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929 Project: Genesis 20 – Ba’al and ba’al

August 9, 2018

First, a quick thanks to Karen R. Keen for mentioning this series in Biblical Studies Carnival 149.  Much appreciated, Karen!

This is a bit of an insane day for me, and I am about to board an airplane, so for Genesis Chapter 20, I’d like to simply quote the (rather good) “Hebrew Corner” about this chapter.

בעל – Ba’al – Storm God, Master, Owner – Husband?

Gen 20:3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “You are to die because of the woman that you have taken, for she is בעולת בעל, be’ulat ba’al, a married woman.”

You’d think that linguistic vestiges of pagan gods would have been eradicated in monotheistic Judaism, and in its tribal language Hebrew, long ago. But Ba’al, the ancient Canaanite sky god (see eg I Kings 18, for the duel at high noon between Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al), actually crops up in a number of surprising contexts.

For instance, given that the land of Canaan/Israel has no Nile or Tigris or Euphrates to depend on for water, Ba’al was a pretty significant god, a sort of Zeus-like head cheese of the Near Eastern pantheon. To this day in Israel, non-irrigated or rain-fed crops are called chaklaut ba’al – “baal agriculture.” So much for the eradication of paganism!

The word ba’al sometimes was used in combination, as in the demonic Beelzebub, from ba’al zevuv (see 2 Kings 1), meaning literally “Lord of the Flies,” which inspired the William Golding novel of that name.

What do gods do? They fight, conquer, take possession, and rule. And when the sky god is male (as most are), and the personification of earth is female (just think Mother Earth), it’s no coincidence that this image was taken for the title and role of the traditional husband, and more generally, an owner or master of anyone, or anything.

The act of בעילה be’ilah means “to have carnal relations with,” and it can have both positive connotations of love and devotion, or negative ones, of conquest.

For instance, in the following, be’ilah means redemption: “Nevermore shall you be called ‘Forsaken,’ Nor shall your land be called ‘Desolate’; But you shall be called cheftzi-bah ‘I delight in her,’ And your land be’ulah ‘Espoused.’ For the LORD takes delight in you, And your land shall be espoused” (Isaiah 62:4). This verse gives us the English given name Beulah.

On the other hand, while “espousal” is nice (certainly better than “forsaken” and “desolate”), the word ba’al is left both with its pagan connotations, and the idea of ownership. בעל הבית, ba’al habayit, is “owner of the house,” the lord of the manor, as it were. In Yiddish, pronounced balabus, this acquires the additional connotation of middle-class, bourgeois gentry. The woman of the house is the balabuste,”,” a strong, competent, often dominant, woman […].

Those looking for non-patriarchal terminology need go no further than the prophet Hosea. His version of redemption goes like this: “‘And in that day,’ declares the LORD: ‘You will call [Me] Ishi (i.e., “my man,”) And no more will you call Me Ba’ali (my lord). For I will remove the names of the Ba’alim from her mouth, And they shall nevermore be mentioned by name’” (Hosea 2: 18-19). This has been a great prooftext for reformers of contemporary Hebrew to use less sexist terminology.

Ba’al can also refer to possessing different qualities or attributes. For instance, a newly-religious Jew is known as a ba’al teshuvah, a “master of repentance,” or “BT” for short. The founder of the 18th century movement of Hasidism was the Ba’al Shem Tov, “master of the Good Name,” probably meaning that he knew how to magically use God’s name in working miracles. 

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

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929 Project: Genesis 19 – told from the man’s point of view

August 8, 2018

After offering up his daughters for rape to his fellow townsmen (Genesis 18:6-8), Lot commits incest, impregnating his daughters.  The story is told in a strangely morally neutral tone – and definitely from the man’s point of view:

ויהי בשחת אלהים את ערי הככר ויזכר אלהים את אברהם וישלח את לוט מתוך ההפכה בהפך את הערים אשר ישב בהן לוט

‏ ויעל לוט מצוער וישב בהר ושתי בנתיו עמו כי ירא לשבת בצוער וישב במערה הוא ושתי בנתיו

‏ ותאמר הבכירה אל הצעירה אבינו זקן ואיש אין בארץ לבוא עלינו כדרך כל הארץ

‏ לכה נשקה את אבינו יין ונשכבה עמו ונחיה מאבינו זרע

‏ ותשקין את אביהן יין בלילה הוא ותבא הבכירה ותשכב את אביה ולא ידע בשכבה ובקומה

‏ ויהי ממחרת ותאמר הבכירה אל הצעירה הן שכבתי אמש את אבי נשקנו יין גם הלילה ובאי שכבי עמו ונחיה מאבינו זרע

‏ ותשקין גם בלילה ההוא את אביהן יין ותקם הצעירה ותשכב עמו ולא ידע בשכבה ובקמה

‏ ותהרין שתי בנות לוט מאביהן

‏ ותלד הבכירה בן ותקרא שמו מואב הוא אבי מואב עד היום

‏ והצעירה גם הוא ילדה בן ותקרא שמו בן עמי הוא אבי בני עמון עד היום

And it came to pass, when God destroyed the cities of the plain, that God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in the which Lot dwelt.  And Lot went up out of Zoar, and dwelt in the mountain, and his two daughters with him; for he feared to dwell in Zoar: and he dwelt in a cave, he and his two daughters. 

And the firstborn said unto the younger, Our father is old, and there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth:  Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.  And they made their father drink wine that night: and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose.

And it came to pass on the morrow, that the firstborn said unto the younger, Behold, I lay yesternight with my father: let us make him drink wine this night also; and go thou in, and lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.  And they made their father drink wine that night also: and the younger arose, and lay with him; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose.

Thus were both the daughters of Lot with child by their father.  And the first born bare a son, and called his name Moab: the same is the father of the Moabites unto this day.  And the younger, she also bare a son, and called his name Benammi: the same is the father of the children of Ammon unto this day. (KJV)

What a strange account.  The text suggests that Lot bears no responsibility at all for this sexual union.  He was forced to drink wine and forced to have sexual intercourse. 

A rather different tradition is related in the Midrash Rabbah, as related by Shayna Sheinfeld, a visiting assistant professor at Centre College:sheinfeld_shayna_news_body-1

Lot Was Less Drunk than He Appeared
According to the midrash, Lot is not without fault in the situation, even though Gen 19:33, especially through the use of the verb שקה, literally “irrigate,” seems to remove any blame that may be placed on Lot based on his drunkenness. However, Genesis Rabbah 51:8 states that while Lot was drunk when his first daughter lay with him, he was sober enough to know when she got up. This is based on a peculiarity in the Hebrew text of v. 33, which includes a supralinear dot, on top of the vav in the word
ובקומה (when she arose).

In general, the inclusion of such a dot—called puncta extraordinaria in academic parlance—was a sign that the scribe believed the letter should be erased.  Although the simple intent of the scribe in this case could merely have been to remove a mater lectionis (the vav that functions as a vowel), i.e., to advocate for the defective spelling (ובקמה) over the plene (ובקומה), Genesis Rabbah believed that the dot in this case was meant to cast doubt on the word itself. According to the midrash:

נקוד על ויו של ובקומה שבשכבה לא ידע בקומה ידע

There is a dot written over the letter vav in the word ‘when she arose,’ meaning that while he did not know when she lay down, he did know when she got up.

According to the midrash, while Lot did not know what was going to happen when he drank the wine, he was aware of the fact that he had sex with his eldest daughter by the time she left his bed. This would also suggest that his willingness to drink the wine on the second night means that he was complicit in the sexual relations that he subsequently had with his younger daughter.

Lot Desired His Daughters
In theory, this erasure might reflect Lot’s passiveness; he understood why his daughters wanted him to impregnate them, but could not bring himself to take an active, sober role in the plan. Genesis Rabbah 51:9, however, takes a much more negative view of the matter, suggesting that Lot actually desired his daughters:

א”ר נחמן בר חנין כל מי שהוא להוטאחר בולמוס של עריות סוף שמאכילין אותו מבשרו רבי יודן דמן גלוי ורבי שמואל בר נחמן תרויהון אמרי משום רבי אליהו עיני אין אנו יודעים אם לוט נתאוה לבנותיו אם בנותיו נתאוו לו מן מה דכתיב לתאוה יבקש נפרד הוי לוט נתאוה לבנותיו ובנותיו לא נתאוו לו

Said R. Nahman bar Hanan, “Whoever lusts after fornication in the end will be fed with his own flesh.” R. Yudan of Galliah and R. Samuel bar Nahman, both in the name of R. Elijah Ene: “We do not know whether Lot lusted for his daughters, or his daughters lusted for him. On the basis of what is said in the following verse: ‘He who separates himself seeks desire’ (Prov. 18:1), it is clear that Lot lusted after his daughter.”

Thus, while the narrative in Genesis absolves Lot of any choice by describing him as completely intoxicated and totally unaware, Genesis Rabbah puts negative agency in Lot’s hands, accusing him of desiring and even bringing about the situation which led his daughters to seduce him.

