LAST TIME, WE LEFT JOE SCHMOE making breakfast after a blizzard that stranded him in a rustic cabin without a cell phone, and nothing to pass the time but twiddle his thumbs or do push-ups to keep warm. Fortunately, he has plenty of beans and bacon to eat and, if he gets really bored, he can always read that moldy book that he found propping up a table leg in the back room.
Joe, you’ll remember, is going to help us see the literal meaning of the story of Noah. He’s an ordinary guy with no religious background and a few reading skills that he will use to puzzle out what Genesis is all about. To make sure he didn’t just Google things that puzzle him, I stranded him in a primitive cabin with a dead cell phone and only a hand-cranked emergency radio to stay in touch with the outside world and nothinb but a damaged Bible to read.
When he first found the book, Joe was just glad to have something to read to stave off cabin fever. He would have preferred one of the murder mysteries he had brought for “emergencies” such as this, but those are in the trunk of his car, which is buried in snow. This book, its front cover and first few pages missing, presented him with a different kind of mystery, which he quickly solved by what Mortimer Adler would call “inspectional reading.” That is, after scanning the book quickly (looking at the table of contents and flipping through it to see how it was arranged), he concluded that it was a Bible—not the sort of thing he is familiar with, as he has no personal religious background. But now that he has a Bible in his possession, and absolutely nothing better to do, he has decided to read a bit and see how it goes.
After a breakfast prepared on the cabin’s wood-burning stove, Joe sits down with the battered Bible and considers where he should start. His earlier glance through it told him that it was actually composed of lots of individual “books,” so it seems to be an anthology, in which case he could begin almost anywhere. Should he just take “pot luck” and pick a book at random? He notices that the first book begins with the words, “In the beginning,” which reminds him of a song he heard somewhere: “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” Why not? If it’s any good, maybe he’ll go on from there.
The Unity of Genesis
An hour or so later, Joe reaches the end of Genesis and pauses to think about what he has just read. It’s a puzzling book—the first part was made of what he recognizes as mythological accounts, most of them more or less familiar, but at a certain point the narrative became more detailed and connected, like an ordinary story.
Upon reconsideration, he realizes that the point where the Genesis book switches over to a more connected narrative is when it begins to focus on a man called Abram. He flips back to that point and skims forward to make sure this is right—yes, the story from that point is all about Abram and his family, following the two or three generations and ending with the death of Joseph in Egypt. Joseph, who had saved his family from famine, even though his brothers had sold him to slave traders. So, a kind of happy ending for Joseph and his family, too. Maybe not such a bad place to end the story.
But he is still bugged by the feeling that the first part of the book was rather disjointed. How does the whole thing hang together? Or does it? Now, Joe doesn’t like to leave questions like that hanging. Sometimes when he reads a murder mystery and the solution of the mystery is something he never suspected, he has to decide if the writer just did a lousy job or if he himself missed some clues planted along the way. The latter is almost always the case. And this book has been around a long time, so if it was just poorly written, you’d think it would be less popular. So, Joe decides to go back through the Genesis story to find the narrative thread that ties the whole thing together.
The first thing he notices is that the story begins with one man and one woman—the very first, in fact. Everyone else in the story is descended from them; in fact, the writer takes pains to mention all the generations, so there are passages that are just a blur of strange names of the father of each generation, with breaks here and there to give more detailed accounts of a particular generation. The story of Noah, a famous tale with which even a guy like Joe is familiar, is one such, but after the interlude of Noah’s story there are more “begats” until the lineage reaches Abram and his son, Isaac. So it looks like the connective thread is a family history, from the very beginning of the human race.
As soon as he reaches this provisional conclusion, Joe’s mind throws up an objection: if it’s a family saga, why does it end with the death of Joseph? The family didn’t die with him. Anyway, the story may end with Joseph, but it started way back before there were people anywhere, so how does the end relate to the beginning? In murder mysteries (his favorite kind of stories), you start with a mystery and end with a solution. Even in other kinds of stories, the ending usually gives a satisfactory resolution of some kind of problem that gets stirred up at the beginning. Joe is not going to be happy until he figures out what the ending has to do with the beginning (or vice-versa).
A Family Saga
He goes back to the early part of Genesis and rereads the first few chapters after Adam and Eve get thrown out of paradise: the next thing that happens is the first murder in human history, when one of Adam and Eve’s sons kills the other one for no good reason. God gets angry, but he doesn’t strike the killer dead or even turn him into a stone or a star, the way gods in stories usually do (Greek gods were always turning people into other things). Instead, God exiles Cain and curses him so that he can’t do any more farming, so Cain goes off and becomes a city boy. And then there are lots more generations mentioned, but no more interesting anecdotes until Noah, and then even more generations until Abram comes into the story. From there, everything becomes very detailed and more obviously a continuous story.
Joe sits back and rubs his chin (a bit stubbly, since he hasn’t shaved). Why stick in all those “begats”? That really dragged the story down. Even a family saga ought to have something more to tie it together than mere genealogy. And when the story bits do come in, why are so many of them violent. Maybe because violence is always an interesting story element? Murder, more murder, and attempted murder, but not a single murder mystery—the author keeps telling you right who did it, and why. Then it occurs to him that the murders are, in a sense, all in the same family. From the first generation of Adam and Eve’s children and on down through the generations, until Joseph, who dies happily at the end of a long life.
