Shelach-Lekha: Deceptions and Sore Spots

June 22, 2022 at 6:52 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Shelach-Lekha | 1 Comment

How do you persuade someone to do what you want—even when you can’t make a reasonable case for it?

Two of the stories people tell in this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha, are implausible when you examine them. But nevertheless the speakers succeed in getting the reaction they desire.

1) Fabrication by the Ten Scouts

The Two Reports of the Spies, 1907 bible card by Providence Lithograph Co.

Moses sends twelve men north from the wilderness of Paran to scout out the land of Canaan—the land God has promised to give to the Israelites—and report back. He also tells them to bring back some fruit from the land. They return forty days later with pomegranates, figs, and a single cluster of grapes so heavy that two of them have to bear it on a carrying frame.

All twelve scouts agree that the land is fertile and good, and “flows with milk and honey”1. Ten of them, however, are alarmed by the “strong people” and “large fortified cities” they saw—phrases that make the assembled Israelites nervous.

Caleb, one of the other two scouts, urges:

“Let us definitely go up! And we will take possession of [the land], since yakhol nukhal it!” (Numbers 13:30)

yakhol (יָכוֹל) = being capable of, having power to. (Infinitive absolute form of yakhol, יָכֺל = was capable of, had power to; held onto, won.)

nukhal (נוּכַל) = we are capable of, we have the power to do. (Imperfect form of yakhol.)

yakhol nukhal (יָכוֹל נוּכַל) = Literally: being capable we are capable of. Idiomatically: we are certainly capable of. (In Biblical Hebrew, an infinitive absolute preceding another verb from the same root indicates emphasis, such as “certainly”, “definitely”, or in older English “surely”.)

The ten scouts who are afraid to march on Canaan do not want the Israelites to believe Caleb’s assurance. So they add some new details to their story.

But the men who had gone up with him said: “Lo nukhal to go up to the people, because they are stronger than we are!” And they put forth to the Israelites a slanderous report of the land that they had scouted, saying: “The land that we traversed to scout out is a land devouring its inhabitants! And all the people who we saw in it were people of [great] size. And there we saw the Nefilim2, Anakites from the Nefilim! And in our eyes we were like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.”

Lo nukhal (לֺא נוּכַל) = we are not capable, we do not have the power. (Lo, לֺא ֹ= not.)

The ten scouts simply do not believe that their people could succeed in conquering the land, with or without God’s help. Since the presence of large fortified cities is not enough to persuade the Israelites to stay put in Paran, the ten scouts invent a “slanderous report” that is clearly false—if you examine it rationally.

How could a land that produces such abundant food be “devouring its inhabitants”? Could wild animals be killing off the people? No, the land is full of large cities, and these cities are still populated. We know this because in their first account, the scouts said that there were Anakites; Amalekites living in the Negev; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites living in the hill country; and Canaanites living along the seacoast to the west and the Jordan River to the east.3

Furthermore, in the first report Anakites were only one of the groups living in Canaan. In their new story, they ten scouts say that all the people are giants—giants so big that they felt like grasshoppers in comparison.

Despite the holes in their story, the ten scouts succeed in panicking the Israelites, who weep all night and tell each other: “Give us a leader and we will return to Egypt!” (Numbers 14:4)

In the morning the twelfth scout, Joshua, stands with Caleb and both men argue that the Israelites can conquer Canaan because God is with them. But their argument comes too late. The people have already been persuaded by the tale the other ten scouts fabricated.

The Israelites do not see through the deception because their habit, whenever they encounter a problem, is to doubt God and beg to go back to Egypt, where they were enslaved but (they now believe) safe.

In the book of Exodus the Israelite slaves believe Moses the first time he tells them that God will rescue them.4 Then Pharaoh doubles their labor, and when Moses tells them that God will not only free them, but also give them the land of Canaan, they do not listen.5 Five of the ten plagues affect the Israelites as much as the Egyptians, which is not a promising sign. After they march out of Egypt, Pharaoh pursues the Israelites with an army of charioteers, and they are so frightened they do not believe God will rescue them.6

Escape over the Red Sea, Golden Haggadah, c. 1320, Spain

Their faith in God returns after the Egyptian army drowns in the Reed Sea.7 But in the wilderness the Isaelites think they are going to die when they run out of food or water, and they long for Egypt instead of trusting God to provide for them.8

The majority of Israelites are easily deceived in this week’s Torah portion because the fabrication of the ten scouts triggers their ongoing anxiety about God.

2) Fabrication by Moses

In the morning the Israelites threaten to stone Caleb and Joshua for telling them what they do not want to hear. Then the glory of God (probably the divine cloud that has led them from Egypt to the southern edge of Canaan) appears on the Tent of Meeting.9 God threatens to disown the Israelites, kill them, and make a nation out of Moses instead.

Moses does not try to reason with God. Instead he reminds God that if God kills all the Israelites, the Egyptians will hear about it and spread the news. Since God chose the Israelites to rescue and accompany, Moses says,

“… then the nations that heard of your reputation would say: Except God was not yekholet to bring this people to the land that [God] promised them, so [God] slaughtered them in the wilderness!” (Numbers 14:15)

yekholet (יְכֺלֶת) = capable enough, powerful enough. (Also from the root verb yakhol.)

Moses then asks God to pardon the people instead. God grants a limited pardon, requiring the Israelites to stay in the wilderness for forty years before they get another chance to enter Canaan.

Would the natives of Egypt and other nations really conclude that God killed the Israelites because God was not powerful enough to give them the land?  In an actual war between the Israelites and the natives of Canaan, people might assume that the conqueror’s god was stronger. But would people think that the reason God killed the Israelites before they even entered Canaan would was because God was weak?

Throughout the Ancient Near East, gods were considered mercurial and easily angered. The gods in polytheistic religions quarreled with each other, with disastrous consequences to human beings. They also lashed out at humans if they felt they were insufficiently propitiated.

If news spread that the Israelites had all died at the border, the people of other nations probably would conclude that the God of Israel was responsible. But they would attribute God’s deed to annoyance, revenge, or a change of mind, not to a lack of power.

Apparently God does not think of this. After hearing Moses’ deceptive claim, God commutes the Israelites’ sentence. Why is the God-character in Shelach-Lekha so easily persuaded?

Israelites Leave Egypt, the Golden Haggadah

Four times in the book of Exodus God says that the purpose of creating ten plagues in a row (and hardening Pharaoh’s heart whenever it wavers) is so that all the Egyptians, as well as the Israelites, will realize how powerful God is.10 Finally God lets Pharaoh beg the Israelites to leave Egypt, and they march out into the wilderness. Then God tells Moses:

“And I will strengthen Pharaoh’s heart and he will chase after you. Then I will be honored through Pharaoh and through all his army, and Egypt will know that I am God.” (Exodus 14:4)

The honor11 that God has in mind is drowning the Egyptian army in the Reed Sea. For the God-character portrayed in Exodus and Numbers, it is not enough to be the most powerful god in the world.12 All human beings must know that the God of Israel is the most powerful god. The God-character in Exodus and Numbers frets over “his” reputation.

Moses is able to mislead this God-character because he knows what the deity is touchy about.

*

Few people today believe in an anthropomorphic God that is hypersensitive and does not see through human misdirection. But all of we humans can be tricked into knee-jerk reactions by those who know our weak spots.

In these times I am angry when immoral politicians use slogans that push people’s buttons and thereby get popular support for agendas that will result in the opposite of what their voter base really wants. I am also angry when activists whose agendas I favor unskillfully use slogans that set off negative knee-jerk reactions among people who would otherwise be able to listen to a reasonable argument.

Alas, the portion Sehlach-Lekha illustrates that when a speaker fabricates a story that triggers an ingrained fear or sore spot, the listeners are highly unlikely to stop and think.

May all human beings be blessed with longer fuses, and the strength to put our feelings on hold long enough to question what we read or hear.

  1. Numbers 13:27. See my post Ki Tavo: Milk and Honey.
  2. Nefilim (נְפִילִים) = a race of demi-gods and heroes before the Flood. (Genesis 6:4)
  3. Numbers 13:29.
  4. Exodus 4:30-31.
  5. Exodus 6:6-9.
  6. Exodus (Beshallach)14:10-12.
  7. Exodus (Beshallach) 14:31.
  8. Exodus (Beshallach) 16:2-3, 17:1-4.
  9. Numbers 14:10.
  10. Exodus 7:3-5, 9:15-16, 10:1-2, 11:9.
  11. Honor or importance. The Hebrew word in Exodus (Beshallach) 14:4 is ikavdah (אִכָּבְדָה) = I will be honored, I will show my glory, I will be respected, I will be recognized as important. God repeats this sentiment in Exodus 14:17 and 14:18.
  12. Monotheism appears in the Hebrew Bible only in the first chapter of Genesis and the books of Deuteronomy and Isaiah.

 

Vayakheil+4: Not on Shabbat

February 23, 2022 at 4:40 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Ki Tisa, Mishpatim, Vayakheil, Yitro | Leave a comment

“Hurry up and wait” describes a lot of life. Two weeks ago I was frantically getting ready to move my mother into assisted living. Now my effort to fulfill the Fifth Commandment and honor my mother is on hold until I get a moving date from the center—and wouldn’t you know it, she had another fall while she was alone in her house …

Talmud Readers, by Adolf Behrman, 1876-1943. What could be more absorbing?

