The following is Part 3 in a series outlining and reviewing the book Understanding Genesis:  The World of the Bible in the Light of History by Nahum M. Sarna.

Chapter 1B: Genesis 2

Turning his attention to the creation of mankind in Genesis 2, Sarna uses the same technique for interpretation as he did for Genesis 1: he draws attention to its similarities to other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) myths and then notes how the author/editor of Genesis uses contrast to make a bold statement about the God of the Hebrews.

Sarna begins by pointing out that the word which many translations render as “dust” in Gen. 2:7 is commonly used in Hebrew as a synonym for “clay.” (Cf. Gen. 11:3, Lev. 14:41, Job 10:9, and 27:16.) Also, the verb which is translated as “formed” in Gen. 2:7-8 is the same word that the Hebrew word for “potter” comes from. The image, according to Sarna, is one of God shaping man out of clay like a potter molds a vessel, a common motif in the ancient Near East. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance, one of the characters, Enkidu, is formed from clay by the goddess Aruru; another Babylonian myth relates how the first men were made from clay; and in an Egyptian painting, the god Khnum is shown at a potter’s wheel forming men.

Again, warns Sarna, the important thing is not the similarities with other myths but the differences, and again, what makes the Hebrew myth unique is the high view of man. (Keep in mind that in the Enuma Elish, man was made from the blood of a demon in order to be the gods’ slaves.) Here, in Genesis 2, after all the divine commands of Genesis 1, God gets down on his hands and knees and gives special attention to this final work of creation. Man alone gets the divine breathe. He is not subjected to slavery, but is given every tree, except one, to eat from. And of course, he is given the divine image and placed over all of creation. He is still subject to God, though, for he was fashioned from him. “Through the ingenious employment of a common mythological motif,” Sarna concludes, “the Hebrew writer has subtly and effectively succeeded, not just in combating mythological notions, but also in conveying, all at once, both a sense of man’s glory and freedom and the feeling of his inescapable dependence upon God.”

Sarna next considers the Garden of Eden. First, he says that there must have already existed “a popular Hebrew story about a ‘Garden of God.’” He cites two passages in Ezekiel which seem to refer to other stories about Eden. In the first—chapter 28:11-19—the king of Tyre is said to have lived in the garden as a glorious, bejeweled being who walked among the “stones of fire” with a cherub guarding him, but because of his violence and pride, God cast him from his mountain and a cherub drove him out “from among the stones of fire.” In the second story—chapter 31:8-9 and 16-18—God reminds Egypt that Assyria was once a mighty cedar whom all the trees of Eden envied, but he cut it down because of its pride and sent it to Sheol, where the trees of Eden also reside, to their great comfort. Sarna says that hints of this original story are also contained in Genesis 2 itself.

“The language and style contain several classical features of rhythm, phraseology and parallelistic structure characteristic of Hebrew poetry. The use of the definite article with the first mention of ‘the tree of life,’ ‘the tree of knowledge’ (2:9), ‘the cherubim and the fiery, ever-turning sword’ (3:24), indicates an allusion already well-known to the reader.”

Sarna notes that the motif of the “garden of God” runs in other Near Eastern cultures, and he points to the Sumerian legend of the island of Dilmun. Here, all the animals live in harmony, and all sickness and death are absent. Of particular interest is the fact that because the island had no natural source of fresh water, the sun god Utu brought up a stream out of the earth in order to cause the garden to grow. This of course calls to mind Genesis 2:5-6:

…the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground, but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground… (The New Oxford Annotated Bible. All subsequent quotes are also from this source.)

Sarna notes that the writer of Genesis 2 sought to de-mythologize the stories in and outside of Hebrew culture about the garden of God. He never refers to it by the mythological sounding appellation “garden of God,” as it is called in other portions of scripture. Also, the writer of Genesis 2 makes no mention of any jewels or “stones of fire.” One may recall that the king of Tyre in Ezekiel 28:13 was covered with

“every precious stone […], carnelian, chrysolite, and moonstone, beryl, onyx, and jasper, sapphire, turquoise, and emerald; and worked in gold were [his] settings and [his] engravings.”

