Beasts and Humans: Genesis Chapter 3

Beasts and Humans: Genesis Chapter 3


Howard Adelman

This week’s parshat, Lech-Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27), is one of the most well-known stories in the Torah. It is a tale of an immigrant, Abram, who travels with his nephew, Lot, wife, Sarai, his servants and herds from his native land to the new promised-land of Canaan occupied by the Canaanites. There he is to found a great, blessed and famous nation that is to be a light unto the world. Rather than a land abundant in food, after building several altars to the Lord at different locations, he encountered a famine and went onto Egypt.

Before entering Egypt, the first event took place. Sarai was beautiful. Abram feared he would be killed if the Egyptians knew she was his wife so he told Sarai to say that she was his sister. Sarai attracted the attention of the Pharaoh and, “because of her,” Abram acquired sheep, oxen, asses, camels, male and female slaves. But, as a result, not Abram, but the Pharaoh and his whole household were afflicted with the plague. The Pharaoh learned that Sarai was really Abram’s wife and he asked Abram why he had lied and said that she was his sister. Abram offers no explanation, but presumably to lift the scourge of the plague, Abram was allowed to return to the Negev with all his possessions, including the slaves he had acquired.

Then the second event occurred. The herdsmen of Abram and Lot quarreled. Lest enmity result between Abram and Lot, they parted ways, Lot settling in the Jordan valley near Sodom, a city of wicked sinners against the Lord, and Abram remained in the land of Canaan settling near Hebron where he built another altar. In the meanwhile, the Jordan Valley was rife with the War of the Nine Kings that lasted fourteen years, possibly a conflict over oil in the Valley of Siddum. As a result of the war and Lot being found on the losing side, Lot not only lost all his possessions to the victorious invaders, but was taken captive and enslaved. But Abram with 318 men went to his rescue. After a daring and surprise night raid, and after the defeat of Lot’s captors, Lot returned to Soddom with all his wealth and animals.

I will not go on to relay the rest of the events, including the anticipatory nightmare of 400 years of enslavement in Egypt followed by freedom and escape with great wealth, birth of his children, first Ishmael by way of his concubine, Hagar, and then finally Isaac to the previously barren Sarai after Abram was renamed Abraham and Sarai was named Sarah. The story went on to tell of the covenant of the circumcision when an infant is eight days old.

Instead, I want to connect the first tale of Abram’s deceit in telling everyone, including the Pharaoh, that his beautiful wife Sarai was his sister, as a result of which Abram’s life was saved and presumably Sarai became the Pharaoh’s concubine and Abram became very wealthy in the process. Abram repeated the lie in Genesis 20:1-18, except then we learn that it was not quite a lie since Sarah was really his half-sister – same father, different mothers. What relationship does the lie have to Genesis 3 in the story leading to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden? Who deceives whom? And why?

One clue is that Abraham never takes responsibility for the lie for, literally, he was not lying. More importantly, Abraham blamed God for having had to tell a lie because, as Abraham said, it was God who sent him on his perilous journey, as if that excused his actions. And in those two ways, the Abraham story is a repetition of the Adam and Eve story. Both stories are about deceit, telling half truths, and about not taking responsibility for your actions. Abraham blames God. Adam blames Eve who, in turn, blames Adam’s penis.

That story starts with the cunning serpent who asks the woman in the Garden of Eden, “Did God indeed say, ‘You shall not eat of any of the trees of the garden?’” The woman answers that God said that you should not eat of the tree in the midst of the garden or, she adds, even touch it lest you die.” The serpent responds that you will certainly not die. What will happen is that when you eat, your eyes will be open?  And you will know good and evil.

