Agents of Mystery and the Mission of the Patriarchs

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Agents of Mystery

and the Mission of the Patriarchs

by Joshua Cypess

I. Introduction

God wrote the Torah as an everlasting, unchanging Testament of eternal laws and precepts. Consequently, He was highly exclusive as to who and what was worthy to be mentioned in Scripture. We assume that when a person is mentioned in the text, he is an integral part of the holy message and teaching. In Sefer Bereishit, names are usually given to those who affect the lives of the central characters of the narrative - the Avot, Patriarchs. Many of the partially or fully anonymous characters in Bereishit are nameless for this reason: they do not affect the lives of the Patriarchs enough to be considered Scripturally notable. There are those, however, whom I have labeled "Agents of Mystery" - characters who are anonymous, yet have important roles in the flow of the narrative and the lives of the protagonists. Two especially perplexing instances of this conspicuous anonymity involves the trusted servants of the Avot who act with exemplary ethical behavior; and the two events echo each other so closely that they seem to require a joint explanation. The first case is with the Eved Avraham prominently mentioned in Parashat Chayei Sara.1 Most people know this character as Eliezer - the identification given by Chazal - and do not realize that his name is never mentioned. The second character is so anonymous that most readers ignore his actions completely: Ha-ish asher al Beit Yosef, The Master of Yosef's House.2 Their anonymity teachers us something complex but crucial in understanding the essence of Sefer Bereishit.
While at first, all mankind was expected to live fully under God's special providence and justice, the punctuated failures of the Expulsion, Flood and Dispersion amply showed that this was an untenable relationship between Man and God. Rather, the Patriarchs were chosen to create an nation that would teach the Seventy Nations of the World, by example and word, how to live a moral, God-fearing life. The Mission of the Patriarchs was to develop themselves into people that lived the ideal of being Or La-goyim - a Light to the Nations.3 We will see that both Avraham and Yosef lived these exemplary lives, and that the episodes of their anonymous servants are to show that God's reconfigured relationship succeeded: i.e., that humanity is able to sustain this new covenant. Unlike all those before him, Avraham was able to convince others that God must be followed and feared. Once the Patriarchs, starting with Avraham and ending with Yosef, show that their Mission was successful, the next stage began - the building of a nation that will carry the same responsibility of teaching the world. The success of the Patriarchs should reassure us that by following their path we can convince the world of the same message and achieve the Final Redemption.

II. The Meaning of Anonymity: Names and Namelessness in Tanakh4

Names and the naming process have a much greater significance in the context of Tanakh, and work under different rules, from what we apply to our names today. Our custom is to name children after relatives or Biblical heroes; it is rare for people to completely invent names for their children. It is also rare for people to consider names to have the power to embody the essence of an individual.5 In Tanakh, though, names are considered a very powerful connection between mankind and God. People often invented names in order to express this relationship or to use the latent cosmic power of the relationship to shape the newborn's destiny. So common was this practice that repeated names in Tanakh are very rare. Moreover, in that time, people may often have had two or three names and operated equally under them all; for example, Yitro, Moshe's father in law, who according to Chazal had seven names or more.6
One especially enlightening phenomenon that demonstrates the critical importance of names is God's naming or renaming of the Patriarchs. The difference between Avram and Avraham is only one letter, but it merited God revealing himself with all of His reality-rupturing glory that accompanies His worldly intervention, and adding that one letter. God's Will for a name-change has as much cosmic import as God's revelation.
The clearest example of the importance of a name is seen through God's attention to His own. God's name seems equivalent to His Honor, His Essence, His reputation. The ultimate substantiation for an action is "le-ma'an shemo" - for the sake of His name, for the sake of Him. Possibly because of his incorporeality, but more because of the essential power of the personal appellation, is God made equivalent to his Name.7 We see from God that a name denotes the essence, the honor, the reputation of a Being.
This understanding of the metaphysical gravity of a name in the Torah emphasizes the absence of a name as also being significant. Without a name, a person is essentially nonexistent as far as the Torah is concerned. This also emphasizes the question of why, in contrast, some other people merit the honor of being named. Bereishit is also called Sefer Toldot - the Book of Genealogies, and long lists of names are commonplace. Why do certain people merit the importance of a biblically given name, while others are condemned to the nonexistence of anonymity? This conundrum can be unraveled by analyzing the pattern of the anonymous in Sefer Bereishit and constructing rules of Biblical naming.


