Genesis 15: Tough Love or Manipulation?

One of the things I’ve tried dutifully to avoid while writing this blog, is rehashing the same nonsense that can be found on hundreds, if not thousands, of atheist blogs across the internet. I’m not really interested in going over arguments that every edgy teenage atheist has used to make their parents clutch their pearls in horror. I have no interest in impersonating Christopher Hitchens in my writings, I’m not nearly as clever or funny to fill those shoes anyway.

Instead, what I do hope, is that my revisiting the good book will unearth some of the core disagreements that underlie the sometimes-venomous conversations between the religious and the irreligious. I’m hoping to find important differences between people who take this book to be holy and the rest of us, so that I might have a better understanding of why people believe.

Here, in Genesis 15, I’ve encountered, what I think, is one of these core differences. At the very least, I’ve found significant differences between myself and Matthew Henry, whose commentary I’ve been reading.

Genesis 15 is often given the title “The Lord’s Covenant with Abram” and that pretty much sums it up. Here we get the famous quote from God in which he guarantees that Abram’s offspring will be as numerous as the stars.

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Abram wondering if he really wants to deal with THAT many kids…

God also promises Abram’s progeny the land of Canaan. However, he doesn’t just promise them land, he also promises them a few hundred years of slavery and oppression. And, just for good measure, God indicates to Abram that he’s going to wipe out the Amorites as well, but we’ll save conversations about God-sanctioned genocide for a later date.

For now, I want to turn to Matthew Henry’s commentary. Henry, upon reading Genesis 15, seems to see God’s covenant with Abram as, on the whole, a good covenant. Not surprisingly, I had a rather different reaction.

In Henry’s commentary on Genesis 15, he says this about the Egyptian slavery:

“They must first be in the horror and darkness of Egyptian slavery, and then enter with joy into the good land; and therefore [Abram] must have the foretaste of their sufferings, before he had the foresight of their happiness.”

Notice that Henry does not try to argue that the Hebrew bondage in Egypt is the result of freely made choices by the Egyptians. In Henry’s mind, Egyptian slavery is part of God’s design for the Hebrews, it isn’t an accident God was powerless to stop. So Henry seems to agree with me that God is ultimately behind the slave driver as much as he is behind the liberator. While God credits himself for the liberation, we must also grapple with the fact that God was cracking the whip that the Hebrews ultimately had to escape.

But here’s the key difference between me and Mr. Henry: when I see God promising Abram that his progeny will be oppressed in Egypt for generations, only to be eventually freed and exalted, I have to ask myself, why did God allow the torment and oppression in the first place? If God loves his people, why not skip to the good part?

This is the disagreement that I was alluding to earlier. When religious folk see their God liberating them from oppression, I tend to see God as the oppressor. In this view, God no longer seems like our friend, but like a sinister manipulator, who torments people only to demand thanks and praise when he finally releases them.

Now, I can already hear the reaction in your mind, so I’ll save you the energy. Life can’t all be flowers! the indignant, conservative evangelical replies after reading my snarky, skeptical commentary, Sometimes, life is hard, God never promised us that it would be easy, but that doesn’t mean He doesn’t love us!

The obvious comparison is to a father who takes away his son’s phone when he gets a bad grade in school as a way of motivating him to work harder. God, in the eyes of many, is a stern but ultimately caring patriarch. The argument would be that God doomed the Israelites to servitude in Egypt as a way of disciplining them. This kind of suffering would ultimately lead to growth that would in the long run make the suffering all worth it.

Indeed, this is the argument Mr. Henry’s commentary makes:

“Holy fear prepares the soul for holy joy; the spirit of bondage makes way for the spirit of adoption.”

But this view is limited here in the case of Genesis 15. It might be that individuals need to suffer in order to become strong, but in Genesis 15 we aren’t talking about individuals, we’re talking about entire nations of people, some of whom likely have no relationship to each other and may even be separated by generations. To see what I mean, let’s take a look at the actual text of the covenant between the Lord and Abram found in Genesis 15:13-16:

“Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.””

Notice how God talks about entire nations as if they were people. He talks about punishing the Egyptians for enslaving the Hebrews as if infants in Egypt had any part in determining the social hierarchy of Egyptian civilization. And indeed, we will see that God punishes the Egyptians as a monolith instead of focusing on the political leaders and elites who were largely responsible for the social order of the day. Apparently, God was not a Marxist.

Furthermore, God talks about how the Hebrews will emerge with great possessions, how is this supposed to comfort all of the innocent men, women and children who will die in chains in Egypt? Will they think to themselves: “well at least my ancestors will have lots of livestock” as a brutal slave driver works them to death moving rocks around in the desert? This makes no sense.

That is, it makes no sense, if you look at this through the lens of God as the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the universe. But from where I’m sitting, all of this makes perfect sense. If God, as presented in the Bible, is a character written and created by human beings, then we should expect him to have all the bizarre and confusing inconsistencies that human beings have. We should expect God to conflate nations with human beings at a time when small, localized nations were fighting for their existence against other sometimes larger nations. We should expect God to be largely unconcerned with the rights of individuals at a time when individual rights were more or less nonexistent.

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This is why I find the “stern but loving father” defense of God’s more egregious acts in the Old Testament to be incredibly unconvincing. Because God is not just punishing us to make us stronger, that might be the case in Jonah, but it isn’t the case here. Instead, God is punishing children for the sake of their predecessors, no one is being made stronger in this scenario. There is no justice in that, there is no love in that unless you fail to draw the distinction between a person and their ancestors.


Genesis 14: War Is Hell

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Military History Now opens their article about history’s earliest wars in an excellent way: “WARFARE IS AS OLD AS CIVILIZATION ITSELF.” And of course, this is true. Humanity has yet to find a way to get along with one another. A look through the history of warfare reveals that moments of peace are few and far between for humanity and any seeming gaps in the history of violence can likely be attributed to a lack of historical data, and not a true absence of conflict.

