On Paul

Jay Harris, in a review of Daniel Boyarin’s A radical Jew published in Commentary Magazine of June 1, 1995[1], cites Edward Gibbon to point out that the idea of Paul as a universalist transcending Jewish ethnic boundaries is, at best, only part of the story.

That Paul’s exclusivism was more “ecclesiocentric” than “ethnocentric” primarily means that, as the historian Edward Gibbon noted long ago, it was socially less narrow than some forms of Jewish exclusivism; but that is a difference in degree, not in kind.

Paul was also an apocalyptist who believed that faith in Christ was the only way to escape the coming wrath. That this way was open to Gentiles as well marks his universalism. That the path was defined by faith in the Risen Christ marks his covenantal particularism.

Much has been written to make sense of Paul. Protestant theology from Luther to Barth is replete with intense engagements with the theology of Paul. Modern secular intellectuals such as Alain Badiou and Giorgio Agamben as well have recognized Paul as one of the most profound and outrageous thinkers of the western tradition. Generation after generation has taken inspiration from his writings but also attempted to harness the words of this “radical” apostle and bend his words to their own doctrine. (Boyarin is no exception, except that he bends Paul’s words openly rather than tacitly to his interests as a postmodern and post-Zionist Jewish reader.) And yet Paul appears fresh from the piles of commentary and appropriation whenever one reads his letters.

Introducing Paul’s letters to first-time collegiate readers I was struck by three observations that I detail in the following. First, Paul represents a pre-70/pre-destruction voice of Christian discourse. This alone makes him unique among early Christian authors. Second, Paul’s reading of scripture is both instrumental and emblematic for the way in which his gospel inscribes Gentiles into the Judaic story of salvation. This assures him a place in the pantheon of hermeneutic genius. Third, Paul is an awkward fit for Jewish and Christian orthodoxies. This makes him a heretic to both, Jews and Christians.

  1. Paul’s pre-AD70 voice

First, what stands out to me is the fact that, in contrast to the Gospels and Acts, Paul’s letters, at least those widely considered authentic, represent a pre-AD70 voice that is unique among New Testament writings. For the most part, early Christian literature was forged in the crucible of the turmoil of the Jewish war and its aftermath, which left the Jews in public shame and the Christians scrambling to explain in what sense they were heirs to the Israelite dispensation without being counted among those rebellious Jews.

At the heart of this literature is the identity of Jesus, the son of God, son of man, and son of David of the gospels, but also the holy spirit present among the apostles after Jesus ascends to heaven and leaves his disciples in charge. The Paul we meet in this literature, i.e., the Paul of the Acts of the Apostles, is not the Paul of his own letters. It is a usable Paul who receives his commission from or in agreement with the original apostles.

The character of Jesus of the canonical gospels was shaped by these struggles to write the story of Christian origins into and out of a Jewish world that was at least in on respect more familiar to Paul than to the anonymous authors of the canonical gospels and acts. Paul was a contemporary and partisan within that world. His assertion to be an apostle by virtue of a divine calling challenges the privilege of the apostles as described in the (later) gospels. The post-70 gospels provide the students of the apostles with a usable past, a chain of authority from Jesus of Nazareth, son of God, man, and David, to their own contemporary leaders and beyond. None of that was of relevance to Paul.

As disciples of the Jerusalemite “poor” or evionim, they had access to authentic traditions of Jesus whose sayings and parables they heard from their teachers who were among the original apostles. Given the disruptions wreaked in Jerusalem by the punitive campaign waged by Titus, the disciples may have feared that the traditions they had preserved may be lost unless they were recorded in an orderly fashion. The evangelists’ job was to preserve and shape these traditions in keeping with the liturgical practices of baptism and eucharist and with the proclamation of the early Christians: that the messiah suffered and died according to scripture, was resurrected on the third day, and taken up into heaven from whence he will return to judge the living and the dead. Paul as well received that tradition and impressed it on his readers. (See 1 Cor 15). While Paul has no interest in the teachings of Jesus, he is familiar with the eucharistic elements of Christ’s passion  and persuades his interlocutors in and around Syria, Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, and Rome that Christ died and was resurrected according to scripture. Where he differs is in his mission to the Gentiles.

Like Boyarin, I believe much is to be gained by considering Paul as part of a conversation that indicates the range of Jewish possibilities of his time even though, in hindsight, Paul may be regarded as the unwitting founder of Christianity as a “world religion.” While to some, such as Paul’s student Marcion, Christianity was essentially a non- or post-Judaic religion that liberated men and women drawn to that very religion from its most egregious errors and falsehoods, Paul labored to keep the salvific dispensation articulated in his gospel from exploding the dialectic linkage between scripture and its true meaning as revealed in Christ. For Marcion, the Jews were already condemned, for Paul their “hardening” (Rom 11:25) was temporary.

Paul was not only an occasional writer but also an occasional thinker. Most of his letters speak to questions that arose after he left the communities he founded to travel to the next station on his missionary travels. (The exception is the letter to the Romans where Paul introduces himself to a community he did not found and that he is about to visit.) His discussion in Galatians of the problem of circumcision was occasioned by the confusion in the minds of the Galatians caused by emissaries from other apostles who insisted that the new brothers from among the Gentiles be circumcised in order to become full members of the community of the elect. Paul clearly thought otherwise. In the Letter to the Galatians he emphasizes that the apostles had never before obliged Gentile Christians to be circumcised. He also emphasizes the immediacy of his own authority and the divine commission of his apostolic office. In arguing against Gentile circumcision Paul cannot refer to it as an innovation and therefore odious in and of itself. Circumcision is, after all, the first covenantal obligation that applies to all male children of Abraham, according to the literal sense of scripture. Paul is therefore forced to make an argument from scripture as to why scripture itself may have obliged circumcision in the past but does not require it any longer now that the true sense of scripture has been fully revealed in Christ. He makes this argument in a world where Jews were still politically independent and where the apocalyptic expectation of Christ’s imminent return seems was driven less by a looming historical cataclysm than by an inner urgency to spread the gospel to the end of the earth.

By the time Paul writes his Letter to the Romans, the spontaneous and heated rhetoric of Galatians has matured into a comprehensive theory of redemption that makes room for both Jews and Gentiles. Paul’s apocalyptic urgency seems to have cooled as well. His plan is to complete his business in Jerusalem, visit Rome and go on to Spain. In the same process Paul honed his sophistication as a reader and interpreter of scripture.

  1. Paul and scripture

This brings me to the second thing that strikes me as interesting about Paul.

In order to bind god-fearing Gentiles and Jewish believers in Christ together into a single community of the redeemed Paul strikes a balance between an affirmation of Jewish roots and the justification of Gentile branches. His point is not as much supersessionist as it is inclusivist, as the roots and the branches are combined in a single living organism. This “tree of life” – in Romans 11 Paul speaks of an olive tree and wild olive branches – is also an apt metaphor for the manner in which Paul and other early Christian authors approach scripture. In some sense this is like pouring new wine into old skins, or a turning of water into wine. For Paul it is a matter of disclosing the hitherto hidden true meaning of scripture that not only preserves scripture but elevates it from letter to spirit (2 Cor 3:6).

Scripture, considered authoritative and immutable (i.e., no longer open to rewriting), provides the justification for Paul to argue that what appears like an innovation is not an innovation but a meaning always intended by scripture but unrecognized until the advent of Christ, an event that, in hindsight and only for those who are not blinded or read scripture with a veil before their eyes (as most Jews do according to 2 Cor 3:14), disclosed and revealed the true meaning of scripture. It provided the hermeneutical key to unlock the scriptures.

Paul’s arguments from scripture affirm the authority of scripture while scripture confirms his interpretation. Just as the Jews are not rejected as a whole or forever while their rejection of Christ makes room for the implantation or grafting of Gentiles into the “cultivated olive tree,” scripture’s literal referent (i.e., Israel) is reaffirmed by the fact that it remains real and valid (see Rom 9:1-6). The providential hardening of the Jews (see 2 Cor 3:14, Rom 11:7.25) to the idea that redemption extends to the believers among the Gentiles without making them into Jews does not erase their privileged position in this economy of salvation, though temporarily places them in a peculiar place (see Rom 11:11). What is curious about both the reading of scripture and about Paul’s way of doing theology is its temporality. The blindness or hardening of the Jews to the gospel of Christ that Paul sees as a temporary scenario, a providential ruse that allows the gospel to be preached to the Gentiles, later on hardens into a Christian doctrine about the Jews that cements their diminished place in society and forces them forever to enact their exile from salvation. But that is not Paul who preached faith, hope, and love as preparation for a return of creation to the ideal state that prevailed in the beginning. He did not imagine what came in fact, namely, the absorption of his all-important message of divine salvation into a new ideology of monarchic rule.

