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Peter on Reading Genesis (part II)

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?

Fair warning: I am a starry-eyed neophyte in the area of Old Testament theology. I’m reading the Hebrew Scriptures for the first time, and while I’m gobbling down several commentaries along with it, my observations here are anything but scholarly.
Fair warning #2: I'm going to be a bit irreverent at times.
So many of the stories and anecdotes in Genesis are as familiar to me as Cinderella or Little Red Riding Hood, and when they’re told out of context, they have that same kind of storybook quality as the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, but when the stories are read within the whole book of Genesis, but without all of the pious Christian preconceptions that I grew up with, there are some profoundly startling things that pop out.

A Convergent Conversation
First, of course, is the whole J vs. P vs. E issue. Almost all of the familiar stories in Genesis are told twice, with very different emphases and often with contradictory details. I’d heard about that before, but the Anchor Bible highlights the specific passages that belong to each source. It’s a patchwork, and once you’ve seen the pieces that don’t line up (what an editor would call “continuity errors” if the book were being written today) they stick out like a sore thumb. Genesis had at least three different authors, and then, much later, a fourth person, a “compiler” who cut-and-pasted the document we have today. So already at the time of the writing of Genesis, we see a convergent conversation between branches of a religion that has had time to spread out and diversify. That’s kind of cool, and it makes me want to dig back even farther and learn about these three different communities—their common roots and their different perspectives.
Small Gods
Another thing I’d heard before, but hadn’t really seen with my own eyes until now, is that the monotheism of Christian thought owes more to the Greek philosophers than to the Hebrew Scriptures. Today, monotheism is such a deeply ingrained habit of thought among believers and atheists alike that it’s hard for most people in our culture to imagine God as anything but the One, the Only, the Creator of the Universe. The most rabid Bible thumper and the most arrogant rationalist will agree completely about what “God” is, even as they fight like alley cats over whether or not He exists.
Now, Let me say again that I am a very unusual reader of the Bible. As a Pagan, I’m comfortable with the idea of polytheism. The Gods may all emanate from some single divine Ground Of All Being, or they may not, but they certainly manifest as separate and distinct. At the same time, as a Quaker, I acknowledge YHWH as a God and I worship in a tradition that traces its beginnings back to that God and his little extended family of followers.
But reading Genesis on its own terms—letting it speak for itself, instead of viewing it through the lens of later writings—YHVH sure looks like one of your basic Mesopotamian Gods within a thriving polytheist matrix. You can almost see him as a young upstart God, hustling to make a name for himself in the pantheon, laying his money on this one guy, Abram, and his fairly unpromising family (Abram's wife was barren, after all) and then busting his butt to protect his investment. Most of Genesis is really a very small story, not about the creation and destruction of worlds, but a family epic of love and betrayal and the building of a financial empire. I almost want to call it “Dallastine.”
More tomorrow.


Bright Crow said…

I love it.

Erik said…
This is good stuff! I'm really looking forward to seeing what you come away with. Makes me wish I had the time to do a similar project in the original Greek mythological writings - something I've wanted to do for a while.
Anonymous said…
An excellent approach to "scripture." I wish I could think that more Christians would read with the idea that the Bible is a record of the growing awareness by one ethnic group of the nature of God (the divine, if you prefer) rather than a revelation of strictures placed upon us by that God. Even the New Testament, written over a much shorter span of time shows evidence of differing currents in the perceptions of the Christian faith. It's why I so often point out that Jesus promised us a spirit and not a book. I'm looking forward to more perceptions, and I guess I should get a copy of the same text you are using, it sounds great.

In His Love,
Nate Swift
Daisy said…
Catholicism incorporated polytheism as a belief in saints, which came under attack during the Reformation for precisely this reason; saints ARE "worshiped" (prayed to, glorified) in the Church, as separate spiritual entities. Since the Reformation, that has been played down in American Catholicism as an embarrassing, backward sort of ethnic folk-piety habit, along with "prayer cloths" and other old-world stuff. (To adhere to old-fashioned saint's devotions was to be considered an anti-assimiliationist.)

IMHO, as a hybrid, the two (pure pagan and pure Catholicism) find their truest expression in Voodoo, Hoodoo, Santeria, etc. which are also polytheist.
Peter Bishop said…
Nate, the text I'm using is from the Anchor Bible series, "Genesis: A New Translation With Introduction and Commentary by E. A. Speiser" available at or at . The easiest way to search for it is with the ISBN number, which is 0385008546.

Daisy, I agree that a lot of polytheist elements within Christianity have been "played down in American Catholicism as an embarrassing, backward sort of ethnic folk-piety habit" since the reformation, but I think the trend away from an earthy polytheism and towards a more intellectualized, abstract monism extends further back as well. I'm hoping to be able to watch in happen as I read further into the OT.

Anonymous said…
I saw you were doing this but hadn't had a chance to read until now. I'm very interested to know your thoughts. Love "Dallastine!"
Anonymous said…
Hello, Peter!

