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


We inhabit the bubble that’s created in that way. That’s the image in Enuma Elish and it’s the image of Genesis 1. And later on when God gets mad he’s going to open up some windows up here, right, and it’s all going to flood. That’s what’s going to happen in the Flood. That’s the image of the world that you’re working with. So, the firmament is sort of like an inverted bowl, a beaten-out sheet of metal that’s an inverted bowl, and again as I said: echoes of Enuma Elish, where you have Marduk dividing the carcass of Tiamat, like a shellfish.
He separates the waters above and the waters below and creates this space that will become the inhabited world. Now the story of creation in Genesis 1 takes place over seven days, and there’s a certain logic and parallelism to the six days of creating. There’s a parallel between day one, day four; day two and five; day three and six. On day one, light and dark are separated. On day four, the heavenly bodies that give off light by day or night are created. On day two, the firmament is established. That water is separated, that bubble has opened up so we’ve got the sky created and we’ve got the waters collected in certain areas down here, and we’ve got sky.
On day five, the inhabitants of the skies and the waters are created, birds and fish. On day three, land is formed to make dry spots from the waters below. So you have land being formed on day three, it’s separated out from the sea and on day six you have the creation of land animals.
But days three and six each have an extra element, and the fact that the first elements here pair up nicely with each other suggests that the extra element on day three and the extra element on day six might also be paired in some important way. On day three, vegetation is produced, is created, and on day six humans are created after the creation of the land animals.
So the implication is that the vegetation is for the humans. And indeed, it’s expressly stated by God that humans are to be given every fruit bearing tree and seed bearing plant, fruits and grains for food. That’s in Genesis 1:29. That’s what you are going to eat. There’s no mention of chicken or beef, there’s no mention made of animals for food. In Genesis 1:30, God says that the animals are being given the green plants, the grass and herbs, for food.
In other words, there should be no competition for food. Humans have fruit and grain-bearing vegetation, animals have the herbiage and the grasses. There is no excuse to live in anything but a peaceful coexistence. Therefore, humans, according to Genesis 1, were created vegetarian, and in every respect, the original creation is imagined as free of bloodshed and violence of every kind. “And God saw…[that it was] very good.” So on the seventh day, God rested from his labors and for this reason he blessed the seventh day and declared it “holy.” This is a word we’ll be coming back to in about five or six lectures, talking about what it is to be holy, but right now it essentially means it belongs to God.
If something’s holy, it doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to God. And part of the purpose of this story is to explain the origin of the observance of the Sabbath, the seventh day, as a holy day. So this is a myth in the sense that it’s explaining some custom or ritual among the people. So Israelite accounts of creation contain clear allusions to and resonances of Ancient Near Eastern cosmogonies; but perhaps Genesis 1 can best be described as demythologizing what was a common cultural heritage.
There’s a clear tendency in this story towards monotheism in the abstract terms that Kaufman described. A transformation of widely known stories to express a monotheistic worldview is clearly important to these particular biblical writers, and we’ll be talking later about who these writers were who wrote Genesis 1 as opposed to Genesis 2 and 3. But these stories rival, and implicitly polemicize against, the myths or mythologies of Israel’s neighbors.
They reject certain elements but they almost reject them by incorporating them. They incorporate and modify them. So, one of the things I’ve tried to claim in describing Genesis 1 is that in this story evil is represented not as a physical reality. It’s not built into the structure of the world. When God rests he’s looking at the whole thing, [and] it’s very good, it’s set up very well. And yet we know that evil is a condition of human existence. It’s a reality of life, so how do we account for it?
And the Garden of Eden story, I think, seeks to answer that question. It actually does a whole bunch of things, but one thing it does, I think, is try to answer that question, and to assert that evil stems from human behavior. God created a good world, but humans in the exercise of their moral autonomy, they have the power to corrupt the good. So, the Garden of Eden story communicates what Kaufman would identify as a basic idea of the monotheistic worldview: that evil isn’t a metaphysical reality, it’s a moral reality.
