Perhaps the most stunning juxtaposition of the Christian message is the invitation by a Sovereign God to humankind to join Him in the redemption plan. Isaiah 42 reminds the reader that the God who holds all things together invades the creation and seeks out his people.
During Epiphany, I will be exploring the process of healing the rift created by man’s fall and God’s rescue. The lectionary readings of Psalms will be the leading document to track this arc of story. As such, this week’s Psalm, Psalm 29, begins with “Ascribe to the Lord….”
A recent article by Dr James Sanders of Claremont School of Theology says it better than I ever could. So I offer it for your edification and insight.
James A. Sanders
Fr. Richard in his homily the First Sunday in Christmastide spoke of the closing of the gap between human sinfulness and God’s righteousness. He rightly celebrated God’s coming in Christ precisely to close the gap.
It caused me to think of the best critical interpretation of Genesis chs 1-12. The first eleven chapters of Genesis are aptly called “universal history.” They deal with the condition of all humans as understood in Jewish antiquity. The first two chapters offer two quite different views of creation, especially the origin of humans; but they complement each other if we focus on what they suggest about God.
The first (Gen 1) celebrates the ineffable majesty of the One God of All who by divine speech creates all that is. Rabbis in antiquity noted that the items mentioned in the six days of creation fail to cover all that we know in creation and therefore suggested that “on the sixth day between the evenings” God created everything else necessary. In doing so the rabbis were admitting what we can ourselves see through philology, that is, by comparing Gen 1 with other accounts of creation in semitic antiquity. The literary form of Genesis 1 is that of an ancient theogony, that is, an account like the Enuma Elish of Ancient Babylonia of the origins of the gods. Each day in Gen 1 recounts the creation of the symbol of an ancient deity: light, darkness, the firmaments, fertility, sun, moon, stars, etc. In doing so Genesis 1 in effect states that they were not gods but simply created items like us humans and therefore could not represent various deities since there is but One God. It in effect ridiculed the Enuma Elish, denying its main points by imitating it and using its own liturgical rhetoric.
The second (Gen 2) recounts a totally different view of creation. Here God creates the Garden of Eden, a kind of oasis, in which God places the first humans. God, far from ineffable and distant, is in Gen 2 on the contrary a pastoral figure who calls on his first parishioners in the garden in the cool of the evening, the time when the sun sets each day. By including the two quite different accounts of Creation Genesis makes the clear statement that God is both transcendent and immanent. They give clues about the nature of God. And it is important to keep both in mind in reading the rest of the Bible.
God in the second account introduces a moral code forbidding the couple to eat of certain fruit in the garden. In typical mythic style the serpent tempts the couple (Gen 3) and they disobey God’s very first law. Disobedience to moral code brings consequences and the couple are banished from the Garden to make a living in the harshness of the desert or wilderness. They had eaten of the tree of the “knowledge of good and evil,” learning the meaning of having been naked. Upon being banished the couple were forbidden access to the other tree in the garden, the “Tree of Life.” This time God sets up barriers to the path back to the tree, cherubim and a flaming sword constantly turning this way and that to prohibit entrance. Humans had gained some knowledge about good and evil by the first disobedience, but God makes sure they cannot get back to the other tree, the Tree of Life.
The primary distinction between humanity and deity in antiquity was immortality. Humans die. God lives, has life and gives life, even immortality. There is no other way.
Before the next failed effort humans make to attain unto immortality on their own we are given an interpretation of what we now know is a list of ancient humans who claimed to have immortality—the Khorsabad King List. Genesis 5 is a long list, parallel to that list of ancients, who it says lived long lives even up to 965 years, but they all died. The only exception was Enoch who was taken by God so that “he was not.” Because of this exception a massive Jewish literature was generated in Early pre-Christian Judaism about Enoch and his ventures. But the thrust of Genesis 5 was to say that no matter how immortal the Khorsabad List claimed the ancient kings to be, they all actually died.
Next comes the Flood Story (Gen 6-9), and it is very fruitful also to compare it with similar stories in antiquity. There have been four so far discovered, in Sumerian, Akkadian, Old Assyrian and Babylonian. And they are all similar to each other, even in details. Comparison makes clear the point of the biblical story, just as comparison to the Enuma Elish did in the case of Genesis 1. It is most helpful to compare the biblical with that in the Babylonian Story, the Gilgamesh Epic. To make a long, fascinating comparison short, Utnapishtim and Mrs. Utnapishtim who, because the ark they had built survived the death-dealing waters of the flood, were apotheosized (made immortal) by the gods as a reward for their accomplishment. By contrast, Noah finally lived 950 years “and he died,” the last verse of Gen 9—the very refrain that accompanied the account of the lives of the ancients in Gen 5.
The final effort Genesis recounts that humans made to attain immortality on their own was the building of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11), in sum another human effort to become immortal, this time by mounting the tower up to the abode of the gods (the firmament) and hence earning immortality. On the contrary, not only were they condemned forever to mortality, in due course to die, but this time also sentenced to speak many different languages so that humans wouldn’t make that foolish effort again.
So, whether it be by trying to regain paradise by the path to the Tree of Life, or building an ark to attain immortal life, or constructing a tower all the way up to heaven, all such efforts, indeed all efforts by humans to become immortal on their own are doomed to fail. Salvation is unattainable by human effort, or even by human obedience.
It is the Bible’s constant message that God has life and loves to give life. So how can this insurmountable gap between God and humanity be closed? You guessed it. By God alone. And so the next chapter in Genesis introduces the story of a couple and God’s plan for them for the sake of all humanity. Genesis 12 tells of God’s approaching the couple in Ur in Babylonia with a plan. He tells them that if they were willing to go on a trip with God they would become a blessing so that “all the families of the earth would be blessed.” It is a trip with no itinerary; they wouldn’t know from one day to the next what they would encounter, but there were two things they could be sure of and that was that God a) was with them and b) intended to make them the vehicle by which all creation should be redeemed from the curse imposed in the Garden. Thus humans could not earn immortality but could by God’s grace be blessings for others.
Karl Barth, a great theologian of the first half of the twentieth century, suggested a poignant way to understand the story at this point. He drew, like a teacher on a whiteboard for a class, a vertical line. On the left side of the vertical line is God and God alone, the One God, Creator of All. On the right side is all else, all creation, all humans, all God’s gifts. Any and all efforts on the part of the created order to cross the line from right to left is sin, or transgression into the realm of God, indicated in the story by the path back to the Tree of Life, the building of an ark, or the building of a tower. Such a crossing would indeed be idolatry, the effort to make of anything created into a god, the perpetual human tendency and temptation to love God’s creation, or indeed the love of money and power (the right side of the line) instead of God.
But God’s crossing the line to come to us from left to right, on the contrary, is the opposite of human transgression, or grace, a sort of divine injustice. Fr Richard aptly celebrated Christmas in his homily by extolling God’s coming to us humans in the Christ child, or as we might say, God’s own transgression of the line. The story of “divine transgression” actually goes all the way back to Genesis where the Christmas story is adumbrated and anticipated in the story in Gen 12 that tells of God’s first crossing of the line to ask Abram and Sarai to go on a journey with him from Ur to Canaan, for the sake of us all.