Laban- A Villain in the Family?

The Midrashic tradition seems to do a great disservice to Isaac’s brother-in-law Laban. It casts him as an out-and-out villain, a trickster who according to the Passover Haggadah, wanted to prevent the creation of the Jewish nation.

“Go and see what Laban the Aramean sought to do to our father Jacob. For Pharoah only issued a decree against the men (casting the baby boys into the Nile) whereas Laban wanted to uproot all (the whole nation).”

Continue reading “Laban- A Villain in the Family?”

How to spot an angel

The annunciation of Isaac’s birth begins with the arrival of three travellers at the door of Abraham’s tent. Not kings from the mystic east arriving after the event, as in a later story, but ordinary men; heralds with prophetic insight, able to foresee the birth of Isaac.

But when they leave Abraham they are no longer described as men, but as malachim, a word which can mean messengers, angels or more accurately both, since angels are God’s messengers. And now there are only two of them. The third, according to the Midrash, has returned to heaven. He has fulfilled his mission of announcing Isaac’s forthcoming birth and is no longer needed on earth. Continue reading “How to spot an angel”

Was Abraham a Monotheist

It is axiomatic in Judaism that Abraham was the first person to recognise that God created the world and that there are no other gods. Maimonides says as much. In the 2nd of his thirteen Principles of Faith he states that God is the First Cause. In the 5th Principle he asserts that there are no other gods beside him and it is not appropriate to worship any other entity. Abraham is the founder of Judaism. It follows that Abraham was the first monotheist, a fact known to every Jewishly educated child.

The trouble is that if we look at the bible text there is no indication that Abraham did not believe that other gods existed. Continue reading “Was Abraham a Monotheist”

What do Jonah and Noah have in Common?

There is a remarkable correspondence between the biblical story of Noah and the Book of Jonah. The clue lies in the name Jonah, meaning dove in Hebrew. The dove, of course, is the bird that Noah sends out of the ark to discover whether the flood waters have dried out. But the connections between the two tales are far greater than just this.

Noah is told by God that the world is about to be destroyed in a flood. He is commanded to build an ark to save himself, his family and the animal kingdom. He obeys the command, builds the ark and spends the next year peacefully floating above the flood. He is safe from the stormy waters.

Jonah is told by God that Nineveh, the greatest city in the world, is to be destroyed. Even its animals will be wiped out. He is commanded to travel there and urge its inhabitants to repent. Unlike Noah he disobeys the command, runs to Jaffa and boards a boat. Unlike Noah, his time in the boat is not peaceful. The boat is buffeted by a storm, Jonah realises it is his fault and he is ejected into the water. The motifs of destruction, water, storms, boats and God’s command in the Noah story are reversed in the Jonah narrative. Continue reading “What do Jonah and Noah have in Common?”

The Book of Creation

A passing remark in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b) states that two rabbis created and ate a three year old calf. They did this by studying something called The Book of Creation, Sefer Yetsirah in Hebrew. One might wonder why, having gone to the trouble of performing such a feat, the two rabbis simply ate the calf. But the Talmud tells us nothing more about it.

This brief reference is the earliest mention of Sefer Yetsirah. Several hundred years were to pass before it was mentioned again. When it did resurface, in the tenth century, it was presented by its commentators as a scientific treatise on the creation of the world. Continue reading “The Book of Creation”