Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How can we be certain?

As you may remember, Genesis 24 tells the story of Abrahm's servant and his journey to Haran without ever giving us his name: He's always called the "man" or the "servant". According to the Sages, the man/servant is Demessek Eliezer, the person identified in Genesis 15:2 as the steward (Ben Meshek) of Abraham's house.  Demessek Eliezer is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible.

Most of the Orthodox Jews I know are 100 percent certain that Demessek Eliezer was the man who found Rebecca. Some are not aware that the Torah fails to state this outright.  To them we "know" it was Eliezer, case closed, though some of the more thoughtful ones will puzzle over why the Torah chose not to state this outright.

I come at this question, and others like it, from a different perspective. Unlike my friends, I posses no certainty that the servant is Eliezer;  indeed I'm not even certain that the Sages were certain. Instead, I hold that the view that Eliezer was the servant is an interpretation, and like all interpretations it was created by men, at some moment in time, to achieve some purpose or solve some difficulty.

My friends find this disturbing. They want to be certain. But certainty is often a crutch, and so much about the Sages and their interpretations defy certainty. For instance:

- the Sages often disagree about historical facts. For instance, some say that Abraham's third wife was Hagar. Others say it wasn't. One of these views is wrong. Until time travel is invented, we can't know who is right. So how can we be certain?

- the Sages often tell the same story in different ways. In some cases you can see how the story changed and developed over time. For instance, the story of Sarah's death is told no less than four ways. In one Midrash she dies of shock after the Satan tells her that her son was killed (Pirqe de Rabbi Elazer); in another she's told of Abraham's plan and later dies of joy upon learning that her son wasn't killed (Sefer Hayasher); in a third version Issac arrives and tells Sarah the whole story causing her to die of shock (Vayikra Rabba); in a fourth the Satan disguises himself as Isaac and tells her what happened, and the shock kills her (Tanchuma). Again, no time machine means no certainty.

- the Sages often repeated interpretations that are known to us from other, earlier sources, including Ben Sira, Jubilees, and Josephus. Does this suggest that the Sages, in these cases, were simply repeating folk wisdom, in the same way a Rabbi today might declare that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree? Or, did those earlier sources receive their information from unnamed Sages who lived in their own time? Impossible to know, and therefore impossible to be certain.

In the case of Genesis 24 and the servant, none of these concerns apply. To the best of my knowledge, there are no dissenting views on the servant's identity, and no evidence that the idea originated from outside of the Bes Medrash. Moreover, there's very good textual evidence that the chapter is speaking of  Eliezer. In Gen 24:3, the servant is called the elder of Abraham's house. If we accept that Ben Meshek in Gen 15:2 means something like chief steward, and realize that Gen 24 is set several decades after the events of Gen 24, "elder of the house" takes on two meanings: The servant of Gen 24 is both the chief servant, and the one with the most seniority. Both descriptions fit Eliezer.

Nonetheless, nonetheless, certainty escapes me. I find myself unable to call the servant Eliezer without hedging and qualifying. Why? Perhaps because I'm trapped by the notion that interpretations, even persuasive interpretations, are not proofs. 


Rejewvenator said...

Why does it matter whether he was eliezer? The interpretation exists because it is meaningful. It offers us tremendous insight into this person who avraham considered his heir. And it gives us this insight regardless of whether it is true that the eved was on fact eliezer.

By the way, eliezer has a rich life in the midrash, where he is described alternately as someone who merited going into gan eden alive, and as Og, who received all of his reward in this world. These are not stories about history, they are stories about our values, as understood through these characters.

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