Going Up, or Coming Down?

It happens to me once or twice a month in Long Hall, at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary where I teach.  I am running for the elevator (usually, this happens when I am running late for a class or a meeting).  I jump in, the doors open, I jump out , expecting to find myself on the third floor, where the classrooms are–and I am in the basement, where the mailboxes live.  Or, I am on my way to get my mail.  I step confidently into the elevator; the doors open, I step out, expecting to find myself at the mailroom–and I am on the third floor.

I don’t know why this happens.  I am inclined to chalk it up to the innate perversity of inanimate objects.  But I am willing to acknowledge the possibility that, at least a couple of times a month, I don’t know whether I’m going up or coming down.

So, what does this have to do with this season of Advent, when we remember Jesus’ coming long ago in Bethlehem, and anticipate his coming again (the Latin advenire means, “come to;” adventus means “arrival”)?  Many regard Christianity as a means of escape from the world.  Indeed, for those who sought to join the Methodist societies, John Wesley had “only one condition previously required . . . a desire to flee the wrath to come” (John Wesley, ed. Albert C. Outler; Library of Protestant Thought [New York: Oxford University, 1964], 178).  Many who understand salvation in these terms hope that they will soon be taken out of this world, together with other true believers, in the Rapture, and go up into heaven to live with God.  Salvation is about our “going up.”

A whole Christian industry has grown up around this idea, manifest most visibly in Timothy LeHaye’s Left Behind series of books, graphic novels, movies, television shows, and video games.  The idea of an imminent Rapture has been extremely influential.  According to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center, 41% of Americans surveyed expect Christ to return before 2050; among white Evangelicals, this number rises to 58%.

One Gospel text frequently cited to support the idea of the Rapture is Matt 24:40-41: “At that time there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left.”  By this reading, the one “taken” is Raptured, taken up to glory; the one left is, as Timothy LaHaye’s series title has it, “Left Behind,” to suffer the torments and tortures of Tribulation. 

But I am not persuaded that this is the best reading of that verse.  The bulk of Matthew 24 offers warnings of persecution and trial, not instruction on how to escape them.  Jesus tells his followers, “They will arrest you, abuse you, and they will kill you. All nations will hate you on account of my name” (Matt 24:9).

Jesus compares those days to “the time of Noah,” when devastation came suddenly upon a people unprepared:

In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. They didn’t know what was happening until the flood came and swept them all away (Matt 24:37-39).

By this reading, the “one taken” is not saved, but lost: to death, to destruction—or perhaps quite literally taken by the authorities, arrested and hauled away in chains.

This chapter is not about our “going up.”  It is rather about Jesus “coming down”!  The coming of Jesus, the Human One (literally “Son of Man”), will also be unexpected, and unpredictable:  “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows” (Matt 24:36).  Unlike 41% of the American population, Jesus does not know when this will be!  He compares himself to a thief:

But you understand that if the head of the house knew at what time the thief would come, he would keep alert and wouldn’t allow the thief to break into his house.  Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Human One will come at a time you don’t know (Matt 24:43-44).

The point, then, is to be ready–whenever his coming might be.

Isaiah 2:1-5 also speaks of God’s future–the world to come.  This famous Bible passage was the inspiration for the monument outside the UN building.

Then they will beat their swords into iron plows
    and their spears into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword against nation;
    they will no longer learn how to make war  (Isa 2:4).

This vision of peace is realized in a transformed world, in which Zion, the hill on which Jerusalem was built, and atop which the Temple had stood, has become “the highest of the mountains” (Isa 2:2)!  Still, the future world of which Isaiah dreams remains our world: it includes not only Israel, but the foreign nations. Far from being “left behind,” the nations are drawn to Zion by God’s truth, justice, and peace established there.  As Zion is “lifted above the hills,”

peoples will stream to it.
Many nations will go and say,
“Come, let’s go up to the LORD’s mountain,
    to the house of Jacob’s God
        so that he may teach us his ways
        and we may walk in God’s paths.”
Instruction will come from Zion;
    the LORD’s word from Jerusalem.
God will judge between the nations,
    and settle disputes of mighty nations (Isa 2:2-4).

To be sure, this is the LORD’s doing—but God does it, not in some other world, but in this world!  Like Matthew 24, this vision is not about our “going up,” but about the LORD coming down.

What difference does this make?  If we believe that we are “going up,” out of this world, we will be far more concerned with being certain that our ticket is punched, and that we don’t miss our flight, than we will be with trying to solve this world’s problems.  After all, if this world is doomed anyway, why should we care?  What motivation do we have to care for the world, or for its people?

But what if salvation is not about escape from this world, but about God’s transformation of this world?  Then, we will seek to be a part of what God is doing, here and now, to bring in God’s kingdom.  We will want to be found at our Lord’s coming doing those things that Jesus did among us: feeding people, healing people, freeing people, proclaiming the good news of God’s salvation.  The task before us is immense, the problems seemingly unsolvable.

But as we celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela, and the collapse of apartheit in South Africa, we are reminded that sometimes, as we set forth in God’s work, we discover to our astonishment that some intractable problems turn out to have solutions after all!   Yet whether we are successful or not, we will not despair, because we know that, in the end, the kingdom remains God’s, and that God will bring it into fruition in God’s time, when our Lord Jesus “comes down” in glory.

Maranatha!  Come, Lord Jesus!





On Being Earthlings, Part Five

In Genesis 3, the first earthlings Adam (whose name reveals his connection to adamah, the earth) and Eve (Hebrew Khawah, which the text relates to khayah, “life,” as she is mother to all living) violate God’s command by eating fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  The LORD had told them,

Eat your fill from all of the garden’s trees; but don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day you eat from it, you will die! (Gen 2:16-17).

The snake told them that this was not so:  “You won’t die! God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:4-5).  Sure enough, when they eat the fruit, they do not die–at least, not right away.  But as a consequence of eating this fruit, they are exiled from the Garden: they lose their access to the other special tree of Eden, the Tree of Life, and so become mortal.

The meaning and significance of the Tree of Life is fairly obvious.  But what about the tree of knowledge?  What could it represent?

One approach holds that the name of the tree is irrelevant.  The point is that the fruit of this particular tree is prohibited by God.  In his novel Perelandra, C. S. Lewis reimagined this story as unfolding on a watery world in which most vegetation and animal life lived on floating islands.  Here, living on the “fixed land” was the one thing forbidden by God.  There was no reason given for this prohibition–the issue was simply obedience, or disobedience, to God’s word. By this reading of the Genesis account, the choice Adam and Eve made to violate God’s command is the sole point of the story.

Certainly, the humans do disobey, and their action has consequences.  But it is difficult to imagine that no meaning or purpose is invested in the tree being given such an intriguing name.

Some have proposed that eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil means learning the difference between good and evil, and so gaining freedom of choice.  Before, the humans could only do what God wanted them to do.  Now, having eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, they have the capacity to make their own choices, which inevitably leads to their making wrong ones.

In the story as it unfolds in Genesis, however, there is no inkling that God has deprived God’s creations of freedom.  The woman’s choice to eat the fruit, as Phyllis Trible observes, demonstrates careful reflection and independent thought:

She contemplates the tree, taking into account all the possibilities.   The tree is good for food; it satisfies the physical drives.  It pleases the eyes; it is esthetically and emotionally desirable.  Above all, it is coveted as the source of wisdom. . . Thus the woman is fully aware when she acts, her vision encompassing the gamut of life (from “Eve and Adam: Genesis 2–3 Reread”).

In short, eating from the tree does not covey these discriminating capacities: the woman clearly has them already.

