Genesis 4-8

I realized after re-reading my last post that this blog’s style of writing is essentially derived from Cracked.com. Not that there’s anything wrong with that per se, just something to be cognizant of. Onward and upward.

Genesis 4

And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD. (4:1)

An interesting side note to the well-known story of Cain and Abel is that they are the first two children ever to be born. Humanity’s first confirmed reproductive act resulted in one child who ended up being cursed by God for killing the other. This is a poor start to human reproduction, really, and perhaps even a further punishment for the Fall, which some theologians posit as the cause of all human suffering and therefore an answer to the problem of evil. Yet Eve’s acknowledgment of her child, while not explicitly giving thanks to God, is sort of an expression of wonderment at the miracle of birth, notably reverent given that it comes on the heels of his ordaining that childbirth will be excruciatingly painful for her and all future women (3:16). She takes a slightly more materialist view of children later in this chapter upon giving birth to Seth, saying “God hath appointed me another seed instead of Abel, whom Cain slew” (4:25).

Cain becomes a farmer, Abel a shepherd. They both make apparently unbidden offerings to God, thereby inaugurating the complex process of sacrifice and offering that characterizes much of the New Testament and is abrogated by the New Testament. God shows his acceptance of Abel’s offering but not Cain’s, making the latter angry, and God justifies himself with this intriguing verse:

If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him. (4:7)

The last bit, confusingly but poetically rendered in KJV, is given in NIV as “it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” Basically, God is contrasting Abel, who has done well, with Cain, who has done poorly but can be redeemed by controlling himself, following God’s commandments more closely, and conquering sin. Cain goes on to utterly reject this path to righteousness by murdering his brother. This is fascinating.

Cain and Abel and... baby Leviathan?

There are a few possible explanations for the tepid reception of Cain’s offering. First, a living sacrifice such as a sheep is inherently more valuable than Cain’s “fruit of the ground,” defining farmers as inferior to shepherds in the sight of God; this seems uncomfortably classist, as Abel’s sheep and Cain’s portion of crop are presumably similar in value to the respective offerers. Indeed, the offering of a sheep (rather than a crop) is something I strongly associate with the Old Testament, but we will determine how true this is as we move along. Second, Cain was instructed (extra-textually) on how to make a proper offering and given the opportunity to do so, but failed, demonstrating his inferior respect for God. Third, God is judging based on the intangible sincerity behind the offering rather than the quality of the tangible offering itself. The latter two make more sense to me, because they presume that God is punishing Cain for something that is actually his fault, rather than for his particular métier. Herding sheep obviously ties in to Jesus being both a “shepherd of men” (who is murdered) and the “Lamb of God,” but God wouldn’t drive a man to murder his brother just for the sake of setting up a metaphor several hundred pages early, would he?

More fascinating, and less frequently remarked upon, is the chance at redemption that God offers to Cain. A key theme of the Old Testament is that God’s favor is earned chiefly through following his commandments closely and controlling oneself, or ruling over sin, but what if you fail to do so? Here, God is not even demanding special atonement by means of extra sacrifice or extra fidelity, though later in the Pentateuch, if I recall correctly, there is lots of atonement through ritual washing, brief exile, and sacrifice. Maybe this is because we have here the first recorded unoriginal sin (there are a lot of firsts at this point in biblical history) and therefore Cain has little precedent to go on.

Whatever the nature of the redemption offered to Cain, it is in vain, and humanity continues its venerable tradition of rejecting God’s offers. Hotheaded Cain murders his guiltless brother out of jealousy, then gives a non-answer worthy of a career diplomat when omniscient God tests him again, as is his wont, by asking where Abel is: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (4:9) He is cursed to be an ineffective farmer and a permanent wanderer—punishments that are connected, for agriculture implies a sedentary lifestyle. God marks him so that he will not be slain (“whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold” (4:15)), cursing him to a long life of reflection upon his crimes. Cain has some children and whatnot (I’m not going to get into the question of where his wife came from because that has been extensively covered elsewhere), but that’s about it for this chapter. Whew.

