Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A Critique of Joseph's Grain Policy

The Bible presents two views of Joseph's emergency grain policy:

A) According to "E" (Gen. 41:33-57), a brilliant plan and a good thing for one and all!
Key verse: The plan seemed good to Pharaoh and all his officials (Gen. 41:37).

B) According to "J" (Gen. 47:13-26), great for the Pharaoh (centralization of power), but a socioeconomic disaster for the people of Egypt (landless servitude).
Key verse: He removed the people to the cities (Gen. 47:21 MT). An alternative rendering: He reduced the people to servitude (based on an emendation of the Hebrew text by comparison with other sources).

Now I have contrasted "E" and "J" somewhat unfairly (as both seem to present Joseph as a great hero) to make a simple point: that Joseph's grain policy was not unequivocally good for Egypt. In fact, if we combine details from the two versions, the grain policy only looks worse: initially the people are taxed (i.e., one-fifth of their crop is taken, apparently without compensation), then Joseph sells the grain back to the people (and offers it for export to those folks in Canaan!). So Pharaoh has his cake and eats it too! The common people are thus impoverished and disinherited while Pharaoh and the priestly class are beneficiaries of their misfortune. I should add that Jacob's family also receives special (favorable) treatment (see 47:11-12, 27).

Because of Joseph's policy of requiring payment for the grain (perhaps necessary from an administrative point of view to effectively ration the grain, nevertheless unfair as the grain belonged to the people to begin with), the people of Egypt exchanged, successively, their:
1) Money (kesef, silver, as a medium of exchange, though not yet in the form of coinage)
2) Livestock (to include horses, sheep, goats, cattle, donkeys; cf. Exod. 9:3 camels)
3) Farmland (adamah, arable land; sometimes synonymous with erets, as in 47:20)
4) Persons (expressed dramatically as geviyah, dead bodies, 47:18)

The people became slaves of Pharaoh, and as such entirely dependent on his caprice for their livelihoods. Perhaps Joseph was also responsible for exempting his friends in the priestly class (which he had married into, after all). No wonder "the plan seemed good to Pharaoh and all his officials" (41:37).

Was there another way out of the famine? Certainly. Pharaoh could have emptied his own coffers to buy up the surplus grain during the years of abundance, both to provide a service (storing the grain) and to keep the price of grain stable for the farmers. Then during the years of famine he could have offered the grain for sale (with an added fee for administrative costs) to the people of Egypt. Perhaps foreigners should have been charged a premium to keep the price lower for the domestic population (incidentally, by this "price discrimination" Pharaoh would have not only benefited his own people but also increased total revenues to his government).

All in all, Joseph was a genius as a "civil engineer" (his plan worked in the limited sense that the people didn't starve and Pharaoh was kept fat and happy) but a little thought to economic and social concerns for the future might have been in order.

The lessons for us:

1) Beware of dreamers and those who think their good intentions are enough! Probably Joseph was sincere in the beginning: he really thought that what he planned would work for the best, both for Pharaoh and the people. If so, he was wrong!

2) Whether in private behavior or public policy, there are unintended consequences of the actions we take and the words we speak.


Appendix: A review of the terminology:

A. The plan (41:34-36)

41:34 Let Pharaoh do this: appoint commissioners (peqidim, overseers) over the land and *tax a fifth* (*chimeish*) of the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty (sava, full).
41:35 They will collect (qavats) all the food of these good years that are coming; they will gather/store (tsavar, aggregate) grain under the authority of Pharaoh to keep (shamar) food in the cities.
41:36 This food will be held in reserve (feqadon, deposit, cf. peqidim) for the land for the seven years of famine that are coming on the land of Egypt, so the land will not perish (kareit, be cut off) in the famine.

B. The process (41:48-49, 56-57)

41:48 He collected (qavats) all the food of the seven years that they produced in the land of Egypt and he put the food in the cities, the food of the field that surrounded [each city] he put within it.
41:49 Joseph gathered/stored (tsavar) grain like the sand of the sea, so much that he stopped measuring for it was not measurable.
41:56 When the famine was over all the surface of the land then Joseph opened all the storehouses and sold (shavar, deal in grain) to the Egyptians, for the famine grew harsh (chazaq, strong) in the land of Egypt.
41:57 All the land came to Egypt to buy (shavar) from Joseph, for the famine had grown harsh (chazaq) in all the land.

