Archive for the ‘Genesis’ Category

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The  Choice 3 — Dan Jocobsen

July 16, 2014
The Aleppo Codex reached Israel nearly fifty years ago (in 1958). Over the years, many efforts have been made to locate the missing parts of the codex. From time to time rumors circulate about the discovery of parts of the manuscript or about their location. However, these rumors have proven false. Nevertheless, two parts of the Aleppo Codex have been discovered over the years: a whole page and a fragment of a page.

The Aleppo Codex reached Israel nearly fifty years ago (in 1958). Over the years, many efforts have been made to locate the missing parts of the codex. From time to time rumors circulate about the discovery of parts of the manuscript or about their location. However, these rumors have proven false. Nevertheless, two parts of the Aleppo Codex have been discovered over the years: a whole page and a fragment of a page.

We continue with a final post from a chapter from Dan Jacobsen’s The Story of Stories where he explores the Scriptures to find how the Jews and the Jewish state became the chosen people. Although Mr. Jacobsen is not a believing Jew, his approach is quite readable (I think) for Christian or Jewish “cultic” believers (as he labels those of us who have drunk the Kool-Aid). Roger Scruton quoted him at one point and I took that as a recommendation.

As a Jew, Dan Jacobson has long been aware of the notion of a ‘people chosen by God’. In The Story of the Stories, he uses his Jewishness as a premise to discuss the contradictions of being thought of as ‘special’ – its opportunities and its deadly temptations. The result is a deeply profound and serious meditation that sheds an entirely new light on Biblical scholarship and orthodox theology. On first publication (1982), The Story of the Stories was hailed as a seminal work.

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An anthropologist may declare, as Edmund Leach does in Genesis as Myth and Other Essays, that the reason for the  choice  is  essentially  that  this  line  is  the  “purest”  in blood, since Sarah, Isaac’s mother, is Abraham’s half-sister, which  the  mother  of  Ishmael  is not;  but  from  our  point of view that merely puts the question back a stage further. We still have  to ask: Why this line?

The “purity” of  the line from Abraham  and his family matters,  after all, only because he has already been chosen. As for Jacob and Esau, who are not merely born of the same mother but are twins, the  one  is  preferred  above  the  other  when  they  are  still in the womb: “the elder shall serve the younger.” (A reversal of  the  primogenitive  order  is found  in many  biblical narratives;  the case of  David, which is mentioned  below, is one of the most striking of these.)

It cannot be said that the patriarchs are chosen for their special virtues; if anything, the case is exactly the other way around: whatever virtues are ascribed to them appear to spring from the fact that they have been specially favored or elected — and that they know it. 

Now, one might argue — as Thomas Mann does in Joseph and His Brothers, a series of ironic, avowedly fictional variations upon the legends of Genesis — that in this respect Yahweh’s actions are very much like those of life itself , which also “chooses” with apparent capriciousness those people whom it blesses (and curses) with gifts of any kind, and, which invariably lets them know that they have been so chosen. (In 1 Samuel 16, to take an example from much later in the story, David is described as a handsome youth, with particularly beautiful eyes; but the “Spirit of the Lord”  comes “mightily upon him” only after Samuel has anointed him as the king-to-be: in other words, once he knows that he has been chosen.)

Alternatively, it could simply be said that the biblical story, like any myth about the genesis of any people, has to begin somewhere, and with someone: why· not with Abraham, in Ur of the Chaldees? Both these arguments are persuasive enough, and they are not incompatible with one another. 

But  they  are incompatible  with the claims that the Scriptures themselves make on Yahweh’s behalf: above all, with the design that is insistently imputed to him, from the beginning to the end of the biblical text. He is the active or (if you like) supremely responsible participant in the story of the patriarchs and of the people descended from them; he is the sole and exclusive source of moral order acknowledged in the book. Yet no explanation is given of his most crucial decision; no moral or any other justification is proffered of the most fateful of the choices he makes. At the same time, the book itself makes it clear that to enter into the realm of choices is to enter irrevocably into the realm of  morality.

“The Lord sees not as man sees.” In some of the biographical narratives, there is a hint that the favored of God might be those who are scorned or overlooked by others. “When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren” (Genesis 29:31). Even David falls into this category; no one thinks to send for him, the youngest son of Jesse, when Samuel comes to the house in search of Saul’s successor to the throne. A preference by Yahweh for the downtrodden is more than hinted at in the account of the liberation  of  the  entire people  from  their  bondage in Egypt; while in the codes of law and conduct that are promulgated in Yahweh’s name in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy,  the  weakest  members  of  society-the  poor,the fatherless, the widow, and the sojourner or stranger­ — are spoken of with great moral generosity, even with tenderness, as being under his special guardianship. (“Love the sojourner, therefore, for  you  were  sojourners  in  the  land of Egypt.” Another form of reciprocity, that must be called.)

Eventually, in  a development already alluded to in discussing the fall of Jerusalem, the prophets who faced the catastrophes of national defeat and exile, and all the hardships of their own calling, were more and more to insist programmatically that God’s final election must fall upon the humiliated and the outcast. Yet in developing  out of  their  owntragic situation this systematization or moralization of the way in which Yahweh makes his choices, the prophets, inevitably enough invoked as precedent his (belated) recollection of  his promises  to the patriarchs during an earlier period  of  exile and servitude. And that brings us back, as they intended  it to, to the mystery  of  his initial  choice.

It is not surprising that later rabbinical commentators were also to attempt to rationalize the initial choice of Abraham and  (some of )  his descendants by inventing  a series of  what might  be  called  justificatory  legends about  it. It was said, for instance, that Yahweh  had offered the yoke of  his  Law  to  all  the  nations  of  the  earth  in turn;  only Israel had been willing to accept  it. It was also said that even  as a boy Abraham  had  distinguished  himself  by his contempt for idolatry, and by breaking the idols of his father. There is no warrant in the text itself  for these stories; in fact,  what  they  betray  is a  certain  unease  about  there being no warrant  for them. 

A  rather   more  sophisticated,   theological   justification for  the  apparent   arbitrariness — or   “scandal” — of   Yahweh’s  · choice of the people of Israel has been urged with particular insistence by some Christian interpreters: Paul, the ex-Jew, being the very first among them (Romans 9:10-11).  As I understand it, the argument goes that if we were to be given a reason for the choice, then the quality of grace it shows would inevitably be diminished or devalued; indeed, to seek for a reason is to attempt to do away with the very notion of God exercising his completely unconstrained will in the matter, which is the only true meaning the word “choice” should have. 

This is ingenious, and in some ways it actually seems to me closer to what we find in the text than are the rabbinical stories just cited; at least it confronts the fact that we are dealing with an act of unexplained and dangerous favoritism — and one that was at a profound level recognized as such by the biblical writers themselves.

 

The freedom which Yahweh enjoys is in any case constrained in one most important respect: the one thing he is  not free to  do  is  to refrain  from  choosing.  At  a  time when there are only four people on the entire earn — Adam, Eve, and their two sons — Yahweh is already engaged in the practice.

And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” The conse­quences of this, supposedly God’s very first act of favoritism, are at once shown to be disastrous for both brothers. First it produces envy, then murder, then a man forever on the run. But does Yahweh learn from this experience? Not at all! 

Once he has begun in this way, he apparently cannot stop. “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious,” he says, with more grimness than grace in Exodus 33:19-20, “and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” (The passage is quoted in the Pauline Letter mentioned above.) Everything that follows can be understood as an illustration or elaboration of this ambiguous utterance.

Whole peoples are chosen and rejected; the land is chosen and later, in a  sense, rejected; so are particular groups and tribes within Israel itself; so are particular places within the land. The record of these events obviously reflects in each case some greater or lesser vicissitude in the history of the nation or in the history of the cult; but it also reveals just how “natural” to the  Israelites’ conceptions of God was the act of choosing and rejecting, in so many different contexts. 

This activity is strongly associated, especially in Leviticus, with that ritualistic preoccupation  with “holiness” and  “separation” with  “cleanness”  and  “uncleanness,”  in  terms of  which everything,  from the fish in the sea to the days of the calendar, was ultimately to be categorized. That preoccupation, I need hardly add, still looms large in rabbinic Judaism. “I am the Lord your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore make a distinction between the clean beast  and the unclean”  (Leviticus 20:24-25).

 What makes this God such an inveterate or compulsive chooser? What is it about the act of  choosing that reveals his very nature?  The answer I am going to suggest shows clearly that in the creation of  our fantasies,  and hence in the  development  of  our  moral  lives,  “weaknesses”  and “strengths” are as inextricably bound  up with one another as are “good” impulses and “bad.” Yahweh comes into being as a choosing  God because,  unlike  the gods· of  Egypt  or Assyria, say, or even those of Canaan, he is not autochthonous; that is, he is a God of a people whose primal historical memory appears to be one of enslavement and homelessness, of searching for a territory, of being without that which all other peoples apparently had. Like the people , he is a wanderer, a God looking for a land — therefore he has to “choose” the land from outside it, just as he had to originally to choose or form the people itself.

For  ask  now  of  the  days that  are past,  which  were before you, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of . . . . Or has any god ever at­ tempted to go and take a nation for himself  from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and  by  war,  by  a  mighty  hand  and  an outstretched arm,  and  by  great  terrors,  according  to  all  that  the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?
DEUTERONOMY 4:32, 34

In other words, if it had not been said of Yahweh that he had created heaven and earth, if he had not been given “extraterritorial” status from the very outset, he would not have been able to dispose of a land that was not “his ” and deal so effectively with the Egyptians, or choose as his own a nation which was still to become a nation.

Thus you shall say to  the  house  of  Jacob,  and  tell the people of Israel: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, be my own kingdom of priests and a holy   nation.
EXODUS 19:3-6

And if this was true for the Israelites when they began to keep the record of his deeds, during their time of national independence, it had to be no less true for the prophets when they contemplated the destruction of Jerusalem, the burning of his Temple, and the renewed enslavement of his people.

Out of the people’s weakness had come his power, including his power to choose; the wider the scope of that power was seen to be, the greater was he glory of those upon whom his choice had fallen — and also the more exposed and vulnerable they felt their position to be. Yahweh had been free to choose Israel, or not, as he wished. Israel, it seemed had no choice but to be chosen.

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The  Choice 2 — Dan Jocobsen

July 15, 2014
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram and lo  a dread and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram 'Know  of  a surety  that  your  descendants  will be sojourners  in land that is not  theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation  which  they serve, and afterward  they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age.’ Genesis  15:12-15

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram and lo a dread and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram ‘Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation which they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age.’ Genesis 15:12-15

We continue with a second post from a chapter from Dan Jacobsen’s The Story of Stories where he explores the Scriptures to find how the Jews and the Jewish state became the chosen people. Although Mr. Jacobsen is not a believing Jew, his approach is quite readable (I think) for Christian or Jewish “cultic” believers (as he labels those of us who have drunk the Kool-Aid). Roger Scruton quoted him at one point and I took that as a recommendation.

As a Jew, Dan Jacobson has long been aware of the notion of a ‘people chosen by God’. In The Story of the Stories, he uses his Jewishness as a premise to discuss the contradictions of being thought of as ‘special’ – its opportunities and its deadly temptations. The result is a deeply profound and serious meditation that sheds an entirely new light on Biblical scholarship and orthodox theology. On first publication (2001), The Story of the Stories was hailed as a seminal work.

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Where the biblical writers differ from the rest of us (as Spinoza himself  puts it in another context) is in their “unusually  vivid  imaginations.”  They revealed  their imaginative power,  I would  argue,  quite as much  in  the running account they give us of the relations between God and his chosen people as in the individual visions and tales which the larger narrative  contains.

Like every highly  developed work of the imagination, the biblical “story of the stories” has the effect of showing us just  how inextricably inter­twined,  in  the  depths  of  the psyche,  are  the  connections’ between our benevolent  and malevolent impulses, between childishness  and  maturity,  between  envy  and  generosity. As dramatists or storytellers  (though not as philosophers), the biblical  writers  knew  more about  themselves  and  the rest of us than Spinoza gave them credit for; they certainly knew more than he did about the perils as well as the advantages of the special relationship they claimed to have with their God.

