October 29, 2006

Sentimentalism

Category: Miscellaneous :: Permalink

What do Christians mean, then, when they say that creation is “good”? …

Perhaps the most unfortunate answer to this question is the one most commonly regarded as “Christian.”  This is the sentimental answer.  It affirms the goodness of creation by denying the reality of any disorder or evil within our experience.  For this view, a Christian always “looks on the bright side,” always “sees nothing but good in events or people,” “remembers the silver lining,” and believes that all’s well in God’s world.  The picture of the world fostered here is unbelievably naive: people are filled only with good intentions; frustrations and fears are merely psychological since positive thought will eradicate them; and problems are only there because we do not believe hard enough that they are not there.  This gentle world is appropriate enough for Sunday school.  But when this child’s landscape, filled with ladies, bunnies, fairies, and harmless men with clerical collars, is presented as the Christian understanding of the world — since God’s world is good — Christianity has lost all power and relevance to the problems of life.  No wonder those people who live immersed within the tragedies of existence, amid its real frustrations and insecurities, its deep conflicts of power, and its inescapable sufferings, are offended by the falsity of this picture of the world and suspect that those who hold it find in this sentimentalism a helpful excuse for doing nothing about the world’s various ills (Langdon Gilkey, Maker of Heaven and Earth, pp. 119-120).

Posted by John Barach @ 6:44 am | Discuss (2)

Psalm 4

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms :: Permalink

A reminder: I’ve prepared these psalms for our liturgy, trying to be as accurate in my translation as possible.  The alternation between plain text and bold is for responsive reading.  I invite feedback on the translation!

For the director.
On stringed instruments.
A psalm.
By David.

When I call, answer me, my righteous God!
In oppression you have relieved me;
Be gracious to me and hear my prayer.

Sons of man, how long will my glory become shame?
How long will you love worthlessness and seek falsehood?  Selah.
But know that Yahweh has separated the godly man for himself;
Yahweh will hear when I call to him.

Be angry and do not sin.
Speak in your heart on your bed and be still.  Selah.
Sacrifice sacrifices of righteousness,
And trust in Yahweh.

Many are saying, “Who will show us good?”
Lift up upon us the light of your face, Yahweh!
You have put gladness in my heart,
More than the time their grain and new wine abounded.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep,
For you, Yahweh, alone will make me dwell in safety.

A couple of comments about this psalm:

(1) In line 2, when David says that God gave him relief “in oppression,” the idea is that David was oppressed and that God took away the pressure or, at least, the bad effects of it.  The word is often translated “distress,” but the term used here is related to the word for an oppressor and refers to a time of hard pressing and crushing.

(2) In lines 4-5, there are three questions, all introduced with “How long” in line 4.  It’s “How long will you A, B, C.”  To bring this out, I’ve repeated “How long” at the beginning of line 5 and added “and” in between the two things in line 5.

(3) In the last line, the word translated alone may refer to God (“You alone!”), but it’s possible that it refers to the psalmist: “You make me dwell alone.”  This isolation would then be a form of security.  So BDB takes the word here to mean “make me dwell solitarily, in safety” and refers to Deuteronomy 33:28, where there is this promise: “Israel will dwell in safety, the fountain of Jacob alone.”  Alone here is parallel to in safety.  Hirsch thinks that it means that Israel will be safe, no matter what the nations around are doing, because Israel has been isolated from them.

According to Hirsch, the psalmist would then be saying that God makes him safe by isolating his enemies (an external security) and then would add that he also dwells “securely” in the sense of being free from worry or fear (internal security).  He renders this line: “Thou, O Lord, wilt give me a place of safety and of peace.”  That seems quite plausible to me.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:46 am | Discuss (3)
October 24, 2006

Hauerwas on Liturgy

Category: Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

One reason why we Christians argue so much about which hymn to sing, which liturgy to follow, which way to worship is that the commandments teach us to believe that bad liturgy eventually leads to bad ethics.  You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend (Stanley Hauerwas, The Truth About God: The Ten Commandments in Christian Life, p. 89). [HT: Anastasis]

Posted by John Barach @ 8:03 am | Discuss (3)

The Man Who Owned Vermont

Category: Literature :: Permalink

Last week, I reread Bret Lott’s The Man Who Owned Vermont.  I first read it a few years back, before I was married, and I remembered it being fairly moving back then.  Now that I’m married, it’s even more powerful.

