H.L. Strack and Gunter Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash: Second Edition, trans. and ed. Markus Bockmuehl (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996) 316-317.
[In Midrash Ruth, t]he story of Elisha ben Abuya, which is also included in Midrash Qoheleth, serves in this text (6.4) as a contrast to Boaz…
The question that entered my mind when I read this was, “Who the heck is Elisha ben Abuya?” It turns out that he was a famous apostate from Judaism, who lived in the first century C.E. He was the teacher of Rabbi Meir. See here for more information.
The teacher of Rabbi Meir. That kind of reminds me of Count Dookoo being the teacher of Qui-Gon Jinn in the Star Wars prequels. Qui-Gon was a good guy with a maverick streak, but his very own teacher turned to the dark side of the force. And, according to rabbinic references in the link above, Elisha betrayed his own people, the Jews, when he turned them in to the Hadrianic authorities. That’s like Count Dookoo turning against his fellow Jedi.
Another account says that Elisha went to heaven and saw Metatron on God’s throne, and he was shocked to see two powers in heaven. That brings to mind Lucifer rebelling against God in heaven, or the story in the Koran (which may be earlier; see Hebrews 1:6) in which God commands all the angels to worship Adam, but Iblis (who becomes Satan) refuses. According to these legends, one can see God and still turn away from him, sometimes because God can offend a person’s religious sensibilities. (Imagine that!)
That reminds me of a sermon Tim Keller gave, in which he was encouraging us to adopt a biblical worldview (though, to his credit, he didn’t use that phrase). He said that Paul himself had to struggle with God’s revelation. Paul had grown up believing that God is one, and he persecuted those who thought God was three in one (according to Keller), the Christians. But Jesus appears to Paul, and, behold, Paul finds out God really is three in one! Paul had to adjust his mindset to what he learned was the truth, and, according to Keller, that’s how we should approach the Bible.
In Ruth Rabbah 6, we see a complex discussion about an apostate, Elisha ben Abuya. Rabbis wonder how Elisha could fall away, especially in light of his vast wealth of knowledge about the Torah, which he retained even when he was an apostate. One story is that Elisha apostasized when he saw a man climbing a tree and taking a bird with her young, in violation of Deuteronomy 22:7. That man climbed down the tree safely. Later on, he saw a man actually obeying Deuteronomy 22:7, in that the man took only the young, not the mother. Yet, this man climbed down the tree, got stung by a snake, and died. Elisha wondered how this could be, when Deuteronomy 22:7 clearly promises that those who obey this particular law will be blessed and prolong their days.
The text says that Elisha must have been unaware of Akiba’s teaching that “prolong your days” refers to the afterlife, meaning the man who obeyed Deuteronomy 22:7 and died soon thereafter would experience everlasting life after his resurrection. But, according to another story, the martyrdom of righteous men at the hands of Hadrian convinced Elisha that the world is unjust, meaning there is neither reward for the righteous nor a resurrection.
Moreover, Elisha doesn’t really feel that he can repent. Meir tries to encourage Elisha with Bible verses that say “the end of a thing is better than a beginning” (Ecclesiastes 7:8; Job 42:12), meaning a man can become better through repentance. But Elisha throws back at Meir Rabbi Akiba’s interpretation of the verse: “Good is the end of a thing, when it is good from its very commencement” (the translation in my Judaic Classics Library). Elisha contends that a person only turns out good when he was good at the outset. And Elisha thinks he had a bad start, since his father dedicated him to the Torah out of impure motives.
Elisha breaks down crying at his death, leading some to believe that he repented. But many don’t want to honor him by helping out his daughters, and they appeal to Psalm 109:12 to support their position: “May there be no one to do him a kindness, nor anyone to pity his orphaned children” (NRSV). But the daughters respond that Elisha deserves some credit for learning Torah, prompting the mean rabbi to change his mind, saying, “If one whose Torah was not for the glory of God produced such, how much more so he whose Torah was for the glory of God.” The passage then praises Boaz for not giving in to his evil inclination by sleeping with Ruth before they were married. The contrast may be that Elisha ben Abuyah turned to the dark side by becoming an apostate, whereas Boaz held fast to righteousness.
There are intriguing features of these legends. Elisha leaves God because the world is unfair, yet he ends up joining the world in its injustice when he turns in his fellow Jews to the Hadrianic authorities. Elisha has all this knowledge of the Torah, even when he doesn’t believe in God. Elisha doesn’t feel he can repent, yet he changes his mind and breaks down crying at the end. A rabbi could use Scripture to justify not helping someone, yet be moved by the example of those who need the help. And the Torah can have positive effects, even on those who don’t obey it fully.
There are lessons for me here. I don’t think that the world is fair, but I can’t allow my bitterness to make me a bad person, who sells out others for my own selfish ends. I’m not always happy with God, yet something motivates me to keep studying the Bible. A professor once told me that even the staunchest higher critic who rips apart the Bible may be spiritually searching. Maybe I study in the hope that the Scriptures will have a positive effect on me, as hardened as I may be. Like Rabbi Elisha, I sometimes wonder if I even can repent, if I can be like the evangelicals I know who seem to have their acts together. Moreover, I try not to use the Bible to justify hatred or unkindness, and to be open to the people around me. But I’m a work in progress!