Noah Review: A New Interpretive Spin Worth Watching

 

This past week, I watched the new movie Noah with considerable interest. The newest book of my Genesis commentary deals largely with the story of Noah and the moral questions raised by the Noah narrative. Naturally, whether a person writes a script or a commentary on a biblical story, Aronofsky’s film is an excellent midrashic exposition of an old familiar biblical story. The meaning of “midrash” is interpretation. Whenever we interpret a biblical narrative or law, our interpretations say more about us—the readers—than it does about the text itself. This point certainly applies to the new Noah movie that features the actor Russell Crow as Noah.

The movie seemed to borrow ideas from the Book of Enoch, which speaks about the fallen angels who came down to earth. However, contrary to Aronofsky’s portrayal that the fallen angels wanted to help humankind, God had warned the angels to keep their distance because they would lose their spiritual innocence and become more corrupt than the mortals these angels criticized. In effect, these supernatural beings caused the rapid deterioration of early man.

Like Monday morning quarterbacking, it is easy to criticize a team for failing to make the correct play of a contested football game. Hindsight is typically 20/20. According to the Book of Enoch, the Watchers found the earth girls, well—seductive. They fathered children who were the Greek equivalent of the demigods, whom Zeus and the deities of Olympus decided to wipe out through a flood! Although the Watchers wanted to improve the earth, they only made it worse. [1]

This is one example of how Aronofsky veered from the ancient Judaic literature that was written about the Flood almost 2000 years ago. Much of Aronfsky’s narrative depicted the sons of Noah as not having wives when the flood occurs. However, the biblical narrator flatly says that Noah’s sons were married before the Flood had occurred. By denying this detail, Aronfsky completely rewrites the story of Noah in a manner that is radically different and disingenuous. The movie Noah in some ways reminded me a little of Braveheart, Prophecy,  Transformers, Psycho, and the “Binding of Isaac.”

One more detail, Aronofsky and Russell Crowe like showing the audience that Noah really knows how to fight! Aronofsky also portrays Noah as wearing black leather pants and jackets; not only is such an image of Noah inconsistent with the idea that he was a vegetarian, leather pants were  not invented until the 8th century B.C.E., by the Persians. Aronofsky probably did not want to show a bunch of men fighting in togas or flowing robes.  We can certainly forgive him for that minor inaccuracy.

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is a postmodern reformatting of the biblical narrative we all grew to know as children. Yet, despite some of these criticisms, there is much to admire about the film.

The dramatic portrayal of Cain and Abel and its cascading images throughout recorded history was visually effective. The biblical writer of Noah probably would have shared Aronofsky’s disdain for urbanization and man’s lust for power. Some critics think Aronofsky attributes the flood to man giving up his vegetarian diet. Yet, even the rabbis suggest that the Seven Noahide Laws included a precept not to act cruelly toward animals—which was most likely a reaction to the antediluvian behavior of that generation.

The psychological transformation of Aronofsky’s Noah is remarkable. According to the biblical story, God became fed up with humankind and its penchant for violence. This thought is not expressly evident in the movie for God never really “speaks” to Noah, but communicates to him through dream imagery and visions.[2]

Aronofsky portrays Noah as a man who hated humanity because of their wickedness. This would explain why he refuses to aid Ham’s girlfriend because of his contempt for humanity. Yet, he is prepared to sacrifice his daughter-in-law, and her two baby girls who miraculously are born forty days after the flood subsides! (Now that’s a real miracle!) After the flood, Noah comes to a strange realization that God does not want the world to have human beings because of their violent ways. Yes, Aronofsky’s Noah sounds more like the Christian theologian Augustine who believed that man is incurably evil and is incapable of redeeming himself. Interestingly enough, Aronofsky  demonstrates why Noah did not ask God to save humankind. The reason is simple: he despises what human beings have become! This interpretation is certainly consistent with the rabbinical view that criticizes Noah for his lack of human concern for his fellow beings.

When Noah came out of the ark, he opened his eyes and saw the whole world completely destroyed. He began crying for the world and said: “Master of the Universe! You are called Compassionate, but You have shown compassion for Your Creation?” The Holy Blessed One be He replied, “Foolish shepherd! . . . I lingered with you and spoke to you at length so that you would ask for mercy for the world! But, as soon as you heard that you would be safe in the ark, the evil of the world did not touch your heart. You built the ark and saved yourself. Now that the world has been destroyed, you dare open your mouth to utter questions and pleas?! [3]

This part of the film seemed as though Aronofsky had recreated the Binding of Isaac and it is only the humanity of his wife who shows him the error of his ways. Despite himself, Noah eventually comes to see that God desires that we as humans redeem and save the world around us.

