And so we begin Alter

Denne tråd er fortsat i Alter and a tour of a sea bed.

SnakLe Salon Littéraire du Peuple pour le Peuple

Bliv bruger af LibraryThing, hvis du vil skrive et indlæg

And so we begin Alter

Dette emne er markeret som "i hvile"—det seneste indlæg er mere end 90 dage gammel. Du kan vække emnet til live ved at poste et indlæg.

Redigeret: jan 2, 2012, 12:06am

I've been wondering how this thread will work. I promised myself not to start the actual reading until today, which leaves me woefully unprepared to do "lead" it, not that I was qualified anyway. I'm clueless here. Urania1 may volunteer herself as our expert, if her goats permit and she decides to do that. But regardless, unlike the regular reads here, and the concurrent Moby Dick read, we'll be rudderless and mostly leaderless.

We should do two things first. 1.) figure out whose in and 2.) schedule some kind of pace and structure

So, for #1, roll call. Let us know if you're in.

As for a pace, I expect it will be leisurely. Alter takes 300 pages to complete Genesis (It's about 90 pages in my note-free JSP version). Not sure how long that will take us, maybe three weeks for me. I'm thinking we'll just wait and see and hopefully it will just kind of work out.

The structure I had in mind was a thread for each book, which would make this the Genesis thread.

thoughts? suggestions?...and don't forget the roll call.

For the useful touchstone, our book is The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary by Robert Alter

jan 1, 2012, 11:40pm

I'm looking longingly at it now, and askance at Laura Warholic. I'll be with y'all on the former when I've finished the latter.

jan 1, 2012, 11:41pm

Will be ready to discuss tomorrow. I have immersed in Edmund White's Caracole at the moment.

jan 2, 2012, 12:09am

I'll be following along without reading Alter's translation. I hope to pick up Crumb's Genesis sometime soon, but I have a half dozen other books to read right away, too.


Redigeret: jan 2, 2012, 12:12am

for an opening thought, this comes from Timothy Beal in The Rise and Fall of the Bible

Sometimes diversity can be discovered not only within particular biblical passages but within a single word, even a single letter. So it is with the very first letter of the very first word of Genesis. In Hebrew, that word is bere’shit (prounounced be-ray-sheet, with accent on the last syllable), which is also what the book itself is called in Jewish tradition.

Bere’shit can be translated two very different but equally correct ways, and each way leads to a very different meaning for the beginning of the creation story. It all depends on how we take the first letter, called bet, in relation to the word it modifies, re-shit. Christian tradition, following the lead of early Greek translators, has generally taken re-shit as a noun, from ro’osh, “beginning” (from whence we get Rosh Hashanah, “beginning” or “head” of hashanah, “the year). Taken that way, the bet is translated as a preposition, “in.” Thus, “In the beginning, God created…”

But the word re’shit may also be translated as a verb form, meaning “began.” This is how Jewish tradition has tended to take it in this verse. Taken that way, the bet is translated as “when” rather than “in.” So, if we take re’shit as a verb rather than as a noun, we get “when began” rather than “in the beginning,” and the opening sentence of the Bible reads, “When God began to create…”

Now, compare the resulting translations, both which I’ve made from the same Hebrew text:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was without form and void. And darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God brooded upon the face of the waters. And God said, “There is light.” And there was light. (Genesis 1:1-3; my translation)

When God began to create the heavens and the earth—the earth being formless and void, and darkness upon the face of the deep, and the spirit of God upon the face of the waters—God said, “There is light.” And there was light. (Genesis 1:1-3; my translation)

What’s the difference? In the first, we have created ex nihilo, out of nothing. God creates the heavens and the earth, and the earth that God creates is initially a formless, chaotic void. Then God proceeds to create light and darkness, land and water, and so on. In the second, by contrast, we have crated in media res¸ in the midst of things. At the moment we pick up the story, when God began to create, the formless void of the earth is already there. Create is not out of nothing but out of chaos. That’s a big difference. And it cannot be resolved. Both readings are perfectly correct and mutually irreconcilable. Undecidability inheres to the first letter, the first word, and the first act of creation.

Redigeret: jan 2, 2012, 12:25am

Alter's opening:

When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God's breath hovering over the waters, God said, "Let there be light." And there was light.

KJV opening:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

The brick testament opening:

jan 2, 2012, 12:46am

I'm wondering why the form of the verb meaning create didn't disambiguate that. In my year of Biblical Hebrew it was emphasized that the language had no tenses, but it did have complete and incomplete action (not called, by that professor, perfect and imperfect); the language also had an infinitive or, if Wikipedia is to be believed, two.


jan 2, 2012, 1:06am

Beal is working on an argument of "polyvocality" (using multiple voices in a text, allowing for different interpretations). He see this as common and intentional throughout the bible. He implies the ambiguity here is likely intentional and aesthetic.

jan 2, 2012, 2:14am

I'm in. But the copy I ordered through Amazon Marketplace on December 9th hasn't come yet.

Will there be milestones to keep us more or less in sync--target dates and portions? And are we supposed to do something particular here at regular or irregular intervals? How does this work?

jan 2, 2012, 5:11am

I've ordered both Alter and the Beal book 10 minutes ago through amazon. Looking forward to the off!

3 weeks for 300 pages of Genesis sounds about the right pace for me too.

jan 2, 2012, 5:58am

I'm not sure I will be able to keep up, but I'll try to start reading tonight on the train. I guess I am tentatively in.

jan 2, 2012, 9:07am

Meredy - good luck wit your copy. About how this works, if you follow along you will get a sense of it. You don't need to do anything special, just read along with the thread and post if you want. You may have questions or comments and posting that is all you'll do.

Outside my sugestion of three weeks for Genesis, I don't have target dates mainly because I'm not quite sure what our pace should be. Three weeks means something like chapters 1-17 this week (chapters are usually about five pages or so). But, don't worry about following behind. With these threads, you can always catch-up later. And, we can always slow down (I think very slowwww is the right kind of pace). And don't worry about getting ahead, we'll catch-up. Also, this is the bible, I don't think we need to worry about spoilers.

Having said all that, a natural first break is after chapter 11, where the text switches from creation to the patriarchs.

jan 2, 2012, 10:28am

My book was supposed to arrive over the weekend, I expect I'll see it today or tomorrow. I will follow and contribute where I can.

That selection is fascinating. Not sure I have my head around it, but it would seem an odd place for an intentional double meaning, since the alternative readings are more contradictory than complementary or ironic or otherwise meaningful - seems more just confusing. It may be I'd need some Hebrew chops to understand what is aestheic or useful about the differences.

Of course, sometimes confusing is useful in religious texts, since a multiplicity of meanings allows a religion to accomodate many different people and their views.

Redigeret: jan 2, 2012, 10:48am

How you take it depends a great deal on what kind of point of view you have coming into the book. If you want a clear, black and white, simple instruction in life, you're going to want one concrete way and meaning, and you are probably going need to construct your own. If you are looking to undermine the work you might jump at the opening confusion. I like to picture a small scholarly group trying to put together a wisdom collection. Looking at the odd and varied needs of my community at large, if i'm the writer I'm going to want to open in such a way as to try to reach everyone. The only promising way to do this is with a permanent text is to make the text itself flexible. What possibly more elegant way to accomplish that then by this opening, one that can be read to suit so many points-of-view and one that leaves the careful future reader pondering the very first words.

jan 2, 2012, 11:16am

Along the lines of literary and historical context a new edition of the New Testament has been produced: The Jewish Annotated New Testament put together by Amy-Jill Levine a professor at Vanderbilt. Here's a section from the interview that deals with the birth of Jesus, related perhaps to our endeavor.

RAZ: One interesting part is Matthew 2 when the wise men or the magi herald Jesus' birth. Can you explain how you have dealt with that part of the Bible?

LEVINE: Today, we tend to look at the magi as the wise men. And one can find bumper stickers that say: The wise men still seek him. But for 1st century Jews, magi weren't necessarily wise. They were court astrologers. And sometimes they're seen as figures of humor. When ancient Jews were (unintelligible) Philo of Alexandria describes a fellow from the shared scriptures, the Tanakh in Judaism, the Old Testament for the church. His name is Balaam, he's got a donkey who's more clued in than he is.

So we can look at the magi as, in a sense, figures of fun who relate to high humor. To come into Jerusalem and say, where is the one born king of the Jews? Well, King Herod the Great, identified as king of the Jews. And basically a paranoid megalomaniac is on the throne. That's not the most astute question. So, if we read the Christmas story the way 1st century readers would have seen, we will find not only profundity, we will find humor, entertainment, history and politics.

jan 2, 2012, 11:17am

jan 2, 2012, 11:39am

I am beginning to think I'll have to figure out a way to read this along with the rest of you, even though I have so much else I want to read this year. I guess the first step is to order it . . .

jan 2, 2012, 4:11pm

Well, as promised I started reading on the train tonight. I started with the introduction to Genesis, felt there was information I was missing and backtracked to the general introduction. Mistake. I started to glimpse the immensity of my ignorance and to panic. Back home I searched amazon frantically for a history of ancient Israel, but found none in ebook form that looked good. What to do, what to do?

What to do, of course, was start reading. I really like Alter's translation, and I like how he thinks. Reading this as a literary book may be the only way for me to read it, and the translation helps. So do the notes. He makes it very clear that after all, who cares if there are some ambiguities and contradictions, this is just a damn good story. And in fact the ambiguities and contradictions are also a part of it, not just blunders to be glossed over or forgiven.

Now settling back and preparing the enjoy the next chapter. I wonder what's going to happen to those two nude humans.

jan 2, 2012, 4:20pm

Urania, that looks like a fun little hand grenade thrown into the midst of the debate over the degree to which the gospels were addressed to Judaism or beyond Judaism. Does she talk much about the use of Greek versus Hebrew in the Bible and the influence of cultures like the Greek as well as the Jewish?

Daniel, the question I found more interesting was why THAT ambiguity; I don't think the question of clarity versus ambiguity is interesting at all - some degree of ambiguity is simply a hall mark of any good writing, let alone any good religious writing. But THAT ambiguity, the idea of embedding in the dna of the opening sentence of your creation myth that strong a lack of clarity, strikes me as more a confusing than a powerful ambiguity. Does it strikes others similarly?

I note Alter chooses the in media res version - does he view that one as more powerful? More consistent with the rest of book (an argument that would seem reasonable, given how God almost seems like a friendly guy you can chat with in parts of the Mosaic books)?

I guess I need Amazon to get this book delivered so I can get to reading myself.

As to Beal, if I went and ordered him I think my TBR pile might fall over and crush me in the middle of the night.

jan 2, 2012, 4:29pm

Yeah, even if Genesis was composed by committee, I don't see why they'd deliberately introduce or leave in ambiguities from the get-go (leaving aside ambiguities of meaning of single words--aren't there in it two different creation stories?)

But I feel I'd need to know Hebrew, and WELL, before I could begin to decide what to think, so...

Redigeret: jan 2, 2012, 6:50pm

I think "In the beginning" is comforting in the idea that the myth has a beginning, and it makes the start much more memorable. "When God began to" just doesn't stick in my mind as clearly. But, on the other hand, "In the beginning" is too precise for me. This story doesn't start at any beginning, none of the myths I've come across do. They all start with something, here it's God and chaos. So, there is something more honest and gray in "When God began to". That's a personal preference. Also, in Alter's version I have this sense, from the first words, that there is wind in sails, we're moving, there is, that's my aesthetic preference.

But this is personal and the true answer probably isn't out there. You can begin to decide, but you can never be 100% sure. If Beal is correct, and we have intentional polyvocality in the first words, then here we are, in the process of asking questions that can't be answered, doing exactly what was intended. Why might they do this? To set the tone, to take away the certainty, and immediately prep readers to be aware, wary, to tell the reader to try to look at these words in more ways then one.

If I have an expectation on reading this book, it's that I expect to end up asking a lot of questions that can't be answered. But the I think the book will prompt or inspire us readers to ask these questions, but not actually ask them itself.

jan 2, 2012, 6:49pm

Urania, my problem with Levine isn't her wishful interpretation, it's the certainty of her assertion.

jan 2, 2012, 10:29pm

>19 A_musing: and >22 dchaikin:,
I have not read Levine's translation (actually it was put together by a group of scholars). I only heard the interview on NPR, so I can't speak to her intentions or to the text as a whole. I would be reluctant to call Levine's interpretation "wishful," without being familiar with her book and with her sources. And remember, interviews on NPR always present simplified versions of complex arguments. So ...

jan 2, 2012, 10:31pm

#23 Fair enough.

I just finished book 7, flood is coming.

jan 3, 2012, 8:34am

So, I learned this morning that my daughter has been reading Alter's Genesis in her "Bible as History, Bible as Literature" class. I may be consulting her as we read this one.

Redigeret: okt 10, 2012, 12:09pm

Genesis 1-3

There is so much to think about in these early sections, that I'm forgetting the previous section as soon as I get too involved with current one. So, my memory needs some structure. Then, this morning I was reading through James L. Kugel's How to Read the Bible : A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. The book is not brilliant, IMO, but he's very well informed, his book has a lot of good information, and, most valuable to me, it has a really nice structure. So, I'm going to take Kugel's structure as a baseline, and then I'm going to try to list some thoughts for each section.


Genesis 1-3 takes us through the creation story twice

themes to think about

As we read this creation story we are entering some kind of mixture of the deepest depths of myth of the area along with the imagination of these ancient, unknown authors. It's worth keeping in mind that the keepers of the text were unusual in their literacy, that it is likely much of these books came down orally first, for a long time, and that, finally, the editors had the last say. These editors could cut, copy and paste as they saw fit. Also, it's worth keeping in mind that words were kept on scrolls that were copied, then lost, and it worth spending some time wondering what went through the history of all this copying. Things get reordered, stitched together in odd ways and so on. Finally, that, when these were written down, they were generally composed as something to be recited out loud. The writing was for memory, maybe even archival, not typically for the presentation.

So, a few things strike me as I read these chapters and read about them:

1. There are two creation stories with very different feels. Kugel points out the first one has an undefined god who creates by fiat and the main theme seems to be the sabbath, the day of rest. In the second story the order of creation is different and the god becomes very human. He walks around, he doesn't know where Adam and Eve are or what they are doing. And the god is called differently (in Alter we have "God" and "THE LORD") We seem to be dealing with two versions, stitched together. iirc, the second version is the more ancient one. The first may be much younger. Kugel's notes discus a post-exilic time...which might throw us into a discussion of Jewish history...but, later.

2. What is the Garden of Eden? Kugel tells me there is a nomadic-to-agricultural theme. The Garden of Eden would be naked, nomadic man at peace with his earth. The expulsion would represent the mixed cost of agriculture, namely the hard labor...and also the benefits, the acquired various ways. Later we have conflict between the farmer and the shepherd; is the theme re-occurring, does are shepherd fit in with the nomadic life?

3. Was there a fall?

4. What's with the snake?

5. ?

Redigeret: jan 3, 2012, 2:34pm

Cain and Abel


Adam and Eve's sons, Cain and Abel. Cain works the field and Abel is a shepherd. When Cain's offer to God is rejected, he murders Abel in jealously and then must wander endlessly with his mark.

themes to think about

Bruce Chatwin chose this to obsess over in his exploration of nomadism. The freely wandering shepherd inspires the jealously the farmer tied to the land and the heavy labor. Cain, the laborer, lashes out, defining forever the settling of the land and driving aside of nomadic life. Are shepherds nomadic? Was Chatwin nuts?

but, regardless, we have this to think about

1. Whatever we make of it, there is a clash between the farmer and the shepherd.

2. Here we have a second serious crime, the first murder. Four people, and the three survivors are all guilty of world changing crimes.

3. Cain and his offspring go on the become the first of many things, including the first builder of a city.

4. Cain may represent the Kenites, a nomadic group south of Palestine (other southern nomadic group of the era include the Midianites and Amalekites). Kugel spends a lot of time on this where he discusses how Cain seems to represent the Kenites and this nomadic group seem to have some kind of special (and violent) relationship with the ancient proto-Jews.

5. Cain, the farmer, founds the cities after becoming a nomad...I'm confused.

6. ??

jan 3, 2012, 2:33pm

Let me know if these posts are helpful.

#25 - what perfect timing!

jan 3, 2012, 2:40pm

Your posts are extremely helpful. Moving from Alter to later interpretations, Milton for example, the fall would be known as the fortunate fall.

jan 3, 2012, 2:41pm

Serpent as Woman

Another later interpretation

Redigeret: jan 3, 2012, 2:53pm

More of the Illustrated Bible

Die Schlange, E. Jordan, 1899

jan 3, 2012, 3:01pm

Ooh! Very nice. Why is the serpent a woman?

jan 3, 2012, 3:05pm

I'm reading along, although I don't know how much time I'll have to participate.

jan 3, 2012, 3:08pm

shepherds are indeed nomadic. see for instance the Massai in kenya and Tanzania. Other sedentarian Africans ( farmers ) hate them
I think it is clear that there was competition and antagony between the nomads and the farmers

jan 3, 2012, 4:22pm

Why do the serpents in the paintings have no legs?

Do you feel that the conflated stories of the creation of human beings are sufficient to justify the Rabbinic interpolation of a first wife, Lilith, for Adam?

And, yes Dan, I am grateful for your comments.


jan 3, 2012, 6:28pm

My Alter is here! What a beautiful book!