The sages justify their interpretation through the obscure verse from Proverbs 18:1, “He who separates himself seeks desire,” understanding it to refer to Lot’s (poor) choice to live in the cave rather than to remain in the city of Zoar. This interpretation goes against the plain sense of the passage in Genesis, redeeming Lot’s daughters and placing blame into Lot’s hands.

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

929 Project: Genesis 18 – menopausal language

August 7, 2018

Genesis 18:11-12:

ואברהם ושרה זקנים באים בימים חדל להיות לשרה ארח כנשים

ותצחק שרה בקרבה לאמר אחרי בלתי היתה לי עדנה ואדני זקן

In Biblical Hebrew, this is fairly explicit language about the effects of menopause on a woman’s anatomy.  Consider how various English translations have tackled it:

Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.  Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?  (KJV)

Now they were both old, and far advanced in years, and it had ceased to be with Sara after the manner of women.  And she laughed secretly, saying: After I am grown old and my lord is an old man, shall I give myself to pleasure?  (DRC)

Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” (NRSV)

Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years; Sarah had stopped having the periods of women.  And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?” (NJPS)

Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years, and Sarah had stopped having her menstrual periods. So Sarah laughed to herself and said, “Now that I am worn out and my husband is old, am I still to have sexual pleasure?”  (NABRE)

And Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years, Sarah no longer had her woman’s flow.  And Sarah laughed inwardly, saying “After being shriveled, shall I have pleasure, and my husband is old?” (HB-A) [see also extended note below]

And Avraham and Sara were old, advanced in days,
the way of women
[footnote:  the menstrual period] had ceased for Sara.
Sara laughed within herself, saying:
After I have become worn, is there to be pleasure
[footnote:  sexual]  for me? And my lord is old!  (Shoc)

Abraham and Sarah were old by this time, very old. Sarah was far past the age for having babies. Sarah laughed within herself, “An old woman like me? Get pregnant? With this old man of a husband?” (MSG)

Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”  (NIV11)

Abraham and Sarah were both very old by this time, and Sarah was long past the age of having children. So she laughed silently to herself and said, “How could a worn-out woman like me enjoy such pleasure, especially when my master—my husband—is also so old?” (NLT15)

Notice how recent Evangelical translations (MSG, NIV11, NLT15)  try to clean up the text by removing the explicit reference to menstrual periods and downplay (or in the case of MSG, eliminate) the reference to sexual pleasure (as opposed to the pleasure of having a child.)

And look at the erudite and frank note that Robert Alter includes in his HB-A translation:

[Verses] 11-13.  This sequence of three utterances is a brilliant example of how much fine definition of position and character can be achieved in biblical narrative through variation in repetition.  First, the narrator informs us, objectively and neutrally, of Abraham’s and Sarah’s advanced age, stating the fact, repeating it with the emphasis of a synonym, and reserving for last Sarah’s postmenopausal condition, which would appear to make conception a biological impossibility.  When Sarah repeats this information in her interior monologue, it is given new meaning from her bodily perspective as an old and barren woman:  her flesh is shriveled, she cannot imagin having pleasure again (the term ‘ednah is cognate with Eden probably suggests sexual pleasure, or perhaps sexual moistness), and besides – her husband is old.  The dangling third clause hangs on the verge of a conjugal complaint:  how could she expect pleasure, or a child, when her husband is so old? […]

I simply find it hard to understand why recent Evangelical translations such as MSG, NIV11, NLT15 are so widely used when there are so many clear examples of mistranslation.

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

929 Project: Genesis 17 – seeds

August 6, 2018

This chapter appears is all about זרע (zera’) “seeds.”  The word appears frequently in this chapter:

The word זרע, zera’, “seed” or “progeny” appears in this chapter seven times (vv. 7 twice, 8, 9, 10, 12 and 19). Six of those times it is followed by the word אחרי, acharei, “following” or “after,” emphasizing that “era’,’’ or seed, or what grows from the seed, is continuity.

Robert Alter opines on word זרע in the introduction to his Five Books of Moses.  (Alter’s Five Books of Moses is scheduled to be incorporated into the HB-A.)

The Hebrew noun zera’ has the general meaning of “seed,” which can be applied either in the agricultural sense or to human beings, as the term for semen.  By metaphorical extension, semen becomes the established designation for what it produces, progeny.  Modern translators, evidently unwilling to trust the ability of adult readers to understand that “seed” – as regularly in the King James Version – may mean progeny, repeatedly render it as offspring, descendants, heirs, progeny, posterity.  But I think there is convincing evidence in the texts themselves that the biblical writers never entirely forgot that their term for offspring also meant semen and had a precise equivalent in the vegetable world.  To cite a distinctly physical example, when Onan “knew that the seed would not be his,” that is, the progeny of his brother’s widow should he impregnate her, “he would waste his seed on the ground, so to give no seed to his brother” (Genesis 38:9).  Modern translators, despite their discomfort with body terms, can scarcely avoid the wasted “seed” here because without it the representation of spilling semen on the ground in coitus interruptus becomes unintelligible.  E. A. Speiser substitutes “offspring” for “seed” at the end of the verse, however, and the Revised English Bible goes him one better by putting “offspring” at the beginning as well (“Onan knew that the offspring would not count as his”) and introducing “seed” in the middle as object of the verb “to spill” and scuttling back to the decorousness of “offspring” at the end – a prime example of explanation under the guise of translation.  But the biblical writer is referring to “seed” as much at the end of the verse as at the beginning.  Onan adopts the strategem of coitus interruptus in order not to “give seed” – that is, semen – to Tamar, and , as a necessary consequence of this contraceptive act, he avoids providing her with offspring.  The thematic point of this moment, anchored in sexual practice, law, and human interaction, is blunted by not preserving “seed” throughout.

Even in contexts not directly related to sexuality, the concreteness of this term often amplifies the meaning of the utterance.  when, for example, at the end of the story of the binding of Isaac, God reiterates His promise to Abraham, the multiplication of seed is strongly linked with cosmic imagery – harking back to the Creation story – of heaven and earth:  “I will greatly bless you and will greatly multiply your seed, as the stars in the heavens and as the sand on the shore of the sea” (Genesis 22:17).  If “seed” here is rendered as “offspring” or “descendants,” what we get are two essentially mathematical similes of numerical increase.  That is, in fact, the primary burden of the language God addresses to Abraham, but as figurative language it also imposes itself visually on the retina of imagination, and so underlying the idea of a single late-born son whose progeny will countless millions is an image of human seed (perhaps reinforced by the shared white color of semen and stars) scattered across the vast expanses of the starry skies and through the innumerable particles of sand on the shore of the sea.  To substitute “offspring” for “seed” here may not fundamentally alter the meaning but it diminishes the vividness of the statement, making it just a little harder for readers to sense why these ancient texts have been so compelling down through the ages.

This is one of Alter’s most persuasive arguments for his translation style.

Going back to the 929 description of zera’, the explanation continues:

Zera’ represents the next generation both for plants and for people. One of the six orders of the Mishnah (who knows six?  I know 6…) is called Zera’im, or “seeds” as it deals primarily with laws pertaining to agriculture.

Thus, a zera’ is both what a farmer puts in the ground, and what Onan spilled on the ground (see Gen. 38 – giving us the English term “onanism”, even though technically what he did is better labeled coitus interruptus), and what can grow from both types.

Bringing forth new generations sounds like it should always have happy and optimistic connotations, but the act of zrei’ah / hazra’ah (planting/insemination) can be a very apprehensive time, not knowing if everything will come to term. Psalm 126 expresses this well: “הזורעים hazor’im They who sow in tears, shall reap with songs of joy. Though he goes along weeping, carrying משך הזרע, meshech hazara’ the seed-bag, he shall come back with songs of joy, carrying his sheaves.”

And in Hebrew, it’s not only seeds that can be sown, but as in Psalm 97: or zaru’a latzadik, even light is sown, as a reward for the righteous, and happiness for the straight of heart.

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

929 Project: Genesis 16 – Genesis 16 from an Islamic viewpoint

August 5, 2018

Samir-Aasi

From Samir Assi (“Sheikh Samir Assi is a leading Muslim cleric the imam and central preacher of the El-Jazzar Mosque, the main mosque of Acre”) comes this 929 contribution:

Abraham Father of Us All

A Muslim view of Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael

We Muslims revere the Prophet Abraham: “Ibrahim Abuna,” Abraham our Father. For us, he is the father of all prophets. For that reason we mention his name in all five daily prayers. As everyone knows, he was born and lived much of his life in present-day Iraq, and called to cease the worship of statues and stars, and believe solely in the one God.

Nimrod, the king of Iraq, commanded that our Prophet Abraham of blessed memory, be burned, but God saved him from the furnace. King Nimrod released him, and Abraham left Iraq for the holy blessed soil of the Holy Land (Israel-Palestine). His wife Sarah accompanied him on the journey.

From there Abraham went down to Egypt, and there confronted Pharaoh who tried to molest Sarah. God saved Sarah from Pharaoh, who released the two of them, and gave Sarah Hagar as a handmaiden. The three of them then returned to the Holy Land.

