Found through Alter’s Translation

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Last week, URJ president Rabbi Rick Jacobs offered a podcast focusing on Robert Alter’s newly published bible translation. In response, I argued that Jacobs praised what isn’t new in Robert Alter’s bible translation while missing what is. My previous post focused on verses — highlighted by Jacobs in the podcast — wherein Alter’s translation was nearly identical to much older versions. Here, I share just a few of the verses in the same chapter of Exodus which do strike me as different and noteworthy.

I Myself Toyed

Exodus 10:1
…כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ…
…for I have hardened his heart,… — “Old JPS” (1917) and “New JPS” (1985)
…for I Myself have hardened his heart,… — Alter 2004

Exodus 10:2
…אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם…
…what I have wrought upon Egypt… — Old JPS
…how I made a mockery of the Egyptians… — New JPS
…how I toyed with them… — Alter 2004

Alter’s “I Myself” reflects the Hebrew’s use of “ani” along with the first-person singular verb. And his choice of “toyed with” for “hit’alalti [הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי]” captures much earlier commentary on this expression in God’s speech:

I made a mockery. The Torah is speaking in human idiom, as if Hashem were a human being toying with another for revenge. — Ibn Ezra (via Sefaria.org)

Alter’s translation and commentary work together to form a powerful opening to this crucial chapter in the Exodus story:

And the LORD said to Moses, “Come unto Pharaoh, for I Myself have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, so that I may set these signs of Mine in his midst, and so that you may tell in the hearing of your son and your son’s son how I toyed with Egypt, and My signs that I set upon them, and you shall know that I am the LORD.”

for I Myself have hardened…This is the first time that God informs Moses before his audience with Pharaoh that He has hardened (one again, the literal sense is “made heavy”) the heart of the Egyptian monarch. This is a signal that the elaborate “toying” (verse 2) with Egypt is approaching endgame. Pharaoh is showing himself ever more fiercely recalcitrant, and the plagues are becoming more fearful as we draw near the last plague that will break Pharaoh’s will.
— Exodus 10:1-2 and commentary
Alter, The Five Books of Moses (Norton, 2004), p.365

 

The Men

Exodus 10:11
…לֹא כֵן, לְכוּ-נָא הַגְּבָרִים וְעִבְדוּ אֶת-יְהוָה…
…Not so; go now ye that are men, and serve the LORD… — Old JPS
…No! You menfolk go and worship the LORD… — New JPS
…Not so. Go, pray, the men, and worship the LORD…. — Alter 2004

Alter’s commentary explains his choice and why it matters in the context:

the men. The word used here, gevarim, is a different one from ‘anashim, the one used by the courtiers in verse 7. It has a stronger connotation of maleness (‘anashim can also mean “people”), but “males” will not do as an English equivalent because the Hebrew term means adult males, definitely excluding the “little ones.”

I personally favor “menfolk,” as an expression that had, in my youth, the exact understanding of “gevarim” that Alter is trying to convey, while “ye that are men” has its own sort of “maleness” ring if read with the right intonation (with echoes, for better or worse, of the 1978 “Are we not men? We are Devo.”) And, for the record, Rashi tells us that “gevarim” means “adult males.” But it’s Alter’s translation that prompted me to notice this particular stage of the pseudo-negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh.

Hard, Stiff, and Tough

Exodus 10:20
…וַיְחַזֵּק יְהוָה, אֶת-לֵב פַּרְעֹה…
…But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart… — Old JPS
…But the LORD stiffened Pharaoh’s heart… — New JPS
…And the LORD toughened Pharaoh’s heart…. — Alter 2004

The Old JPS uses the same English word for both “hikhbadeti [הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי]” in 10:1 and “vayechazek [וַיְחַזֵּק]” here, while the New JPS has “hardened” and “stiffened,” respectively.

When the verb “vayechazek [וַיְחַזֵּק]” was used in Exodus 9:12, Alter added this comment:

And the LORD toughened Pharaoh’s heart. For the first time, it is not Pharaoh, or his heart, that is the subject of the verb of obduracy but God. However, in the biblical perspective this may amount to the same thing because God is presumed to be the ultimate cause of human actions, and Pharaoh’s stubborn arrogance can still be understood as the efficient cause. It is striking that Pharaoh persists in his resistance even as his afflicted soothsayers, the experts up whom he has been depending, flee the scene.

This comment is just one example of how Alter’s careful attention to the text’s entwined literary and theological characteristics makes his translation both extremely useful and a delight to read.

Verb of Obduracy

The phrase “verb of obduracy” above is just one of the many reasons that I whole-heartedly agree with Rabbi Rick Jacobs when he says, “You hear in the comment that this is a literary genius at work….” (Here’s the podcast link again.)

