Babylon: Entangled and Free

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Exploring Babylon: Chapter 4.1

The ram stuck in the bush*, where Abraham finds him during the Binding of Isaac incident, reminded long-ago teachers of their own situation and their past Captivity in Babylon:

Throughout that day, Abraham saw the ram become entangled in a tree, break loose, and go free; become entangled in a bush, break loose, and go free; then again become entangled in a thicket, break loose, and go free.

The Holy One said, “Abraham, even so will your children be entangled in many kinds of sin and trapped within successive kingdoms – from Babylon to Medea, from Medea to Greece, from Greece to Edom.”

Abraham asked, “Master of the universe, will it be forever thus?”

God replied, “In the end they will be redeemed at [the sound of] the horns of this ram, as is said, ‘The Lord shall blow the horn [shofar] when He goes forth in the whirlwinds at Teman [Edom] [וְיָצָא כַבָּרָק חִצּוֹ; וַאדֹנָי יְהוִה בַּשּׁוֹפָר יִתְקָע, וְהָלַךְ בְּסַעֲרוֹת תֵּימָן]'” (Zech 9:14).
— Bialik & Ravnitsky, The Book of Legends/Sefer Ha-aggadah 42:45**

Like earlier commentary, which found these same periods of foreign control — Babylon, Medea, Greece, and Rome — in the second verse of the Creation story, this midrash promises future Redemption. (See “Babylon and the Beginning.”) Also, as in the previous midrash, everything depends on human repentance.

As Erica Brown puts it, this midrash teaches:

Wrong-doing will always catch us up in its thorny hold….The ram’s horn, the penitential cry of it, will remind us that we need not be stuck in the thicket. We can extricate ourselves.
— Brown, Confronting Scandal: How Jews Can Respond when Jews Do Bad Things. (Woodstock VT: Jewish Lights, 2010). p.125

 

Entangled

…and that brings us round again to the original intention behind this blog: The Exodus is, of course, the foundational story of Judaism, and there are many important lessons for our time and place to be gleaned from it and the Genesis stories which lead us there. There’s no escaping, however, that the Exodus is, in essence, the tale of a violent and permanent parting of oppressed and oppressor peoples.

And that metaphor has limits when it comes to trying to work out how people who share circumstances with both the oppressed and the oppressor, and generally have no intention to flee, can envision and work toward a better world.

Our tradition has long offered another metaphor: the far more complex and ambiguous narrative of exile, oppression and redemption. Thus, #ExploringBabylon was launched to consider ways our current realities reflect the multivalent image of Babylon, in the hope that this will help Jews in the U.S. find new visions for the future….

and Free

It is noteworthy that the midrash quoted above — as well as the one based on Genesis 1:2 (cited in the earlier post) — omits the Exodus when speaking of past instances of the people being “stuck.” For the teachers who wrote both midrashim, the Exodus was not in question: God and the people and the Torah remained in relationship born of that experience. What was in question was how the people, who by this time knew how hard it was to honor that relationship amid a complex world, were going to extricate themselves from their current entanglement.
ShofarHand

Questions for Consideration

  • Are we, as individuals and communities of Jews, hearing the ram’s horn today?
  • What are some of the thorny communal places we’re being called to address?
  • Is there a role for some kind of communal repentance?
  • Can the larger Jewish narrative, of being entangled and free and entangled again, help us find a way out of the thicket?

 

NOTES

* See this week’s Torah portion, Vayera (Genesis 18:1 – 22:24):
“And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt-offering in the stead of his son.
וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה-אַיִל, אַחַר, נֶאֱחַז בַּסְּבַךְ בְּקַרְנָיו; וַיֵּלֶךְ אַבְרָהָם וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הָאַיִל, וַיַּעֲלֵהוּ לְעֹלָה תַּחַת בְּנוֹ.”
— Genesis 22:13
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** This paragraph comes at the end of a three-page commentary on “The Binding of Isaac.” The The Book of Legends footnote cites Pesikta Rabbati 40:6 here. (Pesikta Rabbati is a holiday-based compilation of midrash, which is dated to Land of Israel, c.600 – c.900 CE.) But I cannot confirm the citation — and for all it’s extraordinary benefits, The Book of Legends English version does tend to muff citations — the verse from Zechariah above, e.g., is cited as “9:4” (The biblical reference is correct in the Hebrew version, but there is no chapter/verse with the Pesikta Rabbiti citation — way more than necessary, probably, but there it is.)
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Babylon: Back Home

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Updated with additional Moon-cult link and previously missing footnotes.

