Monday, February 5, 2007

Week 03, Genesis and Job from the Hebrew Scriptures

Notes on Genesis.

Genesis 1-3: The Beginning, the Fall

How powerful the spoken word is in the scriptures! God “speaks” the world into existence, and apparently without any need for raw materials with which to create. His words are acts—no separation between the two, as there is for us. God is somewhat anthropomorphized in Genesis—at times, he sounds like a powerful patriarch who takes issue with the beings he has created. He does not like it when his creatures try to rival him—eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil can only lead to eating from the tree of life, and then Adam and Eve might “be as we are.” God begins to regret that he has made the world at all, so sinful are the human beings he made in his image—this is odd in light of later Christian doctrine that God is omniscient and omnipotent; how could such a perfect and transcendent deity “regret” anything? But the Hebrew Bible writers are dealing with God in a dramatic fashion—they have Milton’s task of making pure transcendence and inscrutability talk to us in ways that we can appreciate. What kind of answers or explanations does Genesis give to the huge questions it raises? Well, they are sometimes provocative, and always majestic. Adam and Eve are told to “be fruitful and multiply” (57), and the creation should contain all that it can—”plenitude” and diversity are two great laws of the universe. But why should that be the case? Why should there be something rather than nothing, light instead of darkness, sound and not silence? There really are no answers to such questions—God has simply bid that it should be so, according to Genesis.

The text says that God has made Adam in his image, and there are two overlapping stories of humanity’s creation, it seems: the fuller one in Genesis 2 (pp. 57-58) explains that God first makes Adam from the dust (the name Adam is derived from the Hebrew word for “red clay,” as scholars point out) by breathing life into him. Then God puts Adam to sleep and creates Eve from one of his ribs, to serve (along with the rest of the creation) as a fitting companion for him. A law of hierarchy, as yet gentle enough, binds all creatures from the beginning. God has made mankind in his image, but since he is perfection itself, anything he creates must be less perfect than he is. Apparently to reinforce this principle for Adam and Eve, God plants the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and next to this tree he plants the Tree of Life. The first couple have dominion over everything around them, but not over these two trees. This is simply an interdiction—God does not explain to Adam and Eve why he has made such an interdiction, except to tell them that they will “die” if they disobey. How are we to gloss this act on God’s part? Perhaps we may extrapolate by supposing that God is something like the greatest of romantic poets: the creation is his perpetual poem, and natural process is his “expression.” He has generously given Adam and Eve a chance to help advance the beauty and dignity of his work—they are to tend his garden and take pleasure in the work they do as a way of worshiping him. If, as seems reasonable, they are to draw nearer to the perfect being who has made them in his image, their ascent must be gradual, not sudden. They must not try to usurp God’s place in the hierarchy of the universe by seeking to attain forbidden knowledge. (Incidentally, the text doesn’t say that God has interdicted them from eating of the Tree of Life, though I think it must be implied based on what he says on page 59.) But the serpent, that slippery character “more subtil than any beast of the field” (58), tempts Eve, convincing her that God’s motive is jealousy and stinginess: eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, he says, and “your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods.” This imputation that God is withholding something good from her simply to preserve his own prerogatives, to maintain a distinction between himself and his creation, is very powerful. The text explains that Eve succumbs to the fruit’s apparent deliciousness and its supposed wisdom-giving properties, and completes the Fall by giving Adam some as well. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with innocent curiosity, but that isn’t what Eve shows at the moment of choice: her desire to learn is obviously not accompanied by respect and wonder—it is fundamentally selfish and envious, and flows from what one of my former professors in Renaissance literature calls (in reference to Milton’s retelling of Genesis) a “sense of injured merit” not unlike that of Milton’s Satan himself.

The immediate effect of the fall is described somewhat enigmatically: “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (58). As I understand this passage, what was previously the innocent principle of generation—the means whereby all creatures would “be fruitful and multiply,” has become for Adam and Eve something shameful, something to be covered up. Their pride has caused them, in effect, to take God’s generosity for selfishness, and now they construe sexuality the same way, since their understanding has become deranged and darkened. Their being seems shamefully “carnal” to them now, and spirit is no longer at peace with matter and its principle of physical generation. From this point forwards, as God’s stern pronouncements in Genesis 3 make clear, Adam and Eve’s relationship to each other, to their fellow creatures, to the earth itself, and to God will involve difficulty and sorrow: Adam will labor to bring forth his sustenance from an alien, harsh land, and he will “rule over” Eve, who will give birth in pain. And of course, to borrow a line from Milton, they have brought “death into the world.” No longer will they converse pleasantly with God or labor joyfully in his garden amongst their fellow creatures. The laws of life now (as subsequent books in the Bible show) are fearful obedience, painful effort in the face of necessity, cruelty, dishonesty, envy, and misunderstanding with regard to one’s fellows, and dispersion over the earth’s surface: alienation, distortion, derangement.

