Why Background StudyWhy do we study the background of Scripture? Why don’t we just read the text of Scripture and hear what it says? These kinds of questions are often asked of those teaching Scripture who persist in sharing what sometimes seems to be boring to the students who are listening. These questions are not really difficult to answer.
We study background because it puts us in touch with the people for whom the stories were first told. God did not let his storytellers tell stories in a vacuum. The stories were placed into being in real-time history to real human beings. To understand what they believed will help us understand what God was saying to them and to the ecclesia today!
The stories in Genesis. are needful of being placed within their historical context, as we shall see in these sessions in Genesis 1-11.
Back in Time
Time is a difficult idea to comprehend. It is fair to say that our time, the beginning of the twenty-first century, is much different from the time at the beginning of the twentieth century. Even fifty years ago in time, ideas, concepts, lifestyles, and gas prices were different. Push back further to the stories found at the beginning of Scripture and it is difficult for us to get our arms around and embrace how much different things may have been.
The beginning stories in Genesis 1.1-11.26 were passed along through generations. The story in Genesis 1.1-2.4a was originally addressed to Israel at Mt. Sinai. Remember, Israel had just been delivered from slavery in Egypt by the hand of God. Egypt, like all societies around them, was polytheistic. Polytheism was a belief system in the ancient world that believed there were many gods, two in particular: Gaia (the earth-goddess), Eros (the god of love) [ref]Tom Wright has written about contemporary divinities in Bringing the Church to the World (Bethany Books. 1993).[/ref] to be worshipped. Most societies believed there to be a pantheon of gods who were responsible for the creation of the world. Israel was not immune from knowing, believing, and practicing polytheism.
In Egypt, Israel was exposed to the belief that the Pharaoh was himself a god. At the foot of Sinai, a newly redeemed people heard from an inspired Moses the story that the God who had secured their freedom by delivering them from the bondage of Egypt, the God who had made a covenant with them, was the only true God and was the creator of the universe.
They had left Egypt, a polytheistic society, and were traveling toward Palestine, a polytheistic society. The story of Genesis 1.1-2.4a was told to help them in this context to help them understand the first of the commandments of the covenant, “You can only have one God.”
To understand the creation story the way these first listeners would have understood is to hear it against a backdrop of polytheism. God wanted his newly redeemed people to understand that he was their true God and they could have no others.
To understand the history of a passage will cause the story to come alive to you as you read it and the story reads you.
When you were a child you were full of questions. Why is this orange? Why doesn’t orange rhyme with something? Why was the leaf green and now it is orange? Where did I come from? Where did that big light in the sky come from? What are all those little lights in the sky at night? Why is my sister’s nose so big? What’s this, mommy?
Questions lead to some kind of answer. The answers are colored with the presuppositions of the society in which the questions are being asked. In the ancient world, they also asked questions about things like: Where did the world come from? The answers were colored by the beliefs of the ancients. There were many stories about the creation of the world being created by many gods. More than anything else, the ancient Hebrew needed to understand that there was only one God. The prevalent cultural belief about deities in their day was that there were many gods. The idea that there was only one God and it was he who created the world is what separates the First Testament faith from its ancient Near Eastern counterparts.
Ancient Worldview Beliefs about gods
In ancient Egypt, from where the Hebrews had been recently rescued by God, there were five cities, each of which had an account of how the world, the gods, and humankind came into being. Each of these stories was designed to authenticate that creation began in the specific city and that the gods of that city were the supreme gods. The stories vary in telling but they have this in common: each portrayed creation as a process of birth from single gods or male-female god couples. These gods materialized in such items as air, moisture, earth, sky, sun, and moon.
The story in Babylon was called Enuma Elish and was written to demonstrate how Marduk became the chief god of Babylon. Here is a summary of that story:
“In the beginning there were two gods, Apsu and Tiamat, who represented the fresh waters (male) and marine waters (female). They cohabited and produced a second generation of divine beings. Soon Apsu was suffering from insomnia because the young deities were making so much noise; he just could not get to sleep. He wanted to kill the noisy upstarts, despite the protest of his spouse, Tiamat. But before he managed to do that, Ea, the god of wisdom and magic, put Apsu to sleep under a magic spell and killed him.
“Not to be outdone, wife Tiamat plotted revenge on her husband’s killer and those who aided the killing. Her first move was to take a second husband, whose name was Kingu. Then she raised an army for her retaliation plans.
“At this point the gods appealed to the god Marduk to save them. He happily accepted the challenge, on the condition that if he were victorious over Tiamat, they would make him chief of all gods.
“The confrontation between Tiamat and Marduk ended in a blazing victory for Marduk. He captured Tiamat’s followers and made them his slaves. Then he cut the corpse of Tiamat in half, creating heaven from one half of it and the earth from the other half. He ordered the earlier supporters of Tiamat to take care of the world.
“Shortly thereafter Marduk conceived another plan. He had Kingu killed and arranged for Ea to make man out of his blood.”
This ancient story goes on to tell that man’s lot is to be burdened with the toil of the gods. [ref]J.I. Packer. Merrill C. Tenney, and William White, Jr. editors The World of the Old Testament Thomas Nelson Publishers 1982 110-112[/ref].
