[Partly edited 1/21/08 and 1/16/12]

A Very Good Place to Start:  Genesis 1-11

I told you last time that, in many ways, the people of ancient Israel (the Hebrews) were not a very important people. They made no great contributions to science or to the arts.  They were never a dominant political power, and, usually, not even a very important player in the political games of the ancient world.  In most respects, they would seem much less important than the Egyptians, the Assyrians, or the Persians—and it would certainly seem inappropriate to have a whole course devoted to this relatively insignificant people. So why do we study the Hebrews?  What is the importance of this people?  Well, the Apostle Paul asked a similar question about the Jews.  “What advantage, then, hath the Jew?” asked Paul.  His answer? “Much in every way, chiefly that unto them were committed the oracles of God.”

The apostle Paul believed that God, the one God that created all things, was speaking to all mankind through the Hebrews.  It's no surprise that Paul, a Jew himself, thought this way.  The Jews were firmly convinced from the beginning that God was changing the world through them. Abraham was told that in his seed all nations of the earth would be blessed.  The same promise was repeated to Isaac and to Jacob.  And the Jews believed it. And, wonder of wonders, eventually most of the world came to believe it. The Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have changed the world—and the one great contribution of the Jews, what Christians call the Old Testament and the Jews the Tanak, proved, in the long run, to be more influential than anything produced by the Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians or any of the other Near Eastern peoples.

As I explained last time, the Jews divide what Christians call the Old Testament into three parts—the Torah (law), Neviim (prophets) and Kituvim (writings). Using the initial letters of each division, we get the shorthand description “Tanak.” During the first third of the class (up to the midterm) we’ll concentrate on the first part of the Tanak, the Torah.

The word “Torah” means law, but it is, in some ways, a broader word. It might be translated also as “path” or “way.” Occasionally, the word is applied to all the Old Testament and even to the Talmud. But most often, Torah refers just to the first five books of the Bible, the books also called the Pentateuch (i.e., five books).

The Torah is probably finest law code the ancient world produced--maybe the finest ever produced anywhere—in part, because it is a lot more than just a law code. An excellent example of this is the book of Genesis.


The Greek philosopher Aristotle said that a good story should have a beginning, middle and end. The problem with history is that it’s all middle. We don't know the beginning and we don’t know the end. "Let’s start at the very beginning: a very good place to start," sings Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music. Except that, in history, we can’t start at the beginning! We weren’t there!  As a result, discovering the *meaning* of history is phenomenally difficult. Could you do a good job guessing at the meaning of a novel with only middle? Not likely. Because we want so desperately to know the meaning of history (and, of course, of our lives) all individuals and all societies make guesses at the beginnings and endings of history.  And few things upset us more than to have our notions about beginnings and ending challenged.

A society’s ideas on the end of things are called its eschatology. Its ideas about the beginnings of things are often called its creation myth.

Now we use the word myth in different senses. We often use “myth” to label something as untrue.  But that’s not the way historians use the word. For historians, myths are not untrue stories, but stories that tell the ultimate truth about man and his place in the universe. The Sumerians had a fascinating creation myth involving their gods An, Ki, and Enlil. The Babylonians modified this myth to include their god Marduk.  The Egyptians likewise had myths to explain the world around them, myths involving their sun god Ammon, and their vegetation gods (Osirus and Isis).

But belief in creation myths isn’t just a characteristic of ancient societies.  In a way, we have creation myths today. 

    *What are today's dominant creation myths?
    *Is theory of evolution a creation myth?
    *What does it say about man and his place in the universe?

Another common creation myth accepted today is that of Hebrews, the myth we see in the first chapters of Genesis. (Remember, as I use the word myth here, I do not mean an untrue story but a story containing deep truth about man and universe).  The Hebrew account of creation, widely accepted, influenced greatly way people view place in universe, and it’s one way in which Hebrews have had a particularly great impact on subsequent civilization.

The most extensive Hebrew account of creation found where you would expect it, in the beginning--the first chapters of the first book of Bible, Genesis. “Genesis” is a Greek name, first used in the Septuagint (LXX), a Greek translation of the Tanak. The Hebrew name of the book is “b’reshith” from first words of book. (Exodus in Hebrew is called “Eleh ha shemot,” now these were the names).  In this case, the name is particularly fitting--Genesis deals with the beginnings of all sorts of things.  But one very important thing is left out.  The writer says nothing at all about how God himself came into being.

Why is this?  Why is there no account of the beginning of God?  How does this radically challenge the Mesopotamian and Egyptian view of things?

Among other things, not that this is very important to law!!! If there are multiple gods, questions about good and evil are tricky. What if the gods disagree?  Some of you may have read Plato's Euthyphro, where the potential for disagreement among the gods puts an end to one line of inquiry about what "piety" is.   Furthermore, if the gods have a beginning in time, when do good and evil begin?  Justice?  And what are these things in a polytheistic society?  Again, Plato shows the difficulty here in dialogues like Meno.