You write, "...YHVH sure looks like one of your basic Mesopotamian Gods within a thriving polytheist matrix. You can almost see him as a young upstart God, hustling to make a name for himself in the pantheon...." There is a very great deal of validity in this observation, and it really only falls apart in your use of the terms "matrix" and "pantheon".

As for "matrix", we need to bear in mind that there really was no matrix that embedded all the tribal gods of the different Mesopotamian and Hittite and Canaanite city-states. These gods were not gravel embedded in a unified pavement, but loose pebbles banging around independently of one another; for they were the ruling numens of peoples who had come to the Near East from different directions and were chronically at war with one another. The relationships of the gods of the different peoples to one another were no more defined than the relationships of the peoples they respectively represented. And it was much the same with YHWH, the major difference being that, prior to the Joshuan conquest of Canaan, YHWH did not even represent a people with a fixed address.

As for "pantheon", the pantheon was invented in a very different place — not Mesopotamia, but Athens — and a much, much, later time: not the early second millennium BC, but a thousand years later in the Archaic Age of the Greeks. And the gods in the Greek pantheon were not, primarily, the gods of competing, warring peoples, but rather, partitions of natural violent force: Zeus representing the violence of the heavens, Poseidon the violence of the underground and the sea, Iakkhos the violence of drunkenness, Keres the force or violence of burgeoning life, Ares the violence of rage and war, Artemis the violence of the wild, Aphrodite the force or violence of sexuality, Hera the force or violence of maternal passion, etc. The pantheon was what brought these disparate forces of nature together into the semi-concord of civilized life. It was a logical consequence of the way the Greeks thought of their gods/forces of nature, but it wasn't a similar consequence of the way the Mesopotamians, Hittites and Canaanites thought of their competing tribal numens.

You are certainly right that, at the time of the stories of Genesis, YHWH does not seem to have represented the Ground of All Being. That is a much later thought, belonging to the age of David. But to say, as you do, that "the monotheism of Christian thought owes more to the Greek philosophers than to the Hebrew Scriptures", seems to me to be going overboard. David lived around 1000 BC, or roughly five centuries before presocratic philosophers debated the nature of the Ultimate. And the great Shema of Moses ("Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one!", Deuteronomy 6:4), is at least as old as the age of David, if not older still.

All the best,
Anonymous said…
Even though you answer a lot of the comments I made in blog one, even though you never read them, I will continue to resond in order because I enjoyed your properly assuming some of everything I wrote befor I wrote it! That's great. I believe you are right that the earliest texts are far from represetnative of a thoroughgoing monotheism. Remember, Israel's God was a God that opposed a variety of empires who wre laying claim to the land of Palestine, over and agaisnt Israel's claim that YHWH had promised this land to them! In Genesis, however, YHWH is not competing, the land of Palestine is his, and properly Israls. The whole story assumes that the God's of empire (Pharaoh, or Assyria, Babylon, and later Alexander, or Rome)are ever inadequate. Teh fact that those God's, represented by kings and emperors, seem to be victorious in Palestine is only because YHWH is punishing Israel for unfaithfulness. Don't ever think, however, that their is a com[petition in the eyes of the auhtors of Genesis. YHWH is always in charge, and will keep promises made to Abraham and Sarah and David and all of Israel. As for Dalastine, you are correct, and very funny. I'll bet that the folks represented in the major prophets, however, did not believe it was all a dream. Perhaps, however, we can develop a show and tweak some of the plot jsut a little.
Peter Bishop said…
Marshall, you're right that my use of the words "matrix" and "Pantheon" were a bit loose. I was thinking not so much about the Greco-Romans as about Terry Pratchett, a fantasy novelist with a unique and very irreverent take on the Gods.

Scott, I disagree with a couple of underlying assumptions I see you making. One is that you seem to want to read the Bible as ONE story with many chapters, rather than an anthology of writings from many different times and places. You said yesterday that it "only has meaning according to that which a community, whether Christian, Jewish, or Pagan, give to it according to various filters through which the text is viewed." You're in good company--I think most Christians would agree with you--but I think it distorts the text of Genesis to read it that way. The writers of the Bible had their own experiences and their own agendas, and these have often been hijacked by later religious movements.

I am trying to approach my reading of the Bible both as a writer, with a writer's instinctive respect for the integrity of other writers' intent, and as a Quaker trying to discern the spirit from which it was first written.
Peter Bishop said…
Scott, I almost forgot the other thing I was going to say. I'm skeptical that "Israel's God was a God that opposed a variety of empires who were laying claim to the land of Palestine, over and against Israel's claim that YHWH had promised this land to them!" Certainly there were times when Palestine was a conquered territory of one or another empire, but when Abram first took his family and his herds and left his father's home, the land he traveled to already had an indigenous people. The writers (and many readers) of the Bible like to ignore this, for the same reason that Europeans chose to ignore the fact that North America was already settled when they first arrived here. I think Marshall's description of the Gods as "the ruling numens of peoples who had come to the Near East from different directions and were chronically at war with one another" is more accurate.

I'm sure I'll have more to say on this when I get to Exodus.
I have to disagree with you, Peter, on one thing--when you say that "The writers (and many readers) of the Bible like to ignore this, for the same reason that Europeans chose to ignore the fact that North America was already settled when they first arrived here," I think you are distorting the story as told in the Bible.

