Genesis 7: Watching TV

Seven. I only got seven chapters in before Genesis broke me.

When I was in seminary I learned that Genesis is a tricky book. After all, the book begins with two competing creation stories each featuring a different order of events. My way of dealing with that, for the purposes of blogging, was to suggest that the order was poetic. The two accounts were a pair of literary methods that each emphasized the importance of humankind in different ways.

For six chapters I’ve worked to package Genesis into a unified narrative; on the seventh chapter, I rested.

The original goal I set for my contributions to #TroubletheWaters (which is by no means a requirement for other contributors) was to approach the text honestly and courageously, letting the words speak to me without the noise of my own prior knowledge and the teachings of others. I had been doing pretty well at this endeavor, but then, like I said earlier, Genesis broke me.

It’s not like I’m saying me and Genesis are done forever. I actually harbor quite a deep love for the Hebrew scriptures. When I say that Genesis 7 broke me, I mean that I am no longer able to read the Bible as one continuous and consistent drama. In other words, I am no longer attempting to see a meta-narrative in this text, one story that binds all of the other stories into a logical, cohesive whole. The unavoidable truth that we find in the book of Genesis, as in many other books of scripture, is that multiple voices are found therein and they each speak a different tale for a different purpose, and what they are saying is quite often logically inconsistent.

Genesis reads like my mom and dad’s arguments while watching TV. At my parents’ house there is invariably some sort of CSI or Law and Order playing on the screen in their living room, and my dad will be certain that a guest actor is the same person he remembers from some earlier show like Columbo, Perry Mason, or Rockford Files. My mom will chime in claiming that the actor my father has in mind died two years ago and that my dad is really thinking of so-and-so from Murphy Brown. After that, they just go at it. The last time I witnessed such a dispute I actually looked into the actor’s history using IMDB (internet movie database). When I settled things, I expected my parents to be happy, but in actuality they seemed far more annoyed than relieved. What I had perceived (perhaps wishfully) as a collective pursuit for the sake of understanding was for them a competitive sport, a sport that I had just ruined.

The voices in Genesis compete with one another as well, each claiming to have access to a more true, more compelling version of events than the other. They agree that the subject matter is that of Noah, his wife, their sons Shem, Ham and Japheth, and their wives – though none of them can seem to remember the names of the female protagonists – how they lived in an age of violence, that God’s hatred of violence is the reason for the flood that will destroy all life on Earth, and that God helps eight humans and a whole mess of animals to escape extinction in an ark. What they don’t agree on is big. Dad thinks no humans live for longer than 120 years, but mom keeps saying that Noah was 600 years old when the flood hit. Uncle Howie says there were two of each animal, but your mom (his sister) corrects him that there were more of the domesticated animals.

“They had to eat,” she shouts.

Uncle Howie shouts louder, “They were vegetarians!”

Your cousin Willy interjects that there were extra birds too.

“Nobody asked you!” everyone else shouts in unison. Because of the power of their conviction Willy doesn’t even raise the question of what happened to all of the fish, but it was certainly on his mind how God intended to drown all the fish.

Some of you may join me in seeing this text as irresponsible. My reasoning is that the argument among the various Biblical sources as to the age of this or the headcount of that is so loud that it covers up any account of the suffering experienced by all the people who weren’t privileged enough to get on the boat, all those “wicked people.”

I don’t claim to know what it was like to be one of these people who drowned because of God’s wrath, but I have lived through a flood. On the day I proposed to Amy, April 19 of 2014, the flood waters began to rise in Lowell. You get used to water pooling in low places when it is raining, and it is not that uncommon in Michigan, as elsewhere, to drive through water that might just be too deep for your car to safely get through. These are common, every day fears. But when the puddles start pooling together and creeping ever so slowly toward you, it is a different story all together. By the time we evacuated, many of the roads we’d normally take had already become impassible, and I was struck with a feeling of terror. If we couldn’t get out of town, what could we do? Drive to the highest point in town and hope that we could wait it all out in our car? And what if the flood waters reached us there…

I have the beginning of an understanding of what the flood might have been like. There are some important differences between my story and the ancient flood story. The Genesis account depicts a time before there were emergency early warning systems or motor vehicles that could spirit you away from the floodplain. Most importantly, those who attempted to escape had nowhere to escape to. I never had cause to give up hope, but when a flood can submerse even the peaks of the highest mountains you are faced with a completely different situation. The only thing these people had to look forward to was an ugly death by drowning.

Personally, I find it hard to believe that there was ever a time when all of humanity deserved to die. I have trouble listening to a story about the corruption of every species on the planet without imagining exceptions, and I’m not talking about Noah and his family. Am I to believe that even out there among the wicked there was not a single soul willing to help a neighbor out from under an overturned oxcart? Is it possible that there was not a single champion of mercy available to carry the injured to a place of relative safety? While we’re talking about Noah and company staying high and dry on a luxury cruise with all the cute little animals, God is murdering humankind. That includes children. That includes babies. And, yes, that includes the unborn in their mothers’ wombs. Perhaps you’re OK with God perpetrating the largest scale mass murderer in the history of everything – we’re told they had it coming, after all – but how does it feel to know that God just aborted every last innocent, ensouled, helpless human fetus in this same fit of rage?

This is not something to turn away from. This is something we need to think about every time we talk about a righteous God delivering a great hero of faith from destruction. This is something not depicted in our pretty children’s picture Bibles, but nonetheless we must consider the human cost of God’s wrath. To do anything less would be pretty darned irresponsible.