Thus, while exulting over Yahweh’s choice, and rejoicing in the discomfiture of their enemies, who had been passed over and rejected, the composers of the biblical story could never lose sight of the terrifying possibility that  it might be their turn next to join the ranks of the rejected.  That was the danger to which they had exposed themselves imaginatively in evoking a God who exercised  choices of  such a fateful kind; that was the price they had  to pay for the favor he had bestowed upon them. 

The constant presence of the possibility of such a rejection is one of the wonders of the entire tale. Sooner or later  it is bound  to  happen, the story implicitly tells us, to those who seek preferment or special terms from the world all men are compelled to live in. Which is not to say, the story also tells  us,  that they will ever desist from seeking such preferment, and trying their hardest to get away with it unscathed. The explicit moral is that the people of Israel fall into God’s disfavor only when they disobey him; the tacit  moral  is that the very notion  of  having  been  chosen  by  such  a God  will produce the retribution appropriate  to it. It  is, I suspect, because the former moral is urged upon us with such exhaustive vehemence that the latter has been virtually overlooked.

Anyway, if one returns to the opening question, and rephrases it to  ask why, in the estimation of the Israelites themselves, Yahweh had chosen them to be his special possession: among the nations, one sees that it calls for answers of two different kinds. Firstly, it can be answered in terms of the religious  and  historical  purposes  God is supposed to have had in mind in making such a choice. Secondly, one can try to explain why  this  particular  people  rather than some other was chosen to fulfill those special purposes. 

Now, while the Scriptures have a great  deal to say about the first kind of explanation — that is, about Yahweh’s intentions for his chosen — they tell us practically nothing, explicitly at least, about his reasons for making this choice “from all other people that are upon the face of the earth” (Exodus 33: 15). This is not because the writers took Yahweh’s choice wholly for granted, or assumed that the reasons for it would be self-evident. Far from it. Indeed, the sense of being forever on trial, which is one of the consequences of the apparent arbitrariness of the claim to have been specially chosen, is a constant in Israelite and Jewish history.

The  formal  explanations  as  to  why  the  choice  fell  on the Israelites rather than on some other people always refer back to previous commitments by Yahweh — which are themselves then left entirely unexplained. In Exodus we are told that God intends to redeem the people from slavery in Egypt because he has “remembered” the covenant he made with the patriarchs;  in Deuteronomy  this is forcefully repeated several times.

In Deuteronomy also the Israelites are explicitly told that it was not because of their “righteousness” or “uprightness” that they were chosen by Yahweh, or because they were more powerful or many in number, in Exodus God actually makes the suggestion to Moses (a suggestion that is recalled in Numbers 14 and Deuteronomy 9) that he should simply abandon or destroy the Israelites in the desert. Then he and Moses might begin all over again with another, less contumacious people, who would be more obedient to the Law and hence truly deserving of the promised land.

The intention of all these rebukes and warnings is obviously to make the people of Israel feel thoroughly humble about the favor that Yahweh haas done them. The effect however, is to make his choice seem more random and hence more unfathomable and more alarming than ever. 

This impression can only be strengthened when we turn to the promises in Genesis which are so insistently referred to as the ultimate source of all Yahweh’s commitments to the children of Israel.

[For  reasons  already  given, the argument  is not  really affected  by  the fact that some or even all of these promises may have been retrospectively written into earlier legends which were originally told without them are explicitly told that it was not because of their "righteous­ ness"  or  "uprightness"  that  they  were  chosen  by  Yahweh, or because they were powerful or many in number; in Exo­dus God actually makes the suggestion to Moses (a sugges­ tion which is elaborately recalled in Numbers 14 and Deu­ teronomy 9) that he should simply abandon or destroy tlie Israelites  in  the  desert.  Then  he  and  Moses  might  begin all over again with another, less contumacious people, who would be more obedient to the Law and hence truly deserving of the promised land.

The intention of all these rebukes and warnings is obviously to make the people of Israel feel thoroughly humble about  the favor  that  Yahweh  has  done them. The  eff ect, however, is to make his choice seem more random and hence into earlier legends which  were originally without  them. To say of  something which appears in an otherwise  "early" text that it is a relatively late interpolation does not disqualify it from being treated, in my terms, as an integral  part  of the story. Exactly the opposite is true.  Such  "backing and  filling,"  of  which there is clearly a great deal, shows how keenly the writers and editors of the text felt the need to harmonize the tales they already had, from whatever sources they came, with any additional material they wished  to  incorporate  into  the story. In other words, they tried, at least intermittently, to view the text  as a whole, and wanted it to be viewed as a whole.

A particularly  obvious,  and in my opinion particularly  moving, example of the use made by the writers of the opportunities given to them for a retrospective enlargement and self-endorsement of the legends of the patriarchs is to be found in Genesis  15:12-15, which  "looks forward" vividly  to what is already known in terms of the myth, to have taken place:

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram and lo  a dread and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram 'Know  of  a surety  that  your  descendants  will be sojourners  in land that is not  theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation  which  they serve, and afterward  they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age.]

Why does God declare to Abraham that he should go from his country and his kindred  and his father’s house to the land that would be shown to him where he would become “a great nation”? We are not told. Why, among Abraham’s sons, does God choose Isaac to be the one with whom he will establish an “everlasting covenant,” while proffering to Ishmael the consolation of fathering another, uncovenanted nation? We are not told. 

Why is Jacob preferred above his brother Esau; or to put the story in another way, why is Jacob allowed to cheat Esau out of his father’s blessing, so that the divine prophecy made to Rebecca (“two people born of you shall be divided the one shall be stronger than the other”) might be fulfilled in Jacob’s favor? Again, we are not told. Abraham and one particular line descending from him are chosen: that is all. 

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The  Choice 1 — Dan Jocobsen

July 14, 2014
Shasu is an Egyptian word for semitic-speaking pastoral cattle nomads who lived in the Levant from what was known, to human history, as the late 'Bronze Age' to the 'Early Iron Age' or 'Third Intermediate Period' of Egyptian history. These peoples of the Demiourgós were organized in clans, under tribal chieftaisn, and were described by those around them as lawless brigands, active from the Jezreel Valley to Ashkelon and the Sinai. The name evolved from a transliteration of the Egyptian word shasu, meaning "those who move on foot", into the term for Bedouin-type wanderers. The term first originated in an ancient list of peoples in Transjordan. It is used in a list of enemies of Egypt inscribed on column bases at the temple of Soleb built by the Pharoah Amenhotep III. Copied later by either Pharaoh Seti I and Pharaoh Ramesses II at Amarah-West, the list mentions six groups of Shashu: the Shasu of S'rr, the Shasu of Lbn, the Shasu of Sm't, the Shasu of Wrbr, the Shasu of Yhw (Yahweh), and the Shasu of Pysps.

Shasu is an Egyptian word for semitic-speaking pastoral cattle nomads who lived in the Levant from what was known, to human history, as the late ‘Bronze Age’ to the ‘Early Iron Age’ or ‘Third Intermediate Period’ of Egyptian history.
These peoples of the Demiourgós were organized in clans, under tribal chieftaisn, and were described by those around them as lawless brigands, active from the Jezreel Valley to Ashkelon and the Sinai.
The name evolved from a transliteration of the Egyptian word shasu, meaning “those who move on foot”, into the term for Bedouin-type wanderers.
The term first originated in an ancient list of peoples in Transjordan.
It is used in a list of enemies of Egypt inscribed on column bases at the temple of Soleb built by the Pharoah Amenhotep III.
Copied later by either Pharaoh Seti I and Pharaoh Ramesses II at Amarah-West, the list mentions six groups of Shashu: the Shasu of S’rr, the Shasu of Lbn, the Shasu of Sm’t, the Shasu of Wrbr, the Shasu of Yhw (Yahweh), and the Shasu of Pysps.

A chapter from Dan Jacobsen’s The Story of Stories  where he explores the Scriptures to find how the Jews and the Jewish state became the chosen people. Although Mr. Jacobsen is not a believing Jew, his approach is quite readable (I think) for Christian or Jewish “cultic” believers (as he labels those of us who have drunk the Kool-Aid). Roger Scruton quoted him at one point and I took that as a recommendation.

As a Jew, Dan Jacobson has long been aware of the notion of a ‘people chosen by God’. In The Story of the Stories, he uses his Jewishness as a premise to discuss the contradictions of being thought of as ‘special’ – its opportunities and its deadly temptations. The result is a deeply profound and serious meditation that sheds an entirely new light on Biblical scholarship and orthodox theology. On first publication (1982), The Story of the Stories was hailed as a seminal work.

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Continuing  to work  backward,  as it were,  we  come to a question which is logically anterior to the issues raised by the  Israelites’  conquest  of  Canaan;  indeed,  it  is  anterior to almost  everything  in  the  Scriptures. Why  did Yahweh choose  the  children  of  Israel  to be  “his own  possession among the peoples”?

The short answer to this question is that he chose them because they wanted to believe that they had been chosen. . They invented him, one can say, so that they might be chosen. They wanted to be exalted above other nations­ — “high above . . . in praise and in fame and in honor”  (Deuteronomy 26:19) — and they ascribed precisely that ambition on their behalf to the most exalted being it was possible for them to conceive. From their belief in the intentions he nourished on their behalf , they derived a sense of inner strength and cohesion which they could not have got from any other source: a conviction of their own superiority over all the nations who had not been  chosen.

All that, in terms of the general argument, may seem obvious enough. Motives and sentiments of the kind just described emerge clearly from the famous hymn of praise to Yahweh in Exodus, which celebrates not only the destruction of the Egyptian army that had been pursuing the fleeing Israelites, but also the forthcoming destruction of their ene­mies-to-be in the land of Canaan.

Who is like thee, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like thee, majestic in holiness,
terrible in glorious deeds, doing wonders?
Thou  didst  stretch out thy right  hand,
the earth swallowed  them.
Thou hast led in thy steadfast love the people whom
thou  hast  redeemed,
thou hast guided them by thy strength to thy holy abode.
The peoples have heard, they tremble;
pangs have seized on the inhabitants of Phifistia.
Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed;
the leaders of Moab, trembling seizes them;
all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away.
Terror and dread fall upon them; because of the
greatness of thy arm, they are as still as a stone,
till thy people, O Lord, pass by,
till the people pass by whom thou hast purchased.
Thou wilt bring them in, and plant them on thy own mountain,
the place, O Lord, which thou hast made for thy abode,
the sanctuary, O Lord, which thy hands have estab­lished.
EXODUS 15:11-17

The claim to the territory made in that hymn has two aspects, one of them more encouraging to the Israelites than the other. On the one hand,  it says that their title to the land resides in the fact that it has been given  to them by a being supreme even “among the gods”; no one can have prior or more important rights to it than themselves, because no one has authority over God; certainly not the land’s original inhabitants and its neighbors, who are mentioned one by  one  merely  in  order  to  be  disposed  of.  (For  the time being,  at  least.)  

Furthermore,  God  is  expressly  said to have chosen the land  not  only for  the Israelites but  also for himself : it is his own mountain,  his  abode,  and  the place where he has established his sanctuary. 

On  the  other hand, the very fact that he is praised and thanked for giving the land to the people, and  that  praising  and  thanking  him for this reason is to be a central feature of his cult, [The words "cult" and "cultic" are used throughout in their  traditional sense: "in reference to external rites and ceremonies" (Shorter Oxford English Diction­ary). That is, the words relate specifically and directly to the  formal,  public modes of worship adopted by the community of believers.] once they have been brought in and his sanctuary has been established, serve as a constant reminder to them that their possession for a certain strip of territory is not and never has been something “natural,” or self-evident, or to be taken for granted. 

It is the result of a special intervention on their behalf by God into the processes of history; by its very nature such an intervention can  be undone or can  take  a  different  form on another occasion, should the need arise. One such occasion  when he intervened to the harm of the Israelites, has already been looked at. So have some of the consequences of the self-consciousness which the Israelites had about their relationship to the territory they inhabited. Others still wait to be examined.

In any event, we have moved almost imperceptibly from discussing the apparently unlimited power of an unlimited divinity to something much  more  modest  in  scope.  After all, what has  the  power  ascribed  to Yahweh  in  that  paean of praise from Exodus actually produced? What has he delivered? A measured answer is to be found in Spinoza’s A Theologico-Political  Treatise:

Next I inquired, why the Hebrews were called God’s chosen peo­ple, and discover[ed]  that it was only because  God has chosen them for a certain strip of territory, where they might live peaceably and at ease.I learnt that the Law revealed by God to Moses was merely the law of the independent Hebrew state.

