Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Archive for the ‘Tanakh, discussion and commentary’ Category

There are two monumental episodes in this portion of Genesis.

First there is the reconciliation of the estranged brothers Jacob and Esau. Accompanied by his wives and children, and with great trepidation, Jacob crosses the ford into Esau’s territory. He has sent a conciliatory message to Esau and now learns that Esau is coming to meet him, accompanied by four hundred men. Please remember the four hundred men, because we’ll come back to them.

The brothers meet, affectionate Esau and deferential Jacob. It is a touching scene, but midrash puts a different spin on it. The word ‘kissed’ is dotted above each letter in the Torah’s writing.

Rabbi Yannai said ‘…Why is [‘kissed’] dotted? It teaches that Esau came not to kiss [Jacob] but to bite him.’

Talk about putting the worst construction on somebody’s motives – but, in midrash, Esau came to symbolize at least two enemies: the Roman Empire and the Church. Furthermore, he was an ancestor of the Amalekites, a hostile tribe, who have to do with the four hundred men I mentioned.

Jacob offers Esau gifts of livestock, saying ‘Pray, take my blessing,’ an interesting reminder of the time when Jacob took – no, stole – Esau’s blessing, due to him from their father Isaac.
Esau is wealthy himself, refuses at first but then accepts and suggests that he and Jacob should travel together. In a fictionalized version of this episode, the German novelist Thomas Mann shows how desperately Jacob wants to fob Esau off, without giving offence. He gives a variety of excuses: the children are tired, so are the nursing animals, they all need to amble at a leisurely pace. Esau says ‘Let me at least give you some of my military staff, to accompany you,’ and Jacob, seeing possible danger in this set up, swiftly declines the offer. The brothers part and, to the best of my knowledge, they didn’t meet again.

What is it with brothers in Genesis?

Jacob settled in a piece of land he’d bought from Hamor the Canaanite. Hamor’s son Shechem desired Jacob’s daughter Dinah and abducted her. He seduced or perhaps raped her, but then fell in love with her and wanted to marry her. Dinah’s brothers were outraged and wanted revenge on Shechem and his family, but they planned it with Corleone-like care and precision. Their condition for permitting the marriage was that Schechem and his male relations should be circumcised. Shechem readily agreed. While the men were weak, following their circumcision, two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi fell upon their camp and slew them with swords.

Jacob was beside himself and rebuked his sons for the disproportionate response which could lead to bloody repercussions, but they replied ‘Should our sister be treated like a whore?’

Jacob does not refer to the episode again until he is on his deathbed, addressing each of his sons. He rebukes the eldest, Reuben for sleeping with Jacob’s concubine and he rebukes Simeon and Levi for the Shechemite massacre. This leaves the way clear for the fourth son, Judah, to get a very special blessing, in which Jacob anticipates that the rightful Israelite monarchy will be Judah’s descendants.

In the time of the monarchy, David, Solomon and their descendants are indeed from the tribe of Judah, and their stories are connected with Jacob’s story in several ways. As with Dinah, Tamar, the daughter of David, is the victim of rape and is then avenged by one of her brothers, Absalom. Like Jacob, David has sons who arrogate power to themselves while he grows old. David’s daughter, like one of Jacob’s sons, has a coat of many colours.  Absalom and his brother Adonijah, like Reuben, seduce their father’s concubines. As with Simeon and Levi, the kingly inheritance passes to a younger, more suitable brother.

Before becoming king, David fights numerous wars and, on one occasion, attacks a camp of Amalekites, slaying the majority of them, but leaving alive four hundred men. Four hundred Amalekites. One might suppose that these are the descendants of Esau, who came with four hundred men to meet Jacob, and parted from him in peace.

The patriarchs, matriarchs and kings of our bible are flawed human beings and in the book of Genesis, relationships between siblings are problematic, from Cain and Abel to Joseph and his brothers. All the more reason to think that, when Esau and Jacob embrace, this is as good as it gets.

Post Freud, one can discern variants of the oedipal motif in the stories of Noah, Lot, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Saul, David and Solomon. Eyleh toledot – these are the generations. No wonder we tell our sons ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’ Those two sons of Joseph seem to have been blameless and he probably got a lot of nachas from them, whereas Jacob was sadly cheated of nachas for most of his life.

GL 28 October 2013<a href="

1 Samuel 28: 3-25 


This strange episode is full of drama, mystery and tragedy. Perhaps Saul’s story was in Shakespeare’s mind when he let Macbeth fall under the influence of the witches.

The state of play at the beginning of 1 Samuel 28 is as follows:

Saul is disheartened by the threat of the Philistines, who are mustering their forces for war against Israel. Samuel has died and Saul is no longer able to obtain prophetic counsel regarding the inevitable military engagement. More than that he has lost a father figure, however harsh and critical that father figure may have been.

Saul is pious in his observance of Torah and has banished witchcraft from the land, in obedience to Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 19:3, Leviticus 20:6 and Leviticus 20:27.

You shall not permit a sorceress to live.Give no regard to mediums and familiar spirits; do not seek after them, to be defiled by them: I am the Lord your God.

The person who turns to mediums and familiar spirits, to prostitute himself with them, I will set My face against that person and cut him off from his people.

A man or a woman who is a medium, or who has familiar spirits, shall surely be put to death; they shall stone them with stones. Their blood shall be upon them.

However, Saul now seeks a sorceress, because God does not answer him through the legitimate means of  prophecy – dreams, Urim and Tummim and prophets. Unlike David, Saul has no dialogue with God. David is in continual conversation with God, in his Psalms and also in his supplications; it is as if God accompanies David in his daily affairs. Saul never addresses God in this way, and reaches out to God only by using Samuel as an intermediary, even using the expression ‘Your God’ when he speaks to Samuel. 1 The loss of Samuel is therefore all the more devastating for Saul, as the lines of communication with God are now closed to him.

The Urim and Tummim are a divining function of the priestly breastplate. Sumerian literature makes reference to the Tablets of Destinies, objects performing divination in Mesopotamian culture. The priestly passages in the Pentateuch refer to the priests operating Urim and Tummim, but in the post-exilic books, they are conspicuous only by their absence:

The governor told them that they were not to partake of the most holy food, until there should be a priest to consult Urim and Thummim. 2

The silence of the Urim and Tummim at Saul’s time of need may be attributed to his massacre of the priests of Nob who had sheltered David; following this violence against the priesthood, the Urim and Tummin no longer respond to his enquiries.

Saul instructs his servants to find him a Baalat Ov – literally, mistress of ghosts. The Mishnah tells us that, although it is against the halakhah to consult a necromancer, the client, unlike the necromancer himself, is not liable to be executed.3 The Baalat Ov therefore potentially has more to lose than the king.

Saul disguises himself for the visit to Endor, with different clothes. Significant moments in Saul’s kingship have involved the changing or tearing of clothes, always with a negative connotation. He offers David his own armour for the fight with Goliath, unconsciously anticipating the passing of the kingdom from himself to David.4 When he tears Samuel’s cloak accidentally, Samuel says:

The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbour of yours, who is better than you.5

When pursued by Saul, David finds Saul off his guard in a cave and cuts off the corner of Saul’s robe.6

Saul’s son Jonathan takes off his garments, in effect the royal garments of the heir presumptive, and makes a gift of them to David:

Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.7

Now, Saul sheds his kingly garments for the last time. A midrash says that he divested himself of royalty, reading the sin in vayithappes as a shin, to make the point that, in disguising himself, he made himself free  (hofshi) of the kingdom.8  He sets out by night, heading north to Endor in the region of the Jezreel Valley. He is accompanied by two servants, named as Abner and Amasa in Vayyikra Rabbah, where Saul is commended in following the Abrahamic precedent of taking two servants with him.9 Louis Ginzberg in ‘Legends of the Jews’ cites a tradition10 that the witch was Abner’s mother.

Disguised as a commoner, Saul tells the witch of Endor to conjure up a ghost. The woman replies that she is afraid to do so, since King Saul has abolished witchcraft and she fears for her life. Saul assures her  ‘As the Lord lives, no blame will befall you through this thing.’

Rabbi Levi, cited in Vayyikra Rabbah, sees the irony of Saul invoking God when he is about to break the law:

He was like a woman who is in the company of her paramour and swears by the life of her husband!11

The woman then asks who is to be summoned and Saul tells her ‘Bring up Samuel.’ What follows is startling – not only because the ghost of Samuel appears, but because the witch screams when she sees him. And she says at once ‘Why did you deceive me, for you are Saul?’  What has happened to make her recognize Saul?

Vayyikra Rabbah has an explanation: ghosts materialize upside down – except in the presence of a king. The witch tells Saul ‘An old man is coming up and he is wrapped in a cloak.’ This is Samuel’s meil, a cloak which he always wears, even from childhood when his mother Hannah made him a cloak, and just such a cloak was torn by Saul in 1 Samuel 15. In Hebrew, old man is ish zaken, but the Septuagint has a different translation: ‘An upright man (andra orthion) ascending out of the earth.’

Besides seeing Samuel, the witch sees elohim ascending: the spirits of elders accompanying Samuel. In Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum, a Latin rewriting of the book of Samuel by a Jewish author Pseudo-Philo, first century CE and therefore contemporary with Philo of Alexandria, Samuel says to the witch: ‘It is not you that have brought me up, but the precept which God spoke to me while I yet lived.’12  Perhaps we should understand that the witch is a charlatan who is taken by surprise when a ghost really appears, like the medium played by Whoopi Goldberg in the film ‘Ghost.’

As Saul asks the witch what she sees, we may infer that Saul himself does not see the ghost. Vayyikra Rabbah explains:

Three things are said of one who conjures up spirits by enchantment: the one who brings up the ghost sees it but does not hear its voice; the one who requires it hears its voice but does not see it; the one who has no need of it can neither hear nor see it. It was like this with Samuel: the woman who brought him up saw him but did not hear his voice; Saul, who needed him, heard his voice but did not see him; Abner and Amasa, who had no need of him, did not hear his voice and did not see him.13

When Saul hears that the ghost is wrapped in a cloak, he knows that this is Samuel and bows down on the ground.

Samuel’s opening words, expressing characteristic displeasure, are the only biblical instance of speech from beyond the grave. ‘Why have you disturbed me?’ is an understated translation of lamah hirgaztani, ‘Why have you caused me to shake?’ The midrashic rabbis attributed Samuel’s shaking to a fear that he had been roused for the day of judgment, noting that even the holy man and seer, Samuel, regards divine judgment with fear and trembling.

This idea of the afterlife  fits Daniel’s description in which the dead sleep, and are woken at the appointed time:

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.14

Saul immediately tells Samuel of his problems: the battling Philistines, the estrangement of God and the silence of prophecy. As in Samuel’s lifetime, Saul relies on Samuel, his curmudgeonly mentor. He does not refer to the Urim and Thummim;  their priestly connotation may remind Samuel of Saul’s massacre of the priests at Nob.

Samuel’s brusque reply begins with a play on Saul’s name: ‘Lamah tishaleni? Why do you ask?’ Saul’s name of course means ‘asked’ from shin aleph lamed. He is the asked-for king of 1 Samuel 8, whom Samuel provides against his better judgment. Samuel now tells Saul that God has torn the kingdom away from him (a repetition of Samuel’s words in 1 Samuel 15:28) and given it to his adversary, David. Brutally explicit, Samuel drives home the point that this is all Saul’s fault, due to his disobedience over the herem against the Amalekites. Worse still, he prophesies defeat in the forthcoming battle in which Saul and his sons will be slain. The seer who brought royalty to Saul now tells him of his impending death.

Saul prostrates himself or faints, full length on the ground (and we know that he was an exceptionally tall man15) due to fear and physical weakness caused by fasting. If you read the earlier chapters, you will see how fasting has already figured significantly in the lives of Saul and his son Jonathan16 and David.17

The witch now shows a kindly, maternal side and begs Saul to eat. When he refuses, she and his two servants insist until he gets up from the ground and sits on the bed. She then makes him a dinner of veal and flatbread which he and his servants eat, before departing in the darkness of the night.

The most detailed midrash on the Endor episode is an exegesis on the parashah Emor, which begins:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the priests [my italics], the sons of Aaron, and say to them: No one shall make himself unclean for the dead among his people.18

In this midrash Moses is shown a vision of Saul and his sons, falling in the battle on Mount Gilboa. Moses protests: ‘Ribbono shel Olam, is this the honour due to your children, that the first king you place over them should fall by the sword?’19

The Holy One, blessed be He, answered him ‘Do you ask this of me? Speak to the priests whom he has slain and who are acting as his accusers.’

The midrash therefore links the narrative of the witch of Endor to the exegesis of the opening verse of Emor.

It should be noted that the verse immediately prior in the Torah, namely the last verse of the parashah Kedoshim, is:

A man or a woman who is a medium or a necromancer shall surely be put to death. They shall be stoned with stones; their blood shall be upon them.20

Gillian Lazarus 6 August 2012


1 Samuel 15:21

Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 7:65

Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:7

1 Samuel 17:38-39

1 Samuel 15:28

1 Samuel 24:4

1 Samuel 18:4

Leviticus Rabbah 26:7

Leviticus Rabbah 26:7

Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer 33

Leviticus Rabbah 26:7

Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum 64:7

Leviticus Rabbah 26:7

Daniel 12:2

1 Samuel 10:43

ibid 14:24-28; 20:34

ibid 21:4

Leviticus 21:1

Leviticus Rabbah 26:7

Leviticus 20:27

When babies are given names in the bible, the name is chosen to reflect the situation of the birth, sometimes as a comment on the parents’ predicament, sometimes an acknowledgement of God’s role in the birth or the general situation, and sometimes prophetically, as an expectation of what the named child will become.

A Who’s Who of the Hebrew bible will explain the meaning of any name, and very often, as with the characters invented by Charles Dickens, the name expresses some characteristic of the person.

In the modern world, a child’s given name may indicate many things: nationality, religion and class for example. They reflect social trends, media and celebrity culture. The influence of celebrity names is determined by other factors besides the popularity of the celebrity. For some reason, more Marilyns than Elvises were born in the 1950s; perhaps more Nevilles than Winstons in the 1940s. Even certain patterns of sound can become popular trends: consider that Aidan, Jayden and Kayden were amongst the top boys’ names in the UK in 2011, Ella, Bella (an allusion to the Twilight series of fiction) and Ellie for girls. Surnames such as Howard and Harrison become popularized as given names. Why were so many Jewish boys in the 1940s given the Welsh name Melvyn?

Cain and Abel

Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man (קניתי איש) with the help of the LORD.”
And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground.

Cain’s name is from the verb ק נ ה, to acquire, buy, get. It has two strong consonants in common with ק נ א, to be jealous, conceptually linked with possession or acquisition. God’s relationship with Israel is expressed as קנה at the Song at the Sea: … till your people, O LORD, pass by, till the people pass by whom you have purchased.

The naming of Abel is not accounted for in the Genesis narrative, but הבל is usually translated as vanity, especially in its context in Ecclesiastes, suggesting something transitory and insignificant. In our morning prayer service we say: Ki hacol havel levad haneshamah hatehorah – Everything is trivial except the pure soul.

And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, “God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.”
Genesis 4:25
ותקרא את־שמו שת כי שת־לי אלהים זרע אחר תחת הבל


When Lamech had lived 182 years, he fathered a son and called his name Noah, saying, “Out of the ground that the LORD has cursed this one shall bring us relief (זה ינחמנו) from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.”

The names Nahum or Nahman would have fitted the etymology of yenachamenu, and the name of Noah looks as if it comes from נ וּ ח, to rest, as in ותּנח התּבה …and the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat.

Ishmael’s name, connected with shema, comes from the same source as Simeon, chosen later by Leah for her second son. Note that the name Samuel is spelled with an aleph rather than an ayin, so is not linked to the concept of hearing in the same way.

The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur.
And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.”
The angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.”
The angel of the LORD also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.”
And the angel of the LORD said to her, “Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the LORD has listened (כי שמע יי) to your affliction.

The source of the name Isaac is well known, based on a pun made by Sarah:

Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh (כל השמע יצחק־לי) over me.”

More puzzling is the naming of Esau:

The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau.
Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel (בעקב), so his name was called Jacob.

Esau is described as admoni, ruddy, and seir, hairy, which explains his names Edom and Seir, but what does Esav mean? The letters ayin sin vav spell the word that means ‘do’, third person or imperative plural, as in, for example עשו להם ציצית, ‘make themselves fringes’. Does the fact that Esau is a hunter have any bearing on a name which might be connected with ‘doing’?

Jacob’s sons are all given significant names, which reflect the circumstances of their birth. Leah in particular names her sons with pious allusions to God who responded to her prayers.

