Sunday, July 24, 2005

Genesis: first few chapters

Hiya. Well, it's been a while, huh?

Anyhow, lemme make some comments about the very beginning.

Firstly, for those of you without a Bible handy, let me summarize the first several chapters (as they're listed in the King James Version, and there's a little bit of spillover from one chapter to the next):

Chapter One: God creating everything in six days (and resting on the seventh)
Chapter Two: God creating Adam, and the Garden of Eden, and the animals, and Eve
Chapter Three: Adam and Eve eating the fruit and getting kicked out of Eden
Chapter Four: Adam and Eve have Cain and Abel, Cain kills Abel, Adam and Eve have Seth
Chapter Five: boring genealogy chapter, describing the line from Adam to Noah
Chapter Six: God tells Noah to build an ark
Chapter Seven: God tells Noah to get all the animals, and floods the earth
Chapter Eight: The waters recede, and the ark lands
Chapter Nine: God makes the rainbow as a promise not to flood the earth again, Noah gets drunk and curses his son Ham for seeing him naked
Chapter Ten: Another boring genealogy chapter, describing the descendants of the sons of Noah
Chapter Eleven: The tower of Babel story, and then more genealogy, from Noah's son Shem to Abram.

It's clear to me that very quickly conciseness got thrown out the window, since it took only one chapter to describe ALL CREATION and then four just for Noah and his ark. Then again, brevity isn't exactly my strong point either...

Anyway, on to observations: the Bible starts contradicting itself right away, even before the boring genealogy chapters that, let's face it, are probably where most people give up trying to read the Bible straight through. The creation of the world in seven days distinctly contradicts the Adam and Eve creation story, and any continuity goes downhill from there. This demonstrates that (a) the Bible does not follow a narrative structure, and (b) the Creationists need to decide _which_ Creation story they're pushing, because it makes a big difference.

Also, I've got two versions of the Bible, the King James and the handily paraphrased "Testament: the Bible Odyssey", as mentioned in a previous comment. And these indicate to me that, depending on how your version is worded, you might see parallels and themes that are completely absent in other versions.

So, let me summarize the three (?!) creation stories, and you can critique as you see fit.

First creation story: after announcing that God created the heavens and the earth, the Bible goes on to clarify and "break that down":
As sort of a starting point, the earth was covered with water, and God was over the water. Then:

  1. God said "Let there be light", and separated light (Day) from dark (Night).
  2. God separated the waters with a "firmament" or "vault", called Heaven. So there's your "creating Heaven" part. Now there's waters above the firmament and waters below.
  3. God gathered the waters below together, revealing dry land, which He called Earth, and the waters now were Sea. So there's the "Earth" part, and before you get too hooked on the duality theme, God switches it up and creates plants.
  4. Then God creates the sun and the moon (duality again) and, as an afterthought, the stars (although he doesn't name these like he did "Heaven", "Earth", and "Sea".)
  5. God creates water creatures and birds.
  6. God creates land creatures, and man "in his own image...male and female..." and he told them they "have dominion" over the animals and fish and birds, and all the plants are theirs to eat. (The animals, fish, and birds get to eat the plants too.)
  7. God has a lie-in, and personally I think that this is his most brilliant invention.

The list, obviously, is the seven days, and I don't mean to imply that I want to quibble with that with the whole "Inherit the Wind" Clarence Darrow routine. I'm perfectly okay with all that stuff being created in seven ordinary days, as long as you're okay with the fact that the next story is completely irreconcilable with this one.

The distinguishing features of this story are: man and woman are put on even footing; they are closely tied to other animals and not treated as the key part of the story, although they are put in charge on the earth and are made in God's image; and it promotes vegetarianism.

The next creation story has a different ordering, but starts in a similar way: the earth's all covered with water: "...there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground." (This is supposed to be after the heavens and earth were created, as if we took the first verse as read and just omitted the previous story.)

Then God creates man from dust and breathes the breath of life into him, then plants a garden with all the good plants and the Tree of Life and the Tree of Good and Evil, which man isn't supposed to eat. And then God figures man's lonely, so he makes all the animals which Adam (who is suddenly named that) gives names to, but they're apparently not good conversationalists, so God gives Adam some anesthetic and takes a rib and makes it into a woman. This is given as the reason that men leave their parents and get married, which makes no sense to me, unless sex is somehow like putting the rib back in, and if you think about it that's just weird.

So then the serpent says "why not eat from that tree? God's just jealous because you'll become like him" and Adam and Eve are ashamed they're naked, apparently because they now realize that nudity is evil. So, that gives it away to God, who punishes everybody. He makes the serpent crawl. He makes the woman suffer when she has children and her husband rule over her. And he makes Adam have to work the ground to get food. Which is a little strange, since apparently he's been "dressing and keeping" the Garden of Eden all this time, which you'd think would involve some work. (It is now, curiously, that Adam decides to call the woman Eve, "because she was the mother of all living." Except him, obviously, and her.)

Then God makes coats of skins for Adam and Eve, and kicks them out of the Garden of Eden for fear they should eat from the Tree of Life and live forever. So instead of God creating man in his own image, in this story woman and man make themselves like God, and God doesn't want them to become any more like him.

