The Complete Book of Genesis

Reading the First Few Chapters of the Bible
What's really in the Good Book.
May 16 2006 7:01 AM

The Complete Book of Genesis

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Genesis, Chapter 1
You'd think God would know exactly what He's doing, but He doesn't. He's a tinkerer. He tries something out—what if I move all the water around so dry land can appear? He checks it out. He sees "that it was good." Then He moves on to the next experiment—how about plants? Let's try plants.

This haphazardness may be why Creation seems so out of order. If God made light on the first day, what was giving the light, since the sun doesn't appear until the fourth day? And God tackles the major geological and astronomical features during the first two days—light, sky, water, earth. But Day 3 is a curious interruption—plant creation—that is followed by a return to massive universe-shaping projects on Day 4 with the sun, moon, and stars. The plant venture is a tangent—like putting a refrigerator into a house before you've put the roof on.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

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Does the Lord love insects best? They're so nice He made them twice: On Day 5 He makes "the living creatures of every kind that creep." Three verses, and 24 hours later, He makes "all kinds of creeping things of the earth."

"Creeping" is all over these last few verses of Creation. God tells His newly minted man and woman that they rule over world and its creatures, including, as the King James puts it—"every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." What a superb phrase! It's perfect for insects, terrorists, and children.

Chapter 2
Creation Story, Take 2. This is confusing. Here is an entirely different Creation, in which God uses an entirely different method and carries it out in a different order. And second Creation has a very different view about men and women than first Creation. In Chapter 1, after God has made everything else, He makes man and woman together, "in His image." Not in Chapter 2. Before he makes plants and animals, He forms man from dust and blows in his nose to vivify him. Nothing about "in His image" here. And no woman, either. Only later, after the plants and animals have been made, does God create woman, from Adam's rib. In second Creation, the woman is made to be man's "helper." In Chapter 1 they are made equal. Why is Chapter 2 the Creation that conservatives have settled on, with woman as helpmeet? Why not first Creation?

2:10-2:14: A Mapquest aside. In the middle of the Creation story, the Bible pauses for five verses to detail the geography of the Garden of Eden. There is something confounding in the idea that this book, written thousands of years ago, describes a real place, and rivers—the Tigris and the Euphrates—that are in the news today. Although there's also a faint whiff of Florida real-estate scam to these verses. Take the passage describing the river Pishon: "the one that winds through the whole land of Havilah, where the gold is. (The gold of that land is good; bdellium is there, and lapis lazuli.)"

2:18-24: Before God creates Eve, He brings all the animals to Adam, so that Adam can give all of them their names. This episode captures something fundamental about the male brain: our obsessive categorizing behavior. I once spent a whole spring looking at Washington, D.C., taxicabs to see if I could memorize every cab company—there are scores and scores of them—by the paint scheme on its cars. The bird-watcher, the stamp collector, the guy trying to visit every Starbucks in America—we are all re-enacting in a small way Adam's introduction to the animals.

Chapter 3
The Lord—not so good at follow-through. In Chapter 2, He is clear as He can be: He commands man not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and bad: "for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die." No wiggle room there. You shall die. But then when Eve and Adam eat the fruit of the tree a few verses later, do they die? Nope. God punishes Eve with "most severe … pangs in childbearing" and curses Adam by making the soil barren. Any parent knows you have to follow through on your threats, or your children will take advantage of you. God makes a vow He can't keep—or if He did, He would undo all his good work. So, He settles instead for a half-hearted punishment that just encourages His children to misbehave again. Is it any surprise that we sin again? And again? And again? All the way down to the present day. You can call this "original sin," but maybe it's just lax parenting.

This isn't, incidentally, the mighty and distant God of Chapter 1, who shaped the universe and poured the ocean. Instead, this is an exasperated, down-to-earth deity, peevish at being forced to hunt through the Garden of Eden to find His wayward children—more like a frustrated dad who lost his kids at the mall than like God on High. 

3:12: When God quizzes Adam about eating from the tree, he immediately—and I mean immediately—sells out Eve. "The woman You put at my side—she gave me of the tree, and I ate." What kind of husband is this? He's supposed to be her master, but he won't even take responsibility for his own weakness?

Chapter 4
First murder—that didn't take long. I never realized there was a vegetarian angle to Cain and Abel. Cain offers God the fruit of the soil as an offering, while Abel brings the choicest meat. God scorns Cain's vegetarian platter, so Cain jealously slays his brother.

Here is a more charitable reading of what kind of father God is. He's not indulgent or lax. He's laissez faire. His job is to push the children in the right direction, but in the end, He understands they must be free to make mistakes. When He rejects the vegan special, God chastises Cain with this advice. "Sin couches at the door; Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master." This is just about the best advice you can give anyone. It is conservative idealism, compressed into a sentence: We must decide for ourselves to do right. Not that Cain pays attention: He kills his brother in the very next verse.

Another mystery: Why does God let Cain go free? God even explicitly defends Cain after the murder, vowing "sevenfold vengeance" on anyone who harms him. If sin goes unpunished, is it any wonder that we keep sinning?

(Biblical ignorance confession No. 1: I always thought the "mark of Cain" was a signal of disgrace, evidence of Cain's wickedness. But it's the opposite: The mark signals that Cain is under God's protection.)

4:17: Cain's great-great-great grandson Lamech—first recorded polygamist.

Chapter 6
The story of Noah: "The Lord saw how great was man's wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on Earth, and His heart was saddened. The Lord said, 'I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created—men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.' But Noah found favor with the Lord."

The mystery of this passage is: What has man done that's so terrible? There's no explanation here, or in the next chapter, which merely says: "The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness." What corruption? What lawlessness? It had been a very short time since Creation—how much evil could man have learned? Why would God give up on man so easily? Also, considering how detailed the Bible is about particular human crimes both before and after here, why is it so vague about the antediluvian wickedness?

6:13-7:5: God's specific commands to Noah about how to build his ark and what to bring on it. As an inveterate reader of owner's manuals, I find this passage compelling in its specificity and precision. Now I know why people are always building replicas of Noah's ark—it's perfectly clear what it looked like.

Chapter 7
7:22-23:
The grimmest verse so far: "All in whose nostrils was the merest breath of life, all that was on dry land, died. All existence on earth was blotted out—man, cattle, creeping things, birds of the sky; they were blotted from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark."

What a chilling account of the flood, and of the loneliness of Noah. Even the good man, even the righteous man, is alone in the world, and always subject to God's awesome power. This is pretty raw. It also seems to me to offer at least a clue about why God destroyed the earth. It seems clear that the Pre-Deluge evils were not crimes of men against other men, but crimes of men against God. As men mastered agriculture and metalwork and built cities, which earlier verses suggest they did, they felt they didn't need God. They came to see their laws, achievements, and prosperity as their own, accomplished independently of God. So, perhaps the point of the flood was not to restore ordinary moral behavior—day-to-day decency, law, etc.—but to restore faith, or at least fear. We thought we didn't need God, and that was what angered Him. The Flood—this verse in particular—reminds us (or at least the one righteous man who is permitted to live) that we are never independent of God, but always floating alone, vulnerable, at His mercy.

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