  1. Paul the heretic

The third thing that struck me as that it is more interesting to me how Paul compares with what became of the Christian movement than to argue whether Paul was a good Jew or a bad Jew, or whether his gospel was within or beyond the range of Judaic possibilities of his time. We take it for granted that Paul was a Christian. But Paul asserts that he wants to be understood as a Jew, even a good Jew, and better than most. We can accept this as an indication that, for Paul at least, the ways of Judaism and Christianity had not yet parted. His whole purpose is to argue that his mission to the Gentiles was the necessary extension of the gospel, just as the gospel was the true meaning of the scriptures. In other words, what he was doing was, in his mind at least, continuous with the meaning and essence of Judaism, biblical revelation, scriptures and divine purpose all along. He may have been operating on the margins of the Judaic possibilities of his time and to some he clearly crossed a line but in his own mind he was simply true to God’s personal revelation to him, which he understood as a prophetic calling. What is more interesting to me is the fact that Paul in many ways seems also out of the doctrinal bounds established by the later orthodox councils of the bishops. His Christology is adoption or perhaps Arian and it is not evident that he has a Trinitarian understanding of the nature of God. The exact relation between God and “our Lord Jesus Christ” seems of little concern to him. He is therefore neither a typical theologian in the later sense nor really orthodox. In a sense he is both a bad Jew and a bad Christian, when measured by the standards of Jewish and Christian orthodoxies. This makes him a skandalon, a stumbling bloc, a writer difficult to stomach if and when we are concerned with established orthodoxies. Even in his own time he caused consternation not just among the Jews who accused him of various transgressions and handed him over to the Roman authorities but also among the apostles. The Letter of James attests to the fact that Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith was offensive to the pillar of the church in Jerusalem. And yet Paul’s letters are in the New Testament. It is this fact, among others, that elevates this body of early Christian literature to the level of complexity we would expect from its inclusion in what we call the Bible.

[1] https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/a-radical-jew-by-daniel-boyarin/

The New Testament

I teach the New Testament as part of an entry-level college course on the Bible. My overall approach is to teach the Bible as literature. I start with canon and canonization, then work my way through the parts of the canons, from Genesis to Daniel, canonical to apocryphal and deutero-canonical, Iron Age to Hellenistic, all the while foregrounding questions of genre and literary form as a means of getting from simple content to historical context. I encourage students to distinguish between heroic and narrative time. I point, again and again, to the pivotal moments in Israelite and Judahite history that we can grasp and pin down, around which some of the datable chunks of texts, books, and editorial compilations revolve: the destruction of Israel, the destruction of Judah, exile and return, the transition from Ptolemaic to Seleucid rule, the beginning and end of Hasmonean kingship, the age of Herod and Roman rule.

Then we turn to the New Testament.

The four canonical lives of Christ can be classified as “lives” (vitae or bioi), biographies of a particular “illustrious” man, a saint of sorts. They can be compared, in form, to the Lives of Plutarch. Luke in particular follows the conventions of that genre. But reading the gospels after reading biblical wisdom and apocalyptic literature is not just a shift in genre. It is a rupture.

For those who have ears to hear and eyes to see, the New Testament is discontinuous with the old. It is a metabasis eis allo genos. To think otherwise is to be fooled by the triple power of codex, language, and habit. Just because New and Old Testament are bound in one volume doesn’t mean they’re one book. Just because they’re written and translated so as to resemble one another doesn’t mean they speak the same language. Just because we (Christians and Christian-acculturated others) are used to mentioning them in one breath doesn’t mean they’re of the same spirit.

It was not until today that I fully realized the scandalon, the powerful magic trick by which difference and discontinuity between these compilations are rendered invisible.

Not that Talmud or Midrash are any more continuous with “scripture” than the gospels and letters of the New Testament. Both traditions, early Christian and early Jewish, employed interpretive techniques and hermeneutical rules to make those ancient and time-honored texts of Moses, the Prophets, and Psalms (or Writings) say what they wanted to hear. Learned Christians looked to Philo of Alexandria for inspiration who allegorized the laws of the Pentateuch; the rabbis honed R. Ishmael’s thirteen measures of interpretation. Both communities became inured to the resistance of the literal and historical meanings of texts whose sanctity was affirmed by bending its meaning to the will of the competing interpreters. And yet, there are important differences between Jewish and Christian readings of the same texts.

1. Hebrew v. Greek

Though the language of the early Christians and the Jews of Judea and Galilee was the same admixture of Aramaic and Greek, the dominant idiom of Roman era Christian discourse was Greek (the language of Paul), while the dominant idiom of Roman age Jewish discourse remained Aramaic. While sayings attributed to Jesus may have circulated in his own native language and that of his disciples, they were soon translated into Greek and other languages, which was part of the point of the gospel’s urgent dissemination to the “ends of the earth.” The kingdom of god arrived in deliberate acts of breaking down language and other barriers between nations, social classes, and – in some cases – also between the sexes, to forge a new humanity that was one in Christ. The vehicle of dissemination of the good news was comprehensible speech, even as one of the signs of the holy spirit was incomprehensible speech.

The rabbis condemned the Greek language and regarded it as a means of self-alienation that should no longer be cultivated. This inward turn came with the renewal of Hebrew as the language of the new law, the Mishnah that took the place of the old as the New Testament did for the Christians. And yet, the Mishnah was promulgated in Hebrew, commented on in Aramaic, and linked to the jots and tittles of the law by means of elaborate exegetical moves. While the oral torah was often suspended from the old like a mountain by a hair, it remained connected through linguistic proximity, wordplay, and the unceasing gesture of honoring the law as one and the same, received by Moses at Sinai.

2. Nation v. movement

The Jews never ceased to be a nation. But what were those early Christians? The religion of the Jews was never anything but an ethnic religion that, in that sense, never offended Roman sensibilities. But what was that Christian “way” proclaimed by the apostles after the death and resurrection of Christ? Binding or not, rabbinic law was meant to unify the Jews within and outside the land of Israel lacking access to their national center, their central sanctuary, and any semblance of national sovereignty. In place of these accustomed forms of independence the rabbis of the late second and early third century created a system of legal autonomy under the auspices of Roman rule. For the next seventeen centuries, this became the dominant way of life and the means to preserve ethnic cohesion and continuity among the Jews. The basic understanding of the Jews as a covenanted community was rooted in and continuous with the Pentateuch, a document forged in the crucible of Babylonian exile and Persian-age reconstruction.

In contrast, the Christian “Way” transcends the boundaries of ethnic nationality, custom, class, and gender. It forges a new humanity that is neither beholden to Moses nor to Homer (Droge), neither Jew nor Greek, rich or poor, male or female, according to Paul. This angelic race anticipates the kingdom of heaven right here on earth. Those who proclaim it might suffer at the hands of powers beholden to Satan and his demons, but they hope to be vindicated either in this life or in the next. They are innocent of the conflicts between nations and they are no threat to the empire (“my kingdom is not of this world”). This innocuous proclamation, which is the gist of the gospels and of Acts, was forged in the crucible of years, during and following the violent suppression of the first Jewish rebellion, when Romans saw the Jews as a rebellious people, barely subdued by the Emperor and his son, Titus, himself immortalized by his brother Domitian.

But instead of proclaiming their complete independence of the Judaic dispensation, as Marcion would, the canonical gospels, the Book of Acts, the rest of the New Testament insist on continuity with the Israelite heritage as one of prophecy and fulfillment. Christ is not simply a spiritual being, as Christian Gnostics would have it, but the Son of David, promised and foreseen by Moses and the prophets, proclaimed through the ages, adumbrated and prefigured by the unwitting testimony of the ancients. Avoiding the odium of innovation, Christians presented themselves as heirs to the most ancient dispensation, going back to Adam, Abraham, Moses, and King David while disowning the stubbornness of the Jews.

Looked at from the outside, from beyond all the rhetoric aimed at persuasion, the Christians appear as a movement rather than a new humanity, a community of believers, a mystery cult devoted to Christ, buoyed by enthusiasm and charisma. Surely successful in forging a new way of life, yet one whose ultimate implications were neither as benign nor as irenic as they foresaw when they were without power or sovereignty of their own.

3. Continuity v. supersession

Perhaps the major difference between Jewish and Christian ways of reading their antecedent scriptures is that between those who assert historical continuity and subject identity and those who appropriate that same tradition while superseding those who are most obviously devoted to its substantive continuation. In this competition, because the Christian way became politically dominant, the spiritual appropriators of an antecedent tradition were privileged over the literal (“carnal”) appropriators of that same tradition.

There are counter-arguments against the stark disjunction between Christianity and Judaism. Despite their pious demurrals the Jews of Palestine were connoisseurs of Greek and Hellenistic civilization. And despite their claim to speak for the entire nation the rabbis had started as a movement of their own and faced competition from other heirs of the same ancestral traditions, among them the Samaritans (kutim) and Karaites. Finally, the oral law didn’t merely augment the written laws of Moses but ultimately superseded them. Very aptly, Susan Handelman (before her most recent turn to Israeli biblical literalism) praised the rabbis as “slayers of Moses.” On the other end of the spectrum, the fact that proto-orthodox Christians affirmed their roots in Moses and the Prophets created a complex continuity between Jews and Christians, progenitors and inheritors, mother and daughter religion. To be sure, the relationship was for the most part one-sided. The mother never acknowledged her daughter, and the daughter was not always inclined to honor her progenitor.

