Balak: Motivations

June 23, 2021 at 4:33 pm | Posted in Balak, Bereishit | Leave a comment

Why do King Balak and the prophet Bilam behave badly in this week’s Torah portion, Balak?

In the book I am writing on moral psychology in Genesis, I examine the text for emotional impulses and character flaws that result in immoral behavior.  Three of the character flaws I found in Genesis also explain the poor ethical choices of Balak and Bilam.

Balak

Balak, the king of Moab, is alarmed after the Israelites have conquered the Amorite city-state of Cheshbon on the northern border of his kingdom.  He sends dignitaries to Bilam, who lives by the Euphrates River, with the following message:

“And now please go curse these people for me!  Because they are more numerous than we are.  Maybe I will be able to nakeh them and drive them out from the land.  For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 22:6)

nakeh (נַכֶּה) = strike down, break, beat down.  (A form of the root verb nakah, נָכָּה = strike, hit, beat, destroy.)

Balak’s emotional reaction to finding a horde of strangers camped across his border is fear, naturally enough.  But when he tries to address his fear he makes two mistakes.  One is that he assumes the Israelites will attack Moab next.  The truth is that the Israelites are on their way to Canaan, and conquered Cheshbon because the king of Cheshbon refused to let them pass through his land.  They are not interested in attacking Moab, which lies to the south, before they continue their journey northward.  But it never occurs to Balak to see if he can find out why the Israelites attacked Cheshbon.

His other mistake is that he tries to hire Bilam to curse the Israelites, instead of to bless the Moabites.  King Balak could just as well ask Bilam to make Moab look invulnerable to the Israelites, or to make the Israelites seek peace.

But Balak only thinks in terms of war, in terms of kill or be killed.  He tries to arrange the mass destruction of the people camping across the Arnon River from Moab even though they have made no hostile move against him because he lacks imagination.

He is not the only one in the Torah with this character flaw.  In the book of Genesis, Noah fails to talk God into saving innocent animals and children from the flood because he cannot imagine talking back when God speaks to him.1  Jacob masquerades as his brother Esau and lies to Isaac, their father, because it does not occur to him that Isaac might intend to give two blessings, one to Esau and a different one to Jacob.2  Shimon and Levi lie to the men of Shekhem and then massacre them because nobody in their family thinks of a polite way to refuse an invitation by the ruler of Shekhem.3

An inability to imagine better alternatives leads many human beings to follow their worst impulses: callous resignation for Noah, greed for Jacob, and violence for Shimon and Levi.  The same lack of imagination makes Balak respond to his fear of strangers by trying to make it easier to kill them.

On the other hand, people who often exercise imagination can become unable to think outside the box when they are gripped by an overwhelming emotional reaction.   A psychological complex can overwhelm one’s more rational self; perhaps Balak, Shimon, and Levi had complexes that made them react to trouble by lashing out violently.  We cannot tell from the text of the Torah.

Bilam and the Moabites

When King Balak’s delegation arrives at Bilam’s house, God visits Bilam in a dream and tells him not to go to Moab, because the Israelites are blessed.  In the morning Bilam tells the Moabites that God will not let him go with them.

Then Balak sends back a more impressive group of dignitaries, and the promise of a rich reward.  Bilam already knows that God will not let him curse the Israelites, but this time he prevaricates:

“If Balak gave me what fills his house, [all the] silver and gold, I would not be able to cross the word of God, my God, to do [anything] small or large.  But now please stay here overnight again, and I will find out again what God will speak to me.”  (Numbers 22:18-19)

That night God tells the prophet he may go to Moab, but when he arrives he must do whatever God tells him to do.  Bilam accompanies the Moabites without telling them God’s caveat, giving them the false impression that he will curse the Israelites and earn his pay.

Why does Bilam string along the Moabites?  The clue in the text is that he has named a high price for his services: all the silver and gold in Balak’s house.  His motivation for going to Moab, and his character flaw, is greed.

Greed was also Abraham’s motivation in Genesis when he passed off his wife Sarah as his sister, hoping to cheat the king of Gerar out of a high bride-price.4  If the Torah told us about what Bilam and Abraham learned from their parents or from earlier experiences, we could guess why they are greedy enough to brush aside ethical considerations.  But the Torah only presents the two men as they are.

Bilam and the donkey

Next God tests Bilam by placing a divine messenger in his path, an angel that only Bilam’s donkey can see.  Twice the donkey swerves twice to avoid the angel.  The third time, when the way is too narrow, she lies down underneath Bilam and refuses to move.  All three times Bilam angrily beats his donkey.

Then God opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Bilam: “What have I done to you that hikitani these three times?”  And Bilam said to the donkey: “Because you made a fool of me!  If only there were a sword in my hand so that now I could kill you!” (Numbers 22:28-29)

hikitani (הִכִּיתַנִי) = you struck me, you hit me, you beat me.  (Another form of the root verb nakah.)

Why does Bilam beat his donkey?  It would have been more ethical for him to investigate her unusual behavior (not to mention her sudden gift of speech).  But Bilam is overwhelmed by his angry impulse because of another character flaw: pride.  King Balak’s men were probably watching the first two times the donkey swerved.  He believed his donkey’s behavior made him look like a fool who could not control his own mount.

In the book of Genesis, Cain also becomes infuriated when his pride is hurt.  He is the first person to make an offering to God.  After he has laid out the fruits of the soil he has labored over, his brother Abel offers an animal from his flock.  God accepts Abel’s offering but ignores Cain’s.  Cain is humiliated, and God cautions him:

“Why did you become hot-with-anger,

and why did your face fall?

“Isn’t it true that if you do good,

[there is] uplifting?

“And if you do not do good,

wickedness is crouching like a beast at the door,

and its craving is for you.

“But you, you can rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6-7)

Cain loses his temper and kills Abel.  He is unable to rule over his pride and stop himself from succumbing to wickedness.

When Bilam is infuriated by pride, God does not caution him directly, but instead lets the donkey speak.

Then God opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Bilam: “Aren’t I your donkey, that you have ridden on from long ago until this day?  Am I really accustomed to doing this to you?”  And he said: “No.”  (Numbers 22:30)

Bilam and His Ass, by Rembrandt, 1626

At least Bilam is honest at this point, recognizing that his donkey does not deserve to be beaten.  Once he has answered “No”, God lets him see the divine messenger, who scolds him for beating the donkey and adds: “Hey, I went out as a accuser.” (Numbers 22:32)

Bilam concludes that God sent the angel to oppose his journey to Moab in the hope of being able to curse the Israelites.

And Bilam said to God’s messenger: “I did wrong because I did not know that you were stationed to meet me on the way.  And now, if it is wrong in your eyes I will turn back.”  (Genesis 22:34)

Turning around at this point would make Bilam look even more foolish to the Moabite dignitaries, but now Bilam is willing to swallow his pride.  The divine messenger tells him to go to Moab anyway, but say nothing except what God tells him.  He does, and finds himself blessing (giving good prophecies about) the Israelites three times.  King Balak pays Bilam nothing, and the reformed prophet heads home.5

In this week’s Torah portion, Bilam makes two ethical errors: he deceives someone because of greed, like Abraham, and he strikes an innocent party because of pride, like Cain.  But his bad deeds are not as bad as theirs.  Bilam only deceives the king of Moab, whereas Abraham both deceives the king of Gerar and puts Sarah in a dangerous and compromising position.  Bilam only beats his donkey, whereas Cain murders his brother.  And Bilam admits he was wrong and repents.

*

We all have negative emotional impulses sometimes.  Whether these impulses lead to unethical behavior often depends on our individual character flaws, which may be the result of psychological complexes.  But early in the book of Genesis, God promises Cain that even though it is difficult, we can learn what our complexes are and rise above them.

May we exercise more imagination than Balak, so we can think of better alternatives than lashing out at others.  And if we become overwhelmed by greed or pride, may we recognize it, temper it, and admit when we did wrong, like Bilam.

  1. Abraham persuades God to refrain from burning up Sodom if there are even ten innocent people in the city. Moses persuades God to give the Israelites a second chance after they worship the Golden Calf. But Noach is silent. After God has spoken to him, all the Torah says is: And Noach did everything that God commanded him; thus he did. (Genesis 6:22)
  2. Genesis 27:1-28:4.
  3. Genesis 34:8-29.
  4. Genesis 20:1-18.
  5. In a later Torah portion, Mattot, Moses orders a war of vengeance against the Midianites of Moab, who had invited the Israelites to make offerings to their own god. The Israelites kill every Midianite male including the five kings of Midian, “and Bilam son of Beor they killed by the sword” (Numbers 31:8).  The Torah does not say why Bilam was there, but Moses says that the Midianite females seduced the Israelite men “according to the word of Bilam” (Numbers 31:16).

Chukat & Vayishlach: Israel vs. Edom

June 17, 2021 at 11:01 pm | Posted in Chukkat, Vayishlach | Leave a comment

The Israelites are getting ready to enter Canaan again.

The first time, they marched up to Canaan’s southern border and then refused to cross.1  God decreed they must spend forty years in the wilderness, and then their children could try again.  This time, in the Torah portion Chukat (“decree of”), the new generation of Israelites plans to travel through Edom and north along the east side of the Dead Sea, then enter Canaan by crossing the Jordan River near Jericho.

