Tags: haftarah, Passover, Peaceable Kingdom, Pesach, world peace
(Note: I will be traveling during the week of Passover, so I’m publishing my post for April 24-30 ahead of time. This year, the eight days of Passover end on April 30, 2016.)
For the eighth day of Passover/Pesach, the special Torah reading is Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17, which includes directions for observing Passover “so that you will remember the day of your exodus from the land of Egypt all the days of your life”. (See last week’s post, Pesach: The Matzah of Misery.)
The haftarah (the accompanying reading from the Prophets) is Isaiah 10:32-12:6. It mentions Egypt only in Isaiah’s prediction that God will return the Israelites from the far-flung places where they were deported by Assyrian Empire.
God will dry up the tongue of the sea of Egypt, and will wave a hand over the River [Euphrates] with the might of God’s ruach and break it into seven wadis so it can be walked over dry-shod. And it will become a highway for the remainder of God’s people who remained from Assyria, like [the highway] for Israel on the day it went up from the land of Egypt. (Isaiah 11:15-16)
ruach (רוּחַ) = wind (when blowing over water); spirit (when sweeping into a human being).
But the return of the exiled Israelites is only part of Isaiah’s grand vision in this week’s haftarah.
The prophet has been urging King Achaz of Judah to avoid taking sides in the revolt of Aram and the northern kingdom of Israel against the empire of Assyria, which had conquered the two states during the 8th century B.C.E. Isaiah tells the king of Judah that Aram, Israel, and even Assyria will all disappear in only a few years. God has a three-part plan. First God will eliminate the vast empire of Assyria; then a great and righteous king will arise in Judah; and finally people everywhere will unite in worshiping Judah’s God.
In the ancient Near East, people believed major change came from the top down: from god to king to the people. A great king was required for a civilization to be transformed. So Isaiah prophesies:
A shoot will go out from the stump of Jesse
And a crown from its root will bear fruit.
And a ruach of God will rest upon him,
A ruach of wisdom and insight,
A ruach of counsel and courage,
A ruach of knowledge and awe of God. (Isaiah 11:1-2)
God will inspire a human king, a descendant of King David’s father Jesse, to establish a moral government. Then, Isaiah prophesies, human nature itself will change.
A wolf will dwell with a young ram,
And a leopard will lie down with a goat kid,
And a calf and a young lion will pasture together,
And a little boy will be leading them.
And a heifer and a she-bear will graze
And they will let their young ones lie down together.
And a lion, like an ox, will eat straw.
A baby will play over a viper’s hole,
And a toddler will put his hand over a snake’s lair. (Isaiah 11:6-8)
In other words, there will be no predators; all animals will be peaceful and non-violent. Judah and the other small countries in the hills of Canaan are like lambs, kids, calves, babies. But in the future, the wolves, leopards, lions, and bears of great empires will no longer prey on them.
Not only will all peoples live together in peace, but they will all be morally upright and search out the same god.
They will do no evil nor destruction
On all My holy mountain
Because the land will be as filled with seekers of God
As the water covering the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse will be standing
As a banner for peoples.
Nations will come to him with inquiries,
And his haven will be honored. (Isaiah 11: 9-10)
Isaiah claims that this great king from “the root of Jesse” will arise in just a few years—i.e. right after the reign of King Achaz. Achaz’s son Hezekiah was indeed one of the religious kings praised by the Bible. But after Hezekiah’s reign (~716-697 B.C.E.), people noticed that the rest of Isaiah’s prophecy was no closer to coming true; the empires of Assyria and Egypt continued to squabble over ownership of the lands between them until the Neo-Babylonian Empire became the new top predator.
We are still waiting for world peace. Christianity developed the theory that Isaiah’s righteous king was Jesus, who would return someday to straighten out the world. According to traditional Judaism, we are still waiting for the messiah—or at least for a messianic era without predators or prey.
According to the Torah, the Israelites in Egypt waited 400 years for an opportunity to escape and become a free people, serving only their god.
We have already waited over 2,400 years for Isaiah’s vision to come true. Maybe it’s time to stop praying to an all-powerful God who lives outside the world. Maybe it’s even time to stop waiting for a Moses, a king, a messiah. We need to take action ourselves.
Imagine one individual after another dedicating him-or-her-self to respecting everyone and preying on no one; to avoiding violence; and to seeking the divine in everyone and everything.
May all human beings become filled with the ruach of Isaiah’s inspiration.
Tags: Deuteronomy, Exodus, matzah, Passover, Pesach, torah portion
“This is the bread of affliction,” we intone during the Passover/Pesach ritual, holding up a piece of matzah. Many Jews feel that just eating this dry unleavened cracker is an affliction—especially if they eat it for the prescribed eight days and eschew real bread, or anything else made with yeast or other leavening.
At a traditional Passover seder, we hold up the matzah and say in Aramaic: Ha lachma anya di akhalu avhatana be-ara demitzrayim! which means: “The bread of misery that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt!” This phrase is based on one of the Torah portions we read during the week of Passover, Deuteronomy /Devarim 14:22-16:17.
You must not eat with [the meat from the animal sacrifice] anything leavened. Seven days you shall eat with it matzot, the bread of oni, because in haste you went out from the land of Egypt. Thus you shall remember the day of your going out from the land of Egypt all the days of your life. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:3)
matzot (מַצּוֹת) = plural of matzah (מַצָּה) = unleavened flatbread made of flour and water only, quickly mixed and baked before any sourdough in the air can act on it.
oni (עֳנִי or עֹנִי) = misery, suffering, humiliation, plight, deprivation. (This noun comes from one of the four root verbs spelled ענה, this one meaning “to stoop down in humiliation, humility, or subjection”.)
The noun oni appears 37 times in the Hebrew Bible, although the passage above is the only one mentioning “bread of oni”. Individuals in the Bible experience oni, misery, because they are unloved, infertile, abused, or deprived of their due. The poor live in a state of oni because they are victimized by a selfish upper class. The Israelites live in oni because they have been conquered by enemy armies—or because they are abused slaves, as in the Passover story.
Why is matzah the bread of oni? The book of Exodus claims that the enslaved Hebrews had to hurry out of Egypt before the dough in their kneading-bowls had time to rise. I find this unconvincing. (See my post Pesach: Being Unleavened, Part 2.)
I think the oni, the misery, came first, and the matzah symbolizes it. Matzah, made out of flour and water paste with nothing interesting added, not even sourdough, serves to remind us of the tedious life of slaves making bricks for Pharaoh.
Matzah, the “bread of oni”, can also remind us of times in the Bible when people live in misery and God sees their oni, stops ignoring them, and acts to improve their situation. I counted 13 occurrences of this motif, as well as additional occasions when God acts after hearing people cry out in their oni.
