The Bible and the blurb
MARK O'BRIEN OP
OUR WORLD is awash with words and images competing for our attention and our money. Advertising is the name of the game and, whether we like it or not, we all play it in some form or other. People may condemn it and may campaign for laws to control it but to do so they will need to use words and/or images to try and get people’s attention—in other words, advertise.
Perhaps more than anything else, advertising reveals our fascination with, and reliance upon, language. It enables us to be creative but it is also limited. There is no perfect language and our description of something can never be perfect. That’s why we keep returning to it to try and catch what we missed last time. The angle from which I view something affects my selection of words and it may not be the best selection. My desire to convince an audience to do something or buy something will also shape my selection of words and the way I present them. If we add to this mix the crucial ingredient of competition—my product against others—then my need to sell my product can turn description into distortion. One could say that all descriptions are distortions because they don’t give the full picture. I am more likely to distort things when my primary aim is to tempt others to buy my product; this in turn can affect people’s perception of the product and their decision to buy.
We should not think that advertising is exclusively a phenomenon or curse of the modern world: it may not have been called advertising but the art of persuading others via the skilful—and at times devious—use of words has been around from ancient times. It is hardly surprising therefore to find that the Bible also deals with it.
In fact, the first story in the Bible is about the human struggle to relate the world to the world of words. Before examining the so-called ‘garden story’ in Genesis 2-3 I should say that I follow the western, critical view that this story is a myth. Not a myth in the pejorative sense (as Paul uses the term in 1 Tim 4:7) but in the technical sense that it is a particular kind of story favoured by ancient peoples who were great storytellers. It was their way of tackling the great questions and challenges of life before the emergence of Greek philosophical discourse, where arguments are set out and debated in a systematic fashion. Instead, one told a dramatic story about creation or one’s own race and its place in the scheme of things. Within such a story, the human characters are not historical figures although storytellers no doubt drew on their experience of people around them (how else does one create a character for a story?). Rather, the characters represent humanity or a nation in its various guises: loving, hating, fearful, devious, noble, etc. In their own way, these ancient stories can be just as subtle and probing as philosophy.
The subtlety of the garden story is no more evident than in the exchange between the woman and the serpent (who is not the devil but one of the creatures ‘of the field’ whom God makes in 2:19). The serpent’s opening question in 3:1 looks innocuous enough and the phrase translated ‘from any tree in the garden’ repeats exactly in Hebrew what God says in 2:16. But the serpent adds the word ‘not’, which is not in God’s permission in 2:16. Via this one addition the serpent changes God’s permission into a prohibition. The serpent is also a clever manipulator of Hebrew (or we should say the narrator casts it as a clever manipulator to serve the plot of the story). The other little Hebrew word translated ‘every’ in 2:16 can also mean ‘any’, which is what it has to mean in the negative formulation of 3:1. The serpent is thus able to quote God’s words yet at the same time change their meaning by changing the context ever so slightly—and, as we know, context is everything when it comes to communication. The overall effect is to distort God’s words in 2:16 and make a generous God look mean.
Once a subtle trap like this has been set, it can be hard to counter it effectively, even with the best of intentions. The woman’s response in vv. 2-3 looks like an attempt to set the serpent straight but she is not seeing things quite right herself. She restores the plural to what God allows them to eat (‘we may eat from the fruit of the trees in the garden’) but does not identify correctly the one tree that God prohibits. In 2:17, God forbids the man to eat from the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ but the woman identifies it as the one ‘in the middle of the garden’. According to 2:9, this is the tree of life. She also claims that God forbids them to touch it (which God does not) and that if they do touch it, they will die (again not what God says in 2:17). This brings her dangerously close to the serpent’s implication that God is mean and restrictive. As I read this carefully crafted text, the narrator portrays the woman with a partly distorted perception of reality, prompted by the serpent’s clever question. In the world of advertising, the opening question is often crucial. You not only have to encourage the person to question their view of things (the chink in the armour) but you also have to try and get him or her to see things from your perspective—once this is done you can deliver your sales pitch. And this is what the serpent does in the following verses.
In v. 4, the serpent says with supreme confidence ‘you shall not die’, and it’s right. God never says that they will die if they touch the tree in the middle of the garden. But there is a hidden agenda: the reassurance conceals God’s warning in 2:17 that if the man (and the woman is presumably included) eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil then he will die. The serpent can now go on to present the core of any advertising blurb: if you eat this you will be divine (if you buy this you will look divine; if you wear this you will be irresistible). And, like many a political party during election campaigns, the serpent now casts the rival (God) in a wholly negative light—God has in effect been keeping them at a disadvantage whereas if they swallow the serpent’s propaganda it is all to their advantage.
