Wednesday, August 31, 2005

It repenteth me (Gen 6:6-10)

Okay, I've got to tell you this is one of the more difficult things to deal with in the Bible. Jewish theology takes a very hard-line stance that God does not change, period. (It's actually for this very reason that many Jews reject Christian theology, as they view the incarnation of Christ to be a "changing" of God's essential nature, which is easy to understand.) If God doesn't change, and indeed, even Christians believe that God doesn't change His mind at least, then what does it mean here and in a number of other places that God "repents" of something?

Probably, you have to look at the nature of the word itself. Interestingly enough, in the Hebrew this is a word with the same root that Noah's name comes from, and Noah's name means "rest" or "comfort". Actually, this word is translated most often as either "comfort" or "repent", and slightly more often the former. But enough Hebrew, I need to get to the point, or at least a point. What can we say about a word that can be translated as either "repent" or "comfort"? What do these terms have in common? I think the operative idea behind both senses of the word is "This has gone on long enough, so we will put a stop to it."

On a personal note, I myself have been doing a study of the concept of repentance, both for my personal spiritual walk, and for my understanding of theology. When a person becomes a Christian, theologically it is understood that one's salvation comes from the Lord, and only from the Lord. There is nothing one can do to earn it, one merely accepts it from God. Yet somewhere in the midst of this, there is a call for the believer to repent from sin. Is repenting from sin something one does in order to become a Christian, or is it something one does as a result of becoming a Christian? In either case, even if one has been a Christian for some time, repentance is something one has to deal with over and over, since becoming a Christian does not imply immediate perfection. So what is repentance? Repentance is deciding that the bad situation in one's life has gone on long enough, and it's going to stop. That may be repenting from a life separated from God, or it may be repenting from a particular habitual sin. A person probably never made a conscious decision to have habitual sin, nor did they purposefully separate themself from God, but they decide it's time to do something about it.

Here, God is looking at the world He created, and He's saying, "Alright, this has gone on long enough. The world is now so much of an evil place that something needs to be done, and I will comfort the good men of this world by ending the existence of the bad men." And I think, but I can't say for sure without reading through the list, that that's what God means whenever He "repents": that He is going to stop something from continuing.

The SAB goes onto say that the flood as a very concept is "cruel and violent". I actually agree. This is one of the first of many times in the Bible that God does something that I find quite shocking. The real question in the end is whether such an act was warranted. I think verse 5 was trying to hint at that, that evil had reached epidemic proportions, and there was really nothing left to do.

Was Noah perfect, though? The SAB quotes the KJV as saying "Noah was a just man and perfect." However, this is somewhat of a misquote. The KJV does not have a period there, and the rest of the sentence is important in two ways. The full sentence: "Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God."

What does "...perfect in his generations..." mean? Here's a thought I have heard that makes sense in light of yesterday's post: Noah had a clear genealogy going back to Adam that didn't include any Nephilim. One of the things that God may have been trying to do is rid the world of the polluted genetic material of these "giants", and Noah, as well as being a pretty good guy, was also someone whose family was 100% human. It may have simply meant that he was a good guy in comparison to everyone else in the world, too.

I think the thing that really sets Noah apart is that he "walked with God" however. It seems pretty clear from the Bible as a whole that the thing God esteems most in a person is their devotion to Him. Noah is a person who wants to do right in the eyes of the Lord, so he spends time devoted to Him. That's what really makes him the right person for the job.

Final note before I wrap this up: I don't think Shem, Ham, and Japheth are triplets, and I've heard it suggested that in fact they may not have been born in that order, either, but were listed according to the importance of their descendants, Shem being the father of the Middle Eastern people, including the Jews, Ham being the father of the Canaanites, whose land eventually becomes Israel, and Japheth, whose descendants don't play a big role in the events of the O.T.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The sons of God (Gen 6:1-5)

The "sons of God" is an understandably confusing phrase. It occurs five times in the O.T., and six times in the N.T., and in many of the places it appears, it's clear what it's referring to. Unfortunately, this is not really one of those times. In those appearances in the N.T., it's really a reference to our (Christians') relationship status to God due to our response to the person of Jesus Christ. I think we can pretty much rule out that interpretation here. All O.T. instances of the phrase outside of this chapter occur in the book of Job, where it is pretty much universally accepted that it is referring to the Heavenly spirit beings that we call "angels". Now, some people have tried the suggestion that "the sons of God" and "the daughters of men" refer to the descendants of Seth and Cain respectively, but I'm not sure there's good evidence for it. Whatever is going on, though, the fact that it's mentioned in two verses sandwiching a verse in which God says He's not happy with what's going on seems suggestive that it's not good.

Oh, but to answer the question that the SAB poses regarding the number of "sons" God has, you have to look at the subtleties of the language and the theology. Note that the verses calling Jesus God's only son actually say "only begotten son," and that word is important. Every other being called the "son" of God was either created by God ex nihilo, or was "adopted" into His family. In a sense, all human beings are God's children, but this terminology is talking about a special relationship, as is the relationship we find a few chapters from here between Abraham and Isaac, where I'll probably talk a little bit more about this.

Back to God's actual words in that sandwiched verse, He says of mankind that "yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years." The SAB points this out as a possible contradiction to a verse in the Psalms claiming that men live to be only seventy. There's a lot that can be said about this. One thing is that of course either number being thought of as an estimate of how long a person might live is clearly an average. Not every man is going to live to be exactly 70, many will die young, some will live to be well over a hundred, so any specific counterexamples to this number are hardly breaking the general rule. It may very well be that the life expectancy at the time around the flood was quite different. Before the flood, we see the average life span of those people whose ages are given is right around 900 years old, while after the flood, the life span seems to quickly drop to about half of that, and continues dropping, tending towards the lower 100s (although admittedly never quite getting there). But lifespans aside, there is another possible meaning to this verse, and I think it's a likely one. When God says "yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years," what He may in fact mean is that the flood is going to come 120 years after the events being talked about here. Note that in the end of chapter 5, Noah is 500 years old, and the flood comes when he's 600, so it may be that the story is saying, "Around the same time that Noah was raising Shem, Ham, and Japheth, there was some stuff going on in the world that was making God very unhappy."

So what was making God so unhappy? I'll engage in some slightly wild speculation aided by verse 4. We've got giants, we've got "sons of God", and we've got some notable sexual unions happening. What is this all about? Believe it or not, it's a fairly commonly accepted concept that what's happening is procreation between human females and fallen angels. There is a theological doctrine that says that before the world was created, some of the angels in Heaven decided to rebel against God, and God kicked them out. (As some have pointed out to me, a lot of this we owe to Milton's "Paradise Lost" more than the Bible, but there is some Biblical basis for it.) After the fall, these creatures managed to gain free access to earth. The whole idea related to this short passage is that some of them figured out how to have sex with humans, and eventually, they somehow had children that, for whatever reason, were giants. (In the Hebrew, the word nephilim, translated "giants" actually comes from a root word meaning "fallen" or "cast down". It's also used in Numbers 13:33, where it's much more clearly referring to giants.) This was apparently an important part of the whole problem of the earth that led to God causing the flood.

Let me finish today's post with a look at verse 5, and what the SAB says concerning it. I think it's odd that in comparing this verse to 8:21, it's cited as an absurdity rather than a contradiction, but I guess sometimes it's a personal judgment call. Here, God says He's going to destroy every living thing because of the evil of men's imaginations, in the later verse, God says He's going to be nicer because of the same thing. I think you have to look at 8:21 more carefully.
And the LORD smelled a sweet savour; and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.
Note that God doesn't say that He won't destroy the world because of this evil in men's hearts initially; He first says He won't "curse the ground". I think this primarily hearkens back to the curse from chapter 3, which given this verse, may in fact show to be more of a punitive thing than I had said in my commentary there, but it's hard to say. In any case, I think the point that God may be making here is that the world keeps growing steadily more and more evil, and in the end, evil is largely its own punishment. Why does God need to add any more of a burden on to the life of man to remind him of the fallen state of the world, when mankind has to live with itself day after day? Not that things will be rosy and cheery and all good, but that things are just going to be largely left to their natural processes. Furthermore, in the case of the flood, which is tacked on as an ending clause to this verse, I think God is saying that once is enough.

Monday, August 29, 2005

And called their name Adam (Gen 5)

This is going to be fun, since despite the large number of notes in chapter 5 of the SAB, most of them are of the same nature, and so I think we can dispense of this whole chapter in one post. Let's see...

The first point that the SAB brings up is the verse I've used for the title here. "So the woman's name was Adam, too!" The SAB notes as an absurdity. Well, the answer is, "Yes." Sure, it's not something you get from a surface reading of the KJV, but most people know that "Adam" is the Hebrew word for "man", so in a symbolic sense and in a very real sense, we are all "Adam."

As I noted before, the Bible can admittedly be a bit sexist when it comes to details, and daughters are indeed very rarely mentioned. So while verse 4 contains the first mention of daughters, there may actually have been various children of both genders before Seth was born. I myself had often assumed that this genealogy was mentioning firstborns only, and that they were coincidentally only sons, but what's really very likely going on here is we're tracing the male lineage of Noah from Adam. Sons not in the lineage and all daughters are not worth mentioning by name apparently. Even Noah's wife and three daughters-in-law aren't named despite their apparent importance to the story that unfolds after this.

