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Category: Wisdom

For this reason, leave . . . and cleave? (Genesis 2:24)

OK, in the rat-race called life, I have been busy. Therefore, my “occasional” series on the Garden of Eden has become very occasional indeed. But I have not been too busy to ignore Professor Ziony Zevit’s excellent new book (What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013]), and so I interrupt this very-occasional blog with an emergency exegesis of Genesis 2:24, the passage which draws a very familiar conclusion from Adam’s first meeting with Eve, his very “bone and flesh.” The NIV version of this verse reads as follows: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”

Now the following retranslation owes its very existence to Zevit’s provocative discussion found on pages 151-157 of his book (along with his endnotes on pp. 304-306). [Note to reader: always read the endnotes! I (and many others) often put my best stuff there.] Zevit argues effectively that the Hebrew for the verb “to leave” [root ‘ayin-zayin-beth] probably here means “to help, fix, make whole, set right.” In other words, we are to read here (as in Nehemiah 3:8, 34, and probably elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible) an entirely different set of meanings from the traditional reading “to leave.” In the relatively recent lexicon by Koehler and Baumgartner, this “‘azab” II (that is, an entirely different root than “‘azab” I, “to leave”) means “to restore, put in order.” Other recent lexicons suggest much the same thing.

But of course, one should ask, why should we go against the seemingly plain sense of the familiar Hebrew verb, “to leave, abandon,” in this most familiar verse? Zevit’s provocative counter-question, “what is the ‘therefore,’ then there for?” becomes very appropriate at this point [note I have rephrased Zevit’s counter-question a bit]. In other words, why does the “therefore” at the beginning of this verse suggest that “leaving and cleaving” follows logically from the preceding verses? How can we deduce the “therefore” of “leaving and cleaving” from Eve’s category of “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” and then being designated “woman” [Hebrew, “‘isshah“] since she was taken from “man” [Hebrew, “‘ish“]?

OK, the “cleave” part makes sense. A man is to “cling to” his woman, they are to become “one flesh”—that makes perfect sense in the larger context. But the “leaving” the man’s parents (the traditional Hebrew translation of “‘azab” I, can even imply “abandoning” them, which was [and is] unthinkable in traditional Middle Eastern culture)—that is less obvious. Why not, then, Zevit’s alternative interpretation for this verse, “Therefore a man strengthens/supports/helps his father and his mother and clings to his woman/wife and they become one flesh.” And why not his comment, “the verse implies that since parents birth sons and (may) provide those sons with wives (see Gen[esis] 28:2; 38:2, 6; Judg[es] 14:2-3), every son is obliged to care for his father and his mother (Exod[us] 20:12; Deut[eronomy] 5:16) and to cling to his wife simultaneously. Understood this way, the verse also alludes to the formation of extended families embracing three generations in a single household that were typical of Israelite society” (p. 157, italics added).

Well, here is something to chew on. And, something which gives biblical warrant to the now common practice in North America (and elsewhere) of adult children (even married!) coming home to roost in the parents’ basement. So, “cleave” to your significant other, but don’t “leave” the ancestral homeland, rather “strengthen” it like good Israelites did back in the Iron Age. Pay some of the bills, already. Be good kids. Even if your mother-in-law does get on your nerves!

[The above comments represent some recently reinterpreted practical advice from the Garden of Eden story. However, such emergency exegesis always remains subject to change, especially as it flies in the face of some 2500 years of tradition. So stay tuned.]

Shalom. And give your parents and in-laws an extra hug soon.


One of Those Days . . .

[The following is part three of an occasional series on the Garden of Eden (Genesis chs. 2-3).]

Ever have one of those days? You know, with the kids underfoot, so many other things clamoring to get done, then hearing the ominous silence . . .

As a sometimes manny (male nanny) of three year old twins, I know that the most scary noise they can make is absolute silence, when you know they are up to something, and therefore they are not making even a peep! Better, screaming, running, crashing noises, than that ominous silence. What are they up to now?

