“Beyond Narrative”

16 02 2015

Here, recently reprinted, is Roger Ebert’s 1978 article, “Beyond Narrative: The Future of the Feature Film”.

It is rather lengthy, but thoroughly engrossing, and comprises in part a highly informative review of the history of arthouse cinema. Within this it features a profound analysis of Robert Altman’s Three Women, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, and the nature of films that eschew conventional narrative. Much that the author has to say (about the relationship between cinema and television, for example) needs to be taken with a grain of salt – the article having been authored, after all, in 1978. That said, several of his predictions concerning the “future” of mainstream cinema have been vindicated, and to a great extent they remain true today.


Charmed, I’m Sure: Wizardry, Women and War in the Book of Numbers

16 02 2015

Yesterday I had the pleasure of presenting my fourth paper (?) at an AAJS Conference, held this time at the University of New South Wales. I was a last-minute stand-in, since one of the registrants had cancelled and, as such, I was able once more to enjoy the experience of hastily cobbling together a synopsis in time for the programme to go to print, and then labouring over the construction of a paper that might both satisfy that synopsis and the general expectations of the discipline. I cannot say whether or not I succeeded in the second of those two aims, but I at least succeeded in the first of them.

My paper (the title of which introduces this post) was concerned with a series of narratives in the book of Numbers, which culminated in what might be termed a “holy war” against the Midianites. My concern with the last of those passages (Numbers 31) was two-fold: I was interested in establishing the ideological goals of the text, and in considering why that story (which might have featured for its enemy any number of different nations) was presented as being one about the Midianites in particular.

We know from archaeological evidence that Midian came into existence at some point in the 13th century BCE in the Northern Hejaz region of Saudi Arabia, which is just east of the Gulf of Aqaba – effectively where Eilat is today, extending both westward and southward, and but a little bit south of where the Moabites dwelt at the time when our story is set. Interactions between Midianites and Moabites are recorded in a few instances – both negatively (as in Genesis 36:35, where the Edomite king, Hadad, is said to have defeated the Midianites in the plains of Moab) and positively (as when Midianites and Moabites unite in Numbers 22 to secure the services of Balaam).

The proximity of the Midianites to the land of Israel is such that we might expect them to feature in a number of texts (as we find, for example, with the Edomites, Moabites and Ammonites) and so it perhaps comes as something of a surprise that they are really only mentioned a handful of times.

In some instances, the Midianites appear as active characters within a story, advancing the plot and participating in it, while at others they are incidental features of a narrative: part of the backdrop, if you will. It is Midianite traders, we are told, who were responsible for raising Joseph from the pit and selling him to a caravan of Ishmaelites, and it was to Midian that Moses fled after having murdered an Egyptian taskmaster. While the Midianites in that former narrative play no further part in the Joseph saga, the Midianites who feature in the subsequent text become active characters whose role in the Moses story is somewhat… complicated.

Moses, of course, marries a Midianite woman and develops a strong and positive relationship with her father. He is referred to, throughout the book of Exodus, primarily as Jethro, but when he reappears in the book of Numbers it is as Chovav. We are told on several occasions that he is a Midianite priest, and the context in which this information is conveyed would seem to suggest that it is information favourable to him.

He offers Moses good advice that the latter is quick to heed and joins up with the Israelites for a time, having heard of the wondrous things being done for them. So positively is this Midianite priest described that the rabbinic tradition came to look upon Jethro as a convert to Judaism, while some scholars have hypothesised that the worship of the Israelite god actually originated in Midian.

Not all references to the Midianites are so favourable. Together with Amalek, they are described in Judges 6ff as having oppressed Israel for several years; their subsequent defeat is alluded to in Psalm 83, and referred to on more than one occasion by the prophet Isaiah. Yet the most striking display of animosity towards these people is in the book of Numbers, and it is none other than Moses himself who leads the charge.

Numbers 22 describes Midianites and Moabites joining forces to secure the services of Balaam, a prophet-for-hire. They approach him with amulets, or charms (קסמים in the Hebrew). These are devices used for soothsaying or sorcery. The term is mentioned again, in Joshua’s review of Israelite history, when describing Balaam as a קוסם – a sorceror. It features a number of times throughout the biblical literature, and it is noteworthy that it only appears positively in one instance, and that is when Balaam declares in Numbers 23 that there is no קסם in Israel. Such cannot be said, of course, for Israel’s neighbours, who have approached Balaam with קסמים in the hope that he will curse them.

This passage marks the last reference to Midianites within the Balaam cycle. Their subsequent omission is strange, and one that Josephus attempts to correct by giving the Midianites a stronger part to play in his version of events. It is on the basis of their absence within the rest of the Balaam story that many see the reference to them at its beginning as an addition to the text, designed to link it with the events described later on in the same book.

Indeed, the Midianites resurface in Numbers 25, in which they feature in a tale of sexual and cultic infidelity that leaves some twenty-four thousand Israelites dead. In this passage, we are told that the Israelite men began to consort in a depraved manner with Moabite women. The verb employed here, לזנות, implies sexual debauchery. As a result of this, they then become “attached” to the service of a Moabite deity named Baal-Peor. The relationship between sexually liaising with Moabite women and becoming attached to this particular god lends itself to an interpretation of this god’s worship involving a sensual component – as was suggested by many earlier biblical commentators in particular.

