Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Melchizedek: Priest of what exactly?

Parshat Lech Lecha

In this parshah we hear about the war between the 4 kings and the 5 kings.  Originally, I was going to talk about the nations represented and the historicity problems of them, but that would turn out to be too similar to last week.  So instead, I'll focus on the following bizarre passage that occurs after the war concludes (Gen 14:17-24):
17 And the king of Sodom went out to meet him, after his return from the slaughter of Chedorlaomer and the kings that were with him, at the vale of Shaveh--the same is the King's Vale. 18 And Melchizedek king of Salem (shalem) brought forth bread and wine; and he was priest of God the Most High. (el elyon) 19 And he blessed him, and said: 'Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth; (el elyon, koneh shamayim va'aretz) 20 and blessed be God the Most High, (el elyon) who hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand.' And he (who?) gave him (whom?) a tenth of all (of what?). 21 And the king of Sodom said unto Abram: 'Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself.' 22 And Abram said to the king of Sodom: 'I have lifted up my hand unto the LORD, God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth,  (yhwh, el elyon, koneh shamayin va'aretz) 23 that I will not take a thread nor a shoe-latchet nor aught that is thine, lest thou shouldest say: I have made Abram rich; 24 save only that which the young men have eaten, and the portion of the men which went with me, Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre, let them take their portion.'
This small section has some very interesting facets, which we will explore today.

An insertion into the text?
One speculation which deserves mention is that verse 18 is an insertion into the story. Currently the story reads that the King of Sodom met Avram, and immediately after, Melchizedek, a name that finds its first mention here, arrives with food and wine, blesses him and, one of the people gives a tenth of something to the other. Then just as quickly, Melchizedek seems to disappear and we pick back up with a conversation between the king of Sodom and Avram. In fact, the disappearance is so complete, that there's only one other possible mention of Melchizedek (Psalms 110:4) in all of Tanach.

If you remove verse 18, everything looks fine, except now it would be the King of Sodom who blesses Avram. It's possible that one of the authors was not comfortable with a somewhat righteous King of Sodom, and therefore altered it so that Melchizedek is the one who's invoking divine blessing. Another option is that the entire blessing section of verses 18-20 are all inserted into the text. However, this isn't really what I most want to focus on, it's just an interesting idea that's worth thinking about when approaching passages like this, and provides an alternative to the various traditional explanations to the purpose of the elusive Melchizedek.

El Elyon Koneh Shamayim Va-Aretz
I have a bit of quibble with the translation above, and this presents one of the problems with reading only translations into English or another language. The Hebrew phrase, I want to focus on is what Melchizedek says, and Avram later echoes. It is:
Baruch avram l'el elyon, koneh shamayim va-aretz. (Blessed is Avram to El Elyon koneh heavens and earth)
later Avram says:
Harimoti yadi l'YHWH el elyon, koneh shamayim va-aretz. (I raise my hand to God, El Elyon, koneh heavens and earth.)
The word koneh translated often as "maker" or "creator" is not the usual word for this type of divine action in the Tanach. You might expect something like boreh (create) or oseh (make). Koneh usually means something like purchase or obtain, or in contexts like this, establish.  Regardless, it's somewhat nonstandard, and it makes it seem like we're dealing with a title.

The many names of God
It is no secret that the Torah has many different names and titles for God. Traditionally, Jewish commentaries have attempted to assign specific attributes to various divine names.  For example, I remember being taught in grade school that the name YHWH represented mercy, and Elohim represented justice.   However, modern scholars have looked at it differently, and think that different names of God represent actual different deities, or different cultures names for the same deity.  And later, all these aspects became merged into one deity.  The modern scholars view arose from discoveries in Ugarit and elsewhere of ancient Canaanite theology, in which the head deity was named El.  El wasn't just a word for a god, as it's used in the Tanach, it was a word for the god.  So, when confronted with a strange name for God, as we are here, it's worth taking a look through some other cultures and seeing if we see any similar names.

For this specific name, we need to look at Hittite mythology.  The Hittites were a large empire based in modern day Turkey that vied with Egypt for control over Syria during the Late Bronze Age (roughly 1600-1300 BCE).  They never quite made it as far south as Canaan proper, and eventually were destroyed by the Sea Peoples (13th century BCE) [1]. Some Hittite fragments have survived throughout the ages and from them we can construct their pantheon. Among the gods is the creator god, Elkunirsa, which in Hebrew might have been understood as El Koneh Eretz, very similar to the name of God used by Melchizedek and Avram in this passage.  This provides a neat little explanation for the title given, specifically, for the choice of the word koneh

It should be understood that a lot of the views we have of clean demarcations of gods was probably not shared by people around this time.  Many of the gods in different culture, where the same god, with different names.  Elkunirsa could very well have been the Hittite equivalent to the Ugaritic El.  In biblical Judaism, El and YHWH refer to the same god, so probably, Elkunirsa does also.  At this point, it's possible to go off on all sorts of wild speculations of why this name was chosen for this story, but I do not wish to do that. Instead, I will just simply conclude here with the point that the deity's name, Elkunirsa, survived, with some modifications, and found its way into the Torah.

Bonus Speculation
Since this was short for this week, I'll add some bonus speculation. In this week's parsha, Avram's name is changed to Avraham. As usual for biblical names, an explanation is given, he will be the father of many nations, Av hamon goyim, with Av Hamon sounding similar to Avraham. As far as biblical name explanations go, this one is a fairly big stretch, and it's worthwhile to look externally for another source for the name Avraham. Liverani gives a tantalizing explanation [2].

