Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Genesis 6:9-22

9 This is the account of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.
10 Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth.

11 Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight and was full of violence. 12 God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. 13 So God said to Noah, "I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.

14 So make yourself an ark of cypress* wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. 15 This is how you are to build it: The ark is to be 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high. 16 Make a roof for it and finish the ark to within 18 inches of the top.** Put a door in the side of the ark and make lower, middle and upper decks.

17 I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish. 18 But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons' wives with you. 19 You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. 20 Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive. 21 You are to take every kind of food that is to be eaten and store it away as food for you and for them."

22 Noah did everything just as God commanded him.

* Sometimes translated as gopher wood. Whatever.
** Sometimes translated as something to the effect of make an 18 inch window in the top.

Okay, now I'm sure I don't have to ridicule this for you. It's about as plausible as Santa Claus and considerably less plausible than the Easter Bunny. (Hey! There could be a giant rabbit that hops around from house to house and leaves baskets of colored eggs. But Santa has to come down the chimney and most people don't have chimneys these days.)

Bizarrely, however, as you know, something like 30% of Americans believe that this story is literally true. And they have just opened a $35 million museum in Kentucky which includes charming scenes from this tale. Creationist theme parks - and there are quite a few - typically feature Noah's ark petting zoos for the kiddies.

I find the creationists' new approach to the dinosaurs particularly interesting. They used to say that dinosaur fossils were just a fraud, or that God had put them there to test our faith, or something. But now they have retreated. The new line is that yeah, dinosaurs existed. That means they must have existed in Eden, and since God doesn't exempt any classes of creatures from the ark cargo, Noah must have taken them onto the ark. So how did he deal with 60 foot, 290 ton brachiosaurs and 25 foot tall carnivorous Tyrannosaurs? No problem, he took babies. Why they are now extinct we aren't actually told.

Whew. Here you will find an estimate of the numbers of known currently existing terrestrial species of animals. The vast majority of the more than 1.4 million species are arthropods -- most of them insects -- but there are more than 8,000 kinds of reptiles and more than 5,000 kinds of mammals. There are quite a few more odd creatures that Noah had to be careful to collect, like slugs and snails, land crabs, and slime molds. The ark didn't just include all of these -- most of them found nowhere near what we today call the Middle East -- but all the species that have ever existed, including those dinosaurs, and other extinct species like woolly mammoths, saber toothed tigers, giant sloths, Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Homo ergaster, and moderate Republicans. How God got the South American, Australian, and Pacific Island fauna to southwest Asia and back we don't know, but anyway, it must have been awfully crowded.

Oh yeah, it was big. In fact, the ark was 50% larger than the second largest wooden ship ever built. Yup, it was bigger than the ships of the Spanish armada or the cargo ships of 18th century mercantalism, and it was built by a single individual -- perhaps with assistance from his sons, granted -- none of whom had any ship building experience. Okay, maybe God gave them the plans and a set of tools, I dunno. Nevertheless, it would not have had room for even 1% of terrestrial animals, let alone dinosaurs.

I know, the creationists don't care. They'll just smirk and say, with God all things are possible. But what are we to make of this as an allegory?

God is disappointed because the world is full of violence, so what does he do? He commits the most extreme act of mass murder in all of history. So I guess I know what to do the next time I'm upset about something, if I want to follow God.

Monday, May 28, 2007

It's Kind of Like This...

At one time the search for knowledge was all one. Science, history, religion, philosophy; at first there was no distinction between these.

I retell the obvious. The Bible was one of the earliest attempts to consolidate knowledge of the world.

Now, we can agree on the historical and archaeological importance of the Bible.

We can agree that in terms of explaining the scientific workings of the universe it is an early and inaccurate attempt.

We can agree that philosophically the earliest parts of the Bible reflect a harsh patriarchal attitude toward man and nature. Not the entire Christian Bible, of course, but we haven't worked our way through the whole thing yet.

What we fail to agree on from the outset is the existence of God. So discussing the development of our perception of God becomes tricky. The evolution of thought from God the Puppet master, to the God of Judgement, to the God of Love seems irrelevant if you don't believe there is a God.

Cervantes, I understand the point you are trying to make with regard to what we have read thus far. You are not ineffective in your debate.

Has the universe changed? Or has our knowledge of it improved?

Has God changed? Or has our perception of God improved?

To quote another blogger with regard to our perception of God...

"So don’t tell me that loving is easy. Love will turn you inside out and upside down. It will delight you, move you, inspire you, transport you---and it will ultimately destroy you.

Love will kill you, if you do it right.

Jesus showed us how to do it. He didn’t call down the armies of Heaven as he hung dying on the cross. Didn’t call for any more smiting or bashing. Didn’t call for the judgment we so richly deserved.

He called for Love."

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Who Can Turn the World on With Her Smile?

I have to admit: I don't really look like Mary Tyler Moore...

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The Book of the Generations of Adam

Going back to this post, and Cervantes continuing perplexity over why people of the Book are people of the Book, I have to say I understand your frustration. I'm frustrated by my inability to thus far express sufficiently an answer to that. I hope through our continuing dialogue the fullness of my answer will become more apparent. I do think it's important to approach this question with a certain veneration for the religious tradition and writings being discussed, whether it be the Bible, the Quran, the Vedas, or any other faith tradition.

You might say there's no accounting for taste. Most people who hold the Bible to be Sacred Scripture find a great deal of wisdom and beauty there. Flotsam and jetsam? There's certainly a great variety, but rather than being an incomprehensible scrapbook, I think it's a rich treasure of the past. From a faith perspective, it is a record of divine revelation--of mankind's attempt to percieve and understand the Spirit of God. And until you have fully studied the context and meaning of these stories, how can you say they lack wisdom? Obviously, if you reject the idea of God you might find this whole undertaking misguided.