What that means ultimately is that evil lacks inevitability, depending on your theory of human nature, I suppose, and it also means that evil lies within the realm of human responsibility and control. Now Nahum Sarna, the scholar whose work I referred to earlier, he points out that there’s a very important distinction between the Garden of Eden story and its Ancient Near Eastern parallels.
He says the motif of a tree of life or a plant of life or a plant of eternal youth, that’s a motif that we do find in other Ancient Near Eastern literatures, in Ancient Near Eastern myth and ritual and iconography, and the quest for such a plant, or the quest for immortality that the plant promises, that these were primary themes in the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh. We’ll have occasion to talk in great depth about this story next time. But by contrast, Sarna says, we haven’t as yet uncovered a parallel in Ancient Near Eastern literature to the biblical tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
It’s not the tree of knowledge, it’s the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – it’s a longer phrase. What is the significance of the fact that the Bible mentions both of these trees? It mentions a tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; and then goes on to just focus on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It virtually ignores the tree of life until we get to the end of the story, and that’s important.
But this tree of life which seems to be central to many other myths of this time and this part of the world…Sarna argues that the subordinate role of the tree of life signals the biblical writer’s dissociation from a preoccupation with immortality. The biblical writer insists that the central concern of life is not mortality but morality. And the drama of human life should revolve not around the search for eternal life but around the moral conflict and tension between a good god’s design for creation and the free will of human beings that can corrupt that good design. The serpent tells Eve that if she eats the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, she will become like God. And he’s really not telling a lie, in a certain respect. And God knows that, that human beings will become like God knowing good and evil. It’s one of the things about God: he knows good and evil and has chosen the good.
The biblical writer asserts of this god that he is absolutely good. The humans will become like gods, knowing good and evil, not because of some magical property in this fruit; and it’s not an apple, by the way, that’s based on an interesting mistranslation. Do we know what the fruit is? No, I don’t think we really know but it’s definitely not an apple. That comes from the Latin word which sounds like apple, the word malum for evil is close to the Latin word for apple which if anybody knows… whatever [see note 1]. And so iconography began to represent this tree as an apple tree and so on, but it’s not an apple tree. I don’t know if they had apple trees back then, there! But it’s not because of some magical property in the fruit itself, but because of the action of disobedience itself.
By choosing to eat of the fruit in defiance of God – this is the one thing God says, “Don’t do this! You can have everything else in this garden,” presumably, even, you can eat of the tree of life, right? It doesn’t say you can’t eat of that. Who’s to say they couldn’t eat of that and just live forever? Don’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
”Student: Is there any sort of an explanation for why God says you can’t eat of this tree when he’s given all of the fruit bearing trees…Professor Christine Hayes: There have been about–how many thousands of years of speculation – on what’s going on and you’re going to be reading a wonderful and interesting gnostic interpretation.”
And so, yep, there’s been lots of interesting…and this is all in the realm of literary interpretation: read the story closely, see if you can figure out what’s going on here. Why does God do this? Isn’t this, in a way, putting an obstacle in front of someone almost ensuring they’re going to trip over it? That’s been an argument that some commentators have made. Others see it differently. So, keep that thought, take it to section and read Elaine Pagels’ work and some of the other interpretations. That’s something that people have struggled with for centuries. Where does this come from? Who’s the serpent and what’s he doing there? They’re all very important. It is true -and maybe this will go a little bit of the distance towards answering it – it’s by eating of the fruit in defiance of God, human beings learn that they were able to do that, that they are free moral agents. They find that out. They’re able to choose their actions in conformity with God’s will or in defiance of God’s will.
So paradoxically, they learn that they have moral autonomy. Remember, they were made in the image of God and they learn that they have moral autonomy by making the defiant choice, the choice for disobedience. The argument could be made that until they once disobeyed, how would they ever know that? And then you might raise all sorts of questions about, well, was this part of God’s plan that they ought to know this and should know this, so that their choice for good actually becomes meaningful. Is it meaningful to choose to do the good when you have no choice to do otherwise or aren’t aware that you have a choice to do otherwise?
