Eugene Peterson on a pastoral reading of Genesis 1 and 2

Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places by Eugene PetersonWhat is Genesis 1 and 2 ‘about’? I love this quote from Eugene Peterson in his Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A conversation in spiritual theology:

I missed the personal immediacy of Genesis 1-2 for a long time. Early on I was distracted by the arguers and polemicists who were primarily interested in how things got started. As an adolescent I got mixed up with friends who loved using these texts to pick fights with evolutionists and atheists. Still later I become intoxicated with the words and images and syntax, comparing and evaluating them in the study of the contrasting but still fascinating worlds represented in the ancient Sumerian and Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptian civilizations.

Then I became a pastor and gradually realized what powerful texts Genesis 1 and 2 are for dealing with life just as it come to us each day. As pastor my work was to pray and teach and preach the Holy Scriptures into the lives of mothers and fathers raising their children, farmers in their wheat fields, teachers in their classrooms, engineers building bridges, sergeants and captains and colonels keeping watch over our national security, and not a few arthritic octogenarians in nursing homes.

In the course of this work, I’ve come to think that Genesis 1 and 2, prominent as they are in launching us into the grand narrative of the Bible, are among the most under-interpreted and under-used texts for shaping an obedient and reverent life of following Jesus in our daily, ordinary, working and worshiping lives.

My shift from reading Genesis 1-2 primarily as an account of the beginning of all things to reading it as a text for beginning to live right now took place early in my pastoral work. As I was learning how to lead my congregation into an obedient life of worshiping and following Jesus, I was struck by how extensively the cultural and spiritual conditions in which I was working matched the exile conditions of the Hebrews in the sixth century before Christ: the pervasive uprootedness and loss of place, the loss of connection with a tradition of worship, the sense of being immersed in a foreign and idolatrous society. I felt that I and my congregation were starting over every week; there was no moral consensus, no common memory, all of us far removed from where we had grown up. The lives of the parishioners seemed jerky and spasmodic, anxious and hurried, with little sense of place or grounding. When I realized that these were the same exile conditions lived through by the people of God in the sixth century B.C., I started preaching and teaching the exile texts of Isaiah, those great pastoral messages to people who had lost touch with their time and place in the world. In doing that I discovered that one of the most important Isaianic words used with these exiled people was “create.” “Create” is a word that is used in the Bible exclusively with God as the subject. Men and women don’t, can’t, create. But God does. When nothing we can do makes any difference and we are left standing around empty-handed and clueless, we are ready for God to create. When the conditions in which we live seem totally alien to life and salvation, we are reduced to waiting for God to do what only God can do, create. The words “create” and “Creator” occur more times in the exilic preaching of Isaiah than in any other place in the Bible – sixteen times as compared to the six occurrences in the in the great creation narratives of Genesis 1-2. As I pursued this pastoral task, I realized how immediate and powerful, how convincing and life-changing, the creation work of God is among a people who feel so uncreated, so unformed and unfitted for the world in which they find themselves. While under Isaiah’s influence I was moving from my pulpit to hospital rooms and family rooms, coffee shops and community gatherings, praying with and listening to bored or devastated men and women, “create” emerged out of the background of what happened long ago in Canaan and Egypt and Babylon into prominence in my community as an actively gospel word of what God is doing today among the exile people with whom I was living.

After several years of this, I came back to Genesis 1-2 in a fresh way and found in these texts an urgency and freshness and immediacy that surprised me. No longer was I reading Genesis and asking, “What does this mean? How can I use this?” I was asking, “How can I obey this? How can I get in on this?” (pp.63-64)