An anarchistic reading of the Bible (2)—Creation and what follows

Ted Grimsrud—February 2, 2015

This is the second in a series of posts.

In this survey of some biblical themes looked at from an anarchistic angle, I will not be real precise in my use of “anarchistic.” I’ll be talking about a sensibility more than a full-fledged political philosophy. The key “anarchistic” motifs I will focus on will be a strong suspicion toward centralized social power, especially kingdoms and empires, and an optimism about human possibilities for self-organizing and decentralized social power.

And I will be reading the Bible in fairly naïve and straightforward ways. I approach the Bible as a storybook and see it as providing a loosely coherent message, amidst a great deal of diversity. I will focus more on the loose coherence than the diversity—largely due to a desire to find usable guidance in the Bible. At the same time, in reading the Bible more as a storybook, I mean to reject any authoritarian dynamics. The story is invitational and winsome, more than coercive or dominatingly powerful.

The story of creation

The very beginning of the Bible provides much important information about the Bible as a whole, about the cosmology of the whole, about the character of the God seen to be central to the entire story, and about the relationships between humankind and this God.

Though the creation account in Genesis one portrays God as the power behind what is, the actual exercise of that power is muted. God speaks and what is is made. The dynamic is quite peaceable—in contrast to some other ancient creation myths (especially the Babylonian) that portray violence at the heart of things.

Remarkably, this creator God speaks of human beings (male and female) being created in God’s own image. There humanity is commissioned to care for the rest of creation as God’s stewards. This picture connects with both of our key anarchistic factors. The relationship between God and humanity is not one of domination, command-and-obedience. It is rather a relationship of like with like. God is not Other; rather, humans are created to be like God. And, perhaps even more importantly, the picture here is that all humanity shares in this divine image—kingly, perhaps, but in a strongly egalitarian sense. As well, human beings are given power and responsibility.

The anarchistic notion that all human beings naturally have an inclination to connect with each other, to live meaningful lives, to exercise power effectively, has strong grounding in this original picture of the creation of human beings. The notation, “male and female,” has powerful meaning in undermining patriarchy. However, its implications can be broadened—by denying one of humanity’s most fundamental bases for hierarchy (sexual), it denies other bases for hierarchy as well.

There is also something notably missing here. There is no sense whatsoever of a buttressing of human kingship and social stratification. The picture here is of a fundamental egalitarianism, goodness, and peaceableness in the human reality. We don’t have indications that point toward the need for human kings, or standing armies, or an economics of scarcity. This account actually provides support for an anarchistic sense of the naturalness of humans relating to one another as equals and with a sense that each person has dignity and agency.

The version of the creation story in Genesis two focuses on humanity. It reinforces the significance of the human vocation to work with God, not simply “under” God. Adam is given great responsibility, to name all the creatures on earth. This account also underscores the fundamentally social character of humanity—the second human is created because the first was “alone” and needed a partner.

The “fall”

A mysterious complicating factor enters the story in chapter two, where human beings are told to avoid the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (2:17). Is this restriction an arbitrary rule from a dominating God intended to prevent human enlightenment? Such an interpretation would seem to contradict much of the surrounding story, not to mention much of what follows in the Bible.

Another way to interpret this restriction is to see it as symbolizing innate human limitations. When human beings seek to know and use that knowledge to dominate creation they actually then will devolve into power struggles and develop hierarchies. To avoid such a dynamic, God in the story calls upon them to step back from desiring too much “knowledge,” to accept their limits, and recognize to live in trust.

As the story continues, the “temptation” to violate the restriction becomes too strong, and Adam and Eve break the close connection between themselves and God. Interestingly, the story pictures the break as coming from the human side—after they eat the forbidden fruit, God still seeks to hang around with them in the Garden as had been their habit, but the humans hide from God (3:8), and they become ashamed of their nakedness.

