Short Stories by Jesus by Amy Jill-Levine

Amy-Jill Levine is a New Testament and Jewish Studies Professor. However, she is not your typical New Testament Professor; she is an Orthodox feminist Jew who studies and writes scholarly articles on the New Testament. In this book, she attempts to place the parables of Jesus in their original 1st century Jewish context and offer new interpretations of some of the most important parables with this context in mind. She tries to explain what these stories would have meant to a 1st century Jewish audience hearing them for the first time.

In order to do this, she posits that Jesus was a real historical figure and that many of the parables in the Bible represent mostly accurate versions of the stories he told to the crowds. While the parables found in the New Testament may be the original stories of a teacher named Jesus, the authors of each Gospel frame the parables in their narratives for their own unique purposes. The narrative frame changes the meaning and purpose of the parable. For example, the Parable of the Lost Sheep is framed by Luke as a response to a hostile group of Pharisees complaining about Jesus welcoming sinners among them.

“But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2)

Jesus answers the criticism with a series of parables in which the Parable of the Lost Sheep is one of them. Luke then ends this particular parable:

“I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7)

Luke transforms the parable into an allegory in which the sheep are Christians returning to the church and God’s grace. For him and many Christians, the parable is about God’s stewardship over his church and his desire to recover sinners and bring them back into the fold. Jesus is pointing out to the Pharisees that his main audience should be sinners because they are who need him the most. By framing the story in this way, the author of Luke is interpreting the story for us and doing so with a Christian lens.

Matthew also offers a version of this parable (Matthew 18), but with a different narrative frame. In Matthew’s version, Jesus is speaking directly to his disciples, not Pharisees. His ending frame is also a little different.

“In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:14).

There is some overlap in the messages: God wants to redeem the lost. However, there are also differences between the two versions. Luke’s Jesus is responding to the criticisms of the Pharisees about consorting with sinners, while Matthew’s Jesus is answering his disciples’ question about who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Although these parables do retain similar messages the general point still stands; by framing parables differently, the same parables potentially take on different meanings. The fact that we have so many of the same parables across different Gospel narratives suggests to Amy Jill-Levine that many of these parables originated with an historical Jesus, but were reinterpreted by later Christian writers in specific ways once Christianity’s belief systems began to develop in ways distinct from Judaism. This is why she believes we should try to understand the parables in the context of 1st century Judaism, separate from the narrative frames that later Christian writers added to them. How would the original non-Christian Jewish audience have understood these stories?

Although Levine cannot cover every single parable, she does cover the most important ones: The Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son, The Good Samaritan, The Kingdom of Heaven is Like Yeast, The Pearl of Great Price, The Mustard Seed, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Laborers in the Vineyard, The Widow and the Judge, and the Rich Man and Lazarus.

Parables are supposed to be provocative, they’re supposed to challenge our views of the world, and call us to action, but often traditional interpretations by the church, church fathers, and even modern scholarly commentators transforms these parables into allegories and domesticates them into palatable forms. It softens the message into some symbolic gesture that is easily digestible. Worse, many of the traditional readings are fundamentally anti-Jewish. For example, many traditional readings of the Parable of Prodigal Son see the elder son who complains to the father about the prodigal son returning as a symbol of Judaism complaining about the inclusion of gentiles in a New Covenant. In this reading, the father symbolizes God the father or Jesus, the elder son represents Judaism, and the younger son represents the originally wayward gentile who is being brought back into the fold by divine grace. Notice the allegorical nature of such a reading. Levine shows with evidence from Josephus, the Talmud, the Mishnah, and the Old Testament that these interpretations are misguided and are misrepresentations of Jewish ideas and beliefs. Likewise, using these sources she shows they do not make much sense in the context of 1st century Judaism.

Levine views the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and Lost son as representing a pair of three parables with similar messages. She has this to say about the Parable of the Lost Son. “Without Luke’s allegory of a repentance and forgiveness and without the easy equating of the elder son with those grumbling Jews, the parable has no easy or comfortable interpretation (68).” She argues that the message of the three parables is not about the recovery of lost sinners, but rather the joy we feel at recovering a precious object lost to us and an exhortation that we shouldn’t stand on ceremony waiting for them to apologize or for them to come back to us. We should go out and find them! The Parable of the Good Samaritan is not a tale about how Jews are bad and gentiles good, but rather it is a parable that emphasizes the importance of taking action when someone is in need of our help. It’s not an argument for mercy, but an argument for compassion. It addresses the question: who is my neighbor? The answer to this question is that everyone is our neighbor, even our enemies, and the parable challenges us to help anyone in need. The Pearl of Great Price is not an allegorical tale about selling all one has (or devaluing one’s material possessions and the material world) in order to achieve the kingdom of heaven in the afterlife, but rather it is a tale about self-discovery and the importance of identifying what truly matters to us. Once we realize what truly matters to us, we should get rid of everything superfluous and meaningless in our lives. This parable is presented as an analogy to the kingdom of heaven. What is the kingdom like? Figure out what is truly important in your life, find your “pearl,” and you will discover what the kingdom of heaven is like. All her interpretations have this in common: the parables are a call to action, if we want the kingdom of heaven on earth, we have to work towards it here and now.

PENSÉES by Blaise Pascal

Like St. Augustine and Peter Abelard, Blaise Pascal is yet another example of the smartest kid on the block having a mystical experience that transformed him into a devout Christian. Prior to his conversion, Pascal was a prodigy in math and performed early experiments involving barometric pressure. The Pensees literally translated as “thoughts” represent his philosophical-religious statements on the human condition and an argument for the truth and necessity of Christianity.

 

Pascal sees the human condition as one governed by lusts and desires. We seek amusement to ignore how miserable and discontent we feel. We’re not really happy. Each time we achieve a desire, we only have new desires. We don’t cultivate virtues for its own sake, but we only care for them in so far as they make us appear superior in others’ eyes. We desire to be admired. All the things we value in the world are vanity. Man is foolish because he esteems things that are not important or essential. There is not true justice in the world. Justice is a matter of custom; since every country and province has its own sense of justice it cannot be objective. Only God can give us true justice.  We also can never have true knowledge of things. The history of philosophy has been dominated by the desire to either know the first principle or the ultimate truth, which can be restated as the reality underlying everything or knowledge of the purpose of all things. Many philosophers have claimed to have uncovered the first principle or ultimate truth, but they’re mistaken and are only fooling themselves. Most philosophical arguments fail because they ignore man’s epistemological limitations.  In comparison to beasts, man is privileged in that he has a rational capacity and the ability to ascertain some things about nature. Pascal is not denying that science and mathematics are able to give us some forms of concrete knowledge. However, in most cases they only lead to new questions, and when and if those questions are answered, they, too, lead to more questions, creating an infinite regress in which we never can arrive at the first principle underlying everything or discover the ultimate truth. In this way, man can never have true knowledge of the universe; he is only capable of possessing limited knowledge about it.