And Moses sent messengers from Kadeish to the king of Edom, [who said]: “Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the hardship that found us, that our ancestors went down to Egypt and we lived in Egypt a long time, and the Egyptians were bad to us and to our ancestors.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:14-15)

Edom (אֱדוֹם) = a country also called Sei-ir, southeast of the Dead Sea.  The name comes from the country’s founder in Genesis/Bereishit: Esau, who is also called Edom, i.e. Red.2  (Edom comes from the same root as adam, אָדָם = humankind, adamah, אֲדָמָה = earth, and adom, אָדֺם = red-brown.)

Moses introduces the Israelites as the “brother” of the Edomites to remind the king of Edom that in the old Genesis story, Esau (a.k.a. Edom) and Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) are brothers.  The descendants of brothers should be at peace.

Yet Esau and Jacob, twins and rivals for the rights of the firstborn, struggle from birth to middle age.  And the countries of Edom and Israel never do become allies.3

Nevertheless, Moses calls Edom Israel’s brother, and reminds the king that God rescued the Israelites and led them out of Egypt.  Then he asks for a favor.

“… and hey, we are in Kadeish, a town on the edge of your territory.  Please let us cross your land!  We will not cross through field or vineyard, and we will not drink well water.  We will go on the king’s road.  We will not spread out to the right or left until we have crossed your territory.”  (Numbers 20:16-17)

The Israelites are asking only for safe passage from the southern border of Edom to its northern border.  They promise that neither they nor their herds and flocks will eat, drink, or damage anything in the land.

But Edom said to him: “You may not cross through me, or else I will go out with the sword to move against you.”  (Numbers 20:18)

Here the king of Edom is called by the name of his country, and identifies with the land he rules.  Moses responds as if he is synonymous with the Israelites.

And the Children of Israel said to him: “We will go up on the highway, and if we drink your water, I or my livestock, then I will give [you] its price.  [My request] is hardly anything!  Let me cross on foot.”  But he said: “You may not cross!”  And Edom went out to meet him with a heavy troop and with a strong hand.  Thus Edom refused to allow (Israel) to cross through his territory, and Israel swung away from him.  (Numbers 20:19-21)

In this story, the king of Edom does not trust the leader of Israel.  So the people of Israel make a long detour around Edom through the wilderness, instead of taking the highway north.4

*

In the book of Genesis, Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) does not trust his brother Esau (a.k.a. Edom) when he is traveling from Charan to their father’s house.  So he makes a long detour through northern Canaan, instead of taking the highway south through Edom.

Twenty years before, Jacob fled to his uncle’s house in Charan because Esau was threatening to kill him as soon as their father, Isaac, had died.5  Now Jacob has a large family, scores of slaves, and a tremendous wealth of livestock.  The last he knew, his parents were living at an oasis in the Negev Desert to the south, either in Beir-sheva or Beir-lachai-roi.6  The best route for such a large party would be the highway through Edom.

And Jacob sent messengers ahead of himself to Esau, his brother, to the land of Seir, the region of Edom.  (Genesis 32:4)

The wording of this sentence at the beginning of the Torah portion Vayishlach (“and he sent”) implies that Jacob is hoping to follow those messengers to Esau’s home, taking advantage of the highway.  Yet he camps on the Yabok River at Machanayim, one day’s journey west of that highway, and sends his messengers to Esau from there.  He is already nervous about a reunion with the brother who once threatened to kill him.

His messengers return with the news that Esau is coming north with 400 men to meet him.  Alarmed, Jacob sends a series of gifts of livestock down the highway toward Esau.  When Esau reaches Jacob’s camp, Jacob bows down to the ground seven times as he walks toward his brother. Esau embraces him, and Jacob persuades his brother to keep the gifts.  Then Esau says:

“Break camp, and let’s go!  I will go alongside you.”  But [Jacob] said to him: “My lord knows that the children are tender and the flocks and herds, suckling, are upon me, and driving them hard [for even] one day will kill all the flocks.  Please, let my lord pass in front of me, his servant.  And I, I will move along slowly at the pace of the animals and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord at Seir.”  (Genesis 33:12-14)

Esau then offers to leave some of his men behind as an escort, but Jacob refuses.  He has realized that he still does not trust Esau enough to risk entering his country.  As soon as Esau and his men have left, Jacob heads in the opposite direction, northwest to Sukkot, where he stays so long that he builds a house for his family and sheds for his animals.7  His next stop is Shekhem, farther northwest.  Jacob is willing to wait a few more years to see his ancient father, Isaac, again.

Eventually he journeys south through Canaan, where he discovers that his father has moved to Mamrei near the burial site his grandfather Abraham bought in Canaan.8  Jacob never does enter the land of Edom.

*

Should Jacob/Israel have trusted his brother Esau/Edom in Genesis?  Should the Edomites have trusted their brothers the Israelites in Numbers?  In both cases, trust would have enabled the people of Israel to take a faster route on a good road.

But if Esau’s change of heart had proven temporary, he could have wiped out Jacob and all his household while they were in Edom.  And if the Israelites had rebelled against Moses again, this time by straying from the highway, there would have been war inside Edom.  Humans are fickle.

Thanks to the wariness of Jacob in Genesis and of the king of Edom in Numbers, there is no bloodshed in either story.  Perhaps a long detour is a small price to pay for peace.

  1. See my blog post Shelach-Lekha: Courage and Kindness.
  2. Genesis 25:25, 25:30.
  3. Israel’s first king, Saul, defeats the Edomites in battle (1 Samuel 14:47). Its second king, David, defeats them again and makes the kingdom of Edom a vassal of Israel (2 Samuel 8:13-14).  In the 9th century B.C.E. the Edomites rebel against King Yoram of Judah and set up their own king, who is no longer subject to the king of Israel (2 Kings 8:20).  King Amatziyahu of Judah makes war against Edom in 838 B.C.E. and captures one of its cities, Sela, but the rest of Edom remains independent.
  4. A highway in the Ancient Near East was a wide road of packed earth that could be used by caravans and troops.
  5. Genesis 27:41-45.
  6. Beir-lachai-roi in Genesis 25:11, Beir-sheva in Genesis 28:10.
  7. Genesis 33:17.
  8. Genesis 34:27.

Haftarat Korach: 1 Samuel—Ultimate Power

June 9, 2021 at 11:52 am | Posted in Korach, Samuel 1 | Leave a comment

The true king of the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible is the character of God, portrayed as an anthropomorphic being who delivers orders and decrees, metes out rewards and punishments, and determines the winning side in battles.  God communicates through “his” prophets.  But not everyone is happy with this arrangement.

Korach

Man with Crossed Arms, by Paul Cezanne

When the prophet Moses summons two rebellious leaders from the tribe of Reuben in this week’s Torah portion, Korach, they refuse to come.

Moses sent and called for Datan and for Abiram, sons of Eliav, and they said: “We will not come up!  Is it a small thing that you brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey to make us die in the wilderness?  That tistareir over us, actually histareir?”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 16:12-13)

tistareir (תִשְׂתָּרֵר) = you play king, you lord it over, you make yourself a ruler.  (A form of the verb שׂרר = rule, direct.)

histareir (הִשְׂתָּרֵר) = playing king, usurping authority.  (The same verb as tistareir.)

Datan and Aviram express three grievances against Moses.  First, Moses has said repeatedly that God will give the Israelites the land of Canaan, “a land flowing with milk and honey”.1  But now they are stuck in the desert for forty years.  By comparison, Egypt was the land of milk and honey.

Second, they blame Moses for making the Israelites die in the wilderness.  In last week’s portion, Shelach-Lekha, God decreed that the Israelites must stay in the wilderness for 40 years, during which all the adults except the two scouts who urged the people to enter Canaan would die.2  But this decree was not Moses’ fault.  The Israelites refused to cross the border into Canaan, and God threatened to kill the whole community until Moses talked God into pardoning them and commuting their sentence.  All Moses did was buy them more time to live, and the promise that their children would conquer Canaan.

Third, the Reubenite leaders complain that Moses is hogging all the power and acting like a king, a complaint also lodged by Korach, the leader of 250 rebellious Levites.3  God responds by threatening to annihilate everyone except Moses and Aaron.  But Moses talks God into annihilating only the three rebels and their families.4

Moses tells the crowd to stand back from the tents of the rebels, and says:

The Death of Korach, Datan, and Abiram, by Gustave Dore

“By this you will know that God sent me to do all these things, that they are not from my heart: if these die like all humankind and the fate of all humankind is decreed for them, God did not send me.  But if God creates a new creation and the earth opens up its mouth and gulps them down, and all that is theirs, and they go alive down to Sheol, then you will know that these men scorned God.”  (Numbers 16:28-30)

The earth does open and swallow the three families.  This miracle proves that Moses tells them the law simply because God chooses him to do it.  God is the real king, and Moses is God’s spokesman.

Haftarat Korach

When Datan, Aviram, and Korach complain that Moses has too much power, he protests that he has not used his position for any personal gain.

