Tags: Bereishit, Canaan, Genesis, good and evil, Joseph and his brothers, torah portion
The last four Torah portions in the book of Genesis/Bereishit tell the story of Jacob’s two most dynamic sons: Joseph, who changes from a foreign slave into a viceroy of Egypt; and Judah, who changes from an amoral egotist into a man of integrity. This double post looks at Judah’s transformation in the first half of the story: the Torah portions Vayeishev and Mikeitz, and Judah’s speech at the beginning of Vayiggash.
(My next post, on later events in the portion Vayiggash, will appear two weeks from now.)
Vayeishev (“And he stayed”)
The story begins when Joseph is seventeen. He tends the flocks with his ten older brothers, who are in their twenties, and brings his father bad reports about them. Jacob dotes on Joseph, since he and baby Benjamin are the sons of his second and most beloved wife, Rachel, who died when Benjamin was born. Jacob gives Joseph a fancy tunic or coat. Then Joseph has two dreams in which his brothers are bowing down to him, and he makes the mistake of telling them. Naturally, his older brothers hate him. As soon as they get a chance, they seize their obnoxious little brother and throw him into a pit.
First they argue over whether to kill him. Then Judah persuades the others to sell Joseph to some slavers heading for Egypt. The brothers dip Joseph’s fancy tunic in goat blood and bring it to Jacob, saying: This we found; hakker na, is it your son’s tunic or not? (Genesis/Bereishit 37:32)
hakker (הַכֶּר) = recognize, identify.
na (נָא) = please.
The trick works; Jacob concludes a wild beast has killed his favorite son. He goes into inconsolable mourning. And Judah suddenly moves south.
Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) wrote that Judah’s brothers blame him for selling Joseph and tricking their father, and claim that if Judah had proposed a better course of action, they would have listened to him. So Judah moves to get away from his father’s grief and his brothers’ resentment—the reminders of his own guilt.
Judah starts a new life by marrying a Canaanite woman and having three sons with her: Eir, Onan, and Shelah.
Judah took a wife for Eir, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. And Eir, the firstborn of Judah, was bad in God’s eyes, and God made him die. Then Judah said to Onan: Come into the wife of your brother and yabeim with her, and establish offspring for your brother. (Genesis/Bereishit 38:6-8)
yabeim (יַבֵּם) = impregnate the childless widow of one’s deceased brother or close male relative. (Yabeim is an imperative verb; the noun for the act is yibum, also called levirate “marriage”.)
According to the law of both Canaan and Israel, a son born from yibum receives the inheritance of the deceased man. Without a son from yibum, the inheritance goes to the man’s surviving brothers.
Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, so when coming into the wife of his brother, he wasted his seed on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. And it was bad in God’s eyes, what he did, and [God] made him die, also. (Genesis/Bereishit 38:9-10)
Judah’s remaining son, Shelah, is not yet old enough to impregnate Tamar. Judah uses this as an excuse to send her back to her father’s house.
Then Judah said to Tamar, his daughter-in-law: Return as a widow to your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up. For he said [to himself]: lest he dies, also, like his brothers. And Tamar went, and she sat in her father’s house. (Genesis 37:11)
Judah has no intention of letting Shelah yabeim with Tamar. He assumes that she, not God, somehow caused of the death of Eir and Onan. Determined to protect his remaining son, Judah dooms Tamar to the disgrace of returning to her father’s house, and to the limited life of a woman who is legally forbidden to remarry, have a child, or do anything without her father-in-law’s consent.
Shelah grows up, but Judah does not send him to Tamar. Judah’s wife dies, and after he has finished mourning for her, he heads to a sheep-shearing festival in Timnah to have a good time. Tamar decides to risk her life in an attempt to win a new life.
She took off her widow’s clothing and she covered herself in a shawl and she wrapped herself, and she sat at petach eynayim, which is on the road to Timnah… And Yehudah saw her and he considered her a prostitute, for she had covered her face. (Genesis 37:14-15)
petach eynayim (פֶּתַח עֵינַיִם) = the entrance to a pair of wells; the opening of the eyes.
Prostitutes in Canaan did not cover their faces; Tamar’s face-covering merely prevents Judah from recognizing her. He assumes she is a prostitute because she is sitting by a public road, where no woman except a prostitute would linger. She may also have wrapped herself in clothing typical for a prostitute.
At petach eynayim, Tamar’s eyes are open behind her shawl; she sees that Judah will never give her Shelah. Judah’s eyes are still closed. Not only does he fail to recognize his daughter-in-law; he cannot see his own past behavior clearly. He propositions the woman sitting by the road.
And she said: What will you give me if you come into me? And he said: I will give a goat kid from the flock. And she said: If you give an eiravon until you send it. (Genesis 37:16-17)
eiravon (עֵרָבוֹן) = guarantee, security deposit, pledge.
And he said: What is the eiravon that I shall give you? And she said: Your seal and your cord, and your staff that is in your hand. And he gave them to her, and he came into her, and she conceived. (Genesis 37:18)
Important men in ancient Canaan wore seals on cords around their necks. A seal was a small (about an inch long) cylinder carved with a name or a design indicating the owner’s identity. At that time, documents were written in cuneiform on clay tablets. In order to sign a document, a man rolled his seal along one edge of the clay tablet while it was still wet.
A man’s staff was the emblem of his authority over his own household, clan, or tribe. Thus Judah hands Tamar the symbols of his personal and social identities. When he gets home, he sends his friend to find the prostitute and exchange a goat kid for the eiravon, but she cannot be found.
A few months later Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant, even though she is not allowed to have any sex outside of yibum. This flouting of society’s rules requires the man in charge of Tamar to take immediate action. Judah might be secretly relieved that now he can order Tamar’s death, and save Shelah for good.
Judah said: Take her out and she shall be burned. Taken out she was; and she sent to her father-in-law, saying: By the man to whom these belong I am pregnant. And she said: hakker na, whose are this seal and cord and staff? Judah recognized them, and he said: She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah. (Genesis 38:25-26)
Judah is shocked into facing the truth by the sight of his own guarantee. On a literal level, these objects prove he is the father, and Tamar’s sexual encounter with him was for the sake of the yibum he had denied her. On another level, the symbols of identity make him see who he really is: not the righteous ruler of his household, but a man who circumvented the law and ruined an innocent woman’s life.
Tamar’s expression hakker na (“Recognize please” or “Identify please”) surely reminds Judah of when he and his brothers showed Joseph’s bloody tunic to their father and said hakker na. So Judah must also face his identity as the ringleader who sold his little brother and tricked his father.
Recognizing your own bad behavior is painful; staying in denial is much more comfortable. In my own life, I have reacted to the realization that I did something wrong in two different ways: Either I feel irrevocably guilty and unable to change into the person I want to be; or I forgive myself for the past but know that I can, and therefore must, behave better from now on.
Judah starts down the second path, publicly admitting his wrongdoing and vindicating Tamar. She returns to Judah’s house, and gives birth to twin sons.
Mikeitz (“In the end”)
When we next see Judah, he has rejoined his father and brothers. There is a famine in Canaan, but Egypt has grain for sale—thanks to the advance preparations of Joseph, the Pharaoh’s new viceroy. He has risen from rags to riches due to his good attitude, management skills, and a God-given gift of dream interpretation.
Jacob sends his ten older sons to Egypt to buy grain, keeping only Benjamin at home. The loss of one of Rachel’s sons has made Jacob determined to keep the other one safe.
The ten more disposable sons of Jacob bow down to the viceroy of Egypt without recognizing him; Joseph was a teenager when they sold him, and during the last twenty years or so his face and voice have changed, he dresses like an Egyptian nobleman, and he speaks Egyptian. Joseph, however, recognizes the brothers who sold him into slavery. He accuses them of being spies, the first crime that comes into his mind. They protest that they are honest men, and all brothers. Joseph repeats his accusation, so they elaborate, saying they are twelve brothers, but one is gone and the youngest is home with their father.
Joseph imprisons them for three days, keeps one of them (Simon) as a hostage, and sends the rest back to Canaan under orders to return to Egypt with their youngest brother. (See my earlier post, Mikeitz: Shock Therapy.) He also supplies them with grain, and hides the silver they paid inside their packs.
The nine brothers who return to Canaan explain the situation to Jacob, who responds: As for me, you have deprived me of children! Joseph is gone, and Simon is gone, and now Benjamin you would take! Upon me everything happens! (Genesis 42:36)
As Jacob complains that they have deprived him of children, Judah could not help but remember that for years he also deprived Tamar of children.
Jacob’s oldest son, Reuben, replies: My two sons you may kill if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my hands, and I will personally return him to you. (Genesis 42:37)
Jacob refuses the offer, perhaps because Reuben’s guarantee is so unappealing, and Reuben does not speak again in the Torah. The famine continues, and when the extended family has eaten the last of the grain from Egypt, Jacob tells his older sons to go back to Egypt to buy more food. Then Judah steps forward again as a leader.