I do not think that the writers in Biblical times were in the least bit diffident in acknowledging that the parts of Canaan given by Abraham's god to him were settled by other peoples--in fact, I think they go out of their way to stress that fact in the way the language is shaped. I am reading Exodus at the moment, for my course, so a passage there is easier for me to locate: 3:8. "So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good a spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey--the home of the Cannanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perzzites, Hivites and Jebusites," god tells Moses.

Far from shrinking from the fact that those other peoples are going to be evicted, the author of Exodus is exulting in the fact--I suspect in order to draw attention to the astonishing power of the god of Moses.

I think it's later interpreters, particularly of the children's Bible ilk, that distract our attention from the genocide that is on the horizon and leave the impression that Moses and the Israelites are going into virgin territory, just as the retellings of the Thanksgiving story we tell in grade school leave out the treatment of Native Americans. (I don't think that the European settlers were nearly so shy about acknowledging the impact of their arrival, in terms of disease as well as conquest, on Native Americans, though--I've read too many documents of the period that name the deaths of whole villages as signs of "god's providence" toward them as his favored people.")


What I don't see is how this deity is the same one I encounter in Quaker meeting for worship. (Hence my lack of a capital letter; I am treating this god as a nameless god of one people, who is not the God of love and truth I encounter on First Day mornings.) If I see this god as on a par with the Hellenistic or Middle Eastern gods, like Erishkigal or Zeus, he doesn't come off so very badly. This guy wipes out Sodom? Zeus and Hermes wipe out the village near Baucis and Philemon, and for a very similar fault--catastrophic failure of the sacred duty of hospitality. Viewed through this lens, I can be open to the moving moments of a god who walks with Noah, and through Eden in the cool of the day. I don't ask perfection of such a deity--they are larger than I am, but still learn by trial and error. We share a world, they in their place, me in mine.

But when we get to a duty to absolute obedience? That goes only to the God of love and truth. I've long made it a watchword of my Paganism: We are responsible for the gods we choose to worship, and, for that matter, for how we choose to worship them.

The god who demanded Abraham's obedient sacrifice of Isaac is either a deity among deities, to be discerned by his worshippers, or, if that god is the God of First Day meeting, then I have learned what I knew before: that I cannot read these stories to encounter that God--though I am able to learn of Her through the words of inspired Quakers, caught up in the Life of Spirit, and not trapped in a dead reading of the Letter. For the time being, I can find my spiritual nourishment from the Bible only when it is carried to me by inspired Friends who fill those words with Spirit.

I know it has been traditionally the practice of Friends to use the Bible to discern the promptings of Spirit. I can only do this the other way around. (I'm just hoping that reading this material for myself throws up no new barriers to Spirit speaking to me among Friends.)

It is still a mystery to me how this document could aid in creating a people as bound together in love as are Friends. (Don't tell me to read Barclay yet, Marshall--I need a good deal more Biblical fluency, however hard won, before I'll be ready for Barclay!) But there is no mystery to me how these writings could be used to justify great evil.

Truly, I can only read the story of Abraham as as the story of a failed initiation. I think those who read these words without the inspiration and leadings of the Spirit of love and truth to guide them are in grave danger of failing in the same way.

*Cat shivers.*
Anonymous said…

There's an interesting different take on the story of Isaac's Sacrifice in a science fiction novel called Hyperion, by Dan Simmons.

[Note: Jim and I find Simmons' writing to be overblown and contradictory in many places, but his books are full of interesting ideas.]

Sol Weintraub, a Jewish professor of ethics, struggles with the Abraham/Isaac story, and eventually concludes that it is not a story about YHWH testing Abraham. It is, instead, a story about Abraham testing YHWH.

Specifically: "I will obey YHWH, but if he actually has me follow through with murdering my son, then he is not a god worthy of worship."

I have yet a different take on the story.

Child sacrifice was common among the cultic practices of the various peoples in Canaan around Abraham's time. Hence, JHWH's command would have been horrible, but not unusual, to Abraham.

However, the crux of the story is that YHWH stays Abraham's hand, precisely in order to make it clear that he does not want child sacrifice.

This is reflected in another Old Testament book, Hosea 6:6, in which JHWH says, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice," and again in Matthew 12:7, where Jesus quotes Hosea, saying, "If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent."

Does this help to connect the OT and NT G-d?

Blessed Be,
Anonymous said…
I completely agree with Michael that it is absurd and a very late reading to regard the demand for the sacrifice of Isaac as unusual. We know this was a common thing among many peoples of the region centuries after Abram's time. The legend reminds me of stories in many cultures where the god for some reason changed the tradition, and this is commemorated in some godly action - Artemis rescuing Iphigenia at the last minute, for example.

That this was a horrific demand to make of Abram (or of Agamemnon) is a late gloss on an ancient tale. When first told, the duty of man was to follow the god's word. But this has caused problems for centuries, and indeed the Book of Job (which was long regarded as heretical) was written to explain it.

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