In The Front, a movie about the McCarthy era, Woody Allen’s character is asked if he knows a suspected communist. Allen at his whiny – nebishy best tries to dodge the question …
“When you say “know,” can you ever really know a person?”
“Would you say I know him? Can you know…? “
and finishes with my favorite quote from the movie:
“In a biblical sense, know him?”
Allen is of course referring to Carnal Knowledge.
With the conception of Isaac… I have a similar question. Genesis 21: 1
1 And the LORD remembered Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did unto Sarah as He had spoken.
The word for “remembered” (Hebrew “pakad”) is a euphemism for having marital connection with… (see Jastrow Dictionary p1206) and see Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 62b]:
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: Whosoever knows his wife to be a God-fearing woman and does not duly visit her (in a conjugal sense – pakad) is called a sinner; for it is said:
And thou shalt know that thy tent is in peace; and thou shalt visit thy habitation, and shalt miss nothing. Thou shalt know also that thy seed shall be great, and thine offspring as the grass of the earth. (Job 5:24-25)
“Rabbi Joshua ben Levi further stated: “It is a man’s duty to pay a (conjugal) visit to his wife before he departs on a journey; for it is said: “And thou shalt know that thy tent is in peace; and thou shalt visit thy habitation, and shalt miss nothing.”
Admittedly, Pakad can also mean: to remember, to command, to record as well as refer to a neighborly visit, but even when used with a G-Rating, the Rabbis were not shy from interjecting a little sexual innuendo to the meaning of Pakad.
These are the accounts of the tabernacle, even the tabernacle of the testimony, as they were rendered according to the commandment of Moses, (Exodus 38:21)
These are the records (pikudei) of the Tabernacle: You find that when Israel was in harsh labor in Egypt, Pharaoh decreed that the men must not sleep in their homes, so that they would not engage in sexual relations with their wives. Rabbi Shimon bar Halafta said: What did the daughters of Israel do? They went down to draw water from the Nile and God would bring little fish into their buckets. They cooked some fish and sold the rest, buying wine with the proceeds. Then they went out to the fields and fed their husbands. After eating and drinking, the women would take bronze mirrors and look at them with their husbands. The wife would say “I’m prettier than you,” and the husband would reply, “I’m more beautiful than you.” Thus they would arouse themselves to desire and they would then “be fruitful and multiply,” and God took note of them (pakad) immediately. Some of our sages said, They bore two children at a time, others said, six and others said twelve, and still others said six hundred thousand…and all these numbers from those mirrors….And all these numbers from mirrors…In the merit of those mirrors which they showed their husbands to accustom them to desire, from the midst of the harsh labor, they raised up all the hosts, as it is said, “All the hosts of God went out of the land of Egypt” (Ex. 12:41) and it is said, “God brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt in their hosts” (12:51). –Midrash Tanchuma; Pikudei 9
So according to the Rabbis of the Midrash, that which God remembered (pakad) were the conjugal visits (pekudai) of the women of Israel.
So my question is: When God “visited” Sarah… was it in the biblical sense… was it a visit of the conjugal variety? Or to put it slightly differently… what is the nature of Divine Birth in our tradition?
In a previous blog post (Prince William Chose Well) I explored incest in the Biblical tradition. I’d like to continue that exploration, this time, with an emphasis on divine birth.
The belief in a divine child is the core of the Jesus myth and we Jews like to think that it is totally alien to Judaism, but the truth is that not only was the child of god fairly common in ancient lore as anyone familiar with the Bible will recognize, the barren matriarch is a common Biblical theme, followed by a miraculous birth. Since any miraculous birth is by definition a divine birth we have to admit that the notion of a son of God is hardly unique to Christianity. My follow-up question is how divine birth as an idea, developed differently in Judaism.
In a book that I referenced in my previous blog, and subsequently purchased; (The Logic of Incest: A Structuralist Analysis of Hebrew Mythology 1995 by Seth Daniel Kunin, the author defines “‘Divine birth’ to mean a transformation whereby the individual is changed from being a product of natural (human) descent to one of divine descent. Although in many of the cases of ‘divine birth’ no actual birth takes place, the term birth is used because the texts often highlight the transformation with a denial of human or natural birth, they also often include elements associated with birth, that is, renaming and words meaning birth. These texts also often include rituals or events similar to rites of passage.”… “All of the ‘divine birth’ texts also include a denial of human fertility.” [Kunin notes 1 to page 63 and 64]
Isaac’s mother is a woman of 90 and barren. Her husband, Abraham at 99, is no youngster. Miraculously Sarah gives birth… Unlike similar stories of miraculous births in both the Old and New Testaments, in the case of the conception of Isaac, both natural father and mother are barren. They are divinely re-born and given new names Abram to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah. In addition, Abraham enters into a covenant ‘between the pieces’ where “Abraham is asked to make a bloody pathway consisting of progressively smaller animals… the passage through the bloody path can be interpreted as a symbolic birth or new beginning” [Kunin page 73] … a birth canal.
