Short Stories by Jesus by Amy Jill-Levine

Amy-Jill Levine is a New Testament and Jewish Studies Professor. However, she is not your typical New Testament Professor; she is an Orthodox feminist Jew who studies and writes scholarly articles on the New Testament. In this book, she attempts to place the parables of Jesus in their original 1st century Jewish context and offer new interpretations of some of the most important parables with this context in mind. She tries to explain what these stories would have meant to a 1st century Jewish audience hearing them for the first time.

In order to do this, she posits that Jesus was a real historical figure and that many of the parables in the Bible represent mostly accurate versions of the stories he told to the crowds. While the parables found in the New Testament may be the original stories of a teacher named Jesus, the authors of each Gospel frame the parables in terms of Christianity and its developing theology. The narrative frame added by the anonymous authors of the Gospels changes the meaning and purpose of the parable from what it may have originally meant. For example, the Parable of the Lost Sheep is framed by Luke as a response to a hostile group of Pharisees complaining about Jesus welcoming sinners among them.

“But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2)

Jesus answers the criticism with a series of parables in which the Parable of the Lost Sheep is one of them. Luke then ends this particular parable:

“I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7)

Luke transforms the parable into an allegory in which the sheep are Christians returning to the church and God’s grace. For him and many Christians, the parable is about God’s stewardship over his church and his desire to recover sinners and bring them back into the fold. Jesus is pointing out to the Pharisees that his main audience should be sinners because they are who need him the most. By framing the story in this way, the author of Luke is interpreting the story for us and doing so with a Christian lens.

Matthew also offers a version of this parable (Matthew 18), but with a different narrative frame. In Matthew’s version, Jesus is speaking directly to his disciples, not Pharisees. His ending frame is also a little different.

“In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:14).

There is some overlap in the messages: God wants to redeem the lost. However, there are also differences between the two versions. Luke’s Jesus is responding to the criticisms of the Pharisees about consorting with sinners, while Matthew’s Jesus is answering his disciples’ question about who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Although these parables do retain similar messages the general point still stands; by framing parables differently, the same parables potentially take on different meanings. The fact that we have so many of the same parables across different Gospel narratives suggests to Amy Jill-Levine that many of these parables originated with an historical Jesus, but were reinterpreted by later Christian writers in specific ways once Christianity’s belief systems began to develop in ways distinct from Judaism. This is why she believes we should try to understand the parables in the context of 1st century Judaism, separate from the narrative frames that later Christian writers added to them. How would the original non-Christian Jewish audience have understood these stories?

Although Levine cannot cover every single parable, she does cover the most important ones: The Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son, The Good Samaritan, The Kingdom of Heaven is Like Yeast, The Pearl of Great Price, The Mustard Seed, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Laborers in the Vineyard, The Widow and the Judge, and the Rich Man and Lazarus.

Parables are supposed to be provocative, they’re supposed to challenge our views of the world, and call us to action, but often traditional interpretations by the church, church fathers, and even modern scholarly commentators transforms these parables into allegories and domesticates them into palatable forms. It softens the message into some symbolic gesture that is easily digestible. Worse, many of the traditional readings are fundamentally anti-Jewish. For example, many traditional readings of the Parable of Prodigal Son see the elder son who complains to the father about the prodigal son returning as a symbol of Judaism complaining about the inclusion of gentiles in a New Covenant. In this reading, the father symbolizes God the father or Jesus, the elder son represents Judaism, and the younger son represents the originally wayward gentile who is being brought back into the fold by divine grace. Notice the allegorical nature of such a reading. Levine shows with evidence from Josephus, the Talmud, the Mishnah, and the Old Testament that these interpretations are misguided and are misrepresentations of Jewish ideas and beliefs. Likewise, using these sources she shows they do not make much sense in the context of 1st century Judaism.

