Again from Anderson, a quote from Narsai, a 5th-century Syriac theologian (p. 122). I’ve never read much out of that tradition, but every time I encounter it I’m more convinced that I should—the idiom is just so alien, and so provocative.
The Spiritual One was defeated by the Corporeal One through spiritual power.
The body that trampled down the passions overcome the Prince of the Air.
The body that was contemptible derided and mocked the Strong One,
And removed the weaponry lest he use it to wage war on mortals.
Especially after seeing the funny critique of Christianity posted at AUFS last week, which had the angels trying to convince God to do something helpful for humanity, it was interesting to read this morning that early Rabbinic literature actually had the conversation going the other way. Apparently the rabbis often told stories where the angels played devil’s advocate with God, trying to convince God to bring the full force of just punishment down on the head of humanity, while God kept insisting on being unreasonably merciful. I’m getting this from Gary Anderson’s really interesting new book, Sin: A History. Anderson gives one especially funny example from the 9th-century Pesikta Rabbati in which, on the Day of Atonement, Satan is placing all Israel’s sins on one side of a scale while God places Israel’s merits on the other. Satan ends up having more, so, “what did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? While Satan was looking for sins, the Holy One, blessed be he, took the sins from the scale and hid them under his purple royal robe” (quoted on p. 107 in Anderson’s book).
There’s a whole book on this theme, apparently, by Peter Schäfer, called Rivalität zwischen Engeln und Menschen: Untersuchungen zur rabbinischen Engelvorstellung (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1975).
We must have some sense of the whole in order to grasp how it opens. Countless readers have thought that if they simply pored over the first three chapters long enough they would be able to make sense of what is told therein. To read later details back into the beginning is thought of as a violation of the interpretive process. But such an assumption goes against a basic principle we all employ when we read any book. To understand the first chapter or two of any literary work requires one to size up the shape and scope of the whole.
And it is exactly this sort of preunderstanding that informs all theological interpretations of Adam and Eve. Religious readers know where the story is heading before they have glossed even one word. Reading early Jewish and Christian interpretations of the story of Adam and Eve is like eavesdropping on a circle of friends who have rewound Saving Private Ryan and are watching it opening scene a second time. Their memories of the film’s ending well up again and again to inform, and even overwhelm, the terse beginning.
From biblical scholar Gary Anderson’s The Genesis of Perfection, 2001 (in this outstanding book Anderson traces how Genesis 1-3 was retold by Jews and Christians in commentaries, midrash, theology and art in the first few centuries of the Common Era – I only hope that his latest book is as good).