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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.


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.


The New Noah (with translator’s notes)

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

Translated by Shawkat M. Toorama


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.”


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.


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)


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


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.


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.


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


[…] 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.)

929 Project: Abbreviations and Acronyms

July 15, 2018

This is a placeholder page to list abbreviations and acronyms that I use my 929 series of posts.  This list of abbreviations and acronyms will expand as I go through the series.

929 English The English 929 website
929 Hebrew The Hebrew 929 website
Alter See HB-A
BR Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig’s German translation of the Hebrew Bible.
BT Babylonian Talmud.  I recommend the version here.
DRC Richard Challoner’s revision of the Douay-Rheims Bible.  I recommend the version here.
EB-NCE The Norton Critical Edition of the English Bible
Fox See Shoc
HB-A Robert Alter’s translation and commentary on the Hebrew Bible, scheduled to be published in December 2018.  Until publication, references will be to Alter’s current versions, including his Five Books of Moses.
JSB14 The Jewish Study Bible (2014 edition)
KJB See KJV below
KJV The King James translation of the Hebrew Bible.  Widely available (for example, here).  For printed versions, I recommend the EB-NCE.
LXX Septuagint translations.  This refers to a corpus of ancient Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible.  Note that multiple translations exist, so it is an error to refer to the Septuagint.  I recommend the Göttingen Septuaginta.  For English translation, I recommend NETS.
M The Mishnah.  I recommend the version here.
MSG The Message by Eugene Patterson
MT Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible (here is one resource)
NABRE New American Bible Revised Edition
NETS New English Translation of the Septuagint
NIV11 New International Version (2011 edition)
NJPS Jewish Publication Society translation of the Hebrew Bible 1985 version.  For printed versions, I recommend the JSB14.  Online version here.
NLT15 New Living Translation (2015 version)
NOAB77 The New Oxford Annotated Bible (1977 version)
NOAB18 The New Oxford Annotated Bible (2018 version)
NRSV New Revised Standard translation of the Bible.  Widely available (for example, here).   For printed versions, I recommend the NOAB18.
RSV Revised Standard translation of the Bible.  This went through several versions; I will quote the version as published in the NOAB77.
Shoc The Shocken Bible being translated by Everett Fox.  The Pentateuch and Early Prophets volumes are in print.
Targ Ancient Aramaic translations of the Bible (Targum) – see here, here, here, here, here, and here, for example.
Vulg Latin translation of the bible (Vulgate).  I recommend the version here.
Zoh The Zohar.  I will use Daniel Matt’s Aramaic version and Daniel Matt’s English “Pritzker Edition” translation and commentary.

929 Project: Preface

July 15, 2018

929 has launched an English version.

929 is a daily (Sunday – Thursday) reading project based in Israel to go through the chapters of the Hebrew Bible.  It has some association with the Israeli Ministry of Education as was made clear in this Ministry announcement (my loose translation):

Project 929 – Bible Together Project

929 is a special program initiated by Deputy Education Minister Avi Worzman, Rabbi Benny Lau and journalist Gal Gabai. On Hanukkah, December 21, 2014, we began the first cycle of a community reading of the 929 chapters of the Hebrew Bible. Every day, we begin a new chapter with interesting commentary, explanations, videos, pictures, and narrations. 

Discussion about the daily chapter occurs in social networks, study groups, meetings, and special events. It is attended by intellectuals, cultural figures, artists, and the general public – and it offers a pluralistic range of approaches.  The first cycle will end in the summer of 2018 during the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel.  The discourse surrounding the daily chapter reflects the diversity of viewpoints of those who read the Hebrew Bible, giving a perspective from many different angles.  The discourse is conducted in an inclusive and open environment, offering all participants a set of new and varied approaches. […]

If  you want to know more, seek depth, find new meanings, discover new voices and be part of a broad community that is exploring together, then reading the Hebrew Bible with 929 is for you.

Why the Bible?

Countless words have already been written about the text of the Hebrew Bible. It is a foundational text, an common denominator across the world, with stories and ideas that resonate in our lives up until today. As a book, it is amazing in its wealth.  It is fun, exciting, moving, and full of contradictions.  It is thought provoking and controversial.

