Yitro & Bereishit: Don’t Even Touch It

Finally, after walking through the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula for two and a half months, the Israelites and their fellow-travelers arrive at Mount Sinai, where Moses first encountered God.1

They camp at the foot of the mountain, and Moses climbs up and down four times in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23). On each trip, he gets instructions from God at the top, and reports them to the people below.

Mount Sinai, by Elijah Walton, 19th century

The second time Moses climbs up, God tells him:

“Here I am, coming to you in a thick canopy of cloud, so that the people will hear my words along with you, and also [so that] they will trust you forever!” (Exodus/Shemot 19:9)

No one will be able to see God, but all the people will hear God’s words—an extraordinary phenomena.

And God said to Moses: “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. And they must wash their clothes. And they must be ready for the third day, because on the third day, God will come down on Mount Sinai before the eyes of the people. And you must set boundaries for the people all around [the mountain], saying: Guard yourselves against going up on the mountain, or negoa its outskirts.  Anyone hanogeia the mountain must definitely die.” (Exodus19:10-12)

negoa (נְגוֹעַ) = touching. (A form of the verb naga. נָגַע = touched, reached.)

hanogeia ( הַנֺּגֵעַ) = who is touching. (Another form of naga.)

One might think that if God touched the top of Mount Sinai, any human who touched the bottom of it would automatically die, as if the whole mountain were electrified. But then God clarifies that anyone (except Moses) who dares to touch the mountain while God’s presence rests on it must be executed. And the people must perform the execution without touching the offender.

“A hand lo tiga him! Because he must definitely be stoned or shot; if a beast or if a man, he must not live. When [there is] a protracted sound of a ran’s horn, they may go up on the mountain.”  (Exodus19:13)

lo tiga (לֺא תִגַּע) = it may not touch. (Another form of naga.)

All the people have to be clean and consecrated before they can safely hear God’s voice coming from the cloud that lands on Mount Sinai. But even in this condition, they cannot see God. And touching the mountain while God is on top is taboo. Like some other taboos in the bible, this one is communicable by touch.2

Don’t go up Mount Sinai, God commands. Don’t even touch it! Don’t even touch someone who touches it!

Touching the Tree of Knowledge

The order not to touch the mountain reminds me of the conversation between the snake and Eve in the garden of Eden. Both God in Exodus, and Eve in Genesis, say that death is the penalty for touching something holy.

The snake speaks first in the first Torah portion of Genesis, Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8).

He said to the woman: “Did God really say you should not eat from any tree of the garden?” And the woman said to the snake: “We may eat fruit from the trees of the garden. But as for fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, God said: ‘You must not eat from it, and lo tigeu, lest you die.’” (Genesis/Bereishit 3:1-3)

lo tigeu (לֺא תִגְּעוּ) = you must not touch it. (Another form of naga.)

Eve, by Lucan Cranach the Elder, 1528

In Genesis, God orders the primordial human not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the middle of the garden.3 But God says nothing about touching or not touching the tree. Although God delivered the original order to the one primordial human being, before it was divided into male and female, there is no reason why the female human would not remember it. Maybe she simply added “and you must not touch it” on the spur of the moment.

Why? The classic commentary suggested that she was “making a fence around the Torah”: protecting herself from accidentally violating God’s actual prohibition by avoiding doing something that could lead to the violation.4 (One of the more famous examples of a fence around the Torah is the rule in many orthodox Jewish communities that bans turning on a stove or an electric light on Shabbat. If you feel free to make heat and light, you might forget the biblical prohibition against lighting a fire on Shabbat.5)

At first glance, a rule to avoid touching the Tree of Knowledge seems like a reasonable fence. If Eve does not get close enough to that tree to touch it, she will not be able to eat its fruit. Yet after further conversation with the snake, she transgresses both her own fence and God’s order.

Bereishit Rabbah, a fifth-century collection of commentary, adds some action and dialogue to the biblical story: “Rabbi Chiyya taught: That means that you must not make the fence more than the principal thing … When the serpent saw her exaggerating in this manner, he grabbed her and pushed her against the tree. ‘So, have you died?’ he asked her. ‘Just as you were not stricken when you touched it, so will you not die when you eat from it.’”6 According to Bereishit Rabbah, if the fence seems too important (in this case because Eve claims touching the tree carries a death penalty), then once you break the fence, it feels insignificant to break the original command as well.

Touching Mount Sinai

In Exodus, on the other hand, God tells Moses that the people may not climb Mount Sinai on the day that God will descend, and God also says the people may not touch the mountain until the signal of the sound of a ram’s horn. Both prohibitions, against climbing and against touching, come from God. God makes the fence.

What is the reason for it? 16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno wrote that some people might have been so eager to catch a glimpse of God, they would trample the boundary markers and run up the mountain. The death penalty was a deterrent.

19th-century rabbi Samson R. Hirsch wrote that one reason for the two prohibitions was to make the people realize they were nowhere near Moses’ spiritual level. This seems plausible to me, since God tells Moses that after the people hear God speak from the cloud on the mountaintop, they will trust Moses forever (Exodus 19:9, above). Recognizing Moses’ high spiritual level—or closeness to God—would help to foster this trust.

Another reason, Hirsch wrote, was: “The distinction between the people about to receive the Torah, and the Source from which they are to receive it, is underscored also in terms of physical separation.”7

The realm of ordinary people at the foot of the mountain is mundane. The realm of Mount Sinai is the realm of God and God’s teachings.8 Only God’s prophet, Moses, goes back and forth between the two realms.9

There is also a practical reason for prohibiting both climbing and touching Mount Sinai on the day of revelation: the mountain becomes a dangerous place.

And it was the third day, in the morning, and there was thunder and impressive lightning on the mountain, and a very loud sound of a ram’s horn … And Mount Sinai was all in smoke from the presence of God that came down on it in fire, and its smoke rose like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain shuddered violently. (Exodus 19:16-18)

Vesuvius in Eruption, by J.M.W. Turner, 1817-1820, detail

Thus the prohibition against getting close enough to touch the bottom of Mt. Sinai is a reasonable fence around the prohibition against climbing the mountain—which, in turn, is a fence around the prohibition against attempting to look and see God.

Nobody breaks the fence. Moses leads the people to the foot of the mountain, but they cannot bear to get any closer. They are already seeing too much, experiencing synesthesia.

Then all the people were seeing the thunderclaps and the flames and the sound of the ram’s horn and the mountain smoking. When the people saw, they were shaken and they stood at a distance. And they said to Moses: “You speak to us, and we will listen. But may God not speak to us, or else we will die!”  (Exodus 20:15-16).

The people back  away from the supernatural volcano. No fences, with or without death sentences, are needed to keep them at a distance.

I have heard people say they wish they could experience a miracle like seeing God’s voice at Mount Sinai.  Personally, I think a miracle like that would terrify me as much as it terrified the Israelites and their fellow-travelers.  I am grateful that, by the grace of God, my own numinous experiences have been only gentle intimations.

Sometimes there is no question that we will follow a rule, because we want to follow it with all our heard and soul.  But sometimes we recognize that a rule is a good idea, yet we have no emotional investment in it. That is when we need a fence around the rule to keep us on track.

  1. At the burning bush in Exodus 3:1-4:17. The “mountain of God” is called Mount Choreiv in some passages and Mount Sinai in others, since the book of Exodus was redacted from more than one original source.
  2. For example, when someone who have been in contact with a corpse is ritually purified by being sprinkled with water containing the ashes of a pure red heifer, the person who does the sprinkling has to wash his clothes and wait until nightfall to return to a state of ritual purity. While the sprinkler waits, “Anything that he touches is impure, and the person who touches him will be impure until nightfall.” (Leviticus 19:19:22)
  3. Genesis 2:17.
  4. The phrase “Make a fence around the Torah” originated in Pirkei Avot 1:1, a compendium of rabbinic advice composed around 200 C.E.
  5. Exodus 35:3.
  6. Bereishit Rabbah 19:3, translated by www.sefaria.org.
  7. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Shemos, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, copyright 2005, p. 322.
  8. Torah (תּוֹרָה) = instruction, teachings; divine law; the first five books of the bible; all instructions in the Hebrew Bible.
  9. In Exodus 19:24, God tells Moses to go down and bring his brother Aaron up to the top of Mount Sinai, but this request is not followed up in the text; the Ten Commandments are delivered instead. On another day, Aaron climbs partway up Mount Sinai, along with two of his sons and 70 elders (Exodus 24:9-14), but only Moses and his attendant Joshua complete the trip to the top.