Finally, in another innocuous looking aside, the serpent refers to the one thing that the woman must do if the sale is to go through; she (and the man) must eat from the right tree, not the tree of life (this is the last thing the serpent wants them to do) but the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The reference to the tree is put in the most appealing way: ‘you will be like God, knowing good and evil’. The narrative in v. 6 shows that the woman—and the man who according to the story is with her through it all—now has a completely distorted view of the correct tree (a nice ironic touch) thanks to the serpent’s advertising blurb. They cannot see beyond their perception that the fruit of the tree is good to eat. They have become what we would nowadays call consummate consumers. Wisdom in itself is a desirable and good thing but how does one use it wisely? I have bought this powerful and highly desirable sports car but can I drive it responsibly? Given that the woman and man stand for all human beings, the implication is that when we seek by our own efforts to become wise like God we cannot handle it. We end up with a completely distorted perception of reality: seeing good as evil and evil as good. So, the woman and the man, before naked and unashamed, now hide from each other behind fig leaves; they also hide from God who is now seen as someone to be feared. Same couple, same God, but now seen in an entirely different light.
Even though the text is not explicit, one may presume that the serpent anticipates with relish the immediate intervention of God followed by the death penalty, leaving it, ‘the most cunning of God’s creatures’, to claim the prize—the garden. A bit like those loan sharks who fleece people and disappear with the loot, leaving their victims in ruins. Fortunately, the Bible does not follow this tragic script: its convictions about a just and merciful God require that neither the serpent nor the couple get away with the wrong they have done. The serpent is cursed (the story never lets it rise above the status of an animal) while the couple experience both the justice and the mercy of God.
Justice and mercy are two key images of God that run throughout the Bible and their relationship is never neatly resolved. Given the mystery that is God, how could it be? It is fair to say that few of us would follow a God who is soft on evil (unjust) and few of us could relate to a God who is not loving and merciful. The text of 3:15-19 weaves these two images together in its portrayal of God’s relationship to the troubled couple. So, they do not die ‘on that day’ but death now looms as an eventual and unavoidable dissolution. Their lives will still bear fruit (children, produce of the earth) but it will be accompanied by pain and anxiety. The just God has, in all justice, to confront the couple about their failure but God is also merciful and protective of their humanity (notice how God ensures in 3:15 that the woman will never again be seduced by the serpent).
A particular value of this story is that it brings us down to earth: it challenges us to see our marvellous modern world as just another example of the human condition that we share with all generations. We like to think we see things clearly but this is a dangerous presumption, exposed by our repeated failure to deal with the distorted presentation of reality (the serpent’s role in the story). A variety of subjective factors (desire, fear, presumption) can make us vulnerable to the seduction that so often lies behind the distorted presentation of reality (the woman’s role): this in turn leads us to willingly accept a distorted perception of reality for our own gain. When confronted about it, we take the coward’s way out and ‘blame the other’ (the man’s role in 3:10-13). The story also reminds us of the destructive consequences that our desires can unleash: those whom beforehand we saw as good and lovable, are now seen as rivals to be feared or eliminated.
The following story of Cain and Abel illustrates in graphic fashion the destructive consequences of the distorted perception of reality. What is intriguing about this story is that it does not tell us why God favoured Abel’s offering and not Cain’s. One may speculate but my impression is that this is a signal from the narrator that the point of the story lies elsewhere. The narrator needs the theme of divine favour or something like it to create the complicating factor that is characteristic of storytelling; otherwise there is nothing to drive the story forward. But the point the narrator wants us to focus on is God’s ‘torah’ or teaching in 4:6 about how to confront temptation. Whereas the garden story tells about human failure to reject a bad word, this story tells about human failure—in the figure of Cain—to heed a good word. Jealousy leads to a distorted perception of his brother Abel who must be eliminated even though he has only done a good thing. We see something similar in the New Testament where Jesus will heal someone or tell a parable (a torah): some in the audience will proclaim that a great prophet and teacher is among them; others will proclaim that it is the work of the devil. In the end those who are filled with hatred or jealousy of Jesus (the crowds flocked to him) must eliminate him. Good is seen as evil, evil (killing Jesus) is seen as good.
What remedy does the Bible offer for our tendency to see things the wrong way? For Christians of course, the key remedy is discipleship of Jesus. But Jesus was a Jew and followed the Torah (the word has a much wider reach than our term ‘law’); hence it is worthwhile asking what remedy the Old Testament itself offers.
