Monday, May 11, 2009

My new article on Maimonides, repentance, and freewill

Saturday, March 21, 2009

“The Torah spoke of four sons: One is wise, one is wicked, one is simple, and one does not know how to ask”

A Hebrew version of this article can be found at:

We have become accustomed to relate to the midrash about the four sons with profound gravity and seriousness. Some find in it the kernel of a panacea for all of the problems of Jewish education, a kind of “road-map” for the Jewish People’s continued spiritual existence. I would like to suggest a less ambitious interpretative strategy.

Note the location of the midrash of the four sons in the Haggadah. Two passages appear immediately before it: The incident involving Rabbi Eliezer and his colleagues who celebrated the Seder in Benei Brak, and the words of R. Elazar ben Azaryah, who described himself as being “as one seventy years of age.” Next come the four sons, followed by the halakhic discussion, “One might start from the New Moon.”

These four passages appear consecutively; what is their common theme? The answer is clear: None of these passages comes to tell us about the Exodus from Egypt, none of them adds any information to what we have already learned from the section “We were slaves.” Their purpose is to tell us something about the manner in which the commandment to retell the story of the Exodus should be observed.

Before we get to the main section of Maggid ­– the retelling – before the many derashot dealing with the Exodus itself, the Haggadah wishes to tell us something about how we should go about performing the commandment of, You shall tell your son. The core message is quite plain; the main principle has already been set out in the end of “We were slaves”:

And even if all of us are wise, all of us understanding, all of us aged, all of us knowledgeable about the Torah, we are still commanded to retell the Exodus from Egypt. And the more one speaks of the Exodus from Egypt the better.

Rabbi Eliezer and his distinguished band of friends come to demonstrate how one is supposed to carry out the principle of “the more one speaks the better” in practice: “They spoke of the Exodus from Egypt all through that night, until their students came and said, ‘Our Rabbis, the time has come for the recitation of the morning Shema.’”

Next comes R. Eliezer ben Azariyah to explain why the Exodus must be mentioned at night. The four sons now make their appearance. Next, the editor of the Haggadah emphasizes the importance of devoting many hours to retelling the story of the Exodus by entertaining the theoretical possibility that people could begin performing the commandment from the first of Nissan. All of these passages aim at instilling us with readiness to retell the story of the Exodus in the best way possible, i.e., for many hours into the night.

Here we are confronted with a very important practical difficulty. How are we to engage our sons and daughters – who are, after all, the “target audience” of the Seder – in the commandment of You shall tell your son for hours on end? Perhaps our children are not really interested in a long, drawn-out discussion?

The four sons illustrate four typical responses of children to our educational efforts during the Seder. Their responses are typical, but there is no reason to assume that any one particular child will always behave like the wise son, or like the wicked son. It all depends upon his age, his mood, his wakefulness, and his stomach. If he did not take a nap in the afternoon, last year’s wise son can become this year’s wicked son. The son who does not know how to ask questions can turn into the wise son, thanks to the efforts of a talented teacher. What then is the advice which the Haggadah offers us in dealing with our children’s various behaviors?

The wise son: What does he say? “What are the statutes and ordinances and laws which the Lord our God has commanded you?” And you shall tell him the laws of the Paschal sacrifice [up to the detail]: “No desert is eaten after the afikoman.”

Here we have important messages for both parent and child. The child wants to behave appropriately and win praise. The Haggadah tells him what to do: If someone wants to look intelligent, he must ask many detailed questions. The message for the parent is no less important: If the child begins asking complicated and perhaps even annoying questions, the parent should not throw his hands up in despair, crying out, “God Almighty, this kid is driving me crazy!” Rather, the parent must take advantage of the opportunity offered by the child’s curiosity and teach the child as much as possible, “And you shall tell him the laws of the Paschal sacrifice [up to the detail]: ‘No desert is eaten after the afikoman.’” Such a parent will, no doubt, need to gird himself with patience and listening skills.

The dialogue with the wicked son is a different story. We must first understand exactly who this “wicked son” is who appears in the Haggadah. Is he a little heretic, a reincarnation of Spinoza or of Elisha ben Avuyah? Or perhaps the “wicked son” is a lowly traitor who collaborates with Hamas and Islamic Jihad? To my mind, we are dealing with a much less shocking situation. In his commentary on the Haggadah, Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham Ashvili, (known by the acronym RITVA d. 1330), formulates the wicked son’s question in these words:

What is this bother that you trouble us with every year, delaying our feast?

In other words, the wicked son is asking: “Nu, so when do we eat already?” The wicked son’s impatience teaches us that it is most inappropriate for one to announce one’s hunger to the other participants in the Seder while they are engaged in discussing the Exodus. Thus is solved the famous question regarding the differences between the wise and wicked sons. They both ask exactly the same question (“What are you doing?”), only that the wicked son speaks curtly in order to have the meal served as quickly as possible.

What, then, is the proper response to the wicked son? If a child complains that he is hungry, are we to “set his teeth on edge”? I believe that the Haggadah offers its own harsh response in order to spare us the need for such unpleasantness. We do not have to answer the evening’s “wicked son” – the Haggadah has already done that for us by proclaiming to the world that a person who complains that he is hungry at the Seder is behaving like a “wicked son” who has “removed himself from the community.” The Haggadah reminds us all that those who wish to be redeemed must demonstrate patience.

It should be no problem to guess the meaning of the passage regarding the “simple son.” He asks a simple question and receives a simple answer. If a child asks, “What’s that?” and we bury him under a long lecture describing “the laws of the Paschal sacrifice [up to the detail]: ‘No desert is eaten after the afikoman’” our efforts shall be wasted. In such a case, it is better to answer plainly: With a mighty arm, the Lord took me out of Egypt, from the house of bondage.

Finally, we get to the one “who does not know how to ask.” Here we are not dealing with a child who refuses to participate in the Seder, rather he is not sure about how to participate. There are many different reasons why a child may not know how to ask: perhaps he is shy, or he thinks he already understands everything and is left with nothing to ask, or he might feel that the Seder is aimed towards his younger siblings and that it would be inappropriate to interject with questions that are of interest only to the older children. In any case, it is incumbent upon the parent to “open up for him,” a way must be found for him to participate in the Seder as an educational experience. This certainly demands that the parent be attentive to how the “passive” child understands his own role in the evening’s activities.

Each and every child can pass through a series of transformations in the course of the Seder, moving from archetype to archetype of the four sons. A particular child may begin as the one “who does not know how to ask.” When the parent tries to open up the discussion for him and becomes a bit long-winded, the child’s stomach might get the best of him, making him a “wicked son.” After a few minutes, he might compose himself and ask “simple” questions. Finally, as maggid is reaching its end and the meal is almost served, the child may allow himself to let loose with an onslaught of “wise” and complicated questions, which leave even the most experienced and learned of grandparents struggling for answers! There is no escaping it: Our duty is to remain flexible enough to deal with any educational challenges with which our children face us at the Seder table.

© Berel Dov Lerner

Monday, November 24, 2008

Joshua as Leader

I discovered that a very short piece on Joshua's leadership which I wrote for Sh'ma has been posted on the JSafe site:

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Lot's Failed Trial

Berel Dov Lerner: Lot’s Failed Trial

(This is an almost final version of the article to appear in the Jewish Bible Quarterly)

Lot is something of an ambivalent character; we do not know in what category to place him.1 He might be called a "righteous man in Sodom" (to borrow the Hebrew phrase), but then one must ask why a righteous man would decide to live in Sodom? Lot did learn the virtue of hospitality from Abraham, and when the angels came to visit Sodom, he insisted that they stay under his roof. However, when his home was later surrounded by a dangerous mob his hospitality took a grotesque turn and he addressed the crowd with an offer: ‘Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you please; but do not do anything to these men, since they have come under the shelter of my roof’ (Gen. 19: 8). Is this the behavior of a righteous man?2

As far as the Torah’s narrator is concerned, Lot’s story ends quite badly. The last words we read about him leave him in exceedingly humiliating and unflattering circumstances: That night also they made their father drink wine, and the younger one went and lay with him; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose. Thus the two daughters of Lot came to be with child by their father (Gen. 19:35-36). This may be a case of poetic justice. The same "righteous" man who was prepared to hand his daughters over to a vicious mob, saying, ‘You may do to them as you please’ ends up finding himself in the reverse situation, his daughters doing to him as they please! How did Lot descend to such humiliation? What series of events took his story to such a disgraceful finale?

Let us review the background narrative. Two angels arrive in Sodom and remove Lot, his wife, and his two unmarried daughters from the town before its impending destruction. One of the angels explains to Lot that he must flee from the plains of Jordan to a safe place in the hills. Lot refuses, fearing he will not manage to escape in time. Instead, he asks the angels to spare Zoar, a nearby small town in which he might find shelter. The angel answers him, promising: ‘Very well, I will grant you this favor too, and I will not annihilate the town of which you have spoken’ (Gen. 19:21).

Something remarkable has just occurred – the angel has responded favorably to Lot’s request! It appears that Lot has succeeded where Abraham failed. Abraham had attempted to save Sodom and Gomorrah, but to no avail; Lot asks for Zoar to be spared, and his request is granted. Lot’s star is rising high in the firmament of the Torah’s spiritual heroes. But then something goes wrong. Lot has second thoughts about the promise given him by the angel; perhaps the town will be destroyed after all. He is afraid to stay in Zoar and leaves for the hills (Gen. 19:20): Lot went up from Zoar and settled in the hill country with his two daughters, for he was afraid to dwell in Zoar; and he and his two daughters lived in a cave.

Now Lot, whose wife has been lost when she was turned into a pillar of salt (Gen. 19:26), is alone in a cave with his two daughters. The situation seems drastic, the very end of his world. Lot’s older daughter looks around and comes to the conclusion that everyone else on earth has died; she must take action to preserve the continued existence of the human race.3 She gets up and tells her younger sister: ‘Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to consort with us in the way of all the world. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie with him, that we may maintain life through our father’ (Gen. 20:31).

Lot’s story reaches its notorious conclusion when his daughters succeed in getting pregnant by him. I would like to forward the claim that it is all entirely Lot’s own fault. He was supposed to have had faith in the angel’s promise; he was supposed to have remained in Zoar. Instead, Lot lost his nerve and headed for the hills. If only he had remained in Zoar, his daughters would surely have seen the townspeople and understood that their father was not the last man on earth. It would have never have occurred to them to become pregnant from him. Worse yet, Lot left the inhabitants of Zoar to face their fate alone. The town had been spared for his sake, and it may be assumed that his presence there would have guaranteed its survival. Did the people of Zoar in fact die as victims of Lot’s cowardice? There is no clear answer to this question. The town’s name is mentioned a few more times in Scripture (Deut. 34:3, Isa 15:5, Jer. 48:34, Ps. 42:7) but there is no indication that it was cited as anything more than a purely geographical designation marking the boundary of the barren zone surrounding Sodom and Gomorrah.

