Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Addendum: Another Fascinating Female in the Line of David and Jesus

In my discussion of the genealogies of David and Jesus, I neglected to mention an intriguing twist set forth in the New Testament. Matthew – the evangelist most concerned with Jesus’ ties to historic Judaism – says that Boaz’ mother was one Rahab. Matthew also mentions Ruth and Tamar, as well as David’s wife Bathsheba, although the last is not named but described as “her who had been the wife of Uriah.”

Although it is not made explicit, Rahab would seem to be the same woman whose story is told in the book of Joshua, a “harlot” living in Jericho who becomes a heroine after she hides two Israelite spies from town soldiers who are looking for them.

Ruth, Tamar and Bathsheba, the only other women named in Matthew’s genealogy, are all famous old Testament figures, so it makes sense that the Rahab mentioned here would also be the subject of an Old Testament story. While some theologians have argued that this is not the case – and have constructed imaginative alternate narratives – I think the Jericho connection is most likely. (None of the women are named in Luke’s reverse genealogy, which also varies significantly in other ways from Matthew’s – it posits, for example, that Jesus was descended from David’s son Nathan, rather than from Solomon as related in Matthew).

It’s interesting that these four women, all subjects of stories that present them in provocative sexual situations, should be the only members of their gender named explicitly as ancestors of Jesus. The matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca and Leah are in there, of course, given that their husbands are all ancestors of Jesus, but are not mentioned by name.

Jesus’ encounters with women of dubious reputation are well known – the Samaritan woman and the woman about to be stoned are both adulteresses, and there’s the enigmatic Mary Magdalene, who is difficult to pin down but who is said to have been possessed by seven demons and who was later made by church fathers into an uber-prostitute figure – so it is perhaps not surprising that he counts among his ancestors a group of women who are no strangers to sexual controversy.

I don’t know what to make of it, I just think it’s interesting and worth noting.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

The Book of Ruth begins, like many a legend, on a “once upon a time long ago” note: “In the days of the judges there was a famine in the land. And a man went from Bethlehem of Judah to sojourn in the land of Moab, and his wife and his sons.”

What follows is a brief tale – just a vignette really – about a pair of women from different nations who form a bond of love and respect. Naomi, the wife mentioned in the opening lines, survives her husband and both her sons, along with the sons’ wives, Orpah and Ruth. Ruth, against her mother-in-law’s advice, travels with Naomi back to Bethlehem and takes a job as a farm worker to support them.



The work that Ruth does, gleaning, is the lowest task in the farming hierarchy. Basically, she follows the threshers and collects what is left over at the edges of the field or dropped along the way. It’s a task set aside for society’s lowest members, the illegal alien migrant farm workers of their day. It’s a task appropriate for Ruth, a member of a hated enemy tribe despite her marriage to a Bethlehem Jew.

Despite her low status, Ruth attracts the attention of the field owner, a relative of Naomi’s late husband, and ultimately marries this wealthy man, cementing her relationship to the Jewish people.

Although the narrative of Ruth can be read satisfyingly as a one-off, a standalone short story, the genealogical connections within the story link it to both the genesis of the Jewish people and to the birth of Christianity. Importantly, I think, these connections involve some of the Bible’s most disturbing stories.

Ruth herself is a Moabite, a descendant of the nation founded through the incestuous union of Lot and his elder daughter, who (along with her sister) seduced her father in desperation because she believed that her family was all that was left of humanity after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. I’ve written previously that naming the Moabites as descendants of this incestuous union (in Genesis 19) seems to me a gratuitous ethnic slur. That Ruth, one of the most famous heroines of the Bible, is identified as a Moabite is particularly striking.

Ruth’s second husband, Boaz, with whom she has a child, is descended from the illicit relationship between Judah and his daughter-in-law, Tamar, who posed as a prostitute in order to deceive him. Tamar had first been married to Judah’s eldest son, Er, who was killed by God because “he was evil in the sight of the Lord.” Judah then married Tamar off to his second son, Onan, who in short order was also put to death by God, evidently for the sin of masturbation. By this time, Tamar seems to have acquired a black widow reputation; although Judah has a third son, Shelah, he does not marry this one off to Tamar, “Lest he also die like his brothers”. Instead, Judah tells Tamar to remain a widow in her father’s house until Shelah is grown. The frustrated Tamar then disguises herself as a prostitute and sells her services to the widowed Judah. She becomes pregnant, and Judah orders her to be burned to death for adultery. Before that happens, she reveals her act of deception and is allowed to live because Judah recognizes his error in not giving her to his third son.

Tamar is carrying twins, and when it’s time to give birth we are treated to one of the strangest images in all of Genesis. A hand of one of the babies emerges and the midwife ties a scarlet string around it. But then the hand is withdrawn and the other twin emerges, followed by his brother whose hand was the first to appear. The twin who “broke through” and was born after the emergence and withdrawal of his brother’s hand is Perez, great-great-great-great-grandfather of Boaz, as we are told at the end of the Book of Ruth.

The son born to Ruth and Boaz is Obed, the grandfather of David, Israel’s greatest king and, as described in the gospels of both Matthew and Luke, the most significant ancestor of Jesus. These two towering figures, arguably the most significant in Biblical history, are thus descendants of illicit relationships and intermarriage of the chosen people with a despised adversary.

So much for ethnic purity.

In this episode, the Bible makes the point that we are all mongrels, impure mixtures -- even the most exalted among us. Furthermore, those we most revile are a part of us. We can’t view ourselves as separate or better because those “others” both sprang from us and have been reabsorbed back into us.

Given the history of ethnic strife over the past several millennia, one has to wonder whether these cultural implications of the Book of Ruth have been much studied. How do today’s anti-immigrant activists, who seem to generally think of themselves as serious Christians, square their views about illegal aliens with the lessons of Ruth? Had the Bethlehemites dealt with Ruth the way modern xenophobes would like to deal with the undocumented, we might not have either David or Jesus.

Ruth’s low standing in Bethlehem is indicated by the episode in which Boaz negotiates with a relative over a field that had belonged to Naomi’s husband, Elimelech. Boaz suggests that the man, who is evidently Elimelech’s closest living male relation, purchase the field; and says that if this man will not purchase it, Boaz himself, who is next in line, will do so. The unnamed relative intends to make the purchase until Boaz tells him he must take Ruth as well, “so as to raise up the name of the dead through his inheritance.” At this point, the man demurs, saying, “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I ruin my own inheritance. You redeem my right of redemption for yourself, for I cannot redeem it.” The man takes off his sandal, in what is described as an ancient custom, and gives it to Boaz to seal the agreement.

He would be ruined if he took the Moabite woman. Boaz, not concerned about this, buys the land, gets Ruth as a wife in the bargain, and the rest is history. Boaz makes a public proclamation to which the witnesses respond, “May the Lord make the woman who is coming to your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built the house of Israel and wrought mightily in Ephrathah. She will have a name in Bethlehem. And out of the seed which the Lord will give you from this young woman, may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.”

The Bible is full of accounts of ethnic wars among the Seminitic tribes – the Jews, Canaanities, Philistines, Edomites, Moabites, Midianites, etc. Ruth offers a counterpoint, a call for understanding and acceptance as well as acknowledgement that when we meet our enemy, the enemy is us.

By the time of Ruth’s descendant Jesus, the Jewish people’s chief enemy was the hated occupier, Rome, but there was still room for discord between closely related tribes. One of the most famous New Testament stories involving two antagonistic groups is Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, at the well of Jacob.
Christians generally focus on the Samaritan woman’s realization that Jesus is the Messiah, but there’s a lot more to this story, as Jack Miles brilliantly explains in Christ: A Crisis In the Life of God. Miles focuses on the troubled relationship between the Jews, descendants of the tribe of Judah, and the Samaritans, descendants of Joseph who believe themselves to be the true chosen people. The schism between the Samaritans, a small community of whom survive today, turns on several issues, including the proper site for animal sacrifice. Samaritans hold that they are descended from Hebrews who were left behind when the majority of the population was transported to Assyria and enslaved.

Galileans, Miles writes, were an “in between” group, not recognized as fully Jewish but not set apart like the Samaritans. Some Galileans were true Jews, worshiping in Jerusalem, while others evidently held with the Samaritans, who held (and continue to hold) that the northern town of Shechem, site of much of the patriarchal narrative and the final resting place of Joshua and Joseph, should be the site of worship. It is in Shechem, in fact, where the encounter with the Samaritan woman occurs.

Although Matthew and Luke take great pains to place Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the city of David (and of Ruth), he was raised in Nazareth, a Galilean town, a fact that made him suspect among Jews, even though he clearly . Note the famous quote from Nathaniel in John 1:46: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”
The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in chapter 4 of the gospel of John is the longest dialog that Jesus has with any woman in the gospels. And, Miles argues, it is a teasing, almost flirtatious banter about the discord between the Jews, the Samaritans and the Galileans. It results in the woman’s acceptance of Jesus as Messiah, but Miles makes it clear that with a few minor turns of phrase it might have moved in another, more carnal, direction.

Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman occurs at a well, one of the few places in which women of the time could appear in public unaccompanied by a man. The fact that he speaks to her privately is potentially scandalous; his disciples “marvel” at the fact that he talked with a woman even though, John says, they chose not to mention it to him.

Ruth and the Samaritan woman are two prime examples of the status of women in biblical times, both made more striking in that the women are also members of unpopular ethnic groups.

It’s worth noting that Ruth’s message of acceptance has been taken up by another group often unpopular in religious circles: While researching Ruth for a church lesson, I came across several internet posts indicating that the book is a favorite in the gay and lesbian community. Evidently the Hebrew words used to describe the relationship between Ruth and Naomi are those used to describe the relationships between heterosexual married partners. In particular, the Hebrew word “dabaq”, translated in the King James Version as “cleave”, used in Ruth 1:14 when Ruth chooses to stay with Naomi while her sister-in-law Orpah returns to her birth family, is the same as that used in the famous passage of Genesis (2:24) often quoted in wedding ceremonies: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife; and they shall be one flesh.”

Ruth’s words to Naomi in 1:16 are seen in this view as more like those a lover would speak than what one would expect from a daughter-in-law: “Do not ask me to leave you, or turn back from following you; for wherever you go I will go, and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. And wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord cause this to happen to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me.”

Til death do us part, indeed.

One essay I read notes that while Leviticus forbids a man to lay down with another man as with a woman, it says nothing to forbid same-sex relationships between women.

If Naomi and Ruth were lovers, why would Naomi promote the relationship between Ruth and Boaz? Naomi goes so far as to send Ruth to the threshing floor -- a place notorious for the prostitutes who came there to service the agricultural workers (see the book of Hosea)—to spend the night with Boaz. Naomi’s actions are explained in these alternative readings by the status of women in ancient society; without a man in their lives, Naomi and Ruth had no protection, no hope of a decent life.


Let’s finish with a puzzler -- How do we square the acceptance of Ruth into the Jewish community with this dictate from Deuteronomy 23: “An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the the assembly of the Lord forever, because they did not meet you with bread and water when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam son of Beor from Mesopotamia to curse you.”

I don’t know, other than to say that clearly the Deuteronomist and the author of Ruth weren’t on speaking terms. Given the differing messages, I’ll take Ruth's.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Charms of Tobit

The various books of the Bible can be described in many ways – powerful, thought-provoking, inspiring, even frightening – but there are few that I would describe as charming. Tobit is an exception. This book – canonical in the Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches, considered apocryphal in most others – is a stand-alone short story that is full of charm. By that I mean that it is gentle, sometimes humorous, and captivating, a tale of faith, good behavior, reward for patience and a love story to boot.

Biblical scholars tell us that Tobit was probably written in what is called the Intertestamental period, the centuries between the compilation of the Tanakh by the Men of the Great Assembly (perhaps around 450 BC) and the writings of the new Testament.

Although not part of the Tanakh, the book of Tobit was included in the Greek translation of the Jewish Bible, called the Septuagint, that was the primary text used by diaspora Jews throughout the Roman Empire for several hundred years (Greek was a commonly spoken language for these Jews, whereas many of them were evidently not fluent in Hebrew), and a fragment of Tobit in Hebrew has been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran.

The Septuagint (roughly, the book of the 70) is named for the process by which it was supposedly created. Seventy-two scribes were said to have been housed separately in 72 cells, and in 72 days produced translations of the Bible in Greek that were word-for-word identical.

According to the Talmud:
"King Ptolemy once gathered 72 Elders. He placed them in 72 chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one's room and said: 'Write for me the Torah of Moshe, your teacher.' God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did."
The resulting text included 10 books that are not part of the Tanakh, plus additions to the books of Daniel and Esther.

When Jerome translated the Bible into Latin in the 5th century, he included Tobit along with six other books of the Septuagint that are not part of the Hebrew text. Thus, Tobit became part of the Roman Catholic canon (the Orthodox churches use the Greek Septuagint as their Old Testament biblical source).

When Martin Luther came in for his cleansing of the church, he threw out those extra books, including Tobit, because they were not part of the Tanakh. And when the great King James translation into English was done, the extra seven books of the Catholic Bible were separated out into a middle section called the Apocrypha (the King James Bible, beautiful and powerful as its language is, was a child of politics – an attempt to create a translation that all English-speaking faithful could use, regardless of their particular brand of faith. Its creation is detailed in Adam Nicolson’s wonderful account, God’s Secretaries.

So today, Tobit is canonical for roughly two-thirds of the world’s Christians, while for most Protestant churches it is considered extra-canonical, and sometimes even heretical.

When Tobit was removed from the Protestant canon, church leaders had to justify its exclusion, and I suspect that arguing that the Jews didn’t consider it canonical didn’t hold much water, given the regard in which Jews were held. So the argument was made that Tobit was full of devilish magic. The argument had to be made strongly, because Tobit was a much-beloved book, for reasons that I will try to make clear (it continues to be beloved in the churches that consider it canonical, and its text is often used in Catholic wedding ceremonies).

Tobit tells the story of a Jewish family in exile from the Holy Land, part of the Assyrian captivity. The character who gives the book its title is a faithful Jew who, even before the captivity, rebelled against his neighbors in the tribe of Napthali who had turned to worship of Ba’al. Unlike them, Tobit continued to travel regularly to Jerusalem, to tithe at the temple. A man of faith and goodness, he also notes that he shopped in Jerusalem, supporting the local economy by spending another tenth of his income there, and gave a third tenth to charity.

The first two chapters of Tobit are narrated in the first person. Tobit tells of being taken captive to the city of Nineveh, on the Tigris, where he remained observant to Jewish dietary law while other Jews turned to the local fare; rose to the rank of purchasing agent in the government of King Shalmaneser; married a kinswoman, Anna, and sired a son, Tobias; and then became a fugitive when he rebelled against the cruel policies of Shalmaneser’s son and successor, King Sennacherib. Sennacherib was a murderous sort, who killed his enemies and cast their bodies to rot outside the city walls. Tobit made it his mission to give those bodies a proper burial, and when the king found out, Tobit had to go into hiding, leaving his wife and son behind.

Fortunately for Tobit, Sennacherib’s reign was short-lived. Within 50 days of Tobit’s flight, Sennacherib was m,urdered by two of his sons, and replaced by one of those sons, Esarhaddon. Esarhaddon, evidently a kindlier sort, appointed Tobit’s nephew as a sort of chief of staff – a sort of analog to Joseph in Egypt – paving the way for Tobit’s return.

But as Tobit and his family are preparing to celebrate the feast of the Pentecost, another crisis occurs. Tobit has sent his son, Tobias, out to find some local poverty-stricken Jews and invite them to the table. But Tobias returns, saying that a Jew has been strangled and dumped in the marketplace. Tobit rushes out to find and bury him, resulting in ridicule from his neighbors. Weeping over this, Tobit goes to the courtyard of his home and falls asleep. Some sparrows poop on his face and into his eyes, causing cataracts that blind him. Oy!

With Tobit out of commission, Anna has to go to work, evidently doing some sort of piecework – perhaps as a seamstress – for the local rich folk.

In chapter 3, we cut to an another scene, in a city called Ectabana of Media (Media being another district of the kingdom). There we learn of a relative of Tobit, Sarah, the daughter of Raguel, who has married seven men, all of whom died on their wedding night, before consummating the marriages.

Sarah is being mocked by her maids in a scene that recalls an earlier Sarah, Abraham’s barren sister-wife, being mocked by the pregnant slave girl Hagar. The maids suggest that Sarah of Raguel has strangled her husbands, and hope that she never is able to bear children.

In cross-cutting that strikes me as very cinematic, we return to Nineveh and Tobit, who suddenly remembers that years ago he left some money for safe-keeping with a friend in another Median city, Rages. This money could now be useful, since Tobit can’t work and he has argued with Anna over her income (he suggests that she stole a goat that she was given in payment, and she calls him a “know-it-all”).

So Tobit enlists his son, Tobias, to travel to Rages to collect the cash.

Enter Raphael, an archangel. Raphael has been sent to help the family out, both the Tobits in Nineveh and the Raguels in Rages. Tobias goes searching for a traveling companion and finds Raphael, who presents himself to the family as a distant relative (the angel’s deception is another basis for early Protestants arguments against the canonicity of Tobit – angels don’t lie!) and is given Tobit’s blessing to accompany his son on the journey.

The archangel Raphael is mentioned by name only in the book of Tobit. In Daniel, we have two other named archangels, Michael and Gabriel (Gabriel shows up again in the gospel of Luke, to speak to Zacharias about the unexpected late-in-life pregnancy of Elizabeth). A fourth named archangel, Uriel, shows up in several deuterocanonical books (Enoch, 2 Esdras) and some Gnostic texts. These angels act as messengers and guides – the word angel comes from the Hebrew for messenger – and only marginally act in supernatural ways. Thus Raphael gives Tobias what one might call unconventional medical advice (it may have been conventional at the time, for all I know), but doesn’t really provide anything in the way of supernatural assistance, at least in my reading of the book.

