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Art Hilgart

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George Nobl

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Art Hilgart

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Exquisite Corpse

by Art Hilgart

The current fascination with the Book of Genesis, in print and on television, often resembles entrail-reading. "But what does that mean for us?" is a common question, and commentators are free with fanciful answers. As usual, a little distance and context are useful when dealing with holy books.

The Reverend Andrew Greeley published the results of a study of religious beliefs in twelve countries, conducted in 1991 and 1992 for the International Social Survey Program. Except for East Germany, majorities were found to believe in God in each country-- more than nine of ten in the United States. Perhaps religion owes its survival into modern times to the flexibility of the word.

"Religion" can mean a system of beliefs and values that describe one's relationship to the universe. In this sense, anyone has a religion, whether it is the conviction that one is a biological unit in a material universe or one thinks himself a child of God awaiting an eternal afterlife.

It can also mean a system of ethics defining how one ought to behave. This too has an all-encompassing range, from egoistic hedonism through Kantian humanism to the conviction that God has issued a specific rule book to cover all eventualities. Thus a Henry Kissinger can believe that homicide is acceptable whenever it is to one's personal advantage, while Christians and Jews supposedly believe literally that "Thou shalt not kill."

A common use of the term is somewhat similar to magic-- the idea that one can control the material universe through supernatural means. Magic rites and incantations are direct forms of such religion, but nowadays the most common form is to ask God in prayer to influence outcomes of wars, basketball games, love affairs, diseases, and other uncertainties of everyday life.

"Religion" can also mean a specific set of such beliefs and instructions promulgated by and defining some sect or other, like Catholicism or Islam. Usually but not always these incorporate doctrines regarding a supernatural supreme being and perhaps a transcendental afterlife. The planet offers a wide menu of such religions, no more than one of which can be "true" in all of its parts. Most people have the interesting capacity to believe that the religion of their parents and neighbors is the one and only true religion, so defined.

The word is also used to denote hierarchical structures associated with these formal sets of doctrine. Thus the Catholic "religion" can mean the teachings of that church, but also its permanent organization of popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, and ordinary members.

The primary meaning of "religion" to many church members may be the activities, friendships, and rituals associated with their congregation: singing in a choir, decorating the building for Easter services, bake sales, and other such participation that binds any social group.

Perhaps the most important meaning of "religion" is its use to divide humanity into arbitrary ethnic subdivisions-- Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu and the rest, along with great numbers of schismatic subsets. For most people this is probably the most salient meaning of the term. Evidently one does not often choose a religion after a serious search among doctrinal alternatives, but simply defines oneself according to the religion of his parents. "I'm a Methodist," someone might say, without the slightest knowledge of what distinguishes Methodists from Jews or Baptists. Methodists do of course know that there is something a bit sinister about marrying a Jew, say, just as a Jew knows that parents will be upset about marriage to a Methodist. Curiously for so casual an affiliation, these self-definitions are probably responsible for more homicide than any other cause, as Jews and Arabs, Catholics and Protestants, Hindus and Muslims have massacred one another over the ages.

With at least seven distinct meanings, it is possible for statements beginning "Religion is..." to be utterly meaningless, as in, "Religion is important or very important to 87.3% of Americans." Garry Wills is a journalist and a Roman Catholic. In Under God: Religion and American Politics, he uses the term "religion" to mean any or all of the above, depending on his immediate purpose. Thus he finds consolation in polls showing that ninety per cent of Americans say they believe in God and that a majority would not vote for an atheist as president. He does not trouble himself to ask why so many of these God-fearing people voted to re-elect demonstrated mass murderers Nixon (Viet Nam and elsewhere) and Reagan (Nicaragua and elsewhere). Clearly the religion he finds among Americans is not one that demands responsibility of people for one another or one that prescribes eternal damnation for murder. (Unless a god were mentally deficient, he would find voting for murder as sinful as pulling the trigger oneself.) A skeptic may surmise that the poll responses refer to the definitional context of religion. What that may imply for the actual beliefs and behavior of the respondents is anybody's guess.


Three of the world's major organized religions base their doctrines on some or all of the Bible-- the so-called Old Testament of Jews, Christians, and Muslims and the New Testament of Christianity and Islam. For Muslims, of course, the Koran is the third sacred book. The emergence of Western religion from scattered Mediterranean myths and folk tales was first formalized in Genesis and Exodus, the books of the Old Testament that take us from the creation through the death of Moses. Many believe these books, like the rest of the Bible, to have been dictated by God himself to a human scribe, perhaps to Moses himself. In recent centuries, however, scholars have distinguished the hands of several authors. (Richard Elliott Friedman, a young Old Testament authority at the University of California has delivered perhaps the best and most readable analysis in his Who Wrote the Bible, Summit Books, 1987.)

By the time most us of got around to reading the Bible, we had heard most of the stories in Sunday school, children's books, and the movies. Such conditioning makes Bible-reading more a review than an independent experience. The same sources, along with Milton and Italian paintings, gave us an image of God, so that when he shows up in the biblical narratives, we supply expectations much as we do when seeing the latest James Bond. We already know who he is.

