Archive for the ‘Genesis’ Category


Re-Reading the Story of Cain and Abel — Steven D. Ealy

January 30, 2014
Abel is slain by his brother Cain. Abel's leg, his left arm and Cain's curved body form part of a circle that makes the picture very dynamic. The effects of the dark sky and the threatening Cain are emphasized by the perspective, which suggests a low point of view. The painting is now in the church of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice. It was originally made as a ceiling painting for the Santo Spirito in Isola. Titian made two other ceiling paintings for that church, one on David and Goliath and one on the Sacrifice of Isaac.

Abel is slain by his brother Cain. Abel’s leg, his left arm and Cain’s curved body form part of a circle that makes the picture very dynamic. The effects of the dark sky and the threatening Cain are emphasized by the perspective, which suggests a low point of view. The painting is now in the church of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice. It was originally made as a ceiling painting for the Santo Spirito in Isola. Titian made two other ceiling paintings for that church, one on David and Goliath and one on the Sacrifice of Isaac.

Steven D. Ealy is a senior fellow at the Liberty Fund, a nonprofit foundation headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA which promulgates the libertarian views of its founder through publishing, conferences, and educational resources. The operating mandate of the Liberty Fund was set forth in an unpublished memo written by its founder, Pierre F. Goodrich “to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.” This is a review of The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony by the Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012. This is his review of The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony by the Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012.


At least since Augustine’s The City of God, the biblical account of Cain and Abel has been used to treat them as archetypes of humanity. Augustine argues that mankind is “distributed into two parts, the one consisting of those who live according to man, the other of those who live according to God.” This is the foundation of Augustine’s mystical understanding of the two cities, the city of man and the city of God. Cain was the first citizen of the city of man, while Abel belonged to the city of God.

Both Cain and Abel were “first of all born of Adam evil and carnal,” tainted with original sin. Only Abel, however, becomes a citizen of the city of God because after his carnal birth he “becomes good and spiritual … when he is grafted into Christ by regeneration.”

In Augustine’s reading, Abel’s status as a citizen of the city of God is not a matter of his actions or free choices; rather, he was “predestined by grace, elected by grace, [to be] a stranger below [in the city of man], and … a citizen above [in the city of God].” Based on Genesis 4:17, Cain is regarded as the builder of the first city, and therefore could be seen as the founder of the city of man. Augustine notes this in his discussion of the brothers: “Accordingly, it is recorded of Cain that he built a city, but Abel, being a sojourner, built none.

One of the pitfalls in using Cain and Abel (and perhaps in using other well-known biblical figures such as Abraham or Job) as types is the possibility of allowing the conclusion of the story to lead us into the development of predictable and oversimplified categories that miss the paradoxes and tensions contained in the original biblical story.

A recent work that examines Cain and Abel as types but attempts to avoid this trap is The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony, president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem. I want to outline Hazony’s discussion here for two reasons. First, Hazony’s work is an important contribution to understanding the dynamic of the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Second, Hazony’s argument is important not just for understanding Genesis 4 but as a radical critique of the generally accepted understanding of the entire Hebrew Bible.

German theologian Paul Tillich became well known in the postwar period for arguing that the heart of Protestantism was “shaking the foundations” of traditional theology. Similarly, Hazony “shakes the foundations” of the accepted understanding by arguing that when it comes to the Hebrew Bible, things might not be as clear-cut as they appear to be. Hazony’s major focus in this regard, of which his treatment of Cain and Abel is but a small piece, is to dismantle the popular view that the Hebrew Bible cannot be treated as a serious intellectual document because it is based on revelation and not on reason.

Hazony seeks to establish the role of reason in the Hebrew Bible through a discussion of its structure and by highlighting and illustrating the array of techniques it uses to make arguments of a general nature that can be judged by reason. That is the larger context for Hazony’s treatment of Cain and Abel, which is my primary subject here.

In many engagements with Genesis 4, the focus is almost entirely on Cain, and any discussion of Abel is merely an afterthought. This is certainly the case when we come to the literary treatments of the biblical story as presented in Byron’s Cain: A Mystery and John Steinbeck’s monumental East of Eden. For both of these writers, Cain is the crucial figure. In Byron, he is treated as a Prometheus-like hero who establishes human freedom through his refusal to obey God’s orders.

In Steinbeck’s novel, Cain is also central to establishing the principle of human freedom, which is built around Cain’s discussion with God and the meaning of the Hebrew word “timshel,” which is translated by the house-servant Lee as “mayest.” Lee argues that God’s use of the word “may,” as opposed to “must,” contains the kernel of contingency and openness found at the heart of human freedom.

It is not unfair to say that for both Byron and Steinbeck, Abel is just a stage prop or part of the scenery, while the real action of the story swirls around Cain. This neglect of Abel is perhaps not surprising, and is even suggested in the biblical account in Genesis 4 by Abel’s name, which is related to the Hebrew for “vapor” and “puff of air” (according to translator Robert Alter) and signifies “something transitory” (according to translator Everett Fox).

Given the general treatment of the story, which emphasizes the relative importance of Cain and the relative unimportance of Abel, it is therefore somewhat surprising that the first mention of this story in Hazony’s work refers to Abel and that Cain is not mentioned at all.

In an overview of his entire book, Hazony writes, “The Bible is often said to advocate an ethics of obedience. But … this view involves a serious misreading of Hebrew Scripture.” The figures most celebrated in the Hebrew Bible, Hazony argues, “are esteemed for their dissent and disobedience — a trait the biblical authors associate with the free life of the shepherd, as opposed to the life of the pious submission represented by the figure of the farmer.” In a way, Hazony sets out to turn the tables on Byron’s understanding; for Hazony, Abel (as the type of the shepherd) will represent dissidence and disobedience, while Cain (as the type of the farmer) will represent conformity and submission.

The first line of resistance of shepherd dissidence is against corrupt human institutions, but it goes beyond this. Hazony writes, “Abel, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, and other biblical figures are at times portrayed as resisting not only man but God himself.” Note the importance Hazony attributes to Abel, placing him first in this list of biblical heroes. He concludes, “The biblical narrative endorses… an outsider’s ethics, which encourages a critique even of things that appear to be decreed by God in the name of what is genuinely beneficial to man.” From this biblical perspective, Hazony continues, “what is genuinely beneficial to man is that which will ultimately find favor in God’s eyes,” even if the idea will not originate with God and even if it was in opposition to God’s original plan.

Perhaps as surprising as Hazony’s emphasis on Abel is his characterization of Cain. Hazony’s introduction of Cain occurs when he places Cain’s story within the broader sweep of biblical history; he argues that it “is very uncertain ….that we can really understand the story of Cain, a farmer, murdering his brother Abel, who is  a shepherd, if we do not recognize that his first act of violence between farmers and shepherds is a premonition of the violence between farmers and shepherds that appears in the later story of Abraham, and then again in the story of Moses, and yet again in the story of David.”

As already noted, Hazony argues that Cain and Abel are presented as distinct theoretical types. Cain is a farmer “who represents tradition-bound and idolatrous societies such as Egypt and Babylonia” and “whose highest value is obedience.” Abel is a shepherd “who stands for the spirit of freedom in search of that which is the true good.” Abel represents the individual and the society “that is willing to forsake the might and riches of the great civilizations for the sake of personal freedom and the hope of something higher.”

Hazony situates the story of Cain and Abel in its biblical context. Cain and Abel are born to Eve after she and Adam have sinned and been expelled from the Garden of Eden. In Genesis 3, God says to Adam, “Cursed is the ground due to you, and in sorrow shall you eat of it all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles shall it give forth for you, but you will eat the grasses of the field. By the sweat of your brow will you eat bread, until you return to the ground from which you were taken.”

God then sends them out of the garden “to work the ground from which he had been taken.” This passage emphasizes the “bitterness of the farming life” and is made even stronger by the words used to describe Adam’s fate. According to Hazony, the Hebrew term usually translated “till” or “work” the soil also means “serve.” Thus, “God has in fact punished man by sending him ‘to serve the ground’ — to become the servant and slave of the earth itself.”

In Genesis 4, we turn immediately to the story of Cain and Abel. The tale is told concisely: “Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock.

The text emphasizes that the idea of making a sacrifice to God is Cain’s. It is Cain who inclines toward piety, and thinks to make some of his meager supply of food, which he has scraped from the soil, and sacrifice it to God in gratitude.” Second, as a tiller of the soil, Cain is following the instructions God had given to Adam. Hazony writes. “He works the ground just as God had told his father to do. He submits to God’s will, and even, amid the curse and the hardship, finds it in his heart to be grateful to God for what he has.”

Hazony’s account of Abel is also different from the standard view. First, Abel merely follows Cain’s example in making a sacrifice. There is no suggestion that his offering is superior to his brother’s. Second, while Cain has followed in his father’s career and tilled the soil in accordance with God’s instructions, in becoming a shepherd “Abel has … found a way to escape the curse upon the soil.”

Hazony maintains that the biblical text emphasizes “the fact that this is about what Abel wants, first and foremost, rather than about what God wants.” So the pious and hard-working Cain’s sacrifice is rejected while the sacrifice of the self-indulgent Abel is accepted. How can this be brought into an understandable framework?

Hazony argues that the story is constructed so as to present readers with a stark choice concerning the best way of life: “Each archetype represents a way of life and an approach to living as a human being, to ethics.” First is the life of the farmer as portrayed in Cain. “Cain has piously accepted the curse of the soil … as unchallengeable. His response is to submit, as had his father before him…. In the eyes of the biblical author, Cain represents the life of the farmer, a life of pious submission, obeying in gratitude the custom that has been handed down, which alone provides bread so that man may live.”

Next is the life of the shepherd. “Abel takes the curse of the soil as a fact, but not as one that possesses any intrinsic merit, so that it should command his allegiance. The fact that God decreed it, and that his father had submitted to it, does not make it good. His response is the opposite of submission: He resists with ingenuity and daring, risking the anger of man and God to secure improvement for himself and for his children. Abel represents the life of the shepherd, which is a life of dissent and initiative, whose aim is to find the good life for man, which is presumed to be God’s true will.”

While God said nothing about shepherding when he ejected Adam and Eve from Eden, it develops that shepherding does fit within God’s plans. What God really wants, according to Hazony, is “an improvement in man’s station, a greater goodness which comes of man’s own unsolicited efforts.” Hazony concludes, “God accepts the offering of a man who seeks to improve things, to make them good of himself and his own initiative. This is what God finds in Abel, and the reason he accepts his sacrifice.” (I note in passing a point that Hazony does not make — this discussion of man’s improvement of his situation sounds much like Locke’s account of the divine origins of property in his chapter on property in the Second Treatise.)

Hazony concludes with a fascinating appendix titled What Is ‘Reason’? Some Preliminary Remarks. Here, having rejected the traditional distinction between reason and revelation, he draws on the Reformed philosophers Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga. Their perhaps unexpected appearance should serve as a hint to readers whose understanding of Scripture differs sharply from Hazony’s in some respects that they can nonetheless profit from time spent with this book.


Robert Alter And The King James Bible 2 – James Wood

November 26, 2013
Tintoretto, The Temptation of Adam. This work together with the Creation of Animals and the Murder of Abel, created between 1550 and 1553, was originally in the Scuola della Trinità. Adam and Eve are depicted not in a landscape thrown into confusion by the hand of the Creator but in a more serene, more human dimension. In the leafy arbor the two nude figures moving around the trunk of the tree form the parallel diagonals of the composition. A strong light gives a sculptural effect to their ivory-pink flesh. But in the background, on the right, the tranquility of the foreground scene gives way to the tumultuous epilogue to the fact of human disobedience to Divine will. With rapid brushstrokes Tintoretto evokes the fiery angel who drives Adam and Eve out into the distant desolate hills and plains. Eve, temptation personified, is pressing close to the tree of knowledge; her arms prolong the line of the serpent thrusting down from above. Tintoretto confidently shows that he has now perfectly mastered not only the sculptural structure of a muscular, sinewy male body (a particular strength of Florentine painters, especially of Michelangelo) but also the reproduction of female grace and tenderness (the domain of Venetian artists, particularly Titian).

Tintoretto, The Temptation of Adam. This work together with the Creation of Animals and the Murder of Abel, created between 1550 and 1553, was originally in the Scuola della Trinità. Adam and Eve are depicted not in a landscape thrown into confusion by the hand of the Creator but in a more serene, more human dimension. In the leafy arbor the two nude figures moving around the trunk of the tree form the parallel diagonals of the composition. A strong light gives a sculptural effect to their ivory-pink flesh. But in the background, on the right, the tranquility of the foreground scene gives way to the tumultuous epilogue to the fact of human disobedience to Divine will. With rapid brushstrokes Tintoretto evokes the fiery angel who drives Adam and Eve out into the distant desolate hills and plains. Eve, temptation personified, is pressing close to the tree of knowledge; her arms prolong the line of the serpent thrusting down from above. Tintoretto confidently shows that he has now perfectly mastered not only the sculptural structure of a muscular, sinewy male body (a particular strength of Florentine painters, especially of Michelangelo) but also the reproduction of female grace and tenderness (the domain of Venetian artists, particularly Titian).

Robert Alter has written some twenty-three books, and is noted most recently for his translations of sections of the Bible. Frequent New Yorker contributor James Wood turns his attention to Alter’s translations in contrast to the King James Bible.


To read the Pentateuch right through is an extraordinary education in early theology. These five books revert obsessively to questions of fertility, rebellion, and polytheism, and the three concerns are tightly linked. Again and again, Yahweh tells his people that they must worship no other gods but him, and that the consequences for failing this charge will be death and destruction.

God’s chosen people repeatedly failed to keep this law, most famously at Sinai, when Aaron persuaded them to worship the golden calf, saying: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from Egypt.” The five books are anxiously shadowed by the threat of polytheism, which surrounded the Israelites in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and which provided some of the mythic texts that Genesis and Exodus seem to remember.

God goes by several names in the Torah, some of the differences having to do with different Bible writers working in different centuries. He first appears in Genesis as Elohim, but is switched to Yahweh Elohim (usually translated as “the Lord God”). When he appears in chapter 17 of Genesis to tell Abraham that he will be “a father to a multitude of nations,” he announces himself as El Shaddai, an archaic name used five times in the Pentateuch that may have associations with fertility or mountains.

