|Would you give a young person a
book whose heroes cheat, lie, steal, murder -- and get away with
it? The book, of
course, is Genesis. And
you are right to encourage your child to read it -- with some
guidance. It is the
best interactive moral teaching tool ever devised: Genesis
forces readers of all ages to struggle with eternal issues of
right and wrong.
The above quote is from Alan M. Dershowitz's great new book
- The Genesis of Justice: Ten Stories of Biblical Injustice that Led
to the Ten Commandments and Modern Law.
In the first chapter of his book he raises seven questions that
set the stage for Dershowitz's approach to the study of Genesis.
Get your pencil and some paper so you can write down your
(1) What lessons in justice are we to learn from the
patriarch Abraham's attempted murder of both his sons?
(2) What lessons in justice are we to learn from God's
genocide against Noah's contemporaries and Lot's townsfolk?
(3) What child could avoid wondering how Adam and Eve could
fairly be punished for disobeying
God's commandment not to eat from the "Tree of the Knowledge of
Good and Evil," if - before eating of that tree - they lacked all
knowledge of good and evil?
(4) What inquisitive child could simply accept God's
decision to destroy innocent babies, first during the flood and later in
the fire and brimstone of Sodom and Gomorrah?
(5) How could Abraham be praised for his willingness to
sacrifice his son?
(6) Why was Jacob rewarded for
cheating his older twin out of his birthright and his father's blessing?
book came into being as a result of Dershowitz's decision to offer a
Harvard Law School seminar on the biblical sources of justice. Approximately 150 students applied for the 20
places in the
He continued to hold classes in the summer of 1998 and 1999
which have been packed with students who hold a variety of beliefs -
religious fundamentalists, atheists, agnostics, and some who had never
opened a Bible in their lives.
Dershowitz addresses the different types of Bible teachers
and their agendas. See if
these don't sound familiar.
Most people who write about the
Bible have an agenda, sometimes overt, more often hidden.
They seek to prove or disprove the divine origin of the Bible,
the superiority or inferiority of one particular religious approach to
the text, or some point about the history of the Scriptures.
In reading many of the traditional commentaries, I have observed
that they fall into several categories.
First, there are the "defense
lawyers." Like any
good lawyer defending a client, they rarely ask a question unless they
already know the answer. In
this case, the answer must prove the goodness of God, the consistency of
the text, and the divine origin of the Bible.
These defense lawyers search for "proof texts" that
will corroborate what they already know to be true.
As one midrash confidently assures
its readers: "Whenever you find a point [apparently] supporting the
heretics, you find the refutation at its side."
The most prominent among the defense lawyer commentators is Rashi,
a brilliant and tireless eleventh-century French Jew whose full name was
Rabbi Solomon be Isaac. Rashi,
who lived through the Crusades, wrote exhaustive commentaries on the
Bible and the Talmud, generally limiting himself to narrow textual
interpretation and reconciliation rather than broad philosophical or
Next, there are the
"Socratic" commentators, who seem prepared to ask the
difficult questions and acknowledge that they do not always have the
perfect answers. These
commentators are willing to leave some matters unresolved and to express
occasional doubt, because the correct interpretation may be inaccessible
to their generation or hidden in coded language.
Ultimately, even the most open-minded of these commentators is
not prepared to make the leap of doubt or faithlessness, though they
demand that others make a comparable leap of faith.
The most prominent of the Socratic commentators is Maimonides,
who studied Greek philosophy and who believed that scientific knowledge
was consistent with biblical truth.
His writings endure not only as biblical interpretation but also
as stand-alone philosophical works.
Then there are the subtle
skeptics. Although they
proclaim complete faith, any discerning reader can sense some doubt -
doubt about God's justice, doubt about God's compliance with His
covenant, even occasional doubt about God's very existence.
These commentators employ veiled allusion, hypothetical stories,
and mock trials to challenge God and to wonder why His people have
suffered so much. It is no
sin, according to these skeptics, to feel doubt.
After all, human beings are endowed with the capacity, if not the
need, to doubt. The sin is
to act on these doubts. Judaism
is a religion in which theological purity is not as important as
observance of the commandments. When
God gave the Jews the Torah, the people said they would "do and
listen." This response
- placing "doing" before "listening" - has been
interpreted to justify theoretical skepticism as long as it is
accompanied by devout behavior. Among
the prominent skeptics is Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, an
eighteenth-century Hasidic master who actually filed a religious lawsuit
(a din Torah) against God for breaking His covenant with the
Dershowitz next deals with the question that has
dominated the work of many scholars - "Who wrote the Bible?"
His answer and approach is very refreshing and surprising.
The question of who wrote the
Bible has been hotly debated by academics for more than a century.
Though I am familiar with this literature and have used it in my
classes, the book is not part of that debate.
