The following is a transcript excerpt from Dr. Jordan Peterson’s Biblical Series exploring the psychological significance of the biblical stories in the book of Genesis. You can now listen to or watch the lecture series on DailyWire+.
VIDEO TIME: 1:33:00
The Conceptual Framework of the Bible
Let’s take a look at the structure of the book itself. The first thing about the Bible is that it’s a comedy. And a comedy has a happy ending. That’s a strange thing because the Greek gods’ stories were almost always tragic. Now, the Bible is a comedy. It has a happy ending. Everyone lives. There’s a heaven. What you think about that is a completely different issue. I’m just telling you the structure of the story. It’s something like: There was Paradise at the beginning of time, and then some cataclysm occurred and people fell into history, and history is limitation and mortality and suffering and self-consciousness. But there’s a mode of being — or potentially the establishment of the state — that will transcend that, and that’s what time is aiming at. That’s the idea of the story.
It’s a funny thing that the Bible has a story because it wasn’t written as a book. It was assembled from a whole bunch of different books. The fact that it got assembled into something resembling a story is quite remarkable. The question is then: What is that story about? And how did it come up as a story? And then, I suppose as well, is there anything to it? It constitutes a dramatic record of self-realization or abstraction. The idea, for example, of the formulation of the image of God is an abstraction. That’s how we’re going to handle it to begin with.
I want to say, though — because I said that I wasn’t going to be any more reductionist than necessary — I know that the evidence for genuine religious experience is incontrovertible, but it’s not explicable. So I don’t want to explain it away. I want to just leave it, as a fact, and then I want to pull back from that and say, okay, well, we’ll leave that as a fact — and the mystery. But we’re going to look at this from a rational perspective and say that the initial formulation of the idea of God was an attempt to extract out the ideal and consider it as an abstraction outside its instantiation. That’s good enough. That’s an amazing thing, if it’s true. But I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
It’s a collection of books with multiple redactors and editors. Well, what does that mean? Many people wrote it. There’s many different books. And they’re interwoven together, especially in the first five books, by people who, I suspect, took the traditions of tribes that had been brought together under a single political organization and tried to make their accounts coherent. So they took a little of this, and they took a little of that, and they took a little of this. And they tried not to lose anything because it seemed valuable. It was certainly valuable to the people who had collected the stories. They weren’t going to tolerate too much editing. But they also wanted it to make sense to some degree, so it wasn’t completely logically contradictory and completely absurd.
So, many people wrote it and many people edited it and many people assembled it over a vast stretch of time. We have very few documents like that. And because we have a document like that is sufficient reason to look at it as a remarkable phenomena and try to understand what it is that it’s trying to communicate. It’s also the world’s first hyper-linked text, which is very much worth thinking about for quite a long time.
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There’s four sources in the Old Testament (or the Hebrew Bible) — four stories that we know came together. One was called the Priestly, and it used the name Elohim or El Shaddai for God. I believe el is the root word for Allah as well, and that’s usually translated as God or the gods because Elohim is utilized as plural in the beginning books of the Bible. And it’s newer than the Jahwist version. Now, the reason I’m telling you that is because Genesis 1, which is the first story, isn’t as old as Genesis 2. Genesis 2, the Jahwist version, contains the story, for example, of Adam and Eve, and that’s older than the very first book in the Bible. But they decided to put the newer version first, and I think it’s because it deals with more fundamental abstractions. It deals with the most basic of abstractions, how the universe was created, and then segues into what the human environment is like. That seems to be the logic behind it.
The Jahwist version uses the name YHWH, which apparently people didn’t say, but we believe was pronounced something like, “Yahweh.” And it has a strongly anthropomorphic God, so one that takes human form. It begins with Genesis 2:4. “This is the account of the heavens and the earth,” and it contains the story of Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel, and Noah, and the Tower of Babel, and Exodus, and Numbers, along with the Priestly version. It also contains the form — just the form — of the Ten Commandments, which is like a truncated form of the law. The Elohist source contains the stories of Abraham and Isaac. It’s concerned with the heavenly hierarchy that includes angels. It talks about the departure from Egypt. And it presents the Covenant Code, which is the idea that society — this was Israeli society — was predicated on a covenant with God, and that’s laid out in a sequence of rules, some of which are the Ten Commandments, but many of which are much more extensive than that.
