Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Adonai vs Yahweh - Two Charts for the One Lord

OF COURSE I am playing on words with my title here. Both "Yahweh" and "Adonai" are pointing to the same Israelite God. But how they are used is my subject of interest here. We started that in my previous post, How does the Adonai cookie crumble? It wasn't too hard to put some of my research into a graphical format, something I don't think I ever tried on this blog before, so here goes in the form of two helpful charts!


  • Until we reach the Psalms, the Adonai data is extremely low: only 46 occurrences total, with an average of 2-3 occurrences per book up to that point.
  • In terms of concentration, it's a similar story: only 0.01% of Hebrew words before Psalms are the word "Adonai"; that's an average of 1 word in every 10,000.
  • Yahweh is going to be an altogether different story: Up to and including 2 Chronicles, Yahweh (a.k.a "the LORD") is mentioned 3,138 times, an average of over 200 occurrences per biblical book. For these first 14 books, that's an average of 1 word in every 112 being "Yahweh".
  • The smallest gaps in concentrations occur in Ezekiel, Lamentations and Amos, where Yahweh concentrations vary from triple to double the number of Adonai occurrences. After those three, and excluding the very low Lord-reference books like Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon and Daniel, the gaps widen suddenly and on a great scale.
  • Hopefully, these huge differences will help us realise that when examining the usages, the number one thing to bear in mind is sheer scale, which has a bearing on the comparison aspect of my divine Name research (it is only one aspect, fortunately): the data pool for the Pentateuch is even smaller: 18 Adonai-s against 1,557 Yahweh-s.
  • That parameter is significant if, like some LXX scholars like Larry Perkins, we accept that the anarthrous rule was devised at the outset when only the first five books of the Hebrew Bible were translated. 18 is also such a small number for such a large volume, that it might be possible to assert that there were no Adonai in the original Hebrew Pentateuch, these few additions. being added as copies and recensions succeeded the decaying originals, or "orthographs".
  • The amount of data I will have available to analyse Adonai with regard to the Greek article will be small, and will require further control data. My research into the anarthrous rule on the Yahweh side has already led me to exclude certain Greek cases: vocative, dative and accusative because of the common necessity of Greek articles there even for names. Fortunately, nominative and genitive are among the most important cases and are those affected by the rule, but we can expect the pool to be made smaller still when analysing articles included with Kyrios as a translation for Adonai.
  • Further control data could take the form of the most popular human character of the book and a title other than "Lord" used by the book (the most likely being king and god, possibly both if I can get round to it).
  • With the appraisal in hand of how a proper name and a regular title are handled by the translator, we can deduce if Adonai was affected by the rule or not. A halfway position could be indicative of recensional activity (i.e. lesser articles than a title would be expected for the book, but still more articles than Yahweh in the nominative and genitive).

NB data slightly updated to integrate "Adoun" (Strongs H113) when used to refer to God, with a total of 4 such occurrences by my count (Ex 23:17, 34:23, Is 10:33 and Mal 3:1). 

Related posts:

Kyrios (aka the LORD) in the Psalms: Results
Is Jesus' Other Name "Yahweh" for the first-century church? Part 1: The Data
Why This Research Matters
Larry Perkins: paper review

How does the Adonai cookie crumble?

ADONAI SEEMS TO be as well known as a name for God among lay Christian believers as Yahweh. Both are used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to the Israelite deity, and are both typically translated into English by "Lord", although Yahweh often gets a capitalised treatment of course. Previous posts will explain more about this, but readers are probably aware that I am keen to disambiguate where possible and where intended.

I had planned to plunge readers into the fascinating depths of what I am calling "Yahweh's Stuff" (see Saturday's post), but it makes sense first of all to deal with:
- How was Adonai used by the Hebrews, and how was its use different to that of Yahweh?
- How effectively did the early Greek translators from 3rd century B.C.E. onwards deal with any distinctions or similarities they saw?

