“In Your Blood You Shall Live”: Marilynne Robinson and the Jewish Reader

Marilynne Robinson is one of the very few contemporary American novelists to be held in near universal esteem. Her readers have the sense that, as with poetry, not a single word is wasted or extraneous. Additionally, Robinson’s concern with Christianity, unusual in contemporary fiction, also contributes to the rapture that her work inspires. In the tradition of American Protestant poetry, Robinson’s novels don’t simply allude to religious experiences, rather they seek to create such experience for the reader. Robinson’s fiction can open your heart to the possibility of change, of divine grace and redemption. For the Jewish reader, then, encountering Robinson can be a complicated experience.

Lila

However, Jewishly literate readers may actually be positioned to appreciate Robinson’s fourth novel Lila in a way that others would not. Its eponymous heroine is the least Christian character we have encountered thus far in Gilead, the fictional Midwestern town featured in two of Robinson’s prior novels. Lila even goes so far as to call herself a “heathen,” though this does not prevent her from finding strength and solace in the words of the Bible. Lila is particularly drawn to the Hebrew Bible, as opposed to the New Testament, especially the books of Ezekiel and Job. There is a way in which the entire novel may function as a midrash on, or extended imaginative interpretation of, Chapter 16 of Ezekiel. This chapter contains the famous prophecy which likens the Jewish people to a newborn girl abandoned at birth, covered in blood in an open field. In the prophet’s vision, God passes by this scene of desolation and repeatedly declares, “b’damayikh hayi,” or “in your blood you shall live.” There are various ways to translate this evocative phrase, and it’s striking that in her extended literary meditation upon this verse Robinson ultimately departs from the King James Version and other Christian translations in order to read it in a manner similar to the Jewish tradition. This choice, as well as a general celebration of the Hebrew Bible in this work, makes Lila of particular interest from a Jewish perspective.

Lila is a former migrant laborer who finds herself living in Gilead in an unlikely relationship with Reverend John Ames, a beloved local preacher who is 30 years her senior. Lila is drawn to Ames’ kindness and that of the good people of Gilead, but she has a difficult time reconciling their gentle brand of Christianity with certain painful truths that she internalized during her years of wandering. Although Lila finds it impossible to fully subscribe to the Christian dogmas she encounters in Gilead, she discovers that the Bible as a text can be a tool for her to make sense of her own experiences. In one memorable passage, she realizes that the best words she can find to make sense of a particularly miserable experience spent in a St. Louis bordello come from the first chapter of Ezekiel – one of the two famous “ma’aseh merkavah” sections that attract so much attention in the Kabbalistic tradition. Lila’s reading of the merkavah passage is simultaneously mystical and naturalistic, it offers a way of reading these lines that also speaks to human emotions and not only abstruse theological notions.

Lange-MigrantMother02
Migrant Mother (Dorothea Lange, 1936)

While Lila’s pastor husband shares her passion for reading the Bible, her preoccupation with the prophecies of Ezekiel makes him jittery, and he tries to convince her that they are all poetic allegories and parables that eventually lead to Jesus and Christian salvation. Lila will not have it. He wishes that she would look to a New Testament book like the book of Matthew to soften Ezekiel’s devastating prophecies, but it is to no avail. Ezekiel is where Lila locates the words that articulate her condition, “…here they were, right here in the Bible. Don’t matter if it’s sad. At least Ezekiel knows what certain things feel like…

The specific passage in Ezekiel that Lila frequently returns to is b’damayikh hayi. Jewish readers of Robinson’s novel will recognize this passage from the texts recited at the Brit Milah and the Passover seder. It is part of a larger negative prophecy Ezekiel delivers about the sinfulness of Israel, and represents a peculiarly tender moment amid a larger vision of destruction:

וּמוֹלְדוֹתַיִךְ, בְּיוֹם הוּלֶּדֶת אוֹתָךְ לֹא-כָרַּת שָׁרֵּךְ, וּבְמַיִם לֹא-רֻחַצְתְּ, לְמִשְׁעִי; וְהָמְלֵחַ לֹא הֻמְלַחַתְּ, וְהָחְתֵּל לֹא חֻתָּלְתְּ.  לֹא-חָסָה עָלַיִךְ עַיִן, לַעֲשׂוֹת לָךְ אַחַת מֵאֵלֶּה–לְחֻמְלָה עָלָיִךְ; וַתֻּשְׁלְכִי אֶל-פְּנֵי הַשָּׂדֶה, בְּגֹעַל נַפְשֵׁךְ, בְּיוֹם, הֻלֶּדֶת אֹתָךְ.  וָאֶעֱבֹר עָלַיִךְ וָאֶרְאֵךְ, מִתְבּוֹסֶסֶת בְּדָמָיִךְ; וָאֹמַר לָךְ בְּדָמַיִךְ חֲיִי, וָאֹמַר לָךְ בְּדָמַיִךְ חֲיִי.

And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to cleanse thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all.  No eye pitied thee, to do any of these things unto thee, to have compassion upon thee; but thou wast cast out in the open field, for that thy person was abhorred, in the day that thou wast born. And when I passed by thee, and saw thee weltering in thy blood, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live

(Ezekiel 16: 4-6. King James Version Translation)

The very contours of Lila’s life resemble that of the abandoned girl described in Ezekiel. We first encounter Lila in the beginning of the novel as an abandoned child, unclothed and uncared for in a filthy boarding house for migrant workers. She is rescued, clothed, protected, though ultimately consigned to sordid circumstances, until she is eventually rescued again, this time by Reverend Ames and the community of Gilead.

In the translation used by Robinson, the phrase b’damayikh hayi is translated as “though thou art in thy blood, live,” which could be paraphrased as “live, in spite of your blood.” However, a literal translation of the Hebrew is something much closer to “in your blood, you shall live.” It is this latter understanding that seems to undergird the incorporation of this mysterious passage in Jewish ritual. In the Passover story, on the eve of the exodus from Egypt, the children of Israel are saved from the Angel of Death by spreading the blood of the Paschal offering on their doorposts. In the case of circumcision, a covenant is forged between an individual and God as a “covenant of blood” in which faith alone is not a sufficient measure of commitment. Note the contrast with the Protestant doctrine of “sola fide,” that “faith alone” is necessary in order to receive God’s pardon. In Judaism, faith is not enough, and  the “dam” or “blood” of the passage in Ezekiel is itself an essential component of redemption rather than something that must be washed away. This Jewish reading echoes through the generations and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the statement “b’damayikh hayi” is also invoked in the literature of the Holocaust. For instance, the Yiddish writer Leib Rokhman titled his own harrowing account of survival as “Un in dayn blut zolstu lebn” (“And in Your Blood You Shall Live”). During the Second Intifada in Israel, Naomi Shemer composed a beautiful tune entitled “B’damayikh Hayi,” because “these ancient words gave [her] strength” during a time of terror and bloodshed.  

While Robinson’s text makes use of the King James translation “Though thou art in thy blood, live,” the spirit of Lila is actually closer to the Jewish understanding of this phrase. Though Lila appreciates Reverend Ames and the life of faith he represents, she suspects that becoming Christian necessarily involves repudiating some aspects of her past. Lila has experienced things that she believes have no place in the Christian framework in which Ames resides.  Her challenge is that she does not desire to live “in spite” of her past, but rather, wants to forge a path forward that remains true to the sense of rootlessness and abandonment that she has internalized. In this sense, the translation “in your blood you shall live” speaks more to what Lila is trying to achieve than the translation/interpretation of “though thou art in thy blood, live.”

A kind of resolution to some of these tensions begins to develop when Lila and Reverend Ames anticipate the birth of a child. This child brings with him the promise of undoing the original abandonment described in Ezekiel and in Lila’s own personal history. Lila promises to teach her son hymns and prayers, but she is also determined to give him a sense of the “ferociousness of things,” to teach him what it feels like to wander and to lack a home. “We’ll be nowhere,” she whispers to her unborn child, “and it will be all right.

When her son is finally born, Lila yet again invokes Chapter 16 from Ezekiel, this time in a way that highlights the tension between her ambiguous relationship with Christianity and her unambiguous identification with the Hebrew Bible:

“She had stolen the preacher’s child, and she laughed to think of it. Making him learn his verses and prayers would be like a joke, when they were off by themselves, getting by as they could. She did steal that Bible, and she’d keep it with her, and she’d show him that part about the baby toiling in its blood, and she’d say, That was me, and somebody said “Live!” I never will know who. And then you came, red as blood, naked as Adam, and I took you to my breast and you lived when they never thought you would. So you’re mine. Gilead has no claim, or John Ames either….”