In Genesis 14, we get the first biblical war. This isn’t the first war that we have a historical record for, but it’s the earliest war that’s mentioned in the Bible. In short, five kings rebelled against Chedorlaomer, the king they ruled under. Chedorlaomer called upon three other allies to put down the rebellion and this whole conflict became known as the Battle of Siddim. Amongst the kings who rebelled against Chedorlaomer were the kings of Soddom and Gomorrah (who will of course be important later when God torches their cities).

The kings of Sodom and Gomorrah were presumably not winning the Battle of Siddim, and so they both fled, leaving all of the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah behind for Chedorlaomer and his allies to take. Amongst all of these goods was Lot, Abram’s nephew, and he was taken away. When Abram learns of this, he wages a war of his own to rescue his friend who has been captured.

The story is pretty remarkable and strange. When I imagine a war between nine kings, I imagine a massive war between very powerful people, and if the five kings that challenged Chedorlaomer were defeated, it’s outlandish that Abram would have defeated Chedorlaomer with an army of just 318 men. But this is the Bible we’re talking about, it’s full of wild underdog stories.

One interesting point for a Christian reader would probably be Abram’s commitment to his nephew Lot. In Matthew Henry’s commentary, he says this about Abram’s war:

We have here an account of the only military action we ever find Abram engaged in, and this he was prompted to, not by his avarice or ambition, but purely by a principle of charity; it was not to enrich himself, but to help his friend. Never was any military expedition undertaken, prosecuted, and finished, more honourably than this of Abram’s.

Now, the historicity of Abram’s war is disputed, but if it is a true event, then this does seem to have been what we might be tempted to call a noble war. This was not an imperial war over resources or money, it was a war Abram fought for the liberation of his friend.

Another interesting point for a Christian reader is Abram’s rejection of Sodom’s goods. Instead of reaping the rewards of his goods, he returns the goods to Sodom. This wasn’t really meant as an act of charity towards the Sodomites but rather it was an act of tremendous principle on the part of Abram. If you’re familiar with the Old Testament, you know that God doesn’t have a good opinion of Sodom which tells us that Abram probably didn’t either. Abram’s stated reason for not accepting the goods is that he didn’t want the King of Sodom to be able to say, “I made Abram rich.” So, in a sense, Abram is defending his reputation here.

There are some broadly applicable life lessons here. Abram’s principled stance against the King of Sodom is certainly admirable and the war he wages against a powerful enemy for the sake of his friend seems pretty inspiring. But reading this from my modern perspective, I can’t help but think that there are quite a few things left out here.

In Wikipedia’s entry on Abraham, Abram’s war against Chedorlomaor is described as a slaughter. Now granted, we’re talking about Wikipedia here, but this seems consistent with scripture, which says that Abram “routed” Chedorlomaor. The trouble here, is that Abram didn’t defeat Chedorlomaor, Abram’s army defeated Chedorlomaor’s army. And we know very little about either army.

One of the things I find disturbing about the way war is reported to us throughout history (and even in the modern day), is that it often erases the real experiences of the human beings who were involved. We talk about Abram defeating Chedorlomaor, but we don’t talk about all of the soldiers that were killed or maimed in the process. The “slaughter” that Wikipedia talks about is not the slaughter of Chedorlomaor, but the slaughter of a group of young men that probably had no stake in Chedorlomaor’s war. The Bible is not unique in this, this is the way war is reported even in the modern day, but I think that the victims of war deserve better. They deserve a more complicated analysis. To say that Abram’s war was noble because he was fighting for the sake of his friend doesn’t seem to be exactly right considering the fact that he probably sacrificed the lives of people who weren’t involved in his conflict in order to rescue Lot.

It’s probably true what Military History Now says about war. War is probably as old as civilization itself, and perhaps we may never find a way to live at peace. But I think the first step in achieving real and meaningful peace is to acknowledge the true costs of war. The real human beings who are lost forever in all the “glorious” battles in history. Perhaps then we’ll see that war is never glorious, it’s never beautiful, it’s never noble. It’s always brutal and horrifying and sad.

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Genesis 12 and 13: Abram, King of the Soil

In Genesis 12 and 13, an interesting character is introduced to us (technically he’s introduced in Genesis 11, but only briefly and I was too focused on the Babel stuff to talk about him there). When we meet him here, he’s called Abram, but God will later rename him Abraham and Abraham is, in a sense, the Father of monotheism.

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            The big three Abrahamic Religions are Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but there are others such as Rastafarianism and Baha’ism. These religions all claim some sort of distant connection to Abraham who is often considered a revered ancestor or significant prophet.

            But in Genesis 12 when we meet Abram (as he is originally called), he’s not as mythic as he would become. At the beginning of Genesis 12, God tells Abraham to pack up his things and move. We don’t know how long Abram spent at his current residence, but God clearly felt it was too long and so seventy-five-year-old Abram packs up his things and prepares to move to Canaan (it’s worth noting that these guys lived to be like 900 apparently so seventy-five-year-old Abram is basically a toddler). God’s cited reason for asking Abram to leave his home is that he was going to make a great nation out of Abram.

            I couldn’t find a reliable source for exactly how long of a walk it is. said it was about 500 miles and according to this little map I found on another site, it does seem to be a nice long walk along the Mediterranean Sea. So, I guess Abram feels pretty strongly about what God tells him and I guess being turned into a great nation is reason enough to walk 500 miles on foot with all your belongings.

            Abram goes with his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot and when he arrives, there’s a famine so he has to leave Egypt (a bit rude for God to call him out to a place where there’s literally no food but I guess that’s none of my business). As Sarai and Abram arrive in Egypt, Abram realizes that his wife is super-hot and when the Egyptians see this, they’re going to want to have sex with her. Abram deduces that the Egyptians will probably kill him if they know he’s married to Sarai so he suggests to Sarai that she should claim to be Abram’s sister, that way the Egyptians don’t kill him.

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Abram and his “sister” Sarai in Egypt

            So, Pharaoh takes Sarai as his wife and, as a result of this, Abram was treated really well. But this didn’t seem to affect Abram so much as it affected God. Outraged at the whole ordeal, God afflicted Pharaoh’s family with a plague (this wouldn’t be the first time either, so maybe God just got a kick out of it we can’t really tell). Pharaoh sends Abram and Sarai on their way, and they leave Egypt a plague-ridden mess.

            Following this bizarre story, in Genesis 13, Abram returns to a place called Bethel in Canaan. At this point Lot, who had been following Abram this whole time, had acquired so much stuff that it was difficult for Lot and Abram to travel together because their herders kept bickering with each other. So, Lot and Abram part ways. After Lot leaves, God reminds Abram that all this land around him is going to belong to him one day.

I don’t have too much to say about Genesis 12. I didn’t really find it to be a hotbed for meaningful commentary. A Christian commentary on this chapter would probably say something about the courage Abram exhibits by following God anywhere he’s asked to go. They might also note something about how God doesn’t give us guarantees and he might uproot your life at any point in order to ask that you follow him, and at the end there will be a greater reward for you if you have faith that God has good plans for you. And we can probably expect that a Christian commentary would include some mild apologetics for the latent sexism involved in Abram’s venture into Egypt. They’d remind us that this was a different time and we can’t read our morals into an ancient book and blah blah blah. And as the atheist, it’s my job to emphasize the latent sexism and perhaps even argue that the Bible ordains it. Then I could guffaw at all the backwards Christians who believe in this evil book that hates women. When I’m done with that, I could probably add something about how inconsiderate God was when he just uprooted Abram’s life without even asking him how he felt about it. But these points have been hashed and rehashed so many times now it makes me nauseous to even think about having to write that nonsense.

            With regards to the latent sexism, I’m not going to comment on that too much here. Generally, I agree with the Christians that in this instance, this was written in a different time and I think as long as it’s pointed out that this book is loaded with misogyny because it was written by human beings, I don’t feel the need to write a post about sexism every time I come across a sexist act in the Bible (I’d be writing all day). I’ll talk about the misogyny of the Bible for verses that have been historically wielded against women or if there’s something particularly important I want to take note of, but other than that, I’m not going to overemphasize the point, because everyone knows it nowadays.

            However, I do think Genesis 13 contains some interesting content. Here, God tells Abram that a vast portion of land belongs to him and his posterity. This might not seem unusual, it wasn’t to me as I was rereading it recently, but it should be unusual. In light of modern science, I think this view of nature is actually quite backwards. The idea that God (were he to exist) would promise a piece of land to someone makes no sense when you understand that the vegetation and all the creatures on that piece of land are living things. Wouldn’t it be akin to slavery to hand over a piece of land full of life to the will of a group of human beings?

            This is an implicit assumption that I’ve always felt was problematic about Christianity. The assumption that the Earth is an object to be owned and exploited, is one of the fatal errors of Christianity that has created many of the problems we face as a world today. Its why climate change is slowly killing us, it’s why the fish are dying out, and it’s why there are still wars being fought to this day on that land that God gave Abraham so many years ago.

            There’s an old Arapaho saying that, I think, gives us a much better ethical framework for how to treat the Earth: “All plants are our brothers and sisters. They talk to us and if we listen, we can hear them.” This may not sound like much, but it draws a sharp distinction from the implicit assumptions about property present in the Abrahamic traditions. It is also far more in line with modern science. The message from the Arapaho is that the plants which, to us, seem to be inanimate objects, are living things that can feel, think and even speak to us.

            Of course, it seems pretty unlikely that trees are able to think, but what’s indisputably true here is that the trees are living things. In fact, an oft repeated truism in the modern day tells us that there are more living organisms in a handful of soil than there are people on planet Earth. How then, could we justify owning a plot of land, which is full of a diverse array of living, breathing creatures?

            This might sound like New Age woo woo magic, but this is a reality and it shows that the Abrahamic traditions committed what may be a fatal error for humanity. This belief that the Earth is property is what has led us all to believe that we can treat it any way we please without any repercussions whatsoever. I think that the best way forward for us as a species, is to recognize that the beliefs that underpinned our society for so many years are fundamentally toxic. We must replace these beliefs with an understanding that the Earth is something we live in harmony with, and not something that we dominate. Or, put another way, we must teach Abram another old Arapaho saying: “When we show our respect for other living things, they respond with respect for us.”

Genesis 11: The Tower of Babel

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The Tower of Babel is one of the more interesting tales in the Biblical canon. The myth was designed to make sense of the fact that humans speak so many different languages. The story is often told like this: in the early days of humanity, some time after the flood, a group of humans decided they were going to build a city and, in that city, there would be a giant tower called Babel. God passively watched from above but when he saw what they were up to, God couldn’t help but become angry with the humans. The humans were trying to build a tower so that they too could sit on the clouds like God. The humans were beginning to fancy themselves Gods. So, God responded by toppling this little tower and forcing all the humans to speak different languages, so that they couldn’t communicate with one another. Without the ability to communicate, the humans presumably gave up on the project and decided to form independent countries and endlessly go to war with each other instead. The end.

