Tag Archives: Great Bible Read

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!

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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!