Cursed Soil, Fellowship with God, Weighing Deeds

1. Philip S. Alexander, “Jewish Aramaic Translations of Hebrew Scriptures,” Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 233.

On Targum Pseudo-Jonathan: “…the idea is that before Cain’s sin the earth was like the Garden of Eden. God’s curse on the earth (Gen 3:17-18) was suspended, and only became operative after the murder of Abel.”

In Genesis 3:17-19, God curses the earth: “And to the man he said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return'” (NRSV).

Eve’s curse was that she’d have pain in childbearing, while Adam’s punishment was that he’d have to work hard on the unproductive soil.

I can somewhat understand why the targumist thought Adam’s curse was removed before Cain messed things up. After all, God said to Cain after he (Cain) killed Abel, “When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:12). But I thought the ground already didn’t yield its strength. Wasn’t that God’s punishment for Adam? For the targumist, God renewed the temporarily-suspended curse of the ground after Cain killed his brother.

There are some who believe that the curse of the ground was removed in the time of Noah. When Noah was born, his father Lamech said, “Out of the ground that the LORD has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands” (Genesis 5:29). “We won’t have to work as hard now that Noah is here,” some interpret Lamech to be saying.

Maybe. But, if that’s the case, I think it’s unfair that women still have to put up with their curse (pain in childbearing), while God’s punishment of men has been removed.

2. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1910) 559.

Irenaeus (second century C.E.) refers to “man’s original likeness to God and destination for permanent fellowship with Him.”

In yesterday’s post, Good Nimrod, Justin the Arian?, Projecting, I criticized the tendency of modern evangelicals to project modern ideas onto the Bible. Such ideas included the quest for a feeling of self-worth, and a personal relationship with God. I still don’t see the quest for self-worth as an obsession of the biblical authors or the early Christians, but a relationship with God may very well be a part of their thought. Irenaeus, after all, says that God made us to fellowship with him. My mind turns to other things in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and early Christian literature, such as the emphasis on seeing God’s face. I’m hesitant to say that “fellowship with God” meant the exact same thing to them as it does to modern evangelicals, but who knows? There may be some overlap.

3. C.G. Montefiore, “Introduction,” A Rabbinic Anthology, ed. C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1938) xxxv, xl.

“On the whole, the theory of justification by works is strongly pressed. There is a somewhat inadequate appreciation of character. The individual’s personality is not well conceived. He is regarded too much as a bundle of deeds. If he has done 720 good deeds and 719 bad deeds, he is more righteous than wicked (with due consequences as regards divine punishment and reward); if he has done 720 bad deeds and 719 good ones, he is more wicked than righteous. An unsatisfactory way of looking at human character. [Footnote:] George Eliot could teach the rabbis here: ‘God sees us as we are altogether, not in separate feelings or actions, as our fellow-men see us.'”

“The indication of a dream sufficed for the belief that an ignorant ass driver who had performed one special deed of love was more fitted to pray for rain in a time of drought than all the Rabbis of the land.”

Montefiore is a liberal Jew, and he’s critiquing the rabbinic notion that God will weigh a person’s good and bad deeds on the day of judgment. Christian scholars used to point to this idea as an example of Jewish legalism. “You see!” they said (in my paraphrase). “Christianity is better than Judaism! Christianity says that people are saved by grace through faith, whereas the God of Judaism weighs people’s good deeds and bad deeds, basing salvation on their works.”

E.P. Sanders challenged this interpretation of Tannaitic rabbinic Judaism in Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), asserting that the “weighing” passages should not be taken so literally. His reasoning is that there are passages that contradict it. Some say that (perfect?) fulfillment of one commandment can earn a person a place in the World to Come. Others claim that one transgression is enough to damn a person. Add to these the passages that recognize deathbed repentance, or that suggest that “even if 999 argued for a man’s guilt and one for his innocence, God would consider him innocent” (143). Sanders states:

“The truth is that these three groups of sayings–damnation for one transgression, salvation for one fulfillment and judgment according to the majority of deeds–have a common ground and purpose. All three statements could be made without intellectual embarrassment by anyone but a systematic theologian. Each type of saying is an effective way of urging people to obey the commandments as best they can and of insisting upon the importance of doing so” (141).

According to Sanders, what is important for the Tannaitic rabbis is not the majority of one’s deeds being righteous, but rather one’s intention. Those who are righteous desire to obey God and are generally successful at it. The wicked have little desire to do what’s right, even though they may have a few good deeds to their record. Then there’s a huge middle ground, and God either shows mercy to them (Hillel) or lets them into the good afterlife after they suffer in Gehenna (Shammai) (142).

There are different things that go through my mind. I think of that line in Batman Begins: “It’s what you do that defines you.” In this line of thinking, the person who does more good deeds than bad probably has a better character. But then my mind turns to Sawyer on Lost, who could be a total jerk for four whole years, then perform an act of self-sacrifice to help his companions. What defines a person’s character?

I’m not sure what my intention is, to be honest. Do I desire to obey God? Yes and no. It depends on the day! What I like about Judaism is that it lays out specific, concrete mitzvot that define how to honor God and help others. “Do these things” is a good message for me.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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