Repost: Lekh-lekha

November 6, 2019 at 8:22 am | Posted in Lekh Lekha | Leave a comment

“Lekh-lekha!” God says to Abraham at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, called Lekh-lekha.  The first word of this phrase, lekh (לֶךְ), is easy to translate; it means “go” in the imperative.  The second word, lekha (לְךָ), is more ambiguous.  The -kha suffix means “you”, “your”, or “yourself”.  The preposition at the beginning of the word, לְ, could correspond to either “to” or “for” in English.

Certainly God is urging Abraham, who has lingered for years in Charan, to go to a new land now.  Adding lekha might make the request more urgent; God might be saying “You!  Go!” or “Get yourself going!”

But commentators through the ages have pointed out that God might also be saying “Go for yourself!”  In other words, Abraham should uproot himself from Charan and go to Canaan for his own sake.  Or God might be saying “Go to yourself!”  In other words, Abraham should look inside himself and see that going away is part of his nature.

*

Tempio Maggiore

We had many reasons, my husband and I, to uproot ourselves from our familiar and comfortable life in Oregon and fly to Europe and eventually Israel for a new adventure.  Here on the other side of the globe we have had many new experiences, some of them delightful.  But the day we visited Tempio Maggiore, the Great Synagogue of Florence, was so disconcerting I still feel uprooted.

The synagogue itself is a majestic Neo-Moorish building constructed 1874-1882, after Jews in Florence were given full citizenship and the old ghetto was razed and turned into a large public square.

In the same block as the Great Synagogue we found a now-defunct Chabad house; Ruth’s, the best kosher restaurant I’ve eaten at on two continents; and soldiers in berets and “camouflage” uniforms.   (At least that’s what uniforms of patchy green, brown, and khaki are called, though they really stand out in a street of gray stone and stucco.)  These soldiers were carrying sub-machine guns.

View from Ruth’s

A building labeled “Carabinieri” was in the next block.  But there were no carabinieri posted at the entrances to this military police station.  Instead, they were walking slowly up and down the block in front of the synagogue.  Protecting Jews.  Protecting us.

I know that anti-Semetism has increased lately in the United States, and in a few cities people have opened fire on Jews in synagogues.  I understand why even in Portland, Oregon, there are now police guards at the front doors buildings where Jews are arriving in droves for  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  I understand why we had to show our ID at the door to enter a synagogue in Prague for Yom Kippur.

But I was not psychologically prepared for sub-machine guns.

Some people probably feel safer thanks to these well-armed carabinieri.  But I felt less safe.  I felt as if I had stepped into a war zone without knowing it.  Am I more at risk than all the other Americans touring Florence just because I am a Jew and I eat at a kosher restaurant?

Maybe I am.  Can I accept it?  What about when we reach Israel, and we see a lot more guards carrying sub-machine guns?

Lekh-lekha!  Go for yourself!”  I expected this journey to benefit me personally, broadening my horizons and knowledge.  And it has.

Lekh-lekha!  Go to yourself!”  I did not expect this journey to open an uncomfortable cranny of my own psychology.  But it has, most notably at Terezin, and now in Florence.

*

Click here for my 2011 post on this week’s Torah portion:  Lekh-Lekha & Vayeira: Going with the Voice.

 Lekh-Lekha, Vayeira, & Toledot: The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 3

November 8, 2018 at 11:25 am | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Toledot, Vayeira | 2 Comments

Isaac and Rebekah, by Simeon Solomon, 1863

And Isaac stayed in Gerar.  And the men of the place asked about his wife, and he said: “She is my sister,” because he was afraid to say “my wife”—“lest the men of the place kill me on account of Rebecca, since she is good-looking.”  (Genesis 26:6-7)

Isaac’s father, Abraham, pulls the wife-sister trick twice, once in Egypt and once in Gerar(See The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1 and Part 2.)  Now Isaac moves to Gerar and starts the process a third time in this week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“Lineages”).

The Torah tells us he is afraid; he believes that people in Gerar are so immoral they would kill a man in order to marry his wife—perhaps because he heard the story from his father.  (The assumption is that marrying an already-married woman is so sinful, not even foreigners would do it.  Murder is the lesser sin.)

Abraham’s feelings about passing off his wife as his sister are omitted; we do not even know if he believes he would be killed, or if he sees it as a way to get rich.  At least Abraham has a reason for moving to Egypt.

A famine happened in the land, and Abraham went down to Egypt lagur there, because the famine was heavy on the land.  (Genesis 12:10)

lagur (לָגוּר) = to live as a resident alien, to sojourn.1

In the second tale, Abraham goes to Gerar for no apparent reason—except maybe to get richer.

And Abraham pulled out from there to the land of the Negev, and he settled between Kadeish and Shur, vayagar in Gerar.  And Abraham said of Sarah, his wife: “She is my sister.”  And Avimelekh, king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. (Genesis 20:1-2)

vayagar (וַיַּגָר) = and he lived as a resident alien, and he sojourned.  (Another form of the verb lagur.)

After the king of Gerar discovers the ruse, he showers gifts on Abraham and Sarah in order to induce Abraham to pray for him and compensate Sarah for any loss of honor.

In the third iteration of the wife-sister tale, Isaac faces another famine, and goes to Gerar even though he believes the men of Gerar are exceptionally lusty and murderous.

Then a famine happened in the land, apart from the first famine that happened in the days of Abraham.  And Isaac went to Avimelekh, King of the Philistines, to Gerar.  And God appeared to him and said: “Do not go down to Egypt.  Stay in the land that I say to you.  Gur in this land and I will be with you and I will bless you, for I will give all these lands to you and your descendants, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham, your father.”  (Genesis 26:1-3)

gur (גּוּר) = Live as a resident alien!  Sojourn!  (Another form of the verb lagur.)

What is “the land that I say to you”?  Canaan is the land God “shows” Abraham.2  But perhaps Isaac interprets God’s words as an order to stay in Gerar.

When Isaac tries Abraham’s wife-sister trick with the second Avimelekh3 of Gerar, the reader or listener expects the same outcome: the king will marry Rebecca, God will afflict the king and his household with a disease, and he will discover that the cause of the affliction is the sin of marrying an already-married woman.  Then the king will restore Rebecca to Isaac, along with some movable property as compensation, and they will return to Canaan richer than when they left.

But this time it does not happen.  The new king of Gerar merely watches and waits.  After a while Isaac gets tired of treating Rebecca like a sister.

Abimelech Spies Isaac Fondling Rebecca, by Bernard Salomon, 1558

And it happened because the days were long for him.  Then Avimelekh, the king of the Philistines, looked out the window, and he saw—hey!  Isaac was fooling around with Rebecca, his wife.  And Avimelekh summoned Isaac and said: “So hey!  She is your wife!  Then why did you say: ‘She is my sister?”

And Isaac said to him: “Because I said (to myself): ‘Lest I die on account of her.’”

And Avimelekh said: “What is this you have done to us?  Is it a small thing that one of the people might have lain down with your wife?  Then you would have brought guilt upon us!”  (Genesis 26:8-10)

Even though Rebecca is beautiful, not a single man in Gerar has attempted to bed her or marry her.  The only moral transgression that occurs is Isaac’s deception about their relationship.

Then Avimelekh commanded all the people, saying: “Anyone who touches this man or his wife will certainly be put to death.”  And Isaac sowed that land, and he obtained that year a hundredfold.  And God blessed him.  And the man became great, and he grew constantly greater until he became very great.  (Genesis 26:11-13)

This king does not need to shower Isaac with gifts.  God makes Isaac rich.

This new ending for the tale raises questions about all three explanations in The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1 and Part 2.

Explanation A:  Exculpating the Patriarchs

Traditional commentators take the wife-sister tales as literal history, and also assume that Abraham and Sarah are more virtuous than any of the kings.  They do not question Abraham’s claims that the men of both Egypt and Gerar routinely seize beautiful female immigrants and kill their husbands if they happen to be married.

But when Isaac tries the wife-sister trick and nothing happens, their attempts to prove that the foreign king and his men are immoral prove feeble.  Nineteenth-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote: “Isaac’s concern was not unfounded; for as soon as the true relation between Rebecca and Isaac became known, Avimelech found it necessary to protect them by a decree of the death penalty for any assault.”4

However, Avimelekh might issue the order, “Anyone who touches this man or his wife will certainly be put to death” simply in order to reassure the fearful Isaac, not because there is any real danger.  If Rebecca were at risk for sexual assault, why would so much time pass without any man making the attempt?

Early commentary interprets Avimelekh’s question “Is it a small thing that one of the people might have lain down with your wife?” as proof that the king was at least planning to lie with Rebecca.  Rashi interpreted the phrase achad ha-am (אַחַד הָעָם),one of the people” as “the most prominent of the people, meaning the king”.5  And 16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno claimed Avimelekh means he can bed Rebecca whenever he wants because the king “is singular among his people”.6

But although these commentators strained to paint the second Avimelekh in a bad light, the most they could say was that the king thinks about having sex with Rebecca, but does not do it.

Abimelech Sees Isaac and Rebecca, by Daniele Squaglia, 1649

Meanwhile, they find Isaac and Rebecca’s behavior scandalous.  Rashi, following Bereishit Rabbah, wrote that when Avimelekh saw Isaac and Rebecca “fooling around”, they were actually engaging in marital relations.7  They were doing it during the day where they could be seen; married couples are supposed to do it at night and in private.

Thus the efforts of traditional commentators to exculpate the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel, and paint foreign kings and their male subjects as immoral, break down when it comes to the third wife-sister tale.  The king of Gerar and his men think about sex, but do not do anything wrong.  Isaac and Rebecca, on the other hand, are guilty of unseemly behavior in public.

