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
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