For Reflection: What is the context of Genesis?
The Book of Genesis, from which is taken our First Reading today, is the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures. Genesis, a Latin word borrowed from the Greek, means “origin” or “beginnings,” and it tells the story of how God created the universe. It is the first of the five books that together form the Torah, the most sacred of Scriptures for the Jewish people. Likewise, these same five books - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy - appear as the first five books of the Christian Bible. The Hebrew Scriptures, or “Old Testament” as it is known to many Christians, include not only the five books of Torah, but also the Nevi’im, or “Prophets,” and the Ketuvim, or “Writings.” (Prophetic literature includes Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Haggai, and others; the “writings” include the Psalms, Proverbs, and other wisdom literature such as Job and Song of Songs.)
Genesis was composed around 1000 BCE, during the reign of King David, who unified the 12 tribes of Israel under a single monarchy. The Hebrew people had been a semi-nomadic tribe of Mediterranean farmers, herders, and merchants. With the onset of the Kingdom, Israel was becoming a civilization not unlike other ancient powers. Though not on the level of Egypt, Babylonia, or Assyria, Israel was nonetheless a regional power, and any proud nation needs a narrative about their lineage. Thus, it is believed, King David commissioned scribes to aggregate the many extant histories, stories, and genealogies that were floating around, pertaining to the people Israel. The books of Torah, which were written by numerous authors and edited by a group of scholars, seek to tell that story, specifically in relationship to the God of Israel, YHWH.
Do we believe that the Creation account is literally true?
The short answer, for Catholics, is that we believe the account of creation described in the Book of Genesis is true... but not historically accurate. That is to say, the book represents a particular genre of literature - myth - that is used as a device to communicate an underlying and eternal truth. We believe, unqualifiedly, that God created Heaven and Earth. We believe, likewise, that God designed humans in God’s own image, and that God invited humans to be co-creators in the ongoing act of bringing forth new life in the world. We do not, however, maintain that this means there was a literal first Adam and first Eve. It is quite possible that there was a progenitor couple, from whom all future human beings descended, but it would have to fit within scientific understandings of evolutionary biology. The bottom line is that the Church asserts the truths of creation as depicted in Genesis, while leaving the specific mechanism of human evolution up to the scientists, archaeologists, and anthropologists to figure out.
New evidence constantly emerges providing concrete historical reference points for certain ancient stories. For instance, researchers have excavated sites that would seem to fit with the description of certain ancient cities that the Bible claims were built, occupied, and destroyed during the age of the Patriarchs. Too, paleohydroclimatologists have found evidence that lends credence to the story that there was an ancient flood of epic proportions that likely wiped out a great deal of the Mediterranean civilizations.
But the bottom line is that these ancient stories need not be historically accurate in order for their underlying messages to be true. The Tower of Babel, the Sacrifice of Isaac, the Ten Plagues inflicted upon Egypt - each of these communicates an important and enduring truth about sin, redemption, human nature, and dependence on God. It is for this reason that, some 5,000 years after God called Abraham in the deserts of Mesopotamia, we are still recounting the story of his response and the history of salvation that followed.
Okay, so then what is the truth about Adam and Eve?
There are many interpretations to this story, which is one of the most beautiful and challenging aspects of reading sacred Scripture. There is no singular, univocal message. No unambiguous algorithm of, “When God says X, humans are to learn Y.” We repeatedly return to these same stories, ceaselessly seeking new insights and receiving unexpected insights. For our own reflection, we shall focus on the relatively explicit truth of the very first sentence: “It is not good for (humans) to be alone.” God could have created us as solitary creatures, each of us occupying our own little universe. But instead, God chooses to create humans in God’s own image and likeness, which is to say in love and out of love. And love cannot be contained in itself; rather it demands to be poured outward, to explode from within the one who has love and to wrap itself around an other -- the one who IS loved.
God, who is love, creates the universe out of pure outpouring of that love. God fashions creatures upon which God can shower that love, the greatest of which, the closest to God’s own nature, is humankind. And because humankind is so designed, each individual human would be incomplete, were s/he not able to reproduce God’s own creative outpouring of love on an individual level. Thus, God recognizes, that there is a need for humans to have other humans, on whom to pour out this love. Specifically, there is a certain acute need to invest this love on a particular other, a partner.
Indeed, so intimately are these two humans inter-connected that they are literally flesh of the same flesh, bone of the same bone. Though cleaved upon their own birth, they wander the earth in search of one another, to reunite their bodies in a single space. The Church will say that this is the aim of marriage - to unite two persons in a loving, mutually self-giving covenant partnership. And through this covenant love, the couple is invited to join God as co-creators, to bring forth new life and to produce future members of the human family.
In our own day and age, we see this same intense craving -- not only to “not be alone,” but specifically to give ourselves wholly and unreservedly to a single other person. A partner. Throughout much of history, we have brandished about the term soul-mate, although there has been a recent pushback against this particular bit of language, because it seems to imply that there is only one person with whom we can be truly happy. Yet one need not subscribe to the notion that there is a single “right” person that we are compelled to find, lest we end up settling for someone who is an imperfect fit, in order to unpack this notion of a soul-mate. A soul-mate is someone with whom we wish to share our deepest, most vulnerable self. To whom we wish to offer an unequaled level of service, and who makes that same offer to serve us in return. One who challenges, supports, and inspires us to be the best version of our selves, and for whom we do the same.
You can see it among your friends. Most people have that one person they text with all day. Whom they want to talk to late at night or who causes them to check their phone first thing in the morning. The one they’re hoping will like their photos on social media and ask if they’d like to get coffee after class. We all yearn not to be alone, and to give ourselves to another in love, for we are made in the image and likeness of our God, who is love.
Questions for Reflection
1.) What have you heard about the stories of Genesis? Were you raised to believe they were literally true? What do you think of them now? What do your friends from other faiths say?
2) What has been your experience of sharing yourself with others? Of making yourself vulnerable, of trying to find your “soulmate”? Do you believe that there is one person for you? If not, what is your take? How do you think you are called to be in a relationship?
3) Do you feel called to marriage? How do you experience that call? What sorts of qualities are you hoping to encounter in your partner?