Learning is Healing

Genesis 4:1-8 Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gained a male child with the help of the LORD.” She then bore his brother Abel. Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the LORD from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The LORD paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell. And the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you distressed, And why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do right, There is uplift. But if you do not do right Sin couches at the door; Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master.” Cain said to his brother Abel … and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.

Learning heals in mysterious ways. It’s a reason to teach.

Take Genesis 4: Eve has just gotten a child with the help of YHVH. Said child is Cain, whose name means “acquisition.” Abel follows; his name can be translated as “vapor.”

Like a vapor, Abel is here… and gone.

We all know the story. Or we think we know it. Cain offers YHVH a sacrifice of fruits; Abel offers the firstlings of his flock. YHVH accepts the latter and doesn’t much care for the former.

Last week, my college students and I discussed various midrashim about these few verses. We explored the interpretations suggesting that Cain and Abel fought over an unnamed sister. We read from Targum Pseudo Jonathan (Gen. 4:1), which insisted that Cain was the devil’s child.

No wonder God had a divine hissy fit.

Biblical literature is cryptic, mysterious. There are plentiful gaps between the lines. What did Cain actually say to Abel? Why does YHVH seem to be overreacting to Cain’s disappointment by delivering an overbearing and sententious lecture?

We came back to the sacrifice issue. Some of the midrashim suggest that Abel’s offerings were better than Cain’s – meat, after all, in ancient Israel, was to be prized. Shake out the sheep’s value and you would likely trump the tangerine, after all. By a bunch.

“So,” one student says, “if God wants a blood sacrifice, is it possible that Cain just misunderstood? He didn’t have any flocks. Was Abel the only blood sacrifice he could offer?”

There was a tad bit of gentle mayhem for a few minutes.

Here is what’s important, though: I want my students to ask questions of the text – even if they seem outlandish or bizarre. I want them to approach these texts as if they had never known a thing about them, never been told how to interpret them, never heard that they were supposed to take an explanation on faith.

I want them in the wide open space a classroom is supposed to provide. In such a place, my students will ask about Cain’s grief and sorrow when he anguishes over a future defined by wandering, marked by banishment from God, Godself. They will acknowledge that rejection and dismissal – in their world, too – can be a thing of a moment that can scar lifelong.

They see that the texts are real.

Last semester, a student of mine noticed the way Ruth appeared to be manipulated by Naomi.  Naomi instructed Ruth; she was to venture down to the threshing place in the dark of night, entirely alone. She was to enter treacherous territory. She was to seduce an older man.

This student was thinking about Ruth’s vulnerability, the danger she endured. Maybe she was also, in a way, thinking about herself. This student walks in a hazardous world herself. She moves from one classroom to another but avoids ever going to the bathrooms on campus.

“I don’t want to face a confrontation,” she says.

Once, she and I spoke about her upbringing, about the way her classes in biblical literature were allowing her, finally, to ask questions in a safe environment. She joked with me once, claiming that after learning what was going on in our classrooms, it was possible that her parents were finding it easier to acknowledge that she was trans than to talk bible with her.

Will this student ask amazing questions, write revelatory and astonishing texts, find, in a way, that her learning can be healing?

I think so. I hope so.

transgender-symbolNote: The student in question was given a copy of this post before it was published and asked for her permission to do so.

For those of us who write about worlds not our own, a prayer: May we write respectfully, carefully, and with the safety of those we write about in mind.


Genesis 22 – No Sacrifice to Platitudes

Sacrifice of Isaac by Adi Holzer 1997
Sacrifice of Isaac by Adi Holzer 1997

Topic? Genesis, Chapter 22. “Take your son…”

We sat in a classroom without windows, the students arranged in discussion mode around a U-shaped set of tables. A cousin of one of my students had been shot and killed just days earlier; the two had grown up together – quite literally – in the same household. Two other students have been struggling all semester with depression. Another has been long challenged by a set of disabilities – this semester, they seem to be worsening.

The previous week we had read a number of midrashim on the Akedah. We explored the terse, cryptic language that marks so much of the text. Abraham had already sent one son into the dangers of the wilderness as a kind of sacrifice to his wife’s fears, one student pointed out. Was Isaac (almost) a sacrifice to God’s insecurity about Abraham’s loyalty? If so, she asked, why would God need to test Abraham? Hadn’t he proven a loyal and trusting servant?

Our second day of discussion involved source analysis. Genesis 22 is the work of the E-writer, who composed his narratives sometime between 928 BCE and the Assyrian invasion that destroyed Northern Israel in 722 BCE.

Not everything in the text seemed to fit together, though.

Scholars have long noted that verses 14-18 diverge in style from the rest of the narrative; they have even been called “clumsy additions” to the text. Where so much of Genesis 22 is taut, economic, sparse, these verses are repetitive, poetic in nature.

Academics have also pointed out that verses 11-12 and 14-17 use YHVH for God; the text otherwise refers to God as Elohim (a dominant characteristic of the E-writer’s Genesis stories). They’ve observed that God’s relationship with Abraham is generally notable for being panim el panim, up close and personal. Angelic announcements from on high are not so frequent, they note. God more typically appears in patriarchal narratives as a kind of earthly messenger. It’s hard not to wonder why the text needs to say that Abraham offers the ram tachat beno (instead of his son) when that ought to be self-evident to the reader.

One scholar, Omri Boehm, has pointed out that if you remove the “angelic” verses, a coherent, narrative remains – consistent in style and dramatic development. But it does not tell a tale of an obedient, loyal Abraham. Without those verses, Abraham disobeys God. He almost sacrifices his son, but when he sees the ram, he makes a substitute. Genesis 22 was, Boehm argues, once a story of Abraham’s rejection of God’s test; later writers, who wanted an obedient Abraham, added the angelic intervention. It’s another example (like the conflicting accounts of who killed Goliath) of an intertextual polemic.

We have all sorts of evidence that the various writers of Tanakh disagreed, overrode and overwrote each other’s narratives. But asking whether angels descended on Genesis 22 at the hand of a writer who wanted a different reputation for Abraham was just a first step for our class conversation.

Here is what my students asked: What happens to all you’ve been taught if you imagine Abraham defying God? How could one possibly imagine a God who could or should be defied in any circumstance?

My students have been taught that God is never to be questioned. God knows best. God has a plan. Our job is to do as told.

But in a room where one young man is trying to understand why his cousin was murdered, where two students fight with internal chemistry and social messages that bathe them in despair, in a room where a student finds her capacity to read and write – always slow – getting slower and harder to control given the disabilities of body she must manage, God does not always seem to know best. Nor is it clear how any of that pain could or should be part of a divine plan.

Ancient writers of nearly three thousand years ago offered narratives that permit us to question God’s nature and our purpose. That is a gift.

The student whose cousin-brother was killed must be allowed to honor his anger and his grief even if it means asking where God was when the shot was fired. The students who wake to depression need acknowledgment when they feel lost and alone. My disabled student will not be comforted, I suspect, by claims that her challenges are part of God’s plan.

The “other” Genesis 22, one that features a disobedient Abraham, has granted us the right to question how God works and who we are. We are not asked to sacrifice our pain to platitudes.