In my book Chasing an Elusive God (to be published soon) I make the point that the ordinary reader of the Bible can to some extent be his or her own biblical critic. It is not necessary to know all the latest theories of the scholars: the scholars themselves have difficulty keeping up with each other. What is important is a curious, questioning approach to the Bible: not assuming it means what we have been taught it means, but seeing it as it is, and noticing the oddities, the inconsistencies, the ‘seams’ where different things have been stitched together.
One of the first things academic Bible students learn about the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) is that they were not written by Moses, but consist of four strands written at different times, and known as J, E, D and P. This theory, though scholars differ about the details, is still fairly generally accepted more than 130 years after it was first formulated by Julius Wellhausen. Ordinary readers cannot be expected to know which passages belong to which of these strands. Scholars still disagree about it, and about how and when they each came into being. What I suggest, however, is that the ordinary non-scholarly reader can find fascinating insights simply by noticing that there are differences and thinking about them.
The same principle applies to the historical background of the Bible writings. Most people who read the Bible have some vague idea of the historical and cultural background, but nobody knows all the facts: they are constantly being modified by archaeology and often disputed between different scholars. However, it can be interesting and fruitful simply to read a passage of the Bible and think about what sort of person wrote it, or what sort of community produced it, and in what sort of situation. Hints of this can be found just by studying the passage itself and stopping to think about anything in it that looks odd.
Here is my attempt to do this with the first chapter of Genesis (strictly speaking, Genesis 1:1 – 2:3 – the chapter division is odd here). I cannot pretend not to be influenced by the odd things I have picked up from scholarly commentaries, but I am trying as far as possible to stick to what any reasonably intelligent readers could work out for themselves.
Some people still take this as a literal, factual account of the creation of the world. One of the strongest arguments against this is that it talks of God creating day and night on the first day but not creating the sun till the fourth day!
But even if we do not attempt to take the story literally, this is still puzzling. Assuming this was an imaginative account of creation based on the state of human knowledge at that time, it would surely have been obvious even then that the alternation of night and day has something to do with the sun: day begins when the sun rises and night comes when it sets. Not only is this a common-sense perception, but at the time when this story was probably written the Babylonians and others already had a very sophisticated understanding of the movements of the sun, moon, stars and planets.The obvious implication is that this story was never meant to be a literal account of creation at all. Its writer was fully aware that there could be no day and night without the sun. If we look more carefully at the pattern of six days, and what happened on each day, we find that the order is not chronological but thematic.
The story begins with chaos: ‘the earth was a formless void’. It describes how God sorted out the chaos, separating the spheres and putting them in their proper place, and then fills them. So it works out as follows:Day 1: God creates the separate spheres of light and darkness.
Day 2: God sorts out the waters, making the separate spheres of sea and sky.Day 3: God sorts out the earth, separating the dry land from the sea and making the land bring forth vegetation.
Having told how God created these spheres, the account then returns to each of them to fill in the details.Day 4: Within his creation of light God creates the sun, moon and stars. Their function is ‘to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness’ (v 18, repeating the words of vs 4-5).
Day 5: God gives his attention to the sphere of water, the sea and the sky: he fills the sea with sea creatures and the sky with birds.Day 6: God then deals with the dry land, filling it with animals and reptiles, and then creating human beings.
From this pattern it emerges that the account of the second half of the week is meant to fill in the details that were not mentioned in the first half. This has nothing to do with the order in which things were created, only with ‘order’ in the sense of arrangement and tidiness.There are a few other odd things in this passage that make us stop and think. For instance, why does it refer to ‘the greater light’ and ‘the lesser light’ rather than using the obvious words ‘sun’ and ‘moon’? The most likely answer is that these expressions are meant to drive home the point that the sun and the moon are not gods, as most people thought at that time, but merely created things like everything else. Something similar probably lies behind the reference to ‘the great sea monsters’ (v 21). If we were asked what creatures live in the sea, our first thought would not be whales nor things like the Loch Ness Monster, but fish: so why do the ‘monsters’ feature so prominently in this account? Probably because most of the creation myths of that time talked of the sea as a great monster that had to be subdued in order for dry land and human life to exist. This story points out that whatever monsters there may be in the sea they were simply creatures put there by the one and only Creator God.
Another oddity is that the creation of human beings, represented here as the crown and climax of God’s work, does not have a day to itself. Is this a way of saying that, important as we human beings are, we are not in a category completely separate from the rest of the animals? This is an important theme of the Bible: the tension between the dignity of human beings and the infinite superiority of God. Though God loves us and gives us ‘dominion’ we are still creatures just like all the others.
Two other themes that are important to this story are probably related: the repeated reference to God seeing that his creation is good, and the Sabbath rest on the seventh day. It is as if God sets the example to us human beings. Work is essential: it is part of what we are. But it is not everything. Along with our work we need the leisure to appreciate and enjoy the fruits of it. Seven is a number that symbolises perfection. Work is the major part of life, but rest is the crown that makes it complete. It is also evident that for whoever wrote this passage the Sabbath was very important. Its institution is the climax of the whole story.At this point we find the first obvious ‘seam’ in the Bible. After a formal statement, ‘These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created’, we read ‘In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens’… : the beginning of another, very different story.