Genesis 5

Generations of Adam. Bo-ring. Includes the lifespans of all the characters mentioned therein, including the oldest, 969-year-old Methuselah, notable for being the namesake of a size of wine bottle and a prominent character in Redwall. Oh, and also a term for a very old person or thing, I guess. Also notable is Enoch, who “walked with God: and he was not, for God took him” (5:24) a qualifier not applied to anyone else in the list, but applied to Noah in the next chapter (at least the first bit). Not sure what that’s all about.

Genesis 6

There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown. (6:4)

Hahaha, what? Bible, you so silly. Again, plenty has been written on the giants mentioned in this verse, and I don’t have much to add other than to encourage you to spend some time digging around some hilarious corners of the Internet if you’re interested in finding out more. Basically, they’re from space.

Aliens.

Anyway, God observes the latent evil in men’s hearts, and feels regret at their creation, expressed in anthropomorphic terms: “it grieved him at his heart” (6:6). I continue to be particularly interested in the question of God’s plan and its (in)compatibility with free will, and the idea of God expressing regret factors into this question. If God can express regret, I see several ways that this can be resolved with omniscience:

  1. God is not omniscient, at least in the way that an omniscient deity is typically conceived.
  2. God knows all possible futures (a view compatible with quantum mechanics), and can express regret over the circumstances that occur in any given future.
  3. God knows the future, but is still capable of setting up situations that he knows he will regret because that is how history moves itself forward.

Of the source of this regret, God says that “The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth” (6:13). I find it interesting that it is not greed or lust that gives God cause to destroy the world (as is the case with Sodom and Gomorrah, I believe… we’ll find out soon enough), but violence between men. This whole passage, God’s exhortation to Noah, has some particularly wonderful bits in it, but I will refrain from reproducing it here because there’s lots more to cover.

Genesis 7

Noah obediently loads his new ark with animals, as God has directed him; Noah shows very little agency in this or the prior chapter, doing exactly what God tells him without question. The earth experiences a cleansing rain (obligatory TvTropes time-wasting warning), a sort of baptism and rebirth; too bad it had to involve so much death, but such are the wages of sin, apparently. Not much else to comment on here, except for some cool language: “the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened” (7:11). Lol, 7:11.

Death, not eternal suffering in hell, is the result of sin here. It’s interesting how, at different points in a religion’s history, the punishments inflicted and rewards conferred change depending on the religion’s power status. I mentioned previously how Muhammad moved from being a lonely prophet to being the leader of a powerful political faction, and how one easily visible consequence of this is the change in the site of punishment and reward from the afterlife to the current life, in accordance with Muhammad’s rise in power. (Full disclosure: this is one of the few things I know about the Qur’an because I wrote a paper about this in high school.) This pattern is more or less mirrored by the New Testament, but the changes in power through the history of Judaism and its development into Christianity are not nearly so neat because the story is so long and full of people so diverse in status. I will try to trace these fluctuations and see how they affect doctrine at different times.

I would also like to trace Christianity’s relationship with death, which is related to the shifts in power mentioned above. Christianity, one could easily argue, is about death. Its central drama is the death (and resurrection) of Jesus as a sacrifice on the behalf of mankind, and its symbol is the cross on which he was crucified. Yet this mortal death is a passage to eternal life, while mortal sin is a passage to eternal suffering (eternal death?). But how does this, and Jesus’s pronouncements about rich men and needles and all that, fit with the Old Testament idea of divinely meting out death as punishment for sin? I’ll be tracing this as well.

Genesis 8

Noah is now stranded on top of Mount Ararat as the murderous waters slowly recede. Well, the Bible actually says “the mountains of Ararat” (8:4), which is rather different and has led to some amount of confusion about the purported resting site of the Ark’s remains. Whatever its site, Mount Ararat falls into the tradition of mythic mountains like Mount Olympus, home of the Greek pantheon, whose significance is tied to their immense height. Ararat is conceived as being the highest point in the world, so high that the floodwaters do not quite cover it. Its location on the Turkish-Armenian border is farther than I would have expected from the Levant (I had a pretty vague idea of where it was), but the fact that it’s the highest mountain in the awareness of the Jewish mythopoeic tradition indicates the relatively limited size of the ancient Jewish world, as Iran and Georgia both have higher mountains.