Perhaps the best way to understand the expression “the Knowledge of Good and Evil” is as a merism, like “young and old” or “length and breadth,” referring not just to the two opposite terms mentioned, but to the entire range between them.  This would mean that eating the fruit conveyed Godlike knowledge of everything, from good to evil.  That is in fact what the snake promises: “God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5).  Indeed, after the man and woman have eaten the fruit, the LORD says to the heavenly council:

 “The human being has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.”  Now, so he doesn’t stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat and live forever, the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to farm the fertile land from which he was taken (Gen 3:22-23).

Reading canonically, these references to the humans becoming “like God” are bound to recall to our minds the statement in the first creation account that the woman and man are created in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27)–an idea not expressed in this second account.  But for the reader encountering these texts in their context in Genesis, the connection  produces a magnificent irony, not apparent when reading the passages separately.


In L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, all the characters seek from the Wizard qualities that we know, from the story, they already possess: the “brainless” Scarecrow does all the planning; the “cowardly” Lion courageously defends Dorothy and his friends from their enemies, and no one could possibly be more tender-hearted than the “heartless” Tin Woodsman!  Just so, in the final form of the Genesis narrative,  the woman and the man want what they already have: to be like God.  But they do not realize this, and so lose the Garden, and all that it represents.

So what does the Garden represent?  At the end of Genesis 2, we are told, almost in passing, “The two of them were naked, the man and his wife, but they weren’t embarrassed” (Gen 2:25).  Of course, when they eat the fruit, that changes: “Then they both saw clearly and knew that they were naked” (Gen 3:7).  The time in our lives when we are naked and not embarrassed, when we really do not care about wearing clothes at all, is in early childhood.  With puberty, however, comes a painful awareness of bodies–our own, and others!  Could it be that Eden represents a childish innocence, and that eating the fruit represents personal and sexual awakening and maturity?  If so, then this is not a story about a “fall” at all. It is a story about growing up, making choices, taking responsibility, and living with the consequences of our decisions, for good or ill.

Theologian Paul Tillich proposed that the story of the fall represented “the fall from essence into existence” (Systematic Theology, Vol 2 [Chicago: University of Chicago, 1957], 29-44).  The ideal represented by the Garden is lost to us, not because of a single event in prehistory, but because in actual existence, such ideals are unattainable.  In the story, as the earthlings leave the garden, they enter history: our world of painful choices, of estrangement from one another and from God, and of course, of growth, aging, decline, and death.  That is the way it is for real people, in the real world.

Sometimes, Christians speak of Jesus’ coming as though it were a patch, or a fix: God’s way of addressing the sin problem.  But as systematic theologian Edwin Christiaan van Driel persuasively reminds us, there has long been another strain of Christian thought (sometimes called supralapsarianism), which regards the Incarnation as too big an idea for this single application.  God knew from before creation that calling into being something that was not God, an authentically autonomous creation, meant that that creation would inevitably, in time, act in ways contrary to God’s will.  Indeed, God’s act of creation presupposed that God would consequently enter time and space as a creature, in order to enter fully into relationship with us.  Knowing this, and foreknowing all that it would cost, God created the world anyway.

By this reading, the story of Genesis 3 prefigures the drama of redemption and reconciliation, and so is cause not only for sadness at innocence lost, but praise for God’s determination not to abandon us.   A medieval Christmas carol expresses this idea beautifully:

Adam lay ybounden,

    Bounden in a bond;

Four thousand winter

    Thought he not too long.

And all was for an apple,

    An apple that he took,

As clerkës finden written

    In their book.

Nor had one apple taken been,

    The apple taken been,

Then had never Our Lady

    A-been heaven’s queen.

Blessed be the time

    That apple taken was.

Therefore we may singen

     Deo gratias!



On Being Earthlings, Part 4

Tuesday, November 19th was the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, perhaps the most important speech in American history.

Lincoln delivered his address as part of a ceremony to dedicate the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania as a national cemetery, although as he famously said,

in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

Those men, from the north and from the south, who fought and died at Gettysburg did not do so as part of anyone’s grand strategic design.  No one had intended to fight a battle at Gettysburg.  The armies of George Meade and Robert E. Lee chanced to meet there, however, on July 1, 1863, and so the battle was joined.

After two days of bitter fighting, the Federal troops were in control of the high ground.  Lee sent George Pickett, with some 15,000 men, in a desperate charge against Winfield Scott Hancock’s troops, entrenched on Cemetery Ridge–though James Longstreet and others on his staff warned that the charge could not succeed.

As Lee had been warned that it would, the attack failed utterly: Pickett’s charge was repulsed, with terrible casualties–two-thirds of his division were killed.

When Lee ordered Pickett to rally his division as a rear guard against the Union troops “should they follow up their advantage,”  Pickett tearfully responded, “General Lee, I have no division now”  (Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol 2, Fredricksburg to Meridian [New York: Random House, 1986], 568).  The battle was over, the Union had gained a much-needed victory, and though the war would drag on for another two years, the Confederate cause was lost.

So, what does any of this have to do with Genesis 3?  The connection lies in General Robert E. Lee’s response to this catastrophe.

Lee said immediately to Pickett, “This has been my fight, and upon my shoulders rests the blame. . . . Your men have done all that men can do.  The fault is entirely my own.”  As Lee rode about the battlefield, ordering his troops for retreat, he said it again and again: “It’s all my fault.”  “The blame is mine.”  “All this has been my fault.  It is I who have lost this fight, and you must help me out of it the best way you can.” (Foote, Civil War 2, 568)

Lee’s words are so striking precisely because they are so rare.  Sadly, we are far more accustomed to hearing folk refuse to shoulder blame or to take responsibility for their actions, whether on the national news, in our communities, or in our own homes.

The second Genesis creation story, as we have seen, is an etiological narrative, aiming to explain the world we see around us by reference to its beginnings.  So it is little wonder that in Genesis 3:12-13, when God asks if the woman and the man have eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge, instead of owning up to the fact, they try to pass the blame one to someone else.

The man declares, “The woman you gave me, she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate” (Gen 3:12).  So, he not only blames Eve, but God, who had brought her to him!  Some later traditions accept this argument, and place the blame for sin–the human condition of estrangement from God, the world, and one another–upon the woman.

The woman in turn blames the snake: “The snake tricked me, and I ate” (Gen 3:13).

God, however, buys none of this.  No one in this story succeeds in passing the buck!  As the narrative unfolds in Genesis 3:14-19God holds each character accountable, and each character suffers the consequences of choices made.  

First come the consequences for the snake. Described when we first encounter it as “the most intelligent of all the wild animals that the LORD God had made” (Gen 3:1), the snake is now

        out of all the farm animals,
        out of all the wild animals  (Gen 3:14)

The curse on the snake comes in two parts.  First, it loses its limbs, and its ability to speak:

On your belly you will crawl,
        and dust you will eat
        every day of your life (Gen 3:14).

Once again, etiological features of this story come to the fore.  Why don’t snakes have legs?  Why do they crawl on their bellies?  Why do they keep sticking out their tongues and licking the ground? The short answer, in this ancient story, is that snakes are cursed.  Because of their involvement in humanity’s disobedience, they must crawl on the ground and continually lick the dust–which is also why snakes no longer talk.

The second aspect of the curse turns to another etiological feature: why do snakes bite?  Why are they poisonous? Why do we hate and fear them? The LORD God declares,

I will put contempt

    between you and the woman,
    between your offspring and hers.
They will strike your head,
        but you will strike at their heels (Gen 3:15).

In Genesis 3, notice, the snake is just a snake.  True, it doesn’t start out like the snakes that we know, but the narrative explains how that change happened.  From the first, the snake is introduced as one of the animals God has made–the most clever among them, yes, but still an animal.  The curse reiterates this: among all the animals that the LORD has made, both wild and domestic, the snake is now the lowest–the most cursed.