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 3:2

The Torah doesn’t tell us much about the background of Abraham and Sarah, except that they leave it. We learn later, though, that their family maintains ties with the folk “back home.” And that on-going relationship has a lot to do, both logistically and thematically, with the larger theme of Israel’s relationship to Babylon.

Two of the few details we get about Abraham and Sarah involve departures:

  • Together with Abraham’s father, Terah, and “them,” Abraham and Sarah “departed from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there” (Gen 11:31).
  • At Haran, God tells Abraham to go forth; he goes, with Sarah and his family group: “…they departed to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan” (Gen 12:1, 4).

The departure of Gen 12:1 — “from your land, from your kindred, and from your father’s house” — is often read as thorough and decisive. Later covenantal language, which includes a name change for Abraham and Sarah (from the original Abram and Sarai) and the ritual of circumcision to separate those in- from those outside (Gen 17), suggests that a serious break with the past is intended. Later, however, Abraham sends to his people back home to find a wife for his son Isaac (Gen 24), and Jacob spends two decades in the old country, marrying two women from his grandparents’ kindred (Gen 29ff).

Over the millenia, a variety of teachings have been gleaned from connections of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs with folks “back home.” There is much food for thought and study there in #ExploringBabylon. Here, to begin, are two points of note.

Babylonian Time Travel

From the land of Palestine in the First Century CE, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai taught:

R. Yohanan ben Zakkai used to say: Why should Israel have been exiled to Babylon more than to any of the other lands? Because Abraham’s family came from there. By what parable may the matter be explained? By the one of a woman who was unfaithful to her husband. Where is he likely to send her? Back to the house of her father.
— Bialik & Ravnitsky, The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah 149-150:18 (full citation)
[based on Tosefta Baba Kama 7:3]

R. Yohanan’s teaching merges the Babylon of Captivity, which was roughly 700 years before his time, with the “back home” of Abraham, which the rabbis of the Talmud placed at some 1500 years earlier. Without more context, it’s hard to tell what else the teaching meant to say about Abraham’s place of origin, but it does seem to confirm the idea of an on-going relationship between Israel and “back home.” Perhaps it’s a largely negative one, but there is some kind of relationship.

Two hundred years later, the older teaching is amended:

R. Hanina said: The Holy One exiled them to Babylonia because the language is akin to the language of the Torah. R. Yohanan said: Because He thus sent Israel back to their mother’s house. As when a man grows angry at his wife, where does he send her? Back to her mother’s house. Ulla said [God sent them to Babylonia] so that they might eat dates and occupy themselves with Torah.
The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah 380:25
[based on B. Pes 87b-88a]

Ulla, who traveled between the Talmud academies of Palestine and those of Babylonia, adds a third time period to the merged Babylon concept: It’s Abraham’s original home, it’s the place of Captivity, and it’s a contemporary place where the speaker has witnessed Jews thriving in body and soul. R. Yohanan’s teaching is still there, but it’s book-ended with entirely positive comments about Babylon as the time travel expands.

In addition to merging time periods, both teachings rely on some merging of geographical locations.

Mesopotamia

In Genesis (cited above), the places specifically linked to Abraham and Sarah are called Ur Kasdim [אוּר כַּשְׂדִּים] and Haran [חָרָן]. Scholars — of history, archaeology, and bible studies — today identify these biblical locations with the historical cities of Ur, west of the Euphrates River in the southernmost area of Mesopotamia, and Harran, between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in the northernmost section of Mesopotamia.

Babylon, which Genesis never identifies directly with Terah or descendants, is also between the rivers, south of Harran and north of Ur. In Jewish discourse, however, “Babylon” sometimes means the city, but can also mean the wider Babylonia or whole region of Mesopotamia.

As #ExploringBabylon continues, we’ll return to the relationship of Israel to Mesopotamia — in geography, history, and imagination. One of the key elements in that relationship involves the “old” religion. And this topic is linked to the two towns associated with Terah and family.

