Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Curse in Retrospect (Genesis 11)


I’m not an expert on mythology, but I do remember a distinct attitude from a few I’ve read. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the gods are portrayed as cruel – dangling immortality before mortals’ eyes while firmly keeping us in our place. In Greek mythology, the gods are horrified when one of them slips up and gives fire to man. Ancient man seems to have envied and resented the gods for what they had and refused to share.

I see this attitude in Genesis, reinforcing the serpent’s assessment: “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” God seems to agree: “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” Apparently, God expels them to protect himself from a potential rival.

I sense this theme again in the tower of Babel incident. Seeing the construction of the tower, God worries, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible to them.” So he confuses their languages and scatters them across the face of the earth. Close call there – God 2, Man 0.

Not a flattering picture of God, and not a terribly comforting situation for us humans – if this were the end of the story. As it is, I know how the story progresses, which helps reinterpret the bleak picture that comes from taking Genesis on face value.

God did create man in his own image, and hence the desire to be “like God, knowing good and evil” wasn’t misguided (although the disobedience was). The resulting curse seems to prevent man from achieving divinization by eating from the tree of life, but this is because God has something different up his sleeve. In the fullness of time God, embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, embraces the full brunt of the curse. Jesus’ death reverses it, and brings resurrection and new creation. Man shares in this triumph by being “in Christ” – not escaping death but being united with Jesus in his death, and thereby also sharing in his resurrection and glorification – yes, even in his divinity as adopted sons of God.

Then we have Pentecost, with fascinating parallels to Babel. The followers of Jesus are united in one mind, staying together in one place. God intervenes and gives them new languages, only instead of dividing them these languages bring together people of different cultures in God’s new humanity. They then scatter throughout the Earth, building the towering kingdom of God on the rock foundation of Christ.

I think this is the key to understanding God’s actions in the Garden and at Babel. He intends man to be “like God” all along, but He knows that the road to this glory is down, not up. It is the way of suffering, estrangement, exile, hardship, and death.

Might the curse actually be, in J. R. R. Tolkien’s words, “the gift of God to man”?

Comments:
"Not a flattering picture of God, and not a terribly comforting situation for us humans – if this were the end of the story. As it is, I know how the story progresses, which helps reinterpret the bleak picture that comes from taking Genesis on face value."

Yes; interesting though that the people who told this story, and for whom the story was told, did NOT know how the story progresses. Interesting implications for the nation of Israel? Interesting implications for our understanding of Genesis? Interesting implications for our interpretation of the rest of Israel's history?
 

So you didn't touch on what was my big childhood question in this story... was every single person in the whole wide world so irredeemable, and Noah and his sons so much more virtuous? And of course there's the childish-but-worthy-of-attention "What about the kids?" What does it say about God? Surely it says something of his grace to those upon whom his favor rests, but what about those just born to the wrong parents, or those who just don't know any better? Was all of humanity really so much more vile than Noah?
 

Catherine,

Would you like to share some of these interesting implications with us? ;-)

Honestly, I think what I was talking about is little more than a tone - it's not the heart of the first 11 chapters of Genesis. God doesn't send the flood because he feels threatened but because of his disgust for the violence and wickedness of man, and that story ends with an amazing promise of commitment and renewal.

I actually think the suspicious tone is more jarring to us than it would be for the Israelites back then. After all, this was just par the course for religion back then - gods were vindictive and mean and petty. Israel's god turns out to be head and shoulders above the rest.
 

Em -

You posted this in the wrong place, but perhaps it would be more confusing for me to answer it somewhere else!

I think that perhaps this is the wrong place to deal with the collective guilt question. There will be plenty of more opportune places, like the conquest of Canaan.

As far as Noah's righteousness, if we're still in the more blurry mythological stuff, then its vain to ask too many of those sorts of nit-picky questions anyway - where did Cain find a wife, how was there evening and morning without the sun and moon, etc. We're not really given an example of how Noah was righteous, other than his faith in God to obey him and build the ark.

