The Fall of Man and the Frustrating of Human Purpose

That’s a terrible title, I know. Sorry.

As I was preparing for my sermon this Sunday, I noticed something interesting in the Genesis 2-3 account of “the fall” of humanity. (I put that in quotation marks because not everyone sees it that way. I don’t believe most Jews do.)

God makes the man out of mud — mud formed, I think, from the soil of the ground and the mist that is in the air (it hasn’t rained yet) — breathes into him of his spirit, which makes the man alive. And then, in Gensis 2:15, God does the following:

The LORD God took the man kand put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. (ESV)

So, the whole point of humanity’s existence — the man is humanity at this point — is to tend the garden.

God later says that the man shouldn’t be alone. God then makes a mess of animals, sets them before the man and he invents all sorts of wonderful and silly names for all the creatures God has just made. But it’s not enough. The man is still alone, however. The animals are swell, but not quite fit company to truly help the man. To truly be a companion. So, he put the man to sleep, does a bit of surgery, and makes a woman.

Her purpose, in this passage (this is a passage about purposes) is to keep the man company. To help him. To be a companion.

So, then there’s this snake, and an eating of fruit, and pretty soon, the man and the woman find themselves ashamed and embarrassed because they did something God told them not to do. And then come the curses. We’ll skip past the cursing of the serpent, noting only this is why girls are afraid of snakes (joke), and go to the heart of the matter in Genesis 3:16-19:

16 To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”   17 And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;  18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.  19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (ESV)

At first glance, it seems the curses are unequal. Even possibly unfair. The woman is cursed, but when God turns to the man, God curses the whole earth. The man himself is not actually cursed.

But consider the matter if we speak of created purposes. The Genesis passage seems clear — the man is created to tend the garden, the woman is created to be a companion and partner to the man. Her curse, then, frustrates that created purpose. It turns it into something that can, and often times will, be unpleasant, the source of much pain and suffering. She is no longer a partner, but her desire is changed, and the man shall rule over her. This is not nature, this is curse. That is, the way so many men and women organize their lives together is not what God originally created either for.

And in cursing the earth, God is frustrating the man’s purpose. He was made to tend a garden, a garden which required little work because it was full of so many good things to eat. (UPDATE: Or rather, the nature of work itself was changed, and work itself has become a curse, something human beings do in pain more than with joy.) Now, he will work hard, and often times pointlessly, to eke out a bare living from an uncooperative earth. (Thistles and thorns appear to be a product of the fall, if the text is to be taken literally…) By the sweat of your brow you shall eat your bread. Again, this is not nature, it is curse.

So, we live in the curse. In which we have been alienated, by the man and the woman’s disobedience (Adam and Hawwa), from our created purposes. I don’t honestly know what other implications flow from this, and I won’t try too hard to build an entire edifice of theology on this scaffold. We are fools to think we can, through our own efforts, alter the curse at all (the earth remains at times terribly uncooperative and capricious, even with the gifts that science and mass industrial production have given us). And yet we can, as men and women, in moments, transcend the curse. Perhaps this is what the kingdom Jesus proclaims is all about.

God Said to Noah….

I’m working on a song — a children’s song, no less — about the Genesis story of Noah and the flood. (Genesis 6-10, more or less, if one includes all the genealogy of which people are descended from which sons of Noah.) And I’m always still a little shocked at how we sanitize scripture for our children. A story of God destroying the world becomes a series of cute drawing of a man with a beard, a bunch of animals (the kind you might find painted on a nursery wall), a great big boat, and a rainbow.

God being sorry for human wickedness and vowing to eradicate it all becomes the animals went in two-by-two.

We don’t just do this for our children, either. This sanitizing of scripture becomes something we as adults do, too. There’s a lot of violence in scripture. God does a lot of violence in scripture. To God’s people. God threatens, cajoles, throws tantrums. God is at God’s utmost worst in Numbers, behaving much like an abusive parent who you dare not offend or annoy lest you get struck down with plague or by an angry, deputized Levite wielding a sword.

I try not to shy away from this. Whatever the nature of God, the human experience of God, as related in scripture, at time is a very violent one. That is, we understand God to be violent or we understand God in violence. I do not quite know why we have sanitized scripture. I like to blame the bourgeoise sentimentality of modernity for such sanitizing, and maybe there’s something to that. Bourgeoise moderns like to believe they are civilized and non-violent, but really, most have exported and abstracted their violence to the state, where it becomes bureaucratic and impersonal — drone strikes, mutually assured destruction, the fine grinding violence of systems of administration, law and so forth that destroy those who cannot or will not conform. None of this, however, is the point of this essay.