And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben, for she said, “Because the LORD has looked upon my affliction (ראה יי בעניי); for now my husband will love me.” She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the LORD has heard that I am hated (שמע יי כי שנוּאה), he has given me this son also.” And she called his name Simeon. Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, “Now this time my husband will be attached to me (ילוה אישי), because I have borne him three sons.” Therefore his name was called Levi. And she conceived again and bore a son, and said, “This time I will praise (אודה) the LORD.” Therefore she called his name Judah.

Rachel, in naming the children of Bilhah her handmaid, reveals her competitive feelings about her sister and Leah responds similarly when Zilpah gives birth:

And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. Then Rachel said, “God has judged me (דנני), and has also heard my voice and given me a son.” Therefore she called his name Dan.
Rachel’s servant Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son.
Then Rachel said, “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister (נפתוּלי אלהים נפתלתי עם אחתי) and have prevailed.” So she called his name Naphtali.
When Leah saw that she had ceased bearing children, she took her servant Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. Then Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a son. And Leah said, “Good fortune has come!” (בא גד) so she called his name Gad. Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. And Leah said, “Happy am I! (באשרי) For women have called me happy.” So she called his name Asher.

The sisters then quarrel, haggling over the valuable mandrakes found by Reuben. Rachel bargains with Leah by promising access to Jacob, and the fertile Leah gives birth to another son:

Leah said, “God has given me my reward (סכרי) because I gave my maid to my husband”; so she named him Issachar.19 And Leah conceived again, and she bore Jacob a sixth son. Then Leah said, “God has endowed me with a good endowment; now my husband will honour me (יזבּלני אישי), because I have borne him six sons.” So she called his name Zebulun. Afterward she bore a daughter and called her name Dinah.

Rachel’s two sons’ names are poignantly descriptive of Rachel experience:

Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb.
She conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.”
And she called his name Joseph, saying, “May the LORD add (יסף) to me another son!”

And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni;but his father called him Benjamin.

On ‘Thought for the Day’ last Friday (23 March 2012), Rabbi Lord Sacks referred to the Egyptian etymology of the name Moses, a suffix meaning ‘child’, as in Ramses, child of Ra, while acknowledging that the Hebrew etymology gives Moses another meaning:

When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. She named him Moses, “Because,” she said, “I drew him (משיתהו) out of the water.”

Now Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, had taken Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after he had sent her home, along with her two sons. The name of the one was Gershom, for he said, “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land”, and the name of the other, Eliezer, for he said, “The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh”.

Regarding Moses’ two sons, we know very little other than their names and the strange circumstances of Gershom’s circumcision. We can find the names of their descendants, however, in 1 Chronicles 23.

The naming of Samuel is interesting as his name should mean something like ‘Name and God’, Shem v’ El. Hannah makes an association with שאל, to ask, which seems to belong less to Samuel than to his protegé Saul.

And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him (שאלתיו) from the LORD.”

The unnamed widow of Phinehas, Eli’s son, alludes to the loss of the Holy Ark, which is seized by the Philistines:

And she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!” (גלה כבוד מישראל)

Solomon, unusually, is given two names, the second, Jedidiah, at the instigation of the prophet Nathan. Robert Alter suggests that Jedidiah, meaning ‘beloved of God’ indicates Nathan’s identification with Bathsheba’s cause, as will become apparent when he supports Solomon later, against his older brother Adonijah, as the successor to David.

Then David comforted his wife, Bathsheba, and went in to her and lay with her, and she bore a son, and he called his name Solomon. And the LORD loved him and sent a message by Nathan the prophet. So he called his name Jedidiah, because of the LORD.

Isaac was also called yedid, the son whom Abraham loved.

Sometimes the etymology is approximate, or based on a transposition of consonants, as in the case of a descendant of Judah called Jabez, based on the word B’azav, ‘in pain’. When the adult Jabez prays to God to enlarge his territory, he adds the words: levilti azbi, ‘that it may not pain me’ and God answers his prayer.

Jabez was more honourable than his brothers; and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, “Because I bore him in pain (כי ילדתי בעצב).”

Some names allude to disasters which have befallen the person naming the child:

And Ephraim went in to his wife, and she conceived and bore a son. And he called his name Beriah, because disaster had befallen his house (כי ברעה היתה בביתו).

We have seen that Hosea’s wife bore children whose names suggested God’s abandonment of Israel. Conversely Job’s daughters have names which mean daylight, perfume and reversal of fortune:

And he called the name of the first daughter Jemimah, and the name of the second Keziah, and the name of the third Keren-happuch.

Names which reveal character or destiny from birth seem to belong more to the realm of literature than that of history. It is common for historical personages to be called ‘the Great,’ ‘the Terrible’, ‘Epiphanes’, ‘Longshanks’, ‘Milk-snatcher’ etc, but these are soubriquets, based on deeds or appearance.

The question arising from biblical names concerns their prophetic character. Does the parent know que sera, or are they simply expressing their hopes and fears about the future. Perhaps the etymology is added, with historical hindsight, as an explanation of the named character.

Some biblical names are meaningful in the absence of any infancy narrative; an instance of this would be David, whose name, ‘beloved’, is highly significant. Another is Saul, the ‘asked-for’ king.

The absence of any clearly discernible meaning in a biblical name seems to argue in favour of the historicity of the person in question.

Gideon, Jephthah and connected themes


Repetitions in the book of Judges are by no means editorial oversights; the repeated phrases and themes serve a polemical purpose, to let the reader know that the children of Israel are drawn to the idolatry of their neighbours, that this results in domination by the neighbours, but that God elects a righteous military leader to deliver Israel from the hands of the enemy.

The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD

This expression is repeated in the book of Judges, each time as an opening to an episode where Israel is rescued from an oppressor by the actions of a judge, who is more like an army general than an adjudicator. Every tribe of Israel is represented by a judge. The oppressor varies – the Midianites for Gideon, Canaanites for Deborah, Moabites for Ehud, and so on.

Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the LORD, and they did not do so.
Whenever the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them.

Israel is delivered from Cushan-rishathaim, king of Mesopotamia, by Othniel, nephew of Caleb.

Ehud delivers Israel from the Moabites and their king Eglon.

And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD after Ehud died.

Deborah and Barak, with help from Jael deliver Israel from the Canaanites.

Jephthah delivers Israel from the Ammonites and Philistines.

Samson saves Israel from the Philistines.

The fact that the judges each represent a tribe of Israel, including the two half tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, gives the impression that Judges is a political and diplomatic document, designed to strengthen the ties between tribes and territories.

Although the stories in Judges are introduced by the same formula and have a similar structure, they do not duplicate each other. It is rather more the book of Genesis that is duplicated in Judges. We have already seen how Judges 19, where the guest’s concubine is given up to be raped by local Benjamites, mirrors the way Lot’s visitors are menaced by the local men of Sodom. In both stories, women are offered to the aggressors to protect the male guests from assault. In both cases, transgressive sex occurs, incest in Genesis 19 , rape in Judges.

The circumstances in which an angel visits Gideon are similar to those in which Abraham and Sarah are visited by angels.

Now the angel of the LORD came and sat under the terebinth (אלה)at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, while his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites.

Then the Lord appeared to him by the terebinth trees of Mamre, as he was sitting in the tent door in the heat of the day.

Like Abraham, Gideon makes haste to prepare a meal for his heavenly guests.

So Gideon went in and prepared a young goat, and unleavened bread from an ephah of flour. The meat he put in a basket, and he put the broth in a pot; and he brought them out to Him under the terebinth tree and presented them.

And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

Terebinth trees appear at other significant moments in Genesis and 1 Samuel.

Now Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried below Bethel under the terebinth tree.

As this is the only mention of Rebecca’s nurse Deborah, it may be worth mentioning that the more famous Deborah, who appears in Judges 4 and 5, also has a tree:

Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, was judging Israel at that time.
And she would sit under the palm tree (תמר) of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the mountains of Ephraim.

The author Gary Greenberg writes:

The bible makes reference to two separate women named Deborah. One was the nurse to Abraham’s son Isaac and the other was, in the much later period of the Judges, a military leader referred to as “a mother in Israel”. Both seem to have mythic images and both are identified with a particular Tree of Weeping.

The Egyptian goddess Neith has a reputation as both a military figure and as a mother goddess and nurse, characteristics that caused the Greeks to identify her with the goddess Athena. In Hebrew, Deborah means “Bee” and that symbol is closely identified with Neith. A Temple to Neith was called “House of the Bee”, and the Bee was the symbol of kingship in Lower Egypt.

There is also a terebinth association for Samuel and Saul, at the beginning of their ill-fated relationship. After Samuel has anointed Saul, he gives him these directions for his journey home:

Then you shall go on forward from there and come to the terebinth tree of Tabor. There three men going up to God at Bethel will meet you, one carrying three young goats, another carrying three loaves of bread, and another carrying a skin of wine.

Saul’s response to Samuel the seer is similar to Gideon’s response to the angel:

Saul answered, “Am I not a Benjaminite, from the least of the tribes of Israel? And is not my clan the humblest of all the clans of the tribe of Benjamin? Why then have you spoken to me in this way?”

And he said to him, ‘Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.’

A fire consumes the meal Gideon has prepared, responding to his request for a sign that he is in the presence of God. Abraham’s visitors eat and then announce the miracle that Sarah will have a child.

With both Abraham and Gideon, a conversation with an angel or angels becomes a conversation with God. When Gideon realizes that his visitor is an angel, his words resemble those of Jacob, after wrestling with an angel:

Then Gideon perceived that he was the angel of the LORD. And Gideon said, ‘Alas, O Lord GOD! For now I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face.’

So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.’

It is interesting that Deuteronomy tells us: There has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, bearing in mind that the Patriarch Jacob and the Judge Gideon experienced a face to face encounter with a celestial being.

Local altars
The sacrificial altar was centralised from the time of the First Temple, with Jeroboam’s rival altar at Bethel regarded as transgressive, and local shrines as idolatrous. Building altars is acceptable, even commendable, in the books prior to Kings.

Then Noah built an altar to the LORD.

Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.

Then Abram moved his tent, and went and dwelt by the terebinth trees of Mamre, which are in Hebron, and built an altar there to the Lord.

Then Gideon built an altar there to the LORD and called it, The LORD Is Peace.

And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel.

Joshua built an altar to the LORD, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal.

Then [Samuel] would return to Ramah, for his home was there, and there also he judged Israel. And he built there an altar to the LORD.

And Saul built an altar to the LORD; it was the first altar that he built to the LORD.

And David built there [the threshing floor of Araunah] an altar to the LORD and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. So the LORD responded to the plea for the land, and the plague was averted from Israel.

Three times a year Solomon used to offer up burnt offerings and peace offerings on the altar that he built to the LORD, making offerings with it before the LORD. So he finished the house.

It is of course Solomon who centralizes the altar, but this is anticipated by David’s altar on the threshing floor of Araunah, the site of the Temple.

Call the Midwife: prophetic midwives in the bible.

Then they journeyed from Bethel. When they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel went into labor, and she had hard labor. And when her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, “Do not fear, for you have another son.”


When the time of her labor came, there were twins in her womb. And when she was in labour, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out. And she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore his name was called Perez. Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah.


Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?”  The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.


Now his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant, about to give birth. And when she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed and gave birth, for her pains came upon her.  And about the time of her death the women attending her said to her, “Do not be afraid, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer or pay attention.  And she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband.

Now gods, stand up for bastards! King Lear, I. ii.

The term mamzer occurs only twice in the bible (the other usage, in Zechariah 9:6, is the prophet’s anti-Philistine rhetoric) firstly in the stringent legislation of Deuteronomy:

No one born of a forbidden union may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD. No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the LORD, even to the tenth generation.

The union of a man with his concubine was considered legitimate. Therefore one would not consider the following to be bastards: Ishmael, Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher. Abraham’s sons by Keturah – Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah – also were legitimate as Abraham married Keturah.

Both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father.

The firstborn bore a son, and named him Moab; he is the ancestor of the Moabites to this day. The younger also bore a son and named him Ben-ammi; he is the ancestor of the Ammonites to this day.

Deuteronomy 23:3 therefore alludes to the mamzerut of Ammonites and Moabites.

Timna was a concubine of Eliphaz, Esau’s son; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz

Amalek, while not a bastard, has the status of being a concubine’s child, perhaps of lower rank than the child of a wife.

In the case of Gideon, particular attention is drawn to the son of his Shechemite concubine:

Now Gideon had seventy sons, his own offspring, for he had many wives.
And his concubine who was in Shechem also bore him a son, and he called his name Abimelech.

Like Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester in King Lear, Abimelech is no good. Consider also who, of the Karamazov brothers, goes so far as to kill his despicable father.

With the connivance of his Shechemite relations, Abimelech kills all of his seventy brothers but one, Jotham, who survives. The Shechemites then turn on Abimelech, who suppresses them with great ruthlessness, setting fire to their stronghold, the Tower of Shechem.

However retribution comes quickly:

And a certain woman threw an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head and crushed his skull.Then he called quickly to the young man his armor-bearer and said to him, “Draw your sword and kill me, lest they say of me, ‘A woman killed him.'” And his young man thrust him through, and he died.

Like Sisera and Holofernes, Abimelech dies of a head injury inflicted by a woman.

Now Jephthah the Gileadite, the son of a prostitute, was a mighty warrior.

Jephthah was cast out and disinherited by his legitimate brothers, and acquired a retinue of ‘worthless men’. When the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead called him back to be their leader. Jephthah prays to God for victory, but makes a foolish vow:

And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the LORD gave them into his hand.

In one of his many discreditable acts as king, David appeases the troublesome Gibeonites by handing over the sons and grandsons of Saul, to certain death. Rizpah was Saul’s concubine, her name linked also to Abner’s.

But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Saul’s son Jonathan, because of the oath of the Lord that was between them, between David and Jonathan son of Saul. The king took the two sons of Rizpah daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Merab daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel son of Barzillai the Meholathite; he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they impaled them on the mountain before the Lord. The seven of them perished together.

It would seem that there is no reason to doubt the legitimacy of Merab’s sons, unless we remember that Merab was originally betrothed to David and then given to another man. As a betrothal was legally binding, there is some doubt about the legitimacy of Merab’s children.

In the case of Hosea, who is commanded to have yaldei zenunim, children of whoredom, the paradox is that, if they are his offspring by his wife Gomer, then they are children of the marriage and not of whoredom. Gomer was a prostitute and the children are given names at God’s command with the meaning that God will abandon them.

The book of Hosea concludes on a note of reconciliation and forgiveness, as God tells Hosea:

I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them.

There is no such reconciliation between the Duke of Gloucester and his bastard son, but King Lear, unlike the bible, is all about unforgiving fathers.

The Joseph Cycle and the Tamar story in 2 Samuel
Joseph, Ford Madox Brown
‘Have every man go out from me.’

Genesis 45:1
Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all them that stood by him; and he cried , Cause every man to go out from me.
הוציאו כל־איש מעלי

2 Samuel 13:9
Amnon said, “Send out everyone from me.”
ויאמר אמנון הוציאו כל־איש מעלי

The recurrence of this phrase alerts us to the possibility of a single authorial hand, in the Joseph narrative and in the narrative of David’s declining years. It is therefore interesting to find that a coat of many colours, mentioned only twice in Tanakh, occurs within these stories.

Genesis 37:3
Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours.

ועשה לו כּתנת פּסּים

2 Samuel 13:18
[Tamar] had a garment of diverse colours upon her: for with such robes were the king’s daughters that were virgins apparelled.

ועליה כּתנת פּסּים

In the case of Tamar, as in the case of Joseph, the tunic is ruined, in a way which represents the harm done to them by one or more siblings.

Genesis 37:23
And it came to pass, when Joseph was come unto his brethren, that they stripped Joseph out of his coat, his coat of many colours that was on him.

2 Samuel 13:19
Tamar put ashes on her head, and rent her garment of diverse colours that was on her.

Avenging brothers and emasculated fathers

Staying with late Genesis and 2 Samuel, there are further similarities.

Genesis 34:25
And it came to pass on the third day, when they were sore , that two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brethren, took each man his sword, and came upon the city boldly, and slew all the males.

2 Samuel 13:28
Now Absalom had commanded his servants, saying , Mark ye now when Amnon’s heart is merry with wine, and when I say unto you, Smite Amnon; then kill him.

Genesis 35:22
Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine: and Israel heard it.

2 Samuel 16:22
Absalom went in unto his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel.

The latter part of the David narrative discredits and dispatches the sons of David one by one, Amnon, Absalom and Adonijah, so that the last man standing is the youngest, Solomon, who succeeds to the throne and perhaps commissions a court history.