It is as large as my scholarly edition of The Whale - this is going to be a crazy month.

Dan, all comments always valuable.

jan 3, 2012, 7:40pm

Going away on Thursday. Hoping my copy will be waiting for me when I get back next week.

jan 3, 2012, 11:24pm

#36 - And it's only barely bigger than the 800 page Kugel I'm also reading. (Lugging these around in work). Fortunately, my whale is a small, "mass market paperback" version.

Redigeret: jan 4, 2012, 5:20am

35> This thing with the legs has me baffled too. I keep trying to imagine a serpent with legs, and failing. Though I guess it would look like a very long lizard. Would it have more than four legs?

I can't see anything in either creation story that points to a first wife for Adam.

I noticed that the man is not named in Alter's translation. I gather from his comments that Adam means man, or the man, and so he didn't really have a name, although there seems to be a gradual translation from a generic name to a proper name as the story progresses.

About the farmer/shepherd antagonism, Alter points out that Genesis keeps insisting on the hardship and frustration of agriculture, which is part of the original curse of Adam and Eve. The word pain is even used in at least one instance. And on top of that, when Cain brings the fruit of his pain and labor as sacrifice, God turns up his nose at it. I'd be angry and jealous too.

Redigeret: jan 4, 2012, 9:27am

Genesis 4:16-8


begats, begats, begats, then FWHUMP.

themes to think about

The flood story gives us the first of many acts of collective punishment, the first clear Sumerian influence on the text and some beautiful language.

There are number of things to think about:

1. Begats - Before we get to the flood we have several begats, a ritualistic-feeling break in the text dividing the narratives. When reading these, think about how they sound out loud, the rhythmic feel. Also, the few odd lines in there ("And Enoch walked with God and he was no more, for God took him") are very curious.

2. And how about those mixed in little verses where Alter claims the context has been lost? These ancient windows into the oral history, what do they mean? Why are these parts kept? I find them absolutely fascinating.

3. Geologists tell us the flood was real, it was the filling the Black Sea in roughly 5600 bce, and you can always trust your geologists...except that they don't all agree ( )

4. The oldest flood story comes from Gilgamesh and includes many parallels, including the boat getting stuck on a mountain, a dove and even gods savoring the smell of the post-flood sacrifice. What to make of these Sumerian roots?

5. What to make of the collective punishment? What kind of god is this anyway?

6. It's official, man is evil.

7. Again there is conflicting duplication in the story, there are multiple authors and stitching of the text and there is switching between "God" and "THE LORD".

8. But mainly what wonderful language and rhythm of the flood itself. "All the wellsprings of the great deep burst and the casements of the heavens were opened." "...and the waters multiplied and bore the ark upwards and it rose above the earth. And the waters surged and multiplied mightily above the earth, and the ark went on the surface of the water. And the waters surged most mightily over the earth, and all the high mountains under the heavens were covered". Kudos to Alter here.

9. Alter points out the parallels in language between creation and the destruction here.

10. Whats with the angels and nephilim? Alter relates these to Greek mythology, and how fascinating is that idea? Kugel doesn't mention this, but makes a good case that this little bit at the beginning of chapter 6 comes before and should be read separate from the flood. Historically, these nephilim were looked into as prompting God to cause the flood. Kugel thinks they just happened to be stitched in here. The the cause is the next line (6:5), which will take me too long to type out just now.

jan 4, 2012, 9:20am

Back to the garden of Eden: Alter's version doesn't pussyfoot around the inherant sexism of the thing: Human/Adam is brought down by Woman/Eve and Snake - I don't read Satan as satanic - just as easily and perhaps more easily characterized as nature.

jan 4, 2012, 9:59am

I like the little "it's not me, it's her/it" game they all play: God scorns Adam, Adam blames it on Eve (and indirectly on God, "the woman you gave me..."), Eve blames it on the serpent. Poor serpent doesn't get to blame it on anybody.

jan 4, 2012, 1:17pm

>40 dchaikin:: Enoch has his own (apocryphal) book where he describes how he is taken up into heaven and visits the seven (?) heavens. Dante must have known about it.
The book of Enoch as we know it dates from around 300 BC, but it may well have been inspired by earlier myths.

Redigeret: jan 4, 2012, 1:35pm

I noticed that the man is not named in Alter's translation. I gather from his comments that Adam means man, or the man, and so he didn't really have a name, although there seems to be a gradual translation from a generic name to a proper name as the story progresses.

Early in the general introduction to the whole book, Alter says "the stuff from which the first human is fashioned, for example, 'adamah, manifestily means 'soil.'" But he goes on to note the ambiguity of the term: "'adamah also means 'land,' 'farmland,' 'country,' and to translate it invariably as 'soil' for the sake of terminological consistency ... leads to local confusions and conspicuous peculiarities."

jan 4, 2012, 1:52pm

William Blake's vision

jan 4, 2012, 1:53pm

Pim - Kugel quotes the Book of Enoch, but I had never heard of it before. Wikipedia tells me it was lost to to the west until the early 1600's and didn't find any real readers until the late 1700's (first English translation is from 1821). What an interesting history for the book.

Sam - yes, the text is certainly sexist. It's also a number of other non-politically correct things...with built in inconsistency in the matter. We'll get there and we'll see how Alter handles this. (I thought he has been a touch prude with the sexual references.)

Florence & Urania - seems a bit odd how Alter suddenly switches to Adam in mid flow... but regardless, between the text and the notes it's clear, it's only that the text does become dependent on the notes.

jan 4, 2012, 2:07pm

On leggy serpents: could the Serpent have been a newt?

Just a thought.

Redigeret: jan 4, 2012, 2:14pm

Some more about the oral foundation of these texts, this all comes from Scribal Culture and the making of the Bible by Karel van der Toorn (Pim - this was on my wishlist sine July of 2009 with the comment, "from PimPhilipse")

The fact that the civilizations of antiquity were oral had an impact on the texts that were committed to writing. In Babylonia and Israel, writing was mostly used to support oral performance. The native verbs for "reading" literally mean "to cry, to speak out loud" (Hebrew qara, Akkadian šasǔ and it by-form šitassǔ)

The traditional texts from Israel and Mesopotamia are full of stylistic devices of oral performance such as rhythm, repetition, stock epithets, standard phrases, and plots consisting of interrelated but relatively independent episodes. This holds true for the narrative texts as well as the exhortatory texts. The patriarchal stories in Genesis, just as the Epic of Gilgamesh in Babylonian literature, consist of a string of episodes owing their unity to the principal protagonists of the various stories. Their disposition is paratactic rather than hypotactic*; the style is "additive rather than subordinative" or or

jan 4, 2012, 2:13pm

#47 These is a type of lizard that has actually lost it's legs. I don't remember the name, but it's the slow thick "snake" in the Indiana Jones snake scene...the one coming out the mouth of the corpse. Also, many or most of the other "snakes" in this scene are actually this lizard.

Redigeret: jan 4, 2012, 2:25pm

One last thought (for today), about the multiple authors from the point of view of the editors. This is also from van der Toorn's Scribal Culture

The scribes who edited the biblical Flood narrative, or even the Pentateuch as a whole, aimed to produce a document that would have the support of different textual communities. By writing a work that integrated documents with different ideas and perspectives, the scribes were creating a national written heritage that transcended earlier divisions.

I'm about half way through this book, which tries to figure just who these scribes were that wrote down, edited and preserved the texts until the "book" expands and becomes more common place during Greek and Roman times.

jan 4, 2012, 2:22pm

The devil is newt gringrich

jan 4, 2012, 2:34pm


Obviously. I hope Rick is not sending you a newt.

jan 4, 2012, 2:42pm

Snakes have lost legs too.

There is a beautiful little salamander endemic to Dinaric karst in Slovenia and Croatia, blind and pink, living in underwater caves. It has the sweetest name of all the animals: "human little fish". True, I don't see where it could get them apples to tempt silly women with.

Sorry, sorry, carry on, carry on.

Redigeret: jan 4, 2012, 3:02pm

I'm not going to count myself in but I've been watching this thread and its predecessor. RA's "Five Books of Moses" which I read perhaps a couple of years ago really made me realise what a difference a good commentary makes to reading the Bible. As a result of the thread I've just ordered his books on Psalms, Wisdom, and the David Story - which I had intended to get several years ago. Thanks for the push and I'll be watching in the background.

jan 5, 2012, 4:38am

The reasons for the Flood are really not clear to me. Alter says it's because of the Nephilim, who were also the "Sons of God" who were not supposed to mix with the daughters of men. That would make sense, but it takes some imagination to infer that from the text itself. Also the sins of humanity are not exactly detailed. Sounds like God suddenly lost patience and got angry at humans for being human.

Redigeret: jan 5, 2012, 8:58am

"And the LORD saw the the evil of the human creature was great on the earth and the every scheme of his hearts' devising was only perpetually evil"

Florence - For the flood, this is about all we get. Then, after all that, "the LORD" concludes, "the devisings of the human heart are evil from youth." There is a lot more to think about on this story. I'm not sure what to make of this all, but there are lessons here.

- The authors seem to emphatically disagree with the modern notion that people are all generally good, but things happen. My senses balk at the evil/not evil black-and-white assertions, but I have to agree humans are still animals and this doesn't jive with morality. Call it evil, if you will, but certainly, be aware.

- the biblical lesson is that god can destroy what it creates and that we're here only under its blessing. This can be extrapolated as a way to look at the vagaries of nature, that we are here under the blessings of our earth and its nature, and that catastrophes happen (earthquakes, meteors and the Black Sea did flood, and communities were permanently washed away).

- but none of this explains why this all powerful, all knowing god seems to make mistakes and learn its own lessons, and then seem so exhausted by this all. Each story seems to have a variant version of god with variant limitations . There is the sense of a cartoon where anything that can be illustrated can happen. I see this as a collection of stories stitched together from various sources. There is no consistency, but there is a element in each story, independently, that strikes some kind of chord. For the Flood, my first thoughts are about the annihilation of all humanity.

For what it's worth, I'm enjoying this.

jan 5, 2012, 8:59am

#54 PossMan - welcome, and nice to know.

jan 5, 2012, 8:59am

"all powerful, all knowing god" - is this is God of Moses? I know this is Christian theology (I don't know whether it is Jewish theology), but it is what Genesis in particular describes?

Redigeret: jan 5, 2012, 9:14am

Kugel skips chapters 9 & 10, and only discusses the Tower of Babel in chapter 11. Alter has a lot of interesting notes, but I'm making the assumption we're all reading them. So, I'll be brief.

Genesis 9


A covenant, Noah becomes the first drunk and the first to do something stupid while drunk (although it's not clear where the implications with Ham go.)

Genesis 10


A summary of all the known nations (70) explained through a genealogical chart

Genesis 11


The Tower of Babel, which contradicts the genealogical evolution of nations in book 10. Then more (and again variant) begats. This time we are starting the patriarchal tales, as Terah, father of Abram, leaves Ur for Haran.

themes to think about

1. I'm impressed by how many known nations are listed and how much ground is covered...but that comes from Alter, the actual names meant nothing to me.

2. Babel is another clear fertile crescent reference...and then Terah comes from Ur. Are we to conclude that the Israelites and their stories all from there?

3. ?

jan 5, 2012, 9:13am

Sam - It's definitely the Jewish take and, I agree, it's clearly not the bible's take so far. However, the first version of creation is along those lines.

jan 5, 2012, 9:36am

It strikes me as a big tension, whether it's because old stuff with a more human god was being rewritten or because there are different sources with different approaches; in fits and starts, God seems to get both more powerful and more distant as the whole Ibrhamic tradition progresses.

jan 5, 2012, 9:51am

It felt strange reading about God walking about in the garden of Eden. Even though I was raised as an atheist and have no particular awe of God, I felt ready to giggle like a schoolgirl who has just found out that her mighty teacher is wearing underwear, or picks his nose, or some other sign that he is, after all, an ordinary human being.

jan 5, 2012, 10:06am

My favorite rendition of the Cain and Abel story:

jan 5, 2012, 8:45pm

What a great scene; I gotta see that movie.

I'll be lurking; I read this ol' Good Book, just a couple years ago.

My favorite rendition of Genesis, is The Preservationist. 'Plenty of rutting!

jan 6, 2012, 8:02am

I am pretty much lurking, too, since I have not fully committed myself to this. Have gotten through Noah this morning, however, and I can never read the story without thinking of this:

jan 6, 2012, 10:35am

I hadn't seen that one before, Lisa. Very funny.

jan 6, 2012, 11:32am

That was just the beginning of it. I think there were links to the whole thing, but the video that poster put with the dialogue was extremely well done!

Redigeret: jan 6, 2012, 1:42pm

Afraid to watch these movies at work, will need to come back.

I'm reading through Abraham's sections, probably through Gen 20 before i post again...or I might post something sooner, not sure.

#61 - Kugel has a chapter on the god of the bible, which happens to be between chapters on Abraham. A lot of it I would argue is pretty obvious. Clearly there an older version of God, from a polytheist era, who is often described in the size shape of a human and who used human-like angels. And there is typically some confusion when someone encounters an angel. They assume they are human, and generally are very slow to realize it's an angel, sometimes spending a great deal of time with the angel, unaware. And then there is some confusion as they begin to realize. Sometimes God will suddenly speak, while the angel is present (or maybe through the angel). Then, later God becomes the omnipotent, omniscient and other omns. If your following the documentary hypothesis ideas, J & E typically have an anthropomorphic god and hint at polytheism. P & D have the all-knowing, modern variety, and are clearly monotheist.

ps - Kugel explores Abraham's sense of monotheism/polytheism and concludes that there is no reason to believe that the historical Abraham, whatever he represents, ever came across the idea of monotheism. Something to think about as you read.

jan 6, 2012, 3:52pm

Re-reading chapter 6 - it's not just humans that are evil, it's "all flesh". All living things are guilty and about to be destroyed... Well, except the fish of course...

On to the Ark story.

jan 7, 2012, 3:09am

The flood happened about 8000 years ago.

jan 7, 2012, 7:07am

I'm reading "Die fünf Bücher der Weisung", the translation by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. It is a translation frm Jewish perspective, but since part of the tradition is the declamation of scripture, they also tried to capture the sound of the original. More on this later.

My last biblical read was The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb.

Before that I read The Bible with Sources Revealed, which by means of typography and fonts indicates the presumed source (J, E, P, D and others) of each fragment. It is useful to look up the sources of passages that are extremely garbled, such as the flood, which is a mish-mash of P and J.
In J, the flood has a duration of 40 days, Noah sends out a dove which returns twice, and since he has seven pairs of the pure animals, he can sacrifice a couple of them when he has left the ark.
In P, the duration is a year, Noah sends out a raven that goes back and forth an unspecified number of times. And since P is very strict in specifying that sacrifices can only be made by licensed priests according to the laws of Moses, Noah does not make a sacrifice and therefore only needs one pair of each animal, regardless of its purity.

Redigeret: jan 8, 2012, 12:29am

Genesis 12-22

The story of Abraham (which continues, but I haven't read any further yet). For this post I'll just post quick summaries of each chapter. Keep in mind the chapter breaks are a medieval creation, and not the writers intention.

Genesis 12:
- Abram & Sarah and Lot travel to Canaan where God says "To your seed I will give this land".
- Then Abram goes to Egypt and tells the Pharaoh Sarai is his sister. So the Pharaoh takes Sarai into his harem, gets some afflicted with plagues and then apparently rewards Abram and sends him away. (Sarah's first whoring?)

Genesis 13:
- Lot and Abram split. Lot to Sodom (a bad choice).
- God promises Abram "I will make your seed like the dust of the earth" (meaning numerous, not as ashes)

Genesis 14:
- an odd chapters with battles. Lot is captured and Abram frees him in battle. There is a blessing to El Elyon

Genesis 15:
- Now god promises Abram seed like the stars
- Abrams first covenant with "the LORD" through animal sacrafice

Genesis 16:
- Hagar's story. Sarai sends Hagar to Abram to get a son. Ishmael is born and Sarai freaks out in raging jealousy, or something along those lines
- Ishmael means "God has heard."
- Hagar's first departure. She returns after "The LORD'S" promise (who she call's "El Roi")
- The LORD's promise: "He will be a wild ass of a man—his hands against all, the hand of all against him, he will encamp in despite all of his kin."

Genesis 17:
- Abram calls The LORD "El Shaddai"
- Abram is named Abraham. Sarai is named Sarah
- The second covenant doesn't involve animal sacrifice, just mass circumcision (ouch, talk about collective punishment...)
- Abraham is promised Isaac (Abram laughs in doubt)

Genesis 18:
- Three angels visit Abraham (or two angel with god in human form)
- several odd things happen here, including a very strange conversation between Sarah and God ("I did not laugh." "Yes, you did laugh")
- "The LORD" has an interesting quiet discussion with himself about telling Abraham about Sodom and Gomorrah then they discuss it and Abram worried about the collective punishment. ("Will You really wipe out the innocent with the guilty?")

Genesis 19:
- The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
- again, several odd things happen. The highlight sequence is where every man from sodom wants to commit sodomy on the angels of death. To protect these lovely angels of death, Lot offers his virgin daughters in their place. (WTF?)
- Lot's incest with his daughters, with the apparent purpose of a low blow to the Ammonites and Moabites (because, hey, the Hebrew's wrote the book)

Genesis 20:
- Sarah acts as Abraham's sister for the second time, this time for Abimelech. Abraham is rewarded again, this time with ally (Sarah's second whoring?)