Even when Isaac is born, Abraham (his natural father) is asked to distance, disconnect himself from his natural son by sacrificing him where (according to at least one Midrashic account) he is actually slaughtered and then re-born (resurrected) by God.
In Pirke deRabbi Eliezer we find a clear reference to the death and (divine) re-birth of Isaac at the Akeda. “Towards the end of the texts discussing Gen. 22 it states, ‘When the sword touched Isaac’s throat, terrified, his soul fled. Immediately (God’s) his voice was heard from between the angels, and he said “do not lay your hand on the boy”, thereupon his soul was returned to his body… And Isaac knew of the resurrection of the dead from the Torah, that all the dead are destined to be resurrected’ [Kunin page 229]
The death of Isaac (or the symbolic death of Isaac) is necessary in order to enable him to be symbolically transformed. The element of transformation or birth (the reverse of the sacrifice) is the structural center of the text, and, with the progressive denial of his physical parent, his spiritual parent comes to the fore. In Gen. 21: 1 (quoted at the start) the text suggests that God played an important role in Isaac’s birth: ‘the Lord did to Sarah as he had spoken. This creates the possibility that God was the parent rather than Abraham. [Kunin page 97]
But leaders born of Divine birth not only die and get re-born, they also suffer. Similar to other prophets (e.g. Hannah to Samuel as in Samuel I 2: 21) and rulers/saviors (c.f. David as illegitimate), Isaac’s birth is ridiculed by the neighbors and his parentage is questioned and a subject of gossip.
Yalkut Shemone 93 tells that Abraham gave a feast to celebrate Isaac’s birth. All the people were telling each other that Abraham and Sarah could not have been the parents, and that they must have picked Isaac up in the market. God puts a stop to this by making Sarah’s breasts overflow with milk to feed all the children present, yet they still talked of Abraham and Sarah’s age. So God made Isaac look exactly like Abraham so all could see that he was the father. [Kunin p.244]
As mentioned previously, the emphasis on both a barren mother and a impotent father make the Isaac story unique and worthy of Isaac’s paradigmatic position as the first JFB (Jew From Birth).
So Isaac and all subsequent leaders of the people of Israel has a divine birth that separates him from his natural parents, he is belittled, possibly persecuted, delegitemized and suffers and ultimately is killed as a burnt offering/atonement sacrifice only to be re-born at the hand of God (or his angels).
Kunin is to be complimented for the way he connects the symbolic structure of Isaacs’s birth to that of Abram, Sarai, Jacob and Joseph as well as Cain and Abel. (read the book…..) In so doing he reveals other patterns such as a rejection of the natural order of primogeniture, in which the elder is greater as opposed to the divine concept of choseness and covenant.
Israel is descended from people chosen by God rather than entitled by nature. This element is found throughout the text: Seth is Adam’s third son, Shem is Noah’s third son, Isaac is Abraham’s second son, and Moses is also a second son. This aspect of chosen descent is part of the logic by which Israel is distinguished from the nations…. [Kunin p 106]
Similarly, the biblical narrative favors the farmer and nomadic gatherer (Jacob – dweller in tents) over the hunter (Ishamael and Esau) and the city-dweller (Lot and Sodom) . Not that at the time the Bible was edited, or ever, were the Israelites really nomads, but from an aspirational perspective nature = entitlement = status and stasis – structure – natural law and divine = choseness = covenant = rebirth – reboot – artifice – culture.
In using divine as the opposite of ‘nature’ or, as discussed above, ‘natural birth’, there is also an association of divine with culture. The opposition suggested here is that the myth creates a dichotomy in which the other nations and their cultures are associated with nature and natural birth, while Israel and its culture is associated with culture and divine. Israelite myth, as a handmaiden of Israelite culture, validates Israelite culture as divine. [Kunin p. 117]
In my next post, we’ll explore how divine birth plays out in Christianity, how Christianity and Judaism exploited the same logical structure in different ways… and our debt to Christianity for preserving the structure of divine birth, sacrifice and resurrections so that we could rediscover in our earliest myths……