Solomon had good relations with Egypt, the evidence being that he traded with Egypt and had an Egyptian wife. The Joseph story is sympathetic to Egypt, to the extent that the author of Exodus, hostile to Egypt, explains that trouble ensued when there arose a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph.

Daughters deceiving their fathers to protect their husbands

Genesis 31:19-20
Laban went to shear his sheep: and Rachel had stolen the images that were her father’s. And Jacob stole away unawares to Laban the Syrian, in that he told him not that he fled.

ותּגנב רחל את התּרפים אשר לאביה

1 Samuel 19:12-13
Michal let David down through a window: and he went , and fled , and escaped . And Michal took an image, and laid it in the bed, and put a pillow of goats’ hair for his bolster, and covered it with a cloth.

ותּקּח מיכל את־התּרפים ותּשם אל־המּטּה

Other correspondences between these two stories are that Michal has an elder sister Merab, whom Saul offers in marriage to David but Merab is then married to another – perhaps Saul reneges on his offer. However David marries the younger sister, Michal, who loves him. Obviously Jacob loves and is loved by the younger sister Rachel, and although he does indeed marry the older sister Leah, he is tricked by a slippery, untrustworthy father-in-law.

Angels, rapists and hospitality

Genesis 19
1 The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them and bowed himself with his face to the earth 2 and said, “My lords, please turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night and wash your feet. Then you may rise up early and go on your way.” They said, “No; we will spend the night in the town square.” 3 But he pressed them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house. And he made them a feast and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. 4 But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house. 5 And they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.” 6 Lot went out to the men at the entrance, shut the door after him, 7 and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. 8 Behold, I have two daughters who have not known any man. Let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please. Only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.”

Judges 19
[A Levite, his concubine and his servant] went in [to Gibeah]and sat down in the open square of the city, for no one took them into his house to spend the night. 16 And behold, an old man was coming from his work in the field at evening. The man was from the hill country of Ephraim, and he was sojourning in Gibeah. The men of the place were Benjaminites. 17 And he lifted up his eyes and saw the traveler in the open square of the city. And the old man said, “Where are you going? And where do you come from?” 18 And he said to him, “We are passing from Bethlehem in Judah to the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, from which I come. I went to Bethlehem in Judah, and I am going to the house of the Lord,but no one has taken me into his house. 19 We have straw and feed for our donkeys, with bread and wine for me and your female servant and the young man with your servants. There is no lack of anything.” 20 And the old man said, “Peace be to you; I will care for all your wants. Only, do not spend the night in the square.” 21 So he brought him into his house and gave the donkeys feed. And they washed their feet, and ate and drank.

22 As they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, worthless fellows, surrounded the house, beating on the door. And they said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him.” 23 And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly; since this man has come into my house, do not do this vile thing. 24 Behold, here are my virgin daughter and his concubine. Let me bring them out now. Violate them and do with them what seems good to you, but against this man do not do this outrageous thing.” 25 But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine and made her go out to them.

Annunciations and resurrections

Genesis 18:10-12
He said, ‘I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him.
Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?”

Judges 13:2-3
[Manoah’s] wife was barren and had no children.
And the angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her, ‘Behold, you are barren and have not borne children, but you shall conceive and bear a son.’

2 Kings 4:16-17
And [Elisha] said, “At this season, about this time next year, you shall embrace a son.” And she said, “No, my lord, O man of God; do not lie to your servant.”
But the woman conceived, and she bore a son about that time the following spring, as Elisha had said to her.

Abraham and Sarah are visited by three men, who appear to be angelic especially as God speaks directly to Abraham in verse 13. Samson’s parents are visited by an angel and we are not told the name of Samson’s mother. The Shunamite woman is visited by a prophet, not an angel; we are told neither her name nor the name of her son.

There are other barren women who become pregnant, but without the feature of supernatural annunciation. In the case of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, Eli does not prophesy but says ‘Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.’ Rebecca becomes pregnant after Isaac’s prayer is answered and is told by God that she is expecting twins when she worries about her unusual pregnancy. Rachel becomes pregnant when God remembers her and heeds her prayers.

1 Kings 17-24
After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill. And his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. And she said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!” And he said to her, “Give me your son.” And he took him from her arms and carried him up into the upper chamber where he lodged, and laid him on his own bed. And he cried to the LORD, “O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times and cried to the LORD, “O LORD my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” And the LORD listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. And Elijah took the child and brought him down from the upper chamber into the house and delivered him to his mother. And Elijah said, “See, your son lives.” And the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.”

2 Kings 4:32-37
When Elisha came into the house, he saw the child lying dead on his bed. So he went in and shut the door behind the two of them and prayed to the LORD. Then he went up and lay on the child, putting his mouth on his mouth, his eyes on his eyes, and his hands on his hands. And as he stretched himself upon him, the flesh of the child became warm. Then he got up again and walked once back and forth in the house, and went up and stretched himself upon him. The child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes. Then he summoned Gehazi and said, “Call this Shunammite.” So he called her. And when she came to him, he said, “Pick up your son.” She came and fell at his feet, bowing to the ground. Then she picked up her son and went out.

Like Abraham and Sarah, these mothers seem to be in danger of losing their sons, their only sons, whom they love, and like Isaac, the boys are spared.

The chariots and horsemen of Israel

2 Kings 2:8-14

Elijah took his cloak and rolled it up and struck the water, and the water was parted to the one side and to the other, till the two of them could go over on dry ground.
When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said, “Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me.”
And he said, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you, but if you do not see me, it shall not be so.”
And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.
And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
And he took up the cloak of Elijah that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan.
Then he took the cloak of Elijah that had fallen from him and struck the water, saying, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” And when he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.

2 Kings 13:14
Now when Elisha had fallen sick with the illness of which he was to die, Joash king of Israel went down to him and wept before him, crying, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”

Someone better

1 Samuel 15:28
And Samuel said to him, “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbour of yours, who is better than you.

קרע יי את־ממלכות ישראל מעליך היום ונתנה לרעך הטּוב ממּךּ

Esther 1:19
Let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she.

ומלכותהּ יתּן המּלך לרעותהּ הטּובה ממּנּה

In Esther, royalty is restored to the tribe of Benjamin, represented by Queen Esther, while in 1 Samuel, it is torn away from Saul the Benjaminite, and given to David, of Judah. The repetition of the phrase ‘…give it to his/her neighbour who is better than him/her’ seems more than coincidence.

The relationship between Samuel and Esther, or Samuel/Kings and Chronicles perhaps resembles the relationship between scripture and midrash. The later text is a discrete narrative entity; it has its own agenda and sitz im leben and is much more than a commentary, but it yields most when read in comjunction with the text which inspired it.

Non-Hebrew traditions

David Damrosch suggests that biblical narrative fuses the genres of poetic epic and historical chronicle, applying older epic traditions to historical persons and situations. Thus the story of David includes themes from epic poetry: the giant slaying, being chosen for kingship, the rebellious son. In medieval Europe, these themes show up in Arthurian legends.

Certain themes recur in myths and legends of all cultures: the Creation, fratricide, floods, killing monsters, babies who are abandoned, rescued and go on to great things; adultery, people ascending, like Elijah, directly to heaven; James Frazer in the Golden Bough shows the ubiquity of the scapegoat, and the story of Job appears in several versions of the Ancient Near East, including the Canaanite tale of King Keret, excavated at Ras Shamra.

Just as Josiah was the son of a bad king of Judah, Amon by name, Hezekiah also was the son of a bad king, Ahaz, who sacrificed and made offerings on the high places. Hezekiah, who succeeded his father in about 720 BCE, ‘…did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, according to all that David his father had done.’

Bearing any kind of resemblance to David was the measure of a good king in Judah, and besides Hezekiah, the comparison is made about Solomon, Asa, Josiah, and Jehoshaphat. Regarding Solomon, there is some ambivalence:

Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and did not wholly follow the LORD, as David his father had done.

Other kings of Judah are compared unfavourably with David, as in not walking in his ways, while the kings of Israel tended in the majority of cases to permit foreign worship in the high places. The idiom used of the kings of Israel is that they walked in the ways of Jeroboam son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin.

The political situation in Hezekiah’s time was that Assyria was the dominating power of the region. 2 Kings 18, which deals with the beginning of Hezekiah’s reign, tells us that he removed the high places and the Asherah and broke the brazen serpent which Moses had made; ‘for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan).’ He rebelled against the king of Assyria and refused to serve him and had some military success against the Philistines in Gaza.

In the sixth year of Hezekiah’s reign Samaria fell to the Assyrian Shalmaneser, who abducted the Israelites and resettled them in Assyria. Eight years later Assyria, under the leadership of Sennacherib, attacked the kingdom of Judah. Under pressure of Assyria’s superior military force, Hezekiah offered tributes to Sennacherib, from the Temple treasure. This did not have the presumably desired effect of satisfying the Assyrians and keeping them at a distance from Jerusalem, for Sennacherib’s emissaries came to Jerusalem from the Assyrian stronghold in Lachish , at the head of a large army.

And the king of Assyria sent the Tartan, the Rab-saris, and the Rabshakeh with a great army from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem.

These names appear to be military titles: Tartan, Rabsaris and Rabshakeh. The etymology suggests high office – saris is used in Genesis to describe Potiphar as a captain or officer of Pharaoh; Rab means great, and Rab-saqu is Assyrian for chief cup bearer; Tartan spelled with a tav may be connected with sar, prince or leader. According to Wikipedia:

There was a tartanu imni or ‘tartan of the right’, as well as a tartanu shumeli or ‘tartan of the left’. In later times the title became territorial; we read of a tartan of ‘Kummuh’ (Commagene). The title is also applied to the commanders of foreign armies ; thus Sargon speaks of the Tartan Musurai, or ‘Egyptian Tartan’.

The Rabshakeh has a speaking part, and he speaks in Hebrew, to impress or influence the people of Jerusalem, essentially telling them to cease reposing trust in Egypt since Pharaoh is toast, or as the Rabshakeh says: the broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. He tells them not to trust in God, since the Assyrians are invincible, without God.

 Then Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and Shebnah, and Joah, said to the Rabshakeh, “Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, for we understand it. Do not speak to us in the language of Judah within the hearing of the people who are on the wall.” 27 But the Rabshakeh said to them, “Has my master sent me to speak these words to your master and to you, and not to the men sitting on the wall, who are doomed with you to eat their own dung and to drink their own urine?” 28 Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out in a loud voice in the language of Judah: “Hear the word of the great king, the king of Assyria! 29 Thus says the king: ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you out of my hand. 30 Do not let Hezekiah make you trust in the LORD by saying, The LORD will surely deliver us, and this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.’ 31 Do not listen to Hezekiah, for thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make your peace with me and come out to me. Then each one of you will eat of his own vine, and each one of his own fig tree, and each one of you will drink the water of his own cistern, 32 until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive trees and honey, that you may live, and not die. And do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, The LORD will deliver us. 33 Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? 34 Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? 35 Who among all the gods of the lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?'” 36 But the people were silent and answered him not a word, for the king’s command was, “Do not answer him.” 37 Then Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder, came to Hezekiah with their clothes torn and told him the words of the Rabshakeh.

An identical passage is found in Isaiah:.

In 2 Chronicles 32, the servant of Sennacherib harangues the people of Jerusalem with a very similar speech, but he is not designated as Rabshakeh, Rabsaris or Tartan.

On being told the Assyrian’s words, Hezekiah rends his garments in distress, and sends for Isaiah the prophet. Isaiah tells him:

Thus says the LORD: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me.  Behold, I will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land, and I will make him fall by the sword in his own land.

The Rabshakeh departs as Sennacherib is engaged in wars on other fronts, but Hezekiah receives a threatening letter from the Assyrian king, in the same mode as the Rabshakeh’s speech, which Hezekiah takes to the Temple.

Hezekiah went up to the house of the LORD and spread it before the LORD. And Hezekiah prayed before the LORD and said: “O LORD, the God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth. Incline your ear, O LORD, and hear; open your eyes, O LORD, and see; and hear the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God. Truly, O LORD, the kings of Assyria have laid waste the nations and their lands and have cast their gods into the fire, for they were not gods, but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone. Therefore they were destroyed. So now, O LORD our God, save us, please, from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O LORD, are God alone.”

Isaiah tells Hezekiah that God has heard his prayer and declaims an oracle in defiance of Sennacherib:

Thus says the LORD concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city or shoot an arrow there, or come before it with a shield or cast up a siege mound against it. 33 By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, declares the LORD.  For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.”

That night an angel of God killed 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. After this Sennacherib returned to Nineveh where he was later assassinated by his sons Adrammelech and Sharezer,and succeeded by his son Esarhaddon.

Hezekiah became ill and Isaiah told him that God said he would not recover.

Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, saying,  “Now, O LORD, please remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.’

Isaiah told Hezekiah that God had relented and that in three days Hezekiah would be recovered sufficiently to go up to the Temple. God would add another fifteen years to his life, while saving Jerusalem from Assyrian aggression.

Curiously, Hezekiah asked Isaiah for proof, a sign from God, and was duly granted a miracle, when the shadow on the sundial went backwards.

After this, Hezekiah made a strange misjudgment while showing hospitality to some Babylonian envoys. At this time, Babylon was not yet a great power, and Hezekiah felt secure enough to show them all the treasures of his kingdom.

There was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them.

Isaiah perceived the error of this and told Hezekiah that the time would soon come when all the treasures would be carried off to Babylon and Hezekiah’s sons with them. In fact it was the sons of Josiah who were carried off to Babylon. Hezekiah heard the prophecy stoically, commenting that these events would not befall during his lifetime. The year of Hezekiah’s death is 692 BCE, so nearly a hundred years will pass before Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled.

This is not the only instance of an apparent conflation of the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah.

Hezekiah in Chronicles

In the Chronicles account, Hezekiah becomes king at the age of twenty-five, as in Kings. He appoints Levites to carry out the cleansing of the Temple and the Levites get rid of all the utensils of idolatry which had been permitted by King Ahaz, the father of Hezekiah. The Temple is reconsecrated with the priests slaughtering large quantities of bulls, sheep and goats, as sin offerings, on behalf of all Israel. The sacrifices took place to musical accompaniment, including singers and trumpeters. There were not enough priests to do all the sacrifices:

…so until other priests had consecrated themselves, their brothers the Levites helped them, until the work was finished, for the Levites were more upright in heart than the priests in consecrating themselves.

Hezekiah then sent letters to all Israel and Judah that they should come to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. This was to take place in the second month, Iyyar, as there were not enough consecrated priests in Jerusalem during the month of Nisasn to hold the Passover on the usual date. Hezekiah’s couriers went as far as the tribe of Zebulun in the north, where they were mocked, but some men from Asher, Manasseh and Zebulun responded to the call and came to Jerusalem.

And the people of Israel who were present at Jerusalem kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with great gladness, and the Levites and the priests praised the LORD day by day, singing with all their might to the LORD.

Hezekiah arranged the divisions of priests and Levites, according to their appointed tasks and commanded the people to tithe their produce as a means of support for the priests and Levites.

After this, Sennacherib invaded Judah, and Hezekiah prepared for war, building fortifications and diverting the water supplies outside the city. The Assyrian servants – in this version, anonymous – of Sennacherib addressed the people of Jerusalem, as in the accounts in 2 Kings and Isaiah.

Hezekiah and Isaiah resorted to prayer, and God sent an angel, who annihilated – יכחד – the Assyrian commanders and warriors, so that Sennacherib withdrew to his own country. 2 Chronicles does not include the poem spoken by Isaiah in 2 Kings 19. 2 Kings does have the angel who smote – יך – the Assyrian officers.

The Chronicler tells of Hezekiah’s illness, and that God answered his prayer and cured him, but does not mention the sun-dial.

But Hezekiah did not make return according to the benefit done to him, for his heart was proud. Therefore wrath came upon him and Judah and Jerusalem. But Hezekiah humbled himself for the pride of his heart, both he and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the wrath of the LORD did not come upon them in the days of Hezekiah.

In Kings, Hezekiah’s pride is shown in his dealings with the Babylonian envoys, when he shows them the treasures of the kingdom. Isaiah then warns him that the city will fall to the Babylonians, although not in his own lifetime.

Hezekiah compared with Josiah

The narratives concerning Asa and his son Jehoshaphat, kings of Judah, have material in common, as do those of Hezekiah and Josiah, notably ending the cult of male prostitutes, and engaging in both war and diplomacy with Israel and Syria, but Jehoshaphat was Asa’s successor, which permits some continuity in foreign and domestic affairs.

