Monday, May 23, 2016

The Bible's First Chapter - If I was in Charge!

A part of me wishes the 8th chapter of the Book of Proverbs was the first chapter in the bible.  Don’t get me wrong, I like Genesis 1, with its story of creation in six days, and I like Genesis 2, with its description of how the first man and woman came to be, but these two chapters – too often taken literally – now function in a way that puts faith needlessly at odds with science.  A study done two years ago reported 42% of people in our country hold to a “creationist” perspective; believing God created everything more or less the way it is “described” “in the bible” approximately 10,000 years ago.  50% believe in some method of divine creative activity in and through the evolutionary process while the smallest minority (which is also the fastest growing) holds to a strictly secular understanding of evolution without divine involvement. 

William Brown, a Columbia University professor, wrote a book in 2010 titled The Seven Pillars of Creation. In it he articulates a unique challenge to those who believe creation came about “just the way it says in the bible” by examining not one, not two, but seven different creation stories in the Old Testament: Genesis 1, Genesis 2, Job 38-41, Psalm 104, passages in Isaiah 40-55, passages from Ecclesiastes, and today’s reading from Proverbs.  His examination leads to the conclusion these different accounts cannot be homogenized into one, single, comprehensive “biblical” story of creation.  To speak of “the story of creation” is to point to just one account, perhaps try to melt it in with another, while ignoring the testimony of the rest.  It is an approach which is selective at best and ignores the richness of the bible’s divergent views.  Brown wants to help his readers explore what the bible says about creation so we can engage science and faith in ways that are constructive rather than confrontational.

Today’s reading from Proverbs names God’s Spirit as ‘Wisdom’; personifying it and giving it a feminine identity: “Wisdom… she cries out.”  She, Wisdom, is present with God throughout the acts of creation as boundaries are established, limits are set, and order wisely infused into all there is.  It is a story about meaning in sharp contrast to another popular understanding at the time promoted through Babylonian stories and beliefs.  Their mythology imagined creation as a chaotic struggle between competing gods.  Their skirmishes spill over into the human realm, making our life unpredictable, placing us in constant flux, and consigning us as pawns to merciless whims beyond our control.  The Proverbs account describes life as being the product of an intentional and unified force.  Its members delight in each other and in what has been created.  Far from being removed, Wisdom herself is in the “inhabited world.”  Proverbs teaches there is a harmony and goodness to creation and invites us to live into its joy. 

Few if any people today hold to anything like the Babylonian view.  We are more likely to encounter the nihilistic perspective: those who reject religion and believe life is meaningless.  Nihilism is not science.  It is a belief like all other beliefs.  It cannot be proved scientifically to be a better or a worse belief than the Babylonian myths or the teachings of Proverbs.  The question is not which view is the “right” one, but rather what are the implications and consequences of each perspective.  What fruit does each produce in its adherents?  Does it help or hinder them from living in accordance with the way things seem to be. 

I wonder what our society’s conversations about science and belief might look like if Proverbs 8 was the first chapter in the bible, rather than being buried somewhere deep in the middle. 

Proverbs 8:30, as we heard it this morning, reads,

“When he [God] marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I [Wisdom] was beside him, like a master worker.”

One possible meaning of the Hebrew word ‘aman is ‘skilled worker’ or ‘architect’.  It makes sense here.  God has stitched together all of creation with a sense of wisdom and coherence.  There is order and predictability.  The best way to live in this world is to understand its wisdom and order your life accordingly.  To live at odds with how the Great Architect has created things to be is to be out of sorts.  Sin is more than just wrong.  Ultimately it makes life miserable because it is not the way things are supposed to be.  You reap the consequences of what you sow, for good or for ill.  This is just one of the meanings we can deduce about life as it is presented in the Proverbs 8 story of creation. 

But allow me to introduce a little hiccup.  In addition to ‘skilled worker’, that very same Hebrew word can mean ‘little child’ and ancient manuscripts are split about 50-50 as to which is the intended translation. 

“When he [God] marked out the foundations of the earth.
then I [Wisdom] was beside him, like a little child.”

This alternative does not seem to make as much sense as the first possibility, but look at the verses that follow it:

“I [Wisdom] was daily [God’s] delight,
rejoicing before him always,

rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.”

In my experience workers work and little children delight in things.  These verses spawn in my mind the image of a little girl marveling at a doll house her father is making for her; pure delight, fascination, and joy.  One scholar suggests the passage portrays “the image of a giggling, joyful, little girl who laughs when God shows her God’s new creations -- the hilarious giraffe and hippopotamus, the monkeys and busy little ants.”  And the greatest joy and wonderment of all comes from us human beings.  We are the most amazing act of God’s creation and we have the potential to “delight” God in and through the things we do. 

Given this alternative interpretation, the Proverbs 8 story of creation invites us to see the goodness, joy, and wonder infused in and throughout creation.  It invites us to live with delight and to treat ourselves and others in a way that is delightful.  Terrence Fretheim, an Old Testament scholar, holds “that pleasure and playfulness are built into the very structure of things.”  Far from what many people assume to be true about religion – namely it exists to tell us all the things we are not allowed to do – “Wisdom opens up the world rather than closes it down.”

I don’t believe the images of Wisdom as an architect and as a little child are mutually exclusive.  Perhaps the writer of the passage intentionally crafted this ambiguity into the text so we might see both and recognize how each image expresses an important truth.  Either way, it is a refreshing change from the typical questions about “the  story of creation” in the bible:

Gone are these:

Did God really create the world in six days?

Were Adam and Eve really the first humans?

How do I reconcile what the bible ‘teaches’ about creation with what my brain tells me is true?

In are these:

How should I respond to the wise ordering sewn into the fabric of creation?

What does it look like to delight in God’s creative work?

This would be the conversation inspired by the first chapter of the bible if I was in charge.