Haftarat Pinchas—1 Kings: Passing On the Mantle

After the miracle, depression.

After the most spectacular miracle in his career, the prophet Elijah asks God for death in this week’s haftarah reading (1 Kings 18:46-19:21, which accompanies the Torah reading Pinchas).

Jezebel by John Liston Byam Shaw, 19th c.

In the first book of Kings, Ahab (Achav, אַחְסָב) king of the northern Israelite kingdom of Samaria, marries a Phoenician princess named Jezebel (Izevel, אִיזֶבֶל). As soon as she moves in she tries to change the religion of her new country. She imports prophets serving Baal and Asheirah, and orders the murder of all the prophets of Y-H-V-H, the God of Israel. But 101 of God’s prophets escape: 100 acolytes who are hidden by one of King Ahab’s officials, and one elusive traveling prophet named Elijah (Eliyahu, אֵלִיָּהוּ).

Elijah prophesies that God will punish Samaria by withholding rain until he returns and gives the word. Then he leaves Ahab’s kingdom for three years of drought. When he returns, the prophet  orders the king to arrange a contest between Y-H-V-H and the foreign gods Baal and Asheirah.

And the winner is …

Elijah and Ahab at Mt. Carmel, Zurich Bible, 1531

The prophets of the goddess Asheirah are absent from the contest on Mount Karmel. The prophets of Baal spend all morning hopping around their sacrifice and calling on their god, but they fail to make anything happen. Elijah pours water over his sacrifice, and Y-H-V-H responds to his call by sending a roaring fire that devours the slaughtered bull, the wood, the dirt, and the water in the trench around the altar.1

The Israelites who are watching enthusiastically follow Elijah’s order to seize the 450 prophets of Baal and kill them all.2

Death wish

This week’s haftarah opens as it begins to rain. When Ahab gets home and tells his Phoenician wife what happened, she sends a death threat to Elijah.

And he was afraid, and he got up and went off to save his life. And he came to Beir-sheva, which is in Judah. And he left behind his servant there. Then he himself walked a day’s journey into the wilderness, and he came and sat down under a certain broom-tree. And he asked for death. He said: “Enough! Now, God, take my life, because I am no better than my forefathers.” (1 Kings 19:3-4)

Elijah travels to Judah, the southern Israelite kingdom, in order to save his life. He would be safe in Jerusalem, the God-fearing King Yehoshafat of Judah. But instead of going there, he heads for the Negev desert. He probably leaves his servant behind in Beir-sheva because he is planning to die of dehydration in the desert and he does not want his servant to die as well.

Why is Elijah suicidal right after arranging a divine miracle, getting the Israelites to slay the prophets of Baal, and making it safely across the border into Judah? Another man might be heady with success.

One possibility is that Elijah expected the kingdom of Israel to completely return to the exclusive worship of their own God, after three years of drought and a spectacular miracle. Instead, King Ahab’s wife Jezebel retains power, and the 400 prophets of her goddess Asherah are still alive. Elijah has not achieved his goal.

Two other prophets in the Hebrew Bible beg God for death when they despair of achieving their goals. Moses asks God to kill him when the Israelites complain yet again about the food on their journey through the wilderness.3 His mission is to lead the Israelites to the land of Canaan, but they keep rebelling and whining that they want to go back to Egypt.

Jonah Preaching in Nineveh, by Jakob Steinhardt, 1923

Jonah, who prophesied after Elijah, asks God to kill him when God decides not to punish the Assyrians of Nineveh, who are enemies of Israel.4 Jonah’s mission is to go to Nineveh and proclaim that the city will be overthrown, but when he finally does, the people of Nineveh take the prophecy seriously and repent. Jonah wanted them to die, not to repent and be spared.

Like Moses and Jonah, Elijah is fed up with the prophet business. Serving as God’s mouthpiece consumes all of a person’s life, but a human being lacks God’s long-term view. No wonder both Moses and Jonah try to get out of being chosen as prophets in the first place.5

Perhaps these are the men Elijah is referring to when he says he is “no better than his forefathers”.

Close encounter

In the desert an angel of God comes twice to Elijah and saves his life with cakes and jugs of water. The second time, the angel says:

“Get up, eat, or the journey will be too much for you!” (1 Kings 19:7)

Perhaps because of this hint, or perhaps because he realizes he needs a deeper consultation with God,6 the prophet gets up and walks all the way to Mount Horev (another name for Mount Sinai).

There he came into the cave, and there he spent the night. And hey! The word of God, his God! And it said to him: “What are you here for, Elijah?” And he said: “I was absolutely zealous for God, the God of Hosts, because the Israelites abandoned your covenant! Your altars they demolished, and your prophets they slayed by the sword! And I alone remain, and they seek to take my life.” (1 Kings 19:9-10)

Elijah the zealot cannot appreciate a partial victory. He cannot accept that his fellow Israelites cooperated with Queen Jezebel, demolished God’s altars, and executed some of God’s prophets. Elijah is so outraged he forgets about (or discounts) the 100 lesser prophets that King Ahab’s court official saved. And he discounts the progress he made with the contest on the Mount Karmel, even though it inspired his people to slay the 450 prophets of Baal.

And hey! God was passing by, and a big and mighty wind was tearing off mountains of rocks in front of God; but God was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, a faint sound of quietness. (I Kings 19:11-12)

The first three phenomena are similar to the dramatic divine manifestations at Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus.7 But this time God is not present in them. We can tell that Elijah recognizes God when he hears the faint, quiet sound (or still small voice), because he covers his face. He would know that when Moses stood on that same mountain, God said: “No man can see my face and live.”8

And when Elijah heard, he wrapped his face with his adaret, and he went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And hey!—a  voice [came] to him, and it said: “What are you here for, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13)

adaret (אַדֶרֶת) = cloak, mantle. (From the same root as eder, אֶדֶר = magnificence, splendor.)

When Gods asks the question a second time, Elijah gives the same reply, word for word. He does not pick up on God’s hint that his true service to the divine now lies in quietness. A calm spirit is not Elijah’s forte.

Tossing the mantle

So God arranges for Elijah to be replaced by a new prophet.

Then God said to him: “Go, return the way you came, [then go on] to the wilderness [near] Damascus. You must come and anoint Chazeil as king over Aram. And you must anoint Yeihu son of Nimshi as king over Israel. And you must anoint Elisha son of Shafat from Aveil Mecholah as a prophet instead of yourself.” (1 Kings 19:15-16)

Elijah is so eager to stop being a prophet that he skips anointing new kings of Aram and Israel, and goes straight to Aveil Mecholah in the Jordan valley.

Elijah and Elisha, by Abraham Bloemaert, 1565-1651

And he went from there, and he found Elisha son of Shafat, who was plowing with twelve yokes in front of him, and he was with the twelfth. And Elijah crossed over to him and he threw his adaret to him. He [Elisha] left his oxen and he ran after Elijah … (1 Kings 19:19-20)

This is the source of the English idiom “passing on the mantle”. The word adaret is used only once in the Hebrew Bible for the garment of a king.9 Otherwise it appears as either a prophet’s outer garment or a metaphor. In this week’s haftarah Elijah’s mantle is his protection as  prophet; he uses it to hide his face when God is too close even for him.

Elijah’s improvised substitute for anointment proves to be only the beginning of the transfer of his prophetic authority. Elisha becomes Elijah’s attendant or acolyte for several years, perhaps replacing the servant whom Elijah left in Beir-sheva.

After this week’s haftarah God orders Elijah to deliver two more prophesies. He obeys, adding his own elaborations as usual. First he predicts doom (involving blood-licking dogs) for Ahab and his Phoenician wife because Jezebel arranged the murder of Nabot, who refused to sell his vineyard to the king.10

Then, three years later, Elijah tells King Achazyah, Ahab’s son and heir, that he will die of his wounds from a fall out the window.11 In this story, Elijah is described as a very hairy man with a leather belt around his waist; no adaret is evident.

The adaret reappears in the second book of Kings on the day when God is finally ready to take Elijah’s life. Elijah rolls it up and uses it to slap the Jordan River, and the waters part so he and Elisha can cross on dry land. Then the adaret falls to the ground when Elijah ascends to heaven in a whirlwind, and Elisha picks it up—this time for good.12

*

When is it time to pass on the mantle of authority?

When you are fed up with one of your roles in life, it is fine to keep an eye out for your successor. But you may have to humble yourself and continue serving until you can step down without doing harm. Perhaps, like Elijah, you must serve as a model for your future replacement for a while. Or perhaps, like a parent with a difficult child, you must accept your responsibility graciously until you are no longer needed.

The prophet business is not the only hard duty a person might face.

