Haftarat Acharey Mot—Ezekiel: Abomination

May 4, 2016 at 3:54 pm | Posted in Acharey Mot, Ezekiel | Leave a 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 the Torah portion is Acharey Mot (Leviticus 16:1-18:30) and the most common haftarah is Ezekiel 22:1-19.

The Torah frowns on some actions because they are ra (רַע) = bad or immoral; some because they are tamei (טָמֵא) = not pure for religious purposes; and some because they are to-eivah (תּוֹעֵבָה) = abominable, disgusting, offensive. This week’s Torah portion and haftarah reveal two different views of what should be to-eivah to the god of Israel.disgust 1

The authors of both Leviticus and Ezekiel knew that societies in the ancient Near East had different opinions on what was abominable. The first two books of the Bible, Genesis/Bereishit and Exodus/Shemot, use the word to-eivah only to describe what the Egyptians abhor: eating at the same table with Canaanites (Genesis 43:32), and the slaughter of sheep (Genesis 26:34, Exodus 8:22).

This week’s portion in Leviticus/Vayikra declares that some of the practices that Canaanites permit are off-limits to Israelites.

You must keep My decrees and My rules, and you must not do any of these to-eivot, [neither] the native-born nor the resident alien among you. Because the men who were on the land before you did all these to-eivot, and they made the land tamei. (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:26-27)

to-eivot (תּוֹעֵוֹת) = plural of to-eivah.

The passage leading up to this statement lists 17 acts that are both tamei and to-eivot for Israelite men: twelve kinds of sex involving relatives, sex with a menstruating woman, sex with your comrade’s wife, giving your child to the god Molekh, sex with another male, and sex with a beast.

Two of these acts are labelled tamei within the list, perhaps to emphasize that they cause religion impurity: sex with a comrade’s wife and sex with a beast. Another act is specifically labeled to-eivah:

And you must not lie down with a male as in lying down with a woman; it is to-eivah. (Leviticus 18:22)

The book of Leviticus might have emphasized that this homosexual act was to-eivah for the ancient Israelites because it was accepted as normal among other peoples in the region, including the Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Philistines. These societies had laws against specific deeds such as father-son incest and homosexual rape, but treated sex between consenting males (and even boys) as a normal part of life.

But for the priests who wrote Leviticus, all sex between males was as abominable as raping your mother or giving your child to the foreign god Molekh.

The prophet Ezekiel was a priest deported to Babylon when Jerusalem fell, and he shared some of the opinions of the priests who wrote the book of Leviticus. But he took a broader view of what was to-eivah to the god of Israel. The haftarah from the book of Ezekiel denounces the residents of Jerusalem for recklessly committing deeds that are to-eivah. God asks Ezekiel:

And you, son of humankind, will you judge, will you judge the city of bloodshed and inform her of all her to-eivot? (Ezekiel 22:2)

Then God tells Ezekiel what to say. The first eight  to-eivot God says the citizens of Jerusalem have committed are: making idols, belittling their own parents, practicing extortion on resident aliens, oppressing widows and orphans, despising God’s holy things, profaning the sabbath, speaking slander, and eating sacrifices on mountaintops (where there were altars to other gods).

Next God mentions a few of the sex acts men are also forbidden to do in this week’s Torah portion: sex with their fathers’ wives, with menstruating women, with their comrades’ wives, with their daughters-in-law, and with their own sisters. Neither sex with other males nor sex with beasts is mentioned in this haftarah.

In the haftarah it is sex with another man’s wife that is explicitly labeled to-eivah.

And a man does a to-eivah with the wife of his comrade, and another man makes his daughter-in-law outrageously tamei, and another man rapes his sister, his father’s daughter. (Ezekiel 22:11)

The list is wrapped up with three more non-sexual to-eivot: taking bribes, charging extra interest, and damaging friends through extortion.

Ezekiel’s point may be that we should feel the same knee-jerk, visceral disgust that we feel in the face of incest and rape when we see our fellow citizens worship other gods or injure people through extortion, slander, and perversion of justice.

