Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Genesis 2:15-17

15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
16 And the LORD God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden;
17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die."

We have seen some odd behavior from God before, but now he's starting to act very strangely. If he thinks it's such a bad idea for the man to eat from the fruit of that particular tree, why put the tree there at all? It's obviously unnecessary -- there is nobody else around who needs to eat that fruit. At the very least he could put a fence around it -- that's what I have to do with my own fruit trees, or the deer will eat them, believe me. If God is omniscient, he knows the future, and he knew perfectly well that the man would end up eating the fruit. So he's just playing a nasty game here. And note that the man does not yet know good from evil; therefore he must not know that it is wrong to disobey God, and he can't be held accountable, and should not be punished, if he does eat the fruit. So this God character is truly warped.

Anyway, God's irrational and careless behavior aside, this is interesting in another way. We had one suggestion that the idea behind God making humans "in his own image" was not a reference to their physical bodies, but to their moral agency. Unlike the other animals, humans resemble God in their ability to make moral choices. However, we see here that God had no such intention. He meant for us not to be moral agents.

Perhaps, after all, that's what it really means when the Bible says we were created in God's image, for as will soon become evident, God is himself utterly amoral.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Genesis 2: 8-14

8 Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.
9 And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
10 A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters.
11 The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold.
12 (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.)
13 The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. 14 The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Asshur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

(Hey, it's been a few days, but I've always said I'll pursue this project when I feel like.)

Hmm. Where the heck is this place? I got out my trusty Oxford Atlas and I determined the following: The Tigris and Euphrates do not have a common origin, although they do arise maybe 100 miles apart from each other in a mountainous region of what is today southern Turkey. That's a long way from where Adam and Eve are about to find themselves, I must say.

So are there two other rivers that flow from somewhere near there? Nope, just one, a small river that flows north into the Black Sea, through Ankara.

Cush, it turns out, is a name for Nubia, which as everyone knows is on the Nile. The Nile arises in central Africa, more than 2000 miles away. Nobody seems to know exactly where Havilah is, but apparently it's usually associated with southern Yemen, which sadly is lacking in rivers except for intermitten watercourses (called Wadis) which arise in the mountains just north of the coastal plain. So the Pishon is most mysterious.

Anyway, Eden, clearly, is nowhere. As it should be, I suppose. The Hebrews would have been familiar with the Tigris and Euphrates, and no doubt may have had the impression that they had a common origin. From the vantage point of far northern Syria, it might appear that they are flowing from the same point, although it would not appear that way from lands better known to the Hebrews further south. The Hebrews, as far as I know, had yet to see the Nile when this story was first told, but they would have heard of it. Of course the Nile flows in the opposite direction from the Tigris and Euphrates, but back then they had no way of knowing that. (They will find out the hard way later on, of course.) And they no doubt heard tales of some other distant land which they imagined was watered from the same source.

In other words, Eden lay at the center of an imagined earth. The people who told this tale knew only the lands that they wandered themselves, as herders; and they heard tales of distant lands from travelers. But they had no maps and no way of assembling those tales into a coherent picture of geography.

Curiously, there was a river in the region where the Hebrews lived at this time -- the Jordan -- which arises in Lebanon a good thousand miles from the Tigris and Euphrates but in the same general direction from that vantage point. One would think that the Jordan would be a good candidate to be the Pishon, but it isn't. Canaan was not watered from Eden, apparently. Perhaps this reflects the Hebrews' deep sense of physical exile, a recurring theme throughout the Torah.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Genesis 2:4-7

4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created. When the LORD God made the earth and the heavens-
5 and no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no man to work the ground,
6 but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground-
7 the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

So now we start the second creation story, which if I am not mistaken comes from the source called E. It's going to get quite complicated and redolent with meaning and associations very shortly, so I plan on taking the next few posts in bite-sized chunks.

In the first story, we got vegetation -- "And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind" -- long before we got people. (In fact, plants came even before the sun and the moon.) But in this version, we need humans to work the earth before it can yield fruit. I really don't know why God didn't get around to making it rain just yet, but some things are just going to have to be mysteries, I guess.

Anyway, this seems to me the first suggestion that the world God has created is anthroprocentric -- that humans are the most important thing in it, and that they will have dominion over it. In sharp contrast to the first story, without humans, the fields are barren. In the first story, plants are given to humans for food, but they are also given to the beasts. People are exeptional because they are made in "God's image," but otherwise they seem to take their place with the rest of the animals. Here, as we will see more clearly in a short while, the relationship is different.

What may be an even stronger contrast is the relationship of the sexes. In the first story, they are created together and co-equally: "He created them male and female." There is no distinction. But here, we start out with a man, and it's all about him. The only reason we get a woman at all is because poor Adam is lonely. (And probably horny as well, although the curtain of discretion is drawn across that issue. Since, as we shall see, God did not intend for people to be immortal, it's not clear whether, before he made the woman, he planned to replace Adam when he died, or what.)

Finally, we continue to see God's limitations. In order to make the man, he needs some raw material, he can't just conjure him up. He chooses dust, which is appropriate, I'll grant you.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

A necessary digression

Right here I need to step back for a moment and take a look at the nature and origin of the text that we're reading. Tanta finds justification for the chapter division, but the point I wanted to make is that the divisions into chapters and verses were made by medieval Christians, and have no basis in the earlier texts. So in fact a monk in what is today Italy made that demarcation a couple of thousand years after the Torah was first written down, perhaps for the same reasons Tanta finds it meaningful.