For example, God tells Moses at the burning bush:
I certainly see the oni of my people who are in Egypt, and I have paid attention to their cry for help in the face of their being hard-pressed, for I know their anguish. … And I have said I will lift them out from the oni of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites…to a land flowing with milk and honey. (Exodus 3:7, 3:17)
Sometimes people draw God’s attention to their own oni, hoping that God will then notice it, stop ignoring them, and act. For example, Channah suffers because she is infertile and verbally abused by her husband’s other wife, who has many children.
And she vowed a vow, and she said: God of Armies, if you will really look at the oni of your female-servant, and you remember me and do not ignore me, and you give your female-servant a male child, then I will give him to God for all the days of his life… (1 Samuel 1:11)
The psalms also include pleas to God to notice the singer’s misery and act. For example,
See my oni and my misfortune
And lift off all my wrongdoing. (Psalm 25:18)
May I sing out and may I rejoice in your kindness
Because you see my oni and you know the distress of my soul. (Psalm 31:8)
See my oni and save me
Because your teaching I have not ignored. (Psalm 119:153)
Maybe Jews began holding up matzah during the Passover ritual not just to remind themselves of times of deprivation, but also to draw God’s attention to their own oni. To make sure God gets the point, we call the matzah the “bread of oni”. If God sees our misery, pays attention to it, then maybe God will stop ignoring us and do something to improve our lives—the way God freed the slaves in Egypt.
What is your oni this year? What misery is enslaving you? Is it something that you can fix? Or something that will lift by itself?
Or is it something that you can only be freed from by a divine intervention? If so, what would a true divine intervention be?
Tags: 2 Kings, haftarah, ostracism, Samaria
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 Metzora (Leviticus 14:1-15:33) and the haftarah is 2 Kings 7:3-20.
Even when people belong to the same religious, ethnic, or national group, they can become marginalized or ostracized in their society. The book of Leviticus/Vayikra insists that anyone who develops a skin disease called tzara-at must be excluded from public worship and live apart from other people. Last week’s Torah portion (Tazria) declares:
All the days that the affliction is in him, he shall be ritually impure. Ritually impure, he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Leviticus/Vayikra 13:46)
This skin disease is not always a permanent disfigurement; in fact, in last week’s haftarah, the Aramaean general Na-aman is cured of tzara-at. (See my post 2 Kings: A Religious Conversion.) This week’s Torah portion (Metzora) opens with the ritual for readmitting someone whose tzara-at has healed. But in this week’s haftarah, four men with tzara-at seem to be permanently shut out of their own city, with no way to make a living other than to beg at the city gate.
An army from Aram is besieging Samaria (Shomron in Hebrew), the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. (Na-aman, the Aramaean general in last week’s haftarah, is not mentioned; perhaps he is deployed elsewhere.) Inside the walls of the city, people are dying of starvation. Outside the city gate are four Israelites with tzara-at. Their skin disease is obvious, and the soldiers of Aram also ignore them, since they are only wretched beggars—with no one left to beg from.
And there were four men, metzora-im, at the entrance of the gate. And they said, each man to his rei-a: Why are we sitting here until we die? (2 Kings 7:3)
metzora-im (מְצֹרָעִים) = people with tzara-at (צָרַעַת), a non-communicable disease characterized by patches of white skin.
rei-a (רֵעַּ) = comrade, companion, friend.
Although shunned by the Israelites inside the walls of the town, the four outcasts are companions and friends with each other. They consider their situation:
If we say “Let us enter the city” and starvation is in the city, we shall die there; but if we stay here, we shall die. So now let us go to the camp of Aram and defect. If they let us live, we shall live, and if they put us to death, then we shall die. (2 Kings 7:4)
An extreme patriot might criticize the four men for deciding to defect (literally, “throw themselves down”) to their country’s enemy. Yet Israel has not taken care of them, and their best hope of staying alive is to take a chance on begging for food from the Aramaean army.
An Empty Camp
So they got up at twilight to come to the camp of Aram, and they came up to the edge of the camp of Aram, and hey!—nobody was there! God had made the camp of Aram hear the sound of chariots, the sound of horses, the sound of a great army; and each man had said to his brother: Hey! The king of Israel has hired against us the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Egypt to come against us! And they had got up and fled at twilight, and they had abandoned their tents and their horses and donkeys, [leaving them] in the camp just as it was. And they had fled for their lives. (2 Kings 7:5-7)
At twilight, while the four metzora-im were getting up to sneak away from the city, the soldiers of Aram were getting up to run away from their camp, terrified by divine auditory hallucinations.
And those metzora-im came up to the edge of the camp, and they entered one tent and they ate and they drank, and they carried off from there silver and gold and clothing and hid them. Then they came back and entered another tent, and they carried off [things] from there and hid them. And then they came back. (2 Kings 7:8)
At first the metzora-im think their problems are over. So what if their own country ostracizes them? In the deserted camp of the Aramaeans they have plenty of food and drink, as well as valuables they can sell later to make a living.
Then they said, each man to his rei-a: We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news, and we are keeping silent, delaying until the light of morning. And we will be found guilty for our offense. So let us go now, and come and tell the household of the king. (2 Kings 7:9)
Their offense is withholding the news from the Israelites shut up in the capital. Even delaying overnight would result in punishment. If they delayed for days, more of their fellow Israelites would starve to death, oblivious of God’s miracle.
Why tell the king?
Commentators differ on whether the four outcasts are motivated by ethics, by utility, or by fear. According to Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), we will be found guilty means “We will be held guilty by the throne”. They assume the king of Israel will eventually catch them, and they are afraid of the ensuing punishment.
Other commentary claims the decision of the four metzora-im is practical. Only if the city of Samaria functions again can they resume begging from travelers going in and out of the city gate. If they tell the good news at once to the king’s officials, they can count on the continued support of Israelite travelers. If they withhold the information and Samaria finds out later that the Aramaean army is gone, the Israelites will have a grudge against them. And if they load up Aramaean donkeys with Aramaean goods and try to make a new life elsewhere, they will still be discriminated against because of their skin disease (and perhaps also because of their country of origin). Telling the king of Samaria at once and returning to their old lives as beggars at the gate is their most practical option. (And who knows, maybe later they will have a chance to trade the silver and gold they hid.)
Another viewpoint is that the metzora-im make an ethical decision. It would be wrong to let their fellow Israelites starve, when they now have the means to feed them. So what if their own people ostracized them, and will continue to do so? They can still do the right thing.
These four men are such good friends, so good at talking things through with each other, that I think they considered fear, utility, and ethics when they made their decision. I admire their realism in accepting that as long as their skin disease lasts, they will be ostracized, so the best life they can hope for is as beggars at the gate. (I also wish they would take a chance like Na-aman in last week’s haftarah, and dare to ask the prophet Elisha for a cure.)
I also admire them for catching themselves in the midst of looting the abandoned Aramaean camp, and considering the plight of the people inside the city. What I admire most is that they do not enjoy the fact that now they are full and the people who kicked them out are starving. Instead they decide to share the wealth with the very people who refused to share with them—the clear-skinned city dwellers who followed the Levitical law of exclusion with no remediating measures.