In a stele dating to the 15th century BCE, the Pharaoh Seti 1 records a victory over 'banu raham,' the sons of Raham. The stele was found in Beth Shean, which was then an Egyptian city just south of the Galilee. The speculation here is that the patriarch of this specific clan was the father of Raham, or Avraham. Later this patriarch was absorbed into Israelite culture, even as the original name of the tribe faded from memory. Is this explanation better than the biblical one?  Hard to say.  I'll leave that judgment to the reader.

1. Much much more on the Sea Peoples and their relationship to the biblical Philistines later.^

2. Liverani, "Israel's History and the History of Israel" Equinox pub, 2005, p. 263^

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Table of Nations

Parshat Noach

If you were to take some survey of what Rabbis tend to talk about during Parshat Noach, you'd probably get a breakdown where some 90% of the topics were based on the flood. Some 9% or so, the Rabbis who want to choose something different this year, will talk about Migdal Bavel (The Tower of Babel). If you have a super non-conformist Rabbi, you might here the story about Noach (Noah) getting drunk. However, I've never heard anyone talk about what Academicians call "The Table of Nations," which comprises most of chapter 10, and describes the various descendents of the sons of Noach. This is precisely what I will talk about today.

Specifically, I will point out two major things that we can learn from this chapter. The first is a chronological issue. From the names of the nations presented, we can get some information about the earliest date that this could have been written. We'll see that based on the nations mentioned, it could not have been written before the 7th century BCE. The second is a contradiction issue. From descendents that appear through different tree lines, we see contradictory storylines emerging from where these nations arose from.

I've personally made a map of best guesses for the locations of various nations using my impressive image editing skills (sarcasm). Most of the information for the sons of Yephet and Shem come from Russell Gmirkin [1]. In progressing to a conclusion I don't agree in, he describes the best guesses for these nations. The descendents of Ham come from various other sources, most notably Donald Redford [2]

Before we start, I'll take a moment to describe what we are looking at.  The "Table of Nations" is a description of the various nations of the region, giving their origin.  It follows a traditional Ancient Near East motif, where a nation is named after a founding patriarch, something that almost never occurs historically.  In some places, like with the descendent of Mitzrayim (Egypt), the nation is given as a plural instead.  Also, the table is interrupted in the middle to give a brief story of Nimrod, and describe various cities in the Mesopotamian region.  

One of the most puzzling nations in the list for Academicians is Lud, which elsewhere in the Tanach[3] is clearly meant to mean the nation of Lydia. It's puzzling, because based on the map, Lydia should be counted among the children of Yephet. This is true both geographically and from what we know about their culture.

Gmirkin writes about Lydia:
"The Lydians were known as Maionians in earliest times when they were ruled by a local dynasty known as the Tylonids. The kingdom of Lydia was established by Gyges, who overthrew the Tylonids and founded the Mermnad dynasty ca. 680 BCE... The name Lydia is first encountered in Assyrian inscriptions shortly after 700 BCE referring to Gyges of Lydia ("Guggu of Luddu"). These facts indicate that the Table of Nations was written no earlier than 700 BCE." [4]

Gmirkin then reads a lot into the placement of Lydia on the map to indicate a very late date of composition (after 300 BCE). Specifically, their inclusion among Shem must indicate close political ties with these nations. Based on that Lydia doesn't appear until the late 8th century BCE, and that prior to that time we have another nation with another name living there, the most basic conclusion that it cannot realistically have been written earlier than 700 BCE.

To make matters even more complicated, Ludim is also listed as a descendent of Ham. It's not clear who Ludim is supposed to represent, if Lud is Lydia, but it's possible that there was some confusion about the origin of Lydia, which is indicated by them appearing in both lists.

This is not the only place where we can glean some Chronological information.  We now turning our attention to the sons of Ham, (Gen 10:6)
And the sons of Ham: Cush, and Mizraim, and Put, and Canaan.
 Cush is Ethiopia, Mizraim is Egypt, and Put is Libya.  Quoting Redford [5]:
"The order here is not geographical but political.  The prcedence of Kush over Egypt is a clear reflection of the political preeminence of the kingdom of Kush (Napata) enjoyed from its conquest of Egypt about 711 B.C. down to its defeat by Psammetichos II (c. 593 B.C.)."
Redford is applying a very common biblical theme. Older children are more prominent than younger ones. When children represent tribes or nations and are listed in order of birth, the eldest is the largest. In situations where there are changes, one tribe or nation grows at the other's expense, the Torah gives a story as to why that occurs. This occurs with Yaakov (Jacob) and Esav (Esau), Ephraim and Manashe and in other places as well. Applying this motif to these passages, we see that for Cush to be listed before Mizrayim it must have been dominant over Mizrayim at this point in time. Otherwise Mizrayim would be listed first. The order is important. Therefore, this could not have been written before 711 BCE, because before then, there would be no reason to ever place Cush before Mizrayim.  Looking now at Mizrayim itself.  The descendents of Mizrayim are actually very difficult to identify securely.  Redford makes some educated guesses and then notes the following about the children of Egypt [6]:
"When we plot on a map the geographical extent of Egypt's "family," we find it reaching into Libya and along the north African coast, to the Aegean [7] and Asia Minor [8]; absent is Kush and the coast of Palestine and Syria.  This is precisely the limits of Egypt's sphere of influence and interest during much of the Saite Period."
The Saite period, also called the 26th dynasty, extended from 685 to 525 BCE.  While this is a more speculative claim than the other ones, the fact that we have another date range beginning near 700 BCE converges well with our previous estimate based on Lydia's history, and the preeminence of Cush.