Bereishit: How Many Gods?

Question: How many gods does it take to create humankind?

The whole universe is created in six days at the beginning of the first book and first Torah portion of the bible, both called Bereishit (“In a beginning”). God announces what will exist, and then it does. Here is the first act of creation:

The First Day of Creation, Nuremburg Chronicle, 1493

Vayomer Elohim: “Let light be! And light was.” (Genesis/Bereishit 1:3)

vayomer elohim (ובַיֺּאמֶר אֱלוֹהִים) = And God said. (vayomer (וַיֺּאמֶר) = and he said + elohim (אֱלוֹהִים) = God; multiple gods.

Grammatically, elohim is the plural of eloha, אֱלוֹהָּ = a god.1 But the plural elohim is also used to refer to the God, the one with the four-letter personal name abbreviated Y-H-V-H.2

We know that only one God speaks light into being, because vayomer is singular—“he said”, not “they said”.  (In the Torah the God is referred to by the default gender: male.) Hebrew has no capital letters, but I capitalize elohim in this essay when it is clear that the word means “God” rather than “gods”.

The words Vayomer Elohim precede each new creation in the first story of Genesis.3 On the sixth day, God makes land animals of various kinds, and finally human beings. But the grammar of the sentence in which God initiates the creation of humans is peculiar.

Vayomer Elohim:“Let us make humankind in our image, like our likeness. And they shall rule over the fish of the sea and over the flyers of the skies and over the big animals and over all the earth and over all the crawlers that crawl on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26)

The speaker is God in the singular. But what God says is “Let us make humankind in our image, like our likeness.”4

Us? Neither the kings nor the God speak with the royal “we” in the Hebrew Bible. In fact, God uses the first person plural only four times in that entire canon:

  • In Genesis 1:26 on the sixth day of creation (above).
  • In Isaiah 6:8 in a vision calling the first Isaiah to become a prophet.
  • In Genesis 3:22 regarding the Garden of Eden.
  • In Genesis 11:7 regarding the Tower of Babel.

Can we figure out whom God is addressing in Genesis 1:26 by examining the other three times God says “we”?


Serafim were standing in attendance from above; each had six wings … And I heard the voice of my lord saying: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said: “Here I am. Send me.” (Isaiah 6:2, 6:8)

In “Whom shall I send?” God speaks in the first person singular. But in “And who will go for us?” God is probably including the serafim, six-winged fiery creatures who surround God in Isaiah’s vision. God addresses them because in this case God is looking for a human prophet, rather than an angel, to pass on God’s words to the people.

Seraf in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, mosaic ca. 1300

No serafim appear in the book of Genesis. However, medieval commentators proposed that God is addressing a different kind of angel in Genesis 1:26: a malakh. (Malakh, מַלְאַךְ = messenger, emissary. Plural malakhim, מַלְאָכִים.)5

A malakh sent by a human being is simply a man who delivers a message to another human. A malakh sent by God also delivers a message, but the human recipient perceives a voice, a fire, or something that at first looks like a man (without wings) but then vanishes dramatically.6 Every “angel” mentioned in Genesis through 2 Kings is called a malakh.

By the fifth century C.E., Talmudic rabbis considered malakhim not just mouthpieces, but half-human creatures with independent thoughts and feelings. Bereishit Rabbah 8 claims that God created the “ministering angels” (malakhei hashareit, מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת) before creating the universe. According to this text, angels and humans are similar in how they stand, speak, understand, and see; but only humans are also animals that eat, drink, bear children, excrete, and die.

11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki, known as Rashi, built on this idea when he explained Genesis 1:26. He wrote that the malakhim were created in God’s image before God created the universe. When God wanted to create another kind of being in God’s image, God included the malakhim in the decision as a tactful way to prevent them from feeling envious. Perhaps these angles might be jealous of humankind’s animal functions. Alternatively, angels might envy humans because right after God creates them, God tells them to rule over the earth and all its animals.7

This fanciful characterization of malakhim is entirely absent from the Hebrew Bible, where a malakh is not an independent person with feelings, but only a mouthpiece God that uses and discards, like a marionette. Sometimes in the Torah a malakh speaks to a human, and then with no transition the next sentence is from God in the first person singular.8

A malakh in the Torah has no will of its own and cannot create something. When God says “Let us make humankind in our image, like our likeness,” God is addressing fellow creators—creators who can collectively make a new kind of animal. Thus in the context of the book of Genesis, God is not addressing any angels.

Moral immortals?

Does that mean God is addressing other gods in Genesis 1:26?

The second time in the book of Genesis that God uses the first person plural occurs after the two humans in the Garden of Eden eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God says:

“Humankind is becoming like one of us, knowing good and evil!  And now, lest it stretch out its hand and take also from the Tree of Life and eat and live forever—!” And Y-H-V-H Elohim sent it away from the Garden of Eden … (Genesis 3:22-23)

Here, “us” includes fellow beings who are aware of good and evil. These beings must also be immortal, or they would not be alarmed by the idea of humans living forever. The only other information about them in this week’s Torah portion comes from the snake in the Garden of Eden, who tells Eve:

“Because Elohim knows that on the day you eat from it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like elohim, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5)

The second elohim in this sentence could refer to either the one God, or to gods in general. Most English translations use a plural such as “divine beings” for the second Elohim. It makes sense, and not just because God says “one of us later in the story. After all, what is a moral immortal? Not an angel; before the later prophets, biblical angels appear to be amoral and transient manifestations.

But the bible does contain other passages assuming the existence of multiple gods. Lesser gods appear in Genesis 6:2-4 at the of this week’s Torah portion (where the “sons of the elohim”impregnate the “daughters of humankind”). There are also references to a court of gods who acknowledge the God of Israel as their king in Exodus 15:11, Job 1:6-2:7, and Psalms 29, 82, and 97.


The remaining sentence in the Hebrew Bible in which God speaks in the first person plural appears in the Tower of Babel story in next week’s Torah portion, Noach:

Vayomer Y-H-V-H: “Hey, one people and one language for all of them, and this is how they have begun to act! So now nothing that they plan to do will be impossible! Come, let us go down there and let us make their language fail, so that a man cannot understand the language of his neighbor.” (Genesis 11:6-7)

Here God’s “us” includes fellow beings who can separate collaborators and turn them into strangers, aliens who cannot even understand each other. These beings cannot be malakhim, who only repeat God’s words. Nor can they be human beings, since all the humans on earth are building the Tower of Babel together. Therefore the obfuscators can only be subsidiary gods, gods that have power to move people to different locations and change their ways of thinking. (I will discuss this further in next week’s blog post, Noach: Alienation.)

Why do lesser gods make several fleeting appearances in the book of Genesis, which otherwise posits a single god powerful enough to create the heavens and the earth? Genesis 1:26, 3:22, and 11:7 might be remnants of other ancient stories—polytheistic tales about  a chief creator god with lesser gods to assist him. This could also explain the perfunctory story in Genesis 6:2-4 about how the “sons of elohim” took human wives who bore them children who became legendary heroes. The scribes who wrote down the book of Genesis may have been inspired, but they were only human. There are many rough spots in the Torah where different oral traditions were combined without being edited for consistency.9

Question: How many gods does it take to create a universe, invent humankind, set up the Garden of Eden, and turn human language into babble?

Answer: Only one, but that God makes the other gods that are hanging around feel included and empowered.

Apparently God is considerate of other gods.

