Genesis 11-15

I had the urge to return to Geisler, but I need to wait until I get my new Office software in the mail. I was using the 2010 Beta version, it expired, and I had to buy a new copy. My internet connection is crap, so I have to wait for the CD to install it.

Although I’ve noticed some things in a different way, the book of Genesis is extremely familiar to me, as I expect it is to most people who were “raised Christian”. I’m looking forward to getting past Genesis and Exodus.

11: The tower of Babel. Come let us build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens… So far, the term heavens has been used for part of the sky, part of the physical universe, and is not understood to be a special place where God lives. Alter says that the phrase “its top in the heavens” was used in other inscriptions on ziggurats. God speaks in the plural again when he suggests baffling the language. He says that nothing they plot will elude them. This is an odd observation, because what exactly is God worried that men will do? Is he worried that they will become more wicked? The ability of people to work together leads them to be more efficient at war and genocide, but not particularly capable of any plot.

One thing that’s not explained that would be an interesting plot point is whether every person had a different language, or if every Xth person spoke the same language. The way that I imagined it when taught in school long ago was that little groups of people found each other after the incident and went off to form their own group with their own language. The moral of the story doesn’t change, but it becomes an odder thing to imagine if no two people spoke the same language. They would have had to have learned quickly in order to pass anything down to their descendants.

The chapter ends with a genealogy from Shem to Abram. The son of Shem listed here appears to be his third son in the previous chapter.  In fact, in the previous chapter, only two of five are listed as having sons of their own. Possibly only a limited number of area cultures identified with Shem. There’s a symmetry of another ten generations between Shem and Abram.

Haran is Abram’s brother and Lot’s father, and he also appears to be the father of Abram’s brother’s wife. Abram later identifies his own wife as his half-sister. To make things more confusing, Abram and Lot go to live in a place called Haran. There’s a difference in the Hebrew in the name of the location.

12: God calls Abram. The first place slavery is mentioned in the Bible. When Abram goes to Canaan with his family, he also takes the people he bought in Haran. Alter makes the point in the commentary that this is not chattel slavery, but with the function of the slave handmaidens in the next chapters doesn’t sound very ideal. I think there’s a difference between the allegedly perfect law and the actions of Noah and the patriarchs with regard to morality. While it raises questions about God if the law is unjust, the passages about the patriarchs are descriptive rather than moralizing. Although some of them are called righteous or favored, there isn’t enough information about anyone’s normal behavior to make a judgment. At the same time, the stories thus far don’t impress me with divine perfection.

As has been pointed out by scholars, this section looks to have been written after the time of Moses, since it says the Canaanite was then in the land. It was written by someone who considered that as a past event.

It’s odd that Sarai was found very beautiful, since she was 65. From Shem to Abram, the ages of people decrease quickly, and from Shem’s son thereafter, every child in Abram’s line was born when the father was around his early 30s. Abram appears to have profited a lot from his lie – it sounds that all the things the Pharoah gave Abram were in exchange for having Sarai in his brothel.

13: Abram and Lot part ways. Although God tells Abram that Canaan is the land he will give him, Abram continues to move around a lot. He seems to be a semi-nomadic shepherd, but it’s not clear whether God is giving him any specific instructions on where to go anymore. Lot sees that the land around the Jordan plain is well watered “like the land of Egypt” and Abram goes to live near the Terebinths of Mamre. It does appear that there may have been significantly more trees in Israel at some point, as the area has had several periods of deforestation.

When God again promises Canaan to Abram, he has him walk the length and breadth of the land, which was a legal ritual in the Near East. It doesn’t seem that the Canaanites cared very much about new settlers in their land, since presumably Abram would have had to walk through and around a lot of Canaanite settlements.