None of us lead charmed lives; we are all ostracized or discriminated against at some point. But every person who resists a chance to discriminate against a former or potential enemy makes the world better.
May we all be blessed with the practicality and the ethical determination of the four metzora-im!
Tags: 2 Kings, haftarah, Naaman, Prophet Elisha, religion, 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 Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59) and the haftarah is 2 Kings 4:42-5:19.
What inspires someone to convert to a religion?
For Na-aman, an Aramaean general from Damascus who converts to the religion of Israel in this week’s haftarah, the quick answer is that he decides to convert after an Israelite prophet heals him. But the full story runs deeper.
Na-aman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man [who stood] before his lord with a high rank, because God had given victory to Aram, and the man was a powerful warrior—[and] a man with skin disease. (2 Kings 5:1)
His skin disease is tzara-at , which is a serious ritual impurity in this week’s Torah portion, Tazria; someone who has it must live outside the camp, wear torn clothes, and cover his upper lip—even though the disease is not contagious. The rules in Aram may have been more lenient, but we can assume the disfiguring disease carried some social stigma.
And a raiding party of Aram had gone out and captured from the land of Israel a young na-arah, and she [stood] before the wife of Na-aman. And she said to her lady: If only my lord [stood] before the prophet who is in Samaria! Then he would remove his skin disease. (2 Kings 5:2-3)
na-arah (נַעֲרָה) = slave-woman; any girl or young woman during the stage after puberty but before her first pregnancy.
The slave-girl is the one who knows what Na-aman needs to do to get rid of his disfiguring skin disease, a source of social stigma in the ancient Near East. She tells her mistress, who tells her husband, who then tells his master, the king of Aram.
And he came and told his lord, saying: This and this she said, the na-arah who is from the land of Israel. (2 Kings 5:4)
The king of Aram writes a letter for Na-aman to take to the king of Israel, perhaps to guarantee his safe passage through a foreign country. Eventually Na-aman and his servants arrive at the house of the prophet Elisha.
So Na-aman came with his horses and his chariots, and he stood at the door of the house of Elisha. Then Elisha sent a messenger out to him, to say to him: You must bathe seven times in the Jordan, and it will make your flesh restored and ritually-pure. But Na-aman became angry, and he walked away, and he said: Hey, I said to myself that he would surely go out and stand and invoke the name of God, his god, and wave his hand toward the place, and that would exterminate the skin disease. Aren’t the Amnah and the Parpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Wouldn’t I become pure if I bathed in them? Then he turned around and walked away hotly. (2 Kings 5:9-12)
Na-aman can respect a miracle-working prophet. But he expects the prophet to grant him the dignity of a personal cure, not a message by proxy. He also disdains the message because he believes his own country of Aram is superior to Israel. (See my post Tazria & 2 Kings; A Sign of Arrogance.)
On the other hand, he is willing to listen to advice from servants, including the Israelite girl who told him about Elisha in the first place. This time the grown men traveling with Na-aman as servants advise him.
But his servants came near and spoke to him, and they said: My father, if the prophet spoke to you about doing a great deed, isn’t it true that you would do it? Then how much more so when he said to you: Bathe and be pure. So he went down and he dipped in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had spoken. And his flesh was restored, like the flesh of a na-ar, and he was ritually-pure. Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his troop, and he came and stood before him. He said: Here, please, I know that there are no gods on all the earth except in Israel. (2 Kings 5:13-15)
na-ar (נַעַר) = male slave; any boy or unmarried young man. (The male equivalent of na-arah.)
The Talmud considers Na-aman’s statement a declaration of religious conversion. Before Na-aman makes this declaration, he is compared to a boy or a slave, put on the same footing as his Israelite na-arah. Only from that position can he actually meet the prophet and “stand before” him, as earlier in the story subordinates stood before their masters. And only now does Na-aman know that the god of Israel is the only god on earth.
What gives him this knowledge or belief? I think it is not just the miraculous healing he experiences, but the fact that he receives healing only by setting aside his identity as an important Aramaean general and becoming an obedient “boy”.
And Na-aman said: Will it not be given, please, to your servant, enough soil to burden a pair of mules?—because your servant will never again make a rising-offering or an animal sacrifice to other gods, only to God. (2 Kings 5:17)
The only way Na-aman knows how to worship a god is to make offerings in the land of that god. Since he must return to Damascus to serve his king, he asks permission to take some of the dirt of Israel back with him. Elisha says Go in peace.
My own conversion to Judaism 30 years ago was mostly—but not entirely—different from Na-aman’s conversion. I was brought up as an atheist, but during my twenties I felt restless and dissatisfied. As a philosophy major in college, I had reasoned my way to the conclusion that the standard definition of God was contradictory and therefore described an impossibility. Yet every once in a while I was surprised by a flash of intuition that the universe was one and alive. It was a sudden gut feeling, not a rational idea. I felt an increasing need for something like religion, for some other connection with the ineffable. Thus my longing for a religion came not from my head, but from my guts.
In western religions and culture, the body is often considered inferior to the mind. We assume that the mind makes a decision and the body carries it out, like a servant or a beast of labor.
But sometimes the body speaks first. The great general Na-aman’s own body develops a skin disease. Then the least of his servants, the captive Israelite girl, tells him who to go to for a cure. And he follows her advice.
When he arrives in the foreign land of Israel, he is instructed first by the prophet’s servant, then by his own servants. If he had not obeyed them and bathed in the Jordan, Na-aman would have gone home unhealed and unconverted.
If I had not listened to my gut feelings, even though I viewed them as inferior to my rational mind, I would have remained a dissatisfied atheist with a dry life. Instead I began reading about various religions and their attitudes toward life in this world. And I fell in love with Judaism, which seemed to share my irrational, gut conviction that nothing is more important than doing the right thing, regardless of any possible future reward.
It was a good match. I converted 30 years ago, and I am still a passionate Jew.
Part of my conversion was to immerse myself underwater in a mikveh—rather like Na-aman’s seven immersions in the Jordan River. Then I affirmed my inner knowledge that all divinity is one by reading the Shema out loud before three witnesses. This was not so different from Na-aman telling Elisha: Here, please, I know that there are no gods on all the earth except in Israel.
I was not brought up to slaughter and burn animals for God, thank God. But perhaps whenever I pray with other Jews, I am symbolically worshiping God on the soil of our religion. And even as my mind occupies itself with translating the Hebrew prayers into meanings I can accept, my body-servant, my heart and gut, rise in exaltation.
Tags: ark of the covenant, ecstatics, haftarah, King David, King Saul
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 Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) and the haftarah is 2 Samuel 6:1-7:17.
Being touched by God is a dangerous thing.
