Genesis Rabbah and Israels Historical Crisis

To place into proper perspective the sages' thought, expressed in Genesis Rabbah, on the nature and meaning of history, we had best begin with a look backward, toward the place and meaning of history as expounded in the pages of the Mishnah.1 The Mishnah, promulgated two hundred years prior to the composition of Genesis Rabbah, set forth a theory of how events are to be interpreted and what meaning is to be inferred from them. That theory lay in the background of all thought on the same subject, given the Mishnah's authority in the thought of the sages. Accordingly, we shall not understand what sages accomplished in Genesis Rabbah (and in the other documents of the age) without first reviewing the context in which their thought went forward.

The framers of the Mishnah explicitly refer to very few events, treating those they do mention with a focus quite separate from the unfolding events themselves. They rarely create narratives; historical events do not supply organizing categories or taxonomic classifications. We find no tractate devoted to the destruction of the Temple, no complete chapter detailing the events of Bar Kokhba, nor even a sustained celebration of the events of the sages' own historical lives. When things that have happened are mentioned, it is neither to narrate nor to interpret and draw lessons from the events. It is either to illustrate a point of law or to pose a problem of the law—always in passing, never in a pointed way. Narrative, in the Mishnah's limited rhetorical repertoire, is reserved for the narrow framework of what priests and others do on recurrent occasions and around the Temple. That staple of history, stories about dramatic events and important deeds, provides little nourishment in the minds of the Mishnah's jurisprudents. Events, if they appear at all, are treated as trivial. They may be well known, but they are consequential in some way other than is revealed in the detailed account of what actually happened.

The Mishnah absorbs into its encompassing system all events, small and large. With them the sages accomplish what they accomplish in everything else: a vast labor of taxonomy, an immense construction of the order and rules governing the classification of everything on earth and in heaven. The disruptive character of history—one-time events of ineluctable significance— scarcely impresses the philosophers represented by the Mishnah. They find no difficulty in showing that what appears unique and beyond classification has in fact happened before and so falls within the range of trustworthy rules and known procedures. Once history's components, one-time events, lose their distinctiveness, then history as a didactic intellectual construct, as a source of lessons and rules, also loses all pertinence. Working like social scientists, much as did Eusebius, sages sorted out events and classified them. In that way they looked for points of regularity—lessons, laws, and rules—which would explain and make sense of new episodes. In discovering out of anecdotes a larger system of historical—we would say, theological—laws, sages treated history as the raw material for social science. The parallel to the mode of thought displayed by Eusebius is clear.

To this labor of taxonomy, the historian's way of selecting data and arranging

1. I draw here on my Messiah in Context (1984a).

them into patterns of meaning to teach lessons proves inconsequential. For history-writing, by contrast, what is important is to describe what is unique and individual, not what is ongoing and unremarkable. History is the story of change, development, movement, not of what does not change, develop, or move. For the thinkers of the Mishnah, on the other hand, historical patterning emerges through taxonomy, the classification of the unique and individual, the organization of change and movement within unchanging categories. In the Mishnah's system one-time events are not important. The world is composed of nature and supernature. The laws that count are those to be discovered in heaven and, in heaven's creation and counterpart, on earth. Keep those laws and things will work out. Break them, and the result is predictable: calamity of whatever sort will supervene in accordance with the rules. But just because it is predictable, a catastrophic happening testifies to what has always been and must always be, in accordance with reliable rules and within categories already discovered and well explained. That is why the lawyer-philosophers of the mid-second century produced the Mishnah—to explain how things are.

The events of the fourth century directed attention to trends and patterns, just as the framers of the Mishnah would have wanted. But in search of those trends, the detailed record of history—so far as the record made trends visible and exposed the laws of social history—demanded close study. That is why the sages' response to the historical crisis of the fourth century required them to reread the records of history, much as Eusebius resifted the facts of the past. The sedulous indifference to concrete events, except for taxonomic purposes, characteristic of the Mishnaic authorship, provided no useful model. Concrete, immediate, and singular events now made a difference.

