And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”  And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse.  And it was so.  And God called the expanse Heaven. - GENESIS 1:6-8

I adore the world of Middle Earth, but on the rare occasions that I venture into The Silmarillion I pass through the first chapter pretty quickly.  Its topic is the “music” of the dieties in the void of preexistence, and how divine singing created hills and waters soon to be peopled with mortal creatures.  It’s an elegant idea.  It strips our reality down to some of its most basic elements: light, dark, water, earth, plants, animals.  This is the kind of storytelling that some people could revel in as they let their imaginations run freely through a new, perfect, solitary universe.

I’m not quite that kind of person.  What I most look forward to in The Silmarillion is reading about the first elves and men and dwarves, and their foibles and errors and migrations within terrestrial creation.  What I look forward to in Genesis is the exile of humanity from its perfect, wilderness birthplace and the personalities that emerge as humankind perpetuates its own, less idyllic version of creation: the creation of human civilization.

The most excited I felt during the first two chapters of Genesis was when the Tigris and Euphrates were named as two of the four rivers that branch off from the river that runs out of Eden.  I don’t think I was excited just because I recognize Tigris and Euphrates as the names of actual rivers in the real world.  As I indicated, I am a fan of high fantasy, and I don’t need stories to take place in this world in order to enjoy them.  But perhaps, for me, the Tigris and Euphrates occupy an ideal in-between state between reality and imagination.  I’ve never been to Mesopotamia, and I would need some time and luck to locate the Tigris or the Euphrates on a map.  I think their appearance in the text appeals to me because of what they represent in my mind: ancient and distance places, the dawn of civilization, the exoticism of the near East.  I have a feeling the Old Testament will provide more than a few of these Indiana Jones sensations as I get further along.

That’s not to say that the creation story was uninteresting.  The passage I quoted at the top of this post prompted some reflection and puzzlement.  Are there now two separate waters (worlds?) that we cannot travel between because to do so we would need to traverse heaven?  Surely that can’t be what it’s saying, can it?  I didn’t spend very long pondering it, but it struck me as a prime example of world-building.  We’re dealing with big concepts like earth, water, and heaven, and we’re using these giant concepts as landmarks on a mental map of a universe, a planet, and a garden.  It’s a tricky geographic and cosmological balancing act, but I’m content to leave it to the consideration of others and move on to more corporeal matters.

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Tags: Genesis, Silmarillion, Tolkien, fantasy, review, waters, world-building

Comment by Eric James on June 25, 2012 at 10:00pm

Genesis 1 is a very ancient form of poetry - not Hebrew as there are many examples of that and this isn't one of them. There is a rhythmic balance between the 'six days' that suggest this is the work of a redactor who later pulled all this work together into what became known as the Pentatuch.

The important part it seems to me is not the timing or even so much the geography, although that helps place it an identifiable context, it is the intent, if there was any - was this to become humanity at its ideal? There was, it suggests, a Paradise - can it be achieved again? Was it literal? How long did it last? The Genesis account makes it seem very short, but how does that fit with other ancient understandings of origins? Does it imply ultimate morality or is this somehow beyond or pre that? And what caused the change? Can it be reversed or "undone"? If we accept the opening chapters as metaphor and a degree of literary licence, then what was the redactors intent? Is this all just a parable, if so what for? And at what point does the parable and the historical account merge? Just a few thoughts.

Comment by David Conrad on June 26, 2012 at 1:44am

That question about how morality worked in Paradise is something that I think was in the back of my mind as I read it (and perhaps has been in the back of my mind ever since I first heard this creation story as a child.)  I suspect you're right to suggest that this early created universe was, in the minds of the writers and tellers and listeners, supposed to exist pre-morality or beyond morality as humanity would come to understand it.  After all, it's made fairly explicit that Adam and Eve were virtually blank slates, with very little actual knowledge in their heads, and that that's how God wanted it.  Morality for post-exile, fallen humans seems to operate on an almost fully cerebral level, in that it is a choice to overcome degraded human nature.  But in almost total contrast, morality seems to be an unavoidable state of being for Adam and Eve as long as they do not become aware of it.

