Augustine: Allegory in Genesis 1

Some of you might remember an extract from my first play, CHRISTIAN, that I published here a while back. Since then, things have been going well in playwriting world – my first play has been performed, my second is in pre-production, I’ve nearly finished writing my third, and I’m actively planning my fourth. Good for you, you might think, but how is that relevant to Augustine? Well, my fourth play draws on Augustine’s discussion of Genesis in Confessions. I read over it again the other night, and, uh, it’s really weird. Fun, but weird.

So Augustine basically reads the Creation story in Genesis as a sort of spiritual analogy – at least in Confessions. He does keep returning to the topic, with works like On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis and Two Books on Genesis Against the Manichees, as well as City of God Book XI and Confessions Book XIII. It’s likely that he has different takes in different places. Today we’re just focusing on his Confessions reading, which, as I say, reads Genesis as a type of spiritual analogy. I’ll outline the basics of this reading, and then we’ll chat a bit about it. If you want a quick summary, Augustine brings many threads together in Book XIII, Chapter 23.

So there are seven days of creation. On the first day, God says ‘Let there be light’, and light comes into existence, and light is separated from dark. Augustine describes this in terms of salvation: we are all like the darkness, but God speaks light into the world and into our lives and we are turned back towards God (XIII.2). In this metaphor, the light is not something we find within ourselves – it is a gift from God. This section is actually a little confusing, because Augustine has a bunch of sometimes contradictory explanations, but that’s one of them.

On the second day, God separates the heavens and the earth. Augustine describes the sky or the heavens (the firmament) as Scripture (XIII.15). It’s a metaphor about hierarchy: as humans, we are set under the Scriptures, under the sky. There’s also a neat reference to Revelations, where Paul describes the sky being rolled up like a scroll.

On the third day, God separates the waters from the dry land. The water is broadly understood as the sort of sinful mass of humanity, so the dry land is where we live when we’re saved and if you’re a sinner you live in the ocean (XIII.17). That idea is carried throughout this book: in the beginning, the earth was a formless void (ie unshaped, not good) and darkness covered the face of the deep (the ocean). Water and darkness are united as two images of evil – and against those images, we have dry land and light. Then God creates plants and shit, and those plants are our good works – so as Christians, we do good things, and those are our fruits, our produce (also XIII.17). It’s imagery we’re very familiar with from the New Testament.

On the fourth day, God creates the sun and the stars and the moon. The sun is pure unadulterated wisdom, and it’s not for everyone, because not everyone is godly enough to receive it. For newer initiates, people who’re less mature in the faith, there is the milder light of the moon – still wisdom, but mediated in such a way that worldly people can understand it. The stars, then, are the people who work in the Spirit – they are embedded in the sky like stars, spreading the light of Christ in their own little ways (XIII.18). You can see how the metaphors are getting very mixed here – are we plants on the ground receiving the light of the sun as well as stars in the sky at the same time?

On the fifth day, God creates the birds and the fishes. Birds are messengers of the Word of God – so evangelists, I guess – and the fishes and creatures of the sea are signs and wonders given to the unsaved. They’re like little miracles to bring the unsaved into the light and out of the water (XIII.20).

On the sixth day, God creates animals, which I think are supposed to be our impulses. Augustine urges us to “keep [ourselves] intact from the savage monster pride, from the sloth and the sensual pleasures of lust, and from quibbling knowledge that is knowledge only in name” – so basically, be a decent person and control your behaviour (XIII.22). Our behaviours aren’t necessarily bad, I think, we just need to tame them. After that, God creates humans, and that’s the sign of the rebirth of the individual in baptism. Once you are baptised, reborn in the Spirit, you are born into your second, truer life (XIII.22). You are remade in God’s image, echoing the phrasing of Genesis 1.26: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”

There’s a bunch of other little bits and pieces in there, and I recommend reading it for yourself. But I wanted to touch on a couple of points quickly. Firstly, it seems clear that Augustine is reading this as a second meaning, rather than the primary one. I don’t think he’d reject the literal interpretation of this as an account of Creation – in fact, having read some of his other stuff, I’m certain he wouldn’t. In that sense, this allegorical reading sits beside the so-called historical or literal one. It’s not a substitute. That’s important because of point two: as an allegorical reading, it’s not super consistent or sensible. It’s possible, but the two levels are working in very different directions. If you want to read them alongside each other, you have to be aware of the differences. I already gestured towards some issues with the point about Christians being both stars and plants at the same time. That’s a relatively petty point; a better example might be the tension of reading the Creation narrative as an account of redemption. They’re fundamentally two different things. The Creation narrative is about God creating a perfect world that functions perfectly with no sin. The redemption narrative is about God fixing the world with Jesus after everything broke down. The Creation story is about a pure creation functioning exactly as it is supposed to, but the redemption story is about everything self-destructing and spinning wildly out of control. Crucially, some elements are made to function in ways they probably shouldn’t. For example, the waters and the darkness both belong to God’s good creation in the literal telling, but allegorically they’re forces of evil rather than products of God. Unless God is responsible for evil…?

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