Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Parshat Nasso

Originally this week was blocked in for a discussion on misogyny in the Torah, since the infamous laws of the sotah, the woman who's husband accuses her of adultery and is forced to go through an embarrassing ordeal on just the husband's suspicion.  However, I wasn't up to it yet, and I'll defer this topic to a later week a few months from now.  Luckily (for me) and unluckily (if you're of the opinion that the Torah represents perfect morality) there are ample opportunities in the Torah to discuss misogyny in the future.  Instead, we'll discuss one of the aspects of the Torah that hint strongly to it not living up to what it's billed as.

It's So Hard to Write on These!

To begin this week, I'd like to bring up a quote from a source that is not the Tanach.  The quote is the following:
1 Now behold, it came to pass that I, Jacob, having ministered much unto my people in word, (and I cannot write but a little of my words, because of the difficulty of engraving our words upon plates) and we know that the things which we write upon plates must remain;  2 But whatsoever things we write upon anything save it be upon plates must perish and vanish away; but we can write a few words upon plates, which will give our children, and also our beloved
brethren, a small degree of knowledge concerning us, or concerning their fathers--  3 Now in this thing we do rejoice; and we labor diligently to engraven these words upon plates, hoping that our beloved brethren and our children will receive them with thankful hearts, and look upon them that they may learn with joy and not with sorrow, neither with contempt, concerning their first parents.
The knowledgeable among you may recognize this text, based on style and the discussion of "plates" as being from the Book of Mormon.  Specifically, it is from the beginning of the 4th chapter of the Book of Jacob.

It's very interesting to read books sacred to religions of which you have no real attachment.  The Book of Mormon is a book that a religious group holds dear, but which to me has absolutely no emotional purchase.  The reason I picked up this passage is that when I was reading through the book, I remember laughing at the complete absurdity of this specific paragraph.  In the first sentence the author states that he needs to be brief because of the difficulty of physically engraving text on the plates.  Then he spends the next two sentences repeating himself and adding essentially nothing except talking about how important the words are that he's currently laboring to engrave. The entire book of Mormon reads in the same kind of style, lots of words that say very little.  It seemed to me quite hilarious that the author would point out explicitly how incongruous the style is with the supposed medium, i.e. engraving on metal plates.

Now, while I could spend more time pointing out the various absurdities in the Book of Mormon, and there are many, that's probably not of too much interest to my readers.  The point of bringing it up is that unless you are Mormon (in which case, how on earth did you find this blog?), you are unlikely to engage in apologetics defending the text.  You probably would say something like, well of course it's absurd; it was written by a con-artist in the 19th century.

From This We Learn

We will now turn away from the Book of Mormon and it's questionable whether it will make any more appearances in this blog.   Instead we will look at the Tanach, specifically we will look at the Talmudic approach to the Tanach.  In the Talmud, the Tanach, and the Torah in specific was the direct word of God.  One of the consequences of this assumption is that the text was both dense and cryptic, with numerous lessons derivable from the text.  The title of this section, "From This We Learn" is emblematic of the kind of argument in the Talmud.  A letter out of place, a phrase slightly different, a seeming contradiction, are all sources for arguments and explanations.

At least, this is how it is sold in Orthodoxy.  Back when I was religious, I took this at faith value.  As a Ba'al Korei (Torah Reader) I would constantly be finding small textual oddities, phrases that were slightly different.  I assumed that there would be numerous discussions about these in the Rabbinic texts.  I was wrong.  Very few of them were actually discussed in Mikraot Gedolot or similar compilations.  I would bring them up constantly to my Rabbis as what I look back on as something that was probably very annoying.  The answer was always, "that's interesting, I'll look and get back to you."  They didn't find anything either.  I used to have long lists of these things written down, but those, sadly, are long lost.

It's only later that I realized that the approach of the Rabbis of Talmudic times (and later) was the reverse of what it was billed as.  Instead of starting with the Torah and figuring out what they could learn from it, they took what they wanted to say, and searched the Torah for a way to support it!  It took far too long for me to realize this, but in retrospect when reading Talmudic passages it's all obvious.  If I didn't have that emotional attachment to the text, it probably would have been easier to see.