So who is lying? Or is anyone? Is this akin to the misleading statement that Abram told the Egyptians that Sarai was his sister and deliberately omitting to say that Sarai was his wife? God had warned – not commanded – that if you eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil death will be certain. The serpent had said that if you eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil you will be like the angels knowing good and evil. Both are half-truths and, therefore, deceptions. Neither is a lie. For if you eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you will both know good and evil and you will also know that death is even more certain than taxes. When the woman tells God that the serpent deceived (הִשִּׁיאַנִי) her, she is really saying that she was tricked because the serpent never spelled out the consequences in full. But neither did God!

An aside. Last night I saw an excellent 2015 six million dollar netflix movie called Beasts of No Nation that surprisingly did not get a general release, evidently because the major movie chains boycotted the film because Netflix released it without waiting the normal 90 days after its general release. It was about the capture and conversion of a boy into becoming a child soldier in West Africa. Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga and adopted from a 2005 novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, the movie won the Marcello Mastroianni Award at the Venice International Film Festival and had a special presentation in Toronto at TIFF. Abraham Attah as Agu, the innocent, playful child who is made into a murderous child soldier and Idris Elba, the cunning Commandant who seduces Agu into becoming a murderer and, it is implied, physically as well, were both superb.

At one point in the story, the Commandant promises his boy soldiers that when they capture the next town, they will be rewarded with women who will really make their “soldiers” stand up. And that is the core of the movie. Children being seduced into both evil as well as strict and unquestioning obedience, and having their soldiers erect, though the former precedes the latter in the movie. In the Garden of Eden, the erect serpent, “the soldier” referred to in the movie, seduces Eve and says to her that she will be like the angels knowing evil versus good if she eats of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Abu was coerced and he became a “beast of no nation.” The woman in the Garden of Eden was seduced for she had a choice. She did not have to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. But she saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food, that the tree itself was a delight to her eyes. Further, she was promised that wisdom would result. So she took of the fruit and ate. The woman added, she touched it as well. After all, Go had only warned her about eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. She played with that tree. She ate of its fruit. As did her husband. So unlike Rashi, I do not see that the problem was that they had intercourse in public (ועוסקים בתשמיש לעין כל ונתאוה לה), and certainly not that they had intercourse at all. Sex in itself is no problem. Taking responsibility for it is, or at least blaming what happens on another. The feeling ashamed and engaging in a cover-up.

Note that in both the movie and the Genesis story, the erect serpent and the soldier are perceived as independent characters. So there are three characters in the story – the woman who would become Eve, the man who would become Adam, and the erect serpent soldier. However, unlike the soldiers in Beast with No Nation, it was a soldier not indoctrinated to unquestioning obedience. The serpent itself was cunning. It was the seducer, but as in the movie, as in most locker rooms across the world, whether called Oscar or Peter or a soldier, it was given a mind of its own. Which means that, like Abram, the would-be Adam took no responsibility for the actions of his soldier.

Then we have the birth of a culture of shame. Instead of owning up to what they did, they blamed others from When God called out, the man, instead of saying,                                                         הנה אניHine ani,” “I am here,” answered by saying that he was afraid to expose himself because he was naked. So he hid. God immediately knew he had eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil for how else would would-be Adam be conscious that he was naked? God insisted that what he had issued was a commandment and not just a warning. The man then blamed his disobedience on woman for it was she who insisted that the fruit of the tree was worth eating.

As we all know, the consequences befall all three: the serpent becomes flaccid instead of erect and is even beneath the beasts of the field. Further, in addition to the politics of shame, the politics of denial and failure to take responsibility, the politics of resentment, are also born. The penis, instead of joining man and woman, instead of the seed of the man simply inseminating the egg of the woman, the penis becomes a bone of contention between them. It will become the Achilles’ heel of the man, and woman will nip away at that weakness. In turn, the male as a penis, but not yet an asshole, will, in revenge, try to continuously bite the head off the woman and turn her into thing of only flesh and blood. Childbirth will be painful, and not just in the physical sense. The husband will become the ruler and master in the relationship.

Together, they will travel on the historical road of responsibility and accountability.


