Home Special Reports The History of Palestine and Israel in the light of Hebrew Bible

The History of Palestine and Israel in the light of Hebrew Bible

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In Genesis 3 we meet the cunning serpent, and although many later Hellenistic Jewish texts and the New Testament will identify the snake as a Satan, an enticer, a tempter, some sort of evil creature, he doesn’t seem to be so in this fable. There’s no real devil or Satan character – we’ll talk about Job later – in the Hebrew Bible, the snake in Eden is simply a talking animal. He’s a standard literary device that you see in fables of this period, and later – the kind that you find for example in the fables of Aesop. And the woman responds to the serpent’s queries by saying that eating and even touching the tree is forbidden on pain of death. One wonders whence the addition of touching.
Did Adam convey God’s command to Eve with an emphasis all his own? “Don’t even touch that tree, Eve. It’s curtains for us if you do.” She didn’t hear the original command. Or did she just mishear in some very tragic version of the telephone game. And the serpent tells her, No, “you are not going to die” if you touch or eat the fruit.
In fact, he adds, the fruit will bring you wisdom making humans like gods who know good and bad. And in fact that’s certainly true. He tells her the truth. Genesis 3:7 is a very critical verse and it’s rarely properly translated. Most translations read like this: “She took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband and he ate.” The implication is that Eve acts alone and then she goes and finds Adam and gives him some of the apple and convinces him to eat it.
But in fact the Hebrew literally reads, “She took of its fruit and ate and gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.” “With her” is a very teeny-tiny little word in Hebrew, so I guess a lot of translations figure they can leave it out. But the “with her” is there in the Hebrew. At that fateful moment, Adam and Eve are standing together at the tree, and although only the woman and the serpent speak, Adam was present, and it seems he accepted the fruit that his wife handed him.
He was fully complicitous, and indeed God holds him responsible. He reproaches Adam. Adam says: Well, Eve handed it to me. She gave it to me. Eve explains, the serpent tricked me. God vents his fury on all three, and he does so in ascending order: first the snake for his trickery and then the woman, and finally the man.
So just as the harlot tells Enkidu after his sexual awakening that he has become like a god, so Adam and Eve after eating the forbidden fruit are said to be like divine beings. Why? Perhaps because they have become wise in that they have learned they have moral choice. They have free will, they can defy God and God’s plans for them in a way that animals and natural phenomena cannot.
But now that means there is a serious danger here, and in Genesis 3:22, God says, “Now that man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil [bad], what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever?” So it’s the threat of an immortal antagonist that is so disturbing and must be avoided.
So God banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden and he stations these kerubim, these cherubim–not puffy cute little babies like Raphael painted, but these fierce monstrous creatures – and a fiery, ever-turning sword to guard the way back to the tree of life. It is now inaccessible. So the acceptance of mortality as an inescapable part of the human condition: it’s a part of this story. It’s also one of the themes of The Epic of Gilgamesh. As the story continues Enkidu enters the city and Enkidu earns Gilgamesh’s respect and deep love. This is the first time that this rapacious tyrant has ever actually loved anyone and his character is reformed as a result.
And then the rest of the epic contains the adventures of these two close friends, all of the things that they do together. And when Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh is absolutely devastated. He’s for the first time confronted with his own mortality. He’s obsessed with grief over Enkidu, and he’s obsessed with the whole issue of mortality. He begins a quest for immortality, and that takes up most of the rest of the epic. He leaves the city, he travels far and wide, he crosses these primeval seas and endures all sorts of hardships.
And finally exhausted and battered he reaches Utnapishtim, also there on the board, Utnapishtim, who is the only mortal ever to have been granted immortality by the gods, and he comes to him and asks for his secret. It turns out that Utnapishtim can’t help him, and we’ll come back to Utnapishtim later in the flood story, and Gilgamesh is devastated. He then learns the whereabouts of a plant of eternal youth. And he says: Well that’s better than nothing. That at least will keep him young. And so he goes after the plant of eternal youth, but he’s negligent for a moment and a thieving snake or serpent manages to steal it and that explains why snakes are always shedding their skins and are forever young.
