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.

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

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


Babylon: Assimilation and Separation

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 4.2

While sojourning in Gerar (Gen 20), Abraham assumes there is “no fear of God in the place.” That’s what he tells King Abimelech, anyway:

וַיֹּאמֶר, אַבְרָהָם, כִּי אָמַרְתִּי רַק אֵין-יִרְאַת אֱלֹהִים, בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה;
And Abraham said: ‘Because I thought: Surely the fear of God is not in this place;…
— Gen 20:11

Believing the worst of Gerar, Abraham had introduced Sarah as his sister. (The perceived benefit of this move is the subject of much commentary but beside the point at the moment.) Abimelech, based on Abraham’s information, had taken Sarah into his home as wife. But God warned Abimelech of the situation in a dream. And once Abimelech sorted things out, “all the wombs of his household,” which had closed in consequence of Abraham’s trick, healed.

“To his shame,” writes Rainer Albertz, “Abraham had to learn from Abimelech that a ‘Gentile nation’ could also be righteous” (Gen 20:4). Albertz suggests that entire narrative of Genesis 20 is meant to warn against “religious arrogance” and remind readers that, even in a foreign land, “there is also morality and piety” (Israel in Exile, p.265).

Reading the story of Gerar as a morality tale about the dangers of “religious prejudices,” helps make sense of an otherwise disturbing and puzzling text. It seems a powerful lesson any generation could use.

Whether Jews in Babylonian Captivity actually gleaned this lesson from existing Torah text — or from a “Patriarchal History” crafted during exile — is another question.

Lessons for Exiled People

Very old interpretations of Genesis 20 blame Abraham for thinking ill of Gerar. But Jewish scholarship actually dating midrashim about the dangers of religious prejudice to the Babylonian Captivity — again, that’s another question. (Comments, sources most welcome.)

Albertz goes even further than seeking interpretations of the text dating to the Captivity, though: He assigns Genesis 20 to an “exilic Patriarchal History.” He similarly assigns Genesis 21 and 22 to this document, arguing that these tales respond to the needs of a people in exile in these ways:

  • they affirm the value of other nations (e.g., Ishmael’s descendants);
  • the promote non-assimilation (Ishmael is cast out); and
  • they teach “trust in God even when God seemed to be…the most profound threat to Israel” (the Akedah). — Israel in Exile, p.264ff

The kind of scholarship in which Albertz and other, mostly Christian, scholars are engaged, is illuminating for #ExploringBabylon. But the documentary methodology itself is, at least at present, outside the main work of this project. Look for more from those who write about the Exile’s influence on Tanakh — and on contemporary lessons for communities in geographic flux — as this project progresses.

In a related avenue of study, Rev. Hugh R. Page, Jr. of Notre Dame examines ancient Hebrew poetry and its place in the Tanakh specifically from an Africana perspective. Ancient Hebrew poetry, he writes:

represents the earliest recorded musings of our biblical forebears on God, the universe, community, nature, humanity, and life’s ultimate meaning. Moreover, it offers a selective view of an Israelite ethos, born in crisis, that is dynamic, creative, pluriform, polyphonic, and transgressive. This is a community whose early challenges were not unlike those encountered by many Africana peoples today, particularly those dealing with the effects of social displacement and marginalization.
— Page, Israel’s Poetry of Resistance: Africana Perspectives on Early Hebrew Verse, p.ix (full citation and more)

Babylon and the Beginning

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 2.1

Ancient commentary finds reference to exile, to Babylon in particular, as early as the bible’s second verse:

Now the earth was unformed [תֹהוּ] and void [וָבֹהוּ] and darkness [וְחֹשֶׁךְ] was upon the face of the deep [עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם]; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the water [וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם]”
— Gen 1:2

R. Simeon b. Lakish equates “tohu [unformed]” with Babylon and subsequent expressions in the verse with other “powers” (or “empires”) that dominated Israel: Medea/Persia, Greece, and “the Wicked State” (Rome). Finally, he links “the spirit of God” hovering over the water with Messianic spirit and reasons that it’s on account of the water (over which the spirit hovers) — likened to repentance, based on Lamentations 2:19, “…pour out thy heart like water…” — that Redemption will come.[1].

