Teaching Texts: Alex Israel’s I Kings

Teaching Texts: Alex Israel’s I Kings


Rabbi Alex Israel’s I Kings: Torn In Two is a book born out of teaching. In the introduction, Israel discusses the way the book developed over the course of years of his teaching the book of Kings in various settings. Consequently, I Kings is not a commentary on the biblical text so much as a companion to it. It does not go through each line of the text explaining difficulties and ambiguities. Instead, it follows each chapter and explains it simply and clearly. It gives a basic familiarity with the story, with what is happening in the biblical text, and with the characters that populate the narratives. Throughout the chapters it also develops and points out the various themes of the book of Kings, often through discussions of apparent textual problems. As such, I Kings is not just a great companion volume for the casual reader of Tanakh, but also for a teacher looking for insights for her classroom (notably, there’s a fantastic index of study questions for engaging students with the text).

The sense of pedagogy and education that permeates I Kings is perhaps most evident in its use of other texts outside the book of Kings. In many of the chapters Israel quotes passages from the book of Chronicles that parallel the narrative under discussion from the book of Kings. These texts are used to fill in perceived gaps in the narrative in Kings (a valid, but also debatable, approach), but also to point out contradictions between the two texts. Instead of trying to resolve such contradictions, Israel often uses such contradictions as a jumping off point for larger discussions about the purposes of both books. If they contradict each other, it is taken not to be a disagreement about objective fact but a manifestation of different pedagogical goals. If Kings says something different from Chronicles, then it is because it is trying to teach us something different. The teacher, and student, must then ask, “What is Kings trying to teach us?”

More even than it quotes from the biblical book of Chronicles, I Kings quotes heavily from rabbinic literature. Israel’s approach is self-conscious about having “one eye on Ḥazal” and trying to create “a dialogue between the text and the sages.” Israel reads rabbinic texts of all genres, from aggadot (rabbinic stories) to textual commentaries, as if they were commentaries on the text. He looks to find the basis for their statements, no matter how outlandish, within a careful reading of the biblical text. Moreover, he reads the rabbinic texts in light of the biblical text, which can paint them in a different light than how one might otherwise read them. Finally Israel’s I Kings asks what lies behind the rabbinic understandings of the biblical text, what were they trying to teach us, and, perhaps more poignantly, what did they see the biblical text as trying to teach us.

A Review of Rabbi Michael Hattin’s “Joshua: The Challenge of The Promised Land”

Joshua: The Challenge of The Promised Land by Rabbi Michael Hattin, Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2014.


There are many approaches to writing about a section of tanakh, from the disinterestedly academic to the passionately religious. Even between those two poles, the chosen approach can be as nuanced as an academic approach that participates in religious discourse, or a religious book that makes use of academic tools. Rabbi Michael Hattin’s “Joshua: The Challenge of the Promised Land” falls squarely in the latter category. Joshua is not an academic book that gleans religious meaning from dispassionate study but a deeply and unapologetically religious book that uses the best tools of the secular world to uncover the meaning behind the biblical text.

Joshua is essentially a collection of essays on the biblical book of Joshua, arranged according to the order of the biblical text. Each chapter opens with a quick introduction to a section of biblical text, and in short order, an apparent problem within the text or the story is presented. By the end of the chapter not only is the problem resolved, but it is resolved in such a way that what had at first seemed to be a problem is now an expression of a religious theme or ideal. While each chapter focuses on a different concept, there are several recurring concepts that Hattin highlights as the dominant themes of the biblical book of Joshua. Hattin discusses the way the biblical text explores the character of Joshua as he takes over the leadership role of his late mentor, Moses, through parallels between events in the Torah and events in the book of Joshua. He also looks at the tension between divine providence and human initiative as the Israelites transition from the Wilderness, where they were entirely dependent upon God, to the land of Canaan, where they will have to run their own society.

The common thread that runs throughout Joshua is the idea that the biblical text is inherently meaningful. There is no such thing as a passage that doesn’t have relevance to our lives, including the long lists of geo-topographical data in the second half of the book. All of it is meant to guide us in our religious and moral development, and thus the act of studying the biblical text is religious, not literary. This orientation towards meaning drives much of the content of Joshua. The book’s hermeneutic, it’s guiding principles of interpretation, flow directly from this orientation. The discussions of both morality and archaeology throughout the book are not abstract, but driven by their relevance to the modern Jew. The same goes for Hattin’s discussions of rabbinic literature related to the book of Joshua.