Their choice and vocation consisted only in temporary happiness and the advantages of independent rule…In the law no other reward is offered for obedience other than the continual happiness of an independent commonwealth and other goods of this life.

Spinoza comes to this conclusion only after considering and recoiling form another possibility, the very notion of chosenness with which I opened this post.

Every man’s true  happiness  and  blessedness  consist  solely  in the  enjoyment  of  what  is  good,  not  in  the  pride  that  he  alone is enjoying it, to  the exclusion of  others. He who  thinks himself the more blessed because  he  is  enjoying  benefits  which  others are not, or  because  he  is  more  blessed  or  more  fortunate  than his fellows, is  ignorant  of  true  happiness  and  blessedness  and the joy which he feels is  either  childish  or  envious  and malicious.   For   instance,   a   man’s   true   happiness   consists   only in wisdom, and the knowledge  of  the  truth,  not  at  all  in  the fact that he  is wiser than others,  or  that  others  lack  such knowledge.

When Scripture, therefore, in exhorting the Hebrews  to obey the law, says that the Lord has chosen them for Himself before other nations (Deuteronomy  10:15); that  He is near  them but not near others (Deuteronomy 4:7); that to them alone He has given just laws (Deuteronomy 4:8); and lastly, that He has marked them out before others (Deuteronomy 4:32); it speaks only according to the understanding  of its hearers, who…knew not true  blessedness.  For  in good  sooth they  would  have  been  no less blessed if God had called all men equally to salvation, nor would God have been less present to them for being equally present to others; their laws would  have  been  no  less  just  if they had been ordained for all, and they themselves would have been no less wise.

What Spinoza has done here is simply to exclude from serious consideration those passages in the biblical text which offend him. That is the effect  of  his  saying  that such passages were put there merely to appeal to “the under­ standing of its hearers.” The only evidence he can produce for this remark his own humane but unfalteringly rational estimation of where and how “true happiness and blessed­ness” are to be found.

The fact is, however, that the verses he cites from Deuteronomy speak of Israel’s special privileges before Yahweh with exactly the same degree of sincerity  and  fervor  as  they  do  of  everything  else  they  touch upon; and we can safely assume that those who composed them  were as liberally  endowed  with  the particular  kinds of childishness, enviousness, and malice which Spinoza deplores as their “hearers” were. Or as we are today.

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Re-Reading the Story of Cain and Abel — Steven D. Ealy

January 30, 2014
Abel is slain by his brother Cain. Abel's leg, his left arm and Cain's curved body form part of a circle that makes the picture very dynamic. The effects of the dark sky and the threatening Cain are emphasized by the perspective, which suggests a low point of view. The painting is now in the church of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice. It was originally made as a ceiling painting for the Santo Spirito in Isola. Titian made two other ceiling paintings for that church, one on David and Goliath and one on the Sacrifice of Isaac.

Abel is slain by his brother Cain. Abel’s leg, his left arm and Cain’s curved body form part of a circle that makes the picture very dynamic. The effects of the dark sky and the threatening Cain are emphasized by the perspective, which suggests a low point of view. The painting is now in the church of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice. It was originally made as a ceiling painting for the Santo Spirito in Isola. Titian made two other ceiling paintings for that church, one on David and Goliath and one on the Sacrifice of Isaac.

Steven D. Ealy is a senior fellow at the Liberty Fund, a nonprofit foundation headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA which promulgates the libertarian views of its founder through publishing, conferences, and educational resources. The operating mandate of the Liberty Fund was set forth in an unpublished memo written by its founder, Pierre F. Goodrich “to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.” This is a review of The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony by the Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012. This is his review of The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony by the Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012.

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At least since Augustine’s The City of God, the biblical account of Cain and Abel has been used to treat them as archetypes of humanity. Augustine argues that mankind is “distributed into two parts, the one consisting of those who live according to man, the other of those who live according to God.” This is the foundation of Augustine’s mystical understanding of the two cities, the city of man and the city of God. Cain was the first citizen of the city of man, while Abel belonged to the city of God.

Both Cain and Abel were “first of all born of Adam evil and carnal,” tainted with original sin. Only Abel, however, becomes a citizen of the city of God because after his carnal birth he “becomes good and spiritual … when he is grafted into Christ by regeneration.”

In Augustine’s reading, Abel’s status as a citizen of the city of God is not a matter of his actions or free choices; rather, he was “predestined by grace, elected by grace, [to be] a stranger below [in the city of man], and … a citizen above [in the city of God].” Based on Genesis 4:17, Cain is regarded as the builder of the first city, and therefore could be seen as the founder of the city of man. Augustine notes this in his discussion of the brothers: “Accordingly, it is recorded of Cain that he built a city, but Abel, being a sojourner, built none.

One of the pitfalls in using Cain and Abel (and perhaps in using other well-known biblical figures such as Abraham or Job) as types is the possibility of allowing the conclusion of the story to lead us into the development of predictable and oversimplified categories that miss the paradoxes and tensions contained in the original biblical story.

A recent work that examines Cain and Abel as types but attempts to avoid this trap is The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony, president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem. I want to outline Hazony’s discussion here for two reasons. First, Hazony’s work is an important contribution to understanding the dynamic of the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Second, Hazony’s argument is important not just for understanding Genesis 4 but as a radical critique of the generally accepted understanding of the entire Hebrew Bible.

German theologian Paul Tillich became well known in the postwar period for arguing that the heart of Protestantism was “shaking the foundations” of traditional theology. Similarly, Hazony “shakes the foundations” of the accepted understanding by arguing that when it comes to the Hebrew Bible, things might not be as clear-cut as they appear to be. Hazony’s major focus in this regard, of which his treatment of Cain and Abel is but a small piece, is to dismantle the popular view that the Hebrew Bible cannot be treated as a serious intellectual document because it is based on revelation and not on reason.

Hazony seeks to establish the role of reason in the Hebrew Bible through a discussion of its structure and by highlighting and illustrating the array of techniques it uses to make arguments of a general nature that can be judged by reason. That is the larger context for Hazony’s treatment of Cain and Abel, which is my primary subject here.

In many engagements with Genesis 4, the focus is almost entirely on Cain, and any discussion of Abel is merely an afterthought. This is certainly the case when we come to the literary treatments of the biblical story as presented in Byron’s Cain: A Mystery and John Steinbeck’s monumental East of Eden. For both of these writers, Cain is the crucial figure. In Byron, he is treated as a Prometheus-like hero who establishes human freedom through his refusal to obey God’s orders.

In Steinbeck’s novel, Cain is also central to establishing the principle of human freedom, which is built around Cain’s discussion with God and the meaning of the Hebrew word “timshel,” which is translated by the house-servant Lee as “mayest.” Lee argues that God’s use of the word “may,” as opposed to “must,” contains the kernel of contingency and openness found at the heart of human freedom.

It is not unfair to say that for both Byron and Steinbeck, Abel is just a stage prop or part of the scenery, while the real action of the story swirls around Cain. This neglect of Abel is perhaps not surprising, and is even suggested in the biblical account in Genesis 4 by Abel’s name, which is related to the Hebrew for “vapor” and “puff of air” (according to translator Robert Alter) and signifies “something transitory” (according to translator Everett Fox).

Given the general treatment of the story, which emphasizes the relative importance of Cain and the relative unimportance of Abel, it is therefore somewhat surprising that the first mention of this story in Hazony’s work refers to Abel and that Cain is not mentioned at all.

In an overview of his entire book, Hazony writes, “The Bible is often said to advocate an ethics of obedience. But … this view involves a serious misreading of Hebrew Scripture.” The figures most celebrated in the Hebrew Bible, Hazony argues, “are esteemed for their dissent and disobedience — a trait the biblical authors associate with the free life of the shepherd, as opposed to the life of the pious submission represented by the figure of the farmer.” In a way, Hazony sets out to turn the tables on Byron’s understanding; for Hazony, Abel (as the type of the shepherd) will represent dissidence and disobedience, while Cain (as the type of the farmer) will represent conformity and submission.

The first line of resistance of shepherd dissidence is against corrupt human institutions, but it goes beyond this. Hazony writes, “Abel, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, and other biblical figures are at times portrayed as resisting not only man but God himself.” Note the importance Hazony attributes to Abel, placing him first in this list of biblical heroes. He concludes, “The biblical narrative endorses… an outsider’s ethics, which encourages a critique even of things that appear to be decreed by God in the name of what is genuinely beneficial to man.” From this biblical perspective, Hazony continues, “what is genuinely beneficial to man is that which will ultimately find favor in God’s eyes,” even if the idea will not originate with God and even if it was in opposition to God’s original plan.

Perhaps as surprising as Hazony’s emphasis on Abel is his characterization of Cain. Hazony’s introduction of Cain occurs when he places Cain’s story within the broader sweep of biblical history; he argues that it “is very uncertain ….that we can really understand the story of Cain, a farmer, murdering his brother Abel, who is  a shepherd, if we do not recognize that his first act of violence between farmers and shepherds is a premonition of the violence between farmers and shepherds that appears in the later story of Abraham, and then again in the story of Moses, and yet again in the story of David.”

As already noted, Hazony argues that Cain and Abel are presented as distinct theoretical types. Cain is a farmer “who represents tradition-bound and idolatrous societies such as Egypt and Babylonia” and “whose highest value is obedience.” Abel is a shepherd “who stands for the spirit of freedom in search of that which is the true good.” Abel represents the individual and the society “that is willing to forsake the might and riches of the great civilizations for the sake of personal freedom and the hope of something higher.”

Hazony situates the story of Cain and Abel in its biblical context. Cain and Abel are born to Eve after she and Adam have sinned and been expelled from the Garden of Eden. In Genesis 3, God says to Adam, “Cursed is the ground due to you, and in sorrow shall you eat of it all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles shall it give forth for you, but you will eat the grasses of the field. By the sweat of your brow will you eat bread, until you return to the ground from which you were taken.”

God then sends them out of the garden “to work the ground from which he had been taken.” This passage emphasizes the “bitterness of the farming life” and is made even stronger by the words used to describe Adam’s fate. According to Hazony, the Hebrew term usually translated “till” or “work” the soil also means “serve.” Thus, “God has in fact punished man by sending him ‘to serve the ground’ — to become the servant and slave of the earth itself.”

In Genesis 4, we turn immediately to the story of Cain and Abel. The tale is told concisely: “Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock.

The text emphasizes that the idea of making a sacrifice to God is Cain’s. It is Cain who inclines toward piety, and thinks to make some of his meager supply of food, which he has scraped from the soil, and sacrifice it to God in gratitude.” Second, as a tiller of the soil, Cain is following the instructions God had given to Adam. Hazony writes. “He works the ground just as God had told his father to do. He submits to God’s will, and even, amid the curse and the hardship, finds it in his heart to be grateful to God for what he has.”

Hazony’s account of Abel is also different from the standard view. First, Abel merely follows Cain’s example in making a sacrifice. There is no suggestion that his offering is superior to his brother’s. Second, while Cain has followed in his father’s career and tilled the soil in accordance with God’s instructions, in becoming a shepherd “Abel has … found a way to escape the curse upon the soil.”

Hazony maintains that the biblical text emphasizes “the fact that this is about what Abel wants, first and foremost, rather than about what God wants.” So the pious and hard-working Cain’s sacrifice is rejected while the sacrifice of the self-indulgent Abel is accepted. How can this be brought into an understandable framework?

Hazony argues that the story is constructed so as to present readers with a stark choice concerning the best way of life: “Each archetype represents a way of life and an approach to living as a human being, to ethics.” First is the life of the farmer as portrayed in Cain. “Cain has piously accepted the curse of the soil … as unchallengeable. His response is to submit, as had his father before him…. In the eyes of the biblical author, Cain represents the life of the farmer, a life of pious submission, obeying in gratitude the custom that has been handed down, which alone provides bread so that man may live.”

Next is the life of the shepherd. “Abel takes the curse of the soil as a fact, but not as one that possesses any intrinsic merit, so that it should command his allegiance. The fact that God decreed it, and that his father had submitted to it, does not make it good. His response is the opposite of submission: He resists with ingenuity and daring, risking the anger of man and God to secure improvement for himself and for his children. Abel represents the life of the shepherd, which is a life of dissent and initiative, whose aim is to find the good life for man, which is presumed to be God’s true will.”

