Sunday, April 7, 2013

Mistakes of Moses Expanded Universe: Genesis 3

I've already dealt with a few of the issues pertaining to Genesis 3 in my discussion of Genesis 2, but there are a few other things that come up in specific verses that I address in what follows.

Genesis 3:5
Many English translations take the plural participle translated “knowing” as a substantival participle functioning as a predicate adjective in the sentence and give the translation, “You will be like God, knowing good and evil.” However, other translations recognize that it could be (and mostly likely is, given an examination of parallel constructions) an attributive adjective modifying “elohim”. In that case “elohim” would be a numerical plural and should be rendered “gods” like in the KJV, NET and alternate reading of the HCSB. The point is the serpent would be telling the woman that she would be like “gods”. If this is the case, she must, therefore, have had some frame of reference for the idea of there being more than one god or at least lesser gods. We have here even more evidence of the writer(s) having either a polytheistic or at least a henotheistic understanding of gods and we're only in Genesis 3. This raises the question: what other gods would Eve have known about?

Man, now in a fallen state, is still apparently able to have unmediated conversations with Yahweh. How is that? Oh yeah, right, it must be a pre-incarnate Christ. Let’s go with that. Otherwise Adam, in his sinful state, would instantly die in the presence of the holy God, right? That's certainly the impression one gets from other passages in the Pentateuch. It's almost like there are different authors who have varying views of God rather than just Moses writing.

Note that Yahweh is asking questions and is therefore either feigning ignorance or is actually ignorant. It is often suggested that when Yahweh asks questions in passages like this, he already knows the answer. We’re told that parents behave like this with children to see if the children are willing to admit what they’ve done. That’s all fine and good, but most parents ask the questions because even though they know what the child has done, they don’t know what the child is thinking or will admit to. This is precisely the reason why they ask the question in the first place. This ruse serves no purpose whatsoever for a supposedly omniscient deity that already knows completely what the man is thinking and what he will admit to. Of course, it doesn't matter because God can't really know if he's omniscient anyway.

Regardless, he’s not asking the man to tell him what he’s done (yet), like a parent attempting to get a confession. No, he’s asking where the man is. If he’s merely feigning ignorance, isn’t he misrepresenting his very nature to his creatures? So is this an example of his deceitfulness or ignorance? It wouldn’t be the first time in the narrative he’s been at least one of the two. It won't do to simply surmise that this ruse is merely to illustrate a severed relationship. That works if this narrative is merely a literary device or metaphor. It doesn't if this is describing an actual historical event as many claim.

There is every indication from this passage and many others like it in the Bible, that at least some authors of the text had what modern theologians would consider a “low” view of God. This god learns, reacts, adapts, emotes, and changes his mind. Quite frankly, this kind of god shows up much more often in early Biblical narratives than the transcendent, timeless one that is put forward in most systematic theologies.

We’re told this was God’s way of making himself relatable to his creatures, and yet that interpretation itself has to be read into every passage where these anthropomorphisms show up. Nowhere in the Bible are we told that anthropomorphic activity like this is just God’s way of stooping to make himself known to his poor, stupid finite creatures in a way they can understand. That idea is developed by theologians reacting to contradictory depictions of God in the Bible and trying to make sense of things. In doing this, however, they only manufacture an additional problem as the whole concept makes the god of the Bible into a deity who purposely misrepresents his own nature, i.e. lies about himself, only to try to pass himself off as something different later on.

Anthropomorphic language in the Bible seems to be easily explainable if we simply understand that these characteristics and behaviors are exactly what the writers of the texts understood gods to be like. This is not God’s way of making himself more understandable. It is man’s way of expressing the way he understands gods to be, i.e. much like himself. People seem to have no problem understanding the Greek gods in this way. There are Greek writings that describe the gods in very anthropomorphic terms and there are other Greek writings that understand those gods’ characteristics to be more transcendent. Why couldn’t those later Greek philosophers with a “higher” view of the gods not merely claim that the other versions were just anthropomorphized so that people could more easily relate to them? They could and did.

Why punish all snakes when this particular snake was supposedly just possessed by a powerful angelic being? I'm aware of the standard explanation that it's to make a symbolic point about Satan and his offspring being brought low and humbled, an explanation that has to be read back into the text, of course. However, if one understands how the ancients viewed snakes as constantly regenerating due to their leaving behind their skin, one sees why this is merely an attempt by an ancient story-teller to explain how it is that a creature with such a humiliating characteristic like crawling on its belly seemed to be very cunning and possess the ability to regenerate itself. Their answer was that the serpent used to be a phenomenal creature until it tried to subvert the gods and was punished for it. To keep the serpent and the man from working together, the serpent was cursed and enmity was placed between their offspring.

