Hellenism vs. Hebraism on the Inevitability of Tragedy: Studying the Cain Ad Joseph Stories

By Bodoff, Lippman | Midstream, September-October 2002 | Go to article overview

Hellenism vs. Hebraism on the Inevitability of Tragedy: Studying the Cain Ad Joseph Stories


Bodoff, Lippman, Midstream


Recent disputes about the idea of "cycles of violence" have turned on the implication, based on the Greek world view, that the pattern of historical cycles is unbreakable, and thereby denies that any blame can be attached to any participating party. In Greek tragedy, catharsis is achieved through understanding the iron laws that underlie human fate. The Jewish worldview sees the cycles of human history differently, as opportunities to redirect the course of human events as part of the process of human redemption. Catharsis is not acceptance through understanding but heroic human effort to triumph over the self and the environment. (1)

A recent book on the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, commented on the effect of his embrace of Nazism on his children as being like a "Greek tragedy," in that the sins of the father were visited on his son and daughter. (2) This short and simple view of tragedy is based on a cyclical view of history, that "no event is unique, nothing is enacted but once ...; every event has been enacted, is enacted, and will be enacted perpetually; the same individuals, have appeared, appear [again], and will appear at every turn of the circle." (3) If all is cyclical, then the action and reaction tell the whole story--a story that keeps repeating itself.

Not so in Judaism, as I would like to show is demonstrated in the very first book of the Jewish Bible, Genesis. Themes, motifs, symbols, may repeat themselves--indeed, they often do--to alert us to the fact that a continuation of a long, unified process is going on. People are continually given opportunities to redeem themselves from past mistakes by the exercise of their moral free will. What is implicit in Genesis is, of course, made explicit over and over in the Prophets, the abiding reality of free will and its function in human life.

So here we have another aspect of the Greek-Hebrew dichotomy--destiny versus free will. As Cahill has shown, free will is the basis of human progress and moral redemption; destiny is the basis of cyclical history and tragedy.

The key to a proper understanding of the Genesis tales is not segmented midrashic commentary on a word, phrase, or sentence, as homiletically rewarding as that might be, but understanding episodes in their developing, evolving completeness. And the longer the "melodic line," or the "process," that can be shown to be encompassed, the more we have undoubtedly uncovered the redemptive process--opportunities won or lost--that has taken place under the veneer of isolated action.

Let me illustrate with two episodes from Genesis, one short and one long.

The first is the story of Cain and Abel. At first glance, the story is short and not at all complex. Cain, Adam's oldest son, works the soil and, in gratitude for his success, gives a share of the fruits of his toil as an offering to God. Abel, his younger brother, a shepherd, follows suit and brings an offering from his flock--"from the firstlings ... and from their choicest...." (Gen. 4:4)

God shows special regard toward Abel's offering, causing Cain to be "angry and crestfallen." (4:5) God questions his despondency in a fatherly way (4:6), assuring Cain that all will be well if he acts properly; but if he does not, he will fall prey to sin. Cain and Abel have an altercation of some kind, beginning with words and ending with Cain's killing Abel. God punishes Cain by causing him to be forever a wanderer, unable to work the land, deprived of the permanence in life that he previously had enjoyed, but assured that he will be protected from murder by others by a Divinely placed physical mark that will be visible to all. (4:15) Cain fathers a son, who builds a city, mid six generations of descendants ending with Noah, before the Great Flood. Cain is accidentally killed by his great-great-great grandson, Lamech. (4)

What happened here? Is there a complex moral thread that binds this all together? …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Hellenism vs. Hebraism on the Inevitability of Tragedy: Studying the Cain Ad Joseph Stories
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.