Let's take the first question first! Adonai was usually by the Hebrews as a familiar alternative but relatively infrequent reference to their god (and lord). The inflected Hebrew with the plural vowels (Adonai rather than Adoni) is a good guess based on tradition that contextual knowledge would have been sufficient for the Israelites or later Jewish communities to sometimes pronounce one and sometimes pronounce the other. Hang on, weren't they some of the earliest monotheists on Earth? Why the likely plural? It is used in order to magnify the greatness of their god. Thus, the singular form is reserved for earthly lords, thus reducing the number of references to God still further.

Yes, referenced under Strongs H136, while Adonai is used quite a bit, it's maybe much less than you might think if you account for the massive reliance on Ezekiel for its modest numbers: approx. 434 occurrences, of which Ezekiel accounts for half (214 occurrences)! Compare that to Elohim's approx. 2600 occurrences and Yahweh's (and Yah's) approximate 6900 occurrences, we're talking a minor player in the Hebrew parlance for their god. As the Greek translators would recognise, it was used as a title and possessively (e.g. "our Lord") in a way that Yahweh never was. The swathes of biblical data on Yahweh that could have suggested otherwise simply don't contradict this idea, thus reinforcing it.

We should also remember that the Hebrew was not written overnight and by a variety of authors with different Hebrew styles and preferences - as the Ezekiel example should make very clear. So while Ezekiel occupies the most extensive usage, we see that quite a few books never even mention Adonai: neither Leviticus nor Ruth nor 1 Samuel nor 1 nor 2 Chronicles nor Esther nor Proverbs nor Ecclesiastes nor Song of Songs nor Hosea nor Joel nor Jonah nor Nahum nor Haggai. Amos is actually the most Adonai-friendly literature, representing an even greater concentration than Ezekiel: 24 occurrences for a total of only 3027 words (1 occurrence every 126 words; Ezekiel is 1 every 140). But even the Hebrew Bible's most Adonai-friendly text, Amos, has a major preference for Yahweh (1 occurrence every 42 words).

The second question was How did the Greek translators deal with the distinctions? Firstly, as I have extensively stated, Adonai and Yahweh were drawn together when the Greek translators used Kyrios to translate both of them. Secondly, only Yahweh had the firm grammatical signature of the anarthrous rule: stripping away the definite article in a way that is fitting for a name more than a title. This is where I feel I have demonstrated contra NETS leading translator, Albert Pietersma, following my two key discoveries of comparing Yahweh and Adonai translations in the Psalms, the very translation for which Pietersma is directly responsible. This rule was made possible because of the pre-existing Hebrew fact that Yahweh could not be owned, like a title (our Yahweh, etc.). The anarthrous rule did not make Yahweh this way - it *preserved* Yahweh this way. 

The final thing this breakdown should prepare us for is that the Greek lexical units - Yahweh's stuff - are almost entirely avoided in the Adonai translation scenarios. Not quite completely, though as I will show.

That seems like quite a lot of information already for today's post (and it took a while to distil too), so I'll save the actual breakdown for a future post. I hope that both may serve as a useful breakdown and reference.

Related posts:

Kyrios (aka the LORD) in the Psalms: Results
Is Jesus' Other Name "Yahweh" for the first century church? Part 1: The Data
Why This Research Matters

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Yahweh's STUFF!

It's been a "wee while" since I posted, but little by little, my private research into the "divine Name" in the Bible has been picking up some momentum. What is this Name? In the Old Testament, the Israelites made sharp distinctions between their god, Yahweh, and the gods of the surrounding nations with whom they were in regular dispute. One of the major distinctions was that Yahweh was not just a god or their god (although he certainly was that), he was a whole level above: god of gods

For Yahweh your god is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes.                    Deuteronomy 10:17

These Israelites spoke Hebrew, and the name of the Israelite deity, Yahweh, was written and spoken in Hebrew (יְהוָ֣ה).

Like any being, divine or mortal, Yahweh had...stuff! 

