DEMONIC DESIRES: "YETZER HARA" AND THE PROBLEM OF EVIL IN LATE ANTIQUITY
by Ishay Rosen-Zvi
University of Pennsylvania Press, 264 pp., $69.95
SIN: THE EARLY HISTORY OF AN IDEA
by Paula Fredriksen
Princeton University Press, 208 pp, $24.95
Saint Augustine believed that human beings constantly rebelled against God as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve. The ill-effects of that sin, Augustine famously contended, are symbolized by the male member—it rises on occasions when not desired and fails at moments when desire burns most intensely. In short, we cannot accomplish the good that we will while we find ourselves committing the evil we fear.
The rabbinic picture, we are frequently told, opposes such pessimism. In support of this a famous midrash commenting on Genesis 2:7 ("Then God formed man from the dust of the ground") is often cited. The verb for formed (vayyitzar) is spelled here with two yuds, according to this interpretation, because God created humans with two inclinations (yetzarim): one for good and one for evil, and each person has the capacity to choose between the two. In his groundbreaking book, Ishay Rosen-Zvi argues that the rabbinic picture is optimistic, but also that it is actually far more complex than this citation would suggest. This idea of two warring inclinations did not really crystallize until the 3rd century, and it had a complex, literally demonic genealogy.
As a noun, the word yetzer appears in Genesis 6:5 in reference to the evil tendency of man's thoughts, and in Genesis 8:2 God reflects that the yetzer of man's heart is evil (ra) from his youth. But as Ishay Rosen-Zvi makes clear, neither of these verses nor any others in the Bible presents the yetzer as an independent entity, let alone an evil one. For that, we have to wait for the rabbis. But where did they get the notion? And at what point did they oppose it to a good yetzer?
Rosen-Zvi's answer to the first of these questions takes us back before the rabbinic era, to Qumran, the community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. "My claim is that at Qumran yetzer occupies a middle ground between the biblical ‘thought' and the reified rabbinic being." The biblical understanding of yetzer, he shows, remained more or less unchanged as late as the early 2nd century BCE, when the Wisdom of Sirach appeared. But the sect at Qumran held to a cosmological dualism. Those on the side of good were believed to be elected by God and governed by the power of light, while the wicked were seen . . .
Who Is Man?
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