Bible Commentator

Messengers of God: A Theological And Psychological Perspective

Moshe Reiss


The Book of Genesis is a book about a family, a four generational family. The Fathers are called Patriarchs -- Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Mothers are Matriarchs --Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. Jews are considered biological descendants of these Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Non--Jews who convert are renamed with a Hebrew name and are reckoned as sons or daughters of Abraham and Sarah.  Families and the extended families is thus a key concept in Judaism. Some family members rightfully or wrongly get cut--off as in the case of Ishmael and Esau. The conflict between Abraham's sons -- Ishmael and Isaac and between Isaac's sons -- Esau and Jacob -- is a conflict about spiritual succession. Jewish commentators note the reconciliation between Ishmael and lsaac and the text itself tells of the reconciliation of Esau and Jacob. The conflict continued with Jacob’s sons, but after the aattempted sibling murder of Joseph they finally reconciled when Jacob recognized the problem and shared the blessing between his children. Jacob does not exile any member of his family, not Reuben, despite his sleeping with his father’s concubine and not Simon nor Levi for the slaughter of the people of Shechem. He may not be happy with these three sons but they all remain part of the family. He loses his favorite son -- Joseph -- for twenty years, but Judah reconciles the family. Later on the family was extended to tribes and later still to nationhood. Just as there were cut--offs in the extended family similar cut--offs occurred with the tribes (fighting each other in the Book of Judges) and later the nation split into two: Judah and Israel.

God chose Abraham as the Man of Faith to begin the road to redemption. God also chose Isaac as the son to receive the spiritual blessing because of his father, because Abraham was willing to sacrifice him not knowing how God's promise would work out. The process wounded Isaac and he could no longer choose. Rebekah chose the son, Jacob, to continue the blessing. She understood that the destiny had to continue and believed that God had given her the choice. Jacob is more a son to Rebekah than a son to his father. Jacob after a painful life divided the blessing between the Man of Faith among his children -- Judah -- and his Majestic Man son Joseph.

Jacob accomplished what even his grandfather was unable to accomplish, bring all his children into the family and thus began the process of nationhood. Abraham suffered first the loss of his adopted son Lot, then his first born son Ishmael. lsaac is almost murdered and is wounded by the experience. But Abraham fulfilled his destiny. The connection between Abraham and Jacob is not the wounded Isaac, but Abraham's daughter--in--law and Jacob's mother Rebekah. Rebekah is more like Abraham, having to choose between her children -- it was her destiny. She sends Jacob to her brother Laban -- he must learn to survive if his destiny is to be fulfilled. Jacob's life was painful as he told the Pharaoh (Gen. 47:9) but he fulfilled his destiny. Abraham began the covenant with the circumcision. Jacob began his mission by making a conditional covenant with God, then by being wounded by a God-like figure and finally by reconciling with his brother.  He ended his life by having his Majestic son Joseph swear on his wounded thigh to return him to the land.

Are we intended to learn from Genesis and especially its two heroes -- Abraham and Jacob that only by giving up something of value (your homeland) can you get something of greater value (the Land of Israel), only by giving up your family can you get a family (be a father of a great nation) and only by giving up a beloved son can you become a father of multiple nations. Abraham gave up Ishmael and agreed to sacrifice Isaac. Jacob lost Joseph for twenty years as his mother lost him for twenty years. Abraham is exiled in Egypt. Jacob who appears to receive the blessing of power serves Laban and Esau (Gen. 32:17,19; 33:14) is exiled in the younger part of his life with his uncle and father--in--law Laban and in the later years of his life in Egypt under his son Joseph.

Abraham has two sons and loses one. Isaac has two twin sons and loses one. Jacob has twelve sons loses one, but his son of faith reconciles with Joseph and makes the family whole. Sibling rivalry and multiple wife rivalry are prevalent in the Bible. The closest relations can be the most tense and problematic.

Youngest children and barren women are normally thought of as the most vulnerable. But are in fact favored by the Bible. There is an assumption in the Bible and other cultures towards primogeniture. In modern times as Frederick Greenspahn points out that 'all seven of the original Mercury astronauts were the oldest children in their families, as are a disproportionatly large number of college students and professors, poets and presidents'. But he also points their predominance as 'strippers and criminals the mentally disadvantaged and susceptible to prenatal disorders'. 1

The reason we posit that youngest are favored in the Bible is in order to emphasize God's responsibility to the vulnerable. The favoring of the youngest is in fact extraordinary in the Bible: Abel, Seth (Adam's youngest son), Abraham (although listed as Terah's oldest son is considered by Talmud as the youngest 2), Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Joseph, and Judah, Ephraim, Moses, Samuel, David and Solomon. Oldest sons are either sinful or considered less valuable than their younger siblings: Cain, Ishmael, Esau, Leah, Er, Onan, Manasseh and Amnon, Absalom, Adonijah (the successive eldest sons of David).

