Category Archives: Torah Ecology

Chapter Three: The Flood

The idea of the universe as an interconnected whole is not new; for millennia it’s been one of the core assumptions of Eastern philosophies. What is new is that Western science is slowly beginning to realize that some elements of that ancient lore might be correct. – Dean Radin, in “Entangled Minds”

Freedom, Responsibility, Guilt & Consequence

The interdependence of all being isn’t only an assumption of Eastern philosophies. It is embedded in the Torah text that emerged from the Middle East and shaped the western world through its interpreters.

The Garden of Eden story in Genesis represents this interdependence through the themes of responsibility and consequence that accompany a theme of moral agency. But moral agency, responsibility, consequence extend beyond the human realm to nonhuman animals and even the earth itself. In this extension of themes, the Torah speaks to interdependence.

Human and nonhuman animals are both created on the sixth day. The serpent demonstrates they can be similar not only in physical appearance, that is, relative nakedness/hairlessness, but in habits of mind, like the ability to reason and strategize. And all creation suffers the disastrous consequence of the combined activity of a nonhuman animal and humans.

Suffering, creating suffering, and the consequences of creating suffering in the biblical tale seem at times like a quid pro quo and at other times completely random and disparate. The Bible considers these questions about the relationship between the behavior of an individual and the consequences of that behavior from a variety of perspectives, most memorably in Job.

How frequently do those we might consider “guilty” escape any consequences? On the contrary, they often appear to enjoy great benefits in life. One way to understand this disconnect between action and consequence is through the theme of “Interbeing.” In an interconnected world, the actions of individuals have consequences for all living beings, all of creation. This is a complex and powerful theme in the Torah story, a theme the Jewish mystics of a later time draw upon with stories of their own, stories in which each action of an individual affects the balance of God Him/Herself.

It is a weighty idea, that each action we perform as part of a greater whole impacts and brings consequences to the whole. Yet this is a key theme of the first story in the Torah, the Creation story. A nonhuman animal persuades a human counterpart that it’s ok to eat from the tree in the middle of the garden. The humans decide to take action on that persuasive argument. The result is a catastrophic consequence for all of creation, not only those who are guilty but those who are merely responsible and even those who are seemingly innocent. The actions of one or a few have consequences for all.

As we will see in the Flood Story, nonhuman animals along with humans are held accountable — not as individuals but as a whole, the innocent with the guilty. Indeed, all of creation is held accountable: “. . . all flesh under the sky in which there is breath of life; everything on earth shall perish.” (Gen. 6:17) Even the land drowns under the flood waters. The Amazon burns and with it millions of nonhuman animals who cannot escape, indigenous people and cultures, everything. The planet is threatened, and All Being suffers.

The Path of Moderation

The Flood Story brings us to the endpoint of God’s first creation. It seems to say, ok, it didn’t work for God to rule human beings and to place them to rule the rest of creation, including nonhuman animals. Human beings, like nonhuman beings, sometimes express their unruliness through swarming . . . and sometimes through “beastliness.” Neither was what God had in mind, it seems, when God designated human beings as God’s representatives on earth. But it is what happened.

The story of violence in creation begins with Cain, son of Adam and father of violence toward a brother. It continues in his line through seven generations from Cain to Tubal-Cain (Gen. 4:17-24). The fifth generation introduces the first Lamech, like Cain a murderer, perhaps even of a boy. Lamech declares to his wives that if Cain will be avenged seven-fold, he, Lamech, will be avenged seventy-and-seven-fold.

The proliferation of the number seven in this genealogy points to the creation theme in which the world was created in seven days. This is what creation has become, a world of scarcity and violence. It must change, or it will destroy itself. The number seven points not only backward, to the first creation, but forward, to a new creation.

Then begins a separate line of seven generations from Seth to a second Lamech, the father of Noah (Gen. 5:3-28). Adam’s son, Seth, is the child whom Eve, always transactional in her thoughts about her children, views as a replacement for her son, Abel, whom Cain murdered:

וַיֵּ֨דַע אָדָ֥ם עוֹד֙ אֶת־אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֔ן וַתִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ שֵׁ֑ת כִּ֣י שָֽׁת־לִ֤י אֱלֹהִים֙ זֶ֣רַע אַחֵ֔ר תַּ֣חַת הֶ֔בֶל כִּ֥י הֲרָג֖וֹ קָֽיִן׃ 

Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, meaning, “God has provided me with another offspring in place of Abel,” for Cain had killed him. (Gen. 4:25)

In this way, the second seven generation genealogy connects to the story of the victim, Abel. And the figure of Lamech provides a link between the two genealogies and a transition to the Flood story.

In the creation do-over that is the Flood, Seth is then the progenitor of the humanity that survives it. Portrayed as neither predator nor prey, Seth is the child of moderation.

Like his brother, Cain, Seth surely carries the genes — or better, has the evolutionary capability — for violence. In the Torah story tho, Seth, unlike his brother Cain, doesn’t act on that impulse. And yet Seth is not an insubstantial “breath” as Abel’s name suggests he was. Seth doesn’t become prey but instead begets sons and daughters and dies at the ripe old age of 912 years, representing the fulness and evolutionary success of moderation.

From Seth’s genealogical line comes Noah, a “man righteous in his generation.” Noah is the child of moderation and substantiality and stands in contrast to his generation.

When Extremists Clash: Here Comes the Flood

Noah lives in a time when the world is filled with wickedness “all the time”:

וַיַּ֣רְא יְהוָ֔ה כִּ֥י רַבָּ֛ה רָעַ֥ת הָאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְכָל־יֵ֙צֶר֙ מַחְשְׁבֹ֣ת לִבּ֔וֹ רַ֥ק רַ֖ע כָּל־הַיּֽוֹם׃ 

The LORD saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. (Gen. 6:5)

There is a contrast between Noah, whose ancestry and life represent moderation and substantiality, and the world in which he lives, a world of extremes, filled with wickedness in which “every” plan is “nothing but” evil “all” the time. Indeed, the refrain “all,” a word representing the extreme, associated with violence, repeats in the leadup to the Flood.

God communicates both God’s basic plan and the rationale for it in one brief phrase, pairing extreme behaviors with an extreme consequence. The totality of wickedness and violence on earth is met with the consequence of total destruction, a rollback of creation:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כָּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth. (Gen. 6:13)

Nahum Sarna in the JPS Torah Commentary on Bereishit says, “The universal corruption is . . . defined as hamas. This term parallels ‘no justice’ in Job 19:7 and is elsewhere the synonym of ‘falsehood,’ ‘deceit,’ or ‘bloodshed.’ It means, in general, the flagrant subversion of the ordered processes of law.” Also according to Sarna, the key Hebrew stem sh-h-t, “corrupt,” appears seven times in the Flood narrative, a refrain of sorts.

Violence, חָמָ֔ס (hamas) is the reason for the Flood. And the utter devastation of the Flood is comprehensive in its consequences. Six times the refrain “all…” is repeated, emphasizing the point:

וַיִּגְוַ֞ע כָּל־בָּשָׂ֣ר ׀ הָרֹמֵ֣שׂ עַל־הָאָ֗רֶץ בָּע֤וֹף וּבַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּבַ֣חַיָּ֔ה וּבְכָל־הַשֶּׁ֖רֶץ הַשֹּׁרֵ֣ץ עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וְכֹ֖ל הָאָדָֽם׃ 

And all flesh that stirred on earth perished—birds, cattle, beasts, and all the things that swarmed upon the earth, and all mankind

כֹּ֡ל אֲשֶׁר֩ נִשְׁמַת־ר֨וּחַ חַיִּ֜ים בְּאַפָּ֗יו מִכֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר בֶּחָֽרָבָ֖ה מֵֽתוּ׃ 

All in whose nostrils was the merest breath of life, all that was on dry land, died. 

וַיִּ֜מַח אֶֽת־כָּל־הַיְק֣וּם ׀ אֲשֶׁ֣ר ׀ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֗ה מֵאָדָ֤ם עַד־בְּהֵמָה֙ עַד־רֶ֙מֶשׂ֙ וְעַד־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיִּמָּח֖וּ מִן־הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִשָּׁ֧אֶר אַךְ־נֹ֛חַ וַֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר אִתּ֖וֹ בַּתֵּבָֽה׃ 

All existence on earth was blotted out—man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they are blotted out from the earth. Only Noah Is left, and those with him in the ark. (Gen. 21-23)

So Noah, “righteous in his generation,” a moderate and substantial man, lives in a world of extremes. This extremism works counter to the moral imperative to extend and enrich creation. This extreme violence in creation is met with an extreme consequence from the Creator. It seems both violence and consequence are counter to creation, converging to destroy it. Noah alone, the man of moderation and substantiality, and those who accompany him on the ark, survive the devastation. Moderation, not extremism, not perfection, carries creation forward.

But just imagine for a moment the pathos of Noah’s situation floating in a (relatively) tiny ark on a vast ocean of water, everything he knew gone, captured in the simple words, “Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.”

וַיִּ֜מַח אֶֽת־כָּל־הַיְק֣וּם ׀ אֲשֶׁ֣ר ׀ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֗ה מֵאָדָ֤ם עַד־בְּהֵמָה֙ עַד־רֶ֙מֶשׂ֙ וְעַד־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיִּמָּח֖וּ מִן־הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִשָּׁ֧אֶר אַךְ־נֹ֛חַ וַֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר אִתּ֖וֹ בַּתֵּבָֽה׃ 

All existence on earth was blotted out—man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark. (Gen. 7:23)

Noah hardly escapes consequences. He and those with him are alone, everything else engulfed by extreme forces in creation — and God’s extreme reaction, for which even God repents:

וַיָּ֣רַח יְהוָה֮ אֶת־רֵ֣יחַ הַנִּיחֹחַ֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־לִבּ֗וֹ לֹֽא־אֹ֠סִף לְקַלֵּ֨ל ע֤וֹד אֶת־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ בַּעֲב֣וּר הָֽאָדָ֔ם כִּ֠י יֵ֣צֶר לֵ֧ב הָאָדָ֛ם רַ֖ע מִנְּעֻרָ֑יו וְלֹֽא־אֹסִ֥ף ע֛וֹד לְהַכּ֥וֹת אֶת־כָּל־חַ֖י כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִֽׂיתִי׃ 

The LORD smelled the pleasing odor, and the LORD said to Himself: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done. (Gen. 8:21)

Belatedly God expresses God’s own intent to moderate responses in the future. He accepts the realities of human and nonhuman animal nature. I can’t help but feel, though, for the isolation of Noah and those trapped with him on the ark, remembering a lost world teeming with life and unable to see their future.

Worse, their condition was brought on not only by the extremity of their fellow creatures but the extremity of their Creator. Where is the path to Interbeing in this watery world? Only among those in the fragile ark floating on the water that submerged everything, only among those human and non-human animals who share their crowded, tiny habitat.

But What Did the Animals Do?

In the pre-Flood Torah world, כָּל-הַחַיָּה (“all living beings” – kol ha-hayyah) became lawless and corrupt. All, therefore, suffer the consequence of their moral failure. Creation rolls back to watery emptiness and void but for the remnant who still have God’s breath of life in them, floating on the vast, dark water in their ark.

The text specifically says, כָּל-הַחַיָּה “all living beings.” But what did “all” living beings do that brought on this catastrophe? Because this refrain makes a point similar to the Garden of Eden story, that moral failure occurs among nonhuman animals as well, and the consequences extend to all of creation. Several clues lead us to understand the role of nonhuman animals and even the earth itself in this story of devastation.

We know that the vision of the first three chapters of Genesis is of a world without death, a vegan world of plenty where each animal receives appropriate food. What we don’t notice when we dismiss the story as folklore is that there is an equality of being, that all, human and nonhuman animals, sit at the spiritual round table. Even the earth participates in this drama. It gives birth to Adam and Eve and takes in the blood of Abel. As a result of the latter, it is twice cursed. In other parts of the Torah, God calls upon the earth to witness, along with the heavens, or upon the earth to deliver consequences to those who are dependent on it.

The world of Gen. 1-3 is one in which all of creation is animated, human and nonhuman animals, the earth, the “lights” in the firmament. Everything lives through the breath of God. Everything is interconnected, and there is an equality of being as in the Flood story. Both the Creation and the Flood story refer to this equality of being through the prism of consequence, and nonhuman animals and even the earth itself pay consequences equally with humans.

At the same time, there are differences between the Flood and Creation stories — but even these differences highlight the equality of being behind the specifics of the stories.

In both stories, skillful and repeated use of “flesh,“ בָּשָׂר – basar, and נֶפֶשׁ – nefesh, “living being,” points to the idea that all creatures, not only humans, depend on God for life, and their life is the breath of God. In the Creation story, the emphasis is on nefesh, the life that is from God.

The Flood story emphasizes the material aspect of creation, כָּל־בָּשָׂ֣ר – kol basar, “all flesh.” In Gen. 7:23: “All existence (כָּל-הַיְקוּם – kol ha-y’kum) on earth was blotted out — man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they were blotted out from the earth.” Another way to translate ”all existence” is “all substance,” also a reference to the material aspect of all creatures on earth, human and nonhuman.

So pre-flood, the emphasis is on the material aspect of all being, בָּשָׂ֣ר (flesh). The other aspect of being, so prominent in the creation story, נֶפֶשׁ (life, the breath of God), is minimized. The vocabulary suggests that those who die in the flood are already dead, mere carcasses. The breath of God that animates all being has left them.

And finally, those who leave the ark are all “living things of all flesh” (כָּל-הַחַיָּה… מִכָּל-בָּשָׂר – kol hayyah … mi-kol basar) – Gen. 8:17. These are the living, those who remain ”of all flesh,“ human animals along with nonhuman animals, a remnant of the swarming multitudes from the time before the flood.

The Flood story reverses the imagery of the Creation story in Gen. 1 and is rich with allusions to that narrative as creation recedes. But it is the reference to corruption in the Flood story that makes me wonder what, exactly, brought on this roll back to pre-creation darkness and emptiness. Significant differences between the first creation and the new one that follows the flood suggest an answer, helping us understand the nature of the lawlessness and corruption permeating all of creation that brought on the flood.

A comparison of Gen. 1:29-30, quoted above, and Gen. 9:2-5 tells that story, once again including non-human creatures with humanity in both moral failure and consequence. Gen. 1:29-30 provides “every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit” to human beings for food and “all the green plants for food” to every kind of creature. In other words, both humans and animals are offered a vegan diet. Everything changes in the post-flood world:

Gen. 9:2-5: “The fear and the dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky—everything with which the earth is astir—and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand. Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it. But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man (brother).”

The new creation of Gen. 9:2-5 differs profoundly from the creation of Gen. 1-3 that it mirrors. G-d specifically allows meat-eating to humans, generating fear throughout the animal kingdom. Immediately this reluctant permission is ringed with prohibition: not to eat flesh with its life-blood in it. Further, human beings are not to kill their “brothers,” their fellow humans, an allusion to the story of Cain and Abel, suggesting that every homicide is fratricide.

The passage also, however, pre-supposes meat-eating among animals and cautions they will now be held accountable if their prey is human. Both animals and humans, in taking life that was not permitted to them in the original order of creation, acted lawlessly and corruptly. For both animals and humans, there were consequences for moral failures tied to unjustly taking life that resulted in a return to profound darkness and emptiness.

In the new creation, God warns that both human and nonhuman animals will be held accountable for unlawful killing. At the same time, God recognizes human nature as it is when God gives humans permission to eat meat, although restrictions surround the practice. And consider, for a moment, the possibility that the division of nonhuman animals into those who are “clean” and those who are “unclean” is more recognition of and respect for their nature than judgment or a negative valuation.

Humans killed their own family, and animals killed humans for food in the pre-Flood world. This is the lawlessness and corruption that subverted G-d’s plan and brought down the first creation. In the brave new world post-flood, God recognizes and accepts the reality of human and animal natures and recluctantly, and I imagine sadly, allows meat-eating with restrictions to humans and to animal species according to their individual natures.

Finally, augmenting the theme of interdependence and equality of being in this story of moral agency, responsibility and consequence is the promise that is also given to “all flesh,” nonhuman along with human animals:

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־נֹ֑חַ זֹ֤את אֽוֹת־הַבְּרִית֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הֲקִמֹ֔תִי בֵּינִ֕י וּבֵ֥ין כָּל־בָּשָׂ֖ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ (פ) 

That,” God said to Noah, “shall be the sign of the covenant that I have established between Me and all flesh that is on earth.”