Levine views the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and Lost son as representing a pair of three parables with similar messages. She has this to say about the Parable of the Lost Son. “Without Luke’s allegory of a repentance and forgiveness and without the easy equating of the elder son with those grumbling Jews, the parable has no easy or comfortable interpretation (68).” She argues that the message of the three parables is not about the recovery of lost sinners, but rather the joy we feel at recovering a precious object lost to us and an exhortation that we shouldn’t stand on ceremony waiting for them to apologize or for them to come back to us. We should go out and find them! The Parable of the Good Samaritan is not a tale about how Jews are bad and gentiles good, but rather it is a parable that emphasizes the importance of taking action when someone is in need of our help. It’s not an argument for mercy, but an argument for compassion. It addresses the question: who is my neighbor? The answer to this question is that everyone is our neighbor, even our enemies, and the parable challenges us to help anyone in need. The Pearl of Great Price is not an allegorical tale about selling all one has (or devaluing one’s material possessions and the material world) in order to achieve the kingdom of heaven in the afterlife, but rather it is a tale about self-discovery and the importance of identifying what truly matters to us. Once we realize what truly matters to us, we should get rid of everything superfluous and meaningless in our lives. This parable is presented as an analogy to the kingdom of heaven. What is the kingdom like? Figure out what is truly important in your life, find your “pearl,” and you will discover what the kingdom of heaven is like. All her interpretations have this in common: the parables are a call to action, if we want the kingdom of heaven on earth, we have to work towards it here and now.

Is the Bible a Literary Masterpiece?

Is the Bible a literary masterpiece? For many it is impossible to disentangle their religious beliefs or their antagonism towards religion to judge the question fairly. Among literary critics this is a rather uncontroversial question. As Harold Bloom states in his book, The Shadow of a Great Rock, the KJV is “the sublime summit of literature in English.” While on an aggregate site that consulted 25 different recommended reading lists put out by literary critics and major colleges, the bible appeared on 7 out of 9 relevant lists (excluding lists that only included novels or were solely 20th century works). It made 77% of the relevant lists.

The influence of the Bible on Western culture is inestimable. Often this influence includes everyday expressions, modes of thought, references, etc. Sometimes it is argued that you don’t need to read the Bible to understand these references, but it is precisely this fact that proves the Bible’s influence on culture. To put it more simply, the bible has been so influential on our culture that we often don’t need to read it in order to understand the expressions and ideas that originated within it; we can take them for granted since they are that integrated into the fabric of the culture itself.

A more explicit influence can be seen in the arts. Walk into any museum and you’ll see endless walls of artwork based on Biblical stories. Biblical allusions abound in literature, performing many different functions. Indeed, authors such as the anonymous writer of Beowulf, the Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes, John Milton, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Charlotte Bronte, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Lord Byron, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, William Faulkner have all written works with Biblical allusion. This is not even close to being an exhaustive list. A major writer like Shakespeare, often considered the Greatest English Writer, uses a staggering 1,300 biblical allusions throughout his plays, according to a study by Naseeb Shaheen.

Many of the artists turn to these stories for inspiration because the stories found in the Bible are memorable: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Cain’s slaying of his brother, The Great Flood, the binding of Isaac, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and the Burning Bush, King David’s seduction of Bathsheba, Jonah and the Whale, the story of Job, Esther and Haman, The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus walking on water, the turning of water into wine, etc. This also is hardly an exhaustive list. I bet I don’t need to describe any of these stories in detail to you and you can probably retell large chunks of those episodes from memory.

As the late literary critic D. G. Myers wrote in response to someone complaining about the horribleness of the Lot story:

“Whether or not your interpretation of it is correct, you remember Lot’s story “to this day.” Quite a testament to its power as literary art!”

You might find this story nasty and immoral, but nobody ever said literature is required to be uplifting and inspiring. This story is powerful and memorable. Even people who dislike the Bible can still remember the story after encountering it. Like Myers, I agree that its ability to shock and stick in one’s memory is a testament to its power as literature.

The Bible, however, is more than a bunch of memorable stories. The language of the Bible is at times quite beautiful and there are some powerfully constructed metaphors. Some of my favorite are:

“Spare Me the sound of your hymns, and let Me not hear the music of your lutes. But let justice well up like water, Righteousness like an unfailing stream.” – Amos 6:24 – 25. 

“Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west, for I give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted. Up, walk about the land, through its length and its breadth, for I give it to you.” Genesis 13:14 – 13:17

 “For wisdom is better than rubies; no goods can equal her.” – Proverbs 8:16. 

