The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther—Part 5

December 27, 2015 at 3:42 pm | Posted in Daniel, Esther, Mikeitz, Vayiggash | Leave a comment
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This is the final post in a series comparing three stories of Jews who rise from captivity to high positions in a foreign land: the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis, the book of Daniel, and the book of Esther.  After Joseph. Daniel, and Esther’s cousin Mordecai have all become viceroys of empires, all three stories continue with the themes “The hero gets revenge on the rivals who wanted him dead”, and “Thanks to the hero, the children of Israel prosper in a foreign land”.

* The hero gets revenge on the rivals who wanted him dead. *

Joseph’s revenge is the most complex and psychological. When he is seventeen, his ten jealous older brothers throw him in a pit, discuss killing him, then sell him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt.  Twenty-one years later, the brothers come to Egypt to buy grain during the first of what will be seven years of famine.  They bow down to the Egyptian viceroy Tzafnot-Paneiach, who wears Egyptian linens and a gold collar and speaks through an interpreter, without recognizing their little brother Joseph, all grown up and in charge of Egypt. But Joseph recognizes them.

Joseph and brothers in EgyptJoseph has absolute power; he could order his brothers’ execution and no one would question it.  Instead, he accuses them of being spies, and they explain they are ten of twelve brothers. He says he will keep one of the brothers in prison while the others bring grain back to their households in Canaan. But then they must bring back their youngest brother, Joseph’s innocent little brother Benjamin, to prove they are telling the truth.

Then they said, each to his brother: Ah, we are carryng guilt over our brother because we saw the tzarah of his soul when he pleaded with us for pity, and we did not listen. Therefore this tzarah has come upon us. (Genesis/Bereishit 42:21)

tzarah (צָּרָה) = distress.

They intuit that Joseph’s distress resulted, somehow, in their current distress—even without knowing that the Egyptian viceroy is Joseph (or that he knows Hebrew and understands their every word).

Joseph throws them all into prison for three days—an echo of when Joseph’s brothers threw him into a pit. Then he sends off nine of his brothers with sacks full of grain (and the silver they paid for the grain hidden in the sacks).  He keeps one of his nastier older brothers, Shimon, in prison, and promises to release him only when the others return with Benjamin.

They do not return until the second year of famine; it takes that long before their father, Jacob, will let his beloved son Benjamin go with them. Then Joseph gets revenge for being sold as a slave—without actually enslaving anyone.

Joseph's Brothers Find the Silver Goblet in Benjamin's Sack, by Alexander Ivanov

Joseph’s Brothers Find the Silver Goblet in Benjamin’s Sack, by Alexander Ivanov

He releases Shimon and treats all eleven of his brothers to a feast. When their sacks are filled with grain, he plants a silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack. Then he sends a servant after them, who finds the goblet, claims it was stolen, and declares that Benjamin—the one innocent brother—must stay in Egypt as Joseph’s slave.

This is a test to see whether the ten older men have reformed and will no longer abandon the brother their father loves best. The test causes the brothers further psychological distress, but they do get a passing grade. First they all volunteer to be slaves along with Benjamin, and then when they are brought before Joseph, a.k.a. Tzafnot-Paneiach, Judah volunteers to replace Benjamin and become the viceroy’s slave instead. Only then does Joseph tell them his true identity.

*

Joseph arranges his own revenge on his brothers, but in the books of Daniel and Esther the revenge happens at the king’s command, in the form of a simple tit-for-tat. The bad guys get exactly the same punishment they had intended for the hero.

Daniel in the Lions' Den, by Briton Riviere

Daniel in the Lions’ Den, by Briton Riviere

Daniel’s rivals for the post of viceroy set him up so that he will be sealed overnight into a den of lions. (See Part 3.)  Daniel survives, thanks to a divine miracle.

Then by order of the king, those men who had slandered Daniel were brought and, together with their children and wives, were thrown into the lions’ den. They had hardly reached the bottom of the den when the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones. (Daniel 6:25, Jewish Publication Society translation of the Aramaic)

In the book of Esther, the bad guy is Haman, whose pride is wounded because Mordecai the Jew refuses to bow to him when he is made viceroy of Persia. Haman persuades the king to issue an edict that everyone in the Persian Empire may kill all Jews on the 13th of the month of Adar. Haman also erects a tall stake so he can personally impale Mordecai when the day comes.

His plot is foiled when Queen Esther, Mordecai’s cousin, reveals that she is a Jew.

Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther, by Rembrandt

Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther, by Rembrandt

Then Charvonah, one of the eunuchs before the king, said: Also there is a wood [stake] that Haman made for Mordecai, whose good words saved the king [from an assassination plot]. It is standing at the house of Haman, 50 cubits tall.  And the king said: Impale him on it! And they impaled Haman on the wood [stake] that he had prepared for Mordecai, and the anger of the king abated. That day King Achashverosh gave to Queen Esther the property of Haman, enemy of the Jews. And Mordecai came before the king, since Esther had told what his relationship was to her. Then the king removed his signet ring, which he had taken back from Haman, and he gave it to Mordecai. (Esther 7:9-8:1)

Instead of Haman being viceroy and Mordecai being impaled, Mordecai is viceroy and Haman is impaled. The king’s edict permitting the massacre of the Jews cannot be rescinded, but Esther persuades the king to issue a counter-edict that on the same day, the 13th of Adar, the Jews of every city may assemble and fight anyone who attacks them. Between that edict and Mordecai’s new position, nobody dares to kill a Jew.

The enemies of the Jews hoped lishlot them, but the opposite happened, and the Jews shalat those who hated them. (Esther 9:1)

lishlot (לִשְׁלוֹט) = to gain power over.

shalat (שָׁלַט) = gained power over.

* Thanks to the hero, the children of Israel prosper in a foreign land. *

Goshen Rameses PitomJust as Joseph arranges his own non-lethal revenge, he arranges to move the children of Israel to a foreign land. After he ends his game of testing his brothers, he reveals his identity and tells them to fetch their father and their own families and move to a fertile district of Egypt called Goshen.

And I shall provide for you there, because there will be five more years of famine, so that you will not be deprived, you and your households and all that you own. (Genesis/Bereishit 45:11)

Pharaoh happily ratifies Joseph’s offer and sends wagons north to help Jacob and all his descendants move to Egypt. These original 70 children of Israel do not leave Egypt when the famine ends five years later. They stay on for four centuries, until a new dynasty rules Egypt and enslaves them to build Pharaoh’s cities. So although the children of Israel prosper during Joseph’s lifetime, eventually their lives in Egypt become intolerable, and they need God and Moses to rescue them—in the story that begins with this week’s Torah portion, Shemot (Names) in the book of Exodus.

*

The book of Daniel only implies that the Jews in the new Persian Empire benefit from Daniel’s prayers three times a day, which he continues even when his rivals trick the king into ordering that no one shall bow to a god for 30 days. Daniel emerges unscathed from the lion’s den, but when the king throws Daniel’s enemies into the den, the lions kill them at once. At this additional proof that a powerful god is on Daniel’s side,

King Darius wrote to all peoples and nations of every language that inhabit the earth, ‘May your well-being abound! I have hereby given an order that throughout my royal domain men must tremble in fear before the God of Daniel, for He is the living God who endures forever …He delivers and saves, and performs signs and wonders in heaven and on earth, for He delivered Daniel from the power of the lions.’ Thus Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and during the reign of Cyrus the Persian. (Daniel 6:26-29)

Although the book does not specifically say that all Jews in the empire prospered along with the viceroy Daniel, the official elevation of their god implies that their position also improves. The rest of the book of Daniel consists of a series of prophetic visions Daniel experiences, with no mention of any further discrimination against the children of Israel in the Persian Empire.

*

Triumph of Mordecai, by Jean Francois de Troy

Triumph of Mordecai, by Jean Francois de Troy

In the book of Esther, the new prestige of the Jews in the Persian Empire is an inseparable part of the revenge against Haman. First the king executes Haman and makes Mordecai the viceroy in his place—giving a known Jew great power. Then the king counteracts Haman’s edict urging everyone to kill Jews on a certain date by issuing a new edict permitting the Jews to assemble and kill their enemies on that day.

Due to both Mordecai’s power and the king’s new edict, people throughout the empire show deference to the Jews among them, being careful not to offend them.

…and many of the people of the land mityahadim because the terror of the Jews fell upon them. (Esther 8:17)

mityahadim (מִתְיַהַדִים) = were pretending to be Yehudim = Jews.

The Jews kill their few remaining enemies on the official day, the 13th of Adar, which becomes the holiday of Purim.

*

The stories of Joseph, Daniel, and the Esther and Mordecai duo put a different spin on each of the seven themes they have in common, including the final theme of Jews prospering in a foreign land.

The children of Israel prosper in Egypt (for several generations, at least) because Joseph moves his extended family to he fertile district of Goshen. The Israelites secure religious freedom under the first king of the Persian Empire because Daniel proves the power of the God of Israel. And the Jews acquire more status and power later because Esther (King Achashveirosh’s chosen queen) and Mordecai (who saves Achaveirosh’s life) identify themselves as Jews, and persuade the king to reverse every action of Haman, the prime enemy of the Jews.

Together, the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther demonstrate that it is possible for Jews to succeed in exile (galut), outside their former land.

What do you need to live successfully in a new place? A way to make a living and secure the physical necessities of life, according to the Joseph story in the book of Genesis. Freedom of worship, according to the book of Daniel. And the respect of the people around you, according to the book of Esther.

I pray that more and more nations in today’s world will let everyone within their borders make a living, follow their own religion, and live in peace and mutual respect.

The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther: Part 4

December 21, 2015 at 11:28 am | Posted in Daniel, Esther, Mikeitz | Leave a comment
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Joseph, Daniel, and Esther are all Israelites who attain success outside of their native land. Their stories have seven themes in common; the fifth is:

* The hero gets a foreign name. *

Actually only Joseph gets his new name and his new rank at the same time. When he is brought up from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams in the Torah Portion Mikeitz (see Part 3), he is still the Hebrew slave Joseph. When he leaves Pharaoh, he is the Egyptian viceroy Tzafnat Panei-ach.

