Monday, 24 September 2012

More DIY Biblical Criticism

Having looked at the Creation story in Genesis 1:1 - 2:4a, let's now look at the other story that starts halfway though verse 4 of chapter 2.
If we are being really nit-picking, we could point out a contradiction in the first verse of this story: ‘In the day’, not the week. However, even this is a hint that we are beginning a different story.

More significantly, the Creator is referred to in a different way: not ‘God’ but ‘the LORD God’. ‘The LORD’, printed in block capitals in English Bibles, stands for the divine name sometimes rendered ‘JEHOVAH’ or, in the Jerusalem Bible (following scholarly theory as to the original form of the name) ‘Yahweh’. This is not just ‘God’ as a universal concept but an individual God with a proper name (this is how the whole JEDP hypothesis got started). 
There seem to be two reasons why there were no plants at first: there was no rain, and no-one to till the ground. This suggests that human beings came first, not last as in chapter 1.

This God, Yahweh, is much more of a ‘hands on’ creator than the God of chapter 1. He forms a man out of the dust and breathes into his nostrils to give him life. He plants a garden, brings the animals to the man to name them, and then performs an operation on the man to produce a woman.
Where is the Garden of Eden? Verse 8 says that is was ‘in the east’. Later (vs 10-14) it seems to be a garden that still exists: a river ‘flows’ out of it (present tense). and divides into four branches. The Tigris and the Euphrates are well known, but what about the other two? Are they meant to be major rivers like the Tigris and Euphrates, maybe the Nile and some other river? Or is this an attempt to locate the garden in some distant place by someone who had (in common with most people of that time) a very vague idea of geography?

In vs 18ff we see again a very personal, almost human God. He is not even omniscient. Only after creating a man did he realise that the man needed a companion. Then he made animals and brought them to the man ‘to see what he would call them’. God then seems surprised that not one of them is a fit companion for him, so at last he makes a woman out of the man’s own flesh.
But with all its primitive-sounding simplicity, this story makes some very true and profound observations. It suggests a relationship between humanity and the earth that is not just ‘dominion’: the man’s function is to ‘till’ and ‘keep’ the garden. It also recognises the fact that human beings are the only species that can ‘name’ creation: an idea that scientists and philosophers still ponder today. Chapter 2 ends with the statement that the man and woman were naked and not ashamed: a very simple and profound observation about our ambivalent relationship with our bodies and the issues surrounding mutual exposure and vulnerability.

The fact that these two very different stories stand side by side at the beginning of the Bible already points to the Bible’s nature as a mixed collection of writings by different people and from different cultures and points of view: a vital fact to realise if we are to appreciate the Bible realistically and not misunderstand it.

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