Preoccupation With Glory and the Deferral of Hope: Hayyim Angel’s ‘Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi’

What is the relationship between Prophecy and History? This is question that underlies Rabbi Hayyim Angel’s “Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi” (HZM), a newly-released commentary on the three biblical books by the same names. These books are traditionally considered to be the latest of the of the Bible’s prophetic writings, attributed to prophets living in Israel toward the beginning of the Second Temple Era. Angel’s basic approach to understanding the often obscure oracles in these books is to understand them against the background of their historical context. To this end, HZM includes several sections dedicated to explicating passages from Ezra and Nehemiah, as well as a chapter-length analysis of the book of Esther. These books are more historical in style than the prophetic oratories of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, and Angel analyzes them to create a historical context for interpreting the other books. Then, in the sections dedicated to understanding the prophetic oracles, Angel both analyzes the details of each prophet’s visions and explains the historical situation to which each prophet was speaking.

Throughout the book, Angel paints a vivid picture of the spirit of the nation in the period of the Second Temple discussed in the biblical texts, a picture he divides into two distinct eras. The first era is based on the book of Haggai and the first parts of the books of Ezra and Zechariah. In this era, the prophets are dealing with a people who are entirely obedient, but are preoccupied with “glory” (Angel uses this word throughout, presumably thinking of the common English translation of Yeshayahu 6:3, such as it appears in the King James Bible: “And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.”). The prophets are therefore consistently occupied with attempts to convince the people that, despite the destruction of the first temple and the ultimately lackluster second temple, God reigns supreme throughout the world. This job is made particularly difficult in the face of Persia reigning supreme throughout the world in a more empirically verifiable manner. In the face of this empirical reality, the prophets agree that Persia currently reigns, but they attribute Persia’s dominance over the Jewish people to the sinfulness of the Jews themselves. From this follows the prophets’ promise/prediction that if the people can maintain proper behavior, a messianic king will rise in the near future to restore the Jews sovereignty and to make God’s glory obvious for all to see.

These prophecies become the locus of an important discussion throughout the book, namely, the meaning of prophecies that did not come true. Angel sets up two approaches to this topic, both of which have support in classical sources. The first approach, which is probably the more widespread in Orthodoxy today, understands that when a prophecy fails to manifest itself (or a positive prophecy, at the very least), it means that we simply misunderstood the prophecy, which was really referring to the future.When Haggai talked about “the Branch” that will be the messianic king, we would be mistaken to think that he meant his contemporary Zerubavel. According to this approach, a prophecy cannot fail to come true; if one does seem to have failed to manifest, that just means that we, the readers, misunderstood the prophecy.

The second approach, which Angel attributes to the Malbim and other traditional figures, as well as texts in Tanakh, understands that prophecies are directed to a specific moment in time, and they have a meaning that is obvious at that time. When Haggai talked about “the Branch,” he really was talking about his contemporary, Zerubavel. However, prophecies are not definite promises or divine fiat. Instead, this approach argues that prophecies are meant to inform the people of the potential nestled within their historical moment. Haggai isn’t promising that Zerubavel will be the Messiah, he’s saying that Zerubavel could be the Messiah. If the potential fails to manifest, that is because the people failed to do what was necessary in order to bring the prophets’ visions to fruition. The vision is recorded in Tanakh not because it tells us, Tanakh’s readers, about specific historical events yet to come, but because of what it tells about the potential that has inhered in past historical moments, and is destined to emerge again in our future. It is this second approach that Angel takes throughout HZM, and it turns his interpretive focus from the nature of the predicted events to the actions of the people that caused those potential events to wither on the vine.

Whether because of religious/ethical sins (such as intermarriage) or more concrete political sins (like the majority of Jews who stayed in Babylonia instead of returning to Judea), the promised return of widespread Divine glory simply never appeared (Angel brings these two suggestions from a variety of commentators). This initiated the second era that Angel depicts, based on the books of Esther and Nehemiah, as well as later parts of the book of Ezra. In this period, the people have the same problem of the absence of God’s glory, which is much worse now that the second temple has been a disappointment and Zerubavel has failed to amount to anything significant. This gloomy atmosphere is matched in the prophecies of Zechariah and Malachi from the time, which do not promise immanent political redemption like Haggai and Zechariah once did. Instead these prophecies reject the people’s basic assumptions about the nature of Divine dominance.

