Kavanot: פרשת לך לך תשע״ז

Thoughts on Tanach and the Davening

Today I want to talk about camels. I spoke to Rabbi Shulman about this, and he said he had only one thought on them:

What do you say when a camel falls on you?

(תהלים יג:ו) אשירה ליהוה כי גמל עלי׃

But there’s a big problem with camels:

ולאברם היטיב בעבורה; ויהי לו צאן ובקר וחמרים ועבדים ושפחת ואתנת וגמלים׃

בראשית יב:טז

Abraham was born according to סדר עולם, in 1948 from creation (or 1811 BCE), so our story is about 1736 BCE. But camels weren’t domesticated in the Middle East until 800 years later:

In Genesis 32, a few verses after Jacob’s dramatic meeting with the angels is described, we learn that he sent gifts to his brother Esau. Along with “two hundred she-goats and twenty he-goats,” there are “thirty milch camels and their colts.” The mention of camels in Genesis—here and in the Abraham and Joseph sagas—is an anachronism well known to the science of archaeology. It is, by the same token, one of the decisive proofs that the Bible was written hundreds of years after the events it narrates. All the archaeological evidence suggests that, even if there were historical characters named Jacob and Esau, they were not familiar with the humped animal, or at least not as a pack animal. The reason is that in the period of the patriarchs, there were no domesticated camels in the Land of Israel or the surrounding region.

The study, which was conducted by Dr. Lidar Sapir-Hen and Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef, suggests that the oldest camel bones found in Israel are those from the copper mines in Timna, which lies north of today’s Eilat. An examination of the layers in which the bones were found, and no less important, of the layers in which no bones were found, shows that the camel was first introduced into the southern Levant in the last third of the 10th century BCE.

HaAretz, Jan. 17, 2014, Hump Stump Solved: Camels Arrived in Region Much Later Than Biblical Reference

For the decidedly secular HaAretz and other media, that’s a feature, not a bug. The Torah isn’t true, anyway:

“If the Biblical writers are not interested in the facts, but rather in getting a message across, then people of faith can concentrate, instead of trying to verify every last item in the Bible, on what the overall message of the story is, not whether it is historically true or not.”

Case closed.

Time Magazine Feb. 11, 2014, Elizabeth Dias, The Mystery of the Bible’s Phantom Camels

I have to admit, this bothered me. A lot. There are a few ways of reconciling this dilemma. Rabbi Shulman suggested that perhaps גמל doesn’t mean literally “camel” but any pack animal. That seems too radical to me. The other answer is that ”absence of evidence is not evidence of absence“. Just because no one has found camel bones from ancient Israel doesn’t automatically mean that nobody had them.

After some research, it turns out that my problem isn’t that great:

There seems to be general agreement among experts about the domestication of the one-humped camel or dromedary—possibly in Somalia—sometime during the third millenium BCE…

It is a curious fact, in this regard, that as far as the Levantine countries are concerned, the camel does not appear to have played a very significant role either as a herding animal or as a transport animal until after 1400 BCE.

Oystein S. LaBianca, Subsistence Pastoralism, in Near Eastern Archaeology: A Reader (2003), Suzanne Richard, ed. pp. 120-121

So camels had been domesticated long before Abraham, just not commonplace in Canaan. So it’s likely the inhabitants knew about camels, even if they didn’t use them. Somalia (and the Asian steppes, for the Bactrian camels, domesticated about the same time) isn’t that far away. It gives us a different perspective on what it means when Pharaoh gave Abraham camels: not as a pack animal but as an exotic gift.

That helps explain Eliezer’s actions when he goes to find a wife for Isaac:

ויקח העבד עשרה גמלים מגמלי אדניו וילך וכל טוב אדניו בידו; ויקם וילך אל ארם נהרים אל עיר נחור׃

בראשית כד:י

וכל טוב אדוניו בידו: שטר מתנה כתב ליצחק על כל אשר לו, כדי שיקפצו לשלוח לו בתם

רש״י, שם

Note that the camels are not laden with כל טוב אדוני; compare (בראשית מה:כג)‎ ולאביו שלח כזאת עשרה חמרים נשאים מטוב מצרים. I would say they were brought as examples of Abraham’s wealth.

And that’s why Eliezer had to take care of the camels himself:

לא ויאמר בוא ברוך ה׳; למה תעמד בחוץ ואנכי פניתי הבית ומקום לגמלים׃ לב ויבא האיש הביתה ויפתח הגמלים; ויתן תבן ומספוא לגמלים ומים לרחץ רגליו ורגלי האנשים אשר אתו׃

בראשית כד

And I think that’s the way we have to look at archeological data. It’s very rare to get an archeological find that directly impacts our understanding of תנ״ך. The only thing I can think of is from the Artscroll Beit HaMikdash, discussing the size of an אמה. The Mishna says the gateways were 10 אמות wide, and Barclay’s Gate is 226 inches, so an אמה must be 22.6 inches. And that isn’t even תנ״ך; it’s much later.