Joseph Interprets Pharaoh's Dream, by Reginald Arthur, 1894

Joseph Interprets Pharaoh’s Dream, by Reginald Arthur, 1894

Joseph explains that Pharoah’s two dreams are prophecies of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Then he gratuitously advises Pharoah to find a discerning and wise man to appoint a bureaucracy to collect a fifth of Egypt’s harvest during the next seven years and stockpile it against the coming famine.

And Pharaoh said to his servants: Could we find [another] man like this, who has the spirit of God in him? …Then Pharaoh said to Joseph: See, I have placed you over all the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh did more, and placed his signet ring from his hand on the hand of Joseph. And he dressed him in clothes of fine linen, and he put the gold collar over his neck. (Genesis 41:39-42)

Then Pharaoh gives Joseph a new name and an Egyptian wife.

And Pharaoh called the sheim of Joseph: Tzafnat Panei-ach, and he gave to him Asnat, daughter of Poti-Fera, priest of On, for a wife. And Joseph went out over the land of Egypt. (Genesis 41:45)

sheim (שֵׁם) = name; standing, reputation, renown, fame.

Joseph = English for Yoseif (יוֹסֵף) = adding, increasing.

Tzafnat Panei-ach (צָפְנַת פַּעְנֵחַ) = (Phonetic spelling of an Egyptian phrase, probably meaning “The God Speaks, He Lives”.)

The new name and new wife are further symbols of Joseph’s new rank and position, but I believe they serve a second purpose.  In order for the people of Egypt to accept the Pharaoh’s appointee as their ruler, Joseph must seem less foreign, more Egyptian. Besides wearing the fine linen of the Egyptian upper class, he must go by an Egyptian name.  An Egyptian wife makes him look even more assimilated, and may also increase his loyalty to Egypt.

*

Joseph acquires an Egyptian name the day he is appointed viceroy, at age 30. Daniel and his three friends are given Babylonian names when they are still adolescent boys, captives from the conquered city of Jerusalem. King Nebuchadnezzar orders his head eunuch, Ashpenaz, to bring him some descendants of the royalty and nobility of Judah, boys who are attractive, healthy, and educable. For three years Ashpenaz must teach these foreign boys to read and write Chadean (Babylonian), and give them rations from the king’s food and the king’s wine.

Among those from Judah there were Daniel, Chananyah, Misha-eil, and Azaryah. And the head of the eunuchs put sheimot for them; and he put for Dani-el Beilteshatzar, and for Chananyah Shadrakh, and for Misha-eil Meyshakh, and for Azaryah Aved-nego. (Daniel 1:6-7)

sheimot (שֶׁמוֹת) = names. (plural of sheim)

Daniel = English for Danyeil (דָּנִיֵּאל) = Hebrew: My Judge (Dany) is God (Eil).

Beil fights the dragon on a Babylonian cylinder seal

Beil fights the dragon on a Babylonian cylinder seal

Beilteshatzar (בֵּלְטְשַׁאצּר) = Babylonian: ?? Theories include three possible Babylonian phrases: Protect his Life, Beilat Protect the King, and Beil Keeps Secret Treasures. Beil is the Babylonian creator god, and Beilat is the goddess wife of Beil.

All four boys arrive in Babylon with Jewish names that include a word for the God of Israel, either Eil or Yah. But King Nebuchadnezzar hopes to use these boys as advisors, after they have learned the language and culture of Babylon. It is essential to his plan that the four boys switch their loyalty to him, instead of remaining attached to their native land and their native god.

The first step is to give them new names—monikers that contain names for Babylonian gods instead of the God of Israel. (See postscript below for the other three boys.) And the first thing the four boys do after they are renamed is to request a kosher diet! (See Part 2.)

In fact, Daniel and his friends do something Nebuchadnezzar did not expect: they remain faithful to the God of Israel, and they also become loyal servants of the king of Babylon. Daniel rises to become the viceroy of the empire. Although they answer to their Babylonian names in public, in their own hearts their real names are their Jewish names.

*

In the book of Esther, the two Jewish heroes have Persian names from the start. Here is how Esther’s cousin and guardian Mordecai is introduced:

A Jew was in the citadel of Shushan, and shemo was Mordecai, son of Ya-ir, son of Shimi, son of Kish, a man of [the tribe of] Benjamin, who was deported from Jerusalem with the deportees that were deported with Yekanyah, king of Judah, in the deportation of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. (Esther 2:5-6)

shemo (שְׁמוֹ) = his name.

Mordecai (מַרְדָּכַי) = English for Mordakhai = My Marduks. Marduk was a Babylonian god adopted by the Persians.

Ya-ir (יָאִיר) = He Shines.

Shimi (שִׁמְעִי) = I Listen.

Kish (קִישׁ) = (etymology unknown; also the name of the father of Saul, the first king of Israel.)

Marduk and his snake-dragon, from the reign of Cyrus

Marduk and his snake-dragon, from the reign of Cyrus

Mordecai’s father Yair, his grandfather Shimi, and his great-grandfather Kish all have Hebrew names. But Mordecai, a third-generation exile, seems to have only a Persian name. And what a name! But nobody in the story questions that a Jew carries the name of a foreign god.

And he became the foster parent of Hadassah, who was Esther, the daughter of his uncle, because she had no father or mother. (Esther 2:7)

Hadassah (הֲדַסָּה) = Hebrew: Myrtle.

Esther (אֶסְתֵּר) = English for Esteir = Persian: star.

Esther has a Hebrew name, but this is the only time it is mentioned in the whole book of Esther.  The rest of the time she goes by her Persian name.

God is never mentioned in the book of Esther, and neither Mordecai nor Esther prays or does any specifically religious act. But Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman because it is not his custom as a Jew (see Part 3), and when Haman arranges for the execution of Jews, Esther tells the king she is a Jew, and saves her people.

*

Each of the three stories illustrates a different stage of exile. Joseph embraces Egyptian dress and an Egyptian wife, but he never fully assimilates. When he reveals his identity to his brothers, he says simply I am Joseph.  He lets his father give his two sons the heritage of the children of Israel, and he requests his own burial in Canaan.

Some American Jews who use only one first name, a Hebrew name, for everything. Some feel as though Israel is their real home; they consider emigrating, and they want to be buried there. They remind me of Joseph.

Daniel also serves the country where he was brought as a captive, and he flourishes in exile. He becomes a man of Babylon, and never considers returning to Jerusalem. But he continues to keep kosher and to pray to the God of Israel every day for his whole life. And although he is given a Babylonian name, he remains Daniel in the Bible and in his heart.

Most American Jews today have a Hebrew name we use for religious ritual, and a secular name we use for everything else. My Hebrew name is Tzipporah, and I only use it in religious contexts; the rest of the time I am Melissa. Like Daniel and his friends, I am loyal to my religion, but I am attached to the land of the United States (even when its government goes crazy). I want to make a pilgrimage to Israel, but I would not emigrate there.

Esther and Mordecai apparently use Persian names from birth, and their lives revolve around the Persian court. We do not see them do anything religious. Yet they identify themselves as Jews, even at the risk of death.

Some American Jews also never use a Hebrew name, and do not bother much with religion. Yet when identity is an issue, they affirm that they are Jews.

Thus thousands of years after the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther were written down, Jews are still following all three models for holding a Jewish identity in another land!

 

Postscript:

Here are the Hebrew and Babylonian names of Daniel’s fellow captives:

Chananyah (חֲנַנְיָה) = Hebrew: Gracious (Chanan) is God (Yah).

            Shadrakh (שַׁדְרַךְ) = Babylonian: Command (Shuddur) of Aku. Aku is a Babylonian moon god.

Misha-eil (מִישָׁאֵל) = Hebrew: Who is (Mi) That Which (She-) is God (Eil).

            Meyshakh (מֵישַׁךְ) = Babylonian: Who is That Which is Aku.

Azaryah (עַזַרְיָה) = Hebrew: Help (Azar) is God (Yah).

            Aved-nego (עֲוֶד נְגוֹ) = Servant of Nego. Nego is a mispronunciation of one of two Babylonian gods: Nabu, co-ruler of Babylon with the god Marduk, or Nergal, a god of death.

 

The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther—Part 3

December 17, 2015 at 9:06 am | Posted in Daniel, Esther, Vayeishev | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Someone tries to kill Joseph twice in the book of Genesis/Bereishit. When he is seventeen, his jealous older brothers throw him into a pit, then sit down and discuss killing him. This fits the first of seven themes that the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther have in common: Resentful rivals conspire to kill the hero.  (see Part 1.)

Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery instead of murdering him, but while he is a slave in Egypt a woman tries to get him executed for a different reason. This time, the theme is:

*  The hero is punished for refusing to obey an order because of religious scruples, but God rescues the hero.  *

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, by Schnorr von Carolsfeld

Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, by Schnorr von Carolsfeld

And it happened after these things, then the wife of his master raised her eyes to Joseph, and she said: Lie with me.  And he mei-ein, and he said to the wife of his master: Hey, having me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and everything that belongs to him he has put into my hand. There is no one greater in his house than I am, and he has not withheld anything from me except you, since you are his wife, so how could I do this great evil and transgress against God? (Genesis/Bereishit 39:7-9)

mei-ein (מֵאֵן) = refused. (In Biblical Hebrew, this is not a polite demurral, but a stubborn refusal.)

