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”

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”

The Secret Things

“The secret things are for the Lord your God, but the revealed things are for us and our children forever; to do all the words of this Torah”. An enigmatic sentence made all the more striking because of the two sets of dots over the Hebrew words for us and our children which are never adequately explained. On its own, the sentence seems to vaunt the inscrutable knowledge of the divine, far more profound than anything we humans aspire to. But, set in the context of the entire passage, the sentence becomes something of a conundrum. Continue reading “The Secret Things”

Ritualised Confession

Chapter 26 of Deuteronomy discusses two offerings that are to be brought to the Temple by farmers and landowners.  One was an annual event: each year villagers would stream into Jerusalem in a colourful and noisy procession, bearing the first fruits of their crop. Fruits which they had marked out on the plant as soon as they had appeared by tying a ribbon around them. Continue reading “Ritualised Confession”