September 30, 2006

Genesis 8-11: Son of a--

Today's reading is Genesis 8-11 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the end of the story of Noah, including the end of the flood, the first covenant, the Noahide laws, and Noah's curse on Canaan. It also covers the Tower of Babel story. But that's not what I'm going to talk about in today's essay. Instead, I'm going to talk about the other major feature of today's reading: genealogies.

Now, before all my readers run off to do something more interesting, like counting exactly how many blades of grass are on their lawns, let me assure you that whenever I have read Genesis in the past, I too skimmed lightly over the "begat" chapters, looking for meatier stories. But in this re-reading, it occurred to me that in the eleven chapters I've read, there have been four sets of genealogical tables. Or, put another way, of the 299 verses I have read up to this point, 97 (nearly a third) deal with genealogy. So even if you and I don't consider the long tables of "begats" to be important, someone did. And so it behoves us to take a few minutes and a few hundred words to try to tease some meaning out of these generally-overlooked passages.

The first thing that is immediately apparent is that there is not one but two writers of the genealogical tables. We know this because for both lineages we have encountered so far, there were two overlapping lists, both dealing with the same people but written in different styles. From Adam to Noah, there is one list in Gen. 4:17-26 and one in Gen. 5:1-32 (the whole chapter). From Noah down to Abram (Abraham), there's Gen. 10:1-32 (the whole chapter) and Gen. 11:10-32.

The writer of the tables in Gen. 5 and 11 seems to be the same person. In both cases, he only concerns himself with one son per father (I assume the eldest) and writes in a very formulaic style. To see what I mean, let's take an example from each.

Gen. 5:6-8, discussing Seth: "6: And Seth lived an hundred and five years, and begat Enos: 7: And Seth lived after he begat Enos eight hundred and seven years, and begat sons and daughters: 8: And all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years: and he died."

Gen. 11:12-13, discussing Arphaxad: "12: And Arphaxad lived five and thirty years, and begat Salah: 13: And Arphaxad lived after he begat Salah four hundred and three years, and begat sons and daughters."

Note the similarities.

Gen. 4 and 10, on the other hand, have very different styles. There, the writer lists multiple sons per child, and is more concerned with the origins of nations and the meanings of names. Furthermore, he occasionally covers the same people as the other genealogist. The first five generations after Noah through his son Shem appear in both lists, for example.

I hear you yawn. "Yes, yes," you say. "You have proved that there are two authors of the genealogical tables. Now can we please move on to something more interesting?" But wait! Let us take just a few more minutes to see what other conclusions we can reach based on these tables.

First, we note, based on the Gen. 5/11 author, that people's lives are getting gradually shorter. From Adam down to Noah, most people are listed at living around nine hundred years. For Noah and four generations of descendants, the age is closer to four hundred. And the next five generations (down to Abraham's grandfather) live a scant two hundred. Though this is still not the 120 year God promised in Gen. 6:3, it's getting closer. Furthermore, the age of childbearing is going down from a high of 187 (Methuselah) to around thirty after Noah.

We also encounter a strange paradox. We find out in this week's passage that the flood ended at the beginning of the year 601 (Gen. 8:13). This raises an interesting question. Most of the people who lived before the flood were supposed to have lived eight- or nine-hundred years. If the flood happened in the year 600 and killed every living person aside from Noah and his immediate family, how did these antideluvians live to a ripe old age of nine-hundred or more? Alas, good readers, I have no answer for you this time.

One more thing: these genealogical tables tell us about the happy worlds of polygamy and incest. We learn in Gen. 4:19 that Lamech, Cain's great-great-great-grandson, was the world's first recorded polygamist, taking two wives, Adah and Zillah, each of whom had two children. Lamech will not be the last, of course. Abraham has children with two different women, as well as Jacob (sisters, no less) and other Biblical figures we will deal with in due time. Unlike modern times, polygamy was apparently not considered abnormal in Biblical times.

We also find out about an incestuous relationship in Gen. 11:29. We find out that Nahor, Abra(ha)m's brother, took Milcah as his wife. Milcah just happens to be his other brother's, Haran's, daughter. Nahor marries his own niece. Today, that sort of thing would get you ostracized at the very least.

I could probably say more about these genealogical tables, but I suspect that counting grass might be looking tempting right about now, so I'll stop here. I promise that next time I'll discuss a story that has an actual plot. Until then, happy reading!

September 29, 2006

Breadcrumb: A great Cain story

For those of you who are still interested in the Cain story, and specifically about what happens to Cain after he's cursed by God, resources abound. He's been part of popular culture for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. My favourite story is a recent one, from Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novels. Issue 21 (the first issue of Season of Mists) features Cain and his mark as important plot points.