God makes order from chaos. In the beginning of Creation and in Reish Lakish’s day. Four separate kinds of confusion and darkness are but prelude. As in that hovering just before God created light and then divided light from darkness, the dawn of Redemption is just a moment away. Through this allegory, one verse of the Creation story thus encapsulates the People’s history, fears, and faith. And the experience of Babylonian captivity is shapes it all.

Estimated Impact

Jacob Neusner’s introduction to Genesis Rabbah notes that the sages of the time — Christian Palestine of the 4th-5th Century CE (incorporating earlier teachings) — “entertained deep forebodings about Israel’s prospects.” They understood the Torah to be “the story of Israel, the Jewish people, in the here and now,” however, and so read it to speak to the needs of their time:

So the importance of Genesis, as the sages of Genesis Rabbah read the book, derives not from its lessons about the past but from its message for Israel’s present–and especially its future….a prophesy for a near tomorrow.
–Neusner, p.2

Based on the Babylonian exile and subsequent return to rebuild the Temple, “hope persisted that the same pattern would find renewal–and the prophets’ promise of redemption.” (p.4, Jacob Neusner. Confronting Creation: How Judaism Reads Genesis: An Anthology of Genesis Rabbah [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1991]).

Biblical scholar Rainer Albertz [2] estimates that “half the material in the Hebrew Bible came into being or was substantially shaped” during the Babylonian Exile. A decade or so later, he suggested that “about 70 percent of the Hebrew Bible tackles the questions of how the catastrophe of exile was possible and what Israel can learn from it.”

But Albertz’s method does not appear to extend to readings, like those of Genesis Rabbah, in which verses unrelated to exile on the surface — that is, on a pashat (literal or simple) level — are allegorically linked. So, perhaps the percentage of the Hebrew Bible understood as relating to exile should be raised even further?

Questions for Consideration

Questions posed in Chapter 1.1 touched on feelings of safety and fragility. As we move beyond the sukkah and into the new year’s Torah cycle:

  • Does the vision of Genesis Rabbah, including the precarious nature of the political situation, have resonance for this year’s Torah cycle?
  • Does the notion of being so close to chaos, confusion, and darkness seem ancient or current?
  • What about the idea that Redemption can also be very near?
  • Does repentance, in this context, seem possible?
  • Is reading “(foreign) powers” into the early Creation story disturbing? hopeful?
  • Does a strong focus on exile and return, even for verses that seem unrelated, deepening bible reading? or flatten it?
  • Can knowing that we (and the Presence suffering with us) made it back, or out from under, help us now?


1) R. Simeon b. Lakish said:
Unformed [“tohu” תֹהוּ] = Babylon, because the prophet Jeremiah wrote about the Babylonian exile: “I beheld the earth, and, lo, it was waste [וְהִנֵּה-תֹהוּ]…” (Jer. 4:23). Void [“bohu” וָבֹהוּ] = Medea/Persia; Dark [“hoshech” וְחֹשֶׁךְ] = Greece; the Face of the Deep [“al p’nei t’hom” עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם] = “the Wicked State” (i.e., Rome). Reish Lakish equated the Spirit of God with the Messianic spirit, citing Isaiah 11:2 — And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him [the Messiah].

This teaching closes by asking, “In the merit of what will the Messiah come?” And answering:

[For the sake of that which] hovered over the face of the waters, i.e. in the
merit of repentance which is likened to water, as it is written, Pour out thy heart like water (Lam. 2:19)

–Genesis Rabbah 2:4

R. Simeon b. Lakish (3rd Century CE, Palestine) is also known as Reish Lakish.

Genesis Rabbah is thought to date be the oldest of the Midrash Rabbah collections. A translation by R. Dr. H. Freedman is available via the great Internet Archive.

2) Rainer Albertz (profile; C.V.) has a Ph.D in Protestant Theology from the University of Heidelberg. He is the son of a Heinrich Albertz (1915–1993), one-time major of (West) Berlin and a pacifist, anti-Nazi Christian minister.

Israel in Exile: The History and Literature of the Sixth Century B.C.E., translated by David Green (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003).

“More and Less than a Myth: Reality and Significance of Exile for the Political, Social, and Religious History of Judah,” IN By the Irrigation Canals of Babylon: Approaches to the Study of the Exile, edited by John J. Ahn & Jill Middlemas (NY: Continuum, 2012).