This week, Mephistopheles led us on a voyage of self-discovery. Why did God flood the earth, and why was Noah saved? Was Noah all that great? Or was he just not evil all the time? Phanuel introduced us to “the smelling Lord”; Michael and Anael “vibed” about blood; we discussed sperm and mini-me’s, sexy angel-giants and the etymology of “baby.” And finally, was Yahweh a union buster? Find out this week.
MEPHISTOPHELES: Great, OK, thank you all for coming. I’m really excited about this week’s reading. As you all remember, for my introduction, I am not very well versed in the Bible or the church or for that matter, so this was really fun week to do the reading.
To start with, what does it mean to walk with God? So we’re reading Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel, which also sidebar, I’m really curious if there was ever like, an editor. They thought like maybe we just take out the whole genealogy thing, just condense it down to the story part of it, ’cause it really felt like the Noah story and the battle part were like maybe 30% of what we were reading and I was confused. Like should I remember these family trees? I’m not sure. I don’t know if anyone else had a similar reaction, but from the first reading that I thought would be helpful to kick us off:
Yahweh saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of man’s heart was continually only evil. Yahweh was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him in his heart. Yahweh said, I will destroy man, whom I have created from the surface of the ground man, along with animals, creeping things, and birds of the sky. For I am sorry that I have made them. But Noah found favor in Yahweh’s eyes. This is the history of generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time. Noah walked with God.Genesis 6:5–9
So this was really fascinating to read because my first reaction this was OK. He’s gotten awfully low bar to clear if everybody is only continually thinking evil things. What is it that Noah has done to win favor for among God? What does it mean that he’s not allowed to walk with God if everyone else is evil? Lucifer’s reaction that was like, well, you know it never said what his positive qualities were. I’m like, yeah. But regardless of what his positive qualities are, he could have also just been the least worst person among all the other continuously evil people, so that was really curious.
I think the covenant God makes with Noah is in some ways very one-sided. It’s very much like, “I’m going to kill all these people. You build a boat, take one of everything to everybody, get on the boat and you won’t die.” What is the agreement there? What is Noah like, consenting to? Not dying? Not being wiped out with everybody else? I guess he’s got a choice, but like, how is this an agreement?
I think this reflects like the walking-among-us version of God that the Bible is talking about. But at the same time it’s very much like God is the sole actor here. Noah feels like he’s sort of just bumbling along for the ride.
There’s another passage specifically in the Tower of Babel and that kind of gets also to what it means to walk among God, but wanted to pause ’cause I feel like this passage touches on both the covenant and on what it means. Like what you have to do to walk among God? And Lucifer’s already asking, you know, can you ever consent to God? Man, I mean, interesting question.
BELIAL: I think to the question of whether or not you can have a coercive relationship with God, or if you can say no to God, these sections of Genesis is that you can turn away from God, but you do so at your own peril. I think that if he represents a deal, if you turn away from that deal, you invite despair into your life. There is this consensual relationship and there is some degree of free will, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of ability to adapt.
GABRIEL: Hello. This is Gabriel. OK, I think I have two points. One is, I kind of read this as a story of looming destruction of the Earth and the environment, which we’re all very familiar with in our day and age. And in terms of the covenant or the promise, Noah’s the only one who listens to God, and I experienced this as a particular way of attending to his environment. He has a certain kind of quality of attention to his world, his earth, such that he realizes you know that something bad is happening, that there is this looming destruction. And because of this understanding and this sort of listening that he does, he’s able to take the necessary steps in order to make sure his family and himself make it through the funnel, essentially of the of this environmental destruction. So to me the the covenant feels like as a result of Noah’s listening he is able to like get to the other side of this essentially ecological disaster.
I notice that I don’t actually experience these stories or read the story as like a a real time account of what happened as it happened. I kind of read them as like, there’s a group of people, like an ethnic group, who had a bunch of things like happen to them, right? Or they experienced a bunch of things and then retrospectively, they’re trying to like tell the story of how their own people, group and culture and context came to be, and the way they kind of. Like look in the rearview mirror and explain how they got here is to try to like. Figure out what they call this entity they call God has done to get them to like where they are today. So kind of read it from the perspective of you know a person who is a member of this. This cultural group looking backwards, trying to explain how they got here using this story in this language of like. Of God as opposed to from the perspective of like God, describing what he’s doing in in real time and that sort of changes the way I relate to it. ’cause it’s not like. Oh God, this God is like. Having this these like. Do these like indecision or something. It’s like the the writers and storytellers attempt to explain looking backwards like “What’s happening?”
