Chapter 4: Reading the Creation Stories Again

“Creation cannot be described but it can be sung.” - Marcus Borg

It wasn’t until I could sing the creation stories that they meant much to me. It took years before I was able to hum the tune of creation. I originally heard Genesis 1 - 3 as arguments. Not ancient arguments, which I have come to learn that they are, but arguments against science and modernity. The argument goes on today: between a fourteen billion-year-old creation and a six thousand-year-old origin; between an excruciating crawl and climb up the evolutionary tree and a one-day formation out of mud; between seeing our nature as natural or as fundamentally flawed. The argument goes on and can be read about in any of the writings of either proponent; one side calls the other heretics, the other side declares their opponents simply stupid or antiquated.

In his fourth chapter Marcus Borg allows us to re-read the creation story not as modern argument but as something else entirely. Applying the historical metaphorical interpretation to creation stories enables us to sing, hum, chant and confess these stories confidently. Borg advises us to dismantle literalism as an interpretive grid. Initially he tried to blend the literal and the scientific approach. He imagined Adam and Eve were Cro-Magnon or some other early hominid. He got caught in a tangle as he realized that neither of these creatures had anything like language and that it was impossible for their sons or daughters to create cities within a generation of Adam and Eve. Blending literal and scientific approaches only made matters worse, complicating the questions and distancing the reader incrementally from the text and from its author’s intention.

In my first academic introduction to the Old Testament I attempted to blend the paths of science and literalism and found myself entangled as well. I asked my professor if Adam was an anthropoid. I had two motives. First I genuinely wanted to comfortably graft together the biblical and the scientific worldviews. For that I had a pure motive, or at least an innocent one. My other desire was to see my prof come clean about his belief in evolution in front of his predominantly literalist students. I was frustrated with the inability to speak honestly in an academic setting, so I took it upon myself to “out” the prof. He was smarter than to get trapped in an argument. He stuck to the text in a Borg-like manner. By the time I handed in my last paper at semester’s end, I had come to sing about creation, to see the text as scripture, and to give up arguing, thanks to my patient instructor.

Marcus Borg and my professor spoke of a history of transmission concerning the Creation. There are two renderings with two sets of questions. The first account (Genesis 1:1 - 2:3) was compiled after the exile in 500’s BCE. This first rendition took liturgical and literary turns stressing God’s sovereign providence and care for creation. Its tellers, likely a group of priests, were determined to remind their community that Sabbath rest was rooted in their very origins since God himself rested after his work. Why six days? Because of the importance of the Sabbath. There was little emphasis on chronology. In this story humans come at the apex of creation; they were created last.

In the earlier writing, the second account of creation (Genesis 2:3 ff), the writers emphasized God’s name as YHWH and focused on God’s covenant with humanity. The account truncates the creation of the world to include only items specifically related to humanity and their direct sustenance - plants, herbs, and animals. In this account God creates Adam first and then provides for him with animals and then with a partner, Eve. Since the relationship and covenant are foremost in this writer’s mind the human dilemma is fleshed out in terms of obedience, disobedience and the consequences. It is quite obvious that the author’s intention concerns humanity’s relationship to God, far more than it depicts primitive science.

By showing how the text was transmitted, Borg is ready to interpret them as Israel’s stories not as God’s story or first-hand account of creation. As such the creation accounts are myths that are true. They teach a truth deeper than facts. Borg distinguishes myth as “poetry plus (meaning), not science minus.”

God is the source of all that is but as source he is also sustainer. God holds the universe together and is present in it, thus creation continues and is dependent on that fact. It matters not how we envision the historical origins of our world only that from first to last God is the ultimate source. That is why we can praise the creator for the beauty of creation when we watch PBS documentaries about the intricacies of the magnificent evolutionary journey. God with his covenant faithfulness keeps us singing even east of Eden with the awareness of our nature as the angel-beast.

How much more does this re-reading of Creation lead to praise than petty argument? I wonder along with 19th century songwriter and preacher Robert Lowry,

How Can I Keep From Singing?

My life goes on in endless song:
Above earth's lamentation,
I catch the sweet, tho' far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul--
How can I keep from singing?
What tho' my joys and comfort die?
The Lord my Saviour liveth;
What tho' the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?
I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths,
Since first I learned to love it.
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am his--
How can I keep from singing?