Babylon and Rachel’s Offering

Exploring Babylon Chapter 8.2

The last episode of #ExploringBabylon focused on the biblical Rachel and her connection to “back home” for the family of Abraham and Sarah, as described in Vayetze (last week’s Torah portion, Gen 28:10-32:3); Rachel’s death and burial on the road, as related in Vayishlach (this week’s portion, Gen 32:4-36:43), was also raised (See “The Babylon Road.”) There is so much more to explore on the road to Ephrath (Gen 35:16-21, Jer 31:14-16). This post begins with one contemporary commentary on one ancient midrash.

Rachel, “Arch-Lamenter”

While the Jacob/Israel clan is still traveling — away from “back home” for Rachel and Leah, and toward the new home for the extended family — the time for Rachel to give birth arrives. Rachel labors with her second child and dies just as her son is born and named: first by his mother, Ben-oni [son of my pain, son of my strength]; and then by his father, Benjamin [son of right, or south, side].

Rachel thus gives birth to the only child of Jacob/tribe of Israel born in “the Land.” But she doesn’t live to participate in the life of the land. Jacob buries Rachel on the side of the road, rather than in the family burial property which is not too far away (Gen 35:16-20). As noted in Chapter 8.1, this burial spot is interpreted as prescient on Jacob’s part, in terms of later exile of his descendants. And the death and burial leave Rachel in a particularly evocative position.

Bodies Performing in the Ruins: The Lamenting Mother in Ancient Hebrew Texts,” by Galit Hasan-Rokem, describes one midrash which links Rachel’s separation from her child in death with Israel’s separation from future children in exile. Hasan-Rokem summarizes one of the long proems opening Lamentations Rabbah (5th Century CE). In it Moses shows the patriarchs the death and destruction in the aftermath of the Babylonian attack on Jerusalem.

“After the patriarchs and Moses have failed to move the heart of the angry father God,” she says, “a remarkable scene is acted out.” Hasan-Rokem then quotes Lam. Rabbah (I am cutting her quoted text into paragraphs for easier reading):

At that moment Rachel leapt before the Holy One, blessed be He, and said:
“Lord of the universe, you know that Jacob your servant loved me exceedingly, and toiled for my father on my behalf for seven years. And at the end of seven years, when the time of my marriage arrived, my father advised that my sister should replace me, and I suffered greatly because his counsel became known to me. And I informed my husband and I gave him a sign so that he might distinguish between my sister and me, and my father would be unable to replace me.

“Later, I repented and suppressed my desire, and took pity on my sister so that she would not be shamed. In the evening, they substituted my sister for me with my husband, and I gave my sister all the signs that I had agreed on with my husband, so that he would believe that she was Rachel. More than that, I went under the bed upon which he lay with my sister, and when he spoke to her and she remained silent, I gave all the answers so that he would not recognize my sister’s voice.”

Up to this point, the narrative follows the tale in the Babylonian Talmud Baba Batra 123a, explicating the enigmatic line, “And it came to pass in the morning, behold! it was Leah”  (Gen 29:25). Then comes Rachel’s contribution to the pleading before God, followed by God’s response:

“I was gracious, I was not jealous, and spared her shame and dishonour. If I, only flesh and blood, dust and ashes, was not jealous of my rival and spared her shame and dishonour, why should you, the everlasting and compassionate King, be jealous of idolatry, which is insubstantial, and exile my children who were slain by the sword, and let their enemies do with them what they wish?”

Forthwith, the mercy of the Holy One, blessed be He, was stirred, and He said: “For your sake, Rachel, I will restore Israel to their place. And so it was written:

Thus said the Lord:
A voice was heard in Ramah
lamentation and bitter weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children,
refusing to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more
(Jeremiah 31:14).

And it is written:

Thus says the LORD:
Refrain your voice from weeping,
And your eyes from tears,
For your work shall be rewarded, says the LORD,
And they shall come back from the land of the enemy
(Jeremiah 31:15).

And it is written:

There is hope in your future, says the LORD,
That your children shall come back to their own border
(Jeremiah 31:16)

–Lam. Rabbah proem 24, quoted in Hasan-Rokem
For another translation, and much more about Rachel in midrash, see Jewish Women’s Archive


Partner in Redemption

Hasan-Rokem comments that Rachel is offering as token “not her premature death…but rather her life, the enduring of the burning passion of the added seven years of longing between her and Jacob” (p.57). The burning passion is significant, in this context, as an illustration of

the transformation of stored-up erotic energy into the power that can produce a lament so effective it will move even the angry and despotic Divine Majesty….Rachel emerges almost as a weeping goddess, and certainly as a partner to God in the act of redemption.
— “Bodies Performing in the Ruins,” p.57

The author’s thesis in this paper involves the “Babylonian legacy of lamenting gods and especially goddesses,” which will have to be a topic for another day. But her description of Rachel offering “not her premature death…but rather her life” can also point us to the significance of another aspect of this midrash.

Rachel tells God, “I was gracious, I was not jealous, and spared [my sister’s] shame and dishonour,” arguing that, if she, with her limited human resources, managed to behave without jealousy, God should davka be able to overlook idolatry. How many lessons are here for people struggling to function with integrity and flexibility in a diverse, often contradictory, world? This model is at least as important, I think, as Rachel’s lament in moving God and serving as partner in redemption.