 

Only the Creator who initiated the first cause and who is immortal and not bound by human limitations can have knowledge of the true nature of things. Man must know both sides of his nature to be whole and happy. We are both great and wretched. The wretchedness we have serves as proof of the veracity of the Fall of Man, whereas the Greatness we possess demonstrates that we’re made in God’s image. The Fall of Man is why we have an idea of happiness (since once upon a time we were happy in the Garden of Eden), but it is also the reason why we yearn for happiness and can never achieve it. This event left an imprint on us. The only way for us to be happy, the only way for us to achieve true justice, and the only way for us to know the truth is through God. The proper thoughts of man should be on God alone. We can only practice the true religion if we love God and hate ourselves.

 

Although many have tried, religion and God cannot be proved by reason. Now a reader might be wondering: isn’t Pascal trying to prove that people ought to believe in God and that the Christian religion is true? Yes. However, what he seems to mean is that he won’t be engaging in formal proofs based in logic like some of his medieval predecessors, but rather religion is something you support with faith. God is felt in the heart and He grants belief to whom He chooses. God purposely gave enough evidence of his existence (mostly through scripture) to be justified in accusing those who fail to believe in Him, but He also obscured Himself enough so the truly wicked and unworthy will not believe and suffer eternal damnation. Pascal acknowledges many times that God is a hidden God.  You feel God through intuition (i. e. the Holy Spirit), but you don’t experience Him in the material world; at least not directly. This brings us to the most famous part of his argument: Pascal’s wager. Some interpret it to be as an argument to believe; others as an argument about why it is important to investigate the issue of God’s existence in the first place. The wager goes like this: If the Christian religion is wrong you will be dead for eternity and it doesn’t matter, yet if it is right you will suffer in hell for eternity should you fail to believe correctly. You have more to gain in believing than not believing. We need to enlighten ourselves whether an afterlife exists since it’s the most important question of our lives. People who are indifferent to these questions are ignoring a matter important to their eternal happiness and salvation and given the chance that they could be wrong and it could cost them so much it is only reasonable that we attempt to try and figure out the truth. I think the opening of the wager section imploring us to investigate is fine. However, there are many objections to the Wager proper.

 

After sharing his views on the human condition, Pascal spends the second half of his book trying to prove why Christianity is the true religion and the other Abrahamic religions are false. Heathens love the world and hate God, Jews love the world and love God, while Christians hate the world and love God. Pascal suggests that the Old Testament Tales were designed as typologies to foreshadow Jesus, and thus Jews who fail to recognize this have been blinded to their true meaning. In this view, the Binding of Isaac not only happened historically, but God instigated this event and had it recorded in scripture in order to foreshadow the eventuality of Jesus’ sacrifice. Pascal argues that these typologies serve as another piece of evidence of Jesus’ divinity in addition to more explicit prophecies. Pascal believes that Jews focus on the surface features of the text, missing these important typologies and the true spirit of the text. These typologies that foreshadow Jesus also serve as evidence of God’s hiddenness. The Holy Spirit allows Christians to see them. This textual “blindness” is further supported by various prophecies in the Old Testament that Pascal understands to predict that Jews will be blind to the true spirit of the law. The Old Laws were valid at the time in so far as they were designed to bring people to the Holy Spirit and functioned as another typology, but the literal commandments don’t matter anymore.

All of this leads us to the biggest problem of the book. Most of Pascal’s arguments are examples of circular reasoning. It is hard to imagine anyone buying into his arguments unless they already agreed with them prior to reading the book. To support his argument about Christians interpreting the bible correctly in comparison to Jews, he’s saying, “Those blessed by God with the Holy Spirt will interpret the Bible correctly. Those who interpret the Bible correctly demonstrate that they are blessed with the Holy Spirit. Therefore those with the Holy Spirit (Christians) interpret the Bible correctly.” He also quotes an enormous amount of scripture to support these arguments, but when you actually look at the passages of these Old Testament quotes they are almost always taken out of context and come off as dubious interpretations. He calls the Bible the oldest and most accurate history in the world. While modern archaeology has supported some parts of the Bible, it has also called into question a good amount of Biblical historicity. Similarly, archaeology in Mesopotamia has found many texts older than the Bible. In all fairness to Pascal, he lived in a time before all these discoveries and the rise of modern archaeology; the study of history in his day was mostly a textual affair. So many of the arguments he makes depend precisely on him uncritically forwarding the religious assumptions of his times.  Christians who already buy into Pascal’s arguments will probably love this book, whereas those who don’t buy into his arguments will not suddenly be convinced.

Piers Plowman by William Langland (edited by Elizabeth Robertson and Stephen H. A. Shepherd).

Piers Plowman is a Christian allegorical poem written in Middle English alliterative verse. It is one of the most important English vernacular works to be written along with Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Three different variants of the work exist known as the A-Text, the B-Text, and the C-text. The biggest differences between the versions:

  • the B-text adds additional visions (chapters) to the ones found in the A-Text
  • the allegorical character giving speeches in certain sections change between the different versions (such as Conscience preaching in the A-Text to the Seven Deadly Sins, while Reason is the preacher during this same part in the B-text)
  • sometimes certain allegorical figures are not included at all (Wrath is absent from the A-Text during the above-mentioned scene, but is present in the B-text)
  • the C-Text adds an autobiographical section tacked onto one of the visions.

I read the Norton Critical Edition of the B-text translated into modern English by E. Talbot Donaldson. The work follows a Christian dreamer named Will, identified sometimes with William Langland himself, who searches for answers to his existential questions concerning theological, spiritual, and ethical issues. He has different dreams or visions that occur across twenty chapters called “Passus,” which in Latin means “Step,” implying that the work involves a journey as he discovers the answers to these questions. It is a very different sort of journey than the one found in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, which is another Christian allegory from a later literary time period. Bunyan’s work externalizes the allegorical elements as part of an adventurous quest plot that isn’t much different from the basic plot structure one might find in a modern epic fantasy, while Piers Plowman consists mostly of dialogues in which Will, the dreamer, puts troublesome spiritual questions to various allegorical figures who offer loquacious answers. The “journey” in this work is an internal one with an inconclusive finale. It reads a lot like Plato’s dialogues and nothing like an adventure story. Another somewhat unique characteristic of the work is its positive portrayal of the lower classes often missing from other medieval works. The poem melds religious allegory about salvation and ethical living with social satire of medieval society.

