Haftarat Vayeishev—Amos: No Prophecy Allowed

December 21, 2016 at 11:16 pm | Posted in Amos, Jonah, Vayeishev | Leave a 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 Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23), and the haftarah is Amos 2:6-3:8.

The doom of other countries is easier to read about than the doom of your own. So the book of Amos opens with God’s proclamations against the kingdom of Israel’s neighbors Aram, Philistia, map-amos-ch-1-2Phoenicia, Edom, Ammon, Moab, and Judah. In each prophecy, Amos mentions a wicked deed the state committed, followed by the war-related punishment that God will bring down upon it.

I can imagine Amos’s audience in the kingdom of Israel nodding at the well-deserved punishments predicted for other countries, many of which their own king, Jereboam II, attacked in the mid-eighth century B.C.E. Then Amos’s introductory formula for the next prophecy names Israel. This week’s haftarah begins:

            Thus said God:

            Because of three revolts of Israel,

                        And because of four, I will not accept it:

            Because of selling the innocent for silver,

                        And the needy for the sake of a pair of sandals. (Amos 2:6)

The first revolt (or transgression) against God in Amos’s polemic against the Israelites is selling people into slavery merely out of greed. In the Bible parents are allowed to sell themselves or their children—but only to fellow Israelites, and only in order to pay off debts.1 Selling someone to an outsider, or for any reason other than debt, is unacceptable.

In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave for 20 pieces of silver, to a caravan bound for Egypt. Their only reason is that they hate him. Later they suffer for this bad deed.

The book of Amos goes on to list four other revolts against God by Israelites:

           Mauling the head of the powerless in the dust of the ground,

                      They stretch the path of the needy.

           A man and his father go to the [same] na-arah

                      For the sake of profaning My holy name.

           And on garments taken as security [for debts]

                      They stretch out beside every altar.

           And wine from fines they charged

                      They drink in the house of their god(s). (Amos 2:7-2:8)

na-arah (נַעֲרָה) = girl; a young woman old enough to marry who has not yet had a child; a female slave or servant.

Drinking in Ancient Greece

Drinking in Ancient Greece

The Israelites who revolt against God are the ones who victimize the innocent, the needy, the powerless, servants, and debtors. They disregard God’s instructions about the poor in order to accumulate silver and live in selfish luxury, indulging in dubious sex and lolling about drinking beside religious altars.  (Either they are worshiping an alien god, as Amos discovers in Bethel, or they are using a shrine built for making libations and animal sacrifices to God as if it were a private drinking hall.)

The wealthier Israelites ignore God despite everything God has done for them: bringing them up from Egypt (where the Israelites were the slaves), guiding them through the wilderness, and destroying their Amorite (i.e. Canaanite) enemies. Furthermore,

I raised up some of your children for neviyim,

                        And some of your youths for nezirim.

            Is this also nothing, children of Israel?

                       —declares God.

neviyim (נְבִיאִים) = prophets (singular= navi, נָבִיא). From the root verb niba (נִבָּא) = behave like a prophet, either by having ecstatic experiences of the divine, or by serving as a mouthpiece and translator for God.

nezirim (נְזִרִים) = nazirites; men and women who dedicate themselves to a period of sanctity during which they abstain from grooming their hair and from drinking wine and other alcohol. (See my post Haftarat Naso—Judges: Restraining the Abstainer.)

The neviyim transmit God’s messages to the people. The nezirim set an example of inner strength, even in their youth, by holding themselves to a different standard for the sake of sanctity. God’s rhetorical question—Is this also nothing?—is designed to make the listeners agree that neviyim and nezirim are assets to the community.

drunk-womanBut the Israelites have rejected these human assets, making the nezirim break their vows and forbidding the neviyim to speak for God.

           But you made the nezirim drink wine,

           And you ordered the neviyim, saying: Lo tinavu!  (Amos 2:11-12)

Lo tinavu (לֹא תִּנָּבְאוּ) = You shall not prophesy!  Lo (לֹאּ) = not; tinavu is a form of the verb niba (נִבָּא).

Naturally the immoral, disobedient Israelites do not want anyone reminding them of their own wickedness.