The Mishnah (Avot 5:3) tells us that Abraham withstood ten trials of faith; Lot was tested only once, but failed. What weakness led to Lot’s failure? The Torah alludes to a possible answer: Lot may have suffered from a kind of religious egocentrism. He thought everything depended on him, that he was the axis on which Divine Providence turns.

When Lot wants Zoar spared, he begins addressing the angel with these words: ‘Your servant has found favor in your eyes, and have already shown me so much kindness in order to save my life...’ (Gen. 19:19). Lot believes that he was spared because he found favor in eyes of God and of His angels. The man who had decided to take up residence in Sodom, a city whose people were very wicked sinners against the Lord (Gen. 14:13) because it offered water for his flocks (Gen. 14:10), the man who was prepared to throw his daughters to rapacious crowd, thinks himself to be a great saint. It was thanks to his own merit that angels were sent to save him. The Torah, however, almost immediately corrects this false impression. Just as we reach the middle of Lot’s story, the narration changes its point of view, leaving him momentarily aside and taking us far away to Abraham, who has woken early in the morning to survey the scene of catastrophe from a safe and distant vantage point. What piece of information could be so crucial for our understanding of the story that the flow of the narrative must be abruptly broken so that it can be revealed to us? We are told: Thus it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the Plain and annihilated the cities where Lot dwelt, God was mindful of Abraham and removed Lot from the midst of the upheaval (Gen. 19:29). The Torah takes pains to make it clear that Lot was deluded; he was not spared because he found favor in the eyes of God but rather because God was mindful of his constant protector, Abraham.

Now we can understand why Lot’s confidence broke down in Zoar. He thought that everything depended on him. He thought he had already taken advantage of God’s good will towards him when he was rescued from Sodom. Now he found himself making further demands, asking for Zoar to be spared. Doubts began to eat away at his confidence; could he be certain that the town would be saved? Did he really deserve another miracle? What had he done to merit a second divine intervention? He failed to understand that he was not alone, that Abraham’s merit was also protecting him. Feeling unworthy and afraid, he fled the town, setting in motion the events and circumstances that would lead to his impregnating his own daughters.

If the reading here presented in correct, Lot’s story is ironic indeed. He did not understand that he had survived thanks to Abraham, the true spiritual hero who passed every test thrown his way. Finally, when the moment came for Lot to face his own test, it was the delusion that everything depended on him alone that caused him to lose faith and fail.

1) For a list of general studies of Lot's character, see M. Avioz, "Josephus's portrayal of Lot and his family," Journal for the Study of the Pseudographia, vol. 16 (2006), pp. 3-13, footnote 1.
2) Lot's treatment of his daughters has been the subject of much controversy. In this paper I follow the general direction of feminist critics who condemn his behavior. See, for instance, I. Rashkow, The Phallacy of Genesis: a Feminist-Psychoanalytic Approach (Louisville, KY.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993). Rashkow finds "Lot's offer to the crowd…incredible" (pg. 81) and goes on to attack several of his exegetical defenders. Surprisingly, L. Bechtel's "A feminist reading of Genesis 19.1-11" in Athalya Brenner, ed. Genesis. A Feminist Companion to the Bible (2nd series). (Sheffield, Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), pp. 108-128 offers something of an apology for Lot's behavior: "Lot…made his offer with confidence that its incongruity and inappropriateness…[would]…stop the action and prevent further aggression" (pg. 124).
3) It might be claimed that the men of Zoar survived and that the daughters should have been aware of that fact. G. Wenham, Genesis 16-50 (Dallas: Word Books, 1994) pg. 61, writes: "Presumably, there were at least eligible husbands no further away than Zoar." That supposition could lead to a much darker understanding of the daughters' scheme than the one offered in the present paper. Could they have seduced their drunken father with the deliberate intent to avenge their honor after he had offered them to the crowd in Sodom?

Monday, August 04, 2008

How to refer to God

A German language version of a piece I wrote about the use of the Tetragammaton by Christian bible scholars has been published in the Catholic publication, HEUTE in Kirche und Welt – Blätter zur Unterscheidung des Christlichen. See .

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

"And You Shall Chase Your Enemies"

A new article of mine on Parashat Behukotai (in particular, Leviticus 26) is available in Hebrew on the Kibbutz HaDati website:

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Challenge of Ruth

I had an article about Ruth in the Jerusalem Post last week. Read it at:

Monday, January 30, 2006

The Gardens of Eden and Sodom

©Berel Dov Lerner. This is a slightly improved version of the article which appeared in The Jewish Bible Quarterly 33:3 (July-September 2003) pp. 174-180.

This essay is dedicated to the memory of Yair Mordechai, who died on Sukkot of 5762 while preventing a suicide bomber from entering Kibbutz Sheluhot, saving many lives.

The Land of Israel (hereafter, referred to as “the Land”) is one geographical region that is certainly viewed with high regard by Scripture. Consider how Moses describes the Land to the Israelites who eagerly awaited entry into it:

For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, [lit. by your foot], like a vegetable garden; but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven. It is a land which the Lord your God looks after, on which the Lord your God always keeps His eye, from years beginning to years end. If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil. I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle and thus you shall eat your fill.
(Deut. 11: 10-15)

Here the Bible presents us with a distinction: the Land does not equal Egypt. Egypt may have been the country best suited to survive the droughts that plagued the ancient Near East, but the Land is superior to it. While Egyptian farmers must exert themselves to irrigate their crops with water drawn from the Nile, Israelite farmers could look forward to having their crops automatically watered by timely rain-showers. Of course, these agricultural conveniences were available only on the condition that the Israelites remained faithful to God. With no local Nile to fall back on, a drought brought on by idolatrous practices could be catastrophic:

Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you.
(Deut. 11: 16-17)

According to Scripture, the land of Israel is a very special kind of place. Its climate reacts to the spiritual condition of its inhabitants. In the words of the RaShBaM (on Deut. 11;10), “This land is better than all other lands for those who observe His commandments, and worse than all other lands for those who do not observe them.” Actually, there may be worse calamities than famine. Although Deuteronomy says that upon sinning, the Israelites would soon perish from the good land, biblical historiography never cites famine as a cause of the Israelites losing sovereignty over their land. Foreign conquerors were the instruments of such ultimate catastrophes. It is no wonder that given the choice, King David picked natural disaster over military conflict, Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for His compassion is great; and let me not fall into the hands of men (II Sam. 24: 14).

One might speculate that local weather in the Land of was thought to serve as a kind of automatic religious feedback mechanism. If the Israelites get out of line, drought and famine will throw them back to God before their actions warrant more drastic punishment. One is reminded of an idea forwarded by the great medieval poet and philosopher Judah Halevi. In his magnum opus, the Kuzari, Halevi compares the Jewish people to the heart, which is both the “healthiest” and “sickest” (or perhaps “weakest”) of the organs. Because the heart is so frail, it is sensitive to even slightest ailment. This hypersensitivity affords the heart early warning of medical problems, allowing it to purge itself of any dangerous influences before they can take root and wreak irreparable damage.

Similarly, the Jewish people is burdened by suffering “whilst the whole world enjoys rest and prosperity”, but “these trials are meant to prove our faith, to cleanse us completely, and to remove all taint from us.”[i] Analogously, the climate of the Land may be viewed as an instrument of divine discipline meant to keep the Jewish people from sliding into irredeemable depravity. The carrot of rain and the stick of drought will save them from genuine calamity. Famine may be terrible, but it is a price worth paying for the avoidance of even worse punishments.

Surprisingly, the Torah does tell us about a certain region immediately contiguous with the Land that once did enjoy the advantages of Egyptian-style agriculture. Soon after their arrival in Canaan, quarrels broke out between Abraham and Lot’s herdsman. They decided to take their leave of each other. While Abraham chose to remain in Canaan, Lot decided to move into the Jordan plain area:

Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it – this was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gemorrah– all the way to Zoar, like the Garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt.
Gen. 13: 10

This last verse sets up an interesting set of new equivalencies: Sodom equals Egypt equals the Garden of the Lord (Eden). How does the Garden of Eden fit into the equation? If Egypt has its Nile, Eden is served by an even greater watercourse, the headwaters of the great rivers of the biblical world:

A river issues from Eden to water the garden, and it then divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon, the one that winds through the whole land of Havilah, where the gold is… The name of the second river is Gihon, the one that winds through the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, the one that flows east of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
Gen. 2: 10-11, 13-14

So Eden may be counted together with Sodom and Egypt as a riverside habitat. If Eden and Sodom are similar to Egypt, and the Land so different from Egypt, we may infer that the Land is also dissimilar to Eden and Sodom as well. Of course, neither Eden nor Sodom worked out very well for humanity. While the Land’s spiritually sensitive climate would not abide the radical moral decline of its inhabitants, Sodom’s forgiving climate and geography kept its populace well fed even as they rushed downwards to the depths of radical evil: Now the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked sinners against the Lord (Gen. 13:13).

Punishment came too late for rehabilitation. In the end, the people of Sodom became so irreparably evil that they became subject to total annihilation. As in Sodom, divine discipline in the Garden was an all-or-nothing affair. The great river of Eden afforded no possibility of a soul-chastening drought or famine. While God was not about to destroy Paradise in retaliation for human sin, He did the next best thing. Driven forever out of Eden, Adam and Eve would never again be seduced by the carefree life-style of river dwellers.

Unfortunately, local climate control proved unequal to the task of suppressing the Israelites’ proclivity to sin. Eventually, God took harsher measures, bringing in foreign conquerors to exile the people and devastate their land, just as the Israelites had wrested the land from the Canaanites in punishment for their sins. In fact, that final catastrophe was something of a foregone conclusion. Deuteronomy (28: 49) already threatens that the Lord will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, which will swoop down like an eagle, bringing destruction and exile.

