Thursday, August 07, 2014

Ibn Caspi: Has Elokim essayed to take Him a nation

There is a nice ambiguous set of pesukim in the beginning of vaEtchanan, in Devarim 4:34. A small selection:

לב  כִּי שְׁאַל-נָא לְיָמִים רִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר-הָיוּ לְפָנֶיךָ, לְמִן-הַיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אָדָם עַל-הָאָרֶץ, וּלְמִקְצֵה הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְעַד-קְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם:  הֲנִהְיָה, כַּדָּבָר הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה, אוֹ, הֲנִשְׁמַע כָּמֹהוּ.32 For ask now of the days past, which were before thee, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and from the one end of heaven unto the other, whether there hath been any such thing as this great thing is, or hath been heard like it?
לג  הֲשָׁמַע עָם קוֹל אֱלֹהִים מְדַבֵּר מִתּוֹךְ-הָאֵשׁ, כַּאֲשֶׁר-שָׁמַעְתָּ אַתָּה--וַיֶּחִי.33 Did ever a people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live?
לד  אוֹ הֲנִסָּה אֱלֹהִים, לָבוֹא לָקַחַת לוֹ גוֹי מִקֶּרֶב גּוֹי, בְּמַסֹּת בְּאֹתֹת וּבְמוֹפְתִים וּבְמִלְחָמָה וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמוֹרָאִים גְּדֹלִים:  כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לָכֶם ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, בְּמִצְרַיִם--לְעֵינֶיךָ.34 Or hath God assayed to go and take Him a nation from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, and by wonders, and by war, and by a mighty hand, and by an outstretched arm, and by great terrors, according to all that the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before thine eyes?
לה  אַתָּה הָרְאֵתָ לָדַעַת, כִּי ה הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים:  אֵין עוֹד, מִלְּבַדּוֹ.35 Unto thee it was shown, that thou mightest know that the LORD, He is God; there is none else beside Him.

The concluding words are Ain Od Milvado. There is only one deity. This is YKVK, mentioned in pasuk 35 as the only Elokim.

If so, what are we to make of  אוֹ הֲנִסָּה אֱלֹהִים? Are we asking whether God with a capital G did this for any other nation? This is possible, if the purpose is to show how unique we are. Hashem did this for us -- unto thee it was shown -- so that we might know this.

But on the other hand, other nations have their own national deities. For instance, Moav had Kemosh. If so, אוֹ הֲנִסָּה אֱלֹהִים might be profane, meaning a god with a lowercase g. No other deity has done this, because those deities do not exist. Hashem took these elaborate steps in order to demonstrate that he does exist.

If the latter is the meaning, then the pasuk is temporarily ascribing existence to those other gods purely in order to dismiss them from existence. They are hypothetical until they are ultimately dismissed. And in the duration, they are discussed as if they exist, but their non-action is noted. This would be from the perspective of the idolatrous other nations, or from the perspective of the Israelites before they have been shown the light.

This latter interpretation is something that might be too difficult for some to allow into the Biblical text. Or, there might be other reasons for disregarding the interpretation. I would like to present Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and finally Ibn Caspi. Because Ibn Ezra and Ibn Caspi sometimes speak cryptically, I cannot say definitively that I have entirely understood their intent. But I present it nonetheless.

Rashi writes that it is profane. Thus:

Or has any god performed miracles to come and take him a nation from the midst of a[nother] nation, with trials, with signs, and with wonders, and with war and with a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great awesome deeds, as all that the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? לד. אוֹ | הֲנִסָּה אֱלֹהִים לָבוֹא לָקַחַת לוֹ גוֹי מִקֶּרֶב גּוֹי בְּמַסֹּת בְּאֹתֹת וּבְמוֹפְתִים וּבְמִלְחָמָה וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבְמוֹרָאִים גְּדֹלִים כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לָכֶם יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בְּמִצְרַיִם לְעֵינֶיךָ:
Or has any god performed miracles: Heb. הֲנִסָּה אלֹהִים. Has any god performed miracles (נִסִּים) ? הנסה אלהים: הכי עשה נסים שום אלוה:

Onkelos takes it as holy:

