Va-eira & Bo; Psalm 78 & Psalm 105: Responding to Miracles

January 26, 2017 at 7:01 pm | Posted in Bo, Passover/Pesach, Psalms/Tehilim, Va-eira | 3 Comments
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Pharaoh Merneptah subjugating Semites

Pharaoh Merneptah subjugating Semites

(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)

It takes two Torah portions (Va-eira this week and Bo next week) to describe the miraculous “plagues” that force the Pharaoh to let the enslaved Israelites walk out of Egypt. Two psalms, Psalm 78 and Psalm 105, offer briefer versions of the story. And the festival of Passover/Pesach tells the story of how God rescued the Israelites from Egypt in such detail that the seder (“order”;  ritual retelling of the story) can last half the night.

In the Torah portion Va-eira, God lays out the plan to Moses:

Therefore say to the children of Israel: “I am God, and I will bring you out from under the burden of Egypt, and I will rescue you from enslavement, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgement. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your god. And you will yada that I am God, your god, who is taking you out from under the burden of Egypt. (Exodus/Shemot 6:6-7)

yada (יָדַע) = know, realize, recognize, become acquainted, come to understand through direct experience. (Yada is the root verb. The Hebrew here uses the form viyda-etem (וִידַעְתֶּם) = and you will yada.)

Why does God inflict “great acts of judgement” on Egypt? The first reason given in this week’s Torah portion is so that the Israelites will yada God.

Pharaoh Mernptah, son of Ramses II

Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Ramses II

The second reason is so that the Pharaoh and the Egyptians will yada God, or at least recognize God’s existence and power:

And Egypt, they will yada that I am God when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and I bring out the children of Israel from their midst. (Exodus 7:5)

(The Hebrew in this verse uses form veyade-u (וְיָדְעוּ) = and they will yada.)

How many plagues does it take before both the Israelites and the Egyptians yada God?  Anyone who has participated in a Passover seder, spilling a drop of wine for each plague, knows the answer is ten. And in the book of Exodus/Shemot God does indeed inflict ten miracles on Egypt—the first seven in Va-eira (And I appeared), and the last three in Bo (Come).

However, the ten plagues are described in two different voices. Any close reader of  Va-eira and Bo, even in translation, notices points where the narrative suddenly stops and restarts, rephrasing a bit of the story that has already been told. Scholars examining the language itself have discovered that two stories of the plagues are woven together (but not seamlessly).

Both strands have something to say about the plagues of blood, frogs, and death of the firstborn. The other seven plagues are described by one strand or the other, not both. Maybe each of the two original stories had fewer than ten plagues. Or maybe the redactor(s) who combined the two stories decided to give both descriptions of three plagues, but chose only their favorite descriptions for the other seven.

Psalms 78 and 105 report fewer than ten plagues, and the order is different than in Exodus.

plagues-table

What accounts for these differences? We cannot identify any of these accounts as the original story. At least one strand in the composite story in Exodus was probably written in the 8th century B.C.E. Psalm 78 may have been written as early as the 10th century B.C.E., soon after the first Israelite temple was built in Jerusalem. Psalm 105 could have been written any time after that, maybe before the book of Exodus, maybe as late as the period of the second temple. Probably the story of God’s miracles in Egypt was familiar to all the authors before they began to write down their own versions.

The two psalms and the composite in Exodus borrow language from each other, not only using the same words for the plagues, but sharing pieces of description. For example, Exodus describes the plague of blood this way:

Plague of Blood, Golden Haggadah, c. 1320 Spain

Plague of Blood, Golden Haggadah, c. 1320 Spain

…and he raised the staff and he struck the water that was in the Nile before the eyes of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the waters of the Nile turned into blood. And the fish that were in the Nile died. And the Nile stank and the Egyptians were not able to drink water from the Nile, and there was blood throughout the land of Egypt. (Exodus 7:20-21)

Psalm 78 focuses on the lack of drinking water:

And [God] turned into blood the Nile and its streams;

            They could not drink. (Psalm 78:34)

Psalm 105 focuses on the loss of an important food:

           [God] turned their waters into blood

                        And it made their fish die. (Psalm 105:39)

Whether the story is expanded in the book of Exodus, or contracted in a psalm, it is always offered as a decisive example of God’s miracles on behalf of the Israelites.

