This post is based on an assignment for Joshua Levinson‘s class on the “Cultural Poetics of the Midrash”. H/t‘s are in order to my father and my roommate for discussing it with me as I was working on it. Whoever wants a copy of the original Hebrew (complete with a synopsis featuring eight different textual witnesses!) is free to email me.
Since my last post four months ago and the comments that ensued, I’ve given up entirely on trying to understand Scripture on my own. Instead, I’ve delegated my spiritual quest to the hermeneutics of the Rabbis and their traditional readings of the Bible. Not that it’s so much easier- often times we come across a midrash that barely makes sense at first glance. Even more frequently, the exegetical aspect, the connection to the biblical text, is hard to find. One of the more common forms of rabbinic exegesis is the mashal– parable. Important scholars of rabbinic literature such as Yonah Frankel and David Stern have dealt with the mashal in depth, each in their own mother tongue and utilizing their own methods. One example from the 4th-5th century work Genesis Rabba will suffice to demonstrate the multiple plains on which the mashal operates, and will perhaps shed light on rabbinic theology and attitudes towards reading.
The mashal often serves an exegetical role in rabbinic literature, and we’ll start with the verses which our parable from Genesis Rabba appears to be commenting on. The Alter of Berkley translates Genesis 1: 26-27 as follows:
And God said, “Let us make a human in our image, by our likeness, to hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and the cattle and the wild beasts and all the crawling things that crawl upon the earth. And God created the human in his image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.
A clear contradiction arises when comparing these verses with a passage from the second creation story- Genesis 2: 21-22:
And the Lord God cast a deep slumber on the human, and he slept, and He took one of his ribs and closed over the flesh where it had been, and the Lord God built the rib He had taken from the human into a woman and He brought her to the human.
In chapter 1, God makes a human in their own image, male and female; in chapter 2, the Lord God first creates the human as a male and only later builds the woman. Countless commentators, critics, and theologians of the Bible have written on these and other contradictions that arise when comparing the first two chapters of Genesis. As we will soon see, what bothered the rabbis was a simpler problem in this ancient narrative- why did God have to put man to sleep?
R. Hoshaya said: When the Holy One, blessed be He, created Adam, the ministering angels mistook him and wished to exclaim ‘Holy’ before him.
What did the king do?
He pushed the governor out of the chariot, and they all knew that he was the governor.
Similarly, when the Lord created Adam, the angels mistook him and wished to exclaim ‘Holy’ before him.
What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do?
He caused sleep to fall upon him, and they all knew that he was man.
Thus it is written (Isa. 2: 22): “Oh, cease to glorify man, Who has only breath in his nostrils! For by what does he merit esteem?”
According the mashal, God put Adam to sleep not to build Eve- a side point, in their eyes- but to markedly differentiate between himself and man. Man, in this early stage of history, serves under God as a form of “governor”, ruling over “the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and the cattle and the wild beasts and all the crawling things that crawl upon the earth”. But God, portrayed by the rabbis here as a jealous ruler, dislikes this balance of power: it disrupts the flow of praise from the administering angels, who do not succeed in differentiating between God and man. In what appears to be a fit of anger, the king acts out and viciously throws his governor out of the royal carriage, making it clear who is really worthy of praise. In the biblical story, the rabbis read God’s actions in a similar fashion. In a fit of anger, God casts a “deep slumber on the human”, forever delineating the line between man and the divine ruler. Sleep, therefore, helps define man as a subordinate.
At the same time that the mashal speaks of man’s nature, it says even more of God’s. God is clearly the creator of everything and all powerful, but in a paradoxical fashion, he subsists on the prayers which he receives from his underlings, and will change his original work (man without sleep) to safeguard those prayers. This point is all the more striking when we take into account the verse which the mashal seems to directly address, Isaiah 2:22:
Oh, cease to glorify man, Who has only breath in his nostrils! For by what does he merit esteem?
This verse comes from Proto-Isaiah‘s three chapter spiel on the future of Jerusalem and Judah, which rants about the lowliness of man and all other creatures, none of whom are fit to stand “before the terror of the Lord And His dread majesty!” (2:10). The rabbinic reading offered in the parable is comforting. Yes, God is great, and He can do whatever he wants. But, there is a limit to how much he will do- after all, he needs underlings to praise him.
This mashal, like most Rabbinic stories, is told by what narratologists refer to as a “heterodiegetic narrator”, or, less cumbersomely, an “external narrator”. The story of the parable (from “this resembles…” until “…he was the governor”) is told by someone who is external to the story itself, and can inform us of what the characters do or say. It is striking to see how the narrator makes himself apparent, calling attention to his role by asking the question “what did the king do?” (narratologists’ “metalepsis“). In asking this question the narrator briefly jumps out of the level of the story itself. Furthermore, the question serves a purpose: it points out to the reader that he as at the whim of the narrator, who is in control of the story and able to impart to his audience whatever information he wishes to share. Whereas the reader does not know what the king did and must wait to be told, the narrator, like the King –and like God- is all knowing and all powerful. The narrator entices us into listening to his story, leading us to believe that we can reach his level of understanding. However, once we are sucked in, he makes it clear that it is he who is in control.
The experience of reading the parable therefore places us in the role of the governor riding in the King’s chariot- the governor got to where he is because the King chose to share his power with him, and such subservience places the governor’s future in complete control of the King. Only through the parable’s exact style are we able to fully understand the governor’s status. To bring it full circle:
So too, it is in this fashion that we come to better understand man’s role under the jealous God. God bestows man with a role in the world which requires a certain amount of responsibility. Yet we would be mistaken to think that we will be able to ever reach beyond whatever this part may be. As the supreme Narrator, God may seat us in his royal chariot, but as readers, we are always on the verge of falling out.