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Peter on Reading Genesis (part IV)

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?

Here are a few things that are flatly missing from Genesis:
There is no definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. Most of the patriarchs either had two wives or a wife and a concubine, and YHWH clearly had no problem with this.
There is no individual salvation. When YHWH tells Abraham that he’s passed all the tests and won the big payoff, what he promises is “I will therefore bestow my blessing upon you and make your offspring as numerous as the stars in heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall take over the gates of their enemies. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants—all because you obeyed my command.” (Gen. xxii 16-18)
There is no afterlife, or at least no eternal life in Heaven. Characters in Genesis describe dying as going to Sheol, a hollow place deep underground. The word is often translated as “Hell,” but, it’s not a fire-and-brimstone Hell where you go to be punished; it’s just the place where people go when they die. It reminds me much more of the underworld of Odysseus than of Dante. It’s not even that going to Heaven is prevented for some reason; it’s just not something anybody even thinks to ask about.
There is no devil. I know that Satan shows up later in the Bible, but he’s not in Genesis. The snake in Mesopotamian culture symbolized wisdom, not evil, and Genesis never describes eating the apple as a “fall.” The only side effect of following the snake’s advice is “that the man has become like one of us in discerning good from bad.” The serpent never lies, and the strained relationship that develops between God and the first couple is only because they heard and believed the truth. I’m not making this up. You don’t believe me, go read the book.
There is no original sin. Eden is centered around two trees that humans are told not to eat from. One gives wisdom and the other gives immortality. Once humans developed a sense of right and wrong, God had to expel them from Eden before they became immortal as well, which would have made them—the implication is clear—Gods in their own right. The actual punishments for disobedience are relatively light; childbirth will hurt, and farming will be hard work. Oh, and people won’t like snakes any more. God does end by saying, “dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” but this is only a reminder. It was already true. In the very next passage, “God Yahweh made shirts of skins for the man and his wife, and clothed them.” (Gen iii 21) The way it’s described, you can almost see him sitting cross legged on the ground with a needle and thread. It’s as if, in the middle of the expulsion from paradise, he stops to say, “You’ll be cold. Bring a sweater.”
This passage is supposed to be about the damnation of the whole human race, and it’s the foundation of the doctrine of original sin. But read on its own terms, it’s a surprisingly small and intimate story about a loving parent whose children learn by making mistakes. The whole thing can be read as a metaphor for a child growing into a young man, beginning to make his own decisions, and finding he has to leave his parents’ home to go make his own life.
More tomorrow.


Yewtree said…
The interpretation you describe - "a surprisingly small and intimate story about a loving parent whose children learn by making mistakes" - is roughly how many Jews interpret it, as far as I can understand.

The Orthodox Church doesn't believe in original sin (Pelagius is not regarded as a heretic there), and they take most of Genesis as a metaphor, and have done since the 4th century.

There's a good deconstruction of penal substitution theology at Steve Hayes' Khanya blog on Wordpress.

Kinda scary, therefore, that most Christians read Genesis with a huge accretion of interpretation attached, and would have difficulty reading it as freshly as you are doing.
Anonymous said…
I think I would argue with you on one point: "God does end by saying, “dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” but this is only a reminder. It was already true." There is a curiously contradictory strain concerning death as consequence of eating of the first tree, and the foundation of the perceptions of "the Fall" seems to be based primarily on the idea that death entered the world at that point. I'm hoping you will be addressing this question in later posts.

In His Love,
Nate Swift
Lyon said…
I just wanted to say that this series is one of the most fantastic and thought provoking things I've read in a blog - if not ever - than certainly in a long time. I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate you sharing it with us.
Anonymous said…
I don't know that I'd be so quick to dismiss the punishment of Adam and Eve as relatively minor. Yes, childbearing will hurt, but n those days, you could pretty much expect as a woman to spend most of your time pregnant, as you were expected to marry young, and keep crankin' out the babies for as long as your womb would hold 'em. So now we're talking about an intense amount of pain associated with the occupation a woman would spend a large portion of her adult life doing. I mean, think about how difficult women find just one pregnancy- sickness, fatigue, false labor, not to mention the actual birth itself, and then imagine that shortly after finishing one pregnancy, you were expected to try for another one. And don't forget the phrase "your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you." Subjugation as a consequence of disobedience is a pretty severe thing.