The opening chapters of Genesis give a fairly extensive list of the things created by God: heaven and earth/light and darkness/plants and animals/stars and planets.  Why doesn't the author simply say "God made everything" and be done with it? (Note: the point here is that those things called gods by the Mesopotamians and Egyptian, the sun, moon, stars, and animals are not Gods, but creations of the one God.  As to the stars, used for astrology in Mesopotamia, the writer here makes it clear that their legitimate use is more restricted.)

Note also the emphasis on six creative days here.  Why does the author talk about six days of creation? Partly, as a direct challenge to Babylonian myths and religious practice. Note that each day of the week is associated in pagan religion with one God or another. Here, all days are at the disposal of the one God who created all things.  And the special day?  Note here the Sabbath a special contribution of the Hebrews!

Also note the idea that God's creation is finished. 

What's the difference between this and other views? This is one of those things that makes science possible: rules are stabled by the one God and made permanent.  They are therefore discoverable!  Note how, much later, Galileo and Newton find inspiration in this principle.

Also important is the idea of the covenant made with man. 

What are the terms of the original covenant?  What's man supposed to do?  What restrictions are put on him?  (Note particularly, no animal food).  What is he given in return?  How does such a view of man affect behavior of people toward natural world? (Note especially the contrast to Mesopotamian belief. Sumerian mythology makes everything the “precinct of the god.” Here, men and women have dominion over the earth!)

Note also the very different attitude toward toil. In Mesopotamian thinking, the gods made man *initially* for hard work. The gods made things difficult for me.  Genesis says no.  *You* make life difficult for you.  The toil comes later.

There are other extremely important ideas here: note the nature of creation

II. The Creation of Women

Forthwith he made an evil thing for men as the price of fire; for the very famous Limping God formed of earth the likeness of a shy maiden as the son of Cronos willed. And the goddess bright-eyed Athene girded and clothed her with silvery raiment, and down from her head she spread with her hands a broidered veil, a wonder to see; and she, Pallas Athene, put about her head lovely garlands, flowers of new-grown herbs. Also she put upon her head a crown of gold which the very famous Limping God made himself and worked with his own hands as a favour to Zeus his father. On it was much curious work, wonderful to see; for of the many creatures which the land and sea rear up, he put most upon it, wonderful things, like living beings with voices: and great beauty shone out from it.

(ll. 585-589) But when he had made the beautiful evil to be the price for the blessing, he brought her out, delighting in the finery which the bright-eyed daughter of a mighty father had given her, to the place where the other gods and men were. And wonder took hold of the deathless gods and mortal men when they saw that which was sheer guile, not to be withstood by men.

(ll. 590-612) For from her is the race of women and female kind: of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmeets in hateful poverty, but only in wealth. And as in thatched hives bees feed the drones whose nature is to do mischief -- by day and throughout the day until the sun goes down the bees are busy and lay the white combs, while the drones stay at home in the covered skeps and reap the toil of others into their own bellies – even so Zeus who thunders on high made women to be an evil to mortal men, with a nature to do evil. And he gave them a second evil to be the price for the good they had: whoever avoids marriage and the sorrows that women cause, and will not wed, reaches deadly old age without anyone to tend his years, and though he at least has no lack of livelihood while he lives, yet, when he is dead, his kinsfolk divide his possessions amongst them. And as for the man who chooses the lot of marriage and takes a good wife suited to his mind, evil continually contends with good; for whoever happens to have mischievous children, lives always with unceasing grief in his spirit and heart within him; and this evil cannot be healed.
 According to the writer of Genesis, though, the initial creation of woman was quite good--all things were created good.  Men and women were very good—and fit into creation perfectly. 

What's problem with this view of universe, the idea that creation is entirely good?  Obviously, things aren't always so good!  So, writer explains also why things aren't good.

How does the writer explain how the good creation of God became corrupted?  (Man's disobedience!!!)  Note the temptation here: to “know” good and evil.  That is, to decide good and evil for oneself."  Some questions:

--toil, hardship death
--relationship between man and God destroyed
--relationship between men and women distorted
--woman's sorrow in her conception increased (not labor pains!!!)
--man's relationship with earth and animals distorted

[Note the Hebrew view of women: that they are created good, created to be a help meet for man, created last]
As we follow the story, we see that disobedience ha consequences unforeseen to Adam and Eve. 

--first: limits human life spans (120 years)
--second: start over (a new covenant made with Noah--animal flesh now o.k., but with a restriction.  Capital punishment instituted).

Now everything good, and there are no more problems?  No!! There are problems immediately!  Noah gets drunk and is sodomized by his son. Soon the tower of Babel built. God confuses the languages--but this only limits evil.  So what is to be done?  Enter Abraham and his family.  Abraham is in some ways a deliberate contrast to Adam.  But the stories of Abraham and his immediate descendents that take up the last 40 chapters of Genesis are not stories of unmixed goodness of the the noble ancestors of the Hebrews.  Instead, we see lots of things that go wrong--and examples of why certain kinds of laws are needed.  That's what to look for our discussion next time.