From a strictly pedagogical point of view it served me well to admit that I did not comprehend how this New Testament was rooted in the “Old.” Students were forced to argue whether and if so how the authors of the New Testament gospels and the Book of Acts made a compelling case for continuity between their proclamation and the earlier scriptures. Students  argued that the New Testament represented an “Act II,” a spirited argument that hopes for a restoration of an ideal state of Israel was fulfilled in the advent of Christ. I suggested that Jesus was at best a failed messiah, as he was killed. In the end the New Testament seemed to students like a “surprise ending” that sent the viewers back to what had preceded it to look for a foreshadowing of the end.

Pedagogically speaking I’d say this interpretation was a success. Students admitted that this surprise ending wasn’t as much foreseen as it was found in hindsight in texts that could also be interpreted otherwise.


The Bible: a trigger warning

On May 17, 2014, Jennifer Medina published an article in the NYTimes that may forever change the way we approach the teaching of literature in the college classroom. It deprived us of our innocence. Under the heading, “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm,” Medina points to a new form of self-censorship, called trigger warnings, that instructors are now widely supposed to offer students before exposing them to texts (in the wider sense of text that includes movies, for example) that might set off psychological triggers by describing or depicting racism, rape, violence against women, suicide and other types of behavior that may cause the reader or viewer to relieve traumatic experiences of their own.

Before we dismiss this trend as political correctness or a curb on free speech, we should admit that images, especially moving images, but also words and texts can hurt. Sometimes our own words hurt others. They often do so inadvertently. This is more than regrettable. It is a cause for concern. Aren’t we to provide a safe environment for our students and interlocutors, including those who may be traumatized or offended by things that ordinarily roll of our tongues without giving us pause? Perhaps that is the most valuable aspect of this conversation on the limits of speech. It gives us pause. It makes us think before we speak. Is this not what every decent wisdom tradition has always demanded?

Exposing students to graphic violence or pornography without warning and without a clear pedagogical rationale is inappropriate, though there may be a grey zone. I once inadvertently offended students in a class on Judaism when I read an excerpt from Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (without proper warning). I thought of it as a humorous illustration of Jewish family life, of stereotypes of ethnic family life. But that’s not how I introduced the excerpt, which was my mistake. There are many ways to offend students, and not all are pedagogically justified. Part of the problem is the lack of shared assumptions. Students are often ill prepared for a lecture that uses irony or sarcasm to get a point across. Powerpoints are never sarcastic.

When you teach a text or subject that is dear to students’ hearts, such as the Bible, for example, you are likely to offend. Perhaps it helps to start out with a trigger warning. This could run as follows.

Students should be advised that in this class we will be reading texts that contain offensive material. This includes fratricide (Cain and Abel), incest (Lot and his daughters), child sacrifice (the Binding of Isaac, Jephta’s daughter), rape (Dina at Sichem), adultery (David and Bathsheba), graphic sexual imagery (Ezekiel 16, a speech about Jerusalem as a harlot), erotic imagery mentioning body parts (Song of Songs), suicide (Judas Iscariot), divinely sanctioned genocide (passim), divinely sanctioned spearing or hacking to pieces (Pinhas, Samuel), implied homoeroticism (David and Jonathan), gay-bashing (Lev 18:22), lurid lists of forbidden sexual relations (Leviticus 18:6-18), masturbation (Onan), Satan (1 Chr 21, Book of Job, the New Testament), a deity trying to kill his own prophet (Exodus 4:24), angelic sex (Gen 6), a divinely ordained mass drowing of humanity (Flood story), and violent images about the end of the world (passim).

I realize just how problematic the Bible really is every time I teach it. Once I assigned Ezekiel 16 – the prophet’s derisive review of Jerusalem’s history from its origins as a bastard child of Amorite and Hittite parentage to its impending destruction at the hand of its “lovers” – in a course on Jerusalem. I advertised the passage as my favorite biblical text about Jerusalem. When we read it in class the next day – more precisely, as I was reading it aloud and commented on it – I was disturbed at the text’s implications, and at that moment I no longer knew why I had called it one of my favorite passages. Before we read the text I had shown the trailer of a film about Jerusalem’s only gay bar, a place where Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, secular and religious Jews, men and women, gay and straight all meet as equals, where it does not matter what they are. I showed the clip because it defied the sanitized images we had watched the day before when we saw the most recent National Geographic feature on Jerusalem at the Omni IMAX theater at the Museum of Science in Boston, which had ended on the note that it was not yet time for the three communities, Jews, Christians, and Muslims to meet. This view was presented by the three young women who served as guides to their respective communities. At the end of the film they convened at the same spot in Jerusalem’s Old City without interacting. The film about the gay bar was the perfect antidote. Here everyone met everyone, on the grounds of a shared human need for acceptance and community. Some students responded uneasily (by misplaced laughter) to the display of gay sexuality. Others expressed surprise that this kind of thing existed in Jerusalem, though they imagined that gays might be more comfortable in Tel Aviv. Most found it shocking to hear that during a gay pride parade a Jewish orthodox man attacked marchers with a knife.

As it turns out, Ezekiel provides a script for knifemen and religious extremists. He condemns Jerusalem for its pluralism. He takes it for granted that the proper handling of an adulterous wife is that she be stripped naked in public and stoned. The Bible is an uncomfortable anthology. A vademecum that always needed to be sanitized by the Jews and Christians who call it sacred. Sacred sometimes means scary.



Mosaic Law: It’s not what you thought

There was a moment in today’s class that should not go unnoticed. The reading assignment this week in RN101 The Bible was Exodus 19-34, Leviticus 18-20, and a bunch of chapters from Deuteronomy for Friday. Yesterday we looked at the framing of the Sinai covenant, the quasi theatrical scene in Exodus 19, the deity’s physical appearance and the curious denial and affirmation that Moses saw YHWH face to face. I pushed the text to saying that the deity can only be “seen” through the (text of the) law itself, which enjoins an imitatio of the divine attributes of action  YHWH proclaims as he passes by Moses. So far so good.

Then, today, I started with Leviticus 18-20, showed how it addressed the people as a whole rather than the Aaronide priests who are addressed before and after, explaining what “holy” means in Hebrew and pointing out that the difference or separateness (“exceptionalism”) of the Israelites and their deity is based in lawful conduct, whereby the laws (here and in the “book of the covenant”) are – give and take a few exceptions – quite reasonable laws, establishing a just society, and enabling the nation to live and flourish in the land they inherited from the unwise and unlawful people whom the land had “vomited out.”

At some point I had raised the question, what kind of law is it that the Israelites are enjoined to follow if they wish to succeed in the land YHWH was giving them. And at some point a student said, that the entire matter of the laws of Moses was completely unlike what Christians made of it, that it had nothing to do with trying to please God and everything with establishing a successful society, with laws conducive to social welfare and public order.

The way he formulated it, briefly and succinctly, I cannot reproduce. But it was such an “aha!” moment, such a crisp articulation of what I had hoped for the students to understand and to some extent had forgotten that that’s what I had wanted them to understand that it took me by surprise. I thanked the student for his insight and paused before I continued, to let what he had said sink in.

What do we learn from this? If you have a profound text and you get out of the way just long enough that it can speak, it will speak and students will hear. But they also need to have thought and known something, even if what they thought or knew was wrong or erroneous, in order to benefit from the encounter with the text, with the text’s resistance to their assumptions. They need to have been part of a pertinent conversation to benefit from surprising deviations from the expected, the already known. There are few things more rewarding than moments like this.


On Moses

We don’t know whether there was a historical Moses. As Jan Assmann wrote in his Moses the Egyptian, Pharaoh Amenophis IV “Akhenaten” was a figure of history but not of memory, while Moses is a figure of memory but perhaps not of history.

And yet, Moses, as a figure of memory, has exerted considerable historical “influence,” or better, the Moses figure has been vigorously received by multiple civilizations that based their worldviews on biblical figures, symbols, and motifs. Moses and the various Mosaic projects derived from or built upon Mosaic precedent and justified by Mosaic and ultimately divine authority are of fundamental importance to Jewish, Christian and Muslim conceptions of divine revelation, law, politics, liturgy, and even philosophical beliefs. Secular heirs to the Moses tradition as well have found meaning in the story of Moses and the Exodus. One of the most astounding modern works on Moses, Freud’s Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion went as far as casting Moses as an Egyptian, coming full circle, back to the biblical text and its possible implications.

In fact, Freud split the biblical figure of Moses into two distinct individuals, one Egyptian and one Midianite, neither one Jewish in an ethnic sense. The historical speculation at play in Freud’s writing is secondary to his primary impulse, which is to unveil the psycho-dramatic underpinnings of the great figure of Moses who represents the conflict Freud is interested in, that is, the great psycho-physiological conflict of filial love-hate, incestuous desire, and the repression of primal urges that, according to Freud, provide the psychic energy needed to produce civilized behavior. In that reading, our great myths and stories are veiled references to hidden and repressed desires rooted in physiological constants of our species: illusions that are products of displaced infantile wish fulfillment, the greatest such illusion being religion.

