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 belovedThe 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.
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.
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 AmminadabThis 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.