This is part two of sixteen in a series, “The Bible Is…”
Where did we come from? and How did we get here? are two of the big existential questions that occupies the religious and philosophical imaginations of every culture in the world. And the Bible, of course, addresses these questions throughout its many pages. Although there are bits of insight into such matters in many different books of the Bible, two in particular focus on the subject of origins. Both the book of Genesis and the Gospel according to Saint John begin with the words “In the beginning…”
The book of Genesis is named for a recurring introductory line “these are the generations of…” which occurs ten times throughout its pages. This could be translated instead as “this is the genesis of” or “this is the origin story of”. That the book of Genesis contains ten of these is significant, as the Old Testament Law of Moses would go on to introduce Ten Commandments, and other uses of the number ten throughout the Bible function like a musical motif, reminding the reader of the Ten Commandments and the Law. The ten origin stories of Genesis are, similarly, a sort of preparatory echo for the reader. For the book of Genesis is not a stand-alone book, but merely the first of a collection of five books (known together as the Pentateuch) written by Moses to set out the foundation of ancient Israelite law, ethics, and religion. This will be dealt with in the next section of this series; among them Genesis functions as a prologue, a preparation or introductory background for the Covenant and Law that God set out with Israel.
Because Genesis is a prologue to the Old Testament Law, it is not primarily a book of history. Although much of it is historical narrative in form, it is not historical in function. Thus as we read this book we read it with a charitable sense of history. We read about the stories of Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, and others, not for the purpose of chronicling the history of the world, but for the purpose of learning about God’s relationship with his people, Israel, and its neighboring clans and nations. It’s less about “what happened back then” and more about “how we got to where we are now”, that is, up to the time of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt.
The Gospel of John, although being one of the four books that tell the story of Jesus, also begins with an origin statement: “in the beginning was the Word.” Even less interested in human history, John’s prologue in the first half of chapter 1 looks back into the eternal life of God, giving us a poetic and insightful glimpse into the reality of God: Jesus, as the Word of God, has always existed alongside God the Father and was an agent in creating the universe. So as the bulk of the book goes on to narrative various events and teachings of Jesus, a focus unique among the Gospel books is maintained: Jesus is not just the Christ, the anointed one who is to save us from sin, but is God Almighty who had been known and worshiped from the beginning.
It is interesting that these two books of the Bible which deal most directly with the subject of origins are not actually straight-forward historical or scientific texts. People today typically ask questions about the timeline of the universe – when was the sun formed, when was the Earth formed, when did life begin and when did humans appear? But instead the Bible takes its own tack toward these questions, dealing instead with who the Creator is (in the Gospel of John) and the pre-history of how the Creator has been involved with his creation (in the book of Genesis). Even if Christians differ on precisely how to interpret these books with regard to historical precision, it is at least an important consideration to observe that God teaches us of the distant past on his own terms, and not according to the fads or preferences of one culture or another.