  1. The first place in the Torah where the word elohim definitely refers to plural gods is Genesis 3:5 in the Garden of Eden story.
  2. See my post Lekh-Lekha: New Names for God. God is referred to as elohim throughout Genesis chapter 1. The first use of God’s personal name, Y-H-V-H, occurs in Genesis 2:4.
  3. Genesis 1:3, 1:6, 1:9, 1:11, 1:14, 1:20, 1:24, 1:26.
  4. “Let us make” is na-aseh, נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה. The prefix נ indicates a first person plural verb. “In our image” is betzalmeinu, בְּצַלמֵנוּ, and “like our likeness” is kidmuteinu, כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ. In both nouns, the suffix einu (ֵנוּ  ) indicates the first person plural possessive, i.e. “our”.   
  5. The Septuagint (3rd century B.C.E.), the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, routinely translates the word malakh as “angelos”, whether the malakh in question is human or supernatural. Many English translations call a malakh from a human a messenger, but a malakh from God an “angel”.
  6. See my post Vayeira: Stopped by an Angel.
  7. Genesis 1:28.
  8. E.g. Genesis 22:11-2 and 22:15-18.
  9. Most modern scholars agree that the first creation story in Genesis, the one about the six days of creation and seventh day of rest, was written by a Levite who was deported to Babylon in the 6th century B.C.E. and was influenced by Babylonian theology. The Garden of Eden and Tower of Babel stories are attributed to a different author, whose century is still a matter of debate; but scholars agree that this author or redactor drew from more than one oral tradition.

Bereishit: Bad Stewardship

What happened to my book about moral psychology in Genesis?  I finished it—then realized that examining why most of the characters in Genesis do the wrong thing is not enough.  I needed an ongoing argument about why humans find it so hard to take the high road out of Eden.

Now I am doing more research and rewriting my book.  Meanwhile, here is an essay from my first version.  The Torah portion this week is Bereishit (“In a beginning”), and tells about the beginning of everything, including good and evil.


Humans Dominate the Earth

And God made beasts of the land according to their type, and cattle by their type, and all creeping things of the earth by their type; and God saw that it was tov. (Genesis 1:25)

tov (טוֹב) = good; functional, attractive, beneficial, or virtuous.

Fourth Day of Creation, Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

In the first creation story, God sees that seven creations are tov: light (day 1); the separation of dry land from waters (day 3); plants (day 3); sun, moon, and stars (day 4); swimming and flying animals (day 5); land animals excluding humans (day 6); and the whole world (day 6).1  In all seven of these divine observations, tov means functional, attractive, or beneficial for some divine plan, but not virtuous.  Stars and fish are not moral agents.

All the land animals, including humankind, are made on the same day, but God only considers the other animals tov.  When God makes humans, God blesses them, but does not see that they are tov.

And God created humankind in [God’s] image; in the image of God [God]created it; male and female [God] created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth vekhivshuha; urdu over the fish of the sea and over the flyers of the skies and over every beast that crawls on the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28)

vekhivshuha (וְכִבְשֻׁהָ) = and subjugate her, make her subservient, rape her, bring her under control. (An imperative form of the verb kavash, כָּבַשׁ.)

urdu (וּרְדוּ) = and subdue, dominate, rule over. (An imperative form of the verb radah, רָדָה.)

Humankind is the only creation that gets a blessing and a directive from God.

Why does God tell humans to subjugate and rule over a perfectly good world? What if they ruin the earth and its animals?

A Garden of Eden by Jan Brueghel the Younger, 1630

If God had created an imperfect world and given humankind the job of improving it, humans might have organized an uncivilized wilderness into parklands and gardens. The Garden of Eden might have served as a model, as well as being the source of humankind’s awareness of the categories of good and evil. But God does not create an imperfect world; God sees that the entire creation is already “very good”.


What if God expected humans to be good stewards of the earth? Since humans have the free will to choose between good and evil actions, and since we have the intelligence to learn and extrapolate from experience, we could have multiplied only until we filled the earth without overtaxing its resources. And we could have husbanded the earth rather than raped it.

Instead, our widespread adherence to a red meat diet led to overgrazing, which caused desertification (that’s why the Sahara is so big) and deforestation (e.g. to create more pastureland in 20th century South America). Our demand for lumber at unsustainable rates has led to millennia of clear-cutting, which changes biomes and causes more deforestation. (The bible praises the cedars of Lebanon, which used to be a vast forest and now consist of isolated urban trees and endangered wooded enclaves high in the mountains.) During the last century humans have also poisoned the air, soil, and water, and released greenhouse gases that are causing permanent climate change. Worldwide, humans have had neither the right intuitions nor the wisdom to be good stewards of the earth.

What if God, who gives humankind free will in the Garden of Eden, does not know whether humans will be good stewards or not?  What if God’s instruction to subjugate and dominate the earth and its animals is a temporary authorization, conditional upon good behavior?

Some classic commentators have proposed that at first humans were afraid of other animals and needed to be encouraged to control them by using their superior intelligence.2 The project of bringing wilderness under cultivation must also have seemed daunting.

But by the time humankind achieved the power to alter the earth’s ecology, the divine instruction to the first humans was no longer useful.

Bereishit Rabbah, a 5th-century C.E. collection of commentary, presents one rabbi’s opinion that people with merit will dominate the animals, but people without merit will descend to the state of being dominated by animals—perhaps by the beastly side of their own natures.3

This interpretation is based on an ambiguous word in God’s initial remark about letting humankind rule over the earth and all the animals:

And God said: “Let us make humankind in our image, like our likeness, veyirdu the fish of the sea and over the flyers of the skies and over the big animals and over all the earth and over all the crawlers that crawl on the earth.” (Genesis/Bereishit 1:26)

veyirdu (וְיִרְדּוּ) = and they shall subdue, dominate, rule over. (An imperfect form of the verb radah, רָדָה)

The word veyirdu is another form of the verb radah only when it is spelled with the Masoretic vowel pointings added to the Torah in the 6th to 10th century C.E.. But there were no vowel pointings in the Torah scrolls the Masoretes annotated.4  Therefore commentators are free to interpret a biblical passage as if one of the words originally had different vowels. Bereishit Rabbah is perhaps the earliest, but not the only, commentary that spells the word v-y-r-d-u as veyeirdu.5

veyeirdu (וְיֵרְדוּ) = and they shall go down, descend; and they might descend. (An imperfect form of the verb yarad, יָרַד).6

According to this interpretation, God still tells humankind to subjugate and dominate the earth and its animals, but only after predicting that humans might descend to the level of unthinking animals themselves.


In the 21st century it looks as if our beastly natures have won. Too many of us have acted in ways that control the earth without thinking about the consequences. Yet human intelligence could also be used for restoring the earth, or at least minimizing its degradation. What we and all the other animals and plants on earth need now is for every human leader, in governments and industries, to choose ethical actions over selfish short-term benefits.

Humans already rule over the earth, for good or bad. Our rule has already caused global climate change, with some areas flooding and others burning up.  Our only hope now is to stop choosing what seems good, tov, because it is functional, attractive, or beneficial to only a few individuals, and start choosing what is virtuous because it reduces the harm to all humans and all living creatures on earth.

  1. Genesis 1:4, 1:10, 1:12, 1:18, 1:21, 1:25, and 1:31.
  2. e.g. Nachalas Yaakov in Siftei Chakhamim, a 17th-century collection of commentary; Haamek Davar, a 19th-century commentary by Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin.
  3. Bereishit Rabbah 8:12.
  4. At services today Jews still read out loud from parchment Torah scrolls on which scribes have copied the letters without vowel pointings or other diacritical marks indicating pronunciation (nikkudim).
  5. e.g. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), and Jacob ben Asher (13th-century rabbi) in Kitzur Baal Haturim, Nachalas Yaakov (ibid.).
  6. Biblical Hebrew has no past, present, or future tense. Veyeirdu is in the imperfect aspect, which means that its action has not been completed. Often the context indicates that an imperfect verb in Biblical Hebrew should be translated as a future tense verb in English, but in this case the imperfect verb yeirdu could be translated equally well as “they will descend”, “they shall descend”, “they could descend”, or “they might descend”.


Balak: Motivations

Why do King Balak and the prophet Bilam behave badly in this week’s Torah portion, Balak?

In the book I am writing on moral psychology in Genesis, I examine the text for emotional impulses and character flaws that result in immoral behavior.  Three of the character flaws I found in Genesis also explain the poor ethical choices of Balak and Bilam.