The boy and the angel set out, with – wait for it – Tobias’ little dog in tow. This is the first time in the Bible we hear about a pet. The dog doesn’t play any sort of pivotal role, and is only mentioned twice – on the journey to Rages and the journey home – but still. A pet. Another reason to love the story. (that dog has captured the imagination of many writers, including Swift, Voltaire and Smollett--- all of whom refer to him in their works – as well as that of painters, who inevitably include the dog in their depictions of Tobias and Raphael).

On the road, the trio stop to fish for dinner, and Tobias catches a big one. Raphael tells him to save the liver, the heart and the gall, because they make useful medicine (this is the source of the charges that the story is magical in nature. I don’t know, sounds like folk medicine to me).

So on they go to Rages, where they stop in at their relative Raguel’s house and Tobias falls in love with Sarah. The pair marry as the family and the maids look on in fear, but Raphael has told Tobias that if anyone is troubled by a demon (Sarah’s woes are ascribed to the demon Asmodeus), burning the heart and liver and surrounding the afflicted person with the smoke will drive the demon away. Tobias does as he has been told, lives through the wedding night, and emerges in the morning to the delight of all involved.

Tobias asks Raphael to go to Rages and collect his Dad’s money (they have the receipt), which Raphael does, allowing Tobias and Sarah to spend some time with Sarah’s folks before they move back to Nineveh. On their arrival in Nineveh, Tobias rubs the fish gall in Tobit’s eyes (yuk, but I can see why the caustic gall might have been tried as a remedy for cataracts), curing him.

And, essentially, they all live happily ever after.

Woven through the story are testament’s to Tobit’s faith and kindness. He not only buries the dead, he tithes, gives to the poor and loves his family deeply. I want to quote extensively from Chapter 4, where Tobit gives fatherly advice to Tobias before sending him off on his journey.
“My son, if I die, bury me, but do not disregard your mother. Honor her all the days of your life. Do what is pleasing to her; but do not grieve her. Remember, my son, that she experienced many dangers for you while you were in the womb … My son, remember the Lord our God all your days, and do not desire to sin or to disobey His commandments. Do righteousness all the days of your life, and do not walk in the ways of wrongdoing. For if you walk in the truth, you will be successful in your works. Do almsgiving from your possessions to all who do righteousness. When you do almsgiving, do not let your eye be envious. Do not turn your face away from any poor man, so the face of God will not be turned away from you. Do almsgiving based on the quantity of your possessions. If you possess only a few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have … So now, my son, love your brothers and do not be arrogant in your heart against your brothers, the sons and daughters of your people. Take a wife for yourself from them, for arrogance brings destruction and great disorder, and in such worthlessness there is loss and great defect … Do not keep overnight the wages of any man who works for you, but pay him immediately. If you serve God, He will pay you. Give heed to yourself, my son, in all your works, and be disciplined in all your conduct. What you yourself hate, do not do to anyone … From your bread, give to him who is hungry and from your clothing, give to the naked … Seek counsel from every sensible man, and do not treat any useful advice with contempt. At every opportunity bless the Lord God, but more than this ask that your ways may become straight, and that all your paths and purposes may prosper.”
Beautiful, wonderful advice for living. I’ll say no more, because there is no way I could say it as well.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Fear and Loathing in the Holy Land

God is love. Fear God. The two antithetical sentiments are pervasive in Judeo-Christian culture. How do we reconcile them?

Growing up, I was often told that the key difference between the portrayal of God in the New Testament vs. the Old Testament centered on this issue: That the New Testament we see God as loving, while in the Old Testament we see Him as angry and vengeful.

Certainly, the Bible gives us ground for such an interpretation, but, as is usual with such extreme distillations, the truth is somewhat less simple. And, I would add, a hell of a lot more interesting. It shouldn’t be surprising that a work as rich and complex as the Bible can’t be boiled down to a black and white statement, but, depending on the way we live our lives, we may be tempted to categorize God in one way or the other.
I’d like to personally thank God for not being so easily compartmentalized. Because if things were so black-and-white, we might be missing a few of the legacies the Bible has handed down to us: Literature, art, music, drama, just to name a few examples. And I don’t think our lives would be better for it.

It is a fact that in the New Testament, we read that God is love. We see this expressed directly in documents like 1 John (“He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love” 4:8) and Paul’s brilliant and moving 1 Corinthians: 13, but also through the entire ministry of Jesus.

And, in the Old Testament, we have the famous stories of God’s anger and vengeance: The Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the tribulations of Job and many more (Personally, a story that has always gobsmacked me is that of Uzzah, struck dead when he touched the Ark of the Covenant to steady it during transport. It just seems so unfair, so outsized a punishment for a mistake that was intended to be helpful).

On the other hand, we can find plenty to be fearful about in the New Testament (many careers have been built on scaring people about the visions in Revelation), while evidence of God’s mercy and compassion abound in the Old. And often, the two poles are brought together in ways that illuminate our own mixed-up natures.

Nowhere is this more true than in the patriarchal stories that comprise the mid-section of Genesis (roughly, chapters 11-36).

Because I tend to let my thoughts about the Bible guide and inspire my other reading, I often find Biblical significance in works of other authors. I began reading Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom last winter, because I had read a reference to his interpretation of the Fall, and I’ve progressed slowly through Fromm’s famous analysis of the appeal of fascism as a  political movement, putting it down and picking it up as the mood strikes me.

On a recent morning I read the following in Escape from Freedom:
“The fact of human individuation, of the destruction of all ‘primary bonds,’ cannot be reversed … We have seen that man cannot endure this negative freedom, that he tries to escape into new bondage which is to be a substitute for the primary bonds which he has given up. But these new bonds do not constitute real union with the world. He pays for the new security by giving up the integrity of his self.”

My thoughts went immediately to Jacob, oscillating between the poles of danger and servitude, fleeing first from the wrath of his angry twin and finding solace in a life of servitude with Laban, and then, 20 years later making the journey in reverse, escaping the security of his life in Laban’s service by heading to the long-deferred confrontation with Esau. In each case, Jacob is destroying primary bonds with family members; ultimately he comes into self-actualization by, in rapid succession, striking a pact with Laban and making peace with his estranged brother.

I thought about Esau as a self-actualized man, someone who overcomes rejection by his family to build a successful life, one that allows him to forgive his brother’s hurtful deception and embrace him. Esau has moved naturally to the state that Jacob comes to through slow and painful evolution of his thinking.
And my thoughts returned to the story that has occupied my attention for a couple of weeks now, that of Jacob and Esau’s grandfather, Abraham, who is honored as the founding figure of the world’s three great monotheistic religions.

Abraham is a traveling man. When we first read of him, he is traveling from Ur, an ancient city on the Persian Gulf, toward Canaan, with his wife Sarai, his father Terah, and his nephew Lot. The family settles first in Haran (usually equated with the Turkish city of Harran). God urges Abram (as he is called at that time) on southward to Canaan. We are told that he goes on to Egypt – where he first presents Sarai as his sister out of misguided fear for his life -- and then back to Canaan, which God has promised to him and his heirs.

Fear is a driver for Abram/Abraham, as we see in several places.

We aren’t told in the Bible why his father Terah chooses to uproot the family from Ur and head westward; Thomas Mann muses in Joseph and His Brothers that political oppression is the catalyst. But Abram/Abraham’s parallel actions in the court of the Pharoah and the court of Abimelech – each time he presents Sarah as his sister out of fear for his own life if his hosts lust after his beautiful wife – demonstrate his willingness to sacrifice his integrity in the face of fear. And the stunning story of his attempt to sacrifice his beloved son, Issac, shines a harsh light on his fearful behavior.

I grew up being told that the sacrifice of Isaac was meant to show us the rewards we earn for obedience to God. But when I read the episode at this stage in my life, I see it differently.

We all know the outline of this story, related in Genesis 22. God decides to test Abraham, ordering him to take his son to a mountain in the land of Moriah and to sacrifice him as a burnt offering. Abraham, who has been happy to question and negotiate with God on previous occasions (see Genesis 18, where he bargains with God on the conditions for destroying Sodom and Gomorrah), for some untold reason blindly follows the horrifying instructions this time. He leads his son to the mountain, ties him up and places him on the woodpile and is about to slice him open with a cleaver when a messenger of God stops him.

Here’s what the angel says to Abraham (in Robert Alter’s translation): “Do not reach out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you fear God, and you have not held back your son, your only one, from Me.”

This is what I hear in those words: “Hold on there, fool! Do you have any idea what the hell you are about to do? This is what fear drives you to, and you’re damn lucky I’m here to stop you before you do something you will regret for the rest of your life.”

Now I know I am taking a leap here, but I think it’s a reasonable interpretation of the story.

I want to cite the following passage from Escape from Freedom:
“In watching the phenomenon of human decisions, one is struck by the extent to which people are mistaken in taking as ‘their’ decision what in effect is submission to convention, duty, or simple pressure.”
Abraham’s behavior in Genesis 22 is, I think, perilously close to what Fromm describes as “automaton” behavior, the kind of blind obedience that can lead to the rise of fascism (a word I want to use sparingly, because of its overuse in what passes for contemporary political discourse). Fromm contrasts this automaton behavior with “positive freedom,” which he describes as “… the realization of the self [which] implies the full affirmation of the uniqueness of the individual."