The reason it is nevertheless odd, of course, is that just after the verses I quoted yesterday, we get a whole new creation myth, which is inconsistent with the first one. Apologists will no doubt say that Genesis just goes on to fill in some details that were left out of the first sequence, but that doesn't work. As we shall see shortly, the two stories cannot be reconciled. This won't be the last time we run into similar problems. The Torah contains many examples of multiple tellings of similar stories with different details, including some very central material, such as alternate versions of the Ten Commandments.

I'm not a biblical scholar and I don't intend to invest the time to become one, but I vaguely remember the basics from a course I took, believe it or not, in high school, and I've refreshed and extended my knowledge in connection with this project. As is often the case, a perfectly good place to start is Wikipedia, with this article on the so-called Documentary Hypothesis. (The main Wikipedia article on the Bible, as you might expect, is something of a mess, but this seems very clean.) It's called a hypothesis because some people think the Torah was dictated by God directly to Moses (including the parts that happen after he's dead), or perhaps appeared miraculously on golden plates like the Book of Mormon, or something.

But in fact it was compiled by a scribe called the redactor from four main sources, perhaps around 539 BC after Babylon fell to Cyrus II, whereupon an exiled Jewish community there returned to Israel and there was a need to knit together various traditions in order to unify the community. In other words, the Torah is an anthology of mythology's greatest hits.

I'm not going to worry about the details as I proceed, although readers are welcome to wrestle with them. But we will have to acknowledge the repetitions, conflicts and disparities we encounter.

(By the way, in looking into this, I encountered the Book of J, by Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg, which maintains that the Torah source called J, author of the first creation myth, was a woman. This is no doubt what Missy was thinking of. As I said, this is no doubt a recording made at some point of older oral traditions, but there's certainly no reason why it couldn't be women's lore. I haven't read the book.)

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Genesis 2:1-3

1 Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.

2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.

3 And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

(I decided to go with the New International Version for now, to reduce issues of translation.)

The chapter division here is odd -- this really ought to be the end of Chapter One, not the beginning of Chapter Two. More on that next time, and why it might be.

It is noteable that the God we are starting to see revealed is not much like the modern Judeo-Christian-Muslim God, in many respects. Most notably, he is not all knowing and all powerful -- he has definite limitations, and very human quirks and weaknesses. If he made us in his image, the converse is that he resembles us, in all our imperfection.

And here is the first evidence of it - his labors make him tired, so he rests. Fortunately, that means he is sufficiently empathetic that he gives us a day of rest as well -- although as we shall see later he gets awfully nasty with people who don't seem to appreciate his gift.

I think that many pious Jews still have a sort of personal, human scale relationship with this very human-like G_d, in spite of his grandeur and power. For Christians, he tends to be more abstract and inscrutable. I don't know enough Muslims well enough to know how they perceive God's personality. Maybe someone else can comment on that.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Administrative Statement

I started the Bible reading project here with an announcement on my home blog Stayin' Alive, but I realize now that I should have explained myself in the same place where I was doing the project. So here goes.

I'm going to read the Bible, the whole thing, from beginning to end, and discuss it from my point of view as a humanist with a strong interest in human society and ethics. I am on no particular schedule -- I don't plan to post every day by any means, though I will certainly try to add material more than once a week. It may take me the rest of my life. That's okay, there's no hurry.

My purpose is certainly not to debunk or attack religion. I am not religious, I'm what I would call a realist, which among other consequences means that you would probably call me an atheist. However, I definitely think the Bible is important and interesting as both an artifact of how ancient people thought and lived, and as a powerfully influential force in modern history, and of course in the present. I do want to engage with the text constructively, hoping to find much that is useful and instructive, but also critically -- I know there's plenty there I don't like.

Unfortunately, a substantial portion of the U.S. population tells pollsters they believe the Bible is literally true and inerrant. It is trivial to disprove this -- the Bible contradicts itself very often as well as contradicting very well established and irrefutable facts. It would be silly for me to invest a lot of time and effort pointing out the absurdities and contradictions in the Bible, but I feel I do have to acknowledge them as part of any honest reading. But I'll try to keep that to a minimum.

The most important issue I need to discuss here is how I intend to engage with readers. I very much want to read your comments, including comments from people who are religious and to whom the Bible represents revealed truth of some kind -- whether you believe it is literally true, or not literally true but somehow inspired by communion with God and perhaps literally true in many respects. I must tell you that I have found this sort of dialogue with believers to be difficult and often strained. For some reason, when one takes issue with religion, asserts non-belief, denies the existence of God, believers often take it as hostility or incivility.

I don't really understand that. You state your beliefs, which differ from mine, and I don't take that as hostile or rude. So why can't I state mine? The purpose of this blog is dialogue, which means I may answer a comment with a rebuttal. Feel free to rebut right back, I won't take it as hostile (assuming it isn't). We have an equal right to our beliefs, and equal right to state our beliefs, and an equal right to explain why we disagree. If I don't agree with you, it doesn't mean your beliefs aren't welcome here. On the contrary.

On the other hand, there is a vanishingly small chance you will convert me. I grew up in a Christian church, I know all about it, and I have thought long and hard about these matters. When I was 13, I wished to be confirmed and I spoke with my uncle, an Episcopal minister, about the process. Then I changed my mind. Again, just because you fail to convert me, does not mean your ideas, beliefs, and arguments are not welcome here. You have your beliefs, I have mine.

Finally, this blog is open to additional posters who can demonstrate that they are thoughtful and share our commitment to honest dialogue. That includes people of faith. I want people who do not share my perspective to have access to top-level posts on this blog. So if you are interested, let me know. My e-mail address is available in the sidebar at Stayin' Alive.

I'll get to the next few verses tonight or tomorrow.