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Irreconcilable [sic] differences

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Title:
Irreconcilable [sic] differences faith and morality in four stories from the Hebrew Bible
Creator:
Mahoney, Kimberly Dawn
Publication Date:
Language:
English
Physical Description:
x, 67 leaves : ; 28 cm

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Subjects / Keywords:
Ethics in the Bible ( lcsh )
Faith ( lcsh )
Bible as literature ( lcsh )
Bible as literature ( fast )
Ethics in the Bible ( fast )
Faith ( fast )
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bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )

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Thesis:
Thesis (M.H.)--University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center, 20057.
Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 65-67).
General Note:
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Statement of Responsibility:
by Kimberly Dawn Mahoney.

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|University of Colorado Denver
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|Auraria Library
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All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
166394886 ( OCLC )
ocn166394886

Full Text
IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES: FAITH AND MORALITY
IN FOUR STORIES FROM THE HEBREW BIBLE
by
Kimberly Dawn Mahoney
B.A., Luther College, 1999
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Humanities
2007


by Kimberly Dawn Mahoney
All rights reserved.


This thesis for the Master of Humanities
degree by
Kimberly Dawn Mahoney
has been approved
by

Date


Mahoney, Kimberly Dawn (M.H., College of Liberal Arts and Sciences)
Irreconcilable Differences: Faith and Morality in Four Stories from the Hebrew Bible
Thesis directed by Assistant Professor Robert Metcalf
ABSTRACT
Unlike most other texts, the Hebrew Bible is used by many to ponder moral
questions about how one ought to or ought not to behave. Many readers are tempted
to use the stories to construct moral oughts to guide in the rights and wrongs of
their behavior. Kierkegaard made the Abraham story famous with his ethical analysis
of Abrahams actions as the knight of faith, arguing that one who lives the
religious life is often called upon by God to suspend the ethical for a higher duty to
God. This paradox, as Kierkegaard calls it, results in an existential dilemma for
Abraham, and others living the religious life.
The actual paradox is not the one Kierkegaard describes, but instead, is the
paradox of faith. Adam and Eve, Cain, Noah, and Job suffer the ultimate existential
dilemmas because of their faith in God. The universal and contingent nature of faith
requires that each character maintain an unconditional faith in God, while at the same
time recognize that because of their faith, due to the contingencies of certain
situations, they may be called upon by God to do something that does not make
moral/ethical sense to them. Their faith puts them in the ultimate bind. The result is
an existential dilemma similar to the one Nietzsche describes in his work about
Christianity.
This abstract accurately represents the contents of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication. ^
Signed
Robert Metcalf


DEDICATION
I dedicate this thesis to my husband, Rich and my son, Dillon, who played quietly
left the house on multiple occasions, so I could write without distractions. I also
dedicate it to my parents, whose never-ending support led me this far in my
education.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
I would like to thank my advisor, Robert Metcalf, whose encouragement and support
motivated me to finish my thesis. I would also like to thank Sharon Coggan for the
time she spent explaining biblical concepts and terms with which I was unfamiliar,
and for her extensive comments on my draft. I would also like to thank Nancy
Ciccone for her time and valuable insight.


CONTENTS
Preface......................................viii
CHAPTER
1. INTRODUCTION................................... 1
2. POSSIBLE APPROACHES TO THE TEXT................ 11
3. JOBS PLIGHT: FAITH VERSUS ETHICAL THEORY...... 20
4. GENESIS 2-3: THE FORBIDDEN FRUIT............... 36
5. THE GREEN-EYED MONSTER: CAINS SIN............. 43
6. DONT ROCK THE BOAT:
NOAH AS THE KNIGHT OF FAITH................... 50
7. CONCLUSION......................................55
8. REFLECTION..................................... 63
BIBLIOGRAPHY.........................................65
vii


PREFACE
In introducing the Introduction to Biblical Literature unit to my 11th grade
honors class, I am always careful to distinguish between the literary, academic, and
religious approaches to the text. I use the word careful, because I know that many
students (and parents) are already concerned to hear that the Bible is part of a public
school curriculum. Aside from the fact that biblical literature is part of the public
school curriculum, I feel very strongly, as an English teacher, that, as literate
members of our society, students need to be at least familiar with biblical literature.
In my experience, students who know nothing of biblical literature have a very
difficult time identifying and understanding allusions in classic texts and cultural
artifacts, even from our time. I am thinking of a particularly disturbing moment when
a student in my class completely missed that Steinbecks East of Eden was a retelling
of the Cain and Abel story.
As an English teacher, I read, interpret, and teach the Bible as literature,
complete with characters, plots, symbols, and figurative language, with the goal of
helping the students become better readers and thinkers. My goal has never been to
discuss religion, and for the most part, I avoid the academic approach as well. By
academic, I mean studying dates written, theories of authorship, etc. My approach in
teaching biblical literature has always been literary. I understand that academic and
vm


religious approaches to the Bible arent so simple because they require abundant
research from outside the text. Because we use the Bible as a starting point, I am
more interested in having students analyze the Bible as a collection of stories. I am
hesitant to call our approach new critical, since often, instead of working to prove
how elements in the Bible form a unified whole, often, we end up deconstructing
the characters, themes, and motifs present throughout the Bible.
My desire to write this paper comes from my struggle in teaching sections of
the Hebrew Bible to high school students, and my realization that I cannot untangle
the literary and religious strings from one another in regard to this text. Heres what I
know: 1. Most students with any previous knowledge of the Bible know four to five
stories that they believe are representative of the whole Bible. 2. Many students
assume God to be benevolent and good. 3. Many students are unable to view the
Bible as a text and separate history from the events in the stories. Number three is the
one that seems to bind together the literary and religious ties, since many of the
students believe the Bible to be true and they base their faith on that belief without
reading the Bible critically, as a literary text. The situation in my classroom made me
rethink how to teach biblical literature, but it also made me realize that unlike other
literary texts that can be studied as stories, the Bible has too many cultural and
religious implications to be studied as a text alone. Where did that leave me, as a
teacher and a literary scholar? This study was inspired by my work in the classroom
IX


as a teacher, but my work as a graduate student has allowed me to fine-tune the
question and form an answer.
x


CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION
The Hebrew Bible is a piece of morality literature, and 1 use quotation
marks around the word morality, because I am suggesting not that it is a text that
teaches morality, as some might argue, but that within its pages exists a kind of
question and answer session about morality.
By morality, I am referring to a system of judging behavior according to a
code of ethics, set forth by a group of people. What is interesting about the Bible is
that many of the stories passed down orally (and taught still in Sunday schools across
the country) are used as morality literature, aimed at guiding readers in the rights
and wrongs of their own behavior.
Regardless of the arguments over who wrote what, when it was published,
who translated it, etc., the Hebrew Bible is read as a unified text because of the
character, God. In his essay, The Kaleidoscopic Nature of Divine Personality in the
Hebrew Bible, K.L. Noll notes that over the centuries CE, theologians have
produced elaborate systems of doctrine through which the Yahwehs of the Bible have
been harmonized into one Yahweh, God of Israel (1). In The Character of God in
the Book of Genesis, W. Lee Humphreys explains that in Genesis,


[God] is, in fact the one figure whose presence ties it together from
beginning to end. From creation to the settlement of Josephs family in
Egypt, God in one way or another is central as he interacts with other
characters. This character God gives, as we will see, a coherence and
structure to the extended narrative of Genesis that is often otherwise
experienced as quite episodic. (2)
Humphreys assertion holds true for the entire Hebrew Bible, as stories that seem
episodic are united, not because his character is stable and unchanging, but because
he is present throughout the entire text.
From a literary standpoint, Gods character pulls the text together and
provides the material for the extensive literary analysis that has been done and
continues to be done in studying the Bible. God is a dynamic character whose
changing faces are the fodder for many literary scholars across the world. But Gods
changing, kaleidoscopic personality becomes problematic for those using the Bible
as a moral guide. If God is leading by example, and the reader is using the Bible as a
moral doctrine, in addition to a literary text, Gods changing character provides
irreconcilable problems. For many, the task of approaching the Bible from a purely
literary standpoint is impossible because they have grown up hearing the stories and
cannot separate fiction from reality. Some readers cannot put their religious
teachings of God as the benevolent, merciful, father figure out of their minds, yet
when they read the actual text, God is no longer the rational figure who teaches right
from wrong, and the world portrayed in the Bible is not one in which the difference
between right and wrong is so obvious.
2


This dilemma brings me to a key term in my paper: ethics. Understanding the
criteria for why something is right or wrong seems paramount to the characters in the
story who deal with God, and also to modem readers who ponder the stories today.
In fact, the Bible has long been a text that people turn to when considering moral
questions. But does the Hebrew Bible establish clear, normative, moral oughts for
its characters that can be studied and understood by modem readers?
The Bible, just like Greek mythology, seeks to explain the empiricalwhat
already isin a mythical sense. Genesis two explains why evil exists in the world.
The story of the Tower of Babel explains the emergence of different cultures and
languages, and the famous flood story documented, in story form, a flood that may
have occurred sometime between 10,000 and 7000 BCE. But more importantly, the
Hebrew Bible is very much about the construction of moral oughts. What is
different about the two, as Richard B. Sewell puts so eloquently in his essay, The
Book of Job, is that in the Greek tradition, there is no concept of faith:
In the transaction of the Greeks with their gods, no great amount of
love was lost. There was no doctrine of Creation, not a Creator to be
praised (as in psalm after psalm) for his loving kindness and tender
mercies. The Greek gods were fallible, imperfect, finite, and, above
all, laws unto themselves. (Sanders 23)
When a mortal in Greek literature faces an ethical dilemma, such as Agamemnons
dilemma over whether or not to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, the gods have a
hand in provoking the situation, but it is not about Agamemnons personal, spiritual
relationship with any of the gods, as it is in Abrahams case.
3


