Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Genesis: More and Less, Or, What I Didn’t Learn in Sunday School

As I am preparing to teach the “Christianity and Judaism” segment of my upcoming Humanities course, I’ve returned to some of the Biblical stories that I haven’t thought about for many years. With adult eyes, training in literary and feminist theory, and quite a bit of distance from my evangelical Christian upbringing, I am discovering that many of these stories are quite different than I remember. Indeed, they are both more and less than how they were presented to me in Sunday School: more in that together they demonstrate the beautifully complex human construction of a religious tradition, a way of making sense of and being in an unpredictable and often brutal world, and less because, by way of uncompromising misogyny and an assumption of “racial” superiority, they exclude most of humanity from the chosen people. For me, these stories represent a certain literary greatness, but I don’t find them particularly helpful in guiding my own spiritual growth. In this post, I point out some discrepancies between the ways that these stories are typically taught in Christian settings to children in their spiritually formative years and how they are actually presented in Biblical verse.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll just stick with one book, the foundational book of Genesis. And, as a disclaimer, I am no theologian, so my claims may not bear out against those of Biblical experts. All the same, my interpretations represent the careful, reasoned responses of a layperson to the incidents recounted in Genesis.

Here are some things about Genesis mythology that in my day were—and likely still are—glossed over, misrepresented, or simply ignored in Christian Sunday School:

1. Genesis is clearly not a linear, singularly-composed narrative, and nor even are its individual “stories.” There are in fact two renditions of human creation, for example, and, what’s more, they contradict each other. In the first one, God creates man and woman at the same time. In the second one, God creates man and then woman out of man’s rib. It is this second story which also includes the legend of “the fall.” Indeed, there is no indication that “the fall” portion of the tale is connected in any way to the first story of human creation, which comes to a full stop before the second one is introduced with the concluding statement: “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created” (Gen. 2:4). One could easily read these two versions of the story—one in which men and women are created as equals and God sees them as “very good” (Gen. 1:31) and the other in which God positions man as superior to a female being who ultimately brings about the onset of human suffering—as indicative of the changing status of women as ancient cultures moved from hunting and gathering to agriculture and, therefore, became more male-centered and militaristic over time. In any case, these are two different stories of creation, probably circulated orally in different eras and/or among different Hebrew sub-sets and likely recorded at a much later date as alternative versions of the same mythology. Other stories also repeat or overlap, such as the conception and birth of Seth, in Gen. 4:25 and again in Gen. 5:3. These repetitions of stories, of course, calls into question the belief, so relied upon in contemporary Christian churches, that the Bible is more than a book of stories, that it is in fact a divinely inspired narrative of the development of the one true religion.

2. In contrast to this belief in the singular “truth” of the Christian doctrine, Genesis presents the God of the Hebrews as not all that different from other gods of the ancient world. Indeed, the mythology surrounding this God is fairly unexceptional compared to that surrounding the gods of Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome. Although most historians and theologians understand a monotheistic belief system as unique to the Hebrews, the assumed monotheism of this group is at least questionable. In one place in Genesis, for instance, God calls himself “us” (Gen. 3:22). Most Biblical scholars argue that he is here referring to himself and his host of heavenly beings, namely the angels. This is problematic because it implies that he does indeed share power with other superior beings. Certainly, the angels interact physically with the characters of these Biblical stories, not unlike Athena in The Odyssey or Cupid in The Aeneid. Furthermore, in a couple of scenes at least, the narrator(s) refer(s) to an angel as “Lord,” the same name that he also calls God (Gen. 16:11-12 and Gen. 19:2). Is it not likely that the angels are Hebraic representations of Zeus’s or Jupiter’s host of less powerful gods? It seems also significant that the narrator(s) implicitly compare(s) God to other higher beings by repeatedly referring to him as the “Most High” (Gen. 14:17-20). Clearly, God is the supreme protector and ruler of the Hebrews, but this doesn’t foreclose the possibility that the people depicted in the Biblical stories believe in other opposing gods of surrounding peoples, just as the people of Uruk, for example, saw Inanna as their protectress from the powers of other Mesopotamian deities. It is certainly possible that the Hebrews perceived monotheism in very different terms than we perceive it now, in terms that allowed for the presence of “lords” in heaven and gods of other lands.