“I have not taken a single donkey from them, and I have not wronged a single one of them.”  (Numbers 16:15)

The haftarah reading that accompanies Korach is 1 Samuel 11:14-12:22.  Probably the rabbis chose this passage because the prophet and judge Samuel also declares that he has not used his position for personal gain:

“Here I am!  Testify against me … Whose ox have I taken, and whose donkey have I taken?  And whom have I coerced?  Whom have I crushed?  And from the hand of whom have I taken a bribe and looked the other way?”  (1 Samuel 12:3)

Nobody, the Israelites reply.

It is a moment of transition.  Samuel has served his whole life as a circuit judge for the Israelites, but now, at the people’s request, he has just inaugurated Saul as their first king.  A king in the Ancient Near East was in charge of law, justice, and foreign affairs.  Although the Israelites have no complaints against Samuel as a judge, they want a king to lead them in war and foreign policy.

Samuel reminds them:

“And you saw that Nachash, king of the Ammonites, was coming against you, and you said to me: ‘No, because a king should rule over us!’  Yet God, your God, is your king.”  (1 Samuel 12:12)

In the book of Numbers, the rebel leaders do not want a king.  They complain that Moses is acting like their king, so Moses demonstrates that God is the king with the ultimate power, and he is only God’s emissary.  In the first book of Samuel, the Israelites are afraid that it is not enough to have the prophet Samuel as their judge, and God as their only king.  They want a human king.

Samuel says that it is their own fault that the kings of other countries make war on them, because they keep forgetting God and worshiping the Canaanite male and female gods (balim and ashtarot).5  So God lets their enemies attack them.  They beg God to rescue them, and God obliges by sending an ad-hoc general.6

Like Moses in the Torah portion Korach, Samuel demonstrates the truth of his words by asking God for a miracle, and God obliges—in Samuel’s case, by sending thunder and rain at the time of the wheat harvest, when the weather is always dry.7

Then the frightened Israelites say they were wrong to ask for a human king, and beg Samuel to intercede for them.  But Samuel assures them that as long as they (and their king) serve God instead of those worthless Canaanite gods, God will never abandon them.8

*

The Israelites do not trust God to be their king in either the time of Moses or the time of Samuel.  The difference is that in the time of Moses they do not want a king at all.  As long as they are stuck in the wilderness, they are isolated from other people and do not need anyone to deal with foreign powers.

In the time of Samuel, the Israelites inhabit part of Canaan, a land that is indeed flowing with milk and honey, not to mention wheat.  It is a fertile country worth conquering, and the neighboring kings are tempted to attack.  The Israelites do not trust God to send a war leader every time they need one, so they ask for their own human king.

Trusting God is hard for the Israelites, even though the stakes are high.  The bible asserts that if the people follow all of God’s laws (especially the one about not serving other gods), God will reward them with prosperity, their own land, and victory in battle.  If not, God will punish them with a plague or a military defeat.

But it is a rough justice.  The Israelites receive these rewards and punishments collectively, the innocent with the guilty.  And thanks to God’s hair-trigger temper, the punishments sometimes happen quickly.  In the portion Korach alone, God threatens to wipe out all the Israelites twice.9  The second time, God’s instant plague kills 14,700 people before Moses and Aaron stop it.  Only after that does God think of a non-lethal demonstration that convinces the surviving Israelites to accept Moses and Aaron as their divinely chosen leaders.10

What would it be like to have an invisible but easily inflamed king, one whom only Moses could mollify?  I suspect that I, too, would rather take my chances with no king at all in the wilderness, or with a human king in a fertile land.  If the human king turned out to be irrational, like King Saul, at least he would not live forever.

But the God-character in the Torah is eternal as well as irrational, often flying into a fury without thinking about the consequences.  No wonder the Israelites rebel against God.

  1. Moses used this expression to describe Canaan in Exodus 3:8, 3:17, 13:5, and 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; and Numbers 13:27 and 14:8. See my post: Ki Tavo: Milk and Honey.
  2. Numbers 14:11-24.
  3. Numbers 16:1-3.
  4. Numbers 16:20-27.  After that God’s fire burns up the 250 Levite rebels, and God sends a plague that kills thousands of Israelites who complained about it.
  5. 1 Samuel 12:9-10.
  6. In 1 Samuel 12:1, Samuel cites four ad-hoc generals sent by God: Yeruba-al (a.k.a. Gideon, Judges 6:11-17 and 7:1), Bedan (a.k.a. Samson according to the Talmud, Judges 13:24-16:31), Yiftach (Judges 11:1-33), and himself (though he never leads an army in the Torah).
  7. 1 Samuel 12:16-18.
  8. 1 Samuel 12:20-22.
  9. Numbers 16:21, 17:9.
  10. Numbers 17:13-26. God orders the head of each tribe to place his staff in front of the ark inside the Tent of Meeting.  In the morning, Aaron’s staff has sprouted leaves, flowers, and almonds.  The people are terrified, but at least they stop rebelling—until after Miriam dies and the water runs out in Numbers 20:2.

Shelach-Lekha: Paran vs. Chevron

June 2, 2021 at 10:18 pm | Posted in Joshua, Shelach-Lekha, Vayeira | Leave a comment

All the Israelites in the Torah are descended from one man, Jacob (a.k.a. Israel).  Jacob emigrates from Canaan to Egypt in the book of Genesis, but when he dies his sons bury him back in the family plot, and a memory of allegiance to Canaan is passed down through the generations for four hundred years.

When God liberates the “Children of Israel” from slavery in Egypt in the book of Exodus/Shemot, God promises to “give” them the land of Canaan.  They travel as far as Mount Sinai in Exodus, then continue north toward Canaan in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar.

Route of Scouts

This week’s Torah portion in Numbers, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”), opens when the Israelites and their fellow-travelers have crossed the Wilderness of Paran and camped at its northern edge, facing a range of hills on the southern border of Canaan.  The people are understandably nervous about marching in to conquer the inhabitants of Canaan.  So God calls for a scouting party.

Paran

Then God spoke to Moses, saying: “Send men for yourself, and they shall reconnoiter the land of Canaan ,which I am giving to the Israelites. You shall send one man from each tribe of his fathers, and every one a chieftain among them.”  And Moses sent them from the Wilderness of Paran according to the word of God, all of them heads of the Israelites.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:1-2)

Paran (פָּארָן) = a particular mountain in the northeastern Sinai Peninsula; an uninhabited area including that mountain.1

In the book of Numbers, Paran is a wilderness, a large desert with no settlements.  The Israelites cross it safely without encountering any other people.

In the book of Genesis, Paran is where Ishmael lives after his father, Abraham, has exiled him from the family camp at Beersheva.2

And God was with the young man, and he grew big, and he lived in the wilderness and he became a bowman.  And he lived in the Wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt.  (Genesis 21:20-21)

Meanwhile Ishmael’s half-brother, Isaac, grows up in Abraham’s camp.  During his life he moves to three other locations, but he never leaves the region of Canaan.

At least one modern scholar has argued that Paran was inserted in the story of Ishmael by a redactor of Genesis in the 6th to 5th century B.C.E., a period when nomadic Arab warriors controlled commerce in the desert between Judah and Egypt.3

But the contrast Genesis sets up between the outsider Ishmael living in the Wilderness of Paran and the insider Isaac living in the civilized land of Canaan also informs the story of the scouting party in this week’s Torah portion.  The use of the place-name Paran reminds us that the Israelites are still outside their promised land, still nomads with no permanent home.

Chevron

Following God’s suggestion, Moses sends twelve men to scout out the land of Canaan, one for each tribe of Israelites.4

And they went up into the Negev and they came to Chevron, and there were … the Anakites.  (Numbers 13:22)

Chevron (חֶבְרוֹן) = the site of the modern West Bank city of Hebron.

When they return to the Israelite camp forty days later, ten of the twelve scouts report that Canaan is impossible to conquer, with its fortified cities and imposing warriors.

“All the people that we saw in it are men of unusual size.  And there we saw the Nefilim, descendants of Anak from the Nefilim!5  And we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we must have been in their eyes!”  (Numbers 13:32-33)

The other two scouts, Caleb and Joshua, declare that the Israelites can conquer Canaan because God will be on their side.  But the people despair and decide not to cross the border.  God does not give them another chance at the conquest of Canaan until they have been in the wilderness for forty years.  Then Moses’ successor, Joshua, leads the people across the Jordan River into northeastern Canaan.  Year by year, Joshua conquers the lands of petty kings and drives Anakites out of the hill-country6.  Caleb offers to conquer Chevron and dispossess the Anakites there.

Therefore Chevron became Caleb’s … because he remained loyal to God, the God of Israel.  And the name of Chevron was previously Kiryat Arba; the man was big among the Anakites … (Joshua 14:14-15)

Kiryat (קִרְיַת) = town of.

Arba (אָרְבַּע) = four.  (But Joshua 14:15 implies that Arba was also the name of a large or important Anakite.)

The book of Genesis also identifies Chevron with an earlier town called Kiryat Arba, but in Genesis the residents of the area are ordinary Hittites, not Anakites.  Adjacent to this town is the grove of Mamrei, where Abraham and Sarah are camping when three “men” who turn out to be angels visit and announce that Sarah will have a son at age 90.7  Abraham moves his household to Gerar and then Beersheba, but at some point Sarah returns to Mamrei without him.