The first time Judah speaks in the Torah, he arranges for the brothers to sell Joseph as a slave instead of killing him. He speaks often during the story of Tamar, giving orders, haggling with the woman he takes as a prostitute, and admitting his own wrongdoing.
Now Judah points out that the Pharaoh’s viceroy will not let them return to Egypt without their youngest brother, Benjamin. Then, after Jacob has complained, Judah takes another step down the path of transformation, saying:
Send the youth with me, and let us get up and go, so we will live and not die: we and also you and also our children! I, personally, ervenu; from my hand you may seek him; if I do not bring him to you and set him before you, I will be guilty before you for all time. (Genesis 43:8-9)
ervenu (אֶעֶרְבֶנּוּ) = I will guarantee it. (From the same root as eiravon = a guarantee.)
Earlier in the story, Tamar asked Judah for a guarantee consisting of the physical emblems of his identity as the ruler of a household. Now Judah offers his father a guarantee based solely on his own commitment to do the right thing. And Jacob accepts it.
In Egypt, Joseph treats Benjamin better than his brothers. Then he plants a silver goblet in Benjamin’s pack, and has the brothers stopped on their way out. When the goblet is “discovered” in Benjamin’s pack, they all return to the viceroy’s house, and Joseph declares Benjamin must stay as his slave. This is his final test of his brothers; will they enslave Benjamin, as they once enslaved him?
Judah, the leader, speaks for his brothers. He acknowledges that they cannot defend themselves against the charge of theft, and therefore they are all slaves to the Pharaoh’s viceroy. But Joseph insists that only Benjamin will be his slave.
Vayiggash (“And he stepped forward”)
The next Torah portion opens with Judah stepping closer to the viceroy and delivering a passionate plea to let Benjamin go home with his brothers. Otherwise, he says, their father will die of grief. Judah concludes:
So now, please let your servant stay instead of the youth, as a slave to my lord, and let the youth go up with his brothers. For how could I go up to my father when the youth is not with me, and see the evil that would come upon my father? (Genesis 44:33-34)
Then Joseph finally breaks down and reveals his own identity. The whole family is reunited in Egypt.
Why did Judah volunteer to take the punishment for something he did not do? He guaranteed he would not return to Jacob without Benjamin, and he is determined to be true to his commitment— even if it means losing his position as a free man and household ruler, losing his seal and his staff for good. And although he is not guilty of theft, he knows he is guilty of other bad deeds: selling Joseph into slavery, tricking their father into thinking Joseph is dead, and abusing his power over Tamar.
Judah chooses to be an honest and compassionate slave, rather than an independent agent who is selfish and eternally guilty. By making that choice, he also becomes a man of integrity, and an impressive ancestor for the tribe of Judah and its eponymous kingdom.
We are all born into certain identities, and assigned others by our own society. Not everyone gets a seal and a staff. But we all make moral choices, even though we do not always know we are doing it.
May we all become able to recognize ourselves and identify our own behavior, good and bad. May we become able to consciously choose our moral identities, and may we be inspired to make the right choices.
Tags: Bereishit, blessing, Genesis, Jacob and Esau, religion, torah portion
Jacob finally gets a blessing he can believe this week, in the Torah portion Vayishlach (“And he sent”).
In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, a blessing usually means a transmission from God that improves the recipient’s lot in life. When a human being blesses someone, it is a request that God will transmit that blessing. God’s blessings grant people eventual success in practical affairs, including numerous descendants, wealth, land, authority over others, a good reputation, and becoming a by-word for other people’s blessings.
Before this week’s Torah portion, Jacob receives three blessings: two from his father Isaac (one while Jacob is impersonating his brother Esau, and one as himself), and one blessing from God. But he still does not feel blessed—partly because of his guilt over cheating his brother, and partly because of his habit of calculating how to take advantage of others. (See my posts Toledot: To Bless Someone and Vayeitzei: Guilty Conscience.)
During his 20 years working for his uncle Lavan in Charan, Jacob acquires two of the material advantages promised in the blessings by Isaac and God: many children (eleven sons and a daughter), and material wealth (abundant flocks, herds, and servants). He does not yet own land, but God reminds him he must return to Canaan.
Even though he appears to be blessed by God, Jacob is afraid to go. First he fears that his uncle Lavan will prevent him from leaving. After the two men make a peace treaty, he is afraid that his brother will kill him and his family. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob sends messengers to Seir, where Esau is living, as he travels west toward Canaan. When he reaches the Yabbok River, the messengers return with the news that Esau is coming to meet him—with 400 armed men. Jacob frantically makes arrangements to prevent his whole family from being annihilated:
1) He divides his family and servants into two camps, hoping that if Esau’s men attack one camp, the other camp will escape.
2) He prays to God:
I am too small for all the kindnesses and all the fidelity that you have done for your servant; for with my walking-stick I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I, I am afraid of him, lest he come and strike me down, mother and children. And You, You said: I will certainly be good to you, and I will set up your offspring like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted in its abundance. (Genesis 32:11-13)
Here Jacob expresses his own unworthiness for blessing, admits that God has aided him, and reminds God of the blessing from 20 years before. He views the blessings he has received so far as temporary and easily wiped out.
3) He sends gifts of livestock ahead to Esau, hoping to appease him.
4) He takes his family and servants across the river, then returns to the other side of the ford to spend the rest of the night alone—because he senses that there is one more thing he must do. Jacob may not know consciously that the fourth and final thing he needs to prepare for Esau’s arrival is a new blessing, a fourth blessing that comes from neither his father nor his god. But he waits alone in the dark.
And Jacob was left alone, vayei-aveik, a man, with him until the dawn rose. And he [the “man”] saw that he had not prevailed against him, so he touched the hollow of his hip; he struck the hollow of Jacob’s hip during hei-avko with him. (Genesis 32:25-26)
vayei-aveik (וַיֵּאָבֵק) = and he wrestled (?); and he kicked up dust (?)
hei-avko (הֵאָבְקוֹ) = his wrestling (?); his kicking up dust (?)
(The verb אבק occurs only here in the entire Hebrew Bible. It has been translated as wrestling for at least two thousand years, based on the description in this passage. But the root of the verb is shared with the noun avak (אָבַק) = cloud of fine dust.)
Elsewhere in the Torah a “man” appears out of nowhere, and later turns out to be a malakh Elohim, a messenger of God (sometimes translated as an “angel”). For example, earlier in Genesis, three “men” appear when Abraham is sitting at the entrance of his tent, and they turn out to be divine messengers who announce that Sarah will give birth to Isaac. When a “man” appears to Jacob out of nowhere, we expect a divine emissary with a message for him.
The other “men” who appear in the Bible speak, walk, and appear to eat. But a “man” that wrestles is unique to this passage. Jacob and the “man” struggle all night without a victory.
Then he [the “man”] said: Let me go, for the dawn rises. But he [Jacob] said: I will not let you go unless you bless me. Then he said to him: What is your name? And he said: Jacob. (Genesis 32:27-28)
For the first time, Jacob is asking for a blessing as himself, Jacob. Perhaps wrestling his opponent to a standstill has given him both courage and the feeling that he deserves recognition. In this case, both the message from God and the blessing he requests are a new name.
And he said: Your name will no longer be said “Jacob”, but instead Yisrael, because sarita with God and with men, and you prevailed. Then Jacob asked and said: Please tell your name. And he said: Why do you ask for my name? And he blessed him there. (Genesis 32:29-30)
Yisrael (יִשׂרָאֵל) = Israel; probably yasar = he contends for dominion, he rules + el = god; “He contends with God”, “God rules”. (Another possible etymology is yashar = upright, level, straight + el = god; “He is upright with God”, “God is straight”.)
sarita (שָׂרִתָ) = you contended for dominion; you ruled.
So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, “Because I saw God face to face, and my soul was spared”. And the sun rose for him as he passed Penuel, and he was limping on his hip. (Genesis 32:31-32)
Through the rest of the book of Genesis, Jacob sometimes acts decisively and correctly, living up to his new name. At other times he is fearful, hesitant, and calculating, like the old Jacob. He does not always prevail. However, he does proceed as if he expects God to be on his side. He also gives more blessings to others than any other person in the Torah.
Many of us are like Jacob before he wrestled. We can see our wealth and success in the material world, yet we do not believe we have received a divine blessing. We do not feel the peace of being blessed.
When we are alone at night, does a “man” come to wrestle with us? Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner wrote in Wrestling Jacob that the two clauses in “And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the dawn rose” (Genesis 32:24) could be read as happening at the same time. In that case, the man Jacob is wrestling with is himself.
Klitsner also suggested that when Jacob’s wrestling partner says “you contended with God and with men, and you prevailed” the “man” is identifying himself as both divine and human.