And yet the first time 'Israel' is called by its national name we are told they are God's 'bekhor', His eldest son, His favorite (Ex. 4:22). Every choice in the Bible is God's. The prominence of the youngest, the barren women, the slaves and the powerless are what Max Weber called 'a rational theology of misfortune’ 3 Israel must have understood that God's choice was neither deserved nor acquired by their own strength. Their hands like David's, were stained by emotional and physical blood. Ishmael, Esau and Leah's sympathetic portrait in the Bible were not an accident. Many paid a price for the 'hero's' success.

There is also many 'love--hate relations depicted in the Bible: Cain--Abel, Sarah--Hagar, Esau--Jacob, Leah-Rachel, Joseph and his brothers, Onan-Tamar, Hannah-Penina, Saul--David, Michal--David, and Amnon--Tamar--Absalom. And a very few loving relationships; Jacob and Rachel, Hannah and Elkanah, David and Jonathan and Naomi and Ruth

We are told in the Ethic of the Father’s 'do not judge your fellow man until you have been in his place' (2:4). Thus we are requested to attempt to see each of the persons in the original Abrahamic family -- Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac -- through their own perspective.

Ishmael is the big brother whose mother is a secondary wife (as is Rueben). Hagar is the birth mother for Sarah, her servant and Abraham's wife. Abraham allows Sarah to abuse Hagar and her/their son. She lost her value when Isaac was born. Sarah, the senior wife, was abused by Abraham in the incident in Egypt and Gerar and God withheld from her womb children -- the lifeline for women in that society. Her servant gives birth from her husband, with God's approval. How is she to react to this clear unfairness? Is it conceivable that she would not abuse her fertile servant and her son? Isaac comes very late in her life, after her menopause has withered her body and she is surprised that Abraham is potent enough to have children. When Isaac is born (like Joseph) he is clearly her favorite. She also needs him to usurp the role Ishmael has played as the only first born and heir to Abraham. Fearing for the older and stronger brother she exiles him. After all she has waited ninety years for Isaac’s birth she will protect his position at all costs. Abraham, the father of Ishmael has bonded to him from his birth and together with him was circumcised when he is a young adult in a binding covenant with God. Abraham is the one who Sarah implied is 'drunk with love for God'. 4

For a woman to be childless in the Bible was to be ‘barren’ of life - to lack identity. In the case of Sarah we are told 'God has kept me from having children (Gen. 16:2). God 'saw that Leah was unloved and He opened her womb while Rachel remained barren' (29:31), presumably because she was loved. Thus Sarah and Rachel anguished over their lack of children. Their meaning in life was to have children. God remembered (?) Sarah and gave her a child because of Abraham. God remembered (?) Rachel and she conceived (30:22). And after Leah stopped having children 'God heard her' (30:17) and she conceived again. Rebekah, the most powerful Matriarch was barren. It is clear that for the Bible God controls fertility.

In Jewish tradition Sarah and Rachel are ‘Our Mothers’ and Jerusalem is the ‘the mother of us all’. Is there a connection between the barren mothers and Jerusalem? Referring to Jerusalem we read ‘Sing, O barren one’ (Is. 54:1).What does it mean to say Jerusalem is barren?

Sarah barrenness was noted on five separate occasions (11:30; 15:2; 16:1; 18:11; 21:1). She anguished over that fact and gave her servant Hagar to Abraham to have 'children through her' (162). She was barren for several decades. When Rachel was barren for thirteen years she said to Jacob 'Give me children or I shall die'. She gave Jacob her servant Bilah 'through her, then I too shall have children' (30:3). Leah after having four children also became barren (30:9), so she gave Jacob her servant Zilpah. Thus three of the matriarchs anguished over their barrenness. He hear of no anguish by Rebekah, simply that she was barren -- we do not know for how long -- and when Isaac prayed she conceived. Her pregnancy was difficult, she inquired of God and He spoke to her. She is the only matriarch that God spoke to directly and gave her a prophecy that turned out to be a mission. The mission to make certain that the blessing goes to the correct twin, the most important message to the second generation. God only as an aside spoke to Sarah to tell her that she lied (18:15). God spoke twice to Hagar to bless her (16:10--12; 21:17--20). God never spoke to Rachel or Leah. Are Hagar and Rebekah  Majestic Women?

A Midrash tells us that Abraham prayed for the barren wife of Abimelech (Gen. 20:17-18), and God therefore remembered Sarah. 5 Another Midrash that Abraham prayed for barren women. 6 This allowed the writer to use the Talmudic proverb of ‘measure for measure’ and the people to understand that Zion’s time was coming. Numerous Midrashim contend that God fulfills those who pray to him or those who fear him. This idea of a righteous person negotiating with God makes sense for an immanent God, but not for a transcendent God. Most of us most of the time need to deal with a merciful immanent God, much as we may equally recognize the transcendence of God. We also find this idea in the Christian Bible with Luke comparing asking a friend for food as a parable to asking God (Luke 11:1-3). These Midrashim as well as Luke are making an homiletical point; that the poor, the burdened, the humble and righteous will be rewarded.