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we are somewhat overwhelmed with a belief about creation, what has come to be called Creation Science, which is so far removed from the actuality of the background of the text of the creation story that it is a sad state of affairs.
When you open your Bible to the first story Genesis 1.1-2.4a, your natural tendency is to think of it as a treatise about how God created the earth. This was not the driving question of the day among the Hebrews as it has become in our day. The Scopes Trial turned American popular theology on its heels in the 1920s where John Thomas Scopes, a high school teacher, was charged with violating Tennessee state law by teaching the theory of evolution.
An early spokesman for the cause of Biblical Creation was William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925). Bryan believed that the moral decay in America during his lifetime was the result of the teaching of evolution. The idea of evolution was argued in many arenas, but it wasn’t until 1925 that the most famous of the platforms of argumentation, the Scopes Trial, set the standard. In the early part of the twentieth century, religious leaders became fearful of the rise of the teaching about evolution. They believed that Christians should only believe in a literal reading of the Genesis account of creation. This literalness, they believed would keep believers from losing their faith.
Because of the Scopes Trial, American popular theology has come to believe that it must stand against evolution. What we have settled for is a popular theology (disguised as the only and right theology) of Creation Science. The term has become a household name, especially among homeschooling parents. Creation Science, or Creationism as it is sometimes called, is the result responding to Charles Darwin’s book Origin of the Species (1859) and the Scopes Trial.
In today’s climate, it’s difficult to speak about the creation story of Genesis 1.1-2.4a because of the Scopes Trial. To teach the first chapter of Genesis in any other way than the Creation Science version positioned against secular science will not pass the litmus test of popular theology. Popular theology about this story so misses the point that we must stop and refocus ourselves and ask some serious questions about the conclusions we have come to believe. Some questions that are important to ask would be: What did the first storyteller, Moses, mean when he told this story to the children of Israel at the foot of Sinai, and what might they have understood by the story being told? It is within the framework of these two questions that the story comes alive with meaning. Outside this framework, the story can be twisted like a wax nose as Martin Luther once said, and can be molded into saying and teaching anything one wants to teach.[ref]I am indebted to David Wollenburg from Concordia Seminary for the following quote from Luther: Martin Luther, Werke (Weimar: Böhlau, 1883), vol. 1, p. 507; from a 1518 sermon on the Ten Commandments.[/ref].
Our task then is to help you grasp the meaning of this first story of Scripture so you can tell it and retell it and even find yourself in the story.
Arguing about Creation as a scientific fact or certainty is not the point of the first story in the Bible. The story is theological. It is not scientific. This often comes as a jolt to those who have been formed by the Enlightenment project of the last two hundred years and have come to revere science as the enemy of Christianity.
The Modern god of Science
Modern science and the first chapter of Genesis are answering different questions. Science wants to know the answer to one question: “how did creation happen?” The story in Genesis is interested in answering the question: “who created the world?’ Science has become a god of the modern world that tempts us to believe that “how” is the only valid question to be asked. The beginning stories in Genesis were not written to handle the issues that were raised by twentieth and twenty-first-century science. It was told and written by an ancient to handle the issues of his day. As an example: the ancient worldview believed that humankind was just simply an afterthought that the gods were not happy about. In contrast to this ancient belief, the storyteller of the creation narrative asserts that humankind (man), male and female, was the goal of God’s creation. The ancient author goes about deconstructing the polytheistic belief system and replacing it with a monotheistic one. It is our task as modern readers to concentrate on the scene into which this bit of storytelling came and not waste time trying to solve some scientific issue that is foreign to the purpose of the story.
Not gods at all
The first teller of this story, Moses, and the first hearers of this story, Israel in the wilderness, did not have privy to Darwin’s theory or modern science. It was not part of their mindset. One might reason that if it were not part of the original storytellers’ mindset and it had no meaning for the first hearer who also did not have a scientific mindset, then we might need to look in another direction for the meaning of the story of creation.
Alas, we return to our original thought, the ancient Hebrew needed to understand that there was one God and not many gods. They needed to realize that other so-called gods that were being worshipped at their time and thought to be creative forces were in reality not gods at all.
A Final Thought
If there had been public schools among the ancient Hebrews in the wilderness, the burning question of the debate would have surrounded monotheism (one God) and polytheism (many gods). Questions surely would not have been around creation and evolution, which is an issue that certain Americans, who now live thousands of years later in the midst of a scientific worldview, might imagine it to be.
In the stories of Genesis 1-11, we will begin the story of creation (Genesis 1.1-2.4a) as seen as a tract against polytheism. Understanding the story in this way will drive home some interesting points about how we are to be the people of God in the twenty-first century.
Community Discussion Questions
➡ |CDQ Info|
It is always important to apply what you have learned. Pause at this point and ask for the help of the Holy Spirit to help you meditate on and put into practice some or all of the following.
- What surprises you about the polytheistic background of Genesis chapters 1-11?
- Why do you think that we are so scientific oriented even when it comes to reading and understanding an ancient document that was written to a people before science?
- How much do you think the Scopes Trial has influenced the reading and understanding of the first story of Scripture?