The poem opens with Will falling asleep beneath a tree and having his first vision in which he views a tower on a hill where Truth resides (God), a terrible dungeon below (hell), and “a faire felde ful of folke (2)” between them consisting of all sorts of people in society from the highest to the lowest. This middle ground represents the world and how people navigate its mazes to end up either in the Tower (heaven) or in the dungeon (hell). A woman arrives who introduces herself as the Church and desires that Will should enter the Tower where Truth resides. She goes on to elaborate on the nature of Truth and God, focusing on divine love and the importance of giving charity to the poor. Will desires to learn not only Truth, but also how he can determine what is false. Lady Church tells him to look to his left side where he sees her many enemies: False, Favel, and the beautifully dressed Lady Meed. Favel represents lying or deceit. Lady Meed symbolizes reward and profit. False and Favel with the help of Simony and Civil try to bribe various officials in order to marry Meed to Falseness. Eventually the King learns about all this bribery happening in his realm through the assistance of his adviser, Conscience (who not only represents moral conscience in the modern sense, but also consciousness in general) and orders the arrest of all these villains.

In custody, King wants Meed to marry Conscience, but he refuses to marry her due to her past sins. Meanwhile in custody, she is busy corrupting the king’s officials left and right with all her bribery. Conscience says he’ll only consider the marriage if Reason agrees. Reason arrives and convinces the king to reject the idea of such a marriage. This turns the King against Meed. Reason offers the advice that the best and most just kingdoms are those ruled by Reason. By having the king turn against Meed on the advice of Reason and hearing a sermon on how a just kingdom is ruled by reason, this scene serves as a social commentary on the rightful role of kings. Kings who rule by Reason and put the interests of the realm first tend to be good rulers, while those who put their own greed and self-interests first, as represented by Meed, end up corrupting the whole realm through their bad rule. These bad kings have married their conscience, their primary guide to ethical concerns, to Meed (their desire for reward and profit) and have failed to consult their reason.

Reason follows this success with the king by going out and giving a sermon to the entire populace. The Allegorical Seven Sins appear and each repent before Reason their various offenses, often involving colorful stories related to their specific natures. It is in this vision that we first meet Piers Plowman who offers his own sermon about the way to Truth and how a humble workman like himself tries to live by the principles of simplicity, faith in God, and helping others. Piers convinces the pilgrims to help him plow the fields and promises them as much food as they need as a reward for their assistance. At first many agree, but over time many of the people grow lazy and stop helping. Piers complains about Waster, an allegorical figure that represents those who waste and do nothing productive for their fellow man. Piers asks Hunger to punish Waster with hunger. He then asks Hunger what should be done about beggars. Hunger tells Piers that it is the way of the righteous to help beggars and the poor who genuinely cannot work or help themselves. The text suggests through this juxtaposition between Wasters and the needy that the difference between them lies in that Wasters can work, but choose laziness, and therefore steal vital resources from true beggars who genuinely need the charity of others because they’re incapable of working.
After this vision, Will returns to the world in desperate search of Do Well as the key to his salvation. Unable to find him in the world, Will has another dream where he encounters a larger version of himself named Thought. Thought explains to him that Do Well, Do Better, and Do Best are three virtues found in anyone who is meek, mild, truthful, and willing to do his or her fair share of work and keep only what he or she has earned. In other words, he is the opposite of the proud, greedy, and intemperate person.

“Do-Wel, my [dere], is to don as lawe techeth,
To love [and to lowe thee and no lyf to greve;
Ac to love and to lene], leve me, that is Do-Bet;
To yiven and to yemen bothe Yonge and olde,
To helen and to helpen, is Do-Best of alle (138).”

To Do Well is to follow God’s laws, to act humbly, behave towards others with love, and harm no other person. In an excerpt taken from the Dictionary of the Middle Ages that is included in the Norton Critical Edition, Donaldson describes the poem’s presentation of Do-Well as a secular person who lives his life according to Christian precepts, Do-Better as the contemplative man who spends his time helping others and engaging in charity, and Do-Best is like a Bishop or Priest who challenges the wicked and ministers to the good (499). Donaldson goes on to suggest that Piers Plowman serves as one of the central figures of the poem precisely because he “transition[s] from Do-Well to Do-Better (499)” and eventually to Do-Best in the final sections of the poem.

Here they turn to Wit to find out where Do Well, Do Better, and Do Best live. Wit tells them that Do Better is Do Well’s daughter and serves as a lady-in-waiting to Anima (soul). They all let Do Best guide them as their Bishop. In this castle is a constable named Inwit (understanding and rational capacity) whose sons Sir See-Well, Sir Say-Well, Sir Hear-Well, Sir Work-Well-With-Your-Hands, and Sir Godfrey Go-Well protect the safety of Anima. Kind has made a castle where Do Well and Anima reside. Kind is one of the allegorical identities of God in the poem. Wit describes what sort of being Kind is and how He tries to take care of all souls and give them what they need. This discourse ends on a discussion of the correct nature of marriage, which is not one based in the desire to gain money or land or one that involves partners of drastically different ages, but equal partners who marry out of love.
After this discourse, Wit’s wife, Dame Study, arrives and castigates him for wasting his wisdom on fools and mockers who will not be able to appreciate them. She attacks the wealthy as mockers of religion who often talk blasphemous and superficially about God. She views Will’s desire to know the difference between Do Well and Do Better as the equivalent of questioning God and His purposes, apprehensive of his motives. At the direction of Wit, the dreamer humbles himself before Dame Study. She softens before his humility and decides to help him after all by acquainting him with her cousin, Clergy, and his wife, Scripture.

 

Will comes to fear that he will never save his soul without more theological knowledge. Scripture teaches him that great learning and wisdom doesn’t save men. Many well-educated clerks and officials of the church will end up in hell for their abuses of their office, while many lowly uneducated men will be saved. Pure faith is superior to a deep knowledge of theology. Often the lowest and most ignorant are the first in heaven as the Bible teaches. True faith doesn’t require learning and quoting scripture from heart, but love of God, fellow Christians, and even one’s enemies.

“For every Cristene creature shulde be kynde til other,
And sithen hethen to helpe in hope of amendement.
God hoteth bothe heigh and lowe that no man hurte other (158).”

