Let us contemplate together the first book of the Scriptures, a book we are likely all familiar with. However, the text of Genesis is also the source of much debate amongst Christians and even amongst those seeking to dialogue with Christians. Unfortunately, there exists much disagreement on how to read this text.
One thing is for certain. This book definitely does not read as though it was a textbook of biology or a historical catalogue in any modern sense. Thus we have great difficulty in approaching these texts with our modern presuppositions. The fathers of the Church can help to light our path as we embark on a journey of understanding this text and others in the Old Testament that seem difficult or even ‘absurd’ to us.
One of the most prolific commentators on the Scripture from the early Church is Origen. He explains what the purpose and point was of transcribing and passing down all those seemingly never-ending stories to the present day. He says,
“But the most wonderful thing is, that by means of stories of wars and conquerors and the conquered certain secret truths are revealed to those who are capable of examining these narratives; and, even more marvellous, through the written system of law the laws of truth are prophetically indicated, all these having been recorded in a series with a power which is truly appropriate to the wisdom of God. For the intention was to make even the outer covering of spiritual truths, I mean the bodily part of the Scriptures, in many respects not unprofitable but capable of improving the multitude insofar as they receive it. But if the usefulness of the law and the sequence and ease of the narrative were at first sight clearly discernible throughout, we should be unaware that there was anything beyond the obvious meaning of us to understand in the scriptures. Consequently the Word of God has arranged for certain stumbling blocks, as it were, and hindrances and impossibilities to be inserted in the midst of the law and the history, in order that we may not be completely drawn away by the sheer attractiveness of the language, and so either reject the true doctrines absolutely, on the ground that we learn from the Scriptures nothing worthy of God, or else by never moving away from the letter fail to learn anything of the more divine element.” Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles, Book 4, Chapter 2, Tracts 8-9 as in Butterworth, G. W. (Ed.). (2012). On first principles. Wipf and Stock Publishers.
How remarkable this is! Origen, who St. Athanasius describes as ‘the labour loving Origen (cf. Defence of the Nicene Definition, Chapter 6, Tract 27) tells us that God has arranged the Scripture using our own words but with veiled indications that the reader should look beyond the ‘body’ of the text. If the text was something we read with ease and simply memorized as though it were a historical record or a biology textbook, we would never be driven to seek higher realities. It is not a matter of seeking out some kind of ‘secret knowledge’ but rather we should understand that, in God’s condescension to use human language, we may have to look beyond the simply physical content of the text. While God uses our own terms and words and expressions to be able to communicate to us, we should not bind Him or the Scripture, inspired by Him, by these same limitations. St. Ephrem the Syrian uses the example of someone who is looking to teach a parrot to speak to describe (in an almost humorous passage) how God teaches us,
“A person who is teaching a parrot to speak hides behind a mirror and teaches it in this way: when the bird turns in the direction of the voice which is speaking it finds in front of its eyes its own resemblance reflected; it imagines that it is another parrot, conversing with itself. The man puts the bird’s image in front of it, so that thereby it might learn how to speak. The bird is a fellow creature with the man, but although this relationship exists, the man beguiles and teaches the parrot something alien to itself by means of itself; in this way he speaks with it. The Divine Being that in all things is exalted above all things in His love bent down from on high and acquired from us our own habits: He laboured by every means so as to turn all to Himself.” St. Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Faith, 31:1-7 as in McVey, Kathleen E. “St. Ephrem the Syrian: Selected Prose Works.” (1994).
The bird in this case is able to learn the language ‘by means of itself’. By seeing this expression of a higher reality (language) ‘spoken’ through itself, it can begin to claw higher and higher towards language. God uses the same methodology with us, deigning to use language but also to use our own expressions to speak with us. It would be an abuse to subsequently take that as expressing the whole of reality when it comes to God and the Scripture.
