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.

In our passage, as the two men fight, the son of the Egyptian man blasphemed God’s name, and cursed. These were two different offences, denoted by two different verbs; the distinction between the two acts is hinted by the use of language. The verb translated as ‘blaspheme’ can also mean ‘to pierce’ or ‘specify’; the implication being that he both singled God’s name out for his blasphemy as well as cursing in a more general sense.

This distinction is supported by the sequel to the passage, in which different punishments are mandated for each of two offences, one for ‘cursing his God’, the other for singling out and blaspheming the divine name.

The lack of detail about the man’s offence is not surprising, the Bible frequently alludes rather than tells. What is surprising though is that we are told his mother’s name; she is named and shamed even though we have never heard of her before, and we will never hear of her again. It is not a level of detail we expect to find in the Torah and her name itself is far more revealing than any other biblical name. She is Shlomit, Bat Divri of the tribe of Dan.

It is the fact of her name that gives the passage its third distinguishing feature. This is perhaps the only place in the Torah in which the aggada, the imaginative rabbinic interpretation of non-legal passages, accurately uncovers the plain meaning of the verse. Aggada, exposition of the biblical narrative, is about ideas; it encourages us to look more deeply into the text, to think creatively, to explore and learn. It has no interest in literal translation. But on the narrative level, telling us the blasphemer’s mother’s name seems to be pointless. It tells us nothing about her, we’d have been no wiser if we have been told that her name was Minnie Mouse.

It is the aggada which tells us what it thinks her name means, and why it is important. Shlomit is someone who chats and greets everyone, saying shalom shalom, hello hello. Bat Divri means a daughter of words. She’s a gossip, someone who through too much chatter indulges in lashon hara, slander, that most heinous of sins according to the rabbinic mind.

A modern Bible critic- one who isn’t wedded to the documentary hypothesis- might say that the short passage, just 3 verses in all, was an early commentary or midrash that somehow got dropped into the main text. It would explain why the word Israeli is used here, and nowhere else in the Bible, why Moses felt obliged to ask what was to be done when he already knew that blasphemy was prohibited in the ten commandments, and why the blasphemer’s mother had the sort of name only usually found in the midrash.

A traditionalist would argue with all these points. They would say that that the whole passage is a cautionary tale. Because she didn’t pay attention to her speech, she raised a son who became a blasphemer.

Of course, it didn’t help that his father was an Egyptian. But there’s another aggada to explain that.

© 2019 Harry Freedman Books