Lessons From the Book of Genesis: An Interview with Dianne Bergant

About this article

This interview with a scripture scholar provides basic background on the book of Genesis and explores issues of human dignity, sin, and stewardship.

Dianne Bergant, C.S.A., Ph.D., is Professor of Old Testament Studies at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. For five years she was editor of The Bible Today and continues to serve on its editorial board, as well as that of The Catholic Biblical Quarterly and Biblical Theology Bulletin.

A native of West Allis, Wisconsin, Sister Dianne is a Sister of Saint Agnes, with headquarters in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Before coming to the Catholic Theological Union, she taught Scripture at Marian College of Fond du Lac, which is run by her congregation.

Sister Dianne conducts workshops on biblical interpretation, biblical spirituality and social issues such as ecology, feminism and peace. She is the author of numerous articles and books, including Introduction to the Bible (The Liturgical Press, 1985), The World Is a Prayerful Place (Michael Glazier, 1987), "The Wisdom Books," an introductory article for the Catholic Study Bible (Oxford University Press, 1990), and The Collegeville Concise Glossary of Biblical Terms (The Liturgical Press, 1994).

What do the creation stories of Genesis teach us about God, about the dignity of men and women, about sin and about caring for God's creation? A Scripture scholar answers these and other questions.

Q: Before tackling the creation stories in the Book of Genesis, is there anything special we should know?

A: Yes, it's important to know some historical background. The Book of Genesis is the first book of a compilation of books (the Pentateuch) that probably took final form around the time of the Babylonian Exile. The exile was the deportation of the Jewish people to Babylon from around 586 to 538 b.c. after the Babylonians captured Jerusalem.

The concerns found in the creation stories, therefore, are not necessarily the theological concerns of the original authors or of those who read these stories today. Rather, the theological concerns reflected in these stories are of this particular people living in exile--a people who have lost their land and been deported. They are people, moreover, who have watched many of their political, social and religious structures diminish and crumble before their eyes.

Without these structures, the people in exile feel very insecure and are looking for ways to preserve or refashion their traditions. We should keep their concerns and questions in mind as we discuss this book.

Q: The very first words of the Book of Genesis are: "In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss...." What is the basic message here?

A: The words are dealing with the question: Who is in charge of the universe? In the ancient Near Eastern world, a world that was prescientific, people commonly thought that there were many different divine beings. Certain gods or goddesses or demiurges, it was thought, were responsible for some of the forces in nature while other gods were responsible for others.

Not so with Israel. What Israel clearly shows in the first verses of Genesis is that there is but one God, and this God is not in deadly conflict with chaos, although it does say there is chaos. In fact, this God takes chaos and orders it.

In the first verse there are four words that speak about chaos: Depending upon the translation, you have a void that is formless; you have darkness and deep waters. Those are four words of chaos. And we have a description of a God who--with no effort at all--controls chaos.

Remember, it is people in exile who are hearing these stories retold by their religious teachers. The stories are told in a way that helps them understand and deal with their present circumstances. They are told a story about a God who controls cosmic chaos. Thus the people are able to realize that, if this God can effortlessly control cosmic chaos, certainly the same God can control the chaos that besets their own political and social lives. It's a way of instilling trust in God in their concrete setting.

God is shown controlling chaos in an effortless way. In fact, God does it by word. And it's a powerful word. God says, "Let there be light," and immediately there is light. It's a power over darkness and other forces.

What is being taught to the people in exile by this creation account? First, there is but one God. There is one source of control, and it is the God that we worship. Second, this God has control over the cosmos and over us as well. Third, we must trust in this God and live in harmony with this God, just as we must live in harmony with the cosmos.

That same message is quite pertinent for us today. We have an entirely different sense of science. But the question is the same for us: Who is in charge? Is there anyone in charge? Or do we live in a universe that is fundamentally chaotic? This is a universe which--according to our understanding--may be constantly unfolding in front of us. And, given our new insights about science, the question remains: Do we trust the God who made the universe in this way? The creation account is telling us that the creator can be trusted.