Other women known as barren in the Bible include Hannah, mother of Samuel. (Two unnamed women are also barren, one is Samson's mother (Judges 13) and the other is known as the Shunemite woman who Elisha blesses (2 Kings 4:8)). Hannah, the wife of Elkanah has a competing wife, Penina who has children. It would appear that there is an attempt to compare them to Rachel and Leah, but the story was never completed. Rachel said to Jacob 'give me sons or else I die', he responds 'am I in place of God' (30: 1). Elkanah says to Hannah  'am I not better to you than ten sons (1 Sam. 1:8). Both men are insensitive to their wives needs. Hannah then asks God directly. When she is given Samuel and returns him to God she receives more children (1 Sam. 2:21). Can this be compared to Abraham who after being willing to sacrifice Isaac is given more children with a new wife named Keturah?

Another barren woman is Michal, the first wife of David. Her barrenness is permanent and appears to be the result of David her husband refusing to sleep with her after she exhibits an outburst of hatred with sexual innuendoes. Michal is the only woman the biblical text tells us loved her husband (1 Sam. 18:20,28). She is however, never a loved wife. Jacob we are told loved his wife Rachel (Gen. 29:18,20,30). Both were barren. Rachel and Michal are the only women to use 'teraphim' (household gods) in the Bible and both use them to promote their husbands interest against their fathers. Both are younger sisters who are the father's (Laban in one case and Saul in the other) second choice towards a prospective son--in--law. Merab is Michel's elder daughter as is Leah to Rachel. Both son--in--laws are the younger brothers.

A Midrash tells us seven barren women; Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Hannah, Hazzelponi, (the textually unnamed mother of Samson) and Zion. 7  Just as God created the world he will create children for these barren women, including Zion. The Midrash enumerates the children, rather than the women. They are counted as ‘pre-figured’. They are gifts of God; the most important being Zion, then barren, but intended by God to be blessed. God will raise the poor to be Princes (Ps. 113:8). The barren ones are before redemption, but redemption will come.8 Is Mary, mother of Jesus, the Virgin, related to the barren women?

Rabbi Soloveitchik tells us that human beings are a combination of material, pragmatic and biological needs on the one hand and on the other existential inner needs. 9 Is it possible that for Abraham, Jacob and Elkanah one wife was a biological need (Hagar, Leah and Peninah) and the other for their existential needs (Sarah, Rachel and Hannah)? Rabbi Soloveitchik describes two aspects of marriage, one outer-directed – the need to leave children and the other inner-directed – the need to overcome ‘loneliness’.  Hagar, Leah and Peninah helped Abraham, Jacob and Elkanah to survive beyond their death  – to leave something after their death. Sarah, Rachel and Hannah allowed them to survive in this world. 10
It is likely that Rabbi Soloveitchik would deny this connection as he sees marriage as requiring a sharing of personalities, but I wonder whether with the strength of personalities of Abraham and Jacob (we do not know enough about Elkanah – despite their are hints) and Sarah, Rachel and Hannah that would have been possible? Those strong female personalities  yearned for children but would have preferred to achieve that without paying the ‘masochistic’ high price defined by Rabbi Soloveitchik as  of giving up ‘freedom, safety and leisure’. 11

Can Jacob/Israel (who continually fought his Majestic Brother for the Blessing) be seen as the Man who attempted to synthesize both the Majestic Man and the Man of Faith? Perhaps he succeeded, although with his children, the problem was resurrected. Can King David who fought the ‘secular’ King Saul to become God’s vassal king be seen as another who attempted to be both the Majestic Man and the Man of Faith? Did he succeed or fail? Most of his children are abominable. Both Jacob Our Father and David Our King had enormous difficulties with their children. Can their heroic attempts be related to their failures as fathers and the result their children having problems?

Jacob is the first of the Abrahamic family to recognize the importance of the duality of man. He begins his life clutching onto Esau's heel attempting to be the firstborn. He takes his brother's birthright when Esau is famished and steals his blessing in an attempt to overcome his Adam Two personality and become Adam one. His mother Rebekah, instigates him. She also prefers the Adam One personality -- she is one herself. But eventually Jacob combines his natural Adam Two personality with his brother’s Adam One when he fights and receives the name Israel -- his Adam One name. He never rejects the name Jacob, as requested by the angel and by God. He then reconciles himself with his brother Esau. His children are either one or the other personality. He is the most complex of the Jewish patriarchs. His children will be one or the other of these two models of human behaviour. Jews are rightfully called the people of Israel from his name of Power and Jews from the word for Judah, the 'Man of Faith’.

Because Jacob/lsrael recognized the importance of both personalities he blesses both Judah and Joseph. Jewish tradition recognizes this by creating a Messiah ben Ephraim -- the son of Joseph, the warrior Messiah -- the Adam One and a Messiah ben David, the spiritual Messiah -- an Adam Two. And Ezekiel tells us that, at God's request, he takes a stick and writes on it Judah and another and writes on it Joseph and joins them together (Ez. 37:16). That will be the messianic age when both aspects of human behavior are not only tolerated but inherent in each human being.

