Tag Archives: Great Bible Read

Bible Read: Ecclesiastes

An intriguing, cryptic book, very un-dogmatic, the polar opposite of Leviticus. Difficult and sometimes depressing, and surprisingly unorthodox. Definitely my favorite book so far.

Also seems to be the most Buddhist book of the Bible. Practically everything in Ecclesiastes could have come from the Buddha’s mouth.

Books we’ve read so far:

  • Genesis
  • Exodus
  • Gospel of John
  • 1 Thessalonians
  • 2 Thessalonians
  • Gospel of Mark
  • Leviticus
  • Galatians

Up next:

  • Daniel

Current Happenings

  • Betsy and I assembled a sort of hanging/swinging motorized baby rocker device yesterday (evidently I need to brush up on baby tech nomenclature). Packages ordered from our registry are appearing on our front porch with alarming regularity.
  • Betsy now answers the questions “How are you feeling?”, “When are you due?”, and “Boy or girl?” approximately 735 times per day. I have postulated that learning a person’s emotional state by asking how they’re feeling is like learning a quantum particle’s position: The act of measuring changes the status.
  • Baby shower coming up this weekend. Just like in that song: “Hallelujah, it’s raining men babies.”
  • Why do we give plush toy bears to babies? The bear is the baby’s natural predator.
  • Recently ripped the carpet off the front porch. (Yes, there was carpet on our front porch. No, we didn’t put it there, but we did leave it on for about five years longer than we should have.) Now I’m midway through the much more difficult process of scraping off the carpet glue using a de-gooping agent (the technical term).
  • Now that Trump is officially the nominee, I’ve started putting real thought into what I can do to oppose him. I’ve got a small project in the works that I hope to unveil next week. Nothing amazing, but hopefully a start. Not that I’m crazy about Hillary or anything, but I really don’t want to explain to my kids someday how Trump became President and I didn’t do anything to try to stop it.
  • Speaking of which – I don’t have too many nice things to say about Ted Cruz, but his non-endorsement of Trump was pretty great.
  • Star Trek Beyond (coming out tomorrow) is currently at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is about 90% higher than I would have guessed, based on the initial trailer. Always glad to be wrong about things like this.
  • I’m seeing that Batman Killing Joke animated movie on Monday. I don’t have high hopes for that (although I liked the graphic novel), but – as with Star Trek – I would love to be wrong.
  • My Great Bible Read (with Betsy) continues apace. We recently finished Leviticus, which is a truly horrifying book if you take it at all seriously. Leviticus 21:9 has God himself explicitly ordering people to be burned to death. As a Christian, you have two choices: Believe in a God who commands people to be tortured to death, or believe that not everything in the Bible is the word of God. If I were a Christian, I’d go emphatically with the latter.
  • We’re on to Galatians now.
  • The Ohio chapter of the EFA (which I’m the coordinator of) recently had its third meeting. Lots of exciting plans in the works, including some strategies for recruiting new members.
  • I’ve stopped putting the hyphen in “email,” upending a decade of personal tradition. TIMES CHANGE AND WE MUST ALL CHANGE WITH THEM.
  • Yesterday I finished reading Bart D. Ehrman’s book How Jesus Became God. Regardless of your religious beliefs, it’s a fascinating historical study that will open your eyes to all kinds of important but seldom-discussed information about the theological development of the early Church.
  • Still doing a bunch of copyediting for Dragonfly Editorial. I have thought more about hyphens and dashes in the past twelve months than in the rest of my life combined.
  • Congrats to Ben Trube. He knows why.

Your Move, Leviticus

I haven’t written about it lately, but Betsy and I are still doing our Great Bible Read, working our way through the Book (or rather, books) one chapter at a time. Right now we’re reading Leviticus, which is a fascinating, enlightening, and surreal experience.

A few days ago we came to Leviticus 18:22.

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.

Thoughtful pause, and then Betsy said:

“So I guess that doesn’t rule out girl-on-girl, huh?”


side effects may include

Postmortem: Exodus

Betsy and I are still making our way through the Bible, one chapter at a time. A couple days ago we finished Exodus. Some brief thoughts…

Whereas the God of Genesis does a lot of killing in vast and dramatic ways (genocidal Flood, raining fire on Sodom and Gomorrah), the God of Exodus seems smaller, more spiteful and cruel. Examples:

  • He repeatedly “hardens the heart” of the Pharaoh – who would otherwise have let the Israelites go free – explicitly for the sake of his own glory (e.g. Exodus 10:1).
  • He punishes the Levites by having them get out swords and run around and “each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.” They do, and three thousand die. (32:27-28)
  • He believes in “visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (34:7)
  • He orders that anyone who works on the Sabbath must be executed. (35:2)
  • etc.