In Numbers, the word El seems to be used as a synonym for Yahweh: El is a Hebrew word meaning God, but it is also the name of the chief of the Canaanite gods. And after the parting of the Red Sea, when the Israelites give thanks in their Song of the Sea, the following verses occur (in Alter’s translation):

You blew with Your breath — the sea covered them over.
They sank like lead in the mighty waters:
Who is like You among the gods, O Lord,
who is like You, mighty in holiness?

At times like these, and in its insistent warnings against worshipping other gods, the Pentateuch reflects the effort of wrenching monotheism out of the polytheistic context: monotheism is known nowhere else in antiquity and is, on the face of it, a peculiar notion (so peculiar, perhaps, that one chosen god must be matched by or chosen people). It cannot have been easy to have renounced — if indeed such a renunciation took place — the comforting cosmogony wherein various parts of the natural world were represented by different all-powerful gods, and junior “personal” deities looked after one’s daily interests.

Frank Moore Cross and Jean Bottero, among many others, have shown the Pentateuch’s indebtedness to Egyptian and Babylonian mythic narratives. In Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia, Bottero gives an account of the Atrahasis, a Mesopotamian poem written, most likely, before 1700 B.C. In it, the gods meet in council and agree to follow the god Enki’s plan to create human man beings out of clay. In these early years, as in the days of Noah, people live for hundreds and even thousands of years. But mankind multiplies so effectively that its noise disturbs the sleep of the irascible king of the gods, Enlil, who decides to destroy the pesky humans.

He sends epidemic, illness, and famine, but each time the humans escape, aided by Enki, their “inventor.” Enlil, still enraged, sends a flood, but Enki saves the race by placing one man, Atrahasis and his family in an unsinkable boat. After the flood, in order to appease Enlil, Enki reduces the life span of each person to the length we know today, and introduces sterility and infant mortality to keel the numbers down.

Clearly, this is an ancient account not just of the origin of the world but of the origin of evil, of human suffering and death, in which the mark of man’s rebelliousness is in part his sheer fertility It is like peering into the crucible of theodicy. Notwithstanding the enormous difference of monotheism, we see something very similar in the early chapters of Genesis (the Israelites would have shared with the Mesopotamian Semites a traditional Semitic culture).

In the first chapter of Genesis, God (Elohim) creates man in his own image and charges him to be fruitful and multiply. But in the second chapter — thought to be a different narrative strand — the Lord God (now called Yahweh Elohim) threatens Adam and Eve with death if they eat of the tree of good and evil. They fail the test, and mortality and sin enter the world.

Sin is palpable: in Alter’s wonderful phrase, God warns the disgruntled Cain that “at the tent flap sin crouches,” and in the very next verse Cain rises up and slays his brother. Man “began to multiply over the earth” and to sin, and the Lord repents of his decision to create humans, and sends a flood to eliminate all but Noah and his family.

After the Flood, he makes a covenant never to destroy his creation, and human life spans are reduced to 120 years. The stories of the patriarchs now begin, but God cannot cede what seems an anxious desire to control human fertility: men must be circumcised, and the wives of the early patriarchs (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel) are barren until the Lord chooses to permit them to breed.

He will threaten his people again with complete destruction when they follow Aaron’s encouragement to worship the golden calf. Promiscuous fertility and polytheism seem to be connected menaces, captured in Yahweh’s command in Exodus that the Israelites make no covenant with any of the peoples they vanquish and displace, who “whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods.”

There is an ironic Midrashic commentary, mentioned by Emmanuel Levinas in his book Nine Talmudic Readings, in which the Talmudists placed demons — spirits without bodies — inside Noah’s Ark. “These are the tempters of postdiluvian civilization,” Levinas remarks, “without which, no doubt, the mankind of the future could not be, despite its regeneration, a true mankind.” Evil has entered the earth forever and cannot be expunged, even by flood: but how did it get there?

What is so fiercely at stake in Genesis and Exodus is the old question best phrased by Boethius in his Consolation of Philosophy: “If there be a God, whence cometh so many evils? And if there be no God, whence cometh any good?” Much has been canonically laid at the feet of Adam and Eve, who were, so said the early Christian fathers, created free, and freely chose to rebel, thus inaugurating the calamity of original sin. But this merely pushes on the argument by one easy increment, for God gave them their freedom, and as the seventeenth-century skeptic Pierre Bayle comments in his Historical and Critical Dictionary, why would God bestow on mankind a capacity — free will — that he knows in advance man will abuse, even to his eternal doom?

Around the biblical writings themselves hovers the heretical notion that evil proceeds from God. An “evil spirit from God” is said to descend upon Saul in 1 Samuel 16:23, and in the book of Isaiah the Lord says: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil. I the Lord do all these things.” Even the early church father Origen, a staunch opponent of such thinking, seems flummoxes by this verse, and casts around for a suitable metaphor:

Now God has not created evil if by this is understood evil properly so called: but some evils, though really there are few by comparison with the order of the whole universe, followed as a secondary consequence upon his primary work, just as spiral shavings and sawdust follow as a consequence upon the primary activity of a carpenter, and as builders seem to “make” the waste stone and mortar which lie beside their buildings. It may be granted that God sometimes creates some of these “evils” in order that he may correct men by these means.

But this leaves the problem exactly where it was, so that various dualisms, like Gnosticism and Manicheanism — wherein God is opposed by and does battle with a separate, satanic source of evil, or is rivaled by a false god, a demiurge — do indeed seem to be the best explanations of the problem. The Bible itself, of course, uses a kind of dualism to explain Job’s suffering: it is Satan who puts God up to the game of testing his righteous servant.

Some of the early Jewish commentators were so perturbed by Abraham’s various trials — the famine, Sarah’s barrenness, his nephew Lot, the command to sacrifice Isaac — that they conjectured that God, as with Job, might have received a challenge from Satan or some other envious angel. In an extraordinary moment in Genesis, Abraham pleads with God to spare the innocent inhabitants of Sodom. Would God wipe out the city and not spare fifty innocents? God agrees to spare the entire city for the sake of fifty. How about forty-five? asks Abraham. God agrees to spare the city for the sake of forty-five. And forty? Yes. And thirty? Yes. And so on, down to ten.

What is striking is how openly Abraham cajoles Yahweh: “Far be it from You! Will not the judge of gill the earth do justice?” Abraham seems, here, to be holding God accountable to an ethical standard independent of God himself, I Tying to force his creator to accept the radical idea of sparing even lie guilty in order to protect the innocent.

It is interesting to note those cruxes, those moments of stress, when God’s ethical incomprehensibility makes the early biblical commentators and rewriters anxious. God’s activity in Egypt is one such case. The Lord has promised to lead his people out of Egypt, but first he must teach the Egyptians that “there is none like Me in all the earth … so as to show you My power, and so that My name will be told through all the earth.”

To this end, God says, he will “harden Pharaoh’s heart” against releasing the Israelites, and send horrid plagues. Again and again, Moses appeals to Pharaoh to let his people go, yet each time God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and another plague descends. Only when every firstborn of Egypt, from Pharaoh’s firstborn to “the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones,” has been slaughtered do the Israelites escape.

But why would God institute a lengthy stubbornness that only inflicts suffering on those who might freely have avoided it? Ancient writers and annotators conjectured that God had not impelled Pharaoh to resist Moses, but had only kept him in a state of ignorance. Or perhaps, went another line of inquiry, this was proper punishment for all that Egypt had done to the Israelites? Either way, sense had to be made of the impossible.

The best example of the incomprehensible in the Pentateuch is God’s command to Abraham that he sacrifice his son Isaac. The brevity of the account is searing, as if the text itself flinches from the unreason, is shocked into wordlessness. Alter’s version is terrifying:

And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham. And He said to him: “Abraham!” And he said: “Here I am.” And He said: “Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the Land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall say to you.” And Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey and took his two lads with him, and Isaac his son, and he split wood for the offering, and rose and went to the place that God had said to him. On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from afar.

Auerbach rightly noted that the phrase “On the third day Abraham raised his eyes” is the only indication we have that time has passed the journey is frozen. One can add to Auerbach that Abraham’ gesture, of raising the eyes, though a formulaic one in biblical narrative, takes on here a great power of dread, as if Abraham cal hardly bear to look upon the chosen site.

Kierkegaard’s inspired appalled rewriting of this scene in Fear and Trembling emphasize its unspeakability. The tragic hero, he says, renounces himself in favor of expressing the universal. He gives up what is certain for what is more certain; he gives up the finite to attain the infinite; and so he can speak publicly about it, he can weep and orate, secure that at least someone will understand his action.

But Abraham “gives up the universal in order to grasp something still higher that is not the universal,” because what he is obeying, what he is grasping for, is barbarously incomprehensible. So Abraham is utterly alone and cannot speak to anyone of what he is about to do, because no one would understand him.

It is suggestive, then, that one of the major early rewriters of this scene, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, labors to turn Abraham precisely into a tragic hero. In Jewish Antiquities, his enormous history of the Jews from earliest times, Josephus inserts long speeches in which Abraham eloquently apologizes to his son before binding him, and moreover promises him that his death will not really be death: “Accordingly, you, my son, will not die, not in any common way of going out of the world, but sent to God, the Father of all men, beforehand, by your own father, in the nature of a sacrifice.”

Isaac, in Josephus’s account, is of such a “generous disposition” that he willingly offers himself up, and then to cap this warm little drama, God, intervening to save Isaac, speaks to Isaac tip make clear that “it was not out of a desire of human blood” that Abraham “was commanded to slay his son … but to try the temper of his mind.” Kierkegaard seems admiringly terrified of God’s command, but Josephus, ornamenting the unspeakable with explanation, seems merely terrified, and at pains to moisten the hard ground of God’s behavior by ensuring that everyone involved, human and divine, is at least pleasant.

The Pentateuch ends with Moses’death. On the brink of the promised land, he addresses his people, and reminds them that they were chosen not for their righteousness but because other nations were wickedly following strange gods. Thus “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” If they follow the Lord, then blessings will flow; but if they swerve away from the Lord, then curses will flow. Alter writes appreciatively in his introduction of the majesty of the Hebrew of Deuteronomy, and his English cascades into foul brilliance, as Moses, speaking on behalf of the Lord, threatens a hell in which the Israelites will not even be competent slaves:

And it shall be, as the Lord exulted over you to do well with you and to multiply you, so will the Lord exult over you to make you perish, to destroy you, and you will be torn from the soil … And your life will dangle before you, and you will be afraid night and day and will have no faith in your life. In the morning you will say, “Would that it were evening,” and in the evening you will say, “Would that it were morning,” from your heart’s fright with which you will be afraid and from the sight of your eye that you will see. And the Lord will bring you back to Egypt in ships, on the way that I said to you, “You shall not see it again,” and you will put yourselves up for sale there to your enemies as male slaves and slavegirls, and there will be no buyer.

God takes Moses up a mountain to see the land he himself will not live in: “I have let you see with your own eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Because God several times seems to prepare for Moses’ death, the surmise later arose in commentaries that Moses did not want to die; Josephus has him weeping before his death, though the typically terse biblical account makes no mention of such theatrical inflammations.

James Kugel, in The Bible as It Was, reproduces an extraordinary medieval poem, now in the Bodleian, in which Moses’ death marks not the serene triumph of the longed-for possession of Canaan, but the scene of an anguished lament for the great impossible questions of the entire Pentateuch. Why are you afraid to die? God asks of Moses, and Moses goes to Hebron and summons Adam from the grave and cries:

Tell me why you sinned in the Garden
[Why] you tasted and ate from the tree of Knowledge.
You have given your sons over to weeping and wailing!
The whole garden was before you, yet you were not satisfied.
Oh why did you rebel against the Lord’s commandment?


Robert Alter And The King James Bible 1 – James Wood

November 25, 2013
William Hole made his name with etchings in the early 1880s and was elected to the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers and the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour in 1885. He became a regular illustrator of books for Edinburgh and London publishers as well as a popular painter of scenes from Scottish history and the Bible. He spent some weeks in Palestine in 1901 with paints and a camera to create authentic costumes and settings for a series of 80 watercolours published as The Life of Jesus of Nazareth (1906). Eyre and Spottiswoode acquired the copyright and suggested a companion Old Testament volume, for which Hole returned to the middle east, spending three months in Egypt and Palestine. He completed 76 watercolors but the project was never completed.

William Hole made his name with etchings in the early 1880s and was elected to the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers and the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolor in 1885. He became a regular illustrator of books for Edinburgh and London publishers as well as a popular painter of scenes from Scottish history and the Bible. He spent some weeks in Palestine in 1901 with paints and a camera to create authentic costumes and settings for a series of 80 watercolors published as The Life of Jesus of Nazareth (1906). Eyre and Spottiswoode acquired the copyright and suggested a companion Old Testament volume, for which Hole returned to the middle east, spending three months in Egypt and Palestine. He completed 76 watercolors but the project was never completed.

Robert Alter earned his bachelor’s degree in English (Columbia University, 1957), and his master’s (1958) and doctorate degrees (1962) from Harvard University in comparative literature. He started his career as a writer at Commentary Magazine, where he was for many years a contributing editor. Alter has written twenty-three books, and is noted most recently for his translations of sections of the Bible. Frequent New Yorker contributor James Wood turns his attention to Alter’s translations in contrast to the King James Bible. There is something for us all to learn here.


In the beginning was not the word, or the deed, but the face: “Darkness was upon the face of the deep,” runs the King Jams Version in the second verse of the opening of Genesis. “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” Two uses of “face” in one verse, and a third implied face, surely: God’s own, hovering over the face of his still untreated world. The Almighty, looking into the face of his waters, might well be expected to see his face reflected: it is profoundly his world, still uncontaminated by rebellious man.

The committees of translators appointed by James I knew what they were doing. The face of God and the face of the world (or of mankind) will become a running entanglement throughout the five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). Man will fear to look upon God’s face, and God will frequently abhor the deeds of the people who live on the face of his world.