Guys, don’t let the fact that Lott’s more recent novel Jewel was in the Oprah Book Club fool you into thinking that he’s a “writer for women” and therefore not something you’d find worthwhile.  As a matter of fact, I suspect that a lot of guys would benefit from books they consider “written for women,” but even apart from that, this book is about guys.

It’s about ordinary guys: Lott doesn’t focus on celebrities or the rich, on high-paid lawyers or doctors; he writes about blue collar workers and in this case about an RC/Schweppes salesman and about guys going hunting.  It’s about the way guys hurt the women they claim to love.  It’s about the damage that guys can do to their marriages and what happens to them when they decide their marriages are over.

It’s a melancholy book, but it isn’t hopeless.  It’s well worth reading, and as I read it I was driven to repent of my sins and love my wife more.  Not a bad thing for a novel to accomplish.

Posted by John Barach @ 7:53 am | Discuss (4)
October 17, 2006

Psalm 3

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms :: Permalink

A reminder: I’ve prepared these psalms for our liturgy, trying to be as accurate in my translation as possible.  The alternation between plain text and bold is for responsive reading.  I invite feedback on the translation!

A Psalm.
By David,
When he fled from the face of Absalom his son.

Yahweh, how multiplied are my oppressors!
Many are rising against me!
Many are saying to my soul,
“There is no salvation for him in God.”  Selah.

But you, Yahweh, are a shield around me,
My glory, and the lifter of my head.
With my voice to Yahweh I cry;
And he hears me from his holy mountain.  Selah.

I myself lay down and slept;
I awoke because Yahweh sustains me.
I will not fear myriads of people
Who all around set themselves against me.

Arise, Yahweh!
Save me, my God!
Indeed, you have struck all my enemies on the jaw;
The teeth of the wicked you have broken!
To Yahweh belongs the salvation.
Upon your people be your blessing.  Selah.

Posted by John Barach @ 6:27 am | Discuss (4)
October 13, 2006

Eating Disorders

Category: Miscellaneous :: Permalink

On an e-mail list, we were recently discussing eating disorders.  One person cited a lecture by Luke Timothy Johnson in which he said “Anorexia is the body language of gnosticism.”  Another responded by saying that, while that might be true, anorexia is also the body language of narcissism.

Wendy Shalit, in A Return to Modesty, links the increase in anorexia to the decline of modesty and the rise in promiscuity.  Girls are  expected to have sex on their dates.  In the media and elsewhere, it’s sex sex sex sex sex.  Guys watch porn with their girlfriends.  Colleges have coed dorms with coed bathrooms.  And girls react by degrading their bodies in a kind of self-loathing which is also an exercise of power and control.

What do we know about anorexia and bulimia?  What is not in dispute is that ninety percent of eating disorder sufferers are women, and that most cases occur at the onset of puberty or when a young woman begins to negotiate with the men who appear in her life.  Having an eating disorder, I would submit, is the only way our culture allows a woman to find order in a sexually chaotic landscape.  In a culture that permits food hang-ups but not sex hang-ups, it’s become the new way for a girl to express her modesty, to restore distance between men and herself (p. 59).

She talks about one woman with an eating disorder who had no problem with casual sex but did have a problem with hugging and being cared for.  That woman in college met other girls, many of them from unstable homes, who would “brag of the careless use of our bodies, our common disdain for the boys or  men.  ‘I didn’t feel a thing,’ we’d say with pride.”  And yet the “dorm bathrooms rarely worked because the pipes were perpetually clogged with vomit” (p. 59).

She quotes an anorexic student: “I think my issue was wanting to control my life” (p. 60).  Another says, “If I was at my ideal weight I’d feel really in control of my life” (p. 60).  Yet another (Drinking: A  Love Story) says, “When I was starving, I couldn’t think about … the fact that I was young and scared and sexually threatened and angry” (pp.  59-60).

