Genesis 1 as Critique of Japanese Culture
No one occupies a privileged position to judge whether a culture is good or bad. If we choose to research a specific culture, we can evaluate it only in comparison to a particular criterion which we adopt for some particular reasons. Both the Old and the New Testaments are qualified as a standard to evaluate culture because the Judeo-Christian tradition is one of the major social values in the world. I am attempting to describe how contemporary people can critique their own culture through interpreting the Bible. Insofar as we maintain a commitment to follow God’s will, we are invited to make the Bible alive in the present period, namely to connect the ancient documents to our own age.
If we recognize that the creation narrative describes God’s sovereignty in producing and sustaining all life, Japanese readers should interpret the biblical text as opposing Japanese Imperialism.
For my discussion, I will select a specific biblical passage (the first creation narrative: Genesis 1:1–2:4a) and a particular culture (Japanese) as a concrete example. I will also introduce a more general discussion of the methodology which I follow. Culture is diverse because every society or nation not only has its own culture, but each culture also has multiple components which sometimes conflict with each other. Culture can be identified as a form of people’s values which appears either in visible shape, such as arts, or in an invisible way, such as the process of a political decision. The Bible also contains many different ideologies and theologies. This means that when selecting a biblical passage and a particular culture (and its specific aspects), we have already decided by what kind of standard to criticize a culture.
In my case, I choose the Japanese culture because it is the culture in which I have been raised. Genesis 1:1–2:4a, as one of Israel’s creation narratives, displays important social values which may serve to critique a contemporary culture.
THE HISTORICAL APPROACH
First some comments on method. The books of both the Old and the New Testaments were authored, edited, and collected in specific historical contexts. Investigating what the biblical text meant for the authors and readers in those days is a critical step in the study of that text. The authors produced these books with a particular message for their readers, often using specific traditions and materials.
In addition, we should notice that the communities of ancient Israel, Judaism, and the Christian church edited, collected, and preserved these books, which means that there were historical and complicated processes through which the books became one canon as we read them now. The social and religious situations as well as the original intentions of the authors must be examined to understand what the biblical text meant.
THE LITERARY APPROACH
In contrast to the historical approach, the literary approach, which has become more common in recent decades, should be distinguished. This new approach emphasizes not the historical aspect of the Bible behind the text but the received form of the biblical text itself. The literary approach focuses on the text itself more than on the historical process of establishing the Bible. Although the literary approach seems similar to the fundamentalist method of Bible study, the two approaches are based on different assumptions. While the fundamentalist assumes that historical descriptions given in the Bible must have actually happened, the literary approach does not care whether the descriptions took place historically or not.
Since the literary approach is relatively recent, there is no clear consensus of approach and features to the method. 1 I will introduce four features which are relevant to this article. First, there is the concept of textual autonomy. To be sure, the historical context in which a text is authored should not be ignored. However, once a text is spatially and temporally present in a society, it is impossible for every reader, especially those whom the original authors did not target as their readers, to completely understand all of the historical factors, including the authors’ intentions. This is partly because of insufficient historical information and partly because of the influence of the modern reader’s own context and interests.
Second, a text is regarded as always containing a rhetorical strategy. A text is not only a communication tool for sending information, but it is also a literary device to direct the readers to the authors’ arguments. Even if the text contains historically objective descriptions, the historical events are organized and recorded according to the values of the authors and editors. We must always consider the rhetorical dimensions of a text.
Third, dialogical atmosphere is created when the interpretation of a text is accomplished. While a text presents its readers with information and an ideology, the readers respond to the text subjectively. Reading is not just a one-way process, working from a text to its readers. In some cases the readers are instructed to do something for their society. In other cases, they are invited to ignore or neglect the arguments from the society to which they belong. Readers make responses to the text which cannot be predicted.
Fourth, I refer to text in context. Every text is written in specific contexts. The historical approach to Bible study has regarded both the outer context (the historical background) and the inner context (the literary construction of information) as important. The literary approach, however, deals with these two kinds of context from different perspectives. As for the outer context, the literary approach emphasizes the readers’ social and cultural context. Readers cannot avoid interpreting a text from the point of view of their own available social information and responding according to their own interests. The social situation of the readers is one of the important factors in understanding how a text is read. Concerning the inner context, the literary approach pays attention to the concept of intertextuality. 2 Any text is given meanings in relationship to other texts. When considering the style of the collected biblical texts, we can say that the canonical structure of the Bible should not be ignored.