LUCIFER: On that point, Gabriel, something that really struck me in the Robert Alter version of this is, he has a note about how Noah is blameless in his time. Alter actually notes that the Hebrew for time there is literally “generation”—and then later in Chapter 7 when he says come into the ark, you and all your household…you have been righteous before me in this generation. This is the story of a people like, figuring themselves out. Basically this is like a long textual therapy for the Israelites. And they think about time in terms of generations, not years.
I mean there’s so much about like, Noah lived 600 years. He was 500 years old, but ultimately what’s important about these people isn’t how long they live. It’s like where they are in the line and where they are in the line of succession, which then the Christians read as a succession line for Jesus. Like the oneness of the people, and it’s always really striking to me that the Noah story is the last story in the Bible that is that makes a claim to be universal in some kind or in some way that the Noah story is the last time where you are focused on all the people of the earth, versus just the chosen people. I mean, I guess the Tower of Babel stuff what we can get into, whether we think that happens like before, after or the flood in the chronology, but the last person who’s like a progenitor of everybody, every human being in this cosmology, is Noah.
One final note. My favorite conspiracy theory about the Bible in college was that we are all actually living during the pre-flood time and the rest of the Bible is actually a prophecy, so I’ll just let that sit. Lots of like, late night dining-hall talk about that one. [laughs] But yeah, I just think there’s no way of knowing.
MEPHISTOPHELES: We almost watched Evan Almighty last night.
LUCIFER: What, Oh yeah, we almost watched Evan Almighty, which is the sequel to Bruce Almighty where he becomes Noah. And it looks really bad. Also, Russell Crowe made a movie about Noah which also looks really bad. I will hand over to Michael.
MICHAEL: Well, I was just going to bring in some stuff that came up when Anael and I were preparing for this chat, things we noticed about the character of God. We were kind of surprised that the Lord saw the evil of every human creature and regretted having made humans on the earth. Like that’s a pretty strong indictment of humanity, and it also kind of contradicts the Christian God. I mean, I only know the Christian God, that’s my background, but there’s that strong idea that God is all knowing and all seeing and never makes mistakes and never regrets anything. And like this isn’t a very different sort of character. If we’re looking at this from a literary perspective. This God kind of tried once and like now he sort of screwed it up and so he wants to like wipe everything out and have a clean slate which we thought was really interesting.
And also just another thing to notice is that in the flood, human and cattle and crawling things and fowl—they all die. But the animals never did anything wrong, it was just the humans who did something wrong! So like, why did the animals have to die?
ANAEL: Oh yeah, I had some hypotheses why the the animals must die as well. So I guess I was just I was just looking back into the previous chapters and, well, in Genesis 2, animals were created as the companions of man, right? So I thought that maybe the thought process was, “You know, if humankind must go, their companions must go because they were, you know, created for humans in the first place, and they’re kind of lower on the hierarchy of closeness to God.”
Also, I’ve noticed there’s a lot of talk about the flesh being evil, which was very interesting. As in Genesis 6:17: For my part, I’m going to bring a flood of water is on the Earth to destroy from under heaven, all flesh in which is the breath of life. Everything that is on the Earth shall die. So yeah, that’s kind of insinuating that. There’s something wrong with all flesh.
URIEL: It’s interesting, I basically had the exact opposite impression from Gabriel. To me, the Covenant of Noah, especially in the Christian tradition, is marked as a really amazing thing, right? But especially if you know what’s coming up roughly next in the Bible, it’s actually a quite empty promise in my opinion. Sure, maybe God literally upholds it, but the promise is, “I will never kill everything again with a flood. However…I might destroy the whole city with fire and brimstone.” Like that’s still on the table here, right?
There’s also the agency question with Noah. God is also a huge micromanager, which also struck me. With the ark: “You’re going to make it exactly this tall. Exactly this wide. It is going to have three floors. It’s gonna have a roof that’s 18 inches high off of this other thing.” It’s really precise! I guess on the one hand if you’re Noah it’s great, you don’t need to plan how to figure this shit out, but on the flip side it’s basically like, “You’re going to do this. You’re not going to die. But don’t worry, I promise I will never kill everything all again with a flood, but like, I’m gonna leave the rest of it open.” And I don’t know. Yeah, it was interesting to me reading it again. In hindsight, how weird and limited the promise is, especially given what we know is is coming up next.