September 28, 2006

Breadcrumb: A few unanswered questions

Here are a few questions I considered asking in yesterday's essay. You might want to think about your own answers.

- Where did Cain's wife come from? (Gen. 4:17)
- Who were the sons of God (Gen. 6:2) and the giants (Gen. 6:4)?
- There were two men named Enoch, not one. Why? (Gen. 4:17-18; 5:17 and 5:21-24)
- Why did God decide to limit men's lives to 120 years? (Gen. 6:3)
- Did God command Noah to take the animals into the ark by twos (Gen. 6:19) or sevens and twos (Gen. 7:2-3)?

September 27, 2006

Genesis 4-7 -- Sacrificial Brother

Today's reading is Genesis 4-7 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the story of Cain and Abel, the generations from Adam until Noah, and part of the story of Noah (until the flood). I am rapidly coming to realize that for any given reading, there are myriad possible topics to discuss in the Daily Breadcrumb. For today's reading, I jotted down over a dozen potential subjects, of which I need to pick one. It was a hard decision, as they say, but eventually I settled on a topic: the first sacrifices.

Because I'm devoting so much attention to a relatively short passage, it might be worth citing it in full, from Genesis 4:2-5

2 ...And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.
 3 And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD.
 4 And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering:
 5 But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.

The previous passage is from the KJV. You can also read it in the NIV, or any other Bible version you care to consult.

The pivotal question in this passage, to my mind, is: "why did God respect Abel's offerings, but not Cain's?" The first murder could have been avoided if God had only respected Cain's offering as well as Abel's. Why, then, didn't He?

Most answers I have heard to this question, whether from priest, rabbi, scholar, or layperson, seem to be that God was more pleased with the flesh sacrifice than the grain sacrifice simple because of the nature of the substance. Flesh is inherently more precious than grain, goes the argument, because to sacrifice it involves taking a life. We are giving up more when we kill one of our cattle than when we set aside a portion of grain or fruit, which we did not need to kill.

This argument leads us to a curious slippery slope. If our sacrifices are considered better based on how much it pains us to give them up, then wouldn't killing a human be an even better sacrifice than killing an animal? When we kill an animal, we deprive ourselves not only of their future produce, such as milk or eggs, but of their potential offspring and even their companionship (no sheep jokes, please). When we kill a human, we deprive ourselves of even more: their company, their conversation, their friendship, and so on. Therefore, it seems human sacrifice would be even more respected in the eyes of God than an animal sacrifice.

Let us place ourselves in the position of Cain for a moment. Let us suppose that he has reasoned his way along the argument I have just presented (that just as animal sacrifices are more respected than grain sacrifices, so too are human sacrifices more respected than animal sacrifices). Keep in mind that this these events occurred before the Noahide laws against murder. Taking this argument to its logical conclusion, Cain determines that killing a family member must be the most respected form of sacrifice, as it involves giving up the most. What if Cain's murder of his brother Abel (Gen. 4:8) was, in fact, a form of sacrifice?

The verses immediately following this passage detract from such a reading, as they imply that Cain felt guilty about the murder. Perhaps, after pausing to consider his actions, Cain did not feel so triumphant in his sacrifice to God. Perhaps he knew all along he was doing wrong.

But many cultures through history, even Judaic, contained the theme that that human (especially familial) sacrifice is the most potent form of sacrifice. Later in Genesis (Gen. 22), God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. In Greek mythology, Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia in order to produce the winds needed to sail to Troy and begin the Trojan War. In Roman mythology, Romulus murdered his brother Remus, then proceeded to bury him with full honours. This might not have been an intentional sacrifice, but it was posthumously treated as one. The motif of familial sacrifice occurs continually in mythology.

Of course, in an era when people buy their meat pre-packaged in grocery stores, the idea of flesh sacrifice, let alone human sacrifice, is highly distasteful. People offer sacrifices of time, prayer, money, energy, and occasionally material goods, but almost no one in the modernized western world would take knife to beast to appease their God. For better or for worse, the concept of animal sacrifice has receded to nothingness in the Judeo-Christian religion.

Let us return, for a moment, to the Cain and Abel story. I propose an alternate explanation to God's displeasure with Cain's sacrifice. After all, when, in Leviticus, God gives commandments to the Jews, he orders them to give him grain and fruit sacrifices. Grain is apparently perfectly satisfactory for him under certain circumstances. Why, then, was God displeased with Cain's offerings?

Abel is described as offering the "firstlings" of his flock, or the choicest portions. Cain, meanwhile, brings some of his fruits. Later Biblical commandments exhort the Jews to bring their "first" or "choice" fruits (see, eg., Exo. 22:29) as sacrifices to God. It seems that Cain did not do this, but instead offered whatever fruits he happened to have on hand. The contrast is even more apparent compared to Abel's "firstlings."

