For those of us who take our bible seriously, the narratives of Genesis are meant to be moral pointers to correct human behaviour. If so, then it is very difficult to explain why our great forefathers did certain things.
Or should I phrase it this way. Why did the Torah not edit out those uncomfortable incidents? If as the Talmud in Sotah says ‘Whatever the Fathers did sets an example for us’ (We needn’t go into the actual context of this phrase which actually refers to the days of Joshua, not Avraham but it is now part of our commentators’ lexicon) so what are we to make of the following:
Putting your wife and marriage in danger to save your own skin. And this happens three times
Throwing a lively teenager and his sullen mother out of your home into the world with no more than a day’s supplies
Pretending to your son you’re taking him on a hiking holiday but really you intend to do something nasty to him
Fooling your father and telling lies to get your hands on his money
Favouring one son over another (seems to be pretty commonplace)
Taking advantage of your brother (another commonplace)
Give as good as you get (even more commonplace).
Moonlighting and playing with your Father in Law’s capital
Allowing your out of control sons to behave despicably and ‘top’ the local gang
Spending the night with a call girl who turns out to be your daughter in law
Allowing yourself to loose your self-control and lash out at those around you.
All of these are there, in black and white in our Holy Writ. Of course I have over simplified and anyway in every story there is always another side and life is never as simple or straightforward as it seems. The bible is a document which even according to its detractors is nearly three thousand years old and many of the narratives much older. We would hardly expect it to conform to modern sensitivities and quite frankly given the highly dubious moral values of huge swathes of modernity one should be very grateful that it doesn’t. In our times any document, opinion, cleric or tradition that doesn’t totally permit anyone to do whatever they feel like doing, comes in for popular criticism. Religions flourished particularly at a time when society in general was amazingly corrupt and heading for a serious fall. And if you have been watching the series ‘Rome’ you will of course be reminded of what a corrupt society ancient Rome was.
I used to thrill to Georgie Best’s brilliance on the soccer pitch and felt sad when he descended into inebriated self-destruction. But you’d think he was a real saint the way he is being treated in death. When men talented in their use of their bodies are lauded, treated as heroes and showered with immense and illogical rewards and worship (whilst those who care for our elderly or teach our young are all but ignored) one can hardly be surprised if more and more people yearn for some good ‘Old Fashioned values’.
But my point is that one is bound to wonder what exactly those values were.
One approach of apologists is to argue that we don’t understand and if only we weren’t so mired in secularism and so anxious to rubbish our forbears we would comprehend. Indeed one point of view in the Midrash/Talmud says that Kings David and Solomon never put a foot wrong throughout their lives. It is simply our misreading of the text or inadequate information about the exact circumstances that leads us to make these erroneous assumptions.
Another point of view in the very same sources (which only illustrates the variety of debate then, which alas is often suppressed nowadays) is to say that indeed they did do something wrong. The fact is that they were human beings not saints and ‘The Torah was not given for/to Ministering Angels.’ This indeed is the greatness of our tradition that the examples we are given are indeed human. ‘There is no human on earth who has done only good and never sinned’ as King Solomon himself said in Ecclesiastes 7, which for those who might not know is part of our Bible.
I regard it vas very positive that our tradition gives example not of perfection to which we have no chance of aspiring but of human beings who like us sometimes fall short and yet are still capable of the highest spirituality and goodness to others. Who of us has not made serious mistakes (of course in the current hagiographic fashion no great rabbi has ever done anything wrong)? Or not been seduced by the mirage of materialism? Who of us has not favoured a child or tried to get ones wife to take the rap for a traffic offence or failed to control unruly kids or try to find ways of making a fast buck or not told the complete truth out of fear or even consideration? We are all incomplete, every one of us. The Torah gives as hope because it tells us that even in our imperfections we are inextricably bound to our creator and are given challenges that we must try to overcome. Even I we fail we can still try again.
I am troubled by a great deal in the Torah I do not understand. And it was my late father Kopul Rosen, who loved to quote ‘The God that is small enough for my mind is not big enough for me.’
But I am inspired by the examples of our great forefathers who had to grapple with life and adverse circumstances despite the long term promises of ultimate success and encouraged precisely because they were humans and not perfect saints.
Visit Jeremy Rosen on the web at: www.jeremyrosen.com