• Rev. Izzy Harbin

6 When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abidein mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.

This is one of my favorite passages in all of the Bible. It is a mystery. And, if I’m honest, this passage raises so many questions, but the point in this passage that I’d like to focus on is God’s declaration that, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.”

In this fragment of text, included by the author known as “J,” or the “Yahwist” author, we see a connection to ancient Near East motifs of rebellions of and with/from the gods, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian myth regarding the flooding of the world. It is in the Epic of Gilgamesh that we first experience the co-mingling of gods and humanity and the infighting that occurs as a result of the volume of noise humanity makes; noise that irritates the gods. The coming flood story in Genesis mirrors that of the Epic of Gilgamesh and was most likely used as a basis for the Genesis story.

What is important to note is that, once again, we see God instituting separation, between God and God’s creation, this time because of the blurring of boundaries between the heavenly realm and the earthly realm. As the text reveals, the “sons of God,” described in the Book of Jubilee and the Book of Enoch as “angels” saw the daughters of men as pleasing in their sight and choose to take them for wives. This suggests that the veil between heaven and earth was much more fluid and that the boundaries between heaven and earth, although defined, were not necessarily sealed.

The outcome of this coupling, the creation of giants, is what leads God to, once again, modify his creation. He will call upon Noah to build an Ark in preparation for the oncoming flood that will wipe out all of humanity. Before we get to the flood, however, God makes a clear proclamation that God’s spirit would not dwell among men forever. This proclamation is not clear in its meaning or intent, but rather challenges us to question whether we will continue in God’s keeping or not.

There are several ways to interpret God’s proclamation. First, God could be saying that humans will no longer live for hundreds of years, but instead will see their bodies expire after 120 years of life. Once the body expires, the Spirit of God no longer resides in that individual. Second, God could be predicting that there will be 120 days until the flood at which time all life will be extinguished. Third, that God’s Spirit, freely given to humanity in the beginning as the animating force that is all life, will be revoked at the end of 120 years. Most scholars gravitate to option one, that humanity’s lifespan would decrease to 120 years and no more. We don’t know why God chose 120 years or why God felt the necessity to limit the amount of time humans spend in one lifetime on earth, but based on the rest of the Biblical text, option two is unknown and option three is proved wrong by God’s continual engagement with humanity to the present day.

God’s engagement with humanity in the early chapters of Genesis feels otherworldly. We reach a point in the Biblical text where God no longer interacts directly with humanity. The authors are depicting God as more distant, even outside of human events; one that “cannot be looked upon,” or death will come immediately. We see this transition with the story of Moses and the burning bush, as well as his time on Mount Sinai. Eventually, God speaks through the prophets and until Jesus emerges on the scene, God doesn’t interact directly with humanity beyond the earliest stories in the Hebrew text.

The idea of separation appears to be built into the narrative as a necessity for survival of all humanity. When we frame our separation from God as a fundamental flaw in human action, we take on guilt, and perhaps even shame, for actions that we did not commit. Calvin, and Augustine before him, implied that at our birth we were born into sin; born with a sinful nature so depraved that we could never find our way back to God without the intervention of Jesus. Sadly, what we ignore in this assumption is that God, through the act of creation, designed us to be fluid beings who are capable of experiencing every emotion and aspect of being fully human. It is by this separation, intentionally structured and instituted by God, that we achieve the fullness of humanity.

I assert that the authors of Genesis were able to see the flaws in humanity from the start and were curious about how and why God allowed such flaws. Genesis is a collection of stories written by a variety of authors to expose the complexity of creation and the interconnectedness of all life. By taking the stories in Genesis too literally, we have failed to understand the gift of knowledge of good and evil, that to be fully human and emersed in this human experiment, we must know both for one would be lost without the other. As we approach the story of Noah and move beyond the flood to the covenant that God establishes with Abraham, God is asking us to choose life over death, to choose compassion over indifference, to be fully engaged with loving neighbor and self.

What we think of as irreparable separation is instead part of God’s design. In this moment in the Biblical text, God see that further separation is necessary so that the integrity of creation may be protected. The writers of this text are surmising that God, even in his infinite wisdom, did not account for every eventuality. God could not foresee “angels lusting after human females.” Maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t, but whatever occurred in the ancient world is most likely beyond our comprehension. If we are comfortable with the science and are willing to date our earth to at least 4.3 billion years old, then God has been active in this world for a long time. There is no doubt in my mind that all the stories ever written about human existence in the ancient world gave them hope that there was more to know, more to experience, and more to God than we can comprehend in our rudimentary languages.

