LEARNING BIBLE TODAY
From Creation to the Conquest of Canaan
by Michael J. Prival
ORIGINS – EARTH AND PEOPLE
CONTENTS OF CHAPTER I:
[Genesis 1:1 - 2:3]
In the beginning, God created the sky and the earth. The earth was without form and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep water, and the breath of God hovered over the face of the water.
Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Then God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was an evening and there was a morning – a first day.
Then God said, “Let there be a dome in the middle of the water to separate water from water.” And God made the dome to separate the water that was below it from the water that was above it. And God called the dome Sky. And there was an evening and there was a morning – a second day.
Then God said, “Let the water under the Sky be collected in one place, and let dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the collected water he called the Sea. Then God saw that this was good. Then God said, “Let the Earth sprout with grass, herbs sowing seed, and fruit trees carrying fruit of their own kind with seeds in it.” And the earth sprouted with grass, herbs sowing seed of their own kind, and trees carrying fruit of their own kind with seeds in it. Then God saw that this was good. And there was an evening and there was a morning – a third day.
Then God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night, and they shall be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and they shall serve as lights in the sky to shine upon the earth.” And it was so. And God made the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day and the smaller light to rule the night, and the stars also. And God put them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. Then God saw that this was good. And there was an evening and there was a morning – a fourth day.
Then God said, “Let the water teem with swarming living creatures, and flying creatures that can fly above the earth in the face of the dome of the sky.” Then God created great sea monsters, and every living creature that creeps, which the waters brought forth teeming, according to their kind, and every winged flying creature, according to their kind. God saw that this was good. Then God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the waters in the seas, and let the flying creatures multiply on the earth.” And there was an evening and there was a morning – a fifth day.
Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth the living creatures, according to their kind – cattle, creeping things, and animals on the land, according to their kind.” And it was so. And God made animals on the land according to their kind and cattle according to their kind and every creeping thing upon the earth according to its own kind. Then God saw that this was good.
Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, according to our likeness. And let them rule over the fish of the sea, and over the flying creatures of the sky, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” Then God created human beings in his image, in the image of God he created them, a male and a female he created them. Then God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea, and over the flying creatures of the sky, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.”
Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every herb sowing seed that is upon the face of the earth, and every tree on which there is fruit sowing seed; to you they shall be for food. And to every animal on the land, and to every flying creature of the sky, and to everything that creeps upon the earth, I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. Then God saw all that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And there was an evening and there was a morning – the sixth day.
And the sky and the earth were finished, and all their host. And by the seventh day, God completed the work that he had been doing, and he ceased on the seventh day the work that he had been doing. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because it was when he ceased from the work of creation.
1. This is the story of Creation. It is the first story in the Bible. There are many questions about the world that this story is supposed to answer. Two of these questions are: “Where did the Earth come from?” and “Where did people come from?” What other questions does this story answer? How does science answer some of these same questions today?
2. One of the questions that is not answered in the story of Creation is: “Where did God come from?” How do you think that this question was answered by people who believed in the Bible’s story of Creation? One answer that was often given to this question was that “God always existed.” This, of course, really does not help to solve the problem of where everything came from. It is just as easy to think that the universe always existed as it is to think that it was created by a god who always existed.
If the stories in the Bible are traced carefully from the beginning, it can be calculated that the six days of Biblical creation would have occurred about 6000 years ago. In reality, the universe and the earth are much, much older than that. The best scientific evidence available today has led scientists to conclude that the universe was started with a great explosion about 14 billion (that's 14,000,000,000) years ago. This explosion is called the “big bang.” Before the big bang, all of the matter and energy in the universe was concentrated in a tiny ball. After the explosion, some of the matter gathered together into clumps, such as the stars and the planets, including our sun and our earth.
3. In this story, on the first day God created light. But he did not create the sun until the fourth day. Since the light that fills the sky and the earth during the day comes from the sun, how can this be? Maybe the ancient Israelites who wrote this story did not realize that light comes from the sun. Maybe they just weren’t thinking about such details when they wrote it. While these are possible explanations, maybe you can think of more interesting ones.
4. The ancient Israelites and most other people at that time believed that the earth was flat like a plate, not round like a ball. We now know, of course, that the earth is round, not flat. But people who believed the earth was flat were not stupid; they believed that the earth was flat because that is how it seems to be when we look at it. The writers of the Bible story of Creation lived at a time when people could not travel long distances, certainly not all the way around the world. Each person only knew about the area close to where he or she lived. If we had lived then, we certainly would have agreed with everyone else that the earth really is flat.
The Israelites of that time thought that there was a solid barrier up in the air, holding up the “waters” above it. This barrier appeared to them like a big curved ceiling – the dome of the sky. They thought this because the sky looks like a dome. It seemed to the ancient Israelites that the sun and the moon and the stars were placed in the barrier. This barrier is sometimes called the “arch of heaven” or the “firmament.” The Hebrew word for it in the Bible is “ra-kee-a.” Have you ever been to a planetarium? To people a long time ago, the sky seemed like the ceiling of a huge planetarium.
