In late Advent I returned to one of my core spiritual practices: Saying the Daily Office from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The Office of Morning and Evening Prayer involves repeated exposure to Scripture; each day there are psalms, canticles, and readings appointed, a reading from the Old Testament, another from the Gospels, and a third from the rest of the New Testament, in a two-year cycle.
This week, the first Sunday after Epiphany, the lectionary begins reading the book of Genesis, the Gospel of John, and the letter to the Hebrews. It will continue to read these books at least until the beginning of Lent. This is by no means the first time I have read these texts with the lectionary, but it’s been a few years since I opened either Hebrews or Genesis.
The book of Genesis is where it all begins, literally. The Hebrew title of the book, Berishith, literally means “beginnings”. It’s a book about the beginnings of the world as the ancient Hebrews understood it, about the beginnings of human culture in their part of the world, about the beginnings of their identity and history as a people. Right now Genesis is one of the two most contended books of the Bible, the other being Revelations. Stories of beginnings, stories of endings, how they should be interpreted, what they are meant to tell us–these are things the Christians are arguing about amongst themselves and with non-Christians, particularly scientists.
The last time I read all the way through Genesis, I noticed something interesting. It’s not just about the beginning of the world or the universe, not just about the beginning of the Jewish story–it’s about the beginning of storytelling. Through the course of the narrative, the narrator learns how to tell a story, in prose, with skill and artistry.
Genesis begins, of course, with the magnificent poem of the seven days of creation. This is the first reading at every Easter Vigil, the signal that as we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection, everything begins anew. It is a narrative, but it is distinctly a poem, with its strong parallel structures and its repetition of certain key lines: “… and God saw that it was good…. And it was evening and it was morning, a third day.”
The early chapters of Genesis of full of what a writer might call “plot holes”, those gaps in the narrative that skeptical readers love to exploit: If Adam and Eve are the first humans and they have three children, Cain, Abel, and later Seth, then who does Cain marry? How long did the flood last, and did Noah take two of every animal, or seven of the “clean” animals and two of the “unclean”? Did he send out a raven or a dove or both? Scholars explain this as the result of multiple versions of a story being combined (clumsily) into a single tale.
The narrative hits its stride with the introduction of Abraham. The peripatetic Abraham, his wife Sarah, his kinsman Lot, and their children and dependents will occupy the rest of the book, culminating in the saga of Joseph. By the time Jacob’s other sons, desperate and hungry, meet the Egyptian official who is, unbeknownst to them, the brother they tried to get rid of decades ago, the narrator has achieved mastery of his art. He’s able to portray Joseph thinking one thing while saying another, using the Egyptian language in front of his brothers and employing an interpreter without giving away that he understands what they’re saying, and playing on the advantage that he recognizes them, but they don’t recognize him. All the techniques of storytelling are in place, and the story of Joseph might just be the most sophisticated storytelling in the Tanakh.
After I had formed this theory, that Genesis is as much about the beginning of storytelling as about the beginning of the world and of the Jewish people, I read a book about Genesis that confirmed my theory, since it was a scholarly author, an expert on the book of Genesis, saying the same thing. My memory tells me that this book was called The Genesis of Narrative and was by Robert Alter; however, neither my library’s catalogue nor Amazon.com can confirm for me that Robert Alter ever wrote such a book. He is the author of The Art of Biblical Narrative and of a translation of Genesis with commentary, but I’m not certain that either of them is the book I read. (I work in a library; I read or skim a lot of books that I don’t afterward buy.)
Some years later, I read John Michael Greer’s The Druidry Handbook, which was written as first-degree study material for the Ancient Order of Druids in America. Greer covers a good deal of material which came out of the Druid Revival of the eighteenth century and makes it accessible and meaningful, demonstrating that it’s not just an elaborate forgery with a lot of Welsh names thrown in. He begins his exposition of Druid lore, appropriately, with a creation story:
Einigen the Giant, the first of all beings, beheld three rays of light descending from the heavens. Those three rays were also a word of three syllables, the true name of the god Celi, the hidden spirit of life that creates all things. In them was all the knowledge that ever was or is or will be. Beholding the rays, Einigen took three staves of rowan and carved all knowledge upon them, in letters of straight and slanted lines. But when others saw the staves, they misunderstood and worshipped the staves as gods, rather than learning the knowledge written upon them. So great was Einigen’s grief and anger at this that he burst asunder and died. When a year and a day had passed after Einigen’s death, Menw son of Teirwaedd happened on the skull of Einigen, and saw that the three rowan staves had taken root inside it and were growing out of its mouth. Taking the staves, Menw learned to read the writing on them and became famous for his wisdom. From him, the lore of the rowan staves passed to the Gwyddoniaid—the ancient loremasters of the Celts—and ultimately from them to the Druids. Thus the knowledge that had once shone forth in three great rays of light, passed through many minds and hands, now forms the wisdom of the Druid tradition.
(Greer, John Michael (2006-02-20). The Druidry Handbook: Spiritual Practice Rooted in the Living Earth, pp. 50-51. RedWheelWeiser – A. Kindle Edition.)
Greer refers to this story, rightly, as “the origin myth of the Druid Revival”. That is, it’s not so much about the beginning of the world as about the beginning of a movement, of how a group of people who came to identify with (what they knew about) the ancient Druids began to look to nature for meaning and to interpret that meaning in story and poem. As I see it, it’s also a story about the origins of the creative process. Einigen sees a light which is also a word, something to be heard and said. He records his experience in an act of art and craft, the carving of newly invented letters on pieces of wood. The words he carved on wood emerge from his mouth as green shoots, new words that are seen and understood by Menw. Those who saw the letters and worshipped them without trying to understand them missed the point; the point was the transmission of meaning from rays of light to letters on wood to mind and mouth, through the creative process.
I think the creation story in Genesis is also a story about the origins of creativity. And like the Druid Revival, which was after all created by men who had been formed by Christianity and the Bible’s stories, the book of Genesis locates the origins of meaning, of creativity, and of story in words. Just as God creates everything by speaking it, naming it, telling a story about it, so the Jewish tradition, and the Christian tradition that inherited its stories, creates meaning by telling a story. The Talmud is the record of generations of argument, discussion, and debate of those stories, an Internet forum before there was an Internet. Jewish tradition also gives us midrash, stories about the stories of the Scriptures; one story can best be commented on by another.
The lector reading or the cantor intoning the Scriptures, the old guy talking about his youth, your grandmother’s stories of when your mother was little, and we bloggers pouring our words into this digital Talmud–we create and recreate the world.
Read Full Post »