Twice in Torah an animal speaks. The first is the Nachash, the serpent in the Garden of Eden whose conversation is instrumental in Eve eating the fruit from a forbidden tree (Genesis 3); and the second is the donkey who three times tries to protect her owner (Balaam) from the wrath of God before her mouth is opened by God to challenge his behaviour. (Numbers 22)
Interestingly both animals speak in the interrogative as they initiate the conversation. The serpent has its own agency, approaching the woman without prior recorded interaction, and it clearly understands the reality of the situation they are in rather better than the woman does. The serpent asks her “Has God said that you should not eat of any tree in the garden?” and on being told that the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden was forbidden lest they die, the serpent says, quite truthfully – “you shall not die, for God knows that in the day that you eat it, then your eyes will be opened and you shall be like God, knowing good and evil”. He does not seduce her to eat the fruit or even recommend that she eat it – he simply points out that the punishment she believes will follow is not the case, and instead a different outcome will emerge – the humans will have godlike qualities that currently they do not possess, the ability to make moral judgments. The tree itself is beautiful, the fruit looks delicious, and the woman – now clear of her fear of death – eats and gives to her partner. There is nothing to warn of danger in the presentation of tree or fruit, and the intervention of the serpent seems a necessary catalyst for the human beings to take the next step.
In contrast, the donkey does not speak at first. She is simply trying to get out of the way of the angel by any route possible, squeezing herself and her rider into increasingly small spaces, and bearing the cruel punishment by Balaam in silence until eventually, when Balaam’s beatings of her become unbearable, God opens her mouth and she asks “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” When Balaam answers “because you mocked me, I wish I had a sword in my hand for I would kill you”, she asks two more questions: “Am I not your donkey upon which you have ridden all your long life until today? Have I ever done this sort of thing before to you?” To which Balaam answers with one word: “No”.
Only then does God open Balaam’s eyes and he sees what the donkey has seen all along – the fiery angel standing in the way, who DOES have a sword in its hand. Balaam bows down and falls prostrate to the ground, and the angel of God asks the same question the donkey did – “Why have you beaten your donkey three times?” before going on to explain that the angel is there as an adversary (le’Satan), “because your way is contrary to me”
The serpent is “arum” – subtle or cunning (though it has another meaning of cautious and prudent). It is its own self, beholden to none.
The donkey ‘s personality is not described in the same way, but we understand her by her behaviour. Firstly, she can see the angel when no one else can – she is a perceptive animal. She only speaks when God ‘opens her mouth’, rather than from her own initiative, she has been Balaam’s donkey for many years and served him faithfully. Her questions are personal, immediate, and relational. “What have I done to you that you hurt me?” “Am I not your long term and faithful donkey?” “Have I ever done this before?”
She is a faithful servant, dedicated to helping and protecting the person she sees as her master – quite unlike the serpent who is an individual with agency, dedicated to – well who knows what? Truth? Mischief? Action?
In both cases the intervention of the animal allows their human interlocutor to perceive and know what the animal already knows. They seem to mediate divine revelation, albeit in different ways and with different outcomes. The serpent is punished, lowered, put in opposition to humankind. The donkey is defended by the angel who asks the same question she asked of Balaam, and it is made clear that while the angel might have killed Balaam, it had no intention of hurting the donkey.
I find it interesting that the donkey is not “Chamor חֲמוֹר” but an “aton אֲתֹן” – very specifically she is a female donkey, her verbs are in the feminine, this is the deliberate presentation of a female protagonist.
I find it interesting too that the donkey is contextualised in relationship; her interventions are not grand or self-centred but to do with the bond and connection between her and Balaam. She doesn’t feel the need to tell him of the angel in the road, but to ask about what has happened between them that their rapport has failed and he is beating her.
I don’t see this as subservience, even though the donkey is clearly of low status in human society. Instead between the two stories I see two models of change. The first is hierarchical, the shrewd and calculating “catalyst figure” knows the information and by their line of questioning is leading the other person towards the information it wants them to know. The question is asked and the answer is challenged with the facts. The change happens but the outcome is not really happy for either protagonist.
In the second story, while the “catalyst figure” knows the information, it makes the assumption that the other also holds information, and it takes care of them and uses their relationship and the trust built up between them to allow the other to learn. Even when there is a further intervention (when God opens the mouth of the donkey) she does not discuss the revelation in front of them but formulates her response around the relationship between them.
While it may be unfair to say that the first model is the “male” one and the second model of leadership the “female” one, it is I think true that generally female leadership is characterised by being more transformational, task focussed, collaborative and often indirect, whereas generally male leadership is characterised by being more transactional, hierarchical and focused on the achievement of the preferred outcome. It is no surprise to me that the serpent is masculine but the donkey feminine.
