Bob Schwartz

Category: Bible

The Torah Begins Again: A Big Nothing or A Big Something?

Whether or not you believe in religion, God, Judaism or the Torah, it is exciting that the annual cycle of Torah reading begins again with the first words of Genesis. A Big Nothing? A Big Something that becomes a different Big Something? Who knows? Who even knows what it says?

Here, a few different translations and comments from some brilliant scholars.


GENESIS 1:1-2

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

הַמָּֽיִם׃ וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י


When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters

Note:

welter and waste. The Hebrew tohu wabohu occurs only here and in two later biblical texts that are clearly alluding to this one. The second word of the pair looks like a nonce term coined to rhyme with the first and to reinforce it, an effect I have tried to approximate in English by alliteration. Tohu by itself means “emptiness” or “futility,” and in some contexts is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert.

hovering. The verb attached to God’s breath-wind-spirit (ruaḥ) elsewhere describes an eagle fluttering over its young and so might have a connotation of parturition or nurture as well as rapid back-and-forth movement.

Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: Translation with Commentary


When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—

Note:

A tradition over two millennia old sees 1.1 as a complete sentence: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In the 11th century, the great Jewish commentator Rashi made a case that the verse functions as a temporal clause. This is, in fact, how some ancient Near Eastern creation stories begin—including the one that starts at 2.4b. Hence the translation, When God began to create heaven and earth.

This clause describes things just before the process of creation began. To modern people, the opposite of the created order is “nothing,” that is, a vacuum. To the ancients, the opposite of the created order was something much worse than “nothing.” It was an active, malevolent force we can best term “chaos.” In this verse, chaos is envisioned as a dark, undifferentiated mass of water. In 1.9, God creates the dry land (and the seas, which can exist only when water is bounded by dry land). But in 1.1–2.3, water itself and darkness, too, are primordial (contrast Isa. 45.7). In the midrash, Bar Kappara upholds the troubling notion that the Torah shows that God created the world out of preexistent material. But other rabbis worry that acknowledging this would cause people to liken God to a king who had built his palace on a garbage dump, thus arrogantly impugning His majesty (Gen. Rab. 1.5). In the ancient Near East, however, to say that a deity had subdued chaos is to give him the highest praise.

The Jewish Study Bible (Second Edition)


In the beginning of God’s creating the skies and the earth —when the earth had been shapeless and formless, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and God’s spirit was hovering on the face of the water—

Note:

the earth had been: Here is a case in which a tiny point of grammar makes a difference for theology. In the Hebrew of this verse, the noun comes before the verb (in the perfect form). This is now known to be the way of conveying the past perfect in Biblical Hebrew. This point of grammar means that this verse does not mean “the earth was shapeless and formless”—referring to the condition of the earth starting the instant after it was created. This verse rather means that “the earth had been shapeless and formless”—that is, it had already existed in this shapeless condition prior to the creation. Creation of matter in the Torah is not out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo), as many have claimed. And the Torah is not claiming to be telling events from the beginning of time.

shapeless and formless: The two words in the Hebrew, th and bh, are understood to mean virtually the same thing. This is the first appearance in the Torah of a phenomenon in biblical language known as hendiadys, in which two connected words are used to signify one thing. (“Wine and beer” [Lev 10: 9] may be a hendiadys as well, or it may be a merism, a similar construction in which two words are used to signify a totality; so that “wine and beer” means all alcoholic beverages.) The hendiadys of “th and bh,”plus the references to the deep and the water, yields a picture of an undifferentiated, shapeless fluid that had existed prior to creation.

Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah


At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean,

Note:

At the beginning…: This phrase, which has long been the focus of debate among grammarians, is traditionally read “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” B-R agrees. I have followed several medieval commentaries, and most moderns, in my rendition.

When the earth…: Gen. 1 describes God’s bringing order out of chaos, not creation from nothingness. Wild and waste: Heb. tohu va-wohu, indicating “emptiness.” Ocean: The primeval waters, a common (and usually divine) image in an ancient Near Eastern mythology.

Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses


When God was about to create heaven and earth, the earth was a chaos, unformed, and on the chaotic waters’ face there was darkness.

Note:

When God was about to create (b’reishit bara elohim); other translations render this: “In the beginning God created.” Our translation follows Rashi, who said that the first word would have been written (ba-rishonah, at first) if its primary purpose had being to teach the order in which creation took place. Later scholars used the translation “In the beginning” as proof that God created out of nothing (Latin: ex nihilo), but it is not likely that the biblical author was concerned with the question of matter’s origin.

