97 Genesis revisted: how it’ll save our civilisation

genesis meaning symbol


Charming fairytale, or divine truth? How we sit with the Genesis creation stories shapes how we approach life’s biggest questions: on life’s meaning, love, the nature of reality, gender, marriage and human suffering.


Might I suggest that whatever your understanding about Genesis, its creation stories are the most influential in human history, and outside the four gospels, arguably the most important book in the bible! So important, that Jesus himself refers to it again and again (which should already give it some credibility). But that aside, the pastoral significance of Genesis cannot be overstated, for in a few short chapters, questions like:

  • How do we humans have special dignity?
  • Who says men and women were made equal?
  • Why is there suffering, and what are we to do with it?
  • Is there a purpose to my life? All of these, and many more are addressed.

Pope Benedict XVI often lamented that what had gone missing in recent theology was the reference to creation, and our amnesia of its story are felt far and wide today. As part of the remedy of this, enter this episode:   

Is Genesis scientifically credible?

I want to first address the elephant in the room: is Genesis a trustworthy source to begin with. After all, how can a charming story about paradise and apples and naked people and talking snakes be more than a fairytale – can we trust this story in an age of science? Was the world really made in seven days? Where were the dinosaurs? What about evolution? Well, the simple answer to these objections is that the creation story in Genesis is true, even if it’s not necessarily factual. Truth and fact are not the same. For example, the statement ‘my heart is burning with desire’ is not a factual statement, for if it really were, I’d certainly be dead. However, if I am in love with someone, to describe ‘my heart as burning with desire for them’ is nevertheless a true statement – but truth expressed poetically. In likewise way, the creation stories in Genesis contain truth expressed poetically. Genesis never claimed to be a scientific account of the world’s origins, for indeed, science wasn’t even a category of thought when it was compiled somewhere in the 6th C BC. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the authors were not interested in how the world came to be, but why. Why did God create the world, and what is the purpose for doing so? It is to these questions we now turn.

Part 1: The creation of the world

Here’s a fundamental question to ask yourself, right now: is the world a fundamentally good place, or an evil place? And what about the God that created it – is he good, evil, or indifferent, or maybe he doesn’t even exist and the universe is sheer colossal chance? These questions absolutely matter to our everyday lives. We learnt from the previous Our Lady of Guadalupe episode that the Aztecs believed the gods were not good, and in fact were angry and demanded blood sacrifices in order to be appeased – lest the sun refuse to rise. So before we can judge them for their rite of human sacrifice, consider what their creation story taught them, because from there, derives their every practice. The same goes for the ancient Greeks, whose pantheon of gods on Olympus were capricious and moody. This again affected how the Greeks understood their place in the world. You’ll notice the theme of fate is big in Greek tragedy, precisely because they believed the gods played dice with their lives … and they had little say in the matter. And then, there’s the great Babylonian creation story, spelled out in the Enuma Elish. This is particularly important for us today, because Genesis was composed during the time the Israelites were in captivity during the Babylonian exile. As such, they were living in a culture with a VERY different creation story to ours. What did the Babylonians believe? I’m going to quote directly from a Pope Benedict homily here when he says “the Babylonians believed that the world was produced out of a struggle between opposing powers and that it assumed its form when Marduk the god of light appeared and split in two the body of the primordial dragon Tiamat. From this sundered body heaven and earth came to be. Thus the firmament and the earth were produced from the sundered body of the dead dragon, but from its blood Marduk fashioned human beings. It is a foreboding picture of the world and of humankind that we encounter here: the world is a dragon’s body and human beings have dragons blood in them. At the very origin of the world lurks something sinister and in the deepest part humankind there lies something rebellious, demonic and evil. In this view of things only a dictator, the kind of Babylon, who is the representative of Marduk, can repress the demonic and restore ethe world to order.” Having listened to such a pessimistic account of the world now, let’s turn our attention to Genesis.

The first lines of Genesis read: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.”