The evidence from 3000 years ago is very limited. All we can do is make assumptions about the culture as a whole, and see how that affects our reading.

We think of Biblical hermeneutics with a four-fold model: פרדס.‎ As I understand it, these “levels” of reading depend on what we bring into it. פשט is how we read the text locally, as if all we had was the one book in front of us. רמז is reading תנ״ך as a whole, bringing other books into our understanding of this one. דרש is reading text with an awareness of all of תורה שבעל פה, and סוד is reading it with an awareness of what we call קבלה.

The archeological record gives us a fifth way of understanding. But it is fraught with risk. Given how limited the record is, we have to make too many assumptions about how people lived their lives and end up making too many guesses. David Macaulay wrote a book, Motel of the Mysteries satirizing this. In 4022 an archeologist uncovers the ruins of what he decides is a royal burial complex, with individual chambers, each with a ceremonial platform and holy altar and other artifacts. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that the “tomb” is a cheap motel, the ubiquitous “altar” is a television set, the “sacred urn with water music” is a toilet. It’s a humbling reminder that we don’t know as much as we think we do.

Still, using ideas from “outside” to explain the Torah has a history going back to the Talmud:

והיה לאות על ידכה ולטוטפת בין עיניך; כי בחזק יד הוציאנו ה׳ ממצרים׃

שמות יג:טז

ר״ע אומר…טט בכתפי שתים פת באפריקי שתים

סנהדרין ד,ב

Soncino suggests that these languages are Coptic and Phygrian. Why those two languages is beyond our discussion, but there’s an amusing story in Herodotus:

Now before Psammetichus became king of Egypt, the Egyptians believed that they were the oldest people on earth. But ever since Psammetichus became king and wished to find out which people were the oldest, they have believed that the Phrygians were older than they, and they than everybody else. Psammetichus…devised a plan by which he took two newborn children of the common people and gave them to a shepherd to bring up among his flocks. He gave instructions that no one was to speak a word in their hearing…because he wanted to hear what speech would first come from the children…[After two years] both children ran to him stretching out their hands and calling “Bekos!” as he opened the door and entered…Psammetichus then heard them himself, and asked to what language the word “Bekos” belonged; he found it to be a Phrygian word, signifying bread. Reasoning from this, the Egyptians acknowledged that the Phrygians were older than they.

Herodotus, The Histories, 2:2

And Rashi himself used assumptions about local culture to explain the Torah:

והלבשת אתם את אהרן אחיך ואת בניו אתו; ומשחת אתם ומלאת את ידם וקדשת אתם וכהנו לי׃

שמות כח:מא

ומלאת את ידם: כל מלוי ידים לשון חינוך, כשהוא נכנס לדבר להיות מוחזק בו מאותו יום והלאה, ובלשון לע״ז כשממנין אדם אל פקידת דבר נותן השליט בידו בית יד של עור, ועל ידו הוא מחזיק בדבר וקורין לאותו מסירה ריוסטי״ר, והוא מלוי ידים.

רש״י, שם
ריוסטי״ר is old French revestir, modern French revêtir, ”don, gird“.
4. to furnish with power, authority, rank, etc.
11. to clothe, attire, or dress.

[From] Medieval Latin investīre to install, invest (money), surround, clothe in, Latin: to clothe in, equivalent to in- in-2 + vestīre to clothe, derivative of vestis garment.


Archeology can help explain rare words in תנ״ך:

יט וחרש לא ימצא בכל ארץ ישראל; כי אמר (אמרו) פלשתים פן יעשו העברים חרב או חנית׃ כ וירדו כל ישראל הפלשתים ללטוש איש את מחרשתו ואת אתו ואת קרדמו ואת מחרשתו׃ כא והיתה הפצירה פים למחרשת ולאתים ולשלש קלשון ולהקרדמים; ולהציב הדרבן׃

שמואל א פרק יג

What does פים mean?

Yet they had a file for the mattocks, and for the coulters, and for the forks, and for the axes, and to sharpen the goads.

I Samuel 13: 21, King James Version

והיתה הפצירה פים למחרשות: והיתה להם לאותם שהיה להם טורח לרדת אל הפלשתים ללטוש היתה הפציר׳ פים לימ״א בלע״ז שיש לה הפצר פיות כלומר פיות וחידודי׳ הרבה היתה להם לחדד המחרשת והאתים

רש״י, שם

Why would the navi need to tell us that they sharpened tools with a file?

