Posts Tagged ‘Nahum Sarna’

MONOTHEISM AND MYTH

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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LANGUAGE AND MEANING

Most people recognize the first verse of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Clear? Not really. Commentators and scholars translate the Hebrew word B’reishit—“In the beginning”—in several ways. This gives rise to multiple insights into God’s actions. Language—in translation or out—often fails to accurately convey meaning. We might apply this principle to the June 8 testimony of former FBI director James Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Re Genesis, the Soncino Press (1993) translation stays with “In the beginning.” The Stone Chumash (printed Torah) offers: “In the beginning of God’s creating…” The Jewish Publication Society (1999) and the scholar Robert Alter prefer “When God began to create…”. Everett Fox chooses “At the beginning…” As Nahum Sarna notes, “The mystery of divine creativity is, of course, ultimately unknowable.”

Congress and the American people face another mystery—the meaning in President Trump’s words regarding an investigation into General Michael Flynn, Trump’s fired national security advisor. Former FBI director James Comey, also fired by Trump, testified that Trump told him: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” Because Comey said he met in private with Trump, liberal commentators and Democrats exclaim, “Obstruction of justice!” Conservative commentators and Republicans respond, “No way!”

During Comey’s testimony, Senator Jim Risch (R–Idaho), skeptical that Trump did anything wrong, focused on the word hope. Risch asked Comey if was aware of any successful prosecution of someone who hoped something illegal was done. Comey said no. But that, despite Risch’s efforts, hardly ends the matter.

Read Comey’s words, and important details of his conversation with the President go missing. Hope, Risch suggested, represents wishful thinking. Trump, in private, simply shared his yearning that Flynn, “a good guy,” not face prosecution. But which word follows hope? You. If Trump uttered these words, he spoke not to himself but directly to Comey. “I hope you can see your way clear…” It’s hardly a stretch to interpret this as Trump telling Comey to drop the investigation without saying the precise words, “You drop the investigation.” Personally, I’ve never said, “I hope you can…” to anyone without expressing a clear intent that they do what I for all intents and purposes asked. In this context, I hope creates an expectation.

I mentioned missing details. Whatever words Mr. Trump uttered, we lack a recording, which Trump hinted at having, although he may not. What tone of voice did he use? We don’t know. Intonation colors any word or set of words. Trump’s tone could indeed have indicated wishful thinking. Or it could have projected a presidential order. We also lack an eye on such critical factors as Trump’s facial expression and body language. All these help make us understood. For that matter, we can’t see Comey’s physical response.

Will Comey’s memo regarding Trump’s hope be accepted by Robert Mueller, the Justice Department’s special investigator, as proof of wrongdoing? We’ll see. Will President Trump testify before the Senate subcommittee? We’ll see about that, too. But I doubt we’ll see a smoking gun.

Still, a pattern seems to be emerging. Each day, it becomes more disturbing. And when I write disturbing, let there be no doubt about what I mean.

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