Bible Study

I Hate this Story (Genesis 6:5-7:24)

Once again, I am sorry for the delay in this post. I had prepping for VBS, followed by VBS, followed by a week of the crud. Getting back into a normal schedule now, so posting should be much more regular.

A small update on my wife, Gay, and her problem with headaches. While we were on vacation in Florida, a friend paid for her to visit a different kind of Chiropractor. The therapy she tried was able to eliminate the two migraine headaches as long as Gay stays in alignment. She still has the cluster, which is the worst of the three, but there is hope that, over time, this therapy may help the cluster as well. Please continue to keep us in your prayers.

But, back to the story of Noah. As I write this, I don’t know how long this post is going to be. Why? Because I don’t like this story at all. For some, that may sound funny. After all, we decorate children’s room with Noah’s ark. But, I want you think about it for a moment. The story of Noah’s ark, if we are completely honest is a horror story. Every person and every animal, except those who are in the Ark, dies. Imagine the sights and sounds inside of the ark that would have lasted at least a few days after the rains began. To say it would have been terrible is an understatement.

I also don’t like the image of God we get out of this story. Where is the God of love? Where is the God of grace that we find in John 3:16, the God that so loved all of creation that he gave his only son? Just a few chapters earlier, God said creation was very good, but now he wants to destroy everything up to and including the “creeping things” and “birds of the air.” This passage and the Passover are two of the passages that contribute to the early Christian heresy called Gnosticism. It would take me too long here to describe all of the Gnostic beliefs, but one of them was that the God of the New Testament, the God that is Love could not be the same God we find in the Old Testament. So, the God described in the Old Testament is actually a lesser heavenly being, one of the “us” in, “let us create man in our image.” In addition, that lesser God actually made a mistake when he created the physical world, which is completely evil, as this passage describes. And that salvation is really all about obtaining the knowledge, or “gnosis” about how to escape this world, which is what Jesus came to give us. Now, the interesting thing about that is what it does to the character of the serpent in the creation story. To a gnostic, the serpent in the creation story is Jesus. (At this point I want you to remember that Gnosticism was rejected by the early church. I am in no way advocating for this position, I am simply describing it.) The serpent is Jesus because it wants to get Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of “knowledge” to give them the “gnosis” to escape from the evil of the physical creation. We will definitely talk more about Gnosticism when we get to the New Testament.

So, I don’t like this passage very much. I think, perhaps, the best thing for me to do is to say a few things about it, and then just open the floor for questions. Doing a full study of the flood would require much more space and time than we have here, because it would require a study of the history, the literature, theology, etc. of the entire book of Genesis. In divinity school, we probably spent more time on the book of Genesis than other other book with the possible exception of the Psalms. I would be typing my fingers off if I tried to do that. So, ask questions and I will do my best to answer.

Let’s start off with some fun facts. First, we do not know what gopher wood is. “Gopher” is the Hebrew word used here, and it is the only place it is used. As a result, we do not know what kind of wood the ark was made of.

Secondly, before the Noah story, everyone was a vegetarian. God gives Noah permission to eat meat in Genesis 9:2-4:

The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.

First, the existence of flood stories in other cultures in the Middle East means that there is good reason to believe that a flood did indeed happen. So, most scholars agree that the Noah story is something called an Etiology. And etiology is a story that attempts to explain why something happened or why things are the way they are. That means that at least part of the reason for the Noah story is to explain why the flood happened. Another example of an etiology would be the Tower of Babel story which explains why people speak so many different languages. Remember how I talked about the fact that ancient writers were more concerned with the “why” of story than the “how”? This is a good example of that. The Noah story is also an etiology why a rainbow appears in the sky after it rains. When you think about it, an ancient person would have no idea of the science behind the rainbow, an to them it would seem like magic.

Without going into a literary analysis of Genesis too much, I can tell you that one of the emphases of Genesis is the breaking of the order of creation, and then what we, in the modern world, would call a re-boot. On the second day of creation, God created an order separating the waters above from the waters below. Rain broke this order, returning creation to chaos. In doing this God is, to use a modern term, rebooting creation. Noah is the new Adam, as he is given the same command to be fruitful and multiply.

I always try to find the good news in a text. So, here is how I look at the flood story. The Bible is the story of God’s relationship with his creation. It is a love story that moves from God being directly involved in creation to working through angels (Passover), to the incarnation (Jesus), and concluding with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. As the relationship progresses it moves from a relationship based on power to a relationship based on love. We move from a cycle of sin and judgment to grace and forgiveness. We don’t deserve it. We deserve the flood. I don’t think I need to convince most of you of that. I can’t explain why or how those changes happen, but I am certainly glad they do.

