Tags: haftarah, holy place, King Solomon, Shalom, Temple in Jerusalem, torah portion
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 Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19), and the haftarah is 1 Kings 5:26-6:13.
To rule as a king, one needs administrators, a standing army, and a capital city. And in the Ancient Near East, the capital had to have a temple for the chief god of the kingdom.
When David conquers Jerusalem (in the first book of Samuel) to be the capital of his new kingdom, he brings in the two objects that are the most sacred to the Israelites: the Tent of Meeting and the Ark of the Covenant. But he leaves the temple-building to his son and heir, Solomon.
King Solomon has stone quarries and can command his citizens to do forced labor. But Israel has neither tall timber nor craftsmen skilled with wood. So he makes a pact with Chiram, king of the Phoenician city-state of Tyre.
And it happened: Chiram gave to Shlomoh cedar and cypress wood, all he wanted. And Shlomoh gave to Chiram 20,000 kor of wheat for his household and 20 kor of beaten oil. This Shlomoh gave to Chiram year after year. And God had given wisdom to Shlomoh, as [God] had spoken to him. [There was] shalom between Chiram and Shlomoh, and the two of them cut a covenant. (1 Kings 5:24-26)
Shlomoh (שְׁלֹֹמֹה) = Solomon in English, Suleyman in Arabic. (From the root verb shilam (שִׁלָם) = complete; make amends, repay, fulfill; restore to wholeness.)
Shalom (שָׁלֹם) = peace, wholeness, intactness, well-being. (Also from the root shilam.)
In the tenth century B.C.E., the time of Shlomoh and Chiram, there were two kinds of treaties between kingdoms in the Near East. In one model, the weaker kingdom was a vassal of the stronger one, and paid tribute to it (see my post Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies). In the other, two equal kingdoms made a treaty or covenant for trade and mutual defense.
The treaty between King Shlomoh of Israel and King Chiram of Tyre specified that Tyre would provide wood for all of Shlomoh’s building projects in Jerusalem, and Israel would provide annual large shipments of wheat and oil to Tyre. Although the Bible does not mention a clause about mutual defense, it does state that there was shalom between the two kings, which implies that they at least agreed to mutual non-aggression.
And the king, Shlomoh, imposed a mas upon all of Israel, and the mas was 30,000 men. And he sent 10,000 a month to Lebanon; following a month in Lebanon they were two months at home, in turns… And Shlomoh had 70,000 burden-carriers and 80,000 quarriers in the hills … The king commanded, and they pulled out great stones, valuable stones, to lay the foundation-wall of the House: hewn stones. (1 Kings 5:27-31)
mas (מַס) = conscription for forced labor.
The first mas described in the Bible is the forced labor of the Israelites in Egypt. Although it was an accepted practice for a king to impose a temporary mas on his own citizens, in this case Shlomoh made 180,000 Israelites neglect their own land to do heavy labor for years. They had to cut and haul materials for the temple, for King Shlomoh’s palace, and for several other large new buildings in Jerusalem.
The text also emphasizes that the stones for the foundation wall of the temple are hewn: huge blocks of stone cut out and smoothed.
And when the House was built, it was built of shleimah stone, quarry stone; but hammers or the axe, any tool of iron, was not heard in the House when it was built. (1 Kings 6:7)
shleimah (שְׁלֵמָה) = complete, whole, uninjured, undivided, peaceable. (Plural: shleimot.)
The king wants to avoid the sound of an iron tool on the site of the new temple because of an old law about altars:
If you make an altar of stones for Me, you must not build it of hewn stones; if you have wielded your sword upon it, you have profaned it. (Exodus 20:22)
And you shall build there an altar for God, your god, an altar of stones; you must not wield iron upon them. You must build the altar for God, your god, of shleimot stones. (Deuteronomy 27:5-6)
King Shlomoh’s laborers are building the foundation-wall of the temple, not an altar. However, the temple will enclose a space even more sacred than the altar. So the king orders the stones to be cut at the quarry, and merely set in place at the temple site. Shlomoh’s attempt to follow the law may actually subvert it, since the stones are hewn.
Similarly, Shlomoh’s treaty with Chiram of Tyre has two purposes: to promote shalom, peace, between the two kingdoms, and also to build a temple that will unite the Israelites under a single god at a single holy place so they will be shaleim, intact, one people. Instead the annual wheat and oil shipments to Tyre become a burden on the farming population. And the mas imposed on so many Israelite men results in complaints and rebellion. Shortly after King Shlomoh’s death, northern Israel secedes from southern Judah. (See my post Terumah & 1 Kings: Tent vs. Temple.)
Are the stones of the temple wall really shleimot, whole and undivided, when they are cut out of the quarry with hammers and shaped with axes?
Does Shlomoh’s kingdom really live in shalom, peace and wholeness, when building a temple in Jerusalem leads to oppression, revolt, and secession?
Tags: book of Jeremiah, debt slavery, haftarah, torah portion
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 Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18), and the haftarah is Jeremiah 34:8-22.
Town by town, city by city, the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar took over the land of Judah. The country could have remained a semi-independent vassal of Babylon, keeping its own temple and running its own internal affairs. But the last three kings of the Israelites had rebelled against their overlord. And each time Nebuchadnezzar’s retaliation had been more severe.
The prophet Jeremiah kept warning the kings of Judah to keep paying tribute to Babylon, but they never listened to him. Instead they flirted with Egypt. Only Jeremiah realized what was obvious to the Babylonians: that when Pharaoh Nekho lost the big battle with Nebuchadnezzar at Carchemish in 605 B.C.E., and lost all his vassal states to the new Babylonian Empire, Egypt was finished as a world power.
When King Yehoyakhim of Judah stopped paying tribute to Babylon in 597 B.C.E., Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem until it surrendered. When King Zedekiah stopped paying tribute eight years later, after secret negotiations with Egypt, the Babylonian army surrounded Jerusalem again.
This time Nebuchadnezzar also conquered the rest of Judah, town by town and city by city.
Trapped in Jerusalem, unable the send their slaves out to the fields to plant and harvest, the leaders of Judah were getting desperate. Soon their city would fall, and they would all be killed or, at best, deported to Babylon. Only a miracle could save them.
The god of Israel had made miracles for the Israelites before. The priests were still serving God in the temple. What more was needed? How could they win God’s favor again?
In this week’s hafatarah, it occurs to King Zedekiah that the people of Judah have been ignoring one of God’s commands:
If your brother or sister Hebrew sells himself to you, then he shall serve six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go chafshi from you. And when you let him go chafshi from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed… (Deuteronomy/Devarim 15:12-13)
chafshi (חָפְשִׁי) = emancipated, freed. (Plural: chafshim.)
In ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah, men who could not pay their taxes or other debts sold themselves or their children as temporary slaves. After six years of service, their owners were required to set them free, and give the men a food supply and the means to make a living.
But the slave-owners of Judah had let the years pass without emancipation.
… the king, Zedekiah, cut a covenant with all the people who were in Jerusalem, to proclaim for them a dror: for each man to let go of his male slave and his female slave, the Hebrew male and the Hebrew female, chafshim, so that no one would be enslaved by his fellow Yehudi. And they heeded [the proclamation], all the officers and all the people who had entered in the covenant … they heeded and they let them go. (Jeremiah 34:8-10)
dror (דְּרוֹר) = emancipation of slaves every seventh year and every fiftieth year.
Yehudi (יְהוּדִי) = citizen of Judah; Jew. (From Yehudah (יְהוּדָה) = the kingdom of Judah, the tribe of Judah, or the individual Judah in the book of Genesis.)
The slave-owners in Jerusalem had more than one reason to free their slaves. Besides wooing God’s favor, the general emancipation also meant that the owners no longer had to feed their slaves. And since no one could work in the fields anyway, the government could recruit the emancipated men as soldiers to help defend the city.
The siege lifted briefly when an Egyptian army marched north, perhaps intending to honor its new alliance with the king of Judah. Most of the Babylonian army departed to take care of the Egyptian annoyance, and for a few months life in Jerusalem could return to normal.
Unfortunately, it did.
