Bible Studies > BibleJourney > Genesis
> Issue 4
A Quick Glance at the Background Genesis 1-11
Winn Griffin, D.Min.
Why Background Study
Why do we study background? Why don't we just read the
text of Scripture and hear what it says? These kinds of questions are often
asked of those teaching Scripture who persist in sharing what sometimes seems
to be boring to the students who are listening. These questions are not really
difficult to answer. We study background because it puts us in touch with the
people for whom the stories were first told. God did not let his storytellers
tell stories in a vacuum. The stories were placed into being in real time
history to real human beings. To understand what they believed will help us
understand what God was saying to them.
The stories in
are needful of being placed within their historical context, as we shall see in
Back in Time
Time is a difficult idea to comprehend. It is fair to
say that our time, the beginning of the twenty-first century, is much different
from the time at the beginning of the twentieth-century. Even fifty year ago in
time, ideas, concepts, lifestyles, and gas prices were different. Push back
further to the stories found in the beginning of Scripture and it is difficult
for us to get our arms around and embrace how much different things may have
The beginning stories in
1.1-11.26 were passed along thru generations. The story in
1.1-2.4a was originally addressed to Israel at
Sinai. Remember, Israel had just been delivered from slavery in
by the hand of God. Egypt, like all societies around them, was polytheistic.
Polytheism was a belief system in the ancient world that there were may gods to
be worshipped. Most societies believed there to be a pantheon of gods who were
responsible for the creation of the world. Israel was not immune from knowing,
believing, and practicing
In Egypt, Israel was exposed to the belief that the
was himself a god. At the foot of Sinai, a newly redeemed people heard from an
the story that that the God who had secured their freedom by delivering them
from the bondage of Egypt, the God who had made covenant with them, was the
only true God and was the creator of the universe.
They had left Egypt, a polytheistic society, and were
traveling toward Palestine, a polytheistic society. The story of
1.1-2.4a was told to help them in this context to help them understand the
first of the commandments of the covenant, "You can only have one God."
To understand the creation story the way these first
listeners would have understood is to hear it against a backdrop of polytheism.
God wanted his newly redeemed people to understand that he was their true God
and they could have no others.
To understand the history will cause the story to come
alive to you as you read it and it reads you.
When you were a child you were full of questions. Why
is this orange? Why doesn't orange rhyme with something? Why was the leaf green
and now it is orange? Where did I come from? Where did that big light in the
sky come from? What are all those little lights in the sky at night? Why is
sister's nose so big? What's this mommy?
Questions lead to some kind of answer. The answers are
colored with the presuppositions of the society in which the questions are
being asked. In the ancient world they also asked questions about things like:
Where did the world come from? The answers were colored by the beliefs of the
ancients. There were many stories about the creation of the world being created
by many gods. More than anything else, the ancient Hebrew needed to understand
that there was only one God. The prevalent cultural belief about deity in their
day is that there were many gods. The idea that there was only one God and it
was he who created the world is what separates the Old Testament faith from its
ancient Near Eastern counterparts.
Ancient Worldview Beliefs about gods
In ancient Egypt, from where the Hebrews had been
recently rescued by God, there were five cities each of which had an account of
how the world, the gods, and humankind came into being. Each of these stories
was designed to authenticate that creation began in the specific city and that
the gods of that city were the supreme gods. The stories vary in telling but
they have this in common: each portrayed creation as a process of birth from
single gods or male-female god couples. These gods materialized in such items
as air, moisture, earth, sky, sun, and moon.
The story in Babylon was called Enuma Elish and was
written to demonstrate how Marduk became the chief god of Babylon. Here is a
summary of that story:
"In the beginning there were two gods, Apsu and
Tiamat, who represented the fresh waters (male) and marine waters (female).
They cohabited and produced a second generation of divine beings. Soon Apsu was
suffering from insomnia because the young deities were making so much noise; he
just could not get to sleep. He wanted to kill the noisy upstarts, despite the
protest of his spouse, Tiamat. But before he managed to do that, Ea, the god of
wisdom and magic, put Apsu to sleep under a magic spell and killed him.
"Not to be outdone, wife Tiamat plotted revenge on
her husband's killer and those who aided the killing. Her first move was to
take a second husband, whose name was Kingu. Then she raised an army for her
"At this point the gods appealed to the god Marduk
to save them. He happily accepted the challenge, on the condition that if he
were victorious over Tiamat, they would make him chief of all gods.
"The confrontation between Tiamat and Marduk ended
in a blazing victory for Marduk. He captured Tiamat's followers and made them
his slaves. Then he cut the corpse of Tiamat in half, creating heaven from one
half of it and the earth from the other half. He ordered the earlier supporters
of Tiamat to take care of the world.
"Shortly thereafter Marduk conceived another plan.
He had Kingu killed and arranged for Ea to make man out of his blood."
This ancient story goes on to tell that man's lot is
to be burdened with the toil of the gods. (J.I. Packer. Merrill C. Tenney, and
William White, Jr. editors
World of the Old Testament
Thomas Nelson Publishers 1982 110-112).
At the beginning of the twenty-first century we are
somewhat overwhelmed with a belief about creation, what has come to be called
Creation Science, which is so far removed from the actuality of the background
of the text of the creation story that it is a sad state of affairs.
When you open your Bible to the first story (Genesis
1.1-2.4a) your natural tendency is to think of it as a treatise about how
God created the earth. This was not the driving question of the day among the
Hebrews as it has become in our day. The
Trial turned American popular theology on its heels in the 1920s where John
Thomas Scopes, a high school teacher, was charged with violating Tennessee
state law by teaching the theory of evolution.
