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
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
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
question about the Jews. “What advantage, then, hath the Jew?”
asked Paul. His answer? “Much in every way, chiefly that unto
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,
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.
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
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?
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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?
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
“precinct of the god.” Here, men and women have dominion over the
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
- After everything
created what does God say? He calls it *good*. (Note the
affirmation of the goodness of physical creation).
- What about man?
- What about
woman? Contrast this with the Greek view and writers like Hesidod:
II. The Creation of
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
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
- Is this a good explanation of why
there is evil and suffering in the world?
- Who is at fault here? Adam?
- What are basic consequences of
--relationship between man and God
--relationship between men and women
--woman's sorrow in her conception
increased (not labor pains!!!)
--man's relationship with earth and
[Note the Hebrew
of women: that they are created good, created to be a help meet for
As we follow the
story, we see that disobedience ha consequences unforeseen to Adam and
- How does the fall effect the relationship
of men and women? How would this be important to understanding
Compare the Hebrew view to that of the
Greeks, especially to the story of Pandora. How do you account
for similarities here?
[Note especially what's left in both storie: hope! But what is
- Cain murders Able (This, by the way, is a
difficult passage to translate. Sin lies crouching at the door?
Or a sin
offering? Unclear. Perhaps a suggestion of the reason for the
law. Certain kinds of choices put us under what seems to be an evil
power. We have to watch out for certain behavior because of those
consequences. But, in any case, note God's response: Cain is not
- Wickedness and violence increase, and God
takes steps to limit that violence/wickedness:
human life spans
--second: start over (a new covenant
made with Noah--animal flesh now o.k., but with a restriction.
Capital punishment instituted).
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.