Shaya Cohen -


Why are There so few Value Judgments in Genesis?

If you read just the last 4 books of the Pentateuch (what I call, in shorthand, “The Torah”), you’ll find it chock-full of judgment: there are commandments and promises of blessings or curses for those who follow them. There is retribution and justice, mercy and consideration. Nothing seems to happen without attracting critical comment by G-d or Moses or even the people.

But the first book, Genesis, has much, much less of this. Indeed, after the Tower of Babel, G-d almost entirely refrains from any judgments at all. There are a number of obvious course corrections (like when G-d directly intervenes to punish Pharoah for taking Sarai, or when G-d reminds Jacob to go back home), but even these are quite thin on words like “sin,” or criticism for actions taken.

Consider, for example, the brothers and Joseph. For all that they do, and all that happens in the story, G-d does not come down and judge anyone. Indeed, G-d seems to be more like a spectator, waiting to see what will happen, perhaps dipping in a finger now and again to adjust matters to keep them on the general path. In the story of Yehudah and Tamar, or of Dina and Shechem, G-d is entirely silent: he leaves it to the actors to work things out, one way or another.

Perhaps it can be seen this way: for the biggest of issues, the ones that simply cannot wait for judgment, G-d acts and judges. When Cain kills Abel, G-d gets involved. When the world is thoroughly corrupted by violence, G-d brings the flood. And when a society is so lost that it is incapable of goodness (Sodom), G-d will destroy it.

But events that fall short of these cataclysmic events are not judged out loud in the text, in the moment.

I think there is something here that connects back to the story of creation. Note how G-d never says, “I think light would be good.” Instead, he makes light, and then – and only then – he judges whether or not light is in fact “good.” (A key point is that G-d does not adjudge everything He does to be good!) There is a sense, dare I say it, of “Trial and Error.” G-d creates something, takes a critical look, and then decides if it is good or not.

I think the bulk of the Book of Genesis is evaluated in the very same way – but much more deliberately. So instead of, for example, G-d judging Joseph’s brothers for telling tales about Joseph to their father in the moment, G-d watches it happen, and then he takes notes. Much later on, there is a punishment for those who harm others through words or deeds: called tzaraas (often mistranslated as “leprosy” but explained fully here). But the source of the idea of providing a feedback mechanism to people who have been telling tales seems to be a direct result of the brothers gossiping about Joseph!

I would go so far as to say that Genesis forms the moral and ethical foundation for all of the commandments and instructions and blessings and curses that are found in the later books. Genesis is where mankind engages in “Trial and Error.” But the rest of the Torah, essentially all of the text after the Exodus, is when G-d applies the lessons learned.

So when Noah brings an olah offering, it is the origin of the idea of that offering later in the Torah. Avraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as their wives, provide the material that G-d later judges – favorably or unfavorably as “good” – or not. I have written on individual examples many times: here , and here, to pick but two examples.

Perhaps, for example, Jacob’s marriage of two sisters was perfectly fine at the time. But, after seeing how it played out, G-d forbids it later in the text, specifically because of the tensions created in Jacob’s marriage. The causality would thus be in line with the order of operations in the text itself.

In the same way that we see the foreparents as being inspirations to us in the “softer” ideas that are core to Judaism – for kindness or prayer or devotion or gratitude, for trying to listen to G-d’s voice and always seek to grow and change for the better – the Torah connects those very same stories in Genesis to the “harder” commandments. Thus we eat kosher to remind us that we are here to elevate the physical into the spiritual plane (the earth, animals, and people), explained here. We celebrate Passover every year by removing the parts of our lives that integrate with nature instead of G-d (leavening), reminding us in a myriad of ways that Jews must always remember to be distinct from both paganism and the cultures that surround us, explained here. Indeed, arguably every single commandment in the Torah can be readily and easily explained by reference to events that happened earlier in the text.

The result is an understanding of the text that ties it all together – from the initial days of creation, where G-d judged his own efforts without delay, through to the rest of Genesis, where G-d takes an increasingly long time before passing judgment. And then into the rest of the text, where it is clear that G-d’s goal is to apply all the lessons learned about how to keep mankind and the Jewish people within the boundaries that are necessary in order to keep us on a positive path.

[an @iwe and @susanquinn work]

Comments are welcome!

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