Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Archive for the ‘Torah’ Category

Laban is a tricksy character with a bad write up in most midrashic accounts, but he is neverthelss the grandfather of the children of Israel, no less than Isaac, their paternal grandfather.

Have you  ever been at a Passover seder where there are variant English translations in the haggadot being used? Some of them say, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father,’ but others say, ‘An Aramean tried to kill my father,’ translating a verse which has its source in the book of Deuteronomy. The homicidal Aramean refers to Laban, with the worst possible spin on his motives. The uncertainly of the translation is due to two possible meanings of the word spelled aleph bet dalet, to wander or to destroy.

Laban was a great nephew of Abraham but nevertheless midrash tends to portray him as crooked, venal and Machiavellian, with some justification from the biblical narrative.

In any case, Laban did not destroy Jacob, who was more than capable himself of turning a situation to his advantage. In our reading, Jacob has left Laban’s home in Aram and set off for the land of his birth, Canaan, with his wives, concubines and children and evidently the biblical equivalent of several removal vans. Laban comes after Jacob and upbraids him for his stealthy getaway. He accuses Jacob of stealing his heart, which is not totally unreasonable, as Jacob is taking away his daughters and grandchildren. Jacob isn’t really to blame either, as Laban has previous form in the dirty tricks department.

In our sidra, Jacob and Laban come to an accommodation with each other, setting up a pile of stones as an agreed border. Laban concedes that his daughters are making a new life with their husband Jacob, but warns Jacob to treat them well. He says, ‘May the Lord watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other.’

Years ago, my stepdaughter used to wear a pendant necklace with half of these words inscribed on it and her boyfriend wore a pendant with the other half. I thought that was beautiful and so it was, but I was a bit shocked later to find that the words were from Laban and that, as usual, he wasn’t necessarily the best role model. ‘The God of Abraham and the god of Nahor, the god of their father judge between us,’ he tells Jacob and, of course, the god of Abraham’s brother Nahor was no one we know. It was quite possibly some merchandise from their father Terach’s idol shop, which the youthful Abraham had vandalized, but that’s another midrash.

As there will be a family service on Shabbat, I’ve prepared a version suitable for children.

Children’s Version

When Jacob was a young man, living at home with his mum and dad and his twin brother Esau, he did something that made his brother very angry and upset. As their father Isaac was blind, Jacob was able to pretend to be Esau and get a special blessing which was supposed to go to the older brother. Although they were twins, Esau was born before Jacob and was entitled to the first born’s blessing. Things at home then became very awkward and Jacob decided to leave, to stay with relations he’d never met, up north in what would now be called Syria.

He fell in love with a girl called Rachel who was a distant cousin and wanted to marry her. The problem was Rachel’s father, Laban, who was a very tricky character. He was a sheep farmer and he told Jacob he could marry Rachel if he worked for Laban for seven years. It’s an awfully long time to be engaged, but Jacob agreed. You probably know what happened next. The bride’s face was hidden by a veil and, after the wedding, when she removed the veil, Jacob saw that he’d married Rachel’s older sister Leah. He did marry Rachel eventually, because a man could have more than one wife in those days, but he had to spend more years working for Laban. So Jacob lived there in Aram for years, and had a large number of children. Eventually, he decided to go home to the land of Canaan. He was hoping that Esau had forgiven him for the business with the blessing.

Knowing that his father-in-law Laban usually had some trick or other up his sleeve, Jacob took his wives and children and some sheep which belonged to him, and they all set out without saying a word to Laban, who came after them as soon as he twigged what was going on.

Angry words were exchanged but, surprisingly enough, they came to an agreement. They made a sort of border of stones and agreed not to cross into each other’s lands. Laban was sorry that his grandchildren would be far away but he understood that they wanted to be with Jacob, their dad. He said to Jacob, ‘Make sure you treat Leah and Rachel well. Don’t make them unhappy. God will be watching both of us.’

Jacob realized that this was a good outcome. They even sat down and had a meal together by the border of stones; then they went on their way, Laban north to Aram and Jacob with his family, south to Canaan. Jacob was quite excited about returning to his homeland and didn’t even look back, but Laban did look back, to watch his daughters and grandchildren until they were out of sight.


GerizimDeuteronomy 27: 9 – 26  Ki Tavo

This event takes place towards the end of the forty years in the wilderness and in the last days of Moses’ life. Moses  prepares the Israelites for their new life after his own death, in the promised land, under the leadership of Joshua.