And later they turned back, and they took back the male slaves and the female slaves whom they had let go chafshim, and they subjected them to slavery [again]. Then the word of God happened to Jeremiah… (Jeremiah 34:11-12)
Through his prophet, God reminds the people in Jerusalem that Hebrews enslaved because of debt must be freed in the seventh year. God continues:
“One day you yourselves turned around and became upright in My eyes, proclaiming a dror for each man from his fellow, and you cut a covenant before Me in the house that is called by My name. But now you have profaned My name; each of you has brought back his male slave and his female slave that he had let go chafshim to follow their desire, and subordinated them to be male slaves and female slaves for you [again].
“Therefore, thus says God: [Since] you did not listen to Me proclaiming a dror, each one for his brother and each one for his fellow, here I am, proclaiming to you a dror—declares God—to the sword, to disease, and to starvation! (Jeremiah 34:15-17)
Jeremiah’s prophecy points out the hypocrisy of the ruling class. They free their slaves only when feeding them is a burden—and when they hope to wangle an extra favor out of God. But the newly-emancipated slaves have no means to feed themselves. What kind of liberty is that?
Then as soon as it looks as though the ex-slaves can once more engage in agriculture, their former owners re-enslave them, making them responsible for feeding everyone.
So God threatens to emancipate the Yehudi the same way they emancipated their slaves—by abandoning them to death. After all, no human beings can live exclusively by their own power, without the world God provides.
In fact, the Babylonians returned before the slaves of Jerusalem could bring in a harvest. In 586 B.C.E. the wall around the city was breached. Nebuchadnezzar blinded King Zedekiah, killed his sons, razed the capital, and burned down the temple. Judah became merely a district of Babylonia. The remaining ruling families were deported, and Jeremiah lingered in the ruins of Jerusalem.
(See my post Haftarah for Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies.)
In some parts of the world today, impoverished people are still kidnapped to become slaves (often for sex or war). Those of us who read blogs on the Internet, distant from the villages of Syria or Nigeria, might congratulate ourselves on never owning a slave or oppressing a debtor. But is that true?
Do we vote for political candidates who claim that everyone can succeed by their own efforts, even those who are not given the tools? Do we find it acceptable that one accident, disease, or misinformed purchase can doom a person to poverty for life, with no second chance—not even after six years of suffering?
Do we treat our own children as slaves? Do we send them off, after the right number of years, with all the tools they need to make it on their own? Do we try to recapture and control them later?
Do we take advantage of someone over and over again, neglecting them when we do not need them?
Tags: book of Isaiah, call to prophecy, Exodus, serafim, seraphim, Shemot, torah portion, visions
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 Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23), and the haftarah is Isaiah 6:1-7:6 & 9:5-6.
You cannot see My face, because humankind may not see Me and live. (Exodus/Shemot 33:20)
Although God cannot be seen directly, people in the Bible do experience visions of God. The Israelites see a manifestation of God in this week’s Torah portion, and Isaiah sees a manifestation of God in this week’s haftarah.
In the vision shared by everyone at Mount Sinai, God appears only as fire.
And Moses brought out the people from the camp to meet God, and they stationed themselves at the bottom of the mountain. And all of Mount Sinai smoked, because God went down upon it in fire, and its smoke went up like the smoke of the furnace, and all the mountain shuddered very much. (Exodus 19:17-18)
A shuddering, smoking mountain sounds like a volcano—except that in this vision, God’s fire comes down from the sky, not up from a crater. God also manifests in the book of Exodus as the fire Moses sees in the burning bush on Sinai, as the pillar of cloud and fire that leads the Israelites to Mount Sinai, and as fire and cloud on the mountain when Moses ascends to receive each pair of stone tablets.
No angels or other semi-divine creatures appear in the revelation at Mount Sinai; only fire, smoke, and various sounds.
In Isaiah’s moment of revelation God does not appear as fire.
In the year King Uzziyahu died, I saw my Master sitting elevated on a lofty throne, and His skirts filling the heykhal. (Isaiah 6:1)
heykhal (הֵיכָל) = palace, temple; main room of the temple in Jerusalem; heavenly palace.
Isaiah beholds God wearing a robe and sitting on a throne, like a king—except that the skirts of the robe mysteriously flow out to fill the room. As the vision continues God speaks, but does not move.
However, angelic attendants surrounding God move, speak, and burn with fire.
Serafim are stationed above Him, each with six wings; with one pair he covers his face, and with a pair he covers his raglayim, and with a pair he flies. And one calls to another, and he says: Holy, holy holy! God of Tzevaot, Who fills all the earth with His glory! And the supports of the threshold shiver from the sound of the calling, and the house fills with smoke. (Isaiah 6:1-4)
serafim (שְׂרָפִים) = burners, burning creatures. (From the verb saraf, שָׂרַף = burn. Used in Numbers and Deuteronomy for “burning serpents”—probably poisonous snakes.)
tzevaot (צְבָאוֹת) = armies (on earth); the stars (in the heavens).
raglayim (רַגְלָיִם) = (pair of) feet, legs; a euphemism for the penis. Singular: regel (רֶגֶל) = foot, leg; walking pace; time set for a pilgrimage-festival.
The serafim must both cover and uncover their faces and their raglayim; if these body parts were permanently covered, they would not need wings for that purpose. When and why do they conceal these parts of their anatomy?
In Leviticus Rabbah, a collection of commentary from 400-600 C.E., Rabbi Jacob ben Zadbi says the serafim cover their faces to avoid looking at God’s presence, and cover their feet so God would not have to look at such unsightly appendages. (The writer assumed that the feet of the serafim were like the feet of Ezekiel’s angelic keruvim, which resembled calves’ feet.)
Twelfth-century C.E. rabbi Moses Maimonides wrote in The Guide for the Perplexed that the description of serafim covering their body parts is symbolic. The faces of the serafim are covered to indicate that “the cause of their existence is hidden and concealed”, while their feet are covered to indicate that their actions in the universe are also hidden. The wings for flying, Maimonides adds, merely represent the speed with which the serafim move when they act.
I propose a simpler explanation. Maybe the serafim cover their faces whenever they turn toward Isaiah, so he is not exposed to the blinding light radiating from these burning creatures. If seeing God’s face means death, seeing the faces of the serafim might be almost as bad.
As for covering their raglayim, I doubt the serafim are concealing their feet. After all, humans must have bare feet when they are in God’s presence; Moses must remove his sandals in front of the burning bush, and the priests must go barefoot inside the sanctuary. Since Isaiah’s vision is set inside a heykhal, the serafim in God’s presence probably expose their bare feet.
Although the word raglayim most often refers to feet or legs, sometimes it implies the pubic area between the legs, and there are three places in the Bible where raglayim is definitely a euphemism for the male genital organs. In Judges 3:24 and 1 Samuel 24:4 the word raglayim is combined with a verb to indicate a man urinating. And in the part of chapter 7 of Isaiah that is left out of this week’s haftarah, the prophet says that God will use the king of Assyria as a razor to shave off the head of hair and the hair of the raglayim (JPS: public hair) and also snatch away the beard. (Isaiah 7:20)
A man’s hair, especially his beard and pubic hair, stood for virility in ancient Israelite culture. Isaiah employs a shaving metaphor to prophesy that God will use Assyria to symbolically castrate Israel’s other enemies.
Why would the serafim in Isaiah’s vision use their extra wings to cover their genitals?
The penis is a symbol of rule, dominance, and control throughout the Bible, from the oath Abraham’s servant swears on his master’s yareich (which can also mean genitals; see my post Chayyei Sarah: A Peculiar Oath) to the Persian king who approves Esther’s interruption by lifting his sharvit (scepter). But God is the ultimate ruler. It would be subversive for a male to uncover his genitals in God’s presence.
That is why this week’s Torah portion specifies that all altars for God must be built without stairs or steps.
You must not ascend on stairs to My altar; that way you would expose your nakedness upon it. (Exodus 20:23)
The Torah also requires that priests must wear linen undergarments, so their genitals will be concealed in all areas of God’s sanctuary.
So each seraf uses one pair of wings to conceal his fiery face from Isaiah, for his own protection; and one pair of wings to conceal his genitals, so Isaiah will know that God rules, not the serafim.
