Babylon: Entangled and Free

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Exploring Babylon: Chapter 4.1

The ram stuck in the bush*, where Abraham finds him during the Binding of Isaac incident, reminded long-ago teachers of their own situation and their past Captivity in Babylon:

Throughout that day, Abraham saw the ram become entangled in a tree, break loose, and go free; become entangled in a bush, break loose, and go free; then again become entangled in a thicket, break loose, and go free.

The Holy One said, “Abraham, even so will your children be entangled in many kinds of sin and trapped within successive kingdoms – from Babylon to Medea, from Medea to Greece, from Greece to Edom.”

Abraham asked, “Master of the universe, will it be forever thus?”

God replied, “In the end they will be redeemed at [the sound of] the horns of this ram, as is said, ‘The Lord shall blow the horn [shofar] when He goes forth in the whirlwinds at Teman [Edom] [וְיָצָא כַבָּרָק חִצּוֹ; וַאדֹנָי יְהוִה בַּשּׁוֹפָר יִתְקָע, וְהָלַךְ בְּסַעֲרוֹת תֵּימָן]'” (Zech 9:14).
— Bialik & Ravnitsky, The Book of Legends/Sefer Ha-aggadah 42:45**

Like earlier commentary, which found these same periods of foreign control — Babylon, Medea, Greece, and Rome — in the second verse of the Creation story, this midrash promises future Redemption. (See “Babylon and the Beginning.”) Also, as in the previous midrash, everything depends on human repentance.

As Erica Brown puts it, this midrash teaches:

Wrong-doing will always catch us up in its thorny hold….The ram’s horn, the penitential cry of it, will remind us that we need not be stuck in the thicket. We can extricate ourselves.
— Brown, Confronting Scandal: How Jews Can Respond when Jews Do Bad Things. (Woodstock VT: Jewish Lights, 2010). p.125

 

Entangled

…and that brings us round again to the original intention behind this blog: The Exodus is, of course, the foundational story of Judaism, and there are many important lessons for our time and place to be gleaned from it and the Genesis stories which lead us there. There’s no escaping, however, that the Exodus is, in essence, the tale of a violent and permanent parting of oppressed and oppressor peoples.

And that metaphor has limits when it comes to trying to work out how people who share circumstances with both the oppressed and the oppressor, and generally have no intention to flee, can envision and work toward a better world.

Our tradition has long offered another metaphor: the far more complex and ambiguous narrative of exile, oppression and redemption. Thus, #ExploringBabylon was launched to consider ways our current realities reflect the multivalent image of Babylon, in the hope that this will help Jews in the U.S. find new visions for the future….

and Free

It is noteworthy that the midrash quoted above — as well as the one based on Genesis 1:2 (cited in the earlier post) — omits the Exodus when speaking of past instances of the people being “stuck.” For the teachers who wrote both midrashim, the Exodus was not in question: God and the people and the Torah remained in relationship born of that experience. What was in question was how the people, who by this time knew how hard it was to honor that relationship amid a complex world, were going to extricate themselves from their current entanglement.
ShofarHand

Questions for Consideration

  • Are we, as individuals and communities of Jews, hearing the ram’s horn today?
  • What are some of the thorny communal places we’re being called to address?
  • Is there a role for some kind of communal repentance?
  • Can the larger Jewish narrative, of being entangled and free and entangled again, help us find a way out of the thicket?

 

NOTES

* See this week’s Torah portion, Vayera (Genesis 18:1 – 22:24):
“And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt-offering in the stead of his son.
וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה-אַיִל, אַחַר, נֶאֱחַז בַּסְּבַךְ בְּקַרְנָיו; וַיֵּלֶךְ אַבְרָהָם וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הָאַיִל, וַיַּעֲלֵהוּ לְעֹלָה תַּחַת בְּנוֹ.”
— Genesis 22:13
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** This paragraph comes at the end of a three-page commentary on “The Binding of Isaac.” The The Book of Legends footnote cites Pesikta Rabbati 40:6 here. (Pesikta Rabbati is a holiday-based compilation of midrash, which is dated to Land of Israel, c.600 – c.900 CE.) But I cannot confirm the citation — and for all it’s extraordinary benefits, The Book of Legends English version does tend to muff citations — the verse from Zechariah above, e.g., is cited as “9:4” (The biblical reference is correct in the Hebrew version, but there is no chapter/verse with the Pesikta Rabbiti citation — way more than necessary, probably, but there it is.)
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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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