For Joseph, an ethical transgressions is a transgression against God. He refuses, even though he knows it is dangerous to anger his master’s wife. But she keeps propositioning him day after day, until one day when the house is empty,

…she grabbed him by his garment, saying: Lie with me! But he abandoned his garment in her hand and he fled outside. (Genesis 39:12)

What difference does it make that the house is empty? Potifar’s wife seems unconcerned about whether they are caught in the act, since she propositions him many times when other people are nearby. But the lack of witnesses this time gives her an opportunity to get revenge and slander Joseph. She claims he tried to rape her, and left his garment behind when (she says) she screamed.

The few examples we have of ancient Egyptian law on sexual relations indicate that rape was punished by death (though the punishment might be commuted to exile in the case of a free foreigner). Potifar is the head of the royal executioners, and Joseph is his slave. But instead of arranging a summary execution, Potifar puts Joseph in the king’s prison indefinitely. He is alive, but stuck until God rescues him.

Joseph in Prison, by James Tissot

Joseph in Prison, by James Tissot

Then Pharaoh sends his chief cupbearer and chief baker to the prison (see Part 2),

and they said to him: a dream we dreamed, and there is no interpreter. Then Joseph said to them: Do not interpretations belong to God? Recount [your dreams] to me, please. (Genesis 40:8)

Inspired by God, Joseph reads the dreams as prophecies that the chief cupbearer will be restored to his post in three days, but the chief baker will be beheaded. This is exactly what happens.

When Pharaoh has two dreams that his magicians cannot interpret, the chief cupbearer tells him about Joseph, and God gives Joseph the correct interpretation of Pharaoh’s prophetic dreams.  Joseph adds some advice on what to do about it, and Pharaoh elevates Joseph from imprisoned slave to viceroy of Egypt.

Thus God rescues Joseph from his punishment—presumably because he did the right thing by rejecting Potifar’s wife.

*

While Joseph escapes death twice, Daniel is threatened with death only once. In his case, resentful rivals conspire to kill the hero by using his well-known religious scruples against him, immediately bringing in the theme the hero is punished for refusing to obey an order because of religious scruples, but God rescues the hero.

Daniel and three other boys are taken as captives from Jerusalem when King Nebuchadnezzar conquers the city, and spend the rest of their lives in Babylon. Daniel becomes head of the king’s wise men and dream interpreters, and his friends, Shadrach, Meyshach, and Aveid-nego, become administrators of the province of Babylon. At one point, Daniel’s three friends are thrown into a furnace for refusing to bow to a golden idol of Nebuchadnezzar, and God prevents the flames from even singeing their hair. Daniel is not mentioned in the furnace story.

Many years later, when Persia conquers Babylon, Daniel is serving as one of three governors over the Neo-Babylonian Empire. The new king (whom the story identifies sometimes as Cyrus, sometimes as Darius) considers promoting Daniel to viceroy over the entire Persian empire.

Only then do resentful rivals—other high government officials—conspire to kill the hero. They know that Daniel adheres to a kosher diet and prays three times a day, bowing down in the direction of Jerusalem. There are no laws against this, so they persuade the king to decree that anyone who petitions any god or man other than the king during the next 30 days shall be thrown into a lion’s den. (See Part 1.) It does not occur to the king that this decree will affect Daniel.

Daniel's Prayer, by E.J. Poynter

Daniel’s Prayer, by E.J. Poynter

When Daniel learned that it had been put in writing, he went to his house, in whose upper chamber he had had windows made facing Jerusalem, and three times a day he knelt down, prayed, and made confession to his God as he had always done. Then those men came thronging in and found Daniel petitioning his God in supplication. (Daniel, 6:11-12, Jewish Publication Society translation of the Aramaic)

As in the book of Esther, the Persian king cannot countermand his own decree, and he cannot find any way around it. Thus the resentful rivals succeed in having Daniel punished for refusing to obey an order because of religious scruples.

By the king’s order, Daniel was then brought and thrown into the lions’ den. The king spoke to Daniel and said, ‘Your God, whom you serve so regularly, will deliver you’.  (Daniel 6:17, JPS translation)

Daniel in the Lions' Den, by Briton Riviere

Daniel in the Lions’ Den, by Briton Riviere

The king worries all night and rushes back at dawn to unseal the den.

Daniel then talked with the king, ‘O King, live forever! My God sent His angel, who shut the mouths of the lions… Daniel was brought up out of the den, and no injury was found on him, for he had trusted in his God. (Daniel 6:22-24, JPS translation)

God rescues Daniel from death because of his dedication to God, expressed in his thrice-daily prayers.

*

The book of Esther also combines the themes of resentful rivals and refusing to obey an order because of religious scruples.

The story has two heroes, the young and beautiful Esther, and her older cousin and guardian Mordecai. When Esther becomes a captive in the king’s harem, she follows her cousin’s instruction and pretends she is not Jewish.

Mordecai, however, incites jealousy in the king’s new viceroy, Haman, by disobeying a royal order to bow down whenever Haman passes through the palace gate. (See Part 1.)

And the royal servants who were in the gate of the king said to Mordecai: Why are you oveir the command of the king? And they spoke to him day after day and he did not listen to them. Then they told Haman, to see if the matter of Mordecai would stand, for he had explained to them that he was a Jew. (Esther 3:3-4)

oveir  (עוֹוֵר) = crossing, going through.

The Bible does not say that Mordecai refused (mei-ein) the king’s command, but rather that he ploughed right across it as if it did not exist. When his fellow royal servants in the gate question him, he says he ignores the order to bow to Haman because he is a Jew.

Nothing in the Bible forbids Jews to bow down to human beings. Esther Rabbah (a collection of midrash from 500-1050 C.E.) claimed Haman must have sewn a picture of a god on his clothing, so Mordecai was really refusing to bow down to an image of an alien god. Other commentary suggests that Mordecai would not bow because Haman was a descendant of King Agag of Amalek (so identified in Esther 3:1), and the Torah calls for eternal enmity between the Israelites and the Amalekites. But the text of Esther does not explain.

Mordecai never bows to Haman

Mordecai never bows to Haman

And Haman saw that Mordecai never knelt or bowed down to him, and Haman filled up with rage. And it seemed too contemptible in his eyes to send a hand against Mordecai alone, because they had told him the people of Mordecai, and Haman sought to exterminate all the Jews who were in all the kingdom of Achashveirosh, all the people of Mordecai. (Esther 3:5-6)

Haman talks the king into issuing an irrevocable decree that on a certain date (the 13th of Adar, now the holiday of Purim) every province of the Persian Empire must kill all its Jews. Haman personally erects a tall stake on which to impale Mordecai.

Does God rescue Mordecai and the rest of the Jews in Persia? Not really. Esther reveals that she and Mordecai are Jews, and Haman has arranged their death. She persuades the king to write a second decree (since the first one cannot be revoked) that on the 13th of Adar all Jews may strike down all their enemies, and on the big day nobody touches the Jews. The king impales Haman and promotes Mordecai to viceroy. But God is not mentioned here or anywhere else in the book of Esther.

*

Joseph risks death for a moral principle, and God rescues him. Daniel risks death for the right to pray, and God rescues him. Mordecai risks death to make a point about being Jewish, and Esther rescues him.

What are your religious scruples?  Which ones would you refuse to cross, even at the risk of losing your job? Or even at the risk of death?

 

 

 

The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther—Part 2

December 13, 2015 at 8:13 am | Posted in Daniel, Esther, Vayeishev | 3 Comments
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Two more themes shared by the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther are: “The hero is taken away from home and held captive” and “A court eunuch admires and helps the hero”.

*The hero is taken away from home and held captive.*

Joseph is sold in Dotan, bought in Memphis

Joseph is sold in Dotan, bought in Memphis

In the first Torah portion devoted to Joseph, Vayeishev, Joseph’s ten older brothers can hardly stand him. (See The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther—Part 1.) They take the family flocks to Dotan, about a hundred miles away from their home in Hebron, and their father sends Joseph to check on them.  When he arrives, his brothers throw him into an empty cistern and conspire to kill him.

But Judah said to his brothers: What profit [is there] if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Let’s go and sell him to the Ishmaelites… So they pulled Joseph and they brought him up from the pit. Then they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for 20 pieces of silver, and they brought Joseph to Egypt. (Genesis/Bereishit 37:26-28)

The brothers believe Joseph will never return from slavery in Egypt.

While Joseph is singled out by his brothers, Daniel and Esther are removed from their homes merely because they happen to meet the criteria for a category of people the king summons.

King Nebuchadnezzar brings Daniel from Jerusalem to Babylon

King Nebuchadnezzar brings Daniel from Jerusalem to Babylon

The book of Daniel opens when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon captures Jerusalem. The king orders his chief eunuch to transport some young Israelite boys to Babylon. The boys must be:

…from Israel and descended from the royalty and the nobility; boys who have no blemishes, and are tovey mareh, and understand all wisdom, and have practical knowledge and some understanding of academic knowledge, and who have the ability to serve in the palace of the king, and to learn the writing and the tongue of the Chaldeans. (Daniel 1:3-4)

tovey mareh (טוֹבֵי מַרְאֶה) = good-looking (masculine form).

The boys will be educated for three years, and then will serve Nebuchadnezzar in some capacity. Young Daniel is taken away from home and transported to a foreign court merely because he fits the king’s description.

Similarly, in the book of Esther the king of Persia orders a certain class of girls to be rounded up and brought to the royal residence in Shushan. King Achashveirosh wants a new wife, and his advisors respond:

Let the king appoint appointees in every province of his kingdom, and let them gather all the virgin girls tovat mareh to the citadel at Shushan, to the house of the women, to the hand of Heigai, the chief eunuch of the king, guard over the women… And the girl who is good in the eyes of the king will become queen instead of Vashti. (Esther 2:3-4)

tovat mareh (טוֹבַת מַרְאֶה) = good-looking (feminine form).

map Persian Empire

Esther is taken to the harem of King Achashveirosh (Xerxes?) in Shushan

Esther happens to live in Shushan with her cousin and guardian Mordecai, but she is taken out of her home and put under guard in the “house of the women”, i.e. the harem, simply because she fits the description:

…and the girl was beautiful in shape and tovat mareh… (Esther 2:7)

Joseph, Daniel, and Esther are all good-looking adolescents when their stories begin. All three live in comfort, Joseph with his doting father, Daniel in the royal court of Jerusalem, and Esther with her fond and wealthy cousin Mordecai.  Then the earth shifts under their feet.  Joseph is sold as a slave in Egypt. Daniel is deported for re-education in Babylon. Esther becomes a captive in the Persian king’s harem.

