Monday, August 28, 2006


The Genesis of Justice

Cain murders his brother--and walks . . . God gets angry--and millions die in flood . . . Abraham commits attempted murder--and is praised . . . Jacob deceives his father, then robs his brother--and gets away with it . . .Who among us has not questioned the "justice" found in the Book of Genesis? .. Alan M. Dershowitz.. casts new light on these ancient tales. What he finds is . . . THE GENESIS OF JUSTICE Violence, lust, deception, murder, incest, and vengeance: These are the subjects of the biggest--and perhaps the juiciest--bestseller of all time, the Book of Genesis... Its oft-told tales ..[were] never before.. examined .. so provocatively from a modern legal perspective. Based on Alan Dershowitz's class at Harvard Law School, The Genesis of Justice shows how the Good Book is also a remarkable law book. According to Dershowitz, these seminal stories describe a people--and a God--struggling in a world before the invention of systematic rules, a primal place that predates our notions of fairness, honesty, and rights. Yet here in Genesis we can see these concepts--and the need for them and for their embodiment in a formal legal system--evolving in front of our eyes. Using ten of the most intriguing biblical narratives and drawing on not only his own observations but those of biblical commentators throughout the ages, Dershowitz evaluates the actions of biblical heroes, even God Himself. And together with concluding discussions on "The Injustice of Genesis," he shows us how the flawed behavior of its flawed protagonists led to the Ten Commandments and a deeper, richer sense of justice than any mere legal code could ever provide. From the time he was a kid--and was nearly tossed out of Hebrew school for asking one pesky question after another--

A while ago, I got to read parts of the book at Barnes and Noble, which is the funnest place for stumbling upon all kinds of treasures. They have an entire section of second-hand books. I was quite delighted with Dershowitz' approach to the stories of Genesis, because he uses the kind of thinking that I apply when I read those incredible stories of the most stupefying examples of fundamental human transgressions.

In his discussion of the story about the sacrifice of Isaac, Dersh seems to have hit upon the same connection that I made: that Abraham twice was in a position to cause great harm to his sons. Once, with Ishmael whom he cast out and again, with Isaac, whom he actually tried to kill with his own hands, until stopped by God. I suppose it all depends on how you tell the story. I liked the way Dersh interpreted the story of the Tower of Babel. He referenced it back to the story of Adam and Eve, who tried to become more like God than God was willing to accept. In the Babel story, the people also tried to reach equality with God, so God confounded them by sabotaging their communication apparatus, their language. Dersh interprets it as God forcing people to slow down the pace of the development of technological knowledge in order for wisdom to catch up with it. Without wisdom (knowledge with ethics) there can not be justice or law.

The book is written in a very accessible language, not high-faluting at all. What I find refreshing about his approach is that he tries to understand in what way these stories of every possible crime and transgression known to man serve the people who read the Bible as a holy book get a grasp of what justice means? He points to the motif that the God in Genesis is a learning God, a God who goes from extreme vengeance (the flood) to repentence, from stark justice to mercy. And how the ideas of what constitutes morality, fair play, rights, mutual responsibility, etc, have evolved in a time which was mostly unaware of such things?Of course what I'm aiming at is an understanding of what justice means.

Tthe God that acts in Genesis is a learning God. He miscalculated with Adam and Eve: when He told them about the tree of Knowledge and the tree of Life, and forbade them from touching their fruits, he underestimated their human will to power. He demanded total, unquestionable obedience and predictably, got a rebellion in consequence. He had to punish them, but He also learned that there is a limit to what God can demand from humans.

With Cain and Abel, He made another mistake. He thought he could play favourites with impunity, make an explicit gesture of affection and acceptance towards Abel while rejecting Cain's offering. Again, He miscalculated the monstrous reactions that such explicit discrimination and humiliation can invoke. Cain's wrath was instigated by God's preference for Abel. I believe the story means to tell us that evil deeds (not necessarily evil hearts) are often the direct consequence of an unfair system. God understood that the onus He put on Cain was not humanly bearable which is why he allowed him to live and make amends. Cain became "the builder of cities". No one remembers that, though. What we all remember is that he murdered his brother and never knew a moment's peace afterwards.

Justice sometimes looks too much like revenge. Justice needs to be tempered by mercy, or it becomes irrelevant. The Law is coercive and teaches by punishment. Justice is an ideal that strives to go beyond the principle of fitting the punishment to the crime. Its aim is to teach by example, to give people second chances, not doom a person for perpetual exile because of mistakes and human weaknesses. I think if anything, that is the lesson we can learn from the Book of Genesis. We are supposed to follow God in His learning arc and emulate His ability to acknowledge his excessive demands of humans, and ultimately, the respect He cultivates for the human being that He Himself created.

Consider how different the Biblical stories are from the Greek tragedies which deal with the same frightening human materials. The Biblical stories lay it all out, staring at the horrors straight on. The Greek tragedies keep the horrors off stage. Also, as in the case of Oedipus Rex, Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother, but he is not aware of the relationship until after the fact. In the Biblical stories no such mercy is granted to the protagonists: Abraham knowingly tries to kill his son, Lot's daughters knowingly commit incest, etc. I wonder if we can deduce something from this comparison about the difference between what Matthew Arnold called: "Hellenism and Hebraism", two of the determinant factors that inform much of Western thought.


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