The Torah text itself does not explain why Terah left Ur or why Abraham is told to leave Haran; nor does the Torah give any reason for God’s choice to engage with Abraham. Commentary generally equate the journey with distancing from older practices and beliefs, particularly in the towns of Ur and Haran. Midrash often fills the white space with stories about Abraham (and, sometimes, Sarah, to whom he was already wed) taking steps toward monotheism before God said “go forth,” while other family members faltered. For example:

Influenced by Abram and his circle, Terah and other members of the family also felt an inner urge — yet not sufficiently strong or clear — in the spiritual direction toward which Abram was set with all his heart and soul. But they did not succeed in overcoming completely the attraction of idol worship and were unable to abandon the world of paganism; they did, in truth, set out on the journey, but stopped in the middle of the away.

Throughout his life, [Terah] did not find the strength to continue his journey and reach the goal that he originally had in mind under his son’s influence. Although he had made an effort to get away from the centre of the moon-cult in Ur of the Chaldees, yet when he came to another city dedicated to this worship — to Haran — he did not succeed in freeing himself from the spell of idolatry, and stayed there.
— Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis Part Two: From Noah to Abraham (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1964; Hebrew, first published 1949), p.281, 283

For more on the moon-cult of Sin, an archaeology background page.



“And Them”

Rabbi and biblical scholar Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951) was eager to provide alternative readings to those promulgated under the Documentary Hypothesis in the mid-20th Century. As part of that effort, he goes to great pains to elaborate on the phrase “[וַיֵּצְאוּ אִתָּם] they went out, with them” (Gen 11:31) in relation to Terah and his traveling party. He also looks at inconsistent references to Abraham’s “country” and “kindred.” (See From Noah to Abraham (full citation).)

While Cassuto is arguing against assigning various passages to the different Documents (not a central concern of this blog), his detailed analysis adds texture to the picture of “back home” for Abraham and Sarah. And that is useful for #Exploring Babylon.

Home and Also Home
Casutto points out that “birth-place” did not mean the same thing for a nomadic people that it means to more settled folk. After further discussion of the references to Abraham’s “country and kindred,” he concludes:

Thus there is no contradiction at all between the passages that indicate Ur of the Chaldees as the original home of Abram and those that afterwards refer to the land of Haran as his native land.
— Cassuto, p.274

This declaration speaks charmingly to all of us who distinguish between “original hometown,” on the one hand, and “longtime home,” on the other. Neither is less “native.” But he goes on to use his analysis to bring some further depth to the landscape Genesis 11ff.

Cassuto suggests that perhaps Terah’s family had originated in Haran and traveled to Ur at some point:

Accordingly, the migration to Haran mentioned in v.31 [11:31] really marks the return of the family to its original home. The fact that Ur and Haran were the chief centres of the cult of the moon-god Sin, and consequently were linked together by firm and permanent ties, serves to explain the movements from one to the other.
— Cassuto, p.275

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Babylon: Babel’s (Distant) Background

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 3.1

The Hebrew “Bavel” is translated into English as “Babel” in Genesis and as “Babylon” when it appears elsewhere in the Tanakh. Bavel as Babel shows up in a total of two verses in the entire Torah text: Gen 10:10, Nimrod’s legacy — “the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar,” and Gen 11:9, the close of what is usually called “The Tower of Babel” story. Bavel, now Babylon, is not mentioned again until 2 Kings 17:30, during the exile of the northern kingdoms.

After that, the Concordance (Even-Shoshan 1998) lists 281 additional appearances Bavel in the prophets and two in Psalm 137. Down the road, we’ll explore Babylon references in the later Tanakh. For now, let’s return to the Genesis.

Babel and Babylon

Jewish commentary on Gen 11:1-9 often treats the Bavel of Genesis as a place apart from history and geography. The focus is on the Babel tale’s placement in the Torah: after the Flood — when Noah’s descendants were told to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen 9:1) — and before Terah, Abraham, Sarah, and Lot leave Ur (Gen 11:31). Babylon is far in the background, often unremarked.

For example, Rabba Sara Hurwitz, of Yeshivat Maharat, recently shared a lovely, powerful dvar torah for the Torah portion Noach (Gen 6:9-11:32):

And God models how to exist in a world of diversity. In verse 7, when God goes down to mete out their punishment, God says: “Come let US go down.”

Rashi, addressing the question of who God is talking to, suggests that God “took counsel with the Angels, with his judicial court.” Surely God knows how to mete out judgment and punishment, as he has already done unilaterally in the Torah without discussing it with the Angels? Perhaps, God turns to them to asses their thoughts on the sin of the people, to hear their opinion, to debate the pros and cons of scattering the people all over the world. By addressing the Angels, God models how to collaborate with others. Diverse ideas, when debated in a respectful manner, can lead to growth, greater productivity, and ultimately harmony.

