January 2010

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Sy Schechtman

Neither dim recession or buoyant prosperity can dim the luster of the putative possibility of God’s ultimate providence and care. Indeed, three determined atheists, as their book titles strenuously trumpet,-- Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins-- in the very recent past in books with very trenchant titles----God Is Not Great, How Religion Poisons Everything, The End Of Faith, and The God Delusion--- had relatively good sales success with their books, but no where near the continued annual sales of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the Gospels (New Testament.) And to a somewhat lesser degree for Moslem hearts and minds, The Koran, Allah’s revelations to Mohammed, which continues to be the most fervently invoked—five times a day in prayer at least—for the over more than a billion and a quarter Moslems worldwide.

In our western culture, certainly, a striving and discerning parent can do very well for his children by providing for them a well rounded education which includes much science and technology but also some important fundamentals on the Gospels and the Torah. These have continued to hold all time preeminent leadership in the hearts and minds and pocketbooks of western humanity. Always necessary, of course are still the doctor, the dentist and the accountant and now the computer geeks and nerds, but a gilt edge niche specialty must be the bible salesman or ordained religious representative rabbi, priest or minister of any of the many Christian and Jewish American sects. Whether one believes that God created the earth a mere five to six thousand or so years ago or that the “big bang” of cosmic creation happened about 13 to 14 billion years ago and that the vast universe around us is constantly expanding, and that random evolution has pushed the upright human primates male and female to the fore, there is always that very urgent little speck of an entity within, call it ego, or soul if you like, that insists on some perspective on humanities’ relation, whether mere minimal accidental specks in a vast cold void or co-partner with an eternal Deity with an infinite Plan,----- so that ultimately humanity will be more like the Deity in whose image he or she was created to aspire to.

And behold that brings us right into the festive holiday Christmas season, where yet another manifestation of the Bible is being celebrated, this time the book of Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Testament---a complete and respectful version in cartoon form! By the artist and celebrated illustrator R. Crumb. And this version is selling quite well in this new form, although I do not think that it is necessarily an improvement. Rather like Samuel Johnson’s very faint praise of a dog on its hind legs. “You admire it somewhat but why bother to do it in the first place?” That is, anyone acquainted with the great glory of Genesis will not be much augmented by the somewhat loutish depictions of the great biblical characters (and God!) in dull black and white. But, to his credit, the story he tells is biblically accurate and still incredibly fascinating, even in the diminished black and white pictorial form that limits the scope of imaginative recall.

Genesis is part myth and fancy and western humanities’ evocative beginning of coming to terms with with the immense and compelling majesty and mystery of understanding from whence we came to be-- The Mysterium Trememdum --- and ends generations later with the beginning strong nucleus of a core group who are ready to form a nascent monotheistic unity of spirit and faith out of the frustrating void of aimless paganism that abounded. And so we have , in the firm declaration of the splendid King James version –“in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”-- of God depicted as creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh day, and after each day “God saw that it was very good”. However, in the very next chapter, almost like an immediate revision of the story, His prime creation, Adam and his wife Eve, were disobedient and flouted His stricture not to eat from the tree in the center of the lovely Garden of Eden where the Lord had intended them as shepherds for the animals and foliage of this earthly paradise. And God is seen as being frustrated by the fractious nature of his prime creation—man and woman, and of Cain slaying his brother Abel and declaring indifference as to his fate, and then several generations later of complete disappointment with his creation and selecting only Noah and his family as the only people worthy to be saved as the rest is drowned in a forty day horrendous flood.

But God is seen as learning on the job, for he ultimately relents and promises with the rainbow in the clouds as his sign, that he will never again bring such destruction in the world. “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being as I have done.”

But there are righteous people of great note that Genesis concentrates on after the primeval stories of creation and flood. Notably patriarch heroes Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the legendary figure Joseph, one of Isaac’s many sons, who was during that time period coequal with the ruling Egyptian pharaoh, one of the world’s great powers. God appears to Abraham several times, foretelling the future greatness of Abraham’s progeny. “As for Me, this is my covenant with you. You shall be the father of a multitude of nations…. I give the land you sojourn in to you and your off springl….all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession. I will be their God…..” The Lord appears to Abraham several times, expanding on the territorial extent “….To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…..” And also that he will father, at last, a son, with his old wife Sarah. “……And Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent…she was old, advanced in years; Sarah had stopped having the periods of women. And Sarah laughed to herself saying “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?” Then the Lord said to Abraham “Why did Sarah laugh, saying

“Shall I in truth bear a child , old as I am?’ Is anything too wondrous for the Lord? I will return to you when life is due and Sarah will have a son” She lied “I did not laugh”, for she was frightened. But He replied, “You did laugh.”

