God and Isaiah 2: Historical Analysis

The following is a paper written for an undergraduate Jewish studies course titled, “The History of God,” which was intended to present God in a historical manner, using the Bible as the main source document and the Documentary Hypothesis as the main tool for interpreting its contents.  The paper addresses Isaiah 2:2-5 to 6:22.

The professor left the following comment on the paper:

You show there are real forces beneath this passage – that it’s helping hearers find a way out of their problems. Bravo… You see the fact that religion and doctrines address people where they hurt.

There were a few minor criticisms, but I’ve corrected the most glaring one before publishing it online.  Also, despite the criticisms, the professor felt the paper was, overall, on the mark and marked it with an A/A-.  I’m not sure about how he rates things.  He usually left two grades on papers like that.

The Prophet Isaiah
The Prophet Isaiah (Image from Wikipedia)

Isaiah 2:2-5 to 6:22 is a complex message that describes Judah and Jerusalem’s future according to Isaiah. It presents a utopian view that sits in stark contrast to Isaiah 1, where Jerusalem is compared to a booth in a cucumber field, surrounded and isolated, or as an unfaithful whore, found in the previous chapter.[1] It looks even more out of place compared to the contents of Isaiah 3, which describes the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah. However, the message being delivered has a purpose and fits an established framework.

According to the Documentary Hypothesis, Isaiah 1-39 was written by an individual referred to as Isaiah 1 in approximately 720 BCE. Isaiah 40-55 are attributed to a second author, and 56-66 are attributed to a third author.[2] These authors all wrote at different times and wrote for different purposes. Isaiah 1’s purpose was to explain the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians, to fit it into an established framework that the people would recognize and understand, and then to give hope to the southern kingdom of Judah, that they could be preserved if they mended their ways.

Isaiah 2:2-3 describes the existence of Jerusalem in the future, when it has become a cultural center. Verse 2 establishes that Jerusalem will exist in the latter days and that all nations will flow to it. This was probably a very important message for the people to hear and be reminded of after the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians. The defeat of Israel not only called into question their political independence but the religious foundations of their society as well. According to Nathan, three-hundred and thirty years before in approximately 1050 BCE, God had promised to maintain the political solvency of David’s kingdom forever, telling him (through Nathan), quite literally, “Your throne shall be established forever.”[3] So, when the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom, Isaiah had to find a way to explain it, justify it, and then give hope that it did not mean the end of their way of life.

The only way to justify God’s apparent failure to uphold His end of the covenant was to say that He actually had not failed; the Israelites and Judeans failed God. Isaiah reasoned that God must have failed to protect the northern kingdom because the Israelites had turned their backs on God, or at the least, it was a plausible solution to the problem of explaining the breach of the covenant. He applies this logic by introducing a new concept, that sacrifice is not enough, and God never really wanted sacrifices in the first place. God tells the people He will not listen to them because their hands are full of blood. He tells them that instead of sacrificing, they should have been doing good, seeking justice, correcting oppression, upholding justice and pleading the widow’s cause.[4]

The point of this break with tradition is to shift people’s focus from the Temple rituals to practicing religion in their everyday lives. This idea is reinforced in Isaiah 2:3, where Isaiah prophecies that people will flock to Jerusalem in the future, not for its food or the climate, but for the law. “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord… that he may teach us his ways…For out of Zion shall go the law, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”[5] This was not his attempt to stop the Temple rituals, but it was his way of laying the seeds of future faith, when the inevitable happened and the temple was destroyed.

Isaiah 2:4 further reinforces the Davidic Covenant and simultaneously acts to reassure the people that all will be well. It introduces the idea of God being bigger than just Jerusalem. He’s so big that He “judge[s] between nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples…”[6] This verse takes God out of the Temple. It separates Him from ritual and puts Him above the affairs of nations. It not only expands His powers, but it frees Him and his followers from religious destruction if the Temple is destroyed. The second half of Isaiah 2:4 describes people of the nations around Israel turning their weapons into agricultural instruments. They “shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”[7] When confronted with the utter destruction of the northern kingdom, it must have been welcome news to hear that in the future, there would be no war, and, hence, no threat to Judah’s existence.

