Genesis 1: A History of Nonviolence

Genesis 1 tells a story of six days in the life of the creator of Earth. On the first day, our main character, the one called God, creates day and night by separating the light from the darkness, and yet this is not a day, at least, not how we know days. The great light that rules the day (presumably the sun) doesn’t get created until the fourth day, which rules out the traditional measure of a 24-hour period of time, and the atomic clock won’t be invented for, well, for another couple days, so what are we talking about here? It seems like the only real point of reference we have is that a “day” is the space (for lack of a better term) for rising and falling, for development, that on the first of these days God created time. How much time is there in a day? It appears that there is just enough time to complete a great work.

If time is created on the first day, and God swept over the face of the formless void like a mighty wind “before” (time words become more difficult in a time before time) creating time, then this is not exactly the story of the creation of all, of everything, of the cosmos. This is the beginning of history. And everything else – the formless void, the darkness, the face of the deep, the wind and the water – all of that is pre-history.

On the second day the atmosphere is created in order to separate the terrestrial waters from the extraterrestrial waters. The third day brings the separation of earth and the seas, and with the introduction of Earth we meet one of the first co-creators, for it is Earth who brings forth plants and trees and fruit and seeds, all the vegetation of the world. I already mentioned that the sun and moon and stars poke their head in during the fourth day to assist in human measure of time and direction, but I’m getting ahead of myself by even saying the word human. On the fifth day, the world was populated by sea and sky beasts, including the “great sea monsters” [Gen 1:21 NRSV]. I wonder what these horrors of the raging waters must have looked like so near the beginning of time. The sixth day introduces humankind (“male and female God created them” [1:27]), and with humankind, violence.

To be fair, the violence comes later – it is something I talk about because I’ve read this story before – but as of this moment, this day, this moment of great works, we see a brief respite from violence, a hypothetical time of nonviolence before the popular Christian concept of “the fall” into violence. I can’t help but to think of a series of Tweets I read recently from comic book writer Justin Jordan (Green Lantern: New Guardians) about theme parks / lodgings created to mimic the actual conditions of so-called Golden Eras.

The implication of these Golden Aging camps is that the actual conditions and way of life would be so difficult that people wouldn’t even want to stay there if it were rent-free.

On a side note, Jordan also referenced the Biblical days of the week in a Tweet shortly after this particular rant:

For all intents and purposes of the narrative, the golden era before the advent of violence is just as unreal as the good times of old that Jordan talks about. I imagine that the Genesis account is a tale told from a parent to a child at about the time of the story that unfolds surrounding Moses and his people in the book of Exodus. Some of these people have experienced enslavement and oppression in Egypt, though not, I imagine, the child actively listening while on a seemingly never ending walk, all of them have experienced the destructive forces of nature while wandering on their way, and many the age of this child will have to witness and participate in horrible acts of violence that put the previous ones to shame during the conquest of the land that was promised them at the end of this road. These former slaves, now nomads, have known nothing but violence, suffering and death, but in their stories they imagine this present existence is bookended by peace, the peace that was in the beginning and the hope of peace to come.

For these people nonviolence is order in the midst of chaos, a first mover who transforms the formless void into a world that follows patterns and can be understood by the human mind. It is collaboration, a world populated by the fruits of some divine force working alongside the earth and the sea, plants with the seeds of the next generation, animals commanded to fill the land, sea, and air with their offspring, and humankind who are created to be creators (“God created humankind… in the image of God” [1:27]). Every “plant yielding seed” and “tree with seed in its fruit” [1:29] is given over to the animals of the land (present company included) for food – not the meat of animals or even the portions of plants that will result in their death; no flesh, only the food that can be regrown with little effort, the fruit offered as a gift freely given. This paints a picture of radical pacifism – thou shalt not kill humans, animals, or eat of plants in such a way that brings about their destruction. Humankind is given dominion over life on earth, but in this context it feels less like the power to dominate than it does stewardship, a duty to promote the proliferation of all life.

Of course, this dominion might also be the first in a series of flaws in the ordering of this universe that prove deadly in later chapters. When I look back on the years I attended Grand Valley State, I grow more and more fond of the Marxist/feminist counter-culture there, of the one or two students in each of my favorite classes who vexed me at the time but who warned of the dangers intrinsic to placing one person above another in terms of power. Is this what is happening in Genesis 1? Adam and Eve (not named, as of yet) have made little more than a cameo and we may already be seeing the peace they were born into unraveling at this early juncture. How horrible!

As anyone who has been tuned-in to current events for the last few lifetimes can tell you, this particular passage is constantly embroiled in controversy. It is a key piece of evidence for the religious persons on the side of creation being taught in schools alongside or at the expense of evolutionary biology, big bang cosmogony, and many facets of science in general. If you ask me, most of the people involved in this argument are talking past one another. The original audience of this text was almost certainly pre-scientific just as the current audience is almost certainly not, but for both the idea of time espoused is rhetorical. The time serves the poetry and the poetry serves the moral and the moral is nonviolence. This, the first story for some people, is a story about how we as a people have experienced peace before, a long time ago, and we called it Eden, or delight. I cannot read this prologue without the hope popping out at me that, maybe, through our actions, we can return to this original state, that we can plant the seeds for the return of peace. And maybe that is where this story belongs, alongside the parents teaching their child in the hopes that the next generation can live without the taint of violence, can escape the wilderness and establish a peaceful way in the promised land.

Spoiler Alert. That is not how the story goes down, but hope is a resilient bugger, not so easy to extinguish. Hope is a funny thing. It doesn’t really rely on the outcome of a series of actions, but emerges as a quality of a person’s character. Some find poets like John Lennon fools for wasting their lives preaching of peace with little to no measurable results, but that does not make his words any less true: “War is over if you want it.” Though everything else may be imaginary and fleeting, a nonviolent way is possible. Genesis holds it as a hypothesis; may the future hold it as a law.

Further Reading:

Letter to a Confused Young Christian at Political Jesus
The Quest for the Historical Eve & Adam at Political Jesus

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