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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.


1. Ezekiel the Tragedian, Exagoge, 68–82: The Apotheosis of Moses

In a vision I saw a throne on top of Mount Sinai, so great in size that it reached the clouds of heaven. (70) Upon it sat a noble figure, crowned with a crown and holding a mighty sceptre in his left hand, while with his right he beckoned me. So I approached and stood before the throne. He handed the sceptre to me and on the great throne (75) he bade me sit; he gave to me the royal crown, and he himself quitted the throne. I beheld the whole world round about; things beneath the earth and above the skies. At my feet a multitude of stars (80) fell down, and I counted all their number. They paraded past me like a troop of soldiers. Then in terror I woke from my dream.

Comment: Moses is here telling his father-in-law Jethro about a dream that he has had, which relates to his future receiving of the law on Mount Sinai, an event which lay beyond the scope of Ezekiel's narrative. Ezekiel, like many early Jewish commentators, seems to have held that Moses not merely ascended the mountain, but went up into heaven itself. The noble figure on the throne is God, pictured as the Ancient of Days as in Dan 7 (cf. ANTH C.3). God enthrones Moses, appointing him his viceregent over the world, and Moses receives the homage of the hosts of heaven. On Ezekiel the Tragedian see MAJ GEN G.1.

2. Joseph and Aseneth, 7:1–11: Joseph's First Sight of Aseneth

(7:1) Joseph entered Pentephres' house and sat on a seat, and Pentephres washed his feet and set a table before him by itself, because Joseph never ate with the Egyptians, for this was an abomination to him. (2) And looking up, Joseph saw Aseneth leaning through (the window). And Joseph spoke to Pentephres and his whole family, saying, ‘Who is that woman standing in the solar by the window? Tell her to leave this house at once.’ (3) This was because Joseph was afraid lest she too should pester him, for all the wives and daughters of the noblemen and satraps of the whole land of Egypt used to pester him to sleep with him, (4) and all the wives and daughters of the Egyptians suffered badly when they saw Joseph, because he was so handsome. They used to send their messengers to him with gold and silver and precious gifts, (5) but Joseph sent them back with threats and insults, saying, ‘I will not sin before the God of Israel.’ (6) And Joseph kept the face of his father Jacob always before his eyes, and remembered his father's commandments. For Jacob used to say to his son Joseph and to his brother, ‘My children, guard strongly against associating with a strange woman, for she is ruin and destruction.’ (7) Therefore Joseph said, ‘Tell that woman to leave this house.’

(8) Pentephres said to him, ‘My Lord, that woman you have seen in the upper storey is no stranger but our daughter, a virgin hating every man, and no other man has ever seen her save you alone today. (9) And if you wish, she will come and speak with you, because our daughter is like a sister to you.’ (10) And Joseph was overjoyed because Pentephres had said, ‘She is a virgin hating every man.’ And Joseph said to himself, ‘If she is a virgin hating every man, she will certainly not molest me.’ (11) And Joseph said to Pentephres and his wife, ‘If she is your daughter and a virgin, let her come, because she is my sister, and I love her as my sister from this day.’

Comment: When Joseph, who holds the position of vizier of Egypt, arrives at Potiphar/Pentephres' house with all his retinue, Aseneth coyly runs upstairs to avoid meeting him, but she cannot resist peeping out at the visitor and noticing how handsome he is. Joseph catches a glimpse of her, and demands that she leave the house, lest she seduce him into violating his father's command to keep away from women (cf. ANTH D.3). The reference to Joseph's fatal attractiveness to Egyptian women is based on Gen 39:6–20 , where Potiphar/Pentephres' wife attempts to seduce him. Joseph resists, is slandered by the woman, and is thrown into jail. Curiously the author of Joseph and Aseneth makes no direct allusion to these events. Perhaps he felt that to introduce Joseph's earlier life as a servant of Potiphar/Pentephres might have confused his story, though it could also have provided him with some interesting dramatic ironies: Joseph, now the second-in-command in Egypt, returns to the house of the master and mistress who had wronged him; having spurned the mother, he falls for the daughter's charms. Instead he generalizes the Potiphar/Pentephres' wife episode into a universal condemnation of the predatory behaviour of Egyptian women. The serious side of the story is seen in its stress on Joseph's piety: he resists the temptations that come from moving in Gentile society. He keeps the dietary laws and rejects the sexual advances of Gentile women. When he does marry a Gentile girl, she is a chaste virgin, and he only takes her after she has converted to Judaism. On Joseph and Aseneth see MAJ GEN G.2.