Postscript

In the Flood story as in the Creation story, the theme of Interbeing, our profound interconnection to all being, is demonstrated in the consequences that come to all being, human and nonhuman animals, guilty and innocent alike. Far from relieving the individual of responsibility or implying the uselessness of any individual action, this idea places on each of us a very specific obligation to interact with the world “according to our kind.” As the Jewish mystics insist, each action we take individuals, each word we speak, affects the balance of everything, even God.

In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “In a free society, some are guilty. All are responsible.” As much as some voices in the Torah attempt to demonstrate a direct relationship between behavior and consequence, other voices present a different idea. In the Garden story as in the Flood story, those who are guilty and those who are responsible suffer consequences equally along with the innocent. Heschel’s words don’t speak of consequence — but they do speak of the impact of the individual on the whole, the interrelated network of being. And in this world of interconnection, all being suffers the consequence of our individual actions.

Prof. Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens comments that the unique capability of humans is to create fictions and persuade others to believe them. This capability allows flexible cooperation in large groups. This suggests to me that our unique human responsibility is to tell our stories, those stories that inspire the kind of cooperation that will extend and enrich creation in accord with the first commandment in the Torah, פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ (p’ru u’r’vu), be fertile and increase.

And to the extent that we dominate creation, that is, that we enjoy a certain freedom while other beings, human and nonhuman, are enslaved under our rule, we bear the entire weight of responsibility for what happens in our world. In this interconnected world, those who rule must ensure the well-being of all, humans as well as nonhuman animals, the waters and the earth itself. If we fail in our responsibility, the consequences will fall equally on all being.

 “The Time of Noah | picture of the Church of Almighty God” by jasonchen.gg is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Epilogue to the Animals’ Story in the Torah

My purpose in writing The Animals’ Story in the Torah is to discover a story the text tells that varies from the single one so many of us learned or heard about “what the Bible says.” The story I want to focus on in my writing is the one that reminds us that as humans, we are part of all creation, most closely related to nonhuman animals. We share our habitat and the spiritual round table with other beings, as Yuval Noah Harari says of hunter-gatherers in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humanity. It is a state of being we too often forget today.

Acculturation

I grew up in a world in which a majority of people in the United States didn’t live on farms. Meat eating was taken for granted. In the consciousness of most of us, the meat on our plates wasn’t connected to the living, breathing fellow creature whose flesh it was. There was a growing disconnect between the food we eat, any kind of food, and its source. Increasingly a prayer before or after eating was perfunctory at best or non-existent.

This disconnect in the minds of many of us between what we eat and its source is more than a function of living in a secular world. It is also more than our alienation from the natural world, a place where, as Yuval Noah Harari suggests, humans and non-human animals once “communicated with one another directly and negotiated the rules governing <our> shared habitat.”

There is yet another backdrop to our casual approach to eating a fellow creature: centuries of acculturation to a worldview in which human beings are the crown of creation, living beings superior to all others. Many of us learned and insist that the Bible asserts that human superiority. Adam is created on the sixth day, just before God rests on the Sabbath. Alone among living beings, humans are created “in the image” of God and set to rule over the rest of creation.

If we only know this “single story,” we miss other possibilities. We miss that nonhuman animals are also created on the sixth day, just like their human fellow travelers in creation. And we miss numerous textual clues that serve as reminders to human beings that they, too, are animals, their position in creation is conditional, and non-human animals like their human counterparts, are moral beings.

Yes, there is a statement that human beings are set to “rule over” nonhuman animals. But there is also the story of the repeated failure of human beings in general, and the Israelites in particular, to become the rulers God appointed them to be. Swarming about the earth, they are as ungovernable as all other beings. As God, finally, cannot rule human beings who “swarm” about the earth, human beings cannot rule nonhuman animals, the wild beasts and those that swarm.

Human rule is conditional. Almost as soon as humans are appointed to rule, they are demoted, eating food assigned to nonhuman land animals and wearing skins, emblems of their animal nature. Parallel to the human demotion, the snake, once so similar to the humans in its hairlessness and strategic powers, is also demoted. In this way, the Torah tells us that both human and nonhuman animals are intelligent, moral beings, who are therefore morally responsible and accountable for their actions.

As for morality, God extends moral responsibility to nonhuman animals, even to the earth itself in the Garden of Eden story and the story of Cain and Abel. In this way, the Torah casts doubt on this idea that humans are unique because they are moral beings.

So perhaps the argument for human superiority in creation isn’t that humans are “in the image” of God and set to rule over creation — and isn’t that they are unique in creation as moral beings. And even if we were to agree that the Torah tells us humans are unique in their capacity for moral reasoning, uniqueness cannot be a claim to superiority since each species has its unique characteristics. God appreciates this when God assigns food to the different species according to their needs.

If each species is unique in creation, then instead of superiority in creation, we need rather to consider the responsibility associated with unique characteristics. Each species is responsible to use its unique characteristics to extend creation . . . פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ – p’ru u’r’vu u’milu et ha-Aretz, to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (or the seas),” as God commands all living creatures, in the waters, in the heavens and on land.

Prof. Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens comments that the unique capability of humans is to create fictions and persuade others to believe them. This capability allows flexible cooperation in large groups. Perhaps, then, our unique human responsibility is to tell our stories, those stories that inspire the kind of cooperation that will extend and enrich creation. What better example have we than the Torah story that in one way or another has persuaded so many to create and nurture life.

The Torah’s story of a God who ordains that human beings, “in the image” of God, should “rule” creation, isn’t the only story — nor is the story of human moral consciousness. In exploring another story, an alternate story in the Torah, we discover our profound kinship with our fellow beings on the planet. While we as well as other species have unique characteristics, we share the fundamentals of our being. We are all body and soul, animated by the breath of God, and we are all engaged in the ongoing work of creation, each לְמִינֵ֔הוּ – l’minehu, “according to its kind.”

What science says . . .

Like the Torah, modern science casts doubt on the idea that human uniqueness centers on moral consciousness. In a series of experiments with primates and other mammals, Frans de Waal demonstrates that non-human animals share with us the foundation of morality like a sense of fairness, reciprocity, empathy, cooperation and caring about the well-being of others. Other researchers demonstrate that non-human animals may, like humans, be “scolded” or ostracized by their community if their actions are outside norms of communal behavior. What do these behaviors indicate other than systems of morality that sometimes extend beyond the boundaries of community?

We could say that these observable representations of moral judgment are motivated by an evolutionary drive, namely survival of a species, but we could as well say that of humans. There is no objective proof that human morality has a different source or motivation than nonhuman morality.

And so science, like the Torah, tells us that all living beings are body and soul, animated by the breath that makes us one. While our roles in creation may differ based on our unique characteristics, “each according to its kind,” we share not only our aggressive behaviors and a desire to live. In our time, science finally echoes ancient wisdom as it points to nonhuman animal intelligence, moral consciousness, empathy, a sense of fairness, and compassion.

There is a story of hierarchy in the Torah. But there is another story, and that is the story of what Charles Eisenstein, in The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, calls “Interbeing.” The presence of both these stories in the Torah and in life presents us with moral dilemmas, with the necessity and complexities of making choices. Insisting on a single story, a hierarchical story, relieves us of some of that complexity and responsibility — but it also deprives us of a profound and beautiful experience of connection and meaning.

I grew up with both the story of hierarchy and the story of Interbeing. Somewhere along the way, the story of Interbeing receded for me as it does in the modern world for most of us, I suspect. My priorities were defined for me, and choices were easier. If there is no question that human life is more valuable than other life, it is easier to first rationalize meat-eating, then altogether disconnect the food on one’s plate from its source as part of a living, breathing, fellow being. Modern “animal agriculture” and our food delivery system makes that even easier. No moral dilemmas when one sits to eat a meal.

Exploring veganism during these past few years reawakened me to the story of Interbeing and the moral complexities that accompany it in the “real” world, not just in the human – nonhuman animal relationship but in every area of life. At the same time, my journey also revives my sense of connection and meaningfulness.

“Adam” by elmada is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

Chapter Two: Cain and Abel

All in the Family: Transactions

וְהָ֣אָדָ֔ם יָדַ֖ע אֶת־חַוָּ֣ה אִשְׁתּ֑וֹ וַתַּ֙הַר֙ וַתֵּ֣לֶד אֶת־קַ֔יִן וַתֹּ֕אמֶר קָנִ֥יתִי אִ֖ישׁ אֶת־יְהוָֽה׃ 

Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gained a male child with the help of the LORD.” (Gen. 4:1)

And so begins the tragedy of Cain, born to a mother who views his birth and her relationship to this son through a transactional lens. While קַ֔יִן (Cain) doesn’t derive from קָנִ֥יתִי (gained/acquired/purchased), the alliteration (ka-yin, kaniti) links his name to Eve’s description of his birth.

In contrast, we read of the birth of Abel simply:

וַתֹּ֣סֶף לָלֶ֔דֶת אֶת־אָחִ֖יו אֶת־הָ֑בֶל וַֽיְהִי־הֶ֙בֶל֙ רֹ֣עֵה צֹ֔אן וְקַ֕יִן הָיָ֖ה עֹבֵ֥ד אֲדָמָֽה׃

She then bore his brother Abel. Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. (Gen. 4:2)

Abel’s very name (הָ֑בֶל – Havel), meaning vapor or breath, alludes to his vulnerability, the vulnerability we usually associate with an infant. At the same time, the word can mean “worthless,” as in Ecclesiastes 1:2: הַכֹּל הֶבֶל (All is fruitless/worthless), contrasting with Cain’s worth, alluded to in Eve’s reference to “gain.”

Two infants, one referred to by his mother as gain or enrichment, the other as vulnerable and possibly of no value. And a father who is not in the picture after impregnating his wife. What a sad portrayal of the first human family. What could possibly go wrong?

The names of the infants and their mother’s attitude toward them also hint at their future. As Cain’s mother’s relationship with him is transactional, so is Cain’s relationship with God. How could it be otherwise? Children reflect the relationships they have with their parents in their own relationships as they grow. And Abel is but a breath, a brief and vulnerable life.

וַֽיְהִ֖י מִקֵּ֣ץ יָמִ֑ים וַיָּבֵ֨א קַ֜יִן מִפְּרִ֧י הָֽאֲדָמָ֛ה מִנְחָ֖ה לַֽיהוָֽה׃ 

In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the LORD from the fruit of the soil;

וְהֶ֨בֶל הֵבִ֥יא גַם־ה֛וּא מִבְּכֹר֥וֹת צֹאנ֖וֹ וּמֵֽחֶלְבֵהֶ֑ן וַיִּ֣שַׁע יְהוָ֔ה אֶל־הֶ֖בֶל וְאֶל־מִנְחָתֽוֹ׃ 

and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The LORD paid heed to Abel and his offering,

וְאֶל־קַ֥יִן וְאֶל־מִנְחָת֖וֹ לֹ֣א שָׁעָ֑ה וַיִּ֤חַר לְקַ֙יִן֙ מְאֹ֔ד וַֽיִּפְּל֖וּ פָּנָֽיו׃ 

but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell.

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־קָ֑יִן לָ֚מָּה חָ֣רָה לָ֔ךְ וְלָ֖מָּה נָפְל֥וּ פָנֶֽיךָ׃ 

And the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you distressed, And why is your face fallen?” 

הֲל֤וֹא אִם־תֵּיטִיב֙ שְׂאֵ֔ת וְאִם֙ לֹ֣א תֵיטִ֔יב לַפֶּ֖תַח חַטָּ֣את רֹבֵ֑ץ וְאֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָת֔וֹ וְאַתָּ֖ה תִּמְשָׁל־בּֽוֹ׃ 

“Surely, if you do right, There is uplift. But if you do not do right Sin couches at the door; Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master.” (Gen. 4: 3-7)

There is no suggestion in this story that Cain experiences loving intimacy, not with his parents, not with God. Cain brings an offering “in the course of time,” eventually, without any sense of urgency. The offering isn’t remarkable. It’s not singled out as the best of what he has to offer or as first fruits. There is no sacrifice involved.

Cain’s offering, like his life in general, is transactional in nature. There seems to be an assumption in the text that an offering is due. Cain brings the offering but with a minimum expenditure of energy and resources.

In contrast, Abel brings the choicest (וּמֵֽחֶלְבֵהֶ֑ן) of the firstlings of his flock. He brings to God the fat of the lambs, his most precious lambs, the firstlings. It is easy to imagine that for a shepherd, these firstlings have more than economic value. Giving them up is a sacrifice, economically and emotionally painful.

Before heaping all the responsibility for a transactional worldview on Cain, though, or on Eve, his mother . . . or even on humanity . . . I wonder. Is God, too, implicated in this view of relationship?

While the text doesn’t explicitly state that God requires sacrifice in exchange for giving life and a beautiful and abundant world in which to live it, where else would Cain and his brother, Abel, have gotten the idea that a sacrifice was required?  And the text does tell us that God appreciates Abel’s sacrifice more than Cain’s. In this way, the story tells us that God, too, has a transactional view of relationships. In an interconnected world, God’s view of things is necessarily part of human consciousness.

This transactional view turns out to be the basis of animal sacrifice, as we will see in later chapters.

The Root of Transaction: Desire

The worldview presented in the Cain and Abel story is very different from that of Genesis 1-3, but the seeds of the latter are in the former. Compare these two verses, one from the Creation Story and the other from the current story of Cain and Abel:

וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ וְה֖וּא יִמְשָׁל־בָּֽךְ׃

“Yet your urge shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16)

חַטָּ֣את רֹבֵ֑ץ וְאֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָת֔וֹ וְאַתָּ֖ה תִּמְשָׁל־בּֽוֹ׃

“Sin couches at the door; Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master.” (Gen. 4:7)

The first verse, Gen. 3:16 is in the context of God telling Adam and Eve how things will be going forward. In a word with sexual overtones, teshukatech, God declares that a woman’s longing and desire (urge) will be toward her husband — and that he will rule (yimshol,יִמְשָׁל) over her.

In the current story of Cain and Abel, Gen. 4:7, God warns Cain of sin, personified and “couching” at the door. The longing and desire (teshukato, urge) of this sin, a seductive, sinister, lurking external entity, is toward Cain — but as God instructs, Cain can rule (timshol, תִּמְשָׁל) over it if he chooses.

Why is this juxtaposition of detail important? Because both Adam and Cain, representing humanity, are set to rule over creation, over all creatures both seen and unseen, but both find it exceedingly difficult to do. They can scarcely rule over themselves. And as they fail in their task, they blame what appears to be external to them, Adam blaming Eve and Cain his brother, Abel.

Neither recognizes that sin is part of them, part of their own human condition, lurking seductively outside the door waiting for the right moment to spring into action through human agency. Sin is mere potential until it works its way in. Then it becomes part of a person, desire rules human nature, and transactions prevail over gifting, subverting the intended order of creation.

In Gen. 1-3, humans are alienated from their fellow creatures. In Gen. 4:1-7, they are alienated from themselves, a double alienation first from family and then from their own human condition and responsibility. What next?

The Ground Beneath Our Feet

Finally the ground itself is called to task for swallowing the blood of Cain’s dead brother, Abel, as well as Cain for spilling that blood onto the ground:

וַיֹּ֖אמֶר מֶ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ ק֚וֹל דְּמֵ֣י אָחִ֔יךָ צֹעֲקִ֥ים אֵלַ֖י מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃ 

Then He said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!

וְעַתָּ֖ה אָר֣וּר אָ֑תָּה מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּצְתָ֣ה אֶת־פִּ֔יהָ לָקַ֛חַת אֶת־דְּמֵ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ מִיָּדֶֽךָ׃ 

Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.

