Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

What is the kingdom of God? Part 3: what happened in Eden

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12 minutes to read Adam was created as the first human member of the divine council. The serpent was a shining, serpentine being who didn’t like Adam being given dominion of the earth instead of someone higher up…like him.

Continued from part 2, on the divine council

We’re now ready to see how Adam was the first human member of the divine council—and what he and Satan had to do with each other. This brings us to Eden; to God’s original kingdom. The Bible has more to say about what happened in Eden than just what we read in early Genesis. Indeed, in the process of following the clues, we’ll make a great deal more sense of early Genesis as well.

None of what I’m about to say detracts from the eminently practical reasons to create humanity at a safe, well-watered starting-point; indeed, since the physical often images the spiritual, we should predict an intersection between “logistical benefits” and the representation of spiritual realities. Eden imaged the protection of God by being a physical sanctuary; the life-giving presence of God by being abundant in food and water; etc.

Eden as the divine council chambers

Let us begin with Eliphaz. In his diatribe against Job, he puts the following question to him:

Are you the first man who was born? Or were you brought forth before the hills? Have you listened in the council of God? And do you limit wisdom to yourself?Job 15:7–8

Eliphaz is obviously referring poetically to Adam—the “first man”—and his rhetorical contrast requires us to understand that while Job had not listened in the council of God, Adam had. While Eliphaz is not always to be trusted, this does give us a clue to follow, so let’s see where it leads. Assuming that Adam listened in the council of God, this would bring some clarity to passages which have historically been puzzling.

If Adam was a human member of the divine council, and if he encountered God in the garden of Eden, and if—as we’ve seen—the rest of the council’s presence is taken as given in such situations; then the garden itself must have been the council meeting-place. Although we never see a throneroom in Eden, this idea is corroborated in at least three other ways:

  1. A garden. Most obviously, the divine council was thought to meet in a garden—which is what Adam was created in.
  2. Rivers. In Genesis 2, we learn that Eden was the source of four rivers. If you recall the codewords I listed in the previous installment, this was another common motif for divine council meeting places; in Ugarit, for example, El’s divine council met in a lush garden at the source of two rivers.
  3. A holy mountain. This garden meeting-place was also held to be on a holy mountain; and the Bible explicitly names Eden as such:

And the word of Yahweh came to me, saying, “Son of man, raise a lament over the king of Tyre, and you must say to him, ‘thus says the Lord Yahweh:

“You were the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect of beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God, and every precious stone was your adornment: carnelian, topaz and moonstone, turquoise, onyx and jasper, sapphire, malachite and emerald. And gold was the craftsmanship of your settings and your mountings in you; on the day when you were created they were prepared. You were an anointed guardian cherub, and I placed you on God’s holy mountain; you walked in the midst of stones of fire. You were blameless in your ways from the day when you were created, until wickedness was found in you. In the abundance of your trading, they filled the midst of you with violence, and you sinned; and I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God, and I expelled you, the guardian cherub, from the midst of the stones of fire. Your heart was proud because of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor. I cast you to the ground; I exposed you before kings, to feast their eyes on you.” ’ ”Ezekiel 28:13–17

Now, is this talking about the king of Tyre? Or is it referring to the fall of Satan?

The answer is…yes.

The king of Tyre was obviously not in Eden, the garden of God. He was not an anointed guardian cherub—Ezekiel’s term for a divine throne-guardian. He was not placed on God’s holy mountain—namely, Eden. He did not walk among stones of fire—imagery either evoking the precious stones of a palace meeting-place, or the “morning stars” themselves. None of these things were literally true of the king of Tyre. They were literally true of Satan, the serpent, who was in Eden.

The point of Ezekiel’s taunt-song is that the king of Tyre is so bad that he can be described as if he were Satan. There is a parallel between his hubris and Satan’s; between how far his fall would be, and how far Satan’s was. This parallel, then, illustrates that Satan was present in Eden—which in turn is described implicitly as the divine council meeting place.

There is another passage that uses a similar parallel to make a similar point about the king of Babylon:

How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of dawn! You are cut down to the ground, conqueror of nations! And you yourself said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise up my throne above the stars of God; and I will sit on the mountain of assembly on the summit of Tsaphon; I will ascend to the high places of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High.”Isaiah 14:12–14

Isaiah is making the same point about the king of Babylon as Ezekiel makes about the king of Tyre—but this time the allusion trades off narratives within Canaanite religion. Mount Tsaphon is where Baʿal and his council were thought to assemble in Ugarit. Isaiah sees in this narrative a reflection of the divine coup in Eden, and so he appropriates the language of Ugaritic religion to compare the king of Babylon to Satan—who had the hubris to blaspheme God by trying to “correct” his decisions as supreme ruler.

There is some question as to correctly translating the title given to the king of Babylon/Satan here. The Hebrew is heylel ben shachar, which means “heylel, son of shachar.” Although “morning star” is on safe footing for rendering heylel, this word only occurs here in the Hebrew Bible; and while shachar means “dawn,” it was also the proper name of a Canaanite god. Some therefore see the name of a deity here: Heylel—associated with the morning star—whose father was Shachar. They further suppose that Isaiah was referring to a myth in which Heylel was thrown down from Mount Tsaphon. I demur: there is no known Canaanite deity called Heylel who was the son of Shachar; nor is there any Canaanite myth involving his being cast from Mount Tsaphon (aside from scholarly speculation). The morning star was typically represented by Shachar himself, the god of dawn—or by Attar, of whom Shachar may have been an avatar. Either way, there was no deity Heylel associated with Venus. It’s true that Attar did try to fill Baʿal’s shoes, but discovered he was too tiny; so he went to rule the underworld instead. Isaiah probably had this myth in mind, since the comparison is so fittingly mocking to the Babylonian king; but that cannot be the extent of the parallel, because Attar was not thrown down, and he didn’t have the kind of pretensions that the Babylonian king had. So while there is probably a conceptual link being made to the Canaanite deity, I doubt we should translate either Heylel or Shachar as proper names. Intriguingly, the DSS differ from the MT and read הילילheyleyl—rather than היללheylel—so it’s possible Isaiah is actually intending a verb here instead of a noun: “wailer/howler.” A rendering like, “How you are fallen from heaven, o lamenter, son of dawn,” could be correct, and would still conjure up the same associations with the morning star via shachar.

There are further strands of evidence we can draw in at this point—additional puzzling passages that start to make a great deal of sense when we think of them in divine council terms. Firstly, in Genesis 1:26, God says, “Let us make mankind in our image;” and in chapter 3 he speaks of how Adam and Eve have “become like us, knowing good and evil.” Some think this is trinitarian language, but that makes no sense contextually; moreover, it isn’t something we see elsewhere in the Bible. Some think it’s a royal “we,” but while Hebrew had a plural of majesty for nouns, it did not have it for verbs—and “make” in Genesis 1:26 is plural. A far simpler explanation is that God is speaking to the other members of his council, which the original readers of Genesis would have assumed were present. Job 38 certainly indicates their presence at the creation of the world:

“Where were you at my laying the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you possess understanding. Who determined its measurement? Yes, you do know. Or who stretched the measuring line upon it? On what were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars were singing together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?Job 38:4–7

We know who the sons of God are. And we know that “morning stars” is a stock term to describe them. And that brings us to a closer look at Satan—because if you were paying attention, Isaiah 14:12 described him as a morning star. He was a son of God: a member of the divine family-council.

The serpent as a divine being

The obvious objection we must field now is this: Genesis describes Satan as a serpent. Most Christians have interpreted this as a case of animal possession—certainly not as an encounter with a divine being. How can we reconcile the serpent language of Genesis 3 with the connections I have drawn from biblical theology?

The answer is to do some more biblical theology! There are further clues we can connect across the scriptures that conceptually link the language used in Genesis 3, and the language used of the divine council elsewhere. For example, we know from Ezekiel 28 that Satan was a cherub. Chapter 1 describes these cherubs for us:

As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches. And the living creatures were speeding to and fro like the appearance of lightning.Ezekiel 1:13–14

The fact that brightness is a defining feature of these creatures should come as no surprise. As Yoda would say, “Luminous beings are they.” This is also hinted at in places which don’t explicitly mention brightness. For example, we’ve seen in Isaiah 6:2 that God’s throne is flanked by seraphs, sometimes spelled saraphs (many Bibles transliterate the Hebrew plural: seraphim). This word is the same we find in Numbers 21:8–9:

Make for yourself a fiery serpent [saraph] and place it on a pole. When anyone is bitten and looks at it, that person will live.” So Moses made a bronze snake, and he placed it on the pole; whenever a snake bit someone, and that person looked at the bronze snake, he lived.Numbers 21:8–9

Why is the ascription of saraph to the bronze snake important? Aside from the obvious serpent connection, bronze has a brightness to it. For instance, compare this with Daniel’s vision:

I lifted up my eyes and I saw, and there was a man, and he was dressed in linen, and his waist was girded with the gold of Uphaz. Now his body was like turquoise, and his face was like the appearance of lightning, and his eyes were like torches of fire, and his arms and his legs were like the gleam of polished bronze.Daniel 10:5–6

Is this man an archangel—one of the sons of God? The text does not say, but he is engaged in conflict with other beings we have already identified as such: the princes (or rulers) of Persia and Greece (Daniel 10:13). He appears to be a subordinate of Michael. If archangels are ontologically superior to the general host of heaven, then we can infer that a being who can engage in extended conflict with them is surely on a similar level. If archangels are ontologically identical to the rest of the angelic army, and simply hold a greater rank—as is the case with human armies—then the point is moot. Either way, the man who visits Daniel is the same kind of being as an archangel.