A notable point in common for Hezekiah and Josiah is that they revive the celebration of Passover. Josiah’s Passover seems to have taken place on the usual dates, beginning on 14 Nissan, as there is no assertion to the contrary, whereas Hezekiah’s Passover was the precedent for Pesach Sheni, occuring in the middle of Iyyar. The author of josiah’s narrative does not alluide to Hezekiah’s Passover, which would have taken place nearly a hundred years earlier than that of Josiah.

No such Passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah. But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this Passover was kept to the LORD in Jerusalem.

Hezekiah and Josiah both sacrifice thousands of sheep, goats and cattle for the Passover.
The reference to the time of the Judges may refer to Joshua who had celebrated the first Passover in the promised land with the people at the camp in Gilgal,

Destroying the idols
Hezekiah smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah.

Josiah smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah.

Hezekiah also breaks the bronze serpent which Moses had made, because it had become an object of worship.

The bronze serpent is therefore not there in Josiah’s day, but Josiah fills the empty spaces of the former Asherim with human bones, which had the dual effect of rendering the places ritually unfit for worship and invoking the prophecy of the Ish Elohim in 1 Kings that Josiah would burn human bones on the high places.

We read that Jerusalem was to be spared destruction in the time of Hezekiah but Huldah the prophetess has similar words for Josiah:

Because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the LORD, when you heard how I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the LORD. Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place.

Because your heart was tender and you humbled yourself before God when you heard his words against this place and its inhabitants, and you have humbled yourself before me and have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the LORD. Behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place and its inhabitants.

Names in common
Certain proper names appear in both the Hezekiah and Josiah narratives. Hilkiah is one example, thus, in the reign of Hezekiah:

And when they called for the king, there came out to them Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebnah the secretary, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder.

In the reign of Josiah:

And Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the LORD.”

Shebnah and Shaphan are similar and may be cognate.

Other names common to both reigns as written in Kings or Chronicles are: Eliakim, Zechariah, Azariah, Conaniah and Shemei/Shemaiah, Jehiel, Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun and Jozabad, the latter appearing in the Levite accounts of the Chronicler:

Then Hezekiah commanded them to prepare chambers in the house of the LORD, and they prepared them. 12 And they faithfully brought in the contributions, the tithes, and the dedicated things. The chief officer in charge of them was Conaniah the Levite, with Shimei his brother as second, 13 while Jehiel, Azaziah, Nahath, Asahel, Jerimoth, Jozabad, Eliel, Ismachiah, Mahath, and Benaiah were overseers assisting Conaniah and Shimei his brother, by the appointment of Hezekiah the king and Azariah the chief officer of the house of God.

[Josiah’s] officials contributed willingly to the people, to the priests, and to the Levites. Hilkiah, Zechariah, and Jehiel, the chief officers of the house of God, gave to the priests for the Passover offerings 2,600 Passover lambs and 300 bulls. 9 Conaniah also, and Shemaiah and Nethanel his brothers, and Hashabiah and Jeiel and Jozabad, the chiefs of the Levites, gave to the Levites for the Passover offerings 5,000 lambs and young goats and 500 bulls.

Dual narratives
The replication of names and incidents raises the question of common narrative source used in the histories of Hezekiah and Josiah.

However, there are very many examples in the bible of dual versions, with or without the replication of names. The case of Abraham and Isaac pretending that their wives are sisters; the thankless children of both Jacob and David and the stories of Dinah and Tamar; Michal, like Rachel, deceiving her father to protect her husband; David sparing Saul’s life in two separate caves; Elijah and Elisha each reviving a child; we could make this the subject of future study. Edward Greenstein has written on this subject in an article The Formation of the Biblical Narrative Corpus and he notes a tendency for the book of Judges to retell versions of the Genesis narrative – when an angel appears to Gideon under a terebinth in Judges 6, there are parallels with the angels which appear to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18 and with Jacob’s encounter with the angel at the ford of Jabbok; the annunciation to Samson’s parents in Judges as aspects in common with the angels’ annunciation to Abraham and Sarah.

Hezekiah and archaeology
Hezekiah’s historicity is attested by archaeological evidence: the well-known Siloam inscription records the construction of Hezekiah’s tunnel which brought water from the Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam in East Jerusalem. The inscription, in paleo-Hebrew script, is believed to date from the late eighth century, during the reign of Hezekiah.

William J Dever, in his 2005 book ‘Did God Have a Wife’ uses archaeological finds such as inscriptions at Khirbet el-Qom and Kuntillet Ajrud as evidence to support his view that the worship of the Asherah was common practice in ancient Israel and Judah.

He cites archaeological evidence that a central cult room, dated to the late eighth century, of the fortress at Arad was demolished, with altars and massevot concealed under the floor. Dever writes:

The deliberate dismantling of the temple and its replacement by another structure in the days of Hezekiah is an archeological fact. I see no reason for skepticism here.

Josiah’s birth is predicted by ‘a man of God’at King Jeroboam’s altar at Bethel, notable for being ornamented with two golden calves. The ish Elohim says:

O altar, altar, thus says the LORD: ‘Behold, a son shall be born to the house of
David, Josiah by name, and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places
who make offerings on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.’

After king Amon of Judah was assassinated, his son Josiah, at the age of eight, became king of Judah. He reigned for thirty-one years, until he was killed by the Egyptian Pharaoh Neco on the battlefield of Megiddo.

And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD and walked in all the way of
David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.

It should be noted that the assessment of a king as good or bad depends on the extent to which he prioritises the Temple and its cult. The northern kings were therefore at a disadvantage, and Jeroboam’s altar at Bethel with its two golden calves is a symbol of corrupt kingship.

Josiah was the son of King Amon who reigned briefly in Judah after King Manasseh. Both Amon and Manasseh encouraged and participated in idolatrous cults. There is some dispute as to whether the hegemony of Assyria over Judah left Manasseh and Amon much choice, whereas Josiah ruled in a Judah which was for a short time free of external domination. Mordechai Cogan has suggested that ‘the foreign innovations reported of the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh are attributable to the voluntary adoption by Judah’s ruling class of the prevailing Assyro-Aramaean culture.’1

Discovery of the scroll

In the eighteenth year of his reign, Josiah was having repairs and renovations carried out in the Temple, under the supervision of the high priest, Hilkiah. The background story that Josiah commences renovations in the Temple indicates that he was worthy of the discovery of the sacred sefer ha Torah.

Jeremiah the prophet was the son of a priest called Hilkiah, who would be roughly contemporary with the Hilkiah of Josiah but Hilkiah the father of Jeremiah served as a priest in Anathoth.
Jeremiah has an involvement with the Josiah story, and, while the usual opinion is that the two Hilkiahs are two different people, the possibilty of them being one and the same is not rejected in every commentary. Jeremiah is not mentioned in Kings, although his use of language connects him with the Deuteronomistic history.

Josiah sent a scribe called Shaphan to Hilkiah, with instructions for paying the workmen, and Hilkiah took the opportunity to tell Shaphan that he had discovered a book of the Law in the Temple. The term used in 2 Kings 22:8 is Sefer ha Torah, with the definite article. In 2 Chronicles, a connection with Moses is emphasised: sefer Torat Hashem b’yad Moshe.

While reporting to the king on the business of paying the workmen with Temple silver, Shaphan told him about the scroll and read it to him. In the account of Josiah in 2 Chronicles, he begins his reforms before the discovery of the scroll.

Josiah responded by rending his clothes, as mourners do, repenting because the laws of the scroll had not been kept during the years  while it was hidden away. He told Hilkiah, Shaphan and other scribes and ministers to go and enquire of God – Lechu dirshu et Hashem – concerning the words of the scroll. This they did by consulting the prophetess Huldah who lived in Jerusalem.

Huldah is one of seven prophetesses named in the Talmud. The others are Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail and Esther. Huldah replied in an oracle from God, that He would bring disaster on Jerusalem and its inhabitants, because they had gone after other gods, and committed evil deeds. However, Josiah would be spared the sight of this, as he was repentant, so the destruction of Jerusalem would not occur in his lifetime.

Destroying the high places (bamot)

Josiah went to the Temple and had the sefer ha brit read to all the people, great and small. He then destroyed the idolatrous altars, beginning with those in the Temple.

And he broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes who were in the house of
the LORD, where the women wove hangings for the Asherah.

He destroyed all idolatrous centres in and around Jerusalem, and beyond, including the altar at Bethel. This was the altar about which the man of God in 1 Kings 13 had prophesied to Jeroboam that human bones would be burned on the altar. Josiah fulfilled this prophecy, then went on to destroy the pagan altars of Samaria, after which returned to Jerusalem.

Josiah’s Passover

According to 2 Kings 23:

21 And the king commanded all the people, “Keep the Passover to the LORD your
God, as it is written in this Book of the Covenant.” 22 For no such Passover had been
kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the
kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah. 23 But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah
this Passover was kept to the LORD in Jerusalem.

The expression ‘no such Passover’ resembles the locution that there was no king, before or since, such as Josiah, no prophet such as Moses.

The Chronicles version is:

No Passover like it had been kept in Israel since the days of Samuel the prophet.
None of the kings of Israel had kept such a Passover as was kept by Josiah, and the
priests and the Levites, and all Judah and Israel who were present, and the
inhabitants of Jerusalem.

The Chronicles version of Josiah’s Passover is much longer, with details of the great quantity of animals slaughtered by the priests for the paschal feast and the notable presence of the Levites at the forefront of the organization. The Temple singers – thesons of Asaph – were a feature of the Second Temple One of the differences in the Chronicles version of Josiah’s story is the prominent role of the Levites, not surprisingly as the author of Chronicles is an advocate for the Levites of the Second Temple. One of the offices of the Levites was to provide music, especially psalmody; another was to be keepers of the gate, a responsible position, perhaps to maintain the security of the Temple precinct. They were also scribes and teachers.

Was the scroll the book of Deuteronomy?

Why is there such a broad consensus that the book of the law found by Hilkiah is Deuteronomy? The language, the theology and the account of Passover correspond to Deuteronomy. The expression ‘book of the law’ comes from no other book of the Pentateuch than Deuteronomy. Abolition of the high places and centralisation of the cult is prescribed only in Deuteronomy. The passover in Josiah’s time (2 Kings 23:21-23) corresponds with verses in Deuteronomy:

1 “Observe the month of Abib and keep the Passover to the LORD your God, for in
the month of Abib the LORD your God brought you out of Egypt by night. 2 And
you shall offer the Passover sacrifice to the LORD your God, from the flock or the
herd, at the place that the LORD will choose, to make his name dwell there. 3 You
shall eat no leavened bread with it. Seven days you shall eat it with unleavened
bread, the bread of affliction–for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste–that
all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land
of Egypt. 4 No leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory for seven days, nor
shall any of the flesh that you sacrifice on the evening of the first day remain all
night until morning. 5 You may not offer the Passover sacrifice within any of your
towns that the LORD your God is giving you, 6 but at the place that the LORD your
God will choose, to make his name dwell in it, there you shall offer the Passover
sacrifice, in the evening at sunset, at the time you came out of Egypt. 7 And you
shall cook it and eat it at the place that the LORD your God will choose. And in the
morning you shall turn and go to your tents. 8 For six days you shall eat unleavened
bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a solemn assembly to the LORD your

Was the scroll found, in some kind of genizah, or was it written during the early reign of Josiah? A German theologian called De Wette, writing in 1805, believed that Deuteronomy was the book Hilkiah handed over to King Josiah and that it was written during the reign of Josiah, to justify his religious reform. ‘Book of the law’ may refer to the Code of Laws which form the central passages of Deuteronomy, chapters 12 to 26, the huqim and mishpatim, statutes and ordinances, whereas the introductory and
supplementary chapters are a review of the history of God’s relationship with the Israelites in the wilderness and the imminence of entering the Promised Land.

Deuteronomy is believed to be written in stages between the 7th century BCE and the early 5th. The term Deuteronomistic history was coined in 1943 by the German biblical scholar Martin Noth, referring to the authorship of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings which he believed were argued the work of a sixth century historian seeking to explain the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile. In the so-called Deuteronomistic history, Israel goes through a cycle of infidelity, punishment and restoration, ultimately facing exile by the end of 2 Kings.

In 1968, Frank Moore Cross, who was an authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, made the radical suggestion that the Deuteronomistic History was written first in the time of Josiah in the late 7th century (he called this Deuteronomy 1), and revised by a 6th-century author in a version which he called Deuteronomy 2. Deuteronomy 1 is positive towards Judah and negative towards Israel and its kings. Deuteronomy 2, written in exile according to Frank Moore Cross, adds warnings of a broken covenant, followed by punishment and exile.

Deuteronomy includes in its legal code the Law of the King, as follows:

14 “When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you
possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations
that are around me,’ 15 you may indeed set a king over you whom the LORD your
God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You
may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. 16 Only he must not
acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to
acquire many horses, since the LORD has said to you, ‘You shall never return that
way again.’ 17 And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn
away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold. 18 “And when he
sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this
law, approved by the Levitical priests. 19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read
in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping
all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, 20 that his heart may
not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the
commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in
his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.

These laws show that the king is subordinate to the Torah and in fact the only duty prescribed for a king is that he should read Torah every day, fear God and keep the commandments. It does not require that he should be a military leader or a judge, although the kings often filled these roles, or that he should have quantities of horses and wives, although this was precisely the manner of Solomon’s rule.

Bernard M Levinson in a 2001 article shows that the Deuteronomic Law of the King limits the authority of the king and queries why Josiah would have promulgated such a book. From this point of view, it does not seem likely that Josiah would commission the
writing of Deuteronomy. Levinson argues that the Deuteronomistic author of Kings reverses the Law of the King, as found in Deuteronomy, by showing Josiah as the instigator and advocate of the Law. Josiah follows Deuteronomy on Passover, commanding the people to observe it and presiding over the centralized festival.

Levinson says:

Despite the royal insistence upon conformity to the law, Josiah’s very invocation of
that law transforms it…Torah is here implemented under royal aegis, The king
commanded the people…In one deft stroke the Deuteronomistic Historian revokes
and redefines both the Deuteronomistic Passover, now enacted under royal
command, and Deuteronomy’s Law of the king, as the monarch now leads the cultus.
The Deuteronomistic historian subordinates Deuteronomistic law to his own more
conservative view of the proper relation between king and cult and thus reverses
Deuteronomy’s innovation. With Josiah made the royal enforcer of Torah as the law
of the land, the Deuteronomistic historian, several generations after Deuteronomy,
returns to the monarch the active connection to cultus and law that had been, so
briefly and idealistically, denied him.

Cross’s ‘dual redaction’ thesis about Deuteronomy is widely accepted, but there is also a view that there is a post exilic phase in the composition of the book, and that Chapters 1-4 and 29-30 were added in the time of the Persian Empire. The additions in the narrative are about the Israelites being about to enter the Promised Land, an analogy with the end of the exile, when they were about to return to it.

The Death of Josiah
Josiah became king of Judah in about 641/640 BC, when the Assyrian Empire was beginning to disintegrate. Babylon and Egypt jostled for ascendancy but neither had yet achieved it so Josiah was able to rule without external interference.

In 609, Pharaoh Neco II led an army up to the Euphrates River to aid the Assyrians. Josiah attempted to block Neco’s advance at Megiddo, and in the course of the battle, Josiah was killed.

Herodotus (c484 BC – 425 BCE) wrote:

Necos…stopped work on the canal and turned to war; some of his triremes were
constructed by the northern sea, and some in the Arabian Gulf, by the coast of the
Sea of Erythrias. The windlasses for beaching the ships can still be seen. He
deployed these ships as needed, while he also engaged in a pitched battle at
Magdolos with the Syrians, and conquered them.

Josephus says of Josiah:

He was of a most excellent disposition and naturally virtuous and followed the
actions of King David as a pattern and a rule to him in the whole conduct of his life.

Josephus reports that Josiah turned the people away from the practice of idol worship
and destroyed the altars which previous kings had permitted.

His account of Josiah’s last battle and death is as follows:

Now Neco, king of Egypt, raised an army, and marched to the river Euphrates, in
order to fight with the Medes and Babylonians, who had overthrown the dominion
of the Assyrians, (9) for he had a desire to reign over Asia. Now when he was come
to the city Mendes, which belonged to the kingdom of Josiah, he brought an army to
hinder him from passing through his own country, in his expedition against the
Medes. Now Neco sent a herald to Josiah, and told him that he did not make this
expedition against him, but was making haste to Euphrates; and desired that he
would not provoke him to fight against him, because he obstructed his march to the
place whither he had resolved to go. But Josiah did not admit of this advice of
Neco, but put himself into a posture to hinder him from his intended march. I
suppose it was fate that pushed him on this conduct, that it might take an occasion
against him; for as he was setting his army in array, (10) and rode about in his
chariot, from one wing of his army to another, one of the Egyptians shot an arrow at
him, and put an end to his eagerness of fighting; for being sorely wounded, he
command a retreat to be sounded for his army, and returned to Jerusalem, and died
of that wound; and was magnificently buried in the sepulchre of his fathers, when
he had lived thirty-nine years, and of them had reigned thirty-one.