(Twisty) Passages that all Look Alike

It is no secret that there are many passages in the Torah that are both formulaic and repetitive.  For example, in last week, when we discussed about the tribes, we saw that the text said:
22 Of the children of Simeon, their generations, by their families, by their fathers' houses, those that were numbered thereof, according to the number of names, by their polls, every male from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war; 23 those that were numbered of them, of the tribe of Simeon, were fifty and nine thousand and three hundred. 
 It could have said:
 Tribe of Simeon, fifty-nine thousand, three hundred.
It did not.  It listed a long formulaic passage which it repeats in exactly the same language for each tribe.  There are many similar passages, like the generations from Adam to Noah, or the generations from Noah to Abraham.  The commands to build the tabernacle and the actual building of the tabernacle are described separately, and the second repeats the first almost verbatim.  (Some of the differences in these accounts definitely made it to my "questions.")  However, the most egregious example of repetition is in this week's parsha.  When it describes the offering for each tribe, it says the following:
12 And he that presented his offering the first day was Nahshon the son of Amminadab, of the tribe of Judah; 13 and his offering was one silver dish, the weight thereof was a hundred and thirty shekels, one silver basin of seventy shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary; both of them full of fine flour mingled with oil for a meal-offering; 14 one golden pan of ten shekels, full of incense; 15 one young bullock, one ram, one he-lamb of the first year, for a burnt-offering; 16 one male of the goats for a sin-offering; 17 and for the sacrifice of peace-offerings, two oxen, five rams, five he-goats, five he-lambs of the first year. This was the offering of Nahshon the son of Amminadab
This same passage repeats itself 11 more times.  The only thing that changes in them is the name of the guy who presents it, the tribe he's representing, and the day he presented it.  Everything else is exactly the same.  It's almost possible to fall asleep while reading it as a Ba'al Korei.

These sorts of formulaic and repetitive structures are pretty much exactly what you would expect from the ancient near east cultures who absolutely loved boilerplate formulaic stuff.  It's actually great for historians and archaeologists because it helps fill in lacunae in papyri and inscriptions.  The repetition yielded a redundancy which allows translations of texts even with many parts missing.  However, the important question to ask is, "is this the sort of stuff we're likely to see in a 'dense' divine document?"

If the Torah holds no specific emotional value for you, you might feel about this question the same as you felt about the Book of Mormon.  It would seem ludicrous that a divine document, the only document ever given by God directly to mankind, would waste pages of its precious space repeating the same stuff over and over again.  It's only when you have an emotional attachment to the Torah, and the internal desire that it be divine, that you will start making apologetic explanations for it.

And if it happens that you are of the apologetic bent, and specifically if you hold the opinion that every letter of the Torah is important, then the onus is on you to explain exactly why all these verses need full repetition.  Good luck with that.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Population Problem of the Torah

Parshat Bamidbar

This week we'll look at the problems involved in the Torah's account of population.  The topic was introduced in the past when we discussed Absence of Evidence and the Biblical Exodus.  This week we'll look at this specific topic more closely.  The first half we'll examine the actual problems involved with the literal account of how many people partook in the Exodus and the wandering in the desert.  The second half we'll look at the very common idea in modern circles that the "correct" interpretation of the Torah yields a lower number.  We'll come to the conclusion that this is not at all supported by the text, and is only an interpretation that attempts to salvage a "true" reading of the Torah in the light of the overwhelming evidence that the large numbers mentioned in the Torah cannot be true.

600,000 Men

There are a couple places in the biblical account where the size of the population is mentioned.  The first occurs during the departure from Egypt.  Exod. 12:37 puts the numbers at:
And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, beside children.
In this week's parsha we get the account of the Israelites during the beginning of the desert sojourn.  Num. 1:45-46 reports a number of 603,550:
45 And all those that were numbered of the children of Israel by their fathers' houses, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war in Israel; 46 even all those that were numbered were six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty.
Another census at the end of 40 years in the desert povides us with the number of 601,750 (Num. 26:51)
These are they that were numbered of the children of Israel, six hundred thousand and a thousand and seven hundred and thirty.
Neither account includes the Levites who are counted separately.  As a side note, it is somewhat humorous that in approximately 200 years in Egypt the size of the Israelites goes up from 70 to 600k, and in 40 years in the desert, it actually declines.  Anyway, these are the numbers we are given.  Why is this problematic?

The Large Number Problem

There are a great many reasons that this amount of people is incredibly problematic historically.  First consider, the total size of a population involving 600,000 males of fighting age (typically between 20 and 60 years old).  You can probably assume a roughly equal number of women, and probably an equivalent number of children and elderly that fall outside that age.  All told, we're looking at somewhere between 1.5 million and 2 million people according to the Torah in the entire nation of Israel.