Much is made of this passage as being the so-called Protoevangelium, or first proclamation of the Gospel. No New Testament author provides such an interpretation of this passage, not even Paul. The natural reading of the text simply gives an explanation for why snakes and people relate to one another the way they do and nothing more. People will have a natural aversion to snakes and will hit them on the head and snakes will bite people on their feet. The idea of hostility between snakes and humans would have been quite meaningful to Ancient Israelites and this has been and remains the common Jewish understanding of the passage.

Much is made of the word “seed” being used here in reference to the woman as though it means something other than simply a collective singular of generic descendants and instead refers to the virgin birth of Christ. Nothing is special about the notion of “seed of a woman” being used as a plural collective noun describing a woman’s descendants with this construction. It’s used regarding Hagar in Genesis 16:10; it’s used for Rebekah in Genesis 24:60; it’s used in Leviticus 22:13 to describe the absence of offspring for a generic woman; it’s used by Eli in 1 Samuel 2:20 in his blessing upon Hannah who later had three sons and two daughters in a rather natural manner.

The grammatical structure of the passage does not at all suggest the allegorical interpretation put forward by some that this is really about Satan and Christ. First of all, Yahweh is speaking to the serpent, not the woman. Second, even though striking the serpent on the head would potentially be a death blow, striking the man on the heel and injecting venom would be as well, as most venomous snakebites would’ve been fatal. Third, if the serpent’s defeat were being portrayed, why does the supposed description of his death come first? If he has been crushed by the woman’s seed already, how can the serpent still bruise his heel?

The possible New Testament allusions to this passage in Luke 10:19 and Romans 16:20 don’t refer singularly to Christ, but rather to his followers and are more likely merely allusions to Psalm 91:13. Early church interpreters like Irenaeus, using the Septuagint’s Greek translation of the passage employing the masculine singular pronoun and the verb for “crushed” rather than “bruised,” were the first to make reference to this passage as some kind of messianic prophecy referring specifically to Jesus Christ and the Virgin Birth. Since then, it has been subjected to a much greater degree of over-interpretation to the point that I recently read from one theologian who argued that God putting enmity between the serpent and the woman necessarily implied that a formal covenant had been entered into between mankind and Satan and that God was breaking that covenantal relationship. It just goes to show that if you define "covenant" loosely enough you can find one in virtually any form of interaction between two or more parties in the Bible.

This story doesn't require symbolic interpretation any more than other mythic tales from other cultures that attempt to explain why certain animals or plants have the characteristics they do. Cherokee myth has a story where the animals and plants are told to stay awake for seven nights, but only animals like the owl, bat and panther are able to follow through, so they are given the ability to hunt at night. Similarly the pine, spruce and laurel are able to stay awake and given the ability to retain their leaves during winter. Is this really how these plants and animals gained those characteristics? Of course not. Furthermore, we don't need to go looking for the deeper theological meaning behind those stories either. Their explanatory purpose is obvious.

It’s odd that the one thing that Yahweh promised would happen, i.e. immediate death, is nowhere found in the passage where he directly addresses the man and the woman and hands out punishments for disobedience. Eventual death is implied with the statement regarding returning to the dust, but this means that Yahweh is now adding even more punishment than what was originally threatened. Painful toil including thorns and thistles, strained relationships between husband and wife, and exceedingly painful childbirth are now added to the mix. When did he mention those consequences prior to the fall?

In any case, God withheld or misrepresented information about what would result from disobedience. He told the man that on the day he ate of the fruit he would surely die and mentioned nothing about this other stuff. Of course, we’ve already established that the man had no frame of reference for the threat of death anyway if he presumably had never seen its effects nor could he have known what it entailed, so maybe that doesn’t really matter. Even now people insert a definition of "death" into this passage that only further complicates the issue. It's defined as "eternal separation from God" or "spiritual death" or given some other esoteric meaning. What if it just means the permanent cessation of consciousness (or biological function)? You know, what most people mean when they say that someone or something died.

