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

RETURN

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).

Babylon and Adventures in Bibleland

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Exploring Babylon: Chapter 6.1

The last episode, Chapter 5.2, touched on ways the Torah stresses that Abraham comes from “there,” so he and his family remain apart from their neighbors. This week’s portion opens with a reminder that Rebecca is daughter of “Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-arm, sister of Laban the Aramean” (Gen 25:20). Much has been made, midrashically, over the centuries of this emphasis. For the purposes of #ExploringBabylon, the key factor is still her origin “there.”

There and the Land

“There” — at Gen 25:20 (above) and when Jacob is sent off to Haran in Paddan-aram (27:43, 28:2-5) — brackets this portion. In between, “the land” is mentioned many times (26:1, etc.), along with the more unusual “lands” (26:3-4).

#ExploringBabylon will eventually venture into “the land,” with the help of teachers who can provide useful perspectives. At this point, the path detailed in Israel in Exile (Albertz 2003) leads in another direction.

Albertz describes much of Genesis as an “Exilic Patriarchal History,” meant to meet the needs of “an age when Israel was no longer a ‘great nation’ and no longer dwelt within secure borders” (p.250). In this context, the bulk of Isaac’s story (Genesis Chapter 26), has a particular goal:

The Isaac Complex recorded how the second patriarch, an alien in Philistia, rose with God’s help and blessing (Gen 26:12, 28, 29) from an endangered fugitive to a respected covenant partner of the Philistines. It suited admirably the conception of RPH1, who therefore elaborated it to make it the second pillar of his work.
Albertz, p.261

A footnote adds that “The Isaac Complex…may date from the end of the eight century, when Hezekiah claimed hegemony over the Philistine cities…” PH is “Patriarchal History (exilic edition),” and RPH1 is “redactor of the first exilic edition of PH.” Israel in Exile modifies “the classical Documentary Hypothesis,” with these more finely distinguished documents.

Albertz, as noted in previous posts, has been Professor of Old Testament at University of Muenster (Germany) since 1995, previously at universities of Siegen and Heidelberg. He describes Israel in Exile as a “new attempt at a comprehensive presentation of the exilic period.” Others call it a masterpiece of biblical and historical scholarship, and it is referenced by many (mostly Christian) scholars.

He concurs with an earlier scholar, Erhard Blum (Die Komposition der Vätergeschichte [Patriarchal History]), in declaring that God’s directive to Isaac to “stay” and “reside” in the land (26:1-5) represents a particular historical mind-set:

[YHVH’s] strange command to Isaac not to go down to Egypt despite the famine but to stay in Palestine instead makes sense only against the background of a time when there were large-scale migrations to Egypt that presented a survival problem for the Judeans in Palestine. The first time this situation obtained was during the exile (Jer 41:16-43:7).
— Albertz, p.249

Perhaps “makes sense only” lost something in translation. Still, this entire path — and its very decisiveness — raises a host of questions for this blog. (But see also “Further Adventures #1,” for a scholarly response to this “only.”)

“Either the well was very deep,
or she fell very slowly,
for she had plenty of time as she went down
to look about her and to wonder
what was going to happen next.”
Alice in Wonderland, Chapter 1


Rabbit Holes

Most of this #ExploringBabylon series has defaulted to the “pay no attention to the fingers behind the keyboard” style of writing encouraged in the author’s school years: share a mix of views from others, post only materials and ideas checked out with a few sources first, add personal notes largely for full-disclosure of possible prejudice, and keep things focused on the topic, not the author. But it’s time for a change, at least temporarily.

I started this series with some structure in mind and some initial research behind me. I intended to post, around the topics of Babylon and Exile, as I learned. Encountering so much new material at each step, however, meant struggling to decide which of many intriguing directions to take. I have tried to stay focused on the overall topics of oppression and exile. But there’s a fine and jagged line between something that is useful background for this project and something that is interesting – maybe even powerful Torah – but not really the point. And then there’s my tendency to meander.

….Deciding what might be useful or interesting to anyone but me is kind of a shot in the dark. I’m grateful to those who’ve already been in touch, and I hope others will chime in, via comments or by email (songeveryday at gmail), sharing your own expertise and resource suggestions as well as questions or topics you’d like to see addressed. Some just plain, “yes, I’m reading” notes would be helpful to me, as well….

As some readers of this blog already know, I have no credentials and little formal training in bible studies. I will be enlisting expert help and welcome all suggestions, resources, and tips. Meanwhile, a tale:

tale.jpg

If the history of biblical interpretation teaches us anything, it is that there have always been many interpretations of a biblical text And, as literary theory has shown, the interpretation will depend on who is doing the interpreting and for what purpose….