Whether God made a definitive decision to limit our years to 120, or not, the simple fact remains that we are all born into this world on a given day, we live, and then we die. I believe that God is waiting to see what we will do with our lives. The choices we make every single day have the capacity to destroy us or to create a greater capacity for empathy and compassion for all life. Ultimately, the only question about this passage that really matters is, “What are we going to do with the time we are given?”

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  • Rev. Izzy Harbin

17 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. 2 And I will make my covenant between me and you and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.” 15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!” 19 God said, “No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. 20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. 21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.” 22 And when he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.

The story of Abram/Abraham is one of the most important stories of the Old Testament. God calls Abram to leave his home in Ur of the Chaldeans to go to a place where God would show him, and in his new home, wherever that is, God will make him the father of nations.

It sounds like a pipe dream. The interaction between God and Abraham provides the backdrop for the Hebrew story, the Christian story, and the Muslim story. It is from this one man that God sets in motion three of the worlds most prominent religions. We call Abraham the “Father of Nations” because of this promise made between Abraham and God, a promise that would be the covenant between God and the Hebrew people for a possession of land and a home all their own.

In the story of creation, I pulled out the theme of separation, an act that God instituted at the moment of creation. Once again, God uses the tool of separation to create something wholly new. Asking Abram to leave his home land is an act of separation. The more I look at these passages with this particular lens, the more I see how God uses the act of separation to create something new. It is as if God cannot make possible what is new unless there is separation from the old. The shift from old to new makes space for the creation of the next thing. We see this pattern throughout scripture, but most assuredly in Genesis.

When God asks Abram to leave Ur, what made Abram say yes? In extra-biblical sources we are told that Abram, from the time of his youth, had a deep and abiding relationship with God. He clung to God in the way that others did not. Even after moving to Haran from Ur, he held close to the God of creation. He saw with his own eyes that the statues and figurines worshiped by other cultures were useless in providing direction or comfort. Abram even challenged his own father in possessing such trinkets and vowed to destroy them all if his father did not.

In our passage today, we are at a pivotal moment in the story of Abram. God has not only separated him out as being someone special but has chosen to change his name to reflect the enormity of his new role. 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” A father of a multitude of nations. In this moment it must have struck Abram funny because he knew that he was advanced in age, as was his wife, and knew that she was barren because she had never been able to have children. And yet, God is proclaiming over Abram, now renamed Abraham, that he will be the father of a multitude of nations.

This story comes immediately following the story of Abraham’s son Ishmael via Hagar, but God does not intend for Abraham to see Ishmael as his only heir. God, instead, proclaims that Sarai, who he renames Sarah, will have a son, and they are to name that child Isaac.

As for Ishmael, God blesses Hagar and Ishmael, and we are told in Genesis 16:10 that God will greatly multiply Hagar’s “offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.” Ishmael becomes the father of 12 tribes, the 12 tribes of the Arab world and eventually the Muslim faith.

We have the benefit of knowing how this story ends. Indeed, Sarah does have a son and he is named Isaac. Isaac has a son named Jacob, and Jacob has 12 sons which become the namesakes of the 12 tribes of Israel. Jacob will wrestle with God and prevail, and his blessing, received at daybreak is also a name change, from Jacob to Israel.

The subtle way that God uses separation throughout the Book of Genesis makes me wonder why we ever thought we were irreparably separated from God. It is only through our separation that we are able to discern a need for God. Without that fundamental distance, God would be a given, a permanent fixture in our lives that would not require seeking, nor worship, or praise. It is only in our separation that we are able to identify the need for our creator.

I recently listened to a talk given by a Rabbi regarding the story of creation and the “fall of Adam and Eve.” He offered an alternative to our typical telling of the story. In the Christian world, we have always argued that it was the sin of Adam and Even that created the chasm between God and humanity. The Rabbi asked one important question, though, that changes the equation. Why would God place the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the center of the garden and then instruct them not to eat it even though the “fruit was good for food and a delight for the eyes,” and also place the serpent in the garden to point to the tree that was “off-limits.” The Rabbi posits that God orchestrated this encounter and that the goal was to get Adam and Eve to eat of the fruit so that their eyes would be opened. They did not die after eating the fruit, instead they were brought into the fullness of life.

