The Importance of Context


Dr Robert Tilley explains the importance of context and communion, the interpretation of apparent contradictions in Sacred Scripture, and what apparent contradictions in the Book of Genesis reveal about good and evil, communion and autonomy.

Content advisory: This episode briefly mentions suicide and drug use.


Reading the Sacred Text is a continuation of Dr Robert Tilley’s popular The Bible is Catholic lecture series.


One of the things I often do in my classes on the Bible is to show a number of sacred texts from various religions. For example, I might bring along copies of the Rig Veda, the Dharmapadda, collections of Zen koans, and the Bible. I then ask what it is they all have in common. And, finally I say that it is not that they all say the same thing, but something more obvious. They have all been printed and then disseminated, indiscriminately so, in the market place. In other words, they have all become items able to be purchased by anyone who has the money to spare. My point is that none of these texts were written to be sold in the market place to any and all customers. They were written for those in the visible, authoritative hierarchical religious communion to which they belong.

As not a few commentators remind us, chief amongst which being Anthony Giddens, Modernity has a tendency to ‘dissembed’ things, by which is meant that things get taken out of their traditional context and, thereby, their meaning can change in rather profound ways. For example, sacred texts can become consumer items. The sacred becomes profane.

The context proper of the Bible is the covenantal communion of the people of God; Israel and the Church.

One of the main effects of the Reformation was to remove the Bible from the Church, to begin to secularise it. First of all this involved abstracting the Bible from the Catholic Church, but soon enough, in the seventeenth century especially, the Bible became even more secularised, became a buttress for the rise of the new bourgeois class and the rise of the new nation state. It was in this context that modern biblical criticism arose, especially so in seventeenth century England.

Because so much of modern biblical criticism was informed by the class politics and desires of the rising bourgeoisie, as might be expected a good deal of biblical scholarship was arbitrary and self-serving. In short, it was bad scholarship. Things would get even worse when, in the late eighteenth through the nineteenth into the early twentieth century Germany became the home to biblical criticism. It was then that biblical criticism became informed by all manner of racist ideas, especially anti-Semitism.

Now it is not my intention here to rehearse the history of modern biblical criticism, although it is very interesting and informative history and one wishes that more biblical scholars studied it, rather I want to highlight how it is we ought to read the Scriptures and more contemporary biblical scholarship has a lot to offer. You see, in the last forty to fifty years of biblical scholarship there has been something of a revolution. Many of the basic assumptions of earlier biblical criticism have been severely critiqued, and this has led us to a deeper appreciation of the sophisticated and subtle structure of the sacred text. To explain what it is I mean we might consider how we interpret apparent contradictions in the sacred text.

Let’s say we find contradictions between the first account of creation given in Genesis and the account that follows it in chapter two. Do we conclude that this means the accounts were originally written by different people at different times and that someone at a lot later time has tried to edit them together, making a bit of a mess of it in the process? Well, something like this was argued by most biblical scholars since the seventeenth century. Only, the last few decades have given rise to a different way of thinking. May it be the case that apparent contradictions are not evidence of sloppy editing but of sophisticated literary devices that I like to call ‘exegetical prompts’? Are they prompts to have us read deeper? To put it in terms we have used in this series, are they prompts to have us ascend the grades of the Quadriga, to venture deeper into the Scriptures as Temple?

We will return to this, but for the moment let’s come at our topic from a different angle.

It is often the case that in order to fully understand something it is good to compare it with something that appears to be similar to it, that perhaps arose in the same context as it did. For example, in the ANE we have a text called the Atrahasis Epic which tells of the creation of humanity and the subsequent flood which wiped out just about everyone. Of course we immediately think of the first 9 or so chapters of Genesis.

Atrahasis begins with a group of gods, the Igigi, moaning about how it is they have to do all the heavy work like digging canals. They sweat and break their backs while the other gods have it easy. To cut a long story short, the Igigi rise up in revolt and, after much threatening of violence by those higher up the divine scale, it is decided to make a creature who will have to do the back-breaking work in place of the Igigi, which is where we come in. Humanity is created to do the hard work. Only, we too revolt and this is where the flood comes in and we all drown (except for a fellow by the name of Utnapishtim, the Noah of the story).