Later tradition identifies the snake in the garden with Satan.  But the text itself explicitly does not do that.  Further, some Christian interpretations regard Genesis 3:15 as a prediction of the coming of Christ: the Devil will strike at his heel, wounding him on the cross, but Christ with his resurrection and at his return will crush the enemy’s head.  But this too is nowhere in the text before us.  As Reformer John Calvin observed in his commentary on this passage,

other interpreters take the seed for Christ, without controversy; as if it were said, that some one would arise from the seed of the woman who should wound the serpent’s head. Gladly would I give my suffrage in support of their opinion, but that I regard the word seed as too violently distorted by them; for who will concede that a collective noun is to be understood of one man only? Further, as the perpetuity of the contest is noted, so victory is promised to the human race through a continual succession of ages. I explain, therefore, the seed to mean the posterity of the woman generally. 

Genesis 3 is not science.  Herpetologists are happy to explain to us that snakes sense the presence of prey or enemies in large part by “tasting” the air and the ground–that is why they stick out their tongues.  They will also assure us of the importance of snakes as predators in the ecosystem, and tell us that while we should be respectful of any wild animal, most snakes are neither venomous nor aggressive.

Genesis 3 isn’t history, either.  This is not the account of how sin entered the world, to be passed down ever since through the human bloodline like blue eyes or a predisposition to schizophrenia.  This is a narrative describing what human beings are like, and setting forth the consequences of our choices for ourselves and for our world.  In the story world of Genesis, the woman and the man alike attempt to pass the buck, refusing to accept blame or responsibility.  But the buck proves to be unpassable!  God holds every character in the narrative accountable.

For the woman, the consequence of her accountability is suffering:

I will make your pregnancy very painful;
            in pain you will bear children.
You will desire your husband,
        but he will rule over you (Gen 3:16).

This is the first mention anywhere in these creation accounts of the subordination of women to men.  Notice, though, that it is presented not  as God’s intention, but as a consequence of human rebellion.

Just as the woman suffers in bringing forth life from her womb, so in this story the man suffers in wresting life out of the ground:

cursed is the fertile land because of you;
        in pain you will eat from it
        every day of your life.
Weeds and thistles will grow for you,
        even as you eat the field’s plants;
    by the sweat of your face you will eat bread—
        until you return to the fertile land,
            since from it you were taken;
            you are soil,
                to the soil you will return (Gen 3:17-19).

Again, these are etiological features of the story: why is childbirth so difficult and dangerous?  Why are there thorns and thistles and weeds?  Why is life so hard?

But finally, the biggest question is also the hardest one: why do we die?  As we saw last week, in the garden the woman and man have access to the Tree of Life: they need never die.  But now,

the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to farm the fertile land from which he was taken.  He drove out the human. To the east of the garden of Eden, he stationed winged creatures wielding flaming swords to guard the way to the tree of life (Gen 3:23).

Without access to the life-giving fruit of the tree, women and men will now die–just as God had said they would, should they eat from the forbidden tree of knowledge.  Next time, we will think about what the significance of that action might be.  But for now, we will focus on the consequences of this act.

Leaving the garden of Eden behind, the woman and the man now enter a world like the world that we know, where life can be brutal and hard, where pain and suffering are sad realities, and where all of us must, sooner or later, die.

But unlike the snake, the woman and the man are not cursed!  The ground is cursed, but they are not.  Indeed, God cares for them, covering their nakedness with garments God makes from the skins of animals (Gen 3:21).  In the end, this story is about God’s desire to be in relationship with us even when we spurn that relationship. We are not cursed, spurned, or rejected by God, even though the consequences of our actions wound our world and one another.

The season of Advent is nearly upon us, when we celebrate the promise of Christ’s coming.  In Jesus, God takes on our very being, and offers us God’s own; in Christ, we share in the Divine life!

No less than Adam, or Eve, or even the snake, we must take responsibility for our own actions: the buck stops here.  But Jesus has come to take that burden, and to give us a new heart, a new life: indeed, to take us into a new creation, in which all things are become new (2 Cor 5:17).



The Bible Guy wishes all and sundry a very Happy Thanksgiving!  I am off to the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and then to spend the holiday with family; this blog will resume in December.



On Being Earthlings, Part 3


When the LORD planted a garden for the earthling Adam to inhabit and enjoy, it was filled with every kind of fruit tree known.  But two special trees were also planted there, whose like we have never seen.

One was called the Tree of Life.  The idea of a tree whose fruit gives life is very old, and widespread.

The Greek gods fed on ambrosia, the food of the gods that gave them immortality.

Among the Norse gods, the goddess Idun tended the tree whose fruit gave them immortality.

In what is arguably the oldest story in the world, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero’s quest for eternal life leads him to dive to the bottom of the underworld ocean and pluck a plant that grows there, called Oldster Becomes A Young Man.  But before he can eat it, the plant is snatched by a snake, which then sheds its skin and crawls away, renewed!  Just so, as long as Eve and Adam live in Eden, they have access to the fruit of the tree of life–meaning that they will never die.

But there is also another tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  It, too, is placed in the middle of the garden of Eden.  Concerning this tree, God says:

Eat your fill from all of the garden’s trees; but don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day you eat from it, you will die! (Gen 2:16-17).

This command foreshadows the next major movement in this ancient story of beginnings, sometimes called the story of the fall.  This week and next, we will reflect on this ancient story.

When my son Sean was only three, I once found him crouched on the floor, giggling, his hands covering his face.  Foolish parent that I was, I asked him, “What are you doing, Sean?”  Patiently, he explained to me, “I am hiding, Daddy.  I am hiding inside my eyes!”

So he was–and so, indeed, are we all.  In fact, this may sum up the human condition more succinctly than any other statement I have ever read.  We are, all of us, hiding inside our eyes.  I cannot really know what you are thinking or feeling, nor do you have any way of knowing, exactly, what is happening in my mind.  I have no access behind your eyes, save what you give me, and you have no access behind mine, save what I allow.  All of us, to some extent, are hiding behind our eyes.

Genesis 3:1-10 reminds us that we have been hiding for a long time.  The man and the woman were made to stroll at their ease through the garden, walking beside the Lord in the cool of the day.  Yet, they wind up hiding in the thickets, afraid of God and of one another. Though made to live before God in harmony with the earth and with each other, they crouch in the thickets, clasping the leaves and branches around themselves in a vain attempt to cover their nakedness.  What happened to us?  How did God’s good creation come to such a pass?

The text tells us that, just as a snake foiled Gilgamesh in his quest for immortality,  it was a snake who first suggested to the first couple that the garden was anything less than paradise.  “Did God really say,” it asks, “that you shouldn’t eat from any tree in the garden?” (Gen 3:1).  The woman answers,

We may eat the fruit of the garden’s trees but not the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. God said, ‘Don’t eat from it, and don’t touch it, or you will die’ (Gen 3:2-3).

This, of course, is not literally what God said. The woman applies God’s words in a way that insures obedience to them: if we do not even touch the tree, then we certainly won’t eat from it!  This way of interpreting and applying God’s commands is a typical feature of rabbinic teaching: the rabbis call it “building a hedge around the Torah.”  In this story, the woman acts as the first rabbi–or, for Protestant readers, the first preacher–in history!

The serpent’s scorn at Eve’s pious response  is palpable: “You won’t die! God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:4-5).  

The woman sees the forbidden tree now in a different light: “The woman saw that the tree was beautiful with delicious food and that the tree would provide wisdom” (Gen 3:6).  So the woman and the man both eat, and at that moment they know that they are naked.  Overcome with shame and horror, they run away and hide–as we have been hiding ever since.