Does this have ecological relevance for today? Of course it does. Christian evangelicals ought to embrace this aspect of the Noah story. Regardless whatever one may feel about Aronofsky’s Noah, the writer succeeded in portraying Noah as an ecological hero, for indeed, he is—he single-handedly saves the world and himself as well.

If God could choose an imperfect person like Noah to make a difference in bettering and improving the world,  then there may be hope for the rest of us who are reading his story. Noah is an entertaining film; despite my reservations on some of the details of the film, I will give it 4 stars!

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Notes:

[1] In Book 1 of  Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C.E. – 17. C.E.) weaves an elaborate chain of tales pertaining to the creaturely and cosmic transformations. Like the thematic layout of Genesis, Ovid first begins his work narrating about the creation of the world, Ovid then transitions to how the council of gods decided to bring a great flood to destroy all life. There is a clear etiological purpose of both the biblical and the Metamorphoses narratives in defining how the present world has become what it is. In addition, both books contain numerous moral parables about the human condition. Ovid’s retelling of the Flood story differs in one very important respect from the Mesopotamian narratives. Like the Noah narrative, Ovid attributes the flood not to the gods’ caprice or insomnia, but to human corruption and evil.

[2] Parenthetically I must add that Maimonides probably would have  enjoyed this part of the film for he always maintained that God speaks to human beings through dream or visionary imagery.

[3] Zohar Hadash Noah, 29a

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RabbiMichael Leo Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted via michael.samuel@sdjewishworld.com
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Some Reflections on Isaac’s Near-Death Experience

 

Popular culture often adds its own midrashic spin to famous biblical stories. The episode known as the Akedah, “The Binding of Isaac” illustrates the harrowing chapter when Abraham almost saw his future go literally, “up in smoke.” Bob Dylan and Woody Allen both add a remarkable subtext to the story where Abraham nearly ritually slaughtered his son as a sacrifice to God.

Dylan sees a dark side to God’s behavior. In his song, Highway Sixty One Revisited, Dylan writes:

  • “Oh God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son.’ Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on.’ God say, ‘No.’ Abe say, ‘What?’ God say, ‘You can do what you want Abe, but the next time you see me comin’ you better run.’”

Some people experience God as a demonic being that is out to “get us,” if we fail to worship God properly. In the Midrashic imagination, God’s behavior in this instance is reminiscent of Job’s experience. Job, as you probably know, experienced God as an adversary. In fact, the name, “Iyob” means “enemy,” and the identity of this “enemy” remains an enigma throughout this particular biblical book.

Woody Allen offers a neo-Kantian approach to the Akedah story. Like Kant, Allen contends that Abraham actually fails the test.

  • God: “I jokingly suggest you to sacrifice Isaac and you immediately run out to do it.” And Abraham fell to his knees, “See, I never know when you’re kidding.” And the Lord thundered, “No sense of humor. I can’t believe it.” “But does this not prove I love you, that I was willing to donate mine only son on your whim?” And the Lord said, “No, Abraham, that doesn’t prove anything at all. All it proves that lunatics and fanatics will follow any order no matter how asinine, as long as it comes from a resonant and well-modulated voice.”

Woody Allen’s interpretation is one that even some Hassidic Rebbes have embraced. Emil Fackenheim, one of the greatest  Jewish theologians of the Holocaust, recalls the following story told to him by a Hasid:

  • A Hasid once called me: “I want to see you.” I asked, “Why?” He said, “I have something to teach you. So he showed up, about 25 years old, in his black garb and payot [side curls]. What I remember was his question: “Did it ever occur to you that the God who asks Abraham to do the Akeda [binding of Isaac] as a sacrifice, sends an angel to stop it?” And he said, ‘God was fed up with Abraham: when he asked him to sacrifice his son ‑‑ that was the test ‑‑‑ He wanted Abraham to say NO!” [The Hasid might have been surprised to know that Immanuel Kant made the same observation over 2 centuries ago!]

Yes, the story of the Akedah creates cognitive dissonance in us.

How do we differentiate between the voice of God and the voice that mimics and parodies God, but is in reality, the voice of cruelty and evil?

