In the Beginning, Pt. 5; Death, Beautiful Women and the Heroic Temptation
Genesis 5 – 6:8; November 2, 2014
Long ago on an early June Sunday afternoon in Donovan, Illinois, Debbie and I attended a graduation party for Denise Fertig, one of her softball players. We had been dating for two months at the time. That afternoon we rode our bicycles five or six miles out to the Fertig farm where they were having a hog roast, seating everyone around long tables set up in the yard.
After we ate, Denise’s grandfather, dressed in clean denim coveralls, the patriarch of the family, a quiet taciturn man, got up from the table and walked out to the edge of his cornfield. The slanting rays of the late afternoon sun made the knee-high corn glow in an iridescent green. The old man knelt down and picked up a handful of rich black dirt. He stood up, rubbed the dirt between his hands, sniffed it, and touched a bit of it to his tongue. Then he clapped his hand clean and gazed out across the field. As I watched him, his stooped but still strong figure was silhouetted against the sun. It struck me that here was one of the most perfectly content human beings I had ever seen. He was totally at peace with his family and his little corner of the earth.
A little later, as an early evening thunderstorm started sweeping in from the west, Debbie and I hightailed it back to town. We then sat on an old porch swing on the front of the parsonage, sipping lemonade, and watching the approaching storm. I don’t know if it was the day itself, the graduation party, watching the old farmer, or the approaching storm, but there seemed to be magic in the breeze. A magic that caused me to say to Debbie without a trace of nervousness, “I’ve known from the very first time I laid eyes on you that I wanted you to be my wife.”
She quietly replied, “And I’ve known from the very first time I laid eyes on you that with all my heart I wanted you to be my husband.”
From that moment on we decided we were officially engaged. That was one of those days I would love to live all over again. So ordinary, so simple, and yet so filled with grace, beauty and the wonder of life.
The gently genealogy of Genesis 5 speaks of people living very much like I have just described. They are the descendents of the line of Seth, the third-born son of Adam and Eve. They are introduced in verses 1 and 2 of Genesis 5 with a reminder of the first commandment to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. This they set about doing with great enthusiasm. Unlike the corrupt line of Cain who busy themselves building cities and inventing technology and engaging in the arts, Seth’s people seem to be content to live peacefully within their large extended families.
Is this saying there is something wrong with civilization and our notions of progress? Yes and no. Progress has many advantages, but the Bible warns of how easy it is to take the desire for progress to an extreme: Overwork, neglect of God and family, stress, burnout, exploitation, greed, envy, destructive competition, and even murder are the dark fruits of corrupted civilization.
A year or so ago I noticed a new $12 monthly “maintenance fee” was being deducted from my Wells Fargo checking account. When I went to my bank I was asked if I wanted to see a “personal banker.” I replied, “You’re darn tootin!” I observed that the CEO of Wells Fargo, John Strumpf, was being paid $19.3 million cash salary plus another $8.6 million in stock options that year and then I added, “And you people need to charge me a maintenance fee?” I then announced I was going to transfer to another bank. My personal banker stammered, “Oh, that won’t be necessary, I think we can remove that fee.”
I think we are all nervously aware that something major in our civilization has gone off the tracks. While for over thirty years wages have hardly gone up at all for the average American worker as related to the cost of living, executive compensation has been going through the roof. In Germany CEO pay compared to average worker pay is 12 to 1. But in the U.S. it is 475 to 1. Civilization is not all what it is cracked up to be. It always seems to divide people into the “have’s” and the “have nots.” There will always be the ones who exploit and the ones who get exploited, even if it is only with a $12 maintenance fee.
The thing that stands out about Seth’s people is their extraordinarily long life spans. Most of them live for almost a thousand years. The one who lives the longest is Methuselah, who makes it to the ripe old age of 969 years old. In modern terms this is like being born in medieval England, witnessing the Norman Conquest in 1066 AD and still going strong today. How does the idea of long life spans serve our story? For one thing, the story wants to state that the consequences of being expelled from paradise happen gradually and the shadow of Eden lingers long over the land.
One very interesting thing you find if you play around with the math is that there is a fifty year period of time when all the people mentioned in Seth’s line would have been alive at the same time. Between the year 874, in which Lamech (not to be confused with Lamech of Cain’s line who murders the young man), the last mentioned, is born, and the year 930, in which Adam dies, all the people mentioned in Seth’s genealogy are alive along with their numerous children. It is almost as if the consequences from being denied access to the tree of life have been somehow avoided. Then suddenly, in the year 930, Adam dies. Next, in 987, Enoch “was not, for God took him.” And in 1042 Seth also dies. We, who know the Garden of Eden story of how God warned that to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was to court death, need to no longer remain in suspense. The prophecy of human mortality is at long last fatally fulfilled.
Keep in mind Cain’s act of murder has shown that death might occur by violence, but did not seemingly occur naturally. And even this knowledge of the possibility of death by violence was confined solely to the line of Cain, with whom the line of Seth does not yet seem to be in contact with. So the death of Adam and Seth must have shattered Seth’s people’s expectations and sent them reeling. Their world was turned upside down.
How people took this realization is indicated by Noah’s birth. Noah is the first man who is born after Adam dies and so has no first-hand access to any living memory of the Garden of Eden and its prospect of immortal life. He is the first man who has to grow up knowing that someday we must all die. So this makes Noah, not Adam, the first prototype of a person who has to deal with their own mortality. Therefore it is fitting that his father Lamech gives Noah a name that means both “comfort” and “lament.” And this at least partially explains why Noah finds favor in the eyes of the Lord.
