Peter on Reading Genesis (part IV)

Peter on Reading Genesis (part IV) July 26, 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?

Here are a few things that are flatly missing from Genesis:
There is no definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. Most of the patriarchs either had two wives or a wife and a concubine, and YHWH clearly had no problem with this.
There is no individual salvation. When YHWH tells Abraham that he’s passed all the tests and won the big payoff, what he promises is “I will therefore bestow my blessing upon you and make your offspring as numerous as the stars in heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall take over the gates of their enemies. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants—all because you obeyed my command.” (Gen. xxii 16-18)
There is no afterlife, or at least no eternal life in Heaven. Characters in Genesis describe dying as going to Sheol, a hollow place deep underground. The word is often translated as “Hell,” but, it’s not a fire-and-brimstone Hell where you go to be punished; it’s just the place where people go when they die. It reminds me much more of the underworld of Odysseus than of Dante. It’s not even that going to Heaven is prevented for some reason; it’s just not something anybody even thinks to ask about.
There is no devil. I know that Satan shows up later in the Bible, but he’s not in Genesis. The snake in Mesopotamian culture symbolized wisdom, not evil, and Genesis never describes eating the apple as a “fall.” The only side effect of following the snake’s advice is “that the man has become like one of us in discerning good from bad.” The serpent never lies, and the strained relationship that develops between God and the first couple is only because they heard and believed the truth. I’m not making this up. You don’t believe me, go read the book.
There is no original sin. Eden is centered around two trees that humans are told not to eat from. One gives wisdom and the other gives immortality. Once humans developed a sense of right and wrong, God had to expel them from Eden before they became immortal as well, which would have made them—the implication is clear—Gods in their own right. The actual punishments for disobedience are relatively light; childbirth will hurt, and farming will be hard work. Oh, and people won’t like snakes any more. God does end by saying, “dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” but this is only a reminder. It was already true. In the very next passage, “God Yahweh made shirts of skins for the man and his wife, and clothed them.” (Gen iii 21) The way it’s described, you can almost see him sitting cross legged on the ground with a needle and thread. It’s as if, in the middle of the expulsion from paradise, he stops to say, “You’ll be cold. Bring a sweater.”
This passage is supposed to be about the damnation of the whole human race, and it’s the foundation of the doctrine of original sin. But read on its own terms, it’s a surprisingly small and intimate story about a loving parent whose children learn by making mistakes. The whole thing can be read as a metaphor for a child growing into a young man, beginning to make his own decisions, and finding he has to leave his parents’ home to go make his own life.
More tomorrow.

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