So the big repeated note throughout this chapter is essentially, "Man, these guys sure lived to be pretty old!" I've heard a lot of theories about why these guys had such extended lifespans, and suffice it to say that most of them boil down to simply being so soon after the fall. They were living in a world that was new and fresh, and there probably weren't all the modern problems of disease that we have in modern times. Most theologians do believe that Adam was created to be immortal, so it took some time before the system really broke down and people started dying of natural causes. Whatever it is going on here, we'll see a contrast in the next genealogy. While having no particular value, I nonetheless present a little diagram I threw together last week when I was looking ahead at this chapter:

Enoch is an odd one, isn't he? The SAB has a lot to say about him, and indeed, he's strange. Let me address the three questions raised by the SAB in response to Enoch's story.

(1) Must everyone die? I suppose the SAB ought to have included the references to the prophet Elijah that it did in the second question here. (And it might have considered even discussing some odd interpretations of John 21:22 that are out there.) Yes, there are in fact two people in the Bible that didn't die: Enoch and Elijah. This coming despite the two verses quoted in the right-hand column. While the verses on the left are in some cases misunderstood, I'm going to focus on those two right-hand verses. When the Bible says "...death passed upon all men," we have to realize that there is room for exceptions. If there are a bunch of people going to sea in a leaky boat, and you say to them, "Everyone in that boat is going to drown," that doesn't mean that they can't get out of the boat and be safe. For whatever reason, Enoch and Elijah were allowed to "get out of the boat" if you will. The second verse is another matter that, if indeed a skeptic were to reject my reasoning here, the SAB needs to add some more notes to passages like John 11. Not only do we have a couple folks (at least) who don't die at all, but contrary to being "appointed unto men once to die," we have about half a dozen people in the Bible that die more than once, Lazarus being simply the best-known of the bunch. The real sense of this verse, as taken by theologians and run-of-the-mill Christians, is that under normal circumstances, people have one physical death to look forward to. The Bible gives us less than ten people that have non-normal circumstances in regards to the matter of death, so that's well over 99.99% of the world conforming to a literal interpretation of Hebrews 9:27.

(2) Has anyone ever ascended into heaven? This is a simpler one. My take on this is that nobody has ascended into Heaven and thereafter given testimony of it on earth. We do know that two people ascended to Heaven, and in fact, a lot of others ascended after their death, but what Jesus is saying in John 3:13 is that if you're looking for someone to tell you what Heaven is like, you've got nobody other than Jesus with that firsthand knowledge. (Of course, the SAB could consider this verse next to 2Cor. 12, although it describes an event after Jesus left.)

(3) Was Enoch the seventh from Adam? Yes, if you count Adam as #1, which is not at all unreasonable to do.

As a last note for this chapter, I'd like to take a side trip into Hebrew and talk about the meaning of these names. Maybe you've heard this before, I find it all fascinating. We know from the text that "Seth" means "appointed", and "Noah" means "comfort". The other names all mean something as well. The most interesting name on the list is probably Methuselah, whose name some have said means "his death will bring it." Methuselah died the same year as the flood.

Friday, August 26, 2005

The way of Cain (Gen 4:8-26)

Sure enough, as God warned Cain, his jealousy and selfishness eventually led to further sin. Cain murders his brother.

I think in order to stay consistent with its objections in verse 3:9 and elsewhere, the SAB really ought to mark every passage in which God asks a question. If God knows everything, why is he asking questions? Of course, if anyone did indeed have a problem with this, it should be especially clear in this passage that God is not asking questions that He doesn't know the answer to, as He proceeds to essentially immediately answer His own question in verse 10. God's looking for a confession from Cain, but all He gets is a smartass retort, "Am I my brother's keeper?" (It's an interesting parallel in the KJV that Abel was a "keeper" of sheep, and Cain's final word on his rivalry is to point out that he's not a "keeper". However, I looked, and this parallelism is not in the original Hebrew, so it's just an oddity of this particular translation.)

Anyway, for committing the second murder, Cain gets a curse. It's not clear at all to me what portion of this curse is punitive and what is just the natural consequence of his transgression. Being "a fugitive and a vagabond" seems like the sort of thing that just plain happens when you're a murderer, since you will eventually have to flee the scene of the crime, and it seems somewhat reasonable to assume that all of the people in the world at this point, however many they are (could be several, although probably not many) all live in the same general area, and are near relatives of his brother and him. So, he has to run away. As for the ground somehow being even more cursed for him than it was for his father in the previous chapter, I don't know what that's about. Perhaps since they are likely living near the garden of Eden, the ground in that area is nicer than in outlying regions. That's pretty speculative, though.

So Cain proceeds to complain about his punishment, and claims that people will try to kill him. I don't really understand why he is so certain this would be so, nor why God seems to agree that there is a risk and protects him. Actually, the whole "mark" thing is rather odd, and I wonder what sort of mark a person might have that would say to any person he met, "Hey, don't kill this guy!" but apparently, such a mark existed. (I don't buy that this has anything to do with dark-skinned people, especially since it's likely no descendants of Cain were on the ark.) Most likely, God is interested in preventing vigilante justice; Cain has already received a punishment from God, nothing more is needed.

Cain also says to God, "From thy face shall I be hid." This is not to say that God shall be unaware of the doings of Cain from this point onward, but rather that Cain is turning away from God, so to speak. God has an eye on everyone in the world, but not everyone has an eye on God. Sometimes my children, when they get angry, will turn their backs to me, effectively hiding themselves from [seeing] my face, but not becoming invisible. This is the same sense that is meant by "out from the presence of the LORD" in verse 16.

Starting in verse 17, we get a sort of life story and genealogy of Cain. Yes, Cain had a wife. No, the Bible doesn't say where she came from. Most likely, she was a sister, but as some others have pointed out, she could have been a niece (although such a niece probably would have been the offspring of two of Cain's siblings, so it hardly makes her less of a close relative genetically). They settle down somewhere far away from the rest of civilization and start a family.

They also start a city, which the SAB is right to be confused about in light of Cain's curse to be a "fugitive and a vagabond". Such people don't make cities. Some possibilities come to mind, though. Cain did remain a fugitive from the other part of society for all of his life, I think we can pretty safely assume. The curse may have simply been that he had to leave all that he had previously held dear and relatively become an outcast. Another couple of possibilities both have to do with that part of his curse being temporary. God said he'd have a hard time with planting "henceforth", but doesn't really give a timeframe for being a vagabond. Either eventually it just ran out and was no longer effective (not all natural results of sin last forever), or if it was a punitive sentence set on him by the Lord, then he simply refused to comply. In the latter case, building a city was yet another act of defiance, which may well fit with his character as we know it.

I guess I'll wrap up this post with a few comments on Lamech, Cain's great-great-great-grandson, of whom for some unknown reason quite a bit is said. Perhaps the reason is that he seems to be exceptionally evil, although he does seem to have okay kids. Lamech is the first noted polygamist in the Bible. I already mentioned my view on the Biblical subject of polygamy at the end of this post, and I think all that needs to be added is that it's hard to see (at least for me) that the Bible is setting this guy up as an example of righteousness and right living. Lamech makes a claim at the end of his story that although he is a murderer, in the manner that Cain was promised to be avenged "sevenfold", he would be avenged "seventy and sevenfold". The SAB calls this absurd and unfair, and I totally agree, but I also point out that this is Lamech talking about himself, not God saying anything about anyone at all.

Aw, heck, I'm going to consider that the end of the chapter for me. There's really nothing to say about the last two verses that hasn't already been said about the first two in yesterday's post. Have a great weekend, everyone!

Thursday, August 25, 2005

But if ye had known what this meaneth (Gen 4:1-7)

Genesis 4:1 marks the first instance of the SAB's use of the sex icon. I'd like to say to the SAB's credit that having such a category is actually a good idea, and would like to point the casual reader of the SAB to the FAQ page where its usage is explained, since it can be confusing as to why the category exists. After all, is there something wrong with sex per se? Even most Christians don't think so, although as is pointed out, we often believe there is an excess of it in our culture, and we ought to not forget that the Bible has some rather disturbing sexual content in several of its books.

That being said, I'm not 100% sure I agree that the usage of the icon is warranted here. If the point of the icon is to show that there is nasty sexual content going on in the Bible, this is not one of those places. A man simply having sex with his wife is not only acceptable, it's a positive thing, even if you are among those people who believe sex is for procreation only, as Adam and Eve end up having a child.

Now it's important to note something about what the text does not say, and make some inferred guesses regarding it in order to make sense of a lot of what comes. The Bible does not say that Cain is the first offspring of Adam and Eve, nor that Abel is the second and Seth is the third. Chalk it partly up to sexism, and partly up to a method of fairly condensed storytelling, but daughters and less significant sons are pretty much left unmentioned through much of the Old Testament. (An interesting thing to note is that while these genealogies almost always give the ages of the men, there is only one woman in the entire O.T. whose age is ever mentioned.) There may have been many other children before the story of Abel's murder unfolds, but for the purpose of telling the story, only these two men are important enough to mention. Since the people in the pre-flood days lived so long and seemed to have children well into their old age, some have assumed that Adam and Eve may have had several hundred children and probably lived to see millions of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. (Assuming most people are living hundreds of years, start having children at age 30 and produce offspring at a rate of one every other year, by the time Adam is 250 years old, the world population is already over 2 million, and the world's present population could have easily been reached by the time Adam was 400! Of course, this sort of growth would eventually have to top out, or the population would be in the sextillions by the time of the flood, a stretch of any imagination.). In fact, if we take the numbers in Genesis 5 at face value, Adam nearly lived to see the birth of Noah, his great7-grandson.

