Haftarat Bereishit—Isaiah: A Reason to Exist

October 26, 2016 at 12:04 pm | Posted in Bereishit, Isaiah 2 | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , , , ,
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?

Bereishit:  In Hiding

October 8, 2015 at 7:36 pm | Posted in Bereishit | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , , , ,

Humankind and God have been hiding from each ever since the garden of Eden, according to the first portion of the first book of the Torah, Bereishit (“In a beginning”).

At first, humankind is as close to God as an infant is to its mother.

And God formed the adam of dirt from the adamah, and [God] blew into its nostrils the neshamah of life, and the adam became an animated animal.  (Bereishit/Genesis 2:7)

adam (אָדָם) = human, humanity, humankind.

adamah (אֲדָמָה) = ground, earth, soil.  (The words adam and adamah come from the same root.  Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, of blessed memory, once translated adam as “earthling”.)

neshamah (נְשָׁמָה) = breath, soul.

In other words, a human is made out of two ingredients: the earth and the breath of God.  Our souls are God’s breath.

Fig Tree

Fig Tree

God removes the adam from the earth and places it in a mythical garden of Eden, telling the adam to eat from any tree except the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, …because on the day you eat from it, you must die. (Genesis 2:17)

Like an infant the adam is immersed in its ongoing experience, unable to think for itself.  So it avoids the Tree of Knowledge.  Then God divides the adam into two people, male and female, and the situation changes.

And the woman saw that the tree was good for eating, and that it was delightful for the eyes, and the tree was desirable for understanding; and she took from its fruit and she ate, and she gave also to her man with her, and he ate. And the eyes of the two of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves, and they made themselves loincloths. (Genesis 3:6-7)

The Tree of Knowledge gives the humans the ability to make distinctions, including the distinction between “me” and “you”, as well as between “good” and “bad”.  Now they notice their separate bodies, with different sex organs.  Later in the Torah, the most common euphemism for sexual intercourse is “uncovering the nakedness” of someone.

detail of "Adam and Eve in Eden" by Pere Mates

detail of “Adam and Eve in Eden” by Pere Mates

Perhaps the first humans experiment with their bodies, and discover the power of sexual passion and the potential for procreation. Alarmed, they make clothing to hide their sex organs from one another.  If you cannot see something, you can ignore it.

Then they heard the voice of God going around in the garden at the windy time of the day; vayitchabei, the adam and his woman, from the face of God, among the trees of the garden. (Genesis 3:8)

vayitchabei (וַיּתְחַבֵּא) = and they hid themselves.

Hearing God’s voice, the humans realize they are also separate from God. Before they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, God was just part of their undifferentiated experience.  Now they view God as a separate intelligence with a voice and a face, more powerful than they are.  Suddenly they are afraid.

But if you cannot see something, you can ignore it. So the humans try to hide from God—among the trees of the garden God made.  Perhaps they even try to hide behind the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. They have learned to make distinctions, but they have not yet learned logical thinking.

God called to the adam, and he said: Ayeikah? (Genesis 3:9)

Ayeikah (אַיֶּכָּה) = Where are you?  (Ayeh (אַיֵּה) = where + suffix –kah (כָּה) = you.)

Rabbi David Fohrman points out in his intriguing book The Beast that Crouches at the Door that if God had wanted to know their physical location, God would have used the word eifoh—אֵיפֹה.  The other Hebrew word for “where”, ayehאַיֵּה—asks why something or someone is not here.  What happened to it?

The woman is silent, but the man answers:

I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; va-eichavei. (Genesis 3:10)

va-eichavei (וָאֵחָבֵא) = and I hid. (From the same root, חבא, as vayitchabei above.)

Biblical Hebrew has several verbs meaning “to hide”.  The verb חבא in its various forms appears 34 times in the Hebrew Bible, and (except for two metaphors in the book of Job) it always describes human beings hiding themselves. Usually they are hiding from human enemies in order to avoid being killed.