At the beginning of this story, everything was water. On the second day of Creation, God made the ra-kee-a, the solid dome of the sky, which was a barrier separating the water into two parts. The waters below the dome became the earth. The waters above were held up by the dome. If the writers of the Creation story believed that the sky was made of water held up by a barrier, what question about nature would this answer? To better understand the whole creation story, you might want to sketch some pictures to show what the writers of the Bible story thought Creation looked like after one day, after two days, after three days, and so on.
5. According to the Bible story, all of the plants and animals on earth were made by God in a few days. Today we know that the plants and animals (including people) actually developed slowly, over a period of millions of years, by the process of evolution. We know this now because by studying fossils in the earth, scientists have found that the plants and animals living today are the descendants of simpler plants and animals that lived a long time ago.
The most interesting of the animals that lived a long time ago but no longer exist were probably the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs lived about 100 million years ago.
6. There are still some people today, called religious fundamentalists, who believe that everything that the Bible says is historically true, exactly as it is written. Therefore, these people believe that the earth was really created in six days only about 6000 years ago, and they do not believe the scientific evidence that all living things developed through evolution.
What would you say to someone who told you that the Bible story of creation is historically accurate? You might say that dinosaur bones and other fossils that are many millions of years old prove that the earth is much older than the Bible says it is. The other person might say that God put those bones in the earth to fool us, or that the scientists are wrong when they say that the fossils are so old. It is almost always impossible to get other people to change their minds about their religious beliefs. While we should respect the right of all people to believe what they want to believe, it is still important to understand that the fundamentalist belief in the Bible creation story is contradicted by an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence.
7. The Bible says that God made people on the sixth day. According to the Creation story, people were made “in the image of God,” meaning that they looked like God. Of course, this is because the people who wrote the story thought of God as someone who looked like a person. Much later on, the Israelites began to think that God had no real body or shape. They thought that God was like people only because God has “free will,” which means that he can make decisions for himself, just like people can.
8. The first six days of Creation can be broken up into two groups of three days each: 1, 2, and 3 followed by 4, 5, and 6. If we do this, an interesting pattern can be seen:
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
DAY 1: DAY 4:
Creation of Light. Creation of the lights in the sky:
the sun, the moon, and the stars.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
DAY 2: DAY 5:
Separation of Water Creation of fish to swim in the
on earth from the Sky. waters on Earth and the birds and
insects to fly in the Sky.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
DAY 3: DAY 6:
Creation of the land. Creation of the animals and people
that live on the land.
DAY 7: Rest
This pattern can help us to remember what was made on each day in the Bible story of Creation.
9. The first instructions that God gave to the people were to multiply themselves (that is, to have children) and rule over all the plants and animals. Back when the Bible was written, the earth seemed very big and everyone thought that there were enough plants and animals for people to eat and use forever.
Of course, today most people think that we should be concerned about preserving all types of plants and animals rather than subduing them and ruling over them. This means making sure that the forests are not all cut down and that people do not kill off all of the animals of any one kind. Sometimes the desire to preserve nature comes into conflict with the desire, or even the need, to use the products of nature. Do you know of any current environmental issues that demonstrate this conflict?
10. The story of creation takes place over seven days. This answers an important question, not about the world of nature, but about the calendar. According to Jewish tradition, the reason there are seven days in the week is that the story of Creation takes place over seven days. Today, there is really no way for us to know which one came first, the seven-day week or the seven-day Creation story.
At the end of each day, the story says: “And there was an evening and there was a morning – a first day” or “And there was an evening and there was a morning – a second day” and so on. According to Jewish tradition, this is why each day of the Jewish calendar begins in the evening, at sunset – because the Bible mentions evening first, and then morning, for each day of Creation. Did you know that all Jewish holidays begin in the evening, at sunset, and end at sunset? At what time does the day begin and end on the more widely used non-Jewish calendar?
On the seventh day, God rested from his work. The tradition of the Jewish religion says that this is why the last day of the week is a day of rest, when people do not go to work. This day is called the Sabbath, or, in Hebrew, Sha-bat́. In fact the word Sha-bat is the word used in the Bible passage that says that God “ceased” his work on the seventh day. The Jewish Sha-bat begins at sunset on Friday and ends at sunset on Saturday. Saturday, or Sha-bat, is the last day of the week. When Christianity came along, the Christians decided to celebrate their Sabbath on Sunday. The two Sabbaths together are now called the “weekend,” even though Sunday is actually the first day of the week.
[Genesis 2:4 - 3:24]
When Yahweh, who is God, made the earth and the sky, when no plant of the field was yet on the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprouted, Yahweh formed a man from dry earth taken from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.
Yahweh planted a garden to the east, in Eden, and there he put the man, Adam, whom he had formed. And Yahweh caused trees to grow there that were beautiful and produced good food. In the middle of the garden were the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
And Yahweh gave orders to Adam, “You may eat from any tree in the garden, but you shall not eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, for if you do eat from it, you will die.”