While God said nothing about shepherding when he ejected Adam and Eve from Eden, it develops that shepherding does fit within God’s plans. What God really wants, according to Hazony, is “an improvement in man’s station, a greater goodness which comes of man’s own unsolicited efforts.” Hazony concludes, “God accepts the offering of a man who seeks to improve things, to make them good of himself and his own initiative. This is what God finds in Abel, and the reason he accepts his sacrifice.” (I note in passing a point that Hazony does not make — this discussion of man’s improvement of his situation sounds much like Locke’s account of the divine origins of property in his chapter on property in the Second Treatise.)

Hazony concludes with a fascinating appendix titled What Is ‘Reason’? Some Preliminary Remarks. Here, having rejected the traditional distinction between reason and revelation, he draws on the Reformed philosophers Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga. Their perhaps unexpected appearance should serve as a hint to readers whose understanding of Scripture differs sharply from Hazony’s in some respects that they can nonetheless profit from time spent with this book.

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Robert Alter And The King James Bible 2 – James Wood

November 26, 2013
Tintoretto, The Temptation of Adam. This work together with the Creation of Animals and the Murder of Abel, created between 1550 and 1553, was originally in the Scuola della Trinità. Adam and Eve are depicted not in a landscape thrown into confusion by the hand of the Creator but in a more serene, more human dimension. In the leafy arbor the two nude figures moving around the trunk of the tree form the parallel diagonals of the composition. A strong light gives a sculptural effect to their ivory-pink flesh. But in the background, on the right, the tranquility of the foreground scene gives way to the tumultuous epilogue to the fact of human disobedience to Divine will. With rapid brushstrokes Tintoretto evokes the fiery angel who drives Adam and Eve out into the distant desolate hills and plains. Eve, temptation personified, is pressing close to the tree of knowledge; her arms prolong the line of the serpent thrusting down from above. Tintoretto confidently shows that he has now perfectly mastered not only the sculptural structure of a muscular, sinewy male body (a particular strength of Florentine painters, especially of Michelangelo) but also the reproduction of female grace and tenderness (the domain of Venetian artists, particularly Titian).

Tintoretto, The Temptation of Adam. This work together with the Creation of Animals and the Murder of Abel, created between 1550 and 1553, was originally in the Scuola della Trinità. Adam and Eve are depicted not in a landscape thrown into confusion by the hand of the Creator but in a more serene, more human dimension. In the leafy arbor the two nude figures moving around the trunk of the tree form the parallel diagonals of the composition. A strong light gives a sculptural effect to their ivory-pink flesh. But in the background, on the right, the tranquility of the foreground scene gives way to the tumultuous epilogue to the fact of human disobedience to Divine will. With rapid brushstrokes Tintoretto evokes the fiery angel who drives Adam and Eve out into the distant desolate hills and plains. Eve, temptation personified, is pressing close to the tree of knowledge; her arms prolong the line of the serpent thrusting down from above. Tintoretto confidently shows that he has now perfectly mastered not only the sculptural structure of a muscular, sinewy male body (a particular strength of Florentine painters, especially of Michelangelo) but also the reproduction of female grace and tenderness (the domain of Venetian artists, particularly Titian).

Robert Alter has written some twenty-three books, and is noted most recently for his translations of sections of the Bible. Frequent New Yorker contributor James Wood turns his attention to Alter’s translations in contrast to the King James Bible.

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To read the Pentateuch right through is an extraordinary education in early theology. These five books revert obsessively to questions of fertility, rebellion, and polytheism, and the three concerns are tightly linked. Again and again, Yahweh tells his people that they must worship no other gods but him, and that the consequences for failing this charge will be death and destruction.

God’s chosen people repeatedly failed to keep this law, most famously at Sinai, when Aaron persuaded them to worship the golden calf, saying: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from Egypt.” The five books are anxiously shadowed by the threat of polytheism, which surrounded the Israelites in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and which provided some of the mythic texts that Genesis and Exodus seem to remember.

God goes by several names in the Torah, some of the differences having to do with different Bible writers working in different centuries. He first appears in Genesis as Elohim, but is switched to Yahweh Elohim (usually translated as “the Lord God”). When he appears in chapter 17 of Genesis to tell Abraham that he will be “a father to a multitude of nations,” he announces himself as El Shaddai, an archaic name used five times in the Pentateuch that may have associations with fertility or mountains.

In Numbers, the word El seems to be used as a synonym for Yahweh: El is a Hebrew word meaning God, but it is also the name of the chief of the Canaanite gods. And after the parting of the Red Sea, when the Israelites give thanks in their Song of the Sea, the following verses occur (in Alter’s translation):

You blew with Your breath — the sea covered them over.
They sank like lead in the mighty waters:
Who is like You among the gods, O Lord,
who is like You, mighty in holiness?

At times like these, and in its insistent warnings against worshipping other gods, the Pentateuch reflects the effort of wrenching monotheism out of the polytheistic context: monotheism is known nowhere else in antiquity and is, on the face of it, a peculiar notion (so peculiar, perhaps, that one chosen god must be matched by or chosen people). It cannot have been easy to have renounced — if indeed such a renunciation took place — the comforting cosmogony wherein various parts of the natural world were represented by different all-powerful gods, and junior “personal” deities looked after one’s daily interests.

Frank Moore Cross and Jean Bottero, among many others, have shown the Pentateuch’s indebtedness to Egyptian and Babylonian mythic narratives. In Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia, Bottero gives an account of the Atrahasis, a Mesopotamian poem written, most likely, before 1700 B.C. In it, the gods meet in council and agree to follow the god Enki’s plan to create human man beings out of clay. In these early years, as in the days of Noah, people live for hundreds and even thousands of years. But mankind multiplies so effectively that its noise disturbs the sleep of the irascible king of the gods, Enlil, who decides to destroy the pesky humans.

He sends epidemic, illness, and famine, but each time the humans escape, aided by Enki, their “inventor.” Enlil, still enraged, sends a flood, but Enki saves the race by placing one man, Atrahasis and his family in an unsinkable boat. After the flood, in order to appease Enlil, Enki reduces the life span of each person to the length we know today, and introduces sterility and infant mortality to keel the numbers down.

Clearly, this is an ancient account not just of the origin of the world but of the origin of evil, of human suffering and death, in which the mark of man’s rebelliousness is in part his sheer fertility It is like peering into the crucible of theodicy. Notwithstanding the enormous difference of monotheism, we see something very similar in the early chapters of Genesis (the Israelites would have shared with the Mesopotamian Semites a traditional Semitic culture).

In the first chapter of Genesis, God (Elohim) creates man in his own image and charges him to be fruitful and multiply. But in the second chapter — thought to be a different narrative strand — the Lord God (now called Yahweh Elohim) threatens Adam and Eve with death if they eat of the tree of good and evil. They fail the test, and mortality and sin enter the world.

Sin is palpable: in Alter’s wonderful phrase, God warns the disgruntled Cain that “at the tent flap sin crouches,” and in the very next verse Cain rises up and slays his brother. Man “began to multiply over the earth” and to sin, and the Lord repents of his decision to create humans, and sends a flood to eliminate all but Noah and his family.

After the Flood, he makes a covenant never to destroy his creation, and human life spans are reduced to 120 years. The stories of the patriarchs now begin, but God cannot cede what seems an anxious desire to control human fertility: men must be circumcised, and the wives of the early patriarchs (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel) are barren until the Lord chooses to permit them to breed.

He will threaten his people again with complete destruction when they follow Aaron’s encouragement to worship the golden calf. Promiscuous fertility and polytheism seem to be connected menaces, captured in Yahweh’s command in Exodus that the Israelites make no covenant with any of the peoples they vanquish and displace, who “whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods.”

There is an ironic Midrashic commentary, mentioned by Emmanuel Levinas in his book Nine Talmudic Readings, in which the Talmudists placed demons — spirits without bodies — inside Noah’s Ark. “These are the tempters of postdiluvian civilization,” Levinas remarks, “without which, no doubt, the mankind of the future could not be, despite its regeneration, a true mankind.” Evil has entered the earth forever and cannot be expunged, even by flood: but how did it get there?

What is so fiercely at stake in Genesis and Exodus is the old question best phrased by Boethius in his Consolation of Philosophy: “If there be a God, whence cometh so many evils? And if there be no God, whence cometh any good?” Much has been canonically laid at the feet of Adam and Eve, who were, so said the early Christian fathers, created free, and freely chose to rebel, thus inaugurating the calamity of original sin. But this merely pushes on the argument by one easy increment, for God gave them their freedom, and as the seventeenth-century skeptic Pierre Bayle comments in his Historical and Critical Dictionary, why would God bestow on mankind a capacity — free will — that he knows in advance man will abuse, even to his eternal doom?

Around the biblical writings themselves hovers the heretical notion that evil proceeds from God. An “evil spirit from God” is said to descend upon Saul in 1 Samuel 16:23, and in the book of Isaiah the Lord says: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil. I the Lord do all these things.” Even the early church father Origen, a staunch opponent of such thinking, seems flummoxes by this verse, and casts around for a suitable metaphor:

Now God has not created evil if by this is understood evil properly so called: but some evils, though really there are few by comparison with the order of the whole universe, followed as a secondary consequence upon his primary work, just as spiral shavings and sawdust follow as a consequence upon the primary activity of a carpenter, and as builders seem to “make” the waste stone and mortar which lie beside their buildings. It may be granted that God sometimes creates some of these “evils” in order that he may correct men by these means.

But this leaves the problem exactly where it was, so that various dualisms, like Gnosticism and Manicheanism — wherein God is opposed by and does battle with a separate, satanic source of evil, or is rivaled by a false god, a demiurge — do indeed seem to be the best explanations of the problem. The Bible itself, of course, uses a kind of dualism to explain Job’s suffering: it is Satan who puts God up to the game of testing his righteous servant.

Some of the early Jewish commentators were so perturbed by Abraham’s various trials — the famine, Sarah’s barrenness, his nephew Lot, the command to sacrifice Isaac — that they conjectured that God, as with Job, might have received a challenge from Satan or some other envious angel. In an extraordinary moment in Genesis, Abraham pleads with God to spare the innocent inhabitants of Sodom. Would God wipe out the city and not spare fifty innocents? God agrees to spare the entire city for the sake of fifty. How about forty-five? asks Abraham. God agrees to spare the city for the sake of forty-five. And forty? Yes. And thirty? Yes. And so on, down to ten.

What is striking is how openly Abraham cajoles Yahweh: “Far be it from You! Will not the judge of gill the earth do justice?” Abraham seems, here, to be holding God accountable to an ethical standard independent of God himself, I Tying to force his creator to accept the radical idea of sparing even lie guilty in order to protect the innocent.

It is interesting to note those cruxes, those moments of stress, when God’s ethical incomprehensibility makes the early biblical commentators and rewriters anxious. God’s activity in Egypt is one such case. The Lord has promised to lead his people out of Egypt, but first he must teach the Egyptians that “there is none like Me in all the earth … so as to show you My power, and so that My name will be told through all the earth.”

To this end, God says, he will “harden Pharaoh’s heart” against releasing the Israelites, and send horrid plagues. Again and again, Moses appeals to Pharaoh to let his people go, yet each time God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and another plague descends. Only when every firstborn of Egypt, from Pharaoh’s firstborn to “the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones,” has been slaughtered do the Israelites escape.

But why would God institute a lengthy stubbornness that only inflicts suffering on those who might freely have avoided it? Ancient writers and annotators conjectured that God had not impelled Pharaoh to resist Moses, but had only kept him in a state of ignorance. Or perhaps, went another line of inquiry, this was proper punishment for all that Egypt had done to the Israelites? Either way, sense had to be made of the impossible.

The best example of the incomprehensible in the Pentateuch is God’s command to Abraham that he sacrifice his son Isaac. The brevity of the account is searing, as if the text itself flinches from the unreason, is shocked into wordlessness. Alter’s version is terrifying:

And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham. And He said to him: “Abraham!” And he said: “Here I am.” And He said: “Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the Land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall say to you.” And Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey and took his two lads with him, and Isaac his son, and he split wood for the offering, and rose and went to the place that God had said to him. On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from afar.

