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Dr. Larry Arnn & Hugh continue discussing Genesis

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HH: This is the hour of Hillsdale, the Hillsdale dialogues. Weekly, I talk with either Dr. Larry Arnn or one of the other great members of the Hillsdale College faculty about one of the great canons in Western literature, one of the great books from the canon of Western literature. And last week, we began to talk about Genesis, and of course, we went slower than we thought, which I think is actually a regular problem with the Churchill seminar that Dr. Arnn conducts at Hillsdale. Is that the truth? Is that correct?

LA: Of course.

HH: Of course. And so I want to go back and reset for our listeners, you had three major points you wanted to make about Genesis last week. I think we got to one of them. Let’s begin at the beginning and tell them what those overarching points are.

HH: Okay, the first point is the beginning of Genesis is a kind of allegorical or something like that, maybe mythical, story of the creation of the Earth. And it establishes certain principles about the relation between God and everything else, including man. And at about Chapter 12, Genesis becomes the story of a founding of a people. There is a particular people, and they are subjected to the incredibly difficult duty of being God’s chosen people, and they’re not always very good at it. And then the third point is this story about this people has a unique feature different from other things in the ancient world, and that is this people is somehow carrying a message for the benefit of all of us. And that’s one reason the duty is so hard.

HH: And so in terms of that shift on or around the 11th or 12th chapter of Genesis, is it important for people to switch the way they read at that point?

LS: No, the right, well, first of all, the way you read any great or important thing is to let it talk to you. See what it says. And if you read carefully, you will see that something different happens, right? Now all of a sudden, there are people with names, and things are happening that also happen in our ordinary lives. And they go and they settle, and they’re commanded to do this, and they have children, and the children do this and that and the next thing. And so it’s a much more human, regular story.

HH: So when you welcome freshmen to Hillsdale, I am sure that you welcome a variety of theological perspectives as to the Creation narrative. And some will hold that it is literally true, and others will say it is allegorical, and I always say mythological is a story intended to believed, and so it’s a good way to get across that divide between. But how do you handle that at the college?

LA: Well, first of all, it’s a college, right? So you start by reading it. What can you make of it, right? And I personally believe it’s literally true. But you have to figure out what it’s saying to you, right? It doesn’t give an account of who the second generation, what women they found around to marry, right? Where did they come from? And did they marry their sisters? But there are no sisters reported. There are a lot of things in there that are not, that are left unexplained. And I think that that means that those things are of some importance, and as symbols. But I think the later story tends to be more detailed. And I believe that the whole thing hangs together logically if you read it right. And read it right means read it as best you can as it’s talking to you. Read it for what it says.

HH: What does it say that the knowledge of good and evil tree is the one that’s not supposed to be taken from?

LA: Well, that’s hard to figure, because, and I’ll tell you what the problem is, and then I’ll tell you what I think it means. It’s hard to figure, because as I said last week, man is created in the image of God, and he can name things, because he can talk. He has the gift of reason and speech. And God names things, and then later Adam comes, and he and Eve, and they name things. And they’re the name givers, right? That means they’re speakers. Well, you can’t really use the gift of human reason without knowing the difference between good and evil. And so that means they must have already had that. And by the way, they did, somehow, in some sense for sure, because they were immediately ashamed of what they had done, but they had reservations about it, about eating the apple or the fruit before they did it, right? So this knowledge of good and evil, in my opinion, means some setting up of one self as a standard outside of God for things like that. And I think the command was given, so as I read it, and as I say, it’s a puzzle, but as I read it, I think the command was given in order to establish that there was a boundary, the word of God.

HH: Interesting. Now our friend, Dennis Prager, and he is your friend, and I have much, much, much more mixed emotions about him, but our friend, Dennis Prager, stunned me one time by telling me the serpent in the garden does not represent Satan, that orthodox Jewry doesn’t actually believe in a Satan, and so I, you know, most ordinary Christian interpretations of this are erroneous. What do you think?

LA: Well, I think it represents Satan.

HH: Good.

LA: (laughing)

HH: (laughing)

LA: It is an evil force, right, and it can be a snake, right, so it appears as a snake. And so I read it as the fallen angel.

HH: And he went on to explain, Jews don’t believe in the fallen angel narrative. So we do, and I’m curious as to whether you can, in three minutes or less to the break, explain to people the West’s understanding of the role of evil, and not become bogged down in Manichaean terminology.