If one examines Midrash Rabbah on the Akedah, the Sages intimated that Satan is the one who instigated this ordeal for Abraham. In symbolical and psychological terms, Abraham’s test consists of differentiating between the true voice of God and the voice that parodies God (Satan).

I believe that the Midrash offers a profound insight.

The Akedah teaches us that there are two types of religiosity. One is authentic and life affirming, the other type of religiosity is a cheap imitation because it doesn’t inspire people to live in accordance with Judaism’s highest principles.

Discerning God’s voice isn’t too hard, for any God who would demand that we sacrifice our children, is hardly worthy of our love or our devotion. God did not want Abraham to kill Isaac ‑‑ He wanted Abraham to just say NO! The prophet Jeremiah makes this point abundantly clear in his condemnation of Molech worship, which had taken root in ancient Israel:

  • Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the shrines of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind. Therefore the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Tophet, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter (Jer. 19:4-6).

The Talmud adds an important interpretation of the above Scriptural text:

And it is further written, “which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind.” —   This refers to the sacrifice of the son of Mesha, the king of Moab, as it is said, “Then he took his firstborn son who was to succeed him, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall” (2 Kings 3:27) –  This portion of the verse refers to the daughter of Jephthah. (Judg. 11:13) “nor did it enter my mind”  —  This refers to the sacrifice of Isaac, the son of Abraham.[1]

Unfortunately, we have witnessed the horrors of 9/11 and countless acts of terrorism in the world where parents send their children to maim and destroy in the Name of God. Too often, religious people use God to justify every conceivable evil.

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook once said that a great amount of the world’s suffering is because people have a confused conception of God. As religious people, we must make sure that our thoughts of God are clean and free from the dross of deceptive fantasies that are based on human inadequacies.  Faith in God must enhance human happiness and promote a  reverence for life. Continue reading “Some Reflections on Isaac’s Near-Death Experience”

How We Won the Cosmic Lottery

SWAP View of Sun space wallpaper

When I read about the sun’s magnetic field reversing its polarity within the next several months, part of me felt a little nervous. How will the sun’s changes affect the earth? Does this mean that our earthly days are numbered? Actually, astronomers and meteorologists have indicated that we have little to worry.

The sun’s shift in polarity will not lead to more solar storms or other events that might spell doom and gloom for the residents of earth. Such an event occurs every eleven years—and given what we have seen in the past, we are still here—alive and well.

The change in polarity may actually have some positive benefits for all us. For one thing, the shift in the sun’s magnetic field will make our planet’s radiation belt more effective as a barrier against dangerous cosmic rays emanating from distant galaxies.

Not bad, no?

In practical terms, the earth’s storms should be less intense since the lightning storms will diminish comparatively.

At any rate, the changes in our sun’s magnetic field illustrate just how finely attuned the universe is calibrated to enhance life on this planet.

In spiritual terms, we may say that God carefully preordained the movement of the heavenly bodies in the cosmos. Had the Earth been closer to the sun or larger than it presently became, the sun’s rays would have incinerated the earth. Had the earth been just slightly farther away from the sun than its present orbit, life on our planet would have frozen. Had the earth’s circular orbit (with a 3% variance) been like the elliptical orbit of the planet Mars, which varies by 42 million kilometers in its distance from the sun, the earth would incinerate annually once it came closest to the sun. Nothing is fortuitous about the Earth’s orbit. Bar-Ilan University physicist Nathan Aviezer observes how fortunate this planet was in the cosmological scheme of the universe:

