Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Traditions of Seth part 1


Seth in the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint


The figure of Seth receives scarce mention in the Hebrew Bible. Seth first appears as the third son of Adam, both in the Masoretic text and Septuagint. A play on the etymology of Seth’s name appears in the Hebrew text,

וַיֵּדַע אָדָם עוֹד, אֶת-אִשְׁתּוֹ, וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן, וַתִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ שֵׁת:  כִּי שָׁת-לִי אֱלֹהִים


The play on etymology emerges in Eve’s declaration at Seth’s birth between the proper name Seth and the verb to plant. The watering/planting/cultivation imagery continues as Eve describes God as having planted “another seed” in place of Abel. While the play on etymology does not appear in the Septuagint, the Greek text does include the mention of a new seed in place of the fallen Abel,

ἔγνω δὲ Aδαμ Eυαν τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ καὶ συλλαβοῦσα ἔτεκεν υἱὸν καὶ ἐπωνόμασεν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ *σηθ λέγουσα ἐξανέστησεν γάρ μοι ὁ θεὸς σπέρμα ἕτερον ἀντὶ Aβελ ὃν ἀπέκτεινεν *καιν


The clause ἐξανέστησεν γάρ μοι ὁ θεὸς σπέρμα ἕτερον, for God has raised up another seed (σπέρμα ἕτερον), will give rise to later speculation of a separate human seed among humanity, most especially in later Gnostic speculations. The text of Genesis may have well contributed additional speculative fodder to later readers of the text. Genesis continues by chronicling Seth’s own posterity, Enosh,

וּלְשֵׁת גַּם-הוּא יֻלַּד-בֵּן, וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ אֱנוֹשׁ; אָז הוּחַל, לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה.

καὶ τῷ σηθ ἐγένετο υἱός ἐπωνόμασεν δὲ τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Eνως οὗτος ἤλπισεν ἐπικαλεῖσθαι τὸ ὄνομα κυρίου τοῦ θεοῦ


Seth is mentioned again in passing in Genesis 5:4.The canon of the Hebrew Bible makes no further mention of Seth until I Chronicles, re-stating the genealogy of Genesis. Jesus Ben Sira makes mention of Seth in his list of men of righteousness.[1] Despite receiving little mention in the Hebrew Bible or the Septuagint, Seth becomes a figure of great interest extra-canonical texts and traditions among Jews and Christians. This chapter attempts a concise survey of the Jewish and Christian materials that develop a mythology around the figure of Seth with the hope of gaining some sense of the mythologized figure that may have been represented in various texts and traditions at the time Cassian composed the Conferences.




Seth in Non Canonical Jewish Literature.




The most substantial treatment of Seth in non-canonical Jewish literature occurs in the Life of Adam and Eve, a text commonly included in the collection of Pseudepigrapha. The textual history of the Life of Adam and Eve diverges into Greek and Latin texts. The Greek text, commonly called the Apocalypse of Adam and Eve, begins with a recounting of the death of Abel and birth of Seth. With Adam close to death, Seth journeys back to Eden to find oil from a tree to anoint Adam in the hope of easing the pain of his death. In the Greek text, Eve delivers a detailed account of the Fall. The Latin text, commonly called the Vita, has Satan deliver the information of the Fall, omitting Eve’s story, and concluding with an account of Adam’s assumption into heaven.
            Seth’s first appearance in Latin version occurs at the same juncture as in the canonical Genesis, after the murder of Abel by Cain. The Latin Life of Adam and Eve then segues into an account Adam’s vision of a fiery chariot after the expulsion from paradise given to Seth. This account runs from Lt. Life of Adam and Eve 25-29. Implied, though never explicated in the text, is Seth’s possession of arcane knowledge of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise. In Lt. Life of Adam and Eve 30-31 Adam is afflicted with a final illness. Seth volunteers to return to paradise in penance for Adam and Eve’s expulsion in the hope the God will open the gates to paradise and allow him to retrieve fruit. Adam responds by stating that he suffers great pain in his illness and commands Seth and Eve to return to paradise for oil from the tree of mercy to relieve his pain. Along the way (Lt. Life of Adam and Eve 37-39) Seth is attacked by a serpent, presumably, the same serpent in Genesis. Seth proceeds to rebuke the serpent, saying,

            “May the Lord God rebuke you. Stop; be quiet; close your mouth, cursed enemy of truth, chaotic destroyer. Stand back from the image of God until the day when the Lord God shall order you to be brought to judgment.”


