Throughout our study of these opening chapters of Genesis we have discovered traditions with roots going back many, many years. We have also seen how some of the stories in these chapters may have been used at various junctures of Israel’s history. For example, the Adam and Eve story at one time was possibly used to speak to the new power, wealth, and opportunity Israel enjoyed under King Solomon. How will Israel use this blessing? Will Solomon walk humbly with God and be a blessing to the “Garden” entrusted to him, or will Solomon reach out and play God as he eats from the forbidden fruit?
So, these traditions with their long history probably had many uses and meanings over the years Israel existed as a nation. But over the last several decades there is growing and convincing evidence that these chapters (1-11) as we now have them were given their final form and interpretation by Jewish theologians during and immediately after the Exile.
Let’s take a moment to consider the significance of the Exile. In 587 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, conquered and destroyed the Kingdom of Judah along with its capital Jerusalem. The Temple was demolished, the royal house of David was removed from the throne, the territory was incorporated into the Babylonian Empire, and those of any significance were taken as prisoners to Babylon. They were exiled from their homeland.
We have no hope of understanding the Hebrew Scriptures if we do not appreciate the overwhelming significance of the Exile. Israel, the home of God’s chosen people, ceased to be as a nation. The holiest place on earth—the temple in Jerusalem—was in ruins. Babylon alone seemed to rule supreme in the world. Israel’s world was gone forever. Like Scarlett O’Hara’s world, it was “gone with the wind.”
Naturally the people were in despair. Many felt that their national God Yahweh has been defeated by the Babylonian gods. But three prophets sprang up to speak the Word of God: Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Second Isaiah/Isaiah of the Exile. What these three men preached was this: the end of the known world of power and meaning for Judah was the result of God’s involvement in the world. Rather than being an indication of God’s weakness, Israel’s demise was a sign that God was rearranging the world to fit God’s holy will. Judah’s idolatry, her practice of injustice toward the poor and helpless, her immorality, her trust in swords, fortresses, and war horses rather than in her covenant with the Living God, her willingness to listen to those false prophets who promised success and glory while refusing to listen to the true prophets who called for God’s people to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with their God—all of this was a rotten arrangement of religion, politics, and economics. It was blasphemy to a righteous God whose concern for the world went beyond Judah’s parochial pride and agenda. So, God’s prophets shouted God’s intention to shake the world at its foundation—as Jeremiah put it, “To pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, and (then) to build and to plant.”
The Exile also played the most crucial role in the formation of the Old Testament as we have it. For centuries the people of Israel were faced with competing and conflicting messages. On the one side were those who spoke for the king, the culture, and the wealthy. They preached that everything was okay when in fact everything was rotten to the core. And on the other side were those courageous spokespersons for God who spoke truth to power, proclaimed God’s holy will, and called for radical repentance. Needless to say, this latter group was not popular with the king, the temple priests who were joined at the hip with the king, the wealthy who exploited the poor, and the national zealots who believed that Israel as God’s chosen people could do no wrong. (Does any of this sound familiar?)
When the Jews looked out over the smoldering ruins of Jerusalem and its temple, they realized that those prophets they believed to be the true spokespersons of God were lying, false prophets. And the prophets they believed to be blasphemous, traitorous, and in some cases downright crazy were actually God’s true spokespersons. So, the Jews began to throw out the messages of those they now knew to be false prophets and to preserve and expand upon the messages of those they now knew to be God’s true prophets. That’s why we have books like Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel in our Bibles. It took the destruction of Judah’s precious world for her to realize what many of them had believed and expected for centuries was both wrongheaded and wrong-hearted. It was the calling of prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Second Isaiah that would help the Jewish people move through this turmoil, learn from their mistakes, and to begin again.
Those responsible for Genesis 1-11 in the final form we now have were trying to do the same thing. As I said earlier, the conclusion of Old Testament scholars today is that Genesis 1-11 is the final product of Jewish theologians during and perhaps after the Exile. Now where is the evidence for this?
- Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden parallels the Jews being taken as prisoners to far away Babylon
- Cain who kills his brother becomes a fugitive/wanderer and must dwell east of Eden (Babylon is east of Israel.)
- The Tower of Babel story refers to the rise of arrogant, violent, and greedy empires. Israel for a time was such an empire and continued throughout her history to play the international game of politics with little concern for the righteous will and ways of God. As a result, the Jews were scattered just like the people of Babel—driven from their homeland.
- Genesis 1-11 climaxes with the call of Abraham who begins his journey with God in Babylonia. He is to go to a land God would show him and to begin something new as he and his descendants become a blessing to the world. In a similar fashion once the Exile is over, the Jews will be called by God to leave Babylon and to return home and begin afresh as God’s people as they become a blessing to the world and a light to the nations as Isaiah put it.
So, Genesis 1-12, in the form we now have it, was to prepare Israel for Exile as it saw its own sin in these ancient stories as well as to prepare the Jews for a return to the Promised Land as God’s renewed, chastened, and forgiven people.
We might wonder how these stories were heard by those in Exile. Did they get the point? Were they ready to admit their wrong-doing and the collective sin of Israel over the centuries? Were they willing to take the radical steps necessary to start over as God’s people? We are not told how the original audience of Genesis 1-12 responded to these stories, but we do know how they responded to the messages of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Second Isaiah. And I think we can assume that they responded the same way to this collection of stories. Some would reject any message about the God of Israel. In their minds God has failed them. The Babylonians had proven that they and their gods were superior. So, there were those Jews whose answer to the crisis of Exile could be summed up in the slogan, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”
And there were those who could not accept the fact that things would never be the same again for Israel. They clung to the past. They nurtured dreams about the good ole days. They wanted to turn back the clock. They could not imagine a new and different future.