כִּ֤י תַֽעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה לֹֽא־תֹסֵ֥ף תֵּת־כֹּחָ֖הּ לָ֑ךְ נָ֥ע וָנָ֖ד תִּֽהְיֶ֥ה בָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.” (Gen. 4:10-12)

The ground, already cursed in Gen. 17, withholding its abundance from Adam, will now withhold its abundance from Cain, Adam’s first son. And the humans, living but alienated from the connectedness of all being, increase the distance between themselves and a living but unyielding earth. Cain, condemned to wander the earth, leaves the presence of the Lord, settles in another land with his wife, fathers a son, Enoch, and founds a city in his son’s name:

וַיֵּ֥צֵא קַ֖יִן מִלִּפְנֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב בְּאֶֽרֶץ־נ֖וֹד קִדְמַת־עֵֽדֶן׃ 

Cain left the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. 

וַיֵּ֤דַע קַ֙יִן֙ אֶת־אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וַתַּ֖הַר וַתֵּ֣לֶד אֶת־חֲנ֑וֹךְ וַֽיְהִי֙ בֹּ֣נֶה עִ֔יר וַיִּקְרָא֙ שֵׁ֣ם הָעִ֔יר כְּשֵׁ֖ם בְּנ֥וֹ חֲנֽוֹךְ׃ 

Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. And he then founded a city, and named the city after his son Enoch. (Gen. 4:16-17)

From Abundance to Scarcity

So we are no longer in the world of the first three chapters of Genesis, a world filled with joyful energy, overflowing abundance and harmony. A world in which all beings share the spiritual round table. In the Cain and Abel story, we find ourselves in a world of separation and scarcity, a transactional world that assigns value to living beings, a world of competition, envy, desire, violence and animal sacrifice.

The story of Cain and Abel is one of the increasing alienation of Cain from his parents, from his own brother, from God, from humanity, and finally from the earth itself. What is the source of Cain’s anger? What causes the tragedy and isolation of his life?

The literary details of the story suggest that tragedy begins with Cain’s transactional relationships from the day he is born. What an odd statement Eve makes about his birth, that she “acquired” a child as though he is an item she purchased at the market. There is a profound emptiness associated with that word in this context. We can only imagine the additional pain Cain must experience as he learns that God notices Cain’s brother, Abel, and favors Abel’s offering over Cain’s own.

Cain’s response to God taking note of Abel’s offering is another story element that builds on the transactional theme. Cain brings an offering — and expects a particular return for it, turning the offering into a transaction.

In contrast, the first humans, Adam and Eve, are part of an abundant world they share with non-human animals and with God. They are gardeners, caring for the world God gifts to them. “In the beginning,” they live in harmony with their world.

Did the characters “evolve” through the story? The text suggests, perhaps not. At the end of Gen. 4, Adam and Eve once again have a child, a third son:

וַיֵּ֨דַע אָדָ֥ם עוֹד֙ אֶת־אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֔ן וַתִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ שֵׁ֑ת כִּ֣י שָֽׁת־לִ֤י אֱלֹהִים֙ זֶ֣רַע אַחֵ֔ר תַּ֣חַת הֶ֔בֶל כִּ֥י הֲרָג֖וֹ קָֽיִן׃

Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, meaning, “God has provided me with another offspring in place of Abel,” for Cain had killed him.

A son is gone — a replacement provided. Like Eve’s comment about Cain, that she “acquired” a son, her comment about Seth, that he replaces Abel, leaves us with a feeling of emptiness. Eve’s unemotional evaluation of her situation is surprising. It’s hard to imagine life improving for this family as they move into their future.

The story of Seth’s birth continues in Gen. 5:1-3. We return to a theme of Gen. 1, a hierarchical worldview in which Adam is to his third son, Seth, as God is to Adam:

זֶ֣ה סֵ֔פֶר תּוֹלְדֹ֖ת אָדָ֑ם בְּי֗וֹם בְּרֹ֤א אֱלֹהִים֙ אָדָ֔ם בִּדְמ֥וּת אֱלֹהִ֖ים עָשָׂ֥ה אֹתֽוֹ׃

This is the record of Adam’s line.—When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God;

זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בְּרָאָ֑ם וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָ֗ם וַיִּקְרָ֤א אֶת־שְׁמָם֙ אָדָ֔ם בְּי֖וֹם הִבָּֽרְאָֽם׃)

male and female He created them. And when they were created, He blessed them and called them (hu)man… (Gen. 5:1,2) 

וַֽיְחִ֣י אָדָ֗ם שְׁלֹשִׁ֤ים וּמְאַת֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בִּדְמוּת֖וֹ כְּצַלְמ֑וֹ וַיִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ שֵֽׁת׃

When Adam had lived 130 years, he begot a son in his likeness after his image, and he named him Seth.

God creates and humans give birth . . . And as the humans are in the image and “likeness” of God, so Seth is in his father’s “likeness” and “image.” Do these echoes of the first chapter of Genesis suggest a repetition of the experience of the first family . . . Or are they more hopeful, foreshadowing a new creation, coming in the events of the Flood and following?

We leave the story skeptical of a future built on either a transactional or a hierarchical foundation . . . But perhaps also with some hope that life goes on, and a fresh start may go better.

Postscript on the Cain and Abel story

In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Prof. Yuval Noah Harari describes the evolution of religions from animism to polytheism to monotheism. Of animism, he says, “When animism was the dominant belief system, human norms and values had to take into consideration the outlook and interests of a multitude of other beings, such as animals, plants, fairies and ghosts…Hunter-gatherers picked and pursued wild plants and animals, which could be seen as equal in status to Homo sapiens. The fact that man hunted sheep did not make sheep inferior to man, just as the fact that tigers hunted man did not make man inferior to tigers. Beings communicated with one another directly and negotiated the rules governing their shared habitat.”

Conversely, “farmers owned and manipulated plants and animals, and could hardly degrade themselves by negotiating with their possessions. Hence the first religious effect of the Agricultural Revolution was to turn plants and animals from equal members of a spiritual round table into property.”

Perhaps these different worldviews are one way to think about the difference between Gen. 1-3 and Gen. 4-7. What if the first chapters of Genesis represent a hunter-gatherer worldview while the story of Cain and Abel points to a worldview more closely associated with an agricultural setting? If the agricultural revolution signifies a transition from a world in which “beings communicate with one another directly and negotiate the rules governing their shared habitat” to a transactional world of ownership and wealth, it also signifies a transition from a mindset of abundance and gifting to scarcity, greed and jealousy. Possessions necessitate guarding, and unequal distribution generates desire and envy.

Yet as Charles Eisenstein points out in Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition, we are not fated to live in one world or the other. Our world is what we make it, the story we create and in which we choose to stand. Harari, too, tells us that the human ability to create fictions, to imagine, and then to persuade many others to believe our fictions, is a unique characteristic of Sapiens. It is that unique ability that allowed humans to “rule over” creation.

Reimagining Creation, Our Human Purpose

At any moment, we can place ourselves back in the Garden, that world in which all beings communicate “with one another directly” and negotiate “the rules governing” our “shared habitat.” We can share the spiritual round table. We can create a world of abundance, freeing ourselves to share and live harmoniously with each other, other beings and with the earth itself.

Or our existence can be transactional, measured, even self-serving. We can view the world as a place of scarcity, guarding our possessions and wealth jealously in our state of alienation and viewing others in a utilitarian way (Martin Buber’s “I-It” way of relating) or with suspicion and fear. It all depends on the power of our imagination and the way we choose to use it.

And this brings me to the message of faith in the amazing ancient text which is the Torah. The times that serve as the backdrop to the biblical text were not free from scarcity and bloodshed. I imagine there was as much cause to feel overwhelmed by fear, suspicion, anger, grief and despair then as now. The text describes many of those events, wars, famine, disease, loss of home and family.

The Torah doesn’t deny or neglect those realities. It doesn’t whitewash the nature of human beings or of other living beings and doesn’t deny that the earth itself can be intransigent. There is no horror in our world today that doesn’t find its echoes in those times. Yet the vision that drives this text, the story that it insists on telling in the face of tragic circumstances, is a story in which there is meaning, justice, beauty, harmony and great abundance for all creatures.

There is, after all, something eternal in the Torah story even in a secular age. It is a story about the reality of our existential condition but also about the power of imagination to create worlds. What world do we want to create? A transactional world of scarcity, alienation and fratricide or a world of abundance and harmony, where we share the spiritual round table with all other living beings? The world we live in is the world we imagine into reality. The Torah shows us both and urges us to “Choose life…” (Deut. 30:19)

“2.5 FarrowingBloodFace1”by mercyforanimals is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Chapter One: Creation

“Let us remember that animals are not mere resources for human consumption. They are splendid beings in their own right, who have evolved alongside us as co-inheritors of all the beauty and abundance of life on this planet” ~ Marc Bekoff

The Sixth Day: The Animals’ Story Begins

On the sixth day of creation, this happened . . .

וַיַּ֣עַשׂ אֱלֹהִים֩ אֶת־חַיַּ֨ת הָאָ֜רֶץ לְמִינָ֗הּ וְאֶת־הַבְּהֵמָה֙ לְמִינָ֔הּ וְאֵ֛ת כָּל־רֶ֥מֶשׂ הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה לְמִינֵ֑הוּ וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים כִּי־טֽוֹב׃

God made wild beasts of every kind and cattle of every kind, and all kinds of creeping things of the earth. And God saw that this was good. 

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ וְיִרְדּוּ֩ בִדְגַ֨ת הַיָּ֜ם וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֗יִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּבְכָל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבְכָל־הָרֶ֖מֶשׂ הָֽרֹמֵ֥שׂ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” 

וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃ 

And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 

וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֮ אֱלֹהִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” 

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֗ים הִנֵּה֩ נָתַ֨תִּי לָכֶ֜ם אֶת־כָּל־עֵ֣שֶׂב ׀ זֹרֵ֣עַ זֶ֗רַע אֲשֶׁר֙ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י כָל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וְאֶת־כָּל־הָעֵ֛ץ אֲשֶׁר־בּ֥וֹ פְרִי־עֵ֖ץ זֹרֵ֣עַ זָ֑רַע לָכֶ֥ם יִֽהְיֶ֖ה לְאָכְלָֽה׃ 

God said, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. 

וּֽלְכָל־חַיַּ֣ת הָ֠אָרֶץ וּלְכָל־ע֨וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֜יִם וּלְכֹ֣ל ׀ רוֹמֵ֣שׂ עַל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־בּוֹ֙ נֶ֣פֶשׁ חַיָּ֔ה אֶת־כָּל־יֶ֥רֶק עֵ֖שֶׂב לְאָכְלָ֑ה וַֽיְהִי־כֵֽן׃ 

And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food.” And it was so. 

וַיַּ֤רְא אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה וְהִנֵּה־ט֖וֹב מְאֹ֑ד וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי־בֹ֖קֶר י֥וֹם הַשִּׁשִּֽׁי׃ (פ) 

And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. ~ Genesis 1:24-31

A Story of Parallel Relationships

This story begins not on the first but on the sixth day. It is the nonhuman animals’ story in the Torah. As it happens, it is also the beginning of the human story and therefore the beginning of the story of a human – nonhuman animal relationship.

The animals’ story, like the story of God’s relationship with humans, is a story of relationship. As humans relate to God, nonhuman animals relate to humans, who are intended to be representatives of God in creation.

God “makes” both human and nonhuman animals (וַיַּ֣עַשׂ אֱלֹהִים֩), but there is a difference between human and nonhuman animals. The human is in the image and likeness of God. What does this mean?

As a king places a local statue to represent his rule to his subjects, so God places human beings on earth to represent God’s sovereignty over creation. This phrase, then, establishes the intended human role in creation. As God’s kingly representatives, humans are to subdue and “rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.”

So God is the ultimate ruler, and humans represent God’s sovereignty in creation. The God-human relationship parallels the human-animal relationship.

But the story hints at an inherent problem. Taking a closer look at the nonhuman animal world, we begin to see its outlines.

There are three varieties of nonhuman land animals: wild beasts, domesticated animals and “creeping things of the earth” (רֶ֛מֶש – creeping, moving, swarming, crawling).

This last category of animals, swarming, crawling things, appears to be the smaller animals that move about the earth, quickly, without legs or with barely perceptible legs, perhaps in large groups.

But then “smaller” may be a matter of perspective. Seen from a vantage point, even large animals appear to swarm (Psalms 104:20, Isaiah 26:6). Even human beings may appear to swarm: “You have made (hu)mankind like the fish of the sea, Like creeping things that have no ruler.” (וַתַּעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֖ם כִּדְגֵ֣י הַיָּ֑ם כְּרֶ֖מֶשׂ לֹא־מֹשֵׁ֥ל בּֽוֹ׃) ~ Habakkuk 1:14

That verse from Habakkuk points to the inherent problem in creation: swarming things are hard to rule. This comparison provides a clue to the nature of swarming things but also hints at the future of God’s creation when it draws a parallel between swarming things “that have no ruler” and human beings.

Of the three nonhuman varieties of land animals, wild beasts, domesticated animals and swarming things, only domestic animals offer the potential for a harmonious and reciprocal relationship with human beings. Wild beasts are by definition independent and ungovernable, so God’s chosen representative can do little more than avoid them, living and letting live. And in fact, this category of animals is not mentioned in God’s instruction that the human will represent God’s rule on earth.

But swarming things are included in the instruction. Fish of the sea and birds of the air can swarm as well. And here is where the verse from Habbakuk provides insight into the future of God’s creation as do the parallels between the human story and animals’ story.

Thanks to Habbakuk, we know that the biblical perception of swarming things is that they are ungovernable. Similarly we know the wild beasts are ungovernable since they were omitted from the animal categories in God’s instruction. These swarming things, theoretically under human rule, parallel humans under God’s rule. Yet humans are set to rule swarming things as God is set to rule humans.

Beasts of the field, fish of the sea, birds of the air and creeping things, symbols of unruliness, reappear throughout the Hebrew Bible. In this verse from Hosea, the prophet speaks of a time when Israel will return to God who will establish a בְּרִית֙, a “covenant” with these unruly beings on behalf of the Israelites, paralleling the restoration of a covenant relationship between God and the Israelites. There will be peace in the land as it was intended:

וְכָרַתִּ֨י לָהֶ֤ם בְּרִית֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֔וּא עִם־חַיַּ֤ת הַשָּׂדֶה֙ וְעִם־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְרֶ֖מֶשׂ הָֽאֲדָמָ֑ה וְקֶ֨שֶׁת וְחֶ֤רֶב וּמִלְחָמָה֙ אֶשְׁבּ֣וֹר מִן־הָאָ֔רֶץ וְהִשְׁכַּבְתִּ֖ים לָבֶֽטַח׃ 

In that day, I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; I will also banish bow, sword, and war from the land. Thus I will let them lie down in safety. ~ Hosea 2:20

We Are What We Eat

Finally God addresses food, assigning different fare to humans and to other creatures. To humans, God gives “every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit.” To “all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life,” God gives all the green plants. Overflowing abundance, enough for all living creatures, to each an assigned food.

So the humans as well as the nonhuman animals are to fill this earth where food is abundantly available to all. Human food consists of agricultural products, seed-bearing plants and fruit trees. Nonhuman land animals graze, eating green plants, herbs and grasses.

Common to these different meals is that there is plenty for all, nonhuman animals no less than their human counterparts. God provides food without discrimination, for each living being according to its kind, a birthright. It’s hard not to point out this lesson of the Torah: humans are not given the right to destroy or take away the portion assigned to nonhuman animals.

But even though nonhuman animals have their own birthright, there is another dimension to this story of relationship. Humans are to rule this sprawling creation that swarms: bird flocks, fish schools, and all the living things that cluster and crawl about the earth. These living beings not only represent overflowing abundance but an element in creation that humans cannot fully govern.

And as we learn in the rest of the text in the developing relationship between God and humanity, then between God and the Israelites, humans too can be ungovernable, sometimes acting like wild beasts and sometimes like swarming things. Only when they consciously choose do they expand on the compassionate part of their animal nature, acting according to the teachings provided them. Without that mindfulness, their predatory instincts might easily engulf their lives. Humans are no more innately “good” than other living beings.

A Different Perspective on Things

וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂהּ־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ׃ 

The LORD God said, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.”

וַיִּצֶר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָ֗ה כָּל־חַיַּ֤ת הַשָּׂדֶה֙ וְאֵת֙ כָּל־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיָּבֵא֙ אֶל־הָ֣אָדָ֔ם לִרְא֖וֹת מַה־יִּקְרָא־ל֑וֹ וְכֹל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִקְרָא־ל֧וֹ הָֽאָדָ֛ם נֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּ֖ה ה֥וּא שְׁמֽוֹ׃ 

And the LORD God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name. 