Like Eusebius, sages turned to the story of the beginning to find out the meaning of the present moment. Genesis Rabbah, a work that came to closure sometime after 400, forms a striking counterpart to the writing of Eusebius for one important reason. Its authors not only lived through that same period of radical political change but also reconsidered the historical question, and they did so in the same way, by reverting to the record of creation, the beginnings of Israel in particular. Once more I enter the necessary warning: whether sages found themselves impelled to do so by the triumph of Christianity, we cannot show. We only know what they did, which turns out to be precisely the same thing that Eusebius did. I see no inherent difference between the inquiry of Genesis Rabbah and the question of Eusebius: What patterns do we discern, now that (from Eusebius's perspective) we know where, all the time, things where heading? Since the method of the two parties proved identical, and the sources on which they drew were the same, we may proceed to examine the arguments adduced by parties who, we realize, shared one and the same issue and also concurred upon the premises and the proofs for the propositions that, in the mind of each, would settle the issue. Here, therefore, we see how a genuine and authentic argument could have been carried on by two parties to a single dispute.

In Genesis Rabbah, a commentary on the book of Genesis made up of episodic comments on verses and their themes, the Judaic sages who framed the document presented a profound and cogent theory of the history of Israel, the Jewish people. Let me briefly characterize their mode of thought in doing the work. In contrast to the approach of Eusebius, the framers of Genesis Rabbah interpreted contemporary history in the light of the past, while Eusebius read the past in light of the present. So the Israelite sages invoked the recurring and therefore cyclical patterns of time, finding in their own day meaning imparted by patterns revealed long ago. Eusebius, for his part, stood squarely in the tradition that saw events not as cyclical but as one-time and remarkable, each on its own. So the one side looked for rules, somewhat like the social scientist-philosopher, asking how events form patterns and yield theories of a deeper social reality. The other side looked not for rules but for the meaningful exceptions: What does this event, unique and lacking all precedent, tell us about all that has happened in the past?2 But the two sides met with a single concern: What do the events of the day mean for tomorrow?

Accordingly, the framers of Genesis Rabbah intended to find those principles of society and of history that would permit them to make sense of the ongoing history of Israel. They took for granted that Scripture speaks to the life and condition of Israel, the Jewish people. God repeatedly says exactly that to Abraham and to Jacob. The entire narrative of Genesis is so formed as to point toward the sacred history of Israel, the Jewish people: its slavery and redemption; its coming Temple in Jerusalem; its exile and salvation at the end of time. In the reading of these sages, therefore, the powerful message of Genesis proclaims that the world's creation commenced a single, straight line of events, leading in the end to the salvation of Israel and through Israel all humanity. That message—that history heads toward Israel's salvation—the sages derived from the book of Genesis and contributed to their own day. Therefore in their reading of Scripture a given story will bear a deeper truth about what it means to be Israel, on the one side, and what in the end of days will happen to Israel, on the other. But their reading makes no explicit reference to what, if anything, had changed in the age of Constantine. But we do find repeated references to the four kingdoms, Babylonia, Media, Greece, Rome—and beyond the fourth will come Israel, fifth and last. So the sages' message, in their theology of history, was that the present anguish prefigured the coming vindication of God's people.3

Accordingly, sages read Genesis as the history of the world with emphasis on Israel. The lives portrayed, the domestic quarrels and petty conflicts with

2. I think we go too far if we impute to Eusebius the notion that, just as the resurrection put all of history into a new light, so the advent of the Christian emperor likewise required the rereading of the entire past. But the point of contact in the otherwise extravagant comparison is simple. Both events were one-time, unique, and, for that reason, enormously important.