ד,לד אוֹ הֲנִסָּה אֱלֹהִים, לָבוֹא לָקַחַת לוֹ גוֹי מִקֶּרֶב גּוֹי, בְּמַסֹּת בְּאֹתֹת וּבְמוֹפְתִים וּבְמִלְחָמָה וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמוֹרָאִים גְּדֹלִים:  כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לָכֶם יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, בְּמִצְרַיִם--לְעֵינֶיךָ.אוֹ נִסִּין עֲבַד יְיָ, לְאִתְגְּלָאָה לְמִפְרַק לֵיהּ עַם מִגּוֹ עַם, בְּנִסִּין בְּאָתִין וּבְמוֹפְתִין וּבִקְרָבָא וּבְיַד תַּקִּיפָא וּבִדְרָעָא מְרָמְמָא, וּבְחֶזְוָנִין רַבְרְבִין:  כְּכֹל דַּעֲבַד לְכוֹן יְיָ אֱלָהֲכוֹן, בְּמִצְרַיִם--לְעֵינֵיכוֹן.

Ibn Ezra says it is kodesh, and chas veshalom that it is profane!

[ד, לד]
או הנסה אלהים -
יש אומרים:
שהוא לשון חול וחלילה חלילה, רק לשון קדושה.

הנסה -כדרך בני אדם, כדי שיבינו השומעים.

"Or has Elokim tried: Some say that it is profane, and forfend! Rather it is holy.
Tried: In the way of people, so that the hearers may understand."

This is a facet which is new and interesting. That is (maybe), one might object to it being holy, referring to Hashem, based on HaNisa. Or maybe the point is orthogonal to the previous. There is no effort involved in Hashem performing anything, so why use the word HaNisa? The answer is a sort of dibra Torah kilshon benei Adam. Just as people try to do something, or set out to do something. One can thus use this idiom about a possible action of Hashem. And it a useful idiom, for the sake of the audience understanding. But we, who know better, understand that this is just an idiom, and would not ascribe an 'attempted action' to God.

This makes sense to me, even though I would prefer the interpretation of Rashi.

Ibn Caspi writes:

"Did [Elokim] Attempt: the Torah speaks in the language of people. And Elokim is holy [meaning a reference to Hashem, rather than profane, to idols]. Because He is the first Actor, and there are many 'elohim' below him, Yisbarach, working from him."
This is somewhat cryptic, but I think that learning through Ibn Ezra first can help clarify, at least a little bit. This is true in general, that it is important to get a sense of the intellectual climate in which a commentator writes.

I might have thought that when Ibn Caspi wrote "the Torah speaks in the language of people", he was explaining that this refers to their belief in the existence of other gods, which would then (at first) be in contrast with his immediately following statement that Elokim in kodesh, but not in contrast with the last statement (of God being the first Actor atop other Elohim beneath).

But now that I've seen Ibn Ezra, I think that when Ibn Caspi said upon Hanisa that "the Torah speaks in the language of people", he means that the concept and idiom of "attempted action" ascribed to God is the language of people. Further, that Elokim is kodesh, just as Ibn Ezra and Onkelos said.

But then a refinement, possibly motivated by theology or possibly motivated by peshat concerns, I think he is harmonizing this with Rashi. Suddenly, those actors, the אֱלֹהִים, in all those pesukim are actually not entirely God with a capital G. They are the lower actors, secondary causes without free will, all propelled by Hashem who is the First Cause. And that is peshat in all these pesukim. So indeed, chalila that the pesukim would even temporarily posit the existence of other gods, but rather, these do exist, but are part of, an extension of Hashem.

What then to make of the closing line,  אַתָּה הָרְאֵתָ לָדַעַת, כִּי ה הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים:  אֵין עוֹד, מִלְּבַדּוֹ? Isn't the function of this to deny those other beings existence?

No. The purpose is to say that Hashem is the overlord and first cause of those other powers, which are just extensions of His Divine Will. Hashem is those Elohim. There is none beside Him. Those others are not true gods.

Maybe. This is what Ibn Caspi says on that pasuk, 35:


Leibel said...

A similar ambiguous verse is a little earlier, in 4:7.

Heinrich Guggenheimer said...

The verses may well be read with Elohim qodesh, saying that Maamad Har Sinai was a unique occurrence in history. They also may be read to say that no other power could ever try to do something like this. The last verse is echoed by the people assembled by Eliahu on Mt. Carmel, that YHWH is the ultimate power. Since there is a possible interpretation as qodesh, it has to be treated as such, whether it is the ultimate correct interpretation or not.


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