The Primeval History (On Genesis 1-11)

Ancient of Days , by  William Blake  (1794)

Ancient of Days, by William Blake (1794)

We begin our Bible Challenge with a bang ( the Big Bang?), reading the first eleven chapters of Genesis. This section is typically called “Primeval History” - an account of the earliest ages of the universe and of man.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1)

The Creation account of Genesis 1 details God bringing order out of chaos, with his successive formation of various features of the universe. It rings with God’s declaration that matter is good, each day concluding with God’s affirmation, and culminating in the emphatic “very good” at the end of day six. The goodness of Creation includes especially humanity, in our male and female forms, created in God’s image, and for union with one another in marriage.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created him (Genesis 1:27)…It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18).

But God’s paradise is marred by human disobedience, when the man and the woman eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which God had forbidden. The result is a knowledge of nakedness, of sin and of guilt, in short, as Milton says in Paradise Lost, of “good lost, and evil got.” There are also punishments from God himself: pain in labor for woman, pain in labor for man, and a prophecy of future judgment on the serpent who had tempted them to their sin.

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel (Genesis 3:15).

The fallen pair are driven out from the garden of Eden, but not before God shows his mercy by giving them clothes. Then the story of their generation(s) begins, together with the classic stories of Cain and Abel, Noah’s Ark, and Tower of Babel.

Since the beginning of the church, Christians have debated how Genesis 1-11 relates to history. On the one hand, it has long been felt that central features of this section, especially the fall in Genesis 3, must relate to real historical events, or else the Christian drama of Creation, Fall, and Redemption, lacks a foundation in historical reality. On the other hand, there are certain features of the text itself, such as the literary presentation of Adam and Eve as prototypes for mankind, which suggest primeval history as a genre unto itself, with a more complicated relationship to history than mere fact or fiction.

This is not to mention the most contentious debate of 20th-century, concerning the historical meaning of the Creation in Genesis 1. We can gain some perspective by realizing that human words are never able to fully capture the essence of God. A number of early church Fathers, for example, thought that Creation must have actually have been an instantaneous event, and that Genesis 1 narrates the creation in a sequence of days so as to help human readers comprehend something of the mystery. On this point, the modern scientific account of a Big Bang, followed by the formation of stars and planets, waters and land, fish, birds, and land animals, seems closer to a literal reading of Genesis 1. And what of evolution? Well, in Genesis 2, God is said to form the man from the dust of the ground, not entirely unlike the starting place in evolutionary accounts.

My point is not to fully adopt modern scientific proposals, but rather to point out the frequently overlooked overlap between theology and natural science. Since Christians believe that all truth is God’s truth, we ought to embrace scientific endeavor, seeking to understand God and his creation through both the book of nature and the book of revelation.

There has also been extensive Christian speculation that goes beyond the initial meaning of the text, especially concerning the serpent in the garden and the cause of the Fall. I have a person interest in the epic poem Paradise Lost, by John Milton, which narrates the backstory of the rebellion and fall of the rebel angels in heaven (which, Augustine says, took place on the first day of creation, when God separated the light from the dark).

But beyond the debates and the speculations, or, as is often the case, through them, these chapters are full of wisdom, like ore-filled mines, whose deep veins are always waiting to be discovered. We will have ample opportunity to return to them over the course of this year.

Peter Johnston