The Ideal Woman? (Ruth)

January 8, 2011

Guess what dear reader? I read a whole book of the Bible in one sitting! Okay, so it was the book of Ruth, which means in my tiny-tiny-small-print Bible only two and a half pages, but still I feel a certain sense of achievement.

I’ve noticed in the past few years that people really love this book. It is not unusual to hear ‘ooh I love Ruth!’, whereas ‘oh I love Joshua’ doesn’t crop up quite as much. Of course there is the wonderful and often quoted declaration “Where you go, I will go/ where you lodge, I will lodge / your people shall be my people / and your God my God.” (1:16) More famous than the story perhaps, and a popular choice for weddings, apparently. I find that rather odd, as it’s said by one widow to another. Good sentiment though.

And I am of rather the same disposition as the Ruth-lovers. I like the book of Ruth, perhaps instinctively because it is one of the only two books of the Bible named after a woman.

Oh yes, I have been a feminist much longer than I’ve been a Christian; I wasn’t baptised until I was 23, but at the age of 2 I refused to build an ‘snow-man’, it had to be a ‘snow-girl’. We’ll have gender equality in my front garden, thank you very much!

But when I read the book this time, thoughts that have only niggled before seemed to bubble to the service. They centre around the role of Ruth in the story. It starts out very promisingly, with her beautiful speech promising loyalty to her mother-in-law and the God of Israel, even if it means living in poverty. This passage (1:15-18) paints a picture of Ruth a determined, strong and fiercely loyal woman, but when they get back to Bethlehem the picture changes. Ruth’s words after this point are almost entirely expressions of obedience and gratitude, or requests. Of course there is nothing wrong with this, but it’s part of a wider narrative in which Ruth seems to lose her dynamism. It is Naomi who orchestrates the situation; who sends her to glean and later to lay at Boaz’s feet on the threshing floor (a possible euphemism apparently!). And it is Boaz, of course, who arranges the marriage. In fact, he gets Ruth as part of a package deal; he buy’s her late father-in-law’s land and also ‘acquires’ her as he puts it (4:9-10).

Of course, this is a cynical reading of the text. Boaz is obviously a generous and affectionate man, we see this in his dealings with Ruth when she gleans in his fields (chapter 2). So much so, in fact, that one of my favourite charities the Boaz Trust, who serve destitute asylum seekers in Manchester, have made him a model for welcoming the stranger. Which, of course, Ruth was as a Moabite woman. Many Israelites would have shunned her for this reason.

I suppose my problem isn’t with the treatment of Ruth, but with the presentation of her as a role model for women. After chapter 1 she is meek and obedient, she doesn’t speak unless spoken to and she never questions the instructions she’s given, even when she’s told to go to an older man in the middle of the night and risk being shamed. 

There is nothing wrong with being a meek and mild woman, but for those of us who do not have that natural inclination the Christian tendency to idolise this way of being can leave us feeling loud, inappropriate and unfeminine. Ruth, like Mary and many other young women of the Bible, is presented as blushing and obliging (though who knows it this was really the case). Her purity seems to be linked to a passivity. But I know there are many women, like me, who don’t fit this model; we love to debate, to passionately gesticulate, to challenge those around us, regardless of their gender. And while women like that can seem the most confident you know, many, especially Christians, can have an underlying feeling that they don’t fit the mould. Perhaps even that they aren’t how God created them to be?

But what is it to be a Godly woman? At the end of this book we are given a genealogy that tells us Ruth was great-grand mother of David; a mark of her significance. But there is another women mentioned, another widow who bore a son, and funnily enough, she is mentioned my previous reading, Genesis 38; Tamar.

As Boaz and Ruth marry, the town elders wish them well saying “Through the offspring the LORD gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.” (4:12) and later we see that Boaz is in fact of the line of Perez (4:18-22). So just as the widowed but redeemed Ruth takes her part in forming the line to David, so does Tamar. And so, as Matthew tells us in his first chapter, they are also ancestors of Jesus; part of the unfolding path the Christ (Matthew 1:1-16, esp 3-5).

