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..
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.
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.
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 Ranier Albertz  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?
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.
2) Ranier 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).