The basic religious hermeneutic of Joshua is laid out in the introduction, in a section discussing the pros and cons of secular scholarship. While many fields of academia are trumpeted as greatly valuable, one field is rejected quite forcefully. According to Hattin, source criticism “hinges upon charging the text with literary superficiality that… relegated the underlying message to the proverbial dustbin” (pg. xx). However, it is not that he rejects source criticism, but how he does so, that makes his book so firmly religious. Source criticism can be rejected from a secular perspective; the rise of Literary Criticism in the last half a century more than demonstrates that. That Hattin chooses to reject source criticism from a strictly religious perspective is therefore incredibly significant.

The Tanakh is, at its core, a sacred document that describes the ongoing interaction between God and humanity, between God and the people of Israel. It is a document that continuously challenges us to ask penetrating questions that relate to the essence of human nature and the purpose and meaning of existence. Its ancient but timeless words kindle the spiritual yearning that glows in every human heart, the longing for God, for goodness and a better world. No assault on the text can ever rob it of this transcendent quality. (pg. xx)

With this, Hattin not only rejects source criticism, but also sets up a strictly religious hermeneutic that will guide the reader throughout the rest of the book. It is not simply that source criticism is incorrect, it’s that it fails to appreciate the inherently meaningful nature of the text.

Hattin makes a phenomenal attempt to integrate the narrative of Joshua with modern archaeological discoveries. He rightly trumpets the scorched ruins of H̱atzor as fitting the biblical narrative perfectly. He is willing to remain agnostic on some issues, leaving the challenge to the biblical narrative unanswered, but he is impressively willing to reinterpret the biblical text when the popular interpretation does not fit the archaeology. For example, the ruins of Jericho bear no indication that the entirety of the walls came down in the period of history under discussion. Hattin begins by suggesting why the ruins might indicate this when in fact the entirety of the walls had come down, enabling the reader to affirm the traditional understanding of the text. He then switches gears and discusses traditional approaches that don’t contradict the archaeological record. Applying this method to the issue of the speed of the conquest of the land, which the bible indicates is miraculously fast while archaeology suggests that it was very slow, Hattin differentiates between the conquering of the land, which was fast, and the settling of the land, which was slow. Hattin also points out that not only does this fit with the biblical data from other books of Tanakh, but also with the text of Joshua itself.

Hattin also tackles the moral difficulties of the book of Joshua. It is difficult to read the book of Joshua in the 21st century without being bothered, at least a bit, by the morality of a holy war to conquer the land of Canaan. Hattin’s main argument is that the narrative of Joshua cannot be taken in a vacuum; Joshua assumes the reader is familiar with many of the narratives and polemics of the Torah. Hattin quotes numerous biblical texts which suggest that the war against the Canaanites is not racial but moral; the Israelites are not wiping out a different race, but an incompatible moral system. In this light, the entire discussion of the morality of the conquest is flipped. In place of a morally dubious land grab, Hattin depicts the victory of a divine moral system over pagan moral relativism, of human dignity over oppression.

It is at this point that Hattin perhaps becomes a little overzealous in his depiction of the conquest as a moral war. Hattin sees this moral understanding of the war not just in the voice of the biblical text, but also in the minds of its characters. In discussing the textual depiction of Raẖab, Hattin discusses the way that Tanakh generally takes a rather dismal view of prostitutes, something that surprisingly fails to manifest here. Hattin argues that the reason for the generally dismal view of prostitutes is that they are seen as disloyal. In contrast, he argues that Raẖab should be seen as motivated by the vision of a moral society heralded by the arrival of the Israelite nation. This explains the Tanakh’s positive depiction of Raẖab, as her betrayal of Jericho is not a function of disloyalty but of a strong sense of morality. While this moral depiction of the entire conquest may be the way the Tanakh depicts the war, it seems incredibly forced to read this into Raẖab’s motivation. Hattin ignores the possibility that it is at least as likely that she was motivated by the survival of herself and her family, and that the reason the Tanakh does not depict her badly, despite being a prostitute, is that she was instrumental in the success and survival of the Israelite spies.