Isaiah 2:5 is a call to action. It asks the house of Jacob to come and walk in the light of the Lord. The ensuing diatribe in 2:6-22 against the materialism and idolatry of the descendants of Jacob, presumably in the southern kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem, which have yet to be conquered, is probably intended to give the original recipients a road map for change that will allow them to avoid the same fate as their northern neighbors. Isaiah 2:6-22 basically tells them what they’re doing wrong, with 2:5 being the lead-in, warning them to steer clear of the following things that are against God’s will.

Isaiah 2:2-5 is a reminder to a people facing an imminent danger that threatens their way of life. It is a way out, a way to avoid the fate that befell the northern kingdom, and it is part of a message that explains why God did not uphold the covenant given to David, thereby saving the religion from destruction. By reaffirming the Davidic covenant and justifying the destruction of the northern kingdom, Isaiah reaffirms God’s dedication to David’s people and their well-being. Isaiah 2:2-5 is also an important turning point in the religion, bringing God out of the temple and into personal life.


[1] Isaiah 1:8 and 1:21. All references to Bible passages are from the English Standard Version.
[2] Arthur Patzia and Anthony Petrotta, Pocket Dictionary of Biblical Studies….
[3] 2 Samuel 7:16.
[4] Isaiah 1:11-17.
[5] Isaiah 2:3.
[6] Isaiah 2:4.
[7] Ibid.

Works Cited

Patzia, Arthur G. and Anthony J. Petrotta. Pocket Dictionary of Biblical Studies: Over 300 Terms Clearly & Concisely Defined. InterVarsity Press, 2002. Google eBook.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Amazon Digital Services: Crossway, 2011. Kindle eBook.

 

Analysis of the The Tower of Babel – Historical Perspective

The following is a paper I wrote for a Jewish Studies class I’m taking called “History of God.”  The point of the paper was to examine a set of verses from the Old Testament from a historical perspective, discussing what the verses reveal about the people it describes, or that wrote it.  This paper relies heavily on the Documentary Hypothesis theory and the concept of Spiral Dynamics as put forth by Ken Wilber.

For clarity, the paper was graded by George KC Forman and  received an A-, as well as some notations about grammar and style corrections (which haven’t been made here).  The professor’s notes on the last page are:

So close! Ask yourself, what was happening in J’s Day? What’s his point. Yes, free will. But to what end? Kingdom has arisen; we now have cities and power in Levant. So free will is in service of Solomon’s reign. How might story fit with that people’s needs and worries? Why free will? Why portray the many languages? I’d given this story answers the need for cooperation, under aegis and king. Unite, it says, to gain power, etc. But good work. Where is this doc. hypoth. book? Sounds great! A-

Essay:

The Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel

The story of the Tower of Babel, found in the Book of Genesis in the Bible, is fascinating and complicated and is open to many levels of interpretation, especially since it is a story that was probably not original when it was added to the Bible. What does it mean that the people were attempting to build a tower “that reaches into the sky”?[1] And what does God’s response indicate about the nature of the relationship between man and the divine? What can we learn about the needs and wants of that society by analyzing these verses?

The story of the division of human language isn’t unique to the Bible, but that in itself isn’t remarkable. Something as mystifying as why all men don’t speak the same language is a problem that people from various cultures would have tried to solve the best way they knew how: attributing it to an act of the divine, leaving modern readers with a variety of similar myths. Obvious parallels exist in the stories of the Enuma Elish, the building of Babylon’s ziggurat, and a Sumerian story that tells of a time when all people spoke the same language. The closest parallel is a Sumerian epic titled “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta.”[2] It starts out describing a time when man had no rival and everyone spoke the same language, but:

Enki…the leader of the gods
Changed the speech in their mouths
Brought contention into it,
Into the speech of man that (until then) had been one.[3]

Whether J came up with the story of the Tower of Babel or borrowed the tradition, its inclusion in the religious tradition of the Hebrews is still significant. It indicates clearly that people identified with the story and felt that it reflected their own relationship with God.