Since Abraham was old, and Sarah was beyond child-bearing years, Sarah allowed Abraham to marry Hagar. When Hagar became pregnant and gave birth to a son named Ishmael, Sarah became jealous of Hagar. God commanded Abraham our Father to take Hagar and her son Ishmael to the desert. There he left them, because God wanted to bless Ishmael and make him the leader of a very great nation. Abraham our Father fulfilled God’s wishes. He would visit them frequently there in the desert, concerning himself with their well-being, until he died and was buried in Hebron.

Mideast-Israel-Divide_Horo-e1416417688749-640x400

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

929 Project: Genesis 15 – shalom

August 2, 2018

Genesis 15:15

ואתה תבוא אל אבתיך בשלום תקבר בשיבה טובה

As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. (NRSV)

This is the first mention of שלום (shalom) in Hebrew Bible.  Shalom can mean peace, hello, or goodbye, and the 929 web site asks the question of how one translates the Beatles:  “You say shalom, and I say shalom. Shalom, shalom! I don’t know why you say shalom, I say shalom….”

A possible translation of Judges 6:24 has Gideon calling God “LORD shalom,” and from this arose a tradition that Shalom is a name for God (see BT Shabbos 10b).  (Another possible translations has Gideon calling the altar “LORD shalom” – which raises monotheistic issues; or calling the altar “the LORD is shalom” or “the LORD is at shalom,” which are compatible with shalom being a Divine name.)

But shalom as a Divine name is a truly beautiful idea.  It means that we greet others and part from others with a name of God, and helps build on the idea that God is peace.

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

929 Project: Genesis 14 – war, and a political world

August 1, 2018

Genesis 14 dramatically shifts perspective. 

In Genesis 13, the focus is on the eloquence and piety of Abram, and the greediness of his nephew Lot.  There is mention of the Canaanites and Perizzites (Genesis 13:7), and of the wicked dwellers of Sodom (Genesis 13:13), but they play almost no role in the story of Genesis 13.  Abram and Lot both have herdsmen, who fight amongst their camps (Genesis 13:7) but the rhetorical energy of Genesis is dedicated to Abram’s eloquent speech (Genesis 13:9).

And in Genesis 14, chaos erupts.  The text is difficult to follow in parts, and the 929 chapter summary helps:

Chapter 14: The First World War

This is the first World War, at least the first in the Bible. A coalition of four northern kings (mainly from Mesopotamia) embarks on a military expedition to the Dead Sea area (the Plains of Jordan). Why? Because five kings from the Plains of Jordan had made an alliance with each other and after twelve years of enslavement to the northern kingdom of Elam they rebelled. On the way to suppressing the rebellion, Chedarlaomer, the king of Elam, and his northern allies, conquer an impressive list of other nations (Genesis 14: 5-7). When they reach the Valley of Siddim, which is in the area of ​​the Dead Sea, they suppress the rebels, conquer and loot them, and take captives.

At this point, general  history meets our story. Among the prisoners was Lot, Abram’s nephew, who, in the previous chapter, separated from him and chose to settle in Sodom. Abram and his local allies pursue the invading force, subdue them, release the captives, and return all the looted property. That is, almost all the property. A tithe from this was given to Melchizedek, the Priest of Salem (Jerusalem); some of the property was given to Abram’s allies. Abram, however, did not take any of the spoils as he says, “I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours” (verse 23).

Big Ideas:

  1. The prophet Jeremiah (1:14) once said “From the north shall disaster break loose.”  This the first time in the Bible, but not the last, that a kingdom from the north is the dominant imperial factor in Canaan. This will occur  throughout most of the monarchy.
  2. Abram, who chases after the invading force, not only releases Lot, but also determines the nature of the northern border to Canaan. This border, incidentally, is quite similar to the border that is recorded in the Book of Samuel during the reign of King David (Samuel 1: 30).
  3. Abram is referred to in the chapter “Abram the Hebrew” (verse 13).
  4. In this chapter we discover that Abram is not a lone wolf.  He has local allies (Eshkol and Aner) and even a connection to the local priest:  “And King Melchizedek of Salem…was a priest of God Most High” (verse 18).
  5. This is the first time in Tanach that Jerusalem is mentioned. It appears in its early and abbreviated name – “Salem”, and it already has a connection to the ritual, priesthood, faith and the giving of tithes.

Notice how carefully the text redirects Canaanite religion to monotheistic religion.  Here is Melchizedek’s blessing to Abram (Genesis 14:19-20):

ויברכהו ויאמר ברוך אברם לאל עליון קנה שמים וארץ

וברוך אל עליון אשר מגן צריך בידך ויתן לו מעשר מכל

And he blessed him, and he said

“Blessed be Abram to El Elyon,
possessor of heaven and earth,
and blessed be El Elyon
who delivered your foes into your hand.” 
(HB-A)

and here is Abram’s response (Genesis 14:22)

ויאמר אברם אל מלך סדם הרמתי ידי אל חי אל עליון קנה שמים וארץ

And Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I raise my hand in oath to the LORD, the Most High God, possessor of heaven and earth, […].  (HB-A)

Robert Alter notes in HB-A, “El is the proper name of the sky god in the Canaanite pantheon, and Elyon is evidently a distinct, associated deity, though here the two appear as a compound name.  But the two terms are also plain Hebrew words that mean “God the Most High,” and elsewhere are used separately or (once) together as designations of the God of Israel.  Whatever Melchizedek’s theology, Abram elegantly co-opts him for monotheism by using El Elyon in its orthodox Israelite sense when he addresses the king of Sodom.”

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

929 Project: Genesis 13 – a chilling foreshadowing

July 31, 2018

Genesis 13 is a chilling read.  It foreshadows the horrible fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Even if somehow the reader does not know what will happen, the text explicitly references it:

וישא לוט את עיניו וירא את כל ככר הירדן כי כלה משקה לפני שחת חי את סדם ואת עמרה כגן חי כארץ מצרים באכה צער

Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it —t his was before the LORD had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah — all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt. (NJPS)

At the same time, the text reminds us that the land that Abram and Lot are to divide is already populated.  Genesis 13:7b:

והכנעני והפרזי אז ישב בארץ

[A]nd the Canaanite and the Perizzite dwelled then in the land. (KJV)

Robert Alter notes in HB-A:

This second notation of the indigenous population of Canaan, at the moment of friction between the two immigrants from Mesopotamia, suggests that they can scarcely afford such divisiveness when they are surrounded by potential enemies.  (In the next episode, Abram will be obliged to bring military aid to his nephew.)  There may also be a hint of irony in their dividing up a land here that already has inhabitants.

In light of what happens in the next chapter – as well as in the book of Joshua, this too is a chilling foreshadowing.

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

929 Project: Genesis 12 – mandatory and voluntary

July 30, 2018

Genesis 12:10:

ויהי רעב בארץ וירד אברם מצרימה לגור שם כי כבד הרעב בארץ

And there was a famine in the land: and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was grievous in the land.  (KJV)

The commentary on the 929 website by Matthew Kritz on this passage is quite good:

The (In)consequential in Genesis

Should Avraham have gone to Egypt? Was his decision righteous,wicked, or neutral? Throughout the biblical text, we have two clear indicators of when someone has done right or wrong: God can give a directive prior to the act, and God can bestow a reward or a punishment upon the doer following the act. Clear examples in Avraham’s life include the journey to Canaan (12:1-9) and the binding of Yitzchak ([22]:1-18); in both cases, God gives an instruction, Avraham (mostly) follows through, and God bestows a reward.  We could read much of Genesis this way, and using these indicators, we could determine who has acted well in the stories, and hence what it would mean for us to act well.

Neither of these indicators is present, though, when Avraham descends to Egypt. We are simply told that he chose to journey south due to a famine. But if a purported goal of Genesis is to teach us how to live, by providing examples of right and wrong, how shall we read an account of a key character taking action with neither divine directive nor divine response?

Later interpreters find a reward, such as the wealth Avraham earns (Tanchuma), or a punishment, such as the descent of Avraham’s children to Egypt, leading to their servitude (Ramban), lurking within the story, allowing them to judge Avraham favorably or harshly.

On the surface, however, Avraham simply goes, leaving no clear indication of whether he made the right choice, as the telling of a story does not, on its own, tell us whether the characters are positive or negative role models.

This suggests that some stories in Genesis (namely, those that lack both of the evaluative components) are not recorded in order to teach an actionable lesson,  but for some other reason. So at the core of this exegetical exploration of a brief step in Avraham’s journey lies an essential question in reading Genesis specifically, and narrative components of the Torah in general. Need there be a message? If there are stories that aren’t trying to teach lessons, then what are they trying to do? And what bearing does this have on how we understand the function of Genesis, and the Torah, as a whole?

