Once upon a time . . . When my son decided to become a Rabbi, I followed my wife’s ongoing request to go to Torah study, the weekly Saturday morning study of what is also known as the Old Testament. To my surprise, studying the Torah turned out to be not unlike learning about patients. We looked at the surface information, but we also looked for and interpreted meanings beyond the meaning of words, below the consciousness. As I was taught during my training, we “listened with [our] third ear.”
In fact, over time, the people and families we studied in the Torah came to resemble my patients and other people in many ways—in their conflicts, in their mistakes, in their search for solutions, and in their dreams. I even learned to apply some of the study lessons to patient care. Moreover, studying those people makes one wonder if human nature has changed much at all over thousands of years.
This led me to wonder what would have happened to these people in the stories if a psychiatrist were around? God’s psychiatrist, if you will allow this literary conceit. To set the stage, here is one way the story might have been viewed and played out, much differently than that portrayed in the hit TV series, “The Bible.”
Chapter 1. A Psychiatrist in Biblical Times
In Genesis, it is described that man, and then presumably woman in a first example of matchmaking, is created in the image of God. Imagine a modern day psychiatrist time traveling back to observe this creation. If you don’t believe in such a God, but are a parent, think of a child created, at least half genetically speaking, in your image.
As holy as it may seem to be created in the image of a God, would a psychiatrist think that this was mentally healthy? What happens to the children of parents who want their children to fulfill their own dreams? Could it be too much of a narcissistic wish and expectation to be created in anyone’s image? Wouldn’t this make normal separation and individuation more difficult, the psychiatrist wondered?
Indeed, the psychological challenges and problems for Adam and Eve emerge quickly in the Garden of Eden. The psychiatrist observing this scenario wondered about offering a walk, as Freud did about a century ago with Mahler, to discuss the temptation and symbolic meaning of the Serpent and the Tree of Knowledge. But the psychiatrist wondered if this was an impossible paradox to resolve. Without knowledge, how does one understand the risks of obtaining knowledge?
So Eve goes ahead, and she and Adam are banished from the Garden in shame. If our psychiatrist could have met them in this wider world, perhaps they could have processed their shame and the current status of their relationship before they had children. Instead, the result is 2 sons, Cain and Abel, who portray the first sibling conflict and competition, so severe that Cain murders Abel.
After this tragedy, history seems to progress adversely until Noah. Noah is said to be the best of his time. In the Ark that he builds, his family, animals, and himself survive drastic environmental and climate changes. If a psychiatrist were also on the Ark, there would have been ample time to discuss how Noah felt about the responsibility of saving the world, and how he might prepare himself for a different future. As it turns out, he becomes drunk afterward. Noah might have needed detox and Alcoholic Anonymous; his family might have sought support from Al-Anon. However, just like the lives of so many modern day celebrities, their lives and the story goes on without completing treatment.
The next major figure is Abraham. No one claims to know, not even himself, why he is chosen to start a new religion. Later on in his life, sibling rivalry emerges again, but now between stepbrothers. After Abraham has his son Ishmael by the handmaiden, Hagar, Abraham and his wife Sarah have their own son, Isaac. Can’t you just predict the need for some challenging family therapy? Instead, Sarah, with the apparent approval and support of God, orders Ishmael to be banished. Abraham acquiesces, and God, to seemingly even things out a bit, says that Ishmael will start his own Kingdom, which many have taken to become the Arab people.
Abraham is later asked to sacrifice Isaac. Any psychiatrist might say that at times of exasperation, a parent might think of sacrificing their child. But this time it includes the actual preparation, without the apparent knowledge, of Sarah. Isaac is spared at the last minute, but to a psychiatrist, it might seem that he suffered PTSD. Sarah may have died soon afterward from the shock of grief.