  • Our planet Earth is very hospitable to life, abundant with air and water essential to life. Our neighbors Mars and Venus, however, have no water or air. Yet shortly after they were formed about 4.6 billion years ago, all three planets (Earth, Mars, and Venus) had comparable amounts of surface water. In fact, the deep channels that are observed today on the surface of Mars were carved out long ago by the copious, fast-flowing Martian primordial surface waters. Venus was once covered by deep oceans which contained the equivalent of a layer of water 3 kilometers deep over the entire surface of the planet. Why, then, are the two planets so completely different today?
  • The difference in the subsequent development of Mars and Venus was due to their proximity to the Sun. Mars is somewhat more distant from the Sun than the Earth. This caused the temperature of Mars to drop in the course of time. Eventually, Mars became so cold that all its surface water froze, and as a result, the planet Mars has become completely devoid of all liquid water, thus preventing the existence of life as we know it on that planet. Venus, on the other hand, is somewhat closer to the Sun than the Earth, which caused it to gradually become hotter. As a result, Venus became so intensely hot, all its oceans and seas completely evaporated and then decomposed into hydrogen gas and oxygen gas, both of which later dissipated. Why did the Earth escape these catastrophes?
  • The answer is that the Earth escaped these catastrophes by sheer accident! The Earth just happened to be sufficiently distant from the Sun that the runaway greenhouse effect did not occur and therefore all our surface water neither evaporated nor decomposed. Moreover, the Earth just happened to be sufficiently near the Sun that it remained warm enough to prevent all the oceans from freezing permanently into ice caps. Therefore, the Earth alone, of all the planets of the solar system, is capable of supporting life. This balance in the carbonate‑silicate geochemical cycle is so delicate that if the Earth were only a few percent closer to or further from the Sun, the possibility for life could not exist. This enigmatic situation has become known among scientists as the “Goldilocks problem of climatology.”[1]

The recent discovery of extrasolar planets orbiting other nearby stars, has given us a new appreciation as to the perfect conditions that exist on this planet, which produce life. One interesting planet, classified as Upsilon Andromeda b, orbits a star that is approximately 40 light-years away in the constellation Andromeda. It is a Jupiter-sized planet that circles closely around its scorching star every 4.6 days—is a world composed of fire and ice. Some planets float eerily through space with heat sources that someday may produce a new solar system, while others orbit pulsar stars, which emit such powerful bursts of energy—life as we know it would prove impossible. Paul Davies refers to our world as hitting the “cosmic jack-pot,” and argues that the “cosmos” appears to have played a “conscious” role in the formation of life, and continues to play a pivotal role in the evolution of the cosmos.

 


[1] Nathan Aviezer, In The Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1990), 37.

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Isaac’s Spiritual Initiation as a Biblical Patriarch (new)

 

Popular culture often adds its own midrashic spin to famous biblical stories. The episode known as the Akedah, “The Binding of Isaac” illustrates the harrowing chapter when Abraham almost saw his future go literally, “up in smoke.” Bob Dylan and Woody Allen both add a remarkable subtext to the story where Abraham nearly ritually slaughtered his son as a sacrifice to God.

Dylan sees a dark side to God’s behavior. In his song, Highway Sixty One Revisited, Dylan writes:

  • “Oh God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son.’ Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on.’ God say, ‘No.’ Abe say, ‘What?’ God say, ‘You can do what you want Abe, but the next time you see me comin’ you better run.’”

Some people experience God as a demonic being that is out to “get us,” if we fail to worship God properly. In the Midrashic imagination, God’s behavior in this instance is reminiscent of Job’s experience. Job, as you probably know, experienced God as an adversary. In fact, the name, “Iyob” means “enemy,” and the identity of this “enemy” remains an enigma throughout this particular biblical book.

Woody Allen offers a neo-Kantian approach to the Akedah story. Like Kant, Allen contends that Abraham actually fails the test.                                       

  • God: “I jokingly suggest you to sacrifice Isaac and you immediately run out to do it.” And Abraham fell to his knees, “See, I never know when you’re kidding.” And the Lord thundered, “No sense of humor. I can’t believe it.” “But does this not prove I love you, that I was willing to donate mine only son on your whim?” And the Lord said, “No, Abraham, that doesn’t prove anything at all. All it proves that lunatics and fanatics will follow any order no matter how asinine, as long as it comes from a resonant and well-modulated voice.”

Woody Allen’s interpretation is one that even some Hassidic Rebbes have embraced. Emil Fackenheim, one of the greatest  Jewish theologians of the Holocaust, recalls the following story told to him by a Hasid:

  • A Hasid once called me: “I want to see you.” I asked, “Why?” He said, “I have something to teach you. So he showed up, about 25 years old, in his black garb and payot [side curls]. What I remember was his question: “Did it ever occur to you that the God who asks Abraham to do the Akeda [binding of Isaac] as a sacrifice, sends an angel to stop it?” And he said, ‘God was fed up with Abraham: when he asked him to sacrifice his son ‑‑ that was the test ‑‑‑ He wanted Abraham to say NO!” [The Hasid might have been surprised to know that Immanuel Kant made the same observation over 2 centuries ago!]

Yes, the story of the Akedah creates cognitive dissonance in us.