The first question to ask is what the population of Egypt during this time period was.  This is actually really difficult to get an answer to.  This site seems to provide the most comprehensive list of estimates I could find.  From there we see that in period of time where the Exodus could have occurred, we are looking at a range of population from about 1 million to 5 million.  Let's assume we are somewhere near the upper bound of that range.  Depending on whether you include the Israelites in the Egyptian estimates or not, you are looking at something like 25-40% of the population as Israelite.  The departure of the Israelites would then cause a tremendous dip in the population of the region.  These large scale demographic changes are ones that would definitely leave their marks.  Cities would have been abandoned, local economies would have collapsed, etc.  We don't see anything of this magnitude at any time during the Egyptian history, and certainly not at any time period that aligns with possible exoduses.

The second question is to look for evidence of a large population in the desert.  For the vast majority of the time in the desert, the Jews encamped at Kadesh Barnea.  This is actually a fairly well known site, since it is referred in later times as an oasis stop on trade routes.  It is the current site of Ein el Qudeirat or perhaps the smaller site nearby Ein Qadis.  The Israelite encampment would make a city that was the largest in the world at that point.  It was a city with a fairly large animal population, for the daily sacrifices.  It would be a city where we'd expect somewhere over a million dead, since the entire generation is said to have died.  Presumably they were buried, possibly with tombstone and other markers.  Finkelstein and Silberman sum up the problem of the biblical narrative:
Yet repeated excavations and surveys throughout the entire area [of Ein el Qudeirat and Ein Qadis] have not provided the slightest evidence for activity in the Late Bronze Age, not even a single sherd left by a tiny fleeing band of frightened refugees [1].
The problems of the population size in the desert narrative have forced literalist apologists to conclude that God purposefully erased all possible evidence from the areas in question.  One wonders why God would try to trick people like that.

Last, we turn to the population of the Israelites as they cross into Canaan.  First it should be noted that we do not see any large influx of population during this time period.  Certainly nothing of the magnitude of one million plus.  However, it's useful to try to get population estimates in Canaan, just as we tried for Egypt.  Dever, who is somewhat sympathetic to the biblical narrative, and is trying to provide justification for a true united monarchy in the time of David says:
In oral communication Finkelstein says that he agrees with me that ca. 100 thousand is not too high a figure for all of "Israel" and "Judah" in the 10th century [2].
Other estimates are considerably lower.  Furthermore, as you go further back in time in the late Bronze Age, you see even lower population estimates.  Oddly if you go even further back to the middle Bronze Age, in the era preceeding the Exodus, you start seeing higher numbers again.  It turns out that the period in which 1 million Israelites were supposed to enter Canaan is precisely the time when the population appears to be at a a minimum.  At this time, most settlements were small and local.  In fact, it's not too different from the story portrayed in shoftim (Judges) which is partly Dever's point.

Hoffmeier, an Egyptologist and biblical maximalist in that he believes that the biblical story represents true knowledge of a 13th century Exodus sums up the numbers problem:
The evidence offered here, along with the thoughtful studies of the problem of the size of the Israelite exodus, leaves little doubt that the number of individuals would have been in the thousands, maybe a few tens of thousands, but certainly not hundreds of thousands, let alone millions [3].
Hoffmeier favors an alternate reading of the text, which is in somewhat in vogue today among Modern Jews who wish to salvage the Torah's narrative.  This will be the topic for the rest of the post.

Elef or "Elef"

The modern interpretation I hinted to above hinges on the interpretation of the word elef.  The word appears in the first sentence quoted above in Exodus. 
And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand (elef) men on foot, beside children.
or in Hebrew:
וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵרַעְמְסֵס, סֻכֹּתָה, כְּשֵׁשׁ-מֵאוֹת אֶלֶף רַגְלִי הַגְּבָרִים, לְבַד מִטָּף
A different definition of elef is proposed here.  Namely the definition that appears in Gen. 36:40-43
36,40 And these are the names of the chiefs (alufei) that came of Esau, according to their families, after their places, by their names: the chief (aluf) of Timna, the chief of Alvah, the chief of Jetheth...
The word aluf (אַלּוּף) has the same root as elef (אֶלֶף) mentioned above.  The proposition is that this is the true meaning of the word, it means groups or families, not thousands.  Exod 12:37 is actually referring to 600 families that left Egypt, which would certainly be believable historically, although it would contradict the story in part, like in Exod. 1:10 where the Pharaoh is concerned that the Israelites are too large and will join the Egyptian enemies