I think that’s what the patriarchal stories are all about: The development of the individual, of individual consciousness and, ultimately, self-consciousness.

The strange little story of the Tower of Babel, which serves, in literary terms, as a prelude to the Abrahamic stories, abstracts the theme of individuation, which is then explored in haunting detail through the three generations of the patriarchy and the culmination in the story of Joseph and his brothers.

From Fromm again:
“Men are born equal but they are also born different. The basis of this difference is the inherited equipment, physiological and mental, with which they start life, to which is added the peculiar constellation of circumstances and experiences that they meet with. This individual basis of personality is as little identical with any other as two organisms are ever identical physically.”
I’m drawn here to the promise that God makes twice to Abraham and once to his grandson Jacob. I want to quote all three passages:
Genesis 13:16: “And I will make your seed like the dust of the earth – could a man count the dust of the earth, so too, your seed might be counted.”
Genesis 22:17: “I will greatly bless you and will greatly multiply your seed, as the stars in the heavens and as the sand on the shore of the sea, and your seed shall take hold of its enemies’ gate.”
Genesis 28:14: “And your seed shall be like the dust of the earth and you shall burst forth to the west and the east and the north and the south, and all the clans of the earth shall be blessed through you and through your seed.”
It’s a promise of great fertility, of course. But there’s also a suggestion that with those great numbers comes a certain anonymity, a lack of differentiation, at least from a certain distance. Looking at the dust of the earth, the stars in the sky and the sand on the shore, we may see them at one scale as a solid mass, at another scale as a collection of indistinct particles. Upon very close examination, we may begin to see that each particle is unique.

That’s what we do in the patriarchal stories: At a broad scale, we read about the birth of many nations (and while Israel is in some sense chosen, it is not strictly privileged – these other nations are powerful and prosperous, worthy adversaries on the earthly playing field), then we move in for the extreme close-up, and see, for the first time in the Bible, the complexities of character in each individual. And fear -- fear of bodily harm, fear of retribution, fear of isolation, fear of abandonment, fear of God – plays an important role in those characters.

As a dedicated 12-stepper, I’ve learned – and come to believe – that fear is a dangerous driver, that it leads us to make bad decisions. And that’s what I see happening here. But, in good 12-step fashion, I don’t think the point is simply that Abraham must ignore his fear. It’s that he needs to stop and look at the consequences of fear, and examine his decision to follow it to its grisly climax.

In one of those strange coincidences that I can only attribute to spiritual guidance, I picked up the other day a book that I had purchased several months ago and had set aside: Mark C. Taylor’s Altarity. I had purchased this book while I was rapidly reading through several other works by Taylor (well, as rapidly as you can read Taylor, whose prose, while clear and lucid, is rather dense with meaning). But at the time, I felt the need to spend time with some other sources – chiefly Freud and Fromm. Picking up Altarity, and opening to the spot where I had inserted a bookmark, I was struck dumb by the image on the page: a Rembrandt sketch (it later became a painting) depicting the sacrifice of Isaac.

Taylor uses this illustration as the jumping-off point for an explication of Hegelian philosophy, and in particular of Hegel’s characterization of the three stages in the development of consciousness: Primal unity, separation, reconciliation. Hegel matches these three developmental stages to three cultures: Greek, Jew, Christian. And while I will steer clear of challenging Hegel on his characterization of these cultures – I don’t think I’m ready to argue with Hegel – I do want to say that I see the three stages playing out in the narrative of the patriarchy, both in its overall arch -- beginning with the disruption of originary unity at the Tower of Babel, then personalized in the story of Abraham’s departure from Ur and completed in the reconciliation of Joseph with his brothers and father in Egypt – and in the individual stories of Abraham and of Jacob (Joseph is not considered a patriarch, although his story is continuous with that of his ancestors).

These stories are all about identity and difference, and their reconciliation in the recognition of identity in difference and of difference in identity. By this I mean (as Hegel meant) that the two notions are inextricably bound to each other. Neither means anything except in relation to the other. And the recognition of that relationship is necessary to the development of the self-conscious individual and the emergency of the philosopher.

Taylor writes:
“For Hegel, spirit is ‘pure self-recognition in absolute otherness’ … Within Hegel’s panoptical system, difference always returns to identity.”
Taylor further cites Hegel’s reference to a moment of “fear and trembling” that is a necessary precursor to the emergence of self consciousness, an instant where these paradoxical notions seem utterly irreconcilable. To get to the other side, we need to work through that moment. That’s the function of art, of writing, of creativity which, as I have written before, allows us to criss-cross the boundary between earth and heaven and to behave as the image of God in whose spirit we were created.

There’s a certain parallel between the Hebrew story of the sacrifice of Isaac and the Christian story of the crucifixion of Jesus. In the first, an earthly father prepares to sacrifice his son out of fear, and is stopped before he takes the fatal action; in the second, the heavenly father completes the sacrifice of his Son out of love (see John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”)

Why the difference in outcomes? The difference between acting out of fear and acting out of love is part of it. So is the stage of consciousness. The father Abraham is at this point not fully self-conscious; although his son is part of him, Abraham sees him as other, as an object suitable for sacrifice – at least he does until God wakes him out of his stupor. In the New Testament, especially in John, father and son are different manifestations of one, universal spirit, which God of course recognizes because, well, He’s God.

In Hegelian terms, love privileges identity over difference, while fear privileges difference over identity. There are a number of ways we can process this. We can, for instance, accept the contradiction that God is love AND God is fear. We can look at fear as a necessary way-station on the path to true love. We can focus on one and ignore the other. We each make our own choices, and our choices may evolve over time.

I don’t have a conclusive statement on this, because I’m still working through the complex of paradox and contradiction myself. Instead, I want to close this rumination with another couple of quotes from Altarity:
“Identity, in itself difference, and difference, in itself identity, join in contradiction, which Hegel defines as the identity of identity and difference. Inasmuch as identity and difference necessarily include their opposites within themselves, they are inherently self-contradictory … In Hegel’s System, such contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality; it is the pulse of life universal.”
“Since every living being is a concrete embodiment of universal life force, nothing can be fully comprehended until it is conceived as an integral member of an intricate totality. Inasmuch as life is all-encompassing, its divisions are internal differentiations, which, in the final analysis, must be taken up within the whole of which they are necessarily parts.”

Monday, May 31, 2010

Desperate Housewives of Genesis

The story of Jacob is a story of struggle between close relations, one that is easily and perhaps best viewed as an allegory for the internal struggles with which we all deal.

The closest of these relatives, Jacob and his twin brother Esau, are the warring aspects of our own natures: The lusty, life-loving Esau is contrasted with the (deceptively) simple, spiritual Jacob.

The sisters Jacob marries offer a similar contrast. Objects rather than subjects in terms of the narrative, the beloved but barren Rachel and the unloved but fertile Leah present to us the spiritual and physical aspects of marriage. I started out to say the higher and lower natures of love, but I don’t think love is the right word, because there is little sense that Jacob either loves or values Leah; nevertheless he stays with her (keeps her around, at least) and fathers seven children with her. I also don’t think it’s a matter of high and low, because, as with Jacob and Esau, the contrast is one of equals, of two equally necessary qualities.

Jacob and Esau come to peace with each other only through the recognition that they are separate, that their kinship does not require them to dwell in proximity, as a family in practical terms. Leah and Rachel have no such luck. Married to the same man (along with two slave girls), they suffer through and because of their differences – Leah, unloved but fertile, Rachel beloved but barren – and elect to remain with their man even when he offers them a choice. Jacob gives them the option of staying with their father, the wily Laban, in whose servitude Jacob has spent 20 years. But the sisters, who have their own reasons to resent their father, choose to flee with their husband, who, after all, was as wounded by Laban’s deceptions as were they.

A central scene in the domestic drama occurs after Leah has given birth to four sons, Rachel’s slave girl Bilhah (whom Rachel has given over to Jacob in desperation) has borne two boys, and Leah’s slave girl Zilpah another two. The episode of the mandrakes occupies only a few lines in Genesis 30, but manages to encapsulate the troubled relationship between the sister-wives.

Chapter 30 has begun with an argument between Rachel and Jacob. Rachel, in frustration over her barrenness, pleads with Jacob, “Give me sons, for if you don’t, I’m a dead woman!” Jacob, irritated by the suggestion that he has somehow withheld children from his favored wife, responds in anger: “Am I instead of God, Who has denied you fruit of the womb?” This exchange leads to the surrogacy of the slave girls and the birth of four additional sons by the time we get to verse 14.

There, Leah and Jacob’s eldest son, Reuben, collects mandrakes from the field and makes a gift of them to his mother. The introduction of the mandrake is a brilliant move. By naming this plant, the author gives us in a word all of the many powers attributed in folk medicine to it: Mandrake was known as a fertility drug, an aphrodisiac, an hallucinogenic, a soporific, and, if administered in too large a dose, a deadly poison. It’s hard to imagine a plant that carries more medical associations.

Seeing the boy make this gift to his mother, Rachel pleads with Leah for some of the plants, to which Leah responds testily, “Is it not enough that you have taken my husband, and now you would take the mandrakes of my son?”

