Posts Tagged ‘Genesis’


Jews, Christians and Muslims know that monotheism began with Abraham, the Hebrew patriarch whom Torah students have studied these past three weeks. But like Elvis sightings, that’s an urban legend.

Secular scholars point to monotheism’s birth in what Karl Jaspers termed the Axial Age—700 to 200 BCE. Karen Armstrong writes that as urban civilizations developed, “people ultimately began to find that the old paganism, which had served their ancestors well, no longer spoke fully to their condition.”

The biblical narrative offers a third view, as I detail in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible. The book of Genesis plants monotheism’s roots in the sixth day of creation, presenting Adam and Eve as the original pair of monotheists long predating Abraham. They enjoy a personal relationship with God, Who instructs Adam not to eat from a specific tree and makes clothing for Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness after they do. And yes, He also expels them from Eden.

Their sons also know God. When God accepts Abel’s offering but not Cain’s, Cain sulks. God offers parental advice: “Surely if you do right, / There is uplift. / But if you do not do right / Sin couches at the door; / Its urge is toward you, / Yet you can be its master” (Gen. 4:7).

With Abel dead and Cain banished, Adam and Eve have a third son—Seth. Genesis makes no mention of Seth’s relationship with God, but there’s every reason to believe Adam and Eve informed Seth about their Creator. Why?

When the earth becomes populous, Genesis states, “It was then that men began to invoke the Lord (YHVH) by name” (Gen. 4:26). This induces Nahum Sarna to write, “This text takes monotheism to be the original religion of the human race, and the knowledge of the name YHVH to be pre-Abrahamic.”

Humanity descends into wrongdoing and idolatry. Still, Enoch, the seventh in Adam’s line and great-grandfather of Noah “walked with God 300 years” (Gen. 5:22). Noah, in the tenth generation, receives God’s instruction to build an ark.

After the Flood, people again turn away from God. The Talmud (Berachot 33b) explains, “Everything is in the hand of heaven except the fear of heaven.” Eden now consisting of only of a myth as humanity drifts into various forms of polytheism and idol worship. Monotheism, like a buried seed, lies dormant. Still, as God’s Others relates, pockets of monotheism lived on.

Twenty generations after Adam and Eve, Abraham appears. The biblical text never explains why God chooses him, but it now seems clear that Abraham rekindles monotheism rather than discovers it. Yehezkel Kaufmann writes that primeval mankind from Adam on “appears to have been monotheistic.” Gunther Plaut notes of Abraham, “The Torah does not depict him as the founder of a new religion.”

From the biblical perspective, monotheism constitutes humanity’s natural religious state. This prompts us to consider a corollary. All people contain the Divine spark. The Parent loves all His children. In a nation—indeed a world—torn by hatred and violence, we would do well to remember that to which Abraham sought to return us, however we might define God and the unity of the universe.

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In 1990, I met new friends Yury and Svetlana who’d just come to the U.S. from the Soviet Union. I took them to the Toy Boat on Clement Street for ice cream. The choices of flavors staggered them. Over time, they learned to shop around. Still, retail choices aren’t always simple. Moral choices can be a nightmare.

B’reishit, the first portion of the Book of Genesis, offers two timeless stories concerning choice. In the first, God instructs Adam not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. But the wily serpent convinces Eve to take a bite. She does and passes the fruit on to her husband who also indulges. Bad choices. Goodbye, Eden.

Next comes the story of Cain and Abel, the children of Adam and Eve. When God accepts Abel’s offering but not Cain’s, Cain becomes crestfallen. God offers Cain encouragement: “Sin couches at the door; / Its urge is toward you, / Yet you can be its master.” Evil tempts us constantly, but we are not condemned to making bad choices. Regrettably, God’s advice falls on deaf ears. Apparently consumed by jealousy, Cain kills Abel. In punishment he must wander the earth.

Who among us is not without regrets? It is in our nature as human beings to make bad choices as well as good ones. According to the Sages of the Talmud, Adam and Eve bequeathed to humanity the yetzer tov (the good inclination) and the yetzer hara (the bad inclination). These often place us at war with ourselves. Nearly two thousand years later, Freud wrote about the conflict of the id, ego and superego. Both religious and civil law attempt to keep the yetzer hara in check.