How do we differentiate between the voice of God and the voice that mimics and parodies God, but is in reality, the voice of cruelty and evil?

If one examines Midrash Rabbah on the Akedah, the Sages intimated that Satan is the one who instigated this ordeal for Abraham. In symbolical and psychological terms, Abraham’s test consists of differentiating between the true voice of God and the voice that parodies God (Satan).

I believe that the Midrash offers a profound insight.

The Akedah teaches us that there are two types of religiosity. One is authentic and life affirming, the other type of religiosity is a cheap imitation because it doesn’t inspire people to live in accordance with Judaism’s highest principles.

Discerning God’s voice isn’t too hard, for any God who would demand that we sacrifice our children, is hardly worthy of our love or our devotion. God did not want Abraham to kill Isaac ‑‑ He wanted Abraham to just say NO! The prophet Jeremiah makes this point abundantly clear in his condemnation of Molech worship, which had taken root in ancient Israel:

  • Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the shrines of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind. Therefore the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Tophet, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter (Jer. 19:4-6).

The Talmud adds an important interpretation of the above Scriptural text:

And it is further written, “which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind.” —   This refers to the sacrifice of the son of Mesha, the king of Moab, as it is said, “Then he took his firstborn son who was to succeed him, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall” (2 Kings 3:27) –  This portion of the verse refers to the daughter of Jephthah. (Judg. 11:13) “nor did it enter my mind”  —  This refers to the sacrifice of Isaac, the son of Abraham.[1]

Unfortunately, we have witnessed the horrors of 9/11 and countless acts of terrorism in the world where parents send their children to maim and destroy in the Name of God. Too often, religious people use God to justify every conceivable evil.

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook once said that a great amount of the world’s suffering is because people have a confused conception of God. As religious people, we must make sure that our thoughts of God are clean and free from the dross of deceptive fantasies that are based on human inadequacies.  Faith in God must enhance human happiness and promote a  reverence for life. Continue reading “Isaac’s Spiritual Initiation as a Biblical Patriarch (new)”

BP, the Bible, and the Butterfly Effect

Over the years I have noticed that when it comes to the recitation of the Shema prayer, most Jews readily chant the first paragraph of the Shema with enthusiasm. The first paragraph reads:

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.  Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates (Deut. 6:4-9).

The recitation of the second and third paragraph of the Shema  generally fails to inspire the same kind of enthusiasm. Here is the passage in question:

“If, then, you truly heed my commandments which I enjoin on you today, loving and serving the LORD, your God, with all your heart and all your soul, I will give the seasonal rain to your land, the early rain and the late rain, that you may have your grain, wine and oil to gather in; and I will bring forth grass in your fields for your animals. Thus you may eat your fill. But be careful lest your heart be so lured away that you serve other gods and worship them. For then the wrath of the LORD will flare up against you and he will close up the heavens, so that no rain will fall, and the soil will not yield its crops, and you will soon perish from the good land he is giving you. “Therefore, take these words of mine into your heart and soul. Bind them at your wrist as a sign, and let them be a pendant on your forehead. Teach them to your children, speaking of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. And write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates, so that, as long as the heavens are above the earth, you and your children may live on in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers he would give them” (Deut. 11:13-21).

Simply put, actions matter. Actions have consequences. Moderns might feel uncomfortable with the carrot-and-stick approach of Deuteronomy, but its message is still compelling.

Our scientific age is certainly far more sophisticated than anything the ancients might have imagined, yet the meaning of the second paragraph of the Shema conveys an idea that is surprisingly modern and contemporary.

An ecological appreciation of the world reveals that all lifeforms are interconnected. The old paradigm of Newtonian and Cartesian physics conceived of the world through the metaphor of the clock. The universe was once seen as  a set of simple systems resembling a well-tuned ticking pendulum. These systems, if disturbed, may malfunction if their behavior is veers from normalcy. Their movements seemed predictable and manageable in its very nature.

Now we have discovered that there are in a manner of speaking, clocks within clocks–exponentiated. The inner workings of our world are so  exquisitely sensitive to circumstance that even the smallest disturbance produces large and ever-growing changes in their behavior that are difficult to fully calculate.

