Commentary on the first six books of Genesis

Parashat Bereshit (Genesis 1.2-6:8)

by

Howard Adelman

This week Jews (and some others) begin the annual re-reading of the Torah. And the beginning is my very favourite part. Why? Because it is about what we are given as gender beings and how that forms the foundation of our ethics. We are born equal, man and woman; God created men and women as equals. But not in man’s head. Man has the delusion that he was born first and that woman is but a physical extension of a man. While man does not take responsibility for his own penis and sexual drives, he presumes woman is merely an appendage and physical extension of himself to serve him. This inversion of how man regards his own body and how he regards a woman’s body are the foundation of ethics and what it means to say a man is born in sin. It not because he is sexually driven; rather, it is because he does not take responsibility for his sexual drives, for his embodiment. Further, he turns a woman, not into an object, but into an extension of his own agency and does not respect her as an agent in her own right.

Take the issue of revelation which supposedly divides the Orthodox – or, at least, most of them – from the non-Orthodox in a debate over whether the Torah as written is the word of God transcribed on the page or the collation of a number of writers over years when the importance of the Torah is that, as one reads and examines the text, the text reveals to us profound truths, beginning with the roots of sin and the need for ethical norms and their compass. The usual division of Bereshit starts with the first seven days (1:1-2:2) and then moves to the Garden of Eden Story (2:3-3:23), then to the story of Cain and Abel (4:1-4:26) and ends with the prelude to flood (5:1-6:8). I want to cover all four sections in one commentary.

Though the narrative begins in cosmology in the discussions of light emerging from darkness, the emergence of the sky, the earth and the heavenly bodies, and then the creation of the fish of the sea, the birds in the air and the animals on earth and finally, the relatively new species, human beings, the significance of the story has nothing to say about how the world was created. Rather, it is a set up. Nature is good. God says it over and over again. Then God created humans and, understandably, needed a day of rest.  

When we throw light on nature, when we separate the darkness and allow light to bathe over not only the earth but even the deep depths of the ocean floor, one has to be amazed. Just watch an episode of National Geographic or the BBC series on deep water exploration. What a fantastic place we live on! It is truly a wonder to behold. By the fourth day, we have a cosmos that gives us our days and nights, our weeks and our years, the rhythms of time in accordance with which we live. And even when monsters and wild beasts came into being; it was all perceived as good.

And then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” (verse 27)  So begins the problem and the paradoxes. Man is created in God’s image even though God has no visible presence. But what is clear is that he created both male and female. (verse 28) And then we have the first blessing and the first commandment: “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” Being created in God’s image is not about physical appearances but about the human role as an agent – a creator AND a ruler. “And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” (verse 32) In ch.2:3, God rested and blessed the 7th day as He looked with satisfaction on what He created. 

But not for long! Then the dissolution set in. God discovers for the first time, and it will not be the last time, that He made a mistake. For what he thought of and pronounced as good was no such thing. Why? 

We then move onto the second segment and read the second story of man’s and woman’s creation, and in this story they are not created equal. For this is the story as the male imagines it. Man is the product, not of a virgin birth, but of a femaleless birth. He is made sui generis out of earth and water and air that is used to inflate him. And then God created the Garden of Eden with all kinds of trees, but two special trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is a huge garden fed by four great rivers: the Tigris, Euphrates, Pishon (where the wealth of the earth’s resources, especially gold and precious gems, can be found) and the Gibon (the Nile ?) that runs through the Cush. The Garden extends from Babylon or Iraq down through the Arabian Peninsula where Noah’s son, Shem, and his son, Joktan (the Ishmaelites) (Genesis 25:18) will settle, down into East Africa where Noah’s descendent, Cush, the son of Ham, will settle. 

God issues the second commandment, not to eat and enjoy, but rather not to eat, specifically not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. If man eats thereof he will realize that, unlike God in whose image he is made, man will know that death is certain. Further, man in the Garden of Eden did not recognize he was lonely; God observes that. God pronounces that as not good. In the second imaginative version of creating woman, woman is fashioned out of Adam’s rib, but for a specific function, to be man’s helper and aide de camp. Rulership is perceived as extending over women. Third, man is given a job. He becomes a biological taxonomist giving names to the different species of animals and fish and birds and perhaps even the insects in the billions. Perhaps this was the reason he did not even recognize his emotional need for a woman – he was so caught up in his mental work of naming and imitating God as a creator. Finally, it was observed that man and woman were together and were naked and were not ashamed.