There are two motivations for this suggestion in meaning.  The first is what we saw above by Hoffmeier.  The archaeological evidence just cannot support an Exodus narrative of the size of millions.  The second comes from the incredulity of a population burgeoning from 70 members to 2 million in 200 years.  [4]

However, it is my opinion that this explanation of the numbers is completely unwarranted.  For one thing, it cannot be applied to the two census accounts in Bamidbar (Numbers).  The first census, in this week's parsha, uses the following format when discussing the numbers of each tribe (Num 1:22-23):
22 Of the children of Simeon, their generations, by their families, by their fathers' houses, those that were numbered thereof, according to the number of names, by their polls, every male from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war; 23 those that were numbered of them, of the tribe of Simeon, were fifty and nine thousand (elef) and three hundred.
First of all, the format uses several subdivisions already present.  It uses families (mishpechotehem) and generations (dorotam).  So interpretation of elef as family here seems to make no sense.  Second, if you do interpret elef as family and not thousand, what do you do with the number 300 that appears afterwards in this example?  Furthermore, if you add up all the counts, assuming they're actual numbers, as every translator has done for 2000 years, you get the correct total for all the Israelites.  The Torah doesn't always get arithmetic like this right. It is arithmetically correct in both censuses.

The other census in Bamidbar is hardly any better (Num 26:12-14):
12 The sons of Simeon after their families: of Nemuel, the family of the Nemuelites; of Jamin, the family of the Jaminites; of Jachin, the family of the Jachinites; 13 of Zerah, the family of the Zerahites; of Shaul, the family of the Shaulites. 14 These are the families of the Simeonites, twenty and two thousand and two hundred.
Again the word for family (mishpacha) is used, and the subdivisions are explicitly named.

Some apologists point to the approximate counts and the fact that some numbers appear more frequently than you would expect with a random sampling.  They see this as evidence that this is not an actual census count, but that seems unlikely to me.  First of all, it's not surprising that the numbers given are approximate, or that the numbers seem funny.  Both are what you might expect from a human author writing much later.  Regardless, the "hidden messages" in the number are somewhat unconvincing anyways.  For an example of Jewish apologetics in this regard, see the following pdf.  I'll let you judge for yourself if the argument is persuasive.

While it's true that if you sum up just the thousands columns you get 598 and 596 elef respectively, which is similar to the 600 elef mentioned in Exodus, you expect that based on simple addition.  Furthermore, most tribes grow in elef between the two, except for Shimon (Simeon) who lost 2/3 of its population.  One wouldn't expect so many new family clans to be formed in one generation, just the size of the clans to increase.

While I have never found a reasonable explanation for an interpretation of these census passages besides one where elef means thousand as you would expect, perhaps the account in Shmot (Exodus) is actually referring to a count of families, not thousands.  There are some people who take this approach and who conclude that the census sections of Bamidbar is by a later author who misinterpreted what the earlier account in Shmot was saying.  I don't find this satisfying either.  For one, if you interpret elef as some family designation it is difficult to understand how to interpret, רַגְלִי הַגְּבָרִים לְבַד מִטָּף.  The translation should read something like, "[six hundred elef] pilgrims [5], the adult males not including the children."  It doesn't make sense to specify not including the children if you are talking about families and not people.  It's not clear to me what those words even imply in that context.  In my opinion, the simplest meaning is the most simple.  The author meant 600,000 adult males.

Changing the Torah to Say What You Want

Oftentimes when reading the Torah, you are stuck in unfortunate situations if you want to maintain that it represents absolute truth.  One option is to flatly ignore all the contradictory evidence, which is what young earth creationists do, and people who argue that 1.5 million Israelite escapees is historical.  The second option is to read all the offending narratives as metaphorical.  While such an approach is common for the creation and flood stories, it's a lot harder for Jews to read stuff like the Exodus and wilderness narratives as metaphorical.  These stories are so fundamental to the identity of Jews that a metaphorical reading would be disastrous to their hashkafa (loosely: theology).  The third option is to find a clever way to read the story so that all the contradictions are resolved.  This is what I mean by changing the Torah to say what you want.  This is what people who argue that the Torah is really describing a smaller number of people in the census accounts are doing.

