Genesis 1 - a few introductory thoughts
Living in a Chinese Communist University in 1979 changed forever the way I read Genesis. Those years led me to understand two issues as central: First cultural context, cultural context, cultural context was foundational to reading any piece of literature. If the ancient cultural context of Genesis is disregarded we Twenty-First Century readers will read into the narrative ideas the original authors never thought. That can lead to destructive interpretation. I was in my third year of learning Chinese language. I had started with Cantonese in the Yale-in-China Centre of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Then in 1978 I entered a process wherein I moved north to Beijing and later Tianjin courtesy of an Australian Government scholarship. My personal purposes was to be a person proclaiming the Gospel. Our language learning books in Mainland China all reflected the thinking of China's Great Cultural Revolution - a period of extreme horror lasting a decade from 1966-76. The Chinese government unleashed the youth of Chinese City High Schools and Universities as instruments of change in an internal power struggle. Brutality of a degree unimaginable followed. One of my friends as a 13 year old student had been involved in the murder of his English teacher. They had been challenged to get rid of foreign influence. Another had reported his parents to the Security Police. The consequences were horrific. My best friend's father was head of the Airforce Academy. He was a leader in China. My friend's mother denounced her father in an effort to survive. Her older brothers and sisters ended up exiled down in the countryside. My friend, as a 13 year old girl found herself in a "Reform Through Labour" Concentration Camp. Her father was in the same camp but they were not allowed contact. Then the rampaging students were reined in and forced "down the countryside" in their millions. Universities were closed to normal activities and students for more than a decade until 1978. Even then power struggles dominated every aspect of society. Propaganda still dominated all writings. Then change started to occur. The first "normal" students - the classes of '77 and '78 - entered University in February, 1978 and September 1978. I spent my days with these students from 8 am until 11 pm. They reshaped my thinking in ways I had never imagined. They made me realise literary context and literary structure were essential to reading any text well. I had graduated from Australian National University in 1970. I worked as a journalist for the Murdoch chain of newspapers. I had started following Christ in 1972 - a providential "fall into the kingdom". I had studied three years at theological college. But it was China that made me realiser that to understand Genesis I HAD to immerse myself in the Ancient Near Eastern cultural world. It was China that made me realise literary structure was ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL to understand what a book of the Bible is saying. Without cultural context and literary structure proof texting can prove many things that the text does not say. Those were the beginning phenomena I had to grapple with. How did those ideas come to arise? How had I come to realise this? Ten years after my friend was imprisoned she was now in University, her family was back together, her father was reinstated. And we read Chinese literature and history together. I came to realise there was no way I could empathise with why my friends had carried out such horrific acts if I did not understand their cultural history. I would not understand their Communist propaganda and how it shaped them if I did not understand how it was structured. Being immersed in this reality was so important. It is why I am SO grateful for the endless hours our biblical scholars spend in study. It is why I have infinite gratitude for the spouses of biblical scholars and their children. It is why I am so grateful for the times we live in. We need this cultural and literary structural understanding. There is so much material in good books that we need to grapple with to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. If we do not do this study our minds will not be transformed. And so those thoughts are foundational to considering Genesis. In my next piece I will look at the wonder of Genesis 1. in its context.