GOING BACK TO GENESIS: in the beginning God

I doubt there is a book in the Bible more argued-over than Genesis. In the red corner we have the creationists and literalists insisting that every word is true, and to believe anything else is tantamount to heresy.

In the blue corner are all the people who think it is a load of old junk and can’t possibly be taken seriously.

And then there are all the people milling about in the middle, with strange or sensible views: you pays your money and you takes your pick.

I love Genesis – all the arguments don’t really bother me, as I believe that it can give us a profound understanding of what God is like, and how we are in relationship to Him. Every time I go back to the text something else shines out like a jewel, to deepen and broaden my understanding.

One of the things I love about it, is its poetry. That first chapter is written in such a way that, even in translation, I am awed by its beauty and power.

So I am delighted to have found Robert Alter’s translation of Genesis. Alter is a professor of Hebrew, Jewish by background, not a Christian, and his translation is an attempt not only to capture the Hebrew as exactly as possible, but also to be faithful to the Hebrew poetry and literary skill of the original. Although there are loads of accurate translations out there, he’s the only person I’ve come across to pay attention to the literary side as well.

I’m reading him in conjunction with a translation and commentary by John Goldingay, an English prof (used to teach Hub!) who is Christian.

His theory is that Genesis is a kind of parable. Jesus told stories which were not literally true, he says. We are not meant to believe that there really was a Good Samaritan. The story is told with a purpose, like all parables – in this case, to treat all people as our neighbours, whether we like them or not.

Treating Genesis as a parable is not the same as treating it as a ‘myth’, which implies that it is not true. Thinking of it as a parable takes it more seriously than that, and respects the text. I can’t bear commentaries that don’t respect the text – I guess that’s a hangover from my days as an English student. We take Shakespeare’s text seriously, and don’t hack it about just because we may not like what he says. How come we think it’s OK to do that with the Bible?

Goldingay applies this idea of the parable to Genesis. If we understand it as a parable, he says, teaching us truth about God, then all the arguments about whether the world was made in 6 days, etc etc are no longer relevant. What is relevant, is the truth that it conveys.

I’ve not come across this approach before. I do like it. Time for a think …



53 thoughts on “GOING BACK TO GENESIS: in the beginning God

  1. If we don’t think rationally about God and live with blind faith we will drive rational beings out of the churches.
    The Taliban have blind faith and that is why they don’t mind blowing themselves up to reach the dozen virgins in heaven.

    Blind faith is a non runner . David.


    1. I wouldn’t go as far as that – faith comes in all shapes and sizes and for some people acceptance is sufficient for them. For me, no – I am the sort of person who believes that thinking hard about things is part of having faith – loving God with my mind. I believe that faith includes but is not boundaried by rational thought.


      1. I cannot disagree with that point of view………………… but the nature of God needs a lot of thought………… much religion seems to posit ( implicitly or explicitly ) a clever old man in the sky…………..getting away from that isn’t very easy for preachers and teachers …. even when they don’t expressly admit it the choice of prayers and hymns imply it. David


      2. Yes, that’s a popular misconception – more like a cartoon! Instead, we are talking about the infinitely holy, just, loving – and personal. Some hymns can be misleading πŸ˜‰


      3. “But in the beginning God” does precisely that……………..[ implies the clever old
        creative man ].

        Take the biblical story “God gave all the land as far as the eye can see ” to Abraham
        [ paraphrased ] also does it ……………. and now those words are continuing to cause death and destruction to the Palestinians and the Israelis and threatening the whole of the civilized world.

        The point is than the Bible was written by men with only the understanding appropriate to the period when they lived. David


      4. How interesting – just goes to show that two people can come to the same passage and understand it in different ways! ‘in the beginning God’ fills me with awe and mystery and speaks to me of the nature of God, telling me that he is creative. A glimpse already of what he is like.

        As for the promised land … certainly, taking it out of its context and putting it into 21st century western attitudes, this is an understandable conclusion. But the story of the enmity between Jews and Palestinians is more complex than this, in my opinion, and is as much to do with the greed and anger that are common to all humanity.


      5. But with fossils and the study of rocks, asteroids and now a rover on Mars the subject isn’t simple like Genesis describes but goes back to big bang 14.5 billion years ago. We are made of star dust [ I think second generation star dust is required to make elements like iron needed for blood ]. I assume you you know this………. but in my mind I have to redefine God as in the New Testament……….. God is love……….. not an old clever man or being doing anything.. The Old Testament maybe good poetry but is full of things I don’t like such as burnt offerings, killing, adultery, God talking is bizarre.. giving instructions !!!!!