An early spokesman for the cause of Biblical Creation
Jennings Bryan (1860-1925). Bryan believed that the moral decay in America
during his lifetime was the result of the teaching of evolution. The idea of
evolution was argued in many arenas, but it wasn't until 1925 that the most
famous of the platforms of argumentation, the Scopes Trial, set the standard.
In the early part of the twentieth century religious leaders became fearful of
the rise of the teaching about evolution. They believed that Christians should
only believe in a literal reading of the Genesis account of creation. This
literalness, they believed would keep believers from losing their faith.
Because of the Scopes Trail, American popular theology
has come to believe that it must stand against evolution. What we have settled
for is a popular theology (disguised as the only and right theology) of
Science. The term has become a household name especially among home
schooling parents. Creation Science, or Creationism as it is sometimes called,
is the result responding to Charles Darwin's book Origin of the Species (1859)
and the Scopes Trial.
In today's climate it's difficult to speak about the
creation story of
1.1-2.4a because of the Scopes Trial. To teach the first chapter of Genesis
in any other way than the Creation Science version positioned against secular
science will not pass the litmus test of popular theology. Popular theology
about this story so misses the point that we must stop and refocus ourselves
and ask some serious questions about the conclusions we have come to believe.
Some questions that are important to ask would be: What did the first
storyteller, Moses, mean when he told this story to the children of Israel at
the foot of Sinai, and what might they have understood by the story being told?
It is within the framework of these two questions that the story comes alive
with meaning. Outside this framework the story can be twisted like a wax nose
as Martin Luther once said, and can be molded into saying and teaching anything
one wants to teach.
Our task then is to help you grasp the meaning of this
first story of Scripture so you can tell it and retell it and even find
yourself in the story.
Arguing about Creation as a scientific fact or
certainty is not the point of the first story in the Bible. The story is
theological. It is not scientific. This often comes as a jolt to those who have
been formed by the Enlightenment project of the last two hundred years and have
come to revere science as the enemy of Christianity.
The Modern god of Science
Modern science and the first chapter of Genesis are
answering different questions. Science wants to know the answer to one
question: "how did this happen?" The story in Genesis is interested in
answering the question: "who created the world?' Science has become a god of
the modern world that tempts us to believe that "how" is the only valid
question to be asked. The beginning stories in Genesis were not written to
handle the issues that were raised by twentieth and twenty-first century
science. It was told and written by an ancient to handle the issues of his day.
As an example: the ancient worldview believed that mankind was just simply an
afterthought that the gods were not happy about. In contrast to this ancient
belief, the storyteller of the creation narrative asserts that humankind (man),
male and female, was the goal of God's creation. The ancient author goes about
deconstructing the polytheistic belief system and replacing it with a
monotheistic one. It is our task as modern readers to concentrate on the scene
into which this bit of storytelling came and not waste time trying to solve
some scientific issue that is foreign to the purpose of the story.
Not gods at all
The first teller of this story, Moses, and the first
hearers of this story, Israel in the wilderness, did not have privy to Darwin's
theory or modern science. It was not part of their mindset. One might reason
that if it were not part of the original storytellers mindset and it had
meaning for the first hearer who also did not have a scientific mindset, then
we might need to look in another direction for the meaning of the story of
Alas, we return to our original thought, the ancient
Hebrew needed to understand that there was one God and not many gods. They
needed to realize that other so-called gods that were being worshipped at their
time and thought to be creative forces were in reality not gods at all.
A Final Thought
If there had been public schools among the ancient
Hebrews in the wilderness, the burning question of debate would have surrounded
monotheism (one God) and polytheism (many gods). Questions surely would not
have been around creation and evolution, which is an issue that certain
Americans, who now live thousands of years later in the midst of a scientific
worldview, might imagine it to be.
In our next study we will begin the story of creation
1.1-2.4a) as seen as a tract against polytheism. Understanding the story in
this way will drive home some interesting points about how we are to be the
people of God in the twenty-first century.
It is always important to apply what you have learned.
Pause at this point and ask for the help of the Holy Spirit to help you
meditate on and put into practice some or all of the following.
- What surprises you about the polythestic background
of Genesis 1-11?
- Why do you think that we are so scientific
oriented even when it come to reading and understanding an ancient document
that was written to a people before science?
- How much do you think the Scopes Trial has
influenced the reading and understanding of the first story of Scripture?
Read the following Dictionary Articles from
Easton's Bible Dictionary, or the International Standard Bible
Encyclopedia. Easton's is about a century old, therefore, some of
the information is not current with newer Bible Dictionaries. ISBE is
about seventy-five years old. You might read the articles off-line in a number
of different Bible Dictionaries. If you do not own a Bible Dictionary, I would
Bible Dictionary 3rd Edition. If you like lots of color pictures, try
Revell Bible Dictionary now out of print but still can be ordered from
amazon.com. One of these should suit your personal needs.
Copyright © 2001, Winn Griffin.
All rights reserved. BibleJourney: An Almost Weekly Bible Study is a service of
SBL Ministries. Unless otherwise stated, scripture quotations are from the
International Standard Version (ISV) of the Bible®. Copyright
© 2001 by The ISV Foundation, 2200 N. Grand Ave., Santa Ana, CA
92705-7016. Used by permission of
Press, Inc. All rights reserved internationally.