Sand Storm helped me work on a 50-year old puzzle: Predestination

I went last night to the Jerusalem Cinematheque for a screening of Sand Storm by Elite Zexer, sponsored by the Times of Israel. The film is superb, a testament to the enormous talent and empathy of the director, right up there with Footnote and To Fill the Void for movies that penetrate into seemingly alien cultures and yet touch on deep human dilemmas, leaving the viewer with a brilliant “end” that is not an end.

In her excellent conversation with Jessica Steinberg that followed, Zexer made the interesting point that she did not want it to be an “anthropological” film that depicted this foreign culture in all its strangeness, and she certainly succeeded. There was no heavy-handed allusions to (my favorite topic) honor-shame cultures, and the kinds of pressures it puts on the members of the tribe, even though the entire drama revolves around a classic honor-issue: whom does a daughter marry – the youth she met at university in Be’er Sheva, or the tribal member her father chooses for her?

No dark allusions to shame-murders (aka honor-killings), no explicit dialogue about how various figures have shamed or might shame others, no lectures on honor and its preservation, no allusions to the shameful fact that the father is an “abu-banat” – father of only (4) daughters, no invocation of kalam al nass, the deeply judgmental “talk of the people” that, at least according to some observers, paralyzes Arab society. All sous-entendu.

And yet one theme – one might say the main theme – of the movie was the conflict between the father and his women over how to behave. Repeatedly the father makes decisions that damage his family emotionally, and repeatedly he justifies it by saying “I don’t have a choice.” And repeatedly, both his wife and daughter challenge him by insisting “You always have a choice.”


In honor-shame terms this dilemma arises from  the tyrannical pressure of the peer group on men who, in order not to lose face among their peers, must bully their women into behaving in ways that bring them honor (e.g., maintaining their sexual purity, obeying their man’s decisions). In that small, repeated exchange between the father and his wife and his eldest daughter, lies a universe of psychological turmoil. In this sense, the feeling that one has no choice represents a submission to kalam al-nass, to “what people will think.” By contrast, the exercise of choice, represents a form of rebellion or challenge to the honor-group, a risky venture that is always available, yet almost never exercised: always already chosen behavior.

For me this sheds light on a problem I’ve had as a medievalist since my graduate years in the mid-1970s. While I felt I understood a good deal about Christian spirituality (especially the “new” apostolic movements of my period of study, the early 11th century), the one thing that was always deeply opaque for me, was the centrality in Christian thought – both Catholic (Augustine) and Protestant (Luther and Calvin) – of “predestination,” and double-predestination: the notion that before we’re even born some of us are predestined to heaven and some (this is the double version) to hell.

As a Jew, it’s hard for me. Most Jews assume, at the core of their beliefs, that we have freedom of choice, that the core of ethical monotheism is the idea that God wants us to be autonomous moral agents, freely choosing good and bad, life and death.

I can appreciate the philosophical discussions: if God is omniscient (which is important to our efforts to acknowledge and atone for our sins), then he knows the future, and so our choices are, at least from one perspective, already done and known. But to go from there to having God predestine people to eternal bliss or damnation always struck me as a strange and unnecessary move. And in the Augustinian/Lutheran/Calvinist versions of the doctrine, the vast majority of souls go to hell.

Reflecting now on Sandstorm‘s juxtaposition of an honor-driven father who [thinks he] has no choice, and his women who want him to violate the honor-code for the sake of their well-being, it lines up well with what I consider the classic “honor-shame vs. integrity-guilt” dilemma, the one faced by Jacob’s son Judah and his twice-widowed daughter-in-law, Tamar (Genesis 38). When he finds out she has become pregnant while engaged to his third son, he calls for her to be burned. When he finds out that, unbeknownst to him, he is the father, he is faced with the critical choice: burn her and maintain public honor at the price of private guilt, or admit to fault and maintain private integrity at the cost of public shame. When the father Suliman in the movie says he has no choice, what he means is, in order to maintain my honor, I can do no other.

When Judah, on the other hand, says, “She is more righteous than I,” he reaches both the heights of self-criticism/self-awareness, and makes a choice directly counter-indicated by the Canaanite honor-culture in which he was an big man. It may be the first recorded case in history of the renunciation of an honor-killing, the first time an alpha male considered it a shameful murder rather than an honorable deed. And the consequences of his “choice” were that Tamar lived to give birth to twin, and from one of the two, the line of David and ultimately the messiah would spring.

I can’t yet draw a clear line between this issue of honor and choice and the theology of Predestination, but there is one interesting connection that comes to mind. Given the tyranny of honor in most cultures (even modern ones), the likelihood of people exercising their freedom of choice, of choosing integrity over honor, of “life” at the expense of honor, is not very high. Maybe that’s why so many thinkers who embraced Predestination thought that the vast majority of people went to hell.

3 Responses to Sand Storm helped me work on a 50-year old puzzle: Predestination

  1. Walter Sobchak says:

    “In tracing the coherence among the systems of modern theology, we may observe, that the doctrine of absolute decrees has ever been intimately connected with the enthusiastic spirit; as that doctrine affords the highest subject of joy, triumph, and security to the supposed elect, and exalts them, by infinite degrees, above the rest of mankind. All the first reformers adopted these principles; and the Jansenists too, a fanatical sect in France, not to mention the Mahometans in Asia, have ever embraced them.”

    David Hume “The History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688” 6 vols. Vol. 5.

  2. Igor Foukzon says:

    Predestination theology was correct, I dare to think, in its intuitive – almost instinctive – comprehension of monotheism-reduced-to-ethics as blasphemy. The very necessity of supposedly “free”, and pathologically unsuccessful, choice between good and evil – instead of joyfully incessant love devoid of mercantilistic estimations and afterthoughts – strongly hints that something indeed went sinfully wrong from time immemorial.

    However, the above mentioned theology became a blasphemy itself when it not only attributed to God its own gloomy and cowardly intention to economize on those who are “dead in sin”, but even considered THIS to be one of the marks of His glory.

    Which brings us – directly or not – to the issue of integrity and life. There is no clear line between at all – for they are inseparable, and any “freedom” philosophy or (pseudo)religious exaltation which teaches otherwise is essentially repressive and false. Judah finally understood this later, when he was ready to pledge (not just to sacrifice – any fanatic is able to do that!) his life for Benjamin’s and – in that very way – for Joseph’s.

    That’s how – in the thundering silence of a lonely human soul before the face of God – the door into which the Messiah has been entering the world from eternity opens itself.

  3. […] illustrates what I tried to get at in my comment on the movie Sandstorm. For another example, see the play Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, where the protagonist is a fully […]

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