Friday, March 14, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Tzav/Shabbat Zachor 5774–Does G”d Need a Shrink?

I have often mused about the inconsistencies found in the biblical texts. At times, like others have done, I have attempted to explain them away as not being inconsistent. At other times, I have reveled in the inconsistencies, sometimes going so far as to suggest that they were either placed there (or left there intentionally) by the /Author/author/authors (a lot depends upon if you understand Author with a capital A) of the biblical texts, or subsequent editors, redactors, et al. The purpose of allowing these (apparent) inconsistencies to remain could be simply to tease or goad us into further intellectual inquiry, to challenge us, to demonstrate that tings are not always as they seem, etc. You could come up with dozens of explanations or rationales, perhaps more.

We have, in this week’s special haftarah for Shabbat Zachor, a genuine whopper of an inconsistency. Oddly enough, I didn’t notice it, at first. I was planning to muse simply about one statement in the text, and my focus upon it was so laser-sharp, so tunnel-vision-like, I seemed to have overlooked some clearly contradicting statements – one that occurs earlier in the haftarah and one that occurs only a few verses later than the verse upoin which I was focused. Ah, but wait, in the case of the second, perhaps more blatant contradiction, I am not to blame. The second verse with the contradicting statement is not part of the haftarah. It is the verse that comes immediately following the end of the haftarah. Clever, those rabbis. Let’s hide the obvious inconsistency from the people. Curiouser and curiouser.

I caught the fact that the haftarah only utilized 34 of the 35 verses in chapter 15 of 1 Samuel almost by accident. If I had only looked at my various collections and commentaries on haftarot, I would never have noticed. It was only because I turned to my Tanakh, and to various other printed and digital biblical study tools that I noticed verse 35. (Interestingly, traditions differ on the starting verse of the haftarah. The traditional ashkenazic haftarah--also used by the Reform movement, as chosen by Rabbi Gunter Plaut is--I Samuel 15:2-34, while Sephardim and others start with verse 1.

The verse that first caught my eye, when I didn’t realize that verse 35 had been (purposefully?) not included in the haftarah was verse 29:

     וְגַם֙ נֵ֣צַח יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לֹ֥א יְשַׁקֵּ֖ר וְלֹ֣א יִנָּחֵ֑ם כִּ֣י לֹ֥א אָדָ֛ם ה֖וּא לְהִנָּחֵֽם׃

Chaim Stern’s translation of this verse in the Plaut Haftarah Commentary reads:

What is more, Israel’s glory does not lie or have a change of mind; G”d is not [like] human beings who change their minds.

The New JPS translation renders it:

Moreover, the Glory of Israel does not deceive or change His mind, for He is not human that He should change His mind.

with a little “-b” note to indicate that the Hebrew meaning of the word translated as “Glory” is uncertain.

The 1917 JPS translation reads:

And also the Glory of Israel will not lie nor repent; for He is not a man, that He should repent.'

In the Artscroll Kestenbaum Tikkun we find:

Moreover the Eternal One of Israel does not lie and does not relent, for He is not a human that He should relent.

Just for fun, the NRSV says:

Moreover the Glory of Israel will not recant or change his mind; for he is not a mortal, that he should change his mind

The King James Version reads:

And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent.

For those that care, the Septuagint reads:

καὶ διαιρεθήσεται Ισραηλ εἰς δύο, καὶ οὐκ ἀποστρέψει οὐδὲ µετανοήσει,
ὅτι οὐχ ὡς ἄνθρωπός ἐστιν τοῦ µετανοῆσαι αὐτός.

It should be noted that this verse, 29, is a continuation of words spoken to Samuel to Saul in verse 28, and many editions end verse 29 with closing quotation marks (with the opening quotation marks appearing in the early part of verse 28.”

The story of the haftarah is, in brief:  An instruction from G”d to Saul through Samuel to attack Amalek and spare no living thing, human or beast. Saul complies but spares the life of the Agag, the Amalekite king, as well as the best of the animals which are taken as spoils. The word of G”d comes to Samuel saying that G”d regrets making Saul King. Samuel confronts Saul for disobeying G”d’s order to proscribe all the Amalekite people and their animals. Saul, (perhaps dissembling a bit?) says he intended to have these animals sacrificed to G”d. Samuel delivers an oft-quoted rebuke that G”d delights more in obedience to G”d’s commands than in animal sacrifices. A (chastised? defiant? Pissed pants?) Saul offers up another excuse – that he feared his own troops and yielded to their desires. Saul begs forgiveness and asks Samuel to accompany him and he will “bow low’ to G”d. Samuel says he will not go, for just as Saul has rejected G”d, so has G”d rejected Saul, and has removed his kingship. A desperate Saul clings to Samuel’s robe as he turns to go, tearing it. Samuel says to Saul that just as he has torn this robe, so has G”d torn away the kingship from him. (That’s verse 28. He continues with verse 29 as noted above in various translations.) Saul pleads once more with Samuel, who then agrees to accompany Saul back home, whereupon Samuel promptly lops of the head of King Agag, and then heads off to his own home.There the haftarah ends. The chapter, however, has one more verse,

OK, let’s look at the first contradiction. In verses 10 and 11 we read:

The word of the Lord then came to Samuel:  "I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned away from Me and has not carried out My commands."

How do we square this with Samuel’s pronouncement in verse 29 that G”d does not regret because G”d is not like a human who regrets?

