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Notes from Limmud 2008

The Dead Sea Scrolls on the Near-Sacrifice of Isaac

James Kugel

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

[The talk started with a bit on the background on the Dead Sea Scrolls, which I did not bother to take down, as I already had notes on the subject from a session at a previous Limmud.]

What were the scrolls doing in the caves where they were found? Scholars came to believe that they belonged to a Jewish religious sect that had built a community by the Dead Sea, from the second century BCE until the revolt against the Romans, at which point the scrolls were placed in their jars to protect them.

It's not at all clear why the Qumranites moved to the Dead Sea; one thing that is clear is that they were at odds with the establishment in Jerusalem, and with other groups: the Jerusalem priesthood, the Romans (and all foreigners), and other groups in terms of points of Jewish law. They used a different calendar compared to other Jews: solar, rather than lunar, and with the festivals always occurring on the same day of the week. Hence they disagreed with other Jews about when festivals occurred.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have filled in a lot of the gaps in our knowledge of Jewish life in this period, in main areas of scholarship. Firstly, the Biblical texts, of which the Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest exemplars by a thousand years. Scholars beforehand had no idea what the Bible looked like at that time—there were people who argued, for example, that the last part of the Book of Psalms did not date until afterwards.

Some of the texts were of a different form from that found today. For example, the DSS Book of Jeremiah is considerably shorter than our canonical version. The rabbis made their choice which version to canonise, but in the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls there were different versions floating around. The Jews of Alexandria studied the Bible in Greek, relying first on the Septuagint. Scholars had known that there were differences in the Septuagint; the Dead Sea Scrolls made clear the Septuagint wasn't a bad translation, but a translation of a different version of the Bible.

The second thing the Dead Sea Scrolls sheds light on is the politics of the era: this was an era of a lot of factions. [...] The Qumranites disagreed with the Pharisees, not just about big doctrinal matters, but also little halachic details. There is a letter referred to as מִקְצַת מַעֲשֵׂי הַתּוֹרָה, in which the writer shares his views with his correspondent, thought possibly to have been the High Priest. It became a literary letter. Some of the issues mentioned in this letter are mentioned also in the Mishna. For example, if you have a pitcher of water containing an impure substance, if you poured that into a cup of water, it would made the cup's contents impure. But can impurity travel back up the stream of water into the pitcher? The Qumranites take the position that is attributed in the Mishna [written two or three centuries later] to the Sadducees [with whom Rachel Elior, if not the majority consensus, identifies them].

The third area the Dead Sea Scrolls sheds light on is the Qumranite community, and other communities across the land who followed the same practices. Josephus talks about them; he says when a member of this group walks into town, he is immediately distinguishable by his clothes. [Sound like any group you can think of today?] They saw themselves as separate from all other Jews. When a member of this group encountered another, they immediately invited them back; but for all other Jews they would not eat of their food. Josephus says they took an annual oath to hate anyone who was not a member of their community, and hoped for their destruction in the forthcoming יוֹם נְאָקָה Day of Groaning. The Qumranites argued that "You shall love your neighbour like yourself" does not apply to neighbours who are not like yourself!

They also had a rule that if you interrupted someone whilst he was speaking, you didn't get any food for the rest of the day!

A fourth area of concern, which for long was neglected, is Biblical interpretation—a key area of Jewish culture. We take it for granted that our chumashim have commentaries. The Mishna is the oldest rabbinic text (using "rabbinic" in the narrow sense, from the first century, when the term "rabbi" is first found). The earliest text we can date from this period is the Mishna, from the end of the second century. The Dead Sea Scrolls give us a look at Judaism four or five hundred years earlier, and what Biblical interpretation looked like then (which is much like it looked like later).

Consider the following Biblical story:

Genesis 12:10-12:20 בראשית יב י-יב כ
There was a famine in the land: and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was grievous in the land. It so happened, when he had come close to entering Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, "See now, you are, I know, a good-looking woman. When the Egyptians see you, they are going to say, 'This is his wife,' and will kill me but leave you alive. Please then say that you are my sister, so it goes well with me for your sake; and my soul shall live because of you." Indeed it happened, when Abram came into Egypt, that the Egyptians observed that the woman was very beautiful. The princes of Pharaoh also saw her, and commended her before Pharaoh: and the woman was taken into Pharaoh's house. He treated Abram well for her sake, and he had sheep, oxen, asses, slaves and maidservants, she-asses, and camels. But the LORD plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of the matter of Sarai Abram's wife. So Pharaoh called Abram and said, "What is this that you have done to me? why didn't you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, she is my sister? I might have taken her to me as a wife, but see: she's your wife: Take her, and go." Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him: and they sent him and his wife away, with all that he had. וַיְהִי רָעָב בָּאָרֶץ וַיֵּרֶד אַבְרָם מִצְרַיְמָה לָגוּר שָׁם כִּי־כָבֵד הָרָעָב בָּאָרֶץ׃ וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר הִקְרִיב לָבוֹא מִצְרָיְמָה וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל־שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ הִנֵּה־נָא יָדַעְתִּי כִּי אִשָּׁה יְפַת־מַרְאֶה אָתְּ׃ וְהָיָה כִּי־יִרְאוּ אֹתָךְ הַמִּצְרִים וְאָמְרוּ אִשְׁתּוֹ זֹאת וְהָרְגוּ אֹתִי וְאֹתָךְ יְחַיּוּ׃ אִמְרִי־נָא אֲחֹתִי אָתְּ לְמַעַן יִיטַב־לִי בַעֲבוּרֵךְ וְחָיְתָה נַפְשִׁי בִּגְלָלֵךְ׃ וַיְהִי כְּבוֹא אַבְרָם מִצְרָיְמָה וַיִּרְאוּ הַמִּצְרִים אֶת־הָאִשָּׁה כִּי־יָפָה הִוא מְאֹד׃ וַיִּרְאוּ אֹתָהּ שָׂרֵי פַרְעֹה וַיְהַלְלוּ אֹתָהּ אֶל־פַּרְעֹה וַתֻּקַּח הָאִשָּׁה בֵּית פַּרְעֹה׃ וּלְאַבְרָם הֵיטִיב בַּעֲבוּרָהּ וַיְהִי־לוֹ צֹאן־וּבָקָר וַחֲמֹרִים וַעֲבָדִים וּשְׁפָחֹת וַאֲתֹנֹת וּגְמַלִּים׃ וַיְנַגַּע יְהוָה אֶת־פַּרְעֹה נְגָעִים גְּדֹלִים וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ עַל־דְּבַר שָׂרַי אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָם׃ וַיִּקְרָא פַרְעֹה לְאַבְרָם וַיֹּאמֶר מַה־זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לִּי לָמָּה לֹא־הִגַּדְתָּ לִּי כִּי אִשְׁתְּךָ הִוא׃ לָמָה אָמַרְתָּ אֲחֹתִי הִוא וָאֶקַּח אֹתָהּ לִי לְאִשָּׁה וְעַתָּה הִנֵּה אִשְׁתְּךָ קַח וָלֵךְ׃ וַיְצַו עָלָיו פַּרְעֹה אֲנָשִׁים וַיְשַׁלְּחוּ אֹתוֹ וְאֶת־אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ׃

In the Dead Sea Scrolls, we have the Genesis Apocryphon, a first-person narrative told by Abram, in Aramaic:

And I, Abram, had a dream in the night of my entering the land of Egypt and I saw in my dream [that there wa]s a cedar, and a date-palm (which was) [very beautif]ul; and some men came, intending to cut down and uproot the cedar, but to leave the date-palm by itself. Now the date-palm remonstrated and said, "Do not cut down the cedar, for we are both from [on]e fam[ily]." So the cedar was spared with the help of the date-palm, and [it was] not [cut down]. (vacat) (That) night I awoke from my sleep and said to Sarai my wife, "I have had a dream, [and I] am frightened [by] this dream." She said to me, "Tell me your dream that I might know (it too)." So I began to tell her this dream; [and I made known] to [her the meaning of this] dream, [and] s[aid], "[       ] who will seek to kill me and to spare you. [No]w this (is) all the favour [that you must do for ne]; whe[rev]er [we shall be, say] about me, 'He is my brother.' Then I shall live with your help, and my life will be saved because of you [       they will seek] to [ta]ke you away from me and to kill me." And Sarai wept at my words that night.

