“Failure of the Flood”

25 03 2015

On Monday evening I had the privilege of hearing Prof. David Clines speak at Mandelbaum House. His presentation concerned the “failure” of the flood narrative in Genesis, and can be found (more or less entirely) here. It centred upon a few interrelated issues, focusing chiefly upon the theological absurdity of a creator-god who nullifies his own creation (thus nullifying, in a sense, himself), the heretofore unremarked literary phenomenon whereby the deity changes his mind twice (although I contest this, and shall remark upon this point in more detail shortly), and the moral vacuity of an all-powerful being who punishes sinfulness with genocide.

To my mind, Prof. Clines spent decidedly too long on this third point, which was embellished with recourse to modern biblical commentaries and which vacillated between a condemnation of the ethics in Genesis and a critique of the surprisingly facile remarks of 20th-21st century scholars. “Too long”, I say, because we must seek to understand a text before rushing to judgment over it, and “too long” because who actually cares what 21st century commentators have to say anyway?

If you are a 21st century commentator, please know that I don’t mean you. I’m sure you’re very interesting. And while I do like to read what people have to say (and well I might, if I expect anybody to read what I have to say), I have very little patience for people who wish to speak to me about their own personal ethical systems or their religious faith.

By way of an example, I spend a great deal of my time studying mediaeval commentaries on rabbinic and biblical texts, and that is because those commentaries are interesting to me as subjects of study in their own right. When I read Ibn Ezra’s commentary on the Pentateuch, for example, I learn more about Ibn Ezra’s commentary than I do about the Pentateuch. When I study Rav Avraham of Bertinoro’s commentary on the Mishna, I learn more about his text than the one on which he is writing it. And that’s all well and good: I find both of those individuals, together with their texts, incredibly interesting.

I don’t find many biblical scholars of the last two centuries worthy of study in their own right, but only insofar as they shed light to me on the object of their study. So far as their actual commentaries are concerned (and this critique holds true particularly for commentaries on Genesis) I would that they spent a little more time on the text itself and a little less on how it makes them feel.

The most significant components of Clines’ address concerned the nullification of the creator god’s identity in the purposeful nullification of his creation, and the manner in which he is said to have changed his mind (twice, according to Clines; once only, in my opinion).

The rabbis were sensitive to the first of these two issues in their claim that almost a thousand generations had preceded the creation of the first man – a claim variously interpreted as referring to the creation and destruction of a number of other earths in quick succession (so, for example, Midrash Tehillim 90:5; Chagigah 13b-14a). Rather than nullifying his role as creator of the world, the manner in which God aborts each experiment, erases it and starts again is construed as being very much in line with the nature of this role in the first place.

I suspect that Clines would actually agree with this point; after all, he made reference to Jeremiah 18:4, in which the same verb (שחת) that is employed in Genesis to describe both the wickedness of humanity and God’s destruction of it is applied to the metaphorical potter, destroying his faulty handiwork. Is it Clines’ opinion that when the potter destroys a poorly-made product in order to start again he is somehow negating his role as artisan? And if not, why should God’s role be in any sense negated by a similar act?

When it comes to the second of these two issues, I must disagree more strongly. After all, the clue to understanding the theological import of this entire text lies in the very passage that Clines has interpreted to mean that God changed his mind a second time, and which is found in 8:21aβ-22. Here, the text has God declare the following:

לֹֽא־אֹ֠סִף לְקַלֵּ֨ל עֹ֤וד אֶת־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ בַּעֲב֣וּר הָֽאָדָ֔ם כִּ֠י יֵ֣צֶר לֵ֧ב הָאָדָ֛ם רַ֖ע מִנְּעֻרָ֑יו וְלֹֽא־אֹסִ֥ף עֹ֛וד לְהַכֹּ֥ות אֶת־כָּל־חַ֖י כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִֽׂיתִי׃
עֹ֖ד כָּל־יְמֵ֣י הָאָ֑רֶץ זֶ֡רַע וְ֠קָצִיר וְקֹ֨ר וָחֹ֜ם וְקַ֧יִץ וָחֹ֛רֶף וְיֹ֥ום וָלַ֖יְלָה לֹ֥א יִשְׁבֹּֽתוּ׃

I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.


As Clines observed, the language here is not fundamentally dissimilar to that which describes God’s reason for destroying all of humanity in the first place, recorded in 6:5-6 as follows:

וַיַּ֣רְא יְהוָ֔ה כִּ֥י רַבָּ֛ה רָעַ֥ת הָאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְכָל־יֵ֨צֶר֙ מַחְשְׁבֹ֣ת לִבֹּ֔ו רַ֥ק רַ֖ע כָּל־הַיֹּֽום׃
וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם יְהוָ֔ה כִּֽי־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל־לִבֹּֽו׃

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.


What is the difference, we might ask, between the inclination of human hearts being evil continually and the inclination of their hearts being evil from youth? None, I would suppose, and yet the similarity of these two verses to one another is only troublesome if you feel the need to posit that between the two of them God had changed his mind a second time and decided that humanity was worth preserving. He didn’t, and in the theology of Genesis 6-8 it is not.

From start to finish, the humans who feature in this narrative are described as being nothing but a disappointment. Within its narrative context, their purpose was to tend to the earth that God had created and yet they have filled it with violence (חמס). As a result (or, in a rabbinic mode, “once again”), God sees fit to eradicate everything and start all over. And yet, we are told that he likes one particular person and he chooses to give him the benefit of the doubt. This assumption pays off, although it does not change what the deity thinks of the human species.

Note that when God decides to eradicate all life on the planet, he singles out four categories of animal: humanity, beasts (בהמה), creeping things and birds (עוף). This list is found in 6:7, immediately after the passage that I quoted earlier, and comprises a convenient way of referring to all life on the planet. (We need not necessarily read anything into the omission of fish). Note as well that when God prepares an escape clause for Noah, he builds into it the possibility of the regeneration of each of these categories: Noah’s family gets to travel with him, as does a sample of every bird (עוף), beast (בהמה) and creeping thing – mentioned both in 6:20 and 7:2-3.

Here, the text differentiates between clean and unclean animals: the first instance within it in which any moral or qualitative difference is applied to the rest of the animal kingdom. Once again, the rabbis were sensitive to this information, supposing that Noah needed to take seven of every clean animal and only two of the unclean since the clean animals were to be offered as sacrifices. In our haste to unravel a stratified text, biblical scholars have tended to glide over these observations, seeing further evidence here for there being two flood stories instead of one and assuming gross stupidity on the part of the final editor, who either failed to notice the incongruity or to ascribe it any significance if he did.

On the contrary, since the passage ends with Noah’s offering a sacrifice of clean beasts (בהמה) and birds (עוף), and since this directly precedes God’s declaration that concerns his no longer bringing destruction on the planet – in fact, since God’s declaration is related directly to his having enjoyed the sacrificial aroma – the differentiation between clean and unclean animals cannot possibly be more relevant to the overall story. God’s instructing Noah as regards which were clean and which were unclean can be seen as an extension of his choosing to save this one man from the annihilation that is meted out to the rest of the planet, and is the reason that this choice pays off when all is said and done.

God does not repent of having destroyed humans, since he persists in his description of them as being inclined perpetually towards evil. He does repent, however, of his decision to destroy the earth on account of humans, and it is the earth that he decides now to maintain in spite of their wickedness. Their saving grace, as a species, is an ability to utilise that earth in worshipping God – a notion that appears first in God’s acceptance of Abel’s animal sacrifice in 4:4.

Theologically, the passage as a whole is not so dissimilar to Leviticus (nor should we be at all surprised by that fact). There, as here, humanity is a fairly wretched bunch, but atonement can be made and the deity is pleased with our efforts. While later texts might specifically disavow the notion that God likes to eat the livestock that his earth has produced (and while even later theologians might try very hard to reconstrue the many texts that seem to suggest that he does), this passage is one more piece of evidence in favour of a god not so dissimilar to the ones revered by Israel’s neighbours:

A miserable fellow, rather angry with the people who are tramping all over his creation, but one content to forgive and forget in exchange for a good meal.

Charmed, I’m Sure: Wizardry, Women and War in the Book of Numbers

16 02 2015

Yesterday I had the pleasure of presenting my fourth paper (?) at an AAJS Conference, held this time at the University of New South Wales. I was a last-minute stand-in, since one of the registrants had cancelled and, as such, I was able once more to enjoy the experience of hastily cobbling together a synopsis in time for the programme to go to print, and then labouring over the construction of a paper that might both satisfy that synopsis and the general expectations of the discipline. I cannot say whether or not I succeeded in the second of those two aims, but I at least succeeded in the first of them.

