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In the beginning . . .

20 July 2012

Sister Wendy Beckett reflects on the Book of Genesis


Expulsion from Paradise by Masaccio (1401-c.1428)

Expulsion from Paradise by Masaccio (1401-c.1428)

The stories in the Book of Genesis come from the profundities of the Jewish imagination, but they are not, strictly, "Jewish" stories. Before the Bible narrows down to God's dealings with his chosen people, the Jews, it tells us of the beginnings from which every nation and the world itself have arisen.

This is our beginning, whether we are British or American or Chinese or Nigerian or Brazilian. Many nations have their own creation story, but this is the story as God revealed it. Clearly, it is a "story", not a history - still less a scientific treatise. Although we know all the details (this is certainly the best-known portion of the Bible), it is not the elements of the stories that matter, but their significance.

God created out of his own pure goodness; his only motive was to share what he was. So we hear of the wonders of that six-day creation, and the beauties of the Garden of Eden. Then, bitter real-ity strikes home. We creatures are unwilling to accept what God is so eager to give, and so we have the Fall followed with sinister speed by one brother murdering another. Yet God's involvement continues.

The Flood, which other nations also wrote about, though with a different emphasis, is intended to be a purifying flood. The writer of Genesis (or maybe "writers", because there are many styles at work here) does not delude himself; he is ruefully aware that the "purification" is only partial, and we come to the anger and violence of the Tower of Babel.

WE DO not need to be told that we are "fallen": the world is not as it should be. The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, where they were intended to live, has gripped the imagination of several artists. No one shows more poignantly than Masaccio what it means to leave a world of peace and freedom, and move out into the violence and unhappiness that have dominated every century of human history.

He shows tenderly and sadly the beauty of our first parents, and their heart-rending grief as they encounter the consequences of their actions. Every sin damages us, and it is a grief to God solely because we have lessened and abused our capacity for happiness.

Adam cannot bear to look at what he has done; Eve flings back her head in the anguish of the primeval scream. Yet, naked and vulnerable, ashamed and afraid, they still have above them the radiant presence of an angel, pointing them into their future. God has not abandoned them. They are still beautiful, but now they must work and suffer for what should have been pure delight.

This is the first of four edited extracts from Sister Wendy's Bible Treasury by Sister Wendy Beckett. It is published by SPCK at £14.99 (CT Bookshop £13.50); 978-0-281-06618-6.

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