What about the Cherubim?

Jerry Coyne tells a nice story [more here] about Christopher Hitchens' appearance at the Texas Freethought Convention in Houston.  I thought pretty hard about going - Houston is just 4 hours down the road - but the timing wasn't good, since yesterday was Yom Kippur. We Jewish atheists have a lot on our plates.


While sitting in services yesterday I read the first couple of chapters of Genesis and gave a little more thought to the Shea-Coyne-Sullivan-Rosenhouse debate about Adam and Eve.  There's a lot in there that reinforces what I said a few days ago about sheer story telling, with neither literal/historical import nor metaphorical/meaningful import.

Like:  what about the cherubim?  God banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and then "he stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life."  Come on--why should I think the author of this passage was serious about cherubim (winged creatures of some sort) and fiery ever-turning swords, instead of just a colorful story-teller?  And if the author was a colorful story-teller, why should I think he/she put the cherubim in the story to convey some deep, ever-lasting meaning?

So it's "none of the above"--we shouldn't necessarily think the author(s) believed in cherubim, nor should we think they're metaphors.  Sometimes story elements are just story elements.  The beanstalk in Jack in the Beanstalk is--a beanstalk! The fact that we find story elements evocative and amazing doesn't mean that the story teller was in the metaphors 'n' meanings business, like Melville writing Moby Dick.


But what about the core of the Adam and Eve story, and how they got expelled from the garden?  That's obviously supposed to be instructive ... or so it seems.  So either it was intended as an instructive history, or as an instructive story. It's not an option to think it was just a story. Ross Douthat reasons it must have been intended as an instructive story, based on all the inconsistencies.  Nobody could have meant such an inconsistent story to be read as The Historical Truth.

Sitting there in services, I spent some time examining the inconsistencies, using the very fine Torah with commentary provided in front of each seat for scholarly (or bored) congregants.  In Genesis 1, God created humans, male and female he created them.  So it's definitely not first Adam, then Eve.  In Genesis 2, it's first Adam, then Eve, and all signs are nobody else exists.  If Adam could have wandered out of the garden and found himself some friends, he wouldn't have had to create Eve from his rib to avoid being "alone" and to have a "helper."  In Genesis 3 we have the expulsion, and then in Genesis 4 Adam and Eve have a couple of nice (or not so nice) boys, Cain and Abel. After Cain kills Abel, Cain "knows his wife."  Um, where'd the wife come from?

So in the space of a few pages, there are three pictures of the beginning:  (1) First there are two humans, a male and a female; (2) first there's one human (Adam), and then there's a second (Eve); (3)  the first humans include a lot of people beyond the garden.

What does it tell us that compilers and bible readers were satisfied with such a mess?  I don't think it tells us (a la Douthat) that this is all in the realm of metaphor&meaning. Even in a metaphorical/meaningful story, consistency is important.  You can't have Ahab chasing one whale on page 1, and two whales on page 2, even if the whale is just symbolic, and the whole thing is presented as make-believe.

One thing you have to say is that ancient compilers and readers didn't care if the story/history went like (1), (2), or (3). These were not matters of orthodoxy--there was no catechism.  You could think it was one way or it was another, and nobody would freak out.  That's why it's strange how fundamentalists today put so much energy into defending the veracity of one of these accounts.  They're doctrinaire about human origins, when the ancient Israelites evidently were not.


Wayne said...


I guess this is as plausible account as any for Cain's wife.

Jean Kazez said...

OMG! Horribly ridiculous spin. Oh right, Eve had Cain and Abel, but also 10 girls, and the author just didn't bother to mention the girls.

There's a very funny passage in Steven Pinker's new book about Cain killing Abel. He points out that there were 4 people at that time, so he wiped out 25% of humanity. Ouch!

Or at least, Genesis 2, 3, and the beginning of 4 makes you think there were 4 people. Genesis 1 is quite different ("male and female he created them"), and so is the rest of Genesis 4 (there appear to be other folks beyond the garden, including Mrs. Cain).

Wayne said...

Heh, it might be ridiculous, but is it any more ridiculous than all of humanity originating in two individuals with perfect DNA?

Or flaming Cherubim?