Explanation B: Instilling Xenophobia

Modern scholars view the three wife-sister tales as three iterations of an ancient folk tale, casting first Abraham and then Isaac as the trickster husband.  But why did the people who wrote and edited most of Genesis during the 8th and 9th centuries B.C.E. choose to include these tales in the first place?  Perhaps they would encourage readers to believe  that the descendants of the patriarchs belong in Canaan, and that foreigners are dangerous.8  (See The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 2)

Alan Segal argued that the first wife-sister tale reinforces other warnings in the Hebrew Bible against dealing with Egyptians; the second tale “stresses God’s promise to live in the Canaanite land in which the patriarchs wander; the third shows that Hebrews were also invited to live on land controlled by the Philistines, both with their flocks and to raise crops.”9

Isaac does gur for some years in Gerar, which this Torah portion refers to as Philistine territory.10  There he copies his father by pretending his wife is his sister, and by redigging his father’s wells.11

Yet the second Avimelekh actually does not invite Isaac to stay.  Isaac apparently takes Avimelekh’s command to his people not to touch him or Rebecca as a free pass to engage in any lawful activity in Gerar.  The next sentence says he plants seeds and harvests an excellent crop.  The Torah does not say who, if anyone, owns the land Isaac farms, but it does say he uses wells that his father’s servants had dug during Abraham’s sojourn in Gerar.  As Isaac becomes richer, the native Philistines become envious, and they plug the wells with dirt.12

And Avimelekh said to Isaac: “Go away from us, because you have become much more mighty than we are.”  (Genesis 26:16)

This is the opposite of an invitation to stay.  Only after Isaac has moved to Beer-sheva does Avimelekh come over with his councilor and his army chief to make peace.  They say politely:

Abimelech Visits Isaac, by Wenceslas Hollar

“We see clearly that God is with you, and we say: Let there be, please, an obligation by oath between our sides, between us and you, and let us cut a covenant with you: that you will do no harm to us, as we have not touched you, and we did only good to you and sent you away in peace.  Now may you be blessed of God!”  (Genesis 26:28-29)

Thus the third wife-sister tale implies that the Israelite kingdoms can co-exist peacefully with Philistine states, not that Israelites have a right to use Philistine land.  The peace treaty, rather than instilling xenophobia, demonstrates that Israelites can get along with at least some outsiders.

Explanation C: Exploring Morality in a Trickster Tale

If the Torah is presenting three versions of a trickster tale as an entertaining way to teach a moral lesson, then the third wife-sister iteration must be the climax, the one with a turn that makes us think.

The new turn in the tale is that after the patriarch passes off his wife as his sister, nobody tries to get her into bed.  Every man of Gerar, including the king, is circumspect and sexually virtuous.  (I can imagine the second Avimelekh remembering what happened to his father, and being especially careful to avoid strange women.)

The funniest part of this version is when Isaac and Rebecca are fooling around right under the king of Gerar’s window, and the king pops his head out, looking outraged. Then he questions Isaac, just as the previous two kings questioned Abraham.  But he does not need to pay them anything, since he did nothing wrong, and God has not afflicted him.

All three kings in the three wife-sister tales respect the moral law that one must not poach a married man’s wife.  There is no indication that any of them resort to murder to fix their domestic affairs.  And when they find out they were deceived, none of them take revenge.  They ask the trickster to leave the country, but let him take his wife and his new riches with him.

The king in the bible who actually does kill a man in order to marry his wife is not a foreign king at all, but the second king of Israel, David.

David Sees Bathsheba, by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1889

While King David’s men are off fighting the Philistines, David looks down from his rooftop and sees “a very good-looking woman” bathing.  He finds out she is Bathsheba, another man’s wife, but he has her brought to his bed anyway.  After he has impregnated her, he tries to get her husband to spend a night with her, but he fails.  So David has her husband killed, and then marries her.13

Is it a coincidence that King David actually commits the moral crimes that Abraham and Isaac claim the kings of Egypt and Gerar would consider committing?  Or is the book of Genesis making an implicit criticism of Israel’s legendary king?

The wife-sister tale in Toledot demonstrates that a foreign king, even a king of Israel’s enemies the Philistines, can be more virtuous than an Israelite king.

It is not enough to say:

And you must love the geir, since you were geirim in the land of Egypt.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 10:19)

geir (גֵר) = foreigner, resident alien, sojourner.  Plural geirim (גֵרִים).  (From the same root as lagur.)

We should not only love foreigner and immigrants, but also remember that some of them are better than we are.

  1. All three patriarchs in the Torah are sojourners: temporary resident aliens, staying in countries where they are not citizens. After Abraham leaves Charan, his homeland in Mesopotamia, the bible describes him as “sojourning” in Egypt (Genesis 12:10), Gerar (20:1), Beersheba (21:34), and Hebron (35:27).  Isaac lives most of his life in Beer-sheva and Beer-lachai-roi, but he “sojourns” in Gerar (26:3) and Hebron (35:27).  Jacob grows up in Beer-sheva, then sojourns with his uncle Lavan in Charan during his prime (32:5), and in Egypt during his old age (47:4).
  2. Genesis 12:1, 12:5-7.
  3. Avimelekh can be translated as “My Father King”: avi (אֲבִי) = my father + melekh (מֶלֶךְ) = king. Avimelekh may be a title, like “Pharaoh”, and the second Avimelekh of Gerar may be the first one’s son and successor.
  4. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Bereshis, English translation by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 566.
  5. “Rashi” is the acronym for 11-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  6. Ovadiah Sforno, Sforno: Commentary on the Torah, translation and notes by Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz, Artscroll Mesorah Series, 1993, p. 136.
  7. Bereishit Rabbah, also called Genesis Rabbah, is a collection of commentary on the book of Genesis by rabbis from the Talmudic period of about 300-500 C.E. “Fooling around” is one translation of metzacheik (מְצַחֵק) = amusing oneself, fooling around, playing around with; from the root tzachak (צָחַק) = laughed, which is also the root of the name Isaac (יִצְחָק) = he laughs, he will laugh.
  8. Alan F. Segal, Sinning in the Hebrew Bible, Columbia University Press, New York, 2012, chapter one.
  9. Segal, p. 33.
  10. Scholars agree that the reference to Philistines (Plishtim) is an anachronism, since these people did not cross the Mediterranean and settle between the Negev and the sea until circa 1200 B.C.E., much later than the putative time of the three patriarchs. The Torah may use “Plishtim” here to indicate the geography, or remind the reader of one of Israel’s old enemies.  The term “Canaan” in the Torah refers to a region that always includes the west bank of the Jordan and the Negev desert, but only sometimes includes the Philistine states as well.
  11. Genesis 26:15-18.
  12. Genesis 26:14-15.
  13. 2 Samuel, chapter 11.

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Lekh-Lekha, Vayeira, & Toledot: The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 2 

October 31, 2018 at 1:31 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Toledot, Vayeira | 3 Comments

Abraham has a low opinion of two kings in the book of Genesis/Bereishit: the Pharaoh of Egypt, and Avimelekh of Gerar.  Yet he emigrates to both their countries with his wife Sarah: to Egypt in the Torah portion Lekh-lekha and to Gerar in Vayeira.

Both times, Abraham says Sarah is so beautiful that if men knew they were husband and wife, he would be killed and the king would marry his widow.  So he asks Sarah to pretend to be his unmarried sister; that way, he figures, he will survive when the king takes her.  And as her nearest male relative, he might even receive gifts.

“Say, please, you are my sister, so that yitav for me for your sake, and my soul will live on account of you.”  (Genesis 12:13)

yitav (יִיטַב) = it goes well, it becomes better.

Both times, the king does take Sarah as one of his wives.  Then the hoax is revealed.  The horrified king releases her and sends off Abraham and Sarah with gifts to buy their silence.  The couple journeys on, richer than before.

Last week’s post, The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1, reviewed “Explanation A”: traditional commentary’s attempt to take the wife-sister stories as literal history while also rescuing the reputations of Sarah and Abraham.  Here are two other explanations of what each iteration of the tale “really” means.

Explanation B: Instilling Xenophobia

Modern commentator Alan Segal posits that in the 8th and 9th centuries B.C.E., when most of Genesis was written,1 the editor(s) of Genesis cast Abraham and Isaac as the tricksters in an existing folk tale.  Then they added details to promote the view that the descendants of the patriarchs belong in Canaan and should have no dealings with outsiders.2

  1. Pharaoh

In the portion Lekh-Lekha Abraham hears God tell him to leave his hometown, Charan, and move to a new land that God would show him.3  He and his household, including his childless wife (called Sarai at this point) journey south through Canaan.  But there is a famine, so they continue south to live as resident aliens in Egypt.4  (See last week’s post, The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1.)  There Abraham passes off his wife as his sister.

And [Pharaoh] heytiv for Abraham because of her, and he acquired a flock and a herd and male donkeys and male slaves and female slaves and female donkeys and camels.  (Genesis 12:16)

heytiv (הֵיטִיב) = he made it good, he made things go well.  (From the same root as yitav.)

Abraham and Sarah’s return to Canaan with additional movable property prefigures the liberation from Egypt in Exodus.  Near the end of Genesis, their grandson Jacob and his descendants, the Israelites, migrate to Egypt.5  In the book of Exodus, God liberates the Israelites from Egypt and leads them back toward Canaan, enriched by “gifts” from the Egyptians.  Later prophets warn the kings of Judah not to ally with Egypt.

The Torah makes it clear that God wants the Israelites, Abraham’s descendants, to live in Canaan.  The first iteration of the wife-sister tale reinforces this idea, and also prejudices Israelites against making treaties with Egypt.

  1. Avimelekh

According to Segal, the second iteration of the wife-sister tale adds the information that the God of Israel also speaks to non-Israelites—at least when it is necessary to promote the welfare of the people of Israel. 6

Then God came to Avimelekh in a dream at night and said to him: “Hey, you are dead, on account of the woman that you took, for she is a wedded wife!”  (Genesis 20:3)

Avimelekh protests that he was an innocent dupe, and God takes credit for preventing Avimelekh from touching Sarah.  (See The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1.)  Then God tells the king what to do.

“And now, restore the wife to the man, because he is a prophet, and he can pray for you, and then you shall live.”  (Genesis 20:7)

In the morning Avimelekh asks Abraham why he told such a terrible lie.

And Abraham said: “Because I said [to myself] only: there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me over the matter of my wife.”  (Genesis 20:11)

Abraham receives Sarah from King Abimelech, by Nicholaes Berchem, ca. 1665

Abraham appears to believe that any foreign country with a foreign religion must be lawless and immoral.  After Abraham has insulted him, Avimelekh collects himself and bribes the man with lavish gifts.

Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Avimelekh and his wife and his slave-women, and they bore children.”  (Genesis 20:17)

This version of the wife-sister tale repeats the lesson that outsiders are immoral, and also shows that God is in charge everywhere and promotes the welfare of divinely favored people.