Yet all three heroes rise from the fall in their fortunes—with some assistance from a eunuch in the royal court.

*A court eunuch admires and helps the hero.*

And Joseph had been brought down to Egypt; and Potifar, a saris of Pharaoh, the sar of the tabachim, acquired him from the hands of the Ishmaelites who had brought him there. (Genesis 39:1)

saris (סָרִיס) = eunuch; court official. Plural=sarisim. (From the Assyrian title sa resi = royal official. In Assyria, as in many ancient Near Eastern empires, employees in the king’s house were often eunuchs, so later in the Bible saris came to mean any eunuch.)

sar (שַׂר) = head, chief, official in charge. (From the Assyrian sarru = king, chieftain, captain.)

tabachim (טַבָּחִים) = meat-handlers (butchers, meat cooks, and meat servers); executioners.

Joseph’s new master, Potifar, owns an estate and reports directly to the Pharaoh as the head of a group of servants.  He is also in charge of the prison where men are detained until their trials.

Since the Torah refers to Potifar as both a saris and a sar, the additional title of saris probably means “eunuch” rather than a repetition of “court official”—even though he is married. Traditional commentary speculates that Potifar was castrated at some point after his marriage.

And his master [Potifar] saw that God was with him [Joseph], and everything that he did, God made a success.  And Joseph found favor in his eyes, and he became his attendant. Then he [Potifar] appointed him over his household, and he gave everything he owned into his hand. (Genesis 39:3-4)

When Potifar’s wife falsely accuses Joseph of trying to rape her, Potifar has to take action to preserve her honor. Normally a slave would be executed for such an attempt, but Potifar appreciates Joseph so much, he imprisons him instead—in the prison for the king’s detainees, which Potifar manages.

Joseph in Prison, by James Tissot

Joseph in Prison, by James Tissot

Then Potifar appoints Joseph to wait on two detainees with high court positions.

Pharaoh became angry at two of his sarisim, the sar of the cup-bearers, and the sar of the  bakers.  And he placed them in the custody of the sar of the tabachim [Potifar], in the house of the round prison, the place where Joseph was imprisoned. Then the sar of the tabachim appointed Joseph to be with them, and he waited on them… (Genesis 40:2-4)

Like Potifar, these court officials are called both sar (chief official) and saris (eunuch). Joseph correctly interprets their dreams, and in the Torah portion Mikeitz, the head cup-bearer mentions Joseph when the Pharaoh needs a dream interpreter. Pharaoh calls for him at once, and Joseph’s career takes off.

Thus Joseph is helped along by two different eunuchs, the king’s head executioner and the king’s head cup-bearer.

In the book of Daniel, a Babylonian officer named Ashpenaz is called both the high saris, and the sar of the sarisim. I think the title sar covers his position as a captain, so the word saris gives the additional information that he and those he supervises are eunuchs. After Ashpenaz’s boss, King Nebuchadnezzar, has conquered Jerusalem, he sends his high-ranking eunuch on a mission.

The king said to Ashpenaz, his high saris: Bring some sons of Israel, descendants of the royalty and the nobility. (Daniel 1:3)

Nebuchadnezzar orders Ashpenaz to educate these foreign boys for three years and give them rations from the king’s food and the king’s wine. But Daniel and his three companions from Jerusalem object to eating anything that is not kosher.

Daniel silently vowed that he would not make himself impure with the king’s fine food or with the wine he drank, and he sought to obtain [permission] from the sar of the sarisim that he need not make himself impure. And God disposed the sar of the sarisim to be kind and compassionate toward Daniel. And the sar of the sarisim said to Daniel: As for me, I am afraid of my master, the king, who allotted your food and your drink; what if your faces look pitiful compared to the other boys your age, and they forfeit my head to the king?  (Daniel 1:8-10)

Daniel proposes a ten-day trial during which he and the other three boys from Jerusalem will eat seeds or legumes and drink water.  At the end of ten days, they look healthier than the others. So the chief eunuch lets them continue their religious dietary restrictions. When he brings them to the king at the end of their three years of training, Nebuchadnezzar is pleased with them and appoints them to entry-level jobs among his “wise men”.

In the book of Esther, the head eunuch, Heigai, is the guard over King Achashveirosh’s “house of women” or harem. Esther is delivered to him along with the other beautiful young virgins rounded up for the king.

And she was good in his eyes, and she inspired kindness in him, and he was quick to give her her massage ointments and her rations and the seven girls who were her due from the king’s house. And he moved her and her girls to a better [room] in the house of women. (Esther 2:9)

Esther Present to Ahasuerus. detail by Rembrandt

Each virgin is kept in the harem for one year while she gets beauty treatments, then taken to spend a night with the king. The virgin of the night is allowed any clothes and cosmetics she requests.  When it is Esther’s turn,

she did not seek to obtain anything except what Heigai, saris of the king, guard of the women, said. And it was Esther who inspired favor in the eyes of everyone who saw her. The king loved Esther more than all the other women… And he put a crown of royalty on her head, and he made her queen instead of Vashti. (Esther 2:15, 2:17)

*

The court eunuchs who help Joseph appreciate his competence. According to the Torah, God makes all Joseph’s work successful and gives him dream interpretations that are true prophecies.

The court eunuch who helps Daniel admires his fortitude and his adherence to his religion. Probably due to these qualities, the God of Israel later rescues him from lions and gives him his own dream interpretations and prophecies.

The court eunuch who helps Esther probably appreciates her respect for his advice. He responds by making her life more comfortable and advising her well.

All three young heroes accept their sudden enslavement without complaining, withdrawing, or rebelling.  They do their work and treat the eunuchs overseeing them with respect, making the best of it. Because of their good attitudes, the eunuchs help them to appear in a favorable light before the king.

May we all be blessed with the ability to ride out our misfortunes with realism, patience, and respect!

 

 

The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther–Part 1

December 1, 2015 at 2:57 pm | Posted in Daniel, Esther, Vayeishev | 2 Comments
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Joseph is sold as a slave and becomes the viceroy of Egypt. Daniel is a war captive and becomes the viceroy of Persia. Esther is imprisoned in a harem and becomes the queen of Persia, while her cousin Mordecai escapes impalement and becomes the empire’s viceroy.

Each of these three rags-to-riches stories has a different plot and different characters. But many of the same themes emerge, appearing in a new light in each story.

The story of Joseph begins in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (“and he stayed”), and continues through three more weekly portions. So this month I am writing a series of posts comparing seven dramatic themes in Joseph’s story, the book of Daniel, and the book of Esther:

          Resentful rivals conspire to kill the hero.

          The hero is taken away from home and held captive.

          A court eunuch admires and helps the hero.

          The hero is punished for refusing to obey an order because of religious scruples, but God rescues the hero.

          The hero gets a foreign name.

          The hero gets revenge on the rivals who wanted him dead.

          Thanks to the hero, the children of Israel prosper in a foreign land.

 

Vayeishev, the first Torah portion in the Joseph story, introduces the first theme:

*Resentful rivals conspire to kill the hero.*

Joseph’s story in Genesis/Bereishit begins with jealousy.

Israel loved Joseph most out of all his sons, because he was a child of old age to him, and he made him a special long-sleeved tunic. And his brothers saw that their father loved him most out of all his brothers, so they hated him, and they were not able to speak to him in peace. (Genesis/Bereishit 37:3-4)

Upright sheaves

Upright sheaves

Joseph has two dreams in which his brothers (symbolized first by sheaves of grain, then by stars) are bowing down to him, and he makes the mistake of telling them his dreams.

…we were binding sheaves in the middle of the field, and hey! My sheaf stood up and actually stayed [upright], and hey! Your sheaves circled around vatishtachavena my sheaf. (Genesis/Bereishit 37:6-7)

vatishtachavena (וַתִּשְׁתַּחֲוֶיןָ) = and prostrated themselves to, bowed down to the ground toward.

After hearing that, his brothers hate him even more.

When the ten older brothers take the family’s flocks far to the north, their father Israel (also known as Jacob) sends Joseph out to find his brothers and report back.

They saw him from afar, before he reached them, and they plotted against him, to kill him.  And they said to each other: Hey! The master of dreams is coming! Now let’s go and kill him, and we will throw him down into one of the pits, and we will say a wild beast ate him.  Then we shall see what becomes of his dreams! (Genesis 37:18-20)

They do throw Joseph into an empty cistern, though instead of killing him they sell him as a slave to a caravan heading for Egypt. Their intense jealousy causes Joseph’s downfall—down into a pit, down into slavery, and down to Egypt.

Daniel, on the other hand, rises from being a foreign captive to being the viceroy of the Babylonian empire without offending anyone’s pride. King Nebuchadnezzar makes Daniel his chief magician.  A later Babylonian king, Belshazzar, appoints Daniel as one of three administrators over all the provinces in the empire. When Darius conquers the empire, he appoints the same three administrators as supervisors over the 120 district managers.

This man Daniel surpassed the other ministers and satraps by virtue of his extraordinary spirit, and the king considered setting him over the whole kingdom. The administrators and managers looked for some fault in Daniel’s conduct in matters of state, but they could find neither fault nor corruption…

Daniel's Prayer, by E.J. Poynter

Daniel’s Prayer, by E.J. Poynter

Then those men said: We are not going to find any fault with this Daniel unless we find something against him in connection with the laws of his god. (Daniel 6:4-6)

Daniel’s fellow administrators and managers are determined to bring him down. Like Joseph’s brothers, their resentment is so extreme, they want him dead. So they persuade King Darius to issue an edict that for the next 30 days, anyone who petitions any man or god other than Darius will be thrown into a den of lions. Daniel continues to kneel and pray to God three times a day in front of his windows. His rivals rush into his room, then go and inform the king, who reluctantly obeys his own written edict and throws Daniel into the lions’ den, placing a rock over the mouth of the cave so Daniel must spend the night inside.

