The Words of the Beard Family

Origins, a review of books

David Beard
June 2010

I recently read two books that explore the biblical Book of Genesis -- one old, the other very old -- and I found both books both invigorating and relevant.

Adam, Eve and the Serpent describes how various religious views emerged on sex, on sin and on why we exist, based on biblical accounts of the Creation and the Fall. It also details the struggles that ensued between those and more worldly views.

The writer is Elaine Pagels, a professor of Religions of Late Antiquity at Princeton University in the U.S. and the author of several other significant books. The power of Adam, Eve and the Serpent derives from Pagels' ability to write in familiar terms of people who lived even thousands of years ago; she conveys well a sense of their interior world and the psychic pressures of their everyday lives. In doing so, she also makes vibrant for her readers ideological issues including the clash between Hebraism and Hellenism.

Background to the birth of Christ

When King Cyrus released the Israelite captives from exile in Babylon in 538 BC, they returned to rebuild the temple. Still under Persian control, they had religious and cultural autonomy. Two hundred years after their return, Philip of Macedon took control of Greece, and as the Bible says, his son, Alexander the Great, "put to death the kings of the earth," and in the process took control of a great swath of territory that included Israel. This began one hundred and sixty years of Greek domination and efforts at forced Hellenization, first under Alexander, and then under successor regimes -- the Ptolemies, based in Egypt, and the Seleucids, based in Syria.

Much of the Jewish Bible (also known as the Old Testament) is a denunciation of belief in multiple gods. As the ideology of the dominating power, Hellenism threatened to undermine Jewish faith. It was polytheistic but also had strong appeal with its elevation of the human body and human intellect.

For example, central to Hellenistic society was the gymnasium -- an intellectual and physical training center for boys and young men. The Latin root of "gymnasium" is gymnos, meaning "naked," and the athletic training took place in the nude. More than mere prudishness, Jewish abhorrence of public displays of nakedness were taken as divinely decreed, with roots in Genesis. "The Book of Jubilees," Pagels writes, "written about a hundred and fifty years before Jesus' birth by a Palestinian Jew, retells the story of Adam and Eve to prove, among other things, that Jewish customs concerning child- birth and nakedness were not arbitrary or trivial but actually built into human nature from the beginning.... God made leather garments for Adam and Eve, and clothed them before expelling them from Paradise (Genesis 3:21); this shows that Jews must 'cover their shame, and not go naked, as the Gentiles do,' in public places like the baths and the gymnasia."

Festering tension over these two ways of life continued for generations. Eventually, when the Seleucids, at the instigation of a prominent, Hellenized Jewish family, replaced the high priest of the temple in Jerusalem, religious Jews protested. In response, the Seleucid King Antioch IV took firmer control of Jerusalem in 167 BC. He outlawed the practice of Judaism, had a statue of Zeus installed in the temple and sacrificed a pig on the altar.

The people rebelled. A father and his five sons, a family known as the Hasmoneans, led the rebellion and soon obtained military support from Rome. It took twenty-five years, but the Seleucid Empire did release Israel. The Jewish people had won their independence but the family that had led the rebellion then set up a monarchy and ruled over their fellow Jews for the next century.

Eventually, however, civil war broke out between two factions of the dynasty. In 63 BC, a representative from Israel who sought military assistance in getting rid of the monarchy approached the Roman General Pompey. Exploiting this opportunity, Pompey invaded Jerusalem, looted the temple and began asserting control.

Thus, by the time Jesus arrived, the region where he grew up, Galilee, was a vassal state overseen for the Roman Empire by Herod Antipas, while Judea, including Jerusalem, was a Roman province under Pontius Pilate.

Proclaiming belief at great cost

In all the vast Roman Empire, the people they conquered were compelled to submit to both political and spiritual domination by Rome. The Jews were the only people permitted to be under their political control without having to adopt Roman religious practices. Nevertheless, even Jews were looked upon as atheists for refusing to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods or to the emperor's guardian spirit.

The emotional core of Adam, Eve and the Serpent is the stories of several early Christians whose refusal to make such offerings brought on their own deaths. One of these was Justin, a philosopher, born around AD 110 in Palestine to probably Roman or Greek parents. Justin was raised pagan. His was an earnest spiritual journey in which he investigated a number of philosophical disciplines until he finally concluded that the mind could not reach truth on its own; illumination from God was necessary. He had witnessed evidence of this illumination before. He had seen it in Christians he watched being put to death in the Roman amphitheater.

