Reading the Bible as Literature

I just don’t seem to be able to let sleeping dogs lie. Having aroused some contention over the question of whether the Bible qualifies as literature, I bethought myself to examine one of its better known fables in that light. Let’s not dwell on the barbaric laws or the preposterous historical chronicle — let’s look at a story.

How about the story of Adam and Eve? For those who are following along at home, this would be Genesis chapters 2 and 3. The story is too well known to be worth reiterating here, so let’s jump straight into the literary analysis.

The first moral we might draw from the story is this: Disobeying orders is a really bad idea. But in fact this is a corollary of an underlying, implicit idea, which is that you have a superior, a personage who is completely in charge of your life. This personage will give you orders, and the orders must be obeyed.

A second corollary is that your superior may be malicious or simply incompetent, and may in consequence set you up to fail. For no apparent reason, he may put a major stumbling block in your path. No point in complaining about it, though: He’s your superior.

A third corollary is that, as far as you need be concerned, your superior is Never Wrong. The possibility that Adam might have confronted God about the nasty trap that God set, might have asked for an explanation or a second chance — the story doesn’t go there.

The story’s second moral is that the knowledge of good and evil is a Bad Thing. You’re better off by far not knowing the difference between good and evil. The knowledge will cause no end of trouble. As a corollary, even seeking knowledge is portrayed as a mistake. Your superior wants you to remain ignorant. Given that so much of the rest of the Bible sets out detailed rules whose sole purpose is to explain what’s good and what’s evil, this is an odd place to start the book. But that’s what we’ve got.

The third important concept in the story — it doesn’t quite qualify as a moral — is touched on more briefly. It’s this: Women are to be subservient to men. What the husband says, goes. There’s a hierarchy of power here: God is in charge of everything, but in an analogous way, Adam is in charge of Eve. Eve gets to step on snakes, but other than that, she’s at the bottom of the totem pole.

Certain other ideas, such as the notion that the sins of Adam are inherited by his descendants, who have committed no transgressions of their own and would otherwise be blameless, are not to be found in Genesis 2/3, so we’ll leave them aside.

Here’s my question: If we were studying this story as literature, how would we evaluate it? Would we find it inspiring? Would we say that it embodies some deep truth about the human condition? Would we wish to read more of the author’s work? Or, on the contrary, would we shudder and put the book aside?

If you feel the Bible qualifies as literature, you need to answer this question for yourself honestly, without any special pleading based on the historical or cultural importance of the text.


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4 Responses to Reading the Bible as Literature

  1. Ron Greenman says:

    For the sake literary argument Jim: Perhaps the book starts where it does because it’s the beginning. You’ll notice that there are two differing stories of the beginning playing off each other which tends to obfuscate the story as much as three and a half millennia of cultural change, a long oral period, multiple translations, many of which stem from later translations rather than original textural materials, that the version most modern versions are sourced from were penned by four different stylists over a period of two hundred or so years, etc., etc. But away from the provenance and back to the story. God creates Adam and Eve in his image, and apparently with the potential to be godlike, but sans the knowledge necessary. So they look human but lack self-awareness, and so are innocent, unable to distinguish good from evil because qualitative terms like those cannot exist without knowledge of self. So by disobedience to the Godhead the two become self-aware, cast into the duality to borrow from the Hindu version, and no longer may live in paradise, an imaginary construct to describe “what is,” or a state of unknowing. In Gilgamesh the tension between the longing for the return to the simplistic existence of the wild man, in tune with his environment, and the tentative security of order, projectional thinking, and sedentary societal roles, exemplified by the King and the City, reflects the continuing conflict throughout all of Genesis, much later in real time than Gilgamesh, between God and his godlike creations, culminating in his decision to destroy them. A little confusing here for early civilization, incorporating an orally handed down neolithic memory of global warming, into a creation myth. Of course the moral issues you speak of are also present, perhaps even reasonable at that time, supplanting the previous earth mother cults of Mesopotamia as civilization relentlessly expands out of the original river valleys, where the organizational prowess of the residents of the city states either crushes or holds back the tribalistic barbarians at the gates. And note, that like you, I have taken a one line approach to interpretation. My point is just that. I can find any number of story lines within Genesis, a I can with the Iliad, Moby Dick, Beowulf, etc., that speak to morals, cultural inclusion, rules, an explanation of the workings of the world, historical document (no matter how wrong) for the people that developed the stories, etc. The problem is when a religion refuses to die because it is so complex that it remains utilitarian in many ways for many people. Had the Judeo/Christian/Islamic foundation not worked it would never have gotten to now, just as thousands of other religions have been abandoned as their utility waned and forgotten or derided as mere mythology by the believers of the living mythologies. Deluded followers of bizarre cults? Probably. Modern modes of evil justified by an outdated mythology? Definitely. A source of comfort for many in times of fear or loss? Yes again. An explanation of the world? Indeed, whether it is scientifically accurate of not (actual knowledge of physics is only required in a society such as ours, all the aristotelian explanations with fine for everyone for 2000 years and for the previous 10,000 or so religious cults sufficed–is it inconceivable that the rank and file, happy to be muddling through a mundane existence, wouldn’t still find “religion” sufficient for most of their needs). Doesn’t literature, in it’s larger form, do he same things, including be used as justification for evil (Ayn Rand, Georges Sorrel, Gabriele D’Annunzio to nam a few)?

    • midiguru says:

      Making man (not Adam and Eve) in his image is in Genesis 1, not in 2/3. If we go back to Genesis 1, we also have the business of how humans are supposed to subdue the Earth and have dominion over the fish of the sea (whatever that would mean). I kind of tiptoed around Genesis 1, to keep the discussion simple.

      Not sure where in the text it indicates that Adam and Eve lack self-awareness. 2:25 says they were naked, and not ashamed, but the idea that that indicates a lack of self-awareness is a modern interpretation. It more likely means that they enjoyed a lusty sex life, without hangups. Prior to that, in 2:20, Adam names living things. This would certainly have required a measure of awareness — so could he have had awareness of “every beast of the field” without having awareness of himself? Unclear.

      Does anything in modern literature supply an explanation of the world? I can’t think of an example offhand, although Kurt Vonnegut may have given it a try. Conversely, does the story in Genesis 2/3 really provide a source of comfort for anybody? I’m not sure about that either. This story says, “You’re going to suffer, because you broke the rules.” How is that comforting?

      I agree with you (if I’m reading you correctly) that the source of the emotional difficulty that is portrayed in Genesis 2/3, in Gilgamesh, and elsewhere, has everything to do with the transition from a hunter-gatherer lifeway to a farming/herding lifeway. But that’s an observation for the anthropologist, not for the lover of literature. I’m more interested in looking at the story in Genesis 2/3 exactly as if it were a story written by Eudora Welty or Willa Cather. The fact that, considered as such, it’s clearly a failure is all that really concerns me at the moment. I’m asking, “Okay — what if we take the assertion that the Bible is literature seriously? How does it fare as literature?” The other ways to look at the text belong to a different line of inquiry.

  2. Jim, perhaps you might want to read some Joseph Campbell.

    • midiguru says:

      Good suggestion. I think I still have all four volumes on my shelf. I bought them at least 35 years ago. I’ll have to go see if I can find them.

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