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, Chayei Sarah, & Toledot: Intermarriage

April 28, 2021 at 10:25 pm | Posted in Chayei 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.

 

Passover, Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 2

April 1, 2021 at 12:51 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Passover/Pesach, Vayeishev | Leave a comment

The wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask; these are the four kinds of children in the Passover Seder.  Can we find them among Jacob’s progeny?

Last week I argued that out of the three of Jacob’s children with speaking roles in the book of Genesis, Reuben is an unwise wise child, and Judah is a reformed wicked child.  You can read that post here: Passover, Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 1.

The only other one of Jacob’s children who speaks is Joseph.  In the Passover Haggadah, the simple child says only, “What is this?”  Joseph says a great deal more.

Joseph: Complicated Simple Son

In fact, he talks too much.  By the time he is seventeen, four of his older brothers hate him because he brings bad reports of them to their father, Jacob.1  The rest hate him because he is Jacob’s favorite.  Joseph should notice their animosity, since “they could not speak to him in peace”.2

Joseph Reveals his Dream to his Brothers, by James J.J. Tissot

Yet he tells his brothers about two dreams in which they (thinly disguised as sheaves of grain, then as stars) are bowing down to him.3

Only a simple child would tell these dreams to brothers who already hate him.  Does Joseph realize how his older brothers feel?  Is he unable to imagine that they might lash out at him?

Their father, Jacob (who may also be deficient in emotional intelligence) sends Joseph off alone to check up on his brothers and their flocks.  As soon as he reaches them, they seize him, throw him into a pit, and argue about whether to kill him, let him slowly starve, or sell him as a slave.4  He pleads with them to no avail,5 and before the day is over he is a slave bound for Egypt.

The next time Joseph speaks is when his Egyptian master’s wife tries to seduce him, and he explains that he will not lie down with her because it would be wicked.6   It does not even occur to him to flatter her when he refuses her advances. She does not take his rejection well, and Joseph ends up in Pharaoh’s prison.

One morning in prison Joseph notices that two of his fellow prisoners, Pharaoh’s head butler and head baker, have “bad expressions”7—the first sign that he is noticing the feelings of others.  He asks them why, and they say there is no one to interpret their dreams.

Joseph in Prison, by James J.J. Tissot

Then Joseph said to them: “Aren’t dream interpretations for God?  Please tell me.”  (Genesis 40:8)

Is Joseph giving credit to God for his upcoming interpretations, or is he claiming that God gives him secret information?  Probably both.  Joseph’s predictions based on their dreams come true, and two years later when Pharaoh has a pair of puzzling dreams, the head butler recommends Joseph.

This time Joseph says God is revealing the future to Pharaoh through those dreams.8  The implication that God is giving Pharaoh, not Joseph, secret information indicates Joseph’s increasing sophistication.  He says the dreams are forecasting seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and throws in some advice: Pharaoh should appoint an insightful man to organize stockpiling and later distribution of food.  Impressed, Pharaoh appoints Joseph.  From then on, he is the viceroy of Egypt.9

When Joseph’s ten older brothers come to the viceroy to buy grain during the first year of famine they do not recognize him.  Joseph plays a complicated game, arranging elaborate tests to see if his brothers have reformed.10  Joseph’s premise is that he can judge his older brothers according to how they treat Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son and his new favorite.

Joseph still has grandiose impulses, and adds details to his game that are not strictly necessary.  For example, he invites them to dinner and seats them in order from oldest to youngest, although no Egyptian could guess their exact birth order.  They are astonished by his apparent magical power.11

The final test comes when Joseph plants a silver cup in Benjamin’s pack, then accuses him of stealing it and decrees that the punishment is to stay in Egypt as the viceroy’s slave.  Joseph’s ten older brothers say they are all guilty and they will all be slaves with him.  Even this is not enough for Joseph, who insists that only Benjamin will stay.12  Finally Judah breaks the deadlock by explaining that their father could not live without Benjamin.  Judah begs to be the viceroy’s slave instead of Benjamin, and Joseph finally breaks down and admits who he is.13

But there is one more complication.  Joseph is so attached to his role as the savior of Egypt, Canaan, and his own family, that he says:

“And now don’t worry and don’t be angry with yourselves because you sold me.  Because hey! God sent me ahead of you to save life.  For this was a pair of years of the famine in the midst of the land, and there will be five more years when there will be no plowing nor reaping …  So now, you did not send me here!  Rather, God did, and he placed me as a father-figure to Pharaoh and as a master to all his household and a ruler over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:5-8)

By the end of this speech Joseph is bragging about his high position.  As Pharaoh’s 39-year-old viceroy, he is older and wiser than he was at age 17.  But he is still as full of himself as a simple child.  He is also full of his theory of divine providence (at least for him and his family), and does not see that his brothers need his forgiveness.