Woah. A resentment that has clearly been brewing now bubbles to the surface. We had been told at the end of Chapter 29 that after the birth of her fourth son, Judah, Leah ceased bearing children. Now, in this single comment in Chapter 30, it becomes clear that the reason for sudden lack of fertility was an absence of sex. In Leah’s eyes, Rachel has stolen her man. We had already been told that Rachel was jealous of Leah’s fertility; now we see the inverse, Leah’s accusation that Rachel has caused Jacob to stop bedding his first wife.

But having said this, Leah decides to use the situation to get what she wants. She barters the mandrakes to her sister in exchange for a night with Jacob, then confronts her husband with the fact that she has bought and paid for his services: “With me you will come to bed, for I have clearly hired you with the mandrakes of my son.”

Mama gotta have it.

That night proves productive: Leah conceives a fifth son. And it apparently leads to a resumption of regular relations between the couple, because we are told in short order that Leah gives birth to a sixth boy and then a daughter, Dinah, whose story turns on her own troubled sex life.

Love. Sex. Jealousy. In a mere seven verses, we get a steamy plot worthy of a contemporary nighttime soap. It’s a masterpiece of concision.

Thomas Mann’s massive tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers, an expansion and rumination on the patriarchal stories, is a great work, but it’s not greater than the original telling in Genesis. Why that is so is clear in Mann’s retelling of the episode of the mandrake. Mann expands on the dialogue between the sisters, but his additional words add no new insights. The complex stew of emotions is all there in the seven verses of Genesis.

The greatness of Mann’s novel is in the author’s setting of the Genesis stories within an uber-mythology that ties together beliefs of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, Christianity, Judaism and more (Mann links the story of Jacob’s thirteen children to the Egyptian myth of Osiris and Isis, in which Osiris’ body is cut into 13 parts by his killer. His sister-wife, Isis, recovers all but the penis, which the murderer, Set, has eaten. Because Osiris is variously considered the god of the moon, the harvest and the underworld, his story dovetails conveniently with that of Jacob and his sons in many places). But when Mann comes down to earth and deals with the human, multigenerational story of the Abrahamic line, he really can’t top the original. Mann explicates what is implicit in the stories, but he doesn’t enhance them. How could he? This is the Bible after all, the towering achievement of western civilization.

The story of a slave girl given over to bear children in the stead of a barren wife has been told before, of course, two generations earlier in the tale of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar. There is, in fact, a lot of repetition in the accounts of the three generations known as the patriarchy. Three times a beloved wife suffers years of infertility before giving birth (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel), three times a younger son is favored over his older siblings (Isaac, Jacob, Joseph). Twice Abraham deceives a king who has hosted him in exile by presenting Sarah as his sister rather than his wife (in Chapter 20 we learn that she is, in fact, both – shades of Chinatown!), and then his son Isaac makes the same misrepresentation with Rebecca (to one of the same kings, or at least one with the same name, Abemelech).

These characters have a complexity as individuals that is new to the Bible at this point; we haven’t seen comparable character development in the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain, Abel, Noah. We recognize these people, and recognize ourselves in them. That, of course, is the greatness of these stories. For the first time in the Bible, blessings and tribulations come to people just like us, and we learn from how they muddle through them – and muddle is the right word here. No straightforward paths to salvation for this line.

And while the men may be the focus of the story, the female characters are drawn quite intriguingly. These are truly desperate housewives. Sarah, having promoted sex between her husband and the slave Hagar in an attempt to lay claim to the resulting child, finds herself jealous as she watches the fertile Hagar develop a supercilious and mocking attitude toward her barren mistress. She harasses the pregnant slave to the point where Hagar runs away, only to be convinced to turn back by an angel (the second time Hagar leaves, this time sent away with her son, Ishmael, by Abraham, God saves them from death in the desert and leads Ishmael on to found a mighty nation).

The child of Abraham and Sarah’s old age, Isaac, is quite a passive character for a patriarch, but his wife, Rebecca, is a real spitfire, engineering the deception that provides an undeserved blessing for her favored son, Jacob, and leads him into 20 years and more of trouble. Rebecca doesn’t have a female adversary in the narrative, but she gives birth to the adversaries Jacob and Esau, and fosters and adversarial relationship between them. If trouble doesn’t come your way, you may have to give birth to it, I guess.

And, of course, Rachel and Leah have a lifetime of difficulty following the deception through which Laban marries off his elder daughter to Jacob instead of the promised younger daughter. When Rachel finally gives birth to the child she has so long desired, her happiness doesn’t last long. Immediately, she is caught up in the escape from Laban and the reunion with Esau (in fact, she can be said to have engineered the confrontation with Laban by stealing her father’s household gods), and shortly thereafter she dies giving birth to Jacob’s twelfth son, Benjamin.

Rachel’s death is presented prominently in Genesis 35; we are told that she is buried along the road from Bethel to Ephrath, and that Jacob sets up a tomb to her (Rachel’s Tomb is an Israeli landmark today). But Sarah’s death is even more important to the narrative; it leads to Abraham’s first purchase of land, after a drawn-out bargaining session with the Hittites. The physical manifestation of God’s promise comes to pass in this episode, told in Genesis 23. (The Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Sarah, Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel are said to be buried, is another important landmark in today’s Israel).

Other female characters, though less important than the matriarchs, figure prominently in these middle chapters of Genesis. After Sarah’s death, Abraham marries again, a woman named Keturah who gives birth to six sons. We’re not told much about Keturah, but, Like Hagar’s son Ishmael, her sons are not considered legitimate, and are sent away with gifts while Isaac inherits the real estate. In a bit of ethnic-baiting, the disfavored sons of Abraham are said to be the founders of neighboring nations.

Smack in the middle of the patriarchal narrative comes the tale of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. I’ll get into that story another time, but it’s worth mentioning the women in this one (Genesis 19). Lot’s wife, of course, famously is turned into a pillar of salt when she looks back at the cities being destroyed – a warning to all who dwell on the past. But the two daughters of Lot who escape with their father (there presumably are more, married daughters because we have reference to Lot’s sons-in-law) are central to one of the most disturbing stories in all of Genesis. After the escape from Sodom, Lot and the two girls take refuge in a cave. Thinking they are the last people left on earth, the daughters decide that they need to take strong action to preserve the human race. So, on successive nights, they get their father drunk and have sex with him. Each girl ends up pregnant; the resulting sons give rise to the nations of the Moabites and Ammonites. For this story, I have to admit I can find no moral – it seems to exist for the sole purpose of hurling a “Yo Mama” insult toward those two neighboring nations.

And finally there is Dinah, Jacob’s thirteenth child and only daughter, who goes out visiting among the local girls and ends up being raped by Shechem, son of a prince. But Shechem seems to fall in love with his victim, and has his father petition Jacob for her hand. Dinah’s brothers, incensed by the abuse of their sister, insist that before a marriage can take place, every man in Shechem’s tribe must be circumcised, a condition to which Schechem and his father agree (We’re even told that “their words seemed good in the eyes of Hamor and in the eyes of Shechem son of Hamor” – that boy must have really been in love). While the men of Shechem’s tribe are recovering from the painful surgery, Jacob’s sons kill them all, recover Dinah, loot the village, and take the women and children captive. The chapter (34) ends in a standoff between Jacob and his sons: Dad accuses the hotheaded sons of creating a world of trouble for him, to which the sons respond, “Like a whore our sister should be treated?”

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Wrestling with God

It may seem lunatic to suggest that a single episode in a work as complex as the Bible could encapsulate the meaning of the entire text, but I’m going to make exactly that claim. The episode occurs in Chapter 32 of Genesis, when the patriarch Jacob, preparing to meet for the first time in 20 years with his estranged brother, Esau, spends a troubled night wrestling with a mysterious stranger who may be God, or may be an angel, or possibly is just a man.

It’s an enigmatic story, one that seems to spring up out of nowhere and bear little direct relationship to the surrounding narrative. No cause for the wrestling match is given; it just happens. There’s not really a winner; Jacob holds his own through the night but at daybreak has his hip dislocated by a touch from the stranger. And yet at the conclusion of the wrestling match, the stranger confers on Jacob a blessing and gives him a new name, Israel, which means to struggle or fight with God. And of course that name becomes the name of the nation founded by Jacob’s descendents, the chosen people whose history is the primary narrative line of the Bible.

Jacob is the most complex character to emerge in the Bible up to that point. His life has not been particularly admirable -- he extorts his brother’s inheritance from him, tricks his sick father into bestowing upon him a blessing intended for that same brother, escapes his brother’s vengeance by running away, is himself tricked into marrying a woman he does not love but by whom he proceeds to father seven children, etc. – and yet he has at least three close encounters with God, culminating in the nocturnal struggle.

Jacob’s life has been more or less a continuous struggle, beginning in the womb, where his wrestling with his twin causes his mother, Rebecca, an uncomfortable pregnancy. Jacob emerges from the tomb second after Esau, but holding onto his twin’s heel, determined not to be left behind and willing to hold his sibling back if needed so that he can catch up.