I often find that a scholarly analysis of a passage in Torah provides valuable information about the details, but misses the meaning of the bigger story.  In this case Segal shows how the biblical editor(s) used the wife-sister trickster tale for political persuasion.  But why not find a less sordid story for this purpose?  Why does the Torah use the wife-sister tale in the first place?

Explanation C: Exploring Morality in a Trickster Tale

A reader or listener without an agenda, someone who does not require Abraham and Sarah to be saintly or the kings of foreign countries to villainous, might well consider the wife-sister stories humorous tales that raise questions about morality.

  1. Pharaoh

In the first iteration of the tale, Abraham is traveling from Beit-El toward the Negev when he notices there is a famine in Canaan.  He takes his household all the way to the border of Egypt, a journey of about 200 miles (320 km), before he tells Sarah:

“Hey, please!  I know that you are a woman of beautiful appearance.   And it will happen that the Egyptians will see you and they will say: ‘This is his wife!”  And they will kill me, but they will let you live.  Say, please, you are my sister …”  (Genesis 12:11-13)

After traveling toward Egypt for weeks, does Abraham suddenly remember how immoral Egyptians are?  Or does he get a brilliant idea for leaving Egypt with a lot more wealth, if his scam comes off?  I know which alternative I would believe if I were Sarah.

And the officials of Pharaoh saw Sarah, and they praised her to Pharaoh, and the woman was taken to the House of Pharaoh.  (Genesis 12:15)

Pharaoh Takes Sarah (at 65!), from Treasures of the Bible, H.D. Northrop

Out of all the beautiful women the border guards detain, 65-year-old7 Sarah is the one who gets referred to Pharaoh.  Abraham receives a generous bride-price, just as he had hoped.  Twentieth-century commentator Pamela Tamarkin Reis wrote, “To the ancient reader, I am convinced, this shady deal was funny.  Pharaoh, more fool he, is paying all those livestock and servants for a woman who is not even a virgin. And no spring chicken into the bargain.”8

Then God afflicts Pharaoh with some unmentionable disease.

And God afflicted Pharaoh with great afflictions, and his household, over the matter of Sarah, the wife of Abraham.  And Pharaoh summoned Abraham and said: “What is this you have done to me?  Why didn’t you tell me she is your wife?”  (Genesis 12:17-18)

The Torah never says whether Pharaoh’s disease prevents him from bedding Sarah, but he does discover the truth about Sarah, perhaps because the disease makes him impotent and he wants to know why.  Pharaoh has Sarah and Abraham escorted out of the country—but they get to keep the bride-price, perhaps because Pharaoh wants to avoid publicity.

Caravan of Abraham, by James Tissot, ca. 1900

So Abraham went up from Egypt, he and his wife and everyone that was his, and Lot with him, to the Negev.  And Abraham was very heavy with livestock and with silver and with gold.  (Genesis 13:1-2)

Pharaoh is the dupe in this story, but he is innocent of any deliberate wrongdoing.

Sarah is passive; the Torah does not report anything she says in Egypt.  The custom among Abraham and Sarah’s people is to give a prospective bride the chance to consent or refuse the prospective groom.9  But the Torah does not say Sarah protested against being taken to Pharaoh—and the Torah never depicts her as shy.  Perhaps she is more interested in getting rich than in avoiding polyandry.

Abraham is the chief trickster in this tale.  He lies to the Egyptians at the border, to Pharaoh, and perhaps to Sarah.  He destroys his wife’s honor by putting her in a position where she, too, appears to be a liar, and where she stays in Pharaoh’s harem long enough for her chastity to be questioned.  Yet despite his moral failings, Abraham goes unpunished.  He leaves Egypt in safety and with riches.  Cleverness, not virtue, is rewarded.

  1. Avimelekh

In the second wife/sister story there is no famine in Canaan, no practical reason for Abraham and Sarah to leave their campsite in the Negev.10  God has recently told them both that in a year Sarah (who has been childless her whole life) will have a son.11

Abraham should be focusing on giving his aged wife the baby God promised, but instead he decides to repeat the wife-sister trick, this time in the relatively nearby city-state of Gerar.  His supposed fear that the men of Gerar would kill him over Sarah is more ridiculous the second time, since Sarah is now 89.

And Avimelekh, king of Gerar, sent and took Sarah. (Genesis 20:2)

I can imagine Abraham cheerfully waving goodbye, not caring whether God prevents Avimelekh from bedding her, or uses the arrangement to get Sarah pregnant.  Either way, once the king discovers the truth about Sarah he will have to buy they off to avoid public shame.

This time God tells the king in a dream that he will die because Sarah is already married.  Avimelekh protests his innocence.  God is not impressed, and tells him to restore Sarah to Abraham—because Abraham is a prophet who can pray for the king’s life.

When Avimelekh summons Abraham in the morning, his first words are:

“What have you done to us?  And what is my sin against you, that you brought [this] upon me and my kingdom?  [You committed] a great sin, doing what should not be done against me!” (Genesis 20:9)

Avimelekh’s outburst is justified; he did not act against Abraham, but Abraham tricked him into marrying an already married woman.  Abraham insults the king by explaining his poor opinion of the morals of Gerar, and adds feebly that Sarah really is his half-sister as well as his wife.

Prophet Abraham

But Avimelekh does not blow up.  He remembers that he needs Abraham to pray for him, so he gives the man a flock, a herd, slaves, and permission to settle wherever he likes in the land of Gerar.  He gives Sarah a thousand silver pieces as hush money.

At that point in the story we finally learn what God has been doing to Avimelekh.

Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Avimelekh and his wife and his slave-women, and they bore children.  For God had closed up every womb in the House of Avimelekh over the matter of Sarah, the wife of Abraham.  (Genesis 20:18)

In other words, God afflicted the king and his household with impotence.  Once again the duped king cannot even enjoy his wedding night with Abraham’s “sister”.

In this second iteration of the wife-sister tale, God forces an innocent and protesting Avimelekh to bribe Abraham in exchange for the prayer of a so-called prophet.  This demonstrates favoritism rather than justice on the part of the God-character.

Sarah is silent again.  And Abraham?  He has no excuse for his behavior.  If he were really worried about being murdered in Gerar, he could simply stay home.  Instead he swindles Abimelekh because he can get away with it and make a profit.  No sense of honor or consideration for his wife stops him.  Abraham does not care about the king of Gerar, who is, after all, a foreigner.  But he prays for him anyway, once he has received enough gifts.

*

The first two wife-sister tales in the Torah were undoubtedly derived from an ancient folk tale.  Folk tales love reversals.  In this story, the poor man tricks a rich man into giving him wealth.  The king expects to marry a beautiful virgin and discovers he has taken an old married woman.

Another common feature of folk tales is that men never learn.  Abraham manages to escape Egypt with his wife and Pharaoh’s gifts. Then 25 years later, when God has promised Sarah a miraculous birth, Abraham casually goes to Gerar and tries the same trick.  It never occurs to him that when Sarah’s son is born, someone might wonder whether he is really the father.

Yet the kings in both iterations of this tale try to do the right thing.  When they discover they have been duped, they resolve the situation with generosity rather than death sentences.  Everyone benefits from the righteous behavior of Pharaoh and Avimelekh.

God heals both kings after they have returned Sarah to Abraham, with gifts.  But God does even more for Abraham, the trickster with the shady morals.  He dies happy after a long and healthy life.12

Does this mean God does not care about human morality?

The third time a patriarch claims that his wife is his sister, the story takes a different turn.  See next week’s post, The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 3.

  1. Scholars who subscribe to the Documentary Hypothesis consider the wife-sister passages as either J or E, both sources dating from 922-722 B.C.E., the period when the Israelites had two small kingdoms, Samaria (a.k.a. Israel) in the north and Judah in the south. (Scholars who view the sources as more fragmentary do not dispute this dating.) The kings of Samaria and Judah vacillated between paying tribute to Assyria and allying with Egypt, but biblical books from Exodus through Zephaniah opposed cooperation with world powers, the worship of other gods, and intermarriage with other peoples.
  2. Alan F. Segal, Sinning in the Hebrew Bible, Columbia University Press, New York, 2012, chapter one.
  3. Charan had became an important Assyrian city by the time this passage was written.
  4. Genesis 12:10.
  5. The first three Torah portions of the Joseph story: Genesis chapters 37-47.
  6. Also God warns Lavan in a dream that he must not do anything bad to Jacob (Genesis 31:22-24) and God tells Bilam in a dream that he cannot curse the Israelites because God has blessed them. When Bilam attempts to curse them anyway, God puts blessings in his mouth (Numbers 22:7-12 and 23).
  7. Sarai and Avram leave Charan when Avram is 75 (Genesis 12:4). Avram is ten years older than Sarai (Genesis 17:17).
  8. Pamela Tamarkin Reis, Reading the Lines, Hendrickson Publishers, 2002, p. 45.
  9. Genesis 24:58-59.
  10. Genesis 20:1.
  11. Genesis 18:10-14.
  12. At age 175. And Avraham breathed his last, and he died at a good old age, old and satisfied.  (Genesis 25:7-8)

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Lekh-Lekha, Vayeira, & Toledot: The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1

October 25, 2018 at 3:19 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Toledot, Vayeira | 4 Comments

The Tale

A man and his beautiful wife immigrate to a foreign kingdom.  The man assumes that if the local king knew they were married, he would be killed and the king would marry his widow.  So he asks his wife to pretend to be his unmarried sister.  He knows the king will still take her, but as her nearest male relative the man might live—and receive the customary bride-price.

Sarah is seized (artist unknown)

The beautiful woman does become one of the king’s wives.  Then the hoax is revealed.  The horrified king releases her and sends off the man and his wife with gifts to buy their silence.  The couple journeys on, richer than when the story began.

A version of this sordid tale appears two and a half times in the book of Genesis/Bereishit.  The first time, in the portion Lekh-lekha (“Go for yourself”), the husband is Abraham and the king is the Pharaoh of Egypt.  In this week’s portion, Vayeira (“And he appeared”), Abraham and Sarah do it again with Avimelekh, King of Gerar.

And Pharaoh summoned Abraham and said: “What is this you have done to me?  Why didn’t you tell me that she is your wife?  Why did you say ‘She is my sister’, va-ekach her for my wife?”  (Genesis/Bereishit 12:18-19)

va-ekach (וָאֶקַּח) = and I took; and I married.