Genesis 21:
- Isaac is born and Sarah laughs. Isaac means "he who laughs"
- Hagar is sent off, but she and Ishmael are saved by God
- ETA the Beersheba treaty with Abimelech is here.

Genesis 22:
- The almost sacrifice of Isaac.
- again, lots of odd stuff in sequence. As in the previous cases, the text doesn't comment or respond to these odd happenings.

Redigeret: jan 8, 2012, 12:31am

Some themes to think about in all this

1. What is this god? The god described in these pages is not a god I've encountered in any other form. I feel like I'm missing some context, and I can't figure out what this god is supposed be. Confusing to me anyway.

2. Kugel has a terrific chapter on Abraham

- 2A : Abraham is called the first monotheist. Kugel disagrees, doesn't think any Abraham would have even thought of the idea of monotheism. I have to agree, this is a very polytheism-friendly text.

- 2B : Kugel summarizes the arc of the scholarship which basically went 1) Abraham was just some story 2) holy cow the archeology supports Abraham, he was friggin' real 3). Well, actually, things don't really work in the timelines in whatnot...4) OK, there are real historical elements mixed in or hinted at here and there within the myth.

- 2C : Abraham as a metaphor. Even in ancient times Abraham's wanderings were seen as a metaphor for the search for truth (and maybe faith). There is a Chaldean reference which is significant because the Chaldeans had this idea that everything could be learned from the stars and were astronomical/astrological experts of their time. The idea is that Abraham studied with them just to learn that this was nonsense, that the truth lies in God. Unfortunately, Chaldean history and Abraham's don't fit along the same time periods. Good story though.

- 2D : Abraham had a tough life

3. What's going on with the literary structures here. The styles are changing. And then some very strange or important things happen without any response within the text

4. Lots of duplication. Two covenants, Hagar leaves twice, Sarah plays single twice.

5. Sarah comes out pretty bad, even if she didn't actually whore herself out. (not that that's bad). She is mean to Hagar, laughs at The LORD (not that that was unreasonable, all things considered.)

6. What do we make of the almost sacrifice of Isaac? (I had the romantic picture in my head as Abraham being a wealthy, independent, self-confident loon with a self-righteous belief that only he understands god. So, this is mostly harmless in the day-to-day life of these people. Difficult people are difficult people. But then we get to Isaac, and suddenly Abraham's romantic insanity becomes very dark.)

7. According to Kugel the modern scholarship sees most of these stories as "etiological", they have the purpose of explaining why something is. So, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah explain some ancient ruins and the strange look of the salt formation there (Lot's wife turns to salt when she looks back at Sodom). Other stories often relate to place names. In this light, Isaac becomes a story that explain that you really shouldn't sacrifice your children. Why? Because people were actually doing this. Personally, I don't think that is enough to explain the Isaac story.

8. The bible really doesn't like cities.

jan 8, 2012, 12:10am

Great posts, lots to think about.

jan 8, 2012, 12:53am

Mac, Thank you.

Pim - "More on this later." -- looking forward to that. And I want The Bible with Sources Revealed, now while I'm reading (goes off to check the library)

Just now watching the links in #63 (freaky) #65 Lisa (what's the le salon acronym, lqfalt? Anyway, entertaining)

jan 8, 2012, 12:57am

Sam - Do you think Melville's Ishmael qualifies as a wild ass?

jan 8, 2012, 8:41am

I'm going to have to find the wild ass reference and figure it out now - but after my chinese class this afternoon, I'm going to be busy studying until then!

jan 8, 2012, 8:43am

Dan, lqarl-from Rick Harsh--meaning "laughing quietly and relatively long".

Have only gotten to the Sarai is my sister part, but I have been wondering all along who this God is. Certainly does not seem to be the omniscient, omnipotent one I was brought up with. Having been raised Catholic in the time of the Baltimore Catechism, I never read the Bible at all, so had no exposure to these stories other than in the telling of them in school.

On the other hand, it has been serendipitous for me to be reading this and Moby Dick at the same time. Never would have gotten the myriad biblical references.

jan 8, 2012, 11:20am

If you like all That stuff, i recommend Mann's Joseph and his brothers

jan 8, 2012, 2:15pm

It is sitting in the pile on the nightstand!

jan 8, 2012, 7:11pm

Mine was in that pile so long it's moved to the bookshelves just behind the nightstand. Takes up a lot of space.

jan 9, 2012, 3:46am

I remember the story of Joseph and his brothers from my childhood. Vividly. I can still see the book's (The Bible Told for Children) picture with the brothers bringing back the blood-stained coat.

Redigeret: jan 9, 2012, 12:01pm

Alter's book has finally arrived. Intend to read it in tandem with A dark muse....

jan 9, 2012, 12:22pm

Z - good to hear.

Meredy, has your book arrived yet?

How is everyone doing? Are we still moving along? Are we discouraged, enthused? Is this too fast? Too slow? Do those of you who were late getting your books feel hopelessly behind?

jan 9, 2012, 12:25pm

dan - you are doing a great job as far as I am concerned, pace is good and your commentaries will keep me motivated.

jan 10, 2012, 4:22pm

My Alter arrived while I was away. I don't see how I can start it until next week because I have so much to catch up with. Do you think I should read all the preliminary material (which I can see will take a while) or skip it and jump right in so I can try to catch up with the rest of you?

jan 11, 2012, 10:21am

Rebecca - It's certainly not essential to read the introduction first, or at all. But I would still recommend starting with it as it's interesting and let's you know where Alter is coming from. On the other hand, it's also a bit slow and dry.

jan 11, 2012, 11:04am

Well, I'll try to get to it this week, but after being out of town, catching up with everything, and getting ready for out of town guests for the weekend, my guess is it will be next week. I am enjoying reading all your thoughts and comments, though.

Redigeret: jan 11, 2012, 1:54pm

Genesis 24-28

Isaac, Rebekah, the story of Jacob and Esau, and finally Jacob's, ramp. Again, just quick summaries in this post.

Genesis 23:
- Sarah's death followed by a bargaining sequence of her burial cave

Genesis 24:
- The fetching of Rebekah for Isaac ("fetching" being my interpretation)
- more bargaining over Rebekah
- Rebekah's heroic feet in watering ten camels

Genesis 25:
- begats - from Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac
- birth of Esau and Jacob (clinging to Esau's heal) after an ominous annunciation ("the elder, the younger's slave")
- Esau is described as "ruddy, like a harry mantel all over"
- The name "Jacob" is derives from heel
- Esau trades his birthright to Jacob for a stew.

Genesis 26:
- The only stories that focus on Isaac
- Another sister-wife thing and again with Abimelech. But no whoring implications and no direct reward for Isaac
- Still Isaac does well
- includes stories about the three wells, more bargaining and Beersheba's name explained a second time, and now differently

Genesis 27:
- Jacob steals Esua's blessing

Genesis 28:
- Jacob departs to avoid Esau's rage
- Jacob's ramp/ladder

Redigeret: jan 11, 2012, 2:33pm

Themes to think about (written quickly over my lunch):

1. Etiology : from Kugel. (Kugel has a great chapter on Jacob and Esau)

The modern view is that the story of Esau and Jacob is essentially an etiological tale from the point for view the Davidic times (10th century B.C.). Jacob is Israel, Esau is Edom. Esau's hairiness plays on the name of the name of the main mountain in Edom, sa 'ir, which sounds like the Hebrew word for hairy. Edom means red, and region has lots of red sandstone outcrops. In Davidic times the (briefly) up-and-coming Israelites had recently taken control of the long existent Edom - hence the older becomes the younger's slave. Later Edom will regain it's independence. Kugel argues the story was written in Davidic times, and then later updated with Esau's blessing to reflect Edom's eventual independence... i.e. the fortunes were written afterwards.

However, keep this in mind, quoting from Kugel: "The etiological side of these tales was not likely to interest the ancient interpreters (if they spotted it at all). Their own historical circumstances were so distant form those of the stories' original audience that almost anything having to do with Israel's day-to-day reality in early biblical times—cruel Kenites and child sacrafice and Israel's first victory of Edom—would seem quite irrelevant to them. On the other hand, they deeply believed in the Bible's relevance."

ie - despite this (quite fascinating) origin, let's read these as stories.

2. Cleverness is an important theme here. Notice all the bargaining and tricks in the language of the bargains - for Sarah's grave plot, with Abimelech, for Rebekah's hand. Then, of course, cleverness fully wins over brawn in the Jacob-Esau story.

3. Jacob's ladder becomes a ziggurat ramp. (I think I prefer the KJV here: "And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it")

3A. Kugel argues the author's are trying to usurp the foundation of Bethel from the Canaanite worshipers of El. Anyway, cultic Bethel predates the Israelites.

3B. The authors did this by breaking later clear commandments not set up stones to worship. Jacob single-handedly stands up a stone and worships it.

3C. And, anyway, what do we make of Jacob's ramp and dream/vision?

4. And what do we make the Jacob-Esau story?

4A - going back to Cain and Able, there is repeat of the hunter (Nomad)-homeboy (farmer) conflict. In Kugel's end-notes he cites McCarter and Hendel (1999) as highlighting this story as a nature-civilization conflict. Jacob projects Israel's self image ("clever, sometimes trick") and Esau projects their image of the Edomites ("dumb jocks").

5. Kugel spends some time on the language of Genesis up to now. He uses the term "Schematic narratives" - i.e. "their spare, bare-bones quality." The script is simply there to make a point, efficiently. It's not going to elaborate and it's not intended to be literary.

6. Does five explain why Isaac is essentially a no-show? Why is he skipped over?


jan 11, 2012, 3:10pm

the question for me that keeps coming up is why anyone would read these books as any kind of instructions on how to live morally. If I approached them like any myth, say the epic of Gilgamesh, then they make sense, or if I read it as a manual of how to placate your capricious god - in the same vein as a Greek might need instructions for dealing with Olympus), but most of it is immoral according to my standards, being ready to kill your child, turning someone to salt because they look back, genocide.

jan 11, 2012, 3:33pm

Why do the angels have to tread on the ladder-ziggurat_ )arrgh, messed up keyboard!!!)

Why don´t they fly_ )arrrgh!)

jan 11, 2012, 3:34pm

Or beam up and down, or Apparate.

jan 11, 2012, 3:55pm

I've realized I'm going to be pretty useless over here due to a whale obsession. Know I'm following and cheering along.

jan 11, 2012, 4:14pm

In general Genesis has a tendency to invent ancestors for the neighboring tribes that leave something to be desired. Ham is the father of Canaan, and therefore "Canaan is cursed. He'll be a servant of servants to his brothers". Moab and Ammon are descended from the unnatural union of Lot with his daughters. Vicious propaganda.

jan 11, 2012, 9:09pm

Solla - that is a wonderful question. I have no idea. Anyone else want to take a go? Why would anyone read these books as any kind of instructions on how to live morally?

Related to that is an argument Beal makes in The Rise and Fall of the Bible; that treating the Bible as instruction manual on how to live is a very late idea. His argument is that it was a 19-century phenomena...and that it was a response to Darwin and other scientific undermining of religion. I can't say he's wrong, and I can certainly imagine a religious exaggeration in response to conflicts with the sciences, but that does seem a little suspicious. I've always assumed that following the book, through the church, was a major characteristic of the west European dark ages.

By the way, Kugel compares are response to Gilgamesh and the Bible. I'll try to hunt down the section.

jan 11, 2012, 9:11pm

(#94 - psst - I've only read about 60 pages of MD in 2012. Good thing I got a head start.)

Redigeret: jan 11, 2012, 9:36pm

from Kugel

Someone who reads the Babylonian flood story will likely find it interesting, or perhaps troubling (because of its clean connection to the Genesis account). But any question like "How are we to apply it lessons to our own lives?" would be greeted by such a reader with incomprehension, or derision. "Lessons? Why, it was written by a bunch of Mesopotamians four thousand years ago!" If that same person then reads what is essentially the same story in the book of Genesis but finds it full of all sort of uplifting doctrines— well, such a person is either being dishonest or has simply failed to recognize a fundamental fact. What truly differentiates the two stories is not their content but their context. Reading something in the Bible has, since ancient times, brought with it certain assumptions, and these are, to an extent most people are unaware of, still with us. (page 80)

jan 11, 2012, 10:40pm

>94 A_musing:

I hear ya, 'musing.

I'm not really into that Salonista cetacean stuff, but I'm so enamored with St. Dawkins, and St. Hitchens, right now, that I doubt I'll be following along too closely...

'Great book, though. Plenty of Porn, Penthouse letters, incest, totally trcked out purple cat-house temples, genocide, wrath, etc..

jan 12, 2012, 7:10am

I've been following your discussion with some interest. I do not have the books you mention, nor the budget at the moment to purchase them, so I'm interested in your comments on the authors' views.

If I'm crossing the line in this comment, just say so and I will refrain in the future.

No literature can be understood unless we seek its message. Some of the comments have made me feel as though the richness of the message of the composite literature of the Bible is being missed.

God created man in his (their) image. Elohim, although used as a singular noun in modern Judaism and Christianity, is undeniably a plural noun. But in the end, it doesn't matter because all the gods are one.

If God made man in his image, the reverse is also true. God is in our image. We know of God only through what we know of ourselves and each other. If one person's God is brutally judgmental or even evil, that person has only to look in the mirror, or around at the people who influence his or her life, and they will see their image of God. God is too large, too complex for our minds to grasp. We can only develop some understanding of him over time, and through experience.

In the creation story, man appears to be the best and last creation. He is imprinted with the image of the divine. We each have the divine within us.

In the second creation story, man eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It is only at this point that man is cast out of Eden and enters the world as we know it, a world of good and evil.

Eve does not mean mother. The word is more akin to the meaning of experience. It is in the union of our experience with the harsh demands of earth, Adam, that we gain the knowledge of good and evil. The rest of the Bible is devoted to gaining that experience and developing that knowledge.

Cain and Abel are the first lesson. The name Cain is related to the idea of grasping. The name Abel is related to the word transcendence. Our free will, given to us in the garden of Eden, since Eve was free to choose the advice of the snake over that of God, is never taken away from us.

Cain, the farmer, chooses a life of working the earth to make it follow his demands. He is in control. He determines where which plants will grow. Abel, the shepherd, follows the dictates of the earth. He takes his sheep where the grass is best and water is available. Our first lesson. The more control we insist on having, the less we go with the flow of life around us, the further we are from God. Our grasping control kills transcendence and leads to a more bitter life than necessary.

This idea of gaining the knowledge of good and evil and its relationship to our understanding of God is one of the central points of the entire Bible. You can think of it as the center of a circle. First the stories may look to the south with its heat and scarcity. One moment they may look to the north with its ice and brutal cold. Then they look to the east with the rebirth of a new day. Then to the west with the death of that day. To walk along the outside of the circle is to see chaos and change that may make no sense. To stand in the middle of the circle is to be in a place where you can learn wisdom.

jan 12, 2012, 12:22pm

>98 dchaikin:,

I am not sure there is much consolation in the Sumerian myth either. In Sumer if you died you hurried down to an underworld and spent eternity as a wretched ghost. As one of my undergraduate professors put, you sit around in this big room feeling wretched bored. In the epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim (Noah's counterpart and his wife) are the only people who have achieved immortality in the "pleasant sense of the word. Remember part of Gilgamesh is about the desire for immortality. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh cries out "must Gilgamesh also die." He sets off to find Utnapishtim to learn the secret of immortality, but like most people in stories of this sort he fails. As I understand it, the torah never discusses an afterlife.

Redigeret: jan 12, 2012, 12:24pm

Denne meddelelse er blevet slettet af dens forfatter.

jan 12, 2012, 12:36pm


If God made man in his image, the reverse is also true. God is in our image. We know of God only through what we know of ourselves and each other. If one person's God is brutally judgmental or even evil, that person has only to look in the mirror

I like this idea of mirroring very much. However, the books under discussion (and Bible in general) are a succession of stories in which a deity acts and reacts a certain way. So, when god destroys somebody, are we to think this is a reflection of a human action? When he is described as angry and wrathful, is that only a projection? But whose? Surely not the reader's? Has the event not happened, or were the actors simply human?

Is god some kind of excuse or alibi?

jan 12, 2012, 12:44pm

For Sandydog and other lovers of the porn and incest, sneak preview of what's ahead. And there will be goats too.

jan 12, 2012, 6:16pm

Hey, is that Newt Gingrich?

jan 12, 2012, 6:23pm

That's what I thought, too! Ewww.

jan 12, 2012, 6:36pm

GMTA, it really does look like him. Ick.

jan 13, 2012, 4:42am

I'm afraid I'm falling behind, I'm at chapter 20. I'm having trouble with Abraham's story, but Alter's notes are helping. The thing with the wife/sister is obviously an important theme that is linked to myths I have no idea about, but I'm having trouble with it, it just seems stupid and disgusting and completely unfair to Sarah. Not to mention the fact that the second time she is over 80...

jan 13, 2012, 6:56am


Those are good questions LolaWalser.

Before I begin to address them, it has to be clear that there are two ways of viewing the bible stories. One is as history, the other as myth. If you're talking about the historicity, words like projection, using God as an excuse or alibi, etc. could be appropriate. People still use God as an excuse or alibi.

