To turn a nation, linked largely by common lineage and descent, into a people with distinctive mores and a defined way of life, the Israelites must share not merely a set of ancestors but also a people-making history. Specifically, they must be collectively transformed by a special set of shared political and cultural experiences. They must first experience enslavement and loss of all worldly power. They must then be emancipated and liberated against all odds, yet in a manner that obliges the slaves to declare their willingness to be freed. And their former masters – the world’s greatest civilization – must be brought to bear witness to the superiority of the God of Israel and the insufficiency of relying solely on human wisdom and power.
Leon R. Kass – The Beginning of Wisdom p.663
The last chapter of Genesis begins with the burial of Jacob at Machpelah and ends with the mummification of Joseph in Egypt. The contrast between burial and embalming/mummification reveals a crucial difference between Israel and Egypt: the difference between the acceptance and the denial or defiance of death. Embalming the body is an attempt at human control after death. The putative beneficiary of the treatment is the deceased: embalming resists time and change, prevents decay, beautifies the body, and prepares for reanimation and continued life – not to say immortality. Burial accepts that we are “dust to dust.” It manifests a different attitude toward the body and its fragile beauty, toward time and finitude and memory, and toward the source of life and the (im)possibility of apotheosis. Burial, the Israelite way, lies between the extremes of revering the body and worshipping the dead, on the one hand, and condemning the body and ignoring the mortal remains, on the other. The way of Israel is the way of memory, keeping alive not the bodies of the dead but their ever-living legacy in relation to the ever-living God, who in the beginning created heaven and earth and made man alone in His own image, and who later summoned Father Abraham and his descendants to “walk before me and be wholehearted.”
Leon R. Kass – The Beginning of Wisdom p.658
Earlier we learned that the Egyptians abominate eating with the Hebrews (43:32), perhaps because they eat lamb. And much later, Moses will refuse Pharaoh’s permission to “sacrifice to your God in the land,” because “we shall sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians [most likely, sheep] to the Lord our God; lo, if we sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians before their eyes, will they not stone us?” (Exodus 8:21-22). The Egyptians abominate what the Hebrews eat, how they gain their livelihood from animals, and what they choose to sacrifice to their God. From extrabiblical sources, we learn that the Egyptians are well known for their worship of certain animals. Accordingly, they may regard the Israelite assumption of human superiority over the animal world as an abomination, a deep violation of Egyptian belief in the unity (or at least the interchangeability) of man, nature, and the divine. The Egyptians, on this interpretation, abominate those who make too much of the difference of man.
Abominable or loathsome are those sexual practices said to be characteristic of the land of Egypt behind and the land of Canaan before: incest (Leviticus 18:6-18), male homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13), and bestiality (Leviticus 18:23). Abominable too are child sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 12:31 and 18:9-10) and, most especially, idolatry (Deuteronomy 7:25-26), as well as the related practices of divination, soothsaying, augury, and sorcery (Deuteronomy 18:10-12). In short, abominable in Israel are those activities that deny or efface the fundamental distinctions of creation: child sacrifice, which make a child into an animal; bestiality, which makes an animal into a human being; homosexual sodomy, which makes a man into a woman; and idolatry, which makes an animal or a man or some other creature or object into a god. For the Israelite way, with its view that man – and man alone – carries the divine image, failure to see the superiority of man vis-à-vis the animals is necessarily connected with failure properly to apprehend that which is truly divine. Setting itself in direct opposition to Egyptian (and Canaanite) ways, Israel eventually will separate itself by loathing the chaos-inducing denial of the importance of separation itself.
Leon R. Kass – The Beginning of Wisdom p.625
Shem had managed to see – however dimly – in the authoritative relation of father and son an image of the relation of God and man, and therewith a pathway to the holy. In the experience of awe and reverence before paternal authority is the germ of awe and reverence for the divine. As the stance of Ham points downward to Canaanite paganism and depravity, so the stance of Shem points upward to the sacred and the holy.
Leon R. Kass – The Beginning of Wisdom p.214
How exactly men took this discovery of their own impending deaths we shall consider in a moment. But we note first the special place of Noah. Noah, born in 1056, is the first man born into the world after Adam dies. Noah is therefore the first man who could have no direct contact with the first man and, therefore, with a living memory of the Garden of Eden and its prospect of immortal life. More important, Noah is the first man who enters a world in which death is already present, the first man who grows up knowing about death, know that he must die. For Noah unlike for his predecessors, mortality is a received part of the human condition: thus, Noah (not Adam or Cain) is the prototype of self-consciously mortal man. Fittingly, the name that Noah carries, received from his father, Lamech, means both “comfort” and “lament,” a perfect name for new life seen in the light of inevitable death. These facts may explain, in part, why Noah would, uniquely, later find grace in the eyes of the Lord.
Leon Kass – The Beginning of Wisdom p.154
Sacrifice is of human origins. God neither commands nor requests it; we have reason to suspect – and will soon be given ample evidence to defend this suspicion – that the human impulse to sacrifice is, to say the least, highly problematic, and especially from God’s point of view. To be sure, God will eventually command sacrifices, though then only under the strictest rules. As in so many other matters, the problematic is permitted but only if regulated. Because He will not, or cannot, extirpate the dangerous impulses in men, God makes concessions to them, while at the same time containing them under explicit and precise commandments.
Leon Kass – The Beginning of Wisdom p.133
For one thing, the man’s origin was lower, from the dust; the woman begins from already living flesh and, moreover, from flesh taken close to the heart. Also, the man is, in the process, rendered less than hole; he suffers a permanent but invisible wound, signifying a deep and probably unfulfillable desire. Because he is incomplete and knows it, the man will always be looking for something he lacks; but as the image of a lost rib suggests, the man cannot really know what is missing or what the sought-for wholeness would really be. Male erotic desire is a conundrum: it wants and wants ardently, but it is unsure of what exactly would fully satisfy it.
Leon Kass – The Beginning of Wisdom p.101