Can we change our gut reactions? Yes, over time. When I had my first period it seemed like an abomination, but eventually I accepted menstruation as a mere nuisance. On the other hand, when I was very young it did not bother me at all to trade my little sister a penny for a dime. After a few years I developed enough empathy so that the idea of deliberately cheating anyone seemed repulsive.

The Bible is right that we must pay attention and choose what is truly to-eivah to our god. But we can do better than the priests who wrote Leviticus. Modern commentators suggest that the incest rules in that book were designed to protect girls and women from the men living in the same household compound. Today we take the idea of protection farther by considering all acts of rape and all sex with children as to-eivah.

On the other hand, more and more of us smile when we see two men fall in love and go home together. I believe that today many people are more kind and fair than the Israelite authorities were 2,500 years ago.

Yet alas, too many individuals today still deserve Ezekiel’s denunciations in this week’s haftarah. Human beings cannot all have perfect empathy. But what if we all had a gut reaction to slander, bribery, and extortion, finding these deeds to-eivot? How would the world change?

Haftarat Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies

January 12, 2016 at 4:05 pm | Posted in Bo, Ezekiel, Jeremiah | 7 Comments
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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 the Torah portion is Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16), and the haftarah is Jeremiah 46:13-28.
The Death of the First Born by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema. 1872

The Death of the First Born, by Lawrence Alma Tadema, 1872

In the book of Exodus, God inflicts ten miraculous plagues on Egypt to punish the pharaoh for refusing to let the Israelite slaves go. Pharaoh finally sets the Israelites free in this week’s Torah portion, Bo—but only after the final miracle: the death of the firstborn sons.

In this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah predicts that God will once again punish the pharaoh of Egypt for mistreating the Israelites.  This time God will not create miracles, but instead will use another empire’s army to achieve the goal.

The politics

There were three kinds of nations in the Near East during the era of 800-500 B.C.E.: superpowers that ran empires (Neo-Assyrian, Egyptian, and Neo-Babylonian); countries that were directly controlled by a superpower; and semi-independent vassal states that paid tribute to a superpower in exchange for protection against outside attacks. Being a vassal state was the best hope for a small country like Judah, the only remaining Israelite kingdom after the northern kingdom of Israel was swallowed by the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 732 B.C.E.

Judah sent tribute to Assyria for about a century, except for a brief and doomed rebellion in 705-701 B.C.E. The Neo-Assyrian Empire expanded southwest to include northern Egypt, and southeast to the Persian Gulf.

Pharaoh Psamtik I

Pharaoh Psamtik I unites Egypt

But no empire lasts forever. Psamtik, the son of one of Assyria’s puppet governors in northern Egypt, hired Greek mercenaries to drive out the Assyrian occupiers. By 654 B.C.E. he was pharaoh over a united Egypt. He went on to conquer the western half of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, and by 630 B.C.E. King Josiah of Judah had become a vassal of Pharaoh Psamtik.

Next Assyria was assailed from the southeast. In 626 B.C.E. Babylon revolted under its new king, Narbopolassar. A shrunken Assyria allied itself with Egypt, and Psamtik’s son, Pharaoh Nekho II, sent his armies north to fight Narbopolassar’s son, Nebuchadnezzar II.

It was a slow march, interrupted by rebellions of vassal states along the way. King Josiah took his own army to Megiddo to challenge the Egyptians in 609 B.C.E., but the Egyptians trounced the Israelites, and Pharaoh Nekho killed Josiah.

The armies of Egypt and Babylon met in 605 B.C.E. at Carchemish, about 2,000 miles north of Jerusalem (on the present border between Turkey and Syria). The Egyptian army was crushed, and its surviving soldiers fled south.

According to Jeremiah, Egypt did not lose the battle because of any deficiency of its own; Egypt lost because the God of Israel made it happen.

Why have your strong ones been cut down?

