You Have One Rule

From the series Breathing Life

Roland Muller, writing about the culture of ancient Petra, points back to the Roman system of government as the beginning of Western culture, saying, “Roman law introduced the concept that the law was above everyone, even the lawmakers. This idea was not totally new. The Jews under Moses understood this.”1

This concept of law is first introduced in the garden.

“And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.”

The narrative describes the man’s first role and purpose. He is to take care of that gorgeous, new garden. According to Genesis 2:5-6, it had been maintained for the three days before man existed, so this job was ready and waiting. No pulling up roots, clearing out, or replanting needed.

There are two things Moses introduces that every writer must introduce early on. First, he establishes the characters’ roles. God is the Creator and man is the keeper of the garden. Second, Moses introduces the rules. Every story has rules or guidelines. Sometimes they are tacitly understood or vaguely expressed, but the reader must comprehend them. Without these guidelines, the actions of the characters are meaningless.

Next, Moses introduces the concept of the law of God alluded to in the quote from Muller.

“And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”

This passage places a clear-cut distinction between the role of the Creator and the role of man. Jehovah God commands. Mankind has no input as to what those commands are, only the choice of whether to obey them or disobey them.

I see a Creator here who is not only involved in bringing man into existence, but involved in teaching him. God had the authority to command the man to obey any number of rules that could have caused him great suffering. He didn’t. Instead, He places him in a fresh, new garden with delicious, nutritious fruit trees and gives him one rule: Don’t eat from one tree. This one rule introduces choice to the man. It was an opportunity for the man to grow in his relationship with his Creator. By choosing not to eat off the tree, he could freely express his devotion to Jehovah God. And considering the abundant choices for food in the garden, it wasn’t a big sacrifice on the man’s part. But it had to be his choice.

garden-sign

It’s also worth noting the name of the tree. It’s not named “the bad tree” or the “evil tree.” The tree itself was a teaching tool. That was its purpose. It had no innate badness. Plus, the name “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” uses some undisguised foreshadowing. It tells me the man will have to face a choice. It also tells me the Author knows what the man’s choice will be.

If the Creator knows the man will choose wrongly when faced with doing what is good and or doing what is evil, then why did He create this man? I think this question comes naturally. The thickness of Genesis alone tells me the choice is not the unhappy ending; it is the beginning of the quest.

Good versus evil is the conflict that has been at the crux of writers’ works since words have been put to paper. The message of Genesis 2 becomes clearer when looking at the man’s role and the one rule. The Creator is not setting up the man fail, but to thrive and succeed. Like most readers, I want the character to succeed in the end, so that good will ultimately conquer evil. Isn’t that what keeps a reader reading?

Recap:

  1. Define character roles early in the story.
  2. Guidelines must be established, even if they are tacitly understood.
  3. Use foreshadowing to announce conflict, such as good versus evil.

*Featured image by Keriography. Used by permission.

  1. ‘Honor and Shame in a Middle Eastern Setting.’ http://nabataea.net/h%26s.html. I don’t agree with some of Muller’s opinions in the above-mentioned writings, just so you know.

Setting Coordinates

From the series Breathing Life

“And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads. The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of the land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone. And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia. And the name of the third river is Hiddekel (Tigris): that is it which goeth toward the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is Euphrates.” – Genesis 2:10-14

public-domain-images-free-stock-photos-high-quality-resolution-downloads-public-domain-archive-7Was that a wordy set of directions? Did you skim over it? It doesn’t mean much to me because I don’t know these places. They aren’t giving me a picture in my mind of the setting, but I love that aside Moses gives them. “…Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of the land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone.” Like any wealth-loving humans, you know their ears perked up at that. (“Oh, yeah! That Havilah!”)

Maybe the river Pison doesn’t relate to you, but what if I told you about a Native American girl living in the 1800s?

“Talula and her tribe never explored the Grand Canyon to the west or went beyond the Mississippi River to the east. One year, her tribe migrated as far as South Dakota, so she may have been near Mount Rushmore — you know, where our four presidents are inscribed in stone today. When she and her Chahta family returned south, they settled in the marshlands near the Gulf of Mexico.”