Anorexia appears to be a fairly new thing.  Shalit asks: “Why are none of my grandma’s friend anorexic?” (p. 60).  Here’s her answer:

When modesty was given a sanction, woman not only had  the right to say no to a man’s advances, but her good opinion of him was revered.  Today, on the other hand, when our popular culture tells us that women should lust equally to men and feel comfortable about putting their bodies on display in coed bathrooms, on coed beaches — coed everything — women seem to be reporting that they feel only more at the mercy of male desire.  The anorexic disfigures her body to become unwomanly because if she no longer has the right to say “no,” at least she has her body language at her disposal.

So natural modesty has a way of reasserting itself, even in desperate and neurotic fashion (p. 60).

Later, she writes:

A typical specimen of our times is writer Marya Hornbacher, who whittled herself down to 52 pounds to rid herself of “an excess of general intensity.”  Scattered throughout her book, Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulemia, are stories of humiliating casual sex, along with these self-criticisms: “Too much fantasy.”  “Too intense and entirely too much.”  “Too emotional, too passionate.”  “Intense.”  “I was tired of being too much, too intense …”  “Beneath the skin I wore … was something horrible, something soft and weak … and tearful and needy.”  “Chaotic, needy softness.”  “The self I’d had, once upon a time, was too much.   Now there was no self at all.”  “If I had been a different sort of person …. less intense …”  Even when she is at a somewhat normal weight, Marya still laments that “I have not become a noticeably less intense person.”  She takes it as a personal failing that, even on Prozac, she has been unable to cure herself of her intensity.

I hear this all the time from women my age, this business of being too intense.  “People say I’m too … intense.”  Head bowed, ashamed.  A quick glance over the shoulder.  Will anyone witness, how intense?  Will they be perhaps arrested?  These are the women who end up on Prozac.  They see their very natures as the problem, and like Marya Hornbacher, they find nowhere to run from themselves.  But women are, generally speaking, intense  creatures. This is not necessarily bad.  Passion comes in handy in the search for romantic love; it is also well suited to motherhood and to the religious life.  But in a cynical culture that trivializes everything transcendent, a woman’s passionate nature will be directed against herself.  As Marya puts it, with her innocent precision: “I felt like yearning was specific to me, and the guilt that it brought was mine alone.”

So she tried to “escape the flesh and, by association, the realm of emotions,” but she succeeded only in sustaining permanent damage to her internal organs.  She contracts infections weekly and can never have children.

But why?  Maybe it is normal for a young woman to be “intense,” and being cavalier is what is strange.  Maybe wanting to forge bonds with others is normal, and it’s cutting ourselves off from enduring attachments that is perverse.  Maybe not having “rejection sensitivity” is what is sick, and invulnerability to loss the real pathology.  If being blase about sex were natural, why would so many women have to be on Prozac in order to carry out what their culture expects of them?

Incidentally, if you’re not sensitive to rejection, doesn’t that also mean you’re indifferent to love? (pp. 169-170).

In short, Shalit appears to be saying that because our culture puts women’s bodies on display and for male desire, values a certain kind of body, and discourages modesty, some girls react to this loss of control over their sexuality and over their bodies with a kind of self-controlling self-hatred. 

Narcissism?  Maybe.  But not in a straight-forward fashion.  The craving to seem beautiful (by which one means “thin”), Shalit is saying, isn’t motivated so much by self-love as by self-loathing.  It’s not “Oh, I look so good.”  It’s “Oh, I look so  ugly.”  Some of that is the product of parents and siblings who tell girls that they’re fat and unhealthy and out of shape and ugly and so forth.  Some of that may be the product of a culture that exalts the slim and despises the fat. 

I suppose you could call that abuse of the body a form of gnosticism.  As another friend pointed out, it does fit together with narcissism.  In a culture of body-worship, some people react with body-hatred.  And some people do terrible things to their bodies, trying to exercise control over them, so that they will find themselves attractive.

I  hasten to add that I have done no study whatsoever in this area.  And I doubt that this is the whole story.  But it does seem to me that Shalit’s attempt to link the relatively recent rise in eating disorders and the relatively recent loss of modesty bears further consideration.

Posted by John Barach @ 5:15 am | Discuss (1)
October 12, 2006

The Corporate Image of God

Category: Bible - OT - Genesis,Theology :: Permalink

Though we often think simply of individuals being created “in the image of God,” Herman Bavinck reminds us that the image is also corporate.  More than that, that corporate imaging of God becomes richer and deeper through time.