He then delineates a ceremony of blessings and curses which will take place after the Israelites have crossed the Jordan, at which time Moses will no longer accompany them. The leadership will have passed to Joshua. The tribes will be divided into two groups. Six tribes are to stand on Mount Gerizim, to the south, and pronounce blessings. The other six are to stand on Mount Ebal, north-east, and pronounce curses. The tribes sent to Gerizim are Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin. The tribes who have the unfortunate job of presiding over the curses are Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali. The curses are spoken by Levites who anathemize those who make graven images; those who treat their parents badly; those who move a neighbour’s landmark; those who lead the blind astray; those who subvert the cause of widows and orphans; those who sleep with their father’s wife, with their sister, or their mother-in-law; those who have sex with an animal, those who commit physical assault in secret, paid assassins and those who do not adhere to these commandments.

There are twelve curses, matching the number of the tribes.

Mount Ebal is in biblical Shechem, now Nablus on the West Bank.

There are several questions raised by the text and not answered. Why are the curses issued from Mount Ebal, which later became the site of an Israelite altar, constructed from stones? Why are the blessings from Mount Gerizim, which later became the Sanctuary of the Samaritan sect?

Some commentators – Samson Raphael Hirsch for example – reasoned that Gerizim was fertile and Ebal rugged. In the thirteenth century, Nachmanides noted that as Gerizim, was to the south, it was at the right hand when one faced east to pray. It’s also suggested that the southern position of Gerizim placed it in the territory of Judah  while Ebal stood in what was to become the Northern Kingdom.

As for the Samaritan view of the sanctity of Gerizim, this is somewhat backed up by a passage in the Dead Sea Scrolls version of Deuteronomy, which says:

When you have crossed the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, about  which I charge you today, on Mount Gerizim, and coat them with plaster.  And there, you shall build an altar to the Lord your God.

The verse in the Masoretic text, that’s the chumash you may have in front of you, and in our Sefer Torah, says:

And when you have crossed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, concerning which I command you today, on Mount Ebal, and you shall plaster them with plaster. (Deuteronomy 27:4)

Then there’s the question of who were Samaritans. The name comes from Shomrim, meaning keepers or guards, just as the geographical area of Samaria is called Shomron in Hebrew. They claim descent from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh and split with  mainstream Israelite observances by locating their sanctuary on Mount Gerizim. At that time, the period of the judges, the official sanctuary was in Shiloh. The Samaritans have their own version of the Pentateuch, written in a script resembling palaeo-Hebrew and containing mostly minor but numerous variations from our Masoretic text. We don’t know the age of the Samaritan pentateuch, but some of these variations occur likewise in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Greek Septuagint, so it’s old, perhaps from the time of the Second Temple. The Samaritans don’t count the prophets or the hagiographa – the Ketuvim – as scriptural. They just have the five books of the chumash.

Now there’s another question  without any definite answer, relating to this Torah reading. How were the tribes divided? What did it signify, if your tribe was doing the blessings from Gerizim or the curses from Ebal? It seems to me that the tribes doing the blessing, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin are the A list, with the possible exception of Issachar. Those standing on Mount Ebal are Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali. The tribes of Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher were  descended from Jacob’s concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah. Reuben and Zebulun are the oldest and youngest sons of Leah. It is also interesting that the descendants of the Ebal tribes are less notable than the royal, priestly and messianic issue of the Gerizim tribes.

According to my counting, twelve curses are to be uttered on Mount Ebal and, as you will hear, a dozen times it is repeated that all the people will say Amen. Their peoplehood is expressed in the unity with which they accept the Torah of Moses and shun the ways which are forbidden, cursed. As you know, the word ‘amen’ is connected with the word for faith, emunah, but it has traveled a long way, as it appears in the Greek of the New Testament and is used in Muslim prayer with the same meaning. I find there is something a bit magical about the word Amen. Listen to it, as it’s repeated in out Torah reading, from Deuteronomy 27.

For a man who was slow of speech and meeker than anyone alive, this is quite a speech, where Moses addresses the Israelites on the last day of his life. Haazinu hashamayim meaning ‘Give ear O heavens,’ are the opening words of the penultimate sidra in our scroll. Moses does not speak of himself at all, except to say, ‘I speak’ and ‘I call,’ for this long poem which comprises his speech is a song of praise to God. Moses refers to God as Tsur, meaning rock, Elyon, meaning the highest and Avicha kanecha, your Father who made you. Many of the sayings in this portion are familiar from our liturgy. The poem invokes the infidelity of the Israelites, contrasted with God’s faithfulness and justice. The people of Israel are called Jacob and Yeshurun, meaning ‘the upright’ in the sense of upright morality, yet Moses accuses thrm of being wayward and provocative. Nevertheless, he says, God shelters them beneath His wings.