May each one of us be blessed to wrestle with our own inner divine force, and to emerge with a blessing we can believe in, a blessing of the peace and personal authority that comes from being Yisrael, upright with God—even when we walk into the sunrise with a limp.
Tags: Bereishit, deception, Genesis, stealing, torah portion
There are three kinds of theft in the Torah:
—geizel (“robbery”), in which one takes something belonging to another by force;
—goneiv (“stealing”), in which one takes something belonging to another with secrecy; and
—goneiv leiv (“stealing the heart”), an idiom for rama-ut (“deception”).
In English, “He stole my heart” means “I didn’t expect to fall in love with him, but he was irresistible”. In Biblical Hebrew, “He stole my heart” means “He deceived me”. Ancient Israelites considered the heart the seat of thoughts as well as feelings: the whole conscious mind. When we deceive someone, according to the Torah, we appropriate their thoughts and feelings, replacing what they would normally think (if they knew the truth) with what we want them to think and feel.
The words for all three kinds of theft appear in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“And he left”). The first appearance of any form of the word goneiv (“stealing”) is in this portion, and it shows up eight times!
In last week’s Torah portion, Jacob cheats his brother, Esau, out of both his inheritance as the firstborn, and his father’s first blessing. (See my post Toledot: To Bless Someone.) He leaves home to escape Esau’s murderous rage.
In this week’s portion, he arrives at his uncle Lavan’s house in Aram, and immediately falls in love with Lavan’s younger daughter, Rachel. Jacob volunteers to work seven years for her bride-price. But on the wedding day, Lavan deceives him by substituting his older daughter, Leah, hidden by a veil.
And it happened in the morning, hey! She was Leah! So he said to Lavan: What is this you did to me? Was it not for Rachel I served you? Then why rimitani? (Genesis/Bereishit 29:25)
rimitani (רִמִּיתָנִי) = you deceived me.
Lavan cleverly reminds Jacob of his own guilt when he replies: It is not done thus in our place, to give the younger one before the firstborn. (Genesis 29:26)
Jacob agrees to serve Lavan another seven years so he can marry both daughters. (See my post Vayeitzei: Guilty Conscience.) But the damage has been done. Jacob cannot escape his guilt over “stealing the heart” of Esau. And once Lavan deceives him, Jacob can no longer trust his uncle and father-in-law.
At the end of fourteen years, Jacob tells Lavan that he wants to go back to Canaan. They bargain, and agree that Jacob will work for another six years in exchange for flocks of his own: all the spotted goats and dark sheep. Jacob declares:
And tzidkati will testify for me, on the future day when you bring my earnings in front of you: any goat that is not spotted, or any sheep that is not dark, [consider] it as ganuv by me. (Genesis 30:33)
tzidkati (צִדְקָתִי) = my righteousness, my honesty, my integrity
ganuv (גָּנוּב) = stolen
This is the biblical equivalent of declaring, “I am not a crook!” It is also the first time any form of the word ganav (גָּנַב), “steal”, appears in the Torah. The word comes up in Jacob’s mind (or heart) because he still feels like a thief.
Jacob does engage in selective breeding over the next six years to increase his own flock, but when he is ready to go, he sticks to his word and takes only the spotted goats and dark sheep. He also checks with Leah and Rachel, and they enthusiastically agreement to leave and start a new life in Canaan. Jacob scrupulously takes only his own wives, children, servants, and property—and sneaks away while Lavan is out of town.
Then Lavan went to shear his sheep, and Rachel, vatignov the terafim that belonged to her father. And Jacob, vayignov the leiv of Lavan the Aramean, by not telling him that he was fleeing from him. (Genesis 31:19-20)
vatignov (וַתִּגְנֹב) = she stole
terafim (תְּרָפִים) = household idols (figurines of gods)
vayignov (וָיִּגְנֹב) = he stole
leiv (לֵב) = the heart
Rachel steals actual objects: figurines of gods cast in bronze, molded in clay, or carved out of stone. These small sculptures were commonly found in houses throughout Mesopotamia and Canaan during the second millennium B.C.E. Scholars still do not know their purpose, but they may have been used for divination or to protect the household. (See my post: Vayeitzei: Clinging to Magic.)
But Jacob’s theft is intangible. He takes only what is already his. He does not lie to his uncle/father-in-law; he merely acts as though nothing is going to happen while Lavan is away.
When Lavan finds out Jacob has left, he gathers his men and chases his son-in-law, catching up with him on the border of Canaan.
And Lavan said to Jacob: What have you done? Vatignov my heart, and you drove my daughters like captives of the sword! Why did you hide, fleeing? Vatignov from me, and you did not tell me! (Genesis 31:26-27)
vatignov (וַתִּגְנֹב) = you stole.
Lavan rants on a bit longer, then ends with a second accusation:
And now, certainly you left because certainly you longed for the house of your father; but why ganavta my gods? (Genesis 31:30)
ganavta (גָנַבְתָּ) = did you steal
At this point Jacob gives a two-point rebuttal.
And Jacob answered, and he said to Lavan: Because I was afraid, for I said: What if tigzol your daughters from me! (Genesis 31:31)
tigzol (תִּגְזֹל) = you take by force, you rob.
In other words, he had to “steal the heart” of Lavan, because he was afraid that if Lavan knew they were going, he would “rob” Jacob of his wives. As for stealing Lavan’s gods, Jacob knows he is innocent. If one of his servants turns out to be guilty, he is willing to go along with a death penalty.
With whomever you find your gods, he shall not live; in front of our kinsmen, identify what is yours with me, and take it for yourself! And Jacob did not know that Rachel ginavatam. (Genesis 31:32)
ginavatam (גִּנָבָתַם) = she had stolen them.
Lavan is upset enough to go through Jacob’s camp tent by tent, looking for stolen goods. But he finds nothing—thanks to Rachel’s cleverness.
And Rachel had taken the terafim, and she had put them in the camel pack, and she sat upon them. And Lavan rummaged through everything in the tent, but he did not find [them]. And she said to her father: Let there be no anger in the eyes of my lord, that I am not able to rise before you, because the way of women is on me. So he searched, but he did not find the terafim. (Genesis 31:34-35)
Lavan reluctantly makes a peace treaty with Jacob, and they go their separate ways: Lavan back to his home in Aram, and Jacob back to the land of his birth, Canaan. I think Jacob hopes to leave his guilt behind, and return to Canaan a new man: not only a rich patriarch in his own right, but also a man of proven integrity. Alas, it is not that easy.
In next week’s Torah portion (Vayishlach), Jacob reconciles with his brother, but he still cannot believe Esau has entirely forgiven him for his deceit twenty years before. So he refuses his brother’s offer of company on the road, and tells Esau he will join him in Seir. Then as soon as Esau and his men have left, Jacob heads toward Shekhem instead. Although the Torah does not say so, he is deceiving Esau the same way he “stole the heart” of Lavan: pretending everything is fine, when really he has other plans. He cannot trust Esau, because he cannot trust himself.
A chain of deception continues through the rest of the book of Genesis, as Jacob’s sons deceive him and each other.
Yet deception is a natural strategy when someone is in a weak position.
Before he leaves Canaan, Jacob cannot compete on a level playing field with his brother, Esau, because the laws in his society favor the firstborn. He probably sees deception as his only option to get what he desperately wants: a household of his own, and a divine blessing. In Lavan’s house, Jacob goes to great lengths to earn what he wants by honest labor. But since Lavan is his master, and he is always afraid Lavan will cheat him again, Jacob remains in a weak position. So he “steals” his father-in-law’s heart—by stealing away. And maybe he is right. Maybe Lavan would never have let Jacob take his own wives, children, and property to Canaan.
In my own life I, too, have found it hard to speak with integrity when I am in a weak position. I am afraid of people who blow up easily, and I am still trying to figure out how to be honest with them, instead of “stealing their hearts” by smiling and pretending nothing is wrong.
I do not rob. I do not steal. I pray that someday I can say, honestly, that I do not ever deceive.
Tags: Bereishit, Genesis, God of Abraham, torah portion, wife/sister
And it happened, as he approached coming into Egypt, [Abraham] said to Sarah, his wife: Hey, please—I know that you are a beautiful-looking woman. And it will happen, when the Egyptians see you, then they will say: This is his wife. And they will kill me, but you they will keep alive. Say, please, you are my sister, so that it will go well for me for your sake, and I will stay alive on account of you. (Genesis/Bereishit 12:11-13)
One way to get rich, in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, is to take your wife to another country and pretend she is your sister. Since she is beautiful, the king takes her, and gives you a generous bride-price for her. (A king can always afford another wife.) God afflicts the king and his household with an unmentionable disease, and the king finds out that his new acquisition is married to another man. (Polygamy is fine in Biblical times, but polyandry is out of the question.) The king complains, but he returns your wife/sister, and lets you keep his gifts. You walk away with a clear profit.
