Friday Links

A video of Ray Bradbury at a Caltech symposium in 1971, which also drew such luminaries as Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke. (Can you believe none of them are around anymore?) Anyway, Bradbury talks for a bit – he’s really funny, and laughs at his own goofy anecdotes along with everyone else – then reads his poem, “If Only We Had Taller Been.”

This is one of those poems I had never even heard of, and then I read it, and all I could think was wow. Just brilliant. Here’s the text.

Have a prodigious weekend.

Bible Read: Descendants of Eve

So you’re reading Genesis, and you’re out of the Garden of Eden. What’s next?

An important milestone

Everyone knows about the first day and night, the first man and woman, the first murder (Cain and Abel). But never have I heard anyone mention the milestone that came just after:

The first sarcasm.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
Genesis 4:9

On a more serious note, the Cain and Abel story – rather than the Adam and Eve story – is the first instance of the word “sin” in the Bible (Gen 4:7). God describes sin as something like a wild animal, “lurking at the door.” Abel’s death is described in likewise evocative terms; his blood “is crying out” to God from the ground (Gen 4:10).

Wives wanted

Cain is cast out to the land of Nod, and then we read:

Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch…
Genesis 4:17

Back the train up.

So far, in the entire world, we have (counts on fingers) Eve, Adam, Cain…yep, that’s a total of three living humans on the planet. Who exactly is this wife of Cain’s, never introduced or named, casually first mentioned in the act of intercourse?

The simplest explanation, to me, is that other humans were around besides Adam’s immediate family. If you want the story to be literally true, you have to accept brother-sister incest, as well as a disjointed narrative, because Eve’s daughters haven’t been mentioned yet (Gen 5:4, Adam has “other sons and daughters”).

And you thought these guys had it rough.

Don’t forget about Seth

Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel. Everybody knows those names. But Seth remains far more obscure.

Which is odd, really, because Seth – Eve’s third child, the only one besides Cain and Abel mentioned by name – is the ancestor (through Noah) of every human alive.

Also, compare the descendants of Cain with the descendants of Seth. In order, they are:

Cain

  • Enoch
  • Irad
  • Mehujael
  • Methushael
  • Lamech

Seth

  • Enosh
  • Kenan
  • Mehalalel
  • Jared
  • Enoch
  • Methuselah
  • Lamech

These lists of descendants are awfully similar. Cain and Seth have similar-named sons (Enoch, Enosh). “Irad” sounds like “Jared.” And they both end with Methushael/Methuselah, followed by Lamech.

This is another case where the literal interpretation (the names happen to be similar) differs from what I’d consider the simple explanation (both are variants of a single traditional story).

Enoch and Methuselah

We’re talking about Enoch the descendant of Seth, here, not Enoch the son of Cain.

What does it mean that all of Enoch’s ancestors “died,” but Enoch “walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him”? (Gen 5:24)

The explanation I was taught growing up was that, because Enoch was righteous, God physically took him up into heaven rather than letting him die. This seems to be a common interpretation. If accurate, it puts Enoch in pretty exclusive company. If you go by what the Bible explicitly says, the only other person I know who was taken permanently, bodily into heaven, is Jesus.

How or why was Enoch so righteous? In what way did he walk with God? Why is it that Noah, who a bit later is described as “righteous” and “blameless” and who likewise “walked with God” (Gen 6:9), did not receive a similar honor, as far as we know? Like so many other curious fragments in the Bible, we simply don’t get much explanation.

By the way, Enoch’s son Methuselah is famous as the oldest man in the Bible, dying at age 969. It’s interesting, though, that the Genesis narrative itself doesn’t say anything special about him at all; it doesn’t mention that he is the oldest, or give any extra details about him. And Methuselah, by the way, had only thirty-nine more birthdays than Adam.

And now for something completely different

You’re reading Genesis. Creation, sin, descendants of Cain, descendants of Seth, okay, following the story so far…

And then you get to Genesis 6.

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.
Genesis 6:1-4

What?

Sorry, I meant WHAT?

This passage comes with absolutely no introduction, explanation, or follow-up, so that little block of text is about all you get. And I have questions. So, so many questions. Questions like:

  • Who or what are the Nephilim?
  • Who or what are the “sons of God”?
  • What is the relationship, if any, between the two groups?
  • Just what, exactly, is going on here?

…to name only a few.

The most literal and obvious meaning of “sons of God” would seem to be angels, and indeed, this is the meaning assumed by the Oxford Annotated footnotes. Biblical context supports this. The same Hebrew phrase (or close variations of it) appears only a few other places, as far as I can discover: several times in Job, and once in Psalm 29. In all cases it appears to be talking about angels.

But if angels are really marrying human women and having children – I mean, wow, right? That’s certainly a striking little fact that doesn’t get much attention.

