Monday, January 10, 2011

Things we can learn from the creation stories (creation of spirits, hydrogen).

We have been sharing some oral bible stories with some of the friends we have been making. With one friend we have been looking at some stories about Elijah the prophet. That's appropriate for his life. With another friend and some of her friends too, we have been looking at the early stories in Genesis.

Each of these stories have been oral. Nothing is read. The stories are followed up by discussion and questions. (1) What did you like or not like about the story?  (2) What can you learn about God from the story? (3) What can you learn about people from the story?  Recently we added another question as it is appropriate- (4) What can you learn about spirits from the story?

I decided that the first story we would share would be the creation story from Genesis 2. There is actually more than one creation story in the Bible. Some people get freaked out by this idea. It doesn't mean that the stories contradict each other. It just needs to be remembered that they come from the ancient world and a different perspective than our own. The creation story in Genesis one has God speaking the divine word, that is creation by word. The creation story in Genesis two has God creating by action. God plants a garden, God forms the man from the ground and then breathes life into the man. God opens the man up and takes out part of his side, closes him up and forms the woman from part of the man. The story in Genesis two has people actively in the story and is a little easier to relate to as a first contact story. 

Following Genesis two, we actually shared the story of the tree of good and evil on the next occasion with our friends. It was fun to listen to many of their insights- God is generous. This is our common story. We all blame each other like that in our own lives. Who was the snake? These insights and questions were prompted by the story and nothing else.

Before moving further into the "pre-history" stories of Genesis, such as Cain and Abel, I decided that it is probably important to tell the creation story of Genesis 1.

Over New Years we had some friends stay with us who live among an animist people. I handed a book to our friend called "Making disciples of oral learners." It made for some good conversation, and explains well what we are trying to do ourselves. A question came up during the reading of the book- someone in Nigeria was asking when the spirits were created. Apparently the people there then told an oral story from the Bible that addressed this issue.

The spirits are very important to animistic peoples. The spirits are very real every where in the world, but many western people doubt their existence and write it off as superstition. Many Christians can be included in holding this perspective. So I began to wonder how important it was to address this question before moving ahead with stories in Genesis.

When were the spirits created? I began scouring the bible and looking up what other people thought about the topic. Nobody gave a clear answer. Various scriptures can be found that show that God did actually create the spirits (such as in Colossians). So there is no doubt on this issue. But there just didn't seem to be a definitive scripture that showed when it happened. Some argue that Job 38 shows that they were already there at the foundation of the world:
Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?
Tell me if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set?
Or who laid its cornerstone?
While the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?
I don't think this shows that the angels were there at the actual foundation of the earth, but only during the process. This becomes a little clearer in the Genesis 1 story.

I had always thought that the spirits were created before the world. But there is no scripture to show this at all. In fact I think the devil wants people to believe he is special enough to have been created before the world. Consider for a moment some other stories in the Bible that refer to the devil or fallen spirits. Two that come to mind off the top of my head are Isaiah 14 and Revelation 12. In Isaiah 14 the devil is referred to as having been the "Morning Star" before his fall from heaven. In Revelation 12 he is called a dragon, but it is mentioned that this is the same as the "ancient serpent" from Genesis 3. We tend to think that since Genesis 3 is so early in the story that the devil must therefore have fallen before the creation of the world. In the Revelation 12 story, the dragon (who St. John confirms for us is the ancient serpent from Genesis 3) sweeps a third of the stars from heaven down to earth, after a war in heaven against Michael the archangel. These stars are of course the fallen angels.

A consistent fact that we can learn from each of these stories is that spirits or angels are synonymously referred to as stars at times in scripture. Even in the Job 38 story the morning stars are singing for joy. Why are they are called morning stars? Perhaps because they are born at the dawn of the world. People are born some time later.

I read the first creation story closely. Something jumped out at me. In Genesis 2:1, the NIV says that "God created the heavens and the earth and their vast array." I think they have actually left something out in the translation. Other versions say "God created the heavens and the earth, and the hosts there of." The word "hosts" is a little archaic in this context. But the word is translating a Hebrew concept that actually refer to an army or armies. Elsewhere in scripture the word is used in the context of "angelic hosts" or "starry hosts". Again there is a level of synonymity between "angel" and "star". So, it becomes clear that there is at least a reference to the creation of spirits or angels in the creation story.