In a largish house marked here and there by errant Disney stickers and a few permanent-marker scribbles (sort of like youth-gang hash-tags), these twins can get into mischief pretty quickly. (Wait until they are four or five years old!) To be sure, most of their mischief ends up as quite harmless, and even comical at times. Yet, when permanent markers are involved, I guess I may end up with “one of those days,” when the punishment does not fit the crime. Stern pronouncements of doom thunder from my lips (or as the blonde twin pronounces it, “whips”). “Never again . . . ” I pontificate, and my quick, urgent interrogations lead to evasive responses: “but she found it, and gave it to me . . . ,” “no, it was her idea . . . “; you get the idea. And from the Garden, no, ahem, protected play area, they are expelled. “Never again!”

As you have surmised, I find clear parallels here with the Garden of Eden story (especially Gen 3:1-19). Yahweh, the busy “parent” (hey, he has an entire universe to take care of), can’t watch his Eden (aka protected play area) all the time. The kids are silent, in fact, they quickly go into hiding when he finally takes his walk in the garden in the early evening (see v. 8). “Where are you?” he calls out to Adam. Soon he learns that Adam has found out that he is “naked” and therefore embarrassed and in hiding. “Who told you this?” is the next quick question, and we remember the immediate followup, “Have you eaten from the tree I told you not to eat from?” (My now-grown children always wondered why we parents knew almost immediately what they as children had done in secret—as if we had never been children ourselves!)

Now, of course, comes passing the buck: “the woman (girl) you put here with me—she gave me some fruit . . . ” So the girl is immediately inquisitioned (I just created a new verb): “the serpent deceived me . . . ” (And why do harried parents allow serpents [or permanent-magic-markers] to be found in supposedly child-proof play areas is a mystery for the ages, I admit.) And finally, of course, the harsh pronouncements of doom: “never again . . . you will regret this forever . . . cursed . . . all the days of your life . . . ” (you get the idea). Maybe Yahweh the manny overreacted here a bit?

The story ends of course with the permanent removal from the Garden. But at least the errant couple are dressed in proper style (in garments of skin [leather], no less) before their forced banishment from “Paradise” (see v. 21). I remember “back in the day” when in primary school the scary pronouncement that “this will be in your permanent record” successfully deterred at least some childish criminals from their nefarious actions—actions usually undertaken in strict silence. Threats of permanence can at least deter temporarily some petty criminal acts. And, yes, some “original” sin is not all that original. And some parental (or care-take-orial) over-reactions are not all that original either.

Some food for thought this December solstice. Have a blessed Holiday Season!


Good Horticulturalists—Yahweh, Eve, Both, Neither?

In my continuing series of blogposts on the first several chapters of the book of Genesis, I want to report that it has only recently come to my attention (and, yes, I should have noticed this decades ago), that Yahweh (the God who first made the Garden of Eden as well as the man meant to cultivate it [see Gen 2:4b-16]) had already proffered a forthright evaluation of all the trees he had planted in the Garden as “pleasing to the eye and good for food” (Gen 2:9, NIV). Later on, prompted by a talking snake of all things, Eve looked again at the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” and she decided that it was indeed “good for food and pleasing to the eye” (Gen 3:6, NIV), and—as a bonus—also “desirable for gaining wisdom.” Thus, she literally confirmed Yahweh’s two implicit criteria for the trees found in the Garden, plus she presented a third criterion: the gaining of wisdom (Hebrew, khokmah, a word which clearly includes the results of experience, whether favorable or unfavorable). So, ironically, Yahweh and Eve essentially agree on how to evaluate the trees in the Garden. But are they correct?

Now, as all parents and grandparents know, the gaining of wisdom by their children/grandchildren can be a good or bad thing. I slip into a bad habit in front of my grandtwins once (for example, picking my nose), and they never forget it (why can’t they notice the many times I do things correctly, and profit from all those good actions?). Well, as the author of Ecclesiastes reminds us:

“For with much wisdom (khokmah) comes much sorrow;

the more knowledge, the more grief” (Eccl 1:18, NIV)

College instructors know that the transmission of worldly wisdom in class can bring mixed results—that is why it is a good thing that most of their students are very sleepy, and therefore miss much of what is going on (but to be safe, some religious schools greatly limit what an instructor can say, just in case someone might be awake at any given time).