For one last estimate, we go to the nation of Cush, universally thought to refer to modern day Ethiopia.  Astour writes about Cush [9]
"For the compiler of the Table of Nations, Cush certainly represented Ethiopia, for he made him a brother of Egypt. But when he tried to enumerate the descendents of Cush, he knew so little about the African Ethiopians, that he was compelled to utilize his much better information on the other land of Cush, and to cite names of Arabic tribes."
"There was however a period when the Ethiopians suddenly emerged as a major power in the East Mediterranean. This occured when they conquered Egypt under Picanhi and clashed with Assyria under his succcessors. Sabaka (712-700) actively supported the anti-Assyrian coalition of Palestinian states headed by Hezekiah, king of Judah...Sabak died and was succeeded by his brother Sabataka, who ruled from 689 or 688... Sabataka certainly, and Sabaka quite probably [are found] in the Table of Nations. Their place is not altogether wrong, for they are listed among the descendants of Cush and are the only genuine Ethipian names there, though personal and not ethnic."
Astour goes on to indicate that the spelling of Sabtecha, with a samech indicates an Assyrian source.  Ethiopia is not too geographically distant from the Arabian peninsula. An author with a limited geographical knowledge might think that the Red Sea did not extend so far south, and the lands were joined in that region. Anyway, the point to make here is a chronological one. The name Sabtecha has no other reasonable association besides with the Ethiopian Pharaoh of that name. This gives us roughly the same earliest date of composition that we can get from Lydia, and the arrangement of Ham's children.

The same procedure can be undertaken for other nations, and what we see is that this map indicates geo-ethnic realities between about 700 BCE and 200 BCE. It cannot describe a world earlier than that.


There are some contradictions both within the Table of Nations itself and with other places in Bereishit, which we will now examine. Shva (Sheba) is Yemen, from whence the queen who visited Shlomo (Solomon).  It is listed twice, once among the descendents of Cush and once again in the descendents of Yoktan. Yoktan is the ancestor of the Arabian tribes, as many of the names listed there are attested as Arabian tribes in other sources. Similarly, Havilah, which is not known with any reasonable degree of certainty, is listed twice. Astour attributes this to confusion from the author, or from compilation of this section from two separate lists [10], one which attributes this area to Cush and one to Arabia.

Also among the descendents of Cush, is Ra'amah. Ra'amah gives birth to two children, one of which is Shva mentioned earlier. The other is a fairly well known Arabic tribe, Dedan. Genesis 25 mentions the children of Avraham (Abraham) through his third wife Keturah. One of his children is Yokshan, eerily similar to the Yoktan in the Table of Nations. Even more troubling however are the children of Yokshan, Shva and Dedan! Also attributed to Abraham is Midyan which is biblically equivalent to Madai, listed as a son of Yephet.  So we see a strong contradiction in the Torah for where these nations originate.
This isn't the only problem. One of Shem's kids is Aram, a well known kingdom to the northeast of Israel, also known as Aram-Dameshek. Of Aram's kids are Utz and Mash. Utz, is attested elsewhere biblically, and is thought to be equivalent to Edom, a much smaller kingdom, and a reasonable descendent of Aram. Mash is more difficult, but it might be equivalent to Moab due to its similarity to a common king name Mesha, and the patron god of Moab, C'mosh. This is somewhat speculative though.

The problem is that in Bereishit 22, the children of Nachor, the brother of Avraham are listed. Among them is Utz, mentioned earlier. Even more problematic, is that another kid of Nachor is Kemuel, who is referred to as the father of Aram! In Bereishit 10, Aram is the father of Utz, and in Bereishit 22, he is his nephew.

All these problems lead to one inescapable conclusion. These nation lists were compiled from different sources, or by different people who wished to indicate ethnic similarities and possibly political alliances at the time they were living. They may have been originally formulated at different times, or they might just reflect competing traditions present at the time of composition. The only way to retain a divine and flawless text, is to say that none of these names actually indicate the tribes we know about, and that even though the names are identical in different places in the Torah, they must be different people with the same, unique, name. Personally, I don't find this compelling at all. It is just ignoring completely what the Torah is telling you, and forcing your own preconceptions onto it.

When I was younger, I was always fascinated by these passages. To me this was a description of the entire world, all the nations were represented by these weird sounding names that I've never heard of before. They'd have to be, because this was God's writing. It was only much later that I realized just how small the "world" of the Israelites was. They seem to know some nations north of the Black Sea, and some as far south as Ethiopia, but they know nothing in Europe, nothing east of Assyria (no Persia, no India, certainly no China). Forget about the Americas. If there was a divine author, something like this Table of Nations would have been a great way to demonstrate knowledge beyond what a human author could have known. This is an idea that we will revisit in the future. For now, we are left with two conclusions. The first is that many verses in this Chapter could not have been written before the 7th Century BCE. Lydia did not exist before then, neither did the name, Sabtecha. Furthermore, Ethiopia listed before Egypt was only a reality at one time in history.
Edit: Some minor typos were fixed.

