The Old Testament: Notes on Genesis

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Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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19 Responses

  1. Avatar Shawn says:

    “God rests on the seventh day, which is thus holy. I have difficulty thinking of this as literal dating, but am unsure of the numerical significance.”

    Most scholars argue that this creation story comes from the priestly the Priestly tradition (P in the source theory). The emphasis is on place and order and establishing boundaries, which will be repeated in the Priestly sacrificial rituals (Exodus 25ff, most of Leviticus). Those rituals seem to have an obsession with the number 7. The priest dips the corner of the alter in blood 7 times, that sort of thing.

    So God creates a world where everything is put in its place and where time is ordered; therefore impurity spreads when this order is disrupted. The purity rituals both restore order and reflect the created nature of the universe. Note how disorderly the rest of Genesis is in comparison to Chapter 1. Even chapter 2 represents a very different narrative sensibility.Report

  2. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    According to Wikipedia:

    A rabbinic tradition, described in the Mishnah, postulates that the sin of Sodom was related to property: Sodomites believed that “what is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours” (Abot), which is interpreted as a lack of compassion.

    That is, the sin for which Sodom was destroyed was anticipating Ayn Rand.Report

    • @Mike Schilling, You beat me to the point … though the Rabbinic interpretation does make it pretty clearly about a sin of harshness towards others (not just strangers). There’s a midrash somewhere or other about either one of Lot’s daughters or a slave-girl who, as punishment for giving money to a beggar, is killed by the townspeople by being coated in honey and subjected to an angry swarm of, I believe, ants.Report

  3. Genesis in particular illustrates the truth of my wife’s description of Scripture, which is that it’s the story of one dysfunctional family after another.Report

  4. Avatar Saint Louis says:

    “Offering hospitality and protection to foreigners is commanded by God, and I often wonder, therefore, just how Jews and Christians understand the debate about ‘illegals’ given the specificity of their book in this regard.”

    Is it “foreigners” who must be offered protection or travelers? If it’s travelers, I think one can certainly make a distinction between those traveling through one’s country and those attempting to colonize it.Report

  5. Saint Louis, Leviticus expands on this understanding (19:33-34)

    “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”

    I don’t think that refers to just travelers, esp. given the reference to the Hebrews in Egypt–they were not travelers there.Report

  6. Avatar Saint Louis says:

    A lot of interpretation is necessary here. A few points:

    (1) The word “sojourn” connotes a temporary stay, not a permanent one.

    (2) One is capable of loving strangers and still not wanting them to colonize one’s country. Similarly, simply asking a stranger to leave who has entered the country illegally need not be considered “do[ing] him wrong.”

    (3) Perhaps the rules are (and should be) more lenient for refugees, which is essentially what the Hebrews in Egypt were, anyway. Whether Mexican immigrants can be considered refugees from a failed state is another debate altogether.Report

    • Avatar JL Wall in reply to Saint Louis says:

      @Saint Louis, A couple of interpretive points, first: These were laws given to a people in transit (that is, they were presently sojourning). They also had, historically, been herders — that is, in transit. So from that, you could see an understanding of “sojourn” as “sojourn with, sojourn among” rather than “sojourn through.”

      But I think the strongest evidence, with Dave, that this does not refer simply to travellers, comes from looking at what’s translated as “sojourn.” 19.34 opens with: K’ezrach (He who rises, comes, or goes) mikem (with you-plural). From which you can see how one translation gets “sojourns” and another gets “dwells” (JPS). But it seems to indicate something other than just travelling.

      On the other hand, I don’t necessarily make the matter any clearer by resorting to Hebrew: typically the Jewish debate has been over the question of just who/what is a “Ger” (translated as ‘stranger’ above, but sometimes understood to mean ‘convert.’) I prefer the more expansive understanding, but it’s not entirely clear, from this verse, at least, who’s right.Report

      • Avatar Rufus in reply to JL Wall says:

        @JL Wall, I do see the distinction as far as colonizers. It seems to me though that the colonizers in that time were more usually attacking armies and, in that case, it was generally very clear about which people were protected by God and which ones weren’t. Sojourning in that context seems closer to refugees, at least to me.Report

  7. Avatar Katherine says:

    I don’t read the first 11 chapter of Genesis (up to the Tower of Babel) as historical, it feels more like a mythology created to express overarching truths than an account of historical events. (But if so, why all the ages and geneologies? I’ve always had trouble with that.)

    I have difficulty thinking of this as literal dating, but am unsure of the numerical significance.

