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The following is Part 4 in a series reviewing the book Understanding Genesis: The World of the Bible in the Light of History by Nahum M. Sarna.

Chapter 1C: Genesis 3-4

It is a bit artificial to divide Sarna’s first chapter, which focuses on Genesis 1-4, into sections as I have done in these past four blog posts. Doing so makes it seem like the author is examining these chapters individually, but he does not. Genesis 3, then, is part of his ongoing discussion on Genesis 2.

Having focused on the garden of Eden and the two trees at its center, Sarna next looks briefly at the serpent. He notes that the creature is a common feature of Near Eastern religion, symbolizing both deity and fertility, but, as so often happens in the opening chapters of Genesis, the writer/editor of chapter 3 reduces him to a mere creature of God, devoid of magical properties. Unlike Adam and Eve, the serpent is not dignified with an interrogation by God after the act of disobedience, nor does he say anything in God’s presence. This seems to be an intentional attack against and negation of the pagan cultures surrounding Israel. Sarna, however, does not address the possibility that this episode is alluding to the lure of nearby religions for Israel’s devotion. Instead, he interprets the snake’s role as tempter in light of the cosmic conflict between God and Leviathan, since this creature of chaos who opposes God is commonly described as a serpent (cf. Isaiah 27:1 and Job 26:13).

Sarna concludes chapter 3 by noting the difference of emphasis in Genesis 2-3 from other Near East cultures. They are focused on gaining immortaility as seen from the prominent usage of the tree of life symbol, but the Hebrews are focused on godliness. The serpent’s temptation to become like God is a distortion of the need to emulate his character into the desire to be like him in power. Adam and Eve’s disobedience shows that we are indeed free to obey or disobey, and their punishment teaches that evil comes from our own decision to rebel and is not inherent in creation. This principle of human freedom and the consequences of disobedience is illustrated nicely in Genesis 4 with the story of Cain and Abel.

First, though, Sarna rejects the interpretation that this episode reflects a preference in Israel for the nomadic lifestyle rather than the agricultural one, as some have commonly posited based on the rejection of farmer Cain’s offering and the acceptance of the shepherd Abel’s. He notes that the evidence for a nomadic ideal in Israel is very flimsy and that the opening chapters of Genesis itself argue against it. It is, after all, Adam’s occupation both in the garden and after his expulsion, and the sons of Cain after him are not given their father’s punishment. Instead, they the inventors of herding cattle, playing music, and working metal, all of which are “the three pillars of semi-nomadic culture.” Cain and Abel are treated as individuals, not types, and interpretating the story in that way departs from the intentions of the author.

Next, Sarna argues that the Cain and Abel story’s incompletion is an indication that it existed elsewhere as an independent and complete story. He notes that there is no explanation given for why Cain’s offering is rejected; how God communicated his opinion of the two offerings; who Cain, one of only a few humans alive, was afraid might kill him; where the “land of Nod” is; who inhabited it; and how he got a wife there. Such questions are often answered by literalists in terms of Adam’s descendents multiplying and Cain marrying one of his sisters or relatives, but this explanation seems to me to do injustice to the story. It seems more likely that this episode was pulled from tradition by the writer/editor and used for his own purposes in compiling Genesis. Questions about where Cain got his wife were not that important to him.

Sarna’s commentary on the story begins with the idea of worship. Cain and Abel both make an offering to God without any indication from the text that they were commanded to do so. To make a sacrifice to God, then, is an innate desire, but even this can be corrupted, as the story tells us. There is not an explicit reason given for why God accepts or rejects the offerings, but we do read that “Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground” while Abel “brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions” (Gen. 4:3-4). Worship, then, is a matter of the heart, not of form.

The story also continues the idea of man’s ability to choose between good and evil. God’s warning to Cain that sin’s “disire is for you, but you must master it” (Gen. 4:7) indicates the presence of a conflict within us between good and evil and the necessity of mastering the latter. Of course, Cain’s failure indicates our need for God’s power in overcoming the evil within.

Sarna also points out that even though the reader knows that Cain and Abel are brothers, the chapter indicates this fact seven separate times. The point of this emphasis is brought out in verse 9: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is that we are indeed our brothers’ keepers, and furthermore, “that all homicide is at the same time fratricide.”

Sarna draws out a few other points, as well. He addresses the fact that there was an unspoken moral law forbidding murder and that it is a sin against society and against God; the question of why God did not carry out the penalty against Cain for murder; and the principle that acts of injustice cry out to God.

I appreciate looking at Genesis 3 and 4 through Sarna’s lens. His commentary on Cain and Able especially shows me how much meaning and richness is packed into Genesis and how much we can gain from understanding something about the nature of ANE culture. When the distraction of wondering how Cain found a wife is removed, the story has a lot more to tell us. To me, the historicity of this story does not negate God’s inspiration. He is free to use this medium as he is free to use others.

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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.

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. 

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