Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Gen 4 - 5 -- After the Fall, Before the Flood

All right, let's get back into this Bible thing. I've been travelling a lot, which has really cut into progress here. My apologies.

Cain and Abel

Genesis 4 is all about Cain and Abel. This is another story that everybody knows in outline. You are even now thinking to yourself, "yeah, there's Cain, and he kills his brother, and God gets angry at him." And that's exactly right. The surprising thing -- the strange thing -- is that you've pretty much got the whole story right there. That's really all there is to the story.

As the chapter starts, Eve gives birth to Cain. "With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man," she says, in a voice no doubt dripping with irony -- it has only been nine verses since God served notice that he was going to "greatly increase your pains in childbearing." Then Abel comes along, and soon the two brothers have pursued their separate career paths, Abel in ranching and Cain in farming.

In a while, they both produce offerings to God. Abel, naturally, brings meat; Cain, veggies. God likes the meat, but did not look with favor on Cain's veggies. "Why not?" you ask. Yes, that seemed like an important point to me too. But -- and this is the strange part, to my eyes -- no reason is given. None. The OCB, in a nice piece of understatement, notes that "this appears to be a literary gap." Yes indeed it does, and it's a gap that renders the story, however well known, to be completely meaningless for all intents and purposes.

Cain kills Abel in a fit of jealousy, God confronts Cain, Cain gets to say his money line, and then God curses him and banishes him. Adam must be pleased to see his boy take after him so closely; in my edition of the Bible, both father and son are in turn cursed and outcast on the very same page.

The OCB notes that "many themes appear in this story, including sibling rivalry, the attraction of sin, crime met with punishment, the futility of pretense before God, and the moral distinction between civilization and barbarism." Which is all true, I suppose, but it's also giving the story much more than its literary due. These themes are evoked, but not developed, so while the story packs a certain cultural punch by virtue of being extremely well known (which is, let's face it, only because it's so close to the beginning) it doesn't really say much.

Begin the Begittin'

After Cain's expulsion, he, ahem, lays with his wife -- I'll avoid the obvious and age-old question of where she wandered in from -- and they begit Enoch. "Cain was then building a city," we are told, in a casual aside, "and he named it after his son Enoch." Five more generations pass without comment until we get to Lamech, who has two wives and three sons. Interesting boys, Lamech's sons: one is "the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock," one is "the father of all who play the harp and flute," and one "forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron." Presumably, this is a metaphorical fatherhood -- is that allowed by the fundamentalists? -- similar to calling George Washington "the father of his country" without implying that he literally, um, begat us all.

This is all readable, I suppose, as a quick-and-dirty social history of human society up through the bronze age. First there were horticulturalists and herders, and God (from the perspective of the authors) liked herders better. Then the horticulturalists built cities, horned into the ranching biz, developed a fancy urban culture, and developed protoindustries. And yeah, that's basically what really happened. Kind of interesting. I'm not sure it gets us anywhere, though.

After Lamech's five verses of fame, the story jumps back to Adam and Eve, who have a second son, Seth. It is implied that this is their third and last child, which again brings up the question of Whence the Womenfolk? -- but I promised to ignore that one.

Genesis 5

Genesis 5 starts with a very brief third statement of the creation. Then begins a series of begettings, from Adam to Seth to Enosh to Kenan, etc., etc. They all live 900 or so years, with Methuselah setting the record at a spry 969. This goes on until the introduction of Noah, father of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, at the end of the chapter.

What's up, you have to wonder, about those uberLifespans? This is explained, kinda, in the first three verses of Genesis 6: When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the Lord said, "My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years."

I would be curious, gentle readers, what you make of this passage. My first thought was that God is said to be cutting way back on the human lifespan as a guard against overpopulation, but that seems like a bit of a turnaround from the whole Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it concept in Genesis 1. Any other thoughts? 'Cause if I only get 120 years instead of 900, I'd like to know why.

Next up: "Hey, who put the unicorns in the same berth with the tigers?" or, Lord, Here Comes the Flood.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Gen 3: The Fall of Man, man.

Let me start by thanking everybody who has read the first few posts, and has said supportive things to me about this project. Many people have Emailed me directly, and I have fought the temptation to make private messages public by inserting them as comments... except in the case of one friend, whose lengthy and, I think, brilliant thoughts on the original set of questions deserved public life. With permission, I added them to the original post, and encourage you to go check them out posthaste.

Thanks also for the contribution and forbearance of Sue, whose remark when she saw me heading out to the reading porch tonight with a Bible, a notebook, and a can of Hamm's -- "Oooh! Hamm's and Japheth's!" -- is yet another excellent illustration of why I married her.

But, back to business. My friend Tom, the closest thing I have to a clergyman, tells me that he took a semester on Genesis in seminary, and they never got past Genesis 1. Similarly, I saw an ad earlier tonight for lectures-on-tape on the Old Testament; of 24 tapes, a whopping 7 of them are on Genesis. Nearly 1/3 the material on 1 out of 40ish books.

