Tanakh 2&3 – Prophets & Writings

Question:  In Joshua Chapter 1 God describes the boundaries of Israel.  Could you explain this in what these boundaries would be today?  Israel was to get all the land of the Hittites. Who were these people and who are their descendants today?  Could you send me a map at the time of conquest and a map of what the boundaries would look like today?  I am interested in this because of the claims for the land in Israel today.

Answer: My suggestion is that you go to your local synagogue or public library and find a good book on the history of Biblical Israel, which should have the maps you seek.  A History of Israel by John Bright, and the new Etz Hayim Humash published by the Conservative movement both have such maps.

The nations who lived in Israel (Hittites, Canaanites, Jebusites, et. al.) no longer exist today.

Question:  I am doing a report for my religion class and need some help. The story about how the walls of Jericho came tumbling down has the theory the Israelites may have sapped the walls.  Could you tell me about ‘sapping’?

Answer: I am unaware of that theory, but it is intriguing.  “To sap” means to dig tunnels underneath walls to weaken them.

Question:  What importance did Abigail (Samuel 1:25) have in the Bible?  My teacher said that she was very important.

Answer: The importance of Abigail is fairly clear from reading the story in I Samuel 25.  After you read the story, if you have trouble with something specific, please ask.

Question:  was Saul a good king or a bad one?

Answer: In general, it is very hard to determine if a person is “good” or “bad.”  Every figure in the Bible – including the Patriarchs, Moses, and Kings David and Solomon, sins.

Saul united the people and eradicated the corruption of the Judges (the Prophet/Judge Samuel’s children!), defeated the Ammonites, Philistines, Moabites, Edomites, and Amalekites in battle.

However, Saul specifically disobeyed God instructions, and saved some of the Amalekite sheep and oxen for sacrifices, rather than destroying all of them.  Later in life, he grew unreasonably jealous of David, and tried to kill him.  Apparently, he  suffered from some sort of mental illness.  He also used a soothsayer to raise Samuel’s ghost from the dead, against the instructions of the Torah.  Finally, to end his life, he committed suicide rather than be captured and abused by the Philistines.

At Saul’s and his son Jonathan’s death, David mourned for them, and wrote a dirge in their honor, “Saul and Jonathan, beloved and cherished . . .“

So, was Saul a good king or a bad king?  It seems that he was a reasonably good king, whose reign was cut short because as he aged and his mental condition deteriorated, he was no longer able to function as a good leader and king.

For a first hand evaluation of Saul’s reign, see I Samuel 8 through II Samuel 1.

Question:  Why did the two bears attack the children for mocking the prophet Elisha’ baldness?

Answer: For an answer to your question, I turned to Rashi, the master commentator on Tanakh and Talmud.  Quoting Talmud Sota, he explains that the term “baldhead” was on one level metaphorical, that they were criticizing Elisha for stripping them bare (bald) of the ability to earn a living.  According to this Midrash, the boys made money by transporting and selling sweet water to the town, whose spring produced undrinkable water.  When Elisha “healed” the water of the spring, sweetening it so that the locals no longer had to import water to drink, they went out of business and greatly resented Elisha.

Rashi continues that when the boys insulted him by calling him “baldhead,” Elisha turned around and looked at them – looked into their souls.  He found that no measure of goodness was destined to come forth from them or their descendents, and therefore cursed them with God’s name.  The bears, presumably acting upon God’s direction, then mauled the two boys and (again presumably) 40 other children who were working with them, and similarly deserved to be punished.

The modern commentators I found universally agreed that this is a very troubling and morally ambiguous story, which does not reflect well on the character of Elisha.  The children spoken of in the story may have been children of the town’s prophets.  The prophets were implicitly being condemned by Elisha for their lack of faith in the one true God.  The punishment of the children might represent the mayhem that results when parents don’t educate their children with a solid faith grounded in belief in God.

