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+.
Let’s read the stories. The first one is about Abraham, Sarah, and Lot. “Now these are the generations of Terah. Terah begat Abram.” His name is Abram to begin with, and that actually turns out to be important. It’s not Abraham. “Nahor and Haran; and Haran begat Lot.” So Haran is Abram’s brother. “And Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his nativity, in Ur of the Chaldees. And Abram and Nahor took them wives: the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and the father of Iscah. But Sarai was barren; she had no child. And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran his son’s son, and Sarai her daughter in law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went forth with them from the Ur of Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan;” — that’s exile — “and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there. And the days of Terah were 205 years: and Terah died in Haran.”
There’s a reason that Sarai is introduced as barren, and it’s to set the stage. I think it was Anton Chekhov, who talked about the stage setting for a play, that if there was a rifle hanging on the wall, then it had better be used before, I believe, the second act or it shouldn’t be hanging there at all. So this is stage setting. Part of the reason that the Biblical writers are pointing out that Abram’s wife is barren is because it’s a real catastrophe for Abraham, and for Sarai as well, that she’s barren. It’s showing the trouble that Abram’s in at the beginning of the story. What happens as the story progresses is that Abraham and Sarah are eventually granted a son, but it’s way late in the story and they’re very, very old by the time it happens. Of course, you’re not going to be a father of nations without having a child, and so the writers are attempting to make the case that if you forthrightly pursue that which God directs you to pursue, let’s say, that all things are possible. That’s the idea and the narrative.
You might say that’s naive, and it’s not. You think it when you’re naive, and then you dispense with that idea. When you stop being the sort of person who dispenses with ideas, you come to another place, and that’s the place where you think you have no idea what might be possible for you if you got things together and pursued what you should pursue. You don’t know how much what’s impossible to you right now would become possible under those conditions. It’s an unknown phenomena. I’ve watched people who have put themselves together across time, incrementally and continually, and they become capable of things that are not only jaw-droppingly amazing, but also sometimes metaphysically impossible to understand. We don’t know the limits of human endeavor. We truly don’t. It’s premature to put a cap on what it is that we are, what it is that we’re capable of. You’re already something, and maybe you’re not so bad in your current configuration, but you might wonder if you did nothing for the next 30 years except put yourself together, just exactly what would you be able to do? You might think that’s worth finding out. But of course that’s the adoption of responsibility.
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I’ve been curious about this battle between meaning and nihilism. I could see for a long while the rationale in nihilism and the power of the nihilistic argument, but it occurred to me across time that the power of the nihilistic argument is more powerful than naive optimism. But it’s not more powerful than the optimism that is not naive because the optimism that is not naive says, it’s self-evident that the world is a place of suffering and that there are things to be done about that. And it’s self-evident that people are flawed and that there’s things to be done about that. Then the non-naive optimist says, the suffering could be reduced and the insufficiency could be overcome if people oriented themselves properly and did what they were capable of doing. I do not believe that’s deniable. I think that human potential is virtually limitless, and there’s nothing perhaps that’s beyond our grasp if we’re careful as individuals and as a society.
So I think that there’s no reason for nihilism, and there’s no reason for hopelessness, and there’s no reason to bow down before evil because we’re capable of so much more. You know that first because you’re not happy with who you are, and you’re ashamed and embarrassed about it — as you should be. You know it because if you look out there, you see people who are capable of doing great things. And you know that we’re not giving it our all. Still, we’re not doing so badly, and so you might wonder, if we devoted 90% of our effort to putting things right instead of 55% of our effort, or maybe even less than that, you might wonder just how well could things be put together. I think you can figure that out by starting with your room, by the way.
“And the Lord said unto Abram,” — and this is the opening of the story — “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee.” This is one of those phrases where every clause is significant. Go somewhere you don’t understand. That’s the first thing: “Get thee out of thy country.”
Back in the 1920s, there were a whole slew of American writers who ended up as expatriates in Paris — Hemingway among them, and Fitzgerald, then a variety of others. It was very inexpensive in Paris at the time. Part of their transformation into great literary figures was the fact that they were out of their country, and now they could see what their country was because you can’t see what your country is until you leave it. So you have to go into the unknown. That’s God’s first command. Go into the unknown. Because you already know what you know, and that’s not enough — unless you think you’re enough. If you’re not enough and you don’t think you’re enough, then you have to go where you haven’t been. That’s the first commandment to Abraham. That’s a good one. That makes perfect sense. Go to where you don’t know. Yes.
“And from thy kindred.” Well, what does that mean? It means grow up. That’s what it means. It means get away from your family enough so that you can establish your independence. That isn’t because there’s something wrong with your family, although perhaps there is, as there is perhaps wrong with you. But it means get away.
I talk to people very frequently whose families have provided them with too much protection, and they know it themselves. That means they’re deprived of necessity. One of the things that you see in the United States, for example, is that the children of first generation immigrants often do better than their children. The reason for that is that the children of first generation immigrants have necessity driving them. You don’t know how much you need necessity to drive you because maybe you’re not very disciplined. And if a catastrophe doesn’t immediately befall you, if you don’t act forthrightly today, then maybe you’ll never act forthrightly because the gap between your foolishness and the punishment is lengthened by your unearned wealth so you never grow up and learn. You have to get yourself away from your dependency in order to allow necessity to drive you forward. And that’s to become independent and to become mature.
I think part of what’s happening in our culture is that the force that’s attacking the forthright movement forward of young men in particular is afraid of the power of men because it’s confused about the distinction between power and authority and competence. A man who has authority and competence has power as a by-product — but authority and competence are everything. People who can’t understand that fail to make the distinction between power and authority of competence, and they’re afraid of power so they destroy authority and competence. That’s a terrible thing because we need authority and competence. What else is going to allow us to prevail in the long run? So you get away from your country and you get away from your kin and from your father’s house. You go out there and you establish yourself in the world. It’s a call to adventure. The first lines in the Abrahamic story are a call to adventure.
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+.
Juliette Fogra is a fine art painter and graphic designer and was trained as a classical musician. She was the illustrator of Dr. Jordan B. Peterson’s Beyond Order: 12 More Rules For Life.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.