Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

Tag: Genesis

2nd October 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Genesis 1:20-31
20God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” 21So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind; and God saw that it was good. 22God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth;” 23and there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

24Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind;” and it was so. 25God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind, and God saw that it was good.

26Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27So God created mankind in His image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them. 28God blessed them, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

29God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30To every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food:” and it was so.

31God saw everything that He had made, and indeed, it was very good; and there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Text © New Revised Standard Version alt, used with permission.

Some parishes in Australia have been celebrating “Pet Sunday” in keeping with a tradition associated with St Francis’ Day, 4th October. A Prayer Book for Australia notes that readings for Rogation Days are suitable for this occasion, and one of the Hebrew Scripture readings is Genesis 1:24-31a, but vv20-23 fit in with St Francis, and it’s good to complete the section of this creation story, rather than miss off the last comment.

Readers may note a few minor alterations to the NSRV text quoted above, mainly to address punctuation and grammatical issues. Pronouns relating to God have been capitalised to show the gender is grammatical, not sexual, and “mankind” has been restored as it has never had a non-generic meaning.

This passage from Genesis is just part of the first creation story, which starts at verse 1. I have yet to see an English translation which is faithful to the Hebrew text of Genesis 1:1. Because Hebrew has no indefinite article – ‘a’ or ‘an’ to English speakers – and because 1:1 does not contain the Hebrew equivalent of ‘the’, the opening words of Genesis should really be translated “In a beginning …”, and that opens up a wealth of interpretations of this passage. Other cultures of the time, and from much later, have their own versions of the creation of the world, and they are remarkably similar, despite their origins being from quite different eras and locations. Australian Aboriginal creation stories fit in with this “in a beginning” theme. Could we gain by listening to them?

Rarely heard is that the sense in the Hebrew text is not of a 24-hour day, but a period of time, so the creation can be seen as taking a long time, but, according to this passage, with certain developments at certain times, rather than some random order.

It seems a little incongruous to us, in the 21st century, that “swarms of living creatures, … birds, … sea monsters and every living creature that moves” (vv20-21) should not be classed as “living creatures” (v24), but that is the suggestion if we take the story too literally. It’s too tempting to force our way of thinking onto a quite different culture, which was without all the scientific understanding we now have. Instead, I see the story as a way of describing what happened long before anyone was around to record the events. This, like the similar stories in other cultures, is the way the Hebrew people understood how the God whom they worshipped had created the world in which they lived. I would challenge anyone to describe the creation of the world in a way which provides all the answers. Huge sums of money are spent investigating the universe in an attempt to fill in all the blanks, instead of just accepting that some things are beyond our knowledge.

We shouldn’t miss the reference to God saying “let US make” mankind “in OUR image” and “OUR likeness”. Who are the “us”? At the time of my own study of Genesis it was thought that amalgamation of texts written by a number of authors or editors had resulted in some of the pluralism of early forms of Judaism, influenced by outside cultures, being allowed into the text, because this is one of many places where there is apparent disagreement. Other ways of looking at this are that God consulted with the heavenly host before creating humans, and that there is great solemnity in pronouncing things in the plural – much as the Queen might say “we are not amused.” I don’t know, and it doesn’t really bother me.

God created mankind in His image. Well clearly God can’t be sexually male, or women wouldn’t be in God’s image; neither can God be sexually female, as is suggested by using feminine adjectives and pronouns, as men would then not be in God’s image. It is thus quite clear that God is neither male nor female, but that doesn’t rule out being both. Now that’s a thought which some people might like to follow. More importantly, though, in this passage there is no indication that women are less important, or subordinate to men, or vice versa. Men and women are to be fruitful, to multiply, to “fill the earth and subdue it” – not run roughshod over it, and to “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” In other words, we are to look after the earth, and after all the animals, even if we do eat some of them as part of our food. God also gave us plenty of food in the form of plants and fruit. Are we satisfied with what has been provided for us? Are we good stewards of the earth, caring for the animals and plants which live on it with us? When we are given dominion over something there is a responsibility to care for it. Do we take that responsibility seriously?

It’s a well-known, possibly too well-known, passage, but it conjures up many questions. Feel free to add more.


4th September 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment
Else Berg, ‘Potter’ from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tennessee, USA

Jeremiah 18:1-11

1The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2“Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” 3So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. 5Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. 9And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. 11Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

Text © New Revised Standard Version, used with permission.

In many churches the sermon would have been based on the Gospel reading, from Luke, but there is much for us to glean from the passage from Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was a prophet, and the task of the prophet was to remind the religious hierarchy of their responsibilities in following God’s teaching. The same applies to today’s prophets – and, yes, there are plenty around today, but, like in Jeremiah’s day, some people wanted them in places where they couldn’t do any damage. Time and again a prophet would rise from the people and point out that the hierarchy were not always doing the right thing according to scripture, and the hierarchy, realising that the perks they had woven into their ways of doing things and getting others to do things, would be lost if they truly repented of their sins and turned their teaching around.

The common way of looking at the story of Jeremiah being led to the potter’s house runs along the lines of the potter being able to remodel the clay of the vessel under construction if what is developing is not desirable. God, as the potter, can restart the modelling process, or can continue to model that same piece of clay into something remarkable, because un-fired clay is malleable, not brittle or rigid.

Something else comes to my mind, though. In 1859 Charles Darwin stirred the religious world by publishing a book on evolution. “God forbid” cried the churches, which had, for millennia, taught that God created the world in six 24-hour days, and rested on the seventh. Evolution and Darwin were diametrically opposed. Darwin must be shown to be a fraud. Many of us have heard the joke about a man asking God if it’s true that one second to Him was the equivalent of ten thousand years to us, and, with a positive reply asking for a million dollars, to which God responded “in a minute.” If we take that line, then the “periods of time” (which is far closer to the meaning of the Hebrew text than “24-hour day”) become exceedingly long – well beyond the comprehension of even the people who finally wrote down the passages we find in Genesis. New species are still being formed, older ones, with no further part to play in the potter’s work, are disappearing. That, of course, should not be taken as an excuse for doing nothing about human contributions to the accelerating number of species becoming extinct. Improvements within one species take time to develop, just as the shape of the potter’s vessel takes time to develop. Arms and legs could be formed to fit a purpose, and modified as that purpose changed. We, too, can be co-creators with God of new things in today’s world, but if we go off the beaten track prepared for us then we can be in need of the prophet’s call to repentance and reconciliation, or in need of the potter’s intervention, as happened to Saul on the way to Damascus.

Jeremiah’s message is not just for those of his own time, but for Christians today too – all of us, and everyone in between. How far have we strayed like lost sheep because the potter is not in control? Are we willing to allow the potter to regain control and make something remarkable from the mess we offer? Do we need to change our ways? That could be at a personal level; it could have much to do with what happens in our churches; it could involve how we, as a church, respond to things which go wrong beyond our control. Are we going to be co-creators with God of a new revolution within the church, and the benefit from the rewards of repentance? I hope so.