And you thought genealogies were just boring lists, hey?

But why am I bringing up Tamar? The woman who pretended to be a prostitute so that her father-in-law (she was widowed) would sleep with her and give her a son? Not a fantastic role model, surely?

Well, actually, maybe she is. Okay, it all seems pretty off to us, and more than slightly of icky to us married ladies, but this was a woman who no one was looking out for. She was a widow, promised to be married to Judah’s youngest son (the other two had died on her, the second deliberately not impregnating her). The promise was not fulfilled, so where did this leave her? There’s a reason the law and the prophets and the words of Jesus and the New Testament letters all contain commands to care for widows; they often weren’t cared for. No male relatives could mean no money, no house. If Tamar was pretending to be a prostitute once, it was better than being reduced to being one forever once her father had died and she had nowhere to go.

So she takes matters into her own hands. She stands up for herself and when she is accused of “whoredom” she exposed Judah to himself; he is not only the kind of man who’ll take a prostitute, but one who will neglect his daughter-in-law and then says “let her be burned” when he hears her doing the very thing he has done (38:24). So he says “she is more in the right than I”. You go girl! Well, sort of.

Now, we need not take Tamar’s example literally. It goes without saying that none of us need to become father-in-law bedding fake prostitutes! But what I can see from this is that it takes all sorts. God doesn’t make women with cookie cutter; sweet and perfectly formed. Just as we have to deny society’s lie that there is an ideal look for women, when we can see that God created us in abundant and diverse beauty, so we can refuse to believe that there is one ‘ideal’ woman. Some of us are quiet, some talkative. Some confident, some shy. Some are firey, some gentle. And most of us a big fat mixture.

So, God made them all and gave them their place in the story of our faith. Loyal and obedient Ruth, defiant and assertive Tamar, strong and stoic Mary. And many more. Men and women can learn from these great figures.

Got that? Good.

Right, I’m off to straighten my hair… (it’s funny because it’s true).

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What can I say about Judges 17-21? No, seriously, what can I say? It’s pretty bleak, and very brutal. There are two stories really. Chapter 17 tells us of Micah and Levite. In short: Micah steals his mother’s silver but then gives it back because she curses the person who stole it, then she is happy to have it back so turns it into an idol. Okay… Then Micah meets a wondering Levite who is “going to live wherever I can find a place” so  he employs to be his priest. Then in chapter 18 the Danites, who are on the look out for territory and spy some where the people are “quiet and unsuspecting” take Micah’s priest and idol for their own and when Micah complains they threaten to attack him. All unpleasant enough, but you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The second story is not one I want to recount; it’s a bit like the story of Sodom only without divine intervention and with some war and kidnap added on the end. Both this story and chapter 34 of Genesis, which I read yesterday, involved rape, and I don’t want to brush over that fact. Especially today’s which is horribly disturbing in every way. This is the stuff that reminds us not all of the Bible was written to instruct or inspire us. Some is written to show how far astray humanity can and has gone.

I began to write an exploration of the statement that ends the book; “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” I wanted to explore whether having a king made them any better, but more than that whether any one could ever really think any of this was “right”. But I don’t know where those ideas are leading… I seem to go around in circles. The fact is that I’m heart-broken by what I read in these chapters, especially chapter 19. It is a similar feeling to reading or hearing about the atrocities committed against women in the Congo or other parts of the world in which rape is used as a weapon of war.

These stories force me to face the darker side of humanity. They don’t, as others may suggest, prove to me that we are innately wicked and that is why Israel behaved this way without God to guide them (you may like to read my post on Genesis 1-3 for my thoughts on that subject). But they do confront me with the inescapable truth; that parts of the world and parts of ourselves that seem so so far from God, and there people who have forgotten or never knew that they were made in his image. And I am not talking about atheism. There are countless humanitarian and compassionate atheists in this world, I’m talking of a much deeper forgetting.