1. Gmirkin, Russell "Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus" T&T Clark, 2006 ^

2. Redford, Donald, "Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times" Princeton Univ. Press 1992.^

3. See Isa. 66:19, Eze. 30:5, 27:10, Jer. 46:9^

4. Gmirkin p. 143^

5. Redford, p. 404^

6. Redford, p. 407^

7. Redford identifies the biblical Caphtor with Keftiu a region of the Aegean, likely Crete. p. 406^

8. Redford places Lydia among the Egyptians. As to it's placement among the sons of Shem, he says, " what rationalization it was brought into the family of Shem remains a mystery" (p. 405).^

9. Astour, "Sabtah and Sabtecah, Ethiopian Pharaoh names in Genesis 10", Journal of Biblical Literature 84 4, 1965^

10. Friedman, for example, identifies two different authors for this section. (see appropriate verses in R.E. Friedman, "The Bible with Sources Revealed")^

Monday, October 13, 2014

The "Third" Story of Creation

Parshat Bereishit

The opening of the Torah begins with the creation of the world, and then follows with the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. Academic scholars have long thought that both of these stories come from different sources, and pointed to things like the usage of different names for God, and various apparent contradictions as evidence. Rabbis and Christian theologians saw the first chapter as a broad view of creation, and the Garden of Eden story as a detailed view. They also had various exegetical means for resolving the contradictions. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, I will not focus on these arguments.  Instead I will talk about a "third" creation story that appears elsewhere in Tanach, and in other cultures in the Ancient near east. At the end, I will argue that the creation account in Genesis 1 is partly meant to refute this "third" creation myth, or at very least, to repurpose it into an idea which was more appropriate for monotheistic Judaism.

Enuma Elish and the Baal Cycle

Before we dig into the content in the Tanach itself, it's necessary to spend a few minutes discussing two creation myths that we have recovered from the ancient city of Ugarit (The Baal Cycle) and from various cities in Babylon and Assyria (Enuma Elish). Enuma Elish was probably written at some time before the 12th century BCE. It describes the creation of the world as the result of the chief god Marduk over the chaos-serpant Tiamat. After the battle, the foundational creation of the world is described as following.
While he divided the flesh of the ... , and devised a cunning plan.
He split her up like a flat fish into two halves;
One half of her he stablished as a covering for heaven.
He fixed a bolt, he stationed a watchman,
And bade them not to let her waters come forth.
He passed through the heavens, he surveyed the regions thereof,
And over against the Deep he set the dwelling of Nudimmud[1].

The Baal cycle has a somewhat similar story, but the names have changed. It was found in the city of Ugarit and dated roughly to the 16th century BCE. I was unable to find an online translation, unfortunately, so a brief summary will half to suffice. In the story, Baal defeats the chaos god of the sea, Yam, after which he is raised to the top of the pantheon.  In the process, Baal also defeats the servant of Yam, Lotan, a wriggling serpent with seven heads. The story continues with Baal battling against the god of death Mot, being defeated by Mot, and then appearing suddenly again after Mot is dispatched by his allies. The Baal Cycle predates Enuma Elish in all likelihood, and it's not known how well the Israelites knew it by the time the Jewish Monarchy was in full swing.

Leviathan and Rahav

In the Yom Kippur post, I mentioned the book of Iyov (Job), and how it describes God's answer to Iyov.  I mentioned that God justifies his behavior by claiming that Iyov, a mere human, has no way of understanding God's power.  But I didn't go into details. The specific manner in which God describes his power is important here. God describes himself pitched in battle with a giant beast Behemoth, and the great sea serpant, Leviathan. Leviathan is cognate with Ugaritic Lotan from the Baal cycle. A few verses will suffice (Job 40:25, 31-32) [2].

Canst thou draw out leviathan with a fish-hook? or press down his tongue with a cord? Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish-spears?
Lay thy hand upon him; think upon the battle, thou wilt do so no more.

If you didn't read Job 38-41 after the Yom Kippur post, I entreat you to read them in full now. If you are too lazy, I'll give you the tl;dr. God tells Iyov that only he is strong enough to conquer Leviathan, and this is the heart of the "might makes right" aspect of the argument.   

Iyov isn't the only place where these ideas of pitched battle between God and other beings come into discussion. The other place where they appear is in Psalms. Psalm 74:13-14 are interesting.
13 Thou didst break Sea[3] in pieces by Thy strength; Thou didst shatter the heads of the sea-monsters in the waters.
14 Thou didst crush the heads of leviathan, Thou gavest him to be food to the folk inhabiting the wilderness.
We see here some ideas of battle not only between God and Leviathan, but also between God and Yam.[4] It should be noted that the descriptions in the Tanach are very different from the ones in Enuma Elish and the Baal Cycle. Baal and Marduk are depicted as equal adversaries to Yam and Tiamat. Not so in the Tanach where God is depicted as being a cut above everything else. There are no setbacks here, like Baal suffered at the hands of Mot. Indeed, in another appearance in Psalms 104:26, Leviathan is beneath consideration as a rival.
There go the ships; there is Leviathan, whom Thou hast formed to sport therein.
Psalm 104 can be read as a creation myth very similar to that of Genesis 1. It's worth reading it with Genesis in mind for comparison's sake.

Genesis 1 - Refutation of the Chaos Combat Myth

The argument I will make is that the author of Genesis 1 (and Psalm 104) was familiar with these creation myths from pitched combat between two or more deities, and wished to refute them explicitly. In Genesis 1:2 we see Tiamat appear in the cognate word Tehom. But Tiamat is not a fearsome chaos-god sea serpent. Tehom is understood to be inert, it is just the chaotic deep waters.

The idea of making a fixed boundary to hold back the waters of heaven, appears in both Genesis 1 and Enuma Elish, but in Genesis, God fashions the rakiah (firmament) himself. There is no carcass of the chaos god to deal with. Leviathan, does show up briefly in Day Five. But here, as in Psalm 104, it is just another aspect of creation. God makes the great sea serpents, taninim gedolim.

In Genesis 1, God is depicted as the sole actor. There is no rival on his plane. The old rivals of the creation myths of Enuma Elish and the Baal cycle, Tiamat and Leviathan (and perhaps even Yam) appear, but they are not deities equivalent in power. They are either inert or just another aspect of creation. The author of Genesis 1 makes this completely clear. 

