The Names of God: Exodus 3:14-15 and the Answer

Thousands of years ago, so the story goes, an old man met god in a fiery bush that refused to be consumed. The god took interest in the old man—who went by the name Moses—and decided to send him so that he may help save a group of people whom the god called his own. “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians” (Ex. 3:7-8 NIV). Before Moses accepted this unknown god’s proposition, he first asked the god for its name—for if “they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (3:13 NIV). The response this god provided Moses has continued to perplex layman and scholar alike to this very day. In this paper, I will examine various interpretations of “the answer” the god gave in the hopes of finding a syncretic approach that makes sense of the answer both within its (a) historical context and (b) its current biblical, canonical context. In my concluding reflections, I will argue that the names of God, as revealed to Moses, are as elusive now as they were then.

In the Ancient Near East, names were thought to have magical properties.[1] Cassuto, summarizing the prevailing view, writes, “[T]he designation of any entity was to be equated, as it were, with its existence: whatever is without an appellation does not exist, but whatever has a denomination has existence.”[2] Already in the second creation myth found in Genesis 2, Adam was seen giving names to the recently created animals brought into existence.[3] Existence and having a name went hand-in-hand. The “magical element” of knowing the name of an object or person was grounded in the ancient idea, as Gordis points out, that “knowing the name of any person or object is tantamount to comprehending its nature.”[4] The language of the Hebrew Bible itself—including our text from Exodus—was conducive to such magical thinking. “In Biblical Hebrew, sëm [שֵׁם, “name”] means ‘essence.’”[5] In addition to this, knowing the name of a god, and “calling on its name,” meant you were able to invoke that god’s attention.[6] But attention itself was not granted unless you knew the god’s name. The “magical element,” however, is best epitomized by the ancients’ idea that “to ‘call a name’ [was] sometimes equivalent to ‘create.’”[7] Given the ancients’ concern for knowing the correct name for a correct object, animal, or god, it should come to us as no surprise that Moses was predominantly concerned with figuring out the god’s name—who, in fact, was speaking with him?

The answer the god gave appears to be as elusive as ever:

“I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’” (Ex. 3:14-15 NIV).

At first blush, it appears that there are at least three[8] separate but related answers the god, identifying himself as YHWH, gave Moses: (1) “I am who I am”; (2) “I Am”; and (3) “The Lord” [YHWH]. Numerous theories have arisen because of the seemingly various “answers” YHWH gave Moses; the scholars usually assign the different names to different sources.[9] In this paper, however, I will focus on the canonical text at hand without dealing with the complicated theories catalyzed by source criticism.

YHWH[10] first answers Moses’ question with the cryptic phrase: “I am who I am.” In Hebrew the phrase is אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה. The first word—namely, אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה [ehyeh]—is the first-person imperfect masculine singular verb from the root הָיָה [hyh, “to be”]. Generally speaking, the word could be translated “I will be,” being an imperfect verb that conveys an incomplete action that could occur in the past, present, or future. The particle following the initial ehyeh is אֲשֶׁ֣ר, which is normally translated in this passage as “who.” What does YHWH mean by saying of himself “I will be who I will be” or, as most translations have it, “I am who I am”? Numerous answers have been given; I will present three interpretations of this enigmatic phrase.

The first interpretation I will call “the unknowable explanation.” According to this interpretation, YHWH, in fact, does not answer Moses’ question; that is, YHWH does not give Moses a “name.” What YHWH does instead is give Moses a phrase—an idem per idem[11] syntactical construction, to be exact—alluding to the impossibility of placing God in a box. Zimmerli, one such exponent of this view, writes, “In the only passage where the Old Testament itself attempts to provide an explanation of the name ‘Yahweh’ it refuses to explain the name in a way that could confine it within the cage of definition.”[12] God remains, in this view, the deus absconditus—that is, “the hidden God.” Several good reasons seem to support this interpretation. In light of the earlier comments I made regarding names and their “magical elements,” this view prevents humans from knowing God’s name “because man should not know God’s name and acquire power over him, for God is not to be man’s slave.”[13] Also, this interpretation seems to suggest that the finite human mind cannot possibly understand God and his nature. Even if a name were given, it would be an illusory shell: the name could never contain God. Since a human could not possibly understand God, God and his name must forever remain a mystery.

The second interpretation I shall call “the ontological explanation.” In this view, YHWH is essentially saying, “I am because I am.” When Moses asked YHWH his name, YHWH gave him a name, but it was made in reference to the name itself. That is, outside of the name given—which is elusive as it is, meaning simply “I will be” or “I am”—is itself not supported by anything external to it, functioning, in a sense, as the grounding of being itself. “There is no cause for God’s existence outside himself.”[14] This is a very popular view, being supported by numerous scholars, both ancient and modern.[15] The problem with this view, from a Hebrew exegesis perspective, is that it assumes the particle here should be translated as “because,” and, in addition to this, the imperfect verb should be thoroughly read as a present perfect; that is, the “I will be” (imperfect) should be translated, with certainty, as “I am” (present perfect).[16]

The third interpretation I shall call “the covenantal-loyalty explanation.” In this view, one that seems to be favored by Cassuto, YHWH, by stating the “I am who I am,” means to relate to Moses that he is a god who is. He is one who is actively present in the life of his people. Prior to Exodus 3:14, this god tells Moses: “…For I will be with you [עִמָּ֔ךְ כִּֽי־אֶֽהְיֶ֣ה]” (v.12, my trans.). He is a god who is loyal to a people he calls his own. (Later on, he will tell Moses that he is the god of his ancestors [3:15].) Interpreting this passage, Cassuto writes, regarding what Moses would say to the people, “He Himself sent me to you; although we forgot his name, He did not forget us. He remembered His covenant with our ancestors, and has sent me to you to fulfill His covenant.”[17] In support of this view is Mowinckel’s assertion that “[t]o the Hebrew ‘to be’ does not just mean to exist—as all other beings and things do exist as well—but to be active, to express oneself in active being…”[18] Noth, likewise, writes, “הָיָה [“to be”] does not express pure being but active being.”[19]

After YHWH’s first answer—“I will be who I will be” or “I am who I am”—he further tells Moses that he is simply the “I am.” In this case, the verb seems to be functioning entirely as a title. But YHWH does not stop there. He then introduces another name for himself, providing a third reply: “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord [יְהוָ֞ה], the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’” In the third reply, God has now used yet another verb from the root הָיָה [hyh, “to be”], namely, יְהוָ֞ה [yhwh, “he is”].[20] The difference between the two words being that of person: the first being in first-person, the second being in third-person. Perhaps when God speaks of himself, he refers to himself in the first-person ehyeh; however, when others refer to God, and speak of him, he is referred to in the third-person yhwh. In any case, God is a god linked to the verb for “to be.” Having looked at various interpretations of “the answer” to Moses’ question, I now want to turn my attention to the Exodus narrative as a whole, looking to see which of these various interpretations make sense of the most data.

At the beginning of the book of Exodus, the narrator presents us with a strange picture. Calling to mind the first command given by God in Genesis 1:28—“be fruitful and multiply”—the book displays before our eyes a people who, indeed, had been fruitful (Ex. 1:7, 9). But in their fruitfulness, the people also made enemies: the Pharaoh felt threatened precisely because of it (1:9). The fruitfulness was either a blessing or a curse; it was either responsible for the growth of the nation, or it was the very curse that reduced them to their slavery. However, what appears evident is that God was intimately involved with his people in their struggle to survive tyranny. The midwives, the narrator tells us, “feared the God” (1:17, my trans.). In addition to this, the narrator makes us cognizant of God’s [elohim, אֱלֹהִ֔ים] early involvement in the Israelites’ reproductive efforts. “God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous” (1:20 NIV).

The tale suggests that, already, God was present with his people. We are not told whether the Israelites knew God as the “I am” or as the “He is”; what we do know is that God—in the generic sense conveyed by אֱלֹהִ֔ים—was with the Israelites. In addition to this, we are reminded right at the end chapter two, “God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob” (2:24 NIV). God, then, was both present and covenantal, both faithful and loyal.

Moses, having run away from Pharaoh’s court, and having settled into a nomadic lifestyle in a place called Midian on the Arabian peninsula, is confronted, years later, by a relatively commonplace scene in such desert regions: a burning bush. The not-so-commonplace sight was the fact that the bush didn’t just burn; it refused to be consumed (3:3). Midrash Rabba offers an intriguing commentary on this passage:

“Why did God show Moses such a symbol? Because he (Moses) had thought to himself that the Egyptians might consume Israel; hence did God show him a fire, which burnt but did not consume, saying to him, “Just as the thorn-bush is burning and is not consumed, so the Egyptians will not be able to destroy Israel.”[21]

Again, the covenantal-loyalty of YHWH is exuded here. If this is the message YHWH was trying to convey to Moses, then he was certainly trying to tell him that he, their God, his people’s God, was faithfully looking after them. Though they may be in the process of being burned by fire, they shall not be consumed—for YHWH remembers his covenants.

Just moments prior to giving Moses “the answer” to his question—namely, what is God’s name?—YHWH[22] said: “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain” (3:12 NIV). The promise is already there. First, YHWH says, “I will be with you.” He is the god of covenantal loyalty. Second, YHWH says what will happen with Israel: “you will worship God on this mountain.” He is the god of the future.

It is in this biblical, canonical context in which Moses first hears God’s reply (or “replies,” if you will). Who is God? and What is his name? Instead of seeing the various interpretations as mostly in conflict with each other, I think a syncretic approach works rather well in the interpretation of this passage. Why shouldn’t a first-person verb such as ehyeh convey (a) an “unknowable name”; (b) the grounding of being; and (c) covenantal loyalty? All of these interpretations have come from engagement with the verb in the middle of it all: hyh [“to be”]. What does it mean for something “to be”? What does it mean for God to say that he is (or was, or will be) this “to be”? In a way, then, I see all of these as tentatively valid interpretations. They all have been borne out of an authentic wrestling with the biblical text at hand.

Therefore, on that fateful day on Sinai, it seems likely to me that Moses was given an answer that involved complexity and nuance. A generic name for a god was not thrown out, but neither was no name given. Instead, what Moses discovered was, perhaps, that he was dealing with a God who didn’t like labels, a God who “fear[ed] the magical use of His Name…”[23] Later on in Exodus 33:19, this very same God would remark, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.”[24] The enigma is being perpetrated even here. Who will receive God’s mercy? The answer is not to be found in the answer given. The human subject remains at a kind of distance; he or she is never directly manipulating God’s behavior. Answers qua answers are not given; instead, YHWH speaks in cryptic terms. Maybe if the human subject could know God’s actions, could know whom God would show mercy, maybe then could the human exercise some control over this God.

If the name had to do with some other verb, could humans make sense of this deity then? Maybe if God was not a “to be” but a “to love,” maybe then would he be predictable.[25] But, as it is, no such verb was given. What was given was a verb scholar and layman alike continue to struggle with. In Exodus 3:14, we had come face-to-face with a passage one scholar has called “one of the unsolved difficulties for both translators and exegetes.”[26] Like the ancients of old who sought out names so that they might magically abracadabra various gods into existence, we, too, demand accurate knowledge. Like Moses, being presented with an answer he could not cope with, we meander around the ashes of a burnt out bush, hoping to find “the answer.” And what is our question? “What is the name of God?” In the commentaries and in the academic journals we went looking—only to return with a plethora of so-called “answers.” Under every rock we’ve looked only to come up empty-handed. Somewhere, buried in a long-forgotten commentary written by some nomad, another answer awaits to be discovered. And the names of God continue to puzzle and perplex us today as much as ever, evading us like elusive fireflies burning now and disappearing later. In every scholar, in every reader of the Bible, there lurks a Moses asking an age-old question: “What is his name?”


Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev



Albrektson, Bertil. “On the Syntax of אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה in Exodus 3:14.” Text, Translation, Theology: Selected Essays on the Hebrew Bible. Burlington: Ashgate, 2010.

Cassuto, Umberto. A Commentary on the Book of Exodus. Translated by Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1967.

Gianotti, Charles R. “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH.” Bibliotheca Sacra 142, no. 565 (January 1985): 38-51.

Gordis, Robert. “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls.” Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957).

Hyatt, J. Philip. Commentary on Exodus. New Century Bible. London: Oliphants, 1971.

Janzen, Gerald J. “And the Bush Was Not Consumed.” Jewish Biblical Quarterly 31, no. 4 (October 2003): 219-225.

Noth, Martin. Exodus: A Commentary. Translated by J. S. Bowden. London: W. & J. Mackay & Co. Ltd., 1962.

Reisel, M. The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H. Studia Semitica Neerlandica. Netherlands: Royal VanGorcum Ltd., 1957.


[1] M. Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., Studia Semitica Neerlandica (Netherlands: Royal VanGorcum Ltd., 1957), 1. “[I]n the view of primitive man forces are active in Nature that can be influenced and controlled by magical means, such as rites of protection or propitiation, by worship, as also by the giving or avoiding of certain names” (italics original).

[2] Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, trans. Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1967), 37.

[3] Genesis 2:20.

[4] Robert Gordis, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957), 125.

[5] Ibid.

[6] J. Philip Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, New Century Bible (London: Oliphants, 1971), 75. “To pronounce the name of a deity meant to call upon his power.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Such is the view of M. Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., 5. “To this single question he surprisingly receives as many as three answers…”

[9] Noth does this (cf. Martin Noth, Exodus: A Commentary, trans. J. S. Bowden [London: W. & J. Mackay & Co. Ltd., 1962], 42) as does Hyatt (cf. Commentary on Exodus, 75-8). For a list of scholars who advocate some source theory derived from the different names of god in the Hebrew Bible, I refer my readers to the numerous commentaries available. It is not the purpose of this paper to engage with various source theories robustly, as I am more interested in dealing with the interpretation of Exodus as the text currently stands, warts and all.

[10] I will refer to “the god” throughout the text as YHWH from this point forward. While it may cause some difficulties to my readers—perhaps various sources meant different gods when they mentioned either YHWH or elohim? and I have, as it were, caused some confusion by collapsing the alleged “distinction”—it would have been relatively strange, aesthetically speaking, for me to continue to refer to god as “the god” for the remainder of the paper.

[11] Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, 76-7. “In this construction the speaker (or writer) is intentionally indefinite , because he is either unwilling or unable to be definite and precise.” For examples of other such constructions in Exodus, see 4:13; 16:23; and 33:19.

[12] Cited in Charles R. Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” in Bibliotheca Sacra 142, no. 565 (January 1985), 41.

[13] Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, 75.

[14] Ibid., 76.

[15] See Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” 41.

[16] Ibid., 42-3.

[17] Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, 39.

[18] Cited in Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” 42.

[19] Noth, Exodus: A Commentary, 45.

[20] This verb is translated here as the Qal verbal stem third-person imperfect masculine singular.

[21] Cited in Gerald J. Janzen, “And the Bush Was Not Consumed,” in Jewish Biblical Quarterly 31, no. 4 (October 2003), 225.

[22] Technically the word here is elohim.

[23] Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H, 11. Italics original.

[24] NIV.

[25] Interestingly enough, S. D. Goitein makes the argument that the Hebrew root hyh is related to the Arabic “hawiya” which means “to love.” He then interprets Exodus 3:14 as saying, “I shall (passionately) love whom I love” (see Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., 17).

[26] These are the words of W. A. Irwin cited in Bertil Albrektson, “On the Syntax of אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה in Exodus 3:14,” in Text, Translation, Theology: Selected Essays on the Hebrew Bible (Burlington: Ashgate, 2010), 41.

Crime and Punishment in the Garden of Eden: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Sexual Consciousness, Unnatural Sex Acts, and the Primeval Couple in Genesis 3:4-7

For years readers of Genesis have been drawn to the stories found about the primeval couple in the mythical Garden of Eden. From the beginning of the narrative arch to its climactic ending, the story appears to be a self-contained unit. The beginning is marked by God’s divine command to ’adam in 2:16-17, in which YHWH commands: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”[1] The middle of the narrative is the tension-filled discourse involving a snake, Eve, and Adam (3:1-7). A conflict scene in which YHWH confronts the primeval couple regarding their disobedience then follows (3:8-13). The climactic conclusion is the punishment meted out by YHWH. It is, then, when read in its final, canonical form[2], a story of “crime and punishment.”[3] What is the primeval couple’s crime? In this paper, I will primarily focus my attention on Genesis 3:4-7, in particular I will be analyzing various interpretations of the phrase “the tree of knowledge of good and evil,” which occurs as the official name of the tree in 2:9. What does it mean? In lay circles, it has come to mean that the primeval couple gained moral consciousness by eating of the tree’s fruit. Other scholars have argued that the “knowledge” had more to do with “mastery of one’s existence.”[4] I find all such interpretations to be unconvincing. Therefore, in this paper I will argue that the tree of knowledge of good and evil had to do with sexual consciousness. Moreover, I will argue that the punishment in this tale of “crime and punishment” has to do with the crime of “unnatural sex acts.” I believe that such an interpretation, while it may not convince everyone, explains virtually all of the data, making sense in the biblical context and its Ancient Near Eastern context.

