Sentimental Bible interpretations

When you ask young people what they know about the Bible, they might be able to sing the little Bible song, “How do you know that Jesus loves you?  I know that Jesus loves me, because the Bible tells me so.”  Most of us have this sentimental approach to the Bible as a book with a lot of nice stories about Adam and Eve, Moses, and Jesus, but very little else.

Enoch (Sir 44:16-44:16)

“Enoch pleased the Lord.

He was taken up.

He is an example

Of repentance

To all generations.”

It is interesting that the first famous holy man mentioned is Enoch. He first appeared in chapter 5 of Genesis. He was among the 12 patriarchs before the flood. In fact, he was the lucky 7th one. Enoch was the son of Jared and the great grandfather of Noah, via Methuselah and Lamech. Although he was a descendant via Seth, son of Adam and Eve, he has the same name as Cain’s son in chapter 4 of Genesis. However, what made Enoch unique among these early patriarchs was that he does not seem to die. Instead God “took him up” when he was merely 365 years old. Perhaps there is some symbolism here. There were 3 apocryphal Books of Enoch written from the 3rd century BCE to after the time of Jesus Christ. In fact, there are a few mentions of Enoch in the New Testament writings. Thus Sirach would not have been out of place talking about him as he was one of the first people not to die, but go to heaven or “be taken up.” Thus there was a certain fascination about Enoch. He certainly pleased the Lord. Somehow, he was an example of repentance. He had some kind of special relationship with God. Interesting enough, Enoch has had a role in the Dead Sea Qumran community, Rabbinic Judaism, early Christianity, and Islamic thought, as well as the Latter Day Saints, or Mormons.

Sin and death come from a woman (Sir 25:24-25:24)

“From a woman

Sin had its beginning.

Because of her,

We all die.”

Sirach emphasizes the idea of the woman committing the first sin. In the original Genesis story in chapter 3, the man and woman ate together, although the serpent spoke to the woman, Eve. Women thus get blamed not only for the entrance of sin into this world, but also for the concept of death. Humans would have been immortal had there not been this female disobedience. Cleary Sirach’s anti-feminism runs rampant in this section.

Tower of Babel and Abraham (Wis 10:5-10:5)

“Wisdom also,

When the nations in wicked agreement

Had been put to confusion,

Recognized the righteous man.

She preserved him

Blameless before God.

She kept him strong

In the face of his compassion

For his child.”

Here there seems to be a link with the Tower of Babel and Abraham. Once again in this abridgment of Genesis, there is a leap from chapter 11 about the Tower of Babel and Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac in chapter 22. Obviously, we then have this abbreviated history of mankind that jumps from Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, to Noah and the flood, without explicitly mentioning their names. Now the jump is from the Tower of Babel to Abraham. Here it is wisdom and not God who caused the confusion as the men were building the high tower. She also recognized and preserved Abraham as the strong righteous man who was blameless before God (ἄμεμπτον Θεῷ). Just as the idea of God dominates over wisdom, she, wisdom, is the one who had compassion for the child (τέκνου) of Abraham, Isaac.

Fratricide (Wis 10:3-10:3)

“But when an unrighteous man

Departed from her

In his anger,

He perished.

Because in rage

He killed his brother.”

Once again, based on Genesis, chapter 4, we have a reference to the dispute between Cain and Abel, without their names being used. Throughout this chapter of Wisdom, no specific names are used. In this Genesis story, Cain was the first born of Adam and Eve. This unrighteous Cain got angry because his sacrifice was not accepted, while his brother’s was accepted. Cain in a rage killed his younger brother, Abel. There is no clarity on why Cain was so unrighteous and departed from this female wisdom. However, he surely killed his brother, so that the first human murder was fratricide (ἀδελφοκτόνοις). Actually, most murders are not done by strangers.

The prayer of Tobias (Tob 8:5-8:8)

“Tobias began by saying.

‘Blessed are you, O God of our ancestors.

Blessed is your name in all generations forever.

Let the heavens and all the creation bless you forever.

You made Adam.

For him you gave his wife Eve

As a helper and support.

From the two of them

The human race has sprung.

You said.

‘It is not good that the man should be alone.

Let us make a helper for him like himself.’

I now am taking this kinswoman of mine

Not because of lust,

But with sincerity.

Grant that she and I may find mercy.

Grant that we may grow old together.’

They both said. ‘Amen. Amen.’  Then they both went to sleep for the night.’”

This prayer of Tobias is an ode to creation. It is one of the first prayers that talks about Adam and Eve. In fact, it uses the words of Genesis, chapter 2. This prayer combines the God of his ancestors with the God of heaven. Tobias maintained that he did not marry out of lust but because of sincerity for his family. He asked for God’s mercy, and the famous saying, “Grant that we may grow all together.” They both say amen and go to sleep. There is no mention of sexual intercourse.

