Sunday, January 29, 2012

Having Trouble With Genesis

No profound insights or conclusions here, just something that I noticed recently that has been nagging at me.

The Old Testament readings appointed for the Daily Office in Year 2 begin with Genesis so that by the time we get to the end of Lent we are reading about the plagues in Egypt and, in the first week of Easter, the story of the Exodus.

Last night, the eve of the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Abraham was visited by the "three angels" (about which I have some things I do want to say in another post that was meant for yesterday but for which I didn't have time...), and today God (at least in the text...) turns his attention toward Sodom and the evil people who live there. In a remarkable exchange, Abraham wants to know if there might yet be any "righteous" people in Sodom, and whether God intends to destroy them along with the evildoers. As it is rendered in the KJV (18:25), "That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?"

Abraham gets God to agree that if there are fifty righteous people in Sodom, he will spare the city. "But...what if there are only 45?" asks Abraham. God concedes that is close enough. "What if there are only 40?" God says, "Okay, for forty righteous people, I will spare the city," and so forth, on down to 10. (And now I want to ask Abraham, why did you stop at 10? What if there is only one righteous person in Sodom?)

Here's my question: how does God define "righteousness" at this point?

Just before the story of Abraham we have the story of Noah, where the Bible tells us that the entire world, save Noah, was so awful and wicked that every last human on earth had to be destroyed; and not only the humans, but all of the animals, except for a breeding pair of every kind, to be taken into the ark to start over.

I have a LOT of questions, of course. Like, what is the point, really, of killing off all the animals because of the wickedness of humanity? And, even if that were necessary, why can't God just start over with a new creation? And why does there have to be a natural disaster, a physical cause for the death of all life on the earth -- couldn't God just snap his fingers and presto! everybody's gone?

But all of that is secondary and trivial in the shadow of my larger question: how does God define "righteous" and "unrighteous" and "evil"?

There are no ten commandments. There's no torah. Certainly no Gospels. God has told people to "be fruitful and multiply," but that's about it. He has, so far as the Bible tells us thus far, not sent any prophets to teach or warn people. If God has not yet set forth laws and expectations and given humanity some frame of reference upon which to determine morality, then how does he condemn them as immoral? As so hopelessly evil that they have to be destroyed?

I'm probably missing the point. The Bible, I know well -- particularly this part of it -- cannot be read too literally, or you'll miss the forest for the trees, as I am almost certainly doing.

My guess, at this point, is that there is an assumption that even if it hasn't yet been written out on stone, God's law (which can be summed up as: love God, love your neighbor), was already written on the hearts of humanity. That humans came with at least a vague understanding that "God is good." That's how Abraham can question God's intention to destroy Sodom: "Surely the judge of all will not destroy the good with the wicked?"

I often think that the reason that there is so much emphasis on "Adam and Eve" and "creation" and "Sodom and Gomorrah" is because many people who set out to "read the Bible" start with page 1 and just keep going until they can't -- which I'm guessing is somewhere toward the end of Exodus, or somewhere in Leviticus, or certainly by Numbers. What starts as a series of really dramatic stories becomes an endless list of strange and repetitive regulations, many of which are irrelevant to modern life. So this is the part of the Bible with which they are most familiar (and also because the stories of Genesis and the patriarchs form the basis of a lot of early Sunday School education).

It's easy to get the idea from Genesis that God is easily angered and that the result is terrible destruction. I think this is why so many "casual Christians" buy easily into the notion that God sends plagues like HIV/AIDS to destroy the sexually immoral; in their limited understanding, it seems perfectly consonant with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. And it's easy to understand why so many people turn away from Christianity altogether; if stories like the flood and Sodom and Gomorrah are what you know, then it seems in rather hopeless conflict with the idea that "God is good."

Just thinking out loud.


hesternopothia said...

The 2/1/12 liturgical O.T. reading about David echoes your flood and S&G examples. I have no insights. I believe the answer likes in what you wrote about not taking the Bible too literally and that God is good.

I doubt God was so actively involved. I tend to believe God was inserted in to the narrative as a way of understanding and explaining the unexplainable.

kr said...

In Catholic theology there is some explicit stuff about the Laws of God being written into every human heart yada yada ... perhaps ironically, this is the basis for one of the weirdest theological arguments I ever had, where I (the Catholic, popularly believed to be very backwards about this sort of thing) defended all night long the assertion that non-Christians could get into heaven.

Of course, the Catholic Church also has all sorts of confounding things to say about "properly developed conscience" and "original sin" that suggest there isn't firm ground here, but ... well, when you are tyring to stand on that early OT stuff, the ground is a bit squishy.

Did you ever read "When God Was a Woman?" She had some *really* interesting stuff to say about various WTF moments in the OT. (me: "OH! Is *that* what that meant?!? It makes so much more *sense* now!!") Eg: poking out one eye of every man in a conquered city, one of the prophets getting all grumpy about his wife going down to the Temple to worship, why the Snake talking to the Woman is somehow the ultimate picture of evil to the people setting a new religious course ... it wouldn't necessarily solve all theological conundrums ;), but it is interesting comparative reading.

Andy said...

Hmm, I am not familiar with that book, but it does sound very interesting. More fully embracing (on a heart-level, rather than an intellectual level) the femininity of God is one of my long-term projects.