Balak, the king of Moab, is alarmed after the Israelites have conquered the Amorite city-state of Cheshbon on the northern border of his kingdom.  He sends dignitaries to Bilam, who lives by the Euphrates River, with the following message:

“And now please go curse these people for me!  Because they are more numerous than we are.  Maybe I will be able to nakeh them and drive them out from the land.  For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 22:6)

nakeh (נַכֶּה) = strike down, break, beat down.  (A form of the root verb nakah, נָכָּה = strike, hit, beat, destroy.)

Balak’s emotional reaction to finding a horde of strangers camped across his border is fear, naturally enough.  But when he tries to address his fear he makes two mistakes.  One is that he assumes the Israelites will attack Moab next.  The truth is that the Israelites are on their way to Canaan, and conquered Cheshbon because the king of Cheshbon refused to let them pass through his land.  They are not interested in attacking Moab, which lies to the south, before they continue their journey northward.  But it never occurs to Balak to see if he can find out why the Israelites attacked Cheshbon.

His other mistake is that he tries to hire Bilam to curse the Israelites, instead of to bless the Moabites.  King Balak could just as well ask Bilam to make Moab look invulnerable to the Israelites, or to make the Israelites seek peace.

But Balak only thinks in terms of war, in terms of kill or be killed.  He tries to arrange the mass destruction of the people camping across the Arnon River from Moab even though they have made no hostile move against him because he lacks imagination.

He is not the only one in the Torah with this character flaw.  In the book of Genesis, Noah fails to talk God into saving innocent animals and children from the flood because he cannot imagine talking back when God speaks to him.1  Jacob masquerades as his brother Esau and lies to Isaac, their father, because it does not occur to him that Isaac might intend to give two blessings, one to Esau and a different one to Jacob.2  Shimon and Levi lie to the men of Shekhem and then massacre them because nobody in their family thinks of a polite way to refuse an invitation by the ruler of Shekhem.3

An inability to imagine better alternatives leads many human beings to follow their worst impulses: callous resignation for Noah, greed for Jacob, and violence for Shimon and Levi.  The same lack of imagination makes Balak respond to his fear of strangers by trying to make it easier to kill them.

On the other hand, people who often exercise imagination can become unable to think outside the box when they are gripped by an overwhelming emotional reaction.   A psychological complex can overwhelm one’s more rational self; perhaps Balak, Shimon, and Levi had complexes that made them react to trouble by lashing out violently.  We cannot tell from the text of the Torah.

Bilam and the Moabites

When King Balak’s delegation arrives at Bilam’s house, God visits Bilam in a dream and tells him not to go to Moab, because the Israelites are blessed.  In the morning Bilam tells the Moabites that God will not let him go with them.

Then Balak sends back a more impressive group of dignitaries, and the promise of a rich reward.  Bilam already knows that God will not let him curse the Israelites, but this time he prevaricates:

“If Balak gave me what fills his house, [all the] silver and gold, I would not be able to cross the word of God, my God, to do [anything] small or large.  But now please stay here overnight again, and I will find out again what God will speak to me.”  (Numbers 22:18-19)

That night God tells the prophet he may go to Moab, but when he arrives he must do whatever God tells him to do.  Bilam accompanies the Moabites without telling them God’s caveat, giving them the false impression that he will curse the Israelites and earn his pay.

Why does Bilam string along the Moabites?  The clue in the text is that he has named a high price for his services: all the silver and gold in Balak’s house.  His motivation for going to Moab, and his character flaw, is greed.

Greed was also Abraham’s motivation in Genesis when he passed off his wife Sarah as his sister, hoping to cheat the king of Gerar out of a high bride-price.4  If the Torah told us about what Bilam and Abraham learned from their parents or from earlier experiences, we could guess why they are greedy enough to brush aside ethical considerations.  But the Torah only presents the two men as they are.

Bilam and the donkey

Next God tests Bilam by placing a divine messenger in his path, an angel that only Bilam’s donkey can see.  Twice the donkey swerves twice to avoid the angel.  The third time, when the way is too narrow, she lies down underneath Bilam and refuses to move.  All three times Bilam angrily beats his donkey.

Then God opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Bilam: “What have I done to you that hikitani these three times?”  And Bilam said to the donkey: “Because you made a fool of me!  If only there were a sword in my hand so that now I could kill you!” (Numbers 22:28-29)

hikitani (הִכִּיתַנִי) = you struck me, you hit me, you beat me.  (Another form of the root verb nakah.)

Why does Bilam beat his donkey?  It would have been more ethical for him to investigate her unusual behavior (not to mention her sudden gift of speech).  But Bilam is overwhelmed by his angry impulse because of another character flaw: pride.  King Balak’s men were probably watching the first two times the donkey swerved.  He believed his donkey’s behavior made him look like a fool who could not control his own mount.

In the book of Genesis, Cain also becomes infuriated when his pride is hurt.  He is the first person to make an offering to God.  After he has laid out the fruits of the soil he has labored over, his brother Abel offers an animal from his flock.  God accepts Abel’s offering but ignores Cain’s.  Cain is humiliated, and God cautions him:

“Why did you become hot-with-anger,

and why did your face fall?

“Isn’t it true that if you do good,

[there is] uplifting?

“And if you do not do good,

wickedness is crouching like a beast at the door,

and its craving is for you.

“But you, you can rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6-7)

Cain loses his temper and kills Abel.  He is unable to rule over his pride and stop himself from succumbing to wickedness.

When Bilam is infuriated by pride, God does not caution him directly, but instead lets the donkey speak.

Then God opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Bilam: “Aren’t I your donkey, that you have ridden on from long ago until this day?  Am I really accustomed to doing this to you?”  And he said: “No.”  (Numbers 22:30)

Bilam and His Ass, by Rembrandt, 1626

At least Bilam is honest at this point, recognizing that his donkey does not deserve to be beaten.  Once he has answered “No”, God lets him see the divine messenger, who scolds him for beating the donkey and adds: “Hey, I went out as a accuser.” (Numbers 22:32)

Bilam concludes that God sent the angel to oppose his journey to Moab in the hope of being able to curse the Israelites.

And Bilam said to God’s messenger: “I did wrong because I did not know that you were stationed to meet me on the way.  And now, if it is wrong in your eyes I will turn back.”  (Genesis 22:34)

Turning around at this point would make Bilam look even more foolish to the Moabite dignitaries, but now Bilam is willing to swallow his pride.  The divine messenger tells him to go to Moab anyway, but say nothing except what God tells him.  He does, and finds himself blessing (giving good prophecies about) the Israelites three times.  King Balak pays Bilam nothing, and the reformed prophet heads home.5

In this week’s Torah portion, Bilam makes two ethical errors: he deceives someone because of greed, like Abraham, and he strikes an innocent party because of pride, like Cain.  But his bad deeds are not as bad as theirs.  Bilam only deceives the king of Moab, whereas Abraham both deceives the king of Gerar and puts Sarah in a dangerous and compromising position.  Bilam only beats his donkey, whereas Cain murders his brother.  And Bilam admits he was wrong and repents.


We all have negative emotional impulses sometimes.  Whether these impulses lead to unethical behavior often depends on our individual character flaws, which may be the result of psychological complexes.  But early in the book of Genesis, God promises Cain that even though it is difficult, we can learn what our complexes are and rise above them.

May we exercise more imagination than Balak, so we can think of better alternatives than lashing out at others.  And if we become overwhelmed by greed or pride, may we recognize it, temper it, and admit when we did wrong, like Bilam.

  1. Abraham persuades God to refrain from burning up Sodom if there are even ten innocent people in the city. Moses persuades God to give the Israelites a second chance after they worship the Golden Calf. But Noach is silent. After God has spoken to him, all the Torah says is: And Noach did everything that God commanded him; thus he did. (Genesis 6:22)
  2. Genesis 27:1-28:4.
  3. Genesis 34:8-29.
  4. Genesis 20:1-18.
  5. In a later Torah portion, Mattot, Moses orders a war of vengeance against the Midianites of Moab, who had invited the Israelites to make offerings to their own god. The Israelites kill every Midianite male including the five kings of Midian, “and Bilam son of Beor they killed by the sword” (Numbers 31:8).  The Torah does not say why Bilam was there, but Moses says that the Midianite females seduced the Israelite men “according to the word of Bilam” (Numbers 31:16).