C. The outcome (47:13-26)

47:13 There was no bread (lechem) in all the land, for the famine was very severe (kaveid, heavy), and the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished because of the famine.
47:14 Joseph collected (laqeit, gleaned) all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan [in payment] for the grain that they were buying, and Joseph brought the money to Pharaoh's palace.
47:15 When the money from the land of Egypt and from the land of Canaan was spent (tamam, complete), then all of Egypt came to Joseph to say, "Give us bread! Why should we die in your presence? For the money is gone."
47:16 Joseph said, "Bring me your livestock and I will give you [grain] for your livestock since [your] money is gone."
47:17 They brought their livestock to Joseph and Joseph gave them bread for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the donkeys. He provided with them bread for all their livestock that year.
47:18 When that year was over (tamam), they came to him in the second year and said to him, "We cannot hide from my lord that since the money is spent (tamam) and the stocks of animals [belong] to my lord, nothing is left for my lord except our bodies (geviyah) and our farmland.
47:19 "Why should we die before your eyes? Both we and our farmland, buy (qanah) us and our farmland for bread and we will be, we and our farmland, slaves to Pharaoh. Also give us seed that we may live and not die, and the farmland may not turn to desert."
47:20 Joseph took all the farmland of Egypt for Pharaoh, for each Egyptian sold his field, for the famine had grown harsh (chazaq) for them. The land became Pharaoh's.
47:21 He removed the people to the cities, from one end of Egypt’s border to the other.


A final question: Was the tithe introduced as a more lenient alternative to the 1/5 tax that Israel remembered from Egypt? Compare Gen. 47:24, 26 to Lev. 27:30.

The Meaning of Dreams

Gen. 40:5-8
5. And both of them dreamed a dream, each his own dream in one night, each according to the interpretation of his dream, the butler and the baker to the king of Egypt, who were confined in the prison house.
6. And Joseph came to them in the morning and saw them, and, behold, they were dejected.
7. So he asked Pharaoh’s officers who were with him in the custody of his lord’s house, saying, Why do you look so sad today?
8. And they said to him, We dreamed a dream, but there is no interpreter of it. And Joseph said to them, Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell it to me, please.

As the story continues we discover that Joseph holds a particular view of dreams: each dream has one interpretation known only to God and, perhaps, his wise diviners, and bad dreams portend bad outcomes in real life. I call this the fatalistic view of dreams. The fate of the dreamer is determined by his dream.

On the whole, the sages of the Talmud hold a more opportunistic view of dreams. If a person is troubled by a bad dream or even a dream of uncertain meaning, he should turn his dream into something positive. The first step is to pray, as in these words:

Berakhot 55b (adapted from the Soncino edition)
Sovereign of the Universe, I am yours and my dreams are yours. I have dreamed a dream and I do not know what it is. Whether I have dreamed about myself… or I have dreamed about others, if they are good dreams, confirm them and reinforce them like the dreams of Joseph, and if they need a healing, heal them, as the waters of Marah [were healed] by the hand of Moses…. As you turned the curse of the wicked Balaam into a blessing, so turn all my dreams into what is good for me.

Actually the Talmud offers a variety of opinions about the nature and importance of dreams. For example, in one lengthy passage a host of dreams are listed by their subject matter and interpretations (usually positive) are offered for them (Berakhot 56b-57b). On the other hand, R. Meir is quoted to say that dreams are of no consequence, neither raising nor lowering one’s state in life (Horayot 13b; cf. Gittin 52a). Likewise, a bad dream does not mean that the person who dreams it is bad; in fact, according to R. Huna just the opposite is true (Berakhot 55b). Dreams are never completely fulfilled, and all dreams are partly nonsense (Berakhot 55a). A welcome touch of realism.