…The challenge with diversity is to reject the tendency toward segregating, and running away from conflict. For out of conflict, when we are willing to confront one another with healthy debate, tolerance is born…
— Hurwitz, ָ”Harmony, not Conformity

Hurwitz’s dvar torah is about Babel, not Babylon. She mentions no historical city or empire. Plenty of homelies, in- and outside the Orthodox world, identify Babel with Babylon and incorporate views of the latter; idol-worship, smugness of place, and failure to follow God’s commandments are common themes linking Babel and Babylon. However large a role Babylon plays in any given dvar torah, the overarching point is to help us better understand the Torah, ourselves, and our obligations as Jews — not to tease out insights on life in ancient Babylon.

Still, Jewish bible study has long examined the relationship of the historical, geographical Babylon to the Babel of Genesis 11. For thousands of years, that discussion has returned again and again to concepts of unity and difference, centralizing and dispersing. And for thousand of years, intentionally or not, those discussions have incorporated political ideas about these themes.

Because Babylon, in its many guises, is never far away from Jewish consciousness. Remember: We’ve already found Babylon in the primordial stuff of Creation and in the formation of the first earthling….

It’s Complicated

Erin Runions analyses Babylon as a complex, often contradictory, theme in U.S. culture and politics. From a non-Jewish academic perspective, she writes about the Tower:

The Tower of Babel appears in political and religious discourse when people want to think about what holds the United States together in the face of its racial and cultural diversity. Because the Babelian creation of diverse languages is typically read as both God’s will and at the same time a punishment, the story lends itself well to representing a range of attitudes about difference. A confusing ambivalence about unity and about too much diversity emerges. Via the Babel story, Babylon is sometimes used to promote tolerance toward sexual and ethnic difference, insofar as U.S. Americans see themselves as benevolent toward difference. At other times it is used to stigmatize and attack difference as embodying a problematic unity without moral distinctions.
The Babylon Complex: Theopolitical Fantasies of War, Sex, and Sovereignty (NY: Fordham University Press, 2014), p. 22-23

Runions calls Babylon “a surprisingly multivalent symbol” in U.S. culture and politics and then dedicates 300 pages to unpacking its complexities. Much of The Babylon Complex is outside the scope of this blog’s project. But Runions’s work illuminates how the surrounding culture understands and uses the concept of Babylon — and those insights are crucial, however tangential.

We’ll explore The Babylon Complex further another day. For the moment, let’s return to Rabba Hurwitz’s image of God modeling “how to collaborate with others” and add a postscript.

Different Folks

This past week, Playing for Change re-shared this video — one of my favorites among an enormous menu of great, community-building music. Sly Stewart’s great lines —

You love me
you hate me
You know me and then
Still can’t figure out the bag I’m in

seem so appropriate to this stage of #ExploringBabylon and Hurwitz’s charge to us.

Plus: Who doesn’t need hundreds of children singing and dancing to Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People”?!

More here for those interested, about TurnAround Arts and Playing for Change.

Babylon: the Earthling and the Tower

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 2.2

What did the Talmud mean by calling an apparently obscure town in then-contemporary Babylon the source of the first human’s “buttocks”? And what, if anything, can we learn from the remark?

Babylon makes several appearances, directly and indirectly, in the early chapters of Genesis:

  • Bavel” first appears directly in a genealogy list identifying Nimrod, descendant of Noah through Ham, as the founder of Babylon (Gen 10:10);
  • the Tower of Babel story appears in Genesis 11:1-9, with the name “Bavel” linked to God’s confounding of language and scattering of peoples;
  • as discussed in “Babylon and the Beginning,” the Babylonian Captivity, that is, exile of Israelites during the 6th Century BCE, is read into Gen 1:2; and
  • Babylon, as a geographic and cultural location for rabbis of the Talmud, enters commentary on the creation of the first human (Gen 2:7-8):

 

It has been taught: R. Meir used to say: The dust of the first human [adam ha-rishon] was gathered from all parts of the earth, for it is written, “Your eyes saw my unformed substance” [N1], and further it is written, “The eyes of the Lord run to and fro through the whole earth” [N2]. R. Oshaiah said in Rav’s name [N3]: Adam’s trunk came from Babylon, his head from Eretz Yisrael [N4], his limbs from other lands, and his buttocks (Soncino: private parts), according to R. Aha, from Akra di Agma [N5].
— Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 38a-b
adapted from Soncino translation
Notes below


The Earthling

Rabbi Meir’s comment — specifying the dust used to create ha-adam (Gen 2:7) and explain where the earthling was before being placed in the garden (Gen 2:8) — is frequently cited to support the egalitarian message that all humans, from whatever land, come from one source. It also celebrates both diversity and unity of humanity.

