Sunday, 13 February 2011

Wonder and Tragedy in the Larger than Life Stoires of Genesis 1-11

I loved the TV series and the book was just as good. I am looking forward to the sequel … and I have my eye on the book too. Brian Cox is that telegenic quantum physicist who was voted by People Magazine the sexiest Astronomer. I think he is superb … a budding David Attenborough! Wonders of the Solar System is to be followed by what promises to be an equally breath-taking Wonders of the Universe. Showing what happened at the big bang13.7 billion years ago, how the elements that make up the whole universe came into being. It is, he says, in a trailer, nothing less than the story of each one of us.

On 22nd March 2009 Brian Cox found himself in the Norwegian city of Tromso, ‘known as the gateway to the Arctic. He had already written the script he was going to recite to camera to explain one of the most remarkable phenomena to be seen anywhere on the globe. The Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights.

Brian Cox describes the way he had been assured that there was a good chance of at least glimpsing the Northern Lights.

“our guide told me of a Sami legend about the aurora. (The Sami are the people of the North, whose domain stretches from Tromso in the west, across northern Sweden and Finland and into Russia.) The legend has it that the aurorae are the spirits of women who died before they had children. Trapped between the froszen land and heaven, they are condemned to dance forever in the dark Arctic skies.

“As dusk fell, we rode snowmobiles out into the dense forests by the Fjord to get away from the city lights and settled down in the Ami camp with hot reindeer stew to wait.

“Just after midnight, the aurora came. I walked out into the frigid night air, enjoying the crunch of footsteps in fresh snow, and looked up. They came gently, a vague hint of green, but built quickly: sheets of colour driftetd slowly then suddenly broke off and danced impossibly fast, a three dimensional rain of light rising and falling between land and sky. They were mostly green, with hints of orange and red close to the horizon, They were like nothing I have ever seen, and as I turned to camera I realised that I didn’t care about the phyics of what I was seeing. My reaction, composed whilst sitting at my desk in Manchester, was worthless in the face of Nature at its most magnificent.

“The Sami had it right – an aurora isn’t the light shaken out of atoms of nitorogen and oxygen as they are bombarded by high-energy particles from Earth’s ionosphere accelerated down magnetic field lines towards the poles, it is made of majestic, mournful, dancing spirits, trapped in the Arctic night.”

That to my mind is one of the best commentaries on the opening chapters of Genesis.

It is only since the eighteenth century that the age of scientific discovery has given us wonderful explanations of the Wonders of the Solar System and the Universe. Prior to that time peoples the world over were filled with the wonder of the world they lived in. They described those wonders with wonderful stories. They were not telling lies, falsehoods, untruths about the world. They were telling stories to give an account of the world they knew so well.

Among those stories were ones told by the ancient Hebrews, passed on from one generation to the n ext. And then drawn into those books that the people regarded as the books that through story and law codes set out God’s way for his world.

The first 11 chapters of Genesis have woven together some of those stories. I am convinced they are larger than life stories that tell of the beginnings of things but speak to the world of today in every generation.

You do these pages of the Bible the greatest injustice if you regard them as on a par with the science of the last two hundred years. They are not doing the same thing at all. They are filled with insight into the wonder and the tragedy of the world as it is. They draw on astute observation of that world. And they speak to every generation.

Pay attention to the detail and there are all sorts of indications that these are larger than life stories. Adam and Eve have Cain and Abel, yet Cain is exiled to the Land of Nod where he marries. The ages reach to many hundreds of years. The sons of God, angelic figures come down and marry the daughters of men. There are giants of people. There are different stories told. Look carefully and some of them use one word for God, LORD, while others use another word for God – simply ‘God’ in our translations. The very word ‘adam’ is the word for humanity. The poetry of much of the story is so powerful.

Brian Cox will describe the fusion of hydrogen and helium in the big bang and the emergence of the elements and I am looking forward to the insights he will share – but for me Genesis 1 captures the wonder of it all!

Genesis 1 tells us this the world of God’s creation … and it is good and to be looked after.

Genesis 2 tells us that each one of us, each man, each woman is placed by God in his world … and we each have built into us a sense of right and wrong. Genesis 3 shows us that for all the goodness of God’s creation there is something that creeps in and is destructive – and everyman and every woman succumbs to it. We each find ourselves living not in an idyllic garden, but in a place overrun by weeds.

That inclination towards evil damages then in Genesis 4 the basic human unit of the family as Cain denies that he is his brother’s keeper and Abel is murdered by his brother.

As we reach the story of Noah and Genesis 5-8 we find the world is filled with violence. The consequence of that violence is devastating destruction.

And then the sequence of stories reaches its climax as people long to become like God and use their ingenuity to build a tower to reach God, only to find their efforts fruitless, the tower destroyed and they can no longer understand each other.

The stories come together to give a picture of a wonderful world of God’s creation, yet within it such destructive forces. There is a strand running through the stories that gives hope. As individuals, a family, the world, and then all the nations of the world turn to evil and face its destructive consequences God is still there. By his grace each time he gives a chance for a fresh start.

Adam and Eve are exiled from the garden but able to wander in the wider world.

Cain is not executed but exiled and spared.

Noah and his family are saved from the flood and receive the wonderful promise as the very weapon of violence, the battle bow, is placed into the sky painted all the colours of the world, as a sign of God’s everlasting promise.