I wish this period of waiting instead of doing labor were like the day of shabbat, the sabbath day of rest, but these days my soul is too heavy to rise to either refreshment or holiness. So this week I took my mind off my troubles by researching the commandment about shabbat. Here is a new post for this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil—and four other portions in the book of Exodus, Beshallach, Yitro, Mishpatim, and Ki Tisa, that include variations on the command to desist from labor on the seventh day.

*

The first three of the Ten Commandments order us not to underestimate God.1 The last six are ethical precepts for human relations with other humans.2 In between, the fourth commandment combines holiness and ethics. It opens:

Remember the day of the shabbat, to treat it as holy. (Exodus 20:8) 3

shabbat (שַׁבַּת) = sabbath, day of rest. (From the same root as shavat, שָׁבַת = cease, stop, desist; stop working.)

This command is followed by explanatory notes in the Torah portion Yitro. More details are added every time the observance of shabbat is commanded in the book of Exodus—from the first time, in the portion Beshallach, when the Israelites are collecting manna, to the sixth time, in this week’s portion, Vayakheil, after God has given Moses a second set of tablets with the Ten Commandments carved in stone.

1) Don’t move

Manna Raining from Heaven, Maciejowski Bible, c. 1250 C.E.

Moses first mentions shabbat in the Torah portion Beshallach, when God provides manna for the hungry Israelites to gather up from the ground six, and only six, days a week. Moses says:

“See that God has given you the shabbat. Therefore on the sixth day [God] is giving you food for two days. Everyone in his place! No one go out from his spot on the seventh day!” (Exodus 16:29—Beshallach)

This introduces shabbat as a day of rest, at least in terms of going out and gathering food.

2) Holy break

The next order regarding shabbat is the one in the Ten Commandments in Yitro. The full fourth commandment states:

The Creation, by Lucas Cranach, 1534, Luther Bible

Remember the day of the shabbat, to treat it as holy. Six days you may work and you may do all your labor. But the seventh day is a shabbat for God, your God; you must not do any labor, you or your son or your daughter, your male slave or your female slave or your livestock or your immigrant within your gates. Because in six days God made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything that is in them, and [God] took a break on the seventh day. Therefore God blessed the day of the shabbat and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)

The emphasis in this commandment is on the holiness of shabbat. Since the day itself is holy, it must be set aside from mundane labor by all humans and animals in an Israelite’s household, and even by God.

3) Ethical refreshment

The third injunction about shabbat is in the portion Mishpatim:

Six days you may do your doings, but on the seventh day tishbot so that your ox and your donkey can take a break, veyinafeish, your slave and the immigrant. (Exodus 23:12)

tishbot (תּשְׁבֺּת) = you must cease, stop, stop working. (A form of the verb shavat.)

veyinafeish (וְיִנָּפֵשׁ) = and he can refresh himself, reanimate himself, catch his breath. (From the same root as nefesh, נֶפֶשׁ = throat, breath, appetite, mood, animating soul.)

This time Moses, speaking for God, gives a reason why even slaves, immigrants, and beasts must be given a day off from work on shabbat: so that draft animals can rest their muscles, and human laborers can rest their souls, becoming refreshed and revitalized.

Providing a day of rest is an ethical mandate; the moral principle of kindness calls for helping others to have a better life, and the moral principle of fairness supports giving everyone a day off when the landowner has a day off. Shabbat is the opposite of Pharaoh’s unethical subjection of the Israelite slaves to unremitting labor.4

4) Be holy or die

The fourth command about shabbat appears in the Torah portion Ki Tisa, after God finishes telling Moses what the Israelites must make to set up the sanctuary and the priests of their new religion. God warns that all of this construction must pause on the day of shabbat.

Nevertheless, you must observe shabtotai, because it is a sign between me and you for your generations, for knowledge that I, God, have made you holy. And you must observe the shabbat because it is holy for you. Whoever profanes it must definitely be put to death, because whoever does labor on it, his life will be cut off from among his people. (Exodus 31:12-14)

shabtotai (שַׁבְּתֺתַי) = my shabbats.

This order not only reiterates that shabbat is holy, but adds that observing it is a reminder that the Israelite people themselves are holy, i.e. set aside for God.

In addition, profaning shabbat by doing labor on that day is such a serious transgression that God assigns it the death penalty.

This rule about observing shabbat is the source text for the Talmud’s list of 39 categories of labor forbidden on the seventh day. The rabbis assume that since God warns that the work of building the sanctuary and fabricating the priests’ clothing must cease on shabbat, the labors involved in doing those tasks are the labors forbidden on shabbat from then on.5

This injunction in Ki Tisa continues:

The Israelites must observe the shabbat, doing the shabbat throughout their generations as a covenant forever. Between me and the Israelites it will be a sign forever, because for six days God make the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day [God] shavat vayinafash. (Exodus 31:16-17)

vayinafash (וַיִּנָּפַשׁ) = and he refreshed himself, reanimated himself, caught his breath.   (A variant of veyinafeish.)

Since the divine life of the universe pauses every seven “days” for refreshment and redirection, so must our own souls. (See my earlier post,  Mishpatim, Ki Tisa, & 2 Samuel: Soul Recovery.)

5) No farming

Shabbat comes up again later in the portion Ki Tisa when God gives Moses additional instructions for the Israelites.

Six days you may work, but on the seventh day tishbot; at plowing and at grain-cutting tishbot. (Exodus 34:21)

The book of Exodus gives no reason why agricultural labor in particular is prohibited on shabbat. One possibility is that this sentence refers to the ethical law about shabbat in Mishpatim, since landowners used draft animals (oxen and donkeys) to plow, and teams of underlings including slaves and immigrants to scythe down ripe grain.

Sheaves of grain

On the other hand, the list in the Talmud of activities prohibited on shabbat includes farming chores that eventually lead to the bread that must be displayed on the gold-plated table in the sanctuary.6 The first eleven of the 39 prohibited labors in the Talmud are sowing grain, plowing, reaping, gathering sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting the edible kernels, grinding them into flour, sifting the flour, kneading dough, and baking bread. By this interpretation, the ban on plowing and reaping on shabbat is about the holiness of the day surpassing the holiness of the sanctuary.

6) Light no fires

The sixth and final shabbat instruction in the book of Exodus occurs in this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil. Again the seventh day is called holy, and doing labor on that day is punishable by death.

Six days you may do labor, but the seventh day must be holy for you, a shabbat shabbaton for God. Anyone who does labor on it must be put to death. You must not kindle a fire in any of your settlements on the day of shabbat. (Exodus 35:2-3)

shabbaton (שַׁבָּתוֹן) = most solemn shabbat, feast day of shabbat, day of absolute stopping.

Here Moses repeats God’s commands that the day of shabbat must be treated as holy and that anyone who does not desist from labor on that day must be executed.

The new information in Vayakheil is that lighting a fire is prohibited on shabbat. Before this, the only specific examples of labor forbidden on shabbat are agricultural: gathering manna, using draft animals, sowing and reaping . Now, in Vayakheil, Moses gives another example of labor: lighting a fire.

The purpose of this prohibition cannot be ethical, since lighting a fire is not in itself a heavy labor, and it benefits other humans by giving them heat, light, and a way to cook food.

Since the previous verse reminds us that the seventh day must be holy, refraining from kindling a fire must be another religious rule associated with holiness.

Kindling a fire is number 37 in the Talmud’s list of 39 labors banned on shabbat, right after extinguishing a fire. It may allude to the fire on the altar. Although burnt offerings continue during shabbat according to the Torah, the fire is not rekindled. In fact, it must never go out.7 The altar fire is holy because it is dedicated to God, and because God kindled it.8

*

Thus the book of Exodus presents the law against working on shabbat as a religious rule (guarding what is holy) three to five times.9 It presents the law as an ethical rule (promoting kindness and fairness) only twice.10

Yet when we observe the day of shabbat we can remember that it is not solely a religious requirement reminding us of holiness. We will not be put to death for doing forbidden work on shabbat, since that part of the order in this week’s Torah portion is no longer followed. But when we try to set aside mundane concerns in order to elevate our souls on the seventh day, we can also remember the ethical values in the last six commandments, which address kindness, fairness, and respect for other human beings.

And I can pray that soon I will be able to obey the fifth commandment, and treat my mother with kindness and respect by moving her into a safe place.

  1. See my upcoming post, Pekudei, Yitro, & Ki Tisa: Not Like Other Gods.
  2. See my posts Yitro, Mishpatin, & Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 on the last six commandments.
  3. This is the opening in Exodus. When Moses repeats the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy, the fourth commandment opens: Observe the day of the shabbat and treat it as holy. (Deuteronomy 5:12)
  4. Exodus 5:1-9, 6:9.
  5. Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 73a, Mishna.
  6. Exodus 25:23-30.
  7. Leviticus 6:5-6.
  8. Leviticus 9:24 for the portable sanctuary in the wilderness.
  9. Exodus 16:29, 20:8 and 11, 31:12-13 at a minimum. According to the Talmud Exodus 34:21 and 35:2-3 are also rules for religious purposes.
  10. Exodus 20:9-10, 23:12.

Haftarat Beshallach—Judges: A Humble Commander

January 12, 2022 at 8:51 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Judges | Leave a comment

Red Sea in Golden Haggadah, c. 1320, Spain

Pharaoh lets the Israelites leave without conditions in last week’s Torah portion, Bo. But God hardens Pharaoh’s heart one last time in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, in order to have an excuse to create another miracle.1 When the Israelites are trapped between Pharaoh’s charioteers and the Reed Sea, they complain that Moses rescued them from servitude in Egypt only to so they would die in the wilderness.2 Moses raises his staff, God splits the Reed Sea, the Israelites cross over, and the water surges back and drowns the Egyptian army.

