What does it mean to be human? What is the nature of humanity’s relationship to God, one another and the world around us? These are the kinds of questions philosophers and theologians have wrestled with since before the dawn of recorded history. They are precisely the kinds of questions that science, for all its strengths and wide range of application, can shed very little light on. And, while most people don’t live within a consistent systematic philosophical or theological framework, we all have some semblance of a personal philosophy and theology. Some of these frameworks are more helpful to us than others, but even the most carefully pondered systems are subject to reconsideration – the realities of life from time to time will prove our current assumptions to be inadequate to meet the challenges that come our way, so, we reassess. This is true of even the most devout Christians. Even the most orthodox and/or ‘Spirit-filled’ Christian will eventually discover that the God of their theological framework and understanding is insufficient for the moment. When these points of crisis come, we have a few options. We can stay in a state of emotional and intellectual denial and pretend that there is no tension to resolve and somehow force our round pegs to fit into square holes. Another option is to stop looking in our own ‘theological/philosophical yard’ and start looking into other territories. This can result in an abandonment of one’s framework altogether in favor of another system altogether (i.e., another religion, no religion, or similar). While quite common (and fairly black and white), these approaches rarely lead to long-term success. A third option would require one to carefully and thoughtfully reassess the assumptions underlying their philosophical and theological conclusions and begin to challenge them. For many, this might feel like ‘compromising’ long held convictions, but it’s usually the only approach (especially for those clinging to something resembling a Judeo-Christian framework) that will leave one with an approach that is sufficiently mature to deal with the legitimate complexities of life – without completely discarding the kinds of deep truths that would be too scary to live without.
The Hebrew Scriptures (Christian Old Testament) are filled with incredible reflections on what it means to be human. The reflections in the early chapters of Genesis are particularly insightful to the nature of the human condition – who we are, and how we relate to God, one another and the world about us. Unfortunately, the most important insights found in these reflections are largely lost on Christians from traditions similar to my own. Having bought the lie that science is the only (or at least best) means to communicate truth, we find ourselves busy trying to reconcile these reflections with evolutionary theories and geologic eras or explaining how we have light without a light source or whether 2 persons is a sufficient starting point for a biological species (of any sort) or whether we can reconcile the descriptions of Genesis 1 with the descriptions of Genesis 2. Of course, these are anachronistic considerations. Most of us approach these reflections as 21st century post-moderns (or 20th century moderns, or, if one is particularly tied to traditional Christian theological systems we might even view the material through 19th, 18th, 17th century – or older – European lenses) so these are the considerations we bring to the table. None of these, however (even the idea of creation ex nihilo) are native to the time, place, and culture of these texts. So, while one might reasonably touch on some of these considerations by extending the reach of the texts through appropriate logical and/or philosophical applications, there is no direct connection. But our insistence on viewing these reflections through anachronistic lenses means that we not only are led to inappropriate conclusions from the texts, but we miss out on the unbelievably powerful statements that these reflections ARE intending to make about what it means to be human.
So, what kinds of assumptions SHOULD we bring to the text? This is a good question as none of us are presently in the ancient near east. While scholarship differs on many of the particular details (of some importance), there is a good deal of consensus shared among both liberal and conservative leaning scholars that give us a pretty good place to start. What follows is by no means exhaustive, but should suffice for our purposes.
- Consider Genesis 1 and Genesis 2,3 two separate reflections on the same basic questions surrounding the nature and meaning of being human. Don’t try to reconcile them, they are separate stories looking at the same general themes from different perspectives.
- Eliminate ALL modern scientific concerns, timeline considerations, etc. These ARE NOT descriptions of material creation. In fact, both reflections begin with a pre-existent world/material. This IS NOT the concern of the texts – no matter how much we would like it to be.
- These texts nowhere try to prove the existence of God, it is assumed. In fact, EVERYONE originally addressed by these reflections would agree that humanity and the whole of creation can be traced to a/the god(s). The only question is which one(s).