Adam was not created alone.  As a man and by himself he was incomplete.  He lacked something for which no lower creature could make up (Gen. 2:20).  As a man by himself, accordingly, neither was he yet the fully unfolded image of God.  The creation of mankind in God’s image was only completed on the sixth day when God created both man and woman in union with each other (cf. ‘wtm, Gen. 1:27), in his image.

Still even this creation in God’s image of man and woman in conjunction is not the end but the beginning of God’s journey with mankind.  It is not good that the man should be alone (Gen. 2:18); nor is it good that the man and woman should be alone.  Upon the two of them God immediately pronounced the blessing of multiplication (Gen. 1:28).  Not the man alone, nor the man and woman together, but only the whole of humanity is the fully developed image of God, his son, his offspring.

The image of God is much too rich for it to be fully realized in a single human being, however richly gifted that human being may be.  It can only be somewhat unfolded in its depth and riches in a humanity counting billions of members.  Just as the traces of God (vestigia dei) are spread over many, many works, in both space and time, so also the image of God can only be displayed in all its dimensions and characteristic features in a humanity whose members exist both successively one after the other and contemporaneously side by side.

But just as the cosmos is a unity and receives its head and master in man; and just as the traces of God (vestigia dei) scattered throughout the entire world are bundled and raised up into the image of God of humankind, so also that humanity in turn is to be conceived as an organism which, precisely as such, is finally the only fully developed image of God.  Not as a heap of souls on a tract of land, not as a loose aggregate of individuals, but as having been created out of one blood, as one household and one family, humanity is the image and likeness of God.

Belonging to that humanity is also its development, its history, its ever-expanding dominion over the earth, its progress in science and art, its subjugation of all creatures.  All these things as well constitute the unfolding of the image and likeness of God in keeping with which man was created.  Just as God did not reveal himself just once at the creation, but continues and expands that revelation from day to day and from age to age, so also the image of God is not a static entity but extends and unfolds itself in the forms of space and time.  It is both a gift (Gabe) and a mandate (Aufgabe).  It is an undeserved gift of grace that was given the first human being immediately at the creation, but at the same time the grounding principle and germ of an altogether rich and glorious development.

Only humanity in its entirety — as one complete organism, summed up under a single head, spread out over the whole earth, as prophet proclaiming the truth of God, as priest dedicating itself to God, as ruler controlling the earth and the whole of creation — only it is the fully finished image, the most telling and striking likeness of God (In the Beginning, pp. 212-213).

I’m not sure Bavinck is entirely right about the image itself here.  It sounds as if he’s saying that a man by himself really can’t do justice to the image of God, and yet Jesus, as a man, was the perfect image of God.

But I do think Bavinck is right that God’s intention for humanity was that it would grow up, as his image and as his individual images, to a maturity that better and better reflects his likeness. My quibbles with some of what Bavinck says here don’t take away at all from my appreciation for his history-long, humanity-wide scope.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:54 am | Discuss (3)
October 11, 2006

Noah and Adam

Category: Bible - OT - Genesis :: Permalink

In The Gospel of Genesis, Warren Gage talks about some of the correspondences between the story of Adam in the Garden and the story of Noah after the Flood:

The structural and literary correspondence between the story of Noah’s sin and the record of Adam’s Fall is striking. Noah’s transgression begins with a vineyard (Gen 9:20) while Adam’s sin is set in a garden (Gen 3:1). Noah drank of the fruit of the vine while Adam ate of the fruit of the tree (Gen 9:20; 3:2), both being acts of deliberate disobedience resulting in the sinner’s awareness of shameful nakedness (Gen 9:21; 3:7). While Noah’s nakedness was covered by his eldest sons (Gen 9:23), Adam’s nakedness was covered by God (Gen 3:32), and both the sin of Noah and the sin of Adam issued into a fearful curse and enduring division in their respective seed (Gen 9:25; 3:15) (p. 12).

I find some of the parallels Gage points out instructive and they’re certainly worth exploring. I do think that Genesis 9 contains echoes of Genesis 3. But I’m not persuaded that Gage is reading the correspondences correctly.

