A Closer Look at Genesis 1-25
By Merle Hertzler
We have seen that the Bible is sometimes mistaken, and have found problems with the morality taught there. Some may argue that the problems involve only a few passages. They would urge me to move beyond the troublesome verses so I can grasp the message of hope found there. Well, I don't dispute that the book may have some good advice and inspiring passages, as do many other books. So I can read it as I read many other books, to see what I can learn. But, on the other hand, I cannot simply shrug off the problems of the Bible as though there are only a few difficult verses. The problem is much deeper than that. There are contradictions, errors, atrocities, or irrelevant details on virtually every page. You don't agree with me? Have you read all of it? Unless you have read it all, how can you say there is nothing wrong with the book?
Before we move on, let us take a closer look at the first half of Genesis. This exercise will help us to understand the extant of the problem.
We begin at Genesis 1, where we find the story of Creation. This account has long troubled scientific-minded Christians. Genesis appears to teach a creation that took only 6 days, in complete contradiction to the known scientific data. There are various interpretations of this chapter that avoid the conflict. I will address here the most common solution, that each "day" in Genesis represents many millions of years. This does seem to me to be a forced interpretation. And it still does not solve the problem. For instance, Genesis says that land animals were created after birds. This is not the order found by science. Genesis also says the sun, moon, and stars were created after plants. If a day is millions of years long, how could there be plants millions of years before the sun existed? Would not all the plants have died without sunlight? Of course one can modify the interpretation of the book of Genesis so that the reference to the creation of stars doesn't really mean the creation of stars but means something else, such as the clearing of the atmosphere so stars are seen better. But all that seems like a stretch to me. With enough of effort one can interpret Genesis to match science, but one wonders, if the book intended to teach what science teaches, could not the author have expressed himself more clearly?
Not only is the order mixed up, but there are some rather odd comments found in this chapter. Genesis 1:6 specifies that one of the six creation days was spent making an expanse or firmament (Hebrew raqiya), which separated the "waters above" from the waters below. Now what was that firmament, and why did it take one sixth of the creation week to create it? Within ancient cosmology, it was easy to understand what this meant. The ancients taught that there was a huge dome over the earth which supported the sun, moon, and stars. Above this dome there were vast stores of water. When the "floodgates of heaven" were opened, rain came down unto the earth (See Gen 7:11) The firmament (expanse) that God created on day 2 appears to be a reference to this dome. Modern believers have tried to teach that the firmament means something else such as the dry land or the atmosphere. But Genesis 1:14-17 says the stars are in that firmament (or expanse). If the stars are in the firmament, and rain comes from waters that are above the firmament, then the rain clouds must be above the stars. This is obviously not the case. Could it be that the cosmology taught in Genesis is obsolete?
Genesis 1:14 says the stars are there for signs. This is, of course, what many ancients taught, that the stars and planets were astrological signs of events on earth. Astrology has been disproven by science, and is even condemned in other scriptures. Somehow the writer of Genesis declares that the stars were put there for signs. Could it be that Genesis is mistaken?
Moving on to Chapter 2, we find a different account of creation. Here, the beasts are created after Adam (2:18-19). This contradicts the account in chapter 1, where the beasts are created first.
Further, we find that all the beasts and the birds were named by Adam, and that whatever name he gave them, that was their name. How could he name all of the millions of species? How did Adam remember all of those names? Are we really to believe that Adam named the kangaroo, polar bear, and lama, for example, even though they all live far from Adam's home in the Middle East? Must we believe that people who later moved out from the Middle East--assuming the Bible account is correct--called these animals by the names that Adam had given them? It strains imagination, but somehow we are asked to believe that all beasts have the names that Adam gave them.
As Adam was naming them we are told that none of the beasts was found suitable as a mate for Adam. Darn right! The jungle is a bad place to find a date! Can you imagine Adam's look as the elephant, walrus, and wild boar passed before him? None of those was quite what Adam was looking for. (Thankfully, he didn't say, "I'll take that one" when the female gorilla passed.)
We are told that God made Eve to be Adam's mate, and they settled down in the garden, where they were given this rule: "Don't eat of the fruit of The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil." Now the Bible tells us they got this command straight from Yahweh (Jehovah). You probably don't see the word Yahweh in your translation, as translators usually translate it as LORD . I will use the word Yahweh here instead of LORD, because I think it gives a better sense of the original meaning. This Yahweh is said to have walked in the garden and talked with them.