But, back to Eve: she decides to eat fruit from the tree, and even gives some to her male companion, “who was with her” (Gen 3:6, NIV). Then (and only then?) “the eyes of both of them were opened,” and they now recognized that they were naked, with all the coming-of-age implications that would entail. Changes had to take place immediately, and in this case, fig leaves (which are large but flimsy) had to serve as clothing (talk about being green!). So my question remains, was Yahweh correct in his assessment that all the trees in the Garden were pleasing to the eye and good for food? How about Eve, who came to the same conclusion concerning the otherwise forbidden tree of knowledge? And, for that matter, what about such “knowledge” anyway? I suspect that both Yahweh and Eve were knowledgable horticulturalists, as well as free and independent spirits. But neither such biological acumen nor theological independence could forestall the seemingly inevitable results: hard work, pain, and drudgery (see Gen 3:16-19) which the non-Garden environment only had to offer.

Growing up may well be a painful process, but again I suspect it still inevitably must take place (see my previous post). And let us discount both the biological study as well as the interminable theological arguments about predestination and free-will; they will at best only muddy the process and thus postpone the inevitable. Leaving home (parents, and the Edenic-like memories of one’s childhood) must take place some time or other for all of us, and even if we agree with God’s positive assessment of various aspects of our former childlike environment, that cannot save us from the heartache which must accompany the hard-won wisdom of adulthood. But I leave the last word again to the writer of Ecclesiastes:

“Sorrow is better than laughter, / because a sad face is good for the heart,

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, / but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.

It is better to heed a wise man’s rebuke / than to listen to the song of fools.

Like the crackling of thorns under the pot/ so is the laughter of fools. / This too is vapor.” (Eccl 7:3-6; the term “vapor” is a literal translation of the Hebrew hebel, often translated “meaningless” as in the NIV)

So, check out the fruit of the attractive trees nearby, and stay awake in class. But don’t forget how dangerous the results of those actions might become!


King Hezekiah, Man of God (Continued)


In my last blog post (“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter”), I talked about King Hezekiah, the great Judahite reformer king who reigned in Jerusalem near the end of the eighth century BCE. Once again, in Proverbs 25:1-2, the editor tells us that it was under Hezekiah’s auspices that chapters 25-29 of that book were compiled. And once again, I quoted the great German bible scholar Gerhard von Rad concerning kings being patrons of wisdom literature (that is, champions and promoters of all searching after wisdom to live a more satisfying and successful life). We were reminded in the very next verse, Prov 25:2, that it is the glory of God to conceal matters, but (or, and?) the glory of kings to search out and reveal matters.

In passing, I made reference to Hezekiah’s seal impression, the one once again pictured above (the formal name for such clay seal impressions is “bullae” [singular, “bulla”]). I translated the Hebrew words found on it (in essence, “Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, king of Judah”), but I did not discuss the curious iconography (that is, the analysis of symbols—akin to the “symbology” of Robert Langdon’s fictional fame) which is found prominently on the bulla. The symbol in the center is, of all things, a two winged scarab or dung beetle—an insect depicted as rolling a piece of dung with its two front legs! And this circular bit of dung represents, of all things, the circular sun disk as it rises in the sky (compare Malachi 4:2, “For you [Judeans] who revere my name [that is, Yahweh’s name], the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings”). This iconography ultimately derives from Egypt, but more immediately from Phoenicia, which was basically located in what is now the nation of Lebanon. Recently I have written a summary article about the importance of Phoenicia, and more immediately, of the seacoast city of Tyre (see my brief entry in the recently published New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 5, pp. 693-694). The city of Tyre figured prominently in the history of monarchical Israel and Judah since the time of David and Solomon—and the present bulla of Hezekiah only gives more evidence of its continued influence (at least, culturally) on the little nation of Judah in the eighth century BCE, although by this time the empire of Assyria mostly held political and military sway throughout the region. It is one of history’s great ironies that the nation of Queen Jezebel, wife of King Ahab of Israel, the infamous worshipper of the Phoenician god Baal back in the ninth century (see 1 Kgs 16:29-33; 19:1-2; 21:1-24; etc., for details), is thus pictorially represented on the royal seal of Judah’s later great worshipper of Yahweh (see 2 Kgs 18:1-7, and especially verses 5 and 6 [” . . . there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah . . . for he held fast to Yahweh, he did not depart from following him but kept the commandments that Yahweh had commanded Moses”]). This was the same Hezekiah who, as we have just noted, was the promulgator of significant parts of the biblical book of Proverbs, and, indeed, probably of the books of Kings, as well. As my late mentor, Professor Frank Moore Cross, put it:

“Both Hezekiah and Josiah [the later prominent king of Judah who ruled in the seventh century] instituted religious reforms to centralize worship [of Yahweh] in the Jerusalem Temple and to purify the cult [of Yahweh]. From the evidence thus far available, it appears that the reforms of Josiah were more rigorous in their anionic thrust [that is, condemnation of all pictorial images in line with the Ten Commandments of Moses] than those of Hezekiah” [this quote, and much of the above discussion is indebted to Frank Cross’s article found in Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April, 1999, pp. 42-45, 60].

