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Notes from Limmud 2014

Ancient answers to good and evil that were cut from the Bible

Joel Hoffmann

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

[This talk was to promote the author's book The Bible's Cutting Room Floor: The Holy Scriptures Missing From Your Bible, and so I suppose these notes are too. I'd already read the author's And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning (a birthday present from [personal profile] bluepork), and enjoyed it. (Mini-review: I read it expecting to learn little, and was pleasantly surprised. (The author also did not touch upon some of what I would have thought to have been obvious points, such as vav conversive or the Tetragrammaton.) On first reading I got rather worked up about a few things, leaving me wanting to reread when it wasn't Shabbos so I could make notes in the margin and write a review; on rereading, I found it was all a storm in a teacup.) I'll certainly be getting myself a copy of this book, as soon as I've worked through some of the other books already on my shelf...]

The Bible was never meant to be a comprehensive collection of holy books. There were far too many. The Bible was meant more like a shop window, or the entrance hall to a museum: it was supposed to invite you in. Some of the things they left out were too obvious to be worth including. For example that the Tower of Babel was waterproofed: it was made with bitumen. Bitumen is only used in the Bible for Noah's Ark and Moses' basket. Now we know why it's [used for the Tower of Babel story] at the end of the Flood narrative: It's a case of once bitten, twice shy. This would have been obvious to ancient readers; [but for us we have to rely on] Josephus who tells us why, not the Bible itself.

(Part of the Book of Samuel is also missing from the Bible: there are passages which make no sense, but the Dea Sea Scrolls fill in the missing bits.)

The Life of Adam and Eve

What happens at the end of the Eden story? Adam and Eve stay married for 950 years; this could be a long fight if they don't work out whose fault it is. How do they grapple with their sudden unforeseen circumstances? Also the fact they find themselves the parents of a murderer and a corpse. How did they deal with it?

"The Life of Adam and Eve" was written 2000 years ago maybe in Greek, maybe in Hebrew or Aramaic. Remember the meanings of "Adam" [human] and "Eve" [living being]: this is about us.

It opens with their exile. They weep; they can't understand what's going on. They don't ask why. They just weep.

After a week, they're hungry. They don't know how to get food. The Garden of Eden is our life as children. Who walks around without clothing, and has everything taken care of them for us?

It's not just Adam and Eve who are naked; the snake is too: The word for "naked" is ערום, but the word used for the cunningness of the snake is also ערום!

Genesis tells us what it's like to be a child; it doesn't tell us what it's like to be an adult.

Their idea of how to get food is flawed: It's to try to get back into the Garden of Eden. Their idea of looking forward is to try to figure out how to go backwards. Isn't this the case for all of us at one time or another, longing for something we thought we would always have, and which is now gone?

They devise a plan. They're going to suffer to make God like them more. Even people who don't believe in God think the God they don't believe in [lacuna: sc. presumably "makes them suffer for their own good"].

They decide to wade neck-deep in two rivers. They talk about how long for. So, they go into the rivers. Then the Devil comes along, but in disguise. Eve doesn't recognise him. (The book talks about how the Devil took over the snake's body; they were working in concert.) She says "Come out of the water, Eve; you're done with your penance". But she's not sure. The Devil repeats his order; she still hesitates. Then he says, "Adam sent me to you," and she falls for it.

After collapsing with exhaustion, she goes back to Adam, who does recognise the Devil, and says, "How could you let yourself be tricked again?" She collapses weeping.

Adam asks the Devil, "Why are you doing this to us? What did I ever do to you?"

The Devil explains: it's not because of anything you did; it's because of who you are. Before Creation there were the angels up in heaven, and then on the sixth day God created Humankind a little less than divine, in the image of God. And God called the angels to bow down before the newly created humans. But the Devil said it is not right for the older to bow down before the younger; so God casts the Devil down and he is forced to walk the earth and become the force of darkness.

So, the reason bad things happen is because that is what it is like to be human.

It doesn't sound like [lacuna; sc. "a good answer"?]. Its real power comes from the answers it rejects: God doesn't give you more than you can handle. Or: Maybe it's all for the best. Or the Christian answer: Suffering is a response to sin. In this version, Adam and Eve were not responsible; they could not have possibly defeated the Devil with a capital D.