I’ll return to my own obduracy, however, and repeat a few of points I wish Jacobs and others would acknowledge for the sake of clarity and sensible comparison:

  • The three-book set of Alter’s bible translation, just issued by W.W. Norton, includes his 2004 The Five Books of Moses without change. Many of us have been using this volume for 15 years. If someone is just seeing his work for the first time, that’s wonderful; but it doesn’t make it fresh in late 2018.
  • That means, through simple arithmetic, BTW, that Robert Alter (b. 1935) was not yet 70 when he published The Five Books of Moses. Yes, he is vigorously translating in his 80s, and the complete bible translation — the first by a single individual — is a truly remarkable accomplishment. That doesn’t alter (no pun) the fact that his Torah translation came out in 2004 — and the Book of Genesis before that.
  • Alter’s work is full of amazing insights and extraordinarily powerful and beautiful language. But his work is not the first new translation since the 1611 King James Version. Compare the two if you think that’s useful, but don’t neglect to mention that there were many other translations in the 400 years between KJV and Alter.
  • Please, please — especially if you’re the head of the Union for Reform Judaism — be sure to compare Alter’s work with more recent Jewish translations, including those published by the URJ! There is so much that is new and insightful in Alter’s work; don’t dilute that by ignoring spots where his translation is identical to other, older ones.

Exodus Chapter 10 concludes with Moses and Pharaoh declaring that they will never see one another again (10:28-29). Alter calls this the “final squaring-off between the adversaries.” Together with his opening comment on “the elaborate ‘toying’…with Egypt,” these are fitting and powerful bookends for the chapter. Alter’s commentary on this chapter is a work of art, on its own, even as it serves to illuminate the work of literature that is Exodus. His commentary and translation of the Exodus hasn’t changed in 15 years, but perhaps the re-release in the new set will recapture the attention of some readers and bring it to a new audience.

Lost in Translation? No, lost without fact-checking

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Robert Alter completed an amazing project. His translations of the Bible continue to offer new, sometimes more literary, possibly more “accurate” renderings of the text. But scholars everywhere seem blinded by the sheer number of pages just published or otherwise befuddled into teaching falsehoods and half truths.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, for example, offered a ten-minute ode to Alter’s translation as a commentary to this week’s Torah portion (parashat Bo: Exod 10:1-13:6). Here’s his podcast, “What is Lost in Translation.” In praising Alter, however, he manages to inadvertently dismiss the work of his own movement.

Darkness and Light

Toward the end of the podcast, Jacobs focuses on one phrase in Alter’s translation and commentary:

“‘…that there be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness one can feel.’
…but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwelling places.”

a darkness one can feel. The force of the hyperbole, which beautifully conveys the claustrophobic palpability of absolute darkness…
— translation/commentary on Ex 10:21, 23 from The Five Books of Moses. (NY: Norton, 2004)

Jacobs cites this material as though it were new, although Alter published this translation and commentary in 2004. More importantly, I think, Jacobs fails to note that Alter’s English differs very little from the older translations widely available for decades — in fact, some published by his own Union for Reform Judaism.

Here, for comparison are Jewish Publication Society versions of the last century:

“‘…that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.’
…but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.”
— “New JPS” translation (Philadelphia: JPS, 1985)
“‘…even darkness which may be felt.’
…but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.
— “Old JPS” translation (Philadelphia: JPS, 1917)

Alter’s “a darkness one can feel” is slightly pithier and so somewhat stronger — and as Jacobs notes, closer to the more succinct** Hebrew, v’yamush, hoshekh [וְיָמֵשׁ, חֹשֶׁךְ] — than the JPS versions. But Alter’s “in their dwelling places” for b’moshevotam [בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָם] is slightly longer than “in their dwellings” of the JPS. So, I’m not sure that, in this particular set of verses, the differences are worthy of great note, all told.

King James and Robert Alter

Jacobs, like a number of others commenting on Alter’s work, compares Alter’s work to the King James Version. (Maybe they’re all reading the same press release?) But Jews and Christians have been translating the bible for many generations since 1611, and all innovation since then is not attributable to Robert Alter, no matter how amazing his recent accomplishment. The weirdest — and, I feel, saddest — thing about Jacobs’ praise for this particular verse of Alter’s translation is that his podcast could just as easily have cited a ten- or twenty-eight-year-old publication from the URJ itself:

  • The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (NY: URJ Press & Women of Reform Judaism, 2008) uses modified “New JPS” language, including the verses as cited above;
  • the 2005 URJ version, which I don’t happen to have handy, also uses JPS;
  • the 1981 The Torah: A Modern Commentary, from UAHC [now URJ], uses a mid-century version of the JPS translation, with the exact language quoted above.

…This is not to say that Alter has not provided new and interesting perspectives or given us some beautiful new language to help us appreciate the Hebrew original. But I fear that what really is new and interesting in Alter’s work is being lost in all the repetition of tired nonsense, false comparisons, and outright omissions in discussing his work.

Moreover, it seems truly dangerous, given the current state of government and journalism, to share information in ways that might mislead and to teach in ways that fail to provide context for “new” ideas….