Question:  Hi, I am in 6th grade and am 11  years old. I am in this Bar/Bar mitzvah class and I need 2 get information about my prophet, Ezekiel. So do you have  any articles or something on Ezekiel?

Answer: You can find information on the Prophet Ezekiel in a number of places:

1)  The Haftarah Commentary, by Gunther Plaut (an excellent source)

2)  The Hertz Humash commentary;

3)  An encyclopedia in your synagogue library, such as the Encyclopedia Judaica.  You might also find an encyclopedia written specifically for young people.

I hope you are also meeting with your local rabbi to help write your d’var Torah.  He or she can also help with more sources of information.

Question:  What do the Jews believe was meant by Ezekiel’s  Prophecy of the restoration of King, Kingdom, and temple?

Answer: Jews believe that in the messianic era, the Davidic Kingdom of Judah will be reestablished, and the Temple will be rebuilt.

Question: What does the phrase “Bethlehem of Ephrath” in Micah 5:1 refer to?  I have always believed that it refers to the town of Bethlehem in Judah, but now I hear a theory claiming that it refers to the individual (or clan) named Bethlehem, descendant of Caleb and Ephrath (as recorded in 1 Chronicles 2:19, 50-51).  The theory is based on the statement that the Septuagint and Masoretic texts both translate Micah 5:1 as “Bethlehem, the house of Ephrath”.

My questions are:

1.  What has been the traditional view of what  the subject of Micah 5:1 is — town of Bethlehem in Judah or a clan/individual?

2.  Are there any Jewish scholars today that hold the view that the subject of Micah 5:1 is a clan/individual, and not the actual town of Bethlehem in Judah?

Answer: The Anchor Bible series just published a new translation/commentary on Micah, which addresses your question.  I recommend it to you for the most complete answer to your question.

Although I have not done an exhaustive search, a quick reading a several major classical Jewish commentators shows that they understand Bethlahem to be the city, not an individual or clan.  However, the new Jewish Publication Society translation has a footnote that understands the phrase Bethlahem of Ephrath as refering to the clan of the Bethlahemites.

By the way, the Septuagint (which Matthew 2:6 follows) translates the phrase as “Bethlahem, house of Ephrath,” but the Masoretic text does not contain the word house.

Question:  I am interested in learning more about the life and times of the prophet Hosea.  Any suggested reading materials other than commentaries that are found in various Chumashim.

Answer: The two best resources I have found for studying the life and times of Hosea are:

1)  The Anchor Bible translation/commentary volume on Hosea

2)  The Prophets, by Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Though this work is not specifically on Hosea, it is one of the finest books written on Prophecy in Ancient Israel.

Question:  Who was Malachi? What role did he play as a prophet?

Answer: Malachi was historically the last of the prophets – tradition states that after him, prophecy ceased in Israel (Talmud Yoma 9b).  Malachi is not a proper name – it is a word meaning “My messenger.”  The prophet lived sometime after 500 B.C.E., after the Temple had been rebuilt.

According to Rabbi Gunther Plaut, The Haftarah Commentary, Malachi lived in an era of spiritual disillusionment, in a society in which the priesthood is forgetful of its duties, an underfunded Temple because the people had lost interest, and in which Jewish men divorced their wives to marry non-Jewish women.

Malachi urges his contemoraries to engage in a religious revival, remember God and Torah, and make the Temple once again the center of their lives.

Question:  How does the wisdom in Proverbs compare with the wisdom in Ecclesiastes?

Answer: You are correct that both Proverbs and Ecclesiastes belong to the genre of “Wisdom literature.”  However, your question is very complex, and would require significant research to answer completely.  I would refer you to the articles of Wisdom literature, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes in the Enclyclopedia Judaica; and to the volumes on Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in the Anchor Bible series.

Question:  What did David mean in Psalm 110, “The lord said to my lord: sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your foot stool.”?