וַיִּקְרָ֨א הָֽאָדָ֜ם שֵׁמ֗וֹת לְכָל־הַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּלְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּלְכֹ֖ל חַיַּ֣ת הַשָּׂדֶ֑ה וּלְאָדָ֕ם לֹֽא־מָצָ֥א עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ׃ 

And the man gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts; but for Adam no fitting helper was found. ~ Gen. 2:18-20

In this version of the creation story, the rulership motif recedes from view along with the swarming things. Instead we see parallel stories of intimacy as God “forms” the nonhuman animals like an artist working with clay, then brings them to Adam to name them. God does this just after commenting “It is not good for Adam to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.”

For a moment in time, it seems possible a nonhuman animal might become Adam’s helper. Naming suggests an intimacy between human and nonhuman animals that wasn’t highlighted in the first story where Adam was to subdue and rule creation as G-d’s representative.

And what to make of the odd phrase, עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ, ezer k’negdo, translated “fitting helper”? Ezer, meaning helper, seems clear. But k’negdo literally means “as in front of/against/face-to-face.” Feminist myth-makers might have a lot of fun with neged meaning “against,” suggesting a partner who stands against or up to, the other as an equal.

I kind of like the idea, though, of “face-to-face,” which fits well with the flow of imagery and meaning as the story unfolds. Approaching the text literally for a moment, this earth being, Adam, needs a partner s/he can look in the face as a being that stands upright on two legs. None of the nonhuman animals God brings to Adam fulfills this requirement.

The remaining possibility, which God chooses, is to separate this androgynous earth creature into two upright beings, man (אִ֔ישׁ – Ish) and woman (אִשָּׁ֔ה – Isha). These two upright beings, both human, can meet face-to-face.

The Serpent’s Story: Pun Power . . .

The “face-to-face” translation works well as we come to a turning point in the animals’ story in these first three chapters of Genesis, the story of the serpent.

In a complete reversal of its place as the most arum (עָר֔וּם) of creatures and therefore most likely to be a human partner before the woman took that role, the serpent is doomed to crawl on the ground and eat dirt:

וַיֹּאמֶר֩ יְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֥ים ׀ אֶֽל־הַנָּחָשׁ֮ כִּ֣י עָשִׂ֣יתָ זֹּאת֒ אָר֤וּר אַתָּה֙ מִכָּל־הַבְּהֵמָ֔ה וּמִכֹּ֖ל חַיַּ֣ת הַשָּׂדֶ֑ה עַל־גְּחֹנְךָ֣ תֵלֵ֔ךְ וְעָפָ֥ר תֹּאכַ֖ל כָּל־יְמֵ֥י חַיֶּֽיךָ׃ 

Then the LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you did this, More cursed shall you be Than all cattle And all the wild beasts: On your belly shall you crawl And dirt shall you eat All the days of your life. ~ Gen. 3:14

Throughout the story leading up to that decree, the serpent is subtly cast, through a pun with the Hebrew words arum (עָר֔וּם) and ayrome (עֵירֹ֥ם) as a potential equal to the humans among wild beasts. This portrayal reveals something about our human nature from the perspective of the biblical author/s.

To understand the parallel, we need to understand the Hebrew root, a-r-m. In the verse that follows, Gen. 3:1, arum (עָר֔וּם) is translated “shrewd.” In other sections of the Hebrew Bible, the same word is translated “prudent.”

וְהַנָּחָשׁ֙ הָיָ֣ה עָר֔וּם מִכֹּל֙ חַיַּ֣ת הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָׂ֖ה יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־הָ֣אִשָּׁ֔ה אַ֚ף כִּֽי־אָמַ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹ֣א תֹֽאכְל֔וּ מִכֹּ֖ל עֵ֥ץ הַגָּֽן׃ 

Now the serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say: You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?”  ~ Gen. 3:1

In Gen. 3:10-11, though, in reference to the humans, ayrome (עֵירֹ֥ם) is translated “naked.”

וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אֶת־קֹלְךָ֥ שָׁמַ֖עְתִּי בַּגָּ֑ן וָאִירָ֛א כִּֽי־עֵירֹ֥ם אָנֹ֖כִי וָאֵחָבֵֽא׃ 

He replied, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.”

וַיֹּ֕אמֶר מִ֚י הִגִּ֣יד לְךָ֔ כִּ֥י עֵירֹ֖ם אָ֑תָּה הֲמִן־הָעֵ֗ץ אֲשֶׁ֧ר צִוִּיתִ֛יךָ לְבִלְתִּ֥י אֲכָל־מִמֶּ֖נּוּ אָכָֽלְתָּ׃ 

Then He asked, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?” ~ Gen. 3:10-11

So let’s imagine for a moment that we go with the pun’s associations and reverse translations — using “shrewd” or “prudent” for the humans and “naked” for the snake. Or use the same variety of translations for each since surely a native speaker would have heard that variety of meanings.

The serpent might as well be naked like the humans and unlike the other wild beasts, who all feature furry or hairy skins. Indeed, hairiness distinguishes animals or an animal nature. Isaac mistakes Jacob for his hairy brother, Esau, a “man of the outdoors,” when Jacob’s mother disguises Jacob with a hairy animal skin. The serpent and the first humans are alike in their hairlessness.

Similarly, the humans might just as well be shrewd or prudent after they eat from the tree. They, like the serpent, now know good from bad. Arumayrome tells us that both humans and the serpent are capable of planning, strategizing, scheming and manipulating. This beautiful and nuanced story gives us a range of meaningful possibilities with its artistry.

The layered meaning becomes even more pronounced as we see the same reversal take place for the humans as for the serpent. Just as the serpent is to “crawl on its belly” and eat dirt, making face-to-face partnership with the human impossible, the humans are demoted from their role as God’s representative.

  • God reminds the humans that they are animals like their nonhuman fellow animals by assigning them nonhuman animal food, grasses of the field, as their agricultural products falter.
  • And God reminds them that they, like nonhuman animals, are from the earth and, like the serpent, will return to it.
  • Finally God clothes them in a hairy mantle so they are more like the other animals in appearance as well:

וְק֥וֹץ וְדַרְדַּ֖ר תַּצְמִ֣יחַֽ לָ֑ךְ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ אֶת־עֵ֥שֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶֽה׃ 

Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you. But your food shall be the grasses of the field; 

By the sweat of your brow Shall you get bread to eat, Until you return to the ground— For from it you were taken. For dust you are, And to dust you shall return.

בְּזֵעַ֤ת אַפֶּ֙יךָ֙ תֹּ֣אכַל לֶ֔חֶם עַ֤ד שֽׁוּבְךָ֙ אֶל־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה כִּ֥י מִמֶּ֖נָּה לֻקָּ֑חְתָּ כִּֽי־עָפָ֣ר אַ֔תָּה וְאֶל־עָפָ֖ר תָּשֽׁוּב׃ 

וַיִּקְרָ֧א הָֽאָדָ֛ם שֵׁ֥ם אִשְׁתּ֖וֹ חַוָּ֑ה כִּ֛י הִ֥וא הָֽיְתָ֖ה אֵ֥ם כָּל־חָֽי׃ 

The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all the living.

וַיַּעַשׂ֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְאָדָ֧ם וּלְאִשְׁתּ֛וֹ כָּתְנ֥וֹת ע֖וֹר וַיַּלְבִּשֵֽׁם׃ 

And the LORD God made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.  ~ Gen. 18-21

Some Thoughts About the Sixth Day

As the shrewd serpent entices the humans, s/he tells them they will achieve godlike status:

כִּ֚י יֹדֵ֣עַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים כִּ֗י בְּיוֹם֙ אֲכָלְכֶ֣ם מִמֶּ֔נּוּ וְנִפְקְח֖וּ עֵֽינֵיכֶ֑ם וִהְיִיתֶם֙ כֵּֽאלֹהִ֔ים יֹדְעֵ֖י ט֥וֹב וָרָֽע׃ 

but God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad.” ~ Gen. 3:1-4

Perhaps this story comes to tell us not how godlike we are but how animal-like. Our godliness is potentiality, but our animal nature is a reality. We are intimately and inextricably connected to our nonhuman animal brothers and sisters. We all share the same earth. We are all of the same substance. We share essential characteristics.

Each animal also has unique characteristics. Even within species, animals differ from each other. Yuval Noah Harari suggests the unique capability of human beings is to create fictions and persuade others to believe them. I interpret those words to say we have the capability of envisioning the potentiality of godliness, of “Interbeing” and therefore have a responsibility to make it happen.

But we have no characteristics that establish our innate superiority to other animals. “In God’s image” can refer to a role God gave us, to rule as God’s representatives on earth. But that doesn’t mean our fellow travelers are forgotten or are lesser beings.

The story in the first three chapters of Genesis tells us repeatedly that all life is blessed and that this is a world of plenty, not scarcity. In this world of abundance, each creature has its birthright.

Despite the serpent’s grandiose idea of its own and the humans’ divinity and superiority, both it and the the humans are, after all, animals. They are fellow creatures within this amazing, abundant and often unruly creation where everything is interconnected and the actions of one affect the rest.

Ruling as God’s representatives is a status that can be revoked as well as given. This is a theme that will recur throughout the Torah story. Our work as gardeners bears fruit only as long as we are mindful of our place and role in this beautiful world.

And now, because everything is interconnected, the animals’ story moves forward with our own human story.

Preface to The Animals’ Story in the Torah

In The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, Charles Eisenstein coins the word, “Interbeing,” a knowledge “that my being partakes of your being and that of all beings. This goes beyond interdependency—our very existence is relational . . . that purpose, consciousness, and intelligence are innate properties of matter and the universe.”

This story of Interbeing is one I once knew — but on January 20, 2017, I woke up depressed, and I wondered how the world, how I, had strayed so far from that knowledge of Interbeing. Instinctively I turned toward projects I hoped might reawaken my consciousness of myself in that story. I hoped to expand the circle of my own often limited awareness and compassion.

I reinvested in my exploration of veganism, creating beautiful food from what the earth gives us so abundantly. I went to work on a farm, spending hours with my hands in the earth helping to grow the food I prepared at home. And I started another journey through the Torah with a different lens, relationships. I called this project “Torah Ecology.”

After a time, I focused more sharply on a particular set of relationships, that between human and nonhuman animals. The story I found in the Torah convinced me that its foundation story is the story that Charles Eisenstein describes in one simple but rich word, Interbeing.

Today, 2500 years after the time many scholars believe the text was redacted into the form we have it today, science tells us the same story.

These additional readings helped me in my journey: Charles Eisenstein’s, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Nathan Lents’ Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals, Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World and The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion―Surprising Observations of a Hidden World, Barbara J. King’s Personalities on Our Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat, Franz van de Waal’s Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves, and from Sierra Club’s March/April 2019 issue, this feature story: “Does A Bear Think In the Woods?” There are other books I look forward to reading, including more from Frans van de Waal and several from Mark Bekoff.

Like the Torah, these books point directly or indirectly to the fact that nonhuman animals have consciousness, intelligence, a sense of fairness and justice and empathy. They plan and cooperate. They also experience fear and jealousy and act aggressively toward those who threaten them. Human beings are firmly in the animal kingdom. As Yuval Noah Harari points out, we had a mediocre position in the food chain until a time in human evolution when we didn’t.

These facts raise obvious questions. Is there a moral argument for taking the life of other living beings because they differ from us? Do human beings possess unique characteristics that allow them to claim superiority over other animals, providing a rationale for sacrificing them in payment for our own sins? Surely the Torah doesn’t give us the right to commercialize life as we have today, breeding animals by the billions each year only to kill and eat them, destroying the planet as we do it. Surely the Torah points to an awareness that these are our fellow creatures, other beings who share our beautiful, living planet with us. 

In any discussion of meat eating, many will quickly point to repeated references throughout the biblical text that put forward the sanctity and supreme value of human life. Or will point to the explicit permission to eat other living beings in Gen. 9:3:

כָּל־רֶ֙מֶשׂ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הוּא־חַ֔י לָכֶ֥ם יִהְיֶ֖ה לְאָכְלָ֑ה כְּיֶ֣רֶק עֵ֔שֶׂב נָתַ֥תִּי לָכֶ֖ם אֶת־כֹּֽל׃ 

Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these.

And what do we do with Leviticus, a book with animal sacrifice at its heart? My project stalled for a time here as I studied it through the lens of the human-nonhuman animal relationship. How can I say the fundamental Torah story is that of Interbeing when the violence of one being toward another is at its literal center? (Leviticus is the central book and the Yom Kippur sacrifice is at its center). How does animal sacrifice connect with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “radical amazement” or Martin Buber’s idea of “I-Thou” relationships? As I worked through my project, I had to confront those questions. In what follows, I will incorporate my thoughts with regard to them.

But the aspirational story of the Torah, the story brimming with potentiality, is the one I would like to tell here. It is the story I needed to reengage with in these times when we are so mired in the realities of a suffering earth. Those realities were all-too-familiar in the biblical world as well, and they helped me understand how a story of separation and violence was threaded through the aspirational story, how love, compassion and deadly politics mingle.

The Animals’ Story in the Torah highlights both the beautiful potential and the painful and horrifying reality of our human relationships with the perceived “other.” The Torah story is about our profound and inextricable connection to all being and consciousness, about our search to expand our circle of awareness and compassion — but also about our struggle with a reality in which we humans are all too likely to forget the connection that is the foundation of everything and to devalue “the other.”

The Torah’s story of aspiration and potentiality strengthened and inspired generations of people, Jewish and non-Jewish. At the same time, we continue to struggle with the devastating impact of a reality in which difference or otherness isn’t blessed but devalued, a world where both conscious and unconscious violence is a constant.

Studying Torah through the lens of our human relationship to nonhuman animals helped me rediscover the story of Interbeing. That story of our fundamental interconnection and the transcendent value of each life, of all life, is what I would like to share in The Animals’ Story in the Torah.

Torah Ecology: Bingo — Shofetim (Deut. 16:18-21:9)

February 1, 2017, I began a Torah study project. These words described my intention: “Today I begin a new project of looking at the weekly Torah portions, searching for insights on food, ‘animal rights,’ agriculture and ecology.”

The name of the section I created to hold my weekly notes suggested my starting assumption based on prior studies: “Ecology is the “study of interactions among organisms and their environment.” It is a study, therefore, of relationships, and one thing I’m pretty sure I’ll find again and again as I study these pages is that Torah is a study of relationships. There are three domains in Torah:  Transcendence/G-d, human, the rest of creation . . . I want to look at relationships between and within those categories, Torah ecology.”

Over time my focus narrowed to the relationship between human beings and other animals.  One of my key questions as I entered this stage of my study was, what rationale does the Torah provide for the superiority of human life over animal life? Because my assumption was that only a hierarchical notion of value could provide a moral basis for killing animals in sacrificial rites or for food. As so often happens in a course of study, I discovered I was asking the wrong question. What I should have asked (since I have some familiarity with Hebrew scripture) was, what compelling experience drove the constant assertion of the supreme value of human life to the extent that it became an overarching theme of scripture?

As a way of organizing my study, I used the framework of Torah portions, which initially I moved through on pace with the Jewish calendar of weekly readings. Somewhere in Numbers it became more difficult to keep up. I missed Deuteronomy during the first year — and again during the second year when I got stuck in Leviticus — but am returning to it now. Too bad! It might have brought me more quickly to the heart of the matter, but it makes no difference. It is the journey it has become, and that has been extraordinary in many ways.

