English 233:  Introduction to Western Humanities -- Baroque & Enlightenment

Study Guide
to our reading of Genesis 1-4.
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One of the things we need to keep in mind as we read this narrative is how traditional Judaism -- and, following it, traditional Christianity (as, later still, traditional Islam) -- understood it to come to be:  what, that is, is the origin (note:  that's a historical question) of this narrative about the beginning of history?  Notice that following the title of the first book of the bible ("Genesis," which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for "the beginnings") is the label, "The First Book of Moses."  This is a reminder at the outset that the ancient Jews understood this story to have come down to them (and only to them, among all the people's of the world) from God Himself -- that is, the chief agent in the historical account itself -- through the medium of a particular individual, the prophet Moses, the hero whom God called to bring the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt, to introduce God's direct declaration of the Ten Commandments, and to explain the terms of the Covenant by which He would deliver into their hands the (conditionally) Promised Land of Canaan (namely, obedience to these orders, and certain other "statutes and ordinances" concerning diet, sexual relations, and religious rituals, which were communicated to them via Moses).  In other words, the report on the process by which the universe and time (hence, history itself) came to be enters history at a point far subsequent to the creation itself, and via a supernatural path (from beyond time and history itself).  It fills in what mankind had presumably forgotten in the intervening years.  And it is conveyed only to a particular people, not to all mankind, because it is the will of the Creator to adopt a special relationship with that people and that people only.  Other people, of course, have their own pictures of what the supernatural order of things consists in, but most are deceived.  And all are no more than part of the backdrop of the central cosmic drama, which concerns the relationship of God to the Jewish people:  they are setting and supporting cast (foils, losers, replenishers, testers, tempters, instruments of punishment) whom God cares about only insofar as He chooses to use them to advance his planned relationship with His Chosen People.  In this respect, they are somewhat like things of nature (plants, animals, fire and brimstone, floods, manna from heaven). (Note 1)

Here is Moses' exhortation to his people (Deuteronomy 7:1-2, 6-11, 8:4-7) before they cross over the Jordan River to claim their divinely appointed inheritance:  "When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than yourselves, and when the Lord you God gives them over to you, and you defeat the; then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them. . . . For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord you God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.  It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples; but it is because the Lord loves you, and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.  Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and requites to their face those who hate him, by destroying them; he will not be slack with him who hates him, he will requite him to his face.  You shall therefore be careful to do the commandment, and the statues, and the ordinances, which I command you this day. . . .  Do not say in your heart, after the Lord you God has thrust them out before you, 'It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land'; whereas it is because of the wickedness of the nations that the Lord is driving them out before you.  Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land; but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.  Know therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people.  Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness; from the day you came out of the land of Egypt, until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the Lord.  Even at Horeb you provided the Lord to wrath, and the Lord was so angry with you that he was ready to destroy you [for having reverted to worshipping the Golden Calf]."  Moses then proceeds to remind the people of how hard it was for him to intercede with God, and how God finally relented.  Then (Deut 11:26-28):  "Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse:  the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside from the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods which you have not known. . . .  For you are to pass over the Jordan to go in to take possession of the land which the Lord you God gives you; and when you possess it and live in it, you shall be careful to do all the statutes and the ordinances which I set before you this day."  Moses then proceeds to spell out the detailed rules (15 chapters worth -- Deut 12-26) defining a way of life that will distinguish the Chosen People from all others.  The people agree; Moses reminds them once again of what will befall them if they or their descendants break their oath.  (God gives Moses a vision of how, in the future, their descendants will stray from the path outlined.  God informs Moses that it is time for him to "sleep with his fathers."  After commissioning Joshua to take charge of the conquest of the Promised Land, Moses dies.)

[It is, of course, a fundamental tenet of Christianity that God actually intended all along, at a specific moment in history, to reveal that his Cosmic Plan is not, finally, just on behalf of the Jews per se, but for all those whom He chooses (i.e., wills to save), and that some among these are to be found among the "Gentiles," i.e., non-Jews of various sorts.  God eventually revealed, Christianity claims, that the Jews were only a historical "foreshadowing" of what His real Chosen People are.  And Christianity gives different answers than Judaism to the question of what this salvation consists in, and how it is to be achieved (for those for whom God has decided to bring it about).  But all this is a part of the story that our course will have to address later on.]

