γενήσομαι «ge-ney-soh-mey : i am becoming»
These are the chronicles of the esoteric . . .
reading genesis, part 3: context
Please note, this is the third post of a series.
You can read the first post here.
Previously, I wrote about the importance of understanding the genre of a biblical passage in order to fully grasp at what the text is doing and saying—we can't, that is, fully know what the author is trying to say without understanding what sort of writing they've made.
Genre, in my mind, is one of the two keys to understanding the Bible. We miss the point of a text if we read it the wrong way.
The second key, I believe, to unlocking the meaning of a biblical passage is its context.
It's very important to remember when these texts were written—both socially and temporally. I mean, think about it: Jesus was active in his ministry 1 995 to 1 986 years ago1, and Paul was martyred about 1 9582 years ago, being active in his own ministry for the 25 years leading up to his death.
That's a long time ago! And the writing of the Hebrew Bible was centuries before that!
Now factor in the cultural changes for 2 000 plus years—keeping in mind that the culture within which these texts were written are on a completely different continent than evangelicalism—and you get differences in ideologies and language that are astounding. I mean, even today the cultural differences are significant, never mind thousands of years ago.
Yet we read the Bible as though the words and ideas in it have exactly the same meaning then as they do now.
Does that make sense to you? Because honestly it shouldn't.
While this alone should give us pause, I don't want to stop here because there is something additionally interesting going on with the story of creation—a helpful layer that will hopefully make us wonder about other texts in the Bible.
Most scholars will agree that the version of Genesis we know from the Bible was recorded during the Babylonian Exile—in fact, many will argue for various reasons that much of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) were in fact either composed or recorded during this time.
For those of you who don't know, here's a brief history lesson:
King Josiah of Judah was killed in a battle against the Egyptians when he and a small army attempted to stop the Pharaoh from marching against Babylon—despite the fact that until then Judah and Egypt had been allied.
Josiah's son, Jehoiakim, became king and began giving tribute to Babylon. However, after another battle between Babylon and Egypt where King Nebuchadnezzar's forces were defeated, Jehoiakim rebelled against Babylon in hopes of allying with the winning side. Babylon repaid this change in allegiance with a siege on Jerusalem where Jehoiakim was forced to surrender and renew the tribute to Babylon, with a much heavier cost.
When Babylon later attempted to invade Egypt and failed, Jehoiakim switched allegiances again. Babylon retaliated against this fickleness with yet another siege on Jerusalem in which Jehoiakim was killed.
Jehoiakim's son, Jehoiachin, became king of Judah but was very quickly replaced by his uncle, Zedekiah—appointed by Nebuchadnezzar in hopes of avoiding an attempt at revenge by Jehoiachin.
Supposedly a vassal king for Nebuchadnezzar, Zedekiah rebelled against Babylon and allied himself with Egypt. This led to Babylon laying siege upon Jerusalem one final time. The forces surrounded the city and after 3 long and terrible years—when Jerusalem had run out of food and other supplies—the Babylonian forces broke through the city walls and dealt its punishment.
Zedekiah's family was killed and he himself was blinded and chained. Many of the Jews—particularly all the wealthy and elite—were bound and taken captive to Babylonia. The Temple was burned to the ground after its sacred treasures were hauled away as plunder, and the Temple priests were slaughtered.3
Needless to say, this marked one of the most devastating and crucial events in Jewish history.
During the Exile, the Jewish people understandably began to question their theology and their relationship with God. What did it mean to be God's people when the Temple—the earthly location where they met the divine—was destroyed? What did it mean to be the people of God when they were banned from the land God had promised and given them? What was left of the covenantal monarchy when the kings have all been killed and/or captured?
As a result of Israel questioning what it meant to be God's Chosen People they began to form a closer relationship with the written text—they began to accumulate and record all their sacred national stories into a single collection. With this process of preservation, some of the stories were re-framed and re-formulated to accommodate for the self-definition that was happening. The origins of the stories were no doubt older, being passed down through oral traditions, but the versions we know today likely came from this time frame.