By the time we get to Leviticus and Numbers, and even as early as mid-Genesis, we're given excrutiatingly exact details about the minutest doings, so such portions are clearly intended as literal, historical accounts.  But you're right, Genesis 1 is nothing like that stylistically.  It's much hazier, intentionally and artfully hazy (with some exceptions such as the fleeting geographic details, which I enjoyed more than the poetry), so that raises the question of whether the writers themselves thought of it as a literal story or a metaphor or a blend of the two.  I hadn't thought of that before.  Thanks for the comment!

Comment by archaeopteryx on June 26, 2012 at 9:30am

Actually David, I deal with Gen 1 on my website, at http://in-his-own-image.com/2010/01/31/genesis.aspx, and subsequent chapters thereafter.

None of the Pentateuch, as you may or may not know, was written by Moses, who likely never existed, but rather at four different times, by four different groups. The Yahwist Group (950 BCE), known commonly as "J," the Elohist Group (850 BCE, combined with "J" in 750 BCE), or "E," the Deuteronomist "D" Group (800+ BCE), and the Priestly Group, "P" (after 722 BCE),  and the patchwork quilt of writings were redacted, i.e., interwoven as much as possible, by a Redactor, or "R," around 400 BCE. When two stories couldn't be smoothly interwoven, such as the case of Gen 1 and 2, both versions were given (such as in the Noah story, where two of each animal were taken aboard, while in the next chapter, it was seven).

So Gen 1 was actually written by the Priestly "P" Group around two hundred and fifty years after the Yahwist "J" Group wrote Gen 2, and since the P Group were in Babylonian exile at the time, they had easy access to the Enuma Elish, the Mesopotamian creation story involving Marduk, Tiamat, and the whole clan of gods and goddesses, after which, Gen 1 is modeled.

Comment by archaeopteryx on June 26, 2012 at 10:00am

If interested, you might investigate further the Documentary Hypothesis, also known as the Wellhausen Hypothesis - a PDF file can be downloaded at: http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&sour...

It might also interest you to know that the Biblical Flood, which Biblical scholars place at about 2300-2350 BCE, was based on an actual flood that occurred in Mesopotamia in 2900 BCE, when the Euphrates River overflowed its banks to a depth of 15 cubits (the same amount the Bible tells us the waters rose above the highest mountains which, one must assume, also included Everest) = 22.5 feet, and flooded the equivalent of three counties in Mesopotamia. The king escaped the deluge by boarding a trading barge that happened to have been loaded with cattle, cotton and beer, but those details seem to have been left out of the biblical version.

And for your geographical edification, the Euphrates River runs along the western edge of Iraq, with the Tigris to the east of it, nearer Iran, at least until they combine and rush down to the Persian Gulf. To the south of Babylon, there existed at the time a lush garden-like setting, made possible by the rich alluvial soil deposited there by those rivers - but the gardens were planted and cultivated by Man, not gods, but I suspect that the writers of the Bible were not opposed to using the local name of those gardens for the folks back home in Palestine who didn't know better, which was "Edin."

I certainly don't claim to know it all, but I HAVE done a lot of work on the subject. It might benefit you to visit my website, http://www.in-His-own-image.com, but since it was originally intended as a book, it's best read from the beginning - scroll to the bottom of any page you open, and you will find a button marked, "First" that will take you back to the starting point. Should you choose to do so, be sure and subscribe, and you will receive automatic email notifications of new additions.

pax vobiscum,
archaeopteryx
www.in-His-own-image.com

Comment by Kyle Bates on June 26, 2012 at 5:22pm

There is some very interesting information here so I'd like to thank everyone who has added to the discussion.

My own interest in the first couple chapters in Genesis is from a different perspective.  I see most of the OT as a diary of the early civilization builders.  While it is important to understand understand the texts as described above, I think it is also important to try to figure out the story the authors (and editors) were trying to tell by writing and compiling these stories in this way.

Genesis 1 was not about creation.  If it was intended to describe how things came to be, it would have been far more detailed and far more, well, accurate.  As it is, the story is flat out wrong.  Modern Christian theology seems intent on doing all sorts of odd mental gymnastics to try to claim that these events happened spiritually or metaphorically but there is a far simpler explanation of where these stories came from.  