The donkey provides a voice of gentle sanity in a story that describes testosterone fuelled attempts to increase power and demonstrate status in the world of the king and the prophet – and all the time the reader knows the added irony that the Children of Israel know nothing of what is going on, so that the grabs for more status and power are irrelevant to them. The great Seer Balaam proves to be a comically less able prophet than his donkey, the great King Balak’s frustration grows to almost laughable boiling point as he tries again and again to have his enemies cursed – paying a fortune to no avail. Again and again we are invited to understand that there is much more to the world than we can easily see; that the apparently important figures are in fact not so important in the larger scheme of things; that if we only pay attention to the surface or believe the publicity of those who claim leadership rights, then we are missing the complexity and connectedness, the way relationships and shared values organise or world.
There are many variants on the theme that behind every great man is a person supporting them selflessly to enable that greatness – usually a woman. But my two favourites which both speak to the story of Balaam and his female donkey are from popular culture.
John Lennon wrote (though not about Balaam) “As usual, there is a great woman behind every idiot.” And Harrison Ford opined “Behind every great man is a woman. Telling him he’s not so hot.”
The bible seems to agree. And the prophet Zechariah reminds us
גִּילִ֨י מְאֹ֜ד בַּת־צִיּ֗וֹן הָרִ֨יעִי֙ בַּ֣ת יְרֽוּשָׁלַ֔ם הִנֵּ֤ה מַלְכֵּךְ֙ יָ֣בוֹא לָ֔ךְ צַדִּ֥יק וְנוֹשָׁ֖ע ה֑וּא עָנִי֙ וְרֹכֵ֣ב עַל־חֲמ֔וֹר וְעַל־עַ֖יִר בֶּן־אֲתֹנֽוֹת:
Rejoice greatly O daughter of Zion, shout O daughter of Jerusalem, behold your king is coming to you, righteous and redeeming, poor and riding on a donkey (chamor), and upon the foal of a (female) donkey.
Come the messianic times, the child of that donkey who protected and supported her rider Balaam, will have the honour to bring the anointed one into Jerusalem. The line of Balaam’s donkey will ascend into the service of the messiah. The line of the serpent in Eden will be lowly and in opposition to humankind. Very different outcomes from the different interventions of the animals who speak.
This sidra is rich in narrative tales. Fleeing from the anger of Esau at the theft of his blessing, Jacob goes to Haran. On the way he dreams of a ladder reaching up to heaven, with angels ascending and descending it. God appears to him and promises him protection, children, and the land on which he is lying. Jacob vows that if God fulfils the promise, God will be his God.
Falling in love with his cousin Rachel, daughter of his mother’s brother Laban he offers to work for seven years in order to marry her, but Laban has two daughters and he switches the bride so that Jacob unknowingly marries Leah. Told that the older has precedence over the younger Jacob agrees he will marry Rachel a week later, and work another seven years for her.
Leah bears Jacob four sons, but Rachel does not conceive and so gives her maidservant Bilhah as a concubine. Bilhah conceives two sons then Leah gives Jacob her maidservant Zilpah who also has two sons. Leah bears three more children, two sons and a daughter (Dina). Rachel finally conceives and has a son, Joseph.
Wishing to return home Jacob agrees with Laban that he will be to build a flock for himself from the herds of Laban as recompense for his twenty years of service, and uses selective breeding in order to build a huge herd. Then, while Laban is away, they flee towards Canaan. But before leaving Rachel quietly steals the household idols. . Laban pursues them but is warned in a dream not to take revenge. A search for the idols proves fruitless as Rachel hides them and claims ritual uncleanness. Jacob promises Laban that whoever took the idols will die. Jacob and Laban make a peace agreement between themselves.
Jacob left Canaan a tricksy but vulnerable young man, exiled to the homeland of his mother for his own safety. By the end of the sidra he is still pretty tricksy and still somewhat vulnerable, but he is also wealthy and the patriarch of a large family of his own.
He leaves Haran, not because his mother has finally sent for him as she promised all those years ago, but because he is increasingly aware of the fragility of his situation. Married to the two daughters of his uncle Laban and father to eleven sons and at least one daughter, one might think that he has deep roots in the area, but no – he is the object of suspicion and mistrust. He overhears the sons of Laban saying: ‘Jacob has taken away all that was our father’s; and of that which was our father’s has he gotten all this wealth.’ Laban too no longer responds to him as he had before. So God tells him: “Return to the land of your forbears, and to your birthplace; and I will be with you.’
What Jacob does then is very interesting – he calls both sisters out to the fields where his flocks of animals are (calling Rachel before Leah) and he seems to justify to them what he wants to do. He tells them that Laban has changed towards him, but that he has always been a good servant to their father even though Laban had mocked him and continually altered the wages due to him. But God had been steadfastly with Jacob and had organised that whatever Laban had agreed with Jacob in payment had surprisingly turned out in Jacob’s favour so that Jacob had been able to build up a large herd of animals from Laban’s flock. He goes so far as to say that God had ‘redeemed’ the animals and given them to Jacob. (31:9) and that an angel had drawn his attention to the vow at Beit El, and how God had been true to this vow, and that now it was time to go home to the land of his birth.