Abrahams sacrifice of Isaac (the adekah) has long been discussed in terms of
its ethical problems. As Emil Fackenheim points out in Encounters between Judaism
and Modem Philosophy, the question paramount to many scholars who read Abraham
(and other stories in the Bible) is: Is ethical universality absolute? (35). Soren
Kierkegaards famous Fear and Trembling put Abraham in a category all his own, as
the daring knight of faith, who suspended the ethical for a higher cause. Immanuel
Kants decree that moral oughts should ultimately be based on rational theology
and not biblical theology was spurred on by Abrahams dilemma, since, according to
Kant, the problem with Abrahams intended sacrifice is that Gods command was
uncertain, whereas his duty to his son was not:
Abraham should have replied to this putative divine voice: That I may
not kill my son is absolutely certain. But that you who appear to me
are God is not certain and cannot become certain, even though the
voice were to sound from the very heavens. .. [For] that a voice
which one seems to hear cannot be divine one can be certain of... in
case what is commanded is contrary to moral law. However majestic
or supernatural it may appear to be, one must regard it as deception.
(Qtd. in Fackenheim 34)
Others, such as Jon Levenson in Abusing Abraham: Traditions, Religious Histories,
and Modem Misinterpretations, use Abraham as an example to illustrate the idea
that spirituality and religious belief are not subject to the same ethical constraints that
humans face in their day to day lives and that both Kants and Kierkegaards attempts
to derive practical norms for ourselves immediately and directly from Abrahams
4


experience in Genesis 22 is thus a denial of the Torah rather than an implementation
of it (10).
The term faith, as used by Kierkegaard, describes an acceptance of the
irrational nature of God and the world he created, unquestioning obedience, and a
belief in the unsubstantiated, the impossible: But Abraham had faith and did not
doubt; he believed the preposterous (Kierkegaard 20). In essence, the very thing
Kant dislikes about deriving moral imperatives from Gods commands is the very
thing Kierkegaard exalted about ones faith in Goduncertainty, which is why faith
is at the heart of ones relationship with God. It requires the believer to go on
believing, obeying, and trusting God, in the face of uncertainty.
I agree with Kierkegaards stance that Gods followers face an existential
dilemma regarding faith. I will argue that the concept of faith is a major impasse to
constructing moral oughts in the Hebrew Bible. Further, not only are moral
oughts impossible to construct and support with these stories, but Gods personal
relationship with the humans in the stories is at odds because of faith. The only thing
these characters are left with is angst, not in the Kierkegaardean sense of having to
know when to be a knight of faith and when to obey ethical duty, but in the
Nietzschean sense of complete disillusionment with God himself and any hope of a
rational world.
For Kierkegaard, contingency trumps universality in the religious life,
whereas universality trumps contingency in the ethical life. For a person living the
5


ethical life, ethical duty is universal in any situation. Kierkegaard concedes that
ethical duty does require universality, since moral oughts are not contingent on the
situation at hand, but are rules to be obeyed unconditionally. Murder, for example, is
never okay because ethical duty is universal, regardless of the contingencies of a
situation. Thus, in the ethical life, universality trumps contingency. The religious
life however, requires a person to acknowledge the ethical, and then suspend it, due
to the contingency of the situation. This paradox, as Kierkegaard calls it, does result
in an existential dilemma, but not in the way Kierkegaard explains it. Kierkegaards
paradox results from his acknowledgement that moral oughts are universally valid,
but that a person living the religious life understands that sometimes, depending on
the situation, these moral oughts may have to be suspended. Abraham is the
ultimate example. He knew that killing his son was a violation of the ethical. He also
believed that the ethical was valid, but because God commanded him to do this deed,
he knew that this situation was different, contingent on something other than the
ethical. He says that Abraham is either a murderer or a man of faith since he does
not intend to sacrifice Isaac for any ethical obligation, but instead for a higher
purpose (or telos): By his act he transgressed the ethical altogether and had a higher
telos outside it, in relation to which he suspended it.... It is not to save a nation, not
to uphold the ideas of the state that Abraham does it; it is not to appease the angry
gods (Kierkegaard 59). Abraham suspends the ethical because God demands proof
of his faith and also for his own saketo prove it (Kierkegaard 59). His obligations
6


to Isaac as his son were the highest form of ethical obligation, and he knows this, yet
he suspends the ethical, and is willing to kill his son, for a higher purposeGods
will.
Kierkegaard uses Abraham as an illustration of his knight of faith, because
the sacrifice, according to Kierkegaard, was an ethical sacrifice, since he was asked
by God, to sacrifice his only son: .. to money I have no ethical obligations, but to
the son the father has the highest and the holiest (Kierkegaard 28). According to
Kierkegaard, Abraham contemplates Gods request. In the moment he raises the
knife to kill Isaac, he has anxiety. Should I kill my son? Isnt it wrong to kill Isaac?
Kierkegaard imagines Abrahams anxiety at the moment of sacrifice: Abraham made
everything ready for the sacrifice, calmly and gently, but when he turned away and
drew the knife, Isaac saw that Abrahams left hand was clenched in despair, that a
shudder went through his whole bodybut Abraham drew the knife (Kierkegaard
14). Abrahams angst results from his uncertainty. Kierkegaard describes the
religious life as one of angst, since the person will be asked by God to suspend the
ethical for the religious, but that one will never know when he will be asked to do so.
The uncertainty stemming from Gods expectation of faith leads to anxiety and dread.
Kierkegaard acknowledges that the religious life, a life of faith, requires a
person to place contingency over universality, but what Kierkegaard does not
acknowledge about Abrahams faith that becomes so problematic is that like moral
oughts, it requires universality on the part of the believer. So, not only does the
7


faithful person have to recognize that situations involving God may require the
believer to adjust to the contingencies (for some unknown reason, God has
commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac), but the persons faith must be
unconditional, universal. God requires a faith that is at once universal and contingent.
This paradox, unlike the one Kierkegaard describes, is not reconcilable. Each
possible outcome pits the moral against the faithful. If Abraham obeys God and
sacrifices Isaac, he is faithful, but willingly violates moral law. If he refuses to heed
Gods immoral command to sacrifice Isaac, he remains moral, but not faithful to God.
According to Kierkegaard, this dilemma requires the knight of faith to know when
to suspend the moral for the religious, when actually, the two cannot be reconciled,
because Abraham cannot be at once faithful to God and moral. The resulting
dilemma is existential.
If Abrahams story is a perfect example of the suspension of the ethical for a
higher religious calling, the practical example for Kierkegaards ethical lesson, the
Book of Job might be considered the theory behind it. Whereas the adekah shows a
character (Abraham) experiencing the way in which faith conflicts with moral
oughts, Job contains a response to why this conflict exists. The answer in Job
makes Abrahams plight far more unsettling. Similarly, Adam and Eves moral test
in Genesis two again reveals Gods expectation of faith, which makes universal,
moral oughts impossible to construct. Gods test of faith is yet again problematic
for Cain, because God does not explain his reasons for preferring Abel over his
8


brother. Cains inability to understand Gods preference leads to jealousy, and finally
murder. Noah also grapples with the conflict of faith: he is expected to believe
unconditionally when God tells him of the future flood, yet Gods reasons for the
flood are not revealed to Noah, and the expectation that Noah will save only his
family violates a moral ought that seems obviousone ought to help others if
he/she knows their imminent destruction is near.
The answer to the question posed by Fackenheim, Is ethical universality
absolute? is no. The only thing that is universally absolute, according to these
stories from the Bible, is faith. But, it is also contingently absolute. The characters
are left with a system of ethics that is highly contradictory. The theme emerging from
the Bible after reading these stories, one after the other, is similarly disconcerting and
seems to be answered best by Job: one can never understand God. This realization is
especially problematic since as mentioned earlier, unique to the Bible is the
expectation of a personal, faith-based, relationship with God. What is so problematic
about the expectation of faith is that the God they are supposed to have faith in is
irrational, unpredictable, and often immoral. The resulting theme is largely
existential, just as occurs in Camuss The Stranger. The difference is that the Bible is
used by many to ponder moral questions in a way that a text such as The Stranger is
not.
For the purposes of this paper, I will focus on the stories from the Hebrew
Bible in which moral oughts conflict with faith in a way that cannot be reconciled.
9


Since Kierkegaards examination of the akedah is what prompted my initial interest in
this topic, I have included it in my introduction, to establish the background to which
the other four stories will be compared. It was necessary to use the Abraham story to
define terms such as contingent and universal, as they apply in my paper. Before
getting to the other stories, though, I will first delve into the possible approaches to
the Bible as a text, since much literature exists concerning how these different
approaches affect the meaning derived from the stories. I will then start my
examination with the Book of Job. Though it follows the other three stories, it is
often called a philosophical novel, and separated from the other stories in the Bible,
so it would be most helpful to begin with it, as it contains a theoretical response to
Abrahams dilemma, and provides the longest, most in-depth interaction between
God and his followers, of any of the five stories. I will then shift my focus to the
characters in Genesis, and compare them to both Abraham and Job. Finally, I will
end with an analysis of all four stories as a confirmation of Nietzsches God is
Dead proclamation, by showing that the existential dilemma faced by the characters
in the Hebrew Bible is irreconcilable.
10


CHAPTER 2
POSSIBLE APPROACHES TO THE TEXT
Because the Bible differs from other literary texts, many scholars, such as Eryl
Davies, have struggled to come to terms with the ethically problematic passages of
the Hebrew Bible by taking a more systematic look at the different possible
approaches to the text (Davies 197). Davies outlines six possible approaches to help
readers reconcile the morally problematic passages of the textthe evolutionary
approach, the canon-within-a-canon approach, the holistic approach, the paradigmatic
approach, the reader-response approach, and the cultural relativists approach.
Many of these approaches have similarities to one another, but each suggests a
slightly different way to approach the text in order to address the morally troubling
passages. In addition to the morally dubious passages previously mentioned (those
in Genesis and Job), Davies also refers to the annihilation passages, which relate
acts of extreme violence and bloodshed, andto make matters worsesuch acts are
often performed at the express command of God himself (Davies 198).1
1 Deut. 7:1-2, 20:16-18, Joshua 6-11,1 Samuel 15:3, Numbers 31:1-2. God expressly commands his
followers to wipe out entire tribes, to kill babies and young children, and to take the women as their
war prizes.
11


