Sunday, September 11, 2011

Origins of Genesis

What was Moses up to in Genesis when he described the Creation of the world? The universe came together in six days? First came light, and then water, and then the sun and the moon? Small wonder that people these days ignore the Bible as just an irrelevant collection of myths and fables.

So say the moderns fixated on the gamut of minutia for fantasy football but who don’t know the answer to the first question in the basic school-kid catechism.

Yet one cannot help but feel some some sorrow for people these days who are not provided with much in the way of religious instruction. They’re told that silly religious people think the world was created in six 24-hour periods, and aren't we glad we're not like them.

Even back when people were better educated in the domain of religion, there was still plenty of discourse on the proper meaning of some Biblical verses. St. Augustine (AD 354 - 430) in his Confessions spends the final three books of his composition discussing the many ways to interpret Genesis. Thus, “In the beginning God made heaven and earth,” what is meant allegorically by Heaven is the spiritual creation, while by “earth” is meant the formless matter of which the material world was to be made.

In Book XIII Augustine lays out a more complete interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis:
Day One: The light which God created on the first day is the spiritual creation, which became light by the reflection of God’s glory; and in this instance the darkness is the soul without God’s grace in it.
Day Two: The firmament separating the waters above and below is the Scriptures.
Day Three: The sea is the human race given way to sin, while the dry land is the good souls that stands out from the sea and produces plants and trees.
Day Four: The lights that shine in the firmament are the wisdom and knowledge given to men so that those who possess them are the lights of the world.
Day Five: The waters bring forth moving creatures, which are signs and Sacraments by which souls come to know and love the truth.
Day Six: The living soul is produced, which has Faith, Hope, and Charity. Man is in the image of God in the sense that he has the gift of reason by which he can know God’s truth. Man’s rule over animals is a symbol of this reality.

So what of Moses? Did he intend an allegorical meaning in accord with what Augustine described? More to the point of the original line of questions above, was he writing a historical and chronological account of the origins of the universe?

If we say no, I trust that the example of Augustine’s writings is sufficient to refute any charges of reworking the story to make it seem plausible to modern ears. You’ll note that St. Augustine – who lived over 1,000 years before America was discovered by Europeans ­– cannot rightly be accused of modifying Church teaching to accommodate 20th century scientific discoveries.

Moses, then, did not intend to provide a chronological order. Rather, he described the Creation story in accord with a literary convention that was adapted to a popular style of speaking. It’s identical to the way we say the sun rises in the east – a scientist or a pedant will remind you that the sun isn’t actually moving; rather, the earth rotates and the sun only appears to rise. The real scientist, for the record, will allow you to proceed with your point if you explain that you are not speaking scientifically, but only in a popular form; the real pedant will not.

According to Moses' formula, eight acts of creation are described that span a six-day period.
* In the first three days, the creation of unmovable things is described, ending with two works on the final day.
* In the second three days, the ornamentation of the unmovable things is described, ending with two works on the final day.

Further, during each day there is a command from God, its fulfillment, and an approbation of its results.

On the seventh day God is said to rest – not that God can ever be tired. Rather, this bookend served as an admonition that on one day man should rest and give himself to honoring in a public and special way his debt to the Creator of all things.

Thus, neither the time nor the order corresponded to objective events of the creative process itself (Cf. rising sun example above).

Q: Does that mean we are free to read Genesis – and by extension the rest of the Bible – as nothing but allegory?

A: No. That the Scriptures can be read with an allegorical meaning does not mean that the work is nothing but allegory. God did create the universe and us. He does want us to keep the Sabbath day holy. We are all descended from a man and a woman who fall from grace and were banished from a terrestrial Paradise. God did take the form of a man and walk the earth 2,000 years ago, then rise from the dead and ascend into Heaven. We will meet our maker one day and be judged, and then end up in either Heaven or Hell.

Deus spes nostra.

1 comment:

Paul said...

Sean, great little piece about the Genesis rendering. I still know some folks, be they baptist, fundamentalists, etc... who would still insist on a literal reading.
Then there is John 6 ...