Repost: Bereishit

Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

And God formed the human out of the dust of the earth, and blew into its nostrils the breath of life, and the human became an animated animal.  (Genesis/Bereishit 2:7)

Sorry, Michelangelo.  In the book of Genesis, God breathes life into the first human’s nose.  God does not animate Adam with a fingertip, the way Michelangelo painted it on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

I’d like to say I saw this painting on our first full day in Italy.  But we are in Florence, not Rome, and we had to go grocery shopping.  So today all we saw the house where Michelangelo lived as an adolescent, along with two of his earliest relief sculptures.

Michelangelo, Battle of the Centaurs (photo by Melissa Carpenter)

His “Battle of the Centaurs”, completed in 1492 when he was 17, proved that he had already mastered the realistic depiction of the human form (in a period when artists were just beginning to revive the approach of ancient Greek sculptors).  But his own spark of genius had not yet emerged.

Next week we plan to see some of Michelangelo’s greatest sculptures, from “David” to “Captives”.  How amazing that he could create such things out of giant blocks of marble!  How amazing that we are here, and can see them!

What a crazy universe we humans inherited.  We have inspiration, we have beauty, we have life.  We also have despair, and evil deeds, and death.  Can we embrace the good things without hiding from the bad?

Click on this link to read my 2015 post about how humans and God hide from each other: Bereishit: In Hiding.

Bereishit: Is It Good?

And God saw all that [God] had made, and hey!—[It was] very tov.  And it was evening and it was morning, day six.  (Genesis/Bereishit 1:31)

tov (טוֹב) = good.

First Day of Creation, 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle

In the first creation story in this week’s Torah portion, Bereishit (“In a beginning”)—chapter 1 of the bible—the God-character sees that seven things “he” has created are “good”: light (day 1); the separation of dry land from waters (day 3); plants (day 3); the sun, moon, and stars (day 4); swimming and flying animals (day 5); land animals (day 6); and the whole world including humans (also day 6).1

The underlying message is that our world or universe is fundamentally good.  But in what way?  Like the English word “good”, tov can mean a number of different things, which fall into four categories:

  • Morally virtuous. (When we classify people as “good” in the moral sense, we mean that they consistently act in ways that benefit other people  and/or other living things.)
  • Acceptable to, or approved by, an authority. The authority might be an individual, a social group, or a doctrine (a set of beliefs and principles).
  • Pleasurable, beautiful, enjoyable.
  • Beneficial, helpful to achieve a specific purpose.

Moral virtue cannot be attributed to such things as “dry land” or “the sun”.  And in the first chapter of Genesis there is no authority other than God.  Therefore God calls the world tov either because God finds it beautiful, or because it is helpful for furthering a divine purpose—probably a purpose concerning God’s final creation, the human being.

The word tov appears again in the second creation story, in the Garden of Eden.

Adam and Eve under the Tree of Knowledge (Rembrandt)

And God made sprout from the earth every tree pleasant in appearance and tov for eating, and the Tree of Life in the middle of the garden and the Tree of the Knowledge of Tov and Ra.  (Genesis 2:9)

ra (רָע) = bad; evil, ugly, useless.  (The opposite of tov.)

Which of the four definitions of tov (and ra) apply to the name of the Tree of Knowledge?  Genesis 2:9 says that all trees in the Garden of Eden are “pleasant in appearance” (i.e. pleasurable, beautiful) and have fruit that is “tov for eating” (i.e. beneficial, helpful for the purpose of nutrition).  The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Tov and Ra are distinguished by qualities that none of the other trees in the garden possess.

We learn later in the story that eating fruit from the Tree of Life makes one immortal.  After the male and female humans have eaten fruit from the Tree of Knowledge,

God said: “Hey, the human has become like one of us, knowing tov and ra!  And now, what if he stretches out his hand and takes also from the Tree of Life and eats, and he lives forever!”  (Genesis 3:22)

This remark also confirms that eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Tov and Ra results in some type of knowledge of good and bad that God (and some other unnamed beings) already have.  It cannot be knowledge of what is pleasurable or of what is beneficial, since all the trees in the garden are “good” in those ways.  Nor can it be knowledge of what is acceptable to an authority, even if one interprets Genesis 3:22 above as meaning that God already knows what is acceptable to God (and so do the unnamed beings). Earlier in the story,

God commanded the human, saying: “From every tree of the garden you may/will certainly eat.  But from the Tree of the Knowledge of Tov and Ra, you should not eat from it, because on the day you eat from it you may/will certainly die.”  (Genesis 2:16-17)

If the Tree of Knowledge of Tov and Ra gives humanity some insight into what is “acceptable” and “unacceptable” to God, then in this passage God is both

  • urging the human to be acceptable by avoiding any knowledge of what is acceptable, and
  • holding up death as a reward for learning how to be acceptable to God.

The God character in the first Torah portion of the book may be devious, but this explanation is too convoluted to be credible.  Therefore, by the process of elimination, “the Tree of the Knowledge of Tov and Ra” must mean “the Tree of the Knowledge of Virtue and Vice”—in other words, “the Tree of Moral Knowledge”.

Moral Knowledge

Cain, by Henri Vidal

Humankind does not emerge from the Garden of Eden with complete knowledge of the morally right action in every possible situation.  This is obvious in history, in our own lives, and in the Torah, starting when Cain thoughtlessly kills his brother Abel.2

Then what kind of moral knowledge does humanity acquire in the Garden of Eden, rather than through experiences in the real world?  What kind of moral knowledge are humans equipped with at birth?

Perhaps we are born with an instinctive feeling that some actions are virtuous and some are wicked.  Perhaps empathy is hard-wired in our brains like our instinct for personal survival.3  (The exception might be psychopaths, estimated at 1 to 4% of the human population.)

In the 21st century, experiments have demonstrated that even infants make basic moral judgments, distinguishing between acts of kindness and cruelty.4

Toddlers see themselves as moral agents who can help or hurt other people, and when they feel secure they volunteer to help.5  They also understand the basic idea of fairness.  Other research shows that human beings with normal brains have an instinctive aversion to killing people.  They can only bring themselves to do it after their natural aversion has been overcome by a barrage of information (or misinformation).6

Thus the majority of human beings are born with a taste of the knowledge of moral good and evil.  During the rest of our lives we expand our moral knowledge through thinking about our experiences, developing our feelings, and learning from other people:  their examples, their teachings, and their writings—perhaps even the book of Genesis.

According to the story of the Garden of Eden, if the first humans had never eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Tov and Ra, humankind would have had no sense of morality.  We would have been a species of psychopaths, acting exclusively for our loveless self-interest, unable to balance our natural selfishness with social cooperation and affection.  Without the interplay between selfish and generous desires, humankind probably would never have developed a high intelligence, and we certainly would have been incapable of any form of civilization.7  Would there be any point in the existence of such a species?

The humans in the Garden of Eden had to eat the fruit of that tree.  Otherwise there would be no story—no stories at all.

  1. Genesis 1:4, 1:10, 1:12, 1:18, 1:21, 1:25, and 1:31.
  2. Genesis 4:2-8.
  3. Edward O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2014, pp. 75, 179-180.
  4. Paul Bloom, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, Crown Publishers, New York, 2013, p. 31.
  5. Ibid, p. 13, on an experiment in which toddlers open a door, unprompted, to help someone whose arms are too full to open it.
  6. Ralph D. Mecklenburger, Our Religious Brains, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 2012, p. 122.
  7. E.O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence, 2014, pp. 21-22, 179-180.

Bereishit: Snake

a Torah monologue by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah


I was created in Chapter Two.  The first creation story in the Bible didn’t even mention me.  I woke up on damp dirt under bare sky.  No plants, no animals.  Just a clump of dirt next to me, slowly changing shape as if somebody invisible were modelling it.1  I knew who: God.  I watched the hands form, and then the face.  As the creature developed, beams of light appeared around it.