John Steinbeck made the Cain and Abel story the core of his novel East of Eden (1952). The brothers Adam and Charles Trask share a love-hate relationship. Adam’s wife, Cathy Ames, represents pure evil. The serpent perhaps? Cathy’s sons Aron and Caleb—supposedly Adam’s, more likely Charles’—also possess conflicting personalities. Caleb loves Aron, but Aron is the beloved child. Ultimately, Caleb gets Aron to enlist in the Army during World War One. Aron is killed in Europe.

Steinbeck pursues the theme of choice throughout this long novel. At its conclusion, he repeats an earlier reference to the Cain and Abel story that uses the Hebrew word timshel, translated as “thou mayest.” Caleb is told that he can dominate or master his sinful urges. He does not have to wander the world; he can build a life.

The Torah offers structure for making moral choices. The Talmud delves deeper. Still, sound choices never come easy. Modern-day thinkers often present challenging responses to making geopolitical choices in a complex world. Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State under Richard Nixon, wrote in Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957) that some situations force us “to run risks in a situation which permits only a choice among evils.” We must not lose our principles, Kissinger states, but we cannot uphold them if we perish.

Today, Islamist violence in the Middle East and the plight of refugees along with poverty and gun violence at home confront us with difficult choices. I referenced Genesis, which begins the Bible. I’ll close with Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

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Death appears frequently in this week’s Torah portion, Va’yishlach (Genesis 32:4–36:43). It’s only fitting. I’ve been thinking about death lately. Also humor. They go hand in hand. As it says on the back cover of my upcoming novel The Boy Walker (available around the first of the year; I’ll keep you posted): death is nothing—and everything—to laugh about.

First Torah: Jacob escapes possible death at the hands of his elder twin Esau when they meet after twenty years. Jacob had been sent off by his mother Rebecca after he stole Esau’s birthright and blessing. Then things go downhill. Shechem, a Hivite prince, rapes Jacob’s daughter Dinah. Pursuing revenge, Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi trick then slaughter the men of the town. The rest of Jacob’s sons go on a plunder spree. Jacob protests the murderous rampage. Simeon and Levi respond, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?”

There’s more. D’vorah, Rebecca’s nursemaid, dies. Then Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife, dies birthing Benjamin on the road to Ephrat. (Her traditional tomb lies in Bethlehem.) Finally, Isaac dies, “gathered to his kin in ripe old age.” Yet there is uplift. Esau and Jacob together bury their father.

As to me, I’ve been noting the dwindling of my family. My Aunt Rita—my mother’s sister—is the last of my blood aunts and uncles. Several cousins have died, too. Still, life goes on. I have a wife and children. My sister Kay turned seventy-five two days ago. She has two grandsons. And I keep writing.

I’ve been working on short stories. Several reflect on death—physical and emotional. A retired astronaut contemplates the meaninglessness of life on his eightieth birthday. An actuary must live with a heart transplanted from a police officer with a terrible secret. An Israeli gangster becomes religious then disillusioned via the workings of the Satan. A painter learns that art in the highest circles is all about business.

Then there’s The Boy Walker. The beginning of the novel relates, “The Malach HaMavet—the Angel of Death—seizes victims arbitrarily and inflicts on their survivors wounds both horrific and seemingly irreparable.” Don’t be depressed. Preceding chapter one is a stand-up comedy bit from the novel’s narrator, Brute Greenbaum. “Dogs are way smarter than people,” he states. Then he makes his case. Brute knows.  He’s a 12-year-old English Bulldog equivalent to a human centenarian. His tongue is worse than his bite.

Death haunts not only Brute but also his father-and-son co-masters. But comedy intervenes. Lots of it. I can think of no better approach to mortality. Laughter produces endorphins, which boost our bodies and spirits. And audiences aren’t the only ones who benefit. Brute notes about angst-ridden comics: “For a stand-up, a gig is therapy. Only the patient gets paid.”

My English professor and advisor at Alfred University, Mel Bernstein (z”l), once told me, “Never lose your sense of humor.” Who knows? Laughter just might inspire the Malach HaMavet to raise a glass of California Chardonnay or a Manhattan and toast, “L’chaim! To life!”

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