Wednesday, November 03, 2010

An invitation to a Bar Mitzvah reminds me of what I presume was the first anti-IDF drasha

@sarahnadav passed along this great Bar Mitzvah invitation, and naturally I came up with a stupid question....

At around @1:10 Esav menaces his brother with a iron sword. Is this historically accurate? Would Esav have been carrying such a weapon? Background from Wikipedia:
The Iron Age in the Ancient Near East is believed to have begun with the discovery of iron smelting and smithing techniques in Anatolia or the Caucasus and Balkans in the late 2nd millennium BC (circa 1300 BC).[16] However, this theory has been challenged by the emergence of those placing the transition in price and availability issues rather than the development of technology on its own.
Therefore, the swords mentioned throughout Genesis, including the one Esav is said to "live by" are presumably bronze age swords,  imagined to be long, modified daggers.

However, there's a glitch: As @gldmeier pointed out the Bible identifies Tubal Cain as a skilled metal worker (see Vulcan or Hephaestus). The metals the verse says he used are נְחֹ֖שֶׁת וּבַרְזֶ֑ל, usually translated as "bronze and iron" (though some take it as copper and brass). So was Esav a man of the Iron Age or not?

I don't know the answer, but the conversation did remind me of an interesting drasha, one that was used for political purposes.

1 Samuel 19 tells us that the Philistines enjoyed a technological advantage over Saul's forces.
וְחָרָשׁ֙ לֹ֣א יִמָּצֵ֔א בְּכֹ֖ל אֶ֣רֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל
Not a blacksmith could be found in the whole land of Israel, because the Philistines had said, “Otherwise the Hebrews will make swords or spears!”
In the days of Saul the method for extracting ore and turning it into weapons was not well known; and the Philistines, apparently, were able to keep this knowledge out of Israelite hands. (As with nuclear secrets and Iraq) To a Christian reading this verse centuries later, however, the idea that Israel had no blacksmiths was quite incomprehensible: How could the ancient Israelites have lacked something so commonplace? (Likewise, we Jews might wonder why the secret of working with was withheld from the Gedolim of Saul's era.)

Gregory the Great (c500s) cleverly solved the problem, in what was something of a self-serving way.

Like other darshanim of his time and place, Gregory presumed that difficult verses contained hidden teachings. Instead of reading 1 Samuel 19 as a statement of fact ("There was no blacksmith in Israel") he read it as an imperative: "A blacksmith must not be found in Israel!" The difference? Continued Gregory: The verse shows that we're not prepared for battle with secular wisdom, but through divine wisdom, and God's people do not do battle "with art of secular learning." (How to Read the Bible, Kugel)

Gregory, however, was no proto-Charedi. He went on to argue that although secular books and secular wisdom were worthless in spiritual battles, they could be used to round out the study of Scripture. Moshe, he pointed out, had a good education, [See this] and he acquired this education prior to pursuing spiritual studies. Therefore, secular books had a purpose. They could be used as a tool

This was lucky for Gregory. See, he "discovered" this hidden teaching in 1 Samuel 19 at a time when the Christian world was trying to decide if the secular Latin books inherited from the Romans were worth keeping. Gregory said they were, and, naturally, used this drasha to help make his case.

Search for more information about Gregory the Great at


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