Since the Israelites have rejected God’s gifts, God threatens to make Israel’s army unnaturally slow and weak. The obvious, though unstated, conclusion is that if an enemy army (such as the Assyrians) attacks, the kingdom will be unable to defend itself.

Amos continues God’s prophecy with a list of rhetorical questions, including:

            If misfortune happens in a town,

                        Did not God make it? (Amos 3:6)

This expresses the common Biblical belief that God controls everything that happens to human beings. Individuals are responsible for their own behavior, but nothing else; when bad things happen to them it is always a punishment from God for misbehaving. (The Hebrew Bible questions this ancient belief only in the book of Job.) Biblical writers applied a similar principle to collective behavior: if a whole country is vanquished, the reason is not that the enemy has superior military might, technology, or strategy, but rather that God is using the enemy’s army to punish people who have done wrong.

The Call of Amos, Petrus Comestor Bible Historiale, 1372

The Call of Amos,
Petrus Comestor Bible Historiale, 1372

By sending a prophet, God gives a country a chance to reform and avoid the divine punishment. In the book of Jonah, once the reluctant prophet finally prophesies in Nineveh, the people repent and the city is saved—even though Nineveh is the capital of the evil Neo-Assyrian Empire. Amos pauses in his list of rhetorical questions to remind his audience:

            Indeed, my lord God does not do a thing

            Unless He has revealed His confidential plan to His servants, the neviyim. (Amos 3:7)

Then Amos finishes his list:

            A lion has roared;

                        Who will not be afraid?

            My lord God has spoken;

                        Who will not prophesy? (Amos 3:8)

God’s voice is as frightening as a lion’s roar. When God speaks to the prophet, he cannot help but obey God by transmitting the message. Amos may be implying that God’s word, spoken by a true prophet, should be just as frightening. Then the Israelites could not help but repent and reform.

Yet the wealthy and powerful of Israel are so resistant to change that they order the neviyim to keep their mouths shut and go away.2 They would rather continue doing wrong and stay in denial than admit their wrongdoing and change their ways in time to avoid the conquest and destruction of their country.

Today, when we face the degradation of the whole world due to climate change, including a high toll on human life, few people consider it a punishment from God.  Why blame an anthropomorphic deity, when it is so easy so see how human actions are causing our collective suffering?

Nevertheless, it is hard to change our actions. Many people today offer information about what is happening, and call for reducing air pollution and preparing for rising waters. Some individuals are responding by using less gasoline to travel—and no doubt when Amos prophesied, a few individuals responded by treating the poor and their own families with more justice, and their religion with more respect.

Yet when a whole kingdom, or the whole world, is threatened, the disaster can only be avoided or ameliorated by commitment and action on the part of the leaders at the top. In the book of Jonah, Nineveh would not have repented if its king had not put on sackcloth and issued his decree. In the book of Amos, King Jereboam II never reforms, and neither do his people. By 720 B.C.E. the Assyrian army had captured Israel and its capital, Samaria.

May a divine spirit open all of our ears and hearts today, and may all the leaders and influential people of the world become more like the repentant king of Nineveh than like the leaders of Israel in the time of Amos.

1See my post  Haftarat Vayeira—2 Kings: Dance of Pride. Even when someone acquired a slave as a payment of debt, the debtor’s kinsman was obligated to buy back his relative as soon as he could afford it, and after six years a master had to liberate an Israelite slave even without financial recompense.  In fact, the Torah says: And when you send him out emancipated from you, do not send him out with nothing. You must certainly provide him [with goods] from your flock or from your threshing-floor or from your wine-vat, which are blessings that God has given you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 15:13-14)

2 An example is given later in the book: Amatzyah, the priest of Bethel, sent to Jereboam, the king of Israel, saying: Amos conspires against you in the midst of the house of Israel. The land cannot endure everything he speaks! (Amos 7:10) … And Amatzyah said to Amos: Seer, go with your spirit to the land of Judah, and eat your bread there, and prophesy there! But do not ever prophesy again at Bethel, because it is a sanctuary for the king and a royal palace. (Amos 7:12-13)

Haftarat Naso—Judges: Restraining the Abstainer

June 15, 2016 at 10:59 am | Posted in Amos, Judges, Naso | 3 Comments
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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 the Torah portion is Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89) and the haftarah is Judges13:2-13:25.

