If you happen to come across this article, it’s the third in a row. So I would recommend starting at the beginning. I’ll wait here.
Now that we are all on the same level, let’s continue.
All my attempts to reconcile the creation story with the scientific theories fell short. Some of my colleagues, who had challenged me to explain this discrepancy in the first place, were satisfied with my explanations, but they were not enough for me. Too many flaws within the reasoning.
In Bible exegesis we learn to interpret what the story meant to the people to whom it was first given. Of course, God would not utter anything that would not make sense and could not be understood by the original listener.
A very good principle. We learn to include the historical events, the prevailing culture, the pre-supposable knowledge of the time in our reflections.
But we leave out something crucial: the people at that time not only had different life circumstances, they had a fundamentally different understanding of the world, namely one that was not scientifically based on facts and experiments, statistics and empiricism. It resembled today’s traditional worldview with the exception that it had no clue of modernity and postmodernity.
Their time was one of morality, of order, of rules, of structure. The search for meaning and purpose in life was its focus. One longed to dedicate life to a higher purpose and attain satisfaction in the service of an ideal or an authority, to fulfil one’s social needs of belonging – exactly what I was looking for when I joined the church, just without all the distractions I was grappling with.
Truth was whatever served this purpose. How did I put it in the former article? Men of those days wanted to give life to the listener by telling stories. To give life in the sense of: giving meaning, giving joy, bringing about moral improvement, affirming belonging.
This concept of truth has a much greater impact on our interpretation of biblical stories than the fact that they lived in an agrarian culture at that time.
What does that mean for our example, the creation story?
A new interpretation
What if the creation story is just that: a story. In fact, two poems – the creation itself, and the story in paradise.
Today, theological research in laymen’s terms assumes that the five books of Moses were penned at the time of Israel’s exile in Babylon, perhaps shortly thereafter, by various scribes, partially being collected from earlier sources. There are no copies of these earlier sources. Thus, text-critical methods were used to be able to say which scribes probably contributed which parts to the complete work. This is text archeology at its best, but always loaded with uncertainties. Clues are the writing style of a passage, or the use of certain words such as naming God either Elohim or Yahweh.
For our consideration here it is sufficient to know that the authors probably knew the Babylonian culture.
In Babylon, there was a creation story that is very similar to the biblical one, the Enuma Elish. The differences are just as blatant and important as the similarities:
The biblical creation account speaks of one God creation everything ex nihilo, from nothing, while the Babylonian story includes several gods, a son dividing his mother and forming the earth and sky from the two halves.
The Bible also attributes a value to mankind that is unique. Created in the image of God, God spoke about us: behold, it is very good. Man as God’s equal, not as a toy in the circus of the gods.
Is that what the writer really wants to tell us: There is only one God, he has created everything, especially man, and you are precious, more than that, you are like him?
But if the Bible starts from a precious person with whom God wants communion, could the second story mean something other than its traditional interpretation as well? This second story seems to deprive man of his value because he rebelled, and to provide for eternal punishment of man. (Of course, there is a way out, under certain conditions.)
I can even imagine that this quite corresponded to the worldview of the writer. He lived in the age of the law.
And even for modernity, this traditional interpretation makes sense. Failure takes the place of disobedience. The new solution is performance instead of obedience.
I have personally experienced this: a mistake was forgiven in the Catholic boarding school if we promised future obedience, while in the modern school more effort could eliminate failure.
And yet, doubts arose again within me. But more on that later.
The second story
But what if the story with Adam and Eve in paradise does not describe the fall into sin? What if the key phrase of the story is: and their eyes were opened?
What distinguishes humans from animals? Consciousness, above all self-consciousness. People are aware of themselves. Some animals recognize themselves in the mirror, they have so-called proto-consciousness. But man grew beyond that.
What if the story in paradise is a poem about the point in human evolution when mankind became conscious?
Let me explore this idea.
One of the greatest enemies of man in the age of hunter-gatherers was the serpent, as it was very difficult to discover. In addition, humans had to be able to identify food in the form of berries and fruits. This resulted in sharper vision with pattern recognition and color discrimination. No wonder the enemy appears in the history as a snake, and the story is about a fruit.
Developing language is a feature of heightened consciousness, as reflected in Adam naming all things.
The linguist Chomsky has shown in his research that consciousness and language first had to show up in one man and one woman and did not just pop up everywhere at the same time.
This moment of awakening enabled man to know right from wrong. How so?
A decision resulted in consequences. Either these were desirable and thus the preceding action good, or negative and therefore the action was bad. Thus, moral norms developed over millennia and eventually led to laws and rules.
The most important element of awakening was the ability to anticipate the future. One could foresee the effects of an action – through experience and interpretation. (In the beginning, much of it being pure superstition.)
History suggests this: men will acquire their bread in the sweat of his brow, and women will have pain at birth. And yet we will work and give birth because of the reward that lies behind all this.
Sweat and pain are only problematic for conscious beings, but it is this awareness that allows humans to accept them, too.
The self-consciousness of man can be seen in the story as they realized “that they were naked”.
In the next article I will show this development in an individual’s life.