Genesis 5

This is one of those chapters in the Bible that children find boring, literalists import all sorts of imagined meanings into, and scholars use to locate particular narrative thematic schemes and cultural cross-references with other parts of the Ancient Near East. That last does interest me personally, but perhaps is not especially pertinent to the purposes of our blog here. (For curious readers: the Sumerian King List similarly has pre-flood monarchs with exceedingly long reigns.) Rather we will focus in the below on one verse from near the end, given now with its preceding verse for context:

5.28-29: “When Lamech had lived 182 years, he begot a son. And he named him Noah, saying, ‘This one will provide us relief [a footnote states: Connecting Noah with Heb. niḼam “to comfort”; cf. 9.20 ff.] from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the very soil which the LORD placed under a curse.’”

The connection here is of course to 3.17b (God’s/“God’s” reported speech to Adam after he and Eve broke the commandment and ate the fruit of the prohibited tree: “Cursed be the ground because of you; /By toil shall you eat of it /All the days of your life:”), but what is interesting is that in the Noah storyline he does not in fact ever do this; instead he performs a kind of interlude role, the metaphorical vehicle for what is presented as God’s/“God’s” “reset” of the inhabited Earth via the actual vehicle (“actual” within the confines of the myth, that is) of his gigantic ship in the following flood account. “Our work”, the “toil of our hands” and humanity’s necessary connection with the “very soil” never ceases; what “relief” has Noah given?

Any number of answers might be possible to that query, but in meditating on it perhaps we need to keep the symbolic importance of Noah central. In the arc (and not only “ark”!) of the Genesis tales Noah functions as a kind of “new man”, a superior progenitor of what could be (but does not become) a refined human race, a sort of Nietzschean Zarathustra type in purpose if not personality. As only he and his family are related to have survived the flood, the reader is made to think that here was a chance for a fresh start and to do things properly this time around: Adam #2, as it were. Humanity had an opportunity to be moral animals, to create just communities and to sustain them, to flourish in goodness and grace. Yet such, we know, was not to be, and thus the rest of Genesis deals with God’s/“God’s” searching out for persons and a method by which to make things right (or anyway “improved”), eventuating in the establishment of a holy peoplehood whose story unfolds throughout the Torah, Prophets, and Writings. We may take what we wish from this; here is what I think:

Regardless of whether we do or do not believe in a divinity, divine nature, or even merely an inner urging towards greater degrees of righteousness and ethical conduct (towards one another certainly; possibly towards a numinous Other), figures like Noah are helpful not so much as role models – in which case we tend to think of historicity, and the lack of such can put us off and spoil things – but as tokens for a whole list of associated qualities and concepts. When we recall Noah we do not bring to mind some business about mass extermination nor the supposed cessation of labor, rather what his name means (as per the footnote quoted above): “comfort”. Maybe this makes us picture rainbows as an emblem of that, maybe not. In either case we have Noah as the paragon of a good and upright person, to this we then affix “comfort”, and from that combination we are made to consider that life really is better when we are better to each other; and to ourselves. In the heat of a negative emotional moment – in the “flood” of it – I hope I can remember that.

Genesis 4

Resentment, murder, exile; this chapter paints a dark picture. A confusing one as well: Cain, upon learning of his banishment from the new location his family had settled in post-garden of Eden, complains to God/“God” that “anyone who meets me may kill me!” (verse fourteen); yet who might meet him? Who else exists to meet him? How is it that the world has suddenly become populated? Apparently it has though, for the following verse has God/“God” provide Cain with a mark that guarantees his safety from whomever he may come across (and note that despite Cain’s killing of his brother there is no execution carried out in kind); thereafter too Cain suddenly has a wife and founds a city (verse seventeen). None of these oddities, however, are particularly interesting to me.

Nor do I find verse nine – upon which a great many have commented – tantamount, although it is of concern and links into what I do think is most central (see the below). That verse reads: “The LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ And he said, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’” From this clearly insufficient and disregarding reply of Cain’s we can locate (via its opposite expression) the ethic of care for the other which is extended and extolled throughout the Tanakh, and not only applied to fellow community members but as well to the ‘stranger and alien who dwell in your midst’ (the Torah especially is full of exhortations for the equal treatment of non-Israelites who live with them). This is significant, it is civilizational founding, but again to me it is not the core of this chapter.