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I’m Back

First, I would like to start off by apologizing. I had a post that said I was not going to post for a few weeks because we were moving and then going on vacation. But that post stayed in drafts for reasons that are too long to go into here. But, I am back now.

I also wanted to give everyone an update on Gay. During our vacation in Florida, she saw an orthogonal Chiropractor. The treatments she received there were able to eliminate her 2 migraine headaches, and there is hope that the treatments may eventually help the cluster headache. We were referred to a doctor in the DC area, and Gay has an appointment tomorrow. Please pray that these treatments will continue to work on the migraine and that they will eventually help the cluster headache.

I am changing the structure slightly. Writing the Bible study all at one time can be difficult because of interruptions. So, there will be times, like today, where the study is going to be divided up into smaller sections that are easier for me to work on.

Finally, some have told me they are not getting e-mail notifications when new posts are put online. If you are receiving the emails, please comment and let us know how you logon. Do you logon through Facebook, etc. ?

Back to the Bible study, and that brings us to one of the most popular stories in the Bible: the story of the flood. This is one of the stories that is taught regularly in children’s Bible study classes, and parents even use the theme of Noah’s Ark to decorate nurseries. The problem is that the story of the flood is really not a children’s story. I mean think about it for just a minute. Everybody in the story, except for Noah’s family dies. What kind of message does this send to kids about God’s grace?

In their book, Genesis for Normal People: A Guide to the Most Controversial, Misunderstood, and Abused Book of the Bible, authors Peter Enns and Jared Byas have the following to say about the story of the flood: “This is one of those stories where leaving the modern world behind is absolutely necessary. We might want to read this story as a scientific account of the past, arguing whether it was a global flood or a local flood, or wondering if the extinction of dinosaurs can be chalked up to a lack of room on the ark. But none of these questions helps us see the story as ancient Israelites would have seen it.” What this means is that we always have to remember that every passage of scripture was written at a particular place, at a particular time, to a particular audience, by a particular person. We get the most accurate understanding of scripture when we try to look at the way the original author and the original audience would have.

We are now left asking ourselves, how does the perspective of an ancient Israelite (although even that word is not accurate since Jacob who would later be renamed Israel hasn’t been born yet), change our view of the story of the flood? The first thing we need to understand is that Israel’s neighbors also had flood stories very similar to the Biblical one and those stores are older than the Biblical one. It appears that a massive catastrophic flood did happen, possibly around 2900 B.C. and many ancient cultures wrote stories about it, attempting to explain why it happened. Although specifics vary, the ancient peoples believed this flood happen for a divine reason.

The second thing we need to understand is that ancient peoples did not believe the world to be the blue sphere we now know it to be. For them, the world was flat and ended were the horizon ended. They had no idea of the size of the planet. Their “world” was very much just their local area.

Finally, ancient peoples were much more concerned about why something happened rather than how it happened. Specifically, what if any role did the Gods play? That may sound odd at first, but if you think about it, the modern world is all that much different. As I have shared before, many Christian leaders said that Hurricane Katrina was God’s judgment on the sinful people of New Orleans. I have always found this funny since what people would say in the sin center of New Orleans, the French Quarter, was virtually untouched by Katrina. So before we look at the why question of the Noah story, let’s take a moment to look at the two most well known flood stories from other ancient cultures.

The first is the Epic of Atrahasis. You can read it for yourself at the link below.
The Epic of Atraḥasis – Livius

The second is the story of Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh. You can read it for yourself at the link below.
Epic of Gilgamesh – Jason Colavito

The first question you may ask is why have these texts survived for so long. The answer is very simple. They were written on clay tablets, which survives much better than papyrus or paper.

So, what are the similarities in these stories? I don’t want to take up much space with this, so I will just mention a few. Utnapishtim’s ark, like Noah’s, comes to rest on the top of mountain. From there, he, like Noah, sends out birds (a dove, a swallow, and a raven) to see how far the flood waters have gone down. Like Noah, Utnapishtim makes an offering when he emerges from the ark.