Then, out of earth, Yahweh formed every animal of the field and every flying creature of the sky. But Adam had no one to help him. So Yahweh caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and while he slept, Yahweh took out one of his ribs. And Yahweh formed the rib into a woman.
Adam and the woman were both naked, but they were not ashamed. And the serpent said to the woman, “If you eat the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden you will not die, but you will become like God, knowing good and evil.” So the woman took fruit from the tree and ate it, and also gave some to her husband, and he ate it. The eyes of both of them were opened and they realized that they were naked, and they sewed together fig leaves to cover their nakedness.
Yahweh came and asked, “Did you eat from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” And Adam said, “The woman gave me the fruit of the tree, and I did eat.”
And Yahweh said to the woman, “What have you done?” And the woman answered, “The serpent deceived me, and I did eat.”
And Yahweh said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, you are cursed; you shall crawl on your belly and eat dry earth all the days of your life.”
To the woman he said, “In pain shall you bring forth children, and your husband shall rule over you.”
Then to Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree, you shall have to work for your food all the days of your life.”
And Adam named his wife Eve because she is the mother of all who live.
And Yahweh said, “Behold, Adam has become like one of us, knowing good from evil. If he eats from the Tree of Life, he will live forever.” Therefore, Yahweh sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken.
1. This story tells how the first two people were made. It also attempts to explain many other things about life. These explanations are found in the punishments that Yahweh gave out. For example, he made the serpent crawl on its belly – this is supposed to explain why there are snakes with no legs.
The punishments of Eve and Adam are supposed to explain some of the hardships of human life. The lesson of the story seems to be that the difficulties that people have in life are the result of Yahweh’s punishment of all of us because Eve and Adam, our most distant ancestors, disobeyed Yahweh’s order not to eat the fruit. Remember that for many hundreds of years, Christians and Jews believed that the story of Adam and Eve had actually occurred just as it is described in the Bible. Why do you think that people accepted the idea that they should suffer with difficult lives because of something Adam and Eve did long ago?
Of course, today we understand that people can get sick or have other hardships even though they didn’t do anything wrong. Sickness and poverty and other difficulties are not punishments for anything that we or anyone else did. Sometimes bad things just happen, and we have to accept the fact that there is no good reason for them. But the Bible writers seemed to believe that human problems had to be deserved, either because of something we did or something our ancestors did. The story of Adam and Eve was one way to make it seem as if these problems are deserved even though the suffering person did nothing wrong.
2. Some people say that the “punishments” of Adam and Eve were really good things because life in the Garden of Eden was really not a good life at all. These people say that life in the Garden of Eden was not only boring, but also very much like the lives of little children who don’t know anything. Others say that such a life, free of cares, is the best kind of life. Do you think that Adam and Eve were better off or worse off because they ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Would you rather have the kind of life that we all have now, with all of its problems and difficulties, or would you like to live in a Garden of Eden like Adam and Eve?
3. Do you think that Adam and Eve deserved to be punished for what they did? What did they do wrong? According to the story, their sin was to disobey Yahweh by eating the fruit. The punishment seems pretty severe for eating a piece of fruit. If we choose to, we might look at the story another way and say that it was not the eating of the fruit that got Yahweh ticked off at Adam and Eve, but rather the fact that they each tried to blame someone else for what they had done – Adam points to Eve and Eve accuses the serpent. Maybe we could see this story as one whose purpose is to teach us to take personal responsibility for our actions, rather than being a story about how important it is to obey God. This would be a more modern interpretation, and one that was certainly not intended by the authors many centuries ago; the story makes it clear that Adam and Eve were punished for disobeying Yahweh. What do you think about trying to put modern interpretations on such old stories?
4. The name of the first man is Adam. In the Hebrew language, “adam” (pronounced “ah-dahmʹ,” with the stress on the second syllable) is the word for “man.” In this story, in most places where the Hebrew word “adam” appears, we have written “Adam,” but it could just as correctly have been translated simply as “the man.”
Eve’s name in Hebrew is “Ha-wah,” meaning “life-giver.” Remember that, according to the Bible story, all human life that followed came from Eve, whose name sounds like the Hebrew word for “life” – “Hai.” The explanation given why Adam named his wife “Eve” doesn’t make sense in English, but it does in Hebrew when we recognize that the Hebrew words for “Eve” and “life” are related.
5. The story of Adam and Eve and the story of Creation were written by different people living in different places. In the story of Creation, the first woman and the first man were created at the same time, on the sixth day. This may mean that the writer of the story thought that women and men were equally important.
In the Adam and Eve story, however, the first woman was made from the rib of the first man. Not only this, she was made so that she could be Adam’s helper. The author of this story thought that women were created to serve men.
In ancient times, people often thought of women as just helpers of men, and they often quoted the story of how Eve was made from Adam’s rib to prove that this was true. For some reason, they never mentioned that the Creation story had a different idea about how Adam and Eve were formed. Since people have now come to understand that both women and men can be leaders and helpers, there has been more attention paid to the first Biblical description of the equal creation of man and woman.