All of that said, the names of Cain and Abel do suggest that they may be the first two offspring for thematic reasons. She gives this first child the name "Cain", which is similar in sound to the Hebrew words for "gotten" or "made". Regarding the prophecy in Genesis 3:15, Eve may have thought literally that her very first offspring would be the one to defeat the serpent, seeing as she's so excited about him. Whether or not, she seems exceedingly excited to have made a baby, and as such I think it is fairly safe to assume Cain was the first child. She seems far less impressed with the birth of Abel, whose name means something like "meaningless" or "temporary". Most Bibles note that this may be a foreshadowing of the fact that his life isn't destined to be very long.

Now comes the point of tension: Cain and Abel each offer up sacrifices to the Lord, but He doesn't like Cain's offering of vegetables, and has higher respect for Abel's offering of animals. Cain gets jealous. The SAB brings up two good points about this lead-in, both of which come under the categories of "injustice" and "contradiction". I'll discuss each one, but my response to both is similar.

First of all, the point that is being made in this passage is apparently that animal sacrifices are necessary in worshipping God. This is true. Aside from the point I already made about Adam and Eve's fur coats, we see animal sacrifices in this story, in the story of Noah, in the story of Abraham, in the Exodus, and so on, up until the final ultimate sacrifice of Jesus. The theme persists that sin must be covered by blood, discussed in Hebrews 9 and beyond. Yet the SAB gives numerous verses in which God says He doesn't want animal sacrifices. Actually, there are many more than are listed on that page, but the theme of those verses, if taken in context, are usually quite clear. When a person sins, there is a necessity of offering up a sacrifice to cover the sin. The idea, however, is that offering up all these sacrifices is going to make you aware of the evil of sin, and stop sinning. Using my parent-child metaphor, imagine a home that has one of those little "swear jars"; I've never had one, but perhaps some of you have, and for those not familiar, the idea is that every time someone says a bad word, they have to put money in the jar to pay a sort of fine. (The concept was used rather humorously in the sci-fi movie "Demolition Man".) Anyway, imagine a child who is required to put a nickel in the jar for each swear word. One day, the child goes up to the jar in front of their parent, puts in a dollar and says, "Just covering myself for the rest of the day. I'm feeling @*$&# feisty today!" It's not going to float. The parent (if they're smart and serious about the issue) is going to stop the child and explain to them that they don't need the money nearly so much as they need their child to understand that swearing is unacceptable. The best, most succinct statement of this concept is in 1Samuel 15:22, where the prophet says to King Saul;
Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.
In any case, the issue here is that Cain is doing his sacrifices wrong. This parallels modern do-it-yourself religion, in which a person may claim to be a follower of a particular religion, but don't really follow its tenets. For a period of time before I consider myself to have truly become a Christian, I used to claim to be a "Christian", but I lived my life no different from any atheist. I never even went to church, even once! And it's not just Christianity where this happens; I had a girlfriend for a while who claimed to be a Buddhist, but she ate meat. It is my understanding that vegetarianism is an important part of "The Noble Eightfold Path". (Buddhism is one of the non-Christian religions I hold in high regard; there's a lot of wisdom in it.)

The second issue is concerning whether God "respects" anyone. Well, yes and no. I think the real point of the verses in question that say, "God is no respecter of persons," is to say that God is not prejudiced. Most people in the world (in fact, I suspect just about everyone) will accept a person they have just met for the first time based on preconceived notions about their race, gender, and physical appearance. It's not necessarily a wrong thing, it's just the way our brains work: we tend to guess on the details that we don't know about, and base it on past experiences or things we have been taught by our schooling and culture. God is in a special position, however, in that He knows what a person is really like deep in their heart and mind, and doesn't have to depend on surface impressions. Once again, there is a particular verse that best shows this concept, and in fact, it's on the page I linked to on the SAB at the top of this paragraph. 1Peter 1:17
And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man's work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear:
Taking this apart, Peter is saying that He doesn't judge people for who they are, but for what they do, and the choices they make in life, so choose carefully. In the case of our passage here, Cain is making some poor choices, and we'll see throughout this chapter that He continues to make bad choices, as God warns him is likely to happen.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

To die is gain (Gen 3:20-24)

The SAB takes issue with the statement that Eve is "the mother of all living", but for an odd reason. Well, at least I think it's odd. The issue is not with the concept that all humans are descended from a common female ancestor (and actually, I think biology may teach that to be the case, someone can correct me if I'm wrong) but that there was supposedly a man named Melchizedek who had no ancestry. I'm going to save discussion of Melchizedek for chapter 14, where he shows up in person. This guy is definitely an oddball in the Bible, and there are more than a few theories concerning his nature.

God makes some fur coats for Adam and Eve, which the SAB labels as an absurdity, but doesn't explain why. This is actually a much more significant event than most people get on a surface reading, and is worth noting. Previously, Adam and Eve had covered themselves with fig leaves, and before that, they ran around naked. This indicates to me that the issue of clothing was a matter of covering up nakedness, and not a matter of protecting against the cold. Yet God feels there is a need to give them furs to cover them. A pattern throughout the Bible is the idea that sin leads to death; but not always the death of the person who sins. In this case, while Adam's death is put off for at least another 800 years, God can't let it rest without the death of some animals. This is actually the beginning of the sacrificial system, and the idea that the only thing that can cover up the sin of the guilty is the blood of the innocent. Don't ask me why, I don't understand it well myself.

After giving them the skins, God expresses concern that Adam and Eve have access to the tree of life. (Comments on God using "us" are back here.) Apparently eating the fruit from the tree of life will make one immortal. I think the SAB has a bit of a clear misreading in its notes here, however*; God isn't afraid that mankind will become like God by eating the tree of life, He's grieved that they have already become like Him by eating the forbidden fruit. Note that the tree of life was not a tree they were banned from eating, but the situation has changed. As I said before, now the world is not a pleasant place to be in, and mankind has become separated from God. In order to fix both these situations, God decides that it will be an act of mercy to let mankind die. In dying, they will have the chance to be separated from their physical sinfulness and eventually brought back into a relationship with God in Heaven. Remember, in Christian theology, death is not a bad thing in and of itself. If you desire to be with God, then you will be. If you desire to have God leave you alone, then that will happen for you.

Adam and Eve are kicked out of the garden, and a guard is set to make sure that nobody goes back in and gets to the tree of life. It would be very tempting for someone to go and eat from that tree, but it would be wrong to do so, because it would make their life a living Hell.

I'm reminded of C.S. Lewis' book The Magician's Nephew, which Lewis clearly intended to be an allegory of a sort for the Genesis story. Near the end of the book, the main character, a boy named Digory discusses with Aslan (symbolic of Jesus) how he was tempted to steal a magic apple to take home to his sick mother. A witch had told him that the apple would have healed her sickness. Aslan responds to Digory:
"Understand, then, that it would have healed her; but not to your joy or hers. The day would have come when both you and she would have looked back and said it would have been better to die in that illness."
Like Digory's mother, we're all suffering from an illness known as sin, and to have eaten an apple that made us live forever would not so much cure the illness as treat one of the symptoms. We're all going to die someday, and it's something that everyone ought to know, but even Christians often forget, but dying is not a loss, it's just stepping into the next phase of our existence, and one that for many of us will be a much better one.

*SAB notes have been changed since the writing of this entry; see comments.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

And so death passed upon all men (Gen 3:14-19)

I've always thought it was a little strange that God doesn't ask the serpent for his version of what happened. Maybe God was tired of hearing people pass the buck, or perhaps since the serpent is apparently Satanic, He's just not interested in hearing any lies at this point in time. Anyway, after asking questions of the man and the woman, He just goes straight to pronouncing the curse on the snake.

Now a part of this is definitely my own opinion, and I'm not sure whether more formal theologians share this viewpoint, but I don't think God has much of a choice in this matter. A lot of Christians seem to operate under the assumption that God makes up the moral law, and that apart from God creating moral law, it simply wouldn't exist. I tend to believe that there may be certain aspects of the rules of morality and spirituality that God has no control over. I know many skeptics would ask whether that means God is not omnipotent after all.

I think omnipotence, while still being omnipotence, is actually limited by logic. I believe there are certain things that are a part of the world that are that way simply because having them not be that way would be absurd. The concept of 1+1=2 is a concept so basic that I don't think even God can make it not be true, and I don't think it's reasonable to expect Him to have that sort of power. Mathematics, geometry, logic and certain aspects of physics are, I believe, beyond God's control: they simply are true. If that's the case (and I leave it without proof as such proof may be well beyond my ability) then might it not also be true that at least some aspects of moral and spiritual law are beyond God's ability to change?

God is a being that is entirely good. Interestingly enough, that creates a difficulty for God, as He is by His very nature repellant to evil. Once the fruit had been eaten, God was unable to have the same sort of relationship with mankind that He'd had before. As I said previously, Adam "died" to his relationship with God. This in itself was a curse, as having an intimate relationship with God is (so a Christian believes) the absolute best thing one can have. So part of the curse that now comes upon Adam, his wife, the serpent, and the whole world is actually not by God's choice, but simply the logical conclusion of God having to step back and let Adam live without Him. Some of it is by God's choice, either to punish, to fix the situation, or both.

