Off the Shelf: Discovering the “why” in biblical stories

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When we seriously study stories from the biblical books of Genesis and Exodus, we are often left with questions. Why did the characters act that way? Wasn’t there any better way for God to have handled that problem? Is there something we’re missing? The ancient rabbis asked many of the same questions because the details not specifically included in the stories are often the most interesting. Rabbi David Fohrman asks and attempts to answer these questions in “The Beast That Crouches at the Door: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Beyond” and “The Exodus You Almost Passed Over” (both published by Aleph Beta Press/Maggid Books). Both books offer discussions that will intrigue and challenge readers. 

Fohrman’s style is a casual one. He speaks directly to readers and leads them step by step through his thought process. This makes his work easy to read, even for those unfamiliar with the biblical text. In order to better understand these stories, he asks readers to imagine they don’t know the ending. Readers then view the action from the characters’ perspectives as they experience their lives in real time (since they can’t look ahead to find out what happens next). Fohrman also suggests that readers first read the text without the benefit of commentary to see what the words actually say and what is missing. In addition, he offers careful reading of the Hebrew, showing how English translations don’t always capture important nuances that can change one’s view of the text. Even when I disagreed with his interpretations, I found them fascinating and they often inspired me to come to my own new understanding. This is the best type of chavruta study; you don’t have to agree with your study partner in order to expand your appreciation of the text. 

Fohrman’s detailed and intricate analysis of the stories makes it difficult to summarize his thoughts, but some general details are possible. In “The Beast,” he discusses how Adam and Eve’s removal from the Garden of Eden and Cain’s murder of Abel serve as part one and part two of the story of the Tree of Knowledge. Both stories focus on what separates us from the animal kingdom. When Fohrman discusses the snake as first portrayed in the Garden of Eden story, he notes its similarity to Adam and Eve: “The snake so closely resembles a human that he forces us to ask: What, in the end, makes him a snake and not a human? This question hits close to home, because it is really a question about us and the nature of our humanity. Bottom line: What makes us human and not a snake? If you walk, talk and are smart, are you then a person? Or can you still be a snake?”

A careful look at the text notes something interesting about the connection between animals and God: for the snake, the voice of God is internal. God speaks to animals through their natural desires. Yet, something different occurs for humans, who not only have an internal voice (our desires), but hear an external voice, God’s instructions and commandments. The snake encouraged Eve to listen to her internal voice rather than the spoken word of God. For not following God’s command, she and Adam were punished.

Fohrman also notes something interesting about Cain and Abel’s offerings to God. The text never actually says which offering was objectively the best. What it does say is that Cain offered “average produce,” while Abel brought the best of his flock. God’s reaction was not about who brought the best offering, but, rather, about something more important. Fohrman notes, “Abel brought the best he could; Cain didn’t. Each brother is compared not to the other, but to himself. What he did is compared to what he could have done.” He then shows how the story is connected to that of the Garden of Eden, including the fact that both Adam and Cain ask God similar questions, they both hide from God, they both will now have difficulty farming and they both are exiled. In addition, the stories portray the inner desires humans feel and must control. For Eve and Adam, this meant their desire to eat from the forbidden tree; for Cain, it meant controlling his jealousy and passion.

Fohrman asks similar questions in his study of the Exodus that almost didn’t happen. He wonders why God didn’t just magically release the Israelites from Egypt. If that had occurred, the plagues and the destruction of the Egyptian army at the Sea of Reeds would not have had to happen. Fohrman believes that the Exodus that did occur was not God’s first plan and carefully shows how that was actually God’s Plan C because the better, more peaceful plans – Plans A and B – did not happen due to Pharaoh’s inability to admit there was a power mightier than his own. That made it necessary for God to defeat the gods the Egyptians worshiped. Fohrman sees each plague as a strike against a specific Egyptian God. For example, the Nile turning to blood was a strike against the river God, the frogs against the amphibian God, insects against the insect God, etc. And God’s ability to turn off the plagues or have them start at a particular time showed just how powerful God is. 

Fohrman shows just how differently the Exodus could have taken place when he discusses the Joseph story, particularly Joseph’s relationship to Pharaoh (the one who was Joseph’s patron), who not only allowed Joseph to bury Jacob in Canaan, but sent so many members of the Egyptian court with him that the people of Canaan noted their presence. Pharaoh’s chariots and army acted as an honor guard for Jacob and his sons, but lost their lives at the Sea of Reeds when they tried to return the Israelites to slavery. Fohrman also shows other connections between the two stories, including the fact that the route that Joseph took to bury Jacob is the same one God commanded the Israelites use during the Exodus.

This review can’t do justice to the intricacies Fohrman explores in each of these texts. While readers may quibble with his interpretations, his discussions are stimulating and thought provoking. In fact, it was when I disagreed with him most that I arrived at my own new way of viewing the text. But I would never have discovered those new interpretations without having read these works first. Anyone interested in biblical study may find themselves delighted by the challenges “The Beast” and “The Exodus” offer.