The writer of Genesis 2, however, does mention in verse 11 that one of the branches of Eden’s river flows “around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there.” It is interesting to note, too, that the Epic of Gilgamesh speaks of a garden where jewels grow on trees. Understanding verse 11 as the writer’s attempt at naturalizing the mythological versions of the garden of God makes sense of a rather random reference to Havilah.

Central to the description of the Garden of Eden are the trees of life and of the knowledge of good and evil. The former is a common motif in the surrounding Near Eastern cultures and ritual, one which occurs in Babylonian mythology in conjunction with “the water of life” that irrigates the “plant of life.” Perhaps the writer of Genesis 2 had this in mind when he described the river of verse 10 that branches into four directions. Again, the author seems intent on de-mythologizing the stories by identifying two of these rivers as the Tigris and the Euphrates, which are placed firmly in the minds of the inhabitants of the Near East. Furthermore, the writer removes all magic or independence from the two trees: he writes in verse 9 that it was God who caused them to grow, and the two humans do not gain any special powers over God but must still subject themselves to his authority.

Sarna says that the most startling break with the other stories is the lack of interest in the tree of life, which is mentioned only twice in chapters two and three. The entire focus is on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which has no other parallel in ANE mythology. When all the other cultures were focusing on the quest for eternal life (cf. Gilgamesh’s quest for the vine of life), Genesis 2 was focusing on “the actual relationships between man and God, the tension between the plans of God and the free-will of man.”

The ideas of this section of Understanding Genesis fascinate me to no end. I am drawn to the variety of stories being told in the ANE and the commonality of their motifs and images. I had never noticed the descriptions in Ezekiel or made the connection that they might be one of several stories about the garden of God. Sarna’s strategy of interpretation—emphasizing the differences of Genesis 1-3 from the surrounding ANE stories and understanding what the writer is trying to tell us about God—seems to me to bring the most meaning to the Bible’s first chapters. I know that many people are uncomfortable and often hostile to labeling the first stories of the scriptures as mythology, but this comes from the faulty tendency to understand myth as synonymous to lies or fairy tales rather than vehicles for communicating some of the most basic truths of life. After all, if God can communicate through parables, why can he not also communicate through myth, especially through mythology the original audience would have been very familiar with?

One of my critiques of Sarna’s coverage of Genesis 2 is his poor explanation of the significance of demythologizing the stories of the garden of God. His entire organization depends on this explanation, but he leaves to his readers what the writer of Genesis 2 is trying to accomplish by it. Perhaps, like in Genesis 1, he is denying the existence and power of the pagan gods, but this explanation seems to be lacking. Just why is it so important that the garden exist in the real world? Could it be to emphasize that man’s struggle between his own will and God’s is ever-present in this life? Sarna would have done well to give his own take on this question.

My last critique is a disappointment in Sarna’s lack of comment on the naming of the animals and the creation of Eve. I understand that to do so would break the continuity of his thought, but the effect is that there is a gaping hole in our understanding of Genesis 2. Many pages could have been written and many themes could have been drawn out by a great scholar and teacher like Nahum Sarna.


I love my church. She has a real heart for building God’s kingdom across racial and social lines. There is good teaching, encouragement, fellowship, and ministry opportunities. The gospel is going out through her.

Often, though, I find myself complaining. I know that the Church is not perfect and will alway fail in many ways, but I want to give voice to three recurring thoughts I have when I go to worship on Sundays. Maybe you can offer some insight. I wish that we:

1.  observed communion every Sunday. I find myself needing and longing for the simple physical symbols of Christ’s blood and body. He is preached from our pulpit for forty minutes every Lord’s Day, but he is presented in the elements only once a month. Is there a reason why we shouldn’t be feasting every time we meet together?

2.  we drank wine instead of grape juice during communion. I understand the objections, but I find them wanting. At least offer the wine. I want to feel the burn of the alcohol down my throat as I reflect on the cleansing power of Jesus’s blood.

