Different Stories, Different Gods

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The first eleven chapters of Genesis combine two different sources, each projecting a different picture of God, which undermines any view of the Bible as a homogeneous entity with a consistent message. It’s more like a tangle of different messages, and these chapters need careful literary and linguistic scrutiny to disentangle them. Repetitions, inconsistencies and contradictions must be addressed, and consideration given to the relative merits of the ideas and themes that jostle for attention. We’re challenged to reassess what kind of ‘book’ the Bible is, and what can credibly be said about the God who dominates its pages. To me, assured pronouncements sound more like ‘crying in the wind’, and are blown away by the testimony of such ambiguous and perplexing (though often delightful) heterogeneity.

P’, the 5th century BCE Priestly source, was the one that gave these chapters their final shape. It included the first ‘creation’ account; a genealogy of Adam; one component of the combined Flood story; and genealogies of Noah’s sons and of Abraham. Priests (as always) were mainly concerned with overseeing the establishment and maintenance of correct beliefs and their associated rituals and festivals. The sun and moon, therefore, are created not just to provide light, but also to serve as “signs and appointed times”, such “times” being the days or weeks set aside for the “appointed” observances of the worshipping community. 

Likewise, the culmination of the priestly ‘creation’ account is not the making of humans, but the establishment of the sabbath day. As for genealogical information, it was of major importance to them, since only men from the tribe of Levi could be priests, and only those from the family of Zadok could serve at the altar in the Jerusalem Temple. Priests were thus (and still are) superior to, and separate from, the laity, the common herd (the people who’d be the original followers of Jesus). 

Unsurprisingly, then, the priestly God is ‘high and lifted up’, a commanding voice from above. He neither makes personal appearances, nor communicates through messengers or dreams, and certainly not talking animals! His one manifestation is his “glory”, an incandescent cloud that conceals rather than reveals. He’s totally self-assured, knows exactly what he’s about, and precisely how to do it. Consequently, when he “saw all he had made, it was very good” from his viewpoint.

The God of the earlier 9th century BCE “J’ source, is quite the opposite. His physicality includes strolling in the garden of Eden, and chatting to Adam and Eve. Rather than knowing exactly what he’s doing, he arrives at a suitable mate for Adam by trial and error. After creating every other creature, he finally fashions a human counterpart, which should have been a ‘no-brainer’, but not for J’s God ! Far from being assured and dispassionate, J’s God regrets his mistake in creating humans, is furious when they don’t please him, commits genocide on a world-wide scale but thereafter, being won over by the smell of food cooking on a sacrificial altar, promises never to flood the world again.

What’s this telling us? It’s telling us these chapters are not a literal description of God. If they were, either he’d have a temperamental, unpredictable, disordered personality, and be guilty of a crime against humanity, or he’d be a distant, unapproachable voice, heard but not seen. It wasn’t God, but men who wrote the Bible, and included stories telling how they imagined him but, arguably, telling us more about themselves. These stories can be well-crafted, colourful, dramatic and, like all good stories, thought provoking, but not invariably agreeably or helpfully so! 

They must ultimately be ‘left behind’. They’re like boats to take us where we haven’t yet been but, once we’re there, if they’re tightly held on to and dragged along with us, they risk becoming a potentially unhelpful encumbrance. We must learn to sit loose to them, taking them as signposts (watchfully in case they’re misleading) but not as destinations in themselves. How sadly and unhelpfully ironic it is, if a ‘book’ that regularly warns against ‘idolatry’, itself becomes an idol. How even more unhelpful if there are “people of the book” who declare it to be ‘the word’ of a god of their own imagination, whose truth they alone hold, and who favours only them, while hating all others, and encouraging them to give these heretical enemies a foretaste of the eternal torment eagerly awaiting their arrival. To hell with that sort of nonsense !

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