This is the first of what I hope to be a series of commentaries about the Bible. I start at the beginning, and am reading the Revised Standard Version, which is the one I prefer.
Genesis Chapters 1-2
This is, of course, the Judeo-Christian creation story. It has been passed down for thousands of years and was part of the compilation of inspired verses that went into the anthology we now refer to as the Bible. I believe, however, that this story is a lot older than the original written version of the Bible, and no doubt the words have evolved to take on different meanings than they have today – true of much of the Bible, I think.
Anyway, if Genesis is the “inspired Word of God”, it bears great resemblance to the creation stories of other cultures. Humankind has always had the need to explain our own existence and how we came into being. Our dominance over the Earth seems to be a common theme, as the species which emerged to be the most intelligent and creative of all. Many of the beliefs of early Judeo-Christian tradition are incorporated into this story, and by including this story at the very beginning of a book that professes to be the Word of God, makes holy and provides justification for cultural norms, beliefs, and taboos.
For example, in Genesis 1:26-27, God makes man “in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” The idea of God as a being who has a form similar to ours and who thinks as we do – this is common in all creation stories, I believe. We naturally endow our supernatural beings with human characteristics, at the same time elevating our status above all other creatures on Earth. Verse 28 goes on to say, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God is here commanding man to reproduce abundantly so that he “fills the earth” and furthermore “subdue(s) it.” He tells the humans he has made to dominate all other creatures and in verse 29 gives them all the plants for food. Therefore, man is God’s most important creation and he has made the earth to be in man’s service.
As must have been the custom by then, there was a day of rest from one’s work in the culture of the people who wrote the Bible; and this is made sacred by being the day in which God rested from his labors – the 7th day: to some, Friday, others, Saturday, and for modern Christians, Sunday. Indeed, even today there are orthodox people who take this very seriously. Orthodox Jews will not even ride an elevator (causing a mechanical object to work) on the Sabbath. The Puritans, early settlers in North America, believed similarly, and they spent Sundays reading the Bible and praying. Playing, laughing, partying and even thinking “frivolous thoughts” were not allowed on the holy Sabbath!
Chapter 2 is more interesting than Chapter 1 – Chapter 1 seems to be a summary of what God did, while Chapter 2 zeroes in on his creation of human beings. Here we learn that God, after creating the Earth and the heavens above, created a mist to water the ground so that plants could grow. Then he took dust from the ground and formed man, “breath(ing) into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” Then God gave the man a garden filled with food to eat, rivers to sustain and nourish life (which were four rivers in the Middle East, including modern day Iraq), and animals to populate the land. He told the man that he could eat any of the food except from the “tree of knowledge of good and evil”. The man named all the animals, which means of course that man had language already. Most likely, people in the days of writing this story or passing it on through oral tradition had no idea about the development of language. The language these people spoke and maybe a few others were all the known languages, so it was expected that the first man would speak that one. All creation stories are very ethnocentric!
Meanwhile, the man wasn’t yet happy because he had no other human being to share his life with, so God made woman – the original love story: man’s helpmate, made from his rib. The man declares at this point, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (Womb + man? Or, as I like to think of it, “Woe + man” – Man is woman’s woe!!). Interesting though – I wonder how this read in the original language Genesis was first written in; because surely the words man and woman in English were not as close in that language. In Spanish we have hombre and mujer, for example, which are nothing alike.
These last verses of Chapter 2 also symbolize and provide the moral obligation of marriage: “A man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (verse 24). This chapter ends with the first couple in their pure and naked state, with no shame. For why should they feel shame? Covering of the body is not culturally universal, by any means; although the reference to shame here certainly alludes to the taboo in our society of being naked in front of others, yet it isn’t taboo to be naked in the presence of our partner – was it then?
Here are some other creation stories from around the world:
Navajo (Diné, as they call themselves):
According to the Diné, they emerged from three previous underworlds into this, the fourth, or “Glittering World”, through a magic reed. The first people from the other three worlds were not like the people of today. They were animals, insects or masked spirits as depicted in Navajo ceremonies. First Man (‘Altsé Hastiin), and First Woman (‘Altsé ‘Asdzáá), were two of the beings from the First or Black World. First Man was made in the east from the meeting of the white and black clouds. First Woman was made in the west from the joining of the yellow and blue clouds. Spider Woman (Na ashje’ii ‘Asdzáá), who taught Navajo women how to weave, was also from the first world.