What actually happened is much simpler.  All these accounts were written by people much later than the events they are describing.  They were describing a former period, and in doing such, were romanticizing the past.  People do this today with regard to previous eras, even ones they lived through themselves.  It's certainly expected they'd do so before they had reliable historical records.  The romanticization took the form of increasing the number of people greatly, and this is a standard trope in Ancient Near East documents, where the sizes of armies and populations seem often to be exaggerated.  The authors of these censuses wanted to demonstrate that the Israelites were mighty and powerful.  It's only today that we can look back and determine whether they were they had accurate ideas about the past, or if they were, as they are in this case, dead wrong.

1. Finkelstein and Silberman, "The Bible Unearthed," Simon and Schuster, 2001, p.63 ^

2. Dever, "What did the Biblical Writers Know and When did They Know it," Eerdmans Pub. Co. 2001, p. 127^

3. Hoffmeier, "Ancient Israel in Sinai," Oxford Univ. Press, 2005, p. 159 ^

4. Some academics resolve the second problem by hypothesizing two Exodus stories, one in which a small number of Levites were present, and another, more modern one, in which the entire Israelite nation participated in great numbers.^

5. Using the same root as you find in shalosh regalim.^

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Post-Vaykira Update

So we've made it past the third book, Vayikra and are now starting the fourth Bamidbar.  By books (and by weeks) we are well past the halfway point, about 60%.  So I'm giving a little update about what's ahead.

Most of Bamidbar is already planned out.  You can see what's in store on the schedule page.  Actually, most of it is already written, only Pinchas and Matot-Masei have yet to be composed.  There are very few weeks left where I don't have a topic planned out.  Also, I have ideas for a lot of the TBD weeks, but I'm just not sure how ambitious I actually want to be (as in, how many hours do I want to spend in the library.)  So the reason I'm telling you this, is that if you want a particular topic to be discussed, you'll have to let me know soon.  Otherwise, everything will be filled up.

Also, it's probably worthwhile to start thinking about what happens after the year is up.  I don't have any firm plans yet, but it's almost definite I won't be doing weekly posts at this level of depth.  It's not that I'm burned out, or out of ideas.  It's more that I'm very goal oriented, and my goal was to do a years worth of posts.  I'm not sure what happens next, although I have figured out what happens at the end of the year.  The last post on the schedule is "why the Torah is not divine." and it's unlikely to be finished in one week.  This will do a lot of summarization, pulling from a lot of the stuff I wrote throughout the year.  Hopefully, it will provide the answer to the fundamental question of this blog, one that I wrestled with for many years of my life.  I may even discuss some of those years, I have yet to decide.

So, on to the next book, it should be a good one! 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

God's punishments revisited

Parshat Behar-Behukotai

Near the very beginning I talked about how in the Torah, the divine rewards and punishments are described in physical terms.  If the Israelites follow God properly, they are rewarded with land fertility and military victories, and if they don't they are punished with famine and defeat.  The punishments are spelled out graphically in two locations in the Torah, in what is commonly called the "curses."  The first of the curses is in this week's parsha.  

Blessing and Curse

The curse is preceded by a blessing, which will appear if the Israelites follow God "properly."  It says (Lev. 26:3-4)
3 If ye walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and do them; 4 then I will give your rains in their season, and the land shall yield her produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit...
 And so on.  The curse follows immediately (Lev 26:14 and following)
14 But if ye will not hearken unto Me, and will not do all these commandments; 15 and if ye shall reject My statutes, and if your soul abhor Mine ordinances, so that ye will not do all My commandments, but break My covenant; 16 I also will do this unto you: I will appoint terror over you, even consumption and fever, that shall make the eyes to fail, and the soul to languish; and ye shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it...
The curse continues for about 25 verses.

The blessing and curse make a testable hypothesis.  If you can correlate times of plenty with proper Torah worship of God, and times of famine and distress with idolatrous behavior, then it might make sense to believe the divine statements here.  A brief jaunt through Melachim (Kings) makes it clear that the correlation does not exist in any clear way.  Strife and defeat appears even during the reigns of the most religious kings such as Hezkiyahu (Hezekiah) and Yoshiyahu (Josiah).  Great military success occurs during the most wicked king Achav (Ahab) and the deplored king Menashe (Maneasseh) rules for a half century of peace.