If we compare this to the Genesis accounts some very significant differences strike us and it is these differences that tell us a good deal about the meaning of Genesis, a meaning we might have missed if we didn’t have Atrahasis close to hand. In Genesis humanity is not created to do back-breaking work by the sweat of our brow. Rather, we are created to commune with God in a happy paradise. With the fall, however, sweaty heavy labour begins, but it is a result of our actions, it is a result of our responsibility. The same with the flood, it is not a result of our revolting against unjust burdens placed on us by God, but of our injustice and violence. In Atrahasis there is little in the way of any real accent on our moral responsibility; we were created this way and thus we don’t have a choice in the matter. In Genesis, however, the accent is firmly on our responsibility. You could say that the whole of the Bible is a revelation of human responsibility and culpability and is designed to oppose ideas of fate. Ideas by which we might tacitly deny that we are morally culpable.

As I say, by reading the Scriptures in context, here the context of other ANE literature such as Atrahasis, we often get a deeper sense of the meaning of Scripture. Now let’s return to the issue of apparent contradictions.

Again let’s turn back to the beginning of the Bible, to Genesis.

It is not too difficult to see that between the so-called first account of creation given in Genesis 1 through to 2:3 and 2:4 to 25. For convenience’s sake I will simply refer to these as the first and second accounts.

The thing that is most obvious is that in the first account male and female are created together, at the same time, while in the second account only man, that is Adam, is created and woman, that is Eve, comes into existence at a later date. Indeed, in the second account the absence of woman is the major concern for there is no proper communion for Adam. Certainly none of the animals will serve in that capacity, but the implication is that nor will God. Adam is said to be alone even though he has God to keep him company! It is not enough for Adam to have God and all else in creation as companions, he must have someone who makes for a true and full communion proper to his being human. After all, in the first account we are told that the image of God comprises male and female. Hence, without the female complement there is no image of God proper.

Another major difference in the two accounts, perhaps the most significant contradiction, is that in the first account we are told seven times that creation is good (in Hebrew, tov). Indeed, on the last occasion, following the creation of humanity, we are told it is very good (tov meod). But when we turn to the second account we are told something a little bit different. In 2:18, and this let it be borne in mind is before the fall, we are told that it is “not good” (lo tov) for man to be alone. Hence the need for woman.

In the second account we are told that not everything is good, whereas in the first account everything was very good. Did the author or the editor of Genesis make a blunder? Did he fall asleep at the pen, as it were? This is pretty much what old style biblical critics used to argue, but we are not quite as arrogant or stupid to think that today. Rather, we can see that through a rather sophisticated narrative artistry the author is telling us something very profound indeed.

Just prior to 2:18 where we are told that it is not good for man to be alone, in 2:17 we are told that Adam is not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good (tov) and evil (ra’ah). As it happens we have been told in the first account what good looks like: It looks like all creation. Good/tov looks like being itself. But what does ra’ah/evil look like? The answer is in what follows: It is not good, lo tov, for man to be alone.

Evil is the absence of good, as the Fathers of the Church put it, evil is nothing in itself it is a fall away from being, a fall into non-being. But what does the fall away into non-being look like? The answer is given in this the so-called second account: Evil looks like the absence of proper communion. It looks like aloneness, it looks like loneliness and alienation. If you think about it the worse state of all is to be alone, to be lonely, to feel alienated from everyone, to have no special communion. We all know that no matter how bad an affliction, a disease, poverty, or anything else, if we have close family, friends, comrades, it can be suffered. But even if you are incredibly handsome, pretty, rich, healthy, famous, and if you feel lonely none of it matters. Hence, the amount of suicides and substance abuse among the rich and famous.

I really don’t think this needs arguing for, we all know this is true. And yet, it is passing strange that with the rise of the Reformation and the birth of the modern world it has come to be argued that the ideal self is that which is defined by the ideal of autonomous individuality. And this even includes the idea that we can stand alone before God and do not need to go to Church!

Back in Genesis God tells Adam that if he eats of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil in that day he will die. As many wags have pointed out Adam does not die in that day but lives many hundreds of years after that. Again, did the writer or editor drop off and make a continuity error? No, what the author is doing is telling you that physical death is only an expression of death proper. Certainly it is the most obvious expression, but that there is a deeper death. And what is this more profound death?