      6. No,there’s no attempt in Genesis to describe ‘how’ God created – that’s a modern question. I don’t see it as being opposed to scientific discoveries, although if it is ‘the truth’ then I would expect there to be some kind of consonance, which I find.

        It helps to read the Old Testament from the New Testament perspective. Yes, there are unanswered questions but my understanding is that the broad sweep of the OT is necessary to an understanding of the New.


      7. But if God is love……….. then we shouldn’t be thinking of him as a creator at all or the great architect in the sky.

        It’s bizarre things such as God requiring his Son to die to satisfy his anger at our sins which baffle me if I follow your and the biblical point of view.

        No earthly father worth his salt would want his son to die as ‘ a propitiation for
        our sins. ‘
        If God is love most of this incomprehensible events / teaching vanish. David


      8. Yes, a lot of people struggle with this. For me, the fact that God is love means that he is creative – love by its nature is creative. But he is also holy, just, merciful – numerous other aspects which we find impossible to hold together in our mortal minds but which I believe are all glimpses of who God is.

        I think the idea of God requiring his Son to die is a simplification. If God is both just and holy, and also loving, then what? How do we relate to Him? And I do think that’s the question, not ‘how does he relate to us’. It’s the difference between an anthropocentric and theocentric world views.


      9. But a loving Father would never require the death on a cross of anybody let alone his Son.
        He might be on the cross Himself by virtue of trying to bring heaven upon earth.

        We have brains and those who study theology and preach the Gospel have a duty to preach a rational Gospel. Just because something is in the Bible doesn’t make it right or true. From my study at school of Divinity we knew that many pieces of text were interpolations by scribes copying out the earlier texts. We knew that the Jews believed that God literally opened trap doors in the firmament to let the rain fall. David


      10. Yes, I understand your point. But I think we have to be wary of trying to fit the universal Gospel into a modern western mindset, which is ‘rational’ insofar as we are the descendants of the Enlightenment, and we think in forensic categories, which other cultures do not. This leads to reductionism which doesn’t make much sense in other contexts. I agree that faith means we can and indeed should use our minds to do some very hard thinking.

        My understanding is that the story of the Jewish people is the story of God wanting to bless the whole world through them, for them to be a ‘light to the Gentiles’. They signally failed in this endeavour ( I realise this raises further questions about the nature of God) and God sent his Son to bring about that redemption, new life, new start, new hope. Something has to be done about the evil in the world, and justice has to be satisfied, otherwise God is not just. The resurrection shows that evil and death do not have the last word, and that there is hope for a better world.


      11. I thank you for trying to help my understanding……….. but God wanting to bless the whole world….. and sending his Son implies a ‘person’ with a brain with a mind with an intention just like us….. but God is love… God is a spirit not a person.

        If he was a ‘person’ however you describe his attributes then on the one hand he gives us our daily bread but on the other doesn’t bother about people being born with horrible disabilities. You cannot have a loving tender God who sometimes intervenes and sometimes doesn’t. [ If I thought that was true I wouldn’t give ‘him’ the time of day !]

        People who go to church aren’t all daft ….. they can spot incongruities and dismiss the churches teachings because their disbelief is generally not addressed. David


      12. I’m not really trying to help your understanding – more just giving my own for us to compare and contrast. Your first paragraph shows me that you’re not a believer in God as Trinity, yet the Salvation Army does sign up for it so does this mean that you feel rather on the edge of things? I believe that God is person, which enables a relationship with him, and the salvation Jesus offers is the way for God’s life and his Spirit to enter ours and begin to change us, and through us, the world around us. That God should choose to work in this way I find astonishing – if I were God I wouldn’t bother, it’s too risky! But I see it as a massive if mysterious privilege and one I can choose or not to accept.

        Your second para is a doubt that many people express, and I sympathise. But if you do away with the idea of the badness in people and the spoiled quality of earthly life, then you also do away with the need for rescue from the consequences of badness. This is where I find Genesis gives me clues that I find helpful, that the refusal to respect God and the insistence on thinking that we as humanity know better than him, is the basis for what is going wrong in the world.