The sisters appear to believe both in the covenant made with God, and that it was God who had given their husband the great wealth he had amassed.
They answer together (the verb is singular indicating the unity of the response) and this reply is revealing.
“And Rachel and Leah answered and said to him: ‘Is there yet any portion or inheritance for us in our father’s house? Are we not accounted by him as strangers? For he has sold us, and has also quite devoured our price. For all the riches which God has taken away from our father, that is ours and our children’s. Now then, whatsoever God has said to you, do.’
וַתַּ֤עַן רָחֵל֙ וְלֵאָ֔ה וַתֹּאמַ֖רְנָה ל֑וֹ הַע֥וֹד לָ֛נוּ חֵ֥לֶק וְנַֽחֲלָ֖ה בְּבֵ֥ית אָבִֽינוּ: הֲל֧וֹא נָכְרִיּ֛וֹת נֶחְשַׁ֥בְנוּ ל֖וֹ כִּ֣י מְכָרָ֑נוּ וַיֹּ֥אכַל גַּם־אָכ֖וֹל אֶת־כַּסְפֵּֽנוּ: כִּ֣י כָל־הָעֹ֗שֶׁר אֲשֶׁ֨ר הִצִּ֤יל אֱלֹהִים֙ מֵֽאָבִ֔ינוּ לָ֥נוּ ה֖וּא וּלְבָנֵ֑ינוּ וְעַתָּ֗ה כֹּל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָמַ֧ר אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֵלֶ֖יךָ עֲשֵֽׂה:
The sons of Laban had clearly been disgruntled that Jacob was managing to breed a wonderful flock for himself from their father’s animals, his payment for the years of work, although this had not been negotiated in advance – indeed Jacob had originally offered to work in order to marry Rachel.
But the daughters of Laban also had a view about the transaction between their father and their husband. They had been hoping for some inheritance it seems, some part of their father’s wealth; but it has become clear that this was a vain hope, there would be no wealth coming their way. It is not entirely clear whether this is because Laban has been impoverished by the actions of Jacob or whether they had finally understood the way their father used his money to take power, promising but never delivering, changing the terms of the deal on a whim – that while they might continue to hope for it their father would simply not give them anything.
And worse than this, Laban has not behaved properly in the matter of their marriage – they would have expected there to be a dowry for each of them, monies that should be spent on them. While it is true that Jacob came without much wealth, but he worked an unusual and substantial number of years for each woman, earning Laban serious income. That wealth was not put aside for the use of the women; instead Laban had consumed it immediately, leaving nothing for the daughters. He has treated them as possessions and not as family and the women are not happy. They throw in their lot with Jacob and with his God, understanding that God has rebalanced the wealth, taking what should anyway have been theirs from their father and giving it to them and to their children.
Their final phrase: “v’ata, kol asher amar Elohim elecha, aseh” is redolent. It is a foretaste of Sinai when the people say , kol asher dibber Adonai na’aseh (Exodus 19:8) – All that God tells us we shall do.” It echoes the narrative that reminds us that Moses followed the instructions of his father in law Yitro just before Sinai (Exodus 18:24) when we are told that “va’ya’as kol asher amar” – Moses listened to the words of his father in law and did everything that he had said”. It echoes too the instruction to Abraham anxious that he has been told to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael, when God says to him “All that Sarah says to you, obey her voice : kol asher tomar elecha Sarah, shma b’kolah”
Rachel and Leah are not only giving permission, they are giving instructions – “whatever God tells you to do, then you must do it”. It is quite a different relationship than Jacob had had before with God, when he had woken from his dream aware of the presence of God, yet still with enough bravado to hold God to account – “IF you do everything you say and IF you bring me back safely, THEN you can be my God”.
Rachel and Leah are serious protagonists in Jacob’s leaving Haran and returning to Canaan. They are not simply ‘the household’ – indeed they are resisting staying in a place where they are in danger of having to be subservient to their father.
Jacob collects his household and his wealth, puts his wives and sons on camels, and taking advantage of Laban’s absence he sets off for his homeland. But the real action that follows is that of Rachel – she takes the teraphim, the household Gods that we are specifically told were her father’s.
Did she take them for spite? Did she take them because she believed in them? Did she take them because she feared being homesick, or in order to prevent Laban from invoking those gods against her husband and family? Did she take them as a symbol of the inheritance she knew she was not going to receive? This last question interests me most, for the possession of the teraphim seems to have indicated that the owner would then also possess the power and benefits of the first born in terms of property inheritance. (see Nuzi Tablet Gadd 51 pub 1926 CJ Gadd)
Just as Jacob had stolen the birth right of his first-born brother Esau, Rachel symbolically steals the birth right of her brothers. She is no passive figure here but is looking out for the rights of her children and grandchildren into the future. She hides the teraphim successfully, taking control of her destiny, and Laban is unable to find them. It is her moment of triumph, safeguarding the future, until she is undermined unwittingly by her husband Jacob. For sadly the tale ends badly, she will die giving birth to her second son Benjamin as in protesting his own innocence Jacob has unwittingly brought a curse down upon her.