Turning to the book of Genesis, we may wonder why it was even put down into writing and kept for the Israelites to read and contemplate. According to the tradition of The Church – and also Jewish tradition – Moses is the author. The timing is thought to be some point after the exodus from Egypt when Moses put these writings to parchment. Our local context then would be a group of Jewish ex-slaves who have just escaped their overlords and captors, the Egyptians. This would seem to be relevant on multiple fronts. The Israelites were leaving Egypt, but how much of the Egyptian ways and traditions and modes of thought would remain with them? Would they remember their God, the One who freed them from slavery? Or, would they turn to the Egyptian traditions (our answer becomes evident when we look to the episode with the golden calf while Moses receives the tablets of the covenant, cf. Ex 32.7)? It is precisely this that Sts. Ephrem the Syrian and John Chrysostom put forward as the reason for the writing of Genesis,
“When the sons of Abram went astray in Egypt and deserved to become godless along with the entire world, they too became estranged from those noble commandments that are fixed in our nature and they considered substances, which had come into being out of nothing, to be self-existent beings, and they called created things that had been made out of something ‘gods’. Still, God willed to set right once more, through Moses, those things that had become confused in Moses’ generation, lest this evil tradition be transmitted throughout the entire world.” St. Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on Genesis, Prologue, Tract 4 as in McVey, Kathleen, ed. Selected Prose Works: Commentary on Genesis, Commentary on Exodus, Homily on Our Lord, Letter to Publius (The Fathers of the Church, Volume 91). Vol. 91. CUA Press, 2010.
“And even when all humankind fell into evil ways, the Creator of all did not abandon the human race. Instead, when they then proved unworthy of His converse with them, He wanted to renew His love for them; He sent them letters as you do to people far away from you, and this drew all humankind back again to Him. It was God who sent them letters, Moses who delivered them. What do the letters say? ‘In the beginning God made heaven and earth.’… See the great extent of the considerateness in this statement; there is no mention of unseen powers, nor does it say, In the beginning God made the angels or the archangels. It was not idly or without purpose that he took this line in his teaching. I mean, since he was talking to Jews, people quite wrapped up in the world about them and incapable of forming any spiritual notion, he led them along for the time being from visible realities to the creator of all things, so that from created things they might come to learn of the architect of all and adore their maker, not stopping short at creatures. You see, despite the creation of the world they had not avoided the error of making gods out of creatures, offering worship to the vilest of brutes; so what madness would they not have fallen into if such considerateness had not been shown them [by God]?” St. John Chrysostom, Homily 2 on Genesis, Chapter 6-7 as in Chrysostom, John. “Homilies on Genesis 1–17, trans. R. Hill.” (1992).
Thus we see that this is a story of origins and not necessarily etiology (i.e where they came from, not how). St. Ephrem the Syrian being a Syriac speaker is very ‘Semitic’ in his viewpoint and lived in a time and cultural environment closely related to that of the Jews of his own day. Both he and St. John Chrysostom (writing and thinking in Greek) present a story that is to bind Israel to its God and to guide them to a knowledge of Him and not simply the realities they see around them. The seemingly tedious descriptions of the creation of light, the sun, the moon, the stars etc all make sense when we consider the background culture at the time of the forming of this book of life. Many of those surrounding the Jews believed in a dying and rising Sun God who would die daily (having been overtaken by the Moon God) and resurrect each morning. Some even believed that the alignment of the stars held their fortunes, a fatalism they could do nothing about. In the first chapters of Genesis, we see all of this reversed. The sun is not a god whose struggle with the moon seemed to hearken summertime when he was winning and his losses when wintertime came. The sun was simply a luminous body put into space by The Almighty God as were the stars. God alone is the ever-existent One and there is none beside Him, no demi-gods, no superpowers, simply God (The Father), the word he speaks (The Logos or word), and The Spirit He breathes into the face of the human being (The Holy Spirit, Cf. Gen 2.7).