Chapter 3 tells the story of what is often called “The Fall”, on the supposition that until this moment Man and Woman lived in a state of grace. But if in man’s imagination he was born not from woman, that woman was created as a projection of himself, and in service to himself, then the seeds of trouble had already been planted. We are introduced to the Serpent, a new character in the story. Who is the Serpent? He is shrewd. He is a wild beast. He is erect. Unlike other animals, he speaks. He is masculine. And who does the Serpent talk to? Not man, but woman. And what does he say? He does not behave like man walking around the Garden as a biologist naming everything and therefore serving as a surrogate in bringing things into being in the realm of knowledge. Instead, he behave like Socrates sceptically asks a question. 

 “Did God really say: You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?” 2 The woman replied to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the other trees of the garden. 3 It is only about fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said: ‘You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die.'” 4 And the serpent said to the woman, “You are not going to die, 5 but God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who knows good and bad.” 6 When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they perceived that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves and made themselves loincloths.

 

Why were they embarrassed? What were they ashamed of? They had disobeyed a commandment. But the disobedience had been very pleasurable. Further, they became wiser in some sense in taking pleasure from themselves as sexual beings. The serpent had been correct. They did not die from eating the fruit. Only their innocence died. They became ashamed of their bodies. Why? Because, commandments and ethics did not determine what they did; their bodily desires did. So they recognized who the serpent was. This erect figure, this male penis, was not an independent voice, but the voice of male desire for which the man did not take responsibility. Just as the woman was seen as an extension of his own body, the penis became an independent agency for which man did not take responsibility.

 

Both were internally conflicted, each torn inside and confused. When God sought them out, they hid. God clued in. He immediately knew that they had eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God knew that they had the sexual relations, those relations that Bill Clinton denied he had had with Monica Lewis. God asked, “Did you eat of the fruit that I had forbidden you to eat? The gender wars were now on. The male said, “She did it. She put me up to it.” So really, God, it is not only her fault. It is Your fault. For you created her as company for me. The woman was not much better in refusing to take responsibility. The serpent, his penis, tricked me, she said. So God addressed the penis directly and said that henceforth, the penis would no longer stand erect but crawl on the belly of man. Henceforth, this now shrivelled and wrinkled piece of flesh would be the source of enmity between man and woman and the male and female children of man and woman that will spout from their loins. She will strike at the head of man, at man who attempts to rule over woman by guile and rational cleverness. Man will strike back, nip at her heel and forever undermine her as he attempts to seduce her and then rule over her. In spite of that, her desire will be directed towards him. As a result, she will have children, but bring them forth only in pain, and not simply physical pain.

 

As for man, no more would he simply be the biologist and taxonomist, but he would, like his scrawny shrivelled penis, be cursed and henceforth survive only through physical toil in an earth no longer bountiful but full of thorns and thistles. Man would have to become a farmer and a herdsman and work all his life by the sweat of his brow. You thought you were made from dust so to dust shall you be returned. And Man named his wife Eve – no longer a generic name but a particular name, but as a generic name in a different sense than as a class term, the mother of all of humanity and even of everything that lives. Woman would henceforth be Gaia. And man would henceforth not be allowed a life of leisure, simply living off the fruit of the land.

 

The third segment of Bereshit begins with Chapter 4, the story of Cain and Abel. For if the story of cosmology is a tale of awe and wonder and the beauty and bounty of nature, and if the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is the story of the inner conflict within each between Desire and Life and between not only the two of them and between Desire and Life, but between Desire that envisions man as God living off the earth and ruling over that bounty and Desire for Woman and becoming one flesh, and between Life that aspires to immortality and Life that simply endures the hardship of survival, the story of Cain and Abel moves into a new struggle, the struggle for recognition between two alpha males and between two different ways of life bequeathed to humans who no longer live in the Garden of Eden. It is the story of emerging from the second stage of what began to be called in modern political theory, ‘the state of nature’.

 

Cain, the eldest was a farmer. Abel was a shepherd, a herdsman. But the cowboy and the farmer could not be friends. Each wanted exclusive recognition of his rights. For their ways of life were pretty incompatible. One needed fences. The other needed open pasture. One life meant being on the move. The other meant settled life. Each offered the best of what he produced as a sacrifice to seek recognition for his way of life at the same time demonstrating that they were still above the work of mere survival and wanted divine recognition. God gave it to the shepherd, not the farmer.

 

God had said that the farmer could do fine without recognition as the superior way of life, as the way of life worthy of divine sanction, but the farmer did not want to live on the margins of a pastureland, as in the pampas of Argentina, or to lose the status as God’s chosen imitator. It was not the man dedicated to domesticated animal husbandry who killed the farmer, as one might imagine, but the farmer who killed the peaceful shepherd. Farming became the dominant mode of earning a living and herding animals and sheep or camels was thrust off into the margins. Agriculture became the central route to building civilization and cities. When God asked Cain where his brother was, Cain, unlike his parents, did not seek to hide but replied equivocally: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

 

Ironically, his smart-assed reply revealed the very core of the ethical code necessary to avoid murder and mayhem. As punishment, the man of the soil who only wanted to settle in one place, was made a nomad, driven to seeking more fertile soil always elsewhere. He became the unsettled settler, the migrant par excellence and not just a nomad. He went to live in the Land of Nod (ארץ נוד), East of Eden, the land of wanderers, for “nod” is the root of the Hebrew word, “to wander” ((לנדוד). Ironically, the desire and need to wander would become, not so much the source of agricultural settlements, but the foundation of cities where man lives uprooted from the soil as neither a farmer nor a herdsman.

 

What is the mark of Cain that God put on him to protect him from murder? Cain was made into a fugitive and wanderer alienated from nature and destined to live in cities. To live in a city, man requires protection. No more could a man be recognized for what he did and how he brought forth the means of survival by his labour. The mark of Cain is recognition that man must be a citizen of a polity to be protected; he can no longer rely on his own devices; he must have membership in a political collectivity. This is his mark of Cain. He can enjoy no freedom without such a membership. So in the fight for recognition of one way of life over another, neither wins. A new form of polity centred on the city and civilization comes into being where man must be recognized as a member of a people and ruled by a government in order to survive. Ironically, the mark of Cain is citizenship. It is the mark that means man has totally left the state of nature and entered into the world of polities. So Cain and His wife bore a son, Enoch, who founded a city. And another son born of Adam and Eve, Seth, gave birth to another line of humanity.

 

And so humanity grew and multiplied and settled the world until Noah and his sons Shem, Ham and Japheth came along. The fourth segment of Bereshit is told following the alienation from the wonder and awe of the beauty of nature, following the discovery of treachery and duplicity rooted in a failure to take responsibility for ourselves as embodied creatures, and then following the war between different ways of life and the search for recognition of the superiority of one over the other only to end up with murder and the emergence of a new way of life, living in cities and a polity where each carries a mark of identification, the artifact of citizenship, as the means of protection. But civilization will breed classes, those who sacrifice themselves for the future and develop their capacities and means of sustenance, and those who look sceptically upon the whole effort of service and duty to family and nation and country and simply want to get satisfaction from life.

 

Then who were the Nephilim, divine beings, the heroes of old, men of renown, who cohabited with the daughters of men and who made wickedness the prevailing mode of life on earth, and who made God regret that he had created life on earth altogether so that he wanted to start all over again to correct his mistake and decide to bring forth the flood? The Nephilim are neither those who achieve mastery over men and themselves nor those who are self indulgent. Why are these Nephilim equated with those who fell who are associated with wickedness, children of God and fallen angels, or, alternatively, those who cause others to fall, giant Samurai, heroic warriors of a bygone age worshipped in epic tales?

 

The Nephilim are both. They are the knights of the roundtable, chivalrous men whom women idolize. They are gods and God Himself becomes God si love. True love becomes amor where the new ethical basis is between the idealistic knights who dedicate their might to an abstract ideal and the ladies who worship those knights. Knights were not wicked in the sense of bestial, lewd beings in pursuit of the satisfaction of a night of passion. Rather, they were the epitome of courage and valour, of honesty and integrity, loyalty and fealty and dedicated in a totally pure way to the women to whom they gave their troth. Women were not perceived as physical extensions of man but as a source of inspiration. They are put on a pedestal and, in turn, appreciated as an ideal. Life itself becomes etherealized. And man is no longer in bondage to man but in bondage to a heaven-sent partnership that has nothing to do with the passions of the flesh and everything to do with mutual recognition, with grace, with mutual protection and mutual fulfillment in an ideal conception of life.

 

Why would God see this as wickedness? Why are heroic fearsome giants (Numbers 13:32-33) viewed as a source of distress and discomfort? Because in a land of heroes and romanticism, in a land built on the premise of romantic love as the source of ethics, in a land built on an ideal of purity and perfection as the fullest expression of life, that land devours its inhabitants. That is not a land rooted in the family and in children, but in ethereal passion and self-sacrifice for abstract ideals. These children of God become the real source of the virus of wickedness and repression. And ordinary humans are seen as grasshoppers or cockroaches, inyenzi, insects to be exterminated where the rule of law and of civilized men is sacrificed in service to an abstract ideal and dream of perfection.