So, as I have been trying to find a hook for this song, I have been asking myself — what is the meaning of the Noah story in scripture? Why is it there?

And I think I have found it. The story explains why there is evil in the world.

Let’s start at Genesis 6, which begins with some strange allusions to Sons of God making babies with “daughters of man” and creating “the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.”* The authors/editors of Genesis outline the situation this way:

(5) The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (6) And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (7) So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (8) But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. (Genesis 6:5-8, ESV)

God is sorry. God is angry. God regrets all this creation that was, only six chapters earlier, “good” (טוב). God tells Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh,” which is clearly a lie, since God is saving Noah and his family and gives explicit (though confused — two of every sort or seven of the sacrificial things, “clean animals,” which have not been specified because it isn’t Leviticus yet?) instructions on how to be saved. God is going to destroy the world, and make an end of most flesh. But not all of it.

And it rains. And rains. And rains. And everyone and everything dies. (La la la la la!) This you know. God eventually remembers Noah, and finds a place for the great big boat to land. And once the waters subside enough, Noah builds an altar and makes a burnt offering to the Lord. (God and the Lord are not interchangeable terms, and seeing where a one is used to the exclusion of the other can help you figure out where scripture was edited.) At that point, the authors/editors of Genesis 8 write:

(21) And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. (22) While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (ESV)

This, so far as I can tell is the point of the story. God is sorry for having created, and now God seems to realize that God acted in haste and anger in destroying everything. God’s actions here changed nothing. People are evil from their earliest days. And so, knowing this, God promises so long as there is time, as there are seasons, as long as the earth remains, God will tolerate evil. Because the Good God moved to rid the world all of evil was the same Good God who was moved to regret having done just that. And moved to regret by the smell of a burnt offering, no less. God would later protest God didn’t need burnt offerings. But on this day, God needed the smoke of a barbecue.

No apologies and no explanation from God. Just a promise. “I will never again curse the ground because of man … neither will I ever strike down every living creature as I have done.” And that is why there is evil in the world. God made a promise. So far, it appears to have been kept.
Now, I suppose someone could argue: God is all-powerful, and could strike the evil people down without destroying those who found favor. (As in the Noah story, or the story of Lot and Abraham in the unwelcoming cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.) As a matter of reason, sure, why not? Zap the wicked, leave the good standing. Or rapture the good away, and leave the wicked to suffer. But as a matter of experience, as relayed in scripture, God’s power seems not so tightly focused. It seems to catch the good and evil up in its midst at the same time. It’s a big jawbone and we all get smoted with it.
Or maybe there aren’t that many good people to rapture. There was just Noah, after all. His family seems to have been saved merely on his account.

* And leaving aside for now the fact that Genesis 10:8 says: “Cush fathered Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man.” Consistency is not one of scripture’s virtues.

Isaac, Jesus and the Place of God in Human Violence

I’m an unrepentant reader of the ugliness and messiness in scripture. I am attracted to it, I gravitate toward it, and I don’t have ethical or logical problems with it. “Why would a good God do that? Why would a good God let that happen?” Not my questions.

In fact, I believe the ugliness and messiness speak specifically to human existence. And God’s presence in our lives.

I don’t think I’ve blogged much about here about the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. I think we all know the story. It begins with God “testing” Abraham. In Hebrew, נִסָּה test, with the implication that knowledge is being sought, or that the heart is being measured, and in the case of this passage, The Theological Diction of the Old Testament (vol. 9, p. 450) says, the author of the Genesis 22 passage “seeks to show how someone who fears and obeys God should relate to God.” Which is all well and good. That Abraham is the subject of this story, and his trust in the promise of God is the subject of this story, is generally accepted and general taught. Abraham’s faithfulness in regards to his son (whether that son is Ishmael or Isaac) is the model of faith in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Doing what God says is what it means to follow and trust God.