PHANUEL: Yeah, it’s making me think through Gabriel’s account. I love this story. This story is doing it for me. It’s still confusing. It’s still perplexing. It’s still mosaic. I think there’s more than one God is what I’m developing—or, I’m like, these are different gods. Why can’t they just be different gods for different generations, right? ‘Cause it shifts so much and there is no standard…
I wanted to draw attention to one thing that I thought was really cool going back to a sensory read, which I’m trying to bring through. It’s always God seeing things and he sees them, he looks on them with favor and then whenever it’s saying he’s speaking to people…where is he? We have a line here, that Noah is walking with God. So maybe God can walk? But then it’s like, where is He when He’s giving these instructions, it doesn’t seem like He’s there physically. But He’s always watching, right? He’s looking on it. He’s looking at it; He’s pleased, He’s not pleased.
To zoom back to the text, I love looking at Genesis for the Cain and Abel story where Cain brings some fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offerings, but on Cain’s offerings he did not look with favor. And then my favorite line I’ve come across,in Genesis 8:21. So now Noah, coming out of the flood, he’s taking some clean animals, unclean birds and sacrificed burnt offerings. So now he’s burning it, and it says the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood and never again will I destroy all living things as I have done. So here is the smelling Lord, that actually like he’s not looking up on the offering of fat from Abel with favor, but it’s something about this pleasing smell that is moving him.
I was questioning whether in the Cain and Abel story, whether the offerings were burnt, ’cause I feel like that’s like a large cultural thing is, you know you sacrificed it and you burn it and it’s the smoke goes up to the sky-God essentially, and here we have a version of a smelling Lord and a smelling word that’s happy. And so I kind of like this God better.
LUCIFER: I was actually going to quote the exact same verse you did in the end there! God is observing everything, but after this whole [flood] experience he’s not like, “Oh great. Humans are all descended from Noah, so they’re good now.” Or, “I fixed my mistake” or anything. It’s just, “This time around I’ve realized that everybody is fundamentally evil and like I guess I’ll just accept it from now on.”
It’s weird that there’s no correction. I guess he’s just decided, “I’m going to kill everything and then lower my expectations and therefore I’ll still be pleased with this aroma.” But but I’m not gonna promise too much. We talked a lot in the first week about God’s relationship to time and whether God is outside of time. But here, this is a God, clearly, that can change.
To your point, Phanuel, about multiple gods. I definitely get the sense we’re dealing with multiple characters, which would make sense in terms of like the source hypothesis—the Yahwist source and the Elohistic source, plus the the Priestly voice and all these different composite texts that are coming together. But on a holistic level it actually it does create a little bit of whiplash for the reader. You know, we have some God, the God of Genesis 9 who’s blessing Noah and being like, go forth and multiply as if I didn’t just like destroy the world, as if the world you’re going to be living in isn’t totally covered in stinking carcasses of all the drowned animals.
Total speculation: how did they feed all the animals on the ark? Like all of these things and they drowned carcasses make an appearance in like some of those apologetic texts of like the lions ate like the drowned sinners who were like all around the boat anyway.
I also just wanted to bring it back to thinking about the multiple gods. We sort of skipped over the part at the beginning of Genesis 6, where divine beings have sex with humans. Uh, which is a totally crazy event! And has I think it it definitely sets the tone for the passage as very mythical in in orientation.
The Nephilim passage is one of my favorite passages because it is just so out of nowhere. Never gets mentioned again really. At least not in the passages we read today, and in some ways I think you could read the flood or like the fact that it’s like right next to the flood narrative, makes it seem as if there’s something wrong with the fact that semi-divine or divine beings, or fallen angels, or fallen ones or giants [have sex with human women]. However, we want to interpret the Nephilim. The fact that they’re there. Is that what somehow contributes to men’s evil? Or is some kind of evil that needs to be wiped out? That’s not actually spelled out, and I think there’s ways to interpret the flood story’s not being to do with that, what some people have framed as a miscegenation. But the fact that it is right there juxtaposed with it suggests there’s some kind of thematic link. What do people think?
MICHAEL: Yeah. In so many different creation myths from this area of the world, there’s this motif of the demiurge, or the maker, creating order out of chaos and forming rigid categories and dividing things and making them coherent to a system. And to me, Lucifer, what you just said about the Nephilim, perhaps is signifying a previous era in which the world was more unstable and the categories between mortals and immortals, or divine mythical creatures and humans, were a little bit more mutable. It’s cool to think about how that sort of constituted this prehistoric era. And then once you get human history, the Table of Nations and the post flood era, things become much more grating and gritty than before.