In the book of Exodus, the purpose of the plagues is to get both the Israelites and the Egyptians to yada God. But the Torah portion Bo also gives instructions several times for the earliest Passover rituals, which were conducted about 3,000 years ago. The purpose of these rituals is to remember the story of the exodus.

This day shall be for you for remembrance, and you shall celebrate it as a festival for God, through [all] your generations. It is a decree forever: you shall celebrate it. (Exodus 12:14)

While Exodus only calls for remembering the story of God’s miracles in Egypt, Psalms 78 and 105 tell the story in order to motivate the Israelites of Judah to action.

Psalms 78 hopes that if the Israelites remember the miracles God did for them, then they will stop backsliding, trust God, and obey God’s rules.

           What we have listened to, and we yada,

                      and our ancestors recounted to us,

           should not be concealed from their descendants,

                      to the last generation recounting

           praises of God and Its strength

                      and Its wonders that It did. (Psalm 78:3-4)

(The Hebrew in verse 3 uses form vaneida-eim (וַנֵּדָעֵם) = and we will yada.)

Why must God’s miracles be recounted to every generation?

           Then they will place their kesel in God,

                      and they will not forget the deeds of God,

                      and they will comply with Its commandments. (Psalm 78:7)

kesel (כֶּסֶל) = conviction, certitude, unwavering belief regardless of other evidence or arguments; folly, stupidity.

The section of Psalm 78 that tells about the miracles God inflicted on Egypt (78:42-51) is not designed to mention every single plague, but rather to bring the story to life in ten short verses. Psalm 78 leaves out the kinim, the shechin, and the darkness, but it adds a few details that are not in Exodus:

Plague of Hail, Haggadah by Judah Pinchas, 1747 Germany

Plague of Hail, Haggadah by Judah Pinchas, 1747 Germany

—that the action happened at Tzoan, a specific place in the Nile Delta. (78:43)

—that the arov, the mixed hordes of vermin, ate the flesh of the Egyptians. (78:45)

—that when God sent hail, Egyptian flocks were hit by lightning. (78:48)

—that the hail killed grapevines and fig trees (important crops in Canaan, but not in Egypt). (78:47)

These additional details would make the story more vivid in the listener’s imagination.

Psalm 105 is less concerned than Psalm 78 about lack of faith and commitment among the people of Judah. I believe its purpose is to whip up enthusiasm for God and the religion among the worshipers at the temple.

           Thank God, call out Its name,

                      hodiyu among the peoples Its deeds!

           Sing to [God], make music to It,

                      consider all Its wonders!

           Revel in the name of Its holiness!

                      Let the heart of those who seek God rejoice! (Psalm 105:1-3)

hodiyu (הוֹדִיעוּ) = make known, inform, announce. (A different form of the root verb yada.)

Rylands Haggadah, 14th century Spain. Left: livestock pestilence. Right: Shechin.

Rylands Haggadah, 14th century Spain. Left: livestock pestilence. Right: Shechin.

Psalm 105 then tells the story of the people who became Jews, starting with God’s covenant with Abraham and ending with the Israelites’ conquest of part of Canaan. When it describes the plagues, it omits both livestock pestilence and shechin, perhaps because the thought of rashes and boils would depress the congregation.  Or, according to 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, because diseases do not seem supernatural enough to count as miracles. But Psalm 105 uses some of same vivid details as Psalm 78.

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Do the stories of God’s miracles in Egypt achieve their purpose?

Direct experience of miracles works in Exodus; both the Israelites and the Egyptians yada—know, realize, and recognize—a powerful god acting on behalf of the Israelites. The instruction to perform a ritual to remember what happened also worked; we have been celebrating Passover for about 3,000 years.

