Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Two Creations: Why Genesis Can't be Taken Literally

In the last few months I've found myself doing something I swore off years ago: arguing with creationists. I had stopped because I realized you can't convince most of them that evolution is true, no matter how good you think your arguments are, or how much evidence you offer them. The problem is that creationism and science proceed in entirely different directions. Creationism takes it on faith that Genesis is literally true, and then (sometimes) seeks to find arguments that support that claim. Science (ideally) looks at nature, and then proposes theories that seem to explain it. If the theory seems to match the evidence, it's retained. If it doesn't, it's discarded.

So, with creationism, belief comes before evidence, while in science, evidence comes before belief. Darwin didn't start with a belief in evolution, and then set out to prove it. He observed the natural world, and then proposed a theory that seemed to explain it. Creationism values faith above all, while science values empirical evidence above all. That's why debating a creationist is like playing basketball with someone who refuses to count your baskets, and insists they've already won no matter how well you play. They've made up their minds that Genesis is literally true, so they aren't particularly interested in hearing reasons it might not be. I'm no Galileo, but it always makes me think about how he must have felt when people refused to even look through his telescope.

In other words, it's absolutely maddening, so I had given up the creation/evolution debate. For years, the topic rarely came up, because I wasn't around many people who liked to discuss it, and the ones who did took creationism no more seriously than Norse mythology. Honestly, I had forgotten how many Americans are biblical literalists who believe Genesis is fact, not parable or myth. Then came Facebook, which put me back in touch with old friends and family members, and gave me a window into their thoughts. They are good, funny, smart people, most of them—and an astounding number of them believe the Earth is just a few thousand years old. I was shocked by that, and they were shocked by me. Creationism and biblical literalism are certainly not uncommon. Gallup polls show that nearly 50% of people in the US think "God created humans in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years."  Around 30% of people in the US agree with the statement  that "the Bible is the actual word of God, and is to be taken literally, word for word."

The difference between mainstream scientific views and young earth creationism is a huge one. If the earth is really 4.56 billion years old, and creationists think it's 6 to 10 thousand years old, that's equivalent to saying Texas is ten feet across. If mainstream science is right, then creationists aren't just a little bit wrong. They're outrageously, spectacularly wrong. From my perspective, hearing someone say the earth is a few thousand years old is just about as bewildering, and admittedly frustrating, as hearing someone insist that Texas is the width of a mobile home.

Anyway, I found myself in the creation/evolution debate again, but I soon remembered why I had stopped. There's no point in trying to convince creationists using scientific evidence. They're playing a different game; a game based on faith. So I decided to try to understand where they're coming from, and take another look at the creation story in Genesis.

And a fascinating story it is. One surprising thing is how short it is. In my New Oxford Annotated Bible, it's only a little over 5 pages from “In the beginning” to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden—and half of those pages are footnotes. Another surprising thing is that there isn't just one creation story. There are two, and they are very different. I had always heard this, but it's amazing to read them and see just how different they are.

The first (Genesis 1:1 through 2:3) is the one that describes the creation of the world in six days, and God resting on the seventh. In this version, the original Hebrew text calls God “Elohim”; which is basically a generic name for “god” or “deity”. The second narrative (Genesis 2:4 through 25) refers to God as Yahweh in the original Hebrew. If I understand it correctly, Yahweh is the personal name of this particular god (apparently, the early Hebrews believed in many gods, but came to worship the one named Yahweh exclusively. Only later did they come to believe there were no other gods). The name Yahweh is rendered in many Bibles as “the LORD”.

Before I get into what the two narratives say, a little background on Genesis as a whole might be useful. Genesis, of course, is the first book in the Old Testament. It describes the creation of the world, the fall of Adam and Eve, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, and the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph—the lineage thought to give rise to the Jews. Genesis is the first of the five books traditionally thought to have been dictated by God to Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Jews call these five books the Torah, and Christians call them the Pentateuch. In the late Renaissance, when the risk of being killed or imprisoned for heresy began to decline, people started pointing out that the Torah/Pentateuch, like the rest of the Bible, gives the distinct impression of having been written by more than one person, in more than one style. In the 1800's, the German scholar Julius Wellhausen proposed that the first five books of the Bible were composed by four different people (or groups of people) who he called J (for Jahweh, German for Yahweh, because this is what J calls God), E (because this source calls God “Elohim”), P (for Priestly), and D (for Deuteronomist, because this source wrote much of Deuteronomy as well as some later books in the Old Testament). This line of thinking is known as the Documentary Hypothesis. The idea has been hugely influential, though it's become more controversial since the 1970's. Still, the basic idea that the Pentateuch was written by different people at different times is still accepted by all but the most conservative biblical scholars, and clear to anyone who takes a close look at both stories in Genesis.