W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised Edition)


In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Note:

In the beginning when God created, or “When God began to create.” The grammar of this temporal clause was clarified by the medieval Jewish commentator Rashi, who noted that the Hebrew word for “beginning” (reshit) requires a dependent relation—it is the “beginning of” something—and can be followed by a verb. The traditional rendering, “In the beginning, God created,” dates to the Hellenistic period (as in the Septuagint), when these details of classical Hebrew grammar had been forgotten. The idea of creatio ex nihilo (Latin, “creation out of nothing”) is dependent on the later rendering. In the original grammar, creation is a process of ordering and separation that begins with preexisting chaotic matter.

This disjunctive clause portrays the primordial state as a dark, watery chaos, an image similar to the primordial state in Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Greek traditions. Unlike these other traditions, the chaos here is not a god or gods, but mere matter. The wind from God is he only divine substance and seems to indicate the incipient ordering of this chaos (cf. the role of God’s wind in initiating the reversal of watery chaos in 8.1).

The HarperCollins Study Bible


In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Note:

Scholars differ on whether this verse is to be translated as an independent sentence summarizing what follows (e.g., “In the beginning God created”) or as a temporal phrase describing what things were like when God started (e.g., “When God began to create . . . the earth was a formless void”; cf. 2.4–6). In either case, the text does not describe creation out of nothing (contrast 2 Macc 7.28). Instead, the story emphasizes how God creates order from a watery chaos.

New Oxford Annotated Bible

Living under an American Pharaoh: What’s a Jew to do?

It’s almost Passover, so Pharaoh is our minds. Also on our minds because we are living under an American Pharaoh—or at least a wannabe Pharaoh.

Don’t let him fool you. Just because his chief henchman is Jewish, or his son-in-law is Jewish, or some of his rich donors are Jewish, or because he says and does things that make it seem that he understands and cares about Jews and Israel (he doesn’t), he is nothing less than a Pharaoh.

So where does that leave American Jews, particularly at Passover?

It is actually not that surprising that some Jews have joined the Pharaoh’s cause. There are dramatic moments in the exodus story where Jews are willing to throw away freedom and principle for a golden calf and the comfort of the Pharaoh’s harsh protection.

And Aaron said to them, “Take off the golden rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” And all the people took off the golden rings that were on their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he took them from their hand and he fashioned it in a mold and made it into a molten calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” And Aaron saw, and he built an altar before it, and Aaron called out and said, “Tomorrow is a festival to the LORD.” And they rose early on the next day, and they offered up burnt offerings and brought forward communion sacrifices, and the people came back from eating and drinking and they rose up to play.
Exodus 32:2-6

So where does that leave the Jews who do not believe in Pharaoh? We can stay and argue with those who support Pharaoh, though that has so far proven pointless. We can escape to the wilderness in search of a Promised Land of freedom and light, although by many conventions America is already the Promised Land of freedom and light.

Or we can all be tiny Moses, telling fellow Jews at Passover that worshiping Pharaoh and a golden calf and unprincipled conduct is ungodly and unholy. We cannot wait for God to intervene because God leaves it up to us. Let us not disappoint.

Christmas: The Prequel (Infancy Gospel of James)

Gaudenzio Ferrari, The Annunciation to Joachim and Anna, 1544-45

Our canonical texts are largely silent about the events prior to and leading up to Jesus’ birth, but his unique standing as the Son of God led Christians to wonder about parts of the story left out.
Bart Ehrman

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
Joan Didion

Whether you are one who takes the events in the canonical gospels as history or story, there are certainly missing pieces in the narratives. Over the centuries, these gaps have been filled in by inspiring and imaginative “other gospels.”

The Infancy Gospel of James is a dramatic prequel to the Christmas story. It can be found in The Other Gospels: Accounts of Jesus from Outside the New Testament, edited and translated by Bart D. Ehrman and Zlatko Pleše.

Bart Ehrman writes:

Of all the early Christian apocrypha, none played a larger a role in the theology, culture, and popular imagination of late antiquity and the Middle Ages than the Proto-Gospel of James. This is the Gospel “prior to” the Gospel, an account of the events leading up to and immediately following the birth of Jesus.

The focus of attention is on Jesus’ mother Mary, on her own miraculous birth, upbringing, young life, and engagement to Joseph. In addition, the account narrates, as a kind of Christian expansion and interpretation of the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, Mary’s continued virginity (demonstrated famously by a midwife’s postpartum inspection), and the opposition to the Christ child by King Herod, leading to the miraculous protection of John the Baptist and his mother, and the murder of his father, Zacharias, the high priest of the Jews, in the temple.

The account was probably written in the late second century and became particularly popular in the eastern part of Christendom….

For the most part the Proto-Gospel was not transmitted in the West because its portrayal of Jesus’ “brothers” as sons of Joseph from a previous marriage was roundly condemned by no less an authority than Jerome. In Jerome’s forcefully stated view, Jesus’ alleged brothers were in fact his cousins. This interpretation was closely tied to Jerome’s ascetic agenda: for him, not only was Mary a perpetual virgin, but Joseph—the earthly father of the Lord—was as well. The account of the Proto-Gospel was explicitly condemned in 405 CE by Pope Innocent I….