It covers a kaleidoscope of interests, covering topics as varied as history, politics, engineering, design, and cooking. It presents to its readers personal journeys and family odysseys, interpersonal relationships and the actions of great empires, fascinating anecdotes and cross-cultural myths, angry prophecies and poetry full of tenderness, legends and thoughts.

Why a daily study program?

This daily reading of the Hebrew Bible is based on its division into 929 chapters. The chapters were defined in the [early 13th century] and the division is attributed to Christian theologian [Archbishop] Stephen Langton.  […]  For many years, the tradition of learning in Israel has promoted the daily reading of the founding texts [such as the Daf Yomi system of reading the Babylonian Talmud], and now the daily chapter in the Bible joins this cultural custom.

The first cycle completed and a new cycle began on July 15, and will continue until February 2, 2022.  With the new cycle comes a new section focused on an English speaking audience:

Torah Study Is Becoming One Big Crowdsourcing Project, With Launch Of ‘929 English’

Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt

Israeli website “929” — devoted to the study of all 929 chapters of Tanakh (Scripture) — just announced that it is launching an English-language website[…] .

The website, and its app, invites participants to “read the Tanakh from cover to cover, one chapter a day – five per week”, and currently gets around 270,000 engaged readers returning to the site 3-4 times a month, according to its team.[…]

The English edition is in partnership with the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, spearheaded by Shira Hecht-Koller. “The points of access [to Torah study] and web of connections are not always obvious or natural,” said Hecht-Koller. “But therein lies the work; to take the language and rootedness of a tradition that is central to who we are as a people and utilize it as a lens through which to see and engage with the world. And, alternately, to think of ways to bring the beauty, wonder and mysteries of the world and connect them back to our texts and traditions.”

And the commentaries in 929 exist far beyond writing — some contributors turn to art, music, Tanakh-inspired walking tours with interactive maps of Israel, and video to interpret biblical verses. One contributor used graffiti and video to comment on Genesis 2:18, “It is not good for man to be alone.”  Another contributor used a web series to interpret Psalm 30. […]



The 929 project in its first cycle was not without controversy.  Rabbi Benny Lau’s ideology was  summed up in a Haaretz headline:  This Orthodox Israeli Rabbi Is an Ultra-liberal and Not Ashamed of It.  The right wing launched into multiple attacks on the site. 

Those on the left complained the site was not as inclusive as promised:

It only took nine chapters for the project to run into trouble.  Ari Elon, one of the most prominent, influential and well-respected scholars in the world of secular Jewish thought was invited to participate in the project and write his daily commentary on the daily chapter. Elon is known for his provocative and audacious commentary on the Torah and the Talmud, challenging the concept of God with linguistic acrobatics and unconventional associations (author of Alma Di: From Jerusalem to the Edge of Heaven). Only nine chapters into 929 and Ari was already disinvited. “Cool it,” he was told by Lau, “your secular approach is insulting and angering some of the Orthodox rabbis” (paraphrased from Ari’s Facebook page).

The controversial commentary which got Elon in trouble relates to Genesis 9 verses 5-6: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God made He man.” A moral decree, needless to say, given on the heels of the great flood, which destroyed the vast majority of the creatures of the world. Ari dared to point out that God himself doesn’t follow his own edict. He doesn’t practice what he preaches. What does God have to say in defense of his own actions, Ari asks. In a clever play on the words of the scripture, Ari poses the ultimate heretical question: “What kind of man creates such a God in his own image?” The result of Elon’s participation in 929 has been the birth of a Glatt-Kosher version of the initiative.

A later report said “This turned out to be a misunderstanding—Elon is still signed on, though one of his pieces was delayed—but the passionate outcry reflected the suspicions held by many secular Israelis about whether a Bible-learning initiative co-run by an Orthodox rabbi could possibly be truly open to nonbelievers and non-traditionalists.”


The main tool for following along is the 929 English website.  The site has apps for the iOS and Android platforms.