Uzzah, in this week’s haftarah, walks next to the cart carrying the ark of the covenant during King David’s first attempt to move it to Jerusalem.
When the oxen pulling the cart stumble, Uzzah instinctively reaches out and grabs at the ark—and God strikes Uzzah dead. (See my post Shemini & 2 Samuel: Separating Holiness.)
And David was angry that God had broken through, [making] a breach in Uzzah. (2 Samuel 6:8)
The bible does not say whether David is angry at Uzzah or at God, but he is certainly upset that he has to abort his carefully-planned procession to bring the ark to his new capital, Jerusalem. For one thing, David is still consolidating his position as Israel’s second king.
He began his career as King Saul’s loyal lieutenant, a charismatic hero in Saul’s war against the Philistines. After Saul turned against David and repeatedly tried to kill him, David fled and found refuge in Philistine territory. After Saul died, David returned and was acclaimed king of Judah, the southern part of Saul’s former kingdom, but one of Saul’s sons became king of the northern territory. Gradually David conquered that land as well, then captured the foreign stronghold of Jerusalem and made it his new capital. But not all the people of Israel supported King David. Some still viewed him as the charismatic war hero who used to lead Saul’s troops; others resented him for opposing King Saul’s son.
So King David decides to bring the ark of the covenant, the people’s most important religious object, into Jerusalem. That way his new administrative center will also be his subjects’ primary center of worship. But after God breaks through and kills Uzzah, David asks: How can it come to me, the ark of God? (2 Samuel 6:9)
David is also angry and afraid because he deliberately set up the transportation of the ark as an occasion of religious rejoicing.
And David and the whole house of Israel were laughing and playing before God, with every woodwind of cypress, and with lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. (2 Samuel 6:5)
At that time, there were companies of “prophets” among the Israelites who entered altered states in order to experience God. Their usual method, according to the two books of Samuel, included playing music and encouraging ecstatic dancing and speaking in tongues.
For example, after the prophet Samuel anoints Saul as the first king of Israel, he tells him:
… as you are coming into the town you shall encounter a company of neviyim coming down from the high shrine, preceded by lute and tambourine and flute and lyre, and they shall be mitnabim. (1 Samuel 10:5)
neviyim (נְבִיאִִים) = prophets. (From the root verb niba (נבּא) = raved; conveyed the word of God. The Hebrew Bible uses the word neviyim (singular navi (נָבִיא) for both those who go into an altered state in order to experience God, and those who hear God and serve as God’s interpreters. (See my post Haftarah for Ki Tissa—1 Kings: Ecstatic versus Rational Prophets.)
mitnabim (מִתְנַבְּאִים) = speaking in an altered state (including glossolalia), often with ecstatic movement. (Also from the root niba.)
Then the ruach of God will overpower you, vehitnabita with them, and you shall be transformed into another man. (1 Samuel 10:6)
ruach (רוּחַ) = wind, spirit, overpowering mood.
vehitnabita (וְהִתְנַבִּיתָ) = and you shall babble in an altered state, move in ecstasy.
A ruach of God does overpower Saul, but it does not transform him into a better man. It merely makes a breach without killing him, so a ruach can overpower him again and again. Most often Saul is seized with angry jealousy and tries to kill David.
Maybe Saul’s original personality simply could not be transformed so that his altered states were joyful, like those of the neviyim.
David, however, enters the narrative as a charismatic, brave, and clever young man who sizes things up and plans ahead. When things go wrong, he optimistically bounces back with a new scheme.
Although David is a musician, he does not act like the neviyim until it fits his plan to bring the ark to his new capital. And after his first attempt fails because of the death of Uzzah, David waits three months and then tries again.
Then David went and he brought up the ark of God from the house of Oveid-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing. …And David was whirling with all his might before God; and David had belted on a linen tunic. (2 Samuel 6:12, 6:14)
King David’s tunic is an eifod (אֵפוֹד), two rectangles of material fastened together at the shoulders and belted at the waist. Elsewhere in the Bible an eifod is a ritual garment worn by the high priest over his robe and underpants. David is planning to take the role of high priest as well as king. But on this occasion, he does not wear anything under his tunic.
David and all the household of Israel were bringing up the ark of God with shouts and with the sound of the ram’s horn. And the ark of God entered the City of David. And Mikhal, daughter of Saul, looked down from the window, and she saw the king, David, leaping and whirling before God, and she scorned him in her heart. (2 Samuel 6:16)
Mikhal is not only Saul’s daughter, but also one of David’s wives—arguably his most important wife at the time, since David’s marriage to her helps to legitimize his claim to Saul’s kingdom. She notices that while David is ecstatic leaping and whirling, the front piece of his tunic flaps around below the belt—revealing his lack of underpants.
Once the ark is ensconced in a tent in Jerusalem, King David makes animal offerings and blesses the people in the name of God, like a high priest. Then he hands out bread and cakes to everyone before going to his palace to bless his own household. Mikhal intercepts him at the door.
And Mikhal, daughter of Saul, went out to meet David and she said: How he was honored today, the king of Israel—who exposed himself today to the eyes of the slave-women of his servants as one of the worthless exposes himself! (2 Samuel 6:20)
And David said to Mikhal: Before God—who chose me instead of your father and instead of any of his household, to appoint me sovereign over the people of God, over Israel—before God I will laugh and play; and I will be dishonored even more than this, and I will be debased in my own eyes! But with the slave-women of whom you speak, with them I will be honored. (2 Samuel 6:21)
King David is claiming that he knows proper behavior according to members of the ruling class—and that nevertheless, he will behave in the way that wins the love of the common people. There are times when a king is better off dancing with a flapping tunic—as long as the dancing proves the king has been touched by God.
Religious ecstasy did not help Israel’s first king. King Saul lived in the moment, and if the spirit of God touched him, he acted, for good or for bad.
King David, on the other hand, always planned ahead. He whirled ecstatically in front of the ark because a joyful and over-the-top religious procession was part of his plan for uniting his people.
Sometimes it is good to get emotional over God. I have led Shabbat services with a sequence of songs designed to inspire and elevate people into joy, and even dancing.
But there must be a safe container for ecstasy. Samuel did not realize that Saul was not a safe container for the spirit of God. And Mikhal did not realize that David had created a procession that would be a safe container for religious ecstasy.
May we all be blessed with intuitive knowledge of when it is good to let go, and when it is better to restrain oneself.
Tags: book of Isaiah, book of Jeremiah, haftarah, idol worship, Leviticus, religion, Temple in Jerusalem, torah portion, Vayikra
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). Last week the Torah portion was Vayikra (Leviticus 1.1-5:26) and the haftarah was Isaiah 43:21-44:23. This week the Torah portion is Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36) and the haftarah is Jeremiah 7:21-8:3 and 9:22-23.
The first two Torah portions in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra consist entirely of instructions for making offerings on the altar: what each type of offering is for, what kind of animal or grain should be brought, and how the priests should process them. In Leviticus, this is the primary way to worship God, so the instruction manual is important.