What we often think of as the fullness of life is that which is easy and without effort. God shows Adam and Eve; Noah, and Noah’s sons; and now Abraham and Sarah that the fullness of life is one which requires commitment. When we read about the idyllic circumstances in the Garden of Eden, God never intended for be trouble free and perfect. Trouble free and perfect doesn’t allow humanity to explore the depths of their humanness, to explore the depths of God, their creator, nor the depths of creation itself. Their commitment to God and to the process of growing in both faith and in understanding was the hallmark of God’s creation. As humans, we are uniquely positioned to experience these things.

We might ask why God would want us to experience these depths, why it is necessary for us to live with death and strife, even evil? If you think about the human experience from the beginning of time, it has been a series of steps forward, steps backwards, but always moments of self-discovery. It’s as if God set in motion the very foundation of the universe and then set humans in motion to explore and create in their own way. We are not only discovering more about ourselves, how our minds and body’s function, but also how the universe is knit together in this amazing tapestry of life.

God wants us to experience all of this and more. If the universe is alive, and I do believe that it is, if humans weren’t made to be curious beings who strive toward deeper knowledge, then why make something (i.e., the universe) that no one will discover?

For all that we say about God, the mystery that is God is our greatest quest. We search throughout the cosmos for a glimpse of the divine, a taste of that which we can never fully know. How the earliest writers of the Hebrew text describe this act of becoming may be the story that made sense to them, the story that explained the act of creation and the leaning into the fullness of life, but it also the ongoing story of all of creation. We continue to expand our knowledge, expand or depth and breadth of wisdom regarding the function and form of the universe, and at the center of all this activity is the God of Abraham, showing us one more layer of what it means to faithfully commit to the God of creation.

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  • Rev. Izzy Harbin

14 June 2021 Genesis 1 and 2
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The Book of Genesis provides us with a variety of wonderful stories regarding the foundation of the world and of the people who will become known as the Israelites. In the coming weeks, we are going to journey through the Book of Genesis to discover some truths and insights that may be hiding in plain sight.

When we read the first account of creation in Genesis 1, we immediately recognize God’s activity as one who creates. God systematically and logically ordered the world we now know. Upon a closer look, though, we can also say that God, through his ordering, also created separation: night from day, land from water, vegetables from fruits, animals that dwell on the land from those that fly in the air, and finally the creation of humans, both male and female.

The universe swirled in chaos that God then ordered, but the act of separating out the various aspects of creation divided the chaos from itself. This separation is felt in humanity from the moment we are born, begging the question, “Does the separation within creation extend beyond what we see to what we cannot see? Does this separation naturally separate that which was created from that which created it?”

Is this a significant enough idea to play with? Theologically, separation at creation has huge implications for those who follow Augustine’s thoughts about the “fall of man” and the inherent sinful nature of humanity. By recognizing the separation built into creation, one must decide whether the separation, as orchestrated by God, was by design. We can certainly look at this passage and see the separation, but is there another option—not as unified or separated, but interconnected?

In Karen Armstrong’s book In the Beginning, she relates the separation created by God as a theme that evolves over time in the ancient world. She states:

Nearly all cultures have evolved a myth of a golden age at the dawn of time when men and women lived in close intimacy with the gods. Human beings, it was said, were in complete harmony with their environment, with one another, and with the divine. There was no sickness, no death, no discord. The myth represents a near-universal conviction that life was not meant to be so painful and fragmented. Much of the religious quest has been an attempt to recover this lost wholeness and integration.

The idea that at one time humanity communed with the gods, interacted with the gods on a daily basis, is widely written into our earliest literature. Over time, though, the gods become less involved with human activity. Throughout the history of the Hebrew people, we see God interacting with the in a variety of ways. What may not be obvious, though, is that God’s relationship with the Hebrew people, just like the gods and their interactions with other cultures, changes dramatically over time to include much of the same distancing and separation.

For those of us reading Genesis in the 21st century, we take the little we know about the writers of Genesis and extrapolate potential expectations of God from their writings. In truth, we have no idea how close God was to that which God created. All the written and oral accounts of creation from vast cultures around the glob were all considered myths used by those cultures to derive meaning and purpose for being created in the first place. It is only in the present era that we see folks attempting to use Chapter 1 of Genesis as actual recorded history. This was not true of the Hebrew, however, that first penned these pages.