Rav’s further specifics — from a time when Babylon was growing in importance as a center of Jewish life, while Zion was still the metaphorical “head” — can also be understood more generally to speak to our divided, or blended, natures.

Similar concepts are found in the 12th Century Yehuda HaLevi poem, “My heart is in the East, and I am at the ends of the West,” and even 20th Century pieces, like “I left my heart in San Francisco” (Cory/Cross, 1953; popularized by Tony Bennett). The quintessential verses of Psalm 137, with its many interpretations over the centuries, continue to add layers to the idea that portions of our being remain in Babylon and Zion.

Before getting to R. Aha’s comment, here is an attempt to illustrate some of the divisions and blends we might embody in Exploring Babylon. This is the second project I’ve posted based on ideas in Personal Geographies: Explorations in Mixed-Media Mapmaking by Jill K. Berry; here’s the first. And here is a completely different visual approach to Torah.

earthling




Notes:

N1: Ps. 139:16. Many commentaries relate Psalm 139 to the creation of the first human; some attribute the psalm, or part of it, to Adam.
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N2: “The eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth,” is similar to language in Zech 4:10 —

עֵינֵי יְהוָה, הֵמָּה מְשׁוֹטְטִים בְּכָל-הָאָרֶץ.
which are the eyes of the LORD, that run to and fro through the whole earth.

— and identical to part of 2 Chronicles 16:9 —

כִּי יְהוָה, עֵינָיו מְשֹׁטְטוֹת בְּכָל-הָאָרֶץ
…for the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth…

The Soncino translation cites Zechariah. The Koren/Steinsaltz translation cites Chronicles.

The Soncino notes add that, perhaps, this teaches “‘equality of man’, all men having been formed from one and the same common clay.”
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N3:Rab, or Rav (Abba Arika), was a leading teacher in 3rd Century CE Babylon. He came from a prominent family in Jewish Babylonia and was a disciple of Rabbi (Judah the Prince, or Yehuda ha-Nasi), redactor of the Mishnah and major leader of Jews under Roman occupation, before returning to Babylon to teach. Rav founded the academy at Sura and helped establish what became Babylonian Judaism. The other major academy of the time was at Pumbedita (see N5 below).
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N4: The Soncino notes that Eretz Yisrael was considered “the most exalted of all lands,” and so is linked with the head, as the “most exalted” body part.
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N5: A Babylonian town (also spelled: Akra d’Agama, Akra de-Agma), which some sources situate near Pumbedita, where a Talmudic academy was established in the 3rd Century CE. Also possibly a low-lying area, and/or in the south of Babylon. More on this town and R. Aha’s comment…
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Akra de-Agma in the Notes

Louis Ginzberg’s reference to the above passage includes a parenthetical remark: “Akra de-Agma (a town in Babylon, notorious on account of the loose morals of its inhabitants).” The Soncino notes on Sanhedrin 38b quote this remark without elaboration or any further source. (See Legends of the Jews, Vol 5:15, Jewish Publication Society, 1925). Meanwhile, numerous teachers of the last century cite this remark on loose morals of Akra de-Agma as fact, but I can’t find any independent sources that suggest anything of the kind.

The name “Akra di Agma” appears also in Baba Batra 127a, while “Akra” and “Agama” are mentioned as two neighboring locales in Baba Metzia 86a. Both of these passages mention the place(s) in the context of rabbinical life, without any commentary on the morals, loose or otherwise, of the inhabitants.

Steinsaltz adds this marginal note to San 38b:

Akra de-Agma. This is apparently the name of a Babylonian city, perhaps in the south of the country. According to the [Shulkhan] Arukh this was a lowly place, either from a physical or ethical standpoint, and for this reason it is said that from here the dust used to create Adam’s buttocks was taken.

Combining the Soncino and Steinsaltz notes might suggest that Ginzberg was relying on, or extending, something in Shulkhan Arukh (16th Century code of Joseph Karo). But it still seems like something else might be going on with Akra de-Agma.