ASSESSMENT OF THESE TWO APPROACHES
We have to admit that interpreting the biblical text involves a kind of paradox. We cannot interpret the ancient biblical text without some consciousness of our own situation, and to deal with our modern problems we seek the meanings expressed in the ancient Bible. “Subjective” matters are treated by the “objective” text which can be interpreted only by “subjective” perspectives and interests. This situation does not mean that the result is necessarily only confusion, but it does mean that we must consider both of the two approaches. On the one hand, if we employ only the historical approach, we reduce the Bible to a collection of ancient books and fail to relate the biblical text to contemporary problems.
On the other hand, if we focus only on the literary approach, we lose our perspective on the historical context. We also risk losing sight of the relativity of our own historical situation. We are sometimes tempted to regard as absolute our own ways of understanding the world and reading the Bible. Insofar as we try to make the biblical texts alive in the present world, we should adopt the academic processes both of researching the original meaning of the texts and of relating them to the contemporary context.
Our real problem is how we should use these two approaches according to the purpose of Bible study or the stage of the study. In order to establish the biblical text and understand it as did the original readers, we must employ the historical approach. We shift our attention to the literary approach for the sake of inquiring what the biblical text means in our own contemporary world.
INTRODUCTION TO GENESIS 1
In this article I impose on myself the task of criticizing Japanese culture through a reading of the Bible’s first creation account. 3 These five important ideas of the creation narrative will be our focus:
- God’s initiative in creating and sustaining life
- The Creator, identified as the God who delivered Israel from the bondage of slavery
- The creation order to produce and sustain life
- The unique position of human beings
- The meaning of the Sabbath
Not only does the creation text refer to the temporal process of creation, but the narrative also emphasizes the importance of life itself. 4 The detailed descriptions given in the text, including the character of the Creator, are dominated by this theme.
In addition to the literary theme of the centrality of life, when considering the historical background of the first creation account, we can also say that a political and ideological argument is implied in the creation narrative. The authors and editors introduced into this narrative the common worldview and cosmology of other ancient Near Eastern (ANE) imperial powers. The narrative does not legitimate the values of the superpowers, however. The community of Israel pictured its God, in contrast to gods of the ANE nations, as the absolute Creator and Sovereign over the world. At the same time, we must recognize that this theological and ideological concept was not powerful enough to become the dominant worldview, since Israel was not politically strong. Rather, the creation narrative functions as a protest against the ideological and political powers which suppressed the values of the minority.
Our next task is to indicate how the theological values of the first creation narrative might be related to our contemporary situation. To be sure, our societies share some features of the theological values in that narrative. However, we must sometimes reinterpret the values of the ancient text with our own words and ideas to make the biblical values come alive.
GEN. 1:1-2, THE IDEOLOGICAL CONFLICT
The first two verses play the literary role of setting a temporal stage for the creation narrative and of explaining the cosmic situation before the creation acts of the biblical God. 5 At the same time, we should notice that these two verses, especially verse 2, do not belong to the structure of seven days. This suggests that the primitive situation before creation is beyond God’s creation influence, because each stage of the creation process is described in the seven-day structure. If it is right to say that God’s ideological values are not established in temporal and/or spatial spheres which he cannot reach, the description of verse 2 represents social and cultural values which must have been regarded as out of or against the biblical God’s ideology.
The chaotic situation in verse 2 is described with literary expressions of darkness, waters, and great wind 6 from which God does not produce and sustain life. The concept of chaos which cannot produce and sustain life is opposed to the main theme of the account. Accordingly, Genesis 1:2 implies an ideological conflict between the biblical God’s values and anti-God values. When considering the historical circumstances of the biblical period, we may conclude that the assumed values which are contrary to the values of the biblical God have to do with the dominant ideologies provided by the imperial powers. God’s ideology functions to resist the ideologies which govern society and repress the position of the minority, because the political situation of the community was relatively weak.
If they accept these assumptions concerning the ideological conflict, Japanese readers of the biblical first creation narrative should recognize Japanese Imperialism as a dominant value in society. To be sure, the political power of the emperor is substantially weakened by the present constitution. However, the basic structure of social organizations in Japan, including small local communities and local churches, continues to be influenced by the features of the traditional Imperial system.
First, the Imperial system promotes irresponsibility in Japanese society by separating nominal powers from substantive powers. In most periods since the Imperial system began in Japan’s ancient history (approximately the sixth century C.E.), while giving up direct political power, the emperors played the role of legitimating the real administration, for example, the samurai class. The real regime powers protected the Imperial system in order to gain legitimacy of governance. Even when there are some problems in the political process, it is not necessary for the emperors to take responsibility, because the real power is held by the regime. The real powers, in turn, can avert criticism of themselves; they carry out their policies in the name of the emperor.