This poem in Deuteronomy 32, is called The Song of Moses. You might be reminded of Shirat ha Yam, the Song at the Sea, in Exodus 15, which is sometimes called the song of Moses and Miriam. There are other songs in the bible – notably the Psalms of David, but also Deborah’s song in Judges and Hannah’s in 1 Samuel. Jonah sings a song of praise inside the whale. The Song of Songs is an entirely poetic book of the bible, attributed to Solomon but Jeremiah also has a song book, much more mournful in tone: the Book of Lamentations.

Some of these songs do not mention the life and situation of the putative singer and would not look out of place in the book of Psalms.

The Song of Moses takes place on the final day of his life but these are not his last words. Like Jacob, he blesses the individual tribes before his death in a speech which begins with the words ‘Vezot ha berachah – And this is the blessing.’ After he has finished speaking, God sends him to the top of Mount Nebo and shows Moses the promised land, which he will never reach. Moses dies there on the mountain, and thus the fifth book of the pentateuch is brought to a close. On Simchat Torah, we shall be reading the last part of Vezot Haberachah, right at the end of Deuteronomy, as we conclude the cycle of Torah readings, before beginning again at once with Bereshit.

October 2016

I never take much notice of the Eurovision Song Contest, least of all the songs, but I sometimes watch the voting, with some slight interest in how countries often vote in clusters. The Balkan countries back each other and the Danes and Swedes seem to have a reciprocal arrangement, while the UK and Ireland give each other a bounce on the voting board, as if Gerry Adams had never existed.

The strange thing is that neighbouring countries are as likely to go to war across the border as to appreciate each other’s musical artistry.

I wondered how it would have worked in biblical antiquity. After all, the Ammonites and the Moabites were related to Terach, same as Abraham, and even the wicked Amalekites were descended from Isaac, via Esau.

As for the Canaanites whose land is spied out by Moses’ agents, would they bestow their douze points on the Israelites, or take revenge on them by giving everything to the Jebusites, the Amorites and the Hittites?

The spies Moses sent into Canaan brought back disheartening reports of giants inhabiting the land, but they’d noted that it was rich and fertile and they coined the phrase, ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’.

The word supposed to mean giants is Nephilim, fallen ones, suggestive of fallen angels, in other words, beings possessed of supernatural power. Everyone was afraid, except for Joshua and Caleb, who were convinced that they could gain the land by conquest. As usual, the people blamed Moses for bringing them out of Egypt, where they said they’d been better off. You can imagine how they would have been ready to give Egypt all their points in the North East Africa Song Contest.

The people were so rebellious that God said to Moses, ‘How long will this people despise me?’ and was about to smite them with a plague, only Moses pleaded with God, on behalf of the Israelites. God then replied ‘Salachti kidvareycha’ – ‘I have forgiven, according to your word.’

However, that generation of Israelites wandered forty years in the wilderness and never reached the promised land, with the exceptions of Joshua and Caleb, who had not despaired or rebelled against God.

Joshua would go on to enjoy good relations with a Canaanite woman called Rahab, who sheltered Joshua’s Israelite spies before the Battle of Jericho, described in the book of Joshua. In Midrash, Rahab is a beautiful prostitute, or possibly an innkeeper, and these midrashic versions are quite romantic because Joshua marries Rahab, even though she’s a Canaanite.

The people across the border – what are they, enemies or neighbours? And can they sing?

written on the day of an EU Referendum in the UK, 23 June 2016

Numbers 5, 1 – 16 Naso
‘Leprosy’, restitution and the law of Sotah

The word apologetics generally means putting a positive spin on a difficult scriptural text or religious doctrine. As I’m occasionally invited to introduce our Torah readings, I’m aware that it’s often quite difficult to justify what we read. Today, we’re looking at topics, which, in the lifestyle section of a modern newspaper, might be covered by health care, law and marriage guidance.

The three topics are all connected with ritual impurity. Those suffering from certain illnesses are sent out of the camp. The Hebrew word for the illness in question is Tsara’at, which used to be identified with leprosy. Anyone suffering from a discharge is excluded from the camp. It isn’t specified whether this is a condition of a sexual nature. Defilement by proximity to a corpse is a third reason for temporary expulsion.

The reason for sending ill people out of the camp is made explicit in verse three – that they should not defile the camp of the Israelites, where God dwells among them. Quarantine, easier to justify, is not mentioned, so one cannot assume that those suffering from uncertain contagious diseases are excluded as a measure to protect public health.

The second subject addressed in this Torah reading concerns compensation for damages. If one person wrongs another, the purity of the community is compromised until restitution is made to the plaintiff, or to his surviving relations, or to God, via the priesthood.

