The Badness of Good Stories
This week, Talmudic rabbis seek righteousness in the Bible’s tales of vice, weakness, and human frailty
It is now that the Talmud moves into the subject of biblical figures who are notorious sinners. Oddly, since even Moses and Aaron were said to be guilty in God’s eyes, the rabbis begin to argue that some of these much greater sinners were actually innocent of the deeds ascribed to them in the Bible. For instance, we read in Genesis 35:22, “While Israel [that is, Jacob] stayed in the land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine, and Israel found out.” The punishment for this violation comes in Genesis 49:3, in Jacob’s final speech to his sons, where Reuben, the first-born, is harshly criticized and demoted from his proper place: “Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer;/ For when you mounted your father’s bed/ You brought disgrace.”
This seems plain enough. Yet “Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: Whoever says that Reuben sinned is simply mistaken.” Why? Because the end of Genesis 35:22 reads, “Now the sons of Jacob were 12 in number.” In this way, the rabbis argue, the Bible means to imply that Reuben was equal to his brothers, not their inferior. But then why does the Bible say, “Reuben went and lay with Bilhah?” Because this “teaches that Reuben disturbed his father’s bed, and Scripture regards him as if he lay with her.” And what did this “disturbing his father’s bed” consist of? Simply that Reuben moved his father’s bed out of Bilhah’s tent. Remember that Reuben was the son of Leah, Jacob’s unloved first wife, while Bilhah was the concubine given him by Rachel, his cherished second wife. By sleeping in Bilhah’s tent and avoiding Leah’s, Jacob was further insulting Leah; and it was to avenge this insult that Reuben, Leah’s son, moved Jacob’s bed into her tent.
This way of reading the Bible can’t help but appear highly unnatural. Effectively, the rabbis nullify what the Bible actually says—that Reuben slept with Bilhah—and replace it with a story entirely of their own invention. The questions I find myself struggling with are, first, why they wanted to read the Bible this way, and second, how they justified the unnaturalness to themselves. What is at stake in arguing that Reuben—and the other, greater figures who are the subjects of similar arguments, like David and Solomon—never committed a sin?
One possibility is that the rabbis cannot tolerate the Bible’s tolerance for sin and human frailty. They want to impose a standard of innocence and piety on the early Israelites that the Bible itself did not claim for them. This is perhaps related to the way the Talmud rewrites the martial feats of David’s soldiers by turning them into feats of Torah study. It as though the austere moral standards of rabbinic Judaism are being projected back onto an earlier phase of Jewish history, which did not share them.
As for the grounds the rabbis use to justify their rewriting of Reuben’s story, they seem quite frail. If the Bible wanted to say that Reuben did not commit a sin, why not say so, instead of encoding that message in the seemingly neutral phrase “the sons of Jacob were 12 in number?” It seems like bad hermeneutics to allow a speculative reading of the text to cancel out a plain reading. Yet it would be absurd to claim that the rabbis did not respect the text of the Torah when, in fact, they regarded it as the most important thing in the universe. Rather, it seems, they honored it by finding it in as many pious meanings as possible, even if that meant reading against the grain.
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