The Purpose of Humanity: Parshat Bereishit

The story of the creation of humanity, as presented in the opening verses of Genesis, is luminous and profound. Its profundity is sometimes overshadowed by cryptic elements, by the Torah's concise and understated manner of expression (by our standards), and by inherited cliches about its meaning. Studying the comments of the meforshim (traditional exegetes) goes along away to cure us of our assumptions, mistaken familiarity and inattention to subtle detail. For me another great curative has been the study of other near eastern creation narratives, as anthologized and/or discussed in such books as “Old Testament Parallels” (Matthews and Benjamin), “Created Equal” (Joshua Berman) and “Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament” (Walton). Below I'll take a look at one aspect of the narrative of the creation of The human being from this perspective.

 

Why Was Humanity Created?

 

We are fortunate to possess records of the creation of humanity as conceived in the Egyptian Hymn to Atum (2500-2100 BCE in origin though our version dates from 400 BCE); the Enuma Elish cycle (compiled in Mesopatamia 1100 BCE from Sumerian and Amorite sources in order to glorify the rulers of Babylon, the Mesopotamian capital); and the Atrahasis Cycle (18th century BCE; Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian). The Genesis stories date from as old as 2300 BCE-1400 BCE and were likely written down in their current form around 400 BCE (these dates are hotly contested, of course).

My contention is that the narrative of anthrogenesis in Bereishit is a remarkably humanistic one (it is also remarkably earth-positive, or nature affirming, but that's a subject for another time). According to Genesis 1:26: “And Elokim said, “Let us make the human in our image, as our likeness. They shall rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, over the animals, the whole earth, and every thing that creeps upon it. And Elokim created the human in his image; in the image of Elokim he created them; male and female he created them. Elokim blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and rule…And Elokim saw all that he had made, and behold! It was very good.”

Later on we read (Genesis 2:7; 15): “Hashem Elokim formed the human of soil from the earth, and blew into his nostrils a living soul, and the man became a living soul. Hashem Elokim planted a garden in Eden, to the east, and place there the human he had formed….Hashem Elokim took the human and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to serve it/work it (l'avodah) and to look after it (l'shomrah).”

The vision here is of the human as a being independent from God, created to “rule the earth” and to tend and take care of God's garden. The strong implication here is that the human is created for its own sake. God does not say, “I will make me a servant”, or “one to glorify me”, or even “one to know me” (later Jewish and non-Jewish theistic traditions often envision God's purpose as one of these). The later Jewish idea that God created “because he needed to have someone to give to” comes closest to the vision of Edenic life. The Human is created for no other purpose then to enjoy the nourishment and beauty of God's creation, to grow in numbers (be fruitful and multiply) and exercise a benevolent sovereignty (“serve and look after”). In a sense the human is created as an ideal benevolent King below, ruling by the decree, grace, and beneficience of the true Ruler above.

The vision of Genesis, and its radical implications, are highlighted by comparison with other Near Eastern creation myths. Whereas Genesis pictures the human being as formed of earth and divine breath, the Hymn to Atum takes a much more existentialist position. Says Atum (after masturbating into his own mouth and spitting and sneezing out gods):

“I wept, and human beings arose from my tears….”

Surely we can hear the hardships and arbitrariness of poor Agrarian life in this Egyptian hymn (especially in a totalitarian state where most of the populace were worker-slaves). The hymn to Atum doesn't state a purpose for human life. It appears as a result of Atum's fervent desire to create, a desire which is presented as sexual, almost riotous, and without particular purpose.

The Enuma Elish, by contrast, does state a purpose for the creation of humanity: After a protracted battle for rulership of the Divine Assembly, Marduk, god of Babylon, wins. He dismembers his rival, Tiamat, and uses her corpse to create heaven and earth. Having won the fealty of the Divine Assemby by defeating her, he then creates human beings as slaves to work for the gods and “set the divine assembly free.” Marduk forms humans from the blood of another Divine rival, Kingu, after killing him. In contrast to the riotous creativity of the Hymn of Atum, the Enuma Elish conceives of the world as created out of death and conquest- military prowess- expressions of the power of Marduk.

