Monday, July 21, 2008

The Genesis Creation Stories

Alice C. Linsley

The Genesis creation and origin stories have an African cultural context. In this context they are not so much about the origin of humans as about the Creator and the expectation of restoration of pure communion with the Creator.

African origin stories can't be forced into an evolutionary mold. The idea that humans evolved from apes is considered an insult. Dr Mathole Motshekga, Executive Director: Kara Heritage Institute (IKS), has written: "The Custodians of African heritage, the Amakhosi and Izinyaka do not know or accept that humanity and Africans in particular descended from the baboons of Maropeng (Sterksfontein), they regard this as an insult visited on them by archeologists and paleontologists. They want the same amount of resources given to these so-called experts to be given to IKS researchers and custodians to research and document the African Genesis (i.e. the true story of our origins)." So an evolutionary interpretation of Genesis is contrary to the context of the people from whom we receive these stories.

While the creation stories of Genesis are often likened to the Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, they clearly have closer affinity to the creation stories of Africa, especially those of Nilotic peoples. This is to be expected since Abraham's ancestors came from this region. Since Genesis reflects their view of the world, we would expect to find the closest parallels to the Genesis creation and origin stories in this region. Here are some examples:

The Shilluk of the southern Sudan call the Creator Jo-Uk. Jo-Uk made white people out of white sand and the Shilluk of out black dirt. When he came to Egypt, he made the people there out of the Nile mud which is why the Egyptians are red-brown.

Here we find the motif of the Creator making humans from the dirt of the earth (Gen. 2:7).

Jo-Uk brought forth his only begotten son, Kola, by the Sacred White Cow. Kola was the father of Uk-wa who had two wives. One of Uk-wa's son's was Nyakang who became the first ruler.

Here we find the idea of the Creator having an only begotten son. We also find the practice of the ruler having two wives. The sacred cow is a very ancient motif and in Egypt/Nubia she was called Hat-Hor, the mother of Horus who was called "son of God." A shrine along the Nile held an image of Hathor holding her new born son in a manger.

This is evident that the motifs and theological details of the Genesis creation and origins stories are closer to the Shilluk stories than to the Gilgamesh Epic.

Consider the motif of the generative Word of God whereby all things came into being.

Genesis 1:3 states "God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light." This is the uncreated light that means God is present. It is not the light of day since the sun is not yet created. The Word of God is understood to be generative by virtue of God's presence.

A favorite phrase among the Nilotic Luo is "Wach en gi teko" which is translated as 'a word has power'.
The bards of the Bambara Komo Society of Uganda recite this praise of the Word:

The word is total:
it cuts, excoriates
forms, modulates
perturbs, maddens
cures or directly kills
amplifies or reduces
According to intention
It excites or calms souls.

The very phrase "In the beginning was God" is not found in Babylonian sacred prose, but it is found in Africa. The following is a song of the BaMbuti Pygmies:

In the beginning was God
Today is God,
Tomorrow will be God.
Who can make an image of God?
He has no body.
He is as a word which comes out from your mouth,
That word! It is no more,
It is past and still it lives!
So is God.

We find the idea of the beginning and a triune Deity in West Africa. Consider this story in which God creates by blowing and declares His work good:

At the beginning of Things, when there was nothing, neither man, nor animals, nor plants, nor heaven, nor earth, nothing, nothing, God was and He was called Nzame. The three who are Nzame, we call them Nzame, Mebere and Nkwa. At the beginning Nzame made the heaven and the earth and He reserved the heaven for Himself. Then He blew on the earth and the earth and water were created each on its side.

Nzame made everything: heaven, earth, sun, moon, stars, animals, plants; everythng. When He had finished everything that we see today, He called Mbere and Nkwa and showed them His work. "This is my work. It is good."

The Akan of Ghana also have a creation story with the words "In the beginning..."
In the beginning the heavens were closer to the earth. First man and first woman had to be careful while cultivating and grinding grain so that their hoes and pestles would not strike God, who lived in the sky. Death had not yet entered the world and God provided enough for them. But first woman became greedy and tried to pound more grain than she was allotted. To do this, she had to use a longer pestle. When she raised it up, it hit the sky and God became angry and retreated far into the heavens. Since then there has been disease and death and it is not easy to reach God.

