Saturday, January 8, 2011

Water, Water Everywhere

When did God create water?

That’s kind of a trick question. If you read the creation story in Genesis 1, it seems water was already in existence when God began his six days of work: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”

Water appears to be a precursor to the creation of life, a necessary condition, just as the scientists tell us.

In the second creation narrative, the one attributed to the author J, in Genesis 2, water also appears to be sort of already there – at least it’s not made clear that water was ever “created”. We are told that “the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground. But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.” In other translations, it’s called a spring or a fountain, but in any case we see water bubbling up from the ground to sustain life.

We are told that a river runs through the garden, branching into four as it leaves – the well-known Tigris and Euphrates of Central Asia, and two others, the Pishon and Gihon, about which scholars have puzzled and argued for millennia.

The power of water to both sustain and to destroy life flows as a theme throughout the Bible, most dramatically in the stories of the Flood and the Exodus.

Both the Flood narrative and the Exodus narrative begin with portraits of fertility. In the former we are told that God’s original creatures have propogated according to instructions. Chapter 6 of Genesis begins, “Now it came to pass that men began to exist in great numbers on the earth, and daughters were born to them.” How daughters were born to men is not elaborated upon, but we are immediately plunged into an even stranger narrative stream: “So when the sons of God saw the daughters of men were beautiful, they took wives for themselves of all they chose.” Sons of God? Hmmm. Did John the Evangelist not know about this passage when he called Jesus the “only begotten” son of God? Who were these other sons? Who were their mothers?

It gets stranger. God reacts to all of the breeding by limiting the life of the offspring to 120 years. But the Bible goes on to tell us: “There were giants [Nephilim is the Hebrew word, and it may not translate exactly to “giants” but that’s how the King James translators saw it] on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men of old, men of renown.” Damn. I didn’t learn about those giants in Sunday school, nor was I taught about these sons of Gods jumping human girls.

People have been puzzling about this little episode for millennia, and I’m not going to be able to solve the mystery now, but I note it as one of those inconvenient passages in the Bible that can throw conventional notions of its narrative way off course.

At any rate, we are told that God saw that these humans were wicked: “every intent of the thoughts within his [man’s] heart was only evil continually.” And, as we know, he decided to destroy His creatures, with the exception of Noah, who “found grace in the presence of the Lord God.” We had been introduced to Noah in the genealogy of Chapter 5; he is a tenth-generation descendant of Adam.

The story of Noah, the ark, and the great flood follow this odd prelude.

Last year, when I taught my church class about Genesis, I skipped over the story of the Flood, not because I didn’t think it was interesting – in fact, I find the story of God’s regret to be one of the most fascinating episodes of the Bible -- but because I was eager to get on to the patriarchs, especially Jacob, whose wrestling match with God I saw as an overarching image of the Biblical narrative as a whole.

For now, let’s note that God’s chosen vehicle for destruction is water, that primal substance that, according to the narrative, was already there when He began the work of creation.

I want to compare that tale of mad procreation in Genesis to the opening of Exodus, where we read about the progeny of Jacob in Egypt. We read in Exodus 1 that, after Joseph’s death, “Then the children of Israel [the new name God had given Jacob after the wrestling match came to a draw] increased and multiplied, and became numerous, and grew exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them.”

These fertile humans came to the attention not of God, but of the Egyptian god-king whose land they were evidently overrunning. Now this was not the pharaoh who took such good care of Joseph, but evidently his son – at least it’s a “new king over Egypt.”

Like God in Genesis 6, the god-king of Exodus 1 decides he can’t tolerate the situation. He first enslaves the Israelites, then decides to kill off their male children. Failing to secure the cooperation of the Hebrew midwives (we are told there are only two to service the astonishingly fertile Israelite population – no wonder they didn’t have time to pay attention to Pharaohs’ command! Actually, we are told the midwives refused to obey the god-king’s command because they feared God, and that God took care of them – “dealt well” with them, the Bible says – as a result. It’s the only time God is mentioned in the first few chapters of Exodus, until he makes his spectacular return in the burning bush.), so the king enlists the entire Egyptian population in the task of throwing male babies into the river.

For the second time, water becomes the means of destruction. This time it’s more selective, but the power of water as both life-giver and life-taker continues its strong presence in Exodus. As we all know, the Hebrew baby Moses is put into an ark (in another echo of the Noah story, the same word is used to describe both vessels, despite an enormous difference in scale) and set into the water by his mother. And as Noah was saved by his refuge in the ark, so is Moses saved when he is rescued by the maids of Pharaoh’s daughter. By extension, the entire Israelite population is saved by this second ark, since Moses’ survival ensures their own.

Through a clever subterfuge engineered by Moses’ sister, the baby’s birth mother becomes his wet nurse and the child survives to be raised as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter. The Bible tells us that it is his Egyptian adoptive mother who gives him the name Moses, for an oddly Hebrew reason: “Because I drew him out of the water.” Scholars tell us that an etymological link between the name Moses and the act of drawing someone from the water would indicate that Pharaoh’s daughter was familiar with the Hebrew verb “mashah”, which means just that. Are we to understand that this young woman was fluent in Hebrew? Since Moses is a well-known Egyptian name meaning “birth”, isn’t it more likely that she gave him his name for purely Egyptian reasons? Many scholars have pondered this, but the Bible says what it says. Just another one of those mysteries that keeps the academic world busy.