Readers have commented for centuries that the God of the Old Testament seems shockingly bloodthirsty compared to the God of the New Testament, and I knew most of these examples already, so it’s not like this was a surprise. Still, it’s striking to see it spelled out so clearly in black and white.

I was surprised, however, to find that the golden calf created by the Israelites is so ambiguous in nature. I always thought of it as simply an idol worshiped instead of God, and in some respects that is how it’s described. But we’re also told: “When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it [the golden calf]; and Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord [YHWH].’ They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.” (32:5-6)

In other words, the calf-centered festival where they offered sacrifices was still considered a festival to their original God (at least in Aaron’s mind). I had never heard that before.

The revelation of the divine name “I Am” to Moses is poetic and beautiful, and seems fitting.

I’ve heard people claim that slavery in the Old Testament isn’t wrong, because it’s not like the Southern pre-Civil War slavery we think of today. Well, it may not be the same, but read this divine law and judge its morality for yourself: “When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.” (21:20)

That is, it’s okay to beat your slaves to death, as long as it takes them at least twenty-four hours to die of their wounds.

There’s a single sentence that is ten verses long (35:10-19). I wonder if that’s the record, or if there are any longer sentences later.

A surprising amount of time is spent going over the precise physical details of the Ark, Tabernacle, altar, and so on. I mean, it’s really intense. Six chapters of description (25-30) of the design, followed by five chapters (36-40) of the construction, which is basically a near-verbatim repetition of the design part, except it’s what they built instead of what they’re planning to build.

I noticed, too, that Exodus had much less emphasis on women than Genesis. There was Miriam (sister of Moses and Aaron) and Pharoah’s daughter, and a few others, but all had brief and minor roles. Contrast with the roles of Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah.

I’ve been very critical of Exodus, but I have to stress that my criticism (and, let’s be honest, anger) is not from any dislike of Christianity. It’s the opposite. Because I respect Christianity and expect good things from it, I get very frustrated to see holy books that glorify death and cruelty. I think Betsy feels something similar.

It is a credit to Christians around the world that they can transform even books like these into a force for peace and love. (I feel similarly about nearly all other religious texts, by the way.)

Anyway – as mentioned before, we’re heading to Matthew next. A little New Testament reading will be a nice palate cleanser before we plunge back into the Old Testament again, and Leviticus in particular.

Postmortem: Genesis

Betsy and I just finished Genesis. It’s … a strange book.

Chapters 1-11 cover primeval, mythic-type events: Creation, expulsion from Eden, the first murder, the Flood, the Tower of Babel. A lot of the best-known Genesis stories come from these early chapters.

But the vast majority of the book, chapters 12-50, are about four generations of rich patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (Israel), and Joseph, along with their families.

It’s striking, first of all, how amoral this section of Genesis is. People do all kinds of things – killing, threatening to kill, enslaving, banishing, lying, cheating, sleeping around – with very little judgment from the text on what is and isn’t okay. In some cases, as when Abraham lies to Pharaoh and calls Sarah his sister, we get the impression it’s a bad thing. Other cases, like when Jacob cheats Esau out of his blessing, feel more positive. In still other cases, as when Lot’s daughters get him drunk and sleep with him, there seems to be no textual judgment at all, positive or negative; it’s just something that happens. Such lack of judgment would make sense in a work of fiction, but in the Bible – which people use as a source of moral guidance – it’s more surprising.

Likewise, there isn’t much about what kind of relationship humanity should have with God. God actually doesn’t appear too often in these chapters, and when he does, his exchanges with humans are very transactional: command and obey, request and provide. Unlike Noah, who was chosen for his righteousness, Abraham seems to be chosen without any clear reason. God simply says, without explanation or preamble: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great” (Gen 12:2). Likewise, Abraham’s descendants seem to inherit his blessing through blood, rather than virtue. Why has God chosen these people in particular? Why would God choose any people in particular? We’re never told, at least not in Genesis. Instead, God seems to be on Abraham’s side because, well, he’s Abraham.

So if Genesis isn’t primarily about laws, morals, or God, what is it about?