Or really, anything else that any religion believes? The dead rising from the grave, miraculous events, etc?

ianbargain said...

It is all vacuous and puerile.

But tweaking your definition 1,2 and 3 they can be reconciled.

1. First He created many humans. Not just two. These were left in the wide world and not in the garden. Call them non-privileged.

2. Then he created two prvileged (in his own image). These were allowed to hang-out in the garden.

3. They were kicked out of the garden and had children. Cain then started "knowing" women from the original non-prvileged or descendants therof. Since they were non-privileged anyway, there is no need to name them or discuss them in any detail.

It is much more amusing when relegious people start working around this by saying it is an alegory and twist themselves in knots trying to explain the allegory.

Jean Kazez said...

That's pretty cute, but the story about Adam and Eve has the feel of being a story about the very first two people. If there were really hordes beyond the garden, then why would Adam's loneliness have to be dealt with by the extreme measure of God using one of his ribs to create a woman? I mean really--if Cain could just go marry one of the horde-women, why not Adam?

Also, you get the feeling of this being a primordial scene from many other elements--the naming of the animals, for example. And the whole business about eating from the tree of knowledge.

Anyhow--there are so many other inconsistencies that any reasonable person is going to see this as a concatenation of different stories, written by different people at different times. For example, in Genesis 1 God gives the humans created on the 6th day green plants as food. They will be your "meat", he says. Then in Genesis 4 you get Abel being a keeper of sheep--and he even gives the Lord an offering of one. Methinks some sheep-eating is going on there. But wait--in Genesis 9 God gives humans animals to eat, as before he gave them green plants. The lambchops in Genesis 4 shouldn't be there, at least not without some explanation.

Standard view of scholars as this the bible is a cut-and-paste job without a good editor. There just isn't a continuous, consistent narrative.

ianbargain said...

I was strictly using your definition of 1,2 and 3 - not all the gory details of Genesis. If you assume that there were humans outside the garden who were not worth discussing, then contradictions in 1, 2 and 3 can always be explained away by saying non-privileged were omitted or overlooked. You could say Eve had to be created from Adam so that Adam who is pure and in the garden not mix with the non-gardenees. That restriction is not necessary for Cain. Dietary restrictions and preferences in the garden does not apply outside etc.

As you say, Genesis is riddled with so many other contradictions and I can't think of any way they all can be reconciled. And that is before even external knowledge like age of earth is even raised.

Jean Kazez said...

The whole thing's puerile, as you say ... but why would it be so important for Adam not to mix with the hordes outside the garden, if his son was going to mix? Either way, the descendants of Adam were very quickly going to be tainted by the hordes.

ianbargain said...

By the time, Cain came along, Adam is out of the garden and no longer pure. Arguments of mix and taint are moot, since Adam and his descendants are now one of the hordes. Adam is initially pure because he was created in the image of the maker unlike plants and other humans.

I wonder if there is any scholar who is also really a beleiver. Can somebody spend years analyzing this and still retain the beleif that the book provides a kernel to live your life by.

Jean Kazez said...

Ahhhh, ok, that sounds good, but only as the best spin available.

I'm puzzled how people can have a high level of knowledge about how the bible was assembled, but still take any of it as "revealed". But apparently this is possible. There are some very serious bible scholars (like Richard Friedman, who wrote the super-terrific and enlightening book "Who Wrote the Bible?") who appear to be believers (in something or other) ... at least from what I can tell.

Jean Kazez said...

An interview with Friedman--


I don't really know if he's a believer--maybe not, actually, judging from the last couple of lines of the interview.

ianbargain said...

Ha, I created the best spin available!
I should be hired to offer political views on cable.

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, your next job is explaining how it is that Rick Perry is actually very smart and coherent.

ianbargain said...

Rick Perry is smart and coherent because you kill babies and hate America. QED.

ianbargain said...

Let me just add that there is supposed to be a smiley at the end of the above comment. Pretty obvious. But I recently managed to trigger a couple of flame wars due to missing smileys after (what I thought were) funny comments. :).

Jean Kazez said...

Ha. I've gotten into the habit of using smileys liberally too, and for the same reason, but this time I did see it in invisible ink.