Galit Hasan-Rokem. “Bodies Performing in Ruins: The Lamenting Mother in Ancient Hebrew Texts.”
IN Perspectives on Jewish Texts and Contexts, edited by Vivian Liska.
Volume 2: Lament in Jewish Thought: Philosophical, Theological, and Literary Perspectives
Ilit Ferber and Paula Schwebel eds. (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014)
This article is available through Academia (dot) edu.
This article offers a number of insights relevant to #ExploringBabylon, which will have to await another day.
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The Babylon Road

Exploring Babylon Chapter 8.1

The biblical Rachel, the last matriarch to join and add to the clan that becomes Israel, is tied to the east in several ways — all leading, ultimately, to Babylon.

Children of Two Lands

Rachel is introduced just after Jacob arrives in the “land of the Easterners [אַרְצָה בְנֵי-קֶדֶם]” (Genesis 29:1, last week’s Torah portion: Vayetze, Gen 28:10-32:3).

The construct “בְנֵי-קֶדֶם, bnei-kedem” — sometimes translated as “people (or children) of the east,” sometimes, “Kedemites” — does not appear anywhere else in the Torah, although it shows up ten times later in the Tanakh (Concordance Even-Shoshan). Many Torah translations leave the expression without comment (cf. Alter, Fox, URJ, Women of Reform Judaism, Gefen Onkelos); the Stone Chumash simply points out that Ur Kasdim and Haran, places associated with Abraham’s family, are east from Canaan.

Some commentators note that eastward is the direction Abraham sent the children of Ketura, whom he married after Sarah’s death (Gen 25:6). The word “kedem” itself means “past,” as well as “east.”

Previous #ExploringBabylon chapters discussed two themes, repeated through much of Genesis:

  • Ur Kasdim and Haran as “Back Home” for the family of Terah;
  • the descendants of Sarah and Abraham as perpetually “from there.”

Both themes appear in Jacob’s story, and both appear, in two quite different ways, in the stories of Leah and Rachel.

Two Sisters

Jacob is urged, separately by Rebecca and Isaac, to leave Canaan, with both parents saying that he should seek out Rebecca’s brother and find a wife from the uncle’s household (“back home”). Isaac echoes Abraham’s earlier words, insisting his son should find a wife “from there [מִשָּׁם].”

In their instructions to Jacob, Rebecca calls her old home “Haran,” while Isaac calls the place “Paddan-Aram.” Jacob goes to Paddan-Aram (Gen 28:5), going out from Beer-Sheva toward Haran (Gen 28:10). Where he arrives, however, is “artzah bnei-kedem.”

Jacob’s grandparents and parents retained a sense of “from there,” while leaving “back home” behind: Sarah and Abraham left there, as did Rebecca. But Jacob’s trajectory is different: He will live decades among the people of kedem. So, even though the plain meaning of arriving “artzah bnei-kedem” is reaching the “east country” or “land of the Easterners” (as JPS has it above), Jacob has also, in a sense, traveled toward his family’s past. And Rachel’s introduction links her to this land in a way that Leah’s does not.

Jacob arrives in the land of the Easterners, where he sees a well and flocks of sheep and then meets locals who tell him his cousin Rachel is on the way. Rachel, whose name means “ewe,” is intricately woven into this landscape and the household of Laban, where she is seen and heard taking an active role.

Leah, in contrast, is not introduced until 29:16 and then only as Laban’s older daughter with tender, or weak, eyes; she is not linked to the land in any way and does not interact with Laban, except as the passive object of his machinations.

Two Stories

The sisters jointly declare themselves “as outsiders” [כִּי מְכָרָנוּ] in Laban’s household, when Jacob proposes leaving (Gen 31:14-16). The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary adds:

By acknowledging their outsider status in the household, Leah and Rachel prepare themselves to journey to an unknown land. They distinguish themselves from their father, citing the egregious manner in which he married them off and then denied them their due.
— Rachel Havrelock’s commentary to Vayetze

But this doesn’t pan out in the same way for both sisters.

Eventually, although we learn nothing about the later stage of her life, Leah does settle with Jacob and the extended family in Canaan; she is buried at Machpelah with Sarah and Abraham, Rebecca and Isaac, and, finally, Jacob (Gen 49:31). We also learn that Dinah, “the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land” (Gen 34:1); this troubling episode is beyond the scope of this project, but it does seem relevant that Leah and Dinah are thus linked, not to the old land but to the new.

Rachel, in contrast, seems to have stronger relationships to the old land and to the old family. She steals the terafim (הַתְּרָפִים [idols, household gods]) from her father’s house (Gen 31:34), which many commentators link to inheritance or clan leadership — although there is great variety in interpreting the meaning of her act. Moreover, when Laban comes in search of his property, Leah is again a cipher in his presence, but Rachel is seen and heard responding to her father.

However the theft is interpreted, Rachel’s act exhibits strong opinions about her native culture and her place in it. She does not simply move on. And she doesn’t simply move into the new land, either, as her story unfolds in this week’s Torah portion (Vayishlach, Gen 32:4-36:43).

