Giving Thanks Anyway

November 25, 2020 at 4:29 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

This week of Thanksgiving in the United States happens to be the week of the Torah portion Vayeitzei, in which Jacob marries two sisters, Leah and Rachel, and all three of them eventually settle for less than they wanted.  Only Leah thanks God for what she already has.  See my 2015 post, Vayeitzei: Satisfaction.

As for me, I am grateful that I am still working every day on my book about moral psychology in Genesis.  Right now I am rewriting a Torah monologue, or dialogue, between Sarah and Hagar, the rival mothers of Abraham’s sons.  In the Torah portion Vayeira, Sarah makes Abraham drive  Hagar and her son out of the camp.

Two generations later, Leah and Rachel, rival mothers of Jacob’s sons, both travel to Canaan with him, and they achieve a grudging peace.  The Torah illustrates that improvement is possible over time.  And a dash of gratitude can only help.

Today we are right to work against racism in the United States; and we can also be grateful that civil rights increased during the 1960’s.  We are right to work against the air pollution that is already changing the world’s climate; and we can also be grateful that so many heads of state, including America’s incoming president, finally recognize the problem.  We are right to accept further isolation to reduce the spread of Covid-19; and we can also be grateful for the scientists who recommend best practices and develop new vaccines.

We would all rather just get what we want.  But in the meantime, let’s give thanks for what we have.

Inbreeding and Incest

November 19, 2020 at 12:56 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

This week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“Histories”), begins with Rebecca’s difficult pregnancy and the birth of her twins, Esau and Jacob.  Here is the first blog post I ever published, written eleven years ago in 2009: Toledot: Opposing Twins.

Esau and Jacob are the sons of Isaac and Rebecca, who are first cousins once removed.  (Isaac’s father, Abraham, is the brother of Rebecca’s grandfather, Nachor.)  Further inbreeding takes place in that family when Jacob marries both daughters of Rebecca’s brother Lavan–in other words, his first cousins.

But this is a far cry from the incest I am writing about today in the third chapter of my book on moral psychology in Genesis.

Father-daughter incest is usually perpetrated by the father on an underage daughter who cannot defend herself.  But after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, it is Lot’s two unmarried adult daughters who get him drunk so they can use him to get pregnant.

I feel sorry for Lot, whom the Torah portrays as foolish but not bad at heart.  As he flees Sodom he knows that his city and his home are going up in flames behind him, along with his married daughters and probably grandchildren.  Then Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt.  Lot and his two remaining daughters keep going and find shelter in a cave in the hills.  Then Lot wakes up and discovers he is a victim of incest.  Oy, vey!

Yet Lot’s daughters are also traumatized, and the evening before the destruction of Sodom their father offered to throw them to the mob at his door in order to protect the strangers he was sheltering.  And there are other complications …

It is easy to make general rules for ethical behavior.  It is harder to apply them to specific cases.

 

Estrangement

November 11, 2020 at 8:24 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Abraham arranges a wife for his estranged son Isaac without Isaac’s knowledge in this week’s Torah portion is Chayyei Sarah.  Here is a link to my 2015 blog post: Chayyei Sarah: Loss of Trust.

The book of Genesis is full of dysfunctional families committing acts of dubious ethical value.  This past week I wrote the chapter of my Genesis book on Noah, and found more examples.  Fortunately I had already written a Torah monologue from the viewpoint of Noah’s wife, whom I picture as out of place in the pre-flood world of brutality.  Do Noah and his family bring the seeds of more brutality with them on the ark?

 

Evisceration and Subversion

November 4, 2020 at 4:59 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

This past week I eviscerated eight essays that seemed fine when they were blog posts and installed all new plumbing so they would speak to one of the moral themes in the first chapter of my Genesis book:

       How do we know whether something is good or evil?

       When should we obey God?

       How do we act ethically toward family members?  Toward the earth?

       What subverts our ability to choose the good?

These themes continue to be questions in the rest of Genesis, along with a few more questions about ethics.

Now I just need to revise my Torah monologue from the viewpoint of Cain, and I’ll be ready to tackle my chapter on the Torah portion Noach.  I don’t expect this next chapter to call for as many essays as the two creation stories and the narrative of Cain and Abel.  But the story of Noah and the story of the tower of Babel certainly do address questions of moral psychology.

Meanwhile, the Jewish cycle of Torah readings covers the Torah portion Vayeira this week.  Here’s a post I wrote in 2012 about how Abraham and Lot deal with men who turned out to be messengers from God, also known as angels: Vayeira: Seeing Angels.

A Snake

October 28, 2020 at 8:01 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Torah portion this week is Lekh-lekha, which means “Go to yourself!” or “Go for yourself!” or “Get yourself going!”  To read one of my favorite earlier posts on this portion, click on this link: Lekh-lekha: Please.