Suddenly, an Israelite man brings a Midianite woman (not a Moabite woman) into his tent. We are subsequently told (after both she and he have been murdered) that her name was Kozbi and that her father was a Midianite chieftain. The name Kozbi, of course, is reminiscent of the Hebrew כזב, which means “false”, or “lying”, and which is a term associated several times in the book of Ezekiel with both sorcerors and sorcery. In this instance, its usage harmonises with the sudden command given by God to Moses: that he should harrass the Midianites, for they have conspired against the Israelites – a term that denotes deception and trickery; the notion that things were not really as they seem.

It is a fascinating feature of this narrative that the Moabites, who are likewise implicated in their use of magic, their hiring of Balaam, the sexual enticing of Israelite men and the worship of Baal-Peor are now dropped from the narrative altogether. The Midianites, who until this point have been a background feature of the text, now assume primary importance. It is they who are to blame for the transgressions of the Israelite men, and it is from them alone that vengeance is to be extracted.

The story continues, and concludes, in Numbers 31. Here, Moses is finally instructed to take revenge against the Midianites. He is also told that this is to be his final mission: אחר תאסף אל עמיך, “afterwards, you shall be gathered unto your people”. In a way, the story of Moses’ life has now come full circle, since his first mission was a quest that was imparted to him while he was residing in Midian. This passage is also linked to the previous Balaam narrative with a return of the itinerant prophet, who here meets a violent end, being driven through with a sword. The assertion that the Midianite women of Numbers 25 (note: they are here described as Midianite, not Moabite) acted “on Balaam’s instruction” likewise connects these various texts together.

The story is a bloody one, but it features strong parallels with various other biblical texts – particularly those that, unlike this one, utilise the term חרם. As with those passages, this one also speaks of putting cities to the fire and killing their inhabitants by the sword, but unlike most of the חרם texts, not everybody in this one is slated for annihilation.

It is in regards to this particular issue that we might note a striking contrast between Numbers 31 and 1 Samuel 15. In the latter text, Saul spares the Amalekite king together with the best of his livestock; he is rebuked for doing this, and the king is murdered. In the former passage (Numbers 31), the Israelite generals spare the Midianite women, children, livestock and wealth; they are rebuked for doing this, and Moses has the young boys murdered together with every woman who has ever been sexually active. Girls too young to have had sexual intercourse may be kept by the Israelites as spoils of war, together with the Midianite wealth – but only once the latter has been purified.

Another comparison might be made to the story in Judges 21. There, the Israelites go to war against the people of Jabesh-Gilead (a war carefully crafted around the flimsiest of rationales), slaughtering everybody except the virgin girls, who are then given to the men of the tribe of Benjamin. When the number of captured girls proves insufficient, they abandon all pretence of excuses and instruct the Benjaminites to simply steal women for themselves from the neighbouring town of Shiloh. This passage is thought by some to reflect on patriarchal concerns with biological purity and with the integrity of one’s bloodlines, as is evidenced by the need for the foreign men to be eradicated and for the captive women to be virgins.

While the war against Amalek permitted no survivors and no plundered wealth, the wars against Jabesh-Gilead and Midian both allow for the survival of certain girls, while the war against Midian allows also for the plundering of other property. Here as there, the booty is inherently tainted, but so long as the girls are too young to have had sexual intercourse and so long as the other property is ritually cleaned, this taint may be removed.

In Numbers 31, Moses berates his generals by referring specifically to the sexual misdeeds of the Midianite women. While a superficial reading of this passage might therefore lead us to suppose that pre-pubescent girls are spared on the grounds that they were innocent of the crimes of their sisters and mothers, it needs be noted that this same concession is not extended to infant boys (who were surely innocent of the crimes of the Midianite men). On the contrary, and at the risk of stating the obvious, the virgin girls are to be looked upon as property; their being virgins simply makes them property that is safe to claim. Little Midianite boys are, after all, Midianites; they are foreigners, in other words, and they remain forever threatening. Sexually active women have been branded by the enemy, but virginal girls are neither here nor there, and can be claimed.

As to how they might be claimed, we can consider in this context Deuteronomy 21, which describes the means by which a captive woman might actually become an Israelite. She needs to shave her head, pare her nails, change her clothes and mourn her parents, but so long as her captor has the patience for all of this she can now be legitimately his.

Susan Niditch puts it beautifully in an article titled “War, Women, and Defilement in Numbers 31” (Semeia 61, 1993). She observed that “the Hebrew scriptures, like the classical literary traditions of many cultures, is filled with associations between women and war – the victims like Dinah (Gen 34) or the concubine of Judges 19, whose humiliations men avenge in wars with outsiders or within the group; the women stolen in Judges 19 or taken as booty in Numbers 31, demarcating an end to hostilities; the daughter of Jephthah, the war-vowed sacrifice (Jud 11:34-40). Their presence marks the passage into war and the exodus from it; they are marginal, border figures, central in the events around them, and yet they are usually nameless, voiceless items of exchange and symbols of transition” (43-44).

The narrative in Numbers 31, functions as a vehicle for conveying important realia about warfare, and about the laws of cultic purification. In doing so, it transmits a specific ideology concerning the nature of impurity and of transgression, of the status of women in war (and perhaps even outside of war), and of those who can (and must) be held responsible for transgression. In this instance, the primary message of Numbers 31 can be reduced to two related issues: that women taken captive in war require a process of cultural assimilation that precludes their having been sexually involved with the enemy, and that the spoils of war require a process of purification before they are ready for Israelite use.

