Genesis Symbolism

The story of Creation in the biblical book of Genesis symbolizes many things to people of Abrahamic faiths. Because they were migratory, and because they were located at a geographical crossroads, ancient Hebrews encountered many other Middle Eastern groups; as is typical in culture contact, they borrowed from neighbors and shared their own heritage. origin myths of most of the Middle Eastern cultures, for example, included the motifs of the creation of humans from clay, as well as a primordial, chaotic state composed of water. The Genesis creation story derives in part from earlier Middle Eastern traditions from Babylonia and Persia, but with important differences.

According to the theologian Conrad Hyers, the ancient Hebrews found themselves surrounded by other tribes that worshipped multiple gods, a practice called polytheism. of central importance to the Hebrews, and their major distinction among their neighbors, was their belief in one god (monotheism), and maintaining this belief (especially in the face of conquest) was difficult. The Hebrews were variously conquered by Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians, which meant that remaining true to their traditions and avoiding absorption was a constant challenge. There was much pressure on the Hebrews to adopt the gods and idols of their neighbors. According to Hyers, the religious meaning of Genesis is largely to make a statement to both Hebrews and surrounding tribes that the one god of Abraham was superior to the false gods of their neighbors: sky gods (the sun, the moon, and stars), earth gods, nature gods, light and darkness, rivers, and animals (Hyers 1983). As Hyers (1983: 101) puts it, "Each day of creation takes on two principal categories of divinity in the pantheons of the day, and declares that these are not gods at all, but . . . creations of the one true God who is the only one. . . . Each day dismisses an additional cluster of deities, arranged in a cosmological and symmetrical order."

So on day 1 ("Let there be light"), God vanquishes the pagan gods of light and darkness. Similarly, gods of the sky and seas are displaced on day 2, while Earth gods and gods of vegetation are done away with on the third day. On the fourth day God creates the sun, moon, and stars, thereby establishing his superiority to them, and the fifth day removes divinity from the animal kingdom. Finally, on the sixth day God specially creates human beings, which takes away from the divinity of kings and pharaohs—but because God creates humans as his own special part of creation (in God's image), all human beings are in some degree divine.

Genesis also described the nature of the Hebrew God. Unlike the gods of other Middle Eastern groups, the Hebrew God was ever present. Unlike the high god Marduk of the Mesopotamians, the Hebrew God did not originate from the actions of some other god or preexisting force. Genesis also suggests that God is omnipotent; unlike the Mesopotamian or Sumerian gods, the Hebrew God does not require preexisting materials from which to assemble creation but speaks (wills) the universe into being. God is also moral, being concerned with good and evil, which contrasts strongly with the gods of the Hebrews' neighbors, who seem to govern in a universe that has little meaning or purpose. The Bible's God also is not part of nature, as some of the gods of others, but stands outside of nature as its creator (Sarna 1983).

Genesis also tells of the nature of humankind, "a God-like creature, uniquely endowed with dignity, honor, and infinite worth, into whose hands God has entrusted mastery over His creation" (Sarna 1983: 137). God forms the universe, making Earth the most important component and humans its most important creature, having been given dominion over all other creatures and Earth itself. Humanity's responsibility is to husband the Earth but also to worship and obey God. Much of Genesis, especially the stories of Adam and Eve and of Noah and the Flood, reflect these themes; Adam and Eve are cast out of Paradise for disobeying God, and Noah is rewarded for his obedience and faith by being chosen to survive the Flood.

Thus, Genesis reflects the character of a classic origin myth: it presents in symbolic form the values ancient Hebrews felt were most important: the nature of God, the nature of human beings, and the relationship of God to humankind. Hebrews distinguished their God from those of their neighbors and presented God's deeds in their oral traditions and, eventually, in written form. Some of these writings were selected over time to become the Old Testament of the Bible.

Modern Jews, Christians, and Muslims all revere the Bible as a sacred book, but each of the Abrahamic faiths has different interpretations of many of the events depicted— and differences of interpretation occur within the three faiths as well. For example, in contrast to the early Hebrew view, some modern Christians and Jews do not necessarily see God as separate from God's creation. There are also differences in beliefs among sects as to the amount that God intervenes in the world, and the nature and even the existence of miracles. Yet as did the ancient Hebrews, the Abrahamic faiths generally agree that God is omnipotent and good and that human beings are responsible to God. As will be discussed later, there are vast differences among believers as to specifics of faith, such as how literally the Bible should be read. Christians, Jews, and Muslims all have constituent sects that demand that the holy texts (Bible, Koran, or Torah) be read literally, and all have sects that feel many or most passages should be read symbolically.

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