Notice how this archangel is described with the likeness of shining metal. He, like Moses’ saraph, is brazen. Already there is an obvious conceptual connection—but it goes further than this, because the “gleam of polished bronze” here in Daniel is, in Hebrew, nechoshet. This word is derived from nachash—the Hebrew term for “serpent” in Genesis 3:1ff. Like some English words—express and home for example—nachash can be a noun, it can be a verb, or it can be an adjective.

  • As a noun, nachash means serpent.
  • As a verb, nachash means to divine; “the nachash” means the diviner.
  • As an adjective, nachash means shining (like bronze); “the nachash” means the shining one.

We know from Ezekiel and from Isaiah that seraphs have a shining appearance. We know from Exodus that a seraph is serpentine, and that its shining appearance is associated with bronze. We know from Daniel that archangels have a shining, bronze-like appearance that is described with the same root word as nachash. And we know that the serpent of Genesis 3 was a nachash. Thus, there is a kind of conceptual nexus involving saraph and nachash, evoking a serpentine form and a luminous, brazen appearance. Although these terms can refer to mundane snakes, they also seem to refer to luminous, serpentine beings which surround or guard the throne of God. Beings very much like the winged, serpentine gods of Egypt, depicted flanking the thrones of Pharaohs.

Simply put, the clues in Scripture do not lead us to a possessed snake in Genesis 3. The memes in the minds of the original authors and readers point us in quite another direction:

The serpent was not a snake, but rather a luminous serpentine being—one of the council of God.

Satan and Adam as rivals for rulership

As long as the divine council was only comprised of God and his spiritual family, they would logically commune in their natural state: a disembodied form perhaps akin to a shared dream. But if God wished to add Adam to his council, and do so in a way that intersected with Adam’s normal mode of existence, then the whole council would need to be physically perceptible in a physical location, where Adam could interact with them. Hence the garden of Eden.

This being so, the subplot of Genesis 1–3 is not too hard to discern. Why does Satan tempt Adam and Eve? Presumably because he wants them dead; he knows God has given the death penalty for disobedience (Genesis 2:17). Why does he want them dead? Well, the chief point of the creation account is that Adam and Eve get dominion over the world. Yet that’s odd given the existence of superior beings like Satan. We know that God made us a little lower than the elohim, the gods (Psalm 8:5; cf. Hebrews 2:7)—so giving us dominion seems backwards. Satan naturally expected to get dominion of the world himself. He was the superior being. You put the greatest in charge. The angel of angels. So in his mind, how dare God give the world to a pathetic creature like Adam?

Admittedly it is difficult to finesse Satan’s motivations, since we don’t know what it’s like to be a spiritual being. How can we put ourselves in his shoes when he doesn’t have any shoes? That said, given the information at hand, I don’t think Satan cares about Adam’s dominion per se—about taming the plant and animal life and bending it to his will. Rather, I suspect he is interested in taming man and bending him to his will. Thus, if we want to be very specific, I think Satan’s beef was not so much with Adam getting dominion over the earth, but with him not getting dominion over Adam. In Satan’s mind, it’s fine for Adam to have a kind of intermediary authority; he is “head beast” over all the other beasts. But for Adam to be a viceroy of God, not answerable to Satan at all—indeed, for Satan to be excluded from the authority hierarchy entirely—that would certainly rankle. This suggests that Satan’s rebellion was even more a case of cutting off his nose to spite his face than it first appears. Not only was he rebelling, ultimately, against God, which he had to know was a bad idea, but he didn’t even want what Adam had! He just wanted Adam under his thumb, rather than the world. But if he couldn’t have that, he’d rather see Adam dead and get the world anyway. Of course, this is speculative. We aren’t told what Satan’s plans were. And it doesn’t really matter to us at this point. I’m just trying to follow the clues.

We therefore don’t need to read too far between the lines of Genesis to see a plot to eliminate Adam. The obvious implication is that Satan had a difference of opinion with God as to the propriety of a lesser being holding authority, rather than a greater one—so he tried to stage a coup. With Adam out of the way, God would restore dominion to its “proper” order by putting Satan in charge.

Now, given that he has dominion over man, you might think his plan succeeded—but it didn’t. Not at first. To understand this, we need to now examine the fallout of the curse.

Continued in part 4, a tale of two seeds

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