Further Reading:

Letter to a Confused Young Christian at Political Jesus

Genesis 6: The (First) War to End All Wars

Before we get into the nitty gritty of the ever-so-familiar tale told in Genesis 6, I want to take the route of William Shakespeare and begin with a dramatis personae of the factions of intelligent life involved in this story.

First of all, there is God, who is also called Lord [Gen. 2:4 NRSV, etc.], but whose real name is unknown, unpronounceable, and represented by the tetragrammaton “YHWH.” God is the creator of everything that we know, or the one who organized, ordered, and conquered the chaos, depending on your interpretation of Genesis 1. God is composed of spirit (“a mighty wind”), has knowledge of good and evil, and possesses immortality. We know this because after God blessed Adam and Eve with the divine spirit, and directly after they ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God cast humankind from the garden lest they eat of the tree of life and live forever like God and God’s droogs [3:22]. Nobody has called God all-powerful yet – of course, nobody has dared call God weak either – but we know that the creation / organization of the cosmos required a power much greater than that we currently have access to.

Next are the children of God, and I’m not referring to what Sunday School teachers call everybody who goes to your church. These are the beings that have only been referred to by the plural pronoun “us” up to this point [1:26, etc.]. It would seem that these mysterious other divine figures are part of a heavenly court ruled by God. Without much to go on, it would make sense that these beings are similar to God insofar as they are spirit, possess knowledge of good and evil, and have eternal life. As God’s children, it would seem that they derive their power, in some way, from God. These eternal beings may be the gods of other tribes, seen as local governors under the supervision of YHWH. They may be the personified / deified concepts that God created: Day [1:5], Night [1:5], Sky [1:8], Earth [1:10], Sea [1:10], etc. I wouldn’t be surprised if these are the same beings that are later transformed into angels because of codes against idolatry / worshiping other gods. One quality that they seem to exhibit which we haven’t seen God get into yet is the power to take on the flesh and appear as human, because in Genesis 6:2 they begin to breed with the daughters of humankind.

What a great transition, because humankind is the next on our list. I know this just might #TroubletheWaters, but it is beginning to look like there are two different kinds of human on earth. Why don’t we call this a hypothesis? There are children of delight, the garden-born / garden-descended humans (Eden = “delight”) who have had direct experiences of God because they are, in some sense, God’s chosen, the high priests and priestesses chosen to intercede on behalf of humankind. They are composed of flesh, spirit, and knowledge of good and evil, and prior to Genesis 6 the spirit within them allowed them to live to very old age. According to Genesis 5:5, Adam lived to the ripe age of 930 before he died. The rest of the humans may not have been blessed with the spirit and may not have lived very long. The first we learn of the children of wandering is when Cain is cast out into the land of Nod (“wandering”) [4:16], and we must presume that they are present in Genesis 6 as God plans to destroy all of humanity. We could easily call these people others, outsiders, or foreigners. All we know is that they have flesh. Maybe they had knowledge of good and evil. Maybe not.

Finally, there are the Nephilim, a newly introduced race as of Genesis 6 comprised of the offspring resulting from the interbreeding of the children of God and humankind. Genesis 6:4 reads, “These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.” Half-divine, half-human, we can assume that they are composed of both flesh and spirit, probably the knowledge of good and evil, but almost certainly not immortality. From my understanding of the heroes of old, the Nephilim appeared to be larger, more powerful versions of normal humans.

Now that the players have entered the field, I can mention that Genesis 6 appears to be yet another chapter emphasizing God’s desire for non-violence. This theme is so prevalent in #TroubletheWaters that you’d think I went into reading scripture with the hopes of converting some ancient words to my cause, but I think it is so obvious in the text that anyone who is willing to do an honest, unencumbered reading will see what I am talking about. If you look only as far as Genesis 6:11-13, it should be clear:

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them…”

In an odd, yet strangely familiar, narrative the humans and the Nephilim have turned their ways to violence, probably engaging in war over land, humans against Nephilim, humans against humans, Nephilim against Nephilim, human / Nephilim armies against human / Nephilim armies. I’m sure that if you look into some of the secondary literature of the time, you’ll find every possible iteration of these combatants and possibly a whole slew of other challengers. God is not happy with this aggression. It is interesting that violence is described as corruption of the flesh, which I presume to mean infection, rot, puss, decay, and maybe even leprosy. If you imagine the weapons that would have been used in these early wars, slings, arrows, crude blades and blunt weapons, you know that there was probably a severe lack of “clean kills” on the battlefield. Rather, many warriors probably crawled into a corner and died hours, days, or weeks later as their wounds festered, their cause of death: sepsis, the corruption of flesh that shuts down a person’s organs. With this understanding we see corruption as not just a metaphor for violence, but also an effect that is brought about by violence.

The reason I think this whole story is familiar is because the comparisons to the Greek epic Homer’s Iliad, among other ancient stories, are screaming out to me. A parent god and pantheon of lesser gods / children of god / godlings interfere in mortal affairs – CHECK! Heroes of great strength who claim lineage from the gods themselves are the warriors of old that are sung about in our songs – CHECK! There are normal people there fighting but you’ll never know their names or sing their songs – CHECK!

In another way, this story is eerily similar to our own recent past. When God revokes the spirit, drastically reducing the lifespan of humankind, and decides to destroy humanity and creation, we see a story comparable to the one that unfolded in World War I. This is the war to end all war. During the first half of the 20th century, the idea was to end German militarism in order to end all war. In Genesis 6, it is to destroy all humanity, all flesh, for flesh leads to violence. The end result is the same: somebody thought that it would be possible to end all violence by enacting the biggest act of violence one could ever dream of.

