Van Seters on Genesis 3-4

I’m continuing my way through The Hebrew Bible Today: An Introduction to Critical Issues. And, because the book is deep despite its small size, or because I had other things to do yesterday, I still haven’t finished Chapter 1: John Van Seters’ chapter on the Pentateuch. I also didn’t do my daily quiet time reading last night because I was so sleepy, though I did pray for people on the Christian Mingle prayer board. I’m somewhat reorienting myself to my Cincinnati routine.

I was intrigued by what Van Seters’ said about Genesis 3-4 in his description of the Yahwist’s primeval history. On Genesis 3, Van Seters states that the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil stands for the human ability to make decisions about one’s own life without religious and social restriction” (23). For him, “This was the teaching of Wisdom: it entailed carefully observing and wieghing the evidence and possible consequences and then acting” (23). In antiquity, the snake was viewed as a creature with special wisdom, and it “draws the woman into a discussion about the fruit and questions the motive about the command not to eat it” (23). For the religious lesson that Genesis 3 is trying to make, Van Seters concludes the following:

To take upon oneself the task of judging what is good and evil is to be like a god; religion calls for faith and obedience. The irony in the story is that the godlike gift of the knowledge of good and evil can come only at the expense of disobedience and a sense of guilt. Innocence is gone; the couple is naked (23).

I’ve often wondered why God didn’t want Adam and Eve to know good and evil and become like him. Knowing good and evil is actually a good thing elsewhere in the Bible. As Van Seters notes, biblical Wisdom Litarature extols it. David was like an angel of God because he could hear good and evil (II Samuel 14:7). Solomon as king sought to “understand between good and evil” in order to rule Israel effectively (I Kings 3:9, my literal translation). Maybe the fact that we have to do this indicates that we have fallen from an easier plane, in which our first parents were trusting God without all these complications. The problem here is that God compelled Adam and Eve to make a moral decision when he put the Tree of Knowledge in the middle of the garden and forbade them to eat from it.

To know good and evil doesn’t always involve moral decisionmaking. In II Samuel 19:35, David seeks to reward the Gileadite Barzillai for supporting him during Absalom’s rebellion. Barzillai responds that he’s too old to know good and evil, which seems to mean enjoying life’s various pleasures. This reminds me of my post on Lee Stocker’s sermon, “Solomon’s error” (which my blogger blog won’t paste at the present moment): Solomon’s wisdom included a desire to sample everything life had to offer, the good and the bad. This led to his downfall because it was not ruled by a love for God.

I don’t think God wanted Adam and Eve to be stupid. Just looking at J, we see that Adam possessed intelligence when he named the animals, or when God gave him the responsibility of tending his garden. But Adam was not ready for certain things right after his creation, and God perhaps desired for him to learn “faith and obedience” before he received a certain kind of intelligence.

The second thing that stood out to me in yesterday’s reading was Van Seter’s comment on Genesis 4, the story of Cain and Abel, in which God accepts Abel’s offering while rejecting Cain’s. Van Seters states regarding vv 6-7:

J’s main concern was theological, as expressed in the divine warning (vv 6-7) that Cain should not be concerned about which sacrifice is better but about “doing good,” which is the surest way to divine acceptance. Furthermore, sin (one’s passions) is like a pet dog that must be controlled and disciplined or it will lead to trouble.

Evangelicals may not like the notion that doing good is the path to divine acceptance, since they like the notion of God’s free grace. And I agree with them that God loves us unconditionally. But I also believe that God is happy when we do good, and that God was instructing Cain about the importance of doing good and fighting evil in his own life. And, as Van Seters notes, this is for the benefit of Cain and the people around him: if Cain doesn’t discipline his passions, there will be trouble (and there was).

God doesn’t kick Cain when he’s down, but he gives him a constructive way of looking at his situation. God says (in my paraphrase): “Okay, Cain, your sacrifice will not do, but you know that you didn’t do well. Abel offered the firstlings of his flock (Genesis 4:4), but you didn’t bring me your own firstfruits. You just gave me what was lying around. Don’t be jealous of your brother, but focus on doing good and resisting evil, for that will lead to your good and that of others. Offer me what is my due and treat me with the respect that I deserve as God. And don’t let your current anger get out of control, for it can lead you to places you do not want to go!”

This reminds me of a few things. First, when I was at DePauw, I was jealous and resentful towards a Bible study leader. I asked him what I should do, and he suggested that I channel my energies into God, looking for God in the situations around me. I think that’s what God was encouraging resentful Cain to do: worship God the right way, and focus on the things that are of interest to God: doing good and not evil. Cain needed to get outside of himself.

Second, I’m reminded of something Madeleine L’Engle said in her Genesis Trilogy: God doesn’t always answer us with a “yes” or a “no,” but he gives us a “mu”—a third way of looking at a situation, which includes a transformative approach to life. God didn’t just reject Cain’s offering, but he tried to impart to him a different outlook. Could this work in how Christians approach (say) the issue of homosexuality: rather than beating homosexuals over the head with “that’s a sin,” is there a way to impart a postive outlook on sexuality, an accessible answer to “Where do we go from here?”

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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