The last thing I will say about these stories, is why the flood happened in each. Why did the flood happen in the story of Atrahasis? The high god and god of weather, Enlil, wanted to destroy humans for making too much noise. Atrahasis, with the help of the water god Ea, escaped the wrath of Enlil by building a large boat in which to save humanity. Here is the explanation of Gilgamesh from Genesis for Normal People:

The other story’s main character, Gilgamesh, was actually the name of a historical figure, the king of Uruk who lived around 2,500 B.C. The story about him, however, is completely fanciful. He was two-thirds god and one-third human and had regular dealings with the gods. After the death of his dear friend Enkidu, Gilgamesh takes a journey to find the secret of immortality. This quest leads him to Utnapishtim, this story’s Noah figure. He had obtained immortality from the gods and Gilgamesh hoped he could tease the secret out of him. But he tells Gilgamesh that his immortality came through special circumstances: he was the sole survivor of a great flood. We aren’t told in this story specifically what led to the flood, but we are told that the god Ea had second thoughts and told Utnapishtim to build a boat with specific dimensions and get as many animals on board as possible. He did and survived the flood, by the grace of Ea.

So, what can we learn from all of this. First, it is important to remember that ancient writers were much more concerned with “why?” than “how?” There probably was some kind of historical flood that lies behind the telling of all of these stories. But the historical facts behind that flood was not the important thing. The ancient writers’ goal was to use the flood as a platform to talk about how they saw the world and their place in it. For the Israelites, it became a way of talking about their God and the things that make him different from all the other gods, and therefore why he alone is worthy of their devotion.

Tomorrow…Noah.

The Fall – Genesis 3

Just a reminder before we get started that the YouVersion Bible app has The Essential 100 reading plan in it, and has over 60 English translations of the Bible to choose from. Just look for “Essential 100” in the reading plan section of the app.

It has been a very hard two weeks since my last post. That Tuesday, my wife, Gay, and I received a call that a minister friend we had served with in the past had been arrested by the FBI and now faces federal charges for an inappropriate relationship he had with a minor. Not only has this shocked Gay and me to our very cores, we have received numerous phone calls from mutual friends asking things like how this could happen and what the appropriate Christian response is. Our hearts broke for his wife and three children who are not only facing all of the emotional issues this behavior has caused, but are also facing a difficult financial road in the days, weeks, and even years to come. I hope you can understand how difficult this made writing a study about the fall of Adam and Eve. Every time I sat down to write, I was overcome with emotion. For me, the damage sin can do to our world not very close to home.

Gay also received another call that one the next door neighbors she had growing up was dying of cancer. He died last Wednesday. This family is very important in Gay’s life, so please be in prayer for Paul’s family.

As if all of this wasn’t enough, Gay and I are planning to move next month. For those of you who don’t know us well, Gay suffers from something called cluster headaches. She has had them since I have known her, but they have been episodic. She has now had a cluster headache and often two different types of migraines for more than 500 days. Cluster headaches are some of the most extreme pain the human body can experience, which is why they have been given the nickname “suicide headaches.” The pain is often so bad for Gay that it can cause her to pass out and fall. As a result, we have made the decision to move into the apartment complex that shares a parking garage with our church so that I can more easily take care of her during the work day. We are moving from a two bedroom to a one bedroom, but we feel that the advantages outweigh the loss of living space. You can see how close he apartments are in the picture below. The church is on the left, and the apartments on the right.

I shared all of this for a couple of reasons. First, I needed you to know why this post is late. However, the more important reason is that I also want this study to become a community where we can share our prayer needs as well. You can post a prayer request in the comments, or send me a message on the help page, and I will create a new post to let everyone know.

And now…back to Genesis.

I want to start today by reviewing parts of the story from the first two chapters that will give us a better understanding of chapter 3. First, let’s talk about the two special trees God put in the garden. We first read about them in Genesis 2:9:

Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
As you can see, there are two trees we need to talk about: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

One theory believes the existence of these trees reflects the movement from chaos at the beginning of the Genesis story to orderliness of creation. From chaos, we move first to day and night and then to seasons. We see plants and animals that reproduce after their kind, meaning there is an order. Apple seeds always grow apple trees, and dogs always produce dogs. There is a created order to the way the world works. So what makes people different from the rest of creation? They are created in the image of God. However a created order still exists. What separates man from God is immortality and knowledge. The two trees are there to help explain this difference. According to The New Interpreter’s Study Bible,

“The tree of life bears fruit that, if eaten, imparts immortality. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil bears fruit that imparts knowledge, though interpretations have varied regarding the kind of knowledge: knowledge of sexuality, universal knowledge; moral maturity; human self-consciousness.”
Notice that consuming the fruit from the tree of life is not prohibited — only the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Were mankind to eat from both trees, he would become like God, according to this theory and Genesis 3:22, “Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”

But, we are getting a little bit ahead of ourselves here. Let’s go back and look at what actually happens in the story of the fall.