One way of answering this is to think about what it is we experience at the death of a loved one? Are we crying for the one who is dead or for ourselves, for what it is we feel? That we cry for what it is we feel is natural for what we feel is death proper, namely the sundering of communion. The breaking of our relationship with the one who has died. Our communion has been fractured and has, we feel, now fallen into pieces, into fragments. Even our language of grief expresses this when we say we feel like we are coming apart. And in a sense we are, for with the death of the loved one something of us has likewise died. Death is the fracturing of communion and physical death is the most obvious expression of this.

Let’s see how this is expressed following the fall. What is it that occurs after Adam eats of the fruit? The first thing he and Eve know is that each are naked and they then cover up their bodies with leaves. Why? They have been commanded to be fruitful and multiply so it is not first and foremost shame, they are meant to have sex. But sex in its proper sense, as it is said in Genesis 2:24, is the close communion of marriage between male and female such that they become one flesh. But in the covering of their bodies Adam and Eve express a sense of distrust and vulnerability. The covering of their bodies expresses the desire to hide from each other, we might even say to begin to build armour for themselves. This too is expressed in the second thing they do, they hide from God. First their communion together is sullied with fear and distrust, and then their communion with God is likewise broken.

In short, the fracturing of communion expresses itself in fear, distrust, and a need to hide from those one is in communion with. If you read through the curses that follow on from the fall another common theme recurs, one we touched upon in the last episode, namely violence. There will be war between the woman’s seed and the serpent’s; a battle between the man and the soil; and tension and battle between the woman and the man. And of course, the first thing that happens on being booted out of Eden is murder, Cain kills Abel.

That the nature and supreme value of communion is the chief message of the Genesis accounts is also borne out by the literary structure of the first chapter of Genesis. In the first verses when God creates He does so in a mono-vocal and imperative fashion: “Let there be light!” and there was light, that sort of thing. Only, when we come to the creation of the image of God, humanity, the voice changes. It is now plurivocal and deliberative: “Let us create man in our image.” I do not want to get drawn into questions as to what this plural voice indicates, be it angels or an early intimation of the Trinity, the point is that the text as it stands says that the creation of humanity as the image of God requires an act of creation unlike that which preceded it. It requires a communal creation in which what creates speaks, as it were, in communion (let us) and what is created is communion (male and female).
When the accounts given in Genesis use apparent contradictions to tell us that “it is not good for man to be alone” thereby telling us what evil as not-goodness looks like, and how they tell us that the fracturing of communion and the absence of communion is death, then, although Genesis may seem to be a simply written text, it is in reality anything but. It contains the most profound teachings imaginable concerning the human condition, the nature of good and evil, and what it is to image God.

When, with the Reformation and the birth of Modernity, people began to think in terms of the ideal of the autonomous individual we can see why so many artists, writers, and philosophers have argued that the rise of Modernity is the rise of the disenchantment of the world because it is alienation coming into its own. Likewise, when we see in many currents of Protestantism the rejection of the communion of the saints, the rejection of the role of Mary as the Mother of the Church, the rejection of the role of prayers for the dead, or in certain liberal and heretical Protestant churches the rejection of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity we can see expressed in these things the ever deeper fall into the fragmentation of communion and the rise of loneliness. That we increasingly hear even Catholics say that in order for them to be a Christian they do not have to go to Church then, whatever else this means, it means that the logic of death has become very powerful indeed.

Finally, what we see writ large in these matters is the result of having fallen under the sway of the false ideology of the ideal of the individual standing alone not needing communion. That is the individual thinking he or she can stand alone before God. But this idea soon works itself out further still. So it is that it does not take long for the feeling to come that one is, in fact, standing all alone, that there is no God before whom one is standing. One is simply just standing alone. But it doesn’t even stop there, for in Modernity the idea soon took root that there is nothing real that can stand alone, that the very idea of a self as a real thing is a delusion! God and the self dissolve into the air! The world becomes like an absurdity thought up by Lewis Carroll. Only in our Alice in Wonderland world instead of the Cheshire Cat’s grin suspended alone in the air we are left with nothing at all standing alone before no one at all.

But against this stands that which is built upon a rock, the covenantal communion that is the Church.

About Author

Dr Robert Tilley is a lecturer in biblical studies and ancient languages at the Catholic Institute of Sydney and in Christian literature at the Aquinas Academy.

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