Friday, January 09, 2015

Golden calves, plural verbs

Here comes another one of those kfira posts you might want to avoid if you're worried about getting your soul tarnished. This is speculative, and does not represent an idea I've accepted; also I'd love to hear counterarguments.

The verse in this weeks sedra says:

כא  וַיְהִי, כִּי-יָרְאוּ הַמְיַלְּדֹת אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים; וַיַּעַשׂ לָהֶם, בָּתִּים.21 And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that He made them houses.

The Torah true tradition says that "houses" are a reward that the midwives received for fearing God, with the most famous suggestion being that the "houses" are lineages and the reward was that the kings and priests of Israel were the descendants of the midwives. Others (Rashbam, Ramban) say the houses are not a reward.

Our friend Josh Waxman radically suggests that the houses are not a reward, and the unlike the specifically hebrew midwives discussed in verse 15, the midwives discussed here are Egyptian, not Hebrew.  He proposes that the verse is telling us that non-Jewish midwives feared Egyptian gods and built shrines or temples for them.

Reasons include:
  • The antecedent of הַמְיַלְּדֹת is וַיַּעַשׂ while the antecedent of לָהֶם is הָאֱלֹהִים. (Elohim can be a plural noun; the pronoun that follows it, in this interpretation, is plural which additionally suggests that the gods under discussion are the gods of Egypt.)
  • וַיְהִי always introduces something negative. What's negative about rewards for righteous midwives?
  • Egypt was noted for fertility gods. The verse might be telling us that the midwife guild saw that the Jews were multiplying ferociously and appealed to the local fertility gods to make it stop.
There happens to be a precedent for the word elohim being regarded as plural as Josh proposes it does here. 

אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם

In the verb הֶעֱל֖וּךָ the actor (gods) is plural. The subject is singular.

This phrase appears twice in tanach. Once when Aaron presents the golden calf to the Jews, and a second time in Kings 12 when Jeroboam erects a pair of golden calves

Bible scholars have long maintained that the events in Kings happened first, and that the Aaron episode was invented or modified later by Levite priests who want to damage the reputation of their Aaronic rivals. There are various reasons for this, but the erelevant one here is the plural verb. 

When Jereboam says the words, he is introducing two calves, two elohim, so a plural verb is needed. When Aaron speaks the words he is referring to just one calf, so why use a plural verb? The word Elohim can take a singular verb, in fact it does in many others places in the Bible. According to the Bible scholars this is a good reason to say that the words of Jeroboam were retroactively put in Aaron's mouth.

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