14. A war in Canaan. Not only does it seem that Abram was welcome enough in Canaan, he knows the neighboring kings. The kings of Sodom and Gomorrah and a few others had been vassals to the king of Elam but rebelled. They came to a battle with the king of Elam and his allies near the Dead Sea. When they began losing, the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah leaped into bitumen pits while the others fled to the hills. This is a really weird story. At first I thought that the kings had committed suicide, but it appears that they were only hiding, since the king of Sodom shows up a few verses later.

The enemy kings took everything in Sodom, and carried off Lot because he was living there. A survivor told Abram, and he and 318 retainers rescued Lot, all the possessions, and all the other people. And he struck down Elam and the ally kings. Unlike later with leaders in Joshua and Judges, it’s never said that Abram’s success was because the Lord was with him. He just kind of goes and kills all these kings with a few hundred men.

The important part of the chapter to Christians is that Abram goes to be blessed by Melchizedek, the king of Salem. He is the priest of El Elyon, a title usually translated as God Most High. Previously it’s said that Abram invoked the name of YHWH, and El and Elyon are names of Canaanite gods, so it’s not clear whether Melchizedek considers his god to be the same as Abram’s god. It is clear that Abram is willing to accept the blessing. Salem may refer to Jerusalem or a place near Shechem. What seems odd to me is that if Melchizedek is really a worshiper of Abram’s god and also a king in Canaan, then the Canaanites would already have a tradition of worshiping the Hebrew god. However, nowhere else is it suggested that this is the case. Abram tithes to Melchizedek, and later in Hebrews, Melchizedek is said to have neither father nor mother nor genealogy, and to be without beginning of days or end of life. I was taught that this meant that Melchizedek was a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus (who had a father and a mother and a genealogy).  Inserting this kind of thing back into the story is something to talk about when we get to Hebrews, years later. It’s not anywhere in the story right now, all that has happened is that Abram went and got blessed by a priest after a battle.

The king of Sodom doesn’t seem all that wicked in relation to Abram, he only wants his people back and tells Abram he can have all the possessions, even though they were things taken from Sodom. One of Abram’s allies is called Mamre, like the area where he lives.

The entire story seems to be written differently from other stories in Genesis. It begins with “in the days of”, and it refers to “Abram the Hebrew”, a designation that doesn’t seem necessary if it were written by Hebrews for Hebrews.

15: God promises Abram heirs and land. Verses 1-6 happen at one time, and verses 7-21 happen at another time, or least on a different day. In 1-6, the stars are already out, but in 7-12, the sun is just about to set.

The land where Abram came from, Ur, has one of the oldest known law codes, written by king Ur-Nammu. It contains punishments and recompense for various crimes. It also has an command specifically against a slave-woman comparing herself to her mistress and speaking insolently to her, as will be demonstrated with Hagar and Sarai.

Abram receives a prophecy about slavery in Egypt for four hundred years, but then says they will return in four generations because the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full. In fact, it ends up being both longer than four generations or four hundred years. The Amorites may have been a general term for Canaanites, but as a specific group, they were actually not one of the tribes that Israel wiped out completely, as they later made peace with the Hebrews.

God finishes the covenant by passing a flaming torch between Abram’s sacrifice. It may be a vision of God, since he appears as smoke and fire at other times, but we don’t know how he’s been appearing to Abram or how Abram knew he was talking to God. He promises Abram the land from the river of Egypt to the river Euphrates, but in fact neither the Hebrews nor the later Jews ever held all that land.

Genesis 6-10

What would really make the Kindle easier to use is a fast forward function.

6: God tells Noah to build an ark. It’s a significant question in this chapter, who are the sons of God? The phrase is used in Daniel of the fourth man in the fiery furnace, and of Job of beings who shouted for joy when God laid the foundations of the earth and of those who present themselves in heaven, including Satan. There are a lot of speculations built up from single verses, but this again sounds to me like a leftover account from a different sort of religious tradition where gods had the characteristics of men. A good number of Christians believe the sons of God to be generic angels, but I’ve never heard this ability for procreation to come up in any description of angels unless explaining this passage. It doesn’t seem fortunate to be an angel. After all, their action is said to be because they found the daughters of man to be comely, not because they were making a symbolic gesture of rebellion. If they’re capable of desiring wives but are eternally forbidden to have any, it doesn’t sound ideal. Other Christians believe the sons of God to be Seth’s descendants and the daughters of man to be Cain’s descendants, but this doesn’t seem to have any evidence beyond speculation.