The evolutionary approach is based on the idea that cultures evolved
gradually from a lower to a higher level of civilization (Davies 200). In this
approach, Gods troubling commands are tempered with the acknowledgement that
they were limited to the humans ability to understand them. Thus, God was only
part of the problem. The rudimentary ethical and religious understanding of the
people also contributed in the problematic passages, though luckily, just as humans
evolved, so did God. The canon-within-a-canon approach is based on the slogan,
use what you can (Davies 208). This approach discards the objectionable material
and retains the useful. The holistic approach is similar, in that it suggests that
the so-called offensive passages of the Hebrew Bible are problematic
only when viewed in isolation; if we consider the message of the Bible
as a whole and respect its overarching perspective and overall
intention, the ethically objectionable passages do not prove to be quite
such a stumbling block. (Davies 212)
The paradigmatic approach suggests that it is only if the law and narratives in the
Hebrew Bible are taken too literally that they become a problem. But, if one learns to
sort out the underlying objectives, the stories can serve as valuable guide[s] for
human conduct (Davies 216). Davies concludes that the reader-response approach
proves to be the best strategy to deal with many of the passages of concern because it
allows readers to engage in their own dialogue with the text in a way that allows them
to disagree with problematic passages.
One of the most popular and widely used approaches to the Bible is what
Davies calls the cultural relativists approach. Proponents of this approach suggest
12


that the Bible must be read with its original historical, social, and cultural context in
mind. Davies explains that proponents of this approach recognize that .. the
ethical values of the Hebrew Bible are historically conditioned; they were
promulgated for a particular people at a particular time and in a particular place and
were not necessarily intended to have universal application (Davies 205). Therefore,
for the cultural relativist, the question of whether or not moral oughts can be
extracted from the Hebrew Bible is not a question that can or should be asked in
isolation of the historical context from which it emerged. This approach is also the
historical-critical approach.
Many scholars using this approach describe the fairly recent discoveries in
biblical archeology that have answered some of the questions that surround the time
period prior, during, and after the events described in the Bible. Many theories exist,
but here, I will address two of these theories in an attempt to prove that neither theory
reconciles the philosophical problems presented by several stories in the Hebrew
Bible regarding faith and ethics.
The more popular of the two theories is shared by many scholars and seems to
shed light on the annihilation passages such as I Samuel 15:2 and Numbers 31:1-
2.2 Several scholars, including Roland de Vaux and William Albright share the idea
that the God of Israel was a tribal god, just like many of the other Semitic gods of the
2 In I Samuel, through Samuel, the Lord tells Saul, Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all
that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep,
camel and ass (15:3). In Numbers, The Lord said to Moses, Take vengeance on the Midianites for
the Israelites. After that, you will be gathered to your people (New International Version 31:1-2).
13


time. The Israelites were pastoral nomads who were never far from oases or from
the pasture lands of the Negab and Transjordan (Albright 257). Because they
traveled around the desert, water and grazing land for their flocks was of utmost
importance to them and to the other Semitic tribes of the same time period. James
Pritchards Ancient Near Eastern Texts shows the similarities between the different
groups of tribes that existed at roughly the same time in Arabia. And even in the
Hebrew Bible, in I Kings, Elijah scolds the people, saying, You have abandoned the
Lords commands and have followed the Baals (New International Version 18:18).
This reference to Baal confirms the existence of other tribes with other gods all vying
for the peoples loyalty. Albright notes,
It was fortunate for the future of monotheism that the Israelites of the
Conquest were a wild folk, endowed with primitive energy and
ruthless will to exist, since the resulting decimation of the Canaanites
prevented the complete fusion of the two kindred folk which would
almost inevitably have depressed Yahwistic standards to a point where
recovery was impossible. Thus the Canaanites, with their orgiastic
nature-worship, their cult of fertility in the form of serpent symbols
and sensuous nudity, and their gross mythology, were replaced by
Israel, with its pastoral simplicity and purity of life, its lofty
monotheism, and its severe code of ethics. (281)
Albright notes too that it is not surprising that Israels God became Yahweh, God of
the Hosts, one of whose primary functions was to defend His people against foes,
whose only aim seemed to be to destroy it utterly and to devote it to their impure
gods (287).
14


The idea of Yahweh as a tribal god explains why many of the passages in
which God tells his followers to destroy another group may not necessarily point to
his ruthlessness (though his commands are horrific), but instead, show that the
Yahweh of Israel was one of many gods of the time, determined to protect the people
of his chosen tribe. It also explains the Israelites unwavering faith, in many
instances, or redeemed faith, in the cases when Gods tribal members disobeyed him,
and then repented.
One explanation for the tests of Adam and Eve, Cain, Noah, Job, and
Abraham is that the God of the Hebrew Bible as a tribal god required loyalty on the
part of the believer: Compromise was no longer possible; either the pagan gods
existed or they did not exist, and if they did not exist it was well to sweep away all
other intermediaries between the invisible spiritual lord of the universe and His
people Israel (Albright 328-9). As a tribal god, Yahweh would require complete
devotion and as Albright points out, They [Israelites] had a real moral interest in
knowing why God did certain things, but the idea that any of Gods actions were
subject to general physical laws which man might discover by observation and
reasoning was totally foreign to them, as it was all pre-philosophical thought (328).
Thus the tribe themselves may not have believed that it was in their capability to
understand Gods choices and commands.
That Gods tests of Adam and Eve, Cain, Noah, Job, and Abraham were all
tests of faith, thus fitting with the tribal god theory, does not reconcile the fact that
15


the Israelites, with their severe code of ethics, were bowing to a God with no
identifiable system of ethics. This contradiction makes the extraction of moral
oughts from the Hebrew Bible impossible. If the God of the Hebrew Bible was in
fact a tribal god, concerned only with the survival of his chosen tribe, why then, is the
Hebrew Bible fraught with ethical dilemmas in which the characters are forced to
choose between a reasonable and often obviously moral choice and the immoral
command of God? Faith is not a sufficient answer to that question, since faith is
the very thing that puts the characters in the dilemmas. One explanation for Gods
acceptance of Abels sacrifice of the firstlings of his flock over Cains fruits of the
ground is that God preferred the gift of the pastoral nomads (the Israelites) to those of
the settled agriculturalists, but it doesnt explain Gods question to Cain, If thou does
well, shaft thou not be accepted? (Genesis 4:7). A tribal god might have wiped out
an entire group of people as he did in the annihilation passages, but he certainly
would not have wiped out his entire following as God did in Noahs time if he was a
jealous, proud God, competing with other gods of the time. The stories in the Hebrew
Bible contain ethical dilemmas that are much farther reaching than mere tribal
survival. What is still not clear is why. Why does God test the characters faith so
relentlessly? Why does God decide to wipe out an entire people whom he sees as
corrupt? Why does God forbid Adam and Eve from the Tree of Knowledge
without explanation, and why does he tell Cain that he need only do well and he will
16


be accepted? These questions are not easily answered by acknowledging the God in
the Hebrew Bible as a tribal god.
The belief that the Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible was a god of a group of
people with tribal mentality is only one theory. In The Tenth Generation, George
Mendenhall argues that the God of Israel is not a tribal god at all, but instead argues
that the idea of the Kingdom of God replaced kings power and sovereignty for a
more ethical authorityGod: The conflict between ancient Israel and the non-
Israelite population had nothing to do with ethnic identity. It was a conflict with an
old political regime or system of regimes which were rightly dying out all over the
civilized world because they valued power more than ethic, and valued property and
wealth more than persons (225). Mendenhall is careful to point out that the term,
Israelites, when referring to a certain ethnic group of people, is erroneous. In fact,
Israel is the designation of a religious community, of a large social organization, that
constituted the Kingdom of God (224). According to Mendenhall, the Kingdom of
God was a group of people, roughly twelve tribes, who had accepted the rule of
God (224). For Mendenhall, the God of Israel was not a tribal god, comparable to
other gods at the time, but instead, the Kingdom of God was a whole system of belief
which favored the ethical (peoples lives) over tribal mentality, which valued land
and individual tribal wealth.
Mendenhalls argument seems to be supported by the ethical lessons presented
to Adam and Eve, Cain, Noah, Job, and Abraham, and one could even argue that the
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God of the annihilation passages who commanded destruction of whole communities
was concerned with the ethical in the sense that the communities to be destroyed
valued something other than the ethical itself. What this theory does not reconcile is
that the God of many of the stories in the Hebrew Bible was not ethical, and the
lessons he taught, as we have seen, did not result in moral oughts for the characters
involved, but instead, revealed God to be irrational, unpredictable, and unethical.
Mendenhall points out that in the Kingdom of God, ... ethic is based on an ability to
predict the consequences of behavior and to avoid patterns of behavior that create
conflict and that a state which sacrifices ethical obedience for temporary gain must
be destroyed by God himself (224). Yet Job was an ethical man, by all social
standards, and he was unable to predict the consequences, because God did not stick
to any ethical system. Similarly, according to God, Cains offering should have been
accepted, just as Abels was, but again, this simple formula did not hold true.
Both theories, the God of Israel as a tribal god and the Kingdom of God
as a place in which the ethical is valued above all else, are problematic when read in
conjunction with several stories of the Hebrew Bible. The tribal god theory makes
God a ruthless, vengeful deity whose only concern is the survival of his tribe who will
smite anything or anyone that gets in his way, and is really no different from the other
gods of the time. This theory helps explain some of the more disturbing annihilation
passages, but it does not reconcile the philosophical problems presented in Genesis
and the Book of Job. Mendenhalls theory that the people of Israel were led by an
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authority who was more concerned with ethics than power or wealth also does not
seem to be supported by the stories of Genesis and Job, which portray a God very
much concerned with supreme authority (over the characters), and very unable to
teach any ethical lessons. If anything, the God in the Hebrew Bible is a
combination of a tribal god and one who claims to value the ethical. He is vengeful
and ruthless in certain passages, and in others, he does seem to be trying to teach his
followers lessons about what is right and wrong according to his standards. He is just
not a very good teacher.
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CHAPTER 3
JOBS PLIGHT: FAITH VERSUS ETHICAL THEORY
After assigning the Book of Job to my 11th grade honors class as weekend
reading, the typical response I hear is that the Book of Job is about Gods test of faith.
Many respond that God tests Job to see if he will remain faithful in the face of
complete loss, and in the end, he is rewarded for his faithfulness. My students are
unable to explain why Jobs friends arent also rewarded, since they encouraged Job
to remain faithful and believe that God is just and does not punish the righteous. The
fact that Satan provokes Gods test of Job is also very confusing to the students. Our
discussions about Job are always very lively. I often get the sense, however, that
some of the students who have been taught this story in other settings leave class with
the same simplistic notion about Job: the faithful are rewarded.
The Book of Job is the material for entire books of religious, literary and
academic discussion, so my discussion here may seem incomplete in comparison.
My point in using Job is to illustrate Jobs plight as ethical theory and prove that in
the end, Job is left in an existential dilemma. Whereas Abrahams test is the practice
of ethics (or the suspension thereof), Job contains a dialogue about the theory behind
the practice. Job and his friends might well enough be talking about Abraham, and
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why God told him to sacrifice Isaac, when the command flew in the face of
everything Abraham knew about moral oughts, such as, one ought not kill his son.
Instead, they are questioning why someone such as Job, who seems so ethically
upright, would be suffering at the hand of God. Both scenarios present perplexing
ethical dilemmas with God at the helm.
That the Book of Job has more than one author should not mislead readers to a
false message. In his essay, Job and the Modem World, Eugene Goodheart points
out early on in his essay that the multiple authorship of Job does not compromise its
message:
The fact of multiple authorship, however, does little damage to the
coherence of the book;... Moreover, the conflict of intention is
superficial. One might say that the poetic passages represent a
deepening, rather than a contradiction of the original conception. (99)
Goodheart asserts that Job seeks to answer the question, why do the innocent
suffer? Goodheart does concede that the addition of the prologue raises the question
of intention, since Satan provokes God to test Job, and the epilogue sees that justice is
served, but he does not suggest that these changes affect the answer to the question.
Actually, the God of Job is careless, boastful, and most importantly, irrational,
and if anything, the prologue and epilogue reinforce these qualities. With or without
the prologue, God torments Job and takes everything from him. The idea that Satan
provoked him to do so only makes God seem proud and irrational. Why would God
need to prove to Satan that Job was faithful? Why would a rational God carelessly
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take everything from a righteous person to prove a point to Satan? In his essay,
Jobs Fifth Friend: An Ethical Critique of the Book of Job, David Clines raises
these very questions. He cites four reasons for ethical difficulty in Job:
1. The rationale for the imposition of Jobs suffering. 2. Jobs being
kept in ignorance of the reason of his suffering. 3. The nature and tone
of the divine speeches. 4. The apparent reaffirmation of the principle
of retribution at the end of the book. (233)
Three of Cliness reasons for ethical difficulty involve the inclusion of the prologue
and epilogue. The rationale for Jobs suffering (1) and Job being kept ignorant to the
reason for his suffering (2) are answered for readers in the prologue (God makes a
wager with Satan and he does not want Job to know about it). The apparent
retribution at the end of the story (4) is wholly contained in the epilogue, in which
God gives Job twice what he previously had.
Aside from the apparent retribution contained within it, the epilogue further
highlights Gods boastful, irrational ways. Without the epilogue, the story ends with
Job humbled by Gods power. God has made it clear that Job will never fully
comprehend Gods power or understand why God does what he does, including
giving Job twice what he originally had. Job concludes,
I know that you can do all things; / no plan of yours can be thwarted. /
You asked, Who is this that obscures / my counsel without
knowledge? / Surely I spoke of things I did not / understand, / things
too wonderful for me to know. / You said, Listen now, and I will /
speak; /1 will question you / and you shall answer me. / My ears had
heard of you / but now my eyes have seen you. / Therefore I despise
myself / and repent in dust and ashes. (42:2-7)
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Gods gift to Job of twice what he had before does suggest God is rewarding Job, but
not for his unwavering faith. After all, all three of Jobs friends were perfectly pious
in their responses to Jobs sufferingGod is just and only punishes sinners, so you
must have sinned:
Eliphaz: Consider now: Who, being innocent, / has ever perished? /
Where were the upright ever / destroyed? / As I have observed, those
who plow evil / and those who sow trouble reap it. (Job 4:7-8)
Jobs friends believe God to be just and rational. A rational God would not punish
the innocent; therefore, Job must have done something to deserve his punishment.
Jobs friends views of God serve as a contrast to Jobs view. Whereas his
friends are quick to defend Gods punishment of Job, Job feels that he is being
wronged, and does not deserve his punishment. He tells his friends that something is
awry, because he is a righteous man, and he too believes that his just God would not
punish a righteous man such as himself. He wants to speak to God in order to
understand what he has done to deserve his punishment:
Only grant me these two things, O God, / and then I will not hide from
you: / Withdraw your hand far from me, / and stop frightening me with
your / terrors. / Then summon me and I will answer, / or let me speak,
and you reply. / How many wrongs and sins have I / committed? /
Show me my offense and my sin. (13:20-23)
At this point, Job is skeptical about Gods purpose in punishing him. He is not
willing to accept, as his friends tell him to, that God is punishing him for his sins, and
he should be thankful to be corrected. But, because Job is a pious man, he wants an
23


