The Old Testament: Notes on Genesis
My wife has joked about the foolhardiness of blogging the Bible due to the likelihood of offending everyone: people who take the Bible as the word of God understandably take it very seriously, and I’ve met some atheists who take rejection of the Bible nearly as seriously. I’m in neither camp.
Nevertheless, it’s impossible to “blog the canon” without discussing the Bible. We can disagree about its truth content, but the poetry is lucid, lovely and powerful- frequently majestic, and the stories are lively and entertaining. Seemingly half of our English phrases were begat by either the King James Bible or Shakespeare. (Note that I am using a Latin version and the KJB.) It is also a foundational text of the West and central to how billions of people see the world.
So, I have great respect for the text, but am neither a devout believer nor an atheist. I don’t take the Bible to be a literal record of events. Therefore, certain questions posed by atheists, like how the sons of Adam or Noah might have reproduced, seem irrelevant to me because I take these early books as stories about the generations of a particular nation in a corner of the near east, with much in the way of parable and myth. I know plenty of believers who aren’t literalists either. As a Christian once said to me, “the books were written by men, and are flawed; the Word is true”. Another way of putting it is that we don’t read Aesop’s fables and find them worthless because foxes can’t talk.
I approach the text neither as a believer nor an atheist. I ask believers to understand that I read the books with deep respect, but am not looking to be saved, and please keep in mind that I was not raised hearing these stories so mistakes are likely plentiful. For atheists, I ask that the books be read outside of and in spite of arguments with believers. As always, any notes, suggestions of corrections from anyone who knows this material better than me are appreciated. Here are my notes:
Creation: In the beginning, the earth was formless, dark, and watery. The earth as womb- it’s an image familiar from Egyptian creation stories, but different from the chaos in Gilgamesh and Hesiod. The creation of day and night, land, plants and grasses, animals, fishes and birds- life brought forth from the waters, as likely was the case. Last forth is man, who is given dominion over every living thing- does this dominion outlast the fall of Adam and Eve? 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.
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? This has been assumed by many religious groups, with the strangest example being the now-abandoned Mormon belief that the skin color of blacks indicated their descent from Cain.
Cain and Abel: the chastened Cain is marked so that anyone who attacks him will be avenged sevenfold. The Lord can scourge Cain, by making him a vagabond, but man cannot. Lamech, of the fifth generation is also a murderer, suggesting the race of Cain is cursed. Instead we follow the generations after Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve. Eight generations later is Noah, at a time when the earth is filled with violence because “all flesh has corrupted his way upon the earth”.
Noah, as we know, builds an ark and survives a global flood similar to the Gilgamesh story. On the mountain at Ararat, he makes a burnt offering to God who decides to never again curse the entire earth. This is the first covenant spoken of. While the burnt offerings are reminiscent of all early sacrifices, such as the Homeric ‘hectacombs’, I can’t remember the Greek gods making any sort of long-term contracts with men- they tend to be more often imperious than negotiating. There is a dialogue established here between the people of God and the Lord himself, which is ongoing and changes over time.
This dialogue strikes me as different from the Homeric interactions with the gods. Yahweh speaks directly with his believers, which the gods in Homer do as well. Having been accustomed to think of the God of Abraham as distant but omnipotent, it’s a bit of a surprise to read in Genesis about Yahweh appearing to believers and, at one point, sitting in a tent doorway talking to them. But we’ve heard about Odysseus conversing with and being protected by Athena, for example. What seems different is that the Hebrew God establishes lasting covenants with his people that build an intergenerational relationship between the Lord and the chosen people, instead of say giving specific gifts to a city or warrior. I do see this as a distinct innovation from earlier traditions, but could be wrong. I would love to hear thoughts from anyone who studies ancient myths or Scripture, as do many of our friends here at the League.
Abram, his wife Sarai, and Lot his nephew are sent out of Haran by God to make a great nation. They separate because their herdsmen cannot live together: Lot dwelling in Sodom and Abram in Canaan. The story is convoluted, but clearly Abram is protected by God as an obedient servant, and his offspring are given Canaan by covenant and required to circumcise their sons as a mark of that covenant.
