On September 11 2001, President George W. Bush responding to the horrific attacks on New York City and Washington DC, gives the first of a number of speeches in which he proclaimed the acts and the terrorists “evil” and quoted the bible. In the days, weeks and months that followed, Mr. Bush continued to use the word “evil” and invoke biblical language in his references to “evil-doers.” It is difficult to truly know Mr. Bush’s strategy in the prevalent use of biblical language during this national crisis. One may speculate that it derived from Mr. Bush’s own religious beliefs, beliefs that are admittedly evangelical in nature. Invoking a “crusade”[i], Mr. Bush called upon the United States and the world community to stamp out the evil and the evil ones in the world. With the continued use of the words evil, evil-doers, and evil ones in the culture’s consciousness, with the accompanying invocation of “God”, it is important to examine the concepts of good and evil as a monotheistic philosophical stance, even as fundamentalists from two of the three monotheistic religions confront each other’s evil and evil-doing in the days since 9/11.
Jack Miles writes in his introduction to God, a Biography, “But for Westerners themselves, a deepened knowledge of this God can serve to render conscious and sophisticated what is otherwise typically unconscious and naïve” (4). In times of heightened conflict and fear, rendering conscious an understanding of mythologies of evil from within the Western culture may present a deeper understanding of the responses to profound tragedies such as the September 11 attacks and may allow us to discern through our responses, our own understandings of good and evil. The focus of this paper is on the concept of good and evil from the perspective of monotheistic traditions, specifically within the Hebrew bible, the Tanakh[ii]. To explore this concept, the paper will examine through a microscopic lens, the two renditions of the biblical myths of creation, specifically Genesis 1 and 2-3, from philosophical and mythological perspectives and then conclude with a more telescopic[iii] examination of how these two biblical myths form the psychological and philosophical undercurrent of western culture’s response to the September 11th attacks.
It is important to identify one’s personal lens in approaching any mythological theme and even more important when examining mythological sub currents in the culture. As a mythologist, trained to examine myths within a depth psychology perspective, I bring psychological as well as philosophical analysis to the mythologems of Genesis. As a woman who grew up with and then early on rejected monotheism for polytheism and dualism for post-modern relativism, I am very conscious of my own biases in the examination of both the biblical material and Mr. Bush’s invocation of biblical themes.
Despite or perhaps because of my biases, I take up the call I experience when I read Christine Downing’s discussion on a return to a biblical point of view in order to understand evil. “I believe we miss the fullness of what we might learn from the Shoah,” writes Downing, “if it leads us to too easy, too complacent an identification with the victims. If it does not also lead us to ask about our relation to the perpetrators and bystanders” (129). I contemplate this thought today not only in relation to the terrorists of September 11, but also to the Bush administration’s response to these attacks. To make sense of this current political and cultural crisis for myself, I also must return to biblical origins and re-examine my own relationship to and discomfort of these biblical themes.
To return to the origins of good and evil in the Tanakh is to begin with the nature of the creator-divinity, and his method and motives in creating both the world and humankind. Buber writes, “…what can we know of that which – of him who gives them [signs] to us? Only what we can experience from time to time from the signs themselves” (Man 15). Can we glimpse, in the examination how and what Elohim and Yahweh-Elohim create in these two distinct myths, further insights into the nature of the creator-divinity? In approaching Genesis, I acknowledge the general assumption that the Hebrew god, Yahweh is the monotheistic god of both Jews and Christians and a single voice of god in the Tanakh. Since the 19th century, philosophers, religious scholars and biblical historians, mythologists and literary scholars have dismissed this general assumption of a one-voiced god in the Tanakh, though culturally this one-voiced god remains ever present.
Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber defined three clear religio-historical strata in Jewish mythologies that are reflected in three distinct gods: Yahweh, Elohim and Yahweh-Elohim. Buber distinguishes his religio-historical strata from the textual-historical strata of modern biblical criticism in which biblical texts are classified into historical periods and places. (Myth 101)[iv] Jack Miles in his literary approach[v] to the Tanakh distinguishes two different literary personalities of god in Genesis: ‘elohim, and yahweh ‘elohim (30). For my mythological and philosophical approach, I also acknowledge two distinct gods in the Tanakh creation mythologies, Elohim translated as God who is the creator in Genesis 1-2:4b and Yahweh-Elohim, translated as Lord God the creator in Genesis 2:4b-3. In examining the characteristics of these two distinct deities, I return to Martin Buber’s religio-historical strata as a guide[vi].
Elohim, writes Buber, although a singular nomenclature was originally a plural divinity without individual differentiation. This monopluralistic divinity is a “plurality of cosmic forces, distinguished in their nature, united in action”, moving over the Earth to create, sustain, destroy and deliberate (Myth 101). Elohim is “a God-cloud” moving above the earth not on the Earth, deliberating within its selves, and following its own counsels (101). Elohim is ethereal and distinctly noncorporeal, never directly touching, only commanding creation through the powerful use of the word. The word as symbol invokes manifestation. The second god in the Genesis creation mythologies is Yahweh-Elohim, a combination of a “single dominating force” (Elohim) that is adorned with a mythical insignia of a tribal god, Yahweh, the divine hero of his people (101-102).
While Elohim is an unformed, poly-voiced divinity, Yahweh has a corporeal reality to his actions; he walks upon the earth and wrestles with mankind in a very physical way (102-103). The integration of Elohim with Yahweh moves the tribal Yahweh beyond the corporeal realm into the universal One who assumes a powerful and autonomous sovereignty over not only humankind and his people, but over the entire universe (101-102). Yet Yahweh-Elohim remains distinctly physical in his approach to creation, almost like a craftsman rather than a divinity. These two distinct divinities, Elohim and Yahweh-Elohim, become the causal forces in two very distinct creation mythologies that reflect their unique attributes and may give deeper insight into Western culture’s concept of good and evil.
In Genesis 1, Elohim is the universal plurality of god-force, “distinguished in their nature, united in action” (Buber, Myth 101). This plurality of individual attributes works in unison to create the world from the great emptiness of the void. As in other culture’s creation myths, Elohim begins to create from the “darkness over the surface of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). There is no sense of divisiveness in this story, no sense of separation of one source from another, but rather a molding of distinctions, light from darkness, day from night, sky from earth. It this molding of multiple distinctions that Elohim deems as good as he continues to create. Buber writes that God’s[vii] knowledge is a “primordial possession” in which:
God knows the opposites of being, which stem from His own act of creation; He encompasses them, untouched by them; He is as absolutely familiar with them as he is absolutely superior to them; He has direct intercourse with them…, and this in their function as the opposite poles of the world’s being. (Good 74).
This ability to be above all opposites as well as having the knowledge and command of opposites provides a unity of diversity that is proclaimed, “good”, throughout this creation myth. Through the manifestation of his word over seven days, Elohim creates a world of distinction that remains balanced and harmonious. All are deemed good by Elohim, good in the ultimate meaning of Indo-European root as united[viii].
With day and night, earth and sky, plants and animals created and deemed good, Elohim now conceives of creating a being in his own image. There is no reason given for why he wishes to create a self-image, just a desire to do so. Like an artist who paints or a poet who writes, Elohim creates his image for no other purpose but to create. The images themselves, male and female, have no other purpose but to be what they are. This has a philosophical construct proposed by Kant that an organism (as opposed to a mechanism) is a self-organized being that “emerges from within through a complex interplay of parts” with has its own end or purpose (Taylor 173). The post-Kantian, Schiller moves this philosophical construct forward by identifying the work of creation as “a socio-political community in which individuals are vital members of an organic whole” (175). In this “socio-political community”, Schiller postulates that a basic conflict of binary oppositions reconciles with a mediating third thing, which he considers “play” (176). On the seventh day, Elohim rested from distinguishing in his acts of creation and allows the diversity of opposites to interact seamlessly. Is the seventh day of rest a metaphor for a day of play? Or perhaps Schiller’s notion of play is his metaphor for Elohim’s day of rest.
Elohim does not merely create male and female, he creates the two as a self-image that also creates. “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). Although the use of “man”, “His” and “Him” in the Tanakh creates a problematic assignment of gender to Elohim as masculine, the actuality of the statement that male and female are created in the image of Elohim implies that both the masculine and feminine forces are present in the plurality of the divine nature and are present in the plurality or multiplicity of each human. This plurality of the divine nature, both masculine and feminine is held together in a balancing entity of divinities called Elohim.
Creation in this myth is then a state of what Buber calls “original pre-biographical unity”, where both multiplicity and mutuality cease to be present (Myth 24). Elohim puts no constrictions on his creations and his only orders to the man and woman are simple: “Be fertile and increase” (Genesis 1:28), in other words, be what I made you to be - creators. Thus Elohim creates in his own image, creations that are creators who will create in their own image, an infinite reflection of the divine nature - a mise en abyme in which there is an integration of the different (God) into the same (humankind) and an “oscillation between within and without” (Dällenbach 29).
There is no paradisiacal garden, no within or without in this creation myth. Neither are there sin and a fall from grace, an identification of separateness and divisiveness. The man and woman simply live in the beauty of the world and create in the image of their creator, creations through which the harmonious balance of all opposites are reconciled. Elohim found it all, “very good” - “very” as in the original meaning of “true”, and good as in “united” (Genesis 1:31). “Such is the story of heaven and earth when they were created”, is the final phrase of this creation myth, the end of a beautiful narrative of the balancing of distinctions (Genesis 2:4a).
Then suddenly, there is in Genesis 2:4b a new mythology[ix]. Creation is no longer the product of the universal plural god, Elohim; it is now the providence of the tribal Yahweh who has overcome the plurality of Elohim to become Yahweh-Elohim, the One God who rules and controls them all. Yahweh-Elohim as a deity is already a separation, “a single name-bearing, overruling being that seizes more and more power and finally detaches itself as an autonomous sovereign” (Buber, Myth 102). With the elevation of this tribal god, to the One, the host of the Elohim becomes mere attributes of the divinity and yet a remembrance of the polytheistic nature of divinity remains hidden in the Tanakh in multitude of names occasionally used by Yahweh-Elohim (102). Diversity of the plural god is still present, hidden in the dominating force of Yahweh. Yahweh’s elevation to Yahweh-Elohim accomplishes another, important theme in biblical mythologies. Yahweh elevated to the One also elevates Yahweh’s people to the chosen ones of biblical myth and begins to establish the separation theme – the chosen people of Yahweh-Elohim versus the others who are suspiciously evil.
This separation theme is consistent in the mythology of Yahweh-Elohim’s creation of earth and heaven. Unlike the previous creation myth, Yahweh-Elohim establishes a corporeal presence in the story, already separating himself from the plural host of the Elohim who are cloud-like[x]. Yahweh-Elohim is not a host of divine wind moving over the deep darkness but rather is a physical entity walking on the earth. Picking up the dust of the earth, Yahweh-Elohim crafts a man from it, like a potter crafting a utilitarian pot from the clay. Man is not created in Yahweh-Elohim’s image, from his essence but rather from the dust, as his servant. In a scene reminiscent of artificial respiration, Yahweh-Elohim breathes into the nostrils of his dust creation and gives man a little bit of the divine spark which is life, placing the newly birthed man into a Garden, already separating man from the world at large.
All things must serve Yahweh-Elohim’s sense of purpose as the myth relates: “when no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted because the Lord God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil” (Genesis 2:5). What is Yahweh-Elohim’s purpose in this creation story? It seems to be the creation and tending of the Garden, a defined, limited space in the universe. The Garden is not the entirety of the world, nor is its location undefined or everywhere: it is in Eden, in the east, the source of light and the rising sun. Yahweh-Elohim has divided the earth: inside is the cultivated rich and fertile Garden and outside is the chaotic dust of the rest of the world[xi]. In a further move of separation, which serves to separate the obedient from the disobedient, Yahweh-Elohim gives his first command: do not eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17).
This theme of separation continues throughout Genesis 2. Yahweh-Elohim has made man alone and now creates the beasts and birds not as entities in their own rights, but rather as helpers for Adam[xii] in tending the Garden. This sets up the first division of labor, overlords and servants. The newly named Adam proceeds to name all the newly created beasts thereby ensuring his own control over them (Chevalier 694). Yet the beasts created by Yahweh-Elohim are ambiguously deemed not sufficient helpers for man. Yahweh-Elohim puts the man to sleep and takes a rib from him - a bone, which constitutes the essential physicality of man. Using the rib as a basic structure, Yahweh-Elohim creates a woman/companion who is to be the man’s helper, but is ultimately his downfall. It is curious that Yahweh-Elohim does not merely create the woman as he does man or the other creatures. Putting the man to sleep implies a kind of dream state in which Yahweh-Elohim separates a part of the man from himself. The union of man and woman is now the only way to achieve a return to wholeness or integration for the man. Woman becomes merely a separate part who does not think and speak in the same voice as her originating source. Instead of whole, balanced images of divinity, as portrayed in Genesis 1, humans are portrayed in Genesis 2 as split – masculine and feminine forces no longer in union.
The rest of the story further defines the separation of humans from divinity and male from female. Tempted by the serpent, the woman eats of the fruit of the forbidden tree and entreats the man to do otherwise, thus causing the first sin[xiii]. Awakened by the knowledge of their nakedness, man and woman try to hide from Yahweh-Elohim who is now walking through his garden, enjoying its pleasure. Yahweh-Elohim puts curses on all three involved in this act of defiance, serpent, man, and woman and throws humans out of the paradisiacal garden to make their way back into the world of dust from which they originated.
There have been many interpretations of the meaning of this creation myth over the centuries and the confines of this paper cannot accommodate them all. Martin Buber’s 20th century philosophical and theological interpretations deserve consideration in the examination of this myth as an originating source of the Western concept good and evil. Buber summarizes three interpretations of the fall from the Garden of Eden (71) The first is the acquisition of sexual desire, a rather literalized reading of the text based on man and woman’s discovery that they are naked. The second is the concept of man and woman becoming god-like by knowing good and evil, an “acquisition of moral consciousness” (71). The third concept relates to an opening of general cognition in which man and woman gain knowledge of everything (71).
Buber dismisses these three interpretations and offers his own view, that eating of the fruit of the forbidden tree creates a “cognizance of the opposites”, an awareness of the opposites latent in creation (73-74). This knowledge, relates Buber, is the “primordial possession of God”, who is above all opposites (74-75). Humans cannot acquire this understanding of the co-existence of opposites; they are limited in their capacity to move beyond good and evil, yes and no (75). This limitation of understanding of the opposition latent in all creation causes humans to “fall” into deepening levels of separation and dualism as oppositional forces such as good and evil, can never be totally reconciled into a state of unity.
This second creation myth is the omphalos of evil in Western Culture, growing and spreading through the centuries, twisted, adapted, interpreted into the utmost story of evil and sin. Disobedience to God’s command becomes the model for the war between the good ones and the evil-doers, a war of constant separation between the good and the evil, the us and them, the chosen people and their enemy. The culture has taken this myth literally as a battle between the forces of darkness or evil as represented by the serpent and the forces of light or good as represented by Yahweh-Elohim. Evil becomes anything that is not of the chosen people, anything outside our defined Garden of Eden. Mr. Bush’s call to eradicate evil is frightening indeed because evil continually changes form and shape, even as our concept of others changes form and shape.
Yet looking at the details of these two creation myths, the Western culture’s conception of good or unity also has its own problems. As a Western philosophical concept, the limitation in the understanding of opposition and the imposition of a concept of unity as Yahweh-Elohim, the One who rules over all, creates great dualistic stress in the culture. As Americans in particular struggle with the horrific destruction of September 11, 2001, there is a growing rhetoric about unity in the country that squelches the diversity and multiplicity of voices, even as Yahweh squelches the polytheistic voice of the Elohim. What is unity? Buber writes that the confusing contradictions of life cannot be remedied; they must be met and conquered by the rebirth of personal unity, unity of being, unity of life, unity of action. This does not mean a static unity of the uniform, but the great dynamic unity of the multiform in which the multiformity is formed into unity of character (Man 116).
“He who knows inner unity, the innermost life of what is mystery, learns to honour the mystery in all its forms. In an understandable reaction against the former domination of a false, fictitious mystery, the present generations are obsessed with the desire to rob life of all its mystery. The fictitious mystery will disappear, the genuine one will rise again. A generation which honours the mystery in all its forms will no longer be deserted by eternity…But he who can see and hear out of unity will also behold and discern again what can be beheld and discerned eternally” (Buber, Man 116-117).
Bush, George W. Address to the Nation. White House. Washington DC. 11 September 2001. http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010911-16.html. 1 January 2002.
- Address to the Nation. White House. Washington DC. 16 September 2001. http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010916-2.html. 1 January 2002.
Buber, Martin. Between Man and Man. Trans. Ronald Gregor Smith. New York: Macmillian, 1975.
- Good and Evil. New York: Scribner, 1953.
- “Myth in Judaism”. On Judaism. New York: Schocken, 1972. 95-107.
Campbell, Joseph. -- The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology. New York: Penguin, 1991.
Chevalier, Jean and Alain Gheerbrant. A Dictionary of Symbols. Trans. John Buchanan-Brown. Oxford: Penguin, 1996. Trans. of Dictionnaire des symboles. Paris: Editions Robert Laffont S. A. et Editions Jupiter, 1969.
Dictionary-1 The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. www.bartleby.com/61/. January 9, 2002.