For the first time, Noah is now forced to gain agency because God is absent. This is a new form of test: God has been asking questions to which he already knows the answer, but now he is being silent and saying, “Ok, hotshot, you figure out what to do next.” Clever Noah sends out a raven, which just peaces out until the waters recede. Next he sends a dove, which returns; he sends her (the text is gender-specific) again, and she returns with an olive branch; he sends her a third time, and she does not return, indicating that she has found a place to nest and it is safe to disembark. Good old rule of threes.

Seems oddly familiar.

Upon disembarking, God breaks his stony silence to congratulate Noah on a job well done. Then:

And Noah builded an altar unto the LORD; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the LORD smelled a sweet savour; and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease. (8:20-22).

I forgot to mention this, but Noah actually brought seven of each of the clean beasts and fowl, presumably in part for this purpose of giving thanks. (The Mosaic laws of cleanliness have not even been laid down by this point—where is Noah getting his concept of clean and unclean from? Were there intervening, unnamed prophets? Did God reveal this information to Noah himself, or to Adam? Funny how this bothers me more than Cain’s impromptu wife.) Smelling the sacrifice with his anthropomorphic nose, God promises to remove the curse he put on Adam back in 3:17, not to “smite… every living thing” (until the apocalypse, I guess), and to ensure the continuance of Earth’s natural cycles (how does this interact with the idea of a watchmaker God?).

The conclusion of Noah’s story, and the covenant with mankind, will have to wait until next time. Don’t touch that dial.

Matthew 1-3

Frontline (on PBS) recently aired an excellent four-hour documentary called “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians.” I caught the second half, on the post-Jesus Christian community and the writing of the Gospels, and would like to go back and watch the first half at some point, on the historical Jesus. The bit that I saw was incredibly informative: I didn’t realize how complicated the whole question of gospel authorship is, and how divided the authors were from one another in time and place. It is the consensus of scholars, for instance, that neither the gospels of Matthew or John were actually written by the apostles to whom they are traditionally ascribed. The eminent historians over at Wikipedia (which, to be fair, has some pretty solid articles on Christianity) have further enlightened me about topics like the synoptic gospels and Markan priority.

It’s all quite fascinating; point is, I’m interested in comparing the four gospels, and in trying to get a better sense of the narrative outline they form. For instance, according to the Frontline documentary, the chronologically later Gospels became somewhat more anti-Semitic as Christians separated from Jews and came into greater conflict with them; some characters identified in Mark as “the crowd” became later identified as “Pharisees” (Matthew’s particular enemy, who weren’t actually all that powerful in the time of Jesus), and by the time the Gospel of John was written, all Jesus’s enemies were just straight up identified as “the Jews,” while Pontius Pilate is portrayed as a reluctant executioner. I will be keeping this objective in mind as I read through the gospels: trying to get a sense of what makes each one distinct, but also how they tell the same stories in different ways and how they form a logical trajectory.

Now then, to business.

Matthew 1

First, some begats. Personally I associate begats with the drier stretches of The Silmarillion, but Matthew is using them to link his writing with the Old Testament in two different ways: by using the same technique to indicate the lingering importance of genealogy, and also just by the fact of demonstrating Jesus’s descent from Abraham through David, which is important because it shows that he is the fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy. I’m not going to trace each one of these prophecies to its origin, but it’s important that people in Jesus’s day were well aware of these prophecies. In Matthew 22:41-42, Jesus asks the Pharisees: “What say ye of Christ? whose son is he?” and they answer “The son of David.” I don’t remember the extent to which prophecies figure in The Silmarillion, but either way it seems like this is one of the more explicit links that Tolkien makes between his own mythology and the Bible. Not that I have any credibility in finding connections between the Bible and modern literature, considering that I read the Chronicles of Narnia like four times when I was a kid and had literally no idea that they had anything to do with Christianity.

13-year-old Jack: "Aslan gets shamed and sacrificed, then comes back to life? That's pretty cool, I guess, but what does it have to do with Jesus?"