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

929 Project Genesis 11 – the number 365

July 29, 2018

Robert Alter’s commentary to Genesis 11:10-26:

There are ten generations from Shem to Abraham (as the universal history begins to focus down to a national history) as there are ten from Adam to Noah.  In another formal symmetry, the ten antediluvian generations end with a father who begets three sons, just as this series of ten will end with Terah begetting Abram, Nahor, and Haran.  This genealogy, which constitutes the bridge from the Flood to the beginning of the Patriarchal Tales, uses formulas identical with those of the antediluvian genealogy in Chapter 5, omitting the summarizing indication of life span and the report of death of each begetter.  Longevity is now cut in half, and then halved again in the latter part of the list, as we approach Abram  From this point, men will have merely the extraordinary life spans of modern Caucasian mountain dwellers and not legendary life spans.  The narrative in this way is preparing to enter recognizable human time and family life.  There is one hidden number-game here, as the Israeli Bible scholar Moshe Weinfeld has observed:  the number of years from the birth of Shem’s son to Abram’s migration to Canaan is exactly a solar 365.

When I was a child, I was looking for a way to remember that a year was 365 days long.  Finally, I hit on the following formula:  365 = 142+132=122+112+102.  Indeed, 365 is the smallest number that has more than one expression as the sum of consecutive squares.

Another way I might have (but did not) remember it would have involved recalling a standard 52-card deck of cards.  Count the one through ten cards as having one through ten pips, and assign eleven pips to a jack, twelve pips to a queen, and thirteen pips to a king.

Then the average number of pips on a card is seven – the number of days in a week.

The number of cards in the deck is 52 – the number of weeks in a year.

Computing the total number of kips in a hand, if we calculate 4 x ( 1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9+10+11+12+13) we get 364, and adding in one pip for the joker, we get 3655 – the total number of days in a standard year.

365 is the traditional value assigned to the number of negative commandments (“thou shalt not”) in the Bible (although if you actually count the number of verses with negative commandments, the number is greater!)  According to a popular tradition recorded both in Targum Jonathan (Targ. Yonasan) to Genesis 1:27 and the Kabbalistic works, there 365 sinews in the body (although this calculation does not necessarily agree with modern medical anatomy).  Genesis 5:23 says that Enoch was 365 (and in Genesis 5:24, God takes Enoch.)

These sorts of numerical games are endless fun play.  Since Hebrew uses the Hebrew/Aramaic alphabet to record numbers, there is a numerical value to every Hebrew word, leading to a type of numerical wordplay called gematria.

But in truth, it should be said that if the the number had been different, there would have been no problem finding many interesting coincidences.  Indeed, here is a pseudo-mathematical proof that there are no boring whole numbers (non-negative integers):  Let S be the set of all such boring whole numbers.  Suppose that S is non-empty.  Then S must have an element with minimum value, call that value x. Then x is boring; but x is also the smallest boring number, which is pretty interesting.  This gives us a contradiction, so our assumption that S is non-empty must be wrong.  Therefore no whole numbers are boring.  Quod erat demonstrandum.

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

929 Project: Genesis 10 – gotta catch ‘em all

July 26, 2018

Genesis 10 contains “The Table of Nation” – a remarkable list to enumerate all of the cultures known to Ancient Israel.  Robert Alter writes in his notes to Genesis 10 in HB-A:

As elsewhere, genealogy is adopted as a mean of schematizing complex historical evolution, and thus the terms “father of” and “begot” are essentially metaphors for historical concatenation.  The total number of figures in the Table of Nations (excluding Nimrod) comes to seventy, the biblical formulatic number for a sizeable and complete contingent of any sort.  It should be observed that representing the origins of nations as a genealogical scheme preserves a thematic continuity with the divine injunction after creation to be fruitful and multiply and sets the stage for the history of the one people whose propagation is repeatedly promised but continually threatened. 

In keeping with the universalist perspective of Genesis, the Table of Nations is a serious attempt, unprecedented in the ancient Near East, to sketch a panorama of all known human cultures – from Greece and Crete in the west through Asia Minor and Iran and down through Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula to northwestern Africa.  This chapter has been a happy hunting ground for scholars armed with the tools of archeology, and in fact an impressive proportion of these names have analogues in inscriptions and tablets in other ancient Near Eastern cultures.  The Table mingles geographic, ethnic, and linguistic criteria for defining nations, and the list intersperses place-names and gentilic designations (the latter appearing first in plural forms and beginning with verse 16 in singular forms).  Some analysts have argued for a splicing together of two different lists of nations.  One may infer that the Table assumes a natural evolutionary explanation for the multiplicity of languages that does not involve an act of divine intervention of the sort that will be narrated in the next episode, the Tower of Babel.

Pokémon_Gotta_Catch_'Em_All_1

It is a deep human characteristic to categorize all things – whether it be biological taxonomy (than you Carl Linnaeus) or a dictionary (thank you Samuel Johnson) or a classification system for books and knowledge (than you Melvil Dewey). 

This tendency was satirized by Jorge Luis Borges in in his “El Idioma Analítico de John Wilkins” (“The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”) in which Borges writes:

Esas ambigüedades, redundancias y deficiencias recuerdan las que el doctor Franz Kuhn atribuye a cierta enciclopedia china que se titula Emporio celestial de conocimientos benévolos. En sus remotas páginas está escrito que los animales se dividen en (a) pertenecientes al Emperador, (b) embalsamados, (c) amaestrados, (d) lechones, (e) sirenas, (f) fabulosos, (g) perros sueltos, (h) incluidos en esta clasificación, (i) que se agitan como locos, (j) innumerables, (k) dibujados con un pincel finísimo de pelo de camello, (l) etcétera, (m) que acaban de romper el jarrón, (n) que de lejos parecen moscas.

[These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies remind us of those which doctor Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge’. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.]

Systematization is the probable parent of another very human tendency:  the urge to collect.  By enumeration, one tickles the human desire to collect.  Here is a list of desirable objects. 

Do you want to sell twenty books?  Number them and sell them in a series. They will prove irresistible to collectors (like me!).

In a sense, this helps explain the collection that forms the Bible itself (“anything you can do, I can do meta”).  We enumerate these books as being canonical, and before you know it, they are all bundled together in a collection that makes very clear what is inside the collection and what is outside the collection.  Thus, one has the remarkable phenomenon of certain Roman Catholics on the Internet damming seemingly worthy books (such as the Apostolic Letters) merely because they are apocrypha outside Scripture.  (I merely mention this example because it is the last one I saw – one could even more easily taunt certain Protestants or Muslims or Jews.)

Such a remarkable world that we live in, that embraces so many cultures, and so many ideas, and so many books – and still finds it worthy to classify certain ones as being inside and others as being outside.

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

929 Project: Genesis 9 – the vegetarian diet

July 25, 2018

This series is coordinated with the 929 project, as explained in this post.  A table of abbreviations and acronyms used is available here.

Genesis 9:3:

כל רמש אשר הוא חי לכם יהיה לאכלה כירק עשב נתתי לכם את כל

Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. (NRSV)

Sometimes I meet a Bible quoter who cites Genesis 9:3 to criticize vegetarians. 

When this happens, I cite Daniel 1:11-16:

Then Daniel asked the guard whom the palace master had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah: “Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink.  You can then compare our appearance with the appearance of the young men who eat the royal rations, and deal with your servants according to what you observe.”  So he agreed to this proposal and tested them for ten days.  At the end of ten days it was observed that they appeared better and fatter than all the young men who had been eating the royal rations.  So the guard continued to withdraw their royal rations and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables.  (NRSV, emphasis added)

(NB this blog entry was posted on August 1, 2018, and backdated to July 25 for reasons explained here.)

929 Project: Genesis 8 – two poems

July 24, 2018

This series is coordinated with the 929 project, as explained in this post.  A table of abbreviations and acronyms used is available here.

For today’s post, I present two poems related to Genesis 8.  The first is by the person many consider to be the greatest living Arabic poet; the second is by a celebrated Cuban-American poet.

adonis

The New Noah (with translator’s notes)

By Adonis (see also here and here and especially here)

Translated by Shawkat M. Toorama

I

We travel upon the Ark, in mud and rain,
Our oars promises from God.   
We live — and the rest of Humanity dies.
We travel upon the waves, fastening
Our lives to the ropes of corpses filling the skies.
But between Heaven and us is an opening,
A porthole for a supplication.

“Why, Lord, have you saved us alone
From among all the people and creatures?
And where are you casting us now?
To your other Land, to our First Home?
Into the leaves of Death, into the wind of Life?
In us, in our arteries, flows a fear of the Sun.
We despair of the Light,
We despair, Lord, of a tomorrow
In which to start Life anew.

“If only we were not that seedling of Creation,
Of Earth and its generations,
If only we had remained simple Clay or Ember,
Or something in between,
Then we would not have to see   
This World, its Lord, and its Hell, twice over.”

II

If time started anew,
and waters submerged the face of life,
and the earth convulsed, and that god
rushed to me, beseeching, “Noah, save the living!”
I would not concern myself with his request.
I would travel upon my ark, removing   
clay and pebbles from the eyes of the dead.
I would open the depths of their being to the flood,
and whisper in their veins   
that we have returned from the wilderness,
that we have emerged from the cave,
that we have changed the sky of years,
that we sail without giving in to our fears—
that we do not heed the word of that god.
Our appointment is with death.   
Our shores are a familiar and pleasing despair,
a gelid sea of iron water that we ford   
to its very ends, undeterred,
heedless of that god and his word,
longing for a different, a new, lord.