In order to appreciate how these two ideas govern the text, it is necessary to consider the metaphorical relationships that underlie them. To be clear, a metaphor ascribes qualities or terms from one semantic domain to something that derives ordinarily from a different semantic domain. In metaphor theory, the thing being discussed in such a manner might be termed the subject of the metaphor, while the descriptions applied metaphorically to it are termed the vehicle. The semantic domains of the subject and of the vehicle need to be sufficiently similar to one another as to permit comparison, yet sufficiently distinct as to be recognised as non-literal. In the simple equation, AN X IS A Y (such as LIFE IS A PARTY, MEAT IS MURDER and THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD), identification of the metaphor is relatively straightforward. In most texts, however, we do not have that luxury, and must consider which metaphorical relationships underlie the passage without being stated explicitly.

In this instance, I would like to suggest that the two primary metaphors that underlie Numbers 31 are that foreign women are vehicles of social degeneration and that foreigners in general are agents of contamination. What is more, a careful consideration of the passages that are linguistically and thematically connected to this one (being the Balaam cycle in Numbers 22-24, and the worship of Baal-Peor in Numbers 25) demonstrates that these same metaphorical relationships are latent within those narratives as well.

The assertion that foreign nations have a contaminating influence is conveyed both by means of denigrating those other nations, as well as through lauding Israel in its enforced separation from them. We have already had occasion to note the careful contrast that is established between the Moabites and the Midianites on the one hand and the Israelites on the other, in Numbers 22 and 23. It is in relation to Israel that Balaam declares that there is no sorcery in their midst, while emissaries from the other nations approach the prophet with sorcery, quite literally, in their hands.

It should also be noted that when Balaam first blesses the Israelites encamped beneath him it is specifically in relation to their dwelling apart from all other peoples. Their isolation is accounted to them as righteous: תמֹת נפשי מות ישרים, the prophet declares. וּתהי אחריתי כמֹהו; “May I die the death of the upright, and may my end be like his!” The imputation of righteousness to those who dwell apart from all others is predicated on the assumption that cross-cultural pollination has a deligitimising effect. This in turn is predicated on the assumption that the Israelites express a certain cultural uniformity, or homogeneity, which might be threatened by cultural contact.

This ideology is so pervasive throughout so much of the biblical literature that it can easily go unnoticed, and tends to be remarked upon more frequently in its absence. So too when it comes to the relationship between foreign women and cultural decline, which is particularly evident in the second part of our story, in Numbers 25. There, once Israel has settled in Shittim, they first whore out to the Moabite women, they are only then invited by the Moabite men to partake in offerings, it is then that they eat, and then that they worship Moabite gods. It is in doing this that they are described as having become “attached” to Baal-Peor – a process that commences with their sexual seduction and only ends with their service of a foreign deity. As Susan Niditch has observed, the Midianites “had hired a male wizard to curse Israel, while the Midianite women had cast their own spell, seducing Israel into apostasy” (op.cit. 46).

These two themes reach their climax in Numbers 31, in which they function in many ways as an opportunity to present a series of legislative principles. While the excuse for the war is predicated on concerns over foreign women in particular, the concern over foreign men shows through in the war’s outcome: a contamination rendered even unto inanimate objects. It is difficult to determine the extent to which this impurity is resultant of the war itself, and the extent to which it lay already upon the property of the Midianites, as it may indeed have lain upon the Midianites themselves.

Certainly, the book of Numbers does speak at length about corpse impurity, and reference to such defilement is made also within this chapter. In relation to one’s involvement in warfare rendering a spiritual contamination, one recalls in this context David, who could not build the temple because his hands were stained with blood. And yet, the presentation of war in Numbers 31 is somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, all those who take part in the killing are rendered susceptible to corpse impurity, in need of the waters of the red heifer and are quarantined. On the other hand, it is none other than the high priest’s son who leads the charge, and who does so bearing sacred vessels and trumpets.

Looked at from a strictly literary perspective, the imagery is dissonant, made all the moreso in that these utensils are not referred to as כלי מלחמה (vessels of war), but as כלי הקֹדש: sacred vessels. And herein lies the ambiguity: is war sacred by virtue of its being divinely ordained, or is it something ugly and contaminating? This ambiguity is made especially pronounced within the text’s conclusion, in which the generals of the war make an offering, לכפר על נפשתינו: “in order to atone for ourselves”. For what, one wonders, do they seek atonement? For the sin at Baal-Peor? Or for the war itself?

This dual presentation of the war suits the nature of the two metaphorical relationships that it serves to emphasise. On the one hand, there is the alluring quality of the women; seductive and inviting, they are reminiscent of the “woman of folly” in Proverbs 1-9. On the other hand, however, there is the physically and spiritually contaminating nature of their host culture; repulsive and foreboding, theirs is a path that leads only to death.

It has been suggested that this passage reflects the interests of a late, post-monarchic community, as evidenced by the role of the priests as leaders of the war, and by the highly developed organisation of the Israelite army. The deadly appeal of foreign nations may suit the interests of a scribe who lived during the period of Babylonia’s ascendancy, but what does it tell us that the enemy chosen is the Midianites, rather than the Moabites?

