Sunday, May 20, 2012

Anti-Pagan Motif in B'reshit

I am reading Moshe Greenberg's translation of Yehezkel Kaufmann's work, Religion of Israel. Part of Kaufmann's thesis is that the Jewish Bible contains within it a strong anti-pagan polemical element. I have found an excellent example of this motif in the aftermath of Avraham's battle against the four kings. I hope to be able to verify the following (someday, when I have more time), but in the meantime, I leave it as a strong possibility.

A curious literary dance occurs as Malki Zedek, the king of Shalem, priest to El Elyon, comes out to greet Avraham. The Torah emphasizes the god of Malki Zedek three times in three sequential verses, as El Elyon, translated roughly as god-most-high:

"Malki Zedek, king of Shalem, brought bread and wine (he was priest of El Elyon); He blessed him and said, 'Blessed be Avram by El Elyon, founder of heaven and earth; and blessed is El Elyon, who delivered your enemies into your hands,' and offered a tithe of everything." (Gen. 14:18-20)

The Torah first describes the king as priest to El Elyon, and twice, the king himself blesses Avraham in El Elyon's name. Now, the midrash identifies Shalem with Jerusalem, and Malki Zedek with Shem, son of Noah. Additionally, El Elyon is identified as an appelation for God, the God of the Bible. 'Shalem' is actually present in the name ירושלם, Yeru-shalem, and, as this is the most imporant city-state in Canaan, the association seems to work well.

However, the matching of El Elyon with the Jewish conception of God seems less convincing. For, one short verse later, Avram responds: "'I raise my hand to God [the tetragrammaton], El Elyon, founder of heaven and earth...'" If it were true that Malki Zedek's 'El Elyon' refers to the same God as that of Avraham, what need would Avraham find in repeating verbatim, in the same conversation, the preamble of Malki Zedek? Avraham seems to be correcting a mistake; he seems to be making a point pregnant with theological significance.

'El', while used as a general name for any god in Semitic languages, was also the proper name for the chief god of the Canaanite pantheon (citation). With this fact in mind, it becomes quite possible that this primary god would be the special representative and protector of the most important city-state of Canaan. Thus Malki Zedek, as king of Shalem, would become closely associated with El Elyon (literally, El, the most high god), as high priest of El Elyon's cult. In line with Malki Zedek's statment, El was seen as the god who fashioned heaven and earth. (In general, pagan mythologies view the world as being created by a god who fashions it out of one of various primordial materials (depending on the specific myth). Paganism is essentially a monistic world-view in which both gods and mankind function under an overarching backdrop of a spiritual-mystical rule-set which functions autonomously within matter, separate from gods and man. Kaufmann defines paganism as, "...the idea that there is no supreme divine will that governs all. The rule of the gods is ultimately grounded on the mysterious forces that inhere in matter, in a realm which lies outside them." (Religion of Israel p 32) The gods are controlled by fate and magic, operating directly upon the fabric of the universe, which is outside the realm of the gods. Monotheism breaks with this view by positing the Creator as one who functions completely independently and is in total control of everything.)

If we accept the foregoing, it becomes evident that Malki Zedek (whom we will no longer identify with Shem, obviously), after seeing the victory of Avraham, comes as high priest of the most high god of the land, to praise his god and, through him, Avraham. He declares that the victory stemmed from the aid and divine influence of El Elyon, a proper noun, literally the name of his patron high god.

Avraham immediately understands Malki Zedek's speech as praise for the pagan cult of El Elyon. Avraham recognizes the friendliness and brotherhood extended by Malki Zedek, but also the implicit and explicit invocation of the pagan dogma. He transforms this moment into yet another chance to gain a victory in his war against idolatry and his evangelism of monotheism in the form of the one God. Immediately notable in Avraham's speech is that he qualifies the name of the deity, pre-pending to it the name of the Abrahamic God. He says, 'I swear not by the proper noun, not by the god named 'El Elyon', but rather by the tetragrammaton, the God who is the creator of everything, and the only God. I use the term 'El Elyon' as an adjectival phrase, describing the only God - the God who is highest over everything, and who is (in the words of Kaufmann) subject to no powers that transcend him.'

Avraham's critique is subtle, precise and appealing. In just a few words, it sums up an entire world-view, and at the same time, provides an eloquent example of the general anti-idolatry motif in the book of B'reshit.

However, this lesson is not a simple one. Even the father of monotheism at times struggles with it, so steeped is the world around him in paganism. For in the very next chapter, 15, Avraham learns from God himself the lesson of God's complete control over the fabric of the universe.

Before discussing the content of chapter 15, it is important to recognize by what right we relate two separate chapters, divided by אחר הדברים האלה, ostensibly a division and mark of a new topic. Upon closer examination, however, the end of chapter 14 and the beginning of chapter 15 are linked linguistically by the use of the Hebrew root מ.ג.נ. Malki Zedek uses this root in 14:20 in the piel form when he declares that El Elyon 'delivered - מיגן' Avraham's enemies into his hands. In 15:1, God uses it in the qal form to assure Avraham that God 'protects - מגן' over Avraham. This root appears only one other time in all of the Torah, in D'varim. Its use in such close proximity in our chapters, four short verses apart, with only the vowelization differentiating the two divergent meanings, is undoubtedly meant to link the two chapters and events in a reader's mind. (This is a literary technique used by the Torah to couple divided narratives, as we discussed here.)

While bemoaning his childlessness, Avraham says to God, "What can you give me? I go childless..." (v 2). It seems almost as if Avraham is resigned to a world in which he is doomed to be barren. Avraham describes his lack of progeny as a passive fate. It is not necessarily God who has decided that he be without, but perhaps the fateful realm above the pagan deities. In the next verse, Avraham recants somewhat, evidently remembering his monotheism, saying, "to me, You have not given seed." Avraham admits that God is the source of the curse. However, he still does not make a request that God change his fate; he still accepts as a fact that he will not have children. Perhaps he does not yet recognize that God can change this. His despair places Avraham in a depressed, myopic state, and these verses exude gloom.

They dynamic, active and all-powerful God shakes Avraham out of his melancholy. In verse 5, "God took him outside, and said, 'look to the sky and count the stars!'". God calls Avraham to an active role, and in doing so, dispels the notion of blind fate actively running things against a passive deity or man. Avraham's depression and belief in fate is tied by the midrash to paganism: God castigates Avraham: "צא מאצגננותך - Leave your astrological divinations!" Perhaps through your pagan tools to divine your fate, you see that you are destined to be without children. However, I am God, in total control of the world, and I promise you children as numerous as the stars of the heaven!

Thus the beginning of chapter 15 acts as a fitting end to the story in chapter 14. Connected by a rare Hebrew root, the stories beg to be read together. And what is the message of chapter 15? That even Avraham, he who reached monotheism on the strength of his intellectual powers alone, still struggles with the vestiges of the pagan creed on an emotional level. It takes God to arouse him out of his attempts to divine the future through magic and omens. It takes an actual experience, an actual encounter with God, to cleanse the pinnacle of mankind of traces of idolatry. Perhaps even if we accept R' Saadia Gaon's opinion that the truth can be reached by reason alone, we are left with the emotional dimension of man that can only be set completely straight by revelation.




Carefully constructed and artfully articulated, your cogent essay provides delightful new insight into the character and mission of our esteemed progenitor, the father of monotheism.

Yishar Kohakha!



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