3.  our tithe was enough to cover missions. Every year our congregation is asked to commit to giving beyond the ten percent offering so that we can support missionaries at home and abroad. Every year I have a violent internal reaction. I’m a teacher, I think. Tithe is already a sacrifice. Why isn’t the tithe covering missions at my church? Shouldn’t we be trying to operate on the congregation’s ten percent? Let me see that budget! What if I want to make an offering to something else of my choosing? This is hard for me. On the one hand, I understand that the building has to be paid for, the employees paid, the bills handled. My church is not irresponsible. We are not a super spending mega-church. God is doing a lot of good through us. On the other hand, I hate that my money is not going into something that feels like it has more of a direct impact on the church. I want my money to go to the poor and to sending out missionaries. My church is not the only Presbyterian church that handles missions in this way. How does yours handle the budget?

In ancient news,

1. The Vatican says it has literally uncovered the oldest images of the apostles John and Andrew in the tomb of a wealthy Christian woman of the third century. The earliest image of the apostle Paul was uncovered in the same location last year.

2. Archaeologists are unsure why there is a mass grave of babies next to a Roman villa in Britain. Perhaps, they speculate, it was being used as a brothel.

3. Minorities are angry that Angelina Jolie has been tapped to play Cleopatra in a remake of the eponymous movie, claiming that the role should have been played by an African actress. As many have pointed out, they are overlooking the fact that Cleopatra was not Egyptian; she was the last of the Ptolemies and was therefore Greek.

In movie news,

1. The first trailer for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (one of my favorites of the Narnia books) has come out. Changes have been made (Disney is no longer producing, nor is Andrew Adamson directing), but the quality of filming still looks good. Watch it on youtube.

2.  N. D. Wilson, son of pastor Douglass Wilson, is quite the rising star among Christian writers. His popular children series The 100 Cupboards is being made into a movie. He has also been hired as the screenwriter for the movie adaptation of C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

The following is Part 2 in a series reviewing the book Understanding Genesis:  The World of the Bible in the Light of History by Nahum M. Sarna.

Chapter 1A:  Creation (Genesis 1-4)

Sarna begins this first chapter by noting that there are several versions of creation in the Bible, most of them in abbreviated form. The two most famous accounts, and the longest, are found in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. In this post, I am going to focus on his comments on Genesis 1.

The key to understanding Genesis 1 lies in another creation story, the Enuma Elish of the Babylonians. Sarna gives the following summary. Before the creation of heaven and earth, all that existed was primeval water, represented by the male god Apsu of the sweet waters and his wife, the monstrous Tiamat of the salt waters. From them arose several generations of gods, the youngest of which so disturbed the peace of their first parents that Apsu tried unsuccessfully to destroy them, but Ea, god of the earth and sea, thwarted his attack.

Tiamat then amassed an army to destroy these young gods, who themselves turned to Marduk for help. After he first made them promise to make him their king, he killed Tiamat, cut her into two pieces, and used one of them to build the heavens and the other to build the earth’s foundation. Marduk next fixed the stars in their place, an activity whose details are lost due to the fragmentary nature of the fifth tablet. The other gods, who had now been given fixed assignments, complained about the continual work that was sure to await them. To solve this problem, Marduk made man out of the blood of Kingu, Tiamat’s second husband and captain of her army. Finally, the gods built Marduk a temple in Babylon and sang a hymn of praise for his victory.

Before explaining the meaning of the Enuma Elish, Sarna defines myth itself. The Greeks viewed it not as a fairy tale or a lie but as a story of the gods and their interactions with nature and man. They “have as their subjects the eternal problems of mankind communicated through the medium of highly imaginative language.” These myths were re-enacted in festival and ritual so that the creative processes they described would continue and the community be blessed.