Once Cain has killed Abel, and has been banished by God he cries out: “Behold thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid.” When the Almighty, decides to flood his world, he pledges to destroy every living thing “from off the face of the earth”

After wrestling with a divine strange all night, Jacob “called the name of the place Peniel: “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” Jacob dies happy that has seen his son Joseph’s face, and Moses, of course, spoke to God “face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.” The Book of Numbers contains the little prayer so beloved of the Christian liturgy: “‘The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: The Lord make his face shine upon thee: The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”

He casts his now kindly face upon ours. The Hebrew word for “face” is the same in all these verses, so the seventeenth century translators were being exact; but they were also perhaps telling us something about God’s circular ownership of his creation, his face above and his face below. Perhaps when they chose “the face of the waters” they had in their ears John’s description of the Lord in Revelation: “and his voice as the sound of many waters.”

In his translation of the Pentateuch, Robert Alter eschews “face” to describe the surface of the world at the start of Genesis, and I miss the cosmic implications, but his first two verses compensate with their own originality: “When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said: ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.” The King James Version has “without form and void” for Alter’s Anglo-Saxonish “welter and waste,” but Alter, characteristically, provides a diligent and alert footnote:

The Hebrew tohu wabohu occurs only here and in two later biblical texts that are clearly alluding to this one. The second word of the pair looks like a nonce term coined to rhyme with the first and to reinforce it, an effect I have tried to approximate in English by alliteration. Tohu by itself means “emptiness” or “futility,” and in some contexts is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert.

Alter brings this kind of sensitivity to bear on moment after moment of his translation, and the result greatly refreshes, sometimes productively estranges, words that may now be too familiar to those who grew up with the King James Bible.

The Pentateuch, or Torah, contains the great narratives of our monotheistic infancy. It tells the stories of the creation; of Adam and Eve and their children, Cain and Abel; of the Flood and Noah ;s escape and God’s promise never to destroy the earth again; of Abraham and God’s covenant with him and his people; of Isaac and his sons Esau and Jacob; of Jacob’s wrestle with God and God’s anointing of Jacob as Israel; the story of Joseph and his brothers; the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt and their exodus, led by Moses; the handing down of the law from the mountain at Sinai; the elaboration of the law or teaching (torah means “teaching”); and finally the death of Moses as his people are on the verge of the promised land.

Biblical style is famous for its stony reticence, for a mimesis that Erich Auerbach called “fraught with background.” This reticence is surely not as unique as Auerbach claimed — Herodotus is a great rationer of explanation, for example — but it achieves its best-known form in the family stories of Genesis. The paratactic verses with their repeated “and” move like the hands of those large old railway-station clocks that jolted visibly from minute to minute: time is beaten forward, not continuously pursued.

Yet it is often the gaps between these verses, or sometimes between the clauses of a single verse, that constitute the text’s “realism,” a realism created as much by the needy reader as by the withholding writing itself. For example, after the Flood, Noah starts a new occupation: “And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.” Noah is a lush. This is not without crooked humor of a kind, and the gap-filled rapidity of the narration is the reason for the smile it raises.

Likewise, though generating pathos rather than comedy, the laconic report of Joseph’s response to his brothers works by starving us of information. Joseph, installed by Pharaoh as his right-hand man in Egypt, receives in an official capacity his brothers, who have traveled from Canaan in search of food. He recognizes them but disguises himself. Three times he weeps, twice turning away from them and a third time openly. The first time, “he turned himself about from them, and wept.” The second time is more agitated:

And Joseph made haste; for his bowels did yearn upon his brother: and he sought where to weep; and he entered into his chamber, and wept there.” Finally, after various ruses, he can stand it no longer and asks his servants to leave him alone while he “made himself known unto his brethren. And he wept aloud: and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard.

The beauty is that the final episode, the apparent climax, is as terse as the first: secret weeping is no different in this account from public weeping, and revelation is as hidden as disguise. Joseph is no longer hidden from his brothers, but he is still hidden from the reader: that surely is the thrust of the narration. And note, too, how our desire to witness this open crying, to bathe in authorial emotion, is reticently, and very movingly, transferred to another, less involved audience: “and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard.”

I quoted from the King James Version here, but Alter’s translation honors both the text’s grave simplicity and its almost novelistic attention to different literary registers. Abraham’s wife, Sarah, is for a long time barren, so she proposes that her maid Hagar sleep with Abraham to provide him with an heir. Hagar conceives, and when she sees that she is pregnant, “her mistress was despised in her eyes.”

It is one of those intensely human biblical moments: the servant, proud of her plump fertility, cannot but help look down on her withered mistress. But Alter improves on the King James Version’s “despised”: “And she saw that she had conceived and her mistress seemed slight in her eyes.” That “slight,” for obvious reasons, is very subtle.

Or take the little adjustment Alter makes to the Jacob and Esau tale. Esau is so hungry for the lentils that his brother has that he sells his birthright for a mess of pottage: “And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage: for I am faint.” Alter’s version is more literal, and more natural: “And Esau said to Jacob, `Let me gulp down some of this red red stuff, for I am famished.” In a footnote, he explains his choice:

Although the Hebrew of the dialogues in the Bible reflects the same level of normative literary language as the surrounding narration, here the writer comes close to assigning substandard Hebrew to the rude Esau. The famished brother cannot even come up with the ordinary Hebrew word for “stew” (nazid) and instead points to the bubbling pot impatiently as (literally) “this red red.” The verb he uses for gulping down occurs nowhere else in the Bible, but in rabbinic Hebrew it is reserved for the feeding of animals.

There are many examples like this of choices deeply pondered and painstakingly explained; reading Alter’s scripture is a slow business only because one stops so often to put down into the well of one his life-giving footnotes.

Though the King James Version is sometimes inaccurate, is generally thought to be, of all English translations, the one that best captures the quiddity of the Hebrew Early seventeenth-century English — and mid-sixteenth-century English, since the KJV stands on the shoulders of Tyndale, Coverdale, and Cranmer — was not afraid of anti-sentimental reticence (my favorite is perhaps Exodus 13:17, `And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword’; it followed the parataxis of the Hebrew narration (the “and” that so often begins a new verse or clause); it understood as a literary principle, that to repeat a word can be enrichment, no exhaustion, and that repetition subtly changes the sense of the re peated word if not its sound (modern versions, like the flat Revised Standard Version, invariably flee from repetition); and it relished the pungent physicality of Hebrew, which often inheres in the verbs.

Alter’s translation brings delight because it follows the precepts of the committees of King James, but is founded on a greatly deeper conversance with Hebrew than the great seventeenth-century scholars could summon. (Of course, no Jew was involved in the King James committees.) And Alter, who has been at the forefront of the rise of what might be called literary biblical studies, and who has educated two or three generations of students and readers in the art of biblical appreciation, brings to his own English a scholarly comprehension of the capacities of literary usage.

In his introduction he says that among the great twentieth-century English stylists such as Joyce, Woolf, Nabokov, Faulkner — he might have added Lawrence, by far the most biblical writer of twentieth-century English — “there is not one among them whose use of language, including the deployment of syntax, even vaguely resembles the workaday simplicity and patly consistent orderliness that recent translators of the Bible have posited as the norm of modern English.”

Thus Alter is happy to follow the precedent of the KJV when he feels that it cannot be bettered: his Adam also “knew” Eve, and his Israelites also “murmured against” Moses in the wilderness and lament that they have left behind “the fleshpots” of Egypt.

As ever, he usefully defends his reasons. About the “fleshpots,” he writes: “The Hebrew indicates something like a cauldron in which meat is cooked, but the King James Version’s rendering of ‘fleshpots’ (‘flesh,’ of course, meaning `meat’ in seventeenth-century English) has become proverbial in the language and deserves to be retained.” Well, it became proverbial, but is it still? The word always makes me smile because when I was growing up, albeit in a highly scriptural household, my family used to talk of my grandparents’ house — where I was allowed unlimited sweets — as the “fleshpots of Egypt.”

Especially fine is the way Alter seems to dig into the earth of the Hebrew to recover, in English, its fearless tactility. When Pharaoh has his first dream, of seven good ears of corn and seven bad, “his heart pounded,” which, Alter informs us in a footnote, follows the Hebrew, whose literal meaning is “his spirit pounded.” (The usually concrete KJV has the softer “his spirit was troubled.”) The dream comes to pass, and there are seven fat years and seven lean years.

“During the seven plenteous years the earth brought forth abundantly,” runs the Revised Standard Version, itself a wan starveling of the more robust and accurate KJV: “And in the seven plenteous years the earth brought forth by handfuls ” But Alter is more literal: “And the land in the seven years of plenty made gatherings. A footnote girds the apparent oddity of “gatherings”:

The Hebrew qematsim elsewhere means “handfuls,” and there is scant evidence that it means “abundance,” as several modern versions have it. But gomets is a “handful” because it is what the hand gathers in as it closes, and it is phonetically and semantically cognate with wayiqbots, “he collected,” the very next word in the Hebrew text. The likely reference here, then, is not to small quantities (handfuls) but to the process of systematically gathering in the grain, as the next sentence spells out.

Or take the moment at the end of chapter 2 of Exodus where the Bible writer tells us that God began to hear the groaning of the Israelites in their Egyptian bondage: “So God looked on the Israelite., and was concerned about them,” says the New International Version The King James has: “And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God had respect unto them.”

Alter has: “And God saw the Israelites, and God knew.” Notice that the New International Version shies away from repeating the word “God,” something that fazes neither the KJV nor Alter. But Alter’s reading is at once elegantly emphatic — “and God knew” — and accurate. He informs us that the Hebrew verb has no object, and that Greek translators mistakenly tried to “correct” it. How majestic and indeed divine that objectless “knew” is. And Alter’s version allows one to make new connections with biblical-sounding texts.

Saul Bellow, who grew up reading the Hebrew Bible, and whose English was profoundly influenced by both the Tanakh and the King James Version, was very fond of that objectless verb “knew.” Tommy Wilhelm, the hero of Seize the Day, is haplessly surrounded by people he fears are the kinds of people who “know” (as opposed to the confused hero): “Rubin was the kind of man who knew, and knew and knew,” Tommy thinks to himself. Mr. Sammler’s Planet ends with the eponymous hero reflecting that he has met the terms of his life contract, those terms “that we all, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.” This always sounded biblical to me, but Alter’s translation of the line in Exodus has given me chapter and verse.


The Presence Of God– Jean Daniélou

May 2, 2013
After his short spell as a military chaplain ended with the fall of France in 1940, he devoted himself to the study of the Fathers of the Church, and with Fr. Henri de Lubac was one of the founders of Sources Chrétiennes, a popular yet scholarly series of key writings from the patristic period. Over the years, Daniélou produced a flow of books and articles on the worship and theology of the Early Church. Such was his reputation and influence that Blessed Pope John XXIII named him as a theological expert for the Second Vatican Council. In 1969 he was made a cardinal by Pope Paul VI, and elected to the Académie Française

After his short spell as a military chaplain ended with the fall of France in 1940, he devoted himself to the study of the Fathers of the Church, and with Fr. Henri de Lubac was one of the founders of Sources Chrétiennes, a popular yet scholarly series of key writings from the patristic period. Over the years, Daniélou produced a flow of books and articles on the worship and theology of the Early Church. Such was his reputation and influence that Blessed Pope John XXIII named him as a theological expert for the Second Vatican Council. In 1969 he was made a cardinal by Pope Paul VI, and elected to the Académie Française

An incredible essay which requires an intense reading by the late Cardinal Jean Daniélou, taken from The Presence of God, trans. Walter Roberts Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1960), ch. 1: The Cosmic Temple, 9-14. Jean Daniélou, S.J. (1905-1974), was an influential French theologian and author, one of the main movers of Vatican II.

This was one of our readings for the Boston Communio Study Group meeting at St. Clement’s Eucharistic Shrine in Boston. Our focus is the monthly Communio International Catholic Review. We each choose an article from the review and discuss. We discussed this essay along with another An Introduction To Jean Daniélou by Fr. Jonah Lynch. You are more than welcome to join us. We’ll be there next at 3:00pm on May 19th. Contact me and I will make sure you have the readings for the next meeting. We are a monthly reading group and if you like payingattentiontothesky you will love the Christian fellowship you will gain with the group.


Through man the silent litany of things becomes an explicit act of worship.


On the lowest level, which is not essentially Christian, but is part of the historical heritage of Christianity, though generally separated from it, the Christian mystery is the mystery of creation. I mean by its not only an original dependence of the universe in relation to a personal and transcendent God, but also the actual dependence of all things in his sight, and consequently a divine Presence which confers upon the whole cosmos a sacramental value.

At the birth of mankind, the whole creation, issuing from the hands of God, is holy; the earthly Paradise is nature in a state of grace. The House of God is the whole cosmos. Heaven is his tent, his tabernacle; the earth is his “footstool.” There is a whole cosmic liturgy, that of the source of the flowers and birds.

Multiplied blessings made an overflow,
The silence of the soul was a still pond.
The rising sun became a monstrance now,
Filling the heavens with a shining sound.
Smoke was a censer, and the cedar-trees
Composed an ever-mounting barricade.
Days of delight were as a colonnade
Fanned by the calmness of the twilight breeze.
Charles Peguy, “Eve,” in Ouvres Poetiques Completes (Paris: Gallimard, 1948), 710

The time of the patriarchs still retains something of this paradisal grace. The Spirit of God still broods upon the waters. Yahweh is not yet the hidden God, dwelling apart within the tabernacle. He talks with Noah on familiar terms. His relationship with Abraham is that of a friend:

And the Lord appeared to him in the vale of Mambre as he was sitting at the door of his tent, in the very heat of the day. And when he lifted up his eyes, there appeared to him three men standing near him: and as soon as he saw them, he ran to meet them from the door of his tent, and adored down to the ground. And he said: Lord, if I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away from thy servant: but I will fetch a little water; and wash ye your feet, and rest ye under the tree.
Genesis 8:1-4

Abraham has that parrhesia with God, that freedom of speech which, in the days of ancient Greece, was the right of a free citizen, and by which St. Paul and the brethren symbolized the liberty of the children of God with their Father. The whole of nature is still a temple consecrated to him. A group of trees, a spring of fresh water, these are fragments of Paradise in which he offers sacrifices; a rough stone is an altar dedicated to him.