Downing, Christine. “It’s Not So Simple After All: Auschwitz, the Death of God, the Rebirth of the Goddess.” Historical Reflections/Reflexions Historiques 26:1. 127-140.
Miles, Jack. God a Biography. New York: Random, 1996.
Tanakh, a New Translation of the Holy Scriptures, According to the Traditional Hebrew Text. Philadephia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985.
[i] On September 16, Mr. Bush invoked the language of a crusade by saying, “But we need to be alert to the fact that these evil-doers still exist. We haven't seen this kind of barbarism in a long period of time…This is a new kind of-- a new kind of evil. And we understand. And the American people are beginning to understand. This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while” (Bush-2). Bush’s rhetoric over the concept of evil potentially creates great expanding conflict and separateness of the world as the images of the evil ones shift ambiguously in the discourse.
[ii] Unfortunately, this paper will not attempt to approach the concept of evil from an Islamic the author notes the particular value of understanding and contrasting the Islamic teachings with the Judeo-Christian teachings for a more complete understanding of this current conflict.
[iii] I acknowledge Wendy Doniger’s statement, “Myth here is a narrative that employs, and demands, radical shifts in perspective” (19).
[iv] The debate over the textual-historical strata of the Tanakh continues. Joseph Campbell’s 1964 book, Occidental Mythologies, summarizes the historical strata as consisting of 5 basic texts: The Yahwist (J) Text, which represented the mythology of southern kingdom of Judah in the 9th century bce; The Elohim (E) Text, which represented the mythology of the northern kingdom in the 8th century bce; The ritual code of Holiness or the (H) text from the 7th century, bce; The ritual code of the Deuteronomists (D) also 7th century bce; The post-Exilic priestly writings know as the Priestly (P) text in the 4th century bce (101-102). Added to this is a general belief that the text of the Tanakh was interwoven and edited in the 4th century bce by the Redactor with little attempt to minimize or resolve differences.
[v] Miles writes that his approach is one of literary criticism, not historical or theological. This literary approach examines the Tanakh in a diachronic manner, read straight through as a drama or work of literature in which the main character, God, reveals himself through actions and words as a multi-dimensional personality (13-15). There is no theological questioning in Miles’ approach as to the realism of the characters’ actions or any historical or textual questions regarding its creation and organization (18-20).
[vi] In examining the many approaches to the Genesis and specifically the creation myths, I felt that assuming one approach that examined the mythologies without regard to the biblical criticism debates over dating various passages would be less confusing for the purposes of this analysis. I do wish to acknowledge, however that the Elohim account of creation, presented first in Genesis 1, is regarded by most biblical scholars as coming from the Priestly texts of the 4th century bce whereas the Yahweh-Elohim account of creation that appears second in Genesis is an older account from a 9th century bce Yahwist text. I also felt that Miles’ approach to the literary character of the creator in Genesis merges together too many of the distinct characteristics of the two deities in the two myths and creates a loss of detail.
[vii] Though Buber is not specific about which God he references in this book, I am assuming he is discussing Yahweh-Elohim that seems to be the dominant voice of the Tanakh. This is consistent with my thesis as this god-voice still contains the plurality of Elohim and thus the understanding of opposites co-existing.
[viii] The English word, good is derived from the Indo-European Root, ghedh, meaning to unite, join, fit (Dictionary-1).
[ix] Martin Buber points out that this creation myth may in fact have an origin in an older myth that was about the envy and vengeance of the gods. The meaning in this rendition has become quite different (Good 67).
[x] Joseph Campbell notes the resemblances between the stories of Yahweh and the stories of Gilgamesh (102). His identification of the resemblances between the two mythical hero-gods resonates in my own examination of this creation myth.
[xi] What is curious to contemplate is that man is made from the dust outside of the Garden and perhaps never belonged in Yahweh-Elohim’s paradise to begin with, but in the chaotic dust of the entire world.
[xii] The insertion of the name, Adam at this point in the narrative is puzzling. Adam comes from the Hebrew word adamah, which means cultivated soil or tilled earth or red clay. If the use of a name implies a control of the entity being named, then perhaps this is an indication of Yahweh-Elohim’s control over Adam.
[xiii] The word sin derives from the Indo-European root, es. The oldest interpretation of this root word is “to be” and other words derived from the root include absent, essence, entity. (Dictionary-1). This opens an interesting philosophical/philological discourse over whether the idea of sin is somehow being in oneself, rather than being in community.
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