Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Vayehi I: Ya’akov and Shekhem

ואני - באותה הארץ נתתי לך חלק אחד יותר על אחיך, שמנשה ואפרים כראובן ושמעון יהיו לי לקחת שני חלקים בארץ אשר אני ובניי עתידים לקחת מיד האמורי בחרבי ובקשתי במלחמת יהושע. ואעפ"י שכת' ביהושע לא בחרבך ולא בקשתך, אותו פסוק בשני מלכי האמורי מדבר וכמו שאמרו חכמים צרעה לא עברה את הירדן, וכתיב ביהושע ואשלח לפניכם את הצרעה ותגרש אותם שני מלכי האמורי אשר בעבר הירדן לא בחרבך ולא בקשתך. זכותו של יעקב גרם להם:

Bereishit 48:22 is a difficult verse. Ya’akov, near death, tells Yosef that he has granted him שכם אחד over his brothers, which he took from the Amorites with his sword and his bow. There are two main problems in the verse: A) What is the exact meaning of שכם אחד? B) When did Ya’akov engage in a military battle with the indigenous Canaanite tribes?

Rashi already engaged with these questions and offered two main possibilities: 1) The term שכם אחד refers to the city of Shekhem, which in fact became the burial spot for Yosef’s bones (see Yehoshua 24:32), and the military reference here represents an extrabiblical account of Ya’akov’s military defense of his clan after Shimon and Levi’s unwarranted slaughter of the peope of Shekhem. This is a forced accounting of Ya’akov’s claim to have captured the city with military might. Rashi thus offers the second possibility: 2) Ya’akov here is talking about giving Yosef a double portion, where שכם refers to some kind of stake (see Tehilim 21:13, 60:8, Hoshea 6:9, and Tzefaniah 3:9 for some roughly parallel usages). The “military conquest” described here is metaphorical and actually refers to prayers and wisdom that were employed to secure Yosef this more prominent status by obtaining the birthright from Esav, who is her described as an Amorite because of his wicked acts.

Rashbam tries to get the benefits of both explanations by asserting that we are dealing with a double portion of inheritance and a military conquest, but said conquest is in the future, and Ya’akov is merely prophesying regarding its eventual fulfillment.

I would like to suggest another reading that may in fact clear up what is happening in this verse. Professor Baruch Schwartz has argued that Bereishit 34 reflects a complex and multi-faceted narrative of Ya’akov’s relationship with Shekhem. On the one hand, there are elements in the story that seem clear that Dinah was raped by Hamor, that Shimon and Levi exacted vicious revenge for this act, freed Dinah and were then condemned by Ya’akov, who feared for his life, claiming that they had put him at risk by attacking the much larger and more powerful indigenous population. On the other hand, there are elements that suggest that a more timid Shekhem falls in love with Dinah and asks for her hand in marriage. The brothers—not just Shimon and Levi—seemingly with Ya'akov's approval, hatch a plot to what they perceive to be a plan to be overwhelmed culturally through intermarriage. They demand all the men be circumcised and then slaughter them. This ruse works and the young clan's distinctiveness is preserved. As noted, these elements seem to presume Ya’akov’s passive, if not active, assent to the proceedings.

Against this backdrop, we can see our scene here as amplifying the elements that reflect Ya’akov’s participation in the conquest of Shekhem. In a lovely play on words, Ya’akov says to Yosef, "I have given you a leg up, in the form of the city of Shekhem, on your brothers, which I took from the Amorites, with my sword and my bow." In other words, I, Ya'akov, acting through my children, fought a battle to win the city of Shekhem and have given it to you as an inheritance. In this way, one can maintain what seems an obvious allusion to the actual city of Shekhem along with a biblical narrative that suggests some form of military involvement by Ya’akov. To be sure, Ya’akov’s condemnation of that attack finds echoes in our parashah as well, when Shimon and Levi are singled out in chapter 49 as being unable to control their violence and therefore unfit to hold inheritable land.


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