In your first few readings of the biblical account of the Creation of the Universe and the Fall of Mankind, you should concentrate on the following questions.

(1)  Note that there are actually two accounts of the Creation of the world.  The first runs from Genesis 1:1 through Genesis 2:4.  The second takes up from there, and is the one that is continuous with the Fall story.  What differences do you notice between these two accounts?

(2)  The narrative presents the actions of certain agents:  God, Adam, Eve, an Angel (and, if we reach into the Post-Edenic era, with Genesis 4, of Abel and Cain).  Note that the most central of these agents is (in the traditional Jewish and Christian pictures) the author of the narrative, who is the same as the author of the world itself.  It is a convention of narrative as a genre that actions testify to (or "express") the character of their agents -- that is, that we can infer something important about the nature of agents by reflecting carefully on their conduct, their behavior.  What then do the actions of God convey to the audience about the nature of God?  (Or, from a different point of view:  what is the author of the narrative evidently seeking to convey about Himself to his Chosen People?)

Begin by trying to do this with as few preconceptions as possible for you about the nature of God.  That is, try to develop, in the first instance, the picture of God you would be left with if this story itself were all you had to go on.  (Later -- in Question 4 -- you'll be invited to try a different approach.)

In the first creation narrative, for instance: 

What recurrent patters do you notice as the account proceeds from day to day?

What principle seems to govern the order of happenings, both within days and among them?  (That is, could the agent have done things in a different sequence?)

Does God create Eve out of Adam?  Or is the humankind that is created originally made in two forms, male and female?

Is the world He establishes ordered mechanically, or politically/morally?

What do you make of Gen 1:14?  (What do "signs" presuppose?)

In connection with what you turned up under Question 1, above:  What are some different ways a reader might imagine to account for these differences?

Is the serpent (Gen 3:1-5, Gen 3:14-15) to be understood as Satan, a fallen angel, in disguise?

(3)  Try to detect what assumptions it conveys about the nature of human beings, the purpose of their existence, and what factors are going to play a role (in what remains of history) in determining whether that purpose gets achieved.  These will not of course be fully communicated within the confines of this particular narrative, but insofar as you are acquainted with some part of what the bible later on develops in respect of these issues, you can take note of features of the present story that "set up" -- or at least fit with -- these elements of the fuller picture.

(4)  Now reread the narrative through a different set of "eyeglasses" than you adopted in approaching Question 3.  This time, approach the story from the standpoint of one who is resolved in the piety of believing, as an axiom, that God is perfect, i.e., who is a "perfectionist monotheist" as we defined that notion in our construction of "the problem of evil."  What details of the story are going to strike you as puzzling?  Suppose you also believe, as an axiom, that this narrative proceeds (indirectly through Moses) from God Himself.  What interpretive moves might be open to you in order to resolve these specific puzzlements?

Here are some points you might reflect on in this light:

Gen 1:5 in the light of Gen 1:14.

The various points you turned up as you worked through Question 1, above.

Gen 2:18-23.

Gen 3:9, 3:11 and 3:13.

the proportionality of the punishments inflicted upon Adam and Eve (Gen 3:16-19) to their actions (Gen 3:2-6).

God's motive for expelling the two from Eden (Gen 3:22).

(5)  How much of what the serpent says to Eve, if anything, is false?  (If you think you have located something, can you specify exactly how it is false?


Note 1.  Several serious cautions are in order here.  But they do not compromise the main point.

For one thing, this does not mean that ancient Jews regarded themselves as in general entitled to dispose of other people merely instrumentally.  Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible is there any justification, for example, for the idea that non-Jews may be enslaved merely because they are not Jews.  Nor are Jews entitled to take for themselves the property of non-Jews.  On the contrary, there is a long tradition within Judaism stressing the obligation of Jews to treat others decently.  "The heathen is your neighbor, your brother; and to wrong him is a sin," goes a midrash attributed to Rabbi Eliuahu (cited in Leo Rosten's Treasury of Jewish Quotations), and though this remark derives from the Rabbinic period, its roots run far into the past:  to mention just one example, there is the terrible wrong that King David does to his faithful servant Uriah the Hittite, which God punishes as a sin (I Samuel 11-12:25).