Now that I’ve given you U.S.-savvy readers some boundaries, is it easier to map it out in your mind’s eye? This is what Moses was doing. He was using current-day names and locations so the children of Israel would know the general area where the first man and woman lived. It wasn’t some legendary Atlantis.

Eden was a land in the Israelites’ memory, as well. We call it the Garden of Eden because that’s how Moses described where it was to the people; it was in the land of Eden. But it was just a garden on earth for Adam and Eve. It was only when they and their descendants began to walk the earth that places started getting named. And don’t we humans love to name things after ourselves? (Because of this, Oregon residents are probably still getting flack about that town, Boring.)

Recap: When setting your setting, remember readers need coordinates that are relevant to their interests.

Naming gets serious next time.

*Featured image by Keriography. Used by permission.

With Mankind in Mind

From the series Breathing Life

Consider this statement from Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell when he explains the condition of the Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky:

“When the area was first settled, the plateau was covered with a dense primeval forest.”

Does this mean when the area was first settled – at that moment – someone covered the plateau with dense forest? Before the area was settled, no dense forest existed? This is obviously not the meaning of the sentence at all. Records from previous explorers tell us the primeval forest was already there when the area began to be settled. Sometimes the meaning of a sentence requires looking at its context and timeline.

“And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.” – Genesis 2:8

So, did God plant a garden after man was formed or before? Looking back at the order of creation from Genesis 1, vegetation would have been planted on day 3, and man would have been created on day 6. This is considered a discrepancy by some readers. Some think God planted a garden the day Adam came along. Others get really zealous with this and say the whole creation story is a bust. These misconceptions assume the narrative is still focused on the chronological order of Genesis 1.

Instead, Chapter 1 is an accelerated run-through of how the world and the universe came about. It’s the ultimate synopsis. The writer in me yearns to be so concise yet thorough. By separating the story of mankind after telling about the creation of the world, the narrative of Genesis 2 is way easier to understand. Imagine if all of this had been placed into chapter 1. It would’ve read something like, “On the third day, while God was making these grasses, herbs, and trees, and creating the laws of reproduction for the plants, He designed a garden, a dwelling He was preparing for man and woman—who hasn’t been made yet. The trees He grew in this garden were going to be good to look at and good to eat for Adam and Eve—whom, again, you know nothing about…” This explanation didn’t belong in the first chapter. God waited until I knew about the creation of humans to begin to describe man’s birth and his home. That way I can understand a little at a time. Isn’t that the only way to get the whole picture, a little at a time? The writer side of me is eating this up!

“And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” – Genesis 2:9

So, I just mentioned the trees in the previous paragraph and totally ruined my build-up. I said, “the trees in this garden were going to be good to look at and good to eat for Adam and Eve.” Maybe you just accepted that assertion, but it is an assertion that God made them for mankind’s benefit. Nowhere in this passage does it say that. (Plus, Adam and Eve’s names haven’t been introduced yet.) In the past I’ve just taken it for granted that it was made for the first man and woman. Readers often take for granted descriptions that involve the senses, but writers never should! An appeal to the senses is the most natural way to connect with a reader. We experience life through our senses, and our needs are bound up in those senses, as well.

apple-tree-14709299832f4The Creator is capable of creating something from nothing. Physically, ‘nothing’ is an enigma for me. If I can’t see, taste, touch, smell, or hear it, I have trouble comprehending it. God doesn’t have my problem. Does He need pleasant-looking trees or a tree growing food for Himself? I gather He’s not hurting for pretty things or for food to fill an empty human stomach. He’s thinking in terms of human needs and senses when the passage says the trees were “pleasant to the sight” and “good for food.” So, it’s a reasonable deduction that God had humans in mind, even though the way I introduced it by jumping ahead in my narrative was lousy. The writer of Genesis does a much better job. By telling a little at a time without introducing ideas that need to be developed first, the narrative becomes more crisp and understandable. Great writing lesson, eh?

Two trees are mentioned in the passage that God separates from the rest of the pretty, nutritious ones. They have some additional purpose, but I’ll wait to talk about them later. Ah, a cliffhanger! Annnd… I’m a nerd.