If the picture I painted is at all accurate, then it wouldn't even have to be that Noah was so great in and of himself, but that God could see in him something that smelled of his original intensions. Maybe Noah saw someone being accused of something and took the blame on himself and endured a slap in the face, and God saw in that moment a prototype of what his Son would do on the cross.

But again, I don't think this sort of speculation is really all that useful - the story is about God's wrath toward spoiled goodness held in tension with his commitment to see creation turn out right in the end.
 

I would imagine that I will be covering familiar scenery here, but it seems like some questions are posed here that actually have some biblically sound answers. Maybe not the correct answers, but at least answers that do not contradict anything in the text.

Where did Cain get his wife? Same place everyone else in the first few generations of history got their spouses from. Brothers and sisters and cousins, and yes, probably nieces and nephews and aunts and uncles got married. It could hardly be any other way. This is no more of a stretch than to say that humans emerged from a population of prehuman ancestors which they left behind genetically. And it is really much more credible than the idea that they was a splitting off and a reuniting and second splitting off of humans and chimps. In the early post-Fall world there was not yet time for genetic disorders to accumulate and create the inbreeding problems that would inhere to a similar situation today.

How could there be an evening and morning without the sun? God did not need the sun to make periods of light and darkness, and from His vantage point, the days of creation before the sun were evening and morning--one day.

Why save Noah's family and not everyone else? Everyone may not accept this explanation, but there is a long and honorable history of viewing the "sons of God" taking the "daughters of men" as referring to fallen angels taking on human form to intermarry and corrupt the bloodline of Messiah. The Nephalim which resulted were a super race of human and nonhuman mixture. Satan knew that while God planned to redeem man, there was to be no remedy for the rebellious angels. So if he could corrupt man's identity as man he would thwart God's plan to redeem man. Noah's family were likely the last truly human family on the planet. Of course not all of this chain of reasoning is explicitly spelled out in the text, but neither is it inconsistent with the text.

What about the kids? Sadly thus it has always been and thus it will always be in a fallen world. The children suffer for the wrongs of their parents and in time go on to foul the nest for their own children. I guess I don't see how we can implicate God in all of this unless we want to say He ought to have wiped us out right at the beginning when the first sin was committed.
 

Cheesehead,

I think most of us are indeed aware of these answers. My point wasn't that these questions are unanswerable from a literalist reading, but that they are the wrong sort of questions to be asking. They are not, IMHO, the sort of questions that Genesis was written to address. Since we are deviating from the heart of the matter, I think this should be a danger sign to us - that we are approaching the book from the wrong angle.
 

WFO, you did not exactly say in your response,"Genesis was not written to tell the how and when, but the who and why." However, your response did sound congruous with that statement. If you would like to distance yourself from my characterization of your answer I will certainly accept that. If you can expand upon the difference I will be happier still.

If you accept my recapitulation of your response as indication I have understood your meaning, I move on to this question. How are we to know that certain lines of inquiry into the message of the text are, for want of a better term, proper, and that others are improper? Isn't that just another way of developing a hermeneutic that let's us avoid the scandal of the cross?

I would say that in the present climate the scandal of the cross includes not only the scandal of Christ's death and resurrection to redeem us and put things back to right. This, after all, can be construed in such a way as to be made acceptable and even downright respectable to the fallen mind, if enough caveats are allowed about the "true" nature of the resurrection. Perhaps as big or even bigger a part of the scandal of the cross is the necessary background of Genesis which presents an unfallen world very different from the accepted models of nature red in tooth and claw. (As you may have noticed I really like that description of evolutionary cosmology. Hope you don't mind me chewing up your bandwidth by repeating it so much.) Combine that with the special creation of just one man and one woman from whom we all descend, and who were personally and unequivocally responsible for choosing disobedience; and that disobedience being imputed to each and every descendent; and you have the makings of a real scandalon.
 

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