While he’s mulling all this over, Joe melts a pan of snow on the stove for hot water to wash his breakfast dishes, and as he washes he thinks about how his pioneer ancestors probably had to do the same thing, although they didn’t live in mountain cabins. His ancestors moved out to Nebraska as homesteaders and had to live in sod houses while they struggled to build farms out of endless prairies. He wonders what drove them to leave the settled comfort and safety of the towns back east. That question reminds him of Cain who, according to Genesis, sort of di the opposite — he moved east of Eden to found the first city. For perhaps the first time, Joe feels glad that his own ancestors were farmers and proud that they were able to scratch a living out of the land without the help of modern conveniences. Which reminds him of how lucky he is right now to be staying in a cabin that was designed to be comfortable without things such as electricity and wifi.
Patterns of Behavior
After he dries the dishes and dumps the dishwater onto the snow outside the back door, Joe returns to the Bible to take another look at the story of Cain. After God curses him so that he can no longer support himself as a farmer, Cain founds a city and starts a family. (No mention of how he found someone to marry if he was the only surviving son of the first two people on Earth.) From there, the account mentions a few generations descended from Cain and it looks like the later generations aren’t much better than Cain himself—in fact, one of his descendants called Lamech also turns out to be a murderer, too, and even brags about it to his wives (two of them—maybe he was a sex fiend, as well, or just greedy when it came to women?).
Rather than keep following Cain and his descendants, the story goes back to Adam and Eve, who were left without any sons at all after Cain killed his brother and then went off into exile. Adam and Eve had been exiles themselves, thrown out of paradise after they made God angry. Being banished seems to be a family trait, but Joe notices that none of them let it get them down. People just get on with their lives, as Adam and Eve did: they have another son, named Seth, as well as other unnamed sons and daughters.
From that point, the story follows Seth and his descendants (more genealogy) until it gets to Noah, where the story gets interesting again for a while. Confusingly, Noah’s father is also called Lamech, like Cain’s descendant, so maybe the good and the bad sides of the family tree have become entwined again. Anyway, the story says that mankind had become very wicked, which apparently is more than God can stand, so God wipes out the rest of mankind with a worldwide flood, except Noah and his family. From there, the story follows Noah’s descendants because—well, because they are the only ones left after the flood.
Even so, however, before too many more generations pass things start to go bad again. This happens after some people “from the East” move in and decide to build a city. City builders from the east, huh? Are these new people supposed to be descendants of Cain? It’s unclear, but these new people and their city certainly seem to have been bad news. They want to make a name for themselves by building a kind of primitive skyscraper, which makes God angry for some reason, or maybe just worried. Anyway, he knocks down their skyscraper and they scatter like ants. Then God also does something so that they no longer all speak the same language. That would certainly slow down their empire-building efforts, Joe thinks.
And then he wonders if Star Trek’s Federation of Planets would ever have gotten started without the universal translator. And then he remembers that Star Trek is pure fiction about things that haven’t happened yet, while Genesis is supposedly a story about things that really did happen. Otherwise, why put in all that boring genealogy? There’s plenty more of that until finally finally the story gets to Abram and from that point it really does become a continuous saga of a single family. But what a family! One generation seems pretty good, and then the next one goes bad again. Look at Joseph, whose own brothers were so jealous of him that they wanted to kill him. If Reuben hadn’t talked all the other brothers out of it, and persuaded them to sell him into slavery instead, it would have been Cain and Abel all over again.
Has there ever been a family that didn’t have some kind of trouble? Joe wonders. He thinks of Uncle Jack, the uncle he didn’t know existed until he was eleven, when Jack showed up for Grandpa Schmoe’s funeral. His dad had never even mentioned his estranged brother, but from then on the two of them seemed to put aside whatever grudge had been between them and Joe finally got the chance to know his cousins. Too bad Grandpa didn’t live to see it. At least the Joseph in Genesis was able to reunite the family before the patriarch died. So, maybe that was what the story of Genesis was all about? The human family, from the very beginning, had its problems, and some of the nuts on the family tree turned out to be rotten, but others were good and, in the end, Joseph forgave his brothers and saved the whole family.
More or less satisfied that he understands the main story of Genesis, Joe puts it out of his mind and tunes the hand-cranked radio to the emergency band to try to find out when the snow plows will come by and open the roads. With some luck, maybe by tomorrow he’ll be able to drive home. …
We’ll check in with him another time to see if he comes up with any other bright ideas about Genesis. So far, he has done a good job of putting his reading skills to work to make sense of everything. Notice that he doesn’t simply read through the story and then decide whether he likes it or not — he really wants to understand what this story has to say. I have a feeling that, after a little more time has passed, he’ll realize that he has overlooked a few key elements.
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When was the last time you read the book of Genesis? Are there important things that you think Joe has overlooked? Tell me in the comment box below.