Whereas the earlier prophecies had accepted the people’s basic problem that God’s dominance was not evident and reassured the people that the evidence would be arriving shortly, these prophecies challenge the people’s evaluation of reality. Who says that God’s dominance of history has be obvious the way human political dominance is? Maybe Persian political success does not impinge upon Divine supremacy. Maybe the covenant between God and the people of Israel transcends such limited understandings of “success.” This is the basic idea that the prophecies of the second era are trying to get across, according to Angel. More concretely, the prophets tell the people that the situation on the ground, Israel’s subjugation to Persia, is not going away, but that this doesn’t mean anything about their relationship with God. God is just as much with them and just as all-powerful as God was before the destruction of the first temple. Their political situation is a purely political problem, and the prophets do promise/predict an eventual political savior, but the political problem has no theological significance. The hope for redemption has been deferred indefinitely, and that’s ok.

The idea that there is no theological significance to political success (or failure), has its roots in books of Tanakh that Angel doesn’t mention, like Yirmiyahu and Yehezkal, but it runs against the dominant trend in both Tanakh writ large and the Torah itself, as well as, I think, some pretty basic religious intuitions. The Torah promises extended dwelling on the land of Israel for obedience to God’s law and proclaims exile as punishment for disobedience. The book of Melakhim depicts a tight correspondence between obedience to God and the length of a dynasty, until ultimately the people are exiled and the temple is destroyed. And if God is the sovereign lord of history (Angel uses the term “miracle of history” throughout the book), there is a basic degree of logic behind the idea that those who receive God’s grace will experience it on the historical, political, stage. Cutting the other way are all kinds of intuitions about the limitedness of human conceptions and evaluations, but these prophecies remain rather radical and innovative. Unfortunately, Angel glosses over the theological-political significance of these prophecies without much fanfare. He gets close when discussing Zechariah’s prophecy of Jerusalem without its walls from the the earlier era, but the discussion doesn’t quite make the leap from biblical interpretation to theological significance, and it, in my eyes, is a noticeable lack in the book.

Overall, the book is excellent. It is well-written and engaging, and it contains ideas that are important both in terms of the interpretation of Tanakh and in the religious lives of Tanakh’s readers. It just doesn’t seem to be aware of how important some of those ideas really are.

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Purim 5774 – And It Was In the Days of Ahashverosh: On the Timely and Timeless in Megilat Esther

וַיְהִי בִּימֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ

The books of Tanakh are meant to be both timeless and timely. The Torah existed for thousands of years before the world was created[1] but was written in the language of man[2]. It is meant to have meaning on multiple levels. This means that while distinguishing the historical context of a biblical event is important, one should not disregard the unique extra-historical significance[3]. However, when a book opens up with a line like, “And it was in the days of..” it is clear that the history is going to be important. With this introductory line, the author of the Scroll of Esther tells the reader that this book is dominated by a timely message, which means that the timely significance will have to be drawn from there[4].

Which Persian king exactly is intended when the Book of Esther says the name “Achashveros” is not a simple question to answer. There are several perfectly good candidates, which is further complicated by  the presence of a second Achashverosh in tanakh[5]. However, sufficient examination of the history of the Persian kings of the era would indicate that the Achashverosh of Megillat Esther is the Persian king known as Xerxes. This in and of itself is not particularly meaningful, but what makes this important is Xerxes’s position shortly after Cyrus the Great, referred to in Tanakh as Coresh. Cyrus the Great is most famous for undoing the work of the Assyrian Empire. When the Babylonians took power from the Assyrians, Cyrus decided that the best policy was not the Assyrian policy of exiling peoples from their native lands, but rather that each nation should be returned to its native land, and be permitted to rebuild its temples in a semblance of independence[6]. The relevance of this to Megillat Esther is deeper than the sea, a fact that midrashei Chazal highlight beautifully.

Of all the various Midrashim on Megillat Esther, perhaps the most famous is that of the “כלים שונים”, the vessels used in the Feast of Achashverosh in the beginning of Megillat Esther. In an attempt to simultaneously answer the questions of why this first chapter is needed in the narrative and, more importantly, what Bnei Yisrael did to merit the decree of destruction[7], the midrash says that ‘א decreed destruction upon the Jews because they participated in the Feast wherein the vessels of the Beit HaMikdash were being used. This midrash is problematic on two fronts. Firstly, why is this a big enough sin to merit destruction. Eating from the vessels of the Mikdash is really more of a misdemeanor. Secondly, this is historically problematic. Achashverosh comes after Coresh, and Coresh was the king who sent the Jews back to Israel to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash, and alongside this he sent the vessels of the Mikdash back to Israel for the rebuilding. Thus when the vessels are being depicted by the Midrash as being in Shushan, they are actually already back in Israel. So what is going on?

