I love a good story.
Countless evenings I would lay in bed with my young sons telling stories. A precious going-to-bed routine. Laughing, snuggling, tickling, imagining, learning to love words, to play with ideas, to think. Often they’d give me a few things – like a grasshopper, an astronaut, a telephone and an elephant booger – that needed to turn up in the story.
This kids’ story is about creation myths from the ancient Babylonians and ancient Hebrews. I want kids (and big kids too) to learn to see behind the things we’re taught – the unchallengeable ‘truths’ of religious/metaphysical/scientific ideas that tell us who we are and therefore how we can or must live. I wrote it at a time when I was thinking about how we need very sophisticated ways of teaching our children to evaluate what cultural and educational institutions impose on our thinking. And how we need to learn to know our own story and to tell it to ourselves while others might think it’s silly.
This story turned up in the Imago Dei teaching series at The Big Table – I hope it helps you to love your own story, to tell life-affirming stories, to fling off life-sapping stories you’ve been hearing, and to tell a better one.
(Oh, and this story has a bazooka, sex, fish and some very sad slaves in it.)
Once there was a King. A big fat king. His throne was covered in jewels. He had a big army. His palace was big and beautiful. People did whatever he said. It didn’t matter if everyone else’s huts were small, or smelly, or ugly. And nobody cared if they were hungry, or if they had rags for clothes. It didn’t matter because they were made to serve the king, so they believed. Hard working farmers and even rich business people brought him gifts, like money and food and slaves, because he was like a god-on-earth, so they believed. They had to do what the gods wanted, of course, so that the gods would make everything go well for them, so they believed.
The King decided to conquer another country, steal all their wealth, and turn the people into slaves. So he called up his army. He sent them to war. Many soldiers died – but that was ok, because they were created to serve the king-god, so they believed. When the survivors came home, there was a lot of extra work to do. The crops needed planting and watering. The weeds had to be pulled out. Bricks needed to be made and the temples built to honour the gods and the king-god. Which was ok, because serving the king-god was what they were made for, so they believed.
Unfortunately for the conquered people, they became slaves. Other people stole their homes. Many died. The women were taken from their husbands and made to marry other men. The children were seized and became slaves. They were brought to a far away country where they spoke a different language. Their new masters made them work too hard and then teased them. They said ‘sing us your happy songs from back home’. But they were so sad that they couldn’t sing. They were treated as if they had no worth at all – they were just slaves.
They heard stories in the new land. Stories that told everyone how the world is, who you are, how you must live. They heard how the many gods made the world. There were gangs of gods fighting. The world was made out of the dead bodies of the gods that were killed in the fights. And then the gods got sick of doing all the work to make crops and water them to make food. So the gods decided to make humans to do all the horrible hard work for them.
In the new land, they heard that humans, their masters, were made out of dirt mixed with the blood of the worst gods after fights and killings. And now here were they, not just humans, but slaves of humans. So low, so meaningless. So horrible. So worthless. So nothing. They heard how the king became like a god, and how all the people had to serve the king, because he was a god on earth. They came to understand that people were nothing important, just made to do the dirty work that the gods didn’t like doing.
But they had a secret weapon.
Not a bazooka. Not a knife or a bow and arrow. Not even a spy or poison to put in the king’s cup.
They had their own story. A different story. A much more powerful story.
They had been so sad that they almost forgot their story. But someone remembered and told their story again. An old priest wrote it down so that they could all tell it, and never forget.
Their creation story began with chaos too. They said their topsy-turvy world was “tohu-va-vohu!” It was out of control. It was wild. And the Spirit of God was floating around over all the craziness, like a breath, a wind over the angry ocean. And then God spoke in a way that called the craziness to order. A beautiful rhythm of light and dark, morning and evening began. God spoke and everything from the land and seashores to the bright lights in the sky – the sun and moon and stars – to plants fish and birds and animals came to be.
And then God created humans – “in his own image and likeness” was how he planned it – a man and a woman with a very special purpose. This time, instead of speaking words to create, God shaped the man out of the dirt and named him Clay because he was shaped out of the same stuff as the earth. Clay was only dirt with a shape, until an amazing thing happened. God breathed into the man-shape that he had made – his own spirit-breath, that had floated over the craziness, brought the clay to life and Clay became a living soul. Not just a slave or a servant or a worker, not a machine, but a living soul. More than that, he and the woman God made with him had a wonderful purpose. Far from slaves, they were God’s representatives in the world He had created. Not only the king, but all people are made with this wonderful purpose – to rule in God’s world – to bring about God’s purposes in his world. To exercise creativity and good judgement, to work to look after the earth, to eat and enjoy its fruit, to enjoy friendship with God and one another, to celebrate love in the intimacy of sex and to have babies and grow families that fill the earth and enjoy God’s wonderful creation. Every single person born was precious, because they were made ‘in the image and likeness of God.’ Everyone.
So they told their story. They taught it to their children. Grandmas and Grandpas told it to kids on their knees. Hard working people told it while they toiled in the fields. They remembered that they were precious to God and to each other.
As their masters forced them to labour in the fields, they thanked God that they could work to manage the earth, to nurture the crops, and enjoy the food they produced. They loved one another. They loved God again. And they began to pray and trust him to deliver them from their slavery – because they knew they were more than worthless slaves. God’s breath was in them, and his good purposes called from deep within them.
It took 70 years – such a long time – but God gave them their country back.
And their ancient story – the Hebrew nation’s story of creation found in Genesis – changed the world.
You don’t have to believe the stories that others tell you are true. Tell a better one.