החל מתחילת המאה העשרים, מאז חפירת הארכיאולוג הבריטי מקאליסטר בתל גזר (חפירה שהחלה ב-1902 ונתפרסמה ב-1912) ועד עתה, התגלו בחפירות הארכיאולוגיות בארץ אבני משקל רבות ומטילי כסף, ועליהם כתוב באותיות עבריות עתיקות ”פים“. שקילתן של הללו (שנתגלו באזור יהודה) העלתה שמשקלן הממוצע הוא 7.6 גרמים. דהיינו ”פים“ = שני שליש שקל (שמשקלו בארץ ישראל בתקופת הבית הראשון כ-11.4 גרם).

הרב אלחנן סמט

פים here is the price, emphasizing that the Israelites had to pay the Philistines to use their iron tools.

And there’s another interesting link to archeology in our parasha (from the underappreciated Hertz Chumash):

ויהי בימי אמרפל מלך שנער אריוך מלך אלסר; כדרלעמר מלך עילם ותדעל מלך גוים׃

בראשית יד:א

Who was this אמרפל? The king of שנער, which we have seen before:

א ויהי כל הארץ שפה אחת ודברים אחדים׃ ב ויהי בנסעם מקדם; וימצאו בקעה בארץ שנער וישבו שם׃

בראשית פרק יא

And we know its first king:

ח וכוש ילד את נמרד; הוא החל להיות גבר בארץ׃ ט הוא היה גבר ציד לפני ה׳; על כן יאמר כנמרד גבור ציד לפני ה׳׃ י ותהי ראשית ממלכתו בבל וארך ואכד וכלנה בארץ שנער׃

בראשית פרק י

אמרפל: הוא נמרוד שאמר לאברהם פול לתוך כבשן האש.

רש״י, בראשית יד:א

So אמרפל is midrashically identified with נמרוד, the first king in Biblical history. And Hertz connects him to the phonetically similar Hammurabi, in the phonetically similar Sumer:

Hammurabi (c. 1810 BC - 1750 BC) was the sixth king of the First Babylonian Dynasty, reigning from 1792 BC to 1750 BC (according to the Middle Chronology). He was preceded by his father, Sin-Muballit, who abdicated due to failing health. He extended Babylon’s control throughout Mesopotamia through military campaigns. Hammurabi is known for the Code of Hammurabi, one of the earliest surviving codes of law in recorded history. The name Hammurabi derives from the Amorite term ʻAmmurāpi (“the kinsman is a healer”), itself from ʻAmmu (“paternal kinsman”) and Rāpi (“healer”).

Wikipedia, Hammurabi

Whether we accept that Hammurabi was Amrapel, looking at the Code of Hammurabi as the dominant source of law in the ancient Middle East helps us understand some events in the Torah:

ד ויבא אל הגר ותהר; ותרא כי הרתה ותקל גברתה בעיניה׃ ה ותאמר שרי אל אברם חמסי עליך אנכי נתתי שפחתי בחיקך ותרא כי הרתה ואקל בעיניה; ישפט ה׳ ביני וביניך׃ ו ויאמר אברם אל שרי הנה שפחתך בידך עשי לה הטוב בעיניך; ותענה שרי ותברח מפניה׃

בראשית פרק טז

146 If a man take a wife and she give a maid servant to her husband, and that maid servant bear children and afterwards would take rank with her mistress; because she has borne children, her mistress may not sell her for money, but she may reduce her to bondage and count her among the maid servants.

The Code of Hammurabi

לח זה עשרים שנה אנכי עמך רחליך ועזיך לא שכלו; ואילי צאנך לא אכלתי׃ לט טרפה לא הבאתי אליך אנכי אחטנה מידי תבקשנה; גנבתי יום וגנבתי לילה׃

בראשית פרק לא

261 If a man hire a herdsman to pasture oxen or sheep, he shall pay him 8 GUR of grain per year.

266 If a visitation of god happen to a fold, or a lion kill, the shepherd shall declare himself innocent before god, and the owner of the fold shall suffer the damage.

The Code of Hammurabi

And even some otherwise strange halachot:

כט ואם שור נגח הוא מתמל שלשם והועד בבעליו ולא ישמרנו והמית איש או אשה השור יסקל וגם בעליו יומת׃ ל אם כפר יושת עליו ונתן פדין נפשו ככל אשר יושת עליו׃ לא או בן יגח או בת יגח כמשפט הזה יעשה לו׃

שמות פרק כא

229 If a builder build a house for a man and do not make its construction firm, and the house which he has built collapse and cause the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.

230 If it cause the death of a son of the owner of the house, they shall put to death a son of that builder.

The Code of Hammurabi

Rabbi Hertz puts it poetically:

Once again we have seen that the words of the Psalmist, “truth shall spring from the earth”, have become literally fulfilled; and the very stones of the Euphrates and Tigris valleys have given their decisive testimony in vindication of the Torah.

Hertz Chumash p. 406

I’m more cynical, but there are times that our knowledge (or, more realistically, our assumptions) about history and culture can shed light on our understanding of the Torah itself.