In truth, this is not a problem at all, assuming one has a proper understanding of midrashim. Midrashim are not necessarily meant to be understood literally. Rather, what midrashim do is highlight and expand upon latent ideas in the text. Most midrashim are based off of incredibly close readings of the text, and if you can’t figure out what a midrash is based off of, it means you’re not paying enough attention. Thus midrashim, by depicting thematic scenes in the text, also draw your attention to these themes. If you take a midrash literally you miss the whole point, and worse, you obscure the value and and purpose of the text of Tanakh[8]. Thus the midrash of the vessels is not saying that Bnei Yisrael ate from the vessels of the Mikdash but rather exactly the opposite[9]. Instead of being in Israel eating from the vessels, the Jews of Shushan are in the exile eating from the vessels of King Achashverosh. This image becomes a startling theme evident throughout the text of Megillat Esther.

Megillat Esther, on a textual level, bears out the assertion of this Midrash. In all of Tanakh, only Jerusalem, the Beit HaMikdash, and Shushan are called “HaBirah”. Achashverosh’s first feast lasts 180 days, followed by a shorter 7 day feast, corresponding exactly to the amount of time from the command to build the Mishkan and its completion, plus the 7 days of its inauguration. Both King Shlomo and Achashverosh held feasts in the 3rd year of their reign, Achashverosh in order to show off his “Riches and Glories” (אושר וכבוד), Shlomo in context of a prophecy about building the Beit HaMikdash where ‘א promises him “Riches and Glory”. If one imagined a scenario where all the Jews are fasting, including their leader, and said leader has to appropriately enter the throne room of the King at great risk to their well being,that could either refer to the Kohen HaGadol in the Mikdash on Yom Kippur or Esther coming before Achashverosh in the Megillah[10]. When Mordechai is introduced it is specifically noted, as part of his introduction, that he is an exile. All of these verses serve to highlight the contrast between the Jews of the Exile and the theoretical messianic era occurring in parallel to the narrative of the Megillah, a parallel brought to its peak when one considers that the days of Achashverosh would have been shortly after the days of Zecharia.

The prophet Zecharia is one of the major prophets of the Return to Zion and the Second Temple. Thus, when the Jews of the exile had a question two years into the building of the new temple, they sent it to Zecharia. With the building of the Second Temple well under way, the Jews of the Exile needed to know if they should still be observing the fasts that were enacted to remember the destruction of the First Temple. In typical prophetic fashion, Zecharia launches into a tirade about how if they would just take care of the poor and their fellow man all roads would be open to them, how all they really need to do is to create Truth and Peace. These of course parallel the mitzvot of Purim to give gifts to the poor and others in need, and the scene from the last chapter of the Megillah Esther, in which a letter comprised of “words of Truth and Peace” is sent out. Perhaps most accusingly of all, Zechariah (Ch. 7) describes a messianic vision in which the nations of the world all come to Jerusalem (הבירה) in order to ask the איש יהודי for religious advice. In contrast, the only other  איש יהודי in Tanakh is Mordechai the exile, sitting in the gates of Shushan. Everything is turned on its head.

The consistent, timely, theme of Megillat Esther is obvious. The Jews of the days of Achashverosh knew that they were supposed to be in Israel, and yet they weren’t. Megillat Esther was given to them to remind them of their forgotten duty. They ought to have been in Israel helping build the Beit HaMikdash, not languishing in the Exile. This is the timely message, from which the timeless message can be easily recognized.

The Jews of the Exile knew what they ought to have been doing. They had a prophet declaring to them that Coresh was doing ‘א’s work in sending them back to Israel and that they ought to have gone to help build the Second Temple[11]. We don’t have prophecy today to tell us what to do. Instead all we have is ‘א’s word as embodied in the Torah, and generally speaking, we all know what it says. More often than not, we know what we are supposed to be doing. We know what the right choice is. The charge that Megillat Esther leveled at the Jews in the Babylonian Exile is the same charge we ought to be leveling at ourselves every day: you know what you have to do, now go do it.

[1] Talmud Bavli Shabbat 88b, Bereishit Rabbah 8:2.

[2] Sifre Bamidbar 112, Moreh Nevukhim 1:26.

[3] The Bible From Within, Meir Weiss, First Introduction.