And Abraham said of Sarah, his wife: “She is my sister”.  And Avimelekh, the king of Gerar, sent vayikach Sarah.  (Genesis 20:2) … Avimelekh summoned Abraham and said: “What have you done to us?” (Genesis 20:9)

vayikach (וַיִּקַּח) = and he took; and he married.

In a later portion, Toledot (“Lineages”), Abraham’s son Isaac passes off his wife Rebecca as his sister.  This time the tale is cut short because the king (also called Avimelekh)1 never takes her as a wife.  The aborted version begins the same way as the first two iterations, but it reverses the lessons of the Abraham tales.

In this series about the wife-sister tales, the first two posts will present different explanations of the wife-sister tales in which the trickster is Abraham.  The third post will show how Isaac’s attempt to use the wife-sister lie challenges the conclusions of all three interpretations.

 

Explanation A:  Exculpating the Patriarchs

Early commentary such as Bereishit Rabbah2 takes the wife-sister stories as literal history, and assumes that Abraham and Sarah are more virtuous than Pharaoh or Avimelekh.  It does not question Abraham’s claims that the men of both Egypt and Gerar routinely seize beautiful female immigrants, and kill their husbands if they are married.

And it happened, as he [Abraham] was close to entering Egypt, he said to Sarah, his wife: “Hey, please!  I know that you are a woman of beautiful appearance.   And it will happen that the Egyptians will see you and they will say: ‘This is his wife!”  And they will kill me, but they will let you live.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 12:11-12)

Abraham implies that the Egyptian border guards routinely detain beautiful women of all ages (Sarah is at least 65)4 and then kill their husbands if they are married.  With these orders, the guards would have to murder a lot of foreign men.  But perhaps the idea is not so preposterous, given that in 2018 American guards on the border of Mexico jailed the children of would-be immigrants separately from their parents, without making any provision for reuniting the families.  Foreigners have been fair game in many cultures.

from Babylon Marriage Market, by Edward Long, 1875

The first part of Abraham’s claim, that beautiful immigrants will be seized, turns out to be true in both episodes.

And it happened, that Abraham came to Egypt and the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful.  The officials of Pharaoh saw her, and they praised her to Pharaoh, vatukach ha-ishah to the House of Pharaoh.  (Genesis 12:14-15)

vatukach ha-ishah (וַתֻּקַּח הָאִשָּׁה) = and the woman was taken; and the wife was taken.

And Abraham said of Sarah, his wife: “She is my sister”.  And Avimelekh, the king of Gerar, sent vayikach Sarah.  (Genesis 20:2)

For both stories, the early commentary only needed to explain:

  • why Sarah is so beautiful,
  • why she is never molested by a king, and
  • why Abraham’s behavior is excusable.
  1. Pharaoh

from Bisson, La Fiancee, 1895

Although Sarah is in her sixties when Pharaoh takes her, early commentary maintains that she is extraordinarily beautiful.  Talmud Bavli, Megillah 15a, lists Sarah as one of the four most beautiful women in the world.5  According to Bereshit Rabbah 40, the whole land of Egypt was illuminated by her beauty.

The Torah does not say whether Pharaoh has sexual intercourse with Sarah.  But early commentators wrote that both times when Abraham passes her off as his sister, God protects her from being molested by afflicting the king with a disease that prevents intercourse.

And God afflicted Pharaoh and his household with great afflictions over the matter of Sarah, the wife of Abraham.  And Pharaoh summoned Abraham and said: “What is this you have done to me?  Why didn’t you tell me that she is your wife?” (Genesis 12:17-18)

The Torah does not describe the nature of the affliction.  Bereishit Rabbah 41 suggested lupus or another disease that affects the skin.  Rashi6 wrote that this affliction made intercourse harmful to Pharaoh.  Whatever God’s affliction is, according to classic commentary it prevents Pharaoh from molesting his new wife, and alerts him that things are not what they seem.  Then Sarah tells him the truth, and he is outraged that he was tricked into marrying another man’s wife.  He sends Abraham and Sarah out of the country, and lets them take all their new wealth with them.7

Abraham and Sarah Before Pharaoh, by Comnenian, Byzantine

Pre-modern commentators differ when it comes to the question of Abraham’s virtue.  The Zohar says that Abraham sees the divine presence is with Sarah, and an angel confirms it, so he knows she will be safe.8  But Ramban wrote: “Know that our father Abraham inadvertently committed a great sin by placing his virtuous wife in a compromising situation because of his fear of being killed.  He should have trusted in God.”9

Even if Abraham is not guilty of putting his wife in peril, what about his deception?  Some commentators view Abraham’s lie as his only alternative, given the nastiness of the Pharaoh and the famine in Canaan.

  1. Avimelekh

The second version of the wife-sister tale appears in the Torah portion Vayeira, after God has promised Abraham and Sarah they will have a child at last.  They settle in the Negev Desert, but travel west to Gerar to live there as resident aliens for a while.  Once again Abraham calls Sarah his sister.  The king of Gerar, Avimelekh, “takes” her.

At this point in the Torah, Sarah is 89 years old.10  So classic commentary needs to explain why Sarah is still beautiful enough to tempt a king.  Before Abraham takes her to Gerar, three angels announce that in a year she will have a son.  (See my earlier post, Vayeira: Laughter, Part 1.)  In Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 87a, Rav Hisda explains that after the annunciation, Sarah’s worn and wrinkled skin is rejuvenated, and her beauty returns.

Sarah and Abimelech, by Marc Chagall

In this iteration of the wife-sister tale, God speaks to the king in a dream after he has married Sarah.  God informs him that Sarah is another man’s wife, and declares that Avimelekh and his people must die for this sinful marriage.

But Avimelekh had not come close to her.  And he said: “My Lord, will you slay even innocent people?  Did not he himself [Avraham] say: ‘She is my sister’?  And she even said: ‘He is my brother’!  With a pure heart and with clean palms I did this.”

And God said to him in the dream: “Even I myself knew that you did this with a pure heart, so I restrained you from sinning against me, even I myself.  Therefore I did not let you touch her.”  (Genesis 20:4-6)

How does God restrain Avimelekh from having intercourse with Sarah?  Through “a closing up of orifices” according to Bereishit Rabbah.  Rashi wrote that God closes the orifices of Avimelekh and his household, including their ears and noses as well as genital and urinary openings.

The rabbis of Bereishit Rabbah overlooked Avimelekh’s protest that his intention were good, and give God all the credit for the king’s restraint.  “R. Aibuil said: It is like the case of a warrior who was riding his horse at full speed, when seeing a child lying in the path, he reined in the horse, so that the child was not hurt. Whom do all praise, the horse or the rider? Surely the rider!”11

And Avimelekh summon Abraham and said to him: “What did you do to us?  And what is my sin against you, that you brought [this] upon me and my kingdom?  [You committed] a great sin, doing what should not be done against me!” (Genesis 20:9)

Abraham explains his poor opinion of the morals of Gerar, and adds that Sarah really is his half-sister as well as his wife.  Avimelekh then gives Abraham a flock, a herd, and slaves, and permission to settle wherever he likes in the land of Gerar.  He gives Sarah a thousand silver pieces as hush money.

Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Avimelekh and his wife and his slave-women, and they gave birth.  For God had shut every womb in the house of Avimelekh on account of the matter of Sarah, the wife of Abraham.  (Genesis 20:18)

This is the verse that Bereishit Rabbah and Rashi interpreted as meaning that God had “closed up every orifice”.  Other commentators, including Ramban and 18th century Rabbi Chayim ben Moshe ibn Attar, wrote that the men’s genitals were also closed, and this proved that Avimelkh could not be the biological father of Sarah’s son Isaac.

Is Abraham’s behavior excusable in this case?  The idea that Abraham knew God would protect Sarah still applies in the story of Avimlekh, but why does he take Sarah to Gerar in the first place, when they could just continue grazing their livestock in the Negev?  The classic commentary has no answer.

*

Traditional commentators assumed the first two wife-sister stories relate what actually happened to Abraham and Sarah.  They talked up Sarah’s beauty to explain why she was brought straight to the king both times, and they worried about and how Sarah and Abraham retained their virtue.  But they offered no insights on why these stories are included in the Torah; traditional commentary views the tales as part of history.

When one considers the Torah as an ancient composite crafted by one or more religious editors, the questions that traditional commentary answered are not the important ones.  What is the purpose of including the sordid story at all?  And why does the patriarch Abraham tell lies and sell his wife to a foreign king—twice?  What kind of sacred book is this, anyway?

These questions illustrate the frequent problems that arise when one both takes the bible literally and believes that the designated heroes are good, and the designated villains are bad.  Some people feel a psychological need to have faith in a religion that contains contradictions, so the classic explanations serve them well.

What about the rest of us?  Next week’s post will examine two other explanations, one from the viewpoint of a modern scholar and one from the viewpoint of a modern storyteller.

  1. Avimelekh can be translated as “My Father King”; avi (אֲבִי) = my father + melekh (מֶלֶךְ) = king. Avimelekh may be a title, like “Pharaoh”, and the second Avimelekh may be the first one’s successor.
  2. Bereishit Rabbah, also called Genesis Rabbah, is a collection of commentary on the book of Genesis by rabbis from the Talmudic period of about 300-500 C.E.
  3. 2 Samuel 11:1-17.
  4. Sarai and Avram leave Charan when Avram is 75 (Genesis 12:4). Avram is ten years older than Sarai (Genesis 17:17).
  5. The other three beautiful women in Megillah 15a are Rahab, Abigail, and Esther.
  6. 11th-century C.E. Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  7. Genesis 12:20.
  8. Moses de Leon, 13th century Spain, Zohar 1:181b, 3:52a.
  9. Ramban (13th-century Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, a.k.a. Nachmanides), translated in Etz Hayim, ed. David L. Lieber, Jewish Publication Society, 2001, p. 73.
  10. In Genesis 17:15-17 and 18:10 Abraham learns that Sarah will give birth at age 90. An alternative to early commentators’ claim that Sarah miraculously regains the beauty of youth is a theory that the border officials single her out for a different reason.  Twentieth-century commentator Savina Teubal (Sarah the Priestess, Swallow Press Reprint edition, 1984) suggests that Sarai was the priestess of a god or goddess in Charan, and her marriages with Pharaoh and Avimelekh were examples of hieros gamos, an ancient ritual in which a high priestess and a king had intercourse in order to enact the coupling of the gods who made the land fertile.  Teubal did not explain why a king would employ a priestess from a foreign land for this ritual, instead of using the priestess of one of his own country’s gods.
  11. Bereishit Rabbah, translation by H. Freedman, Soncino Press, London, 1939.

