Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Parallel Biblical and Midrashic Stories

This post is dedicated to my brothers, as I noticed most of these when learning with them.

1. Nimrod and Pharoah

From Legends of the Jews by Louis Ginzberg (pages 168-169)

    Terah married Emtelai, the daughter of Karnabo, and the offspring of their union was Abraham. His birth had been read in the stars by Nimrod, for this impious king was a cunning astrologer, and it was manifest to him that a man would be born in his day who would rise up against him and triumphantly give the lie to his religion. In his terror at the fate foretold him in the stars, he sent for his princes and governors, and asked them to advise him in the matter. They answered, and said: "Our unanimous advice is that thou shouldst build a great house, station a guard at the entrance thereof, and make known in the whole of thy realm that all pregnant women shall repair thither together with their midwives, who are to remain with them when they are delivered. When the days of a woman to be delivered are fulfilled, and the child is born, it shall be the duty of the midwife to kill it, if it be a boy. But if the child be a girl, it shall be kept alive, and the mother shall receive gifts and costly garments, and a herald shall proclaim, 'Thus is done unto the woman who bears a daughter!' "

    The king was pleased with this counsel, and he had a proclamation published throughout his whole kingdom, summoning all the architects to build a great house for him, sixty ells high and eighty wide. After it was completed, he issued a second proclamation, summoning all pregnant women thither, and there they were to remain until their confinement. Officers were appointed to take the women to the house, and guards were stationed in it and about it, to prevent the women from escaping thence. He furthermore sent midwives to the house, and commanded them to slay the men children at their mothers' breasts. But if a woman bore a girl, she was to be arrayed in byssus, silk, and embroidered garments, and led forth from the house of detention amid great honors. No less than seventy thousand children were slaughtered thus. Then the angels appeared before God, and spoke, "Seest Thou not what he doth, yon sinner and blasphemer, Nimrod son of Canaarl, who slays so many innocent babes that have done no harm?" God answered, and said: "Ye holy angels, I know it and I see it, for I neither slumber nor sleep. I behold and I know the secret things and the things that are revealed, and ye shall witness what I will do unto this sinner and blasphemer, for I will turn My hand against him to chastise him."


    When her time approached, she left the city in great terror and wandered toward the desert, walking along the edge of a valley, until she happened across a cave. She entered this refuge, and on the next day she was seized with throes, and she gave birth to a son. The whole cave was filled with the light of the child's countenance as with the splendor of the sun, and the mother rejoiced exceedingly. The babe she bore was our father Abraham.

    His mother lamented, and said to her son: "Alas that I bore thee at a time when Nimrod is king. For thy sake seventy thousand men children were slaughtered, and I am seized with terror on account of thee, that he hear of thy existence, and slay thee. Better thou shouldst perish here in this cave than my eye should behold thee dead at my breast." She took the garment in which she was clothed, and wrapped it about the boy. Then she abandoned him in the cave, saying, "May the Lord be with thee, may He not fail thee nor forsake thee." (For the full version, see here.)

I'm told to look at footnote 34 for the source regarding this Midrash; it's very long so I'll only cite the beginning. Apparently this story comes from "Ma'aseh Abraham, published by Jellinek in BHM, I, 25-34; this edition, which is rather inaccurate, is taken from Shebet Musar of Elijah ha-Kohen who used a Constantinople edition of this Midrash."

2. Elisha and Jonah

From Kings I 19:

    ג וַיַּרְא, וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלֶךְ אֶל-נַפְשׁוֹ, וַיָּבֹא, בְּאֵר שֶׁבַע אֲשֶׁר לִיהוּדָה; וַיַּנַּח אֶת-נַעֲרוֹ, שָׁם.

    3 And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there.

    ד וְהוּא-הָלַךְ בַּמִּדְבָּר, דֶּרֶךְ יוֹם, וַיָּבֹא, וַיֵּשֶׁב תַּחַת רֹתֶם אחת (אֶחָד); וַיִּשְׁאַל אֶת-נַפְשׁוֹ, לָמוּת, וַיֹּאמֶר רַב עַתָּה יְהוָה קַח נַפְשִׁי, כִּי-לֹא-טוֹב אָנֹכִי מֵאֲבֹתָי.

    4 But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom-tree; and he requested for himself that he might die; and said: 'It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.'