This site is not about the historicity. So if we talk about the stories as literature, we have to be willing to enter the world of the story. I would assume people wouldn't go through a Harry Potter book constantly referring to the impossibility of magic. That would kind of ruin the whole experience.

So if you really want to enter the world of the bible stories, you have to accept the world of the story in which there not only is a God, but the Jewish people are the heroes and have a knowledge that the other cultures are lacking. Anyone who refuses to do that has entered a different subject of discussion. That discussion is also very interesting, but at that point we've entered the world of religion and politics.

Once you agree to the parameters of the story world, words like projection and alibi are no longer adequate. Projection implies a mistaken understanding based on a person's own views, reactions, and feelings. An understanding of God limited by self and knowledge of others is not a mistaken understanding. It's one facet among an infinite number of facets of God and the cosmos. Experience after experience exposes more and more facets of God and the world. As understanding grows, so does wisdom. But some of those experiences are good and some are evil.

The hardest texts are those which fly in the face of goodness. God telling the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child is just awful. As history, it is awful. As metaphor it is very different. This is kind of long, so I'll leave that discussion for another time.

In the story of Abraham and Isaac, metaphorically we are being told that nothing and no one is actually ours. We have to be willing to let go. And once we accept that, we realize that we lose nothing in the letting go. Isaac lives. If I have a stranglehold on my children or possessions, I'm not living a good life. My children will resent me. I'll probably be stingy and greedy. But if I let go, my children will have a better relationship with me. I will be a more generous person. In the language of the bible, I will find that my life is blessed.

The lessons of the bible are not obvious. They are often counter-intuitive. That's why it is best studied with others.

If it's easier to refer to me by name, you can use Orchid.

jan 13, 2012, 8:01am


The story of Abraham and Sarah, sister-wife, is one that has confused people for millennia.

People who defend the honor of Abraham discuss the story historically. Rabbi Sholom Tendler, in quoting earlier writers, argues this way. Sarah was Abraham's half-sister, so he wasn't really lying, just not telling everything. By allowing the others to believe Sarah was available, Abraham put himself in a position to negotiate. If the king wanted her and knew he couldn't negotiate, being a king, he might have taken her by force. Abraham might well have been killed in the process. So he used a tactic that would give him more time and trusted in God to get them out of the mess.

In terms of literature, Sarah means princess. Her name went from Sarai, my princess, to Sarah, princess. Now she's a universal princess.

As a story element, the fact that Sarah is a princess is proven by the king recognizing her specialness, her desirability. As the mother of the future nation, this is important. She is also protected by God. Now that the world knows that a king recognizes her importance, God extricates her from the situation because she is also favored and protected by God. And God will always trump king.

jan 13, 2012, 8:22am

#105-107 - Too funny, hadn't thought of Newt, but now I can't the image Lego Newt porn out of my head.

A quiz - Who is being conceived in #104?

Redigeret: jan 13, 2012, 8:52am

#108 FlorenceArt - You'll have time to catch-up. I'm slowing down. Just to get from 29 to 34 will take two separate series of posts. (and, not sure when I'll get to either, unless I skip lunch today). Then I probably won't post again for awhile, handling the rest of Genesis in one post.

As for the sister-wife thing, not only is it strange, but it happens over and over again. There's a third occurrence with Isaac and Rebekah. My take is that there must be some kind of mythological and cultural basis, possibly lost. Kugel discusses Mesopotamian legal forerunners, where there are legal comments about wives as sisters. But, Kugel thinks these laws/customs have been misunderstood and concludes they do not defend this practice, nor are they clear precursors.

Just up ahead the main theme with Jacob seems to be about cleverness - making smart calculating unethical moves that benefit. This is a theme of Jacob and Esau (who is not clever) and then again with Jacob and Laban (who is gets full marks - clever, conniving and greedy). So, maybe this is a precursor - even Abraham could go low to get ahead. (Abraham does get rewarded each time. Isaac won't be as directly successful, carelessly fooling around with Rebekah in public, but ends up wealthy anyway.)

Why is this in here, in a moralistic story? First - this probably wasn't intended as a moralistic story. These ancient stories come from myth, whose purpose was likely to preserve (and re-write) history in some is has some kind of etiological purpose. Second - this is soft stuff. Wait for Dinah. The bible isn't moral, it's not a book of goodness. Collective punishment for small crimes, or non-crimes come up several times with the Hebrews often coming out ahead. The moral message of this part of the Bible seems to me to be that the Hebrews should do anything they can think of to get ahead. In other words, ethics and morals are striking non-presence here. To find them, you need to manipulate the stories, like the ancient interpreters did, and manufacture the morality.

jan 13, 2012, 10:08am

I agree that this is obviously not a lesson in morality. None of the ancient myths are.

I liked the part where Abraham kind of tricks God into sparing Sodom, even though it didn't work in the end. Alter says it's because Lot's family were the only innocent people, and there were less than 10 of them. Abraham managed to bring the limit down to 10 innocents, and then felt that was the farthest he could go. And maybe God got Lot's family out of town so that He could destroy Sodom while still honoring His promise to Abraham? They are both seasoned bargainers it seems.

jan 13, 2012, 11:19am

112: The sister/wife thing in Genesis is one of those things I never really noticed reading the Bible. Then I actually saw the Crumb illustrations at the art museum and I walked through them in order and it got to the point I was thinking he had made it up because it seemed impossible to think I'd never notice something that is so egregious sounding to our modern ears - repeated thrice! But no, he hadn't made them up.

jan 13, 2012, 11:20am

Orchid, you have obviously given these issues quite a lot of thought. Are you a bible scholar?

jan 13, 2012, 12:53pm

>116 MeditationesMartini: Hello! I have banished the awful Laura Warholic, and I am here now, just starting to catch up on both Alter's introduction and this thread. With regard to the sister-wife thing, I wonder if it has anything to do with the prohibition on marrying one's brother's wife, or rather, if both have to do in different ways with the same situation existing before the implementation of Mosaic law? Like, there seems to be a lot of focus on the bans against marrying your brother's wife in both the Judeo-Christian tradition and Islam, and the common assertions (at least on the internet) that it was a general practice among many Middle Eastern peoples (I am thinking of things like this:; although it's obviously coming out of a certain agenda, and I don't imagine it's reliable at least on the situation in modern Israel, it speaks to the continuing strength of the traditions about 'how it once was', and makes me think that the compilers of Genesis may have had similar biases about the early times and in-group marriage--'back then, everyone was always marrying their sister, or their brother's sister, or any sisters they could get their hands on, right?'--and it may have resulted in the relative strengthening of this strand in the stories we inherited. Across a lot of cultures, the time before the beginning of history or the beginning of the law or the advent of the central authority (... etc.) is represented as the time where these things used to happen, right?

Haven't done hardly any reading in the book or on the thread yet, and this is really the first thing that comes out of my head, so I hope it's not foolish. Anyway, glad to be here!

jan 13, 2012, 12:56pm

Another thing that baffles me is the Sodom episode. How on earth does everybody infer from the text that Sodomites were, well, sodomites? And the rather mysterious attempt at violence toward the messengers of God is a gang rape attempt? You could have knocked me down with a feather!

Am I missing something? That's very possible of course, these texts are so elliptical and rely on a cultural background that is thousands of years from us. Or is this laid out more explicitly in later biblical texts?

jan 13, 2012, 1:00pm

>117 FlorenceArt:: Now I don't feel so stupid. I read that in Alter's footnotes and reread the text and still could not figure it out.

jan 13, 2012, 1:13pm

Martin - Sorry about Laura Warholic, but very happy to see you here. As for the sister-wife thing I'm not sure I follow your thought process. I mean, everything you wrote makes sense, I'm just not sure how a ban to sibling marriage explains the strategic hiding of the marriages.

FlorenceArt - I think Alter has a note on that, on how he translates the word "know". I think the meaning is supposed to be clearer in Hebrew. I'll have to, check Alter, not the Hebrew.

jan 13, 2012, 1:13pm

Oops, missed Lisa's post. still, I'll have to re-read Alter's note.

jan 13, 2012, 1:24pm

Dan, I guess it isn't fair to ask you to explain Alter to us!

jan 13, 2012, 1:40pm

>119 dchaikin: aha! That is that ignorance on my part rearing its head. I was skimming the thread and saw 'the sister/wife thing' and remembered that Abraham married his sister (evidently not quite so), and understood the phrase to be referring to a situation where it was perceived as a general practice in Genesis (perhaps thinking also of Seth?). Now I have reminded myself what the story was about and am up to speed. Expect me to say more dumb stuff though.

jan 13, 2012, 2:13pm

Oh, one thing that made me smug for about half a second: I think Alter is wrong in note 16, chapter 21: the etymology of enfant in French is not "one who is born". The Larousse dictionary says that it comes from the Latin infans (one who cannot talk), just like the English infant.

jan 13, 2012, 2:28pm

Dan, I re-read the notes and you're right, Alter is making a parallel between the use of known in "bring them (the visitors) out, so that we can know them" and Lot's offer of his daughters who have "known no men". It still feels a bit far fetched to me, unless there is a context I'm not quite grasping (which is most probably the case).

I also went back to the first mention of Sodom in this particular story (chapter 13), but it only says that the people of Sodom were "evil offenders against the LORD". Does that automatically imply homosexuality?

jan 13, 2012, 2:44pm

For the record, the hoped for sodomy is rape, not consensual sex.

To me it's all one thing - those townies are bad stuff, they do all sorts of crazy things there. Male-on-male gang rape (apparently worse then male-on-female gang rape here) is just to be expected.

But there probably is some reason the authors chose that specific kind of immorality...

By the way, Lot offering his daughters to save these angels of death from gang rape is, for me, the strangest moment in this book so far.

jan 13, 2012, 3:03pm

Yes, you're probably right. These people a multiple and grave offenders, and sodomy is apparently one of the worst offenses against the lord, so when the town's people want to "know" the strangers, we are expected to automatically assume the sexual, and in this context bad, meaning of the verb.

jan 13, 2012, 3:36pm

Post Sodom moving toward incest

Lot and His Daughters by Luca Cranach

jan 13, 2012, 5:12pm

Who would ever want a child to read this stuff? Probably why the Catholic Church taught only a few of these stories and those in the "readers' digest" version. I certainly never heard about Lot and his daughters!

jan 13, 2012, 8:55pm

#116 With regard to the sister-wife thing, I wonder if it has anything to do with the prohibition on marrying one's brother's wife, or rather, if both have to do in different ways with the same situation existing before the implementation of Mosaic law?

I haven't read any of the Alter yet, but I have been following this discussion, and although my memory of my very poor Hebrew education is faint, I sort of remember that men were supposed to marry their brother's wife, or I should say widow, after the brother died; that is, they were supposed to support both their brother's children and the widow. I believe this was if they weren't married already, but after all men did have more than one wife in those days. Also, it is my feeling that if there are a lot of prohibitions against something then that something happened a lot; you don't need to have prohibitions against things people aren't doing.

jan 13, 2012, 9:22pm

I only just joined Salon. I have been lurking all evening but I have read Alter's Genesis.There is a great comic take on this section, online at SCENE FIVE: “ABRAHAM RENTS OUT HIS SISTER / WIFE – TWICE!!”. I don't know how to link, sorry.

jan 13, 2012, 9:26pm

>129 rebeccanyc: Also, it is my feeling that if there are a lot of prohibitions against something then that something happened a lot; you don't need to have prohibitions against things people aren't doing.

Yes, that was my thinking as well. I can't wait till I actually get to the story and can give a more informed opinion.

jan 14, 2012, 1:05am

My book, ordered on December 9th, arrived just before 7 p.m. this evening from an Amazon Marketplace vendor who is not going to get a very good rating from me.

Do I have any chance of catching up at this point? Where should I be by now?

jan 14, 2012, 1:03pm


You're fine. I think we're moving around the story of Lot right now. You have plenty of time. Read the Introduction to the whole book at your leisure as well as the commentary preceding Genesis. Just start reading Genesis. It won't take you long to catch up.

jan 14, 2012, 1:51pm

Yes Meredy, come in and join the fun! You can jump right in (I think Dan is at chapter 28 or so, I myself am lagging behind at 22), or you can take the time to read the whole thing and catch up. After all, this is not a book you necessarily have to read from beginning to end in order.

jan 14, 2012, 2:00pm

So far I've read Alter's introduction and Genesis 1-6.

The most interesting point so far for me has been Alter's description of the existence of two clearly different sections in Genesis: the Primeval History and the Patriarchal Tales. The latter, I am guessing, contained stuff that was still within the bounds of several generations of folktelling, whilst the former was beyond time - reaching back to the mythic and perhaps archetypal....

I'm enjoying the book, Alter's commentary, and dan's commentary. This was probably the only circumstance in which I could have read it.

jan 14, 2012, 7:25pm

I have had beatnicks, hippies, and rastamen tell me that Genesis 1:28 gives believers the right to smoke dope. How do you read it?

jan 14, 2012, 8:35pm


I've spent quite a few years studying it. I wouldn't go so far as to say I'm a biblical scholar.

Thank you for letting me know that you read the post.

jan 14, 2012, 9:08pm

Orchid -- I'm mostly a lurker on this post -- but I appreciate your mythic interpretations -- that kind of insight makes the OT, along with other ancient texts, worth reading.

jan 14, 2012, 11:53pm

Just checking today for the first time.

Meredy - no need to rush. The earliest sections pack in a lot in a few words. Catch up at your own pace.

I was bustling along hoping I was keeping up with everyone, and now it looks like I was going too fast too soon. I'll hold off a bit for on the next sections, give everyone a chance to catch up. I can use that time too.

There's a lot of interest here, which is making this a much richer and enjoyable read. Thanks all.

jan 14, 2012, 11:53pm

Urania - love the devious undertones in the Cranach picture.

jan 15, 2012, 12:50am

LT hates me. I posted earlier today on this thread and now it's gone so one more try. One of the recurrent themes that interests me is that of exile:

Adam and Eve exiled from the garden
Cain exiled from his family
Noah forced to leave all behind to end up wherever
Abram's wanderings at God's behest
Lot forced to leave Sodom and plenty more exiles to come.

I think one can take these themes metaphorically or literally. As metaphor exile or wandering can be read as the journey of the life or the spirit.

For Zionists exile has sanctioned a return home at all costs. It seems to me (and I'm stretching it here), these two distinctions are a little like the concept of jihad. As metaphor, jihad is about the spiritual war within to remain holy. Literally, it becomes war.

Redigeret: jan 15, 2012, 1:21am

I have been reading excerpts from the pseudepigrapha (books that got left out of the OT, like The Book of Adam and Eve and The First Book of Enoch) . Although the mainstream church (in this case Catholic) eventually declared these works heretical, they continued to be popular in the literature and folklore of the Middle Ages. Clearly Milton read these works because much in Paradise Lost is influenced by these books.

jan 15, 2012, 1:21am

Another account of Adam's creation - from the Second Book of Enoch

On the sixth day I commanded My Wisdom to create man out of the 7 components:

first, his flesh from the earth;
second, his blood from dew and from the sun;
third, his eyes from the bottomless sea;
fourth, his bones from stone;
fifth, his reason from the mobility of angels and from clouds;
sixth, his veins and hair from grass of the earth;
seventh, his spirit from my spirit and from wind.

I gave him 7 properties:

Hearing to the flesh;
sight to the eyes;
smell to the spirit;
touch to the veins;
taste to the blood;
to the bones endurance;
to the reason sweetness.

Behold, I have thought up a poem to recite:

From invisible and visible substances, I creates man.
From both his natures come both life and death.
As my image, he knows The Word like no other creature.
But even in his greatest, he is small,
Again, at his smallest, he is great.

On the earth, I assigned him to be a second angel, honored, great, and glorious. I assigned him to be a king, to reign on the earth, and to have My Wisdom.

There was nothing comparable to him on the earth, even among my creates that exist. I assigned him a name from the four components:

from East - A
from West - D
from North - A
from South - M

More to come on angels in The first and second books of Enoch.

jan 15, 2012, 1:31am

Mary - These are Ethiopian apocrypha. According to wikipedia they were lost to Europe until roughly 1800, long after Milton. He couldn't possible have read them unless wikipedia is wrong or some other confusion is happening. Nonetheless, I am very curious about those books.

jan 15, 2012, 1:42am

Relevant links to just above: (scroll down to rediscovery)

Wondering about exile too. Is this emphasized because of the Babylonian exile? Maybe I need to put together a short post on Ancient Jewish history (or we can all slide over to wikipedia here: )

jan 15, 2012, 1:49am

Hmmm ... I am reading J. R. Porter's The Lost Bible. Here's what he says:

With closing of the canons (both Jewish and Christian), these writings became 'lost from the Bibles of Judaism and the mainstream church ... but many of these works remained influential in the West throughout the Middle Ages. Porter is Professor Emeritus of Theology at the University of Exeter England, and a former Fellow of Oriel College, University of Oxford. Obviously, this issue bears more exploration.

jan 15, 2012, 1:50am

>145 dchaikin:
Alter brings up the parallel exiles in his discussion of Genesis - Cain's mirroring Adam and Eve's.

jan 15, 2012, 1:54am

This from the wikipedia link:

Sir Walter Raleigh, in his History of the World (written in 1616 while imprisoned in the Tower of London), makes the curious assertion that part of the Book of Enoch "which contained the course of the stars, their names and motions" had been discovered in Saba in the 1st century and was thus available to Origen and Tertullian. He attributes this information to Origen's Hom. in Num. 1,59 though no such statement is found anywhere in extant versions of Origen

jan 15, 2012, 2:06am

In fact, some Milton scholars have put forth the hypothesis that Milton had to know about the books of Enoch. I am not at a research library at the moment, so I cannot pull up relevant articles.

jan 15, 2012, 2:10am

Confusion reigns. Actually I misunderstood the wikipedia page on Adam and Eve. There are several version scattered here and there. (Enoch is a different story)

This is a good reference to help clarify some confusion:

jan 15, 2012, 2:11am

#149 - Very interesting!

jan 15, 2012, 2:13am

Thanks for the excerpt in #143. I am charmed by the line "Behold, I have thought up a poem to recite"

jan 15, 2012, 3:42am

143> Judging from this excerpt, these texts are very very different from the one we are reading, both in style and content. The excerpt Urania quoted feels much more recent to me...?

