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In The Beginning

In The Beginning is an example of Shabbtai’s retelling of the Five Books of Moses, that part of the Hebrew Bible which starts with the opening chapter of Genesis and concludes with the end of Deuteronomy, The beginning tells of God’s creation and His disappointment, followed by the struggle of men and women to deal with the wonder of their own existence. With the advent of Abraham the book settles down to the passions of family life and with the Exodus the story shifts onto a national plane, though the question remains if the Jewish people ever truly got out of the Book of Genesis, let alone left Egypt.

In The Beginning 


In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Out of the unformed and the void He created them, and so created difference, a world of difference. And in case we didn’t get what He had done the teller of this story of glory gave us two different versions. And so it began, world without end, time timeless in the telling, fleeing and fleeting in the unfolding, and the Master of the Universe Who lives in time timeless with no regrets discovers the laws of difference and regret as He beholds what He has wrought.

Six days He toiled in this most beloved of children’s stories, six days to create light and darkness, earth and sky, land and water, and from such simple division to bring forth more complex numbers: grasses and trees, fish, fowl and cattle, even the creeping things, and then to crown all with the humans whom He made, male and female did He make them, and to whom He gave dominion. And every morning and evening God looked out like a satisfied artist and said that it was good, very good even, but on the seventh day He retired to rest for it was the seventh day He blessed.

But now the story starts over again, no longer a painted fresco of finished work but a long work in progress, and so the Lord gets to work, brings rain to water the ground and sinks His hands into the now wet clay out of which He fashions a man. And then the Lord planted a garden in the east and set the man down within it, to work it and preserve it. And the Lord told the man he might eat of any fruit in the garden except for the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But when the Lord looked out on what He had wrought He did not say that it was good. Instead He saw that man was lonely and decided to give him a helpmeet.

Again God brought forth fish, fowl and cattle, even the creeping things, and brought them to Adam that he might name them. But though Adam named them all he did not find a helpmeet among them. And so the Lord had to get to work again. He put Adam to sleep and while he slept, the Lord stole a rib from his body and out of the rib He fashioned a woman whom He placed before Adam. When Adam awoke and saw her he knew he had found his helpmeet. Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, Adam saw that she was, and therefore called her woman. And the Lord, contented, thought He was very smart and went on His way.

But great as the Garden of Eden was, nothing happened. Day followed day in weather that made no more difference than the weather in a painting makes. The ants toiled as ants do. The man and the woman, naked as the day they were born, played in shameless innocence. Only the lowly serpent was smart enough to be bored. One day, one particularly hot and dusty day when it seemed like the flesh would melt from their ribs, the serpent turned to Eve and asked her if she would not like to try the forbidden fruit. Of course, he did not put the question so directly. First he feigned disbelief that the Lord had forbidden them to eat of the fruit of the garden. When Eve explained that, on the contrary, they could eat all the fruit but one and that one not even touch lest they die, the serpent asked where had she heard such poppycock. And when Eve told the serpent that Adam had told her, the serpent could not suppress a chuckle, toothless though he was. Adam, he told her, may be dumb enough to swallow such a story, but did she really believe God would put such a lovely fruit in this blessed garden merely to be looked at? And would He really make it so lethal? After all, they could always touch it by accident. No, the serpent said, God is not that cruel; crafty maybe, but cruel certainly not. And when Eve asked what crafty meant, the serpent explained that God was giving them a test to find out if they were smart enough to see that the order was merely a ruse. And when Eve asked what a ruse was, the serpent told her it was a story, a story that wasn’t true. And how do you know what is true? asked Eve. And the serpent said you had to bite the fruit to know that. And Eve wondered how the serpent could know that without having eaten it himself, but if he had eaten it and was here to tell the tale, she reasoned, clearly one did not die from it. For though Eve was fashioned from Adam’s rib, her chromosomes were slightly different. And so Eve ate, setting the world of difference again in motion.

Suddenly, this garden that had seemingly sunk for eternity into the lazy hazy days of summer sprang into life. Eve, having eaten and found it to be good, prevailed upon Adam to eat it too, and now they not only made hay while the sun shone but looked on what they did and saw that it was good. But the Lord also saw and wandered through the garden looking for His wayward creations. Omniscient though He is, He calls out to Adam and asks him where he is. Where are you? God asks, just as He asks him all those other questions to which He knows the answer. And Adam answers, as all men do, with half-truths. I am hiding. I am naked and afraid. I ate, but only because the woman you gave me as a helpmeet foisted it upon me. And the woman when questioned fobbed responsibility off onto the serpent. And only the serpent did not lie, but confessed to the boredom which drove him crazy.

And so the Lord metes out punishment: the woman shall labor in pain and the man in sweat; the serpent shall crawl despised upon his belly, and all shall leave the garden to wander in the world where they shall know disappointment. And the Lord put a flaming sword at the entrance to Eden to bar the return of the man He had made and the woman He had fashioned from his rib, the helpmeet who had turned out a partner in crime.

And so it was. Adam knew Eve and Eve travailed and gave birth to two sons, the elder Cain and the younger Abel. One day Cain brought some of the fruit of the ground he had farmed and set it ablaze as an offering to the Lord. Seeing this, Abel, his brother, did likewise, and brought some of the firstlings of his flocks. God, it turned out, preferred meat, and Cain grew surly and sad. Again God asked questions to which He knew the answer. Why are you angry, Cain?  And why is your face fallen? And when Cain was too ashamed to answer God explained the dynamic. The world is full of good intentions. Desire feeds on them as fire feeds on wood and I on fire. Be careful. You need your desire, but you need to rule it too, especially when good intentions go awry and things do not turn out as planned. Ask your parents; they know only too well.

But his parents were the last people Cain wanted to ask. It was their constant talk about the good old days, the days before they ate the forbidden fruit, that led him to dream up the idea of sacrifice in the first place. Little did he know it is not the job of the children to atone for the sins of the parents. Little did he know, this Cain, and even less words did he have to explain the little he did. So when Cain and Abel went walking in the field, as the brothers were wont to do, and Abel in his cheerful and effortless way made light of the favor God showed and even lighter of atonement, Cain’s brow darkened as dark as the clouds above and his heart within, and before another word was said Abel lay crumpled at his feet.

God wept to see the blood stream from Abel’s head into the ground. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, He had said, but not this, not murder, not the shedding of one brother’s blood by another. And so again He asked a question, but this time the man of whom He asked it did not answer as God expected He had a right to expect. Instead Cain answered truthfully, and the answer came back a question: am I my brother’s keeper? And God Who looks out over the universe from one end to another was for once caught up short and asked no more questions, but told Cain his brother’s blood cried to Him from the ground. And because Abel’s blood so cried, Cain would henceforth have to wander the earth he had defiled. Cain wept to hear his sentence and his parents wept with him. They had just lost one son and now would lose another. Eve who had travailed in pain now 

wailed in pain, and Adam could not console her. And all the Lord promised to do was to put a mark on Cain so none would be tempted to shed more blood in vengeance.

Cain wandered, but the Lord brooded. In His reversal of biology He had tried to tell both man and woman that if man is of woman born, men and women are born of God. Folly is it to usurp His place and godless is it to forget Him. But man and woman paid no attention, and the more they peopled the earth, for Adam again knew Eve as Cain knew his wife and as men the earth over knew theirs, the greater did wickedness grow. And when God now looked out over the universe that had started with such promise, He saw darkness on the face of the deep and regretted His own creation. And it was morning and it was evening and it was not good.

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