The dramatic irony is astonishing at this point. If God’s destruction of humankind had been successful in getting rid of violence, would humanity have ever fought World War I, not to mention every war before that and every war since? Would people be talking about gun deaths, domestic violence, or the ever more pervasive problems of abject poverty (which people are not talking about enough!)? No. We know already, at the beginning of Noah’s arc that God fails miserably with his half-cocked plan to rid the world of violence.

I don’t want to get too far ahead of the narrative, but there is a lesson to be learned from God’s failure, and I’m sure we’ll come to it before too long. For now, I want to return to the second half of Genesis 6 where, similar to the genealogical story of Genesis 5, Noah is set up as the new Adam. What is interesting about understanding Noah as the new Adam is that we learn just how impossibly different the humankind that we interact with on a daily basis are from “the first human” with whom we tend to claim kinship. (Are any of us even descended from Adam and Eve, the children of delight, or are we wanderers too?) Adam is blessed with the spirit of God, making him much closer in composition to the Nephilim, the giants and heroes of old, than to us. But Noah is the first human to be denied the spirit of God and live to have a tale told about him, and it is with Noah that we should feel familiarity. Noah’s probably met ancestors of his that were hundreds of years old, and this is what his expectations had been for himself and his children as well, until God got angry, and now Noah would be a lucky man to live past his hundredth birthday. This short life is the doom we all face. The line of Adam ended with Lamech. We are the children of Noah, the children of an early death.

Further Reading:

Letter to a Confused Young Christian at Political Jesus

Genesis 5: Of Persons and Priests

When I was younger I used to skip chapters like Genesis 5 that were comprised only of genealogies of “patriarchs,” a bunch of men who lived to ridiculously old ages and had many children but only one worth noting. Someone coined a term for these chapters, the “begats” of the Bible, because so-and-so begat so-and-so, and so on and so forth. These chapters were really repetitive, listing a guy’s name, the age he was when he had his first child, the fact that he had many more children, and the age he died. They were full of unfamiliar names, like Mahalel and Methuselah. And more than anything I had a lot of trouble determining what the importance of these lists was. I guess I just didn’t have the imagination necessary – or the superior genius – to chart the age of the earth based on a series of tall tales about 900 year old men. To me, these genealogies were just something to skim over on the way to better stories.

For the most part there is no story to Genesis 5. I suppose you could make the argument that the chapter begins with Adam, the man who broke the rules in Eden resulting in humankind toiling away at the earth for hours on end, and ends with Noah, the man who apparently sussed some sort of relief out of the poisoned ground, and that this resembles a story. But the truth is that the genealogy has more of a philosophical significance. The idea of the image of God takes center stage here, forcing the question, “Who is created in the image of God? All of humankind or just a select few?” And if that is not enough, there is an added bonus concept of a son in the likeness or image of Adam as well. With this language abounding, the reader is required to consider what these image relationships mean and who they apply to.

The scope of the image of God is confounded by a funny quality of the Hebrew word “Adam,” which could be understood as a proper noun, referring to a particular person named Adam, or as a common noun meaning “humankind.” The same sentence can be rendered two different ways:

When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God.

When God created Adam, he made him in the likeness of God. [Gen. 5:1 NRSV]

Depending on how you understand the wording, the group of people created in the image of God may include only Adam, Adam and Eve, Adam and his heirs, all humankind, or even only those humans descended from the original garden dwellers, excluding those people outside of and to the East of Eden who welcomed Cain into his life of wandering.

The scope of the image of Adam becomes similarly confusing. Adam fathered “a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth” [5:3]. If we flash back to the previous chapter, Seth was given to Adam and Eve as a replacement, as Eve says, “God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, because Cain killed him” [4:25]. If there is continuity between these chapters, then Abel would have been the child created in Adam’s image. Perhaps the entire lineage of men in Chapter 5 are the children who share the image of Adam (which may or may not be different from the image of God). Noah seems especially to embody the image of Adam. After all, because of forthcoming events he becomes the second coming of the first man. Do all of the descendants of Adam share in his likeness, or only those selected and named? Was Cain a son created in his father’s image? If so, perhaps the likeness faded once Cain committed murder. If not, then I think we finally know why God chose the offering of Cain. Maybe it had more to do with the one making the offer than the product that was offered.

It is difficult to understand who is seen in an image relationship with whom without first postulating as to what being in the image of another means. This concept is worthy of further discussion, but for the sake of moving this particular discussion forward I want to suggest that the image of God is another way of talking about personhood and the image of Adam is another way of talking about priesthood.

Those created in the image of God are persons. Like God, who is a singularity, persons cannot be replaced. Their existence ought to be treated with reverence. Persons are co-creators, be they parents, artists, builders, farmers, or anything else, but also stewards of that which God created (the whole cosmos). Persons are to be treated with dignity, never killed, never lied to, never cheated on. There is no need for the Ten Commandments if persons only understand that they are created in the image of God. What God is in actuality, persons are in potential. This applies to all of humanity. Cain’s fault was not recognizing the personhood in Abel, and similarly we have enacted endless chains of violence because we dehumanize others. We image that we can remove their personhood, and with it their entitlement to life and liberation.

