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Peter on Reading Genesis (part III)

Part I: A freaky little book
Part II: A Convergent Conversation / Small Gods
Part III: The Human Face of God / And the LORD saw what He had made…
Part IV: A few things missing
Part V: An Evolving Covenant / The Initiatory Challenge
Postscript: The Expulsion from Eden
Afterward: Why does it matter?

This series of posts began as entries in my journal, and I had some concerns that publishing them could seriously offend people. I’m glad to see that the comments so far have been positive. More than that—I’m glad to see that I’m not being taken as just sarcastic and cynical.
The Human Face of God
People talk about the God of the Old Testament being grand and majestic and cosmic, in contrast to the New Testament where Jesus takes on human form so that we can relate to him. And, yeah, the chapters prior to the Flood have God doing things like creating Heaven and Earth and establishing day and night. But those creation stories really seem like an afterthought. Gods seem to pick up creation myths the way saints pick up miracle stories. It’s sort of a literary convention, to show that your guy is the real deal. In Genesis, it’s only after the Flood when YHWH picks up Abram that the dramatic narrative really begins. And what floors me all through that narrative how YHWH keeps walking around the landscape and striking up conversations with people like just another character on the stage. God gets mistaken for an ordinary human, even at points in the story when you’d expect him to be at his most fearsome and godlike. When YHWH and two angles of destruction go to Sodom to turn the whole city into a smoldering crater, they get there by walking. They walk for days, long enough to get hungry and thirsty and tired, and Abraham stops them and offers refreshment and a shady spot to rest their weary feet. He doesn’t realize who they are, and when one of them (who turns out to be YHWH) prophesies Sarah’s pregnancy, she actually laughs at him. He’s so down-to-Earth with his hosts that he makes Jesus at his earthiest look kind of stiff and awkward.
And the LORD saw what He had made, and said, “Oh crap!”
People often criticize the God of the Old Testament for being violent and vindictive, but you never hear about him being indecisive or insecure. Yet he keeps changing his mind. He creates the world and sees that it is good…but it’s missing something. What is it? I know! “It is not right that man should be alone. I will make him an aid fit for him.” (Gen. ii 18) And then later, “Yahweh regretted that he had made man on earth, and there was sorrow in his heart. And Yahweh said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the men that I created, man and beast, the creeping things, and the birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I made them.’” (Gen. vi 6-7) But then he hems and haws and decides to obliterate only most of them.
But what you really never hear people talk about are the times God actually feels threatened by human potential. But they’re there, clear as day. Why the expulsion from Eden?
God Yahweh said, “Now that the man has become like one of us in discerning good from bad, what if he should put out his hand and taste also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever!” So God Yahweh banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the soil from which he was taken. (Gen. iii, 22-23)
And why the scrambled languages at the Tower of Babel?
Yahweh said, “If this is how they have started to act, while they are one people with a single language for all, then nothing that they presume to do will be out of their reach. Let me, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s talk.” (Gen. xi, 5-7)
And weirdest of all, why the Flood?
Now when men began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, the divine beings saw how beautiful were the human daughters and took as their wives any of them they liked. Then Yaweh said, “My spirit shall not shield man forever, since he is but flesh; let the time allowed him be one hundred and twenty years.”

It was then that the Nephilim appeared on earth—as well as later—after the divine beings had united with human daughters to whom they bore children. Those were the heroes of old, men of renown. (Gen. vi, 1-4)
That phrase “divine beings” is elohim, the same Hebrew word that gets translated as “God.” All of the commentaries I’ve ever seen insist that while elohim is technically plural, it’s clearly being used to signify a singular God. Except here, where (get this!) YHWH decides to destroy humanity because the other elohim are having sex with his humans and siring a race of half-God, half-humans. The Greeks would have called them Titans, and made them the subject of some of their most powerful stories, but in the Bible they’re sort of like the madwoman in the attic that no one wants to talk about.
What do I do with a story like that? Where does that leave me in trying to understand the writers’ experience of their God?
Two things, maybe. One: People’s understanding of their Gods changes over time, and even assuming I've understood the writers' intent, the writers of the Bible may or may not have correctly grasped the motivations of their God. And two: The Gods themselves may change over time, growing and evolving in response to their relationships with us.
More tomorrow. Thanks again to those who commented.


Erik said…
1. Coincidentally(?), just this morning I saw a link on the Neos Alexandria e-list to an article about a rabbi who proposes a reading of the Tetragrammaton that would make God dual-gendered (read here).

