The stories that define us

In his daily meditation for this past Sunday, Richard Rohr correctly invites us to embrace the concept of original blessing and eschew meta-narratives of violence, since these are stories that shape us.

I have immense respect for Rohr and his theological reflections, but I quickly found myself dissenting from the process by which he constructed his otherwise worthy appeal.

First of all, the Enuma elish is from several hundred years before the Babylonian exile and most likely was not the form of the ANE creation myth that was known to the Jewish exiles, let along the theologians who composed Genesis 1.

As I shall point out below, the Jews had their own versions of God slaying the dragon / sea-monster in order to create the world, so they really did not need to borrow this stuff from their goyyim neighbours.

And then I found myself wondering why even progressive theologies—with higher than usual openness to the spiritual insights of other religions—still tend assume that our tradition is pure and non-violent, while other (pagan) traditions are crude and violent?

Secondly, to conjure up an early form of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity from the opening verses of Genesis—as Rohr does in this reflection—is very bad exegesis and even worse interfaith theology.

“Creator” is a function of God (Elohim) in Genesis 1, and not a title — just as it is not the ID of the first person of the Trinity in Christian tradition, despite contemporary attempts to make it so in a gender-free formula such as “Creator, Redeemer and Giver of Life”.

The Hebrew term ruach (wind, spirit), does not refer to the Holy Spirit when used in an ancient Jewish text. While ruach-elohim is literally “wind of God”, it is probably best understood as as Hebrew superlative form, and translated as “a powerful wind” or “a strong storm”, just as a phrase like gibeah-elohim means “very big hill” rather than “hill of God”.

Finally, there is no logos/Word—or even feminine Sophia figure—in this ancient creation poem, simply a God who says, “Let there be light,” etc.

Thirdly, the violence that Rohr finds so abhorrent is still implicit in the story with echoes of ancient conflict traditions in the Hebrew terms that occur within the first few sentences. In any case, the violent defeat of the primordial sea-monster or dragon is explicit in other Hebrew creation poems found in the Psalms and in the Prophets. The ancient Jews, it seems, were not averse to depicting creation as a violent defeat of the primordial serpentine opponent of YHWH.

Perhaps more significantly for both Jewish and Christian readers, this violence is matched and even excelled by the ghastly stories of Abraham (almost) sacrificing his son, Isaac, and Jephthah actually sacrificing his own daughter, not to mention those defective Christian understandings of the atonement which see the death of Jesus as a substitutionary sacrifice in which an innocent person is killed in place of the many sinners.

The violence does not end there within the Christian Scriptures, but is deeply embedded in apocalyptic visions of the destruction to be wreaked upon humankind and all of creation at the end of time.

To be people of peace we need both a creation myth and a redemption myth that eschews violence, and what we have in the Bible are origin myths and end-time myths that are dripping with violence and destruction.

No wonder the modern world is in such a mess.

All of this is related to the myth of St George slaying the dragon, which is an ancient oriental archetype for the victory of civilisation (imperial violence, or the violence of civilisation, as John Dominic Crossan would remind us) over the forces of chaos. The rider on the white horse has a long mythic history long before it was attached to the name of St George, and it is extended further in the Book of Revelation—a.k.a. the Apocalypse [!!!] of John—where the victorious Christ figure sits upon a white horse as he rides out to destroy Satan, a.k.a that great dragon or serpent.

Rohr should know all this, and probably does.

So I wonder why he penned a reflection that leaves all these issues aside and does not see the violence embedded in our own tradition and celebrated in our central liturgies?

About gregoryjenks

Anglican priest and religion scholar. Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Dean and Rector, Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Grafton. Formerly Dean at St George's College, Jerusalem.
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