Our canonical texts are largely silent about the events prior to and leading up to Jesus’ birth, but his unique standing as the Son of God led Christians to wonder about parts of the story left out. If he was special, as shown by the fact that he was conceived by a virgin—what can we say about his mother? Who was Mary? What made her special? How was she herself born? How did she maintain her own purity, to make her a worthy “vessel” for the Son of God?…

Here Mary is not an impoverished Jewish peasant. Her father is the richest man in Israel and of royal blood. She herself is of impeccable morals and purity. Her purity is safeguarded from the time of her birth and demonstrated in her unusual upbringing, as she spends her young life, literally, in the temple, day and night, fed by the hand of an angel. The stories of the account demonstrate in particular her sexual purity. Not only is she a virgin at the time of her conception; she also remains a virgin, even after giving birth, as shown by the physical inspection of a skeptical midwife. Joseph himself never lays a finger on her. Moreover, he is not a poor carpenter, but an established building contractor. Finally, Mary’s spinning activity is not for money, it is to provide a curtain for the sacred temple of God.


From The Proto-Gospel of James (The Birth of Mary, the Revelation of James)

The Rich Joachim and His Self-Exile
1

(1) In the “Histories of the Twelve Tribes of Israel” there was a very wealthy man Joachim, who used to offer a double portion of his gifts to the Lord, saying to himself, “The portion that is my surplus will be for all the people, and the portion that is for forgiveness will be for the Lord God as my atonement.” (2) Now the great day of the Lord drew near, and the sons of Israel were offering their gifts. Reuben stood before him and said, “You are not allowed to offer your gifts first, since you have not produced any offspring in Israel.”

(3) Joachim was very upset and went away to consult the book of the twelve tribes of the people, saying to himself, “I will examine the Book of the Twelve Tribes of Israel to see if I am the only one not to produce offspring in Israel.” And he searched and found that everyone who was righteous had raised up offspring in Israel. Then he remembered the patriarch Abraham, that at the end of his life the Lord God had given him a son, Isaac.

(4) Joachim was very upset and did not appear to his wife, but went out to the wilderness and pitched his tent there. Joachim fasted for forty days and nights, saying to himself, “I will not come down for either food or drink until the Lord my God visits me. My prayer will be my food and drink.”

***

Some Angelic Visitations
4

(1) Then, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared and said to her, “Anna, Anna, the Lord has heard your prayer. You will conceive a child and give birth, and your offspring will be spoken of throughout the entire world.” Anna replied, “As the Lord God lives, whether my child is a boy or a girl, I will offer it as a gift to the Lord my God, and it will minister to him its entire life.”

(2) Behold, two angels came, saying to her, “See, your husband Joachim is coming with his flocks.” For an angel of the Lord had descended to Joachim and said, “Joachim, Joachim, the Lord God has heard your prayer. Go down from here; see, your wife Anna has conceived a child.” (3) Joachim immediately went down and called his shepherds and said, “Bring me here ten lambs without spot or blemish, and the ten lambs will be for the Lord God; and bring me twelve young calves and the twelve calves will be for the priests and the council leaders, and bring a hundred male goats for all the people.”

(4) And behold, Joachim came with his flocks and Anna stood beside the gate and saw Joachim coming with his flocks; and running up to him she hung on his neck and said, “Now I know that the Lord God has blessed me abundantly. For see, the widow is no longer a widow and I who am childless have conceived a child.” Then Joachim rested the first day in his home.

The Birth of Mary
5

(1) On the next day he brought his gifts as an offering, saying to himself, “If the Lord is gracious to me, the leafed plate of the priest’s mitre will make it known to me.” And Joachim offered his gifts and looked closely at the priest’s leafed mitre as he went up to the altar of the Lord; and he saw no sin in himself. Joachim then said, “Now I know that the Lord God has been gracious to me and forgiven me all my sins.” He went down from the temple of the Lord justified and came to his house.

(2) Some six months came to completion for Anna; and in the seventh month she gave birth. She asked the midwife, “What is it?” The midwife replied, “A girl.” Anna said, “My soul is exalted today.” And she laid the child down. When the days came to completion, Anna washed off the blood of her impurity, gave her breast to the child, and named her Mary.

Mary’s Early Life
6

(1) The child grew stronger every day. When she was six months old, her mother set her on the ground, to see if she could stand. She walked seven steps and came to her mother’s bosom. Her mother lifted her up and said, “As the Lord my God lives, you will not walk at all on this ground until I have taken you up to the temple of the Lord.” Then she made a sanctuary in her bedroom and did not allow anything impure or unclean to pass through her lips. And she called the undefiled daughters of the Hebrews and they entertained her.