The Nephilim are the children of these mysterious unions, and were the ancient heroes. Some Christians as well as some apocryphal books have suggested that the flood was partially necessitated by destroying the Nephilim, but Numbers says that their descendants were giant Canaanites. I remember the need to synchronize, to attempt to show how every word of the Bible could be literally true. But without that assumption, there’s simply no answer as to exactly who the Nephilim are and how they descended.

Here God regrets having made man, or maybe he repents or is sorry depending on translation. Throughout Genesis, there are stories of how God is persuadable or seems to run into problems that he hadn’t considered. Why attach the notion of perfect foresight to a story that doesn’t indicate it?

Although God tells Noah that he will destroy all living things, the author of Genesis never seems to have any knowledge of any parts of the world except those that could be known to the ancient Hebrews. The tower of Babel event hasn’t happened yet. Is there any need for a worldwide flood if everyone in the known world might be near Mesopotamia?

7: Noah and the flood. There are two accounts of the number of animals taken on the ark. In the previous chapter, two of every kind and in this chapter, seven pairs of clean animals and one pair of unclean animals. The commentary says that cleanness refers to fitness for sacrifice and not eating. Perhaps there was a Cain and Abel style trial and error about what was appropriate for sacrifice. At any rate, it’s not explained anywhere what the notion of cleanness meant to Noah.

There is a lot of discussion available on the feasibility of Noah’s ark and a worldwide flood that I don’t have the energy to summarize right now. I’ll only point out that the text says that the waters surged fifteen cubits (22.5 feet) above the highest mountains. To believe in inerrancy, it must also be necessary to believe in divine inspiration. There’s no way that anyone could have measured this, as even if Noah were measuring the depth of the flood, he couldn’t have known when he was over the highest mountains. To believe in its exact truth, we would also have to believe that God put that number into the head of the writer. If one does not believe in inerrancy, one could figure that the survivor of a flood may have estimated the water depth, perhaps on the relatively flat Sumerian plains.

The rain was over the earth for forty days, and then the waters surged over the earth 150 days. The accepted timeline appears to be that the forty days are part of the 150 days.

8: The end of the flood. If we Google “Noah flood chronology”, we discover that Biblical literalists are not in perfect agreement regarding the length of the flood and that their website design peaked with Geocities. After the ark rests, Noah opens the window and sends out a raven, then a dove. Some scholars believe that these two birds (along with the difference in animal numbers and some other things) represent two different versions of the story, not least because the dove story makes the raven redundant and unnecessary.

God concludes that the devisings of the human heart are evil from youth. He does not mention Adam or a doctrine of original sin. If everything was part of an eternal plan, why would he not have had this rationale previously?

9: The Noahic covenant. Again with the doctrine of original sin, I have heard it taught that carnivorous behavior in both people and animals was directly related to Adam’s fall. Here God tells Noah that animals will be afraid of him, that he mustn’t eat the lifeblood of the animal, and that he will requite human lifeblood from both animals and people. This doesn’t seem like something Noah was necessarily familiar with before. What does it mean that God will requite human lifeblood from animals? It seems more specific than simply allowing people to eat animals.

If there is remembering, is there a possibility of forgetting? Previously, God remembered the ark and stopped the flood. Now he will remember his covenant when he sees the bow. I have always heard it that the rainbow is people’s way of remembering the promise, but the story makes it sound like it is just as much of a memory aid for God.