What do I mean by Moses as a “figure.” According to Erich Auerbach, the “figural structure” refers to a pattern of interpretation that is especially familiar from Christian readings that see important moments in the lives of Christ and the saints as prefigured in personages, moments and events from the Old Testament. I am using “figure” in a slightly less specific sense. For one, I use it to suggest that the biblical Moses is never simply the character in a story that can be understood solely from the details of its canonical telling or that is entirely coherent or compelling from within the literary framework of that story. Moses always points beyond himself and outside of the story in which he appears, if Exodus and the rest of the Torah constitute a story at all. By echoing the lives of other great heroes of the ancient world, Moses points to what is familiar from, and prefigured by, other heroes and therefore invites comparison and recognition of a known genre of heroic biographies that, in this case, include the story of the rise of Sargon of Agade and the tale of Sinuhe the Egyptian. But by virtue of Moses’ reception and retelling in light of other “great man” traditions, Moses also fails to remain completely embedded in the story of his life as contained in the Torah. Moses belongs as much to those who supply additional detail and interpretation and who rearrange his life in light of new interests and sensitivities, who remake Moses into a character without necessarily abandoning his significance as a great figure. More cipher than defined personality, Moses comes to embody different qualities to different adopters of the biblical tale of this prophet extraordinaire. Freud’s reading is only a recent example in this long history of extracting new meaning from Moses.

We need not make up our minds in advance whether Moses existed or not. The Moses we have is the Moses of Scripture, of the Bible, especially of the Five Books of Moses. This starting point is not a simple one. It is doubled by the fact that Moses appears as a figure in a book attributed to Moses: Moses the actor and Moses the author. And even if we don’t follow tradition in ascribing the Torah to Mosaic authorship, there is still the suggestion, in the Torah, that Moses wrote, perhaps not the entire Torah as we have it, but perhaps parts of it: the laws deposited with the Ark of the Covenant and the Song he composed and sang toward the end of his life, at the fields of Moab, in the hearing of the Israelites, at the time when he passed his authority as their leader to Joshua as his successor. In the biblical book that bears the name of the latter, Joshua is said to have committed himself to following the instructions of Moses (torah asher tsivah Mosheh avdi) as well as to study this book of instructions (sefer torah ha-zeh) day and night so as to do everything that is written in it, etc. This brings us to the important question of how Moses and the Book of Instruction (sefer torah) appear across the canonical and deutero-canonical writings outside the Torah, a curious subject in its own right.

Moses is mentioned outside the Torah, but not as frequently or consistently as one might expect. The canonical order of books suggests that the Torah of Moses was there first, that it preceded and authorized the conquest of Canaan, that it was known to the tribes and their judges before the rise of kingship in Israel, that it was deposited in Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem generations. It is the divine law that always should have been followed. But the first time that we hear of a sefer torah (literally “a scroll of instructions”) in the Book of Kings is late in the kingdom of Judah, when Josiah of Judah, upon reaching adulthood, orders repairs to the royal temple in Jerusalem (2 K 22). Prior to this inventio (accidental coming upon a sacred place or object), the scroll that emerged during these repairs and that the king has authenticated by court prophetess Hulda was utterly unknown, its content does not correspond to the Torah of Moses as we have it, and Moses is not directly associated with it. Moses was known in Judah, and he is mentioned in Judahite prophetic books, including once in Micah, once in Jeremiah, and twice in Trito-Isaiah, where he is remembered as the “shepherd of his flock” and associated with the miracle of the parting of the sea (see Isa 63:11-12). In Micah 6:4, Moses appears alongside Aaron and Miriam in a reminder of the Exodus tradition. In Jeremiah 15:1 he appears as an intercessor like Samuel. On the other hand, the 8th-century Israelite prophet Hosea speaks of the Exodus from Egypt (Hosea 11:1 “From Egypt I have called you my son”) without mentioning Moses, much as in the rabbinic Passover where Moses is completely eclipsed. While Moses is therefore part of Judahite tradition, he remains marginal until he is associated with writing, specifically the writing of Torah.[1] In pre-exilic Judah, Moses was remembered not as the author of a book but as the fashioner of a powerful bronze object that served to avert the plague. (See 2 K 18:4 and cf. Num 21:4-9).

Only later, when Jerusalem is reestablished under Persian rule and Ezra, priest and scribe, assembles the Jews at the rebuilt temple do we hear of a public reading of Torah that moves the people to tears. The Torah as we have it, as Julius Wellhausen argued more than a century ago, seems more like the result of the long history of Israel described in the above brief summary rather than its precondition. In other words, to get a historical handle on Moses we mustn’t be fooled by the canonical order of books. The figure of Moses who leads the Israelites out of Egypt, the House of Slavery, to the cusp of the Promised Land, is a figure of Torah, a book of laws and instructions received in the desert but meant to be studied, day and night, and diligently hearkened so as to do it, so as to merit the land YHWH has promised to the forefathers of the nation. Remaining in that land inherited once before, a long time ago, is contingent on the observance of Torah, of living by a law that, as it says in Deuteronomy, is so very good that it will be the envy of your neighbors. Life-enabling laws that provide the foundation of a successful society but that will be a witness against you should you ignore it. The relevance of this narrative for the community of returning exiles cannot be overestimated. In so many ways, exile and return, Torah and the persistence of the Jews, have remained the most important source and characteristic of the Jewish experience. The figure of Moses, by whose mediation the Torah was received as a book that henceforth accompanied the Jews on their migration through history, pales in comparison with the divine lawgiver and the covenant made at Sinai between YHWH and Israel. As a result, Moses’ absence in much of Scripture is not very noticeable. The voice of the prophets stands in for him, though he was the chief of the prophets and there was none like him. The glaring absence of Moses from most of the canon barely matters. The rabbis crafted a liturgy of the Passover festival, which celebrates the Exodus from Egypt and that, in lieu of a temple to which a Jew could make pilgrimage, is to be chanted in the house at night around a table set with symbolic foods. In the traditional Haggadah or story of Passover, Moses is never mentioned. Not even once. We can only speculate why. Suffice it to say at this point that this was not an inevitable choice. Samaritans who celebrate the Passover until today as instructed in the Torah by slaughtering, boiling, and consuming lambs at night on the mountain of Garizim, their ancestral sanctuary near the West Bank town of Nablus, regard Moses as the greatest manifestation of divine power (hela rabba).

Not so the Rabbis. Rabbinic Judaism developed a different Moses, one who has more affinity with the rabbis themselves as students of Torah. The Moses of the Rabbis varies. In some stories he is shown heaven and hell, in others he sits in the back of Rabbi Akiva’s classroom like an ignoramus who has no idea what this genius is talking about. When he is told by his neighbor that he is interpreting the Torah of Moses he is satisfied. When he is shown the martyrdom of Akiva, he is abhorred. Moses, the clueless. The rabbis, as Susan Handelman famously put it, were “slayers of Moses.” Freud was neither the first nor the last Jewish reader fascinated with Moses and obsessed with making sense of his life story. Conversely, it is by way of Moses that Freud found a way of expressing his own Jewishness. Without Moses, no Judaism.

Moses, the sometimes obscured and sometimes venerated, is more than Judaism, more and other than what Jews and Samaritans made of him. This is one of the most curious facts in the history of civilization. Without the sting of the law, no Pauline or Protestant anomism. Without Moses, neither Jesus nor Muhammad. How did Moses turn from the figure of Exodus, Sinai, and forty years of wanderings in the desert into the paradigmatic lawgiver and model for offices and personages in the Christian and Muslim faiths? It has been pointed out that such appropriations significantly misread the biblical text and its original intentions, but the same can be said of Jewish appropriations as well. Everyone misreads Moses. And only by misreading Moses can one make sense of Moses. The question is rather why would they try to make sense of Moses rather than of other great figures of the past. The Mosaic revelation was strikingly successful. Though rebranded in a number of important ways, sometimes reduced to a preliminary or intermediate stage in the history of divine salvation and sometimes surpassed by further acts of divine revelation, Moses remained the touchstone and measure by which those surpassings were judged. Only by being more than Moses could Jesus be Jesus. Only by being different in comparison with Moses could Muhammad be the seal of the prophets.


[1] I am ignoring here those stereotypical mentions in the Book of Kings that suggest that the law of Moses was known to the early good kings of Judah (David in 1 K 2:3, Solomon in 1 K 8) and to the later good kings, incl. Amaziah/Uzziah (2 K 14:6), Hezekiah (2 K 18:6), indications why Israel was carried into exile (2 K 18:12), why Josiah excelled as he did (2 K 23:25), and the like. Most of these passages can safely be attributed to exilic or post-exilic authorships. The great exemption from this rule is 2 K 18:4 where Hezekiah is said to have removed nehushtan (“bronzey”) from the temple as an idolatrous object fashioned by Moses.