Thank you both for all the links. Ancient Jewish history remains extremely frustrating, as the Bible is more or less the only available source. I've been curious about apocrypha for a while, but I don't know if available historical information is much better. But I will follow some of those links.

jan 15, 2012, 6:20am

The surprise (of sorts) for me is the fact that there are so many versions of the deity - if you listen to many (not all) christians in the present time, their God is very definite to them... a nd strangely is always in agreement with them.

jan 15, 2012, 8:34pm

Quicksiva - welcome to the Salon! I really ought to do that on the welcome thread, but looks like you're here.

Urania - by "these books" though you mean stuff with similar stories, right? I mean, there are tellings of some of these stories, for example, in Islamic and Mannichean sources. Or is there a trail from Milton to Enoch itself?

After Mass today, we were discuss Alter in light of some of the changes recently made to the Mass, and my daughter was discoursing on some of what she's learned from reading him.

jan 15, 2012, 11:08pm

>144 dchaikin:

Mary - These are Ethiopian apocrypha. According to wikipedia they were lost to Europe until roughly 1800, long after Milton. He couldn't possible have read them unless wikipedia is wrong or some other confusion is happening. Nonetheless, I am very curious about those books.

Could these books have reached Southern Europe during the Moorish occupation? They wouldn't be the first "lost" works to enter Europe by way of Islamic scholarship.

jan 16, 2012, 12:25am

>155 A_musing: A_musing,

How amusing, after Mass today (in Latin), two former students and I also discussed the same topic.


We also discussed the Enoch question, and we all have our homework. I don't have any answers. As far as I know, there is no direct trail from Enoch to Milton. As for wikipedia, I ran across the claim you mention. I suspect, it may be a case of bad paraphrasing or misleading phrasing. 1.) "Lost" might mean - arcane but not necessarily unknown. I've been doing a bit of sleuthing. The Books of Enoch certainly weren't "lost" to the early Christian Church. But as you know, when dealing with ancient texts, whose sources go back much further, "text" or "book" is a difficult concept. New evidence comes to light on a regular basis - to vex scholars and to keep them too occupied to realize they are occupied. As I said, I have to go over the river and through the woods due north until I reach the nearest research library before I can do anything more than hypothesize here. My first guess was that as you say they may have entered Europe via contacts with the Islamic world. But I am not sure.

I read Sir Walter Ralegh's History of the World many years ago - an rambling and bizarre work to say the least. I pulled up a copy online today. He devotes several pages to Enoch and is clearly cognizant of at least some of the contents.

This week is busy, so it may be next week before I make it to UT to research these and other interesting questions.

jan 16, 2012, 7:42am

urania 1,
Thanks for the information. I can certainly use it.

jan 16, 2012, 9:56am

Perhaps "rediscovery" is meant in the sense that there was no canonical or authoritative text in Europe.

jan 16, 2012, 2:41pm

>159 dchaikin: I would be inclined to agree.

jan 16, 2012, 2:49pm


Thanks for signing in to let me know. I appreciate that.

jan 17, 2012, 8:01am

Let us not forget Empeor Julian's words on "the paradise planted by God, the Adam fashioned by him, and afterwards the woman created for Adam. For God said, it is not good that the man should be alone: I will make an help meet for him. She was not, however, a help meet to him in any thing, but was deceived, and became the cause both to him and herself of being expelled from the delicacies of Paradise. For these things are perfectly fabulous; since how is it reasonable to suppose that God was ignorant that the woman who was made as an help meet for Adam, would rather be pernicious than beneficial to him?

As to the serpent that discoursed with Eve, what kind of language shall we say it used! and in what do things of this kind differ from the fables devised by the Greeks?
Is it not also excessively absurd, that God should forbid men fashioned by himself the knowledge of good and evil? For what can be more foolish than one who is not able to know what is good and what is depraved? For it is evident that such a one will not avoid some things, I mean evils; and that he will not pursue others, viz. such as are good. But, as the summit of all, God forbade man to taste of wisdom; than which nothing is more honourable to man. For that the knowledge of good and evil is the proper work of wisdom, is evident even to the stupid.

Hence the serpent was rather the benefactor, and not the destroyer of the human race. And not this only, but in what Moses afterwards adds, he makes God to be envious. For after God saw that man participated of wisdom, lest, says he, he should taste of the tree of life, he expelled him from Paradise, clearly saying, "Behold Adam is become as one of us to know good and evil: and now lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden."

Each of these narrations, therefore, unless it is a fable containing an arcane theory, which I should think is the case, is full of much blasphemy towards divinity. For to be ignorant that the woman, who was to be the assistant of man, would be the cause of his fall, and to forbid him the knowledge of good and evil, which alone appears to be the connective bond of human life; and besides this to be envious, lest by partaking of life, from being mortal he should become immortal, is the province of a being very envious and malevolent."

jan 17, 2012, 8:52am

I think the idea here was to discuss this work from a purely literary perspective. Personally, I don't see any gain in discussing this from a theological perspective, and for people interested in it, there are many other forums and discussion to explore this aspect.

Could we agree to put this aspect of the discussion aside and focus on the literary text before us? Unless of course I misunderstood the original intent and I'm in a minority.

Redigeret: jan 17, 2012, 9:35am

I think a reading of the serpent as benefactor of humans is kind of interesting; Milton would have liked it, he needed to give Satan a more tragic persona, which is tough if he's just evil incarnate.

Otherwise, I think 162 is a mostly a long quote about different readings. Is it relevant that he's throwing stones at some along the way? I may not understand where the quote begins and ends, but think it's the whole thing.

Redigeret: jan 17, 2012, 10:28am

>163 FlorenceArt:

What was so "literary" about post 104 or didn't you see it.

"Each of these narrations, therefore, unless it is a fable containing an arcane theory, which I should think is the case, is full of much blasphemy towards divinity. For to be ignorant that the woman, who was to be the assistant of man, would be the cause of his fall, and to forbid him the knowledge of good and evil, which alone appears to be the connective bond of human life; and besides this to be envious, lest by partaking of life, from being mortal he should become immortal, is the province of a being very envious and malevolent."

I think this is a fair assessment of the "lliterary work", it's plot and it's purpose.

I am perfectly willing to treat The Books of Moses as a work of fiction. But how do we handle holes in the plot? Ignore them? We could do that with Harry Potter except Harry Potter is written better.

Also, shouldn't a literary critic look at the social and political environment of the author and the author's intended audience before passing any sort of judgment on the value of her work?

jan 17, 2012, 10:27am

Many cultures have myths that explain the presence of evil in the world - i.e., Pandora and her box. Women, you can't trust them.

Alter's take on Eve's name is interesting. He translates as the sustainer of man. Mircea Eliade in Rites and Symbols of Initiation argues that many indigenous tribes have rites that indicate a real fear of women and consequently a need to control women. For example, every month women bleed yet do not die. Imagine how this might read in a warrior culture for which blood=death (often). So ... some of these tribes developed male rituals of initiation (secret from the women) which involved a kind of ceremonial bloodletting mirroring that of women in menses. I have to go through my library later. I have a really interesting example of this from Native American culture. The point - another paradox. Women are weak simultaneously sources of power and knowledge.

In the creation stories (the mythical origins) one often finds that stories deconstruct themselves in the way quicksiva describes, resulting in an aporia in the text.

As for Milton, later writers said he was of the Satan's party.

jan 17, 2012, 10:52am


Thanks for giving me a wonderful word!

jan 17, 2012, 10:52am

For the record, #162 is inline with this discussion. For general idea of what we are trying to do with this group read, and several valid concerns, go here: And yes, this thread is purely literary.

As for #104 - I find it amongst the heights of bible-based artistic commentary on our consumer culture. What a synergy of consumerism and foundations. Brilliant, I say....and it's on theme. (Next up the myth of Godel and Paris Hilton...or, better yet, Tom Cruise... ) This thread is also irreverent.

thinking about #166...and the nature of men and women. And I now know what an aporia is.

jan 17, 2012, 10:57am

Color me aporetic.

Redigeret: jan 17, 2012, 11:09am

Even though we only made it to Lot and salt and now find ourselves going backwards again, back to Eve, I still think it's time to reach the next sections. So - Jacob, Laban and all of Jacob's wives....

Genesis 29-33

29. - The beginning of The Red Tent. :)
This is the famous story of Jacob & Rachel and Leah. Jacob meets a conniving match in Laban, and ends up with two wives and two conjugal slaves. Kids start coming.
Plot bits:
- Jacob meets Rachel at the well
- He makes a deal to marry her in return for seven years labor.
- Getting duped with Rachel's sister, Leah, (the first echo of his trick on Isaac & Esau) he has to work another seven years for Rachel
- Zilpah comes with Leah
- Bilhah comes with Rachel.
- Leah pops out the first four boys (eight more to come)

Note the boys names. They are playful variations on similar sounds with important meanings
1. Rebuen (son of Leah) : name sounds like "see, a son" - from "The LORD has seen my suffering"
2. Simeon (son of Leah) : name sounds like "has heard" - from "The Lord has heard I was despised" (similar to Ishmael)
3. Levi (son of Leah) : name sounds like "will join" - from "This time at last my husband will join me"
4. Judah (son of Leah) : name sounds like "sing praise" - from "This time I will sing praise to the LORD"

- Rachel and Leah compete for Jacob's offspring, even throwing their personal slaves at him.
- seven more boys come, and one girl as a after thought.
- then Jacob dupes Laban of the best of his flocks.

The children
5. Dan (son of Bilhah) : name suggests legal vindication - from "God granted my cause" (spoken by Rachel)
6. Naphtali (son of Bilhah) : name sounds like "grapplings" , like wrestling - from "In awesome grapplings I have grappled with my sister and, yes, I won out." (lovely Rachel again)
7. Gad (son of Zilpah) : name sounds like "good luck" - from "Good luck has come" (spoken by Leah)
8. Asher (son of Zilpah : name sounds like "good fortune" - from "What good fortune!" (Leah speaking again)
9. Issachar (son of Leah) : name sound like "wages" and also "a fee paid for hiring - from "God has given me wages because I gave my slavegirl to my husband"

- NOTE: this is the mandrake story where Leah says "With me you will come to bed, for I have clearly hired you with the mandrakes of my son." - and this is also the answer to the quiz question in post 111. Issachar has not been a popular name for boys.

10. Zebulun (son of Leah) : name sounds like "gift" - from "God has granted me a goodly gift"
- The Dinah (daughter of Leah). She gets one sentence here...well, she's just a girl
11. Joseph (long awaited son of Rachel) : name sound like "Add" - from "May the LORD add me another son"

Jacob's departure and the Mound of Witness
- After 20 years, Jacob sneaks off, Rachel steals Laban idols without telling anyone
- Laban tracks them down which leads to two great scenes
- in the first Rachel hides Laban's God's by sitting on them and claiming she is menstruating (this will be in the themes think about)
- in the second, with narrative tension, Laban does not attack, but instead makes a boundary treaty - The Mound of Witness, or Gal-Ed, and hence Gilead.

Jacob begins to panic about meeting up again with Esau
Jacob wrestles with something (an angel?) that wrenches his hip, and then names him Israel
- Israel means "God will rule ", but the angel uses that name "for you have striven with God and men, and won out."
- the sciatic nerve is considered the "sinew of the thigh" and is not kosher

Jacob and Esau meet, embrace and split apart - Jacob goes north to fateful Shechem.
- interesting how Jacob treats Esau as royalty and never strays from that.
- Before the embrace, at highest tension, Jacob orders his wives in reverse order of preference - slaves first, then Leah with Rachel last (such a loving family).

Redigeret: jan 17, 2012, 1:09pm

Themes to think about

1. I sense a change in feel of the story with Jacob. It feels more narrative. Also there is a lot less interaction with God. Take out the ramp/ladder and the wrestling and Jacob is practically free from God's interference.

1B. And note the narrative tension – The first big highlight is when Laban tracks down Jacob. I really find this whole set up terrific. We are waiting for Laban to attack, we know we wouldn't hesitate. But he's practical first. He calculates somehow that he is better off with a deal. The second big highlight is when Jacob is about to meet Esau. Both are well done by these authors.

2. Jacob and Laban : Jacob meets his match. Laban is also conniving and clever. But notice what he is that Jacob is not. Laban is greedy, a weakness, and has no scruples of any kind. At least Jacob stays true to his manipulated deals (he even dealt with God in 28). There is a reason everyone finds Laban bad, but Jacob gets some sympathy.

3. lots of splitting (note parallels to exiling)
-Jacob and Laban split the flocks
-jacob splits from Laban
-Jacob splits from the group before wresting the angel
-Jacob splits his groups before meeting Esua ... and the splits the wives
-Jacob splits from Esau

4. What to makes of the wife swap? This is the first instance of payback of Esau. But, it's a mixed punishment. Jacob comes out with essentially four wives and many children...although they seem be in constant bicker mode. Hatred always seems near the surface.

5. Rachel taking of Laban’s Gods. This is a brilliant play by the authors. Rachel is never credited with dedicating herself to Jacob's God. Clearly she was polytheist before she met Jacob and probably stayed that way afterwards. Yet, what did it get her? These Gods are supposed to help her, and they failed. She gets back on them by stealing them and then defiling them with menstrual blood (although she may not have been menstruating, but still...)...exactly the thing they were supposed to help her avoid. And, of course, the bible gets its swipe at Aramaic gods.

6. Jacob wresting the angel. I don't know what to make of this as it seems so arbitrary. But certainly there is drama is Jacob coming face-to-face with God, or an angel, or whatever mysterious thing this is (In The Red Tent it's a wild boar.)

Kugel has something interesting to say here from the etiology perspective. There are three key names

- Jacob sound like "Yabboq" – the Jabbok ford where this happens. Which is also kind of like "Ye’abeq" – Hebrew for wrestling
- "Israel" – explained above
- Peniel – “face to face with god” – This is the name of the place, from “I have seen god face to face and I came out alive”

Put them together Ye’abeq, yisra’el and Peni’el – he struggles, struggles with God, seeing god’s face

7. On name changes – Kugel argues that this was to harmonize different traditions of the same character. For Jacob/Israel

-Jacob – The name Jacob-El (God Protects) predates the story of Jacob in Near East history. “it seems to most scholars that our Jacob was thus an abbreviated form of this same name and belonged to a person, legendary or historical, who was held to be the founder of at least part of the future Israel.”
-Israel – “apparently referred to some kind of group or tribe”

At some point these two groups would have merged, hence the two names. (so companies like ConocoPhilips have biblical predecessors.)

8. ??

jan 17, 2012, 12:26pm

One other note, for readers of The Magic Mountain, now I know where Naphta's name came from! Very fitting, too.

jan 17, 2012, 12:55pm

>172 dchaikin:: Yes, quite. I never realized how much in literature comes from this book! I am learning that I am not well-educated, and really appreciate having had Alter brought to my attention.

jan 17, 2012, 2:58pm

You know, these brothers and their tribes need their own post. Thinking this over.

jan 17, 2012, 4:33pm

Catching up, on the book and this wonderful thread; I've read through Alter's introduction (super interesting, although I'm not sure I share his prejudice against 'came into') and I'm up to the first begats in Genesis proper.

Here's a question: does anybody know anything about traditions (religious, apocryphal, literary) about what happened to Cain and his people? I used to play the Vampire: The Masquerade role-playing game as a teen, and the idea there is that Cain was the first vampire, which puts the killing of his brother and the mouth reaching up to drink the blood from his had and the Mark and the expulsion from humanity in kind of a cool light. I mean, sorry to lower the tone in here, but I wonder if there are any less trash-culturey stories about this? I can certainly imagine pagan remnants like Krampus getting associated with Cain in the middle ages, or crusaders or sailors getting hold of the Land of Nod as a topic of yarnspinning like they did the kingdom of Prester John or whatever.

jan 17, 2012, 6:08pm

Well the mark of Cain has traditionally been put to some rather sinister uses - one of which was used to justify racism - that the "blackness" of skin color was the mark of Cain. Hence, those who were black were necessarily less than white people.