We discussed in detail the narcissism of Joseph and the apparent reconciliation with his brothers and his father. There are some intruiging comparisons between the life of Jacob and his son Joseph. Both stories involve the deception of a father and treachery towards a brother. Both younger brothers are exiled to a foreign land for twenty years. Both stories eventually end in reuinion and reconciliation. One, begins with a mother’s (Rebekah) vision from God and the other a dream that may have been divinely inspired. Both fathers (Isaac and Jacob) at a critical point do not ask some pointed questions. After Esau returns and Isaac realizes that Jacob stole the blessing why does he not bring in Jacob and pursue the issue? After Jacob’s sons bring him Joseph bloodied cloak why does he not pursue what happened? Do both realize that in this case self knowledge would be destructive to family unity?

Joseph and Samuel can and are seen in Jewish conventional tradition as Men of Faith (even Tzaddikim - saintly men). Can they not equally be seen as Business Managers and as aggressive Majestic Men?  They can be described as Majestic men being ‘nurtured by the selfish desire on part of Adam [One] to better his own position in relation to his environment’. 12 Can they be described as persons who ‘aspire to complete and absolute control of everything?  13 They wish to dominate and be a ‘man-master’ 14

Can Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel be seen as aggressive Majestic Women and the passive, but fertile Leah as a Woman of Faith? Given that God closed their wombs they had reason for existential concern. Can Abraham have failed the akeda test? Perhaps he was supposed to say no to God. Is that why God never speaks to him again? Isaac was traumatized by the akeda. Is that why Jewish Midrashim tell us Abraham chose to live the last thirty five years of his life with a new wife and with Ishmael? Why does Jacob/Israel choose his Majestic Son Joseph as his heir and only at the end of his life realize his choice is a failure. He then chooses Judah, the Man of Faith is his generation. Can choosing one son over his siblings be simply wrong?
Another example of a shadow person who does not succeed in integrating himself is Samson. Samson is one of the most unlikely heroes in the Bible; a totally un-God-like hero. He is born to be a nazir, a form of holy man. He noticed an unnamed woman from the uncircumsized Philistines (Jud. 14:3), the enemy of the Israelites and ‘went down and talked to her and he became fond of her’ (Jud. 14:7).  Went down is a way of saying away from God.  Judah ‘went down’ went he left his father because of his guilt about what they done to Joseph (Gen. 38:1). The ‘became fond of her’ means he had sexual relations with her. We are beginning to see Samson’s flaw, his lust of forbidden woman. 15 The statement that YHVH approved of this marriage (14:4) is inconsistent with the statement that he ‘went down’ and why would God approve his sleeping with a Philistine woman?.
Samson tells a riddle for a wager of the clothing of thirty Philistines. After accepting the riddle they tell his wife that they will burn her and her family unless she gets the answer from Samson. The woman cried for seven days and Samson told her and she promptly told the Philistines. He lost the wager and went and killed thirty Philistines, bringing their clothing to the thirty winners of the riddle. He killed thirty people because he foolishly creates a riddle and then even more foolishly looses it?

We are told Samson was a Judge for twenty years. In the next verse we are told Samson visited a whore in Gaza. Samson then fell in love with Delilah, another forbidden woman. After awhile he finally told her that his strength lie in is hair. She received a large sum of money to tell the Philistines. She had his hair cut off and the Philistines caught him and blinded him. At a sacrifice for the god Dagon they bring Samson to make fun of him. He prays to God, puts his arms around the pillar of their Temple says to God  ‘Let me be revenged on the Philistines at one blow for my two eyes . .  Let me die with the Philistines’ (16:28-29). In his death he killed more than he had killed during his lifetime (16:30).

Does Samson ever understand that it his own flaws that he brought his troubles upon himself? What kind of story is this for the sacred scriptures? This is more like the Greek tale about Hercules whose virtue is strength, not wisdom, than about a Hebrew Judge.  ‘Shimshon’ the Hebrew for Samson comes from the root ‘shmsh’ meaning sun as do two villages mentioned in the story Beit Shemesh and Ain Shemesh. The words suggest that a sun God was worshipped in the area.

We discussed at length King David as a character that acts out the role of saint and sinner. In both roles he is more successful than Jacob or Joseph. He becomes the first successful Israelite King and the role model of the Messianic King. His sins are overwhelming for a servant of God. Perhaps King David had the charisma and power to live his Shadow life.

There is little conflict in the Mosiac family consisting of three siblings; Moses, Aaron and Miriam. In this way the last four Books of the Torah differ greatly from Genesis. All three are blessed by God. Moses, is the epitome of the Prophet, Miriam, a woman as prophetess and Aaron, the High Priest. Yocheved, his mother and Miriam save Moses’ life several times when he was a child. Aaron becomes his spokesman. This family made up of a father mother and three children works together as a highly functioning family. This is in great contradiction to Genesis.