Rather than seek an interpretation as such for every dream, a person should look for a beneficial response to his dream. Often Scripture verses are suggested to this end, as demonstrated by another passage:

Berakhot 56b (adapted from the Soncino edition)
R. Joshua b. Levi said: If one sees a river in his dreams, he should rise early and say: Behold I will extend peace to her like a river (Isa. 66:12), before another verse occurs to him, For he will come in like a narrow river (Isa. 59:19). If one dreams of a bird he should rise early and say: As hovering birds, so the Lord of Hosts will shield (Isa. 31:5), before another verse occurs to him, As a bird that wanders from her nest, so is a man that wanders from his place (Prov. 27:8)…. If one sees grapes in his dream, he should rise early and say: I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness (Hos. 9:10), before another verse occurs to him, Their grapes are grapes of poison (Deut. 32:32). If one dreams of a mountain, he should rise early and say: How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger of good news (Isa. 52:7), before another verse occurs to him, For the mountains I will lift up weeping and wailing (Jer. 9:9 MT). If one dreams of a horn he should rise early and say: And it shall come about in that day that a great horn shall be blown (Isa. 27:13, heralding return from exile), before another verse occurs to him, Blow the horn in Gibeah (Hos. 5:8, warning of destruction). If one sees a dog in his dream, he should rise early and say: But against any of the people of Israel a dog shall not sharpen its tongue (Exod. 11:7), before another verse occurs to him, And the dogs are greedy (Isa. 56:11)…. If one dreams of shaving, he should rise early and say: And Joseph shaved himself and changed his garment (Gen. 41:14), before another verse occurs to him, If I am shaved, then my strength will leave me (Judg. 16:17). If one sees a well in his dream, he should rise early and say: A well of living waters (Song of Songs 4:15), before another verse occurs to him, As a well keeps fresh its waters, so she keeps fresh her wickedness (Jer. 6:7). If one sees a reed, he should rise early and say, A bruised reed he will not break (Isa. 42:3), before another verse occurs to him, Behold, you rely on the staff of this bruised reed (Isa.36:6).

In other words, every dream has more than one interpretation, so we are free to choose the most positive. Dreams do not portend our fates; they merely disturb the restfulness of our nights without obvious cause or purpose, human or divine. The best we can do is respond to them in a way that will offset the frustration or fear or guilt they often bring us.

Above all, it is important to know and accept that we are not responsible for the content of our dreams. Even dreams that pretend to relate to something in our life, whether family or work or travel, rarely portray accurate situations. Dreams are largely divorced from reality, and that is where they should stay.

Neither are we able to control in advance the content of our dreams. We may wish for sweet dreams, but some of us would prefer to have no dreams at all. Dream on.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Deborah, Rebekah's Nurse

Genesis 35:8
And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried beneath Beth-El under an oak; and the name of it was called Allon-Bachuth.

This is a very puzzling reference:

1. We are never told when or where Rebekah herself died, but her nurse is singled out for special mention without any obvious connection to what came before or after in the sequence of events.
2. Just how did Rebekah’s nurse come to be part of this company? She is mentioned once before, also a surprising incidental reference, when she leaves with Rebekah from Mesopotamia (Gen. 24:59). Possibly:
a. After the unmentioned death of Rebekah (sometime after Gen. 27:46) Deborah returned to Laban’s household, and then left again with Jacob and company?
b. Rebekah sent her to be with Jacob’s wives at some point before Rebekah's own death?

In either case, Deborah may have been looked on with affection and honor, a sort of surrogate grandmother, by Jacob’s family. This might explain the name given to the oak tree where she was buried: “oak of weeping.”

Beginning with Genesis chapter 12, only seven other individuals receive similar honor (in mention of their deaths) through all of the rest of Genesis: Sarah (23:2), Abraham (25:8), Ishmael (25:17), Rachel (35:19), Isaac (35:29), Jacob (49:33), and Joseph (50:26). And Deborah?

Robert Alter comments: “Beyond the narrative etiology of a place-name, there is not enough evidence to explain what this lonely obituary notice is doing here.” (Genesis: Translation and Commentary, p. 197) However, this oak tree does not become a place-name of note, except here as the burial site of Deborah.

Genesis is a prophetic work, not simply a chronicle of events; that is to say, its stories teach us something about the God of Israel and about the values that his people hold. Perhaps the point of Deborah’s honorable mention among the great patriarchs and matriarchs of Genesis is along the lines of this remarkable passage:

Psalm 113:7-8
He [the God of Israel] raises up the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to seat them with princes, with the princes of his people.

So Deborah received “an everlasting name” (Isa. 56:5) in the annals of God’s people.

Brothers: Conflict and Rapprochement

Gen. 33:1a
Then Jacob lifted his eyes and saw… Esau coming, and with him four hundred men….

