Now we have the list of most of the lesser-known sons and tribes of Israel. One of the genealogies that we are given is that of Manasseh, which includes the lineage of Zelophehad, father of my favorite biblical feminists. “And Machir took a wife of Huppim and of Shuppim, and the name of his sister was Maacah, and the name of the second was Zelophehad, and Zelophehad had daughters (Chronicles I 7:15).” This throwback to the story of Zelophehad’s daughters is a welcome reminder of these heroines, but is also causing me to question what exactly the purpose of this particular book of Tanakh is. So far all I’ve had are lists of names, mostly obscure ones, and now we’re essentially having one-verse remakes of dramas and stories from earlier texts. I’m not clear on what this is meant to teach, but can definitely say that I’m not surprised this book isn’t widely studied. If I’m setting up for multiple months of this, it’s going to be a long – and sadly dull – end to this project.
This chapter is another one that’s full of names upon names, for straight up sixty-six verses. There are only a few that have content beyond X son of X, repeatedly, so I’m choosing to focus on one of those for my reflection piece today. “And to the sons of Aaron they gave the cities of refuge: Hebron, and Libnah and the open land around it, and Jattir, and Eshtemoa and the open land around it (Chronicles I 6:42).” Cities of refuge are a concept that I’m fascinated by. We haven’t seen them in a few books, but from what I recall, they were places that those charged manslaughter, but not murder, could go to in order to escape blood feuds. I guess it’s important in the context of the text that they served this purpose, but I’m just thinking about all the other categories of people who could use a refuge place and weren’t necessarily being served by any of the communal institutions of the day. Particularly in the age of #MeToo, I’m thinking about women in this era, and how they didn’t exactly have options if they wanted to leave their abusive situations. Or individuals who, for whatever reason, weren’t accepted by their communities and tribes. Did they get refuge somewhere?
Full disclosure: I am fully aware that the point that I’m going to attempt to make from my reading of this chapter is reaching, to say the least, and potentially flat out not in the text. But I’m going with it anyway. This chapter is talking about the genealogy of Jacob’s descendants. “And the sons of Reuben, the firstborn of Israel, for he was the firstborn, but when he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph the son of Israel, but not to be reckoned in the genealogy as firstborn. Because Judah prevailed over his brothers, and the one appointed as prince was to be from him, but the birthright belonged to Joseph (Chronicles I 5:1-2).” Now, as a disclaimer, let me say that I have the best parents in the world, a fact that is exponentially true when comparing our family to the dysfunctional drama of the clan of Jacob. However, one thing that I took from these verses related to something that my parents always said to my siblings and I – that they parent every child differently. Whenever one of us would be upset about a perceived privilege that another one had, or a lack of total equality, they would simply and straightforwardly tell us that each child had and needed different things, and that their parenting would never be uniform. I feel like on some level, we’re seeing that precept in this text, with each son receiving a different portion based on their actions and subsequently what they deserved. With other patriarchs in Tanakh, we see the birthright being given to whoever ‘should’ have it, rather than who deserves it, which leads to its own strife. That’s Jacob’s story in a nutshell, so maybe he did learn from that and on some level chose to parent according to his children, rather than a system.
More and more and more names, these from the tribe of Judah, and each more random than the last. Some mention women, others don’t, and I’m at a bit of a loss for why any of them deserved to be canonized in the most sacred of texts. One name that intrigued me was Jabez. “Now Jabez was more esteemed than his brothers, and his mother named him Jabez, saying, ‘For I bore him in sadness (Chronicles I 4:9).'” I have no memory of having heard of this guy before, so it’s interesting in the first place that he gets a mention and an explanation like this. Each clause of the verse is also full of questions. Regarding the former, we have so many examples of strife between brothers in Tanakh, so I’m wondering if this is just one of many or if it’s a standout example somehow. And why does his relationship with his brothers have anything to do with how he was named and why? Why would his mother have had sadness, to the point that she immortalized that emotion in the name of her son? Does it have to do with his brothers, or is it a totally separate issue? I wonder if the commentators delved into all of this, or if this is all just an aside towards the end of Tanakh, and Jabez is someone who is ultimately lost to history?
I’m doing a slight switch-up today, and instead of focusing on what’s in the text of today’s chapter, I want to actually focus on what – or in this case, who – isn’t there. This chapter continues the trend of delving into the genealogy of our favorite biblical characters, and this time focuses on King David. We get shoutouts to each of his wives for the sons they produced for him. For example, “The fifth, Sephatiah, to Abital; the sixth, Ithream, to Eglah his wife (Chronicles I 3:3).” Fine. However, I can’t help but notice that someone is missing from the chapter. Michal, David’s first wife and queen, King Saul’s daughter, doesn’t even get a mention in this chronology of David. And the sad reason is that it’s because she was barren, and without contributing to his line, seems to have been erased from his life. We see throughout Tanakh that there are women who experience fertility issues, but part of the reason that we even know their stories is that those issues are somehow overcome and they do have the longed-for children (i.e. sons) that they were praying for. But what about Michal? She’s left childless to the end, and now her very existence seems to be ignored. I know we have to read through the context of the time, but it actually breaks my heart that this woman was so brushed aside just because she didn’t give the king sons. So I’m remembering Michal, and all other voiceless women, removed from the pages of text and history because they didn’t do what others expected of them.
