East of Eden
I’ve been back in Genesis this week, it being a new year. I’ve taken to listening to the Bible each day, rather than reading it as text. The voice available on my NLT version is somewhat Texan, but the effect is good all the same. To hear these ancient scriptures is to engage with them as innumerable generations did until a 14th Century shopkeeper’s daughter named Else Wyrich gave birth to the very inventive Johannes Gutenberg. Audio Bibles have taken us full circle to the way these texts were meant to be received.
Listening to the early chapters of Genesis is particularly striking. The voicing of the text brings out its true character as narrative. This is a dramatic prologue as gripping as any penned by Shakespeare. It speaks of who we are, of where we are and of how we came to be here. For me, the first three chapters of Genesis primarily address the question of what it means to be human. We are animal, but we are so much more, gifted with the tools and intelligence to open-up God’s world — and tasked with doing do responsibly.
This thread becomes even more clear when we hear the story as it might have been heard by its early listeners. Assuming Genesis came into its current form around the time of the Babylonian exile, the story it tells is deeply moving in its own cultural context for at least two reasons.
The first is the way this story presents the relationship between human beings and their maker(s). Genesis is offered to a culture that already has creation myths, chief among them the Enûma Eliš. This Babylonian story of origins has way too many parallels to the Biblical account for there not to be some connection. Like Genesis, the Enûma Eliš tracks a journey from primordial nothingness or chaos to the world as we know it, and like Genesis it suggests a relationship between God (or in this case the gods) and humanity. The pre-existence of such a text serves to highlight the astounding ways in which Genesis differs from it. In Babylon humans are essentially hapless victims of the gods, created to serve them and more often than not collateral damage in their heavenly wars: humanity-in-slavery and humanity-as-victim. Genesis breaks ranks from this consensus. It describes a God who is good fashioning a world that is good, good, good and placing within it men and women to whom he affords the dignity of partnership. This Hebrew ‘litany of abundance’ could not be further in tone from the Babylonian chronicle of cruelty.
The second unique feature of the Genesis story is how it handles the relationship of human beings to the wider natural world. One of our major concerns in an urban and technological age is that we fear that we have lost touch with nature. After more than 500 years of humanism, and a steadily advancing urbanisation, we need an old, old story to remind us that we are animals after all. We read Genesis to rediscover our connection with fauns and forests, leopards and lupins. For its earliest recipients, though, this text worked the other way around. These people knew that they were animal-like. Their lives were brief and brutal. They were at the mercy of an often hostile natural world. From sickness to storms, in fever and fire, humans were embedded in nature, and nature was cruel. The reason they were so quick to see themselves as slaves of the gods was that the gods expressed their displeasure/malice/mood swings through natural occurrences before the face of which mere humans could do nothing. For these readers, the revolutionary idea at the heart of Genesis is not the reminder that men and women are animal after all — it is the assertion that they are so much more. Yes, we are embedded in the natural order, but we have a calling no other animal enjoys, and we have the gifts to fulfil it. In terms of the history of ideas, it is the Genesis account of creation that makes possible the humanism of Voltaire and all who come after. Humanism, so often the sparring partner of more recent believers, is born in Eden.
To read Genesis as a humanist text is to discover a great secret. Buried in the heart of the world’s great monotheistic religions is a picture of humanity that runs counter to the course those very religions have often taken. For too long religion has been seen to be down on people — distant; judgemental; robbing human beings of their dignity. Those longing to see hope and purpose in the very fact of being human — those looking for a more stirring human story — look elsewhere. Yet the very seeds of their hope are here, at the origin point of the faith(s) they reject.
Isn’t it time for those who claim to know the creator to rediscover the magnificence; the dignity and purpose; the sheer joy with which he looks on his human creatures? We are animal, yes — but we are so much more, and in that more is the very hope of our world.