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” – Matthew 7:12

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9

 “We must all die; we are like water that is poured out on the ground and cannot be gathered up.” – II Samuel 14:14

How deserted lies the city,
once so full of people!
How like a widow is she,
who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces
has now become a slave.

 

Bitterly she weeps at night,
tears are on her cheeks.
Among all her lovers
there is no one to comfort her.
All her friends have betrayed her;
they have become her enemies.” – Lamentations 1

Another quality that bolsters its status as a literary masterpiece is its ability to be interpreted in many ways. Often this is seen as a demerit against the bible, despite the fact that many literary works have multiple ways they can be interpreted. The tens of thousands of articles on Shakespeare’s works suggests there are many different ways people understand Shakespeare. To pick another example, there are many different ways people have interpreted Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a candidate for the Great American Novel. Is it an allegorical story in which the ship’s precarious journey is a symbol of the United States as a nation on the eve of the Civil War where the democracy of sailors is threatened by Ahab’s tyranny and the ship itself (the nation) is threatened by the whale (a symbol for obsession, representing the U.S.’s debate over slavery)? Is this a story about the evils of capitalism represented by the whaling industry and how sometimes nature fights back against the system’s attempts to exploit it? Is this a story about alienation and the quest to find a connection with human beings? Is it about the search for transcendence and meaning itself and the way absolute meaning often alludes us? Is it about the dangers of getting caught up in others’ irrational obsessions? All of these rhetorical questions are based on actual interpretations by literary critics.

If there was a single objective meaning to a literary work there would never be any reason for discussion about that work afterwards. Instead all we would need to do is read the work and we would all come to the same conclusion, but rarely does literary interpretation work out so neatly. I see no reason we should praise some writers for their ability to be interpreted in many different ways, calling it depth and complexity, but change this standard for the Bible.

As I pointed out in my post on the Cain and Abel story, the bible packs a lot of meaning and depth in a story that is only around 350 words (the equivalent of modern day flash fiction). Like any other work of Great Literature, the Bible offers insight into the historical practices and ideas of the ancient culture that produced it and explores problems and concerns that are part of the human condition in a way that even a modern audience can appreciate.

Bible as Literature: Abram’s Emigration and A Comedy of Errors (Genesis 12)

“I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” – Genesis 12:3

The Lord tells Abram to leave his native land to emigrate to Canaan (modern day Israel and Palestine, for the most part). There he promises to bless his descendants and make them into a great nation.   Abram takes his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot, with him on his journey. He builds a couple of altars to God at different spots. Then he detours to Egypt because of a famine. He tells his wife, Sarai, to pretend she is his sister because Sarai is so beautiful and he fears the Egyptians will kill him if they know she is his wife. The Pharaoh learns about her, sends for her, and gives Abram sheep, oxen, assess, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels as presumably a price to have Sarai for his bride. Then God punishes pharaoh and his household with plagues because Sarai is a married woman. Pharaoh sends for Abram where the truth is revealed that Sarai is his wife, not his sister, prompting the pharaoh to express his frustration that Abram didn’t tell him the truth in the first place and spare him the trouble. Abram leaves Egypt with Sarai and all the new possessions Pharaoh gave him as a price for the bride.

Many scholars view the origins of this story not in the earliest history of Canaan, but a later date when the Israelites lived in exile from the land under the Babylonians and early Persian Empire. Often discussion about the Pentateuch focuses on the writers of the text (the Documentary Hypothesis), but in such discussion it is easy to forget about the primary audience of the text. Abram (later to be renamed Abraham) would have served as a model for those exiles, supporting the hope that one day they will return to their home land, and fostering a sense of hope that there will be a future for Israel. Imagine the effect of such narrative on a despondent, defeated nation living in exile. The opening lines where God tells Abram that He will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you add to the sense of hope that the defeated will soon be on top again. Even lines such as, “And the Canaanites were then in the land” suggest this later dating, implying the Canaanites were no longer in the land by the time the story was written.