My paper (the title of which introduces this post) was concerned with a series of narratives in the book of Numbers, which culminated in what might be termed a “holy war” against the Midianites. My concern with the last of those passages (Numbers 31) was two-fold: I was interested in establishing the ideological goals of the text, and in considering why that story (which might have featured for its enemy any number of different nations) was presented as being one about the Midianites in particular.

We know from archaeological evidence that Midian came into existence at some point in the 13th century BCE in the Northern Hejaz region of Saudi Arabia, which is just east of the Gulf of Aqaba – effectively where Eilat is today, extending both westward and southward, and but a little bit south of where the Moabites dwelt at the time when our story is set. Interactions between Midianites and Moabites are recorded in a few instances – both negatively (as in Genesis 36:35, where the Edomite king, Hadad, is said to have defeated the Midianites in the plains of Moab) and positively (as when Midianites and Moabites unite in Numbers 22 to secure the services of Balaam).

The proximity of the Midianites to the land of Israel is such that we might expect them to feature in a number of texts (as we find, for example, with the Edomites, Moabites and Ammonites) and so it perhaps comes as something of a surprise that they are really only mentioned a handful of times.

In some instances, the Midianites appear as active characters within a story, advancing the plot and participating in it, while at others they are incidental features of a narrative: part of the backdrop, if you will. It is Midianite traders, we are told, who were responsible for raising Joseph from the pit and selling him to a caravan of Ishmaelites, and it was to Midian that Moses fled after having murdered an Egyptian taskmaster. While the Midianites in that former narrative play no further part in the Joseph saga, the Midianites who feature in the subsequent text become active characters whose role in the Moses story is somewhat… complicated.

Moses, of course, marries a Midianite woman and develops a strong and positive relationship with her father. He is referred to, throughout the book of Exodus, primarily as Jethro, but when he reappears in the book of Numbers it is as Chovav. We are told on several occasions that he is a Midianite priest, and the context in which this information is conveyed would seem to suggest that it is information favourable to him.

He offers Moses good advice that the latter is quick to heed and joins up with the Israelites for a time, having heard of the wondrous things being done for them. So positively is this Midianite priest described that the rabbinic tradition came to look upon Jethro as a convert to Judaism, while some scholars have hypothesised that the worship of the Israelite god actually originated in Midian.

Not all references to the Midianites are so favourable. Together with Amalek, they are described in Judges 6ff as having oppressed Israel for several years; their subsequent defeat is alluded to in Psalm 83, and referred to on more than one occasion by the prophet Isaiah. Yet the most striking display of animosity towards these people is in the book of Numbers, and it is none other than Moses himself who leads the charge.

Numbers 22 describes Midianites and Moabites joining forces to secure the services of Balaam, a prophet-for-hire. They approach him with amulets, or charms (קסמים in the Hebrew). These are devices used for soothsaying or sorcery. The term is mentioned again, in Joshua’s review of Israelite history, when describing Balaam as a קוסם – a sorceror. It features a number of times throughout the biblical literature, and it is noteworthy that it only appears positively in one instance, and that is when Balaam declares in Numbers 23 that there is no קסם in Israel. Such cannot be said, of course, for Israel’s neighbours, who have approached Balaam with קסמים in the hope that he will curse them.

This passage marks the last reference to Midianites within the Balaam cycle. Their subsequent omission is strange, and one that Josephus attempts to correct by giving the Midianites a stronger part to play in his version of events. It is on the basis of their absence within the rest of the Balaam story that many see the reference to them at its beginning as an addition to the text, designed to link it with the events described later on in the same book.

Indeed, the Midianites resurface in Numbers 25, in which they feature in a tale of sexual and cultic infidelity that leaves some twenty-four thousand Israelites dead. In this passage, we are told that the Israelite men began to consort in a depraved manner with Moabite women. The verb employed here, לזנות, implies sexual debauchery. As a result of this, they then become “attached” to the service of a Moabite deity named Baal-Peor. The relationship between sexually liaising with Moabite women and becoming attached to this particular god lends itself to an interpretation of this god’s worship involving a sensual component – as was suggested by many earlier biblical commentators in particular.

Suddenly, an Israelite man brings a Midianite woman (not a Moabite woman) into his tent. We are subsequently told (after both she and he have been murdered) that her name was Kozbi and that her father was a Midianite chieftain. The name Kozbi, of course, is reminiscent of the Hebrew כזב, which means “false”, or “lying”, and which is a term associated several times in the book of Ezekiel with both sorcerors and sorcery. In this instance, its usage harmonises with the sudden command given by God to Moses: that he should harrass the Midianites, for they have conspired against the Israelites – a term that denotes deception and trickery; the notion that things were not really as they seem.

It is a fascinating feature of this narrative that the Moabites, who are likewise implicated in their use of magic, their hiring of Balaam, the sexual enticing of Israelite men and the worship of Baal-Peor are now dropped from the narrative altogether. The Midianites, who until this point have been a background feature of the text, now assume primary importance. It is they who are to blame for the transgressions of the Israelite men, and it is from them alone that vengeance is to be extracted.

The story continues, and concludes, in Numbers 31. Here, Moses is finally instructed to take revenge against the Midianites. He is also told that this is to be his final mission: אחר תאסף אל עמיך, “afterwards, you shall be gathered unto your people”. In a way, the story of Moses’ life has now come full circle, since his first mission was a quest that was imparted to him while he was residing in Midian. This passage is also linked to the previous Balaam narrative with a return of the itinerant prophet, who here meets a violent end, being driven through with a sword. The assertion that the Midianite women of Numbers 25 (note: they are here described as Midianite, not Moabite) acted “on Balaam’s instruction” likewise connects these various texts together.

The story is a bloody one, but it features strong parallels with various other biblical texts – particularly those that, unlike this one, utilise the term חרם. As with those passages, this one also speaks of putting cities to the fire and killing their inhabitants by the sword, but unlike most of the חרם texts, not everybody in this one is slated for annihilation.

It is in regards to this particular issue that we might note a striking contrast between Numbers 31 and 1 Samuel 15. In the latter text, Saul spares the Amalekite king together with the best of his livestock; he is rebuked for doing this, and the king is murdered. In the former passage (Numbers 31), the Israelite generals spare the Midianite women, children, livestock and wealth; they are rebuked for doing this, and Moses has the young boys murdered together with every woman who has ever been sexually active. Girls too young to have had sexual intercourse may be kept by the Israelites as spoils of war, together with the Midianite wealth – but only once the latter has been purified.

Another comparison might be made to the story in Judges 21. There, the Israelites go to war against the people of Jabesh-Gilead (a war carefully crafted around the flimsiest of rationales), slaughtering everybody except the virgin girls, who are then given to the men of the tribe of Benjamin. When the number of captured girls proves insufficient, they abandon all pretence of excuses and instruct the Benjaminites to simply steal women for themselves from the neighbouring town of Shiloh. This passage is thought by some to reflect on patriarchal concerns with biological purity and with the integrity of one’s bloodlines, as is evidenced by the need for the foreign men to be eradicated and for the captive women to be virgins.

While the war against Amalek permitted no survivors and no plundered wealth, the wars against Jabesh-Gilead and Midian both allow for the survival of certain girls, while the war against Midian allows also for the plundering of other property. Here as there, the booty is inherently tainted, but so long as the girls are too young to have had sexual intercourse and so long as the other property is ritually cleaned, this taint may be removed.

In Numbers 31, Moses berates his generals by referring specifically to the sexual misdeeds of the Midianite women. While a superficial reading of this passage might therefore lead us to suppose that pre-pubescent girls are spared on the grounds that they were innocent of the crimes of their sisters and mothers, it needs be noted that this same concession is not extended to infant boys (who were surely innocent of the crimes of the Midianite men). On the contrary, and at the risk of stating the obvious, the virgin girls are to be looked upon as property; their being virgins simply makes them property that is safe to claim. Little Midianite boys are, after all, Midianites; they are foreigners, in other words, and they remain forever threatening. Sexually active women have been branded by the enemy, but virginal girls are neither here nor there, and can be claimed.

As to how they might be claimed, we can consider in this context Deuteronomy 21, which describes the means by which a captive woman might actually become an Israelite. She needs to shave her head, pare her nails, change her clothes and mourn her parents, but so long as her captor has the patience for all of this she can now be legitimately his.

Susan Niditch puts it beautifully in an article titled “War, Women, and Defilement in Numbers 31” (Semeia 61, 1993). She observed that “the Hebrew scriptures, like the classical literary traditions of many cultures, is filled with associations between women and war – the victims like Dinah (Gen 34) or the concubine of Judges 19, whose humiliations men avenge in wars with outsiders or within the group; the women stolen in Judges 19 or taken as booty in Numbers 31, demarcating an end to hostilities; the daughter of Jephthah, the war-vowed sacrifice (Jud 11:34-40). Their presence marks the passage into war and the exodus from it; they are marginal, border figures, central in the events around them, and yet they are usually nameless, voiceless items of exchange and symbols of transition” (43-44).