The younger twin, described as a simple tent-dweller, becomes his mother’s favorite, while his father favors the firstborn, an outdoors-y sportsman. Mama’s boy and Daddy’s little man are destined for conflict.
In the first important adult encounter between the sons, Esau has come home from a hunting trip hungry and tired. Jacob has prepared a savory lentil stew, but will only share with his brother if Esau gives up his expected inheritance to his slightly younger brother.

And while their father, Isaac, is an almost entirely passive figure, Rebecca is a schemer, willing to deceive her husband to get what she wants for her favored child. Jacob goes along with Mom’s scheme, putting on his brother’s clothing and allowing Rebecca to cover his arms and neck with goatskin so that he can trick his blind, failing father into believing he is Esau and gaining the heir’s blessing intended for the firstborn. Jacob is depicted as unsure about this move, conflicted about the deception, but ultimately acquiescent to his mother’s plan.

He gets the blessing, but lands in a world of trouble. When the deception is discovered, Esau plots vengeance and Jacob hastily escapes, heading east to the home of his uncle Laban, Rebecca’s brother, where he is to find a wife (so that he doesn’t intermarry with the Canaanites and cause his mother grief as Esau did).

Laban is every bit as crafty as his sister. When Jacob falls in love at first sight with Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel, Laban extracts seven years of servitude from him, then, on the wedding day, switches Rachel with her older sister Leah. Jacob wins Rachel’s hand only by promising another seven years of service. After that, Jacob labors another six years to breed sheep and goats to support his growing family, before escaping from Laban’s clutches.

But this second escape sends him back to Canaan, where he awaits an uncertain reception from his wronged twin. It is at this point where Jacob, fleeing from oppression into danger, encounters his wrestling partner.
In art, the stranger is typically depicted with wings, an angel. But that common interpretation is not supported by the text, which calls the wrestler first a man, but then has the stranger tell Jacob that he has “prevailed with God and with men.” Further, we are told that “when the form of God passed by, the sun rose on him” and that Jacob names the site of this encounter “The Form of God.”

Jacob has demanded to see his opponent’s face; again whether this happens is left a bit unclear, although I think the implication is that he does not. He never really knows what God looks like, despite the fact that he has spent hours in his arms. With a perfect flourish, the stranger disappears just as the sun rises.

It’s an intriguing mystery left hanging, and that’s perfect. As such, it embodies the mysterious, shifting relationship that God has with humanity throughout the Bible, one minute all-powerful, the next bending to the will of his creations; one minute loving, the next angry and vengeful.

Jacob’s life suggests he has felt the full impact of God’s shifting temper. He’s been blessed (literally) but he has also paid a heavy price for his misdeeds. He’s seen a stairway to heaven, but has remained earthbound.
It’s important to remember that if Jacob is wrestling with God – the concept of God, the reality of God, the powers of God – God is also wrestling with Jacob. And the creator does not win out over the creation. The way he dislocates Jacob’s hip with a touch suggests that he could prevail – I mean, after all, he is God -- but he chooses not to. He’s willing to engage, willing to deal with His creatures’ struggles for supremacy.

God made this mess we call humanity, and now he has to live with it.

Over and over throughout the Bible, we see this conflict play out. God sets down rules, humanity disobeys them. He forgives, they forget. He metes out justice, they ignore the intended lessons. I frankly get tired of the lesson being repeated over and over in books like Chronicles, but in Genesis, this episode has a raw and immediate power. God is right there, being grappled with, demonstrating his power but not too much, and then letting Jacob win, or think he has won.

Jacob embodies all of the conflicting thoughts and behaviors that we humans are prone too. He’s a submissive, obedient son to one parent but betrays the other; he cheats and lies, but remains faithful to the God of his father; he flees from the scene of his crimes, but when they catch up with him, he deals with the consequences manfully. There’s no character quite like him in the rest of Genesis. We don’t encounter another, similarly conflicted and comparably complex character until David (although Moses shares some of these qualities).

And this story only works, I think, with a protagonist as complex and contradictory as Jacob. For the action to make sense, Jacob has to be a fully rounded character, one who can stand in for all of us, collectively. Up to this point, God has been the only character in the Bible with this many shades; now his creation has come into adulthood, and God has himself a real contender to face off with.

Jacob’s partial victory in the nighttime struggle presages Jacob’s reunion with Esau, where his brother, who has evidently made a raging success of his life, forgives his errant sibling. They embrace and then agree to go their separate ways, to live and let live despite their past differences, but they come together once more to bury their father (who has somehow survived 20 years after the deathbed scene that prompted Jacob’s flight).

And the story of Jacob and Esau's brotherly conflict presages the next major narrative in Genesis, the story of the conflict among Jacob's own progeny that leads to Joseph's sale into slavery, his rise above servitude and his ultimate reunion with his brothers.
 
Families. Can't live with them, can't live without them. And by diving in and engaging in the hand-to-hand combat, God makes it clear that He is part of our family, for better or for worse.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

"The Poor Are Told Good News"

I didn’t start this blog to make a political statement, and I don’t want to turn it into one, but I have to say that the ugliness of the American political scene in this time of healthcare reform sent me careening toward the Gospel of Luke.

I love each of the four canonical Gospels for a different reason. If I’m asked which is my favorite, I generally name Mark, because I find its tight literary structure, clarity and rapid pace to be supremely readable. (I often compare its beginning to the opening of a James Bond movie, plunging us without preparation into the middle of the action along the Jordan River). But I also love the stately, scholarly Matthew, carefully making the case that Jesus is the next logical step in Jewish history. And John, with its incomparably beautiful prologue and the five long discourses of Jesus, has a richness of spirit that is transporting (it was a favorite of the early Gnostics because of its focus on inner spirituality).

But Luke is something special, too, a work that – like the often neglected book of James – keeps us rooted in our daily lives and gives us a lesson on how to work toward grace in a difficult world. The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel is, profoundly, a man who sees the inequality and unfairness of the world around Him, and has something to say about it.

As a first example, let’s look at the Beatitudes in Luke in contrast to the more famous ones in Matthew. Matthew’s beatitudes deal with inner qualities – the poor in spirit, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pure in heart, etc. – while Luke’s shorter listing focuses on the physical and economic circumstances of those whom Jesus blesses:
“Blessed are you poor,
For yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
For you shall be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
For you shall laugh.
Blessed are you when men hate you,
And when they exclude you,
And revile you, and cast out your name as evil,
For the Son of Man’s sake.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy!
For indeed your reward is great in heaven,
For in like manner their fathers did to the prophets.”
-- Luke 6:20-23
Note that in Luke, Jesus is addressing directly those who are blessed, not speaking of a possibly absent third party as in Matthew (the poor in spirit).

And where Matthew follows up the Beatitudes with the six Antitheses that up the ante on Mosaic law, extending its behavioral proscriptions into thought and belief (i.e., lust in the heart, loving your enemy), Luke’s Jesus follows his four Beatitudes with a matching set of Woes or Plagues that are the mirror image of his blessings:
“But woe to you who are rich,
For you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full,
For you shall hunger.
Woe to you who laugh now,
For you shall mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
For so did their fathers to the false prophets.”
-- Luke 6:24-26
Is it just an accident that Matthew has Jesus speak his exalted words on a hilltop, while Luke’s more down-to-earth Jesus delivers his sermon on a plain, a level playing field? Were these two distinct sermons in which Jesus preached roughly the same message, or did the two authors apply artistic license to the same broad set of lessons, each editing in his own way and for his own purpose? We’ll likely never know for sure, but I think Luke’s choice of a flat setting, in which Jesus puts himself on the same level as His followers, is consistent with the message Luke has Him deliver. His words, the contrast of the beatitudes with the woes, certainly suggest that the playing field will be leveled eventually.

Luke is the longest of the gospels, and the only one written from a non-Jewish perspective. The author is generally believed to have been Greek, and, based on a brief reference in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, a physician (rather perfect, I think, for these days of rancor over delivery of healthcare). He is also said to have been a painter and, in fact, to have painted a portrait of Mary (The Black Madonna of Czestochowa is traditionally said to be that painting). A couple of famous lines spoken by Luke’s Jesus may seem to underscore the medical connection: “You will surely say this proverb to Me, ‘Physician heal yourself!’” and a little later the words, also spoken in Matthew and Mark, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”

Luke prescribes tough medicine. Of Matthew’s six Antitheses, Luke places only one in that central sermon (working in some of the advice from a second in His explication), but it is perhaps the hardest of all for us to follow:
“But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise.
But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”
Be generous to those around you, friend or enemy, without asking anything in return. Know that the reward is in generosity itself. We can read it, we can believe it, we can agree that it is a principle that should guide our lives. But following it is difficult.

Luke places Jesus’ rejection by the Nazarenes at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry (in contrast to Mark and Matthew) and has Jesus introduce the great theme of this gospel by quoting the prophet Isaiah:
“The spirit of the Lord is upon Me
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Could it be any clearer where Jesus’ sympathies lie?

I’ll be the first to admit that as much as I admire those who work in poverty to help those in poverty, I’m attached to my creature comforts. I may daydream about being selfless, but I’m not. Nevertheless, I hold the words of Luke’s Jesus as an ideal worth aiming toward.

