"In The Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis" - Karen Armstrong

From Karen Armstrong's "In The Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis" (Alfred A Knopf: 1996)

My comments in [* ... ]


There would be no final revelation: God would never fully impart his name and nature to his people. The sacred was too great a reality to be contained within a purely human definition or system of thought. p.4

Jacob's mysterious combat at the Jabbok is also an emblem of the painful effort that the Bible so often demands of its readers. p.4

[*Possible interpretation] At the beginning of God's creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste [tohu va-vohu] .... the waste of chaos and the primal sea were already in existence, and God merely imposed order upon the tohu va-vohu [*Tohu and Bohu], using this intractable stuff as the raw materials of the universe. p.14

If God created light on the first day [*day and night], what was made on the fourth day [*sun & moon]? Did he create seeds on the third day [*vegetation] or on the sixth *[living creatures]? p.15

In this early biblical text, the religious spirit is chiefly characterized by a yearning for blessing. ... P made it clear that blessing was chiefly manifest in fertility ... p. 16

God anthropomorphically fashioning the first man (adam}from the earth (adamah), working like a potter with clay. ... God forbid Adam to eat from the tree of knowledge but gave no reason for this arbitrary prohibition. In P's poem, God pronounced the whole of creation to be good but J introduced into the Garden of Eden the serpent, which persuaded Adam and Eve to rebel against their Creator. Where did this evil potential originate, and how could mere creatures find it plausible to disobey a God who had hitherto seemed wholly irresistible? p.19

We cannot treat the Bible as a holy encyclopedia where we can look up information about the divine, because we are likely to find contradictory data in the very next chapter. p. 20

... in the premodern world, myth was regarded as a form of psychology, which charted the inner world. p.20

The myth represents a near-universal conviction that life was not meant to be so painful and fragmented. Much of the religious quest has been an attempt to recover this lost wholeness and integration. p.22

God's purpose was to find a mate for Adam from among "all cattle," "the birds of the air," and "every animal of the field" (2:20). It is a comic picture. ... How could God have imagined for one moment that Adam would find a mate in this way? The God who appeared so omnipotent and omniscient in Chapter 1 was now unable to fathom the desires and needs of his creature. p.24

Pagans believed that it was death which made human beings different from the gods. Only the gods enjoyed eternal life. ... In the Bible, however, knowledge, not death, was the distinguishing hallmark of the divine. In J's story, it was the tree of knowledge, not the tree of life, that was at the centre of the drama of Eden. Adam and Eve were dispelled from the divine presence not because they sought an immortality denied to humanity from the tree of life but because they aspired to divine wisdom. God had seen knowledge as inseparably linked with death. p.25

... in order to live a blessed and effective life, human beings need wisdom and insight. In the Bible, wisdom and knowledge are not pursued speculatively for their own sake but are desired for pragmatic reasons. p.26

J makes the serpent appear in the Garden without any explanation. ... The snake is ... part of God's creation, even though in Chapter 1 we saw that all created things were declared "good" by the omnipotent, all-controlling deity. ... Was the serpent a part of the original tohu va-vohu that survived the creative ordering? If so, did the potential for rebellion and lawlessness against God lie at the root of all being? p.27

Adam and Eve did not die on the day they ate the fruit ... Their eyes were indeed opened, though the fruit of the tree of knowledge did not give them the divine wisdom they wanted. ... In the Bible, the word arum (naked} is usually used to describe somebody stripped of protective clothing and naked in the sense of being without defences. The man and woman had acquired a new knowledge of their frailty in what was becoming an increasingly difficult world. p.29

... after the serpent has played his part in the story, he never appears again, and, for the most part, the Jewish tradition has laid no particular blame on either Adam or Eve for the human plight. p.30

If God himself is unfair, the world can make no ultimate sense. p.36

... the Jewish tradition has a more pragmatic attitude toward sin, regarding it as an unfortunate fact of life. In the Talmud, the rabbis refer to the "evil inclination" {Yeytzer ha'ra) ... [*Quoting Genesis Rabbah Ecclesiastes 4:4] And behold it was very good. This is the evil impulse. Is the evil impulse good? Yet were it not for the evil impulse no man would build a home, nor marry a wife, nor beget children, nor engage in trade. Solomon said: "All labour and all excelling in work is a man's rivalry with his neighbour." p. 38

What kind of righteousness is this? Noah simply did what he was told, asked no questions, and saved his own skin. Blameless only "in his generation," ... Later all the world's religions, including Judaism and Christianity, would come to the conclusion that practical compassion was the chief religious duty and the hallmark of all true spirituality. Noah's virtue, however, consisted in obeying the rules. p.43

The Ark itself, a sealed box with only one skylight giving access to the outside world, is an apt image of that blinkered mentality. p. 44

The twentieth century has been one long holocaust. ... if we excuse a deity who almost destroys the entire human race, it is all too easy to justify earthly rulers who have undertaken similar purges. p.46

One of the problems of monotheism has been its reluctance to accept evil in the divine. But if we cannot admit that there is evil in God, it is very difficult for us to accept the evil we encounter in our own hearts. p. 47

Readers of Genesis are forced to consider the unwelcome fact that they are all descended from a drunkard [*Noah] and an abusive father, who exposed himself to his children and neurotically disowned many of his descendants. p.50

... Genesis shows that in fact faith began by demanding a radical break with the past and facing the terrors of the unknown. ... In the ancient world, "faith" did not mean theological conviction, as it does today, but rather a total reliance upon another. p. 56

Religion has often been used to stunt a person's psychological growth or to encourage a wholly otherworldly vision. ... God should not be experienced as a wholly ethereal panacea but as a mysterious, accompanying presence that helps us to make sense of the bewildering circumstances of our life on earth. p.60

[*Referring to Isaac] How do you cope with the fact that your father [*Abraham] was prepared to kill you in cold blood? How can you relate to a deity who treats you as a mere pawn in a test of his chosen own? p.70

Yet Jacob's confidence in his blessing [* of Joseph above all other tribes] was misplaced. In the later history of Israel ... Judah became the most important of the tribes and produced the royal house. the tribe of Joseph, however, fell into relative insignificance. Jacob was by no means omniscient. Some of his predictions were wrong: the tribe of Levi was not accursed and shunned. It produced Moses, the greatest Israelite of all, and the Levites would become the priestly tribe .... Right up to its last pages, the book of Genesis reminds us that there is no final certainty. Nobody is allowed to have the last word. p.116-117

Our day-to-day experience of the divine is more like the rest of Genesis, our insights fitful, transient, paradoxical, and ambiguous. ... Most of us get damaged at some point along the way. p.118