Wednesday, November 16, 2005

What About Lot?

What can be said about the moral character of Lot? Was he a good man, or not?

Conflicting traditions: one says Lot was righteous and pious and wise, while another says Lot was, in the words of Philo, "an unsteady and indecisive person," and was further corrupted by his residence in wicked Sodom. For a survey of traditional interpreters on this subject, see James Kugel, The Bible As It Was, pp. 181-185.

How could anyone claim that Lot was a righteous man? For example, the New Testament makes an extravagant claim for Lot: "And [God] rescued righteous Lot, who was distressed by the indecent conduct of the lawless, for by what that righteous man saw and heard while dwelling among them, his righteous soul was tormented day after day by their lawless deeds." (2 Peter 2:7-8) Note the triple reference to Lot as righteous.

I can see at least 4 reasons for this claim:
(1) Abraham's argument focused on the number of righteous in the city of Sodom (Gen. 18:23-32), so if Lot was rescued it may mean he was considered one of the righteous. However, see the Talmud’s view of Lot below.
(2) Lot shows kindness and hospitality to the strangers, in contrast to the inhospitable behavior shown by "all the men" of Sodom.
(3) Lot appealed to his neighbors, "Don't do this wicked thing." (Gen. 19:7)
(4) The story of Lot's rescue may be compared to Noah's ark, so perhaps we are to understand that Lot, like Noah, was a righteous man surrounded by the wicked.

But Lot does not fare so well in the Talmud:

Berakhot 54b
For Lot and his wife two blessings are said. For his wife we say, "Blessed be the true Judge", and for Lot we say, "Blessed be he who remembers the righteous". R. Yohanan said: Even in the hour of his anger the Holy One, blessed be he, remembers the righteous, as it says, “And it came to pass when God destroyed the cities of the Plain, that God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow…” (Gen. 19:29)

That is, Lot was rescued on account of Abraham’s righteousness, not his own. The Talmud also squarely blames Lot for the incest with his daughters (Nazir 23a, Horayot 10b). This seems to me a more accurate view of Lot than the New Testament’s concern for “his righteous soul.” When it came time to leave the city of Sodom, Lot “hesitated” so that the angels were obliged to drag him out of the city (Gen. 19:16). Even then he was not willing to seek refuge in the hills, but bargained for a more comfortable solution.

So what about Lot? Lot may be compared to the average American today, caught in an immoral, wicked society but not willing to leave its enticements behind. He is pressured (cf. Gen. 19:9b) to tolerate and even sanction the “alternative lifestyles” of his fellow citizens. And he stays close by, in the vicinity of the culture of inclusion. Neither righteous nor wicked, he is just an average guy.

That is why God can take pity (chem’lah) on Lot and his family. (Gen. 19:16) In the Hebrew Scriptures God does not show pity or compassion to the wicked, to those who are outwardly rebellious against him. But he may show pity to those who, like Lot, are not entirely righteous either. “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord on those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he is mindful that we are dust.” (Ps. 103:13-14) “Their heart was not steadfast toward him, and they were not faithful in his covenant. Yet he, compassionate, atoned for iniquity, and did not destroy; and often he restrained his anger, and did not arouse his entire wrath. He remembered that they were flesh, a passing breath that does not return.” (Ps. 78:37-39)

And that is the difference between Noah and Lot. Both found favor in the eyes of the Lord (Gen. 6:8, 19:19). But Noah was “a righteous man, blameless in his generation, and he walked with God.” (Gen. 6:9) He also “did according to all that God commanded him.” (Gen. 6:22, 7:5) Lot was just an average fellow, neither righteous nor wicked. He hesitated and hedged, yet he received God’s pity.

Berakhot 61b:
It has been taught: R. Jose the Galilean says, The righteous are judged [or swayed] by their good inclination, as it says, “My heart [i.e., evil inclination] is slain within me.” (Ps. 109:22) The wicked are judged by their evil inclination, as it says, “Transgression speaks to the wicked, within my heart, there is no fear of God before his eyes.” (Ps. 36:2 MT) Average people are judged by both inclinations, as it says, “For he stands at the right hand of the needy, to save him from those [i.e., his two inclinations] who judge his soul.” (Ps. 109:31)

[For additional references on the Talmudic use of the intermediate category of average or ordinary, see Shabbat 152b, Yoma 75a-b, Sukkah 28a, and Ta’anit 11a.]

Monday, November 14, 2005

Only One

I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and I will make your name great and you will be a blessing. (Gen. 12:2)

Nachmanides tell us that we should aspire to be blessed in Abraham's name. As Nachmanides comments on the phrase from Genesis 12:2, "and you will be a blessing": "You will be the blessing by whom people will be blessed, saying, "God make you like Abraham."

