Peter on Reading Genesis (part III)

Peter on Reading Genesis (part III) July 25, 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?

This series of posts began as entries in my journal, and I had some concerns that publishing them could seriously offend people. I’m glad to see that the comments so far have been positive. More than that—I’m glad to see that I’m not being taken as just sarcastic and cynical.
The Human Face of God
People talk about the God of the Old Testament being grand and majestic and cosmic, in contrast to the New Testament where Jesus takes on human form so that we can relate to him. And, yeah, the chapters prior to the Flood have God doing things like creating Heaven and Earth and establishing day and night. But those creation stories really seem like an afterthought. Gods seem to pick up creation myths the way saints pick up miracle stories. It’s sort of a literary convention, to show that your guy is the real deal. In Genesis, it’s only after the Flood when YHWH picks up Abram that the dramatic narrative really begins. And what floors me all through that narrative how YHWH keeps walking around the landscape and striking up conversations with people like just another character on the stage. God gets mistaken for an ordinary human, even at points in the story when you’d expect him to be at his most fearsome and godlike. When YHWH and two angles of destruction go to Sodom to turn the whole city into a smoldering crater, they get there by walking. They walk for days, long enough to get hungry and thirsty and tired, and Abraham stops them and offers refreshment and a shady spot to rest their weary feet. He doesn’t realize who they are, and when one of them (who turns out to be YHWH) prophesies Sarah’s pregnancy, she actually laughs at him. He’s so down-to-Earth with his hosts that he makes Jesus at his earthiest look kind of stiff and awkward.
And the LORD saw what He had made, and said, “Oh crap!”
People often criticize the God of the Old Testament for being violent and vindictive, but you never hear about him being indecisive or insecure. Yet he keeps changing his mind. He creates the world and sees that it is good…but it’s missing something. What is it? I know! “It is not right that man should be alone. I will make him an aid fit for him.” (Gen. ii 18) And then later, “Yahweh regretted that he had made man on earth, and there was sorrow in his heart. And Yahweh said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the men that I created, man and beast, the creeping things, and the birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I made them.’” (Gen. vi 6-7) But then he hems and haws and decides to obliterate only most of them.
But what you really never hear people talk about are the times God actually feels threatened by human potential. But they’re there, clear as day. Why the expulsion from Eden?

God Yahweh said, “Now that the man has become like one of us in discerning good from bad, what if he should put out his hand and taste also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever!” So God Yahweh banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the soil from which he was taken. (Gen. iii, 22-23)

And why the scrambled languages at the Tower of Babel?

Yahweh said, “If this is how they have started to act, while they are one people with a single language for all, then nothing that they presume to do will be out of their reach. Let me, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s talk.” (Gen. xi, 5-7)

And weirdest of all, why the Flood?

Now when men began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, the divine beings saw how beautiful were the human daughters and took as their wives any of them they liked. Then Yaweh said, “My spirit shall not shield man forever, since he is but flesh; let the time allowed him be one hundred and twenty years.”

It was then that the Nephilim appeared on earth—as well as later—after the divine beings had united with human daughters to whom they bore children. Those were the heroes of old, men of renown. (Gen. vi, 1-4)

That phrase “divine beings” is elohim, the same Hebrew word that gets translated as “God.” All of the commentaries I’ve ever seen insist that while elohim is technically plural, it’s clearly being used to signify a singular God. Except here, where (get this!) YHWH decides to destroy humanity because the other elohim are having sex with his humans and siring a race of half-God, half-humans. The Greeks would have called them Titans, and made them the subject of some of their most powerful stories, but in the Bible they’re sort of like the madwoman in the attic that no one wants to talk about.
What do I do with a story like that? Where does that leave me in trying to understand the writers’ experience of their God?
Two things, maybe. One: People’s understanding of their Gods changes over time, and even assuming I’ve understood the writers’ intent, the writers of the Bible may or may not have correctly grasped the motivations of their God. And two: The Gods themselves may change over time, growing and evolving in response to their relationships with us.
More tomorrow. Thanks again to those who commented.

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