By Israel Drazin
We have been offering some unusual Bible interpretations that Arnold B. Ehrlich placed in his book Mikra Ki-Pheshuto (The Bible According to its Literal Meaning). Some ideas angered traditionalists. Some people enjoyed reading his views and were stimulated to think more deeply about the biblical text. Others consider what he wrote no better and no worse than fictional novellas. The following are a few of his comments on the biblical portion Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4 to 36:43). The parenthetical statements are mine.
1. The famed biblical commentator Rashi believed angels and demons exist and function on earth. In 32:3, Jacob calls an area Machanaim, the plural camps. Rashi states that there were two camps there: one for angels who accompanied Jacob from Haran during his trip home after staying with Laban for some twenty years and a second camp for angels who would accompany him in Canaan. Nachmanides, who also believed that angels exist, perhaps bothered by the idea that angels needed two separate encampments, interpreted the plural as a camp of angels in heaven watching and protecting Jacob who was camped below. Ehrlich who didn’t believe angels exist, for God needs no assistants, said that “camps” refers to the two camps that Jacob established in 32:7. (Scripture frequently makes a general statement and then gives details later.)
32:4 states that Jacob sent malachim with a message to his brother Esau. Malachim could mean messengers, the plain meaning of the passage, or angels. Rashi ops for the second, which Ehrlich rejects. Similarly, Rashi understand 32:25, which states that Jacob wrestled with a man, to mean he fought an angel. (Maimonides and other rational thinkers thought that this is impossible, but Don Isaac Abarbanel and others supported Rashi’s view.)
2. Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac, and in 24:2. He demands that the servant place his hand under his (Abraham’s) “thigh” and swear that he will fulfill his mission without any change. Ehrlich explains that the ancients, including Israelites, believed that when a person places his hands under another man’s penis, he indicates that he is submissive to him. This is also how he understands 32:26: When the man wrestling with Jacob realized he was defeated, he placed his hand on Jacob’s thigh, meaning below his penis, to show that he knew he was defeated. Why, then, did Jacob limp? He limped from an earlier injury inflicted during the wrestling. Ehrlich considers the statement in 32:33 that therefore Israelites do not eat the sinew of the thigh as a late insertion into the Torah that was not in the original text. This scribe misunderstood the story and thought the thigh was injured at the battle’s end. Besides, why prohibit eating the vein just because Jacob was injured?
3. Why when Jacob won the wrestling, did he ask the man to bless him in 32:26; this is not the way people behave? Ehrlich explains that Jacob knew that he had always succeeded because he tricked others, such as his father to obtain the blessing he intended for Esau and his father-in-law Laban to gain a huge percentage of his flock. While wrestling, he realized that this behavior was wrong and he decided to abandon trickery. However, he worried that his bad behavior would reappear. So he asked the stranger to bless him so that he would have the strength not to slip into using subterfuge again. And, Ehrlich concludes, “from this time forward Jacob became a different man and was not the same.”
4, Ehrlich was convinced that the ancient Israelites only observed one harvest festival, the one in the fall, which was why the people called it Hechag, “The Festival.” Israelites were encouraged to travel to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate Hechag. Since the city became overcrowded, the leaders thought that the transients should dwell in a succah, a temporary booth. However, so as not to discriminate, the leaders ordered all Israelites to dwell in booths on Hechag. Needless to say, not all Israelites liked the decree. So, writes Ehrlich, the dissenters placed their dissent in 33:17 which states that Jacob built a house for himself and a succah for his animals, for only animals should dwell in a succah but not people.
5. The story of the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah and the revenge inflicted by her bothers in chapter 34 did not occur when Jacob entered Canaan, as the placement of the story seems to imply, for Dinah was only about two or three years old at the time. Scripture tells the story to emphasize how much the patriarchs despised the Canaanites. (Many rabbis contend that the story teaches that women should remain where they belong, at home.)
6. Dinah’s brother’s statement in 34:7 that the rape “wrought a vile deed in Israel” is an anachronism since the nation of Israel didn’t exist at that time. (See also item 11.)
7. When Scripture states that “every male who went out of the gate of the city was circumcised,” in 34:24, the phrase refers to men of military age. The young and the old weren’t circumcised.
8. Although Jacob promised God in 25:22 that he would build an altar at Beth El and donate a tenth of his wealth to God if he returned safely to Canaan, God had to remind him to build the altar in 35:1, and despite his promise, there is no indication that he ever gave God the promised tithes.
9. Jacob told his wives and sons in 35:2 to surrender their idols and he buried them under a tree. Until that time, Jacob’s wives worshipped the same idols they had been raised to worship. Their children followed the practices of their mothers. Jacob allowed this worship until this moment, as King Solomon allowed his wives to worship idols and even built temples for them. (One may wonder why Jacob respectfully buried the idols; why didn’t he smash them?)
10. Why did the people attending Rachel when she gave birth and was about to die say to her, “Fear not, for this is also a son born to you” (35:17)? The ancients, including the Israelites, didn’t believe in heaven and hell. They thought people descended to Sheol, which the Greeks called Hades. They were convinced that people entered Sheol in the same condition in which they were when they died. If people were sad when they died, they would be sad in Sheol. Since the ancients were disappointed when they bore a daughter and since Rachel’s attendees wanted her to enter Sheol joyously, they told her she had a son.
11. Ehrlich agrees with Abraham ibn Ezra who wrote that 36:31’s statement “this was before there were kings in Israel” must have been written after the days of Moses, during the period when Israel had kings.