Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador
Once upon a time, God created the universe in five days that took 14.5 billion years. On the sixth day, after He'd finished flying and creeping things, He said, "Let us create man in our image and likeness" (Genesis 1:26). Who God was talking to and what He meant by "us," nobody knew for sure. And since He was invisible, His "image and likeness" reference became another imponderable to future generations.
On Saturday, God, again puzzling posterity, rested. Why would the Almighty, inexhaustible by nature, need a rest? But early that Sabbath, He tied up two loose ends. While Adam was napping, God removed his rib and cloned him a wife, Eve. Then He told the couple they could eat anything in Eden's garden, except the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. "For then, you will surely die" (Genesis 1:18).
Hours old at this time, Adam and Eve's vocabulary was limited. They had begun naming the Eden plants and animals as their creator had told them to do. But they had no idea what these new words from the Lord meant: Knowledge, Good, Evil, Die. It was a lot. Still, His ominous pronunciation, especially of the last word, put them on edge in spite of being newborns in paradise.
After the Lord left for the weekend, Eve was accosted by a snake who had a vocabulary rivaling God's and was no less persuasive. He told the first woman to pay no mind to her creator's warning. "Eat the fruit, your eyes will be opened," he told her, "and you'll be like the gods, understanding everything" (Genesis 2:4-5).
Adam and Eve had not yet named fruits, so they didn't know what kind they ate that day. Some of their descendants imagined it to be a magic mushroom. Others an apple—Ambrosia, a Golden Delicious, or MacIntosh. Others a Hedge Apple, also called a Monkey Brain.
No sooner did our original father and mother eat the fruit, than they both fell into a deep sleep under God's tree. As the new 86 billion neurons of each fired with 100 trillion connections, outnumbering the stars: they dreamed the lives and thoughts of all their future children—of wisemen, prophets, messiahs; of magicians, mystics, metaphysicians; of saints, sinners, seers; of alchemists, astronomers, and astronauts.
That evening Adam and Eve awoke with a start, hearing God in the garden, having suddenly cut His Sabbath short. "Where are you?" He called. Adam now knew the Lord Himself was all-knowing and, therefore, all His questions were rhetorical. So, he crept out from behind the tree and confessed what he already knew God knew: "I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself." The Almighty demanded to know how the man knew he was naked, and if this had anything to do with eating what he had been told not to eat.
Crafty as the snake now, Adam deduced he only had one option for survival: to rat out Eve. But in a way that turned the tables on God. "The woman You gave me for a companion—she tempted me." Eve gave her other half the eye all future husbands would recognize. Then she fingered the snake. But she dared not press Adam's point and plead innocent by reminding the Almighty who put the snake and the poison tree in paradise to begin with.
God didn't wait for further excuses from His children before pronouncing His sentence: Subservience to her rib donor plus Lamaze childbearing for Eve; thorns, thistles, the sweat of brow for Adam; return to the dust from which they came for both and all mankind.
So, completing Creation, God created Death. And, from that time on, Homo Sapiens called themselves mortal—the creature that dies.
On Sunday morning, dressed in animal skins, our parents set out for Iran. Weeping while looking back at Eden one last time, the couple saw God's cherubim taking up their posts at the Tree of Life, brandishing their lightning swords lest the exiles try to double back, steal its fruit, and rival God Himself in longevity, if not wisdom.
Adam carried no luggage, except for a sack of monkey brains from the Tree of Knowledge he had collected the night before for the journey. As he and his rib journeyed through the desert, their heads were filled with questions about their predicament and their creator's unfathomable game plan. If God created us with Free Will, why did He curse us for using it? If God made us like Him, how could we have a Will outside His own? God made us with dust and His breath—body and spirit—so if we return to the dust alone, is He withdrawing His breath?
Our parents knew their knowledge was only in its infancy and that, with time and further thought, they might understand. But, for now, this wisdom seemed a bait-and-switch by the snake: it gave only questions and no answers. What exactly then is knowledge? they wondered. Who am I? Who is God? What is death?
Knowing these were not simple questions for our parents, much less us, the Almighty gave them 900 years under the sword to figure things out. Or not.
