Friday, April 16, 2010

Bible Stories Part 1: Genesis

Sensibly, the Council of Nicea decided to put the most famous book in the Bible at the front. If they had started off with something like Joel, people could well have been put off.

The Biblical creation myth may be unusual in being quite straightforward. There are no ravens dropping rocks into the ocean, gods spitting out their semen or wars with the titans. There's just God, who makes stuff, in a particular order, is happy with it, then has a rest. Of course, God has made the first of many misjudgements with regards to his favourite creatures. It's never clear whether God is struggling to understand humanity or whether he's wilfully ignoring how his creations really think.

The story of the fall is obviously much debated, but the story of Cain and Abel is itself rather mysterious. It's not clear why God rejects Cain's offering, prompting him to murder his brother. My guess was that it is a myth related to struggles between arable farmers and herders, something that the wikipedia article confirms may be the case. Certainly there is a continued emphasis on livestock herding/farming over arable, and on animals over crops in sacrifice. Cain and Abel is just the first of a number of little stories that seem half-formed. They leave you wondering whether there's context we're missing, there are/were alternate versions, it would have made sense to people at the time, or whether the story or event was always a fragment.

Genesis itself is a series of tales that seem remarkably amoral. They're a bit like the tales of Ancient Greeks (the ones without mythical beasts), but without the flair. You get a few principles - don't murder your brother, don't sleep with other people's wives, be generous to guests and most of all, look after your family (but your daughters are less important than guests), and most of all, do what God says - but on the whole that's not what it's about.

The concluding story of Joseph is definitely the most complete and conventionally structured narrative. Joseph is also a rare sympathetic character in the first few books of the Bible. It's no wonder the story got translated into the most divine of art-forms, the musical. An interesting little tidbit from the story of Joseph is that he didn't just dole out food during the famine, he made Egyptians pay for it, so that by the end of the seven years the people of Egypt had sold all their lands and possessions, and were left as slaves to the Pharaoh.

In Genesis you start to see some of the characteristics of God that are less commonly remarked upon. We all know he's a mighty god, a jealous god, but he's also a very forgetful god. Despite insisting on all manner of signs of the covenant between himself and the descendants of Abraham, he still needs to be regularly reminded of what he promised. I get the feeling that had he not made the rainbow as a reminder of his promise never to destroy life on earth again, he really would forget. I suppose at least in this case he knows his problems, like the person who leaves post-it notes everywhere. He also has a bit of an obsession with foreskins.

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