The narrative in Numbers 31, functions as a vehicle for conveying important realia about warfare, and about the laws of cultic purification. In doing so, it transmits a specific ideology concerning the nature of impurity and of transgression, of the status of women in war (and perhaps even outside of war), and of those who can (and must) be held responsible for transgression. In this instance, the primary message of Numbers 31 can be reduced to two related issues: that women taken captive in war require a process of cultural assimilation that precludes their having been sexually involved with the enemy, and that the spoils of war require a process of purification before they are ready for Israelite use.

In order to appreciate how these two ideas govern the text, it is necessary to consider the metaphorical relationships that underlie them. To be clear, a metaphor ascribes qualities or terms from one semantic domain to something that derives ordinarily from a different semantic domain. In metaphor theory, the thing being discussed in such a manner might be termed the subject of the metaphor, while the descriptions applied metaphorically to it are termed the vehicle. The semantic domains of the subject and of the vehicle need to be sufficiently similar to one another as to permit comparison, yet sufficiently distinct as to be recognised as non-literal. In the simple equation, AN X IS A Y (such as LIFE IS A PARTY, MEAT IS MURDER and THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD), identification of the metaphor is relatively straightforward. In most texts, however, we do not have that luxury, and must consider which metaphorical relationships underlie the passage without being stated explicitly.

In this instance, I would like to suggest that the two primary metaphors that underlie Numbers 31 are that foreign women are vehicles of social degeneration and that foreigners in general are agents of contamination. What is more, a careful consideration of the passages that are linguistically and thematically connected to this one (being the Balaam cycle in Numbers 22-24, and the worship of Baal-Peor in Numbers 25) demonstrates that these same metaphorical relationships are latent within those narratives as well.

The assertion that foreign nations have a contaminating influence is conveyed both by means of denigrating those other nations, as well as through lauding Israel in its enforced separation from them. We have already had occasion to note the careful contrast that is established between the Moabites and the Midianites on the one hand and the Israelites on the other, in Numbers 22 and 23. It is in relation to Israel that Balaam declares that there is no sorcery in their midst, while emissaries from the other nations approach the prophet with sorcery, quite literally, in their hands.

It should also be noted that when Balaam first blesses the Israelites encamped beneath him it is specifically in relation to their dwelling apart from all other peoples. Their isolation is accounted to them as righteous: תמֹת נפשי מות ישרים, the prophet declares. וּתהי אחריתי כמֹהו; “May I die the death of the upright, and may my end be like his!” The imputation of righteousness to those who dwell apart from all others is predicated on the assumption that cross-cultural pollination has a deligitimising effect. This in turn is predicated on the assumption that the Israelites express a certain cultural uniformity, or homogeneity, which might be threatened by cultural contact.

This ideology is so pervasive throughout so much of the biblical literature that it can easily go unnoticed, and tends to be remarked upon more frequently in its absence. So too when it comes to the relationship between foreign women and cultural decline, which is particularly evident in the second part of our story, in Numbers 25. There, once Israel has settled in Shittim, they first whore out to the Moabite women, they are only then invited by the Moabite men to partake in offerings, it is then that they eat, and then that they worship Moabite gods. It is in doing this that they are described as having become “attached” to Baal-Peor – a process that commences with their sexual seduction and only ends with their service of a foreign deity. As Susan Niditch has observed, the Midianites “had hired a male wizard to curse Israel, while the Midianite women had cast their own spell, seducing Israel into apostasy” (op.cit. 46).

These two themes reach their climax in Numbers 31, in which they function in many ways as an opportunity to present a series of legislative principles. While the excuse for the war is predicated on concerns over foreign women in particular, the concern over foreign men shows through in the war’s outcome: a contamination rendered even unto inanimate objects. It is difficult to determine the extent to which this impurity is resultant of the war itself, and the extent to which it lay already upon the property of the Midianites, as it may indeed have lain upon the Midianites themselves.

Certainly, the book of Numbers does speak at length about corpse impurity, and reference to such defilement is made also within this chapter. In relation to one’s involvement in warfare rendering a spiritual contamination, one recalls in this context David, who could not build the temple because his hands were stained with blood. And yet, the presentation of war in Numbers 31 is somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, all those who take part in the killing are rendered susceptible to corpse impurity, in need of the waters of the red heifer and are quarantined. On the other hand, it is none other than the high priest’s son who leads the charge, and who does so bearing sacred vessels and trumpets.

Looked at from a strictly literary perspective, the imagery is dissonant, made all the moreso in that these utensils are not referred to as כלי מלחמה (vessels of war), but as כלי הקֹדש: sacred vessels. And herein lies the ambiguity: is war sacred by virtue of its being divinely ordained, or is it something ugly and contaminating? This ambiguity is made especially pronounced within the text’s conclusion, in which the generals of the war make an offering, לכפר על נפשתינו: “in order to atone for ourselves”. For what, one wonders, do they seek atonement? For the sin at Baal-Peor? Or for the war itself?

This dual presentation of the war suits the nature of the two metaphorical relationships that it serves to emphasise. On the one hand, there is the alluring quality of the women; seductive and inviting, they are reminiscent of the “woman of folly” in Proverbs 1-9. On the other hand, however, there is the physically and spiritually contaminating nature of their host culture; repulsive and foreboding, theirs is a path that leads only to death.

It has been suggested that this passage reflects the interests of a late, post-monarchic community, as evidenced by the role of the priests as leaders of the war, and by the highly developed organisation of the Israelite army. The deadly appeal of foreign nations may suit the interests of a scribe who lived during the period of Babylonia’s ascendancy, but what does it tell us that the enemy chosen is the Midianites, rather than the Moabites?

Some scholars has suggested that “Midianites” might have served as a generic reference to nomadic peoples – perhaps along with “Ishmaelites”, “Kenites” and “Amalekites” as well. As such, it may be that the Midianites in Numbers 31 served as a reference also to the Moabites of Numbers 25, but I find this interpretation unsatisfactory. While some features of the text may lend themselves to the possibility of a rough synonymity of terms, the editorial gloss in Numbers 22 that includes Midianite elders in the delegation sent to Balaam belies this possibility. In addition to its asserting a distinction between Midianite and Moabite, it reflects on a desire to maintain an exclusively Midianite focus in the narrative’s culmination, which it legitimises by including them in the affair of Balaam. We must consider, therefore, the Midianite ethnicity of Kozbi as a further appeal to exclusively Midianite guilt, and the reference to the women of Baal-Peor as having been Midianite (as opposed to Moabite) as the final nail in their collective coffin.

One is reminded in this regard of the early post-exilic work of Ezra/Nehemiah, with its focus on the termination of marital relationships, the expulsion of mixed-race children and the rejection of northern communities who, while religiously similar, were simply not a part of the community of exiles. A concern for the purity of bloodlines and of language mark key interests of this community, insofar as they are represented within that text, and they are concerns that find a subtle counterpart within the book of Numbers as well.

In relation to concerns of this nature, there can surely be no better enemy than the Midianites: a community into which Moses himself had married, and from whom – but ten chapters prior to the commencement of our story – he humbly requests an entourage. The manner in which Moses seeks companionship from his father-in-law and is denied mirrors in some fashion the requests made to the returned exiles in Ezra 4. In both instances an appeal is made to the commonalities between two communities, and in both cases these overtures are rebuffed with an appeal to fundamental dissimilarities.

In Ezra, it is the Judean delegation that rebuffs the various men of the north, while in Numbers it is Moses’ father-in-law who refuses to travel with Moses and his people. In his words, כי אם אל ארצי ואל מולדתי אלך: I will go to my land and to my family. That Moses’ family includes Jethro’s own daughter further emphasises the liminal nature of women within this text. In both cases, however, these passages preempt open hostilities between the two groups, which in the pentateuchal narrative culminates in bloodshed.

That these concerns are reflected in the pre-exilic literature is but a further indication that they did not originate during the period of the restoration, as some have supposed. The uneasy relationship that ancient Israel had with her neighbours is reflected in a great deal of her literature. The appeal of foreign cultures and a priestly aversion to cross-cultural pollination find a powerful representation in Numbers 31, and are well-suited to the choice of sexual and cultic metaphors that predominate within it.

The Divine Prankster

24 06 2014

Fairly recently, Marc Shapiro wrote an interesting post about censorship in Miqraot Gedolot haMaor. There, it appears as though the editors saw fit to expurgate an observation of R’ Shabbetai Bass (1641-1718), recorded in his commentary on Rashi (“Siftei Chakhamim”). For the benefit of anybody who’s not sure what the hell I’m talking about, Miqraot Gedolot is known as a rabbinic bible: it features the biblical text on the upper right page, surrounded by targumim, commentaries and (in some case) meta-commentaries. A number of different versions exist, but the one to which I’m referring was published by an institute called Hamaor and spans seventeen beautifully typeset volumes. It is also, at least in this one small instance, censored.