We are told that Adam and Eve talked not only with Yahweh, but also with a snake. This must have been some garden! The animals talked! The snake had a different story. He told them that if they would only eat, they would become like a god, and know good and evil. Now Adam and Eve had to make a decision. Two talking creatures had given them advice. One said not to eat; one said to eat. Who should they listen to? Christians "know" the correct answer. But how could Adam and Eve possibly have known who was telling the truth? You may say that you know that Yahweh is always right, but even if that is so, how were Adam and Eve to know that? Some say they should have known that Yahweh was right because Yahweh had created the world. But how would that make him right? Are not creators sometimes mistaken? Exodus 8:7 tells us that false magicians created frogs in Egypt. This does not prove that those false magicians should be worshipped, does it? So a being that creates life is not automatically entitled to blind obedience is he? And besides, how would they have known that Yahweh was the creator? According to Genesis 1, everything else was made before Adam and Eve, so they never actually saw the creation. You may say that Yahweh could have told them he was the creator. Okay, but they would have had only his word for it. What if the snake also claimed to be creator? How could they possibly tell who was the real creator?
The story appears to teach blind obedience to the mightiest being. Genesis infers that Yahweh was the mightiest, and that therefore we should do whatever Yahweh says, without trying to analyze the morality of the commanded action. This is the gospel of might-makes-right. This is the gospel of blind obedience to a power structure.
Now sometimes blind obedience to the mightiest authority makes sense for practical reasons. But if it appears that the authority is wrong, is it evil to think for ourselves? If power leads astray, is it not okay to oppose that power? Is it evil to want knowledge of right and wrong?
So Adam and Eve were given advice from two creatures. They listened to both, and then made a decision. And for that they are condemned?
After they eat, we are told that Yahweh searches for them and finally finds them--Why must an omniscient God search?--and he pronounces some curses. Earlier we had been told that humans would die on the day they ate of the fruit. Now we find that they did not die as foretold. Instead, according to the Bible, Adam did not die for another 930 years. So had Yahweh been mistaken when he said they would die that day? Instead, Yahweh pronounces curses.
First, the snake is cursed to crawl on his belly and eat dirt. But snakes do not eat dirt as the curse says. And snakes have always crawled on their bellies. Snakes without legs have been around for millions of years before there were people. So how can crawling-on-his-belly be a curse for this snake? Snakes like to crawl on their bellies, for it allows them to sneak up on prey. They don't think their mode of transportation is a curse. So why does the writer say this is a curse on the snake?
Next Yahweh pronounces a curse on the woman, condemning her to painful childbirth and declaring that she will be ruled by her husband. This unfortunate view of women as a baby-making machine that does what the husband demands has been taught by many ever since. Do you see why some think this is a degrading view of women?
And then we find a curse on the man. We learn that thorns and thistles will grow in the ground, and man will need to earn his living by the sweat of his brow. But there were weeds for millions of years before there were people. How can weeds be given as a curse upon people? And if sweating to overcome weeds is part of the curse, why didn't somebody tell John Deere this? Farmers toiled for years in the hot sun, just as the curse said, but then men like Cyrus McCormick and John Deere came along with machines to make work easier. And soon an army of engineers tackled the problem. And now farmers sit in the air-conditioned cabs of tractors and listen to the stereo as they pull a disk-harrow across the field. Farming is still hard work, yes, but it is nothing like the sweat-of-the-brow toil of the ancient Mideast farmers. If this sweat and toil is indeed a curse that God has put on us, how is it that scientists and engineers removed the curse? Are engineers who design labor-saving devices going against the plan of God? If God is all-powerful, and wants us to be under a sweat-of-the-brow curse, how is the curse now so easily avoided? Since we all try to make life easier, could it be that there was no need for that curse after all?
And some of us get our food, neither by the sweat of our brow nor by driving a tractor, but by visiting the supermarket. As we select from the seemingly endless aisles of conveniently packaged foods, how can we even remotely be described as suffering from a curse on the food supply? We are like teenagers who, although grounded to our rooms, have slipped out the window and are partying together. What about the curse on the ground? Who gave us the right to enjoy food without pulling weeds? The next time you stop at a drive-thru restaurant on the way home from church to pick up a prepared meal, remember that the black book on the seat beside you says that the ground is cursed, and that you can get food only by the sweat of your brow. Could that book be mistaken?