If I didn’t believe that the first several chapters of Genesis are thinly veiled discussions of the early Jewish priesthood (an idea that my buddy Rodney set me onto), I certainly would have after reading Genesis 5. If the origin story is about all of humankind, then why are those outside of the garden not even mentioned until after Cain is exiled? And why, when we reach the genealogies, do we only learn of one person each generation as opposed to the plethora of interesting and dynamic persons who must have populated the planet? This is because the story of Adam is the story of the first high priest. (Yes, this story is highly male-centered, but there is no reason to believe that Eve is not a high priest as well. Those humans that were created in the image of God were created as both male and female, after all. Not just male.) Abel would have inherited the role of high priest from Adam, but Cain put a stop to that, so the role passed to Seth. This explains how in irreplaceable child created in the image of God could be replaced by another – it is not the person who is being replaced, but the priest! After this, one male in each generation, along with, potentially, his wife, is made the high priest, and left to receive commandments from God, to teach humankind, to plea for humankind’s sake, to enter into covenants, and to generally act as a human-God relations associate.

Genesis 5 is much more than a simple genealogy. Of course, I’m probably not the only person who believes it impossible to call a genealogy “simple” when it includes a person (Enoch) who never died but who joined God at the end of his days. This chapter is certainly not a chapter to skip. It is the conclusion of the great creation epic in which all of humanity is created and granted the dignity that any irreplaceable entity deserves with one chosen each generation for the horrors of communicating between a fearful God and a violent animal called Adam, AKA humankind. But after creation comes destruction, and this destruction begins when first the name Noah is written.

To be continued…

Further Reading:

Letter to a Confused Young Christian at Political Jesus

Genesis 4: Dis-Abel

I am notorious for setting conversational traps to end arguments with those who disagree with me. Here’s a classic: “If you are doing what things as you describe them, then things will certainly work out fine.” The person I am talking with will think that I am agreeing with them and the argument will come to a stop, because surely my interlocutor is doing everything as described. Why else would s/he describe things that way? In truth, we are still completely at odds. I believe that this person is NOT doing things in the described fashion, and the proof is there in the fact that things have not been working out fine. My soon-to-be-wife Amy has always had a keen ability to see through these traps I lay, and she hates when I try. That’s one of the many reasons I’m marrying her – she’s my equal (or my better, really) at the war of words, the Gilgamesh to my Enkidu.

I think it is a common human error to relate always with that which is good in a story, be it the protagonist, a good message, or anything else. In the gospels, there are several conversational traps meant to root out hypocrisy not only within the narratives but within the hearts of those reading the narratives. For example, most people reading of Jesus’s crucifixion relate with Jesus, the persecuted, when their own actions are often much more similar to those of Pontius Pilate, the dutiful Roman officers, Judas Iscariot, or even the many Jews who quickly turned on the “King of the Jews.” There are many who enjoy when Jesus takes the Socrates route and makes the Pharisees look like legalistic fools who don’t understand that “the law” was conceived in love and meant to serve humankind, only to make the same mistakes in our own interpretation. We relate with Jesus in these situations because we couldn’t imagine that we might be so incorrect, unaware, and capable of propagating violence, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Then we come to the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4.

Cain and Abel are a pair of brothers, the children of Adam and Eve, and at this point in the scriptural narrative, the only children who have ever lived. Cain farms crops from the earth and Abel tends to a flock of sheep. The two brothers both bring an offering of the best fruits of their labor to God. God holds Abel’s offering in high regard, but the best that Cain has to offer is simply not good enough for God. Jealous, Cain kills his brother Abel, but is unable to hide his crime because both the blood of Abel and the earth itself, two natural mechanisms of justice in Genesis, cry out against Cain. As a result, God punishes God by cursing him to walk the earth forever and ever with no relief, not even in death, for the one who kills Cain will be “avenged sevenfold.”

If we are to place ourselves anywhere in this story, we place ourselves naturally in Abel’s place. We can imagine doing our very best, and we imagine that we will be the ones who are rewarded. When there seems to be no rhyme or reason for the choice of Abel’s gift over Cain’s we are all-too-happy to provide a justification of God breaking the number one of parenting – NEVER CHOOSE A FAVORITE!. Abel must be more faithful than Cain. He must have given his best and Cain must have given his leftovers. God must have known that Cain had murder in his heart from the beginning. We add to this story because we want to defend the victim, this Abel fellow, who we feel so akin to. But, for the most part, none of us share anything in common with Abel. We are, honestly and truly, meant to relate with Cain.

Even if you are more faithful than the average bear, it should be clear that Cain is the son who is more obedient to both his God and his parents. He is the one who tills the earth. As part of the lease agreement for inhabiting the garden of Eden, Adam, for the sake of all humans and all the animals he held dominion over, promised to eat the fruits and vegetables of the garden, never tearing the flesh of an animal or destroying a plant in such a way that it can no longer be fruitful itself. Even when Adam eats of the one fruit in the garden that is not given freely to him, his curse is to labor long and hard, sweating while tilling the earth for sustenance. Cain obeys these, the only rules that appear to exist at this point in the narrative, a covenant and a punishment that both hold sway before even the ordinance against murder is put into place. Abel, by contrast, must look like some sort of aberrant Nazi mad scientist or torturer. He is the first carnivore in a world where without an established tradition of eating flesh. By any measure, Abel’s gift should be the one that is rejected, but the events of Genesis 4 stand in direct opposition to the nonviolent message of Genesis 1-3, depicting a capricious God with an inscrutable mind.