The Atrahasis cycle posits a purpose for the creation of human beings similar to that of the Enuma Elish. When the Divine servant class refuses to work for the Divine Elders, the gods create human beings to work for the Gods as irrigators and farmers of the earth instead. Eventually they multiply too greatly for the gods comfort, and their noise disturbs the sleep of the great god Enlil, who thus conspires to have the Divine Assembly control their numbers with plagues and famines. When this doesn't reduce the numbers of their human slaves effectively enough the gods unleash the flood and eliminate them save for a Noah-like survivor, who is saved by a god who is partial to him for unstated reasons (because of his good service?). As is perhaps needless to point out, this flood narrative is also in meaningful contrast to the Genesis narrative, which has Hashem bringing the flood because human culture is filled with aggressive thievery and violence (“chamas”).

In both the Enuma Elish and the Atrahasis Cycle, then, humans exist to serve their divine masters. As Joshua Berman has masterfully argued (“Created Equal”), this narrative seems to echo the political structure of Mesopatamia, Egypt, and Assyria, structures the narratives and laws of the Torah were in rebellion against (also see Yoram Hazony, “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture”).

In Genesis the human being is not created to serve the Divine, and is not made of tears, semen, or a dismembered enemy. The human being is made of the good earth and the breath of God, and our proliferation is not a threat- it is an expression of divine blessing. Last but far from least, the human is made ” b'tselem Elokim”. The word “tselem”, when it occurs elsewhere in the Tanakh, is used most often to refer to idols used in the worship of false gods (Amos 5:26, 2 Kings 11:18; 2 Chronicles 23:17; Ezekiel 7:20, 16:17, Numbers 33:52 ). This common usage should not be overlooked: as shocking as it may seem, the Genesis narrative goes so far as to imagine human beings as representations of God, formed in God's likeness and serving as the only legitimate clay idol. The leap in sensibility required to go from imagining human beings as slaves of the gods or random expressions of divine fecundity to imagining them as sacred images of God created to enjoy the divine garden of earth and to rule over it benevolently is surely an awe inspiring moment in the literature of humanity.

 

Letting Go of Hate | Britain’s Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks | Orthodox Union

Letting Go of Hate | Britain’s Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks | Orthodox Union.

Excellent essay. I’m assuming this was inspired by the recent tragic attack on Palestinians by a group of Israeli teenagers.

The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture

I'm currently reading Yoram Hazony's recent book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. I am not done yet, but at the half-way point I think this is one of a handful of the most important Jewish books of the modern era. Even if the second half is tripe I'd say so. Anyone interested in in the true structure and message of the foundational text of Judaism, the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) should read this book without delay. Whether you love the Tanakh or struggle with it, or even hate it, read this book.

A Poem of Eleazar ben Kallir

I translated this poem from the Hebrew with the help of T. Carmi's version. It is by the Jewish devotional poet Eleazar ben Kallir, who lived in the 6th century. I'll let it's merits speak for itself.

 

The King Who Speaks to the Ocean (Melech Ha'omer LaYam)

 

Yours, YHVH, is the dominion and you are above all.

 

A king who says to the oceans: “Up to here only!”

He shall rule as King!

A King of filth, who comes from a putrid drop

and ends at the grave-

why should he rule as King?

 

A King who builds in the heavens his chambers

in the heavens his chariot-throne

He shall rule as King!

A King who returns to the dust

like a candle blown out

why should he rule as King?

 

A King who rescues from all harm

all who trust in Him-

he shall rule as King!

A King who flees like a driven leaf

from the fears of his heart-

why should he rule as King?

 

A King above multitudes of powers

who makes thousands and thousands of angels-

he shall rule as King!