From "The Book of Adam and Eve" - another of the pseudepigrapha: Two sets of twins born Cain (in this book meaning hater) and his sister Luluwa (meaning beautiful) and Abel and his sister Aklemia. Cain kills Abel because Abel is betrothed to Luluwa, the beautiful sister while Cain is left with Aklemia. Cain then takes Luluwa as his wife (she doesn't like him). Before he dies Adam tells of history to come. He forbids his son Seth to let any of his children marry those of Cain. He then tells of the flood that will come and says that the eight people who are saved will be of Seth's pure lineage (some of Seth's children disobeyed the command). Hence Cain's lineage killed off in the flood. Another version of the story has it that Cain was the offspring of Eve and the serpent.

And back to Cain: a gardener driven from the garden to the city.

And can we discuss Lot's wife for a bit. Lots of stories with characters who aren't supposed to look back and but do so. Interesting yes.

jan 17, 2012, 6:24pm

Aha! So they're Neanderthals.

jan 17, 2012, 8:30pm

This explains those Neanderthal genes in some moderns.

jan 18, 2012, 6:19am

#175 Not perhaps what you are looking for but José Saramago book Cain has recently come out in an English translation. Fiction and only 150 pages but I quite enjoyed it for a quick read.

Redigeret: jan 18, 2012, 9:23am

Two books that seems relevant:
- The Mark of Cain: An Art Quantum. There is a nice short review on amazon:
- Cane by Jean Toomer (1923) - I haven't read this, although I own a copy. I always assumed the reference was to sugar cane, never caught the almost certain biblical reference till just now. This is from the early on in the Harlem Renaissance movement.

Some other interesting and oddball links* - tattoos galore:

- The Film: The Mark of Cain : on Russian criminal tattoos:
- A tattoo parlor:
- The band:

*tough to look this up with the "Stop SOPA and PIPA" protest today. I do support the protest.

jan 18, 2012, 9:22am

I think I'm done editing that last post now... 8p

jan 18, 2012, 9:46am

you light of the protest, what the heck in LT doing online today?!

jan 18, 2012, 10:02am

I read Cane decades ago in high school, and have absolutely no recollection of it. I guess I could pull it off the shelf.

jan 18, 2012, 11:16am

De-lurking to say that you guys have made the OT soooo much more interesting than the first time I was taught. It really doesn't make sense as scripture, at least not to me. Surreal? Sit in a junior high Bible class and have the brainwashed teacher attempt to justify the story of Lot, and Sodom & Gomorrah, and Lot's wife as life lessons from on high. The fascinating part is that the majority of students will go on to embrace this view.

Nothing baffles me more than the story of Jacob and Esau. I still have NO idea what that's about. Favoritism? Everybody Loves Jacob? Esau, you're SOL. Cuz you're hairy? Or red-haired?

Redigeret: jan 18, 2012, 1:20pm

CG - welcome over!

There is a consistent theme where cleverness, even unethical cleverness, is favored. It comes up over and over. There are endless bargains of Abraham and Isaac. Then Jacob outsmarts dumb Esau, follows this by bargaining carefully with God, and then out-maneuvers a clever Laban. Also, Jacob is very cautious about his reunion with Esau - smartly cautious. We'll see later how Joseph works his way to the top in Egypt through intelligence. And, how Judah's smarts put him in front of dumb, firstborn Reuben. (Firstborns don't do well here - wait for the plagues!)

So - there is a stress on intelligence here. Etiologically, it's about propping up the ones who wrote the book and insulting everyone else. But - the nature of this kind of judgment seems to focus a great deal cleverness.

What about immorality?
- Clearly Cain take a hit of sorts
- Lot takes a hit for incest, but also for making a bad choice and going to Sodom.
- Simeon and Levi make a stunning dark move in Gen 34, and it does hurt them (and the Levi's are the main authors!!! At least for a time. I'll get to that later.)

What about soft immorality - what I would call ethics?
- I don't recall any consequences. Cleverest cheater always seems to win.

So, there is some kind of line between what's acceptable (tricking your Dad for a blessing) and what's not. I would argue that toeing that line is also, in sense, about being smart. It's about self-control, about protecting yourself, and about finding a way out of bad situations.

So - where does selling your brother into slavery fit? Oops, save that for later.

jan 18, 2012, 3:08pm

I don't think this book, at least the part we're reading right now, has much to do with morality. It's about the relationships between God and a number of people, how they gain or lose favor, and in many cases how they are bestowed favors without doing much to earn them. Though of course the favors are mostly in the form of promises.

Anyway, God doesn't appear as a paragon or a judge of morality and virtue. He is a very powerful being who doesn't need to justify his arbitrary choices to favor one person or one people against another. There are some allusions to sin though: Noah's son seeing his father's nudity, and the rather vague sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. I suppose this means that the God the writers believed in did issue moral rules, but maybe they were so self-evident and undisputed that they didn't think it worthwhile to explain or justify them.

jan 18, 2012, 3:12pm

>180 dchaikin: oooh, thanks for that. The Russian gangsters are just the kind of think I was hoping for

>182 dchaikin: Yeah, I started needing Wikipedia about three minutes after it shut down last night. Down with SOPA!

>184 citygirl: Hey city! So ... how DID the teacher (attempt to) justify it?

>185 dchaikin: it's interesting, because toeing the line is also about hermeneutics. I remember talking about the Odyssey v. the Bible in that context in a class long ago--Odysseus, "polutropos," the man of twists and turns, etc., etc.--the one who is the best and fastest at sussing up a situation with no transcendent law or morality and making the right move. The one who interprets words, wrestling with Proteus, the shifting god representing verse, until he pins him down. And the Hebrews, with the law and the morals all laid out for them to pick up, with persecution and uncertainty more just suffered when it had to be, with deprecations and threats about whose god was gonna get revenge on whom--and when they could, just putting their rivals to the sword. In the Bakhtinian sense, dialogic v. monologic; in terms of the understanding of signification, mimetic or natural v. arbitrary.

But it's not really that at all, is it? Sure, there's only one power up in the sky that counts, and if you play YHWH on me I'm not gonna be able to counter by playing Apollo on you. But the patriarchs are every bit as sneaky and adept and manipulating God into doing their will, or at least into giving them what they want, or refraining from punishing them, as the Greeks were. It's just different because not everyone can get divine backing; the trick is how to get into God's good graces, which is just a different kind of realpolitik.

Redigeret: jan 18, 2012, 3:16pm

The trickster almost always wins -- at least until you get to Volpone.

jan 18, 2012, 3:22pm

(there is now a "LibraryThing on SOPA" link up)

Redigeret: jan 18, 2012, 3:28pm

Prairie Progressive reviewed Cain by José Saramago for LT recently.

“ In an Oxford lecture earlier this year, literary critic James Wood suggested that the "New Atheists" might be well served by looking to the modern novel. He says atheists -- and some Christian fundamentalists -- insist too much on polemic literalism. Novels, he said, are a vehicle to explore theological arguments and make real the often inherent contradictions of belief. And although Wood mentions 1998 Nobel Literature laureate José Saramago, a reader can't help but wonder just where Saramago's final novel, Cain, fits in that picture.

Cain is an assiduous indictment of the God of the Old Testament by re-imagining the brief tale the Bible tells of the title character. Saramago, who died last year, made his position clear on the book's release in Europe in 2009. He said the Bible depicts a "cruel, spiteful, vengeful, jealous and unbearable God" and recommending people not trust that God. The book is Saramago's extended literary argument on that point, frequently from Cain's mouth....."

This review makes me want to buy this book at once.

jan 18, 2012, 3:44pm

"the trick is how to get into God's good graces, which is just a different kind of realpolitik."

- We could re-evaluate the whole book so far, based on this logic. I'm tempted...

jan 18, 2012, 3:54pm

>191 dchaikin:
Love God with all of your heart, and follow the Golden Rule. And if that's not good enough, fuck it.

jan 18, 2012, 4:01pm

#186 - FlorenceArt - I think there is a clear effort at moral instruction. There is what you described in the your 2nd paragraph, but also what I'm seeing is that the morality is

(1) inconsistent and contradictory - I assume this is due to the merging of different mythologies and moralities, and to the changes view of morality over time from the origins until textual permanence.

(2) far different from our morality - regardless of religious/atheistic denomination. We assume people are generally good and conceive of God (even atheists) as representing something good in or for humanity. That is not the case in Genesis. People are generally bad, and God is...well, different.

(3) actually, well refined (I'm building off my last 2nd-to-last comment in #185). First we are struck by this crazy stuff. (I just read about Onan, that's just random). But, when I get past that I start to see that a morality is there. Their are taboos, but there are also ways to act that are praised. Be smart, be wary, control your temptations (not just sexual, see Laban's greed), make your treaties carefully, don't listen to others' ways, stay within the community you're in (See Lot and Esau's first wives, and poor Dinah - coming up) and give preference for your family (the story of Joseph, coming up), succeed, etc. etc. This is Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and later Joseph and Judah - in a nutshell. It's not us...well actually...

(4) not quite as far from us as you might think. Take another peak at #3. Nationalism, nepotism, money - OK, not always our stated morality, but it's still there.

I'm thinking out loud here, so don't hesitate to blast this.

Redigeret: jan 18, 2012, 4:04pm

#192 quicksiva - oh no, not enough. You need the right parents, and you need that blessing which you better fight for with claws and elbows...but with some kind of limits.

Actually, the Golden Rule does hasn't appeared in our book yet. no?

jan 18, 2012, 4:07pm

The best way to teach something is to make it an article of faith. This work can be read as a neolithic survival manual. With wisdom woven in.

Redigeret: jan 18, 2012, 5:03pm

>194 dchaikin:
Actually, the Golden Rule does hasn't appeared in our book yet. no?
Abraham wasn't a Hebrew.

If Abraham hadn't been the sort to instinctively apply the Golden Rule to a few strangers in a very strange land, he probably wouldn't have been chosen to become a "father of nations."

This is the only reason I can see for God ignoring the fact that he pimps his wife, twice, and make a nice haul each time.

jan 18, 2012, 9:53pm

Enough ranting and raving from me...instead a map:

When wikipedia is up, they have a different map here: (The Tribe of Dan did actually move from the southern coast to the north - so both maps are correct in that regard)

jan 19, 2012, 12:17am

This is a question out of pure ignorance, and I feel like I should ask an IRL Jewish friend (or the internet) first so I don't embarrass myself, but--to what degree, if any, are these tribes real as opposed to legendary? Would any Jewish person, currently or at any historical period, be publicly identified with a particular tribe in any way?

Also, how do the tribes relate to the Levites? What are the Levites? When does it become Judah and Israel in the south and the north? That's later, right? How does it all relate to people with the name Cohen? They are ostensibly members of a priestly caste, yes? And they are related to Aaron, the brother of Moses?

And is the lost tribe one of these tribes? And given all these divisions, and the many other Semitic peoples we encounter, like the Canaanites and Moabites and so on, is there any systematic difference in the way the (non-Hebrew) people of Shem are treated by the Hebrews or by the narrative than people of Ham and Japheth, like, what, the Persians, right? Possibly the Egyptians? Maybe the Philistines, who the map in the front says are originally from Crete, what?

I wish I was still asking questions about vampires.

jan 19, 2012, 12:18am

From the (now restored) 'Pedia:

'The Hebrew Bible etymologizes the name as from yisra "to prevail over" or "to struggle/wrestle with", and el, "God, the divine".'

Talk about realpolitik!

jan 19, 2012, 3:32am

187> "the trick is how to get into God's good graces, which is just a different kind of realpolitik"

Absolutely! I guess that's what I meant when I said that this is not a moral God.

And dchaikin, I agree with you when you say that most of the problem is we have a morality here, but not ours. We expect a moral God to be just, which include meting out rewards and punishments based on people's actions, not on... what? It's never clear why God singles out Abraham's people.

jan 19, 2012, 11:36am

I have discovered that Alter has a chapter on Moby Dick in his book, Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible. I've ordered the book.

jan 19, 2012, 12:59pm

Martin - I'll answer some questions from #198 here, and I'll look into the others

About the Map

1. note how full brothers represent adjacent tribes -
- From Leah's first four - Reuben, Simeon & Judah are together. Levis are scattered. They are priests, and later scribes*
- From Bilhah - Dan and Naphtali end up together on the outskirts - hence there secondary status
- From Zilpah - Gad and Asher both end up on the outskirts (Although Asher gets a prime spot)
- From Leah's later two - Issachar and Zebulun end up together, in the north
- From Rachel - Joseph (Manasseh and Eprhain are Joseph's first two sons) and Benjamin** end up together

2. note how Simeon and Levi come out. Simeon is sort of surrounded and Levis are landless.

3. of course, these fathers of the tribes are all postdictions

From history:
Only Judah (and Simeon) survive the Assyrian invasion. The rest are lost.
Israel is, in one sense, all twelve tribes from Jacob/Isreal. But I think it's mainly refers to the northern lost tribes.

*I have more to say on this, almost all from Scribal Culture.
** Benjamin is coming soon, from Rachel.

Redigeret: jan 19, 2012, 1:02pm

This is all I can answer now:

- Would any Jewish person, currently or at any historical period, be publicly identified with a particular tribe in any way?
All Judah, hence Jewish. Maybe Levi too? The rest are lost.

- And is the lost tribe one of these tribes?
Answered above. Ten are lost. Judah and some of Levi survive.

jan 19, 2012, 1:06pm

Thanks, that helps!

Redigeret: jan 19, 2012, 2:19pm

A Timeline
(no comments on accuracy or specificity of dates. I'm just copying and pasting, and estimating where necessary)

1812 – 1637 BCE - Traditional life time Abraham, based on Jewish tradition
1440 – 1400 BCE - Exodus from Egypt, 40 years of wandering, Ten Commandments etc.
1400 BCE - Israelite invasion of Canaan (after the Exodus from Egypt and 40 years of wandering)
1400 - 1000 BCE - twelve tribes. Leaders are called Judges
1020 - 930 BCE - Kingdom of Israel - all twelve tribes
-- 1020 – 1003 BCE - Saul
-- 1003 – 970 BCE - David
-- 970 – 931 BCE- Solomon - First Temple

At this point things become less myth and more historical

931 BCE - civil war results in:
-- Kingdom of Judah - Judah & Benjamin. (Simeon was absorbed by Judah)
-- Kingdom of Israel - the "ten" northern tribes (I count nine)
720 BCE - Assyria wipes out the Kingdom of Israel
587 BCE - Babylonia conquers the Kingdom of Judah and exiles the population to Babylon
-- 1st temple destroyed

587 - 538 BCE - Babylonian Captivity
-- Here the religion is redefined and the texts are redacted, re-written and, some extent, finalized
516 BCE - 2nd temple built

332 BCE - Alexander the Great enters
- Hellenization
- reading and writing become more widespread
167 – 160 BCE - Macabean Revolt (Chanukah story)
140 – 63 BCE - Hasmonean Dynasty
63 BCE – 324 CE - Roman Empire
-- 66 - 70 BCE - Revolt and Roman destruction of 2nd temple
-- 132 -- 135 CE - Bar Kokhba revolt - Jews are wiped out in and around Jerusalem

Redigeret: jan 20, 2012, 2:31pm

More info dumps:

-First five books reached final form after the return from Babylon, after 538 BCE
-Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings - originated in Babylon
-Prophets date from 8th - 6th centuries BCE - become canons in 2nd century BCE
-Chronicles & the books of Ezra and Nehemiah - 3rd century BCE
-The rest are later (Job, Daniel, Proverbs, Psalms...)

jan 19, 2012, 2:19pm

200> FlorenceArt: Sometimes seems to me that this OT God is very like Calvin's God. The saved are selected as far as I can see at random and a person can't do anything to change things. The only difference is that the OT God does things on a grand scale and saves/damns whole nations rather than just people.

jan 19, 2012, 3:27pm

>200 FlorenceArt: and 207 -I think saved is the wrong word to use within the Jewish tradition - at least then. See for notions of Jewish eschatology then through the present.

jan 19, 2012, 3:54pm

Good point, actually there has been no talk of the afterlife so far, just progeny.

jan 20, 2012, 6:16am

>208 urania1:: Yes I'm sure you're right. Perhaps I should have posted in terms of punishment/reward, at least for OT.

Redigeret: jan 20, 2012, 1:19pm

On the Levites

In the Bible there are two kinds of Levites:
- kohanim or hereditary priests (hence Cohen)
- all the others who were assigned other religious duties.
- None are given territory, although they likely had some kind of ownership within towns.

My attempted summary from Scribal Culture by Karel van der Toorn goes like this

- At some point there are priests & Levites - hence a clear differentiation
- At some later point there is a division within the Levites - a special group is created
- At some later point there are priests, Levites & scribes - an important development

van der Toorn's explanation, which is theoretical, and not wholly provable, goes something like this:

- The priests were the religious power in Kingdom of Judah
- When the Kingdom of Israel fell, the northern Levites who came to Judah maintained there identity and began to take over scribal duties
- over time these Levites began to control the text and began to wrest religious power from the priests.
- With the Babylonian exile, the priests lose their temple
- at this point a special group of Levites begins to take over re-writing and redacting the texts (or writing from scratch). This group dominates for a long time. van der Toorn imagines a single text that is replaced on occasion. Every replacement is an opportunity to edit, and this was taken advantage of wholly. Keep in mind they are the only ones who can read and write!
-- van der Toorn breaks down Deuteronomy this way. It's fascinating. He can actually identify each edition and the purpose of the edits. Each edit made the text longer (He points out that this type of evolution is a clear characteristic of Gilgamesh through time.) I'll try to cover this more when we get there.
- with Hellenization reading and writing expand. There are multiple copies of the texts available, and wide group of people who can read them. So, scribal skills are no longer largely limited to Levites

The key point for me here is that the Levite's controlled the book over much of it's evolution, especially during the Babylonian Captivity. They have the largest fingerprints.

