Saturday, January 28, 2006

God Helps the Oppressed Gain Freedom, But...

Exodus 5-14

What I’m appreciating so far about the Exodus story is that it is about an oppressed people seeking freedom. God is helping a group of people who are looked down upon and treated badly in the society in which they live. God helps this group to find its dignity, and to claim its freedom.

There is a lot that is interesting in this story. First of all, after Moses and Aaron make their initial request to Pharaoh (a bit deceptive, because they ask only for a few days to go and have a religious festival, but really they do seek permanent escape), Pharaoh is so upset that he commands that the Israelites be compelled to work even harder than before, so that they will not have time to pay heed to deceptive words (Ex 5:7-9). This strategy was very clever, because he even got the Israelites mad at Moses and Aaron, blaming them for the increase in work that they now suffered (Ex 5:20-21).

I must pause here to observe that we in the U.S. have been driven (by the Pharaoh named “Economic Growth”) to work harder and harder – so hard that we don’t have time to pause and look around and question our predicament. When we do have a chance to pause from our work, we are easily seduced into the trance of watching TV. In this trance, we are convinced that we are happy with our lives and have freely chosen this life of working hard so that we can buy all the things that TV programs us to buy. We are (mostly) protected from having to face the full consequences of our all of our frenetic activity: the exploitation of the poor and the destruction of our natural environment.

But, back to the Bible story: Because the Pharaoh did not respond well to the request of the Israelites, the request is repeated, and each time it is denied, a new plague comes down upon Egypt. Here are the 10 plagues:

1. The Nile turns to blood.
2. Swarms of frogs appear.
3. Dust turns into gnats.
4. Swarms of flies appear.
5. Egyptian animals are killed by a disease.
6. The air fills with soot and causes festering boils on people and animals.
7. Thunder, hail, and fire rain down from the sky.
8. Swarms of locusts appear.
9. A dense darkness covers that land.
10. The firstborn children and livestock of the Egyptians all die.

Until the last one, the Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened, though interestingly sometimes it is not that “Pharaoh hardened his heart” (e.g., Ex 8:32) but “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (e.g., Ex 9:12).

The 10th plague finally really upsets the Pharaoh, and he now wants the Israelites (who have consistently been spared the ill effects of these plagues) to be gone. So at last they leave, but then the Lord hardens Pharaoh’s heart again (“I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord” (Ex 14:4).) Pharaoh and his army now pursue the Israelites, but the Red Sea parts to let the Israelites through, but then closes in upon Pharaoh and his army and they are all drowned (Ex 14:10-31).

I am greatly troubled by this part of the story because it portrays God as trying to show off His power, using fear to try to gain notice and respect. I am also troubled because this story reinforces the problematic attitude that God intervenes in really direct ways, such as by invoking natural disasters, suffering, and death, to punish the bad people. This in turn reinforces “blame the victim” kinds of attitudes: when bad things happen to someone, it must mean that the person somehow deserved it, and God is punishing him or her.

Admittedly, there are other more metaphorical ways to interpret this story, but, still, this well-known story, read literally, is an important source of really problematic attitudes that people do voice on a regular basis.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Spiritual Struggles in the Middle of the Night

Exodus 1-4 (and Genesis 32:34-30)

The Israelites then continued to live in Egypt for a long time, and after several generations, a new king arose who was worried that the Israelites had become so numerous, and so he enslaved them. The king also tried to reduce the numbers of Israelites by asking the midwives to kill any boys who were born to the Israelites.

One mother who bore a son hid him for three months and then, when she could no longer hide him and was supposed to throw him in the Nile, made a little boat and put him in it on the Nile to give him a chance to be rescued and live. He was rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh, in fact, and was thus raised in the Pharaoh’s own house. This child was Moses (Ex 1-2:10).

When Moses grew up, he went among his people and was surprised and horrified to see them living hard lives of forced labor (Ex 2:11). He did not (yet) live among them, but settled in a nearby land called Midian, where he married, had a son, and tended the flock of his father-in-law. The Lord appeared to him one day in a burning bush (Ex 3:2) and told him that he must free his people. Moses was filled with doubts about whether he could accomplish something like this (Ex 4). The Lord told him that his brother Aaron would help him. So Moses headed back to Egypt with his wife and sons, but along the way, “at a place where they spent the night, the Lord met him and tried to kill him” (Ex 4:24)! This is a most surprising passage! His wife, Zipporah, saved the day.