Moses, as usual, is the mediator between God and the Israelites. For the rest of his life he doggedly continues speaking to both sides and doing whatever it takes to keep the people moving toward Canaan.

He never wanted this role. Four times at the burning bush Moses tried to persuade God to send someone else.3 Finally God talked him into it—or perhaps the deciding factor was Moses’ compassion for the oppressed, which had already moved him to kill an Egyptian beating a Hebrew man, and defend seven shepherdesses from a gang of men who drove them away from a well.4

I admire Moses’ humility, as well as his courage and cleverness when he talks God out of killing all the Israelites after the golden calf fiasco.5 Most of all, I admire his unselfish dedication to others. He makes a few ethical mistakes, but overall he consistently labors for the welfare of the Israelites in his charge, ignoring his own interests.

*

This week’s haftarah reading from the book of Judges includes three admirable characters. Devorah and Ya-eil both act with courage and intelligence, like the women at the beginning of the book of Exodus: the two chief midwives, Shifrah and Puah,6 Moses’ mother, Yocheved,7 and Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopts the infant Moses and hires Yocheved to nurse him.8

But the character I admire most in this week’s haftarah is a man.

Just before the haftarah, the book of Judges says that the Israelites are once again oppressed, this time by a Canaanite king who has a large chariot regiment. God let it happen because the Israelites were straying after other gods again.

Assyrian war chariot

Then God handed them over into the power of Yavin, a king of Canaan who reigned in Chatzor. And the commander of his army was Sisera, who headquartered at Charoshet Hagoyim. And the Israelites cried out to God, because he had nine hundred iron chariots, and he had oppressed the Israelites violently for twenty years. (Judges/Shoftim 4:2-3)

The Israelite tribes have only foot soldiers, and no king to unite them. But they do have a prophetess named Devorah.

Devorah was a prophet-woman, wife of Lapidot. She was the judge of Israel at that time … and the Israelites went to her for legal decisions. (Judges 4:4-5)

This woman has the same role as Samuel in the first book of Samuel: she both interprets the word of God and makes rulings in disputes, including disputes between tribes. Devorah has the most authority among the Israelites, as Samuel did later, before the first Israelite king.

And she sent and summoned Barak, son of Avinoam, from Kedesh of Naftali, and she said to him: “Is it not [that] God, the God of Israel, commanded: Go umashakhta on Mount Tabor! And you shall take with you ten thousand men from Naftali and from Zevulun. Umashakhti toward you the stream of Kishon; Sisera, the commander of the army of Yavin; and his chariots and his force. And I will put them in your power.” (Judges 4:6-7)

umashakhta (וּמָשַׁכְתָּ) = and you shall pull together, draw to yourself, rally.

umashakhti (וּמָשַׁכְתִּי) = and I will pull, draw.

When Barak hears this command from God, he is hesitant. He does not doubt God’s power, but he doubts his own. Maybe he wonders if he could muster enough fighting men, or maybe he wonders if the men would obey his orders. He knows Devorah has the real authority.

And Barak said to her: “If you go with me then I will go, but if you do not go with me I will not go.” And she said: “I will certainly go with you. Only honor will not be yours on the road that you are following, because through the power of a woman God will hand over Sisera.” And Devorah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh. And Barak mustered Zevulun and Naftali at Kedesh, and ten thousand men went up on his heels, and Devorah went up with him. (Judges 4:8-10)

I admire Barak for his humility. He is more interested in freeing the Israelites from the oppressive rule of King Yavin than he is in his own honor. He accepts his loss of status if the men see him taking orders from a woman.

Barak and Devorah lead the Israelite troops to the top of Mount Tavor. Sisera orders all his chariots and troops to move to the almost dry Kishon River. Then Devorah tells Barak:

“Get up! Because this is the day when God will give Sisera into your power. Is it not God who goes before you?” (Judges 4:14)

Barak leads his foot soldiers in a charge down the slope of Mount Tavor.

And God threw into confusion Sisera and every chariot and every warrior [so they fell] to the edge of the sword before Barak. And Sisera descended from his chariot and fled on foot. And Barak pursued the chariots and the warriors as far as Charoshet Hagoyim, and every warrior of Sisera fell to the edge of the sword; not one remained. (Judges 4:15-16)

The poem following the narrative of Sisera’s defeat explains that God turns the Kishon into a raging torrent that sweeps away Sisera’s army9.

Barak rallies the troops, but in Devorah’s name. He leads the charge, but only when Devorah says it was time. Then God drowns Sisera’s army at the Kidron, just as God drowned Pharaoh’s army at the Reed Sea.10

Sisera, the commander of King Yavin’s army, flees on foot to the nearby campsite of Chever the Kenite. He assumes he can find shelter there, because that Chever’s family is one of King Yavin’s allies. Chever’s wife, Ya-eil (Jael), is alone inside her tent when Sisera arrives. Maybe Sisera chooses her tent because everyone else is gone, or maybe it is the first tent he reaches.

Study of Jael, by Carlo Maratta ca. 1700

When he asks Ya-eil for water she gives him milk. When he falls asleep she hammers a tent pin through his head.11

Ya-eil, like Devorah, is both courageous and clever. But is she ethical? The book of Judges does not say why Ya-eil kills Sisera. Does she empathize with the Israelite tribes? Is she feuding with her husband or her husband’s family, Sisera’s allies? Or does she have some private reason that did not make it into the book? Without knowing her motive for killing Sisera, we cannot judge Ya-eil’s moral character.

And hey! Barak was pursuing Sisera, and Ya-eil went out to greet him. And she said to him: “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” (Judges 4:22)

Barak is prepared to kill Sisera, but he finds out that a woman beat him to it. Devorah’s prophecy that “through the power of a woman God will hand over Sisera” is fulfilled twice: Sisera’s army is defeated with the help of Devorah, and Sisera himself is killed by Ya-eil.

*

Yes, the two women are admirable for their courage, their quick thinking, and their refusal to play the role of submissive wife. But I think Barak is even more admirable. He does not lack courage; after all, he leads the charge down to the enemy forces with their dangerous iron chariots, and then he pursues Sisera single-handedly. But like Moses, Barak is also humble. Her publicly admits that Devorah, a woman, is more powerful and respected than he.

And Barak follows Devorah’s directions for an ethical reason: to rescue the Israelites from oppression.

  1. Exodus 14:4, 14:8-9.
  2. And they said to Moses: “Was it because there are no graves in Egypt that you took us out to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11)
  3. Exodus 3:10-12, 4:1, 4:10-13.
  4. Exodus 2:11-17.
  5. Exodus 32:7-14.
  6. Exodus 1:15-22. See my post Shemot: Disobedient Midwives.
  7. Exodus 2:1-4. See my post Shemot & Psalm 137: Cry Like a Baby.
  8. Exodus 2:5-10.
  9. Judges 5:20-21. The poem also adds troops from three other Israelite tribes (Efrayim, Benyamin, and Issachar) to Barak’s army. (Judges 5:14-15).
  10. Exodus 14:10-30.
  11. Judges 4:17-21.

By Hand

January 27, 2021 at 6:39 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Vayeishev | Leave a comment

Hands are powerful.  Hands are personal.

by Theodore Gericault, 1824

Both modern English and biblical Hebrew use the word for “hand” (yad, יָד) in many idioms.  And sometimes an idiom in an English translation of the Hebrew bible was adopted into English just because the “Old Testament” had so many English-speaking readers.

The Israelites leave Egypt “with a high hand” in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach.  Here is the King James translation:

And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued after the children of Israel: and the children of Israel went out with an high hand.  (Exodus 14:8)

In English we say people are “high-handed” when they act as if they have the authority to accomplish something by themselves, without consulting anyone or considering anyone else’s concerns.  When the Israelites march out of Egypt, they feel arrogant for a change.  The pharaoh who oppressed them has begged them to go, they are taking everything Pharaoh wanted them to leave behind, and they have just commandeered  gold and other valuables from their Egyptian neighbors.  They act as if they are invincible–until the Egyptian army catches up with them.

See my 2013 post on the subject here: Beshallach: High Handed.

In English we say “He was caught red-handed,” because a man at a murder scene with blood on his hands is probably the murderer.  The idiom applies to anyone caught committing a violation in front of witnesses or with obvious, incontrovertible evidence.

But if you arrange for someone to die while you are elsewhere and there is no evidence that “your hand was in it”, you might never be implicated.  Biblical Hebrew would phrase that idiom as “your hand was with” the obvious perpetrator.  For example, King David asks a woman with an imaginary story about two sons “Is the hand of Joab with you in all this?” to find out if Joab’s hand is in her ploy to make him change his mind about his son Absalom (2 Samuel 14:19).

This week I am writing the part of my book on Genesis about when Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave to caravan bound for Egypt.  Initially, most of Joseph’s ten older brothers want to kill him, then throw his body into one of the dry cisterns in the vicinity.  Reuben, the oldest brother, persuades them not to get blood on their own hands.

And Reuben said to them: “Don’t shed blood!  Throw them into this pit that is in the wilderness, but don’t extend a hand (yad) on him,” in order to rescue him from their hand (yad) and return him to his father.  (Genesis 33:22)

In colloquial English Reuben is saying: “Don’t lay a hand on him.”   All the brothers cooperate by seizing Joseph, stripping off his fancy tunic, and throwing him into the cistern alive.  Then Reuben wanders off while the rest of Joseph’s brothers sit down for a meal and Joseph pleads for his life from the bottom of the cistern.  An Ishmaelite caravan headed for Egypt approaches, and one of the brothers, Judah, says:

What profit if we murder our brother and cover up his blood?  Let’s go and sell him to the Ishmaelites, and our hand (yad) won’t be on him; for he is our brother, our flesh.”  (Genesis 33:26-27)

What Judah does not say is that a slave sold in Egypt would probably have a short life-span.