Okay, there is so much to unpack even in this short line. First, when we read the lines “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”, note that ‘heavens and the earth’ is Jewish euphemism to say God created everything … and more importantly, he did so ‘just like that.’ Unlike say the Babylonian, Greek or Norse accounts, the world wasn’t born out of violence or struggle, but rather it was born because God willed it to. There was only one God in the beginning and there was never any rivalry between him and other gods. In fact, later details in Genesis like God hanging the sun and the moon to measure day and night is a subtle swipe at other religions, which actually worshiped the sun and moon as gods. As it turns out, the true God of the universe not only created these ‘gods’ he uses them only to measure time! Very interesting. Okay, then the next line says that “the earth was a formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” Then God speaks … and out of the ‘tohu va-vohu”, formless chaos, order was created, first through the separation of day and night, then the next day, sky and water and so on and so forth. What’s the significance here? The world is imbued with God’s reason, his mind, his Logos. No part of creation is a random accident, for all of it comes forth from God’s very mind. Therefore, we can confer that human beings, the crown of creation, are also born of the mind of God. There is not a single person today, that is a mistake, an accident.

Part 2: Humans are more than advanced animals

Our biblical scholars are quick to point out that the creation of man is clearly meant to be a crescendo in the story of creation – the big, final act in which all of creation gives pause in wonder. After a rhythmic cycle of six days, God says, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” Okay… so much in this passage to unpack. First, it is clear that human beings are not just one of the many animals or even the greatest of the animals. We are altogether different. This is evident by the fact that humans alone were made in God’s image and likeness – meaning we are like God both within and without. Genesis 2 depicts how God fashions Adam out of the clay, and breathes his very spirit into him, which he doesn’t do for other animals. What sets us apart is the divine life within us. For all we could argue about whether animals are rational or self-aware, animals don’t pray, because the spirit of God is not in them. They are not made in God’s image and therefore not made for that type of communion. Can you see the pastoral significance of this? There are plenty of narratives floating about today that suggest human beings ARE just animals, that we are no different from beasts, or worse, we are but space dust with little significance when we die. Many today lives out of this nihilistic narrative, and if we aren’t intentional about proclaiming our own, the consequences are dire indeed.

Part 3: Genesis and the purpose of life

When we think how man is made in the image and likeness of God, we often think this passage refers to man alone, as an individual. While this remains absolutely true and bedrock foundational to western values, St John Paul II invites us to ponder how it is man-in-relationship, that best mirrors the image of God. After all, the statement reads “in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.” Note that God says in the plural “let us make mankind in our image”. If God himself is a relationship, a Trinitarian communion between persons, then it would make sense that his image, man, mirrors him best when he is also in relationship. Here lies something of the purpose of our lives: love, and to live in loving relationship with one another. Over and above the narrow self-actualising, self-realising narratives in our culture, Genesis reminds us that our greatest fulfilment comes through relationships. St John Paul II’s Theology of the Body reminds us that our very physical bodies proclaim this truth. A man or a woman, standing naked in a mirror will soon realise that their bodies do not make total sense by themselves. We were made to be a gift for another, to give of ourselves to another. Thus, stamped in our very physicality is the blueprint of what we were made for: to make ourselves as a sincere gift for another. It is in giving of ourselves, that we find ourselves, and we would do well to remember this ‘law of the gift’.

How we love differs slightly between male and female, something we’ll look at a little later. For now I just want to point out how the two genders were firmly established by God in chapter one, book one. Gender is not merely a social construct that can be dismantled at a whim. One’s given gender is also not a mistake, regardless of the social pressures put on any individual today. And though men and women are different in physicality, they are equal in dignity. This detail is evident in the fact that it was out of the rib of Adam that Eve was created – and not out of his head, or toenail. While gender equality seems self evident to us, it is not, in cultures not founded upon the biblical narrative. Just think of communist China, the caste system of India and some theocracies in the Middle East today.

Part 4: The nature of marriage

The institution of marriage is also something that God ordains right from the early chapters of Genesis. It is not, unlike popular belief today, merely a convenient or economical social construct. In Genesis, God ordains that “a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”. The word ‘joined’ or ‘cleaved’ in some translations is inadequate. The original Hebrew word ‘dabaq’, actually means to become intimately bonded, permanently committed to someone, which is how Christians know that God willed marriage as a permanent bond, not merely a convenient one. He also ordains that this permanent one flesh union be open to children, which is the meaning of “be fruitful and multiply”. It is evident then, that the Catholic teaching on sex as both unitive and procreative, finds it genesis in Genesis, not in some theologian’s mind.

