This is a much longer essay than I usually post. It expresses the essence of how I view the Bible and how I see our connection to God and our role on this planet. I welcome your comments.
In contrast to the gods worshipped by the pagan peoples the God of whom the Hebrew Bible speaks wants more than anything else for human beings to create on this earth a just, caring, and compassionate society.
In the pagan world gods were forces presumed to have power, and the purpose of religion was to appease these gods. For example, if I planted my crops, I would make an offering to the “agriculture god.” If I had a successful harvest that told me the god had accepted my offering. If I had a poor harvest, or if there was a flood or drought, that proved that the god had rejected my offering.
If I feared an invasion from a neighboring country, I would make an offering to my war god. If I won the war, my offering had been accepted. If I lost I either concluded that my offering had not found favor, or I abandoned my war god and began worshipping the one of the nation that had conquered mine.
The God of the Hebrew Bible is very different. Not only is our God indivisible and incorporeal, our God ahs a completely different agenda. Our God creates humanity in the Divine Image. That means not that we look like God, but that of all creatures on earth we have the most God-like powers.
As the Midrash teaches, we human beings share characteristics with both the terrestrial animals and with God. Like the animals we eat, sleep, eliminate our waste, propagate and die. But our powers of thought, creativity and self expression are so far above the other earthly creatures that they are considered more God like than earth bound.
Put another way we are neither as swift as the cheetah nor as strong as the rhinoceros, but neither of those creatures is going to build a room like the one in which we worship or perform delicate surgery to repair a damaged heart. Only humans have that power.
That means – for better or worse — that we human beings are in charge of and responsible for this world.
We are the only creatures that can go to the side of a mountain, mine ore form the mountain and turn that ore in to steel with which to perform the delicate operation referred to above. At the same time, we are the only creature that can go to the same mountain, mine the same ore, turn into the same iron and forge steel with which to make bombs and bullets whose only purpose is to kill or to maim.
In other words we possess awesome power, and the abiding hope of the God of the Bible is that we shall use that power to create a world of equity, justice, compassion and peace.
When I began to take religious studies seriously, I pondered a perplexing question. If the book of Genesis is the story of the beginning of the Jewish people, and if Genesis has fifty chapters, and if Jewish history starts when God calls to Abraham to leave Haran and journey to the promised land, and if that call comes in chapter twelve of the book, then what are the first eleven chapters doing there?
If I wrote a paper for one of my professors at Hamilton, the Hebrew Union college or at Vanderbilt, and the paper had fifty pages, but I didn’t get to the subject of the paper until page twelve, then the professor would justifiably demand that I get to the point sooner.
So, we might ask about Genesis. If we don’t get to the subject of the book until the twelfth of its fifty chapters, what is the point of the first eleven?
The first chapter of Genesis is a glorious account of creation. It is not a scientific attempt to explain how the world got here. It is a religious attempt to explain why. That is why if people ask if creationism should be taught in science class, my answer is a resounding “no!”
The story of creation is a marvelous poem which sets forth the basic assumptions about life under which the Bible and all of subsequent Jewish thought operates. It teaches four main points.
First, God is the initiator of creation. Second, creation is not an accident. It has purpose and meaning. If life has purpose and meaning, then our lives have purpose and meaning.
Third, in the Creation story. Everything prior to humanity is created by simple declaration or divine fiat. God says “let there be, and there was…’ Let there be light…let there be dry land… let there be vegetation… Only when the story describes the creation of man and women do we read, “And God said, ‘Let us make humanity in our image, in the very image of God and they shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and everything that creeps on earth…” In other words, God created us to be in charge of and responsible for this earth and charged us with the awesome task of creating the just caring, compassionate society. Note well, nowhere does it say that God creates that society, or that God makes us create that society. It is only clear that God want us to create that society.
Chapters 2-11 delineate three attempts on the part of the Almighty to have us humans do just that. They are the society in Eden, the society after Eden until the time of the flood, and the society following the flood. None of these societies work. None becomes the type of society God yearns for us to create. Let us take a closer look at them. Each has its own set of ground rules—operating principles under which the societies function.
Eden for example was a place of no birth, no death, (I would argue though some may differ) no sex) and no need to work hard. I argue for no sex because sex leads to procreation. And really you can only have it one of two ways, a world like Eden with neither birth nor death or a world like ours with both birth and death. A world with birth and no death would quickly be overrun, and a world with death but no birth would quickly die out.
Now whatever our religious conviction, it is clear that society in Eden did not work. For traditional Christianity the eating of the forbidden fruit represents the Fall of Humanity.
According to that interpretation, we had it made! God gave us everything we
could possibly want asking only that we not eat from the Tree of Knowledge. We blew it! We ate from the tree and God expelled us from paradise. In our act of disobedience, we separated ourselves so far from God, that we are powerless on our own to repair the breach. But, according to traditional Christian doctrine, God gave us a second chance. He sent us his only begotten son and if we believe in the saving power of Jesus’ life, death on the cross, resurrection and ascension to heaven, we can overcome the chasm created by this original sin.