  1. 1 Kings 18:17-38
  2. 1 Kings 18:39-40.
  3. Numbers 11:11-15.
  4. Jonah 4:1-3.
  5. Moses in Exodus 4:1-16 when he keeps trying to talk God out of it, and Jonah in Jonah 1:1-3 when he gets on a ship to Tarshish.
  6. Commentators who proposed that Elijah went to Mount Horev in order to commune with God and elevate his soul include the Malbim (19th-century rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Wisser) and Leo L. Honor, Book of Kings 1, The Jewish Commentary for Bible Readers, New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1955, p. 271.
  7. When God comes down on top of Mount Sinai in Exodus 19:16-20, the effects include an earthquake, the blare of a horn, thunder and lightning, and fire and smoke.
  8. Exodus 33:20.
  9. The king of Nineveh takes off his adaret and puts on sackcloth in Jonah 3:6.
  10. 1 Kings 21:1-24.
  11. 2 Kings 1:2-8.
  12. 2 Kings 2:8-14.

Vayechi & 1 Kings: Deathbed Prophecies

There are two kinds of people whom the Hebrew Bible identifies with the word navi (נָבִיא) = prophet. These two types, I wrote in a post five years ago, are: “those who go into an altered state in order to experience God, and those who hear God whether they want to or not.”

You can click here to read that post: Haftarat Ki Tissa—1 Kings: Ecstatic versus Rational Prophets.

Elijah and Ahab at Mt. Carmel, Zurich Bible, 1531

The haftarah reading for this week is a story in the first book of Kings about the prophet Elijah staging a contest between himself and the prophets of Baal to find out whose god is the real one.  Elijah’s God wins by sending down fire to ignite the waterlogged sacrifice Elijah sets out on his altar.  The priests of Baal get no such miracle, even though they work themselves into an ecstatic frenzy.

Most of the bible’s rational prophets, from Moses to Elijah to Zechariah, have an initial experience of God, and then keep on hearing from God for the rest of their lives—because God keeps on wanting them to communicate to the general population.

Abraham, in the book of Genesis, also has a number of rational conversations with God, including personal blessings, directives, and one prediction: that his descendants will be enslaved in a foreign land for 400 years, then go free with great wealth.1  But unlike later prophets, Abraham does not share this prediction with anyone else.

His son Isaac and his grandson Jacob also hear God giving them personal blessings.2  Jacob also receives divine information about what will happen in the future—but not until he is on his deathbed.

I noticed this week, as I approach the end of the book I am writing on moral psychology in Genesis, that Jacob delivers prophecies in two of his three deathbed scenes.  In his first deathbed scene, Jacob makes Joseph swear to bury him in the family plot in Canaan.  In his second deathbed scene, Jacob adopts Joseph’s two sons, Menasheh and Efrayim, by:

  1. declaring that they are now his (and will therefor get shares of his inheritance),
  2. symbolically hugging them to his knees, and
  3. giving them a formal blessing, with his hands resting on their heads.
Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh, by Owen Jones, 1869

His right hand is supposed to go on the head of the firstborn (Menasheh), but Jacob crosses his arms so that his right hand will be on Efrayim’s head.  This bothers Joseph.

And Joseph said to his father: “Not thus, my father, because this one is the firstborn! Put your right hand on his head.”  But his father refused to, and he said: “I know, my son, I know.  He, too, will become a people, and he, too, will be great.  However, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will be abundant enough to fill nations.”  And he blessed them that day, saying: “By you [the people of] Israel will give blessings, saying: God will make you like Efrayim and Menasheh.”  And he put Efrayim before Menasheh. (Genesis 48:18-20)

The author of Genesis knows that centuries later, the tribe of Efrayim would have more people than the tribe of Menasheh, and produce the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel.  But how does Jacob know this?  Because God has given him the gift of prophecy.

In his third deathbed scene, Jacob assembles his twelve sons for the purpose of telling them “what you will encounter in the afterward of the days”.  (See my blog post Vayeilekh: The End of Days.)  First Jacob brings up his son Reuben’s past crime of incest with his father’s concubine Bilhah, and says he will no longer take precedence as the firstborn.4  This seems to be a personal consequence for Reuben, but later in the bible the tribe of Reuben is sidelined as Efrayim becomes the dominant tribe of the northern kingdom.

Jacob then gives prophecies about what will happen in the distant future to the eponymous tribes of his remaining eleven sons. Some of Jacob’s prophetic poems include predictions that come true later in the bible; for example, the tribe of Judah does provide the kings of the southern Israelite kingdom, and the tribes of Shimon and Levi do not own territories of their own.  Other prophecies apparently refer to stories that have been lost, and still mystify commentators.

When I read about how God drives some of the prophets to do their ordained work whether they wanted to or not, I think God is kind to Jacob by giving him prophecies to utter only at the end of his life.

  1. Genesis 15:13-16.  I am not counting God’s statement that Sarah would conceive (Genesis 17:16 and 18:10), since it counts as either a personal blessing or a performative utterance (God being the opener of wombs).
  2. Isaac in Gen 26:2-4 and 26:24, Jacob in a dream in Gen 28:11-16 and directly in Gen 35:9-13.
  3. Genesis 48:14.
  4. Genesis 49:3-4.

1 Kings & Toledot: Bad Parents

Solomon reading from the Torah, North French 13th c.

King Solomon orders a living baby cut in half in the haftarah that accompanies this week’s Torah reading, Mikeitz.  It is his first act as a judge after God has granted him discernment between good and bad.

Two prostitutes who live in the same house come to him for judgment because they gave birth at about the same time, but one baby died in the night, and they do not agree on which of them is the mother of the living baby.  (See my post Haftarat Mikeitz–1 Kings: No Half Measures.)

Since there are no witnesses, King Solomon declares the baby will be cut in half and each claimant will get half a baby.  Then one woman begs him to save the baby’s life and give it to her adversary, while the other woman says dividing the baby is fair.  Solomon then awards the living baby (unharmed) to the woman who wants to save the baby’s life, and says she is the mother.

Whether she was the birth mother or not, she is the one who deserves to be a parent–because she who would rather save a child’s life than insist on her own legal rights .

This week, as I continue to compose my book on moral psychology in Genesis, I am writing about the blatant favoritism of the parents in the Torah portion Toledot.  In one scene, Rebecca disguises and instructs her favorite son, Jacob, so he can steal the blessing that Isaac wants to give his favorite son, Esau (Genesis 27:1-29).

The masquerade leads to one problem after another, and Jacob ends up fleeing to another country because Esau wants to kill him.  Neither Rebecca nor Isaac is as callous as the second prostitute in King Solomon’s case.  Rebecca never suggests anything that would physically harm Esau, and she chooses to lose her favorite son, Jacob, for an indefinite period of time in order to save his life.  Isaac, after blessing the “wrong” son, pronounces two more blessings, a blessing for Esau and a parting blessing for Isaac.

But both parents fail to ameliorate the psychological damage they did long ago by neglecting one son and lavishing attention on the other.  As the rest of Jacob’s life unfolds in the book of Genesis, he continues to feel unentitled, and to believe (like his mother) that he can only get what he wants through manipulation and deceit.

I think this is what the Torah means when it says God “visits the sins of the parents upon the children” (Exodus 34:7).  The punishment is built in; we are all handicapped to some extent because of our parents’ shortcomings.

Yet I believe that if we can examine our own histories, and work on discerning between good and bad like King Solomon, we can think of alternative choices for the future, and make life better for ourselves and our children and everyone around us.  May we all make it happen.

Shoftim: More Important Than War, Part 1

Israelite soldier (artist unknown)

Wars of conquest and even genocide are glorified in the books of Numbers and Joshua.  (For a blatant biblical example, see my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent.)

Yet sometimes in Deuteronomy a kinder voice comes through.  In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“Judges”), Moses looks ahead to when the Israelites have already taken over most of Canaan and established their own country.  Then a king will have more important duties than wars of conquest; Moses lists four.  Then a man will sometimes have more important duties than serving as a soldier in battle; Moses lists four of these, also.1

King, Hazor, 15-13th cent. BCE, Israel Museum

This week’s post will cover the four things a good king must do.  Next week’s post will cover the four things that are more important than serving as a soldier.

A good king

When you have entered the land that God, your God, is giving to you, and you have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say: “I will put a king over myself, like all the nations around me,” you may certainly put a king over yourself—one that God, your God, will choose.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 17:14-15)

Once on his throne (all the kings of the Israelites were male), the king would have to obey four rules, all of which would make the conquest of foreign countries more difficult:

  • He must not accumulate horses.
  • He must not accumulate wives, especially foreign women who worship other gods.
  • He must not accumulate too much silver and gold.
  • He must read the Torah every day.

This description applies to Josiah/Yoshiyahu, a young king of Judah in the 7th century B.C.E.  At age sixteen, “he began to seek out the God of David, his forefather …” (2 Chronicles 34:3).  At 26, he orders repairs for the temple in Jerusalem, and the high priest Hilkiah/Chilkiyahu reports:

“I have found a book of the torah in the house of God.”  (2 Kings 22:8)

torah (תוֹרָה) = teaching, instruction; the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.  (From the root verb yorah, יֺרָה = teach, instruct.)