Nevertheless, these angels are endowed with the potential to generate independent decisions and actions. One example occurs after Isaiah expresses his anxiety about having a vision of God.
And I said: Woe to me! I am as good as dead, because I am a man of impure lips, and I am living in the midst of a people of impure lips, yet my eyes behold the King, God of Tzevaot! Then one of the serafim flew toward me, and in his hand was a live coal he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. And he touched it to my mouth and he said: Hey! Now that this has touched your lips, your bad deeds have gone away, and your offense is atoned for. Then I heard the voice of my Master saying: Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? And I said: Here I am, send me! (Isaiah 6:5-8)
We have come a long way from the vision at Mount Sinai of God as undifferentiated fire, unaccompanied by any furniture or subsidiary creatures.
Isaiah sees God in terms of a throne and skirts, not in terms of fire. The fire exists in God’s serafim, “burning ones”, who occupy a station somewhere between humankind and God. They praise God (Holy, holy holy!) and they are privy to some of God’s plans (and who will go for us?) They protect Isaiah from the blinding brightness of their faces, and they cover their genitals to indicate that although they have some power, God is the ultimate ruler. And one seraf, hearing Isaiah’s anxiety about his unworthiness, takes action to remove his guilt. In his relief, Isaiah volunteers to be God’s prophet. Thus the seraf both furthers God’s plan and helps Isaiah rise to his calling.
The image of God as a king with a throne and a long robe has continued to be popular, from some of the writings after the fall of the first temple to some of the explanations given to children today. For me, God as fire is a better metaphor. An individual human cannot become a god.
But maybe we can aspire to be brighter, more aware of God’s presence, and more able to listen to people and address their concerns.
May all of us humans learn to act as thoughtfully as the serafim in Isaiah’s vision.
Tags: book of Judges, Deborah the Prophet, Exodus, Jael, Shoftim, Sisera, torah portion, Yael
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 Beshallach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), and the haftarah is Judges 4:4-5:31.
The underdog triumphs in many biblical stories. Jacob, the beardless weakling, outsmarts his strong, hairy brother Esau. Joseph rules over the older brothers who once enslaved him. The boy David kills the giant Goliath.
In this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“when he sent out”), the Israelite slaves leave Egypt as free people while Pharaoh’s army drowns behind them. In the haftarah from the book of Judges, two Israelite women triumph over the Canaanite general Sisera and his army.
How do you defeat an enemy stronger than you? In the Hebrew Bible, two effective ways are by receiving and using inside information from God, like Moses; and by taking action on your own initiative with intelligence, courage, and guile, like Jacob and Joseph.
The haftarah from Judges tells the story of two women, the ultimate underdogs in the patriarchal society of the ancient Israelites, triumphing over Israel’s enemies through both methods. Devorah the prophet gets her people to act on God’s promise to help them defeat the army of their Canaanite overlord, and Jael/Yael the Kenite acts on her own initiative and kills the enemy’s general.
When this week’s haftarah begins, the Israelites are scattered tribes who have been ruled by the chief king of Canaan, Yavin, for twenty years. They are oppressed by King Yavin’s general, Sisera, who commands a force that includes 900 chariots, the most fearsome war technology of the time.
Still, instead of relying on the Canaanite king’s dubious justice, the Israelites go to their own judges, including one outstanding judge.
Devorah was a woman, a prophet, a woman of lapidot; she was a shoftah of Israel at that time. (Judges/Shoftim 4:4)
Devorah (דְבוֹרָה) = “Deborah” in English; honey bee. (From the same root as doveir = speaker, and divrah = legal case.)
lapidot (לַפִּידוֹת) = a feminine plural form of the masculine noun lapid = torchlight, torch, flash of light. (Some translations consider lapidot a place-name or the name of Devorah’s husband.)
shoftah (שֹׁפְטָה) = the feminine form of shofet = judge; a man who decides legal cases and resolves disputes.
The Bible emphasizes that Devorah is a woman, at a time when all other judges were elders among the men. Moreover, she is a prophet, a woman of flashes of light. Even her name is significant: she is a speaker, both for justice and for God.
And she was the one who sat under the Date-Palm of Devorah, between Ramah and Bethel in the hills of Efrayim. And the children of Israel went up to her for the law. (Judges 4:5)
Unlike the judges of villages, Devorah serves as the authority for a wider area, and holds her own law court in a sacred place. In ancient Israel, many holy places were indicated by trees or groves with names, such as the Oak of Weeping (Genesis 35:8), the Grove of Teaching (Genesis 12:6), or the Grove of Mamre (Genesis 13:18). Devorah’s own presence is what makes this particular palm tree the marker of a holy site.
And she sent and summoned Barak, son of Avinoam, from Kedesh in Naftali. And she said to him: Did not God, the god of Israel, command: “Go!—and draw up your position on Mount Tabor, and you shall take with you ten thousand men from Naftali and Zevulun. Then I will draw up to you, to the wadi of Kishon, the commander of the army of Yavin, Sisera, and his charioteers, and his infantry; and I will give them into your hand.” (Judges 4:6-7)
If Barak musters troops from the two Israelite tribes of Naftali and Zevulun and marches them up Mount Tabor, God will arrange for the defeat of the enemy’s army. But Barak is afraid.
And Barak said to her: If you go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go. (Judges 4:8)
Devorah agrees to go with him, but prophesies that Barak will get no glory from the battle, because
… into the hand of a woman God will deliver Sisera. (Judges 4:9)
Devorah walks with Barak both to Kedesh to inspire the men to volunteer for the ad hoc army, and to the top of Mount Tabor to announce when the men should charge down. God panics Sisera’s army (through a flash flood in the wadi, according to the accompanying poem) and the Israelite foot soldiers kill every enemy soldier except General Sisera.
Devorah is supremely successful as the instigator of the battle because she is God’s prophet. Receiving divine communication and cooperating with God both inspires people to trust her and results in a successful campaign—even though she is a woman, who would normally be powerless.
Sisera gets down from his chariot in the middle of the battle and flees on foot. Where can he find refuge? He heads for the nearby camp of Chever the Kenite, a vassal of King Yavin.
Sisera fled on foot to the tent of Yael, wife of Chever the Kenite … (Judges 4:17)
Yael (יָעֵל) = a variant of ya-al (יָעַל) = he will ascend, he will climb, he will mount for mating.
Normally, a fugitive would go to the tent of the man who heads the household or encampment, the only person who can take the role of host and decide to shelter the unexpected guest. In that culture, a woman’s tent was her private domain that no man outside her immediate family would dare to enter. Why does Sisera enter Yael’s tent instead of heading straight for her husband’s tent?
One line of commentary claims that Sisera’s motivation was to rape Yael, and then claim Chever’s household as his own. By taking ownership of a chieftain’s women, a man signaled that he was the new chieftain. Later in the Bible, King David’s son Absalom shows Israel that he is the new king by having sexual intercourse with the concubines King David leaves behind in Jerusalem. Sisera might plausibly decide he would rather be the head of a camp of Kenites than a disgraced ex-general.
But I think Sisera is on his way to Chever’s tent when Yael appears and suggests a different plan.
And Yael went out to meet Sisera, and she said to him: Surah, my lord, surah eilai, do not fear. Vayasar to her, to her tent, and she concealed him with the curtain. (Judges 4:18)
surah (סוּרָה) = turn aside, go away, desert, avoid.
eilai (אֵלַי) = to me.
vayasar (וַיָּסַר) = and he turned aside, went away, deserted, avoided.
Normally a woman would warn an intruder who slipped past the sentries around her husband’s camp to get away from her. But since Yael says surah eilai, she must be saying either “turn aside to me” or “desert to me” (knowing that Sisera has already deserted his own army).
Yael is a quick thinker with a cool head. She may view Sisera as an enemy; the Kenites are usually allies with the Israelites in the Bible, and Chever might have sworn vassalage to King Yavin because he had no alternative. But now Yavin’s army no longer exists, and the time is ripe for change. Sizing up the situation, Yael steps out of her tent and tempts Sisera with an ambiguous sentence.