The book of Esther has two Jewish heroes: Esther, and her cousin and guardian Mordecai. King Achashveirosh makes Esther his queen; Mordecai merely becomes one of the elders who sits in the gate of Shushan and judges minor cases. Meanwhile the king promotes Haman, one of his advisors, to viceroy.

Mordecai refuses to bow

Mordecai refuses to bow

And all the servants of the king who were in the gate of the king were kneeling umishtachavim to Haman, because that was what the king ordered. But Mordecai would not kneel and lo yishtachaveh. …Haman saw that Mordecai was not kneeling umishtachaveh to him, and Haman filled up with rage. (Esther 3:2, 3:5)

umishtachavim (וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים) = (plural) and bowing down to the ground.

lo yishtachaveh (לֹא יִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה) = he would not bow down to the ground.

umishtachaveh (וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה) = (singular) and bowing down to the ground.

Haman learns that Mordecai is not bowing because he is a Jew. Commentators generally conclude that he refuses to bow—either because Haman expects the kind of full bow (kneeling, then touching one’s head to the ground) that is reserved for God; or because Haman is a  descendant of Amalek, God’s enemy in every generation.

…Then Haman sought to exterminate all the Jews that were in all the kingdom of Achashveirosh—Mordecai’s people. (Esther 3:6)

He persuades Achashveirosh that “a certain people” in his empire do not obey the king’s laws, and should therefore be eliminated. The king (who is fairly brainless throughout the story, perhaps because of all his drinking feasts) does not question Haman, but immediately gives him permission to issue a royal edict.

So thanks to jealousy and wounded pride, Joseph is thrown into a pit, Daniel is sealed into a lions’ den, and all the Jews in Persia are threatened by an edict of destruction.

Is this theme a warning on the part of the Biblical authors that it is dangerous, even deadly, to threaten the pride of others?

If so, the Joseph story offers a lesson, since Joseph wounds his brothers’ pride further by telling them his dreams of overlordship. If he had considered his brothers’ feelings and kept silent, he would not have been enslaved—but his brothers would still have held a grudge against him because of their father’s favoritism.

In the Daniel story, Daniel is promoted only because of his own excellent work, not because he is lording it over anyone. Although he is caught praying and thrown into the lions’ den, he does not brag about his god, or try to convert anyone else. Sometimes nothing can be done about the jealousy and pride of others.

In the book of Esther, all the Jews in Persia are put under a death sentence because Mordecai insists on following a religious scruple to the letter. Haman is clearly the villain, yet Mordecai is also responsible for the threat to his people. Perhaps Mordecai is emulating Daniel, whose prayers affect only his own fate.  He fails to take into account that when one member of a group offends a prideful person, that person is likely to consider everyone in the group offensive. Prejudice is always dangerous.

Sometimes it is better to be silent in the face of enemies. Sometimes it is even better to bow when everyone else is bowing.

*

The danger of wounding someone’s pride is only one of the themes that the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther have in common.  Watch for my upcoming blogs on the twists and turns of other themes!

 

 

 

 

 

Vayeitzei: Father Figures

November 19, 2015 at 10:12 pm | Posted in Vayeitzei | Leave a comment
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Jacob runs away from home at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“And he went”). He might be fleeing from his twin brother, Esau—who is threatening to murder Jacob for cheating him twice:  first by trading him a bowl of stew in exchange for his inheritance, and then by impersonating him in order to steal their father Isaac’s blessing.

Jacob might also be running away from his mother, who inveigled him into the impersonation.  He might be running away from his father, an authoritarian figure who loves Esau but not Jacob. Or he might be running away from a household in which he is and always will be the second-born (emerging from the womb holding onto Esau’s heel) and second-best.

prophet 2Officially, Jacob is not running away at all, but following Isaac’s instruction to go to Charan and take a wife from among the daughters of Rebecca’s brother, Lavan.  But Jacob does not wait for his wealthy father to give him a bride-price, riding animals, and servants for the journey.  Instead, he dashes away with only his walking stick.

I think Jacob is determined to leave his past behind, and never again try to take anything from his father: neither an inheritance, nor a blessing, nor even a bag of gold for a bride-price.

When Jacob arrives in Charan, he falls in love with his uncle Lavan’s younger daughter, Rachel, and proposes to pay her bride-price by working as Lavan’s shepherd for seven years.

Lavan agrees to Jacob’s deal, but when the seven years are up, he substitutes his older daughter, Leah, as the bride. Jacob does not dare challenge his authoritarian, unloving uncle/father-in-law—any more than he could directly challenge his father. He ends up working an additional seven years so he can marry Rachel, too.

After fourteen years, Jacob says he is ready to return to Canaan.  But Lavan is not ready to lose such an excellent shepherd.  So he asks what wages would induce Jacob to continue working for him.

Black sheep

Black sheep

He said: What shall I give you?  And Jacob said: You shall not give me anything at all.  If you will do for me this thing, I will go back to shepherd your flocks and watch over them. I shall pass through all your flocks today, and remove from them every speckled or spotted young animal, every dark or spotted one among the lambs and every spotted or specked one among the goat-kids. That will be my wages. (Genesis 30:31-32)

In other words, Lavan will give Jacob ownership of all the spotted goat-kids and dark lambs that day, and when any new spotted kids or dark lambs are born, they will also belong to Jacob. This is a reasonable offer, since the majority of goats in that area are entirely black or brown, and the majority of sheep are entirely white. Jacob will own only the animals with unusual coloring.

And Lavan said: Right! Let it be as you have spoken. (Genesis 30:34)

But Lavan is lying. Before Jacob can go through the flocks, Lavan removes all the oddly colored goats and sheep, both young and adult, and sends them off with his own sons.

And he turned aside on that day the he-goats with akudim or spots or speckles, and all the speckled and spotted she-goats, every one that had lavan on it, and all the dark sheep; and he gave them into the hands of his sons. And he put a journey of three days between himself and Jacob…(Genesis 30:35-36)

akudim (עַקֻדִּים) = stripes; marks from being bound with ropes; bindings. (From the root akad (עקד).)

lavan (לָבָן) = white; brick.  (Also the name of Jacob’s uncle and father-in-law.)

Only the monochromatic animals are left for Jacob to tend. Lavan believes that it would take a miracle for all-black goats to have multi-colored offspring, or for all-white sheep to have dark offspring, so Jacob will never own any animals.

Goats stripedJacob did not mention stripes in his proposal, but Lavan also removes the striped goats.

In the whole bible, words from the root akad (עקד) appear only in the book of Genesis: once when Abraham binds Isaac, and six times in this week’s Torah portion, in descriptions of goats and sheep.

In the story Jews call the Akedah (“Binding”), God tells Abraham to sacrifice his 37-year-old son Isaac.

And they came to the place that God said to him, and Abraham built altar there, and he arranged the wood, vaya-akod Isaac, his son, and he placed him on the later on top of the wood.  And Abraham stretched out his hand, and he took the knife to slaughter his son. (Genesis 22:9-10)

vaya-akod (וַיַּעֲקֹד) = and he bound. (Also from the same root akad (עקד).)

God stops Abraham at the last minute, but the near-sacrifice is the defining moment of Isaac’s life. Isaac, who clearly acquiesced in the binding, is bound for the rest of his life not only to God,  but also to Abraham.  He avoids his father for the rest of the old man’s life, but after Abraham dies, Isaac takes over his livestock business, redigs his father’s wells, and repeats his father’s trick of passing off his wife as his unmarried sister (see my post Toledot: Generations of Impersonations). Isaac remains akudim, as if you could still see the stripes from his binding.

When Lavan goes through his flocks ahead of Jacob, he removes all the he-goats that are akudim like Jacob’s father Isaac, as well as all the she-goats that bear patches of lavan, his own name, and all the dark-colored sheep.

Thus Jacob is symbolically deprived of both his father and his uncle/father-in-law. At last he has no father figure!

Unfortunately, he also has no independent means to feed his own large family.

Jacob tries sympathetic magic, mating the best goats in front of sticks with the dark bark peeled off in strips to reveal the white (lavan) wood underneath, so the she-goats will be thinking of black-and-white mixtures when they conceive. The Torah assumes this method is effective for breeding multi-colored goats.

And the flock went into heat at the sticks, and they gave birth to the flock of akudim, speckled ones, and spotted ones. (Genesis 30:39)

Today we know that while the genetics of coat color for goats and sheep is complicated, involving several pairs of genes, it is possible for two all-black goats carrying the right recessive genes to produce a spotted kid, and for two all-white sheep carrying the recessive gene for pigment production to produce a black or brown lamb.

Lavan’s large flocks of all-black goats and all-white sheep would include many animals carrying recessive genes.  So regardless of peeled sticks, some of their offspring would have two recessive genes leading to multi-colored coats—and Jacob would have breeding stock for his own flocks.

Goat female with 2 kids

She-goat with two kids

After six years Jacob has large flocks and ample wealth. As soon as the untrustworthy Lavan is out of town, Jacob sneaks away with his own wives and children and his own flocks. But he does not escape all reminders of his uncle or his father; all his own goats have spots of lavan on them, and many are akudim.

The last time a form of the word akad appears in the Bible is when Jacob tells Rachel and Leah that God said:

Raise your eyes, please, and see: All the he-goats going up on the flocks are akudim, speckled, and dappled, because I have seen everything that Lavan is doing to you. (Genesis 31:12)

Thus God becomes the ultimate father-figure for Jacob—but at least this divine father-figure recompenses Jacob for the injustice he suffered.