The word goel occurs, with reference to a kinsman receiving restitution from someone who has wronged his relative. Goel in our liturgy refers to God the Redeemer, but the word is sometimes used in biblical texts to refer to a person performing duties on behalf of his relatives. The concept of the goel as kinsman is central to the book of Ruth, which will be read during Shavuot. The role of the kinsman in this Torah reading is to stand in for a relative who is deceased or otherwise unable to receive compensation, so the kinsman becomes the beneficiary.

The commandments in this reading provide a blueprint for managing impurity caused by disease or death, impurity of betraying trust and now we come to the impurity attached to a woman suspected of adultery. Note that the suspicion of adultery is enough for the woman to undergo an ordeal before the priest. If the husband is gripped by jealousy, he is to bring his wife to the priest, for her to undergo the ordeal of Sotah. She is given so-called bitter water to drink, some kind of solution of water and dust. She is deemed guilty of adultery if, after drinking the water, she has symptoms of illness, apparently related to her reproductive organs, but, if she has no symptoms, she is acquitted. I’m sure this trial by ordeal will make you think of the actions taken against suspected witches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These ordeals rely on God’s interventions, so that the suspect is acquitted or convicted by means of miracle.

The husband was required to bring to the altar an offering of barley meal, unaccompanied by oil or frankincense. As sacrifices went, this was rather basic. There is much commentary in the Mishnah and the Talmud, regarding the treatment of women suspected of adultery, in tractates entitled Sotah, which means, ‘the straying woman,’ and the Mishnah cites Rabban Gamliel, saying, ‘Since her deed was the deed of cattle, her offering is the food of cattle.’

Can it be that our Oral Torah is, in places, as disfigured by misogyny as our current social media? Probably yes, but misogyny may have been a default position in the ancient world. Look at Pandora. Look at Eve.

Acharei Mot  Leviticus 16: 1 – 17


The sidra is what you might call hard core Temple cult, involving animal sacrifices, incense and the prescribed clothing of the high priest. As far removed as this is from Judaism as we practice it, there is a very familiar component in the ritual, and that is the two goats which we invoke on Yom Kippur, the scapegoat and the sacrificial goat, whose life expectancy is even shorter than that of the scapegoat.

You will hear the word kaporet several times. This was the cover of the ark, adorned with two Cherubim, in the Holy of Holies, which the High Priest entered only on Yom Kippur. The letters of the word  kippur, atonement, are also in the word kaporet, and the linguistic connection may indicate a view of atonement as a kind of covering of sin. You will also hear the word parochet, a curtain in front of the ark, such as we have here, on the ark doors. It’s often translated as ‘veil’ and the kaporet often as ‘the mercy seat’.

The name of the sidra is Acharei Mot, meaning, ‘After the death.’  It refers to two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu , who died during their priestly duties, while offering the wrong kind of fire on the altar. Rabbinic tradition attributes this misadventure to some fault in their attitude, rather than tragic happenstance. Specifically, a midrashic commentary explains that they were drunk when they approached the altar.

The instructions which God gives Moses to impart to Aaron are a detailed blueprint concerning the conduct and procedure of the priests presiding over the altar, designed to protect them from the kind of sudden death which befell Nadav and Abihu. Whenever we read ‘God said to Moses, “Speak to Aaron,”’ we are not looking at a conversation between brothers, but at the laws concerning the priesthood, which is personified by Aaron, the first Cohen HaGadol or High Priest. There are requirements of dress, in fine linen, of bathing and of course, rules concerning the different animals for sacrifice: the young bull, the ram and the two goats, familiar to us from our Yom Kippur Mussaf service: the goat for the Lord and the goat for Azazel.

A lot is cast to determine which of the goats is destined for the sacrificial altar, as a sin-offering, and which is destined for the wilderness, and Azazel. These life and death matters are guided by the minutiae of ritual set forth in Leviticus, the priestly handbook. As the sons of  Aaron were killed by so-called strange fire while officiating at the altar, it was considered that there was an element of mortal danger in carrying out priestly duties. God’s words to Moses, to be conveyed to Aaron, are to ensure that there are no more fatal slip-ups in the execution of sacrificial practices.

We use the word scapegoat, which was coined by William Tyndale, translating the bible into English,  in the time of King Henry VIII. The word scapegoat implies blame or punishment, and the selection of two goats is typical of a binary system of sacrifice, suggesting opposing sacred and profane symbolism. We see such distinctions between the pairs of brothers in Genesis: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob. Cain, Ishmael and Esau survive, like the scapegoat, but are sent away, into the equivalence of the wilderness.

