Off the Shelf: Imagining and re-imagining biblical characters

by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

One answer to the question of why there are so many different interpretations of the biblical text is that people are intrigued by the gaps in the stories – the parts that are either not clear or left out. Everyone from the ancient rabbis to contemporary novelists wants to fill in these gaps by answering such questions as, why did the character do or say that? What was he feeling or what was she thinking? The best works challenge the way we view the text and give us new ways to explore not only the lessons the text offers, but the way we think about our own lives. Two recent non-fiction works offer unusual approaches to their biblical subjects. While “Cain V. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama” by Rabbi Dan Ornstein (The Jewish Publication Society) uses a trial format to explore the world’s first killing, Jean-Christophe Attias offers an exploration and meditation on the life of Moses in “A Woman Called Moses: A Prophet for Our Times” (Verso).

Ornstein believes the story of Cain and Abel can help readers – Jews and non-Jews – better understand “what it means to be human, how we might control our worst impulses, and what responsibilities we bear for one another.” For readers unfamiliar with the text, he outlines the basic story: Cain and Abel offer sacrifices to God. Abel’s is accepted; Cain’s is not. God sees that Cain is upset and warns him against sinning. Then the two brothers are in the field together. Something happens, although the text doesn’t say exactly what, and Cain kills Abel. When God comes looking for Abel, he asked Cain about his brother’s whereabouts. Cain answers with one of the most famous lines in the Bible: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God then hears Abel’s blood cry from the ground and condemns Cain to wander the earth forever.

In order to explore different interpretations of what occurred in the field, Ornstein offers a trial whose purpose is to determine a) whether or not Cain should be held solely responsible for Abel’s death and b) what would be a just punishment for the world’s first killing, especially given that God has not yet explicitly outlawed murder. Although the biblical story speaks only of the two brothers and God, Ornstein offers a wider range of those who could be responsible for what occurred. That means that a character known as Sin, in addition to Adam and Eve, are called to that stand. Also speaking are ancient rabbinic sages and medieval rabbis who offer their own interpretations, even when they contradict each other.

While not everyone will agree with the way that the trial is presented, this difference of opinion offers readers their first opportunity to come to their own conclusions about the case. For example, the choice of Sin as a character, rather than an internal part of a person, is interesting: Sin is presented as ugly and deformed, an interpretation from other Jewish texts, although some might believe Sin should be beautiful and seductive. God, who is also called to the stand, walks out of the courtroom – refusing to answer questions. God’s refusal to explain decisions is discussed in other midrash. (The details of this midrash can be found in “A Woman Called Moses.”) Cain refuses to speak – remaining mute through the trial, although the reason for this is questioned by the court. 

The most controversial decision Ornstein makes is that of Cain’s parentage: his version has Eve conceiving Cain not with Adam, but with an angel. (There are midrash that support this idea.) Eve’s marked preference for Cain is said to have soured his relationship with Abel, as did Adam’s refusal to treat Cain as his son. This was the most difficult idea for me to accept, but it made me consider the relationship – or lack of relationship – the first couple had with their children. There are no tales of their early childhood; there is also no mention of Adam and Eve in the text that describes the sacrifices their sons made and the aftermath. This also led me to consider what happened to this family and the lessons we can learn from their story. This is why I loved Ornstein’s suggestion about the mark God placed on Cain at the jury’s request: “We would like the mark of Cain to be mirrors. This way, every time one of us encounters Cain, we will stop. We will look closely and see a reflection... of ourselves.” 

“Cain V. Abel” also contains a question and activities guide to help readers reflect on the story. The book would be perfect for study groups or use in a classroom setting. Some readers might want to act out the dramatic scenes: I imagine they would be quite powerful if heard aloud. For those looking for a different take on the biblical story of the first human family will find much of interest.

While Ornstein’s work has a clear focus and purpose, the same cannot be said for Attais’ meandering, but sometimes fascinating, look at Moses. The English title is misleading: the French title “Moshe Fragile” – which can be translated as brittle, fragile or delicate Moses – better suits his work. Attais is not interested in the heroic version of Moses, but rather the humble, insecure man. In addition, he doesn’t care whether or not Moses actually existed. He borrows an idea from the writer Ahad Ha’am about the biblical character: “Even if scholars proved that ‘Moses the man’ never existed, or was never as taught by the Tradition, the ‘ideal’ Moses – ‘our Moses,’ as [Ha’am] called him – would remain the central figure in the Jewish collective imaginary.” 

Attais also uses midrash, but, in his case, it serves as a springboard for his own ideas. He seems to most enjoy when he finds rabbinic tales that support his fragile version of Moses, What he really wants is understand Moses as a human being – as a real, flesh and blood human being – one in whom “greatness and humility are one.” The author believes “[Moses’] humility is his strength. But his strength never overrides his frailty. For Moses, because he is a man, may die any moment, leaving his mission unfilled.” 

The author is not the only one to see Moses in this light. The idea of Moses as a woman can be found in Rashi’s commentary when he tries to explain a biblical verse that uses a feminine pronoun to refer to Moses. The details are of less interest than the way Attais sees Moses as having a maternal role in his dealings with the Israelites. This is also a Moses who complains about the burden of caring for these people – a Moses who does not want to be responsible for God’s people – one who reminds God that the Israelites are “thy people.” 

Moses is perhaps at his most human when God not only refuses to allow him to enter the Promised Land, but to write of his own death. Attais has a rather clever way of showing how God tricked Moses into performing the deed – striking a rock, rather than speaking to it – that made it possible for God to refuse him entrance. (The details are too complex to repeat in a short review, but they are interesting and unusual.) However, the most fascinating point Attais makes is showing how Moses might have guessed that he would never enter the land: After the refusal of the Israelites to first enter the land of Canaan, God declares that the generation of slaves must wander in the wilderness and die before the next generation can take possession of the land. Only Caleb, Joshua and the descendants of the slaves will be able to enter. Nowhere is mention made of Moses, something Moses does not seem to question. In fact, it is as if Moses assumes that he will, of course, be included – something that makes his exclusion even more bitter.

“A Woman Called Moses” is less a systematic discussion of Moses in the Bible than it is an exploration of the many different possibilities found in the story. Attias notes that the important thing is the questioning, not the answer. He also suggest that Moses’ humility could be a lesson for all humankind – for ourselves and our leaders.