And he falls for it. Suddenly he imagines he can take Chever’s wife, and then take over his whole household. He steps inside her tent, and she lets the curtain fall behind him. He asks for water, and she brings him a yogurt drink and puts covers over him. He orders her to stand at the entrance of the tent and tell anyone who comes that there is no one inside. Then, secure in his belief that she is his and they will eventually seal the deal with sex, Sisera falls asleep.
Then Yael, wife of Chever, took a tent peg and took the hammer in her hand, and she came to him quietly, and she drove the peg into his temple, and she hammered it into the ground. And he was fast asleep, exhausted, and he died. (Judges 4:21)
Deborah’s prophesy is fulfilled; Sisera dies by the hand of a woman.
Yael acts on her own initiative, taking advantage of the situation and employing her sharp wits and her ability to deceive without actually lying. The text does not say whether Sisera carries a weapon on his body, but he is a career soldier, and under ordinary circumstances could overpower (and rape) any woman in his path. Yael courageously uses guile, the weapon of the underdog, to overpower and “rape” him with her tent peg.
Never assume you can take advantage of an underdog who has always held a rank beneath your own. People who have been slaves for hundreds of years might turn out to have God on their side, and defeat you, as in this week’s Torah portion from Exodus. And women who have been ordered around by men for hundreds of years might turn out to be prophets and judges, like Devorah, or extraordinary executioners, like Yael.
Never overlook the underdog.
Tags: Exodus, God, history of Judah, King Josiah, Pharaoh Nekho, propeht Ezekiel, Prophet Jeremiah, torah portion
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.
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.
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.
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)
After 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.
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.
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
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.
Tags: Exodus, Ezekiel, God, haftarah, Moses and Pharaoh, religion, Shemot, torah portion
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 Va-eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35), and the haftarah is Ezekiel 28:25-29:21.
Apparently God really wants Egypt to know who God is. The god of Israel asks the prophet Moses to tell Pharaoh “and you will know that I am God” three times in this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira. And God tells the prophet Ezekiel how God will bring down the Egyptians “and they will know that I am God” four times in this week’s haftarah.
Before God inflicts the first of ten terrible miracles on Egypt, God instructs Moses to meet Pharaoh on the shore of the Nile and warn him that the water will turn into blood.
And you shall say to him: YHVH, the god of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, ‘Let My people go and they shall serve Me in the wilderness’, but hey—you did not listen before now. Thus says YHVH: ‘By this teida that ani YHVH’. (Exodus 7:16-17)
YHVH = the Tetragrammaton or four-letter personal name of God that Jews consider most sacred. The name appears to be a form of havah or hayah (הוה or היה) the root of the verb “to be”, “to happen”, or “to become”, but it is a form that does not fit any Hebrew verb conjugations.
teida (תֵּדַע) = you will know, experience, be acquainted with, recognize, realize, have intercourse with.
ani (אֲנִי) = I [am].
Pharaoh hardens his heart during the seven days of bloody water, claiming it is not a divine miracle, so he does not experience or recognize the god of Israel.
God’s goal of being known by Pharaoh reappears when Moses talks about the second miracle, the plague of frogs:
… so that teida that there is none like YHVH our god. (Exodus 8:6)
—and again when God tells Moses the fourth plague will be more miraculous, because the swarm will be excluded from the place where the Israelites live,
…so that teida that ani YHVH in the midst of the land. (Exodus 8:18)
It takes ten miracles or plagues before Pharaoh finally knows YHVH, and can no longer harden his heart in denial. The knowledge comes from experiencing what God can do in the world.
The haftarah for this week’s Torah portion is a passage from the book of Ezekiel, set many centuries later during the Babylonian exile after King Nebuchadnezzar conquered the Israelite nation of Judah in 597 BCE. Judah had asked Egypt to help it fight the Babylonians, and Egypt had not come to the rescue. So Ezekiel prophesies that God will restore the land to the Israelites and punish Egypt, and both peoples will “know” God.
…then they will dwell on their soil that I gave to My servant, to Jacob. And they will dwell on it in safety, and they will build houses and plant vineyards, and they will dwell on it in safety when I have passed judgments on all those who despise them from all around; veyad-u that ani YHVH their god. (Ezekiel 28:25-26)
veyad-u (וְיָדְעוּ) = and they will know, realize, experience, etc. (A form of the same verb as teida.)
The Israelites will once again know YHVH is their god when they have first-hand experience of this amazing reversal in fortune.
The hafatarah continues with a poem describing the future downfall of Egypt. Then Ezekiel says:
Thus said my master, YHVH: Here I am over you, Pharaoh, king of Egypt …To the beasts of the earth and to the birds of the sky I have given you for food. Veyade-u, all the inhabitants of Egypt, that ani YHVH; because you were a walking-stick of reed to the House of Israel; when their hand grasped you, you would break…(Ezekiel 29:3-6)
The implication is that because Egypt failed to support the Israelites, God will make sure all Egyptians know from experience who YHVH is.
And the land of Egypt will become a deserted place and a ruin; veyade-u that ani YHVH, because he [Pharaoh] said: The Nile is mine and I made it. (Ezekiel 29:9)
Egyptians must also realize that although their pharaoh claimed he created the Nile, really YHVH created everything. In order to accomplish this, God will reduce Egypt to the lowest of nations.
And never again will they inspire trust in the House of Israel … veyade-u that ani the lord YHVH. (Ezekiel 29:16)
Therefore, thus says my master YHVH: Here I am, giving the land of Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. And he will carry off her wealth and loot her loot and plunder her plunder, and she will be a reward for his army. …On that day… veyade-u that ani YHVH. (Ezekiel 29:19, 29:21)
In all of these cases in Exodus and Ezekiel, people are expected to realize who God is after they have experienced an unexpected disaster or triumph, a miraculous change in fortune. The experience is supposed to be so powerful that both Israelites and Egyptians will realize that only the most powerful god in the world could create such a miracle, and that this supreme god is the god of Israel.
Furthermore, both peoples will know God by the name YHVH, the four-letter name based on the verb “to be”. Is this detail repeatedly included simply because it is the name the Israelites use for their god? Or does it carry another meaning?
In last year’s post on this Torah portion (Va-eira: The Right Name) I suggested that the idea of God as “being” or “becoming” is intellectually appealing, but too abstract for an emotional relationship with God. Now I notice that the phrase “know that I am YHVH” always occurs in the Torah and haftarah portions in the context of knowing God’s power to change fate and to create. What is most important is for the Egyptians and for the defeated and deported Israelites to realize that the god of Israel is the god of existence itself. Nothing can have power over YHVH.
I have experienced no inexplicable miracles or reversals of fortune in my own life. I do not know God in that way. I acknowledge the reality of being, that there is something rather than nothing, and I could call that God, even if it is irrelevant to the anthropomorphic god of the Bible.
But I will not. My unmiraculous life is full of meaning and my soul is full of awe, so “I know”—yadati (יָדַעְתִּי)—that there is something I might as well call God that goes beyond the fact of existence.
Teida that ani YHVH = You will know that I am Being.
Then what, or who, is the “I”?
Tags: Bereishit, Daniel and the lions, Genesis, Haman, Joseph and his brothers, Mordecai and Esther, torah portion
This is the final post in a series comparing three stories of Jews who rise from captivity to high positions in a foreign land: the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis, the book of Daniel, and the book of Esther. After Joseph. Daniel, and Esther’s cousin Mordecai have all become viceroys of empires, all three stories continue with the themes “The hero gets revenge on the rivals who wanted him dead”, and “Thanks to the hero, the children of Israel prosper in a foreign land”.
* The hero gets revenge on the rivals who wanted him dead. *
Joseph’s revenge is the most complex and psychological. When he is seventeen, his ten jealous older brothers throw him in a pit, discuss killing him, then sell him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt. Twenty-one years later, the brothers come to Egypt to buy grain during the first of what will be seven years of famine. They bow down to the Egyptian viceroy Tzafnot-Paneiach, who wears Egyptian linens and a gold collar and speaks through an interpreter, without recognizing their little brother Joseph, all grown up and in charge of Egypt. But Joseph recognizes them.
Joseph has absolute power; he could order his brothers’ execution and no one would question it. Instead, he accuses them of being spies, and they explain they are ten of twelve brothers. He says he will keep one of the brothers in prison while the others bring grain back to their households in Canaan. But then they must bring back their youngest brother, Joseph’s innocent little brother Benjamin, to prove they are telling the truth.