The amazing website has a portion of its calendar section devoted to 929.

929 has Facebook pages in Hebrew and English, although the English page currently has almost no content.

A list of abbreviations and acronyms that I use in this series is available here (constantly being expanded).

And, of course, there are a huge number of Bible translations, Bible commentaries, and Bible websites available.  I’ll be mentioning some of my favorites as we go through the series.


It is, perhaps, a peculiar disease of academics that we feel need to have an opinion about everything, as Jacques Ellul famous observed in his book Propaganda.  The Hebrew Bible is far too large and complex to try to do that.  So instead, in this series, I will try to just make a simple observation.  If I can, I’ll make some original comment, but that is not very easy with a text that is so widely discussed.  So instead, I’ll often simply react to a comment on the 929 web site, or repeat some observation that I learned from someone else.  I don’t want to argue for a certain perspective in this series, merely make observations (or repeat observations that from others that I found stimulating).

Of course, as always, the whole BLT team will be on the lookout for comments that are spam, hateful, off-topic, or inappropriate.  We believe in freedom of speech here, but if your speech falls into one of those categories, please preset your ideas on your own blog.


929 is a project centered in Israel, so it uses the Jewish weekly calendar, starting on Sunday and finishing on Thursday, with Friday and Saturday being review days for the weekend and Jewish Sabbath.  The cycle began on July 15, but presentation of English language content was tied to a major site revision.  That got delayed for two weeks, so the English version is only launching now.  Until we catch up, my posts will be back-dated to the date that the chapters were announced.  I hope to catch up with the site in due course.

Of course, I am painfully aware that many projects of this sort fall completely flat.  For example, Congregation Kehillath Jeshurun (the New York synagogue of Ivanka and Jared) launched a blog with great fanfare to follow along with the 929 project.  The blog dutifully covered Genesis chapters 1 through 16 individually.  It did chapters 17-20 as a group, and then chapters 21 and 22 individually.  It skipped chapters 23-31.  It covered chapter 32, and then apparently stopped.

Perhaps this series will suffer the same fate.  But I hope it does not and that I will be able to continue working through the chapters – perhaps along with you.

As I write this series, I hope to keep in mind the memory of Suzanne McCarthy, our co-blogger whom we all miss. 

This last week, I was the lucky beneficiary of an incredible good deed performed by an anonymous person – I do not know who he or she is.  If by some incredible coincidence that person happens to run across this post, then I would like to express my thanks.  (So a thanks to an anonymous person from a pseudonymous person on an obscure blog.)

I’m looking forward to reading a bit of the Bible with the 929 community – and with you.

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

Suzanne McCarthy et al, on or in “The Biblioblog Top 50 for June 2018”

June 30, 2018

Some years ago, Suzanne McCarthy wrote this on or in a blog post:

I decided some time ago to completely ignore the list of top 50 biblioblogs. I was just being a pain about it, and I didn’t want to foist my irritation on others ad infinitum. So imagine my astonishment on finding out that somebody, or a collection of somebody’s, has voted this blog among the top ten biblioblogs. Shoot, now I am going to have to improve my manners and act like one of the gang. No more crankypants!

The top 50, way back then, was mainly a gentleman’s club, a nearly all male country club set. Yesterday, this thing continued. And it lists the lot of us here at BLT, including the late Suzanne we must presume, as “J. K. Gayle et al.” Well, we who are still here blogging with her in spirit, don’t know how, as she didn’t either, “to completely ignore the list of top 50 biblioblogs.”

We do remember well Suzanne McCarthy and her many helpful thoughts and blogposts and comments on the Bible and hope soon to make an announcement about something related to her and her thinking and writing.

How to End the Finest Tragedy

March 23, 2018

In his translator’s note, Daniel Mark Epstein says the following of The Bacchae by Euripides:


I have been reading the recent and maybe the now-unmatched translation by Anne Carson and am awe-struck, as usual, by her translating. (Here are links to a review of her performed version and to another of her more recent book version of that.) And appreciating how Euripides ends this finest of tragedies with his Greek chorus and how she matches that with her English, I wanted to blog to share that.