It would be interesting to have the perspectives of individuals from other faith traditions.

Speaking as a Christian, the Old Testament is important precisely because Jesus was a Jew. Matthew in particular would be difficult to understand without the foundation of the Old Testament. The Bible stands as a whole because from a Christian perspective it is a whole.

In the famous medieval cathedral at Chartres in France there is a stained glass window which would have served as a catechitechal aid in the pre-Gutenberg age when most people couldn't read and didn't have access to the Bible. In the center is Mary holding the child Jesus. Flanking her are eight other figures, four of whom sit on the shoulders of the other four.

The four figures on the bottom are four prophets from the Old Testament: Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Perched on their shoulders, and thus able to gaze farther into the distance, sit the four evangelists: Luke, Matthew, John and Mark, respectively. The idea imparted here is that the Old Testament prophets are the foundation for the New Testament evangelists. You cannot understand the New Testament without the Old, and in the Christian perspective the Old Testament finds its true and deepest fulfillment in the New.

Now you admit, Cervantes, that interest in geneology is both widespread and ancient. Despite your own lack of interest, most people have a certain fascination with their own historical past. Mostly we are interested in the past to understand our present and our future. There is a point to all of these begats. I see a deeper profundity in the listing of these individuals.

Look at the Bible as a whole for a moment. All of these stories are rich and beautiful, and integrated and resonant in the life of Christ. All of the unlikely and miraculous birth stories from Abraham and Sarah to John the Baptist leads to a protracted point which is the investigation of life's meaning. Why are we here? Why are any of us here? What is the meaning of a human life? Is every person priceless to the universe? Are the stories submerged in a person's hereditary past a persuasive reason for caring about that person? There are a whole string of people who participate in the making of one person, who all had a vital role to play. We are all links in the chain of life. When you think about all of the little plays of fate that must occur just to create a person--it's incredible.

Mr. Howland must have encountered a number of small miracles in his lifetime. (I imagine him escaping from a series of cuckolded husbands.)

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A couple of general observations

I don't think I much resemble Lou Grant. Mary once discovered that Lou's breakfast consists of oreos and beer, and I can assure you that I don't have the oreos and beer until lunch.

Here's my basic attitude toward the material we're reading now, and the overall point I'm trying to make, however ineffectively. These texts are interesting because they are very old; indeed they reach back into preliterate society, and represent early records of formerly oral traditions. So they are archaeologically important. They give us clues about how ancient people understood the world.

The first thing you notice about them if you undertake a dispassionate reading is that they are incoherent -- frequently illogical, self-contradictory, and preposterous. That is not surprising, this early part of Genesis is a compendium of tales, indeed a compendium of compendia, a patchwork of different original texts. Furthermore people in those days were struggling to explain the world around them and they came up with various hypotheses, speculations, and metaphors.

However, there is a common idea, and it's very important. People attributed nature and natural events to intelligent actors -- originally multiple gods, with various powers and spheres of action. The Hebrews were not yet monotheists, but they did decide that one particular god was the chief one, and that he had a particular interest in them.

Unfortunately, the world was capricious and often cruel. If floods, and famines happen, and YHWH is the cause, well, either he's one really nasty son of a bitch, or we must have done something to deserve it. Hence the conclusion that he is disappointed in us, we are wicked, and we deserve what we get.

Nowadays, however, we know better. We know why bad weather happens, why there are epidemics, why we have a limited life span. (Death is essential for the long-term success of a species. We cannot reproduce if the old don't make way for the young, given finite resources, and without reproduction there is no evolution.) Fundamentalists still insist that God wiped out New Orleans as punishment for Gay Pride Day. Pat Robertson claims he prayed hurricane Bob away from his mansion and horse stables in Virginia, but it came on up to New England and killed some folks here. Pat and Jerry Falwell said that God slaughtered 3,000 people on 9/11/01 to punish the United States for harboring homosexuals, abortionists, and the ACLU.

Well, now we know that hurricanes are caused by convection off of warm ocean waters, driven by condensation from humid tropical air into powerful rain and windstorms which are spun into a vortex by the rotation of the earth. Their motions are controlled by upper level steering currents. The 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by people who were angry at the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, it's unquestioning support for Israeli policies concerning Palestine, etc. God has nothing to do with it -- which for those who believe in him ought to be a relief. Otherwise, God is a very nasty character who kills and injures innocent people by the thousands and tens of thousands, and bereaves their loved ones, in retaliation for actions they had absolutely nothing to do with.

Well, that is indeed the God of genesis. An evil sociopath. An ugly, cruel, vindictive God who reflects the hard life in which certain inhabitants of a poor, parched land found themselves. That's understandable, and it is of historic interest. However, it most certainly does not suggest any wisdom, or guidance, for how we ought to live today or what we ought to believe. It is not philosophically enlightening for us today, because we know a whole lot more than people did then.

And that's great news for us. We don't have to live under the oppressive shadow of this cruel and vengeful God. We can seek knowledge, and wisdom. We can learn how to predict bad weather, and prepare for it. We can study human psychology, and society, and learn how to prevent crime, how to reduce the chances of criminal recidivism, even how to bring about international reconciliation and reduce terrorism and war. We can do these things with our senses and our reason.

But this old time religion does not help in any of those endeavors. It is an obstacle. It deceives, it misleads. It frustrates our intelligence and corrupts our better nature. It is from the infancy of our species. Now that I am grown, I have put away childish things, starting with Genesis. It is time for all humanity to move beyond it.