The relationships between "brothers" plays an important role throughout Genesis, beginning with the conflict between Cain and Abel that resulted in Abel's violent death and Cain's banishment. While conflict continues to define these relationships, we also find another element later in Genesis: reconciliation or rapprochement.

For example, Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father (25:9), even though Ishmael's descendants, according to one translation, "lived in hostility toward all their brothers" (25:18, NIV); cf. Robert Alter's translation, "in defiance of all his brothers he went down." A passage in the Talmud indirectly credits Ishmael for their reconciliation: "Ishmael repented in the lifetime of his father, as it is written, And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him.... That the text places Isaac first shows that Ishmael made way for him, and from the fact that he made way for him we infer that he repented in Abraham's lifetime." (Baba Batra 16b, adapted from the Soncino edition)

Likewise, both conflict and rapprochement occur in the accounts of Abram and Lot ("brothers" in a loose sense, see Gen. 13:8), Jacob and Esau (27:41 and 33:4), and, most dramatically, Joseph and his brothers (37:18-20, 45:15, and 50:14f). Thus, amid the realism of Genesis (conflict happens and recurs) there is an element of optimism, a message of hope for peace to be restored between brothers.

Jacob and Esau provide an example worth further examination. After years of living in exile, estranged from Esau, Jacob sends a message to his brother as he returns to Canaan. The messengers return with news of Esau coming to meet him with a large force. Jacob’s first reaction is fear. His second reaction is to seek atonement through lavish gifts. But when their meeting takes place, what happens next must have taken Jacob by surprise.

Gen. 33:4
And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept.

As straightforward as this show of affection and acceptance may seem, the question remains: how sincere and how complete was this reunion of brothers? Jacob was greeted by Laban in a very similar way: “he ran to meet him, and embraced him, and kissed him…” (Gen. 29:13) Yet their relationship was far from brotherly love. They barely managed to part in peace, with a covenant between them. But perhaps Esau should be compared to Joseph when he greeted his father: “he fell on his neck and wept…” (Gen. 46:29)

The apparent reconciliation of Jacob and Esau reflects an ambiguous relationship between the nations they represent. If “Esau is Edom” as Gen. 36:8 says, then Jacob is Israel, as his name change (Gen. 35:10) illustrates. They are brothers, and so the story of their seemingly happy reunion paves the way for the remarkable openness of Deut. 23:7-8 to Edomites: “You shall not detest an Edomite, for he is your brother…. The sons of the third generation who are born to them may enter the assembly of the Lord.” That is, the descendants of an Edomite who resided in Israel (as a ger toshav) could be admitted into full citizenship (and intermarry) by the third generation. On the other hand, Edom stubbornly refused passage through their territory to Israel (Num. 20:14-21; cf. Judges 11:17-18), which was one of the grounds used to exclude any Ammonite or Moabite from “the assembly of the Lord.” (Deut. 23:3-4a) Why the distinction?

The distinction may reflect a difference between Lot, who represents Ammon and Moab, and Esau, who represents Edom:

1. Even though Lot was a “brother” (i.e., kin) to Abraham, he did not remain in Abraham’s household or, we may suppose, partake in the covenant of circumcision. Esau, on the other hand, could claim Abraham and Isaac as his forbears, and like Ishmael, remain within the covenant boundaries set by circumcision, even though he forfeited the promised land to his brother.
2. As Esau was the twin brother of Jacob, so Edom held a closer relationship to Israel than any other nation.

In later Jewish tradition Edom came to be identified with another “brother” of Israel, a rival claimant to the inheritance of Abraham, namely Christian Rome. Jacob Neusner describes this surprising interpretation of history, and I will conclude with his words at some length:

“Rabbinic Judaism lays heavy emphasis on a metaphor of genealogy, involving family and marriage…. Specifically, by claiming that Israel constituted the actual, living, present family of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, the sages met head-on the Christian claim that there was—or could ever be—some other Israel…. Using the metaphor of a family beginning with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Israel could best sort out its relationship with the nations, meaning Christian Rome in particular, by drawing into the [extended] family other social entities with which it found it had to relate. So [Christian] Rome became a brother…. The metaphor of the family dealt with the facts of the situation: Christian Rome shared with Israel the common patrimony of Scripture—and said so….