And if you say the curse was nullified by Jesus, why is it that some found abundant sources of food-without-sweat long before Jesus? And why is it that many Christians after Christ did not enjoy the abundant food supply? Why do scientists and engineers seem to be more effective than preachers at finding new ways to overcome weeds?
And speaking of nullifying the curse, women now have far less pain in childbirth. Yes, it is still very hard--we should all be thankful to our mothers--but women today do not face nearly as much danger and pain as ancient women faced when they gave birth in a tent in the hot desert sun. If pain in childbirth is God's plan, then why bypass God's plan with an epidural? Somehow we all know that pain is not good, and we all work to minimize it.
Not only is the original curse seemingly invalid in modern times, but we find Christianity has expanded the curse taught in Genesis. We now hear that we were condemned to eternal hell because of Adam's sin. But the writer of Genesis never remotely warns of a future hell or mentions life after death. Surely if hell was a result of the curse on sin, it would be the most important consequence of sin. But the writer of Genesis fails to mention hell or eternity.
Whatever the curse is, one wonders why Adam's descendants should bear it. Was it not Adam and Eve who sinned? Why should we be punished for their sin? It makes no sense.
Let's move on to chapter 4, where Adam's son Cain, the farmer, presents fruit from the ground to God, but brother Abel, the herder, presents a sheep. Now it just so happens that the God of the Hebrew shepherds preferred the sheep of the shepherds over the fruit of the farmers. We are not told why, but one has to wonder if the author was biased by the fact that he was part of a nation of shepherds, not farmers. Regardless, we are told Cain was angry at the rejection by God, so he kills Abel and is condemned to wander the earth. In spite of the fact that Adam's family was supposedly the only family on earth at that time, somehow the fugitive Cain finds a wife--where in the heck did he find her?--and he builds a city. Wait. He builds a city? That doesn't sound like a fugitive's life to me. Some would say Cain got away with murder. He settles down with a wife and builds a city. His descendents include "the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe", and a "forger of all implements of bronze and iron", not bad for humans that were only several generations away from the first human. And this was Cain's punishment?
In chapter 5 we find that almost everybody in the line from Adam to Noah lived over 900 years. Now, of course, we know that such lifespans are impossible, but somehow we are asked to believe it.
In chapter 6 we find the story of "the sons of God" inseminating "the daughters of man" and producing giants known as "Nephilim". All of this may baffle modern readers, but the ancients would have easily identified this with the story of gods impregnating women and producing monster-men as found in the book of Enoch. Somehow this bizarre story has slipped into the Bible. (See If it Walks Like a Duck offsite). The writer of Genesis treats this story as though it really happened. As for you, do you believe this really happened? It is in the Bible, after all.
We find that God's response to women breeding with gods is to flood the whole earth and kill everybody. I have discussed the scientific problems with a global flood elsewhere, so I will move on. Here we will simply question the reason for it all. If God really wanted to destroy the wicked people, why didn't he just do it? Why did he devastate the whole ecology with a massive flood? And what about all of the innocent babies? What had they done to deserve death? Why was everyone wiped out? Somehow we are asked to believe that thousands of innocent babies were drowned.
The writer seems to recognize the cruelness of it all, and we are promised that it will never happen again, with the rainbow serving as a sign of this promise. But of course, rainbows are a natural phenomenon, that occur when sunlight passes through water droplets suspended in the air. This would surely have occurred long before there were people (unless the laws of physics were radically different). If a rainbow is a promise that there will be no more global floods, how did this global flood appear millions of years after the first rainbow?
Somehow we are told that the earth survived this massive ecological disaster. A dove even returns to the ark with a leaf of an olive tree. How this tree survived after being covered with water that towered above Mount Everett is anybody's guess. Not only did this tree survive, but somehow there must have been plenty of food for all the animals as they disembarked. How did all these plants grow back so rapidly after the devastation? Was it a miracle? But if God worked such a miracle, why did he not do the far simpler miracle of killing the bad people and getting on with it?