These circumstances lead us to abandon the elementary critical sense that accompanies our reading of ordinary fiction and non-fiction. For example, we fail to notice the discrepancies between the two distinct creation stories that supply the first couple of pages of Genesis. (In one, the male is created before vegetables and the woman later, in the other both sexes come after plants.) Scholars, however, have paid attention to such discrepancies and repetitions and used them to draw conclusions about authorship and editing. The academic explanation of this pattern of theme and variations is multiple authorship. The original version is known as "J", because the author refers to God as Yahweh (Jehovah in German). The first revision is called "E", because in it, God is called Elohim. Later both versions were patched together, which accounts for the duplications.

Response to the publication of The Book of J, translated by David Rosenberg and interpreted by Harold Bloom (Grove Weidenfeld, 1990, now available in a Harper paperback), mostly focussed on Bloom's novel and plausible inference from the book's style and other clues that "J" was a woman, perhaps a princess in the court of Solomon. It is Rosenberg's translation, however, that is the compelling half of the volume. Whether "J" was the author or merely God's dictaphone, her book is the basis of three of the world's great religions and her God is worshipped by hundreds of millions of people.

It is a fascinating exercise to approach "J" as if it were a new book, to try to read it as we read Homer or Hamlet. "J" is earlier than Homer, by the way-- he was around 700 BC, while "J" is dated two centuries earlier.

"J", like the Bible we know, is a continuous narrative, but it falls into three distinct parts. The first contains her versions of three Middle Eastern fables: the creation, the flood, and the Tower of Babel. Following immediately is the story of Abraham, his children, and grandchildren. Without pause, J skips three centuries and tells the story of Moses. And there she ends, breaking off her story three hundred years before her own time.

The Yahweh in J's telling of the creation legends is apparently one of several divinities, like the Greek Olympians. After making Adam out of clay and Eve from Adam's rib, he enjoins them not to eat of the tree of knowledge, lest they become like gods. After they eat the fruit anyway, Yahweh observes to the other gods that the humans may also eat of the tree of life and become immortal as well. To prevent this, he drives them from Eden.

Some time later, the gods take up the practice of impregnating human women, breeding giants and heros-- again like the Greek divinities. Yahweh is disgusted by the spectacle and decides to destroy all life on His planet. Before the flood of many legends, however, Yahweh decides to warn Noah to build that ark. As the rains fall, Yahweh thoughtfully closes the ark door for Noah.

There is a curious episode in the story of Noah: sometime after the flood, Ham, one of Noah's sons, sees him drunk and naked, and laughs at him. Enraged, Noah curses Ham and Ham's son Canaan, saying that Canaan will be a slave to his cousins. The significance of this anecdote-- the only story about the Noah family-- may be that in subsequent sections of "J", we again encounter the Canaanites, the ancestors of the Palestinians.

After the earth was repopulated, some Sumerians decided that humans had been nomadic long enough and should become civilized. To this end they would build a city with a tower to bring it fame. Yahweh watched the construction project with interest, warning the other gods that again boundaries were being challenged. And so the gods came to earth and garbled human speech. So handicapped, the Sumerians could not continue the venture and resumed nomadic wandering.

Immediately after the "Tower of Babel" explanation of linguistic diversity, we are introduced to Abraham. Many centuries have elapsed, for it is the time of the Pharaohs and we have passed from the mythological past into historical time, about 1800 BC. Many of the gods now have earthly followers, and Yahweh wanders his planet like an old Wotan. Yahweh tells Abraham to leave his homeland in Iraq and go to Palestine¹, where he will achieve fame. When Abraham arrives in Palestine, Yahweh announces that it now belongs to Abraham's descendants. Abraham keeps going, however, on into Egypt. Once there, claiming she is his sister, he lends his wife to the Pharaoh, and the Pharaoh rewards him with riches. Now prosperous, Abraham takes his household back to Palestine, which Yahweh once again gives to Abraham.

Of the 110 pages of "J", the creation myths take ten and Moses gets thirty. The family saga of Abraham, his son Isaac, grandson Jacob, and great-grandson Joseph get the other seventy, two-thirds of the book. Most of this recounts the peaceful life of the family among the Palestinians, accounts of marriages, births, and deaths. Yahweh wanders in a few times, once to restore the fertility of Abraham's wife, another time to incinerate Sodom and Gomorrah, apparently because he found the citizens contemptuous of him. (Yahweh's notorious practical joke on Abraham, telling him to kill his son Isaac, and then announcing, "Just kidding!" does not appear in "J", only in "E".)

Abraham's great-grandson, Joseph, is a dreamer and interpreter of dreams. Because he recounts his own dreams attesting to his own superiority, his brothers throw him down a well and leave him for dead. But Joseph is found by traders, and he is eventually sold to an Egyptian. In Egypt, he comes to the attention of the Pharaoh because of his dream interpretations, and eventually is made a prosperous governor. At the end of the story, Joseph is joined by all of his relatives in Egypt. It is now about 1650 BC.