Answer: I assume that the point of your question is the apparent strangeness of God speaking to God.  Your question points to the importance of studying Hebrew!  In Hebrew, the beginning of Psalm 110 is “Ne’um YHWH (Adonai) Ladoni,” which means, YHWH (Adonai, the Lord, God) spoke to adoni (my lord, my master).  Notice the difference between Adonai and adoni – the first refering to God, the second refering to a human master.  Notice also that the first is spelled in Hebrew YHWH – the private name for God, and the second is spelled Aleph-Dalet-Nun-Yod, which can be read either as God’s name, or as “my master.”

The Psalm was probably written by a disciple-poet of King David (the opening words, “A song for David” are a dedication to King David), and can be translated:

“Adonai said to my master [David], ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’ “  In other words, if you, David, trust in me, God, your enemies will eventually be crushed, and you will be able to rest your feet on them like a piece of furniture.

Question:  What is the meaning of Proverbs 27:14?

Answer: The second half of Psalm 27 is a plea for God to hear our cry, and have mercy upon us.  The Psalmist, on some level, feels abandoned by those around him, and is turning to God for support and comfort.  The last verse, “Look to Adonai; be strong and of good courage!  Look to Adonai!” is an instruction for human beings to look to God for the answer to our prayers, and let God strengthen our resolve to walk in God’s ways, despite the persecutions of those who seek to do us harm.

Question: What is the main lesson of The Book of Job? Is it that real faith is beyond theology? Does it really pose this question: Why does an omnipotent God permit evil in the world?

Answer: I think that the main lesson of the book of Job is that presented by Chapter 38, in which God addresses Job.  God asks, “Where were you when I founded the earth?”, and goes on for several chapters in this vein.  Job responds in chapter 41, “I know that You are all-powerful, and that no plan is beyond you.”

Full knowledge and understanding of God are beyond us.  There may be a plan, as there was to test the depth of Job’s faith, but since we can never know for sure, it is presumptuous of us to argue either for or against the existence of such a plan.

It does implicitly pose the question of “Why does an omnipotent God permit evil in the world,” but I do not think that it means to answer that question in any definite way.

Response: Thank you for your prompt response. I teach English literature at a local college and we are presently reading and considering one or two books of the Bible.

As a Christian, I present some of my views–actually, what I’ve learned from my ministers. But, I’d also like my classes do develop a healthy respect for other voices (even if we say basically the same thing sometimes)! After all, we are all brothers and sisters in this small global village. I do not, of course, preach to my students but I do believe that this subject matter should not be read and discussed as though no one in the world considers it to be God’s word.

I hope you have no objections to my reading your comments to my class and giving you credit for making them. It is my hope that those who are Jewish in my classes will feel at home and those who are not will (if they don’t already) feel comfortable about seeking wisdom outside their usual reference sites.

Answer: You may certainly quote my answer to you.  Given the class you are teaching, it would be worthwhile for you to look at a relatively new translation of Job by Raymond Scheindlin called “The Book of Job,” published by Norton.  He is an excellent translator, with a deep knowledge and sensitivity to poetry of the original Hebrew.

Question:  I have been studying the book of Job and could you please tell me in chapter 2 who are the sons of God that came to present themselves before the Lord and why was Satan allowed to be among them?

Answer: The “divine beings” are generally understood to be other angelic beings in God’s realm.  The word “satan” literally means an “accuser,” whose job is to act like a prosecuting attorney.  Note that satan does not have any independant, divine power.  It is simply an angel, whose basic power lies in being a messenger of God.

Question:  In Megillat Esther I understand it as Esther and Mordechai being cousins, but many people say I am wrong – that Mordechai was her uncle.  Can you please clarify?

Answer: Mordechai and Esther were cousins, based on Esther 2:7 (NJPS translation):

“He [Mordechai] was foster father to Hadassah — that is, Esther — his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother.”

Question:  what do the ring represent in the book of Esther 3:10?

Answer: The signet ring which King Ahashverosh gave to Hamen gave Hamen the power to make decrees in the name of the King.

