Throughout “Genesis” in the Old Testament, one of the major themes that I found impossible to ignore is the way the world of magical overlaps with reality. This is a tough distinction to make at times, since the Old Testament is a book of divine (thus supernaturally-infused) occurrences, but there are so many elements of the fantastic in Genesis that to me, it began reading like a work of the most creative fiction, which I suppose, it is. All atheistic undertones to this statement aside, it is at least interesting to look at Genesis as a supernatural set of tales and events and more specifically, the way the “magic” of the Lord is used on a smaller scale (smaller meaning the examples outside of the most predictable event, creation). Also of note throughout Genesis, is the way the power (or “magic”) of God is used for the most all-encompassing purposes of either extreme destruction or infallible protection. There is no “middle ground” in Genesis’ representation of the supernatural attributes and actions of God and this fact creates many questions about the motivations and true nature of God himself as well as his abilities.
While the theme of magic and the supernatural stood out to me most, oddly enough, the creation story that opens Genesis is not among the prime examples I wish to use to support this exploration. Perhaps this is because it is such an overwhelming feat or perhaps just because it is so ingrained in our psyche that it has become almost easy to overlook. Also, it could just be that the debate about the story of creation versus more scientific, secular ideas might be a bit of a distraction when approaching a discussion about the role of magic in Genesis. The Old Testament is, despite all religious connotations, a work of ancient literature and I would much rather view it as such than wrap myself in debates about literal meanings as applied to the real world. Having said that, I feel more comfortable approaching the subject of magic (as opposed to divine grace) without issues of personal beliefs factoring into my literary-based reading of the text.
Many of the facts contained within Genesis make the story border between the world of the real (or at least realistic) and the fantastic. While it is easy to sometimes overlook the supernatural events such as floods caused by divine wrath, and curses being doled out, one aspect of Genesis completely separates this work from any sense of reality is the mutability and meaninglessness of time. Although we are supposed to view the characters as wholly human, they have attributes that set them apart from the realistic, most notably, the fact that they live such long lives. In Genesis 5:5, we are informed that “The entire lifetime of Adam was nine hundred and thirty years, and then he died.” In fact, the whole lineage of Adam is dissected and we are given lists of names of Adam’s descendents, many of whom live well past eight hundred years. This gave me some trouble and after doing a little research, I learned that supposedly the long life spans are due to the fact that they are more closely and directly related to God as being direct descendents of Adam (thus God himself).
While the characters of Genesis live ridiculously long lives, at least in term of our senses of reality, the dichotomy of time itself becomes an issue. It’s very difficult to pinpoint any sense of time when, in Genesis alone, we see an expansive description of long lineages and are given at the beginning, a tale of creation that lasts only seven days. It is as if the world in which Genesis takes place is so far separated from any modern sense of reality that it’s almost impossible, for me at least, to view the story in any terms outside of fiction, fantasy, and the surreal in this examination of viewing as literature (again, all theological debates aside).
Also, along the lines of viewing Genesis as a work of highly creative fiction are the multiple literary connections that abound, especially in relation to the fantastic and supernatural. While it can certainly be argued that the Bible as a whole created many of the genres that modern readers connect biblical tales to, these recognizable genres make reading Genesis similar, in approach at least, to reading a work of speculative fiction, or even farther back, allegories. Take for example, the talking serpent that tempts Eve with the forbidden fruit. Talking animals are prevalent in literature both before and after the Bible and this device of using speaking animals to highlight moral messages is perhaps mostly keenly presented in allegories and fables. While not magic, per se, the talking serpent, while obviously Satan in disguise, is the wolf in sheep’s clothing (to use a more “modern” example of the talking animal trope), the lurking menace in tangible form. The fact that Satan is able to take on this shape-shifting ability is not only magical and surreal, but after thinking about it, is very recognizable as a form that haunts literature, especially after the wide acceptance and knowledge of biblical stories. I can’t help but wonder about Satan’s magical abilities and would posit the question whether Satan and the Lord are equally magicians—just in different ways. It wasn’t until I began tossing around this question that it occurred to me how much the Bible has impacted supernatural stories and it seemed very much worth it to investigate this further by looking at other magical feats and the surreal setting of the Bible.
God’s anger and disappointment over Adam and Eve’s fall from grace provokes another magical trope, the curse. “Because you have done this, cursed are you among wild beasts” (Genesis 3:14) he says to the serpent—almost, in a sense, counteracting the serpent’s “spell”. To Eve, he invokes a curse by stating, “I will greatly increase your labor pains. With pain you give birth to children. You will want to control your husband, but he will dominate you” (Genesis 3:16). Therefore, because of God’s curse (as opposed to simply Eve’s fall from grace) women will go through labor pains and suffer eternally. This curse is permanent since it seems there is no “counter-spell” for such a curse. God’s whims, combined with his magical powers and ability to curse or bless, make him formidable indeed as well, I think, a little frightening.