The accidental religionist. An interview with Michael Zank

I meet Michael Zank at his office, on the fourth floor of the Elie Wiesel Center. The first thing I notice is that it is full of books. No surprise there. The second thing I notice is a wind catcher that has the Israeli flag on one side and the Palestinian flag on the other side. “That is nothing.” Zank says. “My colleague Adam Seligman gave it to me, not sure why. But I like it.” These days Zank rarely gets to use this office and spends most afternoons at the director’s office downstairs. But since I was mostly interested in finding out how he had become a scholar of religion, we thought it was more appropriate to meet here.

“I’m an accidental religionist,” he says once we’ve settled down and I asked my question.

How did you get into religious studies?

The short answer is, I was hired into the BU Department of Religion at a time when the department tried to get a better handle on Jewish studies.

What was there before you were hired?

Don’t get me wrong! The department had a really interesting mix of faculty. But it wasn’t immediately clear to me how it all worked. Elie Wiesel was affiliated with the department and they had other really interesting people in religion and literature like Herbert Mason and Geoffrey Hill. But the real workhorses of the department were people like Merlin Swartz a classical Islamicist who unobtrusively trained a whole slew of distinguished Phds, Alan Olson who wrote on Heidegger and Jaspers and trained students in philosophy of religion, the rare Samaritologist James Purvis, and two outstanding women scholars, Paula Fredricksen and Livia Kohn. The chair at the time was Ray Hart, a philosopher of religion and former president of the American Academy of Religion. None of these colleagues who first hired me are there any longer, by the way.

So there was no one in Jewish studies?

There was, but it was haphazard. Director of Jewish studies Hillel Levine wasn’t on speaking terms with the department. A former Israeli diplomat, Benno Varon, taught a course on Zionism. The intro to Judaism was taught by a local rabbi. The same year I was hired fresh out of graduate school, the department also hired two other young scholars: Ruth Langer who went on to teach at Boston College and Shaul Magid who went on to Rice University and now teaches in Bloomington/Indiana. John Silber also hired my dissertation advisor, Professor Marvin Fox, who was retiring from Brandeis University. He hoped that Fox would rebuild the Jewish studies program at BU and I believe he would have but he became ill and died of cancer shortly after he started at BU.

So you were left behind?

Right. But I was still only an adjunct. The lucky break came when someone told me about a job in Bristol/England. I applied and they offered me the position. I went to Ray Hart and said, unless you give me a real job I’ll be gone. Ray went to John Silber and said, “This is the guy we want,” and Silber gave me a tenure track position.

This sounds like you must have done something right?

Maybe. Mostly it was being at the right place at the right time. Ray also thought I was a quick learner. The first syllabus for the introduction to Judaism, a course I went on to teach every spring for the next eleven years, was way over the students’ heads. One of the students disarmingly told me they didn’t come to BU to study but to party.

Have students changed much since?

Absolutely. They still party, but they expect to work much harder than they did back then. This has disadvantages, too. In those days, back in the nineties and the early aughts, students were able to explore, discover, and change their minds. This made it exciting to work with them.

Are students less exciting today?

No. That’s not what I mean. Students are more worried today. More boxed in. But they’re still wonderful to work with. I wouldn’t miss it. I have the best job in the world.

What did you mean when you called yourself an accidental religionist?

I wasn’t trained in “religious studies.” My first degree is in Protestant Theology. My PhD is in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, which is really just a name for the two departments at Brandeis that were merged to make them into a conglomerate of biblical and Jewish studies. I wrote my dissertation on Hermann Cohen, a modern German-Jewish philosopher. That also became my first book.

What is your favorite class?

Hands down: The Bible.

What kind of research do you do today?

Right now I am putting the finishing touches on a brief history of Jerusalem.

How can one write a “brief history” on such a big subject?

I worked on this for about ten years. The first draft was rejected because it was too long and it only covered half of the history. Maybe also because the publisher didn’t like the way it was written. I still think that it would have made a good book. I had to go back to the drawing board but the research I had done for the longer version helped.

Why write a history of Jerusalem if you’re more of a philosopher?

I love it. It’s a beautiful city. I have friends there. I worry about it a lot because it is such a deeply divided city. You need to write about what you love. Or perhaps also about what you hate. Sometimes those are the same.

Can you tell us a little about what’s special about the book you wrote?

What you are really asking is, why another book on such an old subject? What’s the hiddush, as they say in Hebrew? What are you adding to the vast stock of knowledge amassed on such a well-known subject?

Yes, that’s really what I am asking.

Here’s the thing. My father-in-law, Abe Shenitzer, who was a mathematician and a prolific editor and translator and who is one of the profoundest human beings I have known, used to have a lot of contempt for philosophers, and I am mostly a philosopher. There’s a joke that explains the difference between a mathematician and a philosopher. A mathematician needs three things to do his work: paper, pencil, and a waste basket. A philosopher only needs two of those.

Got it.

Abe also said that the thing about the humanities is that there’s always a different angle, so it doesn’t matter if you write on something others have already written about.

So what is your angle?

I am interested in the role of “scripture” (in the broadest sense, including different canons and schools of interpretation) in the politics of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Jerusalem is a prime example, or rather a prism of Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptural fantasies. These “religions” have produced what I like to call “biblicate” civilizations, ways of ordering the lives of communities that are rooted in, derived from, and sanctioned by scriptural precedent.

Do you mean the Evangelical fundamentalists and Muslim Salafists of today?

Yes, those too. But the really interesting thing, to me at least, is how the ways and means of appropriating these scriptures have changed from late antiquity to the middle ages and to the modern era. In contrast to what those of us believed who grew up in 1970’s Europe, religion hasn’t gone away but has returned with a vengeance. That’s a phenomenon we’ve not sufficiently understood. It took us by surprise.

And your book sheds light on this?

No. Not enough. But it is clear that the way religion was employed before the Protestant Reformation and after is very different. I regard the religious Zionism of the Israeli settler movement as a kind of “Protestant scripturalism” among the Jews. The same with Salafism, which is the ad fontes of Sunni Islam. We need to take a very sharp look at all the effects of the Reformation, not just the ones we like.

Are you turning Catholic?

Being a religionist, even an accidental one, means taking a hard look at religion. I like to say, that in contemporary America, the only place where religion is looked at not with respect but curiosity is the academic study of religion. Many of us believe that this subject should be taught in high schools as well.

Returning to religion at BU, how has the department changed since you joined?

The department has changed tremendously. Few of the people who were there when I was hired are still around. A major figure in this transformation, John Clayton, has passed away. Jewish studies is now one of our strongest areas with four tenured faculty. Faculty members are younger, with a greater emphasis on contemporary and lived religion. We also do a lot of team-teaching.

For example?

Abigail Gillman, who is a professor of Hebrew and German literature, and I taught a course on “the modern Jew.” Kecia Ali, a scholar of Islam, and I are teaching a course on Moses and Muhammad.

That sounds like fun.

It is. Having a colleague with you in the classroom with whom you can bounce around ideas and play off of one another’s teaching style and personality is a lot of fun. I think it’s also interesting for the students. More dynamic, less frontal. They experience how scholars debate things with one another and sometimes disagree.

What else do you do for fun?

I play the drums. I am part of a group that meets at my house every Tuesday night. We play Jazz and Latin music, mostly original compositions by our guitar player and our bassist. Doing it every week is a privilege. It keeps me grounded.


The creation of “therewaters”

This morning I learned something knew about the well-known story of creation of Genesis. It was my friend John who taught me, as we were walking our dogs in Franklin Park. He mentioned something he’d noticed in Carl Jung’s book on Job that he had recently found and read again after many years. (Goes to show: don’t sell your college textbooks if you can help it.) Jung observed that the only work of creation God does not consider “good” is on the second day, when he separates the waters below from the waters above and makes a firmament to keep them apart. In this case, it doesn’t say “and God saw x and it was good.” John recalled that Jung thought this was because God had created a dualism that he didn’t consider good.

I was surprised to hear it. I had never even noticed that the expected note of approval was missing from the works of the second day. I checked the passage on my phone in English, and indeed the comment was absent from the verses in question. I observed that it said, God “made” the firmament rather than “created” it and argued that the separation between waters above and below weren’t the first duality or dualism, as there was already the difference between light and darkness established on the first day. In any case, after some more conversation we parted and I went home, to look up the passage in Hebrew.

Here is what I found. The works of the second day start with Elohim’s exhortation (presumably to himself) that there be a firmament (rakia’) in midst of the waters that was to divide or distinguish (mavdil) between water and water or separate water from water. God then goes on to make rather than create such a firmament (make=ayin-sin-he, create=bet-resh-aleph) and he separated the waters above the firmament from the waters below the firmament. God then called the firmament “therewaters” (shamayim). God refrains from looking at, and approving of, this work of his hands. Instead it becomes evening and morning, a second day.

So what is this about?

