The Flood: Global or Localized?

I would argue neither.

With the rising tide of modern science, historical criticism, and other scholarly disciplines, those committed to a strict literalist interpretation of the Flood stories in Gen 6-9 have had to retreat farther and farther up the metaphorical beach in order to maintain their belief in the historical reality of the Biblical tale.  For instance, basic problems with a literal reading of the narrative include the fact that there is no geological evidence for a global flood, and that the Biblical Flood narrative in large part is derivative of an older Mesopotamian Flood story from the myth Atrahasis (among many other reasons).  Sometimes, though, more liberal readers of the text suggest that the Flood was a historical event but that it was localized in a specific area, and that from the shortsighted view of the ancient author the whole land (including the mountains) indeed was covered with water. Thus we shouldn’t expect there to be evidence in the geological record for a global flood. However, there is, in my view, a more adequate understanding of the text, one that takes it on its own terms.

Israelite cosmology as it is reflected in the Bible basically consisted of a three-tiered world with the heavens/sky above, the earth below the sky, and the waters below the earth.  In the heavens (which, for some authors, had multiple levels) the gods resided, while humans lived on the earth. Moreover, Israelites believed that there was water above the earth, presumably because the sky, like the sea, is blue and, moreover, rain would often come down from the sky. In this pre-scientific worldview there was a solid, clear (perhaps ice or crystal?) dome-like structure that prevented the waters above the earth from crashing down onto the earth. This material object is translated as “firmament” in the KJV in Gen 1. The so-called “windows” of heaven were, in their view, sluices cut into the dome through which YHWH would send down rain according to his providence.  The sun and the stars were underneath this solid dome.  Furthermore, pillars were sunk into the subterranean waters to support the earth, and below the earth was also She’ol, the underworld.  Mountains, on the other hand, were thought by some to support the dome.  For more visual readers, see HERE for a basic representation of this cosmological worldview.

Gen 1 describes creation as a divine process of organizing the world from the chaotic primeval waters by separating different elements so as to provide order.  The Israelite God separates the waters using the dome in order to create the sky and then, within this “bubble,” proceeds to organize the rest of the world through separation and demarcation.  Just as, on the social level, God separated the Israelites from the other nations and gave them his covenant and its attendant laws in order to organize their lives and provide them with well-being, so too, on the cosmological level, proceeded the creation of the world.  The formation of the world, in a sense, mirrored the creation of Israel, and vice versa.

Thus it would seem somewhat unfair either to criticize or to validate – on scientific grounds – the author(s) of the Flood stories by measuring their texts against the ruler of modern scientific cosmology.  The Flood stories do not comment upon whether the Flood was local or global in scientific terms; indeed, their view was pre-scientific.  Rather, for the Israelites who authored these stories the Flood primarily represents “uncreation”: that is, the disorder and chaos that existed before God’s mastery over creation brought order. When sin filled the world the God of Israel unleashed the subterranean and heavenly waters to fill the bubble. So too if Israel transgressed its covenant and failed to keep the laws of YHWH their society would fall into chaos and ruin.

Were Eve and Adam Created Immortal?

Genesis 2–3 recounts the famous creation story, dubbed by modern scholars the J account, of the human (adam), his wife, and their interactions with the Israelite deity YHWH god.  To summarize: YHWH god forms the man from clay (adamah) and then places him in a garden that contains, apparently, two special trees, among others, one called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the other the tree of life.  He then fashions a woman.  The humans are commanded by the deity not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (actually, if you read the story carefully, only the man is given this command), although they are free to eat from the other trees in the garden.  If they should eat from the forbidden tree’s fruit, however, they will surely die, for reasons left unexplained.  However, the wise serpent is also resident in this divine garden sanctuary and he informs the woman that should she eat from the forbidden tree she will not die but become wise like the gods.  She eats some of the fruit and gives it to the man, her husband.  The serpent, as it turns out, was right–the fruit of said tree does bring divine wisdom.  However, YHWH god is none to pleased with the humans’ actions and banishes them from the garden.  The text then states that YHWH god put a heavenly guardian to block access to the tree of life so as to prevent the humans from eating of it and living forever.

This fascinating text has elicited numerous interpretations by readers over the centuries.  I briefly want to highlight one interpretational possibility, and then I invite your comments and your own personal views on the text.