A pun in the Hebrew makes a striking parallel between the serpent’s craftiness (expressed by ‘arum) and Adam and Eve’s nakedness (Hebrew ‘arom).   The CEB reads, “The snake was the most intelligent [my emphasis: Hebrew ‘arum] of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made” (Gen 3:1).  The NRSV has “crafty,”  while the old King James Version reads “subtil.”  Sly and sophisticated, the snake knows secrets the man and woman do not know–or at least, so he claims!  Adam and Eve are seduced by this proffered knowledge, enticed by the snaky self-confidence of the serpent.  They eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge.  But, rather than being filled with godlike wisdom and self-possession, rather than becoming crafty (‘arum) like the serpent, they become shamefully aware of their nakedness (‘arom).

The serpent’s promise still entices us.  We long for that crafty sophistication, that appearance of  knowledge!  But grasping for that prize, we are confronted with our own shallowness and emptiness.  Seeking superiority, we instead find ourselves exposed, vulnerable, naked.  No wonder we run away, to hide in the dark places of our mind, behind our eyes.

Some of us are better at hiding than others.  Like Richard Cory in Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem (the basis of the song “Richard Cory” by Simon and Garfunkel), we may be able to conceal from everyone else the fear, the inadequacy, the emptiness we feel.  We may even be able to communicate such snaky sophistication that others will think of us, as the crowd did of Cory:

In fine, we thought that he was everything,

         To make us wish that we were in his place.

Yet Richard Cory could not escape his own self-loathing, and “one calm summer night,/ Went home, and put a bullet through his head.”  Some of us are better at hiding than others.  But we cannot hide from ourselves–and we cannot hide from God.

Surely, it is no mere chance that the first question asked of humanity by Deity is, “Where are you?”  God comes looking for us, in the briars and brambles of the garden’s thickets, not to drag our shame into the open, not to expose our nakedness and vulnerability, but to restore us.

When he was a small boy, my son Sean was not good at hiding.  When we played hide and seek, as soon as I would begin to look for him, calling “Where’s Sean? Where’s Sean?”, he would cry out, “Here I am, Daddy!  I am hiding behind the couch!”, or “I am hiding under this blanket!”  Then again, perhaps Sean knew that the point of hide and seek is being found: not remaining, cold and alone, in our hiding places. 

Brothers and sisters, God is looking for us.  That is why God comes to us in Jesus, as one of us, living a life and dying a death like ours.  In Jesus God comes right into the thickets and brambles of our despair, right into the darkness behind our eyes, calling as in Eden, calling still, “Where are you?” God grant us the wisdom of children, and the courage to stand where we are, casting off our pretense of sophisticated self-sufficiency, and to cry out, “Here I am!”  God is looking for you.  Get found!


In the wake of the unprecedented devastation wrought in the Philippines by Super Typhoon (a storm so vast it needed a different designation!) Haiyan, UMCOR is already at work, bringing food, medical help, and aid in rebuilding.  Watch this video, and send your contributions to UMCOR here.  Every cent you contribute goes directly to aid.



Who Am I?


I had intended this week to continue reflecting on the second creation story in Genesis.  But it is All Saints Day as I write this, and at the top of my mind and in my heart today are two dear friends who have died in recent days.  One is my brother in United Methodist ministry Bob Higginbotham, assistant to the Bishop and a leader in the Western Pennsylvania Conference.

The other is Bob Kelley, beloved New Testament professor emeritus from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, who I got to know through PTS trustees meetings and alumni gatherings.

May light perpetual shine upon you, my brothers!

I could not let this All Saints Day pass without mourning their passing, celebrating their lives, and remembering the great significance of this day, which reminds us all of the great communion to which we belong in the body of Christ: the Church Triumphant, spread across time and space and eternity.

I am preaching this Sunday at Calvert Memorial Presbyterian Church in Etna, PA, at the invitation of their pastor and my former student, P.J. Pfeuffer.  Here is the sermon I am working on for that day, in celebration of all the saints–including us!  The texts are Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18 and Ephesians 1:11-23.  The title is, “Who Am I?”

Thursday was Hallowe’en, and I was blessed to see many small ones (and many not so small, including my students and colleagues!) in their disguises. The fun in large part, of course, is not knowing (or in any case pretending not to know) who the other person is.  As I greeted these fairy princesses and firemen and fearsome pirates, I kept remembering a Hallowe’en LONG ago, when I turned to the small vampire in the back seat of my car and asked, “Are you Dracula?”  His answer was swift and unequivocal: “No. I am just me—Anthony.”

Holding fast to our personal integrity–that is, knowing and being who we are–is a constant challenge.  But, what if we don’t know who we are?

One September day in 2001, Emily (not her real name), a 33-year-old Texas woman, got in her car to go to work. “There’s a freeway here in Dallas and I began driving up the freeway,” she recalls.  “I got up to Denton … and that’s the last thing I remember.”

The next thing she knew, it was 600 miles and 10 hours later: “It was about 3:30 in the morning when I realized I was just outside Santa Fe, New Mexico.”  Emily checked into a motel.  Then, “When I woke up the next morning, I sat up and I didn’t recognize the room,” she said. “I didn’t recognize the bag that was sitting on the chair, or the clothes that were lying over the chair. I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror. I didn’t know my name.”

This is a terrifying story!  But sadly, it may be our story, too.  Do we know who we are, today?  Last Sunday was Reformation Sunday, and Friday–the day after All-Hallows Eve, or Hallowe’en–was All-Saints Day.  This is a good time, then, to remind ourselves of who we are, and of who Christ has called us to be.

Our passage from Daniel 7 is a great Hallowe’en text–chock full of monsters!  But the text is not really about the beasts, which represent the earthly powers arrayed against God’s people.  The focus is on

 one like a human being
coming with the heavenly clouds. . . .

Rule, glory, and kingship were given to him;all peoples, nations, and languages will serve him.

His rule is an everlasting one—
it will never pass away!—
his kingship is indestructible (Dan 7:13-14).

Later faithful readers thought of Jesus when they read these words, and of the promise of his coming again in glory.  But as our passage this morning reminds us, Daniel is told that the Human One, who stands in such sharp contrast to the four beasts, represents “the holy ones of the Most High,” who “will receive the kingship. They will hold the kingship securely forever and always” (Dan 7:18).  We are the ones to whom this victory is promised.  The community of the faithful will stand long after all the beastly forces of this world are spent.  We will reign as kings and queens in God’s glory, forever!

The writer of Ephesians, too, urges us repeatedly to know, and to claim, our identity. His prayer for all who read this letter is that they would remember who they are:

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation that makes God known to you. I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers (Eph 1:17-19).

Brother and sisters, do we know who we are?  The resurrection power of Jesus is unleashed among us!  Eternal life is our inheritance!  The Holy Spirit is the sign and seal of our union with God in Christ.  Indeed, we are the culmination of what God has been up to since the dawn of creation:

God put everything under Christ’s feet and made him head of everything in the church, which is his body. His body, the church, is the fullness of Christ, who fills everything in every way (Eph 1:22-23).

Nowhere in Scripture do we find a higher view of the church than this–but the question that matters this morning is, is this our view?  Do we know that we are his body, “the fullness of Christ, who fills everything in every way?”  Do we remember who we are?

It took Emily more than a year to recover her memory.  Doctors call what happened to her a dissociative fugue, likely caused by stress (Emily’s husband was a drug addict and suicidal, and they had just had a new baby).  “You know, I lost 33 years,” she said. “And I had to slowly regain that back. And it is precious to me. And I’ve done as much as I can and everything I can to build on that.”

How can we recover our memory, brothers and sisters?  It will take more than some new program, or a slogan, or even an exciting and creative new pastor!  Our identity derives from God, who made us a people when we were no people.  If we have lost ourselves, God alone can restore us.  May our prayer this morning be the prayer of the writer of Ephesians: that God would give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation, opening the eyes of our hearts to see ourselves as the loved, forgiven, transformed and empowered people that God has made us!