If we keep in mind that one of the uses of myth is to relay a truth about the world of the story-teller—as opposed to explaining the world in which the myth is set—then rightfully we should not be asking what the creation stories tell us about the origins of the cosmos and humanity, but instead we should be asking what these stories tell us about Israel.
It's perhaps relevant to highlight that there are hints of this understanding throughout the Scriptures.
An example of this is the Exodus narratives, which contain parallels to the creation narratives when it depicts the making of Israel after God's cosmic battle with Egypt4 exactly in the way Genesis depicts how Adam is made after God's cosmic battle with the waters of chaos.
Likewise, Isaiah 43:1 uses similar language to describe Israel being formed (yatsar) by God just as Adam was formed (yatsar) by God (Gen 2:7).5 And in Hosea 6:7, Israel is compared to Adam because of their transgession of the covenant.
The authors have, with these simple allusions, not only drawn the parallel between Israel and Adam, but they have also traced a lineage of Israel's special relationship with God directly back to primordial time—Israel was always God's chosen people, even at the very beginning of human history.6
If the creation stories were recorded during the Exile, they are then wrestling with questions of self-identity. So Israel's special relationship with God being traced back to the foundations of the world is very important.
Genesis and Exile
The narratives of Genesis are placed at the beginning of the Hebrew Bible very purposefully. Genesis serves as an introduction of the Torah, and as such it introduces the concepts and overall themes and trajectories the story of Israel will take.
In the creation stories, Adam is a chosen one—he is the earth-creature/human (ha'adam) singled out of a general population of earth-creatures/humans (adam). He is granted a unique relationship with God and is placed in a lush garden with specific conditions in order to stay in that land. Adam and Eve however disobey and are exiled from their paradise.
Exile for the prophets was equated with death—and for good reason. Exile was the loss of the promised land, the loss of the monarchy, and the loss of the Temple. Everything that made Israel an independent nation of God was taken away.
But the stories don't end in exile—and this is important for a nation who is questioning its status and future as God's people.
Even after Adam and Eve are exiled from the Garden, they continue to have a relationship with God. Similarly, the prophets declare a future restoration for the people despite their circumstances making this seem difficult or even unlikely.
In Ezekiel, the vision of the valley of dry bones is symbolic of Israel's death in exile. But the vision continues with the bones being reassembled into a nation and God breathing back life into the renewed and remade people (Ezekiel 37). This is to say that 'God will bring his chosen people out of the depths of exile and restore them to their land.'7 And in Jeremiah 29:10-14, God promises through the titular prophet that Israel will be brought back to their land and that God will 'fulfil to [them his] promise of favour.'
In Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah, we see in its closing chapters the pattern of Israel's disobedience repeated via prophecy. Just before Moses gives his blessings to the tribes of Israel, he says sadly that he knows the people will fail at keeping their end of the covenant (Deut 31:27-29). Indeed, the description of their consequences in 28:49-67 sound strikingly like the Babylonian siege upon Jerusalem. But he continues, after praising God, to declare that Israel will be vindicated and restored—they will be a 'people delivered by the Lord' (Deut 33:29).
So, is the story of creation about the beginning of the world? About how the universe was created?
No. Largely, it is about who Israel is in light of the Exile and it is about their relationship with the God who is worthy of trust and loyalty. ✤
See the other parts of this series here:
☗ Reading Genesis, Pt 1
☗ Reading Genesis, Pt 2: Genre
☗ Reading Genesis, Part 4: A Cosmic (Temple) Epilogue
1. Jesus ministry is usually dated from about 27-29CE to 30-36 CE.
2. Paul's death is dated around 62-64 CE.
3. The Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE.
4. Egypt, in the stories of Exodus, are representatives of the forces of chaos that threaten the order of the cosmos, with which God must battle and overcome to set things to right.
5. Jon Garvey, 'Adam and Israel,' The Hump of the Camel (Oct 23, 2017) https://weekly.israelbiblecenter.com/....
6. Pete Enns, 'Adam is Israel,' BioLogos (March 2, 2010) https://biologos.org/....
7. Jon Levenson, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), p 158.