It is commonly assumed that the man and the woman were created immortal or became so when they resided in the garden. However, the text never states that they are immortal.  Indeed, they can certainly die, as YHWH god informs them when he tells the man not to eat from the tree.  Additionally, it never says that they ate from the tree of life; in fact, it says just the opposite–YHWH god prevented them from doing so. Further, it is particularly striking that this account, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, connects the failure of humanity to obtain immortality by means of a life-giving plant with the actions of a serpent (serpents shed their skin and thus were considered by some in the ancient world to be a symbol for immortality; cf. the story of Moses raising a serpent image before the Israelites to heal any who should look upon it).  This parallel may suggest that the humans, like the mortal hero Gilgamesh, were never supposed to acquire immortality like the gods.  Further, the J source is very interested in maintaining strict boundaries between the divine and human worlds (cf. the Tower of Babel story).  It might make sense, therefore, that YHWH god doesn’t want them to have immortality via the tree of life, just as he did not want them to be wise by eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Indeed, it was commonly understood in the ancient world, including among the ancient Israelites, that a primary difference between humans and gods was mortality versus eternal life.  According to Gen 2–3, then, the humans bridged one gap but could not close the other.  Finally, we know that these two characters do in fact die later on.  For more on this way of looking at the text, see John Day, “The Development of Belief in Life after Death in Ancient Israel,” in After the Exile, 1996, pgs. 236–237.

Although this story is clearly a myth (in the scholarly sense of the term, not in the popular sense that it is the opposite of what is “true”) and simply cannot be taken as an actual accounting of how God made the cosmos and humanity, I don’t believe that makes it a religiously or spiritually useless text.  Many insightful and creative spiritual and theological readings of the text have been produced by scholars, theologians, and religious persons since the text’s composition.  2 Nephi 2 is a particularly good example for the Mormon audience. Of course, there are views in the text that are scientifically, ethically, or historically wrong or incorrect.  However, I do think there is value in this text for Mormon theologizing and that it still has more “fruit” to yield in that endeavor if read with new eyes.  Hence I am not claiming that any one  particular reading of the text is the only “right” one.  Indeed, its ability to be read in a multitude of ways is at least one reason, in my opinion, that it is such an engaging and timeless story.

So do you see any benefits from reading the text in this manner?  How do you like to read this story, and why?

 

 

The Blessings of an Unknown God

This post could be called anti-Areopagean, since in a reversal of the Acts 17 narrative, I write to those who inherited a supremely certain God and extol the virtues of a God unknown. I propose that agnostic theism actually results in a win-win situation, yielding rich rewards in return for handing over so-called certainty. I am not advocating that everyone adopt this philosophy, but I would like to lay out the advantages as I have experienced them.

This approach not only takes seriously the limitations of our knowledge, it could, if implemented widely, diminish religious conflict both interpersonal and national, and contribute to a healthier worldview overall. Agnosticism built around a theistic framework encourages resilient faith that easily assimilates new knowledge and allows for tolerance and appreciation for differing beliefs.

One of my goals in life is to model and champion religiosity that maximizes the benefits of spirituality while minimizing the harm that comes from most, if not all, forms of religion. I believe that an open agnostic theism that appreciates the value of spirituality allows one to enjoy a religious life while also becoming a better, more understanding and effective member of society. So in a Mormon context, I pray, enjoy Church, the scriptures, the temple, and the other details of religion, but my openness leads me to reject or at the very least complicate the idea of the “One and Only True Church” that I find divisive and spiritually stunting. (I am ok with a “most true” approach but that is a different post.) With a humility and caring that comes in part from my open agnosticism, I can engage with those around me without the automatic value judgments of traditional Mormonism kicking in. I very much respect those who understand God and religion more concretely, and I have had my own spiritual experiences that keep me in the category of believer. At the same time, I find an open, even agnostic approach to religion to be very beneficial and affirming.

My definition of the divine remains fluid. I live presupposing a caring and engaged superior Being, but I would classify that worldview somewhere between hope and belief. I am open to the idea that God represents some quantum connection between all things we do not understand, or a collective unconsciousness. Whatever created the world, whatever makes humans so different that we can have philosophical questions such as these, I call that God. God could be the name for natural laws that make choice and consciousness and love possible. God could be these attributes themselves–anything that increases consciousness, love, freedom, growth, peace, and joy–these are Divine. Perhaps we humans are the greatest gods within our grasp. I challenge you to find anyone who could not accept at least one of these definitions of “God”. I find this open characterization of the Divine useful.

My agnostic theism stems from several factors:

1) If there really is a supreme Creator of the Universe who interacts with all things, it is logical that He/She/They would be far beyond our comprehension.