And Sarah died at Kiryat Arba, which is Chevron, in the land of Canaan …  (Genesis 23:2)

That is where Abraham buys the field containing the cave of Makhpeilah as a burial site.  Eventually he is buried in the cave next to his wife Sarah.  So is their son, Isaac, who moves there from Beersheba after he is old and blind.

And Jacob came to Isaac, his father, at Mamrei, Kiryat the Arba, which is Chevron; Abraham and Isaac had sojourned there.  (Genesis 35:28)

Isaac and his wife Rebecca are buried in the cave, Jacob buries his first wife, Leah, there, and in the last Torah portion of Genesis, Jacob’s twelve sons carry their father’s embalmed body back to Makhpeilah and bury him there.8

The graves of six key ancestors of the Israelites are in a cave near Chevron in Canaan.  This should make the city a magnet that draws the people home to where their forebears lived and died.  But in this week’s Torah portion in Numbers, the Israelites are overwhelmed by the fear of giants living there.

The use of the place-name Chevron emphasizes that the land the Israelites are refusing to enter is their own ancestral homeland, not just the land God promised to give them.  By turning away from Canaan, they are choosing to be permanent outsiders.

*

After murmuring about returning to Egypt, the Israelites choose to settle for several decades at the oasis of Kadesh-Barnea on the northern edge of the Wilderness of Paran.  In the Torah they make that choice because they do not trust God to grant them victory in the conquest of Canaan, not because they have any sympathy for the Canaanite tribes minding their own business in their own land.

But what if the land you think of as home is also the home of people who have been living there for hundreds of years?  Jews faced this question in 1948 when the present nation of Israel was founded.  The question still has not been answered.

  1. Mount Paran is cited as a place where God appears in Deuteronomy 33:2 and Habakkuk 3: 3. In an Islamic tradition, Paran (or Faran) is the desert extending down the east side of the Red Sea, and includes Mecca.
  2. Ishmael is Abraham’s son with an Egyptian slave named Hagar. After Abraham’s wife, Sarah, finally has her own son, Isaac, she insists that Abraham must drive out Hagar and Ishmael, so that Isaac will be the sole heir.  See my post Shavuot, Vayeira, & Ruth: Whatever You Say.
  3. Yairah Amit, “Ishmael, King of the Arabs”, https://www.thetorah.com/article/ishmael-king-of-the-arabs
  4. The scouts and their tribes are listed in Numbers 13:4-15. In this list the twelve tribes bear the names of ten of the twelve sons of Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) in the book of Genesis.  Levi is omitted, since Moses has designated that tribe for religious work.  And instead of a single tribe named after Jacob’s son Joseph, we get tribes named after Joseph’s two sons, Menasheh and Efrayim.  They become legitimate founders of tribes in Genesis 48:5-22, when Jacob adopts them.
  5. The Nefilim are demi-gods mentioned in Genesis 6:4.
  6. Joshua 11:21. Also see Judges 1:19-20;
  7. Genesis 18:1-15.
  8. Genesis 35:27-29, 49:29-32, and 50:13.

Beha-alotkha: Miriam Looks Back

May 24, 2021 at 7:18 pm | Posted in Beha-alotkha | Leave a comment

(I am writing a Torah monologue from the viewpoint of Reuben for my book on Genesis.  As Jacob’s firstborn son, he keeps trying to do the right thing and manage his eleven brothers, but he keeps getting it wrong.

So for this week’s Torah portion in the book of Numbers, Beha-alotkha, I am sharing a Torah monologue I wrote back in 2008 from the viewpoint Miriam as she tries to figure out what she did wrong.)

Miriam Looks Back (Beha-alotekha)

My God, my God, why did you do this to me?  One moment I’m Miriam the Prophetess—old, healthy, strong, respected, looked up to.  The next moment—I’m an abomination, afflicted with tzara’at, shedding scales like drifts of sand.  Unclean, unclean! —shamed and shunned, seven days outside the camp.  And I’ve only been here for one day.  I’ve got six more days to get through.

Why did you do this to me, God?  The itching is unbearable!  No, I take that back.  The itching is a temporary inconvenience, but it’s all part of God’s plan, and I accept it humbly.

Rrrr!  Look at me now!  Scaly as a snake, white as—salt.  Reminds me of Lot’s wife, when she looked back at Sodom burning, and she turned into a pillar of salt.

Because she looked back—

But I never look back.  I always look forward, because I have faith in you, God.  Whenever the men whine about the cucumbers, melons,  leeks, onions, and garlic they used to eat in Egypt, what do I do?  I invent another recipe for manna.

Women Dancing, by J.J.J. Tissot

And when we left Egypt, grabbing whatever we could, I packed my timbrel.  Because I knew we’d have a reason to celebrate.  Even when the Pharaoh’s chariots came after us, I knew sooner or later we’d be singing and dancing and praising you, God.

I bet you didn’t expect an old lady to dance like that, did you?

Hey, I was forward-looking even when I was young, before Moshe was born.  Remember when Pharaoh ordered the Egyptians to drown every Hebrew baby boy?  How my father, Amram, told the other Hebrew men to separate from their wives?  He said, it’s better not to make a baby at all, than to see him drowned in the Nile.

But I said, what about the girl babies?  I said, I had a vision about a boy who escaped.  I said, someday God’s gonna hear our groaning and rescue us.  I said, in the meantime, let’s grab as much life as we can, even under the shadow of death.  I said, I’m going ahead with my wedding, and you should tell all the married men to go back to their wives’ beds, and bring some light into the night!

And my father did just what I said.  Turned out well, didn’t it?

But now, when I try to give my little brother Moshe some advice, hhhh!  God strikes me with tzara’at, and I’m shedding scales all over the place, and everyone turns away from me because I’m unclean, and here I am stuck outside the camp, waiting out my sentence, seven days of shunning, and why did you do this to me, God?

But I’m not complaining.  I have a good attitude.  I know this is all for the best.  Somehow.

*

One, two, three …  Day four.  I’m halfway through my seven days outside the camp.  Halfway through this long, long week.  But I’m not complaining!

Though I still don’t know why I’m being punished for giving my brother some advice.  Listen, I know Moshe is way above my level.  I mean, the man has to wear a veil over his face!  Because he’s been exposed to so much of Your divine light, that his own face glows.  Me, I’ve just got a regular old woman’s face.  Or I used to, before You crusted it over with these white scales.

But just because You turned my little brother into the prophet of all prophets, am I supposed to treat him like a king?  Like a god?  Is that why You punished me for criticizing him on account of the Cushite woman he married?

All I did was point out that just because he talks with God all the time, it doesn’t mean he can’t go to bed with his wife once in a while.  The poor thing is shriveling up from lack of affection.  My God, you give us life, you give us desire, you give us joy like fire when two people come together.  Is it right to reject Your gifts?  Is it right for Moshe to turn away from his wife?  Isn’t that turning away from life?

So I told Moshe he should go back to her bed, just like my father and the other men of Israel went back to their wives in Egypt.  But I couldn’t tell if I was getting through to him; it’s hard to read his expression, through that veil.  And Aharon the Eloquent just stood there like a dummy.  So I kept talking.  I told Moshe, look at me and Aharon, we’re prophets, too.  But Aharon still gives Elisheva a kiss whenever he steps into their tent.  And me, I was good to my own man, right up to the day he died.

Was it so awful to say that we’re prophets, too?  We are.  You do speak to us.  You spoke to us right then, telling us to report to the Tent of Meeting.  And when we got there, we heard your voice again, from the pillar of cloud, and you said plenty.  All three of us heard you.  And then hhhh!  I’m covered with tzara’at.  Skin like scales.  Like salt.  Like death.  Me, not Aharon.  Why me?  Because I was doing the talking?

You know, God, you always did let Aharon off the hook.  Like when he made the golden calf.  You hold me to a higher standard.  Maybe it’s a compliment.  Maybe this scaly skin is actually a sign of your favor.  I just need to look at it the right way.

But I have to confess, my good attitude has been slipping, these past four days outside the camp.  I guess it’s easier to keep smiling when I have people to smile at.  Now that I’m alone, I—I’m starting to lose faith that you make everything work out for the best.

But I know it’s just a passing weakness.  I never really break down.  I can get through all seven days of tzara’at with my chin up.

*

I still can’t get used to this itching!  But this is the seventh day.  I just have to stick it out until sunset, and then it will be over.

I’ve got to remember to thank Moshe for begging God to heal me.  If it weren’t for him, I’d be stuck like this for the rest of my life.  Not just itching, but shamed and shunned.  Thanks to Moshe, I can come back into the camp tonight, and be myself again.

But it won’t be the same, will it?  Everyone will remember what you did to me, God.  When I walked out of the camp seven days ago, nobody would meet my eyes.  When I come back—I bet they won’t look at me the way they used to.

Could be worse.  At least I won’t have to wear a veil, like Moshe.  Only time I ever wore a veil was for my wedding.  I remember the moment when my husband lifted the veil and kissed me.

Now Moshe, he only takes off his veil to talk to God, or to tell the people what God said.  Nobody’s going to argue with a man when his face is glowing like the sun.

