“So, is Jesus one of the gods then?” an earnest Japanese woman asked her table leader.
I was teaching an introductory lesson on Christianity to a group of diverse international students who wanted to improve their English. I thought I had explained the identity of Jesus well, when I overheard this eager-to-get-it-right student ask her discussion leader this question. “So, is Jesus one of the gods then?” It was a head-smacking moment for me. I had overlooked the polytheistic cultural dimension of my students when planning out how to explain that Jesus is God. I had assumed my students shared my perspective that there is one God. But every time I used the word “God,” she understood me to say: one “god” among the many “gods.” This student was willing to add Jesus to her list of powerful forces in the universe to revere because she heard me say Jesus is “god,” when I was saying something entirely different. My student imposed her understanding of many gods on to Jesus and the whole meaning of my talk was seriously distorted. I explained things better in the next session, but it taught me to never assume my listeners are seeing with the same cultural eyes as me.
The Bible’s original audience saw things differently than we do.
This story illustrates how a modern Western audience of the Bible can read God’s Word and see something entirely different than what was intended. We see the Bible with different cultural eyes than it’s original audience. Most of the time, the instances of crossing cultural cues bring no harm, but sometimes the misunderstanding brings confusion and mishandling, even perversion. John Walton puts it like this in his book Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. “If we do not bring the information from the ancient cognitive environment to bear on the text, we will automatically impose the parameters of our modern worldview, thus risking serious distortion of meaning.” (p. 30) This cultural distortion of the Bible’s meaning begins on the first page.
Draw a modern view of Genesis 1.
My Hebrew professors in seminary, Rebekah Josberger and Karl Kutz, challenge students to read through Genesis 1 and to draw a picture of what they see in their mind’s eye as they read. Before you continue reading, you might want to try it for yourself. Here is the chapter. If you don’t want to draw it out, at least take note of the images forming in your mind as you read.
Genesis 1 (ESV)
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
6 And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. 8 And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
9 And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.
11 And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
20 And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” 21 So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. 25 And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Here’s what I drew. I’m willing to bet that our drawings have some similarities because of the cultural assumptions we share.
Scientific discoveries of the last 500 years have taught us that the earth is round, so most of our drawings will have circles, because we see the earth in our mind’s eye as a globe. The ancient audience had no evidence of a round world, and instead imagined the earth as a flat disk. We visualize the heavens as we have observed the universe through telescopes: a big empty space filled with millions of galaxies far away. The original audience of Genesis 1 visualized the heavens as a solid layer or dome fixed over the flat earth. Day two of creation also presents the modern reader with an enigma. Depending on your translation, you read that a vault or expanse or firmament separated the water from the water. What is this referring to? We don’t have a scientific explanation. But, the ancient reader had a vivid picture of this firmament already embedded in their cognitive environment. They saw Genesis 1 very different than we do.
When we overlook the cognitive environment of the original audience of Genesis 1, we risk distorting the original meaning and we get lost in the weeds of misunderstanding and mishandling. A modern audience asks questions of Genesis 1 that the original audience would not even have the know-how to ponder. A modern reader imposes their scientific presuppositions that require a certain type of veracity on the text that forces the text into a box that it never claimed to fill. This means we read a correlation between what is written in the text as correlating to the actual creation event. The ancient did not write nor read in this way. A modern reader wants to see scientific explanations in Genesis 1 because that is our cognitive environment. But when we force our cultural view upon the text, we miss what the text was crafted to say to its original audience. Like the Japanese student in my class on Jesus, we get a distorted message that says something entirely different than was intended.
So, what did the original audience of Genesis 1 hear it saying? That Yahweh is creator and controller of it all. In the next post, I will elaborate.