So Hezekiah, the great Yahwistic king (according to 2 Kings chs. 18-20, as well as 2 Chronicles chs. 29-32), had a Phoenician symbol of the sun disk on his royal seal? One never knows how later history will treat one’s religious actions (or in this case, inactions, since Hezekiah is probably only representing popular artistic motifs current in Israel at the time). In any case, as Frank Cross concluded his article, “it is quite extraordinary to be able to look at original impressions formed by the seal of one of Judah’s most important monarchs 2,700 years ago.”


NOTE: For the next several weeks, I suspect I will only publish a blog post about once a week or so—so please be patient if the blog posts diminish in frequency during this time.


“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter”


In Proverbs 25:1-2 we find a curious editorial reference to the king under whose authority the next five chapters of this book were compiled—King Hezekiah of Judah. You might have expected King Solomon, the famous patron of wisdom in ancient Israel, and traditionally the king who wrote (or at least compiled) the book of Proverbs (see Prov 1:1, 10:1), but, no, it is the eighth century King Hezekiah (above is a drawing of his seal impression, with the reference to “Judah” at the top, and to “of Hezekiah [son of] Ahaz, king . . . ” at the bottom). Hezekiah is one of the heroes of the books of Kings and Chronicles in the Hebrew Bible; indeed, I (and many others) have argued that under the auspices of Hezekiah a very important edition of Kings was first compiled.

Let’s look at what we read in the very next sentence in Proverbs chapter 25, just after the reference to the literary efforts of King Hezekiah:

“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, / but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.”

And that is precisely what the book of Proverbs (or, for that matter, the entire wisdom tradition in the ancient Near East) aims to do: to make the hidden come to light, especially in the realms of successful living among people in general and among court bureaucrats in particular. For the proverbs (short, apt sayings, easily memorized) in Proverbs give us good advice: when to talk and what to talk about, when to be silent, what to expect from others, etc.

But let’s look again at the proverb I just quoted. Many of the proverbs give sharp contrasts (“A wise son brings joy to his father, / but a foolish son grief to his mother” [Prov 10:1]), but here the contrast is between the work of God and the work of a king. God delights to conceal things (life is often much less straightforward than you might expect), so the work of a king (like Hezekiah, and before him, Solomon) is to reveal what God has concealed! So does that mean that kings are to “undo” the work of God? Well, maybe it does. Some years ago, an eminent German biblical scholar named Gerhard von Rad, in commenting on this verse, expressed it well:

“This is a fine, wide-ranging sentence which can set one’s thoughts moving in many different directions. It speaks of the king’s glory in investigation (at that time the king was the foremost champion and promoter of all searching after wisdom); but before this there stands the saying about God, whose glory lies in concealing, whose secrets, therefore, are to be worshiped by men. God conceals, kings discover—to both, glory is due. What a profound knowledge of God and of men is encompassed by this handful of words!” [from von Rad’s Wisdom in Israel, p. 34].

Well, we (at least in North America) do not believe much in the wisdom of kings any more. But, be that as it may, we all now have access to “wisdom,” whether ancient or modern. And therefore we too can “undo” the work of God (or, “the gods,” or “providence,” or even “dumb luck” and fate) by seeking after, and then promoting widely, discoveries of the practical principles which can so help us succeed in life. Let’s end with some painful but profitable advice found earlier in the book of Proverbs:

“Anyone who rebukes a mocker [or scoffer] will get an insult in return. / Anyone who corrects the wicked will get hurt.

So don’t bother correcting mockers; / they will only hate you.

But correct the wise, / and they will love you.

Instruct the wise, / and they will be even wiser.

Teach the righteous, / and they will learn even more.” [Prov 9:7-9, New Living Translation]


My advice: go “uncover” some new stuff today. Let’s “undo” the work of God!


[NOTE: In my next blog post I will discuss the Hezekiah seal impression in more detail.]