Second, the Imperial system is used by the establishment, both the nominal and the real powers, to secure their economic and political interests, excluding the common people from the process of social decision-making. The common people are incorporated into the Imperial system, on the one hand, by providing the establishment with wealth and, on the other hand, by exploiting the lower class and the outcasts.
This oppressive social system, which shares many features with other societies, destroys the life and dignity of human beings. If we recognize that the creation narrative describes God’s sovereignty in producing and sustaining all life, Japanese readers should interpret the biblical text as opposing Japanese Imperialism.
GEN. 1:3-25, NATURE
The biblical narrative explains how the heavens and the earth were shaped, adopting the seven-day structure. As the story progresses, the form of this world becomes more complete with each step in creation. God is depicted as preserving his own absolute authority to govern all nature and creatures, because he is the only protagonist that shows active utterances and motions. Although human beings are given the role of working on nature, God never abandons his own sovereignty over nature. The relationship between God and nature is not one of equals, but a dominating-dominated relationship.
The concept of order is regarded as important in the process of creation and in contrast to the picture of chaos. God spatially and temporally distinguishes one category of thing from another category of thing. God separates light from darkness to organize time. He divides the land from the ocean to schematize place. The process of organizing things from chaos functions as preparing for life to appear and be sustained in the world. Life in creation requires ordered spatial and temporal stages. For example, human beings cannot live without dry land. If the situation became chaotic again and the great waters from the sea overcame the boundary between the land and the sea, living creatures on the land would be destroyed.
We must notice here that the concept of cosmological order is sometimes abused to tyrannize people. While human social hierarchy influences understandings of cosmological order, this concept is often used to legitimate structures in human society which oppress people. Even though the concept of order in the creation narrative may be abused to oppress subordinated people, the biblical text attempts to describe the concept of order as providing life, not social subjugation.
Japanese religious culture does not have a notion of gods that manage the world, although there are several Japanese ancient creation myths. The Japanese gods do nothing more than play subordinate roles in the mythical narratives. The mythical gods do not preserve their authority to govern nature. Rather, nature is autonomous. However, we must point out the fact that the concept of nature’s independence has contributed to nature being sustained. Japanese society, like others, has attempted to protect nature from destruction. Otherwise nature would obliterate the people, for example, by the exhaustion of the resources necessary to sustain life. If it is right to say that the ultimate purpose of the biblical God’s governance over nature is to produce and sustain life, despite different understandings, the biblical concept can share a similar attitude toward nature with the Japanese view of nature. It is possible that the Japanese may recognize the biblical understanding of nature if they recover their traditional notion of protecting nature.
GEN. 1:26-31, HUMANITY
The creation of human beings is highlighted in order to present them as valuable, but we should notice some conditions for maintaining their dignity. 7 First, humans are literarily located in a unique position in the creation narrative. On the one hand, humans are created and given life by God. On the other hand, unlike the other creatures, human beings are pictured as being created in God’s image and given the task of managing the earth. 8 The text attempts to maintain human dignity, focusing just on the positive side of human beings. 9 Second, the biblical text does not distinguish Israelites as a race from Gentiles. Nor does the text regard males as superior to females. We cannot find evidence that the first creation narrative promotes social discrimination.
When considering Japanese society, we may refer to the problem of discrimination. Japanese society, as well as others, maintains patterns of discrimination against specific categories of people, for example, females, foreigners, and Buraku-min. Every patriarchal society is defined as considering females to be inferior to males. Japanese society is no exception. Many foreigners, especially from Korea, may have been living in Japan for several generations, and they contribute greatly to the society. Nevertheless, they are excluded from the political process and, in many cases, from full participation in the education system as well. The Buraku-min are descendants of an outcast community of Japanese people who were discriminated against because of their social rank and occupation. Although the present constitution of Japan guarantees basic human rights to all citizens, the Buraku-min continue to suffer from discrimination when their identity is discovered.
It must be recognized that during the biblical period, there were situations in which some people were the victims of serious discrimination. The authors of the Bible accepted this situation, whether consciously or not. However, we can say from the perspective of textual autonomy that the first creation narrative does not distinguish female from male, foreigners from domestic people, or outcasts from “normal” members of the community. In addition, semiotics demonstrates that there are simply differences between things. If an element is given a special value or bias, some persons intentionally attach social meanings to it for their own political and economic advantage. It is not realistic to pretend there are no differences between people. Rather, we must respect the differences of others as individuals and groups while at the same time affirming human dignity.