Q: What do we need to know about the methods used by the storytellers of Genesis in describing the creation of the first human beings?

A: We must remember, first of all, that the storytellers of Genesis are telling a story, not writing one.

Most of us, however, are used to reading. We are people of the written word and so we miss an awful lot of the nuances found in oral storytelling. When children are told a story, however, they catch the nuances. They catch the rhythm and the repetition.

The storyteller of Genesis 1 sets up a pattern of repetition, but when we get to the creation of human beings, the pattern is suddenly broken. In the story, we are told how everything--the sea creatures, the winged creatures, the cattle, the creeping things and wild animals--are all created "according to their kind."

After each class of animals is created, we keep hearing the phrase "according to its kind," "according to its kind," "according to its kind." Then, all of a sudden, the first man and woman are created "in the image of God." You hear that there is something different.

The difference forces you to realize that this human creature is a different kind of creature. That's not to say we are not created "according to our kind." It's simply that the storyteller wants to wake the audience up by disrupting the expected pattern--which tells us immediately: "This is a unique creature. This is a creature with a very special kind of dignity."

We have a similar form of repetition in the phrase: "And God saw it was good." In the creation narrative of Genesis 1, there is the constant repetition--after each day of creation--"God saw that it was good." That repetition is a literary device. If the storyteller simply wanted to say that what God creates, including humans, is good, it only had to be said once. But we have the repetition. It's a way of reinforcing the point.

Q: In Genesis 1:28, God blesses the man and the woman and tells them: "Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue It. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth." Some commentators today claim that this passage has given followers of the Bible an excuse for taking a domineering and exploitative attitude toward the earth and has led to the destruction of our natural environment. How would you respond to such accusations?

A: Over the centuries, the text clearly has been used to justify the behavior of individuals who have literally wanted to subdue the earth and have dominion. This has brought harm to the environment.

But that's not a true interpretation of the text. In this creation narrative, we have a man and a woman who have been created in the image of God. In the ancient Near Eastern world, images were representations of God--not idols. They were to be representatives of God in the way they went about subduing and having dominion. As images of God, therefore, they are to subdue and have dominion in God's name--that is, in the same way as God would subdue and have dominion.

In other words, the man and woman have the serious responsibility of acting on this earth as God would act on earth. This means, of course, that they should approach creation with the same care and concern with which God approached it. Just as God sees it as good, treats it with great care and makes sure that it continues, so also must they.

The text also suggests a partnership. It's not the man alone who is given responsibility to the earth. It's the man and the woman. It's interesting that there are five verbs spelling out their responsibility--be fertile, multiply, fill the earth, subdue it and have dominion--and in the original language all five verbs are plural, indicating that both the man and the woman have these responsibilities, including the commission to subdue and have dominion.

Q: The text does not give the man and woman absolute ownership of the earth or the right to treat it oppressively, does it?

A: Not at all. Because we are the children of the Enlightenment [the 18th-century philosophical movement], we tend to separate ourselves from the natural world. We even talk about nature and us as if we are not part of nature, but over and above it.

Traditional peoples do not think this way. Our own traditional peoples, the Native Americans, for example, don't say that the land belongs to them, but that they belong to the land. This was the way they thought about their place in the natural world. I presume Israel was the same.

The text of Genesis says that we--the man and the woman--have serious responsibilities to govern the earth, but not to govern it as if it is our own. No place in the Scriptures does it say that the earth is ours. Constantly, it says the earth is the Lord's. It may be given to us in the sense that we need it and must feed off it to survive--or in the sense that we are to govern it or care for it as the representatives of God.

Q: Now we come to the interesting wording of the creation of the man and the woman in Genesis 1:27: "God created man in his own image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them." What does the wording tell us about the equality of the sexes?

A: First of all, we have to say that the language in the passage presents us with problems of interpretation.... Probably the simplest way of understanding it is that the man and the woman--both--are made in the image of God. The passage is a poetic structure.