What am I talking about? In the Hebrew bible, from a linguistic point of view, Yahweh owns: Yahweh's face, Yahweh's glory, Yahweh's house (or temple), Yahweh's hand, Yahweh's Angel, Yahweh's words, Yahweh's anger, Yahweh's love, his Spirit, and of course, a Name (... and still a lot more besides!) In addition to these "lexical units", there are some other units that I want to track, combining a few common prepositions like from Yahweh. But what am I tracking exactly?

A couple of years ago it came to my attention that something special happened between the Old Testament and New Testament regarding Yahweh's name, about which I hadn't the foggiest before that time. I already knew that the Hebrew bible (a somewhat loose canon) had been translated into Greek. I'm not sure if I realised that the reason behind this translation was that the Israelites had been invaded and deported into surrounding nations, where they progressively adopted the local language as their primary language, thus rendering their sacred scripture pretty incomprehensible to many. One very important such community of diaspora Israelites was located in Alexandria, Egypt. I'm certain I didn't know that initially, the translation was of the first five books only - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. That's still a very big translation project!

I was clueless that this translation bears some interesting hallmarks of theological understanding and religious practice and discourse, sometimes with clear influence of the Alexandrian context. So, for instance, there are Egyptian loan-words (like "reed" and "basket"), understanding of divine beings as angels had developed and was emphasised. By far my best and clearest scholar on influences on this translation (along with the other books comprising the Hebrew Bible translation into Greek), is Jan Joosten, a faculty member of the University of Oxford, who has over 80 peer-reviewed papers available on the website here, and the best of these on Egyptian influences is this one. Honestly, the guy's a linguistic genius, basically, and super interesting to read! Some of his conclusions may appear strong, however, and should be read from within a linguistic sepcialist's perspective, e.g. "Although the Greek version was derived from a Hebrew source, it is essentially a text distinct from the Hebrew Bible, with its very own historical, cultural and religious context." (The Library of Alexandria: A Cultural Crossroads of the Ancient World)

Anyway, one of the most interesting and conspicuous shifts was the diaspora Jews' super-exaltation of the name of Yahweh itself. From various sources, we learn that this name itself became as sacred as its referent, such that the translation in Leviticus 24:16 from Hebrew to Greek. This underwent the following modifications:

[A]nyone who blasphemes the name of Yahweh is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them. Whether foreigner or native-born, when they blaspheme the Name they are to be put to death.

Septuagint Greek translation:

Whoever names the name of [the] Lord - by death let him be put to death; let the whole congregation of Israel stone him with stones. Whether a guest or a native, when he names the name, let him die.

Let's be honest and clear. The Jews could have transliterated Yahweh into Greek letters to reflect the precious name in the much-needed language of Alexandrian Greek. But the name was soooo precious, God's intervention soooo hoped for, and his potential extended offense and wrath waaaaay to dear a price to pay, that an alternative was sought. Someone came up with a novel idea: what about "Lord" (in Greek, Kyrios)? But, in order to make it clear who we are talking about here, and that this is indeed a name let's delete the article before "Lord", so it reads like a name? Great idea! And so it was implemented with considerable consistency across those initial five books we know today as the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy).

Consistency was necessary because in the Hebrew Bible, there were over 7000 occurrences of this Name, but the choice is of infinite importance for those interested in Christian theology, since we know that Jesus is understood as Lord too - exalted and enthroned into divine lordship over heaven and Earth. That's my "hook", I think. I already demonstrated via my publication here, however, that current exponents of explicit deity ascription to Jesus by the first century Christian authors via this Septuagint novelty (Lord, minus the article) cannot be used among their arsenal.

My longer-term project is to potentially challenge the assumption by current leading specialists on the Septuagint (such as Albert Pietersma) that Yahweh did not receive a different treatment to another Hebrew word/title (Adonai) translated by the same Greek word Kyrios. It is also more generally to provide as yet unchartered data for the slippage of this special translation deletion of the article preceding "Lord" once we venture beyond the Pentateuch. I have published some examples of this here: Kyrios (aka the LORD) in the Psalms: Results.

