The Chumash – Bereshit
What is God?
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Bereshit, meaning ‘In the beginning (of)’, is the classic Jewish title of the first book of the Bible. It contains the famous creation narrative, the story of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, the stories of the Patriarchs, and the background of how the Israelites ended up in Egypt. Its primary competition as to being the most widely quoted book in history would likely come from the other books of the Chumash, the Gospels of the New Testament, and the Koran. Genesis occupies a pretty unique place in the upper stratospheres of human history.
Without going into the details of the book, which are available in countless sources, the most controversial aspect of the book is its origins. Who wrote Genesis? For traditional Jews and Christians there is nothing much to discuss – it was written by God and passed through prophetic inspiration to Moses. Though there is no indication anywhere in the Bible that this was indeed the case, this subject is not up for debate among believers. It is impossible to determine when such a belief first arose, but by time of the Mishna (around 200 CE), the earliest complete rabbinic text, it was probably firmly entrenched in Judaism. There is no strong reason to doubt that divine authorship was accepted from ancient Israelite times, though by the same token, there is no strong reason to assume it either.
Needless to say, the academic view completely rejects divine authorship. It wasn’t until relatively recent times (probably during the 17th century but possibly a few centuries earlier) that Jewish scholars first openly crossed this Rubicon of heresy. But once crossed, there was no going back. The earliest indications were verses that didn’t really fit into the narrative. Next came open questioning of the apparent repetitions and contradictions in the text. Historical anachronisms and stylistic variations entered the fray. With the emergence of Biblical archaeology as a branch of historical research during the 19th century, the field was wide open for re-examination and reinterpretation.
The academic study of Bible origins, since the 19th century, has been dominated by the so-called ‘Documentary Hypothesis’, which sometimes is referred to by the general name ‘Bible Criticism’. This theory proposes that the Chumash was not a single document authored by one author, divine or otherwise, but a composite of several documents that were spliced together at a relatively late date in Biblical history. The theory was first stated in a complete form by the German scholar Julius Wellhausen in 1883. The crux of the theory is that four distinct documents make up the Chumash, each of which originated in a different time and/or place in ancient Israel, and emphasized a different aspect of the religion. Some merging of the earliest documents took place during first temple times, but it was during the first century of second temple times (around 500-400 BCE), that a group of ‘redactors’ combined all the documents into their final form, resulting the Chumash as we have it.
The Documentary Hypothesis is still largely accepted in virtually all academic circles. Despite being subject to a great deal of criticism over the past few decades, it remains the theory of choice. The central problem with the hypothesis is sorting out which part of the text belongs to which document. When reading the Bible critics’ explanations, one gets the feeling that they are making up the rules as they go along. Verses switch from one document to another with deceiving ease. Why the redactors accepted all the contradictions and repetitions of the composite text is anybody’s guess. It is totally unclear why they didn’t simply keep the original sources as separate but complete documents rather than mish-mashing them together in a contradictory and redundant manner.
One of the criteria for determining which document a given verse or section belongs to is the use of a particular name of God. This criterion is especially important in the book of Bereshit in which the text frequently switches from one name to another with no apparent justification. God, according to the Bible, has not one, but a few names. This is one of the most striking features of the Bible, but it can easily go unnoticed when read in translation. Even when read in the original Hebrew, with the names of God clearly distinct, it is remarkably easy to ignore the different names and assume they all somehow mean the same thing. For religious Jews this practice is almost habitual. But the names are different, extremely different.
What are these names and why are they so important? The first name found in the Bible is Elohim, generally translated simply as ‘God’. This name, as we shall see in the first section on Genesis, is associated with God’s role as creator and divine guide of the world. These are the two most obvious reasons for human beings to believe in a deity, so it should come as no surprise that the first description of God in the Bible depicts exactly that role. This name is so prominent that one of the four sources of the Documentary Hypothesis is the ‘Elohist’ writer, or ‘E’ – a reference to its exclusive use of the name Elohim in the book of Bereshit.
The second name in order of appearance is typically written ‘YHVH’ or ‘YHWH’ (the difference is due to a debate on the proper pronunciation of the third Hebrew letter in the word). Based on an extremely important verse in Exodus, Biblical tradition considers this to be the proper name of God, to the exclusion of all others. This name is commonly referred to as the Tetragrammaton, a rather ominous-looking term that means ‘four-letter name’. It is invariably written with the same four Hebrew letters in the same order. The correct pronunciation of this name has been lost to Jewish tradition, though it was known throughout Biblical times, and remained known within a small rabbinic circle well into the Talmudic period, and possibly beyond. Christian Bibles traditionally translate this name as ‘Lord’. Jewish translations render it ‘God’, ‘Lord’, or the Hebrew word ‘Hashem’, which means ‘the name’. The Bible Critics consider this name to represent the oldest of the sources, the so-called ‘Jahwhist’ (or ‘Yahwist’) document, based on the assumed pronunciation of the four-letter name.
