Reading In and Around the Bible: Genesis, part 2

A bit more Genesis, before pausing on this subject for a while.

  • 2:9, And in the garden were two trees. An extremely potent metaphor: one is a tree of life, one is a tree of knowledge, and the latter is forbidden. I’m reflecting on the latter item today while beginning to read Yuval Noah Harari’s SAPIENS, but I’ll discuss that later.
  • Asimov spends several pages speculating on the identity of the four rivers flowing out of Eden. Two are obvious, two obscure.
  • 2:17, God promises they will die if they eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Later they do, and God does not kill them, thus breaking his promise.
  • 2:19, In this version animals are created as potential ‘companions’ for man/adam, and man/adam names them all. It would be churlish to point out the number of species on the planet as we now understand, and the obvious implausibility of these passages that presume man/adam can inspect and name them all. Yet, there are people who believe the Bible literally true.
  • 2:22, woman made from the rib of the man. Miller, annotator of his Skeptical Annotated Bible (SAB), points out that 16th century anatomist Vesalius shocked the faithful by pointing out that women really do have the same number of ribs as men.
  • 2:24, Wait, what, what? At this point, the sudden discussion of father and mother and how a man “clings to his wife”, seem premature and out of context, since so far in this narrative there’s only one man and one woman. Hmm.
  • Ch3, Asimov points out how the story of the talking serpent, a talking animal, is one of only two such incidents in the Bible (the other is a story about Balaam’s ass), is quite un-Biblical, more likely a vestige of a more primitive nature myth. (Asimov p31.7)
  • 3.8, the Lord God is “walking in the garden” and so the man and his wife “hid themselves”. This is oddly anthropomorphic on the first point, and beggars God’s omniscience on the second. This entire parable is perhaps related to early humanity’s concern about agriculture, which might have been thought a kind of slavery compared to the freedom of hunter-gathering. (Asimov p32). Thus, for eating fruit from the tree, the man [not yet named Adam in NRSV until 4:25] is cursed to work the ground and eat the plants of the field (3:17-18). But note that God blames first the serpent, and then the women, before getting around to the man.
  • Ch4, Oxford notes that the name Cain derives from the Hebrew word for create, while Abel is the same word translated as “vanity” in Ecclesiasites. On the agricultural theme, it is Cain, tiller of the ground, who is jealous of his brother the sheepherder. Asimov, p33, says Cain is taken to mean “smith”, since metal-working was important in early civilization. (And a smith is a kind of creator.)
  • 4:7, “sin is lurking at the door”, another example of this obsession
  • 4:15, the Lord puts a “mark on Cain” before sending him a way, a handful of words that have inspired long traditions of racism. (The Mormon church, in particular, long prohibited blacks to be priests, because the mark of Cain was taken to mean black skin.)
  • 4:17, “Cain knew his wife”, a famous phrase about which it is completely fair to ask, where did she come from? The context (of the second creation story) implies the Garden and the area where Cain and Abel lived was imagined to be the creation of one particular god, suggesting other tribes in other lands (such as Nod), presumably with their own gods.
  • 4:17… Cain presumably remains a nomad; it is his son who builds a city. Asimov, p34, compares notions of farming vs roaming to the 19th century ideal of being a cowboy.
  • Ch5, the descendants of Adam listed here (from the priestly source) do not match those listed in Ch4 (from the Yahwistic source)…of course!
  • 5:3 and other verses: not only are the long lives of these generations implausible, so is how old all the men were before they had their first sons. Except that such exaggerations were common in the myths of other cultures at the time, I haven’t seen any good explanation or suggestion for such inflated numbers. Asimov, p36: “These ages were legendary, reflecting parts of earlier Babylonian tales picked up the Jews during the Exile…” And, as Asimov goes on to explain, these figures were used by some to deduce the time since creation: the Jews, in the Middle Ages, figured it to be 3761 B.C.; Bishop Ussher, in 1654, figured it to be 4004 B.C.

Enough for now. Taking a break from this reading, but will get back to it.

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