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Reading Genesis

christopher

Part of my Advent discipline (an opportunity I’ve freely taken, not a duty) is to begin reading the Old Testament in something like chronological order—by which I mean not when it was composed (which often took centuries), but when it purports to tell of events. This must, of course, begin in Genesis—which puts me right smack into the two Creation stories, a Garden of Eden tended by a naked man and wo-man.

(The Hebrew manuscripts are full of puns and wordplay.)

Fundamentalists taught to believe in the inerrancy of the King James Bible do not understand that Genesis contains two Creation stories, from different times and author-sets with very different purposes. Even the words used to name God are different in the two accounts. Bam, let that rock your world.

Fortunately I first learned about this as a 22-year-old at General Seminary in New York, where I enrolled in a fabulous training program for lay ministers run by Howard Galley and Brooke Bushong.

I will never forget Howard’s revealing the purpose and intention of the “Priestly” Creation story with which Genesis now begins. We were spellbound by the beauty of the story and the power of Howard’s performance. He was a magnificent teacher, with a Gay guy’s flair for the dramatic. He envisioned Gen. 1:1—2.4 read aloud as a meditation on a beach at the Mediterranean, with a fire going, maybe at dawn, maybe at dusk: “And there was evening, and there was morning, one day.”

We could all see the sunsets as he spoke.

The purpose of P’s Creation story is to encourage the observance of the Sabbath. That concern didn’t arise until centuries after the Hebrews began to consider themselves a distinctive people, the inventors of monotheism.

May they always be praised for this magnificent accomplishment. God is not a 14-armed Shiva but an animating, physicalizing Spirit.

The text I am reading is the New Revised Standard Version, widely accepted among mainline Protestants as the best Biblical scholarship currently available. The actual book in my hand is The New Oxford Annotated Bible, which does a great job of providing context and alternative readings in its explanatory notes. My copy of the New Oxford Annotated was given to me by a lady in Sun Lakes, Arizona, a visitor/member of my website dailyoffice.org. I’ve never met her, but she responded to a notice I posted in 2006 that my paperback copy of Good News for Modern Man was in tatters and had to be held in place by rubber bands.

In the old days when I first started the website, I typed all the lessons and the Psalms, before I discovered that both the Prayer Book and the NRSV are available in their entirety on the web. Now, even though Good News (Today’s English Version) uses male-exclusive language and no longer fits the ethos of the Episcopal Church in public worship, I’m almost loath to give up those old files, because I typed them myself. I’ve become sentimental about them. What a dedicated, naive dunce I was back then; of course it was all online already—including the Daily Office, but I didn’t realize it. I would never have started the website if I’d known about missionstclare.com.

But then I’d never have gotten all the benefits of my discipline. (And I still think my site’s better.)

All this must change in the new Advent. The Bible doesn’t need sexist language, even if that’s how it was originally written. The apostles and other writers presumed they were being inclusive when they wrote to “my brothers.” But we now know they weren’t inclusive, they were exclusive, ignoring half of God’s created ones, and today’s women don’t like to hear it.

Today I made it through the first four chapters of Genesis, which I read at my dining room table next to the Advent wreath (blue and white this year, not purple and pink) with one candle lit under the chandelier.

Four chapters is plenty to get an earful about sexism and sexuality. It’s hard going for readers in 2008. After Eve and Adam sin by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God decrees that men shall rule over women. Patriarchy is the consequence and the punishment, and God is made responsible for it.

He also gave the putative first man and woman clothes to wear, to signify shame and their acquisition of civilization.

I’m more interested in their Edenic nakedness, which the writers saw as part of God’s good plan. So was their original equality, which we’ve long since abandoned.

It’s as good an explanation for patriarchy as any, I suppose, to blame it on God. But I don’t think God had anything to do with it. I think men did that; they took their superior strength and acted like jerks, creating an entire system of male superiority and privilege which still has relics today.

Much of the Old Testament blames God for things s/he had nothing to do with—including the imputation that a male God created Adam first and “in his own image.” Can men not see, shirtless in a mirror, that they have nipples? We all start out female, every human being ever born. Every fetus grows as female, then 51% of them get infused with androgen—from their mothers. So why wouldn’t Eve have been made first?

I do not blame Hebrews ancient or modern for their Bible; I revere them for it as I love their Scriptures. But I do observe that the idea (still extant today) that God gets pissed off because people disobey him/her is incredibly crude.

