't go your own way, don't choose to be independent of me.'

Given the allegorical nature of the story, can we believe in a literal Adam and Eve? Well, the writers of the rest of the Bible did, and actually it is not so far fetched. The cells in our bodies contain organelles known as mitochondria. These all and always derive from our mother alone. Investigation of the DNA in mitochondria has allowed scientists to look far back into female human history and they have established that we all derive from just three human women. Beyond those three, there is one, just one, ancestral mother. Eve truly became the 'mother of all the living'.

What about the hope I mentioned at the start? Adam and Eve tried to cover their nakedness by their own efforts but it was not enough. God himself provided clothes made of animal skins, speaking of atoning blood sacrifice. Messiah and his sacrifice are foretold in type, the offspring of the woman who would crush the serpent's head and whose heel the serpent would strike.

The final restoration of all things lies in the future. For now, through faith in Messiah, we can know God in part, in the knowledge that our wrong choices are atoned for. We can realign our lives with his will and be guided in our choices by his perfect knowledge of what is good and what is evil.

One day, unlimited access to the Tree of Life will be restored.

Monday, February 14, 2011

In the Beginning... (Genesis 1 & 2)

The interpretation of these chapters of the Bible evokes great controversy. Until relatively recently, western civilisation was content that the creation story was literally true, and that the earth, according to genealogies recorded in scripture, was about 6000 years old. These days, most people in the world have no interest in the subject. Scientists have an apparently contradictory view involving an ancient earth but most are not bent on disproving scripture. Some within the church are determined to challenge the scientific point of view at every opportunity, insisting scripture is literally true.

My difficulty in accepting a literal interpretation derives in part from being exposed, as a scientist, to extra-biblical evidence and in part from the text, taken literally, not actually making sense.

There is this little phrase that crops up repeatedly: 'And there was evening and there was morning...' I am sure the writer understood evening and morning in exactly the same way that we understand them. Evening is that time of day when the Sun goes down, morning when the Sun comes up. In the passage, there is no Sun at all until 'day' 4 so there can be no evening or morning before then. I do not believe that the phrase is intended to stipulate the passage of exactly 24 hours (which we measure by the Sun's position in the sky). I imagine God revealing events to the writer in phases and the writer interpreting them as 'days', the most natural unit of time known to him.

There is also a pattern in the Creation story itself that lends it an allegorical or poetical property:

Day 1
Light
Day 4
Sun, Moon and stars
Day 2
Separation of waters above and below the expanse called 'sky'
Day 5
Aquatic life (in the sea) birds (in the expanse between the waters)
Day 3
Separation of land from sea (introduction of plants)
Day 6
(Other) terrestrial animals and Mankind
Day 7
Rest
Note the correspondence between days 1 and 4, 2 and 5, and 3 and 6, with the second of the pair having an obvious relationship with the first. This does not in itself render a literal interpretation inadmissible but it does suggest a literary ploy in the mind of the writer.

Actually, light is not the only thing made on day one: 'In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth' precedes the making of light. However, the traditional view always seems to start with light.

A remarkable observation can be made: the sequence of events set forth in Genesis 1 fits very well (with three exceptions) to the scientific model of the formation of the Solar System. This should not be a surprise.

Phase 1: Out of nothing, space-time (the heavens) comes into being. The earth is in the midst of it all but is a formless, water-covered ball of spinning, accreted material cloaked in dense cloud. At some critical point in its growth, the Sun ignites and floods its surroundings with light and energy.

Phase 2: The atmosphere of earth, at the perfect distance from its star, is so influenced by the input of energy that the clouds lift away from its surface.

Phase 3: This new, active planet processes its material and as a result of volcanic and tectonic activity, dry land emerges. The first visible life on the new planet is plant life that, in the light and warmth from the Sun, quickly takes hold on the land.

Phase 4: The plants process the atmosphere, bringing about further transformation to the extent that the clouds break and the Sun, Moon and stars are visible from its surface for the first time.

Phase 5: Animate marine life-forms in huge variety come into being, and the sky is filled with birds similarly diverse in type.

Phase 6: terrestrial animals appear, taking on just as much diversity as their marine and avian antecedents. Finally, Man, conscious, self-aware, takes his allotted place.

And all under the command of Almighty God.

What are the exceptions I mentioned?
  • The first is the aquatic and terrestrial bacteria that would have preceded plant life. These would have made no sense to the writer, and God saw no reason to inform him about them.
  • The second exception is that the Sun and Moon seem to be between the clouds and the earth's surface. We have to take into account the knowledge available to the writer at the time he wrote, and the stylised way that people viewed things; consider Egyptian hieroglyphics showing both eyes on the same side of the human head, for instance.
  • The third exception is bird life preceding other terrestrial animals. Maybe the writer was influenced by his poetical pattern. Maybe God really did make birds first and we haven't found the evidence for it yet...

There is a theory that the early part of the Bible is an amalgamation of two ancient texts, that Genesis 1 is the creation story from one and Genesis 2 the account from the other. On first reading, the chapters do appear different, with man being made before plants in chapter two. Closer reading (at least in the NIV) makes clear that it was shrubs and plants 'of the field' that had not yet appeared, partly because 'there was no man to work the ground'. It seems to be the writer's observation that agriculture, something probably very evident in his time, was not then in being. I have always seen chapter 2 as a particular focus on the creation of Mankind, a creature for whom God seems to have a special fondness, and how he took man from wherever he was (the text does not say where but it could as easily be Africa, which science suggests was the birth-place of humanity, as anywhere else) and placed him in the Garden of Eden and in special relationship with God.

Personally, I have no problem with the idea that man is a special creation. The fact that we have almost all of our DNA in common with the great apes and much in common with Mammalia in general could merely be God re-using a good idea that works well. And why not? We all have to live in the same biosphere.

Genesis is not a science text book. It is a text immersed in the culture that produced it, albeit inspired (not dictated) by God. What is important to me as a modern reader may not have been important to a writer in antiquity with different emphases to make. We also have to consider that writing and thought processes in the ancient world did not necessarily follow the same logic or methodologies of the modern world. Consequently, I do not see the Genesis account in contradiction with current scientific thought. That current scientific thought requires a very long time in comparison with the Genesis account is not a problem. Time may be a great deal to us. It is nothing to God.

Recently, Stephen Hawking stated that we can explain it all without the need for God. Science, whilst it works very well for many things, is not the final answer. At the beginning of the 20th century, science was all sewn up with nothing left to discover. Then came Einstein, and quantum theory, the splitting of the atom... There are several versions of the Big Bang theory and alternatives that do not involve a big bang or a prime cause. There is more than one theory of evolution. So I am not expecting science to explain God away. Science merely gives me some insight into how God may have brought things about.

So, what did the writer of Genesis mean by what he wrote? He clearly did mean to give an account of how all things came into being and he did so in a way that was consistent with his knowledge and would have made sense to his then readers. He also wanted to state clearly that Almighty God is the source of all that is. The Author behind the writer wants all of us to know that he made the heavens, he made the Earth and all that is in it; nothing exists that derives from any other source than himself. We owe our very existence and nature to him, and, as far as he is concerned, we are special.

With that, I have no problem at all.