According to 2 Chronicles:

Jeremiah also uttered a lament for Josiah; and all the singing men and singing
women have spoken of Josiah in their laments to this day.

The Chronicler does not refer to the Assyrians in his account of the battle at Megiddo,
and asserts that Josiah was carried wounded but alive from battle, to die in Jerusalem,
with which Josephus’s version agrees. The much briefer version in Kings speaks of
Neco killing Josiah at Megiddo, but does not mention the battle.

We must remember Huldah who prophesied of Josiah:

You shall be gathered to your grave in peace.

There is also an account of Josiah’s reign in the apocryhal book of 1 Esdras, which
follows closely the Chronicles version. Here is the story of the death of Josiah, as
related by Esdras (which is Greek for Ezra):

25 Now after all these acts of Josias it came to pass, that Pharaoh the king of Egypt
came to raise war at Carchamis upon Euphrates: and Josias went out against him. 26
But the king of Egypt sent to him, saying, What have I to do with thee, O king of
Judea? 27 I am not sent out from the Lord God against thee; for my war is upon
Euphrates: and now the Lord is with me, yea, the Lord is with me hasting me
forward: depart from me, and be not against the Lord. 28 Howbeit Josias did not
turn back his chariot from him, but undertook to fight with him, not regarding the
words of the prophet Jeremy spoken by the mouth of the Lord: 29 But joined battle
with him in the plain of Magiddo, and the princes came against king Josias. 30 Then
said the king unto his servants, Carry me away out of the battle; for I am very weak.
And immediately his servants took him away out of the battle. 31 Then gat he up
upon his second chariot; and being brought back to Jerusalem died, and was buried
in his father’s sepulchre. 32 And in all Jewry they mourned for Josias, yea, Jeremy
the prophet lamented for Josias, and the chief men with the women made
lamentation for him unto this day: and this was given out for an ordinance to be
done continually in all the nation of Israel. 33 These things are written in the book
of the stories of the kings of Judah, and every one of the acts that Josias did, and his
glory, and his understanding in the law of the Lord, and the things that he had done
before, and the things now recited, are reported in the book of the kings of Israel and

Josiah in Midrash

Genesis Rabbah records:
Three were called by their names before they were born: Isaac, Solomon and Josiah.
What is said in the case of Isaac? ‘Nay but Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son and
thou shalt call his name Isaac.’ In the case of Solomon? ‘Behold a son shall be born
to thee, who shall be a man of rest, and I will give him rest from all his enemies
round about, for his name shall be Solomon.’ In the case of Josiah? ‘And he cried
against the altar by the word of the Lord: O altar, altar, thus saith the Lord, Behold a
son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name.’

Lamentations Rabbah tells:

[Josiah] had sent two disciples of the sages to eradicate idolatry from the people’s
houses. When they entered the houses, they found nothing. As they went out, they
were told to shut the doors, and when they shut the doors, the people inside could
see the idol.

This failure of Josiah to implement his reforms throughout the land may be a
rationalization of his violent death,which does not fulfil the prophecy of Huldah. Kings
is very favorable to Josiah but Chronicles even more so with its devotion to the
Davidic/Solomonic dynasty. The fact that Josiah is brought back alive to Jerusalem in
Chronicles (and in Esdras) permits the interpretation that his end was peaceful, as
foreseen by the prophetess.

There are many parallels between the narratives of King Josiah and King Hezekiah,and, next time, we can look more closely at the reign of Hezekiah, about a hundred years before Josiah.

ISAIAH 52, 13 – 53, 12


In Deutero-Isaiah (chapter 40 and following), the prophet is not named as Isaiah.

Bernard Duhm wrote in an 1892  commentary on Isaiah that the book should be divided into three (chapters 56 – 66  forming the third division) rather than two parts, to include a Trito-Isaiah, and Duhm believed that the four Servant Songs had separate authorship from the rest of  Isaiah.

These were the four songs: Isaiah 42, 1 – 4, the second: 49, 1 – 6,the third: 50, 4 – 9, and then there is the song which is in our machzor in the YK mussaf service, 52, 13ff.

The  Substitute King

Assyrian texts of the seventh century BCE, 200 years before Deutero Isaiah, refer to a ritual of the Substitute King, which is relevant to the imagery of Isaiah 53. If the king was threatened by ill-omens, for example an eclipse, a substitute would be chosen to sit on the king’s throne for a designated period of time, in order that the expected misfortune should fall on the substitute and not on the king. John H Walton of Wheaton College, Illinois has written on the parallels between these texts and Isaiah 52 – 53. He mentions seventh century Assyrian texts from the time of Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal. The royal substitute was not intended to rule but to act as a decoy, to draw misfortune away from the true king. There is some resemblance to a scapegoat or a whipping boy, but the ritual here serves to avert a perceived danger. Of interest  in the Assyrian account is that the substitute had to wear the king’s crown, sceptre and robes and, if the substitute was put to death, to avert the perceived danger to the king, he was given a royal funeral. As John Walton points out, there is no king is involved in the Isaiah text. However,  the servant is considered a lowly person who becomes exalted and, in verse 9 as we shall see, his tomb is among the wealthy. Walton  suggests that the prophet is promulgating an ideal image of kingship

 …portraying the ideal king as a Servant who functions as a humble instrument of God’s will.

Walton contends that the language of the servant songs is consistent with this imagery and contains:

…elements that were reminiscent of other kingship-focused observances from the ancient Near East. [1]

Isaac Avishur, the author of the EJ entry on Isaiah, [2] mentions the view that the prophet has utilised and customised  liturgy in respect of the Mesopotamian god Tammuz.It is interesting that pagan Mesopotamian tradition, Hebrew prophecy and Christian theology all seem to idealise a paradoxical figure who is both afflicted and exalted, lowly and elevated. No doubt this figure is an archetypal reflection of  human sorrow and aspiration in the context of religious striving.

 ‘The Apologetic Impulse’

As the subject of second Isaiah is the return of the Jewish people from Babylonian exile; not merely the return but the exaltation of the people through the intervention of God, there is a good case for regarding the Servant as a representation of Am Yisrael, rather than an individual.

Gershom Scholem suggests that the tendency to interpret this passage in terms of the destiny of the Jewish people is a sign of:

…an apologetic impulse at work which must not be underestimated. The representatives of the rational tendencies stood in the forefront of the theological defences mounted against the claims of the Church.[3]

If Scholem is right, it would explain why Talmud and Midrash were so much more willing to believe in an individual Messiah than the medieval biblical commentators, who were operating in the face of the hostility of  medieval Christianity.

Hyam Maccoby commented on the earlier development of  the representation of the Messiah in folkloric aggadic literature, believing that this altered significantly after the failed rebellion of Simon Bar Kokhba:

The modern view of the Suffering Servant passage, interpreted as referring to the Messiah, is that this interpretation is not found in the earliest aggadic material, which regards the Messiah as a happy, triumphant figure. It was not until the defeat of the Bar Kokhba rebellion (135 CE) and the resulting miseries of the Jewish people that the idea of a suffering Messiah entered Jewish thought and was reflected in aggadah.[4]

Chapter 52, verse 13

Ibn Ezra and Redak took the view that the Servant refers to the Jews in exile. Rashi explains: ‘Behold, at the end of days, My servant Jacob, ie the righteous among him, shall prosper.’

The verb יַשְֹכִּיל is translated variously as he will be prudent, he will be wise, he will prosper, he will be successful. It appears in 1 Samuel 18, 14, in the present tense:

וַיְהִי דָוִד לְכָל דְּרָכָו }דְּרָכָיו{ מַשְׂכִּיל וַיהֹוָה עִמּוֹ

And David was successful in all his ways, and the Lord was with him.

Targum Jonathan uses a synonymous word, צ ל ח, for ‘prosper;’ the Targum has הָא יַצְלַח עַבְדִי מְשִיחָא which is ‘Behold my servant, the anointed, shall prosper.’

שֹ כ ל is often used in the sense of behaving wisely, especially in the book of Proverbs; Ibn Ezra therefore explains the verse: ‘My servant shall understand that he will be exalted and lifted up,’ which is found also in the Septuagint.

Verse 14

ש מ ם can be translated as ‘astonished,’ ‘appalled’ or ‘desolate.’ The Servant arouses a negative reaction which is neither hatred nor pity. Note the shift in this verse from second person to third person. Yamim Norayim  has ‘Many were appalled at him,’ but the Hebrew and many translations say ‘Many were apalled at you…’ before switching to the third person.

Mishhat מִשְחַת is often translated as ‘marred’ and BDB has ‘disfigured’. This usage is a hapax legomenon. It comes from a verb ש ח ת meaning ‘to corrupt’ or ‘to destroy’ and connected also with bowing down. Perhaps this is linked with ש ח ח, the root for bowing down in worship, or with  ש ח ט, as in shechita.The mem is a prefix so the root is not linked with מ ש ח, to anoint. The Targum has a word meaning ‘lean,’ ‘poor,’ ‘reduced’: חֲשִיךְ which is related to חֹֹשֶךְ, ‘darkness’.

There can be no doubt that the appearance of the servant is the very opposite of all those described as having a fair countenance:   Sarah (Genesis 12, 14); Rebecca (Genesis 24, 16); Rachel (Genesis 29, 17); Joseph (Genesis 39, 6); David (1 Samuel 16, 14); also Absalom (2 Samuel 14, 25); and not forgetting Esther(Esther 2, 7), Vashti (Esther 1, 11), the daughters of Job (Job 42, 15) and both male and female speakers in the Song of Songs. Good looks are attributed mainly to good characters – matriarchs, kings etc but also to Vashti and the dubious Absalom.

Why then is the Servant’s appearance insignificant at best and disfigured at worst?

We are familiar with the convention in film of a flattering depiction of  a physically unprepossessing character, whereby the  heroine is depicted by a beautiful actress, given thick eyebrows to denote plainness, or where a male superstar is cast as an historical personage who was not very good looking in real life (eg Richard Harris plays Oliver Cromwell). Portrait artists also are said to have flattered their subjects, not only to be paid by them but because art is enhanced by depicting beauty.

A literary depiction  loses less by failing to create an image of physical beauty because, if there is beauty, it resides in the language rather than the image.

The Servant, being unprepossessing, does not arouse compassion but appalled astonishment, which impedes the ‘many’ from identifying with him. He is therefore particularly isolated.

Verse 15

In this verse, Rashi’s identification of the Servant with Am Yisroel seems more plausible. Rashi interprets: ‘So now, even his hand will become powerful and he will cast down the nations who scattered him.’

The word י ז ה interested the commentators. The root is נ ז ה, to sprinkle or spatter; perhaps scatter, as in the Targum rendering:  ‘He will scatter the peoples…’  The kings are silenced because they have never experienced anything like this; the verse does not say what exactly silences the kings, but it seems to convey their astonishment at the  transformation of  the Servant

Ibn Ezra and Redak both explain that the other nations did not expect to see Israel’s redemption, and are now astonished by their reversal of fortune.

Chapter 53, verse 1

The rhetorical question in 53, 1 emphasises that the elevation of the Servant must be seen to be believed, but what this change reveals is God’s power, the זְרוֹעַ יי which has redeemed Israel before, especially in the Exodus from Egypt.

Verse 2

What do the metaphors of the sapling and the root from dry ground suggests about the rise of the Servant? That it is unexpected, as we have seen, perhaps relatively quick, that it has taken place in discouraging circumstances (dry ground) but that it is nevertheless deeply rooted in these circumstances. One could say that this refers to the Exile, which is in fact the interpretation of Redak, who added that the growth of the sapling in dry ground is miraculous.

The next part of the verse, which alludes again to the Servant’s unimpressive appearance, is interpreted by Redak as still referring to the Exile: ‘As long as he was in exile, he did not have a beautiful appearance.’ בּעוד שֶהיה בְּגלות לא היה לו תאר ולא הדר

The last word in this verse is וְנֶחְמְדֵהוּ ‘And shall we desire him?’ or ‘[no beauty] that we should desire him’ – ‘…nothing drew us near,’ in the Days of Awe machzor.   The word ח מ ד occurs in the ten commandments, as ‘Thou shalt not covet…’ (Exodus 20, 14): לֹא תַחְמֹד.

To whom does ‘we’ refer? If the Servant is Israel, then ‘we’ must refer to the other nations.who are shocked at Israel’s redemption.

A comment from Maimonides (Letter to Yemen, 12th century)

“What is to be the manner of Messiah’s advent, and where will be the place of his appearance? . . .  Isaiah speaks …of the time when he will appear, without his father or mother or family being known, He came up as a sucker before him, and as a root out of the dry earth, etc. But the unique phenomenon attending his manifestation is, that all the kings of the earth will be thrown into terror at his fame of him… and so confounded at the wonders which they will see him work, that they will lay their hands upon their mouth; in the words of Isaiah, when describing the manner in which the kings will hearken to him, At him kings will shut their mouth; for that which had not been told them have they seen, and that which they had not heard they have perceived.”

Verse 3

The word ‘despised,’ here in the passive נִבְזֶה is not unusual; it is the word used when Esau despised his birthright  (Genesis 25, 34), when Michal despised David in her heart (” Samuel 6, 16) and when David says that he is ‘less than human, scorned by men, despised by people.’ (Psalm 22, 7)  לֹא אִישׁ חֶרְפַּת אָדָם וּבְזוּי עָם:

חָדֵל is connected with ceasing or lack so could be translated a forsaken.

The Servant is a lonely figure. He does not have disciples or followers. A man of sorrows: אִישׁ מַכְאֹבוֹת.

In Jeremiah 15,18) Jeremiah’s use of כְאֵבִי  ‘my pain,’  is from the same root as מַכְאֹבוֹת.

Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?

More than once, Jeremiah stood in the courtyard of the Temple, denouncing corrupt and unethical practices. He became an outcast and was punished and later banned from the Temple area.He  was beaten and put in the stocks (Jeremiah 20:16) and later imprisoned (Jeremiah 37, 15 – 16) at least twice (Jeremiah 38, 4ff).

I am not contending that Jeremiah was personally the model for the Suffering Servant, but that his narrative attests the ideal of a righteous and persecuted prophet in Hebrew prophecy. However, there is a precedent for linking the Servant with Jeremiah.

Saadiah Gaon (882-942 CE)  regarded  Jeremiah as a fulfillment of these verses, not the only person to fulfil them but as a representative of many righteous servants.

Perhaps there are thirty-six  in every generation: the lamed-vavniks.

The bible often speaks of God hiding his face, in the sense of punishing someone, eg the Psalmist, or punishing the people, Israel, by withdrawal. It is less often that a person hides his face, although Moses does so in Exodus 3, 6 at the burning bush, and Job, who is most certainly a man of sorrows and acquainted with illness, speaks of hiding his face from God and of God hiding His face from Job:

 Only grant two things to me, then I will not hide myself from thy face:  withdraw thy hand far from me, and let not dread of thee terrify me. Then call, and I will answer; or let me speak, and do thou reply to me.  How many are my iniquities and my sins? Make me know my transgression and my sin.  Why dost thou hide thy face, and count me as thy enemy?  Wilt thou frighten a driven leaf and pursue dry chaff? (Job 13, 20 – 24)

Verse 4

This verse develops a theology of vicarious suffering and atonement. Rashi said ‘…he was chastised with pains so that all the nations be atoned for with Israel’s suffering.’

According to this view, ‘we’ are the nations, and ‘he’ is Israel.

Ezekiel took a different view, that each individual bears responsibility only for his own deeds:

 The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. (Ezekiel 18, 20)

Redak says that the view expressed in Isaiah 53, 4 does not contradict this, since,  if ‘we’ refers to the other nations, it is the other nations who impute vicarious suffering to Israel.

Ibn Ezra and Abravanel take this a step further, explaining that the Servant Israel bore the pains and sorrows inflicted on him by other nations.

The words חֲשַׁבְנֻהוּ נָגוּעַ מֻכֵּה אֱלֹהִים , ‘[We thought him] plagued, stricken by God,’ are often used in connection with leprosy. This words emphasise that the Servant is an outcast, as we might, in modern usage, use the word ‘leper’ as a metaphor for someone shunned by society.