They did not stand

Because God shoved them down. (Jeremiah 46:15)

map Neo-Babylonian Empire BAfter the battle at Carchemish, all of Egypt’s vassal states became vassals of Babylonia, and Assyria disappeared. The prophet Jeremiah repeatedly warned the new king of Judah, Yehoyakhim, to stay out of trouble and keep sending tribute to King Nebuchadnezzar.

But Yehoyakhim revolted against Babylonia in 599 B.C.E. and sent Judah’s tribute to Pharaoh Nekho II (the same pharaoh who had killed his father, Josiah).

Nebuchadnezzar retaliated by besieging Jerusalem. After a year and a half the city fell and Judah came under direct control of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel criticized Egypt for failing to send troops to defend its new vassal Judah.

Judah’s king, the prophet Ezekiel, and other leading citizens were deported to Babylon. Jeremiah stayed behind in the ruins of Jerusalem until some of his fellow countrymen took him into exile in Egypt.

The prophecy

Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesied that because Egypt had failed keep its promise to help Judah, God would send an army from the north to destroy Egypt.  Both prophets said it would be King Nebuchadnezzar’s army, but in actual history, Nebuchadnezzar failed in his 568 B.C.E. attempt to conquer Egypt. The country remained independent until the Persians took it—from the north—in 526 B.C.E.

Babylonian soldiers

Babylonian soldiers

In Ezekiel’s prophecy, God would arrange for Nebuchadnezzar to devastate Egypt not just to punish it, but so that the pharaoh would know who God is. (See last week’s post, Va-eira—Ezekiel: How to Know God.)

Jeremiah’s prophecy also includes more than punishment. He uses a name for God that never appears in Ezekiel:

As I live, declares the King—YHVH [of] Tzevaot is His name—

As Tabor is among the mountains

And Carmel is by the sea,

It will come!

Prepare for yourself the gear of exile…

For Nof will become a horror,

A desolation without inhabitants.

A heifer with a beautiful mouth is Egypt;

A stinging fly from the north is coming, coming! (Jeremiah 46:18-20)

YHVH = the four-letter personal name of God, probably related to the Hebrew verb “to be”.

Tzevaot (צְבָאוֹת) = armies; companies of soldiers. (The Bible also uses the word metaphorically for armies of angels and armies of stars.)

The god of Israel is never called YHVH [of] Tzevaot in the Bible until the first book of Samuel, which modern scholars date to 630–540 BCE—the same period as the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah uses this term 70 times!

Why does Jeremiah emphasize that YHWH, the god of existence itself, is the god of armies?

Jeremiah lived through at least 60 years of wars and reversals of fortune in the Near East, 60 years in which Judah was always a pawn, unable to take charge of its own destiny.

The common belief in the ancient Near East was that each country had its own god. When that god was happy with the people of his country, he made their army succeed. When the god was unhappy with them, their army failed.

The Bible also attributes many failures of Israelite armies to Israelite rejections of God. But why were God’s people suffering so many defeats, if their god was the most powerful?

Jeremiah was inspired to preach that the God of Israel is unlike the gods of other nations. Israel’s god, the supreme God of all existence, controls all the armies in the world. God decides which armies will win and which will lose, even when Israelites are not involved in the battle.

For Jeremiah, the prophetic insight that God rules all armies made the wars of his own lifetime meaningful. God had a master plan. Egypt would be humbled. Eventually the Babylonians would also be defeated. And in the long run, the Israelites would outlast all other peoples.

You must not fear,

My servant Jacob

—declares YHWH—

For I am with you.

For I will make an end of all the nations

Among which I have banished you,

But with you I will not make an end. (Jeremiah 46:28)

Personally, I shrink inside when I sing a prayer that includes the term YHVH Tzevaot. If God is the ruler of all armies, then God is responsible for the carnage and suffering of all wars—which are apparently necessary for God’s master plan.

If God were the Master Planner, controlling the actions of mutable human beings, surely God could come up with a better plan than this. If human beings hold ultimate responsibility for wars, then God is not the Master Planner, not the God of Armies.

Sorry, Jeremiah.

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