Monday, 12 August 2019

Yemei Iyun Be-Tanakh 2019

Well, it's been a few years, but I managed to make it to a day of Herzog College's Yemei Iyun Betanach conference. It was great. Here's a quick summary of the five lectures I attended:

'סיפור מפוצל' במקרא - הסיבות לתופעה וחשיבות הזיהוי שלה

הרב סמט אלחנן 

Rav Elchanan Samet opened with a simple model for biblical structure: Tanach is divided into books which are divided into a series of Stories. The story is the basic unit of analysis. Therefore, when trying to understand the meaning of a text, it is critical to identify the boundaries of the story.

Most of the time finding the boundaries is easy, but sometimes is it is hard. Occasionally, it is hard because the editor of the book has split up the story, often by moving the end of the story to later in the book. This is done for various reasons, chronology is a common one. The stories of the tanach are arranged in chronological order, so if the end of a story takes place years later than it's beginning, it may get cut and pasted to the place in the book where it chronologically belongs.

The Rav gave a number of examples, including:
  • the purchase of Mearat Hamachpela and Sarah's burial
  • Yehoshua's spies and the saving of Rehav and her family
  • Yakov reunited with Yosef
  • The beginning/end chapters of Iyov
  • Tlafchad's daughters
In all of these cases, the stories have significant structural problems that can be solved by applying this model.

It occurs to me that this model of source Story, and subsequent editing is sometimes quite persuasive, but there is an alternative- Comples Structure. For instance Iyov. Rav Samet claims that we have an original story that was split and another unit, the dialogue between Iyov and his friends, inserted in the middle. It seems to me that an alternate explanation is that we have a single story composed with a complex structure. In general, how do we distinguish between simple stories edited together and a single complexly structued story?

בנות ירושלים ושומרי העיר בשיר השירים

הרב מדן יעקב 

Rav Medan claims that Shir Hashirim, and in particular the secondary characters in it, present a dialectical view of the non-Jewish nations and their relationship to God and Israel.

He begins by bringing various biblical and talmudic sources which present the nations alternately as those who keep us from God on one hand, and partners in relating to God on the other. In particular, he cites the passages relating to King Shlomo's marriage to wives and concubines from other nations.

Then, the Rav, reads various passages from Shir Hashirim. The Dod and Raaya are madly in love, then brought together, then kept apart, and so on. The Daughters of Jerusalem and the city's Guardsmen appear as rivals to that love, or as opponents to it. Yet at the climax of the story, they return as partners in the effort to reignite that love.

Rav Meidan brought various rabbinic sources on Christianity and Islam as examples of how the non-Jewish world act as partners in the path to monotheism.

הפרק היומי - עצת אחיתפל

הרב ד"ר לאו בנימין 

This was a lecture on the daily 929 chapter, Shmuel 2, Chapter 17. Rav Lau opened with the midrash describing how the Tehom threatened to flood the world and Achitofel's advice saved it, yet left the world dry.

He then moved on to Divrei Hayamim and other mentions of Achitofel. It appears that, in addition to being advisor to the king, Achitofel was actually Bat-Sheva's grandfather. Yeah, that Bat-Sheva. Achitofel's son, Bat-Sheva's father, is listed as one of David's elite troops and Bat-Sheva's husband is too, albeir of foreign birth.

He then reads us through the story of Avshalom's rise to power, which turns into a rebellion against his father. Achitofel plays the role of Kingmaker, carefully manipulating the will of the populace. Avshalom relies on Achitofel's advice until it appears that Achitofel is actually trying to avenge himself on David for his acts of adultery and murder related to his granddaughter. At this point, Avshalom ignores his advice and the rebellion fails.

Rav Lau paints Achitofel as an opponent to David, but not to the House of David. He supports the rebellion in order to set up a better Davidic monarch. When things get personal he ultimately fails.

מינויו של גדעון לשופט

הרב ד"ר קהת ברוך 

Rav Kehat begins by introducing concept of Sippur Bebuah, a model pioneered by Dr. Yair Zakovich. The idea is that, sometimes when the bible presents us with a story that parallels a previous story, the point is not the parallel itself, but the Antithesis it creates. We are meant to focus on the differences to understand the message of the parallelism.

He then brings literary parallels between Gidon and Moshe, Gidon and Avraham, and Gidon and Yaakov. Ultimately, what emerges is that Gidon, like Moshe, accepts God's mission, but unlike Avraham, he doesn't truly care for others. This character flaw comes to a head when he cruelly punishes his bretheren who didn't assist him during wartime and leads to his evaluation as a flawed hero.

