Thursday, February 16, 2006

Father-in-law, father-in-law

Exod. 18:1
Now Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel his people, how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.

A man of too many names

Moses’ father-in-law is something of a curiosity in the Bible. He is called by more than one name, which makes him even more curious and mysterious. He is first introduced as the priest of Midian (Exod. 2:16), then named Reuel (Exod. 2:18), then several verses later, and without explanation, he is called Jethro, the priest of Midian (Exod. 3:1). He next appears with a variant spelling, as Jether (Exod. 4:18), then later in the same verse as Jethro again. But wait, we aren’t finished: after appearing with the name Jethro throughout Exodus chapter 18, in Num. 10:29 a certain “Hobab the son of Reuel the Midianite, the father-in-law of Moses” enters the picture, only to re-appear in Judges 4:11 as himself the father-in-law of Moses! For the sake of clarity, I will stick with the name Jethro.

Another curiosity are the Kenites, who are mentioned several times in the Bible and have odd relationships to Israel and other peoples. And what do you know, they, Moses’ father-in-law and the Kenites, are related! (cf. Judges 1:16, 4:11)

Idolater or proselyte?

The rabbis of the Talmud aren’t sure what to do with Jethro; they offer different opinions about him, some positive but others not. They as much as call him an idolater, for he “fattened calves for idol worship.” (Sotah 43a; Baba Batra 109b) They say he was motivated by self-interest, for “he drew near to Moses for his own honor.” (Berakhot 63b) On the other hand, he was worthy enough that his descendants the Kenites would come to sit as scribes in the Temple, in the meeting-place of the Sanhedrin! (Sotah 11a; Sanhedrin 106a; cf. I Chron. 2:55)

What status does Jethro have with respect to Israel? A possible answer is suggested by the rabbis in the following passage:

Zevachim 116a (adapted from Soncino edition)
This is a controversy of Tannaim: Now Jethro, the priest of Midian, heard (Exod. 18:1): what news did he hear that he came and turned a proselyte? R. Joshua said: He heard of the battle with the Amalekites, since this is immediately preceded by, And Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword (Exod. 17:13). R. Eleazar of Modim said: He heard of the giving of the Torah and came.… R. Eleazar said: He heard about the dividing of the Red Sea, and came…

Two things stand out: (1) Jethro was considered a proselyte, a convert to the religion of Israel, and (2) He may have come to Israel because he heard about the defeat of Amalek, i.e., his tribe may have had some connection to the Amalekites.

Both of these conjectures are supported in the Bible references to the Kenites, who are said to be descendants of Jethro (aka Hobab aka Reuel):

(1) A proselyte?

Judges 1:16
And the descendants of the Kenite, Moses’ father-in-law, went up from the city of palm trees with the sons of Judah, to the wilderness of Judah, which lies in the south of Arad; and they went and lived among the people.

In other words, the Kenites lived among the people of Israel? More likely, they lived among the unnamed people of the area described. The text is not clear, and it has been argued that the word translated people (am) may be corrupted from the original Amalekite. So this verse by itself does not prove that either Jethro or his descendants joined the community of Israel.

Nevertheless, the Kenites remained in close connection to Israel. The heroic story of “Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite” (Judges 4:17ff, 5:24ff) points to a high regard for the Kenites. Some of the Kenites were later included among the scribes of Israel (I Chron. 2:55) and one of them, Jehonadab the son of Rechab, professed his “zeal for the Lord.” (II Kings 10:15-16)

But what about Jethro himself? Are the rabbis correct when they say he became a proselyte? No, I really don’t think so. For at the end of Exodus chapter 18, after his last known encounter with Moses and Israel, he returned to his own land, which implies that he returned to his own people and for all we know his own religion. He no doubt took some knowledge of the God of Israel with him (cf. Exod. 18:11), but he chose to continue in his own way, apart from Israel. Similarly, when Hobab the son of Reuel declined to go with Israel to the land of promise, he said, “I will not go [with you], rather I will go to my land and to my people.” (Num. 10:29-30) It is true that Moses asked him again to continue on as their guide and share in their success, but we are not told whether Hobab agreed to this or not. (Num. 10:31-32)

So perhaps Jethro occupies that middle space, neither idolater (at least not any longer) nor proselyte, i.e., in the full sense of attaching himself to Israel in his worship of God. He may be compared to Melchizedek, priest of the Most High God (Gen. 14:18f). Both of these men are presented in a favorable light; in fact nothing bad is said about them in the Bible. But they do not become part of Israel.

