Wibble Wednesday: In with a Bang (Genesis 1:1–6:8)

I figure I need a feature to keep me on schedule, so now introducing: Bible Wednesdays! Wait, that’s not alliterative. Now introducing: Wible Wednesdays! Wait, “wible” is ugly-sounding and not actually a word. Now introducing: Wibble Wednesdyas!

So, I’ll go through a short chunk-o-Bible each Wednesday until I run out of bible chunks. I’m a secular Jew with a vague knowledge of Midrashic and Talmudic views, so the overall tone is going to be scholarly but not deep, interested but not believing. Sure, you can get that elsewhere, but not with my deathless prose! I’ll be using the JPS translation primarily, because I have it on my bookshelf and because it occasionally has footnote clarifications for particularly unusual words and phrases.

The Torah comes pre-chunked into 54 parts, so I’ll go through them in that order, starting off with פָּרָשַׁת בְּרֵאשִׁית (“In the beginning” portion). Yes, this means I’m about 6 months out of sync with actual Judaic reading practices (which would study בְּרֵאשִׁית in the autumn), but, hey, I’m a heretic, so what do you expect? So, without further ado, time for some wibblin’ ’bout the Bibble.

The quick snarky summary: God creates the world. Then he does it again, in a different order. He tells humans how to enjoy paradise forever, but they fuck it up. A quarter of the people of earth are killed, and the guy who did it lights out for the east and gets political asylum. Everybody has lots of kids with suspiciously nameless women, and every generation moans about how kids today don’t respect their elders and are too busy to behave righteously, with their agriculture and their iPhones.

There are of course three big parts to this section: the creation myth, the expulsion from Eden, and the story of Cain and Abel. There’s some narrative glue in there as well, but mostly this parsha highlights what are some of the signature aspects of the Torah: arbitrary rules, dodgy justice, and sloppy editorial work.

We can start with the creation story. As creation myths go, it’s actually pretty colorless. God speaks and things come into being. It has some nice rhythms and poetry, but lacks in a certain explanatory power which seems to be common inyths where things are created by effort rather than by pronouncement. Mostly, though, I’d like to focus on two curious aspects of the myth, which are either Matters of Deep and Extraordinary Significance or, more likely, poor copyediting.

First, there’s the fact that the creation of the world seems to be narrated twice. Everyone’s familiar with the one in Genesis 1:1–2:4; God makes light, expanse (?), oceans and vegetation, heavenly bodies, aquatic and flying creatures, land animals and man, and then took a rest. But the same basic story seems to be recapitulated, in a more anthropocentric way, in Genesis 2:4–20, with man being created first (emphatically before the waters were gathered into the oceans and the heavens), then plants in the garden, and then animals. Aside from the order being different, the second creation is part of a larger narrative, with Adam’s placement in Eden fundamentally linked into the story of the tree of knowledge and the creation of Eve. So both creation stories seem to be parts of the Torah that someone found indispensable, but the repetition is kind of odd even if vaguely justifiable.

One other peculiarity of the creation myth is pretty much everything about the second day. Nobody really knows what a רקיע, which is the thing God created on the second day, actually is. It’s often translated as “firmament” or “expanse”, and it’s evidently what keeps the “waters above” apart from the “waters below” (which just raises the question of what the “waters above” are). As far as I can tell, this particular created item (which must’ve been important, since it got its own day) was an element of ancient Semitic cosmology which doesn’t mean a whole lot to people today. It’s not entirely clear, really, what it’s good for. Evidently, it wasn’t clear to God, either, since he totally forgot to pronounce it good. Really. In a myth whose primary literary feature is the rhythm with which the passing of time and the benedictions on things are presented, it’s rather odd to see one thing left unblessed. Commentary mentions that he didn’t proclaim it good because the separation of parts, even when necessary, is not a good thing as it leads to strife. It might be churlish to point out that this particular interpretation is at odds with pretty much everything appearing in either text or subtext of the rest of the Bible with regard to the status of the Chosen People. For my money, I figure they just forgot to put the benediction in.

So enough fussing about creation. Once creation happens, we don’t dwell on what’s going on in paradise, but get right to the sinning. Snake tempts Eve, Eve tempts Adam, they all get the eternal smackdown. There are of course a couple of interesting aspects to the story. One is the entire “gotcha” aspect of the whole thing: it’s more than a little reminiscent of Bluebeard and similar tales of dire but irresistible warnings. Oddly, the only viewpoint I know of which carries this to its logical conclusion, that God preordained and intended the Fall, is actually a Christian doctrine: specifically supralapsarianism, which is tightly bound up with Calvinist belief that the Fall was a necessary precedent for the Elect to be saved, which is such a vicious viewpoint that I find myself hoping I’m misinterpreting it. Either way, it doesn’t seem to be a popular take on the story that God preordained Adam and Eve’s transgression, which suggests that God isn’t that good at psychology. Certainly God comes across as fearful in Genesis 3:22, which implies that his position in the cosmos is not nearly as secure as it’s presented elsewhere.