A final quibble with Jacobs’ podcast: He makes a point of noting that Robert Alter (b. 1935) is in his 80s now, as he completed this huge project. If we’re going to stress the author’s age and/or the number of years he worked on the project, however, let’s be accurate. Alter was not yet 70 when The Five Books of Moses was published, and he was in his early 70s when his Book of Psalms (Norton: 2007) came out. Again, not to say it’s NOT an accomplishment to translate the Torah or the Psalms at 70 or for an individual to complete a bible translation at 83 — or any age! Just that we cannot be re-writing history by inattention to facts.


Note on the 2018 W.W. Norton Publication
A note about these books as books: While I remain in awe of Alter’s scholarship and literary merit, I am deeply disappointed in this three volume set ($125). The set does offer new material, particularly in the Prophets. But there is no new introduction to the Bible as a whole, and there is no additional commentary on the completion of the project; in fact, each of the three volumes repeats verbatim the same introduction to the Bible and its translation that appeared in Alter’s Five Books of Moses in 2004!

If this picture is clear enough, and you’re really curious, note that the section numbering differs in the two volumes, because the section specific to the Five Books was moved.

intro alter

2019 (L) and 2004 (R) introductions to Alter’s translations

Final plea to scholars: I would personally appreciate, as I’m sure would many others, a review or analysis of the recent publication which actually addresses specifics — in organization and layout as well as in content — with a focus on what is actually new in 2018.

Post updated 1/13/19: mostly in formatting, correction of a few typos; also addition of citation to UAHC 1981 Torah (above) and plea here. See also, “Found through Alter’s Translation,” further to this discussion, posted on 1/12/


NOTE:
**In the podcast cited here, Jacobs also compares Alter’s translation of Psalm 23 with that of the King James Version, focusing on the darkness phrase relevant to Parashat Bo. Alter’s “vale of death’s shadow” is more direct than the KJV, “valley of the shadow of death,” while maintaining the connection with death — which some newer translations lose:

valley of deepest darkness — JPS 1985
darkest valley — New International Version (1973-2011)
valleys dark as death — American Bible Society, 2006
dark valley of death — God’s Word, 1995

Do note, for clarity of record, that Alter’s translation and commentary on the Book of Psalms was published in 2007.
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The Treasure and the Favor

Exploring Babylon Chapter 15.2

Just as the stories of Exile and Return include people of quite different mindsets, Exodus peoples are not monolithic, Rabbi Gerry Serotta told me recently. He suggests that #ExploringBabylon could profitably consider some differences among Egyptians in the Exodus tale and look at related texts, in this portion and earlier, about Egyptians becoming “favorably disposed” toward the Israelites.

Difference

Rabbi Serotta points to three groups of Egyptians:

  • those who left with the Israelites — וְגַם-עֵרֶב רַב — “and also the erev-rav [often “mixed multitudes”; Alter uses “motley throng”]” (Ex 12:38);
  • those who did not join the Israelites but gave gold and silver and “raiment/cloaks” (Ex 12:35; see also “The Powers and the Wealth“); and
  • Pharaoh (and, perhaps, other unrepentant oppressors).

 
He adds that it’s good practice to look for the variety of people and perspectives in biblical narrative because “variety is God’s plan.” We see this in the story of Bavel (Genesis Chapter 11) and in many later teachings about the value of galut [exile] and dispersion.

God’s preference for variety is a hard concept to hold in the midst of a tale with the themes “You are MY people and I am YOUR God” and “Let My people go that they may serve ME.” But it can be found in the Exodus tale and in centuries of Jewish teaching centered around it. Seeking out and naming variety within biblical stories helps us avoid pigeonholing people and stereotyping groups in the text, in history, and in contemporary life. Exploring and amplifying difference-celebrating strands of Jewish teaching, from ancient times to the present, provides a foundation for inter-group understanding and cooperation.

…It is no accident that Rabbi Serotta, who has dedicated his career to interfaith, religious freedom, and peace and justice work, is drawn to teachings on diversity and galut [exile]. He offers additional ideas for #ExploringBabylon that will take some time to research; this week, we gratefully continue to pursue his suggestion to “follow the treasure,” so to speak, which appears in this week’s torah portion (Bo: Exodus 10:1-13:16), and its implications….

Boundaries

As discussed in the last episode, ancient commentaries on the gold and silver — mentioned in Ex 3:21-22, 11:2-3, and 12:35-36 (see below) — included the ideas of back wages/reparations and prior ownership of the wealth given to the fleeing Israelites. One important extension to the latter theme focuses on the prominence of women in this exchange to suggest that women used jewels and other portable wealth to bribe neighbors to overlook, or perhaps hide, their infant boys when Pharaoh decreed they be tossed into the river (exact citation temporarily AWOL, sorry).

