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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

How the Bible opens with a shock

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”  So begins the Bible, with Genesis 1:1. 


 “When I think there was a day when a human hand first wrote those words, I am filled with awe. This sentence is a masterpiece of compression.”


So writes Pulitzer Prize novelist, Marilynne Summers Robinson, in her just-published book Reading Genesis, a book I have been waiting for for years and which I have managed to dip into for the sake of this blog.  It is even endorsed by Barack Obama!


The fact of the matter is that for the most part we don’t know how to read Genesis, this foundational book of our faith, either trying to squeeze this ancient text into our scientific world view or working out the various sources behind its composition. 


In contrast Robinson comes to the text as a working novelist, seeking to understand the book on its own terms.  So she repeatedly asks the text: “What work is this or that detail doing in the place where it now stands?”  And she does so as a Christian.


Fellow novelist, Francis Spufford, writes: “(The) surprising thing about Reading Genesis, given that it’s by a writer who can make even nonbelievers feel the presence of the thing they disbelieve, is that it is hardly interested in the numinous.”


So what do we learn?  Very simply Genesis is different, it stands well apart from contemporary texts.  Robinson points out that “to say that God is the good creator of a good creation” sets the God of Genesis in opposition to the gods of other ancient creation stories, who range from indifferent to evil.


So in stark contrast to the creation and flood stories from Babylon and Gilgamesh, where the gods battle it out between themselves while playing sport with their human minions, Genesis would introduce to a God who makes the universe simply because he wishes to create something that is very good and that causes him delight.


“Against this background of ambient myth” she writes, “to say that God is the good creator of a good creation is not a trivial statement. The insistence of Genesis on this point, even the mention of goodness as an attribute of the creation, is unique to Genesis.”


Moreover, we are made not to serve God’s whims but to care for his good world. We are made in his image, for relationship with him and in his name to care for his creation.  We are responsible to him. 


So what about the great flood, for example, which appears in such ancient writings such as the Epic of Gilgamesh? Here the highest god, Enlil, decides to destroy the world with a flood because humans have become too noisy. He’s irritated. 


In contrast Robinson explains that the story of Noah’s flood shows that although human beings have made a terrible mess of the world, so much so that we might be tempted to destroy the lot and start again, this is not what God does. He wants life to continue and, despite everything, his creation remains a blessing.


Take the puzzling story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac his son.  This teaches us that our impulse to give God what is most precious to us needs affirming but in no way can he be bribed by our extravagance, or placated by extreme violence we are prepared to commit for his sake. No way will he condone child sacrifice, so common in that era. 

And in total contrast to the gods of other ancient cultures who demand sacrifices to keep them fed and content, the God of Genesis needs nothing.


For one of the big themes of Genesis – and you can’t overstate this – is that God will not give up on us.  Of course, we are deeply flawed, messed up.  All of us, and Genesis refuses to gloss over the reality of sin.  Cain is a murderer, Noah gets drunk, Abraham deceives, Jacob is a liar and fraudster – and so on.  Even so God perseveres with us.  He stays faithful to his promises. 

In all this how we are shown that God has a purpose for his creation and more, he wants to bless the work of his hands.  But how?  Answer - through a small family of migrant herdsmen. So he proposes a covenant with Abraham and strangely within this divine plan, Abraham is free to choose.


Okay, Abraham makes lots of mistakes on the way; he even disobeys.  Somehow God is able to handle all this.  We can’t work out how - but that’s the way God has made his world: his sovereignty and our freedom.  God gets what God wants, and we do what we like.


So Robinson concludes:  “Let us say that God lets human beings be human beings, and that his will is accomplished through or despite them but is never dependent on them.”


And more: “Grace tempers judgment,” observes Robinson, noting that despite well-deserved instances of wrath or punishment, God relents time after time.


“In every situation in Genesis where revenge seems just and inevitable, no revenge is taken.” God protects Cain, Esau embraces Jacob, Joseph forgives his brothers. Cycles of violence are blocked before they even begin, long before they could start spinning out of control.


So Genesis closes with a key verse, with Joseph telling his reconciled brothers, those who, for the record, had planned to murder him, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50:19)


Here is the God of the universe caring for his creatures so that they may care for each other and for the world in which they have been placed.  God means us for good. 


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