by Rev. Eric Elnes, Ph.D.
Scripture: Genesis 1:26-31
I. Original Sin?
Have you ever listened to someone talking excitedly on the phone without being able to hear the person on the other end? Sometimes you can pick up the gist of the conversation pretty well. Other times, you may think you know what they’re talking about but can’t know for sure without hearing the other side. Reading the Bible is often like listening to one side of an energetic conversation.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly what’s upsetting, uplifting, confounding, or delighting those who wrote the Bible. We tend to assume that the problem is either with us, for not being spiritually deep enough to understand or agree with what we read, or with the authors themselves, for either being confusing or too “primitive” in their understandings. Often, the problem is neither our fault, nor theirs. Our confusion stems from the fact that we are too far removed in time, distance, and cultural context to overhear the other end of the biblical conversation.
Of course, this knowledge gap hasn’t stopped certain modern interpreters from proclaiming how perfectly clear the Bible is, enshrining their assumptions as religious doctrine and dogma handed down from on high. If nothing else, this series will demonstrate how dangerous it is to assume that God’s Word is so clear, and why a bit of uncertainty (and humility) truly is a gift (see my sermon video on The Gift of Uncertainty).
A prime example of this problem is the doctrine of Original Sin. This doctrine, which can be traced back to the 2nd Century CE but wasn’t popularized until Augustine in the 4th, has shifted around a bit over time. One of the most popular forms of this doctrine in modern times was espoused by John Calvin during the Protestant Reformation. Calvin believed that human beings are in a state of sin from the moment of conception. This results in a complete alienation from God and the total inability of humans to achieve reconciliation with God based on their own abilities. Apart from the redemption brought about by Jesus Christ who innocently took on the punishment we ourselves deserve, humanity is destined for eternal torment in hell.
One might wonder how we got ourselves into such a precarious state. Calvin, like those before him, looked back to the Garden of Eden. Like others, Calvin felt that Adam and Eve committed an infinite sin which warranted eternal punishment by willingly disobeying God’s command not to partake of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Since Adam and Eve were considered representatives of the entire human race, all who are born into this world are thought to be guilty by imputation.
In other words, the Christian salvation story–at least the story handed down to us under the influence of Original Sin–hangs not on a Cross, but on something said to have happened in the Garden of Eden, whether literally or metaphorically imagined. If there was no Original Sin, then there is no inherent guilt that warrants eternal punishment from which we need to be saved. And if there is no punishment from which we need to be saved, then according to many who believe we are defined by Original Sin, there is no purpose for Jesus. His death on the Cross means nothing. Consequently, there is no purpose for belief … and no purpose for the church. According to them.
Have you ever noticed how if you start out for a destination heading in the wrong direction, you get farther away the longer you travel down that road? Even if you are traveling in a straight line, from Point A to Point B, and are only off by a degree or two, by the time you travel very far, you’re way off course. That’s what happens when you start out on the wrong foot in Genesis. You end up with doctrines that are so far out in left field that you end up missing the whole point of Jesus, salvation, and the community of faith. In this particular case, the idea has gone so far down the road that people feel that if Jesus didn’t redeem us from the sin we’re born into, he’s worthless to us.
You would think that we all would be carefully double-checking our presuppositions. But such presuppositions are rarely examined. It’s a lot easier just to believe whatever the “experts” say and go along for the ride.
During this series, we’re going to examine the presuppositions and the biblical stories they spring from carefully. There’s a lot at stake–both for our world, and for our personal lives. Even if you don’t believe in Original Sin, or hold to the proposition that those who fail to believe in Jesus will suffer everlasting torment, chances are that you are far more affected by this doctrine than you may think.
For instance, do you ever hear a little voice in your head that suggests–no, insists – that you are nothing but a failure, incapable of doing anything right? Or does a voice ever whisper to you that if all of us knew who you really are, you would not be welcome here? Or does a voice ever accuse you of being a supreme ego-maniac for ever daring to suppose that God might actually take delight in you, or that God may have created you to serve a high calling or purpose?
These voices were not created by the doctrine of Original Sin, but they are certainly fueled by it. They are being fueled by the direct influence of this doctrine on your own beliefs, or indirectly, by the way it has influenced Western civilization’s notion of what it means to be human.
Now, before you begin to think that I’m warming you up for some sort of warm, fuzzy, “up with people” doctrine to replace Original Sin, let me disabuse you of that assumption right away. I believe in Original Sin. And I believe that the doctrine of Original Sin is helpful in many ways (which we’ll discuss next week), including the fact that it rings true to actual lived experience. It just doesn’t tell the whole story. What we will find over the coming weeks is that there is a repeating pattern throughout the opening eleven chapters of Genesis. the pattern shows is that we are marked not only by Original Sin but by Original Blessing. And while we are marked by both sin and blessing, we are defined by neither. What Genesis reveals is that we are defined by Original Grace.
