Why readers of Genesis 3 need to read Genesis 4.

Genesis 4 provides many of the details needed to make sense of Genesis 3, at least in part. The Cain & Abel narrative reuses ideas and words from the story it follows in such a way that it demands its readers to turn back the page, look again, and realize how much of the preceding story only now makes sense.

For example, the cursing of the ground for Adam’s sake in Genesis 3:17 may initially seem a non-sequitur: why punish the ground for the crime of another? The further development of the curse may provide readers enough information to reveal that the curse imposed on the ground is a means to an end: Yahweh’s curse of the ground for Adam’s action prompts resentment on the part of the ground. It is out of resentment toward Adam for this imposed curse that it chooses to make Adam’s work difficult through the production of thorns and thistles.

This does not, however, make explicit the nature of the curse imposed on the ground. To put it another way, what does Yahweh do to the ground that may rightly be identified as a curse? Cain’s murder of Abel in the next episode makes the identification explicit:

And Yahweh said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.” (4:10-11)

Unlike Genesis 3, here Yahweh identifies the nature of the curse which the ground is imposing on Cain (which, it is important to note, is different from the curse on the ground imposed by Yahweh): “When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength” (v. 12). The ground reacts negatively toward Cain in a way similar to its reaction toward Adam (though with greater intensity). Also unlike Genesis 3, an explicit reason is given for this action on the part of the ground: the ground, deceived by Cain, “opened its mouth” to receive the blood of Abel. As a worker of the ground (v. 2), Cain would have irrigated the ground with water. In response, the ground would “open its mouth,” drink the water, and reciprocate by “yield[ing] to [Cain] its strength.” Evidently, the ground hates being given human blood to drink, and will respond negatively when forced to.

This is where Genesis 4 sheds light on Genesis 3. What is the nature of the curse imposed on the ground by God, resulting in the ground’s negative respond?

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (3:19)

The ground had participated in the creation of Adam. Now, because Adam took from the fruit which God had warned would result in death, the ground would be forced to receive back his body. The ground’s contribution to bringing humanity (adam) to life has been frustrated; therefore, the ground will frustrate humanity’s (adam) effort to hold onto its life by eating. It no more appreciates the curse of eating dust than does the serpent (cf. 3:14).

The implications for reading Genesis 3 continue. By eating from the tree that would result in death, Adam’s disobedience to Yahweh’s voice was an indirect crime against the ground. No matter how hard Adam turns to the ground to farm it, the ground will continue to dominate him.

Now take another step back. Yahweh had said to the woman:

I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (v. 16)

“Desire” (Heb. teshuqah) is difficult, and might be better understood as “forward movement,” “momentum,” or something like that (see Joel Lohr’s article in JBL 130, no. 2, pp. 227-246). The point, however, is similar to the one made above: no matter how hard the woman returns to the man (to produce children? to turn him toward another act of disobedience?), the man will continue to dominate her.

Of course, this just as easily carries back to the words to the serpent: no matter how often the serpent nips at the heel of the woman’s seed, the heel will continue to dominate him.

Finally, returning to the issue of the curse imposed on the ground, a re-reading of Genesis 4:1-2 may reveal grim irony. The word that might well describe the curse on the ground is “hevel,” understood in the sense of futility, working towards something that results in nothing (cf. Eccl. 2:18-19). The ground brought forth Adam, only to receive him back in death. Genesis 4 begins with an exclamation on the part of Eve: “I have gotten a man with Yahweh!” Though painful, Cain’s birth was an accomplishment. But something happened to Eve that made her identify with the ground. When the second child was born, she named him “Hevel.” Accomplishment gives way to disappointment and frustration. The ground knows that. Now, so does Eve.

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Published in: on November 30, 2014 at 9:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Adam’s two wives?

However interesting the Jewish folk legend of Adam’s first wife Lilith may be, this post concerns something entirely different.

Adam/adam, as a character in Genesis, stands for both the individual person and as a representative of humanity (or, the archetypal human). This dual-function on the part of Adam may theoretically invite readers to envision two wives: one for Adam the individual, and one for adam as a collective for humanity. Does the text itself make such an invitation?

Perhaps. Following Yahweh’s presentation of the woman to Adam, the narrator explains, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife…” (2:24). In other words, the individual man leaves that from which he was created to join another that had been created for him. Readers have seen something like this before: “Then Yahweh God formed the man of dust from the ground…And Yahweh God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed… Yahweh God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (vv. 7, 8, 15).

The exegetical hypothesis that the garden of Eden was intended to be viewed in some way as a “wife” to humanity as a whole (represented by Adam), in a way parallel to Eve at the individual level, may provide a foundation for the later identification of the woman in the Song of Solomon with a garden (e.g., Song 4:12), the identification of the New Jerusalem (within which is the garden of Eden) as the lamb’s bride (Rev. 21-22; the lamb = Christ = the new Adam = humanity’s representative), and other parallels between agriculture and human fertility (e.g., Gen. 49:25; Deut. 28:4).