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Lekh-lekha: Please

October 18, 2018 at 3:05 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha | Leave a comment

Sarai and Avram (later renamed Sarah and Abraham) are an unusual couple.  In a society dominated by men, Sarai appears to have authority equal to her husband’s.  Neither can give unilateral orders to the other.

The Torah portion Lekh-lekha (“Go for yourself”) begins with Avram, Sarai, and their nephew Lot leaving Charan (along with all their livestock and servants) and traveling through Canaan.  Since there is a famine in that land, they continue south to Egypt.

Abraham Gives his Wife to Pharaoh

It happened, as he was close to entering Egypt, he said to Sarai, his wife: “Hey, na!  I know that you are a woman of beautiful appearance.  And it will happen that the Egyptians will see you and they will say: ‘This is his wife!”  And they will kill me, but they will let you live.  Say, na, you are my sister, so that it will go well for me for your sake, and my soul will live on account of you.”  (Genesis my12:11-13)

na (נָא) = Please!  (An indicator of courtesy and urgency.)

Avram believes that Sarai will end up in an Egyptian’s bed one way or another: either they will kill her husband to get her, or they will pay her brother to get her.  (I will discuss Avram’s peculiar assumptions about Egyptian customs in my next two posts, Lekh-Lekha, Vayeira, & Toledot: The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1 and Part 2.)

Even though Avram believes his life is on the line, he does not command Sarai to masquerade as his  unmarried sister.  He implores her, saying na twice.

Sarai cooperates, and the Egyptian officials at the border take her to the Pharaoh’s harem.  Perhaps she foresees that her stay there will be temporary, and then they will both leave Egypt with extra wealth.  Or perhaps the childless 65-year-old is making her last bid for a baby.1  (Her menopause might be late, and at this point she does not know whether Avram is fertile.)  The Torah does not tell us Sarai’s motivation.

Avram and Sarai return from Egypt to Canaan with more more livestock, slaves, gold, and silver, but no pregnancy.  This is a problem for both of them.  God promised to give the land of Canaan to Avram’s descendants, yet he has no descendants.  Sarai does not need a child to take care of her after her husband dies, like other biblical women.  She appears to have wealth of her own, enough so that in very old age she can afford to leave Avram in Beersheba, move north with her retinue, and pitch her own tent near Hebron.2  But like Avram, she would want a child to inherit her possessions and continue her name.

Later in this week’s Torah portion, Sarai concludes that her best option is to adopt a baby.  A long-standing legal custom in the ancient Near East was for a childless wife to give her personal slave to her husband as a surrogate, and then adopt the resulting child as her own.3

Since Avram is Sarai’s equal, she does not command him to comply with this arrangement; she implores him.

Sarah Presents Hagar to Abraham, by Matthias Stomer

Sarai, the wife of Avram, had not borne children to him, but she had an Egyptian female slave, and her name was Hagar.  Sarai said to Avram: Hey, na! God has shut me off from childbirth.  Enter, na, my slave; perhaps I will be built up through her.”  And Avram listened to the voice of Sarai.  Sarai, the wife of Avram, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave, at the end of ten years of Avram’s dwelling in the land of Canaan; and she gave her to Avram, her husband, as a woman for him. (Genesis 16:1-3)

Sarai uses the same approach that Avram used on the border of Egypt, opening with “Hey, na!”4 then stating the problem, then asking for a favor with a second na.  (These are the only two speeches in the Hebrew Bible in which the word na appears twice.)  Like Sarai, Avraham agrees to go along with his partner’s scheme.

Although Sarai says “please” to her high-status husband, she can command her personal slave to do anything, so she does not bother to ask Hagar about the arrangement.  When Sarai says “perhaps I will be built up through her” she indicates her intention to adopt the child Hagar bears as her own.

But once Hagar is pregnant with Avram’s child, she is not as subservient as Sarai expected.

When she [Hagar] saw that she was pregnant, [her] mistress was demeaned in her eyes. Then Sarai said to Avram: “The violence against me is because of you! I myself put my slave into your lap.  Now she sees that she is pregnant, and I am demeaned in her eyes. May God judge between me and you!”  (Genesis 16:4-5)

Sarai, accustomed to having complete authority over her own slaves, cannot bear to be snubbed and ignored by Hagar.  She has lost some of her power.

Why does she blame Avram?  Although Sarai may not feel sexual jealousy about the arrangement, I believe she is jealous in another way.  Perhaps Sarai’s husband and business partner is continuing to spend time with Hagar instead of with her, thus reinforcing Hagar’s idea that her status has increased.  Others in the household who notice this might also begin to treat Sarai with less respect, and Hagar with more.

So Sarai accuses Avram of encouraging Hagar’s new behavior.  Then she cries, “May God judge between me and you!”  She still believes that she and Avram are supposed to have equal authority.  Anything that demeans Sarai challenges her God-given status.  And Avram recognizes this.

Then Avram said to Sarai: “Hey!  Your female-slave is in your hand; do to her as you see fit.”  And Sarai oppressed her.  And she [Hagar] ran away from her.  (Genesis 16:6)

Angel of the Lord Appearing to Hagar,
by Gheorge Tattarescu ca. 1870

An angelic messenger from God reassures Hagar that her son will prosper in the long run, and tells her to return to Sarai and “submit yourself to her hand” (Genesis 16:9)   Hagar obeys God.  Sarai does not adopt the baby; instead of reporting a birth on Sarai’s lap or knees (the usual adoption ritual), the Torah says:

And Hagar bore to Avram a son, and Avram named his son that Hagar bore: Ishmael.  (Genesis 16:15)

Thirteen years later God changes the names of Avram and Sarai to Avraham and Sarah, and tells Avraham that Sarah will bear him a son when she is 90.5  In next week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, Avraham holds a celebration on the day Sarah weans her own son, Isaac.

And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Avraham, making fun!  And she said to Avraham: “Drive out this slave-woman and her son, so that the son of this slave-woman will not inherit with my son, with Isaac!”  (Genesis 21:9-10)

Now Sarah is giving Abraham orders without saying “please”.  Abraham does not argue with her, but he is worried about his son Ishmael.  God reassures him that Ishmael and his progeny will become a great nation, and tells him:

“Everything that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice; because through Isaac your descendants shall be identified.”  (Genesis 21:12)

Abraham follows Sarah’s orders and exiles Hagar and Ishmael the next morning.  At this point, Sarah has more authority than Abraham.  What she says, goes—because God is backing her up.

*

Unlike Sarai/Sarah, I have never had much authority.  I never had staff working under me in any of my paid jobs.  In one congregation I became a leader by dint of years of hard work, continuing Jewish education, and volunteering, but I learned that my opinions held no more weight than anyone else’s.  Sometimes even when I thought we had reached a consensus, other volunteers ignored it.  I felt snubbed and demeaned, like Sarai in response to Hagar.

I wonder if any of the other volunteers felt like Hagar under Sarai’s—my—thumb?

Or was I like Hagar, pregnant with knowledge and know-how, slaving away day and night without remuneration, sometimes appreciated and sometimes snubbed?

Authority and deference are still hard to balance, even when you say “please”.

  1. Sarai and Avram leave Charan when Avram is 75 (Genesis 12:4) and Avram is ten years older than Sarai (Genesis 17:17). Therefore Sarai is 65 or so when they emigrate to Egypt.
  2. And Avraham stayed in Beersheba (Genesis 22:19). Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is [now] Hebron … (Genesis 17:17).  Isaac inherits his mother’s tent (Genesis 24:67).
  3. The Code of Hammurabi specifies that when a wife gives one of her female slaves to her husband for the purpose of bearing his child (or children), she remains a slave until the husband dies, and her children by him are free. The man’s wife has the option of adopting her child.
  4. Hey, na = הִנֵּה־נָא. Hineh (הִנֵּה) is often translated as “Behold!” or “Look!” or “Here!”, but since it is an attention-getting exclamation, I have been translating hineh as “Hey!”
  5. Genesis 17:17.

Lekh-Lekha: New Names for God

October 25, 2017 at 6:04 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha | 4 Comments

What is God’s name?

In this week’s Torah portion alone, Abraham encounters God six times, more than anyone else in the book of Genesis/Bereishit.  God both speaks to him and appears to him.  And Abraham learns—or adopts—three new names for God:  Eil Elyon, Adonai, and Eil Shaddai.

Before Abraham appears in the Torah, God is called either Y-H-V-H or Elohim.  These names for God are also used in this week’s Torah portion, Lekh-Lekha (“Get yourself going”).

And Y-H-V-H said to Abraham: “Get yourself going, away from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”  (Genesis 12:1)

Y-H-V-H (י־ה־ו־ה) = the four-letter name of God (the “tetragrammaton”).

This is God’s most holy and personal name in Judaism.  Y-H-V-H may be based on the root verb for being, becoming, and happening, hayah (היה); or it may derive from an ancient pre-Hebrew god name.  It is often translated into English as “LORD” in all capitals, although the Hebrew word for “lord” is adon (see Adonai below) and has nothing to do with the tetragrammaton.

The Torah calls God Elohim in Genesis/Bereishit 1:1, and the name resurfaces often, including later in this week’s Torah portion:

And Abraham fell on his face, and Elohim spoke to him.  (Genesis 17:3)

Elohim (אֱלוֹהִים) = God; gods.

The first new name for God is introduced when Abraham he runs into a delicate political situation.  After Abraham and his allies have won a war, the local kings meet in the valley of the king-priest MalkiTzedek.1

Melchizedek and Abraham,
Cologne Bible, 1478

And Malki-Tzedek, the king of Shaleim, brought out bread and wine.  He was a priest to Eil Elyon.  And he blessed him; he said: “Blessed is Abraham to Eil Elyon, the owner of heaven and earth”.  (Genesis 14:18)

Eil Elyon (אֵל עֶלְיוֹן) = highest god, supreme god.  Eil (אֵל) = god +  elyon (עֶליוֹן) = highest, uppermost.