Ham sees his father’s nakedness and tells his brothers. Alter believes that this is part of a larger narrative, since we aren’t told exactly what Ham does wrong. It doesn’t say if he’s mocking his father, or staring at his father (since he goes outside again), or violating his father. Seeing his nakedness could be a euphemism, but we aren’t certain. Although Ham is the sinner, his punishment is transferred to Canaan. This may have been to give a reason for the enmity with the Canaanites, just as the Moabites are given a shameful origin story later. Ham is listed second in all other places, but is called the youngest son in this story.

10: Genealogy of Noah’s descendants. In genealogies, typically the oldest son is listed first, but here, Canaan is listed forth. There’s no explanation given why Ham’s wrongdoing would affect his youngest son. The commentary says that this genealogy is likely an attempt to map all the cultural groups of the ancient Near East. Shem is called the father of all the sons of Eber, whose name is considered to be the root of the word Hebrew.

I’ve heard fundamentalists teach that the earth splitting apart in the days of Peleg was a very fast continental drift. Considering that they also teach that this was roughly 6000 years ago, there’s no reason to believe this. Even Answers in Genesis doesn’t support the theory. Other theories are that this refers to the splitting apart of languages at the tower of Babel, or that it refers to a large earthquake that was a major event in the area.

Genesis 1-5

For the translation of the Pentateuch, I am using Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses. Alter is a Hebrew language and comparative literature professor at Berkeley. His goal is to bring the literary effects of the Hebrew into English rhythm and style. When I refer to the commentary, it is the accompanying notes by Alter, which largely deal with translation choices. I chose this translation because of both the care in translation and the unfamiliarity. I am too well acquainted with the flow of the KJV, which brings associations of the past as well as the tendency to skim the words – the things I learned to overlook would continue to escape notice. Inthebeginninggodcreatedtheheavensandtheearth… they are sounds that I can make without thinking, the subject of many childhood lessons. So far, Alter’s translation has been easily readable.

1: The first of two creation stories, God speaking the universe into being. When I was in elementary school, I remember creationists speaking in chapel and saying that the water above was a antediluvian “canopy”. Apparently most creationists don’t currently believe this. It seems that the entire basis for the theory is the attempt to prove every word of the Bible to be literally true. One thing that I find odd about the canopy theory is that its proponents claim that it explains the ability to rain forty days and forty nights. The flood story goes that God decides to destroy the earth, warns and instructs Noah, shuts the ark doors, and later remembers Noah and recedes the waters. This isn’t exactly subtle naturalistic cause and effect. If nothing else about the flood story demands a “scientific” rationale from fundamentalists, why the forty days of rain? This article gives some reasons that some creation scientists have rejected the canopy theory. I chose a Christian site because I think that it is most likely to reflect a valid Christian response to a Christian theory. I haven’t seen an alternative explanation for the water above that makes sense to me.

I want to reiterate that my purpose in reading is not to prove or disprove things. However, my fundamentalist education is an important factor in how I think about what I’m reading. What I will try to do is to give my own first impressions of how the verses correspond to what I was taught, but not go into detail with external arguments.

Another potential difficulty for literalism is the creation of plants before the Sun. Some fundamentalists say that the presence of God made the Sun unnecessary for 24 hours. It’s also used as an argument against theistic evolution, since the God who made the Sun unnecessary for 24 hours appears incapable of sustaining plants without the Sun for a million years. I’m not that familiar with theistic evolution, so I don’t know if those who believe in it think that the plants came before the Sun, Moon and stars. But we will see in the second account of creation that the order of plant creation is different.