    One of the theories I’ve heard in sermons, and from people I know who have studied theology, is that the creation story is meant to mirror the construction of a temple. The first three days have places being constructed (the heavens, the seas and skies, the earth) and the next three have the corresponding places being filled, like the furnishings would be placed in the temple. The last thing to be placed in the temple was the image of the god; in Creation, the last thing made is humans, made in God’s image.

    Offering hospitality and protection to foreigners is commanded by God, and I often wonder, therefore, just how Jews and Christians understand the debate about “illegals” given the specificity of their book in this regard.
    The command is repeated several times in the later books of the Pentateuch, and with regard to Saint Louis’ point it definitely includes long-term residents since one of the main reasons given for the command is that “you were aliens and strangers in Egypt” – and the Israelites were there over a century. I don’t know how Jews read it generally, but on a trip to Israel with a Christian group in May we talked with one of the settlers in Ephrat, and he claimed that the command referred only to treatment of other Jews. I would guess that’s the most hard-line right-wing interpretation of the verse, though, and Reform Jews may see things differently.

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the stories of Dinah and of Tamar.Report

    • @Katherine,

      (But if so, why all the ages and geneologies? I’ve always had trouble with that.)

      Perhaps the biblical author meant both to disclose overarching truths through mythology and to give an account of history. Or perhaps he didn’t differentiate history and mythology as we do today. I’m not well studied enough to give an informed assessment, but I don’t see anything troubling in finding ages and genealogies in what we today would call a work of mythology.Report

  8. Avatar ThatPirateGuy says:

    I’ve long thought that the Adam & eve story is so much better when understood as the farmer lament at the changes they saw when they stopped being foragers and settled down to one area.

    Especially as the cities densities became breeding grounds for disease. So we have the tilling of the earth, and the beginning of “death”. This is a much better story and much cooler to read when you don’t think of it as a literal depiction of what happened.Report

  9. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Genesis is one of my favorite books. One of the things that I see as absolutely essential to the reading of Genesis 1 and 2 is God’s pronouncement of his various creations as “good”.

    This is a moral judgment of His. It’s not just a guy making a sandwich and saying “this is a good sandwich!” halfway through, it’s not just a statement of quality.

    Compare, for example, to Buddhism.

    The serpent promises Adam and Eve that they will be as gods by eating the fruit (it never says “apple”. I assume this convention comes from the Latin “malum”, which can mean either an evil or an apple.) His punishment is the toil required to bring forth food. Hers is the pain of childbirth and patriarchal marriage. Where does it say their punishments pass down to their descendents?

    I’ve read this portion as a “just so” story.

    Girls hate snakes disproportionately. Yes, I know. You knew this girl who wasn’t afraid of snakes and this boy who was but, seriously, chicks hate snakes to a degree that guys don’t and then guys have to run in and kill them. Spiders too. This story explains why.

    Why do we have to work to eat when all of the other animals out there just sort of move around and goof off? This story explains why.

    Why do dogs and cats and cows have babies so effortlessly while human women are screaming for half a day? This story explains why.

    Why do guys run stuff? This story explains why.

    It’s always been this way and, as a matter of fact, the first man and first woman had how the world works explained to them by God Himself. This is in Genesis.

    So, tonight: take the remote control from your wife’s hand and, when she looks at you, say “Genesis 3:16.”Report

  10. Avatar mattt says:

    I am new to this series but studied the OT from a secular perspective as an undergraduate, a loooong time ago. When (if) you get to Exodus, please note my favorite passage in the entire bible, Exodus 24:9-11

    “Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear like the sky itself. But he did not lay a hand on the leaders of the Israelites, so they saw God, and they ate and they drank.”

    It’s been a long time since I studied this but my old (and long deceased) professor – a former theologian and devout Christian who nonetheless sought insight through studying scripture in its secular, historical context, and who read the original Greek and Hebrew – taught that linguisitic analysis marked this passage as one of the very oldest in the Bible, and that “They” in the last passage should be understood to say that Yahweh joined in the eating and drinking. I still remember how my mind was blown with the image of a physical manifestation of the Judeo-Christisan God, with his feet on the ground.

    I’ve also always thought that, since this passage is so at odds with more familiar representations of Yahweh in the pentateuch – as a burning bush or whatever – that it must have been a dear and important tradition of at least some of the tribes of Israel to survive later editing.Report

  11. Avatar Imaginary Lawyer says:

    I understand using a translation in your native language (presumably English), but why Latin? The Bible, at least the part you’re discussing, is Hebrew.Report