May 3, 2013

Plain Speaking About Genesis

The first few chapters of Genesis do not indicate God’s restrictive plan for the sexual conduct of humanity. They have nothing to say about marriage other than to offer an explanation as to why it is that at least some men and women are attracted to each other, and to describe their union as indissoluble. The former is explicit in the text itself, and we have the latter on the very highest authority.

The first few chapters of Genesis consist of contradictory and inconsistent creation accounts cast in the language and culture of their times. They do not describe either history or nature with any degree of accuracy whatsoever. Does this mean I deny their divine inspiration as the opening chapters of the written word of God? By no means! However, the chief divine inspiration — it is pure genius — is in providing two facially contradictory accounts of the same events side-by-side precisely in order to prevent us from taking them literally — even if we did not already know that they were not literally true on the basis of other evidence, historical and scientific. Even absent history and science no one should ever have made that error, for the witnesses do not just not agree, they contradict. (This is not the place to critique the peculiar credence that Scripture can contain no contradictions. Suffice it to say that belief derives from some source hungry for certainty and unable to deal with complex reality and ambiguity.)

To press these accounts into literal applications, as some have done to place limits upon later developments and better understandings, is as false and pointless as taking the visions of Ezekiel or the parables of Jesus as if they were historical accounts rather than exemplary and inspired teaching. That the primeval human was split to form the sexes is a fabulous construct meant to explain attraction between the sexes. It will not stand as “fact” though it has its own “truth.” But it did not happen that way, and the one who told the tale knew that very well, leaving unanswered the obvious problems such as where Cain’s wife came from. He simply wasn’t bothered, as the goal was primarily geared to answer a single question — why do men and women leave their homes to start their own families. Aristophanes did the same thing in Plato’s Symposium, though more broadly acknowledging the range of human emotional and sexual connection as his culture understood it; but there is no reason to think he intended it as natural history any more than the author of Genesis did his mythological tale.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


John Sims said...

Terrific piece! I'm assuming the word "facially" in line 13 is a typo and should be "factually"?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, John. Actually, I did mean "facially" as in the legal sense of that word: "on the face of it" (without added interpretation.)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Over at Facebook a correspondent noted: I don't think that's the question, "Why do people leave home…" but rather "Why are we male and female, with different bodies?"

I respond:
I think that's the question moderns ask, but not the one the author intended to answer. For one thing, the text doesn't mention any difference in the bodies, but only likeness (2:23) and verse 24 gives the "Therefore..." (Hebr "al-ken" = for this) which is the reason for the story, the "moral" at the end, just like in Aesop and other fables!

For some commentary on the recent stresses on sexual difference see Dean Shaw's succinct rebuttal to the modern obsessions.

Fr. Bryan Owen said...

"The first few chapters of Genesis do not indicate God’s restrictive plan for the sexual conduct of humanity. They have nothing to say about marriage ..."

If you are right, Tobias, then would it make sense to either somehow revise or delete the following from the Prayer Book's marriage rite?

"The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation ... " (BCP, p. 423).

I ask because the creation-ordinance language of the Prayer Book is interpreted by many to articulate a theology in which scripture such as Genesis does, indeed, "indicate God's restrictive plan for the sexual conduct of humanity."

What are your thoughts on this?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I am now reading a classic Anglican unpacking of marriage, Oscar D. Watkins "Holy Matrimony." Suffice it to say that in order to fit the standard definition of "marriage" as Anglicans understand it (or understood it at the time of his writing, as it has changed since [!]), he is forced to acknowledge that Adam and Eve engaged only in "natural marriage" but were not party to Holy Matrimony (reserved to baptized Christians) and that they must have consummated that marriage in Eden, since he holds that consummation is of the essence of marriage -- which the text does not supply. (I find his arguments concerning the essential character of consummation to be faulty, confusing "void" and "voidable" and contrary to much of the tradition, but this is his view.)

I'm afraid your ellipsis of my opening paragraph omits the principle point. I am not saying that Genesis says nothing on marriage: but I think what it says is rather less than some assert.