Truthfully though, while it is a testable hypothesis in theory, prior to the development of proper scientific methodology it was unlikely that anyone would actually be able to properly test it.  This is due to common human errors like confirmation bias and special pleading.  One might expect that a deity, who clearly knows about these failings of human psychology, would make the punishment and rewards extra explicit.  We wouldn't have the anomalies in the four kings mentioned above.  This is clearly not the case, and in fact, the Tanach records one group who looked at the data of "divine punishment" and came to the opposite conclusion as what is laid out in the curse section of this week's parsha.  This group will be the focus of the rest of the post.

Yirmiyahu 44

The 44th chapter of Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) is one of my favorite chapters in all of Tanach, although I expect it's not one known to most people.  The chapter records conversations between Yirmiyahu and the Jewish communities in Egypt after the destruction of the first temple.  The communities in question are listed in several cities.  What's amazing about this correspondence is that we know a bit about one of the Egyptian Jewish communities from this era.  In a previous week we saw the "Passover Papyrus" which was one of the documents from this community.  From other temple inscriptions in the area we know that they Elephantine Jews worshiped syncretic forms of YHWH, including Anat-Yahu a melding of the warrior goddess Anat with the Israelite God YHWH.  They also worshiped syncretic gods like Anat-Ba'al. This is in agreement with the section of Yirmiyahu that we will look at in this post.  Therefore, it's probably the Elephantine Jews were similar to the ones that Yirmiyahu is criticizing here.

Let's start by looking at Yirmiyahu's accusation (Jer. 44:1-3)
1 The word that came to Jeremiah concerning all the Jews that dwelt in the land of Egypt, that dwelt at Migdol, and at Tahpanhes, and at Noph, and in the country of Pathros, saying: 2 'Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Ye have seen all the evil that I have brought upon Jerusalem, and upon all the cities of Judah; and, behold, this day they are a desolation, and no man dwelleth therein; 3 because of their wickedness which they have committed to provoke Me, in that they went to offer, and to serve other gods, whom they knew not, neither they, nor ye, nor your fathers.
After outlining the horrors visited upon Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), Yirmiyahu urges the Egyptian community to adopt a more monotheistic form of worship (Jer 44:7-8)
7 Therefore now thus saith the LORD, the God of hosts, the God of Israel: Wherefore commit ye this great evil against your own souls, to cut off from you man and woman, infant and suckling, out of the midst of Judah, to leave you none remaining; 8 in that ye provoke Me with the works of your hands, offering unto other gods in the land of Egypt, whither ye are gone to sojourn; that ye may be cut off, and that ye may be a curse and a reproach among all the nations of the earth?
What's fascinating about this chapter is that  Yirmiyahu records the response of the Egyptian Jews!  And what they say is amazing (Jer. 44:15-18).
15 Then all the men who knew that their wives offered unto other gods, and all the women that stood by, a great assembly, even all the people that dwelt in the land of Egypt, in Pathros, answered Jeremiah, saying: 16 'As for the word that thou hast spoken unto us in the name of the LORD, we will not hearken unto thee. 17 But we will certainly perform every word that is gone forth out of our mouth, to offer unto the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink-offerings unto her, as we have done, we and our fathers, our kings and our princes, in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem; for then had we plenty of food, and were well, and saw no evil. 18 But since we let off to offer to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink-offerings unto her, we have wanted all things, and have been consumed by the sword and by the famine.
The Egyptian Jews say two things.  First of all they reverse the common biblical narrative.  They claim that their lives were good only when they worshiped other deities (here the queen of Heaven, perhaps Anat?) properly.  And when the Israelites stopped worshiping the "queen of heaven" in Yerushalayim, well, that's when all the calamities occurred.

Furthermore, they use the same language that Yirmiyahu uses but against him.  A common trope in Tanach is worshiping Gods that "your ancestors" didn't know.  Yirmiyahu uses this in verse 3 above, "serve other gods, whom they knew not, neither they, nor ye, nor your fathers."  The Egyptian community say that this is false, the proper worship of the queen of heaven is in fact old, "to offer unto the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink-offerings unto her, as we have done, we and our fathers." They are saying that it's the monotheistic worship of Yirmiyahu that is a novelty!