In chapter 9 we find Noah out of the ark, drunk and naked. One wonders if Yahweh had second thoughts about the man he chose to save. Noah is seen by his son Ham, who tells his brothers. They cover Noah up. When Noah wakes up, he pronounces a curse on Ham. But what had Ham done? Was it not Noah that had acted immaturely? Some will tell me that Ham may have also done some other sin that was not mentioned, and he was being punished for this unmentioned sin. But why does the Bible not mention the real problem? Why does it tell us he saw and was punished if the punishment was actually for something else? Not only is Ham punished, but we find a curse on Ham's son Canaan--and by implication on Canaan's descendents--to be punished with a life of servitude. But what had Canaan done to deserve this? And what had the descendents done? For some reason, they are required to bear the curse that, in practice, was used to justify using the Canaanites as slaves. Where is the justice in all this?
In chapter 10 we read about the descendents of Noah. As I read through this genealogy--and the many other genealogies in the Bible--I am reminded of Titus 3:9 where it says that genealogies are unprofitable. I agree. But somehow the Old Testament writers thought these genealogies were of great importance, and they dedicated considerable space to them. Why should we carry a book with all these useless genealogies?
In chapter 11 we read of the people working together to build a great tower, the Tower of Babel. Now one might think that God would be impressed with this display of unity and creativity, but no, we are told that God was upset that the people were united as one people, for "now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them." Ignoring the hyperbole here--how could finite humans be capable of everything?--it is true that when people are united they can do great things. This is the great secret of networking, which is promoted by self-help gurus and many preachers. But wait! God has a solution to keep these people from their plans. What does he do? He destroys their ability to network! He suddenly changes the people so they start to speak different languages, and the people find themselves in utter confusion, unable to understand each other. Imagine the change that must have happened to these people! They lost all ability to comprehend the primary language they had known all of their lives, and suddenly learned to speak and think in a whole new language with a whole new grammar. What a change that was! It must have required a complete rewrite of each person's mental content to effect this change. Somehow, each person maintained his continuity as a person, and found others who spoke the same language as he now did so he could begin a new life with just those whom he could understand. Can you understand why modern views of the development of languages bear little similarity to this story?
The inability of humans to understand each other has contributed to much of the division and wars in the world. Language barriers have made it very difficult for different peoples to work together. And here we are told that this inability to understand was exactly what God had planned. Why? Because we are told that the people were all networking before the Tower of Babel, and accomplishing too much. We are told that God designed the confusion. Ever since we have struggled to overcome this barrier and build better communication with other peoples.
In chapter 12 we meet Abram (Abraham). What a guy he was. He travels to Egypt with his wife, Sarai--who was also his half-sister--and Pharaoh is impressed with the hot chick he is with. So what does Abraham do? He tells a half-truth, saying that Sarah was his sister, and Pharaoh takes Sarai as his wife. We read in verse 17 that, "the LORD struck Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram's wife." But what had Pharaoh done wrong? He didn't know Sarai was married. Abraham had lied. Why wasn't Abraham punished instead of Pharaoh? Somehow, Abraham got away with it, and God sees that Sarai is returned to him. Interestingly, Abraham will later pull the same trick on Abimelech in chapter 20, and once more, it will be Abimelech, not Abraham who gets in trouble for Abraham's lie.
Moving on to chapter 16, we find barren Sarai with a scheme to get a child, and that is to have Abraham impregnate the slave Hagar. When the deed is done, Sarai becomes jealous. Abraham turns his back as Sarai treats Hagar harshly. Hagar flees to the wilderness in desperation, but she is met by an angel who tells her to return and submit to cruel Sarai. Somehow the slave Hagar is denied the right to be free from a cruel master. If the TV series "Touched by an Angel" is any indication of what angels have become, than they have come a long way from the angel that advised Hagar!
Hagar returned to bondage under Sarai, but things did not go well. After Hagar gave birth to son Ishmael, we find that Sarai (now called Sarah) casts her and her son out. This time Abraham objects--apparently because Hagar delivered the son he wanted--but we are told that God said to Abraham, "Do not be distressed because of the lad and your maid; whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her." So Hagar and Ishmael are cast into the wilderness where Ishmael nearly dies, until God comes by and gives them water. Nowhere is Sarah condemned for this abandonment of her slave. In fact, we are even told that God overrules Abraham's objection to casting Hagar out. Would God command people to treat their slave this way?
Somehow we are asked to believe that God continued to favor Abraham through all of this, and in chapter 17 God announces that circumcision is the sign of his covenant with Abraham. Why God would be pleased with cutting off a portion of skin from the male organ is a mystery to me, but for some reason, we are told God is pleased with this action. But does anybody think that a cut on the skin is more important than the way one treats a slave?