A word about Azazel.

The most detailed accounts of Azazel are found in the apocryphal books of Enoch where he is identified as a fallen angel who teaches people to make weapons, jewellery, and cosmetics. The books of Enoch are post-biblical but the authors use texts from Genesis and Daniel to create a detailed angelology, which is absent from the bible.

The medieval commentators Rashi and Ibn Ezra, no doubt smoothing over a residue of polytheism in the biblical text, suggested that Azazel was a place name, a rugged mountain from whence the goat was pushed, but Nachmanides, taking the goat by the horns, commented that Azazel belongs to the class of goat-like demons of the desert, known via Mesopotamian mythology.

Midrash identifies the scapegoat (seir) with Esau who was called Seir, meaning  hairy, and whose descendants lived in territory called Mount Seir, named after him.

Azazel appears as a fictional character in Mikhail Bulgakhov’s Stalin-era novel, The Master and Margarita, where he is portrayed as an uncouth but somewhat benign demon in the service of Satan. Bulgakov latinizes the name Azazel as Azazello.

James George Frazer in his anthropological classic The Golden Bough, reported scapegoat-type rituals in Asia, Central and South America, East Africa and New Zealand.  Frazer considered  the rituals primitive, saying: ‘The notion that we can transfer our guilt or sufferings to some other being who will bear them for us is familiar to the savage mind.Frazer wrote  this in 1890 but the evidence of the last century and a quarter suggests that scapegoating is a ritual not confined to savage minds and that it is neither extinct nor dormant.

April 2016


What became of Korach? I’m sure you recall how dramatically he was swallowed up by the earth, because of his rebellion against Moses, when we were reading Numbers 16, six weeks ago. Perhaps you would hold on to that thought and we shall return to it.

The Book of Deuteronomy is essentially the words of Moses, somewhere between a speech and a memoir, including strong theological statements such as the Shema, parts of Birkhat ha Mazon, and the ‘Choose life’ text; Deuteronomy also contains blessings which are familiar to us through our liturgy, and some antithetic curses, which are not quite so familiar.

In this Torah reading, Ekev, Moses speaks of the fertility of the land which the Israelites are about to enter, how it flows with milk and honey, and seasonal rainfall contributes to a plentiful harvest. God’s eyes are upon the land, Moses explains, and, when the people are faithful to God, the earth will be bountiful. If they are seduced by other gods, there will be neither rain nor harvest. These words are to be worn as a sign, by means of tefilin, between the eyes and on the hand and on mezuzot: the doorposts of your house. The part of the Shema which commands tefilin and mezuzot in Deuteronomy 6 is repeated here in Ekev.

The fulfilment of all the promises regarding the land depends on the obedience and fidelity of the people. On the one hand, you have the laws, statutes and commandments, and on the other, the land. This is indeed a contract between two parties: God and Israel.

Coming back to Korach, you may remember that he was from the tribe of Levi and therefore a relation of Moses, Aaron and Miriam. He challenged the leadership of Moses and the priesthood of Aaron, believing them to be less worthy than others, including himself and he picked up a following of 250 men, some of them notable chieftains and dignitaries. Among them were Dathan and Abiram, brothers from the tribe of Reuben. Whereas Korach talked about the holiness of the wider community, Dathan and Abiram, not being Levites, were less interested in sacerdotal rites than in material well-being. They argued that Moses hadn’t delivered the promise of the Exodus and that slavery in Egypt was better than this protracted wandering in the wilderness.

In our sidra, Moses refers to the Reubenite rebellion of Dathan and Abiram, but does not mention Korach, who was apparently their leader. It is believed that the story in Numbers 16 originates from two separate sources, one about the Levite revolt of Korach and the other about a Reubenite rebellion involving Dathan and Abiram. The source of the Korach story is said to be the ‘Priestly’ author who specializes in priestly and levitical functions, whereas the Dathan and Abiram story is generally attributed to a supposed earlier author, sometimes known as the Elohist, often regarded as being responsible for narratives about the Patriarchs and the tribes. The stories get spliced in Numbers, so that all these persons are part of the same revolt. According to the same theory of biblical authorship, the text we’re reading from Deuteronomy is later than the Elohist, who refers to Dathan and Abiram, but a bit earlier than the priestly author who knows about Korach. Naturally, the author of Deuteronomy has knowledge of the fate of Dathan and Abiram, but he doesn’t mention Korach, because he hasn’t had access to the Korach story.

But, if you accept that the words of Moses in Deuteronomy are indeed authored by Moses you may want to look at it another way. The Reubenite opposition may have been less painful to Moses than the rebellion in his own family, from his cousins, Korach and the other Levites.