Traditionally, especially for those of us who have graduated Sunday School, the story about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil had to do with their freely made decision of choosing their own way over God’s way; the couple chose to disobey God to discover some separate way of “knowing.” In other words, Adam and Eve wanted to abide by their own rules; and, so, as a consequence of eating of this tree’s fruit, they were awakened to moral consciousness. Leon R. Kass interprets the narrative in this way. He writes, “For a human being, as for any human child, the possibility of choosing for oneself lies always within reach. To be a human being means that judgments of good and bad are always in one’s mental garden…”[5] In other words, for Kass, the story has to do with Adam and Eve’s obtainment of moral consciousness.[6] For Kass, the knowledge of “good and evil” should be taken to mean—as the Hebrew phrase וָרָע טוֹב actually suggests—knowledge of “good and bad.” “Bad,” in this case, includes things like pain, sickness, and disorder.[7] In other words, to bite of the tree is to voluntarily begin participating in the experience of “bad things,” such as cancer, earthquakes, and heartbreaks. But does this make any sense, even in the context of Genesis? I don’t think so. For example, the text states that prior to Eve’s biting of the fruit, she already perceived the tree to be “good [טוֹב] for food,” a “delight to the eyes,” and “to be desired to make one wise” (3:6). How could she know that the tree was “good” prior to obtaining Kass’ moral consciousness? Kass, in an ingenious move, writes, “[T]o reach for the forbidden fruit is already to have tasted it.”[8] In other words, Eve, by reaching for the fruit, already tasted of it, and somehow—and this remains unexplained—was able to make judgments on her own prior to reaching for it. Ultimately, in the tale, the primeval couple proves that “a free choice is not necessarily a good choice, not even for oneself.”[9] This means the point of the tale was to demonstrate to its readers that—sometimes?—it is better to listen to God’s divine imperatives, to live by His commands, rather than make autonomous choices.

Does Kass’ interpretation make sense in the biblical context? It does not. The curse that later follows the crime on its heels has to do with a woman’s childbearing experience. And, as most of us know, sex precedes childbirth. The crime, as my paper will later show, has to do with sexual deviance. However, I have spoken too soon. Next, we will look at another unconvincing interpretation: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as “mastery of one’s existence.”

Claus Westermann argues that the entirety of the final narrative contained in Genesis 2-3 is “a story of the breaking of a law and punishment.”[10] God commands the prohibition (i.e., “do not eat…”) directly to the ’adam. The couple[11] does not listen, breaking God’s command. The story is a “direct confrontation between humans and God” in which “God himself discovers the transgression, conducts the trial and pronounces judgment.”[12] In the narrative, according to Westermann, the primeval couple attempts to eat of the tree because it represents “knowledge (or wisdom) in the general, comprehensive sense.”[13] Following a thesis proposed by J. Pedersen, and citing it, Westermann believes the reason that God felt threatened by the couple’s eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil had to do with “the god’s zealous maintenance of their absolute superiority.”[14] In eating of the fruit, the couple chose their “craving for more.”[15] In Westermann’s words, it is this that “leads to conflict with God or the gods.”[16] “Human beings are created in such a way that they are capable of advancing their life and of advancing their knowledge… There is a difference between these two human aspirations. To aspire after life comes in conflict with the inexorable barrier of death; to strive for wisdom or knowledge meets no such barrier.”[17] All of this leads to what Westermann believes the author of Genesis is particularly ascribing to the primeval couple: a desire “to be like God” (3:5). Comparing this text with Job 15:7-8, Ezekiel 28:11-19, and Sirach 49:16, Westermann articulates the view that the primordial myths all reveal a primeval person (or persons) “grasping after wisdom to which the creature has no right.”[18] Once the primeval couple disobeyed YHWH, they were punished. The punishment of the woman is of particular importance. She is “cursed” with increased birth pains. Why? Westermann, being unfriendly to the “sexual consciousness interpretation” of this text, remains utterly silent; he does not even address the “why.” Instead, he writes, “[J]ust where the woman finds her fulfillment in life, her honor and her joy, namely in her relationship to her husband and as mother of her children, there too she finds that it is not pure bliss, but pain, burden, humiliation and subordination.”[19] The punishment is harsh. (And Adam, along with the snake, is likewise punished.) Westermann cannot explain why this curse and not another on the woman. He cannot explain it[20]—and does not bother to—because his interpretation is wrong: the text is dealing with sexual consciousness and unnatural sex acts. It is to this interpretation that I now turn my gaze. But before I examine the biblical evidence in favor of a sexual interpretation, I would like to discuss some of the text’s Ancient Near Eastern “relatives.” Such “relatives” will make us aware of the kind of stories the ancients told about the primeval man…

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the goddess Aruru creates Enkidu—created as a “double” after the failed creation of the demi-god Gilgamesh, who ended up becoming a tyrant. But Enkidu, too, has problems. He is wild. He runs around naked and lives like a jungle animal. Anu then sends a cult prostitute who seduces him into a night of hot sex. Overnight, after, I assume, several orgasms, he awakens a brand new man: he is now civilized and tame. The animals abandon this new version of Enkidu—“it was not as before; but he now had wisdom, broader understanding.”[21] He returns to the harlot who enticed him. He is now willing to listen to her. She tells him, and I quote, “Thou art wise, Enkidu, art become like a god!…”[22] In this tale, which definitely has parallels with our Genesis text, the “wisdom” that Enkidu obtains is gained by sexual intercourse with a woman. The woman makes a man who he is. It is she who makes a man civilized, for lack of a better word, by means of pussification. Like the “Harlot of Gilgamesh,” Eve, too, forces Adam to bite of the fruit; she is the one who initiates him into sexual consciousness. Adam, like Enkidu, listens to her voice. In the final scene, much like Adam’s placement of the burden of guilt upon Eve in 3:12, Enkidu, too, blames the harlot. Enkidu becomes aware that sexual consciousness, having made him (a) awakened to life and (b) aware of death, is very much a blessing and a curse. And, so, he curses the woman; he curses the harlot. “Such motifs as sexual awareness, wisdom, and nature’s paradise are of course familiar from various ancient sources,” writes E.A. Speiser.[23]

In another Ancient Near Eastern text, known as the Adapa Myth, the god of wisdom, Ea, creates a man called Adapa. One day, while fishing, Adapa’s boat capsizes due to the wind. Adapa finds himself drowning. In the process of falling into the sea, Adapa breaks the wind’s wings, stopping it from blowing for seven days. The sky god, Anu, is enraged by this. He calls for Adapa to appear at the divine council. Ea, the creator-god of Adapa, instructs Adapa on how he should behave in the presence of the god Anu. He tells him, moreover, that he should not drink of the cup which Anu may present to him, nor eat of the food, for it is the drink and food of death. (In reality, the drink and food contain the gift of immortality.) In the end, Adapa refuses to drink and eat, and is sent back to earth to toil and live as a mortal.[24] The story is ultimately a story about Adapa being deceived into not obtaining immortality. Much like the Genesis story, in which the additional punishment is forever being forbidden to eat from the “tree of life,” the Adapa myth tells of a primeval event in history where man was tricked out of eternity. While the Adapa myth does not give us anything “sexual,” it does tell us something that does not sit well with Kass and Westermann’s interpretations: the ancients viewed primeval man as being endowed with wisdom from the get-go. In the myth, Adapa is described in the following poetic manner:

Wisdom… His command was indeed… like the command of Ea. Wide understanding he had perfected for him to disclose the designs of the land. To him he had given wisdom; eternal life he had not given him.[25]

Like Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh and Adapa in the Adapa Myth, Adam in the Garden of Eden was endowed with wisdom before eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Here’s the biblical evidence.

In the Garden of Eden, Adam, prior to the eating of the fruit of the tree, gave names to every living creature (2:19-20). Robert Gordis writes, “It is a truism that in ancient thought, including the biblical world-view, knowing the name of any person or object is tantamount to comprehending its nature.”[26] In another biblical text, which appears to be speaking of Adam before The Fall, describes him as being “full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (Ezekiel 28:12). “Semitic, biblical and post-biblical [sources] are at one in conceiving of primal man as endowed with supreme wisdom and beauty before his misadventure.” Gordis further adds: “The theory that it was the fruit of the ‘tree of knowing good and evil’ that conferred the knowledge of the world and intellectual maturity upon Adam is therefore decisively ruled out.”[27] There go Kass and Westermann: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil does not have to do with either moral consciousness or, in a similar vein, “mastery of one’s existence”; instead, the tree has to do with something entirely different: sexuality.

Right from the beginning, the sexuality of the text was bursting at the seams. The phrase used in Genesis 2:9 to describe the forbidden tree in Hebrew is וָרָֽע טֹ֥וב הַדַּ֖עַת וְעֵ֕ץ [“and the tree of knowledge of good and evil”]. This includes the construct noun, with the definite article, הַדַּ֖עַת [“the knowledge of”]. The verbal form of this word [“to know’] is used in the Hebrew infinitive as a euphemism for “to have sex.” In fact, it’s a euphemism for sex in Arabic, Greek, Akkadian, and Latin.[28] Therefore, when the text states that this is the tree of knowing good and evil, it really is saying that the fruit of this tree cause one to become sexually conscious. But what does the phrase “good and evil” refer to then? The biblical texts suggest that this, too, has to do with sexual matters. The phrase וָרָֽע טֹ֥וב [“good and evil”] “may have originated in the two aspects of sexual experience, the normal (טֹ֥וב) manifestations of the impulse and the abnormal (רע).”[29] In Judges 19, there is the odd story about a Levite, his concubine, and an old man who took them both in. In the biblical episode, the Levite and his concubine are on a journey home, and stop at the town of Gibeah, being taken in by an unnamed man. At nightfall, the townsmen demand that the old man hand over his male guest to the townsmen. They want to rape him, essentially. “In each case, the host replies אַל־תָּרֵ֣עוּ[30] and expresses his willingness to offer up instead a woman to their lust.”[31] The phrase cannot be translated, as many translations do, “Do not act wickedly”—for “violating the chastity of an innocent women is surely an evil.”[32] Therefore, it is better to render the verb for רע [“to do evil”] here as “to act unnaturally.” In this case, the word refers to the abnormal sexual act. The opposite word טֹ֥וב, and its verbal forms, would mean “to act naturally.”

In another biblical passage, no other translation of phrase “good and evil” is possible but the sexual. Second Samuel 19:35 reads:

Today I am eighty years old; can I discern what is pleasant and what is not [וָרָֽע טֹ֥וב]? Can your servant taste what he eats or what he drinks? Can I still listen to the voice of singing men and singing women? Why then should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king?

The phrase translated by the NRSV as “pleasant and what is not” is actually וָרָֽע טֹ֥וב [“good and evil”] in Hebrew. In this passage, King David is lamenting that he can no longer enjoy life. In fact, he is so old, he cannot delight in women and wine, song and dance, and “good and evil.” But in this case, the phrase should probably be a reference to sex. King David didn’t have access to Viagra and, hence, found life to be a bore with all the babes around in the King’s Court. As we have seen, it’s not anywhere near mere conjecture when I say that the phrase “good and evil” has sexual overtones. And, most importantly, it could also mean, in some cases, “natural and unnatural.”

It is neither a stretch of the imagination nor a crime of biblical eisegesis: the fact that Adam and Eve’s, the primeval couple’s, sexual consciousness blossomed after eating the fruit can no longer be denied. Even the snake in the Garden of Eden functions as an object that inspires thoughts of sex. O. Loretz writes, “[T]he serpent in Gen 3 is one of those mythical serpents that represents life and death together. It stands…as a symbol of the Canaanite fertility cult and as such promises life.”[33] In addition to this, some scholars view the snake as “a phallic symbol.”[34]

We are now in a good position to read the pericope this paper is ultimately trying to make sense of. Genesis 3:4-7 reads:

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves (NRSV).

We’ve already ploughed most of the ground for a fertile interpretation of this text. We know that the snake represents the phallus. We’ve discussed what “the knowledge of good and evil” means (and the related phrase “knowing good and evil” used here); it means something along the lines of “sexual knowledge of natural and unnatural sex acts.” We’ve also looked forward into the text and saw that the “curse” directed at the woman only makes sense if the crime in the Garden were a sexual one (as sex results in conception and childbirth). At this point in our exegesis, it appears that the primeval couple performed some kind of unnatural sex act that would have upset YHWH. In addition to this sex act, they also disobeyed YHWH by eating of the fruit of that tree. We are left with two more key ideas to explore. The first is the enigmatic phrase “you will be like God”; the second is the realization that they were “naked.” To those two points in the text I will now turn.

What does it mean to “be like God”? If we are correct that this has something to do with sex, the natural reading of the text would suggest the following interpretation: to “be like God” means “to be immortal like God by means of sex, which results in progeny, implies that your name will live longer than your mortal body—and that is immortality.” As Gordis points out, “[P]artaking of the tree of knowledge afforded the eater the vicarious immortality which comes from the procreation of children.”[35]

What does the text try to communicate when it states that immediately after their eyes were opened, they became aware of being naked? It doesn’t require a PhD in sexology to recognize that something lewd is going on here. After being told not to eat of the fruit of that tree, the couple—albeit completely butt naked—eats of the fruit, fruit which conveys sexual knowledge of natural and unnatural forms of intercourse. Immediately, as their eyes open, as this new knowledge grabs a hold of them, they engage in sexual intercourse. In addition to sex, they recognize something about sex: it takes two butt naked people to engage in it. But that recognition that sex and nudity go hand-in-hand leads the couple to recognize that outside of sexual intercourse, they probably shouldn’t be naked. Nudity turned Adam on. It might turn YHWH on too; it did, several chapters later in Genesis 6, make the “sons of God” engage in sexual intercourse with “children of men” after all (v. 4). The couple, now informed that nudity should be saved for the master bedroom, hides from YHWH. And so, the ancient text introduces us to civilization, society, and clothing. In a vein similar to Enkidu, Adam becomes civilized after his rendezvous with Eve. She makes him a better man.

We must now come to the climactic ending, which, in a strange turn of events, occurred after Adam and Eve had already climaxed their way through orgasm.[36] YHWH finds the primeval couple, gives them clothing, curses them, and kicks them out. Scholars think that there were originally multiple sources at work here, and that two stories were mixed to create this one.[37] Originally, the punishment must have simply been either the curses or the expulsion from the Garden; one story, such as the tree of life tale, must have concluded with curses, and the other, such as the tree of knowledge tale, must have concluded with the expulsion. The final product, as it now stands, must be interpreted on its own terms. What we know, despite what the source critics say, is that the text ends with some form of punishment. YHWH punishes the couple for a crime they had committed. Having engaged in some form or another of unnatural and natural sex, the couple posed a threat to YHWH. At the very least, they simply disobeyed orders. But if our interpretation is correct, the couple, by means of progeny, was also able to live vicariously through them. In a sense, they had disobeyed YHWH and had tricked him. By means of children they, too, would live “forever”—whether YHWH liked it or not. Whether he liked their illicit sexual behaviors or not, they would live forever. But why was YHWH concerned with unnatural sex? The dichotomizing themes of pure/impure, natural/unnatural, have a long history in the Old Testament.[38] It was a way for the Jews to keep themselves set-apart and different from the rest of the ancient tribes. Having said that, the crime, however you look at the text, is clearly an act of disobedience. The question is: was it a sexual act? I think, as this paper has tried to show, the answer is probably a “yes.” It’s a tentative yes, not a dogmatic one.