Now the Bible is describing a predicament much more serious and enduring than a temporary drought; cities will be razed and the people carried away. Devastated by war, the Land becomes comparable to Sodom; not the Eden-like Sodom which Lot found so appealing, but the ruined Sodom from which he had to flee. The old contrast between the Land and Egypt (and the inferred contrast between the Land and Eden or Sodom) becomes irrelevant. The new equivalency, the Land equals Sodom, becomes a recurring feature of the biblical rhetoric of catastrophe. For example:

And later generations will ask the children who succeed you, and foreigners who come from distant lands and see the plagues and diseases that the Lord has inflicted upon that land, all its soil devastated by sulfur and salt, beyond sowing and producing, no grass growing in it, just like the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the Lord overthrew in His fierce anger.
Deut. 29:21-22

Had not the Lord of Hosts left us some survivors, we should be like Sodom, another Gomorrah.
Isa. 1: 9

Fortunately, there is also a bright side to the new equation. If Sodom-like devastation may befall the Land, Eden-like restoration may await it in the future. The old contrast between Egypt and the Land made it impossible to describe the latter in idyllic terms that only made sense for a riverside habitat. The complete desolation of the Land broke down the old metaphor, making room for metaphorical identification of the Land not only with the ruins of Sodom, but also with Eden’s bounty:

Truly the Lord has comforted Zion, comforted all her ruins; He has made her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the Garden of the Lord.
Isa. 51: 3

And men shall say, “That land, once desolate, has become like the garden of Eden; and the cities, once ruined, desolate, and ravaged, are now populated and fortified.”
Ezek. 36: 35

Of course, the new metaphor is not without its difficulties. Not the least of these is the simple geographical fact that the Land has no great rivers of its own. Despite its historical significance, the Jordan is a pitiful creek compared to the mighty Nile. (One may well wonder how Sodom was kept so well watered before its destruction!) The conversion of the Land into a new Eden would require constant divine intervention (or drip irrigation). I would suggest that biblical writers were aware of the dissonance implicit to the identification of the Land’s future glory with descriptions belonging to fertile river valleys. Perhaps the following verses from Zechariah may be understood as offering a solution to this difficulty:

On that day, He will set His feet on the Mount of Olives, near Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives shall split across from east to west, and one part of the Mount shall shift to the north and the other to the south, [forming] a huge gorge. And the Valley in the Hills shall be stopped up, for the Valley of the Hills shall reach only to Azal; it shall be stopped up as it was stopped up as a result of the earthquake in the days of King Uzziah of Judah…In that day, fresh water shall flow from Jerusalem, part of it to the Eastern Sea, and part to the Western Sea, throughout the summer and winter.
Zech. 14: 4-8[ii]

Zechariah offers us a radical resolution of the strain between the rhetoric of messianic hope and the plain facts of geography. In those future days, geography will change to fit the metaphor, and, like Eden, the Land of Israel will have a river running through it. Presumably, the Jewish people will no longer require the services of climactic spiritual control. However, Zechariah continues the prophecy from which I have quoted to explain that while the Land will be freed from its dependence on rain all other countries will find themselves subject to a regimen similar to that described in the eleventh chapter of Deuteronomy:

All who survive of all those nations that came up against Jerusalem shall make a pilgrimage year by year to bow low to the King Lord of Hosts and to observe the Feast of Booths. Any of the earth’s communities that does not make the pilgrimage to bow low to the King Lord of Hosts shall receive no rain.
Zech. 14: 16-17

Zechariah has neatly executed a complete reversal. The Land will become a riverside paradise, while all other regions will live by whatever rain God deems them to deserve. Only one detail is left to attend to. What will become of Egypt? Must the Nile dry up so as to make Egypt a rain-dependent nation? As translated by the Jewish Publication Society, Zechariah leaves us guessing exactly what Egypt’s punishment shall be: However, if the community of Egypt does not make this pilgrimage, it shall not be visited by the same affliction with which the Lord will strike the other nations that do not come up to observe the feast of Booths (14: 18).

I would like to suggest an alternative translation which better fits my general interpretative scheme. Consider two additional verses. Zechariah 14:19 seems to imply that if Egypt does not observe the Feast of Booths, it will suffer the same punishment as all the other nations (i.e. drought): Such shall be the punishment of Egypt and of all the other nations that do not come up to observe the Feast of Booths. How could that be possible if Egypt is not dependent on rainwater? Remarkably, an earlier verse (Zech. 10:11) clearly suggests that God will indeed dry up the Nile: And all the deeps of the Nile shall dry up…and the scepter of Egypt shall pass away. Now it seems clear that Egypt will actually cease to be a riverside habitat, leaving it vulnerable to drought. How can Zechariah 14:18, which claims that Egypt will not be subjected to the same punishment as are the other nations, be brought into line with this new information? A comparison with two other phrases may help:

Shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this? (Jer. 5:9)

Have I not the power to save? (Is. 50:2)

Both of these rhetorical questions are introduced by the same Hebrew word, ve’im (literally “and if”), as is Zechariah 14:18, and both share its basic structure. Our verse from Zechariah may therefore be similarly construed as asking a rhetorical question:

And if the community of Egypt does not make this pilgrimage, shall it not be visited by the same affliction with which the Lord will strike the other nations that do not come up to observe the Feast of Booths?

The verse’s new translation suits the geographical reversal of Zechariah’s apocalypse quite nicely. On the one hand, the Land of Israel will be watered by a mighty river throughout the summer and winter. On the other hand, the deeps of the Nile shall dry up, leaving Egypt prone to the same disastrous draughts with which the Lord will strike the other nations that do not come up to observe the Feast of Booths.

[i] Kuzari 1: 44, here quoted from Hartwig Hirschfeld’s translation, New York: Schocken, 1964, pg. 110.
[ii] Prof. John Goldingay reminds me that Ezekiel 47: 1-12 offers an even more striking description of the great river that will emerge from Jerusalem in the end of days, bearing plentiful fish (Ez. 47:9) and watering ever-bountiful fruit trees on both its banks (Ez. 47: 12).

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Demythologizing and Remythologizing Scripture after Wittgenstein (more on the topic of Faith, Fiction, and the Jewish Scriptures)

(This is a short paper I delivered back in 1995. If I had written it today, I would not be so hard on Bultmann, Winch, and Phillips, who are more profound thinkers than I then admitted.)

Throughout the centuries, religious texts have been reinterpreted to suit the spirit of those various times. I will here outline and criticize more recent attempts by Neowittgensteinian philosophers such as Peter Winch and D. Z. Phillips2 to "demythologize" religious discourse. I see in their work an attempt to make religion safe from the onslaughts of scientific thought at whose hands it has suffered since the dawn of the Enlightenment.

I borrow the term "demythologizing"3 from the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, whose project of biblical hermeneutics was the subject of much debate in the middle decades of the century. Bultmann wanted to separate the wheat of the gospel's saving message from its mythological, supernatural, chaff. Don't lose any sleep over the historical validity of miracles says Bultmann, just embrace the essentially Heideggerian message which they convey! So much for Bultmann

On to the Neowittgensteinians. I will call them "N.W.s" for short. The N.W.s' schema for the interpretation of religious discourse is an application of a more universal doctrine of interpretation of social practices in general. According to the N.W.s, different social practices or "forms of life" constitute epistemologically and hermeneutically autonomous units. If, for instance, one wishes to understand or judge the validity of a scientific claim, this may only be done in accordance with the criteria which are internal to science itself. These criteria, in turn, reflect the goals, the rationale, what Winch likes to call the "point" of the practice of science. Similarly, religious practices and discourse must only be understood on their own terms.

So - the correct interpretation of religious discourse will depend on the application of the appropriate criteria of intelligibility, and those criteria reflect the purpose or "point" of religious discourse. What then is the point of religion in general and of its discourse in particular? The N.W.s say plainly: The point of religion is to express and contemplate attitudes towards life. Thus the concerns of religion stand in stark contrast to the concerns of science and technology. Science and technology seek prediction and control of the world around us, religion deals solely in attitudes and values and not in the attainment of practical ends. Science creates a factual description of the world based on empirical observation, while religious language and ritual offer gestures which are expressive of attitudes towards the world.

It is important to note just how seriously the N.W.s take their own claims. Although they might not be willing to put it in these terms, I think it would be fair to say that for the N.W.s the idea that religion deals with attitudes is constitutive of the very category of the religious. In other words, if you see a ritual or text which does not merely express attitudes it simply does not legitimately belong to religion. Generally speaking, the N.W.s deal with such cases in one of two ways. Either they relegate the phenomenon in question to the category of superstition, or they will say that the phenomenon constitutes a mistake, a confusion, in the practice of religion. If, for instance, a cancer patient believes that his prayers, as well as his chemotherapy, contribute to his recovery, he is engaged in superstition rather than in religion. If some people speak of God as actively interfering in history (and mean this literally), they have made a mistake in their use of religious language.

If all prayers which explicitly intercede for the well being of the worshipper are superstition, and biblical accounts of miraculous divine intervention in history a mistake in the language game of religion, what then is left of historically existent religious discourse? The answer is that the N.W.s interpret traditional religious discourse by their own lights. Thus, according to the N.W.s, when generations of Christians have prayed to God that He give them their daily bread, this was not intended to influence their chances for prosperity, but merely to express their feeling of dependence on God. So too - and here the similarity to Bultmann becomes clear; bible stories were not intended to convey historical descriptions, but rather to express, in some symbolic fashion, an attitude towards life. Traditional religion thus becomes thoroughly insulated from any possible factual critique, a situation which the philosopher Kai Neilsen has dubbed "Wittgensteinian Fideism".4

The most fascinating aspect of all of this as a cultural phenomenon is that the N.W.s take a resolute stand against anyone who would call them religious reformers. They insist that they are merely exhibiting the objective, underlying logic of religion. This logic is common to all genuine religious practices in all cultures and at all times. That this logic just happens to be systematically impenetrable to the attacks of scientific criticism, and that the rise of modern science has been the major force for secularization in the modern world, is simply a matter of coincidence.

Several books have already been devoted to criticism of the N.W.s' doctrine, but for now I will just touch upon the difficulty of its application to the exegesis of Hebrew Scripture. The N.W.s' largely avoid discussing the Old Testament, and for good reason. If, by their doctrine, the Hebrew Scriptures do not qualify to be read as religious texts, this would appear to constitute a reductio ad absurdum disproof of the N.W.s understanding of religion. The scandal of the Old Testament lies in its combination of theological and historical elements, a combination which is particularly resistant to non-literal interpretations.

I admit that it would be anachronistic to suggest that Scripture was written in the context of an established discipline of historical research. However, in biblical times there did already exist an established social practice which was concerned with formulating agreed-upon, factual accounts of past events according to formal rules of evidence. I am referring to the institution of law. The core of the biblical narrative is concerned with delineating a set of contractual arrangements made between God and the Jewish people, and the miracles of the exodus, the wanderings in the desert, etc. constitute a record of how each side kept its part of the covenant. I find no reason to believe that the historical claims of scripture should be taken in any less a literal sense than the claims made in any other description of a legal nature. Thus Judaism, or at least biblical Judaism, was not immune to historical criticism. If the exodus did not occur, the Ten Commandments lose their self-proclaimed material basis.