Every religion has members who go beyond what is required of the whole community. In ancient Israel, there were priests, prophets, and nezirim.

drunk womanAnd I raised up some of your sons for prophets

And some of your young men for nezirim.

Is there nothing in this, Children of Israel?

—declares God.

But you made the nezirim drink wine

And you ordered the prophets not to prophesy!  (Amos 2:11-12)

nezirim (נְזִרִים) = “nazirites”: men and women who are dedicated and separated from the rest of the community as holy because they abstain from grooming their hair and drinking alcohol. Nezirim is the plural of nazir (נָזִיר), from the root verb נזר = separate, dedicate, restrain, abstain.

Samson, whose story begins in this week’s haftarah, is a nazir from the womb to the grave, but he fails to make his life holy. Perhaps that is why this week’s Torah portion lays out strict rules and term limits for living as a nazir.

Although the book of Numbers/Bemidbar is set at an earlier time in history than Samson’s story in the book of Judges, modern scholars agree that Judges was written long before the Torah portion Naso in Numbers.  Judges is a collection of old stories of heroes from the 11th century B.C.E. and earlier, stories which were probably compiled and rewritten in the 8th century B.C.E. Large parts of the book of Numbers, however, including the instructions for the nazir, were written after the Babylonian exile of the 6th century B.C.E., when priests were writing religious instructions for the time of the second temple.

Samson’s story begins in this week’s haftarah when an angel appears to the wife of a Danite named Manoach and announces that she will give birth to a nazir.

A messenger of God appeared to the woman, and he said to her: Hey, please! You are childless and you have not given birth, but you shall conceive and give birth to a son. So now guard yourself, please, and don’t you drink wine or alcohol, and don’t you eat anything ritually impure.  Because you are about to conceive, and you will give birth to a son, and a razor will not go upon his head, because the boy will be a nazir of God from the womb.  And he will begin to rescue Israel from the hand of the Philistines. (Judges 13:3-5)

Samson's Fight with the Lion, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1525

Samson’s Fight with the Lion, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1525

Samson’s first act (after the haftarah’s opening scene) is to ask his parents to marry him to a Philistine woman he finds attractive. They protest feebly that he should marry one of his own people, but they follow him to the Philistine village of Timnah to arrange the marriage. Samson discovers his superhuman strength on the way, when “a strong spirit of God came over him” and he rips apart a lion with his bare hands. (Judges 14:6)  For the wedding a year later, Samson hosts a seven-day drinking-party where he makes a wager and ends up killing 30 strangers in order to pay his gambling debt with their clothing.

As Samson’s adventures continue, the only thing he abstains from is cutting his hair.  His main interests are sex, and inventing spectacular ways of killing people.  He only prays to God at the end of his life, when Delilah has shaved his head and her co-conspirators have blinded and imprisoned him.  Then Samson asks God to return his super-human strength so he can bring down the temple of Dagon and all the Philistines in it—not for the sake of Israel or God, but for his own personal vengeance.

Samson does succeed in killing thousands of Philistines, but he is hardly the holy man that Manoach and his wife expected when the angel said their son would be a nazir.

The book of Numbers makes it clear that a nazir along the lines of Samson is unacceptable. For one thing, this week’s Torah portion says nobody is allowed to be a nazir from birth; only an adult man or woman can vow to live as a nazir, and the person making the vow sets a finite period of time for his or her dedication.  The instructions begin:

If a man or a woman vows the extraordinary vow of a nazir, lehazir for God… (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:2)

lehazir (לְהַזִּיר) = to restrain oneself, to abstain.  (From the root נזר.)

After describing what a nazir must abstain from, the Torah portion continues:

And this is the teaching of the nazir: On the day completing the days of nizro, he shall be brought to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:13)

nizro (נִזְרוֹ) = his life as a nazir, the term of his vow dedicating him to separateness; his crown. (Also from the root נזר.).

At the Tent of Meeting the nazir makes offerings, shaves his or her head, and returns to ordinary life.  Thus all nezirim consciously dedicate themselves to restraint for a fixed period of time for the sake of God.