This name is first introduced in the Bible after the completion of the creation narrative in conjunction with the name Elohim. The two names are written together almost as if they are a single two-word name. This combination of names comes up now and again throughout the Chumash and the rest of the Tanakh. But nowhere is it more common than in chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis. These chapters contain the story of the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve. Almost exclusively, the Elohim-YHWH combination is used throughout this story – obviously a matter of great significance. The combination name will be the subject of the second image from Genesis.
Following the Garden of Eden story is the tragic story of Cain and Abel (chapter 4). In this story, the name YHWH as a stand-alone name appears for the first time. There must be an important difference between the name as it appears in chapter 4 and the name Elohim or the combination name. This name will be by far and away the most common name of God in the Bible, appearing over 6,000 times. The image it portrays will be the most prominent image from the Bible. It will be our third image from Genesis.
In the story of Noah and the Flood a new combination of these two names becomes apparent. In this story the names are listed separately, but the narrative switches from one name to the other. This was one of the primary indications for the Bible critics in coming up with the Documentary Hypothesis. The narrative seems to repeat itself, with the story first being told in which the role of God is played by YHWH, followed by a parallel narrative with Elohim, or in the opposite order. Why these two names and the parallel narratives are there, is a question that the traditionalists must answer. Surprisingly, very few in the traditionalist camp have even attempted to address this vital matter. Our attempt to put the two narratives together will reveal yet another image of God, our fourth from Genesis.
There is an additional name that is frequently confused with the name YHWH. This is the name Adonai, which is translated as ‘My Lord’. These two names are so similar in translation that it is sometimes impossible to tell them apart if one is unfamiliar with the Hebrew. The fact is, even for traditional Jews who know the Hebrew, the two names are considered interchangeable for reasons that are rooted in ancient tradition. Probably back in second temple times the custom arose to pronounce it as Adonai, even though it was obvious that this couldn’t be the correct pronunciation. Over the centuries, as the correct pronunciation of YHWH became lost, the status of the alternative pronunciation gradually changed from substitute to traditional to mandatory. Jews classically make no distinction between these two names, even though they are aware of the obvious difference between them. This name will be the subject of the fifth section of Bereshit.
What is the significance of these names? According to the Bible Critics, they are simply the names of the ancient deity in the various documents that eventually made up the Chumash. One document may have favored one particular name, while another may have preferred a different name. Some documents combine names or use more than one following a change in custom. It doesn’t make all that much sense and is definitely one of the weaker points of the entire theory. But those who insist that the Chumash is a single document must answer the question of why there are different names for God that are used in a seemingly haphazard manner.
There is a standard rabbinic answer to this question, at least concerning the use of the names Elohim and YHWH. The former represents the ‘Midat Hadin, or ‘Attribute of Justice’, an image of God as a stern Judge who executes justice to the letter of the law. The latter represents the ‘Midat Harachamim’, or ‘Attribute of Mercy’, an image favoring pity and forgiveness. While these two images do fit in occasionally to explain a particular situation in which a specific name was used, in the overwhelming majority of cases it really doesn’t. One name is used sometimes and another name at others; they switch back and forth with no apparent logic. Is there an explanation for this?
We believe that there is. This is one of the central questions surrounding the text of the Chumash (and the rest of the Bible), and it is unfortunate that both the traditionalists and the academics have effectively swept it under the carpet. The traditionalists tend to minimize the differences and subsume them all under the generic name ‘Hashem’. The academics claim that the solution is found in examining the different documents. We suggest that the true answer lies in understanding what these different names mean and the image that they represent. Each name was meant to convey a different universal or human perception of the deity and the role of the divine in the story.
The solution we propose may not be a perfect fit in every situation, but we believe that it does shed important light on how to decipher this vital aspect of the Biblical understanding of God. These names, and how they are used, are like a window into the Biblical mind. The purpose of the Bible, to some degree, is to elucidate the interaction between the God and man, between the Creator and the creation. What better way to grasp that interaction than by understanding the different images through which God is projected into the created world and the human mind?
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