The meteorologist Ed Lorenz observed while studying  the earth’s weather systems that the smallest variation in the input to his equations produced exponentiatingly large deviations in the behavior of his solutions.  He referred to this cascade of changes as the “butterfly effect.”  Thus, a butterfly stirring the air with its wings in the African jungle today will generate consequences for the storm systems affecting Boston within three weeks. Since our knowledge about African butterflies is limited, detailed long-term weather forecasting will prove to be difficult to anticipate–but the effects are nevertheless in a perpetual state of causality. (By the way, this same kind movement can also be applied with respect to economics, as seen this past year’s gyrations of the stock market.)

Actions matter–and what applies to the realm of natural events especially applies to the moral events we as individuals make. With the recent BP oil spill disaster, we can see an ecological impact that effects not just the Gulf region, but ultimately the lifeforms of the entire planet! Continue reading “BP, the Bible, and the Butterfly Effect”

The Eternal Question: “Where art thou?” (Gen. 3:9)

In one of the most famous Hassidic stories of the 19th century, Martin Buber relates an anecdote about Rabbi Sheneir Zalman of Liadi, who was imprisoned on grounds of treason by the Russian government. In the exchange between the saintly rabbi and his interrogator, both of these men have a most remarkable encounter.

The old rabbi was once put in jail because the Mitnagdim (defenders of the status quo) had denounced his principles and way of living to the government. He was arrested and sent to St. Petersburg to stand trial for treason. The old rabbi stood accused of sending monies abroad to Israel, which was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, an enemy of Russia. As the very pious man stood in jail, he was very engrossed in meditation. He had hardly noticed the visitor, who happened to be a high-ranking official in the Russian government. He asked the Rebbe, “I have a question on the Bible, and would be most grateful to you if you could give me an adequate answer.”

The Rebbe said to him: “Ask whatever you would like, and with God’s help, I hope to be able to answer your problem.” “How are we to understand that God, the All-Knowing, said to Adam: ‘Where art thou?’ (after he ate the fruit and hid with Eve).” The Rebbe asked, “Do you believe that the Scriptures are eternal and forever relevant in any time and in any place?” The official said that he did.

The Rebbe replied: “The Torah tells us: ‘And God called to the Man [Adam]’ (Gen. 3:9). This teaches us that God speaks to every individual and asks him, ‘Where are you—i.e., where do you stand in relationship to this world?’ God has allotted each of us a certain number of days and years, each of which is to be utilized for the doing of good in relation to both God and humankind. Therefore, ask yourself: How many days have you lived already and how much good have you accomplished during that time? You, for instance, have lived already 46 years, how did you use your time?” The official was deeply amazed and thrilled by the fact that the Rebbe had guessed his right age and put his hand on the prisoner’s shoulder, while nervously exclaiming: “Bravo!”[1]

Martin Buber developed existential insights intimated by this question, “Where art thou?”  In mythic terms, God’s conversation occurs whenever human beings create the space to encounter and hear the Word of God unfold within the human heart. This broad theological message applies to all human beings of all ages.

In ancient times, the prophets and later the Essenes resided in the wilderness where they could be more receptive to God’s Presence. The Early Church Fathers built monasteries in the wilderness to help them develop their sense of the Sacred. In the 18th-19th centuries, R. Israel Eliezer, a.k.a., the Baal Shem Tov and his grandson, R.  Nachman of Bratzlav, along with others recommended that worshippers find God in the uninhabited areas apart from civilization. In the stillness of the forest or in the fields one can discover the Presence of God that reaches out and inspires the soul.

In terms of Israel’s development of faith, the wilderness experience taught the ancient Israelites that “human beings live not on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deut. 9:4). The miracle of the manna taught the Israelites that God is capable of nourishing and guiding a people despite external circumstances and conditions. For the hungry and starving Israelites, the manna represented God’s mastery over the primordial forces of chaos—God’s ability to provide—even in the most hostile and uninhabitable environment. Manna could not be hoarded by the wealthy and used to exploit the impoverished members of society. There were no class distinctions; nobody had to qualify for sustenance. Each person was provided with exactly what s/he needed, not more or less (even Marx might have been impressed). Most importantly, the manna taught ancient Israel that sustenance came to the Israelites in marvelous and unexpected ways.  From hunger to fullness, from scarcity to abundance, Israel learned that her destiny is not dependent upon natural forces. Manna is God’s reminder that all food is God’s gift to the world—from the most extravagant banquet to the smallest portion of bread. Continue reading “The Eternal Question: “Where art thou?” (Gen. 3:9)”

Prof. Warren Zev Harvey endorses the new Genesis commentary

“A fascinating, learned, and wide-ranging commentary that creatively blends the  insights of ancients, medievals, moderns, and post-moderns.”
Prof. Warren Zev Harvey, [Chair, Department of Jewish Thought], The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Newest Endorsement of the “Birth and Rebirth Through Genesis” commentary

Hello everyone!