Since biblical Judaism boldly claims itself to be verified by historical evidence, it is able to criticize pagan beliefs and customs in terms of similarly pragmatic, factual criteria. If the psalmist (115:5) complains that the gods of idolatry have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes but cannot see, etc. this obviously implies a contrast with a true God who is capable of interaction with the world. The biblical notion of settling religious disputes by empirical criteria reaches its high point in the story of Elijah at Mount Carmel. Chapter 18 of First Kings tells of how Elijah challenged the priests of Ba'al to a contest which would take place before the entire nation. Whoever succeeded in bringing down fire from heaven to light their sacrifice would prove the reality of their god. What could be the point of this story if the factual claim is not taken seriously?5 I would go so far as to say that the biblical demand for pragmatic, empirical demonstrations of the validity of religious claims constitutes an important contribution to the development of the human capacity for critical thought. Several authors, including most recently the Harvard anthropologist S.J. Tambiah6, have noted the role of biblical thought in the development of the West's critique of mythic and magical thinking. That the very texts which herald the epistemological revolution against traditional mythological thought simultaneously introduce what secular scholars must view as a new myth of God's intervention in Jewish history is a paradox worth pondering.

Beyond the epistemological implications of the literal interpretation of scripture there lay ethical and even political issues. In short, the ethically and politically active God of Scriptures implies the worth of such action for human beings as well. The notion that God actually broke through into human history in order to free slaves in Egypt-that human servitude is a matter which could demand the intervention of the very Master of the universe- is a more powerful message of the importance of political liberation than any offered by a non-literal interpretation of the Exodus story. Only such a "carnal" interpretation of scripture can allow for a similarly "carnal" concern with the solution of this-worldly problems. It should come as no surprise that in contrast with this, Neowittgensteinian religion and ethics tends to the quietistic adoption of correct spiritual attitudes towards the world, rather than towards redemptive action in the world.


©Berel Dov Lerner
1) This is a slightly edited version of a short paper presented at the Colloquium on Modern Theories of Allegory: Imaginative Discourse and Historical Continuity sponsored by The Center for Literary Studies of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on November 15, 1995. My thanks to Dr. Jon Whitman for having kindly invited me to speak at the colloquium.
2) Representative works are D.Z. Phillips, The Concept of Prayer (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981) and the essays in Peter Winch, Trying to Make Sense (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987).
3) A classic statement of Bultmann's position may be found in Rudolph Bultmann et al, Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate (New York: Harper and Row, 1961). A good overview of the debate surrounding "demythologizing" may be found in John Macquarrie, The Scope of Demythologizing: Bultmann and his Critics (London: SCM Press, 1960).
4) See his "Wittgensteinian Fideism", Philosophy 42 (1967), 191-209.
5) For more on this point, see my "Faith, Fiction and the Jewish Scriptures", Judaism 39 (1990), 215-20.
6) See Tambiah’s Magic, Science, Religion and the Scope of Rationality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 6-8.

Faith, Fiction, and the Jewish Scriptures (on the Book of Job and the literal truth of Scripture)

(I wrote this article quite a while ago - my son Tzviki has since finished hesder and is doing a BA in Jewish education!)

©Berel Dov Lerner. This article originally appeared in Judaism 39: 215-20, 1990.

My six year old son, Tzvi, is precociously sensitive to the complexities of narrative truth. Once, after I related to him in Hebrew a conversation from my childhood, he exclaimed: “That can’t be right, you’ve got everyone speaking Hebrew, but in America people speak English.” I hope that no one else takes similar offense at my having translated his Hebrew for quotation in an English language publication. More seriously, he also asked a question which has, no doubt, thrown many a parent into a fit of soul-searching unknown since adolescence. The question is: “Are the stories of the Bible true?” Personal beliefs aside, it is clear that the traditional Jewish consensus answers with a resounding “yes.” Surprisingly, there is one narrative book in Jewish Scripture whose traditional status in unclear. I refer to the book of Job.

The concluding pages of the first chapter of the Talmudic tractate, Bava Batra, contain a relatively long and sustained discussion of Job. In the course of the Talmud’s attempt to establish the time and authorship of the book, the following incident is recounted:

A certain one of the Rabbis came before Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani and sat down and said: “Job did not exist and was never created, rather he was [a character in] a fable “(B. Bava Batra 15a).

While R. Shmuel bar Nahmani argues against this view, it has certainly found its supporters among later authorities. In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides clearly states that the story of Job “is a parable intended to set forth the opinions of people concerning providence.” More recently, the prominent Orthodox Israeli exegete, Amos Hakham, has stated that “all of the contemporary commentators agree that Job is a parable.”2

The fact that Job was not thought of as literally true tells us something important about the rabbinic attitude towards Scripture as a whole. The Rabbis did not adopt a “fundamentalist” view of scriptural truth, requiring that Scripture qua Scripture be historically accurate. Given, then, the flexibility of rabbinic thought, we may reasonably ask why the rest of the Bible’s stories were (almost) always thought of by classical Judaism as accurately describing past events.

Some texts lose none of their importance if read as fiction. It makes little difference to the reader that Madam Bovary never existed. But, suppose one read such things about one’s own spouse! Then the accuracy of every detail might seem more crucial. Most of the stories of the Jewish Scriptures belong to the second category of texts. When the Book of Exodus retells the story of Israel in Egypt, its self-conscious purpose is to establish the historical basis of God’s special dominion over the Jewish people, as expressed in the first of the Ten Commandments. The covenant between God and His people partakes of the formal aspect of a legal contract, and the believing reader (and this is the only reader taken into consideration by the Torah) consults Scripture as an accurate record of each party’s compliance with the contract. If the Exodus were considered a myth, the entire material basis of the covenant between God and Israel would collapse.

There is also a deeper, epistemological issue at stake here. In the Torah, Moses repeatedly urges his audience to accept the evidence of their own eyes, to remember the miracles performed for them:

You have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land the great trials which your eyes have seen, the signs, and those great miracles. (Deut.29: 1,2).

Why call upon the people to remember events unless they were supposed to have actually taken place? Moses calls upon them not to worship images, since “you saw no manner of form on the day that the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire” (Deut. 4:15). What sense can be made of such an appeal if it is not understood as pointing to a real experience of theophany at Sinai?

All of this leads to what must be, for the secular reader, the great paradox of the Bible’s place in the development of human consciousness. On the one hand, the Bible promotes an anti-mythical, almost empiricist view of the world. As a modern philosopher might say, the myths of pagan religion were unverifiable. Human experience could offer no evidence for or against the truth of mytho-poeic entities. Yet, the Bible takes religion seriously and seeks to apply to it the same standards of credibility which are used in every day life. The paganism of ancient times failed the Biblical test. The Canaanite gods did not answer human prayers in a regular fashion; neither did they punish the wicked nor reward the just. Attacking idolatry in terms of an almost vulgar positivism, the prophets deride the “holy” images of competing religions as the lifeless artifacts of a preposterous superstition.

On the other hand, the Bible replaces the rejected pagan myths with new, equally incredible tales of Divine intervention in the mainstream of ancient history. Of course, these stories describe exactly the kinds of events which could serve as empirically valid evidence for the truth of Judaism. But those who reject the truth of Scripture must ask, how did it come to pass that the same prophets who introduced a critical attitude towards the Divine were also the promoters of this new, fantastic mythology? To make matters worse, this new mythology is presented against the backdrop of an astonishingly naturalistic historical narrative. The Jewish people and its greatest leaders are repeatedly subjected to bitter criticism consistent with the muck-raking style of Scripture’s attack on paganism. This practice of honest self-appraisal was quite unheard of in the literary traditions of Israel’s ancient neighbors. The result is a kind of “warts and wonders and all” account of covenantal history. Why embellish mere myths with such painfully realistic detail?

The tension between miraculous events and the critical Biblical out- look reaches its height in the story of Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal. According to the story in the First Book of Kings, Elijah assembled the entire Jewish nation at Mount Carmel in order to witness a daring experiment. He was to prepare a sacrifice to God, while four-hundred and fifty prophets of Baal made ready an offering to their deity. The point was to see which god would demonstrate his reality and power by sending down fire from heaven to consume his particular sacrifice. The prophets of Baal went first. During the performance of their rites, Elijah baited them: “Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is musing or he is easing himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be wakened” (I Kings 18:27). Elijah’s contempt for the Baal worshipers was typical of the critical prophetic stance. He took Canaanite paganism as a religion about as seriously as a modern Westerner might take the native cults of Africa or the Pacific Islands. One might even say that, by today’s standards, Elijah’s intemperate positivism seems somewhat old-fashioned. His disdain for the supernatural is more appropriate to the French Enlightenment than to late twentieth century “New-Age” thinking. Yet Elijah’s experiment did not end by merely refuting superstition. The prophet went on to repair God’s broken altar, prepare the sacrifice, and have it all repeatedly doused with water until the surrounding ditch was also filled. After Elijah pronounced a short prayer, fire came down from heaven, consuming the offering — altar stones, water and all. What are we to make of the conclusion of this story? After arousing in the reader a feeling of shared intellectual superiority — we join Elijah in scoffing at the ineffectiveness of the Baal worshipers’ primitive rites — it goes on to describe the most incredible wonder performed by the God of Israel before the massed audience of his wayward people. As usual, the skeptical reader is left in a quandary, but one thing is clear; this story was meant to be taken in dead earnest and any attempt to soften its claims by a metaphorical interpretation will undo its basic intention. The point of the story is that the true God of Israel can do what the mythological Baal cannot. Neither can we dismiss the description of Elijah’s miracle as the product of an uncritical mytho-poeic imagination. By holding the claims of idolatry to the standards of everyday reality, Elijah overthrows mytho-poeic thought. If it did not really take place, the story tells us nothing.

If Scripture’s mixture of common-sense empiricism and tales of God’s wonders is confusing to the nonbeliever, it is downright exasperating to the believer. The great challenge of the Bible to contemporary Judaism is how to remain loyal to the critical spirit of the prophets and still keep faith with God in a world that has not known His direct intervention for quite some time, Would the generation that “feared the Lord and believed in the Lord, and in his servant Moses” (Exodus 14:31) after witnessing the splitting of the Red Sea have gained this faith in the century of the Holocaust? The most typically modern answer to this problem is to take the Existentialist’s “leap of faith”, a freely made decision to accept the truth of religion without regard for objective reason. Satisfying as such fideism may be to religious sentiment, nothing could be more foreign to Biblical (and most post-Biblical) Jewish thinking. Whether or not we accept the Exodus as historical fact, the Jews of Biblical times most certainly did. To pledge allegiance to a God who has miraculously freed you from centuries of repressive slavery hardly requires a leap of faith!