To really “hear” all the manifest implications of this claim, both for our world and for those voices inside our heads, we need to hear both sides of the “telephone conversation” being had in Genesis. Happily, in the last two centuries, archaeologists, linguists and historians have done us some huge favors in this regard. Through their labors, we are in a far better position than we’ve been in for two millennia to overhear a conversation that was taking place between ancient Israel and its neighbors. Archaeologists and academics have unearthed and translated many texts that shed light on this conversation ranging from Babylonian creation myths to Egyptian psalms and proverbs, to Hittite treaty texts, to Canaanite funerary liturgies. While not everyone cares to pay attention to what is written on these ancient papyri, scrolls, and steles–especially the dogmatists–those who care to listen find the conversation is quite a lot more interesting than they had supposed. So, without further ado, let’s get to the biblical story, and the story behind the story …
II. Two Creation Accounts
Our first Genesis text is an excerpt from the first of two creation accounts in the Bible. Did you know there are two? The first is found in Genesis 1 and continues through the opening 4 verses of Genesis 2. The second begins immediately after the first ends and continues through Genesis 3. This fact is well known and enjoys extremely broad and wide acceptance among critical scholars today.
I’m not going to spend time belaboring this point. So if this is new information for you and you’re interested in learning more, a casual Google search for “biblical creation accounts” will lead you to plenty of resources to investigate further. But one quick thing you can do if you have your doubts: Make a list of the order of creation in Genesis 1. Then write down the order of creation in Genesis 2. They completely contradict each other. The contradictions may disturb you, but I can assure you that they would not have disturbed the ancient reader. Historical factuality was not their aim. They were trying to describe our relationship with God, each other, and the earth. They weren’t trying to get at the “who, what, when, and where’s” of Creation. They were aiming for the “Why?”
For our purposes, all that is really important to know historically about Genesis 1 is that this first creation account was written in the 6th C BCE during one of the most horrible moments in Israel’s history: the Babylonian Exile.
In 586 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar swept down from the north, conquering city after city, and after a multi-year siege, succeeded in utterly destroying Israel’s political and spiritual capital, Jerusalem, including its Temple. They then carted off anyone with any stature in Jerusalem to Babylonia to live in exile.
Some of the most dramatic and melancholy literature in all of Israelite history comes from the great Exile–including the Book of Job and the Book of Lamentations. The writings of Jeremiah (who escaped being exiled–against his will!) were written before and during the Exile, and Ezekiel’s writings come from Babylonia itself (Ezekiel being one of the exiles). The Book of Daniel, while not written during the Exile, tells a story said to have taken place in Babylon during the Exile. A significant portion of the Book of Isaiah was written during the Exile (chs. 40-55) and much of the Jewish Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible) was either written or edited then–including the creation account of Genesis 1.
Why was so much of the Old Testament written or edited during the Babylonian Exile, you may wonder? The Exile prompted Israel to re-examine the whole basis for its beliefs. They were trying to answer the ultimate question any of us try to answer at one point or another: Why? Why did this bad thing happen? What, if anything, could have prevented it? What does this mean for our relationship with God? Or, has Yahweh been defeated in battle by the Babylonian High God, Marduk?
These were far from academic questions. Imagine all the questions we were asking after 9/11. Now imagine if 9/11 had taken place in every city of our country and all the buildings came down, not just a couple. Now you begin to see the magnitude of their questions.
Of course, the Babylonians were quite happy to supply Israel with answers, just as any conquering people would. Essentially, they would have been saying, “The reason all this happened to you is because our God, Marduk, is in charge, not Yahweh. If you have a hard time accepting that, just look at our wealth and power. How do you suppose we came into it? Would we be in power, and have conquered your country if Yahweh were in control? So get with the program. We’ll be glad to initiate you into True Religion.”
According to the Babylonians, True Religion started with an Epic of Creation which they called Enuma Elish (Babylonian for “When On High”). This Creation Epic was ritually reenacted in Babylon every year at a great festival, so it was hard to miss.
III. Enuma Elish
Until 1876 when George Adam Smith first published a copy of the Enuma Elish after tablets were unearthed in Babylonia, the world had not heard the story for two millennia. That’s too bad, because this Creation Epic is what was at the other end of the figurative “telephone line” when Genesis 1 was written. The author of Genesis 1 was in direct conversation with Enuma Elish.
