Bereshit

A drash by Robert J. Littman

Torah scroll with yad

This week we begin again the annual reading of the Five Books of Moses in synagogues the world over with Bereshit. We hear about the creation of the earth, sky, and land, the creation of man and woman and the Garden of Eden and the expulsion from it. The Hebrew Bible stands as a history of the people of Israel, beginning with Abraham. The Five Books of Moses tells us the story of Abraham from the middle of the second millennium BCE, down to the death of Moses in the 13th century BCE. It is more than a narrative history; it is a sacred history–sacred in that it is story of the encounter of our ancestors with God, and their interaction with Him. It is also a tribal history. The ancient Israelites organized themselves into patrilineal kinship groups. They divided their societies into tribes and clans. Membership in those groups was measured from a common male ancestor. The Five Books of Moses tells the history of those kinship groups. Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac Jacob and Jacob 12 sons. Those children became the eponymous founders of the 12 tribes of Israel. All Israelites knew what tribe they belonged to and so all Israelites could trace their origins back to Abraham. Patrilineal kinship groups also take in new members. From whom do these new people descend? We get a clue when we give a Hebrew name to a convert to Judaism. The convert chooses a Jewish name, which exists in the form , ___son (daughter) of _____. Since there is no Jewish father, all converts become the son (daughter) of Abraham avenu-“Abraham our father” and are adopted into the lineage so that they have the honored place of being direct descendants of Abraham.

We as human beings are curious and want to know our origins-and so we want to know from whom Abraham is descended. So the first section of Genesis is added to this genealogical sacred history. Abraham’s patrilineal ancestors are traced back to the first man, Adam. God created Adam, and then Eve from Adam’s rib. Thence the male descendants of Adam are listed, generation to generation, down to Noah. After Noah and the flood, the descendants of Noah are listed down to Abraham. Thus it is a simple exercise create a family tree through the male from Abraham back to Adam. Since we as Jews can trace our descent from Abraham, we too now can trace our descent all the way back to the first man. When I was a young schoolboy and began the studies of other non-Western cultures, I learned their origin stories were not set in the Middle East. Polynesians see the origin of man in Polynesia, not somewhere at the opposite side of the world. We know from science that man originated in Africa, not in the Middle East. Then how can we regard the origin myths of the Garden of Eden, which Genesis locates in present day Iraq, bordered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers? Once we understand that our ancestors were Semites, who originated in the Near East, the answer becomes clear–that is the only part of the world that they knew.

The text of Genesis itself says Abraham came from Ur of the Chaldees (an anachronism since Chaldees did not exist at the time of Abraham). “Ur” is a Babylonian word for “City.” Many Babylonian cities bear the name of Ur. Abraham came from one of these, perhaps in Syria or in Babylon. The origin stories are permeated with Babylonian culture and religion. Babylonian religion was polytheistic. Early Israelite religion was henotheistic – the belief that there was one god for the Israelites. The religion becomes monotheistic in the first millennium BCE. In incorporating Babylonian polytheistic beliefs into the creation stories, the polytheistic elements were removed. Genesis calls Eve “the Mother of All Living Things.” Her name itself means “life.” Eve looks like a demoted mother goddess. Mother goddesses in Babylon and the Near East were also often depicted with a serpent consort or aid. Thus the Babylonian images are clearly present.

 

The Garden of Eden becomes a story of the creation of human consciousness – the woman/mother goddess Eve makes an insentient race into “mankind” by giving him knowledge. But man cannot both possess immortality and knowledge because he would be god. So God, to prevent other gods, takes away man’s immortality by expelling him from the Garden. The allegorical nature of the story also can be seen in the name of Adam. Sometimes he is called “Adam” and sometimes “The Adam.” Clearly Adam stands for more than just a name. Perhaps we should translate his name as “Earthling” to capture the Hebrew “adamah” earth. So how do we as Jews today see the story of creation and Garden of Eden? Perhaps it is best to regard it as our ancestors’ attempt to understand the origins of man through their incomplete understanding of science and the universe. It is not a mistaken explanation, but rather an explanation filtered through their eyes at that time. New knowledge lets us react in new ways to the interaction of God and men in new language. Besides, our ancestors may have gotten some things right – we believe in the Big Bang, and they wrote “God said: Let there be light.”

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