Robert Alter notes, in his 2004 Five Books of Moses (see Source Materials), that “neighbor” and “sojourner” in 3:22 are feminine nouns, adding:

[The verse] reflects a frequent social phenomenon–also registered in the rabbinic literature of Late Antiquity–in which women constitute the porous boundary between adjacent ethnic communities: borrowers of the proverbial cup of sugar, sharers of gossip and women’s lore.

Alter goes on to insist, however, that exegesis which sees Egyptian women as lodgers in Israelite houses doesn’t match the plague narrative. (He then describes the overall tale as one of “Israelite triumphalism.” More on this below.)

Benno Jacob (1862-1945) also explores boundary crossing and long-term relationships which he sees as hidden in plain sight in Exodus:

The Israelites had settled as herdsmen, a necessary but disdained occupation in Egypt. The details of our story suggest that they were scattered throughout Egypt, which must have led to many personal friendships; only a systematically encouraged hate propaganda was able to change this.
Jacob, The Second Book of the Bible p.343


Protest and Change

Jacob extensively discusses the wealth exchange in Parashat Bo. He uses linguistic and narrative analysis to support his view that God wanted the Israelites and Egyptians to part on good terms and had repeatedly told Moses that was to be the end result. He argues that the Egyptians had already, before Pesach night, come around to seeking compassion and justice for the Israelites, and the farewell gifts are part of the evidence of a change in position:

The Egyptians’ gifts to the Israelites were a clear public protest against the policies of the royal tyrant. They demonstrated a renewal of public conscience…a moral change; the receptive heart of the Egyptian people was now contrasted to the hard heart of Pharaoh.
— Jacob, p.343

He goes further, insisting that this must be a mutual change of heart, from peoples on both sides of the conflict. Jacob links the opening phrase of Ex 11:2 to the similar expression Joseph used in requesting burial for his father (Gen 50:4) and suggests that this link means God was trying to trigger positive feelings:

[God] knew that some Egyptians recalled Joseph, others would have been impressed by the miracles they had witnessed or now had a high a regard for Moses, so they would seek a friendly farewell….

God’s command Moses [Ex 11:2] simultaneously threatened Pharaoh and searched for peace between the two peoples. These peaceful relations were God’s principal concern during Israel’s last hours in Egypt. This was the true meaning of the farewell gifts which the Israelites sought and the Egyptians willingly gave.
— Jacob, p. 344 (emphasis in original)

Rabbi Shai Held, of Mechon Hadar, includes a poignant addendum on this teaching in “Receiving Gifts (and Learning to Love?): The “Stripping” of the Egyptians.” Held quotes Jacob calling this episode “the most elevated and spiritual reconciliation among people; it was full of wisdom and love of fellow man” (p.339 in the above cited Jacob commentary). He then confesses skepticism as to whether Jacob’s story jives with the plain sense of the text but concludes:

One senses in Jacob’s words the insights of a brilliant exegete but also the pain of a rabbi and teacher in a Germany consumed by hate**….In a world suffused with bigotry and hostility, a world in which people of faith often marshal sacred texts to legitimate acts of cruelty and to extol hatred as a virtue, there is great power in reading Jacob’s words and being reminded: At the heart of the religious enterprise is the attempt to soften, and open, one’s heart, to God and to one-another. If even the Egyptians and the Israelites can be (successfully!) called to love one-another, then perhaps, even in the darkest of times, slim glimmers of hope are available to us.

**Held includes a footnote citing personal communication with R. Walter Jacob (Benno’s son) to confirm that his father was working on the Exodus commentary between 1934 and 1939, while still in Germany.

Two Final Comments

Just so we don’t lose sight of the triumphalist nature of the Exodus story in its basic literary form, here are a few more comments from just one scholar:

Denizens of simple farms and the relatively crude towns of Judea would have known about imperial Egypt’s fabulous luxuries, its exquisite jewelry, and the affluent among them would have enjoyed imported Egyptian linens and papyrus. It is easy to imagine how this tale of despoiling or stripping bare Egypt would have given pleasure to its early audiences.
— Alter, on Ex 3:22

Alter adds that the three “sister-wife stories” of Genesis — Abraham and Sarah in Egypt (12:1-10), Abraham and Sarah in Gerar (Gen 20:1-18), and Isaac and Rebecca in Gerar (26:1-16) — “adumbrate the Exodus narrative,” by portraying the couple as arriving with little and leaving with much. Despoiling, he argues, is “an essential part of the story of liberation from bondage in the early national traditions.”

