The Centrality of Desire in the Messiness of Human Life, and God’s Too
by Krista Tippett, host
I still have a vivid memory of the first time I interviewed Avivah Zornberg. I had experienced her through the Bill Moyers series Genesis, and through her powerfully, lushly written books about the Bible. I brought one of mine into the studio that day — Everett Fox’s The Five Books of Moses, a translation that sacrifices English clarity to let the visual wordplay of the original Hebrew come through. In the end, I closed my eyes, and did something closer to entering the text than discussing it. That’s what Avivah Zornberg makes possible.
That first time, for Passover, we were looking at the iconic story of Exodus, which has inspired so many people in so many places across time, far transcending its appearance as words on a page. This time, I sat down in her living room in the Old Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem and began the conversation by wondering where she might want to go. She was as delightful and gracious in her whole being as she is with her voice. We decided to start with the story of Noah and the Flood — chapter 6 in the book of Genesis — and see where it might take us.
This of course is one of those stories that many of us have heard in Sunday school, or seen in Technicolor at the movies, and heard references to and jokes about all our lives. But Avivah Zornberg knows the Hebrew Bible’s actual words and cadences by heart. She approaches it with the foundational mystical text of the Zohar. She applies the ancient Jewish art of midrash, reading between the lines with imagination, poetry, sensuality, and a sense of humor. And she uncovers stories within the story that open up the “biblical unconscious” and speak in unexpected ways to human life.
With her, we see that the biblical flood in some sense un-creates the world that has just been created. But the corruption that led to this undoing was not merely one of fleshly sin and violence; it was a loss of the connective tissue of language between human beings. “They have become so open,” Avivah Zornberg has written of the flood generation, “that they are closed to one another.”
Likewise, in Hebrew, the “ark” into which Noah retreats contains allusions to “word” as well as to “box.” This uncommunicative, self-absorbed man seems, upon closer examination, a strange choice for God to appoint to save all life on Earth. But precisely in his awkward imperfection, Noah embodies one of the qualities I love about the Hebrew Bible. It is an honest, unvarnished account of the messiness of life — the failed and flawed nature even of our greatest leaders. There are no storybook heroes in the Hebrew Bible. They are us, just as they are in real life. So even Noah, in one of those ironies of the human condition, finds himself imprisoned by the box/ark that is his claim to greatness.
That day in Avivah Zornberg’s living room, we walked backwards in Genesis — from Noah and the Flood to the creation story of Adam and Eve and Eden. Here too we find ironies that we recognize at the center of ourselves. From the Hebrew, Eden can also be translated as “delight” — “land of pleasure.” Everything is beautiful and perfect and delicious here. But it is the one tree in the center of the garden, from which God has asked Adam and Eve not to eat, that they desire.
The theme of desire — its centrality in moving human life forward, the way we struggle to both honor and order it — runs throughout Avivah Zornberg’s vision of how this text might tell us the story of ourselves. And, like the Bible itself, she does not condemn the fact of desire so much as seek to understand it. For the consciousness that desire enlivens is also a primary source of awareness and intentionality; it’s our choices that have the power to redeem us, not an impossible striving toward perfection.
I’ll leave you with a line to entice you to listen to my conversation with Avivah Zornberg. She says of the power of Adam’s telling of the first lie:
“Brodsky said consciousness, human consciousness, begins with one’s first lie… That’s when we begin to be aware of the complexity in ourselves and the different impulses. And that’s where poetry comes from as well. You know, not only bad things come from saying two things at the same time. As long as you have a kind of straight unequivocal immaculate version of things, then there can be no poetry and there can be no tension, no desire again. Desire makes itself felt when language comes alive.”
There’s nothing saying Eden stayed perfect after the Fall. Genesis says God placed a couple of angels with flaming swords outside the gates to protect the Tree of Life, and presumably bar our return, and many assume that the Garden was destroyed in Noah’s Flood, never to be seen again. There’s a small town near the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates today where they have a Tree of Knowledge, now dead, standing in a little cement park. And that’s pretty much how I picture the aftermath of Eden.
—Brook Wilensky-Lanford, from an interview in Religion Dispatches on her new book, Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Rooting the Poetry of Resurrection in the Garden of Eden
by Debra Dean Murphy, guest contributor
In a Dominican priory in Salamanca, a relief depicts Mary Magdalene contemplating the empty cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified and searching for Truth. (photo: Lawrence Lew/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
In the beginning was poetry.
The book of Genesis, as Ellen Davis has observed, starts with a liturgical poem. The creation of the cosmos can only be communicated, the ancients knew, through language that speaks to the imagination — that unity of intellect and emotion, which was for the biblical writers the restless human heart.
Images and metaphors are primary speech, conveyers of truth — durable yet pliable, precise yet ever expansive in the vision of the world (and ourselves) they set before us.
That they were describing biological or geological processes would never have occurred to the redactors of the Bible’s foundational stories. Not because they were uninterested in or incapable of such description but because the truths they were telling were not available within discursive speech; the reporting of facts was not the business they were in. For most of the Church’s history, interpreters of biblical language understood this.
And then there were propositions.
With modernity came the quest for scientific certainty and singularity of meaning. Texts were read in the same way that ore was mined from the earth: you dig and dig and the Truth, like a nugget of gold, is eventually dislodged. You extract it with your best tools, dust it off, and hold it up to the light for all to admire. This Truth, this narrowly defined, singular “meaning” of this or that text, became an object of adoration and it wasn’t long before modern Christians were worshiping the Bible itself rather than the One to whom it points.
And this Bible, moderns continue to insist, speaks in propositions: The Word of God as a collection of truthful statements that must be assented to. Christianity as a list. Do you believe the right propositions?
The resurrection stories in the four Gospels differ significantly from one another (as do the Creation stories in Genesis 1-2). What might it mean for us to recover — in our living, in our worship, and in our preaching — the poetic possibilities of these stories? Could we stop straining toward explanations for the inexplicable? Could we trust that Jesus’ friends — to their own incredulity as much as anyone’s — experienced him fully alive after his tortuous death and that this is not so much a scientific fact to be endlessly probed as it is gospel — genuine good news — to be lived?
And can we see the poetic genius of St. John who brings the resurrection story back to Genesis’s cosmic beginnings in a garden?
Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
—Gospel of John, 20:15
Jesus is the patient gardener. He is the “tree of life.” He is the new creation. And in him we live.
From the far star points of his pinned extremities,
cold inched in — black ice and squid ink —
till the hung flesh was empty.
Lonely in that void even for pain,
he missed his splintered feet,
the human stare buried in his face.
He ached for two hands made of meat
he could reach to the end of.
In his corpse’s core, the stone fist
of his heart began to bang
on the stiff chest’s door, and breath spilled
back into that battered shape. Now
it’s your limbs he comes to fill, as warm water
shatters at birth, rivering every way.
—Mary Karr, “Descending Theology: The Resurrection”
Debra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.
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