And then the final one is the Deuteronomist code, and it contains the bulk of the law, and the Deuteronomic history. It’s independent of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. Now, there’s debate about this, like there is about everything, so I’m brushing over a very large area of scholarship, but people generally assume that there were multiple authors over multiple periods of time, and the way they concluded that is by looking at textual analysis, trying to see where there are chunks of the stories that have the same kind of style or the same referents. People argue about that because, you know, obviously it’s difficult to recreate something ancient. But that’s the basic idea. So it is an amalgam of viewpoints about these initial issues. And that’s important to know. It’s a collective story.
Now, to understand the first part of Genesis, I’m going to turn, strangely enough, to something that’s actually part of the New Testament, and this is a central element of Christianity. It’s a very strange idea, and it’s going to take a very long time to unpack. This is what John said about Christ: “In the beginning was the Word” — so that relates back to Genesis 1 — “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Three sentences like that take a lot of unpacking because none of that seems to make any sense whatsoever, really. “In the beginning was the word. And the word was both with God. And the word was God.”
So, the first question might be, what in the world does that mean, “In the beginning was the word”? That’s the logos actually, and the logos is embodied in the figure of Christ. There’s this idea in John that whatever Christ is, the son of God, is not only instantiated in history, say, at a particular time and place, as a carpenter in some backwoods part of the world, but also, something eternal that exists up, outside of time and space that was there right at the beginning. And as far as I can tell, what that logos represents is something like what modern people refer to when they talk about consciousness. It’s something like that. It’s more than that; it’s consciousness and its capacity to be aware and its capacity to communicate. It’s something like that, and there’s an idea underneath, which is that, being — especially from a phenomenological perspective, so, the being that is experience — cannot exist without consciousness. It’s like consciousness shines a light on things to bring it into being. Because without consciousness, what is there? No one experiences anything. Is there anything when no one experiences anything? That’s the question. And the answer that this book is presenting is that, no, you have to think about consciousness as a constituent element of reality. It’s something that’s necessary for reality itself to exist.
Now, of course, it depends on what you mean by reality. But, the reality that’s being referred to here, I told you already, is the strange amalgam of the subjective experience and the world. But the question is deeper than that, too, because it is by no means obvious what there is if there’s no one to experience it. The whole notion of time itself seems to collapse — at least in terms of something like felt duration. The notion of size disappears, essentially, because there’s nothing to scale it. Causality seems to vanish. We don’t understand consciousness — not in the least. We don’t understand what it is that is in us that gives illumination to being. And what happens in the Old Testament, at least in part, is that that consciousness is associated with the divine. Now you think, well, is that a reasonable proposition? That’s a very complicated question, but at least we might note that there’s something to the claim because there is a miracle of experience and existence that’s dependent on consciousness. People try to explain it away constantly, but it doesn’t seem to work very well.
Here’s something else to think about — I think — that’s really worth thinking about: People do not like it when you treat them like they’re not conscious. Right? They react very badly to that. And you don’t like it if someone assumes that you’re not conscious, and you don’t like it if someone assumes that you don’t have free will — you know, that you’re just absolutely determined in your actions, and there’s nothing that’s going to repair you, and you don’t need to have any responsibility for your actions. The laws of our culture are predicated on the idea, something like: People are conscious, people have experience, people make decisions and can be held responsible for them, if there’s a free will element to it. You can debate all that philosophically, and fine. But the point is, that is how we act and that is the ideal that our legal system is predicated on. And there’s something deep about it because you’re subject to the law. But the law is also limited by you, which is to say that in a well-functioning, properly-grounded democratic system, you have intrinsic value. That’s the source of your rights, even if you’re a murderer.
We have to say, the law can only go so far because there’s something about you that’s divine. What does that mean? Well, partly it means that there’s something about you that’s conscious and capable of communicating, like you’re a whole world unto yourself, and you have that to contribute to everyone else — and that’s valuable. You can learn new things, you can transform the structure of society, you can invent a new way of dealing with the world. You’re capable of all that. It’s an intrinsic part of you, and that’s associated with this.