(2) When the child had her first birthday, Joachim held a great feast and invited the chief priests, priests, scribes, council leaders, and all the people of Israel. Joachim brought the child out to the priests and they blessed her, saying, “O God of our fathers, bless this child and give her a name that will be famous forever, to all generations.” And all the people replied, “Let it be so! Amen.” They brought her to the chief priests, and they blessed her, saying, “O Most High God, look upon this child and bless her with an ultimate blessing, equal to none.”

(3) Her mother took her back to the sanctuary in her bedroom and nursed the child. And Anna made a song to the Lord God, saying, “I will sing a holy song to the Lord my God, for he has visited me and removed from me the reproach of my enemies. The Lord my God has given me the fruit of his righteousness, unique and abundant before him. Who will report to the sons of Reuben that Anna is now nursing a child? Listen closely, you twelve tribes of Israel: Anna is nursing a child!” And she laid her down to rest in the bedroom of her sanctuary and went out to serve the others. When the feast ended they descended happy, and they gave glory to the God of Israel.

***

Joseph Becomes Mary’s Guardian
8

(1) Her parents went away marveling, praising and glorifying God, the Master, that the child did not turn back. Mary was in the temple of the Lord, cared for like a dove, receiving her food from the hand of an angel.

(2) But when she reached her twelfth birthday, the priests held a council and said, “See, Mary has become twelve years old in the Lord’s temple. What then shall we do with her, to keep her from defiling the sanctuary of the Lord our God?” They said to the chief priest, “You have stood on the Lord’s altar. Go in and pray about her, and we will do whatever the Lord God reveals to you.” (3) The chief priest went in, taking the robe with twelve bells into the Holy of Holies; and he prayed about her. And behold, an angel of the Lord appeared and said to him, “Zacharias, Zacharias, go out and gather the widowers of the people, and have each of them bring a rod; she will become the wife of the one to whom the Lord God gives a sign.” The heralds went out to all the countryside of Judea and the trumpet of the Lord was blown, and see, everyone came running.

***

Mary Spins for the Curtain in the Temple
10

(1) Then the priests held a council and said, “We should make a curtain for the Lord’s temple.” The priest said, “Call to me the undefiled virgins from the tribe of David.” The servants went out looking for them and found seven virgins. The priest then remembered that the child Mary was from the tribe of David, and that she was undefiled before God. The servants went out and led her back. (2) And they brought them into the Lord’s temple. And the priest said, “Cast lots before me to see who will spin the gold, the asbestos, the fine linen, the silk, the sapphire blue, the scarlet, and the true purple.” Mary drew the lot for the true purple and the scarlet, and taking them she returned home. At that time Zacharias became silent. Samuel took his place, until Zacharias spoke again. And Mary took the scarlet and began to spin it.

The Annunciation
11

(1) Mary took a pitcher and went out to fetch some water. And behold, she heard a voice saying, “Greetings, you who are favored! The Lord is with you. You are blessed among women.” Mary looked around, right and left, to see where the voice was coming from. She then entered her house frightened and set the pitcher down. Taking up the purple she sat on her chair and began to draw it out. (2) And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before her and said, “Do not fear, Mary. For you have found favor before the Master of all. You will conceive a child from his Word.” But when she heard this she asked herself, “Am I to conceive from the living Lord God and give birth like every other woman?” (3) The angel of the Lord said to her, “Not so, Mary. For the power of God will overshadow you. Therefore the holy one born from you will be called the Son of the Highest. And you will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Mary replied, “Behold the slave of the Lord is before him. May it happen to me as you have said.”

Mary Visits Elizabeth
12

(1) She made the purple and the scarlet, and brought them to the temple. The priest took them and blessed her, “Mary, the Lord God has made your name great; you will be blessed among all the generations of earth.”

(2) Full of joy, Mary went off to her relative Elizabeth. She knocked on the door; and when Elizabeth heard she cast aside the scarlet and ran to the door. When she opened it she blessed Mary and said, “How is it that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For see, the child in me leapt up and blessed you.” But Mary forgot the mysteries that the archangel Gabriel had spoken to her, and gazed at the sky and said, “Who am I, Lord, that all the women of earth will bless me?”

(3) She stayed with Elizabeth for three months. Day by day her own belly grew. Mary then returned home in fear, and hid herself from the sons of Israel. She was sixteen when these mysteries happened to her.

Joseph Discovers Mary’s Condition
13

(1) When she was in her sixth month, behold, Joseph returned from his buildings. As he came into the house he saw that she was pregnant. Striking his face he cast himself to the ground on sackcloth, weeping bitterly and saying, “How can I look upon the Lord God? How can I utter a prayer for this young girl? For I received her from the temple of the Lord God as a virgin, but I did not watch over her. Who has preyed upon me? Who has done this wicked deed in my home and defiled the virgin? Has not the entire history of Adam been summed up in me? For just as Adam was singing praise to God, when the serpent came and found Eve alone, and led her astray, so too has this now happened to me.”