Instead The Genesis of Justice speaks not to the who but
to the how: How are we to understand the stories of apparent injustice
that are supposed to teach us about justice?
In order to join
the millennia-old debate, I have
chosen to accept the assumptions of its historic participants about the
divine nature of the text. For
purposes of this book, it does not matter whether Genesis was dictated
to Moses by God or compiled by an editor from multiple sources.
What does matter is that it has been considered a sacred
text for more than two millennia. This
does not, of course, require a literal fundamentalist approach. As Ibn Ezra put it" "[I]f there appears something
in the Torah that is intellectually impossible to accept or contrary to
the evidence of our senses, then we must search for a hidden meaning.
This is so because intelligence is the basis of the Torah.
The Torah was not given to ignoramuses."
are we supposed to learn from a God
who fails to carry out his very first threat?
After seriously studying the words of Genesis for almost
twenty years, I realize that very few people who read its opening words
really understand them. Most
readers view them through the "rose colored glasses of their
BS" (Belief System). We
have deeply embedded definitions for many of its words - especially the
word "God." Every time I teach Genesis 1-4 I ask students to define key
words. When it comes to the
word "God" the definition usually looks something like this:
(1) all powerful
(2) all knowing
(3) present everywhere at the same time
The problem that quickly arises as we study the words of the
Bible is that the actions of God do not appear to line up with the above
definition. Of course, when
I ask them to reveal the source of their definition, they don't exactly
know. Heaven forbid if I
suggest that maybe the definition that we have been given may be wrong.
Dershowitz follows this same approach in his discussion of
the words of Genesis 1-3.
It is quite remarkable that a holy
book, which purports to be a guide to conduct begins with a clear rule
that is immediately disobeyed, and a specific threat of punishment which
is not imposed. God's first
threat to humankind is unequivocal:
He tells Adam, "From the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and
Evil, you are not to eat from it; for on the day that you eat from it,
you must die, yes die."
The use of the Hebrew mot tamut
repeats the words "die" so there is no mistaking the certainty
of the threatened punishment. "Doomed
to die" is perhaps the best translation.
The certainty of the time frame for the punishment -- "on
the day" -- is unique in biblical threats.
Normally God simply says "you will die" or "you
will surely die," but He never specifies the day.
Yet when Eve and Adam disobey God's first prohibition, God does
not carry out his explicitly threatened punishment.
Indeed, the Bible says Adam lived 930 years.
The disobedient couple and their progeny were punished, but in a
way very different from what God threatened.
What are we supposed to learn from
a God who fails to carry out his very first threat?
Generations of commentators have tried to answer this question.
Some of the defense attorneys have sidestepped its troubling
implications with creative wordplay.
If God's days are one thousand years long, then Adam died seventy
"years" short of one such "day."
This would render the threatened punishment trivial, at least in
comparison with what God had threatened.
Others argue that God didn't
really mean that Adam would actually die on the day he ate of the tree,
but rather that on that day he would be sentenced to an eventual
death -- in other words, he would become mortal.
That is not, however, what God said and
-- more important -- that is certainly not what Adam or Eve
understood God to say. God
told Adam that he "must die, yes, die" on the "day that
you eat from it," and Adam told Eve that God had commanded them not
to eat or even "touch" it.
It is clear from the story that of the serpent that
Eve interpreted God's threat as immediate death. A midrash says that the serpent pushed Eve against the tree
and told her: "As you did not die from touching it, so you shall
not die from eating thereof."
The serpent was right.
Eve and Adam dined on forbidden fruit and both lived long lives.
Taking the serpent's lesson to its logical conclusion, it would
seem that God's commands can be disobeyed with impunity. God thus showed Himself to be a parent who makes idle
threats -- a rather ineffective model of discipline.
continues to raise questions that would never be heard in most Sunday
School classes, even though they have probably crossed the mind of many
participants. Of course the
major difference between a Christian approach and a Jewish approach to
the study of the Bible is the ability to question.
The Christian approach is designed to point out the answers that
substantiate the established doctrinal system.
The Jewish approach is to point out the obvious questions and
find as many possible answers as possible.
Dershowitz continues to follow this Jewish approach as he
continues the study of Genesis.
nature of God's punishments raises profound questions -- for Christians,
Jews, and Muslims alike -- about His concept of justice. He punishes Eve by inflicting pain of childbirth on all
women and making all women submissive to men. He punishes Adam by requiring all men to toil for their
bread. Finally, God also
banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden in order to assure that
his wayward creations do not also eat of the tree of life and "live
forever." All for
disobeying His common to refrain from eating the forbidden fruit of a
we evaluate God by human standards, His first action as a lawgiver seems
unfair. The essence of
fairness in any system of threats and promises is adequate warning: Punishment should be threatened in unambiguous terms, so that
the people to whom the threat is directed will understand; a punishment
once threatened should be imposed, unless there are mitigating
circumstances; and no additional punishments not explicitly threatened,
should be tacked on. Moreover,
the punishment should be limited to the specific person or persons who
violated the law, not to innocent descendants.