…The issue is not what the text means, but who controls its interpretation; who sets the agenda, who makes the rules, who confirms the validity of the results.
— Adele Berlin, “Literary Approaches to Biblical Literature,” p.64
IN The Hebrew Bible: New Insights and Scholarship

I find the souped-up Documentary Hypothesis a rabbit hole all its own. And just trying to understand the goals and premises of different branches of bible-related academia leads down an entirely different hole.

And a Looking Glass

In an effort to understand contemporary arguments about multiplicity of bible interpretation, I looked into some of the history. And I was surprised to learn that Catholicism employed a fourfold interpretive method that pre-dates the “PaRDeS” framework by several hundred years and probably influenced the quintessentially Jewish idea. I’ve also been surprised by apparent segregation, even within the academic world, between Christian and Jewish scholars and was struck by this note, opening the Jewish Studies in the Twenty-First Century series:

Meanwhile the fact that the Bible plays a significant role in several quite different communities forces those studying it (at least to the extent that they interact) to think about how it is treated in each tradition.
— preface, The Hebrew Bible: New Insights and Scholarship (2008)

All of which makes it difficult to figure out where #ExploringBabylon needs to go.

…I am seeking comments about how Jewish this series should be and how it should be Jewish. This is partly a question of background and interests readers share, or don’t. It’s also a question of how to approach the specific topic of Babylon, which is one that has been influenced so strongly by Christianity. Finally, it’s an issue of how best to tackle the goal of this project — seeking out new perspectives that will help Jews interact with challenges in- and outside Jewish communities — given that neither our history nor our future is independent of the wider culture.



Four-fold Interpretation

Venerable Bede (d. 735) and Rhabanus Maurus (d. 856) both taught fourfold approaches: literal, allegorical, anagogical (mystical, “upward”), and tropological (moral). Catechism adds:
“The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith;
The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.”

Bahya ben Asher (1250-1340) introduced four interpretive paths:
1) the way of the Peshaṭ (plain sense)
2) the way of the Midrash (metaphorical, “to search”)
3) the way of Reason (exegesis),
4) the way of the Kabbalah (mystical).

The Zohar, published by Moses de Leon (1240-1305?) and credited to Shimon bar Yohai (2nd Century), includes these four:
1) Peshat
2) Remez (allegorical, “hint”)
3) Drash
4) Sod (secret, esoteric)

See Jewish Encyclopedia and Four Senses of Scripture (Catholicism). Several sources, including Jewish Encyclopedia note that Jewish scholars of Medieval Spain would have known the Catholic methods. See also James Kugel. How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now (NY: Free Press, 2007).
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Rivers Dark

The sense of “from there” is complicated for the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, and there are several powerful ways in which “there” becomes part of their identity and remains an important force, even when not there.

Paul Kriwaczek (Babylon) points out that, unlike so many ancient cities and civilizations that are known only to scholars, Babylon “is still readily remembered for its pagan greatness” (p.168). He adds that this is primarily due to Jewish tradition:

To devout Christians, Babylon would always be the whore…To Rastafarians…she is the ultimate symbol of everything oppresses and crushes black people….To the world of Islam…the name of Babylon meant almost nothing….

Thus is was left to the Jews to keep the multi-faceted reality of the ancient centre of civilization alive in western cultural consciousness, waiting for the time when a new spirit of enquiry would lead European explorers to investigate…
Kriwaczek, pp.169-170

And, in honor of the first yahrzeit of Leonard Cohen (9/21/1934-11/9/2016)–

Be the truth unsaid
And the blessing gone,
If I forget
My Babylon.
— Leonard Cohen
By the Rivers Dark

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The Language of There

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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.”

שָּׁם

Abraham is old and telling the elder servant of his household to go
אֶל-אַרְצִי וְאֶל-מוֹלַדְתִּי
“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…

Genesis 24:5
אֶל-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר-יָצָאתָ מִשָּׁם
…to the land from which you came?

24:6
פֶּן-תָּשִׁיב אֶת-בְּנִי שָׁמָּה
On no account take my son back there

24:7
וְלָקַחְתָּ אִשָּׁה לִבְנִי, מִשָּׁם
…get a wife for my son from there

24:8
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.

Babylon fist


This is a palm-map illustrating the #ExploringBabylon journey. We’re just not there yet.
(Think the Little Prince and the boa constrictor digesting an elephant.)

Language

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

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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