Incidentally, Jesus implies in Matthew 22:30 that “angels in heaven” do not marry. But maybe these angels, having descended to earth, no longer follow heavenly rules. Or maybe they’re fallen angels – that is, demons. That interpretation, by the way, is the origin of the incubus and succubus myths.

If all this sounds a little unorthodox, that’s because it is. These days, the standard Christian (and Jewish) interpretation is that “sons of God” refers to righteous men – that is, the descendants of Seth – marrying corrupt women, the “daughters of humans” – that is, the descendants of Cain.

The Nephilim are slightly less mysterious (but only slightly). They are explicitly mentioned in just one other place, Numbers 13:33, as giants, and “giants” is the standard English translation for this term.

But how do the Nephilim fit into the story? They seem to be distinct from the “sons of God.” But are they the offspring mentioned, the “warriors of renown,” as most interpretations seem to believe? Or are they a separate group altogether, as the Oxford Annotated claims?

For me, this little story is just the most striking example (so far) of a phenomenon all throughout Genesis, and indeed, throughout the Bible. The text says very curious, very difficult, very ambiguous things, often with little or no explanation. As readers, we must also be detectives, piecing together the clues as best we can.

Whatever their logical explanation, however, many such fragments are starkly beautiful, in part because of their mystery. I’ve already incorporated a passage from Genesis 6 into my current draft of The Crane Girl.

Next up: the Flood.

A Math PSA

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The latest issue of Time has an article titled “In praise of the ordinary child” about parents who push their kids too hard to excel, and the psychological harm it can do to children and parents alike.

It’s a good article. But at one point, there’s a box full of statistics, one of which says:

70%

Share of students who consider themselves above average in academic ability—a mathematical impossibility

That is, it’s impossible (says Time) for 70% of a population to be above average.

I’ve seen this idea other places. “Ninety percent of drivers think they’re better than average,” people laugh, amused at the absurdity.

Listen up, Internet. This is a public service announcement. Are you ready? *ahem*

Any percentage of a population can be above average (except 100%).

A simple example: say you have 100 students. Of those, 99 students score an 80 on a test, and the remaining student scores a 78. The average will therefore be slightly below 80, so 99 students will be above average.

That’s a trivial example to prove a point. But it can happen in more substantial ways. Say that wealth distribution for a community is a bell curve from $0 to $100,000. Then a relatively small group of multi-billionaires moves in. This jacks the average way up, and now most (or all) of the people from our original bell curve are below average.

The confusion seems to be between mean (average) and median. The latter refers to the middle of a sample, and it does indeed split the sample into two halves, one below and one above, roughly speaking. I say “roughly speaking” because even with median there are exceptions, though the exceptions are minor.

It’s an easy mistake to make, even for a magazine as venerable as Time, and I wouldn’t have said anything – except they specifically called it a mathematical impossibility. That means they didn’t just get their math wrong; they got their math wrong while claiming to be right with the power of math, and while using that math power to shoot down the supposed academic abilities of other people.

(Of course, I’m not saying 70% of kids are above average academically, just that it isn’t mathematically impossible.)

This has been a public service announcement. Remember, friends don’t let friends write math-impaired.

The Crane Girl – Spreading Its Wings

The path of The Crane Girl has not been a straightforward one. I wrote 60,000 words on an abbreviated first draft and 7,000 words on a second. (For comparison, a typical novel is in the neighborhood of 80,000-120,000 words.) Then all progress halted for over a year as I recovered from illness.

I started up again in April, rebooting the story, keeping a few core elements but otherwise starting over from scratch. I researched history, mythology, religion, alchemy, tarot, fairy tales, and languages, among other things. I still have plenty of research left to do, and honestly, I didn’t think I’d start writing the next draft for a while.

But ideas turn to characters, and characters turn to scenes, and once a scene comes to life in your brain, it demands to be written. So, two weeks ago, I started the first draft of the rebooted story. I’m up to 13,000 words, or about 50 pages.

It’s good stuff. I don’t mean the quality of the writing – though I hope that’s good too – I mean the act of writing, the process of getting it on (digital) paper. It’s not like it has been sometimes before, where I sat staring at a blank screen, sweating blood, wishing I were doing anything else. It’s fun, and it’s not any more difficult than writing a novel is supposed to be.

To paraphrase Dune: “The words must flow.” And they are. The Emperor would be pleased.

There actually is an Emperor in The Crane Girl, though we haven’t gotten to him yet. His wife, the Empress, is the insane homicidal ruler of the High City – and she’s one of the good guys. Their daughter’s job is to watch and wait for the imminent Last Battle, but she’s getting antsy. Ethan, a boy from Earth, is inciting her to rebellion (and – naturally – falling in love with her too). His adoptive little sister, Sara, is drifting toward omniscience. Meanwhile, back in Kansas, Ethan and Sara’s mother is on the brink of losing it because she doesn’t know where they are – and that’s before she gets her magic powers. It’s all leading up to everyone’s favorite shindig: the apocalypse.

