Monday, April 30, 2007

Genesis 3:16-20

16 To the woman he said,
"I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing;
with pain you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you."

17 To Adam he said, "Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, 'You must not eat of it,'
"Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat of it
all the days of your life.

18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.

19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return."

20 Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.

Whew! Now I'm dealing with some famous words indeed.

From the standpoint of modern evolutionary biology, we now believe that the reason childbirth is so difficult for humans is because we evolved these big brains, giving our babies big heads that don't fit through the birth canal. So it's not exactly a curse. It can definitely be a drag for women, but it's the price we pay for being human -- not for disobeying God, but for being what we are.

As for the second part of God's curse upon Eve, fuggedaboutit. In the first place, it seems to be based on an inaccurate premise. Most people agree that the male sex drive is more difficult to control than the female, and that in male dominated societies, it is often the case that the one source of power available to many women is their ability to manipulate men through sexual attraction. So this is a very lame excuse for patriarchy. It's pretty obvious to me that this is just a male fantasy. The author is saying, "Hey, you know you want it. And I'm the boss around here."

The curse upon Adam is more plausible at least. In fact, modern views of prehistory suggest that pre-agricultural peoples -- hunter-gatherers -- indeed enjoyed more leisure than later agriculturalists. What this means is not that the writer knew about the neolithic -- obviously he didn't, because he imagined a secret garden somewhere in Anatolia rather than an African Savannah - but rather that people of his age experienced life as full of toil.

I'm sure it was. As for the dust to dust thing, it's a reference to the earlier passage in which Adam is formed from the dust of the ground, not a reference to the nitrogen cycle. But this is one more example of how it is often possible to read modern knowledge and ideas back onto these vague allegories. I think it's important to remember that what we see in these words is probably nothing like what people saw in them 3,000 years ago.

Finally, according to my annotated New International Version, Eve probably means "life," not to be confused with the English homophone.

Friday, April 27, 2007

A Theodicy of Genesis 3:1-5

I promised Cervantes a response to this post on Genesis 3:1-5 to get things started. As a feminist I have to say this is probably one of my least favorite parts of the Bible. All the better to examine it I suppose.

First of all when you read the Bible it's best to begin by looking at the context. Who was it written by, who was it written for? Consider the time period and culture and their limited understanding of how the world worked. Consider their deficient science and their use of allegory and metaphor.

Thus we have the talking serpent.

So please, for Missy, let's assume the serpent in the story, despite the charming bit of mythology there about it's evolution into a belly crawler, is not a serpent or snake per se, but rather acting as an agent. Who is it meant to be an agent for? Who would the first readers interpret this to be? "A generally unpopular taxonomic order."

The official position of most Christian faiths is that this is Satan (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 391), some sort of fallen angel: "The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing." Lateran Council IV (1215)

The command in Genesis 2:17 stresses God's lordship and man's obedience. Again, think about the culture of the time, 1500 BC, a culture trying to understand who God is, trying to explain what God is. Primitive, uneducated people would understand what a lord was and this was used as a simile to help identify God. An unfortunate distortion when looked at from a modern perspective. But I would maintain we have evolved and so has our view of God. We're looking back on a people who still performed blood sacrifice and burnt offerings. I think it's okay to say our view of God has evolved since then. In the tradition of litanies, there is no one name for God. God is key, rock, door, dove, and wind. But at a time when patriarchy was the way of life, when men were seen as the only fully developed creature on earth (women resembled teenage boys, so they were not considered fully developed, ergo not fully human) when authority was unquestioned and obedience a virtue, this was a way to discuss God.

All of that said, here are some of the points raised:

  1. the serpent was telling the truth
  2. how did the serpent know the truth?
  3. why can the serpent talk?
  4. God lied about the tree of knowledge of good and evil
  5. why would God not want Adam and Eve to know good from evil?
  6. why place the tree in the garden?
  7. if God is all knowing, it's a setup
  8. what if the snake was a she?
  9. what are the assumptions about divinity, authority
  10. what world view, what morality is promoted?
  11. the greatest factor about the knowledge of good and evil is about sex for when they eat of the fruit and their eyes are opened they knew themselves to be naked rather than obtaining any actual wisdom.
  12. what is original sin?