Rather I find the build-up to the murder to be paramount. Both Cain and Abel bring offerings to God/“God”, but for reasons that are not given God/“God” doesn’t want Cain’s; verse five: “but to Cain and his offering He [God/“God”] paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell.” As would yours or mine; Cain was trying to do right here, apparently, but it wasn’t good enough. Why not? We don’t know, we never learn. We might guess that it was because it wasn’t the ‘first fruit’ of the soil – merely ‘the fruit’ (cf. Abel who brought the ‘choicest’ from his flocks) – but even so we may wonder why that would justify the full rejection Cain receives. Perhaps the lesson here is simply that bad things happen, and there isn’t always a reason. Very intriguingly, the ‘bad thing’ occurring here is coming from God/“God”.

What sort of image is this giving us? The answer, I think, comes from God’s/“God’s” own response to Cain’s (understandable) dismay:

4.6-7: “And the LORD said to Cain,
‘Why are you distressed,
And why is your face fallen?
Surely, if you do right,
There is uplift.
But if you do not do right
Sin couches at the door;
Its urge is toward you,
Yet you can be its master.’ [a footnote states: Meaning of verse uncertain.]”

Whatever the editors’ footnote on the exact meaning of the Hebrew translated by the group of rabbis and scholars who produced the NJPS, for me as a reader in the twenty-first century who doesn’t believe in anything like ‘sin’ but who does certainly accept consequences and mindsets, this is the crux of the matter. Inexplicable trouble has befallen Cain despite his best efforts to do what he thought was right, and as a result he is upset about it. Who wouldn’t be? Yet God’s/“God’s” counsel is not to seek an answer or a reason, instead Cain should keep doing what is good and worthy and not give way to the negativity surely tugging at his consciousness. This is a statement of emotional control, of self-discipline, almost of a Stoic mentality really, and it is one that a great many sages of a great many ages have repeated to we readers and listeners. It has even made its way onto bumper stickers. I take this chapter, then, as an early (in Genesis) inkling of an ethics that might be separated from a theology; and that I find fascinating, even personally challenging.

Genesis 3

Here of course we have the famous ‘fall’ of humankind; in modern parlance I suppose we might call this chapter an ‘origins story’. It lays the groundwork (a pun there – a bad one, I know – on verse seventeen’s “Cursed be the ground because of you; /By toil you shall eat of it /All the days of your life:”) for the situation in which the Genesis audience would have found themselves; not too unlike our own today: childbearing is still incredibly difficult (although better), we yet work for our food (in one way or another), we die and then ‘we’ (post-awareness, absent a sense of self) return to lifeless matter, however we may term such (dust, soil, ashes, etc.). The conditions of strife and conflict which we know so well; little wonder John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952) is such an evocative title, referencing as it does the banishment from the garden and the cherubim guard positioned to its east to prevent any return (verse twenty-four).

The various Gnostic groups, who flourished in the first through fourth centuries CE, made much of this narrative, finding in it an ‘origin story’ of an entirely different sort, one wherein the Creator was an evil deity who worked to imprison the divine spark within each human being inside the dead flesh of our bodies. To them the ultimate spiritual goal was to achieve release from one’s physicality and attain to the higher deity far above the Creator, and towards this end the material writ large was highly denigrated. (For an excellent collection of Gnostic writings see: Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer (eds.), The Gnostic Bible: Gnostic Texts of Mystical Wisdom from the Ancient and Medieval Worlds, Shambhala Publications, 2009.) Such ideas became the root of all sorts of later conceptions, and the notion of an ‘internal light’ or ‘flame’ or ‘essence’ might easily be traced through dozens of thinkers in dozens of traditions both religious and academic. That pursuit, however, I’ll leave to the interested reader, and instead take us back to our text.