Then there's the Cain and Abel story, of which I will only mention that God seems to like meat rather than vegetables, and as punishment for killing his brother Cain is told that when he tills the earth, it won't feed him. On the plus side, he marks Cain so that no one will kill him. This could be read as some sort of restatement or echo of the expulsion from Eden, as it refers to farming and immortality, but it's sort of the reverse from leaving Eden.

So in this creation story, man and woman are strongly unequal, man is the center of the story, and God apparently condones killing animals for clothing and sacrifices, and maybe food.

Now, you ask, what's this about some _third_ creation story? Well, hear me out, and take a look at the Noah story. By now you've probably cursed me several times for writing so much, so I'll try to resist tempting tangents like these "sons of God" that are mentioned randomly at this point and just stick to the creation idea.

You know the Noah story, presumably, so I'll highlight the parts that echo the previous stories: there's a flood, so the earth is covered with water. Noah and his three sons and their wives (re)populate the earth, having been told by God to "be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth", just like he told man and woman that he created on day 6 in Chapter One. (Note that Adam also had three sons: Cain, Abel, and Seth.) Also, they're told that all the animals (including the fish, who presumably had no use for the ark) "into your hand are they delivered." They're also told that every living moving thing shall be meat for them, "but flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat." I don't know if that means they won't actually eat animals while they're alive, or what.

The part of the Noah story you might not remember from Sunday School is that he planted a vineyard, got drunk, and fell asleep naked in his tent, and his son Ham saw him and told his brothers, who managed to cover him up while walking backward, so they didn't have to see him. And when Noah woke up and knew that Ham had seen him naked, he cursed Ham, saying he'd be a servant to his brothers. (For some reason I think that this story was used to justify slavery of black people, by considering them the descendants of Ham. That would certainly explain why I'd never heard of it until this year.)

This story sounds to me like an echo of Adam and Eve: someone's ashamed of their nakedness, and someone is punished when its found out they knew about the nakedness. (Incidentally, the Cain and Abel story at least had real murder in it; what's the big deal with nudity, that it upsets these people so much?)

I would say the Noah (re)creation story puts the destructive power of God in the central role, rather than the creative power of God (the first creation story) or man (the second creation story). Women are barely mentioned (all the men have wives, who also were on the ark). Humans and animals are closely tied together, but humans are put in charge of animals for a reason: Noah deserves it for saving them all. And lastly, this is the most carnivorous story, since apparently saving the animals gives Noah (and his descendants) the right to eat all of them.

Whaddaya think?

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Dr. Strangelove said...

Bob writes, "So then the serpent says 'why not eat from that tree? God's just jealous because you'll become like him' and Adam and Eve are ashamed they're naked, apparently because they now realize that nudity is evil."

If I may illuminate a slightly deeper interpretation of this creation story... Adam and Eve were naked and innocent. Then something happens with a snake, forbidden knowledge, and Eve giving Adam a taste of her "fruit", and then suddenly their nakedness is no longer quite so innocent.

Oh yeah--and then, after their father throws them out of the house, Eve finds herself pregnant in the very next chapter and has chidlren. What was the tempter "snake"? What was the "fruit" Adam obtained? What was it that Adam and Eve discovered how to do?

Hmm. Let me guess...

Bob said...

Well, true.

Although, if Adam and Eve discovered sex and God disapproved, what's with the fruitful multiplying?

Unless we were _supposed_ to reproduce by mitosis or something. :)

Dr. Strangelove said...

The Bible is highly in favor of having lots of children, but as for having sex... not so much. It's pro creation, not procreation.

But then, you weren't actually looking for consistency now, were you? That's the thing about creation myths. Despite their name, they really aren't trying to explain everything. And if they made perfect sense, they wouldn't seem so mystical and mysterious.

btw, what do you think of the notion that the creation of the Black Sea could be the source of the Noah story? Is there enough evidence supporting the idea that the Medditeranean broke through the Bosporus in (relatively recent) geologic time, like the past 10,000 years, maybe after the ice age departed, leaving more of a bowl there?

Bob said...

I'm not qualified enough to claim one way or the other, but my impression is that the jury's still out on whether there was a big flood into the Black Sea. There certainly seems to be some interesting stuff that went on, if you're a marine geologist type.

Even if so, it's at best hopeful flights of fancy to get from there to the Biblical flood story. I'm not saying they're not related, I'm just saying there's no record of evidence that can tie them together in any convincing way.

The universality of flood myths around the world (wikipedia has lots of information about this stuff) really screams to me more the idea that floods were common disasters in many cultures, and specifically survivable disasters. (A story about everyone dying of famine except one family, or of a fire burning everyone else up, lacks either punch or credibility, or both. A flood story will last, when those would just seem silly.)

That the Babylonians and Hebrews used the flood specifically as a re-Creation story (the world's blighted, the flood washes it clean, the god/gods makes a new deal with the survivors so that another killer flood won't happen) doesn't say much about whether it was a historical event. I don't think anyone could really get behind the idea that the Black Sea flooded, and Utnapishtim, Noah, and perhaps assorted others were warned by their respective deities to build boats, each saved their families, and then made separate deals with their particular gods regarding eating animals or infertile women or whatever issue seemed to be their god's personal bugaboo.

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