Auerbach rightly noted that the phrase “On the third day Abraham raised his eyes” is the only indication we have that time has passed the journey is frozen. One can add to Auerbach that Abraham’ gesture, of raising the eyes, though a formulaic one in biblical narrative, takes on here a great power of dread, as if Abraham cal hardly bear to look upon the chosen site.

Kierkegaard’s inspired appalled rewriting of this scene in Fear and Trembling emphasize its unspeakability. The tragic hero, he says, renounces himself in favor of expressing the universal. He gives up what is certain for what is more certain; he gives up the finite to attain the infinite; and so he can speak publicly about it, he can weep and orate, secure that at least someone will understand his action.

But Abraham “gives up the universal in order to grasp something still higher that is not the universal,” because what he is obeying, what he is grasping for, is barbarously incomprehensible. So Abraham is utterly alone and cannot speak to anyone of what he is about to do, because no one would understand him.

It is suggestive, then, that one of the major early rewriters of this scene, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, labors to turn Abraham precisely into a tragic hero. In Jewish Antiquities, his enormous history of the Jews from earliest times, Josephus inserts long speeches in which Abraham eloquently apologizes to his son before binding him, and moreover promises him that his death will not really be death: “Accordingly, you, my son, will not die, not in any common way of going out of the world, but sent to God, the Father of all men, beforehand, by your own father, in the nature of a sacrifice.”

Isaac, in Josephus’s account, is of such a “generous disposition” that he willingly offers himself up, and then to cap this warm little drama, God, intervening to save Isaac, speaks to Isaac tip make clear that “it was not out of a desire of human blood” that Abraham “was commanded to slay his son … but to try the temper of his mind.” Kierkegaard seems admiringly terrified of God’s command, but Josephus, ornamenting the unspeakable with explanation, seems merely terrified, and at pains to moisten the hard ground of God’s behavior by ensuring that everyone involved, human and divine, is at least pleasant.

The Pentateuch ends with Moses’death. On the brink of the promised land, he addresses his people, and reminds them that they were chosen not for their righteousness but because other nations were wickedly following strange gods. Thus “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” If they follow the Lord, then blessings will flow; but if they swerve away from the Lord, then curses will flow. Alter writes appreciatively in his introduction of the majesty of the Hebrew of Deuteronomy, and his English cascades into foul brilliance, as Moses, speaking on behalf of the Lord, threatens a hell in which the Israelites will not even be competent slaves:

And it shall be, as the Lord exulted over you to do well with you and to multiply you, so will the Lord exult over you to make you perish, to destroy you, and you will be torn from the soil … And your life will dangle before you, and you will be afraid night and day and will have no faith in your life. In the morning you will say, “Would that it were evening,” and in the evening you will say, “Would that it were morning,” from your heart’s fright with which you will be afraid and from the sight of your eye that you will see. And the Lord will bring you back to Egypt in ships, on the way that I said to you, “You shall not see it again,” and you will put yourselves up for sale there to your enemies as male slaves and slavegirls, and there will be no buyer.

God takes Moses up a mountain to see the land he himself will not live in: “I have let you see with your own eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Because God several times seems to prepare for Moses’ death, the surmise later arose in commentaries that Moses did not want to die; Josephus has him weeping before his death, though the typically terse biblical account makes no mention of such theatrical inflammations.

James Kugel, in The Bible as It Was, reproduces an extraordinary medieval poem, now in the Bodleian, in which Moses’ death marks not the serene triumph of the longed-for possession of Canaan, but the scene of an anguished lament for the great impossible questions of the entire Pentateuch. Why are you afraid to die? God asks of Moses, and Moses goes to Hebron and summons Adam from the grave and cries:

Tell me why you sinned in the Garden
[Why] you tasted and ate from the tree of Knowledge.
You have given your sons over to weeping and wailing!
The whole garden was before you, yet you were not satisfied.
Oh why did you rebel against the Lord’s commandment?

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Robert Alter And The King James Bible 1 – James Wood

November 25, 2013
William Hole made his name with etchings in the early 1880s and was elected to the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers and the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour in 1885. He became a regular illustrator of books for Edinburgh and London publishers as well as a popular painter of scenes from Scottish history and the Bible. He spent some weeks in Palestine in 1901 with paints and a camera to create authentic costumes and settings for a series of 80 watercolours published as The Life of Jesus of Nazareth (1906). Eyre and Spottiswoode acquired the copyright and suggested a companion Old Testament volume, for which Hole returned to the middle east, spending three months in Egypt and Palestine. He completed 76 watercolors but the project was never completed.

William Hole made his name with etchings in the early 1880s and was elected to the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers and the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolor in 1885. He became a regular illustrator of books for Edinburgh and London publishers as well as a popular painter of scenes from Scottish history and the Bible. He spent some weeks in Palestine in 1901 with paints and a camera to create authentic costumes and settings for a series of 80 watercolors published as The Life of Jesus of Nazareth (1906). Eyre and Spottiswoode acquired the copyright and suggested a companion Old Testament volume, for which Hole returned to the middle east, spending three months in Egypt and Palestine. He completed 76 watercolors but the project was never completed.

Robert Alter earned his bachelor’s degree in English (Columbia University, 1957), and his master’s (1958) and doctorate degrees (1962) from Harvard University in comparative literature. He started his career as a writer at Commentary Magazine, where he was for many years a contributing editor. Alter has written twenty-three books, and is noted most recently for his translations of sections of the Bible. Frequent New Yorker contributor James Wood turns his attention to Alter’s translations in contrast to the King James Bible. There is something for us all to learn here.

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In the beginning was not the word, or the deed, but the face: “Darkness was upon the face of the deep,” runs the King Jams Version in the second verse of the opening of Genesis. “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” Two uses of “face” in one verse, and a third implied face, surely: God’s own, hovering over the face of his still untreated world. The Almighty, looking into the face of his waters, might well be expected to see his face reflected: it is profoundly his world, still uncontaminated by rebellious man.

The committees of translators appointed by James I knew what they were doing. The face of God and the face of the world (or of mankind) will become a running entanglement throughout the five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). Man will fear to look upon God’s face, and God will frequently abhor the deeds of the people who live on the face of his world.

Once Cain has killed Abel, and has been banished by God he cries out: “Behold thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid.” When the Almighty, decides to flood his world, he pledges to destroy every living thing “from off the face of the earth”

After wrestling with a divine strange all night, Jacob “called the name of the place Peniel: “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” Jacob dies happy that has seen his son Joseph’s face, and Moses, of course, spoke to God “face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.” The Book of Numbers contains the little prayer so beloved of the Christian liturgy: “‘The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: The Lord make his face shine upon thee: The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”

He casts his now kindly face upon ours. The Hebrew word for “face” is the same in all these verses, so the seventeenth century translators were being exact; but they were also perhaps telling us something about God’s circular ownership of his creation, his face above and his face below. Perhaps when they chose “the face of the waters” they had in their ears John’s description of the Lord in Revelation: “and his voice as the sound of many waters.”

In his translation of the Pentateuch, Robert Alter eschews “face” to describe the surface of the world at the start of Genesis, and I miss the cosmic implications, but his first two verses compensate with their own originality: “When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said: ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.” The King James Version has “without form and void” for Alter’s Anglo-Saxonish “welter and waste,” but Alter, characteristically, provides a diligent and alert footnote:

The Hebrew tohu wabohu occurs only here and in two later biblical texts that are clearly alluding to this one. The second word of the pair looks like a nonce term coined to rhyme with the first and to reinforce it, an effect I have tried to approximate in English by alliteration. Tohu by itself means “emptiness” or “futility,” and in some contexts is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert.

Alter brings this kind of sensitivity to bear on moment after moment of his translation, and the result greatly refreshes, sometimes productively estranges, words that may now be too familiar to those who grew up with the King James Bible.

The Pentateuch, or Torah, contains the great narratives of our monotheistic infancy. It tells the stories of the creation; of Adam and Eve and their children, Cain and Abel; of the Flood and Noah ;s escape and God’s promise never to destroy the earth again; of Abraham and God’s covenant with him and his people; of Isaac and his sons Esau and Jacob; of Jacob’s wrestle with God and God’s anointing of Jacob as Israel; the story of Joseph and his brothers; the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt and their exodus, led by Moses; the handing down of the law from the mountain at Sinai; the elaboration of the law or teaching (torah means “teaching”); and finally the death of Moses as his people are on the verge of the promised land.

Biblical style is famous for its stony reticence, for a mimesis that Erich Auerbach called “fraught with background.” This reticence is surely not as unique as Auerbach claimed — Herodotus is a great rationer of explanation, for example — but it achieves its best-known form in the family stories of Genesis. The paratactic verses with their repeated “and” move like the hands of those large old railway-station clocks that jolted visibly from minute to minute: time is beaten forward, not continuously pursued.

Yet it is often the gaps between these verses, or sometimes between the clauses of a single verse, that constitute the text’s “realism,” a realism created as much by the needy reader as by the withholding writing itself. For example, after the Flood, Noah starts a new occupation: “And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.” Noah is a lush. This is not without crooked humor of a kind, and the gap-filled rapidity of the narration is the reason for the smile it raises.

Likewise, though generating pathos rather than comedy, the laconic report of Joseph’s response to his brothers works by starving us of information. Joseph, installed by Pharaoh as his right-hand man in Egypt, receives in an official capacity his brothers, who have traveled from Canaan in search of food. He recognizes them but disguises himself. Three times he weeps, twice turning away from them and a third time openly. The first time, “he turned himself about from them, and wept.” The second time is more agitated:

And Joseph made haste; for his bowels did yearn upon his brother: and he sought where to weep; and he entered into his chamber, and wept there.” Finally, after various ruses, he can stand it no longer and asks his servants to leave him alone while he “made himself known unto his brethren. And he wept aloud: and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard.

The beauty is that the final episode, the apparent climax, is as terse as the first: secret weeping is no different in this account from public weeping, and revelation is as hidden as disguise. Joseph is no longer hidden from his brothers, but he is still hidden from the reader: that surely is the thrust of the narration. And note, too, how our desire to witness this open crying, to bathe in authorial emotion, is reticently, and very movingly, transferred to another, less involved audience: “and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard.”

I quoted from the King James Version here, but Alter’s translation honors both the text’s grave simplicity and its almost novelistic attention to different literary registers. Abraham’s wife, Sarah, is for a long time barren, so she proposes that her maid Hagar sleep with Abraham to provide him with an heir. Hagar conceives, and when she sees that she is pregnant, “her mistress was despised in her eyes.”

It is one of those intensely human biblical moments: the servant, proud of her plump fertility, cannot but help look down on her withered mistress. But Alter improves on the King James Version’s “despised”: “And she saw that she had conceived and her mistress seemed slight in her eyes.” That “slight,” for obvious reasons, is very subtle.

Or take the little adjustment Alter makes to the Jacob and Esau tale. Esau is so hungry for the lentils that his brother has that he sells his birthright for a mess of pottage: “And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage: for I am faint.” Alter’s version is more literal, and more natural: “And Esau said to Jacob, `Let me gulp down some of this red red stuff, for I am famished.” In a footnote, he explains his choice:

Although the Hebrew of the dialogues in the Bible reflects the same level of normative literary language as the surrounding narration, here the writer comes close to assigning substandard Hebrew to the rude Esau. The famished brother cannot even come up with the ordinary Hebrew word for “stew” (nazid) and instead points to the bubbling pot impatiently as (literally) “this red red.” The verb he uses for gulping down occurs nowhere else in the Bible, but in rabbinic Hebrew it is reserved for the feeding of animals.

There are many examples like this of choices deeply pondered and painstakingly explained; reading Alter’s scripture is a slow business only because one stops so often to put down into the well of one his life-giving footnotes.

Though the King James Version is sometimes inaccurate, is generally thought to be, of all English translations, the one that best captures the quiddity of the Hebrew Early seventeenth-century English — and mid-sixteenth-century English, since the KJV stands on the shoulders of Tyndale, Coverdale, and Cranmer — was not afraid of anti-sentimental reticence (my favorite is perhaps Exodus 13:17, `And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword’; it followed the parataxis of the Hebrew narration (the “and” that so often begins a new verse or clause); it understood as a literary principle, that to repeat a word can be enrichment, no exhaustion, and that repetition subtly changes the sense of the re peated word if not its sound (modern versions, like the flat Revised Standard Version, invariably flee from repetition); and it relished the pungent physicality of Hebrew, which often inheres in the verbs.