For the writers of Genesis 1, creation had to begin at some point in history. Lacking all scientific knowledge, they wrote how they imagined God set about creating based on their visual observations of sky, land, water, animals of all kinds, plants and trees of all kinds, and human beings of all colors and cultures. The writers imagined a creator so deft at calling things into being, that God only had to say the word and it was so. But the writers of chapter 1 of Genesis also needed God to be bigger than and outside of creation. They set God at a distance from creation and made God to be a strategic planner who set things out in an orderly fashion. This actually says more about the individuals who wrote Genesis 1 than it does about God.

Still, there is something about the necessity of separation that speaks to me, especially as we continue to long for unity and to be reconnected with our creator. Brene’ Brown frequently speaks of being born “hardwired for connection.” On some level we believe this is true, but then we must ask the more difficult question, “Why are some folks so broken and disconnected?”

Many religious scholars would say that the fall of Adam and Eve introduced sin into the world, which is what caused our separation from God. This sin is then passed on to generation upon generation. This would seem like a plausible idea except that we’ve already shown that God introduced separation into the world before Adam and Eve were created (at least in Chapter 1). This creates a dilemma for us as humans in that we cannot understand where evil comes from and why we do the things that only cause more separation. I would argue that it is precisely the struggle against right and wrong or good and evil as a result of inherent separation that makes us human, by God’s design.

In Genesis 2, we are struck by the change in focus and how God is characterized. This is no longer the God of Chapter 1 of Genesis; this God is not systemic or orderly about creation as a whole but is more concerned about the relationship between the divine and the created. We see man being created first, not last, and then moving on to the rest of creation, but not in the same creative order as in Chapter 1. Little care is taken by the authors to maintain symmetry or to be cohesive between the two stories.

There are so many divergent points in the text that we now believe that Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 were written by different sets of authors. We even see the use of place names and river names that were written into the account in Genesis 2 that did not exist at the time of its creation. Many of these myths and stories were penned when Israel was held in captivity in Babylon in the 5th century BCE. Still, there is an important distinction to be made between the God of Chapter 1 and the God of Chapter 2.

One huge distinction between the two; God in chapter 1 creates both male and female at the same time, and they are created in the image of their creator. In Chapter 2, they are made from the dust of the ground. This imagery will come into play repeated throughout the Old Testament and be resonant in how the Hebrew people view themselves in relation to God, “from the dust you were made, and to the dust you shall return.” This doesn’t promise an afterlife or eternal life, simply a beginning and an end. The theological supposition in being created from the earth is that we are and always have been separate and apart from the divine. There is little or no connection between the two worlds. And yet, it is in the Garden of Eden, this supposed paradise, where God will commune with Adam and Adam will feel the closeness of God.

We also see the institution of coupling in Chapter 2, which is not present in Chapter 1. God feels the need to ensure that Adam has a helpmate. What is so startling, though, is how quickly God forgets the kind of creature that Adam is, even though Adam was created unique among all other living things. God first creates all the animals of the field, bird of the air, and fish of the sea. Each is paraded in front of Adam to determine if any would be suitable as a helpmate, but none could be found.

It is important to note that God is also giving Adam some creative license by allowing Adam to name all the animals. This co-creator position is unique to Chapter 2 where God relinquishes some of his own need to do it all and to allow Adam to help with the overall process.

When no helpmate is found, Adam is put to sleep and a woman is formed from Adam. The creation of woman places another form of distance between all parties: God creates Adam; God creates woman from Adam. This distancing only furthers the idea of separation and brings the act of creation under more scrutiny. There is no way for God to create with also creating separation. The very act itself must allow for the molding of distinct things that can be known as distinct things; giving credence to our 20th century motto: unity through diversity.

As the story continues, we’ll see how that which God created quickly spirals out of control and takes on new meanings of who God is and how God shows up in the world. As we dig further into the Book of Genesis, we will see that separation is only one aspect of God that comes into sharper focus. The God that reveals himself in the early chapters of Genesis is a God that demands further examination. And, with any luck, we’ll be able to reconcile some of our discomfort with the God of Genesis as we navigate the difficult beginnings of a people in search of a God of promise and covenant.

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