Now, one might be forgiven for overlooking this discrepancy. However, how can one do so after encountering verse 35, the one excluded from the haftarah, and which reads:

Samuel never saw Saul again to the day of his death. But Samuel grieved over Saul, because the L”rd regretted that He had made Saul King over Israel.

Huh? This seems to confirm verse 11, that G”d does indeed regret things, and, in particular, making Saul King of Israel.

See what happens when you try and describe/create a G”d that is perfect, unerring, never regretting? What a mess you’ve made. What got into Samuel? Our Torah, in fact all our biblical texts are replete with stories of G”d changing G”d’s mind, of G”d regretting or reconsidering an action or a decision or a choice. How many times do biblical figures attempt to argue with G”d in order to change G”d’s mind? Plenty. More often than not, they convince G”d to do so!

There’s no textual out here. The same verb root,


is used in all three places here-verses 11, 289, and 35 to mean regret and, as freely translated by same, meaning to change one’s mind..

Now, we can argue about the various translations of the verb, and, indeed, this was my original intention when I started planning this musing. I was troubled by the liberty of even well-respected biblical scholars using the English phrase “change His mind” as a reasonable translation of the Hebrew. “Regret” is at least somewhat closer to the Hebrew, but we have a verb root here that has a truly broad range of meaning and usage. In its various forms it can mean “to regret,” “to be consoled” or “to find consolation,”  “to comfort” (the well-known “nachamu, nachamu ami”- “comfort, comfort my people” is from this root), “to be grieved by,” “to change one’s mind” and even “to find revenge.”  (That’s the joy of having seven different “binyamim” – structures of Hebrew conjugation.

I personally find it a big stretch to translate this verb as “change one’s mind” and particularly so because the one binyan in which this meaning is sometimes found is not the binyan used where this verb is being translated as “change one’s mind.” Regretting a choice is not the same thing as changing one’s mind, and I think it’s difficult, at best, to translate this verb as meaning “change one’s mind.” Yes, here I go again, arguing with the esteemed scholars of the JPS translation committee. I’ve nowhere near their level of knowledge or expertise, but I’m perfectly comfortable in questioning their choice here.

As an aside, you gotta love the fact that the same verb root can mean regret and console! Oh what lessons we could draw from that.

Maybe using “change one’s mind” in verse 29 is a way of dealing with the apparent inconsistency between verses 11 and 35 with verse 29. After all, I am arguing that regretting and changing one’s mind are different. However, on a more global level, the basic concepts are clear. Either G”d is a deity that can and does regret things, or have a change of mind, or G”d is not so. On that level, verses 11 and 35 (and many other places in the Tanakh) are inconsistent with Samuel’s words in verse 29, irrespective of the minutiae of translation. Elsewhere in Tanakh, we find Genesis 6:6

And the L”rd regretted that He had made man…

or Jonah 3:10

G”d saw what they did, and how they were turning back from their evil ways. And G”d renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon them, and did not carry it out.

On the other hand, we have text that agrees with Samuel’s statement in verse 29.

Numbers 23:19 (spoken by Bilaam to Balak)

G”d is not man to be capricious, or mortal to change His mind.

Free will is the thing that causes all these problems with the idea of a G”d that does not regret, that does not have a change of mind. G”d wants us to be obedient, to follow G”d’s commandments. At the same time G”d gives us free will, gives us yetzer tov and yetzer ra (good and evil inclinations.)

Here’s the kicker. Based on the fact that the same verb root can mean both regret and console or comfort, one could infer that any description of a G”d that does not regret or have a change of mind is also a G”d that is not consoling and comforting. Think about it:

Moreover, the Glory of Israel does not deceive or console (or comfort,) for He is not human that He should console (or comfort.)

Now there’s a G”d I’m not so anxious to know or embrace. Maybe G”d needs an analyst. Maybe G”d see’s G”d’s self as someone who does not regret and does not have a change of mind (and this is why G”d puts those words in Bilamm’s mouth, as well as Samuel’s mouth,) yet G”d’s own behavior demonstrates that this is not so. G”d has perhaps convinced G”d’s self that G”d is someone G”d is not. Perhaps G”d needs to work with a therapist to recognize G”d’s own imperfections, and become comfortable with them.

Me? I’m totally fine with an imperfect G”d, with a G”d that regrets, that comforts. In fact, I want a G”d that is so. I know that’s not true for everyone. There are many who need, want, or prefer a G”d that is perfect, that does not make mistakes, does not have regrets. However, we could have not possibly been made in the image of that G”d.We’d be very different if that were the case. No, as I;ve said before, if we are b’tzelem El”ohim (in the image of G”d) then G”d is b’tzelem anashim  (in the image of all of humankind.) Samuel’s got it wrong, at least in verse 29.

Love those inconsistencies. They give me so much to think (and write about.)

Shabbat Shalom,

©2014 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Tzav (Purim) 5771 - A Purim Ditty
Tzav 5769 - Payback: An Excerpt From the Diary of Moses
Tzav 5768 - Jeremiah's solution (Updated from 5761)
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5767-Redux 5762-Irrelevant Relavancies
Tzav 5765 (updated 5760)-Of IHOPs, Ordination and Shabbat
Tzav 5763 - Zot Torahteinu?
Tzav 5761/5759-Jeremiah's Solution

Note: Parashat Tzav often coincides with Shabbat HaGadol. I have not included musings for parashat Tzav that were focused on any of the textual readings for Shabbat HaGadol.

No comments: