THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Beshalach – פרשת בשלח
January 27, 2018 – יא שבט תשעח
This essay is sponsored by David Tantleff in loving memory of his mother, Estelle Tantleff Z”L.
The Song at the Sea offers a jarring characterization of the God of Israel. “The Lord is a man of war; the Lord is His name (Exodus 15:3).” In context the meaning is clear. God redeemed the oppressed Israelites from slavery by smiting the Egyptians with a series of plagues and then defeating the vaunted Egyptian cavalry by drowning them in the Sea of Reeds. It was a war between nations, with God Himself fighting on behalf of His people.
Onkelos rendered the verse: “The Lord is Lord of victories in battle.” Pseudo-Jonathan expanded on the theme: “The Lord is a hero who wages our wars in every generation and who makes known His might to His people Israel.” The Targumim regard the notion of a warrior God as a reassuring message for later generations of Jews. Just as God fought for the Hebrews during the Exodus, so too will He be a mighty warrior fighting for His chosen ones whenever and wherever they suffer persecution.
For modern readers, Exodus 15:3 can be disturbing. People want to believe that they embrace a “religion of peace,” not that they are worshippers of a bloodthirsty martial deity. Judaism certainly values peace. Scripture bids us to “seek peace and pursue it (Psalms 34:15).” Peace is considered the essential vessel containing all other blessings (Mishnah Uktzin 3:12). In declaring Himself the Author of all creation, God includes peacemaking on a short list of His more important actions. “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things (Isaiah 45:7).” Borrowing from Isaiah, the opening blessing of the morning reading of Shema praises God as peacemaker. One of the more popular lines in the entire liturgy is the conclusion of the Full Kaddish: “May He Who makes peace in His high places, make peace for us and all Israel.”
The Septuagint’s translation of Exodus 15:3 appears to veer from the plain meaning of the text. “The Lord shattering wars, the Lord is His name.” Alternatively: “The Lord bringing wars to nought, the Lord is His name.” Instead of God as a heroic battler, the Torah in its Greek translation speaks of God as a peacemaker who brings intractable human conflict to an end.
Why these departures from the unambiguous meaning of the Torah text?
Zechariah Frankel suggested that the translators wanted to avoid the gross anthropomorphism of the Hebrew. God is a mystical being. God is not a “man” of anything, let alone one of war. A literal reading is appropriate when Scripture speaks of Machir, the son of Manasseh and father of Gilead, as a “man of war” (Joshua 17:1), but not when the Song at the Sea speaks of the Almighty. “The Lord shattering wars” skirts the problem presented by the word איש. Shockingly, Rabbi Yochanan cites Exodus 15:3 as proof that God is identified as איש, “man” (Sanhedrin 93a). He must not have been concerned about any Christological implications. His 3rd century contemporary, the Church Father Origen, was the first to write on the theanthropic view of Jesus. Predictably, later Christian exegetes cite Exodus 15:3 as justifying Christian doctrine. John Gill (18th century English Bible scholar) wrote: “The Lord is a man of war… A ‘man’, which has respect to the future incarnation of Christ, for as yet he was not really man; though it was purposed, covenanted, agreed to, and prophesied of, that he should be, as he after was.”
Other scholars suggested that the Septuagint translators wanted to avoid a militaristic description of God because Hellenistic Jewry was committed to living peacefully under tolerant Ptolemaic rule. The idea of God’s shattering wars does find expression in Scripture. “I will banish [break] bow, sword, and war from the land (Hosea 2:20).” “There He broke the fiery arrows of the bow, the shield and the sword of war (Psalms 76:4).” In this view, the translators knowingly falsified the Greek version in the spirit of political correctness. The Talmud effectively makes this point (Megillah 9a), though not specifically concerning Exodus 15:3 or the desire to exhibit a pacific Jewish theology.
Professor Larry Perkins rejects the above view and claims instead that the Greek translation of Exodus 15:3 is entirely consistent with the meaning of the Hebrew Bible. He adduces support from the Apocrypha. “Here now are the Assyrians, a greatly increased force, priding themselves in their horses and riders, boasting in the strength of their foot-soldiers, and trusting in shield and spear, in bow and sling. They do not know that You are the Lord who crushes wars, the Lord is Your name (Judith 9:7).” In this case, “crushing wars” clearly does not mean pacifism, negotiation, or conflict resolution. It means that God is so powerful that He can quickly and easily end wars by utterly defeating the enemy. The same reading could be applied to LXX Exodus 15:3. An analogous example from modern history: President Truman did not “crush” or “bring to nought” the war in the Pacific by negotiating a truce with Emperor Hirohito in August 1945. Instead, he “crushed” the war by dropping the atomic bomb.
The uneasiness experienced by many readers of Exodus 15:3 seems evident in Rashi’s commentary. He noted that God does not fight His wars with ordinary weapons. Rather, God does battle using His Holy Name. Borrowing from Mekhilta, Rashi further commented that whereas earthly kings become so preoccupied while waging war that they forget to sustain and provide basic services to their citizens, God is able simultaneously to defeat His enemies and to provide the world’s civilians with all their essentials. The commentators and the Midrash did not want Jewry to envision God in the image of earthly tyrants whose zeal for battlefield victory made then oblivious or indifferent to all else.
In the words of Koheleth, “There is a time for a war and a time for peace (Ecclesiastes 3:8).” When Israel needs Him, God is a fierce warrior Who delivers victory. At other times, God acts in history, and in our lives, in innumerable other ways.