Sunday, May 27, 2007


I have to concede that Cervantes has a point about Lamech’s story being a bit bizarre to us. The Oxford Annotated RSV indicates that verse 23-24 is, “an ancient song, probably once sung in praise of Lamech, is here quoted to illustrate the development of wickedness from murder to measureless blood revenge.” In other words, he’s not a hero. So if you were engaging in exegesis you might use this passage to ponder how concommitant with the release of sin on the world the inevitable development and preponderance of human inflicted evil, violence, and tragedy caused ancient people to wonder WTF just as we do today.

I really just don’t have anything else to say about that passage. It’s a fragment of an almost forgotten character—who turns out to be the father of Noah.

And Cervantes also makes a subtle but valid point about Alan Keyes statement and our obvious evolving standards of decency. We no longer accept polygamy, or slavery as valid or moral lifestyles. You can use proof texting to argue against homosexuality, but you can also use it to argue in favor of some very nasty social institutions of the past. But if you're keeping your mind open to the considerations of contextual criticism, as I do, you would merely note that the Bible was reflecting the cultural norms of it's time.

It's true some Christians fear calling into question the inerrancy of the Bible. They are so spiritually immature that it would seriously erode their faith if anyone chipped away at the idea that God was not THE AUTHOR of Sacred Scripture and it was not taken to be totally, including historically, accurate.

In the other camp are Christians who see in the historical-critical method hope for making progress on our historical understanding of the Bible. They do not see this as a threat to faith but as a natural outcome of intellectual curiosity and a search for the truth.

I think you can't change the minds of the former. All you can do is try to take power away from them.

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Cain and Abel

Looking back on the post Cervantes wrote on Genesis 4:8-16, and trying not to belabor any of my previous points about literary construction, I’ll get straight to the exegesis.

Murder. It’s about murder. Killing is wrong. If you kill, you will be banished from the presence of the Lord. To be unable to commune with the Lord, then, becomes a supreme punishment. If being with God is the definition of heaven, then not being with God is the definition of hell.

Notice “am I my brother’s keeper?” is a lame rhetorical question. In other words, we are responsible for one another.

Notice there is no death penalty. Just sayin’.

So I don’t have a problem with all of the other people. As I said before, I don’t take the Bible literally; just looks like we missed part of the story.

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An Illustrated Dialogue

Cervantes wanted to have a dialogue.

He wanted to talk about issues important to everyone. Like, does the existence of the Bushosaurus mean bacteria don't evolve?

But he was missing something. Usually it takes more than one person to have a dialogue. Otherwise it turns into a monologue.

So he brought a newbie on board.

Missy said, "Hey that looks like fun. I'll join the dialogue!"


"Listen Kid, I'll write up a lead, and you respond. Easy. Right?"

"So I'll write up a lead story, and you respond."

Hey. Where's that response? We've got a dealine here!"

"Mr. Cervantes, I do not work around the clock!"

"Missy, I don't want you to take this the wrong way, but you're a jerk."

"How could I possibly take that wrong?"

"Okay. I'm a jerk."

Exodus 32:14 "And the LORD repented of the evil which He thought to do to His people."

Okay, it didn't really happen like that. No one is barking at me to hurry up. Cervantes didn't really call me a jerk. It's a line from the show. Am I the only one who's going to think this is funny again? I always find the misuse of wholesome iconic TV characters amusing.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Genesis 6:5-7

5 The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.

6 The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.

7 So the LORD said, "I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth—men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air—for I am grieved that I have made them."

I'm almost inclined to just say "no comment." But, I guess I owe y'all a few words.

Oh ye people of faith: according to your holy book, your God is a klutz, who discovers that the creatures he himself made are loathsome, and in a fit of petulance decides to kill them all. Evidently the humans turned out wicked, although how so is not specified. We have no idea what's wrong with the rest of the animals. Evidently they just catch the back end of his hissy fit.

Since this whole story up till now is transparently bullshit, the only meaningful question is why anyone would wish for their lives and thoughts to be guided by whatever metaphor or symbolism may be found here. I'd be very interested in hearing an answer.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Genesis 6:1-4

1 When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. 3 Then the LORD said, "My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years."

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.

Here we apparently see the remnants of an earlier Hebrew religion. We don't know who the "sons of God" are. Of course in the New Testament there is only one, but here there are many. They cross-breed with humans and give rise to race called the Nephilim (translated as "giants" in some versions but left intact here in the New International Version). Evidently this hybrid race was wiped out in the flood (soon to come, so get the popcorn popper heating), because we never hear from it again. If you are interested in this question (which I am not, particularly) you can read more about it in Wikipedia, which tells us that Nephilim may be derived from an earlier Aramaic religion and refers to the sons of Orion, the celestial hunter.

In Jewish tradition, and mainstream Christian tradition, the "sons of God" are angels. Now, if you're like me you're finding this all quite grotesque and even rather offensive -- not to mention irreconcilable with the New Testament and modern monotheistic ideology.

While it's progress that God decides to cut the human life span down from 900+ years to 120, obviously we still haven't made it to reality. Later, of course, the Bible tells us that our days are three score and ten, which was about the max in those days, although nowadays most of us hope for just a few years more. His reason for reducing the life span seems to be that he gets tired of us after 120 years. So, once again, he decides that the prototype was flawed. In this case, he decides to do some redesign work rather than just kicking our butts. But, as we shall see, this only a brief reprieve.

What a putz.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Genesis 4:25-Genesis 5:32

Here come the begats:

25 Adam lay with his wife again, and she gave birth to a son and named him Seth, saying, "God has granted me another child in place of Abel, since Cain killed him." 26 Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh.
At that time men began to call on the name of the LORD.

Ch. 5

1 This is the written account of Adam's line.
When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. 2 He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them "man. "

3 When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth. 4 After Seth was born, Adam lived 800 years and had other sons and daughters. 5 Altogether, Adam lived 930 years, and then he died.