(2) Joseph rose up from the sackcloth, called Mary, and said to her, “You who have been cared for by God: why have you done this? Have you forgotten the Lord your God? Why have you humiliated your soul—you who were brought up in the Holy of Holies and received your food from the hand of an angel?” (3) But she wept bitterly and said, “I am pure and have not had sex with any man.” Joseph replied to her, “How then have you become pregnant?” She said, “As the Lord my God lives, I do not know.”

***

The Authorities Discover Mary’s Condition
15

(1) But Annas the scribe came to see him and said, “Joseph, why have you not appeared before our council?” Joseph replied, “I was tired from my journey and rested on my first day back.” Annas then turned and saw that Mary was pregnant. (2) He left and ran off to the priest and said to him, “Joseph, the one you have vouched for, has committed a great sin.” The priest replied, “What has he done?” He said, “He has defiled the virgin he received from the Lord’s temple and has stolen her wedding rights. And he has not revealed this to the sons of Israel.” The priest asked, “Joseph, has done this?” Annas the scribe replied, “Send some servants, and you will find that the virgin is pregnant.” The servants went off and found her just as he had said. They brought her back to the judgment hall, along with Joseph.

(3) The high priest said to her, “Mary, why have you done this? Why have you humiliated your soul and forgotten the Lord your God? You who were brought up in the Holy of Holies and received your food from the hand of an angel, and heard his hymns, and danced before him—why have you done this?” But she wept bitterly and said, “As the Lord my God lives, I am pure before him and have not had sex with any man.”

(4) The priest then said, “Joseph, why have you done this?” Joseph replied, “As the Lord my God lives, I am pure toward her.” The priest said, “Do not bear false witness, but speak the truth. You have stolen her wedding rights and not revealed it to the sons of Israel; and you have not bowed your head under the mighty hand that your offspring might be blessed.” Joseph kept his silence.

***

The Journey to Bethlehem
17

(1) An order went out from the king, Augustus, that everyone from Bethlehem of Judea was to be registered for a census. Joseph said, “I will register my sons. But what should I do about this child? How should I register her? As my wife? I would be too ashamed. As my daughter? The sons of Israel know that she is not my daughter. This day of the Lord will turn out as he wishes.”

(2) He saddled the donkey and seated her on it; and his son led it along, while Samuel followed behind. When they approached the third milestone, Joseph turned and saw that she was gloomy. He said to himself, “Maybe the child in her is causing her trouble.” Then Joseph turned again and saw her laughing. He said to her, “Mary, why is it that one time I see you laughing and at another time gloomy?” She replied, “Because my eyes see two peoples, one weeping and mourning and the other happy and rejoicing.”

(3) When they were half way there, Mary said to him, “Joseph, take me down from the donkey. The child inside me is pressing on me to come out.” He took her down from the donkey and said to her, “Where can I take you to hide your shame? For this place is a wilderness.”

Joseph Watches Time Stand Still
18

(1) He found a cave there and took her into it. Then he gave his sons to her and went out to find a Hebrew midwife in the region of Bethlehem.

(2) But I, Joseph, was walking, and I was not walking. I looked up to the vault of the sky, and I saw it standing still, and into the air, and I saw that it was greatly disturbed, and the birds of the sky were at rest. I looked down to the earth and saw a bowl laid out for some workers who were reclining to eat. Their hands were in the bowl, but those who were chewing were not chewing; and those who were taking something from the bowl were not lifting it up; and those who were bringing their hands to their mouths were not bringing them to their mouths. Everyone was looking up. I saw a flock of sheep being herded, but they were standing still. The shepherd raised his hand to strike them, but his hand remained in the air. I looked down at the torrential stream, and I saw some goats whose mouths were over the water, but they were not drinking. Then suddenly everything returned to its normal course.

The Birth of Jesus and the Witness of the Midwives
19

(1) I saw a woman coming down from the hill country, and she said to me, “O man, where are you going?” I replied, “I am looking for a Hebrew midwife.” She asked me, “Are you from Israel?” I said to her, “Yes.” She asked, “Who is the one who has given birth in the cave?” I replied, “My betrothed.” She said to me, “Is she not your wife?” I said to her, “She is Mary, the one who was brought up in the Lord’s temple, and I received the lot to take her as my wife. She is not, however, my wife, but she has conceived her child by the Holy Spirit.” The midwife said to him, “Can this be true?” Joseph replied to her, “Come and see.” And the midwife went with him.

(2) They stood at the entrance of the cave, and a bright cloud overshadowed it. The midwife said, “My soul has been magnified today, for my eyes have seen a miraculous sign: salvation has been born to Israel.” Right away the cloud began to depart from the cave, and a great light appeared within, so that their eyes could not bear it. Soon that light began to depart, until an infant could be seen. It came and took hold of the breast of Mary, its mother. The midwife cried out, “Today is a great day for me, for I have seen this new wonder.”