Josiah hearing the book of the law, 1873

Galvanized by this scroll, King Josiah demands exclusive worship of the God of Israel throughout the Kingdom of Judah and parts of the former Kingdom of Israel to the north.  He demands that his people worship only at the temple in Jerusalem, he reinstitutes Passover, and he destroys the shrines, priests, and idols of other gods.2

Modern scholars propose that Hilkiah’s scroll was a substantial part of the book of Deuteronomy, either the early core (chapters 5-26) or the code of laws in chapters 12-20.  They point to various items in the story of Josiah’s reign that appear as laws in Deuteronomy, but are not mentioned in the first four books of the bible.3

Some passages in Deuteronomy imply praise of King Josiah and criticism of earlier kings.  In this week’s Torah portion, Moses’ four rules for kings seem to be veiled criticism of King Solomon/Shlomoh, whose reign over a united Israel would have taken place during the 10th century B.C.E.

1) He must not accumulate horses for himself, and he must not send people back to Egypt in order to accumulate horses, for God said to you: “You must not find an excuse to turn back on that road again.”  (Deuteronomy 17:16)

Israelites used donkeys for riding, not horses.  Throughout the Ancient Near East horses were used to pull war chariots.  Charioteers usually defeated foot soldiers—unless God intervened, as when 600 Egyptian chariots tried to cross the Reed Sea.4  God does not say “You must not find an excuse to turn back on that road again” until this week’s Torah portion, but several times in the books of Exodus and Numbers the Israelites in the wilderness come up with an excuse to head back to Egypt, and God acts to prevent them.5

By the time of Josiah, the kings of Judah were not only keeping horses and chariots, but dedicating them to the sun god Shemesh.

And he [Josiah] abolished the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the Shemesh, from the entrance of the house of God to … the outskirts, and he burned the chariots of the Shemesh in a fire.  (2 Kings 23:11)

Chariots, ivory plaque from Megiddo

Despite this loyal action, God does not intervene when the army of Egypt under Pharaoh Nekho fights the army of Judah under King Josiah.  The second book of Chronicles explains that the pharaoh sends messengers to Josiah asking for safe passage through Judah on his way to fight the Assyrians to the north.  But Josiah “did not listen to the words of Nekho from the mouth of God, and he came out to fight on the plains of Megiddo.” (2 Chronicles 35:22).  The Egyptians win, and an arrow kills King Josiah, who is riding in a horse-drawn chariot.

Three centuries earlier, King Solomon buys horses from Egypt.6  He keeps 12,000 horses and 1,400 chariots—a substantial military force.7  Although the bible does not describe his battles, it does say that Solomon exacts tribute from countries on Israel’s borders, and enforces punishing corvée labor on the Israelites in the north (as the pharaoh did to the enslaved Israelites in Egypt).8

2) And he must not accumulate wives for himself, so that his leivav will not veer away.  (Deuteronomy 17:17)

leivav = heart (literally), mind, inner self, seat of emotions and thoughts.

Only two of King Josiah’s wives are mentioned in the bible: Chamutal of Livnah (a town in western Judah) and Zevudah of Rumah (a village west of the Sea of Galilee in what was the Kingdom of Israel until the Assyrian conquest of 701 B.C.E.).9  Both of these women are of Israelite descent, not foreigners.

Israel and its neighbors in Solomon’s time

King Solomon, however, has 700 royal wives and 300 concubines.  His first wife is the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt.10  He loves and becomes attached to Pharaoh’s daughter and to women from the royal families of Moab, Ammon, Edom, Phoenicia, and Hatti.11  Although at the beginning of his kingship he builds the first temple to the God of Israel in Jerusalem, in his old age he becomes more devoted to his foreign wives than to God.

And it happened in his old age, Solomon’s wives turned his leivav away after other gods, and the leivav of Solomon was not with God, his God, like the leivav of his father, David, had been.  (1 Kings 11:4)

King Solomon even builds shrines for the foreign gods Khemosh and Molekh.12  Thus the second rule for a king in this week’s Torah portion can be read as another veiled criticism of Solomon.

3) And he must not accumulate too much silver and gold for himself.  (Deuteronomy 17:17)

If an Israelite king kept more money than he needed to pay for the basic functions of kingship, he was disobeying the biblical injunctions to support the poor, widows and orphans, resident aliens, and Levites (religious functionaries who lived on donations).13

King Josiah takes this responsibility seriously.  When he reinstitutes the observance of Passover,

Josiah contributed lambs and goat kids for the people numbering 30,000, and 3,000 cattle, everything for the Passover sacrifices for everyone who was present.  These were from the property of the king.  (2 Chronicles 35:7)

But the description of King Solomon’s palace indicates that he uses excess gold for his own luxury.  He decorates the palace with 200 shields and 300 bucklers of hammered gold.  All his drinking cups and other utensils are also gold.14

4) And it shall be when he sits upon his throne of kingship, then he must write for himself a copy of this torah on a scroll, from [the scroll] in front of the priests of the Levites.  And it must be with him, and he must read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to be in awe of God, his God, to observe all the words of this torah and these decrees, to do them.   (Deuteronomy 17:18)

The fourth rule establishes that Israelite kings are not above the law.  The king’s most important job is to follow God’s rules.  To do this, he must keep on rereading them so he does not forget any, and so they immediately come into his mind when he faces a relevant situation.

Once again, King Josiah serves as an example of a good king.

Solomon Reading from the Torah of Moses, French manuscript, 13th cent. CE  (In the bible that king is Josiah, not Solomon!)

The king went up to the house of God, along with all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the priests and the prophets and all the people from small to big.  And he read out loud all the words of the scroll of the covenant that had been found in the house of God.  And the king stood on a platform and he cut the covenant in front of God: to follow God and to observe [God’s] commandments and testimonies and decrees with all [their] leiv and with all [their] soul, to carry out the words of this covenant, the one written on this scroll.  And all the people stood with the covenant.  (2 Kings 23:2-3)

leiv (לֵב) = a short version of the word leivav = heart, mind, inner emotions and thought.

Not so King Solomon.

And God felt angry with Solomon because he had turned away his leivav from being with God, the God of Israel …  And God said to Solomon: ‘… You have not observed my covenant and my decrees that I commanded.’  (1 Kings 11:9, 11:11)

*

These four rules for kings can still show us how to do good instead of make war.  If a king must not accumulate war horses, then today every head of state should make treaties rather than weapons, and every individual should learn how to give up violence.

If a king must avoid marrying women who will tempt him to turn away from God, then today every head of state should avoid listening to those who advise taking office for the sake of power rather than service, and every individual should avoid listening to people who tempt them away from their own standards.

If a king must not accumulate too much silver and gold, then today every head of state should avoid using their position for personal gain, and every individual should learn to care more about people and actions than about wealth.

Finally, if a king must copy, read, and reread the Torah, then today every head of state should read their country’s constitution and key laws, consult with experts in every field requiring action, and question the morality of each option before acting.  And every individual should engage in study before speaking out or voting.

Then we would have more than a good king; we would have a good world.

Next week: four more startling rules in the portion Shoftim, this time about who must be excused from military service, in Shoftim: More Important Than War, Part 2.

  1. Unlike today’s nation of Israel, the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah did not use women as soldiers in battle. (However, in Judges 4:1-22 the prophetess Devorah acts as the general of the Israelite tribes behind the scenes, and Jael kills the enemy general when he is in her tent.)
  2. 2 Kings 22-11 through 23:25.
  3. Including the temple (a.k.a. the house of God) in Jerusalem as the only legitimate place for offerings to God, the celebration of Passover at the temple rather than at home, and the language of passages in which the people pledge themselves to a covenant with God. (W. Gunther Plaut, “Introducing Deuteronomy”, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. by W. Gunther Plaut, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, pp. 1290-1294.)
  4. Exodus 14:1-30.
  5. Exodus 14:10-14, 15:26, 16:2-4, 17:3-6; Numbers 11:4-6, 14:2-4.
  6. 2 Kings 23:28-30.
  7. Solomon’s father, King David, hamstrings 1,600 of the horses he captures in a battle with the king of Tzovah, keeping only 100 for his own use (2 Samuel 8:4). King Solomon buys horses in 1 Kings 10:28.
  8. 1 Kings 10:26.
  9. 1 Kings 10:25 and 11:28.
  10. 2 Kings 23:30-36.
  11. 1 Kings 3:1.
  12. 1 Kings 11:1-3.
  13. 1 Kings 11:7-8.
  14. The book of Deuteronomy requires all landowners to support these groups in 14:27-29, 15:4-11, 24:19-21, and 26:12.
  15. 1 Kings 10:16 and 0:21.