Because the Bible was written over a long period of time by different authors, it is usually possible to find a passage in it that can be used to support different points of view, even when these points of view contradict each other.
6. There are many other differences between the story of Adam and Eve and the story of Creation. Compare the two stories. Was the first man created before or after the plants in these two stories? What about the first woman? Were the people created before or after the animals and birds? The two stories give different answers to all these questions.
This is because they were written in different places by different people. Scholars have, in fact, concluded that the story of Creation was written later than the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. Eventually, both of these stories, complete with their contradictions, were included in the Bible.
7. Many Bible scholars believe that there were four major authors of the part of the Bible that Jews refer to as the Torah or the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). According to these scholars, most or all of the passages written by each of these four authors can be identified. The four authors are, as we will see, referred to as "J," "E," "P," and "D." Other Bible scholars agree that there are multiple sources for the texts but think that it is not possible to identify the authors so clearly.
In any case, it is helpful to understand what the four-author ("JEPD") theory says about certain of the stories in the Bible, such as the ones we have read up to this point. The story of Creation and the story of Adam and Eve both explain the creation of the world and of people, but the two stories contradict each other in important ways. Therefore, it is clear that these stories have different authors, and the four-author theory gives us important insights into who those authors might have been. We will discuss these two stories, and others later on, in terms of the four-author theory, recognizing that the writing of the Torah texts may have actually involved a more complicated process than the simple combining of texts written by four major authors.
As discussed in the Introduction to this book in the section called "Where Did the Bible Come From," one way we can try to figure out which parts of the Bible were written by which of the authors is to see what word is used for the name of the god of the Israelites. Sometimes this god is called by the name "Elohim," which we translate as "God." This is the way the story of Creation was written. The author of the story of Adam and Eve uses a different name for the God of the Israelites: "Yahweh."
The two different names of God, "Elohim" and "Yahweh," were used by different groups of Israelites. These groups lived in different places, and therefore told different stories. The legends of both of these groups were later put into the Bible, so both names for the Israelite god appear in the Bible. The story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden was written by one of the earliest Bible authors, called the "Yahwist" because he used the name "Yahweh" for God. This author is often called just "J" (because the scholars who first figured this out were German and the word for "Yahweh" in German begins with the letter "J.")
There was another early Bible author called the "Elohist," who used the name "Elohim" for God. In this book, we translate the name "Elohim" simply as "God" with a capital "G." The Elohist did not write a Creation story that appears in the Bible, so we have not read anything by this author yet. We will read stories by the Elohist later on. This author is often referred to as "E."
Even though the first Creation story uses the name Elohim (God) for God, the author of this story is not the Elohist. The author of this Creation story is called the "Priestly author," or "P." The Priestly author sometimes called God by the name "Elohim" and at other times used the name "Yahweh." The "Priestly author" lived after the Yahwist and the Elohist did, and rewrote many of the stories in the Bible that had been written by them.
We will see other cases in which two versions of the same story are included in the Bible because they were written by different Bible authors.
We have now learned something about three of the principal authors of the Torah: the Yahwist (J), the Elohist (E), and the Priestly author (P). Toward the end of this book, we will learn about the fourth author, the Deuteronomist (D).
8. One of the practices of traditional Judaism is that religious Jews do not say the name of God, “Yahweh,” out loud. When this name appears in the Bible or in a prayer, they say in Hebrew “adonai,” which in English means “the lord.” As was mentioned earlier, in the section of the Introduction called “Where did the Bible come from?” many English translations of the Bible use the words “the LORD” instead of the name “Yahweh.” Some Christians call God by the name “Jehovah,” which is just a different way of pronouncing the name of the God, “Yahweh.”
[Genesis 4:1 - 4:25]
Adam and Eve had two sons. Cain, the firstborn, was a farmer. Abel, his brother, was a shepherd.
Cain brought some crops from his field as a gift-offering to Yahweh. Abel brought an offering from among the firstborn sheep of his flock. Yahweh noticed Abel and the gift he offered, but did not look upon Cain and his gift.
Cain was very angry. When he and Abel were in the field, Cain attacked Abel, his brother, and killed him.
Yahweh said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
And Cain said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Then Yahweh said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood calls out to me from the ground. You are cursed from the earth which has opened her mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the soil, it will no longer grow crops for you. You will wander around on the earth forever.”
And Cain was frightened that someone might kill him as he wandered around the earth. So Yahweh said that he would punish anyone who killed Cain. And Yahweh put a mark on Cain so that no one would kill him. And Cain departed from the face of Yahweh and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
And Adam and Eve had another son named Set.
1. Different stories in the Bible have different purposes. Some stories, such as the story of Creation, explain nature and the world around us. Other stories have a moral lesson – their purpose seems to be to teach us how to treat other people. The story of Cain and Abel is one story in the Bible that can easily be used to teach a moral lesson.