The second half of the story in which Abram heads down to Egypt to wait out the famine has the elements of a trickster tale. He tells Sarai to lie and tell the Egyptians she is his sister. The events of the story suggest Abram’s caution is warranted. Pharaoh’s servants inform him about the beautiful Sarai and he does attempt to take her for his wife. Now if she wasn’t available because of an inconvenient fact like she is already married it is likely he would have had Abram killed in order to widow her and make her available for marriage. Since he is supposed to be her brother it is easier to just pay him a price to acquire the new bride. However, God sends a plague on Pharaoh and his household. After learning the truth, Pharaoh no longer wants Sarai or anything to do with Abram; he just wants them to get out of there as fast as possible. Abram gets to keep the animals (new found wealth) and his wife, leaving Pharaoh with nothing thanks to his lie/trick, which is what makes it a trickster tale.

The bible is often depicted as this serious solemn book with little humor, but this episode with Pharaoh is meant to be comical. There is a sense of challenging authority figures and poking fun at pharaoh who unwittingly marries this woman. This episode has a few laughs at the silliness of kings and rulers who far from being great leaders making good decisions are shown to be corrupt individuals driven by their unabashed greed and desires. It has a lot of tropes that we find in later comedies, such as those written by the Ancient Greeks and Shakespeare, with mistaken identity and withholding of crucial information leading to mishaps. In the story, Abram also seems to be testing his new relationship with God to see if He will actually protect him and his interests when trouble arises. This is important to note because a major theme of the Abraham cycle of tales and Genesis in general will be testing the boundaries of that relationship between man and God.

Bible as Literature: The Table of Nations and the Origin of Languages (Genesis 10 – 11)

Genesis 10 follows the Noah story, giving the genealogies of his son’s Shem, Ham, and Japheth. This section is often called the table of nations as it describes the origins of the major tribes and nations of the earth. Its primary importance is the historical insight it gives on what nations the Ancient Israelites knew existed.

This is followed by the Tower of Babel tale in Genesis 11. In this story, everyone on earth migrates from the east. They all speak the same language. They decide to settle in the valley of Shinar and build a gigantic tower for the purpose of celebrating their own glory (“to make a name for ourselves”). God notices the tower and becomes worried about humanity’s behavior. “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. . . .” So God causes everyone to have a different language, making it difficult to communicate, and scatters them across the face of the earth.

On the surface, this is an etiological myth that explains the origins of different languages. Since these cultures didn’t have the scientific method, or more particularly in this case the study of linguistics, they used stories like this to explain important natural and cultural phenomena. God created different languages to stifle humanity’s ambition and vanity.

The story also has a fairly straight-forward moral: Despite being created in the image of God (with similar creative capacity), humans shouldn’t try to be like God and abuse these abilities. This theme conforms with ideas found in previous stories: all of humanity is related and a single family (so why shouldn’t they work together and speak the same language), humanity and God are constantly testing each other and the boundaries of their relationship (which is the main theme/issue running throughout Genesis), and particularly this is another warning against humans trying to be like God (begun in Genesis 3 and revisited here in the tower episode).

Sometimes it is said that Genesis 11 contradicts Genesis 10:5, 10:20, 10:31, which implies that humanity already had different languages. The mistake here seems to be to assume that the narrative follows a perfect chronological order (i. e. we have the events of the genealogy in Genesis 10, then the events of Genesis 11, the Tower of Babel, happens). However, another possibility is that we aren’t meant to read the two narratives as occurring in chronological order from each other. Instead, we have a genealogy that covers a long span of time whose purpose is to document how Shem’s, Ham’s, and Japheth’s offspring became the later nations that occupy the world and the Tower of Babel episode is revisiting an earlier period within this same genealogy in which the differences in languages arose. In other words, the Tower of Babel events occurs before 10:5, 10:20, 10:31 and is a story explaining why different tribes have different languages. So there isn’t really a contradiction. The reason the redactor doesn’t interrupt the genealogy with the story is to keep the integrity of the genealogy as a single literary unit. In other words, they are more interested in literary integrity and literary function than in maintaining perfect temporality.

