Genesis as a Weapon Against Heresy: Refuting Pagan Superstition

by Gideon Lazar

This is the first in a series of articles on Genesis as a polemic. Part 2 can be found here and part 3 can be found here.

A constant source of heresies within the Church has been false teachings about creation. This is because the act of creation reveals something about the creator God. Therefore, those who seek to teach false things about God frequently do so by either denying or distorting his creative work. However, God has provided a polemic to put to rest all false teachings about creation: He has revealed the creation of the world itself to us. As St. Ambrose says,

Moses spoke to God the Most High, not in a vision nor in dreams, but mouth to mouth (Num 12:6-8). Plainly and clearly, not by figures nor by riddles, there was bestowed on him the gift of the Divine presence. And so, Moses opened his mouth and uttered what the Lord spoke within him, according to the promise He made to him when He directed him to go to King Pharaoh: “Go therefore and I will open thy mouth and instruct thee what thou shouldest speak” (Exo 4:12). For, if he had already accepted from God what he should say concerning the liberation of the people, how much more should you accept what He should say concerning heaven? Therefore, “not in the persuasive words of wisdom,” not in philosophical fallacies, “but in demonstration of the Spirit and power” (1 Cor 2:4), he has ventured to say as if he were a witness of the Divine work: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” [1]

That is, Moses is a trustworthy source because he spoke with God face to face. God directly revealed to him the creation. This trustworthiness is witnessed to by the great miracles in the exodus. St. Ambrose points out that we ought not to believe “philosophical fallacies” regarding creation, but rather ought to get our knowledge of creation from scripture. This should not be surprising that even the two greatest pre-Christian philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, got the creation wrong, believing the world to be created by a demiurge from pre-existent matter. St. John Chrysostom likewise invokes Genesis as a polemic against false teachings on creation, saying,

When a Manichean tells you that the matter pre-existed, and when Marcion, Valentine, or a Gentile support you the same opinion, answer them that in the beginning God created heaven and earth; but if they reject the authority of Scripture, treat them as extravagant and foolish. [2]

We ought not to listen to the wisdom of the world on creation. It is a source of constant error because it is based on human reasoning. As St. John Chrysostom says,

Have men taught me what I am about to reveal to you? By no means, but He alone who has worked these wonders, leads and directs my tongue to teach them to you: I conjure you therefore to impose silence on all human reasoning, and not to listen to this narrative as if it were not as the word of Moses. For it is God himself who speaks to us, and Moses is only his interpreter. The reasoning of man, says the Scripture, is timid, and his thoughts uncertain. (Wis 9:14) Let us, then, accept the divine word with humble deference, without exceeding the limits of our intelligence, nor curiously seeking what it cannot attain. But the enemies of the truth do not know these rules, and they want to appreciate all the works of the Lord according to the only lights of reason. Insane! They forget that the mind of man is too narrow to probe these mysteries. [3]

As St. Ambrose points out, this revelation of creation happens shortly after the exodus. God gathers the people of Israel together at Mount Sinai and reveals a law. This law was intended to form them into a new type of society. It gave them new morals, new civil laws, and new religion. These served as a catechetical instruction out of the paganism of Egypt, (Gal 3:24) because they had become corrupted with the idolatry of Egypt (Josh 24:14). Even before they had gone to Egypt, Abraham had initially been corrupted by the idolatry of Mesopotamia (Josh 24:2). Therefore, God reveals the true creation as a polemic against the false beliefs of the Egyptians and Mesopotamians.

Genesis opens with the radical claim that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth” (Gen 1:1). This contrasts with the claims of almost all ancient pagan religions that the world was made out of preexistent matter. In the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish, the world originates as a primordial war between Tiamat and the gods. In Egyptian creation myths, the world comes about through a sort of emanation of divinity from a primordial ocean. Some Egyptian accounts, such as the earliest at Heliopolis, the first god performs sexually immoral acts on himself to create. In all these accounts, there is not a creation ex nihilo, but an ordering of what already existed. This ordering is frequently done through gravely sinful means. Genesis denies all of that. It says that God simply created. The ordering only happens after God has already created formless matter. In the shaping of this formless matter, God does not need to use sinful means. He does not have to fight an equal. He does not have to perform sexual acts. He simply creates and orders all things as He wishes.

In addition, in the many pagan creation myths, such as the Egyptian ones, the different things in the universe are gods. Thus, creation itself becomes personified and deified. Genesis strikes down such a view. Everything is made of matter, not pagan gods, and even that matter was made by God. Thus, creation is something distinct from the divine, not to be worshiped, but also came from the divine, and thus worship of that God is still necessary. Genesis thereby rejects both idolatry and paganism.

When it comes to the creation of man, the Mesopotamians had an especially brutal account. According to the Atra-hasis, man was created because the gods got tired and needed slaves to do their work for them. While man is created to do work in Genesis, he was created in the image of God, not as a slave, to continue the creative work of God. Thus, man’s labor is not servile work but is dignified. As Pope St. John Paul II says,

When man, who had been created “in the image of God…. male and female”, hears the words: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:27-28), even though these words do not refer directly and explicitly to work, beyond any doubt they indirectly indicate it as an activity for man to carry out in the world. Indeed, they show its very deepest essence. Man is the image of God partly through the mandate received from his Creator to subdue, to dominate, the earth. In carrying out this mandate, man, every human being, reflects the very action of the Creator of the universe…

God’s fundamental and original intention with regard to man, whom he created in his image and after his likeness, was not withdrawn or canceled out even when man, having broken the original covenant with God, heard the words: “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Gen 3:19). These words refer to the sometimes heavy toil that from then onwards has accompanied human work; but they do not alter the fact that work is the means whereby man achieves that “dominion” which is proper to him over the visible world, by “subjecting” the earth…

And yet, in spite of all this toil – perhaps, in a sense, because of it – work is a good thing for man. Even though it bears the mark of a bonum arduum, in the terminology of Saint Thomas, this does not take away the fact that, as such, it is a good thing for man. It is not only good in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy; it is also good as being something worthy, that is to say, something that corresponds to man’s dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it. If one wishes to define more clearly the ethical meaning of work, it is this truth that one must particularly keep in mind. Work is a good thing for man – a good thing for his humanity – because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes “more a human being”. [4]

“Man goes forth to his work and to his labor until the evening.” - Psalm 104:23

Likewise, God does not rest because He is tired, as in the Atra-hasis. As Isaiah says, “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary” (Isa 40:28). Rather, God enters into a rest of worship. He does this to establish a pattern for man to follow. Man works and then enters into rest, just as God did. This sabbath rest is the purpose of man’s work. This contrasts with the pagan vision where rest granted to a worker was only so that they could be a better worker the next day when they continued working. In Egyptian society for example, living slaves would be entombed with Pharaohs so that they could continue to serve their master in the next life. Slaves never enter into true rest and worship of God in paganism. They do according to Genesis, however.

There are of course many other ways in which Genesis was a polemic against surrounding creation myths. However, these points are the most significant points. Erroneous understandings of God, nature, and man all come about when one has a wrong understanding of creation. Human reason cannot understand how God made the world on its own. Revelation is how man comes to know this, for only God can testify of what happened when no man was there to see it. In the next article, we will look at how the Church Fathers appealed to Genesis to combat the false creation narratives of their own day.

[1] St. Ambrose, Hexaemeron, 1.2.
[2] St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis, 2.3.
[3] Chrysostom, 2.2.
[4] Pope St. John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, 4, 9.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.