The Lost “Art” of Being Creatures Among Other Creatures
by Krista Tippett, host
Ellen Davis was one of my greatest teachers at divinity school, which I attended in my early 30s. One of the biggest surprises upon arriving there was finding the biblical texts themselves to be full of buried — or at least hidden — treasure that can be unlocked with careful attention to words as much as to expertise in theology or history. Ellen Davis both practices and embodies this art of careful attention to the power of language.
Being in conversation with her for this week’s show, nearly two decades since she was my teacher, I am struck again by her precise and penetrating elegance of phrase and thought — and, again, by how she uncovers meaning in biblical teachings that have been obscured in Western imaginations by modes of translation and interpretation. From the very beginning of our conversation, as she notes the similarity between the semi-arid, fertile yet fragile ecosystems of Israel and of California (where she grew up on an island in the San Francisco Bay), we begin to experience new layers of association between the Bible’s large, deep themes and present realities.
The most defining and consuming of these associations in recent years, for Ellen Davis, has been the “exquisite attention” the Bible pays to care and loss of land and creatures. She finds an “odious comparison” between the way recent generations of human society have lived and the Bible’s insistence on an existential human responsibility vis-à-vis the land and all the life that depends on it. She herself began to see the urgency of this theme of human responsibility — its abundance and nuance — while teaching the course I attended at Yale Divinity School in the early 1990s. As she taught her way through every book of the Hebrew Bible, her teaching assistants pointed out how “the land” seemed to leap off the pages in her lectures. There were people in those classes who had memorized the Bible growing up, and yet for all of us there was an arc of discovery here.
It was a thrill to draw her out on this as a journalist these years later, though we start in our interview where we started in that class, with a few translations of the Bible open to Genesis 1. What a pleasure it is to introduce you to my teacher in this way. And now, more than I could have realized then, this is an exercise with much larger ramifications than personal scriptural study. For as I’ve realized in the course of my work in this intervening period, a certain reading of the command in Genesis that human beings should “dominate” and “subdue” the Earth and its creatures emboldened and shaped the modern, technological, Western imprint on the world — ecological as well as political and economic. This has come through in my conversations as far-flung as Majora Carter in the South Bronx and Cal DeWitt in a Wisconsin wetland to the Nobel laureate and environmentalist Wangari Maathai in Kenya.
The Hebrew Bible’s prophets also sound devastatingly relevant in light of present realities. When I interviewed Ellen Davis last year, we didn’t talk about the Gulf Coast disaster in particular, but it is certainly what came to mind, painfully, when she recalls the prophet Jeremiah’s vision of land gone “wild and waste” — a kind of vivid reversal of the Genesis story of order out of chaos, light out of darkness.
For Ellen Davis, poets among us who are rooted in a geographic place — Mary Oliver, Anne Porter, and Wendell Berry, whom she specifically identifies — are modern-day successors to Jeremiah. Yet the hard edge of prophecy is not the same as the hard litany of devastation that comes through by way of damning fact and information — the overwhelming pictures of despair that bombarded us from the Gulf, for example, against a backdrop of accelerating statistics about phenomena like Arctic melting, species extinction, desertification. The lamentation of the prophets, as Ellen Davis puts it, is always followed by “consolation.” This is not based on a foolish optimism, she says, but on a hope grounded in a sober assessment of the reality to be faced. And in the course of our conversation, she offers much to take away that is deeply practical, organic in every sense of the word, like the way she would have us see the link the Bible makes between eating and being human, and its evocation of the lost “art” of being creatures among other creatures, a reality we seem to be rediscovering as a virtue and a pleasure.
Ellen Davis quotes her friend Wendell Berry in noting that, even on the heels of justified despair at the wild and waste we’ve made of the world, "when hope sets out on its desperate search for reasons, it can find them."
I’ll end with one of the poems Wendell Berry read for us — listen to him while you read if you’d like — that aptly frames this show:
Not again in this flesh will I see the old trees stand here as they did, weighty creatures made of light, delight of their making straight in them and well, whatever blight our blindness was or made, however thought or act might fail.
The burden of absence grows, and I pay daily the grief I owe to love for women and men, days and trees I will not know again. Pray for the world’s light thus borne away. Pray for the little songs that wake and move.
For comfort as these lights depart, recall again the angels of the thicket, columbine aerial in the whelming tangle, song drifting down, light rain, day returning in song, the lordly Art piecing out its humble way.
Though blindness may yet detonate in light, ruining all, after all the years, great right subsumed finally in paltry wrong, what do we know? Still the Presence that we come into with song is here, shaping the seasons of His wild will.
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.”
The traditional view of God the Creator is untenable now.
—Professor Ellen van Wolde, an Old Testament scholar at Radboud University in The Netherlands. She claims the first sentence of Genesis is not an accurate translation of the Hebrew verb “bara” in the context of the Bible and other creation stories from Mesopatamia.
Translations of the Bible are debated and challenged all the time. In the case of the Creation story in Genesis, it’s often about the tense of the verb “create” and God’s role in the process that’s up for grabs. In a previous post, I compared three versions:
First, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,
And from Fox’s The Five Books of Moses:
At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth,
And now from the Tanakh:
When God began to create heaven and earth—
She says that the “bara” should not be translated as “to create” but “to spatially separate.” The impact of such a statement challenges the very notion that God created something out of nothing — and that humankind’s understanding of the story has been wrong for thousands of years.
Trent Gilliss, online editor