A Distinguished Professor’s Ignorant Take on Adam and Eve

Oct. 11 2017

In The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, Stephen Greenblatt traces the history of the Hebrew Bible’s account of the first man and woman, presumably built from similar tales in ancient Babylonian literature, through interpretations of the story by St. Augustine and John Milton, to the Enlightenment critique of creation, to the modern scientific understanding of human origins. Marilynne Robinson, in her review, argues that Greenblatt demonstrates a woeful misunderstanding of Milton’s theology and approach to the Bible—to which a sizable portion of the book is devoted—as well as a failure to read Genesis as it might have been understood by the ancients. More importantly, she writes, he misses the point:

Greenblatt, an English professor at Harvard University, . . . frames his inquiry in terms of truth or fiction. For him truth means plausibility, and by that measure the story of Adam and Eve is no more than a miracle of storytelling. But science tells us that Homo sapiens does indeed roughly share a single lineage, in some sense a common origin, just as ancient Genesis says it does. In the Hebrew Bible the word adam often means all humankind, mortals.

Greenblatt never seems to consider why the myth might have felt so true to those who found their religious and humanist values affirmed by it—and their own deepest intuitions, which science has partly borne out. It is interesting that those who claim to defend the creation narrative from rationalist critiques [similarly] ignore the fact that its deepest moral implications, a profound human bond and likeness, have been scientifically demonstrated.

In any case, it is a tendentious reading of any ancient text that would apply modern standards of plausibility to myth. . . . Greenblatt respects his subject, and still he assumes that the rationalist reading offers up the true meaning of the story.

[He] imposes this kind of reasoning on John Milton, no less. He writes that Milton “was convinced that everything had to spring from and return to the literal truth of the Bible’s words. In the absence of that truth, Milton’s Christian faith and all the positions he had taken on the basis of that faith would be robbed of their meaning.” There is a special problem with the phrase “literal truth.” Milton knew Hebrew. A serious student of Scripture is aware that neither English nor Latin versions can be described as “literal.” . . . In any case, precisely his devotion to Scripture would have made [Milton’s] understanding of it nuanced and rich, and not in the least “literal.”

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More about: Creation, Genesis, Hebrew Bible, John Milton, Religion & Holidays

When It Comes to Syria, Vladimir Putin’s Word Can’t Be Trusted

July 13 2018

In the upcoming summit between the Russian and American presidents in Helsinki, the future of Syria is likely to rank high on the agenda. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has already made clear that Moscow won’t demand a complete Iranian withdrawal from the country. Donald Trump, by contrast, has expressed his desire for a complete U.S. withdrawal. Examining Moscow’s track record when it comes to maintaining its past commitments regarding Syria, Eli Lake urges caution:

Secretary of State John Kerry spent his last year in office following Lavrov all over the world in an attempt to create a U.S.-Russian framework for resolving the Syrian civil war. He failed. . . . President Trump [now] wants to get to know Putin better—and gauge his willingness to help isolate Iran. This is a pointless and dangerous gambit. First, by announcing his intention to pull U.S. forces out of the country “very soon,” Trump has already given away much of his leverage within Syria.

Ideally, Trump would want to establish a phased plan with Putin, where the U.S. would make some withdrawals following Iranian withdrawals from Syria. But Trump has already made it clear that prior [stated] U.S. objectives for Syria, such as the removal of the dictator Bashar al-Assad, are no longer U.S. objectives. The U.S. has also declined to make commitments to give money for Syrian reconstruction.

Without any leverage, Trump will have to rely even more on Putin’s word, which is worthless. Putin to this day denies any Russian government role in interfering in the 2016 U.S. election. Just last month, Putin went on Austrian television and lied about his government’s role in shooting down a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine. Why would anyone trust Putin to keep his word to help remove Iran and its proxies from Syria?

And this gets to the most dangerous possible outcome of the upcoming summit. The one thing that Kerry never did was to attempt to trade concessions on Syria for concessions on Crimea, the Ukrainian territory that Russia invaded and annexed in 2014. There was a good reason for this: even if one argues that the future of Ukraine is not a high priority for the U.S., it’s a disastrous precedent to allow one nation to change the boundaries of another through force, and particularly of one that signed an agreement with the U.S., UK, and Russia to preserve its territorial integrity in exchange for relinquishing its cold-war-era nuclear weapons.

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More about: Crimea, Donald Trump, Politics & Current Affairs, Russia, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy, Vladimir Putin