I really meant it last week when I said that going quickly through the first three chapters of Genesis is like sprinting through a museum. We could spend hours in front of each passage, picking apart all the influences and nuances of meaning, the historical settings and the authorial intent(s). I suppose we could also create an entire series just on mistakes and contradictions within the text, but that’s been done plenty of times before. Were I to devote a weekly column to such an endeavor, I would soon feel I’m using up precious free time doing something which most people who are interested in the subject already know how to do.
In last week’s post (“A Godless Look at Genesis One“), I left out so many interesting details it’s almost unforgivable. For example, I didn’t say much at all about the parallels between the creation account in the first chapter and the Enûma Eliš from Babylonian mythology. That could easily constitute an entry all its own, but I just don’t have the free time these days.
Interested readers who do a little digging for themselves will discover that, as one would expect from a people who once lived as captives among the Babylonians, the earliest Hebrews borrowed a great deal from their surrounding culture, reshaping it according to their own idiosyncratic purposes. Everything from the structure of the phases of creation to the elevating of one god over all the others—and even the implicit justification of a special period of time for “rest”—came straight from their Babylonian forbears.
Nor did I stop to note the quirky detail in the first chapter of Genesis wherein we learn that all living things were created to be vegetarians. No animals were made to eat other animals, nor do humans kill and eat anything else, at least at first. As a young Christian, I accepted this with such a naive deference that now it embarrasses me. I recall a conversation I had once with my own elementary-aged child during bath time in which she said her Sunday School teacher suggested the same—that all animals were once vegetarian. I replied that I have a hard time imagining a fierce lion lounging around the African savanna, using his gigantic carnivorous chops to chow down on a spear of broccoli.* I’ll never forget how much it upset her for me to say that, because it made her feel foolish for believing it. There were actual tears. Talk about feeling like a heel.
I never want to shame my children for believing what their teachers (and pretty much everyone in their family but their father) teach them to believe. But I do want to teach them it’s okay to ask hard questions, and to challenge everything and everyone, because no one is immune to error. I figure the best way to do that is by promoting curiosity and critical investigation, not by shaming them for initially accepting things which turn out to be simplistic and naive. Something tells me grown ups are not much different, by the way. Just my two cents.
It’s Not Our Gods Who Fascinate
What fascinates me most about the second and third chapters in the book of Genesis is how multilayered they are, despite their primitive origins. The devout would insist this only proves their divine provenance; I would argue this owes more to the complexity of human history and psychology. It’s not our gods who are complex, it is we ourselves. Since we are the ones who create them in the first place, it shouldn’t surprise us when we find them compelling subjects for study. Whether we realize it or not, human beings have always been the real subject matter of theology.
“If God has made us in his image, then we have certainly returned him the favor.” –Voltaire
The God of Genesis 2 and 3 is greatly concerned with maintaining innocence. He isn’t too fond of critical thinking skills, and he would prefer that mankind rather blindly trust his edicts. As we read further into the text of Genesis, we will soon learn that he’s also not too fond of technological innovation. It’s the people who don’t know him—who don’t “call on his name”—who invent tools and develop better housing methods and create art and culture. We also learn from Genesis that Yahweh is particularly averse to very tall buildings, and that he would even resort to “confusing our language” to make sure human beings don’t advance too far in our intellectual and technological capabilities.
I would argue the God of the Old Testament is resolutely anti-humanistic. But again, I’m getting ahead of myself. If you want to know more of my thoughts about that, you can read my post entitled “Anti-Intellectualism and the Bible.”
What strikes me reading the second creation narrative (most would agree it’s clearly a separate story from the one we find in the chapter before it) is how insightfully it represents developments in human evolution which I cannot imagine the earliest Hebrews could have possibly understood. In this narrative, mankind goes from not knowing what “naked” means to being suddenly ashamed to show their naughty bits. What a fascinating story.
I’ve written about this shame as well. In fact, I helped start an entirely separate blog to unpack this hang-up among human beings using the very image of the fig leaf as a metaphor for sexual shame (check out Removing the Fig Leaf to see what I mean). Humankind goes from being naked like all the other animals to being ashamed of having visible genitals. After they eat from the tree from which God told them not to eat, “their eyes were opened” to see that they were naked. From that point on, they want to hide who they are.