בדמייך-חיי
Israeli Stamp with the Verse “B’Damayikh Hayi” (2003)

In this speech Lila revises the statement “though thou art in thy blood, live” into the direct and triumphant “live!” Naomi Shemer does something similar in the moving refrain of her song, when she repeats “hayi, hayi” over and over again. As it is understood by the Jewish tradition, “b’damayikh hayi” in both of these examples is not a call to cleanse one’s past, but rather to turn it into a legacy to pass on to a new generation. Robinson, through Lila, looks at this Biblical text in a fresh way and is not afraid to undermine classic Christian readings in the process.

 

For a Jewish reader who is interested in the Bible and in literature, English language texts based on the Hebrew Bible often offer a mixed bounty. For instance, John Milton’s Paradise Lost is a veritable cornucopia of insights into the book of Genesis and the Hebrew Bible as a whole, but it also presents the events in the Garden of Eden as ineluctably headed in the direction of Jesus and the New Testament. This may be acceptable for a Jewish reader in light of the brilliance of Milton’s vision and the lack of comparable literary texts in the Jewish tradition. Robinson, on the other hand, is indisputably Christian in orientation, yet her scriptural readings emerge from a direct and unmediated engagement with the Hebrew Bible that is compelling for readers of any faith, and perhaps Jewish readers in particular. She reminds us that the Tanakh is, among many other things, truly fertile ground for literary interpretation.

14 thoughts on ““In Your Blood You Shall Live”: Marilynne Robinson and the Jewish Reader

  1. Erica Goldman

    Hi Sarah,

    I’m a big fan of Marilynne Robinson too, and found her essays compelling along with her novels. I just read this page so far and noticed the spelling of her name-is it too late to correct it? Will read the rest of your post.

    I’m reading “Circle, Arrow, Spiral” on Shabbat, a little at a time, because of your extraordinary review. It’s quite interesting and refreshing.

    Hope all is well with you and your family.

    Shabbat Shalom, Erica

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    1. Thanks for pointing that out Erica, I thought something looked funny 😉 I’m excited that you’re reading both the blog and the book, and would love to hear more of your thoughts!

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  2. Anonymous

    Hi Sarah,

    I found your review very insightful too.

    I come from an orthodox home, and I find it astounding that Robinson has the empathetic and creative insight to understand the Jewish experience so deeply. Your analysis really braught that home. And it is very timely with the hagadda reading coming up!

    Anyway, thank you for this!

    Pesach

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I haven’t really read enough of O’Conner to form a proper opinion, but I am not entirely convinced by that article. I definitely see the contrast of thought and style. The conclusion is what bothers me the most: “For O’Connor, the world and its workings are incomprehensible and frightening and full of tiny, creeping evils/” That is not the impression I have from reading O’Conner.

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  3. Strange that Yechezkel uses blood as a metaphor for sin and chazal understand it as a double entendre for covenental blood. One would think that the two are polar opposites. What is the prophet saying about the nature of the covenant?

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    1. Interesting question Nadav! I admit that Chazal’s interpretation makes me biased to assume that Yechezkel is not equating blood with sin, despite the surrounding context. “Dam” in the Torah is not always a negative thing to my knowledge, it is often very much tied to life, hence the prohibition on consuming it. One way to read the pesukim is that while God covers the girl/Israel right away, He doesn’t actually wash the blood off of her until after the covenant has been established and he starts dressing her in fancy (but ultimately meaningless) things. I also wonder if there is some kind of connection between these lines and the equally elusive “chatan damim” passage in Shemot 4:25. Would love to hear more of your thoughts.