Compare to Jonah 4:

    וַיְמַן יְהוָה-אֱלֹהִים קִיקָיוֹן וַיַּעַל מֵעַל לְיוֹנָה, לִהְיוֹת צֵל עַל-רֹאשׁוֹ, לְהַצִּיל לוֹ, מֵרָעָתוֹ; וַיִּשְׂמַח יוֹנָה עַל-הַקִּיקָיוֹן, שִׂמְחָה גְדוֹלָה.

    6 And the LORD God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his evil. So Jonah was exceeding glad because of the gourd.

    ז וַיְמַן הָאֱלֹהִים תּוֹלַעַת, בַּעֲלוֹת הַשַּׁחַר לַמָּחֳרָת; וַתַּךְ אֶת-הַקִּיקָיוֹן, וַיִּיבָשׁ.

    7 But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd, that it withered.

    ח וַיְהִי כִּזְרֹחַ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, וַיְמַן אֱלֹהִים רוּחַ קָדִים חֲרִישִׁית, וַתַּךְ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ עַל-רֹאשׁ יוֹנָה, וַיִּתְעַלָּף; וַיִּשְׁאַל אֶת-נַפְשׁוֹ, לָמוּת, וַיֹּאמֶר, טוֹב מוֹתִי מֵחַיָּי.

    8 And it came to pass, when the sun arose, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and requested for himself that he might die, and said: 'It is better for me to die than to live.'

3. Achav and Saul

From Kings I 20:

    לא וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו, עֲבָדָיו, הִנֵּה-נָא שָׁמַעְנוּ, כִּי מַלְכֵי בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי-מַלְכֵי חֶסֶד הֵם; נָשִׂימָה נָּא שַׂקִּים בְּמָתְנֵינוּ וַחֲבָלִים בְּרֹאשֵׁנוּ, וְנֵצֵא אֶל-מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל--אוּלַי, יְחַיֶּה אֶת-נַפְשֶׁךָ.

    31 And his servants said unto him: 'Behold now, we have heard that the kings of the house of Israel are merciful kings; let us, we pray thee, put sackcloth on our loins, and ropes upon our heads, and go out to the king of Israel; peradventure he will save thy life.'

    לב וַיַּחְגְּרוּ שַׂקִּים בְּמָתְנֵיהֶם וַחֲבָלִים בְּרָאשֵׁיהֶם, וַיָּבֹאוּ אֶל-מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, עַבְדְּךָ בֶן-הֲדַד אָמַר תְּחִי-נָא נַפְשִׁי; וַיֹּאמֶר הַעוֹדֶנּוּ חַי, אָחִי הוּא.

    32 So they girded sackcloth on their loins, and put ropes on their heads, and came to the king of Israel, and said: 'Thy servant Ben-hadad saith: I pray thee, let me live.' And he said: 'Is he yet alive? he is my brother.'

    לג וְהָאֲנָשִׁים יְנַחֲשׁוּ וַיְמַהֲרוּ וַיַּחְלְטוּ הֲמִמֶּנּוּ, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אָחִיךָ בֶן-הֲדַד, וַיֹּאמֶר, בֹּאוּ קָחֻהוּ; וַיֵּצֵא אֵלָיו בֶּן-הֲדַד, וַיַּעֲלֵהוּ עַל-הַמֶּרְכָּבָה.

    33 Now the men took it for a sign, and hastened to catch it from him; and they said: 'Thy brother Ben-hadad.' Then he said: 'Go ye, bring him.' Then Ben-hadad came forth to him; and he caused him to come up into his chariot.


    מב וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה, יַעַן שִׁלַּחְתָּ אֶת-אִישׁ-חֶרְמִי, מִיָּד--וְהָיְתָה נַפְשְׁךָ תַּחַת נַפְשׁוֹ, וְעַמְּךָ תַּחַת עַמּוֹ.

    42 And he said unto him: 'Thus saith the LORD: Because thou hast let go out of thy hand the man whom I had devoted to destruction, therefore thy life shall go for his life, and thy people for his people.'

Compare to the classic story of Saul and Agag in Samuel I 15: 8-35.

4. Nathan and The Unnamed Prophet

From Kings I 2o: 38-42.

    לח וַיֵּלֶךְ, הַנָּבִיא, וַיַּעֲמֹד לַמֶּלֶךְ, עַל-הַדָּרֶךְ; וַיִּתְחַפֵּשׂ בָּאֲפֵר, עַל-עֵינָיו.