Thus the Torah provides an example of how humans excuse their own behavior when they put someone in harm’s way or incite someone to commit a crime.  If I didn’t do it with my own hands, they think, I’m not really guilty.

In Genesis, Joseph’s brothers realize that they are guilty after all, and that guilt haunts them the rest of their lives.

 

 

Repost: Beshallach & the History of Split

February 5, 2020 at 1:54 pm | Posted in Beshallach | Leave a comment

The Israelites Leave Egypt, The Golden Haggadah, 14th century Spain

The Israelites march out of Egypt beyad ramah, “with a high hand”, in this week’s Torah portion, Beshellach.  (To read my 2013 essay on that rare phrase in the Torah, you can click here: Beshallach: High-Handed.)

Beyad ramah, like the English idiom “high-handed”, means arrogantly doing something without consulting or collaborating with others.  In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelite slaves march out of Egypt fearlessly, even arrogantly, taking their Egyptian neighbors’ jewelry with them.

Three days later at the Reed Sea, they see the Egyptian army behind them and they feel powerless once more.  Forty years later in Canaan, they kill, plunder, and conquer the native population in a way that could be considered high-handed.  After that a few Jewish kings act arrogantly in the Torah, but the Israelites as a people rarely have the opportunity.  Both Israelite kingdoms are small and eventually swallowed up by their powerful neighbors.

For almost two millennia, from the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. to the founding of the nation-state of Israel in 1948, Jerusalem and its surrounding province were subservient to the government of one larger empire after another.  Jews who emigrated to other countries were only rarely considered peers of the majority group; discrimination ranged from being charged an extra tax to being murdered by mobs.  An individual Jew could be high-handed in his own sphere, but a group of Jews could not pull it off until the twentieth century.

When I started working on volunteer committees I learned that if I just did something without consulting everyone who might be involved, I was being high-handed.  I remembered how I had hated being treated unfairly and without respect when I was younger, and I learned how to collaborate better.

Can whole groups of people live together with mutual respect?

Sometimes, in some places, Jews have been one respected group living in harmony with other groups.  Over the last two millennia, this was often the case in Split, Croatia, the city where I am living this winter.

A Short Illustrated History of Jews in Split

(all photos by Melissa Carpenter)

In the first century B.C.E. the Romans acquired both Syria (which included Jerusalem) and Dalmatia (which included Split).  Julius Caesar set an example by granting Jews an exemption from Roman religious practices and permission to follow their own customs.  In Jerusalem and the district of Judea, Jews protested in 66 C.E. against Roman taxes and soldiers, and the Roman governor responded by plundering the treasury of the temple.  During the war that ensued, the Romans razed the temple.

Menorah from Salona, 4th century C.E.,  Split Archaeological Museum

Meanwhile in Dalmatia, Jews came with the Romans and settled along the coast.  Jewish artifacts from as early as the third century C.E. have been found in both Split and the Roman city of Solana across the bay.

Emperor Diocletian, who built his retirement palace in Split around 300 C.E., persecuted and executed local Christians, but left Jews free to observe their own religion.

5-branch menorah carved on wall stone in cellar 17E, Diocletian’s Palace, Split

The Roman Empire was collapsing when Slavs and Avars invaded Dalmatia in the 6th century and seized the city of Salona north of Split.  Both Jews and Christians fled across the bay and built stone houses inside the shell of Diocletian’s palace.  Archaeologists have yet to determine whether the menorahs carved into buildings stones in the cellars of the palace date from this time or an earlier century.

In the 1490’s Spain and Portugal expelled their Jews.  Some ports on the Adriatic Sea refused to accept these refugees, but Split made room for them, and these Sefardic Jews settled in the northwest quarter of Diocletian’s former palace.  Eventually that became the Jewish neighborhood of Split.

Jewish Cemetery on Marjan Hill

Split and the rest of the Dalmatian coast north of Dubrovnik were part of the Venetian Republic from 1420 to 1796.  In the 16th century one of the Jewish immigrants from Portugal, Daniel Rodriga, persuaded the Venetian government to turn Split into a major port by adding a lazaretto with warehouses and a quarantine building.  The doge in Venice agreed and put Rodriga in charge of building the lazaretto in 1572.  Rodriga got permission from local authorities to establish a Jewish cemetery on the slope of nearby Marjan Hill in 1573.

“Jewish Tower”

Split boomed thanks to Rodriga’s lazaretto, and in the 17th century the Venetians built a defensive wall with bastions to protect their valuable port from the Ottomans, who had captured the other side of the bay. When Ottomans attacked Split in 1657, the Venetian wall was still under construction.  The local Jews were trusted with the defense of Diocletian’s northwest tower.  The Ottomans were unable to penetrate the city center inside the palace, and townspeople started calling that tower Zidovska Kula, “Jewish Tower”.

At first the Venetian ruling class was remarkably tolerant of Jews compared to the Christians in other countries, and the Jews of Split were free to follow any trades they chose.  The only restriction imposed on them was that they could not own property; they had to rent, but they could buy long-term leases.  And although Venice itself established a ghetto in 1516, Jews in Split could lease houses wherever they wanted.  Most, but not all, chose to live in the old Jewish neighborhood.

This harmony between Christians and Jews lasted until the 18th century.  Then in 1738 the Venetian rulers of Split started requiring Jews to wear special hats.  In 1778 they ruled that Jews could no longer employ Christians, and created a Jewish ghetto by putting gates in seven of the stone archways over the narrow streets of Diocletian’s old palace.  The gates were placed so the ghetto included the buildings where most of the Jews already lived.  Jews had to be inside the gates from midnight to sunrise.

When Napoleon captured Split in 1806, all restrictions on Jews were eliminated.  But then the Dalmatian coast fell to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which did not grant Jews complete equality and freedom until 1867.

At the end of World War I,  Dalmatia became part of the new kingdom of Yugoslavia, which was conquered by the Axis powers during World War II.  In 1941 Germany installed a puppet government for inland Croatia called the Ustase, which shared the Nazi attitude toward Jews.  Meanwhile Italy annexed most of the Dalmatian coast, and the people of Split organized armed resistance against the Italian fascist occupiers.  The Jews of Split arranged for Jewish refugees from inland to escape through the port.

Although Italy refused to deport or murder Jews, in 1942 a mob including Italian soldiers attacked the Split synagogue and the people inside, and looted 60 Jewish homes. The following year Italy surrendered to the Allies, and Germany took over, assigning the Dalmatian coast to inland Croatia’s Ustase government.  Dedicated to exterminating Croatian Jews and Muslim Serbs, the Ustase created their own concentration camps.

Fort Gripe, Split (now a maritime museum)

In Split the Ustase found a new use for the barracks at Fort Gripe, which had been built by the Austrians on the north side of a Venetian fort, and occupied by Mussolini’s soldiers for two years.  In 1943 the barracks were converted into a prison for the remaining Jews of Split.  Two Split doctors, Andrija Poklepovic and Mihovil Silobrcic, managed to rescue some of those Jews by transferring them to a hospital and then claiming they were quarantined because of disease.

The rest of the Jews imprisoned in Split were deported to two Ustase camps, Sajmiste and Jasenovac, where they were all murdered.  About 150 of the 284 Jews living in Split in 1940 survived until liberation in 1945.

Croatia and its Dalmatian coastline were part of Tito’s Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from the end of the war to 1991, and due to the country’s official atheism, no rabbis were allowed.  The first president of the independent nation of Croatia, Franjo Tudman, was known for his anti-Semitic slurs, and appointed former members of the Ustase to government posts.

Under the new Croatian constitution following Tudman’s departure from office, Jews are one of twelve “autonomous national minorities”, and elect a special representative to the Croatian parliament.  The only anti-Semitic incidents I could uncover in the 21st century were the chanting of Ustase slogans, particularly at soccer matches, and the carving of a swastika into the turf of the soccer field in Split in 2015, which resulted in a 100,000 euro fine.

Today the Jewish population of Split is small; about 100 families belong to the Jewish community, which restored the old 16th-century synagogue in 1996 and meets there regularly.

So does Split count as a place where the Jews are respected and live in harmony with other groups?  Not always, but more often than most places over the last 2,000 years.

(My thanks to Ivica Profaca, to “Albert” at the synagogue, and to the world’s biggest library, the Internet.)

 

Bo: To Serve Somebody

January 29, 2020 at 9:51 am | Posted in Beshallach, Bo | Leave a comment

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.  (Bob Dylan)

The pharaoh of Egypt is an absolute ruler in the book of Exodus/Shemot.  His word is law, and everyone in the country must serve him almost as if he were a god.  There is no conflict between serving the pharaoh and serving Egyptian gods.  But the God of Israel is a “jealous” god, who requires exclusive service.1  One cannot serve both God and Pharaoh.

When Moses and Aaron first speak to the pharaoh, they only request a leave of absence for the Israelites so they can make a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer animal sacrifices to God, Y-H-V-H.2  The implication is that then they will return to the corvée labor the pharaoh has imposed on them.  But the ruler of Egypt refuses, sensing that there is a deeper issue.