(1) Generations from Adam to Noah (4:17 - 6:4)

(2) Generations from Noah to Avraham (10:1-32; 11:10-25)

(3) Builders of Migdal Bavel (11: 1-9)

(6) Avraham's Army of 3189 (14:14)

(8) The Townspeople of Sedom (19:1-14)

(11) Three Shepherds at the Charan Well10 (29:2-9)

(12) Lavan's Brothers & Sons (30:35, 31:1, 32:23)


(5) The refugee (הפליט) from the (14:13)

Chedarlaomerean War

(7) The Three Who Visit Avraham (18:1-22)

(9) The Two Na'arim Who Accompany (22:3-6, 19)

Avraham to the Akeida

(10) Eved Avraham Who Finds Yitzchak a Wife (24:1-67)

(13) The Messengers Yaakov sends to Esav11 (32:4,7)

(14) He Who Wrestles with Yaakov (32:25-33)

(15) He Who Directed Yosef (37:15-17)

(16) He Who is Master of Yosef's Household (43:16-24;44:1-10)
A. Groups
Glancing at the list, we could posit that most of these groups of people are not mentioned because they are evil, if it were not for the independently disturbing fact that there are many evil people who are named. We interrupt Sefer Bereishit with the whole family list of Yishmael, the "Edomite White Pages," and the names of the nine warring kings, but not the names of Lavan's sons or those who accompany Avraham to the Akeida. So, while it would be natural for a moral message to be applied to namelessness - that is, just as we are enjoined to blot out the name of Amalek, so too Tanakh blots out its own evildoers - the hierarchy seems to depend on other factors. Being named depends on how important one is to God's message: anonymity denotes Insignificance; without a name, the character is incidental or inconsequential.12 This fits our basic understanding of the pre-eminent importance of the Torah - it is not a ancient phone book which lists everyone who existed; only those who figure into the grand story of Bereishit merit identification. Significance seems to have two factors: (1) a great figure who is not a Patriarch yet who does great things - like kings or other world-shakers; (2) someone who affects the lives of the Avot (a Patriarchal foil). An encounter with a member of the latter category acts as a foil to highlight, contrast, reflect, or project the deeds and character of the Avot. So many evil people are mentioned because they act as nemeses or are relatives of the Patriarchs, or they are kings who cross an Av's path.
The law seems to be: If you are not a great person, yet you affect the lives of the Patriarchs, then you will be mentioned but not named; if you are "great" and affect their lives, then you will be raised from merely a status (shepherd) to a name (Avimelekh, King of Gerar or Bera, King of Sedom). Again, just being connected to a Patriarch is not enough. It is necessary to have an encounter that, while brief, gives important information about the Patriarch.
However, even this law may not be sufficient, since there are some world-shakers who are not mentioned.13 For instance, the construction crew of Migdal Bavel (#3 on table), the Tower of Babel, caused a cataclysmic event in human history, yet we do not have the name of the ringleader. A good sign that this absence is significant, and an important sign-post for investigation in general, is when the midrash finds in necessary to apply a name to a character that the Torah keeps nameless. So here, the midrash claims that Nimrod was the choreographer of Migdal Bavel; so why is his name not mentioned? Similarly, we are told that when the entire city of Sedom (#8) surrounded Lot's house with depraved and murderous intent, why does the previously mentioned King of Sedom not deserve to be named here?
We may thus add to the rule of insignificance the rule of namelessness as Nonexistence; these people would otherwise be significant, but they cannot be mentioned because they have a special type of evil - they do not add to the yishuv olam, the establishment of the world.14 The people of Sedom are not mentioned because they are soon to be annihilated, while Edom, Amon, Moav, Yishmael are the cast of characters in the later books of Tanakh. The sons and brothers of Lavan (#12) are not named, even though their father, sisters, and aunts and uncles are, because:

1) They were almost certainly evil,

2) their progeny did not figure into the later plot, and so are insignificant, and

3) they are foils to demonstrate the proto-antisemitic animosity towards Yaakov's wealth.