The Enuma Elish was central to the Babylonian Spring New Year, when it was read aloud and presented in their festivals. “It was, in effect, the myth that sustained Babylonian civilization, that buttressed its societal norms and its organizations structure.” The myth explained the origin of the gods and of the world, a natural theme for the new year. It also mirrored and justified their societal structure:  man’s place in the Enuma Elish was the same as the slave in the Babylonian Empire, whereas the place of Marduk as king, which he had won by his display of power, mirrored the rule of Babylonian royalty. It explained Marduk’s ascension from the obscurity of god of Babylon to head of the Babylonian pantheon, as well as Babylon’s own ascendancy to the supreme place at the head of the world. Finally, the myth of Marduk’s victory over Tiamat meant the imposition of order over chaos. The re-enactment of the myth through the yearly festival during the vernal equinox (when the forces of night were equal to the forces of day) guaranteed the continuation of order winning out over chaos. In an environment that was no stranger to the unpredictable whims of nature, this ritual was of utmost importance.

Next, Sarna compares and contrasts the Enuma Elish with the Genesis 1:1-2:4 account of creation. The first difference he highlights is that the creation of the cosmos is not central to the Hebrew account; instead, it is introductory to the exodus of Israel. Genesis, he writes, “proclaims […] the absolute subordination of all creation to the supreme Creator who thus can make use of the forces of nature to fulfill His mighty deeds in history. It asserts[…] that the world is under the undivided and inescapable sovereignty of God.”

Secondly, the Genesis account does not justify or explain Hebrew political structure or institutions, and it was not acted out ritualistically to harness and continue the creative power of the story. It is, in fact, non-mythological in that it does not include an account of the birth of God or include any stories about him growing up, marrying, or having children. He is assumed to exist beforehand.

Because the Genesis story is not theogonic (i.e., having to do with the birth of a divinity), God is not part of or subject to nature, nor is he able to be manipulated by magic. In the Enuma Elish, by contrast, the gods arise from the pre-existing forcesTiamat and Apsu, and the universe itself is formed from Tiamat’s body. The gods and man were of the same origin and lived in the same realm. The gods were not omnipotent, nor was theirs the only power. In fact, man could learn to manipulate this other power by magic and ritual. Not so with the God of Genesis 1, who retains complete control over the chaotic forces and who creates by merely speaking the word.

Sarna points out that this creative act by means of the spoken word is wholly different from other stories where the divinity utters a spell to do his will. The Hebrew God is not harnessing the powers of creation by finding the right word; he is commanding matter, which has no choice but to do his will.

Creation by divine fiat is in itself another stark contrast between Genesis and other myths of the Middle East, in which all creative processes are the result of sexual intercourse. The first act of creation in the Enuma Elish, for instance, is the mingling of the waters between the male Apsu and the female Tiamat. In Genesis 1, on the other hand, the writer seems to go out of his way to say that “male and female he created them,” emphasizing that God actually created the differences between the sexes.

The primeval waters of the Enuma Elish seem to be present in the Genesis 1 story also. They exist before God begins to create, and like Tiamat, they are divided into two parts, the waters above and the waters below. However, unlike the unruly Tiamat, the waters in Genesis 1 are completely subject to God’s command. His spirit hovers over them before he divides them into two. He commands, and they separate from the land. He commands again, and they produce swarms of fish.

The Genesis 1 story, then, is truly illuminated by the Enuma Elish. It is the Hebrew answer to the Babylonians, a presentation of who Yahweh is by contrasting him with the gods of the ancient Middle East.

The next installment will deal with how Sarna reads Genesis 2-3. 

Okay, it’s time that you know one of my pet peeves. I can’t stand it when someone, by way of an apology, says the following:

I’m sorry if I hurt you/offended anyone/mispoke.

Or even worse:

I’m sorry if you were hurt/were offended/etc.

I can’t stand these because they are not apologies. They are conditional statements. There is no admission of guilt, only an if you felt x, then I am sorry. It’s even worse if you express your conditional statements in the passive because then you imply that the guilt really lies with the offended party. “If you were offended” implies that the other person might be a little too sensitive.

What does a real apology look like? It is an admission of guilt and a request for forgiveness. This is not an easy thing to do. I have a family member who can’t bring himself to ever say that he is sorry; it’s just too vulnerable or something. Another family member would inevitably follow his “I’m sorry” with “but” to explain that he had good reason for being provoked. An true apology looks like this,

I’m sorry THAT I offended you. I shouldn’t have said it. Please forgive me.