There was an earlier passage, back in Genesis, about Jacob fighting with an angel of the Lord (Gen 32:34-30). Here, even though the angel put Jacob’s hip out of joint, Jacob didn’t give up, and finally the angel asked Jacob to let him go, but Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me” (Gen 32:26). The angel blessed Jacob, and re-named him “Israel,” (Gen 32:28) or “one who strives with God.”

I suspect that both of these passages are passages about spiritual struggles in the middle of the night. In both cases, these struggles happen the night before an important moment in these men’s lives. For Jacob, it happened the night before he was to meet and try to make peace with his brother Esau. Jacob was very worried, because his brother had good reason to be very upset with him. Jacob was not at all sure that he would emerge from this reunion alive! (He did.) In the case of Moses, his struggle was also the evening before meeting his brother Aaron, but in this case their reunion was symbolic of the beginning of their joint effort to free Israel from being enslaved by Egypt.

Many who work for peace and justice go through spiritual struggles in the middle of the night. These struggles become defining moments along the journey towards embracing one's calling.

Other observations about Exodus, so far:

1. It is interesting that the person who emerges to free his people from being held slaves was himself raised in Pharaoh’s house. It is often the case that the people who have the vision to see clearly that something is wrong have something unusual in their background or experience that enables them to see and question something that everyone else takes for granted (even if unhappily).

2. When Moses received the calling to free his people, at first he was filled with many doubts as to whether he was capable of doing this. God promises to help him at every step of the way.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Joseph Rescues His Jealous Brothers

Genesis 23-50

Next in Genesis are additional stories about Abraham’s family – chapters 23-36. These include stories about Isaac and Rebekah, and their sons Esau and Jacob; and Jacob’s marriages and his twelve sons and one daughter. And then there is a remarkable story of one of his sons in particular: Joseph, the first son of Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel.

I really like the story of Joseph (beginning chapter 37), because Joseph, at first highly favored by his father, falls into bad times due to the jealousy of his brothers. He is taken captive and lives as a slave in Egypt. At first he does well even in this situation, but another stroke of bad luck lands him now in prison. But his ability to interpret dreams brings notice of him to the Pharaoh, and so he is brought out of jail and ends up becoming second-in-command in Egypt, guiding the country well through a long famine. The famine ends up bringing even his brothers to him (they do not yet recognize him) asking for help. He graciously does help them, and forgives them, and brings everyone now to a fertile region of Egypt so that the family is able to survive the long famine.

I like it that Joseph is able to make well of bad times, and is able to forgive those who have wronged him. I especially like it that he was able to appreciate the way God redeemed the bad actions of his brothers by enabling him (Joseph) to be able then to rescue his family from the famine.

This story suggests that what happens to us in life may not be as important as what we make of it. This story also shows how those who gain favor, either by accident (as when Joseph was favored by his father because he was the firstborn son of his father’s favorite wife), or through their own efforts to do well (as when Joseph gained the favor of his master in Egypt), are vulnerable to jealousy – but even so, do not have to be destroyed by it. By living with integrity even through injustice, one’s dignity is restored even if one’s life does not turn around. In Joseph's case, his life did utlimately turn around.

Genesis ends with this story. The Israelites had to leave the promised land and now reside in Egypt.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Abraham and Isaac

Genesis 12-22

Abraham’s story begins at Chapter 12. (At first, his name is Abram.) “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’” (Gen 12:1-3). Thus the story of a promised land, and a chosen people, begins with Abraham’s story.

Various stories about Abraham and his family are told in chapters 12-19 (I’ve mentioned a few in previous postings). One of the most famous of these stories is the Lord’s continuing promise to Abraham and Sarah that they will have a child – a promise they find harder and harder to believe as they get older. In the meantime, Abraham has a child with Sarah’s servant Hagar. This child is named Ishmael. Sarah is unhappy not to have a child of her own. In chapters 17-18, the promise to Sarah is reiterated. Now they laugh out loud, because Abraham is now 100 years old, and Sarah 90, and “it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women” (Gen 18:11). But then Sarah does in fact have a child: Isaac (Gen 21:1-3).