And it’s good to look at other excellent renditions as well. The wikipediaists have listed the numerous English translators (here).

How do the best see fit to let Euripides and his Chorus end this great tragedy?

Here is from Epstein:


Here’s from Edward P. Coleridge:


Here’s from David Kovacs:


Here’s from Matt Neuberg:


Here’s from George Theodoridis:


Here’s from Carson:


Here’s Euripides, and please do not fail to notice the finest, quite unmatched poetry:


it’s a girl: the Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven

February 19, 2018

Greek New Testament translator Ann Nyland has the following footnote on Matthew 18.2:

Bible versions traditionally translate the personal pronoun here as ‘him’, but the personal pronoun in the Greek is “it” following the neuter grammatical gender of ‘child’. The gender of the child is not mentioned [by the narrator of the Greek gospel of Matthew], and the Greek provides no clues.

She herself translates the verse this way:

Jesus called a child over, and put the child down in the middle of them.

Dr. Nyland’s English is emphasizing the mystery or the non-specificity of Matthew’s Greek.

καὶ προσκαλεσάμενος παιδίον ἔστησεν αὐτὸ ἐν μέσῳ αὐτῶν

She could have translated it with it, the way Hebrew-Bible and Greek-New-Testament translator Julia Smith has:

And Jesus, having called a young child, set it in the midst of them,

Beyond how “Bible versions traditionally translate,” and apart from the few non-traditional versions such as Nyland’s and Smith’s, there are three versions that seem to get at something greater in Matthew. (For a quick look at the traditional, one can click here.)

That is, three Greek New Testament translators have regarded the larger context and the regular gendered contrasts of the Greek gospel of Matthew. These three highlight the plausibility that this male Rabbi called a little girl over and put her down in the middle of these men who were his all-male talmidim clamoring for the answer to their question about who could be the very greatest in the Kingdom of this God their teacher called his Father.

Let me end my post with these three. But first let me consider more what Dr. Nyland is advising and why that matters. Ann Nyland like Julia Smith advises that we pay close attention to gender in the Greek. Grammatically we all know how very important that is. Neither translator wants to over-translate the gender. For those readers inclusive of the LBGT community, Nyland has stressed how important getting gender in translation right is. For those readers inclusive of first-wave feminist activism, Smith’s translating has been remarkably important both for the facts that (1) she herself without the aid of a man translated not only the Greek Septuagint and the Greek New Testament but also the Hebrew Bible and that (2) her close reading of the original language texts have yielded an English version that brings to light gender in clearer ways (as noted in The Women’s Bible commentary here).

Neither woman translating wishes to read more gender into the Greek than the grammar necessitates. Nonetheless most translators default in English to the male-child gender. Nyland uses the English adverb traditionally to describe this male default in the rendering into English here:

“Bible versions traditionally translate the personal pronoun here as ‘him’, but the personal pronoun in the Greek is ‘it’ following the neuter grammatical gender of ‘child’. The gender of the child is not mentioned [by the narrator of the Greek gospel of Matthew], and the Greek provides no clues.”

She is correct of course that the Greek pronoun αὐτὸ is neuter. To say “it’s a boy” or to say definitively “it’s a girl” is to go beyond the clues Matthew provides his Greek readers here. He as author narrator does nonetheless provide an antecedent to the next pronoun αὐτῶν. That next pronoun refers back to the men asking their male Rabbi the question. And he, this Teacher, has been referred to by the very Greek pronoun that Matthew uses again in 18:2.  The singular (non plural) form of this same neuter pronoun in Matthew 2 actually refers to the child Jesus, to the boy, to the male son of Mary. There are nine pronominal references to this lad in the tight space of a very close context. There is no ambiguity. The clues are abundant. But in Matthew 18, the writer’s same pronoun “provides no clues.”

What I would like to suggest is that English translators have three choices, and the third choice is most compelling because of the larger context of the gospel. The first choice is almost no choice at all; it is to default male; and it is precisely how “Bible versions traditionally translate the personal pronoun here as ‘him’.”