Some modern commentators have argued that the creation of Genesis 1-2:4a (in Hebrew “works of the beginning” or ma’aseh bereshit) ushers in a grand disenchantment of the natural world. Genesis 1:6-8, the creation of “therewaters” (aka heaven) may well be a case in point. Remember the heading of the chapter and hence the first statement in the Torah: In the beginning God created heaven and earth. Or: When God began to create heaven and earth. Heaven and earth is the duality that matters, and heaven (“therewaters”) is the first object of God’s creation as stated in Genesis 1:1. But instead of being the first of his works we hear that before God creates the firmament he will call heaven the earth was tohu va-vohu, an inhospitable mess, and that God’s wind or spirit was hovering over tehom. Scholars tell us that tehom is a Hebrew cognate of Akkadian Tiamat, great goddess and wife of Apsu. In the Babylonian creation hymn Enuma elish (“Before on high”) Apsu represents sweet water, while Tiamat personifies the destructive salt waters that must be contained so as to make the cultivation of the land between rivers possible. It was Marduk, champion of the gods, who slew Tiamat and built the habitable world from her carcass. Alive or dead, the waters above and below are now ordered, built from divine stuff, and while the immortal gods are apparent in sun, moon, and the constellations, the earth becomes Marduk’s footstool and Babylon his habitation. (Human beings are fashioned from the blood of vile Kingu, Tiamat’s consort, and exist to feed the gods.)

Keeping this in mind and following rabbinic comments on the opening sentence of Genesis, I would render the opening passages of Genesis as follows.

When God began to create therewaters and land the land was an inhospitable mess, while God’s spirit was hovering over (the slain carcass of) Tiamat. Then God said, Be light! And light was. And God saw the light, because (it was) good. And God separated (!) between the light and the (antecedent) darkness. Then God called the light “day” and the darkness he called “night” and it became evening and it became morning, one day.

Note that this was the first act in which God “separates” one thing from another. The objects separated are unequal, of different provenance, incongruent. Unlike water and water, light and darkness are of different origin. One is spoken into being, the other preexistent. Only this created light is called “good.” The duality of light and darkness does not receive divine approval. Day and night are “ontologically” of a different quality. Night or darkness is now defined by a created other that it is not. Darkness is not an adversary that has divinely sanctioned being but an absence of light. Whether or not darkness or night is associated with evil is not clear, but the tohu va-vohu of earth, which also seems to have preexisted the divine actions described in Genesis 1, clearly indicates a deficiency that is overcome by God’s acts of creation. The God of Genesis 1 fixes a deficient preexisting universe about whose origins we know nothing.

This is how it continues.

And God said let there be a firmament in midst of the waters and let it divide between water and water. [No ontological difference, only a practical arrangement.] And God made the firmament and he separated between the waters below the firmament and between the waters above the firmament and so it became. And God called the firmament “therewaters” and it became evening and it became morning, a second day.

God called the waters above the firmament shamayim, which is a pun that literally translates as “Therewaters.” There are similar puns in other passages in Genesis 1-3, where the names of the first human being, “Adam,” alludes to the dust of the earth, literally the “ground” (adamah), from which he was taken and to which he will return. The creation of woman from man (ishah from ish) is a pun on the grammatical feminine derived from the grammatical masculine. Names and grammatical form thus provided the learned authors of Genesis with material to play with as they crafted a text that aimed to sever the customary connection between the natural phenomena and divine personae. By drawing attention to the names of things, the (divine) nature and origin of those things is deflected. Reverence and gratitude for the wise arrangements of things is directed toward the one who made heaven and earth what they are: a hospitable place where plants and animals have their habitats and humans were meant to live and thrive, in harmony with one another and with the other works of creation.



Enuma Elish and Genesis

A Meditation on Enuma Elish and the Primordial History of Genesis

Let us ask just one question about Genesis 1-11 in comparison with the Akkadian creation epic: how do human beings appear in these two stories?

To ask this question, we do not need to decide in advance whether the authors of Genesis deliberately produced a counter-narrative that took Enuma Elish as its negative foil or Vorlage. There are indications that this was so, but it may be just as well to consider Genesis as having been written by scholars who were aware of the need to produce something like Enuma Elish for the b’ney ha-golah (the exiles), something that articulated and preserved the values of Judahites and Israelites in a foreign land who were wrestling with the experiences of loss of sovereignty, deportation, displacement, and an uncertain future.

The story about the tower of Babel alone indicates that those authors served a community impressed by, as well as skeptical of, Babylonian achievements. Exposed to a far more populous and powerful civilization, the future “Jews” found the language to diminish what was before their eyes and put it in its place in ways that still ring profound and true today.

How did they do it? What is it in the language of Genesis 1-11 that achieves these results? These results could not have been achieved had the authors of Genesis been entirely ignorant or completely silent on Babylonian matters. Only by responding in their own idiom to the ancient and well-known Akkadian creation myth and, in the flood story, also to elements of Gilgamesh, were they able to create a story of creation that was to substitute for that of their more powerful Babylonian hosts. In the long term, the creation of Genesis rather than the ancient Akkadian epic served as the touchstone of civilizations that inherited the Bible and disseminated it across the globe.

The ancient myths that prompted the authors of Genesis to write as they did never vanished completely. One might even say that it was Genesis itself, with its subtle allusions to alternate ways of conceiving of the beginning, which prepared the ground for the eventual retrieval of its intertextual other.

Just as we now know, thanks to the archaeological and epigraphic retrieval of Ancient Near Eastern texts and traditions, that Genesis did not appear in splendid isolation but was shaped out of its preconditions and from within particular contexts, we can also observe that Genesis did not act in splendid isolation when it advanced to the status of the foundational story of other communities, even nations and empires, who read those ancient Israelite and Judahite texts in new situations and with new eyes, for they also read these texts with their old eyes.

It seems to me that these later readers of Genesis, themselves steeped in Babylonian, Egyptian, Syriac, Greek, and Roman traditions approached the text from contexts and with connotations that resembled those represented in Enuma Elish. They did not object, on principle, to the notion that the world was “full of gods,” as the Stoics taught, or that worlds came and went and were prone to destruction and regeneration. Theirs was a much more colorful universe than what we might imagine if we approach the Bible with the mental asceticism and puritan austerity of Calvinists. The ancient readers were hardly iconoclasts. Theirs was a world of divine beings, messengers, powers ruling the air, and a Supreme Being ruling all. That Supreme Being, the God hidden to the eyes of men, was not residing in splendid isolation but surrounded by a court and happy in that he had a son created in his likeness who was obedient to the point of sacrificing his own happiness to please his father. In other words, theirs was the world of Enuma Elish, or one very much like it.

So let us ask ourselves that one question. What is the role of the human being in Enuma Elish and what is the role of the human being in Genesis 1-11?

When it comes to the answer to this question, the difference between these texts could not be more pronounced. That difference would be meaningless if the texts could not be compared, if these texts had no relation to one another, if there was no “intertextuality” that linked them just enough to see where they align and where they depart from one another.

To answer briefly, while in Enuma Elish the creation of human beings is an afterthought and their purpose is to serve as an accouterment to the lifestyle of the gods, the creation of Genesis puts human beings in the place of the gods. It is not by accident when the Psalmist muses, “You made him only slightly less than God” (Psalm 8:5).

Genesis 1 barely conceals the existence of the divine retinue, of lesser gods and angels, but it reduces them to spectators and a silent chorus. (See Gen 1:26) Only later, in rabbinic midrash are the spectators and silent chorus given words that are unabashedly[1] assumed to have been spoken before the creation of the human being.[2] Like the Christians, the Jews of late antiquity imagined God as part of a pleroma, a fullness rather than an emptiness.

So the difference of Genesis is not that there are no lesser gods or divine beings but that it is almost completely silent about them. This includes a barely acknowledged silence, a may-he-who-has-ears-to-hear-get-the-hint of something barely remembered, or rather well remembered but now barely alluded to, namely, the great combat myth that was indelibly linked with the reputation of Marduk, god of cities, that is meant to be ignored, though not entirely forgotten. This, too, later readers remembered well. Not only those mindful of the vanquished saltwater chaos dragon, that monstrous goddess Tiamat slain in the beginning to save the gods and from whose carcass the habitable world was created, but others, too, who believed that YHWH Elohim slew Rahab and captured the Leviathan whose flesh will be the feast of the righteous at the end of days. (Rahab: see Job 9:13 and Job 26:12, Ps 89:10, Isa 59:9; Leviathan: see Job 3:8, 41:1.12, Psalm 74:14, 104:26, Isa 27:1) These lively images of primordial threat to existence contained by heroic divine intervention returned in stories about the battles of Christ and the saints against Satan and his lot.

Again, the creation of Genesis contains all this but barely hints to it. Instead it trains its spotlight on the human being. All other questions are rendered irrelevant: where was God’s wind before it hovered over the deep/tehom? Why and for what purpose did he fashion what he spoke into being? Why, in his majestic cohortative soliloquy, does He create human beings “in our likeness”? Did not Ea fashion Marduk after his likeness? Isn’t Christ the true likeness of God, the one who is even called by his name, a veritable “son of the sun” or, as in the Orthodox creed, “light from light?”

