Genesis 1 – Abracadabra
I once took a course in college titled “Approaches to Myth”, and one day a guest lecturer visited to speak about the genesis story. Almost the entire lecture was spent discussing a few very specific intricacies related to the particular wordings and word choices in the original Hebrew of the script, such as the fact that the first name assigned to God is elohim (אֱלהִים), and can be an ambiguously plural word that incorporates both male and female aspects.
Such intricate analysis is fascinating to me, but ultimately a bit too in-depth for my purposes. Since it seems most modern American Christians are unaware of the difficulties and losses of meaning involved in translating a book from another language, culture, and era, I think such an involved level of analysis is not very useful here. I might as well be talking about how clever James Joyce is when writing puns in old Norse. As such, I’ll try to stick mostly to the text as it has been translated, but there may be occasions when I pipe up like a rusty train whistle when I have something significant to add. As I mentioned previously but not explicitly, one of the primary things I’m interested in is how the bible is, in many ways, self-refuting.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” What is most notable about the Hebrew God in comparison to other ancient Middle Eastern mythical figures is that he has no origin story. The story begins with the creation of our world, whereas other cultures had Gaia or Tiamat being birthed from the void or something. Tiamat, for example, was slain by Marduk and her body itself was used to create the heavens and the earth. The Hebrew God seems more like a parlor magician: *Poof* “Ta-daa!”
It’s also the only aspect of the creation story that was brought into being without speaking words. All the other refinements that God makes are commands spoken aloud.
The fact that day and night precede the creation of the Sun, is kind of funny, but it also reminds me that this is an etiological myth. It was a tale handed down from mouth to mouth for generations within a particular tribe to explain why the world is the way it is. It actually makes me think of a lot of Native American and Greek myths which sought to explain particular phenomena such as the Echo.
The fact that the earth was “without form, and void,” a phrase which I originally took to be rather poetic, gains a rather surprising and concrete meaning when we come to verse 6. God creates a firmament called Heaven to divide the waters above and below. That’s when it hits me. These people actually thought that Heaven was some sort of dome holding back the waters in the sky! I’ve seen drawings of the concept of the “celestial sphere” before, but never not one that put actual water on the outside. It is a rather easy answer to “why is the sky blue?” I suppose, but it also gives additional significance to the story of the great flood. This sky god has power over the waters both above and below.
Then come plants which, it is also strange to note, come before the Sun. No photosynthesis for you! You’ll just have to go to bed without dinner! To be fair, though, I’m getting a picture of a sort of dull diffusion of light permeating the day which the mythmakers saw as being gathered and shaped into the greater and lesser lights on the fourth day. The fact that the rest of the cosmos gets such a passing mention as “He made the stars also” seems so disingenuous. Of course, desert tribes 6.000 years ago could not know that all those tiny dots in the firmament, billions of them, were great lights just like our own. It just seems so cheap and dismissive of how unfathomably large and vast the cosmos really is.
And what’s all this business with “and God saw that it was good”? Was this a guess-and-check project? Was god just splashing together another piece of artwork to hang in his living room? “Yeah, that’ll go real nice with my lampshades.”
When it mentions that God created the “great sea creatures,” I wonder if this is referring to creatures like whales and sharks, which actually exist, or to mythical creatures and sailor’s tales? I’m inclined towards the latter, since I’ve heard that the bible affirms the existence of unicorns. I’m sure I’ll get to that if it’s there, though.
Then on the sixth day, humans! Male and female in Our image! Wait, what? There’s that confusing plural usage again. Perhaps this could be chalked up to that Trinity nonsense, although it’s starting to seem like a god with multiple personality disorder that talks to itself using the plural is less and less desirable an object of worship.
And also, what exactly does “image” mean? I’m sure theologians the world and time over have argued this point. Could it mean the actual physical characteristics of God? In which case is God male, female, a hermaphrodite, asexual? In fact, why create male and female versions of anything at all? If humans truly were made in the image of God, why the sexual dimorphism? It’s not the only option; we can see that in nature.
Or does that phrase merely extend to the rough shape, i.e. the arms, legs, head, and torso? This just seems more like the kind of God that primitive people would be able to conceptualize. A more powerful version of themselves. And it’s a tautological explanation of humanity’s dominance over earth’s creatures anyway. ”We rule over all the lands because this god that looks just like us told us we could rule over all the lands.”
I’ve also heard in my childhood that this reference “in Our image” is referring to the fact that humans have a spiritual aspect just as god does, which always begged the question, “then what’s all this fleshy business about?!” Besides, the word image is inescapably bound up in the actual realm of the visible, and the spiritual realm is distinctly invisible.
There’s also a conspicuous absence of any other voices in this story. Those first humans can’t even get a single word in edgewise to thank the guy for giving them so much dominion.
It must also be pointed out that the grammar of verse 27 does not limit those first humans to two single entities, a male and female. It could be denoting an entire population of people, not unlike the way in which god is said to have created all the other animals on the earth. In fact, their lack of voices makes them seem like just another pack of animals in the world, albeit ones with the divine blessing to be the dominant species on that spit of land between the waters above and below.
And then God rests, and he would be sleepy.
But, wait! That’s it!? What about all the choirs of the angels, and the heavenly host, and Lucifer, and the rebellion, and the fall from grace! What about all that awesome metaphysical war? When did all that happen? Before the beginning of creation? But there would have been no heaven to fall from or hell to fall to. During the first day when the heaven and the earth were created? Then Lucifer was either a really impatient and psychotic guy or it begins to smell like a set-up. I thought Lucifer was supposed to be Satan who was supposed to be the snake! When does he come into the picture?
I thought etiological myths were supposed to answer questions…