It’s hard to look at.  Most people take one glance at his face, then look off to the side until he’s done talking.  You can see everyone relax when he puts the veil back on.  It’s a kindness he does, covering his face so he won’t frighten anyone.

I suppose if he wanted to kiss his wife, he’d have to kiss her through the veil.  Not so easy.  And their eyes can’t meet, not really.  But if he took off his veil, she couldn’t bear to look at him at all.

I never thought of that before.  Since Moshe speaks face to face with you, God, that means he can’t speak face to face with anyone else.  Not even his wife.  Nobody ever looks him in the face.

I wonder if he feels like he’s being shunned.

I got seven days of shunning.  Moshe gets a lifetime sentence.  Poor man.  Maybe that’s why he’s so humble.

Maybe I was wrong to criticize him for being a bad husband.  His life is a lot harder than I realized.  I wonder if he ever looks back on the old days in Midian, where he was just a shepherd and a family man.  I wouldn’t blame him.

Actually, I can’t blame Lot’s wife for looking back at Sodom.  What good was it to escape, when her older daughters were dying in the fire?  Hey, maybe I shouldn’t even blame the children of Israel for looking back on our life in Egypt as if it were a good thing.  At least in Egypt there was always garlic.

To think I’ve been proud of not looking back!  How did I get to be such an old woman without ever turning my head around?

You know, even after my husband died, I didn’t let myself look back and long for him.  I thought I was so important, Miriam the Prophetess, I had to set an example.  I had to keep my chin up and my face toward the Promised Land every day, every moment.  I thought I was so righteous, I could tell everyone else how to behave, too.

Hah!  What a stiff-necked Jew I’ve been.

Blessed are you, my God, who blessed me with seven days to look back.

(by Melissa Carpenter)

Naso, Lekh-Lekha, & Vayeira: No Jealousy

May 21, 2021 at 11:02 am | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Naso, Vayeira | Leave a comment

Marriage as always been a strange institution.

The default marriage in the west today is an exclusive covenant between two people who care for one another and restrict their sexual activity to one another. This arrangement is feasible and rewarding for many couples, but not for everyone. So some people try polyamory or “open marriage”, some cheat on their covenant by secretly having sex with others, and some opt for divorce.

The default marriage in the Torah is a different kind of contract. A man with sufficient wealth can take multiple wives, concubines, and female slaves. Another option is to pay prostitutes.  A woman who is not a prostitute is expected to restrict her sexual activity to the man who owns her.  A girl or unmarried women is supposed to remain a virgin and live with her father until he either sells her as a slave,1 or accepts a bride-price for her.

Elkanah and His Wives, from musicformass.blog

In this unequal kind of marriage, one wife might feel jealous of her husband’s other wife because she has some advantage: more children, or more affection from their husband. 2  But a wife does not complain that her husband is unfaithful to her when he takes another woman.

A husband, however, considers it a serious breach of contract if one of his wives has sex with another man.  In the Torah, if a married woman is witnessed committing adultery, both she and her lover get the death penalty.3  A man expects exclusive possession of any woman he purchases, as a wife or as a slave.  If he merely suspects his wife has been unfaithful, but there are no witnesses to prove it, he can divorce her; a man can divorce a wife for any reason.4

What if she has been in an apparently compromising position, but there are no witnesses, and he does not want to divorce her?  The question arises both in this week’s Torah portion, Naso (“Lift it”) in the book of Numbers, and in the book I am writing on moral psychology in the book of Genesis.

Naso in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar

A spirit of kinah passes over him and he is kinei of his wife and she defiled herself, or a spirit of kinah passes over him and he is kinei of his wife and she did not defile herself.  Then the man shall bring his wife to the priest, and he shall bring an offering over her, one-tenth of an eifah of barley flour.  He shall not pour oil over it and he shall not place frankincense on it, because it is a grain-offering of kena-ot, a grain-offering of an acknowledging reminder of a bad deed.   (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:14-15)

kinah (קִנְאָה) = jealousy, envy; passion, fury, zeal.5  (Plural: kena-ot, קְנָאֺת.  In all cases kinah is a powerful feeling that may overwhelm reason.)

kinei (קִנֵּא) = he is jealous, envious, zealous.

Ceremony of the Suspected Adulteress, by Matthijs Pool, 1686-1727

The priest pronounces a curse on the woman, asking God to inflict a particular physical calamity on her if she did lie down with a man other than her husband.  (Biblical scholars do not agree on the exact nature of the calamity, which involves her belly and her crotch; it may be a miscarriage.)  The woman must say “Amen, amen!”  The priest writes down the curse, then rubs the lettering off into water mixed with dirt from the floor of the sanctuary and makes the woman drink it then and there.

After this impressive ordeal, the verdict is up to God.

When he has made her drink the water, it happens: if she defiled herself and she was unfaithful with unfaithfulness to her man, then the water will enter her, inflicting a curse for bitterness, and her belly will swell and her crotch will fall, and the woman will become am object of cursing among her people.  But if the woman has not defiled herself and she is pure, she is cleared and she will bear seed.  (Numbers 5:27-28)

Her husband no longer has any reason for jealousy, and becomes able to trust his wife again.  The rest of the community also accepts that she is innocent.

Vayeira in the book of Genesis/Bereishit

In the book of Genesis, Abraham puts his wife, Sarah, in a compromising position twice by telling a king that she is his sister, accepting the king’s bride-price, and cheerfully sending her off to the king’s harem.  Is he incapable of jealousy?

On the first occasion, in the Torah portion Lekh-Lekha, Abraham, Sarah, and the rest of his household travel to Egypt to escape a famine.  Abraham asks his wife to lie when they reach the border of Egypt.

“Hey, please, I know that you are a woman of beautiful appearance.  And if the Egyptians see you and say, ‘This is his wife’, then they will kill me and let you live.  Say, please, you are my sister, so that it will be good for me because of you, and I will remain alive on account of you.”   (Genesis 12:11-13)

Abraham’s extraordinary request assumes that Egyptians abhor adultery, but have no qualms about killing a man in order to marry his wife.  The pharaoh himself makes Sarah his concubine and pays Abraham a lavish bride-price.  Then God afflicts the pharaoh and his household with a disease.  The pharaoh scolds Abraham and has him and Sarah escorted out of Egypt, but they get to keep the bride-price.

Avimelekh Returns Sarah to Abraham, by Elias_van_Nijmegen (1667-1755)

So Abraham tries it again with King Avimelekh of Gerar in the Torah portion Vayeira.  This time God speaks to the king in a dream after he has paid the bride-price and welcomed Sarah into his house.  God threatens to kill Avimelekh, who protests his innocence due to ignorance.

And God said to him in the dream: “Also I knew that you did this with a blameless heart, and I, even I, restrained you from erring against me.  Therefore I did not let you touch her.  And now, restore the man’s wife.  Since he is a prophet, he will pray for your benefit and life.”  (Genesis 20:6-7)

The early commentary assumes that the king of Gerar also executes husbands in order to marry their wives, so Abraham’s deception is once again justified.   Furthermore, since God calls Abraham a prophet, both the Talmud and Bereishit Rabbah conclude that Abraham knows ahead of time that God will protect Sarah.6   Therefore he is not guilty of pimping his wife.

I disagree.  After traveling toward Egypt for weeks, does Abraham suddenly remember the bizarre ethics of Egyptians?   It is more likely that he gets a brilliant idea for acquiring a lot more wealth in livestock and slaves—if his scam comes off.  That would also explain why he does not return the bride-price after the pharaoh discovers his scam.

He destroys his wife’s honor by putting her in a position where she, too, is exposed as a liar, and where she stays in Pharaoh’s harem long enough for her chastity to be in question.  He is careless about her reputation and does not even consider her self-esteem.

Years later, Abraham uses the same scam to swindle Avimelekh of Gerar—apparently for no reason except that he can get away with it and make a profit.  No sense of honor stops him, nor does any consideration for either his wife or the afflicted king.

Abraham is an amusing trickster, and nobody is killed on his account.   He happily prays for healing for Avimelekh—once he has received the king’s gifts.   But he fails to meet his moral obligations either to his wife or to the kings of the countries where he is a guest.

Abraham does, in effect, pimp his wife.  Why does he feel no jealousy?  If marrying the two kings were Sarah’s idea, then he might be granting her the freedom he enjoys as a man.  But Abraham, not Sarah, is the one who initiates the scam both times.

If he knows ahead of time that God will prevent both kings from touching Sarah, then he is spared from jealousy over his property, i.e. his wife.

Or perhaps Abraham does not really care what happens to Sarah.  The Torah says Isaac loves his wife, Rebecca,7 and Jacob loves one of his wives, Rachel,8 but it does not say Abraham loves any of the three women he has children with.9

There is more than one way to avoid jealousy in a marriage.