Professor Allan C. Emery is a Harvard graduate (Class of 1999), as well as the Senior Editor of Hendrickson Publishers.  Allan was gracious enough to write an endorsement for my new commentary on Genesis, which will be available to purchase by the end of February of 2010. The book will be about 530 pages. Due to the time constraints of Hendrickson Publishers, the proposed book could not be published within the next 2-3 years, so I decided to go with Llumina Press instead as my publisher.

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A few reflections on Rabbi Michael L. Samuel’s Birth and Rebirth Through Genesis: A Timeless Theological Conversation (Genesis 1–3)

It is a brave soul who will devote the time, study, and effort to devote a full-length book to exploring just three chapters of the Hebrew Scriptures. As senior editor at a publishing house devoted to the subject of Biblical Studies, I am fully aware of this reality. But Rabbi Samuel has done just that and in doing so has brought forth a marvelous theological reflection on the opening chapters of Genesis. The first portion of the book is devoted to a discussion of the foundations of how best to understand and benefit from the study of Genesis 1–3 using imagination, the understandings of past theologians and philosophers, all the while taking advantage of the benefits of a postmodern approach to this ancient text. The second portion of the book is given to a phrase-by-phrase translation of the Hebrew and discussions as to various appropriate interpretations of these Hebrew texts. The third section, almost half of the entire book, provides thirty fascinating theological reflections on the contribution of these three chapters to matters of modern interpretive interest. These include such diverse issues as “The Nature of Biblical Interpretation,” “Romantic Theology: Creation Flows from Love,” “Time, Creation, and Theology,” “A Theological View of Evolution,” “Examining the Biblical Concept of ‘Dominion’,” “The Meaning of Clinging,” “The Serpent as a Psychological Metaphor,” and “Why Did God Create Evil? A Parable of the Zohar,” to name fewer than a quarter of them.

All this said, there is little question that both in Jewish and Christian theological circles, the opening conversation of the Scriptures and of the Pentateuch itself is understood by many scholars to be pivotal to theological reflection on the whole of revelation. Issues related to the place of humanity within the cosmos with its ecological implications, issues dealing with the present state of humankind with respect to various moral issues related to how we deal with one another, and serious thought about the proper way to approach all theological reflection, spring from these seminal chapters. The importance of these opening chapters of the Pentateuch has been understood by both Jewish and Christian interpreters of the Scriptures for most of two millennia. And Rabbi Samuels draws from the rich resources of their thinking throughout his own work with a genuine appreciation for what each tradition has brought to the fore.

While this is a book written by a rabbi well-versed in the rabbinic tradition, one cannot read more than a few pages to discover that his research, his interests, and his appreciation of critical thought span the centuries of both Jewish thought and Christian, while encompassing the best of the non-faith-bound philosophers of these same millennia. Buber, Kohen, Kung, Derrida, and many, many others all have something to contribute to the discussion of these three brief chapters and Rabbi Samuel is fearless in drawing on their works and their thinking in order to provoke his reader to leap beyond the well-worn paths of the past.

I am aware that this book is but an opening salvo of a larger work encompassing the whole of the Pentateuch. We look forward to hearing more from Rabbi Samuels in the years ahead.

Allan C. Emery III, PhD

December 10, 2009

Did Cain Repent?

Genesis 4:13: וַיֹּאמֶר קַיִן אֶל־יְהוָה גָּדוֹל עֲוֹנִי מִנְּשֹׂא –Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear!”

This statement is a direct response to the punishment God had just given him! It doesn’t occur to him that he is deserving of death! Instead, he complains about losing his livelihood and having to wander. Ultimately Cain builds a city rather than accepting his punishment in defiance of God’s judgment. Like his father Adam, Cain refuses to take responsibility for his actions. Someone else is always to blame; whether it was God or his brother, he is not responsible. There is a fair consensus among the commentators who think that Cain does not express contrition over what he did; Cain worries only about the severity of his retribution.