Allow me to summarize my results and the conclusions I have drawn from them. I first looked at two interpretations of this text that I did not agree with, Kass and Westermann’s, respectively. I have revealed that they do not make sense of most of the data in the text. I then proceeded to show that the Ancient Near Eastern myths, which parallel our own text, reveal: (a) the primeval man was full of wisdom from the get-go; and (b) especially in the Epic of Gilgamesh, primeval man was tamed—brought to civilized life—through sex and sexual consciousness. I then proceeded to demonstrate that even the biblical text reveals to us hints of primeval Adam being endowed with wisdom from the start. In addition to this, I discussed that “to know” was a euphemism for sex; that “good and evil” could also mean “natural and unnatural [sexual acts].” I then grounded my study in the biblical texts themselves. Finally, I have tried to let my interpretation make sense of the “curse” on woman, the setting, and the surrounding biblical context itself. I would like to conclude by stating that, whatever one may draw from the individual premises themselves, and whatever one may ultimately think of the conclusions reached, this interpretation holds, at the very least, some—if not a lot—of water: Adam and Eve gained sexual consciousness in the Garden of Eden, disobeyed YHWH, performed natural and unnatural sex acts, and were ultimately expelled from the Garden of Eden. The myth was a tale of love and romance, nudity and sex—of crime and punishment.

Written by Moses Y. Mikheyev

I’m a graduate student at Emory University interested in religion, philosophy, and the philosophy of language. 


Gordis, Robert. “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957).

Kass, Leon R. The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Mark, Joshua J. “The Myth of Adapa.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified February 23, 2011. /article/216/.

Speiser, E.A. Genesis: Introduction, Translation, and Notes. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1964.

Westermann, Claus. Genesis 1-11: A Commentary. Translated by John J. Scullion. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1974.


[1] All biblical citations in this paper will come from the New Revised Standard Version.

[2] I want to point out that I have decided not to make this paper a paper on sources for several reasons: (1) The scholars virtually all disagree as to where one such source begins and where it ends; (2) contrasting P’s account of the primeval couple’s sexuality (e.g., 1:28) with J’s (thought to be 2:4ff) does not really work as we don’t have enough data in Genesis to give us a holistic idea as to what they agreed upon and what they disagreed about; therefore, (3) the previous points make the excurses in the sexual views of J or P more of a highly speculative and highly tentative enterprise. Finally, I simply chose to deal with the final, canonical form for the simple reason that the final editor, whoever it may have been, chose to weave the tale in such a manner. I am attempting to make sense of what it was that this author (or authors) was/were trying to communicate.

[3] Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1974), 193. While I ultimately disagree with Westermann’s interpretation of Genesis 2-3, I agree with him that it is—in its final, redacted form—a tale of crime and punishment.

[4] Ibid., 248.

[5] Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 66. Italics original.

[6] Ibid., 63. “[T]he name [of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] suggests rather knowledge of how to live, of what we would call practical knowledge, including but not limited to moral knowledge” (ibid.).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 65.

[9] Ibid., 66.

[10] Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 193.

[11] Here it is evident that the final product of Genesis 2-3 involved multiple sources. In Genesis 2:16-17 it is the man given the command not to eat of the fruit. Another source in the pre-history of the text must have dealt with a “couple”—and not a single individual; hence, Genesis 3:2-7 involves Eve breaking a command she had not heard! Such “roughness” in the text reveals its own subtle disunity.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 247.

[14] Cited in Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 245.

[15] Ibid. Citing J. Pedersen here again.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 247.

[19] Ibid., 263.

[20] Ibid., 261-3. He spends three pages on “The Sentence of Punishment of the Woman” without so much as bothering to connect the punishment with the surrounding narrative.

[21] Ibid., 247.

[22] Cited from the “Enkidu Episode” (Tablet I, iv 26-34, ANET 75) in Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 247.

[23] “The Story of Eden,” in Genesis: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1964), 26.

[24] Joshua J. Mark, “The Myth of Adapa,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, last modified February 23, 2011, /article/216/.

[25] Cited from Tablet A, II. 2ff. in Robert Gordis, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957), 128.

[26] Ibid., 125.

[27] Ibid., 129.

[28] Ibid., 131.

[29] Ibid., 131.

[30] “You all (masculine plural), do not do evil!” (my trans.).

[31] Ibid., 133.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Quoted in Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 244.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Gordis, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil,” 130.

[36] Of course at this point in my paper, I have now resorted to a creative interpretation of the text. What I mean by that is, after having done some biblical exegesis, I am trying to understand the message of the text. That is, I am interested in presenting a robust and cohesive version of the story as I see it. I am trying to fit all the pieces of the text together into a cohesive, believable whole. And the “sexual interpretation”—the one I am espousing—seems to make a lot of sense of the data.

[37] For an excurses on sources, see Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 186-196, esp. 195.

[38] Gordis, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil,” 123-4 and 132-3.

A Tale of Two Problems—Human Sacrifice and God’s “Bad Commands”: Jeremiah 7:22 vis-à-vis Ezekiel 20:25-26

Jeremiah and Ezekiel provide us with a glimpse into the theology of meso-exilic[1] Israel. With the Temple on the verge of being sacked and the people either in a foreign land or headed there soon, prophet and priest alike wanted to explain to the people how this had occurred. How could Israel, God’s chosen people, be overcome by a foreign God and foreign power? How could God allow this to a people who sacrificed to him and who allegedly followed his commands? Jeremiah, at first blush, appears to argue that God never did command the people to offer sacrifices; Ezekiel, on the other hand, appears to argue that God did indeed make the command to sacrifice but that He did this to “defile” the people and make them unholy (implying that they were no longer His people).

Jeremiah argues that God made no such command to offer sacrifices. “For when I brought your fathers out of the land of Egypt, I said nothing to them, nor gave them any command regarding burnt offerings and sacrifices.”[2] Bright argues that “It is unlikely…that it is to be taken either as a categorical rejection of the sacrificial system as such, or as a statement that there was no sacrifice in the wilderness.”[3] In other words, the words in this passage should not be taken literally. Craigie et al. argue along similar lines that Jeremiah was really condemning a form of sacrificing to God that was not approved of—namely, the fact that the burnt-offerings were being eaten by the worshippers (v. 21). Again, according to some interpreters, the passage is not to be taken literally.[4] On the other hand, Hyatt argues that scholars who run away from this issue are actually not reading Jeremiah the proper way, that is, literally. “[I]t is best to take Jeremiah’s words here at their face value and see in them his belief that the sacrificial system was man-made and not willed by Yahweh…”[5] According to Hyatt, then, Jeremiah is completely contradicting what Ezekiel has to say about sacrifices and what the Pentateuch has to say about them. This is the uncompromising message of Jeremiah against the Temple cult in Jerusalem.

Ezekiel, on the other hand, argues that all of the evil which befell Israel was bound to happen anyways because Israel chose not to serve God and did not follow all of the commands which he had commanded. Following a long section on rebuking Israel and its forefathers, Ezekiel states, writing in the first person for God, “And I also gave them laws not good and rules by which they could not live, defiling them by their gifts, in that they delivered up every first issue of the womb, so that I might desolate them, so that they might know that I am YHWH.”[6] Greenberg comments that the year is 591 BCE and that Ezekiel is arguing, according to his interpretation, Israel disobeyed God and that God, in his anger, decided to give Israel bad laws instead of good laws. “The shocking idea that God misleads those who anger him into sin, for which he then destroys them, already appeared in 14:9 (the misled prophet)…”[7] He further argues that Israel really did offer up their firstborn son in child sacrifice up to God! “These [bad laws] are then exemplified by child sacrifice, at once a murderous pagan practice and an abomination worthy of severest condemnation…[b]y this anti-gift, God only confirmed the people in their choice of laws countering God’s…”[8] Allen argues that these so-called bad commands were “[n]ot of God, they were given by God! Theologically the divine policy is akin to the role of prophecy in Isa. 6:9-10, where the prophetic word is given to seal the people’s fate by giving them an opportunity to add to their sin by rejecting that word. Judgment had already been passed and the gateway to life was locked by his providential judgment. The covenant goal of recognition of Yahweh, unreached by positive means (vv 5, 7, 12, 19, 20), had finally to be attained by a life-denying encounter with his judgment.”[9] These laws were not “of God” in the sense that they were “godly”; rather, these laws were simply given by God, for He knew beforehand that the people would choose evil instead of the good—thus bringing judgment upon themselves by means of freewill. In more blunt language, E. L. Allen put it this way: “In accordance with Hebrew usage, Ezekiel tends to ascribe to God whatever happens. Here he has in mind the perversion of religion at the entry into Canaan. He describes the evil practices which the newcomers took over from the original inhabitants. Most atrocious of these was the custom of child sacrifice. He carries this back to a definite divine command, though he modifies this by saying that the command was given as a punishment for previous sin.”[10]

It is quite obvious by now that scholars do not know what to do with these passages. In this paper, I will be arguing that there is no contradiction between Jeremiah and Ezekiel—they are both actually saying the same thing. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel acknowledge God as the giver of these allegedly “strange” and unappealing laws regarding sacrifices. Moreover, I will somewhat briefly put forth the argument that the law does not command the sacrifice of human firstborn children,[11] as some scholars have horrendously suggested.

Let us first begin by examining Jeremiah’s strange passage. Jeremiah uses the normal negating adverb לֹֽא  (“not”) followed by the verb דִבַּ֤רְתִּי (“I commanded”), making the normal translation read “I did not command…” However, לֹֽא is not always a negating adverb; it can also be used as a Hebrew idiom which roughly translates into “not-only.” Thus, the following translation would emerge for the introduction of Jeremiah’s words: “Not only have I commanded…” There are many such uses of לֹֽא in the OT where, if taken literally, the adverb would make the verse contradict what the rest of that particular verse demands to be so.[12] For example, in Exodus 16:8 the people along with the entire congregation murmur against Moses and Aaron and wish to stone them both. However, Moses replies that the people have murmured not (לֹֽא) against him and Aaron but against YHWH. The use of the לֹֽא would indicate, if taken literally, that the people did not murmur against Moses and Aaron. However, if it is an idiom—which it really is—then the verse states that the people murmured not-only against Moses and Aaron but also against YHWH. In Joshua 17:17 a very clear-cut example of the use of this particular idiom is given: “You [Joseph] shall have not-merely one portion.”[13] According to Whitney, “Thus did Joshua pronounce a blessing on the house of Joseph. If the ‘merely’ is to be omitted and the verse taken out of context, it could be misunderstood as saying that Joseph would not receive even one portion.”[14] All this goes to say that the use of לֹֽא does not indicate necessarily that the adverb negates any following verbs. Another such use of the Hebrew idiom is found in Ezekiel 16:47. In the passage, Ezekiel writes that Israel had not-only (לֹֽא) walked in the ways of their heathen neighbors but went above and beyond their corruption—so corrupt was Israel. If the לֹֽא is taken literally, the passage would contradict itself. In the crucial interpretive verse of Exodus 6:3, the use of the Hebrew idiom comes into play on a more significant scale. In reading the Pentateuch, one notices that the name of YHWH occurs quite frequently, appearing as early as Genesis 2. However, in Exodus 6:3 we read—literally—“ I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name [YHWH] I did not make myself fully known to them.”[15] This flies in the face of the entire Pentateuchal narrative! If taken literally the verse would imply that God did not reveal himself as YHWH to anyone prior to this incident in Exodus 6:3. However, we know that He did. If this is not the negating use of the adverb לֹֽא then this may be the Hebrew idiom meaning not-only. What further corroborates this is a passage in Genesis 32:29, where God changes Jacob’s name to Israel. God says that Jacob’s name is not (לֹֽא) Jacob but Israel. However, in Genesis 35:10, God[16] allegedly says “Your name is Jacob.” Whitney writes, “The qualification ‘not-only Jacob, but also Israel’ parallels that of ‘not-only Yahweh [YHWH], but also El Shaddai.’”[17] After dissertating somewhat at length about several other examples, Whitney comes to the passage in Jeremiah. He argues that the passage is “the most extreme criticism of the sacrificial system in Scripture.”[18] However, he continues, “This alone should make us cautious of founding too great a structure on it as a base.”[19] He argues that this “tradition of prophetic criticism of sacrifice” is as old as Hosea 6:6 and even 1 Samuel 15:22.[20] Thus, there is no reason for us to suppose, if this argument is to be taken seriously, that Jeremiah contradicts Ezekiel. This brings us to the final question: did God, according to Ezekiel, command the Israelites to offer firstborn children as sacrifices?

Ezekiel 20:25 uses the Hebrew phrase רָ֑חַם כָּל־פֶּ֣טֶר בְּהַעֲבִ֖יר (lit.: “in causing to pass over [i.e., “to sacrifice”][21] all the first issues of the womb”). According to Hahn and Bergsma, the passage does not necessarily refer to sacrifices offered to the god Molech simply because it uses the Hiphil form for עבר (this word is used in Ezekiel in contexts that have nothing to do with Molech). “Ezekiel himself uses the term frequently in contexts having nothing to do with such practices (5:1; 14:15; 20:37; 37:2; 46:21; 47:3-4 [3x]; 48:14).”[22] Moreover, they point out that Molech never required firstborn sacrifices. The Hebrew, if taken extremely literally, means “every opener of the womb.” In Exodus 13:12 we have the same expression followed by אָדָ֛ם בְּכֹ֥ור וְכֹ֨ל (“and all the firstborn of adam/man”), which are to be excluded from the sacrifices. This means that the passage “distinguishes human firstborn from ‘every opener of the womb’ in order to exclude them from being offered” and “the context makes clear that human sacrifice is not the referent.”[23] Lastly, “there is no biblical archaeological evidence for the practice of child sacrifice to the LORD in ancient Israel.”[24] Regarding Ezekiel’s comment that God gave the people “bad commands,” one can merely note that the ancient Israelites attributed virtually all activity to God—be it good or bad; however, it does not appear that the commands flowed out of God Himself, but rather these commands flowed out of the deuteronomic contractual covenant which the Israelites had broken. In breaking the covenant, the Israelites brought upon themselves the “evil commands” of God.[25]

Ezekiel and Jeremiah, it appears, are actually arguing very similar things. The people of Israel have abandoned God and have begun to serve themselves. They no longer follow God and his ethical categorical imperatives. They only “serve” God superficially; their hearts do not reflect God’s laws nor the goodness of God’s nature. Theirs is the “prophetic criticism” of gibberish forms of worship which merely pay lip-service to God and His demands. Isaiah 1 could be seen as a summary of both Jeremiah and Ezekiel’s statements: “Stop bringing meaningless offerings!” (v. 13) and “Stop doing wrong” (v. 16)[26] because what essentially God requires is the commitment to His ethical imperatives.

Such “prophetic criticism” is never too out of date. Even today many of us would fall into the category of the “sinful.” How many of us go to church simply because it is the sociologically complacent thing to do? On the other hand, how many of us actually come to God with an immediate sincerity that asks God to come into direct existential communion with us? The beauty of Jeremiah’s critique lies in what follows the critique itself. “Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you” (7:23).[27] The point of the passage is not to simply criticize, put down, and harshly condemn; no, the point is that God wills people to be His people and He wants them to merely obey His commands. Why? For out of the goodness of Him who offers good commands flows goodness itself. The critiques ends not with a curse, but with a blessing: “that it may go well with you.” The laws of God, as God sees them, are not burdensome or “bad” for people; they are actually good and life-giving.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


Allen, Leslie C. Ezekiel 20-48. Dallas, TX: Word, 1990. Print. Word Biblical Commentary.

Bright, John. Jeremiah: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 21. New York: Doubleday, 1964. Print. The Anchor Bible.

Craigie, Peter C., Page H. Kelley, and Joel F. Drinkard. Jeremiah 1-25. Vol. 26. Dallas, TX: Word, 1991. Print. Word Biblical Commentary.

Greenberg, Moshe. Ezekiel 1-20: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 22. New York: Doubleday, 1983. Print. The Anchor Bible.

Hahn, Scott, and John S. Bergsma. “What Laws Were ‘Not Good’? A Canonical Approach to the Theological Problem of Ezekiel 20:25-26.” Journal of Biblical Literature 123 (2004), no. 2:201-218.

Whitney, G. E. “Alternative Interpretations of לֹֽא in Exodus 6:3 and Jeremiah 7:22.” Westminster Theological Journal 48, no. 1 (March 1, 1986): 151-159.


[1] Jeremiah’s “Temple Sermon”—in which 7:22 feature—is dated to 608 BCE by many scholars, which is just prior to the Babylonian Captivity. However, the Assyrian dissemination of the Northern Kingdom (Israel/Samaria) had already occurred in 722 BCE. In other words, Jeremiah, here, is probably pre-exilic but his message is already similar to post-exilic messages; namely, why did evil overtake us, the children of Abraham? See Peter C. Craige, Page H. Kelley, and Joel F. Drinkard, Jr., Jeremiah: 1-25, vol. 26, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, 1991), 119.

[2] Translation taken from John Bright, Jeremiah: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, vol. 21, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1964), 53.

[3] Ibid., 57.

[4] Craigie, Jeremiah: 1-25, 124.