This past week I got going again on the book I’m writing about moral psychology in Genesis.  (My current working title is “Genesis: Good and Evil Fruit”.)  The most important chapter in a book is the first one, because if it doesn’t sparkle, nobody wants to read the rest.  So I spent the week writing many, many drafts of a new Torah monologue from the viewpoint of the snake in the Garden of Eden.  In my version, the snake is not a bad character at all.

I’ll check in with you again next week.

 

Leave of Absence

October 18, 2020 at 6:01 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

I want to finish writing my book on moral psychology in Genesis.  And I want to continue writing my weekly blog posts.  But I have discovered I cannot do both at once.

So this fall, while the Jewish cycle of Torah readings is going through the book of Genesis, I will work on my own book.  I have already rewritten my essays  and Torah monologues to date that deal with how Genesis presents moral conundrums to its characters.  Now I need to write new work to complete the jigsaw puzzle.

During the next eleven weeks, I will send you an update on my progress, and a link to one of my earlier blog posts on the Torah portion of the week–one that will not appear in the book.

Also at anytime, you can click on “Categories” in the sidebar to the right of any of my posts, scroll down, click on the name of a Torah portion, and click on any of my earlier posts that you would like to read.

I plan to be back with a new blog post in January, when we begin studying the book of Exodus again.  By then I hope my book is finished!

May the next eleven weeks be creative and fulfilling for all of us.

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Here is a link to one of my essays on the first two Torah portions of Genesis, Bereishit and NoachNoach: Winds of Change.

Repost: Ha-azinu

October 9, 2019 at 1:37 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Most years the Torah portion Ha-azinu (“Use your ears”) is read the week before Yom Kippur, but in this new year of 5780 it comes afterward.

I did not prepare for Yom Kippur this time, except to find a synagogue in Prague where my husband and I could go.  I did not review my deeds of the past year or determine where I had missed the mark.  I did not ask anyone for forgiveness (though when a friend reached out to me, I did have an honest conversation and forgive her, and I honor her for that).  I did not reconsider my relationship with God.

I was too busy moving and packing and planning for the big change in our lives, and then I was too busy with the beginning of our journey.

I have continued to say a few prayers every morning, and blessings before every meal, but I have not been to a Shabbat service for the past two months.

In Prague I have been grateful for all the Czechs who speak English, and for the English translations on some plaques, brochures, and menus.  I have also been surrounded by people speaking a language I cannot begin to understand, and writing in a language I can neither pronounce nor decipher.

Jerusalem Synagogue

But when we went to the Jerusalem Synagogue, and I saw Hebrew texts from the psalms on the walls.  I could read them!  Softly I began singing a psalm to myself, uplifted not only by the beautiful 1906 Neo-Moorish synagogue building, but by the words in the universal language of the Jewish religion.

On Yom Kippur, we went to a service led by a small congregation in the Maisel Synagogue, built in 1592 in the Renaissance style.  The building is part of the Jewish Museum except on Saturdays and Jewish holidays, when the Bejt Praha congregation uses it for its original purpose.  We will come back another day to tour the whole building and look and the displays, but on Yom Kippur we sat on folding chairs in the middle of the echoing central hall, and sang prayers.

Maisel Synagogue

Although the congregation had hired an American rabbi who spoke English, the prayer books were in Czech and Hebrew.  Whenever the rabbi or the cantor began to sing, we could find the right prayer in Hebrew.  Most of the melodies were also familiar.  We joined in the singing, and their community was also our community for a while.

I have been happy exploring Prague, not worrying about atonement, so I could not plead with God in the spirit of the holy day.  But praying in the old synagogue with other Jews brought me comfort and reminded me of God.

After Yom Kippur ended, I polished up my 2012 post on this week’s Torah portion, which considers meeting God in a desolate place without comfort, a place where we all find ourselves at some point in our lives.  Click on Ha-azinu: The Tohu Within, to read it.

Repost: Ki Teitzei

September 11, 2019 at 9:55 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Our adventure begins before dawn.  Everything we still own that we are not taking on the airplane tomorrow is now packed away in our storage unit.  (We also loaned our car to our son and daughter-in-law.)  At 5:00 a.m. the motel shuttle will take us to the airport, and we will fly the first leg of our trip: Portland, Oregon, to Boston, Massachusetts.  This is the trip we have spent years waiting for, the one that will eventually take us to Israel.

Here is my 2015 post on this week’s Torah portion: Ki Teitzei: Crossing Gender Lines.

Esther: Stupid Decisions

March 19, 2019 at 11:01 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Purim, a Jewish holiday on the 14th of Adar (March 20-21 this year), revolves around the book of Esther, an imaginative farce set in Shushan, one of the capitals of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia (553-333 BCE).

