I believe there are multiple implications to reading Genesis and the Gospel of John together, in the manner I proposed in my last blog. As I demonstrated, it suggests that the purposes of creation, as posed by John Walton, were always that the world would be the meeting place of God and humans (the cosmos as temple). The Gospel of John’s picture of re-creation confirms this in the first two chapters (describing re-creation over seven days) culminating in the foreshadowing of the marriage supper of the Lamb (or the culmination of creation’s purpose) in which the fellowship or joining of God and man is on the order of a marriage (the Church joined to Christ). In this blog, I suggest that the combination of John and Genesis also gives us the doctrine of creation ex-nihilo (and here I am departing from Walton) and in addition serves to explain how Genesis and John combine to provide a counter ontology to every sort of dualism.
I agree with Walton’s understanding that Genesis may not speak to the issue of how the world was created (that is, it is not aimed at describing the manufacturing process) and is more a picture of the purposes of creation. However, the combination of reading Genesis with John gives us a clear picture of how the universe was not created. Genesis provides an alternative to mythical dualisms (cosmic conflict giving rise to the universe) and John shows how Christ defeats apparent dualisms. The combination serves to explain the precise nature of the different ontology and epistemology set forth in a Christian understanding. This sets a limit to all myth-making tendencies – be it ancient cosmologies or modern cosmologies fused with modernist ideologies.
So, John not only precludes reading Genesis as a flat literal account of creation but it also suggests that Genesis is a counter to mythical dualisms (as I demonstrate below) – an understanding which is itself counter to 19th century readings of Genesis. Hermann Gunkel posited the paradigm for understanding all ancient creation narratives as an original violence between cosmic forces or gods. The violence between Marduk and Tiamat in the Babylonian Creation Epic (Enuma Elish) for example, he presumes also explains the creation story of Genesis in which he tries to posit two opposed forces. What if the opposite is the case? What if the creation account of Genesis, as seen through the Gospel of John, is actually the counter to an originary violence and dualism?
Just as John seems to be addressing Gnostic-like dualisms so as to demonstrate how Christ deconstructs and overcomes these apparent dualisms, so too Genesis, read through John, seems to counter violent creation myths in which, commonly, the body or blood of a slain god is the raw material of the created order. As long as the Enuma Elish was the only example contemporary with Genesis, the impetus of Gunkel and others was to try to develop a unified understanding in which to incorporate Genesis. As more ancient creation myths have been discovered there is a clear unified theme. The creation myths of the world are made up of a variety of struggles (between the gods or between cosmic forces), though the Enuma Elish seems to be unusual in providing an explanation for the entire cosmos.1 Most creation stories are local, such as that found in the Kojiki describing the creation of the Japanese Islands. Likewise, the conflict giving rise to local creation is local and not strictly a dualism. Nonetheless, the local conflict seems to point to an original chaos, ongoing conflict, and ultimate dualism. However, while Genesis resonates with themes similar to contemporary creation myths, it is unique in its lack of an originary violence or struggle between the gods or within the cosmic order. As D. Tsumura concludes, “there is no hint of struggle or battle” in Genesis.2 Could it be that Genesis read through John not only provides a counter to the notion of an original chaos or violence but also provides an explanation for dualistic creation myths?
Genesis, in its portrayal of the Fall as giving rise to a binary knowledge (the knowledge of good and evil), combined with John’s picture of apparent dualisms (light versus darkness, life versus death, etc.) points to the necessarily closed nature (the cosmos as all-encompassing) of creation myths and of the human enterprise. A knowledge based on identity through difference (the knowledge of good and evil) must absolutize those differences (we are here entering the realm of contradiction worked out by Hegel) so as to arrive at absolutes. According to John, sin has come into the world and this sin constitutes a cosmos – or a world of darkness unto itself. In the fallen world, left to its own resources to explain itself, death/darkness/absence/chaos become(s) (this is not a plurality of things) the only absolute. In ancient cosmologies death becomes the source of life and the source of all things – much as Plato’s chora (chaos) is the maternal womb of the universe. It is not simply that man has become the arbiter of morality (the knowledge of good and evil) but the universe itself has become the ground of explanation and genesis of all things. This includes philosophical explanations from Plato to Heidegger, psychoanalytic explanations from Julia Kristeva to Jacques Lacan, and the myriad of religious explanations as to the origin of the universe and its parts.
Creation myths do for ontology what ethics does for axiology. As Bonhoeffer noted, when man becomes an ethicist this is a sign of the Fall. By the same token, when man becomes religious, or when man becomes an epistemologist etc., this is a sign of the Fall. All bear the mark of working in a closed system and of attempting to bootstrap a way to heaven (or to a final ground or absolute). As Jacques Derrida, has noted, there is a universal form to human knowing which is inherently implosive and violent. Religious myth is simply a manifestation of this underlying form. Out of Tiamat’s corpse, Marduk creates the heavens and the earth, which typifies the mode and material of creation outside of Genesis. Death as the absolute becomes the source of life.
René Girard explains how violent sacrifice/death is projected onto the gods as the genesis of all things. Girard identified the scapegoating mechanism (violent rivalry released through a victim) as standing behind the primal violence from which societies arise. Myth, in Girard’s estimate, is the sacralizing and hiding of this original violence. “Beginning with some violent cosmic or social crisis, and culminating in the suffering of a mysterious victim (often at the hands of a furious mob), all these myths conclude with the triumphal return of the sufferer, thereby revealed as a divinity.” The scapegoat becomes the redeeming god through the cover-up of a murder by means of the myth.