The curse God gives the serpent in verse 14 seems to be clearly punitive. Essentially, as just about everyone reads this, God takes away the serpent's legs, forcing it to walk on its belly and "eat dust". I don't see any reason to take that latter concept more literally than the fact that, having its face always on the ground or mere inches from the ground, it probably does swallow a fair amount of dust on a regular basis. (Note that this serpent takes on a curse that eventually affects the roughly 3,000 modernly known species of snakes. Perhaps all those species evolved from this one and its mate?) The part of the curse in verse 15 is part natural and part, well, something else. Simply because of the role that the serpent played in all of this, and because of the form snakes took afterwards, they became despised by humanity. (In general, of course; I've owned pet snakes myself, and think they're quite nice.) But of course, many Christians have also taken this verse to be a prophecy of the crucifixion: that one day a man would come who would be injured by Satan, but would, in the injuring, cause Satan utter destruction.

God then turns to the woman, and tells her that she is to be cursed with painful childbirth and an apparently subordinate position under men. I once read an interesting analysis of this concept from an evolutionary point of view. Of all the animals, humans seem to have the most painful process of childbirth. Interestingly enough, this is due in part to the fact that the pelvis is shaped differently due to our being bipedal, and our infants having very large heads. Thus when we, as a species, were separated from other animals, it was when we walked upright and became intelligent which led to change in social structure, development of tools and language, changed sexual practice, and difficult childbirth. Whatever your views on this, I think it's true that being intelligent can be painful at times. The woman wanted to be smarter, and it cost her, whatever the reason was. The fact that she ends up in a subordinate position to men is, in my opinion, not because God wanted to push her down, but because men, in their fallen state, have a tendency to do this anyway, which doesn't make it right. Maybe I'm too much of a feminist to be a good Christian.

Then God turns to man and curses the ground. (The SAB notes that Adam is cursed for listening to his wife, but I don't this is a sexist thing; only that Adam should have listened to God rather than anyone else at all regardless of gender.) Adam now has to work to get his food, rather than having lovely fruits to eat in a beautiful garden. Whether new types of plants with thorns and such came about because of this curse, or that they simply didn't exist in the garden, and man had to deal with them when he was tossed out, I don't know. I think there was a bit of both. The garden was meant to be an ideal situation, and probably had only fruit trees, and perhaps soft grass underfoot. Outside, things were wilder, and work was needed to produce something edible for mankind. And of course, after working hard for years and years to make things comfortable for himself, in the end physical death would come.

Now, natural consequences or choice of God, why are these curses a good thing? As I said above, the assumption we work with here is that the relationship that mankind had with God before the fall is the highest good that man can enjoy, but eating the fruit has destroyed that good. If God is righteous, and by His very nature that He cannot change, demands righteousness, how can an unrighteous human being come to have a relationship with God? The answer is justice. Man must pay for his crimes against God, and the payment is death. God doesn't allow them to live forever separated from Him, but causes them to live in a world that is difficult and deadly, so that they will always remember that their aim is to make it through life to a better life with God after they pass away. The full details of this really come out in the life of Jesus, of course, but some of it will be in the rest of this chapter.

Monday, August 22, 2005

And the eyes of them both were opened (Gen 3:7-13)

I think many children go through a process like this at some point in their life: having their eyes opened, as it were. There comes a day when you realize that you have the freedom to act against your parents' will. This happens at different ages and in different ways, but whatever it is, you suddenly realize your own power as a free individual, and it changes the way you see the world around you. Oh my gosh, mommy and daddy don't know everything! Well, in this case, God is the parent, and He does know everything. But the fact that He knows everything and has the ability to control everything doesn't mean that it's something He's going to flaunt. Still, the man and woman had their outlook on God change.

The very first manifestation of this was noticing that they were naked. There's once again something literal and figurative in this. All throughout the Bible, there's a linkage between the themes of clothing and sin. In particular, I've always thought it was interesting to look at the parallel between this chapter and the story of the crucifixion. The man and the women sin against the will of God; Jesus becomes sin according to the will of God. The man and the women are separated from God's presence by guarding cherubim; the curtain of the Jewish temple which is embroidered with cherubim and separates man from God is torn open. God gives mankind clothing by killing an animal; mankind takes Jesus' clothing and kills Him on the cross. It's an interesting symbolic and literal reversal on many levels. In any case, they suddenly realize they've got something shameful to cover up.

The next thing that happens is that God "shows up". I put it in quotes because, as the SAB points out, there's some trouble you run into if you take verse 8 fully literally. Here's God in the garden, walking and talking like just some other guy, it almost seems. But we do know both from scripture and from commonly accepted doctrine that God has no body. A very likely possibility is of this passage being figurative; to some extent, it must be since God is also omnipresent. Then again, having no corporeal substance and being omnipresent at the same time is also a problem. I think it simply has to be accepted that God was literally there in the garden in some form, because even if he has no "body", He's everywhere, which includes the garden. So the sense of omnipresence is a spiritual rather than physical thing necessarily. (I hope this is making some sort of sense, I'm not feeling really well today for some reason.)

Another thing that is also often accepted, though, is that God does, at times, cause Himself to take on a physical human-like form (if not actually human). The man and woman perhaps experienced Him often in this form, visiting them in the garden. This time, when they heard Him coming, they hid. The fact that they hid from an omniscient being doesn't pose a conundrum, nor does the fact that God asks them where they are. My own children sometimes climb into my bed and pull the covers over their head to hide, completely missing the fact that the child-sized lump in the bed discloses their location. If I say, "Where are you?" I'm not admitting ignorance, but feigning it for the purpose of playing along in a little hide-and-seek. God's not playing, but throughout the Bible, God asks people questions He already knows the answer to in order to give them a chance to confess and seek forgiveness. I've heard some pastors muse that if Adam had only popped out and said, "Alright, I was hiding because I was ashamed that I ate the fruit, and now I'm afraid I'm going to die, please forgive me?" that things would have been, well not back to perfect, but better in any case.

God even gives Adam a second chance, hinting at the truth. Adam takes the chance to put the blame not only on his wife, but God Himself: "The woman (yeah, it was the woman, that's right, I was just standing here!) whom thou gavest (wait a minute, wasn't it God's idea that I had to have this trouble-maker with me? Yeah, I think this was His fault; I want my rib back!) to be with me..." The woman even tries to pass the buck as well. In the end, though, God's not buying any of it.

I think the Bible is a strong supporter of the idea that everyone is responsible for their own choices. I think it may sound odd coming in the middle of the story of original sin, and how this one act of eating a piece of fruit ended up changing the world for every human that ever lived, but it fits here. Yes, we are all stained by original sin, and have that sinful nature within us that we inherited from Adam, but at the same time, God will expect us to take responsibility for our own lives and our own destinies. In tomorrow's entry, I'll talk about the curse that came on the world, but I'll also talk a bit more about God's plan to take care of lifting the curse. God does His part, and we do ours. And it's not a meet me halfway deal, it's God coming 100% of the way, and only asking for your response.

Friday, August 19, 2005

That old serpent (Gen 3:1-6)

Although the meaning of the Bible comes through well enough in the English translations, there definitely is some advantage to reading these things in the original Hebrew. God seems to really like poetry and wordplay, and the Old Testament is full of that sort of thing. The word translated here as "subtil" ("cunning", "clever", "crafty" or "shrewd" in other translations) sounds almost identical to the word used in the previous verse for "naked". Aside from sounding interesting, there is likely to be an intention of drawing your mind to the contrast. In chapter two, everything is innocent and out in the open, while here we have a creature who has some sort of secret.

Who is this creature, "the serpent"? I know some people have suggested that we might be talking about a d r a g o n, (pardon the spaces, this post seems to be attracting spam) as the term is used in the book of Revelation and refers back to this event. This holds some appeal, as mythologically, such beasts are often thought of as very dangerous and very clever, and sometimes even talking beasts. I don't think we can quite ignore the way this chapter works out in the end, however, since the serpent is apparently cursed to go upon his belly, which seems a clear reference to snakes as we know them; I'm inclined towards the common understanding of this being partially a tale of why snakes have no legs, since it seems to make sense to read it that way.

Still, a talking snake? What's up with that? One possibility that I've heard is that before the fall, perhaps all creatures were able to freely converse with one another. That has a certain poetic appeal, I think. Another one is that since it seems this snake is possessed by the spirit of Satan, it was through Satan's power that the snake was given the ability of speech. This also has some appeal. I don't see anything in the chapter that seems at all conclusive as to what's going on here though. It's even entirely possible that the snake was communicating non-verbally, if you think about it. If you were standing by a fruit tree and wanted to offer a piece of fruit to another person standing nearby, I think you could easily do so without speaking a word. That might be a bit of a stretch, though.

(This brings up another point about my personal take on the book of Genesis. Since even those who believe that the book of Genesis was divinely inspired believe it was written hundreds of years after the events within it, and actually thousands after these specific events of creation, I don't tend to assume that any dialogue is a direct quote, so to speak. And even the Gospels show that eyewitnesses sometimes don't remember speeches word for word.)