The real kings of this empire were smarter than the average dictator.  The founder, Cyrus I, encouraged the fealty of the many ethnic groups in his lands by granting them local autonomy and helping them rebuild their old temples.  Darius I recruited administrators and soldiers from many ethnic groups.  His son Xerxes I (reign 486-465 BCE), called Achashveirosh in the book of Esther, continued these astute policies of cultural and religious tolerance, making it easier to rule the world’s biggest empire to date.

Persian Empire ca. 500 BCE

The real King Achashveirosh/Xerxes also successfully crushed revolts in Egypt and Babylon.  He built gigantic palaces in two of his five capital cities, Persepolis and Susa/Shushan.  He kept a large harem but had only one queen, a Persian noblewoman named Amestris.  Xerxes seems to have been a competent political leader with a taste for the standard royal luxuries.

But in the book of Esther, King Achashveirosh is, above all, stupid.  His stupid decisions drive a plot of near-catastrophes and amazing reversals.

On the evening of Purim we read and perform the book of Esther, enjoying every comic moment.  Late the next afternoon there is a traditional seudah shlishit, a “third meal” which is supposed to be second in importance only to the seder meal on Passover.  Unlike the Passover seder, the Purim seudah has no ritual text.  But maybe this year it could be a time to discuss some of the stupid rulings the fictionalized king makes—and how easy it is to make similar errors today.

Persian gold drinking horn, 5th century BCE

The book of Esther opens with King Achashveirosh spending lavishly on a 180-day drinking feast for his administrators and noblemen, followed by a seven-day drinking feast for the entire male population of Shushan.

And the drinking was according to the dat: There is no constraint!  (Esther 1:8)

dat (דָּת) = (plural datim, דָּתִים) rule, law, regulation, edict, decree.  (From the Persian word data.)

The word dat is used only in biblical passages written after the Persian Empire took over the Neo-Babylonian Empire and its formerly Israelite territory circa 539 BCE.  Dat appears 20 times in the book of Esther.  During the course of the story, King Achashveirosh (who likes to drink) issues six new datim on impulse, without constraints such as getting information or thinking things over.

Dat 1

Persian Queen Atossa, crowned 522 BCE

On the seventh day, as the king was feeling good with wine, he said … to bring Vashti, the queen, before the king in her royal crown, to display her beauty to the peoples and the officials, since she was good-looking.  (Esther 1:11)

Vashti refuses.1  Achashveirosh is furious.

But the king spoke to the wise men … because this was the king’s practice, [to come] before all experts on dat and judgement.  (Esther 1:13)

Consulting legal advisors on what to do about this perceived insult from the queen seems like a wise and sensible move—as long as one has competent advisors.  King Achashveirosh has seven, but only one speaks: Memukhan, who declares that in order to prevent noblewomen throughout the empire from getting uppity, Vashti must be severely punished.  Memukhan proposes a new dat declaring that Vashti is dethroned, divorced, deprived of her land, and banned from the king’s presence.  Achashveirosh agrees with no further thought.

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Today, when do we (or our rulers) act on impulse, following the lead of the first person to speak, without pausing to solicit other opinions?  Do we fail to express our own viewpoints when we are given the opportunity to speak?

Dat 2

After a while Achashveirosh misses Vashti.  The real Achaemenid kings chose all their queens from seven noble Persian families, but in the book of Esther the king’s servants suggest holding a beauty contest to pick the next queen.  Each of the many finalists would spend a night with the king.  Achashveirosh jumps on this idea without consulting his legal advisors, and issues a new dat declaring the contest and its procedures.   Eventually he chooses Esther, the adopted daughter of her uncle Mordecai, a Jew who “sits in the gate” of Shushan as a judge.

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Today, when do we pick our romantic partners, business associates, or even presidents based on their looks and charm, without considering any possible consequences?

Dat 3

For no apparent reason, the king picks a self-centered man named Haman as his new viceroy, and orders everyone in the king’s gate to kneel and bow down with their faces touching the ground when Haman passes through.  In the Torah this is the position of humility before God—which might explain why Mordecai refuses to do it.

When the king’s other servants tell Haman that Mordecai is ignoring the dat about bowing because he is a Jew, Haman decides to wipe out all the Jews in the Persian Empire.

Then Haman said to King Achashveirosh: “There is a certain people, scattered and separate from the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom, and their datim are different from all [other] peoples’, and the datim of the king they do not follow.  So it is not suitable for the king to leave them in peace.”  (Esther 3:8)

Achashveirosh does not ask which group Haman is talking about.  He does not ask which of the king’s datim its members are violating, or why.  And as usual, he does not talk to anyone else to get another side of the story.  For someone unaccustomed to thinking, it is enough that these people are different.  Unlike the real kings of the Persian Empire, the Achashveirosh character is easily frightened by diversity.

