Thursday, August 18, 2011

Another question on Sota's Exodus exegesis

I'm contemplating a longer post about Talmudic exegesis in general, and the examples found on BT Sota 11-13 in particular, but for now some related questions.

We find the following passage on BT Sota 11:

"Come, let us deal wisely with him" [Exodus 1:10] — it should have been with them! [i.e. with all of Israel] — R. Hama b. Hanina said: [Pharaoh meant,] Come and let us outwit the Savior of Israel.

[The advisers respond to the request for a plan that might outwit God as follows] With what shall we afflict them? If we afflict them with fire, [that won't work because] it is written: See, the LORD is coming with fire, and his chariots are like a whirlwind; he will bring down his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. [Isa 66:15]

[If we afflict them] with the sword, [that will also fail] as it is written: For with fire and with his sword the LORD will execute judgment upon all men, and many will be those slain by the LORD. [Isa. 66:16]

But come and let us afflict them with water, because the Holy One, blessed be He, has already sworn that he will not bring a flood upon the world; as it is said: I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth [Isa 54:9]

Exactly what is going on here?  Does the author of this passage believe this exchange took place as written?  Is he actually suggesting Pharaoh chose one strategy over another based on description of God he, or his advisers, found in the not-yet-written book of Isaiah?  And if this is not literally intended, well, how else are we to understand it?
Possibility #1: Its literal. The king and his advisers had this specific conversation

  • How did the king and his advisers know the contents of Isaiah?

Possibility #2: Its semi literal. The king and his advisers discussed various strategies for outwitting God, and though fire, sword, and water were all considered, and ruled out for reasons similar to those provided here, the not-yet-written book of Isaiah was not actually referenced.

  • If no one thought Isaiah was actually referenced, why invent that detail?

Possibility #3: Its completely figurative. No one actually believed this conversation - or anything like it - took place as written. Its all meant to teach us something, or show us something else.

  • R. Hama b. Hanina's comment only makes sense if he believed, on the literal/historical level, that some attempt was made to outwit God. He thinks the language of the verse "Come, let us deal wisely with him" is significant, and he thinks this informs us of a historical fact, ie, that Pharaoh tried to outwit God. So, what was the nature of that attempt? And if R. Hama didn't think that attempt to outwit God followed the lines of dialog recorded here, why are they included?

Personally, I don't think this conversation actually took place, and I see no reason to think that any attempt was made to outwit God. That's my POV, but what I can't quite determine is the perspective of the interpreter. Did HE think this exchange actually occurred? If he didn't, why is it included? And if he did, well, how did Pharaoh and co. know Isaiah?

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