Archives: Midrash

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

Aaron’s Sons- Evidence of an Ancient Folk Tradition?

One of the most difficult incidents to understand in the whole Bible is the death of Aaron’s two eldest sons, at the ceremony of dedication for the Tabernacle. It was supposed to be a joyous occasion. The portable sanctuary that the Israelites had constructed in the wilderness was finally finished and Aaron was being consecrated as its priest when suddenly fire came out of heaven and consumed Nadav and Avihu (Leviticus 10,2). Their offence was that they had offered ‘strange fire’ in their censers. This is usually understood to mean that they had used their own recipe to make the incense they were burning, instead of sticking to the divinely sanctioned formula.

Immediately after the event, Moses turned to Aaron, telling him that God had already warned that he would be sanctified through those who draw close to him, and that would be honoured before all the people. It is not at all clear what Moses meant and the later Jewish commentators struggle to understand it. The consensus, which is difficult for us to accept, is that somehow Nadav and Avihu were greatly privileged by being chosen to die;  the dedication of the tabernacle was such a tremendous event that it could only be fully sanctified by the death of the most righteous of all people. Moses thought that he and Aaron would be the ones to die, but it turned out that Nadav and Avihu were more deserving.

Needless to say, this explanation is not satisfying to modern sensibilities. The idea that God is appeased or even pleased by the death of people puts us in mind of horrors like child sacrifice, that the Bible itself rails against. Continue reading

Why Biblical Words Matter

The final section of Exodus begins with a tally of the materials used in the construction of the Tabernacle, an enterprise which has been described in detail during the previous fourteen chapters, over one third of the book. The chapter is introduced with the words ‘these are the accounts of the Tabernacle…’

The English word ‘account’ has a dual meaning, it can refer either to a tale or to a statement about finance. The Hebrew word that is translated here as ‘account’ has many more meanings. Coming from the verbal root pkd it is one of those multi-purpose words that can be used in different ways that often seem to be unrelated, or very loosely so at best. Continue reading

Sparkling Fringes- How Language Helps Us Make Connections We Might Otherwise Miss

The High Priest in the Israelite Tabernacle, and later in the Jerusalem Temple, was told to wear an object, identified as a tzitz, on his forehead. The instruction to make this object is found in the book of Exodus (28, 36-38), but no details are given as to its size, shape or weight. All we are told is that it is to be made of pure gold, placed upon the priest’s linen headdress and suspended from a woollen thread dyed with t’chelet, a blue pigment extracted from a particular species of marine snail. The tzitz is to have the words Holy to the Lord engraved upon it.

As we would expect, rabbinic tradition amplifies this very vague instruction. According to the Talmud (Shabbat 63b) the tzitz was a plate, two fingerbreadths in breadth, that extended the full width of the forehead, from one ear to the other. To the Lord was written on one line, the word Holy was written beneath. R. Eliezer ben Yosé disagreed; he claimed to have seen the tzitz in Rome, taken there with the other treasures after the Romans had destroyed the Temple. The words Holy to the Lord were, he said, written on one line. Continue reading

God Doesn’t Need a Granny Flat

After he has given them the Torah, God instructs the Israelites to build him a sanctuary, out of materials that they will voluntarily donate.

The idea that the nation needs a sanctuary in which to worship is reasonable. What is harder to understand is the biblical idea that God needs a house to dwell in (Exodus 25,8). Equally difficult is  the rabbinic interpretation that implies God needs the sanctuary as much, or even more, than the Israelites. Continue reading

Akiva’s Educational Manifesto

When the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE the Jewish religion could easily have vanished with it. The Temple was Judaism’s cultic centre, without it the faith’s survival seemed impossible. Had it not been for a small group of people, who we now call the Rabbis. They took it upon themselves to reshape Judaism for a new future, one in which individuals rather than priests were responsible for their own spiritual needs, in which the home and synagogue rather than the Temple became the centre of religious life.

The first generation of rabbis began the process of establishing the religion’s framework. They drew on the traditions they knew, and they expounded the text of the written Torah. Subsequent generations clarified, expanded and supplemented their work. But they were a small, isolated group of scholars. For their work to have any meaning at all they would have to inspire and enthuse the masses. They needed to get their message out. Continue reading

Jethro’s profound, mundane message

Chapter 18 of the book of Exodus feels a little like an anti-climax. The previous chapters have been high drama: the ten plagues, departure from Egypt, splitting of the Red Sea, the miraculous descent of the manna; all powerful, stirring stuff. Then we get to chapter 18, Jethro arriving at the Israelite camp, seeing Moses trying to resolve the disputes that people are bringing to him, a growing crowd of litigants lining up, all awaiting their turn.

Jethro, quite wisely, informs him that the way he is going about this is unsustainable. ‘It is too much for you. You can’t do it alone.’ Jethro tells Moses he has to delegate, appoint judges, divide the tasks up. Continue reading

Splitting the Red Sea- A Pre-Ordained Miracle

When the Israelites left Egypt, God did not lead them to the Promised Land by the shortest route, in case they became regretful ‘when they see war and return to Egypt’. The Bible does not explain what war they would have seen. A Midrashic tradition speculates that would have seen the corpses of the Ephraimites, of whom a legend states they left Egypt before their due time, travelled by the shortest route and were attacked and slaughtered by the Philistines.

A more straightforward explanation is that the Israelites themselves might have been attacked as they travelled through the inhabited coastal lands, causing them to lose heart and return to Egypt. Continue reading

Moses’s Staff: Pageantry or Miracle?

Moses’s staff is the stuff of legend. It was one of ten miraculous objects created at twilight at the beginning of the first Sabbath. Made of sapphire, given to Adam and handed down throughout the generations, the staff will one day be wielded by the Messiah itself. That in a nutshell is the rabbinic tradition. None of it is in the Torah.

Instead, the biblical account tells us of two staffs, one belonging to Aaron, one to Moses. It tells us nothing about either of them. We picture them as ordinary pieces of wood; walking sticks or shepherds’ crooks. Continue reading

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