KEY UNDERSTANDINGS

Other than discovering I was asking the wrong question, here are key points in my journey:

  • According to the Torah, animals, like humans, are both body (basar/carcass) and “soul” (nefesh/breath of G-d/being).
  • Only one statement is made describing humans that doesn’t describe other animals: in the image of G-d (b’tzelem/image). Brown, Driver, Briggs offers the following definition/s of b’tzelem, which as nearly as I can understand it suggests a shadowy version of the body of G-d (see The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel by Benjamin D. Sommer):
Strong’s Number: 6754 Browse Lexicon
Original Word Word Origin
~lc from an unused root meaning to shade
Definition
  1. image
    1. images (of tumours, mice, heathen gods)
    2. image, likeness (of resemblance)
    3. mere, empty, image, semblance (fig.)
NAS Word Usage – Total: 16
form 1, image 5, images 6, likenesses 3, phantom 1
  • The Torah tells a story in which animals “begin” on an equal plane with humans — all are part of a whole system in which each has unique capabilities and all live in harmony. A serpent, like humans and unlike its fellow beasts of the field, is hairless, talks and has the ability to plan strategically. All animals, including humans, are vegan, and there is no death. The ideal vision that begins the Torah story is one in which all of creation is interdependent and creation itself is interdependent with G-d/transcendence.
  • The ongoing Torah story following the third chapter of Genesis is of a real world in which humans are permitted to “use” animals even though they are required not to waste and to exercise compassion for these other beings who, like them, have souls in addition to physical bodies. Meat-eating is ringed with prohibitions, and the Israelites are chastised, sometimes sarcastically, for gluttony.
  • In the vision of the Garden and in the ongoing Torah story, animals are morally accountable (evident in the Noah story).
  • Periodically the underlying vision of creation surfaces as in the Ten Words/Commandments (where domestic animals also rest) or the story of Balak and Balaam (and the talking donkey, who sees what his human counterpart, a “seer,” cannot and who experiences moral indignation).

Still, I was left with nagging questions, how could a text that puts forward such an extraordinary vision of creation in its first words also put forward such a barrage of clinical detail about dissecting living beings at its center? For not only is Leviticus placed (structurally) at the center of the Torah narrative, but the Yom Kippur ritual of the two goats is at the center of the Leviticus narrative. Of course, there is the supreme value of human life, but how did a text that has a different worldview at its root (that all beings sit at the spiritual round table) arrive at that position? In addition, what was the source of the pervasive sense of sin that permeates the text of the Torah alongside the idea of the goodness and sanctity of human life?

I thought perhaps I could find some understanding if I became emotionally embedded in the text of Leviticus. Maybe I would come to understand how it could possibly be religiously or spiritually meaningful to experience the sights and aromas of terrified animals taken to and killed on an altar and dissected and burned. I read slowly and imagined deeply. I simply couldn’t get there, and on my second reading in this particular cycle of studying Torah, I had to stop. I was overwhelmed with the horror that stood behind the clinical details I read. It wasn’t a spiritual or religious experience for me, and I couldn’t grasp how it was for anyone.

DEUTERONOMY: RE’EH

After an extended hiatus, I returned to Deuteronomy to try to complete what I began, a reading of the Torah from a particular perspective. Something was missing for me in terms of understanding. I could feel it but couldn’t place my finger on it. It centered around the emotional and spiritual meaning of sacrifice, something deeper than an intellectual rationale. Why the clinical focus on sacrifice at the structural center of a text that began with the aspirational vision of Gen 1-3?

By the time of my re-entry, we were reading Re’eh (Deut. 11:26-16:17). As I read the rationale “for the harsh destruction the Israelites bring to the inhabitants of the Land and their altars: the Canaanites who preceded them performed “for their gods every abhorrent act that the Lord detests; they even offer up their sons and daughters in fire to their gods,” I realized something: “With Moloch worship (child sacrifice) in the background, animal sacrifice was a step forward in consciousness.” Reading about Moloch worship deepened my sense of shock with regard to this practice but also provided me a clue to unravel what puzzled me, what drove the intense biblical focus on the superiority of human life despite so much material that suggests another worldview.

A consistent theme in Deuteronomy is that it centralizes sacrifice, removing it from the daily life of ordinary Israelites. At first, I thought the primary effect of this might be to routinize killing animals. Then I realized another possible intention of the text: “If the Torah represents a step forward in consciousness in its vehement assertion of the superiority of human life in a context where child sacrifice is the norm . . . “ Deuteronomy might represent “another step forward in consciousness as it attempts to wean the Israelites from a dependence on a sacrificial cult and the idea that human beings can transfer their sins to another living being who pays in their place.”

Anyone who reads the Torah understands that meat-eating was allowed as a concession to the violence in human nature. The idea was to channel that violent impulse and limit killing. The important understanding I missed until I grasped the reality of Moloch worship and child sacrifice is that the concession wasn’t based on an intellectual abstraction but on a real practice that horrified segments of the population that saw it. I can’t help but think of the projects of many animal rights activists, whose work I could not do, who seek to expose horrifying practices with animals on factory farms to the general public, making the crime visible and real.

SHOFETIM

I had a professor once who told me the way to write a paper is to write it, then take the conclusion and move it to the beginning, then be certain that every paragraph that follows builds an irrefutable case leading to a repeat of the conclusion at the end. With that in mind, I’ll share here that the next step in my understanding of the biblical project came with Shofetim when I began to understand the text as both polemic and compromise “constitution.”

Shofetim returns to the Moloch theme in two passages, one direct and one indirect through use of the word “abhorrent” (to’evah), a word that occurs more frequently in Deuteronomy than in any other book of the Torah much less the Bible. We might say that Deuteronomy, in comparison to the rest of the Torah text, is obsessed with ridding the nation of “abhorrent” practices, primary among them child sacrifice:

Deut. 16:21-17:7

לֹֽא־תִטַּ֥ע לְךָ֛ אֲשֵׁרָ֖ה כָּל־עֵ֑ץ אֵ֗צֶל מִזְבַּ֛ח יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר תַּעֲשֶׂה־לָּֽךְ׃

You shall not set up a sacred post—any kind of pole beside the altar of the LORD your God that you may make—

וְלֹֽא־תָקִ֥ים לְךָ֖ מַצֵּבָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר שָׂנֵ֖א יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃

or erect a stone pillar; for such the LORD your God detests.

לֹא־תִזְבַּח֩ לַיהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ שׁ֣וֹר וָשֶׂ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִהְיֶ֥ה בוֹ֙ מ֔וּם כֹּ֖ל דָּבָ֣ר רָ֑ע כִּ֧י תוֹעֲבַ֛ת יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ הֽוּא׃

You shall not sacrifice to the LORD your God an ox or a sheep that has any defect of a serious kind, for that is abhorrent to the LORD your God.

כִּֽי־יִמָּצֵ֤א בְקִרְבְּךָ֙ בְּאַחַ֣ד שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֣ן לָ֑ךְ אִ֣ישׁ אוֹ־אִשָּׁ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר יַעֲשֶׂ֧ה אֶת־הָרַ֛ע בְּעֵינֵ֥י יְהוָֽה־אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ לַעֲבֹ֥ר בְּרִיתֽוֹ׃

If there is found among you, in one of the settlements that the LORD your God is giving you, a man or woman who has affronted the LORD your God and transgressed His covenant—

וַיֵּ֗לֶךְ וַֽיַּעֲבֹד֙ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ לָהֶ֑ם וְלַשֶּׁ֣מֶשׁ ׀ א֣וֹ לַיָּרֵ֗חַ א֛וֹ לְכָל־צְבָ֥א הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־צִוִּֽיתִי׃

turning to the worship of other gods and bowing down to them, to the sun or the moon or any of the heavenly host, something I never commanded—

וְהֻֽגַּד־לְךָ֖ וְשָׁמָ֑עְתָּ וְדָרַשְׁתָּ֣ הֵיטֵ֔ב וְהִנֵּ֤ה אֱמֶת֙ נָכ֣וֹן הַדָּבָ֔ר נֶעֶשְׂתָ֛ה הַתּוֹעֵבָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

and you have been informed or have learned of it, then you shall make a thorough inquiry. If it is true, the fact is established, that abhorrent thing was perpetrated in Israel,

וְהֽוֹצֵאתָ֣ אֶת־הָאִ֣ישׁ הַה֡וּא אוֹ֩ אֶת־הָאִשָּׁ֨ה הַהִ֜וא אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָ֠שׂוּ אֶת־הַדָּבָ֨ר הָרָ֤ע הַזֶּה֙ אֶל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ אֶת־הָאִ֕ישׁ א֖וֹ אֶת־הָאִשָּׁ֑ה וּסְקַלְתָּ֥ם בָּאֲבָנִ֖ים וָמֵֽתוּ׃

you shall take the man or the woman who did that wicked thing out to the public place, and you shall stone them, man or woman, to death.—

עַל־פִּ֣י ׀ שְׁנַ֣יִם עֵדִ֗ים א֛וֹ שְׁלֹשָׁ֥ה עֵדִ֖ים יוּמַ֣ת הַמֵּ֑ת לֹ֣א יוּמַ֔ת עַל־פִּ֖י עֵ֥ד אֶחָֽד׃

A person shall be put to death only on the testimony of two or more witnesses; he must not be put to death on the testimony of a single witness.—

יַ֣ד הָעֵדִ֞ים תִּֽהְיֶה־בּ֤וֹ בָרִאשֹׁנָה֙ לַהֲמִית֔וֹ וְיַ֥ד כָּל־הָעָ֖ם בָּאַחֲרֹנָ֑ה וּבִֽעַרְתָּ֥ הָרָ֖ע מִקִּרְבֶּֽךָ׃

Let the hands of the witnesses be the first against him to put him to death, and the hands of the rest of the people thereafter. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst.

Deut. 18:9-14

כִּ֤י אַתָּה֙ בָּ֣א אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֣ן לָ֑ךְ לֹֽא־תִלְמַ֣ד לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת כְּתוֹעֲבֹ֖ת הַגּוֹיִ֥ם הָהֵֽם׃

When you enter the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations.

לֹֽא־יִמָּצֵ֣א בְךָ֔ מַעֲבִ֥יר בְּנֽוֹ־וּבִתּ֖וֹ בָּאֵ֑שׁ קֹסֵ֣ם קְסָמִ֔ים מְעוֹנֵ֥ן וּמְנַחֵ֖שׁ וּמְכַשֵּֽׁף׃

Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer,

וְחֹבֵ֖ר חָ֑בֶר וְשֹׁאֵ֥ל אוֹב֙ וְיִדְּעֹנִ֔י וְדֹרֵ֖שׁ אֶל־הַמֵּתִֽים׃

one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead.

כִּֽי־תוֹעֲבַ֥ת יְהוָ֖ה כָּל־עֹ֣שֵׂה אֵ֑לֶּה וּבִגְלַל֙ הַתּוֹעֵבֹ֣ת הָאֵ֔לֶּה יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ מוֹרִ֥ישׁ אוֹתָ֖ם מִפָּנֶֽיךָ׃

For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to the LORD, and it is because of these abhorrent things that the LORD your God is dispossessing them before you.

תָּמִ֣ים תִּֽהְיֶ֔ה עִ֖ם יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃

You must be wholehearted with the LORD your God.

כִּ֣י ׀ הַגּוֹיִ֣ם הָאֵ֗לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ יוֹרֵ֣שׁ אוֹתָ֔ם אֶל־מְעֹנְנִ֥ים וְאֶל־קֹסְמִ֖ים יִשְׁמָ֑עוּ וְאַתָּ֕ה לֹ֣א כֵ֔ן נָ֛תַן לְךָ֖ יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃

Those nations that you are about to dispossess do indeed resort to soothsayers and augurs; to you, however, the LORD your God has not assigned the like.


Scholars argue about the existence of this practice of child sacrifice, the extent of its existence in Israel and whether it is indigenous to Israelite religion or copied from surrounding cultures. The scholarly work and rabbinic traditions that confirm its existence are authoritative for me. The extent of the practice and whether or not it is indigenous to Israelite religion are not material questions from my perspective. What is material is the effect of the practice in shaping Israelite consciousness, the Torah text and other biblical books.

A Little Sourcing
Those who follow my posts know I’m not a friend of source criticism of the text and prefer to read it as a whole and unified story. I am better able to get at meanings in that way. This is one place, though, where source criticism and historical context does contribute meaning for me.

For the historical setting and provenance of the books of the Torah, in particular Deuteronomy, I’ll quote from summaries in various Wikipedia articles, first a Wikipedia article on Deuteronomy: “Presented as the words of Moses delivered before the conquest of Canaan, a broad consensus of modern scholars see its origin in traditions from Israel (the northern kingdom) brought south to the Kingdom of Judah in the wake of the Assyrian conquest of Aram (8th century BC) and then adapted to a program of nationalist reform in the time of Josiah (late 7th century BC), with the final form of the modern book emerging in the milieu of the return from the Babylonian captivity during the late 6th century BC.[3]

So hypothetically Deuteronomy came into its present form and location in the text in three stages: 1) 8th century northern kingdom, 2) 7th century Judah under Josiah, 3) 6th century post-exilic Judah.

It seems to me that Deuteronomy shares themes with J (the Jahwist) who provides Gen 2, a key part of what I have called the aspirational vision of Gen 1-3: “Michael D. Coogan suggests three recurring themes in the Jahwist tradition: the relationship between humans and soil, separation between humans and God, and progressive human corruption.” Conversely the Priestly text shares themes and motifs with the Elohist of Gen 1, most obvious to me the ritualized nature of the creation process.

The Wikipedia article on the Jahwist indicates 7th century Judah as the earliest possible date (and historical context) for the work: “. . . a crucial 1976 study by H. H. Schmid, Der sogenannte Jahwist (“The So-called Jahwist”), argued that J knew the prophetic books of the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, while the prophets did not know the traditions of the Torah, meaning J could not be earlier than the 7th century.[14]A number of current theories place J even later, in the exilic and/or post-exilic period (6th–5th centuries BCE).[15] 

. . . The modern scholarly consensus is that the Torah has multiple authors and that its composition took place over centuries.[21]This contemporary common hypothesis among biblical scholars states that the first major comprehensive draft of the Pentateuch was composed in the late 7th or the 6th century BCE (the Jahwist source), and that this was later expanded by the addition of various narratives and laws (the Priestly source) into a work very like the one existing today . . .

. . . According to Jewish tradition, Torah was recompiled by prophet Ezra during Second Temple period,[23][24]and he recited it to the assembled Israelites in order to enforce the observance of Torah.[25]

In short, this leads to a very general hypothesis that several streams of Torah traditions emerged during the 8th to 7th, even 6th, centuries bce. Another Wikipedia article on the Deuteronomist diagrams the geographical and timeline links between J and the Deuteronomist with a northern kingdom point of origin that transferred to the southern kingdom during and after the Assyrian conquest.

In any case, these traditions were formulated into a “unified” document (i.e., redacted with additional creative material) during the 6th to possibly even the 5th centuries bce. Some scholars propose that this creative redaction occurred after 538 when Persia not only authorized a return to the Land from the first (Babylonian) exile but hypothetically mandated a constitution of sorts that would allow the returnees to form a unified nation. This possibility suggests Persian, therefore Zoroastrian, influence on the final redaction.

Back to Shofetim
And this brings me to my point. As difficult as it is for Americans to understand, who are weaned on separation of church and state and who generally view sacred scriptures as “religious” or “spiritual” documents, the biblical text is as much political as it is religious. There were many voices in ancient Israel just as there are today in, for example, the United States. In stressful times, those voices are sometimes more diverse and strident — and sometimes more unified. A historical time period that witnesses a civil war (between northern Israel and southern Judah), two national destructions, first of the Northern Kingdom, then of the Southern Kingdom, a local exile from north to south, a national exile and a painful and difficult return to reestablish a nation, is nothing if not stressful. The Torah reflects those stresses and a diversity of voices woven together into an extraordinarily unified text that served far beyond its hypothetical original purpose of building a unified nation.

In the contemporary study of religions, we say that religions are embedded in culture, time and place, and culture, time and place are embedded in religions. This means there is change over time or they would not be relevant to future generations — and there are inherent contradictions. Religions are not static. This fluidity and richness with all its complexity, depth, and contradiction is in evidence in the Torah story. It is what makes the Torah story relevant more than two-and-a-half millennia later.

So as I again came to this theme in Deuteronomy of abhorrent practices and, in particular, child sacrifice, the thought occurred to me that the entire Torah story, indeed the entire Bible, is first, polemic, and second, political compromise. My hypothesis became clear to me through my increasingly narrow focus on the relationship between humans and animals. This view of Hebrew scripture, that it is both polemic and political compromise, is the missing piece for me and is explanatory.

A hypothesis is just that: an idea about what something might be. And now I’ll need to go back once again and review the evidence of the text, examine if that’s really where it leads. But first, I’ll point to a couple of details in addition to the Moloch material that brought me to this hypothesis.