Translator’s note

“The New Noah” is a poem I first encountered in my twenties, a poem Adonis wrote in his twenties. The poem’s content is simple enough. In the first part, Noah is saved from the flood and wonders why he and his people alone have been saved; despairing, he asks the Lord what He has in store for them. In the second part, Noah describes what he would do if he could turn back time, describes how he and his people would ignore God and sail to a different kind of salvation. Meditation on the relationship between the poetic persona and the prophet I leave to the reader.

In Adonis’s long poems, with which I have more experience, the language can at times be opaque, dense with allusion, and grammatically complex, what some admirers term al-sahl al-mumtani‘, the (apparently) easy (but effectively sublimely) elusive. “The New Noah” is in a straightforward Arabic, plaintive and mournful in the first part, aggrieved and assertive in the second, but translating proved difficult indeed. To begin with, there is the irregular but insistent rhyme at the ends of quite short lines (most are only five or six words long), something I have tried to convey. There is the playful and daunting use of classical Arabic meters, which I have brazenly ignored. And there is the careful deployment – I cannot think of another way of describing this – of the words allâh (“God,” line 2), rabb (“Lord,” lines 8, I5, 22, 42), and ilâh ("god," lines 25, 36, 41). Unlike English, Arabic does not have uppercase and lowercase letters: the distinction between “God” and “god” is, consequently, made by using two different, though admittedly related, words: allâh and ilâh . I have paid special attention to this. Overall, I am at peace with the translation, though rhyming the final four lines was difficult: “undeterred,” however implied, is my own intervention; and I still waver between “A New Noah” and “The New Noah.” There are certainly small successes: “fastening” and “opening” in lines four and six happily rhyme; the resonance of “porthole” in line seven; the possibility in English of using uppercase in the first part of the poem to underscore the difference in tenor between it and the second part; and that rarest of creatures, a cognate, in “gelid” in line 39. – S.M.T.

dionisio-d-martinez

A Dove Is Not a Bird

By Dionisio D. Martínez (see also here)

For Lynda Hull (1954-1994)

A dove is not a bird. You can make the argument in reverse, but it’s not
as convincing because it lacks those tangible elements by which we

measure the veracity of anything. An argument is not a dove, but you
can make a case for it – as if you were building a cage with gaps much

wider than the birds you intend to catch and keep. Even if you can argue
the large bones of night into submission, the city will follow you every-

where: the city is a loop of darkness. Even at dawn – the throat parched
and the repetition of the last few thoughts dulled – city streets are the halls

of the great indoors: this island-as-idea shining inside you. That’s what
you’ve come for. That’s why the myth became a theory dovetailing into

fact. You can say a bird will not fly without air, all the conviction in your
breath leaving you the way the soul might leave those who still believe

in the possibility of a soul. Like a muddy fact. I make my way to the place
where you’re no longer necessary, but the matchbook of memory strikes

another one and you’re still holding your essential smile. If you trust my
reconstruction of the scene, I can prove that you looked away each time

you smiled – as if something in your mouth had taken flight. If you trust
your eyes, you know we never look away: our gaze is always fixed on

a target; it’s the night of this anonymous city that shifts incessantly. This
new bandit making tracks with one foot, covering them with the other.

(NB this blog entry was posted on August 1, 2018, and backdated to July 24 for reasons explained here.)

929 Project: Genesis 7 – charity and disaster

July 23, 2018

This series is coordinated with the 929 project, as explained in this post.  A table of abbreviations and acronyms used is available here.

Genesis 7:1:

יאמר ה׳ לנח בא אתה וכל ביתך אל התבה כי אתך ראיתי צדיק לפני בדור הזה

And the Lord said unto Noah, Come thou and all thy house into the ark; for thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation.  (KJV)

Noah is a tzadik צדיק (righteous one) of his generation.  That root is צ-ד-ק tz-d-k, giving us tzedakah צדקה (charity) and tzedek צדק (justice).  Being righteous, seeking justice, giving charity – these are all different aspects of the same word-root in Hebrew.

(The 929 Hebrew Corner for this day includes a fascinating mention:  “The family name of the popular singer Neil Sedaka really is tzedakah. His family is Lebanese, with Sephardi roots, and the word is the same in Arabic as well".”)

What was your response to the 2010 Haitian earthquake, or the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, or the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, or the 2017 North Bay (Sonoma-Napa) fires, or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, or the many other disasters that have struck in our lifetime?  Did you give tzedakah/charity?  If so, then you too are are at least a bit like Noah, who followed the command given to him to try to save life on the earth.

(NB this blog entry was posted on July 31, 2018, and backdated to July 23 for reasons explained here.)

929 Project: Genesis 6 – Nephilim and the Trojan War

July 22, 2018

This series is coordinated with the 929 project, as explained in this post.  A table of abbreviations and acronyms used is available here.

Genesis 6:1-4:

ויהי כי החל האדם לרב על פני האדמה ובנות ילדו להם

ויראו בני האלהים את בנות האדם כי טבת הנה ויקחו להם נשים מכל אשר בחרו

‏ ויאמר ה׳ לא ידון רוחי באדם לעלם בשגם הוא בשר והיו ימיו מאה ועשרים שנה

‏ הנפלים היו בארץ בימים ההם וגם אחרי כן אשר יבאו בני האלהים אל בנות האדם וילדו להם המה הגברים אשר מעולם אנשי השם

And it happened as humankind began to multiple over the earth and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were comely, and they took themselves wives howsoever they chose.  And the LORD said, “My breath shall not abide in the human forever, for he is but flesh.  Let his days be a hundred and twenty years.  The Nephilim were then on the earth, and afterward as well, the sons of God having come to bed with the daughter of man who bore them children:  they are the heroes of yore, the men of renown.  (HB-A)

[HB-A has extensive notes on this passage which I do not reproduce here.]

In 1987, a paper appeared in the Journal of Biblical Literature from the young Ron Hendel, a scholar then in his twenties, entitled Of Demigods and the Deluge: Toward an Interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4 that discussed the connections of the Nephilim with both Mesopotamian mythology and the legends of the Trojan war.  I recommend reading the full paper, but here is an excerpt with part of Hendel’s argument:

[… Where] did Gen 6:1-4 come from? I submit that the story of the mingling of gods and mortals and the procreation of the demigods was originally connected to the flood narrative and functioned as its motivation. [The story detaches the] demigods from the myth of the deluge in order to preface the flood with a more purely ethical motive:  [Divine] anger at the evil behavior of humanity. This would explain why Gen 6:1-4 directly precedes the flood narrative, and, simultaneously, why it is unconnected from its context. In order to support my surmise I will range from the Babylonian motive for the flood story in the myth of Atrahasis to the mythological motives for the Trojan War in the Greek tradition. Somewhere between Babylon and Greece, in a peculiar twist of tradition, the connection between demigods and the deluge was generated, only to survive in fragments.

The Mesopotamian motive for the deluge is an imbalance in the cosmos, namely, the overpopulation of humanity on the earth.  The noise of mankind disturbs Enlil’s sleep, so he decrees destruction for humanity, first in the form of several plagues and drought and finally in the form of the flood. The crucial passage in the Atrahasis myth reads:

The land grew extensive, the people multiplied,
The land was bellowing like a bull.
At their uproar the god became angry;
Enlil heard their noise.
He addressed the great gods,
”The noise of mankind has become oppressive to me.
Because of their uproar I am deprived of sleep.”

Like the action in the later Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish, the chief god is disturbed by the noise of overabundant activity; he decrees destruction and is finally thwarted by the actions of the wily god Enki/Ea […] In the Atrahasis myth, Enki saves Atrahasis and family, so that life may be preserved. To prevent future overpopulation, the gods take several measures: they create several categories of women who do not bear children; they create demons who snatch away babies; and […], they institute a fixed mortality for mankind. […] Death, barren women, celibate women, and infant mortality are the solutions for the problem of imbalance that precipitated the flood.

In Greek tradition a different kind of imbalance appears in several of the mythological motives for the Trojan War. In order to make my comparison precise, I should emphasize that although the Trojan War is a military encounter rather than a flood, it functions in a way similar to the Babylonian deluge: it serves as the great destruction which divides the prior age from the present age, just as does the flood in the Atrahasis myth and in other Mesopotamian traditions. […] [In] Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women […]:

All the gods were divided in spirit through strife, for at that time high-thundering Zeus was planning wondrous deeds, to mingle disorder on the boundless earth, for he already was hastening to annihilate the race of mortal men, as a pretext to destroy the lives of the demigods, (so that) the children of the gods (would not mate with wretched) mortals, seeing [fate] with their own eyes, but that the blessed gods [henceforth], as before, should have their way of life and their accustomed places apart from mortal men.