The two accompanying haftarah readings both declare that offerings on God’s altar are meaningless when people are also making and worshiping idols.
The children of Judah have done what is bad in My eyes, declares God. They have set their abominable idols in the House with My name on it, defiling it. And they have built shrines of the Tofet in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, for burning their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command and which did not arise in my mind. (Jeremiah 7:30-31)
Jeremiah decries the placement of statues of other gods right in God’s temple (“house”) in Jerusalem, as well as the practice of Tofet-worship in the valley below. The haftarah from Isaiah points out that a craftsman might burn part of a log to burn for heat and cooking, and carve another part of the log into a statue to which he bows down and prays.
Yotzeir of an idol—
All of them are emptiness;
And what they crave
Cannot be useful. (Isaiah 44:9)
yotzeir (יֹצֵר) = one who shapes, forms, fashions.
Other gods and the statues that represent them are empty, useless. God is the yotzeir of real humans; but a human is a yotzeir of false gods.
Jeremiah agrees that worshiping other gods is useless. In a prophecy that follows this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah says:
And the towns of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem will go to the gods for whom they sent up offerings in smoke, and call for help. But they [these gods] will certainly not rescue them at the time of their adversity. (Jeremiah 11:12)
The haftarah in Isaiah goes a step further, and declares other gods simply do not exist.
Thus said God, king of Israel
And its redeemer, God of Armies:
I am first and I am last
And except for Me there are no gods. (Isaiah 44:6)
The haftarot in Jeremiah and Isaiah agree that God punished the people of Judah for making and worshipping other so-called gods by sending in the Babylonian army to conquer the land and destroy Jerusalem and its temple. (See my post Haftarah for Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies.)
Does that leave any hope for the future? Jeremiah, who witnessed the siege of Jerusalem in 589-587 B.C.E., predicts only more disaster.
And the carcasses of these people will be food for the birds of the sky and for beasts of the earth, and there will be no tomorrow. (Jeremiah 7:33)
And death will be preferable over life for all the remainder of those remaining from this wicked family, in all the places where I will push them… (Jeremiah 8:3)
But chapters 40-66 of the book of Isaiah were written at least 50 years later, after the Babylonian empire had been replaced by the Persians. Although the Jews did not get an independent kingdom again, the new Persian emperors granted them religious freedom and let those who wished go back to Jerusalem and build a second temple for their god.
The haftarah from Isaiah interprets this Persian policy as God’s intervention. After criticizing the Israelites for their idolatry, the haftarah says:
I have wiped away like a mist your rebellion
And like a cloud your transgressions.
Return to Me, for I have reclaimed You. (Isaiah 44:22)
How can they return? What should they do that is more important than making offerings at a rebuilt altar?
This week’s haftarah from Jeremiah says they should follow God’s directions for the right way to behave in the world.
Heed My voice, and I will be your god and you will be My people; but you must walk on the entire path that I command you, so that it will go well for you. (Jeremiah 7:23)
Last week’s haftarah from Isaiah says they should praise God to the rest of the world.
This people yatzarti for Myself:
My praise they should report! (Isaiah 43:21)
yatzarti (יָזַרְתִּי) = I formed, I shaped, I fashioned. (From the same verb as yotzeir above.)
Instead of forming statues of empty, useless gods, the people should report what the real God is.
But the Israelites of Judah turned deaf (according to Jeremiah) and mute (according to Isaiah) where God was concerned.
We still make idols, 2,600 years later, and we still worship “gods” that are ultimately useless. Some people pursue power as if it were the source of life—until their careers or families crash and they discover they live in a spiritual exile. Others dedicate themselves to accumulating or spending money—until a disaster reveals how they devoted so much time and energy to something so transient. We do not need an anthropomorphic god to send an army against us; serving the false gods we create carries its own intrinsic punishment, preventing us from leading full and meaningful lives.
A Jeremiah can point out that the wrong path leads to a bitter death. Sometimes this is the slap in the face we need to wake up.
But an Isaiah can give us hope for a second chance, however late in life. If we return to God—if we return of a life of appreciating reality (one form of praising God), appreciating one another, remembering we are only human, and rejoicing when we come home to our better selves—then the divine spirit will wipe away our former false worship like a mist, like a cloud. We can change, and true meaning can return to our lives.
Tags: death, mourning, names of God, religion
What do you say when someone dies?
Jewish tradition provides three answers. When you first hear of someone’s death, you say “Barukh dayan ha-emet”, usually translated as “Blessed is the true judge”.
When you speak to a mourner (someone close to the person who died), you say “Hamakom yenacham etkhem betokh avalai Tziyon viYrushalayim”, usually translated as “May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”; or “Zikhrono/zikhronah livrakhah”, usually translated as “May his/her memory be for a blessing.” (I rephrase this as “May your memory of him/her be a blessing.”)
My father, William R. Backer, died on Friday, March 11, at age 88. I was fortunate to spend the last four days of his life with him, and I hope that someday, many years from now, I can die with similar grace and acceptance, noticing interesting things in the room and smiling when someone holds my hand.
I am glad to receive condolences like “May you be comforted” and “May his memory be a blessing”. But the initial statement at the news of a death, “Barukh dayan ha-emet”, has always irritated me. I am still wrestling with it.
“Barukh dayan ha-emet” (or sometimes Barukh dayan emet) is an excerpt from a longer blessing recited by mourners at a Jewish funeral, a blessing prescribed by Rabbi Akiva in the Talmud, Berachot 46b. The long version includes other names for God according to the customary formula, but does not explain why we conclude by calling God dayan ha-emet.
Barukh (בָּרוּךְ) = blessed. In Jewish prayer, Barukh is the first word of a blessing recited to thank or praise God. After that first word of appreciation, we give one or more names of God, then state the act of God that we are appreciating. For example, before I eat a handful of blueberries, I say “Blessed are You, God…Creator of fruit of the tree.”
dayan (דַּיָּן) = judge; one who passes sentence. (From the root verb din (דִּין) = judged, made legal rulings.)
ha-emet (הָאֱמֶת) = the truth; honesty; what is confirmed; the quality of dependability, reliability, or consistency. (From the same root as amen (אָמֵן) = Yes indeed!)
The sentence Barukh dayan ha-emet implies an anthropomorphic god who judges individual people, decides when to sentence them to death, and always makes the true (correct, honest, dependable, consistent) decision—in other words, the right decision.
Yet we can all think of individuals who deserved to live longer, from innocent infants to adults who were still improving the lives of others. Why should God judge that these people deserve death, by fatal illness or by other means?
Barukh dayan ha-emet is an example of the classic Problem of Evil: If God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and personal, why is this world flawed? Why do bad things happen to good people?