A similar instance is found in Joshua’s discussion of the battle with the Southern Kings. He describes the Southern Kings gathering together to fight the Israelites not just because they’re afraid for their survival, but because they see the Israelite invasion as the end of their immoral pagan societies. This moral awareness seems like a stretch in a situation where it is so much simpler and more likely to say that the kings were afraid of physical destruction.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Joshua is the total mastery Hattin displays over not just the biblical text of Joshua itself, but over any and all related rabbinic literature. Throughout the various essays that comprise the book, textual problems are resolved not just from the text, but also from the traditional rabbinic commentaries. But Hattin doesn’t just bring the commentary that he feels best resolves the problem; instead, he brings a variety of opinions, and then shows what in the text led each commentator to their opinion. When those opinions are actually based on midrashim from Hazal, he not only points this out, but goes in depth to show the various exegetical understandings underlying the midrashim.

However, Hattin’s approach to midrashim is frustratingly vague. He continuously refers to midrashim as “traditions,” but this phrase could mean prophetic revelations passed down from Sinai or rabbinic exegeses passed down through the generations. He is also unclear about whether he considers midrashim to be taken literally, figuratively, or some blend of the two. He reads them thematically, showing how the midrash plays off and expands themes of the text, but he doesn’t seem to take them to be entirely metaphorical in nature. Perhaps, however, it is for the best. Hattin’s studies in midrashim and their relationship to the text allow for appreciation of hazal not just as legalists and story-tellers, but as careful readers of texts in a way the “metaphorical” approach does not do. Midrashim are a complex and disparate body of work, and appreciating that complexity by default leads to some vagueness and ambivalence. Hattin does a good job of demonstrating that this in no way detracts from their significance; in fact, it makes them all the more meaningful.

Rabbi Michael Hattin’s Joshua: The Challenge of The Promised Land is a deeply religious book that is simultaneously engaged with modernity, a description that is equally apt when applied to Joshua’s audience. As part of Maggid Books’ new line of English books on Tanakh, Joshua serves as an introduction, not only to the book of Joshua, but to the field of Tanakh study in general. Many Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist Jews, presumably the book’s target audience, who might once have delayed their forays into Tanakh indefinitely will now find its pages open before them. Rabbi Hattin has succeeded in making Joshua not only accessible, but incredibly meaningful as well. While Hattin does not mention the immediate, everyday, relevance of each chapter, he demonstrates the basic meaningfulness inherent in the text and leaves the reader to apply it to their daily life. Simultaneously, he introduces the reader to a range of modern literary techniques for understanding tanakh, from literary parallels to keywords. Thus armed with both newfound skills and an orientation toward meaning, the reader can begin to approach Tanakh on his or her own.

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.

Parashat Hukat – Reasons and Messages

יַעַן לֹאהֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל


Parashat Hukat is chock-full of interesting narratives. It includes several skirmishes with other nations (Bamidbar 21), the deaths of Miriam and Aharon (20), and a cryptic mention of a godly well in “B’Er” (21:16-18).  Perhaps the most well known of these stories is that of the sin of Aharon and Moshe. After Miriam’s death (20:1), Bnei Yisrael gather against Moshe and Aharon to complain about a lack of water (20:2-5), and ‘א commands Moshe and Aharon to bring water forth from a rock for the people (20:7-8). Moshe and Aharon seem to fulfill the command, but the reader is suddenly informed that they have actually failed to live up to ‘א’s expectations in this situation, when Moshe and Aharon receive a sharp reprimand.

“And the Lord said to Moshe and Aharon: ‘Since you did not trust[1] in Me, to make me holy before the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them,” (20:12).

On a first read through, this punishment seems to come out of nowhere, as the nature of Moshe and Aharon’s mistake is not at all clear. This has prompted commentators throughout the Jewish tradition to reread the passage with great attention to detail, finding all sorts of subtle clues, which point them toward the exact nature of the misdeed.