Happy All-Saints Day!







On Being Earthlings, Part Two

Last week, we saw how in Genesis 2 the LORD fashions the human, ‘adam, from the ground, then plants a garden in Eden as a place for the human to inhabit and enjoy.  But something is missing: the human is alone.  So the LORD God sets out to make “a helper that is perfect for him” (Gen 2:18; Hebrew ‘ezer kenegedo).  The animals, fashioned from the ground as the human was, are wonderful, but they do not fit the bill: 

The human named all the livestock, all the birds in the sky, and all the wild animals. But a helper perfect for him was nowhere to be found (Gen 2:20).

Now comes an absolutely remarkable story.   Most of the world’s peoples tell stories about the creation of humanity, but there are precious few stories about the creation of woman. The account in Genesis 2 is almost unique in world religious traditions.

First, “the LORD God put the human into a deep and heavy sleep, and took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh over it” (Gen 2:21).  Many, perhaps most, texts render this passage as the CEB does, translating the Hebrew tselah as “rib.” But tselah can also mean something like the side of a hill, or one of the two leaves of a double door–in which case, this may be a more major surgery than it at first seems!  From this piece of Adam’s very stuff, the LORD fashions the woman, and introduces her to Adam. 

When Adam meets her, what does he say? Not, “Here is somebody who can pick up my socks!”  Not “Here is somebody who can take dictation,”  or, “Here is somebody who can do the washing up.”  I love the NRSV here:

This at last is bone of my bones
    and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
    for out of Man this one was taken (Gen 2:23).

Can we hear the joy, the delight in these few lines?  At last!  At last I am not alone!  Here is someone who is like me, and yet not like me; someone with whom I can be in relationship.

Noted preacher and Bible scholar Renita Weems puts it very well: “What do I think when I hear the phrase — ‘bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh?’ This is the first love song a man ever sang to a woman.”  

Adam then says, “this one shall be called Woman [‘ishah in Hebrew], for out of Man [Hebrew ‘ish] she was taken.” The English translations can’t quite capture what is happening here. Up to this point in the story, the human has only been called ‘adam, meaning “human.”  The very sound of the name reminds us that we humans are earthlings, made from the earth–‘adam from ‘adamah  (Hebrew for “ground,” or “earth”).

With the creation of woman, terms involving sexuality are introduced for the first time in this story: not only ‘ishah, woman, but also ‘ish, man.

In her now-classic article “Eve and Adam: Genesis 2-3 Reread,”  Phyllis Trible proposed that the creation of woman is actually the creation of man too–that sexuality only comes into the story at this point.  Since gender was an important part of humanity in ancient Israel, I am not convinced that the ancient storytellers would have understood Adam in this way.  Still, Trible raises an intriguing critique of the many misreadings of this story, which understand its point to be that the woman is created after the man, and so is subordinate to him.  This story is not about subordination at all, but about mutuality–as its next scene makes crystal clear.

In ancient Israel’s traditions, this second creation account functions in many ways as an etiological narrative: that is, it explains the way things are in the world we know by reference to the way that things began. We will see this in greater depth next week, in Genesis 3. But already here in Genesis 2, the ancient tradition tackles a puzzling feature of every human society.  What is it about the attraction between woman and man that overcomes every other loyalty, even commitments to tribe or clan?

Theatre and Dance Department presents 'Romeo and Juliet' this weekend |  Newsroom


Long before Shakespeare ever wrote about Juliet and Romeo’s love, undeterred by the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets, the ancient writers knew that the attraction between a woman and a man could explode every other loyalty. Why is that?  This story remembers that they were, originally, one–until the LORD caused a deep sleep to come upon Adam, whacked off a part of his very being, and fashioned an ‘ezer kenegedo. Made from the same stuff, they are drawn to come together and be one flesh again.  As this chapter draws to a close, the narrator tells us:

This is the reason that a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife, and they become one flesh (Gen 2:24).

Genesis tells us of the first love story in the world.


The Bible Guy wishes everyone a blessed All-Saints Day!  The night before November 1, once called Samhain, was a night of terror to my Celtic forebears, when the restless dead were believed to walk.  But when the Celts embraced Christianity, this became instead the night before All-Hallows Day–All-Hallows Eve, or Hallowe’en.  How appropriate that this became a night to celebrate the promise of Christ’s resurrection, now enjoyed by those believers who have gone before us.  What a delight that Hallowe’en today is a night when children go through our neighborhoods for treats–a night of joy, and laughter!


On Being Earthlings


A close reading of the opening chapters of Genesis reveals not one creation account but two. Over the last four weeks, we have spent a considerable amount of time looking closely at the first of those two accounts, Genesis 1:1–2:4a, in which we find depicted an ordered, carefully structured world.

Beginning this week, we are turning our attention to the second account, in Genesis 2:4b-25.  This story begins much as the first account did, only in inverted order: instead of “When God began to create the heavens and the earth”   (Gen 1:1), the second account opens, “On the day the LORD God made earth and sky” (Gen 2:4b).

This story assumes that earth and the sky have already been made by the LORD–off-stage, as it were–so their creation is not explicitly described. They are the setting for our drama, already in place when our story begins.  

This first moment is described in terms of its potential: what has not yet happened, but soon will.  Our story begins

before any wild plants appeared on the earth, and before any field crops grew, because the Lord God hadn’t yet sent rain on the earth and there was still no human being to farm the fertile land (Gen 2:5).

The world is imagined as a dry, empty plain: potentially fertile, but at the moment, barren. Then, the Lord acts. This barren field, never yet touched by rain, is moistened by a stream that bubbles up from under the ground.

Remember the ancient Near Eastern world view held that the world floated on the waters below, with the waters above held back by the solid bowl of the sky.

Now, the LORD God permits the waters below the earth to bubble up and moisten the ground, making mud.  With this mud the LORD performs the first explicitly described act of creation in this account: 

the LORD God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life (Gen 2:7).

The verb here translated “formed” is the Hebrew word yatsarYatsar is what potters do.

The LORD fashions the human the way a potter fashions a pot on the wheel, the way a sculptor fashions a statue from a bit of clay.  In this story, we are formed by the LORD’s fingers, intimately and personally.

The Hebrew word for “human” is ‘adam, from which we get the proper name, “Adam.”  The word the CEB translates as “fertile land” is ‘adamah.  Our story plays with these similar-sounding words.  Adam is the mud man, fashioned from the fertile land: the human made from the humus, the earthling made from the earth.

The phrase rendered “came to life” in the CEB of Gen 2:7 is more familiarly rendered in the KJV “became a living soul.”  The expression is in Hebrew nephesh khayah that is, a living nephesh. Though nephesh is sometimes translated as “soul,” it never means some separate, supernatural part of the self.  Its basic meaning has to do with breath; in fact, it can sometimes mean something as narrow and specific as “throat.”  Most commonly, nephesh means “self.”  So ‘adam becomes, as the NRSV reads here, “a living being.”  

Having formed Adam, the Lord then begins to make everything else for Adam.  Unlike Genesis 1, where plants were created before humanity, at the end of Day 3, in this account the first expressly described creative act of God is the creation of the human. There are no plants until the LORD God plants a garden as the human’s home (Gen 2:8). 

Eden was not only a place for Adam to live, providing shelter and food. Genesis 2:9 says that “every beautiful tree” grew there.  The LORD God has provided food for Adam’s body, and beauty to enrich Adam’s life.  Further, our text declares,

The LORD God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it (Gen 2:15).

Adam is given fruitful and fulfilling work to do: his life in the garden has a purpose.  What more could Adam possibly need or want?