6 When Seth had lived 105 years, he became the father of Enosh. 7 And after he became the father of Enosh, Seth lived 807 years and had other sons and daughters. 8 Altogether, Seth lived 912 years, and then he died.

9 When Enosh had lived 90 years, he became the father of Kenan. 10 And after he became the father of Kenan, Enosh lived 815 years and had other sons and daughters. 11 Altogether, Enosh lived 905 years, and then he died.

12 When Kenan had lived 70 years, he became the father of Mahalalel. 13 And after he became the father of Mahalalel, Kenan lived 840 years and had other sons and daughters. 14 Altogether, Kenan lived 910 years, and then he died.

15 When Mahalalel had lived 65 years, he became the father of Jared. 16 And after he became the father of Jared, Mahalalel lived 830 years and had other sons and daughters. 17 Altogether, Mahalalel lived 895 years, and then he died.

18 When Jared had lived 162 years, he became the father of Enoch. 19 And after he became the father of Enoch, Jared lived 800 years and had other sons and daughters. 20 Altogether, Jared lived 962 years, and then he died.

21 When Enoch had lived 65 years, he became the father of Methuselah. 22 And after he became the father of Methuselah, Enoch walked with God 300 years and had other sons and daughters. 23 Altogether, Enoch lived 365 years. 24 Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.

25 When Methuselah had lived 187 years, he became the father of Lamech. 26 And after he became the father of Lamech, Methuselah lived 782 years and had other sons and daughters. 27 Altogether, Methuselah lived 969 years, and then he died.

28 When Lamech had lived 182 years, he had a son. 29 He named him Noah and said, "He will comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the LORD has cursed." 30 After Noah was born, Lamech lived 595 years and had other sons and daughters. 31 Altogether, Lamech lived 777 years, and then he died.

32 After Noah was 500 years old, he became the father of Shem, Ham and Japheth.

First of all, thanks to Missy for a bit of background on the origin and provenance of the various texts that make up the Bible.

Once again (and I know I haven't succeeded in explaining this clearly enough) but I still don't understand what it is that makes this particular collection of texts special to Christians -- or for that matter other "people of the book" -- who recognize that they are assembled rather arbitrarily by humans from a myriad of sources. There are other ancient writings, many from the same region and tradition, which are not part of the Bible, and there is a lot of flotsam and jetsam in the Bible that is seriously embarrassing to both Christians and Jews. So why consider these particular texts somehow "sacred"? We can find much greater wisdom elsewhere than we can in most of the Bible, and as for the good parts, why not just take them on their own merits, rather than endow them with some special status because they happen to be bundled up with a bunch of other junk? That's how I feel about it anyway.

Okay, this "begat" chapter gives us a chance to take stock of where we've come. Remember that the divisions into chapters and verses was added by medieval Christian monks, that's why I didn't mind crossing the chapter line here -- although the intro to Ch. 5 does suggest that we're actually beginning a new textual fragment.

And that's my first observation, basically. What we have read so far is a collection of fragments of old tales. They were written down at some point in a continuous sequence that gives the superficial appearance that it is trying to be a coherent narrative, but obviously it isn't. Two mutually inconsistent creation stories, followed by the sudden appearance from nowhere of a human population and a curse that fails to punish, and the bizarre non sequitur of Lamech's unexplained revenge, all show that this is really essentially a scrap book.

As for the begats, I remember reading somewhere that the 800-900+ year lifespans resulted from some transcriber misplacing a decimal point somewhere along the line, but that can't be true since the place-value number system wasn't invented until the 5th century CE, in India. And anyway, people back then were lucky to live to be 50, living to the age of 80 or 90 was extremely rare, if it ever happened at all. But, this certainly could result from some other form of confusion among differing number systems.

Interest in genealogy goes back to well before the dawn of literacy. In pre-literate societies, people learn to recite genealogies. It's interesting to think about why this is. My personal interest in my ancestry isn't really very strong once you get back before the parents and grandparents of people I knew personally. In other words, I'm interested in my grandparents' family lives, because they were influential and important people to me, so therefore I am interested in knowing about their parents and grandparents, who directly shaped their lives. But before that, it gets too tenuous for me to really care.

I understand that I am descended from John Howland, who came over on the Mayflower as the ship's carpenter but was not a member of the Pilgrim sect. At Plymouth, he was successfully sued more than once for paternity -- or as they put it in those days, "prosecuted for bastardy." So I guess I have a lot of cousins. But why somebody went to the trouble to find that out is beyond me.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Scriptural Content

Iain asked recently how I "decide which bits of Scripture are appropriate to your own life and beliefs?" After a number of frustrated attempts to respond in comments I've decided to respond in a post.

I guess I want to say first off that I don't actually discard any parts of scripture. Certainly as a Christian, for me the New Testament trumps the Old. Also, I'm not quite sure what to do with the criticism of finding new meaning in these passages. Obviously I'm interested in the original intent, but it is a tradition of all literature that the reader completes the work. The reader always brings new meaning.

As a catechist I teach the Catechism of the church and the scripture as it's written. But especially with my older students, I always point out the context and changes in theology through the years.

As an individual I admit that I give less attention to the pseudonymous writings of the New Testament. They tend to have been written much later, closer to the 4th century, and they are an attempt to respond to things that were happening in the church at that time. Mostly they are an assertion of patriarchy and order. Take Paul, for instance. If you look at just the books scholars agree he actually wrote you lose all of that slaves obey your masters, wives obey your husbands shit. Paul becomes much more palatable. Iain, does that answer your question?

