God the Deal Maker

Corey RobinThe Talmud tells a story: the reason God covenanted with the Jews was that they were the only ones who were willing to take the deal.

According to a commentary on Deuteronomy, “When God revealed Himself to give the Torah to Israel, He revealed Himself not only to Israel but to all the nations.” First God goes to the children of Esau, asking them if they will accept the Torah. They ask him what it contains, God says, “Though shalt not murder,” they say, no thanks.

God goes to the Ammonites and Moabites. Same response, only for them the prohibition against adultery is the deal-breaker. He goes to the Ishmaelites, to all the peoples of the earth. Each time, they turn him down. They can’t accept some portion of the Torah’s instructions and injunctions.

Then God comes to the Jews. They don’t ask questions. They simply “accepted the Torah, with all of its explanations and details.” So God “surrendered them [the Torah and all of its details] to Israel.”

You almost get a sense, reading the midrash, of God’s weariness. The Jews aren’t his first choice, but they’ll take the deal. God’s exhausted, history is made.

—Corey Robin
From the Talmud to Judith Butler

6 thoughts on “God the Deal Maker

  1. And then His chosen people spend the next several-odd thousand years quibbling about, reneging on, breaking (or at the very least, trying to hedge on), the “deal” they made. God spends a pantsload of time He’d probably rather be creating galaxies and contemplating the Universe hanging around some shitty mudball in the Sol system smiting worthless little pissant heretics and arguing with dissatisfied humans.

    He just THOUGHT he was exhausted after His initial search. Compared to his subsequent dealings with the Chosen People. Which just proves the point his his Son reminds us in his parables: “Don’t EVER agree to anything when you’re short on food, sleep, or sex.”

    • Yeah, in the Bible (I know nothing of the Talmud, it’s probably more sophisticated) God comes across less as an Ultimate Being spreading the gifts of consciousness/creation/enlightenment than a pissy, abusive dog owner. “You ran after a squirrel! Again! After I spent all that time training you not to? I’m smacking your nose and giving you no treats. For you have displeased Me.”

      I know theologians read the Bible differently, and I respect their work. But merely as a literature fan, I’m not impressed by the main character. He comes off as a petty-minded, insecure jerk. Were I an editor responding to the Bible’s author, I’d be like, “hoo, boy. There’s some terrific material here, but I can’t figure out how to tighten it up. And your primary protagonist is completely uninteresting, although I like many of the secondary protagonists very much.”

      • FYI: the Talmud is the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible which is more or less the Old Testament. I mean, even different Christians don’t agree on what’s in the Old Testament, so whatever.

        I don’t see it being a problem that God is a monster in much of the OT. It is more that he’s all over the place. The character is clearly a work in progress. That’s true of Jesus too. In his case, that’s a sign of different factions of the early church battling over the meaning of the church itself. But you know: there’s Jesus the apocalyptic prophet, Jesus the moral philosopher, and so on.

        • The Talmud is a gigantic compendium of rabbinical writings dating to about 200 CE (and I don’t know a word of it.) The Torah is the first five books of the Bible — kinda. I guess it can also mean God’s teachings overall. Sometimes Wiki confuses me.

          I do know “Torah!Torah!Torah!” was a movie about Moses bombing Noah’s Ark with the help of Indiana Jones.

          Yeah, that’s probably what’s wrong with God’s character in the OT (you are a professional editor, after all.) You’ve got cruel God (the Flood), nice God (the rainbow.) Same schizophrenia in how he deals with Abraham’s sacrifice, Job’s test of faith, all the Psalms, etc.

          It actually would work as a character if God was presented as an example of how all-powerful beings are mercurial, changing their minds on a whim (the way most gods are in polytheism, or Pratchett.) But as a supposed fount of beneficence, nope. Doesn’t fly.

          Jesus to me makes more sense. All-powerful sky-beings have no-one to answer to but themselves, so of course they’d have no moral anchor. Jesus is a god’s son living among humans, so he’s inscrutable like pops, yet with more of a tether to social norms. He can go full rampage on moneychangers and party caterer with water/wine, but I can’t think of an instance offhand where his actions are really just mean as hell “because I said so.” (Well, maybe the bit where he rejects Mary as an adult. Still, we don’t know the backstory, Mary could have been a rotten mom.)

          The lousiest trick Jesus pulls is needing Judas to betray him, then having dad punish Judas by getting him disemboweled (although I think that happens in Acts, not the Gospels.) That’s almost a Trump move.

          Switching back from literary criticism to history, your comment about how the different sides of Jesus represent different factions within the early religion reminds me of why I admire serious theologians/religious scholars and wanna smack New Atheists upside the head. “Who cares why their holy texts say this or that? It’s all nonsense!”

          OK, while there are valid reasons for not accepting ancient holy texts as your guide to life, examining those texts can tell us a lot about history/human nature. And to do so properly, you need to avoid ethnocentrism. The word means something else now, but the way it was explained to me by my favorite high-school history teacher (everyone else hated him, he was too big a nerd), avoiding ethnocentrism meant “don’t assume because we have TV and they didn’t, the ancient Egyptians were any stupider than you.”

          If you regard religion as the epitome of stupidity, and fail to acknowledge your own biases, you’re not going to get a good read on how religion (past and present) influences human societies. It’s equally blind as a preacher rejecting the age of Earth because “mainstream scientists all lie.”

          Empathy is all (and we all fail at it sometimes, we all have blind spots.) Which, for no justifiable reason, makes me want to link this sad/funny song about a ballplayer who struggled with adjusting to life in America, who struggled with drug overuse, and who died way too young. He’s primarily remembered for one colossal screwup, not for how tough his experiences were. Yet the songwriters have empathy for his screwup. “History ain’t always kind; sometimes hard to comprehend.” That’s a decent and compassionate line.


          • Oops. Well, you know the Jews and all their T-books — there’s the Tanakh too. Don’t be surprised if I call you Jeff or Joe.

    • That was hilarious!

      But remember, Jesus is God — or something. That whole thing reminds me more of my own mild manic-depression. I’ve learned to never promise too much when in a manic phase. I’m sure God was thinking, “Three days: easy!” Maybe that’s why there are no more miracles. After that, God just figured it was best to be quiet.

Leave a Reply