This is the primitive level, common to all men, whose traces are still to be found, twisted, soiled, perverted, in every religion. So in Greek religion we have the sacred wood, the alsos, with its fountain; but polytheism has corrupted the primitive gesture. God “in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless he left not himself without testimony, doing good from heaven, giving rains and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.” [Acts 14:16-17]

Only the wise men continued to seek for signs in the heavenly Temple, contemplating, examining, and defining, according to the positions of the stars, the sites of towns and altars. The shepherds and the Magi are, as it were, the flowering in the Gospel of this underlying, primary stratum, which corruption has not altogether spoiled, nor Mosaic revelation destroyed.

For us today, it still constitutes the holy in its rudimentary form, which darkly hints at the Divine Presence in the silence of the night, in the shadows of the forest, in the vastness of the desert, in the lightning-flash of genius, in the purity of love. It is this basic level that was recognized by that Boer farmer to whom Otto refers, who in the solitude of the desert, where the sun poured forth its rays upon the plain, was aware of a voice speaking to him. It is this level that explains the religious awe with which the Earth deserves to be surrounded.

But this sacramental element has no meaning except in relation to a personal Presence. “Awe,” writes Peguy, “stretches forth indeed to encompass the whole universe. We too easily forget that the universe is creation; and awe, like charity, is due to every creature.” It is the personal Presence, at once hidden and revealed by signs, that awakens in us this holy dread.

In the cosmic Temple, man is not living primarily in his own house, but in the house of God. This is why he knows that he should revere those creatures who do not belong to him, that he can lay hands on nothing without permission. All is holy; the trees are heavy with sacramental mysteries. Primitive sacrifice is simply the cognition of the sovereign realm of God. He takes the first-fruits, and leaves the rest to man. But at the same time, man is part of creation and has his role to play in it. God has in some way left creation unfinished, and man’s mission is to bring it to fulfillment. Through his work he exploits unknown material resources, and thus work is sacred, being co-operation in the task of creation. Through knowledge and art he removes it from its ephemeral condition to enable it subsist spiritually.

[FN:  This is well expressed by P.J. Toulet:
Whispering woods, if I should die,
Perish without my artistry.]

Indeed, by sacramental use man confers on visible things their supreme dignity, not merely as signs and symbols, but as effective means of grace in the soul. So water effects purification, oil communicates power and unction, salt gives the savor of heavenly things. Man is thus the mediator through whom the visible universe verse is gathered together and offered up, the priest of that virginal creation over which God lovingly watches. Through man the silent litany of things becomes an explicit act of worship.

Nature without me is vain, it is I who give it a meaning;
All things become in me eternal, are laid on my altar.
Water now washes the soul, not only the travel-worn body;
My bread becomes for me the very substance of God.
Paul Claudel, Cinq Grandes Odes (Paris: Gallimard, 1936), 174.

Thus the whole of nature, as St. Paul says, expects that man will lead it to its end. The sacred character of love, in particular, is not derived from the shadowy presence of the race using individuals for its own ends, but from the Presence of God in the handiwork that love causes men to share. “When I was close to him I nearly always had the sense of God’s actual presence,” wrote Alice Ollé-Laprune of her husband.

Such is the innocence of creation. Creatures are holy, expecting that man will lead them to their goal. But man has the power to violate this order. When he turns away from God, when he profanes himself by ceasing to be a consecrated creature, he also profanes the world on which he imposes sacrilegious uses.

The material inventions that are meant to help men to free themselves from matter and bring to realization the community of mankind, we transform into instruments of hatred. The beauty of the body, which is the lovely reflection of the beauty of the soul, its visible “glory” which should awaken in us loving awe, we transform into an instrument of selfish pleasure. The blessings of culture, intended to help men to become more truly human by developing the powers of their minds, we transform into an instrument of perverted specialization and highbrow aestheticism.

But creation itself is free from all these faults, wherever she may “suffer violence.” She, too, rebels in her holiness and purity against such profanation by sacrilegious rites; and she expresses her rebellion by the resistance that she makes when we turn her aside from her goal. Between her and us there is a battle waged, which is the result of sin.

You know nothing in the vast universe
That may not be a means of unhappiness.
Charles Peguy, “Eve,” in Ouvres Poetiques Completes

This is the hostile world that we know so well, where everything is threatening; and the more sensitive we are, the more it is so. No one has felt this more acutely than Rilke:

The terrible in every breath of air,
You breathe it all too clearly
No citation was given in the original translated publication.

The rebellion of creatures is the cause of suffering, which is the resistance of matter to our will. It was unknown in Paradise, it will be unknown in Paradise Regained, and Jesus already restores this Paradise, mastering the winds and waves, healing the sick. It is the cloudiness of the world that, far from showing us God, hides Him from us and confines us to earth. So we become slaves, we that are called to be kings. What are the fires of hell but the rebellion of the creature, defined all too clearly?

How are we to rediscover the lost harmony, how are we to reconciled with things? Here is the nostalgia that lies perhaps at the center of poetry, which is a quest for the cosmic privileges of Paradise Lost, a glorification of the body without using the conversion of the heart as intermediary.

But everything depends on this conversion. Things themselves have never changed. They remain what they always were; they await us in brotherly innocence. It is we that are “underlings.” If I seek to rediscover the joys of Paradise, to move at ease amid created things, I must give them back their proper meaning, I must restore their honorable mission as servants of humanity. Then they will cease to burden me with silent reproaches, they will begin once again to chant before me:

None but the pure heart knows
The perfume of the rose
Paul Claudel, Figures et Paraboles (Paris: Gallimard, 1936), 28.

I must recover the purity of my glance. Then only will creatures once more become bearers of light from heaven. It is this paradisal reconciliation that we find in St. Francis of Assisi, in St. John of the Cross: “Yes, the heavens are mine and e earth is mine and the peoples are mine…. What more can you sire? What do you seek, my soul?”

Nothing remains of our prostration before the powers of the cosmos and history, those words of Damocles hanging over mankind. Cosmic fear is vanquished, the universe has become once more a Temple where we are at home with God in the cool of the evening, where man comes forward, silent and composed, absorbed in his task as in a perpetual liturgy, attentive to that Presence which fills him with awe and tenderness.


The Temptation and Expulsion — Andrew Graham-Dixon

October 8, 2012

The last scene in the central triad of images on the ceiling is The Temptation and Expulsion. Here Michelangelo tells the story of the Fall of Man, giving his own narrative interpretation to the events recounted in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 3.

First, Adam and Eve fall into temptation in the Garden of Eden, and are punished for their sin:

Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
(Genesis 3: 1-6)

Then, God discovers Adam’s transgression and condemns him and Eve to suffer the pains, labor and discord of mortal life. To ensure that Adam does not take fruit also from the tree of life, and become immortal, God exiles him forever from Eden:

Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.
(Genesis 3: 23-4)

Generations of artists before Michelangelo had depicted these two scenes separately. Going against convention, he joined them in a single image, framed with such fearful symmetry that it links the crime with its punishment in a pattern of stark inevitability. The two halves of the painting mirror one another to the extent that, seen through half-closed eyes, they resemble shapes made by folding a piece of inked blotting paper in half.

This is apt, because the picture itself is a kind of hinge — a hinge on which the whole grand narrative of the ceiling turns. It is here that man sins, here that his fate is sealed. Adam and Eve break with God’s commands and are separated from God for ever. Unity gives way to alienation, harmony gives way to discord, oneness becomes fragmentation.

The three scenes that follow this one — all tracing the subsequent life of man on earth, through the story of Noah — are characterized by a busy brokenness, a mood of nightmare, a deliberate compositional disharmony, entirely at odds with the breadth and the sweeping simplicity that characterize the earlier scenes depicting the Creation. In this way, the very rhythms and formal structure of the paintings of the Sistine ceiling conspire to define mortal life — the life that follows the Fall — as disharmony, disconnection, alienation.

On the left, Adam and Eve are depicted as youthful, energetic figures. The semi-reclining Eve is flushed with excitement, anticipation sparkling in her eyes, as she reaches round to take the fruit offered by the serpent — a creature depicted by Michelangelo as half-woman, half-snake, the long coils of its serpentine tail twined round the trunk of the tree. The face of the creature resembles those of the maenads and furies in ancient art. There is a resemblance, too, to the face of Adam. The two figures have the same flowing yellow hair. Their gestures even seem to flow towards one another in a convergence of erotic energy.

The Fall of Man had often been interpreted as a surrender to impure desire, and its sexual aspect is strongly emphasized by Michelangelo. The tree of knowledge bears not apples but figs, which have a traditional sexual significance. Eve kneels, not to pray, but to seduce. Her left hand is suggestively entwined in that of the serpent, from whose fist several fruit protrude.

Adam reaches greedily, with a claw-like hand, towards a bunch of figs in the shadowy leaves next to the mouth of the snake-woman, while his own genitals hang like fruit beside the mouth of Eve. The middle finger of Eve’s right hand is emphatically extended in a crude gesture and points down towards her own sex. Adam has turned into shadow, his face half-hidden in profile, to indicate that he has chosen the way of darkness.

Eve’s outstretched arm is rhymed by the shape of the dead tree stump against which she reclines, to show that in reaching towards temptation she has embraced the world of mortality and forsaken eternal life. Both are depicted against an outcrop of barren rock, another stark symbol of death.

In making Adam such an active figure, one who does not blindly follow Eve but vigorously reaches into the tree to pick the fruit himself, Michelangelo emphasizes that the couple are implicated in a partnership of sin. The artist also stresses, by this means, that Adam has acted out of his own free will. Adam’s energies are Promethean in their unruly vigor. He does not only reach into the tree but also pulls its main branch down towards him.

The gesture that he makes with the arm closest to the serpent, both stretching out and groping for the figs with the index finger of his right hand, is a graceless parody of the gesture with which God brought him into being in The Creation of Adam.This is the moment in the narrative of the ceiling when man seeks to take control of his own destiny, when he sets out to become, as the guileful serpent suggests, a god himself. The result is disaster. God’s pointing finger conjures life from nothing. But Adam, in reaching for divinity, conjures only the specters of death and hardship, and condemns Man to a world of pain.

In suggesting the complexity of Adam and Eve’s motives in this moment of Original Sin, Michelangelo indicates the multitude of evils encompassed within it — greed, treachery, God-defying insolence, a whole Pandora’s box of ill intentions. John Milton, who retold the story of the Fall of Man a century later in his epic poem Paradise Lost, never saw The Temptation and Expulsion. But Milton’s puritanically severe reflections on the nature of Original Sin, in a prose work entitled De Doctrina Christiana, set forth a view of the subject very close to that expressed in Michelangelo’s painting:

If the circumstances of this crime are duly considered, it will be acknowledged to have been a most heinous offence, and a transgression of the whole law. For what sin can be named, that was not included in this one act? It comprehended at once distrust in the divine veracity, and a proportionate credulity in the assurances of Satan; unbelief, ingratitude; disobedience; gluttony; in the man excessive uxoriousness, in the woman a want of proper regard for her husband, in both an insensibility for the welfare of their offspring, and that offspring  the whole human race; parricide, theft, invasion of the rights of others, sacrilege, deceit, presumption in aspiring to divine attributes, fraud in the means employed to attain the object, pride, and arrogance …

The other side of the painting, the bleak mirror image of Adam and Eve choosing sin, represents the moment of their punishment and belated remorse. An angel reaches out with a sword — a punitive gesture that rhymes cruelly with the enticing gesture of the serpent offering fruit — to expel the couple from the Garden of Eden.

Adam’s face is twisted into a rictus of anguish, and he looks instantly older and more wizened, as though mortality has already begun to work its effects on his flesh. Eve has metamorphosed into a hideous caricature of her former seductive self, a lumpen, lumbering being — a member of the same crude tribe of antediluvian giants that will soon be encountered, stumbling to their destruction, in Michelangelo’s depiction of The Deluge.

As she takes her first steps into the world, the mother of mankind scowls and covers her breasts in shame, looking around over her shoulder, one last time, at paradise lost. She might be looking back at her own image beneath the tree, seeing the memory of the happy self she once was, but can never be again.


The Creation of Eve – Andrew Graham-Dixon

October 1, 2012

The second of Michelangelo’s paintings telling the story of Adam and Eve is The Creation of Eve, the biblical source for which is Genesis 2: 21-2:

`And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept; and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman…’

The artist shows the blonde-haired Eve emerging from the side of Adam and coming face to face with her creator. Michelangelo has placed Adam’s sleeping form next to a jumble of dark rocks, which introduces a spatial ambiguity into the scene and makes Eve look as though she might be stepping from the entrance of a cave beside him. Emerging from darkness into light, she seems astonished by the suddenness of her encounter with God. Her mouth hangs half open in amazement and she holds her hands up instinctively in a prayer that also looks like a gesture of supplication. With his raised right hand, God seems to be pulling her upright, drawing her out of Adam’s side and into life. He stares solemnly into her troubled eyes.

The figure of God in The Creation of Eve is distinctly less awe-inspiring than the airborne, cosmic creator of the earlier Genesis scenes. Dressed in a voluminous mantle, he has here the aspect of a patriarch or priest. He does not fly, but stands and even stoops slightly in the act of creating woman. His weight upon the earth is suggested by the single mighty foot shown protruding from his robes, toes splayed on the bare grey ground. His hair and beard are a lank, dullish blond, painted with far less energy and animation than the swirling grey locks of God in the other scenes.

How can these differences be explained? Partly perhaps as a result of the evolution of Michelangelo’s ideas between one phase of painting and the next. The artist was to break off from painting the ceiling for several months after finishing The Creation of Eve. This pause for thought might well account for the great difference between the figure of God the Father as he appears in this picture, and as he would appear in the three scenes of the creation of the universe and The Creation of Adam.

It may simply be that Michelangelo, recognizing that God would have to become dynamically more active for the earlier scenes of creation, took the chance offered by a break in his work to reconceive his personification of the deity. But one of the great (and relatively underrated) aspects of the artist’s achievement in painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling was that he managed to preserve the total unity of the scheme despite the evolution of his own style during the course of the four years that it took him to complete it. And the fact remains that the character of God, as he appears in The Creation of Eve, powerfully contributes to the particular expressive twist that Michelangelo gives to this episode in the Genesis story.