The First Creation Story

The first creation narrative in the bible is thought to be written by P, the Priestly author (or group of authors). This source depicts God as a distant, all-powerful deity who creates an orderly cosmos from a primeval, watery darkness. He does this with the power of words, beginning with, “Let there be light”. In this narrative, God (Elohim) separates light from darkness on the first day, and names them Day and Night. On the second day, he divides the primordial waters by raising the dome of the sky, which separates the waters below from the waters above the dome. When this text was written, Hebrews thought of the Earth as a flat place surrounded by water. The sky was thought to be an actual, solid dome, and the sun, moon, and stars were lights embedded in the dome. In this narrative, there is water beyond the dome (a disconcerting thought, really). Later, Hebrews adopted the Greek idea that the world is a sphere, surrounded by a series of concentric domes. At the time this narrative was written, the world was not only thought to be the center of the universe, but a flat piece of ground in a dome-shaped bubble between primordial waters. Not even young-earth creationists these days are willing to take Genesis that literally.

On the third day, God creates land and commands it to bring forth plants. On the fourth, he says “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years”. Signs were important to the ancient Hebrews, who, like most other ancient people, took it for granted that you could see portents in the motion of the stars. God also creates the sun and moon, “the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night”. On the fifth day God creates sea creatures (including “great sea monsters”) and birds. On the sixth day he creates land animals, and then says “Let us make humankind in our image”. This “us” is a puzzler, and it may indicate an ancient belief that God was the head of a heavenly court or counsel. The other members may have also been considered gods early on, but as monotheism evolved they were demoted to angels, cherubim, and such. In this narrative, unlike the next, God seems to create male and female simultaneously. Then he tells them to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth”. He also says he has “given every green plant for food,” implying that all living things were vegetarians at the time. On the seventh day of course, God rested, and “blessed the seventh day and hallowed it.”

The Second Creation Story

The second narrative is very different from the first, and is identified with J in the documentary hypothesis. It's most likely the older of the two stories. J is so-called because the writer refers to God as “Yahweh” ("Jahweh" in German), or “Yahweh Elohim”. Sure enough, Genesis 2.4 begins by saying, “In the day the LORD God [Yahweh Elohim] made the earth and the heavens...”. In this narrative, the earth begins as a place with no rain or vegetation, watered by a stream. Here, God creates humans before he creates plants and animals. Instead of creating him with a word, he takes a more intimate approach: “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breathe of life; and the man became a living being.” This first man is called Adam; a Hebrew word for “humankind”, which is also a play on the word “adamah” or “soil”.

After Adam is created, God plants the Garden of Eden, a beautiful place whose trees include the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. God tells Adam he may eat fruit from every tree except the tree of knowledge of good and evil, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die”. Only then, in this narrative, does God create the animals, letting Adam name each one. None of these are a fit “helper” or “partner” for Adam, though, so God makes Adam go to sleep, removes one of his ribs, and creates the first woman from it (some people to this day believe that men have one less rib than women).

The next part of the story is well known. The first couple is naked and unashamed at first, because they don't know the difference between good and evil. But a serpent (who really is just a serpent, and wasn't identified with the devil until later Christian thought) convinces the woman (she still doesn't have a name) that she won't really die if she eats from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He's right—she eats it, and gives some to Adam. They don't die, but they do realize they are naked, and scramble for the nearest fig leaves. Then they hear God walking through the garden “at the time of the evening breeze” (the author of this creation narrative saw God in much more earthly terms than the other author). The people hide from God, because they are naked. God says “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” Adam fesses up, and God curses him, his wife, and the serpent. He tells the woman he will “greatly increase your pangs in childbearing”, and that her husband will rule over her (Adam soon names her Eve). He tells Adam: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Then God says,“See, the man has become like one of us [there's that “us” again], knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.” Rather than risk Adam and Eve gaining immortality, he casts them out of the garden, and leaves cherubim with flaming swords to guard the tree of life. Before long, Eve gives birth to Cain (a farmer) and Abel (a herder). God likes Abel's offerings of sheep, but not Cain's offerings of grain, so Cain slays Abel in a fit of jealousy. It's the first of many, many murders in the Bible. Genesis continues with the story of the flood, which is strikingly similar to older Sumerian flood myths, down to the boat, and the bird sent out to look for land.

Biblical scholars call the section of Genesis from the creation to the flood the “primeval history”, because it's a highly mythic story in which serpents talk and people live for hundreds of years. It's not just about the ancestors of the Jews, but of all people. After the flood, people all speak one language, and start cooperating to build the great tower of Babel. God decides once again that people are getting too big for their britches, and “confuses their tongues” and scatters them. The next major character is Abram, who comes from “Ur of the Chaldeans” (a historical city in Mesopotamia). He will soon be renamed Abraham, and will become the ancestor of the Jews.

Should We Take The Creation Stories as the Literal Truth?

