Rethinking the Genesis Message

Since ancient times, mankind has struggled against chaos, often seeking to control differences and manage conflicts though violence and war. The Bible has played an insidious role in this history, though an alternate interpretation of its opening chapter would recognize an appeal to do good, not to harshly impose order, says Rev. Howard Bess.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

It is unfortunate that the collection of writings that Christians most revere has been entitled The Holy Bible, a title that has placed this collection of letters, essays, tracts, poetry, myths, legends and stories in a category that does not allow for critical examination. Many believers treat the Bible’s contents as the unquestioned word of God.

“The Bible says” are three words that end discussion rather than initiate debate. New titles have been attempted. “Good News for Modern Man” and “The Message” are attempts that come to mind. However, neither of these titles, nor others that have been tried, grabbed the imagination of readers sufficiently. I want to make the case to read the Bible material as “Life in the Pursuit of the Good” — though I acknowledge that the Bible can be read with an almost endless number of perspectives.

Michelangelo’s depiction of God creating Adam, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

Much earlier in my theological career, I struggled with the seeming conflict between my Christian faith and modern science. My struggle focused on the first chapter of the book of Genesis. Conventional understanding told me that this story was an account of the God of the Israelites creating all things out of nothing in seven days.

I was exposed to all kinds of explanations about how the story could be reconciled to modern science. However, modern science won all the arguments. Genesis 1 simply did not pass scientific muster. So, I reached my next conclusion. Unwilling to throw away Genesis 1, I concluded that the chapter was not history and could not be understood as history. Genesis 1 was written as a myth and should be read as a myth.

Myth is a time-honored literary form used to talk about God, but myths never make scientific sense and can never be read as history. Myths can witness to truth in a manner that mere history can never speak. Thus, I read Genesis with new eyes.

The Genesis 1 story has ancient roots that go back to Mesopotamia, the cradle of western civilization which covered the same area as modern Iraq, with Babylon its capital city. In Mesopotamian mythology, a recurring theme was the struggle with chaos, with their answer to chaos, war. But chaos could not be defeated by fighting it. Chaos kept coming back to haunt the people of Mesopotamia. In their mythology, war was inevitable and victory over chaos was temporary at best.

According to Biblical tradition, Abraham grew up in Mesopotamia, was familiar with the ways of that region, and – by the call of God – went on a grand journey. Over the ensuing generations, Israelite thinking took a turn away from the Babylonian myths. Genesis 1 is the Israelite response to chaos and endless war.

In the Genesis 1 myth, the Israelite God confronts a world that is without form and is engulfed in darkness. In modern language, the earth was chaotic beyond useful function. So God sets out to do something about chaos and the useless nature of the world. Simply by speaking, the Israelite God made light, vegetation, animal life and finally human life. God’s world was to be a place of plenty and robust life. As God completed his actions, he paused periodically and said that what he was doing was good.

This alternative reading of Genesis 1 and understanding Genesis 1 as myth were for me a marvelous discovery. I could let science do its work, while I was given a new vision of what my life as a religious person was to be about. Jesus and Paul affirmed the message that evil/chaos is never to be fought but overcome with the doing of good.

Genesis 1 lays out the message about the power of doing good, though mankind keeps finding ways of nullifying the program. Christians, Jews and Muslims all say that they embrace the Genesis 1 story. However, much of the time we choose to be Babylonians, warring against chaos rather than addressing it with good.

In that way, we ignore one of the most profound ethical statements ever proposed.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is hdbss@mtaonline.net.                 

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12 comments on “Rethinking the Genesis Message

  1. vi veri vniversum vivus vici on said:

    The Genesis story is real, it is scientific fact, you just don’t know it yet. Look at the oldest things, symbols. Before language, we communicated in symbols, and the first symbols were the most profound. The ouroboros, the borrowmean rings, fractal patterns, and the motion that created life, the whirlpool are some. That sistine chapel painting… Look closer. Its a brain on the right side, pointing to the pineal gland, the one responsible for human God connection. We are Gods, capable of power most never could imagine seeping here from the dream worlds. Genesis is our homunculus story, humans were created life as much as evolution. If you created a homunculus, it will eventually want another life like it. Then, you make a decision, kill it or give it another… But you know every one that exists, there’s less resources for you, especially if they procreate fast. At this point, you send them to their own planet or kill them. We were left, kinda. Witches and Gods and people of power can be killed, but it goes further. We are but a walking plant, and we humans are 1 single creature with a tappable conscious, and all life is one life. Everything is a series of patterns, all fractal and repeating. To reach Christ (genius) consciousness, you must understand love, killing, and eating as well as dormancy (sleeping) have patterns which you can trace back to FIRST LIFE, this is an inward journey, you have everything you need already, your mind. Once you understand, you can take conscious control of your body, control heartbeat, digestion, growth, etc, all the way to your cells, and once you consciously control cells, you have conquered time and overridden your self termination. You will be always monitoring, your world will be fundamentally different, you will experience full spectrum senses (synesthesia) and just so much more. Goodluck. I am vvvvv.

    • I. S. Alcordo on said:

      The only definite and reasonable message that Genesis 1 declares is that there is a Creator who created all things including humankind. And that this Creator is not only capable of converting energy (voice as vibrations as energy)into matter but also is the ultimate intelligence in the universes of space,time, energy, and matter. His is the cosmic mind of which the human mind is but a speck of dust but vested with intelligence – Let us make man in our image -capable of discovering and comprehending the workings of the Creators various creations. To believe that this Creator literally formed man from the dust of the ground by God’s own hands, as Genesis 2 declares, is a denial of God’s gift of reason to make factual what reason declares as purely metaphoric.

  2. Ray McGovern on said:

    Many thanks to Howard Bess for his provocative essay on Genesis 1 – particularly for pointing out not only that it was written as myth, but also that “myths can witness to truth.” (All can agree, I trust, that story of creation in Genesis is not an eyewitness account.)

    Genesis is not the first book of the Bible written; it is one of the last. It was composed during and after the Babylonian captivity (587 to 538 B.C.E.) as a counter-story and repudiation of Babylon’s religion of empire. That “religion” was based on the myth of redemptive violence as the way to defeat evil and establish peace. (How fortunate that we 21st Century sophisticates have long since risen above that primitive concept!)

    Counter-stories are tools designed to repair the damage inflicted on people by abusive power systems. That’s what Genesis was all about. The Israelites desperately needed to teach their children a narrative that would negate the influence of the violence-prone, opulent Babylon – their home for half a century.

    (Have any of you noticed how seductive the redemptive violence ethos can be, even – or especially – in nations that claim “city-on-the-hill status?”)

    One story in Genesis is key to this understanding: Abel meets a violent end at the hands of his brother Cain. When YHWH asks Cain where his brother is, Cain gives a Babylonian-ethos-type response: “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

    So what’s the point? With this exchange, Genesis undermines Babylon’s claim to divinely authorized violence. The murderer has no escape when faced with this question because there is someone who hears the victim’s blood crying out. These words, valid for the whole history of humankind, protect the person as a creature of God from other people.

    No cover story will justify Cain’s act. God hears the cry of the poor even from the bloody ground. Anyone see any current application?

    These insights, which complement those of Howard Bess, come mostly from “Come Out, My People: God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond,” by Wes Howard-Brook. Modern biblical scholarship like Howard-Brook’s has been a big help, as I keep trying to make sense out of the Hebrew and the Christian scriptures – trying to see if the myths and stories are of any use today. I believe they can be.

    Ray McGovern

  3. rosemerry on said:

    Thanks to Ray and to Howard Bess. Belief in these myths is just that-”faith is believing what you kow ain’t true”, and the interpretations are so diverse that constant conflicts follow from trying to impose any one.

  4. Hillary on said:

    The greatest story ever sold.
    .
    “biblical scholarship” is an oxymoron.
    .
    Unevolved people believe in heaven and hell,devils and angles santa claus etc etc

  5. hammersmith46 on said:

    Stories, just stories.