Genesis 1:1–2:4a is not really a narrative.  It is a carefully structured list.  Narrative after all is not just one thing after another!  Narrative presupposes a plot, and plots are driven by conflict: problems to be solved, obstacles to be overcome.  Up to this point in Genesis (reading the two accounts in sequence, as they appear in our Bibles), God has declared everything good: no conflict has appeared.  But now, in this second account, a problem emerges:

Then the Lord God said, “It’s not good that the human is alone (Gen 2:18).

For the first time, something is “not good.”  Adam is not truly alone, of course: the Lord is there too in the garden.  But there is no being like Adam. The LORD decides, “I will make him a helper that is perfect for him” (Gen 2:18).  The Hebrew is ‘ezer kenegedo, a difficult and ambiguous phrase.  The word ‘ezer means “helper,” which we could misunderstand to mean something like “assistant.”  But if we flip through the Hebrew Bible to find out how this word is used, we discover that the one most commonly referred to as ‘ezer is God.  So this isn’t a term of subordination!

The expression kenegedo can be taken apart, piece by piece. In Hebrew, ke means “as” or “like.”  Neged means “next to,” “alongside of,” or sometimes “opposite.” The o at the end means “him.”   So: kenegedo means “like and yet unlike him,” or “corresponding to him.” The King James Version famously renders this phrase as “an help meet [that is, “fitting” or “suitable”] for him.” The CEB has “a helper that is perfect for him.”   I really like what the NRSV does here: “a helper as his partner.”  This is not a quest to find an assistant or a subordinate, someone less than  Adam.  Adam is alone: the quest is to find a being that will be like and yet unlike Adam, with whom Adam can be in relationship.

So the LORD goes back to the drawing board–or more accurately, back to the mud pile.

So the Lord God formed from the fertile land all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky and brought them to the human to see what he would name them. The human gave each living being its name (Gen 2:19)

We have heard the key Hebrew words in this verse before. Like Adam, the human, the animals are formed (Hebrew yatsar) as a potter forms the clay: fashioned by the LORD with an artist’s hands. Also like Adam, the animals are made from “the fertile land”: Hebrew ‘adamah.  Just as Adam is called nephesh khayah, a “living being,” so are the animals.

Something fascinating is going on in this narrative of creation. While in Genesis 1, humanity is set apart from the rest of creation in multiple ways, in Genesis 2 we are joined to the earth from which we are made.  This does not mean that Genesis 2:4b-25 devalues or demeans humanity–far from it!  The human is the first thing made and everything else is made for Adam or because of Adam. Further, human dignity is clear in Adam being given the responsibility of naming the animals.

But nonetheless, there is also a clear relationship binding humanity to the rest of the created world. We are earthlings, made from and inseparably related to the earth–an idea consonant with the science of ecology.

Returning to our narrative, it is clear that the creation of the animals does not solve the problem!

The human named all the livestock, all the birds in the sky, and all the wild animals. But a helper perfect for him was nowhere to be found (Gen 2:20).

I love my cat, but the relationship that I can have with that wild little alien mind, looking up at me through those bright eyes, is sharply limited.

Though the animals are wonderful, none of them is an ‘ezer kenegedo.  The LORD realizes that it isn’t enough just to go back to the ‘adamah from which ‘adam had been made. An ‘ezer kenegedo will have to be fashioned, not from the soil as Adam was fashioned, but from Adam’s very being.



What a Wonderful World! Part 4

In Genesis 1:1–2:4a, creation is imagined as taking place in the span of a single week, with the seventh day, the Sabbath, as a day of rest. Humans are created at the end of the sixth day, making us the last creatures that God makes.  In this first creation account, we are the climax of creation.

The text sets the creation of human beings apart from the rest of creation in several ways.  First, Gen 1:26 says, “Then God said, “Let us make humanity.”  What do we do with the plural here?  To whom is God speaking? Christian readers have sometimes found in this verse a reflection of the Trinity, so that the Father here addresses the Son and the Holy Spirit.

But the ancient priests of Israel would not have thought about God in those terms.  Parallels with other stories of creation in the ancient Near East reveal that the best way to understand this text in its historical context is as referring to a council of heavenly beings.

In the Enuma elish, creation is an act of committee.  The gods elected Marduk as their king and champion, to defeat the chaos monster Tiamat.  But once she was dead, the other gods joined with Marduk in the creation of the world.

Ea, the god of wisdom, counseled Marduk on a special aspect of this work: the creation of people.  According to the Babylonian creation story, “savage-man” was fashioned as a slave race, to serve the gods.

While the view of human being and of God is very different in Genesis 1 than in the Enuma elish, the simplest way to understand the plural in Genesis 1:26 is that here too the Creator is addressing a council of heavenly beings.  Still, faith in the incomparable God once again causes Israel to take a different stance than its neighbors. In Genesis, the council is decidedly in the background: God neither asks the council’s permission, nor seeks its aid. Indeed, God has not said “let us” before; only the creation of human being involves the council at all. Perhaps the council is mentioned here primarily to set human beings apart from the rest of creation.

Rather than the traditional KJV reading, “Let us make man,” the CEB has ““Let us make humanity” (Gen 1:26).   This is not political correctness: it is a matter of accurate translation. In Hebrew, the word for “man” is ish. But that is not the word that is used here. In Genesis 1:26, God decides to create ‘adam, which means “humanity.”

Human being, already distinguished by the mention of the divine council, is further distinguished by something not mentioned.  There are “kinds” of everything else in creation: plants, birds, fish, and animals (Gen 1:11-12, 21, 24-25).  However, there are no “kinds” of people.

This is not because the ancient Israelites were ignorant of other races and cultures: Palestine was a crossroads of ancient civilizations. The Israelites were fully aware of Africans and Asians, people of varying ethnicities, speaking a host of languages.  Yet Israel does not distinguish among these races and nations, as though some are more human than others.  Instead, there is just ‘adam: one single human family. It is a remarkable confession, rejecting every form of racism and jingoistic nationalism.

It is particularly important that we translate ‘adam correctly, because Genesis 1:27 goes on very plainly to state:

God created humanity in God’s own image,
        in the divine image God created them,
            male and female God created them.

Masculinity and femininity, maleness and femaleness, are each reflections of God-likeness in this verse. There is no hierarchy of the sexes here; no basis for placing women under men.

To be sure Israel’s traditions were not always equal to this insight. Yet here it is, at the very beginning of the Bible!  Sexism, like racism, is denied any place in the priestly view of God’s ordered world.  Further, to say that maleness and femaleness are both representations of “God-likeness” is also to say that God is neither male nor female—or more accurately, that both masculinity and femininity reflect aspects of God.  While the dominant images of God in the male-centered culture of ancient Israel were masculine, one of the dominant features of Israel’s theology from early on was an absolute refusal to make an image of God: the point being that no image can adequately express God’s being.  Further, there are texts which depict God in feminine terms–specifically, as midwife (Ps 22:9-10) and as mother (Hos 11:1-4). The God of Scripture is not a big man in the sky!

Returning to Genesis 1:26, the most distinctive aspect of human being in this account is our God-likeness:

Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us” (Gen 1:26).

The more familiar language of the King James reads, “in our image, after our likeness.”  What might it mean that we are made in the likeness (Hebrew demut) and image (Hebrew tselem) of God?

Insight may come from a mid-ninth century B. C. memorial inscription found on a statue at Tell Fekheriyeh, in which these words also appear.

This old Aramaic text describes the statue as the “likeness” and “image” of Hadad-yis’i, governor of Guzan in the Assyrian empire.  This could simply mean that the statue looks like him (as the CEB “to resemble us” in Gen 1:26 suggests).  But since this is a funerary inscription, it more likely means that this image represents Hadad-yis’i: it calls the governor to mind, even though he is no longer physically present.

The Hebrew words demut, (“likeness”) and tselem (“image, statue”) found in Genesis 1 could also relate to the idea of representation.  Just as his memorial statue preserves the memory of Hadad-yis’i, calling him to our minds even today, millennia after his death, so looking into the face of another human being calls God to mind.