Following his own conversion to Christianity, Justin's understanding of the gods he had once worshipped, feared and made offerings to changed dramatically. Naturally, we might imagine Justin feeling suddenly unburdened at not having to deceive himself into believing the mythical life stories about the multifarious gods -- of their births, lives, wars, schemes and love affairs. Yet, this is not what happened. Justin felt spiritual power from these false deities as a demonic presence. As Pagels described it, "Justin, like many Jews and many of his fellow Christians, tended to interpret the difficulties of human life less in terms of the fall of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2-3) than in terms of the fall of the angels (Genesis 6:1-6). According to Genesis 6, the great and famous men of ancient times -- those called giants -- were the result of a hybrid union between God's angels and human women:

"The sons of God [angels] saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took to wife such of them as they chose... There were giants on the earth in those days when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them, the mighty men of renown. -- Genesis 6:2-4

"Justin explained that after some of the angels whom God had entrusted to administer the universe betrayed their trust by seducing women and corrupting boys (as Justin amplified the story of Genesis 6), they 'begot children, who are called demons.' When God discovered the corruption of his administration, he expelled them from heaven. But then these exiled angels tried to compensate for their lost power by joining with their offspring, the demons, to enslave the human race. Drawing upon the supernatural powers that even disgraced angels retain, they awed and terrified people into worshiping them instead of God."

Professor Pagels does an excellent job at demonstrating how pervasive was the gods' influence in Roman society, especially in the open flaunting of the gods' obscene sexual practices through artwork and in the imitation of those practices by Roman leaders. She explains that Hadrian was the first emperor to have himself declared a god and to have statues himself made so he could be worshipped as such and that he had his dead boy lover, Antinous, deified as well. About this, she quotes Clement writing,

Another new deity was added to the number with great religious pomp in Egypt, and nearby Greece as well, by the King of the Romans, who deified Antinous, whom he loved as Jupiter loved Ganymede, and whose beauty was extremely rare; for lust is not easy to restrain, being devoid of fear, as it now is; and people observe the "Sacred Nights of Antinous," the shameful nature of which the lover who spent them with him knew. Why count him among the gods -- a boy honored because of impurity?... And why should you expand upon his beauty? Beauty damaged by corruption is horrible... Now the grave of the prostituted boy is the temple of Antinous!

It's clear from Justin's extant writing that the concept of physical death and spiritual death, which we teach in the Human Fall, he understood as they applied to his own existence. We can infer this because he took intentional steps that demonstrated he chose between one kind of death and another.

Justin was aware (as were probably all the Christians in Rome) of the arrest of Ptolemy, who like Justin was a Christian teacher. At his trial, the judge, Urbicus, asked Ptolemy only if he was a Christian. Ptolemy's yes earned him the death penalty. "But as Ptolemy was being marched out to die," Pagels tells us, "Lucius, one of the courtroom spectators, cried in protest, 'What is the ground for this judgment? Why have you punished this man, not as an adulterer, nor a fornicator, nor murderer, nor thief, nor robber, nor convicted by any crime at all but who has only confessed that he is called by the name "Christian"?...' Urbicus answered that Lucius himself sounded suspiciously like a Christian; when Lucius admitted as much, the prefect ordered that he and another protestor in the audience follow Ptolemy to execution. As soldiers led the condemned men from the courtroom, Lucius loudly thanked God for delivering him and his companions 'from such wicked rulers' and releasing them instead to the 'Father and king of the universe."

Had the situation been less stark, Justin might have been lulled into comfortable coexistence with his pagan neighbors, doing nothing to upset anyone and keeping his faith to himself. Yet how could he reconcile that with his firm belief that the Roman gods that his neighbors served were demons seeking to dominate all humanity?

Justin chose to write letters to the Roman senate and to the emperor and the emperor's family proclaiming Jesus and proclaiming himself a follower of Christ. Sometime near AD 165, Roman soldiers arrested Justin and six of his companions.

They were brought to Prefect Rusticus, who after questioning them demanded, "Approach and sacrifice, all of you, to the gods." Justin replied, "No one in his right mind gives up piety for impiety." Threatened with torture and death, the group told Rusticus to do as he wished; they were Christians; they would not sacrifice to idols. Their sentence was read, and in keeping with the law of the land, Justin and his fellow Christians were put to death. As one text puts it, "The holy martyrs, glorifying God betook themselves to the customary place, where they were beheaded. [They had] consummated their martyrdom confessing their Savior."

Delving into Genesis

Adam, Eve and the Serpent deals with a small portion of Genesis and its many ramifications. The second book that I read, Understanding Genesis is a thorough examination of all fifty chapters of the book from the Creation to Joseph's death in Egypt.