The first night outside Eden, Adam and Eve suffered an emptiness they later called "hunger." The gnawing sensation briefly subsided when they swallowed a former four-legged companion from paradise. After grace, they called the entree "M-eat."
By the second night, Adam had discovered fire and started barbequing. To his surprise, the fat of his firstling vanished in a cloud of smoke, revealing that God was a carnivore, too. Hoping to return to His good graces, Adam laid out a buffet for the Almighty every Saturday. Because he also loved marbled chops but gave God firsts, he called these barbeques "sacrifices." And he dared not discontinue the sacrifices, lest the Lord sacrifice him, as threatened.
As a consolation prize for death, God had promised our parents procreation and parenthood. "Be fruitful and multiply," He told them. The idea likely appealed more to the womb-man than to the man himself who enjoyed his independence no less than his precarious sanity. But his alleged Free Will, not to mention his intelligence, had apparently been stolen by the snake. With two seed bags, the serpent had stowed away from Eden in Adam's fruit of the looms and drove him to wild excesses with his wife (though, post-curse, she had an irrational fear of reptiles).
With labor, groaning, and no epidural, Eve delivered Cain nine months after leaving paradise. Nine months later, Abel arrived. Determined to give the boys a normal childhood and a sound grasp of reality, Adam and Eve decided not to tell them about Eden and the talking snake, especially not the thorns, thistles, and dust-to-dust part.
Only two livelihoods were available in the beginning of time: Cain became a farmer, Abel a shepherd. Both young men kept their father's sacrifice schedule, Cain to control droughts and locusts, Abel plagues and famines. On Creation's first Thanksgiving, each son laid out his finest—Cain, the vegan, his organic greens; Abel, the carnivore, his prime cuts. Hardly were the pyres set than the meat counter vanished, leaving the produce untouched. Reconsidering his future in agriculture now, Cain lost it.
The next morning, Adam and Eve found their youngest in the compost and their oldest at large. They tried to shake Abel awake, but eyes fixed and mouth ajar, he didn't stir. Momentarily, a storm cloud arrived and a wind blew up, revealing the perp in the bushes.
"Where is your brother?" thundered the Voice above.
Knowing all the Almighty's questions were rhetorical, Cain replied with one of his own: "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Genesis 4:10).
This was the first and last time anybody would backtalk God. Adam and Eve braced themselves, expecting the Lord to smite their surviving son. Instead, He cursed the ground the first farmer tilled, sentencing him to life as a fugitive. Cain wept not for his brother, but for himself, fearing it would be open season on him now.
"If anyone kills Cain, Cain shall be avenged sevenfold," God said, giving him a face tattoo for identification and protection. Then the disabled Cain set out for the land of Nod, heaping ashes on his head while watching his back.
Hoping their son might be exempt from their own capital sentence and might simply be sleeping in, Adam and Eve let Abel lie in state. At last, when the ground began to eat him and the flying and creeping things arrived to lay eggs in his meat, they laid him to rest in what would later be called the Tomb of Patriarchs.
Knowing now that all their children were doomed like themselves, the first couple was overwhelmed with fear and confusion no less than grief.
After God spurned Cain's sacrifice, He'd told him: "If you do well you are accepted. If not, sin is a demon crouching at the door" (Genesis 4:7).
"How did my son not do well?" wondered Adam. Did he not righteously offer the Lord the finest fruit of his labor, as Abel did? He had other questions, too. Since God already knew Cain would kill Abel due to the shame and humiliation of His rejection, why did He allow it? Finally, had the Almighty not supposedly created death over a predestined disobedience, would Abel still be alive?
While pondering these mysteries, Adam felt part of himself in the ground with Abel. He visited the grave every dusk with Eve.
"Where are you, my son?" he would call to his youngest, praying there might be another kinder Creation where he now lived. The dust that made him was now gone, but what of God's breath? Was Abel a wind, a cloud, a star? Or a phantom who had never lived at all?
As Adam and Eve were the first to ask: What is death?
Before venturing a definition, the first question to ask is: Beyond illness, injury, or old age—what ultimately causes death?