Two Bookends

We’ll explore Rachel’s appearance in the Book of Jeremiah more thoroughly later, but it seems important to mention here the second bookend for her story: We saw above how the landscape appeared prior to Rachel’s gradually coming into view as part of it (Genesis Chapter 29). In Jeremiah 31:12, her cry is heard “wailing, bitter weeping,” before we are told that it is Rachel weeping.

Rachel is tied strongly to the land of her birth; she doesn’t leave it easily or have an opportunity to live in the new land, even as she gives birth to the only child of Jacob, tribe of Israel, born there.

And Rachel died, and was buried on the road to Ephrath (Gen 35:19). Why did Jacob see fit to bury Rachel on the road to Ephrath [and not in the cave of Machpelah*]? Because our father Jacob foresaw that they who were to be exiled would pass by way of Ephrath. Therefore he buried her there, so that she might beseech mercy for them. Referring to this, Scripture says, “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children” (Jer. 31:15).
— Sefer Ha-Aggadah 50:87, based on Genesis Rabbah 82:10

*Footnote provided by Sefer Ha-Aggadah: Ramah, near where Jacob buried Rachel, lay north of Jerusalem in the path of the exiles driven toward Babylon. Hebron is south of Jerusalem, and the patriarchs and matriarchs buried there in the cave of Machpelah were out of the way of the exiles going northeast to Babylon.

In this way — and in others we’ll explore soon — the bookends of Rachel’s life and death link her to the Babylon of the past and future and to the precarious nature of Israel’s future on the land.

Jacob’s Dream and What’s Ours

Exploring Babylon Chapter 7.2

In the previous episode of #ExploringBabylon, I shared a pair of midrashim about Jacob’s Dream (Gen 28:12) from Midrash Tanchuma-Yelammedenu Vayetze 2. In Dream “Version #2,” God blames Jacob’s lack of faith, evidenced by his failure to ascend the ladder, for future oppression of Israel by Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome:

…since you did not have faith, your descendants will be oppressed by these four kingdoms with imposts, taxes on their crops, and poll-tax.
— Tanchuma Vayetze 2 cont. (Berman, p.186; full citation in previous post)

Version #2 concludes with a promise that the people will be saved due to the practice of pe’ah [corners], i.e., not harvesting one’s fields entirely, but leaving the corners for the poor (Lev 19:9-10, 23:22). Chapter 7.1 noted a few questions that this raises about the relationship between oppression and taxes, on the one hand, and faith, on the other. Here are further thoughts.

Let’s begin with the commandment of pe’ah, and travel backward through the midrashic territory.

Removing Wealth

1) Pe’ah, we learned, may be compared to withholding tax: “One does not even own one’s income until one has separated out the portion for the poor,” like “taxes that are withheld from income; it never really was yours anyway” (Jeffrey Spitzer, “Pe’ah: The Corners of Our Fields“). The mitzvah of pe’ah, and the associated attitude toward one’s earnings, is what will save the people from annihilation, according to Dream Version #2.

Biblical and rabbinic text focus a great deal on what individuals owe to the community, particularly to the most vulnerable — and pe’ah is just one of many related mitzvot that we might understand, following Spitzer, as akin to taxation for the public good. But ancient “taxation,” in ancient Jewish views, was something else.

2) The oppression, suffered under four kingdoms in Dream Version #2, encompasses “imposts, taxes on their crops, and poll-tax.” These taxes remove wealth from the local community for the needs of empire — be it Babylon, Persia, Greece, or Rome. Removing wealth from subject populations served to support the empire while also reducing the chance of rebellion in the provinces.

Such taxes, imposed from outside, were not viewed in Jewish tradition as commonweal-supporting. In addition, some ancient taxes were specifically designed to be punitive, such as poll-taxes on Jews in the wake of the 1st Century CE rebellion; diverting taxes from the Temple in Jerusalem to instead finance a temple for Jupiter in Rome was seen (and intended) as a particular affront.

3) In Dream Version #2, God announces that the kind of tax-oppression Jews experienced, as subjects of four foreign empires, can be explained by Jacob’s lack of faith and failure to ascend the ladder.

We don’t get Jacob’s side of the story. But we have a small clue in the text that follows the dream. When Jacob awakens, he makes a vow using an “if-then” construction:

And Jacob vowed a vow, saying: ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the LORD be my God…and of all that Thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto Thee.’
— Gen 28:20-22

Most commentators read this, as discussed in “Jacob’s Contract with God,” as conditional only “in the way any contract or agreement is conditional” or as another form of affirming the covenantal relationship God has just announced. But I hear something else.

What’s Ours

Jacob, on the road to Haran, has just lost his home and any mundane sense of security. He hopes the sojourn will be temporary but does not yet know for sure and is not assured of future success, or even of shelter ahead. God’s promise is amazing, but Jacob sins by not grasping it.

“For all this they sinned still, and believed not in His wondrous works” (Psalm 78:32), we read in Dream Version #2. “Jacob” has shifted from a patriarch alone on the road to his national persona, which includes us.