A King who fears and worries

before the judgement of his Master

why should he rule as King?

 

A King who was and will be

in his kindness and his goodness-

he shall rule as King!

 

Parshas Shoftim: Justice

Tzedek tzedek tirdof: justice, justice, you shall pursue. So says this Parsha. The Rabbis give the repetition here a brilliant interpretation: you shall pursue justice- justly. No detention without trial; no blowing up of whaling boats; no suicide bombs; no means justifying the ends. There are no ends, Gandhi said, only means.

I read a story this last week which I told in my Jewish meditation class, synchronicitously foreshadowing this parsha, which I didn't know was coming next at the time. In the story a man reads this directive, zedek zedek tirdof and sets out into the world in search of justice. He cannot find it, though. Not in the rabbinical courts, or in the tavern, not in the streets or the market. Finally he leaves the village and goes into the wild, and even there he cannot find justice. He approaches witches but they merely laugh and leer. He approaches thieves and they say. “To us you've coming looking for justice?”

Finally, deep in the forest, the man comes upon a small cottage emanating light. No one answers the door, so the man opens it carefully and calls out. No one answers, and he cautiously goes in. Inside the cottage, which is much bigger inside than it is outside, the man sees rows and rows of shelves containing hundreds and hundreds of oil lanterns, all burning. As he approaches the shelves for a closer look a strange man appears from out of the shadows and says, “Would you like to know what these are?” The man says yes and his odd host shows him that at the base of each lantern is written a name and each one is the life of a living soul.

The man immediately searches for his own. He finds it and sees to his horror that there is barely any oil left. The strange man smiles eerily at him and says, “Now you know. You should go home.”

The eery man turns and leaves, and our hero is left looking at his lamp, so poor in oil, and the lamp next to it, which is nearly full. What would it hurt, borrowing just a few extra drops? A few more weeks, a few more months? The man reaches out his hand to the full lamp, and suddenly he feels the cottage owner's hand on his shoulder. “Is this the justice you were looking for?”

As I said to my students, I think we can assume the man did not live much longer. It appears that the melech hamavet– the angel of death- has caught him messing with his things.

My students agreed that the message seems to be that the place we should search for justice is in our own actions. The truth is that this is often, in fact, the last place we look.

Parshat Re’eh: Violence and Vision

This parsha has personal, sentimental significance for me. Several years ago when I begain studying Tanach seriously for the first time it was during this parsha, and it was consequently the first I earnestly struggled with and tried to understand. It is somewhat ironic that it was, because this parsha opens with a “command” from Hashem that I find ┬árepulsive and morally indefensible. That mitzva is to destroy the temples, altars, and images of the resident Canaanites who we dispossessed, according to the story, when we entered Israel as freed slaves.

Utterly destroy, we are told. Burn their sacred trees. We are then told how to offer animal sacrifices to Hashem. We are not to be distracted by the practices of the survivors of the tribes we destroy. We are to be weary of false prophets from amongst our own ranks, and we to kill any Jew who takes up the practices of the tribes we have displaced.

The Parshah then goes on to discuss kosher laws, tzedakah (charity) and the mitzva of the Jubilee year, when all debts are forgiven and all slaves are set free. So on the positive side, in my view, this parsha teaches the essential Jewish mitzva of giving to the needy and the fascinating practice of remitting debts and freeing slaves every seven years (a big shabbat of sorts). As Joshua Berman has recently demonstrated so thoroughly and brilliantly (in Created Equal), these mitzvot were part of the radically egalitarian and utopian vision of Israel.

These teachings are pretty straightforward and worth contemplating personally and politically. The more difficult question is what there is to learn from the violent commandments of this parsha. When I studied this parsha for the first time I interpreted these mitzvot entirely symbolically: sacrifice your lower animal nature, and destroy those things you worship instead of God- the “strange god within you” as the Ba’al Shem Tov creatively interpreted the original commandment.