Moses refuses God's request to begin the nation over with him. Ironically his family disappears. None of the three reached the promised land. Is that the tragic element to their lives? 'And the dying man sighs 'O my God, I have lived in vain! All my days have I acted and ached for my people -- And have achieved nothing. Would that he had not taken them out of bondage if freedom is not his to give'. 16 That is the tragedy of Moses, the man who converses with God 'face to face', the man who sees the glory of God, the Servant and the Man of God. From the time of his death in approximately 1300 BCE, we have no text of a Jew named Moses for over 2,000 years. His name was too awesome to name a child after him. The first mention of a Jew called Moses was in the eighth century. Not until the eight century CE, after Muslims started naming their children 'Musa' after Moses. 17

He spends his life trying to determine his own identity. His original name given by his mother and father is unknown to us. The name we have for him is Egyptian, given him by an Egyptian princess. He grew up as an Egyptian prince. He rejected that identity when he joined his Hebrew people by killing an Egyptian oppressor and was found out by a Hebrew overlord named Dothan. He is exiled to Midian where he marries and lives with Zipporah's family for sixty years and finds a father surrogate, a priestly man. Until then his life is surrounded by women who protected him. When he meets with God at the burning bush and is given his mission, he finds it beyond his ability and asks God to appoint his brother Aaron. God confirms him as God's prophet and as a god to his brother and as a god to Pharaoh who is considered a god by his people. So Moses’ people then consider him a god and when he disappears to commune with God, they are fearful and ask Aaron to give them another god like Moses. He is an impossible act to follow.

Moses brought the covenant with the Ten Commandments and the Thirteen attributes of God from Mt. Sinai to the people. Moses, the Egyptian Prince, rejects his Egyptian identity and takes the Hebrews out of Egypt. Joseph, the Hebrew, brings the Hebrews into Egypt after becoming the epitome of an assimilated Egyptian. Moses sits with God for months while Joseph never speaks to God and takes an oath to Pharaoh. Moses is God’s servant while Joseph tries to be his father’s master and is the servant of the Pharaoh.

Moses is the outstanding personality of the Hebrew Bible. Comparisons or allusions between he and numerous other personalities in the Bible including Joshua, Gideon, Samuel, David, Elijah, Josiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Ezra as well as post-biblical personalities have been made. 18

Samuel was Judge, Prophet, and High Priest - the only personality in the Bible to have all three responsibilities do so. The prophet speaks in the name of the Lord. “I will put my words in his mouth, and he will speak to them all that I command him’ (Deut. 18:18). The Judge is primarily a military leader and savior.  The Priest runs the Temple and the sacrifices.

Samuel compared himself to Moses and Aaron (I Sam. 12:6) and is called a ‘Man of God’ by Saul’s servant (I Sam. 9:6). When God first called him he responded “Here I am’ I Sam. 3:4) as did Moses (Ex. 3:4). He anointed others, led a holy war (I Sam. Chapter 7), renewed the covenant (I Sam. 7:3-6), wrote legislation for the King (I Sam. 10:25) and in his farewell speech spoke of obedience and disobedience. 19  Jeremiah has God saying ‘though Moses and Samuel stood before me’ (Jer. 15:1) suggesting the two as God’s great intercessors. The author of Psalm 99 states ‘Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel also among those who called His name’. (Ps. 99:6), again comparing Samuel to Moses. The narrator of the book of Samuel has the Philistines stating ‘Woe is us! Who can deliver us from the power of the angry gods? These are the gods who smote the Egyptians with every sort of plague (I Sam. 4:8) and then ‘why do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and the Pharaoh hardened his heart’. (I Sam. 6:6).

Perhaps the authors of the Books of Samuel, Psalms and Jeremiah recognized that as Moses closed an era and sent the people of Israel into the Land of Israel, so Samuel closed an era of Judges and brought the people into the era of Kingship and Prophets.

Louis Ginzberg in his seven volume ‘The Legends of the Jews’ makes a list of the striking comparisons between Moses and Jeremiah and suggests that Jeremiah is the Prophet like unto Moses (Deut. 18:18). 20 He includes their both serving forty years, both being attacked by members of their own tribe, Moses thrown into the water and Jeremiah into a pit, both saved (Jer. 38:9) and both being humble and refusing God’s call by claiming their inability as a  spokesman.

We have already noted how William Holladay points to a number of striking parallels between Moses in Deuteronomy (the newly found scroll) and words used uniquely by Jeremiah. Holladay concludes that 'No pre--Jeremianic prophet offers parallels to the Song of Moses [Deuteronomy chapter 32]  21 The beginning of the Song of Moses is 'Ha'azinu' Listen 0’ Heavens (32:1) and in Jeremiah it is ‘Shommu', Be astonished 0’ Heaven' (2:12).  Jeremiah tells us 'Your words were found and I ate them and Your words became to me a joy and to the delight of my heart; for I am called by Your name, 0 lord, God of hosts' (15: 16). These words Jeremiah refers to are the scroll of Deuteronomy that were a joy to him and the delight of his heart. This suggests the enormous impact on Jeremiah of the scroll of Deuteronomy. He then refers to God's name, a critical issue in Moses' bringing down the second set of Tablets as noted in an earlier chapter and in the Davidic covenant. When Jeremiah read that God promised Moses to raise 'up a prophet from among your brothers like you and I will put my words into his mouth' (Deut. 18:18) he may have believed that it referred to himself. Jeremiah tells us that God responded by putting words in your mouth' (11:8). Holladay also compares the influence of Deuteronomy 12--26 of the poetry of Jeremiah. --  Circumcise your heart is a key to Jerermiah new covenant, this idea was also stated in Deuteronomy (10:16).22