(3) The midwife went out of the cave and Salome met her. And she said to her, “Salome, Salome, I can describe a new wonder to you. A virgin has given birth, contrary to her natural condition.” Salome replied, “As the Lord my God lives, if I do not insert my finger and examine her condition, I will not believe that the virgin has given birth.”

***

The Visit of the Magi and the Slaughter of the Innocents
21

(1) And behold, Joseph was ready to go into Judea. But there was a great disturbance in Bethlehem of Judea. For magi came saying, “Where is the king of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east, and we have come to worship him.”

(2) When Herod heard, he was troubled; and he sent servants to the magi. He then summoned the high priests and asked them in the praetorium, “What does Scripture say about where the messiah is to be born?” They replied, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for that is what is found in Scripture.” He then released them and asked the magi, “What sign did you see concerning the king who has been born?” The magi said, “We saw a magnificent star shining among these stars and overshadowing them, so that the other stars disappeared. And thus we knew that a king had been born in Israel, and we came to worship him.” Herod replied, “Go and look for him. If you find him, let me know, that I too may come to worship him.”

(3) The magi then left, and behold, the star they had seen in the east preceded them until they entered the cave, and it stood over the entrance of the cave. The magi saw the child with its mother, Mary, and they took from their packs gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (4) When they were warned by a revelation from an angel not to enter Judea, they went home another way.

***

The Death of Zacharias
23

(1) Herod was looking for John, and he sent servants to Zacharias, saying, “Where have you hidden your son?” He answered them, “I am a minister of God, constantly attending his temple. How could I know where my son is?” (2) The servants left and reported everything to Herod. Herod became angry and said, “His son is about to rule Israel.” He sent his servants back to him to say, “Tell me the truth: where is your son? For you know that I can shed your blood with my hand.” The servants went to report these things to him. (3) Zacharias responded, “I am God’s witness if you shed my blood. For the Master will receive my spirit, since you will be shedding innocent blood in the forecourt of the Lord’s temple.” Zacharias was murdered around dawn, but the sons of Israel did not know that he was murdered.

***

Epilogue
25

(1) But I James, the one who has written this account in Jerusalem, hid myself away in the wilderness when there was a disturbance at the death of Herod, until the disturbance in Jerusalem came to an end. There I glorified God, the Master, who gave me the wisdom to write this account.

(2) Grace be with all those who fear the Lord. Amen.

© Oxford University Press 2014

Wrestling with Yourself, Part 2

The previous post about the biblical episode of Jacob wrestling with a man or an angel or God is entitled Wrestling with Yourself. Why so?

In the family saga, Jacob comes from a long line of people on an important mission, which mission they use as a rationalization for some sharp practices and lying. Abraham lies about his wife, saying she is his sister. Isaac lies about his wife, saying she is his sister. Jacob lies to his father Isaac, with a plan devised by his mother, saying he is his brother and stealing his brother’s blessing. After the wrestling episode, Jacob’s sons will lie to him, saying their brother is dead, while in fact they have left him to be taken into slavery.

We wonder just what sort of entity Jacob is wrestling with. The Hebrew word ish makes it sound as if it is a man, but the details of the story say otherwise. One enlightening view says that Jacob was actually wrestling with himself. Given his history and the history of the family, such psychological conflict is understandable.

The wrestling match ends in a tie, that is, Jacob refuses to give up, even though he is injured. This is exactly what happens if you wrestle with yourself. You can’t win, but if you don’t give up, you can’t lose either. At best, you come out of the match transformed. Hurt and pained, perhaps, but different enough to merit a new name.

Wrestling with Yourself

The Action Bible, illustrated by Sergio Cariello (Genesis 32.24–32)

Jacob Wrestles All Night with an Angel or with God

Yaakov is left alone, and a man wrestles
With him until daybreak.
When the man sees he has not won against Yaakov,

He strikes him on the hip socket,
And as he wrestles with him
Yaakov’s hip comes out of joint.

Then he says, “Let me go. Dawn is breaking.”
But Yaakov says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
So he tells him, “What is your name?”

And he answers, “Yaakov.”
And he says, “You shall no longer be called Yaakov, but Yisrael,
For you have fought with God and men

And you have won.”
And Yaakov tells him, saying, “Please tell me your name.”
But he says, “Why are you after my name?”

And there he blesses him.
And Yaakov names the place Penuel, saying,
“I have seen God face to face and I am alive.”

The sun rises over them
But Yaakov is limping because of his hip.
Therefore, the children of Yisrael

Do not eat the thigh muscle of the hip
Because he (the nameless) struck Yaakov
On the socket of his hip.

Willis Barnstone, Poets of the Bible

 

The Very Small People Running America

The people running America are very small, starting with the president, and continuing down through his administration and his Republican supporters.

What does small mean?

