October 13, 2014

Atheist Bible Study: An Overview of Genesis

We may be branching out a bit on Genesis. I’ve had nearly a week since our last ABS to think about it, and there are quite a few correlative points I want to make. I’m not entirely sure that one blog post is the best way to approach it.

Genesis is the first book of both the Christian and the Hebrew Bible.  The first five books, taken together, form the Pentateuch. Traditionally, people accepted the authorship of Moses for these books, but as we’ve talked about before, there’s some reason to doubt that Moses was, in fact, the author.

We are going to work through a few questions and points on Genesis today, and we may do another post tomorrow on the aspects of myth that I’d like to touch on before we look at Genesis.

What is the central theme of Genesis?

Genesis has a very specific theme: God creates the world (or makes a promise), appoints man as his regent, man disobeys, God has to judge.

The phrase “…and in you all the nations of the earth be blessed,” is repeated six times in Genesis—arguably the most represented phrase in the book. This phrase has different meanings for Judaism and for Christianity. Judaism sees the covenant that creates Israel as God’s chosen nation; Christianity sees the promise of Christ, who would be a blessing through Israel for the world.

What is the purpose of Genesis?

Genesis reveals the necessity of redemption.

This is a bit of a point of contention within Christianity. Based on how you interpret sin, the Fall of Man can mean different variations of doctrine.

For fundamentalist Christians, the importance of Genesis is in the fall of Man. Genesis also reveals God's perfect plan for the planet. It reveals the cause of suffering, and the remedy for that suffering.

What are some key verses?

Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

The importance of this verse is pretty clear. This is the origin of the entire world.

Genesis 3:15 “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.”

This verse is seen as a portend of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice.

Genesis 12: 1-3 “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”

Not only is the literal call of Abram important, but he is often interpreted as a type of Christ. There’s also the literal blessing—through Abram’s progeny, Christ would come into the world, a literal blessing to all of the families of earth.

How is Genesis structured?

Genesis is typically seen in two structures. One is the division into ten or eleven “toledot” sections. The other divides it into two sections.

The “toledot” sections come from the phrase “elleh toledot”, which loosely translates as “these are the generations of”. Depending on how you look at it, there are ten or eleven sections—I take the eleven sections view. The difference comes from whether you label the first section a “toledot” or not—technically, it does not begin with the phrase.

These are the eleven “toledot” sections:

1. Introduction to the Generations 1:1-2:3
2. Heaven and Earth 2:4-4:26
3. Adam 5:1-6:8
4. Noah 6:9-9:29
5. Sons of Noah 10:1-11:9
6. Shem 11:10-26
7. Terah 11:27-25:11
8. Ishmael 25:12-18
9. Isaac 25:19-35:29
10. Esau 36:1-37:1
11. Jacob 37:2-50:26

The other view is a little more informative, I think. In this view, we’ve got two sections: Primeval History and Patriarchal History.

1) Primeval History (Genesis 1-11)
a) Creation (Genesis 1-2)
b) Fall (Genesis 3-5)
c) Flood (Genesis 6-9)
d) Confusion of Tongues (Genesis 10-11)
2) Patriarchal History (Genesis 12-50)
a) Abraham (Genesis 12-24)
b) Isaac (Genesis 25-26)
c) Jacob (Genesis 27-36)
d) Joseph (Genesis 37-50)

Why is Genesis so important?

This is one of those questions that is heavily influenced by the point of view that a Christian is coming from.

I have tried really hard to find resources coming from a more liberal point of view, but I have been unable to find any. I know they are out there, but I honestly have no idea how to even begin searching. I have spent some time talking to more liberal Christians in my life, and I will try to throw in some of their points of view as the time goes on.

The most accurate point of view that I have is that of the fundamentalist. That is how I was raised and what I was most familiar with. It’s also the easiest to oversimplify, so we will be looking at Genesis’s most fundamental interpretations with some nuance also. Christianity is by no means a simple religion, and understanding its intricacies is, I think, crucial to being an American nonbeliever.

If you happen to know of any such resources, I will gladly accept them. Please share. In the short term, I think the comments section is a great place for more liberal views to manifest, so take advantage. I would love the education.

To fundamentalists, Genesis is critical because it represents the emergence of sin and also God’s promise for redemption. Both of these are critical aspects of Christian theology, and fundamentalists are pretty obsessed with the concept of sin.

Because of this, many fundamentalists believe that it is impossible not to interpret Genesis literally. Remember, they often subscribe to inerrant biblical literalism—the belief that the bible is the perfect, inspired, literal Word of God.

Regardless of the stance within Christianity—fundamentalist, moderate, liberal, whatever—it’s hard to dismiss the importance of Genesis. In the New Testament, it’s the single most quoted book of the bible, with over 165 passages quoted or referenced. It’s mentioned altogether more than 200 times.

Wrapping It Up

Understanding Genesis is key to understanding the Christian theology as a whole, and how a Christian interprets Genesis can be very telling of their mindset overall.

I was going to try to do a chapter a day, but I don’t know that it will do it justice. I think we will move at a slower pace. This isn’t a race, it’s a marathon, and I think doing it right is more important than doing it fast. This isn’t just about churning out content. It’s about developing a deeper understanding of faith and how it interacts with our world. For me personally, it’s about understanding where I came from and exploring that background. In places, that’s going to be painful, but I look forward to the overall effort.

So, tomorrow we will look at the concepts of myth. I believe this is fundamental to exploring Genesis in context. It won’t be comprehensive—there are those that spend their entire lives studying mythology and I kind of envy them that—but it will be a starting point to jump off our discussion of Genesis and Exodus to an extent.

Then we will finally be jumping into the beginning…

((See what I did there?))

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