Tuesday night the internet went insane when Ken Ham, a young Earth creationist, and Bill Nye, the only reason I know anything about science, debated evolution.
Two men in their 60s argued for 2 1/2 hours and people watched the whole time, sharing their own observations on social media, and thinking that one of the two men was a genius and the other an idiot. It was a cultural phenomenon.
I didn’t watch it.
On the list of things I don’t care about, “Is Genesis 1 literal?” is right under “Lifetime Original Movies” and “Whether or not teenagers think I’m cool.”
Bill Nye and Ken Ham debated where people came from, but Genesis never intended to tell us where people came from. Debates about evoultion are about “how”, but religion is about “why.” And to know why we have to know who.
Genesis answers both those questions beautifully if we would read it like the people it was written for.
And to do that we have to know a little history and geography.
The Ancient World
In the Old Testament world there were two major empires: Egypt and Babylon.
These empires were huge and lasted thousands of years. They were cultural giants. These two empires gave us agriculture, urbanization, writing, and fractions. Egypt and Babylon ruled the ancient world.
Smaller countries near them would be swallowed up and forgotten.
They were also really close together. In fact, the only thing separating them was Israel, the people Genesis was written for. Israel was right between these massive empires.
Israel was defined by being captive and being set free. First, they were captive in Egypt, but they got out of there with the help of Moses.
Then, about 700 years later, they were captive in Babylon.
Tradition says that Moses, who was raised by Egyptians, wrote Genesis
Scholars believe that Genesis was a collection of oral and written histories that found its final form sometime during (or right after) the exile in Babylon.
So Genesis is a book started after leaving Egypt and finished after leaving Babylon. It seems likely that the stories of Babylon and Egypt would influence Genesis.
During the time Moses was in Egypt, the primary god of Egypt was Amun-Ra. Amun-Ra was the father of the other gods, the creator of everything, and also he was the sun (or his eye was, it’s unclear).
Amun-Ra willed himself into existence and found himself swirling in a watery place so he created a hill to find a place to stand (or he was the hill, it’s unclear). On the hill he built a temple. He was alone, so he married his own shadow. He spit and created his son and sneezed to create his daughter. Later his son and daughter got lost, and when they returned he cried. When his tears hit the ground they became men.
But Babylon had a weirder story.
There was swirling water, which separated itself into fresh and salt water, Apsu and his wife Tiamat. They had a son and daughter named Lahmu and Lahamu, who had kids named Anshar and Kishar, who had a son named Anu, who had a son named Ea, the most powerful of the gods.
These kids were having a loud party that disturbed Apsu and Tiamat so much that Apsu planned to kill them. Because Tiamat wanted to spare them she warned Ea.
Ea killed Apsu and made a house out of him. But Tiamat got really upset and decided to go to war against her children and grandchildren. She raised up Kingu, a great warrior, whom the gods could not defeat. Finally, Ea had a son named Marduk who killed Kingu and mixed his blood with dirt to make Lullu, the first man, to serve the gods for eternity.
Why is this important?
These stories have a lot in common with Genesis. They both begin with swirling water, land comes up out of it, and humans are created from something mixed with dirt. Some people think Genesis loses its value because it is so similar.
But Genesis’ real value is where it is different.
In the Ancient world everyone was a polytheist. Every country had its personal gods, but they still believed the others existed.
It was thought that when nations went to war on Earth their gods were battling in heaven. The winner in heaven determined which nation won on earth. A powerful god meant a powerful people, so a powerful people must have a powerful god.
Egypt and Babylon both controlled Israel, so their gods must be more powerful
Genesis doesn’t buy that. For example, it doesn’t name the sea or the sun. The sun isn’t even created until the fourth day and it’s called “the greater light.” It doesn’t deserve a proper name because it’s just a created thing.
Genesis is aware of the creation myths of Israel’s neighbors and it mocks them.
In the creation story of Babylon there is a family of six generations.
- Apsu & Tiamat
- Lahmu & Lahamu
- Anshar & Kishar
Who are these gods?
We already know that Apsu and Tiamat are water. Lahmu and Lahamu are sky gods. Anshar and Kishar are sky and land. Anu is the god of the stars. Ea is a fish god who make his home in Apsu, the sea. And finally Marduk is the god of creation and man.
So we have:
- Heavenly bodies
Do these look familiar?
These are the biblical days of creation. IN ORDER. That can’t be a coincidence. Genesis mimics the Babylonian story to make a point. Genesis was written to tell the people of Israel that the gods of their enemies are just the things created by the God of Israel, not to make sure we know it was six 24 hour periods.
Genesis wasn’t written to tell us where we came from. It was written to tell us about who God is.
Their gods get lost and fight one another.
Our God is greater than anything anyone worships.
In each of these three stories man is created from the creator mixing something with dirt. In Egypt it was tears, in Babylon it was blood, and in Israel it was breath.
It is unclear why Amun-Ra cried, though it was probably loneliness or anger. What does that say about humanity? Man is loneliness or anger mixed with earth. Egyptians referred to humanity as “cattle of Ra.” Not exactly the most uplifting nick name.
In Babylon, the rebellious and wicked god Kingu was killed and his blood mixed with earth made man. Blood is often a symbol of an inherited trait. Rebellion and wickedness are inherited from Kingu. And why was man created? To serve the gods.
But in Israel, a good and powerful God created man in his image by breathing into dirt. Breath is a symbol of spirit. God put his spirit in man. Man is brought to life by the spirit of God.
And God placed man over all of creation. Then he’s told to be fruitful and multiply, which means he takes part in the process of creation. Genesis has such a positive view of man when compared to the other stories. Man is created in God’s image, brought to life by his spirit, and partners in God’s work.
Why were we created? To participate in the life of God.
Genesis is not a text book. It is a religious text meant to tell us who God is and who we are.
He is greater than anything anyone might worship.
You are made in his image.
You are greater than the things the culture around you worships.
It was this lesson that made it possible for the Israelites to survive captivity in Egypt and Babylon.
Belief in a powerful God and in an image bearing humanity enables us to withstand a culture that worships the wrong things and tells us how worthless we are.
You can believe that whether you think the world was created instantaneously, over 6 days, or over millions of years.
So I didn’t watch. The debate was pointless.