    38 So the prophet departed, and waited for the king by the way, and disguised himself with his headband over his eyes.

    לט וַיְהִי הַמֶּלֶךְ עֹבֵר, וְהוּא צָעַק אֶל-הַמֶּלֶךְ; וַיֹּאמֶר עַבְדְּךָ יָצָא בְקֶרֶב-הַמִּלְחָמָה, וְהִנֵּה-אִישׁ סָר וַיָּבֵא אֵלַי אִישׁ וַיֹּאמֶר שְׁמֹר אֶת-הָאִישׁ הַזֶּה--אִם-הִפָּקֵד יִפָּקֵד, וְהָיְתָה נַפְשְׁךָ תַּחַת נַפְשׁוֹ אוֹ כִכַּר-כֶּסֶף תִּשְׁקוֹל.

    39 And as the king passed by, he cried unto the king; and he said: 'Thy servant went out into the midst of the battle; and, behold, a man turned aside, and brought a man unto me, and said: Keep this man; if by any means he be missing, then shall thy life be for his life, or else thou shalt pay a talent of silver.

    מ וַיְהִי עַבְדְּךָ, עֹשֵׂה הֵנָּה וָהֵנָּה--וְהוּא אֵינֶנּוּ; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו מֶלֶךְ-יִשְׂרָאֵל כֵּן מִשְׁפָּטֶךָ, אַתָּה חָרָצְתָּ.

    40 And as thy servant was busy here and there, he was gone.' And the king of Israel said unto him: 'So shall thy judgment be; thyself hast decided it.'

    מא וַיְמַהֵר--וַיָּסַר אֶת-הָאֲפֵר, מעל (מֵעֲלֵי) עֵינָיו; וַיַּכֵּר אֹתוֹ מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל, כִּי מֵהַנְּבִיאִים הוּא.

    41 And he hastened, and took the headband away from his eyes; and the king of Israel discerned him that he was of the prophets.

    מב וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה, יַעַן שִׁלַּחְתָּ אֶת-אִישׁ-חֶרְמִי, מִיָּד--וְהָיְתָה נַפְשְׁךָ תַּחַת נַפְשׁוֹ, וְעַמְּךָ תַּחַת עַמּוֹ.

    42 And he said unto him: 'Thus saith the LORD: Because thou hast let go out of thy hand the man whom I had devoted to destruction, therefore thy life shall go for his life, and thy people for his people.'

Compare to Samuel II 12, Nasan's mashal/ parable to David, where David also pronounces judgement upon himself unknowingly.


The beauty of parallel biblical stories lies in their symmetry, but more importantly, they are invaluable when it comes to characterization. I the reader note two characters within the same situation, see how they react to the same stimulus, and can make judgements about their character traits accordingly. I can also note the differences in language/ technique by each story and wonder whence the difference: the character of the king? The time period? And so on.

The clearest example is that in regard to David and Achav, the recipients of rebuke in a situation where they unwittingly pronounced judgement upon themselves.

Note these two things.

A) The Prophet's Language
B) The King's Response

The Prophet's Language

Nathan the Prophet:

    Thou art the man. Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel: I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hands of Saul; and I gave thee thy master's house, and thy master's wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that were too little, then would I add unto thee so much more. Wherefore hast thou despised the word of the LORD, to do that which is evil in My sight? Uriah the Hittite thou hast smitten with the sword, and his wife thou hast taken to be thy wife, and him thou hast slain with the sword of the children of Ammon. Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from thy house; because thou hast despised Me, and hast taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be thy wife. Thus saith the LORD: Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house, and I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbour, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun.

The Unnamed Prophet:

    Thus saith the LORD: Because thou hast let go out of thy hand the man whom I had devoted to destruction, therefore thy life shall go for his life, and thy people for his people.

The King's Response

King David:
    I have sinned against the LORD

King Achav:
    And the king of Israel went to his house sullen and displeased, and came to Samaria.


What a difference between the two prophets/ kings, eh? And I didn't even get into the actual way the parables are presented- note that Nasan states that "a man" took the one little ewe, while The Unnamed Prophet states that he personally was responsible for guarding a prisoner of war, following the tradition of Joab's Wise Woman of Tekoa.