  1. In Exodus 21:7-11, sexual duties are part of the job description of a daughter sold as a slave.
  2. For example, in Genesis 29:31-30:24, Leah envies Rachel because their mutual husband, Jacob, loves Rachel more. Rachel envies Leah because Leah regularly bears Jacob children. In 1 Samuel 1:1-8, Hannah is jealous of her husband Elkanah’s other wife, Peninah, because Peninah has children.2
  3. Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22. The Talmud later added so many extra requirements for conviction of adultery that the death penalty was no longer practiced. A man is free to have sexual intercourse with an unbetrothed virgin as long as he then pays her father a bride-price and marries her (Deuteronomy 22:28).
  4. Deuteronomy 24:1.
  5. Kinah for God is usually translated as “zeal”, and kinah of one human over another human is usually translated as “jealousy”. God’s kinah regarding humans is often translated as “fury”, though Isaiah and Zecharaiah refer to God’s kinah meaning God’s zeal to ensure a good future for the Israelites (Isaiah 9:6, 11:11, 37:32; Zechariah 1:14, 8:2).
  6. Talmud Makkot 9b, Bereishit Rabbah.
  7. When God tells him to obey Sarah and send away Hagar and her son Ishmael, he is only troubled about Ishmael (Genesis 21:9-12).
  8. Genesis 24:67.
  9. Genesis 29:18.
  10. Sarah (Genesis 21:2), Hagar (Genesis 16:15), and Keturah (Genesis 25:1-2).

Shavuot, Vayeira & Ruth: Whatever You Say

May 15, 2021 at 10:16 pm | Posted in Ruth, Shavuot, Vayeira | 1 Comment

Barley sheaf

At first Shavuot (שָׁבֻעֹת = weeks) marked the end of the seven-week barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest.1 Then it became one of the three annual pilgrimage-festivals in Jerusalem, the day to bring gifts of first fruits to the temple, and it came on fiftieth day after Passover/Pesach.2 After the fall of the second temple, the rabbis decided that day was the anniversary of God’s revelation and transmission of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

This year Shavuot begins at sunset on Sunday, May 16. Some Jews will stay up all night studying Torah—including the book of Ruth,3 which touches on both the barley harvest and the acceptance of the Torah.  The celebration at the end of the barley harvest is the night when Ruth risks everything.4 She also embraces the religion transmitted at Mount Sinai; she leaves her own land, Moab, to follow her mother-in-law Naomi, saying:

from The Story of Ruth, Thomas Matthews Rooke, 1876

“Where you go, I will go; where you stay, I will stay; your people will be my people; and your god will be my god.” (Ruth 1:16)

Although Naomi discourages her, and the Israelites do not welcome her at first, Ruth’s embrace of her new life is as wholehearted as her attachment to Naomi.

During the barley harvest, she feeds herself and her mother-in-law by gleaning in the field of kind landowner named Boaz.  Naomi identifies Boaz as a potential “redeemer”, a male relative who can fulfill two duties for a widow: buying back her deceased husband’s land, and giving her a son in her deceased husband’s name, thereby giving her a place in his family.5

But although Boaz is generous toward Ruth in the barley field, it does not occur to him that he could do more for her and his kinswoman Naomi. He may be holding back because he expects Ruth to marry one of the younger men in the town; later in the story, he praises her for not going after them.6

Ruth at Boaz’s Feet (a polite version), William deBrailes, ca. 1250

So when the barley harvest ends, Naomi comes up with an audacious scheme. She tells Ruth to hide near the threshing floor and wait until Boaz has feasted, drunk, and dozed off.

“Then go over and uncover his ‘feet’ and lie down. And he himself will tell you what to do.” And [Ruth] said to her: “Kol that you say to me I will do.” (Ruth 3:4-5)

kol (כֹּל) = all, everything, whatever, anything.

Ruth is risking her whole future on Naomi’s desperate plan. Boaz could treat her as a prostitute rather than an honorable woman. Or he might cry out in surprise when he wakes up and finds her, and then the other men sleeping on the threshing floor would awaken and discover her in a compromising position.

But Ruth has attached herself to Naomi so completely that she does exactly what her mother-in-law says—and more. When Boaz wakes at midnight, startled, he asks (presumably in a whisper) “Who are you?”

And she said: “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wing over your servant, because you are a redeemer.” (Ruth 3:10)

Now she is telling Boaz what to do. He is rich and powerful in his community; she is an impoverished foreigner, dependent on his good will. But she does everything she can to carry out Naomi’s plan successfully.

Ruth courageously follows all of Naomi’s instructions and more because she has committed herself completely to her mother-in-law.

*

Back in the book of Genesis, Abraham is not nearly as committed to his wife, Sarah.  When she tells him to have a child with her slave-woman, Hagar, he goes along with her request, but disregards the reason she gives.

And Sarah said to Abraham: “Hey, please, God has kept me from bearing a child. Please come into my slave-woman; perhaps I will be built up through her.” And Abraham heeded Sarah’s voice. (Genesis 16:2)

Sarah Presenting Hagar to Abraham, by Matthias Stomer, 17th century

Sarah politely informs him that she wants a child, even if she must adopt the child of her husband and her slave, Hagar. Abraham heeds her request long enough to get Hagar pregnant, but by the time Sarah complains that Hagar is belittling her, he has lost interest. Instead of intervening to put Sarah’s adoption plan back on track, he merely says:

“Hey, your slave-woman is in your hand. Do to her what is good in your eyes.” (Genesis 16:6)

Sarah abuses Hagar, and Hagar runs away and has a conversation with God. Although she returns to Abraham’s camp, her newborn baby is not placed in Sarah’s lap to signify adoption.7 The boy is named Ishmael—not by Sarah, but by God and then Abraham.

Abraham loves his son.8 But when Ishmael is an adolescent Sarah gives birth to her own son, Isaac. She tells her husband to cast out Ishmael, along with Hagar.

The thing was very bad in Abraham’s eyes, on account of his son. And God said to Abraham: “Don’t let it be bad in your eyes concerning the young man or concerning your slave-woman.  Kol that Sarah says to you, heed her voice, because through Yitzchak descendants will be called by your [name]. And also the son of the slave-woman I will make a nation [out of him], since he is your seed.” (Genesis 21:11-13)

Only when God tells him to do whatever Sarah says does Abraham send away Ishmael and his mother.

And Abraham got up early in the morning, and he took bread and a skin of water and he gave them to Hagar, placed them on her shoulder and the boy[’s], and he sent her away … (Genesis 21:14)

Abraham is a rich man; he could easily afford to give Hagar and Ishmael a donkey or two loaded with provisions and trade goods. And for all he knows, Sarah would not object; she says she does not want Ishmael to inherit Abraham’s estate, but she does not say anything about parting gifts.

Yet Abraham sends off his older son and his concubine with only bread and a single skin of water. They get lost in the desert, the water runs out, and Ishmael is about to die of dehydration when God sends an angel to intervene.9

Abraham can safely assume Ishmael will live long enough to have at least one son, since God promises to “make a nation” out of him. But even if he is not risking Ishmael’s life, Abraham is still responsible for making Ishmael and his mother suffer from thirst and agony in the desert. His neglect is unnecessary and unethical.

Why is he so mean? Abraham is not wholehearted about either Ishmael or Sarah. He obeys God by doing what Sarah says, but he does it grudgingly and badly. Perhaps he closes his heart in order to obey Sarah, and then his heart remains closed. He no longer wants to love Ishmael.

*

Ruth, on the other hand, is so wholehearted in her attachment to Naomi that her heart is open to Boaz as well.

Naomi introduced her threshing floor scheme by saying:

“My daughter, should I not seek for you a tranquil place where it will be good for you?” (Ruth 3:1)

She wants Ruth to have a better life. But Ruth knows that Boaz is kind-hearted enough so that if he redeems her and gives her a tranquil place in his home, he will not leave Naomi out in the cold. For Naomi’s sake, Ruth makes what amounts to an offer of marriage to Boaz.

When she reminds him that he is a potential redeemer, Boaz says:

“And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. Kol that you say to me I will do for you.” (Ruth 3:11)

Like Ruth, Boaz does exactly what he is told, and more. He helps her sneak away from the threshing floor before dawn, and sends her back to Naomi with a gift of threshed barley. In the morning, in order to make sure nobody can question his acting as the redeemer, Boaz sits with the other elders in the city gate and hails the only relative of Naomi’s who is closer to her on the family tree. The other elders serve as witnesses that the other man refuses to be the redeemer, and that Boaz is now acquiring the land and Ruth.

Boaz opens his heart to Ruth and Naomi, and takes extra steps to make sure his marriage to Ruth is legal and recognized by the whole community, even though she is a Moabite. The book ends with Boaz and Ruth’s newborn son sitting on Naomi’s lap. Naomi has become his adoptive mother, the role Sarah wanted but never got.

In the book of Genesis, Abraham’s half-hearted compliance with Sarah’s requests signals his shrinking love for both Sarah and Ishmael, and foreshadows his willingness to sacrifice Isaac without a protest.10 In the book of Ruth, Ruth does everything Naomi says and more, while Boaz does everything Ruth says and more. The result is a tranquil household in which all three adults are loving and generous.

May we all learn to be as open-hearted as Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz became.

