The Genesis of Justice
By Jim Myers  

BIBLE STUDIES 
l
  HOME

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 answers.

(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?

The 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 seminar. 

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 theological elaborations.  

 

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 Jewish people.

 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."

What 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

(4) perfect

(5) immortal

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.  

Deshowitz 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. 

The 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 tempting tree!

 

If 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. 

Dershowitz points out the obvious: 

(1) God commanded Adam alone, not Eve.

(2) God 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 actions.

The honest reader of the biblical text must deal with these problems.  By the way, the completely indoctrinated reader never knows the questions exist.  Dershowitz continues:

God, of 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.

 

Dershowitz 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.

 

Moreover, 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: 

 

"Toward your husband will be your lust, yet he will rule over you."

 

Here we find the origin of the infamous double standard regarding sex:

 

Women 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.  

 

In 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....

 

Based 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.

Dershowitz then ask two very significant questions: 

(1) Why then does Adam and do all future Adams get to rule over Eve and all future Eves? 

(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. 

If 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?

 

In 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:

 

"By 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.                                                                     DTB  


(For information about book click on picture below).

BIBLE STUDIES 
l
  HOME

 

Free Web Counter
free counter

Thank you for visiting our site!
Sign up to receive BHC News & Updates by e-mail.

Tell a friend about BHC & FOLLOW BHC ONLINE -- click here.
Copyright 1999-2015 Biblical Heritage Center, Inc.
* Information on this website comes from a wide variety of sources and the inclusion of any source is not to be understood as an endorsement of the position, person, or group.   All comments or statements are those of the source and have been included for educational and research resources.
Jim Myers, Webmaster