At the end of Genesis 11, there is another genealogy. We revisit Shem’s line. Placing this list at the end for a second time has two primary literary functions. First, as I already noted, it tells us that the Babel narrative isn’t necessarily meant to be read as chronologically happening after the first lists of genealogies in Genesis 10. After all, if we were meant to read these in perfect chronological order, why would the redactor present a list that he already gave us and supposedly happened before the events of the Tower of Babel? Second, since the specific genealogy at the end of Genesis 11 presents us with the line down to Abram (the next major patriarchal figure), it acts as a transition to the next major character and story line in the Genesis narrative.

Bible as Literature: The Curse of Ham (Genesis 9:18 – 9:28)

Noah’s three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, exit the ark. Noah becomes a farmer, grows a vineyard, and gets drunk off the fruits of his labor in his tent. His son, Ham, notices his father is drunk and naked. He calls the other two brothers and tells them about their father’s nakedness. The other two sons respond by covering up their father and turning away so they won’t see his nakedness. Noah wakes up, well aware of what Ham did, and curses Ham, the father of Canaan, so that his descendants will be the servants of his brothers’ descendants.


Ham does the wrong thing by not clothing his father (failing to honor him properly). By calling his brothers over the text implies Ham does further wrong. Perhaps Ham plans to mock his father’s nakedness with his brothers and increase his shame by calling more attention to the fact rather than less when he should be attempting to minimize it. In its typically minimalist fashion, we aren’t told explicitly and the text leaves it up to the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps. However, what does come across is Ham fails to honor his father the way he should, while the other two sons when they cover his nakedness and refuse to look at him in that state do honor their father. They are doing everything in their power to reduce his shame. There are some interpretations that suggest sexual overtones. Consequently, one might also read the tale as a warning against intoxication.


There is no getting around that this story is intensely tribalistic, although not any more so than other ancient cultures. The story metaphorically associates the Canaanites with disrespect to their parents (violating one of God’s commandments given later to the Israelites), and Noah’s curse of Ham claims that it is the destiny of the Canaanites to be the servants of Shem’s and Japheth’s descendants. In other words, the story is a post hoc justification of the enslavement of another group of people. In this sense, it is a bit of a nasty story to our modern sensibilities.

Bible as Literature: The Flood Story (Genesis 6 – 9:17)

The Noah flood story is probably one of the most familiar stories in the entire bible. Its “natural disaster threatens to destroy civilization as we know it” narrative lingers even to this day, inspiring such popular films as Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, and so many others. While none of these are great films, their prevalence does suggest this archetypal plotline resonates with people. It is important to note, though, that the work has not only a mold for other works, but itself is a product of copying. Most scholars agree that Noah’s flood is based off the flood tales of Mesopotamia, especially the one told by Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Both stories involve deities that destroy the world because of humanity’s wickedness by means of a flood in which one person is chosen to be saved. This alone might not be enough to prove a connection since flood myths are ubiquitous cross-culturally (existing outside of the Mediterranean) and a better explanation in my view than worldwide cultural diffusion or the existence of an earlier proto-myth is that floods are a pervasive disaster. With that said, some flood myths do appear to be copies of each other. The major clue is that beyond the basic story pattern, specific details such as measurements of the ark, building process, the sending out of birds, and even word-for-word phrases are exactly the same between both stories. However, there are some differences: the order of the birds, monotheism versus polytheism tweaks to the plotline, different character names, and Utnapishtim is granted immortality at the end, while Noah is not.

As literary works, it is important to remember that these works aren’t presented as individual stories in isolation. The Babylonian version is part of a larger epic. It is a side-story recounted by Utnapishtim to Gilgamesh on the latter’s quest to find immortality in order to save his friend. The story fits into the larger epic by its exploration of life and death. The bible story is part of Genesis, which not only recounts the mythical early history of humanity, but thematically explores the boundaries between humans and God. The Babylonian tale is one character recounting the past to another so that character may gain insight on his present situation, while the Noah story is presented as the next chronological event in the Hebrew mythological history. The different narrative contexts give both stories very different feels and literary purposes, despite being almost the same exact story, which goes to show the importance of the literary material that bookends any other part of a work.

