Friday, July 15, 2022

Balaam and the Talking Donkey - a Lesson for Us (7/15/22)

We covered the story of Balaam and the talking donkey last week in Torah Study. (The Balaam and talking donkey episode is in Numbers 22, here.  A offering, Do Animals Feel Pain? Balaam’s Donkey vs. Descartes (  here) is wonderful midrash (in an expansive sense) on that story. Remember that Balaam rebukes the donkey for no appropriate reason.  Then, according to this midrash, The Angel Sides with the Donkey, here.  That is a comforting thought for all of us metaphorical and real donkeys.  Some snippets.

Just how appropriately it [the donkey] has behaved and spoken is confirmed when the angel rebukes Balaam. First, he repeats the animal’s complaint, in the same words the donkey uses, thereby validating it (v. 32).

Second, he makes Balaam aware that everything the donkey has done was for his own good and that he owes the animal his life (vv. 32–33).

Balaam is forced to apologize and admit his sinful behavior, pleading that the reason he erred was because, unlike his donkey, he did not know the angel was there (לֹא יָדַעְתִּי כִּי אַתָּה נִצָּב לִקְרָאתִי).

How often do we act inappropriate when we do not recognize that the Angel or God is there?


Animal Suffering in the Torah

The story of Balaam’s donkey is an extreme instance of something we see elsewhere in the Torah, that animals have feelings and it is incumbent upon humans to take this into consideration. In contrast to Descartes’ notion, which circulated widely and had a detrimental influence on the treatment of animals (as can be seen in Solomon Maimon’s story),[6] the Torah never doubts that animals feel pain and that a goat is most certainly not a drum.

A wonderful lesson.

Monday, August 2, 2021

More on Midrash - On Pharaoh and Egyptians as God's Creatures Too (8/2/21)

In my Torah Study Book Study group, we are currently reading (finishing this week), Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg's Moses: A Human Life, here.  Zornberg has a particularly interest in midrash, and continues that interest in this book.  I have other postings on midrash on this blog, so those wanting more on midrash can click the link at the bottom of this blog entry.

I recently sent this email to our group:

You may be interested in this offering from Prof.Edward L. Greenstein, Where Are God’s Tears in Lamentations?, here:

The opening sets it up nicely:

Tears abound in Lamentations: the poet cries, the people cry, even the city cries, but God does not. In contrast, the gods and goddesses of ancient Near Eastern city laments, cry along with their people. Midrash Eichah Rabbah, seemingly uncomfortable with such a callous depiction of God, rereads Lamentations to include God weeping.

That is just the opening.  A really good read.

This reminds me of the midrash I mentioned that I got from Avivah Zornberg about God rebuking the angels who were celebrating the death of the Egyptians by drowning.  I originally heard this in a Krista Tippett interview of Zornberg back in 2005.  The audio and transcript of that interview, titled The Transformation of Pharaoh, Moses, and God, is here.  Here is the relevant excerpt:

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Midrash Similar to Jesus’ Separation of Sheep from Goats in Matthew (5/23/21)

The WPC community will undoubtedly recall the Jesus statement quote in Matthew 25:31-46, here, about how he separates the sheep from the goats—by determining who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, etc.  This episode says, in effect, the separation will be made by what a person did in life.  Significantly, what is not stated in this episode is any role for "belief" whatever exactly that is.

I think this is a very Jewish way of thinking.  That should not be surprising because Jesus was a Jew.

A similar story is told in the Jewish tradition by midrash.  Back in 2007, I found this offering in Reform Judaism’s Ten Minutes of Torah.  Unfortunately, I could not find the link today but I had copied the text of the offering and therefore offer it here:

April 12, 2007  

Week 177, Day 4

24 Nisan 5767 

Life after Death: Open the Gates of Righteousness 

Midrash, Thillim Rabbah 118:19 


At the time of judgment in the future world everyone will be asked, What was your occupation? If the person answers, I used to feed the hungry, they will say to him, This is Gods gate; you who fed the hungry many enter. I used to give water to those who were thirsty-they will say to him, This is Gods gate; you who gave water to those who were thirsty may enter. I used to clothe the naked-they will say to him, This is Gods gate; you who clothed the naked may enter and similarly with those who raised orphans, and who performed the mitzvah of tzedakah, and who performed acts of caring, loving-kindness. 


