Monday, November 07, 2011

Some Sforno on Vayerah (or places where he disagrees with our first grade teachers)

Long time readers know I enjoy finding and sharing non-traditional bible readings, and  I especially like it when the non-traditional reading is produced by a classic commentator. Recently, I've begun re-acquainting myself with Ovadia Sforno's commentary on the Pentateuch. The Sforno (as he is known) has a reputation for such non-traditional* readings, and so far I've discovered an overabundance of examples.

I intend to share some of them with you each week. The first batch is after the jump.

[* Yes, I recognize the irony of calling his interpretations "non-traditional." I hope you do, too.]

Why did Lot offer his daughters to the mob?
  • The "traditional" interpretation: Because he was a lout. In fact the Midrash assigns to God the following inner dialog "By your life, the improper act that you intended to be done to your daughters will indeed be committed, but to you"
  • Sforno says: The daughters were betrothed; Lot expected their fiances to defend them and create a distraction. This is in sharp contrast with the midrash which says Lot acquiesced to the idea that his daughters would be raped. 
  • The merits of Sforno's reading: It protects Lot's reputation and by association the reputation of his uncle Abraham
Why did Lot's two daughters seduce their father?
  • The text says: The older daughter said to the younger daughter "Our father is old, and there is no man on earth to come upon us, as is the custom of all the earth."
  • The "traditional" interpretation: The daughters imagined the entire world had been destroyed; as a result it now fell on them to repopulate the world. (the midrash regards them sympathetically, and respects their good intentions; Rashi gives their reason, but offers no judgment on their plan)
  • Sforno says: They worried that their old father would be unwilling to exert himself to find them suitable matches, "as is the custom.." Rather than allowing themselves to procreate with boors and common folk, the girls attached themselves to one of Abraham's relatives; alternatively: they wanted their destiny to be tied up with Abraham. To make it clear to everyone that their children were fathered by a respectable person and not some lowlife, they gave the boys names that punned on their origins. Moav= May Av= From father; and Ben Ami = Son of my people. Rashi says the choice of names was immodest; Sforno seems to agree, but for a different reason: According to Rashi the girls were boating of their licentious behavior; according to Seforno they were boasting about the grandeur of their paternity.)
  • The merits of Sforno's reading: Helps us understand where the daughters acquired wine ie they had to have known they weren't alone in the world. And not only did they have wine, they also saw tzoar wasn't destroyed, heard what the angles said to Lot in Genesis 19:13 (we're destroying this place, not the whole world) and, having grown up in Abraham's house likely knew about the covenant of the rainbow, and the promise that came with it.
  • Also, ancient Egyptians rulers typically married their own siblings for the purpose of keeping their bloodlines pure. This is precisely what Sforno says the daughters of Lot did
Why did Sarah send Hagar and Ishmael away?
  • The text says because she caught Ishmael mocking her son Isaac. 
  • The "traditional" interpretation: Ishmael committed two of the three cardinal sins in Isaac's presence (Rashi / Midrash based on the word "metzachek" which can be understood as idol-worshiping or fornicating.)
  • Sforno says: He questioned Isaac's paternity, claiming that Avimelech was his father.
  • The merits of Sforno's reading: (1)  We're not forced to say that a son of Abraham's household committed idolatry  (2) It explains why Hagar was sent away, too. As Sforno suggests, based on the Talmud, "a child (in pre-TV times) only repeats in public what he hears at home from his parents." If Ishmael doubted Isaac's paternity, the slander likely originated with Hagar. (3) It gives us a very interesting take on  metzachek: "we may also be invited to construe [metzachek] as Issac-ing -- that is Sarah sees Ishmael as playing the role of Issac... as presuming to be the legitimate heir. [Robert Alter]
What's meant by "There's no fear of Elohim in this place?"
  • The text says: וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם כִּי אָמַרְתִּי רַק אֵין יִרְאַת אֱ־לֹהִים בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וַהֲרָגוּנִי עַל דְּבַר אִשְׁתִּי:
  • The "traditional" interpretation: Elohim means God. Abraham saw that the the Plishtim did not fear God, and quite correctly assumed that people who don't fear God are immoral.
  • Sforno says: Elohiom should be read secularly, ie, kings or other human authority. Abraham worried his wife would be abused because there were no courts, police, etc, to punish offenders.
  • The merit of Sforno's reading: The idea that atheists are, almost by definition,  immoral wife-snatchers is absurd. Sforno rescues us from that conclusion.
What does the angel mean when he tells Abraham "for now I know that you are a God fearing man"
  • The "traditional" interpretation: The angel is delivering a message from God, who is not saying "I learned something new today" which would be impossible for God, but "From now on, I have a response to Satan and the nations who wonder about the basis of  My love for you. Now I have a reply for they see “that you fear God.”  [Rashi]
  • Seforno says: The angel is speaking for himself. The line should be read as follows: כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי יְרֵא אֱ־לֹהִים אַתָּה וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ מִמֶּנִּי / Now I know that you fear God more than I do [=מִמֶּנִּי] ie more than I, the angel, fear God, for you did not hold back your son....

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