If you were raised Christian, you’ve probably heard some variation of this story before. The way the story is often told seems to parallel the story of Icarus. Humanity flew too close to the sun, so God melted their wax wings and sent them plummeting back to Earth. Hubris is the tragic flaw of humanity in this story as it is usually told. But, having read it with a fresh pair of eyes, I think we’ve misunderstood this story.

The story is only 9 verses long, so we haven’t got a lot to work with here. The details of the traditional story are all in agreement with the actual text. Humanity, under one language, does decide to build a city with a tower named Babel in the middle. God does get angry at this and he does destroy the tower and give each of the people new languages. But God’s reasons for doing this, and humanity’s reasons for building the tower are a little bit different than we’re usually taught.

Genesis 11:4 is usually the text cited to justify the position that humanity was building the tower to be arrogant. This verse tells us that humans wanted to build the tower to “make a name for ourselves.” This sounds pretty damning until you read the full quote: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” So, it seems like humans were building a tower to make a name for themselves, but for the purpose of unifying all people under one common banner.

We see further evidence of this in Genesis 11:6. God descends to the city and sees what’s going on and responds, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” Notice there’s no mention of hubris here, it doesn’t even seem to be implied. It almost sounds as though God is frustrated with how successful humans are. It almost sounds as though God is the enemy of humanity in this moment.

Could it be that the ancients saw God as an obstacle? Why not? Most gods were personifications of abstract natural forces. Most natural forces, it seems, are working against humans, not with them, so why not assume that God is standing in your way? Why not assume that God is against you?

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We tend to assume that the ancients would have believed in a cheerleader god who shows up to all our soccer games and takes us for ice cream whether we win or lose, but that’s only because that’s what we want to believe. The ancients would probably have been expecting a God who didn’t think much of humanity or, quite possibly, even a God that hated humanity and actively worked to undermine them.

Perhaps, then, God didn’t topple the Tower of Babbel because he thought humans were arrogant, perhaps he did it because he couldn’t stand the thought of human beings becoming united and self-sufficient. Perhaps God realized that if there were no wars, no violence, no oppression, there would be no need for humans to run to God for comfort. If there were no suffering, there would be no need for God. And God couldn’t stand such an idea.

This whole story reminds me of a conversation between Russel Brand and Yuval Noah Harari on Brand’s Under the Skin podcast. Harari notes that most sci fi films depict AI as having some sort of flaw. The robots don’t work the way we wanted them to, they turn on us and they try to kill us. But, Harari notes, this is actually not the most terrifying scenario. The most terrifying scenario is that the robots do work the way we want them to. They work so well that suddenly there’s no place for us in this world anymore. Maybe that’s how God felt; humans were working so well together that God felt useless. And it was better, in God’s eyes, to have humans that fight and go to war and kill each other, than to have humans that don’t need God.

Genesis 9:6-7: God’s Epicurean Command

How should I live? This is the answer that most people who read Genesis would have been looking for. You could rephrase it of course, How does God want me to live? What is the purpose of my life? Etc. But however you word it, this is an age-old question and we’re still asking it today. In Genesis 9:6-7, the writers of Genesis attempt to answer it. In Genesis 9:6-7 after Noah and his family have survived the flood and are preparing to start the world anew, God gives Noah and his sons the following command: “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind. As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.” Or, in other words, have sex and don’t kill each other. These are the surprisingly Epicurean commands Noah and his family were to carry on into the new world.

These commands are much more concise when compared to the ten commandments, but I think they are just as effective at establishing a moral framework and they cut out nonsense like “I am the Lord your God” and “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”. These commands seem to be more fitting to a secular person than they are to a religious person.

Have sex and don’t kill each other. Just two commandments, but if we broaden our scope they can be applied to a wide variety of human experiences. Let’s take the first command, the command to have sex. Or, as God put it, “be fruitful and increase in number.” Of course, we could simply take this at face value. Thou shalt fool around with thy neighbor (so long as it’s consensual)! And it’s likely that the Genesis writers would have wanted it to be read that way. In fact, for the writers of Genesis, this God-ordained love making probably only applied to a specific subset of sexual encounters. Namely, a man and his wife. Premarital sex, gay sex, polygamous sex, transamorous sex were pretty much all off the table. But since I’m no longer chained to this book by some religion, I’m going to take some liberties in my interpretation.

For many religious people, sex is a touchy subject and anyone who’s studied the issue can attest to the complicated relationship between religion and sex. So, it’s quite liberating to hear the God of the Old Testament (who is generally the most conservative of God’s many faces) telling us that, contrary to what our preacher might tell us. God apparently wants us to fuck around. Take that GEM Anscombe!! So, if God is giving us the liberty to have sex freely, what else are we free to do? When I read this verse, I saw it as a broader endorsement of hedonism. Of course, the God of the Old Testament doesn’t seem like the type to endorse such a thing but then he didn’t seem like the type to endorse sexuality either, so maybe we were wrong about the old guy (we weren’t but play along).

Perhaps, the message here is to enjoy yourself. Indulge a little bit. Eat the tastiest foods, drink the best beers and the finest wines, laugh with your friends, dance with your loved ones, watch reruns of I Love Lucy if that’s what you’re into. Spend the fleeting moments you have on this Earth enjoying every moment because that’s what you were born to do. But there’s a catch, and it comes in the form of the second commandment.

The second commandment, don’t kill each other, is the only thing that should neuter our ability to enjoy ourselves freely. After all, there is a danger in hedonism. We can drink ourselves so drunk that we forget that there is a world beyond our beer. If we do only what’s good for ourselves, we will likely leave behind the downtrodden and the disenfranchised. After all, as we speak, the people of Yemen are starving by the millions because of a Saudi-led Coalition which is endorsed by most western nations including the US, UK and France. And what do these western nations stand to gain? A few billion dollars in defense contracts and more oil to destroy the Earth with? It seems then, that these nations heard the OT God’s first commandment to Noah but conveniently ignored the second commandment.