One of the consequences of this turn toward disharmony is the establishment of “enmity” between Adam and Eve (3:15) and of Adam as “ruler” over Eve (3:16). Neither of these dynamics should be seen as God’s will so much as a description of the new tensions and struggles that will characterize human life. The rest of the story, in a general sense, may be seen as God’s work among humanity to overcome this “enmity” and proclivity toward “rulership.”

An anarchistic reading would argue that the “fall” is best seen not as a fundamental change in the character of the human/divine relationship or in the character of inter-human relationships. Rather, Genesis 1–3 may be seen as an affirmation of the fundamental character of human peaceableness and responsiveness to God that is complicated by human freedom. God gives humanity the potential to turn away as a key part of the basic loving nature of the relationships. But the turning away has consequences.

The story, though, does not refute an anarchistic sensibility nearly so much as establish such a sensibility as the default reality for humanity and as the goal toward which post-“fall” human life should strive. The enmity and patriarchy of Genesis three are there in the story as a stimulus toward transformation. These are the problems to be overcome, not a fatalistic portrayal of the inevitable human experience of life as “nasty, brutish, and short.” Tragically, this fatalistic interpretation has underwritten power politics over the centuries—the “fallenness” of humanity used as an excuse for a politics of centralized, coercive power. Of course, the terrible irony is that such a view of the “fall” seems to assume that, in entrusting them with dominating power, the human beings in power are less “fallen” instead of the opposite.

Challenging hegemony

The human proclivity to exercise power in dominating ways seems to be the target in the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. The short, cryptic story has lent itself to a variety of interpretations. Clearly part of the message is a critique of the inclination to centralize human power and to create a “oneness” that serves centralized power.

In “scattering” the Babel-dwellers (3:4, 8, 9), God seeks to create the conditions for a different kind of oneness—human unity that respects diversity, decentralizes power, and is based on mutual respect. The rest of the Bible’s story describes the long, tenuous process of such a oneness being established.

Should we link “Babel” with later “Babylon,” we may see illustrated the type of “oneness” this Tower stands for—top-down power, disdain for difference, exploitation of the weak in service to the aggrandizement of the elite. A much later vision, in the book of Acts, of human beings being gifted through God’s Spirit to connect despite their differences in languages, points to the type of oneness God endorses.

God’s healing strategy

At the end of chapter 11, following the story of Babel and a genealogy that will connect Noah with the founding of God’s chosen people, we meet the human founders of the Hebrew peoplehood. The initial picture is not encouraging. Abram and Sarai are old and childless, a fitting image of the dead end the human project appears headed for.

However, God creates something new out of this barreness. God promises them descendants, beyond counting, and the agents of blessing for “all the families of the earth” (12:3). It only becomes clear as we continue with the story just how important this intervention of God is. As it turns out, the vocation God gives Abram, Sarai, and their descendants is God’s response to what happened in Eden, the story of the Flood, and the Tower of Babel. God will bring healing, but it will be patient, non-coercive, based on love and not on domination.

The founding ancestor of God’s chosen people is far from being a king or powerful ruler. And, the pursue his vocation, he is required to leave his home country. God’s work to bring healing to creation at its outset is not linked with territoriality. There is no geographical kingdom and no human king. The method for doing God’s work in the world is “blessing” and this work is intended to encompass “all the families of the earth.”

We will have to follow the rest of the story to understand better the political implications of this starting point. But we should notice right away the combination of a lack of state-centeredness and the optimism about the possibilities of this “blessing” spreading widely without domination.

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7 thoughts on “An anarchistic reading of the Bible (2)—Creation and what follows

  1. Reblogged this on Stepping Toes and commented:
    Whilst there may certainly be nothing sacred or “God-ordained” about the modern nation-state, lots of people do claim the connection of their state with the God of their Christian faith.. Lots of those claiming to be Christian do not notice they themselves made themselves an own faith which in many cases has gone far away from the leader Christ Jesus his teachings. Even worse many of the conservative Christians and extreme right people have twisted so much the biblical teachings they do not see straight any more.

