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.

 

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.

El Chai: The Living God v. Religion and the State

In The Undiscovered Self Jung argues at length for the importance of individuation as a protection from totalitarianism and fundamentalism. Rather then merely being an argument for an ethic of the individual, Jung’s analysis is a passionate and intriguing discussion of the psychodynamics of state, community, religion, and the individual psyche with interesting lessons about the dangers both of religion and of irreligion.

For Jung individuation consists on the one hand of the attainment of a conscious, vital and honest individual consciousness which is not dominated by collective norms or instincts.  On the other it consists  of freedom from domination by elements of the personal unconscious as well.

A person should be grounded both in individual instinct and in collective norms, but a true individual has a conscious, free and discerning relationship to this soil in which their consciousness grows.

Jung felt that the best defense against domination by collective societal norms was a personal experience of God. Only a transpersonal, unworldy ground could give the individual strength to resist the belief that they could be fulfilled by externals. Only being grounded in God could straighten the spine to resist being dominated by the pressure of collective norms.

Jung argued that in the absence of religious experience society would tend towards the deification of abstract concepts like “the state” or “the people”. If not grounded in a healthy and direct experience of the transcendent this would result in a dangerous deification of the State like he saw in Communist Russia and Nazi Germany. A world without God will serve abstractions, and since abstractions like the “State” or “the Fatherland” do not exist they will in fact end up serving ruthless individualists who manipulate their allegiance for their own benefit.

This type of government is reminiscent of the ancient states of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Rome at times in their history. Here the ruler was a divine being- son of a god or a god himself. The state was itself  holy and the will of the government the will of the god/gods. The individual had no rights before the divine government.

By contrast, Pharoah’s mythic opponent, Moshe (Moses), was not divine. His mission was to free people from slavery, not to enslave. In this sense he can be seen as an opponent of political idolatry.

Moshe did not establish a government in Eretz Yisael: Israel existed as a tribal collective. The collective only had leaders in times of great neccesity, as exemplified by Yehoshua, who led the conquest of Canaan, and the charismatic prophet- warriors of the Book of Judges. Israel was not spiritually strong enough for this arrangement and things degenerated into political and moral anarchy, at which point Israel chose a King. Hashem (G-d) was not portrayed as happy with this request, pointedly saying to the charismatic prophet leader of the time, Shaul, “It is not you they are rejecting but Me.” The ideal was not a divinely appointed monarchy, and certainly not a divinized monarchy, but what Jose Faur has described as a “horizontal society”, the people led by God.

Thus Israel’s  government was not Holy. Though righteous Kings such as David and Shlomo (Solomon) were divinely chosen they did not speak with the voice of God and were not themselves gods, has v’shalom, nor divine children. This is contrasted with the nearby governments of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Assyria and Rome.

This may help to explain a mysterious moment in the story of Purim, a Jewish holiday which just passed. Mordechai, one of the heroes of the story, is a Jewish man living in Shushan (ancient Persia). One day he meets with Haman, the newly appointed minister to the King. Mordechai refuses to bow down to Haman, and this “insolence” results in Haman convincing the King to issue a genocidal decree against the Jews , who he portrays as subversive elements in the Kingdom.

What is hard to understand about this story is why Mordecai refuses to bow. It is not against Jewish law as we have it now to bow down to another human being in general or to a government minister in particular, if that’s the custom. The Midrash famously explains that Haman was wearing an idol on a necklace and that’s why Mordechai refused to bow. This explanation always seemed evasive to me, but it may be pointing in fact to a deeper truth.

The Midrash also says that Mordechai thought in the past Jews had bowed down to a statue of Nebechadnezzar, the god-king of Babylon, and if he bowed down to Haman and his necklace-idol he might encourage things to move in that direction again. It seems to me that this midrash may be pointing to what the pshat (simple text) of the story suggests to me anyway. This is that Mordechai still carried within him a deep Jewish tradition that was averse to deified government, and that was why he did not bow to Haman, a minister of a deified King of Persia. It was not that Mordechai refused to bow down to a government official: Mordechai refused to bow down to deified government.

Returning to Jung;s thoughts, we must be clear that by the protection offered by a relationship with “God” Jung did not mean “religion”. Jung thought that religions did a great service to the individual in providing meaning and guidance as well as a source of enriching and psychically balancing and protective narratives and rituals. Jung saw myth and ritual as essential for psychic well being. He also saw religion as having great negative potential to disrupt healthy individuation and to enable unhealthy structures of power similar to the power of the deified State.

Jung warned that when individuals in a religious community yeild all personal autonomy to abstract religious concepts like the Church (or in the Jewish case, we might say Halacha, Minhag Kehilla or the Gedolim) they make their own individuation- their birth as truly intelligent, morally whole individuals- incomplete. This weakness makes them vulnerable to possession by irrational forces in the “collective religious unconscious” or by unscrupulous, ignorant or arrogant leaders. In the least it may blind them to what is really happening in their community. The complete abdication of moral and intellectual responsibility, Jung said, re-creates the infantile paradise of total reliance on the parent- but at a cost.

The direct experience of G-d, according to Jung, also serves as a protection from the deification of the will of the religious community or its leaders.

There seems to me to be a parallel here to what is happening in some segments of the Orthodox Jewish community today, where abstract concepts rule and the community and the law are exalted considerably above individual consciousness and reasonable amounts of diversity of opinion in matters of law and philosophy, as existed more in the past. The argument is popular that individual reason and conscience are not up to the task of learning how to live according to Jewish thought and law. If Jung’s analysis is right this poses a considerable danger. It endangers the psychic health and discernment of observant Jews, and makes both individuals and community members vulnerable to possession by irrational forces and unrecognized manipulation by authority figures for their own ends.

Certainly one needs to take seriously, and to study deeply tradition, halacha, and collective norms, and to be humble before those more knowledgeable. I think this must be balanced, however, by respect for individual reason and conscience. One can only hope that voices of reason, diversity, and respect for the dignity of  the individual’s yirat shamayim (awe of God, or conscience), take firmer root and spread broader leaves under which to shelter those children of Israel who follow the ancient ways of the Sages.