List time once again! We get a breakdown of the children of Jacob, and those of Judah, and Judah’s twin sons via Tamar. Then we have some less familiar names – Ethan, Carmi, and others that I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard of, or that at least are totally unfamiliar. Then Nachshon comes into the picture, and we go back to familiarity with the genealogy of David. The chapter goes on with more unfamiliar names, but I’m going to stick with Nahshon for this week’s reflection. We don’t get much detail. “And Ram begot Amminadab, and Amminadab begot Nahshon, the prince of the children of Judah (Chronicles I 2:10).” The stories of Nahshon that I know come mainly from midrash, not from the actual text itself, and it’s those stories we talked about just a few weeks ago at the seder. The most famous Nahshon story comes from the crossing of the Red Sea during the Exodus from Egypt. The story goes that everyone had gathered by the water, and the Egyptians were coming, but nothing was happening and everyone was freaking out. The sea looked dangerous, the enemy was literally at their backs, and no one knew what to do. So Nahshon, at that point a nameless figure within the text, simply started walking forward, and it was only then that the waters split. We use this example in Jewish education fairly regularly when we talk about leadership, about doing what needs to be done, and about taking the first step when things seem impossible. So in this unfamiliar book full of names, it’s nice to see one that I recognize – and admire! – pop up.
First chapter of the final book! It starts with a throwback all the way to the beginning, with the genealogy of Adam to the sons of Noah, and then the breakdown among them, all the way to Abraham. Then, we get a list of all of the sons of Abraham – not just Isaac, whose lineage we’ve been following this whole time, or even Isaac and Ishmael, one of the many iconic sets of biblical brothers. Ishmael’s children are also listed, as are the sons of Keturah, Abraham’s late in life concubine. And more and more names, some of which are familiar, and so many others who aren’t given prominence or voice or even real mention in the text. And, nearly at the end, a special addition. “And Baal Hanan died, and Hadad reigned in his stead. Now the name of his city was Pai, and his wife’s name was Mehetabel the daughter of Matred, the daughter of Mezahab (Chronicles I 1:50).” I can confidently state that I’ve never heard of these people before, but I’m intrigued enough to want to know more about this rarely named woman who comes from a line of what must be strong women. She’s a queen of the Edomites, and while she’s barely an aside in the text, she’s important enough to be mentioned, and therefore I’m intrigued. I’m kind of hoping there’s a whole line of midrashim about this silent sister, and while I can’t imagine we see her again, I want to keep Mehetabel and all of the other voiceless women in the text in mind as this project arcs towards a close.
This chapter comes with all the drama – racial profiling, religious fundamentalism, anger issues, and a huge dollop of self-righteousness courtesy of our man Nehemia. It’s definitely in keeping with the tone of the rest of the book, which I suppose makes it a fitting note to end on, but doesn’t particularly speak to me. It actually makes me really happy that there’s still another book to go before the end of this project. I don’t really like Nehemia, and the verse I chose is just one reason why. “And I commanded the Levites that the watchers of the walls should purify themselves and come to hallow the Sabbath day. This too remember for me, my God, and have pity on me according to Your abundant loving-kindness (Nehemia 13:22).” Maybe I’m being too judgmental, but this just reminds me of modern self-appointed religious zealots who decide that they know what’s best, impose regulations on others, and then expect to be praised/rewarded. So much of what I’m taking away from my readings of Tanakh is an embrace of the complexity and imperfection of our tradition, and I wish others would as well.
With that, Nehemia is done, and tomorrow I start the last book(s) of Project 929! I’ve never read Chronicles before, so I’m excited for something new to end with, and am also getting a little sad that this project that has been a mainstay for me for literally years is coming to an end. 864 chapters down, 65 to go!
We get another long list of names, this time of the generations of Levites, which seems pretty apropos when thinking about the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple. “And in the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, they sought the Levites from all their places to bring them to Jerusalem to perform the dedication with joy, and with thanksgivings, and with song, cymbals, psalteries, and with harps (Nehemia 12:27).” It definitely sounds like a grand celebration, but I can’t fully relate to it. As someone with no musical talent whatsoever, and very little appreciation for it in general (sorry, music fans!), it’s never been one of the ways that I express my joy. But I can see how this could be part of the collective experience of the people, and this does sound like an amazing manifestation of years of tension turning into joy.
“And the people blessed all the persons who volunteered to dwell in Jerusalem (Nehemia 11:2).” This sentence made me laugh a bit, honestly. I’m a formerly reluctant former Jerusalem resident. I believe I’ve written about my complex and ever-changing feelings about Jerusalem earlier on the blog, but when I first moved there years ago, I was not pleased about the situation. I wanted to live in beach-front, laid back Tel Aviv, which felt a lot better suited to how I wanted to lead my life than stony, pressure-cooker Jerusalem. I felt like I deserved blessings for agreeing to live in Jerusalem, a city that shut down every weekend, where I had to plan my outfits based on which neighborhoods I’d anticipate passing through on a daily basis, and where on some levels, all situations felt heightened. But somehow, eventually a shift happened, without me even realizing it, and Jerusalem became my home, the city of my peace. I fell deeply in love with it, and now it’s my turn to bless everyone who volunteers and gets to live there today.