Perhaps God's disrespect for Cain's offering stems not from its substance, fruit and grain, but from its quality: it was not his best. If Cain had given his best or first fruits, just as Abel gave his first and best sheep, God may have found respect in that as well. The lesson, I believe, is that it is the quality of the sacrifice, rather than the substance, that makes it acceptable.

So the moral of the story seems to be: if you're going to make a sacrifice, do it properly, no matter what you're putting on the altar.

One final note: For people who are interested in the Cain and Abel story, go check out the July 9th, 2006 episode of The Spirit of Things podcast. Yael Unterman leads "bibliodrama," which involves the participants roleplaying the members of the first family, to surprising revelations.

September 26, 2006

Breadcrumb: What's in a name?

A few nifty etymologies:

"Adam" comes from the Hebrew word for ground (adamah) -- see Gen. 2:7

"Eve," in Hebrew, is Havah, which comes from the word for life (hai or haiah) -- see Gen. 3:20. From "Havah" in Hebrew, it became "Heva" in the Latin Vulgate, and eventually "Eve" in English. Note that Adam only names his wife "Eve" just before they are expelled from Eden.

September 25, 2006

Breadcrumb: Name that fruit!

The fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is not an apple. In fact, it's never named in the text. Over the years, it has been identified with many different fruits, including figs, grapes, pomegranates, pears, mushrooms, and wheat.

For more information, check out Google Answers: Forbidden Fruit of Eden, Mythical Plants of the Middle Ages, or Wikipedia. There is also a good summary of this topic in the book In the Devil's Garden: A Sinful History of Forbidden Food by Stewart Lee Allen.

September 24, 2006

Genesis 1-3 -- Original WHAT?

Today's reading is Genesis 1-3 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

We begin today with the first story, the creation. And what better way to begin a new blog than alienating a good portion of my readership? So today, I will be talking about Original Sin, and why I think it doesn't exist.

Genesis 1-3 contains two stories: the seven days of creation (Gen. 1:1-2:3), and the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:4-3:24). These are among the best-known stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, as a recap for those of you who may have been hiding under some sand in the Arabian desert for the span of your natural lives, here is a brief summary of the Adam and Eve story:

God creates a man (Adam) and places him in a garden called Eden. He tells Adam he may eat of every tree in the garden, except for the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God proceeds to create a wife for Adam (named "Eve" at the end of the story). Enter the serpent, who tempts Eve into eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and she proceeds to give it to Adam, who also eats it. God returns, punishes them for what they've done, and casts them out of the garden of Eden.

So far, this seems a fairly straightforward story. But "straightforward" has never meshed well with organized religion. Thus we have the Christian interpretation.

Christianity adds another layer of meaning to this story. According to Christianity, Adam and Eve were originally in a state of Grace, completely pure and untainted. When they ate of the forbidden tree, they committed the first sin, the Original Sin, if you will. In committing this sin, they damned not only themselves, but also all their descendants. Until the time of Jesus Christ, no human being could return to the state of Grace. Only with the death and sacrifice of Christ were humans given the possibility of re-entering Grace.

This is a lovely interpretation, with one problem: it has absolutely no support in the text.

The text does, in fact, tell us the punishments Adam, Eve, and the serpent received for committing the first sin. Let us examine these punishments.

First, the serpent. Please note that there is no reason to assume, based on this passage, that the serpent is anything other than the animal recently featured in a Samuel L. Jackson movie ("Snakes on a Plane," for those hiding in the Arabian desert). There is no reason to think that the serpent (nahash in Hebrew) is the same character as the stubborn angel in the book of Job (satan in Hebrew) or the adversary in the gospel accounts. As far as Genesis is concerned, it's a snake.

How does God punish the serpent? Let us look at Gen. 3:14-15. The punishments are as follows:

1. The serpent shall go on its belly
2. The serpent shall eat dust
3. There shall be enmity (hatred) between the serpent and the woman
4. There shall be enmity between the serpent's children and the woman's children
5. The woman's children will bruise the head of the serpent's children
6. The serpent's children will bruise the heel of the woman's children

To me, this seems perfectly straightforward. Snakes do go on their bellies today; I have yet to see a snake with feet. They might not eat dust, admittedly. On the other hand, most people I know don't like snakes, my teenage cousin excepted. I don't know about you, but I'd certainly try to bash the head of any snake slithering in my kitchen. I see nothing in this list that suggests hell, demons, devils, or anything similar.

