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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.


Joel Osteen says God doesn’t want us to eat pork or shellfish. I disagree, but let’s hear him out first.

Dr. Don Colbert, author of What Would Jesus Eat? seems to agree with Osteen. The summary on the inside cover of his book reads, “In this comprehensive eating program, Dr. Colbert reveals that Jesus’ diet is the ideal choice for those struggling in America’s food-frenzied culture. Thousands of years ago, God laid out a sensible approach to eating, with predictable results: a healthy body and long life.”

I know and have heard of fellow Christians who have decided to follow the dietary laws and prohibitions of the Old Testiment because they think they lead to good health. They believe that when God prescribed these commandments to the Israelites, he had their health in mind (at least partly). I suspect that some Christians for similar reasons believe that circumcision is healthier than leaving the penis intact. When I decided not to circumcise my son, for instance, my mom challenged the decision by asking me why I thought God required it of the ancient Israelites.

It’s not that I disagree with Mr. Osteen and others that pigs and shellfish are scavengers and are probably not the healthiest of animals to eat, but to say that the Bible mandates that we not eat certain foods is contrary to what the new covenant teaches, at least as I have always understood it. The council of Jerusalem’s decision as communicated by James in Acts 15 was:

It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.

In 1 Timothy 4, Paul seems to have something to say about clean and unclean foods when he writes:

3They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. 4For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.

Again, in Romans 14, Paul writes:

14As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself.

I understand that the specific instances Paul was addressing above were likely different from the present topic (especially the Romans passage, where Paul talks about food offered to idols), but the underlined phrases seem to set forth a general principle. No foods are unclean for Gentile Christians.

So what is meant by “unclean” anyway? Osteen seems to have in mind “unhealthy” or “unsanitary,” and he views the purpose of the prohibitions to be health-related. Exactly where in the Bible does it say that God had the Israelites’ health in mind, though? It doesn’t, as far as I know, and to view the commands in this way is thereforean an assumption. Even so, I’m a bit undecided on this. On the one hand, it is easy to see that most of the ceremonial laws maintained health and sanitation for Israel, but on the other hand, to assume that these are the primary or only reasons for the commandments may get us into sticky situations.

There is an excellent article by a guy named Ernest L. Martin on the subject, which you can read here. He astutely points out that any modern Christian trying to keep the dietary laws had best not eat in an American restaurant, since the oven, knives, and pots used in the preparation of his clean meat (beef, lamb, etc.) were undoubtedly used in the preparation of unclean meats (pork, shrimp, etc.) and are therefore unclean according to Leviticus 11:32-35. He quotes a scholar named Michael Friedlander from his book Jewish Religion:

We must take care that we do not consider these precepts exclusively as sanitary regulations, however important such regulations may be. We must not lose sight of the fact that Holiness is the only object of the Dietary Laws, mentioned in the Pentateuch.

Martin also points out that in Genesis 9, God blessed Noah and made no restrictions on what he could eat.

1 Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. 2 The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. 3 Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. 4 “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.

To sum up, I do not argue with anyone about the fact that many or even all of the restrictions and proscriptions result in good health, and it even seems likely that God was preserving his people’s health. It is extra-biblical, however, to read the definitions of clean and unclean animals, things, and practices as a health book. A lot of wrong conclusions can be drawn. For instance, does anyone know for certain if rabbits, which are unclean, are in fact unhealthy to eat? I have no idea, but I would tend to think that like other game, their meat is healthy. Again, I don’t know the answer. What about insects, which are also unclean? Are they unhealthy to eat? I seem to remember that some are actually good sources of protein.

Furthermore, saying that God wants us to observe the dietary restrictions leads to inconsistancy and opens the door for a lot of other regulations that we ought to be keeping. If we start eating clean meats because we think the Bible mandates it, what prevents us from observing the requirements for keeping our cooking utensils and ovens ceremonially clean? What about the other commandments about being ceremonially clean?

I have always found interpreting the Old Testament laws to be a sticky and confusing issue. For instance, (way too much information coming), when I first got married, I had to work through the issue of whether or not it was permissable to have sex during my wife’s menstruation cycle. Leviticus 18:19 is tucked in a series of moral commandments that we would all agree still apply. Why should I throw out only this restriction? What do you guys think about dietary laws, circumcision, etc.?

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