Then the crasser king of Sodom interrupts with a plan for dividing the spoils of war.  In order not to insult the god of Malki-Tzedek, Abraham replies using the same god-language as the king-priest, merely putting his four-letter name for God in front of Malki-Tzedek’s formula.

And Avram said to the king of Sodom: “I vow by Y-H-V-H, Eil Elyon, the owner of heaven and earth, from a thread to a sandal strap, if I take anything that is yours …  (Genesis 14:22-23)

Thus Abraham politely indicates that his own personal god is the same as Melki-Tzedek’s highest god, the owner of heaven and earth.

This is the only chapter in the Torah in which God is called Eil Elyon.  But the word Elyon, “highest”, is used again 21 times in the Hebrew bible.  Most of these uses occur in poems, where the parallel structure of verses requires a lot of synonyms for “God”.

The second new god-name introduced in this week’s Torah portion is an honorific.  Abraham is the first person to call God Adonai, “my lord”.  He follows this honorific with the four-letter name of God both times that he initiates a conversation with his god.

And Abraham said: “Adonai, Y-H-V-H, what will you give me, since I go childless, and the heir of my household is Eliezer of Damascus?”  (Genesis/Bereishit 15:2)

And he said: “Adonai, Y-H-V-H, how will I know that I will take possession of it?”  (Genesis/Bereishit 15:8)

Adonai (אֲדֺנָי) = my lords (usually translated as “my lord” when it refers to God).  From the singular adon (אֲדוֹן) = lord, master.

The third new god-name in this week’s Torah portion is the most difficult to translate.  Eil Shaddai is commonly translated into English as “God Almighty”, based on the Latin Vulgate, but Shaddai means something else in Hebrew.

It was when Abraham was 99 years old that Y-H-V-H appeared to Abraham and said to him: “I am Eil Shaddai.  Walk constantly in my presence, and become perfect.”  (Genesis 17:1)

Eil Shaddai (אֵל שַׁדַּי) = eil = god + shaddai  Shaddai might mean:

— who is enough (prefix she-/שֶׁ = who + dai/דַּי = enough)

— of breasts (shadayim/שָׁדַי = breasts)

— devastation (shudad/ שֻׁדַּד = devastated)

— of the mountain (if the word shaddai is borrowed from Akkadian)

God is called Eil Shaddai 48 times in the Hebrew Bible.  Most references to Eil Shaddai or just Shaddai occur in poems,2 which need lots of synonyms for God.  The two uses of Shaddai in the book of Ezekiel are onomatopoeic; Ezekiel describes the sound of wings in his vision as being “like the sound of Shaddai”.

However, Eil Shaddai does occur nine times in biblical prose passages, including every reference in Genesis.  And all nine occurrences have something to do with fertility.  In this week’s Torah portion, when God first reveals the name Eil Shaddai to Abraham, God goes on to say 1) that Abraham will be very fruitful, with nations of descendants; 2) that he and all the males in his household must be circumcised, and 3) that he will have a son with his 89-year-old wife Sarah.3

*

The five names for God that Abraham uses in the Torah portion Lekh-Lekha are still used in Hebrew liturgy today.4  Do Abraham’s three new names for God have any relevance to us?  The name Eil Elyon, “Highest God”, is about God’s relationship to other gods.  But by the time of Deuteronomy, the Torah is monotheistic, and uses only Elyon, “Highest”, as an adjective for the one God.  Today, calling God Elyon might remind us that God (at least the God within us) is more important than other things we give top priority in our lives.

The name Adonai, “My lords”, can remind us that we are not as autonomous as we might think.  We are not the masters of the universe.  We are not even masters of our own souls; we do what we can, but we are all dependent on the grace of God.  Calling God Adonai might remind us to be humble.

The name Eil Shaddai, “God of Breasts” or “God of Enough”, is about God as the source of fertility and nurture.  We are creative creatures; we not only bear offspring, like other animals, but we generate inventions, art, ideas, religions.  Calling God Eil Shaddai might remind us to be grateful for all those inspirations that come “out of the blue”, and grateful for our abilities to nurture both ideas and fellow human beings.

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

  1. MalkiTzedek (מַלְכִּי־צֶדֶק) = melekh (מֶלֶךְ)=king + tzedek (צֶדֶק)=righteousness, justice. MalkiTzedek is identified as the king of Shaleim (שָׁלֵם) = wholeness; from the same root as shalom (שָׁלוֹם) = peace.  Judging by the location, he is probably Jebusite ruler of the town that came to be known as Jerusalem.
  2. The word Shaddai occurs in poems in Isaiah 13:6, Joel 1:15, twice in Bilaam’s prophecies in Numbers/Bemidbar, twice in Psalms, and 31 times in the book of Job.
  3. In the next occurrence, Isaac asks Eil Shaddai to bless Jacob by making him “fruitful and numerous” and “an assembly of peoples”.  When God renames Jacob “Israel”, God adds, “I am Eil Shaddai; be fruitful and numerous; a nation and an assembly of nations…”  Jacob himself uses the name Shaddai three times, once to recall the above blessing, once to plead for the safe return of two of his sons from Egypt, and once to shower blessings on the tribe of Joseph, including “blessings of breasts and womb”.  In Exodus, God tells Moses “I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov with Eil Shaddai”, but then uses a different name with Moses—whose personal fertility is not an issue.  In the book of Ruth, Naomi refers to Shaddai twice, complaining that this god harmed her and made her bitter by bereaving her of her husband and two sons, and leaving her with no grandchildren.  Eil Shaddai, the god of breasts, can withhold fertility as well as grant it.
  1. This week’s Torah portion also includes what might be considered a fourth new name of God.  Hagar, who is Abraham’s concubine and Sarah’s servant, runs away, then hears angels of God giving her advice and prophecy.  She says, “You are a seeing god!”  But this particular formation, eil ro-iy, is never used again in the Torah, and I have never found it in the standard liturgy. It seems to be an expression Hagar’s personal relationship to God.

Haftarat Lekh-Lekha—Isaiah: Seeing the Invisible

November 9, 2016 at 6:59 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Lekh Lekha | 1 Comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Lekh-Lekha (Genesis 12:1-17:27), and the haftarah is Isaiah 40:27-41:16.

What do you do when you once had a relationship with God, but now God seems to be absent?

The question is painful on this anniversary of Kristallnacht.  It is especially painful for those who believe in God as a benevolent parent or guardian, an external force looking after them and ensuring that, ultimately, good people will be rewarded, innocent people will have a chance, and everything will turn out for the best.

Siloam Tunnel under Jerusalem

Siloam Tunnel under Jerusalem

Then something happens: Job is afflicted, Jerusalem is razed, the Nazis torture and kill millions of innocents, girls are raped, the day’s news threatens future darkness.  And it no longer makes sense to trust in a benevolent external God.

What do you do when God seems absent?

Many psalms address this question, and so does the second half of the book of Isaiah, written about 50 years after the Babylonian army razed Jerusalem and deported its population.  The prophet we know only as “second Isaiah” tried to persuade the Israelites that their God was still alive and strong, and would soon rescue them. This week’s haftarah from second Isaiah opens:

            Why do you say, Jacob,

            And why do you assert, Israel:

            “My path is hidden from God,

            My claim slips away from my God.” (Isaiah 40:27)

The Israelites believe that God cannot see what is happening to them, and that their covenant with the God of Israel has slipped away.  They feel invisible to God.  Second Isaiah responds:

            Do you not know?

            Surely you have heard?

            God is the god of all time,

            Creator of the ends of the earth.

            Never yiyaf and never will It grow weary.

            No one can fathom the depth of Its tevunah. (Isaiah 40: 28)

yiyaf (יִהעַף) = will he/It become faint, will tire out.

tevunah (תְּבוּנָּה) = insight, intelligence, discernment, skill.

The prophet counters that the God of Israel is the god of all time and all space, whose powers never flag and who has infinite insight. Therefore the Israelites cannot be invisible to God.

Babylonian Gods of the Dead, bronze

Babylonian gods of the dead, bronze

They feel invisible to God only because God is invisible to them.  Living in Babylon, they see no evidence of their God. The city is full of statues, reliefs, and paintings of other gods, but not the God of Israel. Their own god let the Babylonians raze the temple in Jerusalem, and let them languish in exile for decades.  Has God run out of power?

Second Isaiah says not only that God never grows faint or weary, but adds that God is:

            Notein laya-eif koach,

            And [giver] of abundant energy to those without vigor. (Isaiah 40:29)

Notein (נוֹתֵן) = Giver, giving.

laya-eif (לַיָּעֵף) = to the faint, to the tired. (From the same root as yiyaf.)

koach (כֹּחַ) = strength, endurance, power, ability to carry on.

Notein laya-eif koach = Giver of strength to the faint and tired.

Thus the prophet counters that not only is God powerful, but God is the one who gives strength and energy to human beings fainting with weariness.

Once again, second Isaiah declares that reality is the reverse of what the Israelites think.  God is not worn out; they are.

*

When I read the first line of Isaiah 40:29 in Hebrew, I recognized it from the Jewish morning blessings.  Our tradition upon arising is to bless God in gratitude for a list of blessings that come from God to us, including sight when we open our eyes, clothing, the ability to walk, and so on.

Out of the 16 morning blessings in the Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, 12 are dictated by the Babylonian Talmud tractate Berachot (“Blessings”). One of the blessings that is not from the Talmud is:

Blessed are You, God, our God, Ruler of everything, hanotein laya-eif koach.

hanotein (הַנּוֹתֵן) = the one who gives, the giver.

I often pronounce this blessing with extra enthusiasm, since I have chronically low energy, yet I am determined to make the most of my life.

Although some of second Isaiah’s exhortations no longer apply today, many of us still feel invisible to whatever runs the universe, as if “My path is hidden from God”.  Many of us still feel as if we’re drowning in a sea of exhaustion. And many of us still feel doomed by the agendas of other people, or by the results (such as global warming) of past human actions.

Second Isaiah says that our God is powerful  and always with us.  I conclude that our task is to learn how to sense God within, and draw inner strength from that sense. We can fathom the depth of our own insight. Then we might discover a core of divine strength within — and maybe even enough prophetic intuition to see our own paths.