After that last reference to akudim, Jacob no longer lets himself be bound by Isaac, Lavan, or any other head of a household.  He becomes the head of his own household, and when Jacob’s authority falters, it is only when his own sons take charge.

Psychologically, Isaac never loses the stripes from when his father bound him.  Jacob finally outgrows his own father complex, but not until he is over 60.

As we read their stories, may the stripes on the goats, and even sheep, remind us of the endurance of father-figures, and help us to outgrow our dependence on them.

Chayyei Sarah: Loss of Trust

November 4, 2015 at 2:55 pm | Posted in Chayyei Sarah | Leave a comment
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Abraham, in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, is the decisive ruler of his household of about a thousand people. He never consults or asks favors of anyone except his wife Sarah and God.

When Abraham is 137 years old, God tells him to sacrifice his son Isaac, then rescinds the order at the last second. (See my post Lekh-Lekha & Vayeira: Going with the Voice.)  After that, Sarah dies, and Abraham decides it is time for their son Isaac to marry.  He summons his head servant, Eliezer, and gives him instructions for procuring the appropriate wife—without consulting his 37-year-old son Isaac.

And I will have you swear by God, god of the heavens and god of the land, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites in whose midst I am dwelling. Because you must go to my land and to my moledet, and [there] you shall take a wife for my son, for Isaac. (Genesis/Bereishit 24:3-4)

moledet  (מוֹלֶדֶת) = kin, relatives, family of origin.map Abraham's journey

Where is Abraham’s land?  It might be the city of Ur Kasdim, where he was born and married Sarah; or the town of Charan in Aram, where he lived for decades before God called him. Or it might be the land of Canaan, where he has lived for the past 50 years or so, mostly in Hebron and Beersheba.

The word moledet clarifies that Abraham means Charan, because that is where his brother Nachor’s family still lives.

This raises a question for Eliezer. God has promised the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants, and since Abraham’s older son, Ishmael, has been exiled, that means Isaac’s descendants.  Yet the custom in that part of the world was for the husband to leave his parents and live near his wife’s family.

Even the Garden of Eden story alludes to this custom:

Therefore a man will leave his father and his mother, and he will cling to his wife, and they will become one flesh.  (Genesis 2:24)

Later in the book of Genesis, Isaac’s son Jacob marries two of his cousins in Charan, and remains there for 20 years.  This is the cultural norm.

Yet Eliezer suspects that Abraham does not want Isaac to move from Canaan to Charan.

And the servant said to him:  What if the woman will not consent to follow me to this land?  Should I really bring back your son to the land that you left? (Genesis 24:5)

Abraham’s reply is clear.

And Abraham said to him:  Guard yourself, lest you bring my son back there!  God, god of the heavens, Who took me from the house of my father and from the land of my moledet, and Who spoke to me and Who swore to me, saying “To your seed I will give this land”—May [God] Itself send Its angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there.  But if the woman does not consent to follow you, then you will be cleared from this oath of mine.  Only you must not bring my son back there! (Genesis 24:6-8)

Why is it so important for Isaac to marry a non-Canaanite, yet stay in the land of Canaan?  The commentary offers several suggestions, including:

1) God promised to give Canaan to Abraham’s descendants.  In order to be prepared for God’s gift, these descendants must be distinct from the Canaanites (rather than intermarried), and they must be living in Canaan, so they are attached to the land and willing to change from resident aliens to owners.

2) Even a short visit to Charan would seduce Isaac away from his father’s religion.  The early 20th-century rabbi Elie Munk cites Abraham’s “constant concern for sheltering his son from all influences able to jeopardize the purity of his religious ideas”.

Canaanite goddess, possibly from a set of terafim, 14-13th century BCE

Canaanite goddess, possibly from a set of terafim, 14-13th century BCE

Later in this week’s Torah portion, Abraham’s extended family in Charan refer to God by the same four-letter name as the God of Israel.  But in another portion, Vayeitzei, we learn that the household also keeps terafim, statues of household gods.

3) A Canaanite wife would corrupt Isaac, since Canaanites are morally degenerate.  19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch summarized this opinion by noting that although both the Canaanites and the Aramaeans of Charan worshipped the wrong gods, the Canaanites were also “morally degenerate”.

Although moral issues are not mentioned in Genesis, the book of Leviticus/Vayikra warns the Israelites about the morals of the Canaanites when God says:

…like the deeds of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you—you shall not do! (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:3)

Then God gives the Israelites a list of forbidden sexual partners, and concludes:

Do not become defiled through any of these [sexual practices], because through all of these they became defiled, the peoples that I will be driving away from before you. (Leviticus 18:24)

All three of the above explanations assume that Isaac cannot be trusted either to pick out his own wife or to commit himself to the land God promised.  Isaac is seen as weak and easily influenced to abandon what he learned from his father.

Since Abraham does not trust Isaac, no wonder he sends Eliezer to arrange his son’s marriage and bring back the bride!

And why should Abraham trust Isaac, when he knows that Isaac has rejected him?

In last week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, the 37-year-old Isaac trusts his father so much that he follows him to the top of Mount Moriyah and lets the old man bind him on the altar as a sacrifice.  I can only conclude Isaac believes that Abraham heard God correctly, and that God really ordered the sacrifice.  Isaac is completely devoted to the god of Abraham and will do whatever this god requires.

14th century Icelandic manuscript, with angel and ram

14th century Icelandic manuscript, with angel and ram

Abraham lifts the blade, then hears God’s voice telling him to stop.  He stops and substitutes a ram for his son on the altar.  God talks to him some more, and then Abraham walks back down the mountain–alone. The Torah does not say where Isaac goes.

Sarah, Isaac’s mother, dies, but only Abraham shows up to bury her.  The Torah never reports father and son in the same place at the same time again.  Their mutual trust is broken. The next time we see Isaac, he is living at Beir-Lachai-Roi, some distance south of Abraham’s home at Beersheba.  Abraham’s servant brings Isaac’s bride directly to Beir-Lachai-Roi, probably because he knows Isaac would never return to his father’s home to meet her.

The Torah does not say why Isaac turns against the father he trusted.  My guess is that the interrupted sacrifice proves to Isaac that

1) Abraham does not always know what God wants, after all, and

2) his father is willing to kill him anyway.

So Isaac separates from his father.  For all Abraham knows, Isaac rejects God as well.  But Abraham still wants descendants—descendants who will be suitable to receive the gift of Canaan from God. So Abraham goes ahead and arranges his son’s marriage.

If this were a modern story, Abraham’s plot would backfire. Isaac would reject the bride Eliezer brings back from Charan, and find his own wife and his own religion.

But in the book of Genesis, Isaac falls in love with his cousin Rebecca from Charan.  He stays in Canaan, and he continues to worship the god of Abraham his whole life.  Isaac is wise enough not to let his mistrust of his father infect his relationships with other people or with God.

May we all be able, like Isaac, to distinguish between a person we cannot trust and the individuals and ideas connected with that person.

Lekh Lekha & Vayeira: Hints of Jerusalem

October 19, 2015 at 8:07 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Vayeira | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

No place called Jerusalem appears in the “Torah” proper, the first five books of the Bible.  The Torah only drops two hints about Jerusalem, both in the book of Genesis/Bereishit.

In the Torah portion Lekh Lekha (“Get yourself going”), Abraham is blessed by the king of “Shaleim”.  And in the next portion, Vayeira (“And he saw”), Abraham almost slaughters his son as an offering on Mount Moriyah, later identified as the temple mount. map Jerusalem hills

A place called “Jerusalem” (Yerushalam or Yerushalayim) does not show up in the Bible until the book of Joshua:

When Adoni-Tzedek, king of Yerushalam, heard that Joshua had captured the Ai… (Joshua 10:1)

Adoni-Tzedek (אֲדֹנִי־צֶדֶק) = My-Lord-of-Righteousness.

Yerushalam (יְרוּשָׁלַם) = Jerusalem (in English).

But thanks to Egyptian archaeology, we have older records of a place in the central hills of Canaan called something like Yerushalam.  The oldest reference found so far appears on Egyptian potsherds from the 19th century BCE, where Rushalimum is one of 19 Canaanite cities.

Rushalimum = uru (city of, founded by) + shaleim (the Canaanite god of the evening star, in the Semetic language of the Jebusites).

In the Amarna letters of the 14th century B.C.E., the king of the land of Rishalimum complains to the pharaoh of Egypt about how the Egyptian soldiers treated his capital city, “Beit-Shulmani”—a Semetic name meaning “House of Shaleim”.

Shaleim (שָׁלֵם) = the Canaanite god of the evening star (in the Jebusite language); completeness, safety, peace (in Hebrew, another Semitic language).

In the book of Joshua, Jerusalem is one more Canaanite city-state that Joshua and the Israelites defeat in battle.  Joshua puts its king to death, but he cannot defeat the city itself.  We can tell because he does not subject the city to either of the two standard treatments for a defeated city: making it a vassal-state of the conqueror, or plundering all the goods and enslaving or killing all the residents.

But the children of Judah were not able to take over the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Yerushalam, as their possession, so the Jebusites dwell with the children of Judah to this day.  (Joshua 15:63)

Joshua sets up the Israelites’ portable tent-sanctuary in Shiloh, about 20 miles north of Jerusalem, and it remains there for centuries, acquiring stone walls and becoming the main temple of the Israelites.

Solomon's Temple, artist's rendering

Solomon’s Temple, artist’s rendering

The city-state of Jerusalem remains an independent enclave until King David conquers its citadel and makes it his capital in the second book of Samuel.  Instead of enslaving or subjugating the native Jebusites, David integrates them into his kingdom.  He brings the ark and the tent-sanctuary to Jerusalem, and his son Solomon builds the first temple there.

