Two beginnings in Genesis
A key for interpreting Bible
Laws are an interesting component in the Bible. We can remember God giving commandments to Noah, Moses (10 commandments) and so on. Interestingly Jesus comes across as a complicated figure in terms of certain laws. We see Jesus breaking certain rules of laws; others say he is going beyond the laws of Sabbath. Another aspect regarding laws is that all laws can’t be put at the same basket. Some are more foundational than others.
Paul Beauchamp, a French Jesuit exegete, speaks of “deux commencements” (two beginnings) in the Bible. Reading anything from him is extremely powerful, though he is not extensively translated into English language. What are the two beginnings? They are connected to the first few chapters of Genesis. A caution before reading ahead is to note that the first 11 chapters of Genesis are not historical accounts. Are their two beginnings in the book of Genesis? If you would have asked me, I would have said yes and replied that there are two creation stories, one in the first chapter, and the other in the second chapter. Yes, they are two stories, but speaking about the same beginning; and they are part of two traditions (Priestly and Yahwistic) in the writing of Genesis. Now we needn’t get into all details about different traditions in the writing of Genesis.
Two beginnings, Beauchamp speaks are in Chapter 1 and in Chapter 6–9 (which says the story of Noah).
So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created — and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground — for I regret that I have made them.” … So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. (Genesis 6, 7 and 13).
The creation which was started in the first chapter of Genesis had its end in the sixth chapter, and the reason is human wickedness and violence. Now it is also true that Noah, with one pair of each creatures were saved, and there is a new beginning. There are some interesting differences between the first beginning and the second beginning.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground — everything that has the breath of life in it — I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. (Genesis 1, 28–30)
There are some interesting characteristics here. After creating each of the creation, God said that it is good; he says very good after the creation of humans. Though there is a difference, the goodness of the creation is attested there. So, the word subdue have to be understood not in the modern context of power and domination, but more as a shepherding. Or even there is no command of killing the animals. There is a special kind of relationship, and the difference will become clear when we look at the instructions of God after the second beginning. An interesting question can be, whether humans were vegetarians at that point of time, and probably that question arises only when we see this account as a historical account.
Now after the flood subsided, God makes a covenant with Noah and gives some instructions.
Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.” (Genesis 9, 2–4)
Interestingly the seamless relation in the first beginning is not exactly the same here. Animals are afraid of human beings. Human beings can kill and eat meat of the animals. When we see the two beginnings, there is a stark difference.
Beauchamp will say that a douceur (translated as gentles/kindness) was the foundation of the first beginning. In the second beginning, there is a certain compromise. Human beings are given permission to kill, but not to shed the blood. We have the first law given to all humans in Gn 9, 4, which is not to drink the blood. (Again not to be taken literally; the commandments given before in the earlier chapters were not to the entire humanity, but against the fruit of one tree or for helping one person like Cain). A certain equilibrium is created in chapter 9, which is the after-effect of sin and the violence. God attests these laws. Here in the second beginning, Noahic laws (laws after the flood) hides the perfect justice or douceur (gentleness) of the first beginning. Thus, Beauchamp will speak of two statuses; Adamic status and Noahic status. The image gives a short summary, stressing on the foundational character of douceur (gentleness), and the absence of it leads to violence.
The description of the final peace described in the book of Hosea (one of the first written books of Old Testament, and much before the final version of Genesis) describes similar relationship of the creation as in the first chapter of Genesis.
“I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety.” (Hosea 2, 18) Isaiah 11, 6–9 speaks of the same idea.
The above citations can be a confirmation of the ideas of Paul Beauchamp. Remember the incident of pharisees discussing about divorce with Jesus. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” And Jesus takes them to the original purpose of marriage and reminds them that Moses allowed it to happen because of their hard-heartedness. Many of the Sabbath incidents are also an invitation of going beyond the laws, to that original stage of douceur.
Probably, I shouldn’t leave the question of laws in the air. Definitely laws are important especially in our era. But Jesus and the Old Testament (some chapters in a special manner) reminds us of the original douceur, which no law can capture. Love, the virtue Jesus speaks of the most, can’t be enframed in any of our laws. We have to follow the laws, and many a times, go beyond the law too.
To go further, You can read (sorry they are in french)..
- Paul Beauchamp, « La violence dans la Bible » dans Etudes 3904 (1999), 483–496
- Paul Beauchamp, La loi de Dieu (Paris: Seuil, 1999).