As I have proceeded, it occurred to me that there are certain lexical units that can affect things too. They might well provide a more robust preservation against this slippage in centuries between the two Testaments represented in the Christian Bible (300-0 BCE), and even help us in some of the more ambiguous usages of Kyrios in the New Testament. 

My basic thrust here is this: ambiguity, where not intended, should be avoided. I want to know what folk meant by Lord. I often do not not know what people mean by Lord today, especially in anglosaxon Christian communities, where a centuries-long tradition of accepting the KJV importation of the Septuagint's Lord, has been sustained via capitalisation (LORD).

Another spinoff piece of research is to map out how the divine Name is rendered by the various Bible societies translation teams in languages spoken and written today.

Related posts:

Kyrios (aka the LORD) in the Psalms: Results
Is Jesus' Other Name "Yahweh" for the first century church? Part 1: The Data
Why This Research Matters

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Centering Prayer, with Cynthia Bourgeault 2

Bourgeault provides her own helpful summary in her Epilogue (p. 161-167) of this in-depth-yet-practical guide to reawakening our life of prayer and spiritual practice. I'm going to combine a few of her 12 points to summarise still further into just six:

1. Possibly via a "sacred word" in a designated timeframe of perhaps 20 - 30 minutes of centering prayer, this is a model of surrender of oneself via gentle release of all of one's thoughts as they occur. Bourgeault connects this to the famous kenosis (emptying) of Jesus as described by Paul in Philippians 2. Earlier in the book, the author importantly mentions that the release process is very gentle.

2. Establishing some kind of inner "breathing" in this surrender (?) means that "good" and "bad" meditations are done away with. Some will involve more thought-surrender than others. It also involves "releasing the passions and relaxing the will".

3. Over time, the sense of self steadily relocates itself outside the insatiable attention draw of thoughts, a new "magnetic centre" that expands out of meditational times into a more contemplative and larger and deeper self. This doesn't do away with the "egoic" self. Training and moving out of it is all part of the process. This GPS (God Positioning System!) realigns our outer and inner self, the inner being characterised by "your yearning for God and God's yearning for you". Bourgeault connects this new centre with the authentic heart of our person, a deep connection with God's own true heart.

4. This is the goal: to nurture this heart. It differentiates centering prayer from other prayer methodologies which are more focussed on clarity of mind in favour of a singleness of heart.

5. This is not preparation for relationship with God, but relationship with God itself with real psychological outworkings. Divine therapy - centering prayer encourages psychological healing as unconscious emotional baggage is slowly released.

6. The earmarks of this journey are "compassion, humility and a growing equanimity". The whole approach creates enhanced inner harmony. A key word for Bourgeault in this book is "consciousness", and she reminds us of it here: growth toward "unitive" consciousness.

While I hope this super-brief summary might be of help, I highly recommend reading the book cover to cover for yourself. Some of Bourgeault's teaching on Centering Prayer can also be accessed via YouTube (Part 1 here), and she also works with Fr. Richard Rohr.

NB: I have omitted one of Cynthia's own bullets completely. I also failed to fully grasp her description of one of her stages of the meditative process whereby we locate the thought, emotion, passion, tension etc within our bodies in order to prepare for its release. I believe this can only be achieved adequately via experience.

Monday, 26 February 2018

The God of Cosmic Success and Harmony?

I OFTEN FEEL prompted to write something following an Unbelievable? podcast - this week is no exception, on a topic that I feel leaves my Christian camp still wanting: creation. This week's title is Debating ID – Can evolution explain the bacterial flagellum? Jonathan McLatchie vs Keith Fox. Sounds kinda irrelevant, right? The title is unhelpful, and even these two Christian debators admit that this bacterial flagellum is almost besides the point: there are a near infinite incredible and frankly awe-inspiring (maybe more awe-inspiring than bacterial flagellum) aspects of nature that illustrate their differences of opinion. The question is, what do we do with aspects of nature that science cannot yet adequately account for?