Joseph invites the whole extended family to live in Egypt and benefit from his munificence.  Yet when their father Jacob dies, his ten older sons send a message to Joseph begging for a pardon.  They still do not feel safe with a simple child who has absolute power over them and never explicitly forgave them.

Then Joseph said to them: “Don’t be afraid!  Am I instead of God?  And you, you planned evil for me, but God planned it for good, in order to bring about this time of keeping many people alive.  And now, don’t be afraid; I, myself, will provide for you and your little ones.”  And he comforted them, and he spoke to their hearts.  (Genesis 50:19-21)

Whatever Joseph says to comfort them works, and they have a change of heart.  But I wish one of Joseph’s brothers would protest, “What is this?”

Benjamin: Speechless Son

Jacob has nine sons who are not quoted in the Torah.  He also has a daughter, Dinah, who is silent about her own rape, the subsequent proposed marriage, and the murder of her would-be bridegroom.14  I am tempted to call Dinah the fourth child in the Passover Seder, the “child who does not know how to ask”, so I could grandstand about how women in the Ancient Near East were pawns and chattels of the men, deprived even of the right to speak for themselves.15

But if Reuben, Judah, and Joseph correspond to the three children who ask questions, then the fourth child, who is amazed by the Passover rituals but cannot put together a question, must be Benjamin.

Benjamin is the youngest of Jacob’s children, and the only one who does not commit or witness any terrible deeds.  He has not even been born when Dinah is raped and Jacob’s oldest sons massacre all the men in the town of Shekhem.  He is only a toddler in Jacob’s camp when Joseph’s older brothers sell him as a slave.  The first year Jacob sends his ten older sons to Egypt to buy grain, he does not let Benjamin go.  The second year, when Benjamin does go, he is a married man with children of his own—but he is leaving his father’s home for the first time in his life!

He is silent—probably flabbergasted—when the viceroy’s steward “finds” the silver cup in his pack and accuses him of stealing it.  Benjamin remains silent when his older brothers tell the viceroy they will all stay in Egypt and suffer the punishment of slavery.  Another man might protest at this point, but Benjamin is not used to making his own ethical decisions.

After the viceroy reveals that he is Joseph, he embraces Benjamin first.

And [Joseph] fell on the neck of Benjamin, his brother, and he sobbed, and Benjamin sobbed on his neck.  And he kissed all his brothers and he sobbed on them.  And after that his brothers spoke to him.  (Genesis 45:14-15)

Benjamin is the only one of Joseph’s brothers who sobs back.  He is overwhelmed by Joseph’s affection, and unlike his older brothers, he is innocent of any wrongdoing.  He can react freely, and non-verbally.

Like the fourth child in the Passover Seder, Benjamin is the baby of the family.  It does not even occur to him to question what is going on.  We do not learn whether he ever grows up.

  1. Genesis 37:2.
  2. Genesis 37:3-4.
  3. Genesis 37:5-9.
  4. Reuben argues that they should throw Joseph in the pit without killing him outright, implying that he will eventually die of dehydration.  Reuben’s plan is to sneak back and rescue him (Genesis 37:21-22).  Judah persuades his brothers to sell Joseph to a passing caravan (Genesis 37:26-28).
  5. Genesis 42:21.
  6. Genesis 39:8-9.
  7. Genesis 40:7.
  8. Genesis 41:25.
  9. Genesis 41:39-44.
  10. Genesis 42:9-25, 43:26-44:17.
  11. Genesis 43:33.
  12. Genesis 44:16-17.
  13. Genesis 44:18-45:3.
  14. Genesis 34:1-31.
  15. Except for Rebecca, who can say “yes” or “no” to her engagement to Isaac (Genesis 24:57-58).