I want to take a moment to go back over the present content of scripture. I guess we ought to address the original language they were written in. The first language of scripture is Hebrew, which originated in Cannan and was passed on by Abraham. It was the language of the Holy Land until about the 3rd century BCE. Aramaic was the language Jesus spoke and would have been common from the 3rd century on. Finally, the New Testament was written in Greek, except for Matthew which was originally written in Aramaic (now lost). The Septuagint (begun in 250 BCE and completed in 100 BCE), which were the Hebrew Scriptures passed down to us, were written in Greek for Jews in Egypt who would have spoken only Greek. This is the translation the apostles would have used.

There are 72 or 73 books in the Bible (Lamentations is often put in Jeremiah). The word testament means "covenant" and the books represent our covenants with God. In the Catholic canon there are 46 books in the Old Testament. The accepted rules of the Jewish canon, which were set in the first century after Christ, were that the book in question had to be in harmony with the Pentateuch (Torah or law; the first five books of the Old Testament); it had to be written before the time of Ezra; it had to be written in Hebrew; and it had to be written in Palestine. The Jewish canon does not include: Judith (Aramaic), Wisdom & 2 Maccabee (Greek), Tobit & parts of Daniel & Ester (Aramaic outside Palestine), Baruch (outside Palestine), or Sirach & 1 Maccabee (after time of Ezra).

It is the Jewish canon that was accepted by Protestants at the time of the Reformation. But with regard to the New Testament, all Christians agree upon the 27 books in the canon. Most were written in the later half of the first century with the first Gospel, Mark, having been written close to the time of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The Catholic canon was officially determined at the Council of Hippo in 393 AD (we included Apocrypha as historical books).

Now, what types of literary forms do we see in the Bible? Lots. Here's a list: History – in story form (Pentateuch, the Exodus, David, Solomon); Fables – short tale to teach a moral (Judges 9: 7-15, Numbers 22: 26-36); Legend – non-historical story handed down by tradition (Daniel); Allegory – abstract or spiritual meaning under the story, symbolic narrative (Sampson, Solomon); Parables – simple story that illustrates a moral or religious lesson (Luke); Apocalyptic writings – revelation or prophecy to end times (Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelations); Myth – traditional or legendary story usually concerning deities without fact or natural application; Drama (Job); Epistles (letters of Paul and others); Wisdom – oracles (Wisdom, Numbers 23, Genesis 18); Poetry (Psalms, Genesis); Hymns (Psalms, Philippians 2); Prayers (Psalms, Our Father); and Folklore (Noah, Abraham, Moses).

There are also many types of books. I guess the first category is the Pentateuch; Genesis (origin), Exodus (Israeli nation), Leviticus (laws), Numbers (organized nation), and Deuteronomy (spirit of love and obedience to laws). Salvation history is another type of book--Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings. There is chronicler's history in 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Religious historical novels like Tobit, Judith, Esther, 1 and 2 Maccabees. Wisdom books such as Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, song of Solomon, Wisdom, and Sirach. And prophetic books, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Baruch, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. There are the Gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; and the early Christian church (Acts of the Apostles should maybe be included with the Gospels--I consider it the Gospel of the Holy Spirit). The Epistles, or letters of Paul, and the pastoral letters--Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, Peter, James, 1, 2 & 3 John, and Jude.

Now what we're getting into here with our dialogue is textural criticism. This can also take a variety of forms. There is the literalist--typified by fundamentalism. These folks take scripture word-for-word and also insist it to be a history and science book. Whatever. The rationalist looks for things that can be proved. Exegetes look for the religious or faith meaning of the text. The contextual approach, which I've discussed before, analyzes the times, culture, language and other circumstances the book was written in. This approach was recommended by Pope Pius XII in his 1943 Encyclical and also by Vatican II Council. As a Christian, I believe all scripture should be interpreted in light of Jesus. If you just look at the Old Testament you have primarily Deuteronomical theology, which is your eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth stuff. Deuteronomical justice assumes bad things happen as punishment from God. It stands in contrast to New Testament justice--followers of Christ believe that God does not cause evil, God allows evil to exist. Also, today it is more common to find masculine pronouns removed as we become more sensitive to reading the Scriptures through many perspectives.

Okay. So there you go. A quickie lesson on scripture content and textural criticism.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Genesis 4:19-25

19 Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah.

20 Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock.

21 His brother's name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play the harp and flute.

22 Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron. Tubal-Cain's sister was Naamah.

23 Lamech said to his wives,
"Adah and Zillah, listen to me;
wives of Lamech, hear my words.
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for injuring me.

24 If Cain is avenged seven times,
then Lamech seventy-seven times."

Here's a powerful statement from the web site of conservative, Bible-believing political activist Alan Keyes:

Are you willing to give way to far-left progressive judges? If you think that turning a blind eye on gay marriage issue is prudent, a word to the wise: Watch out. For besides gay marriage, the conversation may one day soon shift to polygamy, and who knows what else.

No comment on that.

If Jabal was the father of all those who live in tents and raise livestock; and Jubal was the father of all musicians, the situation was only temporary, because all those people are eventually wiped out in the flood and Noah is the only father of everybody. Just sayin'.

If Lamech ended up "avenged" 11 times as much as Cain, evidently his punishment was that he got to build 11 cities, not just one. He didn't get to have 11 wives, though, only 2. But maybe they were 5 and a half times as cute or something.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Genesis 4:8-16

8 Now Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let's go out to the field."* And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

9 Then the LORD said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?"
"I don't know," he replied. "Am I my brother's keeper?"

10 The LORD said, "What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground.

11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand.

12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth."

13 Cain said to the LORD, "My punishment is more than I can bear.

14 Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me."

15 But the LORD said to him, "Not so; if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over." Then the LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.

16 So Cain went out from the LORD's presence and lived in the land of Nod,** east of Eden.

17 Cain lay with his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch.

18 To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad was the father of Mehujael, and Mehujael was the father of Methushael, and Methushael was the father of Lamech.