Dale Allison compares Jeremiah and Moses in the following ways: their call as youths, (Jer. 1:6, Ex. 2:6), the prophet like Moses will ‘speak in my name’ (Ex. 18:19) and Jeremiah ‘speaks in his name (Jer. 20:9), the Babylonians refusal to let the people go (Jer. 50:33) and Pharaoh refusal to let the people go, the king burning Jeremiah’s scroll and the Tablets which Moses broke, Jeremiah receives God’s word directly (Jer. 23:32) and Moses ‘mouth to mouth’ (Num. 12:8), both generation offended God (Jer. 8:19; Deut. 32:31) and both proclaimed a new covenant.

To create a new covenant may have required Jeremiah to think of himself as a new Moses. Early in his life the scroll of Deuteronomy was rediscovered in the Temple and was the basis of Josiah's reforms. When Jeremiah first hears from God of his mission he responds to God ‘I do not know how to speak, I am too young' (11:6). This is comparable to Moses saying 'Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh I am not a good speaker`. God responds to Jeremiah ‘I have put words in your mouth' (1:9), almost exactly the words God said to  Moses. It is no more true that he does not how to speak than it is for Moses. Or perhaps even more true that like Moses he learns to speak God's words through his existential suffering.

The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel lived and were active as prophets during a time of great catastrophe for the people of Israel, during that time the First Temple was destroyed.

Their messages created different  theologies in response to the Temple’s destruction. Jeremiah blamed the peoples misconduct of ethical behavior. Ezekiel blamed the people for ritual misbehavior.

The people of Israel thought that doing the sacrifices was sufficient as their part of the covenant; God would protect them. Jeremiah disagreed. Jeremiah condemns those following the Temple rituals as if that was all God needed. Jeremiah cried out at the gate of the Temple  that God would destroy the Temple and cared not for those who stated `the lying words ... the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord’ (Jer. 7:4).  He continued that if you oppress the stranger, the orphan and the widow  ... [and] if this house which is called by my name, . . . [is] a den of robbers’ (7:8,11) I will destroy it. The people, priests and some prophets disbelieved Jeremiah. For this Jeremiah was condemned, arrested, jailed and sentenced to death twice.  The first death sentence was voided by the King of Judah and the second  by Nebuchadnezzar, himself who captured Jerusalem, exiled many of the Israelis and then destroyed the Temple.

Jeremiah developed a theology of repentance, restoration and exile. If the Jews repented God would restore  them to Jerusalem. Since those who remained in Jerusalem (including the newly appointed King Zedekiah) rejected his advice (as they had before the Temple was destroyed) he told those exiled in Babylon that they were the holy remnants (Jer. 23:3;31:7), to repent and wait until God restored them. In a letter he wrote to the exiles:
`build houses, settle down, plant gardens and eat what they produce, marry and have sons and daughters, choose wives for your sons, find husbands for your daughters so that these can bear sons and daughters in their turn ... Work for the good of the city to which I have     exiled     you, pray to YHVH on its behalf since on its welfare yours depends’ (Jer. 29:5-8). This is a new theology of exile; stay, work, be fertile and God will protect you there. God did not need the Temple.

Jeremiah is an Eschatological Prophet, preaching a new heart (4:4; 9:25-26), a new covenant (31:29-34) including the restoration of a righteous and just Davidic king (23:5). Ezekiel is not only an Eschatological Prophet, like Jeremiah, but the first Apocalyptic Prophet. Ezekiel begins his book with the vision of Merkavah - the Chariot. He is the first Prophet to emphasize the visions of the secret world. When Isaiah tells of his vision (chapter 6) it is still a secret and acts as the background to his words - (chapter 7,9 and 11) his words are clearly more important than the vision. Similarly Jeremiah’s visions serve to illustrate his words. The Talmud in discussing the canonization of Ezekiel resents his telling the secrets of God’s world and then the Mishna (the basic text explained in the two Talmud's) forbids the explaining of this known as ‘Ma’aseh Bereshit’ - the stories of creation. They understood that Ezekiel’s vision was the secret of the creation. His vision was an attempt to penetrate the mystery of God, the world of the divine. His was a world of four headed beasts, each with four wings, who were like lightening (Ez. 1:13-14), had wheels within wheels (1:19,21), and they were attached to a sapphire stone throne (1:26). And then Ezekiel is told to eat the scroll of his vision, to internalize the vision and perhaps to hide it.   In his vision of the New Temple (described after the apocalyptic battle of evil represented by Gog of Magog) the prince is both a High priest (44:3; 45:7,17) and a political leader and one or both are criticized, in the past, as being corrupt (45:8-9).

