Sunday, May 30, 2010

In The Beginning

Around 500 years ago, some people encouraged everyone to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. There is more to it than that, but for my purpose today, that is good enough. Today, fewer people get a complete Bible education when they are young, so if they attempt a read of the Bible on their own, they probably start at the book of Genesis, which is a very odd story.

It may not seem quite as odd, if you did not approach it with the baggage of your culture. This baggage informs us that this is one of the oldest stories in history and that it is part of a larger narrative of perfect creation, the fall, sin and salvation. Even if that narrative is true, the people who originally told and heard the story could not have known it. They would however have been very aware of events that were happening in their time. Those events were temporarily lost to history.

The Perfection/Fall/Sin/Salvation narrative was completed sometime after 200 AD by people who had very little awareness of the Sumerians or of the early cultures that broke away from Egypt some 1,200 years earlier. For them, the Bible was history. We now know that there was quite a bit of history before that book.

We have the story of Gilgamesh for example. It is an ancient document that actually fits the Hollywood picture of ancient documents that cause a shift in everyone’s’ understanding when they are discovered. The story goes that as the translator realized that he was uncovering a story of a flood and a boat and animals being carried two by two that predated the writing of the Noah story, he got very excited and started running around the lab, taking off his clothes.

We also now know something about the creation stories that came before the Genesis tale. In those stories, there was usually chaos, or some other monstrous creatures inhabiting the universe, then the gods come along and defeated them, or at least were able to control them. They then create humans to serve them. Kings and Queens were keepers of these stories, and the voice for these gods.

Now think about Genesis. The god of that story creates everything out of a void. He doesn’t have to defeat the great creatures of the sea, he created them. After he has created this paradise, he creates a man, who is asked to take care of it, and then a woman for a companion. The second creation story gets into rules and I think we still have some digging into history and psychology to do before we really understand it. But it is clear to me that this story was not just claiming to be different or better, but directly commenting on the stories that supported the existing power structures, saying they really had nothing.

If you want some more detail on that, I found a lecture at The Faraday Institute website by Ernest Lucas, “God and Origins: Interpreting the Early Chapters of Genesis”. You have to search a little once you go to this link.

So what is different about the people that put this story together? I started listening to a history class on the Mediterranean recently using iTunes U. When the professor gets to 1200 BCE, she talks about an area called the Levant, basically where Palestine and Israel are today. At that time, it was under the control of Egypt, a very bureaucratic, King/slave system that had lasted for 1000’s of years. Within a couple hundred years the Levant was populated by a few small states, ruling themselves with systems based on justice and a moral order.

What happened? There are a few theories, none of which is completely supported by the archaeological evidence. My favorite is that there was a social revolutionary movement, and they threw off the chains of their oppressors. Unfortunately, no one stopped and documented how it happened. I’m sure the Egyptians were not too happy about it, so they would have kept quiet. As the professor says, one of the communities reflected back and wrote stories about it, unfortunately in an extremely difficult form for us to use for an historical source. That source would be the Torah.

I don’t know how to link to iTunes University, but if you go there and search for UC Berkeley, History4A The Ancient Mediterranean World with Isabel Pafford, you should find it.

I think there is more to the world’s fascination with this story than just a mystery to be solved. I think the struggle of people against their governments continues and we want to hear a story of someone who succeeded. We would like a solution that involves something other than just a cycle of violent revolutions. I would anyway.

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