This story appears three times in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, beginning with the translation above in the Torah portion Lekh-lekha. In this first story, the trickster husband is Abraham, and the king of Egypt takes his wife Sarah. The second time, in Vayeira, Abraham pulls the same trick on the king of Gerar. The third and last time, in this week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“lineages”), Abraham’s son Isaac plays the trick, pretending to the king of Gerar that his wife Rebecca is his sister.
What are these sordid stories doing in the Torah?
Traditional commentators take the wife/sister stories at face value, concluding that the people of of Egypt and Gerar were indeed immoral, so Abraham and Isaac were justified in passing off their wives as their unmarried sisters. They believe that someone who would kill a husband to take a woman would leave a brother alone, and even pay him a bride-price. They conclude that Sarah and Rebecca were beautiful and virtuous, and all three times God protected them from being molested by a king.
At the time of the second story Sarah is 89 years old, but traditional commentary does not blink. Before Abraham takes his 89-year-old wife to Gerar, three angels announce that in a year she will have a son. (See my earlier post, Vayeira: Laughing in Disbelief.) In the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metziah 87a), Rav Hisda explains that after the annunciation, Sarah’s worn and wrinkled skin is rejuvenated, and her beauty returns.
The traditional approach attempts to explain away inconsistencies in the wife/sister stories, but it offers no insight on why these stories are in the Torah.
This year, thanks to Reading the Lines (2002) by Pamela Tamarkin Reis, I noticed the stories’ broad humor. People listening to these stories would have rooted for each husband who tricks a king and walks away rich. They would have laughed when a king took a new wife and then could not get it up. On top of that, Reis wrote, the king paid a lot for a new wife, and then she turned out to be “no spring chicken”!
Suddenly it struck me that when the three wife/sister stories are taken together, without the narratives in between, they make a classic oral tale. As a storyteller myself, I spotted all the elements of a good folk tale.
The theme of the tale is one of the old standards: a poor man tricks rich man into giving him wealth. Folk tales love reversals, and the underdog is always the hero.
Another reversal is that in the ancient world you were supposed to give tribute to a king. But in this tale, the kings give tribute to husbands.
Expecting a young virgin and discovering you have married an old woman is another reversal. If I were telling the three-part wife/sister tale, the royal officers in Egypt and Gerar would only glimpse Sarah and see her beautiful figure. She would enter each king’s house wearing the customary veil. (For example, Rebecca puts on a veil before she meets her fiance Isaac, and Leah wears a veil at her wedding to Jacob.) Then when the king removes his bride’s veil—surprise! He sees an old woman!
Another common feature of folk tales is that the men never learn. Here, Abraham manages to escape Egypt with his wife and Pharaoh’s gifts. Then 25 years later, when God has promised Sarah a miraculous birth, Abraham casually goes to Gerar and tries the same trick. It never occurs to him that after Sarah’s son is born, someone might wonder whether he is really the father.
In most classic stories, the main action happens three times, each time with a different twist. In the three-part wife/sister tale, Abraham’s behavior is understandable the first time. There is a famine in Canaan, so he goes to Egypt. He notices men looking at Sarah’s figure, and he begs her to go along with his deception. She is 65, but she might be a young-looking 65.
Pharaoh only finds out Sarah is Abraham’s wife when God afflicts him and his household with disease. This upsets him, so he summons Abraham and complains:
Why did you say ‘She is my sister’ so I took her as mine for a wife? Hey now, take your wife and go! (Genesis 12:19)
The Torah never says that Pharaoh leaves Sarah untouched. It does say that he has Sarah and Abraham escorted out of the country—though they get to keep the bride-price.
In the second wife/sister story there is no famine, and Abraham has no excuse for moving to Gerar. He is supposed to be encouraging Sarah to return to his bed, so that he can give her the baby God promised, but he decides to repeat the wife/sister trick instead. He does not even speak to his wife before he tells the men of Gerar that she is his sister.
And Abraham said of Sarah, his wife: She is my sister. And Avimelekh, king of Gerar, sent vayikach Sarah. (Genesis 20:2)
vayikach (וַָיִּקַּח) = and he took; and he took as a wife.
I can imagine Abraham cheerfully waving goodbye, anticipating the bride-price. The action in the king’s house is funnier the second time, since Sarah is now 89, and God afflicts the king and his household with impotence.
God tells the king in a dream that he will die because Sarah is already married.
But Avimelekh had not come close to her, and he said … With purity of my heart and with nikyon kapai I did this! … (Genesis 20:4-5)
nikyon kapai (נִקְיֹן כַּפַּי) = innocence of my palms (i.e. clean hands).
God agrees about the pure heart, but points out that the “clean hands” are due to God-given impotence. Now only Abraham’s prayers can save him from death. I can imagine Avimelekh waking up and thinking “What did I do to deserve this?”
The next morning, he gives Abraham livestock and slaves, gives Sarah silver as a token of her chastity, and returns Sarah to Abraham. As in most folk tales, even though the hapless hero never learns, he still wins.
The third round
The wife/sister deception in this week’s Torah portion takes the tale in a new direction. Now the underdog hero is Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah. There is another famine in Canaan, and Isaac takes own wife, Rebecca, to Gerar, where the current king is also called Avimelekh.
Isaac settled in Gerar. And the men of the place asked about his wife, and he said: She is my sister—because he was afraid to say ‘my wife’, ‘lest the men of the place kill me over Rebecca, because she is good-looking’. (Genesis 26:6-7)
This time the king of Gerar does not immediately take Rebecca into his house, but waits and watches. After a while Isaac gets tired of treating Rebecca like a sister.
And it happened because the days were long for him; and Avimelekh …looked down from the window, and he saw—hey! Isaac was fooling around with Rebecca, his wife! (Genesis 26:6-8)
The king summons Isaac and scolds him for lying. And Avimelekh said: What is this you have done to us? One of the people almost lay down with your wife! Then you would have brought guilt upon us! (Genesis 26:10)
This king declares a death penalty for anyone who touches Isaac and Rebecca, and although he does not shower Isaac with gifts, he does let Isaac plant crops in the land of Gerar, and Isaac gets rich anyway.
What fascinates me about this three-part folktale is that although the husband never learns, the king does. The king of Egypt may well have “taken” Sarah all the way, but when he finds out she is Abraham’s wife he expresses no regret, and he expels Abraham and Sarah from his country. In the second story, the king of Gerar cares more about the purity of his own intentions than the Pharaoh did, and after discovering the truth he is careful to exonerate Sarah. The king in the third story wants his actions as well as his intentions to be beyond reproach, so he observes Isaac and Rebecca a long time to determine whether they really are brother and sister.
Now I think the wife/sister episodes teach a great lesson through their humor: that someone who seems to be a villain may not be so bad after all, and that anyone, even a foreign king, can learn and grow and improve.
Tags: Bereishit, camels, Canaan, Genesis, torah portion
Camels are the key to Isaac’s marriage in this week’s Torah portion (Chayyei Sarah, “the life of Sarah”, so called because it opens with the death of Isaac’s mother, Sarah).
Isaac does not pick out his own wife. In last week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, he let his father, Abraham, bind him on an altar as a sacrifice for God. An angelic voice stopped Abraham when his knife touched his son’s throat. After sacrificing a ram instead, Abraham left by himself. Isaac was missing from the story for a while; he did not even appear at his mother’s funeral. We learn in this week’s portion that he is living in a remote and isolated spot south of Beeir-sheva, near Beer-lachai-Roi, “Well of the Living One Who Sees Me”. (See my earlier post, Chayyei Sarah: A Holy Place.)
But when Isaac turns 40—a good time for a man to marry, by Torah standards—Abraham orders his steward to find Isaac a wife, stipulating only that the woman must come from his own extended family in Charan (the Aramaean town Abraham left 65 years before), and that she must be willing to move to Canaan.
The steward selects ten of Abraham’s riding camels, some treasures for his own pack, and some servants to lead the camels. (In the world of the Hebrew Bible, the only people who ride camels or donkeys are women, children, and disabled men.) The camels and men walk all the way to Charan.
And he made the gemalim kneel outside the city, toward the well of water, at evening time, the time when the women drawing water go out. (Genesis 24:11)
gemalim (גְמַלִּים) = dromedary (one-hump) camels. (The singular is gamal (גָּמָל). The verb from the same root, gamal (גָּמַל) = wean a child or ripen a fruit; repay someone in kind for good or evil actions.)
In the late 20th century, many scholars thought camels were not domesticated in the Middle East until after 1200 B.C.E. Since the Abraham stories are set in circa 2000 B.C.E., they considered the camels an anachronism. This opinion is now contested. For example, a rock carving in Upper Egypt dated to circa 2200 B.C.E. shows someone leading a camel on a rope.
In the Torah, Abraham first acquires camels in Egypt, as a gift from the pharaoh. Presumably the ten riding camels his steward takes are their descendants.