Once in the Glittering World, the first thing the people did was build a sweat house and sing the Blessing Song. Then they met in the first house (hogan) made exactly as Talking God (Haashch’eelti’i) had prescribed. In this hogan, the people began to arrange their world, naming the four sacred mountains surrounding the land and designating the four sacred stones that would become the boundaries of their homeland. In actuality, these mountains do not contain the symbolic sacred stones. The San Francisco Peaks (Dook’o’oslííd), represents the Abalone and Coral stones. It is located just north of Flagstaff, and is the Navajo’s religious western boundary. Mt. Blanco (Tsisnaasjini’), in Colorado, represents the White Shell stone, and represents the Navajo’s religious eastern boundary. Mt. Taylor (Tsoodzil), east of Grants, New Mexico, represents the Turquoise stone, and represents the Navajo’s religious southern boundary. Mt. Hesperus (Dibé Nitsaa), in Colorado, represents the Black Jet stone, and represents the Navajo’s religious northern boundary. Pictures of these sacred mountains can be found by clicking here.
After setting the mountains down where they should go, the Navajo deities, or “Holy People”, put the sun and the moon into the sky and were in the process of carefully placing the stars in an orderly way. But the Coyote, known as the trickster, grew impatient from the long deliberations being held, and seized the corner of the blanket where it lay and flung the remaining stars into the sky.
The Holy People continued to make the necessities of life, like clouds, trees and rain. Everything was as it should be when the evil monsters appeared and began to kill the new Earth People. But a miracle happened to save them, by the birth of Ever Changing Woman (Asdzaa Nadleehe) at Gobernador Knob (Ch’óol’í’í), New Mexico.
What Genesis and the Navajo creation myths have in common:
1. Landscapes and creatures that were familiar to the people of that area.
2. There is a “first couple” (man and woman) in both stories.
3. Deities made the first people from natural materials.
4. The origin of animals is included.
5. There is explanation of cultural beliefs, norms and traditions in both.
Nigerian creation myths:
(Nigeria) The creator, Abassi, created two humans and then decided to not allow them to live on earth. His wife, Atai, persuaded him to let them do so. In order to control the humans, Abassi insisted that they eat all their meals with him, thereby keeping them from growing or hunting food. He also forbade them to procreate. Soon, though, the woman began growing food in the earth, and they stopped showing up to eat with Abassi. Then the man joined his wife in the fields, and before long there were children also. Abassi blamed his wife for the way things had turned out, but she told him she would handle it. She sent to earth death and discord to keep the people in their place.
(Southern Nigeria) In the beginning there were two gods, Obassi Osaw and Obassi Nsi. The two gods created everything together. Then Obassi Osaw decided to live in the sky and Obassi Nsi decided to live on the earth. The god in the sky gives light and moisture, but also brings drought and storms. The god of the earth nurtures, and takes the people back to him when they die. One day long ago Obassi Osaw made a man and a woman, and placed them upon the earth. They knew nothing so Obassi Nsi taught them about planting and hunting to get food.
In these brief accounts, we also see some similarities. How the gods introduced evil to the people, for example (the Navajo creation story also begins to talk about this where I left off). The gods taught them everything, but forbade something (for the Efik, it was procreation, for Adam & Eve it was eating the forbidden fruit). Man in both cultures fell prey to evil for disobeying the Creator’s orders. In these Nigerian stories, we also see how the gods are portrayed in very human terms. The Judeo-Christian tradition does not generally see God as humanlike, even though in Genesis it says that God made humans in “his own image.”
Here’s the Norse Creation Myth:
The first world to exist was Muspell, a place of light and heat whose flames are so hot that those who are not native to that land cannot endure it.
Surt sits at Muspell’s border, guarding the land with a flaming sword. At the end of the world he will vanquish all the gods and burn the whole world with fire.
Ginnungagap and Niflheim
Beyond Muspell lay the great and yawning void named Ginnungagap, and beyond Ginnungagap lay the dark, cold realm of Niflheim.
Ice, frost, wind, rain and heavy cold emanated from Niflheim, meeting in Ginnungagap the soft air, heat, light, and soft air from Muspell.
Where heat and cold met appeared thawing drops, and this running fluid grew into a giant frost ogre named Ymir.
Ymir slept, falling into a sweat. Under his left arm there grew a man and a woman. And one of his legs begot a son with the other. This was the beginning of the frost ogres.
