How to Teach Genesis 1 (Part II): Psalms: Creation or Exodus

Duck-Rabbits and Other Ways to Transform Perception

How to Teach Genesis 1 (Part I): Don’t Begin with “In the Beginning . . . “

In these well-known optical illusions, on initial observation the observer sees one or the other of the two possible figures in the image.img_0232-1 At first, one sees either the duck or the rabbit. When the observer who sees a duck is told to look for the rabbit, they must begin to identify rabbit features to reframe their perspective.img_0233 The duck’s bill becomes the rabbit’s ears. Similarly, with the old/young woman, one must focus on a particular feature and reinterpret it or see it as something else.

It is not possible to see both simultaneously. The brain switches back and forth between the two possible interpretations.

In a somewhat analogous way, something similar happens when we look at other creation accounts in the Christian Scriptures. And yes, you read that correctly. There are other portrayals of creation beyond the two that are most familiar to us in Genesis 1-3. (See for example Job, Psalm 77, 78, passages from Isaiah, John 1, Colossians 1, etc.) Moreover, it may be that these other biblical creation accounts pre-date those we find at the beginning of our Bibles. That is, they may have existed as part of the oral culture and worship practice of Israel and may even have been committed to papyrus before Genesis 1-3. (Of course, dating of texts is often difficult.)

As the title of this post suggest, the two events that Israel often described coincidentally and in overlapping images are the establishing of the cosmos and the establishing of Israel. Both events are seen as the creative acts of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These events are so closely associated for the biblical authors that it is frequently (and, perhaps, invariably) the case that they find they cannot speak of one without speaking of the other.

Let’s look at an example from Psalm 89.

Creation or Exodus or Both

Psalm 89:5-18
Let the heavens praise your wonders, O Lord,
your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones!
For who in the skies can be compared to the Lord?
Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord,
a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones,
and awesome above all who are around him?
O Lord God of hosts,who is mighty as you are,
O Lord,with your faithfulness all around you?
You rule the raging of the sea;
when its waves rise, you still them.
You crushed Rahab like a carcass;
you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.
The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours;
the world and all that is in it, you have founded them.
The north and the south, you have created them;
Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name.

You have a mighty arm;strong is your hand, high your right hand.
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne;
steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.
Blessed are the people who know the festal shout,
who walk, O Lord, in the light of your face,
who exult in your name all the day
and in your righteousness are exalted.
For you are the glory of their strength;
by your favor our horn is exalted.
For our shield belongs to the Lord,
our king to the Holy One of Israel.

In the above Psalm, I have highlighted the significant passage. As with the optical illusions, sometimes an observer must have details pointed out in order to see the other figure. So, thatyou may have to point out features to help someone see that this could be a reference to either the initial creation of the cosmose or to the creation of Israel does not (in my mind) negate the argument.

Let us start by assuming that we see God’s creation of the cosmos as the subject of this portion of the Psalm. We have good reasons to see it this way based on the text. We have God with his heavenly council who shows himself as LORD of the raging and chaotic a waters. God defeats the Ancient Sea Monster Rahab and his other enemies with the swipe of his arm. In so doing, he demonstrates his authority over creation and that he is mighty enough to deal with any challenges to his throne. So, the Psalmist concludes from these actions, that YHWH is the rightful LORD of the cosmos by proclaiming,

The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours;
the world and all that is in it, you have founded them.

So, how does one see the Exodus. Like the duck’s bill which is also the rabbit’s ears and the young woman’s necklace is the old woman’s mouth (now do you see her), so Rahab is not only an Ancient Sea Monster but is also Egypt. In the Exodus, as in Genesis 1, God divides the Sea. (Or is it in Genesis as in the Exodus.) In the Exodus, God drowns Israel’s enemies in the sea. In the Exodus, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob demonstrates that he and not Pharaoh or the gods of Egypt is also the rightful ruler of the cosmos. In the process, he also creates (or establishes) for himself the nation of Israel who are to witness to this fact in word and deed. Sabbath keeping, for instance, witnesses both to Creation and the departure from Egypt. (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5)

With this close association of the establishing of Israel and God’s revealing himself as the Lord of Creation it is then not not surprising that the Psalmist can transition smoothly from praising God as Lord of Creation to God as King and Holy One of Israel.

For our shield belongs to the Lord,
our king to the Holy One of Israel.

It is in the mighty deeds of the Exodus that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob demonstrate to the descendants of Jacob (Israel) and to the surrounding nations that he is also the Creator God, the Most High God. It is not Marduk or one of the Ba’als or Ra but the God who called Abraham out of Chaldea (Babylon) and brought his descendants out of Egypt.

Reframing Genesis 1

Even if you take the traditional (though unlikely) view that Moses wrote Genesis 1, then you still have a man who is writing about the Creation of the Cosmos based on what Israel experienced in the Exodus.

So, when Elohim divides (or parts) the waters in Genesis 1 is that an attempt to describe material, physical, and meteorological processes? Is it what an eye-witness would have seen “in the beginning” as some Christians contend? Or is it a symbolic representation that communicates something about the character of this God (unique, good, generous, life-giving, mighty, etc.), the nature of the cosmos (orderly, fecund, fit for life, good and very good, etc.), and the nature of human beings (co-workers with this God, special in his sight, co-rulers of this domain, good, and very good)?

Moreover, if you believe (as I do) that the Exodus narratives are based on actual events, then, in order for God to communicate through the plagues and the parting of the Sea that God is the Creator, then these types of actions must already have some symbolic meaning to Israel and the surrounding nations.

My youngest son likes to point at things with his middle finger. We encourage him to point with his index finger. Why? Because we are aware and he is not yet aware that in our culture pointing with the middle finger has a rude symbolic meaning. Yet, there is no more necessary connection between extending the middle finger and what it conveys in our culture than whatever smacking two fists together conveyed to Ross and Monica on Friends. Now, here is a mindblowing thought. There may be no more necessary connection between the image of parting water and the concept of creation than there is between the sound “fork” and the utensil it represents.

God may have parted the Sea during the Exodus because the people at that time associated the idea of waters parting and land appearing with divine creative activity. If God has chosen an Inuit people to be his witnesses, I suspect there might be more snow and ice in Genesis 1-3. Yet, some people find the suggestion that Genesis 1-3 and the other biblical portrayals of God’s creative activity have striking similarities to those stories told in the surrounding cultures troubling.

Nevertheless, when we look at the crelation narratives (or myths), the cosmogonies and theogonies of other people in the regions and time period associated with the events described in the Old Testament, we find them using similar images and concepts to tell radically different stories about the nature of the gods, of the cosmos, and of the role of human beings. While they are employing strikingly similar images, the Biblical authors are still telling a radically different story about the nature of God (and the gods), the nature of the cosmos, and what it means to be human, than their nearest neighbours.

So in the next post we will look at what their neighbours are saying about the nature of the gods, the cosmos, and humankind.

On this topic, I highly recommend the works of John Walton.

Note: Book links take you to Amazon.com.

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