I was already fairly familiar with most of the stories in Genesis from pop culture and Sunday School, so I didn’t expect to be as surprised as I was.
My first big shock came right at the beginning with the two accounts of creation. It’s a well-known fact that there are two separate creation stories, each emerging from different traditions. I hear this a lot from Atheists, which is to be expected, but I also hear it from scholars. And, while I’m sure that they are correct about the provenance of the two stories, I found it much easier to harmonize them than I had thought. The imagery of Genesis 1 is of a world, whereas the imagery of Genesis 2 is of a garden – a garden built within a world.
When I heard these stories in Sunday School, I had always assumed that I was getting a shortened version, when in fact the opposite was true. The kiddie versions of these stories are often substantially longer, filling in details that the Bible misses. I was very surprised by how short famous stories like the Tower of Babel actually are.
I was disappointed with the patriarchs. I wasn’t expecting a lot, but I figured that they would at the very least display a contextually appropriate virtue. For all I know, maybe they are. But they bear no resemblance at all to what any modern westerner would regard as upstanding . The only one who might pass as role model is Joseph, whose story is by far the most complex, realistic, and interesting of the whole book.
I knew going in that there would be portions of the famous stories that are commonly glossed over. It turns out that I was correct, but that I hadn’t quite realized the extent of it. What lay person knows that Noah got so drunk that he passed out naked and then cursed his son (and all his son’s descendants) because the poor guy had the misfortune of finding him in that state?
I tried my best to keep up with the family tree as I read, but I had to give up once my tree started looking a bit too much like a web. It didn’t help that some of the branches changed depending on which passage I read. I just don’t have the technology to clearly represent disappearing spouses.
I think my greatest take away from this first book is that God and his patriarchs bear no resemblance whatsoever to that of the modern Christian conception. Even those who believe in the vengeful, cruel God don’t seem to grasp the complexity of the character. As I tried to lay aside the preconceptions I had formed from the sanitized versions of these stories I was familiar with, I realized that Genesis is an alien book written in an alien time by an alien people. I think that it’s a mistake to think that it can be truly understood by a modern lay reader, or that it’s in any way capable of informing our 21st century lives.