Without pause, J skips four centuries. We are still in Egypt, where the seventy relatives of Joseph have become six hundred thousand "people of Israel". One of them, Moses, announces to the Pharaoh that the God of the Hebrews has told him to take his people into the desert for three days to sacrifice to Yahweh. Otherwise, Yahweh will punish the Hebrews with disease and the sword. The Pharaoh denies the request, and Yahweh proceeds to change his mind by poisoning the water, filling the houses with frogs and flies, and killing the cattle, slaves, crops, and firstborn sons. All of this gets Moses permission to leave, and he leads his people into the Sinai peninsula. They manage this in "J" without a detour through the Red Sea, although sometime later, pursuing Egyptians are miraculously confused, and in their retreat they are "rocked" into a sea.

Although in Abraham's time, people were practically commuting between Palestine and Egypt, Moses takes forty years to cover the hundred miles or so to Palestine. His followers repeatedly complain that they were better off in Egypt, leading Moses to complain to Yahweh, and Yahweh to reassure Moses that Palestine is indeed theirs. In a familiar episode, Moses is instructed to take two stone tablets up Mount Sinai, where Yahweh formalizes his covenant. In "J" there are no Ten Commandments, but these injunctions: Don't make deals with the Palestinians; you will sweep their altars away. Don't fall prostrate to another god, my name is Jealous Yahweh. If your sons breed with the Palestinians, they will be seduced into worshipping other gods. I will disperse the nation in your path. When the land is yours, do special honor to me three times a year. Later, some of the Hebrews are caught consorting with the locals and honoring their God. Yahweh orders the execution of the defectors and Moses carries out the order.

When scouts report that Palestine is already inhabited, Moses's people again threaten to go back to Egypt, and Moses again repeats what Yahweh has been promising. When they finally approach Palestine, Yahweh yet again reminds Moses of the gift to Abraham, Moses appoints Joshua as his successor, and he dies. Here The Book of J ends.

Reviewing the appearances of Yahweh, we find little of the God worshipped by the millions of subscribers to the three major religions. There is no monotheism here: the Yahweh of the creation legends talks to other gods, and the God of Abraham and Moses is obsessed with the possibility that they will honor his rivals. (In the "E" version, the name of God is Elohim, itself a plural form.) There is no heaven, hell, or devil, no souls or original sin, no Messiah, and no immortality. Indeed, in the Adam story, Yahweh fears that humans may eat from the tree of life and become immortal. There is little moral guidance from J's Yahweh. He tolerates incest, adultery, theft, deception, murder, prostitution, and other assorted vices, drawing the line only at insufficiently exclusive respect for Himself.

Yahweh's relationship with his people is collective. He expects periodic sacrifices of plants and animals and similar recognition, but he does not personally watch over each person's sex life, nor does he listen to individual prayers, let alone respond to them. At his own initiative, he talked to Abraham and Moses, but he was apparently occupied elsewhere during the centuries between them.

Because he wished to be worshipped by the Israelites in the desert, he killed an enormous number of innocent Egyptians to soften up the Pharaoh. In this he is more like Henry Kissinger vis-a-vis the Vietnamese than a loving ruler of the universe. There is more bloody-mindedness in Yahweh's instructions to Joshua (not in "J" but from the author of Deuteronomy): If a city you approach surrenders, make slaves of its people. If it should refuse, kill all the men and keep the women, children, and cattle. In the land I have given you, however, leave none of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, or Perizzites alive. In short, Yahweh is no Prince of Peace.

Here then is the rock upon which the faith of millions rests: nothing of the relationships of man and man or of man and the universe, only a post-dated divine deed to Palestine, which may be the central significance of the document. J wrote three centuries after Joshua, but only a century or so after David consolidated the Kingdom. Her book, therefore, may have been intended as a justification for Hebrew domination of Palestine, much as many Americans ascribe divine intention to the birth of our nation, the decimation of the native Americans, and the institution of slavery. We are used to the claim of practically every army that God is on its side. The Book of J raises the suspicion that God may have been invented for just that purpose.2

The modern forms of the great religions present quite a different God, one with more complex relationships with individuals, one who has established elaborate moral injunctions. Some of these, like most of the familiar Ten Commandments, are no more than political rules for maintaining order within a community. Others, like the Sermon on the Mount, carry a humanistic call for universal brotherhood. The study of the development of these successor religions reveals accretions, each of which can be explained by historical or political context. As we peel back any one of these onions, layer by layer, we come to the core, The Book of J. There, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, we find only a pompous windbag offering gift certificates that must be redeemed at the recipients' expense.


1"Palestine" is used here for Canaan and related lands, and "Palestinians" for the people of Palestine: J calls them variously Canaanites, Hittites, Amelekites, Jebusites, and Moabites.

2 Most contemporary historical and archaeological experts agree on the absence of independent evidence of Moses and the Exodus.


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