3. The mention of temple prostitution in Genesis also seems to imply a tolerance for other gods. In one scene, Judah has intercourse with a woman whom he assumes is a temple prostitute (Gen. 38). This scene is of course interesting in many ways. In that Judah is a married man, this story’s inclusion in the book of Genesis might imply an early acceptance that male “needs” sometimes exceed legitimate female accessibility. Even more shocking, this anecdote might also indicate that the Hebrews did indeed worship gods other than God. Temple prostitutes were revered in ancient Mesopotamian culture as physical conduits to fertility gods and goddesses. Was Judah’s casual copulation with a woman he thought was a temple prostitute simply his way of getting the action he is denied at home, or is it an act of worship?

4. Whether or not he is the only god whom the Hebrews worshiped or believed in, the God of Genesis certainly behaves in ways similar to the polytheistic gods mentioned above. He engages in very human activities and acts upon very human emotions, for instance. In a seeming assertion of his superiority over man, for example, he wrestles with Jacob and, after much struggle, manages to land a final injurious blow to Jacob’s thigh (an incident that inexplicably leads to the declaration that Hebrews should consequently refuse thigh meat) (Gen. 33:22-32). God is also fickle, “opening and closing the wombs” of Jacob’s wives with seeming caprice, for instance, transferring allegiance from Leah to Rachel and then back again as the two wives vie for the title of giving Jacob the most sons (Gen. 30). Finally, like other polytheistic gods, God requires sacrifice as a way of giving thanks and ensuring his continued good favor. I think that we can all agree that, as an institution, sacrifice makes no logical sense. Why would God need human food? Why would he require his people to give up their precious sustenance? Like all of the gods of the ancient world, though, God wants his choice cuts of meat. (In Exodus, in fact, it appears that his choice cuts of meat include first born sons [Ex. 22:29], but that is a topic for another day.) God’s similarities to other gods clearly points to the development of the Judeo-Christian tradition out of the religious beliefs of other ancient cultures.

5. Again like other religious groups of the ancient world, the Hebrews of Genesis had no conception of hell, and instead seem to have believed in a shadowy underworld, a place that they called “Sheol.” Pretty much everyone in Genesis goes to Sheol when they die, except for a few named exceptions in Gen. 5, who are chosen by God to join him in heaven. The fact that hell becomes part and parcel of Christian doctrine but does not exist in Genesis shows, of course, the fine-tuning of the Judeo-Christian belief system over time.

6. It is also important to note that, in Genesis, deceit is acceptable under certain circumstances. Both Abraham and Isaac, during times of famine or journey, lie in order to earn the favor of rulers in surrounding areas (Gen. 12, Gen. 20, and Gen. 26). Both, in fact, present their wives as sisters in order to allow the inclusion of these women into the royal harems of Egypt and then Gerar and to secure the aid of those in power. (In this way, of course, arranged prostitution seems also acceptable under certain circumstances; more on that later.) To name another example, Rachel’s theft of her father’s “household gods” (the existence of which also call into question the monotheism of the Hebrews) and her false insistence on being in “the way of women” in order to disallow the search of her person for these items also show that it is okay to lie (Gen. 31). Whether Rachel took the idols because she wanted to deny her father access to their power or because she wanted to worship them herself, the implication seems to be that her quick thinking here aids in her husband’s successful escape of his overbearing father-in-law, and, more importantly, Isaac’s return to his people and fulfilling of his important in God’s plan for the Hebrews.

