What matters most profoundly to the student of history is the revelations about God (sovereign), the created order (good), and humanity (fallen). If a person knows nothing but the first three chapters of Genesis, he will have, at least, a semblance of understanding of the human condition…
While the ancient Hebrews were not the first monotheists in the world, they certainly made their monotheism a war cry for personal identify as well as group survival in a way no other ancient peoples had. The God of the Hebrews was the God, and, before Him, stood no other.
If there is a debate about just where the Hebrew God stood, it is not in comparison to Himself but in comparison to others. The eminent historian of antiquity, Paul Rahe, for example, believes that the ancient Hebrews did not become strict monotheists until Moses delivered the Ten Commandments on the tablets. Even in that grand proclamation, the hint of other gods exists, Rahe has argued, given the wording of the First Commandment: “You shall have no other god to set against me.” Had the ancient Hebrews believed Him alone to be the only God, their God would have had no reason to stress His existence against any potential rivals. And, perhaps more tellingly, the first chapter of Genesis speaks in the plural when it declares in the voice of God, “Let us make man in our image and likeness to rule the fish in the sea, the birds in heaven, the cattle, all wild animals on earth, and all reptiles that crawl upon the earth.” The wording, then, in the hand of Moses, as inherited through generations of story telling, explains: “So God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” A Christian might very well read into this passage a not-so-subtle foreshadowing of the Trinity, but an ancient Hebrew such as Moses certainly would not have made such an assumption, nor would he take kindly to those who would.
However one might fairly interpret the development of the ancient Hebraic idea of one, sovereign God with no rival, the ancient Hebrews defined that one God in ways no other people had. Their God—given, later, only the title Yahweh (“I am what/that I am”)—even in the very beginning of the Pentateuch appears as a sovereign over time, space, and all material. He is not, as with all paganisms, tied to his own creation with the Fates or Norns or any other beings overruling Him in any matter, however mighty or trivial. Rather, the God of the Hebrew is utterly sovereign over every aspect of His creation. He, Himself, has no origins, for He has always been and always will be, a world without end. Everything that exists, exists by His will alone. When God so chooses, each one of his creations will simply cease to exist. He, after all, creations not from something but out of nothing (ex nihilio), for “In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth, the earth was without form and void, with darkness over the face of the abyss.”
With His creation, God reveals two very important aspects of Himself. First, He loves order, and everything He creates has within it the reflection of His order as well as His love of order itself. He is neither a trickster figure nor mischievous as many gods (think Sumerian or Egyptian or Norse) were. Instead, as sovereign, He is father and king, ruling justly over His people.
Second, though no less important than the first point, He loves life for its own sake. Everything He creates, He does with overflowing gusto and abundance. All seeds, animals, birds, and fish contain within themselves the very seeds of their own continuation and procreation. God wants to multiply life, with no limitations or restrictions. Again, it must be stressed, all life is good, and the more abundant, the better. Nothing forces Him to create, and He creates, as far as we can understand, purely for the joy of creation. After the moments and days of creation, God pronounces each thing good. When he creates man, he pronounces him “very good.” The Hebraic God created all things—including time, space, and all matter—within the framework, the story runs, in six days. On the seventh day, God “ceased from all work” and “made it holy, because on that day he ceased from all the work he had set himself to do.”
The first chapter of Genesis, as handed down by Moses, gives us the view of existence from the perspective of the Creator. The second chapter, however, shifts the focus dramatically, and the reader finds himself in Creation rather than outside of it. Taken as a whole, the second chapter is one of the most intimate chapters of any ancient writing, allowing the reader, the hearer, and worshipper to immerse himself fully in the brief moment of Edenic glory. Out of the dust of the earth, God forms man, and “breathed into the nostrils the breath of life,” making man something unique, neither divine nor animal, but both and neither, a third thing altogether.
To His creation, the human person, in particular, God gives two immediate commands. First, the human person serves as His steward on this earth. The human person, endowed with free choice, must treat all of creation with reverence, cultivating and leavening, rather than dominating and abusing. Second, the human person must name all things, the name fitting to the thing rather than existing separate from the thing, arbitrary and abstract.
God also, in the second chapter, gives man one prohibition, not to eat of the fruit of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Immediately following this command, God notes that it is not good for a man to be alone, presumably to remind him of God’s prohibition as well as to give his give minds and hands something to do other than dwell on what cannot be. Though God creates man from the dust of the earth, He creates woman by taking a rib from the first man. Thus, in addition to the one prohibition, God also creates the first institution, marriage, and its logical offspring, the family. Each institution—marriage and family—comes before anything else in human society, before economics, before politics, and before even established religion.
In chapter three, however, the focus becomes even more intimate, but far more depressing, as the first woman, Eve, and then her husband, the first man, Adam, succumb to the temptation of the leader of the fallen angels. Assuring each that they would not die if they ate of the fruit of the tree of good and evil, Adam and Eve become aware that they are naked, thus having lost their innocence and the innocence of mankind, permanently. If chapter two is Edenic glory, chapter three is human horror as God casts Adam and Eve from paradise, sending them into a world of pain, struggle, and suffering. Not only does He deny them access to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but he also sets the smallest of angels to guard the “Tree of Life” from His created things. As depressing as the third chapter is, the text of verse 15 gives the reader some hope: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your brood and hers, all the days of your life. They shall strike at your head, and you shall strike at their heel.”
Within Judaism and Christianity, a myriad of interpretations has been made regarding the three chapters of Genesis. Whether one takes them literally, symbolically, or something in between means little in the large frame of history. What matters most profoundly to the student of history is the revelations about God (sovereign), the created order (good), and humanity (fallen). If a person knows nothing but the first three chapters of Genesis, he will have, at least, a semblance of understanding of the human condition.
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