Jewish law, as it eventually developed, recognized that "to
punish one person for the transgressions of another" is
"inconsistent with the very idea of law."
Finally, punishment should be proportional to the harm caused.
points out the obvious:
commanded Adam alone, not Eve.
threatened Adam with immediate death if he ate the forbidden fruit.
(3) Adam ate
it and God did execute him.
(4) God didn't
warn the serpent, yet He cursed him.
(5) God didn't
warn Eve, yet He punished her.
(6) Adam &
Eve's descendants didn't do anything, but they were affected by God's
reader of the biblical text must deal with these problems. By the way, the completely indoctrinated reader never knows
the questions exist. Dershowitz
course, constantly violates these rules throughout the Bible -- He kills
without warning, punishes innocent children for the sins of their
parents, and imposes disproportionate punishments -- so we should not be
surprised that He begins His career as a lawgiver in this capricious
manner. Commentators make heroic efforts to rationalize these
apparent violations of human norms of fairness by reading ambiguity into
God's clear words. For
example, many later commentators interpret God's threat to Adam as
punishment in the hereafter -- a common explanation whenever God
threatens punishment or promises reward but fails to carry it out.
But the Jewish Bible never mentions the hereafter.
God tells Adam quite directly: "You are dust and to dust
shall you return." It
is untrue to the text of Genesis to read into punishment threatened here
and now an implicit postponement to a world to come.
It is also a far less interesting answer, which obviates the need
to struggle with the text. Accepting
an invisible afterlife in which threatened punishments and promised
rewards are meted out, as some commentators (Jewish & Christian) do,
provides a tautological answer to all questions about injustice in this
world. It is far more
interesting to search for enduring interpretations based on what was
believed at the time, not centuries later.
In the end, it is the plain meaning of a threat that is most
important. No one can deny
that God plainly threatened Adam with one punishment and then inflicted
a quite different one on Adam, Eve, and their descendants.
also addresses an issue that is very timely for today - the rights of
women. Women find that
their place in many modern cultures has been established by traditional
interpretations of the words of Genesis.
the nature of the punishment God inflicted on all women raises the most
profound issues of fairness. God
directly commanded Adam, not Eve, to refrain from the eating of the Tree
of Knowledge. Yet it was
Eve, and all future Eves, who were punished most severely, not only in
absolute terms, but also relative to Adam and future Adams:
your husband will be your lust, yet he will rule over you."
we find the origin of the infamous double standard regarding sex:
must be monogamous toward their husbands, but husbands are free to
direct their lust at other unmarried women -- that is, women who do not
"belong" to other men.
the command that wives must be submissive to their husbands, we also see
the origins of misogyny - the hatred and mistrust of women. . . . The
inequality of women - a characteristic of most traditional religions and
cultures -- violates modern sensibilities.
For that reason, contemporary religious law struggles mightily to
interpret the punishment of Eve as the decision by God to assign to
women a different, but not equal, role in the life of the family....
on this sequence of events (in the story), it is neither logical nor
moral that husbands should rule over wives.
Eve had a far more compelling defense than Adam.
She was never told directly by God about the prohibition, and she
was misinformed about its scope by Adam, who told her that God's
prohibition extended beyond eating and included even touching the
fruit. This misinformation
allowed the serpent -- who was "more shrewd than all the living
beings of the field" -- to entice Eve into sin. . . . Meanwhile,
Adam -- the direct recipient of God's commandment -- did not need to be
enticed. He was simply
offered the fruit and accepted it.
Eve did not compel or order Adam to eat it.
She did not act as a ruler as a subject.
then ask two very significant questions:
(1) Why then
does Adam and do all future Adams get to rule over Eve and all future
(2) What do
labor pains, lust, and subordination have to do with Eve's pain?
And then there
is another issue that Dershowitz brings up, one that has a great deal to
do with the issue of justice.
Even had God
followed through precisely on his threat to Adam, there would still be
questions about God's justice.
Adam and Eve did not know the difference between good and evil before
eating of the tree, how could they fairly be punished for being deceived
by the serpent into violating God's prohibition?
most societies committed to the rule of law, the basic test of
responsibility is the capacity to distinguish right from wrong. If a paranoid schizophrenic shoots a man he honestly, but
mistakenly, believes is about to shoot him, he cannot be held
responsible for his conduct. As
Maimonides posed the question in the language of his time:
what right or justice could God punish" if humans lacked freewill?
We must stop
now and leave you with several questions to ponder.
We highly recommend Dershowitz's new book. He opens a door to a new way of Bible study for many people,
however, it is also a way very familiar to our readers.
Order it today, so you can enjoy the experience of truly
struggling with the biblical text.
(For information about book click on picture below).