Polemic
In documents that frequently use chiasm as a literary structure, priestly material and, in particular, animal sacrifice have pride of place in the Torah story, at the center. Or do they? Deuteronomy and compatible material in Gen 2, along with some Priestly material that complements it in Gen 1, envelopes the story. Deuteronomy coming last among the five books points toward a different future, much like the function of II Chronicles at the end of Hebrew scripture and Malachi at the end of the Old Testament. In regard to animals and animal sacrifice, it seems related to the worldview of Gen 2, beginning to apply that idea of the interrelatedness of all of creation and the value of all life in the real world through compromise steps. That would make the chiastic arrangement of material one example of a compromise between different traditions as they are woven into a whole.

Deuteronomy rails against the abhorrent practices (toevot), primary among them child sacrifice, at the very least known, tolerated and even recognized to be effective, in other portions of the biblical text. Whether or not child sacrifice was inherently part of Israelite tradition or was imitative, at some point, it was part of Israelite religious culture, and significant portions of the text refute it vigorously and consistently. It is refuted not only in the strong words of Deuteronomy but in the basic and overriding message of the entire text, the sanctity of human life. It is as if there is a basic Torah instinct that recognizes all life is precious — but the reality of child sacrifice is so critical that it requires a massive and comprehensive reaction that includes a hierarchy of value in regard to life and replacing human sacrifice with animal sacrifice and its corollary, meat-eating. The sanctity of human life is one theme of the text that provides an overarching unity to it.

Shofetim ties the practice of human sacrifice, child sacrifice in particular, to expulsion from the land/soil of Israel. Continued presence in that space depends on expelling that and related evils from the community — and the entire community must participate in removing it through stoning the guilty human being/s.

Finally, the one characteristic attributed to humans that differentiates them from animals and thereby provides the rationale for human superiority is that they are “in the image” of G-d. As the vocabulary shows, this was a shadowy idea, and it’s completely unclear to me what that means — but from my perspective the most obvious meaning flows from an idea of G-d with a body. Deuteronomy rejects this notion unequivocally, saying G-d has no body, and this became the dominant voice in rabbinic Judaism. Logically that rejection sweeps away a rationale for valuing human life on a higher level.

So the polemic behind the biblical text is that in its overall thematic thrust and structure, it vehemently rejects the notion of human sacrifice through a variety of mechanisms, including valuing human life over all other life.  This polemic explains sufficiently for me how animal sacrifice became central to Israelite religion, at least as the Torah story tells it. It also portrays vividly how religious cultures change with time and situation.

Politics
And this brings me to the politics behind the text. In Re’eh, I noted with regard to the centralization of sacrifice theme that it desacralized Israelite daily life. On the one hand, that concentrated power and wealth in the hands of a priestly aristocracy in Jerusalem. It had another important effect, though, and that was to diminish reliance on priests and a sacrificial system in Israel generally.

Change happens slowly over time, but I believe that had the Temple not been destroyed by the Romans, animal sacrifice would have disappeared eventually anyway. The destruction only hastened the process the Deuteronomist put in motion. This is the power of acculturation. Was it a Deuteronomist plan as they worked out the compromise that included a system of animal sacrifice at the heart of the text? I think so. As animal sacrifice was in the center of the text literarily, it also moved geographically and physically to the center of the land, making it inaccessible and increasingly irrelevant in the daily lives of Israelites.

The structure of the Torah story, the way common and diverse motifs and voices are woven together, reveals a common impulse among most of the leading voices in ancient Israel, a polemic against human sacrifice. It is a polemic that overlays another strand of thought, that all life is equally precious, all is animated with a soul, the breath of G-d. But life is never simple, and moving forward toward the aspirational vision of justice and harmony throughout creation happens in small steps involving fierce political struggles to arrive at a compromise represented in the very structure of the Torah story.

Of course another possibility is that the strand of thought that has all creatures at the spiritual round table was not indigenous to the text but was influenced by Zoroastrianism. In this scenario, it would have been back-edited into the text by the redactors along with the version of the Binding of Isaac story that we have in which Abraham is prevented from sacrificing his son. This possibility would be consistent with a Deuteronomist who so vehemently opposed child sacrifice, constructed a program to desacralize Israelite life and marginalize the priestly sacrificial system — and, I think, ultimately get rid of it.

If everyone who could testify directly to the meaning of the Constitution of the United States disappeared from the earth, and beings from outer space arrived on our planet and discovered the document — they would study the document deeply to understand what it said and what motivated its composition. They would see the shards of the struggle with a historical circumstance that resulted in an intense emphasis on individual liberty and rights. Although they might be puzzled by the amendments, they might also catch in them a glimpse of the same theme from somewhat different positions in history. Ultimately the grandeur of the concept and its expression would move them in their own time and place even as they struggled to understand the specifics and apparent conflicts.

That is our position today with regard to ancient Israel. Behind the American Constitution is a polemic. The Constitution is a lofty document that represents a compromise between the voices speaking at the time of its composition with amendments as history progresses and situations change. Most importantly, The Constitution is a process, not a static document, and in the same way, the Bible is a process which those who read it are invited to continue today.

And now that I have finally arrived at a point of answering some questions I have about the text with regard to the relationship between humans and animals, it’s time to begin. I am reminded of the story about Rabbi Hillel when asked to explain Judaism while standing on one foot. He said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the commentary. Go and study it.” (דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד. זו היא כל התורה כולה, ואידך פירושה הוא: זיל גמור) – Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 31a

Torah Ecology: Re’eh 2018 (Deuteronomy.11.26-16.17)

This portion, Re’eh, includes what I believe is a pivotal statement with regard to animal sacrifice and the relationship between humans and other animals. It is a significant next step in the biblical Story of the Animals:

Deut. 12:15-16
15
רַק֩ בְּכָל־אַוַּ֨ת נַפְשְׁךָ֜ תִּזְבַּ֣ח ׀ וְאָכַלְתָּ֣ בָשָׂ֗ר כְּבִרְכַּ֨ת יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לְךָ֖ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֑יךָ הַטָּמֵ֤א וְהַטָּהוֹר֙ יֹאכְלֶ֔נּוּ כַּצְּבִ֖י וְכָאַיָּֽל
But whenever you desire, you may slaughter and eat meat in any of your settlements, according to the blessing that the LORD your God has granted you. The unclean and the clean alike may partake of it, as of the gazelle and the deer.

16
רַ֥ק הַדָּ֖ם לֹ֣א תֹאכֵ֑לוּ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ תִּשְׁפְּכֶ֖נּוּ כַּמָּֽיִם׃
But you must not partake of the blood; you shall pour it out on the ground like water.

This modification of instruction is repeated in the portion:

Deut. 12:20-24
20
כִּֽי־יַרְחִיב֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֥יךָ אֶֽת־גְּבֽוּלְךָ֮ כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר דִּבֶּר־לָךְ֒ וְאָמַרְתָּ֙ אֹכְלָ֣ה בָשָׂ֔ר כִּֽי־תְאַוֶּ֥ה נַפְשְׁךָ֖ לֶאֱכֹ֣ל בָּשָׂ֑ר בְּכָל־אַוַּ֥ת נַפְשְׁךָ֖ תֹּאכַ֥ל בָּשָֽׂר׃
When the LORD enlarges your territory, as He has promised you, and you say, “I shall eat some meat,” for you have the urge to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you wish.

21
כִּֽי־יִרְחַ֨ק מִמְּךָ֜ הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִבְחַ֜ר יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ֮ לָשׂ֣וּם שְׁמ֣וֹ שָׁם֒ וְזָבַחְתָּ֞ מִבְּקָרְךָ֣ וּמִצֹּֽאנְךָ֗ אֲשֶׁ֨ר נָתַ֤ן יְהוָה֙ לְךָ֔ כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוִּיתִ֑ךָ וְאָֽכַלְתָּ֙ בִּשְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ בְּכֹ֖ל אַוַּ֥ת נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃
If the place where the LORD has chosen to establish His name is too far from you, you may slaughter any of the cattle or sheep that the LORD gives you, as I have instructed you; and you may eat to your heart’s content in your settlements.

22
אַ֗ךְ כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יֵאָכֵ֤ל אֶֽת־הַצְּבִי֙ וְאֶת־הָ֣אַיָּ֔ל כֵּ֖ן תֹּאכְלֶ֑נּוּ הַטָּמֵא֙ וְהַטָּה֔וֹר יַחְדָּ֖ו יֹאכְלֶֽנּוּ׃
Eat it, however, as the gazelle and the deer are eaten: the unclean may eat it together with the clean.

23
רַ֣ק חֲזַ֗ק לְבִלְתִּי֙ אֲכֹ֣ל הַדָּ֔ם כִּ֥י הַדָּ֖ם ה֣וּא הַנָּ֑פֶשׁ וְלֹא־תֹאכַ֥ל הַנֶּ֖פֶשׁ עִם־הַבָּשָֽׂר׃
But make sure that you do not partake of the blood; for the blood is the life, and you must not consume the life with the flesh.

24
לֹ֖א תֹּאכְלֶ֑נּוּ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ תִּשְׁפְּכֶ֖נּוּ כַּמָּֽיִם׃
You must not partake of it; you must pour it out on the ground like water:

25
לֹ֖א תֹּאכְלֶ֑נּוּ לְמַ֨עַן יִיטַ֤ב לְךָ֙ וּלְבָנֶ֣יךָ אַחֲרֶ֔יךָ כִּֽי־תַעֲשֶׂ֥ה הַיָּשָׁ֖ר בְּעֵינֵ֥י יְהוָֽה׃
you must not partake of it, in order that it may go well with you and with your descendants to come, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of the LORD.

In the JPS Torah Commentary to Deuteronomy, commentator Jeffrey H. Tigay describes the content of these passages in this way: “The need to permit secular slaughter eliminated the sacral dimension of meat meals.” This desacralization accords with the general content in Deuteronomy, which in limiting “sacrificial worship to a single place would inevitably remove a sacral dimension from the life of most Israelites.”

Tigay notes that this trend in Deuteronomy has sometimes been termed “secularization,” but he suggests the book is in fact profoundly religious in “seeking unceasingly to teach love and reverence for G-d to every Israelite and to encourage rituals which have that effect. Deuteronomy’s aim is to spiritualize religion by freeing it from excessive dependence on sacrifice and priesthood.” (p. xvii)

These comments were antithetical to my own first thoughts from my contemporary perspective. Initially I intended to write about how the desacralization of meat-eating is another (and major) step in a journey toward thoughtless consumption of animals as food.  This commentary, however, suggests how it might represent not a de-evolution but an evolution in consciousness.

What Is Sacred?
Tigay’s “desacralization” with reference to these excerpts refers not to holiness but to purity, two different biblical taxa. G-d is both holy and pure. Human beings are capable of holiness, associated with ethical commandments. In their natural state, they are impure, subject as they are to death, birth, menstruation, seminal emissions and organic decay represented in leprosy. Impurity is, however, a temporary state which can be changed through purification rituals for the purpose of approaching G-d.

Accordingly, these passages allow Israelites to share and eat non-sacrificial meat in the company of those who are in a state of impurity (without specifying whether this might include non-Israelites). Similarly, the meat is not sacred since it did not pass through the required rituals associated with presentation on the altar in Jerusalem. The blood prohibition, incumbent upon both Israelites and non-Israelites, remains in effect.

Context
These verses occur following a summary of the introductory chapters of Deuteronomy, climaxing in a ceremony at Mounts Ebal and Gerizim where participants are instructed to choose the path of life over death. Deut. 12, the chapter that contains these verses, begins the core of Deuteronomy, which continues through chapter 26. Specifically, Deut. 12 focuses on the place of worship and details “three basic rules: Canaanite places of worship must be destroyed; Israel may perform sacrificial worship at only one place, chosen by G-d; and non-sacrificial slaughter is permitted to those living at a distance from the chosen place.” (JPS Commentary to Deuteronomy,p. 117).

Deut. 12 concludes with an explanation, of sorts, for the harsh destruction the Israelites bring to the inhabitants of the Land and their altars: the Canaanites who preceded them performed “for their gods every abhorrent act that the Lord detests; they even offer up their sons and daughters in fire to their gods.” This juxtaposition, the focus on food, in particular animal flesh, and the explanation that concludes the chapter, highlights the relationship between Moloch worship, which lured the Israelites, and biblical animal sacrifice. (See postscript note in my post, Eternal Life).

Paradigm shift
It is hard to imagine that I have read and re-read this text as many times as I have and missed the searing implications of the direct and sometimes not-so-direct references to Moloch worship and the extent to which that particular cultural interaction, exacerbated by the guilt of participation (according to the text), shaped Israelite religion.

For a long time I’ve tried to engage with the text at a deep enough level to understand the human motivation behind animal sacrifice. What could possibly make taking an innocent, terrified and probably bleating or otherwise crying animal, slaughtering it and pouring its blood on the altar a religiously or emotionally significant act for people? And it seems stumbling upon descriptions of Moloch worship among the Israelites might be the key for which I searched.

With Moloch worship in the background, animal sacrifice was a step forward in consciousness. This paradigm shift is the focus of Akedat Yitzhak, the Sacrifice of Isaac story in Genesis. Here in Deuteronomy, it leads to another paradigm shift, allowing desacralized meat eating for the Israelites as a way to reduce dependence on the sacrificial cult.

Moloch worship might put not only animal sacrifice in a somewhat more positive light but might also explain the intense and repeated exaltation of human life. There are clear statements that set human life above all other life. In addition to those, in the course of my posts, I theorized that “pure” animals, animals fit to consume, are animals that don’t kill humans for food. I wondered why animals were also sentenced to death in the Flood story and suspected they participated in the generalized violence on earth by killing humans. Legal restitution for animal lives is monetary — for human life, blood. The adamant stance on the sanctity of human life is a vehement rejection of a cultural norm, child sacrifice.

The Passages: A Comparison

The instruction in Deut. 12:15-16 that allows desacralized meat eating is repeated in extended form in Deut. 12:20-24. Both versions of the revised instruction, though, include the same three elements:

  • References to desire
  • The changed instruction to go ahead and satisfy the desire, not delay gratification in order to sacrifice
  • The retained instruction not to eat the blood

In the first (more terse) statement, Deut. 12:15 says, “whenever you desire…” Deut. 12:20 and 21 amplify the theme with “for you have the urge…” and “…to your heart’s content.” This license is uncharacteristic in a text that is otherwise absorbed with restraining human impulse and regulating human behavior. Also uncharacteristic in a text that vehemently separates Israelites from surrounding cultures that might undermine their national task are the statements about “clean” and “unclean” eating together without specifying that should be only Israelites. Deut. 20 may attempt a clarification with “in your settlements” but not necessarily. Who’s to say that only Israelites live in a settlement?

The overall effect of the repetition of references to immediate gratification and an environment of impurity is to suggest gluttony — but only to an extent, since blood is prohibited to the “clean” and the “unclean” alike, encouraging some restraint. As a Noachide law, this prohibition extends to the world at large. This juxtaposition of satisfying desire and refraining from eating the blood accords with an ambivalent attitude to meat consumption I have noted on other occasions:

  • When meat eating is first allowed in Gen. 9:2-5 it is immediately ringed with prohibitions (see my post on Noach).
  • When the Israelites cry for the “fleshpots” of Egypt in Numbers 11:19-20, G-d rains an absurd amount of quail on them following irritated, even sarcastic commentary about their gluttony: “You shall eat not one day, not two, not even five days or ten or twenty, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you.“

On the other hand, as is so often the case, perhaps allusions to gluttony are simply biblical realism, a recognition of human characteristics and the requirements of the current environment. Biblical law looks not toward the perfection of humanity but its improvement.

The instruction not to eat the blood, given once in the first set of verses, Deut. 12:16, is repeated and elaborated three times in the second set, Deut. 12:23, 24 and 25. The latter section provides reinforcement for the instruction, its basis (“…the blood is the life, and you must not consume the life with the flesh”) and connects it to the ongoing wellbeing of the people (“…in order that it may go well with you and with your descendants to come, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of the LORD”). This returns us to a more prominent theme of the biblical narrative, recognition of the sanctity of all life and the connection between action that recognizes that principle and continued life and wellbeing of the people.