LUCIFER: Especially because we see that parallel [chaos to order, but nostalgia for chaos] in lots of different traditions, not just like in something like the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is super implicated in a lot of the flood story, but also later. I’m thinking particularly of something like the opening to the Wife of Bath’s tale, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: Back in the old days, there were all these fairies who had sex with people, but now they don’t anymore. (Mostly because the Wife’s trying to dig at the priests and be like now, the priests have sex with people.) But there’s this really quite pervasive idea of there being more disorder, or freedom in a certain sense.
I think there’s definitely a quasi-Second Wave Feminist way of reading this, i.e., the matriarchy was there and organic, and then it was felled by the patriarchal sense of “order.” But the Nephilim definitely seemed to be to me to read as that kind of societal urge of, “we used to be that way. And now, we’re not. Now we’re boring. We do quotidian non-sensual tasks and we have very ordered categories and things have changed and in the good old days blah blah blah and men were heroes and now they’re just farmers.”
MICHAEL: Is anyone in else in this group Catholic? Or like, grew up Catholic? OK so I just had an epiphany and maybe this is wrong, but is this why priests can’t get married and have sex? Because like priests are kind of like the sons of God, like they’re the most divine thing on earth, like the closest closest thing to a divine kind of humanity. And so if they started like having sex with like normal women, it would kind of start to scramble the order?
MEPHISTOPHELES: This was actually something I started thinking about earlier, how the the priests who are leading and interpreting these stories were doing so in Latin, and most people couldn’t understand it or didn’t have access to it, it had to all be interpreted and explained. But when people can start reading this for themselves, what were the goals in trying to keep the priesthood in control and not have them have descendants or not create like a certain sort of passing that like a royal like God, close to God, walking-with-God lineage?
AZAZEL: I think the scriptural justification for abstinence comes from Paul’s letters, but I’m not sure.
LUCIFER: Yes, Azazel, I think it does come like explicitly from the letters of Paul, but I do think it also has a lot to do with this stuff, perhaps? (Also some stuff in St. Augustine you mentioned.) There’s a lot more to say about the demonization of sex. And it’s also making me think about the Da Vinci Code, which is embarrassing.
There is, I think, a theme that we we might want to keep our eyes peeled for: the idea of lineages versus the idea of individual salvation. So much of the so-called Old Testament is concerned with lineage, and lineage is a sexually engaged activity, biologically speaking. But then I think what will be interesting is if we’re trying to see things from a more Christian perspective at some point, whether it’s when we get to the New Testament, there’s radically different readings depending on how you see lineages and how you see sexual reproduction, which might be tied also to what Michael mentioned about blood. But let’s head over to Belial and we can circle back to blood and then also the Table of Nations which I would love to discuss ’cause it’s totally wacko.
BELIAL: Something I found interesting in this is the emphasis on lineages also. It also takes a degree of primacy over the life of the individual. It almost doesn’t matter that there was the destruction of mankind during the flood, if there is some some traces left of our species. I think in the Qur’an, Noah is a messenger. He’s meant to to be basically a prophet for God and spread God’s message and persuade people to turn away from false idols and to redeem themselves through repentance, which is a story that is so starkly different from this. There’s like absolutely no moment in this story in which God appeals to people’s sense of good. They’re fully corrupted and beyond redemption, which is so different from the New Testament, so it’s very in stark contrast from more contemporary understandings of God as always there to give you love and mercy. And God’s grace, which obviously is not a feature of the Old Testament.
MEPHISTOPHELES: I’d be curious if at some point there will be some reconciling of, “Well everyone is evil from youth anyway, so might as well run with it like we’ll see what happens.” I do want to bring the Tower of Babel into this in just a minute, but I thought was interesting what Uriel was saying highlighting that passage about, you know, deciding not to do it again because they’re all evil anyway. Gabriel and I were having a little bit of back and forth on the the the annotations and Gabriel brought back the idea of this ecological. For instance, in Chapter 8 Yahweh says, I will not again curse the ground anymore for men’s sake because the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth. My reaction to that was like, OK, well, what was the point of all of that if you decided they were all unredeemable anyway? Do we really need to kill them all? Why punish and people were asking earlier then why punish all the animals too? Though Anael was saying it was because they were created as man’s companions. Maybe they had to go down with them.