Next, Joseph is about to marry Mary, but then notices that she’s pregnant and is about to go all “Hey Joe” on her. Well, ok, not really—he’s about to “put her away privily” (?) according to the KJV, or “divorce her secretly” according to some other versions (1:19). Then something fascinating happens: Mary’s perspective is completely elided over, and we have a sort of alternative Annunciation:

But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. (2:20)

I am apparently not the only one who forgot/never knew about this version of events: in this live version of “The Cherry Tree Carol,” a rather extra-scriptural explanation of how Joseph got wise—and, incidentally, a piece that I find fascinating as an aspiring music historian because it’s both a Christmas carol and one of the Child ballads—Judy Collins comments that “no angel comes to talk to Joseph about what’s going on.”

I’m not here to accuse Judy Collins of weak Bible scholarship, only to point out that this perfectly biblical version of events has gotten short shrift in the modern consciousness. The Annunciation, and Mariology in general, are a big deal in Catholicism, and Matthew’s account, while not directly contradicting the more traditional narratives that presumably appear at the beginning of some of the other gospels, doesn’t really jibe with them because of its changes in emphasis. What does this mean? Does the popular consciousness pick and choose its favorite stories from the different gospels, while ignoring its less favorites, and use them to construct a new “ur-gospel” version of the life of Jesus? Time will tell. Anyway, Joseph wisely decides not to be mad that Mary is pregnant by someone else, since that someone else is the Lord of the Universe, and they get married and live happily ever after.

Matthew 2

Chelsea has already hilariously pointed out what I was about to say about this chapter, which is that ol’ King Herod is a lot sneakier than I remember. He tells the magi to find the baby Jesus and “bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also” (2:8), which is of course a cover for his real motive: eliminating a threat to his power. The modern conception of Christmas, primarily derived from the lyrics of carols, has hammered a particular version of these events into our collective heads, and it tends to end with the whole gold, frankincense, and myrrh bit, but Jesus was actually still in terrible danger, and had to escape to Egypt. This is some action movie stuff right here.

I don't think this needs a caption, do you?

Actually, this is really some action movie stuff right here. Any case in modern Western culture of a weak but important character hiding to escape persecution in order to effect their mission of overthrowing an evil ruler (Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, Neo, etc. etc. etc. etc.) can almost inevitably be traced back to this story. Not that the Bible is necessarily the origin of the motif, or any of the others that it synthesizes, but it’s certainly the widest propagator. It’s pretty obvious that much of modern storytelling is biblically derived, but this is a particular consequence of the Christianization of the Western world that I hadn’t really thought of: the unification of narratives, thanks to the Bible, gives us a common baseline. We may not go “ding! Jesus reference” when Frodo is hiding from the Nazgûl, but we’ve seen that story told in derivative forms so many times that it just becomes part of our consciousness. For a comprehensive and awesome exploration of Biblical motifs, I recommend the TvTropes page on the Messianic Archetype. (Disclaimer: I do not take responsibility for the several fascinated hours of your life that you are likely to lose upon clicking that link.)

This verse also contains no less than four warning dreams, in which Joseph is instructed in what to do by God or one of his angels, and the fulfillment of four Old Testament prophecies—altogether a very high rate of prophesying per square inch, and a tremendous reinforcement of the idea of God having a plan, both in the long and the short term. Herod’s slaughter of the infants of Bethlehem, itself the fulfillment of a prophecy, seems like a sort of weird parody of the slaughter of the firstborn at Passover. Looking for links between these two events, I can find commentary emphasizing the similarity between Moses and Jesus (both saved from the slaughter), or the Passover lamb and Jesus (both sacrificed), but nothing about the connection between God and Herod as purveyors of slaughter. Maybe this just has to do with the difference between the vengeful God of the Old Testament and the comparatively chill God of the New Testament, but it seems odd to me. The other occurrences of Passover in the New Testament are interesting as well: the Last Supper (central to Catholicism) is a Passover meal, and the Cleansing of the Temple (some argue) was partly motivated by Jesus’s anger at the lingering tradition of Passover sacrifice. I’ll be on the lookout for more.

Matthew 3

Here we meet John the Baptist, who is not only different from John the Apostle (contrary to popular/my belief), but also a total badass.

And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey. (3:4)

YEAH IT WAS.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance. but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. (3:7-12)

YOU TELL ‘EM, JOHN.