Nasan's response to David is lengthy and detailed. Why is that? First, one can suggest that Nasan has a personal relationship to or with the king from before, and hence he is able to speak freely. More importantly, because David is described as being angry on behalf of the poor fellow whose ewe was robbed, it is obvious that his sin was not intentional; he is able to emotionally connect to the plight of the person. For this reason, Nasan's remonstrations will be helpful. Compare this to Achav's very cold response to the man who is understandably hoping for a legal loophole so that he does not have to die. The verse does not ascribe any such emotion to him; he is not sad on behalf of the man; he pronounces judgement with hardly a second glance, "'So shall thy judgment be; thyself hast decided it." Achav has just sentenced this man to death! But he shows no emotion, very unlike David. The prophet removes his disguise and Achav knows him; the prophet decides that only one sentence is necessary because this is all that Achav will have the patience to hear. Achav is doomed. Most important, of course is the response of the kings themselves. David is penitent and confesses that he has sinned. Achav, on the other hand, returns to Shomron angry and unhappy (ah, now he feels emotion- when it is too late! There's something ironic there...), his peace of mind destroyed. He is silent, terse, brooding.

I find the key to both scenarios to be that of empathy. David's nature is such that he is able to feel highly empathetic toward all, even to "a man," not the man who stands in front of him, not Nathan, but a man whom he does not even know, any man, "a" man. David commiserates with him, feels his plight, and feels anger on his behalf. Very much to the other extreme, Achav is cold even when he is faced by a person pleading for his life. Achav feels no sadness, no emotion.

The placement of this scenario with regard to Achav is brilliant, as the very next chapter addresses the results of such a lack of empathy- the story of Navos and the Vineyard. Even though Achav may not have been technically aware of Jezebel's machinations on his behalf, the fact that he coldly "rose up to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it" upon hearing of Navos' death shows that he has learned nothing from his encounter with The Unnamed Prophet. Not a twinge of guilt, a shadow of compassion or sadness upon hearing of the death of a fellow human being, he goes to take possession of the property.

It is only after hearing Elijah's lengthy list of curses (notice the length and detail- similar to Nathan's approach, which is ultimately more successful) that Achav "rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softy." One wonders what would have occurred had it been Elijah rather than The Unnamed Prophet who met Achav the first time.


Anonymous said...

question- you've placed a positive spin on the "parallelness" of the stories; fair enough.
but doesnt the similarity ever make you suspicious? i suppose if you assume that its all divine, it makes it all the more impressive. but if youre critically looking at the midrashim, neviim, etc- doesnt it strike you as convenient that they're so parallel? 'and amaslai saw the child that he was good, and the cave filled up with light'- doesnt that make the cautious critical you wary?

hope you dont mind the two cents; im a blogstranger.

Chana said...


I don't mind the two cents at all!

You've asked me a really interesting question. I personally find the parallels to be fascinating rather than problematic, but I can see how they would make others hum thoughtfully. I suppose I see the parallels through tinted lenses; I am, after all, an Orthodox Jew, I believe in God and hence am reading the Torah as a religious and literary text combined.

I sat in on a very interesting class at UChicago by a famous Professor whose name I'm forgetting at the moment, and I recall that he was disturbed by the most obvious parallels in the Torah- Sarah being taken by the Pharoah/ Avimelech and later Rebecca being placed in the same position. If I'm recalling correctly, he suggested that the story of the woman being desired by a royal figure was a folktale that made its way into the compiled version of the Old Testament. So you're correct that there's critical discussion about this, and I would have to research it further.

That being said, I personally have good reason to believe in the veracity of that particular tale, for in my family one woman was desired by (and would have been taken by) the Emir! Hence even if the story was a common folktale, that doesn't necessarily make it untrue.

One also has to wonder how to treat the stories in the Bible. Are they all literally true? In the Midrash, for example, they're certainly not all literally true. Perhaps the real message is the "moral" of the allegory or tale or the relation of the character traits each character demonstrates, and the precise methods are only there as examples. I have heard that Rambam treats some tales allegorically (and still don't quite know which ones) so I'd have to look that up...