Let us make man in our image… This has been used as evidence for the Trinity, even in early Christianity (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian) where God is assumed to be speaking to Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The word Elohim is plural in form but grammatically singular when speaking of the Hebrew god, but occasionally used as a regular plural when speaking of other gods. Many scholars have concluded that the Hebrew religion was originally polytheistic,with YHWH/El merging to become the head over lesser gods before being recognized as the only god. The Biblical account agrees that from the time of the patriarchs until sometime after the exile, the Hebrews were not unified in acclaiming strict monotheism. Alternatives to the Trinity theory include that this is a story of the Canaanite god El speaking to his pantheon that was modified by the Hebrews to fit their own theology. The beginning scene of the breath or spirit of god over the waters is also a scene that features in the Enuma Elish, where the world begins with chaos and the waters mingled together, as well as in the story of Baal defeating Yam, where Yam is the deity of the sea and chaos. Rabbi Tovia Singer delineates the use of the majestic plural as a reason for the plural form.

The biggest disadvantage of the Kindle for me is the difficulty in quickly finding a previous page.

2: The second account of creation, with a more detailed creation of humans. This is one of the passages that I’m surprised and disappointed that I never noticed the differences. On the day God makes earth and the heavens, there are no plants yet. God makes one human from the soil and then he plants the garden of Eden and causes trees to sprout. Obviously this is a different order than the first creation story, and it bothers me a bit that I didn’t notice this as a child. No longer being obliged to find a way to make every word of both stories literally true, it’s no problem to conclude that these are two different traditions about the same mythological event. From what I understand about the nature of “truth” in ancient Mesopotamia, the idea of having multiple stories that don’t agree in detail wouldn’t be a problem, wouldn’t make a story less true.

Although I went to Baptist school, my father is not a fundamentalist and is well educated, and has no problem accepting that the universe is billions of years old and the creation accounts are non-literal. If it’s nonsensical for the fundamentalist to make up tortuous explanations and assumptions to justify differing accounts (the plants in Genesis 2 are different from the plants in Genesis 1!), then why isn’t it nonsensical to make a mythological account of creation match up with scientific evidence? I do not have an ancient Mesopotamian view of truth, so while I cannot rule out the Big Bang being synonymous with a god creating a world, I don’t have any compelling reason to add the god story as something that should be considered true. The best reason I can come up with would be a Life of Pi-esque claim that putting in the god improves the story, but this is still not a basis for acceptance of a religion.

Is there good reason to think that the the Tigris and Euphrates rivers described in Eden are or are not different than the modern rivers of those names (at least, whether they would have been considered so by people at that time)? It makes sense either way, that the names of an ancient story would have been passed down and assigned to later landmarks, or that the writer based his story around the assumption that the past landscape resembled what he currently knew of the world.

3: The fall of man. The serpent is named as one of the beasts that God had made. I don’t see any indication that the serpent is actually a fallen angel or is somehow possessed. The account reads like an explanatory fable, like a just-so story.

In addition, God here and in other places in Genesis seems to think and act like a local god instead of being omniscient and omnipotent. Adam can hear God walking around in the garden; it doesn’t seem like he’s a spirit. This also makes more sense of the idea that man was created in God’s image. Although I’ve often heard this story used as a lesson on the futility of running from God, so that all of God’s questions in the story must be rhetorical, I don’t see any reason to assume that God is being insincere with his questions here. Bringing all the assumptions about the nature of God and Christianity to the story makes it read entirely differently.

God’s control over the tree of life doesn’t seem to be absolute either. One can argue that he put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden purposefully as a test or as a way to allow Adam and Eve to have free will, although this seems downright unnecessary. At the end, God appears concerned that the human has become like “one of us”. It makes little sense that knowledge of good and evil would make a man like a member of the Trinity. It makes more sense that such knowledge would make him like one of the more human-like gods of other mythologies. But why should there be any concern for God that man could reach out and take from the tree of life and live forever? An all-powerful god shouldn’t be bound by the rules of the tree, but could remove it from the garden or change its properties. Instead it has to be guarded by creatures that already were a feature of non-Hebrew Mesopotamian mythology.