And, finally, also from Benno Jacob:

The Israelites received gifts from their neighbors when they left the Babylonian Exile in a manner parallel to our narrative; these consisted of gold, silver, etc. Some were in response to the royal mandate and were intended for the rebuiling of the Temple while others were freely given (Ezek 1: 4,6)
— Jacob, p.341




TEXTS

And I will give this people favour in the sight of the Egyptians. And it shall come to pass, that, when ye go, ye shall not go empty;
וְנָתַתִּי אֶת-חֵן הָעָם-הַזֶּה, בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרָיִם; וְהָיָה כִּי תֵלֵכוּן, לֹא תֵלְכוּ רֵיקָם.
but every woman shall ask of her neighbour, and of her that sojourns in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment; and you shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters; and ye shall spoil the Egyptians.’
וְשָׁאֲלָה אִשָּׁה מִשְּׁכֶנְתָּהּ וּמִגָּרַת בֵּיתָהּ, כְּלֵי-כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב וּשְׂמָלֹת; וְשַׂמְתֶּם, עַל-בְּנֵיכֶם וְעַל-בְּנֹתֵיכֶם, וְנִצַּלְתֶּם, אֶת-מִצְרָיִם.
–Exodus 3:21-22

Speak now in the ears of the people, and let them ask every man of his neighbour, and every woman of her neighbour, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold.’
דַּבֶּר-נָא, בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם; וְיִשְׁאֲלוּ אִישׁ מֵאֵת רֵעֵהוּ, וְאִשָּׁה מֵאֵת רְעוּתָהּ, כְּלֵי-כֶסֶף, וּכְלֵי זָהָב.
And the LORD gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants, and in the sight of the people.
וַיִּתֵּן יְהוָה אֶת-חֵן הָעָם, בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרָיִם; גַּם הָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה, גָּדוֹל מְאֹד בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, בְּעֵינֵי עַבְדֵי-פַרְעֹה, וּבְעֵינֵי הָעָם.
–Exodus 11:2-3

Exodus 12:35-36 was copied in “The Powers and the Wealth
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Benno Jacob

The Second Book of the Bible: Exodus, Interpreted by Benno Jacob. Walter Jacob and Yaakov Elman, trans. (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1992).

Benno Jacob was a rabbi and scholar born in Breslau and active in German Jewish life through the 1930s. He spent his last five years in England, where he completed his Exodus commentary in 1940 and continued to revise it until his death, at age 83, in 1945. See short biography (by his son, Walter Jacob) in the Exodus commentary.

We learn know this biography that Jacob was still in Germany when most synagogues were burned; he watched the German Jewish community to which he’d dedicated his life destroyed; he witnessed the deportation (and eventual return) of his son, R. Ernst Jacob, to Dachau; and he lost nearly everything in moving to England in his late seventies.

Jacobs also produced a commentary on Genesis, which is, as I understand it, not fully available to English readers. Nechama Leibowitz, in her New Studies series, often quotes Benno Jacob, based on unpublished manuscripts. Her chapter on the wealth exchange in Bo makes use of Jacob’s 1924 article, “Gott und Pharao.”
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The Powers and the Wealth

Exploring Babylon Chapter 15.1

The battle between God and Pharaoh reaches a crescendo in this week’s Torah portion — Bo (Ex 10:1 – 13:16) — and the denouement includes an exchange of treasure between the Egyptians and the Israelites. Rabbinic lore links these riches back to Genesis and forward through history, ending with the familiar “powers” trope. The trail of this treasure, and the interwoven responsibilities illuminated along the way, sheds a bit of light for #ExploringBabylon.

Travels of the World’s Wealth

The Tenth Plague convinces Pharaoh to let the People go, and the Egyptians give or lend the Israelites “objects of silver and gold, and clothing” to take with them upon departure (Ex 12:35). One Talmudic discussion (B. Pes 119a) begins by noting how Joseph amassed riches for a different pharaoh during a famine: gathering funds from around the world and “all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan” (Gen 41 and 47). This discussion then goes beyond Torah to list the treasure’s later history, ending — as we’ve seen in many similar stories — in Rome:

The treasure remained [in the Land of Israel] until the time of Rehoboam, son of Solomon….(1 Kings 14:26)…Next Jehosophat came and took the treasure back from the Ammonites (2 Chron 20). It remained in the Land until the time of Ahaz, when Sennecherib came and took it from Ahaz. Then came Hezekiah, who took it from Sennacherib, and it remained in the Land until Zedekiah, when the Chaldeans [Babylonians] came and took it from Zedekiah. Then came the Persians, who took it from the Chaldeans; the Greeks, who took it from the Persians; the Romans, who took it from the Greeks. And the treasure is still in Rome.
Sefer Ha-Aggadah 70:70, from B. Pes 119a

 

Wages Due

Elsewhere (B. San 91a) pursues a different direction in attempting to explain why the Israelites should have such riches:

Another occasion the Egyptians came in a lawsuit against the Jews before Alexander of Macedon. They pleaded thus: ‘Is it not written, And the Lord gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians, and they lent them [gold and precious stones, etc. (Ex 12:35)] Then return us the gold and silver which ye took!’…

[Temple doorkeeper Gebiha b. Pesisa asked permission of the Sages to answer the charge and responded as follows:]

‘Whence do ye adduce your proof?’ asked he, ‘From the Torah,’ they replied. ‘Then I too,’ said he, ‘will bring you proof only from the Torah, for it is written, Now the sojourning of the children of Israel, who dwelt in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years (Ex 12:40). Pay us for the toil of six hundred thousand men whom ye enslaved for four hundred thirty years.’
— B. San 91a; see also Sefer Ha-Aggadah 166:30


