Saturday, March 2, 2013

Genesis 4:1-7:24


One of the things I love about these early chapters of Genesis is that they operate on two scales. On the one hand, they are epic, cosmic, and universal. On the other hand, there is a humanity and realism about them. When God confronted Adam and Eve with their disobedience, they did what human beings naturally do. They shifted blame. Adam blamed Eve (and implicitly blamed God). Eve blamed the snake.

Now in chapter 4 we read a perfectly human story of sibling rivalry writ large. In the second generation of human life, Cain, jealous of the favor God shows his little brother, commits the first murder, a fratricide.

One of the things I don't love about these early chapters of Genesis is that they present God as anthropomorphic and capricious. Why did God accept Abel's sacrifice and not Cain's? Is it because Abel offered his best and Cain gave a second-rate offering? That's a common explanation but by no means certain from the text. It seems just as likely that God is a carnivore. Or maybe God's reasons are God's own. I leave it to you, reader. Personally I don't want to move too quickly to let God off the hook.

That is not to say that God is in any way responsible for Cain's actions. Human sin rests on human shoulders. But in our conversation with God, it is fair, and I would say faithful, to hold God responsible for what God does.

The idea that God is unchanging, impassible, and utterly transcendent is a Greek notion. It doesn't factor into this early Hebrew text. Here in Genesis God seems to be growing and changing.

There are wonderful details in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain's famous question "Am I my brother's keeper?" presses us to ask just what responsibility we have toward other human beings. The image of Abel's blood crying out to God from the ground is powerful.

There are also questions that confront careful readers. Where did Cain get a wife? Where did all these people who might kill Cain come from? Explanations for these things must be drawn from outside the text. Perhaps it is best simply to say that these stories, while they beg to be taken seriously, should not be taken too literally.

Genesis 4 ends with mention of some of Cain's descendants. Many "firsts" are credited to them. Jabal was the mythic ancestor of all tent-dwelling goatherds, Jubal the primal father of musicians, and Tubal Cain the maker of the first metal tools. 

Let's notice, too, that Lamech is the first polygamist in Scripture. His multiple marriage is not judged negatively. Polygamy was normal in Old Testament culture.

On the subject of Lamech, did he kill in self-defense or for revenge? It isn't clear. I prefer to think it was self-defense since he invokes God's protection. What do you think?

In chapter 5 of Genesis we find the first of the Bible's genealogies, a family tree stretching from Adam, through Seth, to Noah. The incredible spans of life attributed to the individuals on this list again suggest that this is not a factual, historical account.

The authors or redactors of Genesis were careful story-tellers. Methuselah, the oldest human being recorded in Genesis, lived to the age of 969 years. If you want to do the math (I've done it) you will find that Methuselah died in the year of the great flood, presumably before the cataclysm.

The sixth chapter of Genesis begins with a note about the "sons of God," presumably some creatures from the heavenly realm, having sex with human women and producing a race of mighty warriors (giants?) called the "Nephilim."

God shortens the human lifespan to a maximum of  120 years. Then, in response to human wickedness and, in particular, violence, God proposes to destroy all life on earth with the exception of righteous Noah, his immediate family, and a pair of each of the animals.

Someone more cynical than I has said, "I love the part in the Bible where God gives everybody free will and then kills them for not doing what he wants."  Though I wouldn't go quite that far, I do find the actions attributed to God in this passage disturbing.  Again, God seems to change and grow through the course of these stories. Destroying everyone but Noah and his closest kin will not work out so well for God.

Chapter 7 begins the story of the great flood. There are details here that don't quite add up. Noah, for example, is told to take a pair of all the unclean animals, and 7 pairs of clean animals. The kashrut law that distinguishes clean from unclean animals is not articulated, nor put into effect, until God gives the law to Moses in the book of Exodus.

Scholars tell us that the story of the flood is a Hebrew response to the Gilgamesh epic, a story that was current among the Babylonians who conquered the Judahites and carried them into exile in the sixth century BCE. For the sake of brevity I will say no more about it here, but you may want to look into it for yourself.

A few final notes for today's reading. An "ark" is not a boat. It's a box. The vessel described in chapter 6 doesn't strike me as particularly seaworthy, but I may be wrong.

God himself closes the door of the ark. This is a nice touch.

The story of Noah's ark is frequently told to children. I suppose that this is because of the animals. Kids love animals. This is not a children's story, however. It is a tale of profound horror. In case you missed it, reread the Genesis 7:20-23 (emphasis added):

 And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. 

All. Flesh. Died.

Next up: Genesis 8-11

No comments:

Post a Comment