The most famous story about Abraham is the story of how his faith was tested (Gen 22). After all of this time of waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise to him (fulfilled in the birth of Isaac), then God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering. In the Bible’s account of the story, we cannot see into Abraham’s emotional state. Kierkegaard, in Fear and Trembling, meditates at length on this story, and tells the story in various ways, trying to see into Abraham’s internal reaction to what he has been asked to do. What is he thinking as he walks up the mountain? Is he quietly assured that, although he was asked to do this terrible thing, yet he will not have to? Is he quietly trusting – or inwardly distraught? It is impossible to tell from the Bible version of the story. We are given no clues.

I very much appreciate Kierkegaard's meditations on this story and what it implies about the meaning of faith. How can we be sure we have correctly discerned God's will? Could God sometimes ask us to do something that goes beyond the bounds of what we generally regard as "ethical"? Do faith and ethics always correspond -- or not? Is it better to live ethically, or to be what Kierkegaard calls a "knight of faith"? Or would God never actually ask us to do something that goes against the ethical? These are hugely important questions.

At the last minute, it turns out that Abraham does not have to sacrifice Isaac after all. (Faith and the ethical come back together.) The Lord is very pleased with Abraham. Since Isaac is allowed to live, the rest of the promise now has a chance to be fulfilled. Isaac grows up, marries Rebekah, and has children. One of his children, Jacob, has 12 sons who are then regarded as the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel.

So the story of Abraham and Sarah is a story of a particular couple, guided to a new land to settle and begin a line of descendants who are regarded as a special people, chosen by God. Abraham is admired for his faith: for living close to God, for being attentive to how God guides him, and what God asks of him. But God’s blessings are not limited just to Abraham’s family: “in you all of the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3).

As I continue reading the Bible, I will continue to meditate on the recurring themes of a promised land, a chosen people, living in relationship to God, and the meaning of faith.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Women and Slaves in Genesis

More scattered passages in Genesis

Next in the Bible (beginning at Genesis 12) is the story of Abraham – very important. But before I get directly into that story, there are a few more observations and puzzlements I would just like to note.

Multiple Wives

First of all, apparently during these times it was common for men to have several wives. The first mention of this practice is at Gen 4:19.

Not only did men sometimes have several wives, but sometimes took female servants as wives or concubines. Since Sarai (later named Sarah) did not have children (yet), she offered her female servant Hagar, to sleep with Abram (later named Abraham). Sarai says, “it may be that I shall obtain children by her” (Gen 16:2). Hagar had a son, Ishmael. Later Sarah did finally have a son of her own, Isaac.

Another notable example is Isaac’s son, Jacob. It is Jacob who fathers the 12 sons who are the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel, but with the help of four wives, or, to be more exact, two wives and two concubines. His two wives were Leah and Rachel. Jacob also had children with Leah’s servant, Zilpah, and with Rachel’s servant, Bilhah. The full story can be found in Genesis, chapters 28-30. Besides Jacob’s 12 sons, he also had a daughter.

Slaves

It is also clear that people had slaves during this time. Even though we may want to think of them as servants instead of slaves, multiple passages point out that their rights were very different, and that in fact they were bought and sold, so it is clear that they really were slaves, not hired servants who were free to quit whenever they wanted to quit.

Two other stories in Genesis have me worried, not only about the practice of having slaves, but about the status of all women (slaves or not).

Men Who Don’t Want to be Killed for Having Beautiful Wives Pretend Their Wives are Their Sisters

Abraham himself pretends that Sarah is his sister rather than his wife – not once, but twice! Later, his son follows his example in this respect. Here are the passages:

First version: Abraham and Sarah go to Egypt during a famine in their land. Because Sarah is so beautiful, Abraham is worried that he will get killed, so he tells Sarah to pretend she is his sister. Sarah then is “taken into Pharoah’s house” (Gen 12:15). In fact, he took her for his wife (Gen 12:19).

Second version (Gen 20): they are living in Gerar for a time. Same story. This time, King Abimelech takes Sarah, but apparently doesn’t actually sleep with her before he realizes (through a dream) that she is someone else’s wife already. What is even more bizarre about this story is that it is placed after the Lord’s promise to Abraham that he will father a child with Sarah. Why on earth does he not only endanger Sarah, but expose her to the possibility of conceiving someone else’s child instead of his?!? What’s also strange here is that it now seems as though Sarah is in fact his half-sister!!!