Some scholars has suggested that “Midianites” might have served as a generic reference to nomadic peoples – perhaps along with “Ishmaelites”, “Kenites” and “Amalekites” as well. As such, it may be that the Midianites in Numbers 31 served as a reference also to the Moabites of Numbers 25, but I find this interpretation unsatisfactory. While some features of the text may lend themselves to the possibility of a rough synonymity of terms, the editorial gloss in Numbers 22 that includes Midianite elders in the delegation sent to Balaam belies this possibility. In addition to its asserting a distinction between Midianite and Moabite, it reflects on a desire to maintain an exclusively Midianite focus in the narrative’s culmination, which it legitimises by including them in the affair of Balaam. We must consider, therefore, the Midianite ethnicity of Kozbi as a further appeal to exclusively Midianite guilt, and the reference to the women of Baal-Peor as having been Midianite (as opposed to Moabite) as the final nail in their collective coffin.

One is reminded in this regard of the early post-exilic work of Ezra/Nehemiah, with its focus on the termination of marital relationships, the expulsion of mixed-race children and the rejection of northern communities who, while religiously similar, were simply not a part of the community of exiles. A concern for the purity of bloodlines and of language mark key interests of this community, insofar as they are represented within that text, and they are concerns that find a subtle counterpart within the book of Numbers as well.

In relation to concerns of this nature, there can surely be no better enemy than the Midianites: a community into which Moses himself had married, and from whom – but ten chapters prior to the commencement of our story – he humbly requests an entourage. The manner in which Moses seeks companionship from his father-in-law and is denied mirrors in some fashion the requests made to the returned exiles in Ezra 4. In both instances an appeal is made to the commonalities between two communities, and in both cases these overtures are rebuffed with an appeal to fundamental dissimilarities.

In Ezra, it is the Judean delegation that rebuffs the various men of the north, while in Numbers it is Moses’ father-in-law who refuses to travel with Moses and his people. In his words, כי אם אל ארצי ואל מולדתי אלך: I will go to my land and to my family. That Moses’ family includes Jethro’s own daughter further emphasises the liminal nature of women within this text. In both cases, however, these passages preempt open hostilities between the two groups, which in the pentateuchal narrative culminates in bloodshed.

That these concerns are reflected in the pre-exilic literature is but a further indication that they did not originate during the period of the restoration, as some have supposed. The uneasy relationship that ancient Israel had with her neighbours is reflected in a great deal of her literature. The appeal of foreign cultures and a priestly aversion to cross-cultural pollination find a powerful representation in Numbers 31, and are well-suited to the choice of sexual and cultic metaphors that predominate within it.

Broken References in the Epistemic Regime

16 02 2015

Several years ago, I wrote a post in which I ascribed the chief appeal of The Lord of the Rings to the narrative’s “unremarked extension” – a term that I had taken from an essay by Barry Langford. If you have an hour, here is a fabulous lecture by Prof. Michael D.C. Drout in which he makes very similar claims.

He refers to the phenomenon as being one of broken references within the novel’s epistemic regime. He defines the latter term as the informational hierarchy that the text develops, makes use of and presents. Ordinarily, the reader of a novel knows roughly the same amount of information as its characters know. Irony prevails in situations in which the reader is aware of more. In fantasy novels, on the other hand, this hierarchy is reversed: now the characters are in possession of a greater degree of information than the reader is, and the story will typically follow those characters who are most in need of having things explained to them.

Occasionally, however, a reference to something within the world of the text might be “broken”, insofar as it will fail to yield an answer within the confines of the work itself. This may be because it pertains to something that all of the novel’s characters are already familiar with, or to something that those characters who understand it are too reticent to disclose. An example of this from The Lord of the Rings is in the first of the three novels, in which Aragorn declares that Gandalf is surer of finding his way in the dark “than the cats of Queen Berúthiel”.

At the time that The Lord of the Rings was published, neither Queen Berúthiel nor her cats had received mention in any of Tolkien’s work – and nor, for that matter, had a host of other references to names, places and events that either Gandalf, Elrond or Aragorn declined to elaborate upon, or that neither the Hobbits nor Gimli needed to have explained. In remarking upon the quality of a text that features such a large number of broken references, Prof. Drout employs the rather apt metaphor of a ruin. A ruin is, in some respects, “coherent”: it conveys information, and it does so in isolation. And yet in other respects, a ruin is fragmentary: it makes reference to that which had preceded it, and in doing so to its own broken nature.


27 10 2014

While I’ve yet to hear back from my examiners, and truly know not what to possibly expect, I consider the composition and completion of my 75,000-word thesis a minor triumph of sorts. With its submission, as of September 2nd this year, the project that has dominated the last eight years of my life begins to slowly crawl towards its long-anticipated conclusion.

While I have wanted to move on, to write something new and to embark upon a new endeavour – and while my ideas for new projects have been both manifold and exciting – I have found the composition of even a short blog post to that effect to be of insurmountable difficulty. It took me a full week before I was even able to read again, and almost two weeks before I was able to return to my study of the Mishna. Even now, I am not yet entirely ready to render my observations into coherent prose.

It was Winston Churchill who once remarked that, if you find yourself going through hell: keep going. The advice is easier given than followed, and there were very many times when I considered aborting my candidature and putting off indefinitely that which until December last year I’d not yet even begun to write. The task of writing a thesis within the space of a year is not one that I can recommend. The final two weeks were nightmarish; for almost a month after I had finished, my occupation during that time comprised the substance of my anxious dreams.