“Hey, God, what are you creating?”

Adam.2  Humankind.  Or a model of it.”

I tried to look at my own body, for comparison, but all I saw was a squiggle of light between the adam-in-progress and—what?  My mind?

“Hey, God, what am I?”

“An archetype.  Of the snake.  You are the kind of snake that slides into the human mind.  Not the real-world animal that slithers over the ground or hangs from trees.”

“Wow.  Do all archetypes slide into human minds?”

“In a way.  Archetypes will inspire different groups of humans to invent their own myths about each of you: the healer, the king, birth, death, various gods—”

“Gods?  Hey, am I an archetype of a god?”

“No.  Oh, some humans might invent a snake god, why not?  But you, Snake, are unique.  I created you because humans are going to be complicated.  They’ll operate mostly by instinct and habit, like other animals.  But I’m giving them a bit a free will, to make things interesting.  And humans will need a lot of doubts and questions and temptations to make them use their free will.  Your job is to make them think, so they can choose to change.”

I had a job.  God created me for a purpose.  It made me feel tight inside my skin.  Ready to shed and be a bigger snake.

“Ssso then, are you an archetype of a god?”

God laughed.  I think.  I couldn’t see God’s face, and I realized the sound of laughter was something in my mind.  Like words.  I found out later that real snakes are deaf.  Not a problem for an archetype.

“I’m not that kind of god.  But humans will invent myths about me, too.”

“That what are you, God?  Are you some other kind of archetype?”

“That, Snake, is a trick question.  It depends on how you define archetype.  And reality.  And creation.”

God finished the human’s eyelashes, then breathed into its nostrils.  The dirt figure sighed, sat up, and looked straight at me.

I crawled out of my skin.


I woke up the second time in a garden.  Eden.  It didn’t look real.  Every leaf, every fruit, looked as if God had just painted it.  There was no decay, no dust.

I knew the real world could never be that perfect. Maybe this garden was another archetype.

The two trees in the middle of the garden sure looked like archetypes.  They had bark, branches, leaves, fruit, like all the other trees; but they glowed meaningfully.  I looped myself around the trunk of the first one and stuck my neck out, pretending to be an extra branch, but I had no bark.  Only bite.  So I tasted a fruit, and then I knew it was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.

That gave me a lot to think about.  But I was distracted by the second tree.  I stretched my neck out farther and bit into one of its fruits.  And I knew it was the Tree of Life.

After that I wasn’t hungry any more.  I slinked around the garden, hissing to myself, looking for the exit.  But there was no exit.  I was stuck in the garden of archetypes.

Still, I didn’t have to do the job God gave me.  I could go on strike.  Thanks to the Tree of Knowledge, I knew I had a choice.  Which meant I had a share in the human’s bit of free will.

Going on strike was boring, so I decided to look for the adam.  Animals were starting to appear in the garden; they were all perfect, without a single scratch or scar, and they all ate fruit.3  But they never went to the middle of the garden.

When I headed back that way, I came face to face with the adam.  It frowned, then said: “Nachash!4  Snake.

I followed the human around while it named other things, hoping it would invent verbs soon.  Maybe someday it would build up to complete sentences, and we could have a conversation.

But before the adam thought up verbs, God dropped by.  Of course I couldn’t see God, but I could tell by the wind.  The adam slumped down into a coma, and the wind really picked up.  Then Eden was still again, and there were two humans lying on the ground.  They both looked like the original, except for a few minor details.  They sat up and stared at one another.  Then they started talking in complete sentences.  I guess it takes two humans to invent a language.

After a while they started touching one another, and they had a really good time.  At least that’s how it looked to me, from my perch in the Tree of Knowledge.  The man dozed off afterward, and the woman wandered over toward me.  I felt a little push, like a gust of wind.

Right.  God.  I was here for a purpose.

The woman stopped in front of me and put her hands behind her back, as if she were afraid she might accidentally touch the tree.

I hung a loop of myself from a branch, and started talking.  “Pssst!  Did God really say that you shouldn’t eat from any tree of the garden?”5

Sure enough, she couldn’t resist explaining.  “Oh, we can eat the fruit of the trees of the garden.  Except for the tree in the middle of the garden.  God said:  You must not eat from it, and you must not touch it, lest you die.”6

Then her eyes shifted, and I knew she wasn’t as sure of herself as she sounded.  After all, she was remembering something God had said when she was only half of the adam.  Maybe she was missing something?

I whispered: “Which of the two trees in the middle was God talking about?”

She had no answer. But I knew eating from the Tree of Life would make her immortal, and then she could never live in the real world.  If she ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, she’d find out she could make choices.

Maybe the humans even had to disobey God, so they could experience inner conflict.  You can’t make a serious choice without inner conflict.

I said, “Oh, you will not die for certain.  Actually, God knows that on the day you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will become like God, knowing good and bad.”7

I figured God must know the concepts “good” and “bad”, since God created the archetype of that tree.  But God couldn’t chew over the fruits of knowledge.  That was for human minds—and the archetypes inspiring them.

So does God have free will?

Trick question!  Depends on how you define God.

by Lucas Cranach
the Elder (1472-1553)

The woman thought for a while, gazing at the nearest fruit, and I knew I’d done my job and tempted her.  She wanted to become like God.  Finally she touched the fruit.  It fell into her hand.

She took a bite, swallowed, and smiled.  Then she ran back to the man, nudged him awake, and held out the glowing fruit.  He bit right into it.

After that, the two humans were more thoughtful.  When I threw out a question, they’d argue about the answer.  Life was more interesting.

When I asked them about the details that made their bodies different, they got self-conscious.  They sewed together fig leaves and made themselves aprons to hide the most obvious differences.  Silly, if you ask me, but they got satisfaction out of it.

Then one afternoon the wind came back.  God.  The humans must have remembered that God comes in the wind, because I saw a new expression on their faces.  Inner conflict!  They ran behind a tree with a lot of low branches.  As if they could hide from God, the way they wore aprons to hide from one another.

The voice of God rang through the garden.  “Where are you?”8

Good question.  Where were they now?  How much had they changed?  But the man took the question literally, and said, “I heard your sound in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid.”

“Who told you that you are naked?  Did you eat from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

“Uh, the woman that you put by my side, she gave me something from the tree, and I ate.”

What an answer!  Instead of taking responsibility, he blames both God and the woman.  Can you believe that idiot ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad?  I realized that once humans know there are such things as good and bad, they spend the rest of their lives figuring out what’s what.

God asked the woman what she had done, and she admitted she ate the fruit, but she blamed me.

Now, I was ready to own up to what I said, and explain why I said it.  But God didn’t ask me.  I guess God figured I was just doing my job, and went directly to the curses.  It became clear that real snakes and real humans were going to have a hard time in the real world.

After the cursing was over, the two humans didn’t look so fresh anymore.  They even had some scabs where they’d pricked themselves sewing the leaves together.  As if God had already clothed them in real human skins.9

Also they both looked depressed.

God spoke again.  To me, I think.  “Hey, the adam has become like one of us, knowing good and bad.  And now, lest it stretch out its hand and take also from the Tree of Life and eat, and live forever—”

Then God made an opening from the Garden of Eden into the real world, and a wind pushed the humans through.  I guess they were finally complicated enough.

I thought of going into the real world too, but God set up this flaming, whirling sword at the gate.  And besides, my skin was feeling tight again.  I shrugged it off.


When I woke up the third time, I was in the book of Exodus, in the middle of a story about Moses and Pharaoh and magic.10  The real world was crawling with real snakes, but I was still an archetype, hanging out with Knowledge and Life.

I know where the exit is now, but I’m not going to leave the Garden of Eden.  I’m going to keep whispering doubts and questions into all your dim human minds.  After all, the more you humans stop to think, the more you make real choices.  And the world is slowly getting better.

But it’s still not good enough, not by a long shot.  Bad things keep on happening to good people.   So I’ve got a question for you.  Does God understand good and bad?

Trick question!