As for farming- backbreaking, never ending labor in service of the simple goal of feeding oneself, particularly when juxtaposed with Eden, where "you may eat from any tree except one" and all the food was just right there, provided for you, seems like a pretty startling change in one's circumstances...

As a occasional lurker here, and as a Christian-ish person whose theological labels (and indeed theology itself) are constantly in flux, I'm enjoying this series. Thank you.
Anonymous said…
Another good entry, Peter. Couple of observations:

As far as the "pain in childbirth" and "sweat of your brow" punishments, I see this more as an explanation for why those realities exist. Growing food back then was hard (and still can be if you have a garden) and childbirth hurts. So the Hebrews came up with an explanation. "It must be because God is punishing us!" Not very original but common to most religions.

I take issue with the picture of God here as "a loving parent." Would you give your child 2 choices and then expel them if they chose the one you didn't like? Would you then heap more punishment on them? God was good and angry, and Adam and Eve were punished.

Interesting that the fear was the humans could become "like one of us." First, that God believed we had the capacity to become like "Him"--not something you here about today in most Christian circles. And the "us" part--not very monotheistic, you think?

Good point about how the serpent never lied! Yet all we hear is that the serpent is full of lies. But he actually told the truth, a truth that God himself had obscured. Sure, the serpent tempted but he never lied. Maybe God was hoping Adama and Eve would not realize the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was there? If nothing else, he doesn't put much into the curiosity of humans (he made us after all, right?). He seems a little passive-aggressive to me.
Anonymous said…
Hi, Peter!

A few supplementary comments on your own stimulating observations —

You're right that there is no definition of marriage as between one man and one woman in Genesis. On the other hand, such a definition seems implied by what Christ has to say about marriage in his teaching on divorce and adultery, Mark 10:2-12, and that teaching is explicitly rooted in Genesis.

On the nature of the afterlife, the whole Bible really doesn't speak with one voice, which is probably why Christians have not been in unity on this matter since the Reformation (when they rediscovered the Bible), and why Friends have not been in unity on the matter since the early 19th century.

The effects of following the snake's advice do not include only the fact that Adam and Eve now knew good and evil. They also include the fact that Adam and Eve had now been disobedient.

And, alas, it is not true to say that there was no original sin. Sin is with us today, and humanity did not exist from all eternity, and from these two facts we may safely deduce that there must have been a first occasion of a human sinning — and that is what the phrase "original sin" refers to. In the Biblical account, disobedience was the original sin, for the same reason that it is still the central sin for Friends today.

The punishment of disobedience was being cast into a corrupted (that is, morally disordered, physically rotting/decaying/dying) state of creation. All existence was cursed by this corruption: it (1) turned the earth from lush fruitfulness to scrubland, (2) introduced enmity between the snake and the children of Eve (and, by extension, between humankind generally and wild creatures generally), (3) cursed women with not just the pain of childbearing but something that the Hebrews understood to be inseparable from that pain, namely the high rate of mortality in childbirth (maybe one maternal death for every ten childbirths in the early Near East) — and, finally, it (4) afflicted Adam with the farmer's struggle for existence.

I would not agree that these punishments were "relatively light". Consider the fact that humans have been investing a colossal amount of labor in trying to circumvent punishments (3) and (4) during the past four thousand years; this would not have been the case if those punishements had been minor. Consider, too, that punishments (1) and (2) are presently winding down to completion in the form of a total global eco-collapse. That's minor?