3. As I said, we do not know that it was in response to the crisis of Constantine's Christian empire that sages composed Genesis Rabbah—their vast expansion of the book of Genesis to encompass their own time. We only know what they said and the context in which they said it.

the neighbors, all serve to yield insight into what was to be. Why so? Because the deeds of the patriarchs taught lessons on how the children were to act, and, it followed, the lives of the patriarchs signaled the history of Israel. Israel constituted one extended family, and the metaphor of the family, serving the nation as it did, imparted to the stories of Genesis the character of a family record. History become genealogy conveyed the message of salvation.4 All of the sages' propositions really laid down the same judgment, one for the individual and the family, the other for the community and the nation, since there was no differentiating. Every detail of the narrative therefore served to prefigure what was to be, and Israel found itself, time and again, in the revealed facts of the history of the creation of the world, the decline of humanity down to the time of Noah, and, finally, its ascent to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.

So sages read Genesis as history. It was literally and in every detail a book of facts. Genesis constituted an accurate and complete testimony to things that really happened just as the story is narrated. While, therefore, sages found in Genesis deeper levels of meaning, uncovering the figurative and typological senses underlying a literal statement, they always recognized the literal fac-ticity of the statements of the document. In the fourth century the two heirs of ancient Israel's Scriptures, Judaism and Christianity, laid claim to the Land of Israel/the Holy Land. Constantine and his mother dotted the country with shrines and churches, so imparting to the geography of the land a Christian character. Israel, for its part, was losing its hold on the Land of Israel, as the country gained a Christian majority. Here, in Genesis, sages found evidence for Israel's right to hold the land.

The following picture, deriving from Genesis Rabbah LXI:VII.l, of the way in which facts of Scripture settled claims of living enemies makes the matter clear.

B. In the time of Alexander of Macedonia the sons of Ishmael came to dispute with Israel about the birthright, and with them came two wicked families, the Canaanites and the Egyptians.

C. They said, "Who will go and engage in a disputation with them?"

D. Gebiah b. Qosem [the enchanter] said, "I shall go and engage in a disputation with them."

E. They said to him, "Be careful not to let the Land of Israel fall into their possession."

F. He said to them, "I shall go and engage in a disputation with them. If I win over them, well and good. And if not, you may say, 'Who is this hunchback to represent us?'"

G. He went and engaged in a disputation with them. Said to them Alexander of Macedonia, "Who lays claim against whom?"

H. The Ishmaelites said, "We lay claim, and we bring our evidence from

4. In chapter 4 this metaphor for Israel will form the center of our discussion on who is Israel from sages' viewpoint. Genesis Rabbah supplies the locus classicus for the metaphor.

their own Torah: 'But he shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the hated' (Deut. 21:17). Now Ishmael was the firstborn. [We therefore claim the land as heirs of the first-born of Abraham.]" I. Said to him Gegiah b. Qosem, "My royal lord, does a man not do whatever he likes with his sons?" J. He said to him, "Indeed so."

K. "And lo, it is written, 'Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac' (Gen. 25:2)."

L. [Alexander asked,] "Then where is the deed of gift to the other sons?" M. He said to him, "But to the sons of his concubines, Abraham gave gifts, [and while he was still living, he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country]' (Gen. 25:6)." N. [The Ishmaelites had no claim on the land.] They abandoned the field in shame.

Israel's later history is prefigured in the gift to Isaac and the rejection of the other sons. Scripture contains the evidence, and, moreover, points to the rules of history.

As we can see, sages looked in the facts of history for the laws of history. We may compare the sages to social scientists or social philosophers, trying to turn anecdotes into insight and to demonstrate how we may know the difference between impressions and truths. Accordingly, just as we study nature and derive facts demanding explanation and yielding law, so we study Scripture and find facts susceptible of explanation and yielding truth. We therefore read the Judaic sages who stand behind Genesis Rabbah as social scientists, not narrative historian-storytellers. For the sages looked in history for social laws to guide them in their governance of Israel as they led the people to the end of history. Let us begin with an exemplary case (drawn from Genesis Rabbah LV: VIII. 1) of how sages discovered social laws of history in the facts of Scripture. What Abraham did corresponds to what Balaam did, and the same law of social history derives proof from each of the two contrasting figures.

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