Seriously, this contrasts pretty strongly with the list of begats from a moment ago, right? Not only does he preach fire and brimstone, but he does so with great eloquence. “God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” means, as far as I can make out, that “there are children of Abraham all over the place, so you’re nothing special.” Big diss to the Pharisees (not that “O generation of vipers” wasn’t a big diss). Showing John’s badassery here has the same purpose as those “and I’m a Mormon” ads: demonstrate that someone is really cool, and then do a bait-and-switch at the end to reveal that he’s a poster child for a religious conviction, rather than whey protein like you expected. This bait-and-switch is best demonstrated when Jesus himself (“he that cometh after me,” obviously) shows up to be baptized, only for John to ask Jesus to baptize him instead, a very humble gesture for such a powerful preacher to make.

One more note: the same words of Isaiah referring to a “voice of him that crieth in the wilderness” (Isaiah 40:3) later crop up in descriptions of Muhammad during his years in Mecca, where he lacked political influence and focused his teaching on theology and the afterlife. It was only after his flight to Medina, where he obtained a base of power, that he gained the real-world authority to make proclamations about taxation and punishment and so forth. As it applies to John, “voice crying in the wilderness” simply seems to denote his brashness and his wildness, whereas its application to Muhammad denotes him as more of a Cassandra figure, isolated from society and forced to proclaim the doom of mankind without any firepower to back it up, at least in the early stages. I can’t find evidence of a Muslim claim that this specific prophecy of Isaiah’s actually refers to Muhammad, though there are arguments between Christians and Muslims about whether Jesus or Muhammad is the referent of other Isaiah prophecies. It’s just interesting that the same language was used in such different ways.

Genesis 1-3

Genesis 1

Ok, I swear I’m not going to spend this much time on every single individual verse of the Bible, and the level of detail in this post generally is not going to be typical of this blog, but I think the first verse deserves a little extra analysis.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. (1:1)

Straightforward, right? But there’s a lot to unpack here about the nature of the Christian universe. First, it doesn’t say “in the beginning, there was God” or “God came to be”; God is therefore assumed to have existed before “the beginning,” a point from which this particular narrative is reckoning its time. Who knows what God was up to in the infinite space of time prior to the creation of Heaven and Earth? This raises a second question, namely: why did God decide to interrupt this infinite space of time by creating the Earth? Genesis 1 doesn’t really provide an answer, other than the refrain of “and God saw that it was good.” Creation and complexity are better, in the sight of God, than uncreation. John 3:16 springs to mind (“For God so loved the world”) as another bit of evidence about God’s relationship to this fresh creation of his, and I will keep an eye out for other answers to this question as I move along. Next up:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. (1:26-28)

There’s a lot here as well, but my first comment is aesthetic: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” is a gorgeous line of invocation, the inversion of which I have never noticed before. Way to go, KJV. This is, however, the site of a key bit of atheist discontent with religion (not limited to Abrahamic religions by any means), namely the fact that God is anthropomorphic—or in the religious view, I guess, that man is deimorphic. If I were an early man, attempting to formulate a portrait of the being responsible for all the world’s mysteries that I could not explain, it would be far more reassuring to think of him as like me rather than as terrifyingly other; it also neatly elevates man to the status of highest among earthly beings (“[having] dominion… over every living thing,” a verse with problematic consequences for the environment) by making him the most analogous to the Creator according to a hierarchical view of living things based on order of creation. Does this scripturally enforced hierarchy lend itself to the construction of further sub-hierarchies within mankind, with some men closer to animals and some men closer to God? Well, yes, but so does a social Darwinist interpretation of evolution.

A couple other notes, relevant to passages slightly later in Genesis: I don’t know why this had never really struck me before, but the imperative to “be fruitful, and multiply” comes before original sin. Sex is therefore not inherently sinful. This is pretty obvious, I guess, especially considering the subsequent ideal of a Christian family as having many children, but I had always associated sex with sin in Christianity, or at least in its more puritanical strains. Also, 1:26 is the first time God uses a pronoun to refer to himself, and it is a plural pronoun. A moment later, in 1:29, we have “Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed”—God changes pronouns at the drop of a hat. This didn’t really become noticeable to me until chapter 3, as we shall see.