2. The Greeks would have called them Titans, and made them the subject of some of their most powerful stories

Actually, the offspring of the Gods and humans are the Heroes; the Titans came before the Gods that we worship, and with the exception of Prometheus (who may or may not have created us, depending on which story you believe) didn't generally have a lot to do with humanity.

3. I love the statue pictures! Reminds me a lot of a version of Eros and Psyche that my wife gave me for our anniversary one year.
Peter Bishop said…
Re: Titans vs. Heroes. Yup. I told you I wasn't much of a scholar. :)
Riverwolf said…
In my experience, most Christians ignore the very questions you pose.

God comes off more like a indulged, angry child: "I don't like you any more. You're not my friend. I'm going to take my toys and go home!"

If God created humans, why is he so afraid of us? What could we possibly do? Build a tower to reach God? How preposterous! But apparently, God didn't think so.

And it's odd that God can't seem to exist without us.

All this would be fine if most Christians considered it myth instead of actual literal history.
Cat here. (ie: not the author of this particular piece.)

I'm not so sure, Riverwolf, that "most" Christians do take the Bible as literal historical and infallible truth--God's word, as opposed to a human record of human experiences of God. I think it looked that way to me, once upon a time, partly because there is a very vocal right-wing within Christianity that presents itself to the world as the only "real" Christianity. It gets ugly over on that side of the Christian pasture, and I have a very hard time respecting those particular sheep!

But it has been my experience with Quakers, liberal Quakers, who seem much better able to read the Bible, not merely as a reflection of a mythological reality, but to read it the way Pagans do religious mythology of our own--open to the influence of the living, breathing spirit of the gods described within it--that has made me begin to trust that, in some hands, at least, the Bible may not always be a force for unreason and hegemony.

I've known Christian Friends to read the book in the Life of the Spirit in a way that even I can hear and take in, and it has gotten me thinking, and looking for ways that, approached the way I approach Pagan mythology, as living material, it can potentially be a rich language that I can understand, regardless if I'll ever be able to speak it.

*sigh* Of course, when I think of Biblical mythology and metaphor in terms of language, I think, too, of the many post WWII Jews who refuse to speak German any more. The language of Beethoven, of Schiller, of Goethe--but a language they cannot hear beauty in any more. Sometimes I wonder if the ugliness perpetrated in this particular "language" has deadened it too far for reclamation.

This is not my problem, at least for the moment, however. For the moment, all I need to do is pause to consider, if I did allow Biblical mythology as much entree to my mind as I do Pagan mythology, would I learn anything important from it? Would I better be able to hear the voices of Friends I love and trust?
Friend Peter,

This is an interesting observation:

"Gods seem to pick up creation myths the way saints pick up miracle stories. It’s sort of a literary convention, to show that your guy is the real deal. In Genesis, it’s only after the Flood when YHWH picks up Abram that the dramatic narrative really begins. And what floors me all through that narrative how YHWH keeps walking around the landscape and striking up conversations with people like just another character on the stage. God gets mistaken for an ordinary human, even at points in the story when you’d expect him to be at his most fearsome and godlike."

God/desses in cognito is, as I'm sure you know, a very common theme in mythological lore. As is god/desses who appear to humans to be little more than humans with supernatural powers. Granted, vast, possibly devastating, possibly terrifying powers...yet human in terms of their values and lusts and emotions and motives and actions.

That's always been one of the key problems with sacred story of any sort. We human beings only have humans--or anthropomorphized animals, birds, etc.--to use as models for "how God/dess actually is."

Which, of course, means that sacred stories are about how we experience God/dess (as Cat wrote in her comment), precisely NOT about "how God/dess actually is."

We're telling stories about ourselves, as we stumble through millenium after millenium of trying to get vaguely closer to the Reality of the Divine One.

I made up an joke years ago (which you have to imagine being told with a Yiddish accent):

YHWH and Buddha and Jesus and the others are all sitting the the clouds, watching the continued lethal foolishness of the human race.

Finally, YHWH slaps his forehead in dismay and says, "Oy! I keep telling them: 'I want mercy, not sacrifice...and they don't get it.

"Jesus, go down there and see if you can sort them out."

We know what happened.

That's my version of your "And the LORD saw what He had made, and said, 'Oh crap!'"

It ain't about God/dess failing or changing. It's about our failing or changing. After all, we've only been around for a few tens of thousands of years, scarcely time to figure out what to do with human consciousness..and most of that time getting it wrong.

I just don't worry too much about all the odd contradictions in the Genesis stories.

I especially don't worry about those who advocate the ideology of Christianity--as contrasted with the reformed Jewish faith and practice of Jesus--interpret those stories.

