Thursday, October 11, 2007

Noach, Lech Lecha: How Shem Lost The Kehuna

There is a midrash that posits that Shem and Malkitzedek king of Shalem are the same person. Furthermore, that Malkitzedek (=Shem) was until that point the kohen to Hashem, but it transferred at that point to Avraham. The reason for this transfer was that in Malkitzedek's blessing of Avraham, he first blessed Avraham and only then blessed Hashem.

There are presumably various causes (and textual cues) for the conflation of these two Biblical characters, including the general midrashic closed-canon approach.

But something struck me about the midrash's focus on placing Avraham before Hashem in blessing. And that is how we can contrast Noach's blessing of Shem with Shem's (that is, Malkitzedek's) blessing of Avraham:

In parshas Noach, in Bereishis 9:
כד וַיִּיקֶץ נֹחַ, מִיֵּינוֹ; וַיֵּדַע, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לוֹ בְּנוֹ הַקָּטָן. 24 And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his youngest son had done unto him.
כה וַיֹּאמֶר, אָרוּר כְּנָעַן: עֶבֶד עֲבָדִים, יִהְיֶה לְאֶחָיו. 25 And he said: Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
כו וַיֹּאמֶר, בָּרוּךְ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי שֵׁם; וִיהִי כְנַעַן, עֶבֶד לָמוֹ. 26 And he said: Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be their servant.
כז יַפְתְּ אֱלֹהִים לְיֶפֶת, וְיִשְׁכֹּן בְּאָהֳלֵי-שֵׁם; וִיהִי כְנַעַן, עֶבֶד לָמוֹ. 27 God enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be their servant.
Note two things. First note that Hashem is called "the God of Shem." This would accord with the creation of a kehuna relationship between Hashem and Shem. This would then perhaps serve as a basis for equating him with King Malkitzedek, who was a kohen to El Elyon.

But second, notice that Shem's blessing is not actually a blessing of Shem. Noach blesses Hashem, who is the God of Shem. He also gets Canaan as a servant. In the next verse, he gets Yefet dwelling in his tents. But the primary aspect here is the blessing of God.

Thus, this stands in marked contrast to Shem's (=Malkitzedek's) blessing of Avraham, as it appears in parshas Lech Lecha. In Bereishit 14:

יח וּמַלְכִּי-צֶדֶק מֶלֶךְ שָׁלֵם, הוֹצִיא לֶחֶם וָיָיִן; וְהוּא כֹהֵן, לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן. 18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine; and he was priest of God the Most High.
יט וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ, וַיֹּאמַר: בָּרוּךְ אַבְרָם לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן, קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ. 19 And he blessed him, and said: 'Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth;
כ וּבָרוּךְ אֵל עֶלְיוֹן, אֲשֶׁר-מִגֵּן צָרֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ; וַיִּתֶּן-לוֹ מַעֲשֵׂר, מִכֹּל. 20 and blessed be God the Most High, who hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand.' And he gave him a tenth of all.
Note that here too, there is a blessing to Hashem, but first there is a blessing to Avraham. Shem apparently did not learn the lesson Noach tried to convey to him in his blessing. This might well have been what Chazal saw when they spoke as this being the failing of Shem which caused the transfer of kehuna to Avraham.


Soccer Dad said...

So according to the Medrash that Tamar was Shem's daughter, how does it follow that she was guilty of Sereipha level sin according to Yehuda? If the Kehuna had already passed from her father, she was no longer/not a Bas Cohen.

Anonymous said...

See meforshim among the Rishonim. I recall seeing this exact question from the Baalei Tosafos (in either/or of Moshav/Daas/Hadras Zekeinim or Paneach Raza). She was born a bas kohen, so her father's incidental loss of the kehuna had no bearing on her. This was back when kehuna was a more fluid office. Still, birth identity for sereifas bas kohen is immutable.

Chizkuni said...

I saw this exact question on the midrash in the Baalei Tosafos (in either/or of the Moshav/Daas/Hadras Zekeinim collections, sefer haGan, Chizkuni, or Paneach Raza). ANYWAY: Tamar was conceived/born a bas kohen, so her identity endures, regardless of her father's incidental loss of his status.


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