The position of the fresco on the ceiling of the chapel is significant. It is the central image of the nine narrative scenes, occupying a place directly above the screen that once divided the area closest to the altar — reserved for the pope and his court — from that occupied by less exalted worshippers. It marks a corresponding separation within the overall scheme of the Genesis narrative, dividing the stories of creation from those of fallen humanity. So it makes sense that the figure of God should suddenly, in this image, seem so much more grounded. This is the moment when the story itself comes decisively to earth. The transition is not a joyful one. The action takes place on a lonely stretch of coast. The line of the horizon, where sea meets sky, neatly bisects Eve’s body at the midriff.

The overt symbolism of the picture restates the ultimate beneficence of God’s plan for mankind. The sleeping Adam, beneath a dead tree stump suggestive of a truncated cross, is once more a prefiguration of Christ, while Eve, springing from his side, calls to mind the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, in that water and blood ran from the side of the crucified Christ (associations reinforced by the water behind her, and by the way in which she holds her hands up to the priest-like figure of God, like a worshipper at Mass preparing to receive the wafer).

But the pious complacency inherent in such typologies is disturbed by the raw emotion with which the painting is charged. A current of intense, troubled feeling courses from Eve to the Almighty. She looks at God with an expression of pained and pleading mystery that lends this already cramped and claustrophobic act of creation an ominous, menacing atmosphere.

Eve, placed dead centre of the entire Sistine Chapel ceiling, is given a unique privilege. She is the only figure on the whole ceiling who is allowed to look into the eyes of God. Does she already feel sinfulness stirring within her breast? Could she be asking God why he has made her, why he has squeezed her into being, imperfect as she is? These are among the oldest and most intractable questions that Christians have asked themselves about their God. If all was foreknown, all foreordained, by a perfectly benevolent deity, why create the possibility of evil at all? But in Michelangelo’s painting, she receives no answer. The solemn God stares back at Eve with eyes as hard, as unyielding, as stones.


The Creation of Adam – Andrew Graham-Dixon

September 28, 2012

Probably the most iconic religious fresco of all time. Michelangelo 1511.

The ceiling’s central triad of images begins with The Creation of Adam, a majestic depiction of the moment when God imparts life and a soul to the first of men. It is among the most dynamic and startlingly original of all Michelangelo’s inventions. Like many famous pictures, it can all too easily be taken for granted. The overwhelming familiarity of the composition, its beguiling power and simplicity, can obscure its true qualities. Only on close, careful inspection does the work disclose its range of meanings and subtleties of expression.

The tradition of misreading The Creation of Adam is as old as the picture itself. So far did it depart from all previous artists’ imaginings of the creation of humanity that the work completely bemused at least one early visitor to the Sistine Chapel. Paolo Giovio, bishop of Nocera, who also wrote brief lives of Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, composed a slender biographical sketch of Michelangelo sometime between 1523 and 1527.

Giovio’s text, a bare 31 lines in Latin, contains a short appreciation of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which is principally memorable for revealing the author’s bafflement when faced with The Creation of Adam: `Among the most important figures is that of an old man, in the middle of the ceiling, who is represented in the act of flying through the air …’ Giovio clearly had no idea of what he was looking at. But his incomprehension serves as a measure of just how novel, how alien to prevailing conventions, Michelangelo’s painting seemed to his contemporaries.

The artist was familiar with other depictions of the same theme by earlier Renaissance artists. In devising his composition, he may have had somewhere in his mind a celebrated bronze panel by Jacopo della Quercia on the Porta Magna of San Petronio, in Bologna, a city Michelangelo knew well, having spent several months there creating his doomed monumental bronze portrait of Pope Julius 11. Jacopo had depicted Adam nude and recumbent on a somewhat abstract outcrop of rock, springing into life as if waking from sleep, with the cloaked figure of God the Father standing over him, making a restrained, priestly gesture of benediction. Michelangelo galvanized this somewhat wooden piece of early Renaissance theatre by turning it into a whirlwind encounter between man and God.

The Almighty floats weightlessly through space, wrapped in a billowing red cloak that enfolds his angelic entourage. He is a severe, grey-bearded Creator, reaching out with great deliberation towards the languid Adam, a suitably earthbound figure (the name `Adam’ is also the Hebrew word for `earth’). So it is that God imparts to man, across the few inches of air that separate their outstretched fingers, the spark of life that makes him move and breathe.

In early Christian depictions of the creation of man, God had usually been truncated to a mere hand gesturing from a strategically placed cloud. He had developed into the familiar figure of an old man with a beard by the middle of the fifteenth century, but there was no precedent for showing him `in the act of flying through the air’, let alone dressed in clinging draperies that reveal his legs from the thigh down.

The fingertip act of creation was also Michelangelo’s own invention. Given that this has become the single most famous, most reproduced detail in the entire pictorial scheme of the ceiling — despite the fact that the celebrated fingertips themselves were repainted, due to a small area of loss, by the restorer Domenico Carnevale in the 1570s — it is worth considering in some depth just what Michelangelo may have intended by it.

Where did the painter get this striking idea? It owes little to the account given in Genesis 2: 7, which casts God in the role of a sculptor who literally breathes life into his work: `The Lord God formed man, of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.’ Michelangelo may have taken inspiration from a medieval hymn traditionally sung at Vespers on Whit Sunday, one stanza of which refers to ‘Digitus paternae dexterae’ – the finger of God’s right hand. The overarching theme of this hymn, which celebrates the nature of God’s gifts to man, also seems apposite to The Creation of Adam:

The seven-fold gift of grace is thine,
Thou finger of the hand divine;
The Father’s promise true, to teach
Our earthly tongues thy heavenly speech.

Thy light to every sense impart;
Pour forth thy love in every heart;
Our weakened flesh do thou restore
To strength and courage evermore.

Drive far away our spirits’ foe,
Thine own abiding peace bestow;
If thou dost go before as guide,
No evil can our steps betide.

The notion that God, through the touch of his finger, metaphorically imparts not only grace but also instruction was embedded in earlier Christian tradition. In considering the Ten Commandments given to Moses from on high, Church fathers had seized on the metaphor of a divine finger — one that both writes instructions for mankind and points out the path of the true and good life. St Augustine develops this idea in a passage in his fifth-century treatise De spiritu et littera:

That Holy Spirit, through whom charity which is the fullness of the law is shed abroad in our hearts, is also called in the Gospel the finger of God. That those tables of the law were written by the finger of God, and that the finger of God is God’s spirit through whom we are sanctified, so that living by faith we may do good works through love

It is impossible to prove that Michelangelo, or the papal advisers who may have helped him to formulate his iconography, had such ideas in mind when devising The Creation of Adam. Interpretations of paintings based on their presumed connections to a specific text or texts are often suspect. This is especially true when those texts are not the primary sources, as in this case, but are drawn instead from the deep well of post-biblical Christian thought.

Such hypotheses bring with them the temptation to force ill-fitting meanings on to works of art that visually resist them — to yoke the unwilling image to the inflexible word. As Leo Steinberg once cuttingly remarked of a fellow art historian, `His glimpse of a Michelangelo picture is as from a speeding car bound for the library.’ Yet in this particular instance the facts of the picture seem to confirm rather than contradict the hypothesis — suggesting that Michelangelo was indeed aware of the Christian tradition that found, in the image of God’s finger, a metaphor for his commands.

There is a look of total concentration on the face of the creating God, in Michelangelo’s fresco. But his gaze, depicted with such sharpness and clarity, is pointedly not directed at the reclining Adam. Instead, he stares with great intensity at his own outstretched finger. He does so in a way that suggests that what is being channelled through it, and towards Adam, is not only the impulse of life but also man’s incipient awareness of God’s own will — and, with that, the capacity for thought and for moral action. It is as if, in the moment of his creation, Adam is also being instructed in the laws by which God means him to live — laws that he will break, with fatal consequences for all of mankind.

Did Michelangelo really mean the viewer to understand all this, in the gesture and gaze of the Almighty? There are good reasons for believing so. The idea of transgression, Adam’s transgression against the divine will, is central to the tragic unfolding of the Genesis story as told by the artist. In the next painting but one, The Temptation and Expulsion, he will take the forbidden fruit. Michelangelo will later make it clear that man’s fallen condition is a direct consequence of Adam’s disobedience, by making the slumped body of the drunken Noah the epitome ofpostlapsarian human frailty resemble a pathetically collapsed version of Adam’s God-perfected body in the scene of his creation.

Yet for Adam to transgress, Adam must first be given the laws that he is to break. This begs the question, where, if not in The Creation of Adam, does Michelangelo imply that narratively necessary divine act of instruction? There is no space for it anywhere else in his scheme. The subject of the painting is best understood, therefore, as the formation rather than simply the creation of man.

The most compelling evidence for this interpretation is to be found in one of the most obvious places, namely Ascanio Condivi’s life of the artist. Admittedly, Condivi is an occasionally unreliable witness, but the fact remains that he knew Michelangelo intimately, and the very terseness of his description of The Creation of Adam, so pointedly bald and unembroidered as it is, gives it all the more credibility. Of the figure of the Almighty, Condivi simply writes the following: `God is seen with arm and hand outstretched as if to impart to Adam the precepts as to what he must and must not do.’

Michelangelo’s Adam looks up at God with an expression of barely dawning awareness on his face. He has just woken into consciousness and there is still about him the wide-eyed helplessness of a child. Yet the look in his eyes suggests that he has already begun to absorb the awareness that life brings with it duty to God. There is a slight implication of melancholy in his gaze, as of someone being drawn half against their will from blissful ignorance towards a sense of responsibility.

Adam’s body is full-grown and athletic. The chiseled outlines, the ebbs and flows of contour that define his nude form, recall Walter Pater’s famous remark about art aspiring to the condition of music. The effect of the entire figure is epitomized by the single detail of Adam’s outstretched arm — which swells and fades, rises and falls, from the curve of the shoulder to the soft bump of the bicep, along the meandering line of the forearm and across the reaching hand, like a melody drawn in the air.

The modeling of the figure’s flesh and muscles in light and shade is equally haunting (and represents a triumph of subtlety within the medium of fresco, which is far less malleable and forgiving than oil paint, making such effects of chiaroscuro notably difficult to achieve). Michelangelo disdained landscape painting but here he has painted Adam’s body as if the human form were itself a landscape to be explored. The soft juncture of his left calf and thigh, the shadowy hollows and protuberances formed in the area around his neck and collarbone, are painted with an immense, tender sensuality. They have what the twentieth-century painter Frank Auerbach has called a ‘haptic’ quality, a term denoting painted forms so instinct with life that to look at them is to have the uncanny sense of physically touching that which is depicted.

Adam must be perfect, his image that of a god on earth, because of the words of Genesis 1: 26: `And God said, Let us make man in our image, .after our likeness.’ In no other figure on the whole of the ceiling is Adam’s beauty repeated, and that too is part of Michelangelo’s expressive purpose. The first of men, newly created, represents a perfect state of harmony with God — but one that is destined to be lost, and never recaptured until the blessed rise on the day of the resurrection.

The scene where the action takes place is the most abstracted of landscapes, a grassy mound suspended in infinite space. Temporally, the picture is even more ambiguous because it represents a moment in which all of history — from the creation of man to his fall and ultimate salvation — is also contained. Michelangelo gives to God an aspect that expresses his infinite power. The vivid coils and whorls of his hair and beard evoke the cataclysmic patterns of whirlwinds and whirlpools. They bear a remarkably close resemblance to a later, celebrated group of apocalyptic drawings of floods and deluges by Michelangelo’s contemporary (and occasional rival) Leonardo da Vinci, who knew the Sistine Chapel and may have been influenced by this detail.

The figures contained within God’s mantle span the arc of time. At his shoulder he is accompanied by seraphim and cherubim, members of the highest order of the angels, to whom Michelangelo has also given the character of classical representations of the four winds. Their presence makes of the mantle a sail, swelled by their breath and thus impelled through space. Below God’s right arm lies a mysterious, anguished figure, present only as a groaning face, half obscured by darkness. This shadowy presence can tentatively be identified as a personification of Chaos, the dark nothingness from which the Almighty wrestled the universe into being — now conquered, he is whirled along in God’s train like the captives trailed in the wake of ancient triumphal processions.

There is also a beautiful young woman held in the embrace of God’s left arm. She looks across at Adam with a lively, fascinated gaze — the look, almost, of a startled gazelle — suggesting that she knows her destiny to be entwined with his. She can be identified with certainty. She is Eve, preordained in the mind of God from the beginning. Michelangelo has arranged his composition so that she appears as if coming out of God’s left side, a subtle prefiguration of the way in which she will actually emerge from the left side of Adam — God’s own likeness on earth — in the ceiling’s very next narrative scene. The length of green drapery that enfolds her loins has become unwound and flutters freely in the air beneath the crowded mantle of divinity, reaching down towards the earth that is Adam’s namesake. Green is the color of life, symbolizing Eve’s fruitfulness as the future mother of mankind.

If the spectator looking up at the ceiling should choose at this point to zoom out, so to speak, and encompass all three of Michelangelo’s paintings telling the story of Adam and Eve, a larger pattern of meaning can be seen to have its origin here. The figure of Eve is repeated twice more across a single, powerful diagonal that connects all three narrative scenes of the ceiling’s central triad — creating, as it were, one line of vision along which can be traced the successive stages of her destiny. She nestles in God’s mantle; she emerges from Adam’s side; she tempts Adam to his fall.

Behind the figure of Eve, in The Creation of Adam, can be glimpsed another female figure, with wispy blonde hair and a face partially obscured by paint damage. Her hand is wrapped around God’s left arm, suggesting her proximity to the Almighty. The most likely explanation for this figure’s presence is to be found in Proverbs, Chapter 8, in which Wisdom is personified as a woman coeval with God himself. `The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old,’ she proclaims. `I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth there was … When he prepared the heavens I was there, when he set a compass upon the face of the depth’ (Proverbs 8: 22-7).  Wisdom seems to be leaning forward to whisper into Eve’s ear. But Eve, transfixed by the sight of her husband, pays her no heed.