  6. Morton Kurzweil on said:

    Everything in the universe is committed to act according to the laws and dimensions of this universe. Nothing actually known through the limitations of perceptions and the physical interaction of the smallest particle to the largest galactic cloud.
    Humans are limited by instinct, “If it feels right, it must be true”, or an acceptance of a feeling of certainty.
    Certainty through faith is the acceptance of any idea in which a question is answered.
    Certainty in science is the degree to which the answer to a question is contained within the limits of the question.
    Evolution, transience, and incomplete knowledge drives response through survival to commit to habits of behavior.
    The understanding of what we are will help us understand who we are.
    There is no morality or ethic derived from the physical laws. Morality and ethics are accepted by groups seeking survival. The only law that applies is the survival of the species. The only law of morality is survival of a group identified by prejudice, bigotry, and hierarchal behavior control.

    • HISTORICVS on said:

      Remember that the “laws” which “govern” the universe are not a set of external rules to which matter somehow mysteriously conforms: they are simply the properties inherent in matter, which were discovered through scientific investigation. We call them laws because it is a term familar from human experience, but the concept has no meaning in the natural world, where the properties of matter do not require an explanation: they are the explanation.

  7. hammersmith on said:

    Except me of course, Americans are ignorant, but they are ideological, so, be it religion or politcs, they believe whatever they want to.

    • Gretchen Robinson on said:

      Christians have worshipped many Jesuses over the centuries, the gentle Jesus, the warrior/savior, the personal friend who walks beside us, “The Cosmic Christ” of Matthew Fox. Jesus is never fixed. He’s a symbol we project our fears and wants onto. I was made to sing,
      “Jesus loves me, this I know,” and later “I am weak but he was strong.” That was an unhelpful message for a timid little girl overwhelmed by authoritarian parenting, a bullying sibling, and having to practice “Duck and Cover” because the Communists might bomb us any moment.

      At that moment I became an agnostic and am now a secular humanists. Conservative Christians want the comfort of having all the answers, a whole system laid out for them and then all they have to do is believe. As the Queen says to Alice, in Wonderland, “I try to believe 6 impossible things by breakfast.”

      Rev. Bess’s is a consistent, gentle, reasonable voice. I applaud his reframing and attempts to evoke other perspectives from scriptures that have been overdetermined with what many tout as ‘the real’ version. Thank you for your patient ongoing work in writing.

  8. Reed on said:

    Those interested in re-thinking Genesis would enjoy “The Lost World of Genesis One” by John Walton, in which the creation story is framed as not only a myth, but specifically a temple inauguration of the world. I (and I think Walton) believe you can frame Genesis as a myth without abandoning Christian orthodoxy.

  9. vi veri vniversum vivus vici on said:

    We are God, make no mistake, our current “consciousness” is nothing but a God-form, let me explain. All matter, antimatter, everything that ever was is the same but different, all interlinked, all influencing each other. This happens at every level, with individual God-forms governing them. You are but a hollow husk, your God-form animates you, a collection of matter which cannot exist outside of your connection, for very long anyway. Each level, all fractals of each other, have these governing God-forms, each experience “consciousness” differently, each does it’s job, each just keeps going, its position in the all matrix fulfilled.

    EVERYTHING is alive. Your will can possess another lesser life or give life to inanimate objects. You can learn to beat your heart, an example of entering the circuitry of a closed independent God-form within you, with self preservation intact, life will submit to you. In plain language i give you the starting material for enlightenment.

    God-form unity, the greatest overall connection, is reachable in this “life”. We perpetuate ourselves, we will create life, all that it requires is time, time is nonexistent in the Unity. Only will. We will create the life that we will either separate from or be destroyed by it, human curiosity will drive this. Consciousness drives itself. For everything wants to feel and be felt, and all that’s needed is curiosity, desire, will. Before the mass brainwashing, the attempt to control the uncontrollable human will, you knew this. You’ve been lied to, they poison you with fluoride to destroy your pineal gland, what opens your God-connection, the pineal gland and God being pointed at. Look at that painting. Look at it close.

    Symbols, we are not meant to speak in words, it would be like only communicating in smell, nonsense, how could you describe everything, things that which can not be described… The God-form connection may be opened with plant, you are what you eat. Eat as first humans have to retain eternal life. I have given you this knowledge as a gift. I love you all.