By Israel Drazin
We have been offering some unusual and controversial Bible interpretations that the Jewish iconoclast Arnold B. Ehrlich (1848-1919) placed in his book Mikra Ki-Pheshuto (The Bible According to its Literal Meaning) with the hope that whether readers agree with them or not they will provoke thought. We added some ideas by the Orthodox Jewish thinker Baruch Epstein (1860-1919) from his biblical commentary Torah Temimah (The Perfect Torah). He raises penetrating questions and rational solutions that are generally traditional. We included some interpretations by the famed Bible commentator Rashi (1040-1105) who unlike the other two fills his commentary with derash, homiletical interpretations that others are unable to see in the plain meaning of the biblical text. The parenthetical statements are mine, making the presentation a quartet of different sounds. The following are some comments on the biblical portion Vayechi (Genesis 47:28 to 50:26), the last portion of Genesis.
- The Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 111a, comments on Jacob’s request in 47:30 to Joseph to bury him in Canaan and Joseph’s similar request in 50:24. There is a belief that burial in Israel atones for a person’s misdeeds, Jacob and Joseph knew they were righteous and did not need this atonement, but they did not want their bodies to roll toward Israel during the messianic age, when the dead will be resurrected in Israel according to another belief. But, asks Baruch Epstein, why didn’t Jacob do like Joseph and request his sons to take his bones back to Canaan after the period of slavery ends? Epstein suggests that Jacob feared that his descendants some two hundred years later would not take his bones to Canaan. In fact, Epstein continues, it was only because of Moses that Joseph’s bones were taken to Canaan. Rashi: Jacob prophesied that Moses would perform a miracle and Egypt would be covered with lice and he didn’t want his body covered with lice. (Why didn’t Joseph have this concern?) (It is arguably unreasonable to suppose that being buried in Israel would atone for a lifetime of misdeeds. One could interpret the rabbinical statement to mean that despite failing to teach children and grandchildren about the importance of Israel to Judaism, arranging for burial in Israel will show them that you consider the land a significant part of Jewish heritage and this will partially atone for past teaching failures.)
- What does Scripture mean when, after Joseph assures Jacob that he will bury him in Canaan, it states “And Israel (Jacob) bowed upon the head of the bed” (47:31)? Rashi: Jacob bowed to Joseph (Rashi may be saying that Jacob thanked him for his promise) or Jacob turned toward the divine presence (again, perhaps this means with thanks). Ehrlich notes that the same phrase is used regarding King David in I Kings 1:17 after his son Solomon was declared king. He sees the wording describing an act of the aged who are about to die; they turn in satisfaction and indicate, in essence, that they are now prepared to die because what they wanted has been done.
- Jacob tells Joseph that only his two elder sons, but no other, would be considered like his sons (48:5 and 6). Rashi: this means that the tribe of Levi would not inherit land in Canaan, but these two would be heads of tribes to make up twelve tribes. What was Jacob doing? Why only two? Ehrlich explains that Jacob was making Joseph the first-born son which the Bible later states receives a double portion. Hence, Joseph was divided into two tribes and received two allotments of land in Canaan. (This is another instance where Jacob, failing to learn from his family history, shows favoritism to one son over others. However, see the next comment.)
- Why does Jacob mention to Joseph that when he was returning to Canaan after some twenty years with his uncle Laban, his wife, Joseph’s mother died, and he buried her along the way (48:7)? Rashi: Jacob is saying, here I am asking you to bury me in the family plot, and you may become angry with me because I did not bury your mother there; but know that I had a prophecy that encouraged me to bury here where I did; when our descendants are driven into Babylonian exile (in 586 BCE), they will pass your mother Rachel’s grave and she will cry and pray for them. Ehrlich: He was saying since I did not bury your mother Rachel in the family plot, I will give you in recompense a double portion.