According to the Documentary Hypothesis, the stories of the Pentateuch were not written by one author, but rather four authors and then collated into a single work by a series of redactors. These sources are J (Jawhist/Yawhist; approx. 950 BCE), E (Elohist; approx. 850 BCE), D (Deutoronomist; approx. 600 BCE), P (Priestly source; approx. 500 BCE) and R (the Redactors / Editors). Developed by Biblical scholars in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Documentary Hypothesis uses linguistic cues and source criticism to try to explain the apparent contradictions and repetitions in the Pentateuch. The story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) is generally attributed to the Jawhist source, making it one of the earliest written stories of the Bible, despite its placement. According to the Documentary Hypothesis, J’s writing focuses on the interaction between God and man’s free will.[4]

Understanding how J writes can be helpful when examining the Tower of Babel story as presented in the Bible and for determining what it might mean about the people it describes. One interpretation is that it’s an origin story for the existence of different languages and cultures in the world. The beginning of the story says, “At one time all the people of the world spoke the same language and used the same words.”[5] By the end of the story, God has confused their languages and caused them to be scattered all over the world. However, this story conflicts with an earlier account that says (emphasis added):

4The descendants of Javan were Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Rodanim. 5Their descendants became the seafaring peoples that spread out to various lands, each identified by its own language, clan, and national identity.[6]

The earlier account already describes the creation of multiple languages and cultures, directly contradicting the later Tower of Babel account. Also, Genesis 11:1-2 implies that all of the people in the world traveled together in one group, which contradicts the earlier account of Cain and Abel. When Cain was banished, God put a mark on his head so no one else would kill him and he went to the land of Nod.[7] This implies that there were people in Nod already that Cain had to be fearful of and that people weren’t traveling together in one group.

This is where it helps to understand the Documentary Hypothesis, which explains that the account in Genesis 10 was added much later, by P (the Priestly source). However, it doesn’t explain the contradiction in the Cain and Abel story, which is also attributed to J.[8] Because the two stories by J are contradictory, the Tower of Babel story must have been included for a symbolic reason, rather than to record factual events in the sense that a history book records factual events. It wasn’t the content itself that was important. It was the message it carried. Approaching the Tower of Babel story from this perspective lends support to the idea that it was borrowed from another culture’s religious tradition. The tower mentioned in the story is probably borrowed from the ziggurat dedicated to Marduk in Babylon called Etemenanki. The plot of the story is probably borrowed from earlier stories, like the Sumerian epic mentioned earlier.[9] So, how can this story tell us anything about the Hebrews?

For the story to be included in the oral and later written tradition of the religion means that the people identified with it strongly. While it’s not possible to apply the details of the people in the story to the Hebrews exactly, it’s possible to analyze the text and draw conclusions about the relationship between man and God, as they saw it. Understanding that the story is symbolic and knowing that one of J’s common themes is the struggle between man’s free will and God, it’s also reasonable to believe that this story is about man’s exercise of free will and the limits of man’s authority over the world.

The Tower of Babel story is about power. Genesis 11:2 describes a tribal, migratory people passing through the Fertile Crescent into Mesopotamia and arriving at a place suitable for settling. Upon arriving, their first thought is to establish themselves in the region through a show of power. They decide to build up a city and a tower that will reach into the heavens. Because they are united, they are able to make quick progress in reaching their goal. However, God has another plan for mankind and takes an active role in the world to push man onto the path He’s chosen for them.

The dialogue attributed to God in Genesis 11:6 gives Him a very anthropomorphic, active and human personality. God appears to be either afraid of what man might accomplish or jealous that man is able to create something monumental, which is a type of action that should be reserved for Him. To stop man from completing the tower, and thereby demonstrating his power of the world, God goes down and “confuse[s] the people with different languages…[so] they won’t be able to understand each other.”[10] After their languages are confused, the people have no choice but to abandon the project. They migrate away from the Tower of Babel, probably sorted into language groups.

It is hard to look at this story and find a way to paint God in a positive light, other than to say that perhaps this was part of a larger design, such as ensuring the fulfillment of his earlier command to Adam and Eve to go forth and populate the Earth. Adam and Eve’s descendants could not accomplish that task if they all stayed in one city. However, I think the key phrase from this passage is in verse 6: “The people are united…. Nothing they set out to do will be impossible for them!” The author of the story perhaps believed that man could achieve anything he put his mind to through unity with his fellow men, with only an act of God being able to stop him. Communal action to support and increase the power of the group is a very tribal action. The inclusion of this story in the religious tradition of the Hebrews could have greatly reinforced the importance of group solidarity, as well as the concept of not transgressing what is sacred at the same time.

The story of the Tower of Babel in the Bible is one version of a larger body of stories that attempt to explain or describe the division of the human race into language and culture groups. The story is not unique to Genesis, but the unique adaptation of the story helps to reveal how the ancient Hebrews may have thought of God, and what they thought of man in relation to that power. It is clear that when this story was introduced into the religious tradition, God was a much more active and anthropomorphic being than He is today. Most importantly, the story describes man’s potential in the world, his ability to do the unbelievable through group solidarity and effort. Where man’s power ends and God’s begins is a boundary that is constantly being redefined, even in the modern age over issues of cloning, for example, but it’s also an ancient argument that has been expressed in one of the earliest portions of the Bible and will continue to be expressed and redefined by generations to come.


[1] Genesis 11:4.
[2] Jim Rovira, “Babel in Biblia.”
[3] Ibid.
[4] William Lyons, “Teaching the Documentary Hypothesis to Skeptical Students,” p. 134.
[5] Genesis 11:1.
[6] Ibid., 10:4-5.
[7] Ibid., 4:14-16
[8] Timothy R. Carmody, Reading the Bible, p. 40.
[9] Jona Lendering, “Etemenanki (The tower of Babel).”
[10] Genesis 11:7.

Works Cited

Carmody, Timothy R. Reading the Bible: A Study Guide. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2004. Web.
Lendering, Jona. “Etemenanki (The tower of Babel).” n.d. Livius: Articles on Ancient History. Web. 09 March 2012.
life Application Study Bible: Personal Size Edition. 2nd. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2004. Print.
Lyons, William L. “Teaching the Documentary Hypothesis to Skeptical Students.” Roncace, Mark and Patrick Gray. Teaching the Bible: Practical Strategies for Classroom Instruction. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005. 133-134. Web.
Rovira, Jim. “Babel in Biblia: The Tower in Ancient Literature.” July 1998. Babel. Web. 09 March 2012. .

The Power of Religious Texts in History

This is something I wrote for a World Civilizations: Pre-History to 1500 (101) class.  The task was to pick a piece of literature, from religious texts to epic poems to economic records found at archaeological sites, and then describe how that work affected history.  I suppose you could say I took the easy way out and chose to write about the Bible and how it has affected history.  If you’re curious, this paper received an A.  Footnotes will be appended to the bottom of the post, along with the bibliography.

bible1

(Image via godisforreal.wordpress.com)

Literature has always played an important role in recorded history. It is a method of preservation of the moment. It captures the ideas, the problems, the aspirations and dreams of a society and, when read from a historical perspective it can offer an open window into the world of the writer. No form of literature has as much impact on history as religious texts. Perhaps the most influential religious work of all time, the Bible[1] has impacted the lives of countless people throughout history. In this paper, the impact of the Bible will be briefly explored to demonstrate the importance it has played in shaping, stabilizing, and sometimes disrupting society.

When Christianity first appeared in the Middle East it was a revolutionary movement with no specific set of religious texts. Various gospels and epistles were being circulated, but there was no accepted canon of scripture until perhaps the late 4th century AD.[2] The result of this is that there was a wide array of Christian sects, all with varying beliefs. There was no structure to the religion, which could cause confusion about what was and wasn’t ‘true’. Through the work of early church figures, like Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, that changed. Bishop Athanasius worked to consolidate which scriptures would be regarded as canonical and which were, according to him, heretical.[3] Coming at about the same time that Theodosius I declared Catholic Christianity as the official and only permissible religion of the Roman Empire (380 AD), this acted as a strong unifying force that would have an enduring effect on history, European history most especially. The Catholic Church claimed its authority based on the newly standardized canon gospel of Matthew, citing chapter 16, verse 18, which says, “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” as the source of its legitimacy.[4] The acceptance of the canonicity of the gospel, what we know as the Bible today, is what allowed the Catholic Church to hold power over the people, as well as to stamp out opposition. The Church also used its divine authority to control the rulers of the people throughout Europe up until the French Revolution of 1789-99. With the Bible as its basis, the Papacy of the Catholic Church bestowed divine authority on the monarchies of the developing European nations, allowing for the formation of governments and modern nation states. Most of the countries in Europe today exist due to monarchical legitimization by the Catholic Church, which derived its religious authority from the Bible. These nations have played major roles in the development of the rest of the world and, in most cases, continue to be major world powers today. These nations that are shaping the world today were themselves shaped by Christianity and the Bible.