[5] James Phillip Hyatt “Jeremiah: Exegesis,” in Jeremiah, vol. VI of The Interpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon, 1956), 875.

[6] Translation taken from Moshe Greenberg, Ezekiel 1-20: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 22 of The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1983), 361.

[7] Ibid., 369.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel 20-48, vol. 29 of Word Biblical Commentary, (Dallas: Word Books, 1990), 12.

[10]E. L. Allen, “Ezekiel: Exposition,” in Ezekiel, vol. VI of The Interpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon, 1956), 172.

[11] This is in reference to Ezekiel’s “first issue of the womb.”

[12] The following examples are taken from G. E. Whitney, Alternative Interpretations of לֹֽא in Exodus 6:3 and Jeremiah 7:22, Westminster Theological Journal 48, no. 1 (March 1, 1986):151-159.

[13]G. E. Whitney, “Alternative Interpretations,” 154.

[14] Ibid.

[15] New International Version (NIV).

[16] The name of God in this passage is elohim.

[17] G. E. Whitney,” Alternative Interpretations,” 156.

[18] Ibid., 157.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] The Hebrew expression הַעֲבִ֖יר  is in the Hiphil (causative) form (with a preposition בְּ) from the root עבר which means “to pass over.” This later became a euphemism for sacrifice.

[22] Scott Hahn and John S. Bergsma, “What Laws Were ‘Not Good’? A Canonical Approach to the Theological Problem of Ezekiel 20:25-26,” Journal of Biblical Literature 123 (2004), no. 2: 211.

[23] Scott Hahn and John S. Bergsma, “What Laws Were ‘Not Good,’” 212.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 205.

[26] NIV.

[27] NIV.

Arguing with God: Deuteronomic Paradox and Habakkukian Critiques

The prophet Habakkuk was active sometime around 605 BC. He was most likely a contemporary of Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Zephaniah. The context within which Habakkuk issued forth his complaints against YHWH is essential to understanding his message. Twenty-four years prior to Habukkuk’s complaints against YHWH, the prophet Jeremiah began his own similar activities in 629 BC. It was not until a few years later, in 621 BC, that the “book of the Torah” was found and brought to the attention of the youthful king of Judah, Josiah. The “book of the Torah,” usually identified with (probably) Deuteronomy 12-26, was brought to the prophetess Huldah. She exclaimed that the curses within the “book of the Torah,” which faithless Israel had brought upon herself, would come upon Jerusalem (2 Kings 22:15-20).[1] Josiah responded by seeking to go back to a more conservative and less “modern” Mosaic religion. “[T]he paganism against which Zephaniah had protested (Zeph. 1:4-6) was abolished…”[2] Moreover, “[t]he practices of sacred prostitution, child sacrifice in the Valley of Hinnom, and the consultation of mediums and wizards were discontinued.”[3] The most novel response being the centralization of YHWHistic worship in the Jerusalem Temple. While Josiah was on a rampage to restore primitive Mosaic faith, Assyria was losing its clutch on power; in a decisive battle, Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, was overthrown by the combined forces of Babylon, Scythia, and Media in 612 BC.[4] Three years later, Necho, the ruler of Egypt, seeing an opportunity to help out Assyria, sent his troops in 609 BC. On their way north to Assyria, Josiah decided to play dice and come to Babylon’s rescue—he attempted to prevent the passage of Egyptian troops. Ultimately, he ended up dying and Judah would become a temporary vassal of Egypt.[5] For roughly another four miserable years, Judah is a slave to Egypt. Then, in 605 BC, the epic battle of Carchemish takes place, in which Babylonian troops put to waste Egyptian troops. In a matter of time, Judah is made a vassal of Babylon, and would remain so until its utter destruction in 587/6 BC. Thus, within a mere twenty years of Josiah’s initial reform, Judah is once again a slave to evil empires.

The theology of this period has been dubbed by modern scholarship “deuteronomic.”[6] It is a very retributive theology that is cut-and-dried: if you obey YHWH, good will follow; if you disobey YHWH, evil will follow. “In the popular view, Yahweh’s justice meant that good consequences would came from good actions, that obedience would result in security on the land, victory against foes, and abundant life. But the cruel facts of history seemed to contradict this belief.”[7] Within a matter of years, Jeremiah’s hopeful approach towards Josiah’s reform and deuteronomic theology withered away and became a bittersweet song; “[h]e came to see that  it did not result in a circumcision of the heart or a breaking up of fallow ground.”[8] Habakkuk, likewise, was greatly frustrated by this “health and wealth gospel.” How could it be that the children of YHWH, who did commit righteous acts, be visited by an utterly evil nation? Where was the deuteronomic righteousness of YHWH? Within these profound, paradoxical turmoils were born the complaints of Habakkuk.

Habakkuk wrote his complaints just after the battle of Carchemish.[9] “No one living in Jerusalem about the year 600 could fail to see that world-shaping events were already in preparation.”[10] Yes, he probably did witness the collapse of an evil Assyria—but that evil empire was soon replaced by one no different than it: Babylon. Habakkuk was not sure how one could approach this deuteronomic God. If evil is the result of disobeying YHWH, is it possible that those who were deemed “righteous” were somehow deceived? Maybe evil followed them precisely because they unknowingly sinned. But such thinking surely fled Habakkuk’s mind; he knew that the righteous were righteous—and, yet, they were being punished by the unrighteous. This deuteronomic paradox forced Habakkuk to cry out to YHWH: “How long, YHWH, will I call out and you will not listen? Or when I shout to you ‘Violence!’ and you do not save?” (1:2). Habakkuk expects a message from YHWH precisely because he knows that he is righteous. His contemporary, Jeremiah, likewise reiterated this fact: “When these people, or a prophet or a priest, ask you, ‘What is the message[11] from the LORD?’ say to them, ‘What message? I will forsake you, declares the LORD’” (23:33 NIV). Habakkuk had received a “message” and knew that, for whatever reason, he was not yet forsaken by YHWH. In the same vein, Job would cry out:

               הֵ֤ן אֶצְעַ֣ק חָ֭מָס וְלֹ֣א אֵעָנֶ֑ה אֲ֝שַׁוַּ֗ע וְאֵ֣ין מִשְׁפָּֽט

“Though I cry out ‘Violence!’ I get no reply; I cry out for help and there is no justice.”

Virtually the same language is used in both verses. Habakkuk cries חָמָ֖ס (“violence”) and so does Job; Habakkuk later (1:4) sees this as an attack on מִשְׁפָּ֑ט (“justice”) as does Job.[12] Job, it is presumed, was a righteous man.[13] Like Habakkuk, he too could not understand why YHWH would allow such a thing. How could it be that righteous men of YHWH could not get a response from YHWH?

Habakkuk was surely confused: isn’t YHWH too holy to behold any atrocities being committed against the righteous? “Why do you make me look at wickedness and trouble? Why do you make me gaze at death and at the violence before me? A dispute and a quarreling go up (to you)…” (1:3). Surely, YHWH was aware that “dispute and quarreling” were “going up” (i.e., being witnessed) by him. Habakkuk then calls to YHWH’s mind his own torah (“teachings”): “Therefore, the torah is paralyzed. Will justice never prevail? For the wicked siege the righteous; on this account, justice is perverted” (1:4). Habakkuk is directing his anger at YHWH, using his own torah, “Your very own laws, YHWH, are now paralyzed. They are no more. They are ineffective. You who defined yourself as just[14] have let justice fail. Justice has been perverted!” In what seems to be a statement vis-a-vis Deuteronomy 32:4, Habakkuk exclaims: “(Your) eyes are too pure to look at evil—they cannot gaze at trouble. Why, then, do you gaze at those who deal treacherously? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous (צַדִּ֥יק) than him?” (1:13).  The YHWH who defined himself as being “righteous” (צַדִּ֥יק) in Deut. 32:4 has allowed those who are like him to perish.

Out of this “doom and gloom,” in contrast to the “health and wealth gospel” of Habakkuk’s day, YHWH revealed something entirely new. “Behold,” YHWH tells Habakkuk, “I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe (לֹ֥א תַאֲמִ֖ינוּ) even if you were told” (1:5). The root for “believe” being used here is אָמַן. (It is the same root word that is being used to describe the “righteous” in Habakkuk 2:4.) What YHWH tells Habakkuk shocks him. YHWH is the very one who is raising up the Babylonians (1:6). For what is he raising them up? To execute justice? We are never told. All that Habakkuk gets in reply is this: “Behold! The soul of the unrighteous is puffed up in him; but the righteous will live by faithfulness (בֶּאֱמוּנָתֹ֥ו) in it (i.e., the vision/revelation of YHWH)” (2:4). Habakkuk was given a חָזֹ֔ון (“vision,” “revelation”) and YHWH expects Habakkuk to simply place his faith in it.

While it is true that an explicit answer is never given to Habakkuk as to what exactly YHWH would be doing that people would “not believe,” there are some clues in the text that may suggest a slightly different version of events. Some scholars argue that the answer to Habakkuk’s critiques lies in the fact that the first part of the book is addressing internal problems, while later passages address external (i.e., Babylon) problems. Because Habakkuk uses such words as חָמָ֖ס (“violence”), אָ֨וֶן֙ וְעָמָ֣ל (“iniquity and trouble”), and שֹׁ֥ד (“death” or “pillage”), some think that this indicates “native oppression and not a foreign invader.”[15] In other words, it may be that the “revelation” which Habakkuk is receiving from YHWH is that YHWH will destroy internal evil, within the gates of Jerusalem, by the hands of external—and more evil—Babylonians. Even if this may be the case, the problem still remains for Habakkuk: will YHWH punish the righteous along with the wicked? And even if justice will come, how long must one wait for that to happen?

In the most critical time of his life, Habakkuk was told by YHWH what would come to pass. Against all expectations, Habakkuk received what appears to be a “non-answer answer”: simply put faith in my revelation. Later on in the book, Habakkuk reminds YHWH of his previous deeds and actions. He wants YHWH to act as he had acted in the past. “YHWH, I have heard of your fame, I have feared your deeds; make them come to life in our day…” (3:2a). He is attempting one last try, one last argument he is offering YHWH. This one is an argument of old; it was used so many times, YHWH was probably tired of hearing it. “Do what you have done in the past,” begs Habakkuk, “Please!” The author of Psalm 44:2 used a similar technique:

                        אֱלֹהִ֤ים׀ בְּאָזְנֵ֬ינוּ שָׁמַ֗עְנוּ אֲבֹותֵ֥ינוּ סִפְּרוּ־לָ֑נוּ פֹּ֥עַל פָּעַ֥לְתָּ בִֽ֝ימֵיהֶ֗ם בִּ֣ימֵי קֶֽדֶם

“Oh God, with our ears we have heard, and our fathers have recounted to us deeds which you have done in their days, in the days of old.”

The ability to remind YHWH of his previous actions was founded on the assumption that YHWH was “reliable.” He was, as Deut. 32:4 put it, אֱמוּנָה֙. Anything that was not אֱמוּנָה֙ was not constant nor reliable. It is precisely because of this that Jeremiah likewise could say (15:18):

                        תִֽהְיֶ֥ה לִי֙ כְּמֹ֣ו אַכְזָ֔ב מַ֖יִם לֹ֥א נֶאֱמָֽנוּ

“Will you be to me like deceptive waters that are not reliable?”

The word for “unreliable” is the same root (and derivatives) we have seen being used before; it is the Niphal stem of the root אָמַן. In this particular case, the waters are not “reliable” in the sense that they are not “continual” or “lasting.” The expectation is that the spring or creek would have water whenever one would approach it; for Jeremiah, it is this “un-lastingness” that makes the waters “unreliable”—at one time there’s water, at another there isn’t. Like Jeremiah and the Psalmist, Habakkuk expects YHWH to be reliable (אֱמוּנָה֙). A derivative of this root אָמַן is the noun/adverb אֱמֶת, which basically translates as “true” or “trustworthy.” In Psalm 119:43, the Psalmist exclaims:

                        אַל־תַּצֵּ֬ל מִפִּ֣י דְבַר־אֱמֶ֣ת עַד־מְאֹ֑ד כִּ֖י לְמִשְׁפָּטֶָ֣ יִחָֽלְתִּי

“Do not utterly take/rescue from my mouth the word of truth, for in your judgments I have hoped.”

When the Psalmist uses this particular word, he “celebrates Yahweh’s torah and commandments as [אֱמֶת]…he does not just mean that they are true as opposed to false, but that they also have the character of being trustworthy and reliable for people to base their lives on.”[16] To be a trustworthy God is to be אֱמֶת. In fact, this particular derivative of אֱמוּנָה֙ is used in reference to God quite often. One can see the use of this word in one of the most divine statements in all of Scripture, Exodus 34:5-7, where God himself reveals his character and describes himself as וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת (“abounding in love and faithfulness”). To fully appreciate the moral uprightness of this word, one can look at its synonyms and antonyms, as found in the Hebrew Bible. The word is used in conjunction with חֶ֫סֶד (“covenantal faithfulness,” “love”), as was seen in the Exodus passage cited, צֶ֫דֶק (“righteousness”), and מִשְׁפָּט (“judgment,” “justice”) [e.g., Jer. 4:2, Ps. 15:2]. Its Hiphil form appears in parallelism with another Hebrew word בָּטַח (“trust”) [Micah 7:5]. The word is contrasted with שֶׁ֫קֶר (“lie,” “deception”) in Proverbs 12:22. The word אֱמוּנָה֙ (and its derivative noun אֱמֶת) has quite a moral character in the Hebrew Bible! It is no wonder, then, that Habakkuk could place such great faith in YHWH. If YHWH is the opposite of “deception,” if YHWH is equated with “reliability” and “steadfast love,” how could he allow a righteous person’s prayer go unheard? “Israel assigns to (or recognizes in) Yahweh elements of constancy and substance that make Yahweh in some ways knowable and available to Israel.”[17] And, yet, the strange thing about Habakkuk’s message is that YHWH does not really work in a way that seems, at least to Habakkuk, consistent with his character. In the words of the Psalmist, the deeds that YHWH had done were done (past tense) “in the days of old.” And that, precisely, is where they remained.

Habakkuk is no different than any one of us today. We are, to be blunt, all in the same boat. The fact that Pentecostals pray all day long, exceeding the volume of a rock concert, virtually does nothing to the way things really are. Even the good people are still falling prey to cancer at age thirty, dying in car accidents committed by drunk fools, or simply losing their jobs to more ruthlessly conniving individuals. The “faithful” people today still see the loud mouth, die-hard atheists using their vocal cords to cast curses upon YHWH. Just as in Habakkuk’s time, we still have our deuteronomic theologies—though they go by fancy names like “health and wealth gospel” or “success theology”—which teach people that, if one follows God, one will inherit the pearls of the Kingdom right here and right now. We still have our Joel Osteens, Joyce Meyers, Benny Hinns, regurgitating a worn-out theology; a theology of mere cut-and-dried retribution. Whether we like it or not, this sort of thinking was accepted by Habakkuk, Jeremiah, Moses, and a thousand others. It is the initial theology of all school children. But then we all grow up. Like Ecclesiastes, we shed our teenage mentality and we see that “things are not so.” Maybe along with his version of the categorical imperative—אַל־תְּהִ֤י צַדִּיק֙ הַרְבֵּ֔ה (“Do not be righteous too much!” [7:16])—we, too, will find rest in knowing that, no matter what you do, you will suffer. You can be good or bad, fat or thin, American or Russian, white or black, believer or atheist, you will still probably get cancer at some point in your life, and you may, or may not, live to see your grandchildren. One could relate to a lament made by people within Zephaniah’s time, a contemporary of Habakkuk’s, who had the audacity to say that YHWH “does neither good nor evil” (1:12). Von Rad makes the following remark about Zephaniah’s contemporaries, “[T]hese were no atheists, but they no longer reckoned with divine action in the present day; and when the storm broke, and the Southern Kingdom suffered the same fate as had the Northern, and saw its upper class deported to Babylon [in 586/7 BC], the question of Jahweh’s relationship to his people became completely uncertain.”[18] In Habakkuk’s time, deuteronomic theology became a theology of paradox—it could not even stand on its own two feet. And when the Babylonian captivity took place, after Habakkuk’s time, it completely fell beneath the weight of human experience. As I’ve stated earlier, even in the time of severe personal crisis and doubt, YHWH gave Habakkuk no real answer. “[T]he answer to the question why there should be such great and mysterious suffering is so remarkably veiled and obscure that it makes one feel as if Jahweh were retreating before the question, and withdrawing into ever deeper seclusion.”[19]

Habakkuk’s three-chapter book is one long sustained argument with YHWH, with a number of interjections made by YHWH. The prophet attempts to get YHWH to recognize that justice must be served at an appropriate time and in an appropriate manner. YHWH responds by making Habakkuk aware of, what appears to be, an uncertainty principle. Habakkuk is to trust that YHWH is, essentially, in control. All one has to do is trust in YHWH despite any given circumstances. No longer must one judge oneself as good or bad in relation to what one has or does not have. YHWH is not really about rewarding the righteous people, after all—at least not on planet earth. The methods Habakkuk uses to argue with YHWH are standard Old Testament methods that sometimes work (Moses and the Children of Israel in Exodus 32) and sometimes do not (Abraham and Sodom in Genesis18-19). We can plead with YHWH all we want, but Habakkuk is right, “the righteous will live by placing their faith in YHWH’s vision.” In the end, YHWH wins and you lose. You can either be on YHWH’s side or you can hold a sustained argument against YHWH, but it will be faith that gets you through on either side. As Paul once remarked, “Everything not done in faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). To argue or not to argue, to use Kierkegaardian language, “you will regret both.”


Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev



Translation and Textual Notes

עַד־אָ֧נָה יְהוָ֛ה שִׁוַּ֖עְתִּי וְלֹ֣א תִשְׁמָ֑ע אֶזְעַ֥ק אֵלֶ֛יךָ חָמָ֖ס וְלֹ֥א תֹושִֽׁיעַ׃

לָ֣מָּה תַרְאֵ֤נִי אָ֨וֶן֙ וְעָמָ֣ל תַּבִּ֔יט וְשֹׁ֥ד וְחָמָ֖ס לְנֶגְדִּ֑י וַיְהִ֧י רִ֦יב וּמָדֹ֖ון יִשָּֽׂא׃

עַל־כֵּן֙ תָּפ֣וּג תֹּורָ֔ה וְלֹֽא־יֵצֵ֥א לָנֶ֖צַח מִשְׁפָּ֑ט כִּ֤י רָשָׁע֙ מַכְתִּ֣יר אֶת־הַצַּדִּ֔יק עַל־כֵּ֛ן יֵצֵ֥א מִשְׁפָּ֖ט


טְהֹ֤ור עֵינַ֨יִם֙ מֵרְאֹ֣ות רָ֔ע וְהַבִּ֥יט אֶל־עָמָ֖ל לֹ֣א תוּכָ֑ל לָ֤מָּה תַבִּיט֙ בֹּֽוגְדִ֔ים תַּחֲרִ֕ישׁ בְּבַלַּ֥ע רָשָׁ֖ע

צַדִּ֥יק מִמֶּֽנּוּ

הִנֵּ֣ה עֻפְּלָ֔ה[20] לֹא־יָשְׁרָ֥ה נַפְשֹׁ֖ו בֹּ֑ו וְצַדִּ֖יק בֶּאֱמוּנָתֹ֥ו יִחְיֶֽה

יְהוָ֗ה שָׁמַ֣עְתִּי שִׁמְעֲךָ֮ יָרֵאתִי֒ יְהוָ֗ה פָּֽעָלְךָ֙ בְּקֶ֤רֶב שָׁנִים֙ חַיֵּ֔יהוּ

How long, YHWH, will I call out and you will not listen? Or when I shout to you ‘Violence!’ and you do not save?

Why do you make me look at wickedness and trouble? Why do you make me gaze at death and at the violence before me? A dispute and a quarreling go up (to you)…

Therefore, the torah is paralyzed. Will justice never prevail? For the wicked siege the righteous; on this account, justice is perverted.

(Your) eyes are too pure to look at evil—they cannot gaze at trouble. Why, then, do you gaze at those who deal treacherously? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than him?

Behold! The soul of the unrighteous is puffed up in him; but the righteous will live by faithfulness in it (i.e., the vision/revelation of YHWH).

YHWH, I have heard of your fame, I have feared your deeds; make them come to life in our day…

(Habakkuk 1:2-4, 13; 2:4, 3:2a)


Bibliography and Works Cited

Anderson, Bernhard W. Understanding the Old Testament. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975.

Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

Goldingay, John. Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life. Vol. 3. Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2009.

Janzen, J. Gerald. Habakkuk 2:2-4 in the Light of Recent Philological Advances. Harvard Theological Review 73, no. 1-2. (January 1, 1980).

Moberly, R. W. L. “אָמַן,“ in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Ed. Willem A. von Gemeren. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997.

Rad, Gerhard von. Old Testament Theology: The Theology of Israels Prophetic Traditions. Trans. D. M. G. Stalker. Vol. 2. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Ward, William Hayes. “A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Habakkuk,” in The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Eds. C. A. Briggs, S. R. Driver, and Alfred Plummer. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911.



[1] Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975), 348-349.

[2] Ibid., 349.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 362.

[5] Ibid., 363.

[6] Ibid., 362-364.

[7] Ibid., 363.

[8] Ibid., 360.

[9] Ibid., 364.

[10] Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology: The Theology of Israel’s Prophetic Traditions, trans. D. M. G. Stalker, vol. 2. (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 263.

[11] The word for “message” here is מַשָּׂ֖א. This is the same word which is used to introduce Habakkuk’s prophecy (1:1); it is a מַשָּׂ֖א (“message,” “pronouncement,” or “revelation”).

[12] Another interesting parallel is that both use the same word for “crying out,” צָעַק.

[13] Though the technical word for “the righteous” (הַצַּדִּ֔יק) is not used in relation to Job, similar adjectives are applied to him. He is called “pure and upright, fearing God” (תָּ֧ם וְיָשָׁ֛ר וִירֵ֥א אֱלֹהִ֖ים).

[14] Deut. 32:4 defines YHWH’s actions as “all just”: הַצּוּר֙ תָּמִ֣ים פָּעֳלֹ֔ו כִּ֥י כָל־דְּרָכָ֖יו מִשְׁפָּ֑ט אֵ֤ל אֱמוּנָה֙ וְאֵ֣ין עָ֔וֶל צַדִּ֥יק ויָשָׁ֖ר הֽוּא. YHWH is called “pure” (תָּמִ֣ים), “just” (מִשְׁפָּ֑ט), “faithful” (אֱמוּנָה֙) and “righteous” (צַדִּ֥יק).

[15] William Hayes Ward, “A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Habakkuk,” in The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, eds. C. A. Briggs, S. R. Driver, and Alfred Plummer (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911), 4. For a similar line of argument, see John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life, vol. 3 (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 786-792.

[16] R. W. L. Moberly, “אָמַן,“ in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem A. von Gemeren, vol. 1. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 428.

[17] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 229.

[18] Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 263.

[19] Ibid., 267.

[20] The Pual imperfect 3rd person feminine singular verb עֻפְּלָ֔ה (“she/it is puffed up, proud”) has been taken to be, by some, as corrupted. Janzen offers the suggestion that it be reconstructed to a noun to read עָצֵ֑ל (“sluggard”). I do not think that such a change would greatly impact my reading of the text, which is why I have not bothered to emend the Masoretic Text. See J. Gerald Janzen, Habakkuk 2:2-4 in the Light of Recent Philological Advances, Harvard Theological Review 73, no. 1-2 (January 1, 1980): 67-70. Numerous other, somewhat ingenious, emendations have been proposed by virtually any scholar who knows Hebrew, for those guesses, I refer the reader to any critical commentary on Habakkuk. As a rule, for every scholar there is an idiosyncratic emendation.

May 6, 2014

Sin, Guilt, and Atonement in Judaism: Why Jesus is Not the (Jewish) Answer

Sin—and its ugly cousins, guilt and atonement—are not very popular topics. Christopher Hitchens called the atonement—that “ancient superstition”[1]—Christianity’s most immoral sin. He succinctly put his thoughts on atonement into clear words, probably reflecting the views of many modern people:

“Once again we have a father demonstrating love by subjecting a son to death by torture, but this time the father is not trying to impress god. He is god, and he is trying to impress humans. Ask yourself the question: how moral is the following? I am told of a human sacrifice that took place two thousand years ago, without my wishing it and in circumstances so ghastly that, had I been present and in possession of any influence, I would have been duty-bound to try and stop it. In consequence of this murder, my own manifold sins are forgiven me, and I may hope to enjoy everlasting life.”[2]

Hitchens is not alone in viewing the vicarious death of Jesus as morally repulsive. Many secular moderns feel very similar emotions. The atonement sounds like a bunch of hogwash. But why are the concepts of atonement, both within Judaism and Christianity, so morally repulsive? I believe this increase in disgust towards religious concepts of atonement is inevitably linked to modern man’s denial of the concept of sin. And the concept of sin is further denied because sin is impossible without God. A secular man who denies God is a secular man who denies sin; a secular man who denies sin is a secular man who denies any such thing as atonement. The Jewish theologian, Michael Wyschogrod, acutely aware of this problem, correctly writes that “sin is so difficult for modern, secular man to accept.”[3] Moreover, those concepts which are most closely related to sin—namely, guilt, punishment, and atonement—are rendered meaningless once sin itself is eliminated. Therefore, there is a “reluctance to speak of guilt and punishment, concepts that many today find psychologically unhealthy.”[4]

In light of the comments made above by Hitchens regarding the idea of atonement—predictably coming from a man who has zero training in theology and is an anti-theist—I believe that a more nuanced approach towards sin, guilt, and atonement must be taken. In what follows, I will look at these three concepts from a Jewish perspective, mostly engaging with Wyschogrod’s illuminating essay “Sin and Atonement in Judaism,” which, I hope, will further deepen our understanding of Christian understandings of these concepts (having sprouted out of Judaism anyhow).

Wyschogrod begins by observing that Judaism has long been on the defensive regarding sin, guilt, and atonement. He sees Jewish theology obsessively slaving away under the pressure of Christians and secular people. The Jewish theologians were too busy trying to make distinctions between that which was Jewish and that which was Christian; that which was Jewish and that which was secular. Instead of taking this approach, Wyschogrod takes a thoroughly Orthodox Jewish approach in which he mostly engages, first and foremost, with the biblical texts themselves. Wyschogrod is mostly trying to address the issues of atonement and sin from a thoroughly Bible-centered perspective.

Regarding sin, Wyschogrod writes that the Jewish theologians had to compose their theology reacting to Christianity’s stance. In Christianity, especially early Christianity, the idea that flourished was the sinfulness of humankind at the expense of God’s mercy. That is, the Christians were more prone to elaborating upon humankind’s absolute sinfulness before God than they were at speaking about God’s mercy and the beauty of God’s creation. In such a way, Judaism was seen to take a more positive view of the world; whereas Christianity took a more negative view towards the world. Where the Christians exalted celibacy, the Jews exalted marriage; where the Christians preached rejection of material goods and their (almost) inherent evil, the Jews saw everything material as being good because God said it was (Genesis 1:31). “[C]ondemnation of the material came to Christianity from Platonic and Gnostic sources which were and are in sharp conflict with the life-affirming realism of Judaism, for which celibacy is not only not a virtue but—if the word can be used—a sin.”[5] Wyschogrod sees Christianity as essentially deviating significantly from its Jewish roots. Moreover, the Jews, by recognizing that the Christians rejected this world (or, at least, that is what the Jews perceived Christians were doing) were rewriting their own theology—they began downplaying the sinfulness of humanity and the goodness of marriage and the material world. Wyschogrod argues that, still later, the Jews accepted secularism’s anti-sin stance hook, line, and sinker. “It is the secular spirit of our time that finds talk about sin objectionable.”[6] in modern times it is this culmination and combination of various factors which have led to modern, liberal Jews taking an anti-sin position—sin no longer is a popular or even a “gentleman’s” topic. Sin is something that our dumb ancestors came up with; it is high time to shed such superstitious beliefs.

But what exactly is sin, and why is it something which “liberal” Jews and secular men find repulsive? Wyschogrod believes that sin is contingent upon God’s existence. Once we eliminate God out the picture (as Hitchens does) it is impossible to speak of sin. No such thing exists. He writes that sin is, simply, a “violation of the command of God.”[7] Moreover, Wyschogrod believes that secular folk commonly assume that sin is to be identified with wrongdoing and vice versa. However, sin is not wrongdoing per se. Sin is only possible when there is a violation of a command which came from a lawgiver. That is, sin is an attack on the personality of God; it is an attack on God’s authority. It is to say to God, “I know you personally, I know what you hate, and I choose to do that which you hate.” Sin is committed only against those who have personalities. On the contrary, the secular folk, who deny God’s existence, simply exchange sin with the word “wrongdoing.” For them, any kind of technical error is wrong and hence is a “wrongdoing.” But this makes “sin” (i.e., “wrongdoing”) analogous to committing an error when solving a mathematical equation. It is paramount to claiming that sin is nothing more than just a human error. Big deal? A man answered the question What is 2+2?with 5.The problem with secular conceptions of sin should now be obvious: the principles underlying such conceptions are inherently atheistic and presume the nonexistence of divine commands coming from a personality. Wyschogrod argues that the secular conception of sin can only lead to “regret” not (religious) guilt. How could a person solving an objective mathematical equation incorrectly feel guilty? Such a person feels mere regret. That’s it. “[S]uch a violation does not constitute sin.”[8]

In what ways does a Jewish conception of sin, which is inherently religious, differ from a secular conception of “wrongdoing”? We have already noted how Wyschogrod makes a distinction between religious sin/guilt and secular wrongdoing/regret. We have also already looked at the importance of God and personality. I will now attempt to synthesize a thoroughly Jewish and biblical perspective on sin—the gospel according to Wyschogrod.

Wyschogrod takes us back to the Garden of Eden. In the Garden, God gave Adam and Eve a divine command which was rooted in Him—rooted in His divine personality—“Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for on the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17 KJV). Wyschogrod succinctly summarizes this narrative theologically:

“The implication clearly is that eating of the forbidden tree will result in man obtaining knowledge of good and evil. Instead of simply obeying the divine lawgiver, he will then be in a position to know why the good is good and the evil, evil. It seems that God does not wish man to have this knowledge. He is to obey God in order to obey God and for no other reason. And when he disobeys God, he has not violated a law that has an autonomous claim on his conscience and which therefore puts him in the wrong in an objective sense, but he has rebelled against God, whose command he has broken. The violation is, then, directed at God. And because it is directed at God, it constitutes a break in a relationship between God and man and requires remediation.”[9]

Now that Wyschogrod had defined sin according to the Hebrew Bible, he has laid the foundation for us to what will now follow: the concepts of guilt and atonement.

Because sin is a transgression of (1) a divine command issued by (2) God who has (3) a personality, this means that sin inevitably leads to a broken relationship, which further results in (a) guilt and, later, (b) (possible) atonement.

In the Garden, “[m]an’s first sin is thus an act of disobedience whose aim is to obtain a knowledge that will make man God-like.”[10] Apart from this knowledge, prior to the eating of the fruit, humankind was entirely dependent upon God, both for morality and guilt. If God did not tell you to feel guilty, you couldn’t possibly feel guilty. Humankind had been given the choice to live according to God’s idea of right and wrong, and, ultimately, God’s idea of good and evil. However, humans had decided that God was acting capriciously when handing down commands. In this way, “[m]an not only disobeys God but signals his determination not to accept permanently the status of a creature of God dependent on God for instruction as to what is permitted and forbidden. He is determined to make his own judgment as to what is good or bad and thus become God-like.”[11]

Once Adam and Eve decide to make their own morality, not grounded in God but in their own (limited and sin-stained) reason, they discover that they are naked and feel ashamed (i.e., guilty). They start to think that there is something wrong with being naked. But how could they know? “God immediately recognizes that Adam and Eve are making independent moral judgments that are not derived from any divine command, and that can only mean that man has disobeyed God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit.”[12] Here is the decisive moment: Adam and Eve had discovered their own morality, grounded in nothing but capricious disobedience to God their Maker. Here they were at the epitome of reason!