But we’re taking the whole whole planet down here. If this like ecological trying to justify why did this flood happen to us? Because we do know that the there’s a lot of tales from the time, that sort of talk about this flood. The Epic of Gilgamesh I think, has the most extensive description of the floods. Perhaps this is just like a convenience story, but I wonder if like giving up on humanity here in this way somehow necessary to that justification.
One of the other passengers I wanted to bring into this, on the Tower of Babel:
The whole earth was of one language and of 1 speech as they traveled east, they found a plane in the land of Shinar and they live there. They said to one another, come, let’s make bricks and burn them thoroughly. They had brick for stone, and they used are for mortar. They said, come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower whose top reaches to the sky and let’s make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad on the surface of the whole Earth, Yahweh came down to see the city and the tower. Which the children of men built you always said, behold, they are one people and they all have one language and this is what they begin to do now. Nothing will be withheld from them which they intend to do. Come, let’s go down and confuse their language so that they may not understand one another’s speech. So you always scattered them abroad from there, on the surface of all the earth, they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel because their Yahweh confused the language of all of the Earth. From there you always scattered them abroad the surface of all the earth.Genesis 11:1–9
For me, this was really confusing. What’s the message here? People are all cooperating. They’re getting along. World Peace, blah, blah blah. You know, speaking the same language. They’re getting too close to achieving, you know, whatever it happens when all of humanity will cooperate. But God says: I’m going to make sure that they can no longer cooperate an essentially so the seeds of like what many would say today is the cause of many world conflicts. So many conflicts really boil down to just miscommunications, misunderstandings, just different ways of looking at things.
It’s like this rationalization, perhaps post hoc, that, Yeah, we all don’t agree with each other. We all speak different languages because God made sure that we did not all get along, made sure that we could not. What message does this send, that this was very intentionally done in reaction to human beings succeeding at cooperation and getting along?
To the question that we were asking earlier, what does it mean to walk with God? Is this getting too close to being—or walking with God, that when we all come together we are becoming God?
BELIAL: I think that’s such a good point about God perhaps being threatened by the ascent of man, and that may be the Tower of Babel is more metaphorical about this process of actualization toward God that is very threatening. A lot of the interpretations of the story that I come across are about the arrogance of mortals assuming a level of divinity that is not there, but I also think it’s it’s a bit strange to me because so many, like religious spaces and buildings have architecture thrusts toward the heavens. Minarets, pagodas, spires on churches. There’s so much religious aesthetic that is about setting your eyes on the heavens and it’s trying to bring more attention upwards, but here it’s punished and there’s no clear indication that the people here in within the story are trying to get to heaven to sort of use up God, and yet he punishes them so viciously.
GABRIEL: Maybe a lesson of Babel has to do with like the limits of language and the limits of the project of trying to create a universal language, especially which has been a thing that people have tried to do for ages. It seems like now we’re also kind of in the middle of one of those attempts trying to create like very, very global communication tools in which everyone can gather under one language and and try to communicate with one another. And we see all the discourse about what happens when you throw everyone into the same environment and try to get them speaking the same language and so I’m just curious about if it’s one of these attempts at totalizing structures of language spreading as well as political systems. And what tends to happen or what are the side effects of these attempts to build totalities: one world, one language, one big family type things. How that tends to fall apart when we attempt it.
LUCIFER: For those who have read Wittgenstein, the example that he uses for a lot of his Philosophical Investigations, he talks about brick layers handing bricks to each other as a recurrent example and it just struck me. In this passage there’s this whole long thing about, “We will use bricks and mortar, we will bake the bricks…” It’s just funny. ’cause now I just imagine like all of Wittgenstein’s examples happening on the Tower of Babel.
And masonry is like such a huge theme, probably ’cause the Freemasons are controlling all of us, but whatever.
It also struck me that so there’s a note in one of my Bibles that a word like Babel occurs in a wide spectrum of languages, like basically across the Indo-European language family, and it’s “probably not of continuous derivation, but re-coined from common experience.” I imagine what’s being implied there is babbling—the syllables ba ba bababa is very baby-like. It might be one of the etymological leg sources of the word baby in some ways. It seems like the curse isn’t just to have multiple languages on the earth, but also the curse of language learning, language acquisition. That language is not something universal as you were saying, Gabriel. Language is a highly specific and familial practice; it’s something we learn from the people who are around us as babies. And that’s such a beautiful thing in so many ways, and so sentimental in so many ways, but it’s also it does provide this huge barrier. Kind of in the way that any kind of fractious political or like cultural fragmentation is just really harmful.