And that’s not the only interesting detail. As my friend and future contributor to this series Hilary Major pointed out, this story links our growing awareness of ourselves to increased pains in childbirth. In the story, it’s a direct curse from God, a punishment for partaking of a forbidden fruit. In real life it turns out those two things are connected after all, although over a much deeper time frame:
At one point in our history, human beings figured out how to harness fire and cook our food, thereby more readily releasing the nutrients in the food we eat to the digestive process, which in turn enables us to power our much larger brain size. There’s just one problem: We also figured out that walking upright enabled us to see farther and keep our hands free for using tools, but that eventually made our hips much narrower than they used to be, which is particularly a problem for our procreating females. Now we have babies with giant heads trying to push through a much narrower birth canal and, guess what? It turns out there really is a connection between developing our higher reasoning capacities and greater pains in childbirth. Who knew?
How could they have known this? They couldn’t have, right? They didn’t have access to the historical or scientific tools we have at our disposal today. If you were to try explaining this to them, I seriously doubt the ancient Hebrews would have had any idea at all what you were talking about (assuming they understood English of course). And yet the story is there, capturing an idea in metaphorical form which I cannot imagine they could have grasped with the tools that they had.
This is what I mean by humankind being a fascinating subject for study. It’s almost as if our mythologies are windows into our own ancestral past, our own deep histories, beyond anything which a sensible person could explain without sounding like he’s drunk the kool-aid and is getting ready to sell you a magic crystal. Yet there it is, staring us right in the face, passed down to us through thousands of years of history (or is it hundreds of thousands?). One wonders how long memories can stay wired into a species, passed down through millennia only to turn up in the stories we tell our children?
A Woman’s Proper PlaceGenesis 2 tells the story of Yahweh putting mankind into an idyllic garden to take care of it. Even without the thorns and thistles, it’s a lot of work. So Yahweh takes Adam through a tedious process of meeting and greeting every conceivable species of animal only to discover what evidently this not-so-omniscient creator didn’t already know: That animals from other species don’t make satisfying mates for humans.
So Yahweh takes a rib from Adam and “fashions” a mate for him out of this piece of himself. I recall in seminary how delighted we young theologians were to discover the Hebrew word for that was “build,” leading us to quip that men are created but women are built. We were quite satisfied with ourselves in our little boys’ club.
Also, just so you know, men do not have one fewer rib than women do. I know because I checked.
Ostensibly the woman was made to partner with the man in his task of ruling over creation as a representative of Yahweh among the other creatures. I’ll spare you the endless debates about the etymology of the word “helpmeet” (it’s likely a more liberated term than conservatives today suppose) because for each step forward this text makes, it takes another step back. With one hand it gives support to socially progressive roles for women even as with the other hand it takes it back away again.
This ancient story is replete with amusing nuance: First, God tells the human couple not to eat from this one forbidden tree which presumably he himself put there in the middle of the garden. Evidently it was permissible for them to eat of the Tree of Life, which we learn at the end of the passage would have made them live forever. It seems to me that would have been a remedy for the consequences of eating the other tree, which Yahweh insisted would kill them “on the day that you eat of it.” But let’s skip that discussion for a second.
The serpent, whose presence and identity are never explained in this text, speaks to them (!) and informs them that they will not in fact die the day they eat of it. Rather, after eating of it, they will become “like God” knowing good and evil. It will make them wise. This to me speaks of moral awareness, critical thinking skills, and logical analysis. It seems Yahweh isn’t in too much of a rush for humankind to acquire these traits, so he tells them to lay off of it.
The story tells us that the woman made the first move, a fact which the man points out when they get “called on the carpet” by their creator.
“Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”
The man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.” (Gen. 3:11-12)
Would you look at that? Right out of the gate, the man shifts the blame to the woman. As if that ever happens.
I swear, there are moments when I wonder if the women who told these ancient stories to their children and grandchildren didn’t occasionally “tweak” the stories here and there to make a subtle, surreptitious point. I mean, sure, on the one hand you’ve got a story which paints the woman as the weaker vessel who gives in to a crooked sales pitch of some slimy charlatan. But from another vantage point, you’ve got the woman leading the way toward acquiring critical thinking skills, plus you’ve got a story that preserves for us how the dynamics of gender differences play out in real life every. single. day.