(and yet they still slammed themselves in the Dinah story, odd)

jan 20, 2012, 1:53pm

I use Wikl of the time, but but this Thread should go deeper into the sources before declaring canon. Wiki should be quoting LT ;)

jan 20, 2012, 4:39pm

What do you think of Alter's choice to use "look" where the KJB used "behold"? Of course, behold is archaic, but it feels so biblical, it's strange to lose it... My French bible (translated by Louis Segond) uses "voici". I like voici. It's not everyday French (we would use voilà), and it feels biblical too. And it has a nice sound.

jan 20, 2012, 9:01pm

I like "behold." It sounds much more poetic. "Look" sounds more prosaic.

jan 20, 2012, 9:08pm

van der Toorn also points out somewhere that calling the Jews "the people of the book" is a bit misleading as scribes were part of the elite "class." As a result, what we have are the sediments of a vast number of oral traditions, folk traditions, etc. And then came the rabbinic movement which complicated matters of text even further. For example, in the really early days of the Christian movement, so-called Christians thought of themselves as Jews who happened to be followers of specific rabbi - Jesus.

jan 20, 2012, 9:11pm

I have to admit that right now I am caught up in reading all the material concerning Genesis (folktales, pseudepigrapha, etc.)

jan 21, 2012, 2:36am

fascinating stuff

jan 21, 2012, 3:13am

For those with e-readers, the apocrypha are available for download at I downloaded them a while ago but never read them.

The Wikipedia page on the books of the bible (post 150) was interesting. I didn't know that the Catholic and Protestant bibles had a slightly different selection. And it turns out that my French bible by Louis Segond is a Protestant one. I feel a bit like a traitor, even though I was never a Catholic.

jan 21, 2012, 7:41pm

My copy of The 5 Books of Moses arrived in today's mail. I plunged immediately into the Introduction and began James Wood's 2006 review in the London Review of Books. Hope to read enough in the next few days to post something once I get an idea of exactly where we are in Alter. However feel way, way behind!

jan 21, 2012, 8:01pm

In Chapter 30, Alter finally notes that the first speech a character gets conventionally bears special significance in terms of summing up or expressing their character. That's something I'd been thinking all along (in a weak form, it's also intuitively true of most narrative, I'd think), but it's interesting that it was a recognized literary technique.

Redigeret: jan 21, 2012, 8:40pm

I read the little book, this week, wherein Hoopdriver appears. Delightful.

Pardon the interruption.

jan 21, 2012, 10:48pm

Ah Porius, rabble rousing ... again.

jan 21, 2012, 10:56pm


jan 22, 2012, 2:30am

#201 (way back now) - Sam - Let us know your thoughts on Pen of Iron. Sitting at my machine, I feel my hands reflectively going to amazon.

#213-214 - Alter's choices of wording is worth a long discussion. I have a several issues with Alter's choices (He's very prude with sexual language, IMO), but overall I like the flow and I really like that he gives the details in the notes where controversial so we can consider what words we might have chosen ourselves (almost always a bit different, for me).

#216 - Mary, do share. I got The Literary Guide to the Bible today from the Library, so I have my own related distractions.

#218 - Florence - thanks, great to know. I will look that up at some point (Thinking of reading a lot of apocrypha between the OT and NT...or maybe after the NT- but that's very far down the road)

#219 - Hoopdriver - you're in luck, I've slowed considerably. Take your time, there's a lot in early Genesis to think about.

to all - I was going to post on Dinah today (Gen 34), but things got in the way. I'll try tomorrow. (itching to get to the long curious poem in 49)

jan 22, 2012, 2:56am

I like Alter's translation very much on the whole, though probably the best thing in the book is the notes, and how he explains the text and context (or admits where scholars remain baffled).

jan 22, 2012, 12:55pm

Genesis #34

Dinah. I think that’s enough of a summary. This is a chapter to stop on and ponder on (in some confusion).

Themes to think about

1. What is the role of women in the bible?

2. More collective punishment, but not collective guilt. Simeon and Levi are picked out as the bad guys, which looks ahead to Gen 49. They are the 2nd & 3rd born and yet both tribes end up landless. Levi loses their land before the tribe maps above (but were landed at one point, we’ll get there). Simeon will be absorbed into the more powerful Judah.

3. What do we make of Jacob's silence? Later he will refuse to bless Simeon and Levi. Instead, before dying, in Gen 49 he will say

Simeon and Levi are brothers; tools of violence are their stock-in-trade.
May I never enter into their company, nor take pleasure in their assembly.
For in their anger they (would kill/slew) a man, and in a good mood, hamstring an ox!
Cursed be their anger, how fierce! Their wrath is harsh indeed.
I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.

translation is from James L. Kugel, which is a bit different from Alter

4. There is a lot of logical inconsistency.
-- Hamor wants to make peace with a small ragtag band. There is not Israelite nation yet. An anachronism?
-- Shechem is found elsewhere in the bible, but no reference is ever made to any destruction or disruption of normal Shechem life outside this story.

5. Where does this story come from?

5A. The style is different. We have a narrator explaining (and defending) the action. (“and the were very incensed, for he had done a scurrilous thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, such as ought not be done.”). Early interpreters would see this narrator as the voice of God giving moral instruction.

5B Note that if we don’t accept that God is the narrator, God does not make an appearance.

5C There is no clear etiological significance. Shechem's destruction is not found elsewhere in bible or any other historical/archeological information. Dinah, outside this story, is merely mentioned, and only twice.

5D Kugel argues that Dinah's story is a later insertion, and came with a few other insertions about Dinah outside Gen 34 to keep the book consistent. And he argues that the story of Dinah is based off a later event or story - when there was actually a community of Israelites. He thinks it was inserted here, in the wrong time and place (there is biblical reference to a later Hamor and Shechem from Shechem) to explain the nature of the blessings in Gen 49.

5E But (not from Kugel) Dinah fits very nicely with Gen 35, where the initial them is one of cleansing.

6. And where does that leave us with this text. This is the point where my respectful side wants to hurl to book across the room and call it wretched. And then my literary side wants to pick it back up in fascination of this wretchedness


jan 22, 2012, 5:35pm

>224 dchaikin:

#213-214 - Alter's choices of wording is worth a long discussion. I have a several issues with Alter's choices (He's very prude with sexual language, IMO), but overall I like the flow and I really like that he gives the details in the notes where controversial so we can consider what words we might have chosen ourselves (almost always a bit different, for me).

I believe there are four expressions for the sex act in the Five Books and Alter retains these.

to know
to lay with
to come with

jan 22, 2012, 6:11pm

to come to bed with, which sounds to me like a bowdlerized version of "to come into," but Alter seems to see the latter as focused on the first moment of penetration and the former as more iterative and therefore more appropriate.

jan 22, 2012, 6:40pm

I believe there are four expressions for the sex act in the Five Books and alter retains these.

He speaks of concentric circles of intimacy.

jan 22, 2012, 7:04pm

Yeah, I'm not against the second term per se, but I'm not sure the change was motivated, especially because in his introduction Alter seems to say that it was not made for reasons having to do with the hebrew but more because he thinks this makes more sense.

Redigeret: jan 22, 2012, 9:12pm

Hmmm ... as for Alter's prudish language. I am not so sure it is prudish. It may have been sexually explicit at the time. For example, anyone living in 16th-century England would have known exactly what "to know or "to have conversation with" meant. I suspect it strikes us as prudish because "fuck," "screw," etc., have become commonplaces in US language. Think how prissy "to copulate" sounds although it is explicit. But then I do not know Hebrew.

jan 22, 2012, 7:48pm

Fornication Under Consent of the King (acronym or urban legend)?

jan 22, 2012, 8:12pm

>231 urania1: Alter discusses it a bit--says that "lie with," for example, was (is?) considered blunt to the point of vulgarity in Hebrew.

Redigeret: jan 22, 2012, 10:45pm

My complaints are the differences I personally take from reading the text and then from reading Alter's notes. The text always feels soft. "He knew his wife" I find gracefully polite. But often the intention of the text is explicit, and I don't think Alter's translation expresses that as well as his notes.

Example 30:16 Leah and the mandrakes command

- Alter's translation: "With me you will come to bed, for I have clearly hired you with the mandrakes of my son."
- Alter's notes: "The fact the Leah uses this particular idiom for sexual intercourse (literally, "to me you will come"), ordinarily used for intercourse with a woman the man has not previously enjoyed..."

1. Why doesn't Alter use, "to me you will come"? Why "to bed", which softens the command?
2. The sense of meaning in the notes is not well conveyed (although I'm not sure that's possible)
3. In a literary sense, a command with "to bed" just doesn't fit for me. It's a command, she's not being clean here, only direct.

I'll grant that the options here range widely and Alter is well within that range.

jan 22, 2012, 11:56pm

>234 dchaikin: yes. You have expressed what is also my concern.

jan 23, 2012, 8:02am

Does the story of the Golden Calf tell about a long con? The reason I ask is that real gold dosn't act that way. You can't smash it into powder. It's the most mallable metal. Aaron and Moses needed resources for a long trip. The mixed multitude had just stolen great wealth from Egypt. This might have been a way to collect this wealth into the hands of the leadership. Just asking.

Redigeret: jan 23, 2012, 4:46pm

I suspect we're ready to move on. Scream at me if I'm going too fast. But, the discussion is all over the place, so I don't think it's critical whether we are all in the same place.

Genesis 35-48
The story of Joseph is 37, 39-48

Bethel, Reuben's mistake, Rachel's death, birth of Benjamin, death of Isaac

- Opens with a cleansing after Dinah's story : "Put away the alien gods that are in you midst and cleanse yourselves and change your garments. And let us rise and go up to Bethel..."
- Bethel again, jacob renamed Israel again - a second explanation of the name change, but more formal this time.
- 1st born Reuben sleeps with Bilhah. Point is Reuben is making a flawed challenge to his father's leadership. This sentence looks like a later insertion, looking ahead to Gen 49 again. (Reuben's 1st mistake)
- Ben-Oni (son of my vigor/sorrow) / Benjamin (son of my right hand/the south/old age)
- Isaac's death

Esau's begats in Edom - duplicated and contradictory as always.

Opening of the story of Joseph: here is the story of Joseph's brothers selling him into slavery.

-unlike 34, here there is collective guilt.
-note Joseph's arrogance, from line three.
-note the second payback from the Esau story. Again, Jacob is fooled by clothes.
-note that Reuben, who has nothing to gain from hurting Joseph, tries and fails to save him (Reuben's 2nd mistake)
- note the moral ambiguity in Judah's role (immoral ambiguity). He helps spare Joseph's life, but...

The complicated story of Judah, Er, Onan, Shelah, Tamar, Perez and Zerah

- A side-track? Another break?
- OK, let's see. Judah and an unnamed wife have three sons - Er, Onan and Shelah. Er marries Tamar but God kills him (err...he "was evil in the eyes of the LORD"), OK, Onan must take his place, but he won't impregnate her, so God kills him too. So Tamar is promised Shelah, but Judah is afraid of losing Shelah after the last two...So, Tamar acts a whore and tricks Judah into sleeping with her and begets Perez & Zerah (Zerah had the scarlet thread). Got that all? I kind of lost track when God started killing for no apparent reason.
- Judah & veiled Tamar's exchange echos previous stories. Judah offers a kid (used to bloody Joseph's cloak and also as Jabob's furry skin-cover with Isaac) and Taram hides in a garment (like jacob with Esau and presumably important when Jacob mistakenly marries Leah)
- Tamar's display of damning evidence parallels the brother's cover-up of Joseph's enslavement.
- Judah's punishment is embarrassment. Tamar is peremptorily sentenced to burning. hmmm
- side note : the brother must fulfill the impregnating duties of the deceased.
- side note : this is the source of the word onanism - which, in English, can mean either coitus interruptus or masturbation. The text is only consistent with the former meaning.
- Perez is from "breach" or "burst forth" - he will be the progenitor of the tribe Judah
- Zerah is from "Shining" as of dawn, which parallels him with Esau the red.

In Egypt Joseph rises in Potiphar's service and ends up in prison

- Joseph spurns Potiphar's wife's advances, so she takes his garment and claims rape.
- Alter oohs and aahs over the structure and key words (hand, house, all, blessing, and succeed)
- note Joseph is stripped again. (He literally can't keep his pants on.)
- note Joseph's two key traits: successful (with presumed intelligence) & pure (biblically good).

Joseph interprets dreams

- Cup Bearer - dreams of a vine with three tendrils and then giving the pharaoh wine. He will be restored
- Baker - dreams of three baskets on his head with birds eating from the top. He will be impaled.

Joseph becomes a key man to the Pharaoh

- Joseph interprets Pharaoh's dreams of 7 good years and 7 bad years. (sevens...)
- Joseph & Asenath beget Manasseh & Ephraim
- Manasseh - name sounds like "made me forget" - from "God has released me from the debt of my hardship, and of all my father's house."
- Ephraim - name sound like "fruit" (?) - from "God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction"

Redigeret: jan 23, 2012, 1:54pm

(I split the posts into two sets

In famine Joseph's ten oldest brothers plea, unknowingly, to him for provisions.

- note Joseph gets some payback
- note Reuben's suggestion to Jacob - to kill his own first two born. (dooffus. This is Reuben's 3rd mistake)
- note Joseph is talking through an interpreter.

The brothers return to Egypt for more provisions after Jacob relents to allow Benjamin to join

- Judah's pledge is much better than Reubens ("I will be his pledge")
- from here on Judah, fourth born, is the leader of the brothers. Reuben is silent and mostly forgotten, like his tribe, which faded out early on.
- drunken feast with Joseph
- Israelites stay separated from Eyptians

Trick with the silver goblet in Benyamin's bag
Judah insists on being the slave in place of Benjamin (good boy, Judah)

Joseph breaks down and reveals his identity

- "and, look, your own eyes can see, and the eyes of my brother Benjamin, that it is my very mouth that speaks to you" - Joseph is speaking in Hebrew
- Pharaoh is happy "you shall live off the fat of the land"
- Jacob is informed

Jacob journey's to Goshen

- 70 travelers (it's not actually 70 - but the bible likes this number : 7x10. The bible like's sevens)
- Jacob: "I may die now, after seeing your face, for you are still alive"

Jacob meets the Pharaoh

- "Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life"
- Joseph sustains his brothers but Egypt starves
- Joseph only feeds the rest of the people if they give everything to the Pharaoh (Bastard!....well, actually no, that was Perez)

Jacob adopts and blesses Joseph's sons Manasseh & Ephrain

- They take Reuben and Simeon's birthright, and double Joseph's birthright.
- Ephrain, the younger, gets the better blessing

jan 23, 2012, 1:53pm

editing - hang on...

jan 23, 2012, 1:57pm

OK, done for now. I will post the themes later, maybe this evening.

jan 23, 2012, 2:33pm

Phew! The characterizations are becoming so rich--I love that scornful "dream-master" toward the beginning of the story. Changes everything--no longer can you get "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" or facile messages about following your muse out of it; he becomes a very modern figure, a sanctimonious, butter-wouldn't-melt-in-my-mouth, yet still lovable younger slacker son.

Reuben interests me because he seems to be the only one of the other sons who isn't a complete scumbag. As we've discussed, the only morality seems to be results or "winning"--Isaac is another example of a less shrewd, less grasping, and therefore more impotent character--but this actually puts Joseph in an interesting light. Certainly he's the hero here, but he presents very different characteristics than, say, Jacob--on the other hand, it's not till we see him tricking and manipulating Pharaoh and his brothers that his glory emerges. He's the naif made good, as opposed to Jacob, the calculating, resentful younger son. But the common threads are (not morality, not sincere religious faith in any way we'd understand it) Machiavellianism in the service of spreading your seed and younger sons. Why younger sons? It starts to feel like some kind of meritocratic assault on primogeniture.

I think my favourite character in the latter half of the book is actually Esau. Have it all. Lose everything. Shrug it off, start again, and forgive the brother who wronged you, despite his continued, churlish mistrust. But I can see how Jacob is held up as an exemplary figure as well, of course. Whatever else you can say about him, he's nobody's fool (except, eventually, his sons', to a point).

jan 23, 2012, 3:26pm

Sorry, I'm still a bit behind, but I wanted to comment on the change in style (dchaikin) and characterization (MM). Jacob's story is very different from previous chapters. There are real people here, not just archetypes. Esau who is hairy and a bit slow is cheated by his brother, and yet weeps for joy when he meets him again, while the brother remains cautious. Jacob is cheated out of marrying his love, and neglects poor Leah who will always play second fiddle to Rachel. It's a bit like a Tennessee Williams play. :-P

Redigeret: jan 23, 2012, 3:36pm

I am a huge George Eliot fan and remembered this conversation from Adam Bede:

"He's {referring to Arthur Donnithorne} of a rash, warm-hearted nature, like Esau, for whom I have always felt great pity," said Dinah. "That meeting between the brothers, where Esau is so loving and generous, and Jacob so timid and distrustful, notwithstanding his sense of the Divine favour, has always touched me greatly. Truly, I have been tempted sometimes to say that Jacob was of a mean spirit. But that is our trial: we must learn to see the good in the midst of much that is unlovely."

