Sunday, January 07, 2007


(Quasi-) Weekly Parsha Blogging: VaYechi

This week's parsha marks the last portion in the book of Genesis. While the Hertz (Soncino) Chumash doth protest too much regarding the documentary hypothesis concerning the authorship of the Torah (which the more recent Etz Chaim edition happily explicates as the best current hypothesis of the authorship of the Torah), those protests, many of which are summarized in the Hertz after the book of Genesis, do provide some pretty good arguments against, e.g., P being a post-exilic source. Certainly, even though it seems likely that separate J and E sources existed in Judea and the Northern Kingdom of Israel, respectively, these sources were likely heavily harmonized before even the period of a unified Kingdom of Israel rather than after the exile as many have claimed. I wouldn't be surprised if the P source was already harmonized along with the J and E sources long before the exilic period. To me the arguments of the Hertz Chumash don't quite hold water (as I said, Rabbi Hertz doth protest too much) but they do at least establish a relatively early date for the harmonization of at least the J, E and P sources. At the very least, if the P source were post-exilic, it was a remarkably good attempt at constructing a historical justification for the Second Temple as it differs not only from Ezekiel (which may be fairly called the Deuteronomic Priestly Code, nu?) but also from the actual Second Temple practice enough to give it a ring of hoary antiquity. Since the temptation in such a justification is always to make it too pat (c.f. conservatives talking about the religiosity of the Founding Fathers or even liberals talking about their secularism), either P was so clever that we might as well take P's cleverness to be a sign of divine inspiration anyway or P is indeed a product of hoary antiquity.

Another interesting point the Hertz makes is the lack of correspondence between Mesopotamian Creation and Flood myths and the Hebrew Bible's versions. I would suggest that, if anything, the "foreign" influence in Genesis is more likely Hittite than Mesopotamian. I wonder: is there any connection between the tribal name of Asher (and hence the Hebrew/Aramaic word for "fortunate", the "blessed" -- as in "Blessed are the meek", etc. -- of the Sermon on the Mount), the Canaanite/Phoenecian consort goddess Ashera and the Ashuras of the Indo-Europeans? Certainly Asher, as a "concubine" tribe may not have been Hebrew in origin but rather Phoenecian. I would reckon that while certainly the Hebrews in exile borrowed much from Persian traditions (and Mesopotamian ones ... hence the name "Morduchai", "Marduk lives"), perhaps many of the similarities between Hebraic and Persian mythos relate not to a Zoroastrian influence on the Hebrews in Exile but rather to a common Indo-European tradition which the Hebrews learned from the Phoenecians who absorbed them from the Hittites (who get some prominent mentions, although likely it's the Phoenecian group who absorbed the Hittite name rather than the Hittites themselves who are mentioned, in this Parsha in particular as well as in Genesis as a whole).

But that is somewhat off-topic for the Parsha at hand. What may be noted, from a literary point of view, is the wonderful use of subtle foreshadowing (e.g. Joseph realizing that it might not be possible for his survivors to carry his remains immediately back to Canaan as were carried the remains of Jacob earlier in the Parsha). The end of Genesis is the end of an era: the end of the great swath of early Bronze Age civilization. The Torah is silent after that period, skipping the rise of another round of Bronze Age civilization (the New Kingdom in Egypt, the Mycinaeans in Greece) and picking up again in a period of decline after which Israel emerges as its own kingdom, only to fall in an orgy of wars and empires of the day marking the final hurrah of the Bronze Age before the Iron Age commenced. Genesis as a whole foreshadows (and is most likely a collection of just-so stories) the social organization of Israel (see, for example, Jacob's final blessings in this Parsha and c.f. the events in Judges and I Samuel which tell of the age in which said social organization solidified and in which likely the J and E sources, if not the P source coalesced) and its surroundings as it emerges from that period of decline. So perhaps it is not surprising that the story of the New Kingdom at its height, etc., has no interest for the Israelites telling their story but they, like children allying with their grandparents against their parents, looked to the previous height of civilization for their legendary history?


When Jacob pointedly refuses to give the primary blessing to Joseph's first born we see a repetition of the leitmotif in Genesis of the more liminal latter born being the ones who achieve the birthright. Similarly, later in the Bible, we see lepers, being on the edge of society, as the only ones capable of breaking a siege and such wisdom as "the race does not go to the swift" and "the stone rejected by the builder has become the cornerstone". This is in line with evolutionary theory, which teaches the importance of diversity in order to provide for adaptation and future evolutionary success: today's mutant is tomorrow's fittest; today's also-ran is tomorrow's winner; today's less central junior tribe is tomorrow's leadership corps; today's criminals are tomorrow's healers and priests; etc. To me this is the real reason why the right often rejects evolution: this truth undercuts the evolutionary-flavored message of social Darwinism, the static world-view of Intelligent Design and the theory of comparative advantage, which say, respectively, that we should not coddle the less than fit, we should accept creation and the current social order as intelligently designed and that nations do best to specialize in what they are (currently) good at. The fact of the matter is, it pays to coddle the less than fit and provide a robust safety-net, we are partners in God's creation and no person nor nation should put all his/her eggs in one basket. The Bible teaches this, evolution teaches this. Yet both Social Darwinists and Bible thumpers miss the key point. Sometimes I wonder if Intelligent Design is a doctrine designed to muddy the waters so that more people miss the key point of both Biblical and real Darwinian thinking about economic issues.

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