Also, where did God put the tree Adam and Eve were not supposed to eat from? In the middle of the garden! God knew they were going to eat from it.

So, it's not punishment for something we did. To be human is to enjoy great celebration but also to suffer. This complements other theodicies in the Bible: Deuteronomy's philosophy of reward and punishment from God:

Deuteronomy 11:13-11:21 דברים יא יג-יא כא

It shall come to pass, if you shall hearken diligently unto my commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your mind and with all your body, that I will give you the rain of your land in its due season, the early rains and the later rains, that you may gather in your corn, and your wine, and your oil, and I will send grass in your fields for your cattle, that you may eat and be satisfied.

Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods, and worship them. In that case would the Lord's wrath flare against you; He would shut up the heaven, so that there would be no rain and the land would not yield its fruit, and you would rapidly perish from off the good land which the Lord is giving you.

Therefore lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, that they may be as frontlets between your eyes. Teach them to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way; when you lie down, and when you rise up; and write them on the door posts of your house, and on your gates; so that your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which the Lord swore unto your fathers to give them, like the days of heaven upon the earth.

וְהָיָה אִם־שָׁמֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל־מִצְוֹתַי אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם לְאַהֲבָה אֶת־ה׳ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וּלְעָבְדוֹ בְּכָל־לְבַבְכֶם וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁכֶם׃ וְנָתַתִּי מְטַר־אַרְצְכֶם בְּעִתּוֹ יוֹרֶה וּמַלְקוֹשׁ וְאָסַפְתָּ דְגָנֶךָ וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ׃ וְנָתַתִּי עֵשֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ לִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ וְשָׂבָעְתָּ׃

הִשָּׁמְרוּ לָכֶם פֶּן יִפְתֶּה לְבַבְכֶם וְסַרְתֶּם וַעֲבַדְתֶּם אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶם לָהֶם׃ וְחָרָה אַף־ה׳ בָּכֶם וְעָצַר אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְלֹא־יִהְיֶה מָטָר וְהָאֲדָמָה לֹא תִתֵּן אֶת־יְבוּלָהּ וַאֲבַדְתֶּם מְהֵרָה מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר ה׳ נֹתֵן לָכֶם׃

וְשַׂמְתֶּם אֶת־דְּבָרַי אֵלֶּה עַל־לְבַבְכֶם וְעַל־נַפְשְׁכֶם וּקְשַׁרְתֶּם אֹתָם לְאוֹת עַל־יֶדְכֶם וְהָיוּ לְטוֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֵיכֶם׃ וְלִמַּדְתֶּם אֹתָם אֶת־בְּנֵיכֶם לְדַבֵּר בָּם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ בְּבֵיתֶךָ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ בַדֶּרֶךְ וּבְשָׁכְבְּךָ וּבְקוּמֶךָ׃ וּכְתַבְתָּם עַל־מְזוּזוֹת בֵּיתֶךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶיךָ׃ לְמַעַן יִרְבּוּ יְמֵיכֶם וִימֵי בְנֵיכֶם עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע ה׳ לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶם לָתֵת לָהֶם כִּימֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם עַל־הָאָרֶץ׃

This is simple theology, easy to understand. The only drawback is that it doesn't work.

The Bible's response to Deuteronomy is the Book of Job, in particular God's response to Job's "why did you do this?" at the end. Deuteronomy says life is fair; Job says life is enigmatic; The Life of Adam and Eve says it will involve high highs and low lows.

The Apocalypse of Abraham

The Apocalypse of Abraham gives us Abraham's childhood. We know about Isaac and Jacob's childhoods; but the Bible does not give us Abraham's. This is a man who was a spectacularly bad father and spouse. The next thing after Abraham nearly kills his first child only to be saved by Divine intervention, he nearly kills his second child only to be saved by Divine intervention. Not to mention Isaac and Jacob [being spectacularly bad fathers] after him. What turned Abraham into the kind of man who when asked to sacrifice his child says okay rather than WTH?