  1. For seven weeks after Passover we count the omer (עֺמֶר), a measure of barley. Click here to see my post: Omer: Counting 49.
  2. Numbers 28:26-31 (the maftir reading for both days of Shavuot) and Deuteronomy 16:9-12, 16:16-17 (part of the Torah reading for the second day of Shavuot).
  3. The rabbis of the first millennium C.E. assigned a biblical book to reach on each of the pilgrimage-festivals: The Song of Songs on Passover, Ruth on Shavuot, and Ecclesiastes on Sukkot.
  4. Ruth 3:1-18.
  5. For more on the role of a redeemer, see Deuteronomy 25:5-6 and Genesis 38:6-26, or my post Yitro & Vayeishev: Fathers-in-Law.
  6. Ruth 3:10.
  7. The adoptive parent holds the infant on his or her knees as part of the adoption ritual in Genesis 30:3-13 and Genesis 48:5 and 48:12.
  8. Genesis 17:18-21.
  9. Genesis 21:14-17.
  10. Genesis 22:1-13.

 

Behar & Jeremiah: When Someone Needs Help

May 6, 2021 at 5:07 pm | Posted in Behar, Jeremiah | Leave a comment

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra is packed with laws for ethical human interactions, as well as rules for religious rituals.  This week Jews read a double Torah portion in Leviticus, Behar and BechukotaiBehar introduces the idea of the yoveil (“jubilee”) every 50 years, when every plot of land in the future kingdom of Israel returns to the family that originally owned it, and every Hebrew slave goes free.1  The reason given is that the real owner of all the land, and the real owner of all Israelite slaves, is God.2  Periodically things must be restored to the way God set them up.

For Israelites who have fallen into debt, the yoveil year is the last resort.  Obviously people who had to sell their land, or themselves, benefit from a clean slate every 50 years.  But the Torah portion also provides instructions for wealthier relatives to “redeem” the land or the slave by serving as the buyer.  If they cannot afford it at the time, they buy the property or person from the first buyer as soon as possible.

The redeemer gets to own the property or person until the yoveil year, but he must treat them well.3

And if your brother under you is [further] impoverished and sells himself to you, do not work him with the work of a slave.  Like a hired or live-in laborer he shall be to you, until the year of the yoveil.  (Leviticus 25:39-40)

In this context, “brother” means any male kinsman.

Similarly, the rules about redeeming a poor kinsman’s property are not just about keeping land in the extended family consisting of descendants of the family that was originally allocated the land in the time of Joshua.

If your kinsman becomes impoverished and must sell part of his property, then his nearest go-eil shall come and ga-al what his kinsman is selling. (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:25)

go-eil (גֹּאֵל) = redeemer; deliverer.

ga-al (גָּאַל) = redeem; prevent purchase by an outsider, buy back from an outsider.

The impoverished man’s nearest go-eil is his closest relative who can afford to buy or buy back, the land.  The go-eil can keep the property and use it himself until the next yoveil year, when all lands will return to the descendants of their original owners.  But he cannot kick his poor relative off the land; the poor man and his family continue to live on the property and become tenant farmers for the new owner.

And if your brother is impoverished and comes under your hand, and you take hold of him [as if he were] at resident alien, then he must thrive with you.  Do not take interest or extra charges from him.  (Leviticus 25:35-36)

The haftarah reading from Jeremiah that accompanies the Torah portion Behar demonstrates that the law for redeeming land also requires the go-eil to look out for the kinsman whose land he has purchased.

Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch in prison, by Gustave Dore, 19th cent. CE

In the haftarah, King Zedekiah of Judah has thrown the prophet Jeremiah in prison because he kept declaring that the king should surrender before Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar’s troops.  While Jeremiah is in prison, God tells him:

Hey! Chanameil, son of your uncle Shulam, will come to you saying: Buy yourself my field that is in Anatot, because yours is the duty of the ge-ulah to buy it. (Jeremiah 32:7)

ge-ulah (גְּאֻלָּה) = right of redemption; responsibility to redeem. (From the same root as ga-al.)

Sure enough, Jeremiah’s cousin Chanameil does visit him in prison with the news that he is in debt and has to sell the farm.  He is offering the land to Jeremiah first, as the law of ge-ulah requires.  Jeremiah pays his cousin in silver, solving Chanameil’s immediate problem.  He is meticulous about following his country’s legal procedures, even though he knows the whole country will eventually fall to the Babylonian army.4

A few chapters later in the book of Jeremiah, the Babylonian army temporarily lifts the siege of Jerusalem.

And it happened that the Babylonians removed the front-line troops from around Jerusalem, on account of the advancing troops of Pharaoh.  Jeremiah was leaving Jerusalem to go to the territory of Benjamin there lachalik among the people.  And he was at the gate of Benjamin, and there the commander of the guard …arrested Jeremiah the prophet, saying: “You are defecting to the Babylonians!” (Jeremiah 37:11-13)

lachalik (לַחֲלִק) = to participate in the division or distribution of property.

There is no consensus among translators about what lachalik means in this context.5  What other reason would Jeremiah have to leave the shelter of the city, when he knows the Babylonian army will return, except to defect?  One answer is that he is concerned about the land he bought from his cousin in Anatot.  He wants to make sure the sale of his cousin’s land was carried out according to the documents he had prepared.

Jeremiah is not concerned about his ownership of the property, since God has told him the Babylonians will win and everyone will be dispossessed.  He probably wants to check up on his cousin Chanameil and make sure no outsider has kicked him off the land that he is now, technically, farming for Jeremiah.  Until the kingdom of Judah finally falls to the Babylonians, Chanameil needs to farm that land to support himself and his family.

I believe Jeremiah is acting in the spirit, not just the letter, of the law in the Torah portion Behar.  He is his cousin’s go-eil, and as long as possible he will strive to redeem him from poverty.  It is bad luck that he is intercepted at the city gate and thrown into prison, so he cannot carry out his intention.  (You can read more about this haftarah by clicking on this link to my post: Haftarat Behar—Jeremiah: The Redeemer.)

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asks in the book of Genesis.6  Jeremiah’s actions say yes, as his cousin’s go-eil he is also his cousin’s keeper.  Even after he has redeemed Chanameil’s land, Jeremiah tries to continue to look out for him.

*

The Torah portion Behar sanctions, indeed requires, helping an impoverished member of one’s extended family in a way that also benefits the one who does the good deed.  Today we can write a check to a program for reducing poverty and write it off on our taxes, or do a kindness to a member of our family or community that also burnishes our own reputation.  But I believe we should not stop there.  Like Jeremiah, we should follow up on the results of our action, as long as we are able.

Ethical behavior is not an abstraction or a punch list.  Let’s make it personal.

  1. Leviticus 25:8-16, 25:39-54.
  2. Leviticus 25:23-24, 25:55.
  3. In the world addressed by the Torah, men own all the wealth and women are treated as the property of their husbands, fathers, or masters.
  4. Jeremiah 32:9-14.
  5. Robert Alter even suggests lachalik means “to hide” here, based on an Akkadian cognate, although the word appears to be a hifil form of the kal verb chalak (חָלַק) = divided up, allotted shares. (Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible, Volume 2: Prophets, W. Norton & Co., 2019, p. 983)
  6. Genesis 4:9.

 

Emor, Chayyei Sarah, & Toledot: Intermarriage

April 28, 2021 at 10:25 pm | Posted in Chayyei Sarah, Emor, Toledot | Leave a comment

The geir who resides among you shall be like the native-born among you, and you must love him like yourself, since you were geirim in the land of Egypt.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:34)

geir (גֵר) = immigrant, resident alien.  (Plural = geirim, גֵרִים.)

Boaz and Ruth (a geir), by E.C.F. Holbein, 1830

We must love our neighbors like ourselves not only when they are from our own people, but also when they are immigrants, strangers from another land; God says so in last week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim.1

Native-born citizens are sometimes prejudiced against immigrants, in the Torah as well as in the world today.  This week’s Torah portion, Emor (“Say”), ends with the case of a blasphemer.  The writer of this section mentions that the blasphemer is an outsider, the child of an intermarriage.

The son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man went out among the Israelites, and the son of the Israelite woman and an Israelite man quarreled in the camp. (Leviticus 24:10)2

For the rest of the story multiethnic man is called “the son of the Israelite woman”, reminding the reader that his father is not an Israelite and implying that he therefore has a lower status.  The other man is called simply “the Israelite”.

And the son of the Israelite woman blasphemed, and he treated the name of God with contempt.  And they brought him to Moses …  (Leviticus 24:11)

Moses waits for God to tell him the penalty, and God says the blasphemer should be stoned:

The Blasphemer Stoned, from Figures de la Bible, 1728

“And speak to the Israelites, saying: Anyone who treats his God with contempt must carry his guilt.  And whoever blasphemes against the name of God must certainly be put to death.  The whole assembly must definitely stone him, whether geir or native-born; for his blaspheming the name, he must be put to death.  (Leviticus 24:15-16)

Despite the writer’s bias against the blasphemer’s mixed parentage, God clarifies that the death penalty applies to anyone who desecrates God’s name, immigrant or native.  God generalizes:

“One law must be for all of you, whether geir or native-born, because I, God, am your God.”  (Leviticus 24:22)

*

As I draft the conclusion of my book on moral psychology in Genesis, I am noticing how the book of Genesis addresses intermarriage.  Abraham makes his steward swear:

“… that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I am living.  Instead, you must go to my land and my homeland, and [there] you will take a wife for my son, for Isaac.”  (Genesis 24:3-4)

He is probably discriminating against the Canaanites because of their religion.  The Arameans in Abraham’s hometown of Charan may well worship more than one god, but at least they recognize a god with the same four-letter personal name as Abraham’s God.3

Isaac and Rebekah, by Simeon Solomon, 1863

Abraham’s steward brings a bride back from Charan: Rebecca, Abraham’s grandniece; and Abraham’s son Isaac marries her.