Tiffany deserves to know that women were not constant breeding machines in the ancient Near East. The historical records we have, from Hebrew history, from neighboring Egypt (where such records are plentiful) and Canaan and Mesopotamia, and from cultures only somewhat further afield such as Greece, show that women would commonly go for years between pregnancies. This would seem to argue either for difficulties in conception (perhaps due to poor nutrition and/or childhood disease) or for means of contraception (abstinence, which continues to be practiced in resource-poor cultures today, and/or drugs).

Finally, to "riverwolf": "All we hear is that the serpent is the father of lies". Really? The phrase comes from John 8:44, and there it is applied to the devil, not to the serpent.

All the best,
Peter Bishop said…
Tiffany and Marshall are right to question my use of the word "light" to describe Adam and Eve's punishment, but I used the term in a relative sense. More on this in my next post.

Marshall, you said that Jesus' comments on marriage were "explicitly rooted in Genesis." Where are you getting that? I'm not seeing it there.
Tiffany said…
@Marshall I'd agree that circumstances wouldn't make the constant breeding possible at the time, but nonetheless, a large number of children (particularly sons) was widely seen as a sign of prosperity and even of the favor of the gods, while barrenness was a sign of disfavor or a less-desirable wife. Inadequate resources, making childbearing impractical, is itself a sign that something is wrong (maybe you didn't adequately sacrifice to the fertility goddess and that's why your crops didn't grow). So clearly frequent childbearing was considered desirable, if not *practical*, and there YHWH goes, making this highly desirable activity painful and dangerous.
Anonymous said…
I'd written that a "definition of marriage as between one man and one woman in Genesis .... seems implied by what Christ has to say about marriage in his teaching on divorce and adultery, Mark 10:2-12, and that teaching is explicitly rooted in Genesis."

Peter responds, "Marshall, you said that Jesus' comments on marriage were 'explicitly rooted in Genesis.' Where are you getting that? I'm not seeing it there."

Peter, the key portion is Mark 10:6-8, where Christ describes marriage by saying: "...From the beginning of the creation, God 'made them male and female.' 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh;' so then they are no longer two, but one flesh."

This short passage makes direct reference both to Genesis 1:27 / 5:2 ("Male and female He created them."), and to Genesis 2:24 ("Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.")

Tiffany, barrenness was certainly seen among the Hebrews and Jews as a negative, but it's worth remembering that Hebrew and Jewish wives were cherished even when barren, as, e.g., the stories (in the book of Genesis) of Abraham & Sarah and of Jacob, Rachel & Leah both make plain. As for "the favor of the gods", that was not a Hebrew concept since the Hebrews were monotheistic from the time of Abraham onward; and it was considered really, really uncool among the faithful to sacrifice to the fertility goddess.

Large families were doubtless the rule in circumstances were families were prosperous enough to afford them, as e.g. among the early patriarchs and among the royalty. But as the Jews became urbanized, most Jewish families were less and less well off, as many of the complaints of the Jewish prophets make quite obvious. Again, if we look at the actual records, not only in post-Davidic Hebrew records but also in the ruins of contemporary Canaanite, Hittite and Egyptian cultures, there doesn't seem to be evidence that most women were constant breeding machines.

Yes, "there YHWH goes, making this highly desirable activity painful and dangerous." It's all God's fault — Heaven forbid that we should have to blame ourselves for how it came to be!
Anonymous said…
"women would commonly go for years between pregnancies. This would seem to argue either for difficulties in conception (perhaps due to poor nutrition and/or childhood disease) or for means of contraception (abstinence, which continues to be practiced in resource-poor cultures today, and/or drugs)."

Plus, when you're breastfeeding on demand for about 2-4 years, you're much less likely to get pregnant. Do we know the rate for miscarriages at that time? I have no clue.

"Christ describes marriage by saying: "...From the beginning of the creation, God 'made them male and female.' 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh;' so then they are no longer two, but one flesh.""