מחקר התנ"ך – בעד ונגד

 ד"ר משגב חגי

Dr. Misgav began with a description of the three major branches of Academic Tanach Study. He argues that Tanach Academics generally fall into one of these largely disconnected disciplines. He ultimately argues that they would benefit from more interdisciplinary work. The three branches are:
  1. Literary/Philological
    1. Division into sources
    2. Literary theory/structure
  2. Archeological/Historical
    1. Use of archeology in understanding Biblical text
  3. Comparative Near East Literature
    1. Genre
    2. Myth
    3. Law
He  points out that all three attempt to give chronologies, which are often at odds with one another. 1 and 3 are often at odds over the message of a particular source.

Misgav opined that these all provide essential tools needed by the religious scholar to truly understand God's word. Yet these tools were developed by deniers of religion. He points out various movements by religious scholars to deal with the tools of academic tanach study, ultimately favoring approaches that adopt it. He compares this with Rav Kook's opinion of Secular/Religious Zionism.

I am reminded of Joran Peterson's explanation of why the world needs both Conservative and Liberal personalities. The Conservatives keep the current regime running efficiently, but are incapable of pioneering essential new ideas. The Liberals are not good at efficiently advancing the status quo, but are great at trying out new ideas, eventually finding hte next big idea to push Humanity forward. So to, it makes sense that largely secular renegades pioneered modern Tanach study rather than by Religious Traditionalists.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Enuma Elish and Bereshit

Published in 1996, Shin Shifra and Yakov Klein's בימים הרחוקים ההם is an anthology of Near Eastern literature, translated directly to Hebrew. The advantage of this sort of translation project, over say a translation to English, is that biblical Hebrew is much closer to the original language and can capture a lot more of the nuance and style of the original text.

The first entry in the book is Enuma Elish, a Babylonian account of Creation, found by archaeologists written in Akkadian Cuneiform on seven stone tablets. The tablets date back to the 7th century BCE, but some of the legends therein can be traced back as far as the Code of Hammurabi. So we are talking about a text, and ledgends that date back to Biblical times.

Here's a short chronology as a reference:
  • 1754 BCE Code of Hammurabi
  • 1600s BCE Abraham, Isaac, Jacob
  • 1312 BCE Matan Torah
  • 1000 BCE King David
  • 7th century BCE oldest known copy of Enuma Elish
  • 605 BCE First deportation of Babylonian Exile, start of Sefer Daniel

Enuma Elish is commonly cited for it's parallels with the Torah's creation story. The above chronology leaves us wondering about the direction of influence- is the Torah, in Genesis, giving us a "corrected" version of the common polytheistic myths of the day, or did the Babylonians draw influence from Genesis when they collected their creation myth cycle into a single work? In any case, Using Shin Shifra's translation, I would like to take a look at some of the reported parallels in the texts themselves.

The Number Seven

The first parallel is numerical. The Torah's account of creation in Bereshit 1 is organized into seven days. Enuma Elish's creation story is organized into seven tablets. A parallel suggestive of literary influence for certain. 

Separation of Waters

Both Enuma Elish and Sefer Bereshit begin with the separation of primordial waters. Let's compare:

בעת ממעל לא נקראו שמים (בשם)
מתחת אדמה בשם לא נזכרה
רק אפסו אב-ראשית מזריעם
והאם תאמת יולדת כלהם
מימיהם נבללו יחדו
(אנומה אליש, לוח א 1-5)

וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם; וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי רָקִיעַ בְּתוֹךְ הַמָּיִם, וִיהִי מַבְדִּיל, בֵּין מַיִם לָמָיִם.   וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-הָרָקִיעַ, וַיַּבְדֵּל בֵּין הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מִתַּחַת לָרָקִיעַ, וּבֵין הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מֵעַל לָרָקִיעַ; וַיְהִי-כֵן.   וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לָרָקִיעַ, שָׁמָיִם; וַיְהִי-עֶרֶב וַיְהִי-בֹקֶר, יוֹם שֵׁנִי
 (בראשית א:ב-ח)

In Enuma, it is worth noting that Apsu is the fresh subterranean waters while Tiamat is the God of the salty oceans. As such, both accounts begin with two sets of primordial waters, as yet unnamed, mixed together in chaos.

Bereshit actually describes the process of separation and naming, whereas in Enuma it is implied. On a theological level, the waters of Bereshit are component parts of God creation, while in Enuma Tiamat is a God personified. Apsu is not personified, but has religious significance and is the dwelling place of Ea who later is.