The theme of blessing returns in a later passage, Genesis 26:1-5. This passage helps explain (a) how Abraham would be a blessing, and at the same time (b) what it would mean for God to "make you like Abraham." After Abraham's death, God appears to Isaac, significantly in a time of famine: "there was a famine in the land, aside from the earlier famine that was in the days of Abraham." (v. 1) God orders him to remain in the land promised by oath to his father Abraham: "Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and I will bless you.... I will increase your offspring as the stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring all these lands, and in your offspring all the nations of the earth will be blessed, inasmuch as Abraham listened to my voice and kept my requirements, my commandments, my laws, and my teachings." (vv. 3-5)

How would Abraham, through his offspring, come to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth? Inasmuch as, eiqev asher, along with what follows, is one key to understanding Abraham's greatness. Abraham could be a blessing because "Abraham listened to my voice and kept my requirements, my commandments, my laws, and my teachings." And these teachings he passed on to the next generation, "to keep the way of the Lord, to do what is right and just." (Gen. 18:19) That Isaac carries on the blessing of his father Abraham is the central point of Genesis 26:1-5.

In short, Abraham was faithful, as we read elsewhere: "You found his heart faithful before you." (Nehemiah 9:8; cf. Gen. 15:6)

To do what Abraham did took incredible courage and commitment, for at the beginning of his journey, when he left behind his land, his birthplace, and his father's house, he also left behind his family's religion. As Joshua 24:2 tells us, Abraham's father "worshiped other gods." Abraham did not follow tradition, or comfortably conform to his father's religion, but chose to listen to a different voice. That same voice continues to call: "Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who brought you forth. For he was only one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many." (Isaiah 51:1-2)

While some look to Abraham (and Sarah) as native-born descendants, others look to Abraham (and Sarah) as converts, who like him, only one, leave behind their family's religion when God calls them out and blesses them with "the law of life, and the love of kindness, righteousness, blessing, mercy, life and peace." [From the Sim Shalom benediction]

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Flood Justice

I read the Hebrew Scriptures as Israel's story, or rather “collected stories.” In this compilation Israel interprets their own origins and later "history" for the purpose of teaching the ways of God to their children: the traditions of Israel passed on to future generations.

Christians have an unfortunate habit of reading the Hebrew Scriptures as if they were intended as a simple rebuke of Israel and as evidence in the case against the terms of the covenant (i.e., the Law a failed experiment, case closed). In response:
1. The “old” covenant was, with the inspiration of God, written by Israel for Israel, in the context of a relationship to God that was seen as everlasting and unchanging. In other words, whatever the form, this record of the covenant was not intended to be read in the third person, as a third party judging Israel’s failure to live up to God’s expectations. What Jews call the Torah is to be read in the first person plural, we Israel.
2. All of the Hebrew Scriptures, and especially Genesis, should be read in the light of the Sinai covenant, not as preceding or following in a literal-historical sense. While the rebellions of Israel in the wilderness (as recounted in Exodus, Numbers, and elsewhere) may be held up as an “object lesson” concerning the covenant relationship of God with Israel, so also should the stories of all the patriarchs from Adam to Joseph, with their realistic (but not necessarily literal-historical) portrayals of both sin and righteousness, disobedience and faithfulness, judgment and redemption. To correctly interpret these stories, moreover, we must read them as if knowledge and experience of the Torah of Moses was used in their composition, which was probably the case. That Genesis precedes Exodus in the order of recorded events does not mean that Genesis was written before Exodus or without knowledge of the covenant recorded therein.

The Hebrew scriptures--especially the Torah, the early Prophets (Joshua-Kings), and the Writings--teach by telling stories, and the stories are so compelling and dramatic that the literalists have supposed they represent history in the same sense as modern texts of history.

The Hebrew Scriptures tell the stories of God and man (particularly Israel) at several levels and from a variety of points of view. By contrast, the Christian New Testament (in it's use of the Hebrew scriptures) flattens and straightens the entire landscape into one long "object lesson" of sin and rebellion leading to the hope of a redeemer who, foretold and pictured throughout the "object lesson", finally comes in the person of Jesus Christ. While teachings of the Hebrew scriptures and the teachings of the Christian New Testament are related enough to justify the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition, I no longer believe "the testaments tell the same story" or that the Hebrew scriptures can be reduced to one story.