When first we read the sidra of Vayetzei we see the powerful chemistry between Rachel and Jacob, we see the terrible pain of Leah who wants her husband to love her and who each time is rejected, we see the usage of the two women concubines Bilhah and Zilpah. It takes a while to look beneath that first appearance of women as objects and see the subversion and the taking control that is going on.
Rachel hides the teraphim under the saddle of the camel and says to her father “Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise up before you; for the manner of women is upon me.’ And he searched, but he did not find the teraphim.”
Ki lo uchal lakum mipanecha, ki derech nashim li, vay’hapess v’lo matza et hateraphim
כִּ֣י ל֤וֹא אוּכַל֙ לָק֣וּם מִפָּנֶ֔יךָ כִּי־דֶ֥רֶךְ נָשִׁ֖ים לִ֑י וַיְחַפֵּ֕שׂ וְלֹ֥א מָצָ֖א
She says to him that she is not able to rise up before him. This can be read two ways – that she cannot get up because she has her period (though why that should stop her getting up is unclear), or that she is unable to rise before him for another reason – and the one she gives is that she has her period. But could it be that she does not want to pay him the honour of rising before him – she is simply unable to offer him such respect now she has seen him for what he is and has rejected him?
He searches, but he does not find the teraphim. Hers is the last place they could be hidden, everywhere else has already been searched. She is unable to show him any respect, he in turn does not find either the teraphim or the reason she does not want to show him any regard. He is blind to any symbolism or deeper meaning, and the control – and the teraphim – remain in Rachel’s hands.
I heard someone recently describe the actions of the women in Genesis as manipulative, devious and unscrupulous. This in response to studying the actions of Jacob’s mother Rebecca, who organised for him to get the blessing by use of clothing and cooking. The women in bible are indeed active in getting the narrative moving, they sometimes cause it to take an unusual path, they sometimes second guess God, they sometimes even nudge God into long delayed action. But this is not devious or unscrupulous or any negative connotation – the women in bible are active, creative, powerful and thoughtful. They hear the voice of God and they see the hand of God. That the text records their actions, albeit with the spotlight frequently turned away, is important. And it is important that in this generation we return the spotlight to those players who are not always seen on the stage, for they are our models and our matriarchs and they deserve our attention.
One of the most difficult verses in bible comes early in the text and seems to set the scene for those who want to prove that God loves the patriarchy and that the divine ideal is that women are to be subservient to the rule of men. I have lost count of the times that men have told me that women were cursed by God because of the culpable actions of Eve in the Garden of Eden, or the times when women have told me that there is nothing we can do to remedy the role our biology has cast for us. Calling attention to the earlier creation story in which male and female are created together in the image of God as one Adam/human being doesn’t seem to have the same power as the story called by Christianity “The Fall”. Indeed this verse seems almost magically forgettable as being the original scene setter of the creation of human beings – so I thought it was time to have a look again at the text that so conveniently can be read as “the sin of a thoughtless woman has led to her and her husband being rejected by God and evicted from paradise into a miserable existence.”
Reading Genesis 3:16, after God has asked the man who had told him that he was naked, and asked directly if he had eaten of the tree that God had commanded him not to eat, the man said “the woman whom you gave to me, she gave me of the tree and I ate”. God turns to the woman and asks “what is this that you did?” and she says “the serpent beguiled me and I ate”. God doesn’t ask anything of the serpent, but instead tells it “Cursed are you among all the cattle and all the beasts of the field. Upon your belly you will go and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put animosity between you and the woman and between your seed and her seed, they shall bruise your head and you shall bruise their heel”
Let us just note here some interesting moments. The serpent is described as being among the cattle and the beasts of the field – not a class we would normally associate with scaled reptiles, but definitely something we would associate with an agrarian world view. And let’s note too that the antipathy is between
בֵין זַרְעֲךָ וּבֵין
your seed and her seed – the human descendants are described as the seed of the woman rather than of the man, obliquely but definitely introducing the idea of female childbirth in the future.
With this in mind, let’s look at the next verses. God turns his attention to the woman, saying:
אֶל־הָֽאִשָּׁ֣ה אָמַ֗ר הַרְבָּ֤ה אַרְבֶּה֙
עִצְּבוֹנֵ֣ךְ וְהֵֽרֹנֵ֔ךְ בְּעֶ֖צֶב תֵּֽלְדִ֣י בָנִ֑ים וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ וְה֖וּא יִמְשָׁל־בָּֽךְ: ס
Now this verse is most painful for us feminists. It is most often translated as “To the woman he said, I will greatly increase your pain and your travail. In pain you will bring forth children, your desire shall be to your husband and he shall rule over you”
But that is not the only way to translate it, and the clue is in the context of this passage. To begin, let’s look at the first half of this verse, in particular the word whose root it “etzev” ayin, tzaddi, beit and its noun form used here : itz’von. It is used only three times – twice here in relation once to Eve and once to Adam, and later about Noach.