The stories themselves, as written down, are already several removes from the original stories. Removes which involve politically motivated re-editing of older oral traditions, which were themselves mere "fairy tales" to hint at the awesome, numinous reality of experiencing God/dess in one's vicera.

In any event, you're on the right track, noticing how God/dess appears "as if human" in order to try to get through to human beings.

Will we ever--as a race--come to a collective understanding that our sacred stories are stories? Not facts. Not history lessons. Not science. Stories...about truths which cannot be put into words, except obliquely.

Oy, Mohammed. Go down there and see if you can sort them out!


Blessed Be,
Bright Crow
Riverwolf said…
Cat, it's true that not all Christians adhere to that literalist view, but I was reflecting on the roadblocks and deaf ears I've come across in my own experience.

But the majority of Christians aren't Quakers, so I think it's safe to say "most" do hold a more literalist view. Sure, not every single person who attends church believes what they hear. Regardless, it's the mega-churches that are growing, and we have all those "Christian" best-selling books that focus on one person's view or experience of God as the correct one. Quakers are also, by nature, very quiet. They don't have the popular religious radio programs or TV shows--not on the scale that the literalists do. That's probably a good thing, in general.

It seems to me (who has only visited a handful of Quaker services) that Quakers have a quite different spiritual/Christian outlook, one that is at odds with the prevailing majority Christian view, the one that influences the wider culture and wields power over people. Wielding power really doesn't seem to be a Quaker aim, but that can't be said for all forms of Chrisitanity.

Regardless of which version of Chrisitianity is more "real," more authentic, it's the one that wields the power, the one that had all the people in the pews--it's that version that permeates the culture. I do think it's losing its grip--hallelujah!--but it has a way to go still.

The Bible is a wonderful book, and I have drawn from it during very difficult times. I may come back around some day.
Dear Peter,

"Gods seem to pick up creation myths the way saints pick up miracle stories. It's sort of a literary convention, to show that your guy is the real deal." But this is not necessarily true, since in some parts of the world (Japan, for example), there was no competition between rival religions at the time the creation myths were composed. And it's also worth noting that many creation myths (e.g. those of the native North Americans and the Polynesians) were demonstrably composed before literacy began, and so were not the products of literary convention.

Why could not the creation myths be a result of a simple, honest hunger to make sense of the world? Why treat them instead as attempts to shout down questions about the authenticity of their authors' religions?

The account of the three visitors to Abraham's encampment (Genesis 18) and the two visitors to Lot (Genesis 19) should not be interpreted without reference to larger cultural context and to the meaning of the original Hebrew. What we have in the former chapter is strikingly reminiscent of many tales from India involving gurus or avatars (human beings who were one with God), and it may be that this is an account of something comparable. The two "angels" or companions of YHWH should be understood in light of the fact that the Hebrew word for "angel" in the text, mal'ak (מַלְאָךְ, Genesis 19:1), means "one who is sent", which is to say, an emanation or a messenger. Of the 214 appearances of this word in the Old Testament, the translators of the Authorised ("King James") Version translated it as "messenger" in 98 and as "ambassador" in another four; and there is really no reason, apart from mediæval theology, why it should not be translated similarly here. In that case, what we have is a visit by a human who is one with YHWH (an archetypal priest or prophet), accompanied by two companions who serve him as messengers and representatives; and the fact that these visitors need hospitality and refreshment is explained by the fact that they are, truly, mortal human beings.

Much of the meaning of Genesis 18 and 19 revolves not around the prophecies and miracles, but around the practice of hospitality toward strangers, which was vitally important in the ancient Hebrew culture in the same way, and for the same reason, that it remains vitally important among the Bedu (or "Bedouin Arabs") of the same region to this very day. Life on the edge of the great Saharan and Arabian deserts is incredibly hazardous; survival depends on a shared willingness to look after one another. This understanding crops out strongly at Job 31:16-23, and in Nathan's parable to David at II Samuel 12:1-6; and it is echoed in the New Testament at Hebrews 13:2 and Matthew 25:31-46. This is really not a case of the YHWH of the Old Testament being different from the Jesus of the New, but of a constant concern for the vulnerable in a hazardous world being carried over, unchanged, from earliest times to the days of the apostles.

Finally, as to God's having second thoughts and regrets and changing His mind: you're not the first person I've encountered who has found this strange, but in the context of Biblical thought it is not strange at all. In the Biblical view, we are made in God's image, which is to say that our own personalities follow a divine pattern; there is no pattern in us that was not first present in God. Even our ability to change our minds - to alter our courses of action as those around us exercise their free wills and change the situation — is divine. And so it should not surprise us to find that God, the Original after whom we are modeled, can change His mind in much the same way and for similar reasons to our own.