Furthermore in comparing Genesis 1 to Psalm 104, we see that the words used to describe creation seem to relate to different myths altogether.  In Genesis 1, tehom = Tiamat shows up as a reference to a Babylonian god, but none of the Canaanite Gods appear, even in normal words.  Not only is the Leviathan = lotan not mentioned, but the text goes seemingly out of its way to avoid using names of the Babylonian gods shemesh (sun) and yerach (moon), instead using the words meor hagadol (big light) and meor hakaton (small light).  Similarly, it's always yamim and never Yam.  Not so in Psalm 104, where shemesh, yerach, yam and levyatan all show up.  We've seen the last two, the first two appear in verse 19
Who appointedst the moon (yareach) for seasons; the sun (shemesh) knoweth his going down
I've argued in several places that the traditional order in which the Tanach was written, the five books of the Torah first and everything else after, should not be assumed correct a priori.  Here we see a good reason for stating that Psalm 104 was written before Genesis 1.   Psalm 104 is directly refuting Canaanite creation myths which were alive and well at Ugarit, and represent an earlier cultural threat.  Genesis 1 is refuting Babylonian myths, which Israelites would not have encountered until much later, and would not have needed an explicit refutation until the exile.  Next week we'll see some more evidence that sections of Genesis were not written until much later than the traditional timeline suggests.

1. Enuma Elish, 4th tablet, tablets of creation.^

2. The verse numbering here follows the Hebrew tradition. Christian bibles have these verses at the start of Chapter 41^

3. The English translation in the JPS translation is incorrect. The Hebrew leaves out the definite article for "the." The proper reading is: Thou didst break Sea (Yam)into pieces by Thy strength, not "the sea." This makes a big difference if you consider Yam as a proper noun for an anthropomorphism of the sea. ^

4. cf. Mark Smith, Origins of Biblical Monotheism p 36-40.^

Monday, October 6, 2014

The History of Sukkot


This week we will talk about one of the biggest holidays to biblical authors. Only Pesach (Passover) gets more attention than Sukkot in the Tanach. Unlike Pesach where the origins of the practices are detailed explicitly, the origin for the practices of Sukkot, as we'll see, are more mysterious.

Sukkot in the Torah

In the Torah, Sukkot is discussed in all the same places that we talked about a couple weeks ago when we discussed RoshHashannah. Using the same tentative chronological ordering that we introduced then, we start with the earliest mention, which is a very brief mention in Exod. 34:22

 "and the feast of ingathering at the turn of the year."

A similarly brief mention occurs in Exod. 23:16

"and the feast of ingathering, at the end of the year, when thou gatherest in thy labours out of the field."

In these two places, the holiday is called Hag Ha-asif, and is identified, along with Pesach, called, Hag Hamatzot, and Shavuot (Hag Ha-Katzir in Exod. 23). The other times Sukkot is mentioned are much more extensive. Starting in Devarim (Deuteronomy) we have 16:13-16

"13 Thou shalt keep the feast of tabernacles (Sukkot) seven days, after that thou hast gathered (Aspechah) in from thy threshing-floor and from thy winepress. 14 And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within thy gates. 15 Seven days shalt thou keep a feast unto the LORD thy God in the place which the LORD shall choose; because the LORD thy God shall bless thee in all thine increase, and in all the work of thy hands, and thou shalt be altogether joyful. 16 Three times in a year shall all thy males appear before the LORD thy God in the place which He shall choose; on the feast of unleavened bread, and on the feast of weeks, and on the feast of tabernacles; and they shall not appear before the LORD empty "

Here the holiday is given with its modern name as Hag Ha-sukkot. The holiday is also described in agricultural terms, but also includes the idea of a pilgrimage. However, there is no mention of the eighth day (Shmini Azeret) being a holiday. Nor is there any mention of the concept of dwelling in Sukkot, or any of the concepts of Lulav and Esrog, the two defining features of the holiday today. Also, there is no explicit date given for the observance, besides the loose agricultural time.

There are two other places where the holidays are discussed. Once in Vayikra (Leviticus) and once in Bamidbar (Numbers).  The one in Bamidbar comes in a description of all the sacrifices that exist, both daily and on holidays. It comprises all of chapters 28 and 29, with Sukkot starting on 29:12. The only things we'll note here is that the date is explicit, Sukkot (not named explicitly, but referred to as a Hag) starts on the 15th day of the 7th month. Here we also see the 8th day being referred to as an Atzeret.

The mention in Vayikra is more interesting. Chapter 23 says:

"33 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 34 Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: On the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the feast of tabernacles for seven days unto the LORD. 35 On the first day shall be a holy convocation; ye shall do no manner of servile work. 36 Seven days ye shall bring an offering made by fire unto the LORD; on the eighth day shall be a holy convocation unto you; and ye shall bring an offering made by fire unto the LORD; it is a day of solemn assembly (Atzeret); ye shall do no manner of servile work. 37 These are the appointed seasons of the LORD, which ye shall proclaim to be holy convocations, to bring an offering made by fire unto the LORD, a burnt-offering, and a meal-offering, a sacrifice, and drink-offerings, each on its own day; 38 beside the sabbaths of the LORD, and beside your gifts, and beside all your vows, and beside all your freewill-offerings, which ye give unto the LORD."

This comes at the end of a list of all the holidays (like in Devarim and Bamidbar) and concludes with the standard way the Torah uses to indicate that a section is complete. Verse 37 starts with the word Eileh, which always is used as marker that a section is beginning or ending. However, right afterwards, the Torah pulls a "but wait there's more" moment. The next few verses read.