 

My understanding of Genesis

These are the great stories of the Bible with unforgettable mythic characters and events that dominate our lives even today. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and Lot, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and the twelve sons of Israel are as real as any super heroes or fictional characters in history.  They are flawed heroes, not gods..  They are anything but perfect.   In what sense are they real people and is this a work of fiction?

History is always an interpretation.  Who knows what really happened over four thousand years ago?  Sometimes we call this period, pre-historic.  These stories are as good as any at trying to explain how the Israelites felt about themselves some 2500-3000 years ago.  These ancient oral traditions were gathered and written down in order to explain what they were doing then.  We know more about the belief of these ancient authors than about the people they were talking about.  These mythic characters had power over their lives.

The Yahweh tradition made no attempt at being historical.  Everything takes place in some vague somewhere and sometime. Yahweh appears a little capricious choosing who he likes and who he does not. The priestly tradition, however, loved order, genealogies, and clear structure, in trying to put things into a wider perspective, yet explaining why they do things the way that they did them. The Elohist tradition tries to put God into a more distant governing, but kind power.

God had special relationships with these archetype patriarch heroes, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The three great belief religious systems of the west, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share in this Abrahamic heritage.  Joseph, the son of Jacob, and his Technicolor coat ended up almost ruling Egypt when his brothers turned against him.

The general narrative is that there is a loving caring God who spoke with these bigger than life characters.  Yahweh has chosen these guys to be fruitful and prosperous, to inhabit a land, to be righteous, to follow Yahweh, and be circumcised.  God is almighty.

The details are shocking as we see these heroes with warts and all. The primordial man, Adam could not even follow a simple divine order not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Eve, mother of all, gets duped by a snake of all things.  Cain kills Able because God somehow liked him better.  The world gets populated either by the sons of Adam and Eve having sex with Eve, their sisters, or female animals.  There are no other options if you want to follow the single source theory.  Only the multiple source theory allows for other female humans from other humans.

Noah is an interesting character who follows God’s orders, but he does not get much credit, except as a builder before some giant flood hit the Middle East.  He actually is the origin of all humans according to this story, since all humans were destroyed, except for him and his family.  All of these stories of magic trees, wonderful gardens, and massive floods can be found in most religions of the world.  This seems to be something that humans crave that is part of practically all oral traditions.

The story of Abraham is more complicated.  Somehow he is the father of all the good guys and the bad guys. His two sons Isaac and Ishmael become symbolic of good and evil.  Isaac, born of Sarah, is good, and actually appears as one of the nicer figures in these stories. Ishmael, however, born of the slave woman from Egypt, Hagar, is bad.  When you add in Keturah and her children you can figure out how the Middle East was populated.

Isaac is a very sympathetic figure, if only because Abraham was going to offer him as a sacrifice to God, until he was stopped by an angel.  He marries his cousin, which was quite normal and has twin boys, who fight all the time for his favor.  In a twist of fate and deceit, Jacob and not Esau, who was the oldest by seconds or minutes, gets everything.  Eventually, they make up and all prosper.  None of these characters are poor people.  They have lots of livestock and slaves.

Jacob is the most deceitful.  He tricks his brother Esau all the time.  He meets his match with his uncle Laban, who tricks him also.  Jacob marries two sisters at once, both his first cousins.  Just as Abram became Abraham, Jacob became Israel, as the new names become important.  Jacob who becomes Israel has twelve sons with four different women, the two sisters Rachel and Leah, plus their female maid servants.  This then becomes the twelve tribes of Israel.

The most interesting personality is Joseph, who was not liked by his ten brothers who tried to kill him.  He gets sold as a slave to an Egyptian.  Due to his ability to discern dreams he becomes the second in command in Egypt and even gets an Egyptian name.  When his brothers come to get grain during a famine, they do not recognize him, but he recognizes them.  He puts them through all kinds of demands, until there is a grand reunion and the whole family moves to Egypt.

This all explains why the sons of Israel were in Egypt, where Moses will try to get them out of there.  Joseph seems like a wise man, who speaks his mind.  One of the key concepts of Genesis is genealogy, showing how people are connected to each other via birth.  Marriages seem to be with very close relatives. First cousins are not abnormal.  Another key concept is land, particularly the land of Canaan.  Over and over again, these characters are promised this land.  In some cases they are already there.

Finally the covenant idea is clearly dominant.  God has made a special pact with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to be their God.  The main element of this pact is male circumcision.  It may sound odd to us today, but that clearly was in the minds of the biblical authors.  They made male circumcision a really important religious activity.

Thus Genesis is the foundation book of religious stories about the fallibility of man and his need and fear of God in this life.  These mythical religious persons, who have spoken with God, are not always living up to the ideal, but they keep trying despite themselves.  This is an important lesson of all people and all times.  Be true to yourself and your relationship with a higher power even when you are not perfect.