Now that it is, for the time being, “over”, I have been pleased to rediscover the joys of reading. I hope soon to likewise rediscover the joys of writing. At such a time, I look forward to sharing some of the more interesting and unusual pieces of casuistry that have delighted me over these past several weeks – and hopefully some good news too, once word gets back to me from the university. In the meantime, dear anonymous and faceless friends, I bid you a temporary adieu.

So Much Waste Paper

20 07 2014

This poem of 433 lines, with a page of notes to every three pages of text, is not for the ordinary reader. He will make nothing of it. Its five sections, called successively “The Burial of the Dead”, “A Game of Chess”, and so on, for all they will signify to him, might as well be called “Tom Thumb at the Giant’s Causeway” or “The Devil among the Bailiffs”, and so on. The thing is a mad medley. It has a plan, because its author says so: and presumably it has some meaning, because he speaks of its symbolism; but meaning, plan, and intention alike are massed behind a smoke-screen of anthropological and literary erudition, and only the pundit, the pedant, or the clairvoyant will be in the least aware of them. Dr Frazer and Miss J.L. Weston are freely and admittedly his creditors, and the bulk of the poem is under an enormously and cosmopolitan mortgage: to Spencer, Shakespeare, Webster, Kyd, Middleton, Milton, Marvell, Goldsmith, Ezekiel, Buddha, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, St Augustine, Baudelaire, Verlaine, and others. Lines of German, French and Italian are thrown it at will or whim; so, too, are solos from nightingales, cocks, hermit-thrushes, and Ophelia…

For the rest one can only say that if Mr Eliot had been pleased to write in demotic English The Waste Land might not have been, as it is to just all but anthropologists and literati, so much waste paper.

– Charles Powell, Manchester Guardian (Oct 31, 1923), 7. [Cited in Michael North (ed.), The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot (A Norton Critical Edition, 2001), 156.]

The Divine Prankster

24 06 2014

Fairly recently, Marc Shapiro wrote an interesting post about censorship in Miqraot Gedolot haMaor. There, it appears as though the editors saw fit to expurgate an observation of R’ Shabbetai Bass (1641-1718), recorded in his commentary on Rashi (“Siftei Chakhamim”). For the benefit of anybody who’s not sure what the hell I’m talking about, Miqraot Gedolot is known as a rabbinic bible: it features the biblical text on the upper right page, surrounded by targumim, commentaries and (in some case) meta-commentaries. A number of different versions exist, but the one to which I’m referring was published by an institute called Hamaor and spans seventeen beautifully typeset volumes. It is also, at least in this one small instance, censored.

Since I have Miqraot Gedolot haMaor on one shelf and HaMeorot haGedolim on another (the latter being a seven-volume rabbinic bible published by Torah Mefureshet, featuring Rashi and a dozen-or-so meta-commentaries on him), I was able to check and to confirm that, yes, the version published by Hamaor has indeed suffered a tiny excision. The passage to have come under the knife, as you can read in Marc Shapiro’s post, was Siftei Chakhamim on Exodus 33:13. If you look at the biblical text you will see that in the verse immediately before this one, Moses quotes God as having declared that Moses has found favour in his eyes, and in this verse stipulates that if he has found favour in God’s eyes, God should reveal his ways to Moses.

The tautology is striking – did God not already say that he was pleased with Moses? Does not the phraseology suggest that Moses wondered whether or not this assertion was true? Such indeed was suggested by Rashi, who emphasises that Moses is really asking whether or not it is true what God had said to him, and the Siftei Chakhamim draws this point out even further:

דק״ל דבפסוק משמע שהיה ספק למשה אי אמר הקב״ה שמצא חן בעיניו והא אמר משה מתחלה להקב״ה איך שאמר אליו מצאת חן בעיני. לכ״פ אם אמת הוא שמצאתי חן דלמה מה שאמרת מצאת חן בעיני מצחק היית בי כדרך בני אדם

This verse seems to suggest that it was doubtful to Moses whether or not God had said that he had found favour in his eyes, yet Moses said at the outset that God had said, “You found favour in my eyes”! The interpretation, therefore, is “if it is true that I have found favour in your eyes… perhaps, when you said, ‘You have found favour in my eyes’, you were joking with me, as people are wont to do”.

The part that the editors at Hamaor evidently found offensive, and their reason for reducing everything from “perhaps” onwards into a simple וכו׳ (“etc”), was the twofold implication that God might joke with people, and that God’s joking might be in a human fashion (כדרך בני אדם). Really, it’s rather absurd to retroject one’s own exegetical discomfort onto the 17th century literature that one is supposed to be publishing, but cutting something off is a lot better than rewriting it, and you can see some of Prof. Shapiro’s other posts if you want examples of the latter.

For the moment, I find the notion of God as a divine prankster rather interesting and it’s got me thinking about other rabbinic depictions of God as a practical joker. Here’s one from the midrash, which I stumbled across a couple of years ago while looking, as usual, for something else.