"39 Howbeit[1] on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when ye have gathered in the fruits of the land, ye shall keep the feast of the LORD seven days; on the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest. 40 And ye shall take you on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm-trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook, and ye shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. 41 And ye shall keep it a feast unto the LORD seven days in the year; it is a statute for ever in your generations; ye shall keep it in the seventh month. 42 Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are home-born in Israel shall dwell in booths; 43 that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. 44 And Moses declared unto the children of Israel the appointed seasons of the LORD."

This is the only mention in the Torah of the commandments to sit in booths and to gather the lulav and esrog. Indeed it is the only reference in all of Tanach about these commandments, and it appears as a sort of addendum to a holiday list.

The explanation for why you sit in booths is also troubling. It says that God made the Israelites dwell in booths when they left Egypt, but nowhere in the narrative regarding the Exodus from Egypt is this discussed. Rabbis have had to invoke various midrashic interpretations in order to explain this, for example, the reference is to the ananei hakavod, the clouds of glory, vaguely hinted at in the text.

The only other mention of Sukkot in the Torah is a short appearance in Deut. 21:10-11 where there is a commandment for the king to read the Torah on that day.

Sukkot elsewhere in Tanach

There are other mentions of the holidays of the seventh month, not necessarily as Sukkot. 1 Kings 8 describes the dedication of the temple. Verse 2 reads:

"And all the men of Israel assembled themselves unto king Solomon at the feast, in the month (yerach) Ethanim, which is the seventh month (hodesh)."

The rest of the chapter goes on to describe the dedication procedures. The length of the holiday is described in verse 65:

So Solomon held the feast at that time, and all Israel with him, a great congregation, from the entrance Hamath unto the Brook of Egypt, before the LORD our God, seven days and seven days, even fourteen days."

The same topic is covered in 2 Chronicles, chapters 5-7. However, the length of the holiday is described differently, to make it clear that the holiday is actually only seven days.  It also mentions the Atzeret [2].

"8 So Solomon held the feast at that time seven days, and all Israel with him, a very great congregation, from the entrance of Hamath unto the Brook of Egypt. 9 And on the eighth day they held a solemn assembly (Atzeret); for they kept the dedication of the altar seven days, and the feast seven days."

Yehezkel (Ezekiel) 45 gives a rundown of the holidays, and verse 25 reads

"In the seventh month, in the fifteenth day of the month, in the feast, shall he do the like the seven days; to the sin-offering as well as the burnt-offering, and the meal-offering as well as the oil."

It should be noted that these sacrifices are very different than the ones in Bamidbar [3].Also the holiday is only referred to as a Hag.  There is one more place where the holiday is prominently featured, and that deserves its own section.

The Sukkot of Ezra

The Sukkot that was celebrated during the time of Ezra is described in both Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra 3:1-7 relates.

1 And when the seventh month was come, and the children of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered themselves together as one man to Jerusalem. 2 Then stood up Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and his brethren the priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and his brethren, and builded the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt-offerings thereon, as it is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. 3 And they set the altar upon its bases; for fear was upon them because of the people of the countries, and they offered burnt-offerings thereon unto the LORD, even burnt-offerings morning and evening. 4 And they kept the feast of tabernacles, as it is written, and offered the daily burnt-offerings by number, according to the ordinance, as the duty of every day required; 5 and afterward the continual burnt-offering, and the offerings of the new moons, and of all the appointed seasons of the LORD that were hallowed, and of every one that willingly offered a freewill-offering unto the LORD. 6 From the first day of the seventh month began they to offer burnt-offerings unto the LORD; but the foundation of the temple of the LORD was not yet laid. 7 They gave money also unto the hewers, and to the carpenters; and food, and drink, and oil, unto them of Zidon, and to them of Tyre, to bring cedar-trees from Lebanon to the sea, unto Joppa, according to the grant that they had of Cyrus king of Persia.

Again no mention is made here of any activities beyond sacrificial services. However, Nehemiah 8 describes things in more detail. Nehemiah 8:1-3 says

1 all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the broad place that was before the water gate; and they spoke unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded to Israel. 2 And Ezra the priest brought the Law before the congregation, both men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read therein before the broad place that was before the water gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women, and of those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the Law.

Now, this occurs on the first day of the Seventh month, Yom Teruah, or as it's known today, Rosh Hashannah.  He does not read it on Sukkot as is commanded of the king in Devarim. Later, a more striking statement is made about Sukkot itself.

13 And on the second day were gathered together the heads of fathers' houses of all the people, the priests, and the Levites, unto Ezra the scribe, even to give attention to the words of the Law. 14 And they found written in the Law, how that the LORD had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month; 15 and that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying: 'Go forth unto the mount, and fetch olive branches, and branches of wild olive, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written.' 16 So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the broad place of the water gate, and in the broad place of the gate of Ephraim. 17 And all the congregation of them that were come back out of the captivity made booths, and dwelt in the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness. 18 Also day by day, from the first day unto the last day, he read in the book of the Law of God. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day was a solemn assembly (Atzeret), according unto the ordinance.

So, the people of Israel, for the first time in over 1000 years, people actually dwell in Sukkot on the holiday of Sukkot. No wonder, there is no reference to this aspect of the holiday elsewhere in Nevi'im and Ketuvim. No one knew about this commandment during those times!

It's important to note the main issues that Ezra was attempting to resolve. Ezra returned with people from the Babylonian Exile to Israel. There he encountered several people who had remained in the land. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah recount the friction between the two groups. It is possible that there was also religious friction between various activities, and Ezra attempted to smooth this over by syncretizing two religious outlooks.