The root has two major meanings – one is to to hurt/ to work hard and the second is to form/to fashion. The nouns are itz’von and he’ron, which look like a parallel is being used. Given that the second noun means pregnancy/forming a baby, then itz’von should also mean forming a baby/ pregnancy – in which case the phrase means “I will greatly increase your creating a baby and your pregnancy, and with hard work (labour) you will give birth to children.
Note that God does NOT curse the woman. Instead God informs her that she will be taking over the hard work of creation, it will be her seed as a result of the encounter with the serpent, so it will be her role to bring forth human beings in the future. God is done – having created everything else in the garden with the ability and seed to reproduce, now it is time for human beings to do so for themselves.
Let’s look too at the use of itz’von in relation to the man. And note too, that God does NOT curse him either.
וּלְאָדָ֣ם אָמַ֗ר כִּ֣י שָׁמַ֘עְתָּ֘ לְק֣וֹל אִשְׁתֶּ֒ךָ֒ וַתֹּ֨אכַל֙ מִן־הָעֵ֔ץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר צִוִּיתִ֨יךָ֙
לֵאמֹ֔ר לֹ֥א תֹאכַ֖ל מִמֶּ֑נּוּ אֲרוּרָ֤ה הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ בַּֽעֲבוּרֶ֔ךָ בְּעִצָּבוֹן֙ תֹּֽאכֲלֶ֔נָּה כֹּ֖ל יְמֵ֥י
“To the man God said, because you heard the voice of your wife, and you ate from the tree which I commanded you saying ‘you shall not eat of it’, then cursed is the land on account of you, with itzavon/ (hard work/forming and creatively fashioning), you will eat from it all the days of your life.” (3:17)
Both man and woman are now told that the hard work of creating is down to them. The serpent and the land are cursed, they are no longer going to be as they were first intended to be, the serpent loses its place in the agricultural world, the land too loses its place as a garden where growth is luxurious and abundant and does not require the hard work that any gardener or farmer will tell you is necessary today to create a crop of food or flowers.
What is the curse on the land? It is that it will bring forth weeds, thorns and thistles, the unintended and unwanted growth that any farmer or gardener will tell you comes as soon as you stop working the ground, hoeing out the weeds, protecting the young seedlings.
A curse is something that goes wrong, that is not intended in the original plan, that deviates from the ideal. So it is particularly interesting that the human beings are not themselves cursed, their situation is not deviating from the plan. It begins to look like leaving Eden was always the plan, that creating was always going to be delegated, otherwise why put those tempting trees there?
The section ends with God telling the man that in the sweat of his face he will eat bread, until he returns to the ground he came from, and the man calling his wife Eve, because she has become the mother of all living. Both these again are references to the itz’von of each of them – she becomes creative in the area of growing children, he in the area of growing food. And God’s statement that follows “Behold, the human has become like one of us”, is then qualified in terms of knowing good and evil, but it also describes the attributes of creativity that each now have, attributes which until this point have been the dominion of the divine.
Now let’s look at the second half of the verse where the woman’s future is described. “Your passion will be to your man, and he will mashal you (וְה֖וּא יִמְשָׁל־בָּֽךְ: v’hu yimshol bach)”
M’sh’l is one of two words for ruling over – the more usual being m’l’ch. It too has a second meaning – to be a comparison, from which we get the idea of proverbs/parables which show us a truth by virtue of a difference. The first time we have the word is in the creation of the two great lights which will m.sh.l the day and the night in Genesis 1:16-18. Are they ruling over the day and the night or are they providing a point of comparison? Is the man ruling over the woman or does he have a comparable function of creativity? Her passion is for him, a necessary partner for the creation of children. His comparable creativity is to work the land, to bring forth food alongside the thorns and thistles that grow there. He is not described as her master/ba’al but as her ish/man, the equal partner of her status as isha.
Can one read these verses in this way, of the passing on of the ability to create through the seriously hard work of the two protagonists?
The next (and final) time we meet the word itz’von is at the birth of Noach, ten generations after Adam and the pivot to the next stage of the story, indeed the rebirth of creation after the earth is so corrupted that God chose to destroy it by flood.
We hear that Lamech, the father of Noach says
וַיִּקְרָ֧א אֶת־שְׁמ֛וֹ נֹ֖חַ לֵאמֹ֑ר זֶ֠֞ה יְנַֽחֲמֵ֤נוּ מִֽמַּֽעֲשֵׂ֨נוּ֙ וּמֵֽעִצְּב֣וֹן יָדֵ֔ינוּ
מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽרֲרָ֖הּ יְהוָֹֽה
“And he called his name Noach (rest) saying, this one will comfort us from our work and the itz’von/ creativity/ work of our hands, (which arises) from the land which God cursed” (Gen 5:29)
It is a deliberate reminder of the story of Adam and Eve and their given roles to bring forth new life (both human and plant) with as much creativity and manipulation of the environment as they needed. It is a reminder that God changed the role of the land through the curse, which gave humanity the challenge to provide themselves with food as creatively as they could. It is a signal that another creation is about to happen, Noach will be part of that change, though quite how that was to work out was not clear to his father Lamech. He was hoping for N.CH. for rest. He was hoping for the accompanying and phonically similar comfort. But this isn’t what God was going to do, as anyone who had read the earlier chapter would know. Creativity, forming new people and working the land is not a restful or a comfortable experience. It is backbreaking work physically, it is emotionally draining and challenging. Anyone who has worked so much as a window box will know how things grow that you don’t expect, how plants carefully fostered will not necessarily flower, or even if they do may not be the one you anticipated. Anyone who has nurtured a child will find that they are no blank slate, that they have their own views and their own desires. The children of Adam and Eve provide the first fratricide in bible – surely not something their parents wanted.
So – if we read this difficult passage in the light of the first creation story in the first chapter, where it is abundantly clear that God created humanity with diverse gender, equally, at the same time, and in the image of God, and we choose not to look through the lens of the patriarchy, then we can see that neither man nor woman are cursed, that instead they are blessed with itz’von the ability to form, to fashion, to manipulate and create in their environment in the same way that God had done. We see that the hard work of bringing forth the future is both challenge and blessing. We see that there are always problems – the thistles and the thorns among the grain, the children who learn very quickly to assert their own personalities and say no – and that it is our role to negotiate these problems and grow a good crop/teach good values to the next generation. We have taken the power to form and to fashion our world, for good or for ill. And after the new creation and the covenant with Noach God is leaving us to do it for ourselves. I am pretty sure that that did not include one gender dominating the other, or one people ruling over another. We left Eden in order to create a world where we had ability and agency. As we start the torah reading cycle once more, it is down to us to use our creativity and our agency and work hard to make our world the best place we can.
Just before the famous opening words of parashat Nitzavim, we see Moses speaking “el col Yisrael” – to all Israel, reminding them that they had seen everything that God had done to Pharaoh and to the people in Egypt, had seen the great trials, signs and wonders, but that God had not given them a heart to know, eyes to see, nor ears to hear until right now.
He then goes into a strange excursus, telling them that “I led you for forty years in the wilderness, your clothes did not grow old nor did your shoes wear out, you have not eaten bread nor have you drunk wine or strong drink, that you may know that “I am the Eternal your God”.
He speaks of the two kings of the Amorites, Sihon of Heshbon and Og of Bashan, of how they battled against the Israelites but were defeated, their land given to the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh. And so he tells them to observe the words of this covenant and do them, in order that they be successful in all they will do.
So ends the sidra before, and the division is both dramatically powerful and problematically distracting. Nitzavim begins “You (pl) are standing this day ALL OF YOU, before the Eternal your God – your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers all, a man (sing) of Israel. Your children, your women, and your stranger who is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water. For your passing over into the covenant of the Eternal your God, and its conditions, which the eternal your God is making with you today, in order to establish you today for himself for a people, and he will be for you a God, as he said to you, and as he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham Isaac and Jacob. ”
The image of everyone being present in order to enter into a covenant with God, where all the people would become God’s people and God would have a particular relationship of covenantal obligation with them is hugely appealing. It is made the more so when we see the list of people who will become part of this unbreakable relationship of covenant –from the highest status men of office through to each individual (man), then children, women, strangers who have become part of the group in some way, and finally the most menial labourers often invisible to the rest of society. Leaving aside the androcentric society of bible for a moment, we see a real equality in the covenant – it doesn’t matter your gender or your status, whether you are Israelite or resident stranger, your position as regards the covenant with God is the same.
So lovely is this thought that it is easy to not notice other nudges in the text. The elision of Moses and God is deeply problematic to me – not only does he tell the people that this is a moment of revelation which had been hidden for the previous forty years because God had not given them the abilities to perceive what most of their lives had been about, he also doesn’t seem to be quoting God so much as claiming God’s role. While the presence of the people, all of the people, is accentuated in this text, so that Moses tells them that not only those present that day but also those who were not present that day (understood in tradition to be both all the future descendants of the people present, and also all who would enter the covenant via conversion to Judaism), the presence of God is harder to ascertain. Moses seems to stand in for God at the introduction of this covenant. And after the fearsome predictions of what would happen in both this and future generations when the people will forsake God and in turn be forsaken, along with the land, we are told “the secret/ hidden things belong to the Eternal our God, but what is revealed belongs to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this torah/teaching”
There is a play about hidden and revealed going on in this text, made explicit at the beginning and end of the chapter, and this makes all the more dangerous the signing up to a covenant which cannot be fully understood.
As if to underline this play of hiding/revealing in the context of a treaty or covenant, the text nudges us to two other biblical narratives, neither of which comforts us.