Alter’s translation brings delight because it follows the precepts of the committees of King James, but is founded on a greatly deeper conversance with Hebrew than the great seventeenth-century scholars could summon. (Of course, no Jew was involved in the King James committees.) And Alter, who has been at the forefront of the rise of what might be called literary biblical studies, and who has educated two or three generations of students and readers in the art of biblical appreciation, brings to his own English a scholarly comprehension of the capacities of literary usage.

In his introduction he says that among the great twentieth-century English stylists such as Joyce, Woolf, Nabokov, Faulkner — he might have added Lawrence, by far the most biblical writer of twentieth-century English — “there is not one among them whose use of language, including the deployment of syntax, even vaguely resembles the workaday simplicity and patly consistent orderliness that recent translators of the Bible have posited as the norm of modern English.”

Thus Alter is happy to follow the precedent of the KJV when he feels that it cannot be bettered: his Adam also “knew” Eve, and his Israelites also “murmured against” Moses in the wilderness and lament that they have left behind “the fleshpots” of Egypt.

As ever, he usefully defends his reasons. About the “fleshpots,” he writes: “The Hebrew indicates something like a cauldron in which meat is cooked, but the King James Version’s rendering of ‘fleshpots’ (‘flesh,’ of course, meaning `meat’ in seventeenth-century English) has become proverbial in the language and deserves to be retained.” Well, it became proverbial, but is it still? The word always makes me smile because when I was growing up, albeit in a highly scriptural household, my family used to talk of my grandparents’ house — where I was allowed unlimited sweets — as the “fleshpots of Egypt.”

Especially fine is the way Alter seems to dig into the earth of the Hebrew to recover, in English, its fearless tactility. When Pharaoh has his first dream, of seven good ears of corn and seven bad, “his heart pounded,” which, Alter informs us in a footnote, follows the Hebrew, whose literal meaning is “his spirit pounded.” (The usually concrete KJV has the softer “his spirit was troubled.”) The dream comes to pass, and there are seven fat years and seven lean years.

“During the seven plenteous years the earth brought forth abundantly,” runs the Revised Standard Version, itself a wan starveling of the more robust and accurate KJV: “And in the seven plenteous years the earth brought forth by handfuls ” But Alter is more literal: “And the land in the seven years of plenty made gatherings. A footnote girds the apparent oddity of “gatherings”:

The Hebrew qematsim elsewhere means “handfuls,” and there is scant evidence that it means “abundance,” as several modern versions have it. But gomets is a “handful” because it is what the hand gathers in as it closes, and it is phonetically and semantically cognate with wayiqbots, “he collected,” the very next word in the Hebrew text. The likely reference here, then, is not to small quantities (handfuls) but to the process of systematically gathering in the grain, as the next sentence spells out.

Or take the moment at the end of chapter 2 of Exodus where the Bible writer tells us that God began to hear the groaning of the Israelites in their Egyptian bondage: “So God looked on the Israelite., and was concerned about them,” says the New International Version The King James has: “And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God had respect unto them.”

Alter has: “And God saw the Israelites, and God knew.” Notice that the New International Version shies away from repeating the word “God,” something that fazes neither the KJV nor Alter. But Alter’s reading is at once elegantly emphatic — “and God knew” — and accurate. He informs us that the Hebrew verb has no object, and that Greek translators mistakenly tried to “correct” it. How majestic and indeed divine that objectless “knew” is. And Alter’s version allows one to make new connections with biblical-sounding texts.

Saul Bellow, who grew up reading the Hebrew Bible, and whose English was profoundly influenced by both the Tanakh and the King James Version, was very fond of that objectless verb “knew.” Tommy Wilhelm, the hero of Seize the Day, is haplessly surrounded by people he fears are the kinds of people who “know” (as opposed to the confused hero): “Rubin was the kind of man who knew, and knew and knew,” Tommy thinks to himself. Mr. Sammler’s Planet ends with the eponymous hero reflecting that he has met the terms of his life contract, those terms “that we all I..now, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.” This always sounded biblical to me, but Alter’s translation of the line in Exodus has given me chapter and verse.

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The Presence Of God– Jean Daniélou

May 2, 2013
After his short spell as a military chaplain ended with the fall of France in 1940, he devoted himself to the study of the Fathers of the Church, and with Fr. Henri de Lubac was one of the founders of Sources Chrétiennes, a popular yet scholarly series of key writings from the patristic period. Over the years, Daniélou produced a flow of books and articles on the worship and theology of the Early Church. Such was his reputation and influence that Blessed Pope John XXIII named him as a theological expert for the Second Vatican Council. In 1969 he was made a cardinal by Pope Paul VI, and elected to the Académie Française

After his short spell as a military chaplain ended with the fall of France in 1940, he devoted himself to the study of the Fathers of the Church, and with Fr. Henri de Lubac was one of the founders of Sources Chrétiennes, a popular yet scholarly series of key writings from the patristic period. Over the years, Daniélou produced a flow of books and articles on the worship and theology of the Early Church. Such was his reputation and influence that Blessed Pope John XXIII named him as a theological expert for the Second Vatican Council. In 1969 he was made a cardinal by Pope Paul VI, and elected to the Académie Française

An incredible essay which requires an intense reading by the late Cardinal Jean Daniélou, taken from The Presence of God, trans. Walter Roberts Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1960), ch. 1: The Cosmic Temple, 9-14. Jean Daniélou, S.J. (1905-1974), was an influential French theologian and author, one of the main movers of Vatican II.

This was one of our readings for the Boston Communio Study Group meeting at St. Clement’s Eucharistic Shrine in Boston. Our focus is the monthly Communio International Catholic Review. We each choose an article from the review and discuss. We discussed this essay along with another An Introduction To Jean Daniélou by Fr. Jonah Lynch. You are more than welcome to join us. We’ll be there next at 3:00pm on May 19th. Contact me and I will make sure you have the readings for the next meeting. We are a monthly reading group and if you like payingattentiontothesky you will love the Christian fellowship you will gain with the group.

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Through man the silent litany of things becomes an explicit act of worship.

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On the lowest level, which is not essentially Christian, but is part of the historical heritage of Christianity, though generally separated from it, the Christian mystery is the mystery of creation. I mean by its not only an original dependence of the universe in relation to a personal and transcendent God, but also the actual dependence of all things in his sight, and consequently a divine Presence which confers upon the whole cosmos a sacramental value.

At the birth of mankind, the whole creation, issuing from the hands of God, is holy; the earthly Paradise is nature in a state of grace. The House of God is the whole cosmos. Heaven is his tent, his tabernacle; the earth is his “footstool.” There is a whole cosmic liturgy, that of the source of the flowers and birds.

Multiplied blessings made an overflow,
The silence of the soul was a still pond.
The rising sun became a monstrance now,
Filling the heavens with a shining sound.
Smoke was a censer, and the cedar-trees
Composed an ever-mounting barricade.
Days of delight were as a colonnade
Fanned by the calmness of the twilight breeze.
Charles Peguy, “Eve,” in Ouvres Poetiques Completes (Paris: Gallimard, 1948), 710

The time of the patriarchs still retains something of this paradisal grace. The Spirit of God still broods upon the waters. Yahweh is not yet the hidden God, dwelling apart within the tabernacle. He talks with Noah on familiar terms. His relationship with Abraham is that of a friend:

And the Lord appeared to him in the vale of Mambre as he was sitting at the door of his tent, in the very heat of the day. And when he lifted up his eyes, there appeared to him three men standing near him: and as soon as he saw them, he ran to meet them from the door of his tent, and adored down to the ground. And he said: Lord, if I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away from thy servant: but I will fetch a little water; and wash ye your feet, and rest ye under the tree.
Genesis 8:1-4

Abraham has that parrhesia with God, that freedom of speech which, in the days of ancient Greece, was the right of a free citizen, and by which St. Paul and the brethren symbolized the liberty of the children of God with their Father. The whole of nature is still a temple consecrated to him. A group of trees, a spring of fresh water, these are fragments of Paradise in which he offers sacrifices; a rough stone is an altar dedicated to him.

This is the primitive level, common to all men, whose traces are still to be found, twisted, soiled, perverted, in every religion. So in Greek religion we have the sacred wood, the alsos, with its fountain; but polytheism has corrupted the primitive gesture. God “in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless he left not himself without testimony, doing good from heaven, giving rains and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.” [Acts 14:16-17]

Only the wise men continued to seek for signs in the heavenly Temple, contemplating, examining, and defining, according to the positions of the stars, the sites of towns and altars. The shepherds and the Magi are, as it were, the flowering in the Gospel of this underlying, primary stratum, which corruption has not altogether spoiled, nor Mosaic revelation destroyed.

For us today, it still constitutes the holy in its rudimentary form, which darkly hints at the Divine Presence in the silence of the night, in the shadows of the forest, in the vastness of the desert, in the lightning-flash of genius, in the purity of love. It is this basic level that was recognized by that Boer farmer to whom Otto refers, who in the solitude of the desert, where the sun poured forth its rays upon the plain, was aware of a voice speaking to him. It is this level that explains the religious awe with which the Earth deserves to be surrounded.

But this sacramental element has no meaning except in relation to a personal Presence. “Awe,” writes Peguy, “stretches forth indeed to encompass the whole universe. We too easily forget that the universe is creation; and awe, like charity, is due to every creature.” It is the personal Presence, at once hidden and revealed by signs, that awakens in us this holy dread.

In the cosmic Temple, man is not living primarily in his own house, but in the house of God. This is why he knows that he should revere those creatures who do not belong to him, that he can lay hands on nothing without permission. All is holy; the trees are heavy with sacramental mysteries. Primitive sacrifice is simply the cognition of the sovereign realm of God. He takes the first-fruits, and leaves the rest to man. But at the same time, man is part of creation and has his role to play in it. God has in some way left creation unfinished, and man’s mission is to bring it to fulfillment. Through his work he exploits unknown material resources, and thus work is sacred, being co-operation in the task of creation. Through knowledge and art he removes it from its ephemeral condition to enable it subsist spiritually.

[FN:  This is well expressed by P.J. Toulet:
Whispering woods, if I should die,
Perish without my artistry.]

Indeed, by sacramental use man confers on visible things their supreme dignity, not merely as signs and symbols, but as effective means of grace in the soul. So water effects purification, oil communicates power and unction, salt gives the savor of heavenly things. Man is thus the mediator through whom the visible universe verse is gathered together and offered up, the priest of that virginal creation over which God lovingly watches. Through man the silent litany of things becomes an explicit act of worship.

Nature without me is vain, it is I who give it a meaning;
All things become in me eternal, are laid on my altar.
Water now washes the soul, not only the travel-worn body;
My bread becomes for me the very substance of God.
Paul Claudel, Cinq Grandes Odes (Paris: Gallimard, 1936), 174.

Thus the whole of nature, as St. Paul says, expects that man will lead it to its end. The sacred character of love, in particular, is not derived from the shadowy presence of the race using individuals for its own ends, but from the Presence of God in the handiwork that love causes men to share. “When I was close to him I nearly always had the sense of God’s actual presence,” wrote Alice Ollé-Laprune of her husband.

Such is the innocence of creation. Creatures are holy, expecting that man will lead them to their goal. But man has the power to violate this order. When he turns away from God, when he profanes himself by ceasing to be a consecrated creature, he also profanes the world on which he imposes sacrilegious uses.

The material inventions that are meant to help men to free themselves from matter and bring to realization the community of mankind, we transform into instruments of hatred. The beauty of the body, which is the lovely reflection of the beauty of the soul, its visible “glory” which should awaken in us loving awe, we transform into an instrument of selfish pleasure. The blessings of culture, intended to help men to become more truly human by developing the powers of their minds, we transform into an instrument of perverted specialization and highbrow aestheticism.

But creation itself is free from all these faults, wherever she may “suffer violence.” She, too, rebels in her holiness and purity against such profanation by sacrilegious rites; and she expresses her rebellion by the resistance that she makes when we turn her aside from her goal. Between her and us there is a battle waged, which is the result of sin.

You know nothing in the vast universe
That may not be a means of unhappiness.
Charles Peguy, “Eve,” in Ouvres Poetiques Completes

This is the hostile world that we know so well, where everything is threatening; and the more sensitive we are, the more it is so. No one has felt this more acutely than Rilke:

The terrible in every breath of air,
You breathe it all too clearly
No citation was given in the original translated publication.