Another idea which comes to prominence is the creation of the human being and its rationale (or lack thereof in the Genesis account). We see God create the human being out of no need of His own, with no gain for His own. Again, in the ancient world some had posited the creation of the human being as a slave of a divine overlord or whose purpose was to sustain the gods. Sacrifices in this system were then almost a wage or expense collected by the god from its offerer so as to sustain itself. The God revealed in Genesis forms all of these things and in fact offers food to the first-formed human beings for their sustenance, demanding nothing in return (cf. Gen 1.29). This comes out in a few biblical texts,
“Hear, my people, and I will speak to thee, O Israel: and I will testify to thee: I am God, thy God. I will not reprove thee on account of thy sacrifices; for thy whole-burnt-offerings are before me continually. I will take no bullocks out of thine house, nor he-goats out of thy flocks. For all the wild beasts of the field are mine, the cattle on the mountains, and oxen. I know all the birds of the sky; and the beauty of the field is mine. If I should be hungry, I will not tell you: for the world is mine, and the fullness of it. Will I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God the sacrifice of praise; and pay thy vows to the Most High. And call upon me in the day of affliction; and I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me.” Psalm 50.7-14 (LXX).
With each verse we pass by in Genesis, we find the entire world structure surrounding the Jews turned upside down. God does not create as an angry despot who needs a being to do his bidding here upon the earth, rather He does so out of His overabundant love. St. John Chrysostom puts it eloquently,
“Yet it was not because of its utility to Him that He produced anything that exists, since being self-sufficient He is in need of nothing. It was rather out of his loving kindness and goodness that He created everything; accordingly He created things in sequence and provided us with a clear instruction about created things through the tongue of the blessed author, so that we might learn about them precisely and not fall into the error of those led by purely human reasoning.” St. John Chrysostom, Homily 3 on Genesis as above.
For the Israelite people hearing and reading the text as well as the Christian people, it is a stark contrast to the surrounding gods. God creates entirely out of benevolence, not for some ulterior motive or some secondary gain. This human being is created in intimate union with God as evidenced by His breathing into the human, the breath of Life. This human being was created in union with God and the Scriptural narrative gives us many signs of that if we are attentive. First we notice that God grants them their food after the creation of the human being,
“And God said, Behold I have given to you every seed-bearing herb sowing seed which is upon all the earth, and every tree which has in itself the fruit of seed that is sown, to you it shall be for food.” Genesis 1.29.
This is contrasted with the words spoken to Adam and Eve subsequent to their disobedience (a topic to which we will return in a later article). God addresses them saying,
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat thy bread until thou return to the earth out of which thou wast taken, for earth thou art and to earth thou shalt return. And Adam called the name of his wife Life, because she was the mother of all living. And the Lord God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin, and clothed them.” Genesis 3.20-22.
If we gloss over these details, taking them at face value only, we may not see all that the narrative has to tell us. Adam and Eve’s eating of the fruit of trees is no simple dietary guideline. And the dietary change from vegetarian to carnivorous is not simply a change in preference or regulation. Trees and the fruit thereof is the only thing which can serve as food, as a source of life, without giving its [the tree] own life up. The animals, in contrast, can serve as a source of food but they lose their life in becoming a source of life or a source of covering or garment. This stark contrast in the narratives would have spoken volumes to the Israelites reading them. Adam and Eve, in wearing garments of dead animal skins, have become surrounded (literally as they are draped in animal hide) by death on all sides after their departure from God. The mention of bread also seems out of place given that the making of bread would involve fire and an entire process of baking.
A passage like this could leave one wondering how it is that Adam and Eve were to even know how to make bread, let alone what it was. This too will be significant in that the substrate of bread, wheat, is a ground growing plant. The human being’s orientation will no longer be heavenward as he/she was when they plucked the fruit from trees seemingly undying. Rather, they will be bowed down over the ground plucking tares and then working over the wheat by the sweat of their brow. St. Gregory of Nyssa points this out in his comments on Psalm 106 which we will quote here at length,
“Again, he brings the misfortune of our nature into view in another manner and describes the beneficence of God through which our nature is transformed to a superior state. What he says is in such wise as follows, that humanity shrank from the light and, cowering in sin, it no longer retained its upright stance, and was virtually estranged from life. For he refers to ‘such as sat in darkness and in the shadow o f death, bound in want and iron (Ps 106.10). For because it was restrained by the heavy fetter it was inseparable from the evil. Now absence of the good is a fetter, like an iron clamped round our hearts.
These things all had their starting-point in the disobedience of the divine law and the rejection of the counsel of the most High. For this is what he means when he says, ‘Because they had rebelled against the utterances of God, and provoked the counsel of the most High’ (Ps 106.11).