Since I have Miqraot Gedolot haMaor on one shelf and HaMeorot haGedolim on another (the latter being a seven-volume rabbinic bible published by Torah Mefureshet, featuring Rashi and a dozen-or-so meta-commentaries on him), I was able to check and to confirm that, yes, the version published by Hamaor has indeed suffered a tiny excision. The passage to have come under the knife, as you can read in Marc Shapiro’s post, was Siftei Chakhamim on Exodus 33:13. If you look at the biblical text you will see that in the verse immediately before this one, Moses quotes God as having declared that Moses has found favour in his eyes, and in this verse stipulates that if he has found favour in God’s eyes, God should reveal his ways to Moses.

The tautology is striking – did God not already say that he was pleased with Moses? Does not the phraseology suggest that Moses wondered whether or not this assertion was true? Such indeed was suggested by Rashi, who emphasises that Moses is really asking whether or not it is true what God had said to him, and the Siftei Chakhamim draws this point out even further:

דק״ל דבפסוק משמע שהיה ספק למשה אי אמר הקב״ה שמצא חן בעיניו והא אמר משה מתחלה להקב״ה איך שאמר אליו מצאת חן בעיני. לכ״פ אם אמת הוא שמצאתי חן דלמה מה שאמרת מצאת חן בעיני מצחק היית בי כדרך בני אדם

This verse seems to suggest that it was doubtful to Moses whether or not God had said that he had found favour in his eyes, yet Moses said at the outset that God had said, “You found favour in my eyes”! The interpretation, therefore, is “if it is true that I have found favour in your eyes… perhaps, when you said, ‘You have found favour in my eyes’, you were joking with me, as people are wont to do”.

The part that the editors at Hamaor evidently found offensive, and their reason for reducing everything from “perhaps” onwards into a simple וכו׳ (“etc”), was the twofold implication that God might joke with people, and that God’s joking might be in a human fashion (כדרך בני אדם). Really, it’s rather absurd to retroject one’s own exegetical discomfort onto the 17th century literature that one is supposed to be publishing, but cutting something off is a lot better than rewriting it, and you can see some of Prof. Shapiro’s other posts if you want examples of the latter.

For the moment, I find the notion of God as a divine prankster rather interesting and it’s got me thinking about other rabbinic depictions of God as a practical joker. Here’s one from the midrash, which I stumbled across a couple of years ago while looking, as usual, for something else.

The midrash is in Tanchuma (Parshat Vayyeishev, §4), and concerns a verse in Psalms. That verse (found in Psalm 66:5) ascribes עלילה to God, which I shall translate below as “machinations” and as “trickery”. The term might, in a harsher context, denote treachery or deception, while in a gentler context might simply mean “deeds”. It is as “deeds” that the NRSV translates it on this verse, although I think the midrash lends to it a somewhat stronger resonance:

זה שאמר הכתוב לכו חזו מפעלות אלהים נורא עלילה על בני אדם (תהלים ס”ו). אמר רבי יהושע בן קרחה אף הנוראות שאתה מביא עלינו בעלילה את מביאן. בא וראה כשראה הקדוש ברוך הוא את העולם מיום הראשון ברא מלאך המות. מנין. אמר רבי ברכיה משום שנאמר וחשך על פני תהום זה מלאך המות המחשיך פניהם של בריות. ואדם נברא בששי ועלילה נתלה בו שהוא הביא את המיתה לעולם שנאמר כי ביום אכלך ממנו מות תמות. משל למה הדבר דומה למי שמבקש לגרש את אשתו כשבקש לילך לביתו כתב גט נכנס לביתו והגט בידו מבקש עלילה לתנו לה. אמר לה מזגי לי את הכוס שאשתה. מזגה לו. כיון שנטל הכוס מידה אמר לה הרי זה גטך. אמרה לו מה פשעי. אמר לה צאי מביתי שמזגת לי כוס פשור. אמרה לו כבר היית יודע שאני עתידה למזג לך כוס פשור שכתבת הגט והבאתו בידך. אף כך אמר אדם לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא רבונו של עולם עד שלא בראת עולמך קדם שני אלפים שנה היתה תורה אצלך אמון שכך כתיב ואהיה אצלו אמון ואהיה שעשועים יום יום (משלי ח) שני אלפים שנה וכתיב בה זאת התורה אדם כי ימות באהל (במדבר י”ט). אלולי שהתקנת מות לברות היית כותב בה כך אלא באת לתלות בי את העלילה. הוי נורא עלילה על בני אדם

My translation:

This is as the verse says: “Come and see the acts of God! His machinations (עלילה) against humanity are awe-inspiring!” Rabbi Yehoshua ben Qorcha explained, even the awe-inspiring things that you bring against us, you do so by way of trickery (עלילה).

Come, see: when the Holy One, blessed is he, saw the world on the first day [of its creation], he created the angel of death. How do we know this? Rabbi Berekhiah explained, because it says: “And darkness was upon the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). That is a reference to the angel of death, who darkens the face of all creatures. Yet Adam was created on the sixth day, and was tricked into thinking that he had been the one to bring death into the world, as it says: “On the day that you eat of it, you shall definitely die” (Genesis 2:17).

To what can this be compared? To one who seeks to divorce¹ his wife. As soon as he readies for home, he writes a document of divorce, enters the house with it in his hand and then tries to trick her. “Pour me a cup,” he says, “so that I can drink”. She pours him a cup. As soon as he takes it from her, he says, “Here is your document of divorce”.

“What have I done wrong?”, she asks him.

“Get out of my house,” he replies, “for the cup that you poured me is cold!”

“You must have already known that I would pour you a cold cup,” she tells him, “since you wrote a divorce document and carried it here by hand!”

Likewise, Adam spoke to the Holy One, blessed is he: “Master of the world! Two thousand years before you created your world, the Torah was like an architect before you – as it is written, “I was by him an architect, and I was a delight daily” (Proverbs 8:30). For two thousand years! And it is written in it, “This is the law concerning a person who dies in a tent” (Numbers 19:14). You could not have written that had you not already established death for all creatures – you only came to trick me!”

“His machinations against humanity are awe-inspiring…” (Psalm 66:5)

¹The example given here is interesting, since the verb used for “divorce” (גרש) literally means to drive away, or send forth. The first instance in which this word appears within the Torah is in Genesis 3:24, in which it is Adam and Eve who are being “divorced” from the garden by God.

The Internal Chronology of Genesis

10 03 2014

In the Zohar (I:147b), R’ Elazar declares a relationship between the toponym Beer Sheva and the jubilee year, implying a mystical connection between the two and suggesting that when Jacob left Beer Sheva to go to Haran via Bet El, it was a sabbatical year at the time. In the 18th century, R’ Yonasan Eybeschütz relied upon its having been a sabbatical year when Jacob arrived in Bet El, in order to respond to a question on the midrash (Divrei Yehonatan, Parshat Vayyetze; Bereishit Rabbah 68:11). What basis do these assertions have?

While I’ve no problem with the Zohar’s relying on the homophonous relationship between Beer Sheva and the Hebrew word for “seven”, nor with Rav Eybeschütz’s sole source on this matter being the Zohar, I cannot help but wonder whether or not information such as this can also be inferred directly from the biblical text.

In order for us to know whether or not it was a sabbatical year at the time of Jacob’s departure from Beer Sheva, or at the time of his arrival in Bet El, we first need to work out the years at which those events must have occurred. I refer, of course, to what can be determined from the Torah’s own internal chronology and make no claims as regards the veracity of the events that it describes. From a strictly literary perspective, the book of Genesis requests of us that we read it in a diegetic fashion. With very few exceptions, the text is narrative, and those few parts that are non-narrative (such as the blessings that appear in chapter 49) are to be understood, within context, as being uttered by one of the characters in the story. As such, whatever pre-history the text may or may not have had, it is reasonable to treat it as a single, sustained narrative and to look for chronological clues in the reconstruction of relative timing.

The story commences in the first year of creation. I’ll refer to this as 1 AM, where AM stands for Anno Mundi. This is when Adam was born, and we are told that he fathered Seth when he was 130 years old (Genesis 5:3). Seth was 105 years old when he fathered Enosh (5:6); Enosh was 90 years old when he fathered Kenan (5:9); Kenan was 70 years old when he fathered Mahalalel (5:12); Mahalalel was 65 years old when he fathered Jared (5:15); Jared was 62 years old when he fathered Enoch (5:18); Enoch was 65 years old when he fathered Methuselah (5:21); Methuselah was 87 years old when he fathered Lamech (5:25); and Lamech was 82 years old when he fathered Noah (5:28-29). Adding up the figures conveys to us that Noah was born in the year 1056 AM.

