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.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Bryant Harris
    Nov 08, 2010 @ 16:29:07

    Just letting you know someone is reading your blog. I’ve enjoyed it so far. Keep up the good work.


  2. luthieneponine
    Nov 14, 2010 @ 21:18:16

    Thank you!


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