In its complete form, the existentialist argument extends beyond questions of faith to questions of works. God’s mitzvot become the absurd commands of the Lord of Kierkegaard, a deity as far removed from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as is the God of the philosophers. The non-believer has his own version of fideism, exchanging Judaism’s Moshe Rabbeinu for a Nietzschean super-man who imposed a new table of values upon his people through sheer force of will. These views have become so popular that even people who should know better interpret Scripture by their lights. Contrasting Enlightenment political thought with the Torah, Allan Bloom writes:

Such imperatives are the very opposite extreme from those enunciated in the Ten Commandments, which provide no reasons for obeying their injunctions and do not affirm fundamental passions but inhibit them.3

Of course, this is sheer nonsense. As in matters of faith, Scripture takes a reasonable attitude towards matters of law. In the first place, it must be recalled that, to Biblical thinking, Divine Providence was a very real factor worth taking into account by those who sought to satisfy their “fundamental passions.” The commandment to “Honor thy father and thy mother” was tied by Divine promise to the very real “passion” for long life — “that thy days may be prolonged” (Deut. 5:16). Secondly, no philosophical consequences may be deduced from the fact that the Ten Commandments provide no explanations of the social and political benefits which their observance will incur. Indeed, we do not always expect such explanations to be written into the wording of modern legal codes either. In any case, the Torah clearly views itself not as the fiat of an inscrutable Deity, but, rather, as a just and reasonable system of law whose wisdom should be apparent to all nations:

For this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, who shall hear all these statutes, and say, surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people... And what nation is there so great, that has statutes and judgments so righteous as all this Torah, which I set before you this day? (Deut. 4:6,8).

It might be argued that fideism constitutes a refinement of Biblical faith, a higher plane of religious existence. The fideist has freely chosen to believe, while the characters who populate Scripture had belief forced upon them by the crude testimony of their own senses. How is Biblical man’s concept of God to develop beyond the bounds of his personal experience of the miraculous?

Although miracles may “force” belief in the existence of God on those who witness them, they by no means dictate love of God or faithfulness to Him. This distinction might seem artificial, the theological fall-out of modern philosophy’s attempt to sever values from facts. Could a person who had witnessed authentic miracles reject the God who had produced them? According to the Torah, yes. After living through a prolonged process of miraculous redemption from slavery, personally escaping the Egyptian army by crossing dry land in the midst of the sea, arid eating manna from heaven, the Jewish people remained a cantankerous, rebellious mob of runaways. No act of Divine intervention could keep them from grumbling about Moses’ leadership, the hardships of nomadic life, or their monotonous diet. Given half a chance, they would gladly worship idols or chase after Moabite women. No matter what God did, the Jews had to make up their own minds about being faithful to Him.

By adopting concepts from Hassidic thought, it is possible to develop a religious psychology which explicitly confronts the tension between man’s unceasing struggle to establish an ever-more authentic relationship with God, and the primitive basis of that relationship in the testimony of Biblical history. While human spiritual development requires “falls” — periods of questioning — as well as “ascents,” a Jew’s fundamental indebtedness to the God who took him out of Egypt will always preclude the possibility of a complete break. Of course, the value of such a religious psychology for us is severely restricted by our ability honestly to accept the Bible as historically true.

That Biblical man did achieve a level of religious existence beyond that implied by a mere common-sense belief in God and His covenant, should be evident to any sensitive reader of Psalms. A verse such as, “Oh God, thou art my God; earnestly I seek thee: my soul thirsts for thee, my flesh longs for thee in a dry and thirsty land” (Psalms 63:2), is clearly informed by a deep religious sentiment. Would we consider a woman’s love for a man any more profound because she had no good reason to be sure that he really ever existed in the first place? Or would we merely question her sanity?

So far we have seen why most narrative portions of Scripture demand a literal reading, and why such a reading did not necessarily impose a limit on the reader’s spiritual growth. It is also now clear why the Rabbis were not especially troubled by the idea of Job’s fictional status. The action of Job takes place in the distant land of Uz, far removed from the arena of God’s great interventions in history. Its protagonists are not even designated as being Jewish, so that anything which happens in the story has no bearing on Israel’s covenantal relationship with God. The scope of action is personal. The vagaries of a single man’s life, detached from broader public events, cannot offer sound evidence of God’s presence. Since there was no compelling reason to accept Job as fact, the Rabbis were willing to treat it as Divinely inspired fiction.

Given that a fictional reading of Job was possible for Judaism, it still remains unclear why some of the Rabbis decided to make good on the option and declare Job a fable. Would it not have been safer to preserve the uniform validity of the entire Jewish canon? I believe that the main problem which the Rabbis had with the Book of Job was with the character of Job himself. According to the Rabbis, Abraham’s unique piety was the original foundation of his election by God. What, then, are we to make of Job, an ancient, perhaps non-Hebrew, saint, perhaps a contemporary of Abraham himself, who underwent so much suffering, yet remained true to God? Was he Abraham’s equal?

Many midrashim were written in response to this threat to Jewish chosenness. Some tried to prove Job a secret heretic, or that Abraham’s trials were the more demanding. Talmudic concern for Abraham’s rival reaches the heights of paradox in a statement of Rabbi Levi:

Satan’s intentions were for the sake of Heaven... When he saw that the Holy One Blessed Be He was beginning to favor Job over Abraham, he said, “God forbid, He has forgotten Abraham’s love!” [and therefore set out to persecute Job] (B. Bava Batra 16a).

It is there further related that when Ray Aha bar Yaakov later retold this idea, Satan himself arrived to kiss the great rabbi’s feet in gratitude!

While these Talmudic ploys help justify Abraham’s election, they dilute the strong lessons of Job. If Job is portrayed as less than righteous, his suffering seems less appalling, his appeals to God’s justice smack of insincerity. If Job is more righteous than Abraham, why was he not chosen by God? By fictionalizing Job, both Abraham’s historical uniqueness and the high seriousness of Scripture’s great theodicy could be preserved.

1. Guide to the Perplexed, Pines, tr., III:22, p. 486.

2. Sefer Iyyov (Da’at Mikra series, Jerusalem, 1970), Introduction, p. 19.

3. Closing of the American Mind (New York, 1987), p. 288.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

"And He Shall Rule Over Thee" (a rereading of the Garden of Eden story)

© Berel Dov Lerner. This article is a slightly corrected version of “And He Shall Rule Over Thee,” Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought Vol. 37, No. 4, Fall Issue 1988 pp. 446-9.

Michael L. Rosenzweig’s article, “A Helper Equal to Him” (JUDAISM, Summer, 1986) took Jewish biblical exegesis an important step forward toward making the story of Adam and Eve palatable to the modern reader. He demonstrated that the Hebrew phrase, “ezer kenegdo,” used to designate Eve’s role vis-à-vis Adam, may be plausibly translated as a helper equal to him where the word helper does not carry its usual connotation of inequality.

Nevertheless, Rosenzweig’s article fails to address the much more problematic passage:

Unto the woman He said, “I will greatly multiply the pain of thy childbearing; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and yet thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Genesis 3:16).

Proper treatment of this verse requires more than philological analysis. It calls for a reinterpretation, within the broader context of the first book of Genesis, of the punishments meted out to the snake, to Adam and to Eve.

My interpretation of the list of punishments is rooted in the simple observation that each aspect of life that was made difficult by God’s curses has been referred to earlier in the text. For example, the snake is told (3:14) and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life. According to an earlier passage, the snake would have eaten plants: And every beast of the earth and to every bird of the air and to everything that creeps on the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for food (1:30). So, too, Eve is cursed with in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children (3:16) when previously she had been blessed with fecundity: be fruitful and multiply (1:28). Adam, cursed with hard work: in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread (3:19), at the outset had been placed in the Garden of Eden, to till it and to keep it (2:15).

In each, a basic activity of living, i.e., eating, reproducing, and working, is first mentioned in a positive context and then distorted and made difficult by God’s curse. Food, described as God-given, becomes dust for the snake. The blessing of human fecundity becomes a source of pain and danger. Work, the divine purpose of man’s creation, is transformed into a bitter struggle for survival. Although God’s curses distort the activities of eating, reproduction and work, Jewish Scripture retains their basic positive value. Thus, throughout Scripture, children are counted as a much sought-after blessing. Unlike the well-documented disparaging attitudes that are voiced in classical Greek and Roman sources, Jewish Scripture and tradition accord honor to productive labor. Thus, the role of God’s curses is somewhat paradoxical. The activities which are the objects of God’s curses had been formerly declared by God to be valuable in themselves. They then remain valuable even when deformed by God.

Having dealt with the three activities tainted by God’s curses, I turn now to the two basic relationships affected by the divine punishments. The first is mankind’s relationship with the snake, which can be taken as man’s relationship with Nature in general. As originally depicted, man’s relationship with Nature is that of straightforward human sovereignty:

…replenish the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth (1:28).

Following the commission of the sin, the clear dominion of man breaks down and is replaced by continuous struggle:

And I will put enmity between thee [the snake] and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel (3:15).

The earth, which man was to replenish and subdue, will become cursed ... for thy sake (3:17). Originally designated to rule Nature, mankind must forever do battle with it.

I come now to the central problem addressed in this essay: the second relationship affected by God’s curses, that between man and woman. We must apply to this case the principles developed in the examination of the punishments of the snake and of Adam. As in those cases, here, too, we are dealing with a valuable aspect of life which has been made distorted. Indeed, the value and original nature of the man/woman relationship is clearly depicted in Genesis. When first presented, men and women are on quite egalitarian terms. The genders are mentioned almost as an afterthought: So God created Mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them (1:27). The blessings that they received, including dominion over the earth and the charge to subdue it, are all addressed in the plural, indicating that both man and woman would share them.

The detailed account of woman’s creation, in chapter two of Genesis, might be construed as indicating feminine inferiority (e.g., Paul’s declaration: A woman ought not to speak, because Adam was formed first and she afterwards (Timothy 2:13). Yet, a careful reading of Genesis will reveal an insistence upon the importance of Adam and Eve’s relationship and her equality within that relationship.

Throughout the creation narrative we read of God declaring things good. God saw the light, that it was good (1:4). So, too, the separation of water and land was good (1:9) as was the creation of vegetation (1:12), the heavenly bodies (1:18), creatures of the seas and the air (1:21) and of the land (1:23). All were declared good. The first chapter of Genesis ends with the verse: And God saw everything that he had made and, behold, it was very good (1:31). After such a persistent affirmation of creation’s goodness, any hint of imperfection in God’s world takes on a special salience. All the more so when God, Himself, bluntly states the problem:

It is not good that the man should be alone (2:18).

The solution to the problem is obvious: I will make a help to match him (2:18). (Or, in Rosenzweig’s words: a helper equal to him.) Strangely, the biblical narrative does not proceed directly with Eve’s creation, but, rather, tells of how God created specimens of all of the living creatures and brought them before Adam so that he might name them.1 The purpose of this interruption in the narrative becomes clear when we read its concluding verse:

And man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for the man there was not found a help to match him [a helper equal to him] (2:20).

Man was in need of the companionship of an equal. By presenting him with all of the animals of Nature, God was telling Adam that here were all of the beings that he was meant to rule, yet none of these creatures which were subservient to him could dispel his loneliness. Finally, when presented with Eve, Adam declares with relief: This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh (2:23). He has finally discovered the partner with whom he can share the privileges and purpose given to him by God.