Inspired by the Eden story, St. Paul, replied: "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). St. Augustine agreed, calling sin "any word, deed, or desire in opposition to the eternal law of God."
The first couple's fatal sin was their violation of God's will—their disobedience. That it was over a mere apple was beside the point. It was the principle of the matter. The Lord later carved into stone ten cardinal violations, most capital crimes. The first half concerned the inviolability of His authority, the others focused on social misbehavior—dishonoring parents, murder, adultery, theft, false witness, coveting.
Technically, Adam and Eve didn't violate a single Commandment, not even #1. Though they may have disobeyed, never once did they acknowledge any other gods but Him. But their seduction by the snake implied less than complete fidelity, a negligible independence, so He punished them and their progeny—us—proactively.
Serious sin didn't start until after the Fall when Cain killed Abel. Was the first son's violation of Commandment 6 motivated by a Commandment 10 offense, coveting? But even if he did covet Abel's divine favor, it was only after, not before, the Almighty rejected him. So humiliated and worthless did Cain feel, the passion behind all evil was born in him: the will to hurt and destroy—Hate.
Could all deadly sin have been born, then, from the most basic human instinct: self-preservation? The farmer's first thought after his failed sacrifice must have been: Since God does not bless my crops, how will I survive? His fear was confirmed when the Lord cursed the ground he would till (Genesis 4:12-13). Cain exiled himself in the land of Nod with his sister-wife but didn't know where their next meal would come from, much less how they could make a clean start with a new family.
The Bible doesn't mention how the murderer survived. We can only speculate. He may well have returned home and begged his new brother, Seth, who had inherited Abel's flocks, for a firstling to tide him over. When his brother likely refused, Cain had no choice but to violate future Commandment 7. He stole Seth's firstlings and maybe some silverware, too. Then he returned to Nod, had a son, Enoch, by his sister, and built a city he also called Enoch.
Soon, Seth may have deputized his younger brothers and dropped by Cain's place to get his stuff back and then some. Not only might they have stolen all his stock, but all his new wives and his weapons, too. This in turn likely led to an even more deadly counter-raid by the Cain clan: attacking Seth's camp. Maybe they retired some of his kids, violated his women, burned his pastures, or took the survivors as slaves.
The skeptic may protest, saying the Bible is magic realism at best, and speculation about the fate of its characters even more nonsensical since they never even existed. But the hostility and warfare between the first Homo Sapiens, whatever their names, evolved in the same way, starting small and all in the family for simple survival, and becoming increasingly hateful and rapacious.
As Paleolithic or Edenic clans grew into tribes, and tribes into nations, might became right and might came from strength in numbers. As the balance of nature would have it, men have always handled all the killing, and women all the creating. So, it became critically important for armies to kill all pregnant mothers and their children else the youngsters grew up to become the enemy's next generation of avenging soldiers.
After Adam's passing at age 900, God drowned everybody except Noah, his family, and their support animals. Next, He told Abraham His plan to torch two towns. "Wilt Thou really sweep away the bad and good together?... Shall not the judge of the earth do what is just?" challenged the prophet (Genesis 18: 23). So, the Almighty spared the life of his Sodom nephew, Lot, who went on to sleep with his two daughters and father the Moabites and Amorites, to replace the Sodomites and Gomorrhans.
Despite the Flood and the Fire, man's wickedness rose from the ashes, forcing God to transition from wholesale to retail execution of His Chosen people: the first group for worshipping a golden calf, another for growing impatient with a 40-year camp-out on the Sinai while their promised Land of Milk and Honey was in escrow.
Moses had warned them of dire consequences for such disobedience: "Your bodies will be food for birds... You will be stricken with boils, tumors... madness, blindness, and bewilderment... You will eat your own children... and it will be the Lord's delight to destroy and exterminate you" (Deuteronomy 28: 26-63). Even so, the "jealous" God's people cheated on Him repeatedly. As a result, pledging "Vengeance is mine" (Deuteronomy 32: 35), "The Lord glutted His rage and poured forth His anger" (Lamentations 4: 11). But, lest the Hebrews take Him for a sociopath, Moses regularly mentioned His nicer side: "compassionate, gracious, long-suffering" (Exodus 34: 6).
