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”

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”

A Talmudic Polemic at the Cave of Machpelah

The Talmud occasionally introduces polemics against what it considers to be misinterpretations of Jewish ideas. Frequently these polemics seem obscure to us. Either because we are not familiar with the issue the Talmud is arguing against or, particularly in the case of anti-Christian polemics, because the text was doctored by medieval censors.

One such polemic relates to this week’s Torah reading, which describes Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah as a burial place for Sarah. It occurs in Bava Batra 58a: Continue reading “A Talmudic Polemic at the Cave of Machpelah”