“The Rabbis said:

His name is “the leper scholar,” as it is written, Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God, and afflicted. [Isaiah 53:4].” [5]

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

As a rule we reflect on the problem of suffering in relation to him who suffers. The prophet’s message insists that suffering is not to be understood exclusively in terms of the sufferer’s own situation. In Israel’s agony, all nations are involved. Israel’s suffering is not a penalty, but a privilege, a sacrifice; its endurance is a ritual, its meaning is to be disclosed to all men in the hour of Israel’s redemption.

Verse 5

This verse continues the theme of vicarious suffering but adds that we were healed by his wounds. A burden of guilt falls on ‘us,’ whoever ‘we’ may be. The theme of the righteous making atonement for the unrighteous is a feature of rabbinic literature. Even in the Avodah of the Yom Kippur mussaf service, the High Priest makes atonement for the people.

The possible meanings of the word מְחֹלָל according to BDB are profaned, defiled, pierced and there is a possible link with ח ל ה to be ill.

Verse 6

While the verse builds on theme of ‘our’ guilt, born by the servant, the sheep metaphor suggests that ‘we’ are essentially, innocent, ignorant, and easily led. Rashi, Redak and Ibn Ezra all interpret the first person plural as referring to the other nations.

In the Christian interpretation, ‘we’ refers to Israel which makes a neater metaphor but there is also the Jewish tradition in Talmud and Midrash of regarding the Servant as a person, variously identified as David, Hezekiah, Zerubbabel and the post biblical Bar Kochba, whom Rabbi Akiva believed to be the Messiah.

Verse 7

Note the use of   רחל which means ewe, but does not occur often as a common noun – only in Genesis (31, 38), in connection with Laban’s sheep, and in the Song of Songs (6, 6).  Midrash attributes to Rachel the virtue of silence and discretion, because she did not reveal to Jacob Laban’s deception regarding the marriage to Leah, and this verse may be used as a prooftext. Certainly the silence of the Servant is regarded as a virtue. The sheep metaphor is applied differently as the sheep is not wandering away, but is here the unprotesting victim.

There is another connection with Jeremiah in this verse:

But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. I did not know it was against me they devised schemes, saying, “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.” (Jeremiah 11, 19)

Verse 8

Rashi says that ‘the land of the living’ refers to Eretz Israel, and ‘cut off’ means exiled. The medieval commentators (Ibn Ezra, Redak, Rashi)  believed that the speakers are the other nations, confessing that Israel was afflicted, or stricken with plague because of the sins of the other nations, particularly in this case the Babylonians.

Verse 9

Consistently, the medieval rabbis explain that the grave among the wicked was the grave in exile, in Babylon. Rashi also suggests that the grave among the wicked and the tomb among the wealthy means that the Servant was willing to let the ruling power take his life rather than deny the Torah.

Now if the prophet’s imagery  was influenced by knowledge of the pagan practice of the Substitute King, the grave among the wealthy could refer to the practice of killing the Substitute King and burying him in a king’s tomb. ‘Among the wicked’ fits in with this too. The wicked and the wealthy seem to be linked together and the Servant submits in some way to be martyred by them.

Jeremiah’s grave was, as far as anyone knows, in Egypt, perhaps Tahpanes,where he was taken with other refugees, as Nebuchadnezzar advanced on Judah. There is a midrash that he was stoned to death (Midrash Aggadah to Numbers 30, 15).[6] This is also attributed to Tertullian (ca. 155 – 230), a patristic writer who said that the Jews stoned Jeremiah, a hostile interpretation of the Jews being par for the course in early Christian writings.

Nachmanides, who was forced to enter into a disputation with the Christian authorities of Barcelona in 1263, repudiated the view that the Suffering Servant refers to the Messiah, or that the Messiah would be put to death and buried among the wicked:

Friar Paul claimed: “Behold the passage in Isaiah, chapter 53, tells of the death of the messiah and ho he was to fall into the hands of his enemies and how he was placed alongside the wicked, as happened to Jesus. Do you believe that this section speaks of the messiah?

I said to him: “In terms of the true meaning of the section, it speaks only of the people of Israel, which the prophets regularly call ‘Israel My servant’ or ‘Jacob My servant.’ ”
Friar Paul said: “I shall prove from the words of your sages that it speaks of the messiah.”
I said to him: “It is true that the rabbis in the aggadah explain it as referring to the messiah. However, they never said that he would be killed ,at the hands of his enemies. For you will find in no book of the Jews, neither in the Talmud nor in the Midrash, that the messiah, the descendant of David, would be killed or would be turned over to his enemies or would be buried among the wicked. Indeed even the messiah whom you made for yourself was not buried. I shall explain for you this section properly and clearly, if you wish. There is no indication that the messiah would be killed, as happened to your messiah. They, however, did not wish to hear. [7] 

Verse 10

This difficult use of  ד כ א to crush occurs also in Job (6, 9 and 19, 2). How are we to understand this verse, unless by comparing the servant with Job, who was blameless and upright. (Job 1, 1)?  The crushing of the Servant, according to the verse, serves a Utilitarian purpose: that God’s purpose would be fulfilled by him; that he would see offspring and prolong his days. What does the Servant need to do to achieve this purpose? He has to offer his soul as a guilt offering: א ש ם – and the asham was one of the Temple offerings prescribed in Leviticus.

Verse 11

To whom does tsadik refer? Some translations say ‘The Righteous One,’ meaning that the Servant, through his knowledge, brings many people to God; other translations make ‘righteous’ apply to the Servant. The word order is:

He will justify/ the righteous one/My servant

It could be translated as ‘The Righteous One will justify my servant,’ or ‘My servant will justify the righteous.’ According to the rest of the verse, the Servant is the subject of the verbs.  ס ב ל means ‘to bear a heavy load.’  The Servant  sees, justifies and bears a burden. The Judaica Press translation seems to me better than some others:

From the toil of his soul he would see, he would be satisfied; with his knowledge My Servant would vindicate the just for the many, and their iniquities he would bear.’[8]

The servant song in Isaiah 42,1 ff  throws light on this verse, by its use of the motifs of ‘servant,’ ‘righteousness’ and being silent.

1 Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. 5 Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6 I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

These words are addressed to ‘You, Israel My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham who loved me’ (Isaiah 41, 8).

Note that it is through  knowledge that the servant  justifies:

 ‘for Torah will come out of Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.’ (Isaiah 2, 3)

Verse 12

The traditional medieval view, also found  earlier in the Targum, is that the nation of Israel will intercede for the welfare of the other nations.

Rashi says ‘Because he did this, I will allot him an inheritance with the Patriarchs.’

Ibn Ezra and Redak said that although Israel suffered at the hands of their oppressors, they prayed for their welfare, giving as prooftext  Jeremiah 29, 7: ‘Seek the peace of the city to which I have brought you.’

‘He poured out his soul to death’ seems to be the figure of speech which often translates  הֶעֱרָה לַמָּוֶת נַפְשׁוֹ but Yamim Noraim has ‘he exposed his soul to death,’ taking into account the connection of  ע ר ה with nakedness.

The last image in this text is a familiar paradigm: one who is martyred and dishonoured but takes on the role willingly while striving for the welfare of his oppressors.  Clearly this is at the heart of Christianity but it originates in a Hebrew context. As Jews suffered martyrdom so many times under the various oppressive empires,  it became a frequent subject of discussion in rabbinic literature. It is not chance that this text appears in the martyrology section of the Yom Kippur mussaf service.

It does not conform to an ideal of the heroic that appeared later in Greek literature, is the opposite of tyranny or hubris, but is consistent with many aspects of Hebrew scripture, especially the Psalms, as in Psalm 113, 7 – 8 for example:

 מְקִימִי מֵעָפָר דָּל מֵאַשְׁפֹּת יָרִים אֶבְיוֹן

 לְהוֹשִׁיבִי עִם נְדִיבִים עִם נְדִיבֵי עַמּוֹ:

He raises the poor from the dust, the beggar from the dunghill, to sit them with princes, the princes of his people – or Psalm 22, אֵלִי אֵלִי לָמָה עֲזַבְתָּנִי , My God, my God, whu hast Thou forsaken me?attributed to David, and used famously in the New Testament but readily applicable to Job, Jeremiah and all the Suffering Servants across the generations.


Gillian Lazarus   Ellul 5767

August 2007

1] The Imagery of the Substitute King Ritual in Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Songby John H Walton (Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 122, No. 4, 734 – 743)

[2] Encyclopedia Judaica 1971 Vol 9, p 66

[3] The Messianic Idea in Judaism, Gershom Scholem, Schocken Books NY 1971 p33

[4]Judaism on Trial by Hyam Maccoby Associated University Press 1982 p43

[5]Talmud, Sanhedrin 98b

R. Joshua b. Levi met Elijah standing by the entrance of R. Simeon b. Yohai’s tomb. He asked him: ‘Have I a portion in the world to come?’ He replied, ‘if this Master desires it.’ R. Joshua b. Levi said, ‘I saw two, but heard the voice of a third.’ He then asked him, ‘When will the Messiah come?’ — ‘Go and ask him himself,’ was his reply. ‘Where is he sitting?’ — ‘At the entrance.’ And by what sign may I recognise him?’ — ‘He is sitting among the poor lepers: all of them untie [them] all at once, and rebandage them together, whereas he unties and rebandages each separately, [before treating the next], thinking, should I be wanted, [it being time for my appearance as the Messiah] I must not be delayed [through having to bandage a number of sores].’ So he went to him and greeted him, saying, ‘peace upon thee, Master and Teacher.’ ‘peace upon thee, O son of Levi,’ he replied. ‘When wilt thou come Master?’ asked he, ‘To-day’, was his answer. On his returning to Elijah, the latter enquired, ‘What did he say to thee?’ — ‘peace Upon thee, O son of Levi,’ he answered. Thereupon he [Elijah] observed, ‘He thereby assured thee and thy father of [a portion in] the world to come.’ ‘He spoke falsely to me,’ he rejoined, ‘stating that he would come to-day, but has not.’ He [Elijah] answered him, ‘This is what he said to thee, Today, if ye will hear his voice.’

[6]Legends of the Jews, Louis Ginzberg, vol 6 p399  Johns Hopkins UP 1998

[7]  Nachmanides’ report of  The Barcelona Disputation, 1263

[8]Translation by Rabbi A J Rosenberg

This is the traditional haftarah for Toledot, and it fits in very well with the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 27. This features the episode where Rebecca instigates the deception of Isaac by Jacob, her favourite son, to obtain the birthright which would have gone to Esau.  Jacob and Esau will later take the names Israel and Edom and Genesis 27 is the prototype for many struggles which ensue between their descendants.
 The dates of most  Hebrew prophets are indicated in the superscription of their book by the names of the kings reigning at that time. No kings’ names are listed in the superscription of Malachi. The language and the situation are post-exilic (after 536 BCE) and later than the initial return to Jerusalem  because the the Temple which has been rebuilt, is up and running.
In our reading, Malachi talks about the Edomites who have a long adversarial history with the Israelites, and who, in the fifth or sixth century BCE,  were driven out of their homeland by the Nabateans, a tribe of Arabs advancing from the desert.  He goes on to criticise Temple practices whichs seems to imply that some time has passed since the second Temple’s completion around 515 BCE. Malachi’s interests and views coincide with those of Ezra and Nehemiah, being against divorce and  intermarriage, and emphasizing the paying of tithes and the proper use of the sacrificial system.
The chronology of rulers during the period of the Persian Achaemenid empire is  like this: Cyrus ruled from 559-530 and authorised the return of the captives to Jerusalem in 536 or 537. Cambyses succeeded, followed by Darius I (c.522-486), and Xerxes I; then Artaxerxes ruled from 465 to 424.  Ezra and Nehemiah  returned to Jerusalem in 458 and 450  respectively. There is a question of Artaxerxes I being the Ahasuerus of the book of Esther, but there are also opinions that Xerxes I or Artaxerxes II is a likely Ahasuerus.
The book of Ezra makes it clear that Artaxerxes, like Cyrus, was supportive of the continuing return of exiles and the rebuilding of Jerusalem.[1]

In  the book of Ezra, the king is called  אַרְתַּחְשַׁסְתְּא הַמֶּלֶךְ.

After 424, the Achaemenid kings were Xerxes II, Sogdianus, Darius II, Artaxerxes II (423-359), Artaxerxes III, Arses, Darius III  and after that, Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Empire in 330.

Jerusalem was  in the Persian province of Trans-Euphrates (west of the river), called   בַּעֲבַר נַהֲרָא , ‘Beyond the river,’ in Ezra and Nehemiah. The prophets who were active at this time, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi,  were concerned with the restoration of the the Temple and its cult, according to the law of Moses. There is not a consensus of academic opinion as to whether Malachi is earlier, later or contemporary with Ezra and Nehemiah.In  the book of Ezra, the king is called  אַרְתַּחְשַׁסְתְּא הַמֶּלֶךְ.

Although the Temple had been rebuilt, it was not a panacea for the problems caused by  bad harvests and heavy taxes imposed by the  Persians.

The subjects addressed in the three chapters which make up the book of Malachi are: God’s love for Judah and His hatred of Edom; Malachi’s accusations against the priests for neglecting the sacrificial cult, his  rejection of divorce and of mixed marriages and his condemnation of the people for  their lack of social justice and inadequate payment of tithes. He is concerned for the upkeep of the Temple, because the Temple practices represent the relationship of the people to God.  In Malachi 2, 11, the prophet denounces husbands who divorce their wives to marry ‘the daughter[s] of a strange god.’

Chapter 1, verse1

The identity and the name

As for Malachi’s identity, there is a question of whether Malachi is a proper name or simply ‘My messenger. In Malachi 3:1, the usage seems to imply that Malachi is not a proper name:

הִנְנִי שֹׁלֵחַ מַלְאָכִי וּפִנָּה דֶרֶךְ לְפָנָי

Behold I send My messenger, and he shall clear the way before me.

If Malachi means ‘My Messenger,’ the prophet’s  anonymity encourages the midrashic interpretation that he is the same person as Ezra.[2] Targum Jonathan to Malachi says, for verse 1, ‘By the hand of my messenger, whose name is Ezra the scribe.’ Jerome, in his preface to the commentary on Malachi, mentions that in his day the belief was current that Malachi was identical with Ezra (“Malachi Hebræi Esdram Existimant”). The LXX translates his messenger, rather than my messenger, referring to Malachi as  αγγελου,  ‘his angel,’ which has the same angel/messenger ambiguity as the word מַלְאךְ. The Hebrew noun is derived from the root ל א ך which means to be sent, or to minister.[3]

Midrash also describes him, with Haggai and Zechariah, as the last of the prophets and a companion of Ezra.[4] A Talmudic tradition identifies him with Mordecai, punning on the name Malachi and the ‘kingliness’ of Mordecai in Esther:

כִּי מָרְדֳּכַי הַיְּהוּדִי מִשְׁנֶה לַמֶּלֶךְ  [5]

This is the passage from the Bavli:

R Nahman said: Malachi is the same as Mordecai. Why was he called Malachi? Because he was next to the king. The following was cited in objection to this: Baruch the son of Neriah[6] and Serayah the son of Mahseyah[7] and Daniel and Mordecai, Bilshan, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi all prophesied in the second year of Darius.[8]

The names in this passage are associated with the return to Judah in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah but the rabbis also interpreted Bilshan as Mordecai’s surname.[9]

Now these are the people of the province who came up from the captivity of the exiles, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had taken captive to Babylon (they returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his own town, in company with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum and Baanah.[10]

These are the people of the province who came up from the captivity of the exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had taken captive (they returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his own town),  in company with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Azariah, Raamiah, Nahamani, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispereth, Bigvai, Nehum and Baanah.[11]

I am not sure why the chronology which makes Malachi and Mordecai active in the second year of Darius refute identification of Malachi with Mordecai. Rashi’s note suggests that this is a later Darius, האחרון

Why might the rabbis  have wanted to identify Malachi with Mordecai?  Both are from the period of the Persian Empire, but there is another connection, which is anti-Amalek, anti-Edom and anti-Esau. Amalek was one of Esau’s descendants.[12]

The identification with Ezra[13] is based on the similarity of their views on intermarriage:

R Joshua ben Korha says: Malachi is the same as Ezra, and the Sages say that Malachi was his proper name. R Nahman said: There is good ground for accepting that Malachi was the same as Ezra. For it is written in the prophecy of Malachi, Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the LORD, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god.[14] And who was it that put away the foreign women? Ezra, as it is written, And Shecani’ah the son of Jehi’el, of the sons of Elam, addressed Ezra: “We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land.[15]

מַֹשָֹּא is translated as oracle, message, ‘burden’ in some translations. It’s derived from the verb נ שֹ א, ‘to lift up,’ and is used in Zechariah, used in the same way.[16]

Verse 2

Against the Edomites

The people of Israel respond with a sceptical question: How/wherein have You loved us? This question and answer format is the didactic-dialectic style characteristic of Malachi, but found also in Isaiah, Micah and Haggai.[17]

For rhetorical effect, he makes a statement and follows it with the objection he expects from his audience.

