Friday, October 19, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Lekh Lekha 5779—Here's a How-De-Do

As someone who regularly works to help people understand that the Bible is not a history textbook, I can find myself awfully caught up in trying to figure out historical and similar puzzles presented to us by the text.

One such question is brought to the fore by the words at the very start of this parasha.

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
The words translated as "your native land" are actually two separate words meaning "from your (masculine singular) land and from "your (masculine singular) birthplace. The trope (cantillation) in the two words connects one to the other, so "you native land" is not an unreasonable way to translate the phrase. However, it obscures what would otherwise be problematic if the two separate words and their meanings were not conflated into the single phrase. One's birthplace and native land can be, and usually are, distinct things. The United States is my native land, but the place of my birth is in the Bronx borough of the City of New York, which is also Bronx County of the State of New York. I could even get more specific and mention the neighborhood or phone exchange to even further isolate my exact birthplace.

Pride of place is nothing new. It existed as much in ancient times as it does now.  We have national pride, state pride, hometown pride, and place of birth pride. So did they. which makes this situation even more confusing.

Where Avram was born is never mentioned in the Torah. The text tells us only that Terach had three sons, Avram, Nahum, and Haran. It tells us that Haran was born in Ur Kasdim, where he also died, leaving behind a son named Lot. Terach was most likely a nomad, so who knows if Avram and Nahor were also born in Ur Kasdim.

Ur Kasdim, Ur of the Chaldeans. Who were the Chaldeans? They were the people that occupied the southeastern end of Mesopotamia centuries later. Oops. Anachronism. The "kasdim" or Chaldeans were tribes of Arabic origin that migrated up to Mesopotamia in the early 9th century BCE. They were either absorbed by or became the roots of the second (neo) Babyloniona empire. So "Ur Kasdim" is clearly an anachronistic reference.

Ur Kasdim is likely located at the site of Tell el-Muqayyar in southern Iraq. In ancient times, it would have been a coastal city, but now it's about 10 miles inland. At that time, the Gulf extended much further into the land, and the Tigris and Euphrates didn't meet and merge as they do today.

Now look at a map and you'll see another problem. Latitudinally, it's almost a straight line to Canaan from Ur. Yes, through what is now part of the Arabian desert, but back then it was a more reasonable journey to make. So why would someone traveling from Ur Kasdim to the land of Canaan travel northwest along the Euphrates about 750 miles to Harran and then head southwest through Damascus and down into Canaan? It's a journey that takes one almost 550 miles out of the way.

Why would nomads settle down near a large urban center like Ur or Harran in any case? Seems uncharacteristic.

(Why does the Torah love to confuse us with people and places with the same name? Terach's deceased son Haran, and the city of Haran -or Harran. Don't even get me started on the Dinah story.)

Muslim tradition, and some Jewish and Christian scholars believe that Avram came from somewhere near Harran, in what is now southern Turkey, on it's border with Syria. There is a town not 20 miles from Harran named Urfa.

The Torah is clear that Avram receives his direction to lekh lekha, go forth for yourself while in Harran. But Harran was clearly NOT Avram's birthplace, perhaps not even his land. Do nomads even have a sense of home land or birthplace? Not to mention that the area of Harran was of a different social and cultural  community than that of southeastern Mesopotamia, and it's towns and city-states (including Ur.) So why does the Torah use those spefic words referring to Avram's land and birthplace when it was not the place from which he would be going forth?

Was G"d (or the Torah's authors) simply engaging in some rhetorical arts here?

Is it merely coincidental that the place that G"d reveals to Avram as the place to go, Canaan,is the same place the Torah tells us that his father Terach had started out for decades earlier? More rhetorical arts? Is the journey truly a mystery if it's the continuation of the one started by Avram's dad?

[As a side note, I should mention that the Rambam -Maimonides- was convinced that Avram came from a place called Kutha, and was convinced that he was living in a Sabean star-worshiping culture. (The Sabean culture is probably the biblical Sheba, an community that originated on the Arabian peninsula but had practices that took hold among many Mesopotamian communities, including as far north as Harran.) The Rambam goes on at length about this in his "Guide to the Perplexed." Yet another party heard from in this debate.]

