Bereishit: In Hiding

October 8, 2015 at 7:36 pm | Posted in Bereishit | 2 Comments
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Humankind and God have been hiding from each ever since the garden of Eden.

This week the cycle of Torah readings starts over again with the first portion in the book of Genesis/Bereishit.  The first book of the bible, the first Torah portion in that book, and the first word are all Bereishit (“In a beginning”).

The first creation story describes how there was chaos and darkness, and then God created the heavens and the earth in seven days, beginning with light and ending with humankind.1

Then comes a second creation story, starting with bare earth and mist.

And God formed the adam out of dust from the adamah, and blew into its nostrils the breath of life, and the adam became an animated animal.  (Genesis/Bereishit 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”.)

In other words, a human is made out of two ingredients: the earth and the breath of God.  Our souls are God’s breath.  In the beginning, humankind is as close to God as an infant is to its mother.

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.

Desire to Hide

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 they have separate bodies with different sex organs.2

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.  What would it be like for a new person with soul of an infant and the body of an adult to have that experience?

Alarmed, the two humans 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.

When they hear God’s voice, the humans realize that 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, someone more powerful than they are.  Suddenly they are afraid.  They leap to the conclusion that if God sees them, God will know they disobeyed.

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: “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9)

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”.  One of them, 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.  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, instead of an alternative word?  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.

What actually happens is that humankind becomes mortal, and God returns the first two humans to the world.  Adam and Eve adapt to life on the earth, with its troublesome farming, sexual desire, and childbirth.3

Fear of Being Hidden

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 then he will be hidden from God.

Competing offerings in detail of print after Maarten de Vos 1583

Competing offerings, from a 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 first 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.4  Unable to vent his rage over the injustice 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, 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 individuals, information, actions, and faces.  Its most frequent use 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, i.e. does not recognize them as God’s people, then God will ignore them and stop protecting them from enemies and other dangers.

After all, human beings lower their faces or look away from someone when they want to avoid communication.  We avoid people when we do not want to bother with them, when we are afraid of them, or when we have given up on a relationship.  We hide our faces from them by not meeting their eyes.

If God seems to be concealed, the Israelites worry that God has given up on them.  The first character in the Torah with this problem is Cain, who anticipates that God will give up on him because his fratricide makes him unworthy of any further contact.

*

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

When humans feel as if God can protect us like a loving parent, we are like Cain, who does not want to be concealed from God’s face.  When we feel unprotected and subject to all kinds of undesirable circumstances, including death, we are like Adam, who tries to conceal himself from God.

In fact, God does not protect us from death; both mortality and the knowledge of our own mortality are part of the human condition, as the story of the garden of Eden illustrates.  But God might protect us from despair, as the story of Cain illustrates.  God warns Cain not to give in to an evil impulse in his despair over winning God’s acceptance.  But Cain ignores God and succumbs.

Maybe God is hidden from us when we cannot recognize God.  That is when we act out of despair.  When we experience both the souls inside us and the universe in front of us as divine, we become stronger.  We can accept a world of death and injustice, and still rejoice in the gift of life.

  1. Genesis 1:1-2:3.
  2.  Later in the Torah, the most common euphemism for sexual intercourse is “uncovering the nakedness” of someone.
  3. Genesis 3:16-24.
  4. Genesis 4:5-7.

 

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