Peter on Reading Genesis (part II)

Peter on Reading Genesis (part II) July 23, 2008

Part I: A freaky little book

Part II: A Convergent Conversation / Small Gods
Part III: The Human Face of God / And the LORD saw what He had made…
Part IV: A few things missing
Part V: An Evolving Covenant / The Initiatory Challenge
Postscript: The Expulsion from Eden
Afterward: Why does it matter?

Fair warning: I am a starry-eyed neophyte in the area of Old Testament theology. I’m reading the Hebrew Scriptures for the first time, and while I’m gobbling down several commentaries along with it, my observations here are anything but scholarly.
Fair warning #2: I’m going to be a bit irreverent at times.
So many of the stories and anecdotes in Genesis are as familiar to me as Cinderella or Little Red Riding Hood, and when they’re told out of context, they have that same kind of storybook quality as the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, but when the stories are read within the whole book of Genesis, but without all of the pious Christian preconceptions that I grew up with, there are some profoundly startling things that pop out.

A Convergent Conversation
First, of course, is the whole J vs. P vs. E issue. Almost all of the familiar stories in Genesis are told twice, with very different emphases and often with contradictory details. I’d heard about that before, but the Anchor Bible highlights the specific passages that belong to each source. It’s a patchwork, and once you’ve seen the pieces that don’t line up (what an editor would call “continuity errors” if the book were being written today) they stick out like a sore thumb. Genesis had at least three different authors, and then, much later, a fourth person, a “compiler” who cut-and-pasted the document we have today. So already at the time of the writing of Genesis, we see a convergent conversation between branches of a religion that has had time to spread out and diversify. That’s kind of cool, and it makes me want to dig back even farther and learn about these three different communities—their common roots and their different perspectives.
Small Gods
Another thing I’d heard before, but hadn’t really seen with my own eyes until now, is that the monotheism of Christian thought owes more to the Greek philosophers than to the Hebrew Scriptures. Today, monotheism is such a deeply ingrained habit of thought among believers and atheists alike that it’s hard for most people in our culture to imagine God as anything but the One, the Only, the Creator of the Universe. The most rabid Bible thumper and the most arrogant rationalist will agree completely about what “God” is, even as they fight like alley cats over whether or not He exists.
Now, Let me say again that I am a very unusual reader of the Bible. As a Pagan, I’m comfortable with the idea of polytheism. The Gods may all emanate from some single divine Ground Of All Being, or they may not, but they certainly manifest as separate and distinct. At the same time, as a Quaker, I acknowledge YHWH as a God and I worship in a tradition that traces its beginnings back to that God and his little extended family of followers.
But reading Genesis on its own terms—letting it speak for itself, instead of viewing it through the lens of later writings—YHVH sure looks like one of your basic Mesopotamian Gods within a thriving polytheist matrix. You can almost see him as a young upstart God, hustling to make a name for himself in the pantheon, laying his money on this one guy, Abram, and his fairly unpromising family (Abram’s wife was barren, after all) and then busting his butt to protect his investment. Most of Genesis is really a very small story, not about the creation and destruction of worlds, but a family epic of love and betrayal and the building of a financial empire. I almost want to call it “Dallastine.”
More tomorrow.

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