Sodom and Gomorrah: Lot, meanwhile, lives in the cursed city of Sodom. God sends two angel travelers to Sodom, and Lot takes them into his house as guests. The men of the city want to know the travelers, presumably sexually, and Lot refuses to turn them over to be raped, offering his daughters instead. Finally, the wicked people of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed, God being unable to find anyone pure in either city, with the exception of Lot’s family, who are shepherded out before the destruction. Having now discussed a number of Greek stories about the import of offering hospitality to supplicant travelers, who the Greeks believed were protected by Zeus, it is difficult to see this story as being simply about homosexual behavior. Many stories in Genesis involve blessed travelers in foreign lands fearing they will be killed; in at least three cases, men pretend that their wife is their sister so they won’t be killed for her. However, this leads to trouble for the people of the cities because, quite clearly, sleeping with another man’s wife is forbidden by God. 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.
Abraham and Isaac: God speaks to his servant Abraham and tells him to offer his beloved son Isaac as a burnt sacrifice. Abraham obeys. At last, God tells him to stay the execution. The horror of God asking for the life of a son is beyond human reasoning. Kierkegaard says of Abraham that he “believed by virtue of the absurd; for all human reckoning had long since ceased to function.” Kierkegaard notes that Abraham had no reason to hope for life after death, which is not yet mentioned in the Bible. He simply trusts that God has reasons beyond man, and submits in fear. This fear and submission to God is the beginning of wisdom in the Scriptures.
Jacob and Esau: There is a rivalry between the sons of Isaac from their birth. I see this rivalry as explaining the development of civilization, with the meek, scholarly and God-fearing son Jacob inheriting the father’s blessing, instead of the hairy, wild hunter son Esau, who as first-born would traditionally have been blessed. Jacob is his mother’s favorite and wins the blessing through cleverness (and deception!), by replacing his father’s favorite son, Esau, in bringing him savory meat on his sickbed. Through his ingenuity, the meeker son rules over his, understandably bitter, brother, and Jacob becomes Israel, blessed by his father and God. With the founding of the new nation, the older rules of patrilinear inheritance are altered- Jacob becomes Israel by his submission to God. Similarly, Joseph is shocked when Israel blesses the younger son Ephraim instead of Manasseh (Gen: 48:18)
Onan: Onan is called on to continue his lineage by having children with his dead brother’s wife and, in his hesitation to enter her, spills his seed. God strikes him dead, which seems cruel. However, it also seems frankly untenable to see a message here about masturbation, since the transgression is more evidently disobedience.
Joseph and the Pharaoh: Joseph, the son of Israel is favored and his father gives him a multicolored coat that arouses the ire of his siblings. In vengeance, they sell Joseph into slavery- it’s already established that they cannot murder their brother. As a slave in Egypt, Joseph distinguishes himself by his gift for interpreting dreams: “Do not interpretations belong to God?” The prophetic dream is commonplace in most myths and holy people are often interpreters of dreams. Joseph wins the favor of the Pharaoh by interpreting a prophetic dream indicating a future seven years of famine so that food might be stockpiled. The people are thus provided for and Joseph is protected. In addition, his people are brought into the land of Goshen and will be protected, provided they give the fifth part of their yield to the Pharaoh, a good deal.
Jacob prophesizes the fates of his offspring, the twelve tribes of Israel. Levi and Simeon will be cursed for their cruel anger, while Joseph will be blessed. Jacob dies and is buried in Canaan, and the other children, fearing for themselves, bow down to Joseph in Egypt. He forgives them for their various transgressions.
In summary, the book of Genesis establishes the lineage of the chosen people who descend in a line from Abraham to Isaac to Israel and Joseph. The old joke that the message of the Old Testament is “Don’t mess with the well-connected” is exaggerated, but has a ring of truth. In Genesis, the Lord brings the people great blessings, none of which as of yet involve the afterlife, and in return, requires their obedience.