            Seth is referred to as the image of God three times in this portion of the narrative, by the Eve, Seth and the serpent respectively. Seth and Eve reach paradise and mourn. The angel Michael appears to them and addresses Seth as the son of man and instructs him to go back to Adam, his span of life being completed and the oil of the tree of mercy being reserved for the last days. (Lt. Life of Adam and Eve 40-44) In Lt. Life of Adam and Eve 46-48, Seth witnesses the hand of God holding the body of Adam before turning it over to Michael’s custody. As Eve approaches her own death (Lt. Life of Adam and Eve 49-51), she instructs her children to design two tablets, one of stone and one of clay, recording the life of Adam and Eve. Seth mourns the loss of Eve before being instructed by Michael to mourn only for six days because the seventh day is the day of the resurrection,

“Then when they had mourned for four days, the archangel Michael appeared to them and said to Seth, ‘Man of God, do not prolong mourning your dead more than six days, because the seventh day is a sign of the resurrection, the rest of the coming age, and on the seventh day the Lord rested from all his works. Then Seth made the tablets.” (Lt. Life of Adam and Eve 51)[2]



Philo of Alexandria’s treatise De Posteritate Caini



Philo of Alexandria gives the progeny of Cain and Seth substantial treatment in his De Posteritate Caini. The treatise largely comments off the text found in the Septuagint. Philo begins by addressing Cain’s exile and the apparent anthromorphism of God in the LXX’s text, ἐξῆλθεν δὲ *καιν ἀπὸ προσώπου τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ ᾤκησεν ἐν γῇ *ναιδ κατέναντι Eδεμ. Philo rejects a literal understanding of ἐξῆλθεν δὲ *καιν ἀπὸ προσώπου τοῦ θεοῦ, finding it incompatible with God’s transcendence. Philo proceeds to address another hermeneutical tendency that he sees as violating the Deity’s distinctiveness from humanity, namely, the notion that Cain could physically depart from God at all.[3] Philo writes,

            “Exercetai de πόθεν; h ek twn basileiwn tou panhgemonos; Qeou de oikoa aisqhtos tis an eih plhn ode o kosmos, on kataleipein amhcanon te kai adunaton;

            Philo’s question highlights a theological problem if the text is interpreted literally. Is there some geological delineation of the presence of God? If Cain was able to physically depart from God’s presence then two consequences would result. Were God’s presence truly enclosed in certain geological parameters, then God would essentially have the properties of created beings that are defined, in part, by the physical boundaries.[4] Additionally, this would leave some portion of the universe without God. Rather, departing from God’s face must be interpreted metaphorically as the capability of the human spirit to see the transcendent and spirit God.[5]
            Of concern to Philo when discussing the exile of Cain is the ability of the human being to close off his spiritual faculties to the vision of God. Philo identifies two actions leading to the loss of the soul’s vision of God, involuntary and voluntary (Greek: ekousion + akousion). Adam’s expulsion from Eden is illustrative of the former, although Philo does not indicate why Adam’s expulsion is the result of involuntary moral failure. Presumably, the interaction with either the serpent or Eve exculpates Adam from a voluntary action – Adam does not choose to sin per se` but rather to listen to Eve or the serpent. Cain, conversely, illustrates a voluntary moral failure, committed freely and without the motivation of any additional party.[6] The involuntary moral failure of Adam allows God to restore the vision lost to the soul, or, as Philo describes it, “healing.” (Gk: hiasin) This healing for Adam comes in the form of Seth as a replacement for Abel.[7] Philo sees this as allegory for the soul, yuch th mh par euthς trapeish,
 gennhma arren, Shq ton potismon.
            Should a soul be guilty of involuntary moral failure, there is the possibility God may raise up Seth in the soul. Philo keeps a tension between the literal and allegorical interpretation of the passage in his interpretation. Seth, as a type, is treated as a sign of divine restoration of the soul’s vision of God. A voluntary moral failure, by comparison, is excluded from divine healing on account of forethought undertaken prior to the act.[8]
            Philo detects significance in Cain’s migration to the land of Nod (Gk: Naid). Philo identifies this significance in relation to his etymology of Eden (Gk:Edem),

