Reading In and Around the Bible: Genesis, part 1

I finished up the New Testament a couple weeks ago, and have notes and comments on those latter epistles, and Revelation. I then circled back to the beginning, to read Genesis itself, rather than merely comments about it, and since it’s fresher in my mind, and arguably more important than the latter books of the NT, I’ll post comments about Genesis now, before catching up on the NT.

Also, I’ve been reading Thomas Paine’s THE AGE OF REASON; more about that later.


  • 1:1, the traditional “In the beginning God created…” is more usually translated, these days as “In the beginning when God created” or even “began to create”.
  • 1:2, note that before “let there be light”, there were waters (over which “a wind from God swept over the face of”). Thus, something existed before God got creation going, it seems. Why is this not generally acknowledged or understood, while everyone who thinks for the universe to exist, something or someone, thus God, must have gotten it going? This passage seems to undermine every claim that for the world to exist, God must have caused it. This passage explicitly describes a world of water before God began his creation.
  • 1:6, and so we live in a dome with waters above and waters below.
  • 1:9, with the waters gathered in one place. One can imagine the limited view of the world of those who told these myths, who might know that the sea was over in that direction (e.g. west) and have no knowledge of any other seas or oceans, let alone the true immensity of the planet.
  • 1:16, “God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars”. This might be plausible if the moon were actually in the sky all night; but of course, on average it’s only in the sky at night half the time. (This reminds me of how often filmmakers depict the moon, for whatever phase its shown in, in the wrong place in the sky. I seem to recall E.T. as sinning in this regard, but I haven’t seen the film in ages.)
  • 1:21, “So God created the great sea monsters…” Sea monsters? KJV says “great whales”. You have to wonder what experience with large sea creatures the tellers of these myths had.
  • 1:26, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” People are pleased to think of themselves as the image of the creator of the entire universe (with arms and legs and everything else, presumably). A cat deity would presumably resemble a cat. (Cf. Jerry Coyne’s ‘ceiling cat’, and the poem by Yeats I quoted here.)
  • But a second point about 1:26 is that the phrase “Let us make man in our image” (KJV) or “Let us make humankind in our image” (NRSV) is that the two different words there are translations of the Hebrew word adam -! That is, the first man being called Adam wasn’t necessarily a name given to him, but a generic word for man, or mankind. Looking carefully through the early chapters of Genesis, there is a point at which the first man is referred to as Adam, a proper name, without comment, a rather slippery elision.
  • 1:28, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion…” A useful policy for any group in competition for survival with other groups, or with nature itself. The part about dominion and subduing alas justifies many people’s attitudes that are leading to the extermination of a large proportion of other species inhabiting the planet. (Cf Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction)
  • 2:4, Here begins the second version of creation. The first one was about the seven days, in which on the fifth day God created humankind of both sexes—“male and female he created them” (1:27). The second version of creation involves shaping the first man out of mud, creating the female from his rib, and planting them in the garden of Eden. Here I pause for some general discussion.

It’s well established by now, well-known by all scholars of the Bible, that the early books of the Bible, perhaps most of the Old Testament, is a collage of writings by different authors over hundreds of years, written hundreds or even thousands of years after the events they purport to record, edited together sometime in the 6th or 5th century BCE. (Cf Who Wrote the Bible?, but Friedman’s 1980s thesis is reflected by Asimov’s volumes and by the Oxford annotators of their NRSV and even by believer Miller.) Moses did not write the Pentateuch. In particular, without going into detail, the Genesis we have is composed of two or more distinct sources, later edited together, sometimes bluntly, sometimes more subtly. The blunt example is the two creations, one after the other; a subtler example is the story of Noah, in which two accounts are knitted together in sequence (to avoid the impression of two separate floods), yet resulting in repetitive and sometimes contradictory passages in the course of that story.

Why would the compilers of these ancient texts preserve multiple such obviously contradictory accounts? Why not settle on one? That had some kind of internal consistency?

Here’s my original thought, something I’ve not read among any of the commentators I’ve been reading (Oxford, Asimov, Miller, and lately Thomas Paine), but which I can’t help think has been noticed by them: differing traditional accounts of ancient myths and legends were edited together by priestly leaders of a church at a time when most of their followers *could not read*, and copies of these accounts, as scrolls, were rare and available only through church leaders. The differing versions were compiled together in part as a resource for those priests – priests who of course were motivated to preserve and grow the church – as a resource to be used as needed. They could do this without concern that some curious civilian might read the scriptures on their own and notice the contradictory semi-repetition. On the contrary, like any preacher throughout history, a priestly leader could select the passage for sermonizing that suited the moment. The scriptures were, and are, an anthology.

Wasn’t the Protestant Reformation, in the 16th century, in part about the (Catholic) Church’s resistance to the idea of printing up copies of the Bible (via Guternberg’s printing press, in the 15th century), and the translation of the Bible into native languages? Was not the Church perhaps alarmed by the idea of letting the Bible into the hand of ordinary people, rather than filtered through the lessons of priests?

Ironically – this is a huge irony – the free availability of scholarly understanding of the Bible seems to have not made a whit of difference, despite the fears of the Church at that time, to followers of Christianity, here in the 21st century. That there is abundant evidence that the Bible was cobbled together from multiple sources, that Moses did not literally write the first five books of the ‘Old Testament’, that the ‘New Testament’ gospels were written by anonymous sources and later attributed the authors we designate them by, that the contents of the NT were decided by vote by church leaders in the 3rd century to omit those ‘gospels’ that did not support a more-or-less consistent story … makes no difference to the average Christian. Religion is about community and shared values – a kind of groupthink, is my thought, that is more important than any kind of intellectual integrity about truth or reality. (While science is the reverse.)

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