The language of the Preface to the marriage liturgy does not require a literal reading of Genesis. I am quite happy to affirm that marriage (as in "natural marriage" to be technical, as opposed to Holy Matrimony) does indeed date to the earliest time of human existence, and, like humans themselves, is "instituted" (to use the old language) or "established" by God.

What I cannot affirm, and indeed reject, is that this need be seen as restrictive or limiting -- that is to say, that only such marriage is permitted or allowed. That is the gloss some wish to place on the text, and it does not appear to warrant that placement. To note that God provided for marriage between men and women neither requires marriage for all men and all women, nor restricts marriage only to such mixed-sex couples. To argue that it does is precisely to press the text to ends it was not meant to serve (a text that is descriptive of the realities experienced by the author rather than prescriptive for all times and places.)

Moreover, if something is shown to exist in nature, one need not resort to a sacred text to affirm that it exists. Given their culture, "Moses" (or P and J) did not need to explain same-sex attraction; Aristophanes did (though with tongue in cheek.)

So I'm perfectly happy to read out the marriage preface with that understanding -- the only one which makes sense of the text and the data.

Anonymous said...

I dunno if it helps, but for a few years now I've approached Gen.1+2 as `camp-fire ritual recitation', sort of "So big chief, tell us how we got here". The rhythmic structure of chapter 1 would seem to support such an oral-tradition story.

I could agree with the BCP quote cited by Bryan Owen, if I were to say `established by God' means `established by [the way things come about]' and `in creation' means in *the* creation as in the reality of the universe rather than referring to an act in a story purportedly related as history. However, that might be a mental gymnastic too far for some...

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Tim, that jibes with what I'm getting at. Especially understanding creation as THE creation. I have no problem affirming that most men and women since human life began have been mutually attracted to each other, and that God is at work in that human reality. I think that's what Genesis is saying.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Let me also add that Episcopalians did manage to perform marriages for over a century (1786-1892) without any reference to divine institution or establishment. So it plainly can be done without.

Fr. Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the clarifications, Tobias. And my apologies for the ellipsis. I see your point now and how I initially missed it.

That's a good point about the marriage rite in the 1789 American BCP not including "any reference to divine institution or establishment." (I note that it's a different story with the 1549, 1552, 1559, and 1662 BCPs in the Church of England.) It makes one wonder why an explicit reference was brought back into the American Prayer Book tradition with the 1892 BCP!

Of course, to say that the solemnization of marriage can plainly be done without an explicit reference to divine institution or establishment is not the same thing as proving that the lack of an explicit reference is the same thing as the rejection of divine institution or establishment.

A couple of further questions regarding your original posting, Tobias: if the claim that biblical texts like Genesis "do not indicate God’s restrictive plan for the sexual conduct of humanity" is true, are there other authorities that do indicate such a restrictive plan? And if we no longer accept the "creation ordinance" theology for such restrictions regarding marriage today, why should we accept into the restrictions that other purported authorities seek to impose us?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

No problem, Bryan. I suspect the return of the "institution" clause in 1892 was part of a general drift towards greater alignment with the English sources. And certainly I agree that the omission of the clause does not imply rejection of the concept; just that there is no need to assert a divine institution in such a well recognized human phenomenon as marriage -- which I suspect was the rationalist reason for the late 18th century deletion. The Enlightenment and all that. ;-)

I'll have to demur on your additional questions until later, likely tomorrow evening or Sunday. Ordination of my deacon-in-training tomorrow!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

A long day, a beautiful ordination. But I do want to respond briefly to Bryan's closing questions. Each is likely worth a treatise, but I think I can sketch out a theme or two here in response to the first, and would ask of him more clarity on the second.

First, If the claim that biblical texts like Genesis "do not indicate God’s restrictive plan for the sexual conduct of humanity" is true, are there other authorities that do indicate such a restrictive plan?