Verse 3

The sibling relationship with Esau is mentioned up front here.

Esau’s descendants are called Edomites and they lived in the region south of the Dead Sea called Mount Seir, a name which puns on Esau’s hairiness:

וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל רִבְקָה אִמּוֹ הֵן עֵשָׂו אָחִי אִישׁ שָׂעִר וְאָנֹכִי אִישׁ חָלָק[18]

Edom of course means red, Esau being אַדְמֹונִי at birthEsau himself traveled from Canaan, in the west, to possess his land, with the territory of Ammon and Moab  on the borders. He is identified with Edom in  Genesis 36:1:

וְאֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת עֵשָׂו הוּא אֱדוֹם

Esau made multiple marriages and his descendants include many of the neighbouring peoples, Amalekites included.

The context of the animus against Edom in this Malachi text is that Edomites occupied the fertile grazing land of Judah following the exile of 586. The Nabataeans who were Arabian nomads then occupied the former Edomite territory, including Petra, the gulf of Aqaba and Elat.  Their Aramaic  inscriptions begin to appear in the fourth century BCE, according to archaeological findings.

Although there is some expression of fraternal friendliness to Edom in the Torah – You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother,[19] Obadiah makes the perfidious Edomites and their comeuppance his  entire subject.

The grudge against the Edomites for their complicity with the Babylonians  in the destruction of Jerusalem and their opportunism in benefiting from it is expressed famously in Psalm 137:

Remember O Lord the Edomites in the day of Jerusalem, who said Rase it, rase it, even to its foundations… [20]

Obadiah, the shortest of the prophetic books, is believed to have written in the 5th century BCE, after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. He denounces the Edomites for assisting the Babylonians, ravaging and looting Jerusalem after the Jews were exiled. He draws attention to the kinship between Israel and Edom, which makes Edom particularly treacherous.

Malachi’s statement of God’s hatred is sometimes explained as ‘I chose Jacob, but not Esau,’ or ‘I loved Esau less.’ It is also explained by treating Edom as a symbol of wickedness, as it is used  in midrashic literature, especially during Roman times where Rome is called Edom. In later midrash, Edom may represent the church.

James Kugel, commenting on the changing portrayal of Esau in Midrash, writes:

Part of the motive for this change is to be found in the later history of Israel, as reflected in the bible itself. After all, Esau was the ancestor of the Edomites, Israel’s close neighbour and sometimes fierce enemy. Later biblical texts frequently heaped scorn on the Edomites, and sometimes this scorn was couched in terms that reflected back on the founder of that nation.[21]

The enmity of the Amalekites contributed to the bad press received by Esau and by the Edomites as a people. This adds dramatic impetus to the identification of Malachi, scourge of the Edomites with Mordecai, scourge of the Amalekites.

Esau was a hunter, living by the sword,[22] and was a natural symbol for the martial power of Rome:

[Isaac’s words] The voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau[23] [really refer to the people of Israel and Rome] for Jacob rules only through his voice, but Esau rules only through his hands.[24]

Verses, 3- 4.

These verses speak of retribution  towards Edom.

According to Malachi, the desolation of Edom is an accomplished fact rather than a threat to be fulfilled in the  future, probably referring to the devastation of Edom caused by  the migration of  Nabateans. The word tanot, translated in my bible as jackals, is translated elsewhere as dragons, presumably because it resembles the tanim, dragons or sea monsters of Genesis 1, 21. Sea monsters of the desert would not be suitable. The ‘jackals of the wilderness’ are the marauding Nabateans.  The Edomites were forced south, to the Negev,  in Roman times was called Idumea. The fact that Idumea provided the Herodian dynasty, clients of the Roman regime, also contributes to the identification of Edom with Rome.

Verse 5

God’s greatness reaches beyond Israel and His retribution is suffered by other peoples, especially those who attack Israel, so he regarded as  universal but not fatherly.

Rashi comments:

He will show His greatness over our border, to make known that we are His people. And Jonathan[25] rendered: May the glory of the Lord be magnified, and He has widened the border of Israel.

This verse completes Malachi’s section on Edom, and in the next verse, he attacks a home grown target.

Verses 6

Corrupt priests and unkosher sacrifices

Malachi turns to the subject of corruption among the priests who misuse the sacrificial system. Theseare reminiscent of charges from the author of Samuel  against the sons of Eli[26] and the sons of Samuel.[27]

The relationship between God and the cohanim is affirmed as that of a father to His children or a master to His servants, but the priests have failed in their duties as children and servants.

The designation here for God is Lord of Hosts; the LXX has παντοκρατωρ.

Verse 7

‘Polluted bread’ is less likely to refer to bread than to the unsuitable animals offered at the altar.The word for offering – מַגִּיֹשִים – is derived from נ ג ֹש, which means to approach, and in this form means to bring near. The word for pollute, ג א ל, is composed of the same letters as a more familiar word which means ‘redeem.’  BDB[28] draws our attention to a similar word ג ע ל, meaning ‘to abhor.’[29] All the occurences of  ג א ל as pollute belong to books (with the exception of Zephaniah, seventh century BCE[30]) which have a strong Persian connection: Daniel,[31] Ezra[32] and Nehemiah;[33] it appears twice in Isaiah,[34] but in the later chapters, where the prophet’s acquaintance with the rule of Cyrus.[35] The word for defilement in the Torah is usually ח נ ף or ט מ א, unclean.

As Rev Dr Cohen points out in his commentary to the Soncino edition, ֹשֻלְחַן, table, stands for the altar, and he cites a similar use in Ezekiel, when the angel, who provides  Ezekiel with a vision of the future Temple, shows him the altar, saying:

This is the table which is before the Lord. [36]

זֶה הַשֻּׁלְחָן אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה

Verse 8

The sacrificial cult insisted that only animals without blemish were fit for sacrifice,[37] and the priests had to cleanse themselves so as not to offer sacrifices in a state of ritual impurity. Blindness and lameness counted as blemishes which precluded the animal from being offered as a sacrifice.

Malachi uses the Persian word for governor, פֶחָה ,which is found, as one would expect, in the books of the bible which are concerned with Persian domination: Haggai, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah and second Chronicles. Pekhah is used also in non-Persian contexts, in Kings,[38] Isaiah,[39] Jeremiah[40] and Ezekiel,[41]  usually in speaking of international dealings with the Assyrians and the Babylonians, or, in the case of King Solomon, the Arabians:

וְכָל מַלְכֵי הָעֶרֶב וּפַחוֹת הָאָרֶץ[42]

The Greek word is ηγουμων, hegemon.

The Priestly Blessing

If  the governor would not find it acceptable – literally, ‘lift up your face’ – how much less should it be offered to God, and how much less will God lift up the face of a corrupt priest. The question makes ironic reference to the priestly blessing:

יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהֹוָה וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ:

 יָאֵר יְהֹוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ:

יִשָּׂא יְהֹוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם [43]

Verse 9

Again Malachi makes an ironical allusion to the priestly blessing:  יָאֵר יְהֹוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ To be gracious is ח נ ן.

The Mishnah describes how, in Temple times, the priests used to recite the Priestly Blessing, morning and evening at the daily offerings.[44] The priests made the blessing with uplifted hands,[45] to which  מִיֶּדְכֶםmay allude – this is from your hands.

Michael Fishbane comments:

Malachi’s vitriolic critique of cultic and priestly behaviour in the post-exilic period is, at once, a systematic utilization of the language of the Priestly Blessing and an exegetical transformation of it…In brief, the prophet has taken the contents of the Priestly Blessing, delivered by the priests, with its emphasis on blessing, the sanctity of the divine Name, and such benefactions gracious/favourable countenance, and peace – and negated them![46]

Verse 10

Closing the doors

It is preferable to close the Temple doors than to bring inappropriate sacrifices. Rashi’s comment on this verse is:

If only a good man would arise among you who would close the doors of My sanctuary so as not to allow this abominable sacrifice there.

Rashi also cites Sifra, a midrashic work on Leviticus, where the sages say:

If a person says to his friend, “Close this door for me,” he does not demand compensation for it; [or if he says,] “Light this candle for me,” he does not request compensation for it. But you – who is there among you who closed My doors, gratis? Neither did you kindle fire on My altar gratis. Surely, things that are customarily done for compensation you did not do gratis. Therefore, I have no desire in you.[47]

Malachi’s criticisms of the Temple priesthood  provided ammunition for the Church Fathers, in their attempts to Christianize the Hebrew prophets. Cyril of Alexandria, for example, writing in the fifth century CE, interprets the shutting of the doors as the shutting out of Jews from God’s favour, asserting that the Jewish priesthood had failed only to be replaced by the Christian church. This was part of the general thrust in Patristic writings to lay claim to Jewish patriarchs and prophets as harbingers of Christianity.

It must be difficult to reconcile this view with ‘I have loved you…I loved Jacob’ in verses 1 and 2.

Verse 11

Among the nations

This is an allusion to Psalm 113, the first psalm of the Hallel, and in this verse, the nations from east to west are encompassed in universal worship of  the one God. The prophet asserts that God is worshiped beyond Israel, by the goyim who bring acceptable sacrifices: מִנְחָה טְהֹורָה.  Psalm 113 also invokes the nations in a universalizing context from east to west:

מִמִּזְרַח שֶׁמֶשׁ עַד מְבוֹאוֹ מְהֻלָּל שֵׁם יְהֹוָה:

 רָם עַל כָּל גּוֹיִם יְהֹוָה עַל הַשָּׁמַיִם כְּבוֹדוֹ:

From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the LORD is to be praised!  The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens[48]

From the rising of the sun to its setting may also signify a sequence of time – from the beginning to the end – but in this context, the intended meaning seems to be ‘everywhere.’

Rashi interprets among the nations as referring to Jews in the diaspora:

Our Sages explained: These are the Torah scholars who are engaged in the laws of the Temple service everywhere, and likewise, every prayer of Israel that they pray anywhere is to Me as a pure oblation. And so did Jonathan paraphrase: And every time that you do My will, I accept your prayer, and My great Name is sanctified through you, and your prayer is like a pure offering before Me. This is the explanation of the verse: Now why do you profane My Name? Is it not great among the nations? As for Me, My love and My affection are upon you wherever you pray before Me

The verse does indeed say בַּגֹּויִם and not הַגֹּויִים – among the nations, rather than the nations.

In verse 11, Malachi twice bears  God’s message:  My name is great among the nations,  and again in verse 14:  My name is feared among the nations.

Verses 12 to14 accuse those who offer ritually impure animals and show contempt for the sacrificial laws. In verse 14 Malachi says that the person is cursed who possesses healthy animals but  yields up for sacrifice a מָֹשְחַת, which has connotations of being spoiled or corrupt, reflecting back on the person who brings the blemished animal.

Why is there is emphasis here on בַּגֹּויִם, among the nations?  This expression sums up the topography of  Israelite diaspora in the tochechot of Leviticus[49] and Deuteronomy,[50]   in the prophecies of Jeremiah[51] and Ezekiel[52] and many times among the Trei-asar, when they speak of exile. In the Psalms, בַּגֹּויִם has another significance, where the Psalmist extols God among the nations, that is, to bear witness to the greatness of God, for the edification of non-Israelite nations.[53]

In Psalm 126, the point is that the nations should see what God has done for Israel:

Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, ‘The LORD has done great things for them.’[54]

The Chronicler speaks o f the universal worship of God:

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice, and let them say among the nations, ‘The LORD reigns!’[55]

A clue to Malachi’s meaning is the use of the expression מִמִּזְרַח שֶׁמֶשׁ עַד מְבוֹאוֹ from Psalm 113, which goes on to say that God is רָם עַל כָּל גּוֹיִם, above all nations, and it may be that Malachi is making the point that God is greater than the Persian Empire and its provincial governors.

Minchah in Malachi’s time

The ‘pure oblations’ contrast with the unacceptable sacrifices of unfit animals.

The NASB translates  מִנְחָה טְהֹורָה as a grain offering that is pure. Minchah, in biblical times, was usually a grain offering, and in Talmudic times, it became the afternoon prayer, which took the place of a sacrificial offering.[56] The meaning of the verb  מ נ ח, from which Minchah is derived, is to make a gift or a loan.[57]There are five kinds of sacrifices: Olah (The  burnt offering, Minchah (The flour offering),  Shelamim (The peace offering),  Chatat (The sin offering) and Asham (The trespass offering).

The first people in Tanakh to offer minchah are Cain and Abel.[58] In Leviticus we find instructions for the Temple practice:

 When someone brings a grain offering (מִנְחָה) to the Lord, his offering is to be of fine flour. He is to pour oil on it, put incense on it and take it to Aaron’s sons the priests. The priest shall take a handful of the fine flour and oil, together with all the incense, and burn this as a memorial portion on the altar, an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the Lord. The rest of the grain offering belongs to Aaron and his sons; it is a most holy part of the offerings made to the Lord by fire[59]

November 2008

1] Ezra 7:11-15

[2] Megillah 15a; Jerome’s commentary of Malachi


BDB p521

[4] Zevahim 62a

[5] Esther 10:3

[6] Jeremiah 32:12


Jeremiah 51:59


Megillah 15a see also Haggai 1:1  and Zechariah 1:1 re the second year of Darius.

[9] Menahot 64b

[10] Ezra 1:1-2

[11] Nehemiah 7:6-7

[12] Genesis 36:12

[13] Megillah 15a

[14] Malachi 2;11


 Ezra 10:2

[16] Zechariah 9:1 and 12:1

[17] See also Isaiah 40,12-17;  Micah 2, 6-11 and Haggai 1, 4-6

[18] Genesis 27:11

[19] Deuteronomy 23:8

[20] psalm 137:7

[21] The Bible As It Was, James Kugel, Harvard University Press1997 p202

[22] Genesis 27:40

[23] Genesis 27,22


Genesis Rabbah 65:19

[25] Targum Jonathan ben Uzziel

[26] 1 Samuel 2:12-17


1 Samuel 8:3

[28] BDB p146


loc cit p171.


Zephaniah, 3:1


Daniel 1:8


Ezra 2:62


Nehemiah 7:64


Isaiah 59:3; 63:3


Isaiah 45:1 and 13

[36] Ezekiel 41:22

[37] Leviticus 1:3

[38] 1 Kings 10:15,20:24; 2 Kings 18:24


Isaiah 36:9


Jeremiah 51:23, 28 and 57


Ezekiel 23:6, 12 and 23

[42] 1 Kings 10:15

[43] Numbers 6:24-27

[44] Mishnah, Tamid 5:1


Leviticus 9:22 Then Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he came down from offering the sin offering and the burnt offering and the peace offerings.

[46] Form and Reformulation of the Biblical Priestly Blessing, Michael Fishbane,  American Oriental Society, 1983

[47] Torath Kohanim (Sifra) 7:154

[48] Psalm 113:3-4

[49] Leviticus 26:23ff


Deuteronomy 4:27; 30:1


Jeremiah 29:18


Ezekiel 4:13


2 Samuel 22:50; Psalm 18:49

[54] Psalm 126:2

[55] 1 Chronicles 16:31

[56] Berakhot 26b


BDB p585

[58] Genesis 4:3-5

[59] Leviticus 2:1-3

Haftarah for Shabbat Vayyikra

ISAIAH 43:21-44:23

This week we read the traditional haftarah for Vayyikra, where the prophet speaks first of Israel’s transgressions,  then prophesies against idolatry and finally speaks of Israel’s redemption.

Leviticus 1 speaks of five types of sacrifice: the burnt offering  (עֹלָה), the meal offering (מִנְחָה), the peace offering (שְׁלָמִים), the sin offering (חַטָּאת) and the guilt offering (אֲשָׁם). In the Haftarah, God addresses Israel through the prophet – Isaiah or Deutero Isaiah -, berating the Israelites for turning away from Him and for failing to worship him with sacrifices as prescribed in Leviticus. This is followed by a reminder that God forgives and blesses Israel, who is called God’s servant and chosen one. There is a satirical description of  idol worship practised, one might suppose, by the Babylonians, followed by a triumphal song of Israel’s redemption.