In addition, such people can, in all likelihood, expect labour and humility in their life; labour because they have been separated from nourishment, and humility because they were unwilling to remain in the most High. For he says, ‘Their heart was humbled with labours (Ps 106.12).’ Now the separation from power is nothing other than weakness. For what help might be found without power? Wherefore he says, ‘They were weak, and there was no one to help (Ps 106.12).’
But again, one cry transformed their misfortune to joy. For he says, ‘They cried out to the Lord in their affliction, and he saved them from their distresses (Ps 106.13).’ He dispels the darkness; he destroys death; he breaks their bonds asunder. For ‘he brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death’, he says, ‘and broke their bonds asunder’ (Ps106.14).
Therefore, let His grace be published abroad through praise, he says, because the inescapable prison of death, fortified with bronze gates and iron bars, as the prophet says, was destroyed. For such was death’s strength thought to be so long as the power of death had not been utterly destroyed by the coming of the true life, for everything that occurred before that continued inevitable, as if it were held fast by iron bars and unused gates. But ‘He broke bronze gates; he says, ‘and crushed iron bars (Ps 106.14).’ Now this means that He destroyed the way of their iniquity, and that their life was transformed into godliness. This destruction of those gates means the reformation of their life to righteousness. For He says, ‘He took them out of the way of their iniquity (Ps 106.17)’”
St. Gregory of Nyssa, On The Inscriptions of The Psalms, 84-88 as in Gregory, Saint, and Ronald E. Heine. Gregory of Nyssa’s Treatise on the Inscriptions of the Psalms. Oxford University Press, 1995. P111-113.
Here in this lengthy passage from St. Gregory of Nyssa we see that Genesis (and the Psalm upon which he is commenting) gives us many insights into the state of humanity. Human beings are no longer Heaven-oriented, no longer turned to God. This will entail their struggle and their labour. This also, because of the same love of God for which reason He created us, entails our salvation from sin and death. This is why St. Gregory of Nyssa is able to tie this account together so easily in the above passage, it is all present in the text of Genesis and the Psalter.
This imagery will continue to follow the people of Israel and be a literary theme throughout their heritage. Their sin has them eating bread by the sweat of their brow facing the earth out of which they were created and to which they will return (Gen 3.20). Whereas their sin has done this to them, their God will save them from evil (manifested in the slavery to the Egyptians in the book of Exodus) after which He will rain bread from Heaven upon them (cf. Exodus 16). For the Christian people this will be fulfilled in God’s sending the True Bread from Heaven, The Logos made man, to descend into the depths of humanity, even to hades (cf. 1Peter 3.19-20) that He may grant them true life. This Life without end is now supplied by the flesh and blood of God Himself as He gave to His disciples. The Church becomes the new root out of which the fruit of Life, The Logos, is planted in all of us. It is in this way that St. Cyril of Alexandria can say,
“The aim (skopos) of the inspired Scriptures is the mystery of Christ signified to us through a myriad of different kinds of things. Someone might liken it to a glittering and magnificent city, having not one image of the king, but many, and publicly displayed in every corner of the city . . . . Its aim, however, is not to provide us an account of the lives of the saints of old. Far from that. Rather it seeks to give us knowledge of the mystery [of Christ] through those things by which the word about him might become clear and true.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, Glaphyra (PG 69, 308c).
All of these elements of the story go a long way beyond the simple written content of the story (the physical ‘stuff’ of the story). The story is less about ex-vegetarians living in a garden turned carnivores than it is about humanity created in the Image and Likeness of God and in union with Him. The subsequent change in human life is heralded and communicated by these changes which the book of Genesis so eloquently communicates. If we allow the historical account to bind us then we are missing the actual content of this magnificent story. If we all we see is a story about geography, biology, and dietary changes then we have missed the depths of the human heart to which this story is speaking. It is St. Paul who says to us,
“Our sufficiency is from God, 6 who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” 2 Corinthians 3.5-6.
Having laid this foundation, we can peer deeper into the text of Genesis. We have hinted at this, looking at the imagery of animal skins and trees giving life. In the coming posts we can look at what Genesis has to tell us about human relationships and love and also what it says to us about the mysterious tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.