The point of this fragment is to motivate Zeus’s decision to bring on the Trojan War by reference to the unseemly mingling of gods and mortals and the resulting procreation of the heroic demigods. Zeus decides to send a war “to destroy the lives of the demigods,” so that the gods would desist from mating with mortals and so that gods and mortals might live separately.  The imbalance in this case is not a general overpopulation but rather the procreation of a specific mixed category of beings, the demigods.  Zeus brings on the Trojan War to destroy the heroic demigods, so that the proper division of realms between gods and humans might be secured.

The theme of the separation of gods and mortals is prominent in another Hesiodic myth, the story of Prometheus’s sacrifice and the subsequent creation of Pandora, so it appears that the Greek pedigree of this theme is secure. The Hesiodic myth of the five ages pursues similar themes and reflects a common formulaic diction in the description of the separation of the heroic demigods from mortal men. The word used of the demigods, hemitheoi, rare in Hesiod, […] occurs only once in Homer, in a passage that describes the destruction by flood of the Achaean wall. It is interesting that the destruction is to occur after the fall of Troy. Scodel has argued that this small destruction may be a vestige of an older flood tradition which the Trojan War has largely displaced.  In support of Scodel’s argument, I would note that Poseidon, the god partly responsible for the flood of the Achaean wall, is elsewhere in the epic decidedly pro-Achaean (e.g., Iliad 13-14). The contradiction in Poseidon’s role in bringing on the destruction by flood of the Achaean wall when elsewhere in the epic he is pro-Achaean points up the anomaly of the episode and supports its likely status as a vestige of a variant pre-Homeric flood tradition.

In sum, I suggest that the Trojan War functions in a manner similar to the Semitic flood tradition and may indeed be related by way of oral tradition to the older Semitic myths.  One of the mythic motives of the Trojan War sounds very similar to Gen 6:1-4, although it retains more context. In the Greek text, the mixing of gods and mortals and the existence of the mixed-breed demigods are the direct motive for the Trojan War.  Zeus wished to separate gods from mortals and to destroy the demigods, so he decrees the Trojan War. There are other mythical motives in the Greek Trojan War tradition, including the abduction of Helen, found in both the Homeric and Hesiodic traditions and in an interesting fragment of the Cypria which describes Zeus’s decision to bring about the Trojan War as a result of human overpopulation. The similarity between this fragment and the Atrahasis myth has been often noted, though its similarity with an Indian myth in the Mahabharata raises the possibility of Indo-European origins. In any case, complexity of themes is what we should expect in a tradition of oral mythology.  […]

(NB this blog entry was posted on July 31, 2018, and backdated to July 22 for reasons explained here.)

929 Project: Genesis 5 – the most important verse

July 19, 2018

This series is coordinated with the 929 project, as explained in this post.  A table of abbreviations and acronyms used is available here.

Genesis 5 is the first of many, many chapters in the Hebrew Bible that would seem to be hard to blog about:  it appears to be a fairly boring genealogical recital.  Sure it has its oddities:  What is possibly meant by Genesis 5:24 with Enoch not dying but merely being no more because God took him?  (Speculation about this question may have been the impetus for the pseudepigrapha book of Enoch.)  Why does Lamech prophesize in Genesis 4:29 that Noah will bring relief from work and toil resulting from God’s curse on Adam?  But compared with much of the rest of Genesis, Genesis 5 is a bit of a snooze.

However, Ben Azzai found Genesis 5:1 to be the most important verse in the Hebrew Bible:

זה ספר תולדת אדם ביום ברא אלהים אדם בדמות אלהים עשה אתו

This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; (KJV)

In choosing this verse, Ben Azzai differed from his teacher Rabbi Akiva who believed the most important verse was Leviticus 19:18:

לא תקם ולא תטר את בני עמך ואהבת לרעך כמוך אני ה׳

Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD. (KJV)

dyonna

In her 929 commentary, Dyonna Ginsburg writes the following:

[A]ccording to Ben Azzai, the Torah’s most important principle is that humanity was created in the divine image and that we all belong to the same family tree.  […] [H]is choice of proof text [is surprising].

The opening verse of Chapter 5 of the Book of Genesis is a repetition of things we’ve already been told before. Chapter 1 declares: “And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He them (Genesis 1:27).” Chapter 4 begins listing Adam’s descendants, including the first two generations of the line of Seth. For all intents and purposes, then, the first 11 verses in Chapter 5 restate basic information previously conveyed to us in Chapter 4.

Whether it is the concept of divinely-endowed human dignity or the notion that all of humanity is descended from Adam, the verse Ben Azzai quotes does not teach us anything new.  Why, then, might he have chosen this verse? Perhaps, the answer lies in its placement in the larger narrative of the Book of Genesis.

Chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis tell the story of creation, full of hope and promise for humanity.  Chapter 3, with its focus on Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, introduces fallibility and abdication of responsibility to the human condition.  In Chapter 4, humanity descends into jealousy, violence, and bloodshed – a chapter bookended by the stories of Cain killing his brother and of Cain’s descendant, Lamech, who revels in acts of murder. After all this, comes Chapter 5, a genealogy of Adam, focusing on his third son, Seth.

The power of Chapter 5 Verse 1, then, is not in its originality, but in its reaffirmation of human goodness and connectivity against the backdrop of evidence to the contrary. Seen in this vein, Chapter 1’s assertion that humanity was created in God’s image is descriptive; Chapter 5’s is prescriptive. When humanity is at its worst, it is natural to retreat into our particularistic selves, wanting to protect our own. In his choice of verse, however, Ben Azzai arguably challenges us to fight that inclination, assert our shared humanity, and seek out the divine spark in others, even when it’s difficult.

(NB this blog entry was posted on July 30, 2018, and backdated to July 19 for reasons explained here.)

929 Project: Genesis 4 – Cain the wisecracker

July 18, 2018

This series is coordinated with the 929 project, as explained in this post.  A table of abbreviations and acronyms used is available here.

The story goes that at a synagogue a kid once asked a famous visiting rabbi whether there were any jokes in the Hebrew Bible. 

Without blinking, the rabbi replied, “Yes, but they’re all old.”

Arguably, the first joke in the Hebrew Bible is Genesis 4:9:

ויאמר ה׳ אל קין אי הבל אחיך ויאמר לא ידעתי השמר אחי

אנכי

And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper? (KJV)

Is it fair to call this humor? 

The question of whether to read Genesis 4:9 as humor reminds of a similar challenge of presenting Falstaff in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV (both parts).  Do we show Falstaff as being funny, or being decrepit and foul?

On the one hand, Falstaff is presented as a center of wit in the King Henry IV plays (becoming so beloved that according to legend Queen Elizabeth asked Shakespeare to write more about Falstaff, resulting in Merry Wives of Windsor.)  On the other hand, a central arc of these plays is Prince Hal maturing and abandoning his roguish friends as he prepare to assume the throne.  In Part 1 Act 1 Scene 2 (starting at line 186) Hal explicitly predicts this maturation in his surprising monologue to the audience announcing his intention to abandon friends:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wish’d for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

 

These questions came to the fore to me as I watched The Hollow Crown, the (terrific) BBC adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henriad (the Richard II/King Henry IV parts 1&2/King Henry V tetralogy).  The Hollow Crown portrays Falstaff in a constantly negative fashion, unlike many earlier treatments (consider Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight or Harold Bloom’s book length treatment of Falstaff).   Ada Palmer (an acquaintance who is also a history professor at U. Chicago, a successful science fiction author, and a composer) writes:

ada palmer

What are these plays about, the prince, the tavern or the king? The structure of Henry IV makes it particularly easy for the director to change the answer, since for much of both plays the action literally alternates between funny scenes at the tavern, with Prince Hal and his old friend Falstaff playing drunken pranks, and scenes of war and politics with King Henry IV facing bold rebels. The two halves are united by the process of the young prince gradually facing up to his political destiny, but the director can completely change which half seems to be the thrust of it by deciding which scenes to do quickly and which to do slowly, which to trim and which to extend with music or dance or horse chases or battle drama.

We know that in Shakespeare’s day the big hit was Prince Hal’s funny friend Falstaff, who was so popular in Part 1 that Shakespeare added a ton more (completely gratuitous) scenes with him in Part 2 plus wrote the entire comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor just to give us more Falstaff—pandering to one’s fans is not a modern invention! But the modern audience of The Hollow Crown is in this for the high politics dynastic warfare epic, so the director has made the shockingly radical decision to give us a version of Henry IV which actually seems to be about King Henry IV.

Below on the left, Prince Hal smirks at Falstaff’s antics in the Globe production of Henry IV (portrayed by Jamie Parker and Roger Allam) while on the right, Hal is being told off by his father, King Henry IV in The Hollow Crown (Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons). Both scenes appear in both versions of the play, but guess which is extended and which trimmed?

Only part of this shift comes from directors actually cutting lines, though The Hollow Crown […] does trim the silly scenes and extend the serious. What makes focus feel so different is the emotion and body language behind an actor’s delivery, which can make a line have a completely different meaning. For anyone who wants an amazing quick demo of this, check out two short videos Mercator A and Mercator B, created by an NEH Workshop on Roman Comedy, demonstrating how the same short scene from Plautus’s ancient play feels completely different without changing a word—the jealous wife’s body language is altered. (The hard-core can also watch the scene in Latin where body language alone tells all).