Then they said, each to his brother: Ah, we are carryng guilt over our brother because we saw the tzarah of his soul when he pleaded with us for pity, and we did not listen. Therefore this tzarah has come upon us. (Genesis/Bereishit 42:21)
tzarah (צָּרָה) = distress.
They intuit that Joseph’s distress resulted, somehow, in their current distress—even without knowing that the Egyptian viceroy is Joseph (or that he knows Hebrew and understands their every word).
Joseph throws them all into prison for three days—an echo of when Joseph’s brothers threw him into a pit. Then he sends off nine of his brothers with sacks full of grain (and the silver they paid for the grain hidden in the sacks). He keeps one of his nastier older brothers, Shimon, in prison, and promises to release him only when the others return with Benjamin.
They do not return until the second year of famine; it takes that long before their father, Jacob, will let his beloved son Benjamin go with them. Then Joseph gets revenge for being sold as a slave—without actually enslaving anyone.
He releases Shimon and treats all eleven of his brothers to a feast. When their sacks are filled with grain, he plants a silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack. Then he sends a servant after them, who finds the goblet, claims it was stolen, and declares that Benjamin—the one innocent brother—must stay in Egypt as Joseph’s slave.
This is a test to see whether the ten older men have reformed and will no longer abandon the brother their father loves best. The test causes the brothers further psychological distress, but they do get a passing grade. First they all volunteer to be slaves along with Benjamin, and then when they are brought before Joseph, a.k.a. Tzafnot-Paneiach, Judah volunteers to replace Benjamin and become the viceroy’s slave instead. Only then does Joseph tell them his true identity.
Joseph arranges his own revenge on his brothers, but in the books of Daniel and Esther the revenge happens at the king’s command, in the form of a simple tit-for-tat. The bad guys get exactly the same punishment they had intended for the hero.
Daniel’s rivals for the post of viceroy set him up so that he will be sealed overnight into a den of lions. (See Part 3.) Daniel survives, thanks to a divine miracle.
Then by order of the king, those men who had slandered Daniel were brought and, together with their children and wives, were thrown into the lions’ den. They had hardly reached the bottom of the den when the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones. (Daniel 6:25, Jewish Publication Society translation of the Aramaic)
In the book of Esther, the bad guy is Haman, whose pride is wounded because Mordecai the Jew refuses to bow to him when he is made viceroy of Persia. Haman persuades the king to issue an edict that everyone in the Persian Empire may kill all Jews on the 13th of the month of Adar. Haman also erects a tall stake so he can personally impale Mordecai when the day comes.
His plot is foiled when Queen Esther, Mordecai’s cousin, reveals that she is a Jew.
Then Charvonah, one of the eunuchs before the king, said: Also there is a wood [stake] that Haman made for Mordecai, whose good words saved the king [from an assassination plot]. It is standing at the house of Haman, 50 cubits tall. And the king said: Impale him on it! And they impaled Haman on the wood [stake] that he had prepared for Mordecai, and the anger of the king abated. That day King Achashverosh gave to Queen Esther the property of Haman, enemy of the Jews. And Mordecai came before the king, since Esther had told what his relationship was to her. Then the king removed his signet ring, which he had taken back from Haman, and he gave it to Mordecai. (Esther 7:9-8:1)
Instead of Haman being viceroy and Mordecai being impaled, Mordecai is viceroy and Haman is impaled. The king’s edict permitting the massacre of the Jews cannot be rescinded, but Esther persuades the king to issue a counter-edict that on the same day, the 13th of Adar, the Jews of every city may assemble and fight anyone who attacks them. Between that edict and Mordecai’s new position, nobody dares to kill a Jew.
The enemies of the Jews hoped lishlot them, but the opposite happened, and the Jews shalat those who hated them. (Esther 9:1)
lishlot (לִשְׁלוֹט) = to gain power over.
shalat (שָׁלַט) = gained power over.
* Thanks to the hero, the children of Israel prosper in a foreign land. *
Just as Joseph arranges his own non-lethal revenge, he arranges to move the children of Israel to a foreign land. After he ends his game of testing his brothers, he reveals his identity and tells them to fetch their father and their own families and move to a fertile district of Egypt called Goshen.
And I shall provide for you there, because there will be five more years of famine, so that you will not be deprived, you and your households and all that you own. (Genesis/Bereishit 45:11)
Pharaoh happily ratifies Joseph’s offer and sends wagons north to help Jacob and all his descendants move to Egypt. These original 70 children of Israel do not leave Egypt when the famine ends five years later. They stay on for four centuries, until a new dynasty rules Egypt and enslaves them to build Pharaoh’s cities. So although the children of Israel prosper during Joseph’s lifetime, eventually their lives in Egypt become intolerable, and they need God and Moses to rescue them—in the story that begins with this week’s Torah portion, Shemot (Names) in the book of Exodus.
The book of Daniel only implies that the Jews in the new Persian Empire benefit from Daniel’s prayers three times a day, which he continues even when his rivals trick the king into ordering that no one shall bow to a god for 30 days. Daniel emerges unscathed from the lion’s den, but when the king throws Daniel’s enemies into the den, the lions kill them at once. At this additional proof that a powerful god is on Daniel’s side,
King Darius wrote to all peoples and nations of every language that inhabit the earth, ‘May your well-being abound! I have hereby given an order that throughout my royal domain men must tremble in fear before the God of Daniel, for He is the living God who endures forever …He delivers and saves, and performs signs and wonders in heaven and on earth, for He delivered Daniel from the power of the lions.’ Thus Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and during the reign of Cyrus the Persian. (Daniel 6:26-29)
Although the book does not specifically say that all Jews in the empire prospered along with the viceroy Daniel, the official elevation of their god implies that their position also improves. The rest of the book of Daniel consists of a series of prophetic visions Daniel experiences, with no mention of any further discrimination against the children of Israel in the Persian Empire.
In the book of Esther, the new prestige of the Jews in the Persian Empire is an inseparable part of the revenge against Haman. First the king executes Haman and makes Mordecai the viceroy in his place—giving a known Jew great power. Then the king counteracts Haman’s edict urging everyone to kill Jews on a certain date by issuing a new edict permitting the Jews to assemble and kill their enemies on that day.
Due to both Mordecai’s power and the king’s new edict, people throughout the empire show deference to the Jews among them, being careful not to offend them.
…and many of the people of the land mityahadim because the terror of the Jews fell upon them. (Esther 8:17)
mityahadim (מִתְיַהַדִים) = were pretending to be Yehudim = Jews.
The Jews kill their few remaining enemies on the official day, the 13th of Adar, which becomes the holiday of Purim.
The stories of Joseph, Daniel, and the Esther and Mordecai duo put a different spin on each of the seven themes they have in common, including the final theme of Jews prospering in a foreign land.
The children of Israel prosper in Egypt (for several generations, at least) because Joseph moves his extended family to he fertile district of Goshen. The Israelites secure religious freedom under the first king of the Persian Empire because Daniel proves the power of the God of Israel. And the Jews acquire more status and power later because Esther (King Achashveirosh’s chosen queen) and Mordecai (who saves Achaveirosh’s life) identify themselves as Jews, and persuade the king to reverse every action of Haman, the prime enemy of the Jews.
Together, the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther demonstrate that it is possible for Jews to succeed in exile (galut), outside their former land.
What do you need to live successfully in a new place? A way to make a living and secure the physical necessities of life, according to the Joseph story in the book of Genesis. Freedom of worship, according to the book of Daniel. And the respect of the people around you, according to the book of Esther.
I pray that more and more nations in today’s world will let everyone within their borders make a living, follow their own religion, and live in peace and mutual respect.
Tags: Bereishit, Daniel and Babylon, Esther and Mordecai, Genesis, Joseph and Pharaoh, torah portion
Joseph, Daniel, and Esther are all Israelites who attain success outside of their native land. Their stories have seven themes in common; the fifth is:
* The hero gets a foreign name. *
Actually only Joseph gets his new name and his new rank at the same time. When he is brought up from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams in the Torah Portion Mikeitz (see Part 3), he is still the Hebrew slave Joseph. When he leaves Pharaoh, he is the Egyptian viceroy Tzafnat Panei-ach.