First, he appears to assume that Genesis 9 records Noah’s sin, which, I gather, he takes to be Noah’s drunkenness.  At least, that’s what I conclude from what he says later on (p. 136).  Here, it sounds as if Gage thinks that Noah’s sin was drinking “of the fruit of the vine” and that doing so was an act “of deliberate disobedience.”  Perhaps Gage believes it is a sin to drink wine.  If not, then he hasn’t worded things well.

And, in fact, if the sin is not drinking the fruit of the vine, then the “parallel” with Adam isn’t as neat as Gage makes it out to be.  Adam’s sin was not that he glutted himself with the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  His sin was that he ate from it at all.  One bite would have been sin.  But if Noah sinned in Genesis 9, his sin wasn’t that he drank the fruit of the vine.  His sin was that he was drunk.  Again, that isn’t exactly parallel to Adam’s sin.

Nor is it clear to me that Noah sinned at all here in Genesis 9.  While the word translated “drunk” here does seem to indicate some degree of intoxication, the text does not indicate that Noah deliberately drank to get drunk or that he was a binge drinker or that he behaved improperly in any way.  We are not told that Noah was a drunkard.  We are told that when he drank this one time, the wine began to affect him and he went to sleep in his tent (or possibly, given the feminine suffix at the end of the Hebrew word for tent, in his wife’s tent).

As James Jordan says,

In English, “getting drunk” usually means becoming helplessly inebriated, but it does not have that meaning in Hebrew. All this statement needs to mean is that Noah drank enough to feel warm, peaceful, and sleepy. This is the kind of restful and relaxing use of alcohol that the Bible commends as entirely proper, on proper occasions. Possibly, of course, Noah was new to wine and accidently drank too much; but however the case may be, there is nothing to indicate any sinful action on Noah’s part. In this story, it is Ham, not Noah, who sins.

We are also told that Noah uncovered himself. That is, he was warm and lay down for a nap. Since he was inside his own private tent, he was hidden from view; that is, he was still covered by the tent itself.

And that’s another problem with the “parallels” Gage presents. There was nothing shameful about Adam and Woman’s nakedness in the beginning, just as there is nothing shameful about a baby’s nakedness or, for that matter, about the nakedness of a husband and wife when they’re alone together. Their nakedness is a problem only after they have eaten the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: they were naked and not ashamed, but now they are aware that they are naked, naked when they ought to be robed in glory, and now their nakedness is shameful.

Noah’s nakedness is a motif that does echo the nakedness of Adam and Woman in some way, but I’m not sure it echoes it in the way Gage thinks. Was Noah, after his alleged sin, “shamefully naked”? No, no more than it’s shameful for you to be naked when you’re taking an afternoon nap in your bedroom with the door closed. Noah wasn’t naked in public. He wasn’t naked when he ought to have been dressed. He was naked when he was napping and he was napping in the shelter of his (or perhaps his wife’s) tent. At the time, the tent was enough of a covering, as Jordan says.

The big problem with Gage’s attempt to line up Adam’s sin with Noah’s is that the sin that’s in view in Genesis 9 isn’t Noah’s sin but Ham’s.  Even if there was something sinful about Noah’s drinking, that’s not what the text focuses on.  Genesis 9 doesn’t say that the curse came upon Noah’s seed because of Noah’s sin, and so another of Gage’s “correspondences” breaks down.  Rather, the curse came upon Ham’s seed.

The curse on the seed is an echo of the curses pronounced in Genesis 3.  But then the parallel is between the serpent and Ham.  Ham is the new serpent in the Garden (vineyard).  He acts as an accuser, telling his brothers about his father’s nakedness, as if that nakedness were shameful, but the sons uphold the glory and honor of their father by refusing to look upon his nakedness, refusing to dishonor their father as Ham had done, and by covering him with “the robe” (not “a robe,” but “the robe,” which suggests that the robe was an indication of their father’s exalted position).

Ham is the serpent and his seed is Canaan and the subsequent Canaanites, while Shem in particular is the seed who will crush the serpent.  But who pronounces this judgment?  In Genesis 3, it was Yahweh who pronounced judgment on Adam and the woman and the serpent.  But here, the judgment is pronounced by Noah.  There’s no judgment on Noah himself, but Noah curses Canaan and blesses Shem and Japheth.  Gage to the contrary, the correspondence isn’t between Noah and Adam but between Noah and God, just as it is when God gave to Noah the authority to carry out the death penalty.