We don't need to get into the poetics of it but, within that poetic structure, it is very clear that the woman gets the image of God from God and not from the man. That's very important, for in this particular passage there is equality of creation. They are both created in the image of God.

And again, as we've already mentioned, they are both given the same commission: Be fertile,...fill the earth, etc., which suggests equality. That's all you can say about that passage. It's the other creation account, in Genesis 2, describing the woman being taken from the man's rib, that prompts some people to raise questions about equality or inequality.

Q: Let's go directly to that passage "[T]he Lord God cast a deep sleep on the man, and while he was asleep, he took out one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. The Lord God then built up into a woman the rib he had taken from the man" Genesis 2:21–23). How do you explain it?

A: This is a reinterpretation of an old Sumerian creation myth. We know that in ancient Sumer, which is part of Babylonia, there was a myth regarding a goddess known as "the woman of life." She was also called "the woman of the rib." In their language there was an assonance--a resemblance of sound--between life and rib.

When you translate this into Hebrew, you lose the pun, but the image is translated. There is a similar case in the New Testament: "Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church." In Greek Peter and rock are the same, but you lose the pun when you translate the passage into English. I think the creation of the woman from a rib is a carrying-over of a pun from an ancient myth. It seems that Israel reinterpreted the story, so you have the woman created from the rib of the man.

We read later, in Genesis 3:20, after they had eaten from the tree, that "[t]he man called his wife Eve, because she became the mother of all the living." Remember, according to the Sumerian myth, the woman of the rib is the woman of life--or of all living things. This could be another trace of the ancient Sumerian story.

Getting back to the story with which we are familiar from Genesis, of the woman fashioned from the rib, let me show you the male bias of our interpretation of that story. We have considered women inferior to men because, in the story, the woman was made from her husband. We have concluded that this makes her inferior to him! The man is made from the dirt of the ground. Why doesn't that make him inferior to the ground? Why? The reason is a male bias of interpretation.

The text does not say she is inferior. The text simply says she comes from his rib--just as the man is said to come from the dirt. Choose what you prefer to come from: another human being or from the dirt! In one case God creates from the ground. In another case God creates from the rib--from a human being. If you want to get down to specifics: With you God used the dirt. With me God used human flesh!

Q: The Book of Genesis seems to make a big point of God's resting on the seventh day after all the work of creation is completed. Why?

A: Remember, this whole section of the Bible comes from the time when the people were in exile. That means they had no temple or sacramental system. When people are stripped of certain religious practices, they cling to other practices in order to preserve their religious identity.

Obviously at the time of the exile, observance of the Sabbath became very important. Now Sabbath observance among the Jews preceded the exile, but it probably did not have the same importance at that time. During the exile, they looked for ways to bolster their identity as Israelites. They didn't have their religious structures, their temple, their cultic system. They could not celebrate their festivals at a holy place--because they didn't have a holy place. So what became very important at that time were religious practices not bound to the land. The observance of Sabbath was one of these.

Q: Does this reference to God resting and to the observance of the Sabbath have any applications for us today?

A: I think so. We have to remember and recognize that there are sacred times, and that we need to commemorate the sacred times. I don't think we have a sense of sacred time, not religious sacred time. We celebrate birthdays. We commemorate anniversaries. We don't appreciate the Sabbath as we should. As Christians, for example, we don't see the seventh day as the commemoration of the Resurrection. In most Churches, we see it as an obligation more than as a real celebration.

Maybe that's a question you should ask a liturgist, not a biblical person. Anthropologists tell us all peoples commemorate important times. Each culture does it in a different way. It seems that the most important time in our culture is Super Bowl Sunday! But many of us don't commemorate religious times. We have lost that approach, I think. We Catholics have a precious calendar or cycle of sacred times known as the liturgical year. Maybe this passage should lead us to appreciate our religious calendar more than we do.