We know from later text and tradition that the covenant God established with Abraham and Sarah, with Isaac and Rebecca, now reiterated with Jacob, obligates us to sharing resources in the ways outlined above, the mitzvah of pe’ah being a prime example. We are meant to acknowledge, all the time, in our thought and in our economic behavior that whatever we have is by the grace of God and not because we’re somehow entitled.

But Jacob, in his vow, sounds very like most of us most of the time: willing enough to give tzedakah, or otherwise contribute to the community, only after our own financial security is assured. This is a luxury denied to many.

And we have a great deal of work to do, as individuals, as communities, and on the national scale in the U.S., to examine what is ours and re-think how “our” stuff is distributed. This holiday of Thanksgiving calls those of us who are not of indigenous descent to carefully examine “ours” in the context of this land and its bounty. We must also look, nationally, at what is “ours” in the context of labor stolen from millions of enslaved people.

This is what I hear in Jacob’s dream. What about you?



“POLL TAX”
When I first encountered the midrash about poll-taxes, I confess my first thought was this was some kind of anachronistic reference to voting rights. For anyone else who may be confused….

“Poll,” meaning “head,” is used in two common, inter-related ways: Poll-taxes, since ancient times, are levied per person, as opposed to taxes on crops (income) or property, and imposed for a variety of reasons; history has seen a number of poll-taxes specifically aimed at Jewish communities. Poll is also used in voting contexts, where each “head” has a say in an election.

These two uses collide in the United States, where poll-taxes — in the sense of taxes on an individual, rather than on income or property — were used as a barrier to the polling place. The 24th Amendment made such use on the federal level unconstitutional in 1964, and subsequent rulings outlawed their use in state elections. Prior to that, poll taxes were used to prevent many people, primarily black citizens of the South, from exercising the right to vote.
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Babylon, Taxes, and Thanksgiving

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Exploring Babylon Chapter 7.1

Jacob heads back “there,” home of his mother’s and his grandparents’ people, in this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze (Gen 28:10-32:3; for more on “there“). But a great deal happens in the few verses between his leaving Beer Sheva and his arrival in Haran, and some of it sheds light for #ExploringBabylon.

In flight, after stealing his brother’s blessing (last week’s portion), Jacob pauses for the night:

וַיַּחֲלֹם, וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה, וְרֹאשׁוֹ, מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה; וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים, עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ
And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
— Gen 28:12 (Old JPS translation)

This dream, particularly its image of angels first ascending and then descending, has been the source of many tales and lessons. One such commentary, from Midrash Tanchuma (c. 500-800 CE), involves Babylon and taxes, and leads us to consider what Judaism demands regarding economic justice.

The Four Exiles

Earlier in #ExploringBabylon, we encountered two midrashim reading four exiles, or foreign dominations, into biblical text without apparent connection to exile: The first involved the earliest stages of Creation, Gen 1:2 (see “Babylon and the Beginning“); the second, the Binding of Isaac, Gen 22:13 (see “Entangled and Free“). Midrash Tanchuma Vayetze 2 uses a similar trope.

As in the previous examples, national exile is nowhere explicit in the biblical text, but an anxious uncertainty in the story provides a link. Here, Jacob’s precarious, liminal situation and God’s dream promise to “keep you wherever you go and bring you back into this land” (Gen 28:15), is linked to Israel’s national fate.

Two versions of dream commentary contain small variations that make for big midrashic differences. (The translations below are from Midrash Tanchuma-Yelammedenu, by Samuel A. Berman. Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1996).

Ascent and Descent

In version #1 of the dream midrash, God shows Jacob four specific angels:

  • the guardian angel of Babylon ascending seventy rungs of the ladder and descending,
  • the guardian angel of Media ascending fifty-two rungs of the ladder and descending,
  • the guardian angel of Greece ascending one hundred [I’ve also seen 180] rungs of the ladder and descending, and
  • the guardian angel of Edom ascending the ladder

Tanchuma Vayetze 2 (Berman, p.185)

Jacob could not see an end to this fourth angel’s ascent and so “cried out in terror: Perhaps Edom will never be compelled to descend.” God’s response is described with a combination of verses from the Tanakh:

Therefore fear thou not, O Jacob My servant, saith the LORD; neither be dismayed, O Israel; for, lo, I will save thee from afar, and thy seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall again be quiet and at ease, and none shall make him afraid.

Though thou make thy nest as high as the eagle, and though thou set it among the stars, I will bring thee down from thence, saith the LORD.
— Jer 30:10, Obad 4

Here, as in the Creation (Gen 1:2) and the Akedah (Gen 22:13) midrashim, three of the four exiles/dominations are complete. The final domination persists: the “wicked empire,” rule of Teman (an Edomite clan), and Edom, in the Creation, Akedah, and Dream midrashim, respectively, all ways of referring to Rome. In the earlier midrashim, oppression will end with a messianic spirit (Creation story) and the ram’s horn (Akedah). Here, Roman rule seems endless, and Jacob despairs.

This version stops with Jacob’s despair and God’s assurance.

Faith and Taxes

In Version #2, “R. Berechiah, in the name of R. Helbo, and R. Simeon the son of Yosinah, maintained” that Jacob sees the fourth angel descend and God then asks Jacob why he does not ascend.