May every one of us discover our own inner God, and draw strength from that connection to rise above our inevitable wounds and dedicate ourselves to kindness and patience.  And as we keep learning more about ourselves, may we keep learning more about other people — checking our assumptions, questioning hearsay, opening our minds to understand people who may seem like enemies until we get to know them.  May God strengthen us inside so we can cooperate to make life on this fragile earth as good as is possible now for all of us.

 

Lekh Lekha & Vayeira: Hints of Jerusalem

October 19, 2015 at 8:07 pm | Posted in Joshua, Lekh Lekha, Samuel 2, Vayeira | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

“Next year in Jerusalem!” is the phrase that concludes both the Passover seder and the holy day of Yom Kippur.  For more than two millennia, Jews have referred to Jerusalem as their holiest place and ultimate home.

Yet the city we call Jerusalem in English, and Yerushalayim (יְרוּשָׁלַיִם‎) in Hebrew, is a Jebusite city in the Hebrew Bible until the second book of Samuel, when King David conquers its citadel and makes it his capital.

An Egyptian vassal city

So far, the oldest reference archaeologists have found to a place in Canaan called something like Jerusalem appears on Egyptian potsherds from the 19th century BCE, where Rushalimum is one of 19 Canaanite cities.

Rushalimum = uru (city of, founded by) + shaleim (the Canaanite god of the evening star, in the Semetic language of the Jebusites).

In the Amarna letters of the 14th century B.C.E., the king of the land of Rishalimum complains to the pharaoh of Egypt about how the Egyptian soldiers treated his capital city, “Beit-Shulmani”—a Semetic name meaning “House of Shaleim”.

Shaleim (שָׁלֵם) = the Canaanite god of the evening star (in the Jebusite language); completeness, safety, peace (in Hebrew, another Semitic language).

A place called Shaleim

Abraham is blessed by the king of Shaleim in the Torah portion Lekh Lekha (“Get yourself going”).  And in this week’s portion, Vayeira (“And he saw”), Abraham almost slaughters his son as an offering on Mount Moriyah, later identified as the temple mount.  Both of these place-names hint at the future Israelite city of Jerusalem.

A blessing in the city of Shaleim concludes Abraham’s only recorded military campaign.  Five kings at southern end of the Dead Sea lose a battle against four northern kings, who then head north with the booty and all the southerners they can round up as slaves.  One of the kidnapped southerners is Abraham’s nephew Lot.

Abraham and his 318 men chase the northerners, defeat them, and head back south with all the captured people and goods.  Before they reach Abraham’s encampment in Hebron, the southern king of Sodom meets Abraham and his men in the Valley of Shaveh.

And the king of Sodom went out to meet him, after he returned from striking Kedarlaomer and the kings who were with him, in the Valley of Shaveh, which is the valley of the king.  But Malki-Tzedek, king of Shaleim, brought out bread and wine; and he was a priest to Eil Elyon.  (Genesis/Bereishit 14:17-18)

Shaleim (שָׁלֵם) = peace, safety, wholeness.

Eil Elyon (אֵל עֶלְיוֹן) = the High God.

If Shaleim is a shortened name for Jerusalem, then the Valley of Shaveh may be the level area where the Kidron Valley meets the Valley of Ben-hinnom.  Commentators have pointed out that Shaveh also means “level”.

And he blessed him and he said: “Blessed be Avram to Eil Elyon, owner of heaven and earth.  And blessed be Eil Elyon, Who delivered your enemies into your hand”.  And he gave him a tithe of everything. (Genesis 14:19)

Abraham adds the name Eil Elyon to the four-letter name of God when he swears to the King of Sodom that he will not keep any of the people or goods that he won in battle.  (See my blog post Lekh Lekha: New Names for God.)  Abraham’s use of Eil Elyon may be diplomatic, but it also implies that Malki-Tzedek and Abraham recognize the same god as supreme.

Why would Malki-Tzedek give a tithe of the booty, when he is not listed as participating in the battle?  Probably it is Abraham who gives a tithe of his booty to Malki-Tzedek, prefiguring the tithes that Israelites brought to the high priest in Jerusalem centuries later.

So the stage is set for the Jebusite city of Shaleim to become the capital and holy city of the Israelites someday. The site is associated with a name of God, with priesthood, with blessings, and with tithes.

A place called Moriyah

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, hints at the future site of the temple through a very different story.  After Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac has grown up and become a young man, God speaks to Abraham in the night.

And [God] said:  “Take, please, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and get yourself going to the land of the Moriyah.  And lead him up there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains, [the one] which I will say to you.”  (Genesis 22:2)

Moriyah (מֹרִיָּה) = Mor of God.  Mor (מֹר) = myrrh; a shortened form of moreh (מוֹרֶה) = throwing or teaching; or a homonym for mareh (מַרְאָה) = seeing, vision, apparition, mirror.

After a three-day walk from his home in Beersheba, Abraham sees the place.  The Torah does not say how he knows this particular hilltop is the one God chooses, but he climbs up with Isaac, some firewood, a fire-box, and a knife.

Beersheba is 44 miles from Jerusalem.  If the Moriyah is one of the hills surrounding Jerusalem,  then Abraham and Isaac would have to walk 14 to 15 miles a day—a reasonable distance, especially if the two servants Abraham brings along carry the firewood, and the donkey carries Abraham, age 117.

Just as Abraham lifts his knife to kill his son at the top of the hill, another voice from God calls to him and tells him to stop.  Abraham sacrifices a ram caught by its horns in the thicket in place of Isaac.  (The Torah does not say whether it is a thicket of myrrh.)

And Abraham called the name of that place “God Yireh”, as it is said to this day:  On the mountain of God yeira-eih. (Genesis 22:14)

yireh (יִראֶה) = he sees, will see, perceive, look at, consider.

yeira-eih (יֵרֶָאֶה) = he/it will be seen, will become visible, will appear.

In this story Abraham connects the place-name Moriyah (מֹרִיָּה) with the word mareh (מַרְאָה) = seeing, appearance, vision.

The only other occurrence of the name Moriyah in the Hebrew Bible is in a book written several centuries later:

Then Solomon began to build the house of God in Jerusalem on the hill of the Moriyah, where [God] had appeared to his father David, where David had appointed the place on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.”  (2 Chronicles 3:1)

Moriyah is not mentioned in 2 Samuel, an earlier book that includes an account of Solomon building the temple.  But this retelling of the story in 2 Chronicles (written circa 400-250 C.E.) firmly identifies Moriyah as a hill in Jerusalem.

A placed called Yerushalaim

The Hebrews conquer much of Canaan in the book of Joshua, but even though Joshua executes the king of Jerusalem, he cannot conquer the city-state itself.

As for the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Yerushalaim: the children of Judah were not able to dispossess them, so the Jebusites dwell with the children of Judah in Yerushalaim to this day.  (Joshua 15:63)

Yerushalaim (יְרֽוּשָׁלַ֔םִ) = Jerusalem; yeru (יְרֽוּ) = (possibly from of yarah (יָרָה) = “he founded” or “he shot arrows”) + shaleim.1

Joshua sets up the Israelites’ portable tent-sanctuary in Shiloh, about 20 miles north of Jerusalem, and it remains there for centuries, acquiring stone walls and becoming the main temple of the Israelites.

The city-state of Jerusalem remains an independent Jebusite enclave until King David conquers its citadel and makes it his capital in the second book of Samuel.  Instead of enslaving or subjugating the native Jebusites, David integrates them into his kingdom.  He moves the ark to his new capital in Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:12-17), and his son Solomon builds the first temple there.

*

The story of Abraham and Malki-Tzedek, set in Shaleim, prefigures the requirement to donate a tithe to the priests in Jerusalem, first mentioned in the book of Leviticus/VayikraShaleim is also were Malki-Tzedek blesses Abraham, as priests later blessed people.

The story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac establishes the principle of burnt offerings of animals only, which later became the central form of worship in the temple in Jerusalem.  The  name Moriyah and its folk etymology at the end of this story make this the place where humans see and are seen by God.

So Jerusalem is supposed to be a place of blessing, and a place where humans meet God.

Over the centuries, Jerusalem has occasionally lived up to the promise of its name under Malki-Tzedek, the Hebrew word shaleim = wholeness, peace, and safety.  At other times, too many of the human beings in Jerusalem have been unable to bless or to see each other—and therefore unable to truly bless or perceive the divine.

May the promises of a holy, whole, peaceful, and safe Jerusalem in Lekh Lekha and Vayeira finally come true, speedily and in our time.

  1. In Genesis Rabbah 56:10, Yerushaleim is interpreted as a combination of yir’eh, “He will see [to it],” and shaleim, the city of King Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18.

 

 

Tazria and Lekh-Lekha: On the Eighth Day

April 19, 2015 at 8:07 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Tazria | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Circumcision in Egypt circa 2400 B.C.E.

Circumcision in Egypt
circa 2400 B.C.E.

The ancient Israelites did not invent circumcision.  It was practiced in Egypt even before 2400 B.C.E..  Biblical references indicate that although some tribes living in the ancient Near East did not practice circumcision, the Midianites, Moabites, Ammonites, and Edomites did.

However, all of these peoples circumcised boys either at puberty or in preparation for marriage.  The Israelites were unique in circumcising their males at the age of only eight days.

The first time the Torah mentions circumcision, God commands Abraham to circumcise himself and all the males in his household, from infants to old men.  (Abraham himself is 100 at the time.)  Then God declares:

U-nemaltem the flesh of your foreskin, and it will be the sign of the brit between Me and you.  At the age of eight days every male among you yimmol, throughout your generations… (Genesis/Bereishit 17:11-12)

Circumcision of Isaac, Regensburg Pentateuch circa 1300 C.E.

Circumcision of Isaac,
Regensburg Pentateuch circa 1300 C.E.

u-nemaltem (וּנְמַלְתֶּם) = And you shall be circumcised.

brit (בְּרִית) = covenant, treaty, pact.

yimmol (יִמּוֹל) = he/it shall be circumcised.

Why does the Torah change the age of circumcision to eight days, and make it part of a covenant with God?

In Biblical Hebrew, the idiom for formalizing a covenant is “cutting” it, not sealing or signing it.  One method of concluding a covenant in the ancient Near East was to cut one or more animals in half and walk between the pieces.  (See my blog post Lekh-Lekha: Cutting a Covenant.)  If you wanted a more impressive and lifelong covenant, what could you cut?

