Saturday, October 20, 2007

Lekh Lekha III: When Peshat is not Peshat

ודור רביעי ישובו הנה - המפרש דור רביעי של ישראל ישובו הנה לארץ ישראל [טועה הוא]. כי [מאחר] [ש]נתן קצבה של ארבע מאות שנה, מה לנו אם דור רביעי או דור חמישי? והלא מכל מקום יתעכבו ארבע מאות שנה? אלא טעם נתן הקב"ה לדבריו. למה אני צריך לעכב ארבע מאות שנה? [לפי] שאחר דור רביעי של אמוריים ישובו [ישראל] הנה. שהדור מאה [שנה] כאשר נמצא במסכת עדיות, והרי ארבע מאות ארבע[ה] דורות. שאעפ"י שיושבי הארץ חטאו ודינם להקיא הארץ את יושביה, צריך אני להמתין ארבע[ה] דורות כדכתיב פוקד עון אבות על בנים על שלשים ועל רבעים לשנאי, אולי יחזרו הבנים בתשובה כי לא שלם זמן פרעון שאני עתיד ליפרע אליו מן האמוריים החוטאים עד הנה ועד אחר דור רביעי של אמוריים כדכת' על שלשים וגו'. זהו פשוטו:

As we have seen, Rashbam is vigilant in his search for the plain meaning of the text of the Tanakh. But sometimes, the choice is not so simply between פשט, an obvious plain meaning of the text, and דרש, a compelling homiletical interpretation that departs from the plain sense, but between two different plain readings, where different passages in the Torah pull us in divergent directions. What the pashtan like Rashbam then presents as peshat make actually be a highlighting of one set of data over another. I think this is one such example.

[Warning: This post is a bit long; try to stick with it.]

In the haunting scene of ברית בין הבתרים—the dramatic covenant building moment between God and Avraham in Bereishit chapter 15—a sedated Avram is told that his descendants will spend 400 years in oppression in a foreign land. God promises that the oppressing nation will have its accounting and that his progeny will emerge with more wealth than ever before. We then hear the following promise:

וְדוֹר רְבִיעִי יָשׁוּבוּ הֵנָּה כִּי לֹא שָׁלֵם עֲוֹן הָאֱמֹרִי עַד הֵנָּה:

“The fourth generation will return here [to the land of C’na’an], because the culpability of the Amorites will not be complete until then.” A surface reading would suggest that after four generations in Egypt, the people will return. Indeed, there is a simple accounting that leads us to that result: Levi goes down to Egypt, and his son Kehat is the first generation there to be subjected to any cruel treatment by the Egyptians. [Shemot 1:6-8 makes clear that the generation of Ya’akov’s sons died off before the Egyptians turned on בני ישראל.] From Kehat, we go to the second generation of Amram, the third generation of Moshe, and the following generation, the fourth, indeed returns to Eretz C’na’an under Yehoshua. This is a straightforward way of understanding our verse.

The problem is, this accounting of four generations is in tension with the timeline of 400 years a few verses earlier. To get 400 years in Egypt in four generations, requires everyone to be having the kind of unusual late-in-life births that Avraham is singled out for! For this to work out, we would minimally have to assume that Kehat goes down to Egypt as an infant, then has Amram at age 140, and then Amram has Moshe at age 140. We would then get to the boundary of Eretz C’na’an when Moshe was 120 years old and have reached the 400 year mark. [This assumes that it is fair to count the desert time as an extension of the oppression in Egypt. Otherwise, we need to assume these father’s had son’s around the age of 160!] This hardly seems like the plain sense of the verse. Indeed, a passage in the Mekhilta (Pisha 14) already grapples with this problem:

רבי אומר: כתוב אחד אומר, "ועבדום וענו אותם ארבע מאות שנה." וכתוב אחד אומר: "ודור רביעי ישובו הנה." כיצד יתקיימו שני כתובין אלו? אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא: אם עושין תשובה אני גואלם לדורות, ואם לאו אני גואלם לשנים.

One verse says, “And they will serve them and they will oppress them for 400 years,” and another verse says, “the fourth generation will return here.” How can both of these verses coexist? The Holy and Blessed One said: If they repent, then I will redeem them on a scale of generations (which would be considerably shorter, assuming a normal time scale for bearing children), and if not, I will redeem them on a scale of years.

