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:

Rabbi Bana’ah used to mark out caves (in which the dead had been buried, i.e. he used to mark the outlines of the caves of the ground so that people would not step on them and suffer ritual contamination.) When he came to the cave of Abraham, he found Eliezer the servant of Abraham standing at the entrance. He said to him, ‘What is Abraham doing?’ He replied, ‘He is lying in the wings of Sarah (i.e. in her arms), and she is gazing at his head’. He said: ‘Go and tell him that Bana’ah is standing at the entrance’. Said he (Abraham) ‘Let him enter; it is well known that there is no yetzer (sexual desire) in this world (i.e. there is  nothing improper going on here)’. So he went in, surveyed the cave, and came out again. When he came to the cave of Adam, (who was buried there with Eve but in a different compartment) a Bat Kol (voice from heaven) said, ‘You have looked upon the likeness of my image, do not look at my image itself’. ‘But I have to mark out the cave’. ‘The inner cave is the same as that of the outer cave’….
R. Bana’ah said, ‘I did manage to see his [Adam’s] two heels, and they were like two orbs of the sun’.
Compared with Sarah, all other people are like a monkey to a human being, and compared with Eve Sarah was like a monkey to a human being, and compared with Adam Eve was like a monkey to a human being, and compared with the Shechinah Adam was like a monkey to a human being….

It is a bizarre passage, but generally, the more complex a Talmudic legend appears to be, the more it conceals. This passage appears to be taking aim at two early Christian beliefs.

The 2nd century, Roman Christian author Hippolytus[1], in his discussion of Hades, says that the righteous descend to a place known as Abraham’s Bosom. The origin of the name is obscure, but it is still in current usage. In the 1960s the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary had a hit with “Rock My Soul –in the Bosom of Abraham”. Hades was not yet Hell, it was where everyone went, and the Bosom of Abraham was the good place to be. But in the passage from Bava Batra, written two centuries after Hippolytus, Abraham is lying in Sarah’s lap. Is this a barb aimed at Hippolytus? How can the righteous dwell in Abraham’s bosom, when he himself is lying in Sarah’s?

Then, when Rabbi Bana’ah tried to see Adam’s grave, he was warned off by a heavenly voice. Adam, declared the voice, has the likeness of God. The Bible says so too; “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness” (Genesis 1,26).  The plural suggests that God is speaking to someone else, ‘our likeness’ means there is already someone with the image of God.

In early Christian thought, Jesus had the likeness of God. Colossians (1,15) states that Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God’. Romans (8,29) makes a similar statement. So, if God is talking to someone who already has his image, Christianity concludes it must be Jesus.

But Rabbi Bana’ah’s experience suggests otherwise. It is Adam, not Jesus, whom he may not see. And as the end of the passage informs us, even though Adam was made in the image of God,  compared to the Shechinah he was like a monkey to a human being. The line runs straight from the Shechinah to Adam. There is no place for Jesus in this scheme.

But that argument is not too persuasive. The fact that Rabbi Bana’ah is warned off looking at Adam, doesn’t preclude Jesus from also being in the divine image. So the Talmud goes one step further. Early Jewish mystical thought regarded Adam as a cosmic being, who filled the entire universe[2]. Rabbi Bana’ah caught a glimpse of his heels, and they were as big as two orbs of the sun. Clearly, the Adam who Ban’ah saw was huge, and therefore the cave in which he was buried must be massive. And we are told that its inner dimensions were the same as its outer. This was no ordinary cave. It was a supernatural space. Hades perhaps?

The cave that Rabbi Bana’ah has entered is the underworld. He doesn’t find Abraham’s bosom and the divine likeness that he may not see is of Adam, not Jesus. The Talmud is offering a polemic against aspects of early Christian belief. There is probably a lot more to the passage that we do not understand. But quite clearly it is much more than just a not-too-cute rabbinic fairy tale.

If you want to read more:
Structure and Form in the Babylonian Talmud, Louis Jacobs, Cambridge, 1991 Chapter 11
Anthropomorphism and its Eradication, Shamma Friedman, in Iconoclasm and Iconoclash, Struggle for Religious Identity, Leiden, 2007, Chapter 8
Afterlife- A History of Life After Death, Philip C. Almond, London, 2016

[1] Hippolytus Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed, Robertson, Donaldson, Coe, vol 5, p,222 in https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf05/Page_222.html

[2] Hagigah 12a, Bereshit Rabbah 12,6

© 2020 Harry Freedman Books