Moving onwards to the human participants of our story, let us examine the punishment for the woman, in Gen. 3:16:

1. The woman will have pain in childbearing
2. The woman will be subservient to her husband

Again, these are secular punishments. Women do have pain in childbirth (if you don't believe me, ask your mother). And, at the time this text was written, women were subservient to their husbands. In fact, women have been subservient to their husbands for most of recorded western history. It is only in the last hundred years that the situation has begun to change in favour of equality, and only in certain parts of the world.

Finally, the punishments for the man, in Gen. 3:17-19:

1. The man must toil in order to have food from the ground
2. The man will work his whole life in order to eat

Yet again, the punishment reveals itself in the world today. Farming is hard work, yet without it, people can't eat. Unless people keep working (or pay someone to work for them), they will starve.

Finally, in Gen. 3:23, God sends Adam and Eve out of the garden of Eden, never to return.

The punishments God meted out to his subjects were all worldly in nature. When this story was first written, it was probably used as many creation myths were used, to explain certain facts of life. "Why must we work?" "Why is childbirth difficult?" "Why are women subservient to men?" "Why is life difficult?" To answer all these fundamental questions, Jews could look to their holy text.

Jews do not believe in Original Sin, with good reason: it's not in the text! It is only with the advent of Christianity that the concept of Original Sin enters into the Eden story. Christians needed a reason for Jesus' death to be meaningful, and so they cast back upon the Eden story another layer of allegorical meaning. Namely, Adam and Eve were not only given worldly punishments, but also spiritual ones, so that Jesus could negate these punishments.

My question, when all is said and done, is this: if Jesus' sacrifice negates Original Sin, and the spiritual punishment is lifted from his followers (ie: they are no longer in a state of Original Sin, but instead may return to a state of Grace), does his sacrifice also negate the worldly punishments listed above? Obviously not. Christian women still have pain in childbirth; Christian men still need to work the land (or pay someone to do so). God's punishments still rest on the children of Adam and Eve.

The idea of "Original Sin" is a superfluous layer of meaning added on to a worldly, secular story. Early Christians added it to give meaning to their saviour and martyr, Jesus Christ. The story works perfectly well without it, and there is no need to include it at all. Of course, if you choose to believe in Original Sin, that's fine. Faith allows people to believe in far stranger things than every person being born in a state of sin. I'm just saying that you can't base it on the story of Adam and Eve.

So, have I alienated all my readers? I promise I won't always be this controversial. But, if you managed to read this far, you'll probably be able to deal with anything I toss out about future readings.

Don't agree with me? Debate me! Find me chapter and verse, and let me know why I'm wrong!

Until next time, happy reading.

September 23, 2006

What are "Daily Breadcrumbs"?

Over the years, I have had quite a bit of religious exposure from a number of traditions. I was born and raised Jewish, though I am mostly non-practicing and non-believing at the moment. I did a liberal arts degree with a specialization in medieval history, which has given me more knowledge of the development of Christian theology than most Christians. I have done a great deal of reading about pagan, wiccan, and other new religious traditions.

And yet, despite this long tradition of education, I have never actually read the Bible from start to finish.

Certainly, I've read large portions of it. I've read entire books and sections of many more. But there is still much of the Bible I have never read, and this seems to me to form a gap in my religious education. So I have decided to read the entire book, both Old Testament and New. And, because I am a shameless self-promoter, I have decided to put my thoughts and reflections online for the world to see.

In terms of my own perspective, I do not believe in the literal truth of Jewish or Christian scriptures. I don't even believe in their figurative truth. But I do acknowledge them as among the most, if not the most, influential books of western history. This is the angle I'm approaching the texts from.

My thoughts will range. I will discuss the stories, their impact on society, their connection to current religious institutions, and anything else that seems interesting to me... though probably not all within a single post. I will generally not be using references or commentary (eg: the Hebrew Talmud, the Catholic Gloss, modern study guides), though I may when the mood strikes me. If I use references, I'll post links to the sources I used.

One final thought: I'm reading the Bible in English. My Hebrew skills are no longer good enough to read the Old Testament in the original, and my Aramaic and Greek skills are non-existent. I'll mostly be using the King James Version (KJV), because it seems to be the version everyone knows. Personally, I find it a bit stilted and archaic. When the KJV is particularly difficult to understand, I'll supplement it with the New International Version (NIV).

I will be using Back to the Bible's "Beginning to End" study guide to direct my progress. However, I will be taking it at 1/3 the speed. That is, I will post short essays every three days, and each essay will deal with the next selection from Back to the Bible. For those of you who are counting, this means I'll be at this project for three years, and only reaching the New Testament midway through year three. But that's okay: I'm patient. I'll post a link to the relevant passages with each entry. On days when I'm not posting an essay, I'll post a "breadcrumb": some small reflection, thought, question, or random fact relating to the Bible readings.

Feel free to follow along!