If it's not important to the story, why mention it? Do we need to know that Terach came from someplace they labeled Ur, and settled in Harran? Other than the fact that it places Avram in Harran to receive G"d's call, it's not particularly useful information. It distracts from the narrative, and adds needless confusion to it. Noah begot...blah, blah, blah... and Avram was living with his nephew Lot in Harran when G"d spoke to him. Stick is a genealogy and you're done. Enough said. But no. They have to add some corroborative detail.

Just four years ago I updated a musing I wrote about this parasha ten years ago, and called it "More Nodding Heads, Whistling Airs, and Snickersnees." Though in it I focused on different pieces of text from the parasha, how interesting it is that I find myself, in reference to this bit of text from the parasha, inclined to reference  a follow-up scene to the section from "The Mikado" that was the basis for those musings in 5769 and 5775. So I ask:  Is the Torah guilty of what is referenced by this exchange from Gilbert & Sullivan's "Mikado."
Ko-Ko. Well, a nice mess you've got us into, with your nodding head and the deference due to a man of pedigree!
Pooh-Bah. Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.
Pitti-Sing. Corroborative detail indeed! Corroborative fiddlestick!
Ko-Ko. And you're just as bad as he is with your cock-and-a-bull stories about catching his eye and his whistling an air. But that's so like you! You must put in your oar!
Pooh-Bah. But how about your big right arm?
Pitti-Sing. Yes, and your snickersnee!
In attempting to shore up a thin narrative with some detail, did the Torah merely create more confusion? Corroborative fiddlestick indeed!

Why does it matter? The story really begins here with G"d's call to Avram. All before is preface, genealogy, and etiology. Right? I just can't let it go. I know the Torah isn't history. However it is a story with a narrative. That narrative ought to make some sense, have some logic. It needs only a basic framework in which to do so.

So why confuse the reader with unnecessary corroborative detail that is as apparently inaccurate as that offered by Pooh-Bah, Pitti-Sing, and Ko-Ko?

Here's a How-De-Do!
When I say to you
Go forth for yourself today
To whence I'll state another day
Bring your whole family, too!
Here's a how-de-do!
Here's a how-de-do

Here's a pretty mess!
And I must confess,
Started off in Ur Kasdim!
Wound up in Harran 'twould seem
Witness our distress,
Here's a pretty mess!
Here's a pretty mess

Here's a state of things
In our brains it rings!
Seems Chaldeans lived there later
A mistake wrote by Creator?
Blasphemy that brings!
Here's a state of things!
Here's a state of things!

With a passion that's intense
Torah I worship and adore,
But the laws of common sense
We oughtn't to ignore.
If Torah seems un-true,
Then what are we to do!
Here's a pretty state of things!
Here's a pretty how-de-do!
Here's a pretty state of things!
A pretty state of things!

Here's a how-de-do (Here's a how-de-do) (Here's a how-de-do)

For if what Torah says is not true,
It makes it hard to be a Jew,
Here's a pretty, pretty state of things!

Here's a pretty how-de-do!

(With apologies to Sir William Schwenck Gilbert)

Shabbat Shalom,

(c)2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Lech Lecha 5778 - Take My Wife -Please
Leck Lekha 5777 - Embracing the Spirit of Avram
Lekh Lekha 5776 - The Other Siders (Redux 5766)
Lekh Lekha 5775 - More Nodding Heads, Whistlign Airs, and Snickersnees
Lekh L'kha 5774 - Theistic Singularity: Revisiting the Intellectual Ekhad
Lekh Lekha 5773 - The Journey Continues
Lekh Lekha 5772 - Out of Context
Lekh Lekha 5771 (5765, 5760) Things Are Seldom What They Seem An Excerpt from the "Journal of Lot"
Lekh Lkha 5770 - Revisiting the Ten Percent Solution
Lekh L'kha 5769 - Of Nodding Heads, Whistling Airs, and Snickersnees
Lekh Lekha 5768 - The Covenant That (Almost) Wasn't - Excerpts from the Diary of Terakh
Lekh Lekha 5767-Penile Pilpul
Lekh Lekha 5766-The Other Siders
Lekh Lekha 5765 - Redux 5760
Lekh Lekha 5764-Ma'aseir Mikol-The Ten Percent Solution
Lekh Lekha 5763-No Explanations
Lekh Lekha 5761-The Intellectual Echad
Lekh L'kha 5758-Little White Lies

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