Hebrew idiom: good and evil
Posted: 30 September 2012 11:31 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I recently read Isaac Asimov’s In the Beginning, in which he basically annotates Genesis and compares it to the modern scientific view of the origins of the universe, Earth, life, humanity, etc.  Not much in it was new to me, but there was one thing I hadn’t known, if indeed it is true.

Regarding the tree of knowledge of good and evil, whose fruit Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat, Asimov writes:

“Good and evil” is a Hebrew idiom meaning everything (since every thing is either good or evil; to know both is to know everything), so that the fruit of the tree conveys knowledge generally.

This interpretation makes more understandable (in the context of the narrative) God’s fear that Adam and Eve would become too god-like if they ate from both the tree of knowledge as well as the tree of life, since they would be immortal and all-knowing.

Asimov of course was ethnically Jewish, though non-practicing, and IIRC his father was an observant Jew who sent young Isaac to Hebrew school in his youth.  So I’m inclined to accept his word on this.  OTOH, I have caught Asimov relating false urban legends once or twice (like the story of the southern state that passed a law making pi equal to three, based on the description of the basin in Solomon’s temple in I Kings), so I’d be more assured if I had confirmation from some of our Hebrew-speaking members.

Is it true that “good and evil” in Hebrew is an idiom for “everything”?  And is there good reason to believe that the idiom goes back to the time of the composition of the Genesis story (more specifically, the J-document version), so that this represents a valid interpretation of “knowledge of good and evil” in this context?

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Posted: 30 September 2012 11:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I shall be in Jerusalem later this week, Dr.T., and have made a note to check the question with someone better qualified than myself at Biblical exegesis.

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Posted: 01 October 2012 05:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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According to wikipedia, this is a merism in which opposites or a conglomerate of terms are used to mean everything/everywhere. So “I searched high and low” is to say that I searched everywhere. I did not know about this term “good and evil” as being meristic, but it makes sense. And puts a nice twist on the legend. thanks for this Dr. T!

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Posted: 01 October 2012 06:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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While I loved Asimov dearly in my youth (somewhere down in the cellar are moldering copies of ASF with some of the original Foundation stories), I wouldn’t take his word for anything not directly related to his scientific studies.  He was an enthusiastic omniautodidact with a commendable desire to pass on to others what he had learned, but he wasn’t always capable of judging the truth value of things he read about language, history, etc.

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Posted: 01 October 2012 07:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Yeah, that’s why I’m looking for confirmation (or refutation).  With luck, Lionello will find an authoritative answer, and/or Reb William will drop in.

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Posted: 01 October 2012 08:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Malcolm Clark, a Hebrew scholar at Princeton writing in 1969 offers this “A LEGAL BACKGROUND TO THE YAHWISTS USE OF “GOOD AND EVIL” IN GENESIS 2-3”:

A brief word is in order about the ‘ ‘everything” interpretation of the good and evil phrase. This is based on the analysis of the phrase as a case of merismus. However, even if the grammatical explanation is correct, this does not remove the necessity of investigating the specific life setting of a particular phrase. Why not, instead of good and evil, use “knowledge of heaven and earth” or “say from great to small”?

After examining several of the uses of “good and evil” throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, Clark suggests that the meaning is better expressed in this way:

Applied to Gen 2 f., I think this investigation strengthens the position of those who say that the J emphasis is not on the content of knowledge but on man’s moral autonomy. Man takes upon himself the responsibility of trying apart from God to determine whether something is good for himself or not.

The whole article appeared in the Journal of Biblical Literature and is at ebsco for those who have an academic subscription.

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Posted: 01 October 2012 08:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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In an odd case of diegogarcity, Genesis 2:15-3:21 is the alternate Hebrew text (alternate to Job 1) in the ecumenical lectionary assignment for this Sunday!

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Posted: 01 October 2012 09:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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The term “tov ve ra’” “good and evil” appears only in the Genesis narrative under discussion, and two other places that come to mind. (if I recollect correctly . . . )

One is Deuteronomy 1:39:  “And your small children, which you said will be taken captive/as plunder, who did not know on that “tov ve ra’”, they will come there, and to them I will grant (the land), and they will inherit (the land).”

I think here the word phrase connotes “were not adults”; the idea “moral autonomy” is not a bad one, in the sense, perhaps, of making assessments and decisions in a moral sense.

The other place is II Samuel 19:32, which is close to “tov ve ra” but not exactly.

King David was returning to Jerusalem after the revolt by his son Absalom was put down. Barzilai the Gildeadite, who had helped David, is offered the opportunity to accompany David back to the royal court. Barzilai demurs, saying “I am 80 years old; do I know “tov” from “ra” ?” He adds that he cannot taste his food, and cannot hear the sounds of the male singers and female singers.

Commentators agree, generally, that this refers to not only to tasting and hearing, but also to the sexual urge.  The specific mentioning of female singers is striking here.

So I would agree, and have often taught, that “tov ve ra” is a merism, a term standing for a class of objects/actions. What exactly that class is, is in dispute, but “discernment” including moral and sexual discernment, would seem to be in there. I think the term also has a tinge of “knowing the good, but also the evil”, with a sense that the urge toward evil will win out—see Genesis 6:5.

I believe that the Garden of Eden story was edited by, in general, the same hands that edited Deuteronomy and, in general, by the same hands of those who edited at least the first nine books of the Bible (The Torah, and Joshua/Judges/Samuel/Kings), i.e., beyond the J and E authors, into the D authors (Deuteronomist) and R (the redactors, after the destruction and exile). The idea that Adam and Eve were “disinherited” from the Garden of Eden for knowing “tov ve ra” (emphasizing knowing evil), is a prefiguration of the moral failures of the Generation of the Desert, which itself a prefiguration of the failures of Israel and Judah, and their exile/being disinherited from the land.

For those interested this idea: the first commandment given to Adam in Genesis 2:15 to “work it and to guard it”, uses words that are deeply connected with religious practice, the word roots “shamar” and “ ‘avad” “Shamar” means to guard, but also “observe” as in “observe the Sabbath day”. ‘Avad means to work, but is mostly used in Bible to means worship or serve God in general, but also the temple service.

The attentive reader of the Hebrew Bible is immediately informed, by the use of those words, that the meaning of the Eden story anticipates religious practice (the covenant) and the fate of the first commonwealth. Tragically, the “knowledge of tov ve ra” dooms us.

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