Genesis 4: The First Murder.

Adam and Eve are the first sinners, but the pattern of sin, which follows an arc of pride, envy, and selfishness, begins with Cain and Abel, their offspring. God doesn’t accept Cain’s offering, presumably because Cain didn’t make it in the right spirit—it makes sense to suppose he offered his gift to God only because he had to, not because he wanted to. As the Bhagavad-Gita later says, one must “act in the spirit of worship” and not be obsessed with getting something from one’s action. Cain hasn’t acted in this selfless or charitable spirit. Then, envious of his brother’s favor with God, Cain kills him without warning and impudently responds to God’s outraged questioning, “am I my brother’s keeper?” As a consequence of his deed, Cain will feel still more deeply than Adam and Eve a sense of alienation from his fellow beings and from the land: “a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth” (60). But as a consolation to Cain, who fears that now he will be marked for death as an outlaw, God preserves his life by declaring that “whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” Apparently, then, one human being may not use the wrongs done by another to justify further wrongdoing. As God’s phrase from Deuteronomy goes, “ To me belongeth vengeance and recompence” (32:35).

Genesis 6-9: The Flood.

Noah earns God’s remembrance because of his goodness, and is spared from general destruction in the Flood. In Genesis 9, God sets his “bow in the cloud,” he says, as a “token of a covenant between me and the earth” (63). The covenant amounts to a promise that God will never again destroy the earth by flood. Why does he make this concession? Well, in Genesis 8 God had accepted Noah’s burnt offerings and decided that since “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (pg. 62), there is no point in destroying such wayward children altogether. To me, it seems as if we are to understand from this declaration that God finds it appropriate to be merciful with human weakness, and to show pity for the world that weakness has deranged—the covenant, after all, is not only for human beings; it is for “every living creature of all flesh” (63). But there is genuine sternness in these chapters of Genesis, too: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God made he man” (62). Then, too, God’s description in Genesis 9 of what “dominion” over the animals means is revealing: “the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth.” Evidently, within the limits prescribed by God, there is to be much harshness, much strict justice between man and man, and men will rule the animal kingdom by fear and brute force.

Genesis 11: The Origin of Languages.

In this chapter, human beings again try to rival God; they obey their own desires and set themselves up as proprietors of a divided or rival empire, as evidenced by the building of the Tower of Babel. Here, God discerns that the best way to punish such impiousness is to “confound” the builders’ speech, making it impossible for them to join easily in such nefarious enterprises as raising a building almost to the heavens. The Tower is the first skyscraper. An already self-limited human capacity for learning and understanding will be further limited by the diversification of signifying systems and by physical dispersal across the earth. As the Bible stresses again and again, human language is a fallen instrument, and, in the language of King James I’s day, human combination is apt to be taken as “murmuring against the king”: society breeds an arrogant presumption of self-sufficiency and autonomy far beyond what simple exercise of free will dictates.

Genesis 22: Abraham and Isaac.

God puts Abraham’s faith to the test in this chapter, requiring him to offering his beloved son Isaac as a sacrifice. On the one hand, Genesis 22 reinforces the painful lesson that after the fall, everything is forfeit to God and man can find security in little or nothing: Abraham must be willing to sacrifice even his own son to prove his faith in the Lord. But again, because Abraham is willing to act—because he acts in the right spirit, however troubling the command is to him—he finds mercy in God’s sight. What has not been withheld will be returned manyfold: God promises Abraham, “I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed…” (64). It’s easy to see why Christian tradition has read this chapter typologically, with Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, his “lamb,” serving as a prefiguration of God’s willingness to send “his only begotten son” to atone for mankind’s sins.

Genesis 25, 27: Jacob and Esau.