Does the account in Psalm 78 work, leading people to kesel, an unshakeable belief in God, and to a determination to obey God’s rules? I think it would depend on the listener. Some people believe any account that is vivid (like Psalm 78’s selection of details) and comes from an accepted source (such as the temple priests, or a particular news station, or a friend’s e-mail). Other people are skeptics by nature; they examine a story to see if it is logical and how it fits with personal experience and other information. This type of person would probably need direct experience, yada, to achieve kesel and commit themselves to obeying all the rules of the religion.

What about Psalm 105? I believe that an account of past miracles can inspire both kinds of people, especially when it is poetry set to uplifting music. Even natural skeptics can get caught up in singing joyful praise, and leave the temple (or synagogue) with a better attitude toward their God and their religion. And natural believers might be moved to proselytize, following the instruction hodiyu—make known, announce!

The singing of the psalms continued as part of both Jewish and Christian prayer after the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. It continues today. But Jewish liturgy concentrates on other psalms. It quotes only one verse from Psalm 78 and fifteen from Psalm 105, none of which are verses addressing the plagues in Egypt.

However, serious-minded Jews study the story of the plagues in the Torah portions Va-eira and Bo every winter, when we reach this time in the cycle of Torah readings. And in the spring many more Jews celebrate Passover, a festival of dramatic rituals, prayers, songs, and stories about how God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

The haggadah (“the telling”), the book that provides the texts and ritual instructions, includes many quotes from our two Torah portions in Exodus. Psalms 78 and 105 are not traditionally included. In a modern American haggadah, the song “Go Down Moses” usually is.

from an Iraqi haggadah, printed in Vienna 1930

from an Iraqi haggadah, printed in Vienna 1930

Out of all the stories of God’s miracles in Egypt, I would say Passover is by far the most effective at getting Jews to remember the claim that God created miracles to rescue our people from Egypt. The ritual itself has changed and grown over the millennia, so it can speak to new generations. Even Jews who grew up in families that managed to conduct a boring seder  every year cannot help but remember the symbolic foods, the song that the youngest child must sing, the exodus story, spilling a drop of wine for each of the ten plagues, and hunting for the hidden piece of matzah.

Thus Passover still serves the purpose given in the book of Exodus: remembering the story. Whether we can go further and yada God (as in Exodus), or commit ourselves to kesel (as in Psalm 78), or be moved to joy and a desire to recommend the religion (as in Psalm 105) depends on the individual.

Personally, I have a skeptical nature, and I actively try to avoid kesel—while remaining committed to studying Torah and being a Jew in a liberal sense. But I remember the exodus story every winter when I study it in the Torah, as well as every spring when I participate in Passover. I do not yada the God of the ancient Israelites, but I do yada something I cannot describe that I call God. And when I sing psalms that have uplifting words and melodies, I am indeed moved to joy. I would recommend that to anyone!

Haftarat Vayeira–2 Kings: Dance of Pride

November 17, 2016 at 10:02 pm | Posted in Kings 2, Vayeira | 1 Comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Vayeira (Genesis 18:1-22:21), and the haftarah is 2 Kings 4:1-37.

Elisha is not only a prophet, but a miracle-worker. He and his mentor, Elijah, are the only characters in the Hebrew Bible who create supernatural wonders on their own initiative—yet with God’s approval.

This week’s haftarah relates two of Elisha’s miracles. First the widow of one of Elisha’s disciples begs him for help. She is in debt to a creditor who is coming to take her two sons as slaves. Elisha speaks to her simply and directly, saying:

Jug from 9th-century Israel

Jug from 9th-century Israel

What can I do for you? Tell me what you have in the house. (2 Kings 4:2)

He has no problem arranging a miracle for the poor and desperate woman, turning her single small jar of oil into so much oil that when she sells it she can pay off her whole debt, with money left over. Magnanimity comes easily to Elisha.

In the next story, the woman who approaches Elisha is wealthy and content. Instead of asking for help, she is determined to help Elisha. He becomes the recipient of her magnanimity.