I don't see any evidence in the Bible that God is indecisive or insecure. It seems to me that you are reading that into the text. We are repeatedly told that God does not want human beings to become equal in power and capacity to God. Is that because He is insecure, or is that because He does not think too much power would be in our best interest? What do you think? Have we never seen humans corrupted by power?

All the best,
Riverwolf said…
Marshall, this paragraph caught my eye: "We are repeatedly told that God does not want human beings to become equal in power and capacity to God. Is that because He is insecure, or is that because He does not think too much power would be in our best interest? What do you think? Have we never seen humans corrupted by power?"

Sure, power corrupts, but I have some problems with your arguments. It seems you're assuming that we can become equal in power and capacity to God. First, that seems to contradict traditional Christian teaching--which is fine, but it didn't seem to be your point. Secondly, if we are created by God or modeled after him, then why are we portrayed in the Bible as such flawed, depraved creatures? Obviously the idea of original sin can explain all that very neatly, if you accept that theory.

But it seems as if your argument is based on an idea that God gave us all this wonderful capacity and then decided we couldn't handle it--even though he created us. So he's kindly decided to withhold. Can't quite put my finger on it, but this bothers me. If we're flawed, then maybe God is; maybe God has too much power??
Marshall Massey said…
Hello, "Riverwolf"!

I don't know that the text implies humanity is "flawed". It doesn't say that humanity is flawed; it only says that God doesn't want humans to become "as gods" in power, vitality, or glory. Perhaps the idea that humanity is "flawed" is something you heard in the church where you were raised, or from door-to-door evangelists, rather than from the text of Genesis itself?

No doubt, when these stories were first being told over campfires in front of the Hebrews' tents, the elderly storyteller would talk with his/her young hearers about why God might have had such a concern to limit humanity's power. Perhaps he might have approached the matter by using comparisons: would God have wanted the locust to have unlimited power? Would he have wanted the lion to have such? The young might have come to an understanding that the big argument against unlimited power is that the creation is designed in such a way that it works only when each creature, each species, remains in its proper place. And so for humanity as well — The idea that creation is designed along the lines of a-place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place will become clearer, I think, when Peter turns his attention to the prohibitions of Leviticus.

If the logic of Genesis does not require us to view humanity as "flawed" (and it is my opinion that it does not), then why should it require us to view God as "flawed"?

Finally, you write that "it seems [I am] assuming that we can become equal in power and capacity to God." Maybe so, but I don't personally think I am making any such assumption. All through the Bible (as also in Greek myth) we see the divine operating to prevent humanity from becoming so powerful or so capacious. That may be an arbitrary limitation (in which case, human beings do have the capacity to become God's equals, and as it happens, that is the conclusion that Joseph Smith and his Latter-day Saints drew from their own study of these same texts).

But I would propose that in the original Hebrew world-view, the limitations that the divine imposes on humanity are actually not arbitrary at all: they are built-in, as ordinary, everyday, continuing conditions of our existence, just as our dependence on gravitation is. Without the constant pull of gravitation we would fly off into space; without the constant humbling activity of the divine we would fly off into self-destructive chaos. The fact that when we rise too high, we are cut down by the divine, is part and parcel of the cosmic economy outside of which we humans cannot endure, just as the fact that when we jump off a cliff, we fall, is part of that economy.

And if it is in the nature of the cosmic economy that this is how things always and inevitably work — that whenever we step off a cliff, we fall, and whenever we gain too much power, we are cut back down to size — then we do not in fact have power and capacity like God's, any more than we have power and capacity to live without gravity. For we humans do not and cannot exist on our own; we do and can exist only in community with all the rest of Creation and with God from whom our existence derives. We cannot speak of what we would be without our interaction with God; we were made to interact with God, our interaction is what makes us human, makes us what we are, and without that interaction we would not be. So our interaction with God keeps us limited: that is simply the way things are. That is what I think these stories have to tell us.

That's my personal understanding, of course. I won't claim that there is a general scholarly consensus upholding it. But if it works for you, you're welcome to it —

Riverwolf said…
Marshall, thanks for the thoughtful response. Yes, my take on all this is, unfortunately, informed by my particular religious background. It is refreshing to hear different perspective, like yours, that are unexpected. It helps me realize that even when I thought I had exhausted ways to interpret the Scriptures, a new way reveals itself. There is much that I am re-evaluating at the moment; in order to do so, it helps to be critical and have some distance. However, I still appreciate the Scriptures for their history and their ability to inspire.