        I’ve said before that the crucifixion shows that evil has real power. My understanding of evil is that it is indiscriminate – it doesn’t care who it hurts, little children, innocent people, whatever. I always find it strange that people blame God for what is bad, instead of the very real and obvious presence of evil in the world. That evil has real power is shown in the fact that Jesus was crucified by the weak and the vicious of his day. God did not intervene.

        I don’t think that God owes me a living. When bad things happen I recognise that that is the nature of life here on earth and it is inevitable. The things that are so hard for me are my share of the suffering that is going on all the time. The crucifixion shows me that God cares enough to come amongst us and share that suffering. He is not remote and spiritual, but real and everyday as well as transcendent and beyond our tiny understanding or our wildest dreams.

        The resurrection shows that evil does not have the last word, that death does not have to be final, and there is hope for the future.

        Yes, I know people who go to church are not daft! But I don’t think I am helping very much to address your disbelief, am I? Sorry.


      13. I do get upset by the sermons in the Salvation Army…… they make my blood boil. Have you ever read John Robinson’s book Honest to God ? It says no God up there [ in the sky ] no God out there [ wherever ] but rather God the ground of our being. If you read the sermon on the Mount………… it is the visiting prisons, feeding the poor, helping the addicted which draws me to the Salvation Army. So Jesus’s spirit is within directing us to do the right. There’s no God anywhere else. Jesus tried to make heaven on earth not pie in the sky when we die.

        He was crucified for doing that not to placate a blood thirsty Father upstairs . Why cant you see how absurd that is ?

        When I was a teenager I was a local preacher on note in the Methodist Church but became utterly disbelieving around age 18 and for many years after until I read Bishop John Robinson’s book. I also realized that what you believe is less important than what you do.
        The Salvation Army in my mind wins on that last point.
        Some members of the Salvation Army are as upset as I am at the idea of Jesus’s death on the cross being to placate his Father’s anger at our sins ! Sorry for my response if it upsets you in any way. We may like singing the hymns but often overlook the words and sentiment. David


      14. Yes, I did read Robinson’s book although it was a long time ago and I think the liberal element of the church has moved on somewhat since then. Like you, I think that a faith that does not try and meet the needs of others is pretty useless, and I would question whether it is real faith. I join many thousands of people in my respect for the SA and the work they do amongst the needy and downhearted. Brilliant. The church took a long time to catch up but ‘we’ are far more active now all over the world in all sorts of ways. About time too!

        I don’t see things your way and that’s why your question to me doesn’t make a lot of sense. Firstly it seems that this is a hugely reduced, almost cartoon-like understanding of the meaning of the crucifixion. If that was just what it was about, then I couldn’t believe it either. I’ve already said some of the things that I believe it’s about, although books could be – and have been- written! It’s incredibly important and precious and full of meaning, not only for me but for everyone, and continues to change people’s lives around. It’s also at the heart of the Salvation Army and is among their articles of belief, which was why I asked whether you felt you were on the edge of things.

        I disagree profoundly with Robinson – God cannot just be ‘inside us’ or else he is not God, simply a facet of our personalities. That doesn’t make sense to me at all.

        No, I am not upset in the least, David – I am very aware that I inhabit a largely secular culture and we have become inured to people thinking that we are out of our tiny minds πŸ˜‰ I have enjoyed this exchange and learnt from it. Thanks for keeping it courteous.


      15. Why would we be anything but courteous. Faith is what we believe and your view and mine will probably be part right and part wrong. Nobody has a complete understanding and our understanding evolves………. when we saw Mother Teresa of Calcutta looking after the poor and dying we knew we were seeing the hands of God at work. That’s what I mean by the God within ! David


      16. I thank you for trying to help my understanding……….. but God wanting to bless the whole world….. and sending his Son implies a ‘person’ with a brain with a mind with an intention just like us….. but God is love… God is a spirit not a person.

        If he was a ‘person’ however you describe his attributes then on the one hand he gives us our daily bread but on the other doesn’t bother about people being born with horrible disabilities. You cannot have a loving tender God who sometimes intervenes and sometimes doesn’t. [ If I thought that was true I wouldn’t give ‘him’ the time of day !]

        People who go to church aren’t all daft ….. they can spot incongruities and dismiss the churches teachings because their disbelief is generally not addressed. David


  2. There are millions of questions that we don’t have the answers for right now. It is my belief that there will come a day when everything will be explained and it will all make sense. Until then I choose to have faith and to trust God.