In addition to shaping nations, Christianity has played a role in creating social stability through Christian morality and Christian value based legal systems. Mircea Eliade wrote that “The manifestation of the sacred ontologically founds the world. In the homogenous and infinite expanse, in which no point of reference is possible and hence no orientation can be established, the hierophany[5] reveals an absolute fixed point, a center.” Or, in other words, religion creates a stable center for people to start from, a check to balance their view of the world and define their existence. The religion revealed through the Bible served this purpose for Christians. The Bible affects the lives of those who read and believe in it by influencing them to conform to a lifestyle that is in accordance to its teachings. John 14:6[6] tells believers that Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” It is impossible to come to Jesus without repentance and living according to the teachings of the Bible. Getting into Heaven is a strong incentive to develop and maintain a Christian, Biblical lifestyle, which regulated everything from birth (baptism) to marriage (holy vows) to death (Christian funeral rites), and most things in between. As mentioned earlier, this belief in the Bible and Biblical living created the monarchies and modern nations which, along with creating common customs, stabilized society, but it also went a step further in creating social stability through later legal systems. The values established by Christianity were converted into the foundations of Western legal systems. Christian values have persisted in our Western legal systems and institutions up until the modern time. John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States (1789-95) once wrote in a letter that “The Bible is the best of all Books, for it is the Word of God, and teaches us the way to be happy in this world and the next. Continue therefore to read it, and to regulate your life by its precepts.”[7] While not expressed outright in the US Constitution or legal system, the values that Americans inherited from Christianity have influenced and continue to influence the workings of government. A good modern example is the current debate on the legality of homosexual marriage, which is undeniably being opposed on wholly religious grounds.

Using the same example, the Bible has been so influential that it has also caused disruptions in societies throughout history, including Christian societies and modern societies. As a sacred text, the meaning of the words it contains is open to constant interpretation based on who reads it. Those interpretations haven’t always had a positive effect. During the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, the Roman Catholic Church used its Biblical authority to declare religious wars on neighboring nations. The effects of the Crusades continue to be felt today by Islamist terrorists using the concept of Crusades as a justification for violent and lethal actions against Western, ‘Christian’ nations. The Bible has also been used as a justification for the violent suppression of minorities throughout history. Well known examples are the Medieval Inquisitions, the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials. The Bible has been used to oppress women through selective quotation and reading out of context, with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 being a prime example:

“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”[8]

The Bible was used to justify slavery in the United States, either arguing its morality through the omission of its condemnation in the Bible or by making a broad claim that God created slavery and so it must be good, as Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America did. He said, “Slavery was established by the decree of Almighty God…. It is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…. It has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in the nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.”[9] Today, the Bible is used as a source of justification for the suppression of the right to equality that homosexuals should enjoy under the secular government in the United States. It is still used by fringe groups to support destructive beliefs. The Bible is just as strong a force for disruption of society as it is for good.

Throughout history, the Bible has been used extensively to justify both positive and negative actions. It has been used to stabilize and homogenize society. It has been used as the basis for customs, holidays, and the building of nations. It has also been used to destroy enemies, suppress minorities and justify violence. Without a doubt, the Bible is an epic piece of religious literature that has had a profound effect on our world, exemplifying the power of the written word to influence history.


[1] The general concept of a canonical written Bible as accepted by branches of Christianity, without considering the differences between accepted canon and apocryphal works in various traditions.

[2] According to the Columbia Apologetics Toolkit, adapted from the materials of Professor Paul Hahn of the University of St. Thomas, Houston, Texas.

[3] According to the National Geographic special, The Gospel of Judas.

[4] King James Version

[5] Mircea Eliade defines “hierophany” as the sum of its etymological content, “something sacred shows itself to us.”

[6] The Book of John, Chapter 14, Verse 6 of the King James Version of the Bible.

[7] John Jay to Peter Jay, April 8, 1784.

[8] King James Version.

[9] From the antebellum slavery debates in America, quoted in a book by Mason Lowance.