Numerous interlinked allusions and associations play across the composition. These form a chain of meaning, carried from figure to figure, at times from hand to hand, the end of which is to create a metaphor for an omniscient God’s all-encompassing salvific plan for erring humanity. In the figure of Eve is also implied that of the Virgin Mary, vessel of the Incarnation. Beside her is a staring child, a look of ominous foreboding in his eyes. He is the infant Jesus Christ — an identification underlined by the hand of God, whose fingers encircle the round protuberance of the child’s right shoulder in just the same gesture used by a priest when he elevates the Host, flesh of Christ, at the ceremony of the Mass. Within the mantle of God, within the divine mind, all is foretold and all foreseen.


The Genesis Cycle, First Triad:– Andrew Graham-Dixon

September 27, 2012

Art historians have noted several unusual features of this fresco. Andrew Graham-Dixon has pointed out that God has exaggerated pectoral muscles suggestive of female breasts, which he interprets as Michelangelo’s attempt to illustrate “male strength but also the fecundity of the female principle.” In addition it has been noted that the anatomy of God’s neck is too complex and does not resemble the normal contour of the neck. The lighting scheme of the image has been noted to be inconsistent; whereas the entire scene is illuminated from the bottom left, God’s neck appears to have a different light source from the right.

The Separation of Light and Darkness
Michelangelo begins at the beginning, with a depiction of The Separation of Light and Darkness. He shows the Almighty God of the Old Testament as a heroic male figure with grey beard and hair, dressed in lilac robes that swirl about him, twisting upwards through the heavens to separate light from darkness. He embodies male strength but also the fecundity of the female principle, in that Michelangelo has given him pectoral muscles nearly as rounded as a woman’s breasts. The figure rises into space amid rays of light. The picture is at once the sparest and the most austere of the ceiling’s scenes of Creation.

The subject is drawn from the Book of Genesis:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
Genesis 1: 1-5

There was no precedent in earlier Christian art for Michelangelo’s dynamic airborne deity swooping through an implied infinity of space. The artists of the Byzantine and medieval traditions had expressed their own sense of the ineffable mystery of God the Creator by removing the scenes so elliptically described at the start of Genesis to a pictorial world of abstract geometrical perfection.

The Italo-Byzantine craftsmen who had created the thirteenth-century mosaics of the dome of the Baptistry in Florence — a famous and much venerated building at the heart of the town where Michelangelo spent his formative years — had represented the God of the Creation scenes as a solemn, hieratic figure floating on a ground of gold, enclosed by the celestial spheres, making a stiff gesture of benediction.

The artists of the early Renaissance had humanized God the Father, to the extent that he could appear in Masaccio’s celebrated fresco of The Trinity, of the 1420s, in the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella, as a doughty ancient with a forbiddingly solemn expression on his face. But Michelangelo energized this still recently anthropomorphized figure in a way that was both new and revolutionary.

His reinvention of the all-creating deity as a figure flying through space under the unseen impulse of divine will, was to prove enormously influential. Artists of the High Renaissance such as Raphael, followed by the painters of the Baroque and Rococo periods, would follow Michelangelo in embodying God as a being with human form endowed with a superhuman, cosmic thrust and energy.

Romantic painters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would impart something, of his twisting, irrepressible force to the Promethean heroes of their own disenchanted mythologies. Michelangelo’s influence can even be discerned in the popular art of the twentieth century. Inventors of the American superhero comic-strip adapted his style to their own ends. The character of Superman has his origins, as a graphic creation, in the airborne God who flies majestically across the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Although The Separation of Light and Darkness is the first of the nine narrative scenes from the Book of Genesis, Michelangelo painted it last of all, along with the other two scenes of primal creation. Having gradually worked his way along the ceiling, starting at the chapel’s entrance with the painted histories of fallen humanity, he finished above the altar with images of the all-powerful God. So while the momentum of his narrative moves, as in the Old Testament, from the acts of God to the life of man, Michelangelo actually painted that narrative in reverse order.

There could have been purely practical reasons for this, but the artist’s piety may also have played a part. Michelangelo must have known that, as he proceeded with the project, he would become more technically accomplished in the medium of fresco. Perhaps he wanted to be at his best when painting the scenes that involved God alone.

To create the image of the deity reaching up to separate light from darkness, night from day, Michelangelo used the difficult technique known as sotto in su. The figure is seen, from beneath, as though soaring up and away from the viewer. Practical methods had been devised by earlier generations of artists for accomplishing this particular type of illusion. The architect and theorist Leon Battista Alberti, in his treatise . on painting of the 1430s, had described a perspective `veil’ — a grid of threads strung on a wooden frame, through which a painter might study a subject seen at an extreme angle of foreshortening, transcribing each element of what he saw on to the corresponding sections of a squared-up piece of paper.

If Michelangelo used a device of that kind, he did not do so slavishly. Such was his self-assurance that he departed in many details from the carefully calculated sketch for this scene produced in his workshop, to help him realize this difficult perspectival illusion. The outlines of that sketch were incised into the wet plaster before Michelangelo began work, so the evidence still survives of just how freely he improvised from it. Minute study of the picture’s surface during conservation has revealed that the artist changed the angle and position of both of God’s hands and arms, and even shifted the entire figure so as to set it more firmly on a diagonal — increasing its torsion and intensifying the sense of God’s upwardly spiraling energy.

The difficulty of making off-the-cuff changes to such a challenging composition should not be underestimated. It is a tribute to Michelangelo’s exceptional ability to think three-dimensionally, even when working in two dimensions, that he managed to carry it off. It is as if, in painting The Separation of Light and Darkness, he conceived the rectangular panel to be painted not as a flat surface but as a block of stone extending upwards through the vault of the ceiling. Into that block, he imagined himself carving the figure of God, painting a form he could almost feel with his hands.

God’s act of creation is simultaneously an act of division. He reaches into the air as though separating bright swirls of lightly tinted steam from a mass of heavy grey storm clouds. Michelangelo, as well as the more theologically learned among his audience, may have associated the separation of light from darkness with ideas about the Creation expressed by the venerable Saint Augustine (354-430).

In The City of God, the influence of which had been all-pervasive in medieval Christendom, Augustine had compared God’s separation of day from night to his division of the angels into two communities, the good and the bad. A number of traditions told of the rebel angels rising against God, under the leadership of Lucifer, and being cast down into darkness by the host of good angels, led by the Archangel Michael. Augustine explicitly identified the good angels with heaven and the light that God called `Day’ in Genesis is 1:1 and 1: 3-5. The all-creating God is also God the judge. Just as, in the beginning, he divided dark from light, good from evil, so on the last day will he divide mankind into the saved and the damned.


There are numerous stories of Julius’s growing impatience with the length of time it took to finish the ceiling. On one occasion, he is even said to have struck Michelangelo in a fit of frustrated rage. The pope’s importunity may explain the great speed with which the artist finished the scenes of the Creation. Not only were they among the last to be completed, they were by some distance the most rapidly painted. Analysis of its surface has revealed that The Separation of Light and Darkness was painted in a single giornata — just one working day of about eight hours, a period determined by the rapid drying-time of the wet plaster into which the painter of true fresco is obliged to work his images. The artist worked quickly and instinctively, using particularly dilute pigment so that in places the figure of God seems as though dissolving into — or condensing out of — the circumambient air.

As a measure of the painter’s acceleration, the time taken three years earlier to paint The Deluge, at the other end of the chapel, had been no fewer than twenty-nine separate giornate. Admittedly, the subjects are hardly comparable, in that The Deluge occupies a larger area of ceiling and contains many different figures, all of whom had to be depicted in some detail for the story to make its impact. The broad, summary style in which Michelangelo painted the soaring figure of God was well adapted to the contrasting grandeur of the opening of Genesis — a metaphor, itself, for the sweeping, flowing, creative powers of divinity.

The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Plants
Michelangelo also worked with great rapidity on the second of the three scenes of primal Creation. This was a larger and more complicated composition than The Separation of Light and Darkness, but one that still took him only seven giornate to complete. Its subject is The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Plants. This time the figure of God appears twice, to indicate that two different moments in the narrative have been telescoped together.

To the right, frowning with concentration, he divides the heavens with a sweeping gesture of his arms, creating both sun and moon. The wingless angels in his broad cape express a mixture of admiration and awe, bordering on terror. This part of the composition is drawn from Genesis 1: 14-18: `And God said let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night … And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night…’

To the left he is seen from behind. Here, the contours and delicate coloring of God’s lilac robe give it the look of a conch shell flying unexpectedly through the sky. He is shown in the act of bringing forth vegetation from the hitherto barren earth, in the form of a few wisps of grass and fronds of fern, silhouetted against the white air. Michelangelo’s source here was Genesis 1: 11: `And God said let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself…’

There is a pointed lack of emphasis on the actual creation of the earth, a part of the story that the artist has not quite left out but has certainly abbreviated to a bare minimum. It is implied, so to speak, as something that must necessarily have happened, in the gesture with which the receding figure of God calls forth the grasses and other plants. But even that gesture is given relatively little prominence, enacted as it is by a Creator whose mighty back — and even mightier posterior — is turned to the spectator. Far greater prominence is given to the formation of the sun and moon. Both were drawn with the aid of a compass — the imprint made by its point is still minutely visible in the centre of each sphere — and colored in flat thin layers of golden yellow and silvery grey. Michelangelo has contrived matters so that his entire composition revolves around sun and moon and the divine gesture that links them.

According to an ancient tradition going back at least as far as to the writings of the fourth-century St Ambrose, the sun was held to be a mystic symbol of Christ, while the moon, reflecting back the sun’s radiance, was equated with the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ and embodiment of the Church. In creating the sun and moon, therefore, God was also pre-ordaining Christ’s Incarnation and the institution of the Church. His outflung arms are a visual anticipation of Christ’s arms, stretched upon the Cross. The expression of solemnity on his face suggests that even at this moment, so close to the beginning of time, he is gazing ahead and seeing, in his mind’s eye, the betrayal and death of his son.


The Creation of Life in the Waters
In the last painting of the first triad, Michelangelo’s God is restored once more to effortless tranquility. He floats through the air, again wrapped in a billowing mantle and attended by a small angelic retinue. This time he. is shown above a vast expanse of grayish-white water. Some authors have assumed that the painter had Genesis 1: 2 in mind: `And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.’ Others believe that he meant to indicate the separation of the land from the water, as it is described in Genesis 1: 6: `And God said let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.’

Either hypothesis, if true, would mean that Michelangelo had disturbed the chronology of Genesis in the order of his pictures. But there is no good reason to suppose that the artist reversed biblical time here. The last of his three pictures almost certainly depicts the events of the fourth day of Creation, which take place directly after the creation of sun and moon: `And the evening and the morning were the fourth day. And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creatures that have life …” The gesture of his hands suggests that Michelangelo chose to paint the very moment of this invocation. God holds his palms above the water, creating a teeming multitude of unseen creatures down in the depths of the ocean.


The Lie With The Ring Of Truth – R.R. Reno

April 27, 2012

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Genesis 3.4-5

Did God say … ?
The subtle serpent creates a disorienting atmosphere of uncertain questions. Is it “this tree” or “any tree” that God has fenced with a commandment not to eat of its fruit? What did God actually command? And why? What are the real consequences of transgression? The ambiguity is crucial. As the self-defeating perversion of goodness, sin is ugly and repulsive. Transgression can only allure in a world of distortion and dreamlike fantasy, where what is real becomes malleable, capable of seeming to be what it is not. The robbery won’t require any killing, the thief imagines. The one-night stand won’t lead to any bad feelings. The lie is for the best.

Our lives are full of gauzy pictures that our imaginations conjure in order to make the ugliness of sin look more appealing. This is why deception and the lie loom so large in Christian thought about Satan. We can consistently desire what is bad when we imagine that it will add up to something good, a mental open t it wi s only possible if we are deceived about reality. As Gregory of Nyssa writes, “Good is in its nature simple and uniform, alien from all duplicity or conjunction with its opposite, while evil is many-colored and fairly adorned, being esteemed to be one thing and revealed by experience as another” (On the Making of Man 20.3).

Or as St. Paul writes, “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” 2 Corinthians 11:14). In the garden, the serpent’s distortion has the effect of throwing doubt on the divine plan. “Is this not, he seems to be saying, “the garden of joy? You are surrounded by food for life, and yet you are commanded not to fully enjoy it? Is this the sort of God you obey, one who promises life and yet requires renunciations, one who claims to give blessings but always ends up placing limits and making demands?”

These questions have been repeated many times. A Jew is not to eat` pork or shrimp, and what are we to think? Does God wish to cut us off from the good things in life? St. Paul inveighs against fornication, and what are we to think? Is God so opposed to sex and the human capacity for pleasure? Is not the whole scheme of divine commandment, a diminishment of life that cuts us off from the bounty of creation, condemning us to endless sackcloth and ashes?

The woman’s response is corrective, but the serpent’s opening gambit produces an echoing exaggeration. She recounts that God forbade eating from the tree in the middle of the garden, and she then adds, “Neither shall you touch it” Unsettled by the distortions of the serpent, the woman wants to return to the reality of God’s commandment, but her grasp is unsteady. It is as if Satan’s insinuation has taken hold on her imagination. She begins to assume the role of lawgiver herself, puffing up as one giving orders and establishing rules. It is an untenable position of pride: “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to it or take from it” (Deuteronomy 12:32).

Midrash is a traditional Jewish style of reading. It involves a supplemented retelling, that interprets by way of added emphasis, color, and dramatization, as I have done above. The skeleton of the biblical story is retained, but flesh is added. Midrash, however, is not unique to Judaism. These few verses depicting the original transgression provide the basis for an extensive tradition of Christian midrash. Milton’s Paradise Lost provides one of the most famous examples. But there is nothing uniquely poetic or premodern about the tendency to fill out the story of the fall.

Modern biblical critic Gerhard von Rad produces exegesis in this genre, and he does so with a panache for inventing motives and emotional responses that shed light on the psychology of sin (1972: 88-90). These examples of creative retelling are not surprising. This short portion of biblical text combines narrative realism with economy of expression, a’ combination that positively invites the reader to fill out the story with more detail. Here, then, the literary form matches the ambition of Genesis. The suggestive brevity of the verses invites us to interweave our many and diverse thoughts about the nature of sin into our reading. In the silences of the text we find a place for our own knowledge of the concrete form of human wickedness, and in so doing we vindicate the traditional view that this story tells us about the original sin.