But how does everybody else react to the sudden realization that we must all die? They go boldly and heroically wild (6:4). Who can blame them? It is no stretch to imagine that having lived within a deathless mindset for so long, these oldest of men, explicitly god-like in their origin and nature, not only are shocked by the belated discovery of their own unavoidable mortality; they are offended and angry.
These people closely resemble the heroes of the Greeks and Romans, descendants of gods, obsessed with affront to their god-like dignity that mortality bestows upon them. Rather than wait for death to find them hiding away in a corner, they go forth, beautifully clad, to meet death face-to-face, in the person of another death-defying warrior, who also defends himself against death by his own power and ability. The desire for immortality is sublimated into the desire for fortune and glory, to set out on a quest that will pit the hero against death defying odds.
Every culture, every people have these heroes. The Bible calls them the “Nephilim” – warriors of great size and super-human strength. Consider Homer’s Iliad, a similar story, where the Greek hero Achilles and the Trojan champion Hector fight it out on the plains of Troy. In the person of Achilles, we are introduced to the tragic warrior. Achilles is self-aware enough to know that the Trojan Hector is the better man, who is fighting for his family and his homeland while Achilles is fighting for a vain king he has absolutely no respect for. But Achilles feels he must go forth in single combat against Hector because that is the code of the warrior.
There is a consistent theme in all the heroic stories of an everyman called out to pursue a quest. He is at first reluctant, but with the coaxing of a representative of the gods, he sets out. He usually picks up companions on the way, has to rescue a fair maiden, encounters tragedy and betrayal, and eventually accomplishes the quest even though he sometimes has to die to do so. Think of examples like King Arthur, Robin Hood, Frodo in the Lord of the Rings, Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, Katniss in Hunger Games. They all tell the same story. And these stories, if they are well told, always have a receptive audience because we instinctively recognize universal truths and yearnings of life outside of Eden that they portray. These are stories of us.
This is the fifth great truth of Genesis, for here we find an introduction to what heroic literature repeats time and again: that death is the mother of the love of glory, of a beautiful name for splendid deeds. Death is also the mother of beauty, of a desire to bring some kind of beauty to an ugly world fated to decay. In the face of death, artful men and women create beautiful objects and beautiful stories: statues and paintings, poems and songs, vases and temples, movies and books – objects that they hope will last, immune to decay as their makers are not.
And what of women? For women figure prominently in the stories of the heroes. There is Helen of Troy whose face launched a thousand ships. There is resourceful Penelope who faithfully waits twenty years for Odysseus to make his way home by promising her many suitors she will marry one of them when she finishes a tapestry she works on daily but each night undoes. There is the daring Maid Marion who joins Robin Hood in his death-defying heroics. There is Princess Leia who at one point has three heroic men vying for her favors as they forge the New Republic upon the ruins of the old Empire. And in Hunger Games the young woman Katniss is the heroine surrounded by less than heroic young men. The one thing all these women have in common is that they are beautiful.
In our story from Genesis, the “sons of God” refer to the righteous line of Seth becoming enamored with the “daughters of men” which are Cain’s people. They are attracted to the dangerous and the exotic. No longer content with their peaceful pastoral lives, they go looking for the alluring and the foreign. By pursuing women based on their beauty alone, these lusty fellows are oblivious to matters of character and moral goodness which is much more important to the long-term success of marriage and stable homes for children. This is the first but by no means the last story in the Bible of the desire of men for exotic women outside the will of God, and the end is always unfortunate.
These stories caution us as individuals and as societies of letting our passions rule our hearts. To me the arts are endlessly fascinating. But as the Bible advises, they are only to be approached with caution. Debbie and I loved to go out with another couple every year when Woody Allen brought out his latest film. Allen’s personal life is a moral mess but his art deals with the classic themes we see here in Genesis and would unfailingly provoke a long conversation over supper after viewing one his movies.
This past week I saw the opera The Flying Dutchman, Richard Wagner’s take on the same classic story of obsession, love, death and beautiful women. This is such a frequent theme in the Bible and elsewhere that we should not be afraid to explore how contemporary culture expresses it. Early on Debbie and I exposed our kids to these themes in art and cinema, even taking them occasionally to R rated movies if we had the appropriate conversations before and after. Far from corrupting their morals, I believe exposure to these things helped them to grow up into thoughtful, Christ-centered adults who seem to recognize both the truths and the lies being expressed in today’s art. Since we all live east of Eden and we are all deeply impacted by our culture, we need to have the ability to see the visual arts with deeply Christian eyes.
The age of heroes produced results not to God’s liking, and for good reason: the desire of our collective heart is only evil continuously. The first thing God does is greatly diminish our life spans, down to a maximum of 120 years. And then because God is not distant and disengaged from his creation like we are often tempted to think he is, God expresses grief arising from the deep pain of disappointment. Even though it is a negative response to a negative situation, this a strong statement that God genuinely cares about what is going on in the world. Personally I find this to be of great comfort when I look out over all the desperate situations that are all around us. But this is the story for next time.
For now, it might be best to keep in mind the wisdom Seth’s people once had but have no longer. The best things in life are not the heroic adventures – the “Wheel of Fortune” is an obscene deception as are all our desires for fortune and glory. The best things are found in the midst of the simple ordinary things of everyday living: being a loving spouse and a good parent, being at peace with oneself and not striving or straining for the golden ring… being like that Illinois corn farmer I saw in a field on a late afternoon some 24 years ago. After all, how can you tell a farmer is good at his job? He is always outstanding in his field.