1. A. "These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the Israelites: Bela the son of Beor reigned in Edom, the name of his city being Dinhabah" (Gen. 36:31-32):
B. R. Isaac commenced discourse by citing this verse: "Of the oaks of Bashan they have made your oars" (Ez. 27:6).
C. Said R. Isaac, "The nations of the world are to be compared to a ship. Just as a ship has its mast made in one place and its anchor somewhere else, so their kings: 'SamlahofMasrekah' (Gen. 36:36), 'Shaul of Rehobot by the river' (Gen. 36:27), and: 'These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the Israelites.'"
2. A. ["An estate may be gotten hastily at the beginning, but the end thereof shall not be blessed" (Prov. 20:21)]: "An estate may be gotten hastily at the beginning:" "These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the Israelites."
B. "... but the end thereof shall not be blessed:" "And saviors shall come up on mount Zion to judge the mount of Esau" (Ob. 1:21).
Number 1 contrasts the diverse origin of Roman rulers with the uniform origin of Israel's king in the house of David. Number 2 makes the same point still more forcefully. Freedman makes sense of number 2 as follows: Though Esau was the first to have kings, his land will eventually be overthrown (Freedman, p. 766, n. 3). So the point is that Israel will have kings after Esau no longer does, and the verse at hand is made to point to the end or Rome, a striking revision to express the importance in Israel's history of events in the lives of the patriarchs. The same point is made in what follows, but the expectation proves acute and immediate.
3. A. "Magdiel and Iram: these are the chiefs of Edom, that is Esau, the father of Edom, according to their dwelling places in the land of their possession" (Gen. 36:42):
B. On the day on which Litrinus came to the throne, there appeared to R. Ammi in a dream this message: "Today Magdiel has come to the throne."
C. He said, "One more king is required for Edom [and then Israel's turn will come]."
We should not regard the eschatological drama in sages' theory as something in the far-distant future: "one more king" is coming. That is a stunning statement. Number 3 presents once more the theme that Rome's rule will extend only for a foreordained and limited time, at which point the Messiah will come. Israel's saints even now make possible whatever wise decisions Rome's rulers make. That forms an appropriate conclusion to the matter. Ending in the everyday world of the here and now, sages attribute to Israel's influence anything good that happens to Israel's brother, Rome.
Sages framed their political ideas within the metaphor of genealogy, because to begin with they appealed to the fleshly connection, the family, as the rationale for Israel's social existence. A family beginning with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Israel could best sort out its relationships by drawing into the family other social entities with which it found it had to relate. So Rome became the brother. That affinity came to light only when Rome had turned Christian, and that point marked the need for the extension of the genealogical net. But the conversion to Christianity also justified sages' extending membership in the family to Rome, for Christian Rome shared with Israel the common patrimony of Scripture—and said so. The two facts, the one of the social and political metaphor by which sages interpreted events, the other of the very character of Christianity, account for the striking shift in the treatment of
Rome that does appear to have taken place in the formative century represented by work on Genesis Rabbah and Leviticus Rabbah.
In documents closed in earlier times, the Mishnah and the Tosefta, Rome symbolized little beyond itself, and Edom, Esau (absent in the Mishnah, a singleton in Tosefta), and Ishmael were concrete figures in the biblical narrative; they did not stand for nations in relationship to Israel. In later times these figures bore traits congruent with the facts of Christian rule. So we note the correspondence between the modes of symbolization—the pig, the sibling—and the facts of the Christian challenge to Judaism. That correspondence turns out to be remarkable when we compare the earlier writings, the Mishnah and the Tosefta, to the later ones, the two Rabbah-compilations. The substance of the matter is that Israel remains what it always was, and so too Esau. Esau now rules, Israel is next. In response to Aphrahat's program, we may compose out of Leviticus Rabbah and Genesis Rabbah an entirely appropriate reply: Israel "after the flesh" will enjoy salvation in time to come. And there is no other Israel. So to conclude where we began: does Israel today continue the Israel of ancient times? Indeed so. Israel now continues in a physical and spiritual way the life of Israel then. Second, will the promises of the prophets to Israel afford salvation for Israel in time to come? Yes, Israel "after the flesh" awaits the fulfillment of the prophetic promise of salvation. The issue is joined, fully, completely, head-on.
And well it was. Because the stakes, for both sides, were very high. Aphra-hat alerts us to the Christians' human problem. They saw themselves as a people without a past, a no-people, a people gathered from the peoples. Who they can claim to be hardly derives from who they have been. Identifying with ancient Israel—a perfectly natural and correct initiative—admirably accounted for the Christian presence in humanity, provided a past, explained to diverse people what they had in common. One problem from Christian theologians' perspective demanded solution: the existing Israel, the Jewish people, which revered the same Scriptures and claimed descent, after the flesh, from ancient Israel. These—the Jews—traced their connection to ancient Israel, seeing it as natural and, also, supernatural. The family tie, through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, formed a powerful apologetic indeed. The Jews furthermore pointed to their family record, the Scriptures, to explain whence they came and who they are.
So long as the two parties to the debate shared the same subordinated political circumstance, Jewry could quite nicely hold its own; the pleading tone of Aphrahat's writing opens a window onto the heart of the historical newcomers to salvation, as Christians saw themselves. But with the shift in the politics of the Empire, the terms of debate changed. The parvenu became paramount, the Christian party to the debate invoked its familiar position now with the power of the state in support.
For Israel, what was there to say, but what, in Israel's view, God had said to Israel in the Torah's record of the very beginnings of the world? What now makes that old message matter is simple: the specific context to which, at just this moment, the old words were spoken. That milieu is what imparts meaning to the message: the rise to state recognition and favor of one of the two parties to the dispute of the godly genealogy. And what gives that fact weight for us is the further, equally simple fact that, in the unfolding of the canon of the sages' Judaism, the documents before us contain the first explicit and emphatic statement of the age-old genealogy of God's people. So while the fram-ers of Leviticus Rabbah may have stated in their own medium a familiar and routine message, and those of Genesis Rabbah may have contributed merely the recognition of suitable images for symbolizing a long-standing conception, still, the setting turns out to supply the catalyst of significance. Content, out of political context, is mere theology. But in political context, the theological issues, fully understood in all their urgency, focus on matters of social life or death. The doctrines of history and merit, of Israel's identity, selection, and grace, turn out to deal with the very life and identity of a people and their society.
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