Yirmiyahu doesn't like the answer and berates the people, blaming them for the destruction of Yerushalayim, even though they seem perfectly at peace in Egypt, and will be for some time to come historically.  He ends with a prophecy against Egypt which does not, in fact, occur (Jer 44:30)
thus saith the LORD: Behold, I will give Pharaoh Hophra king of Egypt into the hand of his enemies, and into the hand of them that seek his life; as I gave Zedekiah king of Judah into the hand of Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon, his enemy, and that sought his life.'

It is clear to me what's going on here.  After the destruction of Yerushalayim, people were distraught and were wondering "how could this happen?"  Based off the writing of some of the prophets, mostly Yirmiyahu and Yehezkel (Ezekiel), they established the narrative that the Judeans (and Israelites before them) were punished because they worshiped other gods.  They were not solely devoted to YHWH.  This later became enshrined as the proper narrative in the Torah itself, in the curse that we read in this week's parsha and the other one in Devarim (Deuteronomy).  The only problem with the Torah's narrative is that we have evidence that other people around at the time didn't agree with this historical reconstruction.  The Egyptian Jews report the exact opposite.

Neither is likely correct.  Yerushalayim wasn't captured because it didn't sacrifice only to God, or because it didn't properly offer water libations to the queen of heaven.  It was captured because the Judeans would not submit to Babylon.  However, this answer is insufficient to a group of people who claimed that the God they worshiped was omnipotent.  For them, the only explanation is that God himself was angry.  That's why Yirmiyahu explains it like he does.  And that's why the Egyptian Jews don't buy it.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Beauty is only Skin Deep

Parshat Emor

One of the lessons we're taught in youth is the title of this post, or if you prefer another adage, "don't judge a book by its cover."  The idea is simple and somewhat important.  The true worth of an individual or an object is more than what is visible from the outside.  It's a good moral lesson, and one that we as a society kind of suck at.  And by "kind of," I mean, we really really suck at it.  While overcoming our propensity to favor physically attractive people is a noble but difficult goal for a human, one might expect that a deity, unhampered by such proclivities, would more easily provide better determination of an individual's worth.  This idea is pretty much at the heart of all the "life after death" scenarios offered up by the world's major religions.  An individual gets judged by how good a person they were, not whether they managed to fool everyone about how good they were by being exceptionally charismatic.

So, what does the Torah have to say about this?

Requirements for Priesthood

This week's parsha discusses the various requirements for a kohen (priest) to serve in the Temple.  It says (Lev 21:16-21):
16 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 17 Speak unto Aaron, saying: Whosoever he be of thy seed throughout their generations that hath a blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God. 18 For whatsoever man he be that hath a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath any thing maimed, or anything too long, 19 or a man that is broken-footed, or broken-handed, 20 or crook-backed, or a dwarf, or that hath his eye overspread, or is scabbed, or scurvy, or hath his stones crushed; 21 no man of the seed of Aaron the priest, that hath a blemish, shall come nigh to offer the offerings of the LORD made by fire; he hath a blemish; he shall not come nigh to offer the bread of his God.
These are the Torah's characteristics for who is qualified to serve from among the descendents of Aharon.  The Torah could have described some other characteristics, like humility or honesty.  God, who presumably knows a person's true personality, could have instituted some divine test to provide the answer.  Instead, the Torah describes the qualifications in purely physical terms.  A person must look the part.

Various biblical heroes from baby Moshe (Moses) to Yosef (Joseph) to David are described as being handsome and good looking.  It would be no surprise that humans would want to give these individuals characteristics that they think are important, highlighting their physical characteristics.  But one might expect better from a deity.

For women it's far worse.  A woman is almost entirely judged on her prettiness.  But I'll have an entire post devoted to biblical misogyny much later on, so it's probably better to leave this topic for then.

Wasted Opportunities

One of the themes I will be focusing more in the last two books of the Torah, is that the Torah provides itself with many opportunities to give a good moral message, or an proof of its divinity, and repeatedly fails.  Here is an example of one of these wasted opportunities.  The Torah could have told us that we shouldn't be judging people on physical properties.  Maybe then the Israelites wouldn't have elected Shaul (Saul) as king.  Instead, it could have listed various properties that one should look for in a priest and a leader.  Properties unrelated to whether they have a skin blemish.

One wonders whether the world would have been a better place if the Torah actually used these opportunities to provide good moral lessons.  Would people have internalized them? Would western societies, that took it for the word of God, have improved?  Would we have treat those with physical disabilities more humanely?  We'll never know.  God decided he only wanted to be served by the "pretty" people.