Conclusion

Deuteronomy’s move to desacralize meat eating, thereby reducing dependence on the priestly cult in Jerusalem and the sacrificial ritual, could be viewed, then, as a step forward in consciousness with an accompanying recognition of the reality of the environment. The Israelites as sheep herders (and former semi-nomads) depended on animal flesh as part of their diet — and human beings can tend toward gluttony.

Deut. 12 offers a modification of the original instruction that required sacrificing a portion before eating meat. The new instruction supports the view of scripture that all life is “sacred,” that is, comes from G-d who breathes in the breath of life (nefesh), animating flesh (basar) but that human life is superior (b’tzelem Elokim, “in the image of G-d”). At the same time, it takes into account a current existential status (living in the Land sometimes at considerable distance from Jerusalem) and needing, sometimes even coveting, meat.

Additional evolutionary possibilities this paradigm shift suggests is that the Israelites will not be tempted to view animals as divine beings but as creatures with the breath of life like themselves (ref. Golden Calf). And without the possibility of running to an altar to sacrifice an animal in their place for sin, they may begin to build a larger sense of responsibility within themselves.

If the Torah represents a step forward in consciousness in its vehement assertion of the superiority of human life in a context where child sacrifice is the norm . . . and Deuteronomy represents another step forward in consciousness as it attempts to wean the Israelites from a dependence on a sacrificial cult and the idea that human beings can transfer their sins to another living being who pays in their place, is it not possible we are required to continue our evolution of consciousness in our own changed circumstances?

Most of us have options other than killing animals that will allow us to live healthy lives — and our wanton use of animals, our commoditization of them, has had negative effects on our own health and a devastating impact on the environment we share with animals. As the Israelites were urged toward a deeper consciousness of their own responsibility in creation, perhaps we are as well.

Torah invites us to not only constantly reimagine it but to reimagine it in this specific case: as Torah shows within itself an evolution of consciousness with regard to the relationship between the Israelites and animals in a changed situation, so we are required to do the same in our contemporary environment.

Torah Ecology: Balak 2018 (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9)

This year I read one of those books that you keep returning to, a book that gave coherence to my own half-formed thoughts and startled me into a journey of self-recognition and definition. The book was Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. In a post at the time, I quoted him:

“In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari talks about the evolution of religions from animism to polytheism to monotheism. Of animism, he says, ‘When animism was the dominant belief system, human norms and values had to take into consideration the outlook and interests of a multitude of other beings, such as animals, plants, fairies and ghosts…Hunter-gatherers picked and pursued wild plants and animals, which could be seen as equal in status to Homo sapiens. The fact that man hunted sheep did not make sheep inferior to man, just as the fact that tigers hunted man did not make man inferior to tigers. Beings communicated with one another directly and negotiated the rules governing their shared habitat.’

Conversely, ‘farmers owned and manipulated plants and animals, and could hardly degrade themselves by negotiating with their possessions. Hence the first religious effect of the Agricultural Revolution was to turn plants and animals from equal members of a spiritual round table into property.’”

“Plants and animals…equal members of a spiritual round table…” Those words and the spiritual space they created for me helped me sharpen my focus in the Torah study project I had undertaken and gain a slightly different perspective. The idea that life other than human  has an equal place at the spiritual round table resonates deeply with me. I like to imagine that the world in the first three chapters of Genesis was both memory and vision even though in general, the Torah asserts the sanctity and superiority of human life. The world of the Garden is a world in which humans negotiated with other animals  the rules governing their shared habitat.

That world receded for me as I progressed through the Torah story this time, although as I worked my way through it, I was alert to the animals’ story and surprised at how it paralleled the human story. Finally, I got stuck in the pages of Leviticus, a book I have always appreciated for its literary artistry and applied theology, a theology expressed through the body. This time, though, I was put off by the clinical descriptions of dissecting animal bodies, animals killed in substitution for human lives that in the Torah world should have been forfeit.

I appreciate that Leviticus represents a deep consciousness of the preciousness of all life and of human moral responsibility in relation to it, something we often lack in today’s world where life and death and brutality happen far away from us in hidden spaces. Yet as hard as I tried to understand what animal sacrifice meant to those who practiced it, what deep wellsprings of meaning it tapped, how it felt to those who experienced it, I couldn’t get there.  And I had to take a break for a while.

But now comes Balak, a portion in which G-d uncovers human eyes, and animals and humans once again, if only for a moment, have equal seats at the spiritual round table as in the Garden. That idea of uncovering human eyes while the eyes of a she-ass need no uncovering is key to understanding the significance of the famous talking donkey story in Balak.

Jacob Milgrom, in the JPS Torah Commentary to Numbers, points out that the story of Balaam’s ass is an interpolated folk tale (Num. 22:22-35). This explains why it presents inconsistencies and contradictions in relation to the story into which it is inserted, including a very different image of Balaam, a negative image which gains dominance in both Jewish and Christian traditions. The surrounding story, and older tradition, presents Balaam as a faithful servant of G-d, which led to some favorable rabbinic comparisons with both Moses and Abraham.

But what interests me is the way in which this story of the talking she-ass comments on the relationship between human beings, other animals and the environment, and G-d. Once again, as in the Garden, other animals are as capable of vision and understanding as human beings, perhaps even more so. Yes, as Rabbi Sacks points out, there is humor, even sarcasm, in the story. Even Balaam’s she-ass can see and understand what he, a so-called “seer” cannot. But I like to understand the story as something more.

Here is the story of Balaam and the she-ass (from Sefaria.org):

וַיָּ֤קָם בִּלְעָם֙ בַּבֹּ֔קֶר וַֽיַּחֲבֹ֖שׁ אֶת־אֲתֹנ֑וֹ וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ עִם־שָׂרֵ֥י מוֹאָֽב׃

When he arose in the morning, Balaam saddled his ass and departed with the Moabite dignitaries.

וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֣ף אֱלֹהִים֮ כִּֽי־הוֹלֵ֣ךְ הוּא֒ וַיִּתְיַצֵּ֞ב מַלְאַ֧ךְ יְהוָ֛ה בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ לְשָׂטָ֣ן ל֑וֹ וְהוּא֙ רֹכֵ֣ב עַל־אֲתֹנ֔וֹ וּשְׁנֵ֥י נְעָרָ֖יו עִמּֽוֹ׃
But God was incensed at his going; so an angel of the LORD placed himself in his way as an adversary. He was riding on his she-ass, with his two servants alongside,

וַתֵּ֣רֶא הָאָתוֹן֩ אֶת־מַלְאַ֨ךְ יְהוָ֜ה נִצָּ֣ב בַּדֶּ֗רֶךְ וְחַרְבּ֤וֹ שְׁלוּפָה֙ בְּיָד֔וֹ וַתֵּ֤ט הָֽאָתוֹן֙ מִן־הַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ בַּשָּׂדֶ֑ה וַיַּ֤ךְ בִּלְעָם֙ אֶת־הָ֣אָת֔וֹן לְהַטֹּתָ֖הּ הַדָּֽרֶךְ׃

when the ass caught sight of the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. The ass swerved from the road and went into the fields; and Balaam beat the ass to turn her back onto the road.

וַֽיַּעֲמֹד֙ מַלְאַ֣ךְ יְהוָ֔ה בְּמִשְׁע֖וֹל הַכְּרָמִ֑ים גָּדֵ֥ר מִזֶּ֖ה וְגָדֵ֥ר מִזֶּֽה׃

The angel of the LORD then stationed himself in a lane between the vineyards, with a fence on either side.

וַתֵּ֨רֶא הָאָת֜וֹן אֶת־מַלְאַ֣ךְ יְהוָ֗ה וַתִּלָּחֵץ֙ אֶל־הַקִּ֔יר וַתִּלְחַ֛ץ אֶת־רֶ֥גֶל בִּלְעָ֖ם אֶל־הַקִּ֑יר וַיֹּ֖סֶף לְהַכֹּתָֽהּ׃

The ass, seeing the angel of the LORD, pressed herself against the wall and squeezed Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he beat her again.

וַיּ֥וֹסֶף מַלְאַךְ־יְהוָ֖ה עֲב֑וֹר וַֽיַּעֲמֹד֙ בְּמָק֣וֹם צָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֛ר אֵֽין־דֶּ֥רֶךְ לִנְט֖וֹת יָמִ֥ין וּשְׂמֹֽאול׃

Once more the angel of the LORD moved forward and stationed himself on a spot so narrow that there was no room to swerve right or left.

וַתֵּ֤רֶא הָֽאָתוֹן֙ אֶת־מַלְאַ֣ךְ יְהוָ֔ה וַתִּרְבַּ֖ץ תַּ֣חַת בִּלְעָ֑ם וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֣ף בִּלְעָ֔ם וַיַּ֥ךְ אֶת־הָאָת֖וֹן בַּמַּקֵּֽל׃

When the ass now saw the angel of the LORD, she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam was furious and beat the ass with his stick.

וַיִּפְתַּ֥ח יְהוָ֖ה אֶת־פִּ֣י הָאָת֑וֹן וַתֹּ֤אמֶר לְבִלְעָם֙ מֶה־עָשִׂ֣יתִֽי לְךָ֔ כִּ֣י הִכִּיתַ֔נִי זֶ֖ה שָׁלֹ֥שׁ רְגָלִֽים׃

Then the LORD opened the ass’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?”

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר בִּלְעָם֙ לָֽאָת֔וֹן כִּ֥י הִתְעַלַּ֖לְתְּ בִּ֑י ל֤וּ יֶשׁ־חֶ֙רֶב֙ בְּיָדִ֔י כִּ֥י עַתָּ֖ה הֲרַגְתִּֽיךְ׃

Balaam said to the ass, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.”

וַתֹּ֨אמֶר הָאָת֜וֹן אֶל־בִּלְעָ֗ם הֲלוֹא֩ אָנֹכִ֨י אֲתֹֽנְךָ֜ אֲשֶׁר־רָכַ֣בְתָּ עָלַ֗י מֵעֽוֹדְךָ֙ עַד־הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה הַֽהַסְכֵּ֣ן הִסְכַּ֔נְתִּי לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת לְךָ֖ כֹּ֑ה וַיֹּ֖אמֶר לֹֽא׃

The ass said to Balaam, “Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?” And he answered, “No.”

וַיְגַ֣ל יְהוָה֮ אֶת־עֵינֵ֣י בִלְעָם֒ וַיַּ֞רְא אֶת־מַלְאַ֤ךְ יְהוָה֙ נִצָּ֣ב בַּדֶּ֔רֶךְ וְחַרְבּ֥וֹ שְׁלֻפָ֖ה בְּיָד֑וֹ וַיִּקֹּ֥ד וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ לְאַפָּֽיו׃

Then the LORD uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, his drawn sword in his hand; thereupon he bowed right down to the ground.

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֵלָיו֙ מַלְאַ֣ךְ יְהוָ֔ה עַל־מָ֗ה הִכִּ֙יתָ֙ אֶת־אֲתֹ֣נְךָ֔ זֶ֖ה שָׁל֣וֹשׁ רְגָלִ֑ים הִנֵּ֤ה אָנֹכִי֙ יָצָ֣אתִי לְשָׂטָ֔ן כִּֽי־יָרַ֥ט הַדֶּ֖רֶךְ לְנֶגְדִּֽי׃

The angel of the LORD said to him, “Why have you beaten your ass these three times? It is I who came out as an adversary, for the errand is obnoxious to me.

וַתִּרְאַ֙נִי֙ הָֽאָת֔וֹן וַתֵּ֣ט לְפָנַ֔י זֶ֖ה שָׁלֹ֣שׁ רְגָלִ֑ים אוּלַי֙ נָטְתָ֣ה מִפָּנַ֔י כִּ֥י עַתָּ֛ה גַּם־אֹתְכָ֥ה הָרַ֖גְתִּי וְאוֹתָ֥הּ הֶחֱיֵֽיתִי׃

And when the ass saw me, she shied away because of me those three times. If she had not shied away from me, you are the one I should have killed, while sparing her.”

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר בִּלְעָ֜ם אֶל־מַלְאַ֤ךְ יְהוָה֙ חָטָ֔אתִי כִּ֚י לֹ֣א יָדַ֔עְתִּי כִּ֥י אַתָּ֛ה נִצָּ֥ב לִקְרָאתִ֖י בַּדָּ֑רֶךְ וְעַתָּ֛ה אִם־רַ֥ע בְּעֵינֶ֖יךָ אָשׁ֥וּבָה לִּֽי׃

Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, “I erred because I did not know that you were standing in my way. If you still disapprove, I will turn back.”

וַיֹּאמֶר֩ מַלְאַ֨ךְ יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־בִּלְעָ֗ם לֵ֚ךְ עִם־הָ֣אֲנָשִׁ֔ים וְאֶ֗פֶס אֶת־הַדָּבָ֛ר אֲשֶׁר־אֲדַבֵּ֥ר אֵלֶ֖יךָ אֹת֣וֹ תְדַבֵּ֑ר וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ בִּלְעָ֖ם עִם־שָׂרֵ֥י בָלָֽק׃

But the angel of the LORD said to Balaam, “Go with the men. But you must say nothing except what I tell you.” So Balaam went on with Balak’s dignitaries.

So three times, the she-ass sees the angel of the Lord, and Balaam does not. Then G-d opens the mouth of the she-ass, who questions why Balaam beats her — has she ever done anything like this before? And G-d “uncovers the eyes” of Balaam, who then realizes his error.

Sarcastic humor, yes indeed. But in addition, Balaam has no reaction to an ass that not only speaks but is a “seer” just as he is and has not only consciousness but a sense of fairness. There is an implicit assumption in the story that animals have an equal place at the spiritual round table, and it is only an act of G-d that places them at the mercy of human beings. That should generate humility in Balaam, but the story tells us something different.

This leads me to another feature to the story that intrigues me, a characteristic of the she-ass that distinguishes her from her human master, Balaam: her humility. The nameless she-ass challenges Balaam’s sense of justice with these words: “Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?” She has borne her burden and her place in creation faithfully while an arrogant, unseeing, unaware Balaam cites his own exalted sense of self-worth as a reason to cruelly beat her: “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.”

This makes the wordplay in the story even more significant. When Balaam finally sees the angel, it is described in this phrase:

וַיְגַ֣ל יְהוָה֮ אֶת־עֵינֵ֣י בִלְעָם֒ וַיַּ֞רְא אֶת־מַלְאַ֤ךְ יְהוָה֙

Then the LORD uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD…

It’s a big deal for Balaam when he sees the angel of the Lord. It is a revelation. Conversely, it’s just in the course of things for the she-ass, no braggadocio required:

וַתֵּ֨רֶא הָאָת֜וֹן אֶת־מַלְאַ֣ךְ יְהוָ֗ה

…when the ass caught sight of the angel of the LORD…

The she-ass in the natural course of things catches sight of the obvious, a dangerous angel of the Lord in the path wielding a fiery sword, and does the obvious, refuses to go further, saving her own life and the life of her master. G-d doesn’t “uncover” her eyes; she doesn’t claim special status as a “seer;” and she receives no praise as a heroine. She just “sees” the angel of the Lord.

This fact enhances the irony of Balaam’s self-promoting words in his third blessing, the first that he composes himself since G-d placed words in his mouth in the other two:

וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר נְאֻ֤ם בִּלְעָם֙ בְּנ֣וֹ בְעֹ֔ר וּנְאֻ֥ם הַגֶּ֖בֶר שְׁתֻ֥ם הָעָֽיִן׃

Taking up his theme, he said: Word of Balaam son of Beor, Word of the man whose eye is true,

נְאֻ֕ם שֹׁמֵ֖עַ אִמְרֵי־אֵ֑ל אֲשֶׁ֨ר מַחֲזֵ֤ה שַׁדַּי֙ יֶֽחֱזֶ֔ה נֹפֵ֖ל וּגְל֥וּי עֵינָֽיִם׃

Word of him who hears God’s speech, Who beholds visions from the Almighty, Prostrate, but with eyes uncovered…

In the earlier part of the story with the she-ass, Balaam only sees the obvious, a dangerous angel of the Lord in the path, when G-d “uncovers” his eyes. In the meantime, He beat his faithful she-ass twice and would have killed her. How quickly his arrogance reasserts itself as he proclaims himself one who beholds visions, one with his eyes “uncovered.”