It's interesting that although the serpent is essentially lying from the beginning, when the woman corrects it, she also gets God's command wrong. God never said not to touch the fruit. I've certainly heard it said that this subtle difference may have been part of the problem. Once she touched the fruit and found no ill effects, she may have become confused as to the truth. In any case, the serpent's lie was almost a sort of half-truth, as indeed, they did come to know good and evil. They already knew good, as it was in everything that God had given them, but once they ate the fruit, they knew evil, and it was specifically the evil they themselves had committed in rebelling against God's command.

Whatever the specifics here, however, something that definitely is very interesting is the manner in which she is tempted. She "saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise". This is an interesting scriptural pattern that is outlined in 1John 2:16

For all that [is] in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.

This suggests that from the beginning throughout history, temptation has always been the same. 1) "If it feels good, do it!" 2) "If it looks good, do it!" and 3) "Look out for #1." This is the same sort of temptation that Jesus got in Luke 4 (and Matthew 4 as well), but He resisted.

So, the big question that every skeptic wants to ask, and rightly so, is why they didn't die at this point? Didn't God say "in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die"? The answer, which will no doubt not appease most skeptics, is to appeal to figurative speech. The two words here that are key are "day" and "die", and either one or both of them is figurative. I believe both are.

First of all, as I noted before, the term "day" can mean a number of things, not just in the Bible, but in modern usage. Sometimes it means "while the sun is out". Sometimes it means "a 24-hour period". Sometimes it means "an indefinite period of time that has a particular notable characteristic (definitions 6&7 from the above link). It's this latter meaning that is meant here I believe. It was the moment that man rebelled against God and brought sin into the world that the door was also opened for death to enter in. As is said in James 1:15 "sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death." So God was really saying that once the fruit was eaten, a new era in which people die--including Adam in particular, of course--will begin. Of course, it has lasted up until now, and will continue to last until God changes it somehow.

More subtle is the word "die", however, and this may be more of a Christian viewpoint than a Jewish one, but the manner in which the human race "died" upon eating the fruit was not a physical death, but a spiritual one. We, as a race, died to our innocence; we died to our intimate relationship with God; something profound was lost. Sometimes Christian theologians refer to this as the death of our spirit, which causes us as a race to be all condemned to Hell by default. I have heard other people, Christian or not, refer to the concept that we as living beings in this world are dying a little bit every day. Supposedly that was not the case before the fruit was eaten, because there was no such thing as death.

Of course, the implications of eating the fruit don't stop there. More tomorrow...

Thursday, August 18, 2005

They shall be called the children of God (Gen 3 and beyond)

I suppose everyone has their favorite way to look at theology, their favorite way to envision God, you know. A lot of us use metaphors of things we know here on earth to explain a glimpse of what we understand to be going on in Heaven. Some metaphors work better than others. Some work really well in some particular areas, while others fall short. As I said a couple days ago, my personal favorite metaphor is the parent-child relationship. The Bible in fact calls God the "Father" often, and we are referred to as His "children". Sometimes it's just Israel; sometimes it's the church; sometimes all people. Being a half-Jewish Christian I get to fall in all three categories, but that's just a personal matter.

There are a few things I like about this metaphor. One of them is its flexibility. I once heard a sermon that explained the second coming of Christ in terms of a basketball game, believe it or not. It was actually a good metaphor at the time, but I hardly think basketball is going to work to explain all or even a good portion of what people need to understand about God. On the other hand, the parent-child relationship is very telling. You have small people of varying levels of maturity who are growing and learning constantly who are created by and under the authority of a larger being who is older and wiser and wants to look out for the best interest of the former. Granted, not everyone's relationship with their parents is this way. My father was somewhat emotionally abusive at times, and my stepfather was a high school dropout who knew a lot about car engines and construction work, but not much else. Every parent is less than perfect, but most of us can imagine an ideal parent. I like to imagine God that way, because it makes sense of a lot of things.

The other thing I like about this metaphor is now that I myself am a parent, I often get examples from my own life that help me understand God's view of me through a lens of my own view of my children. It's fascinating that hardly a day goes by that being a parent fails to teach me something about being a child of God.

Case in point: My wife had gone to church one weekend without me several months ago, so I missed the sermon, but it was about one of the great mysteries of Christianity, to both Christians and non-Christians alike. Christians just shrug their shoulders and accept it for the most part, while non-Christians tend to think the idea is ridiculous, and scoff at this basic idea from Christianity. What is it? That the one and only thing that will determine who gets to go to Heaven is whether or not you were kind to God's children in general, and particularly God's Son, Jesus Christ. The pastor had said something like, "Take my word, what God cares about more than anything is how you react to His Son."

Why is that? My wife left the sermon with the question emblazoned across her thoughts, unsure what it all really meant. Then she brought the kids home to where the cats were waiting. We have two cats, you see, a white one and a black one. (I always joked that we got a white and a black one so we could be assured of having nothing that we owned without visible cat hair on it; she didn't think it was so funny.) We'd had these cats for nearly five years before we had kids. The white one was sweet, friendly, gently playful and cuddly, and slept quietly at the foot of the bed at night. The black one hissed at strangers, tried to beat up the other cat, brought in nasty dead and/or alive animals it would find nearby, constantly knocked things off of shelves and tore up furniture, would climb repeatedly into the laps of people that it could tell didn't like it, and at night would climb up to the head of the bed and hit you in the face with its paw until you gave it the attention it wanted. As you might guess, the white one was our favorite, the black one was...tolerated.

Then we had kids. Twin girls. Two little toddler girls wandering around the house looking for things to play with all the time, and their favorite things to play with were the cats, even though it was a long time before they were able to figure out how to catch them. Now the white cat decided it wasn't going to have it, and when the girls get taken out of their cribs in the morning, it runs outside and disappears largely until bedtime. It hisses and scratches if cornered by the girls, and won't go near them if it can help it. The black cat? For some reason, it puts up with them! When they chase it, it stops and lets them catch up. It allows them to carry it around. Occasionally it will sit on their laps and it always lets them pet her. If they pull its tail (which they do a lot), it meows at them to warn them, and if they don't quit, it gives them a little bite that never breaks the skin. The thing is, the cats haven't changed the way they act towards my wife and me, but since we've had kids, the black one has become our favorite. Why? Because of the way it reacts to our kids. Why should God be so different? No, you may not like Christians, but let me tell you, don't make the mistake of being unkind to God's Son, Jesus Christ.

That example was a bit longer than I meant to have it, because it wasn't my main point at this time. My point was how the metaphor works for chapter three and so much more that follows in the rest of the Bible. Why is rebellion against God's law such an issue to God? Why can't we just do as we please? The answer is that it's because God's older, smarter, more powerful, and has our best interests in mind.

My children do this odd thing when we go to the local park. The park is separated from the street by some thick metal poles, not a fence, but a barrier to keep cars out of the park and protect the children. My girls sometimes do this thing where they will go to the first pole in the line, hug it, and actually say to the pole, "I love you!" and then move on to do the same thing all down the line. They're two years old, so while this is an absurd bit of behavior, I pretty much take it in stride, so long as they stay on the park side, and don't walk into the street. Sometimes when I come home from work, I say, "Hi girls, Daddy's home! Can I get a hug?" to which they reply with a shake of the head and run away laughing. It hurts my feelings a bit, you can imagine, that they'd more gladly lavish affection on a metal pole than Daddy sometimes, but I know it's two-year-old silliness, and not that they really like the poles more than me. But what if they were older, and it was a serious thing? What if they were, say, fourteen, and they said, "Dad, we've decided that this pole is our father now, and we're going to live at the park and let it take care of us from now on." That would be highly disturbing. My options would be to drag them back home and punish them in some way or let them stay at the park until they came to their senses and came home hungry, cold, and tired. Neither is a fun option.

God is looking down on earth at all of us, and He's our Father. He created us, He gave us everything we have, He loves us. Some of us, however, are saying no, I don't need you, Dad, I love this other God, and I'm going to let him take care of me; or even, I don't need anyone, I'll take care of myself. God is saying, "There is nobody who loves you more than I do, nobody who knows how to take care of you more than I do, nobody who is more willing to look out for your interests and help you than Me. Why would you want to settle for second-best?"

In chapter three, this is the beginning of this sort of thing. For the first time ever, the idea is planted in someone's head, "What do I need God for? Why should I trust Him?" Throughout history, starting with this story, people have made the wrong choice far too many times, not really knowing what they were rejecting. But some have made a better choice:

John 6
67 Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?
68 Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

An help meet for him (Gen 2:18-25)

After creating man, God decides there needs to be someone to give him special companionship and be a team with him. Don't get the Bible wrong, all the stuff about parading animals in front of man to check them out and name them at this point in the middle of the creation of woman isn't meant as a tangent, or even as some might like to suggest humorously a hint of bestiality (oh wait, the SAB does that, too, just farther down the page). Being omniscient, God is already intending to do everything that He eventually does from the moment the universe is created. Some people have suspected that God is showing man that animals all come in male and female varieties so that man will realize that a human female is missing. It's an interesting conjecture, but I think it lacks something, especially since some animals like bees have something more complex going on than simply male/female varieties among the species. I think the purpose is similar, though; man is seeing that there are a lot of different animals in the world, and yet none of them are quite like him.

