Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Using Greek to figure out the Torah (Rebekah's death)

We've commented previously on the apparent co-holy status of Greek here and here. A third example appears in Berashis Raba, and is cited by Rashi on Genesis 35:8. Here's the verse (NIV)
Now Deborah, Rebekah's nurse, died and was buried under the oak below Bethel. So it was named Allon Bacuth.
And here's Rashi:
An Aggadaic explanation is that there he received tidings of another mourning--- he was told that his mother had died--- Allon in Greek means another.
So, Allon, in Greek, means "another" and Bacuth, in Hebrew, sounds like crying; thus Jacob named the place "another crying" in consideration of the fact there there were two moments of mourning at that place: One for Deborah, and a second [i.e. another] for Rebekah.  Rashi's source is Bereshis Rabba, where the drash is attributed to a Tanna whose name I forget, a Tanna who seemed to think it was okay to drashan from a Greek homonym.

Isn't this strange? Or, to put the question differently, what actually happened here?

Possibility #1: At some point, interpreters noticed a few things that they considered odd:
(1) Rebekah's death is not announced by the Torah;
(2) Deborah, a mere servant, received a monument;
(3) The monument established in her honor carried a strange name: another crying?
(4) In the following verse, Gen 35:9, it says God blessed Jacob, thought the blessing doesn't begin until Gen 35:11.

So, on the basis of these clues, and perhaps others, the interpreters concluded that news of Rebekha's death reached Jacob at this point in the narrative. The monument was for his mother, not his servant, and the blessing God gives him in Gen 35:9 is the blessing we give to mourners. All oddities solved. Problem One of the clues is only a clue if we allow for the possibility that Jacob spoke Greek. Otherwise, the name he gave to the place is, as Onkelos says, "The Plain of Bacuth [=crying] Or to put it another way, if Jacob did not speak Greek, what possible justification did the interpreters have to assign a Greek meaning to the place name?

Possibility #2:  Moshe heard at Sinai that Rebekha died at this point in the narrative, and he passed this information on to Joshua, who handed it on down the line until it reached the redactor of Beraishis Raba, where it was reduced to writing. Moshe was also told about the clues in the narrative discussed in Possibility #1 and these clues were also given to Joshua who gave them to the elders, and so on. Allon is Greek because Jacob knew Greek, and anyway Yaft Elokim l'Yefes -- of course, Greek is co-holy! Problem: In Beraishis Raba the clues are suggested by individual Tannaim. One Taana mentions the Greek; another mentions the blessing. If all of the clues came from Sinai, why are the Tannaim given credit for discovering them? And if the idea that Rebekah died at this point came from Sinai, why are clues even necessary? Can't the tradition stand on its own?

Tentative Conclusion: The interpreters were interpreting, that is they saw anomalies, and suggested solutions. There solutions may have been guided by Divine Providence, and based on traditional methods, methods Moshe taught at Sinai, or they may have been methods developed later. But the point is that at the moment in pre-history before these clues were first discovered, before the passage was decoded, no one knew that Rebekah died here. That is a conclusion of the interpreters, a conclusion that might be historically true, but a conclusion all the same.

Your thoughts?

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