Finally, there is a reminder once again of a prominent theme in the Torah, that human beings are in a position of privilege over other creatures only by the “grace of G-d,” not through their merit. Only by the grace of G-d are human beings permitted to eat animals and use them as a substitute sacrifice in place of themselves, as the angel of the Lord says: “And when the ass saw me, she shied away because of me those three times. If she had not shied away from me, you are the one I should have killed, while sparing her.”

I wonder if the world might be different if human beings cultivate humility instead of dominance? If we remind ourselves moment-to-moment that we share the spiritual round table with other beings who are our equal?

Torah Ecology: Vayakhel-Pekudei 2018 (Ex. 35:1-40:38)

Last year when I worked with this portion, I was struck with the ongoing “love story” these portions in Exodus tell, a love story between G-d and the Israelites. In Ki Tissa, I felt the deep wound in the relationship that resulted from the Israelite betrayal in the Golden Calf episode. In this week’s portion, I felt the deep love and devotion, sincere contrition and poignant vulnerability of the people as they brought their gifts for building the Tabernacle in such abundance that the leadership had to call a halt to their giving.

In this portion, I noticed Aaron’s fall from grace. This year, I see that the fall from grace was accompanied by a relationship — for a brief time — without sacrifice. In Ex. 33:7-11, Moses takes the Tent of Meeting outside Tabernacle, even outside the camp, and meets with G-d in that space without a sacrifice as the people watch from a distance. In Ex. 34:28, Moses “was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights,” and parallel to offering no sacrifice, no “food” for G-d, “ate no bread and drank no water.” This brief time without sacrifice and without killing for food reflects the vision of Gen. 1-3, a world without bloodshed, without sacrifice and without killing for food — a world of continuity between the divine realm, the human realm and the rest of creation.

In terms of allusion to that vision of Gen. 1-3, there is one more point of interest in this week’s portion, and that is, the Sabbath requirement in Ex. 35:2-3: “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.”

The words repeat salient points from Ex. 31:12-17: “You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin. Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed.”

The version “later” in the narrative adds the fire prohibition; the “earlier” version adds the specific creation reference. Both decree death for those who work on the Sabbath. Neither references the vision of Gen. 1-3, a world without bloodshed, sacrifice or killing for food. For that, we have to return to a still “earlier” segment of the narrative, Ex. 20:8-11: “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.”

This last set of verses not only alludes to the vision of Gen. 1-3 but certifies the significance of it as it recreates a space in time when there is a seamless continuity between the worlds of divine and human and the rest of creation, when all live harmoniously in freedom. Not coincidentally, I believe, these verses don’t mention death for a failure to observe the work prohibition.

THE ANIMALS’ STORY

These animal verses in Vayakhel-Pekudei continue to develop the overall narrative theme that moves toward the priestly preoccupation of Vayikra/Leviticus. Instead of recreating the vision of Gen. 1-3 as Ex. 20 does, Ex. 31 and 33 allude to and reinterpret that vision through an exchange expressed in the sacrifice, a blood exchange that connects human sin, death, sacrifice and human sustenance, including killing other creatures for food, in an intricate weave:

Ex. 35:6 – [gifts for the Lord] …blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood…

Ex. 35:23 – And everyone who had in his possession blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair, tanned ram skins, and dolphin skins, brought them…

Ex. 35:26 – And all the women who excelled in that skill spun the goats’ hair.

Ex. 36:14 – They made cloths of goats’ hair for a tent over the Tabernacle; they made the cloths eleven in number.

Ex. 36:19 – And they made a covering of tanned ram skins for the Tent, and a covering of dolphin skins above.

Ex. 38:3 – He made all the utensils of the altar — the pails, The scrapers, the basins, the flesh hooks, and the fire pans…

Ex. 39:34 – [Then they brought the Tabernacle to Moses…] …the covering of tanned ram skins, the covering of dolphin skins, and the curtain for the screen…

Ex. 40:29 – At the entrance of the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting he placed the altar of burnt offering. On it he offered up the burnt offering and the meal offering — as the Lord had commanded Moses.

Viewing the same story through different lenses deepens my appreciation for the text. I once looked through the lens of meals in Genesis. Now I’m looking through the lens of animals in the Torah. It’s a different project from “seeing what the Torah says about animals.” It’s more about establishing an idea of the overall story, its themes and the strategies it uses to express them, then viewing the same overall story from a different angle. In this project, I have seen how the animals’ story is a subtext of the Israelites’ story, reflecting and echoing the Israelite experience while at the same time traveling its own path, as the animals lose status in relation to the vision of Gen. 1-3.

By now as we cross into the priestly narrative, it occurs to me that the story is fully anthropocentric: all of creation is here to serve human needs even as the Israelites, indeed all humans, are required to demonstrate compassion to animals. Still, animals are not only food but substitute for Israelite lives in the sacrifice. They are the centerpoint between divine and human worlds, feeding both at the sacrificial table, transforming the Israelites as they themselves are transformed into smoke.

The love story in which the Israelites bring all their finest items so generously and lavishly to donate for G-d’s home among them, the desert Tabernacle, looks different viewed through the lens of the animals whose lives and blood were the anonymous medium of exchange in that holy space.

I wonder if the Israelites in the meta-narrative experienced and felt the enormity of this sacrifice on their behalf? The seven Noahide laws require of all people that they not subject animals to unnecessary suffering, and there are other passages in the Torah that demonstrate and require compassion for animals, recognizing that they have a soul. Finally, though, the animals’ story is secondary to the Israelites’ story, and their sacrifice, their skins and hair and blood and bodies, though so much greater than the human sacrifice, doesn’t generate specific recognition like the Israelite’s gifts of jewels and gold. Their silent suffering is unremarked.

The subtext, though, repeats the allusion to the creation story as Moses reflects the original vision, a world without bloodshed, as he meets with G-d on the mountain and in the Tent of Meeting. The vision of the sabbath that recreates Gen. 1-3 also reflects that vision, a space and time in which all creatures are free and there is no sacrifice and no killing for food (Ex. 20:8-11). I like to think this glance back to a primordial status for all creatures, indeed all of creation, is also a look forward, a hope for future fulfillment.

Torah Ecology: Ki Tissa 2018 (Ex 30:11-34:35)

Ki Tissa is one of the most extraordinary portions in the biblical year, and there’s a lot one could say about it. Last year I reflected on the beautiful love story this portion relates and the moments in which Moses acts as the seamless bridge between the finite and the infinite:

“In this extraordinary story of the Golden Calf, we understand not only the depth of a betrayal but the depth of a love relationship. We learn once again the danger that is at the boundary of life and death, creation and transcendence and the choices people make that threaten everything.”

This year I want to emphasize and develop a couple of elements from last year’s analysis then take a look at how The Animals’ Story fits with the narrative.

As I read the portion last year, in addition to the love story theme, two things stood out to me: 1) meals as the center point of exchange between G-d and the Israelites (the sacrifice as G-d’s “meal” and food of the herds, flocks and harvest as the Israelites’ meal) and 2) the absence of that exchange mechanism in the seamless relationship between G-d and Moses in the Tent of Meeting and on the mountain. The significance of the sacrifice deepens for me as cumulative evidence suggests repeatedly that it is the life of human beings that is forfeit, but in Israelite sacrifice, the animal substitutes for human beings.

Isaiah captures the exchange perfectly — and suggests the significance of the exchange in referring to death as a “reproach” in Isaiah 25:6-8:

וְעָשָׂה֩ יְהוָ֨ה צְבָא֜וֹת לְכָל־הָֽעַמִּים֙ בָּהָ֣ר הַזֶּ֔ה מִשְׁתֵּ֥ה שְׁמָנִ֖ים מִשְׁתֵּ֣ה שְׁמָרִ֑ים שְׁמָנִים֙ מְמֻ֣חָיִ֔ם שְׁמָרִ֖ים מְזֻקָּקִֽים׃

The LORD of Hosts will make on this mount For all the peoples A banquet of rich viands, A banquet of choice wines— Of rich viands seasoned with marrow, Of choice wines well refined.

וּבִלַּע֙ בָּהָ֣ר הַזֶּ֔ה פְּנֵֽי־הַלּ֥וֹט ׀ הַלּ֖וֹט עַל־כָּל־הָֽעַמִּ֑ים וְהַמַּסֵּכָ֥ה הַנְּסוּכָ֖ה עַל־כָּל־הַגּוֹיִֽם׃

And He will destroy on this mount the shroud That is drawn over the faces of all the peoples And the covering that is spread Over all the nations:

בִּלַּ֤ע הַמָּ֙וֶת֙ לָנֶ֔צַח וּמָחָ֨ה אֲדֹנָ֧י יְהוִ֛ה דִּמְעָ֖ה מֵעַ֣ל כָּל־פָּנִ֑ים וְחֶרְפַּ֣ת עַמּ֗וֹ יָסִיר֙ מֵעַ֣ל כָּל־הָאָ֔רֶץ כִּ֥י יְהוָ֖ה דִּבֵּֽר׃ (פ)

He will destroy death forever. My Lord GOD will wipe the tears away From all faces And will put an end to the reproach of His people Over all the earth— For it is the LORD who has spoken.

My impression grows stronger that the requirement of sacrifice relates to guilt associated with being human, that humanity is somehow responsible for a world which includes death as an inescapable part of the life of every creature, a world of predator and prey. Israelites remain alive, are saved from becoming prey, only by their covenant agreement. In the economy of this sacred scheme, life is still due, and it is through the exchange mechanism of sacrifice that the sacrificial animal substitutes for Israelite life.

This idea, and the idea in Tetzaveh of transformation of the priest and the sacrificial animal in the course of a detailed ritual, begin to sound increasingly like ways some Christians have understood and applied the text following the destruction of the Temple, and my project in a following year will be to examine in some detail how and why the rabbis took these ideas in a different direction.

The Animals’ Story

The Animals’ Story unfolds in two of four chapters of this portion.

  • In chapter 32, a fraudulent animal represents a fraudulent relationship with Transcendence. G-d’s anger is directed most specifically at the fact that the Israelites offer the sacrificial “meal” to this phony god, enjoying their own meal before it. They proclaim this god to be the one who brought them out of Egypt.
  • Chapter 34 reestablishes correct relationships. Both animals and people must remain at a distance from the mountain where Moses and G-d meet. As a relationship between the people and G-d is painfully restored, the first fruits of flocks, herds and the land are G-d’s, and the Israelites enjoy their bounty, exclusively that from which G-d’s portion is sacrificed.

Ex 32:4
וַיִּקַּ֣ח מִיָּדָ֗ם וַיָּ֤צַר אֹתוֹ֙ בַּחֶ֔רֶט וַֽיַּעֲשֵׂ֖הוּ עֵ֣גֶל מַסֵּכָ֑ה וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ אֵ֤לֶּה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֶעֱל֖וּךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”

Ex 32:6
וַיַּשְׁכִּ֙ימוּ֙ מִֽמָּחֳרָ֔ת וַיַּעֲל֣וּ עֹלֹ֔ת וַיַּגִּ֖שׁוּ שְׁלָמִ֑ים וַיֵּ֤שֶׁב הָעָם֙ לֶֽאֱכֹ֣ל וְשָׁת֔וֹ וַיָּקֻ֖מוּ לְצַחֵֽק׃ (פ)
Early next day, the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance.

Ex 32:8
סָ֣רוּ מַהֵ֗ר מִן־הַדֶּ֙רֶךְ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר צִוִּיתִ֔ם עָשׂ֣וּ לָהֶ֔ם עֵ֖גֶל מַסֵּכָ֑ה וַיִּשְׁתַּֽחֲווּ־לוֹ֙ וַיִּזְבְּחוּ־ל֔וֹ וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ אֵ֤לֶּה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֶֽעֱל֖וּךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I enjoined upon them. They have made themselves a molten calf and bowed low to it and sacrificed to it, saying: ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’”

Ex 32:19
וַֽיְהִ֗י כַּאֲשֶׁ֤ר קָרַב֙ אֶל־הַֽמַּחֲנֶ֔ה וַיַּ֥רְא אֶת־הָעֵ֖גֶל וּמְחֹלֹ֑ת וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֣ף מֹשֶׁ֗ה וַיַּשְׁלֵ֤ךְ מידו [מִיָּדָיו֙] אֶת־הַלֻּחֹ֔ת וַיְשַׁבֵּ֥ר אֹתָ֖ם תַּ֥חַת הָהָֽר׃
As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.

Ex. 32:20
וַיִּקַּ֞ח אֶת־הָעֵ֨גֶל אֲשֶׁ֤ר עָשׂוּ֙ וַיִּשְׂרֹ֣ף בָּאֵ֔שׁ וַיִּטְחַ֖ן עַ֣ד אֲשֶׁר־דָּ֑ק וַיִּ֙זֶר֙ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י הַמַּ֔יִם וַיַּ֖שְׁקְ אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
He took the calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it.

Ex. 32:24
וָאֹמַ֤ר לָהֶם֙ לְמִ֣י זָהָ֔ב הִתְפָּרָ֖קוּ וַיִּתְּנוּ־לִ֑י וָאַשְׁלִכֵ֣הוּ בָאֵ֔שׁ וַיֵּצֵ֖א הָעֵ֥גֶל הַזֶּֽה׃
So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off!’ They gave it to me and I hurled it into the fire and out came this calf!”

Ex. 32:35
וַיִּגֹּ֥ף יְהוָ֖ה אֶת־הָעָ֑ם עַ֚ל אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשׂ֣וּ אֶת־הָעֵ֔גֶל אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָׂ֖ה אַהֲרֹֽן׃ (ס)
Then the LORD sent a plague upon the people, for what they did with the calf that Aaron made.

Ex 34:3
וְאִישׁ֙ לֹֽא־יַעֲלֶ֣ה עִמָּ֔ךְ וְגַם־אִ֥ישׁ אַל־יֵרָ֖א בְּכָל־הָהָ֑ר גַּם־הַצֹּ֤אן וְהַבָּקָר֙ אַל־יִרְע֔וּ אֶל־מ֖וּל הָהָ֥ר הַהֽוּא׃
No one else shall come up with you, and no one else shall be seen anywhere on the mountain; neither shall the flocks and the herds graze at the foot of this mountain.”

Ex 34:15
פֶּן־תִּכְרֹ֥ת בְּרִ֖ית לְיוֹשֵׁ֣ב הָאָ֑רֶץ וְזָנ֣וּ ׀ אַחֲרֵ֣י אֱלֹֽהֵיהֶ֗ם וְזָבְחוּ֙ לֵאלֹ֣הֵיהֶ֔ם וְקָרָ֣א לְךָ֔ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ מִזִּבְחֽוֹ׃
You must not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for they will lust after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and invite you, and you will eat of their sacrifices.

Ex 34:19
כָּל־פֶּ֥טֶר רֶ֖חֶם לִ֑י וְכָֽל־מִקְנְךָ֙ תִּזָּכָ֔ר פֶּ֖טֶר שׁ֥וֹר וָשֶֽׂה׃
Every first issue of the womb is Mine, from all your livestock that drop a male as firstling, whether cattle or sheep.

Ex 34:25
לֹֽא־תִשְׁחַ֥ט עַל־חָמֵ֖ץ דַּם־זִבְחִ֑י וְלֹא־יָלִ֣ין לַבֹּ֔קֶר זֶ֖בַח חַ֥ג הַפָּֽסַח׃
You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with anything leavened; and the sacrifice of the Feast of Passover shall not be left lying until morning.

Ex. 34:26
רֵאשִׁ֗ית בִּכּוּרֵי֙ אַדְמָ֣תְךָ֔ תָּבִ֕יא בֵּ֖ית יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ לֹא־תְבַשֵּׁ֥ל גְּדִ֖י בַּחֲלֵ֥ב אִמּֽוֹ׃
The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of the LORD your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

The last verse, Ex 34:26, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” is perhaps a reminder that animals redeem human beings, saving them from the death they earned, and are due all respect and compassion. For me, this chapter points to the possibility that the Israelites, and by extension humans, are not considered superior to animals but rather enjoy their privileged place in the scheme of things by the grace of G-d, through the sacrifice of their fellow creatures, and by their own sincere adherence to a covenant agreement that values compassion toward all life.