Musings on the greatest set of books ever written, etc.

Month: October, 2013

Good Horticulturalists—Yahweh, Eve, Both, Neither?

In my continuing series of blogposts on the first several chapters of the book of Genesis, I want to report that it has only recently come to my attention (and, yes, I should have noticed this decades ago), that Yahweh (the God who first made the Garden of Eden as well as the man meant to cultivate it [see Gen 2:4b-16]) had already proffered a forthright evaluation of all the trees he had planted in the Garden as “pleasing to the eye and good for food” (Gen 2:9, NIV). Later on, prompted by a talking snake of all things, Eve looked again at the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” and she decided that it was indeed “good for food and pleasing to the eye” (Gen 3:6, NIV), and—as a bonus—also “desirable for gaining wisdom.” Thus, she literally confirmed Yahweh’s two implicit criteria for the trees found in the Garden, plus she presented a third criterion: the gaining of wisdom (Hebrew, khokmah, a word which clearly includes the results of experience, whether favorable or unfavorable). So, ironically, Yahweh and Eve essentially agree on how to evaluate the trees in the Garden. But are they correct?

Now, as all parents and grandparents know, the gaining of wisdom by their children/grandchildren can be a good or bad thing. I slip into a bad habit in front of my grandtwins once (for example, picking my nose), and they never forget it (why can’t they notice the many times I do things correctly, and profit from all those good actions?). Well, as the author of Ecclesiastes reminds us:

“For with much wisdom (khokmah) comes much sorrow;

the more knowledge, the more grief” (Eccl 1:18, NIV)

College instructors know that the transmission of worldly wisdom in class can bring mixed results—that is why it is a good thing that most of their students are very sleepy, and therefore miss much of what is going on (but to be safe, some religious schools greatly limit what an instructor can say, just in case someone might be awake at any given time).

But, back to Eve: she decides to eat fruit from the tree, and even gives some to her male companion, “who was with her” (Gen 3:6, NIV). Then (and only then?) “the eyes of both of them were opened,” and they now recognized that they were naked, with all the coming-of-age implications that would entail. Changes had to take place immediately, and in this case, fig leaves (which are large but flimsy) had to serve as clothing (talk about being green!). So my question remains, was Yahweh correct in his assessment that all the trees in the Garden were pleasing to the eye and good for food? How about Eve, who came to the same conclusion concerning the otherwise forbidden tree of knowledge? And, for that matter, what about such “knowledge” anyway? I suspect that both Yahweh and Eve were knowledgable horticulturalists, as well as free and independent spirits. But neither such biological acumen nor theological independence could forestall the seemingly inevitable results: hard work, pain, and drudgery (see Gen 3:16-19) which the non-Garden environment only had to offer.

Growing up may well be a painful process, but again I suspect it still inevitably must take place (see my previous post). And let us discount both the biological study as well as the interminable theological arguments about predestination and free-will; they will at best only muddy the process and thus postpone the inevitable. Leaving home (parents, and the Edenic-like memories of one’s childhood) must take place some time or other for all of us, and even if we agree with God’s positive assessment of various aspects of our former childlike environment, that cannot save us from the heartache which must accompany the hard-won wisdom of adulthood. But I leave the last word again to the writer of Ecclesiastes:

“Sorrow is better than laughter, / because a sad face is good for the heart,

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, / but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.

It is better to heed a wise man’s rebuke / than to listen to the song of fools.

Like the crackling of thorns under the pot/ so is the laughter of fools. / This too is vapor.” (Eccl 7:3-6; the term “vapor” is a literal translation of the Hebrew hebel, often translated “meaningless” as in the NIV)

So, check out the fruit of the attractive trees nearby, and stay awake in class. But don’t forget how dangerous the results of those actions might become!


The Garden of Eden as “childproof play area”?

For the next several blogposts, I plan to spend some time on the first part of the book of Genesis (the first book of the Bible both for Jews and for Christians). I am, ahem, of a certain age, and I have spent years, even decades, studying these most fascinating, frustrating, and ultimately fruitful chapters of the “book of origins.” I am not even going to try to link these chapters with science and scientism, so don’t worry about another amateur geologist weighing in, parading his ignorance. But there is still a lot to talk about, as we soon shall see.

I am an active grandparent of twin girls, now almost four years of age (the girls, that is, not me). So much of the following is informed by the adventures and misadventures of “active grandparenting.” The Garden of Eden is described in Genesis chapters two and three, and the story is well-known, and often depicted as resulting in humanity’s “first sin.” But I am going to propose another interpretation of these two familiar chapters of scripture. First of all, like the rabbis (I was going to type “Jewish rabbis,” but I think all rabbis, by definition, are Jewish), I have come to believe that the Adam and Eve story is a “coming of age” story, about people growing up and discovering the joys and travails of adulthood. Consider the following: they were naked “and felt no shame” (Gen 2:25, NIV), that is a perspective typical of children in the ancient Near East; and later when they did become ashamed of their nakedness, they tried sewing fig leaves together to cover themselves (fig leaves are large in size, but not all that durable—this is just the thing children would have done). Also, Adam back in the beginning of the story was formed specifically from “dust of the ground” (verse 7), and placed in a special (and presumably specially protected) “Garden,” where rivers nourished the ground, much gold was readily available, and all kinds of trees were specially planted (and, later, animals created) for his particular enjoyment (and remember, in the previous chapter, both men and women [plural] had already been created to bear the “image of God”). Also, the way that both Yahweh God and the human Adam discovered that no bird or animal, wild or domestic, would alleviate Adam’s loneliness (see 2:18-20) sounds like the discovery of a new parent with his or her child (in modern western terms, neither Cookie Monster, nor Big Bird, nor even Elmo could do the job). No, it takes another human, “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh,” to serve as a “helper” for the solitary man (or boy), who was generically named “Adam” (Hebrew for “human, male,” and derived most fittingly from the term “adamah,” ground or soil).

