Genesis: 1970’s Melodrama or Act I of an Epic?

During my senior year of high school The American Film Institute released their top 100 movies of all time. When I saw the list, I immediately started checking off flicks I had seen over the years. I was surprised, as an 18 year-old, how many I could check off the list, but many still remained. I had myself a challenge.

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1.22.11 – “The French Connection” by Movies in LA under license CC BY-NC 2.0

Little by little I would see one or another movie on the list and keep inventory. Over time, I began to see a disturbing pattern, particularly with films from the 1960’s and 1970’s. The Deer Hunter, The French Connection, Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Chinatown: Depressing. Even solid gold, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—spoiler alert—they die!

Now, fairy tales, for the most part, have relatively simple plot lines. Part of their allure and longevity is a result of their brevity, while still containing powerful, widely applicable lessons. They are, nevertheless, straightforward: one hero with one objective, one cruel villain and one major crisis before a happy and satisfying resolution.

But what happens when the hero of the fairy tale does not win his battle? What happens when we don’t get “happily ever after”?

It means one of two things. It means we’re either watching one of those myriad depression-fests of the 1970’s, or it may very well mean we’re simply in store for a longer, more complicated story than we had anticipated. Following the initial failure, a new layer of the story is introduced, with a goal for redemption.

The initial pages of Scripture may outline a fairy tale at the beginning, with God the Creator employing humanity, the pinnacle of his creation, to administer his life-giving glory throughout the creation. An enemy arises in the form of the serpent to threaten this endeavor, but the Lord supplies the tempted humans with a clear command with which to combat the snake’s charms.

But, as we all know, there is no “happily ever after” in Genesis 3.

Rather, Adam and Eve fail. The first couple, humanity’s archetypes, are given one simple task: trust God and don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Easy, right? But the serpent’s wiles gets them to question their Creator, to pluck the forbidden fruit and partake.

As a result, the creation itself is cursed and the Lord’s first priests are banished from the beatific natural temple of Eden. Humanity—meant to be God’s representatives pushing back chaos on the earth—is severed from the life-giving God.

So, what sort of story are we in for? Is the Bible a 70’s melodrama? Or could it be we’re embarking on a longer journey toward redeeming God’s first objective?

Villains and Sidekicks

Human beings, from the beginning, have been tasked with the all-important mission of transmitting the Creator’s glory—and thereby bringing life and order and abundance—to the entire creation. That’s we discovered last time in the pages of the creation narrative of Genesis 1-2.

As we explored earlier, however, every good story has a villain who seeks to thwart the hero’s efforts to accomplish her objective. The Opponent threatens the whole endeavor and brings drama to the narrative.

Who is the Opponent of humanity in the creation narrative? As the Bible begins its saga, who threatens humanity’s job of governing the earth of God’s behalf?

It’s among the most well known tales in all the world: Adam and Eve and the serpent.

Will the first couple succeed in extending the order of creation beyond the borders of Eden? Will they continually eat of the Tree of Life—a symbol, not only of the free-flowing life of God to them, but to the whole of creation?

The serpent has other ideas. He’s out to reassert the realm of chaos, to bring disorder back into the peaceful space the Creator has carved. Agent and Opponent are in a fixed struggle in the early verses of Genesis 3.

A fulfilling tale, however, does not leave the Agent to her own devices. Typically, the Agent receives some kind of Helper. In fact, an audience generally knows this to be a necessary component of a good drama.

Playing in the backyard with the neighbors, we might regularly invent for ourselves superhero identities and enter into pitched battle for an afternoon:

I call out, “My guy can fly!”

“Yeah?” says Greg, indignantly. “Well, my guy shoots lightning bolts. Kapow! You’re dead!”

“Nuh-uh,” I retort. “My guy has an invisible Faraday cage around him at all times. Electricity has no effect!”

No fair! Why? Because it’s cheep victory. My guy has overcome without any real struggle. Indeed he was never in danger from the lightning bolts.

So in a good story, including the biblical story, there must be an external Helper who enters the scene to aid the Agent in accomplishing her goal. In the superhero example, if my guy is to over come the lightning bolts, the help must come from outside himself. He needs a lightning absorbing Helper, a sidekick.

What Helper do Adam and Eve receive to overcome the serpent’s wiles?

In this case, the help has come prior to the serpent’s introduction. The first couple has received help even before they’re tempted. In fact, their help comes from the Lord himself, in the form of instruction. They’ve been pre-warned:

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Scripture’s initial storyline. © 2016 Michael McKinniss

“But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2:17, NRSV).

God’s commandment, his word of warning is their Helper to combat and overcome the serpent’s crafty temptations. If Adam and Eve—if humanity—rely on God’ word, defeat their Opponent, the serpent, and proceed to delivering God’s life-giving glory across the entire world. The future hangs in the balance.

Humanity: God’s Agent

We’ve been looking at the skeletal structure of the biblical narrative, not because it’s our intention to bore the internet to death, but because getting at the core story will provide clues to God’s agenda for creation and humanity’s role in that drama. Whittle away the myriad details of the scriptural story, and perhaps we can focus on the main point.

So we found on a broad level that the very simple storyline of Genesis 1-2 is that God is attempting to send his life-giving glory to the entire chaos-ridden earth.

Yet, as we had seen previously, we should expect another layer to the story, namely an Agent, Opponent and Helper.

The all-important Agent: this is the figure, in most tales, who becomes the main character. Other figures are important—critical even—but the Agent is the one on whom our attention is fixed. This is the figure chosen to deliver the goods. Will he accomplish his task?

In the creation narratives of Genesis 1-2, as we saw, God had effectively erected a natural temple from which to rule the planet. His seventh day rest is all about taking up the task of making the earth run as it should.

Curiously, however, he seems to have also told someone else to govern creation:

Then God said, “Let us humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” … God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen 1:26, 28).

This is the dynamic of agency. The Lord’s intention is to run the earth by bringing his glory to bear upon it, but he has simultaneously created agents to do this on his behalf.

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Humanity as the Agent in the biblical story. © 2016 Michael McKinniss

The story the creation narrative lays out selects humanity as its main character, acting on God’s behalf to accomplish the goal of bringing order and peace to the entire creation. Humanity is the Agent in the story.

This is not to dismiss God by any means. Throughout the Bible, of course, the Lord is there, ever present, if not always in the foreground.

Yet human beings are his priests, made in his image. Humanity, at every turn, is on center stage. People are the main characters in every tale. Why? Because human beings have been created—and this is too often forgotten in the biblical story—as God’s Agents in accomplishing his life-giving goals.