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Divine Love and Law in Genesis

Soren Kierkegaard was disgusted with the contemporary liturgical conventions of the Lutheran church. Aware the flagrant disparity between spiritual doctrine and real world practice, he would sit in the rear of church services, guffawing at the absurdly empty human practices. It is the enterprise of purifying spirituality, of finding transcendental, extra -earthly validity for Christian principles that drives Kierkegaard to his stance on preferential love. Though noble in his ambition, Kierkergaard, missteps here, sacrificing exactly what is valuable in the human relationship dynamic. Moral preference for those close to you is not something to be eschewed; to do s o is to rob those relationships and those moral actions performed therein, of any real meaning. The Hebrew Bible is not only aware of the value of preferential love, there is no evidence for anything resembling Kierkergaard's `spiritual love' in the Torah. The the me runs deep–not only does man show preference to man, but God himself shows preference for Israel, Moses, Abraham, and Abel. Kierkergaard's `spiritual love' isn't merely absent in the Hebrew Bible, it is completely incompatible with the biblical language of divine brit. God selects Noah and Abraham; he chooses Moses. Divine beneficence is not arbitrary. God must make selection based on preference –to remove God's discrimination is to yield worthless the value of His preferential covenants. If all are loved the same, Moses and Abraham have no worth above any other, and Israelites may as well be Babylonians or Egyptians. `Spiritual love' is equivalent to moral ambivalence, and without moral purpose there can be no meaning in moral action. A man that is fully morally ambivalent as Kierkegaard would urge is merely a dutiful ethical automaton–there is no joy in his benevolence, for it does not belong to you or to him. It is nothing more than mere duty. Preference in love is more than desirable, it is necessary; undifferentiated love is meaningless love. (2.) Rebekah like Sarai, continues the female role in Genesis as enactor of God's plans among men. The prophecy is given to Rebekah, that “the older shall serve the younger”. Rebekah favors Jacob, and not content to merely “have faith” and observe the fulfillment of the prophecy, she takes active measure to see it to fruition. The prophecy is not for Rebekah a mere revelation of future events–Rebekah appears to interpret the prophecy as a mandate, a divine plan requiring active oversight. In fact, the language of Genesis 24 is not unquestionably prophetic in nature. For Rebekah, ”..the older shall serve the younger” , may not be a foretelling, but a statement of divine ambition. In plotting on behalf of Jacob, Rebekah may not be laboring towards the fulfillment of divine prophecy (a counterintuitive enterprise), she may in actuality be pursuing a shared interest in Jacob's welfare, knowledge of that mutuality of interest coming from the divine revelation. Perhaps God's plans and desires are not invincible, and need the protection and guidance of men to see them to fulfillment. Or perhaps Rebekah does not trust the prediction or has forgotten, and is merely pursuing her own desire to see her favorite receive the blessing. What is surely meaningful is that Rebekah is the functioning catalyst and enactor of God's plan for Jacob. Interpreting intent may not be fully possible, but Rebekah's ambitions are unmistakably in line with God's plans. (3.) Jacob's paraphrased conditional: “If He provides sufficiently for me, I will choose YHVH to be my God.” Rashi forfeits the c ondition-dependent allegiance of Jacob. Jacob's journey home is a divine audition. In contrast to Deuteronomy 6:16, “Do not test God your Lord”, Jacob stipulates a very specific set of measures for God to pass in order to prove that God is worthy of Jacob's allegiance. Jacob's language indicates something quite distinct from monotheism. Contemporary God -tests are generally a search for proof of God's existence. Jacob's test however, is quite different; it is for proof of his worthiness for selection. It is language resembling a heavily contested try out or a job interview with many applicants. Rashi's when-replacement traditionalizes the passage, tilting it away from Jacob's polytheism and eschewing the problem of a faithless Jacob. The substitution of “when” eliminates the possibility that Jacob is testing God, that God may or may not provide for Jacob, and that Jacob may or may not have faith in God's providence. Providence becomes an inevitability and Jacob is merely expressing his plans, not conditions. The when -substitution elegantly sterilizes the passage; troublesome hints of polytheism, faithlessness and a semi-potent God are eradicated, but the cost is significant. The text really does seem to suggest that Jacob's relationship with God is something distinct and foreign to the monotheistic traditions of Judaism and Christianity. To disregard such a glaring incompatibility is to sacrifice true biblical understanding at The Alter of the Maintenance of Traditional Doctrine. (4.) God's chosen instruments behave badly (The contemporary reader, at least, disapproves.) Nonetheless, the covenant continues through the generations. Contrary to the expectation of a modern sensibility, the ethical delinquencies of God's Chosen do not void the divine covenant. Either moral misdeed is irrelevant to the sustaining of the brit, or the Elect's actions are not indeed misdeeds at all. The former is unsubtle and says something trenchant about the nature of divine brit. The latter, however is difficult; it is controversial, and frustratingly obfuscated. A multi -millennia chasm limits our access to the nature of Israelite morality, and the Moral Absolutism of biblical tradition precludes the asking of questions of ethical relativity. The application of contemporary moral judgments to biblical characters must be recognized as extra-textual.