Joseph explains that Pharoah’s two dreams are prophecies of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Then he gratuitously advises Pharoah to find a discerning and wise man to appoint a bureaucracy to collect a fifth of Egypt’s harvest during the next seven years and stockpile it against the coming famine.
And Pharaoh said to his servants: Could we find [another] man like this, who has the spirit of God in him? …Then Pharaoh said to Joseph: See, I have placed you over all the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh did more, and placed his signet ring from his hand on the hand of Joseph. And he dressed him in clothes of fine linen, and he put the gold collar over his neck. (Genesis 41:39-42)
Then Pharaoh gives Joseph a new name and an Egyptian wife.
And Pharaoh called the sheim of Joseph: Tzafnat Panei-ach, and he gave to him Asnat, daughter of Poti-Fera, priest of On, for a wife. And Joseph went out over the land of Egypt. (Genesis 41:45)
sheim (שֵׁם) = name; standing, reputation, renown, fame.
Joseph = English for Yoseif (יוֹסֵף) = adding, increasing.
Tzafnat Panei-ach (צָפְנַת פַּעְנֵחַ) = (Phonetic spelling of an Egyptian phrase, probably meaning “The God Speaks, He Lives”.)
The new name and new wife are further symbols of Joseph’s new rank and position, but I believe they serve a second purpose. In order for the people of Egypt to accept the Pharaoh’s appointee as their ruler, Joseph must seem less foreign, more Egyptian. Besides wearing the fine linen of the Egyptian upper class, he must go by an Egyptian name. An Egyptian wife makes him look even more assimilated, and may also increase his loyalty to Egypt.
Joseph acquires an Egyptian name the day he is appointed viceroy, at age 30. Daniel and his three friends are given Babylonian names when they are still adolescent boys, captives from the conquered city of Jerusalem. King Nebuchadnezzar orders his head eunuch, Ashpenaz, to bring him some descendants of the royalty and nobility of Judah, boys who are attractive, healthy, and educable. For three years Ashpenaz must teach these foreign boys to read and write Chadean (Babylonian), and give them rations from the king’s food and the king’s wine.
Among those from Judah there were Daniel, Chananyah, Misha-eil, and Azaryah. And the head of the eunuchs put sheimot for them; and he put for Dani-el Beilteshatzar, and for Chananyah Shadrakh, and for Misha-eil Meyshakh, and for Azaryah Aved-nego. (Daniel 1:6-7)
sheimot (שֶׁמוֹת) = names. (plural of sheim)
Daniel = English for Danyeil (דָּנִיֵּאל) = Hebrew: My Judge (Dany) is God (Eil).
Beilteshatzar (בֵּלְטְשַׁאצּר) = Babylonian: ?? Theories include three possible Babylonian phrases: Protect his Life, Beilat Protect the King, and Beil Keeps Secret Treasures. Beil is the Babylonian creator god, and Beilat is the goddess wife of Beil.
All four boys arrive in Babylon with Jewish names that include a word for the God of Israel, either Eil or Yah. But King Nebuchadnezzar hopes to use these boys as advisors, after they have learned the language and culture of Babylon. It is essential to his plan that the four boys switch their loyalty to him, instead of remaining attached to their native land and their native god.
The first step is to give them new names—monikers that contain names for Babylonian gods instead of the God of Israel. (See postscript below for the other three boys.) And the first thing the four boys do after they are renamed is to request a kosher diet! (See Part 2.)
In fact, Daniel and his friends do something Nebuchadnezzar did not expect: they remain faithful to the God of Israel, and they also become loyal servants of the king of Babylon. Daniel rises to become the viceroy of the empire. Although they answer to their Babylonian names in public, in their own hearts their real names are their Jewish names.
In the book of Esther, the two Jewish heroes have Persian names from the start. Here is how Esther’s cousin and guardian Mordecai is introduced:
A Jew was in the citadel of Shushan, and shemo was Mordecai, son of Ya-ir, son of Shimi, son of Kish, a man of [the tribe of] Benjamin, who was deported from Jerusalem with the deportees that were deported with Yekanyah, king of Judah, in the deportation of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. (Esther 2:5-6)
shemo (שְׁמוֹ) = his name.
Mordecai (מַרְדָּכַי) = English for Mordakhai = My Marduks. Marduk was a Babylonian god adopted by the Persians.
Ya-ir (יָאִיר) = He Shines.
Shimi (שִׁמְעִי) = I Listen.
Kish (קִישׁ) = (etymology unknown; also the name of the father of Saul, the first king of Israel.)
Mordecai’s father Yair, his grandfather Shimi, and his great-grandfather Kish all have Hebrew names. But Mordecai, a third-generation exile, seems to have only a Persian name. And what a name! But nobody in the story questions that a Jew carries the name of a foreign god.
And he became the foster parent of Hadassah, who was Esther, the daughter of his uncle, because she had no father or mother. (Esther 2:7)
Hadassah (הֲדַסָּה) = Hebrew: Myrtle.
Esther (אֶסְתֵּר) = English for Esteir = Persian: star.
Esther has a Hebrew name, but this is the only time it is mentioned in the whole book of Esther. The rest of the time she goes by her Persian name.
God is never mentioned in the book of Esther, and neither Mordecai nor Esther prays or does any specifically religious act. But Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman because it is not his custom as a Jew (see Part 3), and when Haman arranges for the execution of Jews, Esther tells the king she is a Jew, and saves her people.
Each of the three stories illustrates a different stage of exile. Joseph embraces Egyptian dress and an Egyptian wife, but he never fully assimilates. When he reveals his identity to his brothers, he says simply I am Joseph. He lets his father give his two sons the heritage of the children of Israel, and he requests his own burial in Canaan.
Some American Jews who use only one first name, a Hebrew name, for everything. Some feel as though Israel is their real home; they consider emigrating, and they want to be buried there. They remind me of Joseph.
Daniel also serves the country where he was brought as a captive, and he flourishes in exile. He becomes a man of Babylon, and never considers returning to Jerusalem. But he continues to keep kosher and to pray to the God of Israel every day for his whole life. And although he is given a Babylonian name, he remains Daniel in the Bible and in his heart.
Most American Jews today have a Hebrew name we use for religious ritual, and a secular name we use for everything else. My Hebrew name is Tzipporah, and I only use it in religious contexts; the rest of the time I am Melissa. Like Daniel and his friends, I am loyal to my religion, but I am attached to the land of the United States (even when its government goes crazy). I want to make a pilgrimage to Israel, but I would not emigrate there.
Esther and Mordecai apparently use Persian names from birth, and their lives revolve around the Persian court. We do not see them do anything religious. Yet they identify themselves as Jews, even at the risk of death.
Some American Jews also never use a Hebrew name, and do not bother much with religion. Yet when identity is an issue, they affirm that they are Jews.
Thus thousands of years after the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther were written down, Jews are still following all three models for holding a Jewish identity in another land!
Here are the Hebrew and Babylonian names of Daniel’s fellow captives:
Chananyah (חֲנַנְיָה) = Hebrew: Gracious (Chanan) is God (Yah).
Shadrakh (שַׁדְרַךְ) = Babylonian: Command (Shuddur) of Aku. Aku is a Babylonian moon god.
Misha-eil (מִישָׁאֵל) = Hebrew: Who is (Mi) That Which (She-) is God (Eil).
Meyshakh (מֵישַׁךְ) = Babylonian: Who is That Which is Aku.
Azaryah (עַזַרְיָה) = Hebrew: Help (Azar) is God (Yah).
Aved-nego (עֲוֶד נְגוֹ) = Servant of Nego. Nego is a mispronunciation of one of two Babylonian gods: Nabu, co-ruler of Babylon with the god Marduk, or Nergal, a god of death.
Tags: Bereishit, Daniel and the lions, Genesis, Mordecai and Esther, Potiphar, torah portion
by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah
Someone tries to kill Joseph twice in the book of Genesis/Bereishit. When he is seventeen, his jealous older brothers throw him into a pit, then sit down and discuss killing him. This fits the first of seven themes that the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther have in common: Resentful rivals conspire to kill the hero. (see Part 1.)
Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery instead of murdering him, but while he is a slave in Egypt a woman tries to get him executed for a different reason. This time, the theme is:
* The hero is punished for refusing to obey an order because of religious scruples, but God rescues the hero. *
And it happened after these things, then the wife of his master raised her eyes to Joseph, and she said: Lie with me. And he mei-ein, and he said to the wife of his master: Hey, having me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and everything that belongs to him he has put into my hand. There is no one greater in his house than I am, and he has not withheld anything from me except you, since you are his wife, so how could I do this great evil and transgress against God? (Genesis/Bereishit 39:7-9)
mei-ein (מֵאֵן) = refused. (In Biblical Hebrew, this is not a polite demurral, but a stubborn refusal.)
For Joseph, an ethical transgressions is a transgression against God. He refuses, even though he knows it is dangerous to anger his master’s wife. But she keeps propositioning him day after day, until one day when the house is empty,
…she grabbed him by his garment, saying: Lie with me! But he abandoned his garment in her hand and he fled outside. (Genesis 39:12)
What difference does it make that the house is empty? Potifar’s wife seems unconcerned about whether they are caught in the act, since she propositions him many times when other people are nearby. But the lack of witnesses this time gives her an opportunity to get revenge and slander Joseph. She claims he tried to rape her, and left his garment behind when (she says) she screamed.
The few examples we have of ancient Egyptian law on sexual relations indicate that rape was punished by death (though the punishment might be commuted to exile in the case of a free foreigner). Potifar is the head of the royal executioners, and Joseph is his slave. But instead of arranging a summary execution, Potifar puts Joseph in the king’s prison indefinitely. He is alive, but stuck until God rescues him.
Then Pharaoh sends his chief cupbearer and chief baker to the prison (see Part 2),
and they said to him: a dream we dreamed, and there is no interpreter. Then Joseph said to them: Do not interpretations belong to God? Recount [your dreams] to me, please. (Genesis 40:8)
Inspired by God, Joseph reads the dreams as prophecies that the chief cupbearer will be restored to his post in three days, but the chief baker will be beheaded. This is exactly what happens.
When Pharaoh has two dreams that his magicians cannot interpret, the chief cupbearer tells him about Joseph, and God gives Joseph the correct interpretation of Pharaoh’s prophetic dreams. Joseph adds some advice on what to do about it, and Pharaoh elevates Joseph from imprisoned slave to viceroy of Egypt.
Thus God rescues Joseph from his punishment—presumably because he did the right thing by rejecting Potifar’s wife.
While Joseph escapes death twice, Daniel is threatened with death only once. In his case, resentful rivals conspire to kill the hero by using his well-known religious scruples against him, immediately bringing in the theme the hero is punished for refusing to obey an order because of religious scruples, but God rescues the hero.
Daniel and three other boys are taken as captives from Jerusalem when King Nebuchadnezzar conquers the city, and spend the rest of their lives in Babylon. Daniel becomes head of the king’s wise men and dream interpreters, and his friends, Shadrach, Meyshach, and Aveid-nego, become administrators of the province of Babylon. At one point, Daniel’s three friends are thrown into a furnace for refusing to bow to a golden idol of Nebuchadnezzar, and God prevents the flames from even singeing their hair. Daniel is not mentioned in the furnace story.
Many years later, when Persia conquers Babylon, Daniel is serving as one of three governors over the Neo-Babylonian Empire. The new king (whom the story identifies sometimes as Cyrus, sometimes as Darius) considers promoting Daniel to viceroy over the entire Persian empire.
Only then do resentful rivals—other high government officials—conspire to kill the hero. They know that Daniel adheres to a kosher diet and prays three times a day, bowing down in the direction of Jerusalem. There are no laws against this, so they persuade the king to decree that anyone who petitions any god or man other than the king during the next 30 days shall be thrown into a lion’s den. (See Part 1.) It does not occur to the king that this decree will affect Daniel.
When Daniel learned that it had been put in writing, he went to his house, in whose upper chamber he had had windows made facing Jerusalem, and three times a day he knelt down, prayed, and made confession to his God as he had always done. Then those men came thronging in and found Daniel petitioning his God in supplication. (Daniel, 6:11-12, Jewish Publication Society translation of the Aramaic)
As in the book of Esther, the Persian king cannot countermand his own decree, and he cannot find any way around it. Thus the resentful rivals succeed in having Daniel punished for refusing to obey an order because of religious scruples.
By the king’s order, Daniel was then brought and thrown into the lions’ den. The king spoke to Daniel and said, ‘Your God, whom you serve so regularly, will deliver you’. (Daniel 6:17, JPS translation)
The king worries all night and rushes back at dawn to unseal the den.
Daniel then talked with the king, ‘O King, live forever! My God sent His angel, who shut the mouths of the lions… Daniel was brought up out of the den, and no injury was found on him, for he had trusted in his God. (Daniel 6:22-24, JPS translation)
God rescues Daniel from death because of his dedication to God, expressed in his thrice-daily prayers.
The book of Esther also combines the themes of resentful rivals and refusing to obey an order because of religious scruples.
The story has two heroes, the young and beautiful Esther, and her older cousin and guardian Mordecai. When Esther becomes a captive in the king’s harem, she follows her cousin’s instruction and pretends she is not Jewish.
Mordecai, however, incites jealousy in the king’s new viceroy, Haman, by disobeying a royal order to bow down whenever Haman passes through the palace gate. (See Part 1.)
And the royal servants who were in the gate of the king said to Mordecai: Why are you oveir the command of the king? And they spoke to him day after day and he did not listen to them. Then they told Haman, to see if the matter of Mordecai would stand, for he had explained to them that he was a Jew. (Esther 3:3-4)
oveir (עוֹוֵר) = crossing, going through.
The Bible does not say that Mordecai refused (mei-ein) the king’s command, but rather that he ploughed right across it as if it did not exist. When his fellow royal servants in the gate question him, he says he ignores the order to bow to Haman because he is a Jew.
Nothing in the Bible forbids Jews to bow down to human beings. Esther Rabbah (a collection of midrash from 500-1050 C.E.) claimed Haman must have sewn a picture of a god on his clothing, so Mordecai was really refusing to bow down to an image of an alien god. Other commentary suggests that Mordecai would not bow because Haman was a descendant of King Agag of Amalek (so identified in Esther 3:1), and the Torah calls for eternal enmity between the Israelites and the Amalekites. But the text of Esther does not explain.
And Haman saw that Mordecai never knelt or bowed down to him, and Haman filled up with rage. And it seemed too contemptible in his eyes to send a hand against Mordecai alone, because they had told him the people of Mordecai, and Haman sought to exterminate all the Jews who were in all the kingdom of Achashveirosh, all the people of Mordecai. (Esther 3:5-6)
Haman talks the king into issuing an irrevocable decree that on a certain date (the 13th of Adar, now the holiday of Purim) every province of the Persian Empire must kill all its Jews. Haman personally erects a tall stake on which to impale Mordecai.
Does God rescue Mordecai and the rest of the Jews in Persia? Not really. Esther reveals that she and Mordecai are Jews, and Haman has arranged their death. She persuades the king to write a second decree (since the first one cannot be revoked) that on the 13th of Adar all Jews may strike down all their enemies, and on the big day nobody touches the Jews. The king impales Haman and promotes Mordecai to viceroy. But God is not mentioned here or anywhere else in the book of Esther.
Joseph risks death for a moral principle, and God rescues him. Daniel risks death for the right to pray, and God rescues him. Mordecai risks death to make a point about being Jewish, and Esther rescues him.
What are your religious scruples? Which ones would you refuse to cross, even at the risk of losing your job? Or even at the risk of death?
Tags: Bereishit, court eunuchs, Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar, Genesis, Joseph and his brothers, Potiphar, Queen Esther, torah portion
Two more themes shared by the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther are: “The hero is taken away from home and held captive” and “A court eunuch admires and helps the hero”.
