Reading the Bible as Literature
Week One: Genesis 1-24
Genesis is one of the most interesting and rewarding books of the bible. There is a whole lot going on, and a lot that precedes/prefigures events that come later, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. Sure, there are some dull moments, where we get into things like the “Son of _ ; Son of _ ; who lived until 800 and _” nonsense, but mostly, the stories are fascinating, the people are familiar, and God is beginning to demonstrate the kind of deity he is. Adam and Eve. Cain and Abel. Noah. Abraham and Sarah. Isaac and Ishmael. Babel. Sodom & Gomorrah. I mean, this is just a wild beginning to any book!
Speaking of which: what is up with this God? I remember when I last read the bible through, about 3 years ago, I kept thinking, “man, this guy is a real jerk!” He seems to overreact to every little human flaw (or attempt at greatness), and to “test” (sic: “tempt”) his most devout followers in the most absolutely ridiculous way. Upon this reading, though, I’m wondering about the “lessons” behind God’s actions, rather than focusing on the actions themselves. Let’s take two, for example:
First, after Eve and Adam eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil, they are expelled from the Garden of Eden. In my recollection, and in many modern-day references, it is only this post hoc ergo propter hoc (cause and effect) that is the focus. They disobeyed God, so he gets rid of them. But I think this misses an important piece: God says in Genesis 3:22 that they are being expelled before they can eat from the Tree of Life. In other words, it is not just that they disobeyed God and are now tarnished with the knowledge of good and evil (which essentially makes their innocence null & void and will cause them to know sin), but that if they stay, they may also become immortal. If they are “all knowing” and immortal, then they are much too close to being god-like; or, in God’s words, they would become “like one of us.”
Second, after the flood and re-populating of the Earth, Noah’s descendants begin to spread and to form different tribes, occupying different lands (nations). Eventually, many generations later, the tribes come together to build a ziggurat, a massive tower that would reach toward the heavens. This is the Tower of Babel, and it was meant to be mankind’s shining achievement, proof that men could work together toward a common goal, and succeed. But for some reason this angers and disturbs God. Why? Why wouldn’t he want his children to come together and learn and grow, and communicate? Well, as with the Tree of Knowledge, Genesis 11:6 tells us God saw their work and thinks, “nothing will be restrained from them,” if they are all of one language and one purpose.
In other words: these two glimpses at God’s methods seem to me to reveal a deity who is concerned, like much of ancient mythology (Greek & Roman, anyway) is concerned, with man’s hubris. Go too far, strive for too much, believe one’s self too important, and you are surely to fall and fail, hard. Is it possible, then, that the underlying message, here, is one of a compassionate God who must do some extremely shady things in order to guide mankind toward humility?
Other Interesting Bits:
- Genesis 3:15: seems to be the first prophecy of the coming of Christ.
- Genesis 5:22-24: notes, “Enoch walked with God; and he was not; for God took him.” Why is his death different from all the others? Is it because he is a seventh son?
- Genesis 14:21-24: Abraham refuses the spoils of war because he doesn’t want to be indebted to a potentially corrupt king. (This I’m noting only because it reminds me of a stoic philosophy, which is another journey I’m on).
- Genesis 15: God’s covenant with Abraham relays the act of cutting animals in half and lining them in an aisle for the men to walk down, to “cut the deal.” This practice of cutting animals in half and walking together between them, symbolizing an important agreement between two parties, is literally where that phrase, “let’s cut a deal” comes from.
- Genesis 16: The story of Sarah and Hagar = the inspiration for Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
- Genesis 19:1-29: The story of Sodom & Gomorrah. As it turns out, this does not seem to be a direct condemnation of homosexuality; indeed, there is no shock or disgust expressed at the idea that the men want to have sex with the new arrivals (identified as men, although I’m interested in reading earlier untranslated texts to see what the actual pronouns are; angels are traditionally non-gendered, so more investigation is needed). Instead, what upsets God about their actions seems to be a confluence of attitudes: lust, violence, rage, covetousness and, perhaps most importantly, refusal to respect that Lot has placed the visitors under the protection of his household, which is an ancient and sacred custom in multiple cultures and mythologies.