Later, Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac does the same thing: he and his wife Rebekah go to Gerar; Isaac pretends that Rebekah is his sister; King Abimelech looks out a window one day and notices Isaac “fondling his wife Rebekah” (Gen 26:8) and so he calls for Isaac and questions him about this. “Abimelech said, ‘What is this you have done to us? One of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us’” (Gen 26:10).

Another Shocking Story on the Status of Women

Genesis 18:16-18:33: A foreshadowing that the Lord is greatly displeased with the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah and will wipe them out. Abraham, knowing that his nephew Lot is there, questions the fairness of wiping the cities out if there are still some good people left. The Lord agrees that even if there are just 10 righteous people there, the cities should not be destroyed.

It is not at all clear what specifically is so wicked about Sodom and Gomorrah. The common interpretation comes from just one cryptic passage: when the angels come to Sodom, and Lot invites them in, all the men of Sodom surround the house and demand that Lot bring out the men he had invited in, “so that we may know them” (Gen 19:5).

The notes explain that this is a threat of homosexual rape. If it is, it is still not at all clear that that is the exact nature of the “sinfulness” of Sodom and Gomorrah. Maybe it is an isolated event, and there are other significant ways that Sodom and Gomorrah are wicked.

At any rate, at first I thought what was so objectionable about the mob’s behavior was the threat of rape, not necessarily its homosexual character. But the passage that follows seems to suggest that a mob of men threatening rape is not really so horrible: “Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof’” Gen 19:6-8). This makes it clear that what is specifically wicked is to want to rape one’s guests instead of one’s family members. Or is it one’s guests instead of one’s children? Or is it one’s guests instead of one’s daughters? Or is it – men instead of women?

This is the passage that, on my first attempt to read the Bible, stopped me in my tracks. Lot is supposed to be the righteous one who is being saved from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah! He is the nephew of the great Abraham! So, what is he doing, offering his daughters to the angry mob?!?!? The mob refuses Lot’s offer (I’m sure his daughters were grateful to the mob about that!), and in the morning, Lot and his wife and two daughters flee. They are warned not to look back. Lot’s wife does glance back, and turns into a pillar of salt.

Then, to top off this most remarkable story: Lot and his daughters live in a cave in the hills, and Lot’s daughters get him drunk and sleep with him in order to have children, who become the ancestors of the Moabites and Ammonites.

Ok, now that I've confessed to all of what horrifies me in Genesis, let me now shake the dust off my feet and try to turn my attention towards more positive observations in my next posting! Thanks for bearing with me through this very difficult part of the journey!

Nephilim and Other Puzzlements

Genesis 1:26, 6:4, and 11:1-9

Today, I will just point out some smaller passages that puzzle me:

1. Just before the full story of Noah: Gen 6:4: "The Nephilim were on the earth in those days -- and also afterward -- when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown." Very interesting! Who were the Nephilim?

2. Some passages where God says "we" or "us": "'Let us make humankind in our image'" (Gen 1:26); "'Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech'" (Gen 11:7). Why is God referring to Godself in the plural?

3. The second passage in #2 above is from the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9). This famous story, as I read it, puzzles me. Why should God be threatened by humans understanding each other and working well together? Examine, for example, this passage: "And the Lord said, 'Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them'" (Gen 11:6). What strikes me about this passage is that we hear something like it echoed when people will say, "If we work together, imagine what we could accomplish!" Taken on its own, this seems like a wonderfully positive affirmation of human potential. If only we could stop miscommunicating! If only we understood each other better! Imagine the problems we could solve!

And here, in the Bible, for a moment it is nice to hear God affirming this potential: "nothing ... will now be impossible for them"! There is nothing in the passages up to here to suggest that the people are up to no good, or that God is displeased with them. The people are simply building a city, and a tall tower. So the unwary reader, unfamiliar with the story, can read happily along thinking that this is a story about human community at its best, and God's delight in this. But then the next sentences change the story completely: "'Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech.' So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city" (Gen 11:7-8).

