200605genesis1Our busy world does not leave much time for reflection on complex texts like the Torah. We are tempted to have someone 'just tell me what it's all about'. Christians can also be in a hurry to 'get' the message of the OT so they can move on to the NT.

A Jewish scholar once noted that this need to know the essence or centre of the Torah is not a Jewish one. For a Jew, the Torah is the centre. Reading the Torah places us at the centre where we can happily rummage around.

This is not a license to do what we like. Readers always need to be sensitive to the signals in the text and sensible about their ability to explain them. Let's try some rummaging around in the Torah, and an obvious place to start is the book of Genesis.

The Torah is the Centre

Our busy world does not leave much time for reflection on complex texts like the Torah. We are tempted to have someone 'just tell me what it's all about'. Christians can also be in a hurry to 'get' the message of the OT so they can move on to the NT.

A Jewish scholar once noted that this need to know the essence or centre of the Torah is not a Jewish one. For a Jew, the Torah is the centre. Reading the Torah places us at the centre where we can happily rummage around.

This is not a license to do what we like. Readers always need to be sensitive to the signals in the text and sensible about their ability to explain them. Let's try some rummaging around in the Torah, and an obvious place to start is the book of Genesis.

Genesis

A fair amount of Genesis consists of stories; they have a beginning, a middle (often a crisis), and an end (resolution of the crisis). This is pretty familiar. However, OT authors told stories in a somewhat different way to us and we need to be alert to this.

The Vatican II document on Divine Revelation provided a strong lead in this direction, urging us to be sensitive to the peculiarities of OT literature. Another significant feature of Genesis is genealogy. It is a rather cryptic way of telling another aspect of the human story-the march of generations. OT authors were able to use this simple mix of story and genealogy in creative ways to advance their aim-Torah.

The opening chapters contain two quite different passages about creation: one is 1:1-2:3, the other 2:4-3:24. The first has man and woman created last on the sixth day, with God resting on the seventh: the second has the man created first, then plants and animals, and finally the woman.

This signals that OT authors were well aware they were not reporting the event of creation. They were juxtaposing two theologies of creation that they regarded as foundational. They don't tell us how to relate them; that is left to the reader.

Relating the Two Creation Accounts

How might we relate them? The first portrays a transcendent God who creates everything in its proper order by a sovereign word. For authors who believed in a good and just God, it was crucial that their readers get this message from the start: this is done via an image of God's creation with everything in its proper place.

The sequence of work and rest foreshadows the Sabbath command in the book of Exodus. Those who follow this command live 'like' God. It is a splendid vision which OT authors knew that we fail to live up to. Hence the second dramatic story of human failure in God's garden (creation).

This story portrays a more immanent God who is intimately engaged in the life of the garden. Only a completely transcendent God can be so immanent-and of course vice-versa. In this sense, the two accounts can be seen to be complementary.

For modern scholarship, the dramatic stories of Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel, reveal how people thought about the human condition before the rise of philosophical discourse. The human players represent humanity and their personal stories help the reader to face what seem to be irreconcilable dichotomies: intimacy and alienation (from inside God's garden to outside), innocence and guilt, exaltation and degradation, and so on.

The stories also juxtapose two key images of God in the OT: the merciful lover and the just judge. If you portray God as soft on evil, we are likely to get angry: if you portray God as too tough, we are likely to feel afraid. The dynamic and at times tense relationship between these two images is one of the great contributions of the OT.

200605genesis2The Stories of Genesis 2-11

As Genesis 2-11 unfolds, the reader finds stories of sin and violence juxtaposed alongside genealogies. This arrangement suggests that, for biblical authors, God's blessing and care of humanity are not withdrawn despite the failures.

At the risk of being simplistic, we could call the sins of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and the intrusion into the human realm by divine beings in 6:1-4 'boundary violations'.

Although causal connections are not explicit in the text, one may say that the consequences of such evil are dramatically portrayed in the flood story, itself based on ancient Near Eastern myths.

The 'just God' intervenes to wipe out evil in creation; the 'merciful God' protects the righteous Noah and his family.

The Flood Story

The flood story marks a key transition in this story of humanity. Gen 8:21 has God resolve never to do it again, for the same reason that God decides to do it in 6:5-7.

This may strike us as odd but one can have the character 'God' do such things in a story if the plot requires it. And the ultimate 'author', God, does not seem to mind being portrayed in this fashion. It is a storyteller's way of proclaiming that humans are unable to change; the initiative has to come from God.

And things do change in the post-flood texts. The story of Noah and his sons in 9:20-27 recalls the themes of garden, nakedness, trouble between brothers, blessing and curse in 2:5-3:24 and 4:1-17. Noah may pronounce a curse in 9:25 but God does not, as promised (8:21).

The story of the tower of Babel in 11:1-9 recalls the human desire to be divine, found in the story of Adam and Eve and the encounter between divine and human in 6:1-4. But the perpetrators are dispersed instead of being destroyed, as in the flood.

Something is in the wind and, sure enough, out of a dispersed and troubled humanity the genealogy of the Semites emerges, the people of the name (Shem is the Hebrew word for name).

Abraham the Semite will mediate God's blessing for all the (dispersed) families of the earth (12:2-3). In the next issue, we will look at the story of Abraham and Sarah.

 

Copyright © Mark O'Brien, OP. Catholic Institute of Sydney