Interestingly, most of his ancestors were still alive at this time, as the following chart shows:

930 – Adam died
987 – Enoch died
1042 – Seth died
1056 – Noah was born
1140 – Enosh died
1235 – Kenan died
1290 – Mahalalel died
1424 – Jared died
1651 – Lamech died
1656 – Methuselah died

After Noah, things get a little more tricky. We are told that at the age of five hundred (= 1556 AM), Noah sired three sons. Unfortunately, we are neither told whether he started siring sons at this age, whether he stopped siring sons at this age, nor even the order of their births. As such, this information alone is insufficient to tell us the year in which Shem (Jacob’s distant ancestor) was born.

In Genesis 10:21b, Shem is described as אחי יפת הגדול. Translating this passage literally gives us something like, “the brother of Japheth (the older one)”. To whom is “the older one” referring?

According to the Artscroll translation (which is conducted in line with various rabbinic commentaries), the verse asserts that Shem was “the brother of the elder Japheth”. According to the NJPS translation, he is “the older brother” of the same. Is one of these translations wrong? Regrettably, no. The Hebrew word for brother (אח) is a singular masculine noun. As is the name Japheth, since it too refers to a singular masculine entity. The adjective, הגדול (“the older one”) is a singular masculine adjective, since it refers to one of those two things only, though it could be either one: the word “brother” (which is a reference to Shem), or the name Japheth.

As such, stating that Shem is “the brother of Japheth (the older one)” leaves us in the dark as regards whether the adjective refers to Shem or to Japheth, and therefore as to which of them is the older of the two. Interestingly, Ham is entirely absent from these considerations. It would appear that he is widely assumed to have been the youngest of the three, leaving only the relative relationship of Shem and Japheth in question. It may be that the reason for this is the assumption that הגדול means “the eldest one”. Such was the opinion of Rav Saadiah Gaon (c.885-942 CE), for example, and it is a function of the adjective with some precedent.

Fortunately for us, we can resolve this problem from a literary perspective, and do so without bringing Ham into the equation at all.

In Genesis 11:10, we are informed that Shem sired Arpachshad at the age of 100, and that this was two years after the flood. Since we are told in Genesis 7:6 that the flood occurred when Noah was 600 years old (= 1656 AM: the year of Methusaleh’s death), we can work out that Shem was not the oldest of his brothers. If Noah had starting fathering children at the age of 500 (as per Genesis 5:32), his firstborn would have been 100 years old when the flood occurred. Since Shem was 100 years old two years after the flood, Arpachshad must have been born when his grandfather was either 602 or 603 (= 1658/9 AM), depending on precisely when the flood ended.

Determining the length of the flood is a tricky business, and for some time discussion has been dominated by those who would see in this evidence of the Torah’s multi-sourced composition. I have no problem with those opinions, but am generally disinterested in the attempted delineation of hypothetical texts. Rather, I have an interest in the actual text of the Torah (however it came to be this way), which served as the Torah to those who composed the rabbinic literature, Zohar included. From this finished literary composition, it is evident that the flood lasted, more or less, exactly one year.

The description runs from Genesis 7:11-8:14 and indicates a staged process, which commences and ends with a precise date: in the 600th year of Noah’s life, on the 17th day of the second month, the flood began; in the 601st year of Noah’s life, on the 27th day of the second month, the earth was completely dry. If we were to suppose that “two years after the flood” means “two years after the flood ended“, Noah would have been 603 when Arphachshad was born; if it means “two years after the year in which the flood began“, which was 1656 AM, then Noah would have been 602. Which of these is more logical?

It is my understanding of the text that the latter makes more sense, and for two reasons:

Firstly, Genesis 9:28-29 informs us that “Noah lived for 350 years after the flood, and that all the days of Noah were 950 years”. If “after the flood” means “after the flood ended” (ie: the 601st year of Noah’s life), then living an additional 305 years would mean that his overall lifespan was 951 years, not 950. The only way to get 950 is by assuming that “after the flood” means “after the year in which the flood began”.

Secondly, there is the fact that the word for flood (מבול) occurs several times within this narrative, but always and only in reference to the first 40 days of the deluge. So, for example, Genesis 7:6 tells us that “Noah was 600 years old when the flood occurred: water all over the earth”. The following verse tells us that it was “because of the water of the flood”, which continued for seven days (7:10), that Noah and his family entered the box that he had built. Finally, verse 17 informs us that the flood was on the earth for 40 days altogether, and constitutes the final use of that noun throughout the so-called “flood narrative”. For the remainder of the text, the water is simply referred to as water; it has ceased raining.

One way or another, this gives us the year of 1658 AM for the birth of Arphachshad: two years after the flood, when Noah was 602 years old.

Fortunately for us, for the next eight generations, things get a little simpler again. Genesis 11:10-26 gives us another detailed account of the births and deaths of Jacob’s ancestors, starting with Shem and continuing until Abraham’s father, Terah – a total of nine generations, Shem included. Now that we know that Shem’s son, Arpachshad, was born in the year 1658 AM, we can determine the years in which each of his descendants were born as well:

Arpachshad – 1658
Shelah – 1693
Eber – 1723
Peleg – 1757
Reu – 1787
Serug – 1819
Nahor – 1849
Terah – 1878

Thus, the year in which Abraham’s father Terah was born was the year 1878 AM. But how old was he when he sired Abraham?

The Torah tells us (Genesis 11:26) that he was seventy years old when he fathered Abraham and two other sons, that year being 1948 AM. Regrettably, however, it does not give us the order of their births, so we are once more at a loss to date the birth of any one of them in particular. Was Abraham the eldest? This time, there are no inner-biblical clues that might tell us whether or not he was.

For the authors of the rabbinic literature, all information can either be gleaned directly from the Torah or derived explicitly from the same. Were the text to furnish us with clues concerning the relative ages of Abraham and his two brothers, we could rely upon that in order to determine the year of his birth – as the Torah did for Shem. Since it does not, we must assume that the date given to us (1948 AM) applies to the primary character within the narrative, and not to somebody else.

Since we know that Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born (Genesis 21:5), and since we know that Isaac was 60 years old when Jacob was born (Genesis 25:26), then so long as we suppose that Abraham was born in 1948, we can now confidently date the birth of Jacob to the year 2108 AM. All that remains is to determine how old he was when he left Beer Sheva, and how old he might have been when he arrived in Bet El. Is that possible?

Surprisingly, this is actually something that can be worked out fairly easily.

When Jacob meets Pharaoh in Genesis 47:9, he tells him that he is 130 years old. This is nine years after his son, Joseph, had become ruler over Egypt: the first seven of those years being years of plentiful grain, and the subsequent two being years of famine (Genesis 45:6). When Joseph became ruler we are told that he was 30 years of age (Genesis 41:46), which would mean that his father, Jacob, was 91 at the time of Joseph’s birth. Prior to Joseph’s being born, Jacob served his uncle Laban for a period of fourteen years. The Torah tells us that Jacob’s period of indentured servitude transpired at the time of Joseph’s birth (Genesis 30:25), which means that Jacob was 77 years old when he met Laban.

Seeing as Jacob travelled to his uncle directly from Bet El, we can assume that he was also 77 years old when he spent a night there. If he was born in the year 2108, that would give us the year 2185 AM for his arrival in Bet El. Is this also the year in which he left Beer Sheva?

Ishmael was fourteen years older than Isaac, Jacob’s father, as can be seen from the fact that Abraham was 86 years old when Ishmael was born (Genesis 16:16) and 100 years old when Isaac was born (Genesis 21:5). Ishmael died at the age of 137 (Genesis 25:17), which would have been when Isaac was 123. Since Isaac was 60 when Jacob was born (Genesis 25:26), Jacob must have been 63 when Ishmael died, which would have been in the year 2171 AM, fourteen years before he reached Bet El. And yet, Esau (Jacob’s brother) is said to have approached Ishmael with the intention of marrying his daughter, when Jacob left Beer Sheva (Genesis 28:9). Is it possible that it took fourteen years or longer for Jacob to travel from Beer Sheva to Bet El?

The midrashic tradition has Jacob leaving Beer Sheva in 2171 AM, around the time of Esau’s marrying Ishmael’s daughter and Ishmael’s death, studying for fourteen years in the yeshiva established by his ancestors Shem and Eber (the second of whom wasn’t to die for another sixteen years), and then continuing on to Bet El in 2185 AM and, thence, to his uncle’s house (Megillah 17a; Rashi, Genesis 28:9, s.v. אחות נביות). We can safely assume that this midrashic tradition underscores the assertions made in the Zohar, and in the commentary of Rav Eybeschütz.

