Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Bible and Other Faiths 5a

Time to dive back into this series. I'm currently blogging through The Bible and Other Faiths by Ida Glaser. For previous entries in this series, just click on The Bible and Other Faiths label at the end of the post.

Beginnings: Genesis

IG explores Genesis in a little more depth than others, convinced that it is a foundational book, as well as to provide a model for deeper study of other passages. Genesis 1-11 introduces us to a world of peoples. God creates humankind in his own image, puts them in a good land. Sin enters the world, humans are expelled from Eden, and there is an increase in human wickedness, leading to judgment and the flood. God then “recreates” the world. This world includes the covenant of Genesis 9:8-17, which includes all living beings and the earth itself. And IG wants us to see that people of other faiths are human beings, in God’s land and under God’s rainbow, just like us. "Part of the point of the flood story is to show that all peoples have one source: we come from Noah."

This is underlined by the following sections after Genesis, which gives us some insight into this world of different peoples. Noah and his sons tell us about the presence of sin and inequality. The table of nations in chapter 10 paints a more positive view of peoples in all their diversity. Babel shows God’s judgment on those working against him, and its effects are still seen today in miscommunication and prejudice. Yet IG contends that the division of people is also necessary to limit the effects of sin in this world. And so our differences are both part of God’s providence and the results of our sin.

IG moves on to provide a contextual reading by comparing this account to the other creation stories of the time, specifically, the Babylonian creation epic and flood story. I won’t recount them in detail here, but basically it involves lots of gods fighting against each other, out of which details of how the world and certain elements of it emerge. "The end point of all the creation stories is a particular human society, in a particular place, organized for the service of the gods. Much attention is usually given to the temple building that symbolises all of this." IG, utilising the same literary tools used to read other creation stories to read Genesis, notes a couple of features peculiar to the biblical story.
  • Genesis discounts other gods; all things are under the control of this one God.
  • Genesis gives a different view of the purpose of human beings. They are not solutions to a problem, but to be blessed by him and to hold responsibilities within creation.
  • Genesis recognises anti-God powers, but God has no need to fight them, he can control them with a word. There is one exception, the human being. God, however, is still supreme, and he is still committed to love us – that is the message of Noah.
  • God’s judgment are for different reasons. The emphasis on God’s justice and human sin are unique to Genesis, he does not get angry arbitrarily.
In summary, Genesis exalts Yahweh as the only creator of the whole universe and of all peoples, unlike other ancient creation stories.

What do we learn about religion here then? Although specific religions of the time are not discussed, we can still learn quite a bit about human religion generally. Humans need a way to God, and sacrifice seems to be a way – eg. Abel and Noah. Yet at this juncture, just why their sacrifices were acceptable is unclear. (Cf. Cain). But it is clear that God does not need our sacrifices, unlike the Babylonian gods who were “fed” with sacrifices. Instead, God feeds his people instead! (Gen. 9:1-3). Indeed, religion could cause violence, as testified by Cain’s murder of his brother. Nor do religious places impress God – implicit in the Babel story is also a criticism of Babylonian religion, which has Marduk building an impressive temple to the doorway of God. And so religion can easily lead to two fundamental mistakes: that we can be the same as God, or that God is far away and we can find a way of reaching him.

Instead, Genesis paints two pictures of true faith, rest and walking. Other creation stories often gives the origin of religious festivals and their purposes, for eg., to guarantee a good harvest. Yet Genesis only tells us about the Sabbath. There is no need to persuade God to work, but rather, a recognition that we can rest in God’s sovereignty; his work is done, rituals are unnecessary. Secondly, we relate to God not by climbing up to him, but realising that God has come down to us. He walks in the garden (3:8), and those named righteous in Genesis 1-11, Enoch and Noah, also walked with him (5:24, 6:9). It is into such a world, with its different languages and territories and temples, that God speaks and acts, as he calls Abraham.

Before moving to the rest of Genesis, IG provides a short excursus on communication. She notes that the Genesis writer was not afraid to use the thought forms and cultural expressions of his day to deal with their concerns; he shared some of them anyhow! Of course, stories could also be used to challenge other stories, as in Babel. For further exploration, she suggests reading through Hosea, and noting how ideas associated with Baal: fertility, rain, storm, crops etc. are used to show that Yahweh is Lord of all.

I think I’ll stop here, and do the rest of this chapter in the next post. Here are some of questions for reflection that IG suggests:

What creation stories do people in your areas tell? What are the purposes of these stories?
How do the ideas about religion generally help you to understand the specific religions in your area?
How could you use Genesis 1-11 to communicate with people in your area, especially in light of their creation stories?
I think it’s useful to point out too though that creation stories need not be “religious” in the way we usually conceive of them. The Big Bang is a creation story of sorts. Pleasure could be the name of our god. And so on. These questions could provide a fresh way in helping to understand and engage with our non-believing family and friends.

Anyway, please do feel free to comment!

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