Surprisingly, I’ve found some agreement here with the writers of Genesis and I think that if more people followed these two commandments to Noah we’d be living in a much nicer world.

Or, as a wiser man than I once said, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”  -JRR Tolkien

Genesis 6-8: Noah, the Flood and the Not-So-Good God (Part 2)

God Flip-Flops on Murder

There’s something very awe inspiring about the story of the Noachian Flood. The grandeur and enormity of it hearkens to a mythical age that I wish I actually believed in. It reminds me of the story in the Song of Ice and Fire series about Brandon the Builder crafting an enormous ice wall with the help of giants. The writing is lacking in detail compared to the poetic Epic of Gilgamesh or other ancient epics, but the underlying story is pretty cool as far as myths go.

However, it’s a disturbing tail for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it shouldn’t be ignored that the underlying assumption of the story is that killing animals is no big deal, but I already discussed the Bible’s views towards animals and nature in my post on Genesis 1, so I won’t belabor the point. Second, by the end of the story, after God has flooded the world and killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, God realizes that mass murder won’t solve the problems of the human heart.

In Genesis 8:21, God says to himself “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.” Which at first glance, might seem like an apology from God, but it really isn’t. Here God is saying he’s just not going to kill humans for being bad anymore since it seems to be in their nature. Of course, as many of us know, he will go on to kill more human beings for being evil, he just won’t destroy the entire Earth again, but I suppose we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. So, long story short, God was angry because human beings are evil, so he killed all the humans. Then after he was finished, he decided he wouldn’t do that again because human beings are evil, and they can’t really help it. Pretty toxic behavior from the man upstairs.

A Comforting Promise

I’m losing sight of my goal with this whole project so to get back on track, let me try to step in the shoes of an ancient reader. The ancients probably would have perceived God as being unforgiving since they were living in a world prone to famines and drought. A world where, in the blink of an eye, nature could snatch away everything they worked for. Maybe their crops wouldn’t grow, maybe their children would grow sick and die, maybe they would be unable to have children. At the whims of God, everything could be taken away in a matter of seconds and God, it seemed, didn’t need any justification for doing so.

So, this story, where God changes his mind and decides that, even though humanity isn’t perfect, they’re still worth keeping around, is actually quite beautiful, if we look at it through an ancient lens. It also starts to make a little bit more sense when we look at it this way. First of all, if the writers of Genesis had created a God that fit the modern standards of a perfect God, the ancient readers would’ve called bullshit right away. If God had been portrayed as loving and kind, or even rational, the ancient readers would never have believed it. Most of these readers probably lost children and family to starvation or harsh winters, so if the writers of Genesis had portrayed God as being someone who was understanding and patient, it would obviously have been nonsense to readers at the time. The only reason we expect such a thing today is because we are insulated from the harsh reality of nature.

The only way to get readers on board with the promise made in Genesis 8:21 is to first demonstrate that the God who’s making the promise, is in fact God. So, the Flood becomes a necessary device for describing the God that the ancient people would have been familiar with. It wouldn’t seem out of character for God to flood the Earth since he was prone to allowing children to starve and women to die in childbirth. So, an ancient reader would probably think, if nothing else, the writers of Genesis are talking about the right God. Once the writers of Genesis got the ancient people on board with their story by depicting God accurately, they tacked a hopeful promise on at the end. They promised that, no matter how bad things get, God is not interested in destroying you (anymore).

Genesis 8 closes by offering the reader a reassuring mantra. “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” I kind of like this verse, it’s a little bit like the old saying that life goes on. If nothing else, the ancient people could know that the sun would rise tomorrow.

The God of Kindness

Yesterday, I bumped into a friend from high school that I didn’t know very well and hadn’t seen for years. I was at the library flipping through What is Anarchism? by Alexander Berkman and was getting ready to leave for my Jiu Jitsu class in a couple of minutes.

This friend of mine had come to the library to print out some things and make some copies and he spotted me from the copying machine. He appeared to have lost a lot of weight, as I recall, he would’ve rivaled a linebacker in size and strength back in high school, but now he was thin. Not too thin, he didn’t look sickly or anything, but he definitely appeared to have lost a significant amount of weight.

When he approached, I put my book away. It’s often difficult to explain to people why you’re reading a book about anarchism, so I often avoid the conversation. As he approached, I notice he donned a plain white T-shirt that said “I’m in Love with God” in big black letters.

We talked briefly, obviously I won’t recount the whole conversation here, not that I could remember it anyway, but he seemed friendlier than I remember him. Perhaps it was just his newfound size, but something about him seemed much more amicable and approachable.

From the statement on his shirt, it was clear to me that he was going to bring up God. Heathens like me tend to stereotype Bible thumping Christians, but there’s always a kernel of truth behind a stereotype. It turns out, it’s not just the Jehovah’s Witnesses who will knock down your door to bring you the word of God.

But I was a little surprised to see this particular friend wearing this God shirt. The fondest memory I have of him was when he sat next to me in an Electricity class and explained to me why smoking pot was way better than getting drunk. An enlightening conversation to say the least. But, as a former Christian myself, I’m familiar with the way religion can radically change you.

Finally, the expected happen, after we had discussed where each of us was currently working and how long it had been since we’d seen each other and all the typical social niceties, he says “Man, sometimes, Jesus just puts people in our path for a reason.” Naturally, this made me a little uncomfortable, since I write a skeptical blog, but I obliged and said “Yea sometimes.” In truth, I was hoping the conversation would die before it approached my personal faith (of which I haven’t any) but unfortunately, God stops answering prayers after you denounce him and my friend asked “Do you believe in Jesus?”