See? It’s gonna be fun. Complicated, but fun.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, chapter 9 ain’t gonna write itself.

Friday Link

Here’s a link in case you can’t see the embedded video.

Have an exemplary weekend!

Image

Before eHarmony

get me a wif

Game Theory and the Garden of Eden

Look – I’m a logical guy. I’m a programmer, a copyeditor, and a math tutor. I have a signed, framed print of an xkcd comic on my dining room wall. I follow rules, and I create rules, and I like things to make sense.

So when I come across something puzzling in the Bible, I get…curious.

The discussion that follows is based on a reading of Genesis that’s probably too literal. I’m not trying for serious literary or theological analysis. I’m just letting my logical brain do its thing.

With that in mind, let me ask you: what would’ve happened if Eve and Adam hadn’t eaten from the Tree of Knowledge?

Ever wondered? I had never given it much thought. If you’d asked me, my answer would’ve been something vague: I guess they would’ve stayed in the Garden and been happy. And lived forever, maybe? Not really sure.

It turns out that Genesis gives a surprising amount of detail about the whole situation, though, and there’s enough information that it feels a little like game theory to me. (I know almost nothing technical about game theory, so math majors, don’t cringe too hard.)

You’ve got two “players.” One is God, the other is Adam and Eve. (The serpent is more of an influencer than a player.) Both players want the best outcome for themselves, but their interests don’t necessarily align.

You’ve also got two trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

The Tree of Life is simple. You eat its fruit, and you live forever (Gen 3:22). Adam and Eve can eat from this tree whenever they wish, because it’s not forbidden (2:16), but in the Genesis story, they never do. If you don’t eat from this tree, you remain mortal.

The Tree of Knowledge makes you “like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5). It grants other knowledge, too – for instance, they realize they are naked (3:7). In my view, this tree takes you from a childlike state into adulthood.

The way I see it, there are actually four different ways this scenario can play out.

Choice 1: Eat from neither tree.

Adam and Eve don’t sin. They stay in Eden, grow old, die, and presumably go to heaven. It’s implied that sex is a pre-Fall state of affairs, rather than a result of sin (2:23-24), so they will almost certainly have children, and Eden fills with their descendants.

By the way, as more and more people live in Eden over time, it would seem to be ever more likely that someone, sooner or later, will eat from the Tree of Knowledge. From this perspective, the Fall seems almost inevitable.

Choice 2: Eat from the Tree of Knowledge.

This is what happens in Genesis. They disobey, they eat, they become “like God,” they’re kicked out forever, they eventually die. The story we all know.

Choice 3: Eat from the Tree of Life only.

A variation on #1. Adam and Eve stay in Eden, sinless, living forever. They have lots of kids. One wonders if there would have to be some kind of population control after a while, or if Eden grows to accommodate additional residents. Maybe it eventually spreads to cover the whole planet. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Choice 4: Eat from the Tree of Life, then the Tree of Knowledge.

This is where things get really interesting.

See, God doesn’t want them to eat from both trees, because then they would be “like God” in knowing good and evil, and also immortal. (Why God doesn’t want this is not entirely clear.) So, in the Genesis narrative, when they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, he threw them out to be sure they didn’t eat from both trees.

If they eat from the Tree of Life, however, they haven’t broken any rules. That tree is permitted. They’re immortal, and they can still go anywhere in the Garden. And hey, the fruit on that other tree is looking pretty tasty…

God could do several things here.

First, he could do what he did in #2 and wait till after they eat from the Tree of Knowledge to do anything. Then Adam and Eve are both knowledgeable and immortal, which is what he didn’t want. The humans have “defeated” God. What happens after that? No one knows. (Although, if modern science can figure out a way to stop aging – and we seem to be getting closer all the time – then we may one day find out.)

Second, God could step in after they decide to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, but before they actually do, letting them stay immortal but preventing them from becoming “like God” (and presumably kicking them out of Eden). This option is also fascinating, because you’re now in a situation where humans have Fallen (they decided to disobey God) but they’re immortal anyway, and thus don’t need the sacrifice of Jesus to get eternal life. A very odd state of affairs.

Or finally, God could avoid the whole problem by removing or barring the Tree of Knowledge after they become immortal. This actually makes it impossible for Adam and Eve to sin, because there’s no longer any way they can disobey him (unless some new command or situation appears). In other words, the Fall is permanently averted. Adam and Eve “win.” The whole thing could have been avoided if they had just happened to eat from the Tree of Life first.

All three of these possibilities are very strange, yet all three follow directly from the humans taking the simple, obvious, and perfectly acceptable step of eating the fruit that will make them immortal. Funny, isn’t it?

Oh, well. Tomorrow’s post will be about something non-biblical. I promise!