The SAB notes that in the N.T., the Apostle Paul writes that it's better to be single. I don't think that it's a contradiction at all, though. To a large extent, this is Paul's personal opinion; although I don't think it's outright stated, I think most scholars believe that Paul was probably married early in life, and at the time he writes 1Corinthians, he's divorced. (Perhaps because his wife couldn't stand him once he became a Christian?) Paul is pointing out that one can give oneself wholeheartedly to ministry if one does not have to worry about supporting a family. Notice in verse 7:6, Paul in fact says that nothing in this chapter before verse 10 is a command. Most of what he says here is about sexual relations, and that people who are married should be having a healthy, active sex life to keep their marriage functioning properly. The reason Paul says not to marry is in verse 26 of that same chapter, where he says that there is a "present crisis" during which people should do their best to refrain from forming or breaking relationships. In other words, it's largely a temporary thing, whatever is bothering Paul about marriage here.

When man does spend time naming all the animals, a person who knows a bit about biology and puts two and two together would of course point out (as the SAB does), "There are millions of different species of animals in the world. Assuming man was to name one species per second without stopping to take a break even to sleep, it would take weeks to get through them all." This is actually an interesting point I'd not thought of before I read it in the SAB. The first thing to note is that this is not technically a problem. I believe theologians hold that man was essentially immortal while he was in the garden, and had nothing better to do but whatever God had for him to do, so even if this took years, it's pretty much okay. However, I'm inclined to say that man did not actually have to name each and every single species on the planet. Sure, there are lions, tigers, cheetahs, pumas, etc., but it might have sufficed for man to simply name them all "cat". For one thing, as I pointed out before, the ancient taxonomic systems weren't much like our modern one, and while yes, God knows more about science (biology in this case) than the ancients did, that doesn't mean that even He classifies animals the way that we do. For another thing, something that virtually no one seems to ever note about this story is that man is naming the animals in a language that we cannot identify. A large portion of the millions of species that we have classified today have only a Latin name, but it seems fairly safe to assume that Latin had not yet been invented. Realistically, the naming process here is unfathomable to us because whatever it was, it was a very foreign process to us.

On a side note, (this being a side note, those readers who complain about these tangents can skip this paragraph) some people have suggested that some limited evolutionary processes has caused there to be more species today than there were at the time of the creation. Well, the thought usually comes up in the context of discussing Noah's ark, actually, but wherever you bring it up, it has some problems that are a bit beyond my knowledge of biology. The short version is that theists seem to be arguing against evolution when it's not convenient, but then when it becomes convenient, they suddenly choose to imagine it being a much swifter process than any sane biologist would ever suggest. My personal thought on this particular story is that if God is bringing animals as potential companions to man, there's a lot of animals that simply aren't worth considering, including most if not all animals that live in the sea, and insects. "Okay, Adam, you don't like the 'dragonfly' as you called it? How about this little guy future generations will call pulex irritans? He might make a good companion...oops, looks like you don't get a choice, so what do you want to call him?"

In any case, when this parade is all done, man finds nothing suitable ("meet"). So God makes man fall asleep and fashions him a wife out of his rib. There are a number of interesting poetic things about this concept. I've heard in many sermons that the lesson we should take about God using a piece of the man's body rather than starting over is that a man's wife should truly be like a part of him (v. 23). Also, the fact that it was a part from the middle of his body rather than the top or the bottom indicates an essential equality between man and woman. Lastly, the fact that she was made from bone rather than clay (as man was) might say something about the nature of a woman. Bone is more delicate and lighter than clay, but when clay breaks, it shatters, while bones merely chip, so women therefore have a sort of delicate strength to them that is absent in men.

The last point that the SAB makes about this chapter is a question about the nature of polygamy in the Bible. (Note that if properly understood, the last three verses in the "Yes" column are really in the wrong place. The last two are clearly anti-polygamy, and the third to last is a misunderstanding of cultural context: these women are not brides, but bridesmaids.) Here, God apparently institutes marriage as being a monogamous thing (Jesus says so, at least), yet polygamy is found pretty commonly throughout the scriptures. There is an important distinction between what the Bible shows and what the Bible teaches. Yes, many of these men were polygamists, but God never says that it's okay; in fact, quite a few of them were personally told by God that they'd done a bad thing. The fact is, polygamy is never said to be a sin in the Bible, and frankly, I don't think it is, but it definitely is a problem. I was told by a pastor once that you will find no example of a polygamist in the Bible that didn't have trouble come about from his polygamy, and from what I have read, it's true. Also note that aside from requiring church leaders to be monogamous, God also required kings to be monogamous along with a lot of other rules about kings in Deuteronomy 17:14-20 that apparently David and Solomon never read. The SAB ought to have some notes on that passage, it's a doozy.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:15-17)

Frankly, if you've heard any apologetics concerning the first few chapters of the book of Genesis, you've probably heard a lot of what I have to say here. Clicking around the Internet in my spare time and looking at a few sites that are like the SAB, responses to the SAB and sites like it, and others still giving rebuttals to responses, I'm frankly finding it a bit depressing. In that middle category where my blog fits, there seem to be largely two types of folks: absolute geniuses and muddled hacks. I don't think I'm one of the former, but I fear it places me in jeopardy of being grouped with the latter. Hopefully my willingness to admit that I am not a genius in this area will lend me a certain air of credibility for my honesty at least. I'm not a theologian, I don't know all the answers, and admittedly very little of what I write here proves anything. The SAB suggests some problems with the Bible, I suggest some explanations for them, and the Bible is neither proven to be infallible nor utterly wrong, but only ambiguous. Even if I were a highly gifted apologist, the reader would still of course decide for themselves how to take the Bible's claims. It's nice to get that off of my chest.

Okay, it's finally time to get to the topic I'd mentioned twice before: the tree of "the knowledge of good and evil." What is it, and why does God put it in the garden? It seems like putting your children in the backyard to play and saying, "By the way, don't jump in the pit with the spikes lining the bottom that I dug in the back corner by the swing set, okay?" You'll find that my favorite metaphor to illustrate the relationship between mankind and God is the relationship between children and their parents, so expect a lot of this now that we're discussing humanity.

The tree itself is never said to be an apple as is often believed, and in fact, we don't know what kind of fruit it was (but see comments for interesting speculation!). The fact that we often think of it as an apple is interesting, as I think it does the job of my first point, which is that there was nothing particularly special about this tree. Apples are good and healthy; there's nothing deadly about them, nor particularly wisdom-imparting. I believe that this tree was a tree much like any other in the garden, with the singular exception that God points it out as special. In other words, the tree has nothing that intrinsically sets it apart, but God uses it as a symbol.

What is it a symbol of? Well, knowledge of good and evil, of course. God creates man with understanding, obviously, since God is talking with him. If man did not understand, God would have known, and made it clearer. God was giving a simple message to man: "Evil" is the things that you're not supposed to do, "good" is the things that you should do. The only thing you need to know about "evil" is don't eat from that tree. It's a completely arbitrary distinction between that tree and the others, but an important one. It's so important that man's very life is claimed to be dependent on it.

So why make that distinction? Why allow man to die over this arbitrary tree? The answer is "free will". God wants man to be devoted to his Creator; to love Him, follow Him, worship Him, have fellowship with Him, etc. But what does it really mean to say, "I want you to love me and do as I tell you, but I won't give you any choice in the matter, okay?" Is it meaningful for me to say that I know my daughter loves me because she's never tried to run away from home, when she's too small to reach the knob on the front door? Now, that doesn't mean that to be loving I have to leave the front door open and see if she walks out it and goes away, but for God being in this special position, He needs to create something that is an option for rebellion.

Free will to be able to choose or reject God is important to God apparently, and as a symbol of this choice, it is simultaneously more than a symbol, thence its name. While the tree indeed has no magical properties, the act of eating from the tree has a profound spiritual aspect to it. Why would a person need to eat from a "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" excepting that they wanted to know good and evil? Is that so wrong? Maybe, after all, what was there to know? As far as I know, conservative theologians are pretty much agreed that before chapter three, eating the fruit itself was the only evil that there was, and man already had been told by God that it was evil, and essentially that everything else was good. There was nothing else to know!

Eating the fruit of the tree embodied a profound statement; the statement of, "God, I know you say that you know best, and you claim to have told me everything I need to know, but I want to find out for myself." To eat from the tree would be to say that God was not trustworthy, and that's a serious accusation, especially at this point in history. Atheists and agnostics have raised time and again very thought-provoking points about the character of the Biblical God such as why He would allow suffering if He is supposedly good. That argument wouldn't hold water in the garden, as there was no suffering, no death, no Bible to write an SAB about, nothing but a man, a woman and some trees.

So was God lying when He said that man would die "in the day that thou eatest thereof"? I'm going to save that one for chapter three.

Monday, August 15, 2005

God formed man (Gen 2:4-14)

A lot of the objections that are raised in the SAB in chapter two are repeats of the ones raised in chapter one, this is because they're largely concerning the supposed discrepancies between the two accounts of the creation of mankind. My progress has been slow enough already; I trust that nobody bothering to read this will mind if I don't bother with a second response, but rather move on to new material.

