A Song of Reward and Punishment

Exploring Babylon Chapter 22

Here is further response to a long-ago comment of Max Ticktin (z”l), based on the words of Jeremiah and in a sort of homage to Leonard Cohen.

“Has this song gone on too long?
A song of reward and punishment
for exiles in Babylon and elsewhere”

The theme repeats again and long
this song of punishment and reward
Is our pain fault or accident?
The heart is indeed most devious!

You say that we’ll be cursed if we
trust in folks whose strength is flesh
that we’ll lose heart,
turn our thoughts away

We’ll feel just like a desert bush,
parched, alone, and unaware
that good might come
that water could be flowing

And then You say that we’ll be blessed
if we trust You
and You alone
We’ll be like trees that will not lack for water

You promise we’ll not think of drought,
our leaves will be forever fresh
we’ll have strong roots and bear more fruit
But is it wise to pretend no heat is coming?

The theme repeats again and long
this song of punishment and reward
What could it harm, I’m bound to ask,
if I were just a wealthy fool?

Saved or doomed? God only knows!
You’re refuge, you’re chastisement
Probe my heart and heal me now
Or has this song gone on too long?

Who gets justice in this world?
I’m a shepherd who has lost the way
The theme repeats again and long
this song of punishment and reward
— V. Spatz, 2018
from Jeremiah 17:5-8 and surrounding verses


As noted in previous post, “A Song of Reward and Punishment,” which is what Max called Jeremiah 17:5-8, just seems like something Leonard Cohen would have written. I imagine something that sounds somewhere between “Darkness” (“Old Ideas,” 2012) and “You Want It Darker” (eponymous album, 2016).


Babylon and Adventures in Bibleland

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:


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).

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