After the Lord gave Moses the Commandments, including Thou shalt not kill, He ordered His prophet to claim the Promised Land and to "Put every living soul to the sword: Old men and women, the sick and the dying, the blind and the lame, pregnant mothers, nursing mothers, infants, toddlers, and babies" (Deuteronomy 20:16). In ordering this, God—without any sense of inconsistency—gave the Israelites military waivers from Commandment 6 (murder), 7 (adultery/rape) and 8 (stealing and collecting spoils).
Since, by this time, Creation had indeed become every man for himself and every race for itself, Moses—fresh from Exodus and the deadly curses on Pharaoh—enthusiastically carried out the Lord's orders. "I will punish my adversaries... I will make my arrows drunk with blood, my sword shall devour flesh!" he vowed (Deuteronomy 32: 42). Marching behind Yahweh's Ark of the Covenant, Moses' general, Joshua—assisted by the Lord's hailstones and the stilling of the sun and moon—wiped out the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. He dutifully burnt their cities, hung their kings, hamstrung their horses, and killed all women except marriageable virgins.
While the ethnic cleansing proceeded, God provided Moses yet other waivers to Commandment 6: Blasphemy, false prophesy, necromancy, rape, adultery, incest, homosexuality, bestiality, kidnapping, parental disrespect. Thirty-nine different types of Sabbath violations alone were punishable by death. Murder too was a capital offense, except in the case of squatters on the Lord's land.
Otherwise, the Almighty supplemented his mortal subtractions with famines, epidemics, wildfires, and quakes. Mankind gamely picked up the slack with genocides, each side declaring that heaven was with them. Soldiers fought not so much for their own gain and glorification, as for that of their divine national sponsor. The war deities of the ancient world—Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman, Celtic, Chinese, Indian, African—far outnumbered any other types of gods. Before an engagement, child sacrifices were routinely performed, serving as divine hors d'oeuvres not only for battle victories, but for good crops and replacement children.
In Old Testament times, ancients tended to view death differently than moderns: to them, the extended life of the family was more important than the brief life of one member. The individual was just a passing manifestation of family and, at his death, he went to "sleep with his fathers" and was, like Abraham, "gathered to his kin" (Genesis 25:8). Besides, even without war, life expectancy in the ancient world was 28 years, so every able-bodied man probably reasoned: I'm history soon anyway, so why not euthanize others and take their stuff in meantime—in a god's name?
With the advent of "civilization," killing was no longer a personal affair as with Cain and Abel, but a collective obsession—national, racial, faith-based. As a result, though an individual killer might be prosecuted as a murderer, a collective killer for God was decorated as a good soldier. Military men of faith such as Moses' successors were among the first to popularize this idea of righteous killing. They believed infidels were destined for damnation anyway, so why not lighten the Lord's load and give Him a hand now? The Almighty's "beloved" King David proved himself so proficient at this, the Israelite women sang: "Saul has killed thousands, but David tens of thousands!" (1 Samuel 18:7).
Before the birth of God's second son, Jesus—whom Church dogmatists called "the second Adam"—no one disagreed with "the wisest man in the world," Solomon, who wrote: "Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 9:10). Indeed, the Almighty freely admitted to being "wrathful" and to "punishing the children for the sins of their fathers to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me" (Exodus 20: 5-6). His confession to Isaiah was more candid still: "I form light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things" (Isaiah 45:7).
But the prophets were quick to emphasize God's sunny side. Even after He "glutted his rage," Moses described Him as "The compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin" (Exodus 34: 6-7). The prophet Ezekiel agreed with the characterization after the Almighty reassured him: "I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live" (Ezekiel 33: 11). How a sinner could reform after he's already been burned or beheaded, the Lord neglected to explain.
