A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, June 11, 2017
Genesis 1:1-28 ESV
Reading from John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism
Genesis chapters 1-3 – some of the most beautiful literature in the entire Bible; indeed, some of the most beautiful literature in the world at large. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Such are some of the best-known and best-loved words of all time, cherished by Jews and Christians alike. Some of us may have memorized these words in elementary school.
Yet, these same words, and the verses that follow, have also proved to be some of the most controversial words known to humankind. These words have at the same time been ammunition for Creationists and something to be refuted by many evolutionists. One would think that the issue might have been settled once and for all in the 1920s with the John T. Scopes trials. But in the minds of many, the battle regarding Creationism and Evolution is still raging.
The problem over the opening chapters of Genesis, as well as with other stories in the Bible, lies not within the Bible itself, but rather, in the manner in which such biblical stories are interpreted. For, you see, when reading the opening chapters of Genesis and other biblical chapters like them, there are so many different ways such stories can be interpreted – historically, literally, symbolically, figuratively, or metaphorically – to name just a few ways. Some choose to interpret the entire Bible (including the opening chapters of Genesis) literally and as historic fact. This approach to reading the Bible may include the belief and stance that the Bible provides all the answers to all of humankind’s questions. So such an approach leads one to read the opening chapters of Genesis in search of definitive answers regarding how our world – our universe- came into being. “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it,” is a slogan I have heard in this regard.
Others choose to turn to biblical scholarship, which tries to determine when and where such words were actually written, what was going on in the life and history of the people who wrote them at the time, and the underlying purposes the writer may have had in mind when writing them. (As a side note, you my have seen the news stories this past week regarding the recent discovery in the Sahara Desert of homo sapiens fossils that have been determined to be 300,000 years old, a far cry from the 6,000 years from the creation of Adam and Eve, as held by Creationists.)
But in recent years, I have come to believe that there is another way to look at the opening chapters of Genesis. This approach to the Creation stories is not to find definitive answers, but rather, to try to understand the questions that the writers may have been asking in formulating these stories. As writer Michael Dowd notes, “For as long as humans have used words to communicate and think, we have been telling stories to answer the fundamental questions of existence:
Where did we come from? – the question of origin
Where are we going? – the question of destiny
What happens when we die? – the question of finality and continuity”1
John Shelby Spong says it a similar way: “The Bible becomes . . . a historic narrative of the journey our religious forebears made in the eternal quest to understand life, the world, themselves, and God.”2 In other words, in this approach we view the Bible in terms of the questions our ancient religious ancestors were asking, and some possible answers they came up with, based on the knowledge and understanding that was available at the time such stories were written.
For instance, it seems obvious that the first big question being asked in the Creation stories is, “How did it all come to be? Where did the universe come from?” Isn’t that the one, big question of the ages asked by humans and addressed in some story form in many religious traditions of the world? The creation of the universe is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, mysteries known to humankind, something men and women have been in awe and wonderment of from the time of thinking, questioning human beings. So at least one of the aims behind the Creation stories (and there were others, for sure) was an attempt to address the overarching question regarding how everything in our world and the sky above came to be. It was an attempt to provide a story or starting place to answer one of the universal questions of life, and, thus, should not be interpreted as dictation from God about how Creation came to be.
Another question the Creation stories seek to address, I believe, is, “Why is there pain and suffering in the world?” Early men and women suffered sickness, injury, and pain just as we do. Surely they questioned why such suffering had to be. Why such pain and suffering is a reality in our world is another one of the great questions of humankind that was asked way back then and is still asked today in hospital beds all around the world. Why do people – especially good people – have to suffer? The Creation stories seek to address the question of pain and suffering in the world. There must be a good reason for it, the ancients conjectured.
Part of the question regarding suffering is why men and women have to work so hard to support themselves, which brings tiresome toil, sweat, back pain and much more. In growing food, one must contend with thorns and thistles and pests that threaten to rob farmers of their produce, and there is suffering in the hot sun to till the land for food.
And for women – well, the Genesis stories also touch on the pain of childbirth. Why does such a joyous event – the birth of a baby – have to involve such physical pain? That just doesn’t seem right, does it? It is a mystery. Well, the answer given is that men and women, when first created, must have offended the God who created them, so the punishment was suffering pain in childbirth, because of the sin of the first woman who ate and enticed her partner to eat the forbidden fruit. I have even heard someone place the blame of pain at childbirth and other pains of womanhood upon Eve. “All this monthly pain is all Eve’s fault,” was the statement made. Such is the result of the ancients asking the question about pain and suffering.
There is the question regarding the nature of human life. How is it that there is breathing, walking life upon the earth? What force or agency can be accounted for regarding breathing, walking, thinking, reasoning humans? Why is it that a human body is a living, breathing, walking miracle? That is the question. The answer given is the life-giving Creator fashioned man from the dust of the earth and then breathed into him the breath of life. The mysterious thing is one may be a breathing, living, walking, thinking person one moment, then be a non-breathing, non-living, non-thinking body the next minute.
Which leads to the next question regarding death. “Why do men and women, as well as other created creatures, die?” Why do we all of a sudden stop breathing, living, walking, and responding? If the world were created perfect, a paradise, then there wouldn’t be any death, would there? Death is another one of the great mysteries of life, a mystery we still don’t understand today. So again, there must be a good reason for death to have entered the “perfect world” that had been created. Such is a question posed by the writer of at least one of the Creation stories. The first man and woman must have offended the God who created them by being disobedient, by doing something they were told not to do. So the consequence was physical death, for them and all their descendents after them.
Well, as we delve deeper into the following chapters in the book of Genesis, other questions in the minds of the ancients might be cited, such as, “Of all the creatures of the world, why is the serpent most universally feared? Where does rain come from, and how did it come to be that rain started falling upon the earth? How and why did murder enter the world? How and why are there so many different languages in the world? What is the cause for massive natural disasters, i.e., the great flood? And more.
Part of the timeless beauty of the scriptures is that the questions of the ancients are also our questions, and vice versa. One of the primary functions of religion is, is it not? is to seek to address the ultimate questions of life. Religion from the beginning has sought to deal with and provide answers for the realm of Mystery.
And so, when we read the Bible, we find there the universal questions of humankind, many of the same questions that we struggle with today. So we find ourselves in good company, companions in a long line of the faithful who were seekers after God and seekers after the answers to life’s ultimate questions.
So in the end, we should not view the Bible as always holding all the answers to life’s ultimate questions. But rather, as in the case of Genesis, we identify with the faithful of old in asking the timeless questions about life’s greatest mysteries. At least, that is the way I see it. Amen.
1Michael Dowd, Thank God for Evolution. New York: Viking, 2007. P. 21.
2John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991. Pp. 32-33.