Question:  From Daniel 2.  Did Nebuchadnezzar remember his dream.  I am a Christian and we are studying this in a class.  The King James Version says in verse 5 and 7  “The thing (his dream)  is gone from me”.  The New American Standard Bible and the New International Version do not say anything regarding his memory of the dream or lack of it.  I thought you might have knowledge of what the old manuscripts really say as far as his remembering/not remembering his dream.

Answer: I am sorry I could not answer your question by your next class – I try to answer questions in the order received, and it often takes a week to 10 days before I am able to do the research to answer a question.

Chapter 2 of the King James translation of Daniel is inaccurate.  As the other translations imply, the king remembered his dream, but simply refused to tell the interpreters what it was, in order to make their task even more difficult.

Question:  I would like to know about your views and thoughts concerning the “abomination which maketh desolate” in the book of Daniel.  Also would appreciate anything that you could explain concerning the ‘seventy weeks’ described in Daniel chapter 9:27.

Answer: According to the Anchor Bible Translation and Commentary of the Book of Daniel by Louis Hartman and Alexander A. Di Lessa, the numbers given in Daniel 12:11-12 were not meant to be precise mathematical figures, but symbolic of something that was obvious to the original readers but eludes the modern reader.  However, it is clearly an apocalyptic prophecy of what events will occur at the end of time, and when the prophet expects that this will take place.

Also according to the Anchor Bible, the 70 weeks in Daniel 9:24-27 are a commentary and reinterpretation of Jeremiah’s 70 years of 25:11.  The seventy weeks mean seventy weeks of years.  One week of years equal seven years, so seventy weeks of years is equal to 490 years.  Although Daniel’s accurate knowledge of history is doubtful, his purpose seems to be to extend Jeremiah’s prophecy to an ultimate redemption around 163 B.C.E, around the period of the Maccabean revolt.  His prediction was close, although the Temple area in Jerusalem was regained about 4 years sooner than he expected.

For a more complete explanation and commentary, I refer to you the Anchor Bible series, containing an excellent scholarly translation and analysis of both the Hebrew and the Greek Bible.

Question:  I am concerned that the European Economic Community is the beast that Daniel spoke of as an interpretation of a dream.  Is this the start of the last terrible battle.  Would you talk  about the dream and its consequence to the Jewish People?

Answer: With respect, I don’t think Daniel had 20th century Europe in mind when he set down his prophecy, and I don’t think you need be concerned.  However, if this question seriously troubles you, perhaps you should speak to another clergy.  If you are not Jewish (from your question, I am guessing that this is the case), perhaps you should talk to your own priest/minister for an interpretation from your own tradition.

Question:  Reading in Ezra 9:1 intermarriage with Hittites, Egyptian, and Moabites is repented of and their wives and children sent away. But how come David’s grandmother was a moabitess and ephraim and manasseh were half egyptian. Did they send away only those who would not convert? or was it strictly a blood line issue?

Answer: First of all, before Sinai, intermarriage was less of an issue, because since there was no Torah, Israelite religion was much simpler, with very few mitzvot.  Still, to be safe, Abraham and Isaac sent their children to marry their cousins, whom they knew would worship the same God.  We can only assume that Jacob’s sons tried to marry people who would recognize the one true God, and follow the mitzvot of the Israelite family.  Since in Joseph’s time, the entire family of Israel numbered only 70 people, marrying out of the family was almost a given.

Second, the story of King David and his ancestor Ruth took place more than 500 years before the time of Ezra.  At the time of King David, intermarriage leading to the loss of Israelite/Jewish identity was not as much of a problem as in the time of Ezra, when Jews were giving up their Judaism as a result of intermarriage.  Therefore, Ezra commanded Jewish men to give up their non-Jewish wives, and called upon men and women to take only Jewish spouses.

I am not clear of what Ezra’s view of converts might have been.  On one hand, he speaks of the “holy seed,” which seems to imply that Judaism is something genetic which is passed along only from parents to children.  On the other hand, the Torah and Tanakh are quite clear that strangers who embrace a Jewish way of life are to be embraced.