Perhaps this is not the inspirational post you signed up for (I do see and appreciate the subscriptions, thank you), but then the Bible’s not really what any of us signed up for is it? Not all of it. We signed up for ‘Love God and Love your neighbour’ perhaps, or ‘I am the Way the Truth and the Life’, or ‘freed from the letter of the law to live in the spirit of the law’, but not many of us signed up for facing rape, murder and kidnap. But perhaps those of us who are privileged enough to only read about such trauma have the duty to face it, to remember that it is not just archaic horror recorded in a book, but present in the world today. It is something that we should care about, something that should break our hearts open. Jesus did not take kindly to those who bubble wrapped themselves into cozy lives and tried to keep the worst of the world out. So perhaps Judges 17-21 has done me a service today, strange though it may seem.

But, to end, I do believe that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. And there are lights all over the world including the Heal Africa Hospital who, among many other things, seek to heal the women in the Congo who have been abused like our nameless woman in chapter 19. May God bless them.

 

 

I’m having an interesting time with Genesis. I had thought it was a book I’d really get on with, that I would relish the search for deeper meaning in the epic tales of God’s power and purpose. Turns out I feel like that about bits of it. From creation to Noah is fab for me, lots that I’ve thought about before, lot’s to work with. After that, not so much. Until (unless I’m unpleasantly surprised in a few weeks) the story of Joseph, which I love love love!

I know, I know, I’ve written about playing favourites with Scripture before, but this is how it is with me right now. I mean, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all have their moments – entertaining or wrestling with angels is pretty darn cool – but when I’m reading 3 or 4 chapters at a time these moments seem rather fleeting; flickers of light between negotiations for land and goods or, worse by far, questionable treatment of women.

I am referring, in the instance (see precious posts for more), to the story of Jacob, Rachel and Leah, right in the middle of Genesis 28-31. The meeting of Jacob and Rachel, echoing the story of his mother’s meeting with his father, is quite romantic really. He sees her, he waters her flock (which she keeps herself, by the way, girl power!), he kisses her and weeps. All very promising. So he meets her father, who seems nice at first but turns out to be a bit of tricky so-and-so. Jacob agrees to work for Laban (daddy) for 7 years in return for his daughter, but when he finally gets to spend the night with her he wakes in the morning to find it’s her older sister Leah. Downer! Laban says he can have Rachel too, as long as he works another 7 years! Well, how generous of him.

Now, there are ways of reading good intentions into all this. Jacob does not shame Leah by putting her away, but honours their marriage. If you can call marrying her younger sister as soon as he could ‘honouring’! But really, he worked hard to earn the love of Rachel, and we see the lovely line So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.” (29:20). He obviously cared for and valued her above money, because, it seems, he chose her over 7 years of wages, which is nice. And Laban, although revealed to be mighty slippery in later chapters, may simply have been looking out for the dignity of his eldest daughter. How would she cope with the stigma of being unmarried while her younger sibling went off to play happy families? So perhaps their intentions weren’t enitrely dishonourable.

But 29:31-30:24 is the passage that really leaves me sad. It’s probably best if you just read the whole thing, but the general gist is that rivalry for Jacob’s love and for status seems to be fought over via the ability to produce sons. Leah produces heirs first, indeed we’re told that  God opened her womb because she was unloved (29:31). When Rachel cannot conceive she gives her maid to Jacob and Leah follows suit. All the time there is a sense of tension, of competition between the sisters. We see this in it’s most extreme and bizaare expression the strange exchange about mandrakes in 30:14-18. Any one know the esoteric meaning of mandrakes??

Is this spirit of desperation and competition really that in which the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel were conceived? Great! It’s just all a bit uncomfortable, isn’t? Not just uncomfortable, but almost tragic. Leah is such a tragic figure to me. She who is given into the bed of a man she does not want her, let alone love her. We hear her voice constantly in these passages saying “now this time my husband will be joined to me” and “surely now my husband will love me” and even after the birth of all her sons “is it a small matter that you have taken my husband away from me?” This level of desperation breaks my heart as I read.

But what do I expect? For the Bible to provide me with flawless role models, perfect in the sight of God? Or amazingly functional families? What planet am I on? If the Bible teaches us anything it is that people and societies aren’t perfect.  So there will be bitterness and rivalry and double-dealing. But the question is where is God in this?