answer from God; he wants to know why he is being punished. He asks God to show
him his sin.
Gods response to Job reveals that God is in fact an irrational figure who is
not always interested in divine justice. God shuns Job for darkening his counsel with
words without knowledge and proceeds to question Job about all the magnificent
things God has done that Job could never do. God does not ever answer Jobs
question about why Job is suffering at Gods hand. All God tells Job is that he has no
right to question the Almighty: Would you discredit my justice? / Would you
condemn me to justify / yourself? (40:8). Gods answer is essentially that humans
are not capable of understanding Gods power; therefore, they have no business
questioning it. Job is humbled by Gods answer, but the reader is not.
Dramatic irony is responsible for the readers enlightened view of the
situation. God does not share with Job the wager he has with Satan, but readers of the
text are privy to the information. Gods speech about his power and magnificence
loses a lot of its rhetorical pull, since the reader knows that the reason God took
everything from Job was to prove a point to Satan, and not because he is an all-
powerful being that does everything for reasons that only God himself can
understand. Gods willingness to take everything from Job because of a bet with
Satan reveals his character as unpredictable and unjust.
The epilogue, in which God rewards Job twofold in the end, only further
confirms Gods unpredictable tactics and refutes the claim that the message from Job
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is that the faithful are rewarded. God makes it clear to Job that humans can never
understand Gods power and therefore, they have no right to question it. Yet in the
epilogue, God rewards Job and punishes Jobs three friends who did not question
God, but were instead completely faithful in their belief that God was acting justly. It
seems that Kierkegaard is correct here in his assessment of the true religious lifea
life of faith is not about calculations. A person cannot assume that certain universals
apply to each situation, regardless of the situation. The message that the reader does
take from Job about why the innocent suffer is this: God may strike a pious person
down at any time, maybe because that person has sinned, maybe because God had a
bet with Satan, or maybe for no reason at all. Those who accept their fate blindly,
assuming they have sinned, will be dealt with harshly, possibly prayed for and spared.
Those who question God will be harassed for having the gall to question him, but
then will be rewarded twofold.3 If this conclusion seems an oversimplification of
Job, consider the response that the faithful are rewarded.
One argument is that Job is in fact more faithful than his three friends, and he
is similar to Kierkegaards Abraham, as a knight of faith. But even this reading
leaves problematic conclusions. Jobs faithfulness is not up for debate. What is up
for debate is why Job was rewarded for his questions to God while his friends were
punished for their blind following. The answer seems to be just thatJobs friends
3 God rewards Job with twice what he had before, including a new family. That Jobs original family
is never recovered is another ethically problematic element in the story. Like Abel, they perish in the
test of faith, and one must ask whether Jobs reward is even a reward at all.
25


had blind faith in God, believing God was just and rational, although not really
knowing for sure. Job, on the other hand, is faithful to God, but not blindly. He
wants to know what he did wrong so he can correct his behavior. What is
problematic about Gods answer is that God does not give an answer. In Answer to
Job, Carl Jung describes the dilemma:
To take the most obvious thing, what about the moral wrong Job has
suffered? Is man so worthless in Gods eyes that not even a tort moral
can be inflicted upon him? That contradicts the fact that man is
desired by Yahweh and that it obviously matters to him whether men
speak right of him or not.... At one moment Yahweh behaves as
irrationally as a cataclysm; the next moment he wants to be loved,
honoured, worshipped, and praised as just. He reacts irritably to every
word that has the faintest suggestion of criticism, while he himself
does not care a straw for his own moral code if his actions happen to
run counter to it statutes. (Jung 53)
Jungs solution to the problem of Gods dual nature is that God is not a conscious
being who reflects on his own behavior. According to Jung, Job assumed he could
expect the same from God that God expected from him:
Formerly, he was naive, dreaming perhaps of a good God, or of a
benevolent ruler and just judge. He had imagined that a covenant
was a legal matter and that anyone who was party to a contract could
insist on his rights as agreed; that god would be faithful and true or at
least just, and, as one could assume from the Ten Commandments,
would have some recognition of ethical values or at least feel
committed to his own legal standpoint. (Jung 50)
Jung touches on the central dilemma presented when biblical literature is used
religiously as a teaching tool for ethics, because are not all believers under the same
impression Job was under? How will they not be similarly disappointed? Or, is this
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instance just another one of Kierkegaards knight of faith moments in which one
never knows if the situation presented is one in which the believer should abandon all
belief in ethical and natural law?
Surely Job does not fit Kierkegaards definition of a knight of faith. He
questions God, and in the end, receives no answer. What he does share with
Kierkegaards knight is the feeling of anxiety. Because he never gets an answer from
God, in the end, he knows no more about why God struck him down than he did in
the beginning. How is Job to behave in the future? Gods response was far too
convoluted for Job to ever return to a belief that loyalty to God will protect a person
from suffering and harm at Gods hands.
Too, Gods answer is precisely what leaves Job in an existential dilemma and
not surprisingly, his answer centers on the concept of faith. God asks Job, Shall he
that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him? / he that reproveth god, let him
answer it (40:2), and
Gird up thy loins now like a man:
I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me.
Wilt thou also disannul my judgment?
Wilt thou condemn me, that thou mayst be righteous?
Hast thou an arm like God?
Or canst thou thunder with a voice like him?
Deck thyself now with majesty and excellency;
And array thyself with glory and beauty.
Look on every one that is proud, and bring him low;
And tread down the wicked in their place.
Then will I also confess unto thee
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That thine own right hand can save thee. (40:7-14)
God goes on to describe the behemoth and leviathan that he created and controls.
God criticizes Job for suggesting that Job mayst be righteous, but according to
Jobs ethical calculations, he is righteous. God questions whether or not Job can
thunder with a voice like him, and he tells Job that once Job can tread down the
wicked in their place God will concede that Job has the same kind of power.
According to Moshe Reiss in The Fall and Rise of Job the Dissenter, Gods
speeches emphasize the undeniable difference between man and God, (261) but
more interestingly, Reiss argues that Gods speeches suggest that the world is not
Man-centered; thus man cannot govern the world (262). This claim is interesting in
the face of Genesis 1:27-28, in which man is at the center of the world:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created
him; male and female created he them, And God blessed them, and
God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth,
and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the
fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
Clearly, the world in Genesis was actually very man-centered, and God gave man
the power to govern every living thing that moveth upon the earth. What Job and
Adam and Eve do share is their inability to understand Gods motives. Just as Adam
and Eve never knew why God forbad them to eat from the tree of knowledge, Job is
kept in the dark.
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Jobs existential dilemma results from the universal and contingent nature of
faith. God expects Job to be completely faithful, regardless of the situation. God tells
Satan of Job, .and still he holdeth fast his integrity, although thou moveth me
against him, to destroy him without cause (Job 2:3-4). Gods wager with Satan rests
on Jobs unwavering faithfulness; yet, Gods answer to Job requires that Job
understand that faith requires the faithful to recognize the contingencies of each
situation. Although Job does not know it, the contingency of this situationin
answer to why God would cause harm to Jobhappens to be a bet with Satan. Yet
God tells Job in so many words that Job can never understand Gods power or
actions, and Job should be humbled by God. In Prometheus and Job, Gilbert
Murray points out that in his speech,
God does not show, or even say, that He is righteous by human
standards of righteousness; what he does assert is that He is, in
Nietzsches phrase, Jenseits von Gut und Bose [Beyond Good and
Evil], and that the puny standards by which man judges right and
wrong simply do not apply to the power that rules the universe.
(Sanders 59)
Murray highlights a key point from Gods speech that God is not, according to
himself, bound to the human concept of justice. He does not feel it necessary to
explain why Job has suffered, probably because no reason exists, aside from his
wager with Satan. Yet, his answer raises his pedestal even higher. He is
incomprehensible, inexplicable, and unpredictable. Gods answer to Job requires that
Job understand that faith requires contingency in certain situations. One must
29