And there are other possibilities. There are one or two negative portrayals of the tribe descended from Reuben, Jacob’s first born, and Reuben himself gets a raw deal because the mantles of kingship and priesthood are inherited by his younger brothers Judah and Levi. He is one of those firstborn sons, like Ishmael and Esau for whom primogeniture has none of the usual advantages.

Whichever way you want to look at it, Korach is written out of the passage we read today.

One more word about Dathan; if the name sounds familiar, it may be because he is the amoral, self-serving character portrayed by Edward G Robinson in Cecil B Demille’s film, The Ten Commandments. Biblical epics offer their own midrashim, possibly for the most pragmatic of reasons and MGM puts the blame squarely on Dathan, the Reubenite.


This Torah portion makes reference to three things which are, quite possibly, more ancient than the Torah itself. These are: a Sumerian cult, a quotation from a lost Hebrew book and a fragment of a folk song. There is a recurrent motif in the book of Numbers. The people complain about their seemingly interminable journey through the wilderness and the limited menu of manna, yearning for the remembered comforts of Egypt. We saw that most of the spies sent ahead to Canaan returned with pessimistic and defeatist reports of an unconquerable land. We saw how Korach and other Levites rebelled against Moses and were punished. Rashi explains that the Israelites were discouraged because of the many years travelling and indeed, Google Maps shows that the distance from the Red Sea to Jericho is thirty-eight miles, do-able on foot within a week, in peace time. But there was no peace for the Israelites on their journey through the wilderness.

Today’s Torah reading begins by describing an attack from the Canaanite king of Arad, which ended badly for him, with a herem, the destruction of his towns. Protest, complaints and rebellion within the Israelite camp did not go unpunished, and, as midrash points out, on this particular occasion, the people spoke against God, as well as complaining about Moses’ leadership. God sent fiery serpents – hanehashim haseraphim – which attacked the people and, as so often, Moses interceded with God on behalf of the discontented multitude in his care.

The solution which God commanded and which Moses carried out, was to make a copper serpent – nehash nehoshet – on a pole and, for anyone who was bitten by a serpent, the antidote would be to look on this and live. As we read in the haftarah, King Hezekiah later destroyed the copper serpent, known as nehushtan, because it was being treated as an object of pagan worship. You might think that a snake on a stick is a random object of curative potency but no, it has form in Sumerian, Egyptian and Greek antiquity. Asclepius who, in Greek mythology, was associated with healing and medicine, held a rod entwined by a serpent while Hermes AKA Mercury had a similar staff called a caduceus, with two serpents. The cult of Asclepius might conceivably post-date the Nehushtan, but the Sumerian deity Ningishzida, who held a rod with a snake entwined on it, appears in the second millennium BCE, which is well before the events in the book of Numbers.

To this day the logo of a snake on an axial rod is used by the BMA and internationally, by many medical organizations. After the attack of the serpents and the remedy, the Israelites then continue their journey eastwards in the wilderness, reaching the Arnon, which is the border between the Moabites and the Amorites. We read a citation about the valleys of Arnon, from ‘The Book of the Battles of Lord’ which is one of the lost books mentioned in the Bible. This is in fact the only reference in the bible to the Book of the Wars of the Lord. Some scholars identify it with The book of Jasher, a book mentioned more than once but now lost, although there is a late midrash of that name. In the Greek translation of the book of Numbers, third century BCE, the words ‘War of the Lord’ are a fragment of a verse, rather than the title of a book and, in the Targum of Onqelos, the book referred to is just called ‘The Book of Wars.’ The bottom line is that we haven’t got it any more and can only speculate about what it was.

The Israelites reach Be’er, which means a well, and God tells Moses to gather the people so that God will give them water. At the well, they sing a fragment of song:

Spring up, O well!—Sing to it!

The well that the princes made,

that the nobles of the people dug,

With the sceptre and with their staffs.

This song raises the possibility of a gap in the narrative, a reference which has been lost. Who are the princes who dug the well? Midrashic and medieval commentators suggest Moses and Aaron dug the well at the beginning of the forty years in the wilderness, and that it accompanied the Israelites, providing water during their wanderings.

Moses is not mentioned in the song.The provision of water, which the people sought repeatedly from Moses, was associated with the problematic waters of Meribah, where Moses angered God by striking the rock with his staff. There are two separate accounts of Moses striking the rock, found in both Exodus and Numbers. In the Book of Numbers, after the striking of the rock, God tells Moses and Aaron that, because of their insufficient trust, both of them would die before entering Canaan.

