Intermezzo – Reading the Creation Story together

Reading the Creation Story together

Intermezzo by Herman Beck

It’s always a great pleasure to work in a context of religious diversity. Reading each other’s relevant texts together with believers from another tradition is an enriching experience. Their refreshing perspective and different historical experience force you to look at your own familiar texts in a new way. As a protestant Christian I had the privilege of teaching as a visiting professor at the IAN Sunan Kalijaga, an Islamic State University in Yogyakarta in Indonesia. It was my task to introduce PhD students to the Western approaches in religious studies; in particular historical critical analysis and the method of literary-critical method of studying religious documents. In this approach holy books are studied as are other literary texts. Questions are asked about the historical context in which they were written, so as to promote their understanding.

In our group we decided that the reading of the first two chapters of Genesis would offer a good exercise to get to know these Western approaches and show the problems that might arise.

I was expecting that my students would be a little uncomfortable at this approach, for they believe that the Qur’an is the word of God whereas I like many Christians believe that the Bible was written by different people in a variety of historical settings, although God’s truth might shine through these human words in one way or another.

That there are two different creation stories in the Bible was no problem for my Muslim students. In the Qur’an the creation story also appears in different verses, without a perfect consistency between them.

They were also familiar with the problem that, whilst on the one hand, God created the Universe from nothing, (creatio ex nihilo), there was on the other hand already something there: the waters (chapter alpha).That was familiar to them for in the Qur’an God’s throne was over the waters before creation started. Even the six days of creation they did not take literally, for day in this context was a divine unit of time, rather than a week day as we know them. Our day and night appeared only in the course of creation, when God created sun and moon. So reading the creation story Genesis 1 presented no problems to my Muslim students. On the contrary they liked the Genesis version, which, compared to the scattered verses in the Qur’an, was more complete and beautiful. However we got into trouble when we came to Genesis 2:2, which reads:

“And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.”

When they read that, my students simply burst out laughing! That made me a bit unsure of myself. I had after all only been in Indonesia for a short while, only three months in fact, and I couldn’t figure out what they were laughing about.
“Did I say something silly?” I asked.
“No No, it isn’t you we are laughing about; it’s the absurd idea that God Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, should need a rest. How on earth could God be tired?” In the Qur’an it is completely different. There is nothing like unto him. So God is also completely unlike a human being. Humans have needs, God is self sufficient. Saying that God needed a rest is giving him human needs. That is absurd. This made me realize that due to my own education and socialization, I took things for granted, which on second thoughts might need rethinking.

Thank goodness, after searching the Bible, we finally found, for this anthology, tucked away in the book Isaiah, a quote about God never tiring, Isaiah 40:28.
“Hast thou not heard tha… the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth neither is weary”.

No I hadn’t – until I came to Indonesia.

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