Circumcision and Nobel Prizes

Parashat Lech Lecha: Genesis 12:1-17:27


Howard Adelman

When God instructs Abram and Sarai to go to a new land that God will show them and promises them that they will give birth to a great nation which will be aggrandized, note that “aggrandized’ has two very different meanings: 1) an increase in power, wealth or authority, and 2) an enhanced reputation incongruent with empirical reality. The first has sometimes been true for small golden ages of Jewish history. The latter, in contrast, has been a constant of that same history.

This week, two of the three Nobel prize winners for medicine were Jews, one of the two winners of the Nobel prize for physics was Jewish, three of the three Nobel prize winners for chemistry were Jewish (two were Israelis). (The literature Nobel prize went to a marvellous Canadian writer, Alice Monroe. The previous writer to win, ostensibly from Canada, was a Canadian-born Jewish American, Saul Bellow in 1976.) Jews, constituting, not 2%, but .2%, of the world’s population have clearly won a very disproportionate share of Nobel prizes. The number of awards and the numbers in that population are just so out of whack that Jews can be considered aggrandized in the second sense above. But from this aggrandizement, all the families of the earth are blessed by all those who win Nobel prizes.

However, how Jews got from the original promise to the here and now has been very twisted. Abram and Sarai take their nephew, Lot, along to travel to the promised land. The promised land, when they get there, is not so promising; there is a famine, So they go onto Egypt. A very strange thing happens. Abram anticipates Egyptians coveting his wife because she is a very attractive woman. So he tells Sarai to say she is his sister. Why this will protect her any better is not clear. What is clear is that Abram does not have her protection foremost in mind but his own. For if Sarai is his wife, Egyptians will feel the need to kill him in order to take Sarai as a bondswoman. If Abram is her brother, then they will spare Abram in order to bargain for the favours of Sarai. Quite an ignominious beginning to a nation that will be aggrandized! For when Sarai finds favour in the Pharoah’s eyes, Abram’s life is not only spared, but he is rewarded with herds of animals and lots of servants. The nation begins with Abram pimping for his supposed sister who is really his wife.

When Egypt suffers a host of plagues, the Pharaoh somehow learns that the woman Abram gave for his favour was his wife, not his sister. To get rid of the plagues, he orders Abram to take Sarai, whom Pharaoh had married, and leave Egypt with all his flocks and servants. Lot, who has also grown wealthy alongside his uncle, also leaves. When they return to Canaan, Abram and his nephew are no longer getting along. They part ways. Lot chooses to go to Jordan, making his base in Sodom, an evil and licentious city, while Abram settled in Canaan. God reiterates his promise that Abram will father a great nation and this land of Canaan will belong to Abram and his descendents.

Then chapter 14 tells of an interval of politics and warfare whereby one alliance of kings conquers the land and cities where Lot lived and took Lot captive. Then Abram with 318 of his men conquered the conquerors, freed Lot and allowed the kings who survived to resume their rule. The King of Sodom offered to reward him. While Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre were allowed to take their share, Abram replied: “Neither from a thread to a shoe strap, nor will I take from whatever is yours, that you should not say, ‘I have made Abram wealthy.'”  Abram did not seem to have the same inhibitions when dealing with Pharaoh.

However, Abram and Sarai remained childless and Abram wanted an heir. God swore to him that he would not only have an heir, but his offspring would be like the stars in heaven. Abram makes a sacrifice as surety for the promise and then, exhausted, falls asleep. God appears in his dream and very tersely foretells the four hundred years of slavery in Egypt. “You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years. And also the nation that they will serve will I judge, and afterwards they will go forth with great possessions.” God then goes beyond just a promise and makes the famous covenant with Abram.

Still no child! So Sarai offers Abram her handmaid, Hagar. Hagar not only gets pregnant, but also evidently gets snooty with Sarai. Sarai beat her and drove her out of the camp. The angel of the Lord appears to Hagar, convinces her to return to camp even though she will be mistreated by Sarai, instructs her to name her son Ishmael and promises that his descendents will be abundant beyond belief. Ishmael was born when Abram was 86 years old.