GABRIEL: Also thinking about the way language tends to get debased when it reaches a certain scale. Corporate-speak, hollowed-out words, me and Mephistopheles’ favorite essay, “Politics and the English Language”…
LUCIFER: In some ways it’s easy to see the Tower of Babel story as happening outside the kind of lineages and the familial story that is Genesis. But there are a lot of aspects of it that I think actually relate back to the idea of the family and like what is passed on. Genesis is a story of origins, but specifically origins and the role of the family.
MICHAEL points out that the word babel may also be related to the Babylonian “gates to the gods.”
LUCIFER: I think the gates-of-the-gods reference is often taken as basically the biblical writers dissing Babylon and the whole civilization that eventually oppressed them…
MEPHISTOPHELES: Belial, to your point about building things too tall, it’s always interesting to think of all the Christ the Savior statues around the world. Their version of that. And who can build the tallest one on the highest mountain, as close to the skies as possible…It’s really evolved. [laughter] Yeah, we’ve come a long way since you know, getting smitten by God for building too tall of a tower.
LUCIFER: Our Jesus is bigger than your Jesus.
MEPHISTOPHELES: It’s a weird nationalistic challenge, but on the topic of language, I think the one of the interesting things that I thought of while I was talking was the idea that, like. There are like some theories, even that like the more we do come into contact, and the more we do speak it can also lead to a lot of conflict. And like sometimes having different languages not interacting a lot might actually be a way to keep the peace in some ways. This is a theory that was proposed with the Cold War: the fact that the US and Russia were actually so far apart and did not speak and did not have a lot of reasons to speak is what kept the war cold. They didn’t have to actually interact all that much.
There’s so much divergence and difference, and if you think about the Table of Nations, how quickly everything becomes very context specific, the same could happen with language. And it’s almost like necessarily so so. This is also like going back to the idea of like this, being people trying to wreck like think but. Trying to reconcile. Like why do we all speak different languages if we’re all descended from Adam and then God killed everybody and we’re all descended from Noah, like how did we end up with so many differences between us and them trying to like figure out? Well, you know, if we all spoke the same language, what would be the result? Would we become too powerful for God’s liking? Let’s write a story about it, and that’s how we ended up with this. It’s one way of like thinking about that. We were so close we were getting to the gates of heaven or to the gods with this tower. That’s why it’s necessary that we all do our own thing, and could this be read as like a celebration of cultural diversity and uniqueness of language and whatever? Or is this really just about not becoming too politically powerful and less about like the cultural specificity?
LUCIFER: In this week’s reading, we’ve also seen an example of a more intimate violation of the family, which is what happens at with Noah and Ham. What causes societies to fracture? We’re literally told that it given begins with this one family, with Adam and Eve and later with Noah. How did we get to the Table of Nations? One of the answers is the Tower of Babel. But then the other answer that we’re given in this week’s reading is that Ham, one of Noah’s sons, walks in on Noah and like sees his nakedness, whatever that means.
There’s a lot of debate and controversy about what this means. Did Ham sexually assault Noah? Is it a merely a seeing thing, as Phanuel pointed out, God sees everything—clearly sight is very important, so it might actually just be a visual violation of this person. Is it about not respecting your elders? Is it about nakedness, like whatever “nakedness” actually means?
I wonder if Babel is one way of God actually actively intervening to split up humanity and lead to the Table of Nations type of geographic spread and cultural difference. What do we make of the other option? That is, the eventual curse of Ham?
MICHAEL: So in response to the Ham story, I’m going to use this as a way to kind of introduce the blood theme, which Anael and I were both really vibing on. Basically, if you think about all the chapters of Genesis we’ve read so far, one of the major themes is unity and division; unity and division; unity and division. At first there’s unity and chaos and there’s the vision to life. Then you know that Adam and Eve have Cain and Abel who are the first brothers, the first division of Adam’s blood. If we want to think about it in a patriarchal sense into two separate people, and they both hold his blood, but only one is favored by God.