 

Passover, Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 1

March 24, 2021 at 7:21 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Passover/Pesach, Vayeishev | 1 Comment

The number four is big in the Passover/Pesach seder.  The Haggadah (the script for the ritual) is punctuated by four cups of wine.  Between the first cup and the second, the youngest person present sings the four questions, we read about four rabbis who stayed up all night, and we answer questions from four kinds of children.

The Four Seder-night Sons, American Haggadah, circa 1920

“The Four Sons” Passover tradition is first reported in the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, and might date as early as the second century C.E.1

There are four sons: a wise son, a wicked son, a simple son, and one who does not know how to ask.  (Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, 13:14)2

The Torah prescribes what a father should say to a son on Pesach four times.3  Three of these instructions are preceded in the Torah by a hypothetical question from a child.  These three questions are similar in the Torah, the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, and the Haggadah:

  1. The “wise child”: “What are the terms and the decrees and the laws which God, our God, has commanded us?”
  2. The “wicked child”: “What does this service mean to you?”
  3. The “simple child”: “What is this?”
  4. The “child who does not know how to ask”.  (This child corresponds to an implied question about why everyone must eat only unleavened bread during the seven-day festival.  Moses gives the answer: “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying: This is because God did for me when I went free from Egypt.”  (Exodus 13:8))

The three questions may be similar, but the answers in the Haggadah leave out a lot of the information in the Torah, and one answer, to the so-called wicked child, is quite different.3  You can compare the Torah versions and the Haggadah versions in my 2019 post: Pesach: Changing Four Sons.

Every year as Pesach approaches, I enjoy playing with the idea of four kinds of children.  In 2012 I applied the four children model to Aaron’s four sons in this post: Shemini: Aaron’s Four SonsIn 2014 I wrote a post about the four children in terms of the four worlds of kabbalah in this post: Passover: Children of Four Worlds.

This year I am writing my book on morality in Genesis, and thinking about  Jacob’s twelve sons and one daughter.  Only three of his children get speaking roles in the Torah: Reuben, Judah, and Joseph.  Do they correspond to the three children who ask questions in the Haggadah?  What about the fourth child, the silent one?

Reuben: Unwise Son

Reuben, Jacob’s oldest son, is an unwise “wise child”.  I can imagine him asking for all the rules because he wants to do the right thing.  But then he blunders into some stupidity and messes it up.

When Joseph’s ten older brothers see him from a distance and plot to seize him, throw him into a pit, and kill him, Reuben says: “Let us not take his life!”  His brothers ignore him, so he waters down his protest.

And Reuben said to them: “Don’t shed blood!  Throw him into that pit that is in the wilderness, but don’t send a hand against him!”—in order to rescue him from their hand and restore him to his father.  (Genesis/Bereishit 37:22)

After Joseph is at the bottom of the pit, the other brothers sit down for a meal, but Reuben wanders away for some reason not recorded in the Torah.  Early commentators invented excuses for Reuben’s absence at the critical moment, but I maintain Reuben is not thinking clearly.  What could be more important than staying near the pit in case his murderous brothers suddenly decide to act?

And they do.  While Reuben is gone, Judah proposes selling Joseph as a slave to a passing caravan headed for Egypt.

And he [Reuben] returned to his brothers, and he said: “The boy is not here!  And I, where can I go?”  (Genesis 37:30)

Reuben intended to do the right thing, but he was not wise enough to carry it out properly.

Twenty-one years later, during the first year of a long famine, the viceroy of Egypt tells the ten brothers that he will not sell them grain again unless they bring their youngest brother down with them.  Back in Canaan the famine continues a second year, and the brothers try to persuade their father to let Benjamin go, even though he has become Jacob’s favorite now that Joseph is gone.  Reuben knows the whole family will starve to death unless his father lets Benjamin go, so he says:

“You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you!  Put him in my hand, and I myself will return him to you.”  (Genesis 42:37)

He sounds ready to make a noble sacrifice.  But why would Jacob want to kill two of his own grandsons?  Once again, Reuben tries to be the wise child who does the right thing, but what he actually does is far from wise.