suspend his ethical expectations, his moral obligations, and his belief in natural law.
Gods answer requires that Job acknowledge that faith is not about calculations, like
his friends believed. And at the same time, Gods answer itself requires universal
faith on Jobs part. Job must trust God. His only other option is to stop believing in
God. The lack of answer leaves Job with nothing but his faith that God knows what
he is doing. It requires Job to have universal faith in God in every situation, but to
understand that sometimes the contingency of a situation requires that the faithful
suspend everything they know about their faith and just continue to be faithful.
Faith puts Job in the ultimate quandary. Some call it a question and answer
session with God, but really, Job is tormented, perplexed, brow-beaten, and
eventually reinstated to his former place in the world. The reason: his faith. He was
chosen by God to be part of the wager because of his unwavering faith, and he
understood, unlike his friends, that faith is not about universal calculations. God
reiterated this fact to him in the end. But really, where is Job left by the end of the
story? Sewell argues that the ending of Job is unsatisfying, but at least, God is good;
justice of a sort has been rendered; the universe seems secure (34). Actually, God is
neither good nor bad; a human concept of justice has been served (God rewards Job
for remaining loyal in the face of extreme suffering), but the universe seems less
secure than ever. Job has learned that he actually knows nothing about Gods idea of
justice or what God is capable of doing at any moment. Job has learned that faith is
paradoxical, and in the end, one never knows what will happen. Not even
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Kierkegaards knight of faith attitude can save him, because as he learned, God
holds all the cards, literally. In Jobs Questions and their Distant Reply: Goethe,
Nietzsche, Heidegger, Hans-Robert Jauss spends the last part of his article
describing Nietzsches famous proclamation, God is dead, in relation to Job: Sea,
horizon, sun, and earth constitute the center of the cosmic images in both texts. In
both cases, questions about these things are asked in order to demonstrate what man
cannot make or do given only his own capabilities (205). In referring to God,
Nietzsche was referring to a fixed point by which all things can be judged. One could
argue that Job renders God dead because it requires the impossible: universal
acceptance of a contingently-based system. If faith is the acceptance of the irrational
nature of God (and the universe), in which contingencies trump universals, as
Kierkegaard would argue, how can faith itself be an expected universal? If God is
irrational, changing, and inconsistent, how is faith in him expected as a universal?
Job is able to stay faithful, maybe because he does not know the details of the
contingencies of this situation (the wager), only that God has told him that these
contingencies exist. Actually, Job never speaks after his final comment about things
too wonderful for him to understand. All that is certain is that Job is rewarded two-
fold, he continues to be prosperous, and he dies at age one hundred and forty. Job
seems to accomplish the impossible; he masters the paradox. He remains faithful to
God, while acknowledging the fact that God is irrational, unpredictable and
incomprehensible. So actually, what he has faith in is nothing at all, since he will
31