One of the subjects of this story is jealousy. Cain was a farmer, so he brought Yahweh a gift of his crops, which was the best thing that he had to offer because he had worked hard to grow them. But Yahweh pays attention to Abel’s gift of a sheep and ignores Cain’s gift. Does Cain have a good reason to be jealous and angry? Whose fault is it that Cain got angry?
2. Most people, especially children, feel jealous of a brother or sister sometimes, especially when a parent seems to like the brother or sister more. Yahweh was like a parent to Cain and Abel, so Cain was very jealous and angry when Yahweh paid attention to Abel’s gift but ignored Cain’s.
It is easy to see how this story could be used as an ethical lesson about jealousy, especially with young children. The lesson might go something like this:
“Everyone sometimes gets so angry that they can’t help thinking about hurting someone. It is natural to want to hurt the person who has made you angry. There is nothing wrong with this because you can’t actually hurt someone just by thinking about hurting them. But it is very wrong to actually try to hurt the person we are angry at. If everyone went around hurting other people every time they got mad at them, the world would be a very unpleasant place to live in. So the message of the story of Cain and Abel is that we shouldn’t harm others. In the story, Cain doesn’t just think about harming his brother, he actually kills him. In the end Cain suffers greatly as a result of his action.
“Did you ever feel jealous of your brother or sister or someone at school? Did you think about hurting them? Did you actually do it? Why or why not?”
3. The key to this story is Cain’s question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The word “keeper” in this story means someone who looks out for and takes care of someone else. How do you think Yahweh would have answered Cain’s question?
The Israelites who wrote this story, and the Jews and Christians who have read it and discussed it for thousands of years, understood that the answer to Cain’s question was “Yes – you must be concerned about your brother and try to take care of him when he needs help.” Also, they understood that the word “brother” meant more than a person’s actual brother. It meant your whole family and perhaps your friends or even those in a larger group, such as your tribe or those who shared your religious views. In recent times, this story might have been thought of as including all the people of your nation, or even the whole world, in this lesson that we should all try to help other people, and certainly not hurt them.
4. Cain and Abel gave gifts to Yahweh. These gifts to a god are called “sacrifices” because they require a person to give up something that is valuable. The sacrifice or gift was meant to thank the god for good things in the past or to try to persuade the god to make your life better in the future. People sometimes give gifts to other people for the same reasons. Since food was usually the most valuable thing that ancient people had, it was common to sacrifice food to God, as Cain and Abel did. One way to sacrifice food to a god was to burn it in a fire, because it seemed that the burned food would rise up to the god in the sky as smoke.
Is any reason given in the story to explain why Yahweh liked Abel’s gift more than Cain’s? Can you think of any possible reasons?
[Genesis 6:1 - 6:4]
When the number of people began to increase on the face of the earth, the sons of God saw the daughters of men and found them pleasing and married them. Yahweh said, “People shall not live forever; their lives shall be 120 years.”
In those days there were giants on the earth when the sons of God and their human wives had children. They were the famous heroes of those times.
1. This is a really strange story to find in the Hebrew Bible. It talks about “sons of God” marrying human women and about giants. This sounds like something from some polytheistic religion in which gods sometimes did marry humans and have children who had special powers. It may be that this story is really a piece of a story from some religion that did have many gods that somehow found its way into the Bible.
2. What is meant by “sons of God” in this story? The writer of the story probably meant that the “sons of God” were other, less important and less powerful gods. This means that the writer believed in many gods. The belief in many gods was common in the early days of the Israelites. Later on, however, they came to believe that Yahweh was the only real god. The rabbis then decided that the “sons of God” must have been just very important men because they could not accept the idea that the early Israelites believed in gods other than Yahweh.
3. What is the lesson being taught by this story? Remember how God punished Adam and Eve for eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (chapter I-2)? By eating this fruit, Adam and Eve were trying to become more like God, because until that time only God understood what was good and what was evil.
In this story, people try to become like God by marrying gods. God again punishes them. He does this by saying that people will not live for more than 120 years.
4. This passage also says that the heroes and famous people of ancient times were Giants. These Giants were the children of the human women and the gods they married.
Why did the ancient Israelites think that there were once Giant people on the earth? Scholars think that the Israelites were surprised when in their travels they saw the very large stone structures that other people had built.
Some people of the Middle East made very large stone structures. These may have been something like the ones at Stonehenge in England or like those on Easter Island. Have you ever seen pictures of these? They were so large that the Israelites could not believe that ordinary people had built them. So they imagined that Giants must have done it. This may be why they included a story about Giants in their Bible. Now we know that ordinary people moved and lifted the huge stones with pulleys and levers. The ancient Israelites did not know about these things, so they wrote that Giants had once walked on earth.
[Genesis 5:4 - 5:32, 6:5 - 9:19]
Nine generations after Adam and Eve, there arose from the line of their third son, Set, a man named Noah. Noah and his wife had three sons: Shem, Ham, and Yaphet.