Three hypotheses:

On the one hand, this teaching is so specific in its place names. And, we know Akra de-Agma is near the academy at Pumbedita, while Rav’s academy was based in the town of Sura. So, I can’t help wondering if there’s some sort of in-joke involved in identifying ha-adam‘s buttocks (or “privates”) with a rival academy — like Harvard students calling New Haven a hick town or Howard alumni talking trash about Hampton.

On the other hand, this teaching is speaking of ha-adam and so suggesting what it means to be human in a wider sense. In this more symbolic context, I wonder if Akra de-Agma somehow became a synechdoche for the many ways Babylon itself — by the time of the Shulkhan Arukh and later centuries — came to mean danger and wildness, particularly of a sexual nature.

Finally, George Carlin’s “FM & AM – The 11 O’Clock News” comes to mind:

It’s 8 O’Clock in Los Angeles
It’s 9 O’Clock in Denver
It’s 10 O’Clock in Chicago
In Baltimore, it’s 6:42!

Could it be that Akra de-Agma was the Baltimore of Babylon?

In that case, I think, the composition of ha-adam rishon, the first earthling, might be tied up with the Tower or Babel theme: Will humanity be of one speech or idea — “devarim ahadim,” as at the start of the Babel story — or be “scattered over the face of the earth” as the people fear and ultimately experience, at the close of the story?

What can we take from the story of ha-adam rishon and the Tower of Babel to help us avoid either extreme?

Stay tuned. And share your thoughts, too.

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Babylon and the Beginning

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 2.1

Ancient commentary finds reference to exile, to Babylon in particular, as early as the bible’s second verse:

Now the earth was unformed [תֹהוּ] and void [וָבֹהוּ] and darkness [וְחֹשֶׁךְ] was upon the face of the deep [עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם]; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the water [וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם]”
— Gen 1:2

R. Simeon b. Lakish equates “tohu [unformed]” with Babylon and subsequent expressions in the verse with other “powers” (or “empires”) that dominated Israel: Medea/Persia, Greece, and “the Wicked State” (Rome). Finally, he links “the spirit of God” hovering over the water with Messianic spirit and reasons that it’s on account of the water (over which the spirit hovers) — likened to repentance, based on Lamentations 2:19, “…pour out thy heart like water…” — that Redemption will come.[1].

God makes order from chaos. In the beginning of Creation and in Reish Lakish’s day. Four separate kinds of confusion and darkness are but prelude. As in that hovering just before God created light and then divided light from darkness, the dawn of Redemption is just a moment away. Through this allegory, one verse of the Creation story thus encapsulates the People’s history, fears, and faith. And the experience of Babylonian captivity is shapes it all.

Estimated Impact

Jacob Neusner’s introduction to Genesis Rabbah notes that the sages of the time — Christian Palestine of the 4th-5th Century CE (incorporating earlier teachings) — “entertained deep forebodings about Israel’s prospects.” They understood the Torah to be “the story of Israel, the Jewish people, in the here and now,” however, and so read it to speak to the needs of their time:

So the importance of Genesis, as the sages of Genesis Rabbah read the book, derives not from its lessons about the past but from its message for Israel’s present–and especially its future….a prophesy for a near tomorrow.
–Neusner, p.2

Based on the Babylonian exile and subsequent return to rebuild the Temple, “hope persisted that the same pattern would find renewal–and the prophets’ promise of redemption.” (p.4, Jacob Neusner. Confronting Creation: How Judaism Reads Genesis: An Anthology of Genesis Rabbah [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1991]).

Biblical scholar Rainer Albertz [2] estimates that “half the material in the Hebrew Bible came into being or was substantially shaped” during the Babylonian Exile. A decade or so later, he suggested that “about 70 percent of the Hebrew Bible tackles the questions of how the catastrophe of exile was possible and what Israel can learn from it.”

But Albertz’s method does not appear to extend to readings, like those of Genesis Rabbah, in which verses unrelated to exile on the surface — that is, on a pashat (literal or simple) level — are allegorically linked. So, perhaps the percentage of the Hebrew Bible understood as relating to exile should be raised even further?

