Sunday, December 19, 2010

The incident with Reuven and Bilhah, in light of Divrei Hayamim and the Code of Hamurabbi

Summary: The Torah's recording of the incident in Vayishlach is terse, and Chazal interpret it in two ways. And the seeming reference to the incident in Yaakov's blessing in Vaychi is cryptic. But Divrei Hayamim expands upon it. Plus, there is a fascinating parallel in the Code of Hamurabbi that sheds excellent light on the matter.

Post: In parashat Vayishlach, we read of a disturbing event:

22. And it came to pass when Israel sojourned in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father's concubine, and Israel heard [of it], and so, the sons of Jacob were twelve.כב. וַיְהִי בִּשְׁכֹּן יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָרֶץ הַהִוא וַיֵּלֶךְ רְאוּבֵן וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֶת בִּלְהָה פִּילֶגֶשׁ אָבִיו וַיִּשְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל פ וַיִּהְיוּ בְנֵי יַעֲקֹב שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר:

Simple peshat is that Reuven actually had sexual relations with her, but Chazal are divided on the issue. Some interpret the pasuk to mean that he moved Yaakov's bed from Bilhah's tent. (And thus, as I would read it, he caused Bilhah to sleep.)

It would appear that in the blessing / prophecy Yaakov offers at the end of his life, he makes reference to this event. Thus,

3. Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength and the first of my might. [You should have been] superior in rank and superior in power.ג. רְאוּבֵן בְּכֹרִי אַתָּה כֹּחִי וְרֵאשִׁית אוֹנִי יֶתֶר שְׂאֵת וְיֶתֶר עָז:
4. [You have] the restlessness of water; [therefore,] you shall not have superiority, for you ascended upon your father's couch; then you profaned [Him Who] ascended upon my bed.ד. פַּחַז כַּמַּיִם אַל תּוֹתַר כִּי עָלִיתָ מִשְׁכְּבֵי אָבִיךָ אָז חִלַּלְתָּ יְצוּעִי עָלָה:

This may be translated and interpreted in a number of ways, including that Reuven actually slept with Bilhah and that he merely moved the beds.

But, aside from this, this is Biblical poetry, and is more than a little cryptic. Pachaz Kamayim etc. does not explicitly mean what the Judaica Press translation offers above, in square brackets. Rather, it is reading ideas into the text, quite possibly correctly. My point is that it is ambiguous and so there are a number of different possible readings.

Ibn Ezra explains what it means at length (see inside), but closes with the statement
וזאת הפרשה מפורשת בדברי הימים ובחללו יצועי אביו ואמר על יהודה שהוא הנגיד והבכורה ליוסף. 
that this parasha is explained in Divrei haYamim, with ובחללו יצועי אביו, that it stated regarding Yehuda that he would be the ruler, while the birthright (though not genealogical status of firstborn) was to go to Yosef.

We see this in Divrei Hayamim I, 5:1-2:

א  וּבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן בְּכוֹר-יִשְׂרָאֵל, כִּי הוּא הַבְּכוֹר--וּבְחַלְּלוֹ יְצוּעֵי אָבִיו, נִתְּנָה בְּכֹרָתוֹ לִבְנֵי יוֹסֵף בֶּן-יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא לְהִתְיַחֵשׂ, לַבְּכֹרָה.1 And the sons of Reuben the first-born of Israel--for he was the first-born; but, forasmuch as he defiled his father's couch, his birthright was given unto the sons of Joseph the son of Israel, yet not so that he was to be reckoned in the genealogy as first-born.
ב  כִּי יְהוּדָה גָּבַר בְּאֶחָיו, וּלְנָגִיד מִמֶּנּוּ; וְהַבְּכֹרָה, לְיוֹסֵף.  {ס}2 For Judah prevailed above his brethren, and of him came he that is the prince; but the birthright was Joseph's-- {S}

This is a case of intra-biblical interpretation, in which one Biblical author interprets verses from elsewhere in Tanach. With the phrase  ובחללו יצועי אביו, there is clear reference to Yaakov's blessing. And he makes clear that this is a loss of certain advantages Reuven had as firstborn, which are being transferred to other brothers.

I believe that the Code of Hammurabi (learned by Yaakov in the Yeshiva Shem v'Eiver as the sayings of Rabbi Chammu) cam shed light on this. Why should the penalty for sleeping with his father's pilegesh be this loss of paternal inheritance?

