Commentary on the Book of Genesis: Part II; From Noah to Abraham. By U. Cassuto, translated by Israel Abrahams. Magnes Press, Hebrew University, Jerusalem 1964. xiv + 386pp. 57s.
This Commentary on Gen. 6.9-11.32 is the third volume in the series of the late Professor Cassuto’s work on the Pentateuch translated from the Hebrew by the Chief Rabbi of Capetown. The first volume in the series contains Cassuto’s rejection of the Documentary Hypothesis, the second his Commentary on the early chapters of Genesis. A further volume is to appear on the book of Exodus. The translation, in good idiomatic English, is faithful to the original. The whole work, with its strong emphasis on the Ancient Near Eastern background, is an excellent illustration of the adage:
Willst den Dichter du verstehen,
Musst in Dichter‘s Lande gehen.
Cassuto is particularly good in calling attention to easily overlooked niceties of literary style. Thus, he sees the verse: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” (Gen. 9. 6) as “a judicial statute formulated in lapidary style”. The second part of the sentence repeats every word of the first in reverse order, as though reflecting the idea of measure for measure. The Sumerian sexagesimal system of chronology is reflected in the Genesis narrative, e.g. in Noah’s age (six hundred years, Gen. 7. 6) at the time of the flood and Shem’s (Gen. 11. 10-11) at the time of his death. There are many references to the symbolism of numbers, some of them illuminating, others over-ingenious and far-fetched, as, for instance, when Cassuto observes that Abraham was 75 when he left his father, 100 when his son was born, and 175 when he died so that the periods of his life are equally balanced (75+25+75), a first and last period of equal length with his father or his son.
For Cassuto the book of Genesis is a unity in the sense that in the form we have it is the product of a single mind. Although he acknowledges that the author used various sources, these, he argues, were not pieced together, with the seams showing, as it were, by a redactor or a number of redactors, but served as the raw material for an original work of religious and literary splendour, much in the same way as Dante and Shakespeare used earlier chronicles, philosophical notions and the like in producing entirely fresh works. Incidental to the Heilsgeshichte of Genesis is the combating of views, in the ancient mythologies and in the traditions of ancient Israel, detrimental to the ideal of pure ethical monotheism. This is not done by an outright rejection of the ancient traditions or by polemical assaults on them, but by a purging of their offensive elements in subtle transformation. Thus, the whole fist of antediluvian patriarchs is incorporated from the pagan traditions into the Genesis narrative, but with a reminder that these figures were no semi-divine beings. Even Methuselah lives less than a thousand years, the unit of the divine day (Ps. 90. 4). Similarly, while Utnapishtim, the hero of the Babylonia Deluge story, is saved, partly through his own navigational skill, in a boat, Noah’s deliverance is in a box, solely by the divine power. Cassuto (p. 47) here seems to be saying (it is a pity that he is insufficiently direct and unambiguous) that the whole Deluge narrative does not purport to be a record of events which actually happened but a poetic reconstruction of ancient legends, which had penetrated too deeply into the thought of Israel to be entirely eradicated, in the interests of a refined faith.
This leads naturally to a consideration of Cassuto’s views on Revelation, but it must be admitted that it is extremely difficult to discover what these views are. Cassuto would probably have claimed that he wrote as a biblical scholar, leaving such questions to the theologian. It is irritating, however, to find no reference in these volumes to the identity of the author of Genesis. For this the reader is obliged to penetrate the decent obscurity of the Italian in Cassuto’s famous La Questione della Genesi to find that the author was a “great genius” who probably lived in the later years of David’s reign. To make it more difficult, Cassuto does seem to invoke the principle of inspiration by writing constantly of the Torah saying this or that rather than of the author saying this or that. The traditional Rabbinic view is that the Pentateuch was dictated by God to Moses (that it is impermissible to speak at all of an author or authors, only of the divine Author); the modern critical view that it was produced by diverse human hands over a long period of time. Cassuto’s view appears to fall between two stools. Many religious Jews today are convinced that the only way out of the difficulties raised for the doctrine of inspiration by modern biblical criticism is to accept frankly the new insight that there is a human element in the Torah, but that in spite of this, or possibly because of this, the Torah is the word of God. To work out fully the implications of such a position is, as has been suggested, a task for Jewish theologians rather than biblical scholars.