The author, the late Professor Nahum Mattityahu Sarna, was a towering intellectual figure who from early childhood immersed himself in studying biblical languages and religious texts, yet so clearly does he express his thoughts that even a bright teenager who loves the Bible could understand and enjoy this book.

Did Abraham and his family even exist?

The world's leading Bible scholar of the nineteenth century, Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) stated that biblical studies had found "no knowledge" of the biblical patriarchs -- Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jacob's twelve sons. He added that research had uncovered only knowledge "of the time when the stories about [the patriarchs] arose in the Israelite people." He claimed that the "outward features" of life -- that is, facts about the world as it was in the time that the Jewish Bible was com- piled -- had been retro-projected onto the stories of the patriarchs and "reflected there like a glorified mirage."

Understanding Genesis is a powerful refutation of this point of view. As Sarna explains, a "dramatic change in scholarly attitudes has resulted from two independent developments in biblical and Near Eastern studies. The first involves a reevaluation of the internal biblical evidence; the second results from some spectacular archaeological discoveries in the lands of the ancient world."

Internal biblical evidence

Early on, readers are introduced to the concept of historiosophy (literature that reflects a philosophy of how history develops) in contrast to historiography (literature that can be relied on for accurate history). At a time when the global average life expectancy is about sixty-five years, for example, it's hard to find credible Abraham, Isaac and Jacob living a combined 502 years. Sarna demonstrates how quite pointedly numbers are used not as facts (historiography) but as components of mathematical patterns that "are an expression of the biblical interpretation of history as the unfolding of the divine plan on the human scene."

As examples of less spectacular patterns that Sarna mentions, "Abraham lived seventy-five years in the house of his father and seventy-five years in the lifetime of his son. He was one hundred years of age at the birth of Isaac and he lived one hundred years in Canaan."

Though Sarna revealed many aspects of Genesis using the plain English text, for other internal evidence he introduces a small number of Hebrew words. Genesis chapter fourteen is the only one where Abraham is portrayed as a military leader. He raises an army of 318 armed retainers to fight a group of kings who have taken captive his nephew Lot and Lot's family. Through shared Hebrew vocabulary, chapter fourteen suggests motivations for God's making a covenant with Abraham in the following chapter, which begins "Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great." The Hebrew for shield, magen in 15:1, echoes the term used to praise God for having "delivered" (miggen in Hebrew) Abraham from his enemies in 14:20. From a pagan king, Abraham rejected great wealth, rekhush (14:21), only to be given a "great reward" from God, who used the same Hebrew term. Abraham's military allies were ba'alei bent in 14.13 and his covenant with God in 15.18 was bent. Chapter fourteen is about a small group led by Abraham defeating sizable forces, which seems to bode well for Abraham's descendants who will have to face a list of enemies that chapter fifteen ends with.

External evidence Sama writes, "Archaeological excavation of a few sites in Mesopotamia [modern-day Iraq] and elsewhere... has completely revolutionized our understanding... and has illuminated in a most unexpected manner many a biblical text."

Understanding Genesis gives a variety of evidence for everything from the location of Sodom and Gomorrah and the nature of its destruction to how common human sacrifices (such as Isaac nearly became) were in that ancient time and place. From clay tablets unearthed at places such as Nuzi Sarna also draws attention to some heartbreaking aspects of life for biblical figures such as Sarah and Rachel, who when they appeared unable to bear children felt compelled to provide a maid as child-bearer for their husbands.

One tablet uncovered from Nuzi reads, "(Miss) Kelim-ninu has been given in marriage to (Mr.) Shennima... If Kelim-ninu does not bear, Kelim-ninu shall acquire a woman of the land of Lulu (that is, a slave-girl) as wife for Shennima...."

For Hagar and Bilhah, the maids, who may have become proxy lovers only against their will, a desperate need for self-respect could have devastating repercussions. "Hammurabi's laws [circa 1780 BC] provided for such a development, where 'because she bore children, the female slave claimed equality with her mistress.'... Although the mistress was not allowed to sell her, the concubine was to be punished by having her resume her former slave status." Sarna also shows ancient legal grounds that fit Sarah's having Hagar and Ishmael expelled from their home once Isaac was born. He then highlights the biblical record to show that for Abraham the loss was nevertheless heart-wrenching.

The net effect on me of reading Understanding Genesis is that biblical figures began emerging within my heart as if they were my personal ancestors. From that, I found my prayer life deepened, and I have a renewed sense of awe that since ancient times God has been working toward this day. 

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