Girard has permanently changed the definition of myth and the relationship between myth and the Christian Scriptures. Girard proposes that the Gospels are the reversal of this cover-up and thus serve as the key to myth-making. “The world’s myths do not reveal a way to interpret the Gospels, but exactly the reverse: the Gospels reveal to us the way to interpret myth.” In the story of Jesus all the elements of myth-making are present: “The crowd that gathers against Jesus is the same that had enthusiastically welcomed him into Jerusalem a few days earlier. The sudden reversal is typical of unstable crowds everywhere: rather than a deep-seated hatred for the victim, it suggests a wave of contagious violence.”3 The difference is that Jesus exposes the scapegoating and mythmaking process throughout his preaching and teaching.
In John’s imagery, Christ has come to defeat sin and darkness through his death. Given the understanding that death is made an absolute source – the very means of generation, it can be understood how Jesus incarnation and death address the fundamental deception constituting human darkness. The darkness penetrated by the light is neither an origin nor is it an ontological ground counter to the light. Darkness is only as deep as sin and death which, in the absence of Christ, gives the appearance of being absolute. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome (or “comprehend” in the NASB) it” (1:5). The verb καταλαμβάνειν can mean either “comprehend” or “overcome” but this is clearly a refutation of dualism, as the power of darkness can neither encompass (so as to comprehend) nor overcome the light. The light dispels the darkness for those who are willing to enter into it. There is no real contest, though the position and power of the light may be contested in each individual. The phrase from 1:5 occurs again in John 12:35 “that darkness overtake you not.” The full context speaks of individual blindness to the light as constitutive of the darkness. The knowledge constituted by the darkness exists, not by its own virtue, but on the basis of denial of the light. This negative power is that which is addressed by the cross and which is undone by Christ.
The ultimate corporate refusal of God and attempt to create a world absent of God takes place at the crucifixion which is the place where God defeats Satan (the satan or the power of darkness). “Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (Jn 12:31-32).4 The cross has universal appeal because it addresses the universal predicament foisted upon humankind by the power of darkness. The power which the devil wields is ultimately the power of negation and death (variously explained in the New Testament as the fear of death, deception, enslavement to the devil, blindness, etc.). Christ overcomes the darkness and exposes it for a lie as he demonstrates the limited nature of death, darkness, and the grave. His death and resurrection are the decisive victory of God over the forces of evil as evil depends upon the sort of reified force of death (found in ancient cosmologies among other places). The worst that evil can do is to slay the Lord of Glory but in this very event the power and glory of God are shown to prevail. Oppositional duality is forever dispelled in the defeat of the power darkness.
In the usual scapegoating scenario Jesus, would die as a result of the blind hatred and violence of the crowd and the crowd would remain ignorant of how its own blindness and violence is really the “creative” force giving rise to society and its myth. But at each step Jesus explains the anatomy of hatred and violence, summed up in the sweeping statement, “They hated me without a cause” (Jn 15:25). Jesus is quoting and summarizing one of the scapegoating Psalms, which as Girard explains, “literally turns the mob’s mythical justifications inside out. Instead of the mob speaking to justify violence with causes that it perceives as legitimate, the victim speaks to denounce the causes as nonexistent.”5 This exposure of scapegoating and mythmaking at the cross provides the key to seeing Genesis as unique and revolutionary. “In the beginning” death as a mode of creation is no longer a possibility after John explains, “In the beginning was the Word.” The Fall, which explains how death is reified into a point of generation and genesis (not only in ancient cosmologies but in all sorts of mythmaking strategies), is reversed and undone. Death and darkness are not absolute. The strategies that would constitute them as such are forever defeated.
This returns us to the temple motif in John, which is a reversal of the mythical sacrificial generation of life, but also a return to creations true purpose. Jesus declares, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (2:19). While the Jews in the narrative misunderstand the reference to the temple, the narrator ensures that readers of the narrative understand that Jesus speaks of himself: “But he spoke of the temple of his body” (2:21). Jesus slain body is not the material canopy of the heavens but is the means by which creations purpose as the mutual dwelling place of humans with God comes to pass. Here is the defeat of every material ontology and the counter to the materialism of the Jews (the physical temple as an end in itself). Combined with John’s reading of Genesis we can now recognize that it is not simply the Jewish misunderstanding but it is the world’s deception which is here exposed. Creation from out of death, as in mythical cosmologies, is reversed in reading Genesis with John. At the same time, Genesis as a temple dedication fulfilled and completed in Christ, does away with every material ontology – be it ancient or modern cosmologies or various philosophical ontologies.
Certainly, we can say with Walton, that Genesis is not a material ontology but I believe we can go far beyond this. Genesis read through John stands against every material ontology. The combination of the two books confirms that Genesis is describing creation ex-nihilo (creation from nothing and not creation from a material something), and this mode of creation is by definition tied to an understanding of redemption in which creations purpose as temple is restored. This temple restoration project is aimed at every false temple and religion, every false understanding, as these systems constituted in darkness necessarily rely upon the false dualisms forever defeated by Christ.
1 See the article by Walton.
2Quoted by John Walton, “Creation in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and the Ancient Near East: Order out of Disorder after Chaoskampf” in Calvin Theological Journal (CT/43 (2008): 48-63).
3 Rene Girard, “Are the Gospels Mythical,” First Things (April 1996, https://www.firstthings.com/article/1996/04/are-the-gospels-mythical).
4 References are from the NASB unless otherwise indicated.
5 Girard op. cit.