            “Sumbolikwς de estin Edem orqoς kai qeiς logoς, paro kai
ermhneian ecei trufhn oti eneufpainetai kai entrufa proς twn
allwn.

            Philo interprets Nod as meaning “tumult” and highlights the description of Nod’s location as κατέναντι Eδεμ, “over and against Eden.” Cain settles in a tumult opposed to right reason, fhsi gar Naid, ton klonon, eis on h yuch metwkisato, apenanti
Edem. Cain appears in Philo’s hermeneutic as a type of soul, the soul that has moved over and against the logoς in favor of tumult. As we progress further in Philo’s exegesis, the mythic nature of Cain in Philo’s mind becomes readily apparent. When addressing the potential incest between Cain and a female relative, Philo interprets gunaika as the resultant thought or opinion (asebouς logismou) of the soul that has willingly turned away from God and now is in direct opposition to its creator.[9] Philo then poses the inevitable question of the reader, tiς oun estin asebouς doxa; Philo defines this as the presumption that man is the measure of all created things (metron einai pantwn
crhmatwn ton anqrwpinon noun).[10] This presumption, Philo contents, leads to a perception of reality devoid of recognition of God. Belief in the faculties of reason as purely the result of human thought processes is a consequence of believing that the mind of man is the measure of all created things. Philo writes,

            ei gar pantwn metron estin anqrwpoς, cariς esti kai dwrea tou nou ta panta, wste ofqalmw men kecaristai to blepein, wsi
 de to akouein, ekasth de twn allwn aisqhsewn to aisqanesqai,
 kai tw kata thn proforan mentoi logw to legein, ei de kai tauta,   kai ato dhpou to noein, en w muria ennohmata, dianohseiς,
 boulai, promhqeiai, katalhyeiò, episthmai, tecnai, diaqeseiς,
 allwn ariqmoς dunamewn adiexithtoς.[11]

            Philo contends that ability to reason (logoς) is a gift from God to the human being. Philo draws this out through his etymology of Enoch, Cain’s posterity, as cariς sou,  “your gift”. Cain enters into a spiritual union with asebouς logismou and produces caris sou the effect of which leads one to view all products of the human mind as resultant from the gift of reason emanating solely from the mind of man.
            Philo’s logos represents God’s indwelling in the human person down to some very concrete actions such as seeing or hearing. Philo’s logos acts in the human person, leading to the higher levels of reason. This supplies Philo with evidence for God’s interaction in history in terms of the processes of an individual soul. The concept of Cain represents for Philo the soul that has rejected the infusion of divine reason from God. We must recall Philo’s basic exegesis of this portion of the Genesis narrative: Cain departs from the face of God by an action of his own volition into a land of tumult opposed to logos. As Cain represents a soul that has withdrawn from the face of God via opposing the infusion of divine reason in favor of his or her own understandings, there is also a type who follows the injunction of Moses to love, hearken and cleave to God. Philo begins addressing this second type of soul when turning his attention to the shared names in the progeny of Cain and Seth. As much as Enoch denoted “your gift” as the perception that the human mind itself is the source of reason, so to Enoch in Seth’s line denotes “your gift” as an acknowledgment of God’s active infusion of divine reason into the human person,

            ermhneuetai d o men Enwc, kaqaper eipon, cariς sou,
Maqousala dexapostolh qanatou, o d au Lamex tapeivwsiς. to
men oun cariς sou legetai men proς ton en hmin noun up eniwn,
legetai de kai proς ton twn olwn upo twn ameinonwn.[12]