There are two parts to Genesis 1.  There are two possible reasons to make a statement like "God created the earth."  Either you are making a statement about how the earth was formed or you're making a statement about 'God.'  The story doesn't tell us anything at all about how the earth came to be so that isn't it.  What then is the story telling us about 'God?'  I think the story tells us a great deal about this "God" character.  It tells us that this "God" created everything and is basically the most powerful entity imaginable.  The most authoritative of all possible authorities imaginable.  The alpha and the omega.  To me, this makes it obvious that the story is about establishing a deity character and not actually describing creation.

I think the 'point' of the second half of Genesis 1 is even more clear.  When humans are introduced to the story, it is very clear that this deity holds us in high regard.  In fact, this deity goes so far as to put us in charge "so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."

And not only are we in charge, but we were given another special edict, to "be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it.  Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground. (Gen 1:28)

In my research, I have never encountered any indigenous peoples who have held similar attitudes.  This attitude only seems to be held by agriculturalists and only those with cultural ties to the Fertile Crescent.  

So if that is the point of the second half -- to give us the authority -- then the first half suddenly makes perfect sense.  Only a creator of the world could possibly give us the authority to take over and rule the world.  We invented the idea of gods to justify agriculture and living outside the laws of nature by seeing ourselves as distinct from the environment.

The theme continues with the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve and elsewhere in the OT.

This interpretation just makes a heck of a lot of sense to me.  

Thanks again for the discussion.

Comment by archaeopteryx on June 26, 2012 at 5:50pm

But equally important Kyle, is who wrote what and when did they write it. When you learn that the story of Abraham, Issac and Jacob/Israel, who would have lived near the end of the third millennium BCE, was written by people who lived in the middle of the first millennium BCE, then you know that it is not a diary at all, but rather a story concocted to try to manipulate the people of the mid first millennium into believing that this entity, god, had been around for thousands of year. You seem to see poetry, where I see deception, designed to coerce a population into doing what it is told, via commandments originated by Man and attributed to a god, to assure obedience.

As Seneca once said, "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers, as useful."

Comment by archaeopteryx on June 26, 2012 at 6:12pm

If the authorities of an ignorant, superstitious people can convince those people that an eternal, invisible, supernatural entity exists, who can not only see all that they do, but can hear even their thoughts, and who has a code of conduct to which he expects everyone to conform and threatens punishment if those rules are broken, what need has such an authority of a police force?

Comment by Kyle Bates on June 26, 2012 at 6:44pm

I'd sooner assume incompetence over conspiracy though your point is well taken.

Of course, when a story was written isn't necessarily when the story was conceived of.  Surely many of these stories -- or at least elements of the stories -- were passed down through oral tradition long before they were eventually written down.

I wouldn't say I see poetry as the story being told is a rather nefarious one.  What I see is why it is so important to believe in a god to justify this kind of human exceptionalism.

I doubt those writers in the first millennium BCE invented the ideas from scratch.  Very little is ever new.  Even an invention as revolutionary as the automobile couldn't have happened without first inventing the wheel and learning how to harness fire.  I'm thinking... memetically here and looking at what is new and what environmental needs might have encouraged the innovation.

Comment by archaeopteryx on June 26, 2012 at 6:53pm

RE: "when a story was written isn't necessarily when the story was conceived of"

I'm glad you included the word, "necessarily" - the entire book of Deuteronomy, attributed to Moses' authorship, was actually written, intact, by King Hezekiah and miraculously "found" in the ruins of the old temple of Solomon, exactly when Judaism needed it.

Comment by archaeopteryx on June 26, 2012 at 7:18pm

RE: "I'd sooner assume incompetence over conspiracy"

That's very trusting of you, but I suggest you further research the  Priestly "P" Group, that in true Orwellian fashion, completely rewrote parts of that which was written by the Yahwist "J" Group, to slant the story toward the priests, or other religious leaders, such as Aaron, as being the principal actors of a given story, rather than the Yahwist hero, Moses. In other instances, they deleted whole sections that did not agree with the idea that their god could not be reached without the intercession of a priest (for whose services, of course, pay was expected). So before I will accept the title of "conspiracy theorist," I would first suggest you more thoroughly investigate the Documentary Hypothesis.

I'm aware of your background in debate, but I can't imagine anyone proficient in that field who does not first do his research. You have access to privately message me if you require further links, but I believe the PDF file, to which I earlier left a link, should provide as much documentation as anyone could need.

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