  1. After Genesis 1:1-2:4a, in which God creates the universe in six days and rests on the seventh, is a second creation story begins. In this story, God makes earth and heaven (Genesis 2:4b), and fresh water wells up from the ground and waters the surface of the earth (Genesis 2:6). Then, before creating rain or plants, God shapes a human out of the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:5, 2:7) and blows into its nostrils the breath of life.
  2. adam (אָדָם) = humankind; a human being. (From the same root as adamah, אֲדָמָה = ground, dirt; and adom, אָדֺם = red-brown.)
  3. Genesis 1:29-30.
  4. nachash (נָחָשׁ) = snake, serpent. (Probably from the same root as nichash, נִחַשׁ = read omens, practiced divination; and nechoshet, נְחֺשֶׁת = copper, bronze.)
  5. Genesis 3:1
  6. Genesis 3:2-3.
  7. Genesis 3:4-5.
  8. Genesis 3:9.
  9. Genesis 3:21.
  10. The next appearance of the word nachash in the Bible is Exodus 4:3, when Moses’ staff first transforms into a snake.

Ha-azinu: A Hovering Bird

Might God help us learn to fly?

This Shabbat, the one between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we read Ha-azinu (Use your ears). Most of the Torah portion is a long poem predicting that even though that God brought the Israelites up from Egypt and protected them, God’s people will continue to do wrong and worship other gods. At one point, Ha-azinu compares God to an eagle teaching its fledglings to fly.

Like an eagle1 [God] rouses Its nest;

Over Its fledglings yeracheif.

It spreads out Its wings, It takes one;

It carries it up on Its wings.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:11)

yeracheif (יְרַחֵף) = it hovers like a bird. (A form of the verb rachaf, רָחַף = flutter like a bird.)

This verse may describe a parent eagle hovering nearby while its young are practicing short flights. If an eaglet falls, the parent swoops under it and catches the fledgling on its own wings. (Eaglets usually learn to fly without assistance. Yet this type of parental rescue has been observed in our own time with golden eagles.)

The verb rachaf occurs only three times in the Bible: here, in the book of Jeremiah, and in the book of Genesis. Jeremiah describes his anguish over the false prophets in Jerusalem this way:

My heart is broken inside me.

            All my bones rachafu.

            I have become like a drunken man,

            Like a strong man who passed through wine. (Jeremiah 23:9)

rachafu (רָחֲפוּ) = they tremble, flutter.

Jeremiah uses a form2 of the verb rachaf  to show that he is so overwhelmed, the bones that are normally stiff enough to hold him up are fluttering, trembling, unreliable.

Golden eagle

But when the verb rachaf  refers to God, it is in a form3 that means hovering. Near the end of the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, God hovers like a parent ready to rescue young birds learning to fly.

In a few weeks, on Simchat Torah, Jewish congregations around the world will read the last lines of Deuteronomy, then roll the Torah scroll back to the beginning and read about the creation of the universe in Genesis/Bereishit.

In a beginning God created the heavens and the earth. But the earth was a vacancy and a void and a darkness over the face of the deep, and the wind of God merachefet over the face of the waters. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:1-2)

merachefet (מְרַחֶפֶת) = was hovering (like a bird).

Before God even speaks light into being, the wind or spirit of God is hovering over the face of the water and darkness.  It seems as though God is watching, waiting to see if something will rise up, evolve on its own initiative.  When nothing arises, God has to take the next step and say “Let there be light”.

In this week’s Torah portion, almost at the end of the cycle of readings, God watches over human beings like a parent bird, waiting to see if we will evolve on our own initiative. If we are like eaglets, at first we simply eat the food (or live the life) that is given to us, without questioning it. Then we experiment, like fledglings flapping from branch to branch. Finally we are roused by ineffable longings, and we attempt to fly out into the blue.

When we get morally confused or mentally tired, we falter and fall. But the Torah says God is hovering over us, and catches us briefly so we can fly again.

This description may be true for people who feel a religious impulse and reach for the divine with open hearts and minds. Their religion can help to inspire awe and gratitude, and it can catch them when they begin to fall.

But all too often, purveyors of religion lose track of where God is. All too often we humans turn our religions into weapons instead of wings.  Then who, or what, will catch us and carry us back up to the light?

(An earlier version of this essay was published in September 2010.)

  1. nesher (נֶשֶׁר) = a general term for any eagle, vulture, or large bird of prey. In this case, the bird’s behavior indicates a golden eagle.
  2. The kal stem.
  3. The pi-el stem.



Haftarat Bereishit—Isaiah: A Reason to Exist

Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week we read the very first Torah portion, Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8) and the haftarah is Isaiah 42:5-43:10.

In the beginning are the gods, or one god. The god(s) make the sky and the earth.  Later, the god(s) invent human beings.

That order of creation appears in most of the myths of the ancient Near East, from the Sumerians of circa 3000 B.C.E. to the Israelites of circa 530 B.C.E. But the reason why human beings were created changes.

Creation of the Human in Enuma Elish

The Sumerian creation myth was retold in Mesopotamia for thousands of years, with different names for the gods. The most complete expression of this myth that archaeologists have found so far is several copies of the Enuma Elish, a seven-tablet book in Akkadian cuneiform dating to about 1100 B.C.E.

Tiamat pursued by Marduk
Tiamat pursued by Marduk

The story begins when the two primordial gods mixed their waters together”, and the female, Tiamat, gives birth to more gods.  The gods multiply, and two factions fight against each other.  The hero-god (Marduk, in the copy from Babylon) kills Tiamat, the leader of the other faction, and creates the world out of parts of her body. Then he has a clever idea: the gods won’t have to work to get their own meals if they create humans to serve them.  The gods bind Tiamat’s favorite consort, Kingu, and an older god, Ea, makes humankind out of Kingu’s blood.

            From his blood he created mankind,

            On whom he imposed the service of the gods, and set the gods free.  (Enuma Elish, Tablet 6, lines 33-34)

Tablet Seven of Enuma Elish specifies the work the humans will do for the gods: providing lavish food offerings, taking care of their shrines, burning incense for them, and retelling their heroic stories.

Creation of the Human in Genesis 2

The first Torah portion in the Bible offers two creation myths.  It opens with an account organized into seven days, which was probably written sometime between the 9th and 6th centuries B.C.E. during the time of the first temple in Jerusalem. This account is immediately followed by a story that was probably written down earlier, in the 10th century B.C.E.

The second story begins:

On the day of God’s making the earth and the heavens, no bushes of the field existed yet on the earth, and no greens of the field had sprouted yet, because God had not made it rain upon the earth, and there was no adam to work the ground.  But fresh water ascended from the earth and watered all the surface of the ground. God vayitzer the adam out of dirt from the ground, and blew into its nostrils the breath of life, and the adam became an animated animal. (Genesis/Bereishit 2:4-7)

Hand of God, by Auguste Rodin
Hand of God,
by Auguste Rodin

adam (אָדָם) = human, humankind.

vayitzer (וַיִּיצֶר) = then he/it shaped, formed. (From the root yatzar (יָצַר) = shaped, formed, fashioned.)

In this creation myth there is only one god, and no sex. God makes the earth and the sky, but the writer does not care how. The important thing is that the earth consists of bare, moist dirt.  This is God’s raw material for making humankind, along with God’s own breath. One can imagine God as a human artist shaping a figure as if modeling clay, then blowing into its nostrils and bringing it to life.

And God took the adam and put it in the garden of Eden, to tend it and to watch over it. (Genesis 2:15)

God runs a few experiments, telling the adam not to eat from the tree of knowledge, inviting it to name animals, splitting it into male and female humans, and providing a talking snake.  Eventually God sends the two humans back into the world, which now contains rain, plants, and animals as well as dirt.

God does not create the adam to serve as a slave. Instead, the adam must watch the garden—while God is watching the adam.

Creation of the Human in Genesis 1

The redactors of the Bible placed the creation myth written during the time of the first temple at the very beginning of the book, before the earlier story about God making the adam out of dirt and breath. This story starts:

In a beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)

In this account, God is a spirit and a voice that speaks things into being. No raw materials are necessary. The account is divided into seven days, and God does not create humans until the sixth day, right after the other mammals.

