Tag Archives: midrash

Egyptian Religion in Rabbinic texts

Rivka Ulmer, Egyptian Cultural Icons in Midrash (New York: Walter de Gruyter 2009)

I just read the work and I liked her collection of materials. There is an article by Gideon Bohak on some of the same materials that I am trying unsuccessfully to get via ILL. Ulmer was interested in everything culturally Egyptian, I am only interested in the religion aspects. The translations below are hers and the rest are selections and summaries of what she concluded. All knowledge of Egypt is hers.

Egyptian religion in Jewish thought goes back to the bible itself and the rabbinic homilies on the biblical verses. The Bible paints Egypt as having magicians, priests, and many false Gods. The rabbinic texts looked to their contemporary Egypt of the first centuries to flesh out the Biblical account.

The rabbinic texts consider the Nile to have been one of Egypt’s gods. “Pharaoh and the Egyptians worshiped the Nile. Therefore, God said that he would smite their god first” (Exod. Rab. 9:9). In rabbinic texts, Joseph in his coffin was thrown by the magicians into the Nile on which it floated. This is similar with the ceremonies which feature Osiris’ body.

The Nile’s annual overflow is expanded as “…because this is the manner of the Nile it increases and it deceases, and the ministers (sarim) go and celebrate at the river, and it is to them like a festival of idolaters.” Pesiq. Zut (Lekah Tov) Gen. 39,:

According to Rivka Ulmer, the Egyptian term for the overflow of the Nile is Hapy (h pj), which is a divine figure, is the personification of the overflow, which brings abundance and prosperity to Egypt. In the later Roman era, there was a new concept of one Nile god, Neilos. “The rabbis assumed that the Egyptians worshiped the Nile. However, the transformation of the Nile into a divinity with a major cult transpired only during the Greco-Roman period. Prior to this era…fecundity figures related to the Nile” overflow… “were not major gods.”

The “Nile festival,” mentioned in rabbinic texts is very akin to the Egyptian Opet festival. According to Ulmer, the “people joined in a dramatic procession honoring Amun that commenced at the Karnak Temple and ended at the Luxor Temple.” The midrash offers a glimpse into both types of worship in Roman Egypt. A worship festival to Nelios and a dramatic procession to Amun.

It came to pass on a certain day, when he went into the house to do his work (Gen. 39:11). [R. Judah and R. Nehemiah, each has his own explanation of this]. R. Judah said: [On that day] there was a day of idolatrous sacrifice to the Nile; everyone went to see it, but he [Joseph] did not go. R. Nehemiah said: It was a day of a theatrical performance, which all went to see, but he went into the house to work on his master’s accounts.

Amulets with Serapis, the Egyptian-Hellanistic deity, and his consort Isis as well as representations of Isis lactans (Isis as a breastfeeding mother) were prevalent in late antiquity and there are numerous depictions and cameos from the Roman era depicting Isis and Serapis together. The mishnah warns against objects with “the image of a breastfeeding woman or of Serapis.”

Rabbinic texts acknowledged that the Bible may still be using terms from the Egyptian language as a means by which the God of the Israelites displaced the Egyptian gods. The best example is the Hebrew word Anokhi as the first word of the ten commandments in is associated with the Egyptian ANKH, the symbol for eternal life possessed by all deities.

R. Nehemiah said, What is anokhi (ex 20:2)? It is an Egyptijan word. Why did God find it necessary to use an Egyptian word? Consider the story of a king of flesh and blood whose son had been captured. The son spent many years among his captors, until the king, full of vengeance, went to free his son, brought him back, and then found he had to talk with him in the captor’s language. So it was with the Holy One blessed be He; Israel had spent all the years of their servitude in Egypt where they learned the Egyptian language. Finally, when the Holy One redeemed them and came to give them the Torah, they could not understand it. So the Holy One said: I will speak to them in their captor’s speech therefore, the Holy One used the word anokhi (‘nky),which is a form of the Egyptian “nwk so that the Holy One began His inauguration of the giving of the Torah with Israel’s acquired way of speaking;’ I am (anokhi(nky) the Lord, your God. Pesiq. Rab. Kah 12:24

In some rabbinic texts, Egypt has become more of a typology for assimilation or immorality than a real place. Egypt was perceived as the ultimate rejection of one’s heritage and the return from Egypt was a return to the people Israel. Joseph and Moses were used as exemplars of both he process of assimilation and the process of return.

The Bahir, The Shepherd of Hermas, and Kabbalah

Once upon a time when Prof Twersky of Harvard was holding conferences on the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, someone commented to me that we need conferences on the 7th, 8th, and 9th, centuries. There is a sense that much would be gained if you put those that work on Kabbalah and those that work on late midrash in a room together, new connections would be found.  Some have noted in my Zohar review the passing references to Philo of Alexandria and Shiite thought.  What I could not include in the Forward review is any discussion of the use of extended narrative of late antiquity in these Zohar volumes such as the role of Sefer Hayashar – Chronicle of Yerachmiel nor the history of the traditions of Moses as king and warrior in Ethiopia from the Chronicle of Moses. Nor did I mention the alchemy. Much of this was already noted by Moses Gaster, Louis Ginzburg, Adolphe Jellinek and others.