Their restraint consists of three kinds of abstention. The first category is alcohol and all grape products.

wine and grapesFrom wine and other alcohol yazir; nor shall he drink wine vinegar or vinegar from other alcohol, nor any grape juice; nor shall he eat grapes, wet or dried.  All the days of nizro he must not eat anything that is made from grapevines, from seeds to skin.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:3-4)

yazir (יַזִּיר) = he will abstain.  (Also from the root נזר.)

Abstaining from alcohol would not only improve the nazir’s ability to focus on being holy to God, but would also emphasis the nazir’s separation from the rest of society.

nazir hairThe second thing nezirim must abstain from is cutting, binding, or even combing their hair.

All the days of the vow of nizro, no razor will pass over his head; until the fulfillment of the days that yazir, his big, unbound, bristling hair will be holy to God.  (Numbers 6:5)

In the Bible, the only other people who let their hair grow untrimmed and unbound are mourners. Mourners are expected to disregard the social norms while grief commands all of their attention. Nezirim must let their hair grow wild while God commands all of their attention.  (See my post Naso: Distanced by Hair.)

Old Man on his Deathbed, by Gustav Klimt

Old Man on his Deathbed, by Gustav Klimt

The third thing a nazir must avoid is contact with the dead. (See my post Emor: The God of Life.)

All the days of hazayro to God, he must not come upon a dead body. For his father or his mother, for his brother or his sister, he will not make himself ritually impure for them in their death, because the neizer of his god is on his head. All the days of nizro he is holy to God. (Numbers 6:6-8)

haziro (הַזִּירוֹ) = his time as a nazir(Also from the root נזר.)

neizer (נֵזֶר) = consecration; crown.  (Also from the root נזר.)

In the book of Numbers ordinary people who touch or come near a dead body are ritually impure for seven days; then a ritual sprinkling restores them to purity and they rejoin the religious community. But for a nazir, the rules are as strict as for the high priest, who must avoid all corpses, even those of his own parents. If a nazir touches or comes close to any corpse, the term of his or her vow ends prematurely. Then after seven days, the would-be nazir must shave his or her head, make offerings, and start all over again. Once again, nezerim must pay attention—and, perhaps, emulate the high priest.

According to these rules, parents cannot say an angel told them their child would be a lifelong nazir, or treat him as especially privileged.  No nezirim can expect God to give them superpowers from time to time.  Staying sober, they have no excuse for wild behavior like Samson’s at the end of his drinking-party.

And since nezirim must avoid being near dead bodies, they cannot kill people.  Although all of the people Samson killed were Philistines, none of them were actual soldiers engaged in war against Israelites. Impulsive murder was no longer acceptable by the time of the second temple.

*

I have known individuals who were overwhelmed by spiritual impulses that cannot be integrated into normal life in modern western society. We have roles for spiritual leaders and teachers, but few outlets for people who would have been prophets or nezirim in ancient Israel.

When prophets in the Bible are overcome by the spirit of God they can at least speak, turning the divine message into human language.  But nezirim have no words.  When Samson feels the divine spirit, he is filled with physical strength that he uses for killing.

In the book of Numbers, nezirim can still be identified by big, unbound, bristling hair, but they are also required to follow extra rules.  Perhaps these rules and abstentions satisfy the spiritual impulse of the nezirim enough so that when the spirit of God comes over them, they can rejoice in their self-discipline—as well as in their neizer, their visible crown of consecration.

I wonder if an equivalent discipline would work today to provide an outlet for those with the spirit of a nazir?

 

Haftarat Kedoshim—Amos: Chosen People

May 9, 2016 at 8:55 pm | Posted in Amos, Kedoshim, Re-eih | Leave a 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 the Torah portion is Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27) and the haftarah is Amos 9:7-15.

Because God chose to rescue the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites owe God their fealty and obedience. This idea appears throughout the Hebrew Bible and Jewish liturgy, including this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim (“Holy”):

I myself am God, your god, who brought you out from the land of Egypt. And you must observe all my decrees and all my laws and do them; I am God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:36)

And you shall be holy to me, because I, God, am holy, and I separated you from the other peoples to be mine. (Leviticus 20:26)

Other peoples have their own gods. But the god that chose the Israelites as its own people is superior to all those other gods, according to the early books of the Torah.  The miracles God made in Egypt prove it.