Recap:

  1. A writer should build onto the skeletal outline of the story’s introduction.
  2. Use descriptive words that appeal to a reader’s senses.

*Featured image by Keriography. Used by permission.

The First Operation

From the series Breathing Life

Time truly seems to begin in that first breath of man. There’s a maternal quality as the Creator introduces each first of newborn mankind.

adamimage

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. – Genesis 2:7

If I didn’t know anything about descriptive writing and imagery, I’d still be able to tell this verse is an attention-getter. It explodes in my brain with its appeal to the senses. He “formed man of the dust of the ground” and “breathed into his nostrils.” Even the meanings behind the phrases are too deep to capture in one read-through: What really is “the breath of life”? What is “a living soul”? These phrases and words evoke a picture of a life-giving operation the Creator is performing.

Repeating what I said about Genesis 1, I’m not seeing a Creator here who stands back and watches. He is actively involved in the process. I’m given this intimate picture of breathing into the first man’s nostrils the breath of life. In Genesis 2 mankind is the focus. The Creator is going to flesh him out. Literally.

Genesis chapter two introduces the Creator’s name for the first time. It appears first in verse 4, “…in the day that the LORD God made….” In verse 7, the LORD God is the subject actively creating man. Some versions of the Bible insert “Jehovah” for LORD.1 In Hebrew, Jehovah was written in four letters, YHVH. This four-letter word, “the tetragrammaton,” is found more than 6,000 times in the Bible. So it’s clear the Creator wants His people to know His name. Unfortunately, we do not know for sure how to pronounce it because there weren’t vowels in the Hebrew script, and pronunciation was passed down through tradition. God’s name is sometimes pronounced Jehovah, Yehowah, Yahweh, and sometimes shortened to Yah or Jah (as in, Hallelujah). It means, ‘the existing one,’ which depicts His infinite nature. He always existed in the past. He exists now. He will always exist in the future.

The phrase ‘LORD God’ is used exclusively when the Creator is identifying Himself to His people as the cause of some effect. Here He is the cause of the creation of the world and the life of mankind. The ‘God’ in ‘LORD God’ is ‘elohim’ in Hebrew (or elohiym). ‘Elohim’ is the plural form of the Hebrew word ‘god.’ An entity perceived as superior to mankind in power and understanding is called ‘god.’ This Hebrew word is used in the Bible when the writer is speaking of any gods. For example, when Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, decides to follow Jehovah, he says, “Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods (elohim)…” (Exodus 18:11).   So, ‘ Naming Himself “Jehovah God” for us is our Creator’s way of identifying Himself to His people. He is the existing one Who is superior to mankind in power and understanding. Later, the writer of Psalm 83 will pen,

“That men may know that thou, whose name alone is JEHOVAH, art the most high over all the earth.” – verse 18

Recap: As a writer, I should focus on the characters, their natures, and their relationships at the beginning of the story.

*Featured image by Keriography. Used by permission.

  1. Out of respect for His holiness, the letters YHVH were replaced with the letters for Lord (ADNY) in the Hebrew language.

In Transition

First in the series Breathing Life

Phrases at the beginning of Genesis 2 help identify a transition in the narrative. Here’s one of them:

These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens,… – Genesis 2:4

Generations‘ conveys the meaning of a timeline from beginning to end. The same word/phrase is used in passages that list family genealogies. It tells me the creation account in Genesis 1 is in sequence. And, like reading a family tree, it’s the condensed version! Chapter 1 was the context-setter for chapter 2. It’s like the Star Wars crawl, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far way” before the explanation about the civil war going on.

…And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground. But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. – Genesis 2:5-6

Not only is the narrative transitioning, this explains how the creation transitioned, as well. No humans were prepping the earth to grow plant life, so the Creator steps in with a mist in the interim to make sure there is moisture and aeration. Until all things were created, the cyclical, cause-and-effect process of life was not complete, so it was helped along supernaturally until the point that it was all present and able to work as the autonomous machine I see today.