Yahweh saw that the people of the earth were evil, and he was sorry that he had created them. But Noah was a righteous man. God said to Noah, “Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy everything that breathes. But with you I establish my covenant. You and your family shall live on the ark. And you shall take two animals of each kind, male and female, to keep alive on the ark. And Noah did what God commanded him to do.
Then Yahweh said to Noah, “Go with your family onto the ark, for I have seen that you are righteous. Take seven pairs, male and female, of every kind of clean animal onto the ark with you. Also take one male and one female of every animal that is not clean. Starting seven days from now, I will make it rain for forty days and forty nights, and all living things will be destroyed.” And Noah did what Yahweh commanded him to do.
Noah was six hundred years old when the flood waters covered the earth. All the fountains of the great sea broke open, and the windows of the sky were opened.
The rain fell upon the earth for forty days and forty nights. The mountains were covered. And every living thing that moved upon the earth died, except for Noah and those that were with him on the ark.
After 40 days, Noah opened the window of the ark and sent out a raven, and it flew back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. Then Noah sent out a dove to see whether the water had decreased, but the dove found no place to rest because the water still covered the earth, so she returned to the ark. After seven more days, Noah again sent out the dove from the ark. The dove came back to him with an olive leaf in its mouth, and Noah knew that the water had decreased on the earth. After seven more days, he sent the dove out again, and she did not return to him any more. Noah removed the covering of the ark and saw that the face of the ground had dried.
And Noah went out from the ark, and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives went with him. And all the animals went out from the ark. And Noah made burnt offerings of every kind of clean animal and bird. And Yahweh smelled the soothing odor and said in his heart, “I will not ever again curse the ground because of humankind, and I will not again kill every living thing. For all the days of the earth, there will be planting time and harvest time, summer and winter, day and night.”
And God said to Noah and his sons, “Be fruitful and increase greatly in number, and fill the earth. I make my covenant with you and your descendants and with every living creature that is with you. Never again will there be a flood to destroy all living things. I will put a rainbow in the clouds as a sign of this covenant. And when I make a cloud appear over the earth, and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant, and the water will not become a flood to destroy all living things.
And the three sons of Noah were Shem, Ham, and Yaphet, and from them came all the people of the earth.
1. Why did the ancient Israelites tell a story about a flood that covered the whole earth? This story may have come from an experience with a real flood in a place called Sumer, where this story is thought to have started. Sumer is not far from the city of Ur, where, as we will see later, Abraham, the father of the Israelites, is supposed to have come from. Many of the stories and legends of the Hebrew Bible may also have come from the region around Sumer. Archaeologists have found evidence that a flood in Sumer actually did occur in ancient times – the flood was, however, only in the local area . The people who lived there may have thought that the flood covered the whole world because they did not know anything about the world outside of the small area they lived in. They must have been very frightened, and the story of Noah and the flood – with God’s promise at the end – helped them to believe that it wouldn’t happen again.
2. There are many other people besides the Israelites who told stories about a great flood that covered the whole earth. Most of these stories are very different from the story about Noah. But there is a story from Sumer called Gilgamesh which is similar to the Israelite story about Noah. For example, both stories tell about how birds were sent out to see if any land had yet appeared above the water. The Israelites probably learned the story from people who learned it from the Sumerians – the people of Sumer.
Thousands of miles away, American Indians, who could not possibly have had any contact with the Israelites or the Sumerians, told stories of how the world began with a flood. Here, for example, is the story told by the Havasupai Indians who live near the Grand Canyon in Arizona:
Before there were any people on Earth there were two gods, Tochopa of goodness and Hokomata of evil. Tochopa had a daughter named Pu-keh-eh, whom he hoped would become the mother of all living. Hokomata the evil was determined that no such thing should take place, and he covered the world with a great flood. Tochopa the good felled a great tree and hollowed out the trunk. He placed Pu-keh-eh in the hollow trunk, and when the water rose and flooded the Earth she was secure in her improvised boat.
Finally the flood waters fell and mountain peaks emerged. Rivers were created; and one of them cut the great gushing fissure which became the Grand Canyon.
Pu-keh-eh in her log came to rest on the new Earth. She stepped forth and beheld an empty world.
When the land became dry, a great golden sun rose in the east and warmed the Earth and caused her to conceive. In time, she gave birth to a male child. Later a waterfall caused her to conceive and she gave birth to a girl. From the union of these two mortal children came all the people on the Earth. The first were the Havasupai, and the voice of Tochopa spoke to them and told them to live forever in peace in their canyon of good earth and pure water where there would always be plenty for all!
The ancient Greeks also told a story about a great flood. Can you find the Greek myth about Deucalion and Pyrrha? Do you see any similarities between the Greek flood story and the Hebrew one?