The song of Moses at the Red Sea begins, Az yashir Moshe – ‘Then sang Moses…’ and the Song of the Well begins Az yashir Yisrael – ‘Then sang Israel.’

Towards the end of the forty years in the wilderness, Moses has just a limited time as the living leader of the children of Israel. Aaron and Miriam are gone and Eleazar, Aaron’s son, is now the high priest. The time is near at hand when the Israelites must come of age, give up their interminable complaining and sing their own song.

And finally, they are on the move, after being held up thirty-eight years in the wilderness of Kadesh Barnea. The next verse, after the song, tells of the continuing journey, on an easterly trajectory, towards the field of Moab by the top of Pisgah, the high location from which Balaam will look down at the Israelite camp. The period in the wilderness has been a cycle of battles, revolt, plague and hardship and has lasted so long that a new generation is emerging. Perhaps these younger people are the ones who sing, in the Song at the Well, of legendary princes – which may be a reference to Moses and Aaron or, as one midrash says, a reference to the Patriarchs. After forty years in the wilderness, still with no land of their own, the Israelites have at least a unifying historical narrative which they carry forward towards Canaan.

Leviticus 24 begins with God’s words to Moses concerning the ner tamid – the eternal flame – and the show bread. It was the duty of Aaron and the priests to keep the lamp burning perpetually. The bread was laid out as a symbolic offering while the priests burned frankincense, and they would eat the bread before the new batch of loaves replaced them on the following Shabbat. These are called everlasting statutes, חקת עלם, an expression not used for every commandment in the Torah. It is said particularly of commandments associated with the priestly offices in the Sanctuary or with the observance of the festivals.

We adhere to them to this day: here is our ner tamid above the aron hakodesh, and, in the Kiddush Hall, the equivalent of the show bread, our challah is waiting for us.

Reading on, we come to the difficult narrative about the son of Shelomith, which involves blasphemy and a stoning.

All I said to my wife was, ‘That piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah.’

This quotation is from the Life of Brian, the stoning scene, which may owe something to our Torah reading where a certain man gets stoned to death.

In The Life of Brian, the stoning scene was a widely recognized biblical reference, although not everyone will have connected it with the precise verse from Leviticus, in the sidra, Emor:

Whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him.

The story is this: an Israelite woman called Shelomith had a grown-up son, fathered by an Egyptian. He fought with an Israelite man and, during the fracas, blasphemed, cursing God’s name. No halibut was involved. Moses ruled that the whole community should stone the man to death.

We don’t know the man’s name or exactly what he said; neither do we know the name of his Egyptian father. We do however know that his mother was Shelomith and his Israelite grandfather was Dibri of the tribe of Dan, so it is worth having a closer look at these names. The anthropologist Mary Douglas noticed that Shelomith is connected with the word for retribution, Dibri with law-suits and Dan with judgment. This interpretation treats the story as an allegory, conveying the lesson that there is punishment for cursing God.

Mary Douglas’s interpretation makes good sense when we read the continuation of God’s words to Moses, and see that there are judicial penalties for murder, damage to persons, property and animals, the punishments being of varying severity, depending on the offence; an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

Midrash offered interesting interpretations of the Shelomith narrative. It was suggested that the Egyptian father was the same Egyptian taskmaster killed by Moses. Shelomith was so called because she was excessively free and easy with passing men, always addressing them with the words ‘Peace to you’ which is a play on the name Shelomith, connected with shalom. Likewise, the meaning of Dibri is associated with speech, and Midrash says that Shelomith was too talkative.

One midrash interprets the fight as being between the son of the Egyptian and members of the tribe of Dan. He wanted to pitch his tent among them, on the grounds that his mother was of the tribe of Dan, but they excluded him. They told him: ‘Scripture says: ‘The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of his father’s house’ This puts forward a very negative view of the Danites, isolating the protagonist and driving him to despair. Moses also is depicted in the midrash as siding with the Danites, because the man was considered a mamzer, ie born of an adulterous union.

As it happens, the verb ‘to stone’, רגם, and, in other instances סקל, is not the same as the word for a stone in an non-verbal context, which is אבן. The meaning of the biblical verb to stone is connected with pelting or hurling.

Moreover, there are several different Hebrew words which are translated as blaspheme in English language bibles; they are all connected with cursing, in the transitive sense, where someone or something is being cursed.

In this country, the UK, the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished as late as 2008. You may remember Mary Whitehouse bringing a successful private prosecution against Gay News in 1976. Prosecutions for blasphemy tended to target freedom of expression in controversial literature or plays. Blasphemy as a crime was about words rather than deeds.