Another relevant topic impossible to avoid is the suffusion of the whole tale with sexuality, which surely had potent awesome power to ancient people. Nakedness, awareness of it, and shame in it is the most emphasized aspect of the “knowledge of good and evil”. Perhaps this is merely to emphasize the fact that humans, unlike other animals, clothe themselves, but it’s hard not to see a sexual undercurrent in the story. Of course, the whole story has been given an extra sexual twist by viewpoints from Paul onwards (and maybe before Paul too, since I think this is an aspect of several rabbinic commentaries) which holds Eve more or less singlehandedly responsible for the Fall. That take’s rather unfair even based on the text. Genesis 3:6 doesn’t really excuse Adam in any way; it gives Eve’s motivation, but they come across really as equal offenders. Of course, Genesis 3:16 pretty much explicitly gives men dominion over women anyways, so there’s plenty of pretext for gender inequity for anyone caring to find it anyways.

Incidentally, while discussing iconic representations of the fall, we can’t get away from the whole apple thing. The idea that the fruit of knowledge was an apple is, as I understand it, a medieval view. Rabbinic commentaries suggested figs, or grapes, or wheat (!), or citrons. Also, there were two trees, which don’t typically make it into the popular versions of the story: the tree of life and the tree of knowledge are explicitly presented (2:9, 2:22) as different trees. That’s interesting in its own right, since 2:16–17 strongly suggests Adam and Eve could eat of the tree of life, if they felt like it, but for some reason they didn’t. Weird.

Now, if I put this much poring-over into every verse, this reading will take forever, so I’d best mvoe on. Adam and Eve have children, supporting the above sexual-awareness theory, and that sets the stage for the first murder. I’m fond of this story in my way, as I particularly like John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which both directly and indirectly engages with this story a great deal (including a little disquisition on the meaning of תמשל). As Steinbeck points out, the story is surprisingly short on explanation for God’s actions. He spurns Cain for what seems like no good reason, and gives him a little “gotcha” moment with a rhetorical question, which kind of cements the view already presented that God’s a bit of a dick coming up with special opportunities to show how weak mankind is. Oddly, in spite of his fairly demonstrated vindictiveness, God lets Cain off pretty easily, exiling him and offering him protection from assault (bonus study question: who was Cain afraid would assault him? At that point the entire population of the world was himself, his parents, and, if you buy a Midrashic addition, a few of his sisters. Seth hadn’t been born yet, so he basically had no good reason to believe there would be anyone on the earth except his own descendants).

This parsha closes out with two sets of genealogies: the line of Cain, and the line of Seth. Seth’s line is the one of interest to Jews, since they claim descent from it, and so really does everyone else, since only Seth’s line survived the flood anyways. It’s kind of strange,then, that the significant line-of-descent is so boring. We have a list of male descendants and their ages, of exceptional repetitiveness and tedium except for the peculiar description of Enoch’s departure from the earth (5:24). By way of contrast, Cain’s line has details, and details which suggest that they were, at some point in the development of this story, pretty important with little substories of their own. We’re told a bit about wives, and we’re told a lot about culture: Cain’s descendants founded cities, and invented music, nomadic herding, and metallurgy. There’s even an odd little poem suggesting that Lamech was a grand patriarch. I’m wondering if there’s an earlier Semitic story in which these characters are actually relevant, because there seem to be loose ends on them where a story would fit.

The last couple lines of the story give an idea of the setting preparatory to the flood: an age of heroes, probably in the Greek epic sense of the word, when they were men of excess but not necessarily morality. These heroes (the נפלים) are explicitly said to be half-divine, which doesn’t really conform to much of any Judaic views of divinity, but is a bog-standard part of Semitic stories (Gilgamesh, IIRC, was two-thirds divine, which is arithmetically complicated), so operating under the impression that the Torah was a compilation of earlier Judaic and other Semitic myths, the easiest explanation for the heroes before the Flood is that they’re heroes of Semitic myths whose actual stories didn’t make the cut.

The end of this parsha goes on about man’s wickedness and God’s remorse. But that really belongs, by rights, with the actual Flood narrative, so we’ll save it for next time.


About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

One Response to Wibble Wednesday: In with a Bang (Genesis 1:1–6:8)

  1. Greg Sanders says:

    Huh, I’d never noticed the lack of a benediction for the firmament (or what have you).

    Also, the arithmetically complicated line made me laugh. I recently saw a fairly avant-gard play about Gilgamesh but I think that particular detail was elided.

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