Kugel on Biblical Interpretation by the Ancient Interpreters and Current Jewish and Christian Interpretation (5/23/21)

In the book forming the basis for the WPC series (Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently), the authors offer (pp. 24-25) Professor James’ Kugel’s “four principles of ancient Jewish exegesis.”  I thought I would offer just a little more on that from the Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now.  Kugel says that these principles are “Four Assumptions” that ancient interpreters brought to interpreting the Hebrew Bible.

Kugel has a special expertise in interpretations of the Hebrew Bible (including Christian interpretations )of the Hebrew Bible and has placed particular focus on interpretations of the Hebrew Bible when the Jewish community canonized the text over many years.  He argues that the key interpretations were not what the original author(s) (or redactors) may have intended but the interpretations when the Jewish community accepted the text as interpreted as canon for their religion.  Thus, Song of Songs (Song of Solomon in the Christian Bible) is a love poem between woman and man.  By a process of interpretation, the Jewish community and then the Christian community made it about the love of God and community.  This interpretive process starts and then does not end.

Here is  how Kugel illustrates his focus on ancient interpreters (pp. 10-17, footnotes and endnotes omitted and bold-face supplied by JAT):

The Ancient Interpreters at Work

                        Who were the interpreters of these ancient writings? n14 For the most part, their names are unknown. From their writings and from their whole approach to interpreting Scripture, it would appear that most of them were teachers or professional sages of sorts; n15 is some were probably independently wealthy men (and, possibly, women) who had the leisure to pursue their subject. n16 Indeed, we know that a few, like the second-century BCE sage Ben Sira, belonged to the ruling class and were close to the political leadership (Sir. 39:4; 50:1-24); such figures no doubt strengthened the connection between reading Scripture and determining how community affairs were to be run in their own day. Their ideas about how Scripture is to be interpreted have survived in a number of texts belonging to the end of the biblical period—texts like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the biblical apocrypha and pseudepigraphas as well as in somewhat later writings such as those of early Christians and the founders of rabbinic Judaism.


            The manner in which ancient interpreters read and explained Scripture is at first likely to strike modern readers as a bit strange. They did not go about the job of interpreting the way we do nowadays. Take, for example, the famous biblical story of how God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on an altar:

And it came to pass, after these things, that God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" and he answered, "Here I am." He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. Then sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you." So Abraham got up early in the morning and saddled his donkey. He took two of his servants with him, along with his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering and then set out for the place that God had told him about. On the third day, Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar. Abraham told his servants, "You stay here with the donkey while the boy and I go up there, so that we can worship and then come back to you."

            Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac; then he took the fire and the knife, and the two of them walked together. But Isaac said to his father Abraham, "Father?" and he said, "Here I am, my son." And he said, "Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" Abraham said, "God Himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them walked together.

            When they came to the place that God had told him about, Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood on it. He then tied up his son Isaac and put him on the altar on top of the wood. Abraham picked up the knife to kill his son. But an angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." He said, "Do not harm the boy or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." And Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.

                                                                                    Gen. 22:1-13

            The story itself is quite disturbing to modern readers — as it was to ancient readers. How could God, even as a test, order someone to kill his own son? And why would God ever need to test Abraham in this way? After all, God is supposed to know everything: presumably, He knew how the test would come out before it took place, and He certainly already knew that Abraham was one who "feared God," as the angel says after the test is over. Equally disturbing is the way Abraham deceives his son Isaac. He does not tell him  [12] what God has told him to do; Isaac is kept in the dark until the last minute. In fact, when Isaac asks the obvious question—I see all the accoutrements for the sacrifice, but where is the animal we're going to sacrifice? — Abraham gives him an evasive answer: "God Himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." This actually turns out to be true; God does provide a sacrificial animal — but Abraham had no way of knowing it at the time.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Presbyterian Excommunication for Heresy as a Preface to Biblical Criticism (5/22/21)

Those who have read my blog posts here note that I am quite enamored of Professor James Kugel.  I have quoted from his book, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (Free Press 2007 ed.).  That book was about modern scholarship and traditional interpretations (including Christian interpretations) of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible / Old Testament; in this post I will call it the Hebrew Bible).  The book rocked my boat when I first read it (still does), bringing to the task of reading my past in the Christian tradition.