never be able to comprehend what he believes in. The reader, too, realizes the
paradox, and the resulting existential message with which Nietzsche could agree.
In fact, Nietzsche could use Job as a poster boy for his agenda, if he had the
means. Jobs plight illustrates Nietzsches God is dead proclamation, as Jauss
pointed out. Job is a religiously pious man who fears God and behaves righteously.
He erroneously thinks he can predict how his life will unfold, based on what he
knows about God and the universe. He functions under the assumption that he will be
rewarded for his piety. Sadly, the world does not work that way. Job is tortured, and
when he turns to his God for answers, he is given none. Instead, he is told that he
will never understand divine power, so he should not presume to try. Job is given a
new family, returned his earthly possessions times two, and he lives out his life
without further strife. Job may not realize it, but readers doGod is dead, according
to the story of Job, because it leaves believers with the unsettling conclusion that the
world can never be understood.
The Book of Job has several striking similarities to Oedipus Rex, by
Sophocles, but whereas Oedipus is a tragic hero, Job is an existential victim. Both
involve divine intervention, both involve faith, but unlike for Job, faith is not the crux
for Oedipus. In fact, for the Greeks, faith was also a universal. Oedipus and his
father both believed what the oracle said about Oedipus killing his father and
marrying his mother. Their faith in the oracle is what motivated their life choices
throughout the play. Oedipuss tragic flaw was that he thought he could change the
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very thing he believed infate. In Expostulation with the Divine: A Note on
Contrasting Attitudes in Greek and Hebrew Piety, U. Milo Kaufmann gives a
succinct comparison of the two texts:
In Job the cosmic framework of the story testifies that God is in
control of his world, and it provides Jobs questionings with a cosmic
sounding board. In Oedipus Rex the cosmic framework suggests that
it is fate which is in control of the world. (Sanders 67)
The type of divine intervention has everything to do with faith. As Kaufmann notes,
in Job, God is in control of the world. Thus, Jobs fate is in Gods hands, and in
order for God to be appeased, Job must remain faithful to God. In Oedipus, fate
controls the world, and while Oedipus is expected to respect fate, no single god holds
the key to Oedipuss future: But in the last analysis, neither Apollo nor Zeus
determines what order is to be followed. The gods, like men, are by and large content
to accept the status quothings as they just happen to be (Kaufmann 67).
Therefore, Oedipuss faith is in the concept of fate itself. Greek faith lacks the
contingency of Hebrew faith, because contingency never exists. Kaufmann points out
that for Oedipus, once Teiresias announces that Oedipus is the lands pollution, it
is understood that his fate is sealed (67). Actually, his fate was sealed from the
moment of his birth, because, after all, the oracle is what prompted his father to
shackle his ankles and banish him to the woods. Unlike Jobs faith, which must
account for the contingencies of a situation, the Greek gods and mortals are sealed by
fate, which is a fixed concept. In both instances, however, faith is a universal.
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That both Job and Oedipus are expected to have faith in the divine is not what
separates hero from victim. Kierkegaard argues that Abraham is not a tragic hero
because tragic heroes do not suspend the ethical:
The tragic hero is still within the ethical. He allows an expression of
the ethical to have its telos in a higher expression of the ethical; he
scales down the ethical relation between father and son or daughter
and father to a feeling that has its dialectic in its relation to the idea of
moral conduct. Here there can be no question of a teleological
suspension of the ethical itself. (Kierkegaard 59)
Oedipus does seem to remain in the ethical; and in fact, his whole desire to
leave the man who raised him (whom he thought was his father) stemmed
from his desire to avoid the oracles decree that he would kill his father and
marry his mother, because of the obvious violation of ethical duty. Job, on the
other hand, does not seem to fit Kierkegaards definition of a tragic hero.
Like Abraham, he suspends what he knows about the ethical, in order to
understand Gods ways.4 Like Abraham, he is also an existential victim of
faith. Whereas Kierkegaard would argue that the religious life is the highest
form of life, in actuality, the faithful person is more a victim than a hero.
If Oedipus is a victim of fate, Job is a victim of faith. The final
message of his trying journey is a resoundingly existential one. Like
Abraham, all he is left with is the paradoxa universal expectation of faith,
with the understanding that he will never understand that which he believes
4 Whereas Abraham actually suspends the ethical by agreeing to sacrifice Isaac, Job suspends what he
knows about the ethical, since Job involves the theory, whereas Abraham is the practice.
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inan irrational, inconceivable God. Goodheart captures Jobs dilemma
perfectly in comparing Kafkas The Castle to Job: the human and divine
spheres are incommensurable and it is the moral tragedy of man that the
ultimate significance of his life is forever unavailable to him; in a word, he is
doomed to experience life as meaningless (Sanders 106). Job erroneously
assumed that Gods covenant with his followers included a predictable,
rational system of justice from which he could derive moral oughts and live
his life as a pious believer, protected by God and rewarded for his loyalty.
His realization that God does not conform to a human standard of justice and
that God does not necessarily protect or reward his followers leaves Job
doomed to experience life as meaningless because the ultimate
significance of his life is forever unavailable to him, as Goodheart puts it.
And, God seems to want to keep it that way.
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CHAPTER 4
GENESIS 2-3: THE FORBIDDEN FRUIT
The concept of faith is introduced early in the Hebrew Biblewithin the first
two chapters of the text. Genesis 2-3 are famous because they establish the first
human interaction with God, but more so because of the famous temptation passage,
in which humans forever change the future of the world with their disobedience.
Many readers and scholars discuss the implications for morality that this story poses,
with questions such as: Did Adam and Eve choose for all of humanity? Was their
disobedience the first instance of moral responsibility being exercised? Humphreys
suggests it was just that:
In this view of moral responsibility we act or refrain from acting as
adults, not solely because someone in authority or with power
commands or prohibits, often with the threat of punishment to back it
up, but because we judge it as appropriate in light of our own moral
knowledge of good and evil. (39)
Humphreys touches on the crux of the conflict between faith and the construction of
moral oughts in the temptation of Adam and Eve. Some might argue that the
creation story presents God as a predictable, rational deity with clear expectations and
consequences for his followers. Actually, the story presents the first instance in
which faith and morality are pitted against each other.
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Two central questions arise in studying the story: 1. Why did God forbid
Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge? and 2. Why did they decide to
disobey Gods command? Neither question can be answered with any certainty, but
what is certain is that God prohibited them from eating fruit from the tree, or they
would be punished. God does not give a reason for his prohibition, leaving them to
wonder why God would prohibit only this tree, especially since God told them, Be
fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over
the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that
moveth upon the earth (Genesis 1:28). Humphreys agrees that the command seems
arbitrary: We cannot too readily dismiss the impression that the command seems
arbitrary, a demand for unquestioning obedience to a prohibition for which no reason
is given, one that on the face of it makes no sense (37). Gods command requires
Adam and Eve to have faith in him and his command, even though they did not know
why he had commanded it. His expectation of faithfulness requires them to believe
unconditionally, while at the same time understand that this situation is different, and
they must just trust in God.
An over-simplification of the morality dilemma faced by Adam and Eve is
that they heard the command, they knew the consequences, and they should have
obeyed God. Yet this conclusion puts morality, faith, and ones relationship with
God in terms of calculations. Jobs conversation with God clearly reveals that ones
relationship with God is not about calculationspious people who follow Gods
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commands arent necessarily protected and rewarded. In his book, What Rough
Beast?, David Penchansky explores the different possibilities surrounding the reason
for Gods prohibition of the Tree of Knowledge. Penchansky speculates that one
reason God may have put the tree in such a prominent place if he did not want them
to eat it was to test their obedience: Through the test, YHWH/Elohim would
discover the extent of human loyalty (6-7). If the purpose is to test Adam and Eve,
God is putting them in a similar dilemma to both Job and Abraham. He asks them to
have faith that is both universal and contingent. This request proves to be very
complicated.
In answer to the second question, why did Eve defy Gods request, one must
look at the situation from her perspective to understand how faith complicates her
decision. Eve does not know why God forbad them to eat from the Tree of
Knowledge. She is not aware that God is testing her to see if she will obey him; all
she knows is that he has forbad fruit from this particular tree. For some reason, this
tree is different. Her choice to eat the fruit seems reasonable enough on its own, aside
from Gods firm command against it. If not for Gods command against it, the
consequences that her eyes shall be opened and she will know good from evil seem
desirable. The problem is that God does not explain the reason for his request. He
demands complete faithfulness, while at the same time, he expects Eve to understand
that in this situation, she cannot eat from the tree, but she is free to eat from any other
tree. It is not a universal expectation to avoid any tree, but in this case, they must
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obey. The universal and contingent principles of faith prevent the construction of
moral oughts, since they cannot take any universal principles of behavior from this
situation for future use, aside from, obey God. It is like telling a child, you should
eat green beans because they are good for you, but you cannot eat them from this
particular plant, and not telling them why. The child would not come away from the
situation knowing how to behave in the future since in most cases, he/she should eat
the green beans, but in one particular situation, he/she should not, and he/she does
not know what the difference is between the two situations. How does one know
when he/she should eat the beans and when he/she should not? Adam and Eve are
left in a similar bind.5 The situation also leaves them in an existential dilemma.
For Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-3, Gods prohibition of the Tree of
Knowledge complicates the characters construction of moral oughts beyond
reconciliation. As Humphreys points out, being moral is about personal
responsibility, and not about obeying an authoritative command because of the fear of
impending punishment. Gods expectation of unconditional faith through obedience
prevents Adam and Eve from making their own choices, because they are supposed to
just follow Gods commands, which in turn, places the constructs of morality in
Gods hands. Thus faith itself prevents the characters from constructing their own
moral oughts. God is in control of their choices. Yet Gods morals are not
5 Though eating from the Tree of Knowledge is not immoral in the same way Gods commands in
the annihilation passages are, this instance is still very much about Adam and Eve learning about what
they should and should not do. Thus it is also about constructing universal principles about how to
behave.
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oughts, but rather, mights, because as seen with Job and Abraham, having faith is
all about embracing contingency and remaining faithful in the face of it. Gods
expectation of unconditional faith in him requires that they choose Gods choice, and
not their own, in deciding whether or not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, which is
really not a choice at all.
Gods punishment of Adam and Eve confirms that the prohibition was a test
of faith, and they failed it. Unlike Abraham and Job, who obey Gods commands,
Eve does not. Aside from disobedience of God, she did not commit a moral wrong,
but she did not stay faithful, and God punished them for it. Penchansky points out
that one convincing detail that supports the theory that the prohibition of the Tree of
Knowledge was a test is that God does not carry out the punishment he promised: If
we see the prohibition as a test, that would explain why the divine threat (... you
will die instantly) was never carried out. Just as God never intended to allow
Abraham to destroy his son, he never meant to carry out the punishment against the
first humans (7). God tested her faith in him and she wavered.6
As a mythic story that explains the reason evil and death exist in the world,
the story has striking similarities to the story of the first humans from Greek
mythology, but one of the main features that differentiates it from the Greek myth is
6 Whether or not the serpent was a Satan figure, or just another creature which the Lord
God had made is inconsequential to the purpose and outcome of the story. Ultimately, Eve
makes the decision to eat the forbidden fruit. God has withheld information concerning the
reason to forbid the fruit from this particular tree, and Eve puts her faith in God's discretion
aside in favor of a choice that seems more reasonable to her at the time.
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the expectation of faith that is so central to the story. In both stories, a jealous god
fears his position of power over humans has been compromised, but in the Greek
story, the gods are responsible for the loosing of evil on the world through Pandoras
box, whereas in the biblical story, humans faith in and obedience to God is the crux
of the story. Many scholars, including Humphreys, note that the creation of humans
in the image of God is a limited replication, because though God may have created
them in his image, he wants to rule over them in a way that suggests inequality of
status between man and God. Gods desire for humans to have faith in him illustrates
the desire on his part to rule over humans to some degree: Humans, that part of his
creation that most threatens hierarchy, may be in the image and likeness of God, but
they will not be like/as Gods (Humphreys 50). God holds all the answers and the
power. Adam and Eve defy him and they are punished. In the Greek myth, humans
face a similarly jealous god in Zeus, but Zeuss retributive moves are not directed at
humans. As Jung points out, Zeus is disinterested in the group as a whole, and only
wants to maintain his higher status as a god: Against mankind as a whole, he had no
objectionsbut then they did not interest him all that much (Jung 30). While the
Greek gods war against one another renders the humans in the stories powerless, it
does not render them existential victims. Fate is still very much intact, and even if
that means humans have little or no control over their own lives, the world makes
sense, to some extent, since fate is not based on the changing whims of an irrational,
unpredictable deity, such as the God in the Hebrew Bible.
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While fate allows the humans some semblance of order in the Greek tradition,
faith renders Adam and Eve confused and powerless to Gods punishment; they are
existential victims. The contingent nature of faith requires that they understand that
with faith comes the understanding that God makes the rules and humans do not get
to know the rules. They must just have unconditional faith in God. They are
expected to believe in God and understand that they will never understand Gods
