Jordan Peterson turns to Genesis for lessons on civilization in peril

Peterson's search is for eternal values – virtues and themes that are “common across all human experience, across all time.”

JORDAN PETERSON: Psychology professor, rock star and considered by many to be this generation’s most important thinker. (photo credit: JONATHAN CASTELLINO)
JORDAN PETERSON: Psychology professor, rock star and considered by many to be this generation’s most important thinker.
(photo credit: JONATHAN CASTELLINO)
Jordan Peterson is often called a rock star. It is a title he flatly rejects.
“I am not a performance artist,” states the celebrated clinical psychologist, “I don’t have fans, I have people who are listening carefully to what I am saying.”
Peterson’s universal appeal is undeniable. His worldwide lecture tours routinely sell out and his bestseller 12 Rules for Life has been translated into more than 30 languages. Nearly three million followers subscribe to his YouTube channel, his lectures count a staggering 145 million views, and his podcast has been downloaded over 55,000,000 times.
The Toronto professor skyrocketed to fame in 2016, when he fiercely objected to Canada’s C-16 bill, which mandated the use of transgender pronouns. Peterson became the traditionalists’ hero and his name soon became synonymous with the anti-PC movement.
But Peterson’s narrative does not concern politics or current events. His search is for eternal values – virtues and themes that are “common across all human experience, across all time.”
It is a search that led him to the Bible, a book that “happened to motivate an entire culture for 2,000 years and transform the world,” a book that proved to be “more durable than stone, more durable than a castle... more durable than an empire.” With great curiosity Peterson sets out to unravel the psychological significance of biblical stories. Line by line he explores the seemingly simplistic Genesis tales and the actions of the characters operating within them, characters ingrained in Western culture and known the world over to atheists and believers alike.
Through the stories of Adam and Eve, Jacob’s ladder, Noah and the flood, Abraham and Isaac, Joseph and the coat of many colors, and Sodom and Gomorrah, we learn how the cornerstones of our civilization came to be. Moses’s story, for example, opens the window into how laws have been formed and the principle upon which our legal system is based. We realize that laws are essentially a codification of our behavior and morality.
Moses was “wandering around with the Israelites forever in the desert,” Peterson tells the attentive audience. “They’re going left and going right and worshiping idols and having a hell of a time... getting rebellious, and Moses goes up on the mountain and he has this tremendous revelation, sort of, in the sight of God, and it illuminates him and he comes down with the law.” Through mediating and trying to keep the peace, Moses considered what principles of peace would satisfy the people. Through God’s intervention he presented the Ten Commandments to the people to say, “Look, this is already basically what we’re doing but now it’s codified. That’s all a historical process that’s condensed into a single story,” says Peterson. “But obviously that happened, because we have written law” that emerged from the bottom up.
“English common law is exactly like that. It’s single decisions that are predicated on principles that are then articulated and made into the body of law.”
PETERSON’S BESTSELLER has been translated into over 30 languages including Korean and Hebrew. (Courtesy Penguin Random House)PETERSON’S BESTSELLER has been translated into over 30 languages including Korean and Hebrew. (Courtesy Penguin Random House)
LAW IS also touched on through the first chapters of Genesis, along with the idea that both male and female were made in the image of God.
“The notion that every single human being – regardless of their peculiarities, strangenesses, sins, crimes and all of that – has something Divine in them that needs to be regarded with respect, plays an integral role... in the creation of habitable order out of chaos.” It’s an idea that Peterson believes “sits at the base of our legal system.” We see how the archetypal Adam and Eve story “represents a situation we are always in.” Just like Adam and Eve, we humans live “in a walled garden,” explains Peterson, but there is always a snake. The garden is a place of “paradise, warmth, love and sustenance, but it’s also the place where something can pop up at any moment and knock you out of it.” Through Abraham, the father of nations who was ordered by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, we consider what sacrifice is. We realize how without sacrifice, modern civilization would not have come into being. It is our ability to envision ourselves in the future and the need to make a sacrifice in the present that allowed us to progress and thrive.
We follow Cain and Abel’s dramatic tale as they lead two different life paths. Abel pleases God while Cain becomes resentful and murderous. Through Peterson we see how Cain’s torment grows. God’s rejection of his sacrifices means that “his attempts to give up something valuable in the present to ensure prosperity in the future are insufficient,” and in consequence, he fails to prosper.
Every line is a passage to our past, loaded with illuminating insight into human psyche, behavior, evolution and even the origin of the text itself. The story of the Mesopotamian deity Marduk, for example, sheds light on what the Hebrew words tohu vavohu – typically translated as “unformed and void” – actually mean. Marduk, who had “eyes all the way around his head,” fought a deity called Tiamat. “We need to know that,” explains Peterson, “because the word ‘Tiamat’ is associated with the word ‘tehom.’ Tehom is the chaos that God makes order out of at the beginning of time in Genesis.” Peterson’s exploration of biblical stories is a journey filled with enlightenment and wonder.
More than 21 million people have tuned in and listened to Peterson’s gripping journey into the mysterious tales. We see the values and virtues upon which our entire civilization is founded, and the repercussions of neglecting them. We realize that values such as responsibility, humility, sacrifice, striving and courage have lasted for a reason, how they enabled the construction of our magnificent civilization, and the danger posed to our very existence if we lose them.
“The idea is to see if there’s something at the bottom of this amazing civilization that we’ve managed to structure, and that I think is in peril,” says Peterson. “Maybe if we understand it a little bit better we won’t be so prone just to throw the damn thing away.”