So, there’s a wonderful thirteenth-century commentator that says that God needed creatures who could choose to obey him, and therefore it was important for Adam and Eve to do what they did and to learn that they had the choice not to obey God so that their choice for God would become endowed with meaning. That’s one line of interpretation that’s gone through many theological systems for hundreds of years.
So the very action that brought them a godlike awareness of their moral autonomy was an action that was taken in opposition to God. So we see then that having knowledge of good and evil is no guarantee that one will choose or incline towards the good. That’s what the serpent omitted in his speech. He said if you eat of that fruit, of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you’ll become like God. It’s true in one sense but it’s false in another. He sort of omitted to point out… he implies that it’s the power of moral choice alone that is godlike. But the biblical writer will claim in many places that true godliness isn’t simply power, the power to do what one wishes. True godliness means imitation of God, the exercise of one’s power in a manner that is godlike, good, life-affirming and so on.
So, it’s the biblical writer’s contention that the god of Israel is not only all-powerful but is essentially and necessarily good. Those two elements cannot become disjoined, they must always be conjoined in the biblical writer’s view. And finally, humans will learn that the concomitant of their freedom is responsibility. Their first act of defiance is punished harshly. So they learn in this story that the moral choices and actions of humans have consequences that have to be borne by the perpetrator.
So, just to sum up, Sarna sees in the Garden of Eden story, as I’ve just explained it, a message that’s in line with Kaufman’s thesis about the monotheistic world view. He says this story conveys the idea that, “…evil is a product of human behavior, not a principal inherent in the cosmos. Man’s disobedience is the cause of the human predicament. Human freedom can be at one and the same time an omen of disaster and a challenge and opportunity” [Sarna 1966, 27- 28].
We’ve looked at Genesis 2 and 3 a little bit as an attempt to account for the problematic and paradoxical existence of evil and suffering in a world created by a good god, and that’s a problem monotheism really never completely conquers, but other perspectives on this story are possible. And when we come back on Monday, we’re going to look at it from an entirely different point of view and compare it with the Epic of Gilgamesh. Again, I’m sorry about sections, we will continue to communicate to you.
1. The identical word malum in Latin also means apple – References Unless otherwise noted, all biblical citations have been quoted from “Tanakh: The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text.” Copyright (c) 1985 by The Jewish Publication Society. Single copies of the JPS biblical citations cited within the transcripts can be reproduced for personal and non-commercial uses only.
Sarna, Nahum. 1966.
Understanding Genesis. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary. Speiser, E. A., trans. 1950, 1955.
The Creation Epic. In Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. James B. Pritchard, 60-61. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Bible: Introduction to the Torah, (JSB pp. 1-7); Gen 5-11
Habel, Norman. Literary Criticism of the Old Testament. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971. pp. 1-42
For Section Discussion: (1) Gen 1-3 (2) Boyarin,
Daniel. “Behold Israel According to the Flesh” and “Different Eves.” In Carnal Israel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. pp. 31-46, 77-106 (3)
Pagels, Elaine. Adam, Eve and the Serpent. New York: Random House, 1988. pp. 57-77 (4)
Trible, Phyllis. “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation.” In JAAR 41. pp. 30-48
Doublets and Contradictions, Seams and Sources: Genesis 5-11 and the Historical-Critical Method.
This lecture continues the discussion on Genesis, including the familiar accounts of Cain and Abel, the Flood and Noahide covenant. The story of Cain and Abel expresses the notion of the God-endowed sanctity of human life and a “universal moral law” governing the world. Examination of the contradictions and doublets in the flood story leads to a discussion of the complex composition and authorship of the Pentateuch. These features as well as anachronisms challenge traditional religious convictions of Moses as the author of the first five books of the Bible.