Let us put it in terms these people will understand, since practically all of them claim to be faithful, most of them faithful Christians:

So God created mankind in his own image.
Genesis 1:27

That is, of course, aspirational. Not that people will be able to reach godlike heights of compassion and care. But that is the constant goal—interrupted by the shortfalls we are all subject to, being human as we are.

But maybe we’ve got it all wrong. Maybe God is petty and ignorant, uncaring and uncompassionate. In which case, those running America are being faithful, acting so small in the image of a very small God.

Or maybe they don’t understand the very first chapter of the Bible they embrace, or maybe they ignore it or skip it. Maybe they don’t understand, ignore or skip the entire Bible.

Anyway, these are very small people, faithful or just pretending to be. Way too small to be doing such a big job.

Democrats: Micah 2020

Dana Milbank writes in today’s Washington Post:

Hey Democrats! What’s the big idea? No, really. What’s the big idea?

A dozen possible Democratic presidential candidates assembled at a downtown Washington hotel Tuesday for one of the first cattle calls of the 2020 campaign. The good news: There were, on that stage, all of the personal qualities and policy ideas needed to defeat President Trump. The bad news: These qualities and ideas were not in any one person….

For November’s midterm elections, it may be enough for Democrats to say they are against Trump. Congressional Democratic leaders took a stab at a unified agenda for 2018 — “A Better Deal” — and were roundly mocked by progressives.

But to beat Trump, they’ll need more. Trump convinced tens of millions of Americans that they are losing ground because of immigrants, racial and religious minorities, and foreigners. What will Democrats advance to counter that grim message?

Given how lost the Democrats are (and how that might lead to further losing), I suggest that they consider the Bible. Not the weaponized, sectarian and exclusionary interpretation of the Bible that is so popular with selfish and heartless ideologues. But the Bible that demands humane conduct—something that we see slipping away election by election, day by day (and that means you too, Democrats).

The prophet Micah is a great touchstone. The revealed solution for an aggrieved people does not involve greater piety, more sacrifices, or brutal nationalism. All that is required is justice, goodness and humility:

With what shall I approach the Lord,
Do homage to God on high?
Shall I approach Him with burnt offerings,
With calves a year old?

Would the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
With myriads of streams of oil?
Shall I give my first-born for my transgression,
The fruit of my body for my sins?

“He has told you, O man, what is good,
And what the Lord requires of you:
Only to do justice
And to love goodness,
And to walk modestly with your God;
Then will your name achieve wisdom.”

Micah 6:6-9 (NJPS)

Micah is not available to run in an election. But justice, goodness and humility are always available as a platform.

Trump v. Moses: Grievances Win Over Vision

People can be complainers. Grievances can be powerful. Just ask Trump. Or Moses.

Prior freedom and miracles were not enough for the Jews at Mount Sinai. While Moses goes up the mountain, for what turns out to be a monumental visionary moment, the people head in an entirely different direction. They are still chronically unhappy and complaining about their lives and the way things have been going, and so engage in all sorts of crazy behavior. In that story, the vision does end up prevailing, but only after lots more tzuris (troubles) and mishegas (craziness).

The only chance for vision to prevail over grievance is for there to be an actual coherent and enlightened vision, and for there to be widespread confidence among people in that actual vision. Otherwise people, who are just human, will complain—sometimes selfishly and shortsightedly, sometimes justifiably. And they will channel those complaints into strange behaviors and choices.

In America, there are a lot of people with grievances. And there is a vision vacuum, at least among those whose supposed structural mission is to be practical visionaries (for example, Democrats and religious institutions). Even with miracles behind him, Moses had a tough time. Without miracles or vision, in elections and at other times, we may be seeing a lot more golden calves.

 

Trump’s Easter Tweet: Do Not Thrust Aside the Alien

It is April 1. Trump’s Easter tweet today is inspired by the Bible:

As it says in the Book of Malachi: “I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”

No, no, not really. Trump did attend church on Easter, but his actual tweets were different than the one above:

Border Patrol Agents are not allowed to properly do their job at the Border because of ridiculous liberal (Democrat) laws like Catch & Release. Getting more dangerous. “Caravans” coming. Republicans must go to Nuclear Option to pass tough laws NOW. NO MORE DACA DEAL!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 1, 2018

Mexico is doing very little, if not NOTHING, at stopping people from flowing into Mexico through their Southern Border, and then into the U.S. They laugh at our dumb immigration laws. They must stop the big drug and people flows, or I will stop their cash cow, NAFTA. NEED WALL!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 1, 2018

These big flows of people are all trying to take advantage of DACA. They want in on the act!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 1, 2018

Books for Passover and Easter

Passover

If you are celebrating Passover or just interested in it, you are familiar with the Haggadah—the book used as a roadmap for the seder meal and rituals that take place on the first couple of evenings of Passover.