Bibliography

National Geographic: The Gospel of Judas. Directed by James Barrat. Performed by Peter Coyote. 2006.

“Development of the Biblical Canon.” Columbia: Apologetics Toolkit. 1995. http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/a/canon.html (accessed July 9, 2011).

Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 1959.

Hutson, James H. The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations. Princeton University Press, 2007.

Lowance, Mason I. A house divided: the antebellum slavery debates in America, 1776-1865. Princeton Univeristy Press, 2003.

Thomas Nelson Bibles. The Holy Bible; Containing the Old and New Testaments; Authorized King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2001.

 

Where Does Fate End and Free Will Begin?

Note:  The following is the second and last paper I wrote for my World Humanities 1 class.  It deals with the issue of fate vs. free will in Oedipus the King, Macbeth, and the creation story of Genesis.  Please keep in mind that in regards to Genesis, this was written from a literary perspective and only using the information found in the first two chapters.  The paper has been edited slightly to look better as a blog post.

Introduction

Some of the earliest artwork that’s been found, like the cave paintings at Lascaux in France and the Venus of Willendorf, indicates that man has had an interest in the supernatural since before recorded history. Archaeological evidence shows intentional burial of the dead with objects needed in the afterlife as much as sixty-thousand years ago and evidence also exists of the universality of religion in historic and modern times (Ember, Ember and Peregrine 446). This preoccupation with religion has led to the development of complex belief systems throughout history, from the Greek pantheon of gods in ancient Greece to the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which are based on the Jewish Talmud and Torah.

Starting with Herodotus in the fifth century B.C., scholars, theologians, historians and philosophers have speculated about religion. This speculation has sometimes taken the form of literature, such as the creation story in the book of Genesis, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. These stories present situations that place man at odds with the supernatural. They pose the question of whether or not man has any control over his own life. Does man have free will, or is he driven by fate to success or failure? Each of the three stories gives us a similar, but different possible answer.

Adam and Eve Were Doomed to Fail

Adam and Eve stained glass window.
Adam and Eve stained glass window.

The book of Genesis is a Jewish religious text, later recognized by both Christians and Muslims, that tells the story of creation. In Genesis, God creates the world and then places man in that world as the pinnacle of His creation. From man, God creates woman and they live together in a paradise on Earth called the Garden of Eden. God also chooses to place the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. He tells Adam and Eve that they can enjoy the rest of the garden as much as they want, but they may not eat from that specific tree. Despite this warning, Eve does eventually eat the fruit of the tree and Adam joins her, causing them to be cast out of the garden.

Is it Adam and Eve’s fate to commit this sin, or do they have free will to avoid temptation? When God creates Adam and Eve, they are created without any concept of right or wrong. They have no concept of morality, because morality requires knowledge of right and wrong, or good and evil. When God places the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, he is setting Adam and Eve up for failure. Despite his instruction to Adam and Eve to not eat from the tree, they cannot be reasonably expected to follow this instruction, since they do not know that disobeying it is wrong.

God also allows evil to come into the garden, in the form of a talking snake, to tempt Eve into doing what God says shouldn’t be done. Even when Eve decides to eat from the tree, she does not do it out of a conscious act of disobeying. She does it because the tree is pretty and the fruit looks tasty: “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes … she took of the fruit thereof…” (King James Version, Gen. 3:6).

God could have placed the tree of the knowledge of good and evil anywhere in creation, but He chooses to place it in the Garden of Eden, where He also places man. God then tells Adam and Eve that they may not eat from the tree, but does not give them the mental capacity to understand that following His command is the right thing to do. God then allows the snake to tempt Eve. One could reasonably assume that an omniscient, all powerful God did these things for the sole purpose of ensuring that Adam and Eve would sin and fall from grace. Adam and Eve never had a choice in the matter.

(Image of Adam and Eve from The Rector’s Corner)

Laius and Oedipus Ruined Their Own Lives

Oedipus the KingIn Oedipus the King, Sophocles presents a tale showing that a foretold fate can be prevented, but is sometimes brought about by one’s own hands. The story revolves around two key prophecies from Apollo, one given to Laius and one given to Oedipus. Relating the story to Oedipus, Jocasta tells him that the oracle “declared that doom would strike [Laius] down at the hands of a son, / our son, to be born of our own flesh and blood” (Fagles 201). When Oedipus visits the oracle, he is told: “You are fated to couple with your mother, you will bring / a breed of children into the light no man can bear to see– / you will kill your father, the one who gave you life!” (Fagles 205).