Practice using that formula next time. You’ll see just how difficult it is, but I think that’s the type of humility that our Lord would have us exemplify.

In the various blogs that I read on how Christianity and science interact, one title that I have not seen referenced is Understanding Genesis: The World of the Bible in the Light of History by Nahum M. Sarna. I have found it so helpful in my understanding of the early chapters of Genesis that I want to share it with others by blogging through it, at least through the chapters dealing with Genesis 1-11. Today, I will start with the introduction.

“It is nothing short of miraculous that [the Hebrew Bible], the product of a small people in a tiny segment of the ancient world […] should not only have survived, but should have conquered, too.” After all, Sarna says, it was not the only Hebrew literature. The books of the Old Testament reference over twenty other works that did not survive (e.g., the “Book of Jashar”), and there are no doubt many more. When one considers all the circumstances that had to be overcome for a work’s survival, one can understand why none of those other Hebrew works survived—books were not bought and sold as they are today because there was not really a market for them; copying books by hand was meticulous work; materials were hard to come by and easily perishable. Israel’s location made its literature even more vulnerable, as one nation after another passed through, wreaking destruction. Its climate was not suitable for the production of clay tablets, as it was in Sumeria, nor for the preservation of papyrus or skins, as in Egypt. Finally, there was no interest in the local history and religion of such a small people that would make it likely that copies would be found elsewhere, like the epic of Gilgamesh or the works of Homer.

Sarna says that the simple explanation for the survival and influence of the Hebrew scriptures is that “men firmly and fervently believed them to be the inspired word of God.” This belief continued until recent history in the West, where the influence of the Bible has reached an all-time low after its authority was brought into question by a new cosmology, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and most importantly, textual criticism.

The response of fundamentalists, Sarna writes, was hostile and self-defeating.

“They mistakenly regarded all critical biblical studies as a challenge to faith. There remained no room for the play of individual conscience; the validity of genuine intellectual doubt was refused recognition. By insisting dogmatically upon interpretations and doctrines that flagrantly contradicted the facts, the fundamentalist did not realize the self-exposure of an obvious insecurity that was more a reflection upon his own religious position than a judgment upon biblical scholarship. For it declared, in effect, that spiritual relevance can be maintained only at the expense of the intellect and the stifling of conscience.”

Far from taking this attitude, Understanding Genesis values modern science and especially biblical criticism, and through the insight they offer, finds a deeper understanding and of the message of the Old Testament. “Far from presenting a threat to faith, a challenge to the intellect may reinforce faith and purify it.” To read the opening chapters of Genesis is actually to do violence to its meaning.

“Literalism involves a fundamental misconception of the mental processes of biblical man and ignorance of his modes of self-expression. It thus misrepresents the purpose of the narrative, obscures the meaningful and enduring in it and destroys its relevancy.”

Before concluding, Sarna addresses two other concerns of literalists—the documentary hypothesis (i.e., Genesis was not written by an individual but assembled from previous sources into a single document) and the influece of other ancient neareastern cultures. While not minimizing the academic pursuit of determining what part of Genesis comes from what source, Sarna says that it is more important to study the arrangment as we have it and the purpose behind how the editor assembled it. As for the influece of surrounding peoples, Sarna points out that no nation or religion operates in a vacuum and therefore influence from others should be expected. What is more interesting and important is how the editor used already extant material in a unique way to convey his own message.

This gem of a book brings so much clarity to Genesis for me, even in the introduction. Sarna brings calm and good sense to the debate over Genesis while still treating it with great respect.

From Understanding Genesis by Nahum M. Sarna:

“Fundamentalists frequently take refuge from modern scholarship by appealing to ‘tradition,’ by which they mean medieval authority. The illegitimacy of this position as an argument of faith is, however, easily demonstrable. The medieval scholars made the most of all the limited tools at their disposal. But they did not have access, naturally, to the modern sciences of literary and textual criticism and to the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, linguistics and comparative religion. We simply do not know how they would have reacted had all this material been available to them. To assume a blind disregard of evidence on their part is as unwarranted as it is unfair.”

