The Complete Book of Genesis
Yesterday, I wrote that God's warning to Adam and Eve about eating the tree of knowledge—"for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die"—seemed like lax parenting by the Lord, since in fact Adam and Eve don't die when they eat it, but are merely punished.
Lots of readers wrote in to critique my reading, and offer another interpretation. They point out that until this point in Creation, death didn't exist in Eden. There was no reason to think that Adam and Eve would ever die. By eating from the tree, Adam and Eve bring death into the world. God does not promise to kill them if they eat the fruit, he just promises that they shall die. And in fact, they do die. My quibble with this interpretation: It ignores, "as soon as you eat of it." Adam and Eve don't die for hundreds of years.
Many other readers wrote in baffled about Cain's wife. Who is she? There's no mention of any daughters of Adam and Eve (who would be Cain's sisters, anyway). So, where did Mrs. Cain come from? Anyone have a good answer?
Anyway, back to Noah.
8:20 All the animals on earth except those on the ark have died. So, what's the first thing Noah does after landfall? He makes an animal sacrifice.
God says to Himself, "Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done."
I don't understand this at all. Here God is acknowledging men are intrinsically wicked ("the devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth"). If that's the case, then the flood didn't solve anything. Man was evil before the flood, and now, God concedes, man will continue to be evil after the flood. So, what was the point of the deluge? Doesn't that make it a fit of pique?
9:9-17. God announces His first covenant with man, that He will never again destroy the earth with a flood. He doesn't rule out other catastrophes. (God, apparently, is the opposite of an insurance company. He offers flood protection, but no other coverage.)
Men build the Tower of Babel, not to honor God, but "to make a name" for themselves. This alarms the Lord, who says that if they can cooperate to do this, there is nothing they can't do. So, He dispersed them across the world, and "confounded" their speech so they can't understand each other. Among some fundamentalist Christians and Jews, there persists a deep loathing for the United Nations and other international institutions. Is Babel the biblical source for this suspicion of global cooperation—the fear that it elevates man over God?
Here come the Patriarchs. At the beginning of the chapter, God calls Abram—soon to be Abraham—and announces: "I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you. … I will bless those who bless you, and curse him that curses you."
Why Abram? There is no obvious reason. Unlike Noah, he's not a "righteous man." He's 75 years old and hasn't done anything with his life. He isn't pious, rich, or accomplished. He's not a king, not a chief, not a prophet, not a genius, not a warrior. He's completely ordinary, and I suppose that's the point. Abram isn't special: It is God choosing him that makes him special. He is a regular man touched by God—just like any of us could be.
12:10 Abram and his wife, Sarai, travel to Egypt to avoid a famine. Sarai pretends to be his sister. Pharaoh and his men admire her beauty and present her and Abram with livestock. Then God—warming up for the big Egyptian plague session to come—"afflicted Pharaoh and his household with mighty plagues on account of Sarai." This seems unfair of the Lord. It's Abram and Sarai who tricked Pharaoh—why should he get punished?
God's covenant with Abram, which includes renaming him "Abraham" and Sarai "Sarah," promises him "all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding." God is a kind of celestial Donald Trump. By my count, this is at least the fourth time in the past few chapters he promises land to Abraham, and each time the boundaries are different.
In making his covenant, God calls himself "El Shaddai." According to my translation, no one knows what this means. Whenever the Bible starts to get too familiar, it throws something like this at you—a term for God that remains impenetrable, after thousands of years of scholars pounding on it.
17:9-15 The covenant requires only one duty of Abraham and his heirs (oh, and their slaves): circumcision. That's it. That is God's lone requirement. It's an inspired choice. Circumcision is painful enough that no one will undertake it lightly. It's visible, and so it obviously demarcates you from others. And, at least until the arrival of fanatical and aggrieved anti-circumcision weirdos a few years ago, it was irreversible.
Jews had the three wise men before Jesus! Three strangers visit Abraham, and he welcomes them hospitably. One of the strangers—who are messengers of God—announces, "I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son." The Christ story is a clear rip-off. In the Christmas tale, it's impossible for Mary to have a child because she's a virgin, but she does, and three supernatural visitors herald the child's birth. Here it's impossible for Sarah to have a child because she's post-menopausal (as we are told very directly: "Sarah had stopped having the periods of women")—but she does, and three supernatural visitors herald it. The big difference: We Jews do not have any good songs about this incident.
18:17 Finally, a moral act—though a fruitless one, a vain attempt to restrain a vindictive and overzealous God. The Lord stops by Abraham's house to let him know that He's considering the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, because "their sin [is] so grave!" Abraham rebukes God: "Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" The Lord agrees with Abraham, but grudgingly. He promises not to destroy the cities if even 10 innocent people should be found there. This problem of collective punishment seems to plague the Bible—the flood, Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Egyptians in the Red Sea. To my modern eyes—though perhaps not to the Bible's authors—collective punishment appears to be the great moral question of the Torah. And God is on the wrong side of it. And Abraham is on the right one.
This chapter makes the Jerry Springer Show look like Winnie the Pooh. The Sodom business is worse than I ever imagined. Two male angels visit Lot's house in Sodom. A crowd of men (Sodomites!) gathers outside the house and demands that the two angels be sent out, so the mob can rape them. Lot, whose hospitality is greater than his common sense, offers his virgin daughters to the mob instead. Before any rapes can happen, the mob is blinded by a mysterious flash of light. The angels lead Lot, his wife, and daughters out of the city, and God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah with brimstone. Lot's wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. (God may have listened to Abraham's rebuke, but He surely didn't heed it. What of all the innocent children murdered in Sodom and Gomorrah? What of Lot's innocent wife?)
But the chapter's not over. After the attempted mass gay rape, the father pimping, the urban devastation, uxorious saline murder, it looks like Lot and his daughters are finally safe. They're living alone in a cave in the mountains. But then the two daughters—think of them as Judea's Hilton sisters—complain that cave life is no fun because there aren't enough men around. So, one night they get Lot falling-down drunk and have sex with him. Chapter 19 poses what I would call the Sunday School Problem—as in, how do you teach this in Sunday school? What exactly is the moral lesson here?
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David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.