On the one hand the seculars have their Platonic doctrine of “sin.” That is, humanity is essentially seen as comprised of knowing beings who act according to what they know. Moreover, they generally tend to do that which they know to be good. In Plato’s conception of reality, sin is merely a person doing that which they do in ignorance or ignorantly, again, confuse the good with the bad. In Plato’s conception of sin, those who commit it are not necessarily “evil,” they are merely “ignorant.” If ignorant, one may not necessarily be punished; rather, one is to be pitied. Clearly, Plato’s conception of sin is not what the Bible has in mind. The Bible does have things to say about sins committed in ignorance (Num. 15:22-24), however, the Bible sees sin as ultimately disobedience to God. God alone is Good and Just; he is the one who ultimately knows what is good for you, for He has made you. Wyschogrod argues that, contrary to Plato’s idea of sin, the Bible’s approach is very different. “The focus of attention is not on the particular nature of the act, its inherent wrongness or immorality. The focus is on the giver of the command and the damage that the sin has done to man’s relationship with the being who is behind the command.”[13] On the flip side, “obeying his command is to honor God, to recognize his authority, and to proclaim oneself dependent on him and subject to his will.”[14]

Now we must ask the simple question which many are probably dying to hear: is God in charge of reality or does man have free will? Wyschogrod makes a brief comment here that tends to give us a sense of what the Bible seems to be saying holistically. “[I]t is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Bile understands that, by and large, people do what they do because they want to do it and that they could have done other than what they in fact ended up doing.”[15] Given this underlying presupposition, it is easy to see why the Bible could place so much punishment upon humankind for their sins. This retributive justice, inevitably, brings to mind feeling of guilt, shame, and remorse. Only a man facing his own very real sin can claim to feel repentant and, ultimately, guilty. In this way, Christianity brings guilt upon humankind in full force and with unabated fury. While Wyschogrod agrees with the Christians that humans are sinful and should feel guilty, he believes that this sort of approach is extreme. He also is weary of the Jewish counter-reaction which resulted in sin being downplayed, along with guilt and shame. Summarizing his views of Christianity, he writes:

“Since the fall, man is naturally depraved and headed for damnation, from which only faith in Jesus as the messiah can save him. The net effect, at least to the Jewish observer, has been that Christianity seems to have emphasized the sinfulness of man far more than does Judaism.”[16]

In this way, “Christianity tends, far more than Judaism, to generate feelings of guilt and worthlessness.”[17] In such a way, the Jews believe that Christians have a “rather unhealthy view of human sexuality.”[18] Because the Jews wanted to present their faith as being different from Christianity, they made sin virtually nonexistent in Judaism (unfairly, according to Wyschogrod). “[S]in in Judaism plays a much less central role than it does in Christianity…”[19] Wyschogrod argues that Judaism’s response was not fair to biblical theology, especially prophetic conceptions of justice, sin, and atonement. “The dreadful possibilities of sin and the catastrophic consequences of sin are integral and fundamental parts of Judaism, both biblical and rabbinic.”[20] Despite Wyschogrod’s comments about the centrality of sin in the Bible, he believes that Jews are, nonetheless, much more optimistic when it comes to thinking about human nature. “The terror of total damnation, of total rejection by God is thus absent, and it is perhaps this, more than anything else, which enables Jewish optimism to coexist with profound understanding of the sinfulness of man and the reality of punishment.”[21]

But is Wyschogrod fair to Christians? After all, as a Christian, I can interpret the Hebrew Bible along the exact lines Wyschogrod does. I can further add that humans are worth so much in God’s eyes that God had sent His only Son to save them. Isn’t that more optimistic than Wyschogrod’s claim that only the Jewish conception can be so “guilt-free” and “optimistic”? Personally, while I agree with Wyschogrod, I do not think his observations regarding Christianity are entirely fair and correct. While he may be right about some (or even many) Christians, his statement is certainly not the last: the Christians can have certainly just as much optimism (if not more) than the Jews. For the Christian has the same Hebrew Bible as Wyschogrod…and then some.

We now come to the subject of atonement. Why is atonement theology in so much disgrace amongst the secular people, liberal Jews, and liberal Christians? The answer, according to Wyschogrod, is relatively straight-forward: we have succumbed to a thoroughly rational ethical system—we love Kant a whole lot. “[B]ecause the moral law is not a person, it cannot forgive anything, just as mathematics cannot pardon those who add incorrectly or drop an integer in a subtraction.”[22] With an objective moral framework, sin simply is impossible. Humans are seen as rational beings who merely make mistakes vis-a-vis the moral law. “The past can be learned from and the repetition of the mistake can be avoided, but the past mistake cannot be erased.” Because this is the case, “there is no place for a doctrine of atonement in autonomous human ethics.”[23] Once a human makes a mistake within a strictly Kantian moral framework, one is simply aware of how wrong one was; one is not obligated to feel guilty or shameful. One merely says, “Oh well, I committed adultery and I do not wish this act to become a universal categorical imperative. Next time I will not commit such an act.” In such an ethical system, there is no need for atonement. In fact, atonement would be impossible where sin does not exist. But with God all ethical systems change. The rules change. The game changes.

With a personal God who has a personality, wrongs committed against Him in disobedience to His divine commands constitute sin. And God, if He so chooses, can, as a personality that has relations to His creatures, forgive. “God tells sinning man that, in a sense, the past can be changed.”[24] According to rational ethics which do not have a personal God with a personality, sin is impossible and hence forgiveness is not really an option. However, in a religious framework, sin occurs and so does forgiveness. But how is one forgiven? How does one atone for one’s sins?

In Judaism, after the destruction of the Temple in the year seventy, the Jews were faced with a dilemma: they could no longer offer sacrifices to God. What were they to do? Wyschogrod shows us that the Jews went back to the Hebrew Bible and found texts which emphasized the point of sacrifices. The point was not the mere external act of offering God a sacrifice; the crux of the matter lie in the issue of whether such sacrifices were offered in a state of repentance. That is, a good sacrifice was good in so far as the heart offering the sacrifice was repentant before God. The Christians, on the other hand, responded by pointing out the contingency of Judaism—being useful only with a standing Temple and endless sacrifices. They thought that Judaism surely would collapse. After all, the Jews no longer had a way to become “at one” with God; without the sacrifices and the Temple, they were always in the wrong with God. The Jews responded to this: “Not so fast,” they said. They began “to stress the power of repentance.”[25] They turned to the “prophetic texts that spoke with very little admiration of sacrifices unaccompanied by the turning of the heart.”[26] In such a way, repentance was sufficient for atonement of sins. God accepted a repentant heart. In this way, the Jews were able to maintain their faith, its distinctions, and were able to refrain from falling prey to the clutches of the Christian Messiah, Jesus Christ. Who needs the atonement of Jesus when one has (sufficient) repentance?

This is the gospel according to Wyschogrod; in short, these are his reasons for rejecting Jesus as the Messiah—Jesus is not necessary for salvation. However, contrary to the opinions of the secular folk, he maintains the existence of sin, guilt, and atonement (by means of repentance). In a very memorable sentence, concluding his article, Wyschogrod writes:

“By pronouncing ‘It was very good,’ God takes responsibility for the totality of his creation in which sin, as well redemption, becomes possible.”[27]

Wyschogrod is content with Judaism, so long as it is grounded in the Hebrew Bible in an authentic way. He believes that dialogue with Christians is possible—and should continue. Likewise, dialogue with those secular folk should continue as well. While he may not convince me regarding the so-called “pessimism” of Christianity, he does partially persuade me that Jesus may not be, by necessity, the answer for Torah-observant Jews.[28]

All in all, Wyschogrod attempts to think both critically, sincerely, and robustly regarding sin, guilt, and atonement both in Judaism and Christianity. He tries to formulate a theology that is relatively fair (with some objections) both to Christians and Jews. In this sense, perhaps, his article is of utmost importance. He engages Christianity, he seems to understand good portions of it, and still stays faithful to his own Jewish convictions. His article is illuminating to Christian readers, those who may find it difficult to understand why a Jew rejects Jesus. Moreover, his clear presentation of the nonexistence of sin and guilt in modern ethics is very brilliantly and succinctly written. For this I do commend him. I have yet to read a better rejection of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah than this.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


Hitchens, Christopher. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, 2009.

Wyschogrod, Michael. Abraham’s Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations. Radical Traditions: Theology in a Postcritical Key. ed. by R. Kendall Soulen.Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004.


[1] Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2009), 209.

[2] Ibid. Italics original.

[3] Michael Wyschogrod, “Sin and Atonement in Judaism,” in Abrahams Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations, Radical Traditions: Theology in a Postcritical Key, ed. R. Kendall Soulen (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 55.

[4] Ibid., 60.

[5] Ibid., 54.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 55.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 56.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 57.

[13] Ibid., 59.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 63.

[16] Ibid., 67.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid. Italics mine.

[21] Ibid., 68.

[22] Ibid., 69.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 70.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 74.

[28] See his article “”Paul, Jews, and Gentiles” in Abrahams Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations, Radical Traditions: Theology in a Postcritical Key, ed. R. Kendall Soulen (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 188-201.

The Beauty of Hebrew Poetry: Irony, Comedy, and Ambiguity in the Old Testament

I am writing this in response to the severe criticism the Old Testament has received both in the past (e.g., Marcion of Sinope) and in the present. My modest interest is to look at some aspects of the Hebrew text from a purely literary perspective, examining the sheer beauty of its composition, irony, humor and comedy, use of double entendres, etc.—in other words, to be blunt, I am going to present a different perspective on the Old Testament. Instead of regurgitating all of the nasty remarks made about its “evil” God, I want to present what the public at large may never have had presented to them. My presentation, I hope, will serve as an atoning sacrifice burning to illuminate the Hebrew text in a positive light. I must warn the reader ahead of time: the Old Testament may appear a bit more comical and may be taken less seriously once this information is digested.

            The Hebrew Bible (HB)—the term I will now use in place of Old Testament—has been called many different things. Richard Dawkins recently described its protagonist, YHWH, with a junkyard assemblage of nasty adjectives piled a mile high:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.[1] 

Dawkins does not stand alone in his views. In the second-century, the arch-heretic Marcion of Sinope argued that the God of the HB was an evil creator “god.”[2] Summarizing Marcion’s views of YHWH and the Hebrew Bible, Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) wrote:

“[F]or Marcion this stupid and wretched world, teeming with vermin, this miserable hole, was only an object of contempt, it is Marcion’s most derogatory criticism of the creator of the world when he repeatedly identified him with the world or in his exegeses substituted him for the world, equating the two.”[3]

Marcion notoriously went on to call human beings, the epitome of YHWH’s creation, “flesh stuffed with dung.”[4] Even in our own times, the famous philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, in describing the contents of the Bible, said “The total absence of humour from the Bible is one of the most singular things in all of literature.”[5] Fortunately for us, Whitehead cited no evidence or support from the Bible for his ignorant comment (in other words, this was his mere—contagiously wrong—opinion). In stark contrast, the philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard remarked, “Humor [is] intrinsic to Christianity” and, therefore, as Thomas C. Oden says, summarizing Kierkegaard’s views, “In the Kingdom of God, everything is comically upside down.”[6] According to Kierkegaard, one needs to ignore the philosophers and the “assistant professors” anyways; they are human beings “devoid of comic power.”[7] The professor, unable to comprehend humor in life and in the Bible, spends time doing nothing but writing “on paper and mistakes this for existence”[8] anyhow. Therefore, “[a]ll is phony—so let us laugh.”[9] Clearly, Kierkegaard found the Christian Bible (Hebrew Bible included) as being comical.

            In light of the previous comments made by famous people throughout the centuries—from theologians to philosophers to biologists—one sees how easily the Hebrew Bible has been, both in the past and present, denigrated, misread, misinterpreted, and fatally dismissed. For lack of space and anti-depressant medications, I will not cite the thousand other negative statements about the HB that I have collected and/or have heard throughout the years. Rather, I will dive right into the Hebrew material and attempt to salvage the remains of this “megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent” text. Without further ado—as the curtain rises and the popcorn is passed—I will let the Hebrew text laugh for itself…

The Book of Jonah: A Laughter-Inducing Comedy in Four[10] Parts (Part One)

The book of Jonah is arguably one of the most funniest, ironic tales in the entire HB. In the words of one writer, “The book of Jonah is funny from beginning to end.”[11] The book was most likely written sometime in the fifth or fourth century B.C.[12] There is “remarkable unanimity on the interpretation of the book among Old Testament scholars (a notably quarrelsome lot)” and it is agreed that “the story is fictional.”[13] In more relatable terms, the story is seen by most commentators as a kind of hilarious “parable.”[14] Allow me to set the mood (in a modern way).

            In sum, the story is about a reluctant prophet who gets a wild, late-night call from a guy named YHWH. YHWH tells Jonah to go to a great city named Nineveh and call it to repentance or else… Jonah, apparently with hearing aids not working, sets sail west to Tarshish instead of east to Nineveh. Knowing that YHWH would never destroy the city—as He had promised—Jonah, figuring that the ends justify the means, decided to simply chill while YHWH solved His own problems, with no human intervention. After an intense storm and a hellish stay at a 1-star hotel known as Belly-of-the-Whale, located right under the spa-like waves of the Mediterranean, Jonah gets evacuated via oral fire escape route (not blow-hole escape route, which he personally preferred) onto coastal sand. He thanks YHWH for saving him and decides, to heck with it, I’m going to Nineveh. After coming to Nineveh, he apparently is welcomed by everyone (beasts and flocks included). The king, hearing the message of doom, makes the dogs fast from their dog food and cats from their Meow Mix. After the cats put on sackcloth and refrain from pooping on the Sabbath in their litter box, YHWH relents and accepts the humbling of the entire (literally) nation. Meanwhile, Jonah ran low on his supply of Prozac, an antidepressant which YHWH miraculously had provided to him when Jonah spoke to rocks located in deserts. Once the Prozac went out, Jonah ceased being jolly and headed to the boonies. He sat outside the city of Nineveh and became suicidally depressed. He wanted to die. Then YHWH called upon his friend Jack who ran the local magic beanstalk. Jack grew a beanstalk to protect Jonah overnight. This made Jonah forget his depression. However, cunning as YHWH was, he called in the the snakes from the film Anaconda—they completely wiped out the beanstalk in a single evening. Jonah became depressed again only to have YHWH tell him that the joke was on him; YHWH loved Nineveh and would not destroy the city—for YHWH worked, apparently, for the Humane Society of Nineveh and loved the abundance of animals that it had within its walls. The end.

            While such a recreation of the story of Jonah may sound superficial and wildly inaccurate, the point and comic force of the story is essentially translated into modern American English (all 21st century jargon and culture included). Moreover, I will attempt now to do some justice to my “retelling” of the story. Allow me to examine the actual Hebrew text on a more “serious” note, keeping in mind, however, that the text we are dealing with is actually humorous!

            Like many books in the Bible, there is a certain sense of familiarity that should be felt when the story of Jonah is read or heard; the tale has the “once upon a time” feel to it. In fact, John A. Miles, Jr. in his article Laughing at the Bible: Jonah as Parody points out that Jonah is not merely ironic comedy—it is parody, that is, a text that makes fun of another canonical text (in this case, the “canonical text” would be prophetic literature, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, in the Bible itself). “It is crucial to the functioning of parody that the literary style or styles be laughed at be so standardized as to be immediately recognizable.”[15] The book of Jonah is not only a familiar-sounding genre, it is purposefully making fun of the standard conventions known to the hearers and readers of the tale.

            The first indicator that something odd is going on in Jonah is found right at the beginning. The book is allegedly about a word of YHWH that comes to “Jonah the son of Amittai” (יֹונָ֥ה בֶן־אֲמִתַּ֖י).The root word from which “Amittai” comes is אֱמֶת ([emeth] “truth,” “reliability,” “faithfulness”). “Amittai” is the Hebrew for “truth” with the first-person common singular possessive suffix, making it “my truth.” Thus, Jonah is literally the “son of my truth/reliability” (and we all know how “reliable” Jonah ends up being!). But all that is merely the tip of the ironic ice berg: the book of Jonah has bigger fish to fry.

            Most Hebrew readers[16] would have been familiar with “prophetic calls.” When Moses was “called” by YHWH, for example, he responded by saying that he was tongue-tied and couldn’t possibly speak on YHWH’s behalf (Exodus 4:10). Then there was Isaiah who said that he was a man of “unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). And, once again, there was a certain Jeremiah who pulled the whole “I-can’t-talk” stunt on YHWH when he went all Moses-style on God: “I do not know how to speak…” (Jeremiah 1:6). One can easily see how reluctant the prophets were to accept YHWH’s call to ministry. What does Jonah do when YHWH tells him to go up to Nineveh to declare its wickedness to the residents there? He sets sail! But where to? Nineveh lies east of Israel/Palestine; Jonah sails from Joppa, which means he heads out west.[17] If that is not hilarious then I do not know what is! One expects, as in the previous prophetic calls mentioned, a reluctant but eloquent acceptance of the call to prophesy. The readers expect reluctance, but not this kind, which is mixed with defiance and rejection. Miles likens this to Moses throwing water on the burning bush[18]—Jonah is obviously taking his “reluctance” a step too far in the wrong direction. Moreover, the expected response of the prophet to YHWH is utterly missing from the text. Miles, again, suggests that this is as insane as being at a wedding in which the groom remains silent after the minister asks, “Do you take x as your lawful wife?” The expected response is that the prophet reluctantly accepts and responds to YHWH’s call. In Jonah, that does not happen.