For me, in Henry IV, the centerpiece issue is how any given director chooses to present Falstaff, the vice-ridden, drunken, witty, thieving, lecherous, eloquent old knight with whom our young trickster Prince Hal plays away his youthful hours. The crux of this is the finale of Henry IV part 2 when (415-year-old spoiler warning) Prince Hal becomes King Henry V and, rather than taking Falstaff to court as one of his favorites, suddenly banishes Falstaff and all the immoral companions of his youth. This decision wins Henry the respect of his nobles and subjects, but breaks Falstaff’s heart and hopes, resulting in the old knight’s death. How Falstaff and Henry’s nobles react is locked in by Shakespeare’s script, but it’s up to the director and the actors to determine how the audience will react—by deciding how to present Falstaff, Prince Hal and their relationship to the audience throughout the four-plus hours leading up to Hal’s decision.[…]

Falstaff can be (as he is in the recent Globe and Royal Shakespeare Company productions) show-stoppingly, stage-stealingly hilarious, delivering all his absurd and nonsensical jests with brilliant comic timing, so you’re almost eager for the battles to be over so you can have more Falstaff. Or he can be (as he is in the 1960 Age of Kings) a conversational tool for Prince Hal designed to show off our beloved prince’s wit and delightfulness, cutting many of Falstaff’s lines to minimize how much the audience bonds with him and make as much room as possible for the long-term protagonist. Or, as in The Hollow Crown, he can be portrayed as a remarkably unappealing and lecherous old man who mutters and rambles nonsense jokes that are too obscure to even be funny, so you spend your time wondering why Hal is wasting his time with this guy. This is not a difference of acting skill but of deliberate choice, highlighting the moments at which Hal is critical of Falstaff (or Falstaff is critical of himself) and racing through the jests instead of stringing them out, focusing the play (and the audience’s attention) more on Hal’s choices and less on Falstaff’s jokes.

(Even this extended excerpt from Palmer’s brilliant essay does her a disservice — her essay is among other things, an extended meditation on the difficulty of producing the play after John Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding — how can directors and actors can solve this puzzle: “The audience has just spent five hours bonding with the hilarious Falstaff, and now Hal is going to betray and destroy him. But we then have to spend another entire play watching Hal, so we need to still like Hal after he casts out Falstaff. Thus, the performance needs to show us motivations for Hal’s action which we can understand, sympathize with, respect, and generally accept.”)

Given the complexity of how we present Falstaff to an audience; how can we understand Cain’s wisecrack to God?  Is it a problem that we find this progenitor of an evil act?

Perhaps the Cain story was a second account of the introduction of sin to humankind, parallel to the story of Adam and Eve’s fall.  This is certainly the interpretation of at least one LXX.  The NETS is a translation of LXX versions keyed to the NRSV, and it is especially interesting to see how divine instructions to Cain in Genesis 4:12 changes between the NRSV and LXX:

[And the LORD said, “] When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” (NRSV)

[And God said, “] For you will till the earth, and it will not continue to yield its strength to you; you will be groaning and trembling on the earth.” (NETS)

The NETS translation portrays the Old Greek as being far more bereft of humor.

The challenge of presenting evil and decadence in a horrific fashion, stripping it of jokes, is a challenge even for the highest peaks of literature.  Consider, for example, the challenges faced by Milton in writing Paradise Lost.  Milton’s presentation of Satan is so noble and the lines Milton assigns to Satan are so passionate that Satan comes across as a type of hero in that poem – certainly contrary to Milton’s intentions.

So, is Cain a wisecracking smart-ass or not?  It’s all in how you read the text.

(NB this blog entry was posted on July 30, 2018, and backdated to July 18, for reasons explained here.)

929 Project: Genesis 3 – who dumped whom?

July 17, 2018

This series is coordinated with the 929 project, as explained in this post.  A table of abbreviations and acronyms used is available here.

matt 

Consider the start of Genesis 3:24 on the expulsion of humans from Eden:

ויגרש את האדם

So he drove out the man […] (KJV)

I want to present a passage from Daniel Matt’s remarkable Zohar translation (Zoh. 1:297-298) or a passage at 1:53b.  Here is the Zoharic Aramaic (with the Biblical text italicized):

ויגרש את האדם. א”ר אלעזר לא ידענא מאן עבד תרוכין למאן, אי קב”ה עבד תרוכין לאדם אי לא. אבל מלה אתהפך, ויגרש את, דייקא. ומאן גרש את. האדם. האדם ודאי גרש את. ובגין דא כתיב וישלחהו יי’ אלהים מגן עדן. אמאי וישלחהו. בגין דגרש אדם את כדקאמרן

Below, I give Matt’s translation of this passage and a portion of  Matt’s notes and commentary – the full commentary can be read here.  I have slightly modified Matt’s text for consistency with this series of blog posts.  The text of the translation is in black and the commentary is in red.

He drove out את האדם (et ha-adam), Adam

Literally, He drove out the human.  The preceding verse reads similarly:  LORD God expelled him from the Garden of Eden.  The apparent redundancy stimulates the following mystical midrash.

Rabbi El’azar said, “We do not know who divorced whom:  if the blessed Holy One divorced Adam, or not.

Several midrashim interpret the biblical word ויגרש (vaygaresh), He drove out, in the sense of גרושים (geirushin), “divorce.”  [See Matt original for references.]  From midrashic sources: “He drove out Adam.  This teaches that the blessed Holy One divorced him like a wife.”  “This teaches that he was divorced like a wife divorced from her husband because of some indecency.”

Adam’s harmonious and intimate relationship with God is ruined by sin.  Rabbi El’azar adopts this midrashic view but reassigns the roles.

But the word is transposed:  He drove out את (Et) – precisely!

Grammatically, the accusative particle את (et) has no ascertainable independent sense, but Nachum of Gimzo and his disciple Rabbi Akiva taught that when et appears in a biblical verse, it amplifies the original meaning.  See BT Pesachim 22b, Chagigah 12a.

Here, as often in the Zohar, את (et) becomes a name of Shekhinah [an aspect of God], who comprises the totality of divine speech, the entire alphabet from א (alef) to ת (tav).  See Zohar 1:29b, 1:247a, 2:90a, 2:135b, and the Christian parallel in Revelation 1:8:  “I am alpha and omega.”

Who drove out EtAdam.  Adam actually drove out Et!  Consequently it is written:  LORD God expelled him from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:23).  Why did He expel him?  Because Adam drove out Et, as we have explained.

By dividing the biblical sentence, He drove out את (et) Adam, into two units, Rabbi El’azar transforms its meaning.  The first unit consists of:  He drove out את (et).  The second unit identifies the subject of the sentence, which is shockingly not God, but Adam.

In the Zohar, the exact nature of Adam’s sin is a tightly guarded secret; the biblical account of the Garden story is seen as hiding the true meaning.  See Zohar Chadash (Midrash ha-Ne’lam) where Rabbi Shim’on recounts a conversation he had with Adam while selecting his future site in Paradise:  “Adam … was sitting next to me, speaking with me, and he asked that his sin not be revealed to the whole world beyond what the Torah had recounted.  It is concealed in that tree in the Garden of Eden.”  The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil symbolizes Shekhinah.  […]

Adam’s sin has driven Shekhinah from the Garden and dissolved her union with Tif’eret [another aspect of God], so She finds Herself abandoned in a no-man’s-land.  Meanwhile, as a result of his sin, Adam is banished from the Garden.  Wandering outside, he finds Shekhinah, and together they go into exile.  See Zohar 3:114a-115b, and 1:237a:  “Come and see the secret of the world:  Adam was caught in his own sin, inflicting death upon himself and the whole world, causing that tree with which he sinned to be divorced, driven away with him, driven away with his children forever, as is written:  He drove out את (et) Adam.

In this interview Matt puts an interesting spin on this Zoharic passage:

We all know the famous story near the beginning of Genesis about the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It’s clear that God expels Adam and Eve from the garden. But the Zohar asks a startling question: Who threw whom out of the Garden? Through a very artistic and radical reading of the text, the Zohar suggests that Adam expelled God from the Garden! This seems impossible or heretical. But one way to understand this is that in some sense we’re still in the Garden — we just don’t realize it because we’ve lost touch with the spiritual dimension of life. The challenge is to reconnect with the divine reality that we have banished from our lives, to welcome God back in.

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Also worth reading are a number of other interesting commentaries on this passage.  I particularly enjoyed this brief article which discusses Hebrew terms in Genesis 3 and ends with a fascinating explanation of the etymology of the English world “checkmate.” 

I also enjoyed this article by Shawna Dolansky that discusses a legend from the medieval The Alphabet of Ben Sira that Lilith was the first wife of Adam, but Adam and Lilith divorced over an argument about who was allowed to adopt the superior position during intercourse.

(NB this blog entry was posted on July 29, 2018, and backdated to July 17, for reasons explained here.)

929 Project: Genesis 2 – humans from humus

July 16, 2018

This series is coordinated with the 929 project, as explained in this post.  A table of abbreviations and acronyms used is available here.