The midrash is in Tanchuma (Parshat Vayyeishev, §4), and concerns a verse in Psalms. That verse (found in Psalm 66:5) ascribes עלילה to God, which I shall translate below as “machinations” and as “trickery”. The term might, in a harsher context, denote treachery or deception, while in a gentler context might simply mean “deeds”. It is as “deeds” that the NRSV translates it on this verse, although I think the midrash lends to it a somewhat stronger resonance:

זה שאמר הכתוב לכו חזו מפעלות אלהים נורא עלילה על בני אדם (תהלים ס”ו). אמר רבי יהושע בן קרחה אף הנוראות שאתה מביא עלינו בעלילה את מביאן. בא וראה כשראה הקדוש ברוך הוא את העולם מיום הראשון ברא מלאך המות. מנין. אמר רבי ברכיה משום שנאמר וחשך על פני תהום זה מלאך המות המחשיך פניהם של בריות. ואדם נברא בששי ועלילה נתלה בו שהוא הביא את המיתה לעולם שנאמר כי ביום אכלך ממנו מות תמות. משל למה הדבר דומה למי שמבקש לגרש את אשתו כשבקש לילך לביתו כתב גט נכנס לביתו והגט בידו מבקש עלילה לתנו לה. אמר לה מזגי לי את הכוס שאשתה. מזגה לו. כיון שנטל הכוס מידה אמר לה הרי זה גטך. אמרה לו מה פשעי. אמר לה צאי מביתי שמזגת לי כוס פשור. אמרה לו כבר היית יודע שאני עתידה למזג לך כוס פשור שכתבת הגט והבאתו בידך. אף כך אמר אדם לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא רבונו של עולם עד שלא בראת עולמך קדם שני אלפים שנה היתה תורה אצלך אמון שכך כתיב ואהיה אצלו אמון ואהיה שעשועים יום יום (משלי ח) שני אלפים שנה וכתיב בה זאת התורה אדם כי ימות באהל (במדבר י”ט). אלולי שהתקנת מות לברות היית כותב בה כך אלא באת לתלות בי את העלילה. הוי נורא עלילה על בני אדם

My translation:

This is as the verse says: “Come and see the acts of God! His machinations (עלילה) against humanity are awe-inspiring!” Rabbi Yehoshua ben Qorcha explained, even the awe-inspiring things that you bring against us, you do so by way of trickery (עלילה).

Come, see: when the Holy One, blessed is he, saw the world on the first day [of its creation], he created the angel of death. How do we know this? Rabbi Berekhiah explained, because it says: “And darkness was upon the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). That is a reference to the angel of death, who darkens the face of all creatures. Yet Adam was created on the sixth day, and was tricked into thinking that he had been the one to bring death into the world, as it says: “On the day that you eat of it, you shall definitely die” (Genesis 2:17).

To what can this be compared? To one who seeks to divorce¹ his wife. As soon as he readies for home, he writes a document of divorce, enters the house with it in his hand and then tries to trick her. “Pour me a cup,” he says, “so that I can drink”. She pours him a cup. As soon as he takes it from her, he says, “Here is your document of divorce”.

“What have I done wrong?”, she asks him.

“Get out of my house,” he replies, “for the cup that you poured me is cold!”

“You must have already known that I would pour you a cold cup,” she tells him, “since you wrote a divorce document and carried it here by hand!”

Likewise, Adam spoke to the Holy One, blessed is he: “Master of the world! Two thousand years before you created your world, the Torah was like an architect before you – as it is written, “I was by him an architect, and I was a delight daily” (Proverbs 8:30). For two thousand years! And it is written in it, “This is the law concerning a person who dies in a tent” (Numbers 19:14). You could not have written that had you not already established death for all creatures – you only came to trick me!”

“His machinations against humanity are awe-inspiring…” (Psalm 66:5)

¹The example given here is interesting, since the verb used for “divorce” (גרש) literally means to drive away, or send forth. The first instance in which this word appears within the Torah is in Genesis 3:24, in which it is Adam and Eve who are being “divorced” from the garden by God.

The Internal Chronology of Genesis

10 03 2014

In the Zohar (I:147b), R’ Elazar declares a relationship between the toponym Beer Sheva and the jubilee year, implying a mystical connection between the two and suggesting that when Jacob left Beer Sheva to go to Haran via Bet El, it was a sabbatical year at the time. In the 18th century, R’ Yonasan Eybeschütz relied upon its having been a sabbatical year when Jacob arrived in Bet El, in order to respond to a question on the midrash (Divrei Yehonatan, Parshat Vayyetze; Bereishit Rabbah 68:11). What basis do these assertions have?

While I’ve no problem with the Zohar’s relying on the homophonous relationship between Beer Sheva and the Hebrew word for “seven”, nor with Rav Eybeschütz’s sole source on this matter being the Zohar, I cannot help but wonder whether or not information such as this can also be inferred directly from the biblical text.

In order for us to know whether or not it was a sabbatical year at the time of Jacob’s departure from Beer Sheva, or at the time of his arrival in Bet El, we first need to work out the years at which those events must have occurred. I refer, of course, to what can be determined from the Torah’s own internal chronology and make no claims as regards the veracity of the events that it describes. From a strictly literary perspective, the book of Genesis requests of us that we read it in a diegetic fashion. With very few exceptions, the text is narrative, and those few parts that are non-narrative (such as the blessings that appear in chapter 49) are to be understood, within context, as being uttered by one of the characters in the story. As such, whatever pre-history the text may or may not have had, it is reasonable to treat it as a single, sustained narrative and to look for chronological clues in the reconstruction of relative timing.