This answers some of the problems the later commentators have with this story. Abram was not a coward to pass Sarai off as his sister, but was simply following G-d's instructions, for so were dreams interpreted at that time. Abram and Sarai also both regret having to practice such deception.

What did they mean by writing this text? It was not intended to fool anyone. It was written in Aramaic of the second century, not that of the time of Abraham. It was a form of Biblical commentary. The kind of commentary we have later did exist in this time—Philo used it—but it was not a popular form of commentary; the popular form at that time was to put the interpretation inline into the text.

Why does Abram say "Now I know you are a beautiful woman," when they've been married so long? This bothered a number of commentators. An ancient Targum said that when they crossed the Brook of Egypt to enter into Egypt, they had to disrobe to do so. Abram and Sarai had been good Jewish frummers, and not seen each other naked until now—and even now he only saw her reflection.

The Midrash says, in Genesis Rabbah:

It so happened, when he had come close to entering Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, "See now, you are, I know, a good-looking woman."
She was with him all these years, yet now he says to her, "See now, you are, I know, a good-looking woman." The reason, however, is because travelling takes toll of one's beauty. R. Azariah said in the name of R. Judah b. R. Simon: [Abram said to Sarai:] "We have traversed Aram Naharaim and Aram Naḥor and not found a woman as beautiful as you; now that we are entering a country whose inhabitants are swarthy and ugly, please then say that you are my sister, so it goes well with me for your sake; and my soul shall live because of you."
It happened, when Abram came into Egypt.
And where was Sarah? He had put her into a box and locked her in it. When he came to the customs-house, he [the customs officer] demanded, "Pay the custom dues." "I will pay," he replied. "You carry garments in that box," said he. "I will pay the dues on garments." "You are carrying gold!"* said he. "I will pay the dues on gold." "You are carrying silks!" "I will pay the dues on silk." "You are carrying jewels!" "I will pay the dues on jewels." He told him, "It is not possible! You must open the box and..." [Actually, I wasn't able to get this down, so have been translating it myself, but it's too much effort, as I have very little Aramaic. The upshot is that they opened the box and found Sarai.]
ויהי כבא אברם מצרימה ויראו המצרים
ושרה היכן היתה? נתנה בתיבה ונעל בפניה׃ כיון דמטא למכסא, אמרין ליה: הב מכסא׃ אמר: אנא יהיב מכסא׃ אמרין ליה: מאנין את טעין? אמר: אנא יהיב דמאנין׃ אמרין ליה: דהב את טעין׃ אמר: אנא יהיב מן דדהב׃ אמרו ליה: מטכסין את טעין׃ אמר: דמטכסי אנא יהיב׃ מרגלין את טעון׃ אמר: אנא יהיב דמרגלין׃ אמרין ליה: לא אפשר! אלא דפתחת וחמית לן מה בגוה, כיון שפתחה הבהיקה כל ארץ מצרים מזיוה׃

* The customs official's suspicions are aroused by Abram's readiness to pay the dues rather than open the box.

What were they doing inventing this story about the box? It's because the text only says that Abram entered Egypt, not Abram and Sarai. But, coming back to the Genesis Apocryphon, what gave him the right to invent a dream? His interpretation was based on the same verse, "Now I know that you are a beautiful woman," but his interpretation was different: "Now I know that you are a beautiful woman, when the Egyptians see you they will want to kill me."

On now to the story of the Binding of Isaac. Why should G-d put the righteous Abraham through this test? Why should an All-Knowing G-d need to test him? G-d knows how the test is doing to come out. Tests are bad: every day we ask G-d not to lead us לֹא לִידֵי נִיסָיוֹן, into trial/temptation.