GEN. 2:1-3, THE SABBATH
In the creation narrative, while most descriptions emphasize that God produces creatures, the reference to the Sabbath indicates that God also makes an effort to sustain the life that he produces. But how? The regulation of the Sabbath was historically reduced to a social and religious criterion used to distinguish some people from others who belonged to the Yahweh community but could not keep this regulation. However, the Sabbath should have socially functioned to restore the life and dignity of people, especially the poor and slaves. The regulation requires that Israelites rest from their labors on this day, and it also provides for a time of rest for those who work for their employers. 10
The regulations of the seventh year and the Jubilee, which are extensions of the Sabbath principle, require that slaves should be given their freedom. This means that debts must be canceled and that social wealth must be redistributed among the people, since the main reason people became slaves in those days was that they could not pay their debts. Emancipated slaves were to receive economic benefit indirectly by being released from their debts. The Sabbath had to do not only with a ritual practice but also with a practical economic arrangement. When considering the current Japanese situation, we must emphasize this economic dimension of the Sabbath.
No society can avoid experiencing economic imbalance in the course of its ongoing economic activity. The biblical text attempts to recover balance in economic arrangements by these regulations, although it pays attention only to the distribution dimension of economic activity, ignoring production and consumption. This might be the case because the Yahweh community was better able to control the former than it could the latter. This idea of recovering the economic balance in society derives from the historical tradition that Israelites were released from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. That is why biblical passages such as Deuteronomy 5:12-15 relate the Sabbath to that deliverance.
Japan made choices which have resulted in its becoming an economically “developed” nation. For the sake of economic growth, Japan follows two main policies. First, expansionism, which has contributed to the growth of the Japanese economy. But this growth has come at the cost of the welfare of the people since social welfare policies tend to prevent an economy from growing rapidly. Although Japanese economic policy, compared with most developed countries, has been relatively successful in equitably redistributing social wealth among the people, we must also recognize that some people, both domestic and overseas, have suffered from the poverty and pollution caused by Japanese economic expansionism.
Second, standardization, which contributes to the expansion of the Japanese economy. This economic policy ignores weaker elements of the social economy, such as elderly people who might be part of the labor force, environmental factors, healthcare issues, and small businesses which cannot adapt to standardized patterns of growth. This way was chosen because such factors cost more time and money than when society adopts generalized standards of economic activity.
The economic perspective of the Sabbath can function in Japanese society as a call to the recovery of human dignity. Of course, the solution is not simply to cancel debt. We should deal not only with the distribution of wealth but also with systems of production and patterns of consumption in this present world. However, the basic idea of the Sabbath which requires the Yahweh community to share wealth with members and enables them to function with economic independence should remind the Japanese people of how important it is that people should be able to live with dignity in their actual economic practice.
Reading a text always involves an encounter between the culture which produced the text and the culture in which people read the text. This means both that the text may criticize the readers’ realities and that the realities of the readers may critique the text, even the biblical text. We are invited to always engage in this encounter, both when we read the text and when we attempt to apply the biblical text to our contemporary world.
I offer the present case study as a contribution to the task of encounter between the Bible and the contemporary cultures which are our mission fields.
- Although the literary approach cannot be separated from postmodern perspectives, the explanation of the relationship between these two concepts is omitted because of length limitations. As for postmodern biblical criticism, see A. K. M. Adam, What Is Postmodern Biblical Criticism? (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1995).
- See Terence Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics (London: Routledge, 1997), 144.
- The end of the first creation account is Gen. 2:4a rather than 2:3. Verse 2:4a, which describes “the heavens and the earth,” belongs to the first creation account. Verse 2:4b refers to “the earth and the heavens,” suitable for the second creation account whose focus is “the earth.”
- For example, although the creation narrative explains how all the world was created according to its culture’s worldview, the concept of an underworld, which represents death, is ignored.
- I accept the thesis that Gen. 1:1 is a temporal subordinate clause, modifying v. 2. God did not create the chaos but began creating in the midst of chaos.
- In this article, the term ruah, described as moving upon the waters in Gen. 1:2, is understood to be a great wind rather than God’s Spirit. This interpretation provides a clear contrast between the order for life (v. 2) and the condition of chaos (v. 1) which has the possibility of destroying life.
- My understanding is that the Hebrew word ’ādām in the singular as a collective noun, as in Gen. 1, refers not to a specific person but to human beings altogether.
- In contrast to the traditional understanding of “rule,” I contend that human beings are ordered to “manage” the earth, because God never gives up his own sovereignty over the heavens and the earth.
- The first creation narrative ignores human beings’ death and transgression, while the second creation account presents these as important. At the same time, we can say from a semiotic perspective that death is implied in the narrative, because semiotics demonstrates that an element can be identified by its opposite element; that is, life can be defined by death.
- Exod. 20:10; Deut. 5:14.