It seems that God’s providential design justifies considerable “trickery,” as we might call it, amongst the descendants of Adam and Eve: the human order of things must be rearranged sometimes to suit God’s plan. If God requires it, the youngest son must use deceit to take on the powers of the eldest son. Jacob (his mother Rebekah’s favorite) tricks his elder brother Esau into giving up his birthright for some “red pottage” (65). And what Esau has, as the text puts the case, “despised,” Jacob will now secure by tricking old father Isaac (son of Abraham) into bestowing the blessing of the first-born upon him. The plan comes off well, and the blessing, which involves exercising dominion over brethren and even nations, is duly given. This blessing, once given, cannot be retracted, so we can understand Isaac’s feelings about what has happened. But to Esau, too, Isaac offers comfort: he will serve his younger brother, but the servitude will not last forever. In Genesis, Jacob and Esau are reconciled. Jacob’s twelve sons (Asher, Benjamin, Dan, Gad, Issachar, Joseph, Judah, Levi, Naphtali, Reuben, Simeon, Zebulun) will become the twelve tribes of Israel, while Esau’s descendants are said to be the founders of the Kingdom of Edom, a kingdom with which, later on, Kings Saul and then David will clash. See Wikipedia’s entry on the Twelve Tribes and the Edomites. Jacob himself has much service to do—he ends up serving Laban for fourteen years to gain the hand of Rachel, and six years for his stock of cattle. He is renamed “ Israel” after wrestling with an angel in Genesis 32, and is of course the father of Joseph, hero of our next selection.

Genesis 37, 39-46: The Story of Joseph.

Joseph is Jacob/Israel’s son by Rachel, and is possessed not only of a “coat of many colors” given to him by his now elderly father but also the gift of prophetic dreams and the interpretation thereof. One of those dreams gets him in dire trouble with his brothers, since in it, Joseph says, “the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me” (pg. 67, Genesis 37). Only Reuben’s fearful counsel keeps them from killing him outright, and they sell him to the Ishmaelites, who in turn bring him to Egypt , where Pharaoh’s servant Potiphar buys him. Joseph’s powers of interpretation result in his being rescued from the prison where he was sent thanks to the scheming of Potiphar’s wife (whose sexual advances he refused), and Pharaoh is so impressed with Joseph that he makes him all but a co-ruler. As almost always seems to be the case, a gift that places someone in close contact with the divine comes at great risk and cost: insight must be “paid for,” so to speak. When Joseph’s brethren are sent by their father to seek out some wheat (“corn”) during years of famine, the now powerful dweller in Egypt first pays them back for their cruel treatment of him, but then reconciles with them, showing remarkable generosity and inviting them all, along with the youngest son Benjamin and old Israel (Jacob) to come to Egypt and live there. Israel has been promised by God that his children will constitute “a great nation,” and with this faith he enters Egypt. He will live and die there, and so will Joseph. The departure from Egypt and from the clutches of Pharaoh, of course, will only occur when Moses comes to maturity; the story of Moses is told in Exodus.

Notes on Job.

77-78. From the outset, we are told that Job is a “perfect and upright” man, yet God will use this good man to demonstrate to a scoffing Satan the perfection of his order and the loving obedience of his servants. (Satan is not the devil of the New Testament; rather, he is an accusing or adversarial angel amongst God’s council; see the Wikipedia entry on Satan.) Satan sees a fine chance to show that God is mistaken: “Doth Job fear God for nought?” he asks, meaning evidently that Job only obeys and loves God because as yet he has no reason to do otherwise. He has a good, rich life—what is there to be afraid of? Satan’s claim is that once Job suffers a genuine setback in his fortunes, he will hold God in contempt and curse him to his face. But Job responds eloquently to both the first phase (loss of kindred and goods) and the second phase (loss of bodily soundness) of his trial. Satan has lost his wager, but the text has much more to do than prove Satan’s incorrectness.

79. Job’s wife tempts him to “curse God and die,” and his friends, after keeping a seven-day vigil with him, beset him with additional foolish advice. In essence, their counsel follows from the notion that one’s earthly fortunes can be linked directly to the morality or immorality of one’s conduct. In other words, life is a matter of reward and punishment, and nothing else. How does Job process what has happened to him? He prays for death, the great leveler of men and silencer of troubles. This “death” doesn’t seem to entail an afterlife; Job simply wishes to cease existing altogether, and thereby to find peace. He knows in his heart that he is not guilty of what his accusers say he is: “I was not in safety, neither had I rest, neither was I quiet; yet trouble came.” He never took his good fortune for granted or puffed himself up with pride on account of it. He is not a self-aggrandizer, a miser, or anything of the sort. So far as he is able to discern, he has been genuinely righteous and has never ceased to praise God for his blessings, and he won’t be so hypocritical as to pretend that he understands why he is suffering now. (The knowledge of God’s wager is denied to him—it is known only to us, the readers. But of course, the notion of a wager that causes such suffering is hardly a sufficient justification by any reasonable human standards. We would not easily pardon another human being if he or she did to us what God has allowed Satan to do to Job.)