(2) An Amalek connection?

I Samuel 15:6
And Saul said to the Kenites, Go, depart, go down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them; for you showed kindness to all the people of Israel when they came up from Egypt. So the Kenites departed from among the Amalekites.

In other words, the Kenites had a close connection to the Amalekites in the time of Saul, so R. Joshua wasn’t engaging in baseless speculation when he related Jethro’s decision to come to Moses with news of the defeat of Amalek. The juxtaposition of the two accounts (Exod. 17:8-16 and 18:1-27) may be intentional, as Martin Buber writes: “[The redactor] wishes to show here, immediately after the battle with the Amalekites, how clear a distinction has to be drawn historically between the Amalekites and the Kenites, in view of the fact that this tribe or part of it afterwards united temporarily with the former.” (Moses, p. 94) Buber’s point is a bit different than the teaching of the Talmud given above. R. Joshua suggested a historical-causal relation between the events of the two accounts. Buber is saying that in the time of Jethro the Kenites did not have any alliance with the Amalekites, but since they did at a later time the compiler of the Torah put these passages side-by-side to clear their name. For if the Kenites had been allied or united with the Amalekites then, the cordial reunion in Exodus chapter 18 wouldn’t have happened. The two accounts have a thematic relation, but the one did not necessarily follow the other in chronology or causality.

True Wisdom

In Jethro we have the third father-in-law to play a significant role in Biblical narrative. Before him Laban traded tricks with Jacob (Gen. 29-31), and Judah paid for treating Tamar unfairly (Gen. 38). Neither Laban nor Judah demonstrated that quality known as wisdom.

But Jethro proved to be different. He offered sound advice to Moses for leading, teaching and judging Israel, and Moses “listened to the voice of his father-in-law, and did all that he said.” (Exod. 18:24) This speaks well of Moses who at the age of 80 was still willing to learn from his father-in-law. As for Jethro, his wise counsel was of sufficient importance to be reiterated later as Moses’ own instruction! (cf. Deut. 1:9-17)

The advice Jethro gave included a set of high standards for the persons Moses would choose as leaders: “Men of valor who fear God, men of truth who hate dishonest gain.” (Exod. 18:21) These stated qualifications reflect back on Jethro, if not his own integrity, then at least the values and aspirations he held. Wisdom surely consists of more than intellect: one may be an intellectual genius but a moral idiot. Jethro was a wise man in both practical imagination and moral judgment.

Regarding those names

No satisfactory explanation has, to my knowledge, been offered for the different names attached to this person I have called Jethro. It would seem obvious that the different names come from different sources, just as the names of God are thought to vary according to the sources. For those of us who accept some form of the documentary hypothesis, the J source is thought responsible for the references to Reuel and to Hobab the son of Reuel, while the E source uses Jethro and the (probably accidental) variant Jether. That leaves Judges 4:11 which does not fit with either of these sources.

Commentators are often driven to harmonize such contradictory materials, as if the truth of their religious beliefs depended on it. My view of sound Biblical criticism may be summed up as follows: Harmonize where there appears to be harmony; suspend judgment when the evidence is lacking for a reasonable conclusion; admit the possibility of error when the weight of the evidence suggests error; above all, give up the overriding principle of inerrancy.

I have never understood the need for inerrancy in Scripture. What ultimately matters is the truth of our understanding of God’s ways, not even whether we have all the truth, but simply whether we are looking in the right direction. For Scripture to serve this purpose trivial matters such as the name of Moses’ father-in-law cannot possibly be important enough to confirm or deny our faith.

Baruch Spinoza wrote in 1670:
The commentators who attempt to harmonize these evident contradictions draw on their imagination, each to the best of his ability; and while professing adoration for each letter and word of Scripture, only succeed in holding up the sacred writers to ridicule, as though they knew not how to write or relate a plain narrative. Such persons effect nothing but to render the clearness of Scripture obscure. (A Theological-Political Treatise, translated by R.H.M. Elwes, ch. 10, p. 153)

Friday, February 10, 2006

Another took his place

Exod. 14:31
When Israel saw the great power that the Lord used against Egypt, the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in Moses his servant.