Back in the 1990s, an important book came out by Michael Behe entitled "Darwin's Black Box". I say "important" because for Christian apologetics, Behe's book would put a qualified biochemist's name behind an intelligently-sounding principle of "irreducible complexity" that would substantiate religious claims to a scientific proof for God's (or a god's) direct involvement in the creation of the universe, because some aspects of nature are too complex to be accounted for by today's scientific models. At the time, the human eye was among his examples, which is obviously insanely complex and difficult to explain as a result of gradual mutations over millions of years. Unfortunately, as this debate seemed to concede, that one is no longer on the ID (Intelligent Design) super list, because twenty years of science has led us to better understand the development of the eye (I recently learned for example that the octopus' eye, for instance, has no "blind spot" - there is no nerve bundle-gathering within the octopus eye itself). But the flagellum still is just too whacky to explain, so maybe that is what gave rise to the sampled title. The fact alone that the list is not stable should make Christians super-wary about this kind of argumentation pushed out there by Christian apologists like Jonathan McLatchie. Here's another - google Michael Behe's name, and you should get a top hit of his wikipedia entry, entitled: Michael J. Behe is an American biochemist, author, and advocate of the pseudoscientific principle of intelligent design. Note that word carefully: "pseudoscientific".

I will soon be reviewing Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? by Dennis Alexander (Alexander was actually hosted on the Unbelievable show shortly after his book came out back in 2010 and more recently interacted with anti-evolutionist Wayne Rossiter in 2017 here), who points out that despite the apparent sophistication of Behe's work and term "irreducible complexity", there have been no biochemist peer-reviewed journal articles even discussing this principle. The scientific community simply does not recognise Intelligent Design under this label.

So what are apologists like Behe and McLatchie arguing for here? Exactly what many closed Christian schools continue to teach: that science fails to explain the impossibly complex and balanced universe, that evolution is basically false, and they can prove it. How? Because of "irreducible complexity". Behe's approach was relegated (or perhaps promoted) to "pseudoscience" when a court in the States actually had to come to a ruling on the issue and if irreducible complexity had a religious or scientific foundation in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District

Thus far, it seems that irreducible complexity has an unstable foundation and has yet to be recognised by any major peer-reviewed scientific journals. But it gets worse. Christian (or any religious person, but Christians seem to be the most vocal) anti-evolutionists who want to say that because God made us special, the "random" process of evolution cannot be the mechanism of God to bring about humankind, fail to see a major theological flaw in their reasoning. Christian evolutionists want to reconcile God's entire and ongoing creative act with scientific discovery. If you feel a religious urge to deny evolution then you are actually pushing for a biblically-unfounded splitting of God's creative act. Put crudely: God creates in some kind of naturally-observable or predictable way. Then he intervenes miraculously by creating humans. In other words, God intervenes into his own nature to do something that "left to its own course" would never have produced us, or indeed anything spectacular or unexplainable natural phenomenon. Do you see the picture? God is reduced to tweaking, as Keith Fox correctly points out. There's like a barren lifelessness to God's own work unless God intervenes miraculously, again and again and again.

There is a fourth problem: peculiar arrogance. This is actually connected to the unstable foundation of irreducible complexity I mentioned above. Why on earth should we assume that our advanced scientific knowledge of the universe has reached its zenith? Non-individualised knowledge will never reach such a stage, because we are learning more and more all the time, and expanding the knowledge package for each generation to come. Irreducible complexity basically is saying that TODAY something appears irreducibly complex. And that reliance is actually quite bizarre. It is based on the science of today, thus despite dismissive gesturing against science still coming in through the back door. It even trust's today's science more than today's science does, and does a quick mishmash with biblical texts to make sure that my assertions are shielded from view.

More serious biochemists like Alexander, Fox and many others are finding an increasing plausibility among lay thinkers like myself, and an excellent resource is available at biologos, where evolution is accepted as God's mechanism. So why the debate if evolutionary creation dodges the frankly dodgy problems of irreducible complexity? Despite their blindspots, the better apologists against evolution point out a problem of God's true involvement. If God is not involved in specially and directly in the ways they are proposing, then where is God at all in the process? Genetic mutation happens by chance. Biologos and proponents of such an approach like me have to face this, and we are still not doing a very good job at it in my opinion.