 

At this point, Will enters a dream within a dream in which the Flesh and all its seeming pleasures tries to seduce him. As he listens to their seductive speeches, Old Age arrives and warns him that fortune and pleasure who speak such lovely words now will abandon him in time. Recklessness then appears to try and convince dreamer to ignore the warnings of Old Age.

Will has a vision of nature and animals where he comes to realize all animals are guided by Reason, except humanity. He tries to rebuke Reason for not guiding them, but Reason criticizes Will for interfering in the order of things of which he cannot judge properly (repeating Adam’s sin of wanting the wisdom of God), so Reason refuses to instruct him further.

In the next vision, Will witnesses a dinner being partaken by Conscience, Clergy, and Patience. He sits at a side table with Patience eating mediocre food, while at the head of the main table is a hypocritical friar eating all kinds of delicacies. They put some questions to the friar who offers memorized and academic answers to their theological questions, while the poem hints at the friar’s hypocrisy by knowing the answers, but not living by them. During the dinner, Conscience decides to join Patience on a pilgrimage into the world to develop his spiritual self through direct experience as opposed to the theoretical book learning that Clergy offers.

On this journey, Conscience and Patience meet Hawkins the Active Man. This man is all about appearance, wanting to appear the smartest, greatest, holiest, and best of men. He is all talk, pretends to be holy, but is really a sinner and prideful. His sins appear as dirt and specks on his outer coat. Such a man eventually ends up in a state of despair, unable to live by the church’s creed and falling so far into sin that a deep sense of hopelessness pervades him from the fear that his sins have grown too great for salvation. In response to being criticized for his dirty clothes, Hawkin’s claims that he cannot ever seem to get his clothes spotless; every time he cleans it via confession and contrition it gets dirty soon after.  At one point, he even blames his wife for the dirty state of his clothes (echoing Adam blaming Eve for convincing him to eat the forbidden fruit). In response to Hawkins, Patience preaches moderation (the opposite of the “active life.”). The poem reiterates that the world is corrupt and participating in it only leads to sin. In order to achieve heaven, Christians must hate this world. Patience goes on to explain how the poor have an advantage with the Seven Deadly sins compared to the rich. It cannot affect the poor as strongly because their desires and means to engage in these sins are restricted.

Will has a new dream in which he converses with Anima (the soul) who describes her many forms. Sometimes Anima takes the form of Mens (capacity for knowing), Memoria (remembrance), Reason, Sensus (empathy/feeling for others), Conscience, Amor (when the soul loves God and others), Spiritus (when freed from the flesh). Will’s desire to know everything is a sin and similar to the pride of Lucifer – only God knows everything. This is emphasized by the way many of the allegorical figures rebuke him throughout the various parts of the poem for his questions and how he’s often not content with the answers he does receive from them.

Will has a vision of Piers Plowman who has erected three polls to protect this tree from “the worlde [which] is a wyked wynde to hem the wolden treuthe” (274). Satan wishes to take all its fruits for himself. We are told that this tree was planted in a garden by God. The tree metaphor for the Truth and Charity draws on the Garden of Eden story from the Bible and highlights the theme found in other parts of the poem that knowledge is often bad, whereas it’s charity, simplicity, and faith that lead one to God.

Pier’s tree equals Truth and grows in a soil of goodness. The three polls symbolize: the Power of God, Wisdom of God, and Grace and the Holy Spirt respectively. In another metaphor, Piers Plowman, in the roll of a priestly figure and thus representing his ascension to the symbolic role of Do-Best tills the soil of Truth with his oxen: Luke, Mark, Matthew, and John. Following them are four horses to harrow: Austin, Ambrose, Gregory, and Jerome that use the harrows, Old Testament and New Testament, to help plant seeds in men’s souls. These seeds they wish to plant are the Spirit of Prudence, the Spirit of Temperance, the Spirit of Fortitude, and the Spirit of Justice.

 

In another vision, Will watches as Jesus arrives in Jerusalem to joust with Satan in order to overcome Death and win the fruits back from Piers Plowman’s tree. The poem retells the story of the Crucifixion. After Jesus’s death, Truth, Mercy, Peace, and Righteousness debate the meaning of the light that hangs over hell. Then the harrowing of Hell occurs when Jesus arrives to save the Old Testament figures from eternal damnation and their demonic tormentors.

The final dream is an apocalyptic and pessimistic vision of Conscience besieged by the Antichrist and his army of the Seven Deadly Sins. As the sins injure the men inside Conscience’s fortress, the wounded grow weary with the slow, harsh, and difficult cures that the parish priests offer, turning to a friar who promises to offer a quicker and easier salvation for a hefty fee. Conscience believes the friar is a liar betraying the Christians who want an easier path towards salvation. The text’s earlier criticisms of the greedy and parasitic monastic orders culminate in this final vision in which it is implied that Christian society and salvation itself is threatened by the presence of these corrupt Friars.

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) by Anonymous

Who is wise? One who learns from every man. As is stated (Psalms 119:99): “From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonials are my meditation.” – Ben Zoma in Chapter 4 of Pirkei Avot.

“Let your home be a meeting place for the wise; dust yourself in the soil of their feet, and drink thirstily of their words.” Yossei the son of Yoezer of Tzreidah in Chapter 1 of Pirkei Avot.

Pirkei Avot (translated as Chapter of the Fathers, and sometimes called Ethics of the Fathers or Sayings of the Fathers) is a book of wisdom quotes from different rabbis over the centuries. It is a part of the Mishna, the “Oral Torah,” the teachings of Moses and other figures, which originally was shared verbally and not written down. The Mishna is part of the larger work known as the Talmud, which most Jews hold to be almost as authoritative as the Tanakh (the Jewish name for what Christians call the Old Testament). The Ethics of the Fathers presents the sayings of different rabbis as they ponder what makes a man wise, the importance of Torah, and one’s relationship with others, government, God, and self.

The text consists of six chapters. The first chapter attempts to establish the authority of the rabbis by presenting a wisdom tradition passed down from master to apprentice extending all the way back to Moses and the Prophets.

“Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. . . . Shimon the Righteous was among the last surviving members of the assembly . . . Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous . . . etc.”

In between the ellipsis are the aphorisms of each thinker. Only the first two parts are structured genealogically in which we learn the sayings of one thinker, then we hear the sayings of their apprentice or son, followed by that person’s follower or son, etc.

Most of the sayings are about the behavior and attitudes a wise person should adopt, always linked back to the Torah. There is a strong emphasis on learning, but also on performing deeds. Here are some quotes from the text to give you a sense:

Shimon the Righteous says, “The world stands on three things: Torah, the service of G-d, and deeds of kindness.”

Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi would say: Beautiful is the study of Torah with the way of the world, for the toil of them both causes sin to be forgotten. Ultimately, all Torah study that is not accompanied with work is destined to cease and to cause sin.

Rabbi Akiva would say, “Tradition is a safety fence to Torah, tithing a safety fence to wealth, vows a safety fence for abstinence; a safety fence for wisdom is silence.”

Rabbi Joshua the son of Levi says, “Every day, an echo resounds from Mount Horeb (Sinai) proclaiming and saying: “Woe is to the creatures who insult the Torah.” For one who does not occupy himself in Torah is considered an outcast”

He would also say, “One who learns from his fellow a single chapter, or a single law, or a single verse, or a single word, or even a single letter, he must treat him with respect. “’’ Said Rabbi Yossei the son of Kisma: Once, I was traveling and I encountered a man. He greeted me and I returned his greetings. Said he to me: “Rabbi, where are you from?” Said I to him: “From a great city of sages and scholars, am I.” Said he to me: “Rabbi, would you like to dwell with us in our place? I will give you a million dinars of gold, precious stones and pearls.” Said I to him: “If you were to give me all the silver, gold, precious stones and pearls in the world, I would not dwell anywhere but in a place of Torah.”

While the work is often focused on religious aspects, it also deals with other topics, such as wisdom and relations with others. The text reminds us consistently not to be arrogant and approach life with humility. Wisdom is found when one understands that there is something to learn from every man.

Works Cited

– Quoted sections come from chabad.org

The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales serves as the perfect introduction into Medieval Literature. The work is a compendium of medieval literary genres: there is fabliaux, lives of the saints, fables (different than fabliaux), Arthurian legends, and romances. Almost every major form of medieval literature is represented in at least one tale. So one way of thinking about The Canterbury Tales is as a buffet of medieval literary forms. However, the work is not a mere anthology.

Part of what makes The Canterbury Tales a masterpiece is the way Chaucer recombines these normally separate and individual medieval literary forms into a unified larger work. The frame-narrative is extremely important to understanding the tales as a unified whole. Certain tales are told because of events that occur within the frame narrative (often with one character reacting to another).  The frame narrative is the ordering principle of the whole work, the “glue” that keeps it all together; it is what allows Chaucer to bring vastly different literary styles from his time period that would not normally appear side-by-side with each other under the banner of a single work.

The different tales and styles are told by various characters from different medieval social classes all traveling together on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. The pilgrims come from all ranks and professions. They meet up in a tavern on their way to Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury (a real historical figure for those who don’t know their English history). They decide to travel together as a group, and the host suggests that to pass the time, they tell stories. This is the backdrop of the individual tales.

Here is a quick summary of all the tales:

The highest ranked individual, the knight, tells the first tale about two noble knights in Ancient Greece imprisoned and fighting for the love of a beautiful and virtuous woman. It presents an idealized and glamorous portrait of women and nobles embodying the ideals of chivalry, which contrasts with the next tale told by the miller.

The Miller’s Tale is a raunchy fabliaux. It tells the story of an elderly carpenter who marries a young wife. This isn’t a very wise decision and leads the elderly carpenter to be cuckolded. A young scholar who lives with them starts to lust after the wife, who returns the scholar’s passion. The two formulate a scheme to convince the dim-witted but kind-hearted carpenter that a second flood is about to engulf the earth so they can sleep together uninterrupted. Meanwhile, another man in charge of collecting money for the church, also falls in love with the carpenter’s wife. The scholar convinces the wife to play a prank on him. She sticks her bum out in the middle of the night when this man demands a kiss; he ends up kissing the woman’s asshole. In anger, he grabs a hot poker and returns to the house, pretending he wants another kiss. The scholar and carpenter’s wife decide to see if they can trick him again. The second wooer pays back the original prank by shoving a hot poker up the scholar’s ass.

The moral of the story is that old men shouldn’t marry young wives if they don’t want to end up a cuckold and the dangers of lacking wisdom by the time you’re old (he marries a young wife and also falls for the story about the second flood suggesting he is rather simple-minded and doesn’t think things through). There is a counterpoint to this message as well; sometimes those who are smart and witty (like the scholar) are too witty for their own good and their mean-spirited pranks on people backfire. In other words, beware of thinking you’re so damn smart!

 

The Reeve’s Tale comes next with a story about a miller ripping off his customers by holding back a portion of the wheat they paid for in order to increase his profits. Two students from a university that gets its wheat from the miller promise to make sure the miller never cheats the university again. They end up sleeping over at the miller’s house, letting the miller falsely believe he can make profit from them. They then proceed to sleep with the miller’s wife and daughter during the night. They use the daughter who falls in love with the student to recover the stolen wheat that the miller put aside from the promised delivering. She reveals to him where the miller hid it. Notice how the reeve’s story about the miller directly follows in response to the Miller’s Tale. The reeve reveals earlier that he was a carpenter and thus took offense at the Miller’s Tale about a carpenter being cuckolded. The different story-tellers are responding to each other through the tales.

The Cook’s Tale is about a gambler working as an apprentice to an innkeeper. The innkeeper decides he has had enough of his apprentice’s party-hard antics and sends him packing to the street where he goes off to a friend’s house to continue living a dishonest life. Not really much of a story.

The Sergeant-at-law’s Tale is about Constance, a virtuous Christian girl, who is forced to marry a sultan, but will only do so if he converts from Islam to Christianity. The sultan’s mother-in-law schemes against her own son for betraying Islam and has him butchered at the wedding feast. The Muslim mother-in-law then sends Constance adrift on a boat, until she reaches the pagan islands of Britain. There she converts the pagans after many trials and hardships, but this only brings more trials and hardships as the king who marries this virtuous woman also has a scheming mother-in-law. She is cast again to sea after the king’s mother-in-law tricks the king into believing that Constance is dead. Eventually Constance is reunited with her husband and survives all her hardships because of her dedication to her Christian faith.

The Sea-captain’s Tale is about a miserly merchant married to a wife of lavish taste. Desperately wanting a new dress after her husband cuts off the money, she consults with a priest, who is a close family friend. The priest wants to sleep with the wife and says he will loan her three hundred pounds if she will sleep with him. The priest then borrows the money from the merchant, playing on their close friendship to secure the cash, and then gives the merchant’s money to the merchant’s wife. She fulfills her end of the bargain. The merchant basically just paid for the privilege of allowing the priest to sleep with his wife. When the merchant eventually comes to collect the debt, the priest claims that he gave the money back to his wife and therefore has repaid the debt.