Where is God for Leah? He is the one answering her cries. In the midst of these mixed up people, who feel their loves and rivalries so strongly, God is there. And God’s role in this story is in birth. He is bringing hew life, hope to both women. He is fulfilling the promise to Jacob and his forefathers to make his ancestors as numerous as the stars. God is creating, moving, producing. And whatever rubbish is going on around it, new life is coming into the world. An apt idea to reflect on this advent; that God brings life and hope in the midst of our dysfunctionality.

Is this good enough? Does it take away my discomfort with these passages? Not really, I’ve still got many a rant about the subjugation women and ‘land rights’ up my sleeve. But it does help me see past the brain stuff into the heart stuff. The thought of Leah’s joy at her first born child, in the midst of all her misery, is enough to inspire and edify me.

 

P.S. for those of you who read my last entry: I know it’s after midnight, but this still counts as Monday’s post, and I’m promise it wasn’t a rushed job!

Fair reader, I’m not going to lie to you, I skim read some of the passages in Joshua 16-20. All the:

“the territory of the Ephraimites by their families was as follows: the boundary of their inheritance on the east was Ataroth-addar as far as Upper Beth-horon, 6and the boundary goes from there to the sea; on the north is Michmethath; then on the east the boundary makes a turn towards Taanath-shiloh, and passes along…[yada yada yada]”

and the :

“Now the towns of the tribe of Benjamin according to their families were Jericho, Beth-hoglah, Emek-keziz, 22Beth-arabah, Zemaraim, Bethel, 23Avvim, Parah, Ophrah…[blah de blah de blah]”

just didn’t float my boat this afternoon. And I’m sure it’s all very important for many reasons beyond my understanding (if you know them please do fill me in) but it’s not the kind of thing that puts fire in your belly is it?

However! There are some interesting things going on in all this land-dividing-up business. My favourite serves as a nice contrast to yesterday’s ‘giving your wife to the Pharoah’ debacle. Yes, the bit where the daughters of Zelophehad (pronounce that!), stand up for their rights! Having no brothers to inherit their portion of the land they say to Joshua “the Lord commanded Moses to give us inheritance along with our male kin” and so they get their inheritance. It’s just briefly mentioned in 17:3-6 but this must have been very significant; to give women certain property rights? That’s big. It may not seem big to us, but often women without close male relatives would be destitute in these times, as the plight of Naomi in the book of Ruth shows. So this is pretty right on, and I’m glad to read it. It reminds that though the general tone of the scriptures is pretty darn patriarchal, strong women pop up and are respected again and again. And these women must have been strong to stand up in front of an assembly of men and claim their rights. Go sisters!

Another, more curious, provision comes in chapter 20, with the cities of refuge. These places are created for people to flee to when they need refuge. So far, so good. But they are specifically for those who seek refuge if they have killed “a person without intent or by mistake” and are being pursued by an avenger. Erm, okay…My first question: How do you kill a person by mistake?

Perhaps this is a reference to Moses, who killed someone and fled from Egypt as a younger man. Or perhaps these are just very very different times, when violence is a matter of fact. We forget how cushioned we are, those of us who can sit in front of our computers and read about violence in our newspapers. And although the concept confuses me, I like that there is this provision. That the people of God include refuge in their division of the land and,  importantly, that refuge is for “all the Israelites and all the aliens residing among them.” From the beginning the people of Israel are not an insular self-serving community, as some readings may paint them, but one that also provides for those who live amongst them. So even whilst dividing their conquerred lands, the Israelites retain a sense of justice.

You may be surprised that I have found something positive to say about the book of Joshua at long last, I know I am! But if nothing else then that’s what the Good Book does; it surprises you. For better or for worse.

In Genesis 12-15 we meet Abram, or the artist-soon-to-be know-as-Abraham as I like to call him, and his entourage. This is the man from whom God will make a great nation, the one whose descendents will be as numerous as the stars.

Seriously? This guy?