Isaac and Rebecca want brides from Charan for their sons, too, but their firstborn son, Esau, disappoints them.

And Esau was forty years old, and he took as a wife Yehudit, daughter of Beiri the Hittite, and Basmat, daughter of Eylon the Hittite.  And they made the spirits of Isaac and Rebecca bitter.  (Genesis 26:34)

After the tension between Esau and his brother Jacob has escalated until Esau is contemplating fratricide, Rebecca tells Isaac:

“I am disgusted with my life because of the Hittite women.  If Jacob takes a wife from the Hittite women like these, why should I go on living?”  (Genesis 27.46)

Isaac gets the hint.  He summons Jacob and says:

“You must not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan.  Get up, go to Padan of Aram4 to the house of Betu-eil, your mother’s father, and take yourself a wife from there, from the daughters of Lavan, your mother’s brother.”  (Genesis 28:1-2)

Jacob leaves at once for Charan, fleeing from his angry brother Esau.  He marries both of Lavan’s daughters, and he takes their maidservants (who presumably share the family’s religion) as concubines.  Yet he shows no concern over the religious affiliations of the women that his own twelve sons marry.

Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, by Rembrandt

On his deathbed Jacob adopts two of his many grandsons so they will inherit equal shares with his sons.  These two are Menasheh and Efrayim, the children of Jacob’s son Joseph and Joseph’s Egyptian wife, Asnat.  Menasheh and Efrayim, like the blasphemer in the Torah portion Emor, are half Israelite and half Egyptian.  But like God, Jacob does not discriminate against them.  He is not even concerned that their mother will alienate them from his and Joseph’s religion, though Asnat is the daughter of an Egyptian priest of On! 5

In fact, Jacob concludes the adoption ritual by declaring:

“Through you Israel will give blessings, saying: My God place you like Efrayim and Menasheh.”  (Genesis 48:20)

This sentence is commonly interpreted as referring to the amity between the two brothers, and later their eponymous tribes, despite the placement of Efrayim (the younger brother) as the dominant one—both in Jacob’s adoption ritual and in the politics of the tribes of the Kingdom of Israel.  But it could also mean that both sons and both tribes were a blessing for the Israelites, despite their mixed Israelite and Egyptian heritage.

May we all judge people by their deeds rather than their origins.  And may we all recognize the blessings that come to us from immigrants and from the children of multiethnic couples.

  1. You must not take vengeance nor bear a grudge against the children of your people; you must love your neighbor like yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)
  2. For more on the possible cause of the quarrel, see my post Emor: Blasphemy.
  3. Genesis 24:50-51.
  4. “Paddan of Aram” is a name for the region of Mesopotamia that includes Charan.
  5. Genesis 41:45.

Acharey Mot, Kedoshim, & Vayeira: Incest

April 22, 2021 at 11:20 am | Posted in Acharey Mot, Kedoshim, Vayeira | Leave a comment

Taboos against incest exist in all cultures; what varies is which relationships are considered incestuous. This week’s double Torah portion, Acharey Mot and Kedoshim, includes two overlapping lists of family members who are forbidden as sexual partners. Yet father-daughter sex is not mentioned.

Both lists are addressed to men. The first begins:

Any man may not approach any flesh of his flesh to uncover nakedness.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:6)

Both lists are about incest between men and females; homosexual incest is not considered, perhaps because both Torah portions also forbids lying down with a man “like lying down with a woman”.1

Together the two lists forbid “any man” from “lying down with” his mother, another of his father’s wives, his mother-in-law, his sister or half-sister, his granddaughter, his aunt (by blood or marriage), his brother’s wife, or his daughter-in-law.2 A man is also forbidden to marry a woman and her mother.3

Abraham says his wife, Sarah, is his half-sister when he is explaining himself to King Avimelekh.4 But since he previously deceived Avimelekh by pretending Sarah was unmarried, the reader cannot be sure he is telling the truth.

Neither list mentions sex between a man and his niece. Was it acceptable? In the book of Genesis, Nachor marries his niece Milcah.5 In Joshua and Judges, Caleb’s daughter Achsah marries Otniel, but it is ambiguous whether Otniel is Caleb’s younger brother or younger kinsman.6 Midrash from the first millennium C.E. turns some other marriages in the Torah into uncle-niece unions without real support from the biblical text. The Talmud, however, approves of a man marrying his niece on the ground that he is already fond of her:

One who loves his neighbors … and who marries the daughter of his sister, a woman he knows and is fond of as a family relative and not only as a wife … about him the verse states: “Then shall you call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say: Here I am” (Isaiah 58:9). (Yevamot 62b-63a)7

Ø

The most egregious omission in the incest lists in Acharey Mot and Kedoshim is sex between a father and his daughter. Yet we know, from a story in the book of Genesis, that calling someone a child of such a union is an insult.

When God is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, two angels pull Lot, his wife, and his two unmarried daughters out of their house in Sodom and urge them to flee.  Lot’s wife looks back and becomes a pillar of salt, but the other three travel on and move into a cave in the hills above the fire-blasted plain.

And the older one said to the younger one: “Our father is old, and there is no man on the earth to come into us in the way of all the earth. Go, let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie down with him, and we will stay alive through our father’s seed.” (Genesis 19:31-32)

They take turns, the older daughter lying with him on the first night, the younger on the second night.

And the two daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father. And the child of the older one was a son, and she called his name Moav; he is the father of [the people of] Moav to this day. And the younger one, she also became pregnant with a son, and she called his name Ben-Ammi; he is the father of the children of Ammon to this day. (Genesis 19:36-38)

The political point of this tale is to denigrate the neighboring kingdoms of Moav and Ammon by claiming that their founding fathers are the children of incest.8 It was probably all too common for men to molest their underage daughters then, as it is today. But a story about adult women molesting their father might seem both humorous and sordid to the ancient Israelites—and therefore an effective way to bias the listeners toward supporting the Kingdom of Israel’s occasional wars with Moav and/or Ammon over territory on the east side of the Jordan River.9

Within the storyline of Genesis, Lot’s daughters are not disobeying God.  There are no divine laws against incest until this week’s double portion in Leviticus, and the only statement in those lists that could apply to a father-daughter liaison is the introductory “Any man may not approach any flesh of his flesh to uncover nakedness”. The book of Genesis does not use this general divine rule retroactively; Nachor’s marriage to his niece and Abraham’s claim that he married his half-sister pass without censure.

If the decision of Lot’s daughters to use their father in order to have children does not count as disobeying God, does it count as an immoral act?

I examine this question in the book I am writing about moral psychology in Genesis, and conclude that even if there really were no other men in left alive on earth, it would be wrong to produce children who would have no opportunity for satisfying lives in an empty world. Lot’s two daughters are understandably traumatized (and not thinking clearly, or they would realize the earth is not entirely depopulated). But they would be more righteous if they denied themselves the comfort children could bring them.

Ethical reasons for avoiding incest include drawbacks for the children of the union (although in most cases the drawback is an increased chance of genetic diseases). But there is a compelling ethical reason to avoid incest even when no children result: the combination of incompatible roles. The worst combination is when a parent, who exercises authority over and responsibility for a child, has sex with the child, who tries to please the powerful parent and cannot give free consent. This is child abuse, and plainly unethical, whether God condemns it or not.

When Lot’s daughters render their father helpless through drink and then take advantage of him, are they committing elder abuse?

  1. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.
  2. Leviticus 18:7-16, 20:11-12, 20:17, 20:19-21. Genesis 38:6-26 makes an exception to the rule about sex with one’s daughter-in-law.
  3. Leviticus 20:14.
  4. Genesis 20:12.
  5. Genesis 11:29. Nachor is Abraham’s brother. Subsequently Abraham’s son Isaac marries their granddaughter Rebecca, Isaac’s first cousin once removed. Then Isaac and Rebecca’s son Jacob marries Leah and Rachel, his uncle Lavan’s daughters and his own first cousins.
  6. Caleb is listed as “ben Yefuneh” in Numbers 13:6. Judges 1:13 says: And Otniel, ben Kenaz, the younger achi of Caleb, captured it for him, and he gave him Akhsah, his daughter, for a wife. Ben (בֶּן) = son of, male descendant of. Achi (אֲחִי) = brother of, kinsman of.
  7. William Davidson translation, sefaria.org.
  8. The names of the two sons are examples of folk etymology. Moab, Moav (מוֹאָב) in Hebrew, is explained as m- (מְ) = from + av (אָב) = father.   Ben-Ammi (בֶּן־עַמִּי) means “child of Ammon” or “Ammonite”, but it is also ben (בֶּן) = child of, son of + ammi (עַמִּי) = my paternal relatives.
  9. See Judges 3:26-30, 11:29-33; 1 Samuel 11:1-13; 2 Samuel 8:2, 12:26-31; 2 Kings 3:4-27.

 

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