The Prioresses Tale is about a young boy who loves singing ‘O Alma Redemptoris’ and happens to sing it accidentally in the Jewish quarter of the city. The Jews in the city take offense and murder the boy. However, the boy’s dead corpse continues singing the song and eventually the crime is discovered by the Christian authorities. All the Jews are punished with hanging, and it turns out the boy is still alive thanks to a miracle. This tale is anti-Semitic and disturbing, but it does depict the attitudes of the time.

Chaucer who is a character in the story participating in the pilgrimage then shares the Rhyme of Sir Topaz, a sing-song doggerel and annoying tale, about a cowardly knight who grows weary from galloping over grass and quickly retreats anytime he encounters danger. This tale annoys the host who cuts it off before completion. Chaucer then tells a second story called the Tale of Melibeus, which is cut from the Oxford edition that I own, but is mostly a philosophical discourse about the nature of marriage.

The Monk’s tale is a series of vignettes about the fickleness of fate, rehearsing the stories and downfalls of Biblical, mythological, and historical figures such as Lucifer, Adam, Samson, Hercules, Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and many others.

The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is a fable about a talking rooster who one night has a foreboding dream. He debates with his wife, who is a beautiful hen, about the nature of the dreams; they try to determine if dreams are merely a reflection of daily events or signs from G-d. The next day the rooster’s dream comes true when a wily fox tricks him and carries him off. Luckily, he manages to trick the fox in return and escape from him.

Before beginning her tale, The Wife of Bath tells the story of her many husbands (she was married four times), which is just as interesting as the actual tale itself. Her tale is an Arthurian legend about a knight condemned to die for unchivalrously raping a woman, unless he can discover the secret of what women want. He searches across the land, asking women and receiving different answers, until he finds an ugly old hag who promises to give him the answer for a price. The answer she provides is that “women desire to have dominion over their husbands, and their lovers too; they want to have mastery over them.” The knight then keeps his promise to the old hag and marries her as the price for the answer.

The Friar’s Tale deals with a greedy summoner fleecing the people of his district by accepting bribes. The summoner meets up with his spiritual companion, a demon-in-flesh, which joins him in blackmailing people, until the demon drags him down to hell.

The summoner’s tale is a rejoinder to the previous tale. It is about a begging friar fleecing an old sick man for his money and food. The old sick man, tired of giving alms to friars, gives him a fart as payment that the friar must share with twelve other brothers.

The Oxford scholar’s tale is about a duke who marries a peasant woman. He continually tests the woman’s fidelity and virtue by taking away her children and pretending to have them killed, kicking her out of the house, and claiming he will remarry. When she passes the test by remaining completely loyal to his wishes no matter what cruel acts he commits against her, he then reveals to her that he was only testing her and then restores her status as his wife and returns to her the much older children who are still alive.

The merchant’s tale is about an elderly knight who marries a younger woman against the advice of his friends. A squire in his service falls in love with the woman and writes her letters confessing his love. The knight’s vanity and lechery, unbecoming of his old age, causes him to become temporarily blind. The woman decides to cheat on him with the squire. One day, they lead the old knight out to a garden in his estate where the conspirators plan to consummate the act. The woman climbs up a tree on the pretense that she wants a pear and her husband cannot get it for her since he is blind. Up in the tree is the squire ready to make passionate love. However, Pluto and Proserpina, two Roman deities, are having their own marital spat over the nature of men and women; they decide to interfere with mortal affairs. Pluto restores the old knight’s vision so he can see how untrue and dishonest women are, while Proserpina responds that she will provide her with the perfect response against such “false” accusations. With his suddenly restored vision, the knight catches his wife in the act of having sex with the squire up in the tree. She rebukes him for castigating her infidelity because it was her adultery that allowed him to regain his vision, therefore he is being ungrateful to his wife for helping restore his sight. She also adds that since he just got his vision back he doesn’t know what he really saw. She notes that many of his sights and visions might delude him for a while, implying that she may continue her indiscreet affairs. It is indeed the perfect response.

The Squire’s Tale is about a girl who gains a magic ring that allows her to speak to animals. The girl finds a female falcon lamenting the loss of her male falcon lover who leaves her for a colorful kite blowing in the wind. The squire then promises to talk about a knight who wins the girl’s heart, perhaps as a parallel to the falcon’s story, but the rest of the tale remains unfinished as Chaucer wasn’t able to complete all the tales before he died.

The Franklin’s Tale is about a woman and husband very much in love with each other. The husband is a knight and must go off to war, leaving his wife alone in misery. None of her friends can cheer her spirits. She travels to the sea, but keeps looking at the sharp rocks below, afraid that they will prevent her husband from safely returning. A squire falls in love with her and wants to have an affair, but she rebukes him, joking that she would only sleep with him if he could make the jagged rocks disappear under the water with the assumption that such acts are impossible. The squire, however, after falling into a deep love-sickness hires a sorcerer who makes the rocks disappear. The husband returns thanks to the squire’s efforts at clearing the rocks through magical means, finds out about his wife’s promise, and tells her that she needs to keep her word, even though, it breaks his heart. The reason he feels this way is that honor and keeping one’s oath is an important value in medieval society. The squire preparing to sleep with the woman changes his mind after recognizing the honor of both the knight and his wife in keeping their oaths.

The Doctor of Medicine’s Tale is about a corrupt judge who lusts after the daughter of a knight in his town. He hires a servant to bring forth a case claiming the daughter is really a run-away slave. He presides over the hearing and rules in the favor of his servant so he can steal the girl away from her father. Instead of allowing his daughter to be taken to this judge and presumably forced into marriage, and/or raped, the knight kills his daughter with her permission by chopping off her head. The judge tries to punish the knight by ordering his hanging, but the town finally rises up in rebellion and it is the judge who is arrested.

The Pardoner’s Tale is about three rogues who try to kill Death in vengeance for a dead friend. On their way to kill Death, they find a pot of gold. The three greedy young men conspire against each other. Two of them gang up to kill the youngest one, while the youngest one brought poisoned drinks, which they use to quench their thirst after killing their former companion. All three end up dead. The point of the tale is both to criticize their moral character, and to note allegorically that in a war with death the one who always wins in the end is death.

The Second Nun’s tale is another lives of the saints story about a woman named Cecilia, converting others to Christianity in a Roman world where Christianity is against the law. She stands up against a corrupt magistrate killing Christians in Ancient Rome after watching many martyrs die.