What I'm saying is, it's hard to get a lot of momentum going here at the beginning of the Bible. It's like when you set out on that long three-week road trip, but you still have to fight through traffic to get out of your own city. I long for the open road of books like "2 Kings" or "Esther" or "Obadiah," books about which I know literally nothing. Everything will be fresh and novel, and I'll presumably be learning new stuff instead of rethinking old stuff.

In the meantime, Genesis 3: Adam and Eve, the Snake, the Garden, the Expulsion. Not exactly a story I've never encountered before.

Genesis 3

Now, the most interesting thing about the story of Adam and Eve is that it is only a few paragraphs long. Considering its ENORMOUS place in our mythic and psychological world, you kind of expect it to be strung out over many pages, to occupy vastly more textual room than, well, whatever happens in 2 Kings. But no. It's tiny.

Moreover, it's half curse. After the key events (God sets tree off limit, snake tempts Eve, Eve eats and shares with Adam), God does some really, really serious cursing. Actually, the snake gets it first: has to crawl on belly, eat dirt, and be repulsive to humans. Then, women: pain of childbirth, and your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you" (3:16).

Time out. This curse is somewhat redundant, since Adam seemed pretty much the boss of his "helper" by the end of last week's installment. But where the end of Genesis 2 had man implicitly above woman in the pecking order, G3:16 really throws it right in your face. Hard to argue with he will rule over you. ("Your desire will be for your husband" seems like unwelcome news in the lesbian community, for that matter.) All in all, it's a difficult couple of clauses for us fans of inclusive family values.

Back to the curses. Since Adam is the boss of the humans, the curses that apply to all humanity are addressed to him. The upshot of these is that, instead of effortlessly receiving the garden's abundance, everybody is going to have to work through painful toil... by the sweat of your brow... or the earth will produce thorns and thistles. (cf: "I'm a-going to stay where you sleep all day, where they hung the jerk who invented work, in the Big Rock Candy Mountains.") With a goodbye present of a change of clothing, the first couple are sent out from the Garden to learn agriculture by doing.

Harsh! Dude! Harsh! The punishment does not, to my way of thinking, fit the crime. A single piece of purloined fruit does not, in most human schemes of justice, merit exile and complete loss of a lifestyle to which one has become accustomed for both the perpitrators and all of their descendents, in perpetuity. Indeed, this might be our first encounter with the most troubling question on the table: is God good to lay out this extravagent round of curses?

But I have a hard time taking that question seriously, for the simple reason that I have a hard time making head or tails of G3. The key point of confusion, for my money, is "what is the nature of that piece of fruit?" This is VERY murky. It's certainly not like any fruit I'm familiar with, not even starfruit.

What's in that fruit, anyway?

Clue I (3:3): Eve says that God said that she and Adam weren't to eat or even touch the fruit, or they would die. (This turns out not to be true, so Eve either lied about it, misunderstood God, or was fibbed to by God.)

Clue II (3:4-5): The snake says "No, you won't die; you'll become more like God, and know the difference between good and evil." (We are clearly not supposed to think much of the snake, but everything he says turns out to be correct.)

Clue III (3:7): The fruit is super-tasty. Once eaten, A & E know the difference between Good and Evil (3:22). This knowledge, specifically, seems to consist of awareness that they are naked, and that being naked is shameful and bad. (This seems extremely hard on sexuality, not to mention my aversion to pajamas).

Clue IV (3:22): God is afraid that if the fruit is eaten again -- or perhaps if the fruit from another tree, the "tree of life," is eaten, it's not entirely clear which -- that humans will become immortal, and live forever. This would be very bad, and is why humans are banished from the Garden. (Why this would be bad is not addressed.)

Clue V: (3:22): Having eaten the fruit, humans are, according to God, "now become like one of us, knowing good and evil."

Help me out here, folks. Is this an elaborate story about sex, cleaned up for the kids through a self-referential concern for the dirty nastiness of the subject? But if so, what are the implications for the literal truth of the Bible, not to say its coherence?

But, if the story doesn't really make a lot of sense on its own merits, it does rock the house in the imagery department. That piece of fruit is an unbeatable evocation of temptation, and the serpant out-mephistopholeses Mephistopholes. If you follow me. The fig leaves are classic. (Interestingly, the chapter ends on an image that's a bit of a clunker, almost universally forgotten: After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.(3:24))

Genesis 3 also contains one of my favorite phrases in the Bible, when A&E hear the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day (3:8). If we are indeed like God, it is hopeful to me that we are like the God who enjoys a stroll in the garden, before it gets too hot.

Thanks for reading, friend. Next up: "Sibling Rivalry of the Old School," or, Raising Cain.