[And it might help explain why the pronouns in verse 15 are feminine, disagreeing with the masculine word “garden”: “…to work her and keep her.”]

Published in: on November 29, 2014 at 11:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

Tree of Life

Genesis provides few details about the tree of life, simply that it was “in the midst of the garden” (seemingly very proximate to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Gen 2:9), and that eating of its fruit would result in living forever, thus requiring man’s expulsion (3:23). Yahweh’s words lead very quickly toward that expulsion (so quickly, in fact, that his words are cut off mid-sentence to see to it), suggesting Adam’s awareness of what eating it would mean, and Yahweh’s certainty that he would do so.

If, in fact, Adam was aware of the tree of life and its effects, it is natural to ask (as countless readers have done) why he had not already eaten from it. Brevard Childs’ entry on the “Tree of Knowledge, Tree of Life,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (1962) answers this by pointing out the obvious: “What is significant is that the biblical writer presents the tree of life as an important factor only after man’s disobedience” (IV:697, emphasis added).

To paraphrase Childs’ conclusion, the tree of life would have been of no significance to Adam because death was a declared consequence of disobeying God’s word; his life depended entirely on submitting to the voice of the one whose breath made him “a living creature.” Once Adam (following Eve) did make the break from God’s voice, only then does the tree of life become of potential interest to him.

So why block access to this tree? “God then feared lest man seek to substitute immortality through the tree of life for the loss of genuine life…True life is not gained through a magical tree, but only through the proper relationship to God” (ibid.).

Compare this understanding of the source of life with the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 30:

“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of Yahweh your God that I command you today, by loving Yahweh your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his statutes and his rules, then you shall live…” (vv. 15, 16a).

Of course, the sons and daughters of Adam would rather just eat the fruit: The Immortalists Official Trailer (2014)

Published in: on November 23, 2014 at 4:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

The guilt of the heavenly host, part 2: Psalm 82

The suggestion that the oracle of judgment against the host of heaven//kings of the earth (Isa 24:21-23) might well be read in the light of the earlier oracle against the Day Star//king of Babylon (chapter 14, esp. vv. 12-15)–and thereby viewing the heavenly host as guilty of a hubris against Yahweh that results in the oppression of humans below–would be complemented by Psalm 82:

  1. God has taken his place in the divine council;
    in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
  2. “How long will you judge unjustly
    and show partiality to the wicked?                   Selah
  3. Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;
    maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
  4. Rescue the weak and the needy;
    deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
  5. They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
    they walk about in darkness;
    all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
  6. I said, “You are gods,
    sons of the Most High, all of you;
  7. nevertheless, like men you shall die,
    and fall like any prince.”
  8. Arise, O God, judge the earth;
    for you shall inherit all the nations!

The “gods” (=the heavenly council = sons of the Most High) have positions of authority; specifically, it is assumed they are responsible for passing judgment against oppressors and on behalf of the oppressed. God (capital “G”) stands so far above them that he must pass judgment against them for failing in their judicial responsibilities. As punishment, God sentences the “gods” to human death: their immortality has been revoked. Having done away with these lesser gods, the judgment of the earth (against the wicked, to the relief of the oppressed) now rests with the Most High God himself.

To return to the thought of an earlier post, this judgment and doing away with lesser heavenly judges in favor of the immediate rule of the Most High God would parallel well the anticipated doing away of the sun and moon (rulers in Gen 1:16, 18) as lights in favor of Yahweh’s infinitely more glorious presence.

Published in: on June 27, 2014 at 9:15 am  Leave a Comment  

The guilt of the heavenly host

Having noted the anticipated judgment of the host of heaven alongside the kings of the earth in Isaiah 24:21-23, readers may be left asking why they are deserving of such judgment. Verse 5 may provide some insight:

The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed the laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.

Many understand this as a reference to the covenant made with humanity through Noah (cf. Gen 9:16), which would agree with the deluge language in Isaiah 24:18 (cf. Gen 7:11). Whatever its reference, however, it may not connect well with any action on the part of the host of heaven.

Perhaps more promising is a glance back at the oracle against Babylon in chapters 13 and 14. In the midst of a vision of the king of Babylon’s descent into sheol are words against “Day Star, son of Dawn” (helel ben shakhar) in Isaiah 14:12-15. Typically understood as the insertion of a well-known story of that time and place so as to magnify by association the king of Babylon’s fall, it lines up well with the passage in Isaiah 24:

  • The Day Star is a member of the host of heaven
  • He is condemned alongside a king of the earth
  • His judgment involves a banishment to “the far reaches of the pit” (cf. Isa 24:22)

If Isaiah 14 provides a specific example of something which Isaiah 24 speaks of in general, it may indicate that the crime of the heavenly host is a crime of hubris against Yahweh. If the actions of the king of Babylon are of any additional insight, this hubris against Yahweh may further involve the oppression of others.

Published in: on June 25, 2014 at 9:53 am  Leave a Comment