Whereupon our patriarch Jacob became distressed and asked: Shall I too be forced to descend, just as these are? The Holy One, blessed be He, responded: If you ascend, you will not be required to descend. Nevertheless, he did not ascend, for his faith was not sufficiently strong.
— Tanchuma Vayetze 2 cont. (Berman, pp.185-186)

R. Simeon ben Yosinah adds an interpretation of Ps 78:32, “For all this they sinned still, and believed not in His wondrous works,” to make Jacob’s failure more explicit:

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Jacob: If you had ascended and trusted Me, you would never have been compelled to descend, but since you did not have faith, your descendants will be oppressed by these four kingdoms with imposts, taxes on their crops, and poll-tax.
— Tanchuma Vayetze 2 cont. (Berman, p.186)

Similarly to the midrashim on Gen 1:2 and 22:13, Version #2 has Jacob cry out: “Will this oppression continue forever?”

As in Version #1 above, God’s response is taken from Jer 30:10. Here, however, a second verse(30:11) is used to explain in detail how Jacob will survive while other nations perish. The key involves economic justice:

That is to say, “I will make an end of all the nations” (Jer 30:11) that reap their fields completely, but since the people of Israel do not reap their fields completely, “of thee I will not make an end.”
— Tanchuma Vayetze 2 cont. (Berman, p.186)


Economic Justice

The “people of Israel do not reap completely” refers to the mitzvah of “corners [pe’ah],” found in Leviticus:

And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corner of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleaning of thy harvest.
And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather the fallen fruit of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the LORD your God.
— Lev 19:9-10; also Lev 23:22

The declaration that “corners” has “no prescribed measure” — that is, no upper limit — opens Mishnah tractate Pe’ah. Importance of this mishnah (Pe’ah 1:1) is stressed by its inclusion as a passage for daily study in many prayerbooks.

Jeffrey Spitzer, of American Hebrew Academy (Greesboro, NC), provides an overview of the mitzvah and its contemporary applications, for My Jewish Learning. He suggests equating pe’ah with withholding tax:

One does not even own one’s income until one has separated out the portion for the poor; one holds them briefly in trust for the poor. The challenge is to consider one’s tzedakah like the taxes that are withheld from income; it never really was yours anyway.
— Spitzer, “Pe’ah: The Corners of Our Fields

This withholding model helps explain the link between Jacob’s dream, as portrayed in this midrash, and ancient Israel’s national economic behavior. The upcoming Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S., and the economics of “Black Friday,” make this a particularly good time to consider what R. Simeon ben Yosinah meant us to learn from Jacob’s dream. More on this in chapter 7.2 of #ExploringBabylon. Meanwhile —

Questions to Consider

(1) What is the relationship between the midrash’s claim that Jacob lacks faith and the vow he makes when he awakens?

Consider what Jacob tells God the morning after the dream:

And Jacob vowed a vow, saying: ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the LORD be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that Thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto Thee.’
— Gen 28:20-22

Deuteronomy 10:18 says that God “loves the stranger, giving him food and raiment,” and some commentators say Jacob was asking no more than this. But, might it be that Jacob is showing a lack of faith by demanding the equivalent of income to which he is not (yet) entitled?

(2) How does the concept of pe’ah at the close of midrash version #2 relate to the particular kind of oppression the people experience?

(3) What can we learn from R. Simeon ben Yosinah’s labeling of taxes as oppression?

Notes

Of related interest: See this article on ancient taxation. Note how often taxes, especially those imposed by foreign powers, are discussed in the Talmud and other ancient records (including Christian Gospels). More on Rome and ancient Israel.


Sulam
Or perhaps a stairway. The Hebrew word “sulam” סֻלָּם is a one of those words used only once in the Tanakh (“hapax legomenon“), so determining exact meaning is a challenge.
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Edom
The Book of Obadiah (21 verses in its entirety) is introduced as “the vision of Obadiah…concerning Edom.” Obadiah is dated to the period leading to Babylonian Captivity, during which it seems that Edom switched alliances. Centuries later, when the Roman, and then the Byzantine, Empire ruled the entire region — until mid-7th Century CE — “Edom” came to stand in for this seemingly endless outside force.
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Jeremiah 30:11
“For I am with thee, saith the LORD, to save thee; for I will make a full end of all the nations whither I have scattered thee, but I will not make a full end of thee; for I will correct thee in measure, and will not utterly destroy thee.”
— Jer 30:11

Tanchuma Vayetzei’s third teaching about Jacob’s ladder concludes with an explanation of this “correct thee in measure” phrase:

I will punish you, O Israel, in this world in order to cleanse you of your iniquities for the sake of the world-to-come. Hence it is said: And he dreamed.
— Tanchuma Vayetzei 2

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Babylon and Reception History

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 6.2

If asked a few months ago, I would have guessed that “reception history” had to do with radio or internet signals or, possibly, some diplomacy pattern. But I’ve learned in the course of #ExploringBabylon that “Reception History of the Bible” is a frequently used, sometimes controversial, approach for many authors who are interested in exile, Babylon, and related topics. There is a lot of current argument about the definition of Reception History, what term to use for the field (more on this below), and its worth.

