"Genesis: Beginnings and Questions"
A Message By Dr. Bruce Havens
BASED ON THE THEME: "Reading the Bible again, for the FIRST time"
ARLINGTON CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH, U.C.C.
JUNE 2, 2019
1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,
2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.
5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day….
6Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
27So God created human-kind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
28God blessed them, and God said to them, “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.”
31God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
4These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,
5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground;
6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground—
7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being….
16And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden;
17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
18Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”
19So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.
20The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.
21So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh.
22And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.
23Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.”
I am going to be using a different format and style for my messages for the coming week. I am going to do more of a Bible Study style of teaching as opposed to “preaching.” My goals are that we will become more informed on how to read Scripture faithfully. Listen to what Scripture teaches us about God and about living faithfully every day – and put that into practice! And finally to challenge old assumptions, teachings, and outright falsehoods about Scripture.
This week something occurred to me in reference to this that I want to invite you to think about:
If you can’t believe something you have never believed before you won’t believe it when God does something new in your life!
Too many Christians are living off very old, very incomplete, very inaccurate understandings of Scripture, of faith, and that results in missing the way God is always calling us to new, more complete, more faithful understandings of God so that we can live more faithful, blessed lives.
Too many of us are like the man who went to his doctor because he was having headaches, a pounding in his ears, and shortness of breath. His doctor did every test he could do, MRIs and catscans and bloodtests. He couldn’t find any cause. He said to the man, I am afraid to tell you I don’t know how to treat your symptoms or the cause. These are very serious symptoms and I have to tell you that you probably won’t live much more than a few weeks.
The man was stunned of course and didn’t know what to do. But he decided if he was going to die he was going to do it in style. He had never had a tailored suit. S he decided to buy a tailored suit, and he figured they could bury him in it too, so it was kind of a “two for one.” So he went to the tailor and said he wanted a custom tailored suit of the finest material. He wanted a custom shirt too. He told the tailor, “I am a size 16 neck and I want the shirt made to that size.”
The tailor did what tailors do. He measured the man’s neck and said, “Sir, I am sorry but your neck size is a 17.”
The man said, “Oh, no, I have always been a size 16 and I want you to make my shirt with a size 16 neck.”
The tailor shrugged and said, “As you wish sir, but don’t complain to me if you have headaches, shortness of breath, and a ringing in your ears!”
The point, of course, is that if we insist on never being open minded to new things, as I have been preaching the past few weeks, we risk missing the greatest opportunities to grow in faith and to enjoy life as God intends, and we may miss the way God wants us to live our lives completely.
All that said, let’s talk about why we read the Bible at all. Do we read it for entertainment? Maybe back before the internet, television, radio, when the Bible might be the only book people had they might read it for “entertainment.” Probably not so much now. Do we read it for information or education? Many people do. And many people want that information or education to help them live out their faith. Ultimately, reading the Bible is important for us to grow in faith – it is what we call “faith formation” these days.
How do we read the Bible? Some would say, just read it! Okay, but have you ever read Shakespeare? How many people understood that in its original form and language? Most of us need some sort of translation and interpretation to really understand it. It is from a different era, a different culture, a different use of the English language. So to say “just read the Bible,” without some assistance we may often misunderstand the meaning. So, shall we let someone tell us what it says and means? Well, that is okay sometimes but we must be careful that what they are telling us is true. There are a lot of “Bible experts” and “preachers” out there telling us things in the Bible that just aren’t, or telling us things aren’t in the Bible that are.
The best idea of course is to read it for ourselves and to use tools that can help us understand it better. We want to use tools that help us understand the meaning of what we are reading. Most of these are what Bible scholars call “literary analysis,” types of tools. This is something most English majors or those who took even the most basic college English probably are familiar with. These tools include a lot of comparison and contrast of texts that are of a similar time as the one you are studying. It includes asking “what kind of literature is this?” For example we know the Psalms are basically poems and songs and hymns, while Genesis, like the verses we read, are narratives or stories retold and retold. We often want to look at the style of language that is used to identify the author – as most writers have a particular style they use when they write.
We also want to ask “How did the Bible get written?” This is important because it will keep us from falling into fallacies about the truths of the Bible. For example, most of us know that the Bible was originally oral stories transmitted for generations before ever being written down. Did you know that there is no “single original text” of the Bible as we have it today? There are many manuscripts that were written over many centuries. We have some that are older and some that are newer. Scholars had to choose between versions that had variations from each other, even though they were the same “book.” And we know that there were many other “books” written that were not included in what was called “The Bible.” There were other psalms, other writing that called themselves “gospels,” other books of proverbs and so on. We’ll talk more about how the books of the Bible we use today were chosen in coming weeks.
Let’s look more particularly at our Scripture lesson this morning and what our tools tell us about these verses. The first point is that there are 2 stories of creation. One is very orderly and almost like a liturgical reading. The second story is more narrative, telling of a God who is more anthropomorphic, more “human-like” in the way this God thinks and talks. This suggests to us that there were more than one author of these two stories with different purposes in writing. There is a lot more we can say about this but what we also know is that many other cultures had “creation” stories and there are similarities and differences with the one we have in the Bible. One of the key differences in the one we have and many of the others is that the others have many gods, not one God, and those gods have to wrestle with chaos over eons of time to finally bring order and creation out of the nothingness of chaos. But in the Bible we learn there is one God, who is powerful enough to simply speak a word and creation happens.
We also learn that Creation is good and very good. It is not something to be destroyed or abused as we are called to be its stewards and caretakers. It is blessed by God and so are we as humankind. Creation is “good,” and humankind is “very good” in this telling of the story of the Creator God. This tells us that we cannot believe in the fundamentalist or false story that suggests the sooner this earth is destroyed, by man’s abuse or God’s wrath, the sooner some falsely proclaimed “rapture” will come and God’s chosen will escape, while those not approved of by fundamentalist teaching will be destroyed along with earth. Genesis proclaims a God who is powerful enough to speak a word to create, who is still creating, and seeks to have us share in the creative and life-giving process, not in the destruction of creation.
Another important lesson we must know is that we cannot ask the Scriptures written millennia ago to be held to modern scientific or historic standards. Nor can we try to rewrite science or history to fit the Bible. That steals the real truth of Scripture. The real truth of Scripture is theological and spiritual, which is not less than scientific or historical, but different. The Scriptures seek to teach the values and ethics for relationships with God and with creation and with humankind. It is not true to say that “if anything in the Bible is not true, nothing is true.” This is an absolutist statement that is neither necessary nor true. The fact is that the Bible’s truths are of a different quality, of a different purpose than science or history as we understand those categories today.
We cannot possible cover the truths of Genesis and all that our “tools of inquiry” teach us in these few minutes. But let me affirm what I see as the key truth these verses teach us. First, God created humankind and creation for relationship with God and with one another and intended those relationships to be “good,” and “very good,” a blessing to all. Out of that understanding the whole rest of the Bible emerges as a witness, a testimony to that truth. If we have not believed this before, let us remember, “if you can’t believe something you have never believed before, then you won’t believe it when God does something new in your life.” And we believe in a God who is still “doing,” still “speaking,” and still “blessing.” AMEN.