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Sunday, 20 December 2015 08:12

Reading Genesis from the Ground Up

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Reading Genesis from the Ground Up

Jo Ann Gardner

This article has been adapted from Jo Ann's book, Seeds of Transcendence: Understanding the Hebrew Bible Through Plants. She can be reached through her website:

For me there was no choice. My experiences of living on and from the land for many years determined the way I understand the Bible. As soon as I began reading it in earnest in preparation for my book, Seeds of Transcendence: Understanding the Hebrew Bible Through Plants, the biblical text reached out to me, drawing me into a world of very down-to-earth shepherds and farmers who seemed familiar, even though I am separated from them in time and space through millennia (in retrospect, we have always known them as our rough-and-ready country neighbors wherever we have lived). I think that the "ground up," earthy, approach is important for others to see too. Commentaries have much to offer. Their learned authors have studied the text with close attention to structure, the nuances of biblical language, and, in the case of the Higher Critics (as in the discussions of the Documentary Hypothesis), an examination of different narrative voices. Yet we miss much when we pass by the Bible's details of a real, physical life. For in the Bible's "ground," so to speak, we begin to find our way to the top, to an understanding of the Bible's unique spiritual vision.

An example: It is important to understand what it would be like to glean in a biblical field of grain in a Middle Eastern summer and to grasp the farmer's and gleaner's obligations according to the law in such a situation. It is only then that we can appreciate the depth of hesed, loving kindness, or biblical love on the part of gleaner Ruth and farmer Boaz. It is what drives Ruth to pick up fallen stalks for hours without rest in the hot grain field to feed her destitute mother-in-law (she, too, is destitute). It is what propels Boaz, a witness to her extraordinary selflessness, to ensure that her efforts are rewarded, even if it means stretching the law by allowing her to pick up more fallen grain stalks than was the custom, even going so far as to instruct his workers to pull them out of the sheaves for her. And we do need to understand hesed in the Book of Ruth, for it is what moves the plot forward to the fulfillment of the law (levirate marriage). This is not incidental, it is the way the law is meant to be fulfilled, through a sense of loving duty. Thus, when we discount the physical world of the Bible, we miss the full force of its message.

In reading and studying the text from a "ground up" perspective we are never far from biblical reality. The very name "Bible" is derived from the Greek byblos, the inner pith of the papyrus plant from which biblical scrolls were produced (the papyrus plant also plays an important part in the story of baby Moses as described in Exodus).

And so we come to Genesis, from the Greek "beginning" or "origin," the first of the five Books that comprise the Pentateuch (Greek for "five"), known in Jewish tradition as the Torah (literally "teaching"). The Hebrew name for the first book of the Torah is Bereshit, after the opening words of the text, "In the beginning." Genesis/Bereshit is the foundation, the essential building block of the entire Torah. Its story of creation in the opening chapters clearly defines a new way, a new vision for explaining origins, for while drawing on Near Eastern motifs it is set apart from them and from the contemporary pagan world by its uncompromising emphasis on God as the sole creator of the universe and every living thing in it, and the importance of man's (humankind's) moral relationship with God.

A quick synopsis (lightning quick, considering all the words that have been spilled trying to explain it): Genesis is divided into two parts: the first is concerned with the creation of the world and the origins of the human family; the second centers on the beginning of the Israelite people and their early, often turbulent, history according to the well-known stories of the Patriarchs (their wives, too), concluding with the descent of the children of Israel into Egypt.

The beginning chapters of Genesis are rich in material: God's appearance on the scene (no background given), how He alone creates the earth, sky, vegetation, animals, the first garden, Eden, and man and woman to tend it. God asks only one thing from them: not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. We know what happened. With the eating of forbidden fruit the first couple acquires a sense of morality (knowing the distinction between good and evil) and are now responsible for choosing their own destiny, rather than to remain in a place of perfection - but also limitation. It is clear that Adam, fashioned from the earth's dust (adama) will be forever bound to the soil and all the practical work that necessarily follows from it. God tells both Adam and Eve (haya, meaning life) in devastating detail what hardships are in store - rather than sprouting all the good and beautiful plants as in Paradise, for instance, the land will bring forth only "thorns and thistles." But although he was expelled them from Eden, it is also clear that God will continue to have an interest in humankind and they in Him.