When taking bible translation studies at SIL we learnt that it is ok to make something that is implicit in the text explicit, so long as it is in the text. I determined that the word hosts sufficiently explained angels in creation, and that there is enough else where in scripture to support this. So I explicitly expanded the line to say "God created the heaves and the spirits (hosts) that inhabit them and he created the earth and the creatures that inhabit it, he created them completely." I almost left it at that.

This seemed to be a good enough explanation. It satisfied me that there is at least a reference to the spirits being created in Genesis 1. It never bothered me that the serpent's cover is not fully blown in Genesis 3. The serpent is clearly a lying spirit, but it really didn't matter which spirit it was. The point of the story was not to give focus to this lying spirit but to show what happened in relationship between God and people. But of course the lying spirit still plays a big role.

One of the mistakes we make as westerners is to ignore the spiritual world. So often we just don't even see its existence. It can be right under our nose and we can still miss it. This is a big and common mistake that happens when westerners try to take the gospel into animistic cultures. Paul Hiebert called it "the flaw of the excluded middle." That is, there are three levels to be considered in the animistic world (1) God, (2) the spirits, (3) people. Often as westerners we only think about God and people and completely forget that the spirits exist, or at very least think they are not important and at worst think they don't even exist. (Every animistic person knows how real the spirits are.)

I had been reading the creation story and excluding the middle. But my eyes were beginning to open. Just as chapter 2 verse 1 showed me that the spirits are actually in the story, I started to look further.

Here are some of the things that became apparent to me as I read the story and prepared it for oral rendition. Aspects of a spiritual world view and a scientific world view.

* "The spirit of God hovered over the waters." The word waters seems to be inept to explain what happened at the start of creation. But is it really? This is an ancient story, carried orally for thousands of years before writing even existed. Water was the most basic element in the ancient world view. What is water made up of chemically? Two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. Hydrogen is the most basic element as we understand the universe today. Stars are all made of hydrogen. All elements come from hydrogen. So in reality "The Spirit of God hovered over the hydrogen mass". Amazing as it may be, this ancient story still holds up to scientific scrutiny for those that want to see it.

* God separated the waters below from the waters above.  Once again waters can broadly refer to all space matter. In this case, God is separating the hydrogen masses to form stars and planets. Yes, stars as we know them are created on day two, not day four as we think the story says. It is also on this day that the solar system and earth are formed. I am not bound by six 24 hour periods. The phrase "there was evening and there was morning" serves to delineate between the periods of creation and to show completion to God's task; i.e God did everything he intended to do that day and he did not forget anything.

Day four is the day that confused everybody. How could God make the sun and moon and the stars after he had already made plants in day 3? Our western intellects fail us here. We can only understand "literal" texts. We fail to understand ancient oral texts and the word imagery that is being used. This does not make them any less true, we just need to travel back in time X thousand years to when the oral story originated and wear glasses from that ancient world view to understand it. This is the day when seasons, days and years are marked. This is the day when the constellations were set in place. Constellations in the ancient world represented gods or spirits. Yes, this is the day when the spirits were created. Just as many other bible texts use the word star to be synonymous with spirit, so is the case in the Genesis 1 story. What was the purpose of the spirits/ angels/ stars? To give light on earth; i.e to be God's messengers of light, God's light bearers.

Keep in mind that everything that happens in the creation story in Genesis 1 is good. The spirits God created in Genesis 1 were good, they had not fallen yet. Things that happen in the spiritual realm may not be on a time line the same way that we understand. This is clear from Revelation 12 when the war in heaven happens after Jesus is born.

I contend from this story that no spirits fell before or during creation. Spirits were created on day 4 and then sang for joy (Job 38), their purpose being to bring light on earth. It is only in Genesis 3 that we see a spirit doing something sinful. At this point it is fair to say that the events in Isaiah 14 may have happened shortly before the serpent tempted Eve. Or it is equally possible the Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 are simply renderings in the spiritual realm of what was happening simultaneously in the physical realm.

The next chapter in the story of the spirits happens in Genesis 6. I may write on that topic when we get to that in our oral story telling.