It happened one day [that] Elisha passed by Shuneim, and there was a gedolah woman, vatachazek him to eat a meal. Then it happened whenever he passed by, he turned aside there to eat a meal. And she said to her husband: “Hey, please! I know that the one who passes by regularly is a holy man of God. Let us make, please, an upper room with a wall, and let us put there a bed for him, and a table and a chair and a lampstand, and it will happen whenever he comes to us, he will turn aside there”. And it happened one day [that] he came there and he turned aside to the upper room …(2 Kings 4:8-11)

gedolah (גְדוֹלָה) = great, significant, big.

vatachazek (וַתַּחֲזֶק) = and she took hold of, and she prevailed over, and she seized.

The woman of Shuneim is probably gedolah, significant in her town, because she and her husband are wealthy enough to build a walled chamber on top of their roof as a guest room. She may also be called gedolah because she is unusually forceful for a woman in the ancient kingdom of Judah. She does not politely ask Elisha if he would like to come to her house for a meal; she makes him do it, either by refusing to take no for an answer or by actually grabbing him.

But feeding Elisha is not enough for her. So she politely tells her husband she wants to build and furnish a guest room for him. Her husband’s reply is not recorded, but judging by the rest of the story, he never stands in her way. In the next sentence, Elisha’s guest room is complete.

What is the woman of Shuneim’s motivation for this extreme hospitality? One clue is that she calls Elisha a “man of god”, an ish elohim. Maybe she is religious, and sees taking care of a man of God as a way to contribute to the cause of glorifying the God of Israel.

House in ancient Israel

House in ancient Israel

And it happened one day [that] he came there and he turned aside to the upper room, and he lay down there. And he said to Geichazi, his manservant: “Call that woman of Shuneim.” And he called her, and she stood before him. (2 Kings 4:11-12)

Elisha is already famous in the kingdoms of both Judah and Israel. Now he has his own servant. He sends Geichazi to summon her, instead of going downstairs himself.  He does not refer to his hostess by name (and we never learn it). When she climbs up the ladder to his room, he is reclining on the bed as if he were a king.

Putting on even more airs, Elisha does not speak to her directly, but only through his servant.

And he [Elisha] said to him: “Say, please, to her: Hey! You have troubled yourself with all this trouble for us. What is there to do for you? To speak for you to the king? Or to the commander of the army?” (2 Kings 4:13)

There is no indication that the woman needs anything from the king or the army commander. I believe Elisha is showing off, letting her know that he has influence with these exalted persons.

The woman is unimpressed. She merely replies:

I am dwelling among my own people. (2 Kings 4:13)

She does not need Elisha’s influence because she is already well-known and respected in Shuneim.  She then goes back downstairs, making it clear that she does not want any favors from the “man of God”.

And he [Elisha] said: “Then what to do for her?” And Geichazi said: “Actually, she has no son, and her husband is old.” Then he [Elisha] said: “Call her”. And he called her, and she stood in the doorway. (2 Kings 4:14-15)

Sarah Hears and Laughs, by James Tissot

Sarah Hears and Laughs, by James Tissot

Geichazi assumes that the woman’s husband is too old to have successful intercourse with her. This story is a good match for the Torah portion Vayeira because in Vayeira, Sarah stands in the doorway of the tent and laughs silently when she hears a guest tell her 99-year-old husband, Abraham, that the following year she will have a son.

The guest, who is actually divine, hears Sarah’s thoughts and tells Abraham:

Is anything too extraordinary for God? Lamo-eid hazeh I will return to you, ka-eit chayyah, and Sarah will have a son. (Genesis 18:14)

lamo-eid hazeh (לַמּוֹעֵד הַזֶּה) = at this appointed time.

ka-eit chayyah (כָּעֵת חַיָּה) = in the same season of life. (An idiom for “at the same time next year”.)

Elisha borrows language from the Torah portion to announce his own miracle, and finally addresses the woman instead of confining his remarks to his servant.

And he said: “Lamo-eid hazeh, ka-eit chayyah, you will be embracing a son.” Then she said: “No, my lord, Man of the God. Don’t you lie to your maidservant.” (2 Kings 4:16)

Through the language of this annunciation, Elisha is comparing himself with Abraham’s guest, an angel who turns into the voice of God. I suspect that the woman of Shuneim rejects his message because she knows Elisha is only a man of God, not an angel. She puts him in his place.