* Many early texts lack "Let's go out to the field"
** Nod means "wandering"

Now this is quite interesting. I always had a vague impression that the "mark of Cain" was a badge of shame, like the scarlet letter. But in fact, it is a sign of God's protection. God opposes the death penalty, at least for murder. (Although as we shall see later he insists on it for more serious offenses such as gathering sticks on the sabbath.)

What is most striking about this passage is its profound illogic. As far as we know, until verse 14, there are three people in the world -- Adam, Eve and Cain. So who is going to kill Cain? What is he worried about? Well, it turns out the world is populated after all. How did this happen? There would seem to be two possibilities: 1) God didn't stop with Adam and Eve, he went around making people all over the place, but the Bible just doesn't bother to tell us; 2) Somebody else -- or several somebodies -- had his own creation or creations, and decided to make creatures of the identical species. Either way, did they go through the same travails? Did the other people eat the forbidden fruit, or were they made already knowing good from evil? Did they start out in secret gardens and go through the whole expulsion thing, or did they just wake up in Nod and other places? All very curious.

Then there is the curse. Obviously, God doesn't really mean it, because Cain does not end up as a restless wanderer on the earth, in fact the very next thing we learn about him is that he gets married, settles down, and I mean settles down big time: he builds a whole city. So if the earth isn't yielding for him, he is doing quite well thank you in the construction business. That's a curse I can live with. In Genesis 4, crime pays.

Friday, May 11, 2007

More Theology: Genesis 4:1-7

Apparently there have always been tensions between farmers and semi-nomads. Did barbed wire ruin the West? This passage symbolizes that tension in the two types of offerings.

So did God ask for this offering as Cervantes implies? Well it doesn't say. And we don't know the reason Abel's offering is accepted, but Cain's is not. Normally verse 6 and 7 are read to imply that Cain himself will be accepted, even though his offering is not, if his offering springs from the right motive.

If we're going to be tongue in cheek about this, you could say Cain was just trying to kiss ass and God saw through it. God even tried to give him a warning, picturing sin as a predatory animal crouched at the door. That snake's going to bite again.

And once again the advice of God is, "you must master it."

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Back to Genesis 3:16-24

So I intended to read up on some feminist theology before tackling this, but that just reeks of effort and I'm fluffy. I'm just going to go with my opinion.

We've already established that I am not someone who reads the Bible literally. I accept it as traditional sacred scripture which shows a spiritual path and within it's pages shows an evolution of ancient thought on God. In that context, I'm okay with cherubim and flaming swords. Whatever paradise we may have come from where everyone acted as they should, we can't go back to. That's a human fantasy, right? Things must have been perfect at one time, then bad people came along and fucked it all up. What ever happened to the good ol' days? A good man is hard to find.

Most of the ancient writers were men, and certainly the final editors were. Humans who, while noble in their intent to understand the Divine nature and the purpose and origin of humans, naturally got a few things wrong, naturally tried to line things up with what their ideas of right and wrong were at the time. Verse 16, the curse on Eve for the Fall is an ancient codification of women's role, and the "virtue" of obedience and submissiveness. It places women directly under men in the scheme of creation. The story is an illustration of the disruption of the natural order: Eve shouldn't be taking orders from the snake, she should be taking orders from Adam; Adam shouldn't be taking orders from Eve, he should be doing what God said.

And this whole passage is largely the crux of what Christian Fascism stands on. So it's right to discuss it. But as I said before, if you're addressing Christians, it's best to let Jesus do the talking. Jesus showed us evolving standards of decency. Genesis may have been about learning and following the rules, but Jesus broke the rules. Jesus showed us the rules could be wrong. Jesus showed us that they could be trumped by compassion and mercy. Don't work on the Sabbath? Jesus cured people on the Sabbath. It is in the New Testament that God acts as one who sides with the outcast: the hemorrhaging woman; the tax collector; the adultress; the child born in a stable. It is through Jesus that we all got the radical message of equality. As Paul said, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28) Jesus disrupted the old order of submit and obey. His order was based on compassion and mercy.

A few additional notes: A close reading shows it is not Adam who is cursed in verse 17, but rather the ground. And I've always found the vegetarian command interesting. Verse 21 is intended to show God caring for his people and providing for their needs.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Genesis 4:1-6

1 Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, "With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man."
2 Later she gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.
3 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD.
4 But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering,
5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
6 Then the LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?
7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it."

Just BTW, apparently there is a pun here involving the name Cain and Eve's comment that she ahs "brought forth" a man. I point this out just so you know that the scribe enjoyed wordplay. (Adam simply means "The Man," as Missy pointed out earlier.)

Okay, somebody needs to help me out here. As you know, I'm having a really hard time with this God character. Evidently, off stage, God has asked the people for presents, which is pretty presumptuous of him since he kicked them out of the garden and cursed them, but what the heck, they appear to be willing to go along with the deal.

Here we have one brother who decided to go into planting, and another who went into herding. Both honorable professions, right? So they each give what they have, but that's not good enough. God likes the meat, but not he veggies. Okay, agreed, it doesn't do any good for Cain to be angry, but it's understandable, in my opinion. I mean, it's the thought that counts, right? Shouldn't God be more gracious about it? If you don't like a present, say thank you anyway and if you have the chance, regift it.

And God's advice is, if anything, even more annoying. He implies that offering up the veggies was somehow sinful, and if Cain just does what's right -- presumably giving God some of the meat that he craves -- everything will be okay. But Cain doesn't have any meat, he's a dirt farmer. So what is God's point?

And by the way, God should learn to like his veggies. They're good for him.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

I'm sorry Cervantes, did you say something? Huh? Huh? I can't hear you...