LA: Well, it’s…I think so. The point is good and evil cannot be equals. That is two alternative forces that contend with each other on some kind of equal footing, because if they were on an equal footing, how could they, how would you know one of them was evil? So you have to have some standard outside them by which you call one of them good and one of them evil. That’s the first step in the argument. And the simplest, there’s only one more, and it’s pretty simple, and that is every evil thing is really only a good thing spoiled. So if you look at an evil dog, it’s a dog that doesn’t act like a dog. It bites the wrong people. If you look at a cup that is not a good cup, one example of a thing would be a cup that had a hole in the bottom. And you can’t understand it as a bad cup until you know what a good cup is. So evil is a derivative idea. And the Biblical story in the New Testament about the fall is the story of not just a good thing, but a superbly good thing, one of the brightest of the angels, the angel of light becoming envious of God, and falling from that reason, rather like the story about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

HH: But there he is in the garden, imperfection in the perfection.

LA: Right. That’s…you know, in other words, this serpent story is the story of someone giving bad counsel, and giving it by speech. But the gift of speech is how we indicate, as Aristotle says, the just and the unjust, the advantageous and the disadvantageous. He is using it for an evil purpose. That is a fallenness of the gift of speech.

— – –

HH: Lesson number two of the big three out of Genesis, Larry Arnn?

LA: I said that it was the story of a people, right? And here’s the thing about this people. They go through the dickens, right? God comes, and before Abraham, there were all people, and there wasn’t any specific sign that any of them was important. But God goes to Abram, Abram, living in Ur of Chaldees, which I think is in Southern Iran, or Iraq, and He says go over there and do this, and I’m going to make you a great people. And you’re going to do stuff for Me. I will be your God, and you will be My people. And then the rest of Genesis is the story of the founding of this people.

HH: Now in that story, there are some very hard aspects. For example, God asking Abram to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and getting pretty close, you know, it’s a thriller, whether or not this comes off. What kind of a God does that?

LA: A jealous God, a God who thou shalt have no other gods before Me, a supreme God. And this God is loyal to His people when they’re loyal to Him, but that loyalty, they can’t be His chosen people unless they have that faithfulness to Him. They must do as He says. And His commandments are for the good. And that particular one is amazingly well chosen, because the Old Testament in general, and this book of Genesis in particular, is the story of a family, a people descended by birth from the fathers. And so the promise to Abraham is I’m going to give you a lot of kids, number like the sands, like the grains of sand. And so to ask him to kill his firstborn would disrupt the whole making of the people. And that establishes then that God is supreme, and must be obeyed. It’s very important to the story that that is the thing that Abram, that Abraham is asked to do, and also it’s important to the story that he does not actually do it, because it is understood by everyone in the story, and from the perspective of the book of Genesis, that that’s a horrific thing to be asked to do.

HH: It is also understood that that family develops through treachery. Jacob steals the birthright from the brother, Esau, who’s owed it. What’s that…when you sit around with the Hillsdale students, you can’t be recommending them the ethics of Jacob, can you?

LA: Well, if their mother tells them to…(laughing)

HH: (laughing)

LA: Then it’s different, isn’t it?

HH: No. (laughing)

LA: No, I think that’s a, see, that’s another thing, right, because Jacob is a really important guy, right?

HH: Yes.

LA: His name is changed to Israel, and his sons become the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. And he was second born. And he is understood to be more excellent than Esau, although Esau has the advantage of Abel over Cain. He’s a meat maker, and makes better stuff, better to eat. But Jacob is in some way superior, and he’s not firstborn. But the principle of descent is firstborn are important, right? And so that’s an interesting story. And one can think a long time about that. My own opinion of it, if you want to know it, is that it’s an indication, and it carries some of the same messages as Abraham and Isaac, it’s an indication that lineage is not all, that excellence before the Lord, service and faithfulness to the Lord, is ultimately the main thing.

HH: It’s a very subversive story, one would imagine, throughout all of Western culture, because there’s always going to be a Jacob who’s always going to want to replace an Esau.

LA: Yeah, but you know, Esau gets a lot. You know, he gets a good birthright, too. He just doesn’t get the main one. And Jacob is understood in some way or another to be in the wrong there, right? It would be better if he hadn’t done that. But you know, you can ask the question, why would an omnipotent God not make him born first if He liked him better?

HH: Sure.

LA: And the answer is you know, it didn’t please Him to do that. But also, there must be a lesson in it. And as I say, I think the lesson is that excellence before the Lord is more important than birth.

— – – –

HH: All of the Hillsdale dialogues are available at, as are the amazing Hillsdale courses, completely free. Just sign up, get Imprimus, get involved in the college. The American Heritage course begins on February 25th. You can register for it now. Larry Arnn, I want to talk to you about Joseph for a moment, and I being with this anecdote. Each year, I teach the Youngstown Sheet & Tube case, and Justice Jackson has a concurrence in it in which he refers to Joseph’s dreams as being very difficult to interpret, but that he will try and interpret, as Joseph did, the dreams of Pharaoh, the precedence of the early Constitution, interpretations of the Court. And each year, I ask my students who knows what he’s talking about, and the number has declined precipitously over the 15 years I have been asking.