In chapter 22, we see Abraham's big test. He hears God tell him to sacrifice Isaac. Now what should he do? How would you have advised Abraham if he had come to you and told you he heard God telling him to kill his son?
I once asked a Christian psychologist what she would do if a man named Abraham were to come into her office saying he heard God telling him to kill his son. Without a moment's hesitation, she announced that she would refer him to a psychiatrist, and perhaps have him committed to an institution. Of course! Isn't that obvious? If you hear a voice telling you to kill your son, get help. Something is wrong.
Somehow this is far from the mind of Bible-believers when they hear this passage. They will tell me that Abraham heard God, so he should obey. But how did Abraham know it was God? All he had was a voice. Even if he saw an appearance, would that be enough to justify the deadly deed? Isn't it possible that, if the story really happened, Abraham was psychotic? If a modern-day Abraham would be automatically considered psychotic, why isn't it at least possible that Abraham was psychotic? And if some people back then heard voices due to mental illness, and others back then were really hearing the voice of God, how could one possibly know who was really hearing God?
I once heard a pastor joke about Isaac's condition after he had been bound on the alter, seeing his father holding a knife above him with the intention of killing him. The pastor joked that Isaac must have needed years of therapy to recover. Darn right! Somehow I didn't think that pastor's joke was funny. If Abraham and Isaac were real people, than the act of Abraham was a most horrible way to treat one's son.
Some argue that Abraham's act was okay, for he did not actually kill Isaac. But he set out to kill Isaac. That is the problem. If a man were to point a gun toward the president with the intention to kill, and he is stopped before he can pull the trigger, he is still guilty of attempted assassination. He cannot plead that he is innocent since he was stopped before he pulled the trigger. And Abraham cannot make that plea either. He set out to kill his son. That is evil. And yet somehow many people praise Abraham for doing this. What do you think? Was Abraham's act really something that you would praise?
We shall stop here. We could continue on through the Old Testament, but, as the book of Hebrews puts it, "Time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets" (Hebrews 11:32), Indeed! But if we took the time we could ask if it was good for Gideon to kill many of his own men (Judges 8:7-17), and if he and 300 Israelites really destroyed an army of 120,000 Midianites. And we could question if God really needed Barak to slaughter 900 charioteers (Judges 4) after Judges 1:19 infers that God himself was not able to overcome certain chariots. And we could question why Barak is such a hero simply for killing Canaanites. Doesn't faith involve more than bloodshed? And we could question whether Samson should be praised for tying the tails of 300 foxes together, attaching a torch to each pair, and letting them run loose burning the enemy fields (Judges 15:4-8). And we could question if Samson really killed 1000 men at one time with the jawbone of a donkey (Judges 15:15). And we could certainly question how God could honor Jephthah for killing his daughter as a sacrifice (Judges 11:29-39). And we could question why God would command David to take a census, and then kill 70,000 people because David did what God had said (2 Samuel 24). And we could question why, if David had sinned in taking the census, the 70,000 innocents were punished instead of David. And we could question if God really told Samuel to command the killing of all of the Amalekite babies (1 Samuel 15:1-3). And we could question all of the ramblings of the prophets, who are supposedly speaking the words of the Lord, but have bored countless people who have tried to read them. And we could question why Hebrews 11 would treat all those men as heroes of the faith. We could read the Bible, and we could ask many questions. But we will stop here. We have seen that the Bible often strains credibility.
You, the reader, can read the Bible for yourself and see what it is all about. You could find for yourself how the Bible differs from the sterile tales you heard in Sunday School.
Let us move on. The Christian faith centers neither on Adam, Abraham, Jephthah nor the prophets. It centers on Jesus. So we will move beyond our broad inquiry of the Bible, and we will now turn our focus to the story of Jesus.
1. Blue Letter Bible. "Dictionary and Word Search for 'raqiya` (Strong's 07549) ' " . Blue Letter Bible. 1996-2002. 8 May 2006. <http://www.blueletterbible.org/cgi-bin/words.pl?word=07549&page=1>
2. Blue Letter Bible. "Dictionary and Word Search for 'Y@hovah (Strong's 03068) ' " . Blue Letter Bible. 1996-2002. 8 May 2006. <http://www.blueletterbible.org/cgi-bin/words.pl?word=03068&page=1>
Copyright ÓMerle Hertzler 2006. All rights reserved.