Does this mean that the next time we find ourselves in a heated meeting in which misunderstandings ricochet around the room, we should cite the story of Babel and say, "It is God's will that we should not understand each other, and that we should fail to accomplish our joint task here"?

Ok, I never said my Bible Wonderings would be pretty!

But, seriously, these are the earnest concerns of one trying to understand.

I know that the Babel story is supposed to be about the tempering of human pride. It foretells how groups of humans do sometimes get together and, with their combined power, create something terrible. That has happened repeatedly in human history in spite of the Babel story. After all, the confounding of human languages did not, once and for all, solve this problem of human pride.

But what troubles me the most about this story is, again, the image of a God who seems rather threatened by humans and who does punishing kinds of things to try to control and subdue people. My own image of God is very different; my own faith can no longer be challenged by passages like these. But when I hear the questions and doubts of other seekers who have developed an aversion to "organized religion," or Christianity, or the Abrahamic traditions, or the Bible, I can see why, and it is not always clear how to respond to their concerns.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Noah and the Ark

Genesis 5:28-9:29

The story of Noah and the Ark is familar enough that I won't comment on the text itself, but instead will reflect on the implications of this story.

It is a story that reflects the human tendency to interpret great natural disasters as "acts of God." Are they? Modern science calls such interpretations into question (since they can be interpreted in relation to "natural" causes, we do not have to consider them "supernatural" in origin.) And yet a new version of the old myth begins to be reborn in today's world. Now, after disasters like Hurricane Katrina, we wonder if we are somehow responsible: but the way we ask it is in a "scientifically updated language": are we responsible for global warming, and was global warming responsible then for the unusual intensity of this hurricane?

In other words, have we been living so badly that terrible things then happen to us?

But there are other ways of thinking layered into the Noah story, and it can be helpful to pull out the different assumptions and consider them each in turn.

  1. First of all, the image of God so far forming in the Bible greatly troubles me, because it is a God who is portrayed as punishing.
  2. Secondly, one major form of punishment is death.
  3. Thirdly, it is not at all clear why some are punished more severely than others. (This concern will actually become clearer as we continue forward in the readings, so I will not say much about this point yet.)

Now, it could be that the stories, as translated (not only into our language, but into our cultural assumptions) portrays a punishment theme more clearly than was originally intended. Or it could be that regarding events in terms of punishment reflects a stage of moral development that individual human beings sometimes move beyond.

What I'm getting at here is that we can think of cause-and-effect patterns in (at least) two very different ways: (1) as expressing predictable mechanisms in how processes unfold, or (2) as expressing patterns of moral relationship. It's probably a mistake to read all of reality as either just the first or just the second. The challenge then is in distinguishing: what kinds of thing just happen (maybe predictably and regularly, but not morally), and what kinds of things happen for moral reasons? It is very common to blur this distinction, as when we say, for example, "little Johnny must learn that there are consequences for his behavior!" Usually that's meant as a moral threat of punishment, rather than a pragmatic observation that, for example, if he doesn't go to bed on time he will be pretty tired tomorrow.

So, in my interpretation of the second creation story, I was actually trying to move beyond a moral reading of the unfolding of events (since Adam and Eve were amoral beings before eating the fruit, and therefore should not have been held morally accountable), and into a pragmatic reading (it is not punishment that life becomes hard after the dawning of moral awareness -- it's just built into the very nature of moral consciousness).

So, to what extent should we take God to be a guide through the predictable patterns built into life, teaching us about these patterns -- and to what extent should we take God to be a punisher?

Some of my students who claim that they want to reject religion have said that what troubles them about religion is the view that God has made this complicated world structured by moral rules, but doesn't give us a very clear instruction book, and yet punishes us for not being able to figure it out. I've heard others then argue that the Bible is that clear instruction book. But what strikes me so far is that the moral lessons in the Bible are not at all clear, and I will be pointing out some of the confusing passages I see as I go along.

Second point (this one troubles me even more): using death as punishment. Lately, I've been noticing how often people ask, "how can God allow this to happen!" when someone they love dies. "This person was so good!" people often say. They may then fall into a crisis of faith -- because a good person died. It makes no sense that God should have "punished" that good person while all these other "bad" people keep living. My careful response has been to nudge in the direction of pointing out that everyone eventually dies, and so it can't be right to interpret death as a sign of God's punishment. To Christians, I point out that even Jesus Christ died on the cross. God surely was not punishing him. And so I've gotten very puzzled. Where does this line of thinking come from: that death is the ultimate divine punishment?