Questions to Consider

There are centuries’ worth of commentaries further exploring this treasure in particular, links between Joseph’s actions at the close of Genesis and enslavement in Exodus, and related issues. To begin, however, some questions the texts above raise:

  • Joseph helped pharaoh take advantage of famine conditions, amassing wealth from around the world and even taking land and means of livelihood from the people in exchange for food. Whose, in that light, is that treasure?
  • What (if any) are the implications of the Genesis part of the story for the “wage” argument?
  • What (if any) lessons might be drawn for the need for Reparations for people descended from enslaved populations in the United States?
  • Are there connections, direct or metaphorical, between this treasure and the Temple vessels used in the “writing on the wall” story in the Book of Daniel and in the opening festivities in the Book of Esther?


TEXTS

Ex 12:35-36
The Israelites had done Moses’ bidding and borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing.
וּבְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֥ל עָשׂ֖וּ כִּדְבַ֣ר מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַֽיִּשְׁאֲלוּ֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם כְּלֵי־כֶ֛סֶף וּכְלֵ֥י זָהָ֖ב וּשְׂמָלֹֽת׃
And the LORD had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians.
וַֽיהוָ֞ה נָתַ֨ן אֶת־חֵ֥ן הָעָ֛ם בְּעֵינֵ֥י מִצְרַ֖יִם וַיַּשְׁאִל֑וּם וַֽיְנַצְּל֖וּ אֶת־מִצְרָֽיִם׃
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Gen 41:56-57
Accordingly, when the famine became severe in the land of Egypt, Joseph laid open all that was within, and rationed out grain to the Egyptians. The famine, however, spread over the whole world.
וְהָרָעָ֣ב הָיָ֔ה עַ֖ל כָּל־פְּנֵ֣י הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּפְתַּ֨ח יוֹסֵ֜ף אֶֽת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֤ר בָּהֶם֙ וַיִּשְׁבֹּ֣ר לְמִצְרַ֔יִם וַיֶּחֱזַ֥ק הָֽרָעָ֖ב בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
So all the world came to Joseph in Egypt to procure rations, for the famine had become severe throughout the world.
וְכָל־הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ בָּ֣אוּ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה לִשְׁבֹּ֖ר אֶל־יוֹסֵ֑ף כִּֽי־חָזַ֥ק הָרָעָ֖ב בְּכָל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Gen 47:14
Joseph gathered in all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, as payment for the rations that were being procured, and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s palace.
וַיְלַקֵּ֣ט יוֹסֵ֗ף אֶת־כָּל־הַכֶּ֙סֶף֙ הַנִּמְצָ֤א בְאֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ וּבְאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן בַּשֶּׁ֖בֶר אֲשֶׁר־הֵ֣ם שֹׁבְרִ֑ים וַיָּבֵ֥א יוֹסֵ֛ף אֶת־הַכֶּ֖סֶף בֵּ֥יתָה פַרְעֹֽה׃
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Babylon and New Beginnings

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Exploring Babylon Chapter 14

The Joseph Cycle, which closes out the Book of Genesis, has it all, in terms of story-telling: politics, sex, family drama, passages that touch on religious and cultural practices, plus a few dream sequences. The Book of Exodus is quite the drama as well, but it shifts focus to national struggle, while still providing individual stories that keep the scale personal as well as epic. Both books offer ample opportunity to consider themes relevant to #ExploringBabylon. Both the Joseph story and the opening of Exodus, in particular, prompt us to consider the various experiences of enslavement and captivity — with members of the family that becomes Yisrael as both victims and perpetrators.

We are also prompted to compare the Exodus story with that of the Babylonian Captivity — and, of course, with historical experiences of Jewish and non-Jews.

In his book, Song of Exile, David W. Stowe offers some apropos comments. I think his words worth repeating, as the Exodus tale unfolds in the Torah reading cycle and in advance of Passover, so quote here:

We can readily see how the Exodus lends itself to popular culture – Hollywood, for example—in ways that the Exile doesn’t. The Exodus has a strong central character, Moses, who though not without flaws is undeniably cut from heroic cloth. By contrast the Exile features a shifting cast of characters, none of whom seem quite heroic. There are two malcontents, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who alienate nearly everyone around them and die on what seems the losing side of history. Daniel rises far in Babylon but doesn’t himself lead the Judeans to the promised land. There is no triumphant entry into the Promised Land in the Exile; some of the Judeans slowing drift back to Judah after Babylonia is conquered by the Persians, and eventually the Temple is rebuilt.
— Stowe, p.100

In addition, Stowe points out, the Exile does not have the same “sense of triumphant destiny” as the Exodus story. While this does not make the Exile a Hollywood favorite, he argues, it does make the story a better fit for the complex “diasporic sensibility of so many ethnic and racial communities in North America,” some of whom thought of “North America as a Promised Land or New Jerusalem,” while “many others imagined themselves as temporary sojourners, never forgetting the links that bound the to a homeland” (Stowe, p.103).