Another rule that seems necessary is an expansion of the concept of the Patriarchal foil. For instance, the fame of the three shepherds at the Charan well (#11) comes from their being graced with an encounter with Yaakov. Sometimes we need to know that the Patriarch did a particular action or that an event happened to him, and since the encounter would not make sense without some characters for the Av to play off, these otherwise nobodies are mentioned as plot-movers in addition to being foils. So, in our example, the shepherds reflect - through contrast and interaction - Yaakov's pursuit of justice and honesty, as well as the thievery and lawlessness of Lavan's country.
With these rules established, we can explain the remaining groups according to these rules: the generations from Adam to Noah and Noah to Avraham (#1,2) are "Nonexistents" - the first group is annihilated and the second ones are simply evil. Avraham's army and converts (#6) are mentioned in passing because of their relationship to their great leader. Their transient reference informs us that Avraham was a practicing "evangelist" even before his consecration at the beginning of parashat Lekh Lekha. Later, their existence shows that Avraham was as powerful as a king to have his own private army, and that he was willing to risk his life for a holy war. All of these rules are also fitting to be applied to the situations and characters later on in Tanakh.
However, one could say that the problem of the Migdal Bavel construction crew still remains; they are world-shakers, they all live afterwards and their progeny becomes the entire world population, yet they are not named. Moreover, they are nestled in between huge groups of names, making their anonymity so salient that the text is screaming at us to notice their nothingness. Anonymity, an absence, is as conspicuous as being named in the proper context. To explain Migdal Bavel, we can introduce a concept that is more apt of explaining the anonymity of individuals - namelessness means that the person or group is an archetype, a paradigm. No name is given because their essence is consumed and subsumed by their ideal or purpose; the lesson they teach becomes their regnant identity. In the case of Migdal Bavel, the builders are to embody the evil that catalyzed the search for an Avraham figure. This last rule of namelessness as paradigm provides a fitting transition to the discussion of the anonymous individuals in Sefer Bereishit, where we find the most perplexing cases that defy the rules for groups.
B. Individuals
In applying the same rules established for the groups onto the cases of individuals, we see that while some may work, the majority follow the just-discussed paradigm rule. The two na'arim (#9) fit the Patriarchal foil paradigm; they are there as a contrast to highlight the fact that this great event was fitting only for Avraham and Yitzchak; that is, as opposed to the na'arim, they are shown to be walking off to the Akeida "yachdav" - alone.15 Likewise, Yaakov's messengers (#13) are there as plot-movers; they show what the Patriarchs are doing (that is, instead of sending a carrier-turtledove, Yaakov sends a person). The rest of the instances in the "individual" category do not fit, and their exceptional nature teaches us something even more about Sefer Bereishit.
For example, the three who visit Avraham (#7), described as "שלשה אנשים -shelosha anashim," could fit the "plot-mover" rule; they are mentioned only to give Avraham information he needs, which is very similar to the shepherds at the well. However, the visitors are given a prominent position in the narrative; God does not expend twenty-two lines of the Torah on someone who is simply a boy from Western Union. Moreover, as opposed to the "shepherd" example, the men are not there to small-talk about sheep and rocks; they bring a Divine Message. Their exceptional nature is confirmed in chapter 19, when the same men are described as two angels.16 This instance is sufficiently exemplary to provide the basis for a rule about individuals in Bereishit: when the word "Ish" (איש) is used, the text can be construed as referring to an angel. This rule is corroborated by Yaakov's Wrestler, who is called an "Ish" all throughout the battle, yet is clearly an angel - as proven by Yaakov's naming of the battleground "Peniel",17 as it is the site where he saw the "face of God" (an angel). In keeping with these examples, Chazal, in the midrash, identify Yosef's Direction Giver (#15) as the Archangel Gavriel. This new rule, though, dangerously upsets all of the previous ones.