Mostly, it’s about inheritance. A lot of time and detail is spent on who marries who, who sleeps with who, sterility and fertility, birth order and birthright, the blessings of the father, and where people are buried. All this establishes the lineage and origin of the twelve tribes of Israel (and other tribes), the ancestors of King David, the blessings of God, and claims to ownership of various lands. It’s practical: I get this land, this blessing, this authority, not you.

From an ancient viewpoint, Genesis makes sense. People want origin stories, and they want to establish claims to what they have. For a modern Christian reader, though, the purpose of Genesis is less clear. A few passages are instructive (albeit troubling), like the Flood and Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. And the book does provide important historical and cultural perspective for interpreting the rest of the Bible, including the teachings of Jesus.

But as a standalone book, it’s … well, it’s odd. Interesting and significant, of course, but odd.

That’s my, ahem, professional opinion.

On to Exodus!

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:


  • Enoch
  • Irad
  • Mehujael
  • Methushael
  • Lamech


  • 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


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.

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!

Bible Read: Creation and Eden

As I discussed last week, Betsy and I are reading the Bible all the way through, a chapter a day. We’re still in Genesis at the moment. All Bible quotations in this and future Bible Read discussions are from the NRSV translation unless otherwise noted.

So let’s get started.

Talk to someone reasonably well-versed in Christianity and ask them about the Creation story. They’ll likely tell you something like this:

God alone created the universe in six days, making certain things on each day, in a fixed order, then rested on the seventh. Adam and Eve, the first humans, lived in the Garden of Eden. Satan tempted Eve with an apple from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which God had forbidden. Eve took a bite, and persuaded Adam to do the same. This disobedience was mankind’s Original Sin (which Jesus would later atone for), and as punishment, God cast them out of the garden and into the hard world.

Sound familiar? Nothing wrong with it per se. But it’s important to understand that the story recounted above is an interpretation of Genesis. The text itself says something rather different.

Let’s walk through it together, and I’ll point out whatever especially interests me, the strange and the beautiful.

In the beginning

I have long believed that the Bible has the best opening lines, the strongest “hook,” of any book on the planet. The version familiar to me is something like the one from the NIV:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
Genesis 1:1-3 (NIV)

What we’re reading now, however, is the NRSV, and imagine my surprise when I found the opening lines rendered as:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
Genesis 1:1-3

The short, declarative sentence at the start is transformed into a mere clause, modifying what’s to come. The second version is far less elegant, in my opinion. That’s not a criticism of the NRSV, which is merely translating an existing Hebrew text; and a footnote in my edition does acknowledge that “scholars differ” on which translation is more correct.

Theologically, it doesn’t matter. But the lesson is clear from the very first sentence: the text of the Bible is what it is, not what I expect it – or want it – to be.

I’m fascinated, by the way, by that term – “the deep.” In Hebrew it’s tehom, implying primordial chaos, perhaps related to Tiamat the monstrous Sumerian chaos goddess. Tiamat is often depicted as a serpent, much like the biblical Leviathan, who in the Book of Job is described as an unworthy adversary of God during Creation. Remember chaoskampf? That’s what we’re talking about here.

I wonder if Leviathan was one of the “great sea monsters” God created in Genesis 1:21.

Who is “us”?

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…”
Genesis 1:26

This happens so quick it’s easy to miss it. We will make humankind? In our image? Who else is out there, anyway?

Nobody seems to know for sure; answers vary, all equally fascinating.

The most obvious answer for a modern Christian is that “us” refers to the three parts of the Trinity. If so, this offers a fascinating insight on the psychology of God: he actually thinks of himself, sometimes, as “us.” It’s also a reminder that (again, according to mainstream Christian theology) it wasn’t just God the Father there at Creation. The Son (Logos) and the Spirit were there too, and we are made in their image as well.

But Genesis is first and foremost a Jewish text. I greatly doubt the original author of Genesis had the Trinity in mind; at the very least, it’s not the Jewish interpretation. So what do they make of “us”? It seems they generally believe that “us” refers to angels. If that’s the case, it’s just as fascinating: angels were actively involved in creation! Humankind was made in the image of angels as well as God!

I’ve also heard the argument that the plural pronoun is merely an artifact of Hebrew grammar. Evidently the word for “God” used here (Elohim) has some aspects of a plural noun? My knowledge of Hebrew being nonexistent, I can’t begin to speculate on whether that makes sense, but the theory doesn’t seem to have a lot of defenders.