Repost: Vayakheil

Every part of the portable tent-sanctuary that God describes in the earlier Torah portion Terumah, the Israelites make exactly as specified in this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil (“And he assembled”).  Here is a link to my 2018 post on God’s description of the menorah or lampstand: Terumah: Tree of Light.  The portion Vayakheil uses an almost identical description for the menorah the artist Betzaleil makes.1

Both descriptions leave room for argument about the actual appearance of the menorah.  We know it is made in one piece out of pure hammered gold.  A central shaft rises from a base and has three branches on each side. The shafts and each of its branches ends in a bowl for oil, so there are seven lamps across the top.  But are the branches curved or straight?  Smooth or knobby?  Neither Torah portion makes these details clear.

Here is what this week’s Torah portion says about the shaft and branches:

Three bowls meshukadim on one side, on each a kaftor and a blossom, and three bowls meshukadim on the other side, on each a kaftor and a blossom; the same way for all six of the branches going out from the menorah.  And on [the central shaft of] the menorah, four bowls meshukadim, [each with] its kaftor and its blossom: a kaftor under a pair of branches from it and a kaftor under a pair of branches from it and a kaftor under a pair of branches from it—for the six branches going out from it.  (Exodus/Shemot 37:21-22)

Almond tree in Jerusalem (photo by M.C.)

meshukadim (מְשֻׁקָּדִים) = made like part of an almond tree.

kaftor (כַּפְתֺּר) = a drupe (a fruit with a pit, such as a peach, plum, or almond), a knob, a capital of a column resembling an almond drupe; a native of Crete.

We arrived in Jerusalem when the almond trees were blooming, and I took a picture of one that still had last year’s dried-up almond drupes as well as this year’s flowers.  Inside those dark fruits are almonds.

Menorah drawing by Maimonides, Commentary to the Mishneh

So the two shapes used to ornament the stems under the lamps are the flattened oval of the almond drupe, and a flower with five oval petals.  But do the branches curve?  And are there smooth tubes of gold between these decorations?

12th-century C.E. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, a.k.a. Maimonides or Rambam, drew this interpretation of the menorah’s shape in his “Commentary to the Mishneh”.  His son, Rabbi Abraham ben HaRambam, wrote that the branches of the menorah were straight lines, like his father drew, not arcs.  Rambam’s abstract geometric drawing also shows the ornaments on the branches as continuous, the top bowls for oil at different heights, and the base as a potentially sturdy slice off the top of a sphere. But obviously the line of the central shaft in the drawing is not intended to represent an actual shaft of gold that could support the structure.

A mosaic in a 5-7th century synagogue in northern Israel depicts a menorah with long smooth curved branches.  But it also shows a graceful base with thin legs that could not support the weight of the necessary gold.  (See my photo below.)

Mosaic from Bet Shean synagogue, 5-7th century C.E., Israel Museum

How much further can we go back in history for evidence?  If only there were another clue about the shape of the menorah later in the Torah!  But all we have is this:

And thus Aaron did: toward the front of the menorah Aaron brought up its lamps, as God commanded Moses.  And this was the making of the menorah: hammered-work of gold from its base to its fruit is was hammered-work; like the form that God had shown Moses, thus he made the menorah.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 8:3-4)

Then the original menorah Betzaleil made disappears from the bible.

When King Solomon builds a temple in Jerusalem to replace the portable tent-sanctuary, he replaces most of the holy items and adds more.  (See my post: Haftarat Pekudei—1 Kings: More, Bigger, Better.)  Instead of the original single menorah, he sets up ten new ones inside the middle chamber of the temple, five on each side.2  Their shapes are not described.

According to Jeremiah 52:19, these ten gold lamp-stands are among the holy objects the Babylonian army carries away when it loots and destroys Solomon’s temple in 597 B.C.E.  In 538 B.C.E. the new Persian empire lets Jews in exile in Babylonia return to Jerusalem and build a second temple.  The book of Ezra says they even get to bring back thousands of gold and silver vessels and utensils that the Babylonians had taken with them, but the only gold items the book specifically mentions by type are 30 basins and 30 bowls—no lamp-stands, no bread table, no incense altar, and no ark.3

So the second temple in Jerusalem had to be furnished with another new menorah, if only so the priests serving inside the windowless room would have light.  Its designer may have tried to follow the same instructions as Betzaleil did in this week’s Torah portion.

But this menorah, too, was replaced.  In 169 B.C.E. the soldiers of Antiochus Epiphanes looted the temple, and after the Maccabean Revolt (167-160 B.C.E.) Judas Maccabeus had new utensils made for the re-consecrated temple, everything except the irreplaceable ark.4

Herod built the Temple Mount platform and rebuilt the second temple between 25 and 10 B.C.E., while the priests continued making offerings on the altar, and carried out the rebuilding of the temple interior.  A gold menorah, bread table, and incense altar remained in the sanctuary, and the Holy of Holies behind the curtain in back remained empty.

Roman soldiers putting down a Jewish rebellion sacked and destroyed this final temple in 70 A.D.  Eleven years later a stone relief was carved on the Arch of Titus depicting soldiers carrying away the menorah and other trophies.  The real menorah was on display in a temple in Rome—until that city was sacked by Vandals in 455 C.E.  Nobody knows what happened to it after that.

Arch of Titus (photo by M.C., 2019)

For many centuries the relief on the inside of the Arch of Titus at was the oldest depiction of the second temple menorah.  Old photographs of this relief show clearly that the menorah’s branches are rounded.  Thanks to the air pollution in Rome, the menorah looked this when I saw it in December:

Commentators have questioned whether the menorah on the arch is an accurate likeness or an artist’s fantasy.  Now we have a more authoritative drawing, discovered scratched into a plaster wall in an archaeological excavation of an upper-class house on the hill right next to the Temple Mount.This house, like the three adjacent houses or mansions, had mikvot (ritual baths) in the basement indicating that it belonged to a family in the caste of priests.  Priests, and only priests, served inside the temple.  They saw the menorah; some of them lit and tended its lamps.

Menorah at Wohl Archaeological Museum, Jerusalem (photo by M.C.)

This is a drawing of the Second Temple menorah by an eyewitness who lived during the time of King Herod.  (The incised drawing to the right might be a view of the bread table.)  This menorah has a base that is either a cone or a pyramid, and curved branches.  The branches and shaft have no smooth sections; they are made with a continuous ornamentation, alternating flat round shapes like drupes with flat shapes that might even be derived from petals.

I wonder if the homeowner drew it as an object of meditation before immersion in the mikveh, or as an object of instruction for his sons.  Either way, it is our closest connection with the sacred object that once lit the temple in Jerusalem.  And that menorah was a recreation of the sacred object that Betzaleil creates in this week’s Torah portion to light up a new sanctuary for God, the creator of light.

*

I write this today on a hill in Jerusalem that is too far from the Temple Mount to walk.  It does not matter, since now everyone in Israel is ordered to stay home except to get essential groceries and medicines.  I hope no new measures to fight the Coronavirus pandemic will prevent me and my husband from flying back to Oregon in a few days.

The current situation seems dim for all the world’s people.  I pray not only for healing, but for a new cooperation among all people, bringing new light into the world.

  1. Exodus 37:17-24.
  2. 1 Kings 7:48-49.
  3. Ezra 1:7-11.
  4. 1 Maccabbes 1:21.
  5. Wohl Archaeological Museum, Ha Kara’im Street, Jerusalem.

 

Haftarat Vayechi—1 Kings: Last Words

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) in the Jewish tradition. This week’s Torah portion is Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26), and the haftarah is 1 Kings 2:1-12.
Old Man on his Deathbed, by Gustav Klimt
by Gustav Klimt

Sometimes a deathbed scene is silent; the dying person is unable to speak, or cannot even recognize the one waiting and hoping for a goodbye. But sometimes there are last words.These words might express acknowledgement, affection, even appreciation. Or the dying person might complain, give advice, or issue an order.

Giving a deathbed blessing is different from extracting a deathbed promise.

The Hebrew Bible offers two complete deathbed scenes: Jacob’s speeches to his twelve sons in this week’s Torah portion, and David’s final words to his son Solomon in this week’s haftarah.

Jacob

The Torah portion Vayechi offers three stories of the death of Jacob (also called “Israel”). In the first, Jacob gives an extremely polite order.

Route of Jacob's funeral cortege
Route of Jacob’s funeral cortege

And the time came close for Israel to die, and he summoned his son Joseph, and he said to him: “If, please, I have found favor in your eyes, please place your hand under my thigh and do with me chesed and fidelity: please do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my fathers, then take me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place.” And he [Joseph] said: “I myself will do as you have spoken”. And he [Jacob] said: “Swear to me!” And he swore to him. And Israel bowed down at the head of the bed. (Genesis 47:29-31)

chesed (חֶסֶד) = expected kindness; kindness out of loyalty to a family member or treaty partner.

In Egypt, Joseph is the pharaoh’s viceroy, and his father Jacob is only a guest. Although Jacob uses subservient language, he still reminds Joseph that he owes his father loyalty. Then he extracts a deathbed promise from Joseph: to bury him in Canaan, in the cave of Machpelah where Jacob’s parents and grandparents are buried.

Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, by Rembrandt
Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, by Rembrandt

And it happened after these things, someone said to Joseph: “Hey! Your father is weakening.” So he took his two sons with him, Menasheh and Efrayim. And Jacob was told: “Hey! Your son Joseph has come to you. And Israel mustered his strength and sat up on the bed. (Genesis 48:1-2)

In this second story, Jacob adopts Joseph’s two sons, giving them each a share of his estate. He kisses them, then blesses Joseph and his sons: the ultimate expression of acknowledgement and appreciation.

But Jacob has eleven other sons, and he addresses all twelve sons in a third deathbed story.

And Jacob summoned his sons, and he said: “Gather and I will tell you what will meet you in the end of days.” (Genesis 49:1)

Jacob delivers a long poem with a prophecy about the tribe that will descend from each of his sons. Only one remark is unmistakably about the son himself: a complaint about Reuben.

For when you climbed up on the lying-down place of your father

That was when you profaned it. My couch he climbed!  (Genesis 49:4)

Jacob on his Deathbed, 1539 woodcut
Jacob on his Deathbed, 1539 woodcut

Jacob still holds a grudge against Reuben for having intercourse with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah some 40 years earlier1. At the conclusion of the poem, a sentence that scholars attribute to a later redactor of the Hebrew Bible credits Jacob with blessing all his sons.

All these are the tribes of Israel, twelve, and this is what their father spoke to them. And he blessed them, each one according to his blessing he blessed them. (Genesis 49:28)

Finally Jacob returns to the subject most on his mind.

Vayetzav them, and he said to them: “I am being gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers, in the cave … And Jacob finished letzavot with his sons, and he gathered his feet into the bed, and he expired, and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 49:29, 49:33)

Vayetzav (וַיְצַו) = And he commanded, and he ordered. (From the root verb tzivah (צִוָּה) = commanded.)

letzavot  (לְצַוֺּת) = Commanding, giving orders. (Also from the root verb tzivah.)

In his three deathbed speeches, Jacob expresses acknowledgement and appreciation of his twelve sons (and two of his grandsons) by blessing them. He complains about Reuben. He gives prophecies rather than advice. And he repeats his orders about where he must be buried, but he has no other final requests.

David

And David came close to the time of death, vayetzav his son Solomon, saying: I am going according to the way of all the earth. And you must be strong and you must be an adult. (1 Kings 2:1-2)

David’s first command or order to Solomon sounds more like advice. Now that his young son has become the king of Israel, he must behave like a strong adult.

david-on-deathbedNext come two sentences in a different linguistic style, using synonyms in multiple phrases. Modern scholar Robert Alter has argued that these verses were added later by the editor of Deuteronomy, in order to improve David’s reputation.

And you must guard the custody of God, your god, to walk according to Its ways, to guard Its decrees, Its commandments, and Its rules, and Its admonitions, as written in the Teaching of Moses, so that you shall act with insight in everything that you do and everywhere you turn. So that God will establish Its word that It spoke concerning me, saying: if your descendants guard the way they take before Me faithfully, with all their heart and with all their soul—saying: yours will not be cut off from upon the throne of Israel. (1 Kings 2:3-4)

David reminds Solomon that as king, he must be a guardian of the religion of Israel, and base his own royal decisions on its rules. Then he gives the reason for his pious advice: so that his descendants to rule as kings of Israel forever.

The language of David’s deathbed speech reverts to a simpler style as he remembers the worst part of his life, when his beloved older son Absalom staged a coup and took over Jerusalem. Now he broods about unfinished business from those days.

He tells his son Solomon:

And furthermore, you know what Joab son of Tzeruyah did to me, what he did to two commanders of armies of Israel, to Avneir son of Neir and to Amasa son of Yeter: he killed them and he shed the blood of war beshalom…(1 Kings 2:5)

beshalom  (בְּשָׁלֺם) = in peace, in peacetime.

David became the king of all Israel through a treaty with his opponent’s general, Avneir. Then David’s general, Joab, assassinated Avneir.2

Joab kills Amasa
Joab kills Amasa

About 20 years later, Absalom usurped his father’s throne. David fled with his supporters, including Joab. When David’s army defeated Absalom’s, Joab quickly killed Absalom despite David’s order to the contrary.3 After David was reinstalled as king, he pardoned Absalom’s general, Amasa, but this did not stop Joab from murdering him under the cover of a friendly embrace.4 David did not dare punish Joab for either killing.

And so you must act in accordance with your wisdom, and you must not let his gray hair go down beshalom to Sheol. (1 Kings 2:6)

Even as David criticizes Joab for killing two generals in times of peace, he orders Solomon to kill Joab in peacetimeand make sure he does not die peacefully.

But with the sons of Barzillai of the Gilead, you shall do chesed. And they must eat at your table, because they came close to me when I fled from Absalom, your brother. (1 Kings 2:7)

While Absalom controlled Jerusalem, Barzillai had fed David and his men in exile at Machanayim. When David returned to the capital, he promised to reward Barzillai and provide for his son.5 Now David orders his son Solomon to honor that promise.

Shimi throws stones at David
Shimi throws stones at David

Then he issues a third command. When David fled from Jerusalem, Shimi son of Geira hurled stones and insults at him on the road.6 When he returned in triumph, Shimi apologized for his wrongdoing, accompanied by a thousand Benjaminites who offered to serve King David. David had little choice but to accept the apology and swear not to execute him.7 But David still resents Shimi.

So you must not leave him unpunished, because you are a wise man, and you know what you will do to him and send down his gray hair in blood to Sheol. (1 Kings 2:9)

That is the last thing David says before he dies. Once again, he compliments his son for being wise enough to figure out how to carry out his father’s revenge, but does not trust him to make his own decision.

And David slept with his fathers, and he was buried in the City of David. (1 Kings 2:10)

His acknowledgement of Solomon’s wisdom is overshadowed by his demands that Solomon carry out his orders, including finding pretexts to execute two powerful men. Is David so self-centered that his only concern on his deathbed is making his successor promise to avenge him?  Or is David urging Solomon to get rid of Joab and Shimi before they make Solomon suffer, too?

Either way, David’s death is not peaceful. He expresses appreciation for Solomon’s wisdom only in order to assure him he can carry out his father’s commands.  He complains bitterly about Joab and Shimi. He gives Solomon advice about following his religion, but he also issues commands about killing Joab, rewarding Barzillai, and killing Shimi. His last thoughts are about murder and revenge.

Although Jacob is self-centered earlier in his life, on his deathbed he has a broader view than David.  His only command concerns his own burial. He is affectionate with one of his sons, Joseph, and two grandsons. He blesses them, and gives prophecies and blessings to his other sons, despite his complaint about Reuben. Jacob dies with dignity, passing on more blessings than obligations to the next generation.

I pray that my own last words (many years from now, God willing!) will be only blessings. And in case I am not granted a deathbed scene in which I can speak to those I am leaving, I am resolved to express acknowledgement and appreciation every day, and avoid complaining about people and giving excessive advice. May the Holy One grant me the strength!

——

1 Genesis 35:22.

2 After the death of King Saul, David took control of Judah and Saul’s son Ish-Boshet took over the Israelite lands to the north. For two years they fought for the kingship of all Israel, until Ish-Boshet’s general, Avneir, persuaded him to let David be the king. Avneir made a treaty with David, but afterward Joab tracked him down and assassinated him. David cursed Joab, but did not dare demote him. (2 Samuel 3:6-34)

Later, King David got Bathsheba pregnant, and used General Joab to get rid of her husband Uriah. (2 Samuel 11:1-21)  After that, the already powerful Joab was ungovernable.

3 2 Samuel 18:5-17.

4 After Joab kills Absalom, David sends a message to Absalom’s general, Amasa. “And to Amasa you shall say: Aren’t you my own bone and flesh? May God do this and more to me if you do not become my army commander for all time instead of Joab! (2 Samuel 19:14) David succeeds in recruiting Amasa as one of his own commanders, but his attempt to replace Joab fails; when they are chasing down a band of rebels, Joab tricks Amasa by reaching to kiss him with one hand and knifing him with the other (2 Samuel 20:8-13).

5  2 Samuel 19:32-39.

6  2 Samuel 16:5-8.

7  2 Samuel 19:17-24.  When David became bedridden and his older son Adoniyah made a bid for the kingship, Shimi joined Solomon’s faction (1 Kings 1:8).

