Wednesday, October 21, 2009

One-Year-Old Saul, Cain Blames God

1. Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001) 10.

According to Tov, one way to identify a textual error in a biblical text is to compare it with other versions or manuscripts. A few times, however, one can recognize a mistake through content analysis. The example that Tov cites for the latter is I Samuel 13:1, which states that Saul was one year old when he began to reign over Israel and reigned two years. For Tov, because that’s so absurd, it must be a textual error.

The medieval Jewish commentator Rashi, however, took a different approach:

Saul was a year in his reign: (lit., a year old.) Our Rabbis of sainted memory said: Like a one year old, who did not experience the taste of sin (Yoma 22b). It may also be interpreted thus: Saul was a year in his reign, i.e., in the first year in which he was made king (and he reigned two years over Israel), and in the first year, immediately, Saul chose for himself three thousand.

Rashi quotes a rabbinic text that suggests that Saul was “one year old” when he began to reign in the sense that he was spiritually innocent, like a one year old. Rashi then posits a more literal interpretation: Saul, who reigned for a total of two years over Israel, in his first year chose three thousand Israelites for war against the Philistines.

The rabbinic text that Rashi cites is pretty interesting in itself. It’s Babylonian Talmud Yoma 22b:

Saul was a year old when he began to reign. R. Huna said: Like an infant of one year, who had not tasted the taste of sin. R. Nahman b. Isaac demurred to this: Say perhaps: Like an infant of one year old that is filthy with mud and excrement? R. Nahman thereupon was shown a frightening vision in his dream, whereupon he said: I beg your pardon, bones of Saul, son of Kish. But he saw again a frightening vision in his dream, whereupon he said: I beg your pardon, bones of Saul, son of Kish, King in Israel.

R. Huna offered the line of “Saul was a one year old when he became king in a spiritual sense, for he was pure,” and R. Nahman b. Isaac disagreed, noting that children are not entirely clean and innocent. R. Nahman was then haunted in his dreams by the bones of Saul, and he learned to respect the dead.

I like the rabbinic interpretation better than Tov’s textual critical approach. Sure, I’ll put down Tov’s approach if I’m ever asked on a test to comment on I Samuel 13:1, or if I’m writing a commentary on I Samuel. But which is more exciting? Which makes you feel cozier? A nice bedtime story about how one rabbi said Saul was spiritually pure when he began to reign, and a dissenting rabbi was haunted by the bones of Saul for dishonoring Saul’s name? Or simply saying “It’s a textual error.” For the latter, I say “BORING!!!”

There’s something about faith approaches to the Bible that are so magical—ghost stories, the idea that even an apparent error can contain a spiritual truth, etc.

2. Barry W. Holtz, “Midrash,” Back to the Sources (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984) 195.

Holtz quotes Midrash Tanhuma, on the Torah reading for Genesis, Chapter 9, which is about Cain and Abel. The passage puts the following words in the mouth of Cain, who tries to avoid responsibility for his murder of Abel. Basically, Cain says God is to blame:

You God watch over all creation and you’re blaming me! This is like a thief who steals things at night and gets away with it. In the morning the watchman grabs him and says ”Why did you steal those things?” He replied: “I’m a thief; I haven’t been remiss in doing my trade, but you’re a guard; why did you fail in your duties?” Then Cain said: “I killed him, true, but You created me with the evil urge in me. You watch over everything and You let me kill him. You killed him! You didn’t accept my sacrifice and I was jealous.” God answered, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood calls out…”

Cain tries to blame God for his murder of Abel on three grounds. First, God could have stopped the murder but didn’t. Maybe he could have thundered from heaven and told Cain and Abel to stop fighting, for they were brothers! Second, God created Cain’s evil inclination, so why’s Cain at fault for acting according to his nature? And, third, God made Cain want to kill Abel by favoring Abel’s offering and not his. But God doesn’t buy Cain’s excuses. He simply responds, “What have you done?”

According to Holtz, this passage was responding to Rabbi Shimon, who in Genesis Rabbah 22:9 faults God for not stopping Cain’s murder. R. Shimon interprets God to say in Genesis 4:10 that Abel’s blood cries at him, accusing God of negligence.

These passages remind me of a couple of things. First, there’s the theodicy and free will issue. Why doesn’t God intervene with a voice from heaven to stop us from doing wrong? But that would be treating us as children, and God wants us to be adults: people who learn what’s right and act according to it, without having to be monitored by a divine super-cop every second. Yet, when things get out of hand, God will step into the situation and punish the guilty, usually after he’s allowed free will to run its course.

Then there’s the issue of original sin, a tendency towards evil that Christian doctrine says we all got at birth. I’m not the first to wonder how God can judge us for acting according to a nature that we did not ask for. Cain seems to make this same sort of argument. But the Jewish notion of the evil inclination is not entirely the same as how Christians define original sin. For the rabbis, we have a good inclination as well, so we possess the ability to make moral choices.

And Genesis 4:7 seems to support the rabbinic position. After God rejects Cain’s sacrifice, he tries to reason with Cain, saying (NRSV): “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” God is telling Cain that he can master sin. Some Christians try to argue that the “sin” here is actually a sin offering, since the same word is used for both in Scripture. For them, God is telling Cain to sacrifice an animal to atone for his sin. But why would God tell Cain that an animal’s desire is for him, and Cain must master it? It makes more sense to say that God wants Cain to master sin, not a sin offering.

The attitude behind Genesis 4:7 here does not seem to be that of the apostle Paul, who says that the flesh is too weak to overcome sin (Romans 7; 8:3). At the same time, Paul assumes that people can conquer sin, through the power of God’s Holy Spirit! Was the Holy Spirit available to Cain, on some level?

Ultimately, whatever our nature may be, I don’t think that we’re so utterly bad that we can’t make any moral choices. Even Calvinists who believe in total depravity tell me that they don’t think their doctrine means everyone is a serial killer, for there are variations in how bad we can be. That may be why we’re responsible for much of what we do.

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