This quote makes a good point. I have heard many times this appeal to tradition when it comes to understanding Genesis 1-2 in a non-literal way. There was no reason for them to read it in any other light (although some certainly did) since they did not have the scientific discoveries and advancements that we have today. It is the disconnect between science and Genesis 1-2 that first forced us Christians to take a second look at our interpretations. I, for one, see nothing wrong with that.

Newsweek has an article on the resurrection written by Lisa Miller, author of Heaven:  Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife. She cites some interesting statistics:

80% of Americans believe in heaven.

70% believe that Jesus rose from the dead. (Down 10% from 2003)

26% believe that they will have bodies in heaven.

30% of respondents to a 2003 poll believed in reincarnation; 21% of them were Christian.

As N. T. Wright says in Suprised By Hope, there seems to be a lot of present confusion about what Christianity teaches on life after death. He sums up:  the New Testament and early Christians pretty unanimously attested that after death our souls are with the Lord in peace, awaiting his final return when they will be reunited with their (now glorified) bodies, which will live in the new universe.

For some reason, bodily resurrection (and according to Wright, there is no other type of resurrection) is a hard pill to swallow, as Miller’s article attests. She draws attention to how people try to get around it, by embracing a Platonic view of the soul and the body or by making the resurrection symbolic of new life. As Miller (who doesn’t believe in the resurrection herself) points out, without bodily resurrection you do not have the physical delights of heaven.

Bodily resurrection is laughed at by many, who see it for what it is–a natural impossibility. But as Jesus said to the Sadducees, “You do not know…the power of God.”


As Easter week begins, I am reminded of the king who entered Jerusalem two millenia ago, riding peacefully and meekly on a donkey’s colt. The people of Jerusalem greeted him ecstatically, no doubt seeing the arrival of the Messiah who would vanquish the Romans and make Israel a superpower. He, however, greeted them with tears, seeing their rejection of his true mission, which “would bring you peace” (Luke 19:42), and the result of their foolhardy vision of overthowing Rome–destruction in A.D. 70.

“Are you the king of the Jews,” Pilot asked him.

Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36, NIV).

I have just finished reading N. T. Wright’s Surprised By Hope, a wonderful book in which he talks about the surprise of Jesus’ resurrection and what it means for our hope. The resurrection of the Lord is the firstfruits of the coming harvest, the resurrection of all believers. It is that latter resurrection which all creation longs for.

21that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

The creation itself will be made new, just like our bodies. It is a new heaven and a new earth that Jesus came to initiate. This is the kingdom of God which he brought by his death, burial, and resurrection. It goes much deeper than earthly dreams of power, glory, and fortune. God’s kingdom is the renewal of everything, from the inside and out, starting with Jesus’ resurrection. It begins in us with the new life of the Spirit, and it continues in our own holiness and our labors in the present world to announce that the kingdom has come. As N. T. Wright stresses, what we do in this world–acts of justice, mercy, and beauty–are not in vain. God will use them when his kingdom comes in full, when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14, NIV).

Yes, King Jesus. Come.

This article from msnbc shames us all.

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'”  Matthew 25:40

Giving bread to the hungry, clothes to the naked, and aid to the orphans are all acts of kindness given to Jesus himself, according to the passage above. The opposite is also true. Denying them these things is denying Jesus. What about abusing the hungry, the naked, or the orphan? What about pulling a little deaf boy’s pants down while he is making a confession? Yes, these acts of abuse are done to the Saviour himself, and the King will judge.

Jesus doesn’t give a damn about the shame that might come to the Catholic church if such incidents should come to light. They must come to light because if they do not, the abuse will continue. This is not an issue of personal sin, repentance, and forgiveness. This is a public sin that must have public consequences. This is sexual addiction. Father Murphy reportedly molested one of his students 50 or 60 times, and he is accused of molesting about 200 students. That’s 10,000 acts of molestation, if the one particular student’s case was the norm.

Catholic clergy, you are supposed to be the shepherds of your flock, not wolves. You are supposed to protect your flock, not yourselves.

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