            Philo follows by explicitly stating that those who affirm reason as a product of the human mind itself fall into the race of Cain (genei tw Kain) while those persons who acknowledge reason as given to the human mind by God belong to the genus of Seth. Philo immediately qualifies the nature of this seed of Seth,

            oi d osa en genesei kala mh sfeterizomenoi, carisi de taiς
qeiaiς epigraplousiwn, eugeneiς proς alhqeian ouk ek palaiplouςiwn all ekfilapetwn funteς, upo archgeth tw Shq tetacqwsan.[13]


Those belonging to Seth’s seed are not considered biological descendants in Philo’s thought but rather are brought into the line of Seth’s progeny through the love, and pursuit of virtue. Philo advocates the idea that the gift of logos by God into the human mind facilitates an active pursuit of virtue opposed to vice and undesirable behavior.[14] The pursuit of virtue guided by divinely infused logos transfers a human being to an immortal race away separate from the multitude pursue vice,

ouς gar o theoς euaresthsantaς autw metebibase kai meteqhken ek fqartwn eiς aqanata genh, para toiς polloiς oukeq
            eupiskontai.[15]


            As mentioned above, when Philo reaches the thorny issue of potential incest among Eve’s children, he finds additional grist to his interpretative mill. Philo had interpreted the wife of the Cain as the resulting perspective a soul who sets itself opposed to God. Similarly, wife may function in a positive sense, indicating the perspective of the soul that has followed the injunction of Moses and cleaved to God, the Seth-soul.
            Philo’s argument concerning the wife of the Seth-soul begins with the proposition that the word of God (qeou logoς) is the source from which the virtues wisdom, courage, temperance and justice emerge in the soul cleaving to God.[16] Rebecca and Leah function as types of the mind infused with virtues from the word of God. Leah is hated in Genesis 29:31, in Philo’s thought, because she represents the mind that detests material distractions, “for Leah, who is above the passions, cannot tolerate those who are attracted by the spells of the pleasures that accord with Rachel, who is sense perception.”[17] Leah represents the type of mind for whom removal from material concerns facilitates union with God. Rebecca represents the infusion of the virtue of humility,

            “Rebecca, it says, went down to the spring to fill her pitcher and came up again. For whence is it likely that a mind thirsting for sound sense should be filled save from the wisdom of God, that never failing spring, its descent to which is an ascent in accordance with some innate characteristic of a true learner? For teaching of virtue awaits those who come down from empty self-conceit, and taking them in its arms carries them to the heights with fair fame.”[18]

            Rebecca exemplifies the need of the soul to accept humility and go towards God. The divine, according to Philo’s thought in De Posteritate Caini, does not come to the human being. Rather, the human being must take the initiative to approach God. Philo pays extraordinary attention to Rebecca’s offer of water to Isaac’s servant. This episode, I believe, supplies Philo with a model of praxis that should be observable in the soul following in the line of Seth. Rebecca’s offer of water demonstrates a concrete action of hospitality, however, Philo, interpreting the water as wisdom drawn from the spring of the word of God, interprets Rebecca/humility as an act of teaching. Philo writes,

            “Rebecca is to be therefore commended for following the ordinances of the father of all and letting down from a higher position the vessel which contains wisdom, called the pitcher, on to her arm, and for holding out the to the learner the teaching which he is able to receive.”