Now that I am reading the Bible, the answer is very clear. In the Noah story, for example, the Lord very clearly decides to wipe out most of the human race because of people's wickedness and violence. But, again, is it punishment, as such -- or just a way of trying to wipe the slate clean?

And even if "the Lord" is portrayed as using death as punishment, what is also odd is how the Lord does not always use it immediately. For example, Cain is not killed for having killed Abel.

Now that I've shared some of my concerns about the image of God, let me come back to the point I started with: how should we interpret natural events, such as floods and mighty storms? Part of what is prized about the Bible is that it tells a story of God's involvement in the world and in human history. The God portrayed in the Bible is not a God who set the world in motion and then stands back and watches how things unfold from a distance. It is not a God who is indifferent to human matters. It is a God who is intimately involved.

I myself am attracted to the general idea of God's continuing involvement in our lives, and in the dramatic events that shape our lives. But exactly how, and why, and in what ways God is involved are not easy questions with simple answers.

I worry that these famous stories do present a really problematic image of what God is like, and of what morality is like. So, what do we do with this?

Friday, January 20, 2006

Cain and Abel

Genesis 4:1-24

After the two creation stories, there is the story of Cain and Abel (Gen 4:1-24). This story is much shorter than I expected it to be. Given Alice M.'s comment to yesterday's posting, it strikes me as significant that the brother who tends crops kills the brother who is a herder. It seems to foretell how those who settled land ended up (mostly) wiping out more nomadic kinds of societies.

But I find part of the story, as told in the Bible, troubling. Why was the Lord happier with one kind of offering than another? Upon reading this, you can kind of understand why Cain was disappointed and jealous. After working so hard on the land, Cain was upset that the Lord "had no regard" for his offering (Gen 4:5). Still, the wisdom the Lord offers is good advice for us all: work hard, do well, and if others don't fully appreciate what you’ve done, master your disappointment (a rather free paraphrase of Gen 4:7). Also, this passage is now the first mention of "sin" in the Bible: "Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it" (Gen 4:7).

Instead, we all know, Cain gives into it and kills his brother. Sigh.

He is then banished from the land, and now the interpretive notes in my edition of the Bible (the Access Bible, New Revised Standard Version) point out that he goes on to become founder of cities and of culture (Gen 4:17-22). But also, violence continues (Gen 4:23-24).

So, even though the story, as told, is rather brief, it can be interpreted on many levels. Maybe it is better not to read it as a story about individuals, but a story about the complexities of human society as it shifts and changes: how settling the land, and then settling into cities, became the new norm for human society; how we may have lost something beautiful in the process (societies that wandered freely and more peacefully upon the earth without jealously claiming ownership of the land); how we then gained something new (arts, crafts, culture), but how this gain comes at a cost (this more settled life has a dark side: it breeds human violence).

It may also be read as a story of how hard it is for us to handle our difficult emotions well. We long so much for approval and acceptance, but, ironically, it is exactly when we most fear losing them that we are most inclined to behave in the ways that guarantee their loss.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Two Creation Stories

Genesis 1:1-3:24

What I first noticed as I started reading the Bible is that there are two different creation stories. The first is Genesis 1:1-2:3, and the second is Genesis 2:4-25. Lots of people have noticed this -- the helpful textual notes in the edition of the Bible I am using point that out, and tell me that it is thought that the two versions come from two different sources.

It is the first that sets out the seven days of creation:

  • Day 1: heavens, earth, light, day and night.
  • Day 2: the "dome" (sky) that separates the waters below (on earth) from the waters above the sky.
  • Day 3: dry land and vegetation.
  • Day 4: stars, moon, sun.
  • Day 5: water creatures and birds.
  • Day 6: land animals; humankind (both male and female). The number of human beings created is not specified. Also, God here gives to people "every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food" (Gen 1:29) -- no prohibitions.
  • Day 7: God rested, and blessed this day.
In the second creation story, things are a little different. First of all, individual days are not specified. And the sequence is very different:
  • earth and heavens; no rain yet but a spring would well up and water the ground
  • from dust, man was created (not woman yet)
  • garden of Eden -- man is put here; garden includes the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil
  • God tells man to till and keep the garden of Eden, but not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (note that Woman has not entered the scene yet! Man is alone).
  • God notices that Man is alone and wants to find him a helper and partner, so He first creates animals and birds and Man names them. But still there was no helper as partner.
  • God makes Man fall asleep, pulls out a rib, and makes Woman.
  • The story of original sin then ensues.