The rebellion of creatures is the cause of suffering, which is the resistance of matter to our will. It was unknown in Paradise, it will be unknown in Paradise Regained, and Jesus already restores this Paradise, mastering the winds and waves, healing the sick. It is the cloudiness of the world that, far from showing us God, hides Him from us and confines us to earth. So we become slaves, we that are called to be kings. What are the fires of hell but the rebellion of the creature, defined all too clearly?

How are we to rediscover the lost harmony, how are we to reconciled with things? Here is the nostalgia that lies perhaps at the center of poetry, which is a quest for the cosmic privileges of Paradise Lost, a glorification of the body without using the conversion of the heart as intermediary.

But everything depends on this conversion. Things themselves have never changed. They remain what they always were; they await us in brotherly innocence. It is we that are “underlings.” If I seek to rediscover the joys of Paradise, to move at ease amid created things, I must give them back their proper meaning, I must restore their honorable mission as servants of humanity. Then they will cease to burden me with silent reproaches, they will begin once again to chant before me:

None but the pure heart knows
The perfume of the rose
Paul Claudel, Figures et Paraboles (Paris: Gallimard, 1936), 28.

I must recover the purity of my glance. Then only will creatures once more become bearers of light from heaven. It is this paradisal reconciliation that we find in St. Francis of Assisi, in St. John of the Cross: “Yes, the heavens are mine and e earth is mine and the peoples are mine…. What more can you sire? What do you seek, my soul?”

Nothing remains of our prostration before the powers of the cosmos and history, those words of Damocles hanging over mankind. Cosmic fear is vanquished, the universe has become once more a Temple where we are at home with God in the cool of the evening, where man comes forward, silent and composed, absorbed in his task as in a perpetual liturgy, attentive to that Presence which fills him with awe and tenderness.

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The Temptation and Expulsion — Andrew Graham-Dixon

October 8, 2012

The last scene in the central triad of images on the ceiling is The Temptation and Expulsion. Here Michelangelo tells the story of the Fall of Man, giving his own narrative interpretation to the events recounted in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 3.

First, Adam and Eve fall into temptation in the Garden of Eden, and are punished for their sin:

Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
(Genesis 3: 1-6)

Then, God discovers Adam’s transgression and condemns him and Eve to suffer the pains, labor and discord of mortal life. To ensure that Adam does not take fruit also from the tree of life, and become immortal, God exiles him forever from Eden:

Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.
(Genesis 3: 23-4)

Generations of artists before Michelangelo had depicted these two scenes separately. Going against convention, he joined them in a single image, framed with such fearful symmetry that it links the crime with its punishment in a pattern of stark inevitability. The two halves of the painting mirror one another to the extent that, seen through half-closed eyes, they resemble shapes made by folding a piece of inked blotting paper in half.

This is apt, because the picture itself is a kind of hinge — a hinge on which the whole grand narrative of the ceiling turns. It is here that man sins, here that his fate is sealed. Adam and Eve break with God’s commands and are separated from God for ever. Unity gives way to alienation, harmony gives way to discord, oneness becomes fragmentation.

The three scenes that follow this one — all tracing the subsequent life of man on earth, through the story of Noah — are characterized by a busy brokenness, a mood of nightmare, a deliberate compositional disharmony, entirely at odds with the breadth and the sweeping simplicity that characterize the earlier scenes depicting the Creation. In this way, the very rhythms and formal structure of the paintings of the Sistine ceiling conspire to define mortal life — the life that follows the Fall — as disharmony, disconnection, alienation.

On the left, Adam and Eve are depicted as youthful, energetic figures. The semi-reclining Eve is flushed with excitement, anticipation sparkling in her eyes, as she reaches round to take the fruit offered by the serpent — a creature depicted by Michelangelo as half-woman, half-snake, the long coils of its serpentine tail twined round the trunk of the tree. The face of the creature resembles those of the maenads and furies in ancient art. There is a resemblance, too, to the face of Adam. The two figures have the same flowing yellow hair. Their gestures even seem to flow towards one another in a convergence of erotic energy.

The Fall of Man had often been interpreted as a surrender to impure desire, and its sexual aspect is strongly emphasized by Michelangelo. The tree of knowledge bears not apples but figs, which have a traditional sexual significance. Eve kneels, not to pray, but to seduce. Her left hand is suggestively entwined in that of the serpent, from whose fist several fruit protrude.

Adam reaches greedily, with a claw-like hand, towards a bunch of figs in the shadowy leaves next to the mouth of the snake-woman, while his own genitals hang like fruit beside the mouth of Eve. The middle finger of Eve’s right hand is emphatically extended in a crude gesture and points down towards her own sex. Adam has turned into shadow, his face half-hidden in profile, to indicate that he has chosen the way of darkness.

Eve’s outstretched arm is rhymed by the shape of the dead tree stump against which she reclines, to show that in reaching towards temptation she has embraced the world of mortality and forsaken eternal life. Both are depicted against an outcrop of barren rock, another stark symbol of death.

In making Adam such an active figure, one who does not blindly follow Eve but vigorously reaches into the tree to pick the fruit himself, Michelangelo emphasizes that the couple are implicated in a partnership of sin. The artist also stresses, by this means, that Adam has acted out of his own free will. Adam’s energies are Promethean in their unruly vigor. He does not only reach into the tree but also pulls its main branch down towards him.

The gesture that he makes with the arm closest to the serpent, both stretching out and groping for the figs with the index finger of his right hand, is a graceless parody of the gesture with which God brought him into being in The Creation of Adam.This is the moment in the narrative of the ceiling when man seeks to take control of his own destiny, when he sets out to become, as the guileful serpent suggests, a god himself. The result is disaster. God’s pointing finger conjures life from nothing. But Adam, in reaching for divinity, conjures only the specters of death and hardship, and condemns Man to a world of pain.

In suggesting the complexity of Adam and Eve’s motives in this moment of Original Sin, Michelangelo indicates the multitude of evils encompassed within it — greed, treachery, God-defying insolence, a whole Pandora’s box of ill intentions. John Milton, who retold the story of the Fall of Man a century later in his epic poem Paradise Lost, never saw The Temptation and Expulsion. But Milton’s puritanically severe reflections on the nature of Original Sin, in a prose work entitled De Doctrina Christiana, set forth a view of the subject very close to that expressed in Michelangelo’s painting:

If the circumstances of this crime are duly considered, it will be acknowledged to have been a most heinous offence, and a transgression of the whole law. For what sin can be named, that was not included in this one act? It comprehended at once distrust in the divine veracity, and a proportionate credulity in the assurances of Satan; unbelief, ingratitude; disobedience; gluttony; in the man excessive uxoriousness, in the woman a want of proper regard for her husband, in both an insensibility for the welfare of their offspring, and that offspring  the whole human race; parricide, theft, invasion of the rights of others, sacrilege, deceit, presumption in aspiring to divine attributes, fraud in the means employed to attain the object, pride, and arrogance …

The other side of the painting, the bleak mirror image of Adam and Eve choosing sin, represents the moment of their punishment and belated remorse. An angel reaches out with a sword — a punitive gesture that rhymes cruelly with the enticing gesture of the serpent offering fruit — to expel the couple from the Garden of Eden.

Adam’s face is twisted into a rictus of anguish, and he looks instantly older and more wizened, as though mortality has already begun to work its effects on his flesh. Eve has metamorphosed into a hideous caricature of her former seductive self, a lumpen, lumbering being — a member of the same crude tribe of antediluvian giants that will soon be encountered, stumbling to their destruction, in Michelangelo’s depiction of The Deluge.

As she takes her first steps into the world, the mother of mankind scowls and covers her breasts in shame, looking around over her shoulder, one last time, at paradise lost. She might be looking back at her own image beneath the tree, seeing the memory of the happy self she once was, but can never be again.

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The Creation of Eve – Andrew Graham-Dixon

October 1, 2012

The second of Michelangelo’s paintings telling the story of Adam and Eve is The Creation of Eve, the biblical source for which is Genesis 2: 21-2:

`And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept; and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman…’

The artist shows the blonde-haired Eve emerging from the side of Adam and coming face to face with her creator. Michelangelo has placed Adam’s sleeping form next to a jumble of dark rocks, which introduces a spatial ambiguity into the scene and makes Eve look as though she might be stepping from the entrance of a cave beside him. Emerging from darkness into light, she seems astonished by the suddenness of her encounter with God. Her mouth hangs half open in amazement and she holds her hands up instinctively in a prayer that also looks like a gesture of supplication. With his raised right hand, God seems to be pulling her upright, drawing her out of Adam’s side and into life. He stares solemnly into her troubled eyes.

The figure of God in The Creation of Eve is distinctly less awe-inspiring than the airborne, cosmic creator of the earlier Genesis scenes. Dressed in a voluminous mantle, he has here the aspect of a patriarch or priest. He does not fly, but stands and even stoops slightly in the act of creating woman. His weight upon the earth is suggested by the single mighty foot shown protruding from his robes, toes splayed on the bare grey ground. His hair and beard are a lank, dullish blond, painted with far less energy and animation than the swirling grey locks of God in the other scenes.

How can these differences be explained? Partly perhaps as a result of the evolution of Michelangelo’s ideas between one phase of painting and the next. The artist was to break off from painting the ceiling for several months after finishing The Creation of Eve. This pause for thought might well account for the great difference between the figure of God the Father as he appears in this picture, and as he would appear in the three scenes of the creation of the universe and The Creation of Adam.

It may simply be that Michelangelo, recognizing that God would have to become dynamically more active for the earlier scenes of creation, took the chance offered by a break in his work to reconceive his personification of the deity. But one of the great (and relatively underrated) aspects of the artist’s achievement in painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling was that he managed to preserve the total unity of the scheme despite the evolution of his own style during the course of the four years that it took him to complete it. And the fact remains that the character of God, as he appears in The Creation of Eve, powerfully contributes to the particular expressive twist that Michelangelo gives to this episode in the Genesis story.

The position of the fresco on the ceiling of the chapel is significant. It is the central image of the nine narrative scenes, occupying a place directly above the screen that once divided the area closest to the altar — reserved for the pope and his court — from that occupied by less exalted worshippers. It marks a corresponding separation within the overall scheme of the Genesis narrative, dividing the stories of creation from those of fallen humanity. So it makes sense that the figure of God should suddenly, in this image, seem so much more grounded. This is the moment when the story itself comes decisively to earth. The transition is not a joyful one. The action takes place on a lonely stretch of coast. The line of the horizon, where sea meets sky, neatly bisects Eve’s body at the midriff.

The overt symbolism of the picture restates the ultimate beneficence of God’s plan for mankind. The sleeping Adam, beneath a dead tree stump suggestive of a truncated cross, is once more a prefiguration of Christ, while Eve, springing from his side, calls to mind the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, in that water and blood ran from the side of the crucified Christ (associations reinforced by the water behind her, and by the way in which she holds her hands up to the priest-like figure of God, like a worshipper at Mass preparing to receive the wafer).

But the pious complacency inherent in such typologies is disturbed by the raw emotion with which the painting is charged. A current of intense, troubled feeling courses from Eve to the Almighty. She looks at God with an expression of pained and pleading mystery that lends this already cramped and claustrophobic act of creation an ominous, menacing atmosphere.

Eve, placed dead centre of the entire Sistine Chapel ceiling, is given a unique privilege. She is the only figure on the whole ceiling who is allowed to look into the eyes of God. Does she already feel sinfulness stirring within her breast? Could she be asking God why he has made her, why he has squeezed her into being, imperfect as she is? These are among the oldest and most intractable questions that Christians have asked themselves about their God. If all was foreknown, all foreordained, by a perfectly benevolent deity, why create the possibility of evil at all? But in Michelangelo’s painting, she receives no answer. The solemn God stares back at Eve with eyes as hard, as unyielding, as stones.

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The Creation of Adam – Andrew Graham-Dixon

September 28, 2012

Probably the most iconic religious fresco of all time. Michelangelo 1511.

The ceiling’s central triad of images begins with The Creation of Adam, a majestic depiction of the moment when God imparts life and a soul to the first of men. It is among the most dynamic and startlingly original of all Michelangelo’s inventions. Like many famous pictures, it can all too easily be taken for granted. The overwhelming familiarity of the composition, its beguiling power and simplicity, can obscure its true qualities. Only on close, careful inspection does the work disclose its range of meanings and subtleties of expression.