I have heard a lot about Abraham being obedient to God and confident in his promises even when there’s little hope. I’m sure it’s all true. But I’ve never really had good relationship with his stories. Today when I was reading the second story we are given about him, 12:10-20, I actually let out a little gasp despite being on a rather crowded bus. Now, I must have read this story several times before but it is still pretty shocking to me.

There’s a famine so Abram goes down into Egypt with his wife Sarai (soon-to-be Sarah). She is really beautiful and he knows the Egyptian men will desire her. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect from their lustful ways” he says… oh no, sorry what he actually does is gets her to pretend she’s his sister so that the Egyptians won’t kill him. Nice. Then of course he lets her be taken into Pharoah’s house (if you know what I mean) and laps up the brother’s benefits; sheep, oxen, male and female slaves, you name it…

Seriously? This guy??

Yes, this is the guy, dodgy marital values and ill-gotten riches don’t seem to deter God from his choice, and that makes me uncomfortable. This is just one example of many in the stories that follow of women being treated like chattel and there being no overt criticism of this treatment in the text. Sure, God does send a plague on Pharoah and put a stop do to the utterly degrading situation, but there’s no punishment for Abram. Sarai is voiceless in all this, used for her looks and sex appeal and later focussed on for ability, or inability to bear a child. This text seems so stuck in the time it was written, in a time when women were often named among property and only valued in terms of their sexual and reproductive functions.

But what would I rather? That there was a miraculous gender-equality in a story originating thousands of years ago about the firstof the patriarchs?? Well, yes that is what I’d rather, but it’s not what’s here. The Bible is timeless text in some ways, but not in others. Rejecting it because of that seems to throw the baby out with the bath water.

So is there much here for a 21st century woman? Although I find it hard to look past these injustices to a great theme, Abram’s willingness to follow God does indeed shine out from these pages. And would it really be better if he were perfect? God doesn’t call us based on our perfection. If He did then the Bible would have a lot fewer characters. And the Church would have a lot fewer members. If He did then I would certainly be off the list.

So I will try to get my relationship with the artist-soon-to-be-known-as-Abraham back on track. Not by ignoring his imperfections, nor by embracing them, but by accepting them. There are no perfect protagonists in Bible, if there were then there would be little space for us to imagine ourselves as among those God has called. He calls murderers and adulterers and persecutors (Moses, David, Paul) and makes them into imperfect servants. In doing so he shows us that there is no one He can’t use. And that’s some pretty good news.

Isaiah 1-6, phew, that’s a lot to take in. Highlights include the old favourites; “they shall beat their swords into to ploughshares” (2:4); “Here am I; send me!” (6:8) and of course the Sunday morning favourite “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.” Each of these verses deserves a treatise of its own, each of them have blessed and will bless me and you and us. But to cherry-pick these 21st century friendly (if any Bible verse can be called such) lines would really not reflect the ambience of the chapters as a whole, would it?

Here’s the general drift: God is angry. Majorly angry. Wrathful, if you will. As with huge swathes of the Bible (see recent posts on Job and Joshua) it all seems a bit harsh on first reading. Most striking to me is the vitriol against the “haughty” daughters of Zion; “the Lord will lay bare their secret parts.” Oh matron! Sorry, serious times are going on down in Zion, this is not the time for Carry On references…

The truth is that I find it hard not to make jokes about verses like that. I feel compelled to somehow defuse my middle-class, western, liberal (oooh I hate that word!) discomfort with these verses of desolation. So I’ll write “swords into ploughshares” in nice writing and put it up somewhere and forget the slightly threatening tones of the song of the unfruitful vineyard (5:1-7).

Or at least, that’s how I used to feel. Thankfully, my eyes were opened to the ferocious appetite for social justice that lay within the biting words of Isaiah – especially by great Christian campaigning groups like SPEAK. I used to find “righteous anger” a bit of oxymoron, and I would read passages like Isaiah 1, which describes the desolation and degeneracy of Judah as if it said “God has punished you so now you’re like this” rather than “look what you’ve done! now you’re like this”. But prophecy is truth-telling’. The people of Judah wonder why everything’s gone so wrong and Isaiah’s not afraid to tell it to them straight; you accumulate with no view to the future, you neglect widows and orphans, you live in opulence and take from those who have nothing. So greed begets greed, violence begets violence, oppression begets oppression. From Exodus to the gospels God is the God of the oppressed; when you become the oppressor it’s very hard to stay in tune with Him! So in Isaiah God’s turning that great old break-up line on its head; “it’s not Me, it’s you!”