LA: Oh, that’s too bad.

HH: We’re down to about the Mormons now, because the musical is not much in abundance, and it’s a wonderful story. I think this may be my favorite story, actually, in the Old Testament.

LA: Oh, really? Well, so let me mention my third point, because Joseph is connected to it. My third point is that this people who are chosen are chosen for all of us. The promise to Abraham is I will be your God, you will be My people, and this will be a blessing to all of the peoples on the face of the Earth. Now what happens is Israel has got all these kids, and one of them is Joseph, and he likes him really well. He’s younger, and the brothers get jealous, because he gets this coat, and they think they, they pretend to kill him, they sell him off into slavery. And he ends up in Egypt, and he has a divine gift, because to God, the present and the past and the future are all one, and always present. So someone who can see the future, and interpret mysteries, has a kind of divine gift. Joseph had that, and it gets him out of prison. And then it helps him predict for the king that he’d better save up a lot, because there’s going to be seven good years, and seven bad years. And the point about this is, this is where Genesis ends, the effect of this is that God’s people are all in Egypt. And they’re in a different country, and it’s a great and powerful country. And this is what gets them down there. And that has set the stage so they can all come back, which they do in the book of Exodus, the next book, which of course comes from two Greek words. The word hodos, means road. Exodus is just the road out. And so Joseph is part of this grand scheme of God. And think of what is accomplished by this, right, because the excellence of God’s people is displayed on the largest stage in the world, because they fall under the slavery of the most powerful ruler in the world. And then they come away from him with God’s direct help, where God does the greatest marvels that He does in the whole Bible, I mean until the New Testament. We will argue with Dennis Prager about that. But He…and see, that is on display on the world stage, right? And that is a very important part of the story of the Jews.

HH: It is. Let me ask you about one thing about Joseph. He reveals himself to his brothers, and he forgives them, and he asks is my father still living. It’s a very emotional scene in Genesis, Chapter 45. But he forgives them. And that is not, that’s really not very common. In fact, some people would say that’s not very Old Testament for the powerful, powerful right arm of the Pharaoh to forgive his brothers who threw him into a hole and left to die, and be sold into slavery, that sort of thing. Surprising? And what’s it tell you?

LA: Well, it’s the family principle, right? They have to be a people. And so they have to be a family. They have to carry on, right? They have to give rise to a great people that are very numerous, right? If you look at the peak of the Jewish story, which is in the time of Solomon, and you know, by the way, the peak was very brief. The story is very long, and the peak is very brief. But at the peak of that story, the great number of the Jewish people is important. Well, they couldn’t be killing off each other, all the brothers, because they wouldn’t have any kids.

HH: Do you think that in the ancient world, they were aware of the significance of the Jews to the extent that we are, that when Rome rolled in, that they had a sense that this people was as ancient as we know them to be, and as quite set apart as we understand them to be?

LA: Well, no…yes and no. You know, Rome was very great, and Jews were very small. And they’d been in servitude for a long time by the time the Romans showed up. On the other hand, there was something odd about them, because the Roman way was to incorporate everybody into the pantheon, all the, you know, theos is god, and pan means kind of everything or wide. So all the gods got in there, right, big, old, wide place for all the gods to be in. And the Jews didn’t want that, right? Their God was their God. And their God had not been destroyed by the destruction of their capital, or the taking of the people off into slavery. And so they were special, and people understood there was something unusual about these people.

HH: And to conclude this week, we’ll come back next week and talk about Exodus and the other three of the first five books of the Old Testament. The Jews, Walker Percy said, explains why he believed in God, because he wasn’t going to stop believing in God until somebody explained to him the Jews. Have they had that effect generally throughout the West?

LA: Sure, and they’re, I mean, think of the way that they’re important to Hitler, right? Hitler, one of the things Hitler thought was God said I’m not going to let anybody kill them all. Take that, God. So of course, the Jews are a great, ancient people in this respect that I named, that they are the people of the God for all people. They are unique in the ancient world. And then then they are the Christians, the people of the Savior.

HH: And you’ve spent time in Jerusalem.

LA: Yes.

HH: And pretty hard to miss the significance of this story when you’re there. But what about now in the rest of the world? And we have half a minute.

LA: Well, Christianity thrives in Asia, in Africa, in America, at least a lot. So it’s still very powerful, and the knowledge of the Jews go wherever Christianity goes, and wherever Jews go.

HH: Dr. Larry Arnn, I look forward to talking to you about their return from Egypt next week in Exodus and Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers.

End of interview.


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