All Beginnings are Hard: Genesis, Potok, and Why Choices are Good

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“All beginnings are hard.”

The opening line to the novel In the Beginning by Chaim Potok, perhaps my favorite author. Like several of Potok’s novels, it tells the story of a young Jewish boy coming of age in Brooklyn during  the first half of the twentieth century. David Lurie must discover for himself who and what God is amidst growing questions regarding the nature of suffering, a poignant query during the era of the Depression. As the plot unfolds, young David finds himself diverging from his orthodox father, Max. All beginnings are hard, David realizes, for all beginnings are also endings.

The study of religion often begins with examining creation stories. The Sumerian Eridu. The Babylonian Enuma Elish. Egyptian myths of creation out of nothing. And myths of creator parents too numerous to name. Studying religion involves studying where we began. But in almost every myth, birth requires death. Chaos must give way to order. Water is pushed away by land, yet cuts mountains to pebbles. Birth can be traced to the sexual act, but death? That’s elusive. Enigmatic. It comes in so many ways, sometimes fast other times excruciatingly slow. It baffles us. Discombobulates our sense of stasis. In fact, scientists have studied whether a fear of death has an impact on one’s religiosity.

Our sacred scriptures have two creation accounts. One that does not support misogyny, one that does. So the crafters of the Narrative Lectionary have rightly cut out the rib malarkey from the preaching text. It is time to stop the notion that somehow women are created for the benefit of men; we can continue to debate why the account is part of scripture and we can certainly wrestle with the text as scholars, but as preachers? As teachers? As presenters of the Word to congregations? It is time to end that message. It is time to bury those things that are not life-affirming and encouraging of each and every person of each and every gender identification to know that they are created in the image of God. So today, we focus on something other than a foolish notion that Eve brought down Adam. It’s a myth, folks. We’re allowed to critique it. We’re allowed to withhold our consent, to refuse to let misogyny touch our souls. To influence our girls. Our boys. All our gendered children.

The image in Genesis 2 is that of a breathing earth. There’s a flatline and then a pulse. Water is absorbed in soil like air in lungs, so deeply that dust has been created,, and then expelled until streams begin running over the surface of the earth. There is a steady pulse of creation now not a flat line. But notice that it is not from the wetness that God creates the human person. Human is of the dust. Both water and dryness play a role. Both are necessary ingredients for creation to spring forth. But it is God’s breath–the ruach— that ultimately bestows life. In the Jewish understanding, the ruach is akin to the neshema, our soul. It is an eternal reminder that present within us are particles from the moment of celestial inception. As Carl Sagan used to say, we have stardust in us. With the birth of life comes the cessation of unlife. No longer is there a world in which life does not exist. That fact is written into our very existences. 

How we explain death says much about how we regard life. In the creation stories of Genesis–in fact, in the whole of Genesis 1-11–we encounter human beings who are not content with their limits. Think about it. The expulsion from the garden for eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Cain killing Abel out of jealousy? God flooding the earth because humans are so awful to one another? It’s us being too big for our britches. Discontented. The Tower of Babel is about us trying to reach heaven to make gods out of ourselves, and one need only look at a current presidential candidate and the number of yuge buildings he’s plastered with his moniker to see that God’s Word remains relevant. 

Genesis 1-11 is about us not really understanding what this life is all about, and about the great mystery of death that we hope to unlock before we find out from the other side.

Or just fall into blackness.

All beginnings are hard. They often require a death of some sort. An ending. A turning of the page. The adding of another chapter. But we humans all write in the same book. We face fundamental questions about who we are, what we do, how we love, where we live. There are many things we can’t control. If we are lucky, there are a few key things we can.

We get to make decisions.

So Eve eats of the apple. We can applaud her fortitude, perhaps. Her curiosity. Her determination to learn things on her own. These exegetics have been set forth by better scholars and thinkers than I, most notably Phyllis Trible. But if we look at the story without resorting to literalism, we can see the truth at play: every birth is followed by life; every life reaches its zenith, however that might be played out, before it begins its fall that results in death. For those who gather around the myth of Genesis 2-3, what brings death and suffering into the world is our knowledge of good and evil. For that, we are tossed out of Eden and must make our way in the world.

Why do we think of this as a death? Why is being cast out of the garden a negative? While we should be careful of not slipping into binding binaries, I think we can all agree on some level that our understanding of joy is deepened when we understand sorrow. Our emotions grow and adapt based upon our experiences, and through that we too gain a knowledge of good and evil. The tree does not give Adam and Eve an awareness of good and evil. It gives them the knowledge of good and evil. Interestingly, the Hebrew word used for knowledge is well-known in our culture because of a certain Seinfeld episode. Tri yada. It is like the Greek word gnosis; an understanding that is beyond book learning. A mixture of study and experience. It is the highway upon which you travel to wisdom. It is a beginning.

The story of Genesis 2-3 tells us that the ability to do both good and evil exists within each one of us. And we should not think that any person is strictly one or another. To be sure, there are those who hang out on the extreme poles, but a vast majority of us are within the pithy middle. We are not monsters, we are not saints. But we have within each one of us the possibility to behave like either.

Our Abrahamic spiritual story begins with a simple declaration. There are parameters to life. We’re going to die. Sometimes that is a good thing, sometimes that is an evil thing. We’re going to have a life, but we don’t know how long it will last. We have no guarantees. We almost always have a choice, though. We can orientate ourselves toward good, or we can point the ship toward evil.

Each day, each moment we have beginnings. Deaths. Things that rise, things that converge. Things that come into being, things that cease to exist.

All beginnings are hard. That’s why God gives us one another. Amen.

 

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