[4] This essay draws heavily from R’ Hayyim Angel’s lecture “Megillat Ester: What they didn’t teach us in school” and Rav Menachem Lebitag’s lecture, “Between Ezra and Esther: considering author’s intent in Ketuvim”, both easily available at www.yutorah.org. Another useful resource in this composition were Yonatan Grossman’s essays on Megillat Esther from http://www.vbm-torah.org/ester.html.

[5] For more, see the above mentioned sources from Leibtag and Grossman.

[6]  This can be found at the beginning of Ezra and the end of Divrei HaYamim II, the very last verses of Tanakh.

[7] To highlight how difficult this question is, it is worth noting that not only does the text never mention Bnei Yisrael performing any sin, the only thing Haman really has to accuse them with before the King was that they were keeping to their own laws.

[8] R’ Yoel Bin Nun, http://www.ybn.co.il/mamrim/PDF/Pesach_Lot.pdf

[9] In a similar vein, the midrash says that feast was intended to celebrate the passing of Yirmiyahu’s date for the return to Israel. Achashverosh would have had no reason to celebrate the 70 years coming to an end, but the Jews out to have been celebrating in Israel and weren’t.

[10] This is reminiscent of the midrash stating that anytime “המלך” is used it is actually a reference to ‘א. Achasheverosh has replaced ‘א in the story, and his palace has replaced א’s palace.

[11] See R’ Leibtag’s “One Isaiah or Two?”, also available on www.yutorah.org.

No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 4: Axioms and Subjectivity

No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 4

Axioms and Subjectivity

(For those just joining us, here are Parts One, Two, and Three)

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about the intersection of Biblical Criticism and religious thought is that they have fundamentally different ways of thinking about and approaching the Tanakh. This isn’t a matter of proofs or faith, simply of axioms. An axiom is a starting point for a line of reasoning, one that is not proven, but simply accepted. Most axioms are understood to be self-evident, but that does not have to be the case. Sometimes, an axiom that some find to be self-evident can be disagreed with by others, without either side actually being able to prove their axiom more correct. Such is the case when it comes to Biblical Criticism, as I will attempt to demonstrate in brief.

The first and most important axiom to appreciate regarding Biblical Criticism is the Non-Existence of Prophecy[1]. This is in direct contrast to the basic assumption of most religions, certainly of Orthodox Judaism, that ‘א communicates His Will to man. This is important to realize because it enables proper understanding of things like the Documentary Hypothesis. The Documentary Hypothesis was never meant to prove that the Torah is not Divine. Rather it started with that assumption, with the knowledge that the text was human, and based its approach on that. It is true that Source Critics at no point ran into anything that made them stop and consider that the text might be Divine, but that was also never really an option. Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, tend to start with the belief that the Torah is Divine, or at least that such a thing is possible. Therefore when looking at the text Bible Critics and Orthodox Jews are more or less guaranteed to see different things, simply due to their underlying assumptions.

A second important axiomatic difference to appreciate is the understanding of Context[2]. Everyone agrees that ideas must be understood in their proper contexts, including Tanakh. However, the Academic and Traditional[3] approaches to the text differ in terms of what context they put the Tanakh in. The academic approach understands all things in terms of their Historical context. Israelite society and the Tanakh are put in terms of other Ancient Near Eastern civilizations and their literatures, both sacred and secular[4]. Such comparisons can be both helpful and misleading (This will be discussed further in a later segment on Archaeology and Patternism). The traditional approach sees Tanakh, and all of our sacred texts, in light of the Jewish Tradition. This is most obviously true in terms of Halakhah, which gets decided based on the various texts of the Jewish Tradition, but it is also true for Tanakh. Even where they are not decisive, midrashim and later commentaries are taken into account by the Traditional scholar when reading Tanakh[5].  Thus the traditional scholar and the academic will see the text of Tanakh in very different lights.

Having said that, it’s worth taking a look at the historical context of Biblical Criticism, at least at its origins. Biblical Criticism, and the Documentary Hypothesis in particular, sprouted up in the latter half of the 19th century[6]. This had a lot of ramification in terms of the way Critics treated Tanakh like other literature of the time, without proper understanding of Israelite Society, but its greatest effects on Biblical Criticism came from the Scientific and Religious atmospheres of the time.