Both of these prophecies set in motion chains of events that lead to their fulfilment, but not because of fate or an inability to change the future. Laius and Oedipus both make conscious choices, of their own free wills, to act, or not act, on these prophecies, influencing the final outcomes. After hearing the prophecy, Laius could have acted in other ways that would have prevented its fulfilment. Laius could have killed Oedipus himself, or he could have raised him. If he had killed Oedipus outright, the prophecy would have had no chance of coming true. If he had raised Oedipus in Thebes, the boy would have either grown up to love him, or at the least he’d know who his son is. Knowing who his son is would have allowed him to keep an eye on him. Instead, Laius sends the baby Oedipus into the mountains with a shepherd, to die from exposure.

Instead of being left to die, Oedipus is given away and becomes the adopted son of the King and Queen of Corinth, where he in turn grows up and receives his own prophecy. When Oedipus hears this prophecy, he makes a conscious choice to leave Corinth, to avoid killing the people he believes are his parents. However, he also makes a choice to not heed the remainder of the prophecy. When trying to escape from an unpleasant fate, shouldn’t one take into consideration the whole prophecy? It’s true that he believes his parents are Polybus and Merope, the King and Queen of Corinth, but considering the stipulations of the prophecy, he could have chosen to avoid killing or marrying anyone in the future.

When Oedipus encounters a rude traveller on the road, instead of choosing to avoid trouble and run away, he attacks and kills the man, who turns out to be his biological father. When presented with an opportunity to marry, he takes it and unwittingly marries his mother, rather than remembering the prophecy and abstaining from marriage altogether. Through their own actions and their own choices, Laius and Oedipus both fulfil the prophecies they are given.

(Image in this section from KevinStilley.com)

It’s All in the Journey, Because the End Doesn’t Change

Macbeth and Banquo with the three witches.
Macbeth and Banquo with the three witches.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, we are presented with yet another way to view fate. While returning from battle, Macbeth and Banquo encounter three witches along the road that present Macbeth with two prophecies. The witches hail Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, which he is. They then hail him as Thane of Cawdor, which confuses him since there is already a Thane of Cawdor. Finally, they hail him as “…Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!” (Orgel 9). Shortly after the witches disappear, Macbeth finds out that he has been named the Thane of Cawdor. The witches do not tell him when these prophecies will come true and whether or not it is a deception on their part, Macbeth takes his immediate naming of Thane of Cawdor as a cue to act to ensure the fulfilment of the third prophecy.

At this point, Macbeth begins to control how he will bring about his own fate. Macbeth and his wife conspire to kill the current king, Duncan, and after succeeding, Macbeth is placed in power. He attains the kingship and his prophecy is fulfilled. However, because of the way Macbeth chooses to reach his prophesied destiny, his reward is short lived, violent and ends in tragedy. If Macbeth had chosen to wait for the prophecy to fulfil itself, he may have been a much older man when he was named king, but the transition would have likely been more peaceful and he might have even sat on the throne longer. In Macbeth, fate is absolute, but how Macbeth attains his fate is optional.

(Image of Macbeth and Banquo with the witches from Wikipedia)

Conclusion

These three works of literature each present a different view of how man is subject to fate. Is man locked into his fate with no chance to escape, like Adam and Eve in the Genesis creation story? Can man avoid fate altogether by acting on prophecy and making the proper choices, as evidenced by Oedipus the King? Or is our fate absolute, with only the way we get there left to our discretion, as in Macbeth? As long as man continues to believe in the supernatural, questions about man’s relationship with the divine will continue to be debated, because there is no way to definitively prove that any particular view is correct.

References

Ember, Carol R., Melvin R. Ember and Peter N. Peregrine. Anthropology: Thirteenth Edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2010.
Fagles, Robert. The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1984.
Orgel, Stephen. Macbeth. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2000.
Thomas Nelson Bibles. The Holy Bible; Containing the Old and New Testaments; Authorized King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2001.