One reason the steward brings camels, as well as jewelry and fine clothing, is that camels are more impressive and expensive mounts than donkeys. A display of wealth would help to persuade the prospective bride’s family to let her emigrate to Canaan. But the steward has another reason. After the ten camels are kneeling by the well outside Charan, the steward prays to the god of Abraham:
Let it be the young woman to whom I say: Tilt, please, your jug so I may drink; and she says: Drink, and I will even give a drink to your camels—you have marked her out for your servant for Isaac… (Genesis 24:14)
By asking for this particular divine sign, Abraham’s servant is asking for more than his master did. The steward wants Isaac’s wife to be generous and hospitable, even to servants and animals, and even when it involves labor on her part.
And it happened before he finished speaking: hey! Rebecca, who was born to Betueil son of Milkah wife of Nachor brother of Abraham, went out, and her jug was on her shoulder. …and she went down to the spring and she filled her jug and she went up. (Genesis 24:15-16)
Wells in Mesopotamia and Canaan at that time were dug not only deep enough to reach a natural spring or underground river, but also wide enough to accommodate stairs. Water-drawers climbed down to the bottom to fill their jugs.
When Rebecca, Abraham’s great-niece, climbs back up, Eliezer calls to her: Let me sip, please, a little water from your jug. (Genesis 24:17)
And she said: Drink, my lord; and she hurried over she lowered her jug onto her hand and she gave him a drink. She let him drink his fill, and she said: Also I will draw for your camels until they have drunk their fill. And she hurried over and she poured out her jug to give them a drink, and she ran again to the well to draw for all his camels. (Genesis 24:18-20)
A camel drinks at least 25 gallons of water after a long journey. To water ten camels, Rebecca runs up and down the steps of the well with her jug more than 100 times! This is the first feat of heroic strength recorded in the Torah.
The wedding negotiations are successful, and Rebecca declares she will go to Canaan. She and her female attendants mount the camels and follow Eliezer.
They travel not to Abraham, but directly to Isaac in the desert. He is walking alone across a field in the early evening, returning from the holy well.
And he raised his eyes and he saw, and hey! Camels were coming! (Genesis 24:63)
The travelers are not close enough for Isaac to identify anyone, but if he can see that the animals are camels, he can also see that they carry riders, not packs. I can imagine Isaac’s dismay, realizing he will have to step out of his solitude and greet these visitors.
And Rebecca raised her eyes, and she saw Isaac, vatipol the camel. And she said to the servant: Who is that man walking in the field to meet us? (Genesis 24:64-65)
vatipol (וַתִּפֹּל) = and she fell off.
What does Rebecca see in Isaac’s face and walk that makes her fall off the camel?
Maybe she sees darkness in his soul, from having been bound on the altar by his own father. Or maybe she sees light in his soul, from volunteering to be the sacrifice and hearing God’s voice. Maybe she sees his innocence and preoccupation with the unworldly—something she had never seen in Charan.
Whatever she sees, this moment reveals two more of Rebecca’s qualities: her sensitive perception of people’s characters, and her awareness of the divine. All of Rebecca’s characteristics—assertiveness, generosity, strength, adventurousness, perceptiveness, and orientation toward the divine—will shape the story in next week’s portion, Toledot.
The Torah story uses camels, gemalim, both to make the match and to reveal Rebecca’s character. I suspect the text is hinting that this wedding is about the verb gamal = wean, ripen, or repay.
And Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah, his mother, and he took Rivkah as his wife, and he loved her, and Isaac had a change of heart after his mother. (Genesis 24:67)
Here the Torah indicates that Rebecca weans Isaac from his attachment to his mother. Maybe he is stuck in life because of the trauma of his binding and near-sacrifice, and Rebecca completes his ripening into a mature adult. In next week’s Torah portion, Isaac emerges from his solitude and assumes the leadership of his tribe after Abraham’s death.
Rebecca might also be Isaac’s reward or repayment for his faith in Abraham and God when he let himself be bound. She is an exceptional woman (as well as young, beautiful, and a virgin), and Isaac loves her. This is the first time the Torah says a man loves his wife.
May everyone who is stuck and unable to ripen meet a “camel” to help them ride into a fuller life. And may everyone who draws water for others, and carries them from an old home to a new one, be repaid with a good life.
Tags: Bereishit, birth of Isaac, Genesis, laughter, miracles, torah portion
Humans laugh when we encounter a mismatch—when two things appear together that we would never expect to see in the same context. We laugh in fun at the surprise of humor, in joy when get unexpected good fortune, in incredulity when a mismatch is too great to believe, and in mockery at a mismatch in a person we resent.
In the Torah, humor is offered without a laugh track; it is up to the reader to recognize jokes and funny situations. But characters in the Bible do laugh with joy, with incredulity, and in mockery. The first laugh in the Torah is Abraham’s, when God tells him (at the end of last week’s Torah portion, Lekh-lekha) that his wife Sarah will have a baby at age 90.
And Abraham fell on his face vayitzchak, and he said in his heart: Will he be born to a 100-year-old man, and will 90-year-old Sarah give birth? (Genesis/Bereishit 17.17)
vayitzchak (וַיִּצְחָק) = and he laughed
Abraham’s question shows he is laughing out of incredulity, not joy. At this point in the story, God has promised Abraham five times that his descendants will possess the land of Canaan. Abraham has assumed these descendants will come from Ishmael, his son through the slave Hagar. Now he learns that he must make a covenant in which he circumcises all the males in his household, and in return God gives Canaan to his descendants through his wife Sarah.
Obviously Abraham and Sarah are incapable of having a baby at their ages; it would require a miracle. Abraham laughs in his heart and questions whether God will make the required miracle. But when God repeats his promise, Abraham overcomes his skepticism and goes ahead with the circumcisions.
Abraham’s laugh opens the way for several kinds of laughter in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“And he saw”). The next laugh is Sarah’s. Three visitors ask Abraham where Sarah is, and when Abraham says she is in the tent behind them, they know she can hear them. Then one of the visitors says: I will definitely return to you at the next season and hey! Your wife Sarah will have a son. (Genesis 18:10)
Apparently Abraham has not mentioned God’s latest promise to his wife, because these words surprise her.
And Sarah, tzachakah inside herself, saying: After being used up, will I have sexual pleasure? And my husband is old! (Genesis 18:12)
tzachakah (צָחֲקָה) = she laughed.
What kind of laugh is this—incredulous or joyful? Biblical commentary is divided. I offered several interpretations in my earlier post, Vayeira: She Laughs. This year, I find I agree with 16th-century Rabbi Obadiah Sforno, who wrote that Sarah assumes the speaker is a prophet giving a blessing, not a divine messenger giving the word of God. Even with a prophet’s blessing, Sarah thinks, they are simply too old to have a child. Only a direct command of God could achieve that miracle.
I would add that Sarah’s inner laughter is also bitter because she misses the sexual pleasure that used to come with attempting to get pregnant. Both a child and sex are beyond her reach, she thinks, and this prophet who believes he is blessing her might as well be mocking her.
She does not know that God hears her inner laughter.
Then God said to Abraham: Why is it that Sarah laughed, saying: Is it really true, I will give birth, when I have become old? Is a thing too extraordinary for God? At the appointed time I will return to you, at the next season, and Sarah will have a son. And Sarah denied it, saying: I did not laugh; for she was afraid. But he said: No, for you did laugh. (Genesis 18:13-15)
(All the verbs for laughing in the above passage are variations of tzachakah = she laughed, with different pronoun suffixes.)
When Sarah hears God’s words to Abraham, she realizes God really is speaking through the visitor. Then she is afraid she has insulted God. God insists that she remember she laughed in skepticism over God’s ability to make a miracle.
A different form of the Hebrew word for laughter appears next, when Lot tries to convince his sons-in-law that God is about to destroy the town of Sodom.
Lot went out and he spoke to his sons-in-law who had married his daughters, and he said: Get up and go out from this place, because God is destroying the city! But he was like a metzacheik in the eyes of his sons-in-law. (Genesis 19:14)
metzacheik (מְצַחֵק) = someone who causes laughter; a joker, a jester, a fool; the act of joking, playing, or amusing oneself.
Like Abraham and Sarah, Lot’s sons-in-law cannot believe God is about to make a miracle. But both Abraham and Sarah are able to keep listening until they recognize that God really is going to change the natural order of things. Lot’s sons-in-law refuse to listen—even though the miracle will kill them in the morning.
After Abraham sees Sodom being obliterated, he moves his household south and settles near Gerar. There Sarah gives birth at age 90, and Abraham follows God’s earlier instructions and names the boy Isaac, or Yitzchak (יִצְחָק) = he laughs, he will laugh.
And Sarah said: God has made tzechok for me; everyone who hears, yitzachak for me. (Genesis 21:6)
tzechok (צְחֹק) = laughter.
yitzachak (יִצֲחַק) = he will joke, play, amuse himself.