And the woman said…
Perhaps the serpent arrives on the scene more ignorant than wise, and he opens with a clever question designed to provoke the woman to betray crucial information. “I’ve heard that all these trees are off limits. Is it true?” he asks. “No,” says the woman, “with God as my witness, I was told to refrain from eating the fruit of the one tree in the middle of the garden.” “Oh, I see;’ he responds. Now, with this missing piece of information, the lawyer can proceed, knowing just where to focus his attention. “You foolish woman;’ he says to himself, “you have given me what I wanted to know, because you could not restrict yourself to a simple `yes’ or `no” (Matthew 5:37). Eve is too eager, too chatty, too forthcoming. She allows herself to be lured into a discussion with the evil one about the substance of God’s commandment. “Do not throw your pearls before swine”warns ,Jesus (Matthew 7:6), and that seems to be exactly what Eve does. “Such is the evil of idly and casually exposing to all and sundry the divine mysteries,” John Chrysostom observes in his extraordinarily rich reading of Eve’s transgression (Homilies on Genesis 16.6 in FC 74.211).

This might seem a fanciful reading, but the larger scriptural witness suggests otherwise. A negligent, careless tongue looms large in the biblical concern about sin, much larger than most Christian readers realize. Restraint of the tongue is the object of two of the Ten Commandments: do not take the LORD’S name in vain, and do not bear false witness. James identifies the control of the mouth as the key to vice and virtue (James. 3:2-5) and warns that “the tongue is a fire” (3:6). Sin has made our tongues “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). The Pastoral Epistles place great emphasis on the properly trained tongue, one that knows when to be silent and when to command and teach according to the sound doctrine.

This larger biblical concern about the tongue and its dangers forms the background for Chrysostom’s portrayal of Eve as the original gossipy housewife, whose wandering, undisciplined tongue leads to the original human sin. It is not prideful self-assertion that is the source. For Chrysostom, the root sin is negligence, expressed most clearly in the easy familiarity of neighborhood gossip. For in gossip we treat other people’s lives as occasions for entertainment and titillation, as opportunities to express complacent superiority or to express a burning envy.

With Chrysostom’s interpretation, therefore, we see an important aspect of our sinful selves. We are not hyper-alert seekers after advantage, men and women who puff ourselves up with arrogant self-importance. More often than not we are somnolent, lazy, and complacent folks who drift along with the crowd. We don’t rush off to join the devil’s party. Instead, we wake up one day and find that, after an unthinking, offhanded career as a fellow traveler, we have signed a loyalty oath as full members.

There is no one right way to read the story of the first sin. The early monastic tradition developed a list of seven deadly sins: pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. Under the influence of Augustine, Western Christianity has tended to presume that pride is the cardinal, original sin. But the early monks who lived in the Egyptian desert often thought otherwise. For some greed loomed large. They observed a deep human fear of dependence upon God that manifested itself in a perennial desire to accumulate some small margin of protective, sustaining property. For others, a languid, despairing, spiritual pessimism (sloth) was the deepest problem we face.

We should not be surprised that the Christian tradition has not settled on a single account of material form of the primal sin. The scriptures themselves equivocate. Proverbs 16:18 gives St. Augustine his favorite text: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” But Wisdom of Solomon 2:24 teaches, “Through the devil’s envy death entered the world.” (St. Augustine harmonizes these verses by supposing that the devil’s pride causes him to envy, God’s supremacy.) In 1 Timothy 6:10 we read that “the love of money is the root of all evils.” And 1 John 2:16 gives a threefold formulation (drawing on Ezekiel 24:21) that has been used to probe the deep sources of sin: “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life.”

This diversity should not trouble, because it reflects a deeper, formal truth about sin. Transgression is, at root, a spectral romance with nothingness. It is epitomized by idolatry, devotion to an image powerless to deliver on its promises. Lacking an underlying truth or reality, our actual sins take countless forms without ever coming into focus as instances of some deeper, more stable, more fundamental form of life.

As a strange, impossible love of nothingness, sin always twists itself toward some semblance of reality. Sin is the perverted love of a finite good, and therefore has no stable, fundamental form. For this reason, there is no one way to characterize the original sin in Genesis 3.

You will not die…
The serpent’s deceiving promise is a primordial lie
. It is to the ears what an idol is to the eyes: a fantasy about the power of life. As a promise, the lie is a claim about the future, a faux covenant. In the subtle, indirect, and deceiving form of a negative claim, the serpent seems to promise life: “You will not die.” “Have no fear,” he implies. “Do as you please. You can have what you want right now — and at the same time you can have the fullness of life in the future. You can have the lovely fruit, and it will provide you with all the happiness you seek.” At root, this lie, and the covenant it implies, is like the golden calf at the base of Mount Sinai. It is like Mammon, whom we so often serve. It is like the ideological totems of modern men and women. Satan’s lie always takes the same form. It creates the illusion that there is some path to fullness of life other than obedience to God’s commandments.

Evil is negation, and pure evil is complete privation or negation. Therefore, pure evil cannot exist, not even as a possibility. As a result, the lie can endure only in the mind of the woman and tempt her if it somehow participates in truth, as do all believable lies. And indeed Satan’s lie does. When they eat the fruit, neither the man nor the woman drops dead. The LORD, who has said, “In the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:17), seems to be shown the purveyor of falsehood, while the serpent speaks the truth.

The seeming truth of Satan’s lie rests on the equivocal meaning of life and death. God creates the man and the woman for a purpose: to enter into his Sabbath rest. Spiritual life and death turns on our acceptance or rejection of that divine purpose established in the beginning. Moses’s exhortation to the Israelites restates the choice that Eve faces in the garden: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendents may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him” (Deuteronomy 10:19-20).

Christ presents the same choice to all the nations: “In him was life” (John 1:4), he is “the bread of life” (John 6:35), and his words “are spirit and life” (John 6:63). Christ gives his flesh over to death for the sake of “the life of the world” (John 6:5 1), and in his resurrection death is “swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4). In this way, from Eve onward the original choice of life or death is recapitulated again and again: “He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son of God has not life” (1 John 5:12).

The serpent’s lie was brilliant and effective, because it shifts the focus of human concern. He directs attention to what the woman already possesses: the gift of physical life that she shares with all living things. “What you have now you shall not lose;’ he promises, and in a strict sense he speaks truthfully. But the strict sense of Satan’s promise is not the implied sense. “You shall not die” conjures the promise that we will have life abundant. The deception thus breaks the bond between “life and godliness:’ and the lie turns our attention away from “him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3). The serpent’s lie tempts the woman to believe that what matters most is sentient, bodily existence: “Take the fruit. It’s not going to kill you!”

The lie remains effective to this day. St. Augustine makes a distinction between two dispositions toward things: use and enjoyment. To use something means to see its finite goodness and its role in God’s larger plan or purpose and then to love it contingently, that is, not for its own sake but for the sake of God’s plan. To enjoy, by contrast, means to embrace something as our final rest and ultimate purpose, to love it for its own sake. God alone is our proper rest, and thus we are created to enjoy him alone, and others in him, while we are to use created reality to attain that end. But we are tempted to rest in countless finite goods, and the temptation is strong, because, as Satan promises, we really can love them and live in them for their own sake — at least for a while.

My professional success is genuinely rewarding. The five-star chef cooks wonderful food. Patriotism is a noble sentiment. All of these finite goods make life better in the short and medium term. “The tree was good for food” (Genesis 3:6), and its apple does not kill Adam and Eve — or us. In fact, an apple might satisfy our hunger and keep the doctor away. Thus, it’s very easy to think that apples and other finite goods are what make life worth living. The lie works because it has a ring of truth.


The Fall – R.R. Reno

April 26, 2012

The Fall by Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (6 March 1475 – 18 February 1564), commonly known as Michelangelo.

Sin is crouching at the door (Genesis 4:7)

The Serpent Was More Subtle.
On the sixth day God creates “the beasts. . . and the cattle.. . and everything that creeps upon the ground” (Genesis 1:25). Yet, now appears something “more subtle” and seemingly of a different order. Just who or what is the subtle serpent? The voice of the tradition is unequivocal: it is a worldly form of Satan, the fallen angel. The modern historical-critical tradition rejects this reading; von Rad is typical: “The serpent which now enters the narrative is marked as one of God’s created animals…. In the narrator’s mind, therefore, it is not a symbol of a `demonic’ power and certainly not Satan. What distinguishes it a little from the rest of the animals is exclusively its greater cleverness.” So which shall it be: demonic power personified or the animal trickster of folklore?

At the very minimum, Jewish and Christian readers expect this verse to cohere with other parts of the Bible. For example, Job 1 portrays an interaction between God and Satan that sets up another scene of temptation. God allows Satan to afflict Job in order to tempt him to curse God (Genesis 1:6-12). Wisdom of Solomon 2:23-24 interprets the original temptation along similar lines: “God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world.” The New Testament only reinforces the presumption that temptation and transgression come from the devil.

In Luke’s Gospel, Satan and the demons are closely associated with serpents and scorpions (10:17-20), and in John of Patmos’s vision of end times, the power of Christ is depicted as dethroning “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelations 12:9). Even when the image of the serpent is absent, the link between Satan and temptation is clear. In the New Testament scene that recapitulates the circumstances in Genesis  3, Satan tempts Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13).

Scripture interprets scripture, and the weight in favor of reading the serpent as Satan is overwhelming. But we can do more than adduce intra-canonical warrants. It is useful to think through why there is such a strong consensus that a demonic power lay behind the original transgression.

The benefits of pursuing this question are significant. We not only understand Genesis 3:1 more fully, but we also develop a deeper, more intelligent grasp of why angels and demons become so important in the later books of the Bible and why so many later theologians developed systematic accounts of non-bodily, spiritual creatures.

The way forward is not obvious. As Origen notes, “In regard to the devil and his angels and the opposing spiritual powers, the Church teaching lays it down that these beings exist, but what they are and how they exist it has not explained very clearly.” [On First Principles preface.6 in Origen: On First Principles, trans. G. W. Butterworth ( Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1973), 245.]But Origen, however tentative in his speculations about Satan, gives him a central role in the cosmological drama of fall and redemption. The role is emphasized in the many later scriptural passages that implicitly comment on Genesis 3:1. As the larger tradition affirms again and again, evil and the possibility of transgression begins with the angels.

It is very important to see that this view of the origin of evil is not the product of an ancient view of the world as bounded by a heaven above and a spiritual realm below, the so-called three-tiered universe often adduced by modern scholars as a sufficient explanation for early Christian (and Jewish) interest in angels and demons. The devil is not a mythological figure invented by a pre-scientific, credulous spiritual imagination.

On the contrary, the idea of a fallen angel helps biblical readers of Genesis 3 in two ways. First, a reference to Satan immediately conjures a cosmos-wide power, and this helps dramatize the cosmos-wide scope of the divine plan and the sinful resistance to it. Second, the concept of the devil serves as a placeholder for the most extreme possible negation of the divine plan that is consistent with the belief that God is the all-powerful and all-good creator of everything out of nothing.

Let us begin, then, with salvation history. In the broadest possible sense, if we assume that the serpent is not just a particular animal in the garden of paradise, but is instead a grand spiritual being who has already embarked on the deepest and widest possible rebellion against God, then at the very least we have succeeded in refraining a quite intimate and concrete story of temptation in Genesis 3 within a cosmic context. What the serpent says is not just a localized event.

Recourse to the devil inflates the significance of the events. The story is not merely about a serpent and a woman and a man. On the contrary, the garden scene depicts the ultimate adversary at work. The transgression, therefore, is infected with the depth and breadth of Satan’s prior rebellion. It is universally consequential, or as the terminology of traditional doctrine would have it, the sin is original.

One might object that this enlargement of the events in Genesis 3 does violence to the plain sense. But the objection ignores the context, which positively begs from a cosmic frame of reference. The seven-day account of creation that opens Genesis is part of the Priestly tradition; in contrast, the second account of creation of man and woman in Genesis 2 reflects the Yahwist tradition. The standard modern approach to reading these two accounts emphasizes their differences. The P writer provides an account of the architecture of the cosmos, while the J writer is more interested in the human-focused flow of history.

However, the two perspectives overlap. The Priestly material suggests a historical dynamism toward the seventh day (Genesis 2:2). Now we can see how an interpretation of the serpent as the devil opens up a cosmic frame of reference for reading the Yahwist. Instead of trying to give a conceptual answer to the question of how a particular event in the past can have universal consequences, the tradition gives an exegetical answer. The episode is cosmic in significance because the serpent is Satan, the primordial agent of rebellion.

Job, the biblical text most closely related to Genesis 3 in theme and situation, evokes a similar conclusion about the human condition. The main body of the book is highly particularized. Job’s flocks are stolen, his house destroyed, and his children killed. These personal tragedies trigger a long series of debates with Job’s friends about the justice of Job’s sufferings, debates that turn on whether Job is a righteous man.

The central premise is that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. The assumption is that our actions determine our destinies. Have I obeyed? Have I transgressed? As readers familiar with the book know, Job’s friends argue that Job must have transgressed. Job counter-argues that he has not. But for our purposes, the important point of the debate is more general. Throughout the back and forth of argument, all the focus falls on the human condition.

In a sense, Job and his friends live in the Yahwist strand of Genesis. The discrete details of our lives provide exactly the right frame of reference for thinking about the human condition. And yet, Job neither begins nor ends with this focus. Instead, the story opens with Satan approaching the LORD God in his heavenly court. He challenges God, suggesting that God lacks the ability attract spiritual loyalty without buying off the faithful with worldly rewards. The story ends with the famous divine appearance out of a whirlwind, an appearance in which God recounts to Job, not the details of his life and actions, but instead the divine acts of creation. In short, the cosmic perspective frames and contextualizes the human-focused concerns of Job and his friends.