The gospel of Luke is celebrated for many things. It contains an elaborate Nativity story, the one from which we uniquely get the trip to Bethlehem for the census, no room at the inn and the birth of Jesus in a manger. In Luke, and only in Luke, we have the Annunciation to Mary, the kinship of Jesus and John the Baptist, Mary’s wonderful Magnificat and the Benedictus of Zacharias (John the Baptist’s father). And we have the only story about Jesus’ childhood, a trip to the temple in Jerusalem at the age of 12. It is often noted – and is largely the point of this essay – that Luke’s Jesus pays more attention to the downtrodden of society – the poor, the outcast, widows and orphans, women in general – than any of the other gospels.

Although it is synoptic with Mark and Matthew, and shares many of the same stories and sayings, almost verbatim, Luke’s take on these adds up to a vigorous call to look out for those who are less fortunate than ourselves, and whom we might otherwise scorn. We’re instructed to give to those less fortunate who surround us, without asking for anything in return – indeed, we’re told to avoid any return on our gifts. Luke is all of a piece, its message consistent and plainly spoken.

Two of the most famous of all of Jesus’ parables are unique to Luke, and I’d like to take a look at these, because I see them as brilliant encapsulations of Luke’s perspective.

In the parable of the prodigal son, a young man demands an early release of his inheritance, squanders it on wine and women, is reduced to desperate circumstances entirely of his own making, and returns home to beg forgiveness and offer repentance to his father. He rehearses beforehand the words he will speak when he encounters his dad: “I will arise and go to my father and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.’ ” But when he arrives home, his father greets him with love and relief before he even speaks, and when the son recites his prepared speech, the dad doesn’t even let him get out that final sentence offering subjection to just punishment. He starts in with a celebration of the young man’s return. There is no attempt to make the son “earn” a second chance. He deserves a celebration, love and tender care simply because he is alive. When the young man’s older brother questions the celebration of his unworthy sibling, dad sets him straight: “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.”

Not a word about the younger brother’s change of attitude. I’m not denying that repentance and a return to good behavior are implicit in the story. It’s just that they are in no way prerequisites to the father’s celebration of his son’s return. There’s no tit for tat, no “Why don’t you get a job and then we’ll talk?” Love and care are unconditional.

The parable of the good Samaritan provides a somewhat different lesson. A man on a journey is robbed, beaten and left for dead along the roadside. A priest and a Levite, elevated members of Jewish society, pass by him and go out of their way to avoid giving him help. Only a Samaritan, a member of a scorned and outcast ethnic group, shows compassion. The Samaritan cleans and bandages the injured man’s wounds, takes him to an inn, and, when he leaves the inn the next morning, promises to return and pay for whatever expenses the injured man incurs.

Aid comes from unexpected quarters to the injured man, and the Samaritan cares for the injured man without thought of his own oppressed status and without a thought of recompense. The Samaritan does the right thing because it is the right thing to do.

Jesus’ advice to the rest of us: “Go and do likewise.”

Throughout Luke, warnings against covetousness abound. When a man in Chapter 12 complains that his brother will not share an inheritance with him and asks Jesus to set the brother straight, Jesus replies: “Man, who made Me a judge or arbitrator over you?,” and followed up with the warning, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.”

He who dies with the most toys clearly does not win.

A bit later, in Chapter 14, Jesus attends a Sabbath dinner at the house of a leading Pharisee, and tells another uniquely Lucan parable, in which he advises taking the worst seat at a wedding feast and giving the best places to others. He caps off the parable with this: “When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”

Since I’m working on this essay on Good Friday, I think it is only appropriate to devote a few lines to the crucifixion as told in Luke, and the contrast it provides to the story in the other gospels. In both Mark and Matthew, Jesus speaks one final sentence from the cross, in Aramaic, a line from Psalm 22: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” In John, the dying Jesus turns over the care of his mother to a follower, says that he is thirsty, and ends with, “It is finished.”

In Luke, by contrast, Jesus’ time on the cross has a consistency with the overall message of the gospel. Jesus asks God to forgive his executioners (although, of course, they have done nothing to seek or earn forgiveness). He also converses with the two criminals executed alongside him. When one of the criminals mocks his power, he chooses not to respond. The other criminal defends Jesus, and asks Him to remember him when he gets to heaven. Jesus responds: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

Even as he is dying, Luke’s Jesus focuses his final thoughts on those around him. His message is one of unconditional love and care and forgiveness, asking for nothing in return for kindness.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Out On A Limb: Exploring The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil

"The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. 'Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?' he asked.
'Begin at the beginning,' the King said gravely, 'and go on till you come to the end; then stop.'
-- Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
To further consider the implications of the fall, I’m first going to have to climb the Tree of Knowledge and work my way out onto its precarious branches so that I can look more closely at its profusion of fluttering leaves.

By that, I mean that the story of the forbidden fruit is so fertile that as I approach it, I find myself needing to look at centuries of wisdom and foolishness as well as my own thoughts. There may be no biblical story that has been examined so exhaustively as the fall, no narrative that has been approached, pondered and probed from so many perspectives.

My challenge here will be to sift through what has been said and to somehow coherently represent it while carefully inserting my own thoughts.

Following the King’s advice, I’ll start at the beginning, with the words on the page.

What we read in Genesis 2 is that the Lord God creates a man from the dust of the earth; plants a garden in which to settle him; puts in that garden “every tree lovely to look at and good for food,” including two named trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; and warns the man not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, “for on the day you eat from it, you are doomed to die.”

Then, the Lord God determines that the man shouldn’t be alone, and decides to make a sustainer, a helper or helpmeet, for him. After fashioning the beasts and birds from soil and bringing them to the man to let him name them, He changes course and puts the man to sleep, then removes one of the man’s ribs and builds it into a woman, whom again He brings to the man for naming. (My friend Robin Abrahams has written an amusing blog post on this episode, in which she envisions it as a Monty Python sketch)

Genesis 2 ends with an assurance that the man and woman were naked and unashamed of it.

When we pick up again in Genesis 3, we are introduced to the serpent and told that he is the “most cunning” of all the creatures of the Lord God. The serpent talks to the woman, tells her the Lord God was fibbing about death as a consequence of eating from the forbidden tree, and convinces her to give it a try. She does so, giving the man some fruit as well.

At this point, we are told that their “eyes were opened,” they were suddenly aware of their nakedness, and they reacted by making clothing from fig leaves and then hiding from the Lord God, who was walking in the garden in the evening breeze.

He calls them out and questions the man, who spills out a story about them hiding because of their nakedness (even though they have those fig-leaf loincloths). The Lord God realizes at this point that the couple have eaten from the forbidden tree and accuses the man of doing so, at which point the man says it was all the woman’s fault (I would say he throws her under the bus, but we haven’t been told that buses were invented yet). The woman, in turn, blames it all on the serpent, whom the Lord God punishes by condemning him to crawl on his belly and eat dust and be hated by women and children.

Then He turns to the woman, whose punishment is increased pain in childbearing, longing for her mate and subservience to that mate. Finally, the man gets his: He will have to work the soil, which will be less productive than it has been heretofore.

Next, we are told, the man (here I’ll mention that the Hebrew for human is Adam) gives the woman her name, Eve. We are told the Lord God stops to sew some clothing for the couple out of skins, dresses them, and, in a moment of reflection, realizes that if they now eat from the Tree of Life, they will live forever. So he sends them out of the garden and installs cherubim and a flaming sword to guard the east entrance from their return. And so ends Genesis 3.

From that short tale have sprung millennia of shame, guilt, subjugation of women and repression of sexuality as dominant themes in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. (I paint here with a broad and unfair stroke, I know, but do so with the intent of highlighting what I find to be troubling strains of thought in all three Abrahamic religions).

Over the ages since this story was first told, interpreters have taken it in wildly different directions. There’s no way that in a short essay I can cover all of these, but I want to consider some of the ones I find most interesting.

For many interpreters, the story of the fall has centered on the notion of free will. Adam and Eve make a choice to disobey God and pay a price, one that has condemned subsequent generations of humanity to a life of hardship but also has given these generations the freedom to decide whether to follow good or evil, the two notions embodied in the tree and its forbidden fruit.

Here’s Paul, in chapter 1 of Romans:
“They knew God, yet they failed to glorify or thank him as our God. And they grew cunning, in reasoning, and so their mindless heart fell deep into the fathoms of all darkness. They thought they were wise yet they were fools and they exchanged God’s imperishable glory for likenesses of perishable persons, and birds, and quadrupeds and reptiles. So God delivered them in their desires to filth and degradation of their bodies among themselves. They had exchanged God’s truth for falsehood in their worship, served the creature rather than the creator blessed forever.”
Paul is, of course, urging his followers to reverse that exchange, to use their powers of free will to turn back toward the one true God. But embodied in his words is the idea that we have a choice, and it is up to us to act on that.

A few centuries later, Augustine turned the notion of free will around 180 degrees, arguing that rather than opening us up to free will, the Fall had taken away the free will that Adam enjoyed in the garden. Augustine interpreted another passage of Romans – 5:12, which reads, “Because of one man, so death came through sin and death spread to all men, since all men sinned” – to mean that through the Fall the very nature of humanity was changed, and that as a result sin is an inevitable aspect of human life. Thanks to Adam, we have no choice but to be sinners.