The story says that man’s curse for disobeying God was that the ground would be much harder to tend from that point forward. Evidently entropy is entirely the fault of human beings. Once I even heard a preacher say that God originally designed the planet to not experience seasons, but that “the fall of man” tilted the earth on its axis, producing the climate extremes we experience today. And that’s not even the weirdest thing I’ve heard a preacher say about this story. I once heard televangelist Benny Hinn report that the Holy Spirit revealed to him that women were originally designed to give birth out of their sides. That’s quite a picture.
Whatever the mechanics, the woman’s curse was that she would experience greater pain in child bearing (or “rearing,” if I understand the Hebrew translation correctly). Having helped raise five children over the last 17 years, I can attest to the difficulty of helping small humans grow up to become larger humans. It takes a lot out of you.
Yahweh goes on to tell the woman one other punishment she will have to endure as a consequence of her disobedience:
“Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16b)
Well, how about that? This passage actually suggests that the subordination of women underneath men in a hierarchical (whoops! I mean complementarian) alignment isn’t really the way Yahweh originally intended the sexes to relate to one another. It suggests that this is a punishment for disobeying the word of the Lord.
But does that really wash his hands of the matter? Does it really absolve the biblical God of this suboptimal arrangement for him to say, “You did this to yourselves, folks. It’s not my doing.” As much as I want to support the progressive readers of the text in their forward-thinking endeavors, I can’t get away from the rest of the story in which Yahweh says, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife…” (v.17).
It’s almost as if the Bible weren’t the product of a single mind but of many, each one slightly disagreeing with the ones before about what God is like and what he wants from us. Huh. One is tempted to think…well…I suppose I could end the sentence right there. According to the minds who produced this story, being tempted to think is precisely what got us into the mess we’re in today.
I would argue that the apostle Paul didn’t do much to interpret this story in ways that would help social progressives, but I think I’ll save that discussion for another day. Right now I’m still just trying to take the book of Genesis on its own terms, before Christianity got a hold of it and repurposed it according to its own aims.
It All Makes Sense If You Don’t Think About It
Even when I was a kid, it struck me how much these stories read like mythology. You’ve got a story of a woman being made out of a piece of a man which then concludes by saying in essence “this is why we marry.” You’ve got another story with a talking serpent (which we’re told now must be metaphorical) but after he misbehaves, he loses his legs and he’s cursed to crawl on his belly (which now sounds like an explanation for how literal snakes move the way they do). You’ve got ground that used to be all soft beds of clover, flowers, and ripe fruit now cursed to bear thistles and thorns. Then you’ve got women suddenly experiencing pain in childbearing as a consequence for disobeying a command.
All of this reads like every other mythology I had ever read as a child, and frankly I’m amazed we didn’t all figure that out sooner. Grown men and women will stand in pulpits all over the world this morning, in 2016, insisting that we are supposed to take this story literally, as if it were a detailed history of how God made the world and why things are the way they are.
Do you hear yourselves? This isn’t a matter of trusting God in matters we cannot understand. This is a clear issue of using our brains, however it is you think we came to have them. Whether a God exists or not, I find it utterly uninspiring to be told that I’m supposed to check my brain at the door when I read this book, as if there were any virtue in that at all.
Obviously as an atheist, I’m going to fall on the side of not giving this story much credence—besides noting the fascinating anthropological conclusions we can draw from it. But I think it’s fair to say that whatever your religious perspective, you should know that the rest of us will have a hard time respecting you if you subscribe to a view that discourages critical thinking. There must be a deeper way of looking at the text than what you’ve been exposed to up until this point. Even as a non-believer, I find myself wondering what all was going on behind the scenes of history when these texts were being produced. To my mind, it’s a fascinating topic for study, whoever you are.
Tune in next week for the next installment of A Godless Walk Through the Bible, and check back here later tonight for an uploaded audio of this week’s post. I might even find time to convert last week’s and this week’s into a format that I can post onto YouTube on my channel. Now back to grading papers…
[Image Source: Adobe Stock]
* Btw, yes, I know broccoli doesn’t grow in the African savanna. Lighten up, will ya? We’re analyzing fables about vegan predators; I figure I should be allowed some creative license.