This passage reveals awareness of the fact that these two verses don’t work so well together, and embraces the tension by asserting that two potential historical paths are encoded in these fundamentally conflicting promises. Rashbam takes a different tack, bothered not so much by the problematic math as much as by the seeming redundancy here? Why do we need to know the number of generations if we know the number of years? Unlike Rabbi in the Mekhilta, he is unwilling to read these two verses as anything but an integrated promise of one definite future. He suggests that the “fourth generation” here refers not to בני ישראל but to the indigenous Amorite tribes in Eretz C’na’an. Ingeniously borrowing from the Torah’s notion elsewhere that God mercifully preserves wicked generations by spreading out the magnitude of punishment they deserve—and which would utterly annihilate them if applied all at once—over four generations. This indicates a notion that wicked people are given four generations before God determines that they will never sufficiently repent to be able to avoid the full force of divine punishment. Therefore, for God to authorize the handover of Eretz C’na’an to בני ישראל and the corollary command to exterminate those living there, the moral culpability of the locals must be complete and irrevocable. Four generations are needed to finalize that process, and thus, the stay in Egypt must be prolonged. These two verses are thus making related, but distinct points: one is about the length of the sojourn on Egypt, whereas the other is the reason for why this sojourn must be so long.

[Only the seriously interested should keep reading.]

The problem with Rashbam’s reading is that the math is still fuzzy, requiring generations of 100 years each. Also, it does not seem to be the plain meaning of the phrase “and the fourth generation”, even if it helps explain it in light of the earlier verse about a 400-year stay in Egypt. Indeed, a closer look at other relevant passages in the Torah only makes matters worse. If I read our passage here without any other biographical information, I might be bothered by the long generations, but I might just assume that there were indeed 400 years of oppression in Egypt, as the verse indicates. [Shemot 12:40 argues for 430 years in Egypt, but I am not even engaging that discrepancy here, which creates all sort of further problems.] But Bereishit 46:11 makes it clear that Kehat is among those who goes down to Egypt, and Shemot 6:18, 20 and 7:7 make clear that there are only 350 avilable years in Egypt, and that assumes that Kehat and Amram had children on their deathbed! In other words, the genealogical linkage of Moshe as the fourth generation from Levi along with the lifespans provided for him and his ancestors do not work with the 400/430 year figure given for the sojourn in Egypt.

This is not a new problem. Fascinatingly, the Mekhilta (referenced above) cites Shemot 12:40 and its number of 430 years as one of a number of passages that was determined to be so jarring on a simple reading of the text that the translators of the Septaugint had to doctor it. [That passage is worth some study in its own right as a remarkable inside-outside self-awareness by Hazal of the ways in which their readings of the Torah were not always in keeping with the plain sense of the text or with the messages they wanted to convey to the outside world. Parallels to it can be found in the first chapter of Yerushalmi Megillah 1:9, 12b and on Bavli Megillah 9a.] Indeed, a check of the Septuagint there reveals that the 430 years are said to refer not only to the sojourn in Egypt, but to time logged in C’na’an as well, presumably starting the clock either with Yitzhak’s birth or with the scene we read in this parashah. This, of course, is not the plain sense of either Shemot 12:40 or Bereishit 15:13, both of which imply that the actual stay in Egypt was a four-century affair. But there is no real alternative, once the genealogical/lifespan data is merged with the historical memory of the length of Egyptian oppression, and even Rashbam elsewhere hews to this basic timetable, whereby “Egyptain enslavement” actually begins in Avraham’s lifetime.

As I said, I am not sure that Rashbam’s “peshat” here is anything more than one other attempt to deal with an intrinsically difficult issue in the text itself, one that is not amenable, in my view, to any single solution. It strikes me that the deeper message being conveyed by the Torah here is indeed twofold: 1) On the one hand, עבדות מצרים was a long, seemingly interminable process on the order of four centuries that wiped out all memory of the past such that the people had to be reborn anew. 2) On the other hand, even this reborn people would always have to remember their roots in the lives of ancestors who spent their own lives in the very land they were returning to reclaim, and the generational links between their present and that mythically powerful past are divinely guaranteed to be an antidote against the amnesia induced by slavery and suffering.

7 Comments:

At October 23, 2007 at 3:45 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rabbi Ishmael talks about the Greek translation. Wouldn't that be heresy today?

 
At October 23, 2007 at 3:57 PM , Blogger EMT said...

Just talking about the Greek translation itself? Don't think so. Non-canonical in many Jewish settings, to be sure, but clearly wouldn't be heretical to talk about these passages in the gemara!

 
At October 24, 2007 at 6:17 AM , Blogger Yehuda said...

Your comments about the LXX translation are quite nice, I couldn't agree more that the psukim that the Rabbis describe as "changed" by the Septuagint authors are precisely those that trouble *them* and that they almost wish they could change. Its especially interesting to contrast the Rabbis' version of the Septuagint translation with the story told by the Jews of Alexandria themselves in the Letter of Aristeas, which celebrates the translation as a great work of literature and leaves out all the confrontational stuff about Ptolemy in the Gemara. Translation politics were radically different to the locals and to the rabbis watching from afar.

 
At October 24, 2007 at 4:43 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

EMT: You can not go three days with a new post!!!

 
At October 24, 2007 at 4:43 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

without*

 
At October 24, 2007 at 4:53 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello

Your profile suggests you teach in a mixed gender congregation. Is this true?

Torah is true regardless where is comes from is our belief.

 
At October 25, 2007 at 7:57 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

lots of comments!

 

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