            What adds more humor to the text is the exaggerated size of Nineveh. Nineveh is described as being a “three days’ journey.” If a day’s journey is roughly 17 miles, then Nineveh would have been roughly fifty miles in diameter (or circumference)![19] “[T]he city turned out, on being excavated, to have a circumference of about 7 1/2 miles and a breadth at its widest part of about 3 miles.”[20] In other words, the author of Jonah “was talking about an imaginary city, which he had never seen.”[21]

            Later on in Jonah, when he is finally in the belly of the great fish, he literally (not metaphorically!) experiences something no poet imagined could be experienced: weeds, waves, and water. Poets use a sort of “poetic canon” when writing poetry. The HB could use metaphors such as the author of Psalm 69. “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck” (69:1 NIV). Readers immediately know that, most likely, the author was not experiencing literal waters up to his/her neck. The author was using a poetic canon familiar to the readers. However, in Jonah,

“The author of the Book of Jonah deliberately disregards this poetic canon for comic effect. Jonah’s situation is not comparable to the situation of a man swallowed by a great monster. This is Jonah’s situation. His troubles are not like waves washing over his head. His troubles are waves washing over his head.”[22]

The author or final editor of Jonah inserted a psalm in chapter two which is a praise song offered to YHWH for delivering the prophet. According to the text, Jonah is literally experiencing “the belly of Sheol” (2:3). One immediately thinks of “the belly of the whale.” While “the belly of Sheol” was most likely intended to be read as a poetic metaphor, in Jonah, the imaginary becomes reality—herein lies the comedy. In Psalm 69 and 84 we have the “most concentrated water and pit imagery of the psalter.”[23] But the book of Jonah takes things even further: it concentrates the imagery more and…makes it actual reality. If the point of poetry is to use vivid imaginary metaphors, Jonah goes above and beyond our expectations. If one expected to see buildings collapsing on a 3D screen in theaters but ended up witnessing controlled demolition, one would be pleasantly surprised, to say the least. In Jonah, the readers are expecting poetic imagery—and they end up getting so much more! For a second we thought we were hearing Jonah pray to YHWH using metaphors—“seaweed wrapped around my head,” “the heart of the seas”—but it was not to be: Jonah was really choking on seaweed and waves. It took more than an invitation from YHWH to get Jonah to cough up the truth (pun intended).

            Finally, Jonah ends with some incredible theological lessons: even animals need to fast for their sins and repent! The absurdity of this notion is lost only on those who believe Jonah to be a factual historical document. Miles writes, “No prophet in the history of Israel ever suggested that a penitent king fast from water or impose such a fast on his animals or, strangest of all, arrange for his animals to repent of their sins and dress in sackcloth.”[24] To make matters all the more hilarious, the historian Herodotus (484-425 B.C.) allegedly reported that the Zoroastrians did, in fact, expose dead people to dogs and crows for “mourning.”[25] While the Ninevites may not have been Zoroastrians, the practice of animals “mourning” (not identical but somewhat similar to the idea of repentance) would have made the hearers laugh all the more. In the end, the episode is to be seen as zealously bizarre. While you were laughing, YHWH accepted the cow’s repentance and changed his mind about destroying the city of Nineveh, thus making Jonah “the most successful, if not the only successful, prophet in history.”[26] He who laughs last, laughs loudest. “Jonah is a comic figure: he does everything wrong, almost, yet through him the Lord God of Israel does everything right.”[27] This, perhaps, is the point of the story.

The Book of Jonah in 3D (Part Two)

            The book of Jonah is funny when one reads it in translation. But beneath the English text lies the Hebrew vorlage—and the Hebrew is bouncing with laughter. In the next few paragraphs I would like to examine the subtleties of the Hebrew text; things that only a Hebrew reader would be made privy to. These make the text all the more hilarious and give it a more “folklore” feel.

            One of the poetic devices used in Hebrew Jonah is onomatopoeia (i.e., words that imitate natural sounds). For example, in English we say things like “The dog barked.” The word “bark” sounds, well, like a dog barking. In Jonah (1:4), while YHWH is casting up a storm, the boards of the ship begin “cracking” and “breaking.” The phrase used to describe this in Hebrew is חִשְּׁבָ֖ה לְהִשָּׁבֵֽר ([chishevah lehishaver] “[the ship] thought it would break”). Jack M. Sasson writes that the author of Jonah attempted to capture “the sound of the planks cracking when tortured by ragging waters.”[28] The author is using what would have been the equivalent of a 3D screen to get the audience to really experience the tale of Jonah; not only were the audience hearing the story, they were hearing the very planks crack.

            In the Hebrew text (2:1) the “whale” is described as being a דָּ֣ג גָּדֹ֔ול ([dag gadol] “big fish”); this creates a wordplay between the adjective and the noun in which the consonants are reversed.[29] Another wordplay appears in 3:6. Jonah’s message to repent reaches the king of Nineveh. He believes the message and tells Nineveh’s inhabitants from his “throne” (כִּסֵּא [kisse]) that they must “cover” (כָּסָה [kasah]) themselves with sackcloth. The verb כָּסָה (“to cover”) may also imply “redemption” (as it is used in such contexts).[30] The author, thus, was doing double-duty: creating a play on words and choosing a word that implied the redemption of Nineveh. One last wordplay that I would like to look at occurs in the next verse (3:7). In this verse, the king of Nineveh sends out a “decree” (טָ֫עַם [ta’am]) which includes the imperative for animals and humans not “to taste” (טָעַם [ta’am]) food and water. The choice to use the word טָ֫עַם for “decree” is somewhat strange as this noun comes from the verb טָעַם which (mostly) means “to taste.” However, the author’s intent was not to use expected words all the time; he was a poet and professional pun-maker—hence the pun.[31] Another poetic device used by the author is alliteration. In 2:3 the phrase “in the belly of Sheol I called out and you heard” reads מִבֶּ֧טֶן שְׁאֹ֛ול שִׁוַּ֖עְתִּי שָׁמַ֥עְתָּ. The last three Hebrew “words” are שְׁאֹ֛ול שִׁוַּ֖עְתִּי שָׁמַ֥עְתָּ (she’ol shivvati shamata).[32] Notice the repetitive use of the “sh” sound which one could see in my English transliteration. Again, the author is employing every tool in his/her toolbox to make Jonah a work of fine literature comparable to Shakespeare. My favorite poetic device is what some scholars have termed the “gotchya! technique” of Hebrew literate. YHWH tells Jonah to proclaim to Nineveh that “Nineveh will be overthrown” (3:4) if the city and its inhabitants do not repent. The word for “overthrown” is נֶהְפָּֽכֶת [nehpachet], which is a participle[33] from the root verb הָפַך [hafach]. The root word הָפַך could also be translated as “turning” (instead of “overturning”) in the sense that the Nineveh would turn [from their sins].[34] The irony/ambiguity here is that Jonah is, from the one side of his mouth, declaring the annihilation of Nineveh, and yet, from the other side of his mouth he is proclaiming that Nineveh would actually repent! So which is it? In forty days will Nineveh be “overturned” or will Nineveh “change” and “repent”? (The Hebrew text allows room for both translations and, poetically, demands that both exist together.) In fact, one recent scholar W. Dennis Tucker Jr. calls this verb (i.e., הָפַך) “central to the plot of Jonah.”[35] At the end of the day, it was YHWH who played the joke on Jonah—it was a gotchya moment. YHWH was laughing, as Jonah finally understood in which sense הָפַך was to be taken: God was not overturning the city; no, the city was turning to God! It seems, therefore, that the book of Jonah, far from being a dreary tale of gloom-and-doom, on par with Sodom and Gomorrah, is actually a humorous fictional tale about how much YHWH loves plants and animals—and even (evil and foreign) Ninevites.

            So what exactly is the moral of the story? Are all Jews as xenophobic as Jonah? Is God a moral monster? Did Jonah even exist? To answer the last question, I’d like to bring to mind one of my personal favorite examples demonstrating that Jonah is a work of fiction. Towards the end of the book of Jonah, Jonah is depicted as sitting alongside a now-withered plant with the hot desert sun beating upon his head and with a YHWH-appointed “east wind” blowing upon him. What is profoundly humorous is that the “east wind” was only hot in Palestine; for it was the east wind in particular that “comes immediately off the desert with unrelieved heat.”[36] As Edwin M. Good succinctly put it: “Since our author had probably never been to upper Mesopotamia, since he was writing for Palestinians, and since he obviously does not labor over geographical verisimilitude, we need not inquire after the effect of an east wind at Nineveh.”[37]In America there is no Everest; likewise, in Nineveh, there was no east wind. The “east wind” was a figment of the author’s imagination—just like the entire tale. In a similar fashion, the God which Dawkins criticizes exists only in the mind of an illiterate person who fails to maintain the distinction between comic poetry and historical fact. As for the other questions, the comic irony of Jonah should have been made quite obvious by now. Jonah is a tale which catches the readers by surprise (as it should). It ends by demonstrating that YHWH is a loving and forgiving God; one whose mercy and benevolence is extended upon even the sinful foreigner. YHWH cares for repentant Nineveh (animals and pets included) and he cares for angry, xenophobic Jonah. But the point of the tale, it seems, is that the antagonist (one who evasively remains ambiguous, or maybe even non-existent) is probably to be identified with you, the reader. The reader is the one who is the “bad guy.” The reader assumes that YHWH would do such a thing and is then left eating his/her own thoughts…

Elusive Poetry and Ambiguous Rhymes

            The Hebrew Bible is full of ambiguity. We have already looked at the ambiguity surrounding Jonah’s use of הָפַך in 3:4. But the comedy of Jonah is not the only place where one finds ambiguity: the HB is prone to using ambiguous language to make you think you understand what’s going on, only to make you realize, later on, that the joke was on you (gotchya!).

            Such ambiguity exists in the infamous tale of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. It is a familiar text to most readers and I believe using it will play on your prejudiced preconceptions. Outside of religious circles, the Abraham and Isaac event is seen as the most cruelest event in the history of human sacrifice. Let me digress for a minute to relate a story that may contribute to this writing. Years ago, when I was a nursing student, I spent some time doing clinicals at a psychiatric ward known as Eastern State Hospital. In one of the “lectures” given to us during one of my sessions there, the instructor made a passing remark about mentally ill people who hear voices. In her examples, she brought up how Christians believe Abraham was doing the “will of God” when he was about to sacrifice (here she read “murder”) his only son because “God” told him so. In her opinion, if people were sane enough to think that was not crazy, then surely such people could excuse all of the actions done by patients locked up at Eastern State. Her point being that religious people are nuts. Abraham was mentally impaired, probably schizophrenic in her opinion, and needed to be at a psychiatric ward and not in the Bible. I remember thinking that my instructor got the story wrong. Did she not see that it was mocking human sacrifice? Maybe I was the one who was nuts and needed to be locked up at a psychiatric ward… As one can tell, the Abraham-Isaac narrative of Genesis 22 is not a popular text outside of psychiatry lectures on schizophrenia (behind closed, academic doors). Given the fact that many people outside of the church absolutely find Genesis 22 abominable, I would like to look at it from a slightly different, more sympathetic perspective.

            In Genesis 22, God tells Abraham to head up to Mount Moriah and sacrifice his only son. Abraham packs his bags, takes along his son Isaac and some servants, and heads out. After three days, Abraham tells his servants to wait for them while he and Isaac would go up to the mountain to worship. “We will worship and then we shall come back to you” (22:5). The Hebrew text, as the English, clearly foreshadows that Abraham would not sacrifice Isaac. He tells his servants וְנָשׁ֥וּבָה אֲלֵיכֶֽם (“and we shall return to you all”). Already in the beginning of the narrative, one is told the obvious: Abraham would come back with Isaac.

            Abraham and Isaac head up to the mountain. Then we have a very interesting dialogue that occurs sandwiched between the two occurrences of the phrase “and the two of them walked together.” In between the two enigmatic phrases—“and the two of them walked together”—we find this dialogue:

“But Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘My father?’ And Abraham said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ And [Isaac] said, ‘Behold, the fire and wood [are here] but where [is] the lamb for the sacrifice?’ And Abraham said, ‘God will see to it [in regards to] the lamb for the sacrifice, my son’ (Gen. 22:7-8, my trans.).

This is a somewhat wooden and literal translation of the Hebrew text. As regards the punctuation, the Hebrew had none. Moreover, the Hebrew text does not even have vowels! Speaking of this problem, James L. Kugel writes, “[T]he Hebrew text of the Bible contains a great potential for ambiguity. Not only are the vowels in a word usually left to be figured out by the reader, but the beginnings and ends of sentences are not marked: biblical Hebrew had neither capital letters nor periods at the ends of sentences.”[38] Given the fact that we have no punctuation—we simply must “guess”—one could easily translate the last phrase as Kugel suggests, “God himself will provide. The lamb for the burnt offering [is] my son [Gen. 22:8].”[39] Instead of reading the Hebrew text of 22:8 as one single sentence, we divide the text into two sentences, giving the world a different translation. Moreover, since the phrase immediately following this ambiguous text is “and the two of them walked together,” one could translate this as an idiom for “and the two of them agreed.” For two to walk “together” on the same path, the two must agree (as the prophet Amos [3:3] suggests). In other words, this text may be conveying several different things. On the one hand, the text suggests, as I pointed out in the beginning, that Isaac would not be sacrificed. On the other hand, the text may also point in the direction of Isaac agreeing to be sacrificed to God (this reading flies in the face of Genesis 22:5, which is why I do not buy such a rendering). Despite the translational and interpretive difficulties, it should be quite obvious by now that the text is not as easy as one would be led to believe. If I am correct, the fact that Genesis 22:8 is found between the two idioms for “agreeing,” I believe that the ambiguous text is structurally meant to be read in a particular manner; a manner which we may or may not have yet discovered. At the end of the day, whether our translations (and interpretations!) are right or wrong, the text remains as elusive as it ever was. And that is precisely its beauty.

            Speaking of particular structures to Hebrew poetry and prose, I would like to put on display one of my own favorite examples of what the linguist Loren F. Bliese calls “structural symmetry.” Bliese writes that “Hebrew has structural symmetry that helps to identify peaks or points of prominence.”[40] (Such structural symmetry I hypothesize is found in Genesis 22.) Bliese demonstrates how the book of Hosea the prophet is structured in a very particular way. For one, the book of Hosea is divided into five parts (I: 1.1-3.5; II: 4.1-7.2; III: 7.3-8.13; IV: 8.14-11.7; and V: 11.8-14.9).[41] The central part of the book has five poems (7.3-7; 7.8-16; 8.1-4; 8.4-8; 8.9-13). Not only that, but “the central poem has five lines, and the central line has five words with ‘my-God’ the middle word…”[42] Hosea 8:2 is seen by Bliese as being the crescendo of the prophetic book; 8:2 is the “peak” of the book. He writes that the verse has “the numerical device of of having twenty-two letters”[43] which equate with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The structural symmetry does not stop there. The two middle letters of the verse, which I have marked in bold font (the Hebrew yod), are representing the initial letters of the holy name (ha-shem): לִ֖י יִזְעָ֑קוּ אֱלֹהַ֥י יְֽדַעֲנ֖וּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל. Even non-Hebrew readers can see that every Hebrew word in the text has the Hebrew yod (י) in it, making the verse have five yods total. The holy name (YHWH; Hebrew is יהוה) appears twenty-two times in the book, contrasted with the antagonist, Israel, which occurs forty-four times in the text.[44] More structural nuances could be brought forth; however, this is more than enough to demonstrate that the HB is more than just barbaric literature produced by illiterate desert nomads hallucinating under the influence of low sodium levels, dehydration, and psychedelic drugs.

            The book of [First] Isaiah is yet another text full of ambiguity. Isaiah 27:12 is one such place for ambiguity:

וְהָיָה֙ בַּיֹּ֣ום הַה֔וּא יַחְבֹּ֧ט יְהוָ֛ה מִשִּׁבֹּ֥לֶת הַנָּהָ֖ר עַד־נַ֣חַל מִצְרָ֑יִם וְאַתֶּ֧ם תְּלֻקְּט֛וּ לְאַחַ֥ד אֶחָ֖ד בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל

“In that day, YHWH will thresh from the flowing Euphrates to the Wadi of Egypt, and you, Israel, will be gathered up one by one.”

