Korach’s Rebellion: A Case Study

Korach’s Rebellion: A Case Study

The story of Korach’s rebellion offers an interesting insight into the responsibilities that accompany leadership and privilege

The story is simple. Moses had appointed his brother Aaron as High Priest. He did so at God’s command but nobody, other than Moses knows this; to everyone else it looks like a classic case of nepotism. Moses’s cousin Korach leads a rebellion, reasoning that if there are privileges to be handed out in the family they should just as easily be given to him as to Aaron. Joining with various other malcontents he demands a share in the priesthood. Continue reading

To Look and To Remember: When Strings Act as an Aide-Memoir

To Look and To Remember: When Strings Act as an Aide-Memoir

What are we to make of the puzzling instruction that the Israelites – men and women- are to place fringes on the corners of their garments? The reason, given in Numbers 15, is that they will look at these fringes and remember all of God’s commandments. They seem to be an aide-memoir, in much the same way as people used to tie knots in their handkerchiefs for similar reasons. Are these  fringes- tzitizit in Hebrew- a sophisticated way of knotting a hanky?

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How The Talmud Downgraded the Pillar of Cloud

How The Talmud Downgraded the Pillar of Cloud

When the cloud rose from the tabernacle the Israelites would set out; and at the place where the cloud settled, there the Israelites would make camp.

It’s well known that, as the Israelites journeyed through the wilderness, they were guided by a pillar of fire by day and a pillar of fire by night. The pillar stopped when it was time to make camp, moving off when it was time to get going again. When they camped the cloud rested atop the sacred tabernacle. The only time it deviated from this pattern was right at the beginning, at the Red Sea, placing itself between the Israelites and the Egyptians to obscure Pharaoh’s view of his quarry. God looked through it at the Egyptian camp before bringing disaster upon them. (Exodus 14, 24).

That is all know about the pillar of cloud and that of fire. It’s a little surprising, given their miraculous nature. After all, nearly every other miracle wrought for the Israelites in the desert is described in detail. We know what the manna looked like and how it tasted, we know the how the quails arrived, how the Red Sea was divided, and the manner in which the water-gushing rock was split. But, other than the drama at the Red Sea, the pillars of fire and cloud are treated in such a matter of fact way that we almost take them for granted. They are not mentioned in the dayyenu hymn, which lists many of the other miracles that happened to the Israelites. Nor is there significant mention of them anywhere else in the Bible, there are just three passing references in the Book of Psalms.

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The Sin of the Nazirite- Why the Torah Frowns on Excessive Piety

The Sin of the Nazirite- Why the Torah Frowns on Excessive Piety

Every religion knows of people who aspire to lives of excessive piety. Some religions choose to venerate them, others shut them away in closed communities. The Torah takes a decidedly ambivalent view, providing pietists with the opportunity to consecrate themselves, but refraining from praising or even encouraging them.

The Torah calls such people Nazirites, from the Hebrew root meaning a crown. It implies that their decision is extraordinary, although most English translations miss the point. The English is usually rendered as something like ‘a man or woman who will specify, to vow a vow to God’ whereas the literal sense is ‘who will be extraordinary, to vow a vow…’.

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Excommunication- the biblical origins of a medieval punishment

Excommunication- the biblical origins of a medieval punishment

In the Middle Ages, excommunication, the cutting off of an offender from the religious community, was a severe and fearsome punishment. In the Catholic church an offender was cast out in a ceremony involving twelve priests and a bishop, each holding a lighted candle. A bell was rung and a decree of anathema pronounced, condemning the reprobate to the devil and eternal fire, at least until he repented. After the curse was pronounced, the candles were extinguished.  

A similar ritual was performed in the synagogue for the most severe cases of excommunication. A Torah scroll was taken, the participants in the ceremony held candles, a shofar was blown, curses pronounced and the candles extinguished. This ceremony was known as placing someone under the ḥerem; it was the ultimate sanction in an increasingly stringent series of bans placed on a recalcitrant who refused to repent his offence against the community.

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When Biblical Names Tell a Story

When Biblical Names Tell a Story

The Bible frequently talks about the Children of Israel (or ‘Israelites’ as the old English translators would have it). In only two places does it refer to an ‘Israeli’. The Book of Samuel (II Sam 17,25), speaks of a certain Yitra the Israeli, but elsewhere he is called an Ishmaelite (1 Chronicles 2,17), so we probably can’t read too much into that. The only reliable mention of ‘Israelis’ is in Leviticus 24, in the intriguing 3-verse passage where the son of an ‘Egyptian man’ and an ‘Israeli woman’ gets into a fight with an ‘Israeli man’.

The passage is unusual not just for its use of the word ‘Israeli’. It is one of only three instances in the Torah where laws were clarified in response to specific events. The others are the case of the man who gathered sticks on Shabbat, and the limited rights of women to inherit land. Continue reading

Atonement- A Made Up Word with an Impossible Meaning

When, in 1530, William Tyndale translated the Pentateuch, an offence against the Church for which he would pay with his life, he found there were certain Hebrew words that had no direct equivalent in English. Tyndale, who had already translated the Christian Bible into English from Greek had known no Hebrew before he started his project. He must have doubted his grasp of the language when he came across words that, as far as he could tell, had no meaning in English.

But Tyndale was both imaginative and brave, he could hardly have dared defy Henry VIII and the Bishops otherwise. If he came across a Hebrew word he couldn’t translate, he invented a new English word to explain it. Among the new words that appear for the first time in Tyndale’s Bible are network, thanksgiving, Passover, circumcised, birthright and whoremonger.

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Noah, a priest and an outcast walk into the Bible

Among the many inspirational passages in the Bible there are some, quite a few in fact, that seem to be exceedingly dull. Chapter 14 of Leviticus appears to be about as uninspiring as any. It deals with the purification ritual for someone diagnosed with the disease we erroneously translate as leprosy. The previous chapter described how the sufferer was declared unclean and quarantined outside the camp; chapter 14 describes the ceremony they undergo, once cured, to allow them home.

But dull as it might sound, the chapter has hidden depths. It contains several motifs which, occurring elsewhere in the Torah, draw our attention to similarities between different passages. If we could only understand them properly, these similarities might lead us to identify a complex web of connections linking all the symbolism in the Torah into a literary whole. Continue reading

A Spiritual Disease

The skin condition which is poorly translated as leprosy in English versions of the Bible is no ordinary disease. Sufferers from the disease are not only quarantined, as we might expect; they are also declared spiritually unclean- tamei in biblical Hebrew.

Spiritual uncleanness can occur in many ways, for example contact with a corpse or a bodily emission. But there are no other examples of spiritual uncleanness in the bible where physical isolation is also required. Continue reading

© 2019 Harry Freedman Books