When I was in fourth grade I was much the same as I am now: a loudmouth who knew everything and therefore had to be taught by experience. I have tape recordings of me from just a little after this time that are better than a hair shirt. I sounded off about all sorts of things, and (full of insecurity) believed I was only worth receiving my daily oxygen supply if I could be the smartest guy in the room. Not that I actually was the smartest guy in the room. That honour went to Susan Haug, who always got the better grade and of whom I was fiercely jealous.
I wasn’t really especially smarter than anybody else. But since I was never going to win any awards in the looks or athletic competition departments, the need to at least think I was smarter was pretty much the only way I had to justify my existence. So I spent a lot of time with my hand in the air when questions were asked, like a hefty Hermione Granger with a crew cut. I was an insufferable child — excellent preparation for becoming an insufferable adult.
Now, I’m certain that somewhere, in some grade school book for Health class there is a chapter on Care for the Nose that I probably read at some point. I was interested in things medical and biological and enjoyed those “I Am Joe’s Liver/Foot/Heart/Brain/Insert Body Part Here” articles that used to run in Reader’s Digest. So my guess is that I must have read something somewhere about Why It is Unwise to Put Objects in Your Nose before fourth grade. I was, after all, an avid reader. I read a lot of Danny Dunn books. I read dinosaur books by the ton. I read Dr Doolittle and Hardy Boys mysteries. I read Boys’ Life. But somehow, for all my reading, I never got it in my head not to put things in my head.
So when the day came that Mr Vaughn, my fourth grade teacher, was explaining some boring math problem on the blackboard and a button worked loose on my shirt I, being the extremely smart guy I was, made the choice to put that button in my nose and nudge the guy next to me. He turned and looked at me with that, “What?” expression and I, with flair and panache, reached up and produced a button from my nose with a flourish. The guy laughed because, hey, I am an epically funny guy and I know how to pull a button from nose, amirite?
So, of course, being a genius, I did it again, inserting the button in my right nostril. My classmate nudged the guy next to him and pointed to me. With supreme confidence in my abilities, I inserted thumb and forefinger into my nostril …
… and shoved the button further in!
I broke into a sweat and swallowed hard. My skin went pale and clammy and my breathing became quick and shallow as my pulse raced. My eyes darted to my two classmates and they both started to giggle and quickly alert the rest of the class to my predicament. I would have felt embarrassed had I not been so frightened. What if the button got stuck up in there? What if they had to do some kind of surgery or something to get it out? Would they have to cut my nose open? Or stick some kind of probe up in there and poke my brain? I had no idea what might happen. And as these thoughts were racing through my mind, the news was rippling out across the classroom and all heads were turning to look at me.
I took a quick glance at Mr Vaughn, still droning on about the math problem. I looked around the room. Every face was turned toward me, smiling and giggling.
Finally, in desperation at the prospect that I might have to undergo an emergency nosectomy, I pressed my finger against my left nostril and blew out of my right nostril as hard as I could.
The button shot out, bounced off my desk and skittered across the floor. The whole class erupted in laughter and, my terror relieved, I was now finally capable of feeling shame and embarrassment. Mr Vaughn, who had just made some kind of joke turned look at the class with a smile, imagining they were laughing at him. He was the only one in the class who didn’t know I was an idiot.
Having that experience made me an expert on the virtues of not putting things in your nose. Since that time, small children and people of all ages have been the beneficiary of my hard-earned wisdom, now written here so that future generations can learn the easy way what fools learn the hard way.
Which brings me to the Old Testament. Atheist Christopher Hitchens didn’t seem to grasp why people might codify their hard-earned wisdom. He used to complain that it was silly to say that nobody knew murder was wrong until God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. And so it is, which is why nobody says things like that except for Christopher Hitchens.
That’s one of the points of Genesis. It does in story form what the law in Exodus does in legal form. All the stuff that gets codified in the law in Exodus is stuff Israel and its ancestors learned by hard experience in Genesis. Adam and Eve learn from hard experience not to have any gods beside God, starting with themselves. Ham learns that refusal to honour your father (even when he’s drunk) is bad. Cain lives out the consequences of killing his brother. The Patriarchs bear false witness against their brother Joseph and experience the consequences of their sin against him. Again and again Genesis demonstrates that there are, in the words of J Budziszewski “things we can’t not know.” There are fundamental aspects of the moral law written on the heart and known long before the Ten Commandments were given on Sinai. The long experience of Israel (and of being human) had taught the human race these things by experience long before God underscored them at Sinai.
So then why was the law given at Sinai? Not to inform Israel of something it did not know about murder, adultery, theft and bearing false witness, but to make clear to Israel the authority behind that law. You must not kill, lie, or steal because your neighbour and you are both made in the image and likeness of God and God is not the Force or some theory. He a personal God — the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. The law is not an abstraction. It is rooted first in you and your fathers’ in hard-won and bitter experience and second in God’s revelation. It has the ring of solidity because it comes from what you yourself learned: don’t kill, steal or put buttons up your nose because you yourself have seen the consequences.
But they are not consequences of living in a pitiless world of random accident. They are consequences of living in a world made by a God who has taken an intense and merciful interest in us. That’s why, despite all the bad and stupid things people do throughout Genesis, it somehow issues in something good as well. Adam and Eve are clothed by God and told Eve’s seed will crush the serpent. Abraham sins but God keeps his promise to bless all nations through him. Joseph is betrayed by his brothers, but through him God works their salvation from famine. As Joseph himself put it to his brothers, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20).
And some time later, in a very minor key, God likewise turns a brief act of stupidity by a fourth grader into an Important Life Lesson about not being the smartest guy in the room.
Both Israel and that kid not only wrote down those lessons for the sake of future generations, but also went on to learn more than either of them guessed about how much that God loved them, how much evil they were capable of doing, and how he could turn even that to good. But that’s another story, for another time. Meantime, you kids don’t put no buttons up your noses.