If you ask me personally, do I look at the stories with a critical eye and find the repetition to be evidence of human tampering or suchlike, I'd have to say that I don't. I do, however, find the parallel stories to be evidence of a masterful literary work. The most beautiful and brilliant classics deal with motifs, symbols, metaphors and the like, and parallel stories are both symbolic and excellent. Most beautiful are the ones that aren't necessarily obvious, where you really have to know the Tanakh in order to see the similarities. I think it's easier to be critical of really obvious patterns, but subtle touches are very appreciable.

Really, I'd have to do more research and see what others have said- I'm sure the UChicago professor is basing his views on those of others and/or has written a book on the subject- and then I'll hopefully get back to you.

Many thanks!

Lab Rab said...

Too much to read carefully; but don't forget to include on your list Abraham and the idols vs. Gidon and Daniel.

Anonymous said...

thanks so much for that reply- dont get me wrong, im an observant jew too ("orthodox"). some counterthoughts:

theres a critical point u mentioned- that because something may not be true doesnt make it untrue. eg, if there were 50 stories of people whose wives were wanted by kings, then all you would have is an increasing probability function of that actually happening vs. just ancient folklore which crept in. in which case, any such discussion is moot for us, because however stretched that probability function becomes, you (or i) wouldnt entertain the alternative without an external "proof" making it possible, in which case we no longer even need that probability function. so granted- wary, cautious, etc, it may be, but it is actually irrelevant.

also- i hear you about some midrashim being nonliteral, etc. but while on the one hand that would seem like it must be the case (shimshons shoulders were most definitely not 60 amos wide, i dont care what you say), thats too scary a realm to enter, because then what is, what isnt, what must be, what may not be....? and dont midrashim sometimes impact halacha? or dont they ever? and if they do.....? or does that make them impervious to nonliteral transation? but then isnt that circular? see what i mean.

thirdly- wholeheartedly agree that a thorough knowledge of tanach is needed to even become aware of so many of the cool things, like these parallels. eg, dreams, dreams, dreams- yechezkels to nevuchadnezzers. and yes, i agree that many parallels offer possibility of common up with cool symbolics, etc. but arent u ever scared that just because somesthing may make sense, it still may not be true? granted, you can come up with so many brilliant parallels, inspirations thereof, symbolisms, etc- but how do you know theyre a function of truth, and not a function of intelligent creativity? does it matter?

anyhow. since you seem to know tanach well, im curious- have you ever read any interpertations about the cryptic words at the end of daniel, about "evening to morning two thousand three years" (something like that), or "time, times, and half a time", and all that stuff which talk about the end of time? do you know of any works that deal with that?

Anonymous said...


C, I had given up on hearing any more "thematic" stuff from you... glad i was wrong!

this is good stuff (ok, that was a bit of an understatement :-) ). i esp. liked the one with Dovid and Achav (oh, and the reference to the "Isha chachama" from Tekoa was perfectitious :-)... (excuse my daily neoligism :)))..

at the seder i was thinking about Makas Bechoros, and the common thread of dis-favored firstborns in the bible came to mind (my apologies to you if you're a bechor :-) )

1) Yitzchok vs. Yishmoel
2) Ya'akov and Eisav
3) Reuven and Yosef/Yehuda
4) Menashe and Efraim
5) All the bechorim who lost the Kehuna to shevet Levi
6) Kayin and Hevel (Hevel got the favorable treatment)
[also the story of the coronation of Dovid Hamelech and G-d's reproof to Shmuel Hanavi regarding the oldest son Eliav comes to mind: וַיְהִי בְּבוֹאָם, וַיַּרְא אֶת-אֱלִיאָב; וַיֹּאמֶר, אַךְ נֶגֶד יְהוָה מְשִׁיחוֹ. {ס}

ז וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-שְׁמוּאֵל, אַל-תַּבֵּט אֶל-מַרְאֵהוּ וְאֶל-גְּבֹהַּ קוֹמָתוֹ--כִּי מְאַסְתִּיהוּ: כִּי לֹא, אֲשֶׁר יִרְאֶה הָאָדָם--כִּי הָאָדָם יִרְאֶה לַעֵינַיִם, וַיהוָה יִרְאֶה לַלֵּבָב]

anyways, glad to see ur brain is still working along these lines.

oh, and if you have a chance to read nechama leibowitzes stuff (esp. if you could get your hands on her --very hard to come by--Gilyonot, u may find them tantalizing

ben terach-
why do ppl say "a penny for your thoughts" but then say "here's my two cents" . . . somebody must be making a penny profit here . . . :)