Well, maybe. The problem I have with this interpretation is that it reduces Isaac to an object in Abraham’s faith drama. He’s no longer really a person. And by making this a “test,” we’ve also made it clear that God  didn’t really mean for Abraham to slit his son’s throat there on the mount of the Lord. That makes this a game. That makes faith a game, God’s promise a game, it makes Abraham’s faith less than real because it’s clear, if this a “test” in the sense that many of us understand that word, that none of what is going on is real. I remember, for some reason, one afternoon in Army basic training, the afternoon we spent then putting on and “clearing” our gas masks. (As well as taking them apart, learning how they worked, and seeing a nasty little film about what chemical weapons did to rodents.) After hours of this, we were graded on how quickly we could get into chemical protective gear. I think we had to have the masks out of their pouches, on, cleared and the hoods over our heads in under 18 seconds. There were no chemicals, no clouds of poisonous gas, just men with stop watches yelling at us. It was a “test” as we understand it — timed, graded, you could pass or fail but there were no real consequences for either (since everyone was tested until they passed).

But if we stick with the implications of the Hebrew, then what we have here is a quest for knowledge, and not a graded examination. God may have been testing Abraham, but God was not administering a test. And God isn’t the only one learning something.

(Personally, I think the best version of this story is Bob Dylan’s…)

So, I think it would be better to examine what Abraham’s faith looks like from Isaac’s standpoint. Because that’s the standpoint I think that matters. It’s our standpoint. Neither Abraham nor Isaac could truly know that God did not mean it what God said: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall tell you.” (Gen. 22:2, ESV) Isaac has to assume that when Abraham binds him, and raises the knife, his father absolutely has to mean it and, following the command of God, God absolutely has to mean it.

And that tells me that we, as human beings viewing this from Isaac’s perspective have learned a couple of things:

  1. God is capable of commanding some human beings to do horrific things.
  2. And those human beings are capable of following through with that command.
We now know this. We cannot help but know this. And we know this about the God who called and promised things to us through this man Abraham. We know this about the very same God. Nothing is the same anymore. From this moment forward, the God who gathers and names a people, the God who promises that we shall be a blessing, that we shall father a nation, that we shall inherit a land — this is the same God who is willing to have our throats slit, to command that they be slit. We are inheritors not just of Abraham’s promise, but also of Isaac’s experience. Because of what we now know about God, learned about God that day.
And so now God becomes much more involved in human violence. But only selectively, and throughout the Exodus and Deuteronomistic narratives, God makes it clear that God alone saves God’s people in miraculous acts that drown an entire Egyptian army and its Pharaoh. Gideon gathers an army of over 30,000 to battle the Midianites, and God makes sure only 300 do the actually fighting, to make sure that Israel knows God alone delivers, and not human effort. Still, God is present in some of the worst stories in scripture (Judges 19-21 come to mind). I don’t know of an instance in which God intervenes to stop an act of violence. There are many violent acts in scripture which go unjudged and uncommented upon, which go unpunished and unanswered. Not even God comes off well much of the time, but God is always somehow present in with human violence, which is often times viewed as a judgment upon those being violated. (And make of that what you will.)
And what has this to do with Jesus? I’ve written before I’ve never been happy with Anselmian atonement narratives, mostly because they become a game God is playing with God’s-self, a game to which we are mere spectators. And we are not mere spectators. We are actively involved. Because we are doing the killing. 
I think the crucifixion story of Jesus Christ is a bookend for the Isaac story. Not in a sacrificial way (“I asked you to sacrifice your son, now I shall sacrifice mine,” God says, which is ridiculous when dealing with the Triune God), but rather how God has decided to deal with and be present in the reality of human violence. 
It is as if God, understanding by this point the awfulness and depravity that human beings are truly capable of, has become incarnate in order to be subject to it. Perhaps even to experience it. In the crucifixion, God is no longer commanding the awful things to happen, but incarnate as Christ is prophesying the awful things that will happen as the logical conclusion of a ministry that pronounces unearned forgiveness. (I owe the late Gerhard Forde this understanding.) God has learned enough about us to know how we are likely to react when God, present among us as a lone human being, seems to make promises, or is heard to make promises, that aren’t kept. God on the mountaintop in fire and thunder terrifies us. God drowning Pharaoh’s soldiers is terrifying. God as a sweaty, stinking, sometimes crabby human being with no army and not much in the way of followers is another matter entirely. That God is something a frightened, angry mob can deal with.
And so God issues no commands. Instead, God surrenders utterly to us, to the worst we are. God lifts no hand to stop the lash, to halt the procession to Golgotha, God does not come down off the cross. This is a test in the Hebrew sense — what are we learning in this moment? It is the lesson of Abraham — we are capable of the most horrific things, in this case the mob-sanctioned execution as a rebel of a man whose only crime was to offend sensibilities and forgive us our sins. 
But we learn more than that. God is still God, even dead and buried. And here, at the empty tomb, we learn God’s ultimate answer to human violence — it has no meaning. It answers nothing. From the experience of Isaac, we now know that God has shared our place on the mountain, wondered where the sacrifice would come from, watched the knife rise into the air, and then — unlike us — did not save God’s-self. We were saved. God stayed Abraham’s hand. But God did not stay ours. We slit the throat. We walked away. We said “we do not know him.” We demanded God’s death because God didn’t save us in the way we wanted. We betrayed God to the authorities and then hung ourselves in despair.
God’s answer to the violence God became a part of In Genesis 22 is to give in to that violence, to surrender to it, to show us that violence is powerless in the face of God’s promise. Christ is the answer to Isaac. 