Stalwart Abraham had many shining moments in his supernatural encounters. Once he bargains for saving any remnant of just people in Sodom and Gommorah, cities the Lord is about to destroy for their completely depraved life style. And He agrees with Abraham’s pleading, and He pledges that “I will not destroy, even for the sake of only ten”. But there were not even ten worthy of survival, and both cities were destroyed, including Lot’s wife, who disobeyed the Lord’s command not to look back at the destruction of the two evil cities. Lot, Abraham’s nephew, and his two children were spared; but not his wife who did look back and was turned into a pillar of salt. But the story that supremely tests Abraham is the akedah, the binding of Isaac. “Some time afterward , God put …. Abraham to the test…..Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him as a burnt offering on the heights which I will point out to you.” A three days journey now occurs and as Isaac and his father ascend the designated mountain and Isaac dutifully asks “Father…..here are the firestone and the wood but where is the sheep for the burnt offering? And Abraham said, “God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, my son” and the two of them walked on together……” At the last moment an angel of the Lord stays Abraham’s knife and a ram is almost miracuously provided for the sacrifice. “Do not raise your hand against the boy or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from me.”

Countless explanations—midrashin-- exist for this story, one of which hopes that while everything is ordained man still has free will, and that God is waiting in the wings for man to do the right thing ----since man is created in God’s image! (Or perhaps God is still “learning on the job”!) Another less sanguine commentary is that the very next chapter is the death of Sarah, Abraham’s valiant wife, the first matriarch. Some Torah scholars speculate that Sarah’s death, whose biblical age was 127 years, was hastened by the shock of what her son Isaac endured on Mount Moriah due to the too zealous obedience of her husband!

The second patriarch----Isaac-- has much less time in the flow of significant religious events. Indeed, the central occurrences have his wife Rebekah in the limelight. First as the bearer of twins, Esau and Jacob, and then, most importantly, in the staging of one of history’s most unsavory acts of duplicity. In the matter of the twins, their birth is preceded by obstetrical complexity, and a painful pregnancy. So she “went to inquire of the Lord. And “the Lord answered her, “Two nations are in your womb, /Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;/ One people shall be mightier than the other,/ And the older shall serve the younger.” Esau was the first out of the womb but his brother emerged holding onto Esau’s heel and he was named Jacob, the overreacher or supplanter. The Torah then jumps forward to early manhood when Jacob displays his over reaching, supplanting, non fraternal side quite openly. Esau, the out of doors hunter type is famished while his brother, Jacob, the indoors more scholarly person is eating some stew he had just cooked. Esau, famished, requests some stew, and Jacob says “First sell me your birth right” And Esau said”I am at the point

of death so what use is my birth right to me?” But Jacob said,”Swear to me first”. So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; and he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.”

Jacob’s major deception, however, was the cheating of his elder brother Esau of the parental blessing of the first born child. Here the connivance of his mother Rebekah was implicit. The Torah states that while Jacob was his mother’s favorite, Isaac was partial to Esau the outdoors, hunter person. Rebekah overhears Isaac telling Esau to hunt some game and prepare it to his father’s liking so that he can eat the favored food and give Esau, his eldest, the parental first born blessing. Quickly Rebekah preprares the favored dish, all the while Jacob is procuring some animal skins from the flock as per Rebekah’s instruction. Jacob goes to his father ---who was almost sightless---“father..”I am Esau, your first born; I have done as you told me.. Pray sit up and eat of my game, that you may give me your innermost blessing.” Isaac said to his son “How did you succeed so quickly, my son.?” And he said“Because the Lord, your God granted me good fortune.” Isaac said to Jacob, come closer so that I may feel you, my son, whether you are really my son Esau or not”. So Jacob drew close to his father Isaac, who felt him and wondered , “The voice is the voice of Isaac, yet the hands are the hands of Esau”

So he did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; and so he blessed him”.

Very great is the ensuing chaos when Esau discovers his brother’s fraudulent trickery. He vows to kill Jacob---“let but the mourning of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob”. Rebekah overhears this and sends for Jacob, telling him to flee the land to her brother Laban in Haran. “Stay with him until his anger subsides and he forgets what you have done to him. Then I will fetch you from there. Let me not lose you both in one day.!” Not only is she protecting him from his brother’s legitimate wrath but also from intermarriage an alien environment. She says to Isaac, “I am disgusted with my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob marries a Hittite woman like these, from among the native women, what good will life be to me.?” (Shades of current almost wholesale intermarriage!)

Isaac agrees completely, making the best of his son’s and wife’s duplicity, of which he evidently was the unwitting dupe. So Jacob flees to Haran and that night has a dream …. “a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And the Lord was standing beside him and He said, I am the Lord, the God of your father, Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the land on which you are lying I will give to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth…..All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you; I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Very much impressed by this dream Jacob thinks that “ surely the Lord is present in this place and I did not know it!” Shaken, he said “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven!” And then his typical, utterly characteristic, conditional pledge. “If God remains with me, if he protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house---the Lord shall be my God…..and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You.”

The Lord apparently accepts this callow youth’s fearful pledge, but twenty years and many critical, and famous, events occur as Jacob grows into very praiseworthy manhood. A true mensch, tested by life and the angels above. And, as always, the Everyman of al religious experience , seeking, enjoying and ever losing God again and again; but ever persisting and persevering in this holy search. At the end of Genesis, which we will conclude next time, we shall be able to assess Jacob’s legacy more completely, after his epical struggle with the angel of God, who changes his name from Jacob to Israel, “for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed”. We shall be able to assess the validity of this name change, from striving and struggling nascent daily Jewish Everyman to more noble holy man (or Superman, if you like) on a more daily basis---the true Jewish concept of the Messiah.