She may not even want a son. Most women in Biblical times needed a son to support them in old age, since they rarely had property of their own. But as commentator Tikva Frymer Kensky pointed out, the woman of Shuneim appears to be independent, and may even own the land her husband farms for her.

Nevertheless, she has a son the following year. When the boy is old enough to follow his father around outside, but still young enough to fit on his mother’s lap, he suddenly has a pain in his head. His father does not take it seriously, and merely tells a servant to carry him back to his mother.

And he sat on her knees until noon. Then he died. And she took him up and laid him on the bed of the man of God, and she closed [the door] behind him, and she left. (2 Kings 4:20-21)

Elisha and the Shunamite Woman (artist unknown)

Elisha and the Shunamite Woman (artist unknown)

The woman realizes that now she does need a favor from Elisha, and she has a right to demand it. When she reaches him on Mount Carmel, she brushes off Elisha’s servant Geichazi.

And she came up to the man of God on the mountain, vatachazek his feet… (2 Kings 4:27)

Once again the woman seizes Elisha, but this time instead of making him accept a favor from her, she requests one from him.

Geichazi tries to pull her away, but Elisha tells his servant:

“Leave her alone, because her soul is bitter, and God has hidden it from me and has not told me [about it].”

Then she said: “Did I ask for a son from my lord? Did I not say: Don’t you be careless with me?” (2 Kings 4:27-28)

Elisha's Servant Geichazi, engraving by Bernhard Rode

Elisha’s Servant Geichazi, by Bernhard Rode

That is enough of a clue for Elisha. He realizes her son has died, and he gives his staff to Geichazi with orders to place it on the boy’s face. But the woman knows that will not work.  She insists on taking Elisha to her house in person. He still does not speak to her directly, but he follows her. When they arrive, the boy is still laid out dead on Elisha’s bed.

Elisha’s pride has taken two blows; first God did not tell him anything was wrong, and then his idea for a miraculous revivification did not work. His benefactress knew more than he did.

Elisha Raising the Son of the Shunemmite, by Frederic Leighton

Elisha Raising the Son of the Shunemmite, by Frederic Leighton

All he can do now is imitate one of his mentor Elijah’s successful miracles, and hope it works for him, too. He goes into the guest room, shuts the door on Geichazi and the woman, and prays to God. Then he climbs up and lies down on the boy, mouth to mouth and hands to hands. (Too much time has elapsed for mouth-to-mouth resuscitation; Elisha is attempting to send some of his own life-spirit into the child.)

After he does this a second time, the boy sneezes and opens his eyes. Elisha calls Geichazi and says: “Call that woman of Shuneim.”  It sounds as if Elisha is resuming his proud distance from his benefactress.  But when she arrives, he speaks to her, saying: “Pick up your son.” (2 Kings 4:36)

And she came and she fell at his feet and she bowed low to the ground and she picked up her son and she left. (2 Kings 4:37)

Although she bows to him, it is only his due as a man of God who has brought a dead child to life. She retains her dignity by rising and carrying her son away.

Does Elisha give up some of his prickly pride about receiving help from the woman of Shuneim? The story ends here, but later the second book of Kings reports:

And Elisha spoke to the woman whose son he had revived, saying: “Get up and go, you and your household, and sojourn wherever you will sojourn, because God has called for a seven-year famine, and even now it comes to the land.”  And the woman got up and did as the man of God spoke… (2 Kings 8:1-2)

God is speaking to Elisha, and Elisha is speaking to the woman of Shuneim, treating her with consideration, even if she did once force him to accept favors from her.

*

Maybe I see this haftarah as a story of prickly male pride because I was born in the 1950’s and I’ve seen that dynamic again and again—though less often in this 21st century. On the other hand, I sometimes find it difficult to accept help myself, because I, too, want to appear competent and in control, not weak and needy.

This week’s haftarah demonstrates that there are times when even the great woman of Shuneim, or Elisha the man of God, needs help. In order for we humans to do our work best, we need three things: the strength to ask for help when we need it, the strength to accept help whether we need it or not, and the compassion to give help when we can.

 

 

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