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The Errors that Come from Reading Stories Backward

One of the things the Greeks brought to the world is the concept of an oracle, a wizened predictor of the future whose mutterings invariably come true (albeit in perverse ways), making a mockery of those who think they can prevent fate.

If someone steeped in such a worldview were to read the biblical story of Rebecca asking G-d about the quarreling going on in her womb, they would come away with an understanding of the answer she receives that jives with what happens later in the story, to show that the oracle or prophecy came true. Indeed, such a reader might conclude that because she received this prophecy, she knew what she needed to know in order to make it come true.

In other words, a Greek reading of the text of the Torah would superimpose the end of the story on what was predicted in the beginning of the story. And in so doing, any original meaning in a prophecy could be changed, in order to square it all up, to make the story neatly resolve itself.

This is precisely what happens with every extant translation of the text into English. The King James translation, as good as any, reads:

And the LORD said to her: “Two nations are in your womb, Two peoples shall be separated from your body; One people shall be stronger than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.”

Readers immediately understand that this is a prophecy about Jacob and his brother Esau, that Esau is meant to serve Jacob. It may well be that Rebeccah herself understood it this way. But this is not what the words actually are!

In order to figure out what the Torah is saying, we need to understand each word by how it is used elsewhere in the text, and not take the shortcut of merely extrapolating the end of the story back onto its beginning. If we do an analysis like this, the answer is far more interesting and informative than merely reading it as a Greek tale of fate.

Here is a translation using the words themselves:

Two nations are in your womb

And two peoples will issue and branch out from you

One people will be more resolute than the other

And the multitude will be dependent on (cultivated by) the younger

Certainly not as pithy as the Greek-ish version. But there is treasure here, a prophecy that explains the Jewish people throughout history.

Here are the major changes from the “accepted” translation to one that is more faithful to the text:

1:

From: One people will be stronger than the other

To: One people will be more resolute than the other.

The word in question is amatz. It is used in the blessings for Joshua, that he should be courageous – certainly not mighty. Courage is about state of mind, not physical prowess or strength. Indeed, the word is used other places to refer to persistence, stubbornness, what might today be called “grit.”

The text seems to be saying that one of these two nations will be more persistent and resolute, possessing more staying power, than the other. And thus you have a prediction about the entire history of the Jewish people, determined and stubborn from Jacob until the present day.

2:

From: And the older shall serve the younger.

To: And the multitude will be dependent on (cultivated by) the younger

What has changed here? The first is whether or not one of the nations is older than the other or not. The word used universally in the Torah for older is bachur. Bachur is used to compare the daughters of lot, the birth order of the sons of Jacob. The word is paired with the word for “younger” in every single example in the Torah – except this one! Instead of bachur, the word used in this verse is rav, which means a multitude, a large quantity – and does not mean “the older” anywhere in the Torah! Rav is not used to describe a multitude of Jews – it always means a great quantity or great power of other peoples, such as Hagar’s descendants, or the “mixed multitude” of Egyptians who left Egypt with the Jews in the Exodus.

The other key piece is this word, “serve”, which I see instead as being connected to cultivation. This is because the word eved in the Torah is first used to discuss agriculture!

When no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to eved the soil,

Consider this meaning. Man’s job is to till the soil, to cultivate and tend it, to invest his energy into the ground to produce useful and good produce. And in so doing, man is a partner with G-d – G-d brings rain, and man brings the elbow grease. Together we take raw and naked nature and turn it into something useful and productive.

This is the word used in our verse: the younger nation will cultivate, invest in, and produce goods from the multitude of humanity.

This is precisely what happens. But it does NOT happen to Jacob and Esau. Instead, it happens to Jacob writ large: the Jewish peoples’ impact on the world is likened to that first farmer: we take the world in a state of nature and invest in it. Judaism combats paganism and nature-oriented views of mankind’s place, and replaces it instead with a vision that promotes the value of each soul, the value of love and relationships. It is Jacob’s descendants, as Hitler grasped so well in Mein Kampf, who reject the idea that Might Makes Right, that the powerful should rule the weak. Where Jews invest, the world grows upward, both materially and spiritually. From Judaism came Christianity and Islam, the idea of monotheism and the concept of a golden age that lies in the future and not the past.

Seen in this light, the prophecy Rebecca receives is not a lesson about the inexorability of fate, but is instead a blessing that while her children will form different peoples, one of them will lead by dint of a stubborn refusal to abandon hope, and have the same spiritual impact on the peoples of the world that mankind had in an agricultural sense when we learned to cultivate crops.

[an @iwe and @susanquinn production!]

Comments are welcome!