One set of answers can be found from the Book of Jubilees, found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. This dates from ca. 200 BCE, about four hundred years before the Mishna. Jubilees is the oldest commentary we have on the Book of Genesis.

And it came to pass in the seventh week, in its first year, in the first month, in the jubilee, on the twelfth of that month, that words came in heaven concerning Abraham that he was faithful in everything which was told him and he loved the LORD and was faithful in all affliction. And Prince Mastema came and said before G-d, "Behold Abraham loves Isaac his son. and he is more pleased with him than everything. Tell him to offer him (as) a burnt offering upon the altar. And you will see whether he will do this thing. And you will know whether he is faithful in everything in which you test him."

"Mastema" means loathing. This offers the same theodicy given in the Book of Job. (In both cases, Satan/Mastema is an angel serving G-d.)

The Biblical story does not mention anything about a challenge by Satan/Mastema. But again the author of Jubilees would argue that this is hinted at in the Biblical text:

Genesis 22:1 בראשית כב א
And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, "Abraham", and he said, "Here I am." וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וְהָאֱלֹהִים נִסָּה אֶת־אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי׃

דְּבָרִים can mean either "things" or "words". But the text does not give any words explicitly. So the author comes up with some.

And the LORD was aware that Abraham was faithful in all of his afflictions because He tested him with his land*, and with famine. And He tested him with the wealth of kings. And He tested him again with his wife, when she was taken (from him), and with circumcision. And he tested him with Ishmael and with Hagar, his maidservant, when he sent him away. And in everything in which he had tested him, he was found faithful. And his soul was not impatient. And he was not slow to act because he was faithful and a lover of the LORD.

* When he had to leave his homeland.

The Mishna says that Abraham was tested with ten tests; in the Book of Jubilees there are also ten tests mentioned. But they are not called tests in the Bible; what turned them into tests? Go back to the above verse, and read דְּבָרִים this time as "after these things". This implies the earlier things were also tests.

There's just one problem with this interpretation: When the angel prevents Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, it says "Now I know that you are G-dfearing." Surely G-d would have known! Jubilees answers, speaking, pseudepigraphically, as Moses, dictated to him as the Angel of the Presence (the unnamed angel in many Biblical stories):

And I stood before him and before Prince Mastema. And the LORD said, "Speak to him. Do not let his hand descend upon the child. And do not let him do anything to him because I know that he is one who fears the LORD." And I called out to him from heaven and I said to him, "Abraham, Abraham." And he was terrified and said "Here I am." And I said to him, "Do not put forth your hand against the child and do not do anything to him because now I know that you are one who fears the LORD and you did not deny your firstborn son to me."

Note the slight difference between what G-d says to the angel to say, and what the angel says: G-d did not say "now I know," because G-d had always known.

We have a case here of overkill: two different explanations for the same thing: killing one bird with two stones. We have the angel inserting the word "now", but there is also a second, different interpretation: ידעתי, "I know", can also be read as יִדַעֲתּי "I have made it known." This explanation is found in Genesis Rabbah, centuries later, but is also found in Jubilees:

And I have made known to all that you are faithful to me in everything which I say to you. Go in peace.

There's a series of midrashim that tell us the angels were watching in Heaven, and when Abraham lifts up his hand they wept, and in one case their tears fall down and melt the knife. They normally bring prooftexts from Isaiah, but in the text called Pseudo-Jubilees, a commentary written on the Book of Jubilees—which was almost the Biblical book with the most number of copies in the library at Qumran—you see the following:

The angels of holiness were standing weeping above [him saying, "Shall G-d annihilate] his sons from the earth?" The angels of the Ma[stema stood across from them in the heavens] rejoicing and saying, "Now he is lost. [For if Abraham witholds his son, he will found to be] false; and if not, he will be found faithful, b[ut his son will die." And the angel called] "Abraham, Abraham!"

The idea of two groups of angels, good ones and bad ones, is very Dead Sea Scrolls. And the concept here appears to be expressing the same idea as in the Midrash.

This is perhaps to explain what's meant by "to all"—in the text in Jubilees, there's one person: Mastema!

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