Theologians will naturally chalk this whole reworking of the consequences up to God’s grace and his mysteriously working out his plan. But what if the originator of the passage simply didn’t see the problem of having a god that makes an empty threat or even lies outright? Hasn’t he been rather humanlike since 2:4 anyway? He’s been fashioning and breathing (2:7), planting (2:8), placing (2:8), putting (2:15), performing surgery (2:21-22) making noise as he’s walking about (3:8), summoning the man for face to face conversation when he apparently can’t find him (3:9), asking questions as though he needs to be informed (3:9,11,13), and in 3:21 he’s making clothes. Rather humanlike, this god.

It’s interesting to note what we don’t see in this passage. We don’t see any pronouncement about the animals now having to kill and eat each other and suffer greatly. We see nothing about how the entire created order is somehow distressed because of this. There’s nothing about entropy, decay or hereditary sin leading to untold human suffering at the hands of other humans like in the Holocaust or women being raped and having to watch their children be hacked apart by machetes in Central Africa.

There’s nothing about natural disasters and viruses and bacteria and cancer and horribly disfiguring genetic mutations and mental disorders caused by chemical imbalance and new parents watching their premature babies unsuccessfully gasping for air to fill their underdeveloped lungs and Alzheimer’s and eye-eating worms and wasps laying eggs inside caterpillars so their larvae will hatch and eat them alive and female praying mantises eating their mates and male lions eating their own cubs and male ducks with their corkscrew penises raping female ducks and chimpanzee wars and bloodthirsty candiru fish swimming up people’s urethras causing intense genital pain and whales accidentally beaching themselves into slow painful deaths and heartworms gradually eating puppies from the inside out and all the myriad of horrifying things we can observe in nature.

No, the most we get is the ground producing thorns to the man’s detriment and him returning to dust. We certainly don’t see anything about the most terrible consequence of all: the eternal torment in flames and darkness for billions of Adam’s descendants. It seems Yahweh may have understated things a bit when it came to expressing the consequences of man’s disobedience in his communication both before and after the fall. I suppose we can just chalk it up to “progressive revelation.”

I’ve heard preachers point out just how gracious Yahweh was when he approached Adam and Eve after they sinned. They talk of how he could’ve come down in wrath and judgment and immediately sent them to hell, but instead he approached them like a merciful, loving father and even clothed them (after cursing them, of course). Let’s think about this. He could’ve sent just two people to hell, avoided disrupting the cosmos and never would’ve had to send his son do die on the cross. Instead, in gracious loving mercy he chose to inflict suffering upon all of creation and allow untold billions of Adam and Eve’s children to face everlasting torment in hell rather than just the two of them. Forgive me if that doesn’t seem altogether merciful, gracious and loving. If this god does exist and these things are true, I’m sure all the people in hell really wish he would’ve just ended it right then and there in the garden.

Here we find another “us” passage suggesting the presence of some kind of other divine beings who also know good and evil and have access to the tree of life. We also find the source of immortality being withheld from the man, not death being sentenced. It’s as though man was always mortal in his original state. Death isn’t entering the world for the first time. Man is merely being left unaltered in his mortal state.

Let’s look at the facts presented in the narrative. There were two trees. One sustains immortality, the other grants knowledge. Yahweh did not want the man to have knowledge so he placed a prohibition on eating from that tree and threatened death. Man ate from that tree anyway, so now to prevent him from becoming both knowledgeable and immortal like gods, he has to withhold the other one. This seems to go a long way in answering ancient questions like why mankind seems so above the animals with his creative abilities, yet he still dies just like them.

What if it turns out this story was not intended to be about sin and disobedience and corruption at all? What if this story is about the divine beings not wanting rivals? What if this is being portrayed as some god’s plan that had an unintended result, like in the Sumerian Atrahasis Epic where humans are made from clay to maintain canals and do other manual labor only to later become too noisy? What if he has no greater plan and this is simply another only slightly more sophisticated, man-like god of the ancient world acting and reacting?

What if it’s only later interpreters with a different view of God who go back to this story and reinterpret it to mean something entirely different from what the originators had in mind? What if this story simply reflects numerous similar story elements from other ancient Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Persian and Greek myths? Isn’t it odd, given the great significance so many now attribute to this story, that so little attention is paid to the events of Genesis 3 by later writers of the Bible, with Paul being the almost single notable exception and in only two of his letters? The standard Evangelical interpretation just doesn't make sense.


Wait just a minute
You expect me to believe
That all this misbehaving
Grew from one enchanted tree?

And helpless to fight it
We should all be satisfied
With this magical explanation
For why the living die?

[go to the next segment in this series]


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