In my Bible class this fall with Simeon Covell, we were basically all really confused about why there’s so much emphasis in Genesis on blood. Something that my professor said, which I thought was fascinating, was that for the ancient Israelites, blood was this magical substance that they knew correlated to life. But they didn’t really know how. They didn’t think of it in a clinical way that we think of it today, which is why sacrifice is such a huge thing. Because when you sacrifice something, you shed its blood and you deprive it of life. It’s a different metaphysics. Like you know, when you watch like a sci-fi movie and they could put on a monster and green blood oozes out. Or it’s like you know, like superhero blood, or ichor, or blue blood.
Both in the in the exhortation that Yahweh gives Noah to not eat raw meat, don’t eat flesh with it with its lifeblood in it, don’t kill humans because they have a special kind of blood, which is made in the image of God. It also tries to answer questions of inequality: why are some people slaves, and other people are not, if we all have the same blood and we’re all descended from one person?
MEPHISTOPHELES: It’s almost a nature-versus-nurture question. When God decides, I gotta wipe everybody out and take all the animals with them, Like was taking the animals with it because they were bad influence on humans and made humans behave animalistic and therefore evil. And he’s like oh another evil from youth and it’s like OK are they evil from youth? Because in their youth they are raised in this familial sense like their parents are teaching them to be evil or not raising them well, and therefore they’re turning into evil people in adulthood. Like is this just in people’s blood. Or is it behaviors and then the Noah being seen?
GABRIEL: Makes me wanna like go back and look at older beliefs about blood. I guess Lucifer knows about a lot about history of medicine type stuff, or the ways ways the lifeblood would have been perceived.
LUCIFER: I just keep thinking I was talking earlier today with my supervisor and we got on the topic of like Van Leeuwenhoek and the idea of seed, semen. And the idea that was quite prevalent up until like the 17th century that a single sperm contains a tiny folded up human being. That just has to like gestate inside, like a womb to and then it. Basically that like men alone are completely like responsible for.
GABRIEL: No lie, is that what they actually thought?
LUCIFER: Yes, there are diagrams! Look up “homunculus.” It’s so crazy and it kind of goes in and out of fashion over the years and side note, it’s why eels are so crazy. But that’s a whole tangent. But the reason I think it ties into blood is like there’s.
Maybe it actually circles back to what we talked about right at the beginning when Mephistopheles questioned why we’re spending so much time with all these lineages, like half of what we read this week was begats. I know this is such a basic point to make, but there’s a reason that women are never listed, and it’ll be interesting to talk about this in terms of when we get to like the four wives of Jacob, for example, where there’s like lots of drama, but it’s because, like the male line. An it’s it’s because the male line is important in patriarchal society, but also because of the way I would posit that, like lineages actually thought of that, the man that blood passes through men in a different way than it passes through women, and the idea of like sharing blood or like being kin. Also your thought your thought about DNA, Gabriel—DNA as a new metaphysics for thinking about kinship, the way the ancient Israelites thought about blood.
Anael, I would love if you or Uriel wanted to weigh in on this as scientists.
URIEL: I think it very much depends on how much you’re interested in taking things as metaphor and how much you’re interested in taking things literally, which I think also is in itself kind of a metaphor for the Bible as a whole, right? Like there are many passages where it’s really like the covenant with Noah, right? It’s very easy to read it as. This is a great promise that God is made that he’s with us and is going to support us in the future. Or you can read it as I callously did, which is like, it’s just this minor promise. Or you can read it as a metaphor that God loves us, right? And there’s all these different interpretations, and I think similar to how many people shift between being Bible literalists, there’s there’s been over aggression.
My scientific history is not very good, but like of some of these things like the four humors, I think the Greeks really took it as not a metaphor of there being four fluids, but really quite literally, like, these are the components that make up people and similar like the four fundamental elements. While now we can say metaphorically like these different humors influence us, and we can have some of these different elements that we feel are, our fire is a part of me anyway. Science is a part of how we understand the world, but it’s not the only mechanism by which we can understand the world. But I think we also have to appreciate that. There are different degrees of literalness that one can take it, and where science comes in is sort of provability. And even if any individual in practice ends up having to take a lot on faith and the arguments of authority, fundamentally, if you really wanted to, for many of these things and have the resources with scientific perspectives, you could reproduce, but with some of the more metaphors you can’t, and so fundamentally there is a dividing line there. In my opinion, even though that it’s a no way the whole truth.