Genesis 2

Details the geography of Eden and surrounding lands, and the making of woman (the linguistically coolest verse in this chapter is 2:18, “I will make him an help meet for him”).

But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. (2:17)

Here, God is concealing something (knowledge) from man, as well as giving him a test (which he ultimately fails), two themes that will crop up again. Why does God conceal things from man? Not to have power over him, for God is already infinitely more powerful; perhaps it is simply to test him. If you accept that events are predetermined and God knows the future before it happens (which depends on your particular strain of Christianity and requires more theological tinkering than this blog has space for), it seems like testing is the only reason God would conceal something that he knew was eventually going to get found out. Is God testing us because he loves us and wants to make us stronger? To separate the wheat from the chaff (Matthew 3:12)? Or did he just create the earth in order to make us his free-willed lab rats?

One other thing: Adam and Eve do not die immediately upon eating the apple, which means that “thou shalt surely die” most likely refers to the gaining of mortality. If that is the case, sin is not just something for which you will be punished after death, it is the actual origin of death. Did not realize that. Also, the verse above is the first rule that God gives to man, a rule which man promptly breaks. Dude, Adam, if you can’t even follow one rule, it seems like you’re just willfully recalcitrant. Blame Eve all you want, but seriously, fail.

Seriously, guys.

Genesis 3

The Fall of Man. Now we’re getting to the good stuff. The serpent (“more subtil than any beast of the field” (3:1)—alternately translated as “crafty” or “clever,” but I really like “subtil”) tells Eve that “Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” (3:4-5). The first bit of this statement is a lie, given that they gain mortality; the second half seems at first glance to be imparting the knowledge that God had concealed from them, but it actually isn’t—God called it “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” in 2:17, after all. So the serpent isn’t really telling Eve anything she didn’t already know, he’s just using his serpentine wiles on her, as she subsequently uses her feminine wiles on Adam. (Inevitable literature student digression: the snake tempts Eve away from what Adam had told her to do, and is pretty much as phallic of a symbol as it gets—metaphor for adultery? There are so many fairly obvious things along these lines that I just didn’t notice last time I read this.) The serpent’s biggest innovation is in pointing out, in case our heroes hadn’t figured this out yet, that “ye shall be like gods”—getting uppity. Interestingly, the serpent is not biblically identified with Satan until Revelation 20:2, and the punishment that God visits upon the serpent for his transgression is applied to the entire species, rather than to a fallen angel hiding in the shape of one particular animal: “thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life” (3:14). Harsh, bro.

After Adam and Eve get their munch on, they hide from God, who is walking around the garden. I can’t believe I never noticed how zany this is before. God is not speaking out of a cloud, bush, angel, or any other medium—he’s just chilling in Eden, with legs and everything. God asks Adam “Where art thou?” and “Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?” (3:9, 11) God’s omniscience is made fairly clear elsewhere in the Bible, so he already knows that Adam has failed his test—why does he bother asking, then? Perhaps to elicit history’s first confession of history’s first sin. There is a long tradition of confession in Christianity, but it tends to revolve around the death of Christ as a means of atonement for original sin. At this point in the story, there is no such absolution, and out of Eden we go.

And now we get to the best part:

And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. (3:22-23)

There are several cool things about this verse, but hold up. As noted above, God uses singular and plural pronouns to refer to himself more or less interchangeably, and up to this point I was fine with that, but there’s a huge difference between God saying “we are not amused” à la Queen Victoria (a grammatical construction which does exist in Hebrew, called pluralis excellentiae) and God saying “the man is become as one of us.” This seems far more literal to me. Who is “us”?! I thought the whole point of monotheism was to contrast with idolatrous polytheists—now you’re telling me there are more than one of you?! I don’t want to get unnecessarily sidetracked, but I need to clear up this messy issue of plurality. The boundless repository of theological wisdom that is the Internet has a variety of surprising explanations for this verse, including:

  1. God is being ironic, which is behavior traditionally attributed to Pontius Pilate (John 19:5) but not to God, unless you want to open up an entirely new theological can of worms (“Hey guys, you know the whole ‘man shall not lie with a man’ stuff? I was totally messing! Haha! You got the joke, right?”);
  2. God is referencing the Holy Trinity, as eighteenth-century Baptist theologian John Gill argues, among many others;
  3. God is referencing hosts of angels (after all, the very next verse includes a reference to the “Cherubims” who guard Eden), as some Jewish scholars argue when refuting supposed Old Testament evidence for the Holy Trinity.