Gilgamesh is exhausted, he feels defeated, he returns to Uruk, and as he stands looking at the city from a distance, gazing at it, he takes comfort in the thought that although humans are finite and frail and doomed to die, their accomplishments and their great works give them some foothold in human memory. Now Nahum Sarna is one of the people who has pointed out that the quest for immortality, which is so central in The Epic of Gilgamesh, is really deflected in the biblical story.
The tree of life is mentioned, and it’s mentioned with a definite article. Genesis 2:9 says, “with the tree of life in the middle of the garden,” as if this is a motif we’re familiar with, as if this is something we all know about. But then it’s really not mentioned again as the story proceeds. The snake, which in The Epic of Gilgamesh is associated with the plant of eternal youth, in Genesis is associated instead with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That’s the focus of our attention in Genesis, and it’s only at the end of the story that the tree of life appears again in the passage that is emphasizing its permanent inaccessibility.
And we could perhaps draw two conclusions from this. First it may be that Adam and Eve had access to this tree up to that point. As long as their will conformed to the will of God, there was no danger to their going on eternally, being immortal. Once they discovered their moral freedom, once they discovered that they could thwart God and work evil in the world, and abuse and corrupt all that God had created, then God could not afford to allow them access to the tree of life. That would be tantamount to creating divine enemies, immortal enemies.
So God must maintain the upper hand in his struggle with these humans who have learned to defy him. And he maintains the upper hand in this, the fact that they eventually must die. Second of all the motif of guards who block access to the tree of life suggests that no humans have access to immortality and the pursuit of immortality is futile. So it might be then that God really spoke the truth after all. The fruit did bring death to humankind.
Before we leave this story and move onto Cain and Abel, I just want to make a couple of quick observations. First of all, the opening chapters of Genesis, Genesis 1 through 3, have been subjected to centuries of theological interpretation.
They have generated for example the doctrine of original sin, which is the idea that humans after Adam are born into a state of sin, by definition. As many ancient interpreters already have observed, the actions of Adam and Eve bring death to the human race. They don’t bring a state of utter and unredeemed sinfulness. In fact, what they tell us is that humans have moral choice in each and every age. The story is primarily etiological rather than prescriptive or normative. We’ve talked about this: these etiological tales are tales that are trying to explain how or why something is the way it is.
This is why serpents shed their skin, for example. In the Epic of Gilgamesh they were the ones who got the plant of eternal youth. It’s etiological. The writer observes that humans emerge from innocent childhood to self-conscious adulthood. The writer observes that survival is a difficult endeavor and that the world can sometimes seem harshly hostile. The writer observes that women are desirous of and emotionally bonded to the very persons who establish the conditions of their subordination.
The story is explaining how these odd conditions of life came to be as they are, which is not to say that it’s the ideal situation, or even that it’s God’s will for humankind; these are etiological fables, and they’re best read as such. Second of all in this story we see something that we’ll see repeatedly in the Pentateuch, and that is that God has to punt a bit. He has to modify his plans for the first couple, by barring access to the tree of life. That was not something presumably he planned to do. This is in response to, perhaps, their unforeseen disobedience: certainly the way the story unfolds that’s how it seems to us. So despite their newfound mortality, humans are going to be a force to be reckoned with. They’re unpredictable to the very god who created them.
Finally I’ll just draw your attention to some interesting details that you can think about and maybe talk about in section. God ruminates that the humans have become like “one of us” in the plural. That echoes his words in Genesis 1 where he proposes, “Let us make humans,” or humankind, “in our image.” Again in the plural. Who is he talking to? And what precisely are these cherubim that are stationed in front of the tree of life barring access? What do we make of these allusions to divine colleagues or subordinates in light of Kaufman’s claims regarding biblical monotheism?