4: Cain and Abel. In keeping with the idea that God is not considered omnipresent yet, Cain says that he must hide from God’s presence, and God appears to agree. God doesn’t demand a life for a life, but sets a mark on Cain so he can not be killed and promises to avenge him sevenfold. No explanation of this is given in the text, nor can I think of one except that it’s necessary to the story for Cain to live to have children, if he’s considered the ancestor of groups of people.

It’s often asked who the other people are who would find Cain and kill him, who his wife was, and who lived in his city. The normal explanation is that they are his siblings and their children, but this chronology doesn’t make much sense when compared to the function of Seth. Seth was born after Cain killed Abel, and in the next chapter, he appears to be considered Adam’s firstborn. It’s not impossible to the narrative that Adam could have had a lot of children between Abel and Seth, and Seth was the first after Abel’s death. The significance that God had granted Eve other seed in place of Abel would be odd though, if she’d already had a lot of other children.

It’s interesting that God condemns Cain to wander, but Cain builds a city. Should this be considered a disobedience? God never shows back up to punish Cain or do anything with him at all. Alter believes that Lamech’s speech is such a snippet from another narrative. Seth’s son is called Enosh, which like Adam is another common noun meaning man. The chapter ends with it was then that the name of the LORD was first invoked. Apparently this means the first time that the name YHWH was used, although Exodus claims that the name was first revealed to Moses.

5: Genealogy from Adam to Noah. The beginning appears to have similar wording to Genesis 1. There’s no mention of Cain or Abel, and Seth is identified as Adam’s named son. In the previous chapter, Cain’s descendants are Enoch, Irad, Mehujael, Methusael and Lamech. Here Seth has several descendants before Enoch, Methuselah and Lamech. It seems like there may have been two different accounts of these ancestors, perhaps the second cutting the bad guy Cain out of the story and using the ancestors to create ten generations between Adam and Noah.

The Enoch of Seth’s line is very mysterious and the subject of two Apocryphal books. The commentary says that the phrase “was no more” is also applied to Joseph when his brothers believe him dead, and that Enoch, the seventh generation from Adam, may be analogous to the seventh in a list of antediluvian kings, Enmeduranki, who is taken up to the gods and given special wisdom.

Re-read of the Bible

I am absolutely intending to finish reviewing Geisler and Turek’s book. It’s become important to me to keep blogging because it keeps me from avoiding the review for too long. More and more, I simply have better things to do, but I still feel that it’s important to make a good faith attempt at reading it all and considering the arguments.

A few times while I’ve been reviewing, I’ve wondered why this and not the Bible. I had certainly tried searching the Bible in the past, hoping for an epiphany of faith. Any response I would have now would be more calm and observational. It struck me that the Bible is an important collection of writings, but I had never read the Bible without an agenda, without looking for anything. Although I’ve read every book of the Bible at least once, and some verses literally hundreds of times, reading in a devotional manner is completely different than reading for comprehension.

As a Christian, I was always looking for the “life application” or “how does this point to Jesus”. While I was a doubter, I was attempting to read in a devotional manner about prayer, the Holy Spirit, and the knowledge of God. Throughout my deconversion, I read some criticisms that pointed out Biblical inconsistencies and contradictions. Whether there was a true contradiction or a possible resolution, I was shocked at how I’d been taught the Bible in such a way that I had never even noticed in how many places there seemed to be a contradiction, how anything not related to an unambiguous moral lesson was passed over. But when I reached the conclusion that I had no reason to believe in Christianity, I stopped reading because I was tired, and then felt that the book review was taking enough of my time.

I became interested in hearing more about the Bible as a nonbeliever through listening to Yale’s open courses. I started listening to an Old Testament class to see how the OT was presented from an academic and non-fundamentalist viewpoint. After reading along with some of the classes in a patchy way, I started over to read as an observer rather than as a devotee, seeker or skeptic. I don’t feel the need to try to prove or disprove anything. I don’t consider myself either close minded or open minded. I’m not unbiased, but I’m observing.