Thursday, October 17, 2002
Okay, I'm actually going to do the parshah discussion on time this week. The downside is that I don't expect it to be terribly coherent.
The parshah begins with G-d's command to Abraham (actually, Abram, at this point in the narrative) to leave his native land and head to Canaan; it ends with the circumcision of Abraham's entire household on the command of G-d. Along the way, we get the story of Abram presenting his wife (then called Sarai) to Pharaoh as his sister; the arrival of Abram and Lot in Canaan, and their agreement to divide the grazing lands between them; the war among the cities of the plain; G-d's elaboration of His promises to Abram; the change of Abram's name to Abraham, and Sarai's to Sarah; the birth of Ishmael, and the flight and return of Hagar.
I've going to zero in on a few points and make some probably not very interesting observations.
(1) A couple of times in the parshah (versus 12:8 and 13:4), when Abram builds an altar and sacrifices to G-d, calls in the name of G-d - the ineffable Name, the tetragrammaton. This is not the only name that G-d is known by in the Torah, and not the only name in this parshah. I want to call attention to only one use of another name for G-d, by Melkizedek, who is called the priest of "the most-high G-d." I'm not sure that this is the only use of that particular title in the Torah, but I think it is. Melkizedek blesses Abram in the name of "the most-high G-d, possessor of heaven and earth." After Abram tithes, we then return to the post-war negotiations with the king of Sodom (Melkizedek has vanished as mysteriously as he appeared) and Abram, in refusing any spoils, tells the king of Sodom: "I have lifted my hand [i.e. sworn an oath] to HASHEM [the tetragrammaton, the ineffable name], the most-high G-d, possessor of heaven and earth."
What Abram has done is appropriate the divine epithet favored by the priest-king Melkizedek to his understanding of G-d. This, to me, is enormously significant. In Near Eastern religion, epithets of a god and idols of the god and objects for worshipping those idols and so forth frequently took on the attributes of gods themselves. Thus we find incriptions not only to Canaanite gods such as 'Il and Ba'al but to the 'Il of such and such place or the Temple of Ba'al or the Asherah of 'Il of the Temple of such and such place - and these all were considered as, in some sense, separate beings. Many of the Hebrew names fod G-d are shared in common with the names of Canaanite deities; most notably, the word "G-d" in Hebrew is "El" which is the same word as the Cannanite god, "'Il" - whose name, incidentally, means "god." By appropriating Melkizedek's epithet for G-d and annexing it to the ineffable Name, Abram is doing two things. First, he is identifying Melkizedek as a righteous gentile, one who understands the true nature of G-d, and not an idol-worshipper or one who denies G-d's sovereignty. Second, he is saying: this most-high G-d is the ineffable in whose Name I call. He is making a profoundly monotheistic statement.
The significance for us is illustrated when we ask: how have different biblical religions identified Melkizedek? Jewish tradition understands him to be the king of Jerusalem. He is called the king of Salem, which is understood to be the same city; moreover, tzedek, or righteousness, is an epithet of Jerusalem. He is also understood to be Seth, the son of Noah, the ancestor of all the Semitic peoples. He is a marker, then, for the historical unity of the region and a remnant of its true connection with the one true G-d, as well as a link to the future manifestation of the G-d in the Holy Temple in the city that he ruled. In orthodox Christian understanding, Melkizedek is an antetype for Jesus, and prefigures Jesus' own universalization of the divine blessing that is promised to the world through Abraham. And finally, in LDS theology, Melkizedek is the bearer of a more powerful and universal priesthood than that of Aaron, a priesthood lost until its restoration in the generation of Joseph Smith. For all three traditions, Melkizedek is a figure who points toward the universal manifestation of G-d's blessing. When Abraham, the progenitor of the Jewish people and the carrier of G-d's particular blessing, arrogates Melkizedek's epithets to the ineffable Name by which he knows G-d, he is saying: your universal blessing is in no conflict with my particular blessing, for both spring from the One whom we both acknowledge as the only sovereign of heaven and earth.
(2) In verses 15:9 through 15:21, G-d makes a very peculiar covenant with Abram. Abram has just been promised a multitude of descendants, and he is frankly skeptical. It's been a while since G-d started making these promises, and there've been no kids. It appears, in fact, that Eliezer, Abram's servant, will inherent all his wealth and, presumably, the blessing. To prove the veracity of the promise, G-d tells Abram to take a heifer, a goat and a ram, and cut them in half. The sun sets, and Abram has a sense of deep dread and foreboding. G-d then appears, and reiterates the promise, but with an unexpected twist: Abram will indeed be father to a great nation, but that nation will be enslaved for 400 years before coming into its inheritance. (I sense a bit of poetic justice here: Abram is upset that a slave will be his heir, so G-d reveals to him: your own descendants will be your heir, but they, too, will be slaves!) And then, as the sun sets, a flaming brazier appears between the halves of the animals, and the covenant is reiterated, promising to Abram and his descendants all of what would be called the Land of Israel.
So what is the deal with the flaming brazier and the bi-sected animals? No, this is not an antetype of Damien Hirst. Rather, we're dealing with another ancient Near Eastern symbol. When two kings made a covenant, they might bisect and animal and stand between them, saying, effectively: if I break this covenant, may what happened to these animals happen to me. When G-d commands Abram to bisect the animals, He is enacting the same kind of pantomime, playing the part of the king. Effectively, G-d is saying: if I do not perform on my half of the covenant, may I be split in two like these animals. I leave the question of what it might mean for G-d to be split in two to more inventive theologians; suffice it to say that it is a powerful image, fully capable of inspiring deep dread and foreboding in a Patriarch.
(As a side note: the Covenant between the Pieces makes a prominent appearance early in the Passover Haggadah, because this is the first point where the slavery and exodus from Egypt is prophesied.)
(3) Last week I talked about Noah and the debate over how righteous he was - was he especially righteous to have held on to righteousness in a wicked age, or was he only righteous in comparison with that wicked generation, and not at all righteous when compared with Abraham or Moses. The phrase used to describe Noah is: Noach ish tzadik tammim hayah bedorotav; et ha-Elohim hithaleich Noach. ("Noah was a simple righteous man in his generation; Noah walked with G-d.") In my translation last week, I left off the word "tammim" - simple. This word could also mean honest, innocent, or perfect; when you look at the list of associations, the general idea is of something unspoiled. The use of this word tips the scales for me to the positive end with respect to the character of Noah. So notice what G-d says to Abram just before giving him his new name (in 17:1): Ani El Shaddai; hithaleich lephanai ve-heyei tammim - "I am G-d Almighty [or the G-d of the Mountain]; walk before me and be simple/honest/innocent/unspoiled." Noah is described as walking with G-d and being unspoiled. Abram is charged to walk before G-d, and to be unspoiled - on the one hand, to exceed Noah and walk before G-d, to do G-d's work in the world unprompted; on the other, to aspire to Noah's condition, to be simple and true as he was.