And Pharaoh said: “Who is Y-H-V-H that I should listen to his voice [saying] to send out Israel?  I do not know Y-H-V-H, and neither will I send out Israel.”  (Exodus/Shemot 5:2)

He increases the workload of the Israelites instead.  A demonstration miracle turning a staff into a snake does not change his mind.3  Following God’s order, Moses now warns the pharaoh about the first “plague” or miraculous disaster, which will turn the Nile into blood, and tells him that God said:

“Send out my people so yavduni in the wilderness!”  (Exodus 6:16)4

yavduni (יַבְדֻנִי) = they will serve me.  (A form of the root verb avad, עָבַד = work for someone, serve as a slave, employee, or attendant.)

Plague of Frogs, Golden Hagaddah,  1320-1330 CE

The pharaoh does not change his mind.  After the second plague, frogs, the pharaoh says he will let the Israelites go, then hardens his heart and refuses as soon as God has ended the disaster.  After the fourth plague, mixed vermin, the pharaoh offers to let the Israelites sacrifice to their god inside the land of Egypt, but Moses insists on the three-day journey into the wilderness.5  Again, the pharaoh agrees at first, but then refuses as soon as God removes the vermin.

During the seventh plague, hail, the pharaoh actually admits to Moses and Aaron that he is morally inferior to their god, Y-H-W-H:

“I am guilty this time.  Y-H-W-H is the righteous one, and I and my people are the wicked ones.  Pray to Y-H-W-H and enough from being thunder and hail, and I will send you out, and you will not continue to stand [against me].”  (Exodus 9:28)

Moses agrees to do so, though he adds:

“But you and your avadim, I know that you still do not fear Y-H-V-H, God.”  (Exodus 9:30)

avadim (עַבָדִים) = servants, courtiers, slaves.  (Plural of the noun eved, עֶבֶד, from the root verb avad.)

Moses is right; once the hail and thunder have ceased, the pharaoh hardens his heart again and refuses to let the Israelites go.

This week’s Torah portion, Bo (“Come!”) begins when Moses announces the eighth plague, locusts.

And Moses came, and Aaron, to the pharaoh, and they said to him: “Thus says Y-H-V-H, the god of the Hebrews: How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me?  Send out my people, so yavduni!”

In effect, Moses and Aaron admit that the contest is about who is superior, God or the pharaoh.

And the avadim of the pharaoh said to him: “How long will this be a stumbling block for us?  Send out the people and ya-avdu Y-H-V-H, their god!  Don’t you know yet that Egypt is destroyed?”  (Exodus 10:7)

ya-avdu (יַעַבדוּ) = they will serve.  (Another form of the verb avad.)

The pharaoh calls back Moses and Aaron and says:

“Go, ivdu Y-H-V-H, your god!  Who and who are going?”

ivdu (עִבְדוּ) = serve!  (An imperative of the verb avad.)

Plague of Darkness, Spanish, 1490 CE

Moses says all the people will go, including the children and even the flocks and herds.  The pharaoh replies that only the men may go.  So the plague proceeds.  After every green plant in Egypt has been consumed by the locust swarms, the pharaoh admits his guilt.  Yet his heart is unmoved when Moses describes the ninth plague, darkness, in which blindness strikes everyone in Egypt except the Israelites.

After three days of darkness the pharaoh offers to let even the children go, as long as the Israelites leave their livestock behind.  Moses refuses, saying they need their flocks and herds to serve God.

“Because we will take from them la-avod Y-H-V-H, our god, and we will not know with what na-avod Y-H-V-H until we arrive there.”  (Exodus 10:26)

la-avod (לַעֲבֹד) = to serve.

na-avod (נַעֲבֹד) = we will serve.

Moses knows that God intends to take the Israelites out of Egypt and give them a new land.  Is he making up an excuse so that when the people leave for good they can take their animals with them?  Does the pharaoh ask them to leave their livestock behind because that it just what he suspects?  The pharaoh threatens to kill Moses if he ever sees his face again.

Then Moses gets angry, and tells the pharaoh about the tenth and final plague, the death of the firstborn.5  When it comes, the pharaoh and all the Egyptians practically push the Israelites out of the country.  But the pharaoh, accustomed to hardening his heart, changes his mind after they have left.  He sends an army to capture them.

Plague of the Firstborn, Spanish, 1490 CE

In next week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, the Israelites believe they are trapped between the Egyptian army and the Reed Sea.

And they said to Moses: “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you take us to die in the wilderness?  What is this you have done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?  Isn’t this the thing that we spoke to you [about] in Egypt, saying: Leave us, vena-avdah the Egyptians, because it is better for us avod the Egyptians than dying in the wilderness!”  (Exodus 14:11-12)

vena-avdah (וְנַעֲבְדָה) = and we will serve.

avod (עֲבֹד) = serving.

The Israelites would rather serve the reality they know, however grim, than serve the invisible source of the ten miraculous disasters.  God is an intangible idea that they are unable to trust.

*

I do not blame them.  Human beings are naturally suspicious of change and skeptical about new ideas.  We might experiment in small ways, but laying one’s life on the line is heroic and unusual—unless the boss orders it and everyone else is doing it, as in a war.  Given a choice between certain slavery and risking death, many of us would choose slavery and hope that things would improve in the future even if we take no action.

Yet when we read a story like the one in the book of Exodus, most of us root for the Israelites to stop serving the pharaoh and throw in their lot with God.  After all, serving God does not usually mean dying.  Only once in a while.

You’re gonna have to serve somebody.  What if the choice is between going along with an immoral status quo or rebelling against it?  What do you choose?

  1. This jealousy appears even in the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20:2-6.
  2. See my post Beshallach & Shemot: Knowing the Name on the sacred four-letter name of God, which I transliterate here as Y-H-V-H.
  3. Exodus 7:8-13.
  4. See my post Va-eira & Shemot: Request for Wilderness.
  5. Exodus 8:21-28.
  6. Exodus chapter 11.

 

Beshallach & Shemot: Knowing the Name

January 16, 2019 at 11:17 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Shemot | 7 Comments

Six weeks after they leave Egypt, the Israelites grumble that they are starving, and they would rather have died in Egypt with full stomachs.1

Manna rains from heaven, Maciejowski Bible, circa 1250 CE

So in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“When he sent away”), God promises to provide bread and meat in the form of manna and quail every day.

Y-H-V-H spoke to Moses, saying: “I have heard the grumblings of the Israelites.  Speak to them, saying: In the evenings you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be sated with bread.  And you shall know that I am Y-H-V-H, your Elohim.”  (Exodus/Shemot 16:11-12)

Y-H-V-H (yud-heh-vav-heh) = the “tetragrammaton”, God’s most holy and personal name.  (In Jewish tradition this name may no longer be pronounced, and can only be spelled in Hebrew in sacred texts.  When prayers are said aloud, the tetragrammaton is read as “Adonai”)

Elohim (אֱלוֹהִים) = God; gods in general.

Being God’s personal name, the tetragrammaton is not a reference to God’s status as a god, or even as a lord, master, or ruler.  The common English written translation of Y-H-V-H as “LORD” can be deceptive.  So can the Jewish practice of saying Adonai for Y-H-V-H in prayers, since Adonai literally means “my lords”.  When God says that people “shall know that I am Y-H-V-H, God wants them to know that the god they are thinking about is the one named Y-H-V-H.

But surely the Israelites know by now that the name of their god is Y-H-V-H.

The book of Genesis/Bereishit calls God by several different names, including Y-H-V-H.  (See my post Lekh-Lekha: New Names for God.)  But the personal name of God becomes more important in the book of Exodus/Shemot.  In the first Torah portion (also called Shemot), God chooses Moses as a prophet at the burning bush, and Moses asks for God’s proper name:

Hey, I come to the Israelites and I say to them: “The Elohim of your forefathers sent me to you”.  And they say to me: “What is his name?”  What shall I say to them?  (Exodus 3:13)

First the voice from the burning bush replies:

… Thus you shall say to the Israelites: “Ehyeh sent me to you.”  (Exodus 3:14)

Ehyeh (אֶהְיֶה) = I am, I will be, I become, I will become.  (A form of the verb hayah (הָיָה) = be, become, happen.)

In the next verse, God amends the answer.

… Thus you shall say to the Israelites: “Y-H-V-H, the Elohim of your forefathers, the Elohim of Abraham, the Elohim of Isaac, and the Elohim of Jacob, sent me to you.” …  (Exodus 3:15)

The name Y-H-V-H may also be a form of the verb hayah, which also appears as havah.2  Biblical Hebrew lexicons list no hifil (causative) form of either root.  But if there were a hifil form, one conjugation would use the letters Y-H-V-H and would mean “He/it brings into being.”3

Thus the first name God gives to Moses might mean “I become” and the second name might mean “He makes [things] become”.  God decides to stick with the second name, Y-H-V-H.

… This is my name forever; this is how I shall be remembered forever.  (Exodus 3:15)

Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh, by Marc Chagall, 1931

But the name is unfamiliar to the Pharaoh of Egypt when Moses and Aaron first ask him to grant the Hebrew slaves a leave of absence.

Pharaoh said: “Who is Y-H-V-H that I should listen to his voice to send away Israel?  I do not know Y-H-V-H.”  (Exodus 5:2)

After that, God wants someone to “know that I am Y-H-V-H nine times in the book of Exodus/Shemot.4  Five times God declares that the Pharaoh or the Egyptians will “know that I am Y-H-V-H once God has performed a miracle that damages Egypt.5

And four times in Exodus, God declares the Israelites will “know that I am Y-H-V-H”: after God has brought them out of Egypt (Exodus 6:7), mocked the Egyptians with miracles (Exodus 10:2), given them manna and meat in the wilderness (Exodus 16:12), and dwelled among the Israelites after they have made a sanctuary (Exodus 29:46).