3. Was there ever really a great flood that killed most of the animals and people in the world? Scientists called paleontologists dig into the ground to find fossils of things that lived a long time ago. If a great flood had occurred and killed most of the animals and people on earth, then the paleontologists would have found the fossil bones of these dead animals and people all in the same layer in the earth, because they would have become buried all at the same time. We know that the worldwide flood described in the story of Noah and the ark never really happened since there have been people on the earth because there is no single layer containing fossils from almost all of the living animals and people on earth, as there would be if there had ever been such a flood.
Even today, some people believe that the story of Noah and the ark is a true story. These people are called “fundamentalists.” As we have discussed before, these people also believe that God created the world in six days. Most other people understand that many of the stories in the Bible, such as the stories about Creation and the Flood, are “myths” and not actual historical events.
4. One question that this story answers is: Why are there rainbows? Today we know that rainbows appear when sunlight travels through many water droplets in the air and is separated into its colors. But in ancient times, there were no scientific explanations, so stories like this one helped explain mysterious things about nature.
5. What do you think about God’s decision to kill all of the people in the story except Noah and his family? What about the animals that were also killed? The people who wrote this story do not seem concerned about showing God as a kind and friendly character. Why do you think that is?
The Jews and Christians who, for many centuries, believed this story to be true, were monotheists – they believed that there is only one god. Since things often happen in the world that seem to be bad – for example, young people dying of diseases – monotheists have a difficult problem. They cannot blame the bad things on some evil god, since they believe in only one god, who is good. On the other hand, saying that the one true god is responsible for bad things happening would seem to say that this god is not really so good after all. One argument that is sometimes used to get around this problem is to say that whatever appears to be bad to us is really good in some unknown, mysterious way that only the one true god can understand. Thus, the flooding of the earth and the killing of all the people and land animals in the process, might seem bad to us, but is presented in the Bible story as a good and necessary event to eliminate evil people from the world. What do you think about this way of explaining why bad things happen?
Remember the American Indian story in discussion item #2, above. The Havasupai Indians believed in more than one god, so they could explain the flood as being the work of an evil god. This enables them to explain why bad things happen in life. We will discuss some of the differences between monotheism (the belief in one god) and polytheism (belief in many gods) later on, after the story of “Abraham Smashes the Idols” (chapter II-2).
6. Did you notice when reading the story of Noah that there were some things that really didn’t make sense? For example, God first tells Noah about the coming flood, and orders him to take two animals of each kind onto the ark to save them. Immediately after that, Yahweh comes along and tells Noah to take not two animals of each kind, but seven pairs of each “clean” animal and one pair of each kind of animal that is “not clean.” How can we explain this contradiction?
As you may have guessed, the explanation is that there were two different people writing this story. These are the same two people who wrote the two different stories about how the things on the earth were created (see the discussion of the four Bible authors in discussion point #7 after "Adam and Eve, the First People," chapter I-2). In that case, the two different versions of creation appear in two different parts of the Bible. In the story of Noah, the two different versions are mixed together into the same story, contradictions and all.
The story of Noah was first written by the early author that we call the Yahwist, or "J" – the one who always used the name "Yahweh" for the Israelite god. This author has Yahweh telling Noah to save seven pairs of each “clean” animal and only one pair of each animal that is “not clean.” Now, a “clean” animal is one that can be sacrificed as an offering to God, according to ancient Jewish religious law. Near the end of the story, we see why it was important for Noah to bring on extra “clean” animals beyond the one pair needed to keep the species alive. Noah sacrifices these extra clean animals to God, and the smell of the smoke is so soothing to God that he agrees not to destroy the living things of the world again.
The second author didn’t like this original version, and rewrote it in a different way – with Noah bringing only one pair of each type of animal onto the ark. Why did he do this?
The answer is that the second author, called "P," was a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem. He probably lived between the time of the conquest of the northern kingdom (Israel) by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. and the conquest of the southern kingdom (Judah) in 586 B.C. (see the time line in the Introduction). The priests in the Temple had convinced the people of Judah that only they, the priests, could talk to God. When ordinary people needed God to do something for them, they would bring some money or some animals and give it to the priests as a sacrifice to God; then the priests would relay their message up to God.
Of course, this made the priests very rich and powerful. It was important to them for everyone to believe that the sacrifice of animals was the only way of getting God to listen to you – and that only they, the priests, could make a sacrifice that God would pay attention to. So when the “Priestly author,” read the story of Noah that the “Yahwist” had written, he wasn’t at all happy. He didn’t like it because in this story Noah himself makes a sacrifice that God likes, and Noah was not a priest.
As a result, the “Priestly author” wrote a new version of the Noah story, in which Noah saves only two animals of each kind, and no animal sacrifice takes place. This author would have been very unhappy to learn that his story was eventually mixed together with the original “Yahwist” version and included in the Bible that people are still reading thousands of years later.
It seems very strange that the editor who put the Bible together did not try to eliminate the contradictions between the two stories. Perhaps this editor thought that the stories were so traditional or so sacred that he had no right to change them, so he just joined them together as best he could and assumed that no one would notice.