Ezekiel book talks about priestly rules (he actually changes them from Leviticus) and a key word for him is ‘tamay’; ritual uncleanliness. His criticism of the Israelites is on their ritual misbehavior. He is more concerned with his priestly role that his prophetic role. Ezekiel’s theology is based on priestly rituals. Walter Zimmerli points out that the word God appears more often than in any other canonized book; 434 times. In half of these time the name of God is doubled - Adonai YHVH. The doubling only appears sixty six times aside from Ezekiel. 23 (Jeremiah uses the term YHVH ‘Tzvaot’ eighty two times.) This confirms Joyce noting the theocentricity of the theology of Ezekiel. Ezekiel is also Temple centric. Instead of talking about ethics Ezekiel uses women as a symbol of priestly and ritual uncleanliness. 

The similarity of Jeremiah and Ezekiel is in the discussion of new hearts. `Circumcise yourselves for YHVH, apply circumcision to your hearts’ (Jer. 4:4, 9:25-26) and Ezekiel  says in the name of God that  `I shall give you a new heart, and put a new spirit in you; I shall remove the heart of stone from your bodies and give a heart of flesh instead (Ez. 36:26). What does the phrase a new heart mean?  The heart  which they currently had allowed them free choice to choose God or not. Ezekiel and Jeremiah knew the people  had not chosen God. Your ears do not hear His words. Look, their ears are uncircumcised’ (Jer. 6:10). A new heart is defined by Jeremiah as a new covenant.  Ezekiel defines a new heart as having a new spirit; a spirit to listen to God. It is important to note that the same Ezekiel has been told by God that He `shall raise up one shepherd, My servant David, and put him in charge of them to pasture them ... My servant David a prince’ (Ez. 34:23-24). Again ‘my servant David shall be their king.... their prince’ (37:24-25). The term Ezekiel uses `nasi’  translated as Prince or Leader is a new use of that term. It has never previously been used for David as a messianic figure.  Is the Prince Messiah different than the King Messiah? Is his point that my servant David and my prince are subservient to God as is the King Messiah.

The theology of Jeremiah, as a Prophet and Priest, is preaching in favor ethics and Ezekiel, a Priest and  Prophet, preaches in favor of ritual behaviour. This is not to deny Jeremiah’s belief in the ritual laws nor Ezekiel’s belief in ethics, but rather that one chose the prophetic role and the other the priestly role. They each chose to see a different problem facing the people of Israel.

Thus Jeremiah is a prophet of exile, repentance and restoration while Ezekiel cannot disagree with that he is more importantly the first Apocalyptic Prophet. His pessimism suggests a new world in heaven - a kingdom of God in Heaven. After the destruction of the Temple and of prophecy (as defined by Jewish tradition), a theology of the apocalypt developed amongst Jewish writers. This period ended with the destruction of  the Second Temple’s destruction.

Jeremiah is the only prophet to have dialogues and monologues with God in the form of prayers about his tortured life. They are introspective, self revelatory and biographical, more private cries of distress than prophetic. He is appealing and praying to God (in each prayer God is the addressee - thus it is a prayer) as a suffering human being not in his function as a prophet to the people of Israel, but perhaps as a complaint to the one who gave him the mission, which he considers to have failed. No one in biblical literature has felt this personal acute pain and its affect on his personal religious experience like Jeremiah. It is more burdensome than he could stand. God even tells him not ‘pray for these people, neither lift up or cry or pray on their behalf, do not intercede with Me, for I will not hear you’ (7:16). This puts him in an opposite position than Moses who always interceded for the people. Did Jeremiah despair of God or decide that he and only he ‘knew’ God. How does one survive in a human society believing that? He has no life outside his relationship with God. In this sense his mission (or at least as he perceived it - that is why he the messenger is so important) was more difficult that Moses’. Moses had a life, a wife, a brother and sister and children. Jeremiah has no family or social relations (at God’s request) nothing but God, an impossible companion! He seemed to carry the world upon his shoulders. He sees and feels the world differently than his fellow Judeans. He knows that destruction must come because they have broken the covenant. This divine consciousness gives Jeremiah a sensitivity to what Heschel called the pathos of God. He saw the apathetic indifference of H/his people as the voice of God and such he differs from us.  24 He may have been inspired by Moses, Amos and Hosea, but he has absorbed God into his unconscious and becomes God-intoxicated. Did he have any words of his own? Jeremiah is not just a prophet but has a suffering relationship to God, a much more dangerous task. He is every man’s suffering and pain.  Can he have become the ‘righteousness’ of God? In this he can not succeed. God’s anger may be righteous indignation towards injustice. Jeremiah’s may be as well. But  his anger is also human. When he says ‘avenge me’ he is a suffering human being - not God-intoxicated.

Job has the same distress toward God as does Jeremiah and his more specific question (although unstated) is ‘Why do righteous men suffer’?  Job is a heretic according to Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar and their traditional orthodoxy. God however justifies Job and rejects the traditional orthodoxy. Job can be seen as a scapegoat to God. But the Poet-author justifies him and thus his role as a scapegoat fails. This differs from Oedipus whom Sophocles does not justify and thereby his fate is to be a successful scapegoat.