“I’m not sure that I do.” I replied, hoping to paint myself as being largely agnostic and uncertain. I try not to express any certainty about religion, since I haven’t any to express. I didn’t bring up the blog I write where I occasionally poke fun at the Old Testament God (sorry to my Christian followers!) for obvious reasons but he proceeded to ask me if I was ever religious.

“I was raised Catholic.” I told him, a phrase many of us can say. Recovering Catholics are a rapidly growing religious group.

“I was raised Catholic too, and I used to be on drugs and shit man. But then I found Jesus.” He explained; he went on to give further details which I can’t remember too well but I wouldn’t really want to disclose anyway. He didn’t say whether Catholicism was the reason he was on drugs, but we can definitely assume it didn’t help.

He then handed me one of the many papers he had been copying. It was a blank piece of paper with a few words typed up on it. It read “JESUS LOVES YOU!! HE WILL GIVE YOU A NEW LIFE!!” The words were typed up in Times New Roman font in the biggest font that would allow him to keep it all on one page. There were no pictures, there was no word art. It was the simplest, most boring flyer I had ever received.

This flyer is sharply contrasted with the pamphlet I received when I went to a fair in Kentucky that depicted Jesus flinging a naked (and presumably gay) man into a pit of fire. There was no artistic merit whatsoever to this flyer, it was simply an expression of love for humanity. My friend had found something that helped him beat his drug problems and he wanted to share it with other people he bumped into.

My natural instincts as an atheist, was to be annoyed at this person for bothering me with their propaganda. But a basic analysis of the situation says that’s not what’s happening here. My friend simply wanted to spread kindness throughout the world and the outlet he found to do it was through his religion. How could I be angry about that?

When I was religious, I had once heard a preacher say that there are no true atheists and that all supposed atheists have simply replaced god with something else. Be it sex, drugs, rock n roll, etc. As an atheist, I can assure you this is nonsense. But verily, if the world made no sense and I had to choose nonsense, I can’t think of a better God to worship than the God of Kindness. And in this way, my friend and I did worship the same God in that moment. He reached out to me as a way of trying to bring me the same happiness and joy he’s found through Christianity. How could I care what his reasons were for doing this?

Before he left, he asked me if there was anything I needed praying for. Rather than tell him off the way all too many atheists might, I simply told him I had a lot of stress and while it was nothing special, if he was praying anyways, he could pray for that. He then asked if he could pray for me right there, and I said sure and he proceeded to try to pray away some of that stress. (In retrospect, I should’ve asked him to pray for me with regard to my Jiu Jitsu class later that day, as I would go on to get my ass kicked).

At the end of the day, if I believe anything, it’s that we need more good-natured people in the world. We need more people willing to cut through the barriers of social niceties in order to reach out to someone and offer them whatever kindness they might need. Thankfully, my life is mostly in order at the moment, but I could imagine if it weren’t, this friend’s kind words and thoughts would have been really meaningful, even if there’s no God listening. We need more people serving the God of Kindness, and less people waging war against the gods or the godless. I think it’s valuable to continue to debate religion and to challenge both the religious and the irreligious, and perhaps one day, we can figure out why I believe one thing and he believes another, but for now, I’ll continue to fight for kindness and accept whoever wants to join my team, no matter what God or gods they believe in.

Genesis 6-8: Noah, the Flood and the Not-So-Good God (Part 1)

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God is perfect. God is good. These are truisms in modern religions but as we turn back the clock to ancient times, these beliefs aren’t always commonplace. For one, in many polytheistic traditions there are mischievous, trickster gods such as Loki or Hermes. But furthermore, there are also many examples of the King of Gods, who we might expect to have his shit together, having tremendous character flaws. So why then, has it become such a truism that God must be perfect when it wasn’t always that way?

It’s hard to say really. On the one hand, it does say that God is good in several places in the Bible but on the other hand, it was pretty common for God to act in ways which would generally be deemed as vicious and cruel. Furthermore, we can see in the writings of someone like John Edwards that people in the 18th century didn’t view God as the teddy bear that he seems to be in the minds of many modern Christians.

It seems to me like this conclusion could follow from monotheism. What I mean is, if God is the sole creator of the universe, then he should be the sole writer of the rules that govern the universe. It doesn’t seem likely, then, for God to write rules that he could not or would not follow. And if a good God follows from monotheism, it’s easy to see why this idea is so prominent since roughly 60% of the world’s population identify as some sort of monotheist. But how can we be sure that God is good? Especially since belief in a good God wasn’t always such a truism. What if God were evil? Or perhaps, since the word evil is a bit loaded, what if God’s interests were in some way contrary to ours?

This idea isn’t too farfetched. After all, think about the creator of a TV show. This creator, who functions as the God of the TV show, would have to build in struggles for their characters in order to make the show entertaining.  The characters, in this case, want to be happy but the creator wants to entertain their audience, which in some sense demands that the characters suffer. Is God good in this case? You could argue one way or another but God certainly doesn’t have the best interests of the characters in mind. This idea, that God is not necessarily good, is known as dystheism and I think this idea may have been built into some of the early texts of the Bible including the story of Noah and the Flood.

For those of you that may not remember this famous tale it’s pretty simple. Basically, after a few centuries of civilization, God determined that he was sick of humanity, so he decided to scrap the whole project and start over. The Bible isn’t clear on exactly what God was so worked up about, but apparently it pissed him off so much that he decided to flood the world. God fails to specify what all the non-human animals of the land did to deserve this fate, but it is clear that they will also be killed in this watery holocaust.

From the beginning this seems out of character for a good God. Genesis 6:5 says “the Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” Now, I’m not an engineer, and I’m certainly not God, but to me it seems like if “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” then there may have been a design flaw. In other words, if literally every thought that human’s have is evil then it seems like God designed us to be evil. And yet here he is acting all surprised at how evil humans are.