Creation of Sky/Waters

We already quoted the Torah's separation of the primordial waters to create the heavens. Similarly, Enuma describes how Marduk divides the sea god Tiamat's corpse to create the skies.

נח האדון, בגויתה התבונן
שסע את הפגר למען ברוא נפלאות
ויפלחנה כצדפה לשנים
חציה כונן ויקרה שמים
נטה יריעה, משמר הציב
לבל תגיר מימיה- צוה עליהם
התיצב האדון נכח האפסו, מושב נדמד
מדד האדון את המדות אשר לאפסו
(אנומה אליש, לוח ד 135-143)

The parallel between these passages is quite explicit. One significant difference through is that in Enuma, only one of the two primordial waters is divided. When was the Apsu(fresh waters) divided from Tiamat(salt waters)? Why doesn't Apsu participate in the creation of sky? In any case, Enuma's cosmology leaves us with a trinity of waters: the fresh waters, the ocean, and the sky, while the Torah only mentions the waters and the heavens.


Enuma describes the creation of the luminaries, as does the Torah. Unfortunately most of the text is lost to history, so a full comparison is not possible. The excerpt that we do have goes as follows:

הזריח ירח, על הלילה הפקידו
הועידו להיות עטרת הלילה, להודיע ימים
(לוח ה 12-13)

It declare the Moon's sovereignty over the night, which parallels the passage in Bereshit:

וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-שְׁנֵי הַמְּאֹרֹת הַגְּדֹלִים:  אֶת-הַמָּאוֹר הַגָּדֹל, לְמֶמְשֶׁלֶת הַיּוֹם, וְאֶת-הַמָּאוֹר הַקָּטֹן לְמֶמְשֶׁלֶת הַלַּיְלָה, וְאֵת הַכּוֹכָבִים.  וַיִּתֵּן אֹתָם אֱלֹהִים, בִּרְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמָיִם, לְהָאִיר, עַל-הָאָרֶץ. וְלִמְשֹׁל, בַּיּוֹם וּבַלַּיְלָה, וּלְהַבְדִּיל, בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ; וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים, כִּי-טוֹב.

Babel & Tower 

Both Enuma and Bereshit provide an origin story for the City-State of Babel. Enuma describes a city built by Marduk to house the central Temple/meeting place of the gods.

אבנה-נא בית, לו (יהי) מושב-מקדש
במקום ההוא לו (יהי) מלונכם, להכיל קהלכם
אקרה שמו בבל: בתי האלים הגדולים
אנחנו בקרבו נבנה מקדש
(לוח ה 122-130)

The Torah, on the other hand, begins by giving us Babel's origin as a mundane event among the descendants of Noach.

וְכוּשׁ, יָלַד אֶת-נִמְרֹד; הוּא הֵחֵל, לִהְיוֹת גִּבֹּר בָּאָרֶץ. הוּא-הָיָה גִבֹּר-צַיִד, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה; עַל-כֵּן, יֵאָמַר, כְּנִמְרד גִּבּוֹר צַיִד, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה.  וַתְּהִי רֵאשִׁית מַמְלַכְתּוֹ בָּבֶל, וְאֶרֶךְ וְאַכַּד וְכַלְנֵה, בְּאֶרֶץ, שִׁנְעָר(בראשית י:ח-ט)

This is followed in Chapter 11 by the Tower of Babel Story, a sharp, satyric origin story of Babel and it's Ziggurat-Temple. Babel is no house of God, rather it is a testament to Human arrogance and foolishness.

Man's creation

The Enuma finally arrives at the creation of Man in the sixth tablet.
דם אבלל, עצמות אצור
אעשה יצור, אדם יהי שמו
לו גם ישוה כבודם-לשנים יחלקו
(לוח ו 5-10)

Man is created from flesh and bones for the explicit purpose of doing worth that the gods would otherwise need to do. In the context of Babel and it's temple, the purpose of the Human society living in the city-state is to serve the gods in the temple.

Compare this with Man's creation in Bereshit 1 where man is the pinnacle of creation, and Bereshit 2 where he is given a purpose:

וַיִּקַּח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ.
Man also has a duty, but it is as a caregiver, rather than mere slave to his betters.

Names of God

Much has been made of the two names of God used in the biblical creation story. Enuma takes this a step further, with the final tablet and a half being taken up by the 59 names/titles of Marduk.