So, from 2:5 until the end of the chapter, the story is about the creation of mankind. I don't know which part 2:4 goes with; it could be the epilogue of the previous account, or the introduction of this account. I think it doesn't really matter. One thing that should be noted however is that 2:4 says, "in the day". This phrase is one of a handful that's poetic/figurative/whatever that I hope people won't misconstrue, and I'm glad to see that the SAB doesn't make that mistake here, at least. (Oops, it did, it's just in chapter one for some reason!) Often, "day" refers not to a specific 24 hour period, but a general timeframe, like when someone says, "You'll rue the day you crossed me!" They're not saying that there's a specific date on the calendar that you'll mark down and say, "Wow, that was a bad one!" but rather you'll remember the time that you did whatever you did, whether it be a single moment, or even a series of events that stretched across several years. Other words that have a common figurative meaning are "name" which often means character or reputation, and "world" which can mean humanity as a whole, the social system you are a part of, or even perhaps an era of time. Context will often tell you, but I won't pretend it isn't confusing at times.

In verse five, it says there is no "plant of the field" because there is rain and (essentially) agriculture missing from the picture. Aside from the thoughts I gave on this before, it might be noteworthy to think about the implications of there needing to be "a man to till the ground" and that this is referring to plants "of the field". Perhaps what this is saying is that there are specifically no plants like wheat and barley and other grains growing in a useful fashion. I don't know, but it seems like a possibility.

Note also in verse six that it still doesn't "rain", but instead a "mist from the earth" waters the ground. That's interesting. If you remember my goofiness about water canopy theory, I think it's interesting to ponder that perhaps it never had rained before Noah's day. That's pure speculation on my part, I admit however. That might make no sense in other ways I'm not even thinking of.

God makes the first man out of the dust. I've heard it pointed out by some theologians that everything that makes up a human body can be found in dirt. Interesting, but not really conclusive from a creation/evolution standpoint, since one would expect a creature evolving naturally by chance from its environment to take on characteristics that were consistent with its environment, if you follow me. In other words, if the earth were completely free from silicon, you'd hardly expect creatures made largely from silicon to have evolved, would you? That's another tangent, though.

After creating man, God breathes into him, making him a "living soul". I think there's meant to be a special implication here, that more than breathing air, we're somehow figuratively breathing the spirit of God. It's interesting that in Hebrew, Greek and English, the words for these concepts are closely related. ("spirit" vs. "respiration")

Then God plants a garden with everything the man needs to physically survive, including two special trees: "the tree of life" and "the tree of knowledge of good and evil." We don't hear much about either of these trees, although the "tree of life" pops up again in the Book of Revelation, chapter 22, where it grows on both sides of a river in New Jerusalem. This is interesting to me, because it shows once again the problem with taking things too literal. I once read a Christian commentary on the book of Revelation that mused, "What sort of strange tree will this be? Will it have a trunk that splits in two so it's on both sides of the river at once?" It seems obvious to me that in that passage, the "tree of life" is not a singular tree, but a kind of tree, and there will be several of that kind of tree along both banks. Does that mean that the "tree of life" in this chapter is not a specific tree, but a species, which may have had several instances in the garden? I don't know, but it's entirely a possibility.

Of course the tree we're really interested in so often is the other special tree (trees?), the one that causes all the trouble in the next chapter. Why would God put such a dangerous tree right next to his special beloved children and let them eat from it if it was so dangerous? It's a very good question, perhaps one of the best. I'm going to give it an entire post tomorrow.

The only thing left to comment on here is all the geographical information in verses 10-14. Strangely, this is a mix of places and names that are known today and not known today. What are we supposed to make of them? I think most likely, these geographical names are of very little consequence to us today. I suspect strongly that whatever they referred to no longer exists. The fact that some of the names are still used today is simply either a holdover from those times (Noah and his family named some places after the places that used to be there before the flood), or modern people labeling places with names they got out of the Bible. Either way, it doesn't matter much.

Friday, August 12, 2005

This beginning of miracles (Gen 2:1-3)

The SAB has no notes on these verses, but I wonder if we can pause for a moment and relax as God did after all of this and contemplate it over a nice glass of wine. I don't think it was ever stated in chapter one of the SAB outright, but it was implied that there is a big scientific problem with this whole week. Certainly everyone who is a skeptic knows it without having to be told. Here is the seventh "day", and we have to wonder as I hinted at previously what exactly does a "day" comprise of? Modern science teaches us that several billion years elapsed between the creation of the universe and the time the first man walked on earth. So is each "day" 24 hours, or is it some larger span of time?

Let's jump ahead about 4,000 years to a moment that is recorded in the Gospel of John, chapter two. Jesus is at a wedding feast, and a terrible faux pas has happened: the groom's family has run out of wine. Well, most of you probably know this one. Jesus takes six huge waterpots full of water and turns them into wine. A man at the party who was the first-century equivalent of a wedding planner compliments the hosts on the quality of this fine wine, not knowing that Jesus had just made it out of water.

The SAB has pretty much no comment on Jesus turning water into wine in this story. The fact is that, in a sense, it's not so very remarkable that he did it. I have a cousin who has the ability to turn water into wine actually, and he does it all the time. Of course, he's not as fast as Jesus; it takes him a little over a year to make a good wine out of water.

When the man tasted the wine and complimented its quality, do you think he pondered to himself, "This wine is good; it tastes like it was made in an instant from water a couple minutes ago!" Probably not. In fact, I'd venture that if you put Jesus' wine next to a regular wine, it would for all intents and purposes be impossible to tell which was the supernatural wine.

If God can create something in a second that usually takes a year or more to make, do you suppose He can create something in six days that "usually" would take ten million years to make?

Skeptics point to modern science and say, "We can see that there are stars more than 6,000 light years away, therefore the universe must be more than 6,000 years old. Therefore the Bible is incorrect." Sounds good, but remember this: God created light first.

Have you ever heard people ponder whether or not Adam had a belly button? Some say no, he didn't, because he had no mother. But if we consider Adam to be a normal man, he had DNA, and in his DNA, he had an X-chromosome; where do those come from? In every other man throughout history, it came from their mother. On this day, day seven, Adam was less than 48 hours old; ever seen a depiction of Adam with a bald head? It takes more than 48 hours to grow a full head of hair, so logically, he should be bald, right?

No, if you had cut down a tree in the Garden of Eden, it would have rings indicative of years it had not grown. Adam had characteristics of a normal man who had lived for twenty, thirty years or more because God made him complete. The night sky shone with light from stars thousands of light years away that had only come into existence two days before Adam himself did because God made the sky complete. What I'm saying is, can you think of any good reason why God wouldn't make a universe that had the perfect appearance of being over ten billion years old?

A lot of you have probably heard a form of this argument in people saying that the world was created with fossils already in place, or something like that. The standard response is, why would God want to trick people? Now, I'm not necessarily saying anything about fossils, but I'm definitely not saying God is tricking us. I'm talking about God creating a universe that is a work of art! If a painter uses their paints to make a picture of a landscape that doesn't actually exist anywhere but in their mind, do we say that they have intended to trick us, since the trees and the flowers didn't actually grow from seeds, but only appeared to do so? When an author creates an interesting main character, do we complain that that person appears to be a real human, but does not have an actual mother and father? God's making a work of art with intricate detail and fine craftsmanship, and if He doesn't have to skimp on the details, why should He? Indeed, why would He?

And why take ten billion years when He can do it in six days and have the same exact results? In the end, I don't think we really can know for sure, but given the fact that God is omnipotent, I see no good reason for a Bible-believer not to believe the world was created in exactly six literal days.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Be fruitful (Gen 1:28-31)

Apparently the next thing that God does after creating humans is give them a command to take over the world He has given them. Frankly, it occurs to me that in naming the "discrepancies" between the first two chapters, this speech is a bit of an oversight. It not only seems important enough, but quite fitting with the theme to have repeated it in the next chapter, at least as a paraphrase. The closest the Bible comes is verse 2:16, which really doesn't sound much like it at all. I guess it shows how these things are personal that the SAB has no problem with this omission. I haven't noticed one yet, but I'm sure that the SAB has noted parallel passages that feature omission of important information; it's the frosting on the skeptic's cake, really.

This speech is repeated in the story of Noah, but there, it's different, and much speculation has gone into what the differences mean, one interpretation of which the SAB notes on the following verse. The SAB does note that many Christians use this commandment to justify destroying the environment and being cruel to animals. I already commented on that in yesterday's post, but the SAB also brings up the issue of birth control.

Does "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth," mean that people are not to use birth control, but rather to breed like rabbits? There may be various views on the matter of which I'm not aware. I know the Catholic Church, the most famous for being anti-birth control is of the opinion that trying to disassociate sex from procreation is inherently wrong; that's not to say that the RCC is against sex as being recreational as well within the bounds of marriage, but that it has both facets to it, and neither should be shut out. (I'm oversimplifying here since I'm not a Catholic. If you're a Catholic reading this, please don't blast me, rather post a comment to clarify the Church's position as you understand it.) Most Protestants seem to be of the opinion that birth control is okay. While marriage and sex are concepts that are to a great extent designed with procreation in mind, that doesn't mean that having children is a requirement. A lot of it has to do with personal attitudes about child rearing, resources and other issues. If you can't afford to feed a child (or aren't willing to), it's irresponsible to not use birth control. If you think the earth is already "replenished" enough, you might choose not to have children. My opinion is that the earth could handle a higher population if we learned to use our resources better, but I don't think we have.