The first thing I want you to notice is in the first verse of chapter 3. According to the Genesis account, who is the serpent? According to Genesis, the serpent is nothing more than the craftiest animal God created. No where in the Genesis account is the serpent identified with Satan. In fact, there is no clear link anywhere in the Bible between Satan and Eden’s talking snake. The closest we get comes from 2 verses in Revelation. Revelation 12:9 reads, “The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” The second verse is Revelation 20:2, and it reads, “He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.” If this is the case, how do we get the identification of Satan with the snake. The answer is somewhat complicated. And it comes from the curse that is put on the serpent in verse 15. One of the more concise explanations I was able to find was in the English Standard Version Study Bible notes.

While many modern commentators interpret this part of the curse as merely describing the natural hostility that exists between men and snakes, it has traditionally been understood as pointing forward to the defeat of the serpent by a future descendant of the woman, and this interpretation fits well with the words and the context. This defeat is implied by the serpent’s being bruised in the head, which is more serious than the offspring of Eve being bruised in the heel. For this reason, v. 15 has been labeled the “Protoevangelium,” the first announcement of the gospel. This interpretation requires that the serpent be viewed as more than a mere snake, something which the narrative itself implies, given the serpent’s ability to speak and the vile things he says. While the present chapter does not explicitly identify the serpent with Satan, such an identification is a legitimate inference and is clearly what the apostle John has in view in Revelation.

As for me, I am not fully convinced that the serpent is, in fact, Satan. However, who or what the serpent is, is not that important. Does it really matter? I don’t think so. What matters is that Adam and Eve rebel against God. As the saying goes, “the Devil didn’t make them do it.” They did it on their own. Oh, and for those of you who want to place more blame on Eve than Adam, look closely at verse 6. Unlike all those pictures I was shown in Sunday School growing up, Eve was not alone with the serpent. Scripture clearly says that Adam was with her. He could have spoken up at any time, but he did not. As a result the fault should clearly be assigned to each of them equally.

It is also important to understand how much mercy God shows both Adam and Eve in this story. Unlike the ground and the earth, they are not cursed. They are given clothes made out of skins to replace their awkward fig leaves. And, most importantly, they did not die. At the same time, however, God imposes a limit on the length of human life by sending the humans forever out of the garden of Eden lest they eat of the other tree, the tree of life, and live forever. One article I read, however, even described this as an act of mercy. Their disobedience had separated them from God. Were they now to eat from the tree of life, that separation would become permanent. They would live forever, but outside of the presence of God.

I’ll be posting more in the comments during the week, so keep an eye out.

This Week’s Post

Hello All! This week’s post is going to be delayed until Wednesday. I have had some pastoral care issues that have taken up much of my time. The post is about half finished, and will not be ready until tomorrow.

Thanks for understanding!

In the Beginning: Genesis 1-2

As we begin our journey through the Bible, I can’t help but think of the line from The Sound of Music, “Let’s start at the very beginning; a very good place to start.” With that in mind, we will begin by reading Genesis chapters 1 and 2. It is actually a wonderful place to start for a variety of reasons. First, it doesn’t take us long to encounter a serious translation problem. Remember, when we read the Bible in English, we are reading a translation of the original Greek or Hebrew. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and The New Testament was written in Greek. When it comes to Biblical languages, I will tell you a secret: I am much more comfortable with Hebrew. In divinity school, I had no problem in Hebrew, but I struggled mightily with Greek. So you will be learning more about the original language of the Old Testament than you will be about the New. We also can’t talk about the creation story of Genesis without talking about the Bible’s relationship with science and the nature of the Biblical text. Is the Earth a little more than 6,000 years old as some Christians claim? Is the account of events in Genesis historical? All of these are questions will be touched on today.

With those things in mind, I think it is important that we set some ground rules. There are going to be times when I will be giving my opinion. It is also my hope that others will be giving their opinions in the comments. I want you to feel free to post comments if you disagree, but I am not going to allow any disparaging remarks. If you want to disagree, do so agreeably. You can say that you disagree and why; just don’t do any name calling or question someone else’s faith because they disagree with you. So, be respectful. We’ll try to make up any other rules we need as we go along.

Let’s get back to today’s text. As I said, it doesn’t take us long to encounter a translation issue in the text. We all learned that the first part of Genesis 1:1 reads, “In the beginning.” The problem is that in the Hebrew, the definite article “the” is not there. What appears to be going on is kind of strange. It appears that “a beginning” is in a possessive relationship with “He created.” So literally translated it would read something like, “In He created’s beginning.” However, the best translation is probably something like “When God began creating” or “When God began his work of creating.” It is just a very strange Hebrew construct. But, let me make one thing clear. Do any of these translations significantly change the meaning of or the truth behind the text? The answer is clearly “no.” They are just interesting to talk about.

