I've given examples before (here, here, and here) of how the text of the Bible is easier to interpret for an unbeliever—who has no stake in the outcome.
One passage that's interesting in this connection is the Creation Story at the beginning of the book of Genesis. It's particularly interesting to me that the right-wing Christians who are most vocal about creation spend more time and energy trying to disprove evolution than they do trying to understand what the Bible actually says on the subject.
So I come to the topic with three agendas. I think there is much that believers could learn from studying the creation story. I also think that there is much that non-believers can learn there as well. And, from a strictly literary point of view, I think that the journey itself is worth it, whether we learn anything or not.
I'll begin with the big picture. I said creation story, and some of you are already wondering why I didn't say creation stories: since chapter one and chapter two are separate, and different, accounts of the creation. The answer to that—which I will give now, but won't be able to fully explain until later—is that the two chapters are much more intimately connected than most people think.
But for now the big picture concerns the first chapter. It was written much later than the second chapter, and is a very intentional piece of writing. In structure, it's a poem. That is, like psalms and proverbs and much of the prophets, it was written in a kind of verse which was native to ancient Israel, but completely alien to us. Unlike our verse, it didn't rely upon rhyme or even meter. Instead, it relied on parallelism—as did much of Jesus' teaching.
There are many different kinds of parallelism, just as there are many different kinds of rhyme and rhyme-schemes. Luckily, for us, once you get the basic idea of how parallelism works you don't need a lot of technical skills to understand it—just like you don't need to chart rhyme schemes in order to enjoy rhyme in popular music.
I'll give you an idea of the kind of thing I'm talking about by quoting parts of the chapter:
Let there be light.
And there was light.
Or, a little later:
God called the light day,
And the darkness, he called night
These represent parallelism in its simplest form, but even here you can see the poetry at work.
Notice how the lines in the first example parallel each other almost exactly, but the lines in the second example intentionally switch the order around.
This is just one of many poetic variations that are possible with parallelism. And, by the way, once you start noticing this sort of thing, parts of the Bible begin to look quite different. You begin to read it more through the eyes of the culture that wrote it.
The interesting thing about the first chapter of Genesis is that the entire chapter is designed on parallels, in a way that gives insight into its meaning—and, surprisingly, into the meaning of some other Biblical texts along the way.
The place to begin to see this structure is in the first line:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
Just notice, for now, that aside from the kernel subject and verb (God created), there are three elements:
Beginning - Heavens - Earth
"Beginning" is obviously a time reference—that's clear enough.
"Heavens" takes a little explaining. We tend to use the word "heaven" theologically, to mean some other dimension that exists after death. But here it is used just as we would use it in a sentence like "He gazed up into the heavens." It simply meant something like "sky". The heavens were, in the ancient world-view, that big wide space overhead that the stars were in and the birds flew in and the clouds rained from. Our equivalent would be a word like "space".
"Earth" also was probably meant in a slightly different way than we would mean it. Remember, the ancient Hebrews had no sense that the earth was a planet orbiting the sun. To them, the earth was the physical environment, under the sky, where we lived. It included hills and valleys and forests and grass, etc.
So, if we translate the ideas an ancient Israelite would have associated with those three words into modern English, we get something like:
Time - Space - Physical Environment
Of course, we have to be careful to remember that they didn't mean exactly what we would mean by those terms.
So, where's the parallelism?
To see that, we have to pause, and look at the structure of the chapter as a whole. The story is broken down into seven days, and the creation takes place on the first six:
|Day One: The creation of light and darkness, day and night||Day Four: The creation of lights to rule the day and night, and to tell the times and the seasons|
|Day Two: The creation of the firmament (sky, heavens) and the sea||Day Five: The creation of birds fish|
|Day Three: The creation of dry lands and plants||Day Six: The creation of cattle and the beasts of the fields, of humans|
If you look for a pattern in the chart above, you will quickly see that the days come in two groups of three, and that the second three parallel the first three.
Light and darkness, day and night, on day one, are paralleled by the sun, moon, and stars on day four. The sky and the sea on day two are paralleled by the creation of birds and fish on day five. The creation of land and plants on day three is paralleled by the creation of animals (including humans) who live on land and eat plants on day six.
And by now, if you've been paying really close attention, you may have figured out what this structure has to do with the structure in the first verse.
The first day is not really about the creation of light, though that is a sub-theme—it's about the creation of time (or the beginning of time). Likewise, the second day is about the creation of what we would call "space" or "sky"—the heavens. And the third day is about the creation of the earth—the physical environment that we live in.
So, the structure of the very first verse parallels the first three days, which, in turn, parallel the next three:
|First Verse||Days One Through Three||Days Four Through Six|
|In the Beginning||Light, Darkness, Day, Night||Sun, Moon, Stars, Times, Seasons|
|The Heavens||Sky, Sea||Birds, Fish|
|The Earth||Dry Land, Plants||Animals, Humans|
There are a few points to be cleared up still. What, for example, does the sea have to do with the heavens? But that will all get settled as we move through the chapter. For now, just admire the artistry that went into the overall design.
Or as much as you can see of it at this point.
Because this is just the beginning...