The Canon’s Assistant’s Tale is about a corrupt alchemist who tricks a priest out of his life-savings by performing sleight-of-hand tricks and pretending he can transmute coal into silver.

The Manciple’s tale is about Apollo, his wife, and a talking crow. Apollo’s wife is unhappy and would rather sleep around with ordinary men than remain faithful to a Greek deity like Apollo. The talking crow catches the wife in the act. He tells Apollo about the adultery who in a fit of rage kills his wife, but then regrets the deed and punishes the crow for telling him. It’s a story that suggests that people would rather not know their loved one is cheating than know the truth. That Apollo’s wife prefers normal mortals to a deity illustrates that many women and men grow tired of the same lover and would prefer variety, even if it means sleeping with completely ugly slobs, than perfection (or quality, so to speak). It is also a tale that warns against being the messenger of bad news.

Running through the core of most of these tales, with only one or two exceptions, is the exploration of the proper social role of women. You’ll notice many of these stories involve adultery. In the tales, women are depicted as lascivious, idealized saints, chaste virgins, objects of idealized beauty, shrews, schemers plotting against their husbands, greedy, manipulative, and just about every contradictory stereotype you can imagine. The depictions of women in the Canterbury Tales are usually negative, mimicking the responsibility Christianity places on Eve for the Fall of Humanity. Nevertheless, Chaucer offers many different perspectives on the nature of women in his tales, and some are more positive than others. The views of woman are contradictory from tale to tale, suggesting a society proliferating with many different opinions, but also one that sees it as an issue of deep concern. Put simply, the amount of time this book spends considering the role of women suggests it was an issue which concerned medieval society more broadly.

Another tension in the work occurs between members of different social rank and professions. Some of the stories are told explicitly as a way to insult a member of the traveling party who another member doesn’t like. Shortly after the friar and summoner have a skirmish, they each tell a tale insulting the other’s profession with the worst insults one can offer in those days (that you are going to hell!). The Friar’s Tale is about a greedy summoner who befriends a devil walking around on earth in human flesh and winds up in hell for his corruption. The summoner counters with his own tale, first playing the one-upmanship game by telling a mini-tale in the prologue where a friar goes to heaven and cannot find any friars, and is then taken to hell where he finds all the friars. Not only are they in hell, but they are in a very special place: hidden up the devil’s ass. The summoner then goes on to tell his tale about a begging friar visiting a sick-man who must share a fart with his brothers. Likewise, the Miller’s Tale and Reeve’s Tale also reflect the social tensions between the two. The reeve who is a carpenter takes offense at the Miller’s Tale about an elderly carpenter who gets cuckolded so the reeve responds by telling a tale about a miscreant miller who robs all his clients. Notice, too, that in the Miller’s Tale it is the carpenter who is cuckolded, while in the reeve’s tale the miller is cuckolded twice (his daughter and wife). The reeve one-ups the miller.

The beauty of this work is that by combining these disparate medieval genres where both saintly tales and bawdy peasant tales meet, social ranks of all sorts are able to gather in a single shared space and drop normal social decorum to express their true feelings to each other. Each story has its own theme, its own perspective, its own style, reflecting the social vantage point of the speaker; the higher class members of the party tend towards the more idealized tales of virtuous saints and noble knights, while the lower-class members tend to tell bawdy hyper-sexualized narratives full of cuckolded people of high-rank and church officials, reflecting their own sexual fantasies of sleeping with a beautiful woman beyond their social-class, their own fears of being cuckolded, and their anger over the abuses and exploitation at the hands of the upper-classes.

It is ironic the way that many of these people hate each other, yet are unified by the cultural devotion to Christianity that would send them on such a pilgrimage in the first place. All of them are so different, yet linked by this one commonality. Chaucer is subtly exploring the tenuous chain that Christianity forges on his society, noting the strangeness that despite all their differences and even thorough dislike of each other, this one commonality links his characters. The representatives of Christianity in the form of the characters belonging to the church hierarchy are often shown to be corrupt in both the frame-story and the tales told about them. They cannot live up to the portrait of the saints they praise, but then again neither can the lower-class members of the party with their bawdy tales, which seem especially un-Christian. Some interpret this as Chaucer expressing irreverent attitude towards Christianity. However, in reality, he is being critical of the officials representing Christianity rather than attacking the religion. He also seems unsure whether anyone can really live up to those ideals when a person compares the ideals of Christianity against the normal behavior and vices of actual human beings. The tales reveal how difficult, if not impossible, it is for the members to live up to the ideals of Christianity and the illusion of virtuous nobility valued in the higher ranks. In many ways, no matter what genre, the stories are a way for each character to express how the world should be or how they would like it to be, while knowing perfectly well it falls short in reality.

One point that Chaucer’s characters continually harp on is that the outside world is deceitful; the pilgrims of the frame-story prove just as deceitful, untrustworthy, drunken, stupid, selfish, petty, and full of vice as the characters in the tales they tell. Chaucer was trying to convey a somewhat realistic portrait of his society, if a tad exaggerated. However, it would be a mistake to see his characters only as representatives of the Middle Ages. These characters live on today in different forms: the alchemist of the Canon’s Assistant’s Tale is the con-man creating a pyramid scheme and the criminal who preys on the weak and elderly, the Wife of Bath with her four husbands and tale about unchivalrous knights and what women really want is today’s feminist, and joining them are desperate housewives, gambling addicts, alcoholics, and hopeful social-climbers. Chaucer’s diverse characters of yesterday are many of the same people still with us today.

Bible as Literature: Genesis 1 – The Orderly Creation of the Universe

The first chapter of Genesis begins with the first creation account. I say the first creation account because there are in fact two creation stories to be found in the Bible as I will discuss in more depth when we cover Genesis 2.

I want to begin by comparing two different translations. The JPS rendering of Genesis 1:1 – 1:3 reveals the fascinating difficulties and problems of translation, and how translation can affect meaning of a passage. The JPS translation reads:

“When God began to create heaven and earth–the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water–God said, “let there be light”; and there was light.” – Genesis 1:1 – 1:3.

Now let’s compare this translation to the King James Version:

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. [2] And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. [3] And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”

The JPS version translates the first three verses as a single sentence, whereas the KJV translates it into four separate sentences. Where the translator chooses to punctuate changes the meaning!