Chapter 43, verse 21

The people that I formed  The word ‘chosen’ is not used, but the word לִי,  for myself,  indicates that Israel belongs in some way  to God, that, as we shall read, Israel is God’s servant.

 Gunther Plaut comments:

Because they were mysteriously chosen for divine service, they have a duty to separate themselves from the idolatry that surrounds them.[1]

 Crying out to God

Verse 22

Israel has neglected God, failing to call on him and becoming weary of Him. We should note that the name of the sidra and the Hebrew name of the book of Leviticus is Vayikra, which means ‘And he called…’. The name of the book comes from the first word: וַיִּקְרָא , ‘And God called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.

וַיִּקְרָא אֶל משֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר יְהֹוָה אֵלָיו מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד

Calling or crying out to God is a way of relating to God, described particularly often in the Psalms and also in a notable verse in Jeremiah:

Then you will call upon me (וּקְרָאתֶם אֹתִי) and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.[2]

Jeremiah also reports God’s words to him:

‘Call to me (קְרָא אֵלַי) and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you d  not know.’[3]

The Psalmist sets an example of calling on God, for example:

 ‘I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord’:[4] כּוֹס יְשׁוּעוֹת אֶשָּׂא וּבְשֵׁם יְהֹוָה אֶקְרָא

which has been absorbed into the havdalah prayer.  For Jeremiah, the calling makes possible the interactive relationship with God and for Isaiah in this verse, it is Israel’s obligation, in which they have defaulted.

 Yagata: You wearied

The word יָגַעְתָּ means ‘you wearied’. The verse means either ‘you were weary of me’ or ‘you did not weary yourself.’ The KJV has Thou hast been weary of me but the Douay-Rheims Catholic bible has Neither hast thou laboured about me. The two translations have different emphases and the second one makes לֹא, not, refer to the verb ‘you wearied’ as well as you called [not].

 The sacrifices

Verses 23-24

Isaiah speaks of the sacrifices which the Israelites have neglected: lambs for burnt offering (olah), meal offerings (minchah), levonahand cane. Ibn Ezra pointed out that the Israelites were unable to offer sacrifices during their exile in Babylon.

The verb ‘to weary’, י ג ע, appears again here in in a hiphil/causative usage: I did not weary you (לֹא הוגַעְתִּיךָ). The word levonahis translated as frankincense, evidently being a whiteish colour. It was used in the preparation of incense[5] and is mentioned in our sidra:[6]

 לֹא יָשִׂים עָלֶיהָ שֶׁמֶן וְלֹא יִתֵּן עָלֶיהָ לְבֹנָה כִּי חַטָּאת הִוא

 The Greek word for frankincense is λιβανως, obviously the same word as in Hebrew.  Our word frankincense comes from old French franc, pure, and Latin incendere, to burn. The purity of the incense adds to the value.

 Rashi explains that cane was used also in the preparation of incense, as we see in Exodus:

 Take the following fine spices: 500 shekels of liquid myrrh, half as much (that is, 250 shekels) of fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels of fragrant cane.[7]

 וְאַתָּה קַח לְךָ בְּשָׂמִים רֹאשׁ מָר דְּרוֹר חֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת וְקִנְּמָן בֶּשֶׂם מַחֲצִיתוֹ חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם וּקְנֵה בֹשֶׂם חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם:

 There is a play on words in the Hebrew:  לֹא קָנִיתָ לִּי בַכֶּסֶף קָנֶה.

For the third time we find the verb י ג ע in the phrase you have wearied Me with your iniquities. Again it takes the hiphil causative form: הוגַעְתַּנִי. In this verse and the next, we find the three terms for sin which are mentioned together in the Yom Kippur liturgy: חָטָאות, עוֹנות and פְֹּשָעות.

 Anochi Anochi

Verse 25

You may recognise this  verse from Yom Kippur. Note the emphatic use of the first person pronoun, not only in the repetition but in the form אָנֹכִי, always stronger than אֲנִי.

The Brown, Driver and Briggs suggest that the third syllable of anochi has a demonstrative function, perhaps related to כֹּה – thus. They find that אֲנִי is predominant in later books of the bible.[8]

Verse 26

‘Remind me’ comes directly after ‘I will not remember,’ anthropomorphically attributing to God  remembering and not remembering, neither of which – if taken literally – is compatible with omniscience. This is not the only instance in Isaiah where God invites the children of Israel to a dialogue.

“Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.[9]

Here we have an inclusive, as it were man-to-man turn of phrase: ‘Remind me, let us judge together, you tell, in order to justify yourself.’

The first father

Verse 27

There is the question of who is meant by the first father. Redak’s opinion is that the verse refers to Adam, but Rashi says Abraham who sinned by asking God for a sign that he would inherit the land.[10]  A twentieth century commentator says:

 Undoubtedly Jacob , the eponymous hero of the nation is meant (cf Hosea 12:3ff), not Abraham (who is never spoken of in the later literature as sinful), nor the earliest ancestors collectively; still less Abraham.[11]

 Ibn Ezra writes:

הוא ירבעם שבחרו ישראל למלך לא על פי השם

This was Jeroboam, whom Israel chose as king, not according to word of God.

  Certainly, Jeroboam has form in being called a sinner, which is not the case with the Patriarchs, and to speak of Adam’s sin seems to have a Christian resonance. Gunther Plaut comments:

 There is no way to tell whom Isaiah had in mind. Some believe he had Adam in mind, but since Adam is never referred to as Israel’s forbear, that is improbable. Most likely Abraham is meant, and the sin he committed was to have doubted God’s promise, when he fled Canaan and went to Egypt.[12]

Priests and princes

Verse 28

Who are the holy princes? Ibn Ezra says the priests and  Redak says the Levites.  The phrase ‘holy princes’ refers to the priests in 1 Chronicles, where the subject of  the text is  the priestly descendants of Aaron and the allocation of their duties in the Temple.

 כִּי הָיוּ שָׂרֵי קֹדֶשׁ וְשָׂרֵי הָאֱלֹהִים מִבְּנֵי אֶלְעָזָר וּבִבְנֵי אִיתָמָר

…There were officials of the sanctuary and officials of God among the descendants of both Eleazar and Ithamar.[18]

The word קֹדֶשׁ certainly seems to imply that the princes are officials of the Sanctuary. The profanation of the princes is comparable with the verse in Lamentations:

[Hashem] has brought her kingdom and its princes down to the ground in dishonour.[19]

בִּלַּע אֲדֹנָי ְלֹא }וְלֹא{ חָמַל אֵת כָּל נְאוֹת יַעֲקֹב הָרַס בְּעֶבְרָתוֹ מִבְצְרֵי בַת יְהוּדָה הִגִּיעַ לָאָרֶץ חִלֵּל מַמְלָכָה וְשָׂרֶיהָ

God’s servant

Chapter 44, verse 1

Jacob, also called Israel here, is mentioned in an altogether different light. Jacob and Israel are named in apposition, referring to the people Israel.  Being chosen is linked with being God’s servant.

Verse 2

Ibn Ezra says that this could refer to  Jacob the patriarch or to the inception of the nation Israel.

There are fifteen biblical instances of the term ‘Jacob my servant’ but Jacob is not the only name privileged to be called servant; the instances of David being called God’s servant are even more numerous. Jacob however is synonymous with the people Israel, not the case with David. Servant is a recurring theme of Deutero Isaiah and this passage is among the ‘Servant Songs’ which include the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. The Servant Songs raise God’s servant to an elevated position.

Isaiah uses the phrase ‘my servant Jacob’ six times; Jeremiah three times and Ezekiel twice. David is called God’s servant at least twenty-eight times in Samuel, Kings, Psalms and Chronicles. It is interesting that two men with notably self-serving characteristics are designated more than any others as God’s servants. Moses is called God’s servant just seven times.

Yeshurun, believed to be from יָֹשָר, ‘upright’, is always a name of the people of Israel. BDB calls it a ‘poetic name of Israel’.[20]

There are only four biblical occurrences of Yeshurun.[21]The LXX translated Yeshurun as ηγαπημενος which means ‘beloved’. The vulgate has rectissimus, most righteous, and the Greek translations of Aquila[22]and Theodotion[23]  have ευθυς which, meaning ‘straight’ is the closest approximation to יָֹשָר. If the shinin Yeshurun is identified with the letter sin in Israel, the names share three consonants.

It should be noted that Targum Jonathan substitutes the name  Israel for the name Yeshurun. The Isaiah Scroll from Qumran has Yeshurun.

It would be interesting to know the contents of the lost Book of Yashar, referenced in Joshua 10:13 and 2 Samuel 1:18, to know if the name Yashar appears in it as cognate with ‘Israel’.

 Blessing the land and the people

Verses 3-4

This is a promise that the land will be fertile and the people will be blessed and flourish.

Verse 5

Targum Jonathan has: This one will say ‘I fear God’.

Ibn Ezra comments:

וזה יקרא בשם יעקב להתפאר לעיני הגויים שהוא מזרע קודם:

With this name they will boast to the gentiles that they are of the holy seed.

Ibn Ezra interprets the phraseוּבְשֵם יִשְרָאֵל יְכַנֶּה   – ‘adopt the name of Israel’ – as referring to proselytes.

The First and the Last

Verse 6

The word גֹאֲלו must mean Israel’s Redeemer, but it is slightly difficult to place the third person possessive suffix.  ‘I am the first and I am the last is attested elsewhere in Isaiah[24]The putative author of the NT Book of Revelations, St John, also uses this Isaianic expression[25] and adapts it for the Greek speaking world:

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.[26]

The LXX does not translate first and last as alpha and omega, but:

εγω πρωτος και εγω μετα ταυτα.

A difficult sentence

Verse 7

W Gunther Plaut says that this verse is difficult to translate.[27]The KJV offers the following:

And who, as I, shall call, and shall declare it, and set it in order for me, since I appointed the ancient people? and the things that are coming, and shall come, let them shew unto them.

עַם עולָם seems to be translated everywhere as ‘the ancient people’ but could be read as ‘the eternal people’. The Judaica Press has a fairly impenetrable sentence:

Who will call [that he is] is like Me and will tell it and arrange it for Me, since my placing the ancient people, and the signs and those that will come, let them tell for themselves.

Most  translators seem to pick up the theme that no one can be compared to God, who alone determines the future. ‘Ancient people’ could be Israel, but Rashi says ‘all creatures’: כל בריות.

Ibn Ezra says:

העם הראשון וטעם עולם בזמן שעבר   The first people, and the meaning of olam is ‘in past times’.

For אֹתִיּות, he explains: ‘the work of peace’.


Verse 8

You are my witnesses, says the Eternal is found in  the earlier verses of Isaiah 43:

“You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me.  I, even I, am the Lord, and apart from me there is no savior.  I have revealed and saved and proclaimed– I, and not some foreign god among you. You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “that I am God.[28]

Plaut comments:

The idea that Israel is to be a witness to God’s reality and goodness is closely related to the task of being a light to the nations. For how was this noble goal to be achieved? Not by missionary effort, but only by Israel being true to the Covenant and becoming an example to the gentiles.[29]

Plaut refers to the following rabbinic tradition:

Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai taught [that the verse means] ‘Only when you are My witnesses am I God, but when you are not My witnesses, then (if this were possible) I would not be God.[30]I

The idol maker

Verses 9 – 20

This is a long, satirical diatribe against the making and worship of idols. ‘Idol makers’ is a literal translation of יֹצְרֵי־פֶסֶל . The idol worshippers are not identified as Babylonians,  although the passage may allude to them.

Duhm thought this passage is a late insertion into the the text, whose flow it interrupts. Isaiah 40 includes a similar passage:

 To whom, then, will you compare God? What image will you compare him to?  As for an idol, a craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it.  A man too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot. He looks for a skilled craftsman to set up an idol that will not topple.[31]

Similarly, a remark about the folly of idol worship prefaces the Servant Song in Isaiah 41:

The craftsman encourages the goldsmith, and he who smooths with the hammer spurs on him who strikes the anvil. He says of the welding, “It is good.” He nails down the idol so it will not topple.  “But you, O Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend,  I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you.[32]

Claus Westermann pointed out that Isaiah’s account of pagan artisanship fits Babylonian records about idol-making. Deutero-Isaiah was acquainted with Babylonian customs, and satirizes them here and elsewhere. Perhaps the three passages in Isaih 40, 41 and 44 are variations of one original text.

Verse 21

To what does ‘Remember these’ refer? Does it refer to the idolatrous practices of other nations? Redak thought it meant  ‘Remember not to be like the idolators.’ Rashi comments on ‘Do not forget’: ‘Do not be forgetful of the fear of me’ – לא תהיה שכוח מיראתי- following the Targum: לָא תִתְנְֹשֵי דְחַלְתִּי

Ibn Ezra has a different interpretation:

שעשיתי בהיותך בארצי  Remember these things that I did when you were in my land.

This has ‘Remember these’ refer to the verses before the description of idolatry in verses 9-20.

Jacob and Israel are mentioned together as in 43:22, 43:28, 44:1, 44:5; 44:22. The use of Jacob and Israel in apposition is especially prominent  in Isaiah and in the Psalms, attested notably also in Jeremiah and Micah.

Erasing transgressions

Verse 22

This, like 43:25, is repeated in the Yom Kippur service. Note the second person singular: thy transgressions, thy sins.

The metaphor of the thick cloud is thought by Ibn Ezra to indicate the transience of the sins which are obliterated:

העוברת בצאת השמש איננה It passes – when the sun comes out, it is no longer there.

This verse has two words for a cloud: עב, a thick rain cloud and ענן, a white cloud that lets it through. Transgressions are likened to an av, and sins to an anan. עב is, according to BDB,  from a verb ע ו ב to hide or cover with cloud.[33]

 It occurs as a verb in Lamentations 2:1. The rainbow of Genesis 9:13 appears in an anan, and the pillar of cloud which the Israelites follow in the wilderness is an anan. When God appears in a cloud in the Tabernacle [34] and in the Temple,[35] the word anan is used. עב conveys cloud in the sense of severe weather, darkening the sky or hiding  the sun.

A note of triumph

Verse 23

This is a poetic verse in the category of joyful song, praising God for the erasing of  sins and the redemption of Israel. The personification of nature is reminiscent of Psalms 29[36] and 114.[37] The lowest extremities of the earth and the mountains. the forest and the trees are drawn into this metaphor of singing a rina, and the reason for joy is the redemption of Jacob, the glorification of Israel.

Ibn Ezra’s comment is:

משל כי שמחה גדולה תהי” בישראל כי בעבור ישראל שיגאלו תגלה לכל העולם תפארת השם

This is a  parable that there will be great happiness in Israel, for when Israel is redeemed God’s glory will be revealed to the whole world.






























[1]Haftarah Commentary UAHC 1996 p239

[2] Jeremiah 29:12-13                                  

[3] Jeremiah 33:3

[4] Psalm 116:13

[5] Exodus 30:34; Leviticus 2:1;


 Leviticus 5:11


[7] Exodus 30:23

[8]BDB p59

[9] Isaiah 1:18

[10] Genesis 15:8                                            

[11] Isaiah XL-LXVI Rev J Skinner Cambridge UP, 1951

[12]Haftarah Commentary W Gunther Plaut UAHC Press 1996

[13] Theologico-Political TreatiseBenedict de Spinoza trans RMH Elwes, Dover 1951 pp120-121                                                

[14] Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra ed Isadore Twersky and Jay M Harris, Harvard U P, 1993 p140

[15] Seder HatfilotMRJ 2008, p184

[16] Rabbi Ben Ezra, Robert Browning 1864

[17] Seder ha Tfilot ibid p320                 

[18] 1 Chronicles 24:5

[19] Lamentations 2:2

[20]BDB p449                                               

[21] Deuteronomy 32:15; Deuteronomy 33:5; Deuteronomy 33:26; Isaiah 44:2


 Translator of Hebrew bible into Greek, circa130 CE, sometimes identified with Onkelos, author of the official Aramaic targum to the Pentateuch


 Hellenistic Jewish translator of the bible into Greek, c 200CE.

[24] Isaiah 41:4 and 48:12


 NT Revelations 1:17                           

[26] ibid 22:13

[27] Haftarah CommentaryW Gunther Plaut UAHC Press 1996


[28] Isaiah 43:10-12

[29] Haftarah Commentary, Plaut p8

[30]Pesikta de Rav Kahana 12:6

[31] Isaiah 40:18-20


[32] Isaiah 41:7-9

[33]BDB p727


 Deuteronomy 31:15


 1 Kings 8:10


[36] Psalm 29:6


 Psalm 114:3-7


  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: Thank you Keith.
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