- Commenting on 48:10’s description of Jacob “Now Israel’s eyes were dim because of age (Hebrew mezakein), the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 28b, states from this verse we can see that the patriarchs never stopped studying Torah in a Yeshiva. Epstein notes that the word zakein is also used for Abraham in 24:1. He explains that the rabbis understood the term zakein to denote a man who acquired Torah learning. Additionally, the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Bathra 17a, states that God made sure that Jacob had a wonderful life, so the difficulty with his eyes could not have been the result of a physical decline, it must have been due to spiritual study. (Does this make sense? We know that Jacob suffered fear frequently resulting, for example, in three dreams, and had situations where he grieved because of his wife Rachel and the loss of Joseph. Additionally, if God protected him, why didn’t he protect him from the harm due to overzealous study?)
- Why does the Torah tell us that each of the first-born sons in Scripture lost this status to the second son (as with Manasseh in 48:14)? Ehrlich: To teach the Israelites that the pagan practice of offering first-borns to their god as a sacrifice is wrong. Ehrlich continues: Each of the first-borns was involved in something wrong which is an added reason for excluding them from the first-born privilege. Cain killed his brother, Ishmael was the son of slave, Esau sold his birth-right, and Reuben slept with his father’s concubine. What was wrong with Manasseh, Joseph’s eldest child? Joseph named him Manasseh “for God has made me forget my toil, and all my father’s house” (41:51). This must have irked Jacob.
- In 48:22, Jacob gives Joseph another special gift, the city of Shechem, “which I took from the Amorite with my sword and bow.” This is difficult because, as Epstein notes, Jacob was involved in no battles other than the stranger in 32:25. The Onkelos Aramaic translation renders this “with wisdom and prayer,” which Rashi copies, but he gives two other ideas, one of which is that when Jacob says “I” he is referring to the incident when his sons Simeon and Levi slew the men of Shechem and took the city. Ehrlich suggests that this is a scribal error and the original Torah text stated “not with sword or bow.” See also item 8. He explains that the patriarchs wanted a burial ground that no one could contest. That is why Abraham insisted on paying for the burial ground of his wife Sarah (23:13). So too, as stated in Joshua 24:32, Jacob paid for the land of Shechem and he was now giving Joseph a burial site which could not be contested.
- In 49:10, Jacob blesses his son Judah that his descendants will rule over the rest of the Israelites “until Shiloh comes.” There are many interpretations of this phrase, which I mention in my book “Onkelos on the Torah.” Ehrlich thinks that Shiloh should be read as Shelah. Judah tells his daughter-in-law Tamar in 38:11 to remain in her father’s house “until Shelah my son grows up,” then he will give Tamar Shelah as a husband. But he never did. And the phrase became an idiom meaning “forever.” Jacob used it here to say that Judah’s descendants will rule forever.
- The word suto in 49:11, as Rashi notes, “has no parallel elsewhere in Scripture,” but from its context, it probably is “a type of garment.” Ehrlich suggests that this is a scribal error, the letter kaf was mistakenly omitted, but when attached, kesuto means a garment. Epstein states that the word is derived from mesateh and means “intoxicated.”
- 49:28 states that Jacob blessed each of his twelve sons “each according to his blessing.” What does this mean? Rashi: It refers to the future: “the blessing that was destined to come.” Ehrlich: It refers to the past. The writer, generations later, testified that each tribe’s blessing was fulfilled.
- Ehrlich on 50:4: Monarchs soon forget the help they were given. In 47:1, during the years that Pharaoh needed Joseph, Joseph could approach Pharaoh when he wanted to do so. Now, decades after Joseph saved Egypt, he had to beg officials to approach Pharaoh and solicit him for permission to bury his father. See also Exodus 1:8 where Scripture states that the Pharaoh did not know about Joseph.
- Joseph died and was placed in an aron, coffin, in 50:26. Ehrlich: Scripture does not reveal if the Israelites were buried in coffins in ancient times or not. No proof can be derived from this verse since Joseph was placed in the aron as a temporary measure until he could be buried in Shechem.