Five years later, when Abram is ninety-one, God reiterates and renews his covenant with Abram and renames him Abraham. Sarai becomes Sarah. Circumcision of his offspring on the eighth day will provide the evidence of the children of Abraham to uphold that covenant. “My covenant shall be in your flesh as an everlasting covenant.” God reiterates his promise of a child who shall be called Isaac. Eight years later, Abraham at ninety-nine takes every member of his household, including his young son Ishmael, and they are all circumcised. Ishmael is 13 years old.

My weird question is: does circumcising a child at eight days old have anything to do with winning a Nobel prize? On 25 September, two right wing Members of the Swedish Parliament introduced a motion to ban non-medically related circumcision on young children. The same Parliament awards the Nobel prizes through a series of Nobel prise committees. Surely there can be no connection between Jews being circumcised and winning Nobel prizes in science, or between Sweden awarding such prizes and Sweden being a leading country opposing circumcision. I want to make a circumstantial argument for just such a connection.

First, let me take up the medical opposition to religious circumcision of male children. The opposition is not rooted in science. After all, in 2012, the AmericanAcademy of Pediatrics (AAP) argued that the preventive health benefits of newborn circumcision outweighed the risks as long as that circumcision was performed by trained professionals under sterile conditions with appropriate pain management. Medical benefits included prevention of urinary tract infection, genital carcinoma, reduced transmission of sexually transmitted infections such as HIV, reductions in rates of phimosis, paraphimosis, pseudophimosis, balanistis. Genital carcinoma is the top ranked cancer among Swedish males. Yet Dutch, British as well as Scandinavian pediatricians were not convinced of the benefits of circumcision as a routine practice. Further, in 2002, Sweden introduced restrictive legislation on male circumcision and, subsequently, the Swedish Pediatric Society called for a complete ban on ritual circumcision.

However, I do not want to enter into the fray of the scientific evidence for and against the circumcision of male infants at 8 days old. Instead, though I believe the opposition to ritual circumcision is rooted more in non-science, so, I believe, is the defence. Further, what I claim is the real underlying reason for infant male circumcision, I believe, can be circumstantially related to Jews winning a disproportionate share of Nobel prizes. What is that underlying reason?

Let us admit the following. Circumcision is observably painful. Further, there is psychological evidence of long term emotional effects. Circumcision of an infant at eight days old does violate a child. Maimonides (the Rambam) argued that the bodily pain caused to that member is the real purpose of circumcision. I agree. Further, he argued that the bodily pain inflicted upon an infant had a moral purpose. Here, I also agree. However, the Rambam also argued that the moral purpose was a weakened sexual satisfaction and lessened lust. I disagree. I have seen no scientific evidence for weakened lust among Jewish males and Philip Roth will one day win a Nobel prize for demonstrating precisely that.

The moral purpose is not some puritanical assault on the passions but teaching Jewish males distrust or scepticism. After all, if your father could do that to you at eight days old, if the father of your people could listen to God and be willing to kill his long-promised son, then a child who grows up has to be very wary about those around him. Faith and trust in others is not a lesson of Judaism, even faith in God. In fact, as the arguments with God over the ages attest, one perhaps has to be most wary of God. Judaism does not teach faith or love – agape – but hesed, faithfulness. You must be faithful to your father and to God, but you do not have to have faith in either one. They may or may not deliver on their promises.

That is the moral lesson that is slit into every Jewish male’s penis. Be wary. Be sceptical. Even those closest to you can harm you. That moral lesson is translated into a general inquisitorial stance that teaches Jews to query everything and not take received wisdom on authority. Even the ultra-orthodox are taught to query and probe the meaning of text.

“My covenant shall be in your flesh as an everlasting covenant.” It is a valuable lesson and well worth the pain inflicted on an eight day old male baby. After all, someday he might win a Nobel prize.