Putting it all together

Now we can attempt to assemble the development of this holiday. And while certain aspects are unknown, we can attempt to fill in the gaps with reasonable speculations. The early holidays, as recounted in Shmot were purely agricultural. They were local holidays to celebrate the harvests and make offerings to the gods to gain their favor in assisting in future harvests. It makes sense that his would be the sort of holiday that exists in a decentralized state.  Later in Devarim, the holiday gained a pilgrimage aspect, in which the centrality of Jerusalem was established, something that makes no sense without a capital city with a central temple. At this time, the holiday was referred to as Sukkot, and it's possible that the ritual dwelling in sukkot occurred at this time, although, this was not canonized by the author of Devarim. It's not clear at all where this practice first occurred, but we can hypothesize that the activity of dwelling in booths arose from local Canaanite/Israelite customs.

Later still, possibly during the exile, the sections in Vayikra and Bamidbar were written. There, the actual length of the holiday, seven days plus an eighth day, Atzeret, was firmly established. Also, the description of the sacrifices were expanded, over what was recorded in Yehezkel, possibly meaning to rival in magnitude some of the sacrificial services performed in Babylonian festivals that Israelite would have experienced. 

Finally, when Ezra returned with the Babylonian captives, he encountered people who participated in the old Israelite ritual activity of dwelling in booths, something that may not have been done in Babylon. In order to reconcile these local practices with what was written about the holiday in Babylon (the Vaykira and Bamidbar passages), Ezra or someone else of that era, added onto the Vayikra section the commandments about dwelling in sukkot, as well as the commandments of lulav and etrog. Indeed, Richard Friedman assigns these verses to the time of Ezra based on the statements in Ezra and Nehemiah indicated some new form of worship, and the bizarre language indicating that makes these commandments appear as an addendum [4]. To the Babylonian exiles, these practices may have looked like avodah zarah (idol worship), and might even have had their roots in cultic practices.  In order to justify the practices, the author of these verses describing dwelling in sukkot rewrites the original purpose behind these practices as relating to the Exodus itself, despite their being no surviving traditions of this.  

This is actually a standard practice in Judaism.  Take a foreign tradition that is being practiced by Jews, and justify it by relating it to a previous mythical era.  In several hundred years, people will have completely forgotten the original origins of the practice, and will only know the sanitized version.  In a couple months, we'll see this same procedure occur, albeit it with a more obvious paper trail, with relation to Hannukah candles.

The biggest question is when and where did the idea of dwelling in sukkot develop. And furthermore, does the dwelling of sukkot give the holiday its name, in which case it dates prior to the writing of Devarim, or, does the name come first, possibly deriving from one of the places named Sukkot. The only thing we can say with some certitude, is that the practice of dwelling in sukkot during the holiday either didn't occur or, more likely, was not officially sanctioned during the monarchial period.  If it was observed, the absence of the description of this aspect of the holiday during the various times it is mentioned in these periods, and the statement in Ezra/Nehemiah that the holiday was observed now in a way unlike any during the monarchial period, require some serious explanation.

1. The Hebrew word here translated as "Howbeit" is ach, and is very tricky to translate. Usually something like, but or only. It's tempting to read this as an indication of an addendum, but it is used a couple verses earlier to describe Yom Kippur

2. In general Chronicles and Kings are very similar. However, there are several cases where they differ substantively, like this case where one has an Atzeret and one does not. When these differences are also things discussed in the Torah, the Kings version always agrees with Deuteronomy, and the Chronicles version agrees with elsewhere in the Torah. This is not a coincidence, and may be the subject of a future post.

3. You really want to know the differences, huh? Yehezkel in my interpretation has the same sacrifices as the holiday preceeding, Pesach, which has all of those sacrifices. We have a chata'at offering of one cow on the first day and a chata'at of a goat on all seven days. The olah offerings are seven cows and seven rams for each day. The meal and oil offerings are one ephah and one hin respectively. Bamidbar also has a goat for a chata'at offering on all days, but that's the only similarity. There are two rams and fourteen lambs on each day as an isheh (which I think is the same as olah but don't quote me. There are also cows, which decrease from thirteen on the first day to seven on the seventh day. The quantities for the meal and oil are also given in terms of isronot and I'm honestly not going to bother trying to figure out the conversion.

4. See R.E. Friedman, "Who Wrote the Bible" Summit 1987 pp 222-223, or the footnote to the appropriate verses in Friedman's "The Bible with Sources Revealed".

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Divine Rewards and Punishment

Yom Kippur

In anticipation of the upcoming holiday of Yom Kippur, where Jews across the world will be praying to be inscribed in the book of life both in this world and the next, we will look at how Jewish ideas of divine rewards and punishments changed as Judaism transitioned through the 1st millennium BCE. We'll look mainly at three major stops. The exact times for each of these groups is debated academically, but we don't really need to establish an absolute chronology to posit a relative chronology. The three eras are roughly as follows. In the first era, you are rewarded materially for following God and God's commandments, and punished for disobeying them. In the second era, we see Jewish thinkers grapple with the age old question of why do good things happen to bad people. In other words, how does our theology hold when God doesn't seem to be rewarding good people and punishing bad people? In the third era we see the introduction of an afterlife and a divine judgment after-death. Good people may receive divine rewards in the afterlife, and evil people will receive punishment.

Era 1: Vihaya im shamoa, If you will listen

Twice a day, religious Jews recite the Shema. The second paragraph, vihaya im shamoa [1] outlines succinctly the general ideas of this era. If you listen to God he will bring the Yoreh and Malkosh, the early and late rains, and you will have plenty of crops, and you will eat and be satisfied. And if you do not listen, God will withhold the rain, and you will perish from the land.

These themes are repeated throughout the Torah. Deut. 28 starts with the same words, vihaya im shamoa and describes the blessing, if you follow, and a very extensive list of curses. A similar blessing/curse appears in Lev. 26.