Haftarat Mikeitz—1 Kings: No Half Measures

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 Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17), and the haftarah is 1 Kings 3:15-4:1.
Anointment of King Solomon
Anointment of King Solomon

Solomon, the young new king of Israel, has a dream just before this week’s haftarah reading. God offers him not three wishes, but one wish:

At Gibeon God appeared to Solomon in a dream in the night, and God said: “Ask, what shall I give you?”  (1 Kings 3:5)

Solomon, being already somewhat wise, does not ask for wealth. long life, or the defeat of his enemies (as God notices with approval). After mentioning his own inexperience as a leader, the new king says:

May You give Your servant an understanding mind to judge Your people, lehavin between good and bad.  For who is able to judge this impressive multitude of Your people?  (1 Kings 3:9)

lehavin (לְהָבִין) = to be able to discern, to gain insight.  (From the same root as binah, בִּינָה = insight.)

God responds:  Hey! I have done as you spoke. Hey! I gave you a mind [which is] wise and navon…  (1 Kings 3:12)

navon (נָווֹן) = perceptive, discerning.  (Also from the same root as binah.)

In the Garden of Eden, God tells Adam not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad. (See my post Giving Directions.) The primeval humans eat the fruit anyway, giving humankind knowledge that some actions are good and some are bad.  In the dream at Gibeon, God grants Solomon’s wish for the ability to discern which actions and motivations are good and which are bad.

The young king wakes up from his dream and returns to Jerusalem at the opening of this week’s haftarah.  He makes sacrifices at the altar and holds a banquet.

It was then that two prostitute women came to the king and stood before him.  (1 Kings 3:16)

Solomon wanted understanding and binah in order to be a good judge for the whole multitude of Israel. His first case is a dispute between two of its most despised members: prostitutes. Normally a local elder would judge this case; a king would only serve as a court of appeals or as the judge for affairs of state.  Either the two prostitutes have already gone to a local judge, who was unable to decide on a ruling, or they simply barge in on the new king’s party and he decides to hear them out instead of throwing them out.

The two prostitutes are never named in this story. I will quote only their dialogue as they present their case, identifying each speaker as Woman #1 or Woman #2.

by Andrea Mantegna
by Andrea Mantegna

Woman #1:  Please, my lord, I and this woman [#2] are living in one house, and I gave birth with her in the house.  And it happened that on the third day after my giving birth, this woman [#2] also gave birth.  And we were together; there was no stranger with us in the house except me. The two of us were in the house.  (1 Kings 3:17-3:18)

So far, Woman #1 has explained that there were no witnesses to the event she is about to describe. But a discerning listener—and Solomon is now discerning—would notice that unlike other Israelite women, the two prostitutes do not live with any family members. They live alone in a shared house. Clients (including the unknown fathers of their infants) may come and go, but they have only one another for companionship and help.

Woman #1:  Then the son of this woman [#2] died at night, when she lay down on him. And she got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side, while your servant [#1] slept. And she [#2] laid him in her bosom.  And her son, the dead one, she laid in my bosom. When I got up in the morning to nurse my son, hey! He was dead! Va-etbonein him in the morning, and hey! He was not my son to whom I had given birth!  (1 Kings 3:19-21)

va-etbonein (וָאֶתְבּוֹנֵן) = and I looked closely at, and I paid attention to, and I was perceptive about. (From the root binah, like the words lehavin and navon in Solomon’s dream.)

Woman #2:  No, for my son is the living one and your son is the dead one!  Yet this one [#1] is saying: “No, for your son is the dead one and my son is the living one.”  (1 Kings 3:22)

While Woman #1 tells a complete story, Woman #2 merely contradicts her on the key question: Who is the mother of the living infant?  Like Woman #1, she refers to her housemate and companion only as “this one” or “this woman”. The trauma of the dead baby has alienated the two women; they are no longer friends. Now they are desperate competitors for the living baby (and eventually, if all goes well, a grown son to support them in old age).

Judgment of Solomon 14th century
The Judgment of Solomon
14th century

King Solomon summarizes the dispute, then calls for his sword. His servants bring it between the king and the two women. This dramatic visual aid makes his words more believable when he says:

Cut the living boy in two, and give half to one and half to the other.  (1 Kings 3:24-25)

In a fairy tale, that is what the evil monster would say, prompting the two women to unite against him. But this is a wisdom tale about an insightful judge.

The Bible does not dictate what a judge should do if two people claim ownership of the same object, and there are no witnesses or other evidence. But the Mishnah (written around 200 C.E.) in the Talmud discusses the problem using the example of a valuable garment two people are holding onto as they speak to a judge:

Talmud Readers by Adolf Berman
Talmud Readers
by Adolf Berman

One of them says “I found it’ and the other says “I found it’. One of them says “it is all mine’ and the other says “It is all mine”. Then one shall swear that his share in it is not less than half, and the other shall swear that his share in it is not less than half, and it shall then be divided between them.  (Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 2a, Soncino translation)

The Mishnah it is a record of “oral law”, i.e. previously unwritten legal precedents thought to date back to the time of Moses. So the above rule may have been in use since the books of Kings were written in 6th century B.C.E., about seven centuries before the Mishnah was written.

The haftarah does not say whether both women are holding onto the baby while they stand before the king. Nevertheless, the precedent of the ruling about the disputed garment would give King Solomon an excuse for uttering the same ruling about a disputed baby .

Both women believe he means it, and are shocked into revealing more about themselves.

The Judgment of Solomon by William Blake
The Judgment of Solomon
by William Blake

And the woman whose son was living said to the king—because her compassion was stirred up over her son—she said: “Please, my lord, give the living boy to her, or you will certainly kill him!” But the other one was saying: “Let him be neither mine nor hers.  Cut him!” (1 Kings 3:26)

Which woman begs the king to give the living baby to her adversary—Woman #1 or Woman #2? Which woman is so fixated on winning the dispute over ownership that she no longer cares about the child? The text is not clear, though perhaps the first woman to present her case (Woman #1) is also the first woman to speak after Solomon’s shocking order.

And the king responded, and he said: “Give her the living boy, and certainly do not kill him. She is his mother!  And all Israel heard the judgment that the king had judged, and they were in awe in face of the king, because they saw that the wisdom of God was within him to do justice.  (1 Kings 3:27-28)

The bottom line is that only a woman who wants a baby to live is fit to be its mother. Anyone who would rather let a child die than lose a dispute is an unfit parent, even if she reacts that way only in a moment of temporary insanity. King Solomon proves that he can go beyond legal considerations and rule according to his God-given binah between good and bad.

I believe the compassionate mother is Woman #1, the one who told a coherent story about what happened. She is the one who saidva-etbonein him in the morning: she paid attention to the infant, looking at him with discernment. She implied that if she had recognized the dead baby as her own, she would have accepted her loss; she knows that infants are not interchangeable.

Woman #2 speaks only to insist that she owns the living baby, without offering any explanation. I can imagine her making the midnight substitution in order to get the advantage for herself, without even considering whether her action is ethical. When Woman #1 demands her own child back, Woman #2 is reduced to saying: No, it’s mine!

If Woman #2 is also the woman who says “Cut him!” she lacks not only compassion, but also the ability to discern between good and bad.

Nobody is good all of the time. Waking up next to a dead baby might fill any woman with grief and horror. With no one to comfort her, and breasts full of milk, Woman #2 might have switched the babies in the middle of the night without thinking it through. But when Woman #1 discovered the substitution in the morning, a woman with a heart would have apologized and handed over the living baby.  Who knows, perhaps then the two lonely prostitutes could have made peace and raised the boy together.

When one of the two women insisted on lying, peace and friendship became impossible. The innocent woman could not bear, and would not dare, to continue living in the same house with a predatory liar. Yet she has no family or friends to help her get away and protect her and her son. She goes all the way to the king, who turns out to have the binah to see the truth.

Unfortunately, compassion and truth do not always triumph in our world. Those who have little power can still be victimized by people who cannot discern what is good and what is bad—people who are impaired either by their genes or their upbringing, and do not understand the moral imperative of being human.

I pray that every powerless victim may either escape or find a wise judge.  And I pray that everyone who is called upon to judge may be granted binah—and compassion.

 

Haftarat Pinchas—1 Kings: Zealots

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 Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1) and the haftarah is 1 Kings 18:46-19:20.

My god is better than your god.

Holding this opinion (even when your “god” is atheism) is human nature. The trouble begins when someone with religious zeal (great energy and enthusiasm) becomes a zealot (fanatical and uncompromising). When two zealots oppose one another, no compromise is possible; one of them must quit or die.

This week both the Torah portion and the haftarah include a clash between a zealot for the God of Israel and a zealot for the gods of another religion.

Pinchas Impales Zimri & Cozbi, by J.C. Weigel
Pinchas (Phineas),
by J.C. Weigel

The Torah portion, Pinchas, opens with God’s declaration:

Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the High Priest, turned back My hot wrath from the Israelites through his kina among them, kina for Me, so I did not finish off the Israelites through My kina. Therefore say: Here I am, giving him my covenant of peace. And it will be for him and for his seed after him a covenant of priesthood forever… (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:11-13)

kina (קְנְאָ) = zeal, fervor, passion, jealousy.