abram.jpgWhen Abram instructs Sarai to tell the Egyptians she is his sister, there is no textual condemnation. To the contrary, “it went well with Abram; he acquired sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels.”(Gen.12:16) Abram is rewarded for his guile, and Pharaoh, in unknowingly sleeping with Abram's wife, is the sole recipient of punishment. When Jacob defrauds his father and brother f or the highest stakes possible, there is not merely a lack of textual reprimand; Jacob is supremely rewarded. He becomes Israel and a link in the li ne through which God's Chosen will continue. In the mandrake episode of Genesis 30, there is no condemnation for Leah's selfish cunning, Jacob's non-monogamous marriage, or prostitution via mandrake. In fact, “God heeded Leah” (Genesis 30:17) No negativ e moral activity is identified in these passages. Sex and honesty certainly receive treatment that diverges from the modern sensibilities. Interestingly, there does appear to be one characteristic repeatedly venerated: trickiness. It is possible that th e Elected's actions are morally reprehensible, and if so, this is evidence that the brit is unconcerned with the moral behavior of those under contract–it supersedes these rudimentary human errors. Nonetheless, it is prudent to first ask the question: Acc ording to the text, have these characters committed a moral offense at all? (5.) In the bizarre episode of Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles a man, wrenches a hip, and we are left with an etymology and explanation for Israelite dietary practice. Especially here, the biblical narrative takes on the tone of a retrospective mythology, the purpose of which is to provide derivation for the nation's name and what seems to be a particularly important eating habit. In this mythology about the creation of Israel, Jacob engages in battle with a divine being, and upon vanquishing the being, is given the name Israel. Such a tale of conflict and creation through victory remarkably parallels the Enuma Elish and Leviathan creation myths. While the similarities are inexac t, they are too striking to be ignored. The struggle of Jacob is a story of creation through victory, and it appears to reiterate a connecti on between the physical aftermath of creation and sustenance. God destroys Leviathan and leaves him as “food for the denizens of the desert” (Psalms 74:14). Jacob's hip is destroyed, and because of this, Israelites do not eat the meat of the hip. The new name Israel means “struggled against God”, or “prevailed with God”. It is the affirmation of the creation of the nation of Israel through victory. (6.) The use of bakhor in Exodus is part of an extended metaphor for Israel. passage continues, ”'Let my son go, that he may worship Me,' yet you refuse to go. Now I will slay your first born son.” The problem is that Genesis contrasts to the bakhor, with the yahid always being superior. There is some incongruity in God referring to Israel as his bakhor; it was previously indicated that the nature of the GodIsrael relationship was one o f mutual selection and covenant, indicating preference. Moreover, the literal implications of the use of bakhor within the metaphor are impenetrable, where yahid would have made perfect sense. An effective solution is simply to recognize that the use of bakhor fortifies and simplifies the rhetoric directed at Pharaoh. The metaphor is intended as a threat to Pharaoh, not as an exposition of the relationship of God to Israel. As such, the rhetorical force of the threat is enhanced by the literal simplicity (at least from the Egyptian perspective) and specificity of the first born. The value of the first born is societal and official, where the significance of the favored one is something personal and spiritual. Additionally, yahid is more literally, “only o ne”, and it could sound unnecessarily insulting and hopeless to say to Pharaoh that Israel is God's “only one”. Though the bakhor dilemma is certainly perplexing, the most serious aspects of the conundrum are avoided with the realization that the term app ears as part of an Egyptian -centric message. (7.) YHVH and Elohim appear in the Hebrew Bible in stories containing narratively contrastive components, and are attributed identifiably discrepant qualities. The scholarly approach is to define the dissimilitude in terms of authorship, but notwithstanding historical explanation, the reality of a divergent Godly nature marked by repeated associations of particular titles to particular characteristics cannot be avoided. YHVH (perhaps a contraction of the forms of the verb `to be'), appears in vivid, tangible