Five Human Lessons from Genesis That Still Apply Today

I can't read Genesis without recognizing bits and pieces of my own life and the lives of people I know. No surprise, really, given how the biblical characters are nothing like the cardboard saints I learned about in Sunday school. Their lives, like mine, like yours, like all great drama, are driven in large part by folly, by moments of tragedy, comedy, and rich irony. Below you will find nothing about religion, only observations about people. Whether you regard them as historical or entirely fictional, and however you regard the mythical-supernatural elements in their stories, their DNA, embedded in the foundations of Western civilization, has given shape to who we are as a people and as individuals, the religious and unreligious alike.

Lesson 1: Nursing anger is a fool's game: Cain

If you've ever offered an idea that was snubbed, or given a gift that was ignored, then you and Cain share something in common, even if you didn't kill anybody.

In the story, Cain, a farmer, and Abel, a sheepherder, each present an offering to Yahweh. Abel's offering is acknowledged, Cain's ignored. Family systems theory might interpret what happens next as part of a pattern of alienation. Imagine Cain in that moment: angry, hurt, and confused, he stands there, watching, listening, his mood shifting, darkening, familiar, a silent scream building, wanting release, to shout, "What is this? Am I invisible?" And yet, what could he do about it? Take a swing at Yahweh? Probably not. But Abel, his little brother -- now, he was another matter.

We've all done it. With too much frustration at work, at school, too much traffic, too much heat, we share our darker side with whomever is down the food chain and handy -- subordinates, the kids, younger siblings, the dog, the cat. Why? Because in that moment, beneath all the reasons, like Cain, we'd rather behave like that than not behave like that. Cain's anger, nursed and self-justified over time, had become a character in his life and, no doubt, in the life of his family. Vibrating just below critical mass, unable to absorb another real or perceived slight, it erupts, which, ironically, gives a forensic framework for making sense of Cain's actions while making Abel no less dead.

Lesson 2: You reap what you sow, and that thing you want more than anything might arrive with more than you bargained for: Jacob

The Jacob we first meet in the narrative wants, and is determined to have, the blessing that would make him patriarch. But he is the second-born son, and such blessings go to the first-born. No worries, he'll steal it. Being ethically challenged, he could avoid the angst others might feel about absconding with a brother's life and focus on the door of opportunity. When it opened, with his mother's help, he fooled his old, nearly blind father into thinking that he was Esau. Suddenly, the goal that had defined and energized his imagination was realized! What a moment! And what a bummer when his mother came to say that Esau, his brother, a tough, dangerous individual "is consoling himself by planning to kill you." Oops.

So he goes to live with his mother's brother, Laban, where he is smitten with Rachel, Laban's daughter. He wants her, she wants him, and since Jacob is broke and can't pay the bride-price, "How about I work for you for seven years, after which Rachael and I will marry?" Done. After seven celibate years, a few days of wedding celebration -- What a night! And what a bummer when he wakes up to discover that it had been Leah under that heavy veil! Jacob was outraged, but Uncle Laban reminded him that tradition required that the oldest daughter be married first. The irony, of course, is that Laban had pulled the same bait and switch that Jacob had pulled on his father. A man could have multiple wives, so Laban tells Jacob that he can still have Rachael -- in exchange for another seven years.

He wanted the blessing, he got the blessing, plus his brother's hatred and twenty years of exile. He wanted Rachel, he got Rachel, and her sister, and their handmaidens (surrogate wives), eleven sons, a daughter, and a sleazy father-in-law.

Lesson 3: There are people who just don't get it (and never will): Laban

Biblical sleaze par excellence, even the sages of the Midrash didn't like Laban.

First he tricks Jacob into marrying his oldest daughter. Then, he tries it a second time. After years of indentured servitude, Jacob is owed a substantial severance package. When he tells Laban how little he wants, Laban, surprised, had only to hold up his end of the bargain, and that would have been the end of it. But Laban wants more. Like Jacob, he is greedy, deceitful, and clever. Unlike Jacob, he does not evolve. All those years before, when he'd substituted Leah for Rachel, Jacob had been starry-eyed with love and lust. Now clear-headed, wary, and watchful, he sees Laban coming, and turning the game back on him, leaves him and his family in a state of near financial ruin. The last we see of Laban is an attempt at saving face, a confrontation with Jacob in which he proves himself to be a dedicated fool.

Lesson 4. Even if Mommy and Daddy say it's not you, if everyone else hates your guts, it's probably you: Joseph

Either you know him, knew him, or you are him -- I mean the self-absorbed little creep at whom everyone has wanted to scream, "Who the hell do you think you are?" If pop psychology is anywhere near the mark, and such outrage is evidence of projection onto another of some despised, denied part of the self, then Joseph's brothers harbored some serious self-hatred, given how they despised the ground he walked on and the air he breathed. He ratted on them every chance he got, then told them of the dreams in which they'd all bowed down to him. But he was daddy's favorite, and no brotherly beatings or threats were allowed. Moreover, none of the nonverbal hostilities beamed his way could penetrate his certainty that everyone loved him more than they loved themselves.

In time, Joseph, the gifted, self-absorbed boy, will morph into the gifted, consciously aware grown-up who saves the known world from starvation. The crisis that sets it all in motion is his showing up in that gorgeous, expensive coat. That being the proverbial straw, they jumped him, stripped him, tossed him into a pit -- and broke for lunch. As they were eating, they spotted a caravan and, deciding it would be less traumatic for them to sell him into slavery than kill him, they made a deal for 20 pieces of silver.

Lesson 5: There are certain experiences that we humans are not designed for: Post-flood Noah and his family

First of all, follow the dimensions given for the ark and what you'll build is not a boat but a huge cargo container-like structure with one smallish opening in the roof and a door on the side. Second, what the people inside that thing endured was not a slow filling up of the world. The notion of 40 days and nights of rain is from a single sentence inserted into a larger narrative in which, as scholar Richard Eliot Freedman writes, Yahweh unleashes "a cosmic crisis in which the very structure of the universe is endangered."

In other words, stuffed into a huge box, the whole of what remained of life now finds itself in the midst of a catastrophe of such violence that existence itself is threatened with non-existence.

Physically, they survive, but they are not the same, and their world is not the same. A slow deterioration sets in, the sort we see time and again in survivors of airline, train, and car crashes, in the victims of natural disasters, in combat veterans -- the dazed countenance, the depression, the quick anger, and the unutterable sadness of our fellow human beings who've seen, done, experienced things for which we humans are not designed to endure.