In Genesis, sonship or slightly-lesser-than-Godship, is conferred on human beings. In Enuma Elish, on the other hand, humans are created from the blood of Kingu, an evil figure, and hence their eternal enslavement to the gods is more than skin-deep. It is a condition that cannot be shed. It is their fate to serve the gods.

The story that the Babylonians read and reenact every fall during the season of the New Year is about divine kingship, the kingship of Marduk and the kingship and priesthood of few, their right to rule over the many: humans are meant to feed the gods. Without the gods and their protection, diligently mediated by the priest-king, they had nothing to eat themselves. The eternal merit of the gods rests on their providing the conditions of life, while life remains under the fragile protection of the gods. Stop feeding the gods and see what happens. Change their rites and you will fail. Disturb their temples and deprive them of their proper sacrifices and you will perish.

It is no accident that Babylonian Jewry, and Jews ever since, recall creation and divine kingship in the fall, the season when the world was created. Like the Babylonian New Year, Jewish festivities are drawn out from the first of the month of Tishrey (the names of the Jewish months are Babylonian) to the tenth of the month, the solemn day of atonement, followed by eight days of seasonal festivities recalling the Israelites’ sojourn in the desert. While there is no overt reference to Babylonian religion, the manner in which Jews recall creation and associate it with divine enthronement echoes the sequence of events in Enuma Elish. Creation and divine enthronement are meaningfully associated only if creation involves an assertion of supreme power over non-creation, chaos, perdition. As in Enuma Elish, though not so obviously in Genesis. Not if one reads it with the diminished range of overtones that were still audible to those in whose ears rang those other tunes.


[1] This despite the well-known prohibition to inquire into what occurred before creation. See GenR 1:1: “IT is forbidden to inquire what existed before creation, as Moses distinctly tells us (Deut. 4. 32): ‘Ask now of the days that are past which were before thee, since the day God created man upon earth.’ Thus the scope of inquiry is limited to the time since the Creation” (Source: http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/tmm/tmm07.htm).

[2] There is textual speculation about the creation of the angels in Genesis Rabba. See e.g. GenR 1:2-3: “When were the angels created? R. Johanan said: They were created on the second day, as it is written, Who layest the beams of Thine upper chambers in the waters (Ps. Civ, 3), followed by, Who makest the spirits Thine angels {ib. 4). 1 R. Hanina said: They were created on the fifth day, for it is written, And let fowl fly above the earth (Gen. 1, 20), 2 and it is written, And with twain he did fly (Isa. vi, 2). 3 R. Luliani b. Tabri 4 said in R. Isaac’s name: W T hether we accept the view of R. Hanina or that of R. Johanan, all agree that none were created on the first day, lest you should say, Michael stretched [the world] in the south and Gabriel in the north, while the Holy One, blessed be He, measured it in the middle ; but I” am the Lord, that maketh all things ; that stretched forth the heavens alone; that spread abroad the earth by Myself — me-itti (ib. xliv, 24) : mi itti (who was with Me) is written : who was associated with Me in the creation of the world ? Ordinarily, a mortal king is honoured in his realm and the great men of the realm are honoured with him. Wherefore ? Because they bear the burden [of state] with him.” (Source: https://archive.org/stream/RabbaGenesis/midrashrabbahgen027557mbp_djvu.txt).


Elie Wiesel, my mother, and me

My colleague, Elie Wiesel, was a year older than my mother-in-law, Sarah Shenitzer, and six years younger than my mother, Rosel née Koch. Sarah was from Vilna, the capital of Lithuania and a Jewish cultural center, Wiesel from Sighet, Hungary. He was a Hungarian Jew, my in-laws were Polish Jews. Like Sarah, Wiesel was interned in Auschwitz. While Sarah was liberated by an action of the Red Cross, Wiesel ended up in Buchenwald before he was liberated. My mother was spared the concentration camps. Her father, my extraordinary grandfather Heinrich, a German Jew, managed to get her on a children’s transport to England in 1939. Her twin brother wasn’t as lucky. Temporarily interned at Dachau in November 1938 he didn’t get out on time to make use of the ticket his father had purchased for him. He stayed with his parents in the Mainz ghetto and ended his life in 1942, deported to Lublin (Majdanek). The  documents are at Yad VaShem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial archive and museum.

Wiesel survived, as did my mother. I want to say he was more fortunate, but that would be presumptuous. What do we know? My mother had a mental breakdown and ended up in London where she was impregnated by the Maltese brother of the owner of the restaurant where she earned a living as a waitress. Nine months pregnant she was caught shoplifting at Marks and Spencer and put in prison. In 1944, she gave birth at a London hospital where she stayed for months. She put her son in a home north of London and took care of him until he was two-and-a-half years old, then gave him up for adoption. His name was Peter. Which is also the name of her second son, born in Germany in 1953. His father was also mine. They married in 1955. I was born in 1958. I have as yet to read an account of the lives of women like her. The ones who survived and succeeded in rebuilding their lives but neither in a neat or easily narrated way. My mother is my hero. I owe her everything.

rosel ca 1950

Rosel Koch, c. 1950



Trinidad in Santo Spiritus

[Sonntag 4. Juni, La Boca bei Trinidad, Santo Spiritus]

Historic Trinidad, a UNESCO world heritage site.

Historic Trinidad, a UNESCO world heritage site.

Letzten Dienstag fuhren wir nach Trinidad. Dort war unser Sohn mit seinem Patenonkel Tomás Anfang Januar gewesen. Sie fanden damals fast keinen Raum in einer der vielen Herbergen In der Nebensaison hatten wir keinerlei Schwierigkeiten dieserart. Unsere von Katya empfohlene Herbergsmutter Theresa, eine gestrenge Hausherrin, holte uns vom Busbahnhof ab. Sie hatte einen Träger mit Karre angeheuert, auf unsere Kosten, die er uns erst bei der Ankunft mitteilte. Zu teuer, wie wir fanden. Erst später wurde uns klar, dass in Trinidad alles etwas teurer ist als sonstwo. Die Stadt lebt vom Tourismus.

Laundry drying under the mango tree of our casa in Trinidad.

Laundry drying under the mango tree of our casa in Trinidad.

Theresa und Rodolfo, ein fast erblindeter aber stolzer und aktiver ehemaliger Tierarzt, leben in einem alten kolonialen Anwesen auf der Piro Guinart, eine der Hauptdurchgangsstraßen, ganz in der Nähe des Viazul Bahnhofs und nur Schritte von der Kopfstein gepflasterten Altstadt. Dieses von der UNESCO anerkannte Weltkulturerbe hatte das Glück, dass der Aufschwung des Landes, der auf den Unabhängigkeitskrieg folgte, an ihm vorbei ging. So blieb die koloniale Architektur erhalten. Lange vernachlässigt, wurde Trinidad zur ersten Tourismusmonopole der speziellen Ära, die auf den Zusammenbruch der Sowjetunion folgte. Die heute nur müde drei bis vier Sterne aufweisenden Ressorthotels entlang der Landzunge von Ancon waren der erste Versuch des Landes, mit den schon lange etablierten Zentren des internationalen Karibiktourismus zu konkurrieren. Wenn im wesentlich eleganteren und bekannteren Varadero heute die Strände von Orkanen weg gespült werden, wird der weiße Sand aus Ancon dorthin gekarrt, wo er nötiger gebraucht wird. Varadero hat sonst nichts Trinidad Vergleichbares aufzubieten. Weitere Attraktionen: Topes de Collantes, ein touristisch erschlossenes Wandergebiet in der Sierra del Escambray und die ehemalige Goldmine Kubas, will sagen, was von der Zuckerrohrproduktion noch übrig ist und einem in einem Tal östlich von Trinidad beispielhaft und touristisch erschlossen vorgeführt wird. Ebenso interessant, aber nicht touristisch entschlossen, ist die Tatsache, dass in den vielen natürlichen Erdhöhlen des karstigen Mittelgebirges geheime Waffen- und Munitionslager der kubanischen Armee untergebracht sind. Weshalb wir das wissen, darf ich leider nicht sagen. Ein Bekannter aus Trinidad hat es uns erzählt, der seine Wehrpflicht gleich hier in der Nähe damit verbracht hat, auf diese Waffenlager aufzupassen. Will sagen, er hat sein Pflichtjahr damit verbracht, so viel wie möglich heimlich zu lesen.

