Exploring Babylon: Chapter 5.2
“When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty,
“I always pay it extra.”
— Alice Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll (1871, chapter 6)
A few weeks ago, #ExploringBabylon looked at “them” who traveled with Terah from southern Babylon to northern Mesopotamia and a little of what “back there” meant for Abraham. In this week’s portion, we return with the elder servant (later identified as Eliezer) to what Abraham calls “my kindred” or “my birthplace.”
Abraham is old and telling the elder servant of his household to go
“to my country, and to my kindred [or: the land of my birth”]
to get a wife for my son Isaac” (Gen 24:1-2). The servant (later identified as Eliezer) asks what to do, should he find a potential wife who doesn’t consent to return with him: Should he bring Isaac back…
אֶל-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר-יָצָאתָ מִשָּׁם
…to the land from which you came?
פֶּן-תָּשִׁיב אֶת-בְּנִי שָׁמָּה
On no account take my son back there
וְלָקַחְתָּ אִשָּׁה לִבְנִי, מִשָּׁם
…get a wife for my son from there
לֹא תָשֵׁב שָׁמָּה
…do not take my son back there
In contrast to Gertrude Stein’s “no there there,” there is a lot of “there” here:
- שָּׁם = “there”
- שָׁמָּה = “to there” (ending hey makes a locative form)
- מִשָּׁם = “from there” (beginning mem adds the preposition)
Commentators across the centuries have explored many “there” details: Did Abraham intend a specific place? Specific kin? Why did the servant later say he’d been sent to Abraham’s “father’s house and family” (Gen 24:38)? Why not encourage marriage with neighbor families? Was the union meant to seal some kind of family reconciliation? One of the most salient answers, for this blog’s purpose, stresses basic there-ness:
Abraham was sent away from his country, kindred and father’s house, so that he should have no further contact with them and be a stranger in a foreign clime…Similarly, his son must not marry [a Canaanite]. For this reason he was called Abraham the Hebrew, “that all the world was on one side and he on the other” (ivri means in Hebrew “a person from the other side” usually taken as a reference to Abraham’s origins in Mesopotamia — on the other side of the river).
— Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Breishit, p. 220
Abraham is ivri, from there. As in “not from here.” A key experience that his descendants will repeat — in Egypt, in the wilderness, in later exile. At this point in Genesis, Abraham and his family are becoming separate. That separateness will later help the people survive in Babylonian Captivity.
But this seems to be as much work as “there” is willing to do at the moment, regardless of how well paid.
Finally, the Rabbinic stories about Babylonian Captivity being in some sense “back home” for people of Abraham, included an important message about the language of “there”: “R. Hanina said: comment that ‘The Holy One exiled them to Babylonia because the language is akin to the language of the Torah.’ To underscore this, a footnote of sorts:
The very success of Jews in adapting to life in a foreign environment poses problems for the would-be compiler of a Jewish sourcebook. Greek was the dominant language of Diasporan Jews and their personal names were mainly Greek or Latin…
— The Jews Among the Greeks and Romans: A Diasporan Sourcebook, Margaret H. Williams (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 1998), pp. xi-xii