    I understand that for some people this isn’t an easy thing to do and I respect that. It is a little easier for me because when I was growing up I was privileged to observe my Auntie every day, who was an amazingly wise woman of great faith. Her trust in God was so strong and her faith so real that it became almost impossible not to believe right along with her. Her belief was almost palpable and she never seemed to doubt or fear anything.

    I’ve been reading through the entire Bible for about three weeks now and am up to the middle of 1 Kings. There are lots of things I don’t understand but… I believe in the God of the Bible… and that belief has grown into a faith so firm that even when I don’t understand the whys and wherefores.. I still feel assured that God, to whom I belong, knows what HE is doing and that is enough for me.


  3. However you read Genesis it says God made………….. and on the seventh day he rested…….. so it implies a clever little man in the sky…………. not the spirit of love within us ……… not God the ground of our being.

    I sat in church last Sunday listening and singing to hymns all explicitly implying God supplies our daily needs, constantly listens to each of our prayers ……… and I thought well he didn’t bother to intervene for that April girl in Wales to save her life.

    We need to study the contradictions inherent in our belief system just as scientists test their theories to destruction.
    Ignoring inconsistencies in religion drives intelligent people away from churches and from Jesus himself.
    He, Jesus, didn’t die to satisfy a God’s blood lust [ Salvation… washed in the blood etc ] but rather as a consequence of teaching us how to live he was killed.

    Your Old testament is full of burnt offerings and to a modern mind these don’t make any sense at all except maybe learning how to cook.

    Sorry to try to answer you at length but empty seats in church bother me as well and we need to understand the cause of drift away from the Christian Church. David


    1. Many thanks for this. You make some salient points and some trenchant observations! However, I think that sometimes we need to examine our own assumptions and convictions which we all tend to bring to questions of faith, interpretation etc. For me Genesis does not imply what it does for you, but much more, that we have a glimpse of the character of God, as one whose nature it is to create beauty and variety, and above all, life: and that humanity is his creation of love, made to share relationship with him.

      I wouldn’t say that the drift away from church is mainly caused by the rational difficulties people have with the faith, although this can be and often is a factor. I do think that if we could answer everyone’s questions, it would not make much difference to church attendance. The answer lies much more in how the church thinks about itself. Are we an establishment, wanting people to ‘come and join us’? Or are we a living, breathing people of faith, going out to others in love and service? I vote, of course, for the latter! It’s when people see God at work in their lives, enabling change and the beginnings of transformation, that their faith is awakened.

      As for April – no, God does not intervene in every bad deed. If that were the case, then he would be intervening with all of us all the time. I believe that the death of Jesus shows that the badness in the world attacks goodness time and again and appears to be triumphant, enraging and distressing us. The resurrection shows that it does not have the last word.


  4. I agree with you, it reveals ‘truths’. I was also taught that myths convey deep truths in symbolic ways…. Did you watch the prog about the comedian and the creationists thingy on the tv? I couldn’t face it! :))


    1. It depends on the person asking the question. I’d say that part of the Genesis ‘parable’ is to give us a glimpse of a mighty creator God who made everything beautiful and good, and humanity the crown of his creation. It starts to answer the question ‘why’. But many people don’t wish to ask the question, or seek to answer it differently.


  5. I do not write at all these days. However, I do read avidly. There is a church near to my birthplace where the congregation was almost wholly made up of employees of the main local
    single largest employer. The Managers held positions such as warders within the church and one’s seat or line of pews showed which level you were at in the company. Thank goodness those days are gone but the church is now struggling to raise a congregation for any service. The churchyard is dilapidated and the fabric of the church is sadly lacking of love and attention. The land owned by the now defunct company is transformed into housing estates and smart mews type buildings. Welcome to the 21st. century.


    1. Thanks for your comment, gotf! I very much agree with you that in the past – in the recent past ie within the lifetime of our parents – the Anglican church was very much hand-in-glove with the local squire, managers, etc. The workers were forced to go to church and their managers wanted to know why they weren’t there on Sunday, if they missed a service! Disgraceful. We are still getting over this stage – it set up a huge amount of resentment which has now become part of folk-memory. The Anglican church stored up the seeds of its own decline by preferring the owners rather than the workers. We’ve lived and worked in a mining village so know this at first-hand.