Dang. That's quite a list. 1, 2, and 3 are going back to my point about understanding the serpent to be an agent or metaphor for Satan. The tempter, the evil one. We can come back to this later if you REALLY want to.

As for number 4, did God really lie? A slightly more nuanced perspective is that Adam and Eve were condemned to a mortality of the spirit as opposed to an instant death. Christians cling to the concept of original sin as point and purpose of Jesus the Savior. You can't tamper with original sin without undermining the mystery of Christ. So you might weave in the doctrine of free will at this point. That choosing good over evil is somehow morally superior than doing good just because you're forced to. Now it's thouroughly murky--God doesn't want us to know good from evil because that is the way of falling away from God (5), but in order for Adam and Eve's choice to have any meaning it has to be real, thus the tree and the set up (6 and 7).

What if the snake was a she? Nah. I think it's safe to say it doesn't matter that much to the story, but if it were a she then it would have been well stressed throughout history so we could properly hate female animals.

Numbers 9 and 10; there are assumptions being made here about divinity and authority and I think it's right to challenge those assumptions. As I noted earlier, they are based on the understandings of 1500 BC. They looked at the world around them and made understandable allegory based on that. What can we say God is like? What is our relationship with God like? Well, it's a little bit like a lordship... Let's look around at our world today and reask these questions.

Number 11; I think we'll get to that in 3:6-15.

Number 12; at it's most basic, the original sin was envy, desire... coveting. Disobedience brought about by envy.

So what do I think of this passage? What do I get from it? I'm not a fundamentalist and the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. I believe this is an allegorical tale used to make a point about something that happened very long ago in pre-history. I believe Adam and Eve were not the first humans, but they were the first something. Something significant happened to two people. Two people who were awakened to the idea of a creator-God and who felt a personal relationship with that God. Two people who sensed there was right and wrong, sensed that there was a choice as well. Somehow this was passed on orally and finally written. From that short passage I get that there are rules in life; that we have a choice between good and evil; that in the world and within ourselves there are temptations to be faced in terms of making decisions between good and evil; and that the original sin was wantin'. I want. I covet. I'm jealous. I desire. I envy. Not just wanting, but wanting so much you're willing to break the rules. That's, I guess, when it becomes a sin.

I think it's significant that envy is the original sin.

A Brief Introduction

"I don't remember exactly when I first began to notice the shift of circumstances, the change in attitudes, but I do know that every day the truth of the difference between past and present religious evolutions got more and more clear for me. What has for long years been considered 'dissent' in the churches by those who want more answers than questions, more clerical authority than spiritual investment may not be real dissent at all. People are not challenging Christianity and leaving the Church. They are not arguing against the need for a spiritual life. They are not denying God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit. They are not ridiculing religion and going away. On the contrary. People currently considered 'excommunicated' or 'suspect' or 'heretical' or 'smorgasbord' believers are, in many ways, among the most intense Christians of our time. They do more than sing in the choir or raise money for the parish center or fix flowers for the church. They care about it and call it to be its truest self. They question it, not to undermine it, but to strengthen it. They call for new ways of being church together. They do not dismiss the need for the spiritual life. They crave it. What's more, they look for it in their churches. But they crave more than salvation. They look for authenticity and the integrity of the faith." ~In Search of Belief, by Joan Chittister, OSB

I like this quote, so I thought I would begin there. I think fostering dialogue between theists and humanists is a worthy goal. But I couldn't help noticing not many theists were joining the discussion. I think it's safe to say that I have many of the same questions as Cervantes. As a normal questioning human being, how could I not? So I'm here to add to the dialogue.

I'm not especially qualified in the area of theology and don't speak in any official way. But I'm willing to follow an argument to its logical conclusions. I'm not interested in proselytising or evangelizing. If I manage to convince anyone of anything it would be this; that belief in God or a Supreme Being or Spirit of the Universe is rationally acceptable and that you can't disprove theism.

Who am I? My name is Missy. I'm 43 years old. I have five kids aged 16, 15, 13, 11, and 5. I work part time as an assistant director of religious education and section head for grades 1 thru 6 at my local parish. Basically? I'm a Sunday school teacher. For some reason I like the shock value of telling people that at cocktail parties. In a former life I was a banker.