This entry for Genesis 2 is largely derived from a post from our co-blogger Suzanne McCarthy about the usage of ha-adam and adam in Genesis 2 and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.

Suzanne died in 2015.  We all miss her.

To give some context for this entry, Suzanne was passionately concerned with how Biblical translations reflected the notion of personhood, and how Hebrew and Greek words indicating a person are often translated into an English form that indicates a male person.  Since many Bible believers in the US and Canada cannot read Hebrew or Greek, they find themselves using translations, and inferring notions of gender relations based on translations that were not in the original.

Suzanne was quite strong in her Greek, and it was fascinating to see her back and forth discussion.  She didn’t interact as much with Hebrew, but in today’s post she does interact with Hebrew.

Most of the people who engaged Suzanne in discussion (or debate) were men.  Usually, these men didn’t know Greek very well.  I am sorry to say that a few of these men became quite rude to her.  Today, we are all painfully aware of politicians who have insulted a political opponent by calling them a “nasty woman” or saying “nevertheless, she persisted” have become common.  Suzanne faced even worse criticism in many cases.  We’ve seen that these ad hominem attacks can boomerang.  However, it has not seemed to permanently set back those who wield these phrases as weapons – one of those politicians is the current US president and the other is the US Senate majority leader.  (And, just so you’ll know, the best translation of ad hominem is not “to the man” but “to the person.”)

On the 929 page for today is a wonderful note from Marcelle Hohl entitled “Adam’s Absence:  Man and Woman are Equally Divine.”  I believe Suzanne would have appreciated Marcelle’s contribution.

In today’s post, Suzanne meditates on Genesis 2:7.  Here it is in Hebrew:

וייצר ה׳ אלהים את האדם עפר מן האדמה ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים ויהי האדם לנפש חיה

And here is how Robert Alter translates it in HB-A:

then the LORD God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature.

with this note:

the human, humus.  The Hebrew etymological pun is ’adam, “human,” from the soil, ’adamah.

(Side note:  it is interesting to me that in this case Alter did not translate the initial vav (ו) in the as “and,” as Alter usually does.)

In comparison, here is the KJV translation of the same verse:

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

Below I have edited Suzanne’s original blog post.  Suzanne’s post was constantly in dialogue with other bloggers, and as a result, many of her posts are from the middle of a discussion.  This one is from August 2010, and as a result, it would take too long to try to restore the full context of the discussion.  I’ve tried to modify her post so it does not require catching up with all the statements made back and forth.  Of course, Suzanne’s original blog post speaks for itself, and I encourage you to read it in its original entirety.

Suzanne’s post reflects her own wit and passion.  It is bittersweet to read today Suzanne’s humor as she predicts her own death in the post.

Suzanne, thank you for continuing to contribute to the discussion about gender in Biblical translation.  Suzanne, thank you for being in a tradition of strong and thoughtful women.  Suzanne, thank you for this guest post.

Suz Marcelle-150x150Chisholm_Shirley square ew clinton

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[…] I am quite open to considering that biblical usage [in the Tyndale translation tradition] has affected [the English] language. […]  Tyndale’s translation […] had enormous influence, but I have also found that in certain cases, it has not had the influence that some people attribute to it. For example, an editor of the ESV [the English Standard Version translation – a conservative Christian Evangelical revision of the RSV]  told me that “propitiation” was in the Tyndale translation. However, it is fairly common knowledge that Tyndale created the word “atonement” to translate those Greek words that are normally translated as “propitiation” in the King James Bible. The use of the word “propitiation” was wrongly attributed to Tyndale’s translation.

So, I am curious to see how Tyndale translated the Hebrew word adam. Usually, it is translated as “man” or “Adam.” However, in Numbers 31 adam is [sometimes] translated as “women” because it refers to a group of all females. In the King James Version and subsequent Bibles, adam is [sometimes] translated as “persons” in Numbers 31.

Just this brief discussion provides some data. I will summarize as much relevant information as I can from this and other language resources.

The Hebrew word adam can be translated into English as

  • a man
  • Adam
  • a human life
  • persons
  • women

I assume that it can also refer to a group of men, but I cannot come up with a reference for this.

The English word “man” can translate the following Hebrew words,

  • adam
  • enosh
  • geber
  • ish

So, right away, one can see that there is enormous difficulty in mapping Hebrew into English.

I believe the following is also useful information. In Hebrew, Greek, Latin and German, there were different words for “man” referring to human beings, and “man,” a male/citizen. I personally think that we are better off in modern English with both “human being” and “man.”

  • Hebrew – adam/ish, geber
  • Greek – anthropos/aner
  • Latin – homo/vir
  • German – Mensch/Mann

Finally, I personally would go first to German and Middle English to find out the precedent of the word “man” in Tyndale’s translation. In Luther’s translation, of course, adam is translated by the word Mensch. I know that it might seem that the English word “man” is closest to the German word Mann, a male. However, that is not the case. In German, the word for “someone” is quite simply man, a person, a human being, a somebody, an indefinite pronoun referring to a person.

And in Middle English, of course, there is man, also “someone,” an indefinite pronoun, as in German. For a male person, there is the word wer/were. And that is how we know that a werewolf is a male human being who transforms into a wolf at night.

If God had wanted to call the human race after male human beings, he would have needed to use a word designating maleness in Hebrew, and this might have been translated as were by Tyndale in an effort to be specific. We might have retained the word were in English, if the attribute of maleness had been considered important to the early translators. The human race might have been called were, which is just a little bit better than being called has been.

Somehow, I am in favor of asking the[se] kind[s] of questions[…], but I find the research does not lead to simple answers. Or does it? Am I a man? Yes, I am a “somebody.” Am I a woman? Yes, a stereotypic woman, in fact. Am I a were or a has been? No, but I will be some day, in the manner of all human beings.

[Update added later by Suzanne to her post]

[…] To be parallel to Hebrew, we would need to see adam and adama as a parallel to “man” and “woman.” However, adam and adama, are parallel to “human” and “humus,” as Robert Alter translates them, in order to preserve the literalness of the Hebrew. Alter is committed to translating literally in order to reveal the meaning and the form of Hebrew, its poetry and rhythm.[…]

Hebrew has four words which English translates as “man” and Greek, German and Latin have two words. English is much better able to indicate the Hebrew pattern if we use “human being” for adam, and “man” for ish. It is not a perfect match, but closer than simply using “man” for four distinct Hebrew words.

(NB this blog entry was posted on July 28, 2018, and backdated to July 16, for reasons explained here.)

929 Project: Genesis 1 – what does the first verse mean?

July 15, 2018

This series is coordinated with the 929 project, as explained in this post.  A table of abbreviations and acronyms used is available here.

Every book has a beginning (with a few notable exceptions).  Genesis 1 is the beginning of the Hebrew Bible with this famous line:

בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ

The only problem is figuring out what it means.  According to the Mishna (M Chagigah 2.1) and the Talmud (BT Chagiga 11b-12a), it is even forbidden to teach what it means:

אין דורשין בעריות בשלושה, ולא במעשה בראשית בשניים; ולא במרכבה ביחיד, אלא אם כן היה חכם ומבין מדעתו.  וכל המסתכל בארבעה דברים, רתוי לו כאילו לא בא לעולם–מה למעלן, מה למטן, מה לפנים, מה לאחור.  וכל שלא חס על כבוד קונו, רתוי לו כאילו לא בא לעולם

One may not expound the laws of forbidden sexual relations before three people, nor the account of Creation before two, nor the Divine Chariot before one, unless he is wise and understanding from his own knowledge. Anyone who looks into four things would be better off if he had not come into this world: what is above, what is below, what is before, and what is after. And anyone who has no consideration for the honor of his Maker would be better off if he had not come into the world.

The prohibition against explicating the creation must be one of the most ignored of all religious laws.

How to translate Genesis 1:1?  Jon Levenson summarizes two approaches in the JSB14:

A tradition over two millennia old sees 1:1 as a complete sentence:  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  In the 11th century, the great Jewish commentator Rashi made a case that the verse functions as a temporal clause.  This is, in fact, how some ancient Near Eastern creation stories begin – including the one that starts at [Genesis] 2:4b.  Hence the translation:  “When God began to create heaven and earth.”

I prefer to see the Hebrew text as having both meanings – meanings that have been assigned to it by careful readers.  I see no reason to argue over the meaning – anymore than we can ever hope to resolve whether Hamlet’s flesh (that he wish would melt) is too too sullied or too too solid.  And we can assign more meanings to the text as well.

According to Daniel Matt, the mystical text Zohar reads the verse differently, “not as “In the beginning God created”… but rather: ‘With beginning, [the Unnamable One] created God.’ This sounds shocking or heretical. But the point is that our usual understanding of God is pretty childish. What we think of as God is only one limited aspect of the infinite divine reality, which transcends and explodes all names.”  (You can watch a brief video of Matt lecturing here)

This too is an interpretation of the Hebrew, and a “hidden meaning” we must consider.

(NB this blog entry was written on July 27, 2018, and backdated to July 15, as explained here.)