 

So God will strike first and drown all but the select few.

 

So it is no surprise that the Haftorah reading comes from Isaiah, for Ashkenazim, Isaiah 42:5-43:10. God opts for nationhood and not heroism, for enlightenment and not self-repression in stark opposition to idolatry of any kind. God becomes dedicated to innovation and not nostalgia where the citizens of cities will lift up their voices. The warriors will not be knights of the roundtable but, rather, the Lord will go forth like a warrior, raising a war cry and prevailing against idolatry. And so we are given an apocalyptic vision of a God in labour giving birth to the new:

 


יד
  הֶחֱשֵׁיתִי, מֵעוֹלָם–אַחֲרִישׁ, אֶתְאַפָּק; כַּיּוֹלֵדָה אֶפְעֶה, אֶשֹּׁם וְאֶשְׁאַף יָחַד.

14 I have long time held My peace, I have been still, and refrained Myself; now will I cry like a travailing woman, gasping and panting at once.

טו  אַחֲרִיב הָרִים וּגְבָעוֹת, וְכָל-עֶשְׂבָּם אוֹבִישׁ; וְשַׂמְתִּי נְהָרוֹת לָאִיִּים, וַאֲגַמִּים אוֹבִישׁ.

15 I will make waste mountains and hills, and dry up all their herbs; and I will make the rivers islands, and will dry up the pools.

טז  וְהוֹלַכְתִּי עִוְרִים, בְּדֶרֶךְ לֹא יָדָעוּ–בִּנְתִיבוֹת לֹא-יָדְעוּ, אַדְרִיכֵם; אָשִׂים מַחְשָׁךְ לִפְנֵיהֶם לָאוֹר, וּמַעֲקַשִּׁים לְמִישׁוֹר–אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים, עֲשִׂיתִם וְלֹא עֲזַבְתִּים.

16 And I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not, in paths that they knew not will I lead them; I will make darkness light before them, and rugged places plain. These things will I do, and I will not leave them undone.

יז  נָסֹגוּ אָחוֹר יֵבֹשׁוּ בֹשֶׁת, הַבֹּטְחִים בַּפָּסֶל; הָאֹמְרִים לְמַסֵּכָה, אַתֶּם אֱלֹהֵינוּ.  {פ}

17 They shall be turned back, greatly ashamed, that trust in graven images, that say unto molten images: ‘Ye are our gods.’ {P}

יח  הַחֵרְשִׁים, שְׁמָעוּ; וְהַעִוְרִים, הַבִּיטוּ לִרְאוֹת.

18 Hear, ye deaf, and look, ye blind, that ye may see.

יט  מִי עִוֵּר כִּי אִם-עַבְדִּי, וְחֵרֵשׁ כְּמַלְאָכִי אֶשְׁלָח; מִי עִוֵּר כִּמְשֻׁלָּם, וְעִוֵּר כְּעֶבֶד יְהוָה.

19 Who is blind, but My servant? Or deaf, as My messenger that I send? Who is blind as he that is wholehearted, and blind as the LORD’S servant?

כ  ראית (רָאוֹת) רַבּוֹת, וְלֹא תִשְׁמֹר; פָּקוֹחַ אָזְנַיִם, וְלֹא יִשְׁמָע.

20 Seeing many things, thou observest not; opening the ears, he heareth not.

כא  יְהוָה חָפֵץ, לְמַעַן צִדְקוֹ; יַגְדִּיל תּוֹרָה, וְיַאְדִּיר.

21 The LORD was pleased, for His righteousness’ sake, to make the teaching great and glorious.

כב  וְהוּא, עַם-בָּזוּז וְשָׁסוּי, הָפֵחַ בַּחוּרִים כֻּלָּם, וּבְבָתֵּי כְלָאִים הָחְבָּאוּ; הָיוּ לָבַז וְאֵין מַצִּיל, מְשִׁסָּה וְאֵין-אֹמֵר הָשַׁב.

22 But this is a people robbed and spoiled, they are all of them snared in holes, and they are hid in prison-houses; they are for a prey, and none delivereth, for a spoil, and   none saith: ‘Restore.’

(Hebrew-English Bible/Mechon-Mamre)

 

But they can and will be redeemed.

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