Reading it this cycle, years later, the way I look at Torah has changed. I have gone through the stages of initial romance, marked by hopefulness and blindness to my beloved’s faults; marriage, characterized mostly by trying to find a way to live together; divorce, characterized by seeing all the faults I had repressed in my awareness and the passionate embrace of others; and now rapprochement, in which I have a balanced view of my beloved’s faults and virtues and understand that she will always be a part of me.

In any case, when I read Tanakh now I still look at it symbolically and thoroughly enjoy the non-literal drashes of the Rabbis. I do not shrink from seeing the horrors and the madness of the text, however. The question I am left with now is, what can we learn from an unflinching reading?

First of all, why did the Jews want to eliminate the Canaanites and their practices? The Tanakh suggests that they wanted to eliminate them because they believed they had a divine dispensation to re-settle in Canaan, the land of their forefathers, and create what we would call an enlightened society. The fact that they believed that wholesale slaughter of the natives was justified towards this end I can’t forgive. The best we can say is that it was standard practice in their neighbourhood: the Assyrians or Babylonians did the same and much worse to those they conquered, things too horrifying to bear repeating here. “Standard practice” has never been enough for Jews, however, and I can understand, but not accept, their behaviour on that basis. Certain things are, and must be, forever unacceptable, even if commanded by God.

As for destroying the religious artifacts of the Canaanites, the text itself explains why: we believed they were morally abominable. They even sacrifice their children, the text says, and many historians agree. The Canaanites, in Jewish eyes, were guilty of the following: child sacrifice; ritual rape and cult orgies which involved ritual sex; a hierarchical society which lacked social justice; and of course, the cardinal Abrahamic sin: making images of the God beyond form and worshipping Him through man-made objects. The opposing virtues, as reflected throughout Torah law, were valuing all human beings as of inherent worth; the abandoning of human sacrifice; sexual restraint and purity; social justice; and the worship of a formless, morally demanding God who was the sole Divine reality.

I am not suggesting here that the Jewish displacement of the Canaanites was entirely motivated by moral and spiritual sentiment. I imagine that the desire for a homeland of their own was also a motivation, and to some degree we painted the Canaanites black to justify our violence against them. That said, while I don’t accept in any way killing people for the sake of ideology, I am interested in understanding the moral intuitions of our ancestors. Just as I assume that the Canaanites, as well as engaging in morally objectionable practices, also had beautiful aspects of their culture which were wiped out by emerging Israel, I also want to see the positive moral intuitions interwoven with our ancestors violence.

I would argue that the follwing lessons wait in the parsha. 1) The divine is to be found not in images and temples, but in life itself and in our actions. The God of Israel is everywhere- no where in particular. He is not bounded by form or location. Yes, the Jews had a central temple where they brought offerings, but this was extremely minimalistic compared to their neighbours. According to Maimonides it was a compromise. The locus of the sacred, then, is everywhere, and our expression of the sacred is in our actions: “seek justice practice kindness, and walk in humility with the sacred”, to paraphrase Micah.

2) On a psychological level we can relate this to what Chogyam Trungpa called “spiritual materialism”: the transformation of spiritual life itself into an idol, an object of consumption, a servant of the ego. This is, as we all know, is as rampant today as ever, as a flip through Yoga Journal will testify. I don’t want to equate the Canaanite religion with spiritual materialism: my point here, rather, is that our ancestors may have viewed it that way.

3) Protest. Our journey through time and place has molded our culture. One way is through our persistent status as outsiders. The outsider possesses a special lens through which to view the dominant civilisation and is perfectly placed to become a socratic gadfly, provoking change and un-ease in the larger body of culture. Jews have played this role abundantly over time. This role seems to have begun with our enslavement in Egypt, and it is interesting to note that this event is traditionally viewed as the genesis of the Jewish people, divinely orchestrated and planned to such a degree that Hashem warned Abraham about it generations earlier.