How to Read the Most Abused Book of the Bible: Part 1
Genesis is an ancient story.
This obvious statement proves time and time again to be the opposite, however. There are an assortment of ways the Bible in general, but particularly Genesis, is abused, misunderstood, and taught falsely. Often times these are not malicious doings, yet they can have devastating effects on the way people view faith, the Bible, and even God.
Here are two dangerous approaches to Genesis to be wary of:
Viewing Genesis as a textbook. This is not me claiming that certain events in the Genesis narrative did or did not happen. In fact, I am completely avoiding that claim because Genesis itself is not claiming whether it is historical or fictional. The author has a much wider lens he cares about, and you should care more about it, too. Genesis is not a textbook - history, science, or otherwise.
Viewing Genesis as a book of principles. Again, this is not me claiming that Genesis is or is not packed with insightful principles. But if we approach Genesis as a book of principles, it is likely we will find ourselves wanting to know what every passage “means for me.” Imagine trying to watch The Avengers or This Is Us but pausing it every five minutes to ponder how the scene might apply to your life. That would be exhausting and completely missing the more significant message.
When we read Genesis as an ancient story, written at a particular time to a particular people, it opens up possibilities and worlds we don’t encounter in our limited existence. When we stop using Genesis as an argument, a textbook, or a code of conduct, and we begin to see it as an ancient story - with memorable characters, twists and turns, ups and downs, accomplishments and mistakes - we find it fresh, deep, and more true and relevant than we might expect.
There is a lot of baggage that comes with that previous paragraph. I understand the feeling of your foundation of faith cracking below your feet as you even consider this possibility. Your natural instinct is to grab ahold of the closest thing to you and squeeze so tightly your knuckles begin turning white. Unfortunately, too many of us have this same instinct with our traditions and understanding of how to read the Bible.
Over the next three days, we will discuss three examples of how context, patterns, and meaning play an important role in understanding Genesis. There are other literary structures we could play with, but these are simple ones to give quick examples through.
Take a moment to put aside everything you “know” about Genesis and let’s first consider the. . .
Time and place matter. “I’m sorry” and “my bad” mean the same thing. . .unless you are at a funeral. Context adds specificity to your writing and directs the reader attention to a particular train of thought; thus avoiding, to a certain extent, unwanted interpretation. And this is just as true with Genesis. For example, it’s crucial for you to know who lived north of the Israelites (the Canaanites) and what was taking place when this was written (they were nations at war with one another), for you to pick up on a critical claim just a few verses into your Bible.
Were you aware before now that there were sea creatures in your Bible? Surely this is something I took out of a Harry Potter book, right? Nope! It’s in there.
Regardless, what does this have to do with context? Actually, it has everything to do with it, but you wouldn’t know it unless you read this in Hebrew (Genesis’ original language). The word translated ‘sea creature’ is actually Tanninim in Hebrew. I know, snoozeville, but bear with me!
Did you know that Tanninim was the the name of the Canaanites god, often depicted as a sea creature(ish) shaped figure. Even crazier, it was the ‘god of chaos'.’ Wait, wait, wait! Didn’t we just read about God (the real one) putting order to the chaos of the world through merely speaking? And now we are reading about Him creating these Tanninim?
Talk about smearing your enemy! Do you see what is actually happening here? The author of Genesis is making a pretty profound statement to the Canaanites. He is basically saying, “Not only did my God create the world, but he also created your god.” This would not have been taken lightly. Them were fighting words.
There is an incomprehensible depth to the Bible that is too often missed out on. When we find moments like these where we can place the Bible back into its original context, there is a satisfying truth that breaks free. Where you once understood this passage as God merely creating fish, now he is staking dominion over all creation (including opposing gods). And all of that comes from knowing the context.
Next up. . . patterns!
Tomorrow we will spend time discussing patterns throughout Genesis. I like to think of this as modern day hyperlinks. There are subtle moments when the author of Genesis will say something in such a way that ancient minds would have been transposed to a different story with eery similarities. When we learn to identify and click on these links ourself, the book of Genesis becomes an elaborate webbing of stories and ideas that give us a greater insight into God and his creation.