Sarah might well laugh with joy now over her miraculous good fortune. Instead, she is self-conscious about how ridiculous she looks, a 90-year-old woman nursing an infant. She expects that when other people hear the news, they will joke about her.
After Isaac is weaned, Sarah sees Ishmael metzacheik = joking, playing, or amusing himself. This is the same word the Torah uses in regard to Lot’s sons-in-law in Sodom.
Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she [Hagar] had born to Abraham, metzacheik. And she said to Abraham: Drive out this slave-woman with her son, because the son of this slave-woman shall not inherit along with my son, with Isaac! (Genesis 21:9-10)
Commentators disagree on what Ishmael is doing. One interpretation is that Ishmael is metzacheik by playing the role of Isaac, Yitzchak, the son who will inherit. Ramban (13th-century Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman Girondi, a.k.a. Nachmanides) went further when he wrote that Ishmael is mocking Isaac by claiming Isaac is actually the son of the king of Gerar, who only pretended he had not touched Sarah when he held her captive in the previous chapter.
Ishmael has to believe that Sarah give birth, because he saw her pregnant and then nursing. But he has trouble believing that he was been supplanted as Abraham’s heir. When Isaac was born, Ishmael was 14 years old. For his whole life, his father had loved him and trained him to inherit the leadership of the tribe. How could the ridiculous birth of a baby to a 90-year-old woman change everything?
I think Ishmael is metzacheik, making mockery, because of his incredulity over what has happened.
Later in the Bible, characters laugh and amuse themselves in pure mean-spirited mockery. And on one occasion, Isaac/Yitzchak laughs with joy as he plays with his beloved wife Rebecca. But in this week’s Torah portion, laughter always comes from incredulity.
Incredulity is natural when you are faced with a mismatch that violates your whole life experience—and affects you personally. Your first reaction is likely to be a laugh. But what do you do next?
Lot’s sons-in-law and Ishmael refuse to accept the new reality, and their laughter turns into jeering. Do you, too, get stuck fighting back against an incredible change in your world?
Abraham and Sarah laugh, but they keep listening to God, and they accept the transformation of their world. What do you do after you laugh? Do you listen to the voice of your own soul, and accept your new reality?
Tags: Bereishit, Canaan, covenant, Genesis, God of Abraham, torah portion
The first three covenants God makes with human beings in the Torah are unconditional; God promises to do something regardless of what the other party does. First God says to Noah:
Everything on earth will perish, but I will raise up my berit with you, and you shall come into the ark… (Genesis/Bereishit 6:18)
berit (בְּרִית) = covenant, pact, treaty of alliance. (This is the source of the Yiddish word bris = covenant of circumcision.)
After the flood, God tells Noah and his descendants not to eat the blood in animal meat, and not to shed the blood of humans. Then God declares a covenant with all future humans and animals on earth—without making it contingent on humans following the rules about blood.
And I, here I am, raising up my berit with you and with your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you—with birds, with beasts, and with everything living on the earth with you …I raise up my berit with you, and I will not cut off all flesh again by the waters of the flood, and never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth. (Genesis 9:9-11)
God makes a third, and last, unconditional covenant in this week’s Torah portion, Lekh-lekha (“Get yourself going!”).
Abraham hears God’s call at age 75, leaves his home in Aram, and travels to Canaan, where he is landless and childless (though he has a wife, a nephew, and a large number of men working for him). God promises Abraham three times that he will have a whole nation of descendants, from his own loins, and they will possess the land of Canaan.
The third time, Abraham points out that he is still childless. God shows him the stars, and says his descendants will be just as numerous. The sight of the stars moves Abraham, and he trusts God on this. Then God repeats that Abraham will possess the land of Canaan, and Abraham questions God again:
God, my master, how will I know that I will take possession of it? (Genesis 15:8)
God responds by changing the promise into a covenant. And since words alone do not seem to be enough for Abraham any more, God does not just “raise up” or establish a covenant through words, but “cuts” a covenant in a ritual used for centuries among ancient people in the Middle East, including Akkadians, Amorites, Hittites, Assyrians, and Arameans as well as Israelites.
In this ritual, two parties ratified a pact or treaty by slaughtering one or more animals and cutting each one in half. Surviving written documents include threats that if one of the parties does not uphold the agreement, he will be cut in half like the animal.
At some point, Israelites added a step to the ritual: after an animal was cut in two, someone walked between the pieces.
…the berit that they cut before Me: the calf that they cut in two and they passed between its pieces: the officers of Judah, and the officers of Jerusalem, the court officials, and the priests, and all the people of the land, the ones who passed between the pieces of the calf …(Jeremiah 34:18-19)
In this week’s Torah portion, God requests five animals, from the five species that are used later in the Torah for burnt offerings.
Take for me a three-year-old heifer and a three-year-old she-goat and a three-year-old ram and a turtledove and a young pigeon. And he took for [God] all these, and he cut them through the middle, and set each part opposite its fellow. But the birds he did not cut. (Genesis 9-10)
The 20th-century Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz claimed that Abraham placed the two uncut birds opposite one another, completing the path between the pieces. And God grants him a vision.
And the sun had set, and darkness happened, and hey!—a smoking tanur and a torch of fire, which passed between these cut pieces. On that day, God cut with Abraham a berit, saying: To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt up to the great river, the river Euphrates. (Genesis 15:17-18)
tanur (תַנּוּר) = fire-pot, brazier, oven, furnace.
In the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, God’s presence is often described in terms of smoke and fire. But imagine a disembodied smudge-pot and a torch passing between the pieces!
When God and Abraham cut a covenant, it is God who walks between the pieces.
This is God’s last unilateral covenant in the Hebrew Bible. The next covenant between God and Abraham, at the end of this week’s Torah portion, is conditional; God will multiply Abraham’s descendants if and only if every male in Abraham’s household is circumcised.
After that, covenants between God and humans are like Biblical covenants between two humans: the party with more power promises to protect the party with less power, on the condition that the weaker party remains loyal to his superior and follows the stipulated rules. In God’s case, people must obey various laws, observe holy days, and/or refrain from worshiping other gods as a condition for God’s favor and protection.
Why does God switch to conditional covenants? I think God is frustrated by what happens right after God cuts a covenant with Abraham. His post-menopausal wife, Sarah, gives him her slave Hagar to produce a son for him; and instead of continuing to wait for a miraculous birth, Abraham cooperates. But God seems disappointed, and makes a new covenant with Abraham. Besides requiring circumcision as a condition, God specifies that Sarah must be the mother of the son who inherits the covenant, and says: I will bless her, and also give you a son from her. (Genesis 17:16)
From then on, God apparently does not trust humans to make their own arrangements without at least a few divine rules to guide them.
Today people make many conditional contracts with each other: for rent, for employment, for services. Some people also try to bargain with God, promising to do something they think God wants in exchange for a divine favor—as if God could be bribed.
There is also a widespread unconditional covenant between human beings today: marriage. Our wedding rituals can be elaborate (though they do not feature cutting up animals and walking between the pieces). But at the heart of the ceremony, each person promises to be with and support the other (like God promising to favor and protect someone), regardless of what happens.
Today, Jewish circumcision is more like an unconditional covenant with God. Infant boys are dedicated to the God of Israel through circumcision with no expectation that God will grant them fertility or any special favors in return.
But can you imagine God initiating a covenant with a human being today? Can you imagine God raising up or cutting a covenant with you?
What would it be like? Has it already happened, in some subtle way?
Tags: Bereishit, Genesis, good and evil, Noah, torah portion
By the end of the first Torah portion in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, God regrets creating human beings, and decides to wipe them out. I offered theories about why God thought the human race was spoiled in two of my earlier blog posts: Noach: Spoiled, and Bereishit: Inner Voices. This year, when I reread the Torah portion named after Noah—Noach in Hebrew—I wondered why such a discouraged God made one exception, and saved Noach and his immediate family from the flood.
Last week’s Torah portion ends: But Noach found favor in the eyes of God. (Genesis/Bereishit 6:8)
This week’s Torah portion, named after Noach, begins: These are the histories of Noach. Noach was a righteous man; in his generations, Noach walked with God. (Genesis 6:9)
Noach (נֹחַ) = Noah; an alternate spelling of noach נוֹחַ)), a form of the verb nuch (נוּח) = come down to rest, settle down.
The first appearance of the verb nuch in the Torah is when Noach’s ark comes to rest on Mount Ararat at the end of the flood in Genesis 8:4. This is also Noach’s turning point, when he finally begins (at the age of 600) to take some initiative: sending out the birds to test the water level, making an animal offering to God, and planting a vineyard.
Before the flood, God tells His favorite person, Noach, that people are evil and the whole world has been spoiled. He gives Noach instructions for making a wooden ark, and says He will flood the earth and destroy all flesh—except for the few humans and animals on the ark.
(I used the pronoun “He” in case because the God character the Torah presents here is quite anthropomorphic, making sweeping generalizations and acting emotionally.)