The triumphs of evolutionism in natural science have made it a hallmark of intellectual modernity. Over against the essentially medieval unconcern (and unawareness) of history, so characteristic of theological exegesis, current critical exegesis opposes its perspective, developmental view of the text as its chief qualification for intellectual respectability in our time. Hence any proposal of literary development is better than none–better in that it demonstrates sophistication, that is, advance beyond medieval dogmatic prejudices and naiveté. (M. Greenberg, The Vision of Jerusalem in Ezekiel 8-11, pg.147-8)

Once science discovered the idea that nature and life had evolved over time, that idea spread like wildfire through the consciousness of the time, pervading all discussions. Everything had to have developed over time. In many, many, arenas this proved to be an excellent method, but it’s important to note that, as opposed to in the natural sciences, it was something external that was imposed onto whatever was studied, rather than something internal discovered through study. When it come to the text of Tanakh, some minor development over time is self-evident, letters and words and the like[7], but there is no obvious and self-evident evidence of a slow and steady evolution from a core text, or texts, to what we have today.

A second need for the historical-analogic method arises from the situation of the Christian faith community which is its matrix. First, that community must justify its retention of the Old Testament alongside the New, and does so by showing that light is shed upon the New by viewing the Old as a series of steps leading up to it. The more fully this can be worked out, the greater the value set on the Old Testament. Second (though less articulated), that community, though buffeted by change and modernity, affirms the validity of its ancient Scripture in the present. This affirmation is accomplished by showing that the biblical text itself incorporates a record of reinterpretation, adjustment to change and supplementation by later hands. Given the community’s overriding need for validating constant reinterpretation, any proposal that roots that process in the biblical text itself will have bias in its favor. (Ibid, pg.148)

Ironically, much of the challenge to Divine Unity of the Torah came not from secularist but from religious individuals. Julius Wellhausen, father of the Documentary Hypothesis, was a Professor of Theology who retired upon realizing that instead of preparing his students to join the clergy he was disqualifying them from that role[8]. Christianity needed Tanakh to have developed over time and to have been subject to constant reinterpretation, something Source Criticism confirmed with gusto. Thus the Documentary Hypothesis was accepted much more readily than it would have been otherwise. Thankfully, Biblical Criticism has moved away from these harmful mindsets, particularly with the rise of both Literary Criticism and the number of Jewish Academic Scholars in the second half of the 20th century.

At this point it’s worth taking a minute to point out something that has plagued Biblical Criticism from the start, namely, Subjectivity. Biblical Criticism is by its very nature an incredibly subjective field.

The book of Micah itself structurally alternates three prophecies of doom with three prophecies of restoration or hope…These restoration passages may seem a little out of keeping or out of step with the scathing denunciations or condemnations of Judah in the other parts of Micah’s prophecy, and so some scholars have suggested that…these must be interpolations by a later editor…But this is always a very difficult case or issue, because we know that the prophetic writings do fluctuate wildly between denunciation and consolation. So I think that a shift in theme alone is not ever a certain basis for assuming interpolation — outright contradiction perhaps — but a shift in theme or tone is never a solid basis for assuming interpolation. (Prof. Christine Hayes, from the transcript of Lecture 18 of the Yale Open University’s RLST 145: INTRODUCTION TO THE OLD TESTAMENT)

All textual analysis, regardless of what the text is or who is reading it, suffers from the subjectivity of the interpreter. It’s unavoidable. However, it is particularly prevalent in Biblical Criticism where so little is known about the historical nature of the text under discussion, and so any conception of what it “should look like” originally has to be incredibly speculative. This does not mean that all or any of Bible Critics’ conclusion are necessarily wrong, but it does indicate that we should look at their conclusions with a healthy degree of skepticism.

(The rest of this series is being hosted at dafaleph.com. Onward to Part Five.)

 

[1] For more on this, see this excellent lecture by Rabbi Jeremy Wieder.

[2] An excellent discussion of this idea by Rav Natan Slifkin can be found here.

[3] I switch here from the terms “Religious” and “Orthodox” that I have been using to the term “Traditional” as this is one area where even the religious may often make use of the Academic approach.

[4] This simple point is often missed by Rabbis who ridicule Biblical Criticism for not taking Midrashim into account. For one such example, see here.

[5] For more on this, see Rabbi Hayyim Angel’s lecture on contradictions between laws from Sefer Devarim and narratives from later in Tanakh, downloadable here. Pay particular attention to his discussion of “Halakhic Man” vs. “Tanakhic Man”.

[6] The ideas in this paragraph come a fuller and truly excellent discussion by Moshe Greenberg at the beginning of this article.

[7] For more on this, see our discussion of Lower Criticism, here.

[8] From his letter of resignation (quotation available here), cited in Robert J. Oden Jr.,”The Bible Without Theology”, Harper and Row, 1987.