Is that not a simple description of what happens in that polygynous society, where modern understandings of orientation are unknown? A man leaves home when he marries his first wife. When people are married, the ritual makes the husband and each wife one flesh, regardless of how many wives are involved, which is why divorce for anything but the most appalling behaviour is to be strongly discouraged - divorce is what he's talking about here, isn't it, which may well be why he doesn't say "marriage is between one man and one woman" or "marriage is between one man and however many women he is financially and emotionally capable of supporting". I seem to remember that it's about what the relationship between a husband and a wife is, and what Jesus considers to be the acceptable reasons for divorce. And in ancient societies, getting married had nothing to do with orientation - it was everyone's duty to marry and attempt procreation for the good of the wider community.

Of course, I'm no expert, so I may be way off base.

I'm thoroughly enjoying these posts and the discussions they're provoking :)
Anonymous said…
“You’ll be cold. Bring a sweater.”

Dear Peter, I love this...and the whole post.

You speak my mind.

As I've written elsewhere, my take on the expulsion is that it was to protect Adam and Eve from the worst consequences of their error.

Yes, they gained the "wisdom" to perceive good and evil.

Yet, as you point out, they were still mortal. And we mortals commonly mistake death as an evil... despite having "eaten the apple."

I think YHWH wanted to fend us off from becoming immortal while we still suffered under this misunderstanding.

Anonymous said…
And, of course, going back to Mark 10:6-8 and re-reading it, I realise that Jesus is not defining marriage at all. He's replying to questions about his attitude to divorce - in a time when there was a huge controversy about this amongst Jewish theologians. He was asked to explain the grounds for divorce within the existing legal and religious framework of marriage amongst Jews in 1st century Palestine. So of course he doesn't have to describe marriage as an institution, because everyone he's talking to already knows what they accept as the cultural norm. He says that the Mosaic provision for divorce was created "for the hardness of your hearts", says that divorce and remarriage = adultery, and then... that's it. Over. Nothing else. No explanation of what marriage is, whether there should be equality in marriage, whether a person should stay married when their spouse beats the living daylights out of them or rapes their children, whether there is such a thing as an anullment, or anything else. It just stops.

Now, we all know that the Bible as it stands is the shreds left to us after massive purging and heavy hacking about of texts in the first few centuries CE. We all know that there are plenty of things in the Bible we now disagree with. We all know that Quakers believe that revelation is ongoing, and have diverged from the gospels on several points, including the status of women in religious communities, the moral acceptability of slavery, and the idea that The End Is Nigh So We Should All Be Celibate.

That's all I'm saying.
Anonymous said…
I have to agree with Tiffany about childbirth - whether it was frequent or not, it was fatal perhaps one-third of the time before the late 19th century, and it certainly shortened the lives of many women it did not kill. This was a MAJOR PUNISHMENT.

But, Peter, you are making the common mistake of looking on these books as if they were written by observers AT THE TIME. They were not. They are retrospectives: Life is miserable, why are we suffering? If god is good, we must have sinned. Ergo there is sin and we commit it. Later on, as you note, there had to be a corresponding reward, and so salvation had to be invented, which required the doctrine of the immortal soul, whose origin I have never been able to nail down (pardon my mixed metaphors), and in any case do not believe in.

Salvation for what, but also from what? It requires the invention of an awful lot of supernatural real estate for which no early citation can be found in the OT, or anywhere else.

Today, listening to the Met broadcast of Orfeo ed Euridice (Gluck's beautiful mangling of a gorgeous myth), I was reminded that it was the Mystery Cults who first promised some reward after death to the virtuous or the knowledgeable or the initiate. This doctrine was adopted by certain Jews in the late Hellenistic period and then flowered in Christianity. Despite all the wonderful art it has led to, I regard it as a pernicious superstition.

Saved from what? Saved for what? Saved by whom? How long has this been going on?

Just making trouble as usual.

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