Later in the Torah, when God tell His favorite person of the era that He is about to commit genocide, that person talks God out of it. Abraham persuades God to refrain from burning up Sodom if there are even ten innocent people in the city. Moses persuades God to give the Israelites a second chance after they worship the Golden Calf.
But Noach is silent. After God has spoken to him, all the Torah says is: And Noach did everything that God commanded him; thus he did. (Genesis 6:22)
God tells Noach to load seven pairs of each of the ritually-pure animals on board, as well as one pair of each of the impure animals. Then He rephrases His plan, saying that He is going make a flood and wipe out everything standing on the face of the earth (Genesis 7:4).
Again, Noach is silent. The Torah repeats: And Noach did everything that God commanded him.
Both times, Noach makes no protest, but only does what God commands. So God floods the earth.
After the flood is over and Noach empties the ark, his first order of business is acting on the hint implied in God’s order to carry seven times as many of the animals that are ritually pure (according to the rules for purity laid out later, in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra).
Then Noach built an altar for God, and he took from all of the ritually-pure animals and from all of the ritually-pure birds; and rising-offerings went up [in smoke] on the altar. And God smelled the nichoach aroma, and God said to His heart: I will not again draw back to curse the earth on account of the human, for the impulse of the human heart is bad in its youth … (Genesis/Bereishit, 8:20-21)
nichoach (נִיחֹחַ) = soothing or pleasing to a god. (The use of this word may be a play on Noach’s name, and may also imply that the god in question will be inclined to come down and rest its presence over the sacrifice.)
Noach’s action puts God in a better mood. God has another change of heart, and views the human condition more optimistically and rationally. According to classic commentary, God decides that it is only natural for children to act on their bad impulses, but adults can learn to control these impulses and be good. So God tells Himself not to overreact to human misdeeds again.
Why does the aroma of Noach’s offering soothe God?
Maybe the God character in the Torah, like other Canaanite gods, loves the smell of burning animals. This would explain why God favored Abel’s animal offering and rejected Cain’s plant offering. It would also explain why slaughtering and burning livestock was the primary method of worshiping God from the time of Genesis down to the fall of the second temple 70 BCE. God really liked that barbecue smell, so that’s what the Israelites gave Him.
On the other hand, maybe God provided Noach with excess ritually-pure animals because He remembered Cain and Abel’s spontaneous offerings, and wanted to make sure Noach had something to offer if he happened to feel spontaneous gratitude for being saved from the flood. The thick clouds of smoke from the combustion of more than 33 kinds of birds and beasts reassures God that Noach does, indeed, feel grateful. So God concludes that adults, at least, can feel and act on good impulses.
So have many commentators, from Philo of Alexandria in the first century C.E. to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in the 19th century. But I think both those commentators and the God character in the Torah still had more to learn about human psychology.
Why Noach Burned the Animals
I can imagine Noach acting purely out of fear of this God of wholesale destruction, who cares nothing about innocent children or animals. Noach might well be moved to burn as many animals as possible in the hope of forestalling the Destroyer’s next whimsy.
Another possibility is that Noach acts out of despair. When the flood begins, he had to hustle his own family and the animals he has collected into the ark, then keep everyone else out of it. God closes the door into the ark, but perhaps Noach could still hear the cries of his own neighbors and the sobbing of frightened children.
When the flood waters sink, Noach would see not only mud and broken trees, but floating corpses. He goes ahead and sacrifices the excess ritually-pure animals because he has figured out God wants him to. There is no point in disobeying God now. He wishes he had spoken up earlier, before the earth was destroyed. Did God leave another hint that he missed? Could he have done anything to save more people? Now it is too late, and Noach has to live with himself.
He listens to God’s speech giving instructions for living in the new world, and promising that a flood will never destroy the earth again. But I think Noach is too depressed to care. As soon as God is done talking, Noach plants a vineyard. In the next sentence, he gets drunk.
Some commentators criticize Noach for his silent obedience. But when I reflect on my own life, I know that the number of times I spoke up in favor of justice or mercy were few in comparison with all the times I felt powerless and kept my mouth shut. When the person in authority has absolute power and does not show compassion, it is hard to risk a loss of acceptance, loss of a job, or even loss of one’s life. I can only feel sorry for Noach.
The most frightening thing about the Torah portion Noach is that the person in authority is a god, a god who gets carried away by egotistical emotions and has only a primitive sense of justice. Even today, natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and volcanic eruptions can be taken as evidence of a morally deficient god.
That’s why, when I write about these parts of the Torah, I often refer to “the God character”. The anthropomorphic character that the Torah stories refer to by various names of God is simply not the same as the creator of the universe; or the theologians’ omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being; or the essence and totality of existence; or even the mysterious unknown we sometimes sense with our non-rational minds.
Yet we can still learn from Torah stories in which the God character not only creates and tests and destroys human beings, but also learns from them. There is a God character inside each of our psyches, as well as a Noach, and an Abraham, and maybe even a Moses.
Tags: Bereishit, free will, Genesis, God, good and evil, torah portion, Tree of Knowledge, Tree of Life
In the first creation story in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, God makes human beings in Its image, male and female, and ends the sixth “day” by deciding that everything is “very good”. The Torah does not say in what way human beings resemble God.
Then we get a second creation story. In this story (attributed by scholars to an older source), God creates a single human before inventing plants or other animals.
And God formed ha-adam of dust from ha-adamah, and [God] blew into its nostrils the breath of life, and ha-adam became a nefesh chayah. (Genesis/Bereishit 2:7)
ha-adam (הָאָדָם) = the human, humankind, the earthling.
ha-adamah (הָאֲדָמָה) = the earth, the dirt.
nefesh chayah (נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה) = animated animal, living creature.
Instead of simply making humans in God’s image, as in the first creation story, God shapes a human body and breathes life into it—the same process God uses later in the story to create various birds and mammals. Then God makes a place outside the world where the archetypal human can acquire a divine trait, and thereby become an image of God, unlike other animals.
Then God planted a garden in Eiden mikedem, and It put there ha-adam that It had formed. And God made sprout from the earth every tree that was desirable in appearance and good for food, and the Tree of Life in the middle of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. (Genesis 2:8-9)
Eiden (עֵדֶן) = Eden; luxury, pampering, delight.
mikedem (מִקֶּדֶם) = from the east, from primeval time.
God invites the human to eat from all but one of the trees in the garden.
And God laid an order on ha-adam, saying: From every tree in the garden you may certainly eat. But from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you may not eat from it, because on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die. (Genesis 2:16-17)
What about the Tree of Life, which is also in the middle of the garden? By giving the human permission to eat from every tree except the Tree of Knowledge, God offers the human the option of eating from the Tree of Life—whose fruit, we learn later in the story, confers immortality.
When I reread the story this year, I realized that God subtly gives ha-adam a choice between the two trees. If the archetypal human eats from the Tree of Knowledge, it will gain the divine characteristic of moral knowledge, but it will be doomed to die. If it eats from the Tree of Life, if will gain the divine characteristic of immortality, but will it lose the ability to discover morality?
The first human being is not yet human enough to react with curiosity. It asks no questions, and apparently refrains from the fruit of both the trees in the middle of the garden. Eventually God separates the two sides of the human into two individuals, one male and one female. This does the trick; the woman is curious enough to hear the questions and arguments of the snake (another of God’s creations), including the comment:
For God knows that on the day you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will become like God, knowing good and bad. (Genesis 3:5)
We already know that every tree in the garden is desirable in appearance and good for food (Genesis 2:9). The woman now notices a third way in which the Tree of Knowledge is “good”.
The woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it satisfied a craving of the eyes, and the tree was desirable for haskil, so she took some fruit and she ate; and she gave also her to her man with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:7)
haskil (הַשְׂכִּיל) = understanding, having insight.
Both humans want divine insight so much, they forget about the Tree of Life and eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. They gain a basic concept of morality, and the ability to figure out what is good and bad on their own.
The two primeval humans do not keel over dead that day. Instead, God tells them they will return to the world, where life will be hard, and eventually they will die and turn back into dust. God mentions the pain of childbirth, and the man notices that there will be birth as well as death in the world.
So ha-adam called the name of his woman Chavah, because she herself had become a mother of all life. (Genesis 3:20)
Chavah (חַוָּה) = Eve; a variant of chayah = living animal, vigorous, to bring to life.
Instead of immortality, humankind chooses moral knowledge and life in this world, which is inseparable from birth and death.
And God said: Here, the human has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, and now, lest he stretch out its hand and take also from the Tree of Life and eat and live forever—! (Genesis 3:22)
This sentence raises obvious two questions. What does God mean by saying the human has become like one of us? (Next year I want to write about all the hints of multiple gods in this first Torah portion, including in the passage above.) Secondly, why can’t the humans eat from both trees? Why shouldn’t they acquire a second divine characteristic?