*The hero is taken away from home and held captive.*
In the first Torah portion devoted to Joseph, Vayeishev, Joseph’s ten older brothers can hardly stand him. (See The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther—Part 1.) They take the family flocks to Dotan, about a hundred miles away from their home in Hebron, and their father sends Joseph to check on them. When he arrives, his brothers throw him into an empty cistern and conspire to kill him.
But Judah said to his brothers: What profit [is there] if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Let’s go and sell him to the Ishmaelites… So they pulled Joseph and they brought him up from the pit. Then they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for 20 pieces of silver, and they brought Joseph to Egypt. (Genesis/Bereishit 37:26-28)
The brothers believe Joseph will never return from slavery in Egypt.
While Joseph is singled out by his brothers, Daniel and Esther are removed from their homes merely because they happen to meet the criteria for a category of people the king summons.
The book of Daniel opens when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon captures Jerusalem. The king orders his chief eunuch to transport some young Israelite boys to Babylon. The boys must be:
…from Israel and descended from the royalty and the nobility; boys who have no blemishes, and are tovey mareh, and understand all wisdom, and have practical knowledge and some understanding of academic knowledge, and who have the ability to serve in the palace of the king, and to learn the writing and the tongue of the Chaldeans. (Daniel 1:3-4)
tovey mareh (טוֹבֵי מַרְאֶה) = good-looking (masculine form).
The boys will be educated for three years, and then will serve Nebuchadnezzar in some capacity. Young Daniel is taken away from home and transported to a foreign court merely because he fits the king’s description.
Similarly, in the book of Esther the king of Persia orders a certain class of girls to be rounded up and brought to the royal residence in Shushan. King Achashveirosh wants a new wife, and his advisors respond:
Let the king appoint appointees in every province of his kingdom, and let them gather all the virgin girls tovat mareh to the citadel at Shushan, to the house of the women, to the hand of Heigai, the chief eunuch of the king, guard over the women… And the girl who is good in the eyes of the king will become queen instead of Vashti. (Esther 2:3-4)
tovat mareh (טוֹבַת מַרְאֶה) = good-looking (feminine form).
Esther happens to live in Shushan with her cousin and guardian Mordecai, but she is taken out of her home and put under guard in the “house of the women”, i.e. the harem, simply because she fits the description:
…and the girl was beautiful in shape and tovat mareh… (Esther 2:7)
Joseph, Daniel, and Esther are all good-looking adolescents when their stories begin. All three live in comfort, Joseph with his doting father, Daniel in the royal court of Jerusalem, and Esther with her fond and wealthy cousin Mordecai. Then the earth shifts under their feet. Joseph is sold as a slave in Egypt. Daniel is deported for re-education in Babylon. Esther becomes a captive in the Persian king’s harem.
Yet all three heroes rise from the fall in their fortunes—with some assistance from a eunuch in the royal court.
*A court eunuch admires and helps the hero.*
And Joseph had been brought down to Egypt; and Potifar, a saris of Pharaoh, the sar of the tabachim, acquired him from the hands of the Ishmaelites who had brought him there. (Genesis 39:1)
saris (סָרִיס) = eunuch; court official. Plural=sarisim. (From the Assyrian title sa resi = royal official. In Assyria, as in many ancient Near Eastern empires, employees in the king’s house were often eunuchs, so later in the Bible saris came to mean any eunuch.)
sar (שַׂר) = head, chief, official in charge. (From the Assyrian sarru = king, chieftain, captain.)
tabachim (טַבָּחִים) = meat-handlers (butchers, meat cooks, and meat servers); executioners.
Joseph’s new master, Potifar, owns an estate and reports directly to the Pharaoh as the head of a group of servants. He is also in charge of the prison where men are detained until their trials.
Since the Torah refers to Potifar as both a saris and a sar, the additional title of saris probably means “eunuch” rather than a repetition of “court official”—even though he is married. Traditional commentary speculates that Potifar was castrated at some point after his marriage.
And his master [Potifar] saw that God was with him [Joseph], and everything that he did, God made a success. And Joseph found favor in his eyes, and he became his attendant. Then he [Potifar] appointed him over his household, and he gave everything he owned into his hand. (Genesis 39:3-4)
When Potifar’s wife falsely accuses Joseph of trying to rape her, Potifar has to take action to preserve her honor. Normally a slave would be executed for such an attempt, but Potifar appreciates Joseph so much, he imprisons him instead—in the prison for the king’s detainees, which Potifar manages.
Then Potifar appoints Joseph to wait on two detainees with high court positions.
Pharaoh became angry at two of his sarisim, the sar of the cup-bearers, and the sar of the bakers. And he placed them in the custody of the sar of the tabachim [Potifar], in the house of the round prison, the place where Joseph was imprisoned. Then the sar of the tabachim appointed Joseph to be with them, and he waited on them… (Genesis 40:2-4)
Like Potifar, these court officials are called both sar (chief official) and saris (eunuch). Joseph correctly interprets their dreams, and in the Torah portion Mikeitz, the head cup-bearer mentions Joseph when the Pharaoh needs a dream interpreter. Pharaoh calls for him at once, and Joseph’s career takes off.
Thus Joseph is helped along by two different eunuchs, the king’s head executioner and the king’s head cup-bearer.
In the book of Daniel, a Babylonian officer named Ashpenaz is called both the high saris, and the sar of the sarisim. I think the title sar covers his position as a captain, so the word saris gives the additional information that he and those he supervises are eunuchs. After Ashpenaz’s boss, King Nebuchadnezzar, has conquered Jerusalem, he sends his high-ranking eunuch on a mission.
The king said to Ashpenaz, his high saris: Bring some sons of Israel, descendants of the royalty and the nobility. (Daniel 1:3)
Nebuchadnezzar orders Ashpenaz to educate these foreign boys for three years and give them rations from the king’s food and the king’s wine. But Daniel and his three companions from Jerusalem object to eating anything that is not kosher.
Daniel silently vowed that he would not make himself impure with the king’s fine food or with the wine he drank, and he sought to obtain [permission] from the sar of the sarisim that he need not make himself impure. And God disposed the sar of the sarisim to be kind and compassionate toward Daniel. And the sar of the sarisim said to Daniel: As for me, I am afraid of my master, the king, who allotted your food and your drink; what if your faces look pitiful compared to the other boys your age, and they forfeit my head to the king? (Daniel 1:8-10)
Daniel proposes a ten-day trial during which he and the other three boys from Jerusalem will eat seeds or legumes and drink water. At the end of ten days, they look healthier than the others. So the chief eunuch lets them continue their religious dietary restrictions. When he brings them to the king at the end of their three years of training, Nebuchadnezzar is pleased with them and appoints them to entry-level jobs among his “wise men”.
In the book of Esther, the head eunuch, Heigai, is the guard over King Achashveirosh’s “house of women” or harem. Esther is delivered to him along with the other beautiful young virgins rounded up for the king.
And she was good in his eyes, and she inspired kindness in him, and he was quick to give her her massage ointments and her rations and the seven girls who were her due from the king’s house. And he moved her and her girls to a better [room] in the house of women. (Esther 2:9)
Each virgin is kept in the harem for one year while she gets beauty treatments, then taken to spend a night with the king. The virgin of the night is allowed any clothes and cosmetics she requests. When it is Esther’s turn,
… she did not seek to obtain anything except what Heigai, saris of the king, guard of the women, said. And it was Esther who inspired favor in the eyes of everyone who saw her. The king loved Esther more than all the other women… And he put a crown of royalty on her head, and he made her queen instead of Vashti. (Esther 2:15, 2:17)
The court eunuchs who help Joseph appreciate his competence. According to the Torah, God makes all Joseph’s work successful and gives him dream interpretations that are true prophecies.
The court eunuch who helps Daniel admires his fortitude and his adherence to his religion. Probably due to these qualities, the God of Israel later rescues him from lions and gives him his own dream interpretations and prophecies.
The court eunuch who helps Esther probably appreciates her respect for his advice. He responds by making her life more comfortable and advising her well.
All three young heroes accept their sudden enslavement without complaining, withdrawing, or rebelling. They do their work and treat the eunuchs overseeing them with respect, making the best of it. Because of their good attitudes, the eunuchs help them to appear in a favorable light before the king.
May we all be blessed with the ability to ride out our misfortunes with realism, patience, and respect!