….In my studies so far, I haven’t found many scholars of Judaism who see themselves as having a dog in this fight (or however academics express it); but I also suspect that some aspects of Reception History are intrinsic to this project, particularly when it comes to disentangling the many ways Babylon has been understood over time, in- and outside Judaism….

This installment of #ExploringBabylon, therefore, offers a few glimpses into Reception History of the Bible, as well as related pursuits, which I hope will be of use as this series unfolds.

Basics

The Introduction to Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible (2011) notes that the “reception of the Bible comprises every single act or word of interpretation of that book (or books) over three millenia,” going on to define the field:

[Reception History is] usually—although not always—a scholarly enterprise, consisting of selection and collating shards of that infinite wealth of reception material in accordance with the particular interests of the historian concerned, and giving them a narrative frame.
— Jonathan Roberts, Introduction, p.1

Oxford’s Susan Gillingham explains, in a “Theory and Practice” volume, that she heard the field referred to as ‘biblical studies on holiday,’ and that, while the characterization was intended as condemnation, she finds it helpful in understanding how Reception History works:

…things which really mattered ‘back there’ seem to be not quite as urgent or pressing as you have time to focus on different opportunities – perhaps in art, or music or literature. And you can return with new projects which might complement the older, more familiar ones.

So the metaphor of a ‘holiday’ might work well in defining reception history in relation to biblical studies. It offers a change of perspective….
— Gillingham, p.17
See also Further Adventures #2

In The Hebrew Bible: New Insights and Scholarship, Peter Machinist (now professor emeritas at Harvard) describes Reception History as illuminating two forms of biblical complexity:

The history of the ways in which the Hebrew Bible has been received and dealt with by various human communities (Rezeptionsgeschichte), it may be argued, reveals two perspectives on the problem [of biblical complexity]. The first is historical [the Hebrew Bible as historical artifact]….[In] the second…the Bible is an object of study and appreciation in its own right, the text itself defining, at least primarily, the world within which it is to be read and interpreted [i.e., as religious scripture or as literature].
–Machinist, p.210, 213, The Hebrew Bible

 

Origin

As seen in the Handbook footnote quoted below, the origins of Reception History are traced to German scholars of Christian Scripture, thus many discussions reference German terms:

  • Wirkungsgeschichte,
  • Rezeptionsgeschichte, and
  • Auslegungeschichte.

These are translated, respectively, as follows (more or less):

  • “history of effects,” or influence, including use in homilies, visual arts, etc.
  • “history of reception,” or how faith communities understood the text, and
  • “history of interpretation.”

A pioneer in Reception History defines the field as focusing on reception of the Bible “during the formative centuries of the Christian religion.” Many others are less explicit but assume that “Bible” means Scripture as understood by Christians or simply default to Christian views of scripture. Oxford’s Centre for Reception History of the Bible, for example, does not specify a religious community as primary, but neither does it step very often outside of Christianity, even for comparative talks, such as “Picturing Abraham in Judaism, Christianity and Islam” (Dr. Aaron Rosen, Spring 2011).

A few scholars take a more inclusive view, either explicitly or by default.

Issues

Roland Boer objects to “Reception History” on the basis that it “assumes that the text is in some way original, the pad from which subsequent trajectories launch themselves forth.” He goes on to note that, in this view, “‘reception history’ may now be lumped under all those other approaches, like feminist, Marxist….all of which are supposedly anachronistic.” (Bible and Interpretation).

Boer is professor of humanities and social science, University of Newcastle (AU) and author of Rescuing the Bible, “a manifesto for general readers who are interested in the current relations between the bible and politics” (more below). He also has a piece in the “Implication, Difficulties, and Solutions” section of Reception History and Biblical Studies: Theory and Practice.

Brennan Breed takes a different critical view:

It appears that the supplementary nature of biblical reception adequately describes the entire history of the biblical text, from the beginning of its production until the present day. Those qualities presumed to be “original” by traditional biblical criticism simply do not exist. For this reason, I use the phrase “biblical reception history” to describe the entire history of production and transmission of the Bible – and it is important to note that one cannot delineate between two temporally discrete periods, one of “production” and another of “transmission.”
— Breed, “A Dangerous Supplement

Breed is faculty member of Columbia Theological Seminary and another contributor to Reception History and Biblical Studies: Theory and Practice. His article from that volume is available through Academia(dot)edu.

Many other scholars take issue with Reception History for various reasons, and some wonder if it’s really a new name for something their field has always done. Beyond the basics offered here, for background and orientation, most of the discussion is “academic,” so to speak, and not even tangential to this project.

Instability, Variety, and Giants

Returning to the Oxford Handbook, the Introduction addresses concerns that Reception History does not “coalesce” in one reading:

The more history of reception of the Bible one reads, the clearer it becomes that the human importance of the Bible does not lie in a single foundational meaning that, by dint of scholarly effort, may finally be revealed. This is…an acknowledgment that both inside and outside the doors of academia all of us live in a changing world in which engagements with the Bible are themselves every changing….