In regard to Moses, this verse answers the question he asked God in Exod. 4:1, "What if they don't believe in me and won't listen to my voice, but say, 'The Lord didn't appear to you.'" At least at this point, the people accept Moses as the Lord's chosen servant and so "believe" in him.

Moses is called the servant of the Lord, a title given to him more often than any other person in the Hebrew Bible, at least 18 times in the book of Joshua alone. Excluding its use as an expression of courtesy when a person refers to himself as "your servant," the title appears only once previously, Gen. 26:24, when the Lord refers to Abraham as his servant. Many other instances could be noted, but the most common are with David (almost as often as with Moses, if my count is correct, 32 versus 33) and with Jacob/Israel (especially in the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, but also see Psalm 136:22 and I Chron. 16:13). Finally, when God says "my servant" the meaning appears to be the same as "my chosen" (see, for example, Isaiah 41:8-9 and Psalm 89:4 MT).

As important as Moses, David, and other heroes of the Hebrew Bible may be in the history of Israel, they are not cult figures in the same sense or to the same degree as one finds in other religions, notably Muhammad in Islam and Jesus in Christianity. If Moses was viewed like Muhammad, the Shema might include an extra clause "and Moses is his servant (or prophet)," and much of the oral Torah might consist of additional remembered sayings (hadith) and observed conduct (sainunnah) of the servant of the Lord. If Moses was viewed like Jesus, Judaism's message might be, "Believe in Moses and you will be saved," his name might be exalted and adored theoretically on the same level but for all practical purposes on a higher level than God's name, the miracles ascribed to Moses might be claimed as proof of his divinity, and WWMD (What would Moses do?) might be a popular acronym!

The Bible singles Moses out as the preeminent prophet in the history of Israel (Num. 12:6-8, Deut. 34:10-12); to Moses the Lord “made known his ways.” (Psa. 103:7) The Torah is often identified with his name (e.g., Deut. 33:4, Malachi 3:22, Ezra 7:6). However, for all his greatness and goodness, he was yet mortal, he sinned like any mortal, and after his death another took his place. He was neither the founder nor the final prophet of Israel, i.e., of what became Judaism. And while he was God’s instrument of deliverance on the occasion of the exodus from Egypt, it is God and not Moses who remains the only Savior and Redeemer of Israel (Isa. 49:26).

Thursday, February 02, 2006

What's new?

Exod. 10:3
And Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh, and said to him, Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, that they may serve me.

This year's reading through Exodus has brought to my attention, more than before, how much is new in Exodus when compared to Genesis. Not only does God introduce himself by a new name, the Name (Exod. 3:15, 6:2), but much else that is easily taken for granted is introduced here for the first time.

What’s new in Exodus?

Here for the first time we find a fully formed community, a people ('am), an "ethnic group" formed of the descendants of Jacob's family, identified by two different names, the sons of Israel and the Hebrews.

But even here they are more than another "ethnic group" identified only by a common genealogy; they are a religious community devoted to God and blessed abundantly by him (Exod. 1:7, 20) in spite of their circumstances. This God is a particular God, the God of their ancestors, as we are reminded in chapters 2 and 3. They are a community in exile, reduced to cruel servitude by the decrees of Pharaoh, yet they do not worship the God of Pharaoh: they are called to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and follow his decrees. They cry out to this God for deliverance, and God remembers his covenant with their ancestors (Exod. 2:23-25).

At the same time they are more than a religious community; they are in the process of forming a new nation with laws and customs that reflect their historical experience as well as as their understanding of God's heart. For example, their very experience of oppression as "strangers in the land of Egypt" will be incorporated in decrees and laws protecting the rights of strangers who reside with them in the land of Israel (see Exod. 22:20 MT, 23:9; Lev. 19:33-34; Deut. 10:19). I am especially struck by Exod. 23:9, where the people of Israel are reminded that they know the soul (nefesh) of the stranger -- knowledge gained only by experience.

What’s new in Exodus?