However, an older rabbinic interpretive tradition suggests that Cain is well aware of the enormity of his sin and realizes there was nothing he could do to ever be forgiven. Cain cannot escape the memories of murdering his brother in cold blood.

One Midrashic text adds a most remarkable subtext to the dialogue that took place between Adam and Cain after the death of Abel. Adam wishes to know what transpired between Cain and God. Cain tells his father: “‘I repented and am reconciled,’ replied he. Suddenly Adam began beating his face, crying, ‘How awesome is the power of repentance, and I did not know! Then he [Adam] arose and exclaimed, ‘A Psalm, a song for the Sabbath day: It is a good thing to make confession unto the LORD’ (Ps. 92:2-3).”

When Did Adam First “Know” Eve?

Rashi is of the opinion that Eve’s pregnancy occurred before Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden,[1] since the verb for “know” יָדַע (yāda‘) is written in the pluperfect, signifying that Adam had known Eve just as he always “knew” her—before the “Fall.”[2] Had they not procreated in the garden, Adam and Eve would never have been able to observe the first of God’s commands, “Be fruitful and multiply.”

The Torah purposely utilized a euphemism of “knowing” rather than using a more vulgar expression like וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ — “and he fornicated her” as in Genesis 34:2. Ramban asserts that יָדַע in this case means more than just intellectually knowing; יָדַע denotes “to know personally by way of experience.”[3] In other words, Adam did not “know” Eve in a casual manner, he knew his wife intimately as a life partner and friend.

Mark Twain, in his short but moving essay “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” echoes Ramban’s point and in some ways goes far beyond his Kabbalistic insight. The author takes a midrashic position that, while Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, they were–for all practical purposes–strangers in Paradise. It was only after their expulsion from the Garden that they grew to love one another. Twain has Eve saying:

It is my prayer, it is my longing, that we may pass from this life together–a longing which shall never perish from the earth, but shall have place in the heart of every wife that loves, until the end of time; and it shall be called by my name. But if one of us must go first, it is my prayer that it shall be I; for he is strong, I am weak, I am not so necessary to him as he is to me‑‑life without him would not be life; how could I endure it? This prayer is also immortal, and will not cease from being offered up while my race continues. I am the first wife; and in the last wife I shall be repeated.

clouds

At Eve’s Grave:

Adam: Wherever she was, there was Eden.[6]

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Footnotes:

[1] In fact, Rashi goes one step further and argues based on the Talmud (from T.B. Sanhedrin 38b) that their children were actually born before the expulsion! It is obvious that this interpretation was championed by the rabbis as part of their polemic against the Christian doctrine in “Original Sin”. Indeed, there is nothing in the text that would indicate that the children were born before the “Fall”; it is evident from the text that they must have been born afterward. Kimchi differs with this interpretation, and he sees the pregnancy as a result of the “Fall,” for it was afterward that the desire for human sexuality was born. Ibn Ezra concurs, observing that it was only after the “Fall” that Adam realized that he was not going to live forever, so he and his wife co-created life together. There is no linguistic or textual evidence from the phrase וְהָאָדָם יָדַע אֶת־חַוָּה that Adam never had sexual intimacy until after the expulsion from Eden. Cf. Maharsha’s notes on T.B. Yebamolth 18b.

[2] For the Early Church Fathers, the rabbinic analysis went against their theological belief that all of Adam and Eve’s children were born in a state of sin. They contended that if Adam had begotten children in a state of innocence, they would have been free from sin. This argument is not very convincing. God created human sexuality before the expulsion for good reason, for without sex, the human race would have becomes extinct soon after it was created.

[3] Igereth HaKodesh, c. 2.

[4] Gen. 19:5; Num. 31:17–18; Judg. 19:22.

[5]If we expand Ramban’s midrashic observation, we might also suggest that there are other nuances of (yāda`) that are lexically worth considering. Often when we speak of God “knowing,” as an euphemism for looking after a person one cares for (cf. 2 Sam. 7:20; Nah. 1:7; Ps. 144:3). This idea could fit here as well—i.e., as a result of Adam’s looking after Eve, he came to discover her as a person, and loved her. “Knowing” is sometimes used as a synonym for “revelation,” (Exod. 6:3). This idea would suggest that while the primal couple was in the garden, there was no intimacy and revelation of the Other. As a result of the expulsion, they discovered one another in love.

[6] “The Diary of Eve” reprinted in “The Diaries of Adam and Eve,” (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000), 195-199.