There are widely adopted traditions for the seder that include the retelling of the Exodus story and the eating of symbolic foods. But the exact content and form of the seder have long been flexible, and this variety is reflected in different Haggadot. There are hundreds of versions.

For the Passover observant and the P-curious, I recommend a deeper dive than the typical Haggadah—a set of books from Jewish Lights entitled My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries – Volume 1 and Volume 2.

From the editors:

In two volumes, this empowering resource for the spiritual revival of our times enables us to find deeper meaning in one of Judaism’s most beloved traditions, the Passover Seder. Rich Haggadah commentary adds layer upon layer of new insight to the age-old celebration of the journey from slavery to freedom—and makes its power accessible to all.

This diverse and exciting Passover resource features the traditional Haggadah Hebrew text with a new translation designed to let you know exactly what the Haggadah says. Introductory essays help you understand the historical roots of Passover, the development of the Haggadah, and how to make sense out of texts and customs that evolved from ancient times.

Framed with beautifully designed Talmud-style pages, My People’s Passover Haggadah features commentaries by scholars from all denominations of Judaism. You are treated to insights by experts in such fields as the Haggadah’s history; its biblical roots; its confrontation with modernity; and its relationship to rabbinic midrash and Jewish law, feminism, Chasidism, theology, and kabbalah.

No other resource provides such a wide-ranging exploration of the Haggadah, a reservoir of inspiration and information for creating meaningful Seders every year.

These are a bit bulky for the seder table itself. But they are the sort of books you would read if you wanted to understand why people are sitting at the seder table in the first place and why the traditions are so broad and sometimes so misunderstood. If Passover is just going through the motions, any seder and any Haggadah will do. If Passover is one piece of a much bigger picture to be investigated, these enlightening commentaries are what you need.

Easter

Close to each other. Very close. Passover begins tonight on Friday March 30. Easter is this Sunday April 1.

The calendar isn’t all that’s close. The Jewish story and the Christian story, in general and in the context of these particular holidays, are essentially and inextricably linked. The nature of those stories and those connections is the source of faith, enlightenment, misunderstanding, mistrust, even hatred and violence. Among Jews and Christians.

Any big moment on the Jewish and Christian calendars (and these holidays qualify) is an opportunity not just for ritual celebration but for study. How well do we—Jews, Christians, others—understand the texts and traditions outside the comfortable conventions of our belief and practice? Not just understanding that will confirm our faiths, allowing us to nod our heads and pat ourselves on our collective backs, but new and even startling understanding that might shake us and even make us uncomfortable. Everything we know about Judaism or Christianity, about the Bible, about history, may not be wrong, but maybe we could benefit from another open and learned perspective.

The second edition of the The Jewish Annotated New Testament was published last year; any and every Jew or Christian should read at least a little of it. So should everyone else who wants to know something about the foundations of this consequential moment in scripture, history and religion. Believers and nonbelievers may think they know what they’re dealing with. Many don’t.

The editors explain:

It is almost two millennia since the earliest texts incorporated into the New Testament were composed. For the most part, these centuries have seen a painful relationship between Jews and Christians. Although Jewish perceptions of Christians and Christian perceptions of Jews have improved markedly in recent decades, Jews and Christians still misunderstand many of each other’s texts and traditions. The landmark publication of this book is a witness to that improvement; ideally, it will serve to increase our knowledge of both our common histories and the reasons why we came to separate…

The Jewish Annotated New Testament represents the first time a gathering of Jewish scholars wrote a complete commentary on the New Testament. It reached a wide Jewish and Christian audience, and in doing so it has begun to increase both Jewish literacy of the New Testament and Christian awareness of the New Testament’s Jewish context. It has become widely used in colleges, universities and seminaries, as well as in Jewish, Christian, and joint Jewish-Christian study groups. Many Christian clergy and religious educators from different Christian denominations and church settings have told us that they have integrated the insights of this book into their preaching and devotion. Because of this volume, we have been told numerous times, sermons have been corrected, anti-Jewish teaching and preaching have been avoided, and Christians in churches and classrooms and Bible studies have learned more about Jesus and his followers. Jewish readers have told us how the volume has encouraged them to read the New Testament for the first time, to begin to consider the complex relationship between Judaism and Christianity, and how better to understand both their Christian neighbors and their own Jewish history….

For Christian readers The Jewish Annotated New Testament offers a window into the first-century world of Judaism from which the New Testament springs. There are explanations of Jewish concepts such as food laws and rabbinic argumentation. It also provides a much-needed corrective to many centuries of Christian misunderstandings of the Jewish religion.

For Jewish readers, this volume provides the chance to encounter the New Testament–a text of vast importance in Western European and American culture–with no religious agenda and with guidance from Jewish experts in theology, history, and Jewish and Christian thought. It also explains Christian practices, such as the Eucharist.

The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Second Edition is an essential volume that places the New Testament writings in a context that will enlighten readers of any faith or none.