    Lots of people in the so called democratic countries would like to build up their country to what they call to be a free nation, though they want to put a lot of limitations to whom may enter and to what others may believe.
    a very good example of such deformation of the mind is the United States of America where there are some citizens who are totally convinced that it is their own home country, not recognising they themselves came from immigrants, thinking their laws should be build on their restricted view of the Bible, ignoring in a certain way the idea of freedom of the Pilgrims who founded their country.
    Americans, convinced that the only state they have does not belong to the original locals, redskins or Indians, neither that it belongs to the Divine Creator, are convinced only they can work, according to their measures, to make ‘their state’ the most just and life-enhancing state it can be.
    They are also convinced they should also work against their state as strongly as possible when it is unjust and undermines life. Though they often forget which measures or rules they would consider to be the just, righteous and most right to choose for.
    Perhaps they can use an anarchist critique of the state and an anarchist affirmation of the human capacity for self-organizing to help to resist the undermining and, even more, to help them as they seek to construct a well-functioning society.
    >br>But most of all I would advice those who call themselves Christian to take up again the Bible and to go through it thoroughly.
    All people interested in building up a community which can leave together in peace,is better to take up the manual given by the Supreme Writer and Divine Creator of all.
    We can approach the Bible as a storybook and see it as providing a loosely coherent message, amidst a great deal of diversity, but than we shall miss out a lot of wisdom provide in it and would not be able so much to see our own stupidities and the stupidities of our governments who do not want to learn from the past, having the past repeating over and over again.
    when we look at the Bereshith, the book of the Beginnings brings us the evolution of all things. Lots of conservative Christians do want to take its writing as a literal presentation from day to day, but it was never intended to be so. Moses neither the client to write, wanted to present humanity with a factual historical scientist into depth account of what happened throughout the years of this universe.
    The very beginning of the Bible provides much important information about the Bible as a whole, about the cosmology of the whole, about the character of the God seen to be central to the entire story, and about the relationships between humankind and this God.
    Those people taking up the Bible, the infallible Word of God, should remember that the tale told in that Book of books, is to bring us knowledge about our own beings, our own self, how and why we are and how humanity develops.
    In this Best-seller of all times, the One giving His Voice, the One Who asked to have His Words written down, This Creator God speaks of His Creation, which includes not only the human beings (male and female) being created in His own image, but also all the things He gave under dominion of those human beings (plants and animals). though man could make use of it and could give it names, it has made a mess of it, and has done dishonour to the Creator of it. Too many have forgotten that humanity is commissioned to care for the rest of creation as God’s stewards. This is one of the good reasons lots of people should again or for the first time start reading the Bible to find out what their position on this planet is and what they have as task to do to come to a nice good peaceable world.
    The bible tells us what went wrong in the past and how the relationship between God and man became troubled. We do have to find ways to restore that relationship between God and humanity which is not one of domination, command-and-obedience. Yes it is rather a relationship of like with like. God has given several man of God to lead us and to show us the right way to develop. The prophet and master rabbi Jeshua (Jesus Christ) is the most important one to follow. after so much time that the people still did not come to understand the Torah, Jesus came to clarify it once again and to show the Way to God. though Jesus is the Way, he did not want to do his own will nor wants us to do only his will, neither to make him God or to worship him. He wants us to worship and to pray to the same God he prayed to, the God of Abraham, the god of Isaac, the God of Jacob, Who is also the God of him (Jesus) and his disciples.
    We are told to put on the armour of Christ and to become like Jesus, becoming one with God like Jesus is one with God. Though God is the Most High and even Jesus could not do anything without his heavenly Father, we also shall never be able to do anything without God allowing it to happen. But we are given the words of Christ and the words of the other prophets to help us to find the right way, trying to transform ourselves by the teachings of the master teacher and by the words of the very different books brought together in the Canonical Bible.
    br> We as humans created in the image of God are also by that Creator asked to be like God. And, perhaps even more importantly, the picture here is that all humanity shares in this divine image — kingly, perhaps, but in a strongly egalitarian sense. As well, human beings are given power and responsibility.
    The biggest problem is we all are responsible for our own choice and for our own actions. There is nobody else to blame for what we ourselves decide to follow.
    It is up to us to take up the Book of books, to believe in it and to follow up freely its advice and wisdom.