The motif of first man and first woman is very common in African sacred story. According to the Yoruba of Nigeria, the Supreme God, Olorun, molded the first man and first woman and breathed into them life and sent them forth to settle the earth. They say that the center of this creative activity was Ife, the dwelling place of the first humans.

One of the most remarkable creation stories is that of the precolonial Kikuyu of Kenya. This story contains many of the motifs found in the Genesis creation stories. There is a first Man and Woman. There is a Tree of Life. And the story involves the birth of nine daughters (interesting since the Afro-Asiatic number system was base nine.) As with all the African stories, this one is clearly intended for oral transmission from generation to generation.

There was wind and rain. And there was also thunder and terrible lightening. The earth and the forest around Mount Kerinyaga shook. The animals in the forest whom the Creator had recently put there were afraid. There was no sunlight. This went on for many days so that the whole land was in darkness. Because the animals could not move, they sat and moaned with the wind. The plants and trees remained dumb.

It was, our elders tell us, all dead except for the thunder, a violence that seemed to strangle life. It was this dark night whose depth you could not measure, not you nor I can conceive of its solid blackness, which would not let the sun pierce through it.

But in the darkness, at the foot of Mount Kerinyaga, a tree rose. At first it was a small tree and it grew up, finding a way even through the darkness. It wanted to reach the light and the sun. This tree had Life. It went up, sending forth the rich warmth of a blossoming tree - you know, a holy tree in the dark night of thunder and moaning. This was Mukuyu, God's tree.

Now you know that at the beginning of things there was only one man (Kikuyu) and one woman (Mumbi). It was under this Mukuyu that He first put them. And immediately the sun rose and the dark night melted away. The sun shone with a warmth that gave life and activity to all things. The wind and the lightening and thunder stopped. The animals stopped moaning and moved, giving homage to the Creator and to Kikuyu and Mumbi. And the Creator, who is also called Murungu, took Kikuyu and Mumbi from his holy mountain to the country of the ridges near Siriana and there stood them on a big ridge. The He took them to Mukuruwe wa Gathanga about which you have heard so much. But He had shown them all the land - yes, children, God showed Kikuyu and Mumbi all the land and told them: "This land I hand over to you, O Man and Woman. It is yours to rule and to till in serenity, sacrificing only to me, your God, under my sacred tree.

Theologically the African stories of the creation of Man are closer to the Genesis stories. God formed Adam and breathed into him life. Contrast this to the Babylonian myth:

Ea said: 'I will join blood to blood and that blood to bone. I will create my own being to adore me. His name is Man.' But he said, 'I will need one life for my creation.' The other gods chose Kingu, the rebel leader, Tiamet's captain. They held him down and bound him and cut open all his veins. With the blood that flowed out of Kingu's veins Ea created Man, to be his servant and to worship him.

This brief comparison of mythologies suggests that the Genesis creation accounts emerge out of an African cultural context, which is what we would expect, seeing that Abraham's ancestors came from Africa.

Related reading:  The Christ in Nilotic Mythology; Afro-Asiatic Kingdom Builders; The Tree of Life; Downloadable Book of Common Prayer in Kikuyu


Rob Rumfelt said...

Thank you so much for this blog. I feel that Genesis is one of the richest and most important books of the Bible.

I just discovered your blog yesterday via Father Stephen's blog. I will definitely be back often!

Some of the African verses you quoted sent chills down my spine. They are wonderful!

Thanks & Blessings!

Alice C. Linsley said...

Welcome to Just Genesis, Rob. I'm glad that you find the content interesting. Genesis is foundational to the whole of sacred Scripture, that being the case, we must seek to understand what we read there on a deeper level, with God's help.

In the months ahead I'll introduce a new heading in the Index: Book Reviews. I hope to highlight some of the good books that have come out recently that treat the book of Genesis.

Rick Lobs said...

I am teaching an overview of Genesis 1-3 this weekend. Your work adds to my info stash. Thanks, Alice, very timely.

Fr. Rick Lobs

Alice C. Linsley said...

Fr. Rick, I wish I could be in the class. I know it will be interesting, informative and inspiring.

I wrote this piece instead of another that I had planned on oral tradition and Genesis. It was meant to be!

Anonymous said...

"Mazvita" (Shona for thank you) for recognising and expressing something that only a few know or if they do are willing to acknowledge...An exciting debate has been going on about the possibility of the Ark of the Covenant being in Zimbabwe...