- Both of these reflections offer a significant polemics (differences, points of distinction) with the views of the surrounding cultures (whether they be Egyptian, Canaanite, Mesopotamian or otherwise – the particular culture in view is not especially important for our purposes). They do so using the language and cosmological framework of the surrounding cultures so that everyone encountering these reflections (at that time) would understand EXACTLY what is being addressed.
- The structure of Genesis 1-2:4 (seven days) follows a pattern common to several of Israel’s neighbors – that of temple building and/or sanctification. This is a literary/story element that gives us the paradigm necessary to understand what kinds of things this reflection is getting at.
- The structure of Genesis 2:5 and following also deals with the creation of ‘sacred space.’ This time, rather than the creation of a temple, we have the creation of a sacred garden – which were typically associated with a temple. Moreover, we have the installment of a caretaker/guardian of the garden – in the ancient near eastern world, this would be the priest.
So, with these things in mind, what is Genesis 1-2:4 saying about humanity and our relationship with God, one another and the world around us? Here are a few conclusions we might draw:
- Note that if we are dealing with temple building days 1-3 deal with the creation of sacred space while days 4-6 fills that space with sacred objects. Conclusion? All of creation is sacred/holy before God – that is, they have a special, God ordained purpose and place.
- Again, if this is temple building, then the whole of creation is God’s home – His palace. One might consider the implications of this and the previous point when considering the scope of the command given to mankind at the end of day 6 (to subdue and have dominion – not over one’s own home, but as regents given charge in the stead of the King).
- In ancient near-eastern temple stories, the final object placed in the temple is the idol of the deity – which would be incarnated by the presence of the deity (I’m choosing my words carefully, here). In this reflection, humanity (male and female) is the idol of God – incarnated by His presence. Please note, while mankind resembles God and is incarnated by God, we are not ourselves god.
- The addendum to the first creation reflection (day seven) indicates that even time itself is holy/sacred. This will be borne out later in the ties with the Decalogue. Perhaps something worth noting, the language of ‘rest’ is not the same as ‘taking a nap.’ Rather it is the language of a king who has secured the realm now taking his place on his throne to rule and reign (this might clear up some of the questions in regards to the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews, too).
- Continuing into the second creation reflection… if this is really about sacred gardens and its priesthood, then ‘the earthling’ (later becoming ‘the man’ and ‘the woman’ – only generalized terms are used, no proper names are used in this reflection until we get to Genesis 3:20 if memory serves me right) are being installed as keepers of the sacred garden – that is, priests of the sacred space (the world). As priests we are charged to care for the world (tend to and protect). This is especially instructive when we consider the role of Israel as a kingdom of priests with the same language being applied to the church in later epistles as the reconstituted Israel.
- Whatever else we might say concerning the relationship between ‘the man’ and ‘the woman,’ the ‘earthling’ was incapable of fulfilling his role of priest on his own. Not until the Creator split the ‘earthling’ into ‘the man’ and ‘the woman’ do we find a unit/entity (the two distinct parts working together) capable of executing the whole of the priestly duties in the sacred garden. This view of male/female is in better keeping with the implications presented in chapter 1.
- People are social creatures and we work and fulfill our purpose best when we are meaningfully connected with one another.
- Human sexuality, traditional gender physiological distinctions/identities are themselves sacred and a gift from God. This does not mean that traditional gender roles are necessarily defensible, only that the differences between and complimentary nature of male and female are sacred and an integral part of what it means to be human and how we relate to one another.
All of this is pretty important stuff and we’ve only just scratched the surface. Any of these things are far more important to living than the particular recipe God might have used in making everything or the details of His timetable. It tells us who and what we are. How we relate to God, creation and one another. The fact that Christians spend far too much time trying to connect these reflections with scientific text books means that we have spent far too little time considering what these texts actually do say. As a result, our world is turned upside down because we have failed to engage it with the kind of philosophical and theological reflection that would help all to gain a fuller appreciation for what being human is really all about.
Pastor Jim Kushner