So, last time I gave a reading of the creation accounts that are in Genesis 1 to 3. These are two very different stories but their placement side by side suggests the possibility of a joint reading. Nevertheless they are very different in character, and today I want to focus in on the second creation story. This is a story that is predominantly in Genesis 2 and trickles into Genesis 3, and I’m going to look at it mostly in isolation from the first account. I’m going to be looking at it in light of an important parallel.
This parallel is The Epic of Gilgamesh – I get to point this way now, to the boards, okay? The Epic of Gilgamesh, and I’ll be drawing on the work of many scholars, Nahum Sarna probably most prominently among them, but others also who have devoted themselves to the study of these textual parallels, and developing an interpretation of these stories. I’d like you to carry that with you into your discussion sections as you look at some of the other interpretations from antiquity and on into the modern period.
Now The Epic of Gilgamesh is a magnificent Mesopotamian epic that relates the exploits of a Sumerian king, King Gilgamesh of Uruk. That’s the name of the city-state over which he is king. And the epic as we now have it was probably composed between 2000 and 1800 BCE. Gilgamesh was apparently a historical character, an actual king of Uruk, but the story of course has fantastic and legendary qualities to it.
We have a full text of the epic that was located in the library of Assurbanipal, an Assyrian king. It’s a seventh century copy of the story. But we have fragments that are much, much older (that date back to the eighteenth century) that were found in Iraq. So clearly it’s an old story and we have even older prototypes for elements of the story as well. The story opens with a description of Gilgamesh. He’s an extremely unpopular king. He’s tyrannical, he’s rapacious, he’s undisciplined, he’s over-sexed. The people in the city cry out to the gods.
They want relief from him. They particularly cite his abuses towards the young women of the city. And the god Aruru is told that she must deal with Gilgamesh. Aruru is on the board. So Aruru fashions this noble savage named Enkidu. Enkidu is designed to be a match for Gilgamesh, and he’s very much like the biblical human in Genesis 2. He’s sort of an innocent primitive, he appears unclothed, he lives a free, peaceful life in harmony with the animals, with nature and the beasts, he races across the steppes with the gazelles. But before he can enter the city and meet Gilgamesh he has to be tamed.
So a woman is sent to Enkidu and her job is to provide the sexual initiation that will tame and civilize Enkidu. I’m reading now from The Epic of Gilgamesh (Pritchard 1958, 40-75): For six days and seven nights Enkidu comes forth, mating with the lass. After he had had (his) fill of her charms, He set his face toward his wild beasts. On seeing him, Enkidu, the gazelles ran off, The wild beasts of the steppe drew away from his body. Startled was Enkidu, as his body became taut. His knees were motionless–for his wild beasts had gone. Enkidu had to slacken his pace–it was not as before; But he now had [wi]sdom, [br]oader understanding.
Returning, he sits at the feet of the harlot. I’m not sure why that translation [harlot]. I’ve been told by those who know Akkadian that the word could mean “harlot/prostitute,” it could mean some sacred prostitute…I’m not an expert in Akkadian. But: He looks up at the face of the harlot, His ears attentive, as the harlot speaks; [The harlot] says to him, to Enkidu: “Thou art [wi]se, Enkidu, art become like a god!
Why with the wild creatures dost though roam over the steppe? Come, let me lead thee [to] ramparted Uruk, to the holy Temple, abode of Anu and Ishtar, Where lives Gilgamesh, accomplished in strength And like a wild ox lords it over the folk.” As she speaks to him, her words find favor, His heart enlightened, he yearns for a friend. Enkidu says to her, to the harlot: “Up lass, escort thou me (to Gilgamesh)…
I will challenge him [and will bo]ldly address him.” So that’s tablet I from The Epic of Gilgamesh. So through this sexual experience Enkidu has become wise, growing in mental and spiritual stature, and he is said to have become like a god. At the same time there’s been a concomitant loss of innocence. His harmonious unity with nature is broken, he clothes himself, and his old friends the gazelles run from him now.