Back in the book of Genesis, Shaleim (in Lekh Lekha) and “Mount of the Moriyah” (in Vayeira) seem to refer to locations in Jerusalem, long before the time of King David.  These two references also provide hints that this area is destined to someday become the city of the God of Israel.

A blessing in the city of Shaleim concludes Abraham’s only recorded military campaign.  Five kings at southern end of the Dead Sea lose a battle against four northern kings, who then head north with all the southerners they can round up as slaves, along with their wealth and food. One of the kidnapped families is Abraham’s nephew Lot and his women. map Shechem to Zoar

Abraham and his 318 men chase the northerners beyond Damascus, defeat them, and head south with all the captured people and goods.  Before they even reach Abraham’s encampment in Hebron, on the way to the cities of the five defeated kings farther south, the king of Sodom meets Abraham and his men in the Valley of Shaveh.

And the king of Sodom went out to meet him, after he returned from striking Kedarlaomer and the kings who were with him, to the Valley of Shaveh, which is the valley of the king.  But Malki-Tzedek, king of Shaleim, brought out bread and wine; and he was a priest to Eil Elyon.  (Genesis/Bereishit 14:17-18)

shaveh (שָׁוֵה) = level, made level, made equal.

Malki-Tzedek (מַלְכִּי־צֶדֵק) = My-King-of-Righteousness.

Eil Elyon (אֵל עֶלְיוֹן) = the High God.

Malki-Tzedek, the king of Shaleim, has a name similar to Adoni-Tzedek, the king of Yerushalam in the book of Joshua.

Malki-Tzedek is also a priest, but rather than serving a local god called Shaleim, he serves Eil Elyon, the head of the Canaanite pantheon, and later a secondary name for the god of Israel.

This king-priest comes down to the Valley of Shaveh with bread and wine.  Below the Jebusite citadel that became the City of David is a broad, level area where the Kidron Valley meets the Valley of Ben-hinnom.  Commentators have speculated that this was the Valley of Shaveh—though Shaveh would also be a good name for a place where Abraham, the king of Shaleim, and the king of Sodom meet as equals.

Malki-Tzedek not only gives bread and wine to Abraham and his men upon their return from battle (a gesture that did not occur to the king of Sodom); he also gives Abraham a blessing.

And he blessed him and he said: Blessed be Avram to Eil Elyon, owner of heaven and earth.  And blessed be Eil Elyon, Who delivered your enemies into your hand. And he gave him a tithe of everything. (Genesis 14:19)

Probably it is Abraham who gives a tithe of the booty to Malki-Tzedek, prefiguring the tithes that Israelites brought to the high priest in the temple in Jerusalem centuries later.

prophet 2Abraham adds the name Eil Elyon to the four-letter name of God when he swears to the King of Sodom that he will not keep any of the people or goods that he won in battle. (See my blog post Lekh Lekha: Names for God.) Abraham’s use of Eil Elyon may be diplomatic, but it also implies that Malki-Tzedek and Abraham recognize the same god as supreme.

So the stage is set for the Jebusite city of Shaleim to become the capital and holy city of the Israelites someday. The site is associated with a name of God, with priesthood, with blessings, and with tithes.

The next Torah portion, Vayeira, hints at the future site of the temple through a very different story.

Abraham and his people live in Beersheba at this point in the Torah, and Isaac, Abraham’s son by his wife Sarah, is a young man.  God speaks to Abraham in the night.

And [God] said:  Take, please, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and get yourself going to the land of the Moriyah.  And lead him up there for an olah on one of the mountains, which I will say to you. (Genesis 22:2)

Moriyah (מֹרִיָּה) = Mor of God.  Mor (מֹר) = myrrh.  Mor could also be a shortened form of moreh (מוֹרֶה) = throwing or teaching; or a homonym for mareh (מַרְאָה) = seeing, appearance, vision, apparition, mirror.

olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering: an animal offering completely burned up into smoke.

“The Moriyah” might originally have been the name for an area where myrrh grew.  The fragrant resin of these small thorn-trees was collected for incense, which was in general use for religious ceremonies in the ancient Near East.

After a three-day walk from Beersheba, Abraham sees the place.  The Torah does not say how he knows this particular hilltop is the one God chooses, but he climbs up with Isaac, firewood, a fire-box, and a knife.

Beersheba is 44 miles from Jerusalem.  If the Moriyah is Jerusalem,  then Abraham, Isaac, and the two servants and donkey they leave at the bottom of the hill would have to walk 14 to 15 miles a day—a reasonable distance, especially if the servants carry the firewood and the donkey carries Abraham, age 117.

14th century Icelandic manuscript

14th century Icelandic manuscript: an angel stops Abraham

Just as Abraham lifts his knife to kill his son at the top of the hill, another voice from God calls to him and tells him to stop.  Abraham sacrifices a ram caught by its horns in the thicket in place of Isaac.  (The Torah does not say whether it is a thicket of myrrh.)

And Abraham called the name of that place “God Yireh”, as it is said to this day:  On the mountain of God yeira-eih. (Genesis 22:14)

yireh (יִראֶה) = sees, will see, perceive, look at, consider.

yeira-eih (יֵרֶָאֶה) = he/it will be seen, become visible, appear.

Abraham’s name for the hilltop plays on the word Moriyah, which sounds like another form of the verb “to see”:  mareh (מַרְאָה) = seeing, appearance, vision.  The only other occurrence of the name Moriyah in the Hebrew Bible is in a book written 300 to 650 years later:

Then Solomon began to build the house of God in Jerusalem on the hill of the Moriyah, where [God] had appeared to his father David, where David had appointed the place on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.”  (2 Chronicles 3:1)

The house, or temple, of God in Jerusalem became the place where all Israelite men were required to appear—and be seen—three times a year, on the three pilgrimage festivals.

The first allusion to Jerusalem in Genesis, the story of Malki-Tzedek, mentions priests, blessing, and tithing. The second allusion to Jerusalem, the story of the binding of Isaac, changes the acceptable form of worship from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice, and also explores the idea of seeing and being seen—of perceiving what God really wants, and of being seen by God.

Three of the hints in these two stories—the tithe for the priest, burnt offerings of animals only, and presenting oneself at the holy place—all prefigure the practical religious instructions given later in the Bible for the holy temple of the Israelites.

But the hints about blessing and being blessed by God, and seeing and being seen by God, imply that Jerusalem will become such a holy city that humans will continually meet God there—perhaps not as equals, the way Abraham and the two kings do in the Valley of Shaveh, but as beings who exchange the same currency of blessing and acknowledgement.

Over the centuries, Jerusalem has occasionally lived up to the promise of its name under Malki-Tzedek, which is the same as the Hebrew word shaleim = wholeness, peace, and safety.  At other times, too many of the human beings in Jerusalem have been unable to bless or to see each other—and therefore unable to truly bless or perceive the divine.

May the promises of a holy, whole, peaceful, and safe Jerusalem in Lekh Lekha and Vayeira finally come true, speedily and in our time.

 

Note:  This post covers two weeks of Torah readings.  Look for my next post, on the portion Chayyei Sarah, in the first week of November. By then I will be settled in my new home on the Oregon coast!

 

Noach: Winds of Change

October 13, 2015 at 12:50 pm | Posted in Bereishit, Noach | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Wind changes the weather.  A persistent mood or spirit changes your behavior, driving you like the wind in a new direction.

Bibilical Hebrew has one word for both wind and spirit: ruach.

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind; spirit, mood, emotional energy.

The Torah uses this word to describe both the creation of the world in the first Torah portion of Genesis/Bereishit, and its re-creation after the flood in this week’s Torah portion, Noach.

In a beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was a vacancy and a void and a darkness over the face of the deep, and the ruach of God was merachefet over the face of the waters. And God said: Light, be!  And light was. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:1-2)

eagle+nestmerachefet (מְרַחֶפֶת) = fluttering, hovering tremulously. (The only other place the Bible uses the verb rachaf in this form is in Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:11, where God is compared to an eagle fluttering over its young.)

Translators disagree over whether the word ruach at the beginning of the Bible should be translated as “wind” or “spirit”.  I think the ruach of God, fluttering over the blank darkness and deep waters, is like the tender, hesitant spirit of someone about to become a parent.

The word ruach shows up again when Adam and Eve hear God’s voice in the garden “in the ruach of the day” (Genesis 3:8)   I agree with modern scholars that this means the windy time of day, which tended to be late afternoon in Israel.

The next time the Torah uses the word ruach is when God is musing about the dual nature of human beings.  God made the first human, in Genesis 2:7, out of both dirt and God’s own breath.  In other words, humans are partly animals with physical desires, and partly mental beings with spiritual desires.

And God said: My ruach will not always be judge in the human; he is also flesh…  (Genesis 6:3)

Here, ruach seems to mean God’s spirit, which shapes a human being’s character and prevailing mood.  Sometimes a person’s character controls the appetites of the flesh, but not always.

God lets these double-sided humans make their own choices for 1,556 years in the Torah, from the time God returns Adam and Eve to the world until the time when their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson Noah is 500 years old.

Then God saw that the badness of the human on earth was abundant—that the shape of every idea of his heart was only bad, all the time. And God had a change of heart about making the human on the earth, and he grieved in his heart. (Genesis 6:5-6)

God tells Noah to make an ark, because in another hundred years God is going to destroy the earth.

And hey, I Myself am bringing the deluge of water over the land to wipe out from under the heavens all flesh in which is the ruach of life.  Everything that is on the land will expire.  (Genesis 6:17)

The Torah repeats the phrase “the ruach of life” twice more in the story of Noah’s ark.  In the third occurrence it becomes clear that ruach in this phrase means moving air, a small-scale wind:

All that had the breath of the ruach of life in its nostrils, from all that were on dry land, they died.  (Genesis 7:22)

Noah Leaving the Ark, by Sisto Badalocchio

Noah Leaving the Ark, by Sisto Badalocchio

The flood wipes out all land animals, including humans, except those aboard Noah’s ark.  But God is not really starting over.  The animals and humans who emerge from the ark are the descendants of the ones God created in the beginning; they are built according to the same designs.  Human beings have the same dual nature.

