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 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

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 the Forbidden Fruit of Intelligence

If you live in the US, you probably have a certain perception of Christians. Generally, many secular people imagine a close-minded, MAGA hat wearing conservative who complains about how Universities are brainwashing his/her kids with all that talk about Evolution and Postmodernism and other liberal, Marxist schemes. I generally try to remind myself that this is a stereotype which isn’t too hard considering most of my Christian friends are intelligent, friendly people. But it’s easy to see where this stereotype comes from. After all, 80% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, who has proven to be an outspoken opponent to science, and Texas continues to fight the teaching of evolution in its school system. And while it’s possible this is a mischaracterization; it should be easy to see where people are coming from with this view when evolution, a theory that has been accepted by the scientific community for well over a century now, is still a point of contention for many Christians.

So where does this apparent conflict between science and religion begin? Perhaps we could trace it back to the Scopes Trial and Darwin, or we could trace it back further to Galileo and Copernicus and in a historical sense, one of those is probably correct. But the conflict might go back further still, all the way to the beginning of Christianity itself, to Genesis 2.

Genesis 2 begins with the Divine Nap. From there we see what is either a different account of creation or a different perspective on some of the same events, depending on who you talk to. Either way, Moses restates some of the same stuff from Genesis 1 but goes into a little more depth on the creation of mankind and shrubbery. In this account, God plants what is probably the most famous garden of all time, Eden and after finishing that, decides they don’t really want to take care of it, and so they create a gardener named Adam.

Now, prior to creating Adam, God planted a tree in this garden called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and Adam could eat from every plant in the garden except for this one tree and apparently, if Adam ate from this tree he would die. This has often been considered a precursor to the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment.

If you know anything about religion, you probably know what happens with this legendary tree, and you probably know that it wasn’t as cute as the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment videos you can look up on YouTube but we’ll get to that in Genesis 3. For now, I’m interested in this metaphor. Why would God not want us to know about good and evil? It seems like God wants us to be ignorant, what’s the deal here?

When I read this book as a believer, untangling the vast number of theological interpretations of this text could get pretty ugly. Even after accepting that this is not a literal tree or even a literal event in any sense what is this metaphor supposed to be saying? Is it saying that God doesn’t want us to be able to distinguish between good and evil? Is it saying that the pursuit of knowledge is sinful?

The best interpretation I’ve heard, is that to have an awareness of good and evil puts you on par with God. Then the problem with the forbidden fruit was that to eat this fruit is to pursue godliness. In my opinion, this seems most likely. After doing a little research, apparently ancient people would not have read the words “good and evil” in the same way that we do. This was actually a literary device known as a merism, in which the writer would pair two opposites in order to indicate an entirety. For example, if I said, “I’ve looked high and low for my keys but I can’t find them!” I wouldn’t necessarily be saying anything about the relative altitudes of where I searched but I would be making reference to the fact that I looked everywhere. This was commonly done with the words “good and evil”. And so, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil would probably have been read by ancient people as the Tree of the Knowledge of Everything.

So great, we’ve established what the metaphor was probably saying but it still doesn’t tell us why ancient people might have had this sense that knowledge was somehow sinful. Many have indicated that this whole debacle would be seen as more of a pursuit of godliness. So by trying to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Everything, they were trying to put themselves on par with God. By wanting to know everything, Adam and Eve were trying to exalt themselves and become Gods. But isn’t there a false equivalency here?

According to Merriam-Webster, God is defined as “the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped as creator and ruler of the universe.” So, let’s do a quick thought experiment. Suppose I finally did it, I learned everything. Would that make me “perfect in power, wisdom and goodness?” I would say that it would make me perfect in wisdom, since I would know everything, and it would probably make me perfect in power as well since my understanding about the world around me would give me a good deal of power over everyone else around me. But would it make me perfect in goodness? Probably not. Take, for example, Immanuel Kant, one of the most intelligent thinkers who ever lived but also a massive racist. Or take Isaac Newton, probably the most important scientist ever, but also a complete and total asshole. So, the trend between knowledge and goodness is clearly not present but you could argue that was because those people didn’t know everything. Immanuel Kant didn’t know that black people were people, Isaac Newton didn’t understand the complexity of his own emotions and so couldn’t control his anger etc. And that may be true but it brings me to my next point: even if perfect knowledge made you a perfect being, it still wouldn’t make you God.

According to the Merriam-Webster definition, God is not just perfect, God is also the “creator and ruler of the universe.” So simply by knowing everything about the universe doesn’t make me the creator of the universe and it definitely doesn’t make me the ruler. For example, if I learned everything about the way gravity works, it wouldn’t change the fact that if I jumped, I would fall back to Earth. Learning the laws and rules of nature doesn’t give me any control over them it just helps me to live as best I can within my given constraints. So there’s a huge difference between an all knowing being and an all powerful being but even if they were the same thing, why would God choose to build this sort of risk into their world? Why not make it impossible for humans to achieve godliness? Why plant the tree in the first place? This is a question I still haven’t heard a good answer to yet.

Putting aside the philosophical problems with this whole situation, I’m also concerned about the impact this concept may have had. Take, for example, this bizarre article arguing that God doesn’t want us to do scientific research. You can argue that this person misinterpreted the text but you really can’t blame them for seeing it this way, the text does seem to be telling us that pursuit of knowledge is sinful and ultimately will lead to the downfall of humanity. If we eat from the Tree of Knowledge, we will surely die, the Bible says. Personally, I’m not entirely sure why Moses included this detail, I’m not sure if there was a part of the ancient psyche that feared knowledge the way many do today, but I do have some ideas which I’ll be exploring later on in Genesis.