The short answer is the Torah—the five books of the Pentateuch that occupy the pre-eminent place in the Old Testament canon or list of sacred books. The Torah includes law texts like ours, but it also has many stories and some songs. In fact, the overarching literary form for the Torah is narrative or story—the story of Israel from its beginnings with the ancestors to its arrival on the edge of the land in Deuteronomy. The fascinating thing about the Torah is that in it Israel, the chosen people, holds itself up for public scrutiny in a brutally honest way. It tells the story of how it was chosen by God in the distant ancestors, rescued from slavery in Egypt, invited into a covenant relationship with God at Sinai and given instructions that would enable it to be God’s faithful people. And what did it do, according to its own testimony? It failed and failed repeatedly. It even goes so far as to say it deserved to be destroyed for its rotten behaviour and that it was only through God’s mercy that it eventually made it to the land. When one realises that the Torah was most likely finalised in the post-exilic period after Israel found itself once again outside the land, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that those responsible for the final product identified completely with the failures of their ancestors. The way that this story is linked to the troubled portrait of humanity in Genesis 1-11 indicates that Israel did not in any way see itself as superior to the rest of humanity. It believed that it had been chosen by God to bring the light of the Torah to the nations and one has the impression that its trenchant self-criticism may have been designed, in part at least, to focus attention on the thing that mattered most—the Torah, not Israel.
There is a problem with this of course: if you cast yourself in too negative a fashion in relation to your product the audience may conclude that it is too demanding to take on board. A bit of good old advertising is needed to sell the product and God, who inspired Israel to develop the Torah, knows this only too well. Hence, two glimpses of fidelity to the Torah and its consequences are presented. One involves the generation that succeeded the exodus generation that disobeyed God and, according to chapter 26 in the book of Numbers, perished in the wilderness. Their ‘little ones’, whom they thought would die in the wilderness, become the new generation that, in Numbers 27-36, displays fidelity to God. They get things right and are promised an inheritance in the land in the book of Deuteronomy.
The second one involves Moses who is told by God that he is not to enter the Promised Land. Two reasons are given in the Torah. According to Numbers 20, he failed to trust God in the crisis at the waters of Meribah. According to book of Deuteronomy the problem was the burden of the people. Deuteronomy is strangely coy about the details of this burden and how it affected Moses; this may be due to a reluctance to blame the great man himself. Moses looms large in deuteronomic theology which, according to contemporary critical theory, most likely reflects a reform movement of the late monarchical period—a kind of ‘back to basics’ response to the decline of the monarchy. Moses is its model leader. For a person of Moses’ stature to be told he cannot enter the land is a bitter blow and in Deut 3:25 he is portrayed pleading with God to be allowed to ‘cross over and see the good land beyond the Jordan’. But God will have nothing of it and instructs him to anoint Joshua as his successor. The narrator who constructed this exchange does not describe any reaction from his character Moses. Unlike our favoured mode of storytelling—the movie—which loves lavish and even graphic portrayals of characters, Israelite storytellers preferred the art of reticence. Much is left to an audience’s imagination to fill in details. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to imagine the challenge that God’ prohibition and the promotion of Joshua presented to Moses.
But, as Deuteronomy portrays him, Moses rises to the challenge and, in contrast to Cain, heeds God’s word and obeys it. He delivers his farewell address to Israel about the importance of unswerving loyalty to God according to the Torah and then, in chapter 31, expresses complete confidence in Joshua as the one on whom God’s favour rests and installs him as his successor. In the final scene of the book, chapter 34, Moses goes up the mountain to meet God as he did at Sinai. This time God shows him all the land promised to Israel’s ancestors. God grants Moses’ request back in 3:25 to see the good land and he sees it now, as it were, through God’s eyes. Indeed, Deuteronomy implies that this is the right and only way to ‘see’ the land: Moses now has the right perception of it. Moses showed that fidelity to God’s command is more important than the satisfaction of entering the land as Israel’s leader; the people will need to remember that fidelity to God’s command in the Torah is more important than their life in the land.
A wise colleague of mine says that the Bible is not the imposition of thought but an invitation, a challenge, to think. When one thinks about it, for the Bible to impose thought would be to impugn its own proclamation about God who desires that we become perfect, and that involves the responsible exercise of freedom. The Bible does not take away our right and responsibility to make decisions; what it does is provide some principles and guidelines that it hopes will guide our decisions. It also tells stories of Israel and key figures such as Moses to provide examples of how these principles and guidelines were, or were not, lived up to.
Mark O’Brien taught Old Testament for many years at Yarra Theological Union in the Melbourne College of Divinity. He now lectures at the Catholic Institute of Sydney.