There’s something about the logos that is necessary for the absolute chaos of the reality beyond experience to manifest itself as reality. It’s an amazing idea because it gives consciousness a constitutive role in the cosmos. You can debate that, but you can’t just bloody well brush it off. Because, first of all, we are the most complicated things there are that we know of by a massive amount. We’re so complicated that it’s unbelievable. There’s a lot of cosmos out there, but there’s a lot of cosmos in here, too. Which one is greater is by no means obvious, unless you use something trivial, like relative size, which really isn’t a very sophisticated approach. Whatever it is that is you has this capacity to experience reality and to transform it, which is a very strange thing. You can conceptualize a future in your imagination, and then you can work and make that manifest. You participate in the process of creation. That’s one way of thinking about it.
That’s why I think Genesis 1 relates the idea that human beings are made in the image of the divine, men and women, which is interesting, too, because the feminists are always criticizing Christianity, for example, as being inexorably patriarchal. Of course, they criticize everything like that so it’s hardly a stroke of bloody brilliance, but I think it’s an absolute miracle that right at the beginning of the document, it says, straightforwardly, with no hesitation whatsoever, that the divine spark, which we’re associating with the Word that brings forth being, is manifest in men and women equally. That’s a very cool thing. And you’ve got to take that seriously. Well, what you’ve got to ask is, what happens if you don’t take it seriously?
Read Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” That’s the best investigation of that tactic that’s ever been produced. Because what happens in Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” is that the main character, whose name is Raskolnikov, decides that there’s no intrinsic value to other people, and that as a consequence, he can do whatever he wants. It’s only cowardice that stops him from acting. Right? Because, well, why would it be anything else if the value of other people is just an arbitrary superstition? Then why can’t I do exactly what I want, when I want? Which is the psychopath’s viewpoint. Well, so Raskolnikov does. He kills someone who’s a very horrible person, and he has very good reasons for killing her. He’s half starved and a little bit insane and possessed by this ideology; it’s a brilliant, brilliant layout. And he finds out something after he kills her, which is that the post-killing Raskolnikov and the pre-killing Raskolnikov are not the same person, even a little bit, because he’s broken a rule — he’s broken a serious rule — and there’s no going back. “Crime and Punishment” is the best investigation I know of, of what happens if you take the notion that there’s nothing divine about the individual seriously.
Most of the people I know who are deeply atheistic, and I understand why they’re deeply atheistic, they haven’t contended with people like Dostoevsky — not as far as I can tell — because I don’t see logical flaws in “Crime and Punishment.” I think he got the psychology exactly right. Dostoevsky’s amazing for this because in one of his books, “The Devils,” for example, he describes a political scenario that’s not much different than the one we find ourselves in now. There are people who are possessed by rationalistic, utopian, atheistic ideas, and they’re very powerful. They gave rise to the Communist Revolution. I mean, they’re powerful ideas. His character, Stavrogin, also acts out the presupposition that human beings have no intrinsic nature and no intrinsic value. And it’s another brilliant investigation, and Dostoevsky prophecies — that’s what I would say — what will happen to a society if it goes down that road. And he was dead exactly accurate. It’s uncanny to read Dostoevsky’s “The Possessed” or the “The Devils” (depending on the translation), and then to read Alekandr Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago” because one is fiction and prophecy and the second is, hey, look, it turned out exactly the way that Dostoevsky said it would for exactly the same reasons. It’s quite remarkable.
So, the question is: Do you contend seriously with the idea that (a) there’s something cosmically constitutive about consciousness, and (b) that might well be considered divine, and (c) that is instantiated in every person. Then ask yourself if you’re not a criminal if you don’t act it out — and then ask yourself what that means. Is that reflective of a reality? Is it a metaphor? Maybe it’s a metaphor, a complex metaphor, that we have to use to organize our societies. It could well be, but even as a metaphor, it’s true enough so that we mess with it at our peril. And it also took people a very long time to figure out. This is Genesis 1.
You know, and I’m probably going to stop there because I believe it’s 9:30. And we didn’t even get to the first line.
Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. From 1993 to 1998 he served as assistant and then associate professor of psychology at Harvard. He is the international bestselling author of Maps of Meaning, 12 Rules For Life, and Beyond Order. You can now listen to or watch his popular lectures on DailyWire+.