In conclusion, the parallels between the creation stories of Bereshit and Enuma Elish are quite striking. At the same time, the direction of inspiration remain unclear. To what degree is Enuma drawing literary inspiration from the Hebrew Torah and to what degree is the Torah composed as a correction to popular Near-Eastern mythology of the day. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Esther Daniel and Yosef

Megillat Esther has a number of literary parallels with Sefer Daniel, and by extension with the story of Yosef in Egypt. Let's go over these parallels and what they might mean.

Court Tales


Both Daniel and Esther belong to the Near Eastern genre of Court Tales, focusing on a wise courtier and how he/she prevails over danger. In the Book of Daniel, Daniel and his companions use their wisdom to become personal advisors to the king in a rags-to-riches story. Their courtly rivals repeatedly attempt to do away with them, but they are miraculously saved each time.

Similarly, in Megilat Esther, Esther starts out a Judean orphan but finds herself marrying the king and becoming queen over the Persian empire. Haman plots to kill Mordechai and the rest of the Jews, but he and Esther overcome her rival courtier's murderous plots.

Children of Exile

The book of Daniel begins in the first generation of the Babylonian exile with our four heroes, Daniel, Hanania, Mishael, and Azaria, who have been taken from the Judean nobility as captives. They are brought into the Babylonian court to serve as advisors to King Nebuchadnezzar, yet they manage to maintain a certain separateness from their Imperial counterparts. The story features many parallel with Yosef in Egypt, the original captive-made-courtier.

In contrast, the book of Esther takes place over a century after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, after the fall of the Babylonian Empire and well into Persian rule. Nevertheless, the text associates Esther to the Judean exile, though Mordechai, thus setting her up as the Daniel/Yosef character.

ה אִישׁ יְהוּדִי, הָיָה בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה; וּשְׁמוֹ מָרְדֳּכַי, בֶּן יָאִיר בֶּן-שִׁמְעִי בֶּן-קִישׁ--אִישׁ יְמִינִי.  ו אֲשֶׁר הָגְלָה, מִירוּשָׁלַיִם, עִם-הַגֹּלָה אֲשֶׁר הָגְלְתָה, עִם יְכָנְיָה מֶלֶךְ-יְהוּדָה--אֲשֶׁר הֶגְלָה, נְבוּכַדְנֶצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל.  ז וַיְהִי אֹמֵן אֶת-הֲדַסָּה, הִיא אֶסְתֵּר בַּת-דֹּדוֹ--כִּי אֵין לָהּ, אָב וָאֵם; וְהַנַּעֲרָה יְפַת-תֹּאַר, וְטוֹבַת מַרְאֶה, וּבְמוֹת אָבִיהָ וְאִמָּהּ, לְקָחָהּ מָרְדֳּכַי לוֹ לְבַת.(אסתר ב)

Note also, that the text contains other parallels, with all three emphasizing the good looks of the protagonist, as well as their dual Hebrew and local names.

The Party

In both Esther and Daniel, the king throws a wild party, has too much to drink, and makes a fateful decision.

In the fifth chapter of Daniel, Belshazzar throws a great party, has too much to drink and orders the Temple Vessels, looted during the conquest of Jerusalem, to be brought out and used in the course of the party. As a result, God punishes him and ends his reign, in favor of the Persians.

In the opening chapter of Esther, an intoxicated Ahasuerus calls for his wife to make a humiliating display before his friends, then chooses to de-throne her as punishment for her refusal to appear. This triggers Esther's rise to power. There is even an ambiguous reference to the vessels used in this party that implies a connection with Belshazzar's own folly.

ז וְהַשְׁקוֹת בִּכְלֵי זָהָב, וְכֵלִים מִכֵּלִים שׁוֹנִים; וְיֵין מַלְכוּת רָב, כְּיַד הַמֶּלֶךְ(אסתר א)

The Chief Eunuch

In the first chapter of Daniel, the lads find favor in the eyes of the Court Eunuch appointed to their care. As a result, he allows them the kosher diet they request.

Similarly, when Esther is brought into Ahasuerus' harem, she finds favor in the eyes of the Chief Eunuch, who provides her with better perfumes and food, thus establishing her role as the Daniel character.