And then there were those who gave up in despair. All was lost. There was no hope. God has abandoned them, or even worse, their God had been defeated.
But there were some who listened to the prophets and understood the message of Genesis 1-12. They believed that the God who created the cosmos; who brought creation out of nothing; who freed them from slavery in Egypt and gave them the Promised Land—they believed that this God, in the words of Isaiah, could do a new thing—an incredible, unimaginable thing. God could start over with the remnants of the old kingdom of Israel and continue the divine plan for the world’s healing, wholeness, and redemption.
Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar we have referred to several times during out study of Genesis 1-11, has a helpful way of understanding what the prophets and the authors of Genesis were trying to communicate to God’s people. Their message was this: Because God is rearranging the world to prepare for God’s holy will to be done, the people of God must relinquish the old world so that they can receive the new world given by God. The Jews must let slip from their hands forever the political and economic system propped up by a self-serving theology which was oppressing the poor and mocking God. And they must prepare to receive from God’s hand the new world, even if it is born in far-away Babylon. In other words, they must give up the old ways to receive the new way. They must let go in order to have a future.
The task of God’s prophets and the authors of Genesis 1-12 was formidable. They had to convince people who preferred the status quo of the past to the transformation of a God who was about to make all things new. They had to labor with a people for whom selective memory came easier than inspired imagination. They were called to speak to a people who had to let go before they could receive.
Brueggemann suggests that there is a similarity between 587 B. C. and our own time. He points out that in many ways we are experiencing the end of our known world. The assumptions and principles which have guided Western civilization for several centuries are being challenged by the hard doses of reality bombarding us day by day. The raw concentration of power and knowledge has resulted in monopolies in the political and economic world which remain largely immune to criticism. Multinational corporations, political pacs, international cartels whose sole aim is to amass more profit and power are answerable to no one. And when profit and power are one’s primary if not sole goals, then all other considerations suffer from neglect. Much of the chaos and tragedy in our world is the result of the use of power without conscience and knowledge without wisdom. What was true in 587 B. C. about Judah is exponentially multiplied in our own time. The consequences and risks are far greater in our age than in the time of the prophets and authors of Genesis. Let me give just two examples.
The continual pollution and degradation of our environment is a direct result of the greed and materialistic values recklessly pursued by the modern world. Everyone knows conservation, simpler living, and lower expectations as far as material wealth is concerned are required for the survival of this planet. But when did you last hear any political or world leader promote real and effective conservation, simpler living, or lower expectations? In fact, we are told to do the exact opposite: “Go spend and consume more to stimulate the economy.” We are promised a greater America with a growing economy, bigger consumption, and a wealthier future.
That same set of assumptions (profit and power, growth and success now concentrated in the hands of people who cannot see past next quarter’s profit-loss projections) contributes to the widening chasm between the rich and poor in our world. And that widening gap has already hit home right here in America. One in 5 children in the U. S. according to our own government, is hungry, malnourished, and living in life-threatening poverty. And look at what just happened several years ago when the CEO of BP was “fired” but given a severance of $18 million. And this was the scoundrel who presided over the decision to put profits over safety. But what kind of severance does the typical working man or woman receive when they lose their jobs? They are lucky to get food stamps. What kind of system gives millions of dollars to conniving crooks but has little or no hope to offer the people who actually do the work in this world?
Once again in our American history, everyone is hoping for an economic recovery. We all want things to go back to the way they were, just like the Jews wanted to go back to Jerusalem and recover their lives as they had been. But this pattern of growth, profits, greed, and materialism which has plagued our society for many years cannot continue. Whatever recovery we may experience will simply postpone the inevitable. At some point we must relinquish the old and receive the new from God’s hands. From what we know of the God of Genesis 1-12, the God of the prophets, and the God of Jesus Christ, can we really expect such a God to do nothing about the mess we have created—to be indifferent to injustice and suffering and to the degradation of the very creation which is the work of God’s hand?
As the church, we are the people of God today. And just like those ancient people of Judah, we must choose between two paths: we can join the crowd and hold on to the old world which is slipping fast into oblivion or we can relinquish that set of assumptions which our planet, our children’s future, and the world’s poor can no longer endure. Only then we can we all receive the new.
The exact contours of that new world are not yet clear, but they are beginning to emerge. And strangely enough these contours look remarkably familiar. They are reflected in the visions of the prophets and in the opening chapters of Genesis. They include justice with compassion; freedom for all with responsibility for and from all; earth-tending instead of earth-ruling; and walking humbly with our God instead of strutting across the pages of history with agendas unworthy of our Maker or of us as God’s children.
It took the Exile to get Israel’s attention. I do not know what it will take to get our attention. But this I know (this anyone should know), we cannot continue the old ways of living in this world. There will be a payday some say. We can choose now to let go of the old and prepare ourselves and our world for the new, or we can wait until we have no choice but to painfully endure brutal and catastrophic change. Genesis 1-11 climaxes with the call of Abraham who was commissioned by God to let go of everything which defined his world to receive something extraordinary and new. The prophets called upon Israel to do the same. Jesus in his message about the Kingdom of God said that a radical new order was bursting into this world. I believe today we are receiving the same message from the Almighty. Time will tell if we have the courage and faith to let go in order to receive—to learn from Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Flood Story, the Tower of Babel, and the call of Abraham. But regardless of our response, change will come. God’s truth will march on. The question is whether we will be one more example of a people who missed their chance to change history for the better or if we will be the first to receive a new world from the hands of God—a world worthy of God the Creator and of us as humans created in Abba’s image. Time will tell.