I was surprised that Professor Kugel opened the book (Chapter 1, titled "Rise of Modern Biblical Scholarship") with a picture of Professor Charles Augustus Briggs. I had never heard of Briggs before but I turned the page anyway and quickly found out.  Briggs’ Wikipedia page starts off by saying that he was “American Presbyterian (and later Episcopalian) scholar and theologian.”  Kugel’s bookends the opening and closing of Chapter 1 with Briggs' story.  As a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Briggs gave a speech on his specialty, the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament, laying out the best scholarship on the Hebrew Bible at the time (the 1890s).  For that, the Presbyterian Church excommunicated Briggs for heresy (although his scholarship in the speech has stood the test of time).  The excommunication came after a long and well-publicized trial in Washington D.C.  How many knew that the Presbyterians excommunicated?  I have asked a few Presbyterians and few knew about the episode.  I always thought excommunication was a Catholic thing.  (When I first read the book, I was a Baptist and, as such, just suspected that the Presbyterians had hung onto that vestige of Catholicism.)

I offer below the opening and closing related of Chapter 1 excerpts related to Charles Augustus Briggs (I put page numbers in brackets) (and for those wanting to know what is between the opening and closing (it’s great), please email me  I omit footnotes (mostly scholarly) and bold-face certain parts that might be of particular interest to WPC members:


            On a warm May afternoon in 1893, a man stood on trial for heresy in Washington, D.C. This circumstance might in itself appear surprising. The defendant was being tried by the Presbyterian Church, which had always prided itself on its tradition of intellectualism and an educated clergy. While disagreements about church teachings were not rare in the denomination, going as far as putting a man on trial for his beliefs was certainly an extreme step. n1 Such a trial might also appear ill-suited to the end of the nineteenth century, a time of great openness to new ideas. Darwin's Origin of Species had been published a full three decades earlier, and Einstein's first writings on the theory of relativity were only twelve years away. America itself was a country of electric-powered machines and newfangled telephones, a rising economic and political center with its own burgeoning literary and intellectual avant-garde. Across the Atlantic, Sigmund Freud was working out his ideas on sexuality and the unconscious; Pablo Picasso was twelve years old, James Joyce was eleven, and D. H. Lawrence was eight. Heresy?

            Still more surprising was the man in the dock; Charles Augustus Briggs hardly seemed fitted to the role of heretic. In his youth, he had been an altogether traditional Presbyterian, distinguished only by the fervor of his belief. In his sophomore year at the University of Virginia, he presented himself for formal membership at the First Presbyterian Church of Charlottesville, and thereafter he became a committed evangelical Christian. n2 The tone of his faith in those early years is well captured by a letter he wrote to his sister Millie:

I trust you feel that you are a sinner. I trust that you know that Christ is your Savior, and I want to entreat you to go to him in prayer. I know by experience that Christ is precious, and that I would not give him up for the world... . Do you want to be separated from your brother and sister when they shall be with Jesus? Are you willing to be with the Devil in torment? You can decide the question in a moment. n3

            So great was Briggs's sense of calling that he soon abandoned plans to go into his father's highly prosperous business—Alanson Briggs, known as the "barrel king," owned and operated the largest barrel factory in the United States—in order to devote himself entirely to a life of Christian preaching and teaching.


            Briggs proved to be a gifted student of biblical Hebrew and ancient history, and he was soon ordained a Presbyterian minister. After having served as pastor to a small congregation in New Jersey for a time, he accepted a teaching post at one of the mainline seminaries of his day, the Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he lectured on Hebrew grammar and various biblical themes. He became, by all accounts, a highly respected scholar, acclaimed at a relatively young age as already belonging to "the foremost rank among the scholars of his day."  n4 Today, a century later, one of Briggs's books is still in print (a rare feat among academics!), a dictionary of biblical Hebrew that he coauthored with Francis Brown and S. R. Driver in 1906. Indeed, "BDB," as this dictionary is commonly known (for the initials of its three authors' last names), is still a required purchase for any graduate student undertaking serious work on the Hebrew Bible.