Sixth Day of Creation, Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493
Sixth Day of Creation,
Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

And God created the adam in Its image, in the image of God It created it; male and female It created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subjugate it! And rule over fish of the sea and birds of the skies and all animals that crawl over the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

Today it is obvious that we have gone overboard in subjugating the earth and its animals. But in the Torah, before God assigns humankind that job, God says the human is made in God’s image. Perhaps humans are God’s proxies, assigned to handle the administration of the earth in place of God.

Creation of the Human in Second Isaiah

The second half of the book of Isaiah was written around 550-510 B.C.E., when King Cyrus of Persia finished conquering the Babylonian Empire. The prophet encourages the Israelite families that were deported to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar’s conquering army to take advantage of King Cyrus’s policy of letting subjugated populations return to their former lands and rebuild temples for their own gods.

The exiles needed a lot of encouragement. Many of them doubted that the god of a nation that no longer existed would have the power to help them.  This week’s haftarah declares that God still has a purpose for the Israelites and will indeed redeem them.  Second Isaiah alludes to both of the creation stories in Genesis, reminding the Israelites that their god is the ultimate god, the creator of the world and all humankind, before he or she turns in a new direction.

            Thus said the god, God—

                        Creator of the heavens, stretching them out,

                        Spreader of the earth and her products,

                        Giver of breath to the people upon it,

                        And spirit to those who walk on it—   

by Waithamai
by Waithamai

           “I am God.  I summoned you with right conduct,

            And I held you firmly by your hand,

           Ve-etzarekha, and I gave you

            A covenant of a people, a light of nations.

           To open the eyes of the blind…” (Isaiah 42:5-7)

ve-etzarekha (וְאֶצָּרְךָ) = and I shaped you.  (From the root yatzar.)

Here God giving breath and spirit to all humanity, then “shapes” the children of Israel, using the same verb, yatzar, as when God shaped the adam our of dirt in Genesis 2. Second Isaiah implies that God yatzar the children of Israel in order to receive a covenant. Next the old covenant between God and the Israelites acquires a new purpose: in addition to obeying all of God’s rules, the people must now enlighten other nations.

What are the people of other nations (as well as many exiled Israelites) not seeing?

According to the haftarah, the Israelites must spread the word that God’s prophecies always come true, and the God of Israel is the only real god.

           You are My witnesses,

                        declares God,

            And My servant whom I have chosen. (Isaiah 43:10)


In all four creation stories from the ancient Near East, gods create the world and then add human beings.  In Enuma Elish, the purpose of humankind is to work for the gods.

In the oldest creation story in Genesis, the purpose of humankind seems to be to increase knowledge: human knowledge of the garden and of good and bad, and divine knowledge of human nature.

In the opening creation story in Genesis, the purpose of humankind is to rule over the earth and its other animals.

In second Isaiah, the purpose of the Israelites is to enlighten other peoples, ultimately leading them to convert to worshiping the God of Israel as the only real god.

Today the theory of evolution provides a logical explanation of why human beings exist, and many people consider our mental complexity an accidental side-effect of the process. In this line of thinking, humankind seems to have no purpose; the best we can do is follow Sartre and invent our own individual reasons for being.

But modern science cannot explain everything; there is room for a new concept of God, and even for the idea of a collective purpose.  What if there is a purpose for humankind in general?  What might it be?

Noach: Winds of Change

by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Wind changes the weather.  A persistent mood or spirit changes your behavior, driving you like the wind in a new direction.

Bibilical Hebrew has one word for both wind and spirit: ruach.

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind; spirit, mood, emotional energy.

The Torah uses this word to describe both the creation of the world in the first Torah portion of Genesis/Bereishit, and its re-creation after the flood in this week’s Torah portion, Noach.

In a beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was a vacancy and a void and a darkness over the face of the deep, and the ruach of God was merachefet over the face of the waters. And God said: Light, be!  And light was. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:1-2)

eagle+nestmerachefet (מְרַחֶפֶת) = fluttering, hovering tremulously. (The only other place the Bible uses the verb rachaf in this form is in Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:11, where God is compared to an eagle fluttering over its young.)

Translators disagree over whether the word ruach at the beginning of the Bible should be translated as “wind” or “spirit”.  I think the ruach of God, fluttering over the blank darkness and deep waters, is like the tender, hesitant spirit of someone about to become a parent.

The word ruach shows up again when Adam and Eve hear God’s voice in the garden “in the ruach of the day” (Genesis 3:8)   I agree with modern scholars that this means the windy time of day, which tended to be late afternoon in Israel.

The next time the Torah uses the word ruach is when God is musing about the dual nature of human beings.  God made the first human, in Genesis 2:7, out of both dirt and God’s own breath.  In other words, humans are partly animals with physical desires, and partly mental beings with spiritual desires.

And God said: My ruach will not always be judge in the human; he is also flesh…  (Genesis 6:3)

Here, ruach seems to mean God’s spirit, which shapes a human being’s character and prevailing mood.  Sometimes a person’s character controls the appetites of the flesh, but not always.

God lets these double-sided humans make their own choices for 1,556 years in the Torah, from the time God returns Adam and Eve to the world until the time when their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson Noah is 500 years old.

Then God saw that the badness of the human on earth was abundant—that the shape of every idea of his heart was only bad, all the time. And God had a change of heart about making the human on the earth, and he grieved in his heart. (Genesis 6:5-6)

God tells Noah to make an ark, because in another hundred years God is going to destroy the earth.

And hey, I Myself am bringing the deluge of water over the land to wipe out from under the heavens all flesh in which is the ruach of life.  Everything that is on the land will expire.  (Genesis 6:17)

The Torah repeats the phrase “the ruach of life” twice more in the story of Noah’s ark.  In the third occurrence it becomes clear that ruach in this phrase means moving air, a small-scale wind:

All that had the breath of the ruach of life in its nostrils, from all that were on dry land, they died.  (Genesis 7:22)

Noah Leaving the Ark, by Sisto Badalocchio
Noah Leaving the Ark, by Sisto Badalocchio

The flood wipes out all land animals, including humans, except those aboard Noah’s ark.  But God is not really starting over.  The animals and humans who emerge from the ark are the descendants of the ones God created in the beginning; they are built according to the same designs.  Human beings have the same dual nature.

Nevertheless, when God restores the earth to working order, the language in the Torah recalls the language of the original creation.

And God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark, and God made a ruach pass over the earth, and the waters abated.  The springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens were stopped up…(Genesis 8:1-2)

Once again God begins with a ruach.  But while the first ruach flutters like the tender spirit of a mother bird, this ruach sweeps across the flooded world like an eagle soaring—or a wind that brings a change of weather.

In the first creation story, God acts by speaking things into being.  In the re-creation story, God merely changes the weather, and the earth gradually dries out over the course of a year.  When God speaks, it is only to tell Noah to come out of the ark with his menagerie.

After the story of Noah, the word ruach continues to mean “wind” when the Bible talks about God. When it talks about humans, the word ruach means “spirit” or prevailing mood.

A third phenomenon is the ruach Elohim, a “spirit of God” that takes over or rests inside humans.  The ruach Elohim is a sublime wisdom in Joseph the dream-interpreter and Betzaleil the master artist, and a supernatural strength in Samson.  It is an infectious battle drive in war leaders, and a divine compulsion in mad King Saul as well as the many prophets God uses as mouthpieces.

Thus even the ruach Elohim is manifested only in human beings.

In the beginning of the Torah, God creates everything.  After the flood, the world and its humans continue on their own, and God intervenes only by blowing winds, by making plagues and occasional miracles, and by changing the spirits of a few select humans.


Today, I encounter two types of “spiritual” people.  One type often sees omens and miracles, attributing every coincidence to the hand of God rather than to the laws of probability or nature.  For this type, if a wind knocks down a tree that just misses them, God is literally in the wind and moves the tree.

The other type perceives God only through changes in their own spirits.  For this type (my type), if a wind knocks down a tree that just misses me, God is in the shaken liberation of joy after the flash of fear.  The divine is in me and moves my spirit.

The world has always been full of silent people who are moved by a divine spirit, but never do anything famous enough to be written down in a book. After all, according to the Torah we are all made partly of God’s breath, God’s wind, God’s ruach.