The directions for Abraham to cut a covenant with God by circumcising all the males in his household conclude:

A foreskinned male, one who has not yimmol the flesh of his foreskin: that soul shall be cut off from its people; my brit he has broken.  (Genesis 17:14)

Ironically, this leaves male Israelites with a choice between two kinds of cuts:  cut off the foreskin, or be cut off from your people.

In fact, only a convert gets to make a personal choice.  Fathers in the Torah have their eight-day-old sons circumcised, and household heads have their newly-acquired male slaves circumcised, without their consent.

Circumcision on the eighth day is mentioned again in this week’s Torah portion, Tazria (“She makes seed”).  At first glance, it appears to be a gratuitous aside in a passage about how long after childbirth a woman is ritually impure and must stay away from public worship:

God spoke to Moses, saying:  Speak to the Children of Israel, saying: When a woman makes seed and gives birth to a male, then she is ritually impure for seven days: as in the days of menstrual flow of her menstruation she is ritually impure. (Leviticus/Vayikra 12:1-2)

On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin yimmol. (Leviticus 12:3)

And for 33 days she shall stay in her bloodshed of ritual purification; she shall not touch anything holy, and she shall not come into the holy place, until the days of her ritual purification are completed.  (Leviticus 12:4)

In 1517 C.E., Rabbi Yitzchak Karo wrote: “If the Torah deems it necessary to repeat the law of the circumcision … this is not the right place!  Surely the Covenant of the Circumcision is holy and pure—why then associate it with uncleanness, as if placing a kohen into a graveyard?”

Why does the Torah bring up circumcision in this context?

The obvious connection is that two things happen on the eighth day after a boy is born:  the son is circumcised, and the mother transitions from one state of ritual impurity to another.  For the first seven days after the birth of as son (while her blood flow is like that of menstruation) the mother’s bedding and anything she sits on is considered “impure”; anyone who touches these things must immerse himself and his garments in water, and refrain entering the sanctuary or temple the rest of the day.  The mother herself must abstain from sexual intercourse as well as from going to the sanctuary.Pigeons 2

On the eighth day after a boy is born, the places where the mother lies and sits are no longer ritually impure, and she may have intercourse again. But she still may not come to the sanctuary or touch objects used in the sanctuary until 40 days after her son is born.  Then she immerses herself in water and brings two sacrificial birds to the priest at the entrance of the sanctuary.  These acts return her to her former state of ritual purity and reintegrate her into public worship.

According to 16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, even the blood that nourishes an infant in the womb counts as menstrual blood, and it takes seven days after the umbilical cord is cut for a son to become ritually pure from his mother’s blood.  He cannot be circumcised until he is ritually pure.

But I doubt that this is the reason the Torah calls for circumcision on the eighth day.  After all, the Torah does not require immersion or animal sacrifices on behalf of the infant.  Instead, a son’s circumcision is a religious promotion, turning him into an Israelite dedicated to God through the brit milah, the “covenant of circumcision”, as it came to be known in the Talmud.

milah (מִילָה) = circumcision (a noun in post-Biblical Hebrew, derived from the Biblical Hebrew noun mulah, מוּלָה).

Other commentary points out the connection between the circumcision of an Israelite boy and the sacrifice or a calf, lamb, or kid.  In two places, Exodus/Shemot 22:29 and Leviticus/Vayikra 22:27, the Torah says herd and flock animals must stay with their mothers for the first seven days after they are born.  On the eighth day, they can be brought to the altar as an offering to God.

According to the Zohar (written in the 13th century by the Kabbalist rabbi Moses de Leon) the drop of blood from a circumcision brings atonement to the father—just as an animal sacrifice brings atonement to the man who offers the animal.

The custom of circumcision faded among most Near Eastern peoples as the uncircumcised Greeks became dominant.  Many Semitic tribes began imitating the Greeks even before they were conquered by the Seleucid Empire in the fourth century B.C.E.  Circumcision continued only among some Egyptians and Arabs, and Jews.  The ruling classes—first Greeks, then Romans, and then Catholics—identified Jews in the Near East and Europe by their circumcisions.

The practice of circumcision did not spread to non-Jewish Westerners until the early 20th century.  Today the pendulum of public opinion is swinging against circumcision again.  Yet even Jewish atheists commonly circumcise their sons on the eighth day.  Even if they do not believe in a covenant with God, they still believe in a covenant between their own family and the rest of the Jewish people.

I was not a Jew when my son was born, and even if I had been, I doubt I would have immersed myself in a mikveh 40 days later.  To me, the categories of ritually pure and impure are merely historical.

But when I converted to Judaism, I had my two-year-old son circumcised. Was I dedicating him to the God of Israel?  Not really; I expected he would make his own decisions about religion when he came of age.  I did want him to fit in with other Jewish boys.  And I did want him to at least grow up as Jew, as a member of the people whose religion I had dedicated myself to.  Thus, in a roundabout way, my son’s circumcision was part of my own covenant with the God of Israel.

One way or another, the tradition continues.

 

Lekh-lekha: Cutting a Covenant

October 29, 2014 at 9:36 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Noach | 3 Comments
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The first three covenants God makes with human beings in the Torah are unconditional; God promises to do something regardless of what the other party does. First God says to Noah:

Everything on earth will perish, but I will raise up my berit with you, and you shall come into the ark… (Genesis/Bereishit 6:18)

berit (בְּרִית) = covenant, pact, treaty of alliance. (This is the source of the Yiddish word bris = covenant of circumcision.)

After the flood, God tells Noah and his descendants not to eat the blood in animal meat, and not to shed the blood of humans.  Then God declares a covenant with all future humans and animals on earth—without making it contingent on humans following the rules about blood.

And I, here I am, raising up my berit with you and with your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you—with birds, with beasts, and with everything living on the earth with you …I raise up my berit with you, and I will not cut off all flesh again by the waters of the flood, and never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth. (Genesis 9:9-11)

God makes a third, and last, unconditional covenant in this week’s Torah portion, Lekh-lekha (“Get yourself going!”).

Abraham hears God’s call at age 75, leaves his home in Aram, and travels to Canaan, where he is landless and childless (though he has a wife, a nephew, and a large number of men working for him). God promises Abraham three times that he will have a whole nation of descendants, from his own loins, and they will possess the land of Canaan.

Abraham-looks-at-starsThe third time, Abraham points out that he is still childless. God shows him the stars, and says his descendants will be just as numerous. The sight of the stars moves Abraham, and he trusts God on this. Then God repeats that Abraham will possess the land of Canaan, and Abraham questions God again:

God, my master, how will I know that I will take possession of it? (Genesis 15:8)

God responds by changing the promise into a covenant. And since words alone do not seem to be enough for Abraham any more, God does not just “raise up” or establish a covenant through words, but “cuts” a covenant in a ritual used for centuries among ancient people in the Middle East, including Akkadians, Amorites, Hittites, Assyrians, and Arameans as well as Israelites.

In this ritual, two parties ratified a pact or treaty by slaughtering one or more animals and cutting each one in half. Surviving written documents include threats that if one of the parties does not uphold the agreement, he will be cut in half like the animal.

At some point, Israelites added a step to the ritual: after an animal was cut in two, someone walked between the pieces.

…the berit that they cut before Me: the calf that they cut in two and they passed between its pieces: the officers of Judah, and the officers of Jerusalem, the court officials, and the priests, and all the people of the land, the ones who passed between the pieces of the calf …(Jeremiah 34:18-19)

In this week’s Torah portion, God requests five animals, from the five species that are used later in the Torah for burnt offerings.

Take for me a three-year-old heifer and a three-year-old she-goat and a three-year-old ram and a turtledove and a young pigeon. And he took for [God] all these, and he cut them through the middle, and set each part opposite its fellow. But the birds he did not cut. (Genesis 9-10)

The 20th-century Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz claimed that Abraham placed the two uncut birds opposite one another, completing the path between the pieces. And God grants him a vision.

And the sun had set, and darkness happened, and hey!—a smoking tanur and a torch of fire, which passed between these cut pieces. On that day, God cut with Abraham a berit, saying: To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt up to the great river, the river Euphrates. (Genesis 15:17-18)

tanur (תַנּוּר) = fire-pot, brazier, oven, furnace.

In the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, God’s presence is often described in terms of smoke and fire. But imagine a disembodied smudge-pot and a torch passing between the pieces!

When God and Abraham cut a covenant, it is God who walks between the pieces.

This is God’s last unilateral covenant in the Hebrew Bible. The next covenant between God and Abraham, at the end of this week’s Torah portion, is conditional; God will multiply Abraham’s descendants if and only if every male in Abraham’s household is circumcised.

After that, covenants between God and humans are like Biblical covenants between two humans: the party with more power promises to protect the party with less power, on the condition that the weaker party remains loyal to his superior and follows the stipulated rules. In God’s case, people must obey various laws, observe holy days, and/or refrain from worshiping other gods as a condition for God’s favor and protection.

Why does God switch to conditional covenants? I think God is frustrated by what happens right after God cuts a covenant with Abraham.  His post-menopausal wife, Sarah, gives him her slave Hagar to produce a son for him; and instead of continuing to wait for a miraculous birth, Abraham cooperates. But God seems disappointed, and makes a new covenant with Abraham. Besides requiring circumcision as a condition, God specifies that Sarah must be the mother of the son who inherits the covenant, and says: I will bless her, and also give you a son from her. (Genesis 17:16)

From then on, God apparently does not trust humans to make their own arrangements without at least a few divine rules to guide them.

Today people make many conditional contracts with each other: for rent, for employment, for services. Some people also try to bargain with God, promising to do something they think God wants in exchange for a divine favor—as if God could be bribed.

There is also a widespread unconditional covenant between human beings today:  marriage. Our wedding rituals can be elaborate (though they do not feature cutting up animals and walking between the pieces). But at the heart of the ceremony, each person promises to be with and support the other (like God promising to favor and protect someone), regardless of what happens.

Today, Jewish circumcision is more like an unconditional covenant with God.  Infant boys are dedicated to the God of Israel through circumcision with no expectation that God will grant them fertility or any special favors in return.

But can you imagine God initiating a covenant with a human being today?  Can you imagine God raising up or cutting a covenant with you?

What would it be like?  Has it already happened, in some subtle way?

 

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