This is all parallel to Yosef's experience with the warden in Egyptian prison:

 כא וַיְהִי יְהוָה אֶת-יוֹסֵף, וַיֵּט אֵלָיו חָסֶד; וַיִּתֵּן חִנּוֹ, בְּעֵינֵי שַׂר בֵּית-הַסֹּהַר.  כב וַיִּתֵּן שַׂר בֵּית-הַסֹּהַר, בְּיַד-יוֹסֵף, אֵת כָּל-הָאֲסִירִם, אֲשֶׁר בְּבֵית הַסֹּהַר; וְאֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עֹשִׂים שָׁם, הוּא הָיָה עֹשֶׂה.  כג אֵין שַׂר בֵּית-הַסֹּהַר, רֹאֶה אֶת-כָּל-מְאוּמָה בְּיָדוֹ, בַּאֲשֶׁר יְהוָה, אִתּוֹ; וַאֲשֶׁר-הוּא עֹשֶׂה, יְהוָה מַצְלִיחַ.

Risking One's Life for the Cause

One part of the Megilla that has always perplexed me is the degree to which the Megilla emphasizes the danger Esther is putting herself in by approaching her husband, the king in chapters 4 and 5. Can he really be so inaccessible to her? Do we really expect him to order her death if she approaches him uninvited? After all, he only recently had to deal with the fallout of executing his first wife in a drunken rage- isn't he going to be careful not to repeat this folly? Isn't all the fasting and prayer in anticipation of this meeting a bit overstated?

But once we note that Megillat Esther is drawing inspiration from Daniel, it makes sense. Daniel had his Lion's Den, and Esther needs a parallel life-or-death trial.

Note also, that both works include the challenges of surmounting a strict legal system whose laws cannot be revoked or overridden.

The Fate of the Rival Courtiers

In both narratives, the rival courtiers are punished with the very same fate they had planned for our hero, together with their families.  Haman and his sons are hung from the gallows he had built for Mordechai, and Daniel's rivals and their families are thrown into the same lion's den he spent the night in.

כה וַאֲמַר מַלְכָּא, וְהַיְתִיו גֻּבְרַיָּא אִלֵּךְ דִּי-אֲכַלוּ קַרְצוֹהִי דִּי דָנִיֵּאל, וּלְגוֹב אַרְיָוָתָא רְמוֹ, אִנּוּן בְּנֵיהוֹן וּנְשֵׁיהוֹן; וְלָא-מְטוֹ לְאַרְעִית גֻּבָּא, עַד דִּי-שְׁלִטוּ בְהוֹן אַרְיָוָתָא, וְכָל-גַּרְמֵיהוֹן, הַדִּקוּ.(דניאל ו)


Textual Parallels to Yosef

There are also a number of textual parallels between Esther and Yosef

  • The King orders the gathering grain/virgins at the advise of his counselors
  • Days of embalming/Days of perfume treatment
  • Yosef's daily overtures from Potiphar's wife/Mordichai's daily refusal to bow to Haman
  • Yakov's reluctant accent to send Binyamin, Esther's reluctant accent to approach the king
  • "How could I witness my Father's downfall"/"How could I witness my people's downfall?"
  • The giving of the signet ring by the king to the heroes

The Reason Behind the Intertextuality?

Now that we have covered the extensive parallels between these works, let's try to understand the meaning behind these parallels. The story of Esther presumably takes place over a number of years. Why does the story focus on scenes that parallel those in Daniel? Why are there so many literary nods to Daniel and Yosef's stories? Why did Queen Esther make these literary choices for her Megilla?

God's Place in the Narrative

Our sages have noted the lack of any explicit mention of God in the Megilla. Does that mean it is a secular story of courtly politics?

Perhaps it was unseemly for a Persian queen to mention the God of the Hebrews in her personal annals. As such Esther contains no mention of God in the text. But what about the subtext? By encoding references to Daniel and Yosef, stories where God's role in the hero's success is explicit, the Jewish reader will get the hidden message that Esther's success was also thanks to God intervention.

Esther's Legacy

The text's equating between Esther and Daniel/Yosef is also a statement on Esther's legacy. Esther could easily have been viewed as a Shimshon-like character: as a morally flawed individual who nevertheless served God's purposes and saves the Jewish people from their enemies.

Esther was a poor girl, taken as a royal concubine. She ultimately out-concubine's all the other concubines to become the wife of a notoriously lecherous Gentile King. Is she such a sterling Jewish heroine? Do we want our daughters to emulate her and become Great Concubines as well?

By equating Esther with Daniel and Yosef, archetypes of Jewish Faith in Exile, Esther joins their ranks. Yes, exile is hard, and may entail certain compromised circumstances, but ultimately we view Esther as a legitimate Diaspora Leader who put her life on the line for her people in the service of God.