            What, then, was this son of the Establishment, an expert in Hebrew lexicography and biblical theology, doing on trial? It all had to do with a speech he had made two years earlier, on the occasion of his being named to a prestigious new chair at Union Seminary. Briggs's inaugural address, delivered on the evening of January 20, 1891, went on for well more than an hour. It began innocently enough; as required of all such appointees at Presbyterian seminaries, he opened with a public declaration of his faith in the Bible and the church's system of governance:

Friday, May 21, 2021

Further on Midrash - Having Our Bible and Criticizing It Too (5/21/21)

I previously offered a post titled "On Midrash (5/3/21)."  In that post, I offered some discussion by Professor James Kugel.  Professor Kugel has an offering today on "Having Our Bible and Criticizing It Too", here.  In it, he offers some discussion of midrash.  I quote the ending (the punch-line, so to speak):

My talk concerned the well-known midrash about Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, according to which Joseph was indeed tempted to sin, until at the last minute he had a vision of his father’s face and immediately desisted. My talk was about how this midrash had come into existence.

When it came time for questions, her hand shot up. I tried looking the other way, but finally I gave in and called on her. “I’m from Byalishtok [Białystok],” she said—and indeed, she had a rather heavy Yiddish accent—and this medrash you’re talking, the father’s face—everyone in Byalishtok knew about this medrash. You didn’t say anything new.

In fact, there was a boy in Byalishtok, Shmulik his name, and he…” at this point she paused, staring at me with a look that combined equal measures of pity and disdain. “Do you know what is beis boishes?” (A brothel.) “Yes,” I said weakly. “Well, this Shmulik, he goes into the beis boishes, but after a minute he comes rushing out. “What happened?” his friends ask him. “Maybe you see your father’s face, like Yoisef ha-Tzaddik?” “No,” Shmulik said, “just his galoshes.”

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Isaiah 7:14 - Virgin or Young Woman? (5/14/21)

Among the verses we will discuss at the second session, on 5/16, is Isaiah 7:14.  The known key “facts” are as follows:  (1) The biblical Hebrew for the verse refers to a “young woman” meaning just that, young woman, without necessarily being a virgin; (2) in translating Isaiah 7:14 into Greek for the Septuagint, the translator(s) used the Greek word Parthenos which did mean virgin; and (3) the Christian tradition took their “Old Testament” from translations influenced by the Septuagint. Hence, Matthew and Luke anchor their narratives in a virgin birth prophesied by Isaiah.

Isaiah 7:14 (NRSV) says (emphasis supplied): 

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman[a] is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

[a] Isaiah 7:14 Gk the virgin

Isaiah 7:14 (KJV) says (emphasis supplied):

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

The NRSV has gone back to the best translation of the Biblical Hebrew. 

Kugel (pp. 539-552) addresses this verse as follows after translating the Biblical Hebrew verse as follows (emphasis supplied):

Suppose a certain young woman gets pregnant and gives birth to a son; she should give him the name “God-amidst-us” [Hebrew: ‘Immanu-’el].

* * * * 


The exact identity and nature of the “certain young woman” who gets pregnant in Isaiah’s above-cited oracle is somewhat controversial: was she a real person, or merely hypothetical? * * * * The next word, ha-‘almah, translated as “a certain young woman,” might also be rendered simply as “the young woman.” Some scholars have in fact suggested that the definite article here implies a known individual—perhaps Ahaz’s own wife, or Isaiah’s. * * * * However, biblical Hebrew sometimes also uses definite articles and even demonstratives in an indefinite sense, in the same way that an English speaker might say, “This guy came up to me and started talking French,” where “this guy” really means “an undefined person, someone I never met before.” Considering this ambiguity, “a certain young woman” seems to preserve better the vagueness of the Hebrew: she might be known or might not be. As for “young woman,” that is how ‘almah is usually translated nowadays; the word does not necessarily tell us whether she is married or not.