Creation happens twice

The seven days of Creation are described in Genesis 1:1-2:3. Creation happens in this order, day by day:

  1. Day and Night
  2. The sky
  3. Earth, sea, and plants
  4. Sun, moon, and stars
  5. Birds and sea animals
  6. Other animals, and then humans (male and female)
  7. Rest

Curiously, this is followed by a separate, seemingly contradictory account in Genesis 2:4-25. Here we are not told about separate days, and the story begins with the earth already created:

  1. The first man (Adam)
  2. The Garden of Eden (possibly these are the first plants, though it’s a bit unclear)
  3. All animals
  4. The first woman (Eve)

The scholarly view is that these two accounts indicate multiple sources for Genesis which have been stitched together. (Similar “hiccups” occur all throughout the book.)

The difference between these two accounts is striking in many ways. In the first story, God is simply called “God” (Elohim), and he is omnipotent, willing all things into existence with words alone. In the second, God gets a personal name: Yahweh, or YHWH, the Tetragrammaton, often translated as “LORD” (and occasionally as “Jehovah”). Yahweh is portrayed as less all-powerful and more humanlike; for instance, he creates animals in a failed attempt to find a mate for Adam, rather than for their own sake. (Of course, the usual Christian interpretation would be that God did this on purpose, but we don’t find that in the text.)

No apple, no Satan, no sin

The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is simply called “fruit.” The word “apple” does not appear anywhere. This doesn’t matter theologically, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

Much more significant is the fact that the serpent in Eden is never described as Satan. The serpent seems to be, well, a serpent.

What does the text say?

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made.
Genesis 3:1

Than any other wild animal. So the serpent is explicitly described as a wild animal. But wait – what does the NIV say?

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made.
Genesis 3:1 (NIV)

Here, the serpent is explicitly not a wild animal. Large conclusions hinge on tiny differences in translation. Again we see that the Bible is a very difficult text that must be read with extraordinary care.

So Genesis 3:1 is ambiguous. And later:

The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this [tempted Eve], cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures…”
Genesis 3:14

Again, for the NRSV, the serpent is clearly an animal. But the NIV has:

So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals!”
Genesis 3:14 (NIV)

Again, the NIV indicates it’s not an animal.

Am I reading too much into small details? Maybe. But the serpent seems an ambiguous figure at best.

“Sin,” too, is a word that appears nowhere in the Eden account (much less “original sin”). You can infer that Adam and Eve sinned because they disobeyed God; but, since Original Sin is the reason for the sacrifice of Jesus, and thus the foundation of the Christian faith, it’s curious, at least, that the story describing it doesn’t speak of it in those terms at all.

God lies, the serpent tells the truth

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Genesis 2:16-17

(The NIV has “for when you eat of it” instead of “for in the day that you eat of it.”)

But Adam and Eve do eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and they don’t die that day. They do eventually die – centuries later – but not because they disobeyed God. Genesis makes it clear that they were created mortal, and would only have become immortal if they’d eaten from the Tree of Life.

So what God said was incorrect, at least from a plain reading of the text. To make God’s statement true, you have to supply some extra interpretation, turning “die” into some sort of metaphorical or spiritual death.

By contrast:

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God [or ‘gods’], knowing good and evil.”
Genesis 3:4-5

And, as we will see, this is exactly what happens.

Why are Adam and Eve expelled?

Anyone will tell you that Adam and Eve were removed from Eden as punishment for disobedience. That’s not what Genesis says, however.

They are punished for disobedience. Eve is given pain in childbirth, and Adam is forced to toil for his food, among other things.

But Genesis is quite explicit about why they’re expelled, and it has nothing to do with sin.

Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”—therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.
Genesis 3:22-24

“See, the man has become like one of us.” Just as the serpent predicted. God’s concern here is that Adam – having gained one aspect of divinity already – might acquire another aspect, immortality. If you didn’t know better, you’d think God was worried. This theme will reappear with the Tower of Babel.

(Incidentally, note that Adam is expelled from the east gate of Eden; a chapter later, Cain is also cast out, this time into the Land of Nod, which is described as “east of Eden” – Genesis 4:16. That is the source of the title for the Steinbeck novel.)

Women, obey your men

Backing up just a bit. Among the punishments listed for the three sinners – the man, the woman, and the serpent – we find this punishment for Eve:

To the woman he [God] said, “…your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
Genesis 3:16

This is said to Eve; but since literally every other punishment listed here applies to their descendants, it would seem this one is likewise. So not only does God create the idea of men ruling over women, he also makes it explicitly clear that this sexism is the woman’s fault. (As we’ll see much later, St. Paul is very much on board with this plan.) You stay classy, Genesis.

