Messages embedded in Genesis, and some questions

Please forgive me for this long blog, but I think you may find it interesting. My major essays come at the end. The first is regarding loss of innocence as exemplified in the episode with the fruit of the tree of knowledge. The second addresses the problem of parental favoritism as exemplified by the episode of Cain and Abel. These are essays I wrote in previous years. But first a bit of fresh material:

Some creationist nuances in Genesis 1.

I am neither a fundamentalist nor a literalist, and have no intention of taking up the cause of creationism. Having said this, there is a great deal more to Genesis than at first meets the eye, and careful textual scrutiny reveals layers and nuances that elevate it – even scientifically – way beyond the level of juvenile Bible stories.

The argument of literalists that the world was created in a mere six days as we understand the word ‘day’ (i.e. a 24 hour period that includes a full cycle of sunrise and sunset, day and night) is absurd. The word יום when used to divide the stages of creation does not even attempt to pass itself off as one of the daily calendar. Indeed our 24 hour day was not even created, nor was it even possible, until “day” (i.e. stage) four when “God made the two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night and to divide the light from the darkness.” (Gen 1:16) Hence it is clear that day as in “days of creation” means something else entirely. This is further emphasized in the Hebrew as the days of creation are referred to a simply יום whereas the daily cycle created in verse 1:16 is referred to as the day and the night (היום and הלילה)

This fifth day is perhaps the most fascinating one from a paleontological standpoint as it seems to tell us that dinosaurs were already extinct by the time mammals and humans were created on ‘day’ 6.

The conventional understanding of Verse 20 is “and let the waters swarm abundantly with moving creatures that have life, and let birds fly above the earth in the open firmament of the heaven”. I would like to suggest a different reading of this verse to whit: “and let the waters swarm abundantly with moving creatures that have life, and (as a result) the bird will fly above the earth in the open firmament of the heaven”. This is consistent with science which believes that all creatures emerged and evolved from the sea. And it is consistent with the Hebrew text as well
ישרצו המים שרץ נפש חיה ועוף יעפף על הארץ.

And now the fifth ‘day’ gets really interesting as G-d apparently rids the universe of dinosaurs. In verse 21 it states; “And God created the great crocodiles (i.e. dinosaurs) and every living creature that moves which the waters brought forth abundantly after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind; and God saw that it was good. (22) And God blessed them saying, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters and the seas, and let birds multiply in the earth.” Note that God’s blessing conspicuously excludes “the great crocodiles” whose sojourn on earth was apparently relatively brief, and limited to but a portion of “day” 5, a mere 165 million years, give or take a few.

It is only in “day” 6, the same segment in which man was created, that God first introduces animals as we know them (24-25) “And God made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and cattle after their kind, and everything that creeps on the earth after its kind; and God saw that it was good.”

An aside

In my comments on Parshat Emor I note how we understand the word לאמר as in וידבר ה’ אל משה לאמר as meaning ‘to quote verbatim’. Yet how do we know that it means verbatim, perhaps it is just a command to relay information in whichever words Moses chooses to do so? The answer is right here in Genesis.

When God rebukes Adam (2:17) for eating of the tree of knowledge He says “… which I commanded you,saying (לאמר) Thou shalt not eat of it (לא תאכלו ממנו). These are verbatim the words He used in 1:17: Thou shalt not eat of it (לא תאכלו ממנו). Hence we now know that לאמר has but one meaning – verbatim.

Regarding the Forbidden fruit

Two things are rather curious about the whole business of the tree of knowledge. For one thing God had only commanded the prohibition to Adam, as this took place prior to the creation of Eve. So how was she to know that the fruit was off limits? Furthermore, it is clear from the text that Adam was right there next to Eve when she was seduced by the serpent into eating the fruit. As it says (3:6) “And she took from his fruit and she ate, and she gave also to her husband with her.“ What prevented Adam from saying something right then and there? Can it be that the husband’s lacking a speaking part originated already back in Eden with original sin?

Two comments on Parshat Bereishit

  1. The Tree of Knowledge – Loss of Innocence
  2. Cain and Abel – A cautionary tale against parental favoritism

The Tree of Knowledge – loss of innocence

Whether one takes the story of the forbidden fruit literally or considers it legend and allegory, it merits serious attention, and would seem especially relevant to our times.

In Genesis 2:7 G-d tells Adam; “And of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil do not eat, for on the day you eat from it surely you will die.”