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Genesis 3:21-24

21 The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.
22 And the LORD God said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever."
23 So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.
24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

Oh yeah, I was right about the tree of life after all, I just forgot where the reference is. So yes, Adam and Eve were always fated to die, unless they ate from the fruit of the tree of life. God seems a bit dazed and confused -- he evidently neglected to warn the people not to eat from the tree of life before, but now it occurs to him that not only did he not want them to know good from evil, he did not want them to live forever either, so only now does he take the trouble to do something about it.

So again, why does God put the two trees in the garden in the first place? He doesn't want us to be "like Gods," knowing good from evil, and living forever, but why create the risk? And God lied to the people -- he said if they ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, they would surely die, but they were going to die anyway -- and Adam lives for another 900+ years, as it turns out.

God is disappointed in his creation, so he punishes us. But hey -- he made us. If he's unhappy with the quality of the product, whose fault is that? And furthermore God is a liar. If he could lie to us about the tree of knowledge, why should we believe anything he says? I'm really starting to dislike this guy -- he's incredibly arrogant, incapable of acknowledging his own mistakes, he's vindictive, and he's a liar. Even if he did exist, I sure wouldn't worship him. He doesn't deserve it.

For biblical literalists, obviously, this passage would appear to be a major embarassment. Today, we have thoroughly surveyed and visited every square inch of the earth's surface, and uhh, no cherubim, no flaming sword, no secret garden with a tree of life. Nowhere, no way, nohow. Okay, maybe it all got wiped out in the flood -- but if destroying it was an option, why not just do it immediately?

Not That Cervantes "Loathes" Religion, Mind You

Really thoughtful article in The Guardian today about "New Atheists." Perhaps it has some bearing on our discussion here.

Hat tip: MadPriest

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

More Comments

Well things are starting to crystallize a bit. And I'm not too surprised, but I wanted to throw out a few quick comments of my own.

First of all, with regard to the Bible, I do believe it was Divinely inspired; sorry for that misunderstanding. Perhaps this is why I'm so fascinated by those moments of Divine inspiration within the stories. I'm a theist. I believe there is a bit of the Divine in each of us.

But back to Cervantes comments about those who take the Bible literally. I'm genuinely surprised that half of Americans believe the creationist view. But there it is. I think that number has a lot to do with the rise of Christian Fascism in our country. I can only say I don't think you can engage the thinking of hard core believers in the way you are attempting because of their political agenda and the magical thinking they use to advance it. Attacking their beliefs or pointing out logical inconsistencies seems to do nothing. "Well," they laugh, "God can do anything." What you can do is point out their political agenda (which you are quite good at) and (hopefully) watch their 30 year political grip on our nation begin to wane.

I'm particularly dismayed to discover 41% of Catholics agree with the creationist view. John Paul II acceded in 1996 that evolution was more than just a theory. Of course I say all the time that Catholics are poorly educated about their own faith. Especially people of my generation. I wonder, like this guy, if perhaps they respond to the poll as they do because of the way it's worded?

Because if you're just looking at which denominations ascribe to creationism literally, I would expect the numbers in that poll to be much smaller. More in line with these statistics about the Largest Religious Groups in the United States. In other words, I would expect Baptists and any other of the smaller fundamentalists to be in this camp, but no majority. This world view has been usurped in an attempt to give moral justification to a fascist government model. If you want to fight religion with religion a better way would be to steer away from deuteronomical justice, and toward Jesus--whom the Christian Fascists claim to follow. It's much easier to find clear contradictions when you use the words and actions of Jesus. He was, after all, a progressive liberal. I think that is a better way to engage the thinking of American Christians.

And with regard to Cervantes comment, "This is an artifact in the history of culture, but in that respect it is not particularly distinguished from Aesop's fables or the Vedas or the epic of Gilgamesh." We can just disagree on that. I think what distinguishes the Bible is it's attempt to understand God and the degree to which those good intentioned efforts succeeded. Certainly the ancient ideas were not complete, but they laid the foundation for the evolution of Christianity and modern theology.

Many modern theologians believe we are co-creators and that the Divine spirit exists within humans and is infused throughout creation. But that's a more evolved position. In any case it is a position which is not in opposition to empirical data. Theology should never be opposed to empirical data. Science should inform us about the mechanics of life; faith should inform us about the purpose of life. To quote Joan Chittister again, "Science drags faith beyond magic. Faith challenges science to principles beyond utilitarianism. One does not explain the other. We look in vain for faith to tell us how the world began or why it functions as it does with floods in wetlands and desertification in dry places and massacres in Algeria and pain in my own small life. But we do look for faith to tell us what it means to have to deal with such things."

(Post script: With regard to the Adam and Eve story and the suddenness of their loss of innocence; meh. I don't know. I think flashes of insight are not an uncommon way of coming to moral understanding.)

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

A couple of quick comments before moving on. . .

I thought I should take time out to respond to a couple of Missy's points before posting the next passage.

First, in the comments I misremembered the bit about the Tree of Life. (That's what I get for taking more than a month between posts.) The people are not forbidden to eat from it. Actually, nothing is said about it at all, except that it is there. We don't know what it means, it's just a stray mention. So I would say that it's not clear whether mortality is part of the punishment for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. You could take it that way, but it's not explicit. In any event, I find that puzzling. Why would death be the price of knowing good from evil?

Next, I certainly agree that this is a fable, and I don't know to what extent the ancient Hebrews took it literally, or how they interpreted it. Unfortunately, according to polling data, almost half of modern Americans do believe that it is literally true. Therefore, although it may not be an issue for people who are likely to read us, as we continue through the Bible, I feel that it is necessary to consider the implications if we were to take it literally. That's the only way to engage with the thinking of the majority of American Christians.