motives, commands, or choices. God and the world are not predictable and the best
they can do is to obey God. They also learn that their moral guide is God, and Gods
moral guide is contingency. The construction of moral oughts is therefore
impossible, since God does not allow them to make their own choices; being moral in
Gods world means obeying God. In conclusion, the only thing they have left to hang
onto is their faith in God. In future situations, what should they do? Obey God. Yet,
obeying God means obeying something they can never understand. They are left in
their place next to Jobin an indifferent world with an irrational, unpredictable God
at the helm. Should they continue to believe in a God that they dont understand, or
should they just stop believing?
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CHAPTER 5
THE GREEN-EYED MONSTER: CAINS SIN
Although incredibly short, the story of Cain and Abel reveals much about
Gods relationship to humans and his expectation of a universal and contingent faith
system. Cains situation is strikingly similar to Jobs; just as God tests Job by taking
everything from him, he tests Cain by rejecting him. In both cases, God gives no
reason for his actions. Although Job is able to remain faithful in the face of confusion
and betrayal, Cain is not.
The crux of this story is not Gods rejection of Cain, but Gods contradictory
advice to Cain after he rejects him. God describes a very simple behavior system to
Cain: If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin
lieth at the door: and unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him
(Genesis 4:7). This advice seems strikingly similar to Jobs friends advice to Job,
but in this case, God himself has made the decree. Ironically, God gives this advice
to Cain after Cain has made an offering of the fruit of the ground to God, to which
[God] had not respect (Genesis 4:5). Gods description of how to be accepted
seems simple enough, but it is given in the face of a very recent rejection, since God
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has just accepted Abels offering, and not Cains.7 God asks of Cain what he asks of
Job: in the face of unwarranted suffering, remain faithfid to me. Gods request of Job
is much more outright, but subtly, he is asking the same thing of Cain. In addition,
God plants a seed of doubt by putting the advice in the form of a question: If thou
does well, shalt thou not be accepted? The question is rhetorical, but in the face of
his recent rejection, it is even more condescending. God asks Cain the question as if
to suggest that Cain knows the answer, knows how to be accepted by God. Yet God
has not accepted Cain, and Cain does not know why, just as Job does not know why
God has made him suffer.
Cain is a victim of faith in the same way that Job is a victim. Cains offering
has just been rejected by God while Abels offering has just been accepted. Cains
reaction is not surprising: And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell
(Genesis 4:5). His reaction is similar to JobsI did my part for God by making an
offering, just like my brother, so why am I being punished? In his essay, Cain,
Abel, Obligation and Right, Gary Inbinder notes that, According to ancient
Rabbinic commentary, Cain is an adumbration of the atheistic existentialist who, in
perceiving the injustice of the world from the perspective of one who feels slighted by
7 When read in its historical-critical context, some scholars suggest that Gods acceptance of Abels
gift over Cains is dependent on the offering: Abel offers the first of his flocks, which a god of the
pastoral nomads who values herding over agriculture, would prefer to an offering from the ground.
Yet, both Abel and Cain are followers of God, and the real dilemma here results from Gods
explanation to Cain about how to be accepted. The dilemma would not exist if God had said to Cain,
the reason I prefer Abels offering is because of the offering itself and the occupation of the offerer.
The problem occurs because God does not explain himself to Cain.
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partiality in judgment, rises up in anger and slays his brother (192). Inbinder is
referring to a section taken from the Targum of the Pseudo-Jonathan, and the Cairo
Geniza, Neophyti I, and Fragment versions are quite similar. The Psuedo-Jonathan
version reads,
(A) 1 Cain answered and said to Abel,
I know that the world is created with mercies,
but it is not led according to the fruits of good deeds,
and there is favoritism of persons in judgment: for what reason was
your offering received
and my offering not received from me with favor?
II Abel answered and said to Cain,
the world is created with mercies,
and it is led according to fruits of good deeds,
and there is no favoritism of persons in judgment:
and because the fruits of my deeds surpassed yours
and were more timely than yours
my offering was received with favor.
(B) I Cain answered and said to Abel,
there is no judgment and there is no judge,
and there is no other world,
and there is no giving of good reward to the righteous
and there is no repaying from the wicked.
II Abel answered and said to Cain,
there is judgment and there is a judge,
and there is another world,
and there is giving good reward to the righteous
and there is repaying from the wicked. (Chilton 556)
Though the actual Bible does not provide dialogue between Cain and Abel, this
version from the Targum provides the reader with one view into the minds of Cain
and Abel. Inbinders conclusion that Cain is the existential atheist is an accurate one,
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in light of the above passages. Inbinder is wrong, however, when he argues that
[Cain] chooses to ignore the ought of Divine Command because he does not
want to do well in the eyes of God (191). Every indication in the story suggests that
Cain does want to do well in the eyes of God. He offers God the fruits of his labor
(literally), but he is rejected by God. His countenance falls after his rejection, which
suggests that he does want to please God, as Abel did, and he does not understand
why he has not been able to do so with his offering. The world does not make sense,
and morality is not a simple matter of the good getting rewarded and the wicked
getting punished. God does not tell Cain that he prefers Abels offering because he
prefers meat over fruit, as some critics suggest. He does not scold Cain for doing
something wrong, such as giving his offering begrudgingly, as other critics have
suggested. He suggests, by way of a question, that if Cain does well, he will be
accepted. Cain has already done what he thinks is good, and he has not been
accepted by God. The system that seems so straightforward has not held true for
Cain. T.A. Perry argues that Gods ambiguous language leads Cain to kill his
brother, but in actuality, Gods language is very straightforward: Do well, and you
will be accepted. His message is too simple; if anything, it leaves little room for Cain
to misinterpret it, making it even more devastating. Cain is confused, just as Job is,
but unlike Job, Cain does not seek answers from God about why he has been rejected.
In the next verse, he kills his brother, Abel.
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Cains dilemma is the result of Gods expectation of faith on the part of Cain.
Again, the universal and contingent nature of the expected faith conflicts with the
characters moral choices. Just as God withholds information from Adam and Eve,
and Job, he does from Cain too. He presents Cain with a system forjudging behavior
that does not work. He doesnt explain anything to Cain beyond, if you do well, you
will be accepted. He knows Cain is upset and confused, but he does not attempt to
explain how his system will work out eventually. He implies that Cain needs to trust
him, and everything will work out. He expects Cain to have unconditional faith in
him. In this case, God has rejected his offering. This situation is somehow contingent
on the offering itself, the way it was offered, or for some other reason that God does
not reveal. Just as God tests Adam and Eve, Job, and Abraham, he tests Cain, and
Cain fails the faith test, and unlike Job and Abraham, the heroes of their stories, Cain
becomes the villain.
Gods decree that the good are rewarded, and the moral message, fratricide is
wrong, are two overly simplistic conclusions that often surface (by readers) from a
story from which moral oughts are impossible to extract. God punishes Cain for
killing his brother. He denies him death, and instead marks him for a life of
alienation and scorn. In Genesis three, the prohibition and punishment are very
clearly established by God. In this story, the behavior and consequence are also very
clearly established by God, and this story is all about contingency too. If Cain does
well, he will be accepted. Just as it is for Adam and Eve, everything is in Gods
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hands. God decides if Cain will be accepted or not. God rejects Cain for reasons
unknown, just as he prohibits the Tree of Knowledge from Adam and Eve for reasons
unknown to the characters and readers. And just as he expects unwavering faith from
Adam and Eve, Abraham, and Job, God expects Cain to trust him too. In the Targum,
Cain says, there is no judgment and there is no judge, but in fact there is judgment
and there is a judge: God. The judge and the judgment, however, are not necessarily
just. Unlike Job and Abraham, Cain does not trust God nor does he master the
paradox of faith, and he is punished, but who is really to blame?
Like Job and Adam and Eve, Cain is an existential victim of faith, whether or
not he kills Abel. Gods declared moral system, do well and be accepted, is
delivered to Cain right after God rejects him with no explanation. Indirectly God is
telling Cain that Gods acceptance of Abel and rejection of Cain made no sense, but it
is not Cains place to understand why. God implies that Cain should trust in God,
even in the face of unexplained rejection, just as Job should trust in God in the face of
unexplained suffering. Unconditional trust in something that does not make sense
and is completely unpredictable is the kind of faith God desires. So, where did Gods
advice leave Cain, regarding future behavior? Should he continue to have faith in
God and do well, even though that did not work this particular time? Gods
answer: yes, because Cain and the other characters will never understand God or the
reasons he does what he does, and they should not try to do so. The only moral
oughts that Cain and readers might extract are, 1. listen to God, no matter what, and
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2. understand that you will never understand God, and even if you do follow his
commands, he may strike you down for no apparent reason. This information renders
Cains world unpredictable, unstable, and irrational: But he is also angry about being
forced to live in a world experienced as arbitrary and capricious, a world in which
Yahweh can and does have favorites for no apparent reason (Humphreys 60). Even
though Cain commits murder, it was God who provoked him:
Rather than overt action to change human beings, he now reacts in a
way that confuses humans. The effect is hopefully to keep them off-
balance, scurrying about to please, but never knowing if they have
succeeded. To introduce an element of the arbitrary is to exercise
control and to position others around what they now experience as an
unpredictable center. (Humphreys 56)
Although he kills his brother, Cain is a victim of faith.
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CHAPTER 6
DONT ROCK THE BOAT: NOAH AS THE KNIGHT OF FAITH
Noah and Abraham have much more in common than one might first think.
Both are commanded to do something that goes against the obvious ethical. Both
accept the command. Both are the heroes of their stories, and both, according to
Kierkegaards definition, are knights of faith. But, do these two deserve accolades
or criticism?
Noah is definitely not without criticism for his actions. Genesis: A Living
Conversation with Bill Moyers provides some interesting questions about Noahs
righteousness:
Karen Armstrong: My quarrel with Noah is that he doesnt ask God
about the other people. God says to him, Build an Ark and save your
family. Unlike Abraham, who argued with God to save the people of
Sodom and Gomorrah, Noah doesnt try to save anybody. So what is
righteousness? (129)
Armstrong is referring to Noahs apparent righteousness in comparison to the rest of
mankinds corruption:
And God 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 destroy
man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and
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beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth
me that I have made them. But Noah found grace in the eyes of the
Lord. (Genesis 6:5-8)
That Noah finds grace in Gods eyes while others do not is not the issue. The issue is
how Noah responds to Gods command. Lee Humphreys shares Armstrongs
puzzlement with Noahs unquestioning obedience:
Through most of the story Noah is seen and not heard. He does what
he is told, just as he is told to do it. Obedient and unquestioning, he
shows no qualms or feelings for his fellow living creatures.
Throughout the story Noah actsfirst on instructions, then on his own
initiative to worship. He never speaks, for this God may be a
Destroyer of others and Sustainer of his, but he is not a God Noah
might address. Unlike the Woman, the Man, Cain, and even the
Snake, Noah abides by the will and commands of the absolute
authority in his lifewithout expressed reservation or reflection. (68)
This lack of expressed reservation about Gods unethical command is precisely the
crux of the story. Is Noah a righteous knight of faith or a selfish, immoral man?
If this story is about Gods covenant with humans to never again curse the
ground any more for mans sake, the rainbow at the end seems fitting enough. But
as a story about ethics, it is very much complicated by the element of faith. Just as
God tests the other characters in Genesis and Job, Gods command to Noah is also a
test of faith, one that pits morals against faith in a way that cannot be reconciled. Just
as God commands Abraham to commit an obviously unethical murder of Isaac, God
commands Noah to do something equally as unethical. One might disagree, saying
that Abrahams hand will kill Isaac, whereas Noah will not actually kill anyone with
his own hands, but the commands are equally unethical, and as Humphreys noted,
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[Noah] shows no qualms or feelings for his fellow living creatures. Here again is
what Kierkegaard calls the dilemma of the religious life: suspend the ethical for a
higher calling. Noah is caught in the nets of faith in the same way Abraham was
caughthe knows he is violating the ethical by abandoning his fellow humans, but he
has been commanded by God to do it. Whether or not he actively reflects on the task
at hand, the ethical implications are apparent. Yet Noah does not waver. Unlike
Cain, he passes the test of faith.
Gods test of faith for Noah is similar to his test of faith for Abraham, but in
Noahs case, God does not spare all of humanity at the last moment. In both cases,
the contingent and universal nature of faith is apparent. In this situation, even though
Noah knows it is wrong to stand by when he knows his fellow humans will be
destroyed, he must obey God. He must suspend the ethical for a high religious
calling: Gods command. At the same time, his faith must be universal. It is not
required in this situation only, but in every situation, no matter what the command
might be. Noah does not disappoint God. He carries out the task with no questions:
And Noah did according unto all that the Lord commanded him (Genesis 7:5).
Although Noah is the hero of the story, he is also a victim of faith, and by the
end of the story, his righteousness is called into question by some. Bill Moyers points
out that, He builds his little altar, prays to his God, then goes off and gets drunk.
Somethings happened to this man (Genesis: A Living Conversation 140). Whether
or not his drunken episode was related to the destruction he had just witnessed, one
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cannot deny that Noah had to have been changed after the experience. Surely Noah
knew that amid the evil and corruption was some goodness that was wiped out along
with it. For Noah, being an innocent person no longer meant protection against Gods
wrath. Even with the new covenant in place, Noah must have had some doubts about
Gods command. God promised him he would not destroy his creatures by flood ever
again: ... and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh (Genesis
9:16). For some reason, this situation was different. Yet, Noah does not know when