Judah: Reformed Wicked Son

The “wicked son” in the Haggadah asks, “What does this service mean to you?”  In the Torah it is an innocent question, and the parent merely answers that they are making a Passover offering to God to remember when God smote the Egyptians but passed over their households.  But in the Haggadah and the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, the parent accuses this son of separating himself from other Jews by saying “you” instead of “us”.4

Judah, Jacob’s fourth son, starts out as selfish as the Haggadah’s version of the “wicked son”. When Joseph is naked at the bottom of the pit, Judah is the one who says:

“What is the profit if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?”  (Genesis 37:26)

He persuades his brothers to sell Joseph as a slave to a passing caravan instead, and they are paid 20 silver pieces for him.  At this point, Judah is indeed wicked, separating himself from any empathy toward his younger brother Joseph.  Later, he deprives his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar of her traditional right to stay in his family by having a child with her deceased husband’s nearest male relative.  Tamar deceives Judah in order to get pregnant by him, and when Judah sentences her to death for adultery, she produces evidence that he is the father of her unborn child.  Judah’s eyes are opened, and he admits he was wrong, saying: “She is more righteous than I am!”  (Genesis 38:26)

After that wake-up call, Judah exhibits the empathy that I believe is implied by the question “What does this service mean to you?”  I think the so-called wicked child is actually interested in the feelings of other people, like Judah later in his life.

When Jacob refuses to let Benjamin go to Egypt so his sons can buy food during the second year of famine, Judah is the one who finally makes him change his mind.

Then Judah said to his father, Israel: “I will bring him.  Send the young man with me, and we will get up and go, and we will live and not die—we and you and our little ones. I myself will be the pledge for him; from my hand you may seek him.  If I do not bring him back to you and produce him before you, I will be guilty to you forever.”  (Genesis 43:8)

Judah’s word is good; when the viceroy of Egypt plants a silver cup in Benjamin’s pack and accuses him of stealing it, Judah volunteers to be the viceroy’s slave instead of his brother.  This act, along with a moving story about Jacob’s love for Benjamin, turns the tide, and the viceroy confesses that he is actually their brother Joseph.  Thanks to Judah’s empathy, the family arrives at a happy ending.

*

Does Joseph, the third of Jacob’s children who has a speaking role in the Torah, correspond in any way to the Haggadah’s “simple son”?  And who is the silent child?  You can find out next week in Passover, Vayeishev, & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 2.

  1. The Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael collection of commentary on the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy written during the first through fourth centuries CE and by Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, his students, and subsequent commentators.  The four sons in the Mekhilta are alluded to in the Jerusalem Talmud, but not in the Babylonian Talmud.
  2. This quote and all subsequent quotes from the Mekhilta use the translation in sefaria.org/Mekhilta_d’Rabbi_Yishmael.
  3. Deuteronomy 6:20-24 (wise), Exodus 12:27 (wicked), Exodus 13:15 (simple), and Exodus 13:6-8 (silent).
  4. This is outrageous, since in the Torah the wise son’s question is “What are the duties and the decrees and the laws that God, our God, commanded to you?”

Vayikra & Vayechi: Kidneys and Faces

March 18, 2021 at 7:35 pm | Posted in Jeremiah, Psalms/Tehilim, Vayechi, Vayikra | Leave a comment

After a delay while I wrote a dialogue for Passover and addressed some family issues, I am back at work on my book on Genesis this week, considering the moral ramifications of Joseph’s version of pardoning his ten older brothers.

Joseph’s brothers make two attempts to get Joseph to forgive them for their shameful misdeed when he was seventeen and they sold him as a slave bound for Egypt.  The second attempt happens in the last Torah portion of the book of Genesis, Vayechi.

Since their first attempt failed (see my recent post Testifying to Divine Providence )1 they try a ploy that they hope will be more persuasive; they pretend that before their father, Jacob, died, he left the following message for Joseph:

“Please sa, please, the rebellion of your brothers and their guilt because of the evil they rendered to you.  And now sa, please, the rebellion of the servants of the god of your father.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 50:17)

sa (שָׂא) = lift up! pardon! forgive!  (From the root verb nasa, נָשָׂא= lifted, raised, pardoned.)

Are they asking Joseph, who is now Pharaoh’s viceroy, to pardon them, or to forgive them?  In English, pardoning means excusing someone who committed an error or offense from some of the usual practical consequences.  A United States president can pardon someone who was convicted of a crime, commuting that person’s sentence, without having to list any extenuating circumstances.  And the president’s feelings about the offender are irrelevant.

Forgiving, on the other hand, means letting go of one’s resentment against the person who committed an error or offense.