I think the answer is that in our universe, everything is in flux, constantly changing. Even stars burn out. And every living thing is born, grows, experiences pain, and dies. Life in this world is mortal. Immortality can only apply to something outside our universe, outside time and space—like the garden of Eiden.
But our world also presents human beings with moral choices that matter. We can choose actions that increase the life and well-being of others, or actions that increase death and pain. Our ability to puzzle out good and bad depends on living in this world.
So God sent [the human] out from the garden of Eiden, to serve the earth from which it had been taken. And [God] banished the human, and It set up in front of the garden of Eiden the cherubim and the flame of the whirling sword, to guard the way to the Tree of Life. (Genesis 3:23-24)
Human beings in the real world can resemble God in having moral understanding, but we cannot resemble God by living forever.
Other ancient religions told stories about how human heroes tried, but failed, to become like the gods by eating or bringing home plants that would confer immortality. The remarkable thing about the second creation story in Genesis is that humankind gets a different divine characteristic: moral insight.
The rest of the book of Genesis can be read as a story about how both humans and God begin to learn how to apply moral insight to situations in the world. For example, when Cain becomes enraged, God tries to warn him against killing his brother, but it takes the rest of the book for the humans to figure out how brothers can tolerate each other. When God decides to wipe out Sodom, Abraham tries to teach God to judge humans individually instead of punishing the innocent with the guilty, but God does not always apply the lesson.
We are still learning how to behave ethically. As our moral insights develop, many humans have learned how to be good in ways that neither the people nor the God-character in the Torah imagined. (For example, see my earlier post, Va-etchannan: Haunted by Shame.)
We can never acquire immortality in this world, but we are still tasting the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. May we all remember how precious and desirable our moral insight is, and pause to think about our moral choices.
Tags: Canaan, Deuteronomy, Genesis, Phoenicians, religion, torah portion, Zevulun
This week Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the year. This Saturday is Shabbat Shuva, and the Torah portion is Ha-azinu (Use your ears). In the last few years, I have written four posts on Ha-azinu: Upright, Devious, and Struggling; The Tohu Within; Raining Insights; and Hovering. But since I will be traveling for three weeks, from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur and Sukkot, this post will look at the Torah portion Vezot Habrakhah (“And this is the blessing”), the last portion in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim.
On Simchat Torah (October 16-17 this year) a Jewish tradition is to finish Deuteronomy and start the new annual cycle of Torah readings with the opening of Genesis/Bereishit. That first Torah portion will be the subject of my first post when I get home in a few weeks!
In the last Torah portion of Deuteronomy, Moses pronounces prophecies for each of the tribes of Israel, as well as blessing all the Israelites, before he climbs Mount Nevo to die. The text of the “blessings” of the tribes that has been handed down to us is somewhat corrupted by scribal error, according to modern scholars. But it still expands Jacob’s “blessings” of the tribes near the end of Genesis/Bereishit.
Jacob pronounces blessings, or prophecies, about his twelve sons before he pulls his feet up into his bed and dies. Each prophecy is really about the tribe that will bear that son’s name. (See my earlier post, Vayechi: Fierce Brothers.) But earlier in Genesis, Jacob’s sons are characters in the story.
Half of the twelve sons are the equivalent of spear-carriers; the Torah gives them neither lines nor stage business. Unlike their eponymous tribes, the only identities these six sons have are their names—Dan, Naftali, Gad, Asher, Yissakhar, and Zevulun—and the meanings their mothers or adoptive mothers assign to their names.
The youngest spear-carrier is Zevulun, Leah’s sixth and last son. When he is born, Leah says: God gave a gift to me, a good gift; [this] time my husband yizbeleini because I bore him six sons. And she called his name Zevulun. (Genesis/Bereishit 30:20)
yisbeleini (יִזְבְּלֵנִי) = he will elevate me, he will exalt me, he will honor me. (The root of this verb, זבל, is the same as the root of the name Zevulun.)
Zevulun (זְבֻלוּן) = exalted place, place of honor.
As with all the other baby-namings in the Torah, the name indicates the parent’s state of mind. We learn nothing about the character of Leah’s sixth son from his name.
But we do learn something about Zevulun’s tribe when Jacob recites his prophetic poem about the tribes from his deathbed. He says: Zevulun, at the shore of the sea he will dwell; and he will be a shore for ships, and his flank will be upon Tzidon. (Genesis 49:13)
Tzidon (צִידֹן) = Sidon; one of the first Phoenician port cities on the Mediterranean Sea. (Tzidon is now the city of Sayda in Lebanon).
The second prophetic poem about the tribes, spoken by Moses in the last Torah portion of Deuteronomy, combines the tribe of Zevulun with the tribe that bears the name of Leah’s fifth son, Yissakhar (often spelled Issachar in English).
And to Zevulun he said: Rejoice, Zevulun, in your going out, and Yissakhar, in your tents. They will call peoples to the mountain; there they will slaughter slaughter-offerings of righteousness; for they will suckle on the abundance of the seas, and the hidden treasures of the sand. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 33:18-20)
Both poems about the tribes of Israel claim that the territory of Zevulun includes a piece of the Mediterranean coast. Jacob’s poem says Zevulun will extend as far as Tzidon, but in the book of Joshua, when the tribal territories are allocated by lot, it is Asher, Zevulun’s northern neighbor, that reaches as far as the great city of Tzidon.
The boundaries of Zevulun given in the book Joshua include many place-names we cannot identify today, and do not mention any coastline. The one identifiable place in the description of Zevulun’s land is Beit-Lechem. The coast west of Beit-Lechem of Galilee is Haifa Bay, which lies south of both Tzidon and Tzor (Sidon and Tyre ), the two major Phoenician cities at the time. But the Phoenicians had coastal villages farther south, as far as Dor.
The coast south of Dor, from Ashdod to Gaza, was being invaded by the Plishtim (Philistines) around the time of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, which the Bible places circa 1300 B.C.E. The Plishtim migrated from Crete and other islands across the sea, and after seizing their beachheads on the coast, they fought for centuries to conquer more of Canaan.
But the Bible does not record any hostile actions by Phoenicians against Israelites. Could Zevulun have shared the Mediterranean coast with them?
I think so. Historically, both the Israelites and the Phoenicians spoke a Canaanite dialect in the Semetic language family, and the writings of both peoples reveal roots in Canaanite culture.
In the Bible, the people of Zevulun get along with non-Israelite neighbors. Although Moses instructs the Israelites to dispossess the Canaanites and drive all the natives out of the land, the first book of Judges lists the tribes that did not do so. Zevulun is one of the tribes that lives alongside the Canaanites.
Furthermore, even Moses’ poem about the tribes predicts that Zevulun and Yissakhar will call peoples to the mountain; there they will slaughter slaughter-offerings of righteousness. (Deuteronomy 33:19) Rather than trekking all the way to Israel’s central place of worship, they invite neighboring peoples to join them in offering animal sacrifices at a local mountain in the Galilee. And even though Deuteronomy is full of warnings to worship God at only one place, the poem Moses recites at the end of his life calls the neighborly offerings on a local mountain “righteous”.
Zevulun’s reward for friendly relations with its Phoenician neighbors is a share of Phoenician wealth, which came from maritime trade, fishing, and the sale of valuable purple dye and white (milk) glass. The dye came from mollusks found on that part of the coast, and the glass was made from the high-quality sand on the shore. The commentaries agree that these Phoenician products must be the hidden treasures of the sand mentioned in Deuteronomy 33:20.
This glimpse into the ways of Zebulun is a welcome contrast with all the times the Hebrew Bible urges the Israelites to treat other peoples as enemies. The Bible often condones vicious pre-emptive wars against Canaanites, Amorites, Midianites, and assorted other peoples in the region. (For an example, see my post Va-etchannan: Haunted by Shame.) Apparently God, Moses, and many of the prophets (at least as portrayed in the Bible) believe the Israelites are so easily tempted to abandon their own religion, they must commit genocide lest they learn about another attractive cult.
There is a better way to prevent people from discarding their God and their religion: make the religious practices more inspiring and more likely to touch the heart. The Torah illustrates this method in the book of Exodus, when the anxious people turn to the Golden Calf, but then turn back to God with joy and dedication when Moses gives them the chance to make a beautiful sanctuary for God.
Zevulun offers another illustration, by adopting the Phoenician way of making a livelihood, and inviting their foreign friends to join them in making offerings to God on a nearby mountain. They drop the rule about worshiping God only at the central sanctuary. But in exchange they gain peace with their neighbors—without abandoning their own god. And the Torah portion Vezot Habrakhah says their offerings are righteous.
I think the hidden treasures of the sand that Zevulun enjoys are not only milk glass and purple dye, but also the treasures that come from tolerance and goodwill.
May all people learn how to preserve their religions by offering friendship to strangers as they offer their hearts to their own gods.