I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never read the Bible, cover to cover. Portions yes. Whole books even. When I was young, no one in my family had any time for the ‘superstitions’ that were included in it (God, divine purpose, chosenness, etc.), and I followed their lead. So over the years, even as a serious student of literature and Western thought, I resisted.
Until now. My brother Ken is reading his ways through a recently published and much acclaimed translation by Robert Alter, and I’ve decided to join him. Just a few pages each day, but I intend to go from the beginning to the end.
I am reading it as a stranger, a curious outsider, knowing its place in our culture, and finally willing to wrestle with its meaning. This should be an adventure.
Here goes: Already on the very first pages, I am struck by the complexity and overwhelming strength of the main character, God. Immediately we learn of God’s greatness (creating the world), compassion (not wanting Adam to be alone), and investment in the continuity of the human race. But I am a little surprised and even amused to learn that the God of Genesis is neither omniscient nor omnipotent–nor a paragon of maturity. God has created Adam and Eve, yet they surprise and defy God almost instantly when they partake of fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Then God gets angry. I mean out-of-control angry.
Shouldn’t God have known that God’s creatures would do this? And if an omnipotent God knew the full extent of his creatures’ limitations, couldn’t or shouldn’t God have prevented their transgression? What is the point of all this power if it isn’t directed towards good ends? Why wouldn’t God want his creations to succeed?
But God doesn’t act as I would. Instead God punishes Adam and Eve and pretty harshly, too. She, along with every other woman, will suffer terrible pain in childbirth. Adam will be denied the luxuries of the Garden. He’ll have to work the soil. And in what may be the key moment in this story of human history, their way back to the Garden of Eden will be blocked “by the cherubim and the swirling sword.” Eve and Adam, and their progeny throughout the rest of time will have to work to keep themselves alive—the condition in which we all find ourselves (and which, I have to say, I prefer to lounging around in Eden). Wallace Stevens famously found Heaven to be a pretty stilted place when compared the blooming, buzzing activities of real life. I’d say the same about Eden.
Jumping ahead for a moment, I am sorry to report that God’s mercurial behavior continues throughout the Biblical narrative. For example, the Jewish tribe, the people chosen by the Lord, is constantly besieged, at war with oppressive others who often conquer it, massacre it, disperse it—or riven from within, fighting furiously with each other. Why, if God has the power to stop this, does it go on, right up to the point of tribal extinction? If it is obeisance this God is after, it seems juvenile or sadistic to test your offspring in this fashion. Or maybe these stories reflect God’s inability to create the world God wanted, demonstrating that all sorts of things happen beyond God’s control.
I am mystified that well-educated, religious people immerse themselves in this text and emerge with an exalted vision of this God. How? Some simply suspend rational judgment. Others are slyer. Maimonides, for example, is the central Jewish thinking of the Middle Ages (and some say of all time); and he suggests that God’s intentions and rules are simply incomprehensible to most mere mortals. God is ineffable. Well, that gets you out from under the need to explain.
Brilliant explanatory stories, some more fanciful than others, also fill the Talmud. These stories are meant to interpret for us simpler folks. Some, though, plainly tell us that the Bible’s meaning is just unreadable for most people, no matter how sincere their belief. We need intercessors. Hence our rabbis and priests.
Some simply seem to accept God’s imperfections and, in an amazing inversion of hierarchy, forgive God his contradictions—and then keep on believing in the omniscient and omnipotent powers. That just stuns me.
From the get-go, the biblical narrative is a captivating, compelling human drama. In that light, what are we to learn from it? Some say its primary value rests precisely in its vexing complexity. The practice of reading and wrestling with the text on a daily and weekly basis and deriving personal meaning from it seems like a brilliant practice to me. Likely it has helped Jews, Christians, and Muslims to forge their complex theologies, in ways that have sustained their communities through challenging times. It is a skill worth cultivating in every generation.
The beauty of the Genesis origin story to me is the complexity and ambiguity of its God and God’s odd dominion over human beings. It’s clear, among other things, that people, beginning with Adam and Eve, have a lot of agency in determining their fate. We might not understand everything. And there are certainly limits to what we can control. But the same seems to be true of God; and the dramatic relationship between a powerful but not-quite-omnipotent God, perfectly sets the stage for each of us—individually and collectively. While hoping God will help, there are limits to what we can expect and we have to help ourselves.
There’s a Kabalistic notion called Tzim Tzum that helps me make better sense of this drama. It says that, when God created the universe, God thought it, in essence, too complete. It’s as though God understood that God might be too controlling. Human fate in such a universe was fixed. So God withdrew a bit, leaving some room for human beings to determine at least some of their own fate.
That seems like a profoundly true idea. Given the circumstances into which we are born and raised, given the powerful DNA that governs so much of our capacities and inclinations, it is wondrous that there still remains some room for us to determine our own destiny. God and science concur.
So here’s the delicious irony: While we are expelled—punished—for partaking of the Tree of Knowledge, it is knowledge, thinking, that makes us free and best characterizes the human race. This idea gives me great pleasure.