This is heart-breakingly apparent in the song of the unfruitful vineyard when the gardener asks “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I haven’t done?” The voice of God, like a forlorn parent regarding their misguided progeny. It’s been almost 3000 years but still the alarming revelation that blessing, security and even salvation don’t guarantee a faithful heart, or a people dedicated to compassion. See also the Conservative party front bench (oh no she didn’t!).  

 5:8 incisively illustrates how one can be isolated by ones own greed:

 Ah, you who join house to house,
   who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
   and you are left to live alone
   in the midst of the land!

This could be a message for any Western nation in the days of climate change and decreasing bio-diversity 

So though I’m left rather shell-shocked by it all, I’m glad it’s in there. Sometimes it seems that social justice is on the fringes of the Church. In fact I once heard a ‘celebrity pastor’ (now there’s an oxymoron) from the US say that if your church teaches social justice issues you should leave it. I’m not sure what Bible he was reading! Maybe the Tea Party Translation (oh no she didn’t!)

And it’s also nice to know that along a good, and very necessary, telling off there’s also hope. More on that next Saturday I’m sure (for unto us a child is born!) But for now “swords into ploughshares” ain’t bad…not bad at all…

photo by the talented Sterlic http://www.flickr.com/photos/sterlic/

Testing times… (Job 1-2)

October 15, 2010

Today I begin my journey into a book of profound poetry that wrestles with that most timeless issue; unjust suffering. Why do bad things happen to good people? A first reading of Job’s first chapters might give you a rather disturbing answer; because Satan tells God to do it…huh??

A brief(ish) synopsys: Job is very good man who also happens to be pretty loaded and very fertile – 10 children (7 of them sons; big bonus for the patriarchal Israelites), about a billion cattle. It didn’t go to his head mind you, he’s well holy, even offering sacrifices just in case his children sin at their dinner parties. So, as you may have guessed, God’s well pleased with his man Job and likes to tell the “heavenly beings”, and among them Satan, all about him. Satan is not impressed; “of course he’s good and holy; he’s loaded! Take away his cattle and children, then you’ll see, he’ll curse you.” Rather remarkably, God agrees to this! So in the space of about 5 minutes Job loses everything (except his wife, but that doesn’t seem to be much comfort to him as he calls her a “foolish woman” in chapter 2). Job responds by tearing his clothes, shaving his head, and worshipping. Nice. Another Heaven scene occurs, God boasts about his devout Job again, but Satan’s not having any of it; “yeah yeah, but if you took his health…then he’ll curse you.” Astonishingly, God agrees again… But again Satan’s plan fails. Job says wisely (to his ‘foolish woman’) “Shall we receive good from God and not receive bad?” Pretty impressive stuff (apart from the sexism, which we’ll put down to post-traumatic stress for now).

What’s not so impressive, rather perplexing, is the exchange between God and Satan. If we read Satan as ‘the devil’ then this is pretty worrying stuff! So who is he? Well he only pops up in three verses than aren’t Job in whole Hebrew Bible (Zech 3:1-2; Chron 2:11) and is not to be confused with Satan in New Testament. In Greek Satan is used interchangably with “the devil”, it’s less clear cut here. Satan is present among “the heavenly beings” and the Hebrew “ha-Satan” (the satan) can be translated as “the accuser”, or commonly “the prosecutor” in the context of Job. “ha” shows that a name is a title bestowed on a being, not the being’s names itself.  David M. Carr (An Introduction to the Old Testament) actually says ‘satan’ comes from the Hebrew “to roam” so it could just mean  a roaming spy, a position in Yahweh’s divine council that informs God of His people’s wrong-doings… though you wouldn’y think God needed spies…

The main thing is that this doesn’t have to be read as God being manipulated by the Devil (phew!) ‘the satan’ seems to be part of the Heavely court in this narrative. Perhaps it is a device to show us a “thought process” of God – if He can be said to have such a human thing – and introduce the very pertinent question “do you worship God because of what you have been given or because He’s God?”