By saying that humans bear God’s image, the priests are saying something about God, as well as something about humanity.  Our passage understands God in personal terms. This is another a remarkable step out of the mythic background of the ancient Near East.  The gods of the nations were embodiments of natural forces or powers.  Baal was the thunderstorm,

Asherah was motherhood,

and Ishtar was raw sensuality.

But in Genesis 1:26, the priests of Israel say that God’s likeness is seen in humanity, and implicitly (since that likeness is shown in “male and female”), in relationships.

The rest of the Bible, it could be said, pursues the question, “How can we be in relationship with God?”  Right at the start, we have a clue in our very humanity.  Our own longing for relationship, for connection with one another, tells us something of God’s love for us.

Genesis 1:26 goes on to define what being created in the image of God means in greater detail:

Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.”

Presumably, the image and likeness of God in human being is related to “taking charge” (Hebrew radah) over the rest of creation. In sharp contrast to the Enuma elish, in which humans are a slave race, in Genesis 1 we are honored as the lords and ladies of creation! Under God’s divine lordship as the ruler of the cosmos, we are appointed as regents, governing in God’s stead.  Humans stand in for God in material reality, concretely representing God’s rule.

Our passage goes on to affirm,

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.” (Gen 1:28).

Unfortunately, in the history of our faith, believers often have understood mastering the earth to mean abusing the earth: we are free to use the world, and even to use it up, as we see fit.

But it is apparent that this is not the intention of Genesis 1.  Consider God’s continual assessment of the world God is making: “God saw how good it was” (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). Finally, when the work of creation was done, “God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good.” (Gen 1:31).

The goodness of creation does not depend on its utility for human beings: God calls the world good before we show up at the end of Day Six! The creation is good because God calls it good, quite apart from whether or not we can use it.  As in Psalm 104, where God’s presence is affirmed in all the world, even down in the depths with Leviathan where no human can live, Genesis 1:1—2:4a affirms God’s valuation of the world in and for itself.  If we exercise our dominion properly, we too will recognize the wonder, beauty and inherent goodness of the world that God has made, and exercise our responsibility as proper stewards of the earth.

The absence of conflict and the emphasis upon order in Genesis 1 leads to a rather intriguing conclusion.  In Genesis 1:29-30, God says,

“I now give to you [that is, humanity] the plants on the earth that yield seeds and all the trees whose fruit produces its seeds within it. These will be your food.  To all wildlife, to all the birds in the sky, and to everything crawling on the ground—to everything that breathes—I give all the green grasses for food.”  

According to this text, God’s original will was for all creatures, humans and animals alike, to be vegetarian!  Permission to eat meat is not given, in the priests’ understanding, until after the great flood (see Gen 9:1-7).  As the priests imagine it, God’s dream is that the world be, like Hicks’ “Peaceable Kingdom,” a place of peace and beauty, where nothing has to die for something else to live.

This harmonious order extends past the actual work of creation. In Genesis 2:1-2, we read,

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that God had done, and God rested on the seventh day from all the work that God had done. (NRSV)

What a marvelous image! God rests, trusting the world that God has made enough to let it go.  God not only rests, but sanctifies the day of rest: “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creation.” (Gen 2:3). Through Sabbath rest, human beings are given another way to be like God.

As we have seen, the six days of creation stand in parallel to one another: the light on day one to the lights on day four; the sky dome separating the waters on day two to the birds in the air and the fish in the water on day five; the creation of dry land and plants on day three to the creation of animals and humans, to live on the land and eat the plants, on day six.   The seventh day alone stands apart, without parallel, as the climax of creation. In this priestly depiction of reality, Sabbath is part of the structure of the universe. The sacredness of the seventh day is woven into the warp and woof of creation.

The structure of reality in Genesis 1:1—2:4a is very like architecture, with the six days arranged in parallel, like the columns of a building:

Day 1: Light                            Day 4: Lights

Day 2: Sky dome                    Day 5: Birds and fish

Day 3: Dry land                      Day 6: Land animals

Plants                                      Humanity

Day 7: Sabbath

In ancient Palestine and Syria, temples were built on a long room design: an entrance with a vestibule opened into a long main room with pillars.  At the back of the temple would often be a separate room, the Most Holy Place.  In Phoenician and Canaanite temples, that room held the image of the god. In the temple of Israel in Jerusalem, the inner room held God’s footstool, the Ark of the Covenant, above which God was invisibly enthroned.

The Most Holy Place, where the Ark was kept, became the place of the LORD’s special, particular presence.  If the six days of creation correspond to the main room, then Sabbath, the day apart without parallel, would be the Most Holy Place, where the Divine can be encountered.  Keep in mind, though, that in the priestly worldview God’s image is found in human beings. It is when we look in the eyes of another human being that we come closest to understanding who God is.

In Genesis 1:1—2:4a, the priests describe the world as a carefully and intricately ordered place: a temple built in time.  The symmetry and elegance of this world invite us to contemplate the wisdom and majesty of its creator, who imposes order upon chaos.  Does the world make sense?  The priests of ancient Israel affirm that it does.  Our God gives meaning to our world, and to our lives.



What a Wonderful World! Part 3


Last week, we saw how the priestly account of creation in Genesis 1:1–2:4a proceeds in a careful, orderly fashion, with the first three days each paralleled by one of the second three days, in sequence.  So, the creation of light on Day One (Gen 1:1-5) is paralleled on Day Four by the creation of the lights in the sky: the sun, moon, and stars (Gen 1:14-19).

On Day Two, God created the dome of the heavens, separating the waters above from the waters below and creating within the dome an open space. On Day Five, which parallels Day Two, God populates the air with birds, and the waters with fish and other creatures that live in the water (Gen 1:20-23).

Again, as on Day Three, the world is invited by God to take part in its own coming into being: “God said, ‘Let the waters swarm with living things, and let birds fly above the earth up in the dome of the sky’” (Gen 1:20).

God invites the water to bring forth living creatures, much as the plants had emerged from the earth.  Since biologists theorize that life on earth began in the oceans, some have suggested that the Genesis account is, after all, scientifically accurate.  Indeed, since according to 2 Peter 3:8 “with the Lord a single day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a single day”(see also Ps 90:4), it is sometimes suggested that each day in Genesis 1 may actually represent thousands or millions of years in our time.

This approach doesn’t work, however.  The sequence described for the emergence of life in this chapter doesn’t fit the fossil record: for example, birds did not actually appear before land animals, but rather are descended from dinosaurs.

Further, the text says, again and again, “There was evening and there was morning”: the priests are imagining ordinary, twenty-four-hour days.  This is important, as the sabbatical focus of Genesis 1:1–2:4a only works if we are talking about a sequence of seven days.

This means that we cannot shoehorn this story into our scientific world view –which is only a problem if believe that the Bible must be factual in order to be true.  But since Genesis presents two different accounts in its opening chapters, it is already clear that the text will not permit us to read it as a literal, factual account of beginnings.  This is not a scientific account, but a confession about God, and God’s relationship to our world.

Still,  the idea that God calls upon the waters to bring forth fish is consistent with the theory of evolution: the fundamental concept in modern biology.  For Israel’s ancient priests, as we saw in our discussion of Day Three, God creates in part by empowering the world to participate in its own creation, and enables the world to sustain itself.  This line of thought is consonant with the attempts by biologists to understand the emergence of life in natural terms, while still recognizing God as creator.

Among the living creatures now swarming the seas, Genesis 1:21 tells us, are “the great sea animals” (CEB; the NRSV reads “the great sea monsters”).  In Hebrew, the word is tanninim, which means dragons: the monsters of the abyss.