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When do we react with fear (or fear disguised as resentment) because certain people look  different, or speak a different first language, or adhere to a different religion?

Dat 4

Given the king’s usual blank state of mind, Haman’s simple scare tactic might be enough.  But the viceroy adds a bribe, promising to pay 10,000 silver disks into the royal treasury if the king commands the extermination of this unnamed people.  Without asking a single question, without thinking about justice or remembering his family’s tradition of religious tolerance, King Achashveirosh hands over his signet ring to Haman.

And scrolls were sent out by the hand of the runners to every single province of the king [with the order] to destroy, to slay, and to exterminate all the Jews … on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder them.  A copy of the writing was to be given as a dat in every single province and shown to all the peoples, to be prepared for this day. (Esther 3:13-14)

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When do we abandon our identities, giving the equivalent of our signet rings to others, for financial reasons?  For other reasons that would not hold up to scrutiny?  Do we ever wonder if we are violating our own principles?

Dat 5

Mordecai begs Esther to intercede with the king.  Much drama ensues, with two intertwining plot lines.  Haman has just erected a stake for impaling Mordecai when he is forced to publicly honor the Jew for saving the king’s life.  Meanwhile Esther uses courage and cleverness to get Achashveirosh and Haman where she wants them.2

At her second private drinking feast for the king and his viceroy, Esther asks King Achashveirosh for her life and the lives of her people.

Esther Denouncing Haman, by Ernest Normand

“Because we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, to be exterminated!”  (Esther 7:4)

Still oblivious, the king asks her who ordered such a thing.

And Esther said: “The man, the oppressor and enemy, is this evil Haman!”  (Esther 7:6)

Achashveirosh believes her at once and, as usual, asks no follow-up questions.  He has Haman impaled on his own stake.  It is sheer good fortune that Esther is correct and Haman is indeed the malefactor.

When Esther asks the king to revoke the dat about killing Jews on the 13th of Adar, we learn about another standing rule:

… a writing that was written in the name of the king and sealed with the signet ring of the king, there is no way to reverse.  (Esther 8:8)

This dat would be ridiculous in a real government.  But it does express the truth that some actions have irrevocable consequences.  We insult someone, and the person never forgets it.  We make a mistake or pass a law that results in someone’s death, and nothing can bring the person back to life.

King Achashveirosh gives Mordecai his signet ring and invites him and Esther to write any new dat they like to compensate for the dat about exterminating Jews on the 13th of Adar.  A dat goes out giving Jews permission to kill anyone who tries to attack them on that day.

And in every province and in every city where the word and the dat of the king reached, there was gladness and joy for the Jews, a drinking feast and a holiday.  And many of the peoples of the land pretended to be Jews, because terror of the Jews had fallen upon them.  (Esther 8:17)

Jews all over the empire attack and kill their enemies on the 13th of Adar.  There is no due process, no trials to establish guilt or innocence, no follow-up on anyone the Jews accuse who manages to escape.  Mob violence rules the day.  The king’s fifth new dat is an arguably stupid way to prevent a one-day genocide.

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When do we, like Achashveirosh, make excuses for violence perpetrated by people who have suffered from discrimination and persecution?  When do we, like Esther and Mordecai, use positions of power to improve the welfare of our own people without seeking justice for all people?

Dat 6

Achashveirosh tells Esther that the Jews of Shushan alone have killed 500 men in addition to Haman’s ten sons, and asks her if she has any other requests.

And Esther said: “If it please the king, may it be granted to the Jews in Shushan to do tomorrow as well the same as the dat of today, and may the ten sons of Haman be impaled on the stake.”  And the king said to have it done thus, and the dat was given out in Shushan …  (Esther 9:13-14)

The Jews of Shushan take this opportunity to kill another 300 men.

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Today, when do we agree to do something merely to please a person who dazzles us, without considering whether it is ethical?

The six new datim King Achashveirosh issues in the book of Esther illustrate that stupid decisions come from:

  • acting on impulse in moments of anger or fear,
  • taking one person’s word for something without checking,
  • not collecting enough information, and
  • failing to consider our own ethical principles.

Someday may we all learn to be smarter than King Achashveirosh.

  1. Midrash Rabbah Esther (commentary from the 6th to 11th centuries CE) said that Vashti’s refusal was justified because the king was ordering her to display herself wearing her crown and nothing else.
  2. Before Esther can speak to Achashveirosh, she must risk her life; there is already a dat that anyone who enters the king’s inner court without being summoned is put to death unless the king extends his golden scepter. Never mind if there is an imperial emergency; Achashveirosh does not want to be bothered by inconvenient news.  When do we disable ourselves by going into denial?  When do we make life more difficult by trusting someone who ignores facts to be in charge?

Haftarat Vayehi—Kings: Last Words

January 12, 2017 at 7:40 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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).

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