2) Study of the religions of the world and human history demonstrates that humans conceptualize gods and the divine in their own image.

3) Mormon theology (and I would say theology in general) supports the idea that whatever God’s form or nature, God adapts Himself (I use the pronoun flexibly) to our understandings, expectations, and limitations (see 2 Ne. 31:3, Ether 12:39; D&C 29:33; 50:12; 88:46, which all imply that God speaks to us in a way we will understand more than the way “things really are”).

Throughout human history, groups have brandished the sword of certainty to compel and even destroy others. Though religion provides many answers that are satisfying on an emotional and spiritual level, theological ideas if taken to literally obstruct the increase of knowledge and compromise relationships. We all know what it is like to debate with the dogmatic and converse with the thoroughly convinced.

Mormonism enjoys a God defined to a striking degree. We not only know what God looks like, his job description (Moses 1:39); his family situation (including the elusive but tremendously beneficial theology of a Heavenly Mother); we know where he lives and where he comes from! I delight in the idea of a Heavenly Father and Mother to whom I can pray (well, the latter if I admit it only selectively) and with whom I can imagine a loving reunion in the afterlife. I love imagining embracing my Heavenly Parents when this life is done. Equally potent is the idea that humans and God differ only in degree, not nature. We are Gods in embryo, literally children of God and can become like Him/Her/Them. Since on a practical level religion is a symbolic system to conceptualize and interact with ourselves, each other, and the environment, I find these ideas powerful and productive. I would submit, however, that little is lost if we allow that such conceptions might not perfectly correspond to Absolute Reality, while simultaneously appreciating the benefit of such ideas in our lives.

Relaxing our cultural conditioning allows us to hear other ideas with more sympathetic ears and hearts. Paradoxically, agnosticism can lead to better understanding of truth. If we open our minds, we can be given new myths, corresponding more closely to Reality. If we are humble like children, ever seeking to learn how things are instead of projecting our desires of how we would like them to be, we can grow in light and knowledge and allow God to reveal truth and himself to us as it and he is, instead of constraining him to lovingly and patiently humor our prejudices until we are mature enough to surrender them. Again, this is win-win: if God and reality conform to our expectations, we will be pleased, but neither will we be shattered if life or learning lead us to doubt our conceptions.

A final and one of the greatest benefits of agnosticism would emerge from accepting the responsibility for our own divinity. As far as we can tell, humans are the most developed and influential beings of which we are aware. Our consciousness spreads across the planet and beyond. We can restore and even replace organs and limbs, even bring back the dead to a degree. We have the power to destroy or (hopefully) heal entire ecosystems.

Though belief in God can be heartening and helpful, it can be equally disempowering and destructive. We can wait around, shaking our hands at heaven, impatiently waiting for God to fix all our problems. I certainly don’t want political leaders to factor the Second Coming into environmental policy!

I suggest we accept this power and responsibility and turn the accusations of theodicy back on ourselves. Why does God allow so much suffering? Why doesn’t He DO something about it? Well, why do we? Why do WE allow so much suffering? Why do we perpetuate it? Why do we humans, godlike in our ability to do good and literally answer prayers, instead squander that potential by sacrificing others and even the planet upon the altars of apathy, greed, and selfishness?

With this conception and acceptance, the goals of religious and humanist align. We are either the most advanced beings around or share a special relationship with a God who is greater. In both cases, we should emulate and adopt the characteristics of Divinity and care for the people and world around us. Several of the world’s scriptures teach us that we are Gods*, His children, or at least servants. It is time for us to put aside differences in our symbolic conceptions and start acting like it.

*I was going to reference John 10:34 where Jesus says “ye are gods”, but that passage takes Psalm 82:1, 6-7 so radically out of context that I could not include it. This post is dedicated to TJ and the conversation that started it.

