by Josh Yarden
Prequel to the world as they knew it
Reading the Hebrew Bible is a bit like entering a time machine to travel back a few millennia. Imagine people wearing sandals and clothes somewhat unlike yours, but strip away the styles and the trends, and you see that they are concerned in their own ways with the same issues that concern people in your day and in your town: place, property, power, privilege, position, passion, poverty and all the games people still play today. Even when the text as we know it was being compiled and edited, it was already an attempt to recall an ancestral time. These were the stories the ancient Israelites told of the primordial world and of their ascendence to their present day. Fast forward, and even with all of the advances in technology and science, we are still concerned with many of the same essential themes and questions.
The Torah, as the first five books of the Bible are known in Hebrew, opens with a dreamlike inception of time and space. After a brief introduction to light and matter come the profiles of archetypal characters. The story quickly moves from the Big Bang to Mesopotamia to Canaan, from Adam to Noah to Terah. Everything in the history of the world leads to Abraham becoming the first Hebrew. There is a lot of traveling down to Egypt and back up to Canaan, and along the way the focus on Abraham and his children is further narrowed to the descendants of his grandson, Jacob. Some sections read like a genealogical archive of heroes and their arch-enemies, but the lists of dry details give way to compellingly detailed accounts of some exemplary human beings and their deplorable human failings. Oppression, emancipation, liberation, and the epic journey comes to fruition with People of Israel on the threshold of the Land of Israel.
That is the story as painted in a sweeping arc with one long stroke of a broad brush. At first there is nothing but an empty canvas. Then there is light, and soon after that the world is full of everything good. Humanity appears early on in the biblical narrative, when the clear skies—having just recently been separated from the water—are still carefree. It is a beautiful day and the reader can imagine Adam and Eve wishing it would never end. Look more closely and you can see a great deal of detail along the route from Eden Garden to the River Jordan—intrigue regarding all matters of personal, inter-personal and political relationships. These are the three areas of investigation in the biblical narrative. Adam is at first free to roam about the garden, naming everything he sees. He is then suddenly faced with rules, choices and dilemmas. The scene begins filling with moral ambiguity as the creator-spirit rumbles into the garden on a late afternoon breeze. The story grows dark.