A note to subscribers: Last week, a new book of mine was published, The Great Shift: Encountering God in Biblical Times. I feel a little sheepish about including an announcement of it with my regular comment on the weekly Torah reading, but—as you certainly don’t know—you are a very small group (509 people at lasts count), so I don’t think anyone can construe this as a crass commercial ploy. Actually, I just hope that some of you, perhaps a lot of you, will find it interesting, including some echoes of my weekly comments over the years. If you want to know more, here is a link to a review of the book (really, only the first half of it) that just came out today in the Atlantic:
I think the best way to get the book itself is online, via Amazon. Hope you like it,
Before his death, Moses gives the people his prophetic, farewell song in Deuteronomy 32, known in Hebrew by its first word Ha’azinu (“Give ear!”). In this song, Moses recounts Israel’s recent history, starting with the exodus, but then foretells the difficulties that are to follow his own demise. At first, things will seem to be fine, the song says, but with time, Israel will grow arrogant, “fat, thick, and coarse.” The people will forsake God and turn instead to the worship of foreign deities, “gods whom they did not know” (Deut 32:17).
In the end, the song says, God will punish Israel for its infidelity: “I will hide My face from them” (that is, I will disregard them, providing them no favor) “and I will watch what happens to them after that.” What happens, of course, is conquest: first the northern tribes will be conquered by the Assyrians in the eighth century BCE, then the southern tribes by the Babylonians in the early sixth century BCE. Speaking specifically of the former, God says: “They aggrieved Me by [worshiping] non-gods, angered Me with their futilities, so I will aggrieve them with a non-people, I will anger them with a foolish nation” (Deut 32:21).
Who were this non-people, the “foolish nation”? Ancient Judeans certainly knew: they were the Samaritans, Judea’s northern neighbors. The idea that the Samaritans were a non-people goes back to what the Assyrians had done after conquering Israel’s northern tribes. The Bible recounts that, in order to prevent any thought of rebellion, the Assyrians did not just leave the Northerners in their place; instead, “they were deported from their land to Assyria, [where they are] to this very day” (2 Kings 17:23). In their stead, the Assyrians resettled a mixture of foreigners, people “from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim… they took possession of Samaria and settled in its towns” (2 Kings 17:24).
It was the fact that the new inhabitants of Samaria were a mixture of different peoples that led their identification as the “non-people” in Moses’ song. Indeed, many centuries later, the Jewish sage Ben Sira was to say: “There are two nations my soul despises, and a third that isn’t a people: the inhabitants of Seir and Philistia, and the foolish nation that dwells in Shechem” (Sir. 50:25-26). The Edomites (inhabitants of Seir) and the Philistines were both traditional enemies; but Ben Sira goes on to say that the third group he despises are the inhabitants of Shechem (Samaria). He says that this population “isn’t a people” because of their mixed origins. In so doing, he was consciously quoting the words of Moses’ song, “I will aggrieve them with a non-people, I will anger them with a foolish nation.”
Ancient biblical interpreters certainly understood the first half of this verse: the Samaritans were indeed a “non-people.” But why did they also deserve being called a “foolish nation”?
The answer is provided in a Jewish composition of the late Second Temple period, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. In the section devoted to Jacob’s son Levi, Levi recounts how his father was angry at the punishment that he and his brother Simeon had inflicted on the inhabitants of Shechem following the rape of their sister Dinah: they killed not only the rapist and his father, but all the male inhabitants of the city (Gen 34:25). Their reason was given in the Genesis account: the Shechemites’ rape of their sister was “an outrage” (Gen 34:14), for which they held the city as a whole responsible.
By coincidence, the Hebrew word “outrage” (nevalah) sounds very much like the word for “foolish” (naval). This coincidence was not lost on the author of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. He recounts that, in seeking to soften his father Jacob’s anger at what Levi and Simeon had done, Levi explains: “Do not be angry, sir… For from today onward, Shechem will be called a ‘city of fools’ [nevalim] …because they did indeed do a great folly (nevalah) in Israel by defiling our sister.”
This bit of ancient biblical interpretation would account for the second half of Moses’ description of the Samaritans in his song: they were not only a “non-people,” a hodge-podge of different peoples, but they also deserved to be called a “foolish nation” because of the outrage they committed against Dinah.
Shanah Tovah! Shabbat shalom!