And the people of the nations are scattered to shape their nations, one of which is to become the nation of Israel, God’s people and to live out God’s dealings with the world and his saving love for the world.

These stories have remarkable insights into the world of God’s creation, its tragedy, and the reality of the human condition. They get to the truth of the world and humanity’s place in it in more powerful ways than the cosmologists, the biologists, the physicists, and the like can … they get to the truth of the human condition more vividly than the historian or the social scientist can.

They stand as a magisterial introduction to the whole Bible.

And they come alive as we see them through the eyes of Jesus.

Let’s take one of those stories – the story of Cain and Abel, and see how we can see that story through Jesus’s eyes.

I want to make three observations. First, Jesus is a man of his own time, and we should not attribute to him the capacity to think in the way modern scientists think.

The whole point of our theology of incarnation is that Jesus is a man of his time. He ‘empties himself’ to become as one of us. (Philippians 2) Fully a man. He is born into the world of the Roman Empire as Israel is under a very oppressive regime of King Herod. He grows up as that oppression intensifies and the Jewish people struggle to respond. He sees the world through the eyes of his contemporaries.

And these are the stories of beginnings he has grown up with. He sees them as a man of his own time. He does not see them as a scientist in the 21st Century. They are the stories that give an account of God’s world and our place in it. To illustrate the closeness of a man and a woman in marriage he draws on the story of Adam and Eve. When he speaks in Matthew 23:35 of being the innocent victim of those who kill the innocent he uses Abel as the one who is the classic innocent victim.

For Jesus these stories have value not as scientific explanation of how things began – but as stories that show how the world of his day is.

That’s how we should treat these stories too. For the insight they give into the world around us and our place in the world.

Secondly, Jesus delights in these stories. As he tells his own stories they often have echoes of the stories from the Hebrew Bible he grew up with.

The story of Cain and Abel is a wonderful story, beautifully crafted.

It is a story of two brothers and of jealousy. One accepted, one not … and the destructive jealousy that ensues. It is a story of sin lurking at the door, a sin that is out to master an individual, a sin that must be mastered … but ultimately gets the better. It is a story of anger. It is a story of no going back. It is a story then of a hint of grace, but with the mark of Cain of exile, wandering, lostness. For this story-teller out of the jealousy, the anger, the giving in to sin, the lostness of Cain comes the beauty of craftsmanship, the wonder of bronze and iron tools, and the civilisation of the city. Much that is good can be brought out of even unimaginable evil. All sorts of insights here.

It is the story of two brothers. Look carefully and the elder brother, Cain is never referred to as Abel’s brother. Abel is referred to as Cain’s brother no fewer than seven times! And yet the tragedy of the story comes in the Lord’s question to Cain and in Cain’s response: “Then the Lord said to Cain, Where is your brother Abel? He said, I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

Through it all God has a curious role. He seems to favour Abel over Cain, yet actually that is the way of things, he maintains he regards both equally, he recognises the evil inclination in Cain and gives him the opportunity to master it. Cain leaves the presence of God and is left a fugitive to wander the earth, but does settle in the land of Nod.

When Jesus tells the story of the two brothers there are all sorts of echoes of the Cain and Abel story.

The father bestows the inheritance on the younger son. He returns from the far country to discover his father waiting for him – the lost one is found, the one that was dead is alive again.

Meanwhile the elder brother is filled with discontent and malice. We don’t know what happens to him in the end. But there is every opportunity for him to stay within the Father’s family – after all, all that the Father has is the son’s!

One thing is very apparent and that is the picture of God that emerges from Jesus. He has taken many of the elements of the Cain and Abel story and then he has developed them further. It is as if takes them to their ultimate conclusion. The focus of the story Jesus tells is on the waiting Father and his all embracing grace of forgiveness.

The grace and the forgiveness that is hinted at in the Cain and Abel story is there in all its fullness in the story Jesus tells.

Let the story Jesus told be at the forefront of the mind – the picture it fills out of the Grace of the loving, forgiving Father is the picture we must have of God.

And the third point to take from Jesus’ perspective on this story is that it will affect how our whole attitude on life..

One of Cain’s descendants is Lamech who again is guilty of killing a man. His lament also is the tragedy of the Genesis story, and the tragedy of the human condition … Genesis 4:24

If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
Truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.

The great thing about the stories of Genesis 1-11 is that they do capture the human condition and tell it as it is. Stay with the story of Cain and Abel and you are in the world of vengeance. And it is a world we know only too well.

Jesus does not want us to stay in the world of Cain and Abel. He invites us to re-fashion that world in a different way in the light of God’s love. We must not stay with the story of Cain and Abel. We must . live the Jesus story and then we so belong to the kingdom of forgiveness.

It is this saying that Jesus takes up with Peter. Peter is also steeped in the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. The story of Cain and Abel he knows well. There has to be a limit to the number of times you can forgive surely!

Then Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, Not seven times, but I tell you, seventyseven times.”

As we read through the eyes of Jesus, let’s wonder at the insights into the world of God’s creation and the ugly world of human failure that we see in Genesis 1-11.

Let’s then follow Jesus and re-shape that world looking to the God and Father of us all who is the God of Love.

Let’s turn our back on the vengeance of Cain and Lamech and embrace a forgiveness that is willing to forgive not sevenfold but seventy-seven fold!

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