“While Abraham founded Israel, Isaac and Jacob carried forth the birthright and blessing. This they did through the process of selection, ending in the assignment of the birthright to Jacob alone. The importance of that fact for the definition of Israel hardly requires explication. The lives of the three patriarchs flowed together, each being identified with the other as a single long life. This immediately produced the proposition that the historical life of Israel, the nation, continued the individual lives of the patriarchs. The theory of who is Israel, therefore, is seen once more to have rested on genealogy: Israel is one extended family, all being children of the same fathers and mothers, the patriarchs and matriarchs of Genesis….

“Esau, in the sages’ typology, always stands for [Christian] Rome. Esau is not an outsider… but also not Israel…. Israel and Rome—these two contend for the world…. Rome does have a legitimate claim, and that claim demands recognition—an amazing, if grudging concession on the part of the sages that Christian Rome at least is Esau, different from the gentiles, but also not Israel.”
(Jacob Neusner, Children of the Flesh, Children of the Promise: A Rabbi Talks with Paul, pp. 43, 44, 51-52)

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Facing Death (Without Illusion)

Baba Batra 16a, 16b
As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up. (Job 7:9) Raba said: This shows that Job denied the resurrection of the dead….Job speaks without knowledge, and his words are without wisdom. (Job 34:35) Raba said: This shows that a man is not held responsible for what he says when in distress.

Throughout most of the Hebrew Bible man's mortality is assumed. While some verses may point to an afterlife, or be interpreted in that way, with the exception of Daniel 12:2 these verses do not require an expectation of life beyond the grave. Indeed, the normative view is just the opposite. All that is hoped for beyond the grave is the continuation of descendants in future generations. When we die we are gathered to our people, specifically our ancestors with whom we share the common destiny of all the living: the grave.

Facing death with recognition of human mortality is too fearful and hopeless a prospect for many. Instead, we have grasped onto "the hope of heaven." When a loved one dies we characteristically say "they have gone to a better place." We even hold firmly to the belief that someday we will be re-united with our loved ones in that "better place." Philosophically we speak of "the immortality of the soul" as of something self-evident, not to be challenged. For those who follow Daniel "the resurrection of the dead" has become an essential doctrine of faith.
[For Talmudic teaching on the resurrection of the dead, see Sanhedrin 90-92b.]

Let's step back into an earlier view of life and death, a view evident in the opening chapters of Genesis, a view which extends at least down to the time of the Babylonian exile. In this view life is the ultimate good, while the finality of death is accepted soberly as the fate of all mankind. What lies beyond the grave, sometimes identified as Sheol, is never associated with "a better place."

Gen. 25:8-10

Then Abraham expired and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and he was gathered to his people. And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which is before Mamre, the field which Abraham purchased from the Hittites; there Abraham was buried, and Sarah his wife. (cf. Gen. 25:17 Ishmael, Gen. 35:29 Isaac, Gen. 49:29-32 Jacob, Num. 20:24-26 Aaron, Num. 27:13 Moses, II Kings 22:20 Josiah)

For the patriarchs, the hope in death was to be “gathered” to their deceased kin. Burial in the family tomb was important but not essential to this hope, as in the case of Moses, whose death and burial took place apart from other family members (Deut. 34:5-6). However, some commentators still look for more. Compare the following view:

“Burial in the family grave served to reconnect the departed one with a society of previously dead ancestors. This society was believed to exist in the tomb itself and perhaps in the surrounding locality. Death itself was not seen as a cessation of existence. On the contrary, to be gathered to one's ancestors implied but a passage to another realm where departed family spirits cohabited and the activities of kith and kin continued within the sacred ancestral society of the family tomb.” (Simcha Paull Raphael, Jewish Views of the Afterlife, p. 45)