When God created mortals, don’t you think she had some notion that we’d be intellectually limited? That we’d rebel and sin and do all kinds of stuff we aren’t supposed to, and wouldn’t do if we were immortals to start with?

Do we think God is so stupid she couldn’t figure out in advance—she couldn’t predict—that we’d cause all manner of havoc?

She decided to go ahead and create us anyway, just to see what we’d do. We’re entertainment for God, a source of joy, and when we’re good (and we sometimes are) she just eats that up.

When we shoot up Mumbai or trample a temp at Wal-Mart, she gets really disgusted; Justice is her middle name.

But as John the Divine wrote, “God is love,” and when we show the least little consideration for each other, God is dearly pleased.

Consider: the big theological problem back in pre-history was a natural disaster, which we call The Flood. It’s a central event in Genesis. The Tigris and the Euphrates overflowed and the devastation was incalculable. The question back then was “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, the same as a 1990s bestseller.

The prehistoric Israelites decided that God must have gotten pissed off, so they blamed themselves for it. Nearly every prehistoric conception of divinity makes the same assumption; Hurricane Katrina was somehow our fault. It was moral, not meteorological.

That’s bullshit. (There aren’t any sea-monsters in the deep, either, nor waters over the vault we call the sky.)

Now if you’re fundamentalist and KJV-inerrant, you can’t stand the notion that one jot or tittle of the Bible might be wrong; what if it means the whole thing’s wrong? They panic.

But all-or-nothing thinking is a psychiatric symptom of an immature mind, associated with paranoia and other types of mental illness. So grow up already. God is a Big Boy; try being one too.

We are slowly developing (slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y) a capacity to understand that God continues to reveal himself to us; that he’s not some pissed-off ninny throwing curses around. As St. John said, the essence of God is love.

Which means that he hurts about The Flood, and Hurricane Katrina, and whatever tragedy you’ve been through lately.

He doesn’t just hurt, he bleeds.

And thus he came to show us his Blood. And even to invite us to “drink this wine” as nourishment to our souls.

We do not know in this Advent season how long it will be before the Lord returns to us, but we’re advised to wait and not to “sleep.” It may be that in the next 6000 years (the Earth should live so long) that God will reveal more and more of her loving self, so that no one thinks a translation by a Protestant committee in 1602 was inerrant; no one blames her for floods and hurricanes, as if her default emotion is anger; and more and more people live a simple, gentle, peaceful, sustainable life.

To me, the pre-eminent story in Genesis and all the Old Testament is the sacrifice of Isaac, in which God banned all notions of human atonement—killing virgins or babies to appease an angry God.

I received this thought as a gift two years ago in Advent, while composing a Service of Lessons and Carols for dailyoffice.org. It was one of the great “Aha!” moments of my life, and my skin shivered for quite some time.

That service of Bible readings and hymns tells the whole story of salvation, from Genesis to the Christ Child and Resurrection.

There is a reason Abraham is revered as the founder of the three great Faiths of the West: by order of God, Abraham prohibited human sacrifice, and with it, the notion that God is pissed off and needs to be appeased by killing babies.

Christians believe that in the fullness of time, Jesus was born so that God himself became the human sacrifice—and then exploded out of it.

All this was foretold, Christians believe, by the later prophets of Israel. Whether that’s so or not, we know that as time went on, the perception grew that anger is a human problem, not a godly one; that God doesn’t get pissed off by our actions, but certainly mourns them; that God is the most magnificent Lover you ever dreamed of, naked on your bed, longing for something deep in your soul and your body.

“There is no greater love than this, that a man pour out his life for his friends.”

(Or a woman, who’s actually more likely to do it.) As early as the 1300s, a Christian woman named Julian of Norwich was describing God as our Mother.

In Christ there is no male or female, so God doesn’t care if you like guys or gals. S/he knew that going in, and has a particular love for those who experience oppression; remember her middle name.

I think God invented Gay people to repeal the ancient dictum, “Be fruitful and multiply, and subdue the earth.” Humans have certainly pursued the former (the only Law of God Straight people have ever universally obeyed), but our record on the latter is entirely mixed. Does this earth look “subdued” to you? How many species must we make extinct to subdue this planet? All but our own, when God filled it up with creeping things?

Lo and behold, Gay people who limit reproduction are one of God’s antidotes to global warming. Now maybe you know how much God loves you; you’ve been part of the plan since the Beginning.++

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