Isaiah 7:14 and Scriptural Hermeneutics

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isa 7:14, KJV)

Isaiah 7.14 is one of three prophetic sign-acts in Isaiah chapters 7-8 in which Isaiah of Jerusalem associates or gives an ambiguous or multivalent ominous name to a child as a means of sharing the divine message to his contemporaries.  The historical context of these chapters is the Syrio-Ephraimite War. At this time Israel (the northern kingdom), Aram, and others, joined in an alliance  to combat the rising Assyrian threat headed by king Tiglath-pileser III (r. 745-727 BCE).  The kingdom of Judah (the southern kingdom) would not join the alliance and so Israel and Aram sought to remove the new Judean king, Ahaz (r. ca. 734-715), from power in order to install a more politically favorable king (referred to by Isaiah as the son of Tabeel; Isa. 7.6) who would join the alliance to stop Assyria.  Ahaz, however, appealed to Tiglath-pileser III for help against Israel and Aram and submitted to Assyria as vassal to suzerain, stripping the temple in the process in order to pay the necessary tribute (2 Kgs. 16:17-18). Assyria would go on to conquer Aram and reduce Israel to vassal status before Israel’s final destruction in 722/721 BCE by Sargon II. [Read more...]

My God Is Bigger Than Your God–Literally. Part VI

Although YHWH clearly was perceived by biblical authors in anthropomorphic terms, YHWH’s body was still different from regular human bodies.  For YHWH, like many other deities of the ancient Near East,[1] possessed massive size. [Read more...]

Polytheism and Ancient Israel’s Canaanite Heritage. Part V

Of course, much of this [i.e., that Israel worshiped El and Asherah alongside YHWH] is really to be expected given that recent syntheses of the archaeological, cultural, and literary data pertaining to the emergence of the nation of Israel in the Levant show that most of the people who would eventually compose this group were originally Canaanite.   [Read more...]

Asherah, God's Wife in Ancient Israel. Part IV

One of the most important deities that many, if not most, ancient Israelites worshiped was YHWH’s heavenly spouse or consort, the goddess Asherah (the Hebrew linguistic equivalent of Ugaritic Athirat, the wife of El). [Read more...]

God, Gods, and Sons (and Daughters) of God in the Hebrew Bible. Part III

This historical reconstruction [that El was originally Israel's chief deity, and YHWH was originally his son and the patron deity of Israel], in turn, helps to make sense of certain biblical texts which seem to indicate most naturally that El was originally the chief god of Israel and that YHWH was the patron deity of Israel.  For example, Deuteronomy 32:8-9 reads:

When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the nations according to the number of the sons of Israel.  For YHWH’s portion, his people; Jacob, his allotted share. בְּהַנְחֵל עֶלְיוֹן גּוֹיִם בְּהַפְרִידוֹ בְּנֵי אָדָם יַצֵּב גְּבֻלֹת עַמִּים לְמִסְפַּר בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ כִּי חֵלֶק יְהֹוָה עַמּוֹ יַעֲקֹב  חֶבֶל נַחֲלָתֽוֹ

[Read more...]

When Jehovah Was Not the God of the Old Testament. Part II

As the very name Israel might indicate on account of its theophoric element el (אל), it appears that the chief god worshiped in earliest Israel was El, the chief god of the Canaanite pantheon in the Late Bronze Age.  The god El has been revealed most clearly to the modern inquirer through the discovery of the Ugaritic texts at Tel Ras Shamra in 1929, a flourishing kingdom-city-state on the Syrian coast during the second half of the second millennium B.C.E.[1] As biblical tradition affirms as represented by the E and P sources (probably to be dated to the eighth and seventh/ sixth centuries B.C.E., respectively[2]), throughout the book of Genesis the ancient forbears of Israel worshiped the god El.  For example, Exodus 6:2-3 (P), recounting the divine theophany of YHWH to Moses at Sinai, states: [Read more...]

Does the Old Testament Teach Absolute Monotheism? Part I

Introduction: Was Ancient Israel Monotheistic?

Western Society is perhaps more indebted to the Hebrew Bible than to any other book, and arguably the most famous teaching associated with the Hebrew Bible is that of absolute monotheism.  This position famously affirms that there is only one god in existence and no other(s).  For example, Deuteronomy 6:4, known as the Shema, has often been cited since antiquity as supporting this understanding of monotheism.[1] It declares, “Listen, O Israel, YHWH is our god, YHWH alone [lit. YHWH (is) one]” (שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד). This understanding of ancient Israelite faith, found in both popular and scholarly circles, purportedly traces itself in the biblical narrative to at least the time when YHWH revealed himself at Sinai to Moses and Israel,[2] if not all the way back to the creation of the world in Genesis 1 when God alone created the world by his word.[3] Naturally, this view has been held to be in direct opposition to the Mesopotamian theogonic and cosmogonic myths, such as the infamous Enuma Elish,[4] which recounts the creation of the gods and the world through fierce battles and rivalries between the personified primal elements of nature and the many gods who eventually tame them. [Read more...]