The devil functions in the same way in the New Testament, Again and again St. Paul reminds his readers of the true scale of their struggle against sin. Worldly trials and temptations are not just local; they are afflictions of the devil. The faithful are to resist with confidence, for in due time the God of peace will crush Satan under their feet (Romans 16:20). This image of triumph draws on Genesis 3:15 — the divine prophecy that the children of Eve shall crush the head of the serpent.

In the same way, Hebrews uses the greater spiritual powers of angels and demons in order to frame the significance of the passion and death of Jesus. The one who was greater than angels was made lower in order to destroy what the writer calls “the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). Luke’s Gospel makes a similar move when it evokes the intruding agency of evil: “Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot” (Genesis 22:3). The reader is put on notice. The events in Jerusalem, like the events in the primordial garden, have the gravest and greatest of consequences.

Our goal is not to try to reconstruct a New Testament angelology or demonology and transpose it back onto Genesis. The point is much simpler. When 1 Peter 5:8 warns that “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour,” the effect is not to conjure up pictures of a trident-carrying, horned creature with cloven hoofs. Instead, this and other appeals to Satan function in the same way as the apocalyptic visions of Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation, all of which portray our destiny in the context of more powerful forces.

Here a reading of the serpent as Satan begins to pay theological dividends. As we allow the image of Satan to guide our reading of Genesis 3, we learn something about the large biblical vision of human freedom. Although our actions are free and we genuinely shape the directions of our lives, we do not define the moral and spiritual atmosphere in which we live. As any mention of the devil reminds us, we are cast into a world already shaped by a creation-wide history of resistance to the divine plan. Our freedom is not pristine, unaffected, and uninfluenced by prior events. We must decide and act in circumstances beyond our control.

Of course, not every portion of scripture can be brought into harmony with every other part. The Bible is fundamentally heterogeneous and cannot be reduced to general theological principles. We should avoid the impulse to interpret scripture simply in order to draw out a theological point, even the very important point that human freedom is constrained by a larger contest between good and evil. Theological concepts are never fully adequate, and no single theological conclusion does justice to the plentitude of the scriptural text. For this reason, it is worthwhile to digress into some further, more technical reasons for calling the tempting serpent “Satan.” These reasons emerge out of the problem of theodicy, the conceptually difficult need to acknowledge the reality of evil while affirming the power and goodness of God.

We can best begin by considering the contrary interpretation. The text says the serpent was an animal — admittedly a strangely clever and talkative animal — and that is the end of it. [A talking animal is not sufficient reason to hypothesize about demonic (or angelic) agents. Balaam's ass talks, but the role of the ass is that of a sensible animal and not a spiritual being (Numbers 22:21-30).] With this approach we gain in literalism, but an immediate problem emerges. As human beings, our acts are voluntary or free insofar as they are motivated. An unmotivated act is accidental, not free. But as embodied rational beings, we are motivated by what we perceive and by conclusions we draw from our engagement with the world. As St. Augustine writes, “Nothing draws the will into action except some object that has been perceived.” [Augustine, De libero arbitrio 3.25.74. I draw this formulation from the translation provided in tt MacDonald's nuanced analysis of St. Augustine's approach to Adam and Eve's sin in "Primal ," in The Augustinian Tradition, ed. Gareth B. Matthews (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 110-39 at 118]

If this is so, then the first transgression must have been motivated by something perceived in the garden. Perhaps it was the novelty of a talking snake. Perhaps it was the loveliness of the fruit. Perhaps the slipperiness of human language, a faulty memory, or the all-too-natural tendency of the human mind to be distracted led the woman to eat. Perhaps the natural affections and loyalty of the man to the woman led him to follow suit.

The point is not to specify the motive or cause. Instead, we need to see what is entailed in allowing the serpent to be just a clever snake. Because our freedom is embodied and responsive rather than purely spiritual and originative, if the serpent is just another bodily creature in the world, then the temptation toward primal sin follows as a consequence of the way God creates.

He makes us free in certain way, but the created order contains realities and impulses that are intrinsically tempting and out of balance: a talking animal such as the serpent, a lovely fruit, the bond of companionship, or some other feature of created, embodied existence. In short, if the serpent is just an animal, then sin emerges out of the human encounter with the natural order.

This conclusion immediately runs up against the problem of evil. The notion that the original transgression occurs as a result of our embodied freedom seems to contradict the biblical assertion that God creates everything and calls it good. Not surprisingly, then, the tradition reads Satan into this verse. There are (so the traditional train of thought presumes) free spiritual beings whose created free wills are not moved by their perception of other created realities. In their independence, these spiritual beings are capable of a pure choice, a choice unmotivated and uncolored by instinct and natural desire. For this reason, spiritual beings can make choices that are originative and not responsive. A spiritual being can choose evil without being motivated by anything God has created. Angels are, as it were, self-moved.

If we suppose the existence of an angel who has fallen, then we have a way out of the problem of evil in our reading of Genesis 3, or at least a way of giving a more subtle form to the problem of evil. [Here I follow Augustine's line of reasoning in his long digression at the beginning of his treatment of the fall in The Literal Meaning of Genesis 11] By interpreting the serpent as Satan, we have created exegetical space for a prior, purely spiritual choice of disobedience, one not motivated by the desire for something in the created world that is perceived as good. The fallen angel is motivated solely by his choice of evil, the darkness of a world without the supreme goodness of God (Genesis 1:4).

Of course, the pure freedom of the devil is a finite freedom. The devil is not a primordial being who exists before creation, and in this sense the devil’s freedom is part of the divine project from the outset. However, although the finitude of a purely spiritual freedom constrains its scope and consequences, finitude does not mitigate the capacity of a disembodied freedom to do and become something out of its own pure choice. In a certain sense, God is still on the hook.

But for God’s creation of the angels, none would have fallen. Yet the important point is secure: no aspect of creation other than freedom itself is implicated as the reason for an angelic fall. The devil falls strictly because of his choice and not because of any other feature or quality of the created order. This allows us to say that the first transgression, the fall of the devil, occurs in creation, but not because of creation. “It was,” writes St. Augustine, “an evil arising not from nature but from choice” (City of God 11.19).

These suppositions about the finite spiritual freedom of fallen angels open up conceptual space for an interpretation of Genesis 3, and this allows us to pursue a reading that avoids the problem of implying that the ordinary conditions of our embodied freedom lead to sin. Interpreted as Satan in bodily form, the serpent in the garden can be understood as the vehicle for the intrusion of a more original evil choice into our world of embodied freedom. Aspects of creation (e.g., the attractive tastiness of the apple) are obviously implicated in and serve as the medium for transgression, but we need no longer presume that created goods trigger the first human sin.

Instead, Satan’s prior, purely spiritual, and self-directing choice influences Eve’s subsequent, embodied, and responsive choice. She is not thrown off balance by anything God has created. Her transgression turns on her response to a prior form of evil that is, in itself, an act of finite but pure freedom. Of course, Adam’s sin has precisely the same form. She hands him the fruit, and he responds to Eve’s prior choice. Once the infection is introduced it spreads.

The conceptual advantages of reading the serpent as Satan shows why it is terribly naive to imagine that the classical interpretation is motivated by a love of mythological figures. [The modern historical-critical tradition is hopelessly confused on this point. See, for example, Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11:.4 Commentary.. Unable to countenance "the mythological explanation of the serpent," Westermann concludes that the origin of evil must be a purely human phenomenon. Westermann is apparently unable to imagine that biblical readers (including readers whose writings would subsequently be incorporated into the canon) would develop interpretive hypotheses in order to avoid contradicting basic theological convictions about the nature of God and creation. Von Rad also falsely assumes that classical demonology is mythical and summarily rejects the traditional reading of the serpent as Satan by insisting that the narrative treats temptation as "a completely un-mythical process.” The dichotomy works only if one supposes that hypothetical or inferred beings are by definition mythical, but this is absurd, since it would make a great deal of scientific and mathematical reasoning mythological.]

To read the serpent as Satan is not to think of the snake as a wicked elf or a rebellious satyr. On the contrary, the traditional exegesis of the serpent as Satan resolves the dilemma posed by a literal reading of the story. To suppose the serpent to be Satan’s worldly guise allows us to coordinate the strong affirmation of the intrinsic goodness of creation in Genesis 1 with the narrative disobedience, resistance, and rebellion of Genesis 3.

At this point we should step back and consider an obvious objection. The reading of the serpent as Satan may help us with the difficulty of affirming the intrinsic goodness of God’s creation. The hypothesis of an angelic fall allows us to assert that freedom alone can pervert itself; it cannot go awry simply as human freedom engaged in response to created goods. Yet this approach, we might worry undermines human responsibility. If the fall is triggered by Satan’s earlier choice, then how can we be held responsible? It would seem that the original sin is the devil’s fault, not ours. And if this is the case, doesn’t the entire Pauline economy of guilt in Adam and forgiveness in Christ collapse?

The objection is helpful, because it forces us to be clear about the nature of our embodied freedom, as well as more attentive to what scripture actually says about our roles in both the empire of evil and the reign of Christ. It is certainly true that we are free participants in the divine plan — for good or for ill. However, transgression is like Caesar’s army crossing the Rubicon. Our freedom does not determine us all at once. It sets us down a particular path. More important, in crossing any number of moral and spiritual Rubicons, we are like soldiers deciding to follow, not generals leading their legions. Our freedom is real; we must decide to move our feet in one direction or the other.

But that freedom is reactive and responsive, not executive or commanding. We need a leader to trigger our movement. This is why human freedom never provides a sufficient explanation for the march toward sin — or the countermarch toward righteousness. Humans seem capable of a depravity — and righteousness — that far exceeds our ordinary capacities, which is why ordinary language stretches toward adjectives such as “demonic” and “saintly” when describing human extremes. We can follow much further than we can lead.

There are scriptural and commonsensical reasons for thinking of human freedom more on the model of an enlistee than an officer. Joshua ends with a re-statement of the choice that determines us. We cannot create endlessly new and different paths into the future. On the contrary, we must decide whom to follow: “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:14-15). We are free to switch loyalties, but we cannot invent new armies and new objectives. With exactly the same underlying assumptions about the human condition, St. Paul insists that our choice, which recapitulates the original choice of Adam and Eve, is about whom to serve and not an invitation to brainstorm about the good life. “You are slaves of the one whom you obey, writes Paul, and in Adam we are conscripted into the army of sin (Romans 6:16).

The gospel stories evoke the same view of freedom when they portray the good news as a challenge to “the powers” that hold us in their thrall. We seem always beholden to a prior evil that gives us orders that we willingly obey, and Christ frees us by giving counter commands. Mammon leads us one direction; God leads us in another. When Paul says that “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1), he does not mean that we can opt out and wait for a third option. We are freed from sin precisely because we are taken captive in Christ. In him we serve the life-giving master.

Thus an appeal to Satan in our interpretation of Genesis 3 reinforces a general Biblical claim about our created condition. Our freedom is always a matter of whom we obey, and in sin we seek a perverse fulfillment of our natural desire for obedient service. Promethean self-direction is a fantasy, for we are not created with the capacity to serve ourselves. We can only serve that which is greater, which is why the supposition that the serpent is Satan fits nicely with the larger biblical tendency to see the fundamental form of sin as idolatry. The perverted human will follow the false gods, false leaders, and false promises, all the while imagining them to be the source of life.

The view of human freedom as a decision about whom to obey finds ample confirmation in everyday life. We cannot follow our instincts, but we can follow the idea of following our instincts. We cannot live as natural men and women, but we can follow a philosophy of natural existence. We cannot live only for ourselves but we can adopt the principle of egoism. By St. Paul’s analysis, in sin we pervert rather than undo or destroy the purposes for which human nature was created. We live a distorted facsimile of covenant. We are “slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe” (Galatians 4:3).

We were created to know and worship the living God, but in our blindness we serve dead idols (Romans 1:21-23). Thus, when we introduce the greater power of Satan into our interpretation of Genesis, we are not understanding human responsibility for sin, nor are we compromising the Pauline vision of salvation history. Instead, we are bringing our reading of the fall into conformity with the New Testament account of our slavery to sin. Sin is a perverted obedience, a false following, a deceived discipleship. To suppose the serpent to be a form of Satan helps us see the true form of our slavery to sin — and by contrast to see the obedient form of our participation in Christ.

Although there are strong reasons in support of a traditional reading of the serpent as Satan, neither scripture nor the classical theological tradition gives Satan an ongoing, central role in the unfolding of the divine plan. St. Paul observes “sin came into the world through one man” (Romans 5:12) and that the divine campaign against the entire empire of evil is conducted through “that one man Jesus Christ (Romans 5:15). While we may not be commanders in the cosmic conflict, salvation history turns on our loyalty. Although the possibility of evil should be traced back to the purely spiritual freedom of fallen angels, we need to be careful. The origin of evil should not be confused with the location of its ultimate conflict with goodness. The centers of government may have been in Richmond and Washington, but the tide of the Civil War turned at the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.

For Gregory of Nyssa, the human focus of the scriptural story is clear from the outset, and he explains why God fittingly chooses our embodied freedom as the place to work out his redemptive plan. Our amphibious existence as both embodied and free places us at the center of the cosmic drama. “God, taking dust of the ground, formed the man, Gregory writes, “and, by an inspiration from Himself, He planted life in the work. of His hand, that thus the earthy might be raised up to the Divine, and so one certain grace of equal value might pervade the whole creation, the lower nature being mingled with the supra-mundane” (Catechetical Orations 6 in NPNF 5.480).

The human creature has a unique role. We are what angels and demons can never be: a hybrid of body and spirit that participates in all aspects of the created order. Through us, therefore, God can reach into all the corners of his creation. Neither pure spirit nor mere body, we are at the crossroads of reality. The future of the cosmos is in the hands of whichever army controls this strategic point.

Thus, for all the biblical concern about demons and for all the theological principles that warrant the hypothesis of the devil, focus falls on the human. We live out our loyalties in the quotidian realities of everyday life. It is here and now that we do the work of Satan, and it is here and now that we encounter Christ, who has the power to free us from the thrall of our own past choices, from the primordial choice of Adam and Eve, and from the original wickedness of Satan. We do the most to defeat the devil and sanctify the world when we focus on our core competence: obedience to the call of Christ in the midst of human affairs.


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