The book of Deuteronomy, which was probably written in the mid-seventh century B.C.E., offers the Bible’s first definite statement of monotheism, the belief that there is only one god in the whole universe.

God is “the gods” in the heavens above and on the earth below; there is no other. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 4:39)

In this book the Israelites become the chosen people of the one and only god.

For you are a sacred people for God, your god, and God chose you to be Its am segulah out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth. (Deuteronomy 14:2)

am segulah (עַם סְגֻלָּה) = a people (am) of personal possession (segulah); personally chosen people.

Yet a hundred years earlier the prophet Amos had already hinted at monotheism with his claim that the same God is in charge of all the nations on earth.  Amos was the first prophet to declare that God punishes wrong-doers in every country, not just the two kingdoms of the Israelites.

map Amos ch 1-2The book of Amos begins with dire prophecies of the downfall of every small country in the region: Aram and its capital, Damascus; the four city-states of the Philistines, from Gaza to Ekron; the Phoenician city-state of Tyre; the kingdoms of Edom, Ammon, and Moab; the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah; and the northern Israelite kingdom of Israel.

Amos says God will decree their destruction because of their various misdeeds. He does not mention the rising Assyrian Empire, which had already begun conquering or subjugating the small states to its west. But most prophets assumed that God used foreign armies to punish people.  (See my post Haftarah for Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies.)

In the last chapter, this week’s haftarah, Amos questions the whole idea that God and the Israelites have a special relationship.

map Amos ch9 v7-8“Aren’t you like the Kushiyim to me, children of Israel?” 

—declares God.

“Didn’t I bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,

“And the Philistines from Crete,

“And Aram from Kyr?

Hey! The eyes of my master, God

Are on the sinful kingdom.

“And I will wipe it off from the face of the earth.

“However, I will certainly not wipe out the house of Jacob”

—declares God. (Amos 9:7-8)

Kushiyim (כֻשִׁיִּים) = Kushites, black-skinned people, people from Kush (a region identified with Sudan and Ethiopia). Elsewhere the Bible treats Kushites like other foreigners from distant lands, countries with which Israel and Judah had no quarrel.   

So what if God brought the Israelites out of Egypt? God also brought other peoples to new lands. In the book of Amos, God does not play favorites.  In fact, Amos predicts that God is about to wipe out the northern kingdom of Israel—though some Israelites (a.k.a. the house of Jacob) will survive, and someday their descendants will return.

(The Assyrians did capture the capital of Israel, Samaria, in 720 B.C.E., and deported much of its population. Some northern Israelites fled south to the kingdom of Judah, which also considered itself part of the house of Jacob. Judah survived as a semi-independent vassal state of Assyria until the empire was conquered by the Babylonians around 610 B.C.E.)

It is tempting to read this week’s haftarah as an early statement of universalism: “Everyone is special, everyone is chosen in a different way.” At least Amos, unlike many other books in the Hebrew Bible, avoids triumphalism: “Only we are special, only we are chosen.” But I suspect Amos’s real point is: “Who do you think you are?  You’re not so special!”

Nevertheless, the book of Amos is a good antidote to the common late biblical view that there is only one god, and God singled out the Israelites to be Its personal possession.

Today, nobody follows the religion of the ancient Israelites, with its animal sacrifices and its laws about the sub-human status of slaves, women, children, and innocent bystanders in war. The Jewish religion has become much more ethical than the Israelite religion portrayed in the Torah.

Yet many people today, Jews and non-Jews, believe that their own religion is the only right one, the only true religion—and therefore they and their co-religionists are God’s chosen people.

I pray that we all receive the divine inspiration Amos received, and realize that God is not like a biased parent or teacher, singling out one child for extra benefits. God rescues lots of people and brings them to new lands. In God’s eyes, Israelites are the same as Kushiyim.

None of us are chosen ahead of time. We must make our own choices to become holy people.

 

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