80-81. Eliphaz picks up on Job’s refusal to accept the charge of iniquity, and urges him to embrace his troubles as the “correction” necessary to purify him. But Job again prays for death instead, pointing out that Eliphaz’s logic is a “pit” into which he will not fall. There is no correspondence between earthly prosperity and moral rectitude, and his own anguished soul tells him that such explanations are brutally insufficient and cruel.

82-83. Because Job’s “days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and are spent without hope” (82 top), he will not keep silent. He will take this one brief chance to voice his anguish and uncertainty. His complaint is not petty: Job demands to know why an infinitely magnificent and powerful God would bother raining trouble and confusion down on a poor servant like Job. What is the point of such contention between God and man? Contention implies the acknowledgment of a relationship, however unequal. We notice, too, that on these pages Job pleads neither perfection nor the virtue of patience: “If I justify myself, mine own mouth shall condemn me: if I say, I am perfect, it shall also prove me perverse…. If I say, I will forget my complaint … I know that thou wilt not hold me innocent” (83). His one need is that God should enter into a conversation with him, should declare himself and explain why he has done such things to a mere mortal: “I will say unto God, Do not condemn me; shew me wherefore thou contendest with me” (83.10).

84-87. Job insists on attending to the problem of his relationship with a divinity with whom he can find no commensurateness, no manner of accommodation or understanding. This “desire to reason with God” (85.13) does not stem from stupidity or arrogance. To his friends he says, “I have understanding as well as you” (85.12). He understands the basis of their explanation, and he knows that God will do as God wills. But by this point in the text, Job’s conversation is turned away from his friends and towards God, to whom again he addresses questions such as “why do you insist on troubling me? what have I done?” His desire is that God should declare himself and enter into dialog with him. Job’s spiritual turmoil (caused by suffering and by uncertainty about the great question, “Why?”) is intolerable, so the dialog for which he asks is a necessity for him.

88-91. Job searches his heart—has he in fact done something wrong, or even something right in the wrong spirit? No, he is unable to accuse himself honestly. With one further plea that God will “remember” him and speak with him, “The words of Job are ended” (89). He will not accuse God of unrighteousness or curse him, but neither will he condemn himself. At last, God declares himself from what me may presume is the perfect calm within the chaos of a deafening whirlwind, telling Job, “Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me” (89.38). What follows is more a series of clarifying questions than a full conversation. All of the questions God poses declare and demonstrate his own sublimity. It is from such language that William Blake probably borrowed when he wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “When thou seest an Eagle, thou seest a portion of Genius; lift up thy head!” Like Krishna in The Bhagavad-Gita, the God of the Hebrews deigns to “put on his terrors” for a time. He made Leviathan (on whose subsequent career see Revelations) and Behemoth, and he is behind the tremendous power of all natural processes on earth and all celestial forces in heaven. This “Unmoved Mover,” as Christian theologians (following Aristotle’s older terminology) will call him, seems annoyed with Job, who “darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge” (89.38).

92-93. Job’s best response is to say, “Therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.” He has seen God, at least to some penultimate degree, and the vision leads him to declare, “I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (92.42). Divine and human understanding are not commensurate: apparently, that is what dialog with God teaches us. But “that” turns out to be enough: Job prays for his misguided friends, and God decides to reward him and restore him to great wealth and status. Job’s soul-searching and then his conversation with God have demonstrated a necessary spiritual process: the man may not have been able to understand God fully, but nobody can do that anyhow. He has at least refrained from presuming or cursing, and his questions are not hypocritical or timid, but honest. It seems that God appreciates Job’s honest questioning. Ultimately, the text seems to identify a need for mystery and wonder, and for prayer, as the essence of religiosity. The system of reward and punishment one can find elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures (Deuteronomy, for example) seems less important than these things. On the whole, Job promotes the principle of a divine order than transcends anything possible to conceive in human terms, not the principle of a divine order that somehow corresponds with human ways of understanding order. The great value of the first-mentioned principle, of course, is that it draws humanity out of itself, and sets it on a course towards greater spiritual effort and understanding; it preaches self-transcendence, and perhaps even something like what in Eastern philosophy (Hinduism and Buddhism in particular) we might call “creative self-annihilation.” There is some difference to be noted, in that Job’s offering up of his old self restores him to an even more rooted sense of personhood, so to speak. With regard to the Eastern texts it might be more correct to suppose that the annihilation of self is meant to rid us permanently of such notions as “personhood” altogether.

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