The tradition of misreading The Creation of Adam is as old as the picture itself. So far did it depart from all previous artists’ imaginings of the creation of humanity that the work completely bemused at least one early visitor to the Sistine Chapel. Paolo Giovio, bishop of Nocera, who also wrote brief lives of Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, composed a slender biographical sketch of Michelangelo sometime between 1523 and 1527.

Giovio’s text, a bare 31 lines in Latin, contains a short appreciation of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which is principally memorable for revealing the author’s bafflement when faced with The Creation of Adam: `Among the most important figures is that of an old man, in the middle of the ceiling, who is represented in the act of flying through the air …’ Giovio clearly had no idea of what he was looking at. But his incomprehension serves as a measure of just how novel, how alien to prevailing conventions, Michelangelo’s painting seemed to his contemporaries.

The artist was familiar with other depictions of the same theme by earlier Renaissance artists. In devising his composition, he may have had somewhere in his mind a celebrated bronze panel by Jacopo della Quercia on the Porta Magna of San Petronio, in Bologna, a city Michelangelo knew well, having spent several months there creating his doomed monumental bronze portrait of Pope Julius 11. Jacopo had depicted Adam nude and recumbent on a somewhat abstract outcrop of rock, springing into life as if waking from sleep, with the cloaked figure of God the Father standing over him, making a restrained, priestly gesture of benediction. Michelangelo galvanized this somewhat wooden piece of early Renaissance theatre by turning it into a whirlwind encounter between man and God.

The Almighty floats weightlessly through space, wrapped in a billowing red cloak that enfolds his angelic entourage. He is a severe, grey-bearded Creator, reaching out with great deliberation towards the languid Adam, a suitably earthbound figure (the name `Adam’ is also the Hebrew word for `earth’). So it is that God imparts to man, across the few inches of air that separate their outstretched fingers, the spark of life that makes him move and breathe.

In early Christian depictions of the creation of man, God had usually been truncated to a mere hand gesturing from a strategically placed cloud. He had developed into the familiar figure of an old man with a beard by the middle of the fifteenth century, but there was no precedent for showing him `in the act of flying through the air’, let alone dressed in clinging draperies that reveal his legs from the thigh down.

The fingertip act of creation was also Michelangelo’s own invention. Given that this has become the single most famous, most reproduced detail in the entire pictorial scheme of the ceiling — despite the fact that the celebrated fingertips themselves were repainted, due to a small area of loss, by the restorer Domenico Carnevale in the 1570s — it is worth considering in some depth just what Michelangelo may have intended by it.

Where did the painter get this striking idea? It owes little to the account given in Genesis 2: 7, which casts God in the role of a sculptor who literally breathes life into his work: `The Lord God formed man, of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.’ Michelangelo may have taken inspiration from a medieval hymn traditionally sung at Vespers on Whit Sunday, one stanza of which refers to ‘Digitus paternae dexterae’ – the finger of God’s right hand. The overarching theme of this hymn, which celebrates the nature of God’s gifts to man, also seems apposite to The Creation of Adam:

The seven-fold gift of grace is thine,
Thou finger of the hand divine;
The Father’s promise true, to teach
Our earthly tongues thy heavenly speech.

Thy light to every sense impart;
Pour forth thy love in every heart;
Our weakened flesh do thou restore
To strength and courage evermore.

Drive far away our spirits’ foe,
Thine own abiding peace bestow;
If thou dost go before as guide,
No evil can our steps betide.

The notion that God, through the touch of his finger, metaphorically imparts not only grace but also instruction was embedded in earlier Christian tradition. In considering the Ten Commandments given to Moses from on high, Church fathers had seized on the metaphor of a divine finger — one that both writes instructions for mankind and points out the path of the true and good life. St Augustine develops this idea in a passage in his fifth-century treatise De spiritu et littera:

That Holy Spirit, through whom charity which is the fullness of the law is shed abroad in our hearts, is also called in the Gospel the finger of God. That those tables of the law were written by the finger of God, and that the finger of God is God’s spirit through whom we are sanctified, so that living by faith we may do good works through love

It is impossible to prove that Michelangelo, or the papal advisers who may have helped him to formulate his iconography, had such ideas in mind when devising The Creation of Adam. Interpretations of paintings based on their presumed connections to a specific text or texts are often suspect. This is especially true when those texts are not the primary sources, as in this case, but are drawn instead from the deep well of post-biblical Christian thought.

Such hypotheses bring with them the temptation to force ill-fitting meanings on to works of art that visually resist them — to yoke the unwilling image to the inflexible word. As Leo Steinberg once cuttingly remarked of a fellow art historian, `His glimpse of a Michelangelo picture is as from a speeding car bound for the library.’ Yet in this particular instance the facts of the picture seem to confirm rather than contradict the hypothesis — suggesting that Michelangelo was indeed aware of the Christian tradition that found, in the image of God’s finger, a metaphor for his commands.

There is a look of total concentration on the face of the creating God, in Michelangelo’s fresco. But his gaze, depicted with such sharpness and clarity, is pointedly not directed at the reclining Adam. Instead, he stares with great intensity at his own outstretched finger. He does so in a way that suggests that what is being channelled through it, and towards Adam, is not only the impulse of life but also man’s incipient awareness of God’s own will — and, with that, the capacity for thought and for moral action. It is as if, in the moment of his creation, Adam is also being instructed in the laws by which God means him to live — laws that he will break, with fatal consequences for all of mankind.

Did Michelangelo really mean the viewer to understand all this, in the gesture and gaze of the Almighty? There are good reasons for believing so. The idea of transgression, Adam’s transgression against the divine will, is central to the tragic unfolding of the Genesis story as told by the artist. In the next painting but one, The Temptation and Expulsion, he will take the forbidden fruit. Michelangelo will later make it clear that man’s fallen condition is a direct consequence of Adam’s disobedience, by making the slumped body of the drunken Noah the epitome ofpostlapsarian human frailty resemble a pathetically collapsed version of Adam’s God-perfected body in the scene of his creation.

Yet for Adam to transgress, Adam must first be given the laws that he is to break. This begs the question, where, if not in The Creation of Adam, does Michelangelo imply that narratively necessary divine act of instruction? There is no space for it anywhere else in his scheme. The subject of the painting is best understood, therefore, as the formation rather than simply the creation of man.

The most compelling evidence for this interpretation is to be found in one of the most obvious places, namely Ascanio Condivi’s life of the artist. Admittedly, Condivi is an occasionally unreliable witness, but the fact remains that he knew Michelangelo intimately, and the very terseness of his description of The Creation of Adam, so pointedly bald and unembroidered as it is, gives it all the more credibility. Of the figure of the Almighty, Condivi simply writes the following: `God is seen with arm and hand outstretched as if to impart to Adam the precepts as to what he must and must not do.’

Michelangelo’s Adam looks up at God with an expression of barely dawning awareness on his face. He has just woken into consciousness and there is still about him the wide-eyed helplessness of a child. Yet the look in his eyes suggests that he has already begun to absorb the awareness that life brings with it duty to God. There is a slight implication of melancholy in his gaze, as of someone being drawn half against their will from blissful ignorance towards a sense of responsibility.

Adam’s body is full-grown and athletic. The chiseled outlines, the ebbs and flows of contour that define his nude form, recall Walter Pater’s famous remark about art aspiring to the condition of music. The effect of the entire figure is epitomized by the single detail of Adam’s outstretched arm — which swells and fades, rises and falls, from the curve of the shoulder to the soft bump of the bicep, along the meandering line of the forearm and across the reaching hand, like a melody drawn in the air.

The modeling of the figure’s flesh and muscles in light and shade is equally haunting (and represents a triumph of subtlety within the medium of fresco, which is far less malleable and forgiving than oil paint, making such effects of chiaroscuro notably difficult to achieve). Michelangelo disdained landscape painting but here he has painted Adam’s body as if the human form were itself a landscape to be explored. The soft juncture of his left calf and thigh, the shadowy hollows and protuberances formed in the area around his neck and collarbone, are painted with an immense, tender sensuality. They have what the twentieth-century painter Frank Auerbach has called a ‘haptic’ quality, a term denoting painted forms so instinct with life that to look at them is to have the uncanny sense of physically touching that which is depicted.

Adam must be perfect, his image that of a god on earth, because of the words of Genesis 1: 26: `And God said, Let us make man in our image, .after our likeness.’ In no other figure on the whole of the ceiling is Adam’s beauty repeated, and that too is part of Michelangelo’s expressive purpose. The first of men, newly created, represents a perfect state of harmony with God — but one that is destined to be lost, and never recaptured until the blessed rise on the day of the resurrection.

The scene where the action takes place is the most abstracted of landscapes, a grassy mound suspended in infinite space. Temporally, the picture is even more ambiguous because it represents a moment in which all of history — from the creation of man to his fall and ultimate salvation — is also contained. Michelangelo gives to God an aspect that expresses his infinite power. The vivid coils and whorls of his hair and beard evoke the cataclysmic patterns of whirlwinds and whirlpools. They bear a remarkably close resemblance to a later, celebrated group of apocalyptic drawings of floods and deluges by Michelangelo’s contemporary (and occasional rival) Leonardo da Vinci, who knew the Sistine Chapel and may have been influenced by this detail.

The figures contained within God’s mantle span the arc of time. At his shoulder he is accompanied by seraphim and cherubim, members of the highest order of the angels, to whom Michelangelo has also given the character of classical representations of the four winds. Their presence makes of the mantle a sail, swelled by their breath and thus impelled through space. Below God’s right arm lies a mysterious, anguished figure, present only as a groaning face, half obscured by darkness. This shadowy presence can tentatively be identified as a personification of Chaos, the dark nothingness from which the Almighty wrestled the universe into being — now conquered, he is whirled along in God’s train like the captives trailed in the wake of ancient triumphal processions.

There is also a beautiful young woman held in the embrace of God’s left arm. She looks across at Adam with a lively, fascinated gaze — the look, almost, of a startled gazelle — suggesting that she knows her destiny to be entwined with his. She can be identified with certainty. She is Eve, preordained in the mind of God from the beginning. Michelangelo has arranged his composition so that she appears as if coming out of God’s left side, a subtle prefiguration of the way in which she will actually emerge from the left side of Adam — God’s own likeness on earth — in the ceiling’s very next narrative scene. The length of green drapery that enfolds her loins has become unwound and flutters freely in the air beneath the crowded mantle of divinity, reaching down towards the earth that is Adam’s namesake. Green is the color of life, symbolizing Eve’s fruitfulness as the future mother of mankind.

If the spectator looking up at the ceiling should choose at this point to zoom out, so to speak, and encompass all three of Michelangelo’s paintings telling the story of Adam and Eve, a larger pattern of meaning can be seen to have its origin here. The figure of Eve is repeated twice more across a single, powerful diagonal that connects all three narrative scenes of the ceiling’s central triad — creating, as it were, one line of vision along which can be traced the successive stages of her destiny. She nestles in God’s mantle; she emerges from Adam’s side; she tempts Adam to his fall.

Behind the figure of Eve, in The Creation of Adam, can be glimpsed another female figure, with wispy blonde hair and a face partially obscured by paint damage. Her hand is wrapped around God’s left arm, suggesting her proximity to the Almighty. The most likely explanation for this figure’s presence is to be found in Proverbs, Chapter 8, in which Wisdom is personified as a woman coeval with God himself. `The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old,’ she proclaims. `I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth there was … When he prepared the heavens I was there, when he set a compass upon the face of the depth’ (Proverbs 8: 22-7).  Wisdom seems to be leaning forward to whisper into Eve’s ear. But Eve, transfixed by the sight of her husband, pays her no heed.

Numerous interlinked allusions and associations play across the composition. These form a chain of meaning, carried from figure to figure, at times from hand to hand, the end of which is to create a metaphor for an omniscient God’s all-encompassing salvific plan for erring humanity. In the figure of Eve is also implied that of the Virgin Mary, vessel of the Incarnation. Beside her is a staring child, a look of ominous foreboding in his eyes. He is the infant Jesus Christ — an identification underlined by the hand of God, whose fingers encircle the round protuberance of the child’s right shoulder in just the same gesture used by a priest when he elevates the Host, flesh of Christ, at the ceremony of the Mass. Within the mantle of God, within the divine mind, all is foretold and all foreseen.

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