3. The Lives of the Prophets, 1:1–13 : Isaiah's Spring and Tomb

( 1:1 ) Isaiah, from Jerusalem, was killed by Manasseh by being sawn in two, and he was buried beneath the Oak of Rogel, hard by the ford through the waters which Hezekiah stopped by blocking up their source (cf. 2 Chr 32:3–4 ). (2) And God worked the miracle of Siloam for the prophet, for, being faint before he died, he prayed for water to drink, and immediately it was sent to him from this source. Hence it is called Siloam, which means ‘sent’ (cf. Jn 9:7 ). (3) And in the time of Hezekiah, before he made the pools and cisterns, a little water came out in response to Isaiah's prayer, so that the city might not perish for lack of water, for the people were being besieged by foreigners. (4) For the enemy were asking, ‘From where are they drinking?’ (5) And, while investing the city, they were encamped at Siloam. (6) If, then, the Jews came, water would flow out, but if the foreigners came, it would not. (7) Therefore to this day it comes out suddenly, in order that the mystery might be made manifest. (8) And since this happened with Isaiah's help, to keep it in mind the people buried him nearby with great care and honour, so that through his prayers, even after his death, they might continue to enjoy the benefit of the water, for an oracle also was given to them about this.

(9) His tomb is hard by the tomb of the kings, behind the tomb of the priests in the southern quarter. (10) For Solomon made the tombs, following David's design, east of Zion, which has an entrance from Gabaon (Gibeon), some twenty stadia distant from the city. (11) And he made a construction with twisting passages, which to this day is unknown to most of the priests and to all of the people. (12) There the king kept the gold from Ethiopia and the spices. (13) And since Hezekiah had disclosed to the Gentiles the secrets of David and Solomon (cf. 2 Kings 20:12–18 ), and had defiled the bones of his fathers, God swore that, on account of this, his offspring would be enslaved to his enemies, and God made him impotent from that day.

Note: At v. II, some sort of souterrain seems to be envisaged.

Comment: The author regards the Pool of Siloam as being fed by a spring which was miraculously created by the intercessions of the prophet Isaiah, and which is maintained by his prayers even after his death. (He seems to be unaware of the fact that it is fed from the Gihon spring through Hezekiah's tunnel.) An important physical feature of the landscape is linked with a saint, who is shown in typical role protecting his devotees. The careful description of the location of the saint's tomb is presumably meant to assist those who wish to visit it. The saint in this case is also a martyr: he was sawn in two during the reign of wicked king Manasseh. The tradition is not biblical but is found also in the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah, 5:1–5 , and in the Talmud (y. Sanh. 10 (28c. 37); b. Yebam. 49b). It is probably alluded to in Heb 11:37 . Hezekiah's desecration of the bones of his ancestors is also not biblical. Appropriately he is punished with impotence as well as exile. Saints were often venerated because they were seen as being able to grant offspring to childless couples. On the Lives of the Prophets see MAJ GEN G.3.

4. 4 Maccabees, 9:10–25 : The Eldest Son Defies the Greek Tyrant

( 9:10 ) When they had said these things the tyrant was not only indignant at the the youths' disobedience, but even more enraged at their ingratitude. (11) Then, at his command, the guards brought forward the eldest brother, ripped off his tunic, and bound his hands and arms on both sides with thongs. (12) When they had worn themselves out flogging him with whips, without achieving anything, they put him on the wheel. (13) Stretched on this, the noble youth's limbs were all put out of joint, (14) and as each limb was dislocated, he denounced the tyrant, saying, (15) ‘Most foul tyrant, enemy of heavenly justice and pitiless, you punish me in this fashion not as a murderer or an impious man but as a defender of the divine law.’ (16) And when the guards said to him, ‘Consent to eat and you will be released from the tortures,’ (17) he answered, ‘Your wheel is not so strong, foul lackeys, as to strangle my reason. Cut off my limbs, burn my flesh, twist my joints, (18) and through all these torments I will convince you that the children of the Hebrews alone are invincible defenders of virtue.’ (19) While he was saying this they spread fire under him and, stoking it up (?), they turned the wheel still tighter. (20) The wheel was spattered all over with blood, the heap of coals was being quenched by drops of gore, and strips of flesh were turning round the axles of the machine. (21) Although the ligaments joining his bones were already severed, the great- souled youth, true son of Abraham that he was, did not groan, (22) but as though being transformed by fire into incorruptibility, he nobly endured the rackings, saying, (23) ‘Imitate me, brothers; never give up my struggle nor foreswear our brotherhood in courage. (24) Fight the sacred and noble fight for true religion, on account of which the just providence that came to our fathers' aid will show mercy to our nation and take vengeance on the accursed tyrant.’ (25) And with these words the saintly youth expired.

Comment: Rather than eat ‘unclean food’ in violation of the Torah, the eldest of the seven brothers is prepared to undergo excruciating torture and finally death. In doing so he obeys a higher, divine authority than that of the tyrant, Antiochus, the limits of whose power he demonstrates. The stress on the gruesome details of the torture are noteworthy. They were to become typical of later martyr literature. They evoke pity and they highlight the triumph of reason over the passions, but they also appeal to a voyeuristic fascination with pain and suffering. The ‘gratitude’ of the king which the seven brothers spurn ( 9:10 ) was his offer that ‘if you will renounce the ancestral law of your polity you will receive leading positions of authority over my domains’ ( 8:7 ). On 4 Maccabees see MAJ GEN G.4, and 4 MACC.

5. Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot, 61b: The Martyrdom of Rabbi Aqiva

Our rabbis taught: Once the wicked government issued a decree forbidding the Jews to engage in the study of Torah. Pappus ben Judah came and found Rabbi Aqiva publicly holding meetings and engaging in the study of Torah. He said to him: ‘Aqiva, are you not afraid of the government?’ He replied: ‘I will tell you a parable. A fox was once walking alongside a river, and he saw fish darting in shoals from one place to another. He said to them: “From what do you flee?” They replied: “From the nets which men cast out for us.” He said to them: “Would you like to come up on to dry land so that you and I can live together in the way that my ancestors lived with your ancestors?” They replied: “Are you the one men call the cleverest of animals? You're not clever; you are stupid. If we are afraid in the element in which we live, how much more should we be afraid in an element in which we would die!” So it is with us. If we are in our present plight while sitting studying Torah, of which it is written, “It brings you life and longevity” (Deut 30:20 ), how much worse off would we be if we were to go and neglect it.’

They say that a few days later Rabbi Aqiva was arrested and thrown into prison, and Pappus ben Judah was also arrested and thrown into prison beside him. He said to him: ‘Pappus, who brought you here?’ He replied: ‘Happy are you, Rabbi Aqiva, for you have been arrested for busying yourself with Torah! But alas for Pappus, who has been arrested for busying himself with trivial things!’

When Rabbi Aqiva was taken out for execution, it was the time for the reciting of the Shema. While they combed his flesh with combs of iron, he was taking upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. His students said to him: ‘Our teacher, are you prepared to go this far!’ He said to them: ‘All my life I have been troubled by the words “With all your soul” (Deut 10:12; 26:16 ), which I understand to mean “Even if God takes your soul”. I said: “When shall I ever have an opportunity of fulfilling this?” Now that I have an opportunity, shall I not fulfil it?’ He prolonged the word ‘one’ and expired while saying it. A heavenly voice went forth and said: ‘Happy are you, Rabbi Aqiva, because you expired with the word “one” on your lips!’ The ministering angels said before the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘Such Torah and such a reward! He should have been “one of those that die by your hand, Lord”’ (Ps 17:14 ). He replied to them, ‘Their portion is in life’ (Ps 17:14 ). A heavenly voice went forth and proclaimed, ‘Happy are you, Rabbi Aqiva, for you are destined for the life of the world to come.’

Comment: The Babylonian Talmud, from which this version of the martyrdom of Aqiva is taken was edited around 500 CE (MAJ GEN B.11), but it is given as a Tannaitic tradition, which, if correct, would date it to before 200 CE. The ‘wicked government’ is Rome, and the story purports to come from the time of the Hadrianic persecutions (132–5). The ‘combs of iron’ are a reference to a Roman instrument of torture known as ‘the claws’ (Lat. ungulae), which was used to flay the victim. The approbation of the martyr, either through a comforting vision or a ‘heavenly voice’, the dialogue between the martyr and bystanders/friends/pupils, and the comment of the angels became standard motifs of the martyr literature. See further MAJ GEN G.5.

6. Babylonian Talmud, Berakot, 62a: The Teacher as Torah Incarnate

It has been taught: Rabbi Aqiva said: ‘Once I went in after Rabbi Joshua to a privy, and I learnt from him three things. I learnt that one does not sit east–west but north–south; I learnt that one does not evacuate standing up but sitting down; and I learnt that it is proper to clean oneself with the left hand and not with the right.’ Ben ‘Azzai said to him: ‘Did you dare to take such liberties with your master?’—He replied: ‘It is a matter of Torah, and I needed to learn.’

It has been taught: Ben Azzai said: ‘Once I went in after Rabbi Aqiva to a privy, and I learnt from him three things. I learnt that one does not evacuate east–west but north–south. I also learnt that one evacuates sitting down and not standing up. I also learnt that it is proper to clean onself with the left hand and not with the right.’ Rabbi Judah said to him: ‘Did you dare to take such liberties with your master?’—He replied: ‘It is a matter of Torah, and I needed to learn.’

Rab Kahana once went in and hid under Rav's bed. He heard him chatting [with his wife] and joking and doing what he required. He said to him: ‘One would think that Abba's mouth had never sipped the dish before!’ He said to him: ‘Kahana, are you there? Get out! This is not done (lit. not the way of the world)!’ He replied: ‘It is a matter of Torah, and I need to learn.’

Note: Abba (‘Father’) is here used by Kahana as a title of respect for his teacher.

Comment: The examples cited are exaggerated, in typical rabbinic style, and are doubtless meant to bring a smile to the faces of the ‘pupils of the Sages’, but a deeply serious point is being made. It is that Torah extends into all areas of life, and should govern even etiquette. The teacher embodies the Torah, and his actions should be observed and imitated, for they reveal the truth as much as his words. The same sentiment was later expressed in the modern Hasidic maxim that one goes to the Rebbe not just to hear his teaching but to see how he ties and unties his shoe-laces. See further MAJ GEN B.11, G.6.

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