When we start listening to that conversation, we find some astonishing commonalities. For instance, both accounts tell of a seven-fold Creation. According to Enuma Elish, Day 1 of Creation began with a conquest of chaos and establishment of order. Does that sound familiar? “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Then God says, “Let there be light,” and Chaos starts to become Order.
According to both Enuma Elish and Genesis 1, on Day 2 the heavens are created and the waters are separated. On Day 3, both describe the creation of land, and on Day 4 the sun and moon are created. On Day 6, human beings are created in both. botyboth.accounts, and on Day 7 there is rest and celebration in the heavens.
Why does Genesis 1 bear so many similarities to the Babylonian Creation Epic? One reason may be that the Hebrews thought Enuma Elish had at least a modicum of credibility. After all, it was a very old account, having been told for at least a thousand years before the Hebrews arrived in Babylon. So at least in part, the Hebrews may have taken as a “given” that the broad strokes of Enuma Elish reflect what actually happened.
However, for all its similarities, there are striking differences between the two accounts. It’s the differences that reveal the distinctiveness of Israel’s theology versus that of the Babylonians. One key difference is that in Enuma Elish, chaos is embodied as an evil deity–a primordial ocean goddess named Tiamat. The establishment of order takes place only after an enormous battle with Tiamat that ends in her death and her body being split in two. Contrast this with Genesis 1 where chaos is embodied in ocean, but God is not opposed by anyone or anything. There is no battle. God simply speaks a word, “Let there be light,” and order is established
Another key difference has to do with the creation of humanity. In Enuma Elish, the gods scoop up clay (like in the Bible’s second creation account in Genesis 2) and mix that clay with the blood of Tiamat after she is slain. Thus, humanity was thought to be intrinsically evil by nature. This sounds like Original Sin! Yet there is no Original Sin in Genesis 1. Sin is not mentioned at all, in fact. Humanity is said to have been created not with the blood of an evil deity, but in the “image and likeness” of God. This is royal imagery.
Finally, one more stands out among several others: the question of WHY. “WHY was humanity created in the first place?” According to Enuma Elish, human beings were created for one reason: to be slaves of the gods–to work and offer sacrifices so that the gods could relax and enjoy themselves.
In Genesis 1, by contrast, humanity is created not to be God’s slaves, but to be God’s co-creators with God. We are to “be fruitful and multiply,” and “have dominion” over all the earth. As problematic as that “have dominion” part may sound to us in modern times, you can imagine how it sounded to the Hebrews living in exile. Far from being a sign that we should lord it over the earth, when set in conversation with Enuma Elish, we find that it served the purpose of assuring Israel that they were to be no one’s slaves. They’d learned that lesson in Egypt long ago and were not going to go back.
Putting this all together, what stands out when you read Genesis 1 in conversation with Enuma Elish (which is the conversation that every Israelite in Exile would have heard quite easily), is that there has been a very deliberate attempt to articulate what common ground exists with their captors, and an even more deliberate attempt to draw a line in the sand that separates them. The Hebrew authors seem to be saying, “We agree with you on the broad strokes of Creation, but there are many things in the details that are absolutely not true of our experience.” Three of them are:
(1) The God of our experience does not create through violence, but through peaceful means. Violence is not a creative act. (Painfully obvious in their view, as survivors of great destruction. It doesn’t seem to be so obvious to people today.)
(2) Our faith tells us that we are not intrinsically evil, as your Creation Account suggests. Rather, the God of our experience assures us that we are all created as pure and genuine reflections of the divine. By the way, note that the Hebrews asserted that this is the nature of all people, including the Babylonians–which would have been quite a statement considering what the Babylonians had done to them!
(3) In contrast to your experience, the God of our experience would never enslave people. God is a liberator, not an overlord. God works to set people free from bondage.
In sum, when we overhear the conversation being had between Genesis 1 and Enuma Elish, one thing stands out clearly: The Christian doctrine of Original Sin–which envisions humanity as inherently evil and in bondage to sin–sounds a lot more like Enuma Elish than Genesis 1. Just as Genesis 1 was written to counter Enuma Elish, so its message stands in direct contrast to the doctrine of Original Sin.
In certain respects, Genesis 1 is a warm, fuzzy, “up with people” account of human nature. If all we had to go by was Genesis 1, “up with people” would be the end of the story, biblically speaking. Next week we’ll hear a much different Creation Account in Genesis 2-3 which will temper the optimism of Genesis 1 a bit. For now, we can at least say that any account of human nature that seeks to be authentically conversive with the Bible, must take Original Blessing as a starting-point, not Original Sin. Perhaps when those little accusatory voices start sounding off in our heads we should do the same …