In a few verses we will get to the verse that says that both male and female are created in God’s image. Unfortunately, the church has rarely talked about the places where female images of God are present. Such imagery is present in Genesis 1:2, but we miss it in the translation to English. The word we translate into English as “hover” is the same word used to describe the behavior of a mother bird hovering over the nest to protect her offspring.

There is one other translation issue we should talk about in Genesis 1:2. The Hebrew phrase “ruach Elohim.” “Ruach” is one of my favorite Hebrew words, and one we encounter often in our studies. It can mean spirit, wind, breath, soul, life force and a few other things. Many of you are familiar with Elohim; I like to think of it as a generic “lord.” It can mean “Lord” as in God or “lord” as in a boss or supervisor. It can also mean “awesome.” So, the phrase could be translated “spirit of God,” “breath of God,” “wind of God,” or simply “awesome wind.” You will find that different translations translate it differently. I would encourage you to read your Bible in multiple translations and look for the differences. Then take some time to ask yourself, “What might be going on here?” We will continue to talk about translation issues throughout this study.

Did you ever notice that there are days and nights happening before the sun and moon were created on the fourth day?

Let’s talk about verse 26 for a moment. The NRSV translates the first part of this verse as, “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image…” The word translated as humankind is the Hebrew word “adam” from which we get the name Adam, but the Hebrew word means man. The thing you need to know about this is that both Biblical Hebrew and Greek always refer to groups of people using the masculine plural, even if women are included. When addressing a group, no one would have said, “ladies and gentlemen.” They would have simply said “gentlemen.” That is the way the grammar worked. That’s why the NRSV translates “Adam” as humankind. In making translations, the NRSV attempts to be gender inclusive when it is appropriate. Also notice that both man and woman

Ok, here’s the thing that may shock some of you. Are you aware there are actually 2 creation stories in Genesis? The first one obviously starts in Genesis 1:1, and the second starts in Genesis 2:4. Some of you may be saying that Chapter 2 is just a re-telling of the events in Chapter 1, but I hope to convince you otherwise. Just remember, it is fine to disagree with me. This is another case where the text loses a lot in translation. Unless you are either very observant or look at the original Hebrew, you will completely miss the fact that the text has stopped referring to God as Elohim as it did in all of chapter 1, and started referring to God as “Yahweh Elohim” which you will see translated in to English as “LORD God.” (Anytime you see the word “LORD” in all caps in your Bible, it means the Hebrew word was “Yahweh” which is the name God gave to Moses at the burning bush.) This change in the way that God is referred to is the first indication that the story in Genesis 2 is preserving a different creation tradition than Chapter 1.

Secondly, let’s look at the way God behaves in the two stories. In the first story, God is more distant. God calls things into existence from on high. Then look at God’s behavior in the second story. What is He doing? He is behaving much more like a human being. He forms man from the dust of the ground, He plants a garden in Eden. Things also happen in a different order. Man is created when “no bush of the field was yet in the land.” Man is created before the animals, and man and women are not created at the same time as they were in chapter 1.

The question we are left asking ourselves is “Why?” Why are there two distinct creation stories in Genesis? I think the answer is simple. Since the events in the two stories really cannot be reconciled, I believe they are serving as a literary device to let us know that neither one preserves a literal, historical account of the events of creation. They point us to the central truth behind today’s lesson, and that is this: whether God called man into being, or whether He formed us out of the dust of the earth — it doesn’t matter. The “how” is not important, it’s the “who.” What matters is that God created the universe, and even more importantly that God created all of us: men and women, black and white and everything in between in his image. It also doesn’t matter if God did it 6,000 years ago or 60 million years ago. What is important is that we have the faith to believe that God did indeed do it, even if He didn’t take the time to tell us exactly how He did it.

We shouldn’t be trying to make the Bible a history book or a science book, or any kind of textbook. More than anything else, the Bible is a love story. A love story about the relationship between God and his people. And that doesn’t reduce the power or influence of scripture. I believe it enhances it. It enhances it because it doesn’t make it some book of facts and figures about things we don’t fully understand about things that happens a long time ago. Instead it is the story of each and every one of us who choose to become a follower of Christ. It is the story of the relationship God wants to have with us. It is a story about how God loves each and every one of us so much He sent his son to us to demonstrate that love.

Now it’s your turn. What is important to you in the story of creation? What questions do you have? I have some other things I may post in the comments as well as the week goes on.

Introduce Yourself!

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