Some Talmudic sages considered Job more righteous that Abraham. This raises some comparisons that can be made to Abraham, tested over his son Isaac, the least comprehensible of God’s demands. Job is tested, we are told by the text, due to God allowing His subordinate Satan to test a righteous man. In Job the test is about Justice.  According to a Midrash Abraham is tested as a result of Satan instigating God. For Abraham the test is about obedience. Abraham bows to God’s obedience and becomes the ‘Prince of Faith’. Job at the end of his ordeal only bows when God says to him that ‘mishpat’ as justice is only one aspect of God. The other is ‘mishpat’ as power - ‘mishpat ha’melech’.  Another great work of literature that deals with God, Satan and humanity is Goethe’s Faust. Faust wants knowledge of God that Abraham and Job attained at a terrible cost. Goethe is kinder to Faust than God was to Abraham or Job.

This book describes Messengers and messages. The messengers were clearly different. God had to work with what he had; what He created. But once He decided to create human beings free to choose, His choice was limited. God impacted these messengers by his choosing and calling them. But they were already formed by their genetic makeup and the nurturing they had received. These formed human beings reacted to God differently: Moses whose makeup seemed healthy reacted by becoming The Servant of God. Jeremiah’s makeup made the reactions to his calling and his failure as he saw it, anguish him. That can be said of Jonah as well – although despite his feeling of failure he may be the only prophet who accomplished his objective – the people to whom he preached did repent. Ezekiel and Hosea’s unhealthy makeup (to this author) reacted with a level of imagination that is bizarre and thus they distorted their messages. Obviously they were canonized, so others may have thought differently.  

Despite this can one find some consistency in these human centered messages? I believe so. Many Jewish commentators believe the message of the Torah is ‘love your neighbor and the stranger as yourself’. This is the social ethic. The other theme one finds in the totality of the Bible is against idolatry.

Idolatry is self-deification, the god I make is of my own hands. I have control of my world. Having control allows ethics to be relative. I can kill whom I choose to kill, I can rob whom I chose to rob, I am better than my neighbor because I am rich, people are poor because they choose to be poor.

The Hebrew Bible written 3,500 – 2,500 years ago created a revolutionary thought – God created the world – created all humanity equal. His ethics exemplified in the Bible are not relative. His rules are absolute.


1 Greenspahn, F.E., When Brothers Dwell Together, (Oxford University Press, N.Y., 1994) pg. 9--10.
2 B.T. Sanhedrin 69b
3 Gerth, E. H. and Mills, C. Wright, eds., From Weber Max, Essays in Sociology (Oxford University Press, N.Y., 1946) pg. 274, quoted in Greenspahn, pg. 109.
4 A Fourth century Syriac: Church poem quoted in Visotzky, pg. 10.
5 The Targum Pseudo Yonathan, quoted in Callaway, Barren, pg. 124.
6 Midrash Genesis Rabbah, quoted in Calloway, Barren, Pg. 125.
7 Calloway, Barren, Pg. 118.
8 Pesikta de Rab Kahana, quoted by Calloway, Barren, Pg. 121-123.
9 Soloveitchik, Rabbi Dr. J.B., eds. David Shatz and Joel B. Wolowelsky, Family Redeemed, (MeOtzar Harav, Vol. 1, 2000) pg. xviii.
10 Soloveitchik, Family,  pgs. 71-72.
11 Soloveitchik, Family,  pg. 111.
12 Soloveitchik, Faith, pg. 14.
13 Soloveitchik, pg. 102.
14 Soloveitchik, Faith, pg. 19.
15 We have seen how Abraham would not have his son marry from the neighborhood and 1,000 years later Ezra had a similar concern. But in between Moses, Judah and Ruth ancestors of David and he himself and many others had no such problem. Despite this it was a problem for Manoah.
16 David Frishman, Translated by Hillel Barzel, in Gros Louis, K.R.R., Ackerman, J.S., Warshaw, T.S., Literary Interpretations of Biblical Narratives, (Abingdon, Nashville, 1974) Vol. 1. Pg. 131.
17 Silver, D.J. Images of Moses, (Basic Books, Inc. N.Y., 1982) Pg. 122.
18 Allison, D.C., The New Moses: A Matthean Typology, T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1993.
19 Allison, pg. 31.
20 Ginzburg, L. The Legends of the Jews, vol. 6, pps. 385-386.
21 Holladay, W.L., Jeremiah and Moses, Journal of Biblical Literature, vol.  pgs. 19--21.
22 Holladay, Jeremiah, Vol. 2, pgs. 556--560.
23 Zimmerli, Walter, Ezekiel, Translated by R.E. Clements, two volumes (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1969), Vol. pgs. 556-558.
24 Moore, D. J. The Human and the Holy: The Spirituality of Abraham Joshua Heschel, (Fordham Univ. Press, N.Y., 1989) pgs. 78-79.