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This letter is in response to: Wrestling the Bible by Hugh S. Pyper.

Dear Editor:

Hugh Pyper keeps excellent company when he brings God onto the stage of World Wrestling Entertainmnent. "This is a difficult thing to express, impossible to utter plainly," opens Shimon ben Yochai's interpretation of God's response to Cain in the wake of the world's first murder, "Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground" (Gen 4:10):

It is like two athletes standing and wrestling before the king. Had the king wanted to separate them, he could have done so. But the king did not wish to separate them. One overwhelmed his partner and killed him. He cried out [as he was dying], "Who will bring my case before the king?" Thus, the voice of your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground (Genesis Rabbah 22.9).

This complex midrash contains any number of things a second century CE rabbi might have found hard to say. Most obviously, it implicates God in the death of Abel. Just as the king could have called a halt to the wrestling match whenever he pleased, but chose to look on, so God could have intervened to prevent Cain from killing Abel, but remained passive. This is critical enough, but the criticism intensifies as the midrash is unpacked. Whereas the human king in some midrashim need hardly be king at all, the king in this Genesis Rabbah midrash is clearly a Roman Emperor (who else would have wrestlers?), and the effectiveness of the mashal (parable) depends on our identification of him as such. The attribution of the mashal to a rabbi who, according to tradition, spent thirteen years in a cave hiding from the Romans drives home the difficulty; God is likened to a Roman Emperor by one of the rabbis most closely associated with Roman persecution.

Our primary evidence for the identity of the king is the presence of the wrestlers. These figures magnify the implied criticism of God in several different ways. As well as identifying the king as a Roman Emperor and thus a highly negative figure in this context, the wrestlers imply that God was playing games with Cain and Abel: "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods; they kill us for their sport" (King Lear 4.1). How much more palatable this mashal would be if the two adversaries were soldiers on the battlefield, fighting for national security, or even for the honor of their king. Instead, they are merely providing entertainment! The wrestler motif also forces us to accept that they really were powerless before the king — a gladiator who "eased off" on his opponent was liable to be punished for disrupting the king's entertainment. More disturbingly, it suggests a sense in which Roman Emperors were in fact superior to God. Since gladiators were expensive to maintain, their owners were unlikely to allow fights to get out of control in this way. God, by contrast, did not value his creatures sufficiently to preserve their lives. Finally, the wrestlers would not have been enemies at all but for the circumstances into which they were thrown. On the contrary, the stronger of the two is forced to overpower and kill someone who is described as his friend or companion. This points back to the Cain and Abel narrative. It was God's (apparently arbitrary) choice of one sacrifice over the other that caused the conflict — would the brothers have been enemies at all but for this favoritism? More generally, and in some ways more disturbingly, it comments on the Roman-Jewish conflict. The mashal is usually understood to address the question of why God allowed the Romans (the stronger wrestler/Cain) to persecute his people (the weaker wrestler/Abel). On my reading, it asks in addition whether Romans and Jews would have been enemies at all without God's involvement? Taken to its logical conclusion, the midrash is unremittingly pessimistic (from a Jewish perspective): the Jews will ultimately be overpowered.

The parable ends with the dying wrestler's question: "Who will bring my case before the king?" As is so often the case with midrashic questions, it is hard to identify a single answer, not least because of the difficulty of determining the precise gist of the question. The immediate response comes from the biblical verse on which the midrash hinges: "The voice of your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground" (Gen 4:10). Who will speak on behalf of the weaker wrestler/Abel? His own blood will call attention to the crime. But the question of who will notify the king of this injustice raises the more complex question of what good that will do. If the king is ultimately responsible, through his failure to intervene, for the death of the wrestler/Abel, how can he pass judgment on the stronger wrestler/Cain? Perhaps it is this that Shimon ben Yochai finds so difficult to articulate: God's position as the final arbiter of justice is severely compromised by his omnipotence.

I'm very glad that Hugh Pyper found it less taxing than Shimon ben Yochai to articulate (so thought-provokingly and entertainingly) his concerns about wrestling and divine justice, and hope no cave awaits him in the Derbyshire Peak District.

Diana Lipton
King's College London

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Citation: Diana Lipton, " On Pyper," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=585

 
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