A smoothie: there it is in front of you, but you have no idea what’s in it. Somebody has to tell you what the ingredients are. Reality is like that.
The first 11 chapters of the Book of Genesis are called the “Primaeval Prologue,” and they are rather different from the rest of the book.
Once you get to the safe waters of Genesis 12, you know you are being helicoptered into the Middle Bronze Age and the scenery is familiar enough from all other kinds of historical documents that have been dug up over the centuries. Genesis 12 and onwards is Bronze Age literature with Bronze Age conventions, and it’s not much of a stretch to see it as broadly historical.
Genesis 1-11 is different. It talks about Creation, the Garden of Evil, the Flood, the Tower of Babel. It’s hard to shoehorn that into what we currently think we know of pre-history: human evolution, the development of languages, the way the world seems always to have known suffering, rather than having a time of perfection that was upended by human sin.
Not only that, but the stories in the Primaeval Prologue themselves seem to be … well different. Adam, for example, is not so much a name as the word for ‘mankind’. Then you have talking snakes and metaphorical trees. And people who live 900 years. It’s as if the Bible is trying to tell us something. What’s it saying? Perhaps it’s saying the Prologue is much more about reality than it is about history. It’s really, as my Old Testament lecturer told me, about ‘who we are and what we are to do.’
Reality is presented to us like a smoothie, already whizzed to a mush. The Primaeval Prologue tells us the ingredients: it’s a reverse-engineered smoothie. Here are these ingredients:
- God made everything, and he made it good
- People have chosen independence over trust and we are all caught up in this and it’s caused a lot of problems.
- Disaster and recovery is an engine of history — the Flood is the archetype.
- People coming together, achieving something, thinking they don’t need God, then toppling over, is another engine of history, true of corporations and countries — the Tower of Babel is the archetype.
Creation, fall, death, loss, coming together, falling short, falling apart are the ingredients of the smoothie called ‘reality’. They are history’s heartbeat: God’s creation and recreation; human rebellion; networks re-forming; on and on.
This is a much more fun text, much more profound, and much more useful than if it were merely history.
Bonus material — another way of saying that same thing that physicists might like: the Primaeval Prologue as a Fourier transform
Suppose you were able to express reality as a single complicated waveform. Call that trace ‘reality’. It would be quite a scribble.
Physicists know a beautiful piece of maths (called a Fourier analysis) that says every single possible scribble, however complicated, can be expressed as a sum (or in the limit an integral) of a bunch of beautiful, regular sine waves. If you find enough different sine waves and put them together carefully enough, you can reproduce any scribble, any signature, anything that can be drawn without a pencil leaving the paper.
So the complex scribble (or waveform) is ‘reality.’ The writer of the Primaeval Prologue did a Fourier analysis of it. And the stories in Genesis 1-11 are the resultant sine waves, simple things that everyone can understand. Sum them together, and you explain who we are and what we are to do.
Here’s a link that explains the Fourier Transform. Unbelievably, it uses the same metaphor of a smoothie as I used earlier on. Equally unbelievably, it demonstrates how to transform a sketch of Homer Simpson in a series of sine waves.
You can read much more about this sort of thing in my book More than Bananas, How the Christian faith works for me and the whole world, which is free on Kindle.