            Rebecca (a type of humility) will compel a person engaged in divine wisdom to instruct others in the same, approaching those persons beginning their study. Additionally, Philo remarks upon Rebecca/humility’s lavishness – she continues instructing until she has satiated the desire of the inquirer.[19] Philo draws a connection between the action of Rebecca giving water to Isaac’s servant and his animals and the etymology of Seth proposed earlier in the treatise. Philo interprets Seth as meaning “watering”.[20] “Rebecca” then “waters” those seeking wisdom. Philo teases out this imagery of ‘watering wisdom’ further when discussing the σπέρμα ἕτερον in the Septuagint text of Genesis.[21] God appears as a farmer or gardener cultivating his planted crop, with Philo noting that none of God’s seed falls to the ground but ascends upwards, for God sows in souls bountiful seeds yielding fruit appropriate to each soul.[22] Philo interprets Seth as the seed of human virtue (o de Shq ate sperma wn anqrwpinhς
arethς oudepote to anqrwpwn apoleiyei genoς) - the person from which all subsequent virtuous persons derive. Seth, as the seed of human virtue, will not be removed from the species. Philo appeals to the subsequent descents of Seth and argues that each descendent increases the virtue begun with in Seth himself. The virtue of Seth is the starting point for the virtue of Noah while Abraham’s virtue begins at the zenith of Noah’s.[23] This having been said, Philo does not confine virtue to Seth’s biological lineage. The progression of virtue culminates in the teaching of Moses. At this point, one must recall Philo’s broader interpretation of Moses as maintaining a teaching proscribed for the whole of the people of Israel and, in Philo’s interpretation, any one interested in true philosophy.




[1] Tigchelaar has proposed an alternate construction of Ben Sira 49:16 on the basis of the Massada Ben Sira scroll. In his interpretation, Ben Sira’s mention of Seth refers to Seth’s enrollment in an antediluvian priesthood. See also Aitken, “Semantics” and Yahalom “Angels”.
[2] Later Christian redactions add an appendix documenting the survival of the tablets of Seth after the flood, eventually coming into the possession of King Solomon and the discovery of a prophecy of Enoch concerning the coming of Christ. The tradition of the tablets of Seth recures in the work of Josephus.
[3] Philo of Alexandria. De Posteritate Caini. I.1, II.1
[4] Philo of Alexandria. De Posteritate Caini. II.5
[5] Philo of Alexandria. De Posteritate Caini. II.8,9
[6] Philo of Alexandria. De Posteritate Caini. III.10
[7] Philo of Alexandria. De Posteritate Caini. III.10
[8] Philo of Alexandria. De Posteritate Caini. III. 11
[9] Philo of Alexandria. De Posteritate Caini. XI.34      
[10] Philo of Alexandria. De Posteritate Caini. XI.35
[11] Philo of Alexandria. De Posteritate Caini. XI.36-37
[12] Philo of Alexandria. De Posteritate Caini. XII.41
[13] Philo of Alexandria. De Posteritate Caini. XII.42
[14] Philo of Alexandria. De Posteritate Caini. XII. 43
[15] Philo of Alexandria. De Posteritate Caini. XII.44
[16] Philo of Alexandria. De Posteritate Caini. XXXVII.128
[17] Philo of Alexandria. De Posteritate Caini. XL. 135
[18] Philo of Alexandria. De Posteritate Caini. XLI. 136
[19] Philo of Alexandria. De Posteritate Caini. XLIV. 147
[20] Philo may very well betray knowledge of a seed of Seth tradition circulating in first century Judaism. Stroumsa notes Philo’s unusual etymology of Seth’s name, noting the seeding/planting imagery. However, Stroumsa also notes that Philo provides a different etymology in Quaest. Gen 1, 78, wherein Seth is interpreted as “one who drinks water.” Stroumsa. 73 Stroumsa notes that Rabbinic sources also attest to a Jewish tradition that interpreted Seth’s name in relation to planting, seeding, or gardening.
[21] See also Najman “Cain and Abel as Character Traits.” Najman contends  the patriarchs mentioned in De Posteritate Caini can only reasonly read as types for Philo and not as persons, mythic or otherwise.
[22] Philo of Alexandria. De Posteritate Caini. XLIX.171
[23] Philo of Alexandria. De Posteritate Caini. LI.175

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