Q: We read in Genesis, Chapter 2, that God plants a garden in Eden. In its center is the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and bad. God tells the first man that he can eat of any of the trees "except the tree of knowledge of good and bad; from that tree you shall not eat; the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die" (Genesis 2:16–17). We know that the man and the woman chose to eat from this tree. How do you understand the sin which we call original sin?

A: Original sin, as such, is not found in the biblical story at all. Now what is found in the biblical story is first sin. If by original you mean first sin, yes, that is there. But when we talk about original sin, the average person is not thinking of first sin--but that sin which we have inherited.

If you look at the narrative of the first sin, which is not a historical account but a symbolic representation, you find that the man and the woman were not satisfied with the human limitation as set down by the Creator. They wanted to be like God (3:5). That is the original sin.

It is the heart of all sin--if you want to understand original in that sense. And that sin we have in the very core of our being, from the very foundation of our experience and existence. It is with us always. In other words, from our origin we are not willing or satisfied to be limited human beings. At the very core of our being, we suffer from our inability and unwillingness to be limited creatures.

There is within every normal human being, I think, the desire to know everything. I don't see those desires as being wrong. What do we do, however, to achieve them? What do we do in order to try to be like God? Knock down everybody in our way so we can be at the top of the mountain? It all comes from our refusal to accept human limitations. The other side of that coin is the desire to be God, and that's hubris--a special kind of pride whereby one seeks the prerogative of the divine.

That's what you find in the story of the first sin. And in a very real sense that's the heart of all sin. Why did the man and the woman eat from the tree? They wanted to be like God.

Q: Just speaking informally, what do you see as the overall lessons readers of Scripture should take from the creation accounts found in the first three chapters of Genesis? What would be some key messages in terms of practical spirituality?

A: Well, I think the creation stories teach us about both the glories of human creation and its limitations. We are created good--this is what the text says very clearly. Limits are set because we are creatures. Sin comes from our resistance to recognizing and living within those limits.

We have a responsibility in the natural world that other creatures in that same world do not seem to have--the responsibility of caring for creation.

An essential task of human beings is to recognize that there are places that are more sacred than others, and there are times that are more sacred than others. As human beings we need to recognize and commemorate these times. What are sacred places? Well, the earth is a sacred place. We need to develop a sensitivity to the intrinsic value of the natural world--an appreciation of the mystery of life found within the natural world of which we are a part.

I think the first three chapters of Genesis can develop good ecological sensitivity and good feminism. I'm uncomfortable with the notion of complementarity in explaining sexual roles, and I'll tell you why. Usually when we talk about complementarity we mean that male and female roles are rigidly distinct and one sex complements the deficiencies of the other--and, generally speaking, the idea is that the woman complements the man. This makes it a matter of filling up the male gaps--and frequently the gaps have been determined by a patriarchal, male-biased society.

It has been said that men are rational and women are emotional. That's a myth. Human beings are rational. Human beings are emotional. Human beings are sensitive. Human beings are violent. The characteristics have more to do with human beings and personality than with sexual stereotypes. I think mutuality is a much better word. It suggests partnership. You see that for sure in Genesis. Both partners are commissioned to "Subdue and have dominion. Increase, multiply and fill the earth." Now if that's not mutuality, I don't know what is. There is true sharing there.

The creation accounts, of course, also teach us about God. They teach us that God is the sole creator, creates what is good, creates with care and concern, is personally interested in creation and carefully sees that it continues.... And finally, God is a God who always gives a second chance. We sin and we get another chance. That's a theme that goes all the way through the Bible: God is always ready to give a second chance.


© Copyright St. Anthony Messenger Press. This article was published with the permission of St. Anthony Messenger magazine, which provides study guides to accompany many of its articles. You can access these guides by going to the magazine's Links for Learners page. Teachers will find a wealth of other resources at the St. Anthony Messenger Press web site by clicking on this link: http://www.americancatholic.org/features/learners/

Published April 1, 1995.