You should be bringing some of the things we talked about when discussing his work, into dialogue with and in conflict with some of the evidence you’ll be finding in the text itself. So think about these things, don’t pass over these details lightly, and don’t take them for granted. The Cain and Abel story which is in Genesis 4:1 through 16: this is the story of the first murder, and it’s a murder that happens despite God’s warning to Cain that it’s possible to master the urge to violence by an act of will.
He says, “Sin couches at the door;/Its urge is toward you/Yet you can be its master,” Genesis 4:7. Nahum Sarna and others have noted that the word “brother” occurs throughout this story repeatedly, and it climaxes in God’s question, “Where is your brother, Abel?” And Cain responds, “I don’t know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And ironically you sense, when you read this that, even though Cain intends this as a rhetorical question – Am I my brother’s keeper?” -in fact, he’s right on the money. Yes. We are all of us our brothers’ keepers, and the strong implication of the story is as Sarna puts it, that all homicide is in fact fratricide.
That seems to be the message of this story. Note also that Cain is culpable, and for someone to be culpable of something we have to assume some principle that they have violated. And therefore, this story assumes the existence of what some writers, Sarna among them, have called “the universal moral law.” There seems to be in existence from the beginning of creation this universal moral law, and that is: The God-endowed sanctity of human life. We can connect it with the fact that God has created humans in his own image, but the God-endowed sanctity of human life is an assumption, and it’s the violation of that assumption which makes Cain culpable.
The story of Cain and Abel is notable for another theme, and this is a theme that’s going to recur in the Bible, and that is the tension between settled areas and the unsettled desert areas and desert life of the nomads. Abel is a keeper of sheep. He represents the nomadic pastoralist, unlike Cain who is the tiller of soil, so he represents more settled urban life. God prefers the offering of Abel, and as a result Cain is distressed and jealous to the point of murder. God’s preference for the offering of Abel valorizes the free life of the nomadic pastoralist over urban existence.
Even after the Israelites will settle in their own land, the life of the desert pastoralist remained a sort of romantic ideal for them. It’s a theme that we’ll see coming up in many of the stories. It’s a romantic ideal for this writer too. Now the murder of Abel by Cain is followed by some genealogical lists. They provide some continuity between the tales.
They tell us folkloric traditions about the origins of various arts, the origins of building, of metalwork and music, but finally in Genesis 6:5 we read that, “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart,” the human heart, “was evil continuously” [Revised Standard Version translation]. And this sets the stage then for the story of a worldwide flood. Now here again the Bible is making use of older traditions and motifs and adapting them to their own purposes. I’ve hinted at this already and we’ll look at it in a bit more detail now. We know of a very ancient Sumerian flood story. The hero is Ziusudra, also on the board.
We also know of a very early Semitic work, the Epic of Atrahasis, in which there’s a flood. But the most detailed flood story we have actually comes from The Epic of Gilgamesh, on the eleventh tablet of The Epic of Gilgamesh. You’ll remember that in his search for immortality Gilgamesh sought out Utnapishtim, the one human who had been granted immortality. He wants to learn his secret. And when he begs for the secret of eternal life he gets Utnapishtim’s story, and it’s the flood story. He learns that Utnapishtim and his wife gained their immortality by a twist of circumstances: they were the sole survivors of this great flood, and as a kind of reward they were given immortality.
The Sumerian story of Ziusudra is very similar to the Genesis account. In both you have the flood coming about as the deliberate result of a divine decision; you have one individual who’s chosen to be saved from the flood; that individual is given specific instructions on building an ark, and is given specific instructions on who to bring on-board the ark. The ark also comes to rest on a mountaintop, the hero sends out a bird to reconnoitre the land, to find out if it’s dry yet.
When the hero emerges, he builds an altar. He offers sacrifice to the deity and receives a blessing. Very similar, parallel stories, and yet there are significant contrasts between the Mesopotamian story and its Israelite adaptation. Let’s compare some of the elements from all three of the stories with the biblical story. In the Epic of Gilgamesh we have no motive given for the divine destruction whatsoever. It just seems to be pure capriciousness. In the Epic of Atrahasis we do in fact read of a reason, and the text there states, “The land became wide and the people became numerous. The land bellowed like wild oxen.