There’s progress here: Noah is greater than Adam because he does things that God alone did before.  God planted the Garden in Eden, but Noah now images God by planting this vineyard.  Adam was not the one who judged Cain; God was.  But Noah judges his sons.  Adam was not allowed to put Cain to death;  God reserved that right for himself.  But Noah is now authorized to administer the death-penalty. 

In fact, far from being a story about Noah’s Adam-like fall, this is the story of the authority, threatened but maintained, of a faithful ruler.  Noah is one of the “gods,” a term Psalm 82 uses for judges, because, when his “sabbath” rest is disturbed by a serpent in his vineyard and in his tent, he, like God in Genesis 3, curses the serpent and his seed and blesses his faithful sons.

Posted by John Barach @ 5:01 am | Discuss (0)
October 10, 2006

Who Wrote Genesis?

Category: Bible - OT - Genesis :: Permalink

While the “higher critics” (who are, to borrow from Chesterton, high primarily in the sense that meat can be called high) see Genesis as the product of an editor or a bunch of editors who, sometimes unthinkingly and sometimes skillfully, slapped together a variety of often-conflicting accounts, many of which were written around the time of the Kings or later and none of which date from before Moses, conservative scholars often argue for the Mosaic authorship of Genesis.

A primary prooftext for Mosaic authorship is John 7:21-23, where Jesus says that Moses gave Israel circumcision and includes circumcision as part of “the law of Moses.”  Since circumcision was given to Abraham in Genesis 17, the argument goes, Genesis 17 must have been written by Moses.

Maybe.  Or maybe not.  It’s possible that Jesus refers to Moses here because Moses edited what we now have as the book of Genesis.  Or maybe Jesus isn’t thinking of Genesis 17 here but rather of Leviticus 12.  (Question: Are there any passages in Scripture which clearly indicate clearly that Moses wrote the historical parts of Exodus through Deuteronomy or anything in Genesis?)

At any rate, it seems to me that conservative scholars sometimes draw certain questionable conclusions from the alleged Mosaic authorship of Genesis.  In his thought-provoking The Gospel of Genesis, Warren Austin Gage writes

… to Moses the exodus deliverance is the decisive theme of Pentateuchal history to which the story of creation, the record of the flood, the narrative of Abraham’s sojourn in Egypt and the Joseph stories are logically subordinate (p. 4).

and, in a footnote,

The creation is elaborately reenacted in the exodus-eisodus redemption from Egypt.  Noah, like Moses, is delivered by the ark from the waters….  The Abrahamic sojourn in Egypt (Gen 12:10-20) unfolds with (1) a famine to move Abraham to Egypt, (2) the jeopardy of the promised seed, (3) the plagues upon the house of pharaoh, and (4) the driving out of Abraham with much treasure — i.e., the story of the exodus in brief.  Joseph, like Moses, is rejected by Israel only to be appointed by god for his deliverance (cf. Acts 7:9, 25) (p. 4n5).

It sounds to me as if Gage thinks that Moses wrote the accounts in Genesis with the Exodus in mind, choosing them and shaping them in such as way as to reflect the events of the Exodus.  But that, I submit, is most likely backwards.  It isn’t that Abraham’s exodus from Egypt reflects Israel’s but rather that Israel’s Exodus under Moses follows the pattern of Abraham’s previous one.

The conclusion often reached by those who assume Mosaic authorship is that Genesis is focused on Israel and written for Israel in the wilderness.  So men such as Bruce Waltke and Mark Futato argue that Genesis 1 is intended as a foundation for the covenant established with Israel at Mount Sinai or that Genesis 1 is as polemic against the gods of Canaan to prepare Israel for their new situation when they enter Canaan.  And so forth.

Again, I grant that Moses may have had a hand in editing the book of Genesis, but I don’t see any reason to believe that Noah didn’t have the account of creation and the genealogy of Adam or that Joseph didn’t have the whole thing up to the narratives about his father.  Moses may have edited it, but what he edited likely existed before.

It also doesn’t appear that he was the only one or the last one to edit the book: Genesis 36:31 seems to have a later (but inspired) addition which likely dates from a time when Israel had kings.

