Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 3

[Our group, which took a hiatus last Tuesday as I spent the week helping with preparations for our daughter's wedding, met again this evening. But, with one member anticipating the wedding of her son in September and with our family's celebration this past Saturday, we ended up spending about forty-five minutes gabbing before we prayed and began looking at the next part of Genesis. Consequently, we only looked at Genesis, chapter 6. This chapter presents us with fantastic events, which may seem implausible to us. As you read about them, I ask you to suspend judgment until the end of this post, where I will rejoin this issue of plausibility.]

1. The chapter begins with one of the strangest passages in Scripture. Genesis 6:1-4 seems, in some respects, out of place. It begins with the phrase, "When people began to multiply on the face of the ground..." There is no indication of precisely when the event described happened and it seems a jarring incursion in the midst of the previous chapter's genealogies and the subsequent Noah narrative in chapter 6.

2. The "sons of God," in the Hebrew bin Elohim, is a phrase used of angels. This too is a jarring incursion: as commentator Gerhard von Rad points out, angels play a minimal role in Genesis, so pervasive, close, and accessible is the presence of God. Intermediaries aren't really needed.

3. There is, in the angels' reaction to the daughters of people, a reflection of the Biblical understanding of the angelic creatures. Angels, it should be pointed out, at least in the Bible's understanding, are not former humans. Furthermore, they do not occupy a place superior to human beings.

On the contrary, angels are inferior to human beings. Only human beings were created in the image of God.

Interestingly, though the angels were sent to proclaim the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and later, His resurrection, they don't fully understand Him, His cross and resurrection, or just what He has done for us. In First Peter in the New Testament, we're told:
It was revealed to them [the Old Testament prophets] that they were serving not themselves but you, in regard to the things that have now been announced to you through those who brought you the good news by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven--things into which angels long to look.
Angels are wispy creatures. Psalm 104:4 (quoted in Hebrews 1:7) says to God of them, "You make the winds Your messengers, fire and flame Your ministers."

The word angel literally means messenger. The ancient rabbis saw them as utterly formless creatures who acted like cosmic tape recorders. When they came to earth in whatever new form God may have had for them, they had specific charges to deliver God's messages and on the angels' return to heaven, they returned to their nebulous, smoky state. (Sometimes in the Old Testament, including Genesis 18, the phrase "angel of the Lord" simply means the "presence of God.")

Satan, once close to God, is an angel who fell into jealousy and rebellion against God, along with a horde of others, designated as demons. It has long been thought that it is this same jealousy of humanity that incites the demonic angels to try tempting humanity away from God.

The narrative of Genesis 6:1-4 would be consistent with this. Angels, sons of God, heavenly creatures, became jealous of men for another reason: the beautiful women they could marry.

For all the portrayals of angels in movies that are inconsistent with a Biblical understanding of them, two movies I can think of have gotten this angelic pining to be like humans right.

One is the Christmas classic, Bishop's Wife. In it, Cary Grant plays an angel sent by God in answer to the prayers of an Episcopal bishop, played by David Niven. During the course of his mission, Grant's angel, Dudley, becomes enamored of the bishop's wife, Julia, played by Loretta Young. Although he never reveals his angelic identity to Julia, Dudley does plaintively ask Julia not to send him away. He's tired he says of never feeling hot or cold, of being a rootless messenger.

In City of Angels, an angel played by Nicholas Cage, follows the example of another former angel, and out of his love for a surgeon played by Meg Ryan, yearns for and finally becomes human. Although the Bible knows of no angels who become human, the angels' desire is definitely there.

In fact, if the reason that humanity fell into sin (and falls into it still) is the desire to "be like God" (Genesis 3:5), the reason that the angels who followed Satan and the angels here in Genesis 6 fell is a desire to "be like humans."

4. Angels are immortal. But God made the decision that their human offspring would not live forever. This decision is akin to an earlier one God took regarding the tree of life. God banished Adam and Eve from Eden, including access to this tree, which would abolish death for human beings. But had Eve and Adam eaten the fruit of that tree while still in their sin, they and the human race would have been separated from God forever.

5. Verse 3 says that "their days shall be one hundred twenty years." Check this Google search out.

6. Starting at verse 5, we have the narrative of Noah and the great flood. It begins:

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.
The narrative ends at Genesis 8:21, with God making a promise:

And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor [of Noah's sacrifice], the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.
Nothing had been changed by the flood, which naturally leads to the question of why God went through the whole process in the first place. I can't answer that question except to say that our sin is serious business in God's eyes.

7. How serious it all is to God is seen in the depths of emotions aroused in God in considering our sin:

And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (Genesis 6:6)
Contrary to popular views of God, the Bible doesn't see Him as an impersonal force or a distant watchmaker, but as a personal Deity involved with and concerned for our lives.

8. Noah presumably found favor with God because of he worshiped God with his life and was obedient.

9. How did God communicate with Noah? The Bible says that God almost always uses understated means, often speaking in a "still, small voice." I rather think that this is how God communicates with all of us. If God delivered all His messages with an amplified voice in the timber of James Earl Jones or splashed words across the sky, there would be no "faith" in God on our parts.

God never forces us to do His will. We have the capacity to say No to Him. If He forced Himself upon us, we could not freely choose to live openness to a relationship of love with Him; we would be automatons or animals acquiescing to a superior power. Philippians 2:5-11 speaks of how God, in His ultimate self-revelation in Jesus Christ, set aside perks of heaven to become our Servant and Savior.

Noah, who knew God through worshiping and being in contact with Him, could discern whether this still, small voice telling him to build a ship was God. God didn't have to shout to get Noah's attention. Genesis 6:22 says simply:

Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
10. Okay, is this true? Did all this fantastic stuff really happen? I believe that it did. But you don't have to believe it in order to be a believer in the God made known to us in Jesus Christ. When the ancient Church got together to summarize what Christians believe, they didn't talk about the sons of God intermarrying with women or Noah. They didn't talk about Jonah and the great fish or the parting of the Red Sea. They summarized it in the words of the Apostles' Creed and this, every Christian denomination agrees, is the essential content of Christian belief:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. AMEN.

1 comment:

Mark Daniels said...

It depends on the depth you have in mind for your study. I have found von Rad's commentary helpful. It's very academic and not as conservative as I am in my approach to the Scriptures. But if one knows that going in, you can effectively use this fabulous resource.

I'm also drawing a good deal on the teaching of my old seminary mentor, the late Bruce Schein. Though Schein was a New Testament scholar, he drew extensively on the Old Testament to reach deeper understandings of the texts at hand. This often led us to Genesis. This isn't surprising as the ancient rabbis always said that if you had a good grasp of Genesis, you could understand Biblical faith and indeed, the Bible itself.

I would say that looking at the Midrash and the Mishnah are helpful in understanding Genesis as well.

I hope that's helpful.