The god was disturbed by their uproar. Enlil heard the clamor and said to the gods, “Oppressive has become the clamor of [hu]mankind. By their uproar they prevent sleep” [Pritchard 1950, 1955, 104]. So it seems that humankind is to be destroyed because they irritate the gods with their tumult and noise. In the Gilgamesh epic, Ea, an earth-water god, does ask another god, Enlil, how he could have brought the flood on so senselessly. He says, “Lay upon the sinner the sin; Lay upon the transgressor his transgression” [Pritchard 1950, 1955, 95], which would indicate that in The Epic of Gilgamesh there is this element of capriciousness.
The biblical writer in retelling the story seems to want to reject this idea by providing a moral rationale for God’s actions. The earth, the text says, is destroyed because of hamas. Hamas is a word that literally means violence, bloodshed, but also all kinds of injustice and oppression. Noah is saved specifically for his righteousness he was righteous in his generation. He was chosen therefore for moral reasons. So the writer seems very determined to tell the story in a way that depicts God as acting not capriciously but according to certain clear standards of justice. This was deserved punishment and the person who was saved was righteous. Furthermore, in the Mesopotamian accounts the gods do not appear to be in control.
This is something that’s been pointed out by many writers. Enlil wants to destroy humankind completely. He’s thwarted by Ea who drops hints of the disaster to Utnapishtim so Utnapishtim knows what to do and therefore manages to escape the flood. But that’s thwarting the design of the god who brought the flood. He wanted everything destroyed.
When the flood comes the gods themselves seem to have lost control. They’re terrified, they cower. The text says they “cowered like dogs crouched against the outer wall. Ishtar,” the goddess Ishtar, “cried out like a woman in labor [travail] [Pritchard 1958, 69]. And moreover during the period of the flood they don’t have food, they don’t have sustenance.,
At the end when Utnapishtim offers the sacrifice, the gods are famished and they crowd around the sacrifice like flies, the text says [Pritchard 1958, 70]. The biblical writer wants to tell a different story. In the biblical flood story, God is represented as being unthreatened by the forces of nature that he unleashes, and being completely in control.
He makes the decision to punish humans because the world has corrupted itself through hamas, through bloodshed and violence. He selects Noah due to his righteousness and he issues a direct command to build an ark. He has a clear purpose and he retains control throughout the story. At the end, the writer doesn’t depict him as needing the sacrifice for food or sustenance.
We might say that this story, like the story of Cain and Abel before it, and like the story we will read later of Sodom and Gomorrah, this story presupposes this universal moral law that Sarna and Kaufman and others have talked about, this universal moral law that seems to govern the world, and if God sees infractions of it, then as supreme judge he brings humans to account. If morality is the will of God, morality then becomes an absolute value, and these infractions will be punished, in the biblical writer’s view.
The message of the flood story also seems to be that when humans destroy the moral basis of society, when they are violent or cruel or unkind, they endanger the very existence of that society. The world dissolves. So corruption and injustice and lawlessness and violence inevitably bring about destruction. Some writers have pointed out that it’s interesting that these humans are not being punished for religious sins, for idolatry, for worshipping the wrong god or anything of that nature, and this is important. The view of the first books of the Bible is that each nation worships its own gods, its own way, perhaps.
At this point in the story, perhaps the view is that all know of God even if they ignore him. But the view eventually will be that only Israel is obligated to the God of Israel, other nations aren’t held accountable for their idolatry in the books of the Torah. We’ll see this is we continue along. And yet everyone, all humans, Israelites or non-Israelites alike, by virtue of having been created by God in the image of God – even though they may not know that God, or may ignore that God – they are bound to a basic moral law that precludes murder and, perhaps from this story, we could argue other forms of oppression and violence.