(And in case you are wondering if death is “bad”, let me add that Jews traditionally say Barukh dayan ha-emet upon first hearing of any tragedy, including a house burning down or a plague of locusts destroying a crop.)
The easy answer to the Problem of Evil is to say that “God works in mysterious ways” and does everything for a good reason. Every death and every misfortune has a meaning and a purpose, even if we will never understand it.
I reject that easy answer. I do not believe in an unresolvable paradox just because some religious authority tells me to. If an answer neither speaks to my inner heart nor makes sense to my faculty of reason, I look for another explanation.
Here are a few better ways to justify calling God “the true judge”:
* “…the blessing teaches us on some psychological level to acknowledge that the binary opposites of Creation, e.g., light and darkness, good and evil, suffering and prosperity—all serve a higher purpose and contribute toward the overall welfare of the world. Were it not for death, the world could not contain or sustain all of the world’s inhabitants…” (Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel)
Yes, we could not be fully human without the existence of both good and evil, and the world could not function without light and darkness, birth and death. But if everyone must die to make room for new human beings, then why can’t all decent people die painlessly at age 120?
* “…God has given and God has taken; may the name of God be blessed.” (Book of Job, 1:21)
Job’s pious statement is the source for many commentators who urge us to bless God for everything, good and bad. I can see that blessing God for everything is a useful reminder that we are not in control. But what kind of god are we blessing?
* “Emet is one of the 105 metaphorical names for God in Judaism. …Dayan, ‘Judge,’ is another fitting name, as an anthropomorphic metaphor for how we feel—that a difficult verdict has entered our own lives—loss, death, the departure and ascent of a soul beyond our world of experience…” (Rabbi Goldie Milgram) (Also see her book Living Jewish Life Cycle.)
Rabbi Milgram continues by hinting that there are tasks for a soul after death. While I cannot follow her there, I can at least relate to the idea that we assign anthropomorphic names to God in order to express our own feelings about something bigger than we are.
Why do we call God dayan? The Hebrew Bible frequently depicts God as judging both individuals and nations. When God’s judgment is favorable, God provides rain for crops, fertility, and protection from enemies. When God’s judgment is unfavorable, God sends a fatal disease or an enemy army. In the next millennium, the Talmud continued to accept an anthropomorphic god as the judge of the world, and many humans accept it today.
Ha-emet is merely a noun form of emet. Calling God ha-emet is declaring that God is honest, dependable, and/or consistent. These are all desirable traits in a deity, but they do not mitigate God’s role as one who passes death sentences—especially when so many deaths seem arbitrary.
It’s about time we give up on the paradox called the Problem of Evil, and define the word “God” a different way. If calling God a reliable judge is an anthropomorphism, so is calling God omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and personal. After all, power, knowledge, benevolence, and personal attention are all human qualities. How tempting it is to project these qualities onto a big screen and attribute them to God!
My father was lucky that he lived to age 88, and that his final illness was relatively brief. I am grateful for that, though I cannot direct my gratitude toward an outsized, humanoid god.
If I am emet (honest), I cannot say that God is either a dayan (judge and executioner) or emet (reliable and consistent rather than arbitrary).
So I have decided I will no longer say Barukh dayan ha-emet. The next time I hear that someone has died, I will stick to “May his/her memory be a blessing” and “May God comfort you”. Because comfort can come from a non-anthropomorphic God.
Tags: 1 Kings, ark of the covenant, Exodus, haftarah, holy place, King Solomon, Moses, religion, 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 Pekudei (Exodus 35:1-40:38). The haftarah in the Sefardi tradition is 1 Kings 7:40-50; the haftarah in the Ashkenazi tradition is 1 Kings 7:51-8:21.
More, bigger, better.
Moses assembles the first roofed structure for the God of Israel at the end of the book of Exodus, in this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei. It is a small tent: 10 by 30 cubits (about 15 by 45 feet or 4½ by 13½ meters).
Both options for this week’s haftarah are about the temple King Solomon builds in Jerusalem. A tall building of stone and cedar, its footprint is 20 by 60 cubits (about 30 by 90 feet or 9 by 27 meters). Solomon’s temple is four times as big as Moses’ tent sanctuary—and it needs to be. As the main temple in the capital of a nation-state, it must accommodate many priests. The tent sanctuary has to be disassembled and reassembled whenever the Israelites move to a new camp in the wilderness, and only Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons go inside.
Like most religions in the ancient Near East, the religion outlined in the Hebrew Bible makes a distinction between public worship and the rituals conducted by priests. The public place of worship is the open courtyard in front of the sanctuary, where animals and grain products are offered at the altar. Only priests are allowed to go inside the tent or temple.
When priests move from serving at the altar to serving inside the building, they stop to wash their hands and feet. So when Moses is setting up the portable sanctuary for the first time,
…he put the basin between the Ohel Mo-eid and the altar, and he place there water for washing. And from it Moses and Aaron and his sons washed their hands and their feet. When they came into the Ohel Mo-eid and when they approached the altar they washed, as God had commanded Moses. (Exodus/Shemot 40:30-32)
Ohel Mo-eid (אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד) = Tent of Meeting. From ohel (אֹהֶל) = tent and mo-eid (מוֹעֵד) = meeting, meeting place, appointed time or place.
The courtyard in front of Solomon’s much bigger temple has a huge bronze “sea” resting on twelve bronze oxen. (See last week’s post, Haftarah for Vayakheil: Symbolic Impressions.) In addition to this much more impressive basin, Solomon’s master artisan makes ten smaller bronze basins on elaborate wheeled stands covered with engraved spirals, cherubim/keruvim, lions, and palm trees.
And he placed five stands at the entrance of the bayit on right and five at the entrance of the bayit on the left… (1 Kings 7:39)
bayit (בָּיִת) = house, important building, household.
Why settle for one small basin when you could have a giant “sea” and ten basins?
Both Moses’ sanctuary and Solomon’s temple are divided into two rooms: a main hall and a smaller chamber in back for the holy of holies. King Solomon adds a front porch with two gigantic bronze columns.
The main room of Moses’ sanctuary contains only three sacred ritual objects: a gold incense altar, a gold-plated table for display bread, and a solid gold lampstand with seven oil lamps.
The main hall of Solomon’s temple has the same three items, also gold—but the lampstands and perhaps the tables have multiplied.
When Moses assembles everything in this week’s Torah portion,
…he put the lampstand in the Ohel Mo-eid opposite the table, on the south side of the sanctuary. And he lit up the lamps before God, as God had commanded Moses. (Exodus 40:24-25)
Instead of placing one lampstand on the right side of the main hall, King Solomon’s crew positions five lampstands on each side.
And Solomon made all the vessels that were in the House of God, the gold altar and the gold table on which was the display bread and the pure gold lampstands, five on the right side and five on the left side in front of the inner chamber, and the gold blossom [decorations] and lamps and wick cutters …(1 Kings 7:48-49)
In the first book of Kings, Solomon’s temple contains only one bread table.