It is a hard change of perspective to think that readers of Genesis 4 are supposed to see themselves in the actions of Cain. I wonder if it is easier when we think of where we are in life when we first hear this story. Think back to that imaginary set of parents I keep referencing who are telling these origin stories while walking through the desert after having escaped slavery in Egypt. Do these people who have never known a home feel more like the first humans living in a paradise given by God? Or do they relate more to the rejected Cain, forever a stranger, dispossessed of land and title, forever a wanderer. (Cain is banished to live among the people in the land of Nod, but Nod means “wandering,” so this land seems to be no land at all, the lack of land, in fact.) The second audience I imagine for this story is a group of Jews who have gathered together after the fall of Jerusalem. They do not live among like-minded individuals, but have been married off to people of different nationalities, who speak different languages and worship different gods in their homes. Again, I wonder if they believe themselves akin to the purebred first children of God, delighting in creation in eternal providence, or if they feel scattered about in dangerous territory, sharing the lot of the first murderer.

These are my own imaginary perspectives from Jews thousands of years ago in what is now called the Middle East, but most of this blog’s readership is composed of Christians in the US. What could Christians possibly have in common with Cain? Well, most Christians believe that humans were burn under the curse of original sin. Just like with Cain, the inscrutable mind of God has decided to punish us for some unknown reason because of something done by our most distant human ancestors. We may follow the covenant, the law, or the gospel to the word, but we are still rejected. Most Christians also believe that God sent Jesus to absolve the mark of this first sin, to bridge the gap between God and the people of God. But our post-salvation experience of existence does not feel like a bridge. We are not all singing happy songs in the garden of Eden together. We are eternally East of Eden. When God gives the lesson of this story – “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” [Gen 4:6-7 NRSV] – it is meant to be received by Cain’s ears, but also by our own eyes.

I remember I attended a church service once that ended with the minister challenging the audience to “abandon yourself and take up your cross.” I was immediately hit by the gravity of this statement. Who could ever be so strong as to leave all remnants of ego behind? Certainly not me. I had tried and failed to do exactly that many times in my life. It seemed impossible that I could defeat my own ego, and I was terrified to my core of the sacrifices it would take to do so. To the same statement, many others were smiling, self-satisfied, saying “Amen,” and “yes,” as if  they’d had time between hot yoga and dinner at Louis Benton Steakhouse to drop off their ego at the pool and pick up a fashionable cross at Macy’s. I had to remind myself that I was nowhere nearer this lofty goal than any of these people, but I was irritated by the presumption that they were already at the finish line after doing nothing more than coming to church that very morning.

The point of seeing ourselves as Cain is that if we keep seeing ourselves as the persecuted and not the persecutors, the faithful as opposed to the screw-ups, as God’s only son rather than the plethora of people Jesus encountered who could not, for the life of them, understand his teachings, if we keep making these mistakes we are bound to do more harm than good in this world. You can keep posting pictures on Facebook of all of the Christians killed in the world, but you might be a better human being if you recognize that Christianity is also an unimaginably formidable power in the world responsible for the deaths of many non-Christians. Perhaps during thousands of years of wandering Cain has taken responsibility for his actions and committed himself to making the world a better place, or perhaps all he’s done is concoct an elaborate story in his head about how he is the victim. But who are we to judge when most of us claim to do the former while engaging in the latter?

Further Reading:

Letter to a Confused Young Christian at Political Jesus
Did Abel Deserve to Die?: Mosala’s Postcolonial Reading of Genesis 4:1-16 
at Political Jesus

Genesis 3: The Bro Code

Cut and paste existed long before there were computing machines and word processors. Before Ctrl-X (Apple-X) and Ctrl-V (Apple-V) there were scissors, blades, paste, tape, and the ever intoxicating rubber cement, and even before that portions of scripture were taught to people without the support of the narrative context to counteract doctrinal leaps and religious improvisations. I can think of few works more often cut-and-pasted than the first few chapters of Genesis.

The division of the second creation story and the “fall of humanity” into the second and third chapter of Genesis causes a bunch of problems for interpretation. We rush headlong into the story of a serpent who is actually the devil in disguise – the home audience knew right away because the serpent was talking in a non-Disney and non-parseltongue context – who wins woman over to his side with deceit a single sinful suggestion. Eve becomes a sorceress, wielding the magicks of her womanly ways in order to tempt her noble and innocent husband Adam into eating the forbidden fruit, and as the camera fades to the tune of “Careless Whisper” we fill in the blanks for the fruit metaphor.

The woman and the devil become man’s two favorite scapegoats. This was, of course, before man enacted the holy ritual of coming home from work and kicking the dog, so I decided not to add man’s best friend to the list just yet. Adam wasn’t the first man to pass off his own iniquities upon women. It happens today whenever a man blames his “impure thoughts” on the woman that is the object of said thoughts, and it happens every time it is determined that a woman is asking for what comes next. Have you ever wondered why nuns wear habits? It is because the priests were incapable of looking at a woman’s flesh without falling from grace. Their answer: cover up the flesh.

This story has spread like an unfortunately virulent game of telephone, and much of its popularity stems from the fact that people don’t trouble themselves to read the entire story. A snippet is enough.

In the previous two chapters, it is made clear that humanity is created in God’s image. As if that weren’t enough, humanity is also the most beloved of created things. It is not a stretch from these distinctions – and I think this interpretation would hold up even if I had a rudimentary understanding of Hebrew, which I don’t – to call humans god-like, or at the very least godly. In fact, God reveals in Chapter 3 that the only components humans are missing for godhood lie in the very garden he has blessed them with, namely, knowledge of good and evil and eternal life. No wonder we’re so prone to personify our deities, to call God a “he” and to get butt hurt when someone suggests that God might be anything other. We are so much like gods that God treats humanity as equals to the divine, or at least as near equals, when God decides to parlay with the first human, to enter into a covenant. After all, one never signs a treaty with one below ones station. It is not as if the farmer signs a contract with the fox who kills his chickens in which they promise to put down shotgun and teeth respectively for the sake of mutual peace. Also, I never read anything in the Iliad about proud Agamemnon negotiating the surrender of Troy with a Turkish peasant. To go into business in this way, humanity would have to be at least similar enough to God for the terms of the agreement to make sense.