What better way to drive home the point that inhumanity and violence undermine the very foundations of society than to describe a situation in which a cosmic catastrophe results from human corruption and violence. It’s an idea that runs throughout the Bible, it also appears in later Jewish thought and some Christian thought, some Islamic thought. The Psalmist is going to use this motif when he denounces social injustice, exploitation of the poor and so on. He says through wicked deeds like this “all the foundations of the earth,” are moved, “are shaken” [Psalm 82:5, RSV].
The Noah story, the flood story, ends with the ushering in of a new era, and it is in many ways a second creation that mirrors the first creation in some important ways. But this time God realizes – and again this is where God’s got to punt all the time. This is what I love about the first part of Genesis – God is trying to figure out what he has made and what he has done, and he’s got to shift modes all the time – and God realizes that he’s going to have to make a concession.
He’s going to have to make a concession to human weakness and the human desire to kill. And he’s going to have to rectify the circumstances that made his destruction of the earth necessary in the first place. So he establishes a covenant with Noah: covenant. And humankind receives its first set of explicit laws, no more implicit, “Murder is bad.” “Oh, I wish I had known!” Now we’re getting our first explicit set of laws and they’re universal in scope on the biblical writer’s view. They apply to all humanity not just Israel.
So, these are often referred to as the terms of the Noahide covenant. They apply to all humanity. This covenant explicitly prohibits murder in Genesis 9, that is, the spilling of human blood. Blood is the symbol of life: that’s a connection that’s made elsewhere in the Bible. Leviticus 17[:11], “The life… is in the blood.” So, blood is the biblical symbol for life, but God is going to make a concession to the human appetite for power and violence.
Previously humans were to be vegetarian: Genesis 1, the portrait was one in which humans and animals did not compete for food, or consume one another. Humans were vegetarian. Now God is saying humans may kill animals to eat them. But even so, he says, the animal’s life is to be treated with reverence, and the blood which is the life essence must be poured out on the ground, returned to God, not consumed. So, the animal may be eaten to satisfy the human hunger for flesh, but the life essence itself belongs to God. It must not be taken even if it’s for the purposes of nourishment.
Genesis 9:4-6, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of humans…So if you are killed by a beast or a human, there will have to be a reckoning, an accounting. “…of every person’s brother I will require the life of the person. Whoever sheds the blood of a person, in exchange for that person shall his blood be shed, for God made humans in his image [Hayes translation].
All life, human and animal, is sacred to God. The covenant also entails God’s promise to restore the rhythm of life and nature and never again to destroy the earth. The rainbow is set up as a symbol of the eternal covenant, a token of the eternal reconciliation between the divine and human realms. We should note that this notion, or this idea of a god who can even make and keep an eternal covenant is only possible on the view that God’s word and will are absolute, insusceptible to nullification by some superior power or some divine antagonist.
I will quote here the discussion between the Bible Expert Hayes and his student dated to the summer of the 2006:
”When we read the flood story in Genesis 6 through 9, we’re often struck by the very odd literary style.
I hope you were struck by the odd literary style, and the repetitiveness and the contradictions.
So I want to ask you now, and be brave and speak out, in your reading of the story did anything of that nature strike you?
Was the story hard to follow?
Was it self-contradictory, and in what ways?
Anything? Just don’t even be polite, just throw it right out there.
Yes? Student:
Professor Christine Hayes: Okay, we seem to have two sets of instructions.
Someone’s pointing out here, we seem to have two sets of instructions about what to bring two of each sort of living thing, animals and birds and creeping things, or in another passage God tells Moses to bring on seven pairs of pure animals and one pair of impure animals and seven pairs of birds.
Right?
Different sets of instructions.
Anything else strike you as odd when you were reading this story?
Student: ……….
Professor Christine Hayes: Okay, rain seems to be there for different amounts of time, doesn’t it? There are some passages in which the flood is said to have lasted for 40 days, or be on the earth for 40 days. We find that in Genesis 7:17, but in Genesis 7:24, 150 days is given as the time of the flood. Anything else? Any other sorts of doublets or contradictions, because there are a few more? Who’s giving the instructions?”