It is a recognition of the dynamic, living relationship between texts and readers, rather than an attempt to isolate and stabilize textual meanings from the mutability of human life.
— Roberts, p.1, 8

Responding to the publication and its Introduction, this preliminary review (from 2011, when the volume was brand new) highlighted a few of the challenges faced by the field. The most salient to #ExploringBabylon is “limiting the field of RH to the beliefs of certain, usually dominant, religious groups.” As it happens, the author of this comment is also a co-founder and editor of Relegere: Studies in Religion and Reception, which has as a policy inclusion of views from “any religious tradition at any point in history.” (So far, the publication appears to be drawing scholars from Christian traditions.)

In addition to editing Relegere, Deane Galbraith teaches religion at the University of Otago (NZ) and blogs at “Remnants of Giants: Biblical Giants and Their Reception.”

Handbook Footnote on Terms

Terms currently being offered to designate the kind of study encourged here include the German terms Wirkungsgeschichte and Rezeptionsgeschichte, harking back to H.-G. Gadamer and its subsequent development by H.R. Jauss, with those terms being translated into English equivalents such as the ‘history of effects’ or ‘reception history’, ‘reception criticism’, ‘reception studies’, ‘reception theory’, ‘biblical reception’, or ‘reception of the Bible’, ‘cultural history’, and in two essay in this volume…’cultural impact’ …and ‘ethology of the Bible’….The popularity of the term reception history, favoured here, is therefore for use now primarily because of its ubiquity, we would argue, and not for its explanatory power.
— Introduction to The Oxford Handbook. Michael Lieb, Emma Mason, Jonathan Roberts, eds., p.4
BACK

Rescuing the Bible

Roland Boer, Rescuing the Bible. (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007)

My task is to rescue the Bible from the clutches o the religious and political right, its most systematic abusers….
…the Bible is so multi-vocal that it is perfectly plausible to draw from it a deep current of revolutionary themes.
–Boer, from Preface & Introduction

BACK

Sources Cited:
The Oxford Handbook. Michael Lieb, Emma Mason, Jonathan Roberts, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)

“Biblical Studies on Holiday? A Personal View of Reception History”
IN Reception History and Biblical Studies: Theory and Practice. Emma England and William John Lyons, eds. (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)

Terms

Babylon: Further Adventures #2

Exploring Babylon 6.1.2

My adventures in Bibleland continue, and, not unlike poor Alice down the rabbit hole, I have reached several points in which I feared it would be an effort simply to keep in touch with my feet. (For anyone curious who has not been following: Adventures in Bibleland, and Further Adventures #1.) Here, I’m just going to spill my plight in the hope that readers can help me find my way.
AliceFeet

How I Got Where I am

I spend a lot of time with Jews. I study Torah, in its many forms, in the DC area where- and whenever possible. I make a serious effort to study with Jews of different backgrounds and beliefs, which I’m told is not all that common, and I am in touch with, and occasionally study and/or worship with, both Christians and Muslims who regularly engage with their texts and traditions. But my learning in the areas of text, belief, and practice is predominantly Jewish.

Until I started the #ExploringBabylon project, most of my reading around sacred text, on-line and in print, was also Jewish or from a deliberately interfaith perspective. And I read a lot.

Several decades ago, I earned a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, and one of my current study partners and I are revisiting some of that territory via a book written by Diana Lobel, associate professor of religion at Boston University and formerly my in-person teacher, when she was active at the Jewish Study Center here in DC. (The Quest for God and the Good: World Philosophy as a Living Experience. NY: Columbia, 2011)

Just for thoroughness of the story, I have graduate degrees in math and educational technology, and I worked at universities in Chicago, Boston, and DC in my youth; but I remain a stranger to bible or Jewish studies in the academic world. Until my recent visit to the Woodstock Theological Library at Georgetown University — again, grateful for the access given to non-students — it had been a very long time since I’d been in any kind of academic setting for more than an hour’s lecture.

Now, I am aware that “religion” in libraries and most bookstores means “Christian religion” while Buddhism and Judaism, for example, are elsewhere. And, of course, “bible studies” means “study of the Bible from Christian perspectives.” What I didn’t quite realize was the extent to which academia encourages discussion of Jewish sacred text, and even “Judaism,” quite apart from interaction with any Jews at all.

Back to the Books

I was heartened to read, in Reception History and Biblical Studies Theory and Practice, a call for collaboration across faith communities within the academic world and across the town-gown divide, “between the academic community and other communities with a different remit.”

Susan Gillingham‘s essay, “Biblical Studies on Holiday? A Personal View of Reception History,” specifically mentions the need for inclusive studies:

The third criticism is perhaps more justified. This concerns the “particularly’ and ‘selectivity’ of reception history studies, and hence the problem of subjectivity on the part of anyone working in this field. I certainly find that the more I work on reception history, the more I am aware that I am an interpreter ‘frozen’ in a particular time and place and culture. So my perception is that of a western, English, white, middle-aged woman who also happens to be an Anglican Lay Reader. So I try to keep my eye on Christian and Jewish traditions, not only in the West but also in the East….
— Gillingham, p. 25

But I wasn’t sure whether to cheer or cry at the italicized “and Jewish” here:

For example, the hermeneutical models proposed by Gadamer and Luz do not take into sufficient account the need to assess both Christian and Jewish receptions of the text, a task which is essential for anyone working on the Psalms.
— Gillingham, p. 23

The challenge is such an important one, but the very emphasis, “and Jewish,” speaks volumes. I cannot help wonder whether academics reading this will take it as a reminder to include a few Jewish sources here and there in their own studies or read it as a call for inclusion of views from within Judaism.