And lest you think that these are just harmless antiquated notions that nobody takes seriously anymore – Betsy and I went to a mainstream Christian church less than a year ago, right here in Ohio, that preached a whole sermon about how men should rule the family and women should obey, based solely on Scripture.

Obviously most Christians I know don’t think that way, because they’re not morons. The point, however, is that these verses can and do cause major problems in the world even today. If this is God’s Word, one is forced to think long and hard about why the verses are there.

Final thoughts

Does it sound like I’m nitpicking? I hope not. I certainly don’t mean to. I think the account of Creation and Eden is a beautiful story, poetic and insightful. It’s part of our shared heritage as a culture. It asks important questions and makes us think. Like many parts of the Bible, however, it is also deeply problematic. When it comes to biblical study, if you’re not confused (at least part of the time), then you’re not paying attention.

Also, wow this turned into a long post. I think this is my longest nonfiction post ever, by a wide margin. And that’s only the first three chapters. I’m past chapter twelve in my reading now, and believe, I’ve got thoughts on that stuff too!

The Great Bible Read

I’ve never read the Bible all the way through.

Sure, I’ve read parts of it – Genesis, Exodus, the Gospels, Acts, Revelation, and others. I’ve read about it endlessly, heard countless sermons, had countless discussions. But I’ve never sat down and gone cover to cover.

Really, this is odd. I was raised Christian. My wife and my best friends are Christian. I find the Bible fascinating culturally, historically, theologically, philosophically, symbolically, and linguistically. It is unquestionably the foundation of Western literature. And I love books the way some people love Monday Night Football.

This gap in my reading is especially awkward when you consider that I have read core texts of three other religions: Islam (Quran), Taoism (Tao Te Ching), and Hinduism (Bhagavad Gita). Although, to be fair, the Quran and the Bhagavad Gita are both much, much shorter than the Bible, and the Tao Te Ching makes the Nancy Drew mysteries look wordy.

I’ve long felt this was a project I ought to tackle, but the time never seemed right. Lately, though, as I’ve been doing research for The Crane Girl – which is heavily steeped in religious symbolism – it’s been growing ever more apparent that, if I’m going to do it, I should do it now.

I asked Betsy if she’d be up for taking the challenge with me, and she agreed. So we’re doing a chapter a day – a slow but sustainable pace, ideal for both of us, that will have us turning the final page in about three years.

Our Bible of choice:

oxford bible

The translation is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). More than just a translation, however, this is the New Oxford Annotated Bible (fourth edition) – a study Bible designed for close, critical reading, complete with introductions for each book, copious footnotes, maps, family trees, alternate translations, and so on.

I can tell you now, having this kind of extra information makes a huge difference. We’re only ten chapters into Genesis, and already I’ve discovered so many details I never noticed before. It’s almost like reading a whole new book. (I’ll also be comparing notes with the NIV translation now and then, especially for difficult passages.)

You’ll notice the cover says “With The Apocrypha.” As used here, “apocrypha” is a broad and non-derogatory term that covers all the books that are in the Catholic Bible but not the Protestant (like Tobit, Wisdom of Solomon, 1 & 2 Maccabees) and books from that belong to the eastern Christian canon but not to the Protestant or Catholic canons (like 1 Esdras and 3 Maccabees). The idea is simply to read the entire Bible, broadly understood, rather than the Bible of any particular group.

How do I approach a task like this? How should I read? In general, I want to be both critical and open.

Critical, because this is an extraordinarily difficult and complicated text, used for moral and spiritual guidance by over two billion people. Such a work deserves serious analysis if it’s written by humans alone, and even more so if written by God.

Open, because there’s a lot to be learned from the Bible, and not just academically. I can’t imagine anyone seriously arguing otherwise. Yes, there are parts that I think are ugly, wrong, and evil. But there are other parts that are beautiful, profound, and enlightening. I’m not Christian, and I don’t expect to be converted by this reading, but it would be foolish to shut any door permanently.

I believe I have a soul. Not necessarily an immortal soul, or a soul independent of the physical brain, or anything mystical per se; but certainly there is something inside me, inside everyone, with the capacity to reach upward, no matter what we may find there. Why not give it a chance to grow?

I’ll be posting my thoughts as I read, Postmortem-style: the good, the bad, and the curious. These posts can be simple one-way lectures if you like, but I’d much rather they be discussions. Comments, as always, are welcome.

Here’s hoping we make it past Exodus!