There’s more that I want to talk about in Genesis 2 but this post is already fairly long so I think I’m going to break this up into two separate posts, the second of which I’ll be posting later on in the week.

Genesis 1: Adam the Supreme Leader

One of the things I’ve noticed while reading the Bible is just how beautiful of a book it can be when we remove all the religious baggage. This isn’t to say that I agree with everything, or anything, in the Bible. I generally don’t think people should be banished to Hell for eternity just because they got God’s name wrong. But I think when we read this book without trying to convince ourselves that every word of it is true, the text transforms into a beautiful mythological poem full of bizarre, pre-scientific imagery that at it’s worst, is a fascinating look into the psyche of ancient people, and at it’s best, seems to tap into some deep, universal truths about the human experience. This can be seen in Genesis 1.

As the first verse famously states, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.” But Genesis 1:2 tells us that this was not the Earth as we know it today but rather it was a vast and formless void filled with water. In fact, the word water might not capture this accurately. In the modern day, this might conjure up images of a lake or a beach or a river. The word in question here is the Hebrew word tehom, and a Hebrew reading this at the time it was written would probably have imagined something horrific and chaotic as the word tehom has some negative connotations. Rather than imagining a day at the beach, they would have imagined an enormous sea creature or a giant squid or something terrifying like that. Google “tehom” and look at some of the images, pretty scary shit.

In this desolate and terrifying world that Genesis opens with, we see only God and they’re hovering over the water. Then, God speaks light into existence, separates the light from the darkness and names one “day” and the other “night” and thus was the first evening and morning. Then God tears this vast and desolate ocean right down the middle and relocates half of all this water into the sky, storing it in an enormous dome.

Now, returning to what I was saying at the beginning of this post, it can be very liberating to read all of this from a more honest standpoint. When I was religious, I was trying so hard to read scientific truths into this text. This can be really laborious and difficult when your trying to defend the scientific accuracy of the sky being a dome full of water, and ultimately, it makes the reading very exhausting. But now I can spend far less time trying to defend scientifically illiterate claims from a pre-scientific age and I can instead focus on the aesthetics and the myth as it really is and not as I would like it to be.

Moving on. At this point, God has more or less created his canvas, now they begin to paint. God gathers all the land together and distinguishes “land” from “sea”, God produces plants and vegetation, God concentrates the light into the Sun and the Moon and the stars, God creates sea creatures and birds and animals of all kind.

Finally, in Genesis 1:26, God crafts their magnum opus. They create humans, the pinnacle of their divine creativity. It has been quite common throughout history for us to think of ourselves as being God’s precious little child who they love most out of all their creation. The belief that human beings are a superior creature is of course not limited to religious circles but I can’t help but wonder how this verse influenced the common sentiment of human superiority.

God doesn’t stop there. In Genesis 1:28, God declares mankind the rightful dictator over every other species on the planet. It’s natural to me that we might think this way. In the same way that Louis XIV found himself in a position of power and decided this must have been OK’d by God, humanity found themselves the most powerful beings on the planet and so decided this must be because they were made in God’s image. But I’ve found that when ideas get bound to religion, they become much harder to evolve from. Take for example the fact that many people still think the Earth is 6,000 years old and that homosexuality is evil. We can certainly explain where these ideas came from prior to their being ordained by religion but there’s no denying that once they found themselves in religious texts, they became much harder to eradicate. In my view, this particular verse is the justification for the gross mistreatment of animals and our planet as a whole which is an idea I would much like to see eradicated.

This is my trouble with reading the Bible as an inerrant text. You find yourself forced to either accept or modernize ancient beliefs. When I would read Genesis 1:26-28 as a Christian, I would say something along the lines of: “Well, God gave us all of these things as a gift, which means we should respect them. God gave us the world but that’s because he wanted us to treat it respectfully.” But even in this view, God still encouraged us to see the Earth as an object to be owned and not as a living, breathing ecosystem. It seems to me that there’s no way to interpret Genesis 1:26-28 that isn’t troubling.

That is, of course, if you aren’t reading it as a myth. If you read Genesis 1 as a myth, it offers a glimpse into the mind of ancient people, which is certainly valuable. People, in those days, viewed themselves as being a superior species or indeed not a species of animal at all. Human beings, unlike all the other lowly animals, were replicas of the divine. This no doubt gave them the right to do whatever the hell they wanted to animals or plants or the Earth as a whole. Does this sound familiar? Maybe things aren’t so different today. The crisis of climate change tells me that Genesis 1:26-28 is still deeply ingrained in the human psyche. Whether we believe in God or not, humans still seem to believe that they are the boss and that they can do whatever the hell they want to this planet without long term consequences.

In this way, Genesis does what all great literature ought to do, it challenges us to think about what it means to be human. The trouble is, we aren’t meant to accept everything a book tells us as gospel truth (pun intended). We’re meant to question and challenge everything we read. When Genesis tells us that to be human is to have dominion over all the Earth, it’s our job to disparage that statement, understand why it was written and then interpret it without allowing it to control us. As readers, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be shackled to the things we read, but rather we should be in control of what we read and how we construct ideas out of stories and myths. However, we can only do this when we accept the Bible for what it is: stories.