another situation that is contingent upon things outside his comprehension will arise.
At any time, God can command his followers to do anything, and they must be
faithful. Next time, however, Noah may not be part of the plan.
The formula for faith described in the last paragraph is precisely that of
Kierkegaards religious life, which undoubtedly results in a life of anxiety and
apprehension. Noah must suspend the ethical (it is wrong to stand by while ones
fellow humans are destroyed) in exchange for a higher religious calling (God told him
to do so). Kierkegaard imagines that Abraham also suspends his belief in natural
laws that will render Isaac dead. Whereas God spares Isaacs life, he does not spare
life outside the ark, and all of humankind and animal kind are destroyed.
Again, faith prevents the construction of moral oughts in the story. Readers
might try to take away the message that when people are wicked, they must be dealt
with harshly by God. The New Testaments Book of Revelation even describes the
second coming of Christ, in which the believers will be saved and the sinners will be
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left behind. This New Testament concept hinges on the very idea that being a pious
believer will get one rewarded in the end. Noahs story contradicts this idea, since all
of humanity was wiped out, aside from Noah and his family. Surely some other
undeserving Noahs and Jobs were wiped out in the flood too. And again, God made a
covenant with Noah and future humans to never again destroy his creatures by flood.
Yet, as readers have seen in other stories, the contingencies of a situation may require
that God go against his word and punish even the righteous, if only to test their faith.
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CHAPTER 7
CONCLUSION
The Hebrew Bible is a unique text in that it is used for both literary and
religious purposes in a way that few other texts are used. Those reading the text as a
piece of literature, as one might read Frankenstein or The Stranger, are faced with the
difficult task of explicating the text to create a coherent picture of the character of
God.
Those using the Hebrew Bible as a guide for moral behavior have an even
more difficult task of trying to figure out what is it that God expects from his
believers, and how he expects them to behave. Often, simple moral messages such
as, the faithful are rewarded, and sinners are punished are the moral lessons that
surface from a religious reading of the text, as readers try to explain away the
inconsistencies within and between the stories.
At the heart of both approaches is a philosophical problem that is directly
related to faith. The term faith used here is a philosophical one, and it is what causes
a dilemma for many characters in the Hebrew Bible. Is the Hebrew Bible a text about
how to behave properly? No. Can one construct moral oughts by reading the
stories in the Hebrew Bible? No.
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A historical-critical approach to the Bible does not reconcile the ethical
problems presented by several stories in the Hebrew Bible because these problems are
philosophical, and the Bible as a literary text raises more questions than a study of the
time period can answer. The result for both the characters and readers is an
existential dilemma. Characters are unable to form moral oughts based on Gods
commands, and readers who want to use the Bible as a moral guide are left in a
similar dilemma. They can 1. accept the harsh ethic of the Bible and thus condone
murder in the name of God; 2. decide that, taken out of context, the stories of the
Bible have little to do with todays world and cannot be applied in any context aside
from the one that produced it; or 3. they can accept the Bible for its value as an
ancient text, realizing that it is not a guide for living. Modem day readers who want
to live by the Bible face a difficult dilemma, and many will still use faith as a way
to reconcile the confusing or ambiguous aspects of the text, and will argue that they
must have faith in God, even when his actions are unexplainable or undesirable in the
face of ethics. For readers who are disappointed by Gods wrathful commands, as in
the annihilation passages, or his boastful nature in the Book of Job, the historical-
critical approach might be a way for them to rationalize why God acted the way he
did, but they will still be unable to use the text as a guide for their behavior in the 21st
century.
For scholars, this dilemma is not so easy to reconcile, since as explained, faith
is the very cause of the existential dilemma. In each of the stories (Adam and Eve,
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Cain and Abel, Noah, and Job), God presents the characters with tests of faith.
Because he does not explain his reasoning or intention to any of the characters, or
readers for that matter, the commands require that the characters have faith in
Gods judgment, that a good reason exists for God to expect or prohibit one thing or
another. Yet, in each case, Gods reason is not one that can be pinned down. Each
situation is contingent in some way on something else. Thus, the characters are
confused and left with no plan for future behavior about how to please God. Cain
learns this lesson the hardest, after Gods rejection sends him into a jealous rage
against his brother. One could argue that Abel is actually the prime victim, since he
died because of Gods test of Cain. Adam and Eve face the first moral test by God
since God expressly told them not to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, but
did not tell them why. They failed the test of faith, but Eve exercised moral choice,
even though it was not Gods choice for her. The only moral ought these characters
could have possibly taken away was that one must always obey God. Noah and Job
were lucky to have mastered the paradox of faith, but at what cost? Both are left with
an uneasy feeling that at any moment, God could strike them down, and he neednt a
reason to do so.
These characters all have one thing in common: their faith in God puts them in
the ultimate dilemma. They are expected to remain faithful to God, even when it
makes no sense to them, morally or reasonably, and at the same time, they are
expected to understand that the contingent nature of faith requires them to do so.
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Thus, the only universal moral ought they could possibly extract from their
situations is that faith itself is a universal moral ought. According to God, they
must always be faithful. By definition, something that is a universal is unconditional,
leaving no room for contingency. Something universal must be applied in every
situation, regardless of the contingency that may exist. But as the characters found
out, their situations are all about contingency. In each situation, God expressly
commands them to do something that is contingent on one situation alonethis tree,
this offering, this corruption of mankind, this instance of suffering. Because they are
followers of God, they want to be faithful, but in each situation, because they are
faithful, they face an ethical dilemma set forth by God. Kierkegaards answer almost
seems too simple a way out: suspend what one knows about everything and have faith
that what God is commanding is ethical in itself. But for Job, Cain, and Eve, that is
not good enough, just as it is not good enough for many readers today. The only real
message put forth by these stories from the Hebrew Bible is existential.
The question that remains unanswered is, why have faith in God? The
characters in these four stories are all left with nothing but anxiety. Isnt the purpose
of faith to believe that there is some force out there that is just, that is rational, and
that is pulling for the people who are faithful? These stories show that God is not like
that at all. He plays games with the faithful. None of the characters is any better off
because of his/her faith in God. Yes, they survived, but then, the only thing that was
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left was angst about the next contingent situation that would require their universal
faith. They were put in the ultimate dilemmas.
These stories seem to support Nietzsches famous mantra, God is dead:
Whither is God? he cried; I will tell you. We have killed himyou
and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How
could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the
entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth
from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving?
Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward,
sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down?
Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the
breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night
continually closing in on us? (181)
The speaker could easily be speaking to Adam and Eve, Job, Cain, Noah, and even
Abraham, since are these characters not plunging backward, sideward, forward, in
all directions, because of their recent encounters with God? The speakers claim that
we have killed God refers to the fact that the concept of God was created by
humans and thus they are the ones to kill it, by stopping belief in it. After all, for
Nietzsche, humans inability to cope with the worlds irrationality is what inspired
them to create God. So if God himself is rendered irrational and unpredictable,
according to Nietzsche, he is dead. To Cain and Eve, God might as well be dead, but
Job, Noah, and Abraham still cling to their belief in the entity. According to
Nietzsche, believers hold onto their belief because they are weak: How much one
needs a faith in order to flourish, how much that is firm and that one does not wish
to be shaken because one clings to it, that is a measure of the degree of ones strength
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(or, to put the point more clearly), of ones weakness (The Gay Science 287). The
question then becomes, does obeying God show strength, as Kierkegaard would
argue, because it is difficult? Or, does obeying God show weakness, because in
doing so, one sacrifices his/her own will, as Nietzsche suggests?
Nietzsche argues that it is the followers of God who have tarnished Gods
image, making him a good god. In The Antichrist, he writes,
What would be the point of a god who knew nothing of wrath,
revenge, envy, scorn, cunning, and violence? Who had perhaps never
experienced the delightful ardeurs of victory and annihilation? No
one would understand such a god: why have him then? (Portable
Nietzsche 583)
The god of the Hebrew Bible, as discussed, is one who knows wrath, revenge, scorn
and annihilation, and according to Nietzsche, this image is a god who represented the
people. But, as Nietzsche goes on to explain, people have turned him into a good
god who moralizes constantly, [and] crawls into the cave of every private virtue,
[and] becomes God for everyman... (Portable Nietzsche 583). Nietzsche blames
the church for the invention of the moral world order:
What does moral world order mean? That there is a will of God,
once and for all, as to what man is to do and is not to do; that the value
of a people, of an individual, is to be measured according to how much
or how little the will of God is obeyed; that the will of God manifests
itself in the destinies of a people, of an individual, as the ruling factor,
that is to say, as punishing and rewarding according to the degree of
obedience. (Portable Nietzsche 596)
This moral world order that Nietzsche writes about is exactly the situation that
occurs today as people try to use Gods will to judge theirs and others behavior. The
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wrathful, scornful, envious god does not support these aims, so God has been changed
to a good god, which is an image that is not supported by the stories in the Hebrew
Bible.
The characters who struggle with their faith in God illustrate Nietzsches
concept of nihilism. The characters expectations of God as a rational deity in a
predictable world have not held true, and each has discovered that they will never
understand God, so what the characters believe in is really nothing at all, since they
do not understand God or his ways. They are living lives of angst, some committing
obvious moral wrongs in the name of God, and never knowing what is next. Is that
faith? Yes, but at what cost? Their lives have been reduced to their faith in God,
which is no comfort. According to Nietzsche, they have become part of the herd, and
until they can recognize that God is an illusion that they created, they will be nihilists.
Luckily, hope still exists for people to recognize their error:
But someday, in a stronger age than this decaying, self-doubting
present, he must yet come to us, the redeeming man of great love and
contempt, the creative spirit whose compelling strength will not let
him rest in any aloofness of any beyond.... This man of the future
who will redeem us not only from the hitherto reigning ideal but also
from that which was bound to grow out of it, the great nausea, the will
to nothingness, nihilism; this bell-stroke of noon and of the great
decision that liberates the will again and restores its goal to the earth
and his hope to man; this Antichrist and antinihilist; this victor over
God and nothingnesshe must come one day. (GM II 24)
Whether he is referring to the madman who calls it before his time, or a reformed Job,
Noah, Abraham, Cain, Adam or Eve, Nietzsche has faith that in due time, humans
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will realize the illusion they believe in so vehemently is just that, an illusion. Faith
put characters in the ultimate dilemmas, and for Nietzsche, recognizing the weakness
of faith is the true crux.
i
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CHAPTER 8
REFLECTION
As a scholar, these conclusions about the stories in the Hebrew Bible are
satisfying and justifiable, but as a teacher catering to a largely Christian population,
and as a Christian myself, these conclusions are not so easily accepted. One of my
biggest challenges in teaching biblical literature is getting the students to separate
their religious beliefs from their academic endeavors. For some students, the
realization is too much, and they refuse to acknowledge that the Bible contains
problematic passages about God himself. Many leave my class with the same
simplistic moral messages they have been taught in religious settings. Often, their
parents support their inability to explicate the text accurately, because they too wish
to hold on to what they have been taught and are comfortable acknowledging. Others
seem to recognize, as I did when I first studied the Bible in an academic setting, that
the troubling passages do complicate ones view of God, but that the Bible is one text,
both wonderful and flawed, and just as good literature raises eyebrows and causes
uneasiness, so does the Bible. After all, it is capturing humanity. These students
often embrace the complexities of the stories, and leave with a strong understanding
of the stories, well-equipped to go on to further study of the Bible as a text.
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Finally, and I classify myself in this group, are those who recognize the Bible
as a literary text, but are also unable to uncouple their religious beliefs from the Bible
because they are inextricably linked. These are the students who grew up at Sunday
school, attended summer bible camp, and spent hours listening to the stories in the
Bible and really believing in a higher power that could ease their burdens. It is not
until they really sit down and read the stories in the Bible that they realize that the
God portrayed in the text is not who they thought it/he/she was.
The problem here is not necessarily ethical, since many of these students do
not rely on the Bible as a guide for their behavior, but is more of a spiritual dilemma,
since the God they thought they had been taught about, the God they thought they
knew, is not found anywhere in the Bible. Where does a study such as this one leave
them? My answer to them and for myself is this: we must find better teachers. Those
who are teaching the Bible in a religious setting need to be more responsible about
the way they are including the Bible as part of a religious study of God. They are the
ones who need to do a close reading of the text before preaching about a God whom
they themselves cannot find in the text. They need to point out the inconsistencies,
embrace the uneasiness, and help readers emerge with an accurate view of the God
portrayed in the Hebrew Bible. And until this happens, readers all over the world
who finally sit down and explicate the text, will be disappointed. Perhaps that is the
greatest ethical lesson of all to be learned from the Hebrew Bible.
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