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      1. Well, in Yechezkel 16 blood is definitely negative, its not just the surrounding context. The narrative arc there is 1. Israel starting out “naked and bloody”, 2. God dressing/cleaning us, 3. us choosing to return to our previous state of bloody nakedness by gilui arayot and shfichat damim.
        וַתִּגָּלֶה עֶרְוָתֵךְ, בְּתַזְנוּתַיִךְ, עַל-מְאַהֲבָיִךְ; וְעַל, כָּל-גִּלּוּלֵי תוֹעֲבוֹתַיִךְ, וְכִדְמֵי בָנַיִךְ
        What does that original blood represent? Sin? Mortal suffering at the hands of the Egypians?

        But yeah, I agree with you both that blood in the torah generally symbolizes the covenant(and chazal are sensetive to this second layer of meaning), and that this passage harks back to the theme of blood in shemot starting with chatan damim.

        So where do chazal read in a parallel positive connotation for blood? 1. Because this allegory for the birth of the Jewish people reminds us of the Exodus story and its focus on blood. 2. From the repetition of the phrase ויאמר לך בדמייך חיי. Hashem declares we will live despite our sinfulness(or alternatively our mortal injury). He then declares that we will live by a second blood- covenental blood.

        But why draw a parallel between them in the first place? Is it merely a literary trick “blood” “blood” or is there a more fundamental connection to be drawn here?

        From your reading of Robinson, one could claim that Hashem is endorsing two models of Jewish national life. One, the ideal covenental existance. The other, a relationship with God born out of strife and less than ideal circumstances, a mode that the prophet’s generation certainly needed reassurance existed…

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      2. Amen 🙂 That’s actually really beautiful, and helpfully refines (what should have been) my argument. Thus, the Christians readings aren’t “wrong” per se, they simply isolate one strand of the Damayikh Hayi passage while we should be paying attention to both of them.

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  4. Thanks. Yeah, that did tie together pretty well, huh? Maybe I should try and flesh it out a bit more with a blog post. I mentioned the connection to Yechezkel 16 in a recent post on Shemot, but I’m starting to think there’s more to say about the interaction between the two texts…

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    1. Yes definitely! See here (I first came across this midrash in a shiur given by my friend Rabbi Jon Kelsen):

      מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בא – מסכתא דפסחא פרשה ה
      והיה לכם למשמרת וגו’ מפני מה הקדים הכתוב לקיחתו של פסח לשחיטתו ארבעה ימים היה רבי מתיא בן חרש אומר הרי הוא אומר ואעבור עליך ואראך והנה עתך עת דודים יחזקאל טז ח) הגיע שבועתו שנשבע
      הקב”ה לאברהם שיגאל את בניו ולא היה בידם מצות שיתעסקו בהם כדי שיגאלו שנאמר שדים נכונו ושערך צמח ואת ערום ועריה וגו’ ערום מכל מצות נתן להם הקדוש ברוך הוא שתי מצות דם פסח ודם מילה שיתעסקו בם כדי שיגאלו שנאמר ואעבור עליך ואראך מתבוססת בדמיך וגומר ואומר גם את בדם בריתך שלחתי אסיריך מבור אין מים בו (זכריה ט יא) לכך הקדים הכתוב לקיחתו של פסח לשחיטתו ד’ ימים שאין נוטלין שכר אלא על ידי מעשה

      Mekhilta d’Rabi Yishmael: Bo– Mesecheta d’Piskha 5
      “And ye shall keep it…”
      Why did Scripture require that the paschal lamb be taken four days before its sacrifice? R. Matia b. Heresh states: Behold, it says “Now when I passed by thee, and looked upon thee, and, behold, thy time was the time of love (Ezek. 16:8).” The time arrived for The Holy One to fulfill the promise made to Abraham that He would redeem his sons, but they had no mitzvoth to busy themselves with in order that they might be redeemed! As it says, “[T]hy breasts were fashioned, and thy hair was grown; yet thou wast naked and bare (ibid. v. 7);” that is, nude of all of the mitzvoth. The Holy One gave them two mitzvoth: that of the paschal blood, and that of the circumcision blood, that they should busy themselves with them in order that they be might be redeemed. As it says, “And when I passed by thee, and saw thee wallowing in thy blood, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live… (ibid., v. 6). ” And furthermore it says “As for thee also, because of the blood of thy covenant I send forth thy prisoners out of the pit wherein is no water.” (Zach. 9:11). Therefore Scripture required that the paschal lamb he taken four days before its sacrifice: for we are rewarded only through action.

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