Thursday, June 26, 2014

Will the real Mey Merivah please stand up?

In this week's parsha, we have the story of "Mey Merivah", where Moshe hits the rock instead of speaking to it.

As a little kid, I got very confused, experiencing deja vu when learning Chumash. For example: Avimelech of Gerar wanted Yitzchak's wife? So Yitzchak told the king that Rivka was his sister? Wait - didn't that happen with Avraham? Or did I confuse Avraham and Yitzchak?

And of course, Moshe and the rock. Studying Parshat Chukat in class as a kid: Wait, didn't I study this before? Why do I remember it as Hashem TELLING Moshe to hit the rock? He was supposed to speak to it? I'm so confused!

Of course, as a got a little older, I paid attention to my teachers, who explained to me that there were NOT the same incident. Similar events occurred, but they happened twice. In the case of Mey Merivah, the 2 incidents happened 40 years apart. And the fact that the two places had the same name was just coincidence. Or Bnei Yisrael, having experienced a similar event, gave the two places the same name.

As I got even older, several decades older, I realized that I was actually right as a kid. They WERE the same incident, told twice in the Torah by different authors. Then the question becomes, who were those authors?

It's pretty widely accepted in the academic world that the Merivah story in Shemot is by E and the one in Bamidbar is by P. But who were E & P?

In Who Wrote The Bible, Richard Elliot Friedman suggests that E were the kohanim of Shilo, who had been disenfranchised. They ended up in the northern kingdom of Israel, but were sidelined by King Yeravam ben Nevat. So they were priests without a job. And they had a family tradition that they were descended from Moshe. At that point there was little distiction between the Levi'im and Kohanim. All of Shevet Levi were Kohanim. The demotion of some to Levi'im is a later development.

Meanwhile, who did King Rechavam set up as the kohanim in Jerusalem, in the Beit Hamikdash? Those who had a tradition of descent from Aharon. And, according to Friedman, they are the authors of P, at a later point than the writing of E.

If the kohanim of Shilo were writing E, they naturally wanted to make their ancestor, Moshe, look good. So in their version, he was told to strike the rock, and he struck the rock. The miracle occurred.

But P, wanting their ancestor Aharon to look better, had a desire to make Moshe less than perfect. So they, reacting to the already extant combined JE text, rewrote the story slightly. In their version, in Bamidbar, they add Aharon into the story, and they have Moshe commit a sin. This time, he was told to TALK to the rock, but he instead struck the rock. They couldn't rewrite the already known text to omit the miracle, but they could rewrite Moshe's role to make him look less perfect.

All this is a nice theory. And it's very neatly put together. P was a priest in Jerusalem in the reign of Chizkiyahu Hamelech. E was sometime earlier, in Shilo. This is an identification of who "the author" might be.

But I have trouble with this neat package. Texts in the ancient world were rarely written by the author onto a scroll, which then became the authoriative edition. Instead, like in all ancient cultures, there was a deep tradition of oral narratives. It's really hard to know who "wrote" what. Kernels of narratives started, often built around older songs. These stories may have diverged, converged, and diverged numerous times. People repeated the stories to one another. Local biases crept in. And, like in the mind of the confused child I was, two versions would become one in people's minds. And when they were scattered, voluntarily or not, they would carry the stories to their new homes and new neighbors. There were likely numerous versions.

Friedman himself is not a fan of discussing oral narratives. In one lecture I heard, he dismissed a question from the audience about the oral traditions, asserting that it was not something that could be analyzed or tracked in any way, so was irrelevant to the equation. Like cosmologists who see anything before the big bang as unknowable, Friedman seems to feel that there is no point to such speculation.

Still, even if we can't track oral traditions, I think it helps fill in the picture to consider what role they might have played. And all of this is not to say that the broad strokes of Friedman's theories are wrong. But instead of being in the hands of specific authors, it seems more likely to me that oral narratives arouse in new variations over the years in an organic way.

So P's version of Merivah may have been a reaction to E's story, but with a less deliberate agenda. Saying that P wrote it to play up Aharon and put down Moshe seems callous and false. Friedman writes that the author of P "could not deny Moses' singular place as Israel's greatest leader and prophet, but he still sought to lower the image of Moses somewhat".

However, imagine this instead:

It is during the reign of Chizkiyahu Hamelech. The Assyrians have destroyed the northern kingdom, and refugees are flooding south, to Jerusalem. As they settle in and begin mixing with the population, they tell their stories, E's stories. It doesn't take generations for stories to change. Just look at urban legends today, with their thousands of variations.

So even in very short order, a story like Mey Merivah is repeated and organically changed. As it is repeated, local biases creep in, inserting Aharon. Let's say two versions begin to circulate. In one, Moshe talked to the rock. In another, Moshe hits the rock. The version of Moshe talking to the rock might even have been invented by those who wanted to elevate Moshe. After all, what's a bigger miracle, talking to or hitting the rock?

And as these stories are repeated, again and again, the native residents of Judea, who have a natural affinity to Aharon, combine the stories in a way that makes sense to them, not deliberately, not with malice or an agenda, but just their organic interpretation of how the events being told fit with their prior perception of Moshe. So their version results in Moshe sinning.

Meanwhile, in a counter-reaction to the natives of Judea, the immigrants, who favor Moshe, abandon the "talking to the rock" narrative, since that has become associated with the sin. Instead, they revert to Moshe being told to hit the rock, and then obediently hitting the rock, preserving his righteousness.

There’s no evidence for any of the above. It's all speculation. Friedman's correct about the inability to know what role oral narratives played. But there's still a role for speculation, because otherwise we're stuck with a rigid picture of 4 authors, a picture that may be not as false as the rigid traditional picture of one author, but false nonetheless.


  1. I just e-mailed the URL of this post to my husband. We're both interested in discussions of multiple Torah authors. Perhaps we should give more thought to the issue of oral transmission of the tradition.

    "At that point there was little distiction between the Levi'im and Kohanim. All of Shevet Levi were Kohanim. The demotion of some to Levi'im is a later development."

    I think it's in D'varim/Deuteronomy that I've seen the designation "haKohanim haLeviim (roughly translated, the priests of the tribe of Levi), and I've always found that designation quite interesting. Have you any other evidence that the Leviim used to take turns acting as Kohanim?

    1. Hi Shira - I don't recall exactly, but I remember reading that J and E had no real distinctions between them, that kohanim was the occupation of people who came from the tribe of Levi. The distinctions started in P and were fully distinct only in D.