On a different, but related, note, this is also out of character for an omnipotent God. If God is all powerful and all knowing, as is often suggested, then God would have known from the beginning that humanity was evil, and he could have simply opted not to create them. But he didn’t, instead God created humans, instilled them with this evil seed that made them incapable of good and then spent the next couple millennia gas lighting them for it. This hardly sounds like the actions of an omnipotent God and it definitely doesn’t sound like a good God.

It could, however, be possible that the writers of Genesis were not really interested in portraying God as being either good or omnipotent, as we typically assume. Take for example, The Odyssey. In the beginning of The Odyssey, Odysseus angers the god Poseidon and for the remainder of the story, Poseidon keeps Odysseus from returning home. In the case of this story, it’s rather obvious that Homer wouldn’t have intended for us to think Poseidon was omnipotent or good. Instead, Poseidon would just be a personification of an otherwise abstract force, namely that of the sea. This personification could act in ways that are helpful or harmful to Odysseus, but whether or not these actions are good or bad seems to be irrelevant. It seems to me that it’s possible that the writers of Genesis could have been writing the story of the Flood in a similar manner. Perhaps God isn’t supposed to be portrayed as being good or evil or omnipotent. Perhaps God is just a personification of a set of abstract forces. The writers of Genesis could very well have been thinking that God generally acts however he wants, indifferent to our well being and indifferent to some concept of “goodness”. To me, the story of the Flood seems like a coping mechanism for the ancient people who often felt like they were at the whim of a series of abstract forces that they couldn’t fully understand. I could imagine that attributing these forces to the belligerent actions of some higher being would rationalize some of the pain. It would give them someone to shake their fists at, someone to beg for mercy and even if these things never resulted in any meaningful change, at least we felt like we had the power to do something.

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But so far, we haven’t talked about the main character of this little narrative. Noah, we’re told, was the exception to the rule. Everyone else in the world was a piece of shit except Noah, who was basically perfect. So, when God decided that every single human being on the planet was going to meet a watery grave, he whispered in the ear of this cosmic teacher’s pet and told him to build a boat. In this way, Noah is the antithesis of Odysseus. Where Odysseus angered the gods and brought about their wrath, Noah groveled at God’s feet and so was spared. But the lesson here is generally the same, God is not on your side. So the best you can do is stay in line, follow the rules, and hope that God whispers in your ear before the rain starts to fall.

A Quick Note on Genesis 5 and Genealogies

In my last post, I covered Genesis 3 and 4. If I can still count correctly, that means Genesis 5 is up next. However, Genesis 5 is one among many genealogies in the Bible. It’s a long list of who gave birth to who and how long such and such a person lived for. One day, I might do some research and go into greater detail about why the ancient Hebrews might have been interested in such things which bore modern people so thoroughly, but for now, I’m going to be skipping Genealogies. Genesis 6 and the story of the Noachian Flood is coming soon!

Genesis 2 and 3: The Misogynist’s Toolkit

As much as it can be enjoyable to read the Bible as a mythological text, removed from all the religious baggage that is typically associated with it, there is a danger here. We can and should strip this text from all it’s religious connotations so that we can understand it better, but we must be careful to not remove the text from its history. And history is almost always a tragedy. As we will see, the history of Christianity is no different.

In Genesis 2:7, God creates Adam, the first man, out of the dust and tasks him with taking care of the garden. But Adam gets lonely so, in Genesis 2:18, God decides to find Adam an assistant. God then brings all of the animals in for interviews with Adam but none of them seems to be the right fit for the position. So, God puts Adam to sleep, takes out his rib, and turns it into a woman. The woman, who is later called Eve, turns out to be the perfect partner for Adam and so they marry.

I’m going to dip into Genesis 3 a little bit here as well, because I think it’s important to this topic. In the beginning of Genesis 3, Eve is chatting with a serpent about this whole forbidden fruit rule. The serpent rightly points out that God is being a total buzzkill and that Eve should just take one bite. The serpent promises Eve that he’s cool, and that he won’t narc on her if she eats one (I’m paraphrasing of course). So, Eve eats one of the fruits and gives one to Adam too. This eating of the forbidden fruit leads to what Christians call “the Fall” and it is cited by many as the reason for any and all suffering on Earth.

If you read those past two paragraphs and you saw nothing problematic about them, it’s probably because you aren’t reading them in the proper historical context. In an excellent piece in the Washington Post, Pamela Milne details the impact the character of Eve has had on women throughout history. She connects Eve to the later verse in 1 Timothy that bars women from teaching or having positions of authority and from there she documents the rich tradition of misogyny in the church starting with Tertullian, carrying on through Aquinas and the Protestant Reformers, all the way up to the modern day with TV fundamentalist preachers. The impact of the archetype of Eve has been immeasurably damaging, pervasive and seemingly never-ending. Where do we begin in untangling this incredibly complex and problematic legacy?

Let’s start with why these verses have become a weapon against women. In 1 Timothy 2:11-12, Paul says “Let a woman learn in silence with all obedience.I do not permit a woman to teach or to usurp authority over a man, but to be silent.” He proceeds to cite two reasons for this conclusion. First, Adam was conceived before Eve. This reasoning might seem ridiculous, but Paul literally says this in 1 Timothy 2:13. In Milne’s article, she cites a theologian named Phyllis Trible who points out that, while many people argue that because Eve was created second, she is therefore inferior, those same people would never argue that because humans were created after animals, that humans are therefore inferior. So, there’s an obvious contradiction here but the inferiority of women would have been so obvious to someone living at the time that it’s honestly surprising that Paul gives any justifications at all.

The second reason Paul cites is that “Adam was not deceived, but the woman, being deceived, fell into sin.” Now, if you’ve read Genesis 3, you’ll know that this is a factually inaccurate reading of the text. I wish someone had been there to remind Paul that actually, Adam ate the fruit as well, even if it was Eve who offered it to him. So how then was Adam not deceived? This dude is an adult, capable of making his own decisions, why are we blaming his sins on Eve? And the image of Eve as some sort of sinful temptress coercing Adam into eating the fruit is not present in the original text. So, none of these justifications for Paul’s misogyny hold up to even the slightest amount of scrutiny.

There are two more reasons that I’d like to talk about which are often cited for the misogynist reading of Genesis 2 and 3. The first is that, as stated in Genesis 2:21-22, Eve was created out of Adam’s rib. Many argue that this makes Eve subordinate to Adam by definition. Rather than being her own, full-fledged human being, Eve is just a piece of Adam. Personally, I think this has been read into the text over the years. If we continue on in Genesis 2, Moses writes the following about Adam’s rib “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” So from the context, it seems clear that this was a myth designed to explain and justify marriage and it’s entirely possible that this portion of the text was never intended to say anything about the relative inferiority of women. Of course, I can’t say for sure what the intent of the verse was, but it isn’t immediately obvious that the intent of the verse was to assert women’s inferiority.

The second reason is that God created Eve as an assistant to Adam. The key thing to understand here is that in the time Genesis was written, existentialist thought did not exist, everyone was an essentialist. For those of you that don’t nerd out over philosophy, an existentialist is someone who believes that existence precedes essence. Essence is the purpose of something, so an existentialist believes that humans are born without a purpose and that their purpose is somehow created throughout their life. An essentialist, on the other hand, believes that essence precedes existence. In other words, an essentialist is someone who believes that human beings are born with a predefined purpose. In the time Genesis was written, virtually everyone would have believed that essence was predefined by God and that humans were powerless to change their essence.

This might sound like philosophical gibberish but it’s essential (pun intended) when we’re talking about Genesis 2:18 because here God defines Eve’s essence. Eve, prior to even being created, was defined as Adam’s helper. On the other hand, Adam was created with the purpose of ruling over the kingdom of Earth. Aside from this being a highly toxic dichotomy, it’s important to note that readers of this text would probably have interpreted these “purposes” as being intrinsic and unchanging properties of men and women. So, men were, by definition, rulers and women were, by definition, servants.

In an article on, Kenneth Boa argues that the word “helper” is misinterpreted in Genesis 2:18. He argues that, based on the context, the word “helper” would not indicate any degree of subordination or inferiority but rather indicates that man would need a companion. And while it does seem that the implication was that woman was created more to satiate man’s loneliness than to help him with yard work, I don’t think this fixes the larger problems in the text. Even if woman was made to be Adam’s companion, as opposed to his slave, she was still made for Adam. In other words, while Adam was created for his own independent interests, Eve was made for Adam’s interests which clearly implies that her role in the world is to serve Adam’s interests.

While many of the misogynist readings of Genesis 2 and 3 are, in my opinion, misreadings of the actual text, the underlying sexism in verse 18 seems to be inseparable from the text. Furthermore, as much as we can try to argue against misogynist readings, we have to remember what the culture of the time was. If misogyny wasn’t written into Genesis, then it would already be a radically feminist text for its time. So, we can pretty safely assume that some of the sexist interpretations were intentional on the part of the writers.

That being said, I’ve noticed that it’s common among atheists to work very hard to confine religion to a lot of its more egregious tendencies. I’ve listened to debates where the atheist argues that the Bible is anti-woman or anti-gay because they want to prove that Christianity is a backwards religion, while a more progressive theologian attempts to debunk misogynist readings of the Bible. And while I certainly don’t think Christianity is forward thinking at this point, I think we need to allow the room for Christianity to evolve, which means supporting progressive theology, not attacking it. If atheists are attacking liberal theologians, then those theologians have enemies on all sides when they should be supported by people that support their overall conclusions (that women deserve equal rights, that gay people should be allowed to marry etc.). Serious humanists should be supporting those liberal theologians that defend the rights of oppressed groups regardless of how we feel about Christianity.

On the other hand, Christianity should not be totally off the hook. Whatever your interpretation of these texts, it’s undeniable that Genesis 2 and 3 have been used to oppress women. If Christianity is going to evolve, the church must acknowledge these wounds and work towards healing them. They need to address the fact of sexism in the church and work harder to empower women. A good starting point would probably be to stop spouting off nonsense about how women can’t be leaders. The Christian leadership needs to be held to account for the grotesque sexism that pervades Christian culture to this day, but we need to recognize that there may be allies within Christianity for this initiative. We shouldn’t alienate these allies by invalidating their perspective. The focus of atheists is all too often centered around shitting on Christianity rather than focusing on the much more important goal of liberating women and correcting the toxic traditions of the past.

In Milne’s article, she cites several feminist theologians who have worked to reform the Church’s views on Eve in an effort to correct the Church’s views on women in general. Many of them address the topics I’ve discussed here (though much more effectively) and they address many more misogynist readings of Genesis 2 and 3. What’s important is not that any of them are necessarily correct, but that they’ve been virtually ignored by the theological world. How many Christians have heard of Phyllis Trible or Elizabeth Cady Stanton? I hadn’t until I was doing research for this post. Why haven’t we heard their names from Rick Warren, Tim Keller or Joel Osteen? The goal right now should be to hold these leaders accountable for the lack of representation of women in the church. Perhaps there will come a day where we can challenge Christians to abandon Biblical inerrancy and maybe even Christianity as a whole. But for now, the best we can do is to challenge the narrative and challenge Christian leaders to start talking about this issue.