Va-Yera – Justice in the Torah (So Far)

Obviously, my posting schedule has not been what I would hoped it would be. But, I have promised a friend that I would post weekly again and so I will desperately try to do that, despite whatever other challenges life throws at me. And to start, I’m picking up where I left off: a brief survey of justice in the bible prior to Abraham.

As I said in my previous post, the genius of Abraham was not just that he argued with God’s punishment (the first biblical figure to do so), but rather that he seemed to articulate a UNIQUE (to Genesis) view on justice. Up to that point, I postulated, all punishments and rewards were to families and clans rather than individuals. With one huge exception, that’s true. His view was that a small number of good people could keep from punishment a larger number of bad people. What he didn’t do was what we really might wish he had done: request individual justice. Save the good people, punish the bad ones. That’s what we all look for in divine justice, isn’t it? Sadly, it wasn’t to be. But, this is the closest we come up to this point, so that’s something. “Sins of the father”, or clan-guilt, is never fully expunged from the Bible, though later passages will also stress individual justice and the Book of Job will suggests that not all apparent punishments are for crimes anyway.

More after the break.

The very first punishment takes place in Genesis 3. Eve and Adam have just eaten of the forbidden fruit, though the bible makes clear that the FIRST crime was not in the eating as it was in the temptation. Fittingly, the first punishment is not of the duped humans, but rather of the serpent:

Because thou hast done this, cursed art thou from among all cattle, and from among all beasts of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life. And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; they shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise their heel. – Genesis 3:14-15

The second part of this punishment is for Eve:

 I will greatly multiply thy pain and thy travail; in pain thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. – Genesis 3:16

And finally, for Adam:

… cursed is the ground for thy sake; in toil shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. – Genesis 3:17-19

The order seems important: perhaps the level of culpability of each party? But this arrangement also serves to stress that men (and women) are just one of the animals of creation. These are punishments, apparently, given to SPECIES rather than clans. As all men will descend from Adam, according to this narrative, the different is moot. But presumably there were other serpent species (and a lucky female serpent) out there that did not participate in this misdeed with Adam and Eve and yet were similarly punished. We don’t have many walking and talking serpents around anymore, at any rate.

Eve’s punishment further is a punishment against her GENDER. Women are codified (according to this tradition) as subservient to their men.

Adam’s punishment is trickier. On one hand, it seems to apply only to him. Cain will be a farmer, and receive a similar curse, as well as presumably other descendants. On the other hand, Noah is specifically revealed to be the one that undoes this curse by being saved from the flood:

And he called his name Noah, saying: ‘This same shall comfort us in our work and in the toil of our hands, which cometh from the ground which the LORD hath cursed.’ – Genesis 5:29

In sum, three punishments, all punishing those who were not merely present but all those descended from them as well. Which is, well, everyone. As for being exiled from Eden, that seems a bit of an afterthought:

And the LORD God said: ‘Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.’ 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 the cherubim, and the flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way to the tree of life. – Genesis 5:22-24

The second generation also experienced a punishment, but of a very different sort. In fact, Cain’s punishment is surprising in part by what it doesn’t do: punish his children (directly).

When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a wanderer shalt thou be in the earth. – Genesis 4:12

Not an “eye for an eye”, but rather the punishment for murder is banishment. And if, as the Noah story suggests, Cain was already cursed from the ground then this punishment is almost moot. It may have made it worse, but from this point forward Cain was not to be harmed and forced to live in exile from his people AND from his vocation. Still, his children ended up fairly well off for a time as they founded cities, improved animal husbandry, and invented a type of music. Not bad.

The big asterisk on this punishment, which makes it quite a bit more vague, is that Cain’s line was wiped out in the flood. So was this a delayed clan-punishment? Or an individual judgement? It’s difficult to say, especially as the text of Genesis 4 seems blissfully unaware of the flood narrative. (How exactly could his children be the ancestors of musicians if they are all dead?)

Skipping the confusing story of Lamech, where it is unclear whether God was doing (or intended to do) any punishment, we come to the Flood story. The flood is a clear example of clan-judgement at work. Noah is a righteous man, therefore his ADULT SONS must therefore also be saved. Were they righteous? Probably not.

And the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the LORD that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart. And the LORD said: ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and creeping thing, and fowl of the air; for it repenteth Me that I have made them.’  – Genesis 6:5-6:7

The passage implies that every man was corrupt, therefore every man equal in punishment. In that reading, the flood story becomes one of individual as well as collective punishment. However, no allowances are made for children and infants and (like later purges in Sodom and Gomorrah) they will be culled with their parents. What is interesting also is that while it is man that has sinned, animals share in the punishment. The judgement then is against all living things, because of the works of some of the living things. Not individual justice at all. (And how many innocent house cats needed to die for the sins of their owners?)

After the flood, we have a second punishment, though this is by Noah and not God:

And Noah the husbandman began, and planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his youngest son had done unto him. And he said: Cursed be Canaan; A servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said: Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem; And let Canaan be their servant. God  enlarge Japheth, And he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; And let Canaan be their servant. – Genesis 9:20-28

This one is confusing. It is clearly a clan-punishment for Ham, though Canaan gets the brunt of the blame despite having no apparent connection to the crime.

The next punishment, in the Babel story, is similarly clan-based. This time, the crime is hubris.

And the LORD said: ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; and now nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do. Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off to build the city. Therefore was the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there  confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth. – Genesis 11:6-9

Were only the tower builders punished? It’s difficult to say. I am aware of one tradition that suggests that the only ones that weren’t building were permitted to retain their Adamic language (which was, in that telling, Hebrew) but this may be a gloss. I haven’t found this in a rabbinical source yet.

In Genesis 12:17, a semi-innocent is punished:

And the LORD plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai Abram’s wife. – Genesis 12:17

Abraham has done the wife-as-sister routine and Pharaoh and his house and family was punished accordingly. This punishment is unambiguous, though sad as Pharaoh was the victim (of a sort) of a con game by Abraham.

Abraham’s attempts to save the wicked for the sake of the righteous was a novel approach, though it didn’t shake off the clan-justice mentality of the rest of Genesis to that point. Only the Cain story seems to have validated individual justice, though perhaps with reservations for the flood. Once I get into the laws, I’m going to dig deeper on this to find where the mindset changed and under what circumstances.

Up Next: The sad ending to the Lot story.

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