But to assert that Moses wrote the whole thing so that all of it must be read primarily in terms of the situation in Moses’ time, in light of the Exodus, and as preparation for the Sinai covenant and the entrance into Canaan goes beyond biblical evidence and prevents us from reading Genesis correctly.

For instance, if we claim that the focus in Genesis 1 is on Israel, either as polemic against the idols that Israel would encounter or as foundation for the Mosaic covenant at Sinai, we may accurately capture an application of the passage — contrary to paganism, for instance, the sun isn’t a god and isn’t the ultimate source of light but rather was created by the one true God who had already created light first — but that focus on Israel and her (assumed) situation may make us overlook the global application of the passage.

In other words, if we see Genesis 1 as a polemic against pagan gods, we’re either making an application of what the text says or we are reading that polemic into the text.  The text itself gives us no hint that it is a polemic aimed at Israel in the wilderness.  Rather, it presents itself as a history of the creation of the world, with implications not just for Israel (who isn’t mentioned or even in view here) but for the whole world.

As Jordan points out concerning this assertion that Israel is the focus of Genesis, “such a reading of Genesis elevates the Sinaitic covenant above the Adamic, Noahic, and Patriarchal covenants, which are lowered to the status of mere preliminaries” (Creation in Six Days, p. 34).What about the rest of Genesis?  Is Israel the primary focus?  Gage says so:

While the chronicle of the origin of Israel is unquestionably primary to the design of Genesis, the beginnings of Israel’s national history are nevertheless embedded in a matrix of universal history, a broader context which affords a historiographical perspective to the author’s interpretation of Israel’s destiny (p.8).

Granted, Gage also speaks about the broader context.  But the nations, on Gage’s view, are only context.  The focus is Israel.

Now it’s true that the narrative of Genesis focuses on Abraham and then on Isaac and then on Jacob/Israel and on his twelve sons.  Israel as a nation, of course, is not in view here at all, but Genesis does present the history of Israel’s forefathers.  But is that history primary so that the nations are just “context”?  I don’t believe so.

First, that interpretation does not do justice to Genesis 1-11 but reduces it to mere background.  It isn’t the thrust of the book but merely provides a bit of the setting for the important stuff.

Second, this interpretation loses sight of the global significance of Israel.  It isn’t that God has chosen to work with Israel instead of with the world.  Rather, God declares that he has chosen Abraham — and hence Israel — for the sake of the world.  In Genesis 12, the covenant with Abram includes the promise that all the nations will be blessed in him.  And so much of the narrative of Genesis is about the interaction (good and bad) between Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph and the nations.

Third, this interpretation also fails to take into account the conclusion of Genesis.  Genesis doesn’t lose sight of the nations as it progresses.  At the end of the book, Joseph rules over the nations and they come to him for the blessing of food.

Certainly, the text does focus on Isaac, not Ishmael or Abraham’s other sons, on Jacob and not so much on Esau, and so forth (though one should be careful about saying so, since the text appears to focus on Joseph and not so much on Judah but that doesn’t imply anything about the significance of Judah in history).  But in all of that focus on the patriarchs, the nations are also always in view.  It seems to me that Israel’s origins aren’t the primary thrust of Genesis.  The world’s salvation is at least as primary.

Who wrote Genesis?  I don’t know.  Maybe Moses.  Or maybe Adam and Noah and Shem and Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph with Moses perhaps doing some compilation and editing and some later editors adding their touches as well.  But at any rate, scholars ought to be careful not to use an assertion about Mosaic authorship to justify reading their guesses about Israel’s situation in the wilderness back into the text of Genesis.

Posted by John Barach @ 6:17 am | Discuss (3)
October 9, 2006

Books and People

Category: Miscellaneous :: Permalink

“There is no frigate like a book, To take us lands away.”  So wrote Emily Dickinson, who stayed in her cabin and seldom if ever encountered her fellow sailors.

It seems to me that she missed the best part of the trip.  The lands to which books bear us are fascinating, sometimes; but we who are borne to them are fascinating all the time.  I have never met an author, a collector, a bookseller, an editor, or a habitual reader who was not an interesting person.  Some have been detestable; none have been dull. — Gene Wolfe, “Foreword,” Bibliomen: Twenty-Two Characters in Search of a Book (Cambridge: Broken Mirrors, 1995), p. 7.

Posted by John Barach @ 8:50 am | Discuss (2)