Biblical Hebrew, however, makes no distinction between pardoning and forgiving; it only distinguishes who is doing it.  Soleach (סֺלֵחַ) means “forgiving” or “pardoning”, but it is only used in the Hebrew Bible when God is forgiving or pardoning one or more human beings.

Nosei (נֺשֵׂא) has several meanings, including pardoning, and it is something either God or a human can do.  When God or a human is pardoning someone in the Hebrew Bible, the text says either nosei their head, nosei their face, or just nosei.  The reader has to figure out from context whether it is a reference to forgiving/pardoning, or to one of the other meanings of nosei (such as taking a census for nosei their head, bestowing favor for nosei their face, or lifting and carrying an object for nosei by itself).

After Jacob dies, Joseph’s older brothers worry that Joseph might decide to take revenge on them after all.  They are still carrying guilt in their kidneys.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, discusses burning the kidneys of an animal slaughtered on the altar.  Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, human kidneys are the seat of the conscience or moral sense.  (See my post on the subject by clicking here: Vayikra & Jeremiah: Kidneys.)  For example, Psalm 16 recognizes the kidneys as the source of a guilty conscience.

          I bless God, who has advised me;

                        Even  the nights my kidneys chastised me.  (Psalm 16:7)

When your kidneys chastise you for wronging another human being, you long for your victim to lift your face in forgiveness.

  1. Genesis 45:4-8.

Vayechi & 1 Kings: Deathbed Prophecies

March 3, 2021 at 5:48 pm | Posted in Kings 1, Vayechi | Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh, by Owen Jones, 1869

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Testifying to Divine Providence

February 24, 2021 at 10:30 pm | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Tetzavveh, Vayiggash | 1 Comment

What can you give God, when God has given abundantly to you?

Burning something is the standard method for expressing gratitude to God in the Torah.  God loves the smell of smoke, whether it comes from animal fat burning on the courtyard altar, or incense burning on the golden altar just inside the Tent of Meeting.  In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh, God tells Moses the ritual for consecrating both the courtyard altar and the new priests, a ritual that includes a lot of fat burning.1  After burning the fat parts of a bull and all of one ram, the priests to be ordained must hold up the fat parts of the “ram of ordination”, along with its right thigh and three kinds of grain products.

Then you shall take them from their hands and you shall turn them into smoke on the altar, on top of the rising offering, for a soothing fragrance before God; it is a fire-offering for God.  (Exodus 29:25)

The end of the Torah portion describes the construction of the incense altar and decrees that the high priest must burn incense on it twice a day.2  Apparently God needs a lot of soothing.

Only a few psalms and the writings of a few prophets indicate that one can also worship God through words.  See my post: Tetzavveh & Psalms 141, 51, and 40: Smoke and Prayer.

Serving God through words also has a precedent in the Joseph story in the book of Genesis.  In the chapter in my book on the portion Vayigash, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and explains that they are not to blame for throwing him into a pit and selling him as a slave all those years ago, because it was all part of God’s plan to bring the whole family down to Egypt during the seven-year famine.3

He intends to reassure his older brothers, but they are not thrilled to hear that they have no free will.  Joseph kisses them and sobs on their necks, but they merely become able to speak to him.4

The author of Psalm 40, like Joseph, expresses his religious attitude by giving verbal testimony about divine providence.5  Unlike Joseph, he later becomes insecure and reminds God:

I did not conceal your righteousness in the middle of my heart;

          I spoke of your reliability and your deliverance.

          I did not conceal from a great assembly your loyal kindness and your fidelity.

You, God, you will not hold back your compassion from me;

          Your loyal kindness and your fidelity will always guard me.  (Psalm 40:11-12)

Faith in divine providence is easy in hindsight, as it was for Joseph.  But when troubles are still threatening you, you need to keep reminding yourself of your belief, like the author of Psalm 40.  And when someone else tells you not to worry about your past crime because it all worked out for the best, you may feel cheated of a chance to make amends, like Joseph’s brothers.

  1. Exodus 29:12-25.
  2. Exodus 30:1-9.
  3. Genesis 45:4-8.
  4. Genesis 45:15.
  5. We can assume the speaker is a man because he is allowed to speak to a “great assembly”, something no woman could do at that place and time.
« Previous PageNext Page »

Powered by WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.