That Adam can understand that he is prohibited from eating the fruit of this tree makes sense. But surely he has no inherent comprehension of moral distinctions as the very idea of “good and evil” is beyond anyone who has not eaten of this tree. As well, Adam cannot understand the threat of dying, as death, too, is an unprecedented phenomenon the finality of which is beyond Adam’s apprehension.

When the serpent seduces Eve in Genesis 3:5 he tells her “On the day you eat from (the tree) and your eyes will be opened and you will become like God, knowers of good and evil.” Yet it isn’t this blandishment which prompts Eve to take her first bite, but rather because “The woman saw that the tree was appetizing, and appealing to the eyes “ (Genesis 3:6).

What is in fact happening here is a loss of innocence. As can, and does, happen with most children, the temptation to taste a forbidden fruit is overwhelming. Whether it is that first cigarette, the first time we cut class, the first raid of the parents’ liquor cabinet – curiosity is an overpowering seductress. And indeed that first cigarette can be a death sentence that is carried out decades later in a cancer ward. But this is hardly what concerns me.

It is worth noting that,logic notwithstanding, knowing the difference between good and evil does not result in eschewing evil. Quite the opposite. It enables us to do evil. It empowers us to distinguish right from wrong and to choose, almost without fail, that which is wrong.

Of much greater importance is what happens when this scenario is played out on a vastly grander scale. The history of an un-redeemed humankind and an unperfected world begins in Eden with the first capitulation to temptation. But how does it end? What must occur before a final redemption can take place, before the world and its relationship with the Creator can be healed to perfection?

Consider recent history.

Think of the Shoa as the ultimate example of eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

It began with temptation. The temptation to take Germany from the debasement of defeat to an erstwhile, primeval Teutonic glory. Achieving this inverted idea of a perfected world required an unprecedented violation of a core value shared, to a greater or lesser degree, by all of humankind: GENOCIDE.

Committing genocide was the ultimate bite into the apple of forbidden knowledge. With the entire world’s active or passive complicity, the Shoah was the cosmic loss of innocence. It taught the world the difference between good and evil as nothing before. And ever since the world has chosen evil. The Shoa proved that one can indeed get away with murder on the grandest scale and pay no penalty. And the message has been spreading and sinking in ever since.

If anything characterizes the post-Holocaust world it is the absolute loss of innocence. Not only have additional genocides taken place since then with impunity, but even the Jewish People are once again in the cross-hairs of genocidal ambitions while the world is largely indifferent if not hostile.

It didn’t happen overnight. Yet in retrospect we can see how this loss of innocence invaded and informs every corner of life, culture and human interaction.

Take art, for example. Consider today’s avant-garde installations or what passes for popular music. If there is a single common denominator it is loss of innocence.

Our children lose their innocence at an ever-earlier age. Sexual innocence is gone. Moral innocence is gone too, as we celebrate greed, forgive white collar criminals (if their thievery is on a sufficiently grand scale), ignore the most egregious behavior on the part of those we see as leaders – from slimy characters like Bill Clinton and Dominique Strauss-Kahn to Rabbi Pinto, Baba Baruch or our unlamented recent Ashkeanzi Chief Rabbi. No behavior is too outrageous, no movie too sick, no perversion of religion beyond the pale.

Ours is a generation weaned on black milk, on a loss of innocence unprecedented in the annals of history; nihilist, amoral, greedy, bloodthirsty. Worst of all, ours is a time in which the concept of morality is deployed only as an inversion of itself. Good is called evil, evil is called good. Black is white and white is black. Intelligent people – American university students for example (not to mention the overwhelming majority of European intellectuals) – can give a standing ovation to an Ahmedinejad while those same students will call for a boycott of the State of Israel. Would it have been possible for Hitler to get an ovation from American students in 1938? No, it would take a major bite out of the fruit of Tree of Knowledge to make that possible. Could the hip-hop lyrics that are now broadcast on ordinary radio have been conceivable before the Shoa? No way. Would a statue of the Virgin Mary encased in a box of urine been considered art before World War II?   One could go on forever.

So where do we go from here?

The answer is nowhere. The game is over. Pre-redemption history began with a whimper of loss of innocence as Eve bit into a beautiful fruit, and ended with its big bang as the world learned one can get away with mass murder.

Hopefully this means we’re are indeed on the threshold of Redemption. Because, if we aren’t. . .

 

Cain and Abel – A cautionary tale against parental favoritism

 

VehaAdam yada et Hava ishto, vatahar vateled et Kayin vatomer kaniti ish et-Ado-nai

“And Adam knew his woman Eve, and she conceived 
and gave birth to Cain and she said;’I have acquired 
a man with G-d’.”