What the Pritzker edition lacks is any greater context than early Andalusian Kabbalah. When Midrash is added to the footnotes it is from CD-Rom and Margaliot’s comments on the Zohar not as an actual useful comparison.  Or when there is a footnote to the messianic battles of Nistarot of Rabbi Shimon – the footnote does not make one aware of the half a dozen different versions composed over 500 years  or which version does the Zohar seem to know. The version in Jellinek? the one edited by Bernard Lewis? Nor are the sources in Ashkenaz material sufficiently noted.

Yet,  there are the connections that allude almost anyone in Jewish studies. For example, At this year’s SBL there was a paper on The Shepard of Hermes and thanks to a write up on Mystical Politics, there was a tentative connection to the Kabbalah.

The third paper in the session was “The Tower as Divine Body: Visions and Theurgy in the Shepherd of Hermas,” presented by Franklin Trammell. The abstract of his paper reads:

Behind some of the visions and teachings in the Shepherd of Hermas lies the notion of a direct correspondence between the heart of the righteous and the androgynous divine body. This body is presented by Hermas as a sevenfold Tower that is in the process of being (re)built by (re)incorporating the feminine Ecclesia. Members of the Ecclesia, who are pure of heart, are clothed with twelve virgins and receive the seal of the Son of God, representing the female and male aspects of the body. They then affect the reintegration of this female aspect, being built into the eschatological Tower as a part of her. Hermas’ law of purity therefore plays an incredibly important theurgic role. In identifying the Tower with the Ecclesia, itself implicitly assimilated in the text to Sophia, the author portrays those who do not sin after baptism as participating in the (re)unification of pre-existent Wisdom. It is this process along with elements related to it that shares affinities with later Jewish mystical sources.

I found this talk fascinating, especially since I’ve never read the Shepherd of Hermas. I found particularly interesting the possible connections to Sefer ha-Bahir that he mentioned.

What is the Shepard of Hermes?From wiki

The Shepherd of Hermas (sometimes just called The Shepherd) is a Christian literary work of the second century, considered a valuable book by many Christians, and considered canonical scripture by some of the early Church fathers. The Shepherd had great authority in the second and third centuries.

Here is the text and an Intro.

Shlomo Pines and other have noted the early references to Kabbalistic esotericsm in Patristics. But few look to works to books left out of Patristics like the Shepard of Hermes. Theses books give  insight into the thought of centuries like the second century, where we know little of the rabbinic worldview outside of the Tannaic works.

Pesikta deRav Kahana

Speaking of Kalir, piyyutim, repentance, and angelology, when Prof. Isadore Twersky was having conferences on the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries at Harvard, an academic friend suggested that we need conferences on the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries. The world of Pirke deRabbi, Midrash Mishlei, Yannai, the start of the Baghdad Gaonate and Alphabet of Ben-Sira. A world that is very dissimilar the world of the Tannaim and Babylonian Talmud. This is the world of anthropomorphism, and corporeality, and the texts that the Jewish philosophers were uncomfortable with accepting.

So I was glad to see that a new book in the library- Rachael Anisfeld,: Sustain Me With Raisin-Cakes: Pesikta deRav Kahana and the Popularization of Rabbinic Judaism. The book is literary-historical and not theological. I will leave it to the Talmudists to evaluate its value for the study of rabbinics.

She shows how Leviticus Rabbah and Pesikta deRav Kahana (PRK) are not the same as Tannaic Midrash. (The book should have also had Leviticus Rabbah in the title.)

She uses as her example that the content shows a God who is more intimate with humans, and shows a special indulgence for the people Israel. For example, repentance is about God moving from his seat of judgment to his seat of mercy and less about personal repentance. Even when repentance is discussed, God does everything in his power to exonerate Israel.

The homilies are in a personal and familial voice  – less exegetical

Since the book is literary, it does not develop these themes. There is still much to gain for a theological reader from Neusner’s volume on PRK and Arthur Marmorstein Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God.

She has a chart on the difference in technical terms between Tannaic midrash and Amoraic midrash. Some of the striking numbers are

Talmud lomar “Scripture teaches” 4504 times in Tannaic Midrash to 13 times in amoraic midrah. They are not directly interpreting Scripture.

On the other hand, phrases of direct communication by God increase.  There is knowledge from speaking in Gods name and directly invoking God. “The Holy One Blessed be He said” 36  in tannaic to 343 in amoraic.

The book does not offer an overview of the many other themes in PRK such as the longing to rebuild temple, visions of the end of days, revenge on the gentiles, and God himself needing to be saved

Hence, I am looking forward to reading the following article when the Fishbane Festschrift arrives in the library.

Marc Hirshman, “Yearning for intimacy: Pesikta d’Rav Kahana and the Temple”

pp. 135-146(12) Scriptural Exegesis: The Shapes of Culture and the Religious Imagination: Essays in Honour of Michael Fishbane

This chapter examines the ambience of the Pesikta d’Rav Kahana and its objectives by paying close attention to some of the Greek loanwords it uses and, more generally, to the nature of the language it employs in parables when speaking of the temple and the degree of intimacy indicated between God and Israel. The Pesikta d’Rav Kahana throbs with a longing for God’s presence in the temple. The longing for restoration is accompanied by a strong desire for retribution on the nations of the world, a motif that is a staple of most, if not all, of the piskaot. The king parables are employed to indicate God’s desire for a place (papilion) where intimacy with Israel is assured and secure. God secures a place among the Jewish elders, abandoning the angels above (sunkleten), in order to guide the discussion of calendar, the heart of the Pesikta’s concern.