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Story of the Bible, Act 1: Creation

The Bible begins at the beginning, with dramatic scene-setting stories of the creation of the world, including the first people. They shouldn't be read in the same way that we would read a scientific text-book. They're designed to teach us things about God, about human beings, and about how God and humanity relate to each other.

So, for instance, there's a built-in contrast between these creation stories and others that were around at the time or that arose in later mythology. Usually these creation myths involved divine violence; at the same time as the biblical creation story was developed, the Babylonians were telling of a struggle between the gods Marduk and Tiamat, which ended with Marduk dismembering Tiamat and creating the earth from her body. Humans were created from the blood of another murdered divine being, to serve as slaves for the gods. 

But the writer of Genesis says that God created the world 'and it was good'. Human beings are made 'in God's image'.

Imagine the difference between believing the world is built on violence and that humans are born to be slaves, and believing that the world is good and that we're born to be free.

Another theme that runs through the creation stories is the idea of order. Whatever was there before God spoke was 'formless and empty', a cosmic nothingness. God's patient, systematic creation indicates that the world is orderly and can be understood, rather than being random and hostile. This sense of order is what underpins scientific progress.

Yet another theme is God's power. The world comes into existence through his words; 'God said, "Let there be light," and there was light.' Again, this is very different from creation myths that spoke of a titanic battle between competing deities. God is portrayed as having absolute authority over the universe. Even the sun and the moon – worshipped as god and goddess in other religions – are just described as 'lights'. Everything is under God's control.

And at the end of the creation, on the seventh day, God rests from his work – a foreshadowing of the institution of the Sabbath. This is not an afterthought. The idea of a day of rest, when no one should work, was revolutionary. It says that human beings are more than just producers and consumers. They are to have time which is theirs, rather than their master's. The Sabbath is a defence against slavery, and an assertion of human freedom to think, to relate to one another and to create.

We don't do the creation story any favours if we just say, 'But it didn't happen like that,' or if we try to argue that it did. Rather, let’s take it as it was written ­– as a wonderful statement of the goodness and power of God, from the foundation of the world. 

Author: Mark Woods, 10 January 2020 (Last updated: 29 July 2020)

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