At the same time, belief that God, through Moses, had promised Canaan to them was an important factor in the Hebrew people's military conquest of that region.  According to conviction, these lands belonged to them, as a gift of God, despite the fact that others had been living and farming there for generations, and use of force to dislodge these divinely dispossessed residents was fully justified.  Indeed, God commanded that certain of the original inhabitants were to be not merely subdued but completely and mercilessly wiped out -- men, women and children.  (Notable here are the fates, at the hand of the great general Joshua, of Jericho [Joshua 6:17, 6:21], Ai [Joshua 7:1-2, 24-28], and Makkedeh, Libnah, Lachish, Gezer, Eglon, Hebron, and Debir [Joshua 10:28, 30, 32, , 33, 35, 37, 39] -- to mention only the first in the long series.)  "For it was the Lord's doing to harden their hears that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be utterly destroyed, and should receive no mercy but be exterminated, as the Lord commanded Moses [and, after him, Joshua]" (Joshua 11:20).

Secondly, there is the story of Ruth, a Moabitess whose Jewish husband and father-in-law died, but who is so faithful to her mother-in-law Naomi as to leave her own familiar world behind to accompany Naomi back to Bethlehem in Judah, where her merit is eventually recognized by Boaz, who marries her as next-of-kin.  In the wedding blessing, she is compared to "Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel" (Ruth 4:11) and, indeed, she eventually turns out to be the great grandmother of King David.  In other words, it is not true that only Jews may be saved.  To be sure, this is a case of an especially meritorious non-Jew being adopted as a Jew, and her merit consists in her willingness to forsake her parents, and their land, peoples and gods for her mother-in-law, and the latter's territory, people, and God (Ruth 1:16-17).  But the story makes clear that it is possible, in special circumstances, for outsiders to be taken into the Chosen People.

The story of Ruth, then, does not refute the principle that there is no salvation outside of Judaism.  Rather it makes clear that there are ways by which those not born Jewish can become Jews.

Finally, and most importantly, the Hebrew Bible recognizes at least theoretically the possibility that God has made other covenants with other peoples, who might have their own special relationship with him.  Moses repeatedly warns the Israelites of what will befall them if they break the covenant.  But on one occasion (Deut 8:20), his warning takes the form of a comparison between the Jews and those whom they are authorized to dispossess:  "Like the nations that the Lord makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God."  This passage is open to the reading that God had also spoken to these other peoples, and had either gone unheeded (having made an offer of a covenant that went unaccepted) or been betrayed (in that a covenant had been established but broken).  Moreover, there are some peoples who are not outright rejected by God:  After some years of wandering in the Sinai wilderness, Moses reminds the Israelites (descendants of Jacob, on whom Isaac had conferred his inheritance instead of the older brother Esau) how at various points God directed him to take the Israelites into the regions inhabited by the sons of Esau and, later, by the sons of Lot (brother of Abraham, the father of Isaac), but tells him to convey his command that these people be treated respectfully, because he has given their lands to them as their possession, having dispossessed for their sake the former inhabitants (Deut 2:1-24), just as he is planning to dispossess a host of others in favor of the Israelites.

Nevertheless, it is clear that whatever special relationship God may have entered into with other peoples, their actual and current ways of many do not please him:  in particular, he refuses to speak to any of them, as it were, through the idiom of any polytheism.  And even if God is not angry at certain other peoples, closely related by ancestry with the Israelites, and has even specially intervened to their benefit, Moses' overwhelming emphasis is upon the point already traversed, above (Deut 7:6):  "For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord you God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth."  That is, you are more special, to the Creator, than anyone else in the world.

"For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?  And what great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?"  (Deut 4:7-8)

And:  "For ask now of the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of.  Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live?  Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great terrors, according to all the the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?"  (Deut 4:32-35)

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