Part 5: What happened at the Fall

We’ve established that the world isa fundamentally good place, meaning that even after the fall, it still remains good, though it is fallen. There’s a difference, for even a fallen human being is still fundamentally good.The pastoral implications of this worldview are ginormous.Now, you’re probably already quite familiar with the story of the serpent coming along, distorting God’s words, and tempting Eve to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. She then passes said apple to Adam who also eats, and then suddenly the two of them have their eyes opened, and they realise they are naked, and run off hiding from God. Okay brief pause here. What exactly was the temptation that Adam and Eve fell for? It wasn’t a bite from the apple or pomegranate. It was the temptation to play God. You may not know that there were in fact two trees in Eden – the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and also the Tree of Life. Now, Eden was deliberately set up a bit like the Jewish temple, in which the tree of life is positioned on a hill, raised up as the holy of holies, which was where God dwelled, the very presence of God. In Genesis, God actually invites Adam and Eve to eat of this tree of life – meaning, to share in his divine life. This was our original destiny! But what do Adam and Eve do? They fall for the lie to eat of the other tree. To eat of the knowledge of good and evil is another way of saying that they wanted to be to judge of good and evil. In other words, they wanted to play God. The result? Exile from the garden, and death. That would be a fitting punishment for mankind in many a creation myth in the world … but this is where the one true God shows his true nature. Right after the fall, our God already formulates  a salvation plan … one that would result in two more trees of life being offered to mankind: firstly at the Burning Bush, and then finally… at the Cross of Christ (both of which were on hill incidentally). God would also ‘raise up’ a new Adam and a new Eve, that would undo the mistakes of the first Adam and Eve. Who is this New Adam and Eve? Jesus and Mary.

St John was very intentional about this in his gospel. You’ll remember that Jesus curiously calls Mary ‘Woman’ twice: once at wedding of Cana, and the second at the foot of the cross. Far from being a derogatory title to his mum, ‘Woman’ is only ever used once in the bible: in Genesis. ‘Woman’ is the title Adam gives Eve. Hence, we were meant to see the parallels between the first Tree of Life, and the new Tree of Life. Where Eve was disobedient to God and tried to snatch at the fruit of divine life, Mary was obedient to God, and humbly received the fruit of divine life. Where Adam under the first tree stood passively while his beloved was ambushed by the serpent, Christ the new Adam, puts his body on the line to protect his beloved from the serpent. You may be interested to know that the translation of the word serpent ‘nachash’ is sometimes translated as dragon. Was it a dragon then, in Eden? It would go to show why men are so obsessed with slaying dragons in world mythology, because that was precisely what Adam didn’t do. Instead of using his masculine strength to fight and defend, he stood by passively … which is the opposite of slaying the dragon. Christ however, restores this masculine genius for men. And for women, Mary’s fiat restores the feminine genius that was lost when Eve failed as the nurturing mother of all living. Through Mary, we learn once again that, “a woman’s soul is fashioned as a shelter in which other souls may unfold” – that’s from St Edith Stein. While many woman will be called to biological motherhood, all women are first called to spiritual motherhood… in the same way that all men are first called to spiritual fatherhood (and not merely grown-up boyhood). Jesus and Mary, pray for us, that we may see in you the redemption of our masculinity and femininity, Amen. 


Okay! Can you believe that all of that came from pretty much three chapters in Genesis? I hope you’re beginning to see the pastoral significance if this ancient work. All we’ve covered today is about 1% of what could be covered – and who knows I might even do another episode on Genesis at some point to cover more. But for now, I hope I’ve lit a fire in you to rediscover the richness of these ancient texts and to share what you now know. If you’d like a practical pilgrim exercise today, I do suggest you search up on YouTube lectures by either Dr John Lennox or Dr Jordan Peterson on the books of Genesis, for they both offer piercing and timely insights that often gets missed today. There’s hours and hours of content there on just 3 chapters – or sometimes even one line, so have a feast! Until next time, journey forth, take care and God bless.

Suggested further content

Dr John Lennox – Confidence in Genesis

Dr Jordan Peterson – Biblical Series II: Genesis 1: Chaos & Order