On Gifts, Sacrifice and Relationship

Sometime ago — April 2009, to be exact — I wrote a post on Cain, Abel, sacrifice and exile:

Some might say that Cain’s offering was inferior — not firstfruits. Maybe. But it may also be that God was partial to Abel’s “choicest of the firstlings” as opposed to whatever grain and fruit Cain offered. … [Farming is] hard work, and perhaps he felt that God did not reward his work well enough. But maybe the sense of rejection he felt when God favored the firstling of Abel’s flock was intolerable. Tilling the land wasn’t just what he did, it was who he was, and clearly he saw that who he was simply was not good enough for God.

Not good enough. Our capricious God liked Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s through no stated fault of Cain’s. I’ve had time of late to consider this lately (some of you know why, and the rest of you will just have to ponder) , and something else about this passage early in Genesis struck me.

The entire story of Cain and Abel prefigures the history of Israel from Sinai onward — sacrifice and offer, follow the law and be blessed, or fail to offer proper sacrifices, to follow the law and Israel shall be cursed. It is almost the entire Hebrew Bible writ small.

It occurred to me today that Cain has something Abel does not — a real relationship with God. Abel just gave, and God received. (That’s fine, you may say, but we cannot know much about Abel’s relationship with God because he is dead. True enough. But work with me in regards to what we actually have in Genesis 4.) Abel’s relationship with God is a very passive relationship, perhaps even a very pagan or idolatrous relationship. Abel gives, God takes. God may be pleased, but God is not giving anything to Abel.

But Cain’s failure — which I state above is God’s doing, and not Cain’s — to deliver a sacrifice that God will accept begins a different kind of relationship, in which God gives to Cain. And receives nothing from Cain. First God gives advice (“If you do well, will you not be accepted?”, implying Cain was at fault for the failure of his offering to please God), then accusation and curse (“When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive, and a wanderer on the earth.”) and finally a promise of some kind of protection or vengeance (“If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.”). It may stink as a relationship — who wouldn’t want to be happy and content giving to God and knowing that God had accepted all they’d given? Because I’d really like to be there right now… — but it is far more than what Abel had. In sinning, and in fear, Cain lived in a relationship with God that the sinless, approved and accepted Abel did not.

It prefigures Israel’s tempestuous relationship with God, in Egypt, in the wilderness, in the take-over of Canaan, in conquest, exile and regathering. It says that in sin, and the consequences of sin (wandering in the land of exile), we have a relationship with God that cannot be matched by those who are “sinless” and whose offerings are accepted. (The story itself may imply that such people don’t really exist, since Abel is killed and therefore nothing can be said of his relationship to God.) That in sinning, space for relationship with God is opened that cannot otherwise be opened — God is transformed from a mere receiver of sacrifices, a kind of fat and happy God who smiles on the one making the offering (suddenly, a bronze Buddha statue surrounded by clouds of incense and rotting oranges comes to mind), to an actual being interacting with the creation. To a God who has something meaningful to say to the creation.

Interacting with the created, who need God’s gift because our gift to God is unacceptable. Sometimes, it’s not much of gift — a mere mark to state whoever kills me gets it back seven times! — but it’s more than first fruits. Perhaps a true relationship with God can only begin in our sinfulness, because only then are we open to receiving what God has to give us, rather than lining up and dumping our offerings into the mouth of Vaal.