Thawing frost then became a cow called Audhumla. Four rivers of milk ran from her teats, and she fed Ymir.
Buri, Bor, and Bestla
The cow licked salty ice blocks. After one day of licking, she freed a man’s hair from the ice. After two days, his head appeared. On the third day the whole man was there. His name was Buri, and he was tall, strong, and handsome.
Buri begot a son named Bor, and Bor married Bestla, the daughter of a giant.
Odin, Vili, and Vé
Bor and Bestla had three sons: Odin was the first, Vili the second, and Vé the third.
It is believed that Odin, in association with his brothers, is the ruler of heaven and earth. He is the greatest and most famous of all men.
The death of Ymir
Odin, Vili, and Vé killed the giant Ymir.
When Ymir fell, there issued from his wounds such a flood of blood, that all the frost ogres were drowned, except for the giant Bergelmir who escaped with his wife by climbing onto a lur [a hollowed-out tree trunk that could serve either as a boat or a coffin]. From them spring the families of frost ogres.
Earth, trees, and mountains
The sons of Bor then carried Ymir to the middle of Ginnungagap and made the world from him.
From his blood they made the sea and the lakes; from his flesh the earth; from his hair the trees; and from his bones the mountains. They made rocks and pebbles from his teeth and jaws and those bones that were broken.
Maggots appeared in Ymir’s flesh and came to life. By the decree of the gods they acquired human understanding and the appearance of men, although they lived in the earth and in rocks.
Sky, clouds, and stars
From Ymir’s skull the sons of Bor made the sky and set it over the earth with its four sides.
Under each corner they put a dwarf, whose names are East, West, North, and South.
The sons of Bor flung Ymir’s brains into the air, and they became the clouds.
Then they took the sparks and burning embers that were flying about after they had been blown out of Muspell, and placed them in the midst of Ginnungagap to give light to heaven above and earth beneath. To the stars they gave appointed places and paths.
The earth was surrounded by a deep sea. The sons of Bor gave lands near the sea to the families of giants for their settlements.
To protect themselves from the hostile giants, the sons of Bor built for themselves an inland stonghold, using Ymir’s eyebrows. This stonghold they named Midgard.
Ask and Embla
While walking along the sea shore the sons of Bor found two trees, and from them they created a man and a woman.
Odin gave the man and the woman spirit and life. Vili gave them understanding and the power of movement. Vé gave them clothing and names. The man was named Ask [Ash] and the woman Embla [Elm?]. From Ask and Embla have sprung the races of men who lived in Midgard.
In the middle of the world the sons of Bor built for themselves a stronghold named Asgard, called Troy by later generations. The gods and their kindred lived in Asgard, and many memorable events have happened there.
In Asgard was a great hall named Hlidskjálf. Odin sat there on a high seat. From there he could look out over the whole world and see what everyone was doing. He understood everything that he saw.
Odin, Frigg, and the Æsir
Odin married Frigg, the daughter of Fjörgvin. From this family has come all the kindred that inhabited ancient Asgard and those kingdoms that belonged to it. Members of this family are called the Æsir, and they are all divinities. This must be the reason why Odin is called All-Father. He is the father of all the gods and men and of everything that he and his power created.
The earth was Odin’s daughter and his wife as well. By her he had his first son, Thor. Might and strength were Thor’s characteristics. By these he dominates every living creature.
As all informed people know, the gods built a bridge from earth to heaven called Bifröst. Some call it the rainbow. It has three colors and is very strong, made with more skill and cunning than other structures. But strong as it is, it will break when the sons of Muspell ride out over it. The gods are not to blame that this structure will then break. Bifröst is a good bridge, but there is nothing in this world that can be relied on when the sons of Muspell are on the warpath.
The chief sanctuary of the gods is by the ash tree Yggdrasil. There they hold their daily court. Yggdrasil is the best and greatest of all trees. Its branches spread out over the whole world and reach up over heaven.
I have italicized the part in which humans are created – before that are giants, ogres, exploding brains, dwarfs, maggots, lots of fire – wow! Note the violence in this story, quite different from our idyllic origins in the Garden of Eden! Also interesting are the settings – frost, cold, mountain, lakes. This reflects the landscape and climate where the Norse lived and with which they were familiar.
It is hard to imagine the “Garden of Eden” existing in a place like the Holy Land, which is more of a desert landscape. However, there are very green and lush areas, so perhaps this is what the early writers of the Old Testament imagined as being like paradise.