As in the case of man’s relationship to Nature, man’s relationship to woman is also damaged by God’s punishment. We read: Unto the woman he said ... he [man] shall rule over you. The proper order of things has been completely overturned. Nature, which was created to serve mankind, rebels against man’s authority. Woman, who was to be man’s equal, becomes subservient to man. Thus, Genesis instructs us that, while initially posited in ideal terms, four central aspects of human existence (i.e., reproduction, work, the relationship of mankind to Nature and the relationship between man and woman) were negatively altered and distorted as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve.

What is the meaning of their punishment for us? Some anti-feminists would like to count and he shall rule over thee as the 614th commandment of the Torah. The implausibility of such an interpretation should now be triply clear. Firstly, the verse and he shall rule over thee describes a punishment, a state of affairs which is, by definition, undesirable. Secondly, the ideal man/woman relationship, as fully explicated earlier in the text, is a condition of shared privileges and responsibilities between equals. Thirdly, there is no indication given that any human being is called upon to enforce God’s punishments.
Although God may have made work difficult for man, it is no human’s job to insure that weeds choke my vegetable garden. The Torah does not depict these punishments as a penance to which we must dutifully submit, but, rather, as objective difficulties against which we must struggle. Although God has caused childbirth to be painful and dangerous, the Torah has nothing but praise for the midwives, Shifra and Puah, who served the Jewish women in Egypt (Exodus 1:15-21). Later Jewish tradition also supports the efforts of those who could try to lighten the burden of God’s curses. Rashi explains that Noah eased the toils of his generation by inventing agricultural implements (see his comments on 5:29).

In sum, I believe that it has been demonstrated that the Torah does not offer the verse and he shall rule over thee as a recipe for marital bliss, but, rather, as a critical depiction of an evil of human existence of no less consequence than the ravages of Nature or the constant struggle to make ends meet. If we extrapolate from the attitudes towards God’s curses as they are evidenced in Jewish Scripture and tradition, we can only conclude that the struggle against the social inequality of women is as legitimate as the struggle to wrest material sustenance from intractable Nature.

l The interpretation of this section largely follows U. Cassuto, From Adam to Noah (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1986) pp. 83-90 (in Hebrew).

Omphalos Revisited (a critique of one form of Jewish fundamentalist creationism)

© Berel Dov Lerner. This article originally appeared in the Jewish Bible Quarterly XXIII:3(91) July-September 1995, pp. 162-7.

Philip Henry Gosse was a nineteenth-century British naturalist who proposed a theory meant to insulate the belief in the literal truth of the biblical account of Creation from the onslaughts of modern science. The particular issue of his day was the contradiction between the biblical cosmogenic chronology (six days of Creation occurring about six thousand years ago) and the chronology of modern geology (continuous processes taking millions of years). Gosse called his book on the subject Omphalos (Greek for “navel”), in reference to the knotty theological problem of whether or not Adam was created with a navel. Such a navel would seem to evidence the past existence of an umbilical cord and the experience of birth. This would appear to contradict Genesis, according to which Adam had been created a fully-formed adult. Yet fully-formed adult humans do possess navels. So goes the paradox. Gosse broadens the discussion to take in many other biological phenomena, and comes to the conclusion that all life must always seem to evidence previous life. Our experience would have us believe that every chicken was once an egg; but what of the First Chicken created directly by God? And what says Gosse of the First Cow?

Every argument by which the physiologist can prove to demonstrate that yonder cow was once a foetus in the uterus of its dam, will apply with exactly the same power to show that the newly created [on the sixth day of Creation] cow was an embryo, some years before its creation.’1

Gosse goes on to compare the entire cosmos with an individual living organism. Just as any single stage of an organism’s development appears to imply the passing of earlier stages, so too the present state of the cosmos gives witness to other, earlier states. The first creatures originally created by God were indistinguishable from the creatures of today. If we were to inspect the remains of those first animals, we might falsely believe that they had also grown through many stages of development, and had been preceded by previous generations of their species. By analogy, the state of the cosmos at the moment of Creation would also have seemed to suggest the passing of other, earlier states. In particular, the earth, upon its creation, was endowed with geological formations which seemed to witness extremely long-term changes. Gosse invented a terminology to expedite the presentation of his argument, coining the expression “diachronic time” to refer to the past which had actually occurred, while “prochronic time” refers to the hypothetical past during which ancient processes would have occurred had God chosen to call the universe into existence at an earlier stage of its development. When was the First Chicken an egg? In reality, never; hypothetically, in prochronic time.

According to the Omphalos hypothesis, the cosmos is a system lacking an obvious moment of origin in recent time. God created the cosmos like a projectionist starting a film in the middle of the third reel. Anyone entering the theater would assume he had missed the first part of the movie, but in fact it had never been screened. Scientists studying the fossil record of evolution or the seemingly ancient background radiation left over from the “big bang” deal with what would have happened if God had decided to endow the cosmos with existence in an earlier stage of its hypothetical development. They are like film critics trying to deduce what images had been cast upon the screen long before the projectionist had even dimmed the house lights.

Gosse’s views were not well received. On the testimony of his own son, “Atheists and Christians alike looked at it and laughed, and threw it away.”2 The scientist and historian Stephen Jay Gould attributes the unpopularity of Gosse’s views to the British tendency to “respect the facts of nature at face value” rather than adopt the “complex systems of non-obvious interpretation so popular in much of continental thought.”3

During a recent visit to the United States, I had a long talk with a yeshiva student about various areas of apparent conflict between Judaism and modern thought. Inevitably, the discussion led to the problem of science and religion, and its most salient issue, creationism versus evolution. To my surprise, the view he supported was clearly a contemporary reconstruction of the Omphalos thesis. Unfortunately, he was not aware of a published version of this argument, and I have not discovered such a version in my admittedly cursory search for it in the appropriate Jewish literature. He assured me, however, that the argument is well known in the “yeshiva world,” having heard it himself in a lecture given by his own rosh yeshiva. It appears to me from this discussion that, despite its poor original reception, the Omphalos thesis may be enjoying a kind of renaissance, this time appearing in the garb of modern ecological science.

In short, the new argument states that life as we know it can only survive in a pre-existing, dynamic and balanced environment. Let us see what it tries to prove; i.e., that the first chapters of Genesis depict in literal terms events which occurred about 6000 years ago. Consider the moment when God created the various plants whose survival depends on the presence of long-dead and decayed organic material in the soil. For those plants to survive, God would have had to create the soil with already decaying organic material in it. Imagine a hypothetical scientist traveling back in time to the day after Creation. Analyzing the freshly- created soil, the scientist would mistakenly deduce that the decayed bodies nourishing the newly-created plants had in the past belonged to once-living creatures, now long dead. However, according to our assumption of the literal accuracy of Genesis, we know that these bodies had never lived; they had been created a short time earlier in their present decayed state.

Beyond merely explaining the presence of decayed organic materials in the soil, the thesis further claims a role for even the most ancient of fossils in the grand scheme of nature. After all, experience has confirmed the ecological importance of interactions between even the most seemingly independent elements of the natural world. By broadening the scope of the argument to include all aspects of the cosmic environment (e.g., starlight which has apparently beet traveling for millions of years before it reaches the earth) it may be extended to cover (almost) every contradiction between the scientific chronology and the biblical doctrine of Creation in six days. The universe was created in a relatively short period of time, but for it to work properly it had to exactly resemble a universe which had already existed for billions of years.

What are we to make of the new version of Omphalos? First of all, it is clear that the new version is subject to the same criticism traditionally made against the original: neither is empirically testable. Rather than disprove Omphalos, its opponents simply point out its lack of scientific interest. In the words of Stephen Jay Gould:

The world will look exactly the same in all its intricate detail whether fossils are prochronic or products of an extended history. But theories that cannot be tested in principle are not part of science. We reject Omphalos as useless, not wrong.4

Gould’s criticism must ring hollow in the ears of biblical literalists. After all, they are not really interested in proposing hypotheses which will advance the progress of scientific research; they merely seek an accommodation between Genesis and the existing body of scientific knowledge. The literalists do not expect science to verify the biblical cosmogony; they only wish to show that science does not conflict with it. Gould himself has admitted that science cannot prove Omphalos wrong, and that is all that the literalists need to hear. Be that as it may, the Omphalos thesis fails its genuine, apologetic, purpose for an entirely different reason, as I shall now demonstrate.

Gosse meant to propose a thesis which would contradict neither the results of scientific research nor the biblical account of Creation. As we have seen, the Omphalos thesis can account for all of the evidence for evolution; this is exactly what it had been designed to do. What Gould, as well as the thesis’s fundamentalist supporters, forgot to ask is how well it fits the biblical story of Creation.

It would be unnecessarily messy to get involved in questions such as how the plants created on the third day survived until the creation of the sun on the fourth. God would have no problem miraculously sustaining them until the entire ecosystem, fossils and all, swung into operation. A thornier problem is posed by the fact that all fossil evidence points to the existence of large communities of animals 5000-6000 years ago, as well as millions of years ago. In order to assure the continuity between the prochronic fossil record and the first days of diachronic time, we would have to assume that God created birds in their flocks, deer in their herds and wolves in their packs. This in itself does not pose an insurmountable obstacle for the literal interpretation of Genesis. As usual, we, the human beings, pose the real problem.

Genesis is quite specific about the creation of exactly one first man and one first woman. Adam recognizes his special place in history and calls his wife Eve, for she was the mother of all that live (Gen.3:20). But what of fossil and archeological records which trace the existence of human communities in the far-flung corners of the world? These settlements were founded well within prochronic times and survived into our own, ontologically-favored diachronic era. This reveals prochronic processes which would not lead to the existence of exactly one man at the moment of the creation of humans. An “omphalitic” reading of the Bible would make us expect to find archeological records of a humanity languishing in a process of extinction, leaving only one man alive at the moment of Creation.

It might be suggested that Adam was a special case. While all other organisms had to be created as participants in pre-developed ecological communities, Adam’s survival was not dependent on a prochronic past. From the standpoint of religious apologetics, such special pleading is worse than useless. The whole point of the Omphalos argument is to explain the existence of fossils by emphasizing the importance of continuity between the prochronic and diachronic. What could be the point of God’s creating human fossil remains if these lack any prochronic evolutionary connection with the diachronic Adam? Worse yet, how could the Omphalos thesis explain the existence of far-flung early diachronic human communities contemporary with the alleged historical Adam?

The Omphalos thesis could not have failed to support Scripture at a worse moment. The special creation of an historical Adam is essential to a number of key theological ideas. For the literalist, Adam’s uniqueness constitutes the material basis of the religious notions of human equality and fraternity: i.e., that we may all claim the same original ancestry. Many of the less pleasant aspects of human existence are explained by the Bible as having resulted from Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience to God. If they were not the only people living at that time, why should all of humanity (including those who are not their descendants) suffer for their sin?