If the author had stopped with "another realm" and left out the malarkey about a "sacred ancestral society" I could almost agree with his explanation. The realm beyond death was precisely the unknown, a shadowy existence which was not further described in the Hebrew Bible in pointed contrast to what other cultures taught concerning "the activities of kith and kin" within the grave. That Israelites may have also believed such things does not mean that their superstitions were the Biblical view. On the contrary, the Bible goes to great lengths to supplant such superstitions with a more sober view of death and the grave. It is natural to seek consolation in the death of loved ones; for this purpose all manner of beliefs in an afterlife are introduced; the Bible reduces all of these fanciful beliefs to the simple consolation of being "gathered" through burial to one's deceased kin. Beyond this notion nothing definitive should be read into these scriptures. As the author himself points out later in his book, the Bible specifically condemns the superstitious practice of "feeding the dead" (Deut. 26:14; cf. Hosea 9:4, Jer. 16:6-7, Sirach 30:18), which could be read to imply, if not skepticism toward an afterlife, then at least discouragement of focusing on the afterlife. The Bible also condemns necromancy (consulting the spirits of the dead, Deut. 18:11, Lev. 20:27, II Kings 23:24, Isa. 8:19), another natural response to belief in an afterlife. The Bible does not exclude the possibility that these spirits exist, but it does prohibit any communication with what are popularly believed to be spirits of the dead.

Let's conclude with the example of David.

1. Facing your own death without illusion

I Kings 2:1-3
When the days of David drew near to die, he charged Solomon his son, saying,
I am going the way of all the earth, so be strong and show yourself a man;
And keep the charge of the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, his commandments, his laws, and his testimonies, as it is written in the Torah of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do, and wherever you turn...

I am going the way of all the earth, cf. Joshua 23:14.

What is the way of all the earth? The destiny shared by all forms of life: all life ends in death.

2. Facing the death of a loved one without illusion

2 Samuel 12:19-23
When David saw that his servants were whispering, David realized that the child was dead; therefore David said to his servants, Is the child dead? And they said, He is dead.
Then David rose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his garment, and went to the house of the Lord, and bowed down [worshiped]; then he went to his own house; and when he requested, they set bread before him, and he ate.
Then his servants said to him, Why are you acting this way? While the child was alive you fasted and wept for him; but now that the child is dead, you rise and eat bread.
And he said, While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, Who knows? Maybe God will be gracious to me and the child may live?
But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I am going to him, but he will not return to me.

I am going to him, but he will not return to me.

Does David have in mind a happy reunion beyond the grave? Not at all. He is simply accepting his child’s death without illusion. He cannot bring his child back to life, but he will eventually join his child in death.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

Berakhot 10b
R. Yohanan said in the name of R. Yose b. Zimra: If a man makes his petition depend on his own merit, heaven makes it depend on the merit of others; and if he makes it depend on the merit of others, heaven makes it depend on his own merit. Moses made his petition depend on the merit of others, as it says, Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel your servants! (Ex. 32:13), and God made it depend on his own merit, as it says, Therefore he said that he would destroy them, had not Moses his chosen stood in the breech before him to turn back his wrath from destroying them. (Ps. 106:23) Hezekiah made his petition depend on his own merit, as it is written, Remember now, O Lord, I beseech you, how I have walked before you (Is. 38:3), and God made it depend on the merit of others, as it says, For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for my servant David's sake. (Is. 37:35)

By the end of Genesis 25, we have been introduced to three very important people in the traditions of Judaism. These three are often mentioned together. The triad of names--Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—appears at least 25 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, 18 of these in the written Torah, 3 in prayers (Deut. 9:27, I Kings 18:36, I Chron. 29:18).

When I first began learning the daily prayer (Amidah), the phrase chasdei avot translated "the kindnesses of the fathers" was one that I did not understand and frankly found troubling. Following Ezekiel’s view of individual responsibility, I questioned how I would benefit from the merit of another person. “The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the iniquity of the father and the father will not bear the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous will be on him and the wickedness of the wicked will be on him.” (Ezek. 18:20) That seems clear-cut enough.

However, after a study of the places where the triad of names is repeated, and others that refer specifically to Abraham, my opinion has changed:

1. Simply the number of times that the triad is repeated suggests the importance of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to the identity of the God who calls himself by their names—“I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exod. 3:6)—and claims for himself the singular devotion of Israel (cf. Exod. 34:14).

