Thursday 11 July 2013

Samael in Jewish Tradition- Evil Within, Evil Without

One of my most popular posts of all time is an innocuous looking article about the differences I see between Satan and Samael (read it here). In that post, I tried to distinguish between Satan and Samael in Jewish tradition as different aspects of death, Satan as a natural, better kind of death, and Samael as death as a great evil.

Today I want to focus on a different aspect of Samael, namely his role in the great early medieval midrash, Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer (the chapters of Rabbi Eliezer). Written in the early Muslim period, this amazing work revitalises much earlier mythic ideas latent in rabbinic Judaism, creating a running narrative from the first day of creation onwards, harmonising all of scripture with powerful mythic symbolism.

The author of the midrash seems to be fascinated by the figure of Samael, and depicts him in a way that we might find strikingly Christian and not a little disturbing:

    Samael was one of the heavenly princes. The chayot and serafim had six wings, whereas Samael had twelve wings. Samael descended with his company of angels. He saw that among all the creatures the Holy Blessed One created, there was none as cunning in causing evil as the serpent, as it says “the serpent was the most cunning of the wild beasts” (Gen 3:1). It looked like a camel, and Samael mounted and rode it...
    -Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 17

    The serpent had relations with Eve, and she conceived Cain. Afterwards, she conceived Abel as it says “Adam knew his wife Eve” (Gen 4:1). What does it mean “Adam knew”?  He knew that she was pregnant. Because she realised [the serpent] was not an earthly creature but a a heavenly being, she said “I have gained a man with God” (ibid.).
    -Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 21

Christian tradition relates that the snake of the garden of Eden was Satan, but in the midrash Samael is not the same as the snake, but rather he possesses the snake and has sexual relations with Eve. Through the union of snake and heavenly being, together with the human Eve, comes the terrible, semi-divine Cain, whose divinity causes him to commit the most horrendous of crimes - the first murder.

It is only later, when Eve's third son, Seth, is born that Adam has a true heir. The Bible relates that Adam "had a son in his likeness and form" (Gen 5:3). Cain was no true son of Adam, Abel may have been fully human but his blood stained the earth. Only Seth is the ancestor of humanity.

But the midrash continues:

"Rabbi Ishmael says: Seth is the father of all mankind and of all generations of righteous ones. Cain is the father of all the generations of evildoers and sinners who rebel against God"
    -Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 22

Rabbi Ishmael considers sinners to be less than human. While those who are righteous are descended from Seth, and Adam, evildoers and those who rebel against the divine will are ultimately descended from Samael and the snake.

I argued in my other post that Samael represented death as a great evil, but here we see that he is perceived to be even more than that - he represents evil as the ultimate 'other', beyond us, not part of our group. The worst sinners are not human at all but descendants of the demonic Samael.

Such thoughts make me deeply uncomfortable.

I know that Jewish tradition has numerous examples of demonising the 'other', a trend that can lead to much 'sinat chinam' baseless hatred. But this midrash about Samael is about the opposite - otherising the demonic.

This is the trend to say that that which we do wrong is not really our fault 'the devil made me do it', those who blow up innocents were somehow 'abhuman' or 'monstrous'. I understand this tendency, it makes us feel secure in our lives, safe in the knowledge that we could never do anything so wrong - we are the children of Seth after all.

Howard Schwartz, in his book 'The Tree of Souls', relates another version of this story, in which evil enters man's hearts in a far more graphic way:

       'Samael, riding on the serpent, came to Eve and she conceived a child. The son that was born was the son of Samael. Then Adam, who had been walking in the Garden of Eden, returned. He found the son of Samael crying, and he asked Eve: “Who is he?” And she said: “This is Samael’s son.” And he said to her: “Why do we need this problem here?” 

     And the boy was still crying, because he wanted to make Adam angry.

     What did the first man Adam do? He stood over him and slaughtered him and cut him into pieces. And then every piece would yell by itself. What did Adam do? He stood and boiled it, and he and his wife Eve ate it.

     When Samael learned that they had eaten his son, he came to them and said, “Give me my boy.” 

They said “We didn’t see anything. We don’t know anything.” 

     And he said to them: “You’re lying.” 

     While they were arguing, the son of Samael spoke from the heart of Adam and Eve and said to Samael:
     “Go on your way, because I have already entered into their hearts, and I am not going to leave their hearts, nor the hearts of their sons, nor the sons of their sons, throughout the generations.”'

While evil may have entered our hearts from elsewhere, while it may not be true to how we imagine human beings to be, nevertheless death and evil now live in our hearts for all the generations.

Evil should be demonised, to the extent that we should hate it, flee from it, resist it in all its forms. But we must also recognise that evil impulses lie not only out there in the world, but inside our own hearts.

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