There are fifty years in the jubilee cycle. Dividing both of those dates by 50 gives us 43.42 for the first one, and 43.7 for the second. That means that the first date (2171 AM) was 21 years into the new jubilee cycle (21 = 0.42 x 50), and that the second date (2185 AM) was 35 years into the new jubilee cycle (35 = 0.7 x 50). Since the sabbatical cycle denotes a period of seven years, both of these dates would give us a sabbatical year – the first being the third of the jubilee cycle, and the second one being the fifth.

In actuality, of course, we need adopt neither of those dates if we do not wish to, assume that they have any significance beyond being incidental features of a narrative, nor even look for too much in the way of internal consistency. Asking questions like these may be a little like wondering what Prince Hamlet was doing when he received news of his father’s death; that which is not explicitly inferrable from the story is simply not part of the story.

But since the early rabbinic literature and the later midrashic tradition (including the Zohar) operates on the principle that anything not stated directly by the Torah can be inferred somehow from the same, the supposition that those dates have significance in the life of Jacob, that they’re not “merely” historical details, and that they can be used in order to determine a broader chronology that stretches beyond Genesis and into the realm of real history has genuine import.

As such, the Zohar’s assertion that Jacob left Beer Sheva in a sabbatical year, and Rav Eybeschütz’s assertion that it was a sabbatical year when he arrived in Bet El, is neither simple wordplay, based around the homonym sheva, nor a fanciful addition to the text. Whether we share in their presuppositions or not, it is evident that these traditions reflect a solid basis in biblical exegesis.

Homosexuality and Witchcraft

19 02 2012

I recently wrote the following note on Facebook:

The Eternal Torah

The sad reality is that, every year, more and more young people in Australia are coming out of the closet and identifying as ***s. This is despite the existence of a clear verse in the Torah, condemning *** as an inappropriate lifestyle. The books that they read, the films that they watch, and every aspect of this ***-enabling country is only encouraging our youth to experiment with activities that are physically and morally harmful. Because I truly care about the moral bedrock of our society, I say that ***s should not be allowed to get married. While it is true that the Torah doesn’t actually condemn their marrying one another, it is clear that allowing them this liberty will only encourage their sordid lifestyle further, and God forbid a child be raised in such an unhealthy home. After all, everybody knows that being a *** is a choice. Trying to market it as a choice that one is entitled to make (when nothing can be more contrary to God’s will) is a travesty, and a clear indication of how low our society has sunk.

There are those who say that the Torah’s message should be reinterpreted. That perhaps it was being specific and referring only to particular activities. This is an ignorant assertion and should be completely ignored. While one who knows nothing of rabbinic law might read the relevant verse in this fashion, the truth is that the rabbis understood this prohibition as relating to both males and females. As such, the Torah deals with the sin of *** categorically. While we may no longer be allowed to actually kill these people (despite the fact that the Torah mandates the death penalty for their crime), granting them equality in the eyes of the law when all they need to do is change their sordid lifestyle is a crime unto God himself.

In a last-ditch attempt to make sacred the profane, there are those who liken the crime of *** to other “outdated” laws in the biblical literature, but they do this completely ignorant of the way that halakha works. The simple truth is that the rabbis of the Talmud did not see fit to recontextualise this particular law. If they didn’t reframe it, and make the crime of *** a phenomenon no longer in effect, then what gives us the audacity to do so? Not only that, but the law that pertains to *** is phrased in the negative! It is one thing to recontextualise a positive commandment, but another thing entirely to recontextualise a prohibition.

The number of ***s in Australia today is growing. The amount of ***-themed literature and film is on the rise. In my own neighbourhood, I see people who are proud of being ***s and it is time that rabbis take a stand. *** is disgusting. *** should still be illegal. ***s should not be allowed to marry, should receive no recognition for their activities, and should be dealt with by psychologists and counsellors only.

God’s holy Torah is immutable and in effect. If the rabbis of the Talmud didn’t recontextualise it, then who the hell are you?

– Exodus 22:17 (18 in the English).

Regrettably, not everybody understood what I was trying to say. Some thought that I was having a go at homosexuals, some thought that I was having a go at witches, and some thought that I was trying to imply that homosexuality is a type of witchcraft! By way of explaining the point that I was trying to make, consider the following reasons so often given by rabbis as to why homosexuality must not be tolerated in our society. I think this list is fairly exhaustive:

• The Torah’s condemnation of homosexuality is clearly stated (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13);

• While the Torah only prohibits sexual intercourse between two men, the rabbis broadened the prohibition to include two women;

• The Torah describes homosexuality as a “toevah” (an abomination);

• The Torah relates homosexuality to the practices of Canaanites (as per the declaration in Leviticus 18:3, which precedes a string of prohibitions, one of which is homosexuality, and the declaration in Leviticus 20:23, which concludes a string of prohibitions, one of which is homosexuality);

• The Torah relates homosexuality to bestiality: the latter is forbidden in Leviticus 18:23, immediately after the prohibition of male homosexual intercourse;

• The penalty for homosexual intercourse is death;

• The rabbis of the Talmud never saw fit to mitigate this penalty, to recontextualise the prohibition, nor to limit its application;

• While the Torah does not speak of same-sex marriage, such a thing would be impossible: any marriage between two people of the same sex would lack kiddushin and be non-halakhic, and any permissibility granted for same-sex civil marriages will only encourage homosexuality and lead to children being raised in an environment conducive to illegitimate sexual experimentation.

And then, of course, there’s the real zinger:

Homosexuality has been illegal throughout the world for the longest time. Lifting it now to the level of heterosexuality is a slight against centuries of tradition.

Now let’s consider the prohibition of witchcraft:

• The Torah’s condemnation of witchcraft is clearly stated (Exodus 22:17/18, Leviticus 20:27, Deuteronomy 18:10-11);

• While some verses in the Torah only prohibit female practitioners of witchcraft, the rabbis broadened the prohibition to include men;

• The Torah describes witchcraft as a “toevah” (an abomination);

• The Torah relates witchcraft to the practices of Canaanites (as per the declaration in Deuteronomy 18:9, which precedes the prohibition of witchcraft);

• The Torah relates witchcraft to bestiality: the latter is forbidden in Exodus 22:18/19, immediately after the prohibition of witchcraft;

• The penalty for witchcraft is death;

• The rabbis of the Talmud never saw fit to mitigate this penalty, to recontextualise the prohibition, nor to limit its application;

• While the Torah does not speak of practitioners of witchcraft marrying, such a thing could be viewed as impossible: any marriage conducted in accordance with pagan or Wiccan traditions would lack kiddushin and be non-halakhic, and any permissibility granted for civil marriages between two such people will only encourage witchcraft and lead to children being raised in an environment conducive to illegitimate spiritual experimentation.

And while one never hears it, the following assertion is no less ridiculous than what one hears from those who lament the supposed proliferation of homosexuality:

Witchcraft used to be illegal. Justifying it now would be an insult to centuries of beautiful tradition, like the 16th and 17th centuries, when Europe and North America burned with a passion that surely ignites the spirit.

Let’s face it, Judaism seems to have developed something of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in relation to the practise of witchcraft. The reason for this is that, deep down, nobody really cares too much about whether or not you think it’s awesome to hold a séance with your friends, to go dancing in the forest when it’s a full moon, or to ask questions of a dead rabbi by writing them down and sticking them in his books. You do your thing and I’ll do mine.

But when it comes to homosexuality, people just feel a bit yuck about the whole thing. That’s a perfectly normal reaction. It’s all part of growing up and being stupid.

If you cannot think of a good reason to stamp up and down and lament the proliferation of witchcraft-themed books and films, to decry the fact that kids these days are painting their fingernails black and listening to goth music (they’re still doing this, right?), to lament with anger this “witch-enabling” country of ours and to cry about the global witch agenda, then it might be time for you to exercise a little restraint in other areas as well.

After all, if neither the rabbis nor the Torah itself drew any real distinction between the two, it’s hardly worth pretending that your hatred of only one of them is fuelled by anything other than simple-minded prejudice. Time to give it a rest.

Load of Bullae

15 12 2011

If you live in Edmond, Oklahoma, you can attend an exhibition of nearly three dozen artifacts from the period of the first temple, discovered by Dr. Eilat Mazar. On January 15th, the Armstrong Auditorium is going to be showcasing these artifacts, with a concert given by pianist Orli Shaham and violinist Itamar Zorman. The two pieces of which they are most proud are bullae that were discovered in 2005 and 2008, both bearing names of princes who are mentioned in Jeremiah 38:1 – Gedaliahu ben Paschur (in the foreground) and Yehukal ben Shlemaiah (in the background).