tales in the Hebrew Bible. YHVH is seems distinctly corporeal. He shuts the doors to Noah's ark and has a “behind” that Moses sees. YHVH appears to be more actively and personally involved in the affa irs of men. He pledges an active role in the release of the Israelites from captivity, and it is YHVH that tries to kill Moses in Exodus 4:24. Elohim, on the other hand, derives from a more general term for `gods' or `divine beings', and as such, is more transcendental and less particularly defined . Elohim is not corporeal and active like YHVH. Rather, when the Elohim name is used, it tends to be a more distant God. Elohim mediates his affairs with men through manifestations like angels and burning bushes. (8.) Moses and Abraham are b oth primary instruments in the enacting of God's brit with the ancient Hebraic people. Each is given divine revelation and in each case demonstrable obedience is demanded. While the language of the Abrahamic brit is the most momentous, Abraham does very little to further the plan. Abraham is promised to be “the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fertile…and kings shall come forth from you.” (Genesis 17). The language of the Abrahamic brit evidences the cruciality of Abraham; he is a great elder and the first patriarch for all of Israel, but beyond some simple tests of obedience (akedat yitshak) little participation in the fruition of the covenant is required. Abram especially is selected on the basis of merits unknown, and the only duty he is given for the enactment of the brit is circumcision. Moses, by contrast is an active agent in Hebraic brit. His election is also obscure, but Moses is a real leader, not merely a patriarch. Both men's stories indicate that God anyone for his purpose, but Abram really could have been anyone. This with Moses. The story is much more tragic; despite all his leadership in Israelites out of bondage and obedience to divine will. It seems unlikely that “I will be with you” refers to a literal physical presence of God. Though a physical manifestation of God would effectively fit the patterns of covenantal ot, we must consider that this is Elohim, not YHVH and that he will continue in 3:14 to say, “Ehyeh-AsherEyeh.” God here seems to be in a particularly existential and obscure mood. This tautologous string of be-verbs is reminiscent of an inscrutable Buddhist parable; it is simultaneously deeply profound and completely impenetrable. In light of such an extreme existential statement, it is possible that Elohim is saying something quite unusual in verse 12, perhaps, “I am and you are, and that is how you know.” or maybe “You will know, just because. ” The language of Elohim in Exodus 3 is totally unequivalent to that of the very tangible Noahide and Abrahamic Covenants–there may be no valid reconciliation of disparate ots . If the sign , “I will be with you” is considered seriously in the context of verse 14, God is demanding something quite different from Moses than he did of Abraham or Noah. God may be telling Moses, “You will just know, ok?” (10.) God's requirements for the maintenance of the brit multiply in Exodus. Augmenting the Hebrew legal canon from one to hundreds, the increased laws indicate either a chang e in the nature of the active parties of the covenant, or a change in the nature of the brit Unmistakably, the covenantal tone has changed. A single sign was demanded of Abraham, an indicator of his continued obedience in line with the covenant. The laws given through Moses betray something quite different about the nature of the brit. The Mosaic laws do not seem to be provided as a “sign” of the covenant; rather, they demand active adherence to a specific manner of behavior. For Abraham, it was suffic ient to be God's yahid, to be the beneficiary of a magnanimous covenant–all that was required was a reminder-ot. Abraham's actions did not matter; it was only significant that he remain God's yahid, faithful to the covenant. For the Israelites under Moses, proper behavior is necessary to maintain their covenantal status. But why the more stringent requirements? Perhaps like the God of Babel who learned that man could not be trusted with homogenous language, God has learned that man can not be trusted to behave properly without specifics. Divine optimism is met with Israelite misbehavior, and God must spell it out for His people. Perhaps it is simply the growth of the Hebrew people that necessitates a growing rule -set. More people may simply require more laws, and divine law must evolve to keep its constant and relative force for its contemporaries.


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