7. This brings me to a crucial point, perhaps especially for all of those female Sunday School teachers out there: with the possible exception of the woman in the first creation story, women in the book of Genesis exist only as tools through which men fulfill God’s plan for the Hebrew nation. Women bear sons and, in this way, further the lineage of God’s chosen people (read: chosen men). Now, this fact can become obscured by the rhetoric of the portions of Genesis that name both mothers and fathers as ancestors of important Hebrew figures. It would appear that, in this way, female lineage is as important as male lineage. Just as in other ancient cultures, though, it seems most likely that female lineage is presented as significant in this way only because it represents the joining of two male-headed households. Isaac, for instance, enjoins his son to find a wife among the daughters of Laban, his wife’s brother (Gen. 28:1-4). Decrying other possible wives of the “Canaanite women,” Isaac thus works to ensure the pure Hebrew lineage of God’s chosen people, Jacob’s sons who later become the heads of the tribes of Israel. Because women are important only in helping men to fulfill their covenants with God, it makes sense that they should be sacrificed sexually for the Hebrew cause when necessary. If Sarah or Rebekah must be prostituted for the patriarchs to avoid starvation or death, as I mentioned above, the stories in Genesis imply, then so be it.

8. Indeed, female sexuality is quite frequently presented as an invaluable bartering chip. To name another instance of male trading of women’s sexuality, Lot is willing to hand over two likely adolescent daughters to a band of angry “sodomites” in order to preserve the purity of his male guests, saying, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof” (Gen. 19:7-8). As in The Odyssey, then, hospitality it tied to male honor, and women are sacrificed to preserve the ties between men.

9. As outrageous as it seems, the narrator(s) of Genesis present(s) women as taking pride in their purposes as embodied representations of the ties between men and as reproductive units. In order to ensure the continuation of their father’s male lineage, for instance, Lot’s daughters are, in a later scene, willing to deceive him into copulating with them—presumably multiple times—until both are pregnant with male heirs (Gen. 19:32-36). These nameless women are then venerated as the mothers of the male ancestors of the Moabites and the Ammonites (Gen. 19:37-38). When Sarah, Rachel, and Leah experience periods of barrenness (due to God’s inexplicable “closing of their wombs”), they are ashamed and, in seeming atonement, offer their slave women to their husbands for the procurement of male children (Gen. 16 and Gen. 30). These incidents clearly show that women in Genesis are in fact rendered heroically when they prostitute themselves and other women for the future of Israel!

10. Now for a word about slavery: simply put, the early Hebrews were for it, and God never disallows it. (Even after their captivity in Egypt, not incidentally, the Hebrews functioned under codes and laws, passed directly from God to Moses, regarding the proper treatment of slaves, but that gets into Exodus.) What I am most interested in, though, is not slavery in and of itself—because obviously it was a bad thing—but the relationships between wifehood, concubinage, prostitution, and female slavery. All of these are mentioned in Genesis, and they seem to overlap in significant ways. As I have already demonstrated, wives and daughters are sometimes nearly prostituted (in each of the cases that I’ve mentioned, the “foreign” men who are offered the Hebrew women in trade reject these offers), and slaves seem to be routinely prostituted. Also, it appears that many of the patriarchs of Genesis held multiple wives, concubines, and female slaves and seemed to use them somewhat interchangeably. There is a definite slippage between these classes of women, and one passage demonstrates this point most succinctly. It picks up after Abraham has already had Ishmael by Hagar, Sarah’s slave, and Isaac by Sarah. After Sarah’s death, “Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore him [six sons who went on to sire a total of ten more sons]. All of these were the children of Keturah. Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. But to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, while he was still living, and he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country” (Gen. 25:1-6). In this passage, Keturah is given the title of “wife,” but she is clearly classed with Abraham’s other “concubines” when Abraham sends all of his sons away except for Isaac, whom God has chosen as a leader of the Hebrew people. Hagar is presumably also considered a “concubine” in this instance, as Ishmael is grouped in with all of the other sons who are sent away. In sum, it seems that there is little difference for a man of God in Genesis between a wife, a prostitute, a concubine, and a female slave. They each exist for the sole purpose of producing male heirs in the Hebrew line and aiding in male endeavors to fulfill pacts with God.

Culturally, historically, and literarily, the Biblical stories in Genesis are extraordinary. But their being taught to children in Christian settings as morality tales and as evidence of a coherent religious tradition is perplexing to me. The morality here is shady at best, and the tradition is almost certainly both composite and constructed to promote the solidarity and empowerment of an exclusive class of Hebrew men.

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