Whatever answers the book of Job ends up giving us (stay tuned to find out!), we can pretty safely say that the authority begins and ends with God. God gives the Satan power; he doesn’t have on his own. And at the end of Job (spoiler alert!) the Satan is not there, it’s just Job, his friends and God, implying that the ultimate authority over suffering rests with God. But then again, that’s pretty hard to swallow too, isn’t it? I suppose that’s why our Holy Scripture has a 42 chapter reflection on the nature and causes of suffering slap bang in its middle.

The Epilogue to this heavenly tale is too moving to be ignored. Job’s friends hear of his suffering and set out to “console and comfort him”. When they arrive they mourn with him; “They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word with him, for they saw his suffering was very great.”  Later they debate the meaning of suffering, but for now they just sit, they don’t try to do anything for Job, they’re just with him. Wonderful. It seems God had not taken all of his riches after all…

And what a way to begin. Genesis 1-2:3 is wonderful isn’t it? True poetry; “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the water.”

And from that came sky and light and tree and birds. Even “great sea monsters monsters” get a mention. And finally, but never finally, us. “Let us make humankind in our own image…male and female he created them”. These first 34 verses are so profound, so potent with meaning and significance that I have few words. I’m sure I’m seeing them as is a dark mirror dimly. They effect me very much like John 1 does. There a rhythm to these words that seeps truth into your pores. Read it, read it now! It tells us of a God who brings light from darkness, fertility from barreness and who gives us the gift and responsibility of his creation.

I didn’t know until recently that many scholars agree that this and Genesis 2:4-3:24 are two different accounts of creation, but it makes sense to me. It’s feels awkward to fit these two together. Creation has a different order and the depictions of God really contrast . In the first story God is he but seems more mysterious and formless than God in the Garden of Eden, who talks with Adam and strolls through his creation. I’m not saying these are different Gods, not at all, but different aspects definitely. And it’s nice to have them side by side, as if one of the first messages of the Hebrew scriptures is a pluralilty of experience and understanding; something I feel the Church could do with embracing more and more.

The story of Eden is one we all know, or we think we know. There is no apple, Eve is no whily minx (she isn’t even called Eve yet, just woman). It is certainly one we recognise. Wanting the one thing we can’t have; knowledge not always being a blessing; shame that drives us away from God.

But I suppose what I want to say today is don’t forget the first chapter of Genesis, or see it as a prologue to Eden. Genesis 1 tells us we were made in the image of God. That’s really important. I don’t think it matters if you don’t take the six days literally, I don’t think that’s the point. The point is that we are part of God’s creation, which he called good “indeed, it was very good”.

There is prevelant theology that we are inherently wicked, which some verses of scripture, especially from the psalms, seem to back up. That idea that our innate nature being displeasing to God always troubled me. Indeed, the week before I was baptised I broke down into floods of tears at my house group because that very thing was being discussed and I was worried that I shouldn’t get baptised in a church that held this idea as true. Needless to say everyone was very loving about it and I took the plunge that Sunday. It is nice for me, then, that here in Genesis 1 I find an ally. God created us in his image and called us good; could we really be capable of changing the very nature of God’s creation? We can forget it, corrupt it, we can live in a state of sin that separates us from it, absolutely – that’s what I think the Eden story is about to a large extent – but change it? Change God’s creation inherently? There’s nothing about that in chapter 3. Toil and conflict? Sure? A state of irrevocable wickedness? Not so much.

So I am thankful for this first, deep mystery, that of creation, into which our Bible gives an insight. God created light out of darkness. I look out of my window now and see sun on autumn leaves and blue sky. And I am thankful to the creative God in whom I believe and whose work I could never reverse, however badly I screw up. And who will not turn away from me even though I hide in shame. Before God sends Adam and Eve out of the garden, he makes them clothes…