(Genesis 4:1)

Most of us go through life with a child’s Bible story concept of the story of Cain and Abel. We recall that Cain brought an offering of vegetables, and according to the Midrash not especially good produce.  Abel, by contrast, sacrificed a nice fat sheep. G-d preferred Abel’s offering, resulting in Cain’s jealous fit – during which he murdered his younger brother.

Yet this is hardly the narrative one finds in Genesis.

After some time, Cain brought of the fruits of the earth an offering to G-d (4:3).

Able then copycats his older brother:

And Abel too brought from the first of his flock and of their fat, and G-d turned to Abel and his offering. (4:4)

Based just on these two verses, one can conclude two things:

  1. Cain, who as a farmer working the land was doing the kind of work that G-d had ordained man to do, took the initiative in terms of acknowledging G-d’s bounty. By contrast, Abel was a shepherd, a vocation that was not specified, and he then copied his elder brother’s initiative in bringing and offering to G-d.
  2. In a agrarian/vegetarian world, when consuming flesh was forbidden for all creatures, it was Abel who drew first blood by killing a sheep, while the agrarian Cain toed the line by bringing a strictly vegetarian offering.

Where did Abel get the idea that it was okay to kill a lamb, and that this would actually find favor in G-d’s eyes?

It appears Abel was not merely a copycat. He was a revolutionary, even a provocateur, who took it upon himself to violate convention and spill blood in order to appeal to the A-mighty.

Thus it is especially puzzling that G-d acknowledges Abel’s offering while ignoring that of Cain.

Not surprisingly, Cain is crestfallen: … And Cain was very upset, and his countenance fell. (5:5)

Yet, contrary to our childhood Bible story recollections, Cain did not immediately murder his younger brother.  Rather G-d only now notices Cain and his depressed mood:

And G-d said to Cain: ‘Why are you upest? And why is your expression so downcast? (4:6) If you pull yourself together won’t it be lifted up? And (but) if you do not improve then sin is sprawled in the doorway desiring you, but you can overcome it (4:7)

Verses 4 and 6 are cryptic to say the least. What motivation is G-d giving Cain to enable him to lift his spirits? If anything, G-d sounds like the classic authoritarian father, utterly insensitive to his unhappy child, telling him “Boy get a grip or things will only be worse for you”.

G-d offers  no explanation as to why Abel’s gift was acknowledged while Cain’s was ignored. He makes no attempt to lift Cain’s flagging spirit.

Cain, in his misery, and with no one else to turn to, reaches out to his brother Abel.

“And Cain spoke unto Abel his brother …” (4:8)

The big mystery here is what was the content of the brothers’ conversation. The Torah offers no clue. But clearly whatever it was, served as the straw that broke the camel’s back, pushing Cain over the top, from simple misery into outright fury.

“….And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him”. (4:8)

Now let us return for a moment to Genesis 4:1.  Eve was impregnated by Adam, but she views G-d as her true partner, Adam merely serving as a biological conduit.  Understandably, therefore, Cain (and most likely Abel) is raised to view G-d as his father. The relationship is filial in a very direct sense.

For whatever reason, G-d favors Abel.  Hence Cain attempts to win favor with his father – as every rejected child does – by presenting him with a gift.  Now favored child (Abel), noticing his sibling’s attempt to win a sign of love, goes for an end-run, cutting his brother off at the pass – thereby adding insult to injury when father, yet again, gives the cold shoulder to the rejected child while showering affection on the favorite. What’s more Abel has the nerve to break the rules by making a gift that violates normative behavior, knowing he can, and will, get away with it.

And then, in a final blow to the dejected son’s already battered ego, G-d as father tell Cain to get his act together, or else.

Hoping against hope for a word of sympathy from the favored brother, Cain approaches Abel.  We are not privy to the conversation. Yet, from the terrible outcome we can readily surmise that Abel did nothing to assuage his brother’s pain. If anything, it appears he may have poured salt on Cain’s wounds, resulting in the world’s first recorded case of fratricide.

What we have here, clearly, is a cautionary tale.  A demonstration of what happens when a callous parent plays favorites.  When a child in pain is given a dressing down rather than a warm embrace. When a favored child, knowing he can get away with anything, aggravates his siblings emotional wound.

It happens all the time.  The pattern is classic. And, while fratricide is rarely the outcome, there often ensues a lifetime of pain and estrangement, of being lost perpetually in the emotional wilderness of Nod.