I'm wary of challenging people with an immature spirituality and faith. Such people tend to be immature in many other ways as well (I think these are exactly the people Cervantes would like to challenge, but I digress). If you're starting from a position of zero faith, that I don't mind challenging. Take from it whatever you want. Maybe at minimum a better understanding of theism.

Okay, enough about me...

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Genesis 3:6-15

6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the LORD God called to the man, "Where are you?"

10 He answered, "I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid."

11 And he said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?"

12 The man said, "The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it."

13 Then the LORD God said to the woman, "What is this you have done?"
The woman said, "The serpent deceived me, and I ate."

14 So the LORD God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this,
"Cursed are you above all the livestock
and all the wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
and you will eat dust
all the days of your life.

15 And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel."

I've got to tell you, I find this whole story very confusing. First of all, "the knowledge of good and evil" turns out to consist of shame about the human body -- God's creation. It's possible, of course, that just happens to be the first "evil" thing they notice, but isn't it odd that God would not want the people to know good from evil in the first place?

I mean, think this through: if nakedness is evil, then the people were already sinning. Now that they've eaten the fruit, at least they stop committing that particular sin. (And I'm quite sure that the majority of Christians and Jews, and close to 100% of fundamentalists, will agree that going around naked is a sin.) So how could eating the fruit have been the original sin? On the contrary, it's the act that made it possible for people to stop sinning, if they wanted to.

Another largely unrelated observation is that God is not omniscient, not even close. He doesn't have a clue what's going on -- the people can hide from him, he doesn't know what's happened until he gets the story out of them, he is limited in time and space.

Third, he's mad at the serpent so he makes him crawl on his belly and eat dust, etc. But hey - God made the serpent. If the serpent isn't up to quality control standards, whose fault is that? And let me just add in further defense of the serpent that he did not, in fact, deceive the woman, he told her the truth. It's God who was lying.

Of course, as far as I know snakes don't actually have a problem slithering around on their bellies, that works out just fine for them. So it's not a very effective curse. Maybe God realizes that he doesn't have much of a case after all so the sentence is a light one. It is true that people tend to dislike snakes, although that's not universal, but I don't think that they care about us one way or the other.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Genesis 3:1-5

1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?"

2 The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.' "

4 "You will not surely die," the serpent said to the woman. 5 "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."

Talking animals have always been popular, from Aesop to Get Fuzzy. So, here we have the serpent, a generally unpopular taxonomic order, suborning the greatest crime of all time, the Original Sin. Funny thing about it though -- all he's doing is telling the truth. God has lied to the man and woman, which would be a sin if the serpent were to do it, I presume, but the serpent does the right thing and sets the record straight.

A few other odd aspects of this whole situation, in my view:

  • Why doesn't God want the people to know good from evil?
  • Whatever the reason for this preference, since he does have it, why does he put the tree in the garden in the first place?
  • If God is all powerful and knows everything, including the future, he already knows how this story is going to play out before he even plants the tree or makes the people. Indeed, he must have set it up on purpose

So, we'll see how he reacts to his own plot.

And oh yeah, how could I have forgotten mention: How does the serpent know the truth about the tree? Evidently God must have let the info slip in one of their late night chats. Also, why can the serpent, among all animals, talk? Obviously, God wanted him to tell the woman about the tree. The whole thing is a set-up.

Why I've been away, why I'm coming back

After I started this project of reading the Bible, I found that I might not be the right person for the job after all, because I just wasn't finding a lot to like. The protagonist, God, I find to be an amoral doofus, and you need a sympathetic character to relate to. Also, the literary quality so far isn't really doing it for me; the story telling is badly organized, the plot makes no sense, the allegories are strained, and the prose is wooden.

I was just getting all snarky and hyper-critical, and I don't know why anybody would want to join me on such a bitter journey.

Okay, I'm over that. I'm going to continue to look at the Good Book with a clear eye, but it will be unjaundiced. I'm going to look harder for what it is that people fine appealing about the whole thing, and give it a decent chance. Let's see how that resolution holds up.