What I appreciate about this account is the utter nearness of the somewhat reduced (rather: approachable) God/“God” that is displayed here (akin to our ongoing attempts at finding a ‘weak’ ideational framework). In verse eight it is stated to be “moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day”, and in the next verse God/“God” calls out to Adam, seeking to find him and apparently not knowing where he is; this could be a remarkable metaphor if we are prepared to allow ourselves to contemplate it: God/“God” searching for us, wishing to spend time together, to commune, to ‘hang out’; yet we have to present ourselves. How very heartening to think; and via that thought the entire emotional tenor of the chapter may easily change as we continue reading and note the development (the flow) of our ‘conscious of’ moments (phenomenological self-observation, description, analysis). Naturally there is the declared punishment – the explanation for the thuses of our everydays – but note what then immediately follows: God/“God” makes clothes for Adam and Eve, whose own attempts at covering themselves (the “sewed together fig leaves” of verse seven) must have been quite poor. Ostensibly this is a chapter of rebellion and consequences, of things gone terribly wrong, but I think that recognizing this as a relic of heartfelt ancient storytelling enables us to note the beauty and kindness that is being offered as the divine’s attitude towards humanity. Surely this is a challenge to emulate: Unwanted results in this world of cause and effect are unavoidable, but thereafter acts of charity might always be done.

Genesis 2

Two themes – suitably enough given this second chapter – emerge for me from my reading of Genesis 2: The first is ‘work’, and the second is ‘pairing’ (another two!). Scholars find this second creation account to be a wholly separate one from that given in the previous chapter, and its placement probably the work of later editors/redactors (Genesis is thought to have gone through at least three layers of compositional efforts before it arrived at the version we have now), but in it we can still see God/“God” needing to labor with what was on hand rather than ex nihilo conjuring, and this I think reinforces the kind of ‘weak God/“God”’ schema we ourselves are trying to move towards and will return to below.

‘Work’, then: In 2.5 we find: “when no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the LORD [Incidentally, this is the Tetragrammaton; the most ancient scriptures seem to use El instead to refer to the deity. The evolution of these terms and their associated notional worlds I find fascinating, but that is a topic for another ‘day’.] God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil”; and then a little further on in 2.15: “The LORD God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it.”

Many of us probably think of lolling about if we ever imagine the fabled Garden of Eden, of walking around, plucking fruit off of trees, and staring at the clouds. Imagine the boredom! That’s probably what the ‘knowledge that leads to death’ of the next chapter’s tree and snake episode is all about: the realization of how utterly dull is any kind of ‘perfection’ (enter wabi sabi). Yet such is not the point here, rather ‘man’ is made for the purpose of working: “to till the soil”, to “tend it”. On the divine plan it seems we have roles to fulfill; are these pre-destined? Personalized? I’m not sure that anything can be determined either way along those lines just from what we have here: if there is only one human in existence then whatever function the person is meant for must be individuated by default, but that doesn’t imply a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for the fate of the now seven billion plus of us. Still, that there is a ‘something to do’ I find quite comforting, and motivating. May such be found.

Next, ‘pairing’: This is quite intriguing to me; 2.18 has: “The LORD God said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.’” The next portion though is not about Eve but rather “all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky” (verse nineteen) which are brought before the ‘man’ to be named, after which it’s stated that “but for Adam [the ‘man’] no fitting helper was found” (verse twenty), and only thence do we get Eve’s creation. What is evidently being asserted is that initially the nonhuman animals were presented as potential companions to the ‘man’ by God/“God” (which like the ‘man’ were formed out of “the earth” (verses seven and nineteen): i.e., pre-existing materials, as in Genesis 1), and only when these were found wanting was another human animal finally fashioned.

The clear implication of this – once we allow ourselves to see it rather than being blinded by received traditions – is that God/“God” didn’t know what would be appropriate to give the ‘man’, it required a series of trial and error. This is astounding; but it matches quite well with a view of the divine wherein God/“God” engages with whatever materials are present and doesn’t have perfect foreknowledge of exactly what will happen; in short, a form of ‘weak theology’ that – I propose – far better suits our world as we experience it than a vision of an omnipotent and omniscient controlling super-being does: messy, terrible things happen which even God/“God” probably didn’t want but is stuck with, at least until we ‘pair’ with it and ‘work’ to make something better.