Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 14, 1997

Genesis Topic of
Inaugural Potts

Emil Venere
News and Information

Astrophysicists and scholars of the ancient Near East came together last week to hear a lecture about the Book of Genesis, in the first of a series of talks aimed at exploring cosmology.

"Here we have a story, a dynamic story in which the main actors are man and God," said Tzvi Abusch, a professor of Assyriology and ancient Near Eastern religion at Brandeis University. "It mainly tells how mankind came to be part of the world."

Abusch delivered the first Isaac and Leah M. Potts Memorial Lecture, endowed by the Isaac and Leah M. Potts Foundation.

Isaac Potts, who died in 1960 and was the son of poor Jewish immigrants, attended Johns Hopkins and later founded a successful retail furniture business in Baltimore. "He never received a diploma because he could not pay for a semester of French," said one of his sons, Albert, who is president of the foundation.

The elder Potts' eclectic interests in astronomy and the Hebrew Bible inspired the joint lectures, said Albert Potts, adding that his father's excitement about the cosmos was contagious.

"As a pre-teen, I learned the constellations in the then-clear skies of Baltimore," he said during an introduction to the first lecture, at the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy. "Hence, this lectureship series is to run on dual tracks. The overall topic is the cosmos."

The annual lectures will be alternately sponsored by two departments, Near Eastern Studies and Physics and Astronomy. Research in both departments is tied together by a common thread: the ancients explored some of the same essential cosmological questions being asked by modern-day scientists, said Kyle McCarter, chairman of Near Eastern Studies.

What is the nature of the universe? How did it originate? What are its limits and boundaries?

Of course, the answers found by ancient sages and today's cosmologists are quite different, but linking them together "is an extremely interesting, creative idea on the part of the Potts family," McCarter said.

"In principle I think it's a neat idea," said astrophysicist William Blair. "You think of what a university is supposed to be. It's a melding of ideas from different areas, and we don't do that enough. Personally I found this talk quite interesting."

Abusch said he hoped his lecture would help to kindle cross-disciplinary discussions. After all, astronomers and scholars of the ancient Near East both have similar goals; the astronomers probe the genesis of the universe, and Near Eastern studies scholars investigate how civilization began.

The Bible figures prominently in a discussion of the latter, said Abusch, who focused his discussion on Genesis chapters one through nine. Scholars believe two different writers contributed separate portions of Genesis, but three major issues are central to both sources: reproduction; work and food; aggression and death.

Some time after the initial writing of Genesis, another writer made editorial additions, in reaction to how the first writer treated certain basic human issues, Abusch said.

"Each source deals with the same issues, but each source deals with these issues in diametrically opposed ways," he noted.

They adhere to the same basic plot: human society develops and gradually runs out of control, forcing God to intervene by bringing a devastating flood that wipes out most life. In the flood's aftermath, God accepts man, promising never again to bring about such devastation.

But the two viewpoints depict clearly different relationships between God and man. The first writer characterizes God as a parent and people as immature, powerless children.

In the first writer's view, God sees man as inherently evil, a major factor in his decision to produce the flood. But after the flood God accepts mankind, realizing that he cannot expect man to change his very nature.

God initially wants to keep mankind in a state of dependence, ignorant and living forever in the Garden of Eden. He only creates woman to keep man company.

"God first created the animals to see if any of them would satisfy Adam's need for companionship," Abusch said. "When all else fails, a woman is created."

Adam and Eve are completely unaware of each other sexually. They are naked, but they possess no sexual desires.

The first humans eventually reject God's notion of their place in the world.

"They have no choice," Abusch said. "To obey God is to remain sterile, uncreative and in a position of dependence."

But people end up abusing their newfound power, leading them to kill one another, as Cain kills Abel. God retaliates, forcing Cain to abandon his farm and banishing him to the land of wanderers east of Eden. But Cain, and humanity, actually benefits from God's punitive action. During his exile he marries, has children and becomes the first "city builder."

It's a pattern that brings about the emergence of such cultural institutions as languages, cities and nations, Abusch said.

The second writer paints a much different scenario to describe the relationship between God and mankind. God sees humans not as feeble children, but rather as intelligent beings fully capable of running the world. After all, they are made in his image. But he gives people too much responsibility too soon; they are not yet ready to be in charge and they run amok. The world is full of violence and killing, and God must bring the flood.

In the second writer's account of creation, woman is not introduced as a last-resort companion for man; instead, human male- and femaleness are inherent in creation.

"The emergence of two sexes and sexuality has nothing to do with conflict," Abusch said.

Each writer, taken in isolation, fails to capture the true essence of mankind, said Abusch, who believes that the second writer's "purpose is to counteract and neutralize" the first writer's viewpoints.

"Neither source presents a picture that does justice to the complexity of human beings," he said. "But taken together the two sources provide a picture true to the complexity of human nature."

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