I see the fundamentalists gaining little advantage by adopting the Omphalos thesis. While it does buttress the literalist claim as to the recent creation of the world, the question of the age of the universe is of minor theological consequence compared to the doctrine of the historical Adam.

Fortunately, even some Orthodox rabbis have avoided the problem entirely by allowing for a non-literal interpretation of the Creation story. Foremost among them is Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the land of Israel, who wrote:

It makes no difference for us if in truth there was in the world an actual Garden of Eden, during which man delighted in an abundance of physical and spiritual good, or if actual existence began from the bottom upwards, from the lowest level of being towards its highest, an upward movement. We only have to know that there is a real possibility that even if a man has risen to a high level, and has been deserving of all honors and pleasures, if he corrupts his ways, he can lose all that he has, and bring harm to himself and to his descendants for many generations.5

Having been disinterred and subjected to the indignity of a late post-mortem examination, the Omphalos thesis may again be returned to its rightful resting place among the discarded doctrines of philosophical theology.

1. As quoted in Stephen Jay Gould, The Flamingo’s Smile (New York: 1985) pp. 111-112.
2. Ibid., p. 110. 3. loc. cit.
4. Gould, op. cit., p. 111.
5. Ray A. Y. Kook, Selected Letters, trans. Tzvi Feldman (Ma’aleh Adumim: 1986) p. 12. Original text may be found in Igrot Ha-RAYaH, letter 134.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Oppressive Metaphor and the Liberating Literal Sense (a defense of hierarchical theological language)

©Berel Dov Lerner. This essay is reprinted here with minor corrections from Ralph Bisschops and James Francis, (eds.) Metaphor, Canon and Community: Jewish, Christian and Islamic Approaches (Berne: Peter Lang, 1999) 233-41. It has been reprinted a number of times, most recently in the journal, The Reconstructionist. To see it as it appears there, look for for my name at

When we think about our relationship with God, we quite naturally tend to understand it in terms borrowed from language describing the ties and alliances which hold between human beings. It is hardly necessary to mention that the contemporary (Western, high-brow) common wisdom views all such types of relationships between people as more-or-less temporary cultural constructs whose very existence is constantly threatened by the contingencies of social, political, economic and technological change. When a particular kind of human relationship is affected by such changes, it may cease to serve as an intelligible metaphor for the human/divine relationship, a predicament which Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit have called "the fading of the metaphor".1

Sometimes a theological metaphor will not merely fade into unintelligibility; it may become positively jarring. Such is the case when ancient texts refer to the human/divine bond in terms of social relationships which are now rejected as oppressive or exploitative, i.e. God as our King, Master, Lord, etc. Perhaps the best known critique of such metaphors is Mary Daly's now classic work of feminist theology, Beyond God the Father. Despite her radical rejection of traditional Christianity (which she calls "Christolatry"), Daly's scholarly grounding is in Christian theology, and she (at least in her earlier work) openly adopted central ideas of modern Christian theologians such as Paul Tillich. Of course, the Jewish community has not remained untouched by these issues. Members of the Jewish Reconstructionist movement recently expressed similarly critical attitudes towards these "politically incorrect" metaphors in the discussion surrounding the publication of Shabbat Vehagim, the newest addition to their series of prayer books, Kol Haneshamah. The Spring 1994 number of The Reconstructionist was largely devoted to these issues. One writer there complained that

...the image of God as King not only reinforces the notion that men are the real leaders; it also reinforces hierarchy rooted in a single powerful patriarchal authority figure, whether that figure be the rabbi, the corporate executive, or the public official. Jewish liturgy can unintentionally reinforce the legitimacy of excessive presidential power . . .2

Even those who have discovered ways to make their peace with the traditional liturgy still recognize the "cognitive dissonance [which] results from praying with images of God that one finds archaic, false or repugnant."3 We, who are neither ruled by kings nor enslaved by masters, may at first find these metaphors for God unpalatable. However, a more sophisticated approach to theological language must take into account the traditions in which these metaphors occur. For example, before we reject monarchy as a theological metaphor on the basis of its political implications, it is worth investigating the political uses to which it was put by our predecessors who both embraced the metaphor and actually lived in a world governed by kings. Most crucially, we must consider whether the notion of God as king was meant to be understood metaphorically to begin with.

Divine Kingship Undermines Human Kingship

At least within the Jewish tradition4, a strong case can be made for the thesis that when a human power-relationship is used as a theological metaphor, far from strengthening the original human relationship, the metaphorical usage radically undermines the legitimacy of the human relationship. The notion of God's kingship is an obvious case in point. One might think that this metaphor would serve as the basis for some version of the doctrine of the "divine right of kings".5 Be that as it may, in telling the story of Gideon's campaigns, the author of Judges seems to have arrived at the opposite conclusion:

Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, "Rule over us you, your son and your grandson as well; for you have saved us from the Midianites.“ But Gideon replied, "I will not rule over you myself, nor shall my son rule over you; the Lord alone shall rule over you.“ (Judg. 8: 22-3)6

A similar sentiment informs the story in I Samuel of Saul’s rise to power as the first king of Israel. From the start the prophet Samuel opposes the elders' request that he appoint a king. God himself complains that "It is Me they have rejected as their king" (I Sam. 8:7). Samuel, following God’s command, delivers to the people a harrowing catalogue of the injustices which they must expect to suffer under a human monarch, which ends with the chilling prediction, "The day will come when you cry out because of the king whom you yourselves have chosen; and the Lord will not answer you on that day" (I Sam. 8: 18). Despite Samuel's protestations and warnings, the people insist on being ruled by a mortal king "like all other nations" (8: 5). Even after Saul's initial successes, Samuel continues to harangue the people for having said "'No, we must have a king reigning over us' - though the Lord your God is your King" (12: 12).

In order to understand Gideon and Samuel's antimonarchical politics, it is important to keep in mind that the biblical institution of kingship defines a king's claim to his subject’s obedience and loyalty as being unique. In a monogamous society, an individual may not be married to more than one person at a time. Similarly, monarchical political tradition did not allow a person to be a subject of two or more different kings at the same time.7 Therefore, if I recognize God as my king, it is no longer possible for me to recognize some human being as also playing that role.

The rhetorically crucial point of Gideon and Samuel’s talk of "God our King" is that they are not speaking metaphorically, but rather quite literally. A literal king does not challenge the legitimacy of a metaphorical king (and vice-versa). Suppose a Jordanian lover of popular music had complained that Elvis Presley, rather than Hussein, was the true king. We would have pointed out to him that just because he recognizes the metaphorical status of one person as "The King of Rock n' Roll", he need not forswear granting someone else the political status of literal kingship. In the same way, if Gideon and Samuel understood God's kingship to be merely metaphorical, they would have no reason to complain that the anointment of a literal king would somehow impinge upon it.

The literal nature of God's kingship has striking implications for both language and politics. For more than two thousand years, sophisticated pagan and monotheist readers have dealt with scandalous passages in religious texts by reading them as metaphor and allegory. Embarrassing anthropomorphisms which seem to imply God's corporeality are safely transformed into descriptions of his power and actions, as in the case of the expression "the hand of God". The problem with these non-literal interpretations is that they cut both ways. Suppose I express my appreciation for some woman's beauty by metaphorically referring to her as a rose. My use of such a metaphor will obviously commit me to the notion that a rose itself is in fact beautiful. Similarly, if I express the depth and importance of the relationship between God and Israel by referring to it metaphorically as a relationship between lover and beloved, I must obviously be committed to the notion that human erotic love is not a trivial matter. We are so used to applying metaphorical interpretation to anthropomorphic religious language that we naturally assume that an expression such as "the Lord your God is your King” should also be taken metaphorically. However, the above discussion makes it clear that the metaphorical interpretation of divine kingship implies that we attribute positive qualities to human kingship, which we then go on to ascribe to God by way of metaphor. Because neither Gideon nor Samuel meant their talk about God as King metaphorically, they were not attributing qualities of human kings to God (nor, reciprocally, God-like qualities to kings).8 On the contrary, by conceiving of God as King, they reveal how intolerably presumptuous it is for any mere human to assume such a role. Only God, who is absolutely and ontologically different from and superior to human beings, can legitimately claim the kind of power which mortal kings try to wield over their fellow human beings. A human king is literally "playing God". Just as the association of the practice of worship with the divine makes it unthinkable for one mortal to demand worship from his fellow, the notion of God as King undermines the attempt of any merely human leader to claim our absolute obedience and loyalty. A people which thinks of itself as ruled by God will have no truck with tyrants who would usurp God’s role. Martin Buber has stated that this theocratic/libertarian attitude has informed the Jewish spirit since the theophany at Sinai:

The paradox of every original and direct theocracy, that it involves the intractableness of the human person, the drive of man to be independent of man, but for the sake of a highest commitment, already appears in the Sinai covenant.9

God as Master and Liberator

Several other seemingly "archaic, false or repugnant" images of God become paradoxically liberating when understood in their original, literal, sense. The human institutions of slavery and servitude are obviously unjust and the notion of "God our Master" has traditionally been used to undermine and limit precisely these institutions. Just as people who recognize the literal kingship of God will not abide human tyranny, those who call God "Master" cannot allow human beings to claim mastery over their fellows. Furthermore, Scripture tells us that God exercises the uniquely legitimate prerogatives of Divine mastery so as to undo the injustices of illegitimate human mastery. In Leviticus 25: 54-5, it is God's literal claim of mastery over the Jewish people which underwrites the demand that Jewish servants be freed in the Jubilee year:10

If he has not been redeemed in any of those ways, he and his children with him shall go free in the jubilee year. For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants; they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God.

The Babylonian Talmud further applies the idea that the servant of God is free from servitude to mortals to the relations between employer and wage laborer. No work agreement is absolutely binding, as this would constitute a challenge to God's ultimate mastery:

Rav stated: A laborer may renege [on his agreement to work] even in the middle of the [work] day! . For it is written, "For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants" - My servants, and not servants to [other] servants.11

The notion of God's mastery does not merely limit the powers of a would-be human master. Those who recognize God’s mastery must realize the freedom that this entails in their own lives. The Torah speaks of the loyal servant who, after seven years of enslavement, rejects the liberation offered by God:

When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall be freed, without payment . . . But if the slave declares, "I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to be freed," his master shall take him before God [or perhaps, the judge]. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life. (Ex. 21: 2, 5-6)12

Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai's interpretation of this strange procedure is given in Tractate Kiddushin 22b of the Babylonian Talmud:

How is the ear different from all other parts of the body [that it is to be pierced in a slave who refuses his freedom]? The Holy One blessed be He said: "The ear which heard my voice at Mount Sinai when I said, For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants"; My servants, and not servants to [other] servants - and this one went and acquired himself a master - let it be pierced!