God places an offer on the table that will certainly intrigue the first human. “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden” [Gen 2:16 NRSV]. In other words, Adam is offered a home in the garden of Eden in which each every one of his needs is completely taken care of. God offers something beneficial for humankind, but there is one condition: “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” [2:17]. This is beneficial to God, because if humans obtained the knowledge of good and evil it would be as the serpent explained, “[F]or God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” [3:4]. Not only that, but Adam “might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” [3:22]. A human who had become a god would be threatening to the God who created them, so God made this covenant in order to assure that this would never happen. As if any human would give up the perfection of the garden of Eden, God added an additional clause upon breach of contract detailing that death is the punishment for obtaining knowledge of good and evil. The details of this first covenant have been outlined, but the main point has not: God made a treaty with Adam after the creation of terrestrial vegetation, before the creation of animals, and before the creation of Eve.

God does not entreat with Eve. While there is certainly something misogynistic about this whole endeavor – the creation of Adam first (which is contradicted in the first chapter), a covenant of a God who has historically been depicted as a man with the first human who has also been depicted as a man, the whole kit and kaboodle – there must be some people out there who realize that it is wrong to blame the woman in the story when the man is found in breach of contract. Do I believe that the covenant between God and Adam is meant to extend to Eve? Yes. I actually do. When the serpent first mentions eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Eve recites the wording of what was said to Adam. Later, when God asks the woman what she has done, Eve responds that the serpent had tricked her. She acknowledges her guilt. I’ve used a couple of analogies before, of a couple of parents talking to their child and of a family entertaining a house guest, but in order to elucidate this point I want to use yet another, that of the manager of a business.

Adam is the manager of Eden. It is his job to name all of the animals. He holds dominion over them, whatever that means. He has entered into covenant with God for the sake of all humanity. He is the point person for this contract. If my business promises to deliver a truck full of goods to another business and my employees in shipping can’t get the product out on time, it is nobody’s fault but mine. I am the manager of the business. I signed the contract. I will need to hold my shipping department accountable, but this is an internal matter. The fault, in the eyes of my customer, is mine, and rightly so. The buck stops here. The responsibility goes no further than my own desk. As misogynistic as it is to imagine Eve as one of Adam’s underlings, this analogy works only insofar as it assigns blame. It is Adam’s duty to make sure that everyone in the garden is compliant with their contractual obligations with God. They should all be trained on day one on the locations of the exits, the places to meet in case of tornado or fire, the placement of fire extinguishers and eye wash stations, and not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (In a business environment, the aforementioned tree would be turned into an acronym, because businesses LOVE acronyms.) If Adam had been the noble and innocent soul that we are lead to see him as, when God found them hiding from him and called them out for eating the forbidden fruit Adam would have hung his head and said, “It is true, God. I have come into conflict with the terms of the deal.” Instead he throws Eve under the bus, who in turn throws the serpent under the bus. His spinelessness does not redeem him, but rather reveals yet another one of Adam’s shortcomings as a manager.

One again I flash forward to modern day where I see the story of Genesis 3 playing out in this world right now. I once read that the natural resources present just within the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo are enough to sustainably feed the entire population of the earth forever and always. The trouble is that the area has been constantly engaged in one war or another at least since the time of the first European settlers. Though the earth might itself turn into a desert, if we had only this, our own garden of Eden, none of us would ever go hungry. It is through this lens that I think we have proven what we would have done with our godhood were we to stay in Eden and sup on the fruit of the tree of life as well. We’re currently only god-like and we’ve managed to destroy significant portions of the rain forest, poison the land, air, and sea in myriad ways, to taint our own food supply, to kill one another as farmers turn their plowshares into swords, and so on and so on. We gained the ability to destroy and irradiate entire cities – an ability we have already demonstrated on two occasions – when we discovered the nuclear bomb. But that is nothing compared to what just one of us could do with the powers we understand God as having.

We’ve proven again and again that we’re not worthy of the gifts given us. Thank God we’re not gods! There would be nothing left to be a god of.

Further Reading:

Letter to a Confused Young Christian at Political Jesus
The Quest for the Historical Eve & Adam at Political Jesus
Sunday Funnies: Real Men of Genesis 
at Political Jesus
Welcome, Real Men of Genesis! at Real Men of Genesis
Is The Devil Real? 
at Political Jesus

Genesis 2: Enter Human

If you’re into science fiction and fantasy there is no shortage of stories about fallen and/or rebel angels. Sure, it’s hip to be noble with an edge, like the main characters in Rebel Without a Cause, Easy Rider, Road House or Rumble Fish, but why would an angel choose this path. They spend their lives in heaven, the exotic destination that everyone everywhere else wishes they were, contemplating the good, the just, and the beautiful while everyone else is wallowing in the bad, the unfair, and the ugly. It slowly starts to make sense when you think of these celestial beings and their perspective on life. Your eyes are trained upon the face of God, but God’s eyes are not trained right back upon you. God is looking elsewhere, and according to Genesis he’s saying “This is good,” and “That is good,” but he’s not spending a whole lot of time basking in the good that has been at his side the entire time. The creation of humanity might be something that the angels aren’t aware of. All they can see is God’s face, and what they notice is that God’s focus is elsewhere. Soon an all-too-human emotion begins to surface, and even the heavens prove unguarded against the power of jealousy.