I can also see the value of reading these stories to understand how the writers experienced God. But at this point anyway, I'm not sure it reflects my experience.
scot miller said…
Not only is your post interesting, but so are the comments that follow. I am not sure that these stories were inteded to project onto YHWH any characteristic other than grace and blessing. Certainly not a divine fear of competition. Striving with God -"Israel"- is viewed as a positive quality, a part of human nature that is a prerequisite for true relationhip between created humanity and the creator. I don't know if myths should always be viewed through a lens that suggests they represent an overwhelmingly religious viewpoint of humanity, but a political viewpoint as well, and the two viewpoints are inseperable (not just in antiquity, but even in the modern world).

But try to view Babylon as a blessing. Let's apply our own postmodern lenses to this story, and how much we value diversity for its contribution to problem solving and the richness it adds to life. While it seems as though YHWH might be punishing humanity for challenging the authority of the gods, there are other aspects of living that are more important than striving toward grandiose acheivments, and that is relationship, and the richness with which relationships develop in the context of diversity.

But that is a modern lens, and not the lens of an elect people who are trying to make sense of election, and the relaity that other gods seem to be in control when the the opposite is known by Israel depsite the apparent obviousness of the perceptions of empire.

In fact, the undertaking of building towers in an exercise of empire, as is the quest for the power and knowledge of the gods, which are the stories fo the exile from eden, and decision to flood creation, and the decision to confuse the languages. Empire is not the final word in creation, and does not create a valid truth in opposition to the God of Israel. Empire, whether it by Egypt, Babyon, or th eunited States, is not th efinal arbiter of hisotry, and Empire's attempts will be confused. Does any of this make sense. I beleive I am not only rambling, but beginning to preach.
Peter Bishop said…
Marshall, your comments are thought provoking as always. You suggest that "The fact that when we rise too high, we are cut down by the divine, is part and parcel of the cosmic economy outside of which we humans cannot endure." That certainly is a common theme in myths from many cultures. (The story of Daedalus and Icarus comes immediately to mind.) You say this will become clearer as I read Leviticus. I'll watch for it.
Erik said…
(coming back late to this thread, sorry...)

Your overall point is well taken in post #7 (your first), but I found your choice of example (Japan) to be potentially ironic.

in some parts of the world (Japan, for example), there was no competition between rival religions at the time the creation myths were composed.

Nobody (as far as I have been able to determine) knows when or where the creation stories we now have (Izanagi & Izanami, and the rest) actually originated, but the oldest *written* accounts date from the 7th and 8th centuries CE - 100-200 years after the introduction of Buddhism, precisely during the time that Shinto was being named and "organized" in response to the growth of a named and organized foreign religion.
Morning Angel said…
To take this conversation in a different direction, your perceptions of god's fallibilities have been well noted and are explained by the cosmology of the Gnostics. You might look among their writings for additional insights.

Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
Ecclesiastes 1:10 (KJV)

-Morning Angel
Brightshadow said…
Really very simple.

God created everything, and laid down commandments about how everything should behave. But he was stupid. Or rather, lacking in empathy - he created men and women without having a clue why they did not behave like all other beings he had created. They disobeyed this, they violated that. He punished, he commanded, he discommanded, he sent messengers, he gave examples in his own tongue, forgetting that people spoke other tongues based on other experiences (among them, having tongues). Of course they didn't understand him.

After some thousands of years, he had a brilliant idea. (Even a god has his good aeons and bad aeons.) He decided to incarnate himself as a human being. Don't ask me who was minding the store while he grew up human, or if there are multiple persons because, you know, people have burnt each other over such questions and I'm not even a monotheist, so I'm not going to offer an opinion. But by the time he was 30 or so, he had realized he was god (more than other people, perhaps), and having all the weaknesses and temptations of a human, realized (as god never had in all those millennia) what humans were up against in keeping the rules.

So he said, "NOW I get it!" (something like Homer Simpson's "Doh!") "Okay, here's the new shtick: you still SHOULD do all those things I told you to do, but if you just can't, and are sorry, and have faith in me, I'll forgive you anyway."

That is my (a pagan's) retelling of the Christian myth. All that confusion you're bumping into in Genesis and Exodus, Peter? It's because he was STOOPID. He didn't understand us.

Of course for two thousand years there have been heretical and gnostic doctrines claiming that the OT god and the NT god were not the same at all. And they were not, being both of them literary constructs, and literary constructs of very different people. The NT god was invented by Jews who had some classical (Greek) education. The Septuagint-Apocryphal god, for that matter, was invented by Jews who had been exposed to Zoroastrian dualism as well as Greek paganism.

I think that explains a lot.

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