He will never again roam free with the animals. He cannot run as quickly. His pace slackens, he can’t even keep up with them. So as one reads the epic one senses this very deep ambivalence regarding the relative virtues and evils of civilized life, and many of the features that make us human. On the one hand it’s clearly good that humans rise above the animals and build cities and wear clothes and pursue the arts of civilization and develop bonds of love and duty and friendship the way that animals do not; these are the things that make humans like the gods in The Epic of Gilgamesh.
But on the other hand these advances have also come at a cost. And in this story there’s also a sense of longing for the freedom of life in the wild – the innocent, simple, uncomplicated life lived day to day without plans, without toil, in harmony with nature, a somewhat Edenic existence.
So there are very obvious parallels between this part of the epic that I’ve just read to you and our second creation story. Enkidu like Adam is fashioned from clay. He’s a noble savage, he’s a kind of innocent primitive, and he lives in a peaceful co-existence with animals. Nature yields its fruits to him without hard labor. He’s unaware of – he’s unattracted by – the benefits of civilization: clothing, cities and all their labor. Just as Enkidu gains wisdom and becomes like a god, and loses his oneness with nature, so Adam and Eve after eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil are said to have become like gods, and they also lose their harmonious relationship with nature.
In Genesis 3:15, God says to the snake: “I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your offspring and hers; They shall strike at your head, And you shall strike at their heel.” Presumably there had been a peaceful relationship between creatures like snakes and humans to that point. They [humans] are banished now from the Garden. It used to yield its fruits to them without any labor, but now humans have to toil for food and the earth yields its fruits only stintingly.
So in Genesis 3:18, God says to Adam: “Cursed be the ground because of you; By toil shall you eat of it All the days of your life: Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you. But your food shall be the grasses of the field; By the sweat of your brow Shall you get bread to eat” So knowledge or wisdom or perhaps moral freedom, seem to come at a very high price. But there are important differences between these stories too. And the most important has to do with the nature of the act that leads to the transformation of the human characters. It’s Enkidu’s sexual experience, his seven-day encounter with the woman that makes him wise and godlike at the cost of his life with the beasts. There has been a long tradition of interpreting the deed or the sin of Adam and Eve as sexual, and there are some hints in the story that would support such an interpretation.
I was just reading recently a scholarly introduction to Genesis that very much argues and develops this interpretation. Adam and Eve eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in violation of God’s command. Now eating can perhaps be a metaphor for sex, some have argued. Knowledge of good and evil – perhaps that could be understood in sexual terms.
In biblical Hebrew the word “to know” can mean “to know” in the biblical sense. It can mean sexual intercourse. Snakes are symbols of renewed life and fertility in the East because they shed their skins so they seem to be eternally young; and they’re also phallic symbols. Eve says that the snake seduced her. [She] uses a term that has some sexual overtones. So do all of these hints suggest that, in the biblical view, the change in Adam and Eve came about through sex? If so, is sex a negative thing forbidden by God?
It would depend if you view the change as a negative thing. That seems unlikely in my view. You will certainly hear it argued, but it seems unlikely in my view. God’s first command to the first couple was to be fruitful and multiply. Now admittedly that comes from the first creation story in Genesis 1; nevertheless in the second creation story when the writer is recounting the creation of woman, the writer refers to the fact that man and woman will become one flesh. So it seems that sex was part of the plan for humans even at creation.
Also, it’s only after their defiance of God’s command that Adam and Eve first become aware of, and ashamed by, their nakedness, putting the sort of sexual awakening after the act of disobedience rather than at the same time or prior to. So maybe what we have here is another polemic, another adaptation of familiar stories and motifs to express something new. Perhaps for the biblical writer, Adam and Eve’s transformation occurs after an act of disobedience, not after a seven-day sexual encounter.
The disobedience happens in a rather backhanded way. It’s kind of interesting. God tells Adam before the creation of Eve that he’s not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that’s in Genesis 2:16, on pain of death. Eve doesn’t hear this command directly. She has not yet been created.