I’m sure that if you polled all movie and television angels and asked them why they fell from grace, they would talk about how humans were created with free will, that they screw up ALL THE TIME, and yet they are still God’s favorite in all creation. I wouldn’t be surprised if the events of Genesis 2 were the cause of this enmity.

In Genesis 1, we are told the story of the creation of the universe, or at least of history, or at least (according to my buddy Rodney) of theology. We are amazed at how quickly popular movie series are rebooted in 2014, but in Genesis the origin story from Chapter 1 has already been retold differently by the time we get to Chapter 2. And this is before the advent of Sam Raimi’s emo Spider-man, even. What happened in seven days in the original now appears to happen in one day, or perhaps one particular era, something we might call the creation era. Not only do we get rid of the days of the week as a method of organization, but the order of events is completely different as well. Genesis 1 told the story pretty succinctly, but now that we have to add Genesis 2 to the story what we’re left with is a mess. The one thing both stories have in common, a touch stone to help us push forward, is that humankind is placed at the center of all created things.

In the first creation story, the creation of mankind is placed at the end of the narrative, making it feel like the wonders of separating night from day and the waters from the dry land, the creation of all other living things, was all simply a herald for the really special moment, when humanity enters the cast. What was created before us was created for us. Perhaps my own situation seeps into this reading. For the last year and a half I have been doing everything I can – looking for better paying positions at work, getting engaged and planning a wedding, struggling to find a way to buy a house, trying to get two reliable vehicles – to prepare my world for the child Amy and I plan on having some time after we become husband and wife. I can’t help but to see the creator of this chapter acting just as we are. While Amy and I are trying to make a better world for our potential future children, this deity has the bigger duty of actually making a world. It seems that there wasn’t really a world before Genesis happened and for the good of humanity you kind of need a place to put them.

If I’m sticking with analogies I think the second creation story is more like entertaining guests in your home. The first step is to invite your guests into the house. After that, you have to offer them some lemonade, or perhaps some sun tea you brewed on the back porch. You have to show them the bathroom, in case they need to use it, open up a guest toothbrush for them and then show them to the guest bedroom where they can throw the private, personal items they brought with them. It is your job to keep your guests company even when you are not present to do so yourself, so you have to introduce your guests to the television, because how else would we pass time in 2014? The entire time you’re afraid that what you have provided is not good enough. Genesis 2 is kind of funny, reading a little bit like a sit com. “Here, have a garden. Honey, they seem bored with the garden. What should we do? Well, we have some lovely animals in this garden. You simply must name them all. Darling, we have to think of something else. Do we have any other people handy for our guest? You didn’t forget to pick up more people at the grocery store, did you?” There is certainly some comedy to this scene, but throughout there is a theme. This story is for humans (with the establishment of traditions), about humans (and our origin), and perhaps most difficult to deal with, this story is by humans.

I can’t help, sometimes, to see the hubris in this story. Maybe this is only because I know the often spoken of “fall” is coming. But a group of humans tell a story about how humans are the most beloved by God in all of the cosmos. Say what you will about how the humans are divinely inspired or even dictating the perfect word of God – I’m not here to argue that point – but regardless of the source of this text, there is no better way for humanity to become the most hated creatures in the universe, by the angels, by the animals, by the plants and their mother earth, than to be labeled the most beloved. At this time we were unashamed of our nakedness. We didn’t have any of the rules of society or the smell of civilization. We simply lived as the other animals lived, without struggling for purpose, without fearing our inevitable death. But we had to be elevated above all that, and in so doing God, and the storyteller responsible for this tale, painted a target on our backs. Humanity was created in a land governed by peace, but the seed of violence, the pride of being the closest to God’s heart, was planted in us even at the very beginning. We never even had a chance. Everything was bound to fall apart.

I keep going back to the idea of a community fresh out of exile in Egypt and wandering through the wilderness looking for a land that seemed more like a pipe dream than a promise, and I think of the parents who are telling their children these stories in order to let them know that who they are and where they com from. They know all of this gets spoiled by violence, and it leaks even into their telling of this perfect era. They are aware of the irony in the story of how humanity is elevated above all else because they know the story of two brothers named Abel and Cain and the first murder that was caused by God elevating the gifts of one over the gifts of the other. I could take another step back and imagine that the story of these parents is being told by another set of parents who lived their lives in the promised land only to see everyone they know scattered by the powerful empire that ended their dream of Israel. These parents see another irony – that the exile in the wilderness ends in even more violence than these former slaves experienced themselves, only this violence was committed by the children of God. With one last step, I imagine telling all of these stories to my children when they come of age. Will I be willing to take responsibility for the violence caused by my people and driven by the way we tell the stories of God, humankind and creation? Or will I experience the third irony, that even in this age of enlightenment, at the end of all stories, we have not learned to curb the appeal of being at the top of the pile, that we have not yet overcome our violent natures?

Further Reading:

Letter to a Confused Young Christian at Political Jesus
The Quest for the Historical Eve & Adam at Political Jesus

Genesis 1: A History of Nonviolence

Genesis 1 tells a story of six days in the life of the creator of Earth. On the first day, our main character, the one called God, creates day and night by separating the light from the darkness, and yet this is not a day, at least, not how we know days. The great light that rules the day (presumably the sun) doesn’t get created until the fourth day, which rules out the traditional measure of a 24-hour period of time, and the atomic clock won’t be invented for, well, for another couple days, so what are we talking about here? It seems like the only real point of reference we have is that a “day” is the space (for lack of a better term) for rising and falling, for development, that on the first of these days God created time. How much time is there in a day? It appears that there is just enough time to complete a great work.