The word שִּׁבֹּ֥לֶת ([shibbolet] “ear of grain” or “flowing stream”) could mean two different things (set in bold in the Hebrew text above). First Isaiah has given us a somewhat ambiguous verse that could be interpreted in several different ways. On the one hand, one could translate the verse as referring to the harvest of Egypt or the waters of Egypt. But, as J. J. M. Roberts points out, the author intended for the text to have both meanings retained; that is, the text contains a word with double entendre (i.e., double-meaning). “The ambiguity should not be eliminated; it is intentional.”[45] Different elements in the verse point in different directions. The two verbs used לָקַט ([lakat] “to gather [a harvest]) and חָבַט ([chavat] “to beat, to thresh”) point towards interpreting the text as taking shibbolet to mean “ear of grain.” However, the use of “stream” and “Wadi of Egypt” point in the opposite direction; that is, shibbolet should be taken to mean “flowing stream.” Roberts produces the following translation:

On that day Yahweh will thresh out

from the ears of grain/from the stream

of the Euphrates as far as the Wadi of Egypt

And you will be gathered up one by one, O Israelites.[46]

Once again, an author was purposefully being ambiguous for the sake of literary beauty. And Isaiah has many more such verses; I will look at one more.

            Shakespeare was not the only poet who could rhyme words and paragraphs; Isaiah could do so too. In 30:16a, Isaiah writes:

וַתֹּ֨אמְר֥וּ לֹא־כִ֛י עַל־ס֥וּס נָנ֖וּס עַל־כֵּ֣ן תְּנוּס֑וּן

“And you all said, ‘Not so! Upon horse[s] we will speed.’ Therefore, you shall speed [indeed]!” (my trans.)

The people are saying “upon horse[s] we will speed” (‘al-sus nanus). The prophet sarcastically remarks, “You shall speed indeed!” (tenusun); thus creating a rhyming play on words.[47] In this case, the people who wished to “speed” on horses would be speeding/fleeing from their pursuers!

            Hebrew poets used another common trick of the trade: they would employ words in the second verset which sounded similar to words in the first verset. One finds such “poetry” in the famous Amos passage about the basket of summer fruit. Amos 8:2 begins with YHWH showing Amos a כְּל֣וּב קָ֑יִץ ([keluv kayitz] “basket of summer fruit.” YHWH then proceeds to tell Amos that the קֵץ ([ketz] “end”) is near. The connection between the “summer fruit” and the “end” is non-existent; a non-sequitur in English. However, in Hebrew, the two words sound alike—thus creating a wordplay.

            I have looked at many features found within Hebrew literature in general. I have attempted to include examples that were both interesting and communicable; it was my intention to make sure that non-Hebrew readers would benefit from reading this paper. For the most part, I looked at the text without spending much time on context. However, all scholars know that context is, for the most part, everything. Historical context comes first when one tries to understand an ancient text. Because context is everything, and because I am attempting to demonstrate the beauty of the Hebrew Bible, the next verse that we will look at is one of my personal favorites; one which clearly demonstrates the importance of historical background information for our ability to be able to appreciate a text. While there are many such texts—in fact, all of them!—I will merely cast my eye upon Song of Solomon 1:9.

            If I were to have Richard Dawkins read Song of Solomon 1:9, he would, most certainly, find it repulsive. The verse reads thus:

לְסֻסָתִי֙ בְּרִכְבֵ֣י פַרְעֹ֔ה דִּמִּיתִ֖יךְ רַעְיָתִֽי

“To a mare among the chariots of Pharaoh have I likened you, my darling!”

A modern American living in the twenty-first century would never dare tell his wife or girlfriend that! A wife whose husband called her a “mare” would probably file for divorce due to “verbal abuse.” The next time you are having dinner with somebody, bring up this verse and ask your guests to talk about its “literary beauty.” I have done this before. In fact, in preparation for writing this paper, I purposefully went out and read this verse to friends over lunch. One friend remarked that he took the likening to a mare to mean that the darling in the text probably had “shiny, black hair” just like the hair of a mare among the chariots of Pharaoh. In other words, she had a “nice mane!” Had Richard Dawkins read this text, he would have added another word to his description of the Old Testament God: zoophilic. “Yes,” he would probably say, “The God of the Old Testament wanted males to compare their lovers to mares for mares were the epitome of sexual attraction in His sickening zoophilic desires!” And, apart from historical context, one could interpret the verse to mean anything.

            Robert Alter succinctly comments on this verse:

“Pharaoh’s chariots were drawn by stallions, but the military stratagem alluded to has been clearly understood by commentators as far back as the classical Midrashim: a mare in heat, let loose among chariotry, could transform well-drawn battle lines into a chaos of wildly plunging stallions…The lover speaks out of a keen awareness of the power of figurative language to break open closed frames of reference and make us see things with a shock of new recognition… [T]he sexual attraction she exerts also has an almost violent power to drive males to distraction, as the equine military image powerfully suggests.”[48]

The lover is comparing his darling to a mare among the chariots of Pharaoh because the lover is keenly aware of his darling’s ability to draw attention to herself. She does not merely draw attention in a benign manner; she creates terrorizing chaos amongst those who dare encounter her. She is able to violently seduce even those who imagine themselves as going to war with her. Apparently, the Bible is not only funny at times and ironic: it has some highly-erotic literature within its covers also.

            At the beginning of this paper, I quoted some people who really disliked the Bible, the Old Testament in particular. What this paper, I hope, demonstrated is that the HB is not as dull, dry and serious as some think it is; rather, the HB has plenty to laugh about. While this paper does not address all of the “dirty laundry” which one finds in the HB, it does correct one aspect which seems to drive some people’s thinking in particular: the Bible is boring and dull. Contrary to this popular belief, one held even among the educated religious laity, the HB remains a perplexing text with plenty of tricks up its sleeve.

Final Thoughts on Hebrew Poetry and Literature

            I want to finish by looking at a few other scattered things that I personally find somewhat beautiful about the Bible. I will point out these examples in no particular order. Most of us have heard of the tale about the snake in the Garden of Eden tempting Adam and Eve. In the Hebrew, this tale has an interesting wordplay. The serpent was more עָר֔וּם ([‘arum] “crafty”) than all the other animals (Genesis 3:1). He deceived Adam and Eve and they realized (3:7) they were עֵֽירֻמִּ֖ם ([eirummim] from עֵירֹם [eirom] “naked”). When we come to the tale of the Tower of Babel, we find something similar going on. However, this time, the play on words has to do with a play upon a proper name. In Genesis 11:9 the etymological explanation given for the proper name בָּבֶ֔ל (Babel) is that YHWH בָּלַ֥ל ([balal] “confused”) the language of the land. What is even more humorous is that such an etymology is quite fictitious—Babel is actually a word that comes from the Assyrian Babilu, which is “a compound of bab, gate, and ilu, god, the gate of god.”[49] A final wordplay that I want to look at is one that occurs in Amos 5:5. The reason I chose this one is simply because it is (a) a wordplay and (b) a deliciously, memorable mouthful. Amos 5:5 reads: הַגִּלְגָּל֙ גָּלֹ֣ה יִגְלֶ֔ה ([haggilgal galoh yigleh] “Gilgal will surely go into captivity”). The proper name Gilgal uses two consonants which occur in the Hebrew verb “to be led into captivity” (the “g” [ג] and the “l” [ל]).[50] Thus the author here creates a play on words that no Gilgalian inhabiting Gilgal would ever gloat over.

            One could go on and on about Hebrew wordplays in the Old Testament. In fact, Immanuel M. Casanowicz lists 502 such wordplays in his article Paronomasia in the Old Testament.[51] Given this fact, it is my opinion that the Hebrews did pretty well in terms of producing quality literature. Instead of seeing the Bible as merely a conduit of some absolute truth coming from the lips of a holy and serious God, it is high time we began treating it as literature—literature that one could (actually) read and enjoy.

            What should one leave with after reading this? First, we must approach the Hebrew Bible as a work of art—as any other ancient piece of literature. Unlike the “assistant professors” of this world, who are “devoid of comic power,” who lack a human sense of humor, the HB actually has plenty of human in it. There is plenty to laugh about. If the HB God exists, He certainly has a sense of humor. Second, the HB is prone to making us see our own prejudices (as the Book of Jonah showed us). “[W]e display not only our self-righteousness but our aesthetic blindness, our thick inability to recognize a good story when it hits us between the eyes.”[52] Let us not be like Whitehead, Harnack, or Dawkins—our aesthetic vision must not go blind too soon. Third, and finally, I believe that we must not hang our hopes on that which is historically factual—nobody reading Immanuel Kant expects his abstract philosophy to be grounded in the actual for it to convey ethical truths and absolutes (think categorical imperatives, Kingdom of Ends, etc.). Jonah does not have to be factually true for it to retain its punchy, parable-like value. In fact, one could argue that Jonah is a parable—just like a parable on the lips of Jesus. I believe that the problems with the Hebrew Bible that many of us have come down to our inability to perceive truth differently. So many of us are focused on that which happened, that which most likely happened in history. We confuse truth for history; we use the terms interchangeably. History has to be true; but truth seldom has to be grounded in history. This is not a matter of vice versa. On the contrary, history is often full of lies, contradictions, murders, crimes, etc.—all things untruth. Truth is grounded in something universally human, soulfully abstract. If we would only create a more thoughtful approach towards history and truth—an approach that finds the cracks and crevices in the nuances that fill the gulf between truth and history—we would learn to laugh again, to value the comic, the ironic for what it is; we would appreciate the past not because it is grounded in history, but because history is grounded in it. And maybe, just maybe, the Harnacks and the Dawkinses of this world may begin to laugh again…

            שְׂחֹוק֙ עֹשִׂ֣ים לֶ֔חֶם

            “A feast is being made for laughter…”

                                                Ecclesiastes 10:19


Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Special thanks to Will Kynes (Whitworth University) and Scott R. A. Starbuck (Gonzaga University) for offering their suggestions.



Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Poetry. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1985.

Blackman, E. C. Marcion and His Influence. London: S.P.C.K., 1948.

Bliese, Loren F. “Symmetry and Prominence in Hebrew Poetry: With Examples from Hosea” in Ernst R. Wendland (ed), Discourse Perspectives on Hebrew Poetry in the Scriptures. UBS Monograph Series. No. 7. New York: United Bible Societies, 1994.

Cary, Phillip. Jonah. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids: BrazosPress, 2008.

Casanowicz, Immanuel M. “Paronomasia in the Old Testament.” Journal of Biblical Literature 12, no. 2 (January 1, 1893): 105-167.

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York: Mariner Books, 2008.

Good, Edwin M. Irony in the Old Testament. Sheffield: Almond Press, 1981.

Harnack, Adolf von. Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God. Translated by John E. Steely and Lyle D. Bierma. Durham: The Labyrinth Press, 1990.

Kierkegaard, Søren. The Humor of Kierkegaard: An Anthology. Edited by Thomas C. Oden. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Kugel, James L. How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. New York City: Free Press, 2007.

Miles, John A. Jr. “Laughing at the Bible: Jonah as Parody.” The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 65, No. 3 (Jan., 1975): 168-181.

Ramirez, Frank. “A guy walks into a bar…A judge walks up to a king: humor in the Hebrew Scriptures.” Brethren Life And Thought 57, no. 1 (March 1, 2012): 80-92.

Roberts, J J M. “Double Entendre in First Isaiah.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 54, no. 1 (January 1, 1992): 39-48.

Tertullian. Adversus Marcionem: Books 1 to 3. Oxford Early Christian Texts. Translated and Edited by Ernest Evans. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Tertullian. Adversus Marcionem: Books 4 to 5. Oxford Early Christian Texts. Translated and Edited by Ernest Evans. Vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Tucker, W. Dennis Jr. Jonah: A Handbook on the Hebrew Text. Baylor Handbook on the Hebrew Bible Series. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2006.

Radday, Yehuda T., “On Missing the Humour in the Bible: An Introduction” in Yehuda T. Radday and Athalya Brenner (eds), On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible. Bible and Literature Series, 23; Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, 92. Sheffield, Almond Press, 1990: 21-38.


[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Mariner Books, 2008), 51.

[2] For a good introduction to Marcion’s thinking see Adolf von Harnack, Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, trans. John E. Steely and Lyle D. Bierma (Durham: The Labyrinth Press, 1990). For a less sympathetic approach towards Marcion’s theology see E. C. Blackman, Marcion and His Influence (London: S.P.C.K., 1948). The writings of Tertullian are a gold mine, considering most of what we know come from Tertullian’s Adversus Marcionem. For a good translation see Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem: Books 1 to 3, Oxford Early Christian Texts, trans. and ed. Ernest Evans, vol. 1, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972) and Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem: Books 4 and 5, Oxford Early Christian Texts, trans. and ed. Ernest Evans, vol. 2, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972).

[3] Adolf von Harnack, Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, 71.

[4] Ibid., 72.

[5] Cited in Yehuda T. Radday, “On Missing the Humour in the Bible: An Introduction” in On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible, eds. Yehuda T. Radday and Athalya Brenner, Bible and Literature Series, 23; Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, 92 (Sheffield, Almond Press, 1990), 21.

[6] Cited in Søren Kierkegaard, The Humor of Kierkegaard: An Anthology, ed. by Thomas C. Oden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 35 and 36 respectively. For those who are ignorantly unconvinced that Kierkegaard seriously (!) found Christianity hilarious, read this book and your party-pooping skills will no longer have any effect…

[7] Ibid., 4.

[8] Ibid., 40.

[9] Ibid., 37.

[10] I made up the number “four” for the heck of it—it sounded good. Actually, the book has four chapters. Maybe I subconsciously broke it down into four that way, who knows?

[11] Frank Ramirez, “A Guy Walks Into a Bar…A Judge Walks Up to a King: Humor in the Hebrew Scriptures,” Brethren Life And Thought 57, no. 1 (March 1, 2012), 89.

[12] Edwin M. Good, Irony in the Old Testament (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1981), 39.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 40.

[15] John A. Miles, Jr., “Laughing at the Bible: Jonah as Parody,” The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 65, No. 3 (Jan., 1975), 170.

[16] I will use “reader” and “hearer” interchangeably.

[17] Ibid., 171. “The point is that is that if one sets sail from Joppa, as Jonah does, he is sailing west, and Nineveh lies in the east.”

[18] Ibid., 172.

[19] Good, Irony in the Old Testament, 47-48.

[20] Ibid., 48.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Miles, Laughing at the Bible, 174. Italics original.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 176.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., 177.

[27] Phillip Cary, Jonah, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: BrazosPress, 2008), 17.

[28] Cited in W. Dennis Tucker Jr., Jonah: A Handbook on the Hebrew Text, (Baylor Handbook on the Hebrew Bible Series; Waco: Baylor University Press, 2006), 19.

[29] Ibid., 47.

[30] Ibid., 74.

[31] Ibid., 76.

[32] Ibid., 51.

[33] נֶהְפָּֽכֶת is, more specifically, the Niphal feminine singular participle from הָפַך “to overturn.”

[34] The Qal form of הָפַך usually connotes destruction, as in the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative (Genesis 19:21, 25, 29). However, in the Niphal (as the form appears in the Jonah text) the usual connotation is one of “changing [one’s heart],” implying “repentance” (Exodus 14:5; 1 Sam. 10:6, Isaiah 60:5; 63:10; Jeremiah 2:21; 31:13; Psalm 66:6; and Hosea 11:8). See Tucker, Jonah, 70-71. For a similar interpretation see Good, Irony in the Old Testament, 48-49.

[35] Ibid., 70.

[36] Good, Irony in the Old Testament, 52.

[37] Ibid.

[38] James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (New York City: Free Press, 2007), 125.

[39] Ibid. For further discussion, see also 123-126.

[40] Loren F. Bliese, “Symmetry and Prominence in Hebrew Poetry: With Examples from Hosea” in Discourse Perspectives on Hebrew Poetry in the Scriptures, UBS Monograph Series, No. 7, ed. Ernst R. Wendland (New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), 67.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] J. J. M. Roberts, “Double Entendre in First Isaiah,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 54, no. 1 (January 1, 1992), 40.

[46] Ibid., 41. Italics original.

[47] See Good, Irony in the Old Testament, 124.

[48] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry, (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1985), 193.

[49] Immanuel M. Casanowicz, “Paronomasia in the Old Testament,” Journal of Biblical Literature 12, no. 2 (January 1, 1893), 117.

[50] Ibid., 119.

[51] See pages 123-163 for the entire list.

[52] Phillip Cary, Jonah, 18.