God has afflicted the Israelites with a plague because many of them started worshiping the local god, Ba-al of Pe-or. While the Israelites are weeping, an Israelite man brings a local woman into a chamber of a tent (possibly God’s Tent of Meeting). Pinchas follows them in and impales them—and God’s plague stops. The Torah uses the same word, kubah (קֻבָּה) for both the tent chamber and the woman’s inner “chamber” where Pinchas’s spear skewers them both. (See my post Balak: Wide Open.)

This week’s Torah portion names the impaled couple: Zimri, a leader in the tribe of Shimon, and Cozbi, the daughter of a Midianite chieftain of Moab.

Why would either of these people walk in front of Moses and engage in sex right in or next God’s Tent of Meeting—in the middle of a plague?  Tikva Frymer-Kensky suggests in Reading the Women of the Bible that Cozbi is a priestess, a role often given to the daughter of a king, and that Zimri brings her over to conduct a religious ritual to end the plague.

Frymer-Kensky imagines Cozbi might even perform her ritual in the name of the God of Israel. But I imagine Cozbi as so zealous for Ba-al that she wants to save her new neighbors, the Israelites, from their plague-inflicting god by bringing in some positive energy from Ba-al. She does not ask for permission to practice her religion in the Israelite’s holy place; she just does it, in an act of passionate conviction.

In this clash between two zealots, Pinchas wins and Cozbi dies. God (the God character in the Torah) admits to being carried away by zeal, as well, and rewards Pinchas for stopping God from destroying the Israelites.

*

The haftarah from the first book of Kings tells a different story about two zealots: the battle between the queen of Israel and Israel’s foremost prophet.

Ba-al Preparing Thunder and Lightning
Ba-al Preparing
Thunder and Lightning

King Ahab’s queen and primary wife is Jezebel (Izevel in Hebrew), daughter of the Phoenician King Etba-al of Tyre. It is a good political alliance; but both books of Kings revile Jezebel because of her zeal for her native religion. As soon as Ahab marries Jezebel, according to 1 Kings, he builds a temple to Ba-al and bows down to that god. He also erects a cultic post for the goddess Ashtart.

Phoenician Ashtart
Phoenician Ashtart

Jezebel not only persuades her husband to worship her gods, but also tries to stamp out worship of the God of Israel by “exterminating the prophets of God” (1 Kings 18:4).

Furthermore, she uses her personal wealth to maintain 450 prophets of Ba-al (god of fertility, war, and weather) and 400 prophets of Ashtart (goddess of fertility, war, and seafaring).

Meanwhile Elijah, the most powerful prophet of the God of Israel, comes to King Ahab at his capital city, Samaria, and says:

As God lives, the god of Israel on whom I stand in attendance, there will be no dew or rain these years except by the word of my mouth. (1 Kings 17:1)

After three years, the famine in Samaria is severe. Jezebel’s weather god, Ba-al, does nothing.  So King Ahab institutes a search for Elijah.

Elijah orders King Ahab to summon “all Israel”, the 450 prophets of Ba-al, and the 400 prophets of Ashtart to Mount Carmel for a contest. The first book of Kings does not mention the prophets of Ashtart again, but the prophets of Ba-al and the Israelite witnesses show up on Mount Carmel, where there are two altars: one for Ba-al and one for the God of Israel. Against impressive odds, the God of Israel wins the contest. (See my post Pinchas & 1 Kings: The Sound of God.) The people of Israel fall on their faces and declare their allegiance to God, and under Elijah’s orders they kill all the prophets of Ba-al.

Then it finally rains.

Jezebel and Ahab
Jezebel and Ahab

Jezebel is not present at Mount Carmel, but Ahab comes home and tells her about the contest and that Elijah killed all the prophets of Ba-al by the sword.

Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah saying: Thus may the gods do and more if by this time tomorrow I have not made your life like the life of one of them. And he was afraid, and he got up and went to [save] his life… (1 Kings 19:2-3)

He reaches Beer-sheva in the kingdom of Judah, then walks for a day into the wilderness and lies down to die. Although he won the contest on Mount Carmel and moved the Israelites to kill 450 Ba-al worshippers, a zealot’s job is never done. His victory seems empty as long as Queen Jezebel, his zealous opponent, is still in power, still supporting the religion of Ba-al and Ashtart, and still determined to kill every one of God’s prophets.

God sends an angel to urge Elijah to eat and keep walking.  He ends up on Mount Chorev (also called Mount Sinai) where God asks him:

Why are you here, Elijah? And he said: I was very kina for God, the God of Armies, because the Israelites had abandoned Your covenant and pulled down Your altars and killed Your prophets by the sword. And only I was left, and they tried to take my life. (1 Kings 19:9-10)

He declares he is a zealot for God, and admits that he has failed to exterminate Jezebel’s religion. God responds with a demonstration.

Elijahs CaveAnd hey! God was passing by, and a big and strong wind was tearing off mountains of rocks in front of God; but God was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, a faint sound of quietness. And when Elijah heard, he wrapped his face with his robe, and he went out and stood at the entrance of the cave; and hey!—a  voice [came] to him, and it said: Why are you here, Elijah? (1 Kings 19:11-13)

And Elijah gives the same reply, word for word. He did not pick up on God’s hint that true service to the divine lies in quietness. So God, instead of rewarding him, tells him he must anoint a young man named Elisha to be a prophet in his place.

*

In the book of Numbers, Pinchas’s zeal, kina, leads him to kill the Ba-al worshiper Cozbi and her Israelite assistant Zimri. God declares that this murder stopped God’s own kina from killing all the Israelites in a plague, and makes Pinchas a priest. In next week’s Torah portion, Mattot, Pinchas is the priest who goes with the raiding party to kill all the inhabitants of Pe-or. One zealot wins hands-down; the other zealot dies.

Did the good guys win?  Read my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent before you decide.

In the first book of Kings, Elijah’s kina leads him to stage a contest between gods and kill 450 Ba-al worshipers on the losing side. God cooperates by sending the dramatic manifestation of fire that Elijah requests on Mount Carmel. But Elijah’s real opponent is the zealot Jezebel, who remains in power.

When two zealots oppose one another, one of them must quit or die.  God’s demonstration at Mount Chorev implies that Elijah must quit being a zealot, take a quieter approach to religion and perhaps spend the rest of his life in hiding. But Elijah despairs because he cannot imagine living without fighting for his cause. And God appoints another prophet.

Did the good guys win? No; Jezebel is just as zealous and just as willing to murder for the sake of religion as Elijah is. But God as portrayed in the first book of Kings is now wiser and more mature than the God in the book of Numbers. This god still wants exclusive worship, but recognizes that kina, the passion of the zealot, is not the best approach.

Our world today is full of zealots. It is easy to revile a zealot willing to kill for the sake of a religion or another cause—when that zealot is not on your side.  May we all learn to recognize uncompromising zeal in people we agree with, and even in ourselves.  May we all learn to restrain ourselves, and listen to the faint sound of quietness.

 

Haftarat Pekudei—1 Kings: More, Bigger, Better

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 Pekudei (Exodus 35:1-40:38). The haftarah in the Sefardi tradition is 1 Kings 7:40-50; the haftarah in the Ashkenazi tradition is 1 Kings 7:51-8:21.

More, bigger, better.

Moses assembles the first roofed structure for the God of Israel at the end of the book of Exodus, in this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei.  It is a small tent: 10 by 30 cubits (about 15 by 45 feet or 4½ by 13½ meters).

temple comparisons 3Both options for this week’s haftarah are about the temple King Solomon builds in Jerusalem.  A tall building of stone and cedar, its footprint is 20 by 60 cubits (about 30 by 90 feet or 9 by 27 meters). Solomon’s temple is four times as big as Moses’ tent sanctuary—and it needs to be. As the main temple in the capital of a nation-state, it must accommodate many priests.  The tent sanctuary has to be disassembled and reassembled whenever the Israelites move to a new camp in the wilderness, and only Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons go inside.

Like most religions in the ancient Near East, the religion outlined in the Hebrew Bible makes a distinction between public worship and the rituals conducted by priests. The public place of worship is the open courtyard in front of the sanctuary, where animals and grain products are offered at the altar. Only priests are allowed to go inside the tent or temple.

When priests move from serving at the altar to serving inside the building, they stop to wash their hands and feet. So when Moses is setting up the portable sanctuary for the first time,

…he put the basin between the Ohel Mo-eid and the altar, and he place there water for washing. And from it Moses and Aaron and his sons washed their hands and their feet. When they came into the Ohel Mo-eid and when they approached the altar they washed, as God had commanded Moses. (Exodus/Shemot 40:30-32)

Ohel Mo-eid (אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד) = Tent of Meeting.  From ohel (אֹהֶל) = tent and mo-eid (מוֹעֵד) = meeting, meeting place, appointed time or place.