In the JPS translation, God is in the process of creation, in which the earth is unformed as of yet and non-existent, the only thing existing being darkness and the deep waters. On the other hand, in the KJV, God creates the heaven and earth, PERIOD. He performs this action and then the sentence ends. The next sentence tells us that the created earth was without form and void, giving the sense that the now created earth is a barren hunk of rock. These adjectives function as literal descriptions of the state of the earth, while the same adjectives “unformed” and “void” are more abstract in the JPS rendering to suggest that earth hasn’t been created at all and there is only a void in the place of where the earth will eventually be rather than those being words that physically describe a half-formed earth like in the KJV. All this from different punctuation choices! This should be a case study in the problems of translation. Not only do word-choices matter, but even grammatical structures and punctuation can drastically change the meaning of a sentence.
The world begins as darkness, void, and the deep (water). God counteracts the darkness with light and stirs the deep with a wind. The wind symbolizes movement, the opening moments of creation about to begin, everything is about to getting moving. The watery deep that preexists creation is a common symbol in Near Eastern literature for chaos and evil (1). What is also striking is that God speaks the world into creation, which is a rather peaceful method compared to other Creation Myths of the Near East (2). Since this is a creation myth, the text is laying down not just the actual literal physical creation of the world, but the core philosophical beliefs and values of the culture writing the text. It is no coincidence that the God of the Israelites (and by extension later Jews), a people who in some ways literally worship the written word (the three core staples of Judaism being: God, Torah, and Israel), speaks the world into creation, highlighting the power of words and language as the ultimate metaphysical source, the stuff that brought about the universe itself.

It’s also worth noting that instead of the wind of God moving across the deep in KJV, we have the “spirit of God” in this translation. Both translations are technically correct, as the Hebrew word “ruach” can mean either wind or spirit.

Getting back to the main narrative, God creates the world in seven days:

1) On day one, he creates light, night, and day.

2) On day two, he separates the water of the sky from the water of the earth, creating the sky.

3) On day three, God gathers all the water in one spot, separating the seas from the physical land. He also grows vegetation on the third day.

4) On the fourth day, God creates the stars, the sun, and the moon “to separate day from night.”

5) On the fifth day, God creates birds, sea monsters, and all the animals that live in the sea.

6) On the sixth day, God creates cattle (which is mentioned specifically), and all the other animals that live on Earth, and finally humanity.

7) On the seventh day, God rests. The seventh day actually takes place at the beginning of Genesis 2.

Careful reading reveals there is a parallelism inherent in the structure. The first three days correspond to the last three day. Day one when light and dark were created corresponds with day four in which the sun and moon are created (the objects associated and “contained” within those things). Day two when the sky and sea were created corresponds to day five when the animals of the sea and sky are brought to life. Day three when the physical land is created corresponds to day six when the animals that roam the earth are born. By creating these parallel structures of days the writer emphasizes the orderliness of creation, everything corresponds perfectly with each other in harmonious symmetry. This is a perfect example of style, content, and theme meshing together.

Another literary technique of importance besides the symmetry of the days is the repetition of the phrase: “And God saw that this was good.” Creation is good, life is good, and most importantly because human beings are a part of creation, they, too, are good. In fact, you might say human beings are centrally good and that as the later stories in Genesis will show we sometimes wander off the correct path and perform wicked deeds that goes against our natural inclinations. The point of this repetition is to point out the goodness of life, of the world, of creation. Most importantly the orderliness of creation is good, which the repetition emphasizes after each section.

On the fifth day, God creates man in His image. There has been a lot of debate about what that means exactly: does God have a humanoid shape? Does our rational thought resemble God? Freewill? Are we meant to be divine stewards of the earth, servants molded in His will? I believe the textual evidence of Genesis 1 suggests we are in the image of God in the sense that we possess his creative capacity. All one needs to do is consider what God has been doing up until this point; He has been creating the world! We have no other image of God besides this in the story. The parallelisms of the days suggests particular categorizations in place, which also implies creativity and rational thinking. We are like God in that we can create, that we can make complex objects from nothing, that we can categorize and organize the world around us.

On the other hand, given God’s instructions to humanity that follows their creation, I think a case can be made for the steward/servant interpretation; humans rule over the earth like God rules over the universe. We watch over the earth as stewards, while God watches over humanity. In this section, God already begins giving commandments with the goal on how to live a worthy life.

Man and female are created simultaneously and remain unnamed. God’s commandments here are often seen as admonishing a vegetarian lifestyle. He also tells the humans to be fruitful and multiply. This is not a throwaway line, but rather reveals an important understanding of what the Israelites considered good. Sexual reproduction and sex in general is seen as positive and good.

Even though this is the creation story of a culture that existed thousands of years ago, it still amazes me how many of the larger themes in this story still speak to us today. I find this story with its emphasis on the goodness of existence and its harmony of the earth to be a positive testament to life. Yes, life can sometimes be shitty. Yes, there are many evils and horrors in the modern world, and even the world of the authors living squashed between violent neighbors and constantly plagued with warfare, yet there is an unrepentant idealism buried at the core of this text, a radical vision of a good, peaceful harmonious world. The text with its interrelated symmetry of days and its divine caretakers of the earth implies that everything in the universe is connected: the evil I do will affect you, but the good I do will affect you too.

Notes

  1. The Enuma Elish (the Babylonian Creation myth) begins with the coming together of Apsu and Tiamat who represent fresh water and salt water respectively. According to wikipedia, the “su” or “zu” part of Apsu’s name means, “the deep.” Eventually in the narrative Tiamat who represents both chaos and salt-water tries to restore chaos and put a halt to creation, hence salt-water’s symbolic association with evil and chaos. Ancient Egyptian Creation myths also had a primordial water deityat the beginning of time called Nu who represents a watery deep chaos from which the earth is born. In the Ugaritic Creation myth, El the king of the gods invites prince Baal to kill Yaam who symbolizes the watery deep and usurp his throne.
  2. The Ugaritic Creation myth represents the act of creation as military violence, one god usurping the throne from another to bring about the end of chaos and the beginning of creation. The Enuma Elish creates the earth and the gods through a sexual act, and also ends in a fight that kills Tiamat, and finishes creation. In the Egyptian Creation myths, Nu is the symbolic Nile, which the god Khepri draws the raw materials to begin creation, which is nonviolent. Many critics I think overstate the similarities between these stories, while ignoring the major differences. These differences are important in that they reflect unique aspects and values of the cultures that created them. It should come then as little shock that the God of the people of the Book created the world from His words; and that this form of creation in fact says something significant about the culture that wrote it.
  3. The Enuma Elish has a description that captures a created, but barren earth quite well: “And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen.”