Questions for Consideration

Questions posed in Chapter 1.1 touched on feelings of safety and fragility. As we move beyond the sukkah and into the new year’s Torah cycle:

  • Does the vision of Genesis Rabbah, including the precarious nature of the political situation, have resonance for this year’s Torah cycle?
  • Does the notion of being so close to chaos, confusion, and darkness seem ancient or current?
  • What about the idea that Redemption can also be very near?
  • Does repentance, in this context, seem possible?
  • Is reading “(foreign) powers” into the early Creation story disturbing? hopeful?
  • Does a strong focus on exile and return, even for verses that seem unrelated, deepening bible reading? or flatten it?
  • Can knowing that we (and the Presence suffering with us) made it back, or out from under, help us now?

NOTE:

1) R. Simeon b. Lakish said:
Unformed [“tohu” תֹהוּ] = Babylon, because the prophet Jeremiah wrote about the Babylonian exile: “I beheld the earth, and, lo, it was waste [וְהִנֵּה-תֹהוּ]…” (Jer. 4:23). Void [“bohu” וָבֹהוּ] = Medea/Persia; Dark [“hoshech” וְחֹשֶׁךְ] = Greece; the Face of the Deep [“al p’nei t’hom” עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם] = “the Wicked State” (i.e., Rome). Reish Lakish equated the Spirit of God with the Messianic spirit, citing Isaiah 11:2 — And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him [the Messiah].

This teaching closes by asking, “In the merit of what will the Messiah come?” And answering:

[For the sake of that which] hovered over the face of the waters, i.e. in the
merit of repentance which is likened to water, as it is written, Pour out thy heart like water (Lam. 2:19)

–Genesis Rabbah 2:4

R. Simeon b. Lakish (3rd Century CE, Palestine) is also known as Reish Lakish.

Genesis Rabbah is thought to date be the oldest of the Midrash Rabbah collections. A translation by R. Dr. H. Freedman is available via the great Internet Archive.
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2) Rainer Albertz (profile; C.V.) has a Ph.D in Protestant Theology from the University of Heidelberg. He is the son of a Heinrich Albertz (1915–1993), one-time major of (West) Berlin and a pacifist, anti-Nazi Christian minister.

Israel in Exile: The History and Literature of the Sixth Century B.C.E., translated by David Green (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003).

“More and Less than a Myth: Reality and Significance of Exile for the Political, Social, and Religious History of Judah,” IN By the Irrigation Canals of Babylon: Approaches to the Study of the Exile, edited by John J. Ahn & Jill Middlemas (NY: Continuum, 2012).
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Babylon Background

Basic Background

Babylon’s Ever-Shifting Past

Scholarship is always changing the past.

Ur and Har(r)an in Bible and History

Narratives of Genesis are tied up with historical places that carried specific meanings we will miss without some background on those ancient places.


 

Books Cited

Babylon by Kriwaczek

Paul Kriwaczek. Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2010)

Everyday Life

Contenau, Georges. Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria (NY: The Norton Library, 1966).

Babylon Complex

Babylon is a surprisingly multivalent symbol in U.S. culture and politics. Erin Runions devotes 300 pages to unpacking…

Israel in Exile (Albertz)

Oft-cited “biblical, historical, literary, and theological masterpiece” exploring the Babylonian Captivity through bible and history.

Song of Exile

Stowe explores Psalm 137 in three parts: History (“…there we sat and wept…”), Memory (“If I forget thee, Jerusalem…”), and Forgetting (“O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed…”) with a strong emphasis on the psalm in music and popular culture.

Israel’s Resistance Poetry

“Israel’s earliest responses to earth-shaking changes were cast in the powerfully expressive language of poetry…”

Belshazzar and the Wall

“Mene, Mene, Tekel” Harold Rome (1908 – 1993), from 25th Anniversary “Pins and Needles” (1962) Zimmers, Tighe E. Lyrical Satirical Harold Rome. Jefferson, NY (McFarlandContinue Reading

The Hebrew Bible (Greenspan)

The Hebrew Bible: New Insights and Scholarship. Jewish Studies in the Twenty-First Century. Greenspan, Frederick E., ed. (NY: NYU Press, 2008) “There has been aContinue Reading

Tanakh: An Owner’s Manual

Tanakh: An Owner’s Manual: Authorship, Canonization, Masoretic Text, Exegesis, Modern Scholarship, and Pedagogy. Moshe Sokolow. (NY: Ktav, 2015). Moshe Sokolow, a professor at Yeshiva University,Continue Reading