Firstly is the phrase “atem nitzavim” coming from the Hebrew root yod tzadi beit, it is in the niphal (reflexive) form meaning not so much standing as “you are setting yourselves up” or “taking one’s stand”. It is a curious phrase, and it causes us to think of other uses of the root – more often found as the noun form of ‘matzevah”. The first time we meet the word is after the dream of the ladder when the young Jacob realises that he has met God, he rises early in the morning, takes the stone he had put under his head the night before, sets it up as a pillar (matzevah) and pours oil over it in a religious ritual, vowing “If God will be with me, will keep me on this way that I go, will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, so that I will be able to return to my father’s house in peace, THEN will the Eternal be my God, and this stone, that I have set up as a pillar (matzevah) will be the house of God….”(Gen 28:18-22)
Later, when Jacob is about to return to his homeland and has to negotiate his leaving with his father in law Laban, Laban tells him “And now come, let us make a covenant, I and you; and let it be for a witness between me and you.’ So Jacob takes a stone and raises it for a matzevah (Gen 31:44,45)
The original use of the word matzevah seems to be not just an upstanding stone to mark a place, but a physical marker of a covenant that is being made.
Moses uses the word differently though – “Atem Nitzavim” may legitimately be translated as: “You are standing”, but it has echoes of more than physically being on one’s feet – it means “you are setting yourselves up as a matzevah, you are physically yourselves the sign of the covenant that is being made between yourselves and God”
The second nudge is the phrase translated as “from hewers of wood to drawers of water”. Besides the fact that there is little difference at the very bottom of the social scale being a hewer of wood or a drawer of water it is referring to those who are using brute strength to service the society which will barely notice their efforts (though it will most certainly notice if they stop).
The phrase is not common – apart from here it appears in the Book of Joshua (chapter 9) which recounts a covenant that is not what it seems. Once again the Amorite Kings Sihon of Heshbon, and Og king of Bashan are referenced, this time their defeat has led other inhabitants (the Hivites or Gibeonites both appear in this role) to dress in worn out clothing, with worn shoes and stale bread and patched wine skins (more resonances to the passage here in Deuteronomy) and pose as being travellers from a distant land who have heard of the acts of God done in Egypt and who have come to this land in order to meet these people of God and to make a treaty so as to live together with them in peace. The Israelites are flattered, they take the food and wine that are offered, and critically they do not “take counsel from the Eternal”. After three days of covenant making/celebrating, Joshua and the Israelites find that the people were not who they had said they were, but were long term inhabitants of the land and were now protected from the oncoming Israelites by treaty. In response to their having lied, and to their protected status, Joshua acknowledged that they would live, but he curses them – they are to be bondmen to the Israelites, in particular “there shall never fail to be of you bondmen, both hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.’
There are too many echoes in this tale from the Book of Joshua. As we are told there is “no before and no after in torah” one has to read each story in the light of the other. So when Moses alludes to the covenant being made on the edge of the land, the covenant between God and the people, he is warning them both that covenants can be made without full knowledge, that some things may only come to light later, that ultimately we take things on trust and sometimes that trust is misplaced.
Sometimes too the upshot of not knowing something can be of real disbenefit, sometimes we can live with it sometimes it is hard to live with.
But we are ourselves the matzevah, we have set ourselves up for this covenant and we are the physical signs of its existence. We are so intertwined – our lives, our very selves are part of the covenant – that we can never free ourselves of it. We are the hewers of wood and the drawers of water, the people who keep society going with tasks that are not honoured but are honourable. We are also the people who take a leap in the dark with God, who retain trust even when there is no obvious reason to do so.
Nowadays we use the word matzevah to mean a tomb stone, the marker of a body that rests in the earth having finished its tasks in life. It provides solidity, certainty, finality. But I do like the idea of the matzevah that is the living human being, the one that is uncertain, ongoing, working in the dark to some extent, living in hope. As we enter the Days of Awe, the days of risk, of trying to make ourselves our best selves, the days when we wonder what God thinks of us, being a living matzevah, a living sign of the covenant between us and God must surely be a powerful sign and reminder we have trusted God all these years, and we hope to have reason to trust as we journey into the future.
image the stone said to be Lot’s wife in Sdom from wikimedia
Balaam, the seer and professional prophet from Aram who is commissioned by Balak the king of Moab to curse the Israelites travelling through the land, says to Balak :- “[you told me] ‘come, curse me Jacob and come, defy Israel’ How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? Or how shall I disturb whom the Eternal has not disturbed?”