Why does the Torah use this word for “hiding” in the garden of Eden, when Hebrew has alternative words? Maybe the adam suddenly views God as an enemy who wants to kill him.  After all, God said that if the adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge, he would die.

In the story, the first humans become mortal creatures, and God returns them to the world.  Adam and Eve adapt to life on the ground, with its troublesome farming, sexual desire, and childbirth.

The next time the Torah mentions hiding, Adam and Eve’s oldest son, Cain, is afraid that God will conceal the divine “face” from him–and that he will be hidden from God.

Competing offerings in detail of print after Maarten de Vos 1583

Competing offerings in detail of print after Maarten de Vos 1583

Cain, a farmer, invents the idea of giving God an offering from his vegetables as an expression of gratitude.  (See my post Vayikra: Gifts to the Giver.)  His younger brother Abel, the shepherd, imitates him with an offering from his flock.  When God rejects Cain’s offering and accepts Abel’s, Cain is enraged and depressed.

God notices and warns him to master his evil impulse, but Cain does not reply.  Unable to vent his rage by killing God, Cain kills his brother Abel.  Then God informs Cain that the ground itself is cursed for him.  He will no longer be able to farm, and he will be homeless.

And Cain said to God:  My iniquity is too great to bear.  Hey, You have banished me today from the face of the adamah, and from Your face esateir.  I will be homeless and aimless in the land, and anyone encountering me will kill me. (Genesis 4:14)

esateir (אֶסָּתֵר) = I will be concealed, go unseen, be unrecognized, take cover, be hidden.

The verb סתר in its various forms is the most common word for hiding in the Bible, appearing more than 80 times. This word is used for the concealment of not only people, but also information, actions, and especially faces.

Starting in the book of Isaiah, the Bible emphasizes that humans cannot conceal themselves or their secrets from God. But Cain does not know this; he believes that once he is banished, God will no longer see him.

What does it mean to be concealed, unseen, unrecognized?  Human beings lower their faces or look away when they want to avoid communication.  We avoid people when we do not want to bother with them, or when we have given up on a relationship.  We also avoid people when we are afraid of them, either because we feel inferior, or because they might attack us.

Moses hides his face at the burning bush because he is afraid of seeing God. He feels inferior, unworthy of direct contact with the divine, and fears that it might hurt him.

Cain believes he will be hidden from God’s face because his crime makes him unworthy of any continuing contact with the divine.

The most frequent use of the verb סתר is to indicate when God conceals God’s “face” from humans, usually Israelites who have strayed from their religion.  The concealment of God’s face is a tragedy because if God does not “see” the Israelites, recognizing them as God’s people, then God will ignore them and stop protecting them from enemies and other dangers.

Later in history, many religious writers have considered the concealment of God’s face a tragedy because if people cannot “see” and recognize God, then they will ignore God’s will and become spiritually ungrounded.

Yet God tells Moses:

You will not be able to see My face, because the adam may not see Me and live.  (Exodus/Shemot 33:20)

Rabbi David Kasher wrote recently in ParshaNut: “We cannot see God’s face, for if we did, we would lose our separateness and cease to exist. It would kill us. In that sense, the true punishment would be not the hiding, but the revealing of God’s face.”

Thus the great creation myth of the Torah reveals that humans have a paradoxical relationship with the divine. God is inside us, in the sense that our bodies are earth and our souls are the breath of God. Yet having tasted fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, we know we are separate and distinct from something we experience as the voice of God.

When humans feel as if God is a loving parent who protects us, we are like Cain, who does not want to be concealed from God’s face.  When we feel unprotected, subject to all kinds of undesirable fates, including death, we are like Adam, who tries to hide from God.

And because we have some knowledge of good and bad, but do not understand what God is, we want to see God’s face. But we cannot see God and continue to live as individual human beings.

Maybe God is hidden from us because we cannot see the souls that God breathed into us.  Or maybe God is hidden because we cannot recognize God, even when the divine is both inside us and in front of us.

 

 

Blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.