The Genesis debate: a straw man?

When I talk with people about the whole creation-evolution debate, I point out that it is something of a straw man. Yes, it is a valid topic of discussion, but how God created the universe is not the primary purpose of the early chapters of Genesis. Wait, you say, genesis means the beginning: surely the creation of the universe is the logical place to start?

It might be logical if you aren’t a part of the newly-emancipated nation of Israel, who were scuffing Sinai shrubbery when Moses put Genesis in its written form. On God’s say-so, Israel was preparing to go into the land of Canaan and displace – this included killing – the inhabitants. Before you think, ‘Oh, that’s a bit harsh,’ recall that God had given the Canaanites four hundred years (Genesis 15:16) to turn away from their evil practices, which included acts that even our permissive society would blanch at, such as child sacrifice.

Imagine yourself in that situation. What questions would you be asking? Would you wonder: who is this Yahweh person? Who died and crowned Him God? What right does He have to tell us what to do? Or would you rather ask: Hmm, how did God create the universe: literally, in six 24-hour days; or over billions of years? The debate wasn’t a hot topic for the Israelites. Invasion and decimation of another society was. It’s like US soldiers preparing to invade Iraq consumed by the question: ‘Was the Declaration of Independence truly signed on the 4th of July? Or was it only valid when the final signatures were added on the 6th?’ The two events aren’t related.

So what would the opening chapters of Genesis have meant to an average Israelite? At Mount Sinai, the nation formally met Yahweh, their god and king, for the first time. If you were meeting someone for the first time, how would you begin? I suspect most of us would introduce ourselves, and this is the primary purpose of the Genesis creation story. God is telling us who He is.

But God doesn’t merely say, “I’m God – immortal, invisible, the God only wise”. He starts with a narrative that shows us who He is by what He does (“By their fruit you will know them”!) Compare it to a fairytale like Little Red Riding Hood: we learn that the wolf is bad through what he does. He eats Grandma and dresses in her clothing to deceive Little Red Riding Hood, so as to eat her and the food in her basket as well. The story is more effective in showing how bad he is, rather than saying “the wolf was bad”. Similarly, God showed the Israelites who He was, by what He did and how He did it.

But (you interject) the Bible’s first words are “In the beginning”: surely (you iterate) that’s a very fine place to start? Again, I agree, if we’re only focused on ourselves. But the Bible is primarily God’s story, not ours. If we read a little further in Genesis we see “In the beginning God …” If you’re telling someone about yourself you start with yourself, not with them. God included humanity in His story – He reveals Himself in how He relates to us – but we need always to recall that the Bible is first and foremost God-centred. Genesis begins with who God is, and then looks at who He is to us.

The reason people seize on the ‘how’ of creation because we focus on what is important to us personally. Creation versus evolution has been a widely debated topic since the mid-19th century: it has become one of the central issues between the defenders and detractors of Christianity. But rather than start with ‘how’, the Bible starts with ‘who’. Who is this God that Moses makes so much of?

Over their time in Egypt, the Israelites would have told their children the stories of God’s dealings with their ancestors. They also would have been brought up surrounded by the many deities of Egypt, each having their own statues, temples, rituals and theology. Knowledge of the God of Abraham would be thin by comparison. In the creation accounts in Genesis, the Israelites met their God.

Unlike the other creation tales of the Ancient Near East, the Biblical account has only one god: there is no battle for supremacy of a pantheon. Yahweh made all things, not because He needed them but simply because He wanted to. He didn’t make humans to be slaves but to be royal regents, ruling the world under His authority. God made the world perfect, supplying us with every thing for our needs and desires. Even when Adam and Eve rebelled against Him, Yahweh mercifully provided coverings for them both literally (clothes) and figuratively (a sacrifice – an animal died to provide the skin for the clothes – Genesis 3:21).

By doing this, God is revealing Himself. He is saying, I alone am God; there is no other. I am all powerful, totally good and completely trustworthy. Understanding this, the Israelites were to trust themselves to this Person even if they didn’t always understand Him.

The Genesis creation accounts serve only a secondary purpose as source information for the creation-evolution debate. Certainly we can use science to test the information the Bible gives us, but we should never hold God’s word hostage to our beliefs — not for any reason, no matter how worthy the object.

copyright 2007 Troy Grisgonelle.