And then he tells him this: “For from the top of the rocks I see them, and from the hills I observe them. Behold, a people who will live alone, and with the nations they will not be reckoned”
כִּֽי־מֵרֹ֤אשׁ צֻרִים֙ אֶרְאֶ֔נּוּ וּמִגְּבָע֖וֹת אֲשׁוּרֶ֑נּוּ הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב
Balaam is a seer, he is a powerful soothsayer who has a real connection with God, but none whatsoever with the people of Israel. When he sees them all his plans to curse are in disarray, he cannot curse the people protected by God, and while he continues to try to fulfil the contract as best he can he is limited in this case and he knows it. Yet he tries to offer curses – or at least ambiguous spells, and this story culminates in the verse which we have appropriated for well over a thousand years to help us into the mood for prayer: מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹֽהָלֶ֖יךָ יַֽעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
“How good are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel”
It is a comic tale despite the horror of a powerful person hoping to destroy the vulnerable people of Israel while they are going about their business quite unknowing of the hatred and bile directed towards them. The comedy is underlined by our liturgical use of the final declaration. But this year one of the earlier “blessings/curses” caught my eye. “Behold a people who will live alone, who will not be reckoned with the nations”
Tradition tells us that this is transformed into a blessing, that alone of all the nations of history, the Jews continue, uniquely indestructible, forever distinct and separate from the peoples among whom we live. This thread of Jewish peoplehood, surviving without the structures that normally support identity, moving geographically across a huge diaspora, moving through time and evolving time and again to create and accept new ritual and liturgical structures, accommodating to different cultures and political environments, living alongside other religious traditions – it is indeed unique. Empires came and went, those of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome were powerful entities under which the Jews lived and often suffered, and still the Jews continue while the artefacts of the great Empires can be found in museums.
But this interpretation so beloved of the medieval commentators living under oppressive authorities and fearful of the crusading powers sweeping through Europe to the Holy Land, reads less comfortingly in modern times.
A people who will dwell alone, who will not be reckoned/counted/aligned with the other nations sounds scarily like a nationalism out of control, assuming an arrogance and an identity that does not relate to other peoples. As I have been reading the remarks of some who voted for the UK to leave our relationship with Europe I see statements such as “I have my country back”, and “we can send the foreigners home” and “England for the English”. I see the demagoguery of UKIP, the racism that was unacceptable in British society suddenly surfacing as people feel permission to “dwell alone”. Words like ‘sovereignty’ and ‘independence’ dominate the discourse, turning the narrative into one of narrow chauvinism, bigotry and nationalism and xenophobia which appear to be segueing smoothly from the earlier arguments of more local agency and greater political autonomy.
I am chilled by the increased nationalism and jingoism I see not only in present day post referendum United Kingdom but also in other countries in Europe and in the USA. Patriotism has become a cloak for hatred of the other. Brown skinned people are being abused on public transport and told to “go home” – even though home is here, even though this island has always had many races and cultures – Angles and Saxons and Normans and Danes and Celts and Germanic tribes and …..
I am chilled by the idea that being a people who are alone can possibly ever be a blessing, but in particular now when we live in an interconnected and interdependent world, when we can see the suffering of others at the touch of a computer or television, and we can help alleviate that suffering just as quickly and easily. We learn from each other, we enrich each other both culturally and intellectually, we offer each other relationship while retaining the individuality we need for a real relationship to exist. As Martin Buber wrote a person (“I”) has meaning only in relation to others, what he called “I-Thou dialogue” – the same is true for peoples, for ethnicities and national identities. To separate oneself off and deny our interdependence, instead proclaiming the holy grail of absolute and total independence, is dangerous for every person, for every society, for every nation state.
The first time we have the phrase of being B.D.D. alone, comes in Genesis (2:18) Where God, having made the first human being says
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ יְהוָֹ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂה־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ:
It is not good for the human to be alone, I will make for him a support who is equal and different to him.
We all need others, people who are different, who have equal strength of opinion and independence, who challenge us and support us and are in relationship with us. The saddest phrase in bible is probably the one at the beginning of the book of Lamentations, read after the commemoration of the calamity of the destruction of Jerusalem:
אֵיכָ֣ה ׀ יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙ רַבָּ֣תִי עָ֔ם הָיְתָ֖ה כְּאַלְמָנָ֑ה רַבָּ֣תִי בַגּוֹיִ֗ם שָׂרָ֨תִי֙ בַּמְּדִינ֔וֹת הָיְתָ֖ה לָמַֽס:
How does the city sit solitary, that was full of people. How is she become as a widow. She that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!
We are already in the month of Tammuz – this weekend will see the 9th Tammuz, the date when the walls of Jerusalem were breached by King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE and the temple sacrifices were discontinued, and next week we will commemorate the 17th Tammuz, the date when the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Roman army in 70CE leading to the removal of the Jewish people from their ancestral land. We may as a people have survived these historical catastrophes but the question is – have we learned from them? We need no longer fear being forcibly assimilated into a dominant power (or worse), the ‘blessing’ of being a people apart may now be less of a blessing if it blinkers us to the importance of our relationships with others.
As John Donne wrote in his meditation “
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
We should listen out for the bell tolling out its warning and push for relationship and the recognition of the reality of our interdependence with others. Or Balak’s ‘blessing’ may yet prove to be our curse.