Primeval – Stories from the beginning


Prompted by the soon released film Noah, Echo High School just finished a 4 week conversation on the first 11 chapters of the book of Genesis, a section often referred to as the “primeval prologue.” The book of Genesis is well named. Genesis means “origin,” and it is a book about beginnings. It addresses questions about the origins of the universe, life, human culture, evil, pain, and suffering. This section of scripture is a lightning rod for interpretive differences and passionate debate, and I think all the attention might serve to confuse the intended message instead of clarifying it.

The powerful message of Genesis’ early chapters is often obscured by modern debates regarding issues the text does not address and questions the text cannot answer. It is common today to debate what the book has to say about the origin of matter in terms of science, cosmology, evolutionary biology, and so on. People try to make the primeval prologue of Genesis into an alternative theory of origins, and the debate about whether or not to take Genesis literally or whether evolution or creation is behind the complexity and uniqueness of human beings.

We might be guilty here of reading modern questions into an ancient context, and in doing so missing the point. One of the keys to interpreting scripture is to allow the Bible to say what it wants to say, not what we wish it said. We have to avoid the temptation to let questions the Bible cannot answer distract us from the questions it is answering. Genesis is not a book about biology or cosmology. It is a book about theology. The tragic reality for many people is that they will miss the theology of Genesis because they are forcing on the text their questions about origin of species and creation vs. evolution. We can’t afford to miss the point, because the point is too important to miss!

Genesis IS NOT – a science book or a history book in the modern sense. Forcing modern questions and modern categories on this ancient narrative is futile and might actually lead to missing the point. It cannot answer questions that were not being asked (or even imagined) by its original audience.

Genesis IS – a story, or a collection of stories. It is sometimes poetic, sometimes narrative, and sometimes parabolic. Genesis certainly communicates to its ancient audience in the language and style of other such stories from the ancient world, yet it is unique. I think the question of whether or not Genesis is “literal” is the wrong question. The question is whether or not Genesis is true, and that answer is yes. It is beautifully and wonderfully TRUE, in that it is jam-packed full of TRUTH. Yet it does not need to be literal to be true.

I think we obsess in excess over the issue of literal vs. symbolic, as if truth can only be communicated in objective, modern, non-fiction styles. I think the idea of anything being truly “objective” even in the modern world is also silly. Even documentaries and modern journalism betray their bias. This attitude also underestimates how narrative was used to communicate value and truth in the ancient world. God seems to be more concerned with the heart than with the head, and stories and songs are the language of the heart and so they make up much of the language of scripture. Scripture actually gives us an example about how story can communicate truth without being literal. Look at the parable Nathan employs when he confronts King David about his sin with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 12:1-7.

The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, 3 but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

4 “Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

5 David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! 6 He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

7 Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!…”

What we have here is a story designed to communicate truth best received by the heart and not the head. Nathan has the unenviable task of confronting and correcting a king that though himself above the law. He doesn’t do this with direct, didactic communication style. Instead, he uses the power of story to communicate the truth of David’s sin in a powerful and disarming way. Is Nathan’s parable TRUE? Yes! It might not be literal, but it is true. The rich man is David, the sheep is Bathsheba, the poor man that was wronged and abused is Uriah. In this case, we have both the parabolic story and the more “historical” story of David’s sin against Bathsheba detailed in the preceding chapters. How would we make sense of the story if we only had the parabole form? Would we be debating what color the fleece of the lamb was, or what town the man was from, or who the guest was that required the meal? All these questions are irrelevant to the point of Nathan’s parable.

For people that cannot wrap their head around the magic fruit and the talking snake and the flaming swords of Genesis’ primeval prologue, at least don’t miss the point of these stories because the details distract you. The fantastic and mythic quality of the stories fits well with the other such stories circulating at the time these were originally told. The question remains: does the primeval prologue of Genesis belong to the genre of parable or theological story or should it be read more literally? I tend to lean toward the side of “parabolic” history for several reasons. The narrative itself seems to suggest it with poetic structures and symbolic names. Adam means something like “humanity.” Eve means something like “mother of all.” The trees seem like symbols. There are parallelisms and chiasmus and other forms of poetic structures throughout the narrative.

Whether you read them literally or not, the theological point doesn’t change. These stories were first told to answer the question: “Why are things the way they are?” Why are we filled with spiritual curiosity? Why do we look into the mysteries of the universe and wonder? Why do we long to be more than we are? Why do we crave to be connected to God? Why have we been cast out of Eden? These questions need to be answered whether you view these stories literally or not. Whether or not they are literal is actually not the most important issue. The most important issue is the theology of these stories, what do they teach us about the nature of humanity and our relation to God? How would the ancient audience have understood these stories? What story does the Primeval Prologue of Genesis tell? It tells a story of something beautifully made and tragically marred. A story of paradise created and paradise lost.

When the movie Noah comes out, maybe you should watch it with your teen and have a lively discussion on parable, truth, history, and ultimate origins.