Of the remaining Christians, most tell pollsters that while they don't believe the Bible is literally factually accurate, they do believe that it is somehow dictated or inspired by God. I take it that is not quite the same as what Missy is saying, which as I understand it is that these early passages of Genesis represent the struggles of ancient people to understand God and their place in the universe, given the perspective of their time and the extent of their knowledge. I obviously agree with that, but that also means my attitude toward it is a bit different from Missy's. This is an artifact in the history of culture, but in that respect it is not particularly distinguished from Aesop's fables or the Vedas or the epic of Gilgamesh. To answer Neolotus's question, the reason I have chosen to read the Bible here rather than any of those other ancient documents is because of its importance in our own, contemporary society. But on its own terms, I don't give it any special respect.

And finally, to wrestle substantively with the concept of morality that seems to be at the heart of this tale, I would say that we generally consider moral agency to develop gradually in children, not come upon them suddenly. Infants, of course, are not moral agents, and we think of two-year-olds as close to our animal companions in their degree of moral agency. But pretty much as soon as children can talk, we start to try to teach them to understand good and evil and we expect them to begin to develop moral sensibilities. By the time they are in kindergarten, we're teaching them to share, not to steal, not to hit, to obey adults, etc. We expect children to have something close to a fully developed moral understanding by the time they are ten or so; innocence isn't suddenly shattered with puberty, although we don't hold people fully responsible as adults until they are a few years past sexual maturity, i.e. sixteen or so.

So this fable of a sudden loss of innocence doesn't really correspond to experience, and it continues to puzzle me. Of course, Christians in general (I don't know about Missy) believe that God is the source of morality. The typical stance is that people are inherently wicked (viz. the original sin) and that they require piety and the threat of hellfire to stay in line. Conservative Christians, and notably evolution deniers, insist on this: they claim that secularism will lead to the moral dissolution of society.

Since the enlightenment, secular thinkers have looked for the origins of morality in human nature, not divine mandate. Until recently, this sort of thinking tended to be rather vague and speculative, but in recent years there has been strong interest in a more empirically grounded analysis of the evolution of morality. One possibly revolutionary finding is that something akin to human morality can be discerned in our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, and that perhaps we should think about them as having the beginnings of moral agency. Evolution has equipped us with morality, as an essential attribute of a highly intelligent social species.

Now, scientists are doing empirical research into morality, and they have found that people have remarkably consistent responses to moral problems across religions, and cultures, and that religious and non-religious people do not differ in their judgments of most categories of moral problems. The exceptions, of course, have to do with specific rule-based forms of morality, such as the prohibition of homosexual acts. If you are interested in participating in some of this research, and you want to explore how you make certain moral judgments, you can go here, to the home page of the moral sense test, offered by Marc Hauser and Peter Singer.

We could get hung up in discussing these issues forever, and I don't want to derail our reading, so I'll leave it at that. I will post the next Bible passage this evening or tomorrow.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Another Theodicy: Genesis 3:6-15

Obviously Cervantes is a much more prolific writer than I am.

Time to catch up a little. In addressing your points I have to mention once again the idea of context. No one writes for an audience thousands of years into the future; we're only now piecing together what that culture was like. However, since Jesus used parables, allegories, and similes, we can consider that maybe the people who preceded him would have understood the subtlety of using an animal in a story. When Jesus said, "Feed my sheep," we all pretty much understand that he meant, "give spiritual nourishment to the people who follow me." So maybe the original readers of this story didn't take it literally.

It seems that in ancient times matters of morality and ethics were often addressed in this way. A little research into Aesop's Fables shows the original date they were written down to be 800 to 1000 years before Aesop lived, which would make them contemporary with the first books of the Bible. I'm going to maintain people knew that animals didn't talk and they largely understood that an animal in a story could be a stand in or agent for a person. Modern individuals who want to take the creation stories of the Bible literally are misguided and largely appear less sophisticated and less spiritually mature than their counterparts 3500 years ago.

What this story is pointing out to us is that there was a time in pre-history when people began to form the concept of good and evil and the idea of choosing between the two. The focus seems very much on obedience as "good" and the concept of clothing in the garden has more to do with modesty than protection.

Cervantes asks why God would not want Adam and Eve to know good from evil in the first place. When you look at this knowledge of good and evil from the perspective of free will there is a glimmer of an answer.

If a child gets too close to a dog's dish, the dog may bite the child. This is bad. Yet we don't hold the dog morally responsible, the dog is just doing what dog's do. Following doggy nature. The dog wants to protect it's food; it doesn't know biting is "bad." I kind of look at it that way. Before people had a concept of right and wrong they were more like the dog. Always acting out of personal interest and human nature. So God is shown here like the parent who wants to protect their child from knowledge. Like the dog owner who understands the pet needs restraint, not punishment. Once people began to "know" good from evil, we became morally responsible for the choices we made. In an era that knew heirarchy, reward, and punishment, we pictured God as the judge who will reward and punish. More like a king than a spirit. But that is where we were developmentally.

Another observation is the fact that God is described anthropomorphically present. God strolls in the garden, and is limited in time and space. God is just another character in the story. Perhaps because they knew of no other way to describe the person hood of God. This is a puzzle to me as well, but I take it to have more to do with the writer than the true nature of God. These earliest stories are a struggle to explain God. Our concept of God has changed over time; from strolling around with Adam and Abraham to a burning bush for Moses to a dove and a flame in the New Testament. Our attitudes, our ideas change, evolve and mature. History has shown us that obedience isn't always good. And modesty can be taken a burqa too far. We need to look at old stories with the light of modern understanding.

As for NeoLotus' point about sexuality being the greatest factor of this new knowledge; that's something that needs maturing as well. I suppose this ancient society would have put a lot of emphasis on controlling women and their sexuality as they were seen largely as chattel at this time. Again, our ideas of good and bad should evolve as our understanding about people and the world evolves.

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