According to Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai, one’s attainment of personal freedom from enslavement to humans is itself a fundamental expression of one's commitment to serve God.

Passing Mary Daly's Test

The Talmudic interpretations I have mentioned regarding the notion of "God our Master" have an importance beyond the light they shed on the biblical text. The exegetical imagination will always be capable of inventing apologetic glosses on Scripture which make it palatable to contemporary tastes. However, it may be argued that this is not sufficient to justify our continued positive appreciation of biblical texts. Consider, for instance, Mary Daly's opposition to Paul Tillich's13 reinterpretation of the story of The Fall:

However, as in the case of his analysis of the Fall, Tillich abstracts from the specific content of the symbol, which in fact functions to justify oppressive social structures. Once again there is no notice taken of the fact that the medium is the message. Defenders of this method argue that the symbol "can be used oppressively" but insist that it need not function in this way. This kind of defense is understandable but it leaves a basic question unanswered: If the symbol can be "used" that way and in fact has a long history of being "used" that way, isn't this an indication of some inherent deficiency in the symbol itself?14

The style of interpretation which I am here endorsing does not suffer from the deficiencies which Daly attributes to Tillich. Here there is no question of abstracting "from the specific content of the symbol", since the images of God here discussed are being considered in terms of their literal "specific content", rather than as symbols or metaphors. Furthermore, as is demonstrated by the Talmudic passages here cited (and these exemplary passages could be multiplied with many others from the rabbinic literature through the ages), these purportedly oppressive images of God do not have a "long history of being 'used'" in an oppressive way, at least not within the Jewish tradition. I would go so far as to say that an oppressive interpretation of these notions of God could only be made in spite of how they have been understood by the rabbis. The discomfort of the contemporary faithful with "archaic, false or repugnant" images of God may indicate a deficiency in the cultural grounding of our generation rather than "some inherent deficiency in the symbol itself".

The danger will always remain that people will make incorrect inferences from the propriety of talking about God's superiority to the propriety of talking about the superiority of particular human beings. If, however, for political reasons, we censor all hierarchical religious language, we will also lack the means to speak of divine transcendence. Of course, those who reject a personalist theology, or who are unwilling to contemplate the possibility of a Being who quite properly relates to human beings as their absolute superior, will still have reason to reject traditional references to God's mastery and kingship. However, as I have demonstrated, the upshot of God’s superiority far from implies the endorsement of unequal relationships between human beings.

Landownership and the Lessons of the Exodus

My final example involves the return of ancestral lands to their original owners in the jubilee year. According to biblical law, every fifty years (in the jubilee year), each family, no matter what deals it may have struck in the preceding five decades and regardless of its financial fortunes, regains possession of its original familial lands. Here again we see the divine/human relationship described in the language of oppression. God is the great landowner and we but his tenant farmers: "The Land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with me" (Lev. 25: 23). However, divine "monopoly" ownership of land does not imply unjust distribution. In fact, the priestly tribe of Levi, who would seem to be the most natural beneficiaries of such ownership, "have received no hereditary share along with their kinsmen: the Lord is their share" (Deut. 10: 9). Instead, the claim of divine ownership is mentioned only in order to undermine any human attempt at gaining monopoly control of land. No one may be permanently disinherited of their ancestral portion, "the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with me".

The three aspects of liberation which I have discussed (i. e. freedom from monarchy, freedom from slavery and freedom from monopoly land-ownership) precisely define the liberation described in the story of the Exodus.15 In Egypt, the Israelites were enslaved by an absolute monarch who owned all of the land (see Gen. 47). The liberation from these forms of oppression is depicted by the Exodus story as the replacement of Pharaoh's dominion by that of God. In the words of the late biblical scholar Binyamin Uffenheimer:

Pharaonic slavery was conceived by Israel as the symbol of human bondage. As against it, the Kingdom of God was meant to be free from any kind of human domination.16

Careful examination of one word in the original Hebrew text of Exodus will help strengthen this point. God does not directly call for the freeing of the Israelite slaves, rather he repeatedly demands of Pharaoh "Let my people go that they may worship Me" (Ex. 7: 16, 7: 26, 8: 16, 9: 1, 9: 13, 10: 3). The word "worship" is deserving of further scrutiny. In the Hebrew, it appears as ve'ya'avduni, which may also be literally rendered "that they may serve me". The term here translated as "worship" is derived from exactly the same root as the word eved (slave or servant), which is used by scripture to describe the position of the Israelites in Egypt. In other words, God may be seen as demanding that Pharaoh hand over to him the mastery over the Jewish People. When the Israelites fully realize their servitude to God, they become fully liberated from their servitude to Pharaoh. Here again, in the story which has most fundamentally expressed the need for human liberation in both the Jewish and Christian traditions, we encounter the theological- political axiom that only God has the right to make absolute demands of human beings, and what He does demand is that they be free.


This essay is reprinted with minor corrections from Ralph Bisschops and James Francis, (eds.) Metaphor, Canon and Community: Jewish, Christian and Islamic Approaches (Berne: Peter Lang, 1999) 233-41.
1. See their Idolatry, Naomi Goldblum, trans. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 30-35. Halbertal and Margalit argue that changes in nature of marital relationships have spoiled the use of erotic jealousy as a metaphor for God's response to idolatry.
2. David Teutsch, "Seeking God in the Siddur: Reflections on Kol Haneshama," The Reconstructionist 59: (1) 1994, 15.
3. Eliezer Diamond, "Image and Imagination: The Revealed and Hidden Faces of God in Jewish Liturgy". The Reconstructionist 59(1): 1994, 57.
4. David Nicholis, "Addressing God as Ruler: Prayer and Petition," British Journal of Sociology 44(1) 1993,reviews the political uses of the notion of God's kingship in the Christian tradition.
5. Exceptions to this thesis may be found in the tiny portion of Jewish liturgy, which relates directly to human monarchs. B. Berakhot 58a states: “One who sees a king of Israel says ‘Blessed [is he] who has given of his glory to those who revere him.’ [One who sees] a king of the nations says, ‘Blessed [is he] who has given of his glory to flesh and blood.’" Also see Sarah Japhet, The Ideology of the Book of Chronicles and Its Place in Biblical Thought (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1997) 334-348. Japhet argues convincingly that several verses in Chronicles (I Chr. 17: 14, 28: 5, 29: 23, II Chr. 9: 8, and 13: 8) point to a counter-tradition which understands God's kingship as supportive of human (especially Davidic) kingship. Expressions of this tradition may also be found in Psalms. Don Levenson Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 117 writes: "The theology of Psalm 89...sees the governance of the world as lying in the hands of a dyarchy of God and king."
6. All biblical quotations are from Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures (Philadelphia and New York: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1988).
7. The ancient Near Eastern attitude towards the king’s unique claim to his subject's loyalty is somewhat more complicated than I have described it here. Jon Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985), 70 - 75, points out that the Hebrew word melek, while usually translated as "king", may refer to two different forms of political authority, which he calls, respectively, "sovereignty" and "suzerainty". Levenson claims that while the general notion of God's sovereignty does not undermine human kingship, God's role as suzerain (an emperor, or in other words, a master of vassals) strictly implies his unique rule over Israel which pre-empts any other claim, be it human or divine. Vassals "must acknowledge only one suzerain, the great king [emphasis in original] of their alliance" (pg. 71). "Both Israel as a nation and the Israelite as an individual stand in the position of royal vassals of the divine suzerain" (pg. 72).
8. I should point out that, literally understood, kingship refers merely to a particular political-legal relationship. The fact that someone is a king tells us a lot about his legal prerogatives in a monarchical state and very little about his essential characteristics. In regard to these the fact that someone may be called a king only tells us that he fulfills the minimum definition of a "person" who is capable of claiming such a role. Similarly, we might infer from the statement "Charlie Brown owes me five dollars" that Mr. Brown is someone legally definable as a person rather than a cartoon character or a cat of the same name. This legalistic understanding of what it means to be a king reduces the metaphysical difficulties of attributing literal kingship to God. The same is true of the terms "landowner” and "slave owner" dealt with below.
9. Martin Buber,Kingship of God, (Richard Scheimann, trans.) (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 138. Not surprisingly, anti-monarchists in the modern period have made political use of these biblical sources. The great defender of the American and French revolutions, Thomas Paine, devoted several pages of his classic treatise Common Sense to Gideon and Samuel, and wrote of the ancient Israelites:

Kings they had none, and it was held sinful to acknowledge any being under that title but the Lord of Hosts. And when a man seriously reflects on the idolatrous homage which is paid to the persons of kings, he need not wonder that the Almighty, ever jealous of his honor, should disapprove of a form of government which so impiously invades the prerogative of heaven. (Thomas Paine, Common Sense and Other Political Writings, (N. F. Adkins, ed.) (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril, 1953), 11).

Paine concludes:

These portions of scripture are direct and positive. They admit of no equivocal construction. That the Almighty has entered his protest against monarchical government is true, or the scripture is false. (pg. 13)

For further examples of the antimonarchical use of scripture in the modern West, see Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1985) 127-8. Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was the most prominent medieval Jewish thinker to base an extended anti-monarchical argument on these scriptural passages. The relevant sections of his biblical commentaries are conveniently available in English translation in R. Lerner and M. Mahdi (Eds.), Medieval Political Philosophy: A Sourcebook (New York: The Free Press, 1963).
10. Emmanuel Levinas presents a similar discussion of these sources in his book Beyond the Verse, (Gary D. Mole, trans.) (London: Athlone Press, 1994), 10. I am indebted to Dr. Ralph Bisschops for bringing this to my attention. My analysis also shares a weakness in common with Levinas's Jewish writings. While we both seek universal human liberation, tradition usually only relates to liberation internal to the Jewish people. Strictly speaking, the notions of God as King, slave-owner and landowner serve within Judaism to free Jews from human kings, slaveowners and landowners. The issue of particularism does not touch my central thesis that within Judaism, hierarchical God-talk is liberating.
11. B. Bava Mezia 10a. In Levinas' book this is mistakenly cited as 10b.
12. The standard Jewish interpretation would have it that even such a "slave for life" would be freed even against his will in the jubilee year.
13. See Paul Tillich's Systematic Theology, (vol. II). (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 31-39.
14. Mary Daly,Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973), 72.
15. A further discussion of the relationship between the deprivations of Egypt and the social provisions of biblical law see my "Redemption: Time and Space," Jewish Biblical Quarterly 21(3)1993: 178-82.
16. Benjamin Uffenheimer, "Utopia and Reality in Biblical Thought," Immanuel 9: 1979: 7. See also his Ancient Prophecy in Israel (revised edition, Hebrew), (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1984) for an in-depth discussion of many of the points I have touched upon in this paper. His treatment of the ancient Near Eastern background for Israel’s covenant with God is especially interesting.