I tend to want to believe the laws of nature were always in place, and, yet, I accept that the same laws are breaking down – that this earth is slowing down and tearing down and losing its efficiency. Why is it so much easier for me to accept the earth’s future trajectory than it is to accept the launching Force at the point of origin?alley-ball-bowl

Recap: A prologue is the context-setter for the story.

I’ve read many prologues. Some have no intention of setting the context or telling me what’s going on. Some are confusing and require a great deal of non-linear thinking and patience. The purpose of Genesis 1 is not to frustrate the reader, who is there to receive information. Maybe that’s why it starts at the beginning and goes in sequence.  Maybe the Genesis account aids one in basic critical thinking. A sort of primer.

*Featured image by Keriography. Used by Permission.

5 Books with Family Personality

People have personalities. Families do, too. Being part of a family affects people – what they do, what they say, how they act. During Thanksgiving this year, I listened in on various family conversations and found a prevailing train of thought. It began something like this:

“I’m thinking about going into…”

“I’ve been considering a new…”

“This coming year, I really want to focus on…”

These statements caught my ear because they said something about my family that I’d never noticed before. They are future-thinking, goal-oriented, action-bound statements. You don’t often hear these from a group of people who have shared a long past together. We like to revisit the past at family gatherings. We like to discuss the present, too, catching up on what’s been happening. But families who share their dreams for the future are special. Their talks are woven from threads of hope, trust, and encouragement. They have something to look forward to. They are not weighed down by something to keep hidden. Oh, they have their fights and trigger topics, but they enjoy divulging their plans because past experience has shown them they will be supported and loved regardless.

Sometimes families get in a communication rut. They forget why they are together and how much being together means. Church families can be the same way. Families can be inhibiting or they can wrap you up in the feeling that you are truly interesting, wanted, and needed. It’s amazing how quickly group personalities can change with the addition or subtraction of people. Just one person can stir up a habit or thought that will put the whole group onto another track.

Thinking about family personality had me considering the books I read. Do you know how few books I’ve read lately that even have a central family in the story? Kids books sometimes do, but the middle school and young adult tend toward the dysfunctional family dynamic. The adult books hardly attempt to draw from family unity at all. So, what opportunities do we readers have to see the family in action? I can think of five books that exhibit obvious family personality.

1. Life with Father by Clarence Day

2. Cheaper by the Dozen by Gilbreth and Carey.

3. Another book I would love to get my hands on is My Philadelphia Father by Biddle/Crichton. At least, I think I’d like it.

4. Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series.

5. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Everyone of these are based on real families. I haven’t come up with a fictional family yet. What about you? Can you think of a book that really exudes family personality (fictional or truth-based)?

 

A Day of R & R: Rest and Remembrance (Genesis 2:1-3)

20130701aIs there anything as satisfying as completing a big project? When I begin writing a new story, there is this glowing sense of discovery and challenge, like a bright light on everything. But when it’s done—when the last line is penned and the story sits before me, whole—there’s a dreadful lull that undoes me. Something that smacks of dissatisfaction haunts me as I look at my finished tale. It may be complete, but it needs work. I edit and polish it, and others edit and polish it. I’m still not satisfied. That’s when I have to let it go. I could spend the rest of my life trying to improve my child of script.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.

When God completed Project Heavens and Earth, He wasn’t worried about having left out a crucial element. He had no dread of being dissatisfied. Everything He made was perfect.

And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made: and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.

The picture of an all-powerful Being resting after His work is odd, isn’t it? It’s not like He’s exhausted. The point is: He finished the project. It was done, and it was done right the first time. No need to touch-up or amend anything. He sits back and enjoys His completed masterpiece.

And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.

This is the third time in seven days that God blesses something. Bless is a tough word to my Americanized eyes. Its first meaning is to kneel for a gift, and my society rarely kneels for anything. The second is to grant the gift. In later passages, the patriarchs bless their sons by placing their hands on them, signifying that it is a bestowal and not something the sons can just take. (For more, read about Israel blessing Joseph’s sons.) First, God blesses the animals of the sea and sky. Second, God blesses mankind. Now, God is blessing something I can’t see or set in an alcove of the study to match the curtains. He is blessing a day of the week! The pattern of blessing takes a definite shape: Each time God blesses something, He gives a task or purpose associated with that created thing.