After the book of Exodus, the Israelites and their fellow-travelers sometimes disobey or rebel against God, but at least they know the name of the god who has adopted them.  The statement that somebody “shall know that I am Y-H-V-H does not appear again until the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, when Moses reminds the Israelites that God took care of them in the wilderness, giving them water, manna, and quail, and ensuring they would not need to spend time on making clothes.

I led you across for 40 years across the wilderness; your clothes did not wear out upon you, and your sandals did not wear out upon your feet.  You ate no bread and drank no wine or liquor—so that you would know that I am Y-H-V-H, your Elohim.  (Deuteronomy 29:4-5)

*

Plague of Blood, Golden Haggadah, circa 1320

In short, people shall know that God is Y-H-V-H when they witness or remember miracles.  The miracles might be as benign as the provision of manna in this week’s Torah portion, or as devastating as turning the whole Nile River into blood.

If Y-H-V-H means “He brings into being”, then a miracle demonstrates that even though the natural world was created long ago, the god of miracles can still bring major new events into being.

And if Y-H-V-H has a different meaning?  Some modern scholars have suggested that the four-letter name may derive from a more ancient god-name used by nomads living in an area south of the Dead Sea called “the land of Yehwa”.6  Three of the most ancient poems in the bible refer to Y-H-V-H as coming to Israel from an earlier home in the south: the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 33:2), the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:4, part of this week’s haftarah reading), and the Song of Habbakuk (Habbakuk 3:1-3).

If the name Y-H-V-H came from the name “Yehwa”, what did “Yehwa” mean?  It might be related to the later Arabic word hawaya = love, passion.7  And if Y-H-V-H means “He is passionate”, then a miracle demonstrates that this god is deeply emotional about human beings at the collective level, and does extraordinary things to arrange their fates.  In Exodus the God of passion makes the Egyptians suffer and helps the Israelites—except when they enrage him by worshiping the golden calf, and he kills 3,000 of them with a plague.  Y-H-V-H also gets furious over some Israelite actions in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, and kills many thousands more.  (See my posts Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1 and 1 Samuel: How to Stop a Plague, Part 4.)

Today most people do not believe in miracles, and those who do often apply the word “miracle” to events that do not defy the laws of nature and could just as well happen by coincidence.  They might be awed by the pseudo-miracles they notice, and they might consider God responsible.  But their concept of God is different from the God in Exodus: either more abstract, or milder and kinder.

What would it be like today to believe that God is Y-H-V-H, “He brings into being” or “He is passionate”?

  1. Exodus 16:2-3.
  2. This verb is most often conjugated from the root hayah (היה), but occasionally the bible uses a conjugation of the synonymous root havah (הוה)—for example, in the imperative in Genesis 27:29, Isaiah 16:4, and Job 37:6.
  3. The verb spelled with the letters Y-H-V-H would be the third person singular imperfect hifil.  A more elegant but slightly less literal translation is: “He who brings things into being”.  Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2004, p. 321-322, footnote on Exodus 3:14.
  4. In addition to these nine times, God also wants the Israelites to know that there is none like Y-H-V-H in Exodus 8:6, 9:14, and 18:11; to know that Y-H-V-H owns the earth in Exodus 9:29; to know that Y-H-V-H distinguishes between Egyptians and Israelites in Exodus 11:7; and to know that Y-H-V-H sanctifies them with Shabbat in Exodus 31:13.
  5. The miracles are bringing the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 7:5), turning the Nile and all the surface water in Egypt into blood (Exodus 7:17), releasing swarms of mixed vermin (Exodus 8:18), and eliminating Pharaoh’s army (Exodus 14:4 and 14:18).
  6. The “land of Yehwa” appears in a 14th-century BCE Egyptian list discovered in Amunhotep III’s Soleb Nubian temple.  Israel Knohl, “YHWH: The Original Arabic Meaning of the Name”, www.thetorah.com, 01/01/2019, .  Also see Richard Elliott Friedman, The Exodus, HarperCollins, 2017, pp. 122-123.
  7. Knohl, ibid.

Pesach: Miriam the Prophetess

March 27, 2018 at 9:09 am | Posted in Beha-alotkha, Beshallach, Passover/Pesach | Leave a comment

Pesach (פֶּסַח, “skipping”) means Passover.  Seder (סֵדֶר, “order”) means the dinner table ritual following the order in the Haggadah.  Haggadah (הַגָּדָה, “the telling”—a term that came into use in the 19th century) means the book of rituals, prayers, questions, four cups of wine, and stories.  The longest story, told while the second cup of wine sits on the table, is about the exodus from Egypt, up to the point when the pursuing Egyptian army drowns in the Reed Sea, and the newly-freed slaves celebrate on the far shore.

In the book of Exodus, Moses led the people in celebrating by singing a lengthy psalm.1

Miriam’s Song, 1909

Then Miriam the neviyah, the sister of Aaron, took the drum in her hand, and all the women went out after her, with drums and with circle-dances.  And Miriam chanted for them:

Sing to God, for He is high above the high;

horse and its rider He hurled into the sea.  (Exodus/Shemot 15:20-21)

neviyah (נְבִיאָה) = prophetess (the feminine form of navi (נָבִיא) = prophet).

Miriam is the first woman in the Torah to be called a neviyah.  She leads the women in singing as well as in tapping hand drums and dancing.2

Miriam is a character in three dramatic scenes in the Torah.  She is the resourceful young woman who, when the pharaoh’s daughter adopts her infant brother Moses, arranges for their own mother to be his paid wet-nurse.3  She is the leader of thousands of women in the scene above.  And later in the trek across the wilderness, she leads her brother Aaron in a joint complaint regarding Moses’ wife.  (See my post Beha-alotkha: Unnatural Skin.)  The two siblings point out that they are prophets, too:

“Has God spoken only with Moses?  Hasn’t He also spoken with us?”  And God heard.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 12:2)

by Johann Christoph Weigel, 1695

God calls Miriam, Aaron, and Moses to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and speaks to all three from the pillar of cloud—in order to tell them that Moses gets the most direct divine communication.

And [God] said: “Please listen to my words!  When there is a navi of God among you, I make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream.  Not so my servant Moses … I speak with him mouth to mouth, and in seeing, not in riddles, and he looks at the likeness of God.  (Numbers 12:6-8)

God afflicts Miriam with a temporary skin disease to underscore the point.  Nevertheless, in that scene Miriam is indeed a neviyah who hears God’s voice directly!

Miriam is mentioned in passing five times after this, including God’s speech in the book of Micah reminding the Israelites that God sent them three leaders for the exodus from Egypt: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 4

*

What is a navi or neviyah?  The Torah offers several paradigms.

  • Intercessor

The word navi first appears in the book of Genesis, when God tells King Avimelekh in a dream: “And now, return the wife of [Abraham], since he is a navi, and he can pray for you and you will live.” (Genesis 20.7)

Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, and an unnamed prophet in the first book of Kings are also prophets who have God’s ear and intercede with God to save other people.5

  • Spokesperson

The Torah introduces a second paradigm of a navi after the enslaved Israelites give up on Moses’ idea that God will liberate them.  When God tells Moses to speak to Pharaoh next, he tries to get out it, arguing that he has “uncircumcised lips”, i.e. he cannot speak well.6  But God has an answer for everything.

Then God said to Moses: “See, I place you as a god to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother will be your navi.”  (Exodus 7:1)

Moses and Aaron with Pharaoh, March Chagall, 1931

In other words, Aaron will act like a navi for Moses, hearing Moses speak and then passing on Moses’ words to the Egyptian court.  Obviously Moses is God’s navi, hearing God speak and passing on God’s words, though the Torah does not bother to say so until the end of Deuteronomy:  And never again in Israel rose a navi like Moses, who knew God face to face.  (Deuteronomy 34:10)

Moses and God have the longest, most frequent, and most direct conversations in the entire Hebrew Bible.  After Moses gets over his initial reluctance to speak, he fluently delivers God’s instructions, warnings, and hundreds of rules.7

Other prophets transmit God’s predictions, or warnings, about the future of kings or kingdoms if they do not change their ways.  These include all the major prophets (Isaiah through Malachi).

  • Ecstatic

The third kind of navi in the Hebrew Bible is one who goes into an altered state of consciousness characterized by an awareness of the divine and obliviousness to the world, and who does not return with any coherent message from God.  The first occurrence of this state in the Torah is when God shares some of Moses’ spirit or ruach with 70 elders.

And the spirit was upon them, vayitnabe-u, but they did not continue.  (Numbers 11:25)

Saul Before Samuel and the Prophets, by Benjamin West, 1812

vayitnabe-u (וַיּתְנַבְּאוּ) = and they acted like prophets, and they prophesied to themselves, and they spoke in ecstasy.  (From the same נבא root as navi.)