And Solomon made all the equipment that was in the bayit of God: the gold altar and the gold table that had the display bread upon it… (1 Kings 7:48)
But by the fourth century B.C.E., when the two books of Chronicles were written, the bread table had multiplied.
And he made ten tables and he set them in the main hall, five on the right side and five on the left side; and he made a hundred gold sprinkling-basins. (2 Chronicles 4:8)
After all, if one table is good, ten tables must be better.
The inner chamber in both the tent and the temple contains only the ark of the covenant and two golden cherubs/keruvim, hybrid beasts with wings. (See my post Terumah: Cherubs are Not for Valentine’s Day.)
In the Tent of Meeting, the keruvim are part of the lid of the ark, one hammered out of the solid gold at each end. Their wings tilt toward each other, enclosing an empty space above the lid, a space from which God sometimes speaks. (See my post Pekudei & 1 Kings: A Throne for the Divine.)
Since the ark is only about four feet long, a keruv wing cannot be more than two feet long. But in Solomon’s temple, each keruv is about fifteen feet tall and has a fifteen-foot wingspan. An earlier passage in the first book of Kings describes how they are carved out of olive wood and overlaid with gold, then set up in the back chamber so that each one touches a wall with one wingtip and the tip of the other keruv’s wing with the other. Since the ark is smaller than these statues, it fits underneath them.
The priests brought in the ark of the covenant of God to its place, to the inner chamber of the bayit, to the holy of holies, to underneath the wings of the keruvim. (1 Kings 8:6)
It is not clear whether the inner chamber of the temple now contains four keruvim—the small pair on the ark and the large pair standing on the floor—or just the two large ones. But either way, the principle of “more, bigger, better” applies even inside the holy of holies.
At the end of this week’s haftarah, when the temple is complete with all its furnishings, King Solomon proudly declares:
I certainly built an exalted bayit for You, an abode for you to rest in forever! (1 Kings 8:13)
When it comes to religious ritual objects, is more or bigger really better?
Anything made of precious metals would have provided a locus for worship that met the expectations of the Israelites Moses led through the wilderness. In Exodus, thanks to the tent sanctuary and its ritual objects, they no longer feel the need for a golden calf. And if the ritual objects were too large or too many, they would be too hard to transport through the wilderness.
The capital of a new nation-state, however, needs not only a large and permanent temple, but also a large and glittering display to impress both foreign visitors and the nation’s citizens with the power of its religion. So in front of King Solomon’s temple are gigantic bronze columns, the oversized bronze “sea” on twelve bronze oxen, ten bronze lavers on elaborate stands, and a host of priests walking in and out of the building. Inside, there are enough lampstands and tables to accommodate those priests as they perform the rituals, which would help reconcile them to a centralized religion.
In my own life, I have responded to religious cues on both scales, small and large. I know the calm, centering effect of lighting two candles for Shabbat, and the hushed tenderness of reading from a Torah scroll in an otherwise unremarkable room. I also know the awe I feel when I stand at the ocean, in a forest of tall trees, or in a medieval cathedral (even though as a Jew, I am a foreign visitor there).
I do not want to lose either the personal connection of rituals with small sacred things, or the impersonal awe of encounters with vastness. Both a tent and a temple are exalted places where God might rest.
Tags: 1 Kings, Exodus, Golden Calf, haftarah, King Solomon, Moses, religion, 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 Vayakheil (Exodus 35:1-40:38). The haftarah in the Sefardi tradition is 1 Kings 7:13-26. (The haftarah in the Ashkenazi tradition is 1 Kings 7:40-50.)
Both Moses’ tent sanctuary and Solomon’s temple have a place for priests to wash their hands and feet before they enter the holy building. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil, the master craftsman Betzaleil makes a simple but symbolic wash-basin. (See my blog post Pekudei: Basin of Mirrors.)
And he made the kiyor of bronze and its stand of bronze from the mirrors of the army of women who mobilized at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Exodus 38:8)
kiyor (כִּיִוֹר) = basin, laver.
Solomon’s temple has ten such basins, cast out of regular molten bronze rather than mirrors, perched on elaborate wheeled stands. But King Solomon also has his master bronze artisan cast a water container so huge it is called a sea.
Then he made the yam of cast metal, ten cubits from its [lower] rim up to its circular rim, five cubits high, and a measuring-line of thirty cubits around its circumference. (1 Kings 7:23)
yam (יָם) = sea; in Canaanite religion, the name of the god of the sea.
This tub of water would be more than 14 feet (4 meters) across and more than 7 feet (2 meters) high. Since it would be impossible to climb into for bathing, commentators have concluded it had an outlet like a spigot at the bottom, to pour water into a shallower container for washing.
And gourd ornaments were below its rim all around the circle, ten per cubit, encompassing the yam all around; two rows of the gourd ornaments, cast in one piece with it. It was standing on twelve oxen: three facing north and three facing west and three facing south and three facing east. And the yam was on top of them, and all of their hind parts were inward. (I Kings 7:24-25)
The most striking difference between the yam in front of Solomon’s temple and the kiyor in front of Moses’ tent sanctuary is that the yam rests on twelve bronze cows—probably life-size—instead of on an ordinary framework.
Moses discourages the molding of any real animals (as opposed to the keruvim, the composite fantasy animals whose wings are spread over the ark). He smashes and grinds up the golden calf that Aaron makes in the book of Exodus. In a passage after this week’s hafatarah, the first book of Kings criticizes King Jereboam of Israel for putting golden calves in temples at Dan and Bethel.
This may have been a reaction to cow-worship in other religions. The religion of the Hittites to the north included a pair of bulls who carried the weather god Teshub on their backs. To the south, Egyptians worshipped the bull as Apis, the avatar of the gods Ptah and Osiris, and the cow as the goddess Hathor.
Yet throughout the bible, the twelve bronze oxen supporting the yam in front of Solomon’s temple are treated as perfectly acceptable.
Is the huge tub of water in front of Solomon’s temple called the yam simply because it is so large, or does it evoke the Canaanite god named Yam? Are the twelve oxen simply decorative, or do they inspire awareness of bull and cow worship?
Throughout history, people have viewed symbols of the divine in two ways. Some people consider a symbolic object or building as a way to evoke the ineffable. Its beauty and impressiveness are like an arrow pointing to the divine, and its specific details (such as fruit, water, architecture that reaches toward the sky) allude to ideas about the divine.
Other people see symbolic things in a more concrete way. A god visits a building or enters a statue. Carrying out rituals in sacred buildings with sacred objects is essential for pleasing the god.
Either way, symbols are important—and often enduring. Even today, Mormons conduct baptisms and sealings in copies of the yam perched on twelve oxen.
One question remains, for King Solomon and for us today: Which symbols from other cultures and from the history of our own culture or religion can enhance our lives, and which symbols should be discarded?
Anyone want a bronze ox?
