WelCom June 2017: Many of us can probably hum the refrain ‘It ain’t necessarily so’, sung by the drug dealer, Sportin’ Life, in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. ‘Jonah he lived in a whale… Methusalah lived 900 years… It ain’t necessarily so, the things you read in the Bible.’ I sometimes wonder how far we have progressed when we still read of expeditions searching for the remains of Noah’s ark on Mount Ararat or biblicists trying to work out the exact location of the Garden of Eden. No wonder there is general scepticism about how valid are the stories of the Hebrew Bible, so leading to distrust of the entire scriptures.
A Māori Parallel
I do not know if any Māori today believe that Māui fished up the North Island. Yet the story captures deep truths: that New Zealand rose from the sea, that the Māori found it and made it their own.
The first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis read in somewhat the same way. They are what we call an epigenetic story. The Jewish people found their identity in a covenant God had made with them going right back to Abraham. God had promised always to be with them, to make them flourish, to put them in a land of milk and honey. Instead they had endured exile and slavery in Egypt and Babylon. Had they been deceived? From whence this drudgery, fighting to draw life from a barren and unforgiving land?
The Creation Stories
Gen 1.1- 2.4 is the story of the good creation. There are three interlocking spheres: heavens, water and earth, each teeming with life in which humans, though also creatures, are given the role of understanding and supporting all life. In Gen 2-3 Adam and Eve are gardeners, tending the earth and each other, man and woman, different but the same, connected in love and mutual need. Yet hidden in their freedom is a serpent, a duplicity and a yearning for power. The hidden fruit of knowledge tastes bitter.
The continuing saga of Gen 4-11 is that of a descent into evil. It tells of the first murder, brother upon brother. It describes corrupt cities, of massive floods. It explains the struggles that humans experience to draw crops from a stubborn earth beset with drought and floods. It portrays why men and women, so needy of each other, create societies where women are chattels and know such pain in bringing forth their children.
A Story of Hope
At the same time the prehistory of Gen 1-11 also contains seeds of hope. God promises that one day the source of evil will be crushed. Among the perversity live good people like Noah and his family. They become heirs to a new covenant, one that allows killing for food, yet places all creatures in a world of mutual need and support.
The Hebrew Bible, especially the early chapters were never intended as scientific treatises. They do not exist to explain biological origins; they are there to make sense of the eternal paradoxes of human life: love and murder, belonging and exclusion, agony and ecstasy. Once we see this they open up human history in a way that no scientific treatise ever could.
Fr Neil Vaney sm
Fr Neil Vaney is the Chaplain-Pastoral Director at the New Zealand Catholic Enquiry Centre. If you have a question about Catholic faith and the Church please email it to Fr Neil at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0800 328-437.