The other option for explaining the plural words sometimes used to describe God in the Old Testament has to do with the plurality-yet-actually-unity of God, something I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around. A good discussion can be found on the Wikipedia article for the Hebrew word “Elohim,” which can mean “God” or “gods” or several other things depending on context.

Last notes: “to till the ground from whence he was taken” is a nice image, reminding me of Carl Sagan’s statement that “the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star-stuff.” Also, forgot to mention this, but there are actually two trees in the Garden of Eden (surprise), the tree of knowledge and the tree of life. But why does the tree of life grant immortality if Adam & Eve were immortal to begin with? There are a couple possible answers to this, but at this point they make my brain hurt, so I leave you on a slightly lighter note with Second City’s take on the Fall of Man:

Introduction

I’ve always wanted to read the Bible, but then again there are plenty of other immense books that I’ve always wanted to read. Infinite Jest, for instance, or  In Search of Lost Time (perhaps the ne plus ultra among books that bibliophiles vaguely feel they should read but most likely never will), or Atlas Shrugged (which I wanted to read until I found that Anthem was more than enough Ayn Rand for my taste). Yet the Bible is the bestselling and probably the most influential book in history, intimately shaping the lives and actions of over two billion people almost 2,000 years after its compilation; as a friend of mine recently pointed out, when you use one of the many sayings of Biblical origin like “a thief in the night,” you are invoking a turn of phrase that is literally older than the English language itself.

A Christ figure, incidentally.

The upshot is that it’s pretty culturally illiterate of me to have never actually read it. My atheism is my excuse—well, that and laziness. Sure, I’m familiar with some of the Bible’s important stories, in part because of a fabulous cassette tape of Old Testament tales, read by storyteller Jim Weiss, that my parents gave me when I was about six or seven (presented equitably alongside his tape of Greek myths and legends) and in part because it’s impossible to grow up in the United States, even as an atheist, without obtaining at least a passing familiarity with it. Being a musician, as well as a college student studying the history of American music, I’ve found Christianity and its attendant Biblical references to be all-pervasive in the American musical tradition. I’ve read a few random books of the Bible and even tried once to read it beginning to end, eventually getting bogged down somewhere around Deuteronomy. (This method is discouraged for first-timers, according to some Christian friends, though I feel a little better able to tackle the challenge now than when I was fourteen or whatever.) But passing familiarity is not nearly enough. How can I make any kind of meaningful claim about Christianity’s doctrines, or the huge swaths of the history of Western civilization dealing with the schisms over those doctrines, without having read its scripture? How can I get the most out of Bible-derived literary works as diverse as Paradise Lost, The Master and Margarita, or Monty Python’s Life of Brian without having read the Bible first?

Cultural illiteracy notwithstanding, I’d been continuing to put it off until my friend and fellow atheist Chelsea over at Blogging Biblically made it her New Year’s resolution to read the Bible in its entirety. Having never really grown out of the “me too” stage of childhood, and as one of my New Year’s resolutions is to do more writing, I seized the opportunity to have a study buddy. We will probably be going at different paces and according to different schedules, though I’m going to follow her pattern of reading the Old and New Testaments simultaneously. I’ll be reading with the theologically critical eye of a skeptic (hey man, you never know, maybe upon first reading I’ll come up with an argument against God that nobody has ever thought of before) and some flavor of literary sensibility (how come the angel Metatron is a major character in The Amber Spyglass but is never mentioned in all 66+ books of the Bible? what gives?), but mostly with the historical interest of a culture fiend trying to understand some of his favorite books and some of his favorite people. I’m going to use the King James Version because (a) it’s the prettiest, (b) I like learning cool words like “bdellium,” and (c) recognizable Biblical phrases that have entered the English language are most likely to have done so in their KJV forms. “Am I supposed to take care of my brother?” just doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9)

That’s all for now. Comments on the first bit of Genesis are forthcoming.