The second choice is Nyland’s and Smith’s. That is the translator is providing the English reader the opportunity to attend to the importance of grammatical gender in the Greek. That is the Greek hides whether “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl.”


The third choice is to let the English reader see what Matthew and what Jesus have been doing with the Patriarchy, with the male-superior hierarchy, as the Greek gospel goes along. Already we have taken time to see this male dominance and predominance and default position in Matthew 15.21-29. And so when we readers come with Jesus and his disciples to their question about which one of them in their male only schooling gets the top position when they all go to Heaven, we readers are not surprised that Jesus continues to deconstruct their notions of privilege.


When he calls a child over and sets it in front of them, even though Matthew’s Greek at this point provides no clues as to whether he’s a boy child or she’s a girl child, we wouldn’t be too surprised by now if “it’s a girl.” Girls in comparison to boys had no statuses. They were never great like Jesus himself as a boy would be in his family. They were never great as a great disciple of a great Rabbi would be in the Kingdom of greatness.

Maybe by providing us his Greek readers with no clues as to the gender of this child Matthew is asking us to use our imaginations. And so we must. We cannot just imagine a sexless child. When we read a story that includes a child being stood up in front of a group of men, we don’t usually think of it as dressed androgynously or as having hair that gives no clues as to its gender. We picture a boy in boy clothes with boy hair if we think it’s a boy. And we picture in our mind’s eye a girl with girl clothes with girl hair if we think it’s a girl. Another way to put this is to imagine ourselves casting a play or theatre or film version of this very story. We would choose a boy or a girl to play this part of the child set in front of the men. And we would want the costume department and the make up department to provide clues to the audience in the theater whether he was a boy or she was a girl. This exercise would perhaps betray our default imagination. We might be biased. We might have implicit bias. We might even be deeply sexist participating in the systemic sexism of the social constructs of our society. We could even test ourselves for this thankfully.

But I want to suggest that Matthew is pushing our imaginations in the direction of the plausibility if not simply merely the possibility that Jesus calls a girl to stand in front of the gaze of these men. The end of Jesus’s teaching here is the repetition of his likely admonition against the “male gaze.”

There are three New Testament versions in English that also help us this way. They are the one by the Jesus Seminar, the one by Willis Barnstone, and the one by N. T. Wright. Here these are respectively:

Jesus Seminar’s version –


Willis Barnstone’s version –


N. T. Wright’s version –

Matthew 5:
27 ‘You heard’, Jesus continued, ‘that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28 But I say to you: everyone who gazes at a woman in order to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye trips you up, tear it out and throw it away. Yes: it’s better for you to have one part of your body destroyed than for the whole body to be thrown into Gehenna. 30 And if your right hand trips you up, cut it off and throw it away. Yes: it’s better for you to have one part of your body destroyed than for your whole body to go into Gehenna.

Matthew 18:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus. ‘So, then,’ they said, ‘who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ 2 Jesus called a child and stood her in the middle of them. 3 ‘I’m telling you the truth,’ he said. ‘Unless you turn inside out and become like children, you will never, ever, get into the kingdom of heaven. 4 So if any of you make yourselves humble like this child, you will be great in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And if anyone welcomes one such child in my name, they welcome me.’ 6 ‘Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to trip up,’ he went on, ‘it would be better for them to have a huge millstone hung around their neck and be drowned far out in the deep sea. 7 It’s a terrible thing for the world that people will be made to stumble. Obstacles are bound to appear and trip people up, but it will be terrible for the person who makes them come.’ 8 ‘But if your hand or your foot causes you to trip up,’ Jesus continued, ‘cut it off and throw it away. It’s better to enter into life crippled or lame than to go into eternal fire with both hands and both feet! 9 And if your eye causes you to trip up, pull it out and throw it away. Going into life with one eye is better than going into hell with two!  10 ‘Take care not to despise one of these little ones. I tell you this: in heaven, their angels are always gazing on the face of my father who lives there.

(with added illustration here at blt, I’ve reposted from here)