People who read this site know that I am no friend of biblical fundamentalism.
I’ve quipped that fundamentalism is text without context. Even that to have a fundamentalist outlook is to have the adult equivalent of a “teenager’s fear of vampires.”
Which makes this morning’s class in the books of the Old Testament (aka Hebrew Bible) all the more exhilarating.
“Of course,” I said, turning a little aside from my PowerPoint screen, “as the introduction tells us, there are several accounts of creation.” After decades of saying this, my voice is usually flat on this riveting point–like saying “Bread can be made from several different kinds of grain.”
“Are you saying this isn’t true” a student named Jancie said, without looking up from her cell phone. Her Introduction to Business Studies book is on top her desk where her Bible was supposed to be. Both books are fat and have green covers.
“No,” I said. “I’m saying the story is composite–more like a magazine than a book with a single writer.”
“We learned in my Church that Moses is the author,” said an earnest boy who sits as far back and close to the escape door as he can get. “So, that isn’t what you’re saying?”
“It isn’t anything I said,” I said. “Moses is certainly an important figure in the books after the Book of Genesis. He doesn’t really have a walk on part in Genesis. He isn’t what Genesis is about.”
I also wanted to quip that if he’s the author of the first five books of the Bible he’s the only one in history to narrate his own death and departure. I bite my tongue.
“Genesis is about how we fell from God’s grace and why God sent his son into the world.” Laetitia, radiant, smiling, immune from having read the assignment.
“Well, that is certainly how a lot of people read the story,” I began. “But that really is not the story. Or stories. Maybe if we just forget about who wrote it and what our church teaches about it, we can look at the story.”
They looked disappointed. Years before, I had taught in places where, by this point, books would be open, cross references and footnote defenses of conservative interpretations in the Scofield Reference Bible would be checked. The Christian apologetics machine would be whirring away.
But that was then. Now, things are different. Attitudes and minformation (minimal information) have replaced informed zealotry. The students do not know that the Bible was written in Hebrew. They cannot distinguish between ancient Near Eastern civilization and the Crusades. One suggested that when the First Couple was thrown out of the Garden they went to live in a nearby castle. Another asked if Navi’s was spoken in Hebrew times.
For them, the Bible doesn’t belong to a stream of literature and pop culture that includes talking dragons, miracle workers, feats of superhuman strength, bloody battles, teenage pregnancy and torrid, hopeless love. But the Bible has all of this–had all of this–before Disney and MGM had it.
“I’m going do do something different today,” I say mysteriously.
No response, though the hope might have been walk out the door and give us a long weekend.
“I’m going to read you the story. You’re going to follow along.”
Looks-askance, muffled groans. He can’t be real. I start. Genesis 3.1.
“Now the serpent was the craftiest of all the wild beasts that the Lord God had made…”
“What page are you on,” asks Antony, the boy at the back.
“It’s not a page, Tony: it’s Genesis 3.1–we use chapters and verse numbers to find our way through the Bible.”
He scrummages around, ending (from what I could tell) somewhere near the Book of Revelation. “It’s the very first book of the first part of the Bible. First sentence —next to to the big 3 in the column.”
“Got it,” he says.
I press on. I raise and lower my voice in doing the parts of the Sepent. I make a slightly hissing sound which defeats the whole purpose of my lecture. –Slightly ditz when I play the role of Eve, then realize the very angry girl in the third row thinks I’m making fun of women. I make a note to myself that the next time through, I will cast this using the class as the dramatis personae. That way I get to be God.
I climb to verse 8: “And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day…”
“Why’d he need to cool off,” Laetitia interrupts.
“Because he hot,” says Geraldo, who had never uttered a word before and usually sits with one ear plug hanging out and one hanging in.
There are a few laughs.
“The Lord God called to the man and said, ‘Where are you?’ and the Man said, ‘I heard the sound of you in thre garden and I was afraid because I was naked….”
Dorothea (Thea) who seems to have passed through Catholic schools without much impact, wonders out loud if he is afraid and hiding because he is ugly.
Geraldo tells her that he is afraid because, you know, it’s like getting out of the shower and finding a stranger in your apartment, hellooo? Exactly, I say. Not exactly, I think.
I move on to the curses: “To the serpent he said, because you have done this thing, cursed are you before all cattle, and above all wild animals. Upon your belly you will crawl, and dust you will eat all the days of your life.”
A pale boy named Brian, who instinctively dislikes me because he thinks I only pretend to know things, says, “Nice curse, a snake has to crawl on its belly. That’s like telling a duck he has to swim.”
Feeling ever so slightly eager to increase Brian’s antagonism, I caution, “No, the serpent’s not a snake. He’s a mythical beast, more like a talking dragon. Think small dragon–feet, wings, smart.”
“She like him,” Geraldo says. “I can tell she like him more than Adam. She a dragon lady.”
“That’s certainly possible,” I said. “This story has been interpreted lots of ways. Maybe that’s there, too. But notice, he’s morphed into a snake, and for many ancient people, snakes are loathsome things.”
“My dog killed a snake once,” Brian says proudly. “I think it was poisonous.”
“No one give squat about your dog. Let the man tell the story.”
“To the woman he said, I will greatly increase your pain in childbearing; you will bring forth children in agony, and yet you will desire your husband. And he will rule over you.”
Laetitia is frowning. “So this book says that the reason women have to put up with so much shit sorry so much stuff is because God wants us too? That’s just crazy. I reading no book that has that kind of crazy idea.”
Geraldo is nodding. Brian is reading chapter four hoping for a way around all the trouble.
“And to the Man he said, because you have listened to the voice of your wife and eaten of the fruit of the tree…cursed is the ground because of you; in sweat you will eat of it all the days of your life…You are dust and to dust you will return.”
“My book says earth,” says Tony.
“Same thing,” says Thea, nailing the plot. “It’s all dirt. That’s what the story is saying, you do dirt you get dirt.”
We moved on to how God sends them out of Eden, out of paradise, out of the place where the fruit falls from the trees into their naked laps, the animals obey when they are called, where there is no sickness or disease, and no one ever sweats, where if they had played their cards right, they would never have grown old.
We explore why God is anxious to shut the gate:
“Because the man has become like one of us [gods], knowing good and evil, and might now put forth his hand and snatch the fruit of the tree of life and eat it and live forever.”
“How many trees are there?” I ask.
“One,” says Tony.
“Two,” says Geraldo, “man can’t you count. “They out of there.”
“He drove the man out and to the east of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the tree of life.”
No one spoke. Even Brian had rejoined us in chapter three. Laetitia said we had ten minutes and could we read more. Geraldo finally shook his head and said.
“Professor, did anyone ever believe this stuff?”
Lateitia, who looked the most worried over the forbidden passages we had just read came up with a better answer than I was ready to give.
“It’s the only story they had.”