At the age of seven, Abraham is in his father Terach's house; Terach made idols, or as he would have called them, gods. But when the idols fall off the donkey into the lake or get cracked, Abraham wonders why the gods couldn't save themselves.

One of the gods is Master of Fire. Abraham says "why don't you watch over the fire?" and goes away; when he comes back and Master of Fire is burned to a crisp. So Abraham learns that the [idol has no power to save]. But Terach doesn't get it and says "All praise to Master of Fire, I will build another one tomorrow."

But, reasons Abraham, if wood isn't the most powerful thing, what is? He starts looking at the different elements, and sees that in some regard each of them is inferior to the other.

Thus Abraham ratiocinates monotheism. [Okay, that's my word, not the speaker's; it was quicker than trying to take down his exact words!]

Then he hears God's voice telling him to leave his father's house, and he does—and Abraham burns down the house... with his father in it.

It's not a well-adjusted man who sleeps with his father's maid and tries to sacrifice his child and never talks to his grandchildren.

Abraham goes on a apocalypse—a mystical journey—with the usual symbolism. Abraham comes before God and asks, "Why do bad things happen to good people?"

God replies, "First, it ends up that the world is fair: good people do thrive and bad people suffer, but sometimes you have to wait past this life into the next life."

But Abraham isn't convinced. "Wouldn't it be fine if everyone ended up in the good part of [lacuna]."

Then God says to Abraham, "Why did your father die?"

Abraham says, "Because of the choices he made."

God says: "That's right." I.e. [good and evil happen to us] because of the choices we make.

Again, what's important here is the solutions it's rejecting: It rejects Deuteronomy, with its theme of justice. It rejects Job, with its unknowable fate. It rejects "Adam and Eve", with its answer of that's what being human involves. The answer of the Apocalypse of Abraham is: Because we have free will.

Part and possible of being able to choose is not having a perfect life.

The Book of Enoch

The story of Enoch is in the Bible, but in brief. He never died, which is a cool feat if you can pull it off.

Enoch sees that deciduous trees lose their leaves and regrow them. He says: This is part of God's plan: the trees grow the leaves precisely when people need shade from the hot sun.

Then he turns to the passage in Genesis where the angels come down and mate with human women and give birth to giants (nephilim in Hebrew; gigantes in Greek). (The Nephilim are not the fallen angels despite the name [the root NFL in Hebrew means "to fall"]. That's their parents.)

Enoch goes back a step: He says this too is part of the divine plan. Angels live forever and therefore don't need to have children; People are mortal and therefore work for the next generation. God's perfect universe [lacuna]

The evil giants walked the earth and taught wickedness to men. This is why the flood happens, and hence the Babel story afterwards.

The angels weren't supposed to do that. Enoch concludes that God's world has gone awry. It wasn't supposed to be that way. It's not that you're being punished; it's not that this is what it is to be human, etc. Rather, God didn't want for this to happen.

This book resonated hugely two thousand years ago; it was one of the most widely read holy books. For a thousand years (with a short break in the middle) Jerusalem had been the centre of Judaism, and now they saw it going to hell in a handbasket.

Jerusalem was overtaxed, underserved, and had an evil ruler in the form of Herod. The people felt they were living in unprecedented times. They thought that the beginning of the end was nigh, and wanted to know why everything was being destroyed.

A couple of hundred years alter, Jewish leaders whitewashed Enoch from the canon: God wanted you to do good things, and you couldn't do that unless life wasn't perfect, and hence God is in control.

The Book of Enoch was written before the Book of Daniel (based on [its presence in] the Dead Sea Scrolls and its writing style): Proof that it could have been part of the biblical canon.

Like [the speaker] said at the beginning, the Bible was never meant to be a comprehensive collection of holy books. It was meant more like a shop window, or the entrance hall to a museum, to invite you in. But it's not a museum of art; it's a museum of answers.

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2015-01-12 10:58 pm (UTC)
withagreatlove: (words)
From: [personal profile] withagreatlove
Thanks so much for sharing this - I've added the book to my Amazon wish list. Another delicious thing to ruminate over. Which story did you find most compelling or surprising?


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Lethargic Man (anag.)

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