There are many other reasons that have led scholars to conclude that the Noah story in the Bible was woven together from two different versions. For example, one author wrote that Noah sent out a raven and the other said that a dove was sent out. These two versions were both included by the final editor of the story in the Bible, which explains why the raven flies around until the waters had all dried up and then the dove goes out and still cannot land because of all the water. (The author who wrote about the raven most likely got the idea from the ancient Sumerian flood story in the legend of Gilgamesh, which was mentioned in discussion item number 2, above.)
[Genesis 10:1 - 11:9]
The many nations of the world came from the families of Shem, Ham, and Yaphet. And the whole earth had one language.
Some people travelled to the land of Shinar and settled there. They said, “Let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves so that we will not be scattered all over the face of the earth.”
Yahweh came down to look at the city and the tower that the people had built, and Yahweh said, “The people have one language, and this is what they have done; now nothing will keep them from doing whatever they imagine. I will go down and mix up their language, so that they cannot understand each other.” Thus, Yahweh scattered the people over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore, the city is called Babel, because it is there that Yahweh mixed up the language of the whole earth.
1. This story answers an important question about human life: “Why do people speak so many different languages, so that people from different countries cannot understand each other?” Of course, the story of the Tower of Babel is not the real answer to this question.
Linguists who study the development of languages have found that the languages of different people develop from other languages over very long periods of time. As people who speak the same language move around and become separated from each other, new words start to arise among one group, and other new words begin to be used by other groups, which are then far away. These new words eventually become whole new languages, which can only be understood by one group of people.
2. In the story of the City and Tower of Babel, why did God make the people speak different languages? What did he accomplish by doing that? If people all spoke different languages, then it would be more difficult for them to get together to do something that God wouldn’t like, such as building another tower. This is one possible explanation for God’s punishment. Can you think of any others?
3. Why did Yahweh punish the people for building the City and Tower of Babel? The story doesn’t really tell us the answer to this question. Maybe Yahweh was angry because the people were trying to reach the sky; only Yahweh could reach the sky, not people. Do you remember stories that we have already read that tell how God punishes people for trying to be like gods?
We have read many stories about how Yahweh, the god of the Israelites, punished people who made him angry. He punished Adam and Eve for eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – Do you remember how they were punished (chapter I-2)? Cain angered God by killing his brother, Abel – What was Cain’s punishment (chapter I-3)? When human women married gods, all people were punished by not being able to live for more than 120 years (chapter I-4). God made a flood to kill all the people and animals in the world except for those who were with Noah on the ark – The people had made God angry by breaking his laws (chapter I-5). And now, in the story of the City and Tower of Babel, God punishes people by making many languages so people cannot understand each other. The people who wrote these stories were using them to teach people how to behave. One message contained in all of these stories is that if you do not behave properly, God will punish you.
4. In addition to the "scientific" issue of where languages come from, the story of the City and Tower of Babel also has a moral point. When people were able to work together, they could built a city and reach for the sky itself, challenging even God who dwelled there. The writers and religious interpreters of the story over the centuries have seen it as showing the necessity of people not to challenge God. But a more modern interpretation might be that people can achieve anything if they will only speak to each other and understand each other.
Do you think that there is value in trying to find moral lessons in the stories of the Bible? Some would argue against this, saying that these stories, like the one about the City and Tower of Babel, are fictional anyway, so why try to draw meaning from them? Others will say that, whether or not they are fictional, people have learned them and even believed them to be factual for so many centuries that they have become an important part of our culture, whether they are true or not, and therefore have value in learning and teaching about moral behavior.
5. This is one of many stories in the Bible that tries to explain why a particular place has the name that it has. The Hebrew word for the capital city of Babylonia was Bavel, though in the story we have used the word Babel as is done in most Bibles in English. (The Hebrew letter for “b” is very similar to the letter for “v”). In English this city is called Babylon. The story says that the name of the city is Babel (or Bavel) because it is where Yahweh mixed up the languages of people. The Hebrew word that is translated here as “mixed up” is Balel, which is something like Babel (or Bavel), but not really the same.
Scholars tell us that the Babylonians called their city Bab-ilu meaning “gate of god” in their own language, and so the word really has nothing to do with “mixed up.” As we go through the stories in the Bible, we will be learning about other places, and even people, who are said to have gotten their names as the result of a particular thing that happened. These stories will often be leaving us with the impression that one reason that the story was told simply to explain the name.
6. While the story of the City and Tower of Babel is not the real explanation for why there are so many different languages, it is interesting to know that there really was a tower in the city we call Babylon. The tower in Babylonia was actually a ziggurat, which is a four-sided pyramid with steps going up each side.
The ancient ziggurat in Babylonia was left unfinished for many centuries. In addition to explaining why people speak so many different languages, the story of the City and Tower of Babel may also have developed as an explanation of why there was such a large, unfinished ziggurat in Babylon. The real reason the ziggurat was not finished is not known today. Maybe it was because the country was invaded or because the king ran out of money to complete it.
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Copyright © 1995, 2014 by Michael J. Prival
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