I could get into when these two narratives were written, and what the political currents of the time might have been, or whether the Priestly narrative was based in part on the Babylonian story of the great god Marduk creating the universe from the slain corpse of Tiamat, but this post is getting long, and those topics are controversial among scholars. So I'll get back to the reason I'm writing about this. First, I want to understand where my biblical literalist/creationist friends are coming from. Second, I want to investigate the idea that the creation stories in Genesis could be the the infallible word of God, and therefore the absolute, literal truth. I'm not going to discuss the scientific consensus on human origins. I've accepted that creationists aren't impressed by scientific evidence. Rather, I'd like to meet the creationists on their own turf, and take a critical look at Genesis itself. Does it make sense to think of the two creation stories in Genesis as the literal truth?

In a word, no. The two stories were obviously written by different people, and they are completely divergent; even contradictory. The first says plants and animals were created before people. The second says people were created before plants and animals. Which is it? You can believe one is literally true, or that the other is literally true, but you can't logically believe both any more than you can believe a square circle is possible. They can't both be true at once. There are other difficulties, too. It's obvious that the writer of the first narrative thought of the world as flat, and at the center of the universe, and thought that the sky as an actual, solid dome. I don't mean to belittle that author. The earth looks like it's flat, and if you watch the stars turn, it really does look like they're embedded in fixed places in a great cosmic dome that arches over the earth, spinning around the axis of the North Star. The sun and moon really do seem to orbit the earth. So, it's understandable that the author was mistaken, but he was mistaken nonetheless. If you are truly going to take the Genesis creation story literally, then you would have to reject Copernicus as well as Darwin. You would even have to reject Ptolemy, and declare that the world is flat. Hardly anyone believes that these days, of course, and that's a good thing.

Even the most ardent fundamentalist doesn't take the Bible absolutely literally, though he might claim to. You can't take every word of the Bible literally, because it contradicts itself, and some of it, like the idea of the solid dome of the sky, has turned out to be undeniably false. Everybody who follows the Bible has to pick and choose which verses to follow, and which to ignore, otherwise every Christian, Jew, and Muslim today would follow every rule in Leviticus. I've never met anyone who doesn't interpret at least some part of the Bible metaphorically. Once I went camping with an ardent young-earth creationist. We were talking about religion, and I brought up the story in Matthew 19 where a rich young man tells Jesus he has followed the law, and wonders what else he should do to be assured of eternal life. Jesus tells him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. The man goes away, dismayed. Jesus then tells his disciples—twice--how hard it is for a rich man to get into heaven: 
“Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle then for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 
When I asked my creationist acquaintance about this, he started telling me how the “eye of the needle” was really a narrow gate into Jerusalem. Here was a guy who was a literalist when it came to Genesis, but was only too happy to give an uncomfortable saying--from the mouth of Jesus himself--a metaphorical spin. It's true that Jesus did like parables, but there's no evidence for a gate called the "eye of the needle" in Jerusalem, and good reasons to think that this time, Jesus meant exactly what he said. But some people don't want to believe that, any more than they want to believe we came from monkeys.

My point is that nobody is a true biblical literalist, and it's a good thing, because if they were, we would still be acting like an ancient, violent, Iron Age tribe—stoning people to death for things like homosexuality and suspected witchcraft, owning slaves, wiping out rival peoples (like Joshua did at Jericho), and sequestering women in their “unclean” time of the month. Humankind has gotten, well, kinder since then, and less superstitious. At most, stories like the ones in Genesis should be taken as allegories, not seen as literally true. It's not clear that the even the original authors thought they should be taken literally, or they would have tried harder to iron out the inconsistencies. People like Karen Armstrong claim that people then were more comfortable thinking in mythic or allegorical terms than they are now. I don't know, but it's true that early Christian figures like St. Augustine and Origen thought Genesis should be seen as allegory. Consider the words of Augustine:
“It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are.”
This sounds a lot like the lament of many progressive Christians today, who are embarrassed by the literal-mindedness of their brethren. But we need to be careful even with allegory. St. Augustine, for example, based the idea of original sin on the fall of Adam and Eve. For hundreds of years, people pointed to Genesis as evidence that, not only are people basically bad, but it was women who got us into this sinful predicament in the first place. No wonder so many people have used the Bible to justify the subjugation of women. Even today, there are weddings where women are told to obey their husbands. Women still can't be priests in many denominations. Why? Partly because of the stories in Genesis.

We should know better these days. We've made a bit of progress in the 2,500-3,000 years since Genesis was written. Science has shown that men didn't come before women, and there is no reason to think there ever was a tree of knowledge of good and evil, much less a talking serpent. These stories read like mythology because they ARE mythology. That doesn't mean they are useless. They are actually rather beautiful in places, and they give us vital insights into how our ancient forebears thought; and where we came from culturally--just not biologically or cosmologically. The creation stories are valuable, but they should be taken with many, many grains of salt if we want to relate them to modern life. The Bible was written by many people, over many hundreds of years, in a violent and superstitious time. There's a great deal of wisdom in the Bible, but there are also innumerable horrors and hurtful superstitions. The Old Testament remains the most violent book I have ever read. Nobody takes it absolutely literally these days, even if they claim to. And that's a very good thing.

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