By Israel Drazin
Arnold B. Ehrlich placed brilliant interpretations of the Hebrew Bible in his book Mikra Ki-Pheshuto (The Bible According to its Literal Meaning). Some ideas angered traditionalists. The following are a few of his comments on the biblical portion Va’yeizei (Genesis 28:10 to 32:3).
1. Jacob makes a vow in 28:20-22 that has conditions and a promise to act if the conditions are fulfilled. He says: If God is with me, keeps me safe, gives me bread and clothing, and brings me home, “then (the word “then” in the Hebrew is the single letter vav, which could also be translated “and.”) the Lord will be my God” and I will build a house for him and give him a tenth of my income. Is the quoted language part of the condition and should be translated “and” – meaning, if God remains his God throughout his exile from home, he will build God a house and give God tithes – or is it part of the promised act and translated “then” – if you do the prior items, then I will accept you as God? Commentators differ. Ehrlich contends that Jacob is saying: I will only accept you as God if you fulfill my conditions. But, didn’t Jacob already accept the Lord as God. Ehrlich says: No. The ancients believed that their father’s God is not their God until after their father’s death. They inherit the God. Thus, Jacob is promising to accept God even while his father is alive if God fulfils his conditions.
2 It appears that the book Genesis dislikes men having more than one wife. 2:24 states “therefore a man should leave his father and his mother and cleave to his wife (singular) and be one flesh.” Lamech in 4:19 is the first biblical figure who had more than one wife; he had two. The Bible describes the grim results. While the children of the first wife were fine; one dwelt in tents and raised cattle and one was the ancestor of people who handle harps and pipes, the son of the second forged war instruments. In 29:23, it seems that Jacob would never have thought of marrying Leah and have two wives, but he was tricked into doing so. Furthermore, in chapter 30 we read about the tensions and conflicts between Jacob’s two wives. Ehrlich admits that Jacob took two concubines, but, he writes, concubines are not wives; they are slaves.
3. Rachel tells Jacob that she will give him her handmaiden Bilhah as a concubine “that she may bear upon my knees (30:3).” What does this mean? Ehrlich says that the ancients had the practice that when a wife bore a child, she placed the child on the floor before her husband. If he took up the child and placed the child on his knees (near his male organ) he showed that he recognized the child as his and not the offspring of an adulterous relationship. If he didn’t raise the child, the child was killed.
4.Scripture relates the episode of Rachel taking her sister’s mandrakes (3w0:14-16) to help her bear children to show readers that magic and superstition do not work. The mandrakes didn’t help Rachel conceive and her sister Leah had three children after the incident without the help of mandrakes.
5. The ancients thought little of daughters and the Bible often reflects this view. This explains why 30:21 doesn’t dwell on details about Dinah’s birth as it does about the births of each of Jacob’s twelve sons. In fact, Scripture generally only mentions female births when there is a later episode where she plays a part – chapter 34 for Dinah – who is not mentioned after this incident although her brothers are mentioned frequently.