After God allowed Satan to strip Job of everything, the tortured man, hoping that the He might be "pleased" to euthanize him (Job 6:9), prayed: "You, God, have granted me life, mercy, and lovingkindness; And Your care has preserved my spirit" (Job 10:12). After God's Bathsheba curse, David lost his newborn, plus his favorite but rebellious son, Absalom, famine overtook his kingdom, and he became a Philistine POW. But he, like Job, prayed: "You, O Lord, will not withhold Your compassion from me; Your loving kindness and Your truth will continually preserve me" (Psalm 40:11).
Does such praise arise from love? Or from terror?
As Carl Jung noted of the Old Testament Yahweh: "God's darkness is troublesome... His vindictiveness, dangerous wrathfulness, His incomprehensible conduct toward the creatures His omnipotence had made."
Before writing the Almighty's obituary, Nietzsche wondered: "Is man God's mistake, or is God man's mistake?" Most moderns would agree that the definitive quality of God—besides omnipotence and omniscience—is goodness. An unloving, uncompassionate god cannot be God. So, we wonder: Were ancient deities real? Or were they FrankenGods of war– created to justify the ruthless bloodlust of their worshippers?
In the case of Yahweh, there are three possibilities depending on whether His biography, The Bible, is taken literally, metaphorically, or as fantasy.
Most who take it literally believe it was divinely dictated to Moses (the Pentateuch), David (Psalms), Solomon (Proverbs, Songs, Ecclesiastes), and the Prophets. If it is taken as fact, then the punitive, deadly parts of the Old Testament are no less true than the merciful pro-life. In this view, God must have indeed been the "terror" (Exodus 23: 27) He claimed to be, and the Israelites just following orders when annihilating the Canaanites, or fleeing for their own lives when not following those orders.
In a metaphorical Bible interpretation, the carnages can be rationalized as exaggeration or grim poetic license. But, minus the miracles, independent historical sources confirm most Old Testament Canaan conquest claims as well as famines and diseases. Moreover, the brutality of ancient warfare and culture is well-documented.
The last interpretation option is to dismiss all supernatural sections of the Bible as fantasy and God's wrath as a projection of ruthless human character. Who might really be the "jealous, devouring fire" craving mortal praise and fidelity—God or man? Who might demand sacrifices and enjoy the "sweet savor" of lamb? Who might hold a grudge, punishing innocents for their great-grandfathers' alleged sins? Who might demand the execution of any soldier that spared a single enemy life?
Surely God's depiction in the Pentateuch is disquieting even to today's figurativists. Moreover, even if He is good and regarded as the creator of man, not the other way around, His old self was too implacable and unapproachable for later generations of worshippers.
So, in the transition from BC to AD, God changed His tough love policy, at least according to His later biographers. Whether He'd completed anger management or realized that the herd culling did nothing to put a damper on human insubordination and misbehavior, no one knew.
In any case, God conceived a son with a teen virgin, let people crucify him, then let them join him in heaven if they took his body and his blood. The Holy Ghost was now born: to the satisfaction of both mono and polytheists, God had successfully triangulated—though, till now, He'd had a thing about being the One and Only.
Kabalistic legend tells us that Adam's third son, Seth, returned to Eden where the Tree of Knowledge and Tree of Life had become grafted together. The cherubim guards gave Seth three seeds and ordered him to place them in the mouth of his deceased father. From the seeds sprouted the Moses Burning Bush, his magic wand, and the tree from which Jesus' cross was made.
The early Church identified Golgotha—or "Place of the Skull" (Mark 15:22)—as the burial place of Adam's skull. In tying Eden to Golgotha, Christianity created an unprecedented moral and mortal allegory. God's first son, Adam, falls and dies after violating His Will by eating from the Tree of Knowledge; God's second son, Jesus, rises and conquers death after fulfilling His Will and sacrificing himself on the Tree of Life cross. In the Old Testament, fearful men sacrificed their firstlings to a wrathful God; in the New, a loving God sacrifices His firstling to man. In this way, the old God of judgement and death became a new God of forgiveness and life.
Introducing the essential Christian doctrine of Original Sin, St. Paul the architect of Christianity wrote: "As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive" (1 Corinthians 15:22).
And so, whether the immortal God made mortal man, or the other way around, Genesis death made its Exodus on Calvary, leaving believers to breathe more freely, while doubters still count their days.