Because he believed that this sinful nature was passed on through the generations by semen, Augustine posited that only two men in history were exempt from it: Adam and Jesus, neither of whom were created through transmission of semen. Given freedom of choice, Adam chose sin and Jesus chose godliness.
Augustine’s concept of the sinful nature of humanity may have been radical at the time, but, as Elaine Pagels elucidates in her book Adam, Eve and the Serpent, it fit very well into the emerging Christian politics of the Roman Empire. In short, because no individual human could be trusted to reject sin, it was necessary and just for men and women to subject themselves to the authority of the state.

From The City of God:
“Such, as men are now, is the order of peace. Some are in subjection to others and, while humility helps those who serve, pride harms those in power. But as men once were, when their nature was as God created it, no man was slave to either man or to sin. However, slavery is now penal in character, and planned by that law which commands the preservation of the natural order and forbids its disturbance.”
It is worth noting that a thousand years later, Martin Luther made similar arguments in supporting the power of the state.

For the communities of early Christians known as Gnostics, who flourished during the time between Paul and Augustine, the point of the fall was not freedom but knowledge. And in some of their writings, the story becomes one not of tragedy but of triumph.

The Other Bible Although today we group these communities together, their thought was in fact quite diverse. The Gnostic author of the Gospel of Philip, for example, sticks largely to the tragic thread of interpretation, but views it as a loss of primal unity. For this author, the tragedy is not in the disobedient act of eating from the tree, but in the very creation of Eve from Adam’s rib:
“When Eve was still in Adam, death did not exist. When she was separated from him, death came into being. If he again becomes complete and attains his former self, death will be no more.”
Philip argues that the way to regain wholeness is through knowledge, and specifically the knowledge of Christ:
“If the woman had not separated from the man, she would not die with the man. His separation became the beginning of death. Because of this Christ came to repair the separation which was from the beginning and to again unite the two, to give life to those who died as a result of the separation and unite them.”
Later, the author argues that the olive tree, from which men obtain the oil used in the sacrament of chrismation, is a new tree of knowledge that gives humans eternal life, because it imparts knowledge of Christ and of the original unity of humanity. “Ignorance is a slave. Knowledge is freedom. If we know the truth, we shall find the fruits of the truth within us. If we are joined to it, it will bring fulfillment.”

A very different take on the creation and fall can be found in another Gnostic text, the Secret Book of John. This radical author presents an alternative cosmology in which the creator god (called Ialdabaoth) is not in fact the true God, but a flawed emanation several generation removed from the ultimate God of Truth. Successive waves of creative generation from the God of Truth create a community of Aeons, one of whom, Sophia(Wisdom), conceives a thought without the participation of her consort, and through this generates the creator god Ialdabaoth, who is “imperfect and ugly in appearance, because she had made it without her Consort … She pushed it away from herself, outside those places, so that none of the immortals might see it, because she had brought it to birth in ignorance.”

This flawed deity, obsessed with his own power and jealous because he knows he is not the ultimate god, is referred to by the author caustically as “the self-satisfied one” and “the abortion of darkness,” and it is he who is responsible for the creation and fall of humanity. In this telling, the Tree of Life is the poisonous tree – “its root is bitter; its branches are shadows of death; its leaves are hate and deceit; its sap is an ointment of wickedness and its fruit is the desire of death” – while the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is the “Thought of Light.”

Ialdabaoth’s placement of Adam in the garden is described as an act of trickery, and Eve’s consumption of the forbidden fruit is an act of courage and grace, a step toward knowledge of the true God.

In the entertaining new horror novel Horns, author Joe Hill (a son of Stephen King) makes not Eve but Satan the hero of the story:

Horns: A Novel“In a lot of ways, I guess Satan was the first superhero.”

“Don’t you mean supervillain?”

“Nah. Hero, for sure. Think about it. In his first adventure, he took the form of a snake to free two prisoners behing held naked in a Third World jungle prison by an all-powerful megalomaniac. At the same time, he broadened their diet and introduced them to their own sexuality. Sounds kind of like a cross between Animal Man and Dr. Phil to me.”
While few writers have been as bold in their interpretation of the story as either the author of the Secret Book of John or Joe Hill, the idea that obtaining the knowledge of good and evil should be a sinful act has fascinated and troubled many.

The social psychologist Erich Fromm, who was brought up in Orthodox Judaism, cited the story as “the first act of freedom, that is, the first human act.” Like the author of the Gospel of Philip, Fromm sees the fall as an allegory for the destruction of a primal unity. In Escape From Freedom, Fromm writes:
“The act of disobedience as an act of freedom is the beginning of reason … The original harmony between man and nature is broken. God proclaims war between man and woman, and war between nature and man. Man has become separate from nature, he has taken the first step toward becoming human by becoming an ‘individual’ … He is alone and free, yet powerless and afraid. The newly won freedom appears as a curse; he is free from the sweet bondage of paradise, but he is not free to govern himself, to realize his individuality.”
In Living the Science of Mind, Ernest Holmes, the founder of the Religious Science community, sees Adam and Eve as metaphors for the two sides of human nature, and provides an interpretation clearly influenced by Freud (it may seem surprising that Freud himself never wrote about this story):
“We can liken Adam to the intellect, to our conscious self-choice, and we can liken Eve to our subconscious reaction, for this is what the story originally meant … We are all Adam and Eve, and when our intellects become coerced or misdirected they still find a subconscious reaction. When the subconscious reaction becomes powerful enough, it controls the intellect because of the unconscious thought patterns that are laid down in the mind. Finally, when these thought patterns become dominant, they control even the intellect. This is what produces most insanity and the psychosomatic relationships between the body and the mind.”
For the Toltec mystic and wisdom writer Don Miguel Ruiz, the point of the story is the origin of judgment, and specifically of harmful value judgments about ourselves and each other. Ruiz writes in The Voice of Knowledge:
“Before humans ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, we lived in truth. We spoke only truth. We lived in love without any fear. After we ate the fruit, we felt guilt and shame. We judged ourselves as no longer good enough, and of course we judged others the same way. With judgment came polarity, separation, and the need to punish and be punished.”
Clearly, many minds greater than mind have pondered this fertile story and come up with a multitude of interpretations. Nevertheless, I want to add to them some of my own thoughts. And while I acknowledge the validity of all of these possible interpretations, I view the story of the fall in a somewhat different way, as a tale of growth and development.

In Genesis 1, God creates the entire universe through speech, but in the second creation narrative His words are ineffectual. Only action speaks; words do not act. God issues a warning that his creations ignore as soon as a tempting counter-argument is made.

Anyone who has been a parent can sympathize with His wounded outrage over their behavior, I suspect. In his fascinating exploration of the “development” of God’s personality through the sequence of the Tanakh (see God: A Biography), Jack Miles points out that God is not referred to explicitly as a parent until the books of Samuel. But Genesis 3, the story of the fall, portrays the relationship between God and the first humans in a way that evokes the troubled bonds between parents and adolescent offspring throughout the millennia.

One element of the story that gets surprisingly short shrift in most retellings is God’s action between his discovery of the first couple’s disobedience and their expulsion from the garden. He stops, makes them clothing and then dresses them in that clothing. This strikes me as one of the most poignant images in all of the Bible, and yet I searched in vain for a work of art that depicts it. The fact that God takes the time and effort to clothe his creatures – once they have become aware of their nakedness – before he sends them out into the big, cruel world is, to me, a touching act of parental responsibility. It’s an acknowledgement that the kids are grown up now, there’s not much more He can do for them, but He’s going to do what I can to make sure they are safe and warm. He has told Adam that he’s going to have to work for a living, and Eve that she’s going to suffer and yet be compelled to stand by her man. Now He’s got to set them free and let them experience things on their own. If suitcases had been invented, I’m sure God would have packed one for them.

Although it’s never stated, it’s as if God recognizes that he put this whole series of events in motion when he planted that damnable tree in the center of the garden and put the serpent there to tempt his favored creatures. After all, if this story had happened today in the United States, somebody would have filed suit against Him for creating an attractive nuisance. And probably won.

That whole forbidden fruit thing strikes me as a trap. Not a malicious trap, mind you, but something more like the challenges parents sometimes set up for their kids, a situation that says, “Okay, if you’re so grown up, how are you going to handle this?”

God’s creative acts – the tree, the snake, the couple – have a power that exceeds His words of caution. To quote Ernest Holmes again: “Well, man is a curious creature. He is born with an innate desire to explore everything. He has a great curiosity, and sometimes he wants to know exactly why he cannot do exactly as he pleases and get away with it.”

In the spirit of Jack Miles, I think it’s important to note that if these events are happening to humanity for the first time, they also are happening to God for the first time. And in contrast to the popular image of God as all-seeing and all-knowing, the God of the Bible often seems surprised by what the humans will do. It strikes me again as just like the feeling we parents get when we just can’t even believe what our kids just did.

Watching your progeny develop minds of their own can be a real bitch.