Angels are not used frivolously,18 so they are certainly not "insignificant" nor are they "plot-movers" or even "non-existent." From the incident at Peniel, we learn that Angels cannot have names as part of their Being.19 As stated above, since a name embodies an entity's essence, it is superfluous when the character itself is presented as the manifestation of a paradigm or a quality. The English word "angel" comes from the Greek root meaning "messenger", and the Hebrew term "malakh" can be used to mean a human as well as divine agent,20 but the root of the word angel "מלאך" means "purposeful action;" and it is from this core that we can learn that angels are completely subsumed by their duty. This sets the rule that applies to every case of individual anonymity in Bereishit: When the character is unnamed, it is because they do not need a name in the conventional manner, a collection of sounds or words. Their name comes from their mission, and this quality fits for messengers of mortal or immortal ilk. "Angels", for our purposes, can be defined as messengers either mortal or supernatural whose only purpose (as far as the text is concerned) is to fulfill a Divine mission.
A case which demonstrates this namelessness as Divine Emissary (angel) theory is the Refugee (#5). His name, Ha-palit, has the same characteristics as the angel-indicators: a term that describes his material phenotype, a man or a refugee, and the "ה" prefix to alert us that this is no ordinary person or manifestation.21 Based on the above theory, we should identify the refugee as an angel. Rashi surprises us when he says that the Palit is Og, the future King of Bashan. However, Rashi claims it is Og because of the compulsions of peshat - by comparing phrases in the Torah we see that there is compelling evidence to support this peshat.22 But his real identity is unimportant - which is why it is not given; the fact that he is depicted as a messenger is enough to place him into the angel category, only through a loophole do we consider him human. We know he is on a mission, though, not only because of his appellation, but because his appearance is otherwise useless. He comes to tell Avraham a small piece of information, yet we see many times in Bereishit alone where this level of information is given to a character without an interlocutor described; and while these situations could be chalked up to Ruach Ha-kodesh; why not this situation as well?23 We learn that his presence, that is, his message, was necessary to be given over in an "angelic" manner.
Angels are manifestations of God's glory in this world; and, as stated above in reference to God's name-changing, for Him to intervene in this world means that something is very important. The most important reason for God's intervention, possibly the only reason, is for God to establish and maintain his covenantal relationship with Man. The entire era of the Patriarchs is comprised of one continuous Divine effort to create a new covenant - to take one moral figure and develop him into a nation that will teach the world to follow God. This construction process involves communicating with those he finds worthy to carry the new covenantal role and helping the chosen-ones to carry this role to fruition. Besides communication, God will help this figure develop himself into being a better practitioner of this Divine mission by besetting the chosen-one with tests. The tools of God's intervention, the tests, are angels; and while some tests do not need angels - they come about through the ordinary chaos of human events - some situations need to be specially created by God.24

So with the case of Og, his presence alerts us that the forthcoming battle between the kings is a test for Avraham, and this is corroborated by most of the commentaries. This rule also fits for the Three Visitors (#7), which if it was not a test for Avraham, then it was for Sara, and Yaakov's Wrestler (#14).

But we are still left with some questions. If Yosef's Direction-giver is an angel, then what kind of test is this, Yosef's ability to read a map? Also, we have two characters, Eved Avraham (#10) and Yosef's Majordomo (#16) who do not seem to be angels, and also do not seem to fit any known test. We could, instead, explain them away as Patriarchal Foils, except that they are too important, based on a number of verses associated with their exploits and the way they are described in the text.
By taking a closer look into how tests fit into the framework of Sefer Bereishit, we see that these last three characters (Eved Avraham, Yosef's Majordomo and Yosef's Direction Giver) signal critical episodes in understanding the message of the Torah. To see how everything interconnects, we first need to analyze the purpose of testing in Bereishit, and how tests use the understructured theme of the Mission of the Patriarchs.
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