I did actually cheer (silently, in deference to the setting) when I found this in the Africana Bible:

The reception of scriptures of Israel into the Christian canon was and is marked by usurpation, colonization, anti-Judaism, and anti-Semitism. Specifically, in the West and in cultures colonized by the West, the scriptures of Israel have regularly been mediated through gentilic culture and languages, particularly German, which is especially onerous in a post-Holocaust world.

…Responsible exegesis of the scriptures of Israel requires respecting the text itself, the traditions preserved in the text, and the God of the text.

[Rev. Gafney adds that “Jesus never pronounced the divine name,” and suggests more care in use of the four-letter name Jews do not use casually.]
— Wil Gafney, “Reading the Hebrew Bible Responsibly,” p.47-8


Collaborations?

My next trip to the library can center around call letters for Judaism instead of “bible” or “religion.” Or perhaps I can continue to struggle with how things work on the Christian side of the stacks. Maybe I should leave academia alone all together? But I’d much rather participate in some kind of collaborative studies.

I’d love to hear from anyone, in- or outside academic walls, who can point me to some joint studies, inclusive bible study societies, or even a more inclusive or collaborative section of the library or bookstore. I’d also appreciate any perspectives from those with more experience, in- and outside academia, in the study of sacred text.


Cited above:
Reception History and Biblical Studies Theory and Practice. Emma England and William John Lyons, eds. NY: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2015

The Africana Bible. Hugh R. Page, Jr., general editor. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010

Babylon: Further Adventures #1

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 6.1.1

Discussing text from this week’s Torah portion (Toldot, Genesis 25:19-28:9), I quoted yesterday comments about “The Isaac Complex” from Israel in Exile (Albertz). I noted my surprise at the author’s declaration that a particular verse “makes sense only” in a very specific historical context. I even created a little homage to the mouse’s “long tale” in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, to help explain my befuddlement and lead into my plea for comments about this on-going #ExploringBabylon series.
tale

Today, thanks to Woodstock Theological Library at Georgetown University, and their open-stacks policy, I was finally able to do some more relevant reading. Among the interesting and useful things I encountered was a response to Israel in Exile in the 2012 volume, By the Irrigation Canals of Babylon.

More on “Only”

Ralph W. Klein’s essay, “Israel in Exile after Thirty Years,” begins from the perspective of his own similarly titled work. In discussing Albertz’s book, Klein includes a substantial passage on use of the same word that had caught my notice: “only.”

Klein points out that Albertz dates biblical material based on a small number of passages and “how well they seem to fit a specific historical context, or even the claim that they only fit that context.” The first of Klein’s six examples is the one I quoted yesterday, Gen 26:1-5, about God’s command to Isaac not to go down to Egypt (Albertz, p.249). Klein continues:

In every one of these six cases, I can easily imagine other circumstances that may have been the context for these words. The condemnation of the voluntary migration to Egypt in Jeremiah is explicitly condemned for other reasons than the one labeled “only” by Albertz. Ezekiel’s condemnation of the false prophets of salvation in 13:9 fits easily, in my judgment, into his activity before the fall of Jerusalem 60 years earlier than Albertz allows. Albertz dates Gen 12:1-3 confidently to the mid-sixth century, but I remember a time when Hans Walter Wolff dated it with equal confidence to the tenth century.
— Klein, “Israel in Exile after Thirty Years,” p.15

 

More on Exile

NOTE: I had looked for reviews of Albertz’s Israel in Exile, and expected to find additional work building on his, but clearly I was not looking in the right places. Delighted to find at least one scholar objecting to his “only” and the otherwise decisive nature of his compositional theories. Hoping to find more.

Klein’s essay goes on to stress that engaging with aspects of Israel in Exile is mean to further conversation on the work of Albertz, “from whom we all have learned so much.” Klein encouraged the Exile group within the Society of Biblical Literature to “debate which biblical voices speak to and from the biblical exile, and when we think they do so.”

He also added, in a footnote:

I recognize that other participants in this consultation want to widen the discussion to deal with the issues of landlessness or the migration of peoples at different points in Israel’s history. These are legitimate theological and historical questions. My essay, however, has sought to define what is meant by the exile in the more narrow sense of the sixth century B.C.E.
Klein, p.19

And a cursory review of SBL happenings and publications suggests that focus following this paper was, indeed, on the wider “migration” themes, rather than defining exile.
Klein Exile

Ralph W. Klein is now Christ Seminary-Seminex Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. In addition to Israel in Exile: A Theological Interpretation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1979), he has a lengthy list of publications (scroll down).

“Israel in Exile after Thirty Years,” is the opening essay IN By the Irrigation Canals of Babylon: Approaches to the Study of the Exile (John J. Ahn and Jill Middlemas, eds. NY: T&T Clark, 2012).