If time is created on the first day, and God swept over the face of the formless void like a mighty wind “before” (time words become more difficult in a time before time) creating time, then this is not exactly the story of the creation of all, of everything, of the cosmos. This is the beginning of history. And everything else – the formless void, the darkness, the face of the deep, the wind and the water – all of that is pre-history.

On the second day the atmosphere is created in order to separate the terrestrial waters from the extraterrestrial waters. The third day brings the separation of earth and the seas, and with the introduction of Earth we meet one of the first co-creators, for it is Earth who brings forth plants and trees and fruit and seeds, all the vegetation of the world. I already mentioned that the sun and moon and stars poke their head in during the fourth day to assist in human measure of time and direction, but I’m getting ahead of myself by even saying the word human. On the fifth day, the world was populated by sea and sky beasts, including the “great sea monsters” [Gen 1:21 NRSV]. I wonder what these horrors of the raging waters must have looked like so near the beginning of time. The sixth day introduces humankind (“male and female God created them” [1:27]), and with humankind, violence.

To be fair, the violence comes later – it is something I talk about because I’ve read this story before – but as of this moment, this day, this moment of great works, we see a brief respite from violence, a hypothetical time of nonviolence before the popular Christian concept of “the fall” into violence. I can’t help but to think of a series of Tweets I read recently from comic book writer Justin Jordan (Green Lantern: New Guardians) about theme parks / lodgings created to mimic the actual conditions of so-called Golden Eras.

The implication of these Golden Aging camps is that the actual conditions and way of life would be so difficult that people wouldn’t even want to stay there if it were rent-free.

On a side note, Jordan also referenced the Biblical days of the week in a Tweet shortly after this particular rant:

For all intents and purposes of the narrative, the golden era before the advent of violence is just as unreal as the good times of old that Jordan talks about. I imagine that the Genesis account is a tale told from a parent to a child at about the time of the story that unfolds surrounding Moses and his people in the book of Exodus. Some of these people have experienced enslavement and oppression in Egypt, though not, I imagine, the child actively listening while on a seemingly never ending walk, all of them have experienced the destructive forces of nature while wandering on their way, and many the age of this child will have to witness and participate in horrible acts of violence that put the previous ones to shame during the conquest of the land that was promised them at the end of this road. These former slaves, now nomads, have known nothing but violence, suffering and death, but in their stories they imagine this present existence is bookended by peace, the peace that was in the beginning and the hope of peace to come.

For these people nonviolence is order in the midst of chaos, a first mover who transforms the formless void into a world that follows patterns and can be understood by the human mind. It is collaboration, a world populated by the fruits of some divine force working alongside the earth and the sea, plants with the seeds of the next generation, animals commanded to fill the land, sea, and air with their offspring, and humankind who are created to be creators (“God created humankind… in the image of God” [1:27]). Every “plant yielding seed” and “tree with seed in its fruit” [1:29] is given over to the animals of the land (present company included) for food – not the meat of animals or even the portions of plants that will result in their death; no flesh, only the food that can be regrown with little effort, the fruit offered as a gift freely given. This paints a picture of radical pacifism – thou shalt not kill humans, animals, or eat of plants in such a way that brings about their destruction. Humankind is given dominion over life on earth, but in this context it feels less like the power to dominate than it does stewardship, a duty to promote the proliferation of all life.

Of course, this dominion might also be the first in a series of flaws in the ordering of this universe that prove deadly in later chapters. When I look back on the years I attended Grand Valley State, I grow more and more fond of the Marxist/feminist counter-culture there, of the one or two students in each of my favorite classes who vexed me at the time but who warned of the dangers intrinsic to placing one person above another in terms of power. Is this what is happening in Genesis 1? Adam and Eve (not named, as of yet) have made little more than a cameo and we may already be seeing the peace they were born into unraveling at this early juncture. How horrible!

As anyone who has been tuned-in to current events for the last few lifetimes can tell you, this particular passage is constantly embroiled in controversy. It is a key piece of evidence for the religious persons on the side of creation being taught in schools alongside or at the expense of evolutionary biology, big bang cosmogony, and many facets of science in general. If you ask me, most of the people involved in this argument are talking past one another. The original audience of this text was almost certainly pre-scientific just as the current audience is almost certainly not, but for both the idea of time espoused is rhetorical. The time serves the poetry and the poetry serves the moral and the moral is nonviolence. This, the first story for some people, is a story about how we as a people have experienced peace before, a long time ago, and we called it Eden, or delight. I cannot read this prologue without the hope popping out at me that, maybe, through our actions, we can return to this original state, that we can plant the seeds for the return of peace. And maybe that is where this story belongs, alongside the parents teaching their child in the hopes that the next generation can live without the taint of violence, can escape the wilderness and establish a peaceful way in the promised land.

Spoiler Alert. That is not how the story goes down, but hope is a resilient bugger, not so easy to extinguish. Hope is a funny thing. It doesn’t really rely on the outcome of a series of actions, but emerges as a quality of a person’s character. Some find poets like John Lennon fools for wasting their lives preaching of peace with little to no measurable results, but that does not make his words any less true: “War is over if you want it.” Though everything else may be imaginary and fleeting, a nonviolent way is possible. Genesis holds it as a hypothesis; may the future hold it as a law.

Further Reading:

Letter to a Confused Young Christian at Political Jesus
The Quest for the Historical Eve & Adam at Political Jesus