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This Blog is named after an ancient gnoseological riddle which hints hidden, disseminated, omnipresent wisdom.
I invite you to search, listen and observe with me for "the word of tree, whisper of stone, and humming together of the abyss and stars."


Evolving Creation Stories of the Bible

This article can easily be subsumed under the category "Something you might not know about the Bible" because we will look at the Evolution of Creation Stories as they were preserved in the Bible. We can assess their evolution,   because the biblical Creation Stories were not static, they developed along the progression of time and mirrored changes in the intellectual environment of human society. Some of these Creation Stories are barely visible to us in the current biblical text, they are almost “extinct”, some are well known and cherished, and yet others hide behind elaborate mimicry, to use biological metaphors. I want to start from the oldest and proceed towards the most recent.

1) Very likely the oldest biblical version of the Creation story was Creation by procreation. The understanding of procreation was a great human discovery and a prerequisite knowledge for domestication and breading of animals. (Anthropologists know about hunter-gatherer tribes which had never made knowingly this connection between mating and offspring.) In the simplest form according to this creation story the divine couple gave birth to the world (very often it is presented in the form of theogony, generations of gods representing aspects of the world). This creation story is almost extinct in the Bible for obvious reasons of its monotheistic nature. Yet there are a few tantalizing remnants of this version of creation. A poem in Proverbs 8:22-36 is probably the clearest example where God together with the personified Lady Wisdom pro-creates the world and humankind. (I cannot go here into full exegetical details, suffice it to mention that Lady Wisdom is a secularized stand-for the Semitic goddess Asherah.)

2) The second oldest version of the creation narrative seems to be the Creation by conflict. In this version God defeats the powers of chaos and organizes the world.
This creation story is well represented in the Bible but hides behind many different guises. If we read in the Bible about defeating, overcoming, dividing or controlling abysmal depths, roaring rivers and torrents, unruly stormy sea - it is almost certain that these passages are eluding to this creation story. It is present in the first two verses of the Bible (Gen 1:1-2). It is hinted in Exodus in dividing and crossing of the sea or in the crossing of the Jordan river and subsequently in many prophetic and poetic references (such as Psalm 77:19 or Isa 43:16). In the New Testament it is behind the stories about Jesus’ calming of the storm and even walking on waves.

3) The next version of the creation story is the Creation by an act of art or craft. There are two closely related varieties of this version of the creation story - one is urban and the other is rural.
The urban variety portrays God shaping the world and its peoples like a potter at the potter’s wheel (probably best preserved Biblical version is in Jeremiah 18).
And the rural variety presents God acting as a knowledgeable gardener organizing the world like a harmonious garden or park (Genesis 2).

4) Probably the best known version of the creation story is the Creation by royal command. It is derived from the lived reality of early kingdoms. The king ruled by simple oral commands. He commanded and it was done. He came for inspection and approved the result. If you pay attention that is exactly how this version of creation is structured in the first chapter of Genesis. Subliminally it fuses the authority of a divine and royal command and there should be no surprise that this particular version of the creation story became so dominant under the royal patronage.

5) There is at least one more version of creation in the Bible - I call it Creation inspired by imperial bureaucracy. It is present for instance in the Colossians 1:15-20, it is behind Acts 17:24-28, and possibly also in the creation hymn in John 1. This version is infused with references, quotations and terminology of Hellenistic philosophy but also reflects complex hierarchy of bureaucratic empires. Here the creation is clearly beyond a simple oral command, it presumes complex, granular, most likely written, commands. In this version of creation stories - hierarchies are charted, distinctions are made, boundaries are marked and drawn as the early Hellenistic maps are starting to be used in imperial courts.

Each of these individual versions of creation stories has parallels in the Ancient Near East culture which also helped to create their tentative sequence. For instance a creation on a potter’s wheel is well documented in Ancient Egypt as creation by the god Khnum. The Creation by defeating chaos and organizing it into cosmos is first documented in the Middle Bronze Age among the Hurrians but is best known through the Babylonian epos Enuma Elish. And I can continue with divine/royal gardens etc. yet a thorough assessment of these Ancient Near East parallels would be beyond the scope of this short sketch.
         This is just my humble attempt to capture and describe in short hand the process of the evolution of creation stories in the Bible. The Bible is unique because in its collection of writings is preserved a great variety of thoughts and ideas from widely different times, not unlike a sequence of layers in sedimentary rock. It actually gave us an opportunity to observe this religious evolution in action from procreation, through defeating and reorganizing chaos, to early crafts, to simple national royalty and finally to deep philosophical speculations and imperial bureaucratic rule. Religion is indeed subject to gradual change along the progression of time - which is the dictionary definition of evolution.

(And if you are interested in the reasons of some of the arguments, please write to me, I will be happy to provide more details and discuss them.)

1 comment:

Joel Rinaldi said...

Great stuff. Really liking the layer concept.