In both books of Samuel and both books of Kings, bands of prophets wander around making music, dancing, and babbling.  The bible explains the proverb “Is Saul, too, among the prophets?” first with a scene in which King Saul falls in with a band of prophets on the road and speaks in ecstasy like them, then with a scene in which not only babbles, but also strips naked.8

*

Miraim is the first of only five women called prophets in the Hebrew Bible. After her, two major prophetesses are spokespersons for God (type 2 above): Deborah, who summons a general and tells him to go to war;9 and Huldah, who authenticates a scroll as the word of God and utters two prophetic predictions.10  Two other prophetesses are mentioned only glancingly.11

Miriam is the only neviyah whom the bible reports as engaging in what might be ecstatic behavior: playing a drum, dancing, and singing on the shore of the Reed Sea.  But Miriam leads circle dances in complicated patterns that require concentration and planning.  She leads a coherent chant.  Rather than directing ecstatic worship, she is probably organizing a celebration of God as the victor in a war against the Egyptian charioteers.  Women customarily greeted soldiers returned from a victory with drumming, dancing, and singing.12

Although Miriam hears God’s voice, the Torah does not report her serving as either an intercessor or a spokesperson for God.

by Simeon Solomon, 1860

The Talmud attempts to fill the void by claiming that Miriam did pronounce a prophecy: that her mother would have a son who would save the Israelites from Egypt.  When Moses was born, according to this story, the whole house filled with light, and Miriam’s father exclaimed that his daughter’s prophecy had been fulfilled.13  This is a pleasant tale with no basis in the Torah.

A modern folk explanation is that Miriam must have had foreknowledge of the victory at the Reed Sea, and told the women to bring their drums.  Otherwise they would not have bothered to pack them, since they left their homes in Egypt in such a hurry that the dough had no time to rise in their kneading-troughs.14

This argument for Miriam’s power as a neviyah fails in the context of the larger story in Exodus.  The Israelite women were already packing all the gold, silver, jewelry, and clothing they “borrowed” from the Egyptians; they could easily add their hand drums and any their other sentimental and ritual objects.

*

Miriam may be called a neviyah because of other deeds not recorded in the bible.  Or she may simply be an exceptional person who has a close relationship with God.

A traditional Passover seder includes pouring a cup of wine for Elijah the navi.  Many a modern seder adds a ritual cup of water for Miriam the neviah.  (The water alludes to a Talmudic story that says a well of water followed the Israelites through the wilderness for 40 years thanks to the merit of Miriam.15)

I lift a cup for Miriam at Passover knowing that she may not be a neviyah in the sense of being an intercessor with God, a spokesperson for God, or a religious ecstatic.  I celebrate her lifelong wise leadership, and her ability to listen to God.  May we all learn to be a little more like Miriam the neviyah.

  1. Exodus 15:1-18. See my post Beshallach & Psalm 136: Miracle at Sea.
  2. Since the two lines of Miriam’s song are the same as the first two lines of the psalm ascribed to Moses, the women might sing them as a periodic refrain during the longer psalm. Most modern scholars consider either the entire psalm, or at least Miriam’s song, to be one of the oldest poems in the Torah (based on Frank M. Cross and David N. Freedman, Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1973).
  3. Exodus 2:4-8.
  4. When she dies in Numbers 20:1; in two genealogies listing her with her brothers Aaron and Moses, Numbers 26:59 and 1 Chronicles 5:29; in a warning about skin disease in Deuteronomy 24:9, and in Micah 6:3-4.
  5. Moses for the Israelite people in Exodus 32:9-14, Exodus 33:12-17, Numbers 11:1-2, and Numbers 21:6-9, and for Miriam in Numbers 12:10-15; Samuel for the Israelites in 7:5-10; Elijah to bring a dead boy back to life in 1 Kings 17:20-24; Elisha for the same reason in 2 Kings 4:8-37; an unnamed prophet for King Jereboam in 1 Kings 13:1-6.
  6. Exodus 6:12, 6:30. See my post Va-eria & Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 2.
  7. The Talmud (Makkot 23b and Yevamot 47b) claims there are 613 commandments in the Torah.  It is hard to decide which rules should count, but 10th-century C.E. rabbi Saadiah ben Yosef Gaon found a way to list 613 in his Sefer Hamitzvot, and Maimonides (12th-century C.E. rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, nicknamed Rambam) came up with 613 for his book by the same name.
  8. 1 Samuel 10:10-12 and 19:18-24.
  9. Judges 4:4-16.
  10. 2 Kings 22:14-20.
  11. The unnamed wife of the first Isaiah (Isaiah 8:3) and Noadeyah, a false neviyah listed in Nehemiah 6:14.
  12. Judges 11:34, 1 Samuel 18:6-7.
  13. Talmud Bavli Megillah 14a.
  14. Exodus 12:34.
  15. Talmud Bavli Taanit 9a.

Beshallach: See, Fear, Trust, Sing

January 24, 2018 at 7:34 pm | Posted in Beshallach | Leave a comment

by Bernardino Luini, 1481-1532

The Reed Sea splits.  The Israelites and their fellow travelers cross on dry land.  The chariots pursue them.  The sea returns and drowns the Egyptian army.

After the miracle at the Reed Sea in this week’s Torah portion, Beshellach (“When sending away”), the consciousness of the Israelites changes in four steps.  They perceive God’s power1, they feel fear and awe, and they give up their reservations (at least for a while) and trust in God and Moses. Then Moses begins to sing, and everyone joins in.

Vayareh, the Israelites, the great power that God used against the Egyptians; vayiyre-u, the people, of God; vaya-aminu in God and in Moses, God’s servant.  That was when yashir, Moses and the Israelites, this song in honor of God.  (Exodus 14:31, 15:1)

vayareh (וַיַּרְא) = and they saw, perceived, looked at, recognized, acknowledged, considered. (A form of the root verb ra-ah, רָאָה.)

vayiyre-u (וַיִּירְאוּ) = and they felt fear, fear and awe, awe and reverence.  (A form of the root verb yarei, יָרֵא.)

vaya-aminu (וַיַּאֲמִינוּ) = and they believed, trusted, relied upon.  (Probably from the same root as amen, אָמֵן.)

yashir (יָשִׁיר) = he sang.

Vayareh

Vayareh the great power that God used against the Egyptians …

The Israelites have already witnessed the ten miraculous plagues in Egypt.  Why do they only now see God’s power?

I think they have been reluctant even to acknowledge God’s plan for taking them out of Egypt because they know they are doomed if it does not work.  After all, the first time Moses asked Pharaoh to give them three days off to worship God, Pharaoh only increased their workload.2

The first two plagues proved that either Moses or his God had strong magic; but Pharaoh’s magicians could also turn water into blood and make frogs overrun houses.  The next six plagues, from lice to locusts, could be explained as large-scale natural disasters; only the quick succession of afflictions betrayed a supernatural power at work.  The last two plagues, three days of total darkness and the overnight death of the firstborn, were too unnatural to mean anything but the power of a god.  But was the God of Moses their savior, or just a god of destruction?

After the Israelites and their fellow-travelers march out of Egypt, they are accompanied by a miraculous pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.3  But it is still hard for them to believe that any god is working for them and against Pharaoh.  Everyone in Egypt knows that the pharaoh is not only a king, but the son of all the Egyptian gods.4  Their whole lives, he has had absolute power over them.  How can they think of Pharaoh any other way?

When they find out that his army has pursued them into the wilderness, they are full of fear (although they do not lose their dark humor).

And Pharaoh came close, and the Israelites raised their eyes, and hey!  The Egyptians were pulling out after them!  Vayiyre-u very much, and the Israelites cried out to God.  And they said to Moses: “Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?”  (Exodus 14:11)

They are trapped, camped between that army and the Reed Sea.  They cry to God for help, but they expect Pharaoh’s army to win.  It always has.

During the night God splits the sea and the Israelites cross on dry land, with God’s pillar of fire as a rearguard between them and the Egyptians.  The Pharaoh’s charioteers follow across the sea bed, but the chariot wheels get stuck in the mud.  At dawn God makes the water return, and the Israelites watch the Egyptian army drown.

The world changes.  I imagine the Israelites trembling with shock.  Now their hearts crack open and they finally see the great power of God.

Vayiyre-u

Vayiyre-u of God

After seeing that God really has drowned the Egyptian army and rescued them from slavery, the Israelites stop being afraid of Pharaoh, and start being afraid of God.

When the Egyptian army drowns, the Israelites see and believe that their world has changed.  Amazed, they can now believe that God is liberating them from Egypt altogether.  But they do not fall in love with this God who changes the status quo by sending plagues and killing people.  Instead, they feel fear and awe.

Va-aminu

Vaya-aminu in God and in Moses, God’s servant

Only after the Israelites fear God more than Pharaoh do they put their trust in God and Moses.  (At least until the next serious setback, when they run out of food in the wilderness of Sin.)5

They did not believe or trust or rely upon God when they marched out of Egypt; Pharaoh had kicked them out.  They followed Moses because they had to follow somebody.  When the pillar of cloud and fire appeared, they followed that.  Why not?  They had nothing to lose.

When they walk across the bed of the Reed Sea during the last shift of the night, they do not believe that they will get safely to the other side.  But the enemy is right behind them; why not go forward?

Only after God destroys the Egyptian army does the Israelite attitude changes from “I’m doomed anyway, I’ll take the risk” to “I am committed to this God.”  This trust and commitment comes from awe and amazement at being saved—but also from fear of such a powerful God.

Yashir

That was when yashir, Moses and the Israelites, this song in honor of God.  (Exodus 15:1)

Critical scholars agree that the psalm following this introduction is in an older Hebrew than the rest of the story.  The details of the story in Beshallach and the psalm they sing do not quite match.  (See my post Beshallach & Psalm 136: Miracle at Sea.)  But why should we expect Moses to invent a new song on the fly?  When people are overwhelmed with emotion and feel moved to sing, they sing the most appropriate song they know.