Interestingly, the above passage (Genesis 3:16) involving God’s words to Eve brings up a strange idea, indeed. When God tells her that she will no longer be able to control her husband, is this implying that before the fall she had that ability? Is it because of the fall that women aren’t the ones with power? If, in fact, Eve had power or control over Adam before the fall, is this putting some magical significance upon women because after all, Eve was created not only second, but second to man. How could this secondary creature hold power when sex had not yet factored into the equation (it doesn’t happen that we know of until after the fall and they have “marital relations” thus producing their first child. There is something I can’t quite put my finger on about this passage’s mention that Eve will no longer be allowed to dominate and the questions about this could be easily explored from a feminist point of view rather easily. The focus, however, is on the magical nature of Genesis but the Eve question is certainly ripe for delving into later.
The forbidden fruit of knowledge produces a rather unexpected result. Immediately, Adam and Eve realize they’re naked and feel ashamed. It is almost as if there have been dual realities up to this point—the reality of Eden where all was perfect and the newer, more stark and unpleasant reality of the “post-fall” world of God. The two extremes, the dual opposites remind me that nothing in Genesis is as it seems and there are always two levels of being existing at once because there is always the possibility of good or the potential for evil. While this is the world we, as modern readers, are used to, when viewed in context of the Bible, this makes for a read similar to magical realism—the two opposing forces that exist in a real plane. In a way, this is a very unsettling prospect throughout Genesis, especially if one isn’t familiar with some the stories it contains. While there is always the possibility for perfection, the looming threat of magical intervention for human harm is always hanging above the heads of the characters in this perhaps first example of what we would now call “magical realism”. The real and the unreal intermix and I can’t help being tossed between a fear of the Lord in Genesis, an overwhelming awe, and a sort of suppressed anger at what seems to be the fickleness of his decisions to use his magic to subvert human activity. Although in actual modern existence, it is thought to be wrong (in some circles) to question the acts of God, Genesis, when viewed as fiction, is wide open to debate about the motivations and nature of this character, the Lord, just as we would question the character of Dr. Faustus or other literary enigmas.
The story of Cain and Abel, Eve’s cursed offspring who are involved in the first murder (presumably as a result of the fall) is again, like the rest of Genesis, plagued with magic, curses, and the endowment of supernatural gifts upon mortals. First of all, in the story of the first murder, the Lord tells Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10). The imagery of this line not only chilled my blood a little, but also created an actual literal image of blood on the ground that was infused with a sentient life of it own. That God was able to hear actual blood, the very essence of life was also a little unsettling, especially since this goes beyond what I had always considered God to be able to do—watch over the living. This is a God that speaks with the dead, with the essence of life, and with blood and corporeal matter itself. While striking and disturbing, I found myself reading this line over a few times to get the full effect of God’s magical prowess.
Furthermore, on the subject of the story of Cain and Abel, I was struck by the strange ways in which God uses his magic to invoke curses and blessing simultaneously. After scolding Cain and forcing him into being a homeless wanderer for the rest of his days, “the Lord put a special mark on Cain so that no one who found him would strike him down” (Genesis 4:15). This shows that the Lord’s magical powers could be used for great protection as well as destruction and I wondered at this passage at great length, in much the same way I wondered later, when it came to the Lord’s selection of Noah during the flood. His magic seems almost out of control when it comes to destructive ability, yet he protects only a few—and in the case of Cain, he only protects in order to do him harm (by forcing him to wander).
The seeming fickleness and oddness of God’s ways of using his magical powers to both destroy and protect is further highlighted in the case of Noah and the flood. As cause for causing the disaster, God says, “I have decided that all living creatures must die, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. Now I am about to destroy them and the earth” (Genesis 6:13). Wow. Well, before I get too in-depth about the themes of magic and protection, I would like to say a few words about this quote from God in terms of the overall text. Quite simply, what is most frustrating is that the reader doesn’t get any thoughts or inner dialogue with the Lord. All we see is what seem like hasty, often violent, and surprising decisions from God to destroy as quickly as he has created. This is a very scary idea, indeed, and the Lord, as seen as a character in Genesis is, quite honestly, a little unpredictable and dangerous. Part of what is so distressing about this as well, aside from what seems like an instant decision to wipe out everyone and everything, is that there doesn’t seem to be any clear-cut way to “take” the Lord. He is at once very vengeful and so powerful that all are helpless, but capable of so much good as well. I guess it all boils down to the fact that I could help but feel that there is something arbitrary in the way God wields his mighty magic. Perhaps then, in some sense, that makes Genesis very much real—random events happen (whether because of an angry God is another debate, but the message is still pertinent).