I don't particularly care for "plan" language in relation to God, but if the question is really, "Are there moral limits to human sexual behavior?" I think the answer is a resounding YES. I don't see Genesis as the source for that authority in itself, as I think the language is descriptive rather than prescriptive. There is a "command" in Gen 1 -- "Be fruitful and multiply" but no such command in Gen 2, where God seems to be exploring a solution to the problem of solitude rather than imposing it. So "ordinance" is also a bit strong for what we see. The commandment of Gen 1 was held to be binding by Jews, but not by early Christians, explicitly by Jesus, who not only countenanced but approved of celibacy. Later Christians (like Aquinas) said it was a commandment that some, but not all, had to follow.

Jesus picks up elements of both accounts to stress his point of monogamy and indissolubility -- neither of which is explicit in the Gen texts themselves (though monogamy is perforce assumed!) And various sources of authority have confirmed those two limits to marriage. Of course, the church also explored every conceivable loophole on both matters, but that is another topic. So yes, there is authority and I think it fairly clear that monogamy and indissolubility represent moral "boundaries."

I'm not entirely sure I understand the second question, other than to say that there are many moral questions to which Genesis (and any alleged "creation ordinances") give no easy answer. My standard has always been that given by Jesus himself in the Golden Rule.

Murdoch Matthew said...

Tobias, I thought you were attributing intention of the editors of Genesis, but I see that you are actually blaming the Holy Spirit:

. . . the chief divine inspiration — it is pure genius — is in providing two facially contradictory accounts of the same events side-by-side precisely in order to prevent us from taking them literally. . .

It may have been pure genius but it failed. People are quite capable of holding contradictory views at once. Not only the two accounts of creation, but the two mutually exclusive, contradictory accounts of the Nativity. The development of critical thinking and application of evidence have made the difference for some, but Christmas pageants conflating Matthew and Luke continue annually. (Not to mention sermons.)

Doubleday used to publish an edition of the Bible with the writings presented in chronological order of composition (a WEG in many cases). Thematically, Genesis belongs back with Job and Jonah, where its mythological character would be more apparent. (We would get a better take on the Christian scriptures if they began with the authentic letters of Paul.)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, MM. I think "failed" is a bit strong, as I believe the discrepancy can be made use of. I don't think science has "failed" just because there are people who disbelieve its findings, for instance.

I think it remains quite possible to point out the mythological and parabolic elements in Genesis, and urge folks away from literal application, while continuing to value these texts for what they tell us about our forebears -- and God!

Murdoch Matthew said...

Hate to argue with someone so much better informed, but if the discrepancy was intended to inform, it mostly hasn't worked. People happily read on from Genesis I to Genesis II without realizing that it's a different account. It's all Scripture! You can usefully point out the discrepancy in this critical age, but this is 2,300 years later.

And I really question what Genesis can tell us about God. He doesn't walk and speak with us, he doesn't issue arbitrary commands, and he doesn't make us male and female (he has us develop from an original female template to somewhere along a continuum with male and female end points -- and there's no ideal model, just ones that are viable). Again, put Genesis with the fables. The way it's been read does indeed tell us something about our forebears.

Forgive the belaboring of point.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

No problem MM. I get your point, but I do not find it persuasive. That people will read Genesis wrongly or literally is an inescapable fact with which I do not quibble. But, as I say, people misread hard science all the time, so there is no sure defense against invincible ignorance.

While many did for a long time read Genesis as if a through-composed single narrative, and as you note some have tried the same with the Gospels, the ability to see the stories as separate, and to treat one or both simply as allegorical, also has some antiquity to it. (There is a wonderful debate in the Talmud about whether Ezekiel's vision in the valley of dry bones is a parable or historical. So the distinction has been in place for quite some time before Wellhausen and the late 19th century teasing apart of the "books of Moses" to discern various authors. Earlier theologians had other explanations for the discrepancies than multiple authors, but they did note the discrepancies.

I think your critique of Genesis along the lines of saying God "doesn't walk and speak with us, doesn't issue arbitrary commands... doesn't make us male and female..." falls into the same literalist trap as those who mistake these things for historical description. Parable needs to be understood as parable, image as image.

Even fables have "morals" which are true and useful. It is one of the great gifts of the human mind that it can put a notion into a form that is in itself literally false, but which yet can convey a powerful truth.