Service to God: Does this concept occur before Exodus, where it becomes a theme of the redemption from Egypt? Only once, and then only as a title for an individual, when God calls Abraham “my servant” (Gen. 26:24).

Service to man is found often in Genesis (e.g., one brother serves another), also at the beginning of Exodus (Exod. 1:13, 14; 5:9, 11, 18), and again after Israel departs from Egypt (Exod. 14:5, 12). Compare also the first half of the Sabbath commandment, "six days you shall serve" (Exod. 20:9; Deut. 5:13), i.e., serve human masters and ends.

But the full notion of service to God (as far as I can tell) first appears at Exod. 3:12 and then is repeated at least 12 times in the chapters that follow:

3:12 "…you will serve God on this mountain"
4:23 "[Thus says the Lord], 'Let my son go, so he may serve me'"
7:16 "The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, [says], 'Let my people go, so they may serve me in the desert'"
7:26 MT [8:1] "Thus says the Lord, 'Let my people go, so they may serve me'"
9:1 "Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, 'Let my people go, so they may serve me'"
10:3 "Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, 'How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, so they may serve me'"
10:7 "Let the people go so they may serve the Lord their God"
10:8 "Go! Serve the Lord your God"
10:11 "…the men go and serve the Lord"
10:24 "Go! Serve the Lord"
10:26 "…we must use [our livestock] to serve the Lord our God, and we will not know with what we must serve the Lord until we get there"
12:31 "Go! Serve the Lord"

To define Israel's relationship to God as service (avodah): this was a radically new concept, just as new as the Name revealed to Moses, and just as new as the "people" then in formation.

Deut. 11:13 instructs us to serve God with all our heart and soul. Another familiar passage emphasizes this aspect of our relationship to God, and warns against serving other gods:

Josh. 24:14-15
Now fear the Lord and serve him wholly and faithfully, and throw away the gods your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if it is undesirable in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve....But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

That the word translated "serve" can also mean "worship" is seen in the parallel references to holding a feast (Exod. 5:1, 10:9) and to "sacrifices and burnt offerings" (Exod. 10:25; cf. 5:3, 8:25-28). Nevertheless, this word goes beyond formal worship; the obvious analogy is their service to Pharaoh in Egypt, in the "house of servitude" (Exod. 13:3, 14; 20:2).

Isa. 44:21
Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I have formed you, you are my servant, O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.

If Israel is the servant, then God is the master. So the cipher traditionally used in place of God’s new name, Adonai or Lord, seems very appropriate.

The attitude of the servant toward his master: what is expected of the servant?
1. That he will humble himself before the master. [Cf. Exod. 10:3..."How long will you (Pharaoh) refuse to humble yourself before me?"] Arrogance does not become a servant.
2. That he will fear (demonstrate reverence for) the master.
3. That he will obey the master's instructions [torah].
4. That he will be faithful to the bond he shares with the master [covenant].

And the attitude of the master toward his servant? That is where the analogy may break down, for God is no ordinary master. The conclusion of the haftarah (prophets) reading illustrates this point well:

Jer. 46:27-28
But as for you, do not fear, O Jacob my servant, and do not be dismayed, O Israel. For, behold, I will save you from far away, and your seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall return, and have rest and quiet, with no one to trouble him.
As for you, do not fear, my servant Jacob, says the Lord, for I am with you. For I will make a full end of all the nations where I have driven you, yet I will not make a full end of you. But I will correct you in due measure, and by no means leave you unpunished.

The God of Israel is not a harsh master like Pharaoh, who treated his Hebrew slaves "ruthlessly" (b'farekh, Exod. 1:13, 14), without concern for their welfare or even their lives. God promises to his servant to provide “rest and quiet” from toil and trouble (contrast Pharaoh’s attitude, Exod. 5:5-9), and while correcting him, to use “due measure.”

Solomon Schechter’s words concerning the rabbinic understanding of God’s relationship to Israel show what a different sort of master we have in God:

For God suffers with them in their suffering and is with them in their distress. Their subjection implies his subjection, and his presence accompanies them through their various captivities among the Gentiles. Therefore their redemption is his redemption, their joy is his joy, their salvation his salvation, and their light his light. (Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, p. 50)

Draw us near, our King, to your service.