Diaspora Model and Black Theology

In 1973, Charles Shelby Rooks floated the “untested suggestion about a possible new image” for Black Theology: that of an African Diaspora based on theContinue Reading


 

Related Music

Belshazzar and the Wall

“Mene, Mene, Tekel” Harold Rome (1908 – 1993), from 25th Anniversary “Pins and Needles” (1962) Zimmers, Tighe E. Lyrical Satirical Harold Rome. Jefferson, NY (McFarlandContinue Reading

Zion Songs

Some Songs of Zion and Babylon The Abyssinians “Forward Unto Zion” Bob Marley “Zion Train” Don McLean “Waters of Babylon” The Melodians “Rivers of Babylon”Continue Reading

More Resources

Oriental Institute

Oriental Institute sponsors excavations and surveys, operates a museum, publishes many resources, and shares materials on-line.

Bible Readers’ Inventories

Many factors influence how we read any document, including — perhaps, especially — the Bible. Spending some time exploring factors that influence our own readingContinue Reading

 

God’s Presence Accompanied Them

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 1.2

Deuteronomy closes with hopes, on the banks of the Jordan and declarations of Israel’s particular relationship to God:

So Israel dwelt in safety
the fountain of Jacob alone…

Happy are you, O Israel!
Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD,
the shield of your help,
and the sword of your triumph!
–Deut 33:28-29

Much later, after Israel had experienced more trial and loss and exile, the idea developed that God was in exile along with the People, as much in need of rescue as the People. In particular, Sukkot prayers include a verse, “Ani va-ho” — sometimes translated as “Yourself and us!” or “Rescue me and the divine name!” — followed by another that begs:

As You rescued the communities You exiled to Babylonia, and Your merciful Presence accompanied them — so save us.

This line of thought, which has been developing for centuries, is mean to teach that “when there is suffering in the world, God is not on the side of the oppressors. Rather God is with the oppressed and suffers with them” (from Or Hadash: A Commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom; download and more at Rabbinical Assembly).

The idea that “God is with the oppressed” is too often, I fear, used as a sort of universal Coup-fourré card, a “safety” to correct any “hazard,” so as to stay on the road.

…For those who never played the old card game Mille Borne, maybe “ace in the hole” or “Get out of jail free” card will make more sense; but I find Coup-fourré — the process whereby one is able to surmount a pitfall and keep rolling along — more apt here….

It is way too easy to let “God is with the oppressed” console the already comfortable while leaving the afflicted with their travails. As we enter the new year, I think it’s time for the comfortable among us to examine our “safety” cards.

 

Following God’s Example

We must ask ourselves where we are when there is suffering and injustice in the world. It’s not enough to be concerned or write letters or even stand out in the street in protest — although all of those things are important. God went into exile with us, and something similar is required of us, if we are to make any progress on racial and ethnic justice issues.

We must take steps to remove any sense that we are somehow entitled to dwell in safety — as we find Israel at the close of Deuteronomy — when others cannot. If God could join us in exile, we can work to dismantle White Supremacy and other protections that can never be equally shared. Where there is suffering in the world, we cannot simply declare ourselves “on the freedom side.”

We’ve got to follow God’s example, to the extent we are able, and be willing to be vulnerable, explore what it’s really like in Babylon, not just our romantic ideas about it from outside. We have to look carefully at any place where oppression thrives and ask, “how we are complicit?” Really, deeply, honestly ask ourselves and our communities: “Which side are you on, my people, which side are you on?”

And then take action, even if it means compromising our own safety or sense of self.

NOTE: A version of this mini-dvar [word, sermon] was given at Fabrangen and Tikkun Leil Shabbat joint Simchat Torah celebration, 10/11/17.

“Babylon” (Bavel) means many things in Judaism and in U.S. popular culture. Join “A Song Every Day” in Exploring Babylon over the next 40 weeks.

 

Which Side Are You On?

Background on the song/chant —

Florence Reece (more here) wrote “Which side are you on?” lyrics in 1931 as part of labor organizing effort —

Freedom Singers adapted it for the mid-20th Century Civil Rights movement —

A version of this is still used, as in #BlackBrunch in Oakland (above), but protestors in the Movement for Black Lives also use a combination song and chant, as in this snippet:

Chant: [Example Leader] was a Freedom Fighter
who taught us how to fight
We gonna fight all day and night
until we get it right

Sing: Which side are you on, my people, which side are you on?
We’re on the freedom side!