When left just to marvel and say, well God's ways are not ours, and to peer into how God intervenes so widely and cosmically is way beyond and outside what science can say, then you can quickly here the atheist tapping on his microphone to check it is working correctly. What difference does God make? This seems like a superficial and unnecessary faith stance, a leftover from an era of human development that did require religious causality, and is now being rehashed to fit around a scientific enterprise that bizarrely cannot factor Him at all. I'm uncomfortable with this.

Maybe I'm just uncomfortable with the fact that faith really does have personal choice and responsibility forever stamped into its DNA (sorry for some poor allusions there!).

But Success is not random. The mutations that succeed are not random. They occur in harmony within a given environment. It is the whole biosphere that emerges with success and harmony at its core, although forever at war within itself wherever internal successes come with defeats, like a cancer "succeeding" over a failed organism's defense mechanisms. But as a highly-complex, inter-related and dependent ecosystem, our planet has thus far succeeded in ways we see nowhere else *yet*.

Evolutionary creation correctly disconnects Adam's great Sin with general suffering and death, recognising that not only do these processes precede the development of humans (and other marvels), they even form the basis of apparently evil processes. Success comes at a cost. The Intelligent Design campers (back to that label in a sec) are left, ridiculously in my view, to imply that The Fall had retrospective consequences, like it works backwards in time or something. The only creationists exempt from such a problem are seven-day creationists, whose prominence in the church seems to be dwindling (these guys hold to a literal seven day creation even about six to ten thousand years ago). But they don't solve the problem of theodicy for us - and neither will I!

Evolution happened. We happened. Natural sufferings and evils are firmly dislocated from our own evil free choices, but why do people like me still seem to require non-human agency? Look at how I stated the problem in the plural.

I said: sufferings and evils, in the plural. Suffering and death are awful and horrendous experientially. I happen to have experienced more suffering recently than at other periods in my life. Although to varying degrees, we all do. The only way through as I can see it is that to be there at all, God must be the God of Cosmic Success and Harmony. He cannot be defined by any one situation, be it a glorious birth or a catalysmic catastrophe, but the overall adaptative life within in it all. That stream is founded on successful harmony.

Closing thought on Intelligent Design: I am unhappy that this title has been taken by such wrong-headed thinking. Evolutionary creation does not reject God as creator but has to steer clear of the word "design" because of what the Behe-s have done to it on the one hand, and the unnecessary specifics of it on the other (eg the statement "God designed us to have four fingers and a thumb on each hand"). However and in actual fact, the scientific community is not against all notions of design - it will resolutely avoid, however, adding the necessity of or reliance on a sentient independent intelligence, aka God, the Intelligent Designer.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Centering Prayer, with Cynthia Bourgeault 1

IT WAS LIBERATING to me to read this book. I am usually very critical in all I read but I find so little to fault here in the deep, practical pages of Cynthia.

A few things that may alarm conservative evangelicals: this book will not be judgemental toward other faiths but will attempt (in my view, successfully) situate contemplative prayer firmly within the Christian tradition. Secondly, Cynthia manages to anticipate worries about this alternative approach without a defensive time and without portraying centering prayer as the be all and end all of prayer. And she will certainly not advocate a babbling word-loaded time of prayer (pummel my spirit with Truth).

I will shortly provide a summary of her book, itself a summary of her own message summary that she provides at the end of her book. But first, it's really worth pointing out the necessity of this summary. You know how some books basically divulge their message in a nutshell and slowly unpack that nutshell for the rest of the book? I don't know about you, but I don't always feel very motivated to finish that kind of book. Every single chapter of Cynthia's book brings something fresh and is loaded with humorous stories and is instilled via a non-professional and accessible style and vocabulary. The irony is that some of her own summary points at the end do overlap, which gives me a small sense of purpose for my following post on this book: provide an even more condensed summary. Coming Soon, as they say!

