Look at the ink blot. What do you see?
The ink blot is used in what’s called a “Rorschach test.” The picture is supposed to be neutral, and not to look like anything in particular. What you see in it depends on how your mind works, on your emotions, and on the images in your subconscious. Sometimes, the Rorschach test can help a therapist identify psychological problems or give you a clean bill of health.
A lot of the Tanakh is like a Rorschach test: What you find in it is what you bring to it. Consider a few examples:
- Genesis 2:21-23: God creates woman from a side of man, and the man then names the woman.
- Genesis 3:16: God punishes the woman for tempting Adam with the forbidden fruit.
- Genesis 22:1-2: God orders Abraham to kill his son Isaac as a sacrifice.
Historically, many readers of the Bible considered women inferior to men, so they saw Genesis 2:21-23 as justifying women’s subordinate status. Likewise, they saw Genesis 3:16 as explaining labor pain and suggesting that women were inherently wicked:
“Not only is Eve associated with sin; her creation is viewed as secondary and, by implication, of lesser importance.”1
Modern readers do not share such assumptions, so they do not interpret those passages in the same way. Like people in past centuries, what we find in it is what we bring to it.
Likewise, Genesis 22’s story of the binding of Isaac has bothered and baffled readers for millennia. God commands Abraham to sacrifice “your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love.” Abraham essentially replies, “Yes, boss,” and prepares to kill his son. He doesn’t even push back against such an insane order.
What kind of God gives an order like that? What’s God’s objective: to test Abraham’s obedience? To provoke Abraham to argue with God, as he did in Genesis 18 on behalf of people in Sodom and Gomorrah?
At the end, God stops Abraham from killing Isaac. Was the story meant to dramatize the ancient Israelites’ rejection of the pagan cults’ rituals of child sacrifice?
Or is the story, as a Hebrew College classmate of mine called it, a “Kobayashi Maru test,” a no-win scenario in which all the available solutions are bad? Is the point of the test to reveal Abraham’s true character, and how he will react to a morally intolerable command?
At the very least, it’s a Kobayashi Maru story for us, since we can with equal justice believe either that it’s just a legend with no particular point, that it encourages absolute obedience to God, or that it’s deliberately paradoxical to make people think for themselves.
Many of the stories in the Tanakh are unclear — and in fact, that is what makes them helpful. They are sufficiently complex and ambiguous that we can read into them whatever moral lessons we think are important, and we can find evidence for our interpretation of the text. In different eras, we have drawn evolving moral guidance from them, most recently with a focus on equal rights and equal treatment for women.
If the stories were completely clear and straightforward, we couldn’t do that. They might be long forgotten. As Emil Fackenheim said:
“What modern Jew could possibly fancy himself hear what Abraham heard and not reject it?”2
We know with reasonable certainty that the Tanakh was assembled from multiple sources, including traditional stories, legends, and “etiological tales” that tried to explain why things were the way they were.
How we interpret a story depends partly on what kind of story we think it is and why we think it’s there. It also depends on our assumptions as individuals and as members of a society.
If you just wanted to teach a specific lesson, you might write “Obey God no matter what He says or how unreasonable it seems.”
But if you wanted to make people think about an issue and try to decide it for themselves, you might tell them an ambiguous story whose exact point isn’t clear. That would force them to confront and grapple with the issues on their own, without relying on you to give them a “cheat sheet” with the answers.
Kobayashi Maru stories, which are open to multiple interpretations, can be adapted for the religious, moral, and political needs of the era in which we read read them. People who read them 100 years from now will learn things from them that we don’t see. The same applies to stories like the Garden of Eden and the creation of Eve, which explained past social realities but now require fresh interpretations.
We can’t understand God any more than the ancient Israelites did. But to the extent that we understand Him at all, He is a spiritual principle of justice and love who adapts His teachings to the needs of our time.
Frank, D., editor (2000), The Jewish Philosophy Reader. Routledge, London, UK.
Meyers, Carol (2012), Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. Kindle Edition.