Well, in any case, there was the proverbial “snake in the garden.” Presumably another special creation of God for Adam’s sake (compare 2:19-20 with 3:1), this snake proved to be clever indeed. He talks specifically to the woman (or girl), the one who probably heard only second-hand Yahweh’s strong prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge. “Did God really say . . . ?” (A sidenote here—the great Hebrew Bible scholar Brevard Childs was surely correct to label this Eden narrative as “anti-wisdom”—cautioning its hearers and readers to beware the pursuit of wisdom as very dangerous.) But what is adulthood? Surely, nothing other than the pursuit of wisdom “of the knowledge of good and evil”—in other words, the wisdom of independent discovery and personal experience! Often this time of life (in modern western terms, “adolescence,” or the teen-age years) is fraught with peril, as all parents come to know; but no child (or teen) can stay in the Garden of Childhood forever, even if nearly all parents wish he or she could. We will return to Eve’s three independent criteria for choosing to eat of the tree (see 3:6) in a future blogpost, also the resultant “curses” on her, on her male companion, and on the talkative serpent (“curses” only in the sense that they represent life as usual in the ancient Near East). Suffice it to say here that when children grow up, they must live in grown-up places. Childhood gardens cannot remain their protected domiciles any longer!

(And Yahweh God does provide them with much better clothing, “garments of skin” (3:21), for their post-garden adventures. He—like most parents saddened by their children growing up and leaving home (compare 2:24!)—wants still to do the right thing.

Well, stay tuned (and feel free to comment), as we examine these evocative ancient narratives more deeply in the next several blogposts.


“The Word became flesh . . . ” redux

To my blog subscribers: I still exist, and I do plan to publish more blogposts. It has been a difficult set of weeks, with unusual demands (and opportunities) in the Barnes household. But things should ease off now.

I thought I would repeat one of my favorite blogposts from the past to start off this blogpost “revival.” I still hear (and I always will, I suspect) confusion among some Christians between Jesus as “the Word,” and the (Christian) Bible as “the word.” And I still fear that there is too much “Bibliodolitry” (worship of the Bible) in Christian circles. Remember, we worship the Person of Jesus as Son of God, and we do not worship any book, no matter how profound it may be. So here goes:


I have been noticing something over the past few years, something which has concerned me more and more—Christians unthinkingly equating the primacy of Jesus (“the Word”), with the Bible (also colloquially known as “the word”). The first chapter of the Gospel of John declares in the very first verse, “In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word was God”; and later on in verse 14 we read that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Christians will immediately recognize that both these references to the “Word” are references to Jesus of Nazareth, considered by Christians to be the Messiah and the Son of God. The reference to “the Word” therefore is to a person, not to a written book or part of a book. (What the Greek term “logos,” translated here as “word,” signifies theologically is more complicated—probably something like “first principle” or the like is in view—but that issue is beyond the scope of this post.)

Now it is common for Christians also to identify the Bible (and even more typically, the New Testament) as “the word.” Christians ask, “what does the word have to say about tithing/divine healing/church on Sunday/etc.?” They are urged to read “the word” in their devotional time every day. They are to compare any new or different theological idea with “the word.” You get the idea. And you also probably get the idea that “the Word” [Jesus] can be uncritically equated with “the word” [the Bible]. That equation is, of course, not accurate or precise theologically, as Christians would see it, but it still can become second nature to them. And then the Bible becomes divine—in some cases a collection of magical formulas which should be memorized so as to be recalled at a moment’s notice. Now don’t get me wrong: I love the Bible, and I have been led to spend my entire life (at no little cost to my immediate family) studying and proclaiming it. But the Bible is not divine—in fact, from a Christian point of view, the Bible, apart from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is just another collection of ancient books. For Christians, Jesus is divine; in fact, he is the center of all existence. We are to do nothing apart from his teachings and his example. We are even to read the Bible through the lens of Jesus. (Sorry to go all Dan Brown here with the italics.) 

So next time I hear the reverential intoning of “studying the word,” I might bring up this question: are you studying Jesus? (as all Christians at all times should), or are you studying the Bible? (which, apart from Jesus, spiritually signifies nothing). And as I blog with fellow Bible-readers on issues such as evolution or the age of the earth (believe it or not, in North America these are hot topics among quite a few Christians), I hope I both remember and remind my fellow bloggers that for Christian believers, it is Jesus who matters, not the six (or seven) days of creation week in Genesis chapter one, or whatever. “In the beginning was the Word.”