Quoting the Sifrei, Rashi notes that where ‘א had instructed Moshe and Aharon to speak to the rock, when carrying out his command they instead struck the rock. Rambam rejects this and instead argues that Moshe’s sin was in becoming angry with the people. Ibn Ezra states that the problem was that they hit the rock twice instead of just once, as pointed out in verse 11, demonstrating a lack of faith that striking the rock only once would work. Ramban comments that all the above voices are “adding meaningless statements to meaningless statements,” and instead argues that the issue was one of phrasing; Moshe and Aharon’s statements to the people suggested that it was they, and not ‘א, who would bring forth water from the rock. Abarbanel quotes these and six other reasons mentioned by various commentators, including an opinion from the gemara that Moshe and Aharon actually did not sin, before settling on the one he thinks is correct. Topping Abarbanel’s ten, Shadal[2] quotes thirteen different opinions regarding the nature of Aharon and Moshe’s mistake. The number of opinions regarding the nature of Moshe and Aharon’s mistake has increased over time, not lessened, clouding the true meaning of the text.

Shadal, in his comments on the passage, remarked that, “Moshe Rabbeinu only sinned one sin, but the commentators burdened upon him 13 sins and more, for each one invented of his own heart a new sin.” The only evidence the text gives of a mistake on the parts of Moshe and Aharon is the rebuke they receive for it. Once the existence of the mistake has been stated, the reader then has to go back and try and piece together what that mistake might have been from errant clues and seemingly extraneous parts of the text. The only thing that is clear from the text is that the text is unclear. ‘א’s statement in 20:12 that Moshe and Aharon did not trust Him and therefore did not make Him holy in the eyes of the people is confusingly followed by the words of 20:13, “These are the waters of Merivah, where the children of Israel strove with the Lord, and He was made holy with them.” Not only is the nature of the misdeed Aharon and Moshe committed unclear, what effect it might have had is also unclear. The one thing that the text conveys clearly is Moshe and Aharon failed to properly trust in ‘א, and that was the cause of the problem

A comparison can be drawn to a similarly unclear text in the story of Akeidat Yitschak (Bereishit 22:1-19). The biblical text goes beyond its normal silence regarding the persons and places involved, into true silence regarding the nature of this “test”[3] and its taker. Consequently, the range of opinions regarding the actual nature of the test have differed greatly. Rambam, making it a test of tension between ‘א’s will and man’s, says that the command to Avraham came through and absolutely clear prophecy, and that Avraham had merely to follow through with it. The somewhat antinomian Mei HaShiloah says the opposite, that the actual nature of the test was to follow an unclear and questionable prophecy. The debate about the nature of the test is so great that commentators can’t even agree as to whether or not Avraham passed. The Meshekh Hokhmah[4], basing himself on Rashi’s comments on 22:2, actually says that Avraham failed in this test, and many thinkers have since followed in his footsteps. Throughout all of these opinions, however, one thing has remained clear: “Now I know that you revere ‘א” is a positive statement, and is the foundation of the promises to Avraham that follow (Bereishit 22:15-18). The exact nature of the test isn’t nearly as important as the proof of Avraham’s reverence for ‘א. All the more so by the sin of Aharon and Moshe, where the lack of clarity is so much greater, what is important is not exactly what they did that was wrong, but that they did it due to a lack of trust in ‘א.

Moshe and Aharon were put in a tough situation, where it would be difficult for a person to know quite what to do. They even had the benefit of ‘א’s direct guidance, and they still acted incorrectly. Today we are often put in such situations, where the correct path is not clear, and we lack the aid of prophecy to show us the way. As such, the lack of clarity in the text of Bamidbar 20 is not stymying but enervating. It is the same lack of clarity that we face in our everyday lives. While we do not face the same difficulties as the great leaders of generations past, we are posed the same challenge. We can act out of trust in ‘א or we can fail to do so. When the horizon seems darkest we do not know which path to take, but trying to live up to this responsibility, trying to let our actions flow from total trust in ‘א, can be the light that guides our way.


[1] Throughout this composition, the hebrew word “אמונה”, generally translated as “faith” or “belief”, has been translated instead as “trust”, which more accurately reflects its meaning in Tanakh, and early Jewish usage.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadal

[3] It’s worth noting that Rashbam says “And ‘א tested Avraham,” 22:1, should actually be understood as “And ‘א punished Avraham.”

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meir_Simcha_of_Dvinsk