Basin on wheeled stand, Solomon's Temple
One of ten basins
in Solomon’s Temple

The courtyard in front of Solomon’s much bigger temple has a huge bronze “sea” resting on twelve bronze oxen. (See last week’s post, Haftarah for Vayakheil: Symbolic Impressions.) In addition to this much more impressive basin, Solomon’s master artisan makes ten smaller bronze basins on elaborate wheeled stands covered with engraved spirals, cherubim/keruvim, lions, and palm trees.

And he placed five stands at the entrance of the bayit on right and five at the entrance of the bayit on the left… (1 Kings 7:39)

bayit (בָּיִת) = house, important building, household.

Why settle for one small basin when you could have a giant “sea” and ten basins?

Both Moses’ sanctuary and Solomon’s temple are divided into two rooms: a main hall and a smaller chamber in back for the holy of holies. King Solomon adds a front porch with two gigantic bronze columns.

The main room of Moses’ sanctuary contains only three sacred ritual objects: a gold incense altar, a gold-plated table for display bread, and a solid gold lampstand with seven oil lamps.

The main hall of Solomon’s temple has the same three items, also gold—but the lampstands and perhaps the tables have multiplied.

Menorah
Menorah

When Moses assembles everything in this week’s Torah portion,

…he put the lampstand in the Ohel Mo-eid opposite the table, on the south side of the sanctuary. And he lit up the lamps before God, as God had commanded Moses. (Exodus 40:24-25)

Instead of placing one lampstand on the right side of the main hall, King Solomon’s crew positions five lampstands on each side.

And Solomon made all the vessels that were in the House of God, the gold altar and the gold table on which was the display bread and the pure gold lampstands, five on the right side and five on the left side in front of the inner chamber, and the gold blossom [decorations] and lamps and wick cutters …(1 Kings 7:48-49)

In the first book of Kings, Solomon’s temple contains only one bread table.

And Solomon made all the equipment that was in the bayit of God: the gold altar and the gold table that had the display bread upon it… (1 Kings 7:48)

But by the fourth century B.C.E., when the two books of Chronicles were written, the bread table had multiplied.

And he made ten tables and he set them in the main hall, five on the right side and five on the left side; and he made a hundred gold sprinkling-basins. (2 Chronicles 4:8)

After all, if one table is good, ten tables must be better.

The inner chamber in both the tent and the temple contains only the ark of the covenant and two golden cherubs/keruvim, hybrid beasts with wings. (See my post Terumah: Cherubs are Not for Valentine’s Day.)

Ark with Keruvim, one possibility
Ark with Keruvim

In the Tent of Meeting, the keruvim are part of the lid of the ark, one hammered out of the solid gold at each end. Their wings tilt toward each other, enclosing an empty space above the lid, a space from which God sometimes speaks. (See my post Pekudei & 1 Kings: A Throne for the Divine.)

Since the ark is only about four feet long, a keruv wing cannot be more than two feet long. But in Solomon’s temple, each keruv is about fifteen feet tall and has a fifteen-foot wingspan. An earlier passage in the first book of Kings describes how they are carved out of olive wood and overlaid with gold, then set up in the back chamber so that each one touches a wall with one wingtip and the tip of the other keruv’s wing with the other. Since the ark is smaller than these statues, it fits underneath them.

The priests brought in the ark of the covenant of God to its place, to the inner chamber of the bayit, to the holy of holies, to underneath the wings of the keruvim. (1 Kings 8:6)

It is not clear whether the inner chamber of the temple now contains four keruvim—the small pair on the ark and the large pair standing on the floor—or just the two large ones. But either way, the principle of “more, bigger, better” applies even inside the holy of holies.

At the end of this week’s haftarah, when the temple is complete with all its furnishings, King Solomon proudly declares:

I certainly built an exalted bayit for You, an abode for you to rest in forever! (1 Kings 8:13)

When it comes to religious ritual objects, is more or bigger really better?

Anything made of precious metals would have provided a locus for worship that met the expectations of the Israelites Moses led through the wilderness. In Exodus, thanks to the tent sanctuary and its ritual objects, they no longer feel the need for a golden calf. And if the ritual objects were too large or too many, they would be too hard to transport through the wilderness.

Artist's Rendition of Solomon's Temple
Artist’s Rendition
of Solomon’s Temple

The capital of a new nation-state, however, needs not only a large and permanent temple, but also a large and glittering display to impress both foreign visitors and the nation’s citizens with the power of its religion. So in front of King Solomon’s temple are gigantic bronze columns, the oversized bronze “sea” on twelve bronze oxen, ten bronze lavers on elaborate stands, and a host of priests walking in and out of the building.  Inside, there are enough lampstands and tables to accommodate those priests as they perform the rituals, which would help reconcile them to a centralized religion.

In my own life, I have responded to religious cues on both scales, small and large. I know the calm, centering effect of lighting two candles for Shabbat, and the hushed tenderness of reading from a Torah scroll in an otherwise unremarkable room.  I also know the awe I feel when I stand at the ocean, in a forest of tall trees, or in a medieval cathedral (even though as a Jew, I am a foreign visitor there).

I do not want to lose either the personal connection of rituals with small sacred things, or the impersonal awe of encounters with vastness.  Both a tent and a temple are exalted places where God might rest.

Haftarat Vayekheil—1 Kings: Symbolic Impressions

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 Vayakheil (Exodus 35:1-40:38). The haftarah in the Sefardi tradition is 1 Kings 7:13-26. (The haftarah in the Ashkenazi tradition is 1 Kings 7:40-50.)

Both Moses’ tent sanctuary and Solomon’s temple have a place for priests to wash their hands and feet before they enter the holy building. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil, the master craftsman Betzaleil makes a simple but symbolic wash-basin. (See my blog post Pekudei: Basin of Mirrors.)

Kiyor on stand, stone, Megiddo
Kiyor on stone stand, Megiddo

And he made the kiyor of bronze and its stand of bronze from the mirrors of the army of women who mobilized at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Exodus 38:8)

kiyor (כִּיִוֹר) = basin, laver.

Solomon’s temple has ten such basins, cast out of regular molten bronze rather than mirrors, perched on elaborate wheeled stands. But King Solomon also has his master bronze artisan cast a water container so huge it is called a sea.

Then he made the yam of cast metal, ten cubits from its [lower] rim up to its circular rim, five cubits high, and a measuring-line of thirty cubits around its circumference. (1 Kings 7:23)

yam (יָם) = sea; in Canaanite religion, the name of the god of the sea.

This tub of water would be more than 14 feet (4 meters) across and more than 7 feet (2 meters) high. Since it would be impossible to climb into for bathing, commentators have concluded it had an outlet like a spigot at the bottom, to pour water into a shallower container for washing.

Bronze "Sea", artist's rendering from Encyclopedia Judaica
Bronze “Sea”, artist’s rendering from Encyclopedia Judaica

And gourd ornaments were below its rim all around the circle, ten per cubit, encompassing the yam all around; two rows of the gourd ornaments, cast in one piece with it. It was standing on twelve oxen: three facing north and three facing west and three facing south and three facing east. And the yam was on top of them, and all of their hind parts were inward. (I Kings 7:24-25)

The most striking difference between the yam in front of Solomon’s temple and the kiyor in front of Moses’ tent sanctuary is that the yam rests on twelve bronze cows—probably life-size—instead of on an ordinary framework.

Moses discourages the molding of any real animals (as opposed to the keruvim, the composite fantasy animals whose wings are spread over the ark). He smashes and grinds up the golden calf that Aaron makes in the book of Exodus. In a passage after this week’s hafatarah, the first book of Kings criticizes King Jereboam of Israel for putting golden calves in temples at Dan and Bethel.

Hathor
Hathor

This may have been a reaction to cow-worship in other religions. The religion of the Hittites to the north included a pair of bulls who carried the weather god Teshub on their backs. To the south, Egyptians worshipped the bull as Apis, the avatar of the gods Ptah and Osiris, and the cow as the goddess Hathor.

Yet throughout the bible, the twelve bronze oxen supporting the yam in front of Solomon’s temple are treated as perfectly acceptable.

Is the huge tub of water in front of Solomon’s temple called the yam simply because it is so large, or does it evoke the Canaanite god named Yam? Are the twelve oxen simply decorative, or do they inspire awareness of bull and cow worship?

Throughout history, people have viewed symbols of the divine in two ways.  Some people consider a symbolic object or building as a way to evoke the ineffable. Its beauty and impressiveness are like an arrow pointing to the divine, and its specific details (such as fruit, water, architecture that reaches toward the sky) allude to ideas about the divine.

Other people see symbolic things in a more concrete way.  A god visits a building or enters a statue. Carrying out rituals in sacred buildings with sacred objects is essential for pleasing the god.

Either way, symbols are important—and often enduring. Even today, Mormons conduct baptisms and sealings in copies of the yam perched on twelve oxen.

One question remains, for King Solomon and for us today:  Which symbols from other cultures and from the history of our own culture or religion can enhance our lives, and which symbols should be discarded?

Anyone want a bronze ox?