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.

Seth and his descendants (Gen 4:25-4:26)

Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, ‘God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, because Cain killed him.’  To Seth also a son was born, and he named him Enosh. At that time men began to invoke the name of Yahweh.”

All of a sudden we are back to Adam and Eve.  To replace the killed Abel, Seth is born.  He seems to be the forgotten son of Adam and Eve, but becomes a genealogical hero.  He too, had a son called Enosh, without mentioning where his wife came from.  So we have the same problem as we had with Cain’s wife. Who is this female and where did she come from? His son Enosh was one of the first to invoke the name of Yahweh.

Cain and Abel (Gen 4:1-4:16)

“Now Adam knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have produced a man with the help of Yahweh.  Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.  In the course of time Cain brought to Yahweh an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for this part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And Yahweh had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.  Yahweh said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?  If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door.  Its desire is for you, but you must master it.’

Adam knew his wife, a euphemism for the sex act of intercourse.  Eve had two sons Cain and Abel with the help of Yahweh.  The first born Cain was a farmer, while Abel was a shepherd. Yahweh seemed more pleased with Abel’s gift rather than Cain’s.  Cain got upset, and Yahweh warned him that sin was lurking.

“Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then Yahweh said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’ And Yahweh said, ‘What have you done?  Listen, your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.  And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength.  You will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.’” 

Cain lured his brother into the field and killed him.  When Yahweh asked where his brother was, the famous response of Cain was ‘I do not know.  Am I my brother’s keeper?’  What a terrible mess.  Blood revenge is as old as the story of Cain and Abel.  No bad deed goes unpunished.  Above all, we must recognize that we are social in nature so that the first social sin is killing your brother.  The response of Yahweh is equally recognized, ‘Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground.’ Cain’s punishment is to have bad soil.  He must wander the earth.

“Cain said to Yahweh, ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear!  Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face.  I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.’ Then Yahweh said to him, ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain, will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.’ And Yahweh put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.  Then Cain went away from the presence of Yahweh, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.”

Now the inconsistencies pop up.  We thought we had a nice little intact family story of a mom and pop and two sons.  However, Cain is afraid that he will be murdered, but by whom?  A protective sign, tattoo, or mark is put on Cain so that anyone who bothers him will get a sevenfold vengeance. Cain lost the presence of the Lord and then settled in the Nod, a name that is often referred to a wandering place. Given this story, all of humanity should end here since this bad guy Cain with some kind of mark on him is wandering around and might be eaten by wild animals if nothing else. 

The fall (Gen 3:1-3:24)

“Now the serpent was craftier than any other wild animal that Yahweh God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, `You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden.  But God said, `You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you will die.’  But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die.  God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’  So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate.  She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.  They sewed fig leaves together and made aprons or loincloths for themselves.”

In chapter three, a devious talking serpent appears on the scene.  He tells the woman that she will not die if she eats from the tree that gives knowledge of good and bad.  Instead she will become like God.  Both she and the man ate the fruit of the tree and suddenly they recognized that they were naked and needed to cover parts of their bodies.

 “They heard the sound of Yahweh God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of Yahweh God among the trees of the garden.  But Yahweh God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’   He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’  The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.’  Then Yahweh God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’”

Now Yahweh was out for his evening walk, so the man and woman hid because they knew they were naked.  Yahweh wanted to know who told them that they were naked. They must have eaten from the forbidden fruit.  Adam and Eve screwed up.  Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the evil serpent who tempted her.  Ever since the dawn of humanity, humans have continued to blame someone or something for their own mistakes.  The first great sin was disobedience to the higher power, Yahweh.

 “Yahweh God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you above all animals and all wild creatures.  Upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers.  He will strike your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

Perfection came to an end.  The snake becomes the personification of evil.  Everybody got punished.  Snakes have to crawl on their belly and their offspring and that of the woman would be enemies.  Snakes never had any legs anyhow.

“To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing.  In pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

Women will bear children in pain and be subject to their husbands. This punishment sets the role of men and women for thousands of years, the hard working man and the dutiful child bearing woman under his rule.  The patriarchal system is in place and considered to be the normal way of things because Yahweh wants it so.

“And to the man he said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you,` You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you. In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.  Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you.  You shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken.  You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The man will have to work hard to toil the soil and in the end will return to dust at death.  Our idyllic Garden of Eden happiness concept does not last a lifetime without some bumps along the road in this vale of tears.  We share a flawed human nature on our life long journey.  We have both a limited freedom and a limited responsibility.  So we need to work and be productive in this created world.  We need to share in the creative enterprise by working in God’s creation. 

 “The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.  And Yahweh God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.”

Here they get names.  Yahweh gives them clothes. The man names his wife Eve, because she is the mother of all living people.  Of course, this raises the question of other Eves.

“Then Yahweh God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.  Now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’  Therefore Yahweh God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken.  He drove out the man.  At the east of the Garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.”

Notice that the man has become like God, but not the woman.  Suddenly there is another tree, the tree of live.  The two, the man Adam and the woman Eve, were driven from the garden and lived east of Eden, where cherubim guarded the garden gate with a burning flame.  Wow, what a story! Nearly everyone has heard this one.  A capricious Yahweh is the overlord of the garden and punishes the humans because they want to be like him.  Two minor characters are the talking wicked animal serpent and the good spiritual cherubim with a flaming sword. The cherubim are somewhat like the winged animals that guard other ancient Mid-eastern buildings.