The story commences in the first year of creation. I’ll refer to this as 1 AM, where AM stands for Anno Mundi. This is when Adam was born, and we are told that he fathered Seth when he was 130 years old (Genesis 5:3). Seth was 105 years old when he fathered Enosh (5:6); Enosh was 90 years old when he fathered Kenan (5:9); Kenan was 70 years old when he fathered Mahalalel (5:12); Mahalalel was 65 years old when he fathered Jared (5:15); Jared was 62 years old when he fathered Enoch (5:18); Enoch was 65 years old when he fathered Methuselah (5:21); Methuselah was 87 years old when he fathered Lamech (5:25); and Lamech was 82 years old when he fathered Noah (5:28-29). Adding up the figures conveys to us that Noah was born in the year 1056 AM.

Interestingly, most of his ancestors were still alive at this time, as the following chart shows:

930 – Adam died
987 – Enoch died
1042 – Seth died
1056 – Noah was born
1140 – Enosh died
1235 – Kenan died
1290 – Mahalalel died
1424 – Jared died
1651 – Lamech died
1656 – Methuselah died

After Noah, things get a little more tricky. We are told that at the age of five hundred (= 1556 AM), Noah sired three sons. Unfortunately, we are neither told whether he started siring sons at this age, whether he stopped siring sons at this age, nor even the order of their births. As such, this information alone is insufficient to tell us the year in which Shem (Jacob’s distant ancestor) was born.

In Genesis 10:21b, Shem is described as אחי יפת הגדול. Translating this passage literally gives us something like, “the brother of Japheth (the older one)”. To whom is “the older one” referring?

According to the Artscroll translation (which is conducted in line with various rabbinic commentaries), the verse asserts that Shem was “the brother of the elder Japheth”. According to the NJPS translation, he is “the older brother” of the same. Is one of these translations wrong? Regrettably, no. The Hebrew word for brother (אח) is a singular masculine noun. As is the name Japheth, since it too refers to a singular masculine entity. The adjective, הגדול (“the older one”) is a singular masculine adjective, since it refers to one of those two things only, though it could be either one: the word “brother” (which is a reference to Shem), or the name Japheth.

As such, stating that Shem is “the brother of Japheth (the older one)” leaves us in the dark as regards whether the adjective refers to Shem or to Japheth, and therefore as to which of them is the older of the two. Interestingly, Ham is entirely absent from these considerations. It would appear that he is widely assumed to have been the youngest of the three, leaving only the relative relationship of Shem and Japheth in question. It may be that the reason for this is the assumption that הגדול means “the eldest one”. Such was the opinion of Rav Saadiah Gaon (c.885-942 CE), for example, and it is a function of the adjective with some precedent.

Fortunately for us, we can resolve this problem from a literary perspective, and do so without bringing Ham into the equation at all.

In Genesis 11:10, we are informed that Shem sired Arpachshad at the age of 100, and that this was two years after the flood. Since we are told in Genesis 7:6 that the flood occurred when Noah was 600 years old (= 1656 AM: the year of Methusaleh’s death), we can work out that Shem was not the oldest of his brothers. If Noah had starting fathering children at the age of 500 (as per Genesis 5:32), his firstborn would have been 100 years old when the flood occurred. Since Shem was 100 years old two years after the flood, Arpachshad must have been born when his grandfather was either 602 or 603 (= 1658/9 AM), depending on precisely when the flood ended.

Determining the length of the flood is a tricky business, and for some time discussion has been dominated by those who would see in this evidence of the Torah’s multi-sourced composition. I have no problem with those opinions, but am generally disinterested in the attempted delineation of hypothetical texts. Rather, I have an interest in the actual text of the Torah (however it came to be this way), which served as the Torah to those who composed the rabbinic literature, Zohar included. From this finished literary composition, it is evident that the flood lasted, more or less, exactly one year.

The description runs from Genesis 7:11-8:14 and indicates a staged process, which commences and ends with a precise date: in the 600th year of Noah’s life, on the 17th day of the second month, the flood began; in the 601st year of Noah’s life, on the 27th day of the second month, the earth was completely dry. If we were to suppose that “two years after the flood” means “two years after the flood ended“, Noah would have been 603 when Arphachshad was born; if it means “two years after the year in which the flood began“, which was 1656 AM, then Noah would have been 602. Which of these is more logical?

It is my understanding of the text that the latter makes more sense, and for two reasons:

Firstly, Genesis 9:28-29 informs us that “Noah lived for 350 years after the flood, and that all the days of Noah were 950 years”. If “after the flood” means “after the flood ended” (ie: the 601st year of Noah’s life), then living an additional 305 years would mean that his overall lifespan was 951 years, not 950. The only way to get 950 is by assuming that “after the flood” means “after the year in which the flood began”.

Secondly, there is the fact that the word for flood (מבול) occurs several times within this narrative, but always and only in reference to the first 40 days of the deluge. So, for example, Genesis 7:6 tells us that “Noah was 600 years old when the flood occurred: water all over the earth”. The following verse tells us that it was “because of the water of the flood”, which continued for seven days (7:10), that Noah and his family entered the box that he had built. Finally, verse 17 informs us that the flood was on the earth for 40 days altogether, and constitutes the final use of that noun throughout the so-called “flood narrative”. For the remainder of the text, the water is simply referred to as water; it has ceased raining.

One way or another, this gives us the year of 1658 AM for the birth of Arphachshad: two years after the flood, when Noah was 602 years old.

