The Book of Genesis is true from the first word to the last.
KEN HAM, CEO and president of Answers in Genesis
Despite a full century of scientific insights attesting to the antiquity of the earth,
more than half of our neighbors believe that the entire cosmos was created six thousand
years ago. This is, incidentally, about a thousand years after the Sumerians invented glue.
SAM HARRIS, Letter to a Christian Nation
We’re pattern-seeking, cause-finding animals. It’s a very adaptive habit. The Book of Genesis represents early attempts, in the absence of reliable methods, to find patterns and seek causes — specifically why the world is the way it is, and why we are the way we are. They’re good questions, and they deserve the best answers we can muster. For a long time, this was it.
Though the NIV Study Bible continues to credit Moses with authorship of this book and the rest of the Pentateuch, most biblical scholars have concluded it is a composite of several sources originating between the 10th and 5th centuries BCE, including the Epic of Gilgamesh. It’s fascinating as mythology. Only when it is taken as literal history, as science, or even worse, as a moral guide — long after better methods have been developed for all three — do I get incredibly cranky. Here’s my stream of consciousness on Genesis.
I’ve always found it intriguing that Genesis begins with two quite different creation stories — the so-called Priestly (1:1) and the Yahwist (2:4) versions. I’m unaware of any other culture’s creation story that allows you to choose between plotlines.
The highest overall value of the bible — obedience — shows up for the first time in the Tree of Knowledge story. That central value is still present in conservative Christian parenting research and advice, which regularly places obedience (to God, to parents) above all other virtues. And such a telling transgression was Eve’s! Humanity earned God’s wrath not through lust, or greed, or murder, but through curiosity—the desire to know. If desiring knowledge separated us from God, willful ignorance seems the path back to the garden. Is this a belief worth embracing, or even respecting?
It seems downright unsporting to go after Noah and the Flood – not even every species of beetle would have fit, etc etc. I am told, again and again, that I am fighting against a belief system long-ago vanished. No one believes in the literal Ark any more.
Literal belief in the Flood and Ark in the U.S.: 60%
Abram/Abraham lies repeatedly, claiming his wife is really his sister. Pharaoh, who could not have known he had been lied to, marries her and is punished by God for adultery. Abram/Abraham is richly rewarded by God. If Genesis is an allegory — a teaching story — what on Earth are we meant to learn?
I find this passage so charmingly human. ‘You were so laughing at me!” says Jehovah, a little hurt. The changing nature of God’s interactions with humanity is the thing that most energizes the bible as literature for me. I’m not aware of another myth system with the same morphing relationship. Correct me since I’m wrong.
I ADORE the negotiation here — Abraham haggling God down to ten. It’s a Promethean moment, really, an incredible act of courage, of testing God’s own moral definitions. What’s interesting is that negotiations stop at ten — and Sodom is destroyed after all, sparing only Lot, his wife, and his two daughters. So somewhere between four and ten righteous exceptions is the tipping point for destroying a wicked city. Mental note.
The incident of Lot offering his virgin daughters to the crowd for rape is one of the most jaw-dropping moral outrages in the entire book—despicable both for the act and for the clear message. Lot, remember, was chosen by God to survive the destruction of Sodom. Because he was good? No—because in offering his daughters for rape in lieu of the angels, he proved himself obedient. I hereby welcome other interpretations of the message of this scene, which also manages to include the first hints of biblical homophobia that continues to this day.
Then there’s Lot’s wife, turned to a condiment for the Eve-like crime of curiosity — or possibly even empathy for her dying friends and neighbors. No no, those were symptoms of the real disease. Once again, the crime was disobedience.
I won’t even touch the cave scene. But think of what it says about Genesis that I can skip a scene in which two daughters get their father drunk and have sex with him and still make a plenty sound case against the moral value of the book.
Lot holds the heavyweight title in the category of moral menace for a very short time. Within pages, Abraham steals the crown, proving there’s no crime he would not commit, no act too vile or unjustified, so long as God ordered him to commit it. That the founder of Judaism is the first on record to make use of the Nuremberg Defense is an irony too painful to contemplate.
Jacob wrestling with God is another passage I find incredibly intriguing. Does anyone know of parallels in other myth systems? Paging Joseph Campbell.
Obviously there’s more, but I’d better wrap—my word count limit approacheth.
My dismay over Genesis has nothing to do with the fact that it gets the science of life wrong. Nobody in the first millennium BCE got much of the science of life right. My horror is based on three things:
(1) That 46 percent of my fellow Americans think Genesis got the science of life right, and use that profound ignorance to block the acceptance of the single most humbling, inspiring, and transformative scientific discovery in human history — that we are related by descent to all other life on Earth;
(2) That Genesis praises absolute, unthinking obedience while condemning curiosity and intelligence; and
(3) That Genesis continues to fuel ignorant literalism, the corrosive notion of “original sin,” homophobia, misogyny, and any number of other human failings against which we just might make quicker progress without the unhelpful influence of a book that condones, even loudly encourages them.
Luke is lovely. Ecclesiastes is searingly powerful. Song of Songs is sexy. But Genesis, taken literally OR figuratively, is obscene garbage. Any book that includes it is a menace to basic human decency and to the enlightenment of the human mind.
That 49 percent of Americans believe the entire Bible is the inspired word of God is, to quote Harris, “a moral and intellectual emergency,” and Genesis itself provides all the evidence needed. I respect the people who hold these beliefs — all people are inherently worthy of respect as human beings — but saying I respect the beliefs themselves would render the word respect, a very important and useful word indeed, completely meaningless.
Okay, there’s my two cents. As I said, I do not pretend to be neutral, nor should I be. To be neutral on such a thing is to have given it no real thought whatsoever. So what’s your appropriately biased view?
REMINDER: We’re pursuing an unusual study plan to shake things up and to interweave the favorite texts of skeptics and Christians. Next week:
Dec 10 — 1 Corinthians
Dec 17 — Mark
Dec 24 — Matthew and Luke
Dec 29 — John
Jan 8 — Exodus
Jan 15 — Leviticus
Jan 22 — Deuteronomy
Jan 29 — Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs
Feb 5 — Acts
Feb 12 — Revelation