The history of humanity continues with an account of its shortcomings, moral failures, and family strife. The influence of the land in all its physical character - its very soil - and the plants that grow from it are evident throughout the biblical text where the struggle to attain a moral and ethical life is often expressed through the imagery and symbolism of nature and agriculture, as in the riveting story of the brothers Cain and Abel. The first offspring of Adam and Eve, they represent the first sibling rivalry in Genesis (Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers follow), as well as the traditional enmity between farmer and shepherd. The story is told in gripping detail and will have a tremendous impact on the Torah and on the entire Hebrew Bible.

To recount the heart of the story: Cain murders his brother out of jealousy when God prefers Abel's offering of "the choicest of the firstlings of his flock," to his offering "from the fruit of the soil" (Genesis 4:3, 4).

A biblical audience would understand the distinction between farmer Cain and shepherd Abel as the universal distrust between those who grow crops from productive soil and those who graze their flocks on poorer adjacent or outlying areas unsuitable for farming (Jeremiah, from the village of Anatot, came from such a place). In Jewish tradition, shaped by the people's origin as shepherds and their later farming experience in hill country where they had to overcome great difficulties in raising their crops successfully, the desert shepherd like Abel represented purity of spirit, as in the leader David who leads his flock beside the still water in the paths of righteousness (Psalms 23:2-3), while tillers of the soil such as Cain, suggest corruption because in their anxiety for a good harvest they resort to the worship of idols. The prophetic Books of the Bible take it as their mission to bring the farmer back to God. The prophets saw in God the ideal shepherd: "Like a shepherd He pastures His flock: He gathers the lambs in His arms, and carries them in His bosom" (Isaiah 40:11).

The biblical narrative moves forward to the lively, fast-paced stories of the Patriarchs and God's promise to Abraham to make their descendants a people in their own land, following God's laws and teachings (Genesis 13:14-16; 26:3-5). The obstacles and struggles that intervene in transferring the promise from generation to generation drive the vivid narrative of the Patriarchal sagas - shepherd-based before the period of settlement farming - beginning with Abram (later renamed Abraham). We come to know him as a real person whose character and moral development match his skills as a successful leader-shepherd, setting the standard for the archetypal leader-shepherds to follow: Jacob, Moses, and David.

Consider the story of Moses as given in the opening chapters of Exodus. Saved from death by an Egyptian princess (daughter of the cruel Pharaoh who has ordered the destruction of all Hebrew first-born sons), he is raised as an Egyptian prince, seemingly out of touch with his enslaved people. But he flees this protected life ("privileged" in today's parlance) when he kills an Egyptian abusing a Hebrew slave. To where does he flee? To the desert, to return to the shepherd roots of his people, and it is here, while tending his flock that God appears in the burning bush to direct him to bring his people out of Egypt to freedom.

For contemporary readers, Moses' time as a shepherd may seem relatively unimportant, an interlude before he is called to greater things. A biblical audience, however, would understand the importance of shepherding in the prophetic tradition as a trial period for future leaders (such as David). From ancient Jewish sources, beginning with the Bible, elaborated in the Talmud, and collected in legends, the good shepherd is the model and synonym for extraordinary leadership, the idea being that the shepherd who protects his flock from danger, provides it with sufficient water and pasture under the difficult conditions of prolonged drought, and understands each animal's needs, also possess the qualities to lead God's "flock," Israel: "He who knows how to look after sheep, bestowing upon each the care it deserves, shall come and tend My people" (Shemot Rabbah 2,2).

The beginnings of the nation Israel, as told in the stories of the Patriarchs, do not shy away from moral ambiguity and human weakness (similar themes are pursued throughout the Hebrew Bible), causing us to understand that life, wherever it is lived, poses problems of behavior for which the laws fulfill an obvious need. Yet as soon as Abram answered God's call to "Go forth from your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation . . ." (Genesis 12:1-2), the seeds were planted for transcending shepherd culture toward a new moral vision. The thrilling aspect of Genesis is that the problematic humans we meet along the journey unfailingly manage to carry the torch forward toward a new order, borne in the heart of pagan culture.

When you start at the bottom you reach the top to a deeper understanding of the Bible's message. *

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