Grappling with the Strangeness of Genesis

This fall we’ve been working through Genesis during our Sunday morning teachings. It’s a book that’s often “sanitized,” and we wanted to do our best to not take that approach.

If you don’t know what I mean by “sanitized,” pick up a Children’s Bible and compare its version of Genesis to your preferred translation. How many of the deaths are represented? How much of the sexual discourse comes through? How about the gory details of the sacrifices? I could go on, but you get what I mean. Most of us grew up with this sanitized version of Genesis as our base. God creates the world to be good, humans make it bad, then God tries to get things back on the right track, with bright and shining examples like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But when we actually read these stories as they’ve been passed down, we find a lot more nuance. Sometimes (as in last Sunday’s story of Cain and Abel), we see very clear and direct connections to our own lives and world, and those can be disturbing and startling (“I guess we haven’t come very far in thousands of years!”). At other times, however, we are presented with the total strangeness of the text as it arises from its Ancient Near Eastern context and are left scratching our heads as to how God might be using it to speak at all to us in our contemporary context. Genesis 5:1-6:4 is just such a text, and unfortunately, due to scheduling changes and constraints, we won’t get to teach it on a Sunday. In order to retain that commitment to de-sanitizing Genesis, I thought I would try to write a bit about some of my observations.

Genesis 5 doesn’t seem too intimidating at first – it’s a genealogy! Genealogies are spread throughout the biblical text, and normally, they give us a break in reading where are eyes can kind of glaze over all the weird names (unless you’re the poor person I’ve asked to read one and you have to learn the basics of Hebrew pronunciation to try to get through!). This genealogy is unique even among genealogies, though.

The first thing we notice after a brief gloss of the creation story is that Adam doesn’t begin having children until he is 130 years old, after which he continues bearing children and lives another 800 years for a grand total of 930 years. The line continues like this, with men in their hundreds fathering sons (oh, the patriarchy!) and living closer to a millennium. Some scholars like to point out that this is actually fairly common in Ancient Near Eastern literature, with this genealogy in particular looking rather sane compared to some others, where histories of hundreds of thousands of years would be governed by just a handful of kings who presumably reigned for 50,000 years or more each. Still, it doesn’t quite square with our experience of mostly double-digit lifespans, either. Of course, an even stranger exception to this pattern is Enoch, who we are told “walked with God and disappeared because God took him” (Genesis 5:24 CEB) after a mere 365-year life.

We finally come across a more recognizable name in verse 29, when Lamech names his son Noah, which sounds like the Hebrew for “relief”, and predicts that his son will give them relief from the pain that comes with doing the hard work of tilling the ground that God has cursed. As we talk through the Noah story over the next couple of weeks, we do see this relief come about, but in a fairly disturbing and morbid fashion—probably not the kind of relief Lamech was hoping for.

But before we get to that story, we encounter the strange little snippet of Genesis 6:1-4. This short passage appears to have several functions. One is explanatory, and this is twofold: to answer the question of why human life becomes drastically shorter after flood, and secondly, to explain the existence of the ancient heroes or famous men that were apparently known to early hearers and readers of this story. Later interpreters (including Darren Aronofsky in his 2014 movie Noah starring Russell Crowe) would pose this story as the reason for the flood—that this hybrid divine-human race was the cause of the evil that provoked God’s wrath—but this isn’t made explicit in the story. In fact, this story isn’t really connected to anything else in the rest of scripture (except perhaps 1st Corinthians 11:10, but that’s another story), and it doesn’t add much to the narratives around it. It just is.

If I had approached these passages as a Sunday morning teaching, I would have made every effort to draw out some sort of connection to our contemporary context and the meaning that they might have in our attempts to faithfully follow God in it. In the context of the blog, however, I feel more free to just ask some questions about these texts:

Could it be that they remain a part of Scripture to remind us that we are reading a thousands-of-years’-old text that has been passed down across many generations and cultures?

Might they jar us out of our comfortable rational or theological explanations that we have read into the text to help them make more sense, reminding us of the original strangeness of the text and the ancient world into which it gives us a tiny glimpse?

Maybe we find some heroes in the story (like Enoch) and can contemplate what it would mean for us to “walk with God” in our own life, but the stories of other such “heroes” cautions us against taking such a simplistic approach. Maybe we hear these stories with awe that God continues to speak and work in and through humanity across the span of such diverse cultures, or maybe we shake our heads in confusion and move on.

In any case, I look forward to continuing to wrestle with this strange and wonderful book, and hope you will, too!

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