There is so much to unpack in considering the United States as “New Jerusalem,” temporary homeland, and “Babylon.” We’ll try to make some inroads as the reading of Exodus progresses and we launch some new directions in #ExploringBabylon.

To Complexity

Meanwhile, just in testament to the amazing complexity ahead, some related words and images from the 1988 movie “Working Girl,” written and set, of course, long before the Twin Towers became central to another aspect of the story.

“Let the River Run” Lyrics by Carly Simon (1988)



NOTE:
Stowe, David W. Song of Exile: The Enduring Mystery of Psalm 137 (NY: Oxford University Press, 2016). Additional information.
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Oved with an Ayin

Confusion sometimes arises from the similarity, in English transliteration and in pronunciation, between two prominent words in the haggadah: ‘oved‘ meaning ‘slave’ and ‘oved‘ in the phrase “Arami oved avi,” from Deuteronomy 26:5. The previous post provided a little background on “‘oved‘ with an aleph.” And here, as promised, are a few examples of the word ‘avadim‘ as in “avadim hayinu [we were slaves].”

oved‘ with an ayin: Exodus

Words from the root עבד (oved — ayin-bet-dalet) appear frequently in the Torah and later books of the Tanakh, with many instances in the Exodus story.

For example, Pharaoh is told “let My people go, that they may serve Me” in Exodus 7:16, 8:1, 10:3,…:

שַׁלַּח עַמִּי,
וְיַעַבְדֻנִי.
“…let My people go, that they may serve Me.”
— Exodus 10:3

Pharaoh responds several times, telling Moses “Go ye, serve the LORD…” with some restrictions added:

לְכוּ
עִבְדוּ
אֶת-יְהוָה
רַק צֹאנְכֶם וּבְקַרְכֶם, יֻצָּג: גַּם-טַפְּכֶם, יֵלֵךְ עִמָּכֶם–
Go ye, serve the LORD;
only let your flocks and your herds be stayed; let your little ones also go with you.’
— Exodus 10:24

Later, reference is made again and again to the Israelites leaving “Egypt and the house of bondage.” (Exodus 10:3, 10:14, 20:2,…)

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-הָעָם, זָכוֹר אֶת-הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר
יְצָאתֶם מִמִּצְרַיִם
עֲבָדִים מִבֵּית
And Moses said unto the people:
‘Remember this day,
in which ye came out from Egypt,
out of the house of bondage;
— Exodus 13:3

When we recite Hallel at Passover and on other festival days, we reflect on our status as servant now only to God:

אָנָּה יְהוָה,
עַבְדֶּךָ: כִּי-אֲנִי
בֶּן-אֲמָתֶךָ אֲנִי-עַבְדְּךָ,
פִּתַּחְתָּ, לְמוֹסֵרָי.
Now, ABUNDANT ONE,
I am your servant.
I, your servant, child of your servant,
I whose fetters you have opened up.
— Psalm 116:16, Kol Haneshamah
in this prayerbook, NAMES in all caps substitute for YHVH

I beseech Thee, O LORD,
for I am Thy servant;
I am Thy servant,
the son of Thy handmaid; Thou hast loosed my bands.
— Psalm 116:16 JPS 1917

More Bondage and Servants

Forms of ‘oved‘ with an ayin, meaning servant or bondman, appear at many points in the Tanakh. Here are pre-Exodus examples:

In Genesis, we are told that Canaan will be cursed, becoming “servant of servants” or “lowest of slaves” — עֶבֶד עֲבָדִים (Gen 9:25)

When Judah and his brothers are in Egypt during the drought in Canaan and are caught in an apparent theft, Judah says to Joseph: “…we are your bondmen” —
הִנֶּנּוּ עֲבָדִים (Gen 44:16)

Post-Exodus, the people are meant to serve God alone. Should economic circumstances place one Israelite in bond to another, that must be a temporary status: “And if he be not redeemed by any of these means [just outline above], then he shall go out in the year of jubilee, he, and his children with him.” (Lev. 25:54)

כִּי-לִי בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל,
עֲבָדִים–עֲבָדַי הֵם,
אֲשֶׁר-הוֹצֵאתִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
For unto Me the children of Israel are
servants; they are My servants
whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
— Leviticus 25:55

When Nebuchadrezzar, king of Babylon, threatens Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah attributes the disaster to the people’s reneging on this command: “but afterwards they turned, and caused the servants and the handmaids, whom they had let go free [at the jubilee], to return, and brought them into subjection for servants and for handmaids” (Jer 34:11).