Complicating matters even further is the fact that the Bible doesn’t have one flood story, but rather has two flood stories that are intertwined with each other. For starters, there are inconsistencies with how many animals are supposed to be aboard the ship.

“And of all that lives, of all flesh, you shall take two of each into the ark to keep alive with you; they shall be male and female” (Genesis 6:19, JPS translation)

“Of every clean animal you shall take seven pairs, males and their mates, and of every animal that is not clean, two, a male and its mate” (Genesis 7:2)

“Of the clean animals, of the animals that are not clean, of the birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, two of each, male and female, came to Noah into the ark, as God had commanded Noah” (Genesis 7:8)

“They came to Noah into the ark, two each of all flesh in which there was breath of life” (Genesis 7:15)

The two parts switch back and forth between their narrative in a pattern: Part of story A, then part of Story B, part of Story A, then part of Story B, etc. In one version there are seven of each clean animal and two of each unclean animal; in the other version, there are two of every animal. This also explains why God seems to repeat many times, that yes, he, indeed, plans to destroy the earth as if we don’t trust the first three or four times he tells Noah. Of course, he probably only tells him two or three times per a narrative, but since these are two stories spliced together, it sounds like he is repeating himself over and over again.

In each story the reason for the flood is different. In one story, the main reason he destroys the earth seems to be that humans are copulating with divine beings (angels?), thus crossing the boundaries of the divine and mortal, which is a theme found throughout Genesis, such as in Genesis 3 with the tree of life and the Tower of Babel story. This theme consistently repeats itself throughout Genesis and other parts of the Bible (humans are not meant to be divine like God, and bad things happen to them when they try to surpass their limitations). In the other version of the story, the main reason for the flood is that the people of the time have become evil and wicked. No specific details are given.

The ending of one of the stories occurs at the end of Genesis 8, while the end of the other version occurs at the beginning of Genesis 9. Yes, there are even two endings.

“Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking of every clean animal and of every clean bird, he offered burnt offerings on the altar” (Genesis 8:20)

The sacrifice at the end of Genesis 8 almost undoubtedly is part of the 7 animal version of the narrative. It says he specifically kills one of each clean animal, which means an animal he is allowed to eat (it’s kosher) and sacrifice to God. The seventh animal that is sacrificed represents the Sabbath and the end of “new” creation at the end of the flood, while the other six go off to mate and repopulate the earth. This is a symbolic reenactment in the form of a ritual of Genesis 1’s seven day creation. The other ending is an etiological and gives us the origins of rainbows (God’s bow in the sky as his symbol of the new covenant with humanity).

Now that we discussed the main body of the familiar story and talked about the ending, let’s return to the beginning of the tale at Genesis 6:

“When men began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, the divine begins saw how beautiful the daughters of men were and took wives from among those that pleased them.–The Lord said, “My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years.”–It was then, and later too, that the Nephilim appeared on earth–when the divine beings cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore them offspring. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown.”

The children of these divine beings mate with humans and produce Nephilim, who were “the heroes of old, the men of renown,” and this mating angered God.

I see at least two possibilities to explain this enigmatic passage:

1) there is the possibility that extra-biblical tales known to the ancient Israelites of the time about the Nephilim, the children of divine beings mating with humans, existed that have since been lost during the passage of time and were not considered Canonical enough to be included in the Bible or maybe purposefully kept out due to the fact that God is presented as critical of these beings and thus stories of their exploits would’ve been considered sinful. This would make the Biblical line a faint cultural memory of lost Israelite mythology, which later became verboten.

2) this is a mocking commentary on their neighbors’ mythology, whose mythological stories often focused on the exploits of great heroes descended from deities. The J writer, who is associated with this passage, would be slyly implying that such unions anger God and directly led to the destruction of the world by flood.

If option two is correct, we also see that the appropriation of the flood story from Mesopotamia may have been a purposeful act that fits directly into the writer’s agenda. The J writer would be appropriating another culture’s myth to challenge the other cultures’ assumptions in an ironical way; the world was destroyed in the flood not because of warring deities annoyed with humans (as suggested in the Babylonian version), but because of the very heroes descended from deities that you celebrate in your stories.

