Saturday, July 19, 2008

Civilization Review: The Book of Genesis

Welcome to Civilization Saturday. The purpose is to read and discuss the major texts in the development of Western thought and social theory, with the works ranging from classical sources like the Old Testament, Plato, and Aristotle to such contemporary voices as Hannah Arendt, Robert Nozick, and Noam Chomsky. It is essentially an autodidactic Great Books course, structured--at least at first--as a historically organized survey of the texts in question. My expectation is that I will be isolating the books' central ideas, and then interrogating them by relating those ideas to present-day circumstances. If the works are as worthy as their statures indicate, I should have little trouble finding relevance to contemporary life.

The first work to be considered is the Book of Genesis, the foundation text of the Abrahamic traditions embodied today in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All references and quotations are from the King James translation of the Bible, with chapter and verse numbers indicated.

Genesis is essentially divided into four sections: the creation myths and the stories of the three great Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. (Isaac, the other significant patriarch, is mainly depicted in terms of his relationships with his father Abraham and his son Jacob.) The creation myths cover the stories of God's creation of the Earth, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Great Flood, and the Tower of Babel. The stories of the patriarchs provide accounts of the lives of the founders of Israel and the Hebrew tradition. Man is identified as God's privileged creation, with dominion over all others on Earth (1:26), and his purpose, beyond the worship of God, is to accumulate as much property as possible.

The most striking aspect of Genesis as a foundational text for a culture is the near-absence of societal rules and codified values. The one constant throughout the text is that God's authority is absolute. Creation, destruction, mercy, punishment--they are His decisions and He is not to be questioned. All well and good, but His authority and favor are quite arbitrary and even unjust. The God of Genesis imposes tests of faith upon men, such as the directive not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, or the order to Abraham to slaughter and sacrifice his son Isaac as proof of obeisance. He capriciously favors Abel over his brother Cain, with tragic consequences, and divine favor shockingly excuses and even justifies fraud against one's father and brother, as it does with Jacob. At one point, even Abraham questions God's sense of justice, asking Him, with regard to the fairness of destroying all the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, "Shall not the Judge of all the Earth do right?" (18:25)

I'll grant that this ancient culture had values that seem outright bizarre to one now. The most grotesque instance is the episode where hospitality compels Lot to offer his daughters up to a mob to be deflowered and gang-raped--this is considered preferable to acceding to that mob's demand to forcibly bugger the male guests in his home (19:4-8). But the absence of law (and, therefore, justice) is felt throughout. The lack is especially felt with regard to Jacob, whose propensity for greed, deceit, and opportunism seems to infect everyone and everything around him.

As in our society, property is the principal definition of a man's worth, and the governing of contracts and claims to property is one of the key functions of the law. Jacob may have the shield of God's blessing in Genesis, but many societieis regard this sort of unscrupulous person as a predator and even a criminal. Jacob extorts his brother Esau's inheritance from him (25:29-34), tricks their father into giving Jacob the blessing intended for Esau (27:6-41), and uses his position as the manager of Laban's livestock to effectively swindle Laban out of the offspring of the herds (30:31-43). Jacob rationalizes this embezzlement as God's doing, complaining that Laban has deceived him and "changed his wages ten times" (31:7). He's not a person one can trust to deal with one fairly.

Those around Joseph seem particularly inclined to deceit as well. His mother Rebekah is his co-conspirator in the cheating of Esau. Laban tricks Jacob into thinking that he is marrying Laban's youngest daughter Rachel when he is actually marrying her sister Leah, all in defiance of Laban's agreement with Jacob for Rachel's hand (29:15-26). Rachel steals icons from her father's home and uses the excuse of her period to impede a search for them (31:19-37). A neighbor's son forces himself on Jacob's daughter Dinah, yet despite her brothers' subsequent arrangements for the two to marry and the conversion of the boy's family to Hebraism, the brothers murder the boy and his father out of revenge, loot the family's belongings, and enslave the family's women and children (34:1-31). When Jacob complains about their actions, the sons respond, "Should he deal with our sister as an harlot?" (34:31) These sons also sell their brother Joseph into slavery, telling Jacob he was killed by a wild animal (37:3-35). Frankly, Jacob's sons make their father look like an eminently upstanding citizen.

What these incidents all highlight is that no figure in Genesis feels particularly governed by societal rules. There is certainly no means of enforcing those rules beyond taking matters in one's own hands, and, as in the case of Dinah, punishments meted out may be grossly out of proportion to the underlying crime. A society needs something more than dedicated worship of God and circumcision as an expression of one's faith.

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The reading list for Civilization Saturday is here

Subsequent Civilization Saturday discussions:

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