MICHAEL: On the topic of God’s promise, I was just confused because my understanding of covenants is that there’s two parties and that you like make an agreement and like in the ancient Near East, they would literally put like an animal between them and sacrifice it. The blood would come out and invoke a deity and the deity was supposed to be the one to enforce that covenant. I got that from my Bible professor, but in this one God is just like, “Hey,” like you know, from the heavens. And God says, “You know, even though you’re really evil, I’m going to give you this rainbow. It’s a sign of my covenant, and I promise I will never flood you again.” But Noah doesn’t have to do anything! To me it didn’t really seem like a covenant. It seemed more just kind of like a like an announcement. So I was wondering if anyone else had similar thoughts.
ANAEL: Wait are you talking about the Rainbow Covenant? Because in that one, there was the ritual of the sacrifice. God smelled the good aroma of the barbecue!
MICHAEL: Yeah, there was definitely a sacrifice, but what I’m trying to say is like there wasn’t kind of a give and take. God just sort of announced, “Hey, I’m going to put rainbows in the sky. That’s the sign of my covenant with you. Which is that I will never flood the earth again.” But like what does Noah have to do?
LUCIFER: Isn’t his side of the bargain to be fruitful and multiply? It’s all about the reckoning for lifeblood. They’re allowed to eat meat now and like weirdly, maybe should eat meat. It’s unclear, but if you respect the blood stuff, be fruitful and multiply and now you can eat meat. God’s like, “I’ll give you that and I will require a reckoning for human life.” So it’s basically, do not murder.
I think is kind of baked in and then then there’s this little verse section. Whoever sheds the blood of a human by a human shell, that person’s blood be shed, which apparently is a lot older than the rest of the text that surrounds it, which is often the case when you see verse in the Bible. And then God says to Noah and his sons, As for me, I’m establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you.
I do think the word covenant is worth noting too. In Latin, “covenant” is testamentum, which is basically what we call the Bible. The Old Testament is the old covenant, which is then read by Christians as the “covenant that we don’t really have to do anymore, because Jesus God brought us the new covenant,” the new vovenant being that if we believe in Jesus we are saved.
I associate testament more with witnessing, whereas covenant—I don’t know. Maybe this is the influence of the King James translation of covenant as a really serious agreement and a serious exchange of terms.
MICHAEL: Basically have sex and don’t murder, and in exchange, Yahweh won’t flood again.
LUCIFER: I think that is my sense. Also funny that the rainbow is like God’s reminder to himself. Like, “Oh, I’m so mad at humans, I’m going to have a flood again.” Then he goes to make clouds and then the rainbow appears and he’s like, “Oh JK, I forgot my rainbows reminding me I can’t like flood the earth again.” Which I thought was really funny.
MEPHISTOPHELES: It seems weird that that’s like the terms of the agreement, because again, it’s like, “You guys are evil and murder everybody. Oh, you guys are really evil. OK, well, keep multiplying and I won’t kill you all again.” I don’t understand the preceding logic that sets that up. I mean God is God, He doesn’t have to make an agreement with anybody. Maybe it’s not supposed to be logical. Maybe I just don’t understand.
LUCIFER: How dare you assume you would know the logic of it.
AZAZEL: I remember hearing or reading a great analysis of the covenant structure that basically pitched that it was just like copying the covenants that kings who submitted to a great king like the Assyrians. So it was like a legal contract that king of a kingdom would make with a great kingdom for protection and subjugation. The theory is that when the independent kingdoms of Israel and Judah started and wanted to get on their own feet, they just kind of replicated that model, with an abstract deity that was in their control rather than like king of some larger Kingdom, which is just like an interesting framework to think of, from historicist perspective, for where the covenant comes from, and like why it might not necessarily be evenhanded.
LUCIFER: That makes a lot of sense. That’s super helpful.
A final thing is just to be on the lookout for covenants. This is the first of, I believe, four covenants that will encounter in the Hebrew Bible, each of which applies to like a smaller group of people, and has different terms. This is the broadest one. My Bible has a note that since these laws are given to Noah and his sons, the ancestors of all post-flood humanity, they were used in later Jewish tradition as the basis for a set of seven Noahide laws that were seen as binding upon Gentiles as well as Jews. So it has the widest scope and is the most universal of all the covenants—then you start getting these covenants that (spoiler alert!) are for example between only Abraham and God or Abraham and his descendants and God.
You kind of wish that Noah had like had more savvy. Maybe he could have negotiated better terms. Who knows?
As Michael put it, Have sex, don’t murder and don’t look at your dad’s equipment.
Gems from the Chat
Lamech was such a little effer
Does God support blood feuds??
Catholic here, we love drinking blood! yummy stuff
Noah needed a lawyer!