      We are seeing lots of new growth now though – the statistics say that for every church that closes, 3 new ones open – although this is of all denominations, not just Anglican. As for the Anglicans – some of us have learned our lesson and have realised that unless the church gets out amongst the community then we are not doing the job God wants us to do. There are plenty of lively, thriving churches these days, thank goodness, and lots of projects that Christians are involved in, all over the world, trying to support others in extremity.


      1. I don’t think that people would come back to church if they could see that faith and science are not opposites, Trevor. The only reason these days that people come to church is that they do have a genuine faith, and want to share that faith with others and worship together and learn.

        Science and faith are not opposites, in my opinion and indeed in the opinion of many others. Science can answer the question ‘how did this happen?’ but it can’t answer the question ‘why did it happen? Is there a meaning?’ Faith does that.

        There are many scientists who are also people of faith. You might like to follow up some of the writing of John Polkinghorne, who is a member of the Royal Society and also a Christian. It’s time we put an end to the myth that faith and science are opposites, in my humble opinion.

        thanks for your comments.


      2. I will look up John Polkinghorne on the net and see what he has to say. I do have faith in anything that can be proven to me, I never believed that we could land something on Mars, they did it, I now have faith in it. I don’t accept that there has to be a meaning in everything that happens, yes, a reason for everything that happens is okay with me.

        I have great respect for those that do have faith, my wife had absolute faith in the fact that there was another place that she would go when she passed away, I know that faith eased her passing, I have always been jealouse of those that have that faith, and I have tried but come up against walls that I am unable to scale, I’m sure that others come up against these same walls and somehow overcome those doubts, I don’t understand how they do it.


      3. I have had a short look at the answers that the Rev Polkinghorne gives to questioners, to be really honest much of it goes over my head, but, the answers he give, such as,

        “What I think we can say clearly is that if it is necessary for God to limit His omniscience in order that we might have freewill then He will have done so.

        Of course we believe in Creation – Evolution is like Gravity, it is part of how God creates the world, allowing his creatures the freedom to come into being to learn to choose to love Him.

        But IΒ’m sure you can see why anyone who gives a high prior probability to the existence of God will consider (1) far more plausible. (1. God removed the body Β– as per the Resurrection.)

        Now in reading the Bible we have to understand what God is trying to tell us at each point.”

        Make me believe that he has accepted as true what is written in the Bible, and goodness only knows how many re-writes and translations it has had, and that he believes that there is a God without proof of that.

        I will return to it later.


      4. Yes, a lot of people have this opinion of the Bible, and believe that it’s unreliable because of the reasons you cite. A lot depends on whether you think that we can only guess at what God is like, and have no way of knowing whether it is true or not. On the other hand, if we can reach the point of saying that if there is a God, has he himself given us any clues? – then it’s possible to see some of the Bible as answering that question. Do we only have our own guesses, or have we been ‘given’ some revelation?

        The finding of the Qumran scrolls shows that the Old Testament is astonishingly accurately copied, and even today there are strict rules and constant checking amongst the Jews for copying the text.

        Certainly one can say that translation makes it even less reliable: but if we say that, then we have to say that all translations are unreliable.


      5. Hi Gilly, I think that you can believe anything if you believe that there is a God, and that is my first problem. If you believe in that God then everything can be attributed to Him/Her and for things still not understood the stock reply, God has his own reasons for that.

        I do believe that all translations are unreliable, even a verbal message in the same language can be misunderstood by the listener.


      6. Indeed, the possibilities of misunderstanding are endless, in both verbal and written form! Even so, that is rather a counsel of despair, I feel. If God is truth then there are surely ways of testing this truth and for many, many people it changes their lives. It’s also true to say, that if one doesn’t believe in God then the Bible doesn’t make much sense. But with faith, comes a fresh understanding, and it begins to speak to you.


      7. That’s a cry from the heart, Trevor. It’s hard to have these conversations through the blog – much better to sit down over a pint.

        Physical proof does not always awaken faith, though.


  6. I think Shimon said in one of his posts that he/they regard all these stories as parables.It’s only in the last 200 years people took them literally,I think.Karen Armstrong says a lot about it too.Seems to be a good idea to do sych a translation and I shall look for it.


    1. No, that can’t be right, otherwise Galileo wouldn’t have been imprisoned! I’m sure Shimon wouldn’t say that all of the Old Testament is a parable, as some of it is history, some poetry, and some prophecy. The mistake people make is to treat the Bible as a book. It isn’t. It’s a library of different literary genres, and if we start from there, a whole lot of things make more sense.


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