Bible as Literature: Seth’s Genealogy and Longevity Narratives (Genesis 5)

Genesis 5 extends the genealogy of Adam’s line through Seth and serves as a counterpart to Genesis 4, which offers Adam’s genealogy through Cain. As I pointed out in my last post, the two genealogies serve as an antithesis to each other, contrasting the corrupt bringers of civilization versus the righteous worshippers of God.

A major difference in this narrative is that it includes the ages of Adam’s line through Seth, whereas Cain’s genealogy did not include their lifespan, a detail that can be easily overlooked. The ages of the characters extend from 300+ years to 900+ years. It’s easy to laugh at such a tale given that with all our modern medicine and technology our average life expectancy is only 78.8 years and the oldest recorded age in modern times is 127 (although this remains unverified). I, however, think it is important to understand why they might have written such a tale.

Some understand these stories as literal events (i.e. there really was a time when people lived to be 900 years old). I don’t believe we’re supposed to understand these stories literally. Instead these stories fit into the tradition of longevity myths, which exist in other cultures of the ancient world. It is important to understand the social reality of an Ancient Israelite. They lived in a world where people often died young, many didn’t survive beyond childhood, and still other children didn’t even make it beyond birth at astronomically higher rates than we experience now thanks to modern technology and science. This is why I suspect such stories are ubiquitous across ancient cultures. These stories are attempts to look back at a mythical Golden Age when people and their offspring lived longer lives. Notice how this is the complete opposite of their historical reality.

Stories are a way of making sense of an often confusing and frustrating present. As I suggested in my earlier post, the Eden Narrative is a tale about losing Utopia to explain the order of things; it is a storytellers attempt to address why present life is so difficult by looking at what came before. Some might dismiss the usefulness of such tales by pointing out that these sort of storytellers are spreading lies in order to experience some sort of emotional comfort and by turning to a better, more satisfying imaginary past it prevents them from working to improve their unsatisfactory present. This may be true, but it ignores that the value of reading such tales for us is the underlying psychological truth it reveals.

People often do romanticize the past as a way of coping with the present. So at the very least it tells us something about a psychological facet of human beings and thus ourselves, and what literature at its best is supposed to do is get us to reflect about ourselves. We all have moments where we romanticize the past. Sure, we might not be telling ourselves that we once had great grandparents that lived to be 800 years old, but in a more prosaic way we often think of the past better than it was and I suspect that very often this is in response to some unsatisfying aspect of our present.

There seems to be an overlap between Cain’s genealogy and Seth’s genealogy (in the names Enoch, Methusael/Methusaleh, Lamech, even Irad and Jared seem similar to me), which suggests that possibly at one point there was just one genealogy which gotten combined and confused over time and became separate traditions. We are told a curious incident in which Enoch is taken away by God. Nothing more is mentioned of this incident after, but it seems to hint at additional oral tales that once circulated about Enoch that didn’t make it into the Bible; it also led to later tales to be written about Enoch in apocryphal books such as the Book of Enoch. Another interesting break in the genealogy is when Lamech says of his son, Noah:

“This same shall comfort us concerning our work and toil of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord hath cursed.” -5:29, KJV

“This one will provide us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the very soil which the Lord placed under a curse.” – 5:29, JPS

This is a generalized statement that Lamech makes about the birth of children. He seems to be saying that even though the ground has been cursed and life is now hard, alluding backwards to Genesis 3, it is the birth of children which brings us comfort. Likewise, I would suggest it is no coincidence that the statement is made about Noah whose story will be featured in the next chapter. This statement hints Noah and his sons will be the comfort to his father (and forefathers, also not a coincidence this line is being added to a genealogy) in so far as he will continue the existence of humanity and all its hard work and toil after most of it is destroyed in the Great Flood. Lastly, we need to note it is Lamech who is speaking these lines. In Cain’s genealogy, it is his descendant named Lamech who also speaks; this other Lamech does so concerning his victory in murdering another human being. Cain’s Lamech brags about his own prowess and ability. Seth’s Lamech puts his hopes in his children, not himself, and looks to be comforted, not avenged. These lines serve as antithetical visions of the world that further contrasts the two genealogical lines.