When He blesses the sea creatures and air creatures, He says, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters and seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.” He tells mankind the same thing in verse 28: to be fruitful and multiply. He adds another task or purpose for mankind, to “replenish (fill it full) the earth, and subdue it and have dominion over [all the animals on the earth].”

He gives the seventh day a task, too. Its purpose is to remind me that God finished His Creation in six days, and He stopped working on the seventh because it was done, complete, perfect. God later establishes the ceremonial observance of the seventh day, known as Sabbath, for the Israelite nation under the law of Moses. The word Sabbath is derived from the word for rest, shabath.

He also sanctifies the seventh day. This is the first time sanctify is used, and I’m curious about its meaning because this word gets tossed around in religious terminology all the time. God is teaching this concept to a nation of people in their own primitive language, so it can’t be too complex. Sanctify means “separated for a purpose.” That’s it. So, basically, I can sanctify my hairbrush—meaning, I can announce it is my hairbrush and only my hairbrush, and any man, woman, child, or dog who attempts to use my hairbrush for anything other than to comb my hair will be swiftly rapped on the knuckles with that hairbrush. Sanctified isn’t a mystical concept. Anybody can sanctify something. It’s the one doing the sanctifying that makes all the difference. When God sanctifies something, it will stay separated for the purpose He gives to it.

God established the purpose for the seventh day, and He has the power to uphold it, just like God has the power to uphold all the laws He established. I didn’t exist when He created all the laws that make the world go ’round. I can’t even look back and observe, “Oh, here it is: the beginning of the phenomenon called the Law of Gravity.” Or, “I’ve pinpointed where the Law of Biogenesis came into existence!” Not possible. But God was there, and He talks about how crucial it is for me to believe that He was there at the beginning and that He is the Cause that effected this habitable, beautiful world.

Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear. – Hebrews 11:3

Keir-Collection-Moses-Red-Sea
Moses and the Red Sea, Public Domain Image from Keir Collection

The Greek word aion is translated ‘worlds’ in this passage, and it looks a lot like our word ‘eon.’ It can mean the material universe, and it can mean the eras, the on-going passage of time. It tells me that every period of history that God has had recorded and preserved is a faithful account. It is a true and unfabricated testimony presented by an Eternal, All-Knowing Witness. My faith will not be strong enough to comprehend the nonmaterial components of this world that God has made if I can’t believe He’s telling me the truth. The understanding of concepts like salvation, love, penitence, the heinousness of sin, or the hope of a heavenly reward is not going to resonate with me wholly. Genesis 1 is a simple, this-is-how-it-happened narrative. The rest of the Bible builds on this foundation, so that, when I’m faced with the why’s and how’s of Jesus Christ being both the Son of God and Son of Man centuries later, I will have a solid grip of the material to establish the nonmaterial. If I find the first chapter in the Book questionable, what prevents me from continuing to reword and revise everything God is trying to teach me in the rest of His book? I’m going to miss what He’s trying to tell me.

Here is the message He wants His creation to know about the world and the humans He created: He made it right the first time. He didn’t make any mistakes. So, all the problems and the scars and the wars and the destruction that I see today were not because He messed up. The wise King Solomon knew this and counseled, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11, ESV).

He made mankind beautiful in his time, in the fitting moment. I am the one who must choose to be or not to be what God meant me to be. I am born into a world of men and women who were given the opportunity and chose not to be the way God meant. I, too, chose the ugly route, putting the beautiful things God created to their worst use. That choice affected me; it continues to affect me and others. But God offered me—and everyone—that pristine beauty again through the perfect, sinless life of His Son. I can choose God’s good beauty, but I have to believe He’s telling me the truth and nothing but the truth. Because, one day, He’ll accept me as fully and completely as I accept Him and His truth, and I will enter into His rest, an everlasting shabath.

This is the final update of the “Touching Creation” series. You will find a complete list of posts in the series here.