Nevertheless, when God restores the earth to working order, the language in the Torah recalls the language of the original creation.

And God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark, and God made a ruach pass over the earth, and the waters abated.  The springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens were stopped up…(Genesis 8:1-2)

Once again God begins with a ruach.  But while the first ruach flutters like the tender spirit of a mother bird, this ruach sweeps across the flooded world like an eagle soaring—or a wind that brings a change of weather.

In the first creation story, God acts by speaking things into being.  In the re-creation story, God merely changes the weather, and the earth gradually dries out over the course of a year.  When God speaks, it is only to tell Noah to come out of the ark with his menagerie.

After the story of Noah, the word ruach continues to mean “wind” when the Bible talks about God. When it talks about humans, the word ruach means “spirit” or prevailing mood.

A third phenomenon is the ruach Elohim, a “spirit of God” that takes over or rests inside humans.  The ruach Elohim is a sublime wisdom in Joseph the dream-interpreter and Betzaleil the master artist, and a supernatural strength in Samson.  It is an infectious battle drive in war leaders, and a divine compulsion in mad King Saul as well as the many prophets God uses as mouthpieces.

Thus even the ruach Elohim is manifested only in human beings.

In the beginning of the Torah, God creates everything.  After the flood, the world and its humans continue on their own, and God intervenes only by blowing winds, by making plagues and occasional miracles, and by changing the spirits of a few select humans.

Today, I encounter two types of “spiritual” people.  One type often sees omens and miracles, attributing every coincidence to the hand of God rather than to the laws of probability or nature.  For this type, if a wind knocks down a tree that just misses them, God is literally in the wind and moves the tree.

The other type perceives God only through changes in their own spirits.  For this type (my type), if a wind knocks down a tree that just misses me, God is in the shaken liberation of joy after the flash of fear.  The divine is in me and moves my spirit.

Yet the Bible shows God changing the spirits of only the few.  And I know I am no prophet or war leader or master artist.

The world has always been full of silent people who are moved by a divine spirit, but never do anything famous enough to be written down in a book. After all, according to the Torah we are all made partly of God’s breath, God’s wind, God’s ruach.

 

Bereishit:  In Hiding

October 8, 2015 at 7:36 pm | Posted in Bereishit | 1 Comment
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Humankind and God have been hiding from each ever since the garden of Eden, according to the first portion of the first book of the Torah, Bereishit (“In a beginning”).

At first, humankind is as close to God as an infant is to its mother.

And God formed the adam of dirt from the adamah, and [God] blew into its nostrils the neshamah of life, and the adam became an animated animal.  (Bereishit/Genesis 2:7)

adam (אָדָם) = human, humanity, humankind.

adamah (אֲדָמָה) = ground, earth, soil.  (The words adam and adamah come from the same root.  Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, of blessed memory, once translated adam as “earthling”.)

neshamah (נְשָׁמָה) = breath, soul.

In other words, a human is made out of two ingredients: the earth and the breath of God.  Our souls are God’s breath.

Fig Tree

Fig Tree

God removes the adam from the earth and places it in a mythical garden of Eden, telling the adam to eat from any tree except the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, …because on the day you eat from it, you must die. (Genesis 2:17)

Like an infant the adam is immersed in its ongoing experience, unable to think for itself.  So it avoids the Tree of Knowledge.  Then God divides the adam into two people, male and female, and the situation changes.

And the woman saw that the tree was good for eating, and that it was delightful for the eyes, and the tree was desirable for understanding; and she took from its fruit and she ate, and she gave also to her man with her, and he ate. And the eyes of the two of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves, and they made themselves loincloths. (Genesis 3:6-7)

The Tree of Knowledge gives the humans the ability to make distinctions, including the distinction between “me” and “you”, as well as between “good” and “bad”.  Now they notice their separate bodies, with different sex organs.  Later in the Torah, the most common euphemism for sexual intercourse is “uncovering the nakedness” of someone.

detail of "Adam and Eve in Eden" by Pere Mates

detail of “Adam and Eve in Eden” by Pere Mates

Perhaps the first humans experiment with their bodies, and discover the power of sexual passion and the potential for procreation. Alarmed, they make clothing to hide their sex organs from one another.  If you cannot see something, you can ignore it.

Then they heard the voice of God going around in the garden at the windy time of the day; vayitchabei, the adam and his woman, from the face of God, among the trees of the garden. (Genesis 3:8)

vayitchabei (וַיּתְחַבֵּא) = and they hid themselves.

Hearing God’s voice, the humans realize they are also separate from God. Before they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, God was just part of their undifferentiated experience.  Now they view God as a separate intelligence with a voice and a face, more powerful than they are.  Suddenly they are afraid.

But if you cannot see something, you can ignore it. So the humans try to hide from God—among the trees of the garden God made.  Perhaps they even try to hide behind the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. They have learned to make distinctions, but they have not yet learned logical thinking.

God called to the adam, and he said: Ayeikah? (Genesis 3:9)

Ayeikah (אַיֶּכָּה) = Where are you?  (Ayeh (אַיֵּה) = where + suffix –kah (כָּה) = you.)

Rabbi David Fohrman points out in his intriguing book The Beast that Crouches at the Door that if God had wanted to know their physical location, God would have used the word eifoh—אֵיפֹה.  The other Hebrew word for “where”, ayehאַיֵּה—asks why something or someone is not here.  What happened to it?

The woman is silent, but the man answers:

I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; va-eichavei. (Genesis 3:10)

va-eichavei (וָאֵחָבֵא) = and I hid. (From the same root, חבא, as vayitchabei above.)

Biblical Hebrew has several verbs meaning “to hide”.  The verb חבא in its various forms appears 34 times in the Hebrew Bible, and (except for two metaphors in the book of Job) it always describes human beings hiding themselves. Usually they are hiding from human enemies in order to avoid being killed.

Why does the Torah use this word for “hiding” in the garden of Eden, when Hebrew has alternative words? Maybe the adam suddenly views God as an enemy who wants to kill him.  After all, God said that if the adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge, he would die.

In the story, the first humans become mortal creatures, and God returns them to the world.  Adam and Eve adapt to life on the ground, with its troublesome farming, sexual desire, and childbirth.

The next time the Torah mentions hiding, Adam and Eve’s oldest son, Cain, is afraid that God will conceal the divine “face” from him–and that he will be hidden from God.

Competing offerings in detail of print after Maarten de Vos 1583

Competing offerings in detail of print after Maarten de Vos 1583

Cain, a farmer, invents the idea of giving God an offering from his vegetables as an expression of gratitude.  (See my post Vayikra: Gifts to the Giver.)  His younger brother Abel, the shepherd, imitates him with an offering from his flock.  When God rejects Cain’s offering and accepts Abel’s, Cain is enraged and depressed.

God notices and warns him to master his evil impulse, but Cain does not reply.  Unable to vent his rage by killing God, Cain kills his brother Abel.  Then God informs Cain that the ground itself is cursed for him.  He will no longer be able to farm, and he will be homeless.

And Cain said to God:  My iniquity is too great to bear.  Hey, You have banished me today from the face of the adamah, and from Your face esateir.  I will be homeless and aimless in the land, and anyone encountering me will kill me. (Genesis 4:14)

esateir (אֶסָּתֵר) = I will be concealed, go unseen, be unrecognized, take cover, be hidden.

The verb סתר in its various forms is the most common word for hiding in the Bible, appearing more than 80 times. This word is used for the concealment of not only people, but also information, actions, and especially faces.

Starting in the book of Isaiah, the Bible emphasizes that humans cannot conceal themselves or their secrets from God. But Cain does not know this; he believes that once he is banished, God will no longer see him.

What does it mean to be concealed, unseen, unrecognized?  Human beings lower their faces or look away when they want to avoid communication.  We avoid people when we do not want to bother with them, or when we have given up on a relationship.  We also avoid people when we are afraid of them, either because we feel inferior, or because they might attack us.

Moses hides his face at the burning bush because he is afraid of seeing God. He feels inferior, unworthy of direct contact with the divine, and fears that it might hurt him.

Cain believes he will be hidden from God’s face because his crime makes him unworthy of any continuing contact with the divine.

The most frequent use of the verb סתר is to indicate when God conceals God’s “face” from humans, usually Israelites who have strayed from their religion.  The concealment of God’s face is a tragedy because if God does not “see” the Israelites, recognizing them as God’s people, then God will ignore them and stop protecting them from enemies and other dangers.

Later in history, many religious writers have considered the concealment of God’s face a tragedy because if people cannot “see” and recognize God, then they will ignore God’s will and become spiritually ungrounded.

Yet God tells Moses:

You will not be able to see My face, because the adam may not see Me and live.  (Exodus/Shemot 33:20)

Rabbi David Kasher wrote recently in ParshaNut: “We cannot see God’s face, for if we did, we would lose our separateness and cease to exist. It would kill us. In that sense, the true punishment would be not the hiding, but the revealing of God’s face.”

Thus the great creation myth of the Torah reveals that humans have a paradoxical relationship with the divine. God is inside us, in the sense that our bodies are earth and our souls are the breath of God. Yet having tasted fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, we know we are separate and distinct from something we experience as the voice of God.

When humans feel as if God is a loving parent who protects us, we are like Cain, who does not want to be concealed from God’s face.  When we feel unprotected, subject to all kinds of undesirable fates, including death, we are like Adam, who tries to hide from God.

And because we have some knowledge of good and bad, but do not understand what God is, we want to see God’s face. But we cannot see God and continue to live as individual human beings.

Maybe God is hidden from us because we cannot see the souls that God breathed into us.  Or maybe God is hidden because we cannot recognize God, even when the divine is both inside us and in front of us.

 

 

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