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
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
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
[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
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 or Bereishit 15:13, both of which imply that the actual stay in
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.