It’s always exciting to see artifacts that relate to material that we read in the biblical literature, but it’s also always entertaining to witness people getting carried away with their significance. Take, for example, Stephen Flurry. He is the executive editor of The Trumpet, which is a publication by the Philadelphia Church of God, but is also the president of the Herbert W. Armstrong College in Edmonton, which has been funding Dr Mazar’s excavation. His reaction to the bullae, while slightly more circumspect in 2008, was to declare that “we are honored to be involved in Dr. Mazar’s work. These tiny artifacts validate Jeremiah’s account and provide overwhelming proof of the accuracy of the biblical record.” [link] Overwhelming proof indeed! In fact, if you look at the bullae very closely, you might be able to make out the fine print that can only be seen by those of us who are truly pious, in which the coins refer to the tossing of Jeremiah into a well. You can’t see it? Pray harder.

But I shouldn’t tease. After all, this is how The Trumpet describes itself:

The Trumpet uses a single overarching criterion that sets it apart from other news sources and keeps it focused like a laser beam on what truly is important. That criterion is prophetic significance. The Trumpet seeks to show how current events are fulfilling the biblically prophesied description of the prevailing state of affairs just before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

They’re right about one thing. That really does set them apart from other news sources.

A Theology of Revelation

4 06 2011

While it is certainly not like me to post (or speak at all) about theology, I must break with convention and share a rather insightful observation by none other than Rashi himself. I was surprised to have encountered it, for Rashi rarely divulges theological observations of any real sophistication or profundity. Nonetheless, this last week’s parsha, פרשת נשא, concludes with a curious turn of phrase. Moses is said to have walked into the “tent of meeting”, the אהל מועד, and to have heard the voice of God speaking to him. The clause reads as follows:

ובבא משה אל אהל מועד לדבר אתו וישמע את הקול מדבר אליו מעל הכפרת אשר על ארן העדת מבין שני הכרבים וידבר אליו

When Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak with the Lord, he would hear the voice speaking to him from above the mercy-seat that was on the ark of the covenant from between the two cherubim; thus it spoke to him. (NRSV)

– Numbers 7:89

We can ignore for the moment the strange and unusual phraseology of the NRSV in this instance, for the issue of interest is a particular verbal phrase, their translation of which (“he would hear the voice speaking to him”) strikes me as being right on the money. I am unsure, however, as to what the masoretes were doing when they vocalised it as they did.

Anybody who has ever engaged with the biblical text is aware that they are encountering at least three different texts, one superimposed upon the other. The naked consonantal text, whatever its own history might have been, underlies both the vocalisation and the accentuation, both of which were added to the Hebrew some time after its original composition, and both of which are likewise historically distinct from one another. Where I would have expected the verb to have been vocalised as מְדַבֵּר (ie: a pi’el participle), it is instead vocalised as מִדַּבֵּר, with a hireq under the mem and a dagesh in the first and second radicals.

Both Onkelos and (Pseudo-)Yonatan parse the verb as a hithpa’el with an elided tav (מתמלל, in their Aramaic), which makes a certain degree of sense. It is not the only time that √דבר occurs in this stem, with two occurrences appearing in Ezekiel as well (2:2 and 43:6). In those instances, as the text is written in the first person, the ensuing pronoun (אלי) demonstrates that, hithpa’el or not, the verb has a non-reflexive meaning. Perhaps Ibn Ezra is uncomfortable with this possibility (although it is embraced by the Radak, in situ), for he parses the clause in Numbers 7:89 as being a contraction of מן דַבּר אליו, the verb in which is a pi’el infinitive construct, attested also in Jeremiah 1:6. This would mean that Moses heard the voice of God “from (ie: as a result of) [God’s] speaking to him”.

Rashi, on the other hand, has a hard time constraining the two occurrences in Ezekiel to fit his theory, which is that the word is a reflexive, and that the referent of the pronoun in Numbers (אליו) is God himself! Unless I am reading too deeply into his interpretation, he seems to be implying that God’s dialogue with a prophet occurs, not in the manner of direct speech, but as the result of the prophet’s being capable of tuning into the frequency at which God’s continual discourse to himself is occurring, and eavesdropping. As a manner of speaking.

I find this idea, to which the Hebrew text does not overtly lend itself at all, to be both subtle and provocative. I would not go so far as to assert that it is buttressed by the vocalisation of this word, but the word’s vocalisation does lend itself to this possible interpretation, and were one so inclined one might stretch this into a general theology of revelation that can be made to fit the hundred thousand other examples of God conversing with prophets.

Whether one does or not, of course, it is certainly interesting food for thought.

Pity for the Enemy

12 03 2011

In Matthew 5:43-44, Jesus is quoted as having made a rather brazen statement. “You have heard,” he says, “that you should love your neighbour and hate your enemy. Well I say that you should love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” In Berakhot 10a, Rabbi Meir is talked by his sensible wife into praying for the repentance of “bandits” (countryfolk, to be linguistically precise), but to suggest that somebody should go so far as to actually love the ones who threaten them might be a bit much. In fact, show me somebody who genuinely has compassion for those who endanger the lives of his children, and I’ll show you somebody who shouldn’t have any. But that’s only one of two reasons as to why this statement is a brazen one. The other, less obvious, reason is that nowhere is it said that you should hate them in the first place.

In fact, Jesus’ assertion (if we might take at face value that it was his) is renowned for going so much further than the statement attributed to Hillel before him: that which is harmful to you, do not do to another; that is the whole of Torah (Shabbat 31a). Like Rabbi Akiva, who in later years was to suggest that “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19:18) was the most important mitzvah (cf: Sifra 19:45), Jesus seems to be drawing on this principle in citing his modified ruling. Yet where does the Torah ever stress the corollary, that one should hate his enemies? Nowhere does the verb √שנא (nor the nouns שנאה or אימה), appear within the context of an imperative, commanding us to hate anybody or anything. There are ample passages that testify to an enmity for certain nations, people, animals, objects and practises, but nothing that says that you must actually despise those things. At least, not in the way that Jesus appears to be suggesting.

It strikes me that Jesus is employing a rather exclusionary interpretation of the word רעך, which I have above translated as “your neighbour”, but which more properly means “your friend”. I do not suppose that anybody (leastways, nobody who pretends to live in accordance with this principle) would suggest that it is referring to anything so exclusive as the individual who you would consider your actual companion, but it is through intimating that it is only those people whom one is required to love that Jesus derives the implicit corollary: those who are not your friends, you are required to actually hate. That is going a bit far for my liking, but then it is Matthew 5 that we are talking about.

Be that as it may, I was teaching my weekly Shabbat morning class on Isaiah this morning, and we were reading chapters 15 and 16. This lengthy oracle against Moab provided me with a wonderful opportunity to present also the Moabite Stone, and compare it (on a surface level) to the war between Moab and Israel, Judah and Edom in 2 Kings 3. Considering the generally polemical nature of all texts that concern Moab (and it is the exceptional character of Ruth that proves the rule), it is no surprise that Isaiah’s oracle (not unlike all of Isaiah’s oracles in this section) should be so gratuitously violent. Indeed, I even suggested that those sections in which he expresses sincere grief for the misfortune of the Moabites were anything but that, and that the Israelite poet who composed this particular oracle wanted nothing more than to crow bombastically over the annihilation of his foes. And yet… there is something strange about 16:3-4.

Having immediately followed on from the threat of destruction, levelled against even those few who escape God’s immediate wrath (15:9), the prophet now admonishes us to show mercy to their refugees, to hide their escapees, and to be a general refuge for them. That the editors of the NRSV noted the incongruence of this passage might be demonstrated in the fact that they enclosed it in quotation marks. Somebody is saying this, but it is evidently neither the prophet himself nor God. In a footnote to the New Jerusalem Bible, the assertion is made that this is the Moabites who are speaking. That might make sense, and may be what the NRSV is meaning to suggest. But is that what the Hebrew actually says?

יגורו בך נדחי מואב הוי סתר למו מפני שודד

I would translate this as “Let the Moabite refugees dwell among you; be a hiding place for them from the despoiler”. If I were to vocalise it, in other words, I would render it as yaguru vakh nidchei mo’av hevei seter lamo mifnei shoded. Yet I was most intrigued to discover that this is not how it is actually vocalised in the MT. On the contrary, there it is vocalised as yaguru vakh niddachai mo’av hevei seter lamo mifnei shoded. In other words, “Let my refugees live among you, O Moab; be a hiding place for them from the despoiler”.

I think that it is safe to say that this reading makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Instead, I would suggest that it is a symptom of exegetical discomfort over the possibility that Isaiah is here exhorting the Israelites to have compassion for their foes. While I can understand the Masoretes having had a problem with this possibility, I find it difficult to understand why certain Christian translations would find it problematic, especially when it occurs in what is widely referred to as the fourth gospel.