Fortunately for us, for the next eight generations, things get a little simpler again. Genesis 11:10-26 gives us another detailed account of the births and deaths of Jacob’s ancestors, starting with Shem and continuing until Abraham’s father, Terah – a total of nine generations, Shem included. Now that we know that Shem’s son, Arpachshad, was born in the year 1658 AM, we can determine the years in which each of his descendants were born as well:

Arpachshad – 1658
Shelah – 1693
Eber – 1723
Peleg – 1757
Reu – 1787
Serug – 1819
Nahor – 1849
Terah – 1878

Thus, the year in which Abraham’s father Terah was born was the year 1878 AM. But how old was he when he sired Abraham?

The Torah tells us (Genesis 11:26) that he was seventy years old when he fathered Abraham and two other sons, that year being 1948 AM. Regrettably, however, it does not give us the order of their births, so we are once more at a loss to date the birth of any one of them in particular. Was Abraham the eldest? This time, there are no inner-biblical clues that might tell us whether or not he was.

For the authors of the rabbinic literature, all information can either be gleaned directly from the Torah or derived explicitly from the same. Were the text to furnish us with clues concerning the relative ages of Abraham and his two brothers, we could rely upon that in order to determine the year of his birth – as the Torah did for Shem. Since it does not, we must assume that the date given to us (1948 AM) applies to the primary character within the narrative, and not to somebody else.

Since we know that Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born (Genesis 21:5), and since we know that Isaac was 60 years old when Jacob was born (Genesis 25:26), then so long as we suppose that Abraham was born in 1948, we can now confidently date the birth of Jacob to the year 2108 AM. All that remains is to determine how old he was when he left Beer Sheva, and how old he might have been when he arrived in Bet El. Is that possible?

Surprisingly, this is actually something that can be worked out fairly easily.

When Jacob meets Pharaoh in Genesis 47:9, he tells him that he is 130 years old. This is nine years after his son, Joseph, had become ruler over Egypt: the first seven of those years being years of plentiful grain, and the subsequent two being years of famine (Genesis 45:6). When Joseph became ruler we are told that he was 30 years of age (Genesis 41:46), which would mean that his father, Jacob, was 91 at the time of Joseph’s birth. Prior to Joseph’s being born, Jacob served his uncle Laban for a period of fourteen years. The Torah tells us that Jacob’s period of indentured servitude transpired at the time of Joseph’s birth (Genesis 30:25), which means that Jacob was 77 years old when he met Laban.

Seeing as Jacob travelled to his uncle directly from Bet El, we can assume that he was also 77 years old when he spent a night there. If he was born in the year 2108, that would give us the year 2185 AM for his arrival in Bet El. Is this also the year in which he left Beer Sheva?

Ishmael was fourteen years older than Isaac, Jacob’s father, as can be seen from the fact that Abraham was 86 years old when Ishmael was born (Genesis 16:16) and 100 years old when Isaac was born (Genesis 21:5). Ishmael died at the age of 137 (Genesis 25:17), which would have been when Isaac was 123. Since Isaac was 60 when Jacob was born (Genesis 25:26), Jacob must have been 63 when Ishmael died, which would have been in the year 2171 AM, fourteen years before he reached Bet El. And yet, Esau (Jacob’s brother) is said to have approached Ishmael with the intention of marrying his daughter, when Jacob left Beer Sheva (Genesis 28:9). Is it possible that it took fourteen years or longer for Jacob to travel from Beer Sheva to Bet El?

The midrashic tradition has Jacob leaving Beer Sheva in 2171 AM, around the time of Esau’s marrying Ishmael’s daughter and Ishmael’s death, studying for fourteen years in the yeshiva established by his ancestors Shem and Eber (the second of whom wasn’t to die for another sixteen years), and then continuing on to Bet El in 2185 AM and, thence, to his uncle’s house (Megillah 17a; Rashi, Genesis 28:9, s.v. אחות נביות). We can safely assume that this midrashic tradition underscores the assertions made in the Zohar, and in the commentary of Rav Eybeschütz.

There are fifty years in the jubilee cycle. Dividing both of those dates by 50 gives us 43.42 for the first one, and 43.7 for the second. That means that the first date (2171 AM) was 21 years into the new jubilee cycle (21 = 0.42 x 50), and that the second date (2185 AM) was 35 years into the new jubilee cycle (35 = 0.7 x 50). Since the sabbatical cycle denotes a period of seven years, both of these dates would give us a sabbatical year – the first being the third of the jubilee cycle, and the second one being the fifth.

In actuality, of course, we need adopt neither of those dates if we do not wish to, assume that they have any significance beyond being incidental features of a narrative, nor even look for too much in the way of internal consistency. Asking questions like these may be a little like wondering what Prince Hamlet was doing when he received news of his father’s death; that which is not explicitly inferrable from the story is simply not part of the story.

But since the early rabbinic literature and the later midrashic tradition (including the Zohar) operates on the principle that anything not stated directly by the Torah can be inferred somehow from the same, the supposition that those dates have significance in the life of Jacob, that they’re not “merely” historical details, and that they can be used in order to determine a broader chronology that stretches beyond Genesis and into the realm of real history has genuine import.

As such, the Zohar’s assertion that Jacob left Beer Sheva in a sabbatical year, and Rav Eybeschütz’s assertion that it was a sabbatical year when he arrived in Bet El, is neither simple wordplay, based around the homonym sheva, nor a fanciful addition to the text. Whether we share in their presuppositions or not, it is evident that these traditions reflect a solid basis in biblical exegesis.