Friday, 9 February 2018

Ultimate Purpose and reflections from Genesis 1-3

Justin Brierley's brilliant Unbelievable show resumes its traditional format of atheist versus Christian format after a more in-house discussion on the tricky genocidal aspects of Yahweh's instructions to his invading people to violently invade and dominate the Promised Land (I have blogged a little about the Old Testament violence issue already here).

What do you think about the argument of our life's purpose? Do we even ask these questions correctly? Without going into the Unbelievable debate in any detail (you can check it out Can we find God in a suffering world?), I was once again left to ponder, unsatisfied, on our definitions of such a fundamental issue as "purpose", but also strangely drawn to the apparent inevitability of the connection to suffering. But let's leave suffering for a moment.

My Christian heritage is founded on the biblical idea that originally, we could have inhabited a world without any suffering whatsoever. No death - except maybe that of vegetation. Yet, despite that eventuality of pain, there was a purpose.

Genesis 1

Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’

Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground – everything that has the breath of life in it – I give every green plant for food.’ And it was so.

On this basis, Jews, Christians and Muslims share that there is a purpose that supercedes that of the animal kingdom. Vegetation exists in order to be eaten. Animals exist in order to eat and be eaten. Humans, however are to thrive and rule. Eating is clearly pretty important - it comes up quite a bit, but it is never provided as the reason or purpose. The mandate for humans is to share in a divine mandate, to share in the gods' work of order and rule, all of which ultimately comes under the presidency of Yahweh himself. The delegation is so great that humankind get to name the animals. That's huge and weird if you think about it, not naming what you created, maybe a bit like asking your kid to name their younger sibling. Maybe. 

So what this story has taught us is that there are layers of meaning. We all have "purpose". The question really is just how up the ladder do we want to climb? Do we just want to be physically fulfilled? Do we desire that deeply for our family and close friends too (layer 2)? Or do we feel empathy and a call to act to right wrongs in our society that may not even affect us directly (layer 3?)

One of the problems with the Genesis 1-2 scenario (there are quite a few actually, depending on how you read the text) is the notion of order. The jurisdiction and domination over creation without suffering often overlooks a lurking clue to the source of evil. There was still chaos. Where there is no order, there is not a vacuum, and the Old Testament language continues to revisit and enrich the Israelite understanding of order and disorder. I guess that's even why naming comes in. Give something nameless a name, you reduce its uncertainty, you provide it with blissful parameters.

So our purpose is to rule over our God-appointed spheres of influence. Before "the Fall", this was not to eat, but to weigh in on ruleless "chaos" and provide order. I think that is really where I want to leave it today, so here's a quick summary and then a quick idea about the serpent of Genesis 3:

  • "Purpose" is not about ground-level existence, it's minimum one rung up from that since this is essentially the plant and animal level.
  • An orderlessness, or a need-to-be-ordered, pre-existed any bad human choices.
  • Naming carries big responsibility.

The exchange with the serpent

So what about that crafty serpent of Genesis 3? Was it the one Jesus referred to as Satan? Who knows, but one thing that today's reflection has clarified for me is that both Adam and Even shirked their responsibility, climbed down their ladder of purpose, and allowed the creation to dictate ideas and mandates of its own. The serpent is a created beast here, albeit an admittedly developed one endowed with the faculties of speech. But there has been no mention of it having received any other special privilege such as giving orders or holding responsibility on God's behalf. The great fall merits its capitalised "The Fall" when we realise that mankind has abandoned its remit of good order and been dictated to by the very creature over which rule was supposed to be exercised. This was the greater "sin" in my view - as bad as the fruit-eating episode was. So how should Adam and Eve have responded to the crafty serpent? "No, I won't eat the fruit" - is that really all that they were being tested here? Most certainly not - the serpent was "a beast" and needed severe punishment for threatening the rule. A simple refusal could still be a recognition of upset lines of authority and order.