Later, when the exiles are allowed to return, Ezra remarks on God’s favor, despite the people’s sins:

כִּי-עֲבָדִים
אֲנַחְנוּ–וּבְעַבְדֻתֵנוּ, לֹא עֲזָבָנוּ אֱלֹהֵינוּ;
For we are bondmen;
yet our God hath not forsaken us in our bondage,
-Ezra 9:9

Avadim

posted on this seventh day of the Omer 5777, with this prayer:
“In remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, we pray that you release all whose bodies and spirits remain captive and enable us to extend Your outstretched arm in the process of liberation.” (see Ritual Well)

Why is This ‘Oved’ Different from The Other Seder ‘Oved’?

“When do we eat?” is often identified as the fifth question at the Passover seder, after the prescribed four about dipping and reclining, bitter herbs and unleavened bread. Just as often, in my experience, people are asking about two Hebrew words that look identical in English transliteration: ‘oved‘ meaning ‘slave’ and ‘oved‘ in the phrase “Arami oved avi,” from Deuteronomy 26:5.

The Hebrew words for “slave,” “work,” and “worship” or “service” all have the same root. (More on “oved with an ayin” in a future post). But I have never heard anyone question the meaning of “avadim hayinu…” which appears near the start of the Passover telling: “We were slaves, and now we’re free.”

Note the letter ayin at the start of the word “avadim [slaves].”

Avadim.jpg

Avadim hayinu

The Deuteronomy verse, “Arami oved avi…” is another story. The ‘oved‘ with an aleph lends itself to several relatively straightforward translations as well as a traditional homelitical reading based on the biblical character most commonly identified with Aram.

Note the letter “aleph” at the start of “oved [lost, perished, fugitive,…].”

AramiOvedAvi.jpg

Arami oved avi

For discussion of “Who is Arami?” and “What does it mean to be oved?” in the Deuteronomy setting and in the Passover Haggadah, see “Ki Tavo: A Path to Follow.” Here, just to explore Hebrew vocabulary a bit more, is a little background on the word ‘oved‘ (with an aleph) itself.

oved‘ with an aleph

Forms of ‘oved‘ (with an aleph) appear frequently in biblical text. Here are a few instances, along with some translations.

Jeremiah 9:11 —

מִי-הָאִישׁ הֶחָכָם וְיָבֵן אֶת-זֹאת
וַאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר פִּי-יְהוָה אֵלָיו וְיַגִּדָהּ;
עַל-מָה
אָבְדָה
הָאָרֶץ, נִצְּתָה כַמִּדְבָּר מִבְּלִי עֹבֵר.
Who is the wise man, that he may understand this?
And who is he to whom the mouth of the LORD hath spoken,
that he may declare it?
Wherefore is the land
perished and laid waste
like a wilderness, so that none passeth through?
— JPS 1917 translation

…Why is the land in ruins
— JPS 1999

Micah 7:2 —

אָבַד
חָסִיד מִן הָאָרֶץ,
וְיָשָׁר בָּאָדָם אָיִן:
The godly man is perished out of the earth,
and the upright among men is no more
— JPS 1917

The pious are vanished from the land
— JPS 1999

Psalms 9:7 —

אָבַד
זִכְרָם הֵמָּה
…their very memorial is perished.
— JPS 1917

…their very names are lost.
— JPS 1999 with note: “meaning of Hebrew uncertain”

Ezekiel 12:22 —

בֶּן-אָדָם, מָה-הַמָּשָׁל הַזֶּה לָכֶם,
עַל-אַדְמַת יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר:
יַאַרְכוּ, הַיָּמִים,
וְאָבַד,
כָּל-חָזוֹן.
‘Son of man, what is that proverb
that ye have in the land of Israel, saying:
The days are prolonged,
and every vision faileth?
— JPS 1917

…every vision comes to naught“?
— JPS 1999

One more point of comparison, just because Temple Micah’s Hebrew poetry group encountered this modern Hebrew instance — over studies during the Shabbat of Passover — and noted how ‘obed‘ with an aleph and ‘obed‘ with an ayin sound alike to most English-speaking, and to some Hebrew-speaking, ears.

Lost

Yehuda Amichai’s “Shir Ha-Chut La-Machut [Poem of the Needle for the Thread]” has not been published in English translation. Our group rendered this line from the poem as “Only in the day, you are lost in the light,” or “Only in the daylight, are you lost.” (We struggled with the expression “b’yom ha-ohr.”)

And, finally, here are several versions of Deuteronomy 26:5 —

וְעָנִיתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ,
אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי,
וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה,
וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם,
לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב.
And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD thy God:
‘A wandering Aramean was my father,
and he went down into Egypt,
and sojourned there, few in number;
and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.
— JPS 1917

…’My father was a fugitive Aramean…’
— JPS 1999

‘An Aramean Astray my Ancestor”
— Everett Fox translation, 1995

posted on this sixth day of the Omer 5777, with this prayer:
“In remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, we pray that you release all whose bodies and spirits remain captive and enable us to extend Your outstretched arm in the process of liberation.” (see Ritual Well)