In the first story, all of creation is good. In the second story, even the garden of Eden is not a place of relaxed enjoyment, but a place of work (Gen 2:15), and a place where something is off-limits (Gen 2:16-17). God tells Man that if he does eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he will die that very day (Gen 2:17). But later, that's not what happens.

While it may seem unjust that Woman, who wasn't even there yet when this prohibition was originally stated, then gets punished for eating of that tree, it is clear that she knew of the prohibition (Gen 3:2-3). Once Woman and Man eat of the tree, God says, "'See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever'" (Gen 3:22) and this is why they get kicked out of the garden of Eden -- so they won't become immortal.

While I find many aspects of this second creation story troubling, I am fascinated by the relating the concept of "knowledge of good and evil" with "wisdom" and that being a divine characteristic. Also, it is true that perceiving the world through a moral lens makes existence more painful. But what troubles me is that, as the story is told, originally amoral beings are yet held morally accountable and are punished. Without knowledge of good and evil, they couldn't have known it was bad or wrong to disobey God.

So, maybe the story shouldn't be read morally. Maybe it is not, after all, a story of punishment for disobedience. Maybe God really was trying to say, "if you eat of this tree, everything will change, and you might not like it." Eventually, they do eat of that tree. Sure enough: everything changes. God says, "ok, now this kind of existence will be much harder, so you won't want to live forever anymore..." and closes off access to the tree of life as an act of compassion.

If so, does this mean that the concept of "original sin" (the most common interpretation of this second creation story) is not so much due to a moral disobedience somehow present in us in the start (because this contradicts the original amoral casting of human beings), but is better taken to express the essential pain inherent in moral awareness? It's not that we've done anything wrong -- its that awareness of right and wrong simply does make life difficult and painful.

Anyway, the word "sin" has not at all come up yet in this passage of the Bible. So even interpreting this story as a tale of original sin must have been a later interpretation of it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

In the Beginning...

In the beginning, God created a world, and saw that it was good.

Here I begin a journey that I feel led to take: a journey into a large and difficult but profoundly important text that almost everyone knows about but few have read completely.

While I have long had "read the whole Bible" on my list of "things I'd like to do someday," it wasn't until earlier this month that I suddenly wanted to get started now. I am not even sure what exactly prompted this decision. While it is true that I am a little embarrassed to confess that I have never read through the whole Bible, it wasn't embarrassment that prompted me. It was something else. An awareness crystallized before me that the Bible shapes a lot more of everyone's thinking than people realize. I had the strong sense that if I read the entire Bible through, my understanding of history, literature, and current events would deepen.

Other times when I've tried to start reading the Bible, I did so because it was supposed to be spiritually illuminating. But I'd come across a passage like Genesis 19:6-8 and would slam the book shut in shocked disbelief and wonder how anyone could take such a book seriously! What is this supposed to mean? Why and how is this supposed to be spiritually illuminating? Well-intentioned friends and teachers would try to point me to interpretive materials that would help me to understand how the Bible as a whole was constructed.

So I took courses and studied interpretations and learned so much that I ended up mostly bypassing the actual reading of the text itself, except for recommended passages and the passages that get quoted and read aloud over and over again. I began almost to think that sticking with this "broken Bible" -- the Bible one can re-construct in one's own mind from the Bible stories one has heard and from the quotations that others do find spiritually illuminating -- was enough.

And maybe that "broken Bible" is enough for most people's spiritual journeys.

But now I feel called to face the Bible in its entirety. I will share my thoughts and questions along the way. Anyone who is interested can feel free to chime in with interpretations or additional observations and questions.

This feels like a journey -- into a different time and place, and into very different ways of thinking. I look forward to seeing what I will discover.