Egypt’s Famine and the Importance of Uncertainty

The sequence of events in the Bible is often confusing, leading to multiple, seemingly conflicting interpretations. Even though the Talmud declared long ago that “There is no before or after in the Torah”, in other words it is not written in chronological order, this did not solve all the problems.  Indeed, some biblical commentators, most notably the great 12th century exegete Ramban rejected this principle, because as far as he was concerned it just doesn’t work.

An example of chronological confusion occurs when Joseph’s brothers arrive in Egypt for the second time. Joseph finally makes himself known to them. he reassures them of his good intentions by saying that God had sent him to Egypt to save their lives, because there were still five years of famine left to run. He means that they are now in the second year of the seven year famine which his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream had foretold. Continue reading “Egypt’s Famine and the Importance of Uncertainty”

Why Was Joseph Flawed?

Joseph, Mordechai and­­­ Daniel have much in common. So much so that the two later accounts, the stories of Mordechai and Daniel, appear to be literary reworkings of aspects of the Joseph tale.

Each of the three ascends from the depths and humiliation of exile to become the ruler of a foreign land. Joseph is elevated to high office because he is the only person in Egypt who could interpret Pharaoh’s mysterious dreams. Daniel similarly; he may have been a mere youth but he did what none of the wise men in Babylon could do, he explained the meaning of the terrifying image that Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream.

Mordechai, like Joseph, was wreathed in royal finery and led in procession through the streets.  Daniel and Mordechai both refused to compromise their religious behaviour. Mordechai would not bow down to Haman; Daniel would not eat the king’s food or wine. Continue reading “Why Was Joseph Flawed?”

Hinting at Optimism- Joseph, Judah and Tamar

The tale of Judah and Tamar has long been recognised as a deliberately constructed antithesis to the Joseph story. The Torah inserts the narrative immediately after Joseph has been thrown into the pit and directly before his arrival in Egypt. According to the Midrash (Bereshit Rabba 85,2) the 3rd century rabbis Yohanan and Elazar each offered a reason for the story’s insertion at this point. Continue reading “Hinting at Optimism- Joseph, Judah and Tamar”

A Poetic Way to read the Psalms

My review of Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen’s poetic translation of the Book of Psalms appeared in the Jewish Chronicle on 12th November 2018

Continue reading “A Poetic Way to read the Psalms”

Who Was Jacob Wrestling With? Does It Really Matter?

Jacob’s fight with the angel is one of the best known and most frequently interpreted narratives of the Torah. Most modern commentators consider it to be an allegory, reading psychological interpretations into it. They see it as reflecting Jacob’s fears and apprehensions as he prepares to meet Esau, the brother he had not seen for over twenty years, whom he cheated and who had threatened to kill him. The struggle with the angel symbolises Jacob’s internal conflict.

Ancient and medieval commentators did not have an awareness of psychology or a knowledge of psychoanalytic theory. They took the text at face value, imposing upon it the beliefs and assumptions of their own times, ideas in which they had as much faith as we have in the science of our own age. Continue reading “Who Was Jacob Wrestling With? Does It Really Matter?”

Strategic Revelation

Unlike his grandfather Abraham, Jacob has very little direct contact with God. The first time he appears is when Jacob is fleeing his brother Esau, having stolen their father’s blessing. Esau has vowed to kill Jacob so their mother packs him off to the house of her brother Laban in Padan Aram. On his own for the first time in his life, rightly terrified of both his brother and the journey Jacob is also, according to a convincing analysis by the medieval commentator Ibn Ezra, penniless. Night falls, he lies down to sleep with nothing but a rock as a pillow and dreams his famous dream of the ladder ascending to heaven. Continue reading “Strategic Revelation”

What happened to Esau?

In the rabbinic imagination Esau is the ancestor of the wicked Roman Empire. They drew this concusion from a creative interpretation of the story of Jacob and Esau, and from the Book of Daniel.
Daniel had predicted that the Jews would be subjugated successively by four kingdoms. When the fourth kingdom was overthrown the messianic age would begin. Continue reading “What happened to Esau?”

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”