Below the surface of Genesis

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time recently reading scholarly analyses of the first three chapters of Genesis. I will leave until later the question of whether this is the best use of virus-generated free time. What I would like to explore today is the mechanism that has made all this so interesting to me.  Why should it be interesting at all?

First, I read the way you do. I scan through a text about something new to me. I mustgenesis 1 have had some interest in it, but more likely, I found it in the places I ordinarily go for reading material and started into it by habit. If I don’t find anything that is of immediate interest, I move on. This is especially true of technical writing.  It seems, sometimes, that there is more below the surface of a text than there is right at the surface.

There seems, at the outset, no real reason to spend a lot of time on the methodology adopted in a public opinion survey. Or how to account for characteristically Greek forms of thought found in ancient Hebrew texts. Or whether the cited authors in an article, who are apparently “diverse” because they come from different universities, are, in fact, all part of the same school of thought—so…not diverse at all.

Who cares? Why? I don’t.  Normally.  That brings us to the mechanism question.

If you read books more than once or see movies more than once, you have observed, no doubt, that you notice different things the second time. Also the third time, etc. Why is that? For me, at least part of the answer is that the plot moves along and the dialogue drives it, and I put all my effort into learning what I need to know to follow the story. The next time through, I know much more about the story and I am free—I have disposable time—to notice other things. [1]

genesis 6For a story as fraught as the Genesis account of creation, there are other reasons. All my early exposure to the Genesis accounts—I am trying to remember to use a plural there—was in church. The preacher or teacher had lessons to impart and the lessons were much more important than the text. When you come to consider the text as a matter of interest in itself, you begin to stumble across things; really “obvious” things. And you wonder how you could possibly not have noticed that the first time through. Answer: you were busy with other things.  Of the many pictures of Adam and Eve, I chose this one because I thought she was kind of cute and it looks like she is in a sharing mood.

You don’t study the scholarly writings on Genesis without coming across the idea that different parts of the story were written (edited) by different writers. So you practice reading the first story—1:1 to 2:4a—as if it had a different author than the second story, which extends from 2:4b to the end of chapter 2. With that hypothesis in mind, you are inclined to notice differences in the two accounts and to attribute those differences to different authors.

When I began to presuppose those differences, rather than to stumble over them, I began to feel a little tickle over in some other part of my memory. Don’t I remember a justification used by the author of 1 Timothy that cites one of these two accounts as authoritative, while ignoring the other one? Nah..couldn’t be. Someone would have said something.

So here’s 1 Timothy 2: 12,13.

“I give no permission for a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. A woman ought to be quiet, because Adam was formed first and Eve afterwards…”

If you read that with the author’s question in mind—how can I justify controlling the behavior of unruly women in my congregation?—your mind is naturally drawn to the First Century, to early church organization, to the roles of men and women, and so on. But if you read it with the nature of the argument in mind, you find that different things are on the surface.  That is a “second time through” or “twenty-fifth time through” sort of thing to ask.

Here’s the young pastor with a problem. The women. He wants to deal with the problemGenesis 4 by citing scripture. So he turns to Genesis and he is undeterred by the 1st story/2nd story differences that have so captivated me. Presumably the two stories he is looking at say the same thing they do now. Chapter one has Adam and Eve created simultaneously by the spoken word of God. Chapter two has Adam created first, then Eve; and Adam was not created by a word of command, but physically, out of dirt. [2]

There is no reason at all why your attention should have been drawn, in your first dozen or so readings of Genesis, to the question of whether Adam and Eve were created simultaneously or sequentially or whether they were created by the same means. But now that we are looking at the question from the standpoint of an argument that uses one, but not the other, text and cites the chosen text as authoritative, it is hard to keep on not noticing. There stands the pastor of the church holding the Torah in his hands. He looks at Account 1 (simultaneous creation) and at Account 2 (sequential creation) and says that the one is authoritative, while ignoring the other.

Why is the convenient one “authoritative” and the inconvenient one just ignored? This is actually not a new question to me, since I have spent nearly all my life trying not to do that—mostly failing, I have to say—but it is not a question I have routinely asked of scriptural authors.

Why did I ask it this time? When I had read the Genesis accounts often enough under the presumption that the first story was edited by one school and the second by another, I learned to look through that hypothesis in the way you look through a lens. Not to look at it, wondering whether it is a plausible hypothesis, but through it at the data you can see with a new lens. Looking at it through the new lens, you see different things. And then you try to square these different things with the other areas of knowledge they affect. And when you come up with a real stunner, like the author of 1 Timothy choosing one account and ignoring the other, you think, “How in the world did I never notice that before?”

It seems obvious when you are there. But if you look back along the line of the changes I have just described, it is anything but obvious. You have to do a lot of work and refuse a lot of attractive detours to get to the place where it is obvious. And if for some reason—cultural or exegetical or theological—you dare not look through this lens, then it is more than “a lot of work;” it is wrong.

Let me conclude quickly by just touching on another reason. I imagined that it would be the other half of this essay, but the first “half” took longer than I thought it would, so I will just touch on this second reason. This is the second reason. If you are working on these texts with the same people week after week [3] you are the beneficiary of their questions. And very often, they are questions that you realize really should have come out of your own work with the text. And then you wonder why they didn’t.

And then you realize you really don’t are why they didn’t and you go back to looking for the answer.

[1] I have often suspected that I am particularly bad at seeing all the things talented authors or directors have put there for me to see. I don’t really care anymore. I get such pleasure out of finally seeing it—finally!—that I relish the feeling whether it comes at the sixth reading/viewing or the first. I know there are people who are more talented than I am, but I suspect I am in the top 10% of enjoyers.
[2] Ephaim. Avigdor. Speiser, who wrote the Genesis commentary for the Yale Anchor Bible Commentary series, points out that although the Hebrew word is sometimes translated “dust,” a more common usage is “clods of earth.” He offers examples. So…I note with amusement and pleasure, Adam was a clod. Even before the Fall, he was a clod.
[3] I am. It is a rare pleasure to meet week after week with people whose habits of mind you come to know. Thanks, friends in Bible 203-Z. (We had to add the Z when we began meeting via Zoom because of COVID-19).

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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