The astonishing economy of Biblical narrative allows Moses to grow up in the Egyptian court; murder an Egyptian whom he sees abusing a Hebrew slav;, flee the country; take refuge with a Midianite priest; marry the priest’s daughter; and father a child all by the end of Chapter 2.

That narrative economy leaves so many gaps that an entire industry of Biblical scholars and commentators – not to mention Cecil B. DeMille – have spent millennia filling in fanciful details. In The Ten Commandments, everybody’s favorite Bible movie, DeMille acknowledges drawing not only on the Bible but on the Midrash, and the writings of Philo and Josephus to flesh out his story. Even so, I’m pretty sure the romance with Anne Baxter – which features my very favorite piece of Hollywood Biblical dialog, when Baxter, as the princess Nefretiri, confronts Moses with the line, “Oh Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!” – was made up by screenwriters in Southern California.

Various stories over the millennia have posited that Moses led a successful military campaign against the Ethiopians as a service to Pharaoh; that he wandered southward to Ethiopia in his early exile and for a time became that country’s king (in Numbers he is said to have a Kushite wife, while in Exodus the only wife mentioned is the Midianite Zipporah); that he was a renegade Egyptian priest who raised an army of lepers to battle the Egyptians; even that he was schooled in magical arts by his father-in-law, Jethro, hence his ability to turn his rod into a snake and transform the Nile into a river of blood. Jonathan Kirsch in his Moses: A Life provides a good survey of the extra-biblical Moses legends from various sources.

One of the most interesting Moses speculations comes from Sigmund Freud, in his book Moses and Monotheism. This work, published in the last year of Freud’s life, posits that Moses was not an Israelite at all, but a follower of the monotheistic religion briefly imposed on Egypt by the Pharaoh Akhnaton. Further, Freud argues, this original Moses was murdered by his followers in the Egyptian desert and replaced by a second Moses, a Midianite priest and follower of the god Jahve.

Freud speculates on the similarity between the Egyptian god’s name, Aton, and the Hebrew word Adonai, translated as “My Lord”, one of many terms for God, as well as the Phoenician or Syrian god Adonis, although he quickly drops the topic saying he has no scholarly way to make a connection.
Freud also connects the Moses narrative to other classical stories dealing with the exposure of infants to the elements in an effort to kill them, and their miraculous salvation (Romulus, Cyrus, etc.) In particular, he cites the purported autobiography of the Babylonian King Sargon, who reigned in the 28th century BC and whose story is a startling parallel to that of Moses:
The most remote of the historical personages to whom this myth attaches is Sargon of Agade,
the founder of Babylon about 2800 B.C. From the point of view of what interests us here it would perhaps be worth while to reproduce the account ascribed to himself:

" I am Sargon, the mighty king, King of Agade. My mother was a Vestal; my father I knew not; while my father's brother dwelt in the mountains. In my town Azupirani it lies on the banks of Euphrates my mother, the Vestal, conceived me. Secretly she bore me. She laid me in a basket of sedge, closed the opening with pitch and lowered me into the river. The stream did not drown me, but carried me to Akki, the drawer of water. Akki, the drawer of water, in the goodness of his heart lifted me out of the water. Akki, the drawer of water, as his own son he brought me up. Akki, the drawer of water, made me his gardener. When I was a gardener Istar fell in love with me. I became king and for forty- five years I ruled as king.'

Similarly, he links the Moses story to other well-known stories of royal children hidden away from danger and raised in obscurity by commoners, although in the case of Moses, the story is actually a reversal of the pattern.

Back to the main topic. The power of water continues to be an overarching topic in the story of Moses. That his story begins in the fertile Nile delta, a place like no other in the Near East, sets the stage. Water was the reason for Egypt’s rise, and yet the periodic flooding of the Nile also held great danger. Water gives, water takes away.

In the land of Midian, he meets his future wife, Zipporah, at a well, in a manner similar to the way that Abraham’s servant encountered Rebekkah, and Jacob first laid eyes on Rachel (and Jesus later had that intriguing encounter with the Samaritan woman). Wells were evidently the meet-cute spot of the ancients, which makes sense since they were one of the few places women could appear in public.

Sent back to Egypt by God (who then tries to murder him in one of the Bible’s most mysterious episodes), Moses turns the Nile into a river of blood in his first attempt to convince the king to release the Hebrews.
The parting of the sea to provide safe passage for the Hebrews and death to the Egyptians pursuing them probably needs no further introduction.
During the 40 years of travel in the wilderness, Moses twice brings forth water from rocks – on the second occasion, his hubris in striking the rock with his rod results in God’s banishment of Moses from the land of milk and honey that has been his lifelong goal. Moses dies in exile, and his burial spot is unknown.

Drawn from the water that is a pre-condition of life, the events of the Moses story are bound up in water as creator and destroyer. Freud saw the image of flowing water in these stories as a metaphor for the passage through the birth canal (fertile delta, anyone?). Through these stories birth was given to a great religion, and an endless stream of creative interpretation.