In the book of Shoftim (Judges), the link between following God and receiving prosperity is explicit. The cycle goes like this. The people start worshiping other gods. God sends an external nation against them as punishment. A judge arises and delivers them and reestablishes correct worship practices. The judge dies and the process repeats.

In the monarchy period it is similar, the calamities that befell both the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah were directly attributed to idolatrous practices. Sometimes, the correlation was questionable and these needed some def explanations.  For example, Yoshiayhu (Josiah) the absolute best king for extirpating idolatry from the land was slain in battle, while his grandfather Manashe (Manasseh), who reestablished all the evil practices that Josiah stopped, lived a long peaceful reign.  When the Kingdom of Judah falls, it is attributed to the idolatry of Manashe, even though he had already been off the scene for over 50 years [2].

Nevertheless, we see from the beginning of the Torah to the end of Kings, that doing God's will comes with the promise of reward here on earth, whether it be through timely rains, or peace from enemy activity. And disobeying God, brings concomitant punishments.

Era 2: Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) and Iyov (Job)

The second era begins later in the development of Jewish thoughts. The question of "why do bad things happen to good people" is one that has plagued monotheistic religions forever. In era one, there was an explicit promise that bad things do not happen to good people, so if a bad thing happens, you can safely trust it's because that person sinned.

The books of Kohelet and Iyov offer alternative views. We'll start with Iyov. The basic story is known to everyone. God tests the righteous Iyov by bringing calamities on him, destroying his property, killing his children, and afflicting him with diseases. Iyov is the quintessential good person who has bad things happen to him. Iyov complains to three friends who come and visit him, but he refuses to curse God.  At the end, Iyov challenges God to answer for what he did, and God does answer. It's God's answer that is important to us here.

God's answer (Job 38-41) is worth reading on your own. But the basic idea is that God is amazingly powerful, therefore it is not in Iyov's right to question God's judgment. It appears to be a "might makes right" argument, but a more modern reader can interpret it as "God works in mysterious ways." In other words, there is a divine design behind all things, and if it looks unfair now, that's only because you are not privy to all the information. This is answer one for "why do good things happen to bad people."

The second "answer" comes from Kohelet. I say "answer" in quotes, because it's not a very good answer. The book of Kohelet, is a nearly existentialist work which basically says that everything has been done before, and there is no rhyme or reason to the events of the earth. The conclusion, is that since everything is pointless anyway, you might as well worship God (Ecc 12:13-14).  This answer shows a real struggle by the author over how to reconcile divine promises of rewards with earthly results that don't seem to live up to the billing.

Era 3: The afterlife

The Babylonian exile ended with the return of the Jewish people to Israel as sanctioned by the Persian emperor Cyrus. This was a formative period for the world.  Specifically in the 6th-5th centuries BCE, you have the rise of the Zoroastrian religion. Jewish people living in Babylon were exposed to this religion and it's clear that it greatly influenced post-biblical Jewish and Christian theology [3].

One of the central tenets of Zoroastrianism is that after death, people were judged on their righteousness on earth, by crossing the "bridge of judgment" and depending on how good they were they either proceed to heaven or hell [4].

Immediately this provides a very nice answer to the problems of Iyov and Kohelet. There is a method for divine justice and if it appears that a righteous person is being punished here on earth, that's ok, because they will get rewarded in the afterlife, or in Judaism, Olam Haba (the world to come). The idea of a post-death judgment and afterlife are spelled out in detail in the Talmud, but are never mentioned in Tanach. They represent a later era of Jewish thought.

The Development of Monotheism

When exactly Judaism became monotheistic is debatable.  Certainly, the Tanach seems to imply that many of the people and even kings participated in a more polytheistic ritual system.  However, at some point, the Jews certainly did put all their weight behind a single God.  At the beginning, maybe there was a fortuitous turn of events, that convinced them that this God was indeed all powerful.  Or perhaps, the destruction of the northern kingdom with their blatant idolatry gave needed ammunition to the monolatrists (people who worship one God but don't deny others) and monotheists in the southern kingdom. It's not clear when the holiday of Yom Kippur started, but the Yom Kippur of the Tanach is one where the material fortunes of the nation are set.   However as time went on, it was clear that even God's favorite emissaries on earth were subject to the same travails and misfortunes, and no cohen's interference seemed to help.  The southern kingdom was destroyed, just like the northern one, and its subjects were sent into exile.

But the southern kingdom was reestablished, so maybe a divine plan was in effect after all.  Or maybe there was no point to anything, as in Kohelet.  The visible miracle-producing God of the Torah and Tanach was gone at this point.  Instead, there was now a subtle God who worked quietly and in seemingly incomprehensible ways, that humans just couldn't understand.  But this wasn't good enough to Jews who were exposed to Persian ideas of divine justice and the idea of life behind death.  So Judaism morphed to accept this concept, and it became a fundamental one of every monotheistic religion thereafter.  Along with this change, Yom Kippur, now in the absence of the communal temple ceremony, became a day of personal judgment, specifically of judgment for the afterworld.

1. Deut 11:13-21, This passage is interesting for another reason, in that it's the only section in Deuteronomy where the text abruptly switches from Moshe speaking in first person, to God speaking in first person.

2. See 2 Kings 21:11-15, 22:14-20.

3. One could argue the reverse that Jewish theology influenced Zoroastrianism, but that's a harder argument to make.

4. Another tenet of Zoroastrianism is that the dead will be resurrected for a final battle between good and evil, something that permeated late Jewish and Christian eschatology.

Edit: Fixed up the footnote links.