Monday, February 07, 2011

Benjamin cries for Shilo, and I make a point about midrashim

Note: The post has been modified to take into account some excellent points made in the comments. To eliminate confusion some comments have been deleted.

When Joseph and his brothers are reunited, Genesis tells us that Benjamin and Joseph cried on one another's necks. On the spot, Rashi says they were crying because of something that would occur in the future: Joseph for the two destroyed Temples that stood in Benjamin's territory, and Benjamin for the shrine in Shilo that stood in the territory of Joseph's son Ephraim. For his source, Rashi cites the Talmud, which in turn is likely based on older material.

Elsewhere on the Internet some regard this as a historical event and wonder why Benjamin would cry for Shilo. After all, the plan had always been to replace Shiloh at some point with something permanent. So why cry?

Though the question is also asked by some achronim, I think it is a misguided line of inquiry. Midrashim such as this aren't history. They are interpretations. More than two-thousands years ago, someone noticed that only Benjamin and Joseph were said to cry on each others necks. When Joseph greets his other brothers, the verse tells us only that he cried. Necks are not mentioned. To an ancient interpreter operating under the (possibly correct) assumption that the Torah is cryptic and that every word signifies some special meaning the inconsistent mention of necks cried out for interpretation. And because the Song of Songs also speaks of necks in a way that had already suggested to some other interpreter that the usage was intended as an allegory for the Temple the seemingly unnecessary mention of the word necks in Genesis was interpreted in the same way.

I don't believe this interpreter was trying to tell us a historical fact, nor do I think any muser message was intended. I think he was simply trying to provide some justification for what he took as an anomaly. Therefore follow-up questions such as the one mentioned above miss the point, and commit what is rightly called a genre error. Benjamin shed tears when he saw his brother, but he never really cried for Shilo. The assertion that he did is not history, nor was it intended to be presented as history. It is simply an invention of an ancient interpreter who was puzzled by the mention of the word necks. Asking questions on his invention, as if it was a fact of history, and not a solution to a perceived anomaly, is nothing so much as building sand castles on clouds.

Two Others Lines of Naked Speculation 

 -- When was the interpretation of Benjamin's crying first publicized? I don't know and haven't been able to trace it. But if its very old, perhaps it predates the idea that Shiloh was intended to be temporary, an idea that itself is likely an interpretation (I say likely because I haven't yet taken the time to trace the history of that idea either. As I say, this is all naked speculations).

But bear with me: Let's say that when Shiloh was first built people presumed it was "the place that God had chosen" and that no future move was needed. Perhaps the idea that Shiloh was, from day 1, intended to be temporary was invented as a theological explanation for the contingent facts of history only after Shiloh was destroyed, and after David chose a new place. The people might have said, "How can David do this if Shiloh was the place God chose?" To which the reply might have been "Shilo was only a temporary place. David has selected the real place. "

If so (and I am still speculating here) perhaps the interpreter who said "Benjamin was crying for Shilo" came before the interpreter who said "Shilo was from Day 1 a temporary structure".  If so (still with me?) the question discussed above is a dead end.

With the help of God I shall research this and report back.

--Often an interpreter has another biblical event in mind when he explains the passage in front of him. On a hunch, I Googled "Benjamin cry Shiloh" and came up with Samuel 4:13ff:
And there ran a man of Benjamin out of the army and came to Shiloh the same day with his clothes rent and with earth upon his head... And when the man came into the city and told it all the city cried out
Was the interpreter thinking of this when he wrote about Benjamin crying for Shiloh? Perhaps. Points in its favor are the use of the words Benjamin and Shiloh. Points against include the word "cry" which here is not the same verb that is used in Genesis. Also, arguing against this suggestion is my failure to find a parallel verse about Joseph. I could not find any mention of a "man from Joseph," (or Ephraim, or Menashe) crying or being the cause of crying about Jerusalem.  The closest I came was Jeremiah 31:6
There will be a day when watchmen cry out on the hills of Ephraim, 'Come, let us go up to Zion, to the LORD our God.'
Here the verb is also wrong, and the crying is not connected to mourning or destruction. But perhaps the crying interpretation, as it was originally constructed, did not suggest tears of grief?  If I am able to discover where the crying interpretation was first articulated, perhaps the language and context there will confirm or defeat this idea.

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