Sin, Sin, Sin

By Lawrence Grossman
Wednesday, August 29, 2012

In the current Hebrew month of repentance, it’s hard not to notice that we live in a culture that takes sin far less seriously than it used to. The formula “mistakes were made” has largely replaced the admission of personal responsibility; apologies are routinely qualified by the words “if anyone was offended”; and even murder is explained away by abnormalities in the prefrontal cortex of the perpetrator.  So it is hard to recapture the sense of sin as a metaphysical reality that must be expiated—an element of the Judeo-Christian worldview that the Western world took for granted until the day before yesterday.  

But just as sin seems to be fading as an actual problem for contemporary man, it is generating significant academic interest. In his 2010 book Sin: A History, Gary A. Anderson sought to demonstrate a shift in the concept of sin within the Bible itself, from the early metaphor of sin as a burden that had to be lifted, as symbolized by the scapegoat, to sin as a generator of spiritual “debt,” which established the cultural centrality of charity in both rabbinic and Christian teachings.

Now we have Sinning in the Hebrew Bible: How the Worst Stories Speak for Its Truth, the last work of the late Alan F. Segal, who taught religion and Jewish studies at Barnard College until his death in 2011. Just as Anderson used biblical ideas of sin to illuminate the broader theme of the religious roots of social welfare, Segal studies the most horrific stories of the Hebrew Bible—tales of murder, rape, incest, adultery, and more—to make a historical point about the era of the First Temple. Contrary to the claims of scholars whom he calls extreme biblical minimalists, and of contemporary Palestinian apologists, the record of these sins, Segal argues, both demonstrates that there was a historical Jewish commonwealth and disproves the allegation that the Bible is a work of fiction concocted in Second Temple times. 

The book begins with the fact that the so-called JE narratives in the first four books of the Torah, which span from the patriarchs to the Israelites’ entry to the land of Israel, relate numerous instances of Israel’s sinful behavior.  Segal then matches these with parallel stories in the supposed Deuteronomistic history in the books of Judges, Samuel, and Kings, which recounts the Israelite experience in their land from the period of tribal autonomy to the Babylonian exile. Invariably, Segal notes, the sin stories in the Deuteronomistic history are more appalling and have less redeeming value than their JE counterparts.

Segal convincingly argues that the history, however fanciful it may be in its details, reflects actual events in the First Temple period. A number of archeological finds—such as the Mesha Stele and the Tel Dan inscription—suggest such a basis in reality.  More to the point, in his view, no people would make up such gruesome descriptions of their ancestors’ actions. Segal further argues that these accounts must have been substantially composed in the First Temple period, since they presuppose Israelite autonomy and competition with other states.

Ingeniously addressing the sin stories in the patriarchal and exodus narratives, Segal notes that there were undoubtedly oral and written traditions of the nation’s earliest progenitors, many of them etiological myths explaining geographical and linguistic phenomena.  First Temple writers elaborated and reworked these stories, he theorizes, to rationalize the problematic sin stories that occurred closer to their own time.

One example of this rationalization, among many that Segal provides, is the story of the destruction of Sodom.  The account of the attempted rape of Lot’s visitors, he notes, is phrased almost identically to the account of the gang rape and murder of the concubine in Gibeah recounted in the book of Judges. In the First Temple period, Segal argues, this account served as a negative example, demonstrating the deficiencies of a loose tribal confederacy and the necessity of a national monarchy to maintain law and order. But this political lesson was not enough to ease troubled consciences. Quite independently, the Israelites had an explanation of the strange topography of the Dead Sea region as the result of a fire-and-brimstone attack from heaven in retribution for the Sodomites’ sinful ways.  Transmitters of this etiological story gradually added elements of the concubine story to it, so that the version we have today associates the wickedness of the city with the attempted gang rape. But, insofar as God’s messengers confound the would-be rapists and rescue Lot and his daughters, the developed account of the Sodom story in a sense redeems the horror of the atrocity perpetrated on the concubine and blocks its disastrous aftermath, thereby assuaging the latent national anxiety surrounding the murder of the concubine.

Segal is persuasive in demolishing the extreme biblical minimalism that denies any historical basis to the Bible, and his critique retains its validity even without his explanation of the JE stories as mechanisms to cope with the sinful behavior of historical Israelites. But that explanation, as the example above testifies, seems somewhat simplistic. In the attempt to find one-to-one correspondences between the narrative units in the two parts of the Bible, he ignores the literary context of the stories.

Returning to our example, the Bible’s account of the destruction of Sodom cannot be read in isolation from the earlier narrative of Lot’s relations with his uncle Abraham, his choice to dwell in Sodom despite its infamous wickedness, or Abraham’s participation in a war to save Lot from captivity and his prayers to save Sodom. In other words, we are dealing here with a rather long and complex literary unit that needs careful analysis in its own right, and as part of the larger saga of Abraham. The entire Sodom story could hardly have been generated merely in order to ease anxieties roused by the fate of the concubine. Clearly, a much more complex process must have gone into the creation of the Bible than that presented in this book.

Nevertheless, a Bible filled with sin and its consequences is a perennially revealing work, and Sinning in the Hebrew Bible is a stimulating exploration of it. 

Lawrence Grossman, director of publications at the American Jewish Committee, edited the American Jewish Year Book from 2000 to 2008.

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