  2. A few quick comments.
    First, while you suggest here that the creation account is largely anti-royal, folks have been making the opposite claim for quite some time. Perhaps most prominent (or at least prolific), Walter Brueggemann sees this account of creation as largely a way to establish a created order that supports the status quo.

    Second, while on one hand we could see Gen. 1 as a non-violent depiction of God, on the other hand it could also be seen as at least rhetorically ‘violent’ in some sense. In other words, it narrates out any other possibilities in light of a commanding (royal?) depiction of God where creation happens by fiat. (and, as Wendell Berry and others have demonstrated, it is in part the ‘high’ (royal?) view of humanity with ‘dominion’ in Gen. 1 and authority over creation in Gen. 2 that has been used to justify the wanton abuse of creation and consequent ecological damage)

    Finally, biblical accounts of creation are not limited to Gen. 1-2, of course. You helpfully note the contrast between these chapters and other ANE creation accounts, where creation reflects more of a struggle and the gods are involved in violent acts. You do not, however, note that other depictions of creation in the Bible do this as well — perhaps most strikingly Psalm 74:12-17. While we may be quick to write this off as less significant, in certain contexts this depiction of God has been and remains incredibly important, and should not be too easily sidelined to create a more homogeneous philosophical or thematic picture of God in the Bible.

    A quick story to illustrate — a few years ago, in the space of one year I went to a gathering of North American Mennonite scholars and then taught a Psalms course at a Seminary in Benin, West Africa. The big debate among the NA Mennonite academics was a largely philosophical discussion re: whether or not God was nonviolent (and what to do with biblical material that states otherwise) — we were both there, so no need to rehearse that discussion.

    In Benin, what I encountered was a basic question: is the God of the Bible stronger than Voodoo? For people there the pressing issue was not re: the relative non/violence of God (in fact, I suspect such a discussion would have been largely unintelligible given their way of reading biblical material), but whether becoming Christian allowed them to be liberated from the persistent fear that someone could/would curse them in such a way that they would be at the mercy of evil spirits. In THAT context, Psalm 74 was an incredibly powerful ‘gospel’ passage that spoke the good news that they could be liberated from fear — reinforced even more when I explained that various terms in this passage (sea, Leviathan, rivers, etc.) were elements that other folks surrounding the Israelites understood to be deities. [in other words, in some ways Ps. 74 sounds quite similar to the Babylonian creation story]. “Salvation” in both contexts (contemporary Benin and Ancient Israel; cf. 74:12) implied not just spiritual or even physical liberation, but divine victory/vanquishing of opposing hostile forces…

    This was an unforgettable and eye-opening experience for me that reinforced my conviction that we need to take the contextual nature of our biblical interpretation more seriously. I am also less convinced than you seem to be that creation language is inherently anti-royal. In any case, tackling this issue requires a bit more than an “innocent” reading…

    For what it’s worth, Derek

    1. Thanks, again, Derek. I appreciate your challenges. In the end, I don’t disagree that we need “a bit more than an ‘innocent’ reading.” However, to a certain degree that is all I am trying to do here—implying that this is very preliminary and sketchy. And of course there are many other ways to read these materials. My main intention is simply to be suggestive that the Bible can be seen as supporting a critical stance toward authoritarian, top-down governmental power and as encouraging the empowerment of people to organize their lives in freedom from such top-down power.

      There is certainly is an important, even essential, place for more in-depth analyses of all the parts of the Bible that speak about creation—and even for an argument that “creation language is [not] inherently anti-royal” (though I don’t think I did or would want to make such a strong claim that the creation language is inherently anti-royal; I’d just want to suggest that creation language has anti-royal elements that can be appropriated for our own opposition to royalist politics). But I think there is, as well, value in looking for and highlighting elements in the story that offer support for our own peaceable work.

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