So, God gives us plants to eat in the next verse. This is the point that's different from the speech in Noah, where God notes that He is giving them an order/permission to eat meat. Many people have speculated that God intended man, and perhaps even all animals (from verse 30) to be vegetarians at the start. That doesn't mean that God intended us to be vegetarians for all time, however. I think at this time, the real sentiment is that eating is something that can be done without killing. That will eventually change when sin enters the picture.

It's noted that God says "every tree" is for mankind to eat, but in the following chapter, God forbids the eating of one tree in particular. Is this a contradiction? Yes and no. If you look at it from a purely grammatical standpoint, it is confusing, but I don't think it's at all intractable. I have a number of speculations on what might explain this, but I think what's really going on is this: In chapter one, when God is saying that all trees that have fruit are okay to eat, He's talking about kinds of trees. In chapter two, He's pointing out a particular tree as an exception. It's like if my wife had a rose garden, and you asked me for a rose from it, and I said, "All the roses in the garden are beautiful, and you can pick any kind of rose that you want. But the dark red rose with the yellow spots in the back corner is special to my wife, and I'd rather you don't touch that specific one." I talk more about the nature of this tree in the next chapter, or maybe chapter three, we'll see.

So God is now finished, and He notes that it's "very good". In response to this, the SAB notes, "He purposefully designed a system that ensures the suffering and death of all his creatures, parasite and host, predator and prey." I guess the idea here is that it's hard to see how this is "very good". First of all, it's really a matter of opinion as to what's good or not. Many atheists feel that the world would be better off without human beings on it, and then nature could be left to itself. If leaving nature to itself is a good thing, then the very thing which the SAB seems to be noting as a counter to the world being "very good" seems good to some atheists. I think imposing labels of "good" and "bad" on animals is sometimes a sketchy thing; I'd be hesitant to label animals' actions with human moral labels.

More importantly, I think we've forgotten the previous verse. There was no "parasite and host, predator and prey" at this time. It was really a sort of hippyish paradise with mankind and all the animals just hanging out, having a good time, eating fresh veggies and fruits. There was no death, no war, no hate, and when you think about it, no religion. Straight out of "Imagine" by John Lennon, really. At the time, it was indeed "very good". Of course, this ends chapter one, and it won't last for long...

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Let us make man (Gen 1:26-27)

"Us"? Who the heck is God talking to? I always thought this was a weird one when I was a kid, but I never thought it meant that there were multiple gods. I guess I could see how someone could think that, though. My assumption as a child had been that God was talking to the angels, since most appearances of angels (if not all) in the Bible have angels looking pretty much just like humans. This could be correct, but it's not the standard Christian explanation, nor is the explanation that this is a "majestic plural". Of course, one of the interesting things about this whole passage in the original Hebrew is that the word translated "God" is actually plural in form, although treated grammatically as a singular noun throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.

The standard Christian explanation, which I am highly inclined towards, is that this verse is one among many that shows the members of the Trinity discussing something amongst themselves. Christian doctrine doesn't teach that God decided to divide Himself into parts in order to become human in the person of Jesus, but rather that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existed from before time. Thus it's not entirely bizarre for God to call Himself "us", since He has a certain plurality of identity wrapped up within His unity. I suppose I should eventually try and explain the Trinity, but it's one of the harder things to explain, and I don't think this is the time for it.

Moving on, the SAB claims that it's impossible that God gave humans dominion over the other creatures of the earth, since animals came before humans. Nonsense. A young couple that has some money to spare could easily set aside a savings account to pay for the college tuition of a child that they do not yet have. Local governments build roads that are intended to reach residential areas that presently have not yet any houses built in them. My office breakroom has stores of sugar and cream for coffee that won't be brewed for months to come. But there is another very good point brought up by Wells with this point. Many Christians do use this verse to justify cruelty to animals and ravaging of the environment, and I agree that it's wrong. Jesus taught that God is like a landowner that gave some farmland to some people to look after it, and when he returns, he expects it to be in good shape, or he'll punish the people he left in charge. While I think the main purpose of this allegory is in regards to spiritual matters, it seems reasonable to guess that the physical aspects of this world are important as well.

Speaking of physical aspects, what about the physical aspects of humanity, and being "in the image of God"? The SAB asks, "Is God both male and female?" Yes and no. God is exclusively referred to as being male throughout the Scriptures, so He is male; but it's not entirely clear in what sense. I think even the most conservative of Christians would agree that God has female attributes: He's the creator of life, He's nurturing, He's sensitive and caring about the emotions of others, etc. But He doesn't have a physical body (at least, He didn't at this time, the Incarnation aside), so calling Him male or female is in a certain sense misleading. So what does "the image of God" mean?

If God has no physical form, He doesn't look like anything in particular, so being "in the image of God" can't logically mean that we look like Him. In this case, "image" is figurative language, one of a handful of words that meant something different in Biblical times than it does today, like "name". In Biblical times, a person's "name" often meant their character. Note that in the many instances that God gives someone a new name, it usually has symbolic meaning. But that's a tangent for another time; I know it'll come up later. "Image" means really something more akin to God putting His royal seal on something. He's setting up humanity as having a special place in the cosmos, and He's saying, "Yeah, I created everything in the world, but this is special. Cause harm to one of My children and you'll pay for it." Really there's a great deal of discussion among Christian theologians about what this means in full, such as whether it's what makes us uniquely spiritual beings among God's creation; animals don't practice religion even though they, too, were created by God.

Not mentioned here for some reason, but saved until the next chapter is the matter of whether male and female were created simultaneously. Although I addressed this previously, I wanted to say more about the grammar involved. If I were to say, "I did A and B," in absence of further information, you'd be quite reasonable to assume that A and B either happened simultaneously, or in close succession. But if you have evidence that's not the case, then you'd be unreasonable to continue to assume that. In the case of the Bible, the further evidence comes from chapter two that "male and female" weren't created at once. If I said, "In the '90s, I earned my high school diploma and my bachelor's degree," your understanding of how long it takes to earn a bachelor's degree should cause you to realize that the span of time covered by "and" is most likely somewhere from three to six years. That doesn't mean there's something wrong with the sentence, nor that it's a contradiction to a full telling of my life stories from the '90s which revealed that indeed, many years passed between these events.

Monday, August 08, 2005

The living creature after his kind (Gen 1:24-25)

A quick note to give people something to chew on since I'm taking a day off tomorrow. Subject? Evolution. Once again, this is my own opinion; in fact, just about everything in this post will be opinion rather than dealing with what I would consider key issues of Biblical interpretation, so some readers who have criticised me for taking off on flights of fancy or "comic book stories" can just skip this and come back on Wednesday.

Most Christians, particularly those who are towards the more literal side of Biblical interpretation, see this chapter of the Bible as being anti-evolution. Generally, the idea is that since God created everything that ever was, there's no random biological processes that cause evolution to occur, whatever the term "evolution" happens to mean. I note that in my experience, when evolutionists and creationists are debating, one of the big problems is a lack of definition of terms.

More specifically, literalists lean on the repeated phrase "after his kind", as it is rendered in the KJV. Surely, the reasoning goes, this is an indication that every animal will give birth to an animal that is just like it, and not another animal unlike it. (Particularly, of course, that a monkey did not give birth to a human.) I think this sort of over-emphasis on a particular interpretation of the meaning of these words is a far worse offense than most atheists are prone to make in criticism. Most of all because evolution in its simplest terms--which has nothing to do with whether or not man has any particular ape-like ancestors--is something that you'd have to be very foolish to miss out on.

What exactly does "kind" mean here? A cat's going to give birth to a cat, that's clear and obvious. Does that mean that a cat will only give birth to a cat that's identical to its parents? That's also obvious: obviously false. Aside from everyday traits like color and fur texture, there are a host of other aspects of a cat that may widely differ from its parents. Most cats have 18 toes, five on each front paw, and four on each back one. When I was a kid, I had a pet cat that had 20 toes, five on each paw, and the front paws actually had thumbs! Somewhere in this cat's ancestry, there probably was a regular 18-toed cat, but this cat was different. It also had kittens that had extra toes. One kitten had 28 toes, seven at the end of each leg! I say each leg, because three of the four legs seemingly ended in two separate paws. (Look up "polydactyl" if you're curious. It happens in many animals including humans, but is very common in cats.)

There was an interesting belief among locals that the marshy conditions that existed in the area where I lived favored cats with oversized paws, and so such oddities were more common in that area. This may or may not have been true, but this sort of variation, along with classically-known stories like the peppered moth are simple examples of evolution in action. Before the creationists reading this deluge me with refutations of the peppered moth story (believe me, I've heard quite a few of them, including that the whole thing may have been a hoax), understand my point. Variation in colors of moths and variations in numbers of toes of cats are really no more shocking in many ways than variations in skin tone among people of the world, whom Christians believe to be descended from just two people. My point is that I don't think Christians should be afraid of evolution just because the party line is that it doesn't happen. Some of it, maybe a lot of it, actually makes sense, and in no way contradicts anything in the Bible.

Is the idea that humans evolved from monkeys somewhat offensive and anti-Biblical? Yes. But there are no real evolution-understanding biologists out there who actually believe that to be true. Really. You should check it out. Atheists reading this who think I'm full of crap should check it out with reputable sources, too. I'll probably catch a lot of crap for this post because I somehow wasn't completely precise in wording something, but hopefully some of you will know what I'm saying and not misinterpret it. I guess I'll see when I get back in a couple days.