25 02 2011

Quite some time ago, I wrote a post about an interesting difference between the Masoretic Text (Genesis 42:1) and two of the Aramaic translations: Targum Pseudo-Jonathan and the Peshitta. What interested me about them was that they had both understood the word תתראו as תתיראו: “[you pl.] looking at one another”, vs. “[you pl.] are afraid”. It seemed to me, if not to others, that the Aramaic/Syriac version was superior to the version in the Hebrew, which never really satisfied me in context. Turns out that there’s another instance, very similar to that one!

Almost exactly one year ago, Dov Bear wrote a post about Exodus 32:5, in which he indicated his confusion over precisely what it was that Aaron is said to have seen. In this instance, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan keeps the same Hebrew verb as we find in the Masoretic Text (although he does add details that concern what Aaron saw), but the Peshitta, again, renders this as √דחל, “to fear”. In this instance, however, the anonymous translator would not have had a text that featured an additional letter, but was merely vocalising differently those letters that he had.

This all reminds me of the fact that I really should read more of the Peshitta. I wonder how often it renders “look” as “fear”? The root √ראה turns up almost four hundred times in the Torah alone, and as I don’t have the Peshitta on my copy of Accordance, I expect that this experiment might take more time than I am prepared to commit. Until I update my hopelessly outdated software, I wonder if anybody in possession of a newer version would like to take a stab at this? Does the anonymous translator of the Peshitta specifically have a thing for the horror genre?

“As the Waters Cover the Sea”

28 01 2011

There are various places online where you can read about the top applications for the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. Assuming that you are interested in games, or various forms of social organisers and search tools, these lists can be quite helpful. But what happens if your tastes are a little more… boutique? What are the best applications for the Hebrew scholar? For the purveyor of rabbinic literature? For the biblical geek? Well, my friend, you have come to the right place, for while I don’t want to out myself as a “fan-boy”, the number of Apple devices that I now use has reached a disconcerting five, and I am told that I am a bit of a Jew.

What follows is not only in praise of Apple (although I suspect that various mediaeval artists were correct when they depicted it as the fruit of all knowledge), but is simply my top-five list of Hebraic/rabbinic/biblical applications in general. Those who are interested in such things: knock yourselves out. (Those who are not: what are you doing here?)

[And to all of you: I am sure that this list is not nearly exhaustive! If you know of other applications that you can recommend, please share them in the comments thread.]

5. Even though I no longer use it, I feel the need to draw people’s attention to “the iPhone application 1800 years in the making”. Crowded Road’s iMishna is fantastic. I am surprised that it is presently selling for $15 (I seem to remember it being very cheap when I purchased it originally), but I do think it’s excellent. It contains the full text of the Mishna (I cannot tell you which manuscripts it relies upon), and the commentaries of Rav Ovadiah of Bartenura and the Tosafot Yom Tov. Apparently, you can also download lectures by a certain Rabbi Chaim Brown, although this is not a feature that I have ever utilised and so I cannot vouch for their quality. As an application that enables you to search for Hebrew words within individual tractates, individual orders, or throughout the Mishna as a whole, this is an excellent product. I almost got hit by a car once because I was somewhat engrossed in Tractate Avot while walking from Chatswood to Artarmon, but I’ve nobody to blame for that but myself. Knowing Mishna off by heart is much safer.

4. Now, I got excited once before about a website that enabled me to download the full text of the Hebrew Bible, spoken by a fellow with a beautiful Sephardi accent. It remains a marvellous site, but I have found something better. Granted, it won’t suit everybody. Indeed, it may not even suit anybody, but it has provided me with hours of genuine fascination, and so I share it with you: Rav Nissan Kaplan, the mashgiach ruchani at the Mirrer Yeshiva, Jerusalem, has uploaded a very large number of audio files. While driving, I occasionally listen to his mussar schmuessen, although mainly for the nostalgia value. When I have more time on my hands, I listen to a halakha or a gemara shiur. Other excellent (and decidedly more “academic”) lectures are available from Merkaz, but the audio quality is generally pretty poor. And of course, neither of these sites are actually “applications”, but they make my iPod happy.

3. I have heard lots of good things about Bible Works, but I have never used it. Instead, I use a program called Accordance, which runs like a charm on both my iMac and my MacBook. Without this program, I would never have been able to write my Honours thesis (which was a fascinating analysis of the frequency and distribution of locative-heh suffix forms in Chronicles), and I am tremendously impressed me with the acumen of former generations of scholars who were able to find such information without the aid of a computer program. I am running an old version of the software (6.9.1), and despite spotting the occasional error, an ability to search quickly and easily for grammatical and syntactic features of the Hebrew text (BHS, with Groves-Wheeler Westminster Hebrew Morphology) makes it well worth whatever it was that I paid for it back in 2005. I use it less today than I used to, but it remains a sensational resource.

2. Why don’t I use “Accordance” as often as I once did? Because I have a concordance in my pocket! Bill Clementson’s HebrewBible is the very best thing about the Apple iPhone. As you can see from the link, it has a wide variety of different features, but its most useful one is the fact that it contains a fully functional concordance. Many a time I have whipped out my iPhone in class in order to quickly search for a Hebrew root. The application finds the various occurrences for me, and even presents the individual verses that feature that particular word. It relies on an internet connection in order to operate, but if there’s a network available (or if you have 3G on your device), you will also be pleased to note the inclusion of the full text of the BDB.

As for the biblical text, the Hebrew is taken from a variety of different manuscripts (the Aleppo Codex is given preference, although they have apparantly privileged the Leningrad Codex in those places where the Aleppo is unavailable), and you can even switch to Aramaic (Onkelos, based on various Yemenite manuscripts). The English is based on the 1917 JPS, although I find it handy to also utilise Paul Avery’s (free) Holy Bible, which has the King James Version amongst others. At $9, Bill Clementson’s “HebrewBible” is worth every cent.

1. And this brings us to number 1. The absolute greatest in 21st century gadgetry! Good.iWare’s Goodreader for the Apple iPad is a product that I cannot recommend highly enough. This is where my search for the perfect e-Reader ended. I wanted something with a large screen, PDF functionality and full Hebrew support. The only device with E Ink that seemed to be available was the Pocketbook 902, and I can certainly recommend it to those whose PDFs are very small, or who are also likely to read material in alternative formats. But if, like me, you are getting your literature from HebrewBooks.org, then you are going to need something that can handle files approaching 200MB. As beautiful as the Pocketbook 902 is, it just doesn’t cut it.

Goodreader on the iPad enables you to go online within the program itself and download PDFs directly from the website. It then allows you to rename them, create folders for them, organise them within your folders, preview them before viewing them, and even make your own notes on them when you do. It loads pages quickly (at worst, a little over a second), allows you to jump to specific pages in advance, lets you search within the documents (in Hebrew as well as in English), and reloads the pages if you zoom so that the writing is still sharp. It has a number of other features as well, which I’ve not yet had the time to encounter, and is absolutely perfect for those who wish to have a rabbinic library on the go. I have already dumped the entire Mishna onto it, the entire Babylonian Talmud, some PDFs of Hebrew and Greek verbal paradigms, Midrash Rabba, Torat Kohanim and a handful of inscriptions: the Mesha Stele, Tel-Dan Inscription, Kilamuwa Inscription, Kuntillet Ajrud Inscription and the Gezer Calendar. Next stop: Rambam’s Mishne Torah and the Shulchan Arukh! And all for a whopping $4. (Not including the cost of the iPad).

Now I know what you’re going to say: why would you want to read these sorts of things on an eReader anyway? Indeed, I have asked the same question myself. When faced with the choice, I will opt for printed literature 100% of the time, and my overcrowded bedroom is a testament to that fact. But in truth, we are none of us always at our desks. And when attending a conference, sitting at the university, travelling on a bus, sleeping in a tent, hiking through the bush, even walking down the street, there are times when I wish to consult something, confirm something, prove a point, or simply sit and learn. The fact that the 21st century has provided regular people with an ability to do this, wherever they may be and whatever they might have been otherwise doing, is astonishing.

I sometimes wonder what Maimonides might have said, had he been transported from the 12th century to the 21st, and had he been able to witness the tremendous proliferation of Torah, made readily available to all manner of individuals excluded in the past. Whether it’s the awe-inspiring Bar Ilan Responsa Project, the far-reaching commentaries of Rav Adin Steinsaltz, or the tremendous proliferation of vernacular translations by Artscroll, this would surely have been considered a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (11:9) that the knowledge of God would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. When you consider the ready availability of these texts and their highly portable nature, I imagine that there is only one word that Maimonides could have used to describe it.