"Ah," said Adam, "I like to read about Moses best, in th' Old Testament. He carried a hard business well through, and died when other folks were going to reap the fruits. A man must have courage to look at his life so, and think what'll come of it after he's dead and gone. A good solid bit o' work lasts: if it's only laying a floor down, somebody's the better for it being done well, besides the man as does it."

Redigeret: jan 23, 2012, 7:12pm

What do you think of Freud's theory that the Jews got tired of him always telling them what to do, and killed him?

See Moses and Monotheism by Sigmund Freud

jan 23, 2012, 7:50pm

>245 MeditationesMartini: ha ha I thought you meant god.

jan 23, 2012, 11:14pm

Martin - love your post. When I read this once before (using a JSP version, about 12 years ago I read the first five books) I like Reuben. But Alter has exposed him, now I just see that he wasn't very smart. And his non-scumbag ways has a purpose. As first born, he had no reason to worry about Joseph and no reason to dump him off as a slave, or worse. So, his actions to help Joseph weren't heroic, they were very passive actually.

So, Joseph & Judah--this is Cain and Abel and Jacob and Esau all over again - The more civilized Joseph outdoes the nomadic Judah. Cain tended the fields, Jacob stayed near the hearth and Joseph reaches the heights of civilization. But Judah is just another shepherd getting taken...

FlorenceArt - Yes, we left the "Schematic narrative" and we have a story with characters and dialogues and details (lots of Egyptian details). This is quite different.

Another thing to think about (from Kugel) is the Hyskos. They were not Israelites, but they were a Semitic group who took over Egypt. So, what part of Joseph's story comes form Hyskos related legends?

jan 23, 2012, 11:19pm

But the main thing that gets me, is when I put myself in as one of the brothers...what do they feel once Joseph is gone? They must have felt that "what have we done?!" moment. There is no turning back, the crime is permanent, the guilt is on all the brothers (a collective guilt). What must they think, each individually, when they realize that guilt will never go away?

Now, think of the last story you read where adolescents commit the unforgivable crime, in concert. The one where someone dies, or worse, and they all share the blame, were partners in crime. Here is your literary source.

jan 24, 2012, 2:33pm

Yeah, this is interesting about Joseph and Judah, because it's a reversal of Cain and Abel--the citified agriculturalist is beating out the shepherd. Although Judah sort of seems like the default head of the family going forward, if anyone is, right? The leader, where Joseph is more the maverick or prodigal? I wonder if some of these particularities are Hyksos-related.

Not only that, it's the first time that administration as such is valorized, although there's not necessarily a contradiction with what's come before in the same way as the farm/herd thing, and now that I think about it, there's maybe a precedent in Jacob's use of scientific breeding methods (?) when he's with Laban. I have to say I'm disappointed that Joseph, who seemed like kind of an open-hearted mystic, a proto-Alyosha Karamazov almost, turned into an enclosure-acting monopoly capitalist fuck.

On the collective guilt--I thought Jacob's final blessing/curse on his sons was interesting in that light. ((Most) everyone I know in real life named Jake is kind of a dick--life imitating art?) Like, although he doesn't condemn Benjamin in the same way as some of the others (who, however, all go on to found tribes and be remembered for millennia), the way he describes him does make him sound like a vicious, violent sonofabitch, a contrast to the other younger son, Joseph the open-hearted. Joseph turns out the way the younger son stereotypically should (if that stereotype holds among the Hebrews), and then the family he grew up in, which was simmering with discontent but basically functional, is shattered by the blood crime of the brothers--meaning that Benjamin grows up without a mother, with a crippled father who stole everything he's got, who has lost his favourite son and despises all the others (but dotes on Benjamin), with the brothers and their guilt and machinations--to say nothing of the stories of Reuben and Dinah and Onan. I recognize that I'm being a foolish modernizer here, but it really seems like a broken family full of haunted people and at least one stone killer. I knew how Faulkner was Biblical, but I didn't expect the Bible to be Faulknerian.

jan 24, 2012, 3:19pm

Thank you for that hit, mon.
I caught Marley on that tour in Chicago, through a thick haze of smoke. Absolutely the best concert I've ever seen.

Redigeret: jan 24, 2012, 5:49pm

Cain is the more civilized as he is settled and farming before the curse. Abel was the nomadic shepherd. So for me Joseph fits better with Cain...but Judah does take over - the tribe of Judah takes over.

I'm fascinated by the final blessing/curse. It strikes me as terrible honest in some way. Otherwise why blast away at existent neighbors and, apparently, family. But, I'm wondering what it's being honest about.

Can't listen to the Marley at work (or other music), but that's from a very different mindset from me. I had Pixies in mind... (it's all the sevens...)

jan 24, 2012, 4:57pm

Yeah, no, that's what I mean. Cain is the settled farmer, as Joseph is the settled agricultural administrator. It's a reversal, although as you say, only a partial one, since Judah wins out in a sense.

jan 24, 2012, 4:59pm

The Pixies are closer to my heart than Marley is, but I refuse to take sides.

Redigeret: jan 24, 2012, 5:44pm

An interesting interpretation from UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks - prior to Greek all languages were right to left and were 'right brain' consequently language/words did not have an exact meaning, but were open to interpretation. The Greek language marked a change in that it was written left to right, and was 'left brained'. Henceforth the language became more exact, and the development of 'science' became possible.

Sacks maintains that christianity emerged as a powerhouse because it mixed a right brain religion with dissemination to a wider audience via the left brained Greek language.

Redigeret: jan 24, 2012, 6:04pm

#252 I see. To me Cain was the winner...although there was a price to pay later with the boss.

254 - Z - There is a lot between here and there. Is Christianity is a translation of the Judaic religion into the Greek mindset?

My problem with the science connection is that there is a long long way from the spread of Christianity to scientific thought - left and right brains are hard at work doing many different things along the way. And you would need to compare Chinese and Arabic/Persian languages and the development of thought in those areas, and how each approached the sciences.

jan 25, 2012, 10:27am

Yes I tend to agree re the science bit. But the potential difference in interpretation, and the varying appetite for exactness of language versus a looser meaning that different languages may bring is interesting, particularly given Alter's interpretations.

Redigeret: jan 25, 2012, 11:54am

The The Zohar, Pritzker Edition has now published Volume Six of a proposed ten volume study of the Five Books of Moses.

This volume completes the Zohar’s commentary on the book of Exodus. Some of the volume focuses on the Dwelling (or mishkan) built by Moses and the Israelites in the Sinai Desert. The mishkan symbolizes Shekhinah, the feminine presence of God who “dwells” on earth. The construction of the misken is intended to ensure Her intimacy with the people—and especially with Moses who is actually called her husband.”

“The dramatic episode of the Golden Calf receives special treatment. The worship of the calf is seen as a rejection of Shekhinah. Normally, she would have restrained the wrath of God’s masculine aspect and prevented Him from striking Israel; but having been rejected , She instead departed, leaving the people vulnerable.”

This information might be considered "Crazy talk" if I had created it myself, but....

“A monumental contribution to the history of Jewish thought.” --- Koret Jewish Book Award

“A masterful approach to one of the most enchanting and intriguing texts of religious literature.”--- Elie Wiesel

The Zohar: Pritzker Edition is set to become one of the single most important contributions to the topic in the English speaking world.” ---- Times Literary Supplement

“This sensitive commentary and translation of the classic text of Kabbalah is of foundational importance for an understanding of Jewish mysticism” Jewish Book World

jan 25, 2012, 11:53am

Ambiguity is a part of all languages. I think that the feeling of looseness in foreign languages is a result from the fact that we are faced with ambiguities we haven't internalized and it makes us feel unsure of ourselves. There is no more or less ambiguity in English than in ancient Hebrew (though this is only the opinion of someone who doesn't speak a word of Hebrew, ancient or otherwise), but a native speaker of English will have learned to deal with these ambiguities from birth and doesn't see them as such, mostly, while in a foreign language they are more evident, particularly if pointed out by an erudite translator like Alter.

Plus, when there are built-in ambiguities in the language, in most cases the meaning is still clear from context. This is a book written, what... 2500 years ago? Give or take a couple of centuries. We have lost most of the context. A contemporary reader would have had a very different view of the text's ambiguities.

jan 25, 2012, 12:56pm

"A contemporary reader would have had a very different view of the text's ambiguities."

Add to this the various influencing changes in interpretation with time. In the simple sense we have original writers, the ancient and medieval interpreters and the more recent and contemporary interpreters. But even that foreshortens the amount of time of creation - the thousand years where the stories were flexible, each time period bringing it's own variations and diversity of interpretation and meaning. Older ambiguities evolved into something quite different, even within the same language.

jan 25, 2012, 2:22pm

>256 zenomax: what a neat idea. I don't agree with it on any level, but it's an interesting sort of double-retro-effect: the writing on the language, and the language on cognition. It would have been cool to see an example of textual criticism form Sacks coming from that perspective.

I ate Genesis up, but am finding Exodus more of a slog at the beginning somehow. Alter seems to suggest that it's slightly more novelistic, at least the first half--maybe I'm just missing the ancient rhythms?

jan 25, 2012, 2:33pm

#261 - Good to know where you are. I haven't started Exodus yet, been catching up on Moby Dick. I will get going...

jan 25, 2012, 2:53pm

I tend to grind my way through shit pretty fast--will try to keep my discourse relevant to the consensus place.

jan 27, 2012, 4:43pm

I haven't had time to compose a coherent post this week, apologies. I still need to post the last two chapter of Gen and kick off a Exodus thread. I will try to both this weekend.

jan 28, 2012, 11:15pm

Genesis 49-50

Jacob's final blessing (and curses)
This long poem is considered relatively ancient by scholars, at least in part. This is a window in the origins of the bible. It’s worth reading over a few times.

Death and burial of Jacob in Canaan.
-note the bargaining with the Pharaoh, who might be worried that the Israelites would not return. “Only their little ones …they left in the land of Goshen” – to assure their return.

Themes to think about.

1. The main thing I'm struck by here is the sense of honesty in Jacob's "blessings". No blind praise, tribes are given their stereotypes with warts. I find this fascinating. Actually I'm stuck on this poem, my favorite part of the bible so far.

2. So what is it being honest about? This is considered one of the oldest parts of the bible, likely from the time of David. It probably would only have been written during the period of a single kingdom, which is a very brief period. The postdiction then predicts what the tribes actually are in the Davidic period. There is some real history here. But, it's manipulated. The writing was done to justify the Davidic unity and Judah's dominance

3. Note the tribal order and that the three ahead of Judah are cursed. Presumably they had their day as the big tribes in the past, but this is all done by Davidic times, when all three have faded away, or lost their territory.

4. So, if this older than the story of Joseph, was the whole story of Joseph essentially written to explain this? Reuben and Bilhah seems like an insertion to explain his curse. Dinah may have been inserted to explain the odd comments about Simeon and Levi.

5. Looking in more detail, by tribe (I'm probably overdoing it about now.)

Reuben – 2 lines. Cursed for lying with Bilhah. The tribe of Reuben was probably once dominant, but was also faded out early
Simeon & Levi – 3 lines together. “I will divide them in Jacob, disperse then in Israel”. Simeon is absorbed. Levi landless. But note, this is a “prediction”. So, (from Kugel) we may be reading a memory from when the Levites did have land.
Judah – 5 lines. Lions, scepters, feeds his ass grapes, blood – a tribe that is successful, rich and dominant through warfare
Zebulun – one line. Near the shore (not on the map, though)
Issachar – two lines. “a big-boned donkey”, “a toiling Serf” – not my first choice
Dan – three lines “a snake on the road” – feisty warriors, but not in fortified comfort
Gad – one line “goaded by raiders” – definitely not secure
Asher – one line “Asher’s bread shall be rich” – Asher has a cush spot on the map
Naphtali – one line. “A hind let loose, who brings forth lovely fawns” – eh?
Joseph – 5 lines “daughters strode by a rampart” – well fortified. “They savaged him, shot arrows and harassed him, the archers did. But taut was his bow, his arms ever moving” – a reference to military trials of some sort
Benjamin – one line. “ravening wolf” – a warrior tribe.


jan 28, 2012, 11:20pm

The exodus thread is up as a continuation. The link is provided by LT at the bottom of this thread where is says, "This topic was continued by Alter and a tour of a sea bed." Here's another link:

Redigeret: jan 28, 2012, 11:47pm

Genesis – an overview from a Literary Guide to the Bible

I had this idea that I would use this book to give a summary of each of the main books in the bible. But, so far, this one has been pretty dense for me and a little challenging to summarize. One thing I’ve taken from this is that the authors have a found a new way to revere the bible – as a literary creation.

The chapter on Genesis is written by J. P. Fokkelman, who Alter refers to often as something like a mentor. Briefly, here are some things I picked up on.

“Genesis is part of a grand design which unites the books of the Torah with Joshua, Judges Samuel and Kings in one configuration: from the creation of the world through the choosing of the people of Israel and their settlement in Canaan up to the Babylonian Captivity. Genesis contributes two building blocks to this overarching plot: The Primeval history (1 – 11) and the protohistory of the people of Israel, namely the period of the eponymous forefatehrs (in three cycles: 12 – 25, 25 – 35, and 37-50). These two stages prepare for the history of God’s covenant with what the Hebrew Bible regularly calls ‘his heritage’ Israel (see, for example, Deut. 4:20-21, and Ps 28:9) in Egypt and at the foot of Mount Sinai—a history that begins in Exodus”

He spends a lot of time on the toldedot or begetting. They are found in at the ends of the each of the key sections (5:1, 10:1, 11:10, 25:12 and 36:1) and also four other times as an opening (6:9, 11:27, 25:19, 37:2). “This image of concatenation reveals the overriding concern f the entire book: life-survival-offspring-fertility-continuity.” The one other place it occurs is in 2:4, “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth.”. But there are no fathers here yet. To Fokkelman the language “raises the radical question whether heaven and earth may be the object of God’s begetting. The word toledot is, then, a metaphor which, approaching the boundaries of the taboo in Israel’s strict sexual morals, carries the oblique suggestion that the cosmos may have originated in a sexual act of God.” And that, I think, is beautiful.

jan 30, 2012, 11:19pm

For those interested, I've posted a review of sorts of Genesis on my reading log thread, here:

Redigeret: feb 17, 2013, 12:00pm

Thanks to the link posted by dchaikin to the Yale online course, I am revisiting this part of the Bible. How am I ever going to move on to another book...

Yale's lectures 2 and 3 are fascinating and draw parallels between the bible's creation stories and other ancient near eastern texts, in particular the Babylonian tale of creation called Enuma-elish.

This text shares many things with the biblical creation tale. One common charactistic that is not mentioned in the Yale lecture is that many copies of this text are known, and they are all virtually identical. So, like the biblical text, this text had attained the status of a canonical text throughout the region. Some people even copied the text and substituted the names of their own gods to the Babylonian names, otherwise leaving it unchanged. (*)

Here is an online version of the text:

There are also numerous e-books available, all based on the same translation. This one is free:

(*) This information comes from a book I just borrowed from the library, called De Sumer à Canaan (no English version, sorry) which gives a pretty detailed overview of all the difficulties of trying to analyze the biblical text in a historical perspective.

feb 17, 2013, 10:14pm

I would like to do that class. Haven't gotten past lecture one. Interesting.

aug 22, 2014, 9:44pm

I thought I would resurrect his thread, as I've just finished my slog through Bereishit (Genesis) - reading for literature and cultural purposes only, no faith involved.

Anyone else read Genesis lately? :-)

I am also watching the Yale online course, and I just started reading the Epic of Gilgamesh. I sorely needed a break from the Bible!

I have heaps and heaps of notes (some tongue in cheek), I'll put on Evernote if anyone is interested.

aug 25, 2014, 7:38am

Hi! Unfortunately this thread has died down and we have moved to other books of the Bible. If you're interested, the latest discussion was on Job, here:

Though we have been flagging a bit lately, unfortunately, but there is talk of starting Psalms soon.

aug 25, 2014, 6:23pm

Yes! Let us psalm!

I'm not sure what Evernote is, but I would also be very interested in reading/talking about Gilgamesh, which I have shamefully never read.

aug 26, 2014, 9:00am

>272 MeditationesMartini: I just started reading Gilgamesh, I am on Tablet 2. If you want to join in, I can start a new thread!

I am reading the Folio Society edition.

>270 abergsman:

It may take me quite a long time to catch up to the group. Psalms is a loooong way off from Exodus. :)

aug 26, 2014, 9:46am

>273 abergsman: Feel free to add your comment to the old threads as you progress in your reading, I for one am interested in your thoughts. I have been following the Yale courses but was distracted by other things and didn't finish the series. They are very interesting though.

You can find the latest thread list here:

aug 26, 2014, 3:02pm

>273 abergsman: yeah I'd love to! Will join in as soon as I can get my hands on a copy.

sep 1, 2014, 3:24am

jan 28, 2015, 1:43pm

abergsman - just now see your posts. I'm so late... Anyway, I'm bringing Gilgamesh into the Ecclesiates thread. Would love to know your thoughts.

jan 28, 2015, 1:44pm

Denne tråd er fortsat i Alter and a tour of a sea bed.