* * *

NOTE: The Cain and Abel story is, however, something of a sideshow. Abel dies before having progeny (an assumption based on the fact that none are listed), and all of the featured characters of Israelite history trace their lineage to Seth, Adam and Eve’s third son.

In The Land of Wandering & Exile

For some reason, I found myself pondering Genesis 4 — the story of Cain and Abel — yesterday. Not sure why, maybe my current circumstances, but I think a lot about exile, and what that means. The world has never felt much like my home to begin with, not a place where I’ve been much wanted. Rather, it’s felt like a wilderness, a place of exile, a largely inhospitable place I’m just traveling through on the way to someplace else. Not sure where that is. I only know I don’t much belong here.

Enough of that. Genesis 4:1-16 tells the story of the first murder, the first time one human being in anger and jealously, took the life of another. There is much to be made of the story (including the alleged “mark”), but I’m interested in who and what Cain and Abel are. Abel is a “keeper of sheep” (4:2, JPS Tanakh — again, this little Asus Eee PC doesn’t let me do Hebrew), a pastoral nomad who wanders from pasture to pasture (scrubland in the Middle East), tending his flocks, while Cain is a “tiller of the soil,” a settled farmer who doesn’t wander, who is tied to land and place. Abel’s life is one of tents, of open skies, of moving from place to place to follow the rains. His home is wandering, it’s on his back and the backs of the animals he keeps. Cain’s home is one of brick and mud and fences and furrows. He worries about the rains, but he cannot follow them — he must remake the world around him to get the water for his crops, to build the tools to work the land.

The story continues:

In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings from his flock. The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell. (Gen. 4:3-5, JPS Tanakh)

Some might say that Cain’s offering was inferior — not firstfruits. Maybe. But it may also be that God was partial to Abel’s “choicest of the firstlings” as opposed to whatever grain and fruit Cain offered. There is, I think, a subtext in Jewish scripture that laments Israel’s slow evolution from pastoral nomads to a settled people, a concern reflected in the use of the pastoral metaphor (all the way through the gospels and the epistles, which use this metaphor extensively as well) to describe, in particular, David, and to condemn the kings of Israel (Ezekiel 34 is the example that comes to mind) for their failures. For a settled people there is wealth and power, but there is also intense inequality and exploitation — the weakest suffer the most. The surplus wealth created by sedentary activities (farming and resource extraction, like mining and timber before silviculture) almost never goes to those who extract or create that wealth.

But this is not the matter up for discussion today. Cain, the first-born older brother, murders Abel. (In the Qur’an, he also buries him in an effort to hide what he has done.) Abel’s blood cries out to God from the very soil (adamah) that Cain tilled. God then tells Cain: “If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer (yanad) on earth (ba’aretz).” (Gen. 4:12)

Cain is made a wander, and he goes to live in “the land of Nod” — eretz nod — the land of wandering/exile, “banished from the soil” (Cain’s own words, 4:14) and away from the “presence of the Lord.” What kind of wandering can a farmer do? What kind of exile is this, being yanked away from who and what he was? Did Cain love the land? Did he love tilling it? It’s hard work, and perhaps he felt that God did not reward his work well enough. But maybe the sense of rejection he felt when God favored the firstling of Abel’s flock was intolerable. Tilling the land wasn’t just what he did, it was who he was, and clearly he saw that who he was simply was not good enough for God.

That’s a hard pain to live with, that sense and perception that who and what he is, what he has to offer God, is simply not good enough for God. Perhaps this is how he understood what happened, and he took his despair and rage out on his brother who was clearly much more acceptable to God. How to imagine the despair and rage that comes from knowing that God has favored someone else over you, accepted them and rejected you? When one is rejected by God, what possible acceptance anywhere or by anyone can make up for that?

And yet it is Cain who separates himself from God. He tells God, “I must avoid Your presence.” It is Cain who fears being killed, not God who threatens Cain with death. God, in an act of odd grace, “marks” Cain, and promises vengeance upon anyone who kills him. It is Cain who walks away from God. The greatest punishment he inflicts is upon himself. He compounds his alienation from the land, from what he does and who he is, with a self-imposed alienation from God. God condemned him to wander, but said nothing about avoiding the divine presence.

Cain did that. All on his own. Maybe that says something about us, as human beings, as we wander, as we pass through and try to live in eretz nod – the land of wandering and exile.