This week Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the year. This Saturday is Shabbat Shuva, and the Torah portion is Ha-azinu (Use your ears). In the last few years, I have written four posts on Ha-azinu: Upright, Devious, and Struggling; The Tohu Within; Raining Insights; and Hovering. But since I will be traveling for three weeks, from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur and Sukkot, this post will look at the Torah portion Vezot Habrakhah (“And this is the blessing”), the last portion in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim.
On Simchat Torah (October 16-17 this year) a Jewish tradition is to finish Deuteronomy and start the new annual cycle of Torah readings with the opening of Genesis/Bereishit. That first Torah portion will be the subject of my first post when I get home in a few weeks!
In the last Torah portion of Deuteronomy, Moses pronounces prophecies for each of the tribes of Israel, as well as blessing all the Israelites, before he climbs Mount Nevo to die. The text of the “blessings” of the tribes that has been handed down to us is somewhat corrupted by scribal error, according to modern scholars. But it still expands Jacob’s “blessings” of the tribes near the end of Genesis/Bereishit.
Jacob pronounces blessings, or prophecies, about his twelve sons before he pulls his feet up into his bed and dies. Each prophecy is really about the tribe that will bear that son’s name. (See my earlier post, Vayechi: Fierce Brothers.) But earlier in Genesis, Jacob’s sons are characters in the story.
Half of the twelve sons are the equivalent of spear-carriers; the Torah gives them neither lines nor stage business. Unlike their eponymous tribes, the only identities these six sons have are their names—Dan, Naftali, Gad, Asher, Yissakhar, and Zevulun—and the meanings their mothers or adoptive mothers assign to their names.
The youngest spear-carrier is Zevulun, Leah’s sixth and last son. When he is born, Leah says: God gave a gift to me, a good gift; [this] time my husband yizbeleini because I bore him six sons. And she called his name Zevulun. (Genesis/Bereishit 30:20)
yisbeleini (יִזְבְּלֵנִי) = he will elevate me, he will exalt me, he will honor me. (The root of this verb, זבל, is the same as the root of the name Zevulun.)
Zevulun (זְבֻלוּן) = exalted place, place of honor.
As with all the other baby-namings in the Torah, the name indicates the parent’s state of mind. We learn nothing about the character of Leah’s sixth son from his name.
But we do learn something about Zevulun’s tribe when Jacob recites his prophetic poem about the tribes from his deathbed. He says: Zevulun, at the shore of the sea he will dwell; and he will be a shore for ships, and his flank will be upon Tzidon. (Genesis 49:13)
Tzidon (צִידֹן) = Sidon; one of the first Phoenician port cities on the Mediterranean Sea. (Tzidon is now the city of Sayda in Lebanon).
The second prophetic poem about the tribes, spoken by Moses in the last Torah portion of Deuteronomy, combines the tribe of Zevulun with the tribe that bears the name of Leah’s fifth son, Yissakhar (often spelled Issachar in English).
And to Zevulun he said: Rejoice, Zevulun, in your going out, and Yissakhar, in your tents. They will call peoples to the mountain; there they will slaughter slaughter-offerings of righteousness; for they will suckle on the abundance of the seas, and the hidden treasures of the sand. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 33:18-20)
Both poems about the tribes of Israel claim that the territory of Zevulun includes a piece of the Mediterranean coast. Jacob’s poem says Zevulun will extend as far as Tzidon, but in the book of Joshua, when the tribal territories are allocated by lot, it is Asher, Zevulun’s northern neighbor, that reaches as far as the great city of Tzidon.
The boundaries of Zevulun given in the book Joshua include many place-names we cannot identify today, and do not mention any coastline. The one identifiable place in the description of Zevulun’s land is Beit-Lechem. The coast west of Beit-Lechem of Galilee is Haifa Bay, which lies south of both Tzidon and Tzor (Sidon and Tyre ), the two major Phoenician cities at the time. But the Phoenicians had coastal villages farther south, as far as Dor.
The coast south of Dor, from Ashdod to Gaza, was being invaded by the Plishtim (Philistines) around the time of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, which the Bible places circa 1300 B.C.E. The Plishtim migrated from Crete and other islands across the sea, and after seizing their beachheads on the coast, they fought for centuries to conquer more of Canaan.
But the Bible does not record any hostile actions by Phoenicians against Israelites. Could Zevulun have shared the Mediterranean coast with them?
I think so. Historically, both the Israelites and the Phoenicians spoke a Canaanite dialect in the Semetic language family, and the writings of both peoples reveal roots in Canaanite culture.
In the Bible, the people of Zevulun get along with non-Israelite neighbors. Although Moses instructs the Israelites to dispossess the Canaanites and drive all the natives out of the land, the first book of Judges lists the tribes that did not do so. Zevulun is one of the tribes that lives alongside the Canaanites.
Furthermore, even Moses’ poem about the tribes predicts that Zevulun and Yissakhar will call peoples to the mountain; there they will slaughter slaughter-offerings of righteousness. (Deuteronomy 33:19) Rather than trekking all the way to Israel’s central place of worship, they invite neighboring peoples to join them in offering animal sacrifices at a local mountain in the Galilee. And even though Deuteronomy is full of warnings to worship God at only one place, the poem Moses recites at the end of his life calls the neighborly offerings on a local mountain “righteous”.
Zevulun’s reward for friendly relations with its Phoenician neighbors is a share of Phoenician wealth, which came from maritime trade, fishing, and the sale of valuable purple dye and white (milk) glass. The dye came from mollusks found on that part of the coast, and the glass was made from the high-quality sand on the shore. The commentaries agree that these Phoenician products must be the hidden treasures of the sand mentioned in Deuteronomy 33:20.
This glimpse into the ways of Zebulun is a welcome contrast with all the times the Hebrew Bible urges the Israelites to treat other peoples as enemies. The Bible often condones vicious pre-emptive wars against Canaanites, Amorites, Midianites, and assorted other peoples in the region. (For an example, see my post Va-etchannan: Haunted by Shame.) Apparently God, Moses, and many of the prophets (at least as portrayed in the Bible) believe the Israelites are so easily tempted to abandon their own religion, they must commit genocide lest they learn about another attractive cult.
There is a better way to prevent people from discarding their God and their religion: make the religious practices more inspiring and more likely to touch the heart. The Torah illustrates this method in the book of Exodus, when the anxious people turn to the Golden Calf, but then turn back to God with joy and dedication when Moses gives them the chance to make a beautiful sanctuary for God.
Zevulun offers another illustration, by adopting the Phoenician way of making a livelihood, and inviting their foreign friends to join them in making offerings to God on a nearby mountain. They drop the rule about worshiping God only at the central sanctuary. But in exchange they gain peace with their neighbors—without abandoning their own god. And the Torah portion Vezot Habrakhah says their offerings are righteous.
I think the hidden treasures of the sand that Zevulun enjoys are not only milk glass and purple dye, but also the treasures that come from tolerance and goodwill.
May all people learn how to preserve their religions by offering friendship to strangers as they offer their hearts to their own gods.