2. The God of Israel is the God of the covenant. "He remembers his covenant forever...which he made with Abraham, and his oath to Isaac. He confirmed it to Jacob as a statute, to Israel as an everlasting covenant." (Psalm 105: 8-10) Several other instances of the triad occur in declarations of God's concern for Israel because of the covenant. The fathers are bearers of the covenant promises to Israel, and when God "remembers" the covenant, he shows favor and concern to Israel. "The people of Israel sighed because of the bondage and they cried out; and their cry rose up to God because of the bondage. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God saw the people of Israel, and God regarded them." (Exod. 2: 23b-25a; cf. 6:5) Likewise, "The Lord was gracious to them and had compassion on them, and he turned to them, because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob...." (II Kings 13:23a)

3. Deut. 29: 9-12 considers as a unity (a) the covenant which God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with (b) the covenant God commanded Moses to make with Israel at Sinai/Horeb and later at Moab (cf. Deut. 29:1). To be more accurate, the latter is presented as a continuation of the former. "You are standing here today….in order to enter into a covenant with the Lord your God...to confirm you today as his people, that he may be your God as he spoke to you and as he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob." Why is this important? Because the very existence of Israel as a covenant people and the Torah as the book of the covenant began, not at Sinai, but with these three, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. To them was the blessing of God to be a chosen people first pronounced. Through them the promise of a special land was first made. In their lifetimes were the first laws of the covenant given and obeyed (e.g., circumcision), while others were foreshadowed (e.g., tithe). As God declares in Gen. 26:5, "Abraham heard my voice and kept my requirements, my commandments, my statutes and my laws."

4. The righteousness and faithfulness of the fathers, as well as God's favor shown to them, is often implied and sometimes clearly stated in these scriptures. I Chron. 29: 17-19 speaks of the integrity and devotion of the people Israel and their leaders, apparently in relation to that of the fathers before them. Compare Neh. 9:7-8, which refers specifically to Abraham's call by God: "You are the Lord God, who chose Abram.... You found his heart faithful before you and made the covenant with him...." Even more striking are the scriptures which invoke the character of the fathers in contrast to the people Israel. "Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Overlook the stubbornness of this people, their wickedness and their sin." (Deut. 9:27) The book of Micah, after praising God for his forgiveness of sins, ends with: “You will give truth to Jacob and kindness to Abraham that you swore to our fathers from days of old.” (Micah 7:20) The people Israel are thus identified with their patriarchs as God shows mercy to them.

A combination of these outlooks is found in the daily prayer. Prior to reading the Akeidah (Gen. 22), we say: “Remember on our behalf, O Lord our God, the love of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel your servants, the covenant and the kindness and the oath that you swore to Abraham our father on Mount Moriah, and the Akeidah when he bound Isaac his son on the altar…”

Then, at the conclusion of this reading, we say: "Not upon our righteousness do we bring our appeals before you, but upon your abundant mercy. What are we? What is our life? What is our kindness? What is our righteousness? What is our salvation? What is our strength? What is our might? What can we say before You, O Lord our God and God of our fathers?....BUT we are your people, children of your covenant, the children of Abraham your beloved to whom you swore on Mount Moriah; the seed of Isaac, his only son bound on the altar; the community of Jacob, your firstborn son [cf. Exod. 4:22] who, because of the love with which you loved him and the joy with which you rejoiced in him, you called his name Israel and Jeshuran...."

Even more direct is the repetition of the Amidah during the Afternoon service on Yom Kippur: “May his [Abraham’s] righteousness be accounted to us (cf. Gen. 15:6); forgive us in the righteousness of the father.” And later: “You will yet remember for us the love of Abraham our lord, and his son, who was bound…, and the merit of Jacob…”

This perspective became a point of contention between Judaism and early Christianity, as reflected in two New Testament passages (Matt. 3:8-9, John 8:39). It also provided Paul with the basis for his own version: Paul claimed Abraham as “the father of all those who believe.” (Romans 4:11; cf. Galatians 3:7) But in Paul’s argument the faith of Abraham was only a ruse to cover for the real issue dividing Judaism and Christianity, which was and is the person of Jesus Christ.

But how does this perspective square with the plain message of Ezekiel? Tentatively, I would offer two possible answers:

1. It doesn’t. Ezekiel presents one side of God’s justice, while other scriptures and traditions point in another direction, to a more merciful perspective. Ezekiel presents measure-for-measure justice, which is the rule, but does not leave room for mercy, which is available at God’s discretion.

2. The scriptures and traditions which invoke the merit of the patriarchs do not presume upon God’s mercy; they merely (a) petition God in prayer, or (b) explain God’s mercy in this manner. So Ezekiel is correct, but not definitive, concerning God’s ways.