The literal meaning of a text is what the author intended it to mean and represent, not what the fundamentalist of today imagines, e.g., Noah’s flood as the factual account of a real event. That the patriarchs belong to the history of Israel, I do not question. That all the events of their lives (down to the conversations recorded) represent historical fact, I do question.

Whether Abraham, Moses and the rest of the patriarchs did and said all that is recorded about them is open to as much doubt as the Gospel accounts of Jesus, but the key difference is that no one has claimed Abraham or Moses were gods or that our salvation derives from some act they performed. In the case of Moses, as important as he is to Judaism, the accounts of his life and death made very clear that:

1. He considered himself unworthy of the task given him;
2. He screwed up from time to time;
3. He died a natural death (old age), and his burial place was kept secret ("to this day no one knows where his grave is" Deut. 34:6) so that pilgrimages of the superstitious would not be made to his grave.

On the other hand, the accounts of Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, Job and his philosopher friends, Jonah and the big fish, among others, were not written to be read as history. Some of the obvious clues: Adam represents mankind, Eve is the mother of all living (allegory); Noah alone was righteous and blameless in his generation (hyperbole); Job lived in the land of Uz (about as easy to pinpoint as the Garden of Eden!) and was so blameless and upright that there was no one on earth like him (hyperbole again); and poor Jonah was swallowed by the big fish only to land up in hated Nineveh (irony). The fundamentalists don't know how to read their Bibles and therefore totally miss the beauty of some brilliantly constructed stories.

Back to Noah. I do not consider that the story of Noah is historical, or, more importantly, that it was ever intended to be understood as an historical account. Apart from the absurdity of the ark, three reasons point to this conclusion: a) Allusions within the story to the creation, to burnt offerings, to clean and unclean animals, and other matters that look forward to Sinai, imply a concern beyond historicity of the events; b) The etymology of Noah's name is woven into the story in a creative way to make a point more important than historicity of the events; c) The mythological beginning of the story, with “sons of God” and Nephilim, places the story outside of history; and d) The use of exaggeration--specifically, that only Noah is righteous, everyone else is wicked to the core--suggests that Noah is a typecast of "the righteous man", presented in dramatic contrast to the wickedness around him.

The key to understanding the Flood, as a unique display of God’s overwhelming and indiscriminate destruction, is in the incredible exaggeration found necessary to justify it: apart from Noah, we are told, there wasn’t a single righteous human being, but in fact humankind was so wicked that “EVERY inclination of the thoughts of his heart was ONLY evil ALL the time,” (6:5) and the earth was “FILLED with violence.” (6:11) Now really, doesn’t this seem a bit of a stretch? Even on my worst days I have a couple of innocent thoughts!

In addition, we are told “the earth was corrupt” and “all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.” (6:11,12) The term corrupt is from the same root (shin-chet-tav) as the term used later when God declares “I am about to destroy them with the earth.” (6:13) In other words, perhaps they brought it on themselves. I’ve heard this line before somewhere.

So why did the author(s) of this account find it necessary to describe the state of humankind in such preposterous terms, as lacking any particle of good? Skip forward a few chapters to Abraham's plea before God: "Will you wipe out the righteous with the wicked?" (Gen. 18:23) Noah doesn’t make such a plea because the answer has already been given: there are not any righteous persons to spare save Noah. Down to the smallest critter, “all flesh” is condemned without qualification. This is the necessary precondition for ‘flood justice’ to be just.

Following the Flood, God makes declarations (Gen. 8:21, 9:15) that would seem to preclude further use of a universal flood (or, shall we say, flood justice), that now God will only use measured justice in His dealings with humankind and all creation.

Isaiah 54:9-10 goes even further, to a realm beyond mere justice in God’s covenant relationship with Israel:
For this is like the waters of Noah to me; for just as I have sworn that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth; so I have sworn that I would not be angry with you, nor rebuke you.
For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from you, nor my covenant of peace be removed, says the Lord who has mercy on you.

So what, you say. So what is an example of flood justice that we can relate to? For me, the story of Noah’s flood relates to my problem with the concept of Hell, especially in the form of unmeasured retribution, or everlasting torment. What a monstrous idea of justice. Who, after all, would qualify for this Hell? A serial killer, a Hitler, perhaps, but who else? Cain committed a heinous act, and paid dearly for his crime, but even he received justice tempered by mercy. Even the worst of our sins are finite (in sphere of influence, in depth of malice). We are “only human” in this sense, not gods capable of unlimited evil.

Let Isaiah 64:7-8 MT make my point:
But now, O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay, and you our potter; and we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be angry beyond measure, O Lord, nor remember iniquity forever; behold, look, we are all your people.