In the Babylonian creation epic the Enuma Elish, the sea monster Tiamat is the enemy that the creator god Marduk must defeat in order to make the world.  But according to Israel’s priests, if there is a dragon in the sea, then God must have made it!

In Psalm 104, a beautiful psalm of creation, the sea monster (here called Leviathan) is marvelously and whimsically described:

And then there’s the sea, wide and deep,
    with its countless creatures—
    living things both small and large.
There go the ships on it,
    and Leviathan, which you made, plays in it! (Ps 104:35-26).

The dragon delights in its watery world, just as God delights in all that God creates.  Rather than the uncreated adversary of the Divine, the sea monster is one of the living things with which the waters swarm–just another fish, if a whopping big one!

This brings us to Day Six.  Just as on Day Three God performed two creative acts (the land emerged from the water, and God invited the earth to bring forth plants), so Day Six features two creative acts of God.  First, the animals are made, to live on the land and eat the plants:

 God said, “Let the earth produce every kind of living thing: livestock, crawling things, and wildlife.” And that’s what happened (Gen 1:24). 

Once more, the world is invited to participate in its own creation. Just as on Day Three the earth brought forth plants, and as on Day Four the waters brought forth living creatures, so now at God’s invitation the earth brings forth living creatures.

In keeping with the ordered priestly worldview, the land animals are divided into three classes. First are the behemah, or domestic animals: the sheep, goats, and cattle that share the human world.

Last are the chayyat ha’arets (more usually called chayyat hassadeh, which the King James translates literally as “the beasts of the field”): that is, the wild animals, belonging to the wilderness.

In between these two major classes of animals are the remes: the creeping things—creatures with either too many legs or not enough, which seem to pop up everywhere. 

Now, the entire world is inhabited, with lights on the sky dome, fish in the seas, birds in the air, and animals filling every niche of the dry land.

But only with God’s second act on this sixth day is the population of the world complete.  Last of all, as the climax and pinnacle of creation, God creates humanity:

Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth” (Gen 1:26).

This is a difficult and complex verse, worth taking some time to umpack.  We will consider the creation of humanity, and finish our discussion of Genesis 1:1–2:4a, next week.


All season long, it has been a joy to watch the Pittsburgh Pirates play baseball.   Now, with their decisive victory over the Cincinnati Reds, the Bible Guy is foolishly pleased to report that the Pirates are in contention for the National League pennant, and the World Series.  After 20 years without a winning season, let alone a playoff shot, it is most definitely time!  LET’S GO BUCS!!!


What a Wonderful World! Part 2

Last week, we discussed the first two days of creation as depicting the beginning of time and space.  The separation of light from darkness (Day One) and the waters above from waters below (Day Two) is followed on Day Three by a third act of separation:

God said, “Let the waters under the sky come together into one place so that the dry land can appear.” And that’s what happened (Gen 1:9, CEB).

The land emerges from the water: picture a flat disc of land floating on the waters below, with the waters above held back by the dome.

Of, course, this is not our world view!  We know that, just as the sky is not a solid bowl overhead, the earth is not a disk floating on the waters below, but a sphere, drifting through empty space.

Still, Genesis 1:9 presents a commonsensical worldview. I know there is water up there, beyond the sky, because sometimes it comes down, as rain.  I know there is water down there, under the earth, because sometimes it bubbles up, in springs and streams, and if I dig at the right place, I may hit it!

Day Three involves two distinct acts of creation. After calling forth the dry land from the waters, God empowers the emerging world to take part in its own coming into being:

God said, “Let the earth grow plant life: plants yielding seeds and fruit trees bearing fruit with seeds inside it, each according to its kind throughout the earth.” And that’s what happened (Gen 1:11).

God invites the earth to participate in its own creation, by putting forth (literally, sprouting) green plants.  Further, the plants themselves, each bearing “fruit with seeds inside it,” hold within them the possibility of continuing God’s creation, carrying life forward into the future.  God creates a world capable of continuous regeneration.

Just as a consonance can be observed between God’s creation of space-time and contemporary physics, surely we can see here a consonance between God empowering the world to bring forth life and contemporary biology.

Biologists strive to understand the emergence and development of life in naturalistic terms, just as an engineer designing a dam or an astronomer calculating the orbit of a planet strives to make predictions based on observable, natural laws.  Genesis 1:11 is not biology.  Israel’s ancient priests knew nothing of DNA or mitochondria or the evolution of species.  Their description of creation proceeds from their idea of God, not from investigation into the world’s workings.  However, their insight that God empowers God’s world for self-creation, and invites its participation in its own coming into being, lends support to the biologist’s quest for understanding.

With the separation of land from water and the emergence of the plants, we might say that geography comes into being. Three days into creation, we have a world that we can recognize: sky overhead, seas, lakes, rivers, forests, savannas, deserts, mountains, plains. But though this is recognizably the place where we live, we do not live there yet.  In fact, no one lives there!  It is still empty. But in the next three days, God populates this world–beginning with its empty sky.

In the ordered priestly conception of Genesis 1:1—2:4a, each of the second three days in sequence is parallel to one of the first three days, in sequence.  So, while on Day One God created light (Hebrew ‘or), on Day Four (first of the second three days, paralleling day one; cf. Gen 1:14-19), God creates the me’orot: that is, the lights. A big light now rules the sky at day, while a little light and a generous scattering of tiny lights adorn the heavens at night. The previously blank dome of the heavens is now “populated” with lights.

From our twenty-first century scientific and technological perspective, this makes no sense at all!  We know that we live on a ball spinning in space. When our side of the ball turns toward the sun, we experience what seems to us to be the sunrise. As the ball turns, we experience what seems from our perspective to be the sun moving across the sky. When our side of the ball moves into the shadow on the far side, so that we face away from the sun, we experience night.

How, then, could three days have gone by, and the sun come into being only now, on the fourth day?  The simple answer is that, while we know the reasons for night and day, the people who wrote this text did not. From their perspective, light and darkness, day and night, were direct creations of the Divine.  The sun, the moon, and the stars were lights, fixed to the dome of the sky. Their motion marked the passage of the days and nights and the sequence of the seasons (see Gen 1:14), but they did not cause them.

By contrast, in the Babylonian creation story, the Enuma elish, the sun and moon are gods, and the constellations are the astral images of the gods.  The Babylonians invented astrology based on this idea.  If you understand the motion of the heavens, you know what the gods are doing, and can plan your own life accordingly.

But Genesis 1:14-19 simply calls the heavenly bodies “lights.”  They are objects, not persons! For the priests in Genesis 1, the sun is not a god, the moon is not a god, the stars are not gods and goddesses; all are merely lights in the sky.  By concentrating divinity solely in God, Genesis 1 disenchants the world.  The storm, the earthquake, fire, and fertility are not gods and goddesses, but natural forces. Objects in the world are simply objects.

In many ways, we do not, and cannot, share the worldview of this text.  Our earth is not a flat disk; our sky is not a solid dome; we know that the sun, moon, and stars are not lights fastened to the sky.  The disenchantment of the world described in Genesis 1:14-19, however, makes our scientific and technological world possible.

As long as I believe in an enchanted world, a world haunted by gods and demons in which every rock, stone or tree is possessed by a spirit, I can neither formulate laws to render the behavior of my world meaningful, nor make predictions based on those laws.  The interaction of objects in the world will be due to the capricious decisions that those various spirits might make in their interactions with one another.

But once I understand that the sun is an object, like a lamp; that the moon and the stars too are lights—in short, once my world is disenchanted—I can attempt to understand the interrelationships among the objects in the world. By observation and experiment, I can begin to formulate hypotheses and test them; I can make predictions about what my world will do. The ancient Israelite priests who wrote Genesis 1 were not scientists, but the step that they took in Genesis 1:14-19 makes science happen.