Everyone sings, and all the women drum and dance to celebrate God’s victory.6  This is the first singing in the Torah.

*

What if you felt oppressed and hopeless your whole life?  What if you could not believe anything could change?  What if suddenly your old life ended, and you had to cope with an entirely new situation?  Could you see and believe in the change?  Would you feel afraid?  Could you turn your fear into wonder (Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “radical amazement”)?  Could you make a commitment to the new reality?  And would the emotion welling over inside you come pouring out in song?

(An earlier version of this essay was published in January 2010.)

  1. In this post, I have consistently translated the word yad (יַָד) as “power”. In Biblical Hebrew, yad means “hand” literally, and “power” metaphorically.
  2. Exodus 5:1-21.
  3. Exodus 13:21-22.
  4. See Jan Assmann, “Pharaoh’s Divine Role in Maintaining Ma’at (Order)”, www.thetorah.com.
  5. Exodus 16:1-3.
  6. Exodus 15:20.

Yitro & Psalms 29, 82, & 97: Greater Than Other Gods

February 16, 2017 at 5:08 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Psalms/Tehilim, Yitro | 3 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
Miriam's Song, 1909

Miriam’s Song, 1909

(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)

The “Song of the Sea”, a psalm in last week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, includes the verse:

           Who is like You among the eilim, Y-h-w-h?

                        Who is like You, glorious in holiness,

                        Awesome, praiseworthy, doing wonders! (Exodus 15:11)

Y-h-w-h (י־ה־ו־ה) = God’s personal four-letter name.  (Many English translations substitute “LORD” for this name, even though it is spelled using letters from several forms of the Hebrew verb “to be”, rather than from the Hebrew noun for “lord”.)1

eilim (אֵלִם) = plural of eil (אֵל) = a god. (In some Canaanite religions, Eil was the founding god of the pantheon.  In the Torah, Eil is another name for Y-h-w-h, but eilim always means multiple other gods.)

The Song of the Sea assumes that other gods exist, and rejoices that the God of Israel, Y-h-w-h, is more powerful than any of them.  This verse is included in the daily Jewish liturgy, morning and evening.  When Jews sing “Mi chamokha” (“Who is like You?”) we do not always remember that we are comparing our God with other gods.

Yitro advises Moses in Figures de la Bible, 1728

Yitro Advises Moses, by James J.J. Tissot

Yitro and the First Commandment

In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, the Midianite priest Yitro travels to Mount Sinai to meet his son-in-law Moses shortly after God and Moses have brought the Israelites out of Egypt.

And Yitro said: “Blessed be Y-h-w-h, Who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh…  Now I know that Y-h-w-h is greater than all the elohim…” (Exodus/Shemot 18:11)

elohim (אֱלֺהִים) = gods, a god, God.  (Grammatically elohim is the plural of eloha, a rarely used word for a god.  The Torah uses the word elohim to refer to both multiple gods, as with eilim, and to a single god.  Sometimes elohim refers to a single foreign god2, but more often the word refers to the God of Israel, Y-h-w-h.)

Does Yitro believe in the existence of multiple gods only because he is a Midianite?  No; many passages in the Bible that were originally written before the destruction of the first temple in 587 B.C.E. share this belief.  Even the first of the “Ten Commandments” in this week’s Torah portion does not require monotheism, but only a henotheistic religion in which Y-h-w-h is the best god and the only one the people are allowed to worship:

I am Y-h-w-h, your elohim, Who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of servitude.  You shall have no other elohim over and above My presence. (Exodus/Shemot 20:2-3)

(For other translations of this commandment, see my post Yitro: Not in My Face.)

Y-h-w-h does not say that there are no other gods, but only that the Israelites must not serve them.

A number of psalms3 are similarly henotheistic in the original Hebrew (though some translators strain to make them sound as monotheistic as later Biblical writings.)  These psalms treat other gods as real, but emphasize that they are weak and worthless compared with Y-h-w-h, the God of Israel.  Here are three examples:

Psalm 29

Psalm 29 is probably the oldest of the henotheistic psalms.  Its opening addresses the “children” or dependents of other gods:

           Assign to Y-h-w-h, children of eilim,

                        Assign to Y-h-w-h magnificence and might!

            Assign to Y-h-w-h the magnificence of [God’s] name,

                      Bow down to Y-h-w-h of holy beauty!

           The voice of Y-h-w-h is over the waters;

                      The eil of magnificence is thundering.  (Psalm 29:1-3)

“Children of eilim” might mean those dependent on other gods, i.e. their human worshipers.  Or, according to Ibn Ezra4 in his commentary on Exodus 15:11 (above), “children of eilim” refers to the stars, which were considered divine.

Baal preparing lightning, bronze

Baal preparing lightning

Psalm 29 goes on to describe the voice of Y-h-w-h as shattering cedars, making the mountains of Lebanon dance, kindling fire, shaking the wilderness, and startling deer into giving birth—all images related to thunderstorms and earthquakes.  Canaanite poems describe the god Baal as the weather god who speaks in thunder and makes lightning and earthquakes, but this Israelite poem says that God does all that.

In Canaanite literature the god Baal conquers the waters of chaos, builds a palace on a mountaintop, and becomes king over all the other gods except his father, Eil.

Psalm 29 gives God a palace and a throne:

          And in [God’s] palace everyone says: Magnificent!

                    Y-h-w-h sat enthroned for the flood,

                    And Y-h-w-h sits enthroned as king forever.  (Exodus 29:10)

The purpose of Psalm 29 may have been to replace Baal-worship among the Israelites with the worship of Y-h-w-h, and to persuade them that all the other eilim are less powerful than Y-h-w-h.  These inferior gods acclaim and bow down to Y-h-w-h in God’s palace.

Psalm 82

In Canaanite writings from Ugarit, the father god Eil periodically convenes an assembly of the gods, each of whom has its own sphere of power.  After receiving advice from the other gods, Eil makes the major decisions about the world.5

Psalm 82 takes the idea a divine assembly in a different direction.

The Council of Gods, sketch by Peter Paul Rubens

The Council of Gods, sketch by Peter Paul Rubens

Elohim takes a stand in the assembly of Eil,

           Among elohim he pronounces judgment. (Psalm 82:1)

In the first line, “Elohim” refers to Y-h-w-h; in the second line “elohim” refers to all the assembled gods.  “Eil” in the first line might be either Y-h-w-h or the Canaanite father god.

Y-h-w-h then accuses the other gods of unjust rulings that favor the wicked and fail to rescue the poor.  But the other gods don’t get it.

            They neither know nor understand,

                      They walk around in darkness;

                      Causing all the foundations of the earth to totter.  (Psalm 82:5)

Without true divine justice, the whole human world is threatened.  So Y-h-w-h gets rid of the ignorant lesser gods, commenting:

           I used to say to myself: You are elohim,

                      And children of the Most High, all of you.

           Nevertheless, you will die like humans,

                      And you will fall like one of the princes.  (Psalm 82:6-7)

Psalm 82 might be an explanation of why the wicked are not always punished: inferior gods have been acting as their judges.

On the other hand, this psalm might be a story exhorting the Israelites to abandon other gods because those gods are wicked, stupid, and no longer immortal.  Only Y-h-w-h is worth worshiping, because only Y-h-w-h administers true justice and lives forever.

Psalm 97

           The heavens told of [God’s] true justice;

                        All the peoples saw [God’s] magnificence.

            Every worshiper of a carved idol is shamed,

                        Those who boast of the elilim.

Sumerian annunaki (gods from the sky)

Sumerian annunaki (gods from the sky)

             All elohim bowed down to [God]! (Psalm 97:6-7)

elilim (אֱלִילִים) = worthless gods, nonentities, not-gods, insignificant gods.

“The heavens” in verse 6 probably refers not to the sky, but to the gods (including stars) who dwell in the heavens.  Since even the other gods bow down to Y-h-w-h and acknowledge God’s justice, anyone silly enough to worship these insignificant gods should be ashamed.

*

It took many centuries for the Israelites to stop worshiping the old gods. People would declare their allegiance to Y-h-w-h, and then slide back into worshiping some other god, a god that “everyone” knew was especially effective at dealing with their current problem.  The Bible repeatedly shows Moses and other prophets scolding the Israelites for straying after other gods, but the scoldings must have been ineffective, since the people kept on backsliding.

It was hard for the Israelites to stick to henotheism, in which their God was supreme and the others were not worth worshiping.  How could they manage the radical idea of monotheism, which the Torah first introduced in Deuteronomy 4:35?  How long did it take, after the second Isaiah preached monotheism during the Babylonian exile, before most Israelites believed there was only one god in the universe?

1  I usually translate the four-letter name as “God”, but in this post it is important to distinguish Y-h-w-h from elohim. I insert hyphens because according to Jewish tradition, God’s personal name must not be spelled correctly in writings that are neither biblical nor liturgical. For many Jews this applies even to spelling the name with Roman letters.

The Hebrew for “lord” or “master” is adon (אָדוֹן). When Jews read out loud in religious services, we often substitute adonai  (“my lords”) for the four-letter name of God.

2 The Bible uses “elohim” as a singular noun for the gods Baal, Baal-berit, Baal-zebub, Dagon, Kemosh, Milkom, and Nisrach; the goddesses Astarte and Ashtoret; and the golden calf.

3  Psalms 29, 82, 86, 89, 95, 96, 97, 135, and 136 all assume the existence of other gods.

4  Ibn Ezra was the 12th-century Spanish theologian Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra.

5  A divine assembly also appears in the book of Job and in Psalms 82 and 89.

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