In our own time, talk of blasphemy or of stoning is associated with extreme, intolerant and violent penal systems, yet here is an account of it, in our own scripture. What can we do with it? Or what can we take from it? Perhaps just this: that speech is an act which generates consequences, and contemptuous speech, directed against people or against God, can be a potent weapon, causing injury or desecration. This is why we have laws against libel, slander and incitement to violence or hatred.

It goes without saying that the only place for stoning with stones is on the set of The Life of Brian.


Genesis 50:1-26 3 January 2015
vayehi image

When I was a child in the nineteen-fifties, there was a stigma associated with men crying. Men, as depicted in all my reading books, were married with two children, a boy and a girl, came home at six and enjoyed a nutritious meal of meat and two veg which the wife had prepared, after wringing the laundry through the mangle and dusting the flying ducks on the lounge wall. Boys learned and men knew that crying was an indulgence more suited to women and girls.

Well in the bible, it is the norm for men to weep. Jacob does it, Saul and David do it and now, I come to think of it, the leading men of the New Testament do it. Joseph, the great Viceroy of Egypt, does it again and again.

Joseph weeps when he hears his brothers speaking among themselves, admitting their guilt; he weeps when he sees Benjamin. When he discloses his true identity to his brothers he weeps so loudly that all the Egyptians in Pharaoh’s house can hear. Then he and Benjamin weep together, and Joseph kisses all his brothers, and weeps. The brothers bring their father Jacob to Egypt so that he can be reunited with Joseph. When Joseph sees Jacob, he falls on his neck and cries a long while, though, as it happens, Jacob does not cry.

Our Torah reading today is the last reading in the book of Genesis,which is the longest of all five books of the Torah. Jacob dies in Egypt, after a long valedictory speech, part blessing, part rebuke, to his twelve sons. Joseph weeps and embraces him, and then gains leave from Pharaoh to take his father’s remains back to Canaan for burial. He and his brothers make the journey and bury Jacob in the Cave of Machpelah before returning to Egypt. The brothers now have a pressing anxiety on their minds. Will Joseph pay them back for their cruelty to him, so many years ago? Now that Jacob is dead, they feel as vulnerable as Fredo Corleone, after the death of his mother. But, fortunately, Joseph does not resemble Michael Corleone. When his brothers – tugging on his heart strings – say ‘Forgive the transgression of the servants of your God and your father,’ Joseph weeps. The brothers declare ‘We are your slaves,’ but Joseph tells them ‘Fear not, for am I in the place of God? You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to save many people alive.’

These words of reassurance are very similar to those which Joseph speaks to his brothers after identifying himself to them: ‘Do not be grieved or angry with yourselves that you sold me, because God sent me before you to preserve life.’ This repetition is an instance of the duplication of events or conversations which occurs regularly in biblical narrative, but it also reflects the repetition and duplication of situations in life as we live it. It can happen that we seek reassurance not once but many times, or give the same reassurances more than once, more than twice. A person’s life is not just a straight line of narrative, but circles back on itself in loops of memory, repetition and recurrence; likewise the lives depicted in the bible.

Joseph and his brothers survive to a good old age, yet it seems that Joseph is the first to die, as, on his deathbed, he addresses his older brothers, telling them that God will bring them up from Egypt to the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Lastly he speaks to his extended family, the children of Israel, saying that when that time comes, they should take his bones and bring them home.

The final sentence of the book of Genesis tells us that Joseph dies at the age of a hundred and ten, is embalmed and put in a coffin in Egypt. Why did he not live to a hundred and twenty? The biblical scholar Robert Alter explains that a hundred and ten was the ideal Egyptian life span. Egyptian as well as Hebraic traditions pervade Joseph’s story.

The Egyptian setting will dominate the next book of the Torah: Exodus. Genesis ends with a coffin, Joseph’s, for coffins were part of the elaborate burial practice of the Egyptians. The Hebrew word for coffin is aron, meaning box, the same word we use for the Holy Ark. Robert Alter points out in his commentary on the Pentateuch, that the Exodus story begins with an ark: the cradle of bulrushes which carries the infant Moses downriver. (R Alter on Gen 50:26). This cradle is called tevah in Hebrew, the same word used of Noah’s Ark, the ultimate vehicle of survival and regeneration, and it seems suitable for Moses, who is destined to lead the Israelites out of slavery. As the Israelites depart Egypt, Moses remembers the promise to Joseph and takes with him Joseph’s bones. It falls to a direct descendant of Joseph, Joshua the Ephraimite, to supervise the interment of Joseph’s bones in a piece of land purchased by Jacob from Hamor the father of Shechem, before Joseph was sold into slavery.

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