See the Code of Hammurabi, law 158. People translate it in more and less expansive ways. Here are two renderings of it:
158. If a free man has sexual relations with his father's first wife, who is the mother of sons, after the death of his father, that man shall lose his paternal inheritance.
158. If any one be surprised after his father with his chief wife, who has borne children, he shall be driven out of his father's house.
As I understand it, "surprised" means caught in the act, in flagrante delicto, such that there is no room for doubt. "After his father" is all that is said, but it is understood to mean after his father's death. (Otherwise, wouldn't this merit the death penalty?) Note that this is the chief wife, rather than a second wife, a concubine, or a sexual slave. And even there, it is the chief wife who has borne children, such that she retains this status of mother of his father's children after the father's death.

Obviously, this is not 100% parallel to Reuven and Bilhah, but there are remarkable similarities, such that one could envision a local law code covering his case. Reuven was not caught with Bilhah in the act. Rather, וַיִּשְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל, Yisrael heard of it. That should potentially make the penalty less. Yet it was during his father's lifetime, which should make the penalty greater. Yet, this was not with a chief-wife who had borne offspring -- it was a concubine, or a slave given by Rachel to Yaakov for the purpose of procreating. That she is a pilegesh might well lessen the offense, in this pre-Mosaic law.

The end result is that Reuven loses aspects of his inheritance, or if you will, the bechora status of his inheritance over that of his other brothers. A fitting punishment, given local laws.

We thus see that Yaakov Avinu held by the dina d'malchusa.


Anonymous said...

If any one bring an accusation against a man, and the accused go to the river and leap into the river, if he sink in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if the river prove that the accused is not guilty, and he escape unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death, while he who leaped into the river shall take possession of the house that had belonged to his accuser.

Are you seeing a parallel to krias yom suf

joshwaxman said...

no, because it is not a parallel. parallels of similar cases to Sotah are parallels, however.

but here, it is a parallel. son sleeps with father's wife who has born the father children, the penalty is the son losing the nachala. (there are slight differences, which i took pains to highlight.)

i dislike snide anonymous comments, by the way.

kol tuv,

Anonymous said...

It was not meant to be snide , I love your blog , and you have great insights ...yosher koach
and please be mochel

joshwaxman said...

sorry! no need to ask for mechila, it was my bad. it is sometimes very difficult to read tone in plain text comments. (that is why associating names sometimes helps; i often get snide anonymous comments, and i read it as such in this instance, as a *particular* anonymous poster.)

in terms of losing property, now i see what you are saying, in terms of getting spoils -- the Egyptians said "torishemo yadi", but in the end the Israelites inherited them. an interesting idea. it seems a bit speculative for me, and there is not really guilt and innocence in play, but maybe...

kol tuv,

pleasant said...

Why is there no mention of bilhah in any of this was she innocent ?

joshwaxman said...

i don't think there is any way of knowing. it could be, for instance, that Bilhah just wasn't relevant when it came to the blessings in Vaychi.

we know how certain sectarians took it, though - in the book of Jubilees, they make her entirely innocent.

kol tuv,

S. said...

See 2 Sam. 21-22 concerning Avshalom and his father's pilagshim.

In terms of Bilha's guilt or innocence, I'm not sure if the social status of pilagshim were sufficiently high that they could be seen as consenting or not consenting to something like this. Other than Yaakov's pilagshim, what were Bilha and Zilpa? Leah and Rachel's slaves. I don't see where much of their life involved consent. That said, it is of course possible that Bilha realized that Reuven was trying to grab the brass ring, as it were, and knew that it could bestow benefit to her, so in that sense maybe she was complicit (although we of course can never know).

E-Man said...

Didn't Bilha become the Chief wife once rachel died? I thought that she acted as mother to Yosef and Binyamin. Also, I remember reading somewhere (I will have to look up the source, one of the midrashim I believe) that the sun and the moon in Yosef's dream represented Bilha and Yaakov since Rachel was dead. This seems to indicate that Bilha was the chief wife once Rachel was dead.

joshwaxman said...

well, Yaakov moved his ben into her tent, but I don't think this necessarily made her chief wife. after all, the pasuk does refer to her at the time of the incident as pilegesh. and Reuven was right according to his claim, as put forth in the midrash.

instead of the midrash that it referred to Bilhah, one could simply take the other midrash that this is evidence that every dream has a bit of nonsense mixed in. perhaps Leah had already passed by the time of the dream.

or, we need not say like the midrash at all. i offered some speculation a while back that Binyamin could somehow be born after Yosef was sold, via an application of ain mukdam. (with the birth brought to where it was to bring it closer to the other births.)

but indeed, this might well come into clash with various midrashim.

kol tuv,


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