Tags: 1 Kings, Baal, Elijah, fire offerings, haftarah, King Ahab, King Saul, Moses, prophets, religion, 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 Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11-34:31), and the haftarah is 1 Kings 18:1-39.
And Elijah said to the people: I am the only navi left for God, and the neviyim of the Baal are 450 men. (1 Kings 18:22)
navi (נָבִיא) = prophet. (From the root verb niba (נבּא) = raved; conveyed the word of God.)
neviyim (נְבִיאִִים) = plural of navi.
The Hebrew Bible uses the word navi for two kinds of people: those who go into an altered state in order to experience God, and those who hear God whether they want to or not.
In the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses is the prophet who hears God directly, whenever God wants to speak to him. When God first speaks to him at the burning bush, Moses tries to turn down God’s mission, but later he gets used to passing on God’s words to Pharaoh and the Israelites. God also uses Moses to signal miracles, both by words and by raising his staff or his hand. He is a full-service prophet, but he never goes into a prophetic ecstasy.
The book of Numbers/Bemidbar gives us an example of a non-Israelite prophet who does not rave in ecstasy, but hears and must obey God’s commands. First Bilam hears God’s words in dreams, but by the end of his story God is channeling poetic prophecies to him directly. (See my post Balak: Three Places to Be Blessed.)
There are also bands of Israelite prophets who go into an altered state and speak in ecstasy, but do not hear or convey God’s commands. In one episode in the first book of Samuel, King Saul sends messengers to seize David, whom the prophet Samuel has anointed behind Saul’s back.
And they saw a group of the neviyim nibim, and Samuel standing stationed over them. And the spirit of God came over the messengers of Saul, vayitnabu, even they. And they told Saul, and he sent other messengers, vayitnabu, even they. Then Saul sent a third group of messengers, vayitnabu, even they. (1 Samuel 19:20-21)
nibim (נִבְּאִים) = speaking in ecstasy; raving.
vayitnabu (וַיִּתְנַבְּאוּ) = and they spoke in prophetic ecstasy; and they raved as if insane.
Next Saul goes himself in search of David.
And he walked there, to Nayot in Ramah, and the spirit of God came over him, even him, and he continued walking, vayitnabei until he entered Nayot in Ramah. Then he stripped off his clothes, even he, vayitnabei, even he, in front of Samuel, and he fell naked… (1 Samuel 19:23-24)
vayitnabei (וַיִּתְנַבֵּא) = and he spoke in prophetic ecstasy; and he raved.
The two kinds of neviyim could be easily distinguished; one kind quietly listens to God’s words and then speaks and acts like a rational person, while the other kind is overcome by God’s spirit and speaks and acts like a madman.
In this week’s haftarah Elijah is a navi in the tradition of Moses: he hears God while he is in his normal consciousness, he tells God’s words to other people, and he serves as a conduit for God’s miracles. He also thinks up a plan to achieve God’s ends.
The 450 prophets of Baal, on the other hand, are neviyim who induce an altered state of prophetic ecstasy in themselves.
At this time, the northern kingdom of Israel is ruled by King Ahab, who welcomes the worship of the Canaanite gods Asherah (a mother goddess) and Baal (a god of weather, especially lightning and rain). Ahab’s wife Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon, supports hundreds of prophets who serve these two gods, but wants to exterminate all the prophets of the God of Israel.
Since Israel under King Ahab views Baal as the god in charge of weather, Elijah warns Ahab that it will not rain again until he, the servant of God, says so. Then Elijah flees and hides east of the Jordan while Israel suffers three years of drought.
This week’s haftarah begins:
And it was much later, and the word of God happened to Elijah in the third year, saying: Go, appear to Ahab; then I will send rain over the face of the earth. (1 Kings 18:1)
When Elijah confronts King Ahab again, he requests a contest.
Now send, gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 neviyim of the Baal and the 400 neviyim of the Asherah who eat at the table of Jezebel. (1 Kings 18:19)
Instead of killing Elijah on the spot, the king arranges a contest between God and Baal. (The neviyim of the goddess Asherah drop out of the story at this point.) Ahab probably expects Elijah and the God of Israel to lose. After all, God will have only one prophet, Elijah; Baal will have 450. On Mount Carmel God’s altar is in ruins; Baal’s altar is in good repair. The winning side will be the one whose god who answers with fire; lightning is one of Baal’s specialties.
Once everyone has gathered at Mount Carmel, Elijah says:
So the contest begins. Each side gets its altar, a bull to butcher, and a stack of wood. When each sacrifice is prepared, the prophets will call on their gods. The Israelites agree that the god who answers by setting the wood on fire will be their god henceforth.
Elijah lets the neviyim of Baal go first.
…and they called in the name of the Baal, saying: Answer us! But there was no voice and there was no answer. Then they hopped around on the altar that was prepared. And at noon Elijah mocked them, and said: Call in a louder voice! After all, he is a god. Maybe he is chatting, or maybe he is preoccupied, or maybe he is on the road. Maybe he is sleeping, and he will wake up.
And they called in a louder voice, and they cut themselves with daggers and with lances, as is their custom, and blood poured out over them. And noon passed, vayitnabu, until the time of the afternoon offering, but no one answered and no one paid attention. (1 Kings 18:26-29)
The neviyim of Baal did everything they could to work themselves into a prophetic ecstasy, but their speech sounded like insane raving—especially in light of Elijah’s mockery and the lack of response from Baal.
Then Elijah repaired the altar for the God of Israel, laid out his bull offering on the wood, and had twelve jugs of water poured over it, so everyone would see that no ordinary fire could burn there. Then he said:
God, god of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, today may it be known that You are elohim in Israel and I am Your servant, and at Your word I did all these things. Answer me, God, answer me, and this people will know that You, God, are the god… And the fire of God fell, and it ate up the rising-offering and the wood and the stones and the dirt, and it licked up the water in the trench. And all the people saw, and they fell on their faces and said: God, He is the elohim! God, He is the elohim! (1 Kings 18:36-39)
Later that day, it finally rains.
And the winner is … not only the God of Israel, but also his rational navi.
Does this mean the bible prefers non-ecstatic prophets? Not quite. The bands of raving Israelite neviyim are not criticized in either the book of Numbers or the first book of Samuel. There is nothing wrong with entering an altered state in order to experience God’s presence.
But experiencing God’s presence is different from hearing God’s words. A navi like Moses or Elijah hears God whether he wants to or not, and must keep his head in order to act on God’s words, whether he is passing on divine information, signaling a miracle, or, in this week’s haftarah, elaborating on a hint from God (Go, appear to Ahab; then I will send rain over the face of the earth) in order to make the right things happen.
May all of us who engage in religion remember that experiencing God in an altered state, or even in an especially good worship service, is not the same as serving God. To truly serve God, we must listen for the divine word or inspiration during our everyday lives, and think carefully before we act.