For traditional Judaism it was also a sin that the first couple ate the forbidden fruit. We suffer because we do not live in Eden anymore, but we can under our own power and through our own actions approach God on our own. We need no intermediary, and Jesus plays no role in our theology.
A third way to look at the story is more radical. Life in Eden was pristine but dull. It was boring. There was no challenge, no purpose.
After a long year of work I am so very eager to take a vacation. I can think of nothing more enticing than to lie on a beach with no worries or responsibilities, be able to reach up whenever my heart desires and pick a piece of non pesticide infested fruit with which to nourish myself and lie on the warm sand and let the clear blue waters lap against my toes. I would enjoy this immensely—for about a week. Maybe this past year I could have used ten days.
But then I would start to look— as I suspect most of us would – for something meaningful to do something that would make a difference. This is how I can imagine Adam and Eve felt in the Garden. What I am suggesting is that the eating of the fruit—far from being the fall of man—represented the elevation of man into a creature ready to accept the challenge of finding meaning and purpose in life.
But however we look at the story, the Eden society did not work. So out went the first couple to live with new ground rules outside the Garden. Those new ground rules thrust them into a life where people had sex, were born, people died, and people had to work to earn a living. Unfortunately, that society went quickly downhill with the murder of Abel by Cain. The descent was rapid until God decided to destroy the world because it was filled with lawlessness and violence
By the way there are many flood stories in the literature of the ancient near east. Of them all, though, only the biblical flood story is cast in moral terms. Only the biblical flood occurs because a good, caring God, desiring humanity to set up a just, caring, compassionate society is frustrated y humanity’s inability or unwillingness to do so. Only in the biblical flood story does God choose the hero because he alone was righteous in his age!
So, Noah builds the ark, takes the animals and his family aboard, and survives the flood. The flood ends and the curtain rises on society number three—a new society with new ground rules. Like society number two the third society was a place of work, sexuality, birth and death.
In addition, though, God adds three new ground rules in this third attempt to make the world work. For the first time God gives humanity permission to eat meat. God charges humanity with responsibility for brining to justice and punishing those who shed blood. In other words, human beings must hold other human beings accountable for their actions. And finally, God forswears the option of destroying the physical world again and starting over. God says: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Gn 8:22)
Unfortunately, the third society works out little better than the other two. Noah immediately gets drunk. Ham his youngest commits some unmentionable act against his father that brings a curse upon him.
Then there is the story of the Tower of Babel—which depicts humanity’s seeming attempt to overthrow God. Yes, society three is working out little if any better than the other two. But now God has a dilemma. God still cares about the world. As much as ever God wants to see humanity create a world of justice, caring and peace, but God is still dissatisfied. Furthermore, God has promised not to destroy the world again. So, what is God to do? The answer is: that God picks one individual one family and says to Abraham: “Go forth form your native land, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (GN 12:1) And that begins the Covenant that God makes with Abraham and his descendants.
From a Jewish perspective God’s choice of Abraham is neither whimsical nor unexplained. God chose Abraham because of his suitedness for the task.
Two Midrashic stories illustrate.
When Abraham was born the ruler of the world was Nimrod, mentioned earlier in Genesis as a mighty hunter. Nimrod’s astrologers tell him of a baby born that will overthrow his kingdom, and so Nimrod orders all the babies killed. Abraham’s father hides him in a cave.
At the age of three he walks out of the cave and being a most precocious child asks: “Who created the heavens and the earth and me?” He looked up at the sun and imagined that was the creative force. So, he worshipped it all day. That night the moon came out. And he thought the moon must be stronger than the sun. So, he worshipped the moon all night. When in the morning the sun came out again, Abraham reasoned that their must be a God more powerful than both the sun and the moon who is responsible for creation. So according to this story, Abraham at a very young age chose God, and that helps explain why God chose him
Another story tells that when Abraham was a boy his father Terach was a merchant who had a shop selling idols that people worshipped as gods. One day, Terach had to go on a trip and left Abraham in charge of the store. While he was cleaning up, he accidentally broke one of the idols. Rather than try to hide it from his father, he placed a stick in the hands of the largest idol in the shop and left the broken idol on the floor.
When his father came home, he demanded that Abraham tell him what happened.
Abraham answered that the broken idol was misbehaving, and the bigger idol beat him with the stick.
Fool, said his father, “Don’t you know that idols can’t do anything.
“If so,” answered Abraham, “Then why do you worship them?”
The story illustrates that Abraham rejected idolatry and further explains why God chose Abraham to begin the fourth society and present an entirely different idea of and approach to God.
God tell Abraham “Go forth from your native land and from Your father’s house to the land the I will show you.” (Gn 12:1) Then God makes a Covenant with Abraham in which the Almighty promises to Abraham and his descendants: Protection, progeny, permanence as a people and the land of Israel.
In return, Abraham and all of us have to as God said to Abraham, “Be a blessing,” (GN 12:2) “Walk in My ways and be worthy” (GN 17:1), and work to create a society and teach your children to create a society based on “justice and righteousness.” (Gn 18:19)
That is still our charge today. God chose Abraham and all of us his descendants because the world before him did not live up to God’s hopes and dreams. Will the world of the future?
The answer is in our hands!