IMG_4782 IMG_4788 IMG_4789 IMG_4791 IMG_4798Nach zwei heißen Nächten in Trinidad wechselten wir nach La Boca, einer alten Fischersiedlung, heute ein proletarischer Badeort für einheimische Familien, die ab Freitag Abend Trinidad den Rücken kehren und so viel Zeit wie möglich am Strand verbringen. Wir hatten uns in Trinidad Fahrräder ausgeliehen und waren nach La Boca geradelt, auf der Suche nach möglichen casas particulares, von denen es hier etliche gibt, auf der Suche nach Badestränden und um Korallenbänke zu betauchen. Wir fanden alles ohne Probleme. Erst badeten wir direkt am Ort, dann radelten wir weiter bis La Batea. Dort liehen wir Flossen, Tauchermasken und Schnorchel aus und verbrachten mehrere Stunden in der Korallenlandschaft direkt am Ufer der Karibik, die einen atemberaubenden Artenreichtum von tropischen Fischen und Seeigeln bereithielt. Wir bekamen dort auch etwas zu essen und beobachteten später wie eine Gruppe von jungen neureichen Kubanern stark angetrunken mit ihren Bierflaschen im Wasser herumstolperten. Sie fragten uns, ob es sich lohne, hier zu tauchen. Bei unserem ersten Treffen mit unserem neuen trinitarischen Freund hatte er von diesem Phänomen gesprochen. Das Erziehungswesen gehe aufgrund der Unterbezahlung der Lehrer kaputt. Die junge Generation habe keine Achtung vor ihren Lehrern. Jeder mag nur an sich raffen, was er kann. Für Politik interessiere sich niemand. Eine konsumsüchtige Generation, die wenig zu konsumieren findet und umso großkotziger mit dem auftrumpft, was sie hat. Genauso schien es mir. Miriam war anderer Ansicht. Sie hatte Sympathie für die Leute und kam mit ihnen ins Gespräch. Sie seien eigentlich ganz nett.

IMG_4793Am nächsten Tag zogen wir nach La Boca um. Von Trinidad hatten wir irgendwie genug gesehen, obwohl wir eigentlich nichts gesehen hatten. Wir hatten eine Unterkunft gefunden, die uns gefiel, obwohl der junge, gut Englisch sprechende Hausherr arrogant und unangenehm wirkte. Die Angestellte war umso netter. Von der Familie hatte sonst niemand besonders mit uns zu tun. Am Tag unserer Ankunft hatte die zweijährige Tochter Geburtstag. Es gab einen Riesenkuchen und Besuch. Wir waren nicht eingeladen. Vom Kuchen war nachher nichts mehr übrig. Das Zimmer war groß, privat im Obergeschoß mit Balkon nach vorne und hinten. Insofern nicht schlecht. Teuer war es auch und es schien uns im Nachhinein, dass die Familie die Wohnung nur deshalb an Gäste vermietet, weil sie sich dadurch eine Haushaltshilfe erlauben konnte. Die ganze Sache war irgendwie undurchsichtig. Ich war den nächsten Tag krank und blieb im Bett. Den Abend zuvor hatte ich lange an meinem Jerusalembuch herumkorrigiert und dabei zu viel Rum getrunken. Miriam musste alleine schnorcheln.

IMG_4810 IMG_4853 IMG_4874Gestern wurden wir dann von unserem neuen Freund und einem Fahrer, den er organisiert hatte, abgeholt, um in den Topes de Collantes zu wandern. Sie halfen uns zunächst beim Umzug in eine andere Herberge in La Boca. Danach ging’s hinauf in die Berge. Dort gefiel es uns wie erwartet gut. Wir hatten vorher schon im Internet nach Unterkunft in den Bergen gesucht. Auf dem Weg sahen wir den üblichen blauen Anker und hielten an, um uns die Bleibe anzusehen. Ein bisschen muffig, aber erschwinglich und direkt in den Bergen. Vielleicht nächstes Mal.

Der erste Teil des Parks (Guanayara) war zwar nicht besonders aufregend aber trotzdem lehrreich. Die Kaffeeplantagen erinnerten uns an Kerala. Ebenso wie die hier überall reifenden Mangos kamen der Kaffee, die Bananen, die man, bis die Touristen kamen, nur platanos genannt hatte, und wer weiß was noch für Pflanzen und Tiere von anderswo. Die menschlichen Ureinwohner, die auch von anderswo gekommen waren, hielten in kleinen Gruppen in den Wäldern nahe Baracoa noch bis zur Mitte des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts aus, dann vermischten sich die Reste mit wem auch immer. Zwischendurch hörten wir das merkwürdige Gurren des Nationalvogels Tocororo, sahen aber sonst keine Spur seines blau-weiß-roten Gefieders. Unsere ortskundigen Freunde hielten unterwegs an, damit wir die weiße Nationalblume Mariposa riechen und bewundern konnten, von der es heißt, dass Frauen sie während des Unabhängigkeitskrieges im Haar trugen, um ihren kriegsgefangenen Vätern, Brüdern und Söhnen heimlich Nachrichten zu zuspielen. Das große Thema der Gegend von Trinidad ist die Trockenheit. Auch das erinnerte uns an Kerala. Klimaveränderung macht nicht an nationalen Grenzen halt. Die Berge hier sind bräunlich. Dieses Frühjahr mangelte es an Regen. Weil es so trocken ist, produziert die Tageshitze kein Kondensat, das sich am Nachmittag oder gegen Abend ausregnen könnte. Die Flüsse und Seen haben Niedrigwasser. In Trinidad gibt es rationierte Wasserverteilung. Den Leuten mangelt es bereits an Seife. Wenn ihnen nun auch das Wasser ausgeht, langt es auch nicht mehr für den Tourismus.IMG_4871

Der zweite Spaziergang führte uns an den Wasserfall von Las Vegas, den auch unser Ortsfreund noch nicht gesehen hatte. Abstieg und Wiederaufstieg hatten es in sich, aber es lohnte sich. Das Wasser teilt sich trotz des ungewöhnlich geringen Volumens in zwei elegante Linien und stürzt mittig in ein tiefes Becken. Die Szene hätte kein Gartengestalter besser anlegen können. Wir schwammen im kühlen Teich, erkundeten die kleine Höhle hinter dem Wasserfall und beobachteten Eidechsen auf der Balz.

Im Auto warteten platanos, frutas de mamay und warmes Bier. Wir hielten am Ausschank einer Kaffeeplantage. Das Unternehmen blüht. Die äußerst netten Leute verkaufen ihren sorgsam handverlesenen Arabica Kaffee für teures Geld als „cristal de la montaña“ ausschließlich nach Japan. Überhaupt werde der kubanische Kaffee exportiert. Was einem in Kuba gewöhnlich serviert werde, sei billiger Import aus Brasilien. Wir kosteten vom örtlichen Produkt. Nicht schlecht.IMG_4849

Das war gestern. Heute war Miriam krank. Schlimmer als ich vor zwei Tagen. So radelte ich allein zum Hotel Ancon um für morgen eine Tauchstunde zu reservieren. Hätte man doch auch telefonisch machen können, oder? Nein, durchaus nicht. Wir hatten dort mehrfach direkt und zuletzt heute Morgen über die Hotelvermittlung angerufen, aber niemand hatte sich gemeldet. Daher der Entschluss, die Sache selbst in Augenschein zu nehmen und, wenn möglich, eine Einführungsstunde für uns zu buchen. Ich fand schließlich auch das Tauchzentrum von Ancon, von dessen Existenz wir bereits bei der Vorbereitung unserer Reise aus dem Internet wussten. Tauchen lernen war auf unserer gemeinsamen Wunschliste für Kuba. Zunächst musste ich an den Parkwächtern vorbei, die zum Personal der Coco-Bar gehörte, die ihren Stand direkt neben den Tauchlehrern hatte. Ich könne mein Fahrrad nicht auf den (leeren) Strand mitnehmen, sondern solle es am Eingang festschließen. Kein Problem. Das koste außerdem einen CUC. Wieso, sagte ich und kramte irritiert in meiner Hose. Ich hatte nur einen halben CUC. Nein, das sei nicht genug. Und wie wenn ich das Fahrrad etwas weiter hinten abstellte? Nein, das koste alles einen CUC. Wissen Sie was, sagte ich dann irritiert, ich gehe jetzt in das Tauchzentrum, dort brauche ich genau fünf Minuten, und ich werde nicht einen CUC für nichts ausgeben. Dann ließ ich die Dame und den Herrn stehen, die mich weitäugig ansahen, mich aber nicht aufhielten.

Aus dem Tauchzentrum, einer Hütte mit Schreibtisch und einer ausführlichen Preisliste im Hintergrund, kam laute Musik. Vom Strand kam ein Mann um die vierzig, sportlich, offenbar Tauchlehrer. Sein Name war Igor. Ich verstand jetzt, weshalb niemand ans Telefon gegangen war. Nein, sagte Igor. Das habe nichts mit der Musik zu tun. Sie hätten nämlich gar kein Telefon. Möglicherweise klingelte es im Segelzentrum gegenüber, zu dem sie gehörten, aber da sei niemand. Die Tauchstunde konnte ich problemlos und ohne Vorauszahlung reservieren. Mal sehen wie wir uns morgen fühlen.

Als ich fünf Minuten später mein Fahrrad wieder losmachte, stand die Frau immer noch dort. Sie fragte mich, ob ich aus Trinidad gekommen sei. Nein, aus La Boca, meinte ich und wünschte ihr einen guten Tag.