Sifra on the Sister, the Bible and ANE Documents (Merneptah, Mesha)

1.  I finally finished Jacob Neusner’s Uniting the Dual Torah.  Neusner’s argument is that the Sifra exalts the written Torah.  Sifra is a third century commentary on the Book of Leviticus.  According to Neusner, the Sifra unites the written and the oral Torah by using the oral Torah to interpret Leviticus, while also, in many cases, seeking to ground the oral Torah in Scripture.  Moreover, the Sifra aims to establish law on the basis of Scripture rather than reason alone. 

Neusner gives an example of the latter point in his discussion of Parashat Qedoshim Pereq 11, which I assume is part of the Sifra.  It covers Leviticus 21:17, which states that a man shall not sleep with his sister, neither the daughter of his mother, nor the daughter of his father.  The Parashat says that we can logically conclude from this verse that a man shouldn’t sleep with the daughter of his father and his mother, his full-sister.  It’s a matter of qal vachomer: If a man can’t sleep with his half-sister, how much more is he prohibited from sex with his full-sister!  Yet, Leviticus 21:17 makes explicit that a man cannot sleep with his sister (any kind), the daughter of his mother, or the daughter of his father.  Why’s the Scripture mention “sister,” if one can conclude that she’s off-limits from the prohibition on sex with one’s half-sister?  For many rabbis, no word in the Torah is redundant, so there must be a reason to include the word “sister.”  The answer is this: “Therefore Scripture makes the matter ‘his sister’ explicit, to indicate that one should not impose a penalty only on the basis of logical argument…”  In this line of thought, logical argument is not enough, for one needs the support of Scripture for a law.  Whether or not the Sifra always follows through on this, I don’t know.  After all, why even have an oral Torah, if Scripture is sufficient? 

2.  I read Robert Boling’s article on the Book of Joshua in the Anchor Bible Dictionary.  What interested me was how Boling tried to integrate non-biblical archaeological material with ancient biblical poetry (“ancient” according to his dates, which range from the fourteenth-twelfth centuries B.C.E.) to create a narrative about ancient Israel’s history.  When Deuteronomy 33 says that Judah is in dire straits, for instance, Boling says that this may be due to Pharaoh Merneptah’s thirteenth century devastation of Israel.  At the same time, Deuteronomy 33 says that certain tribes are strong.  How can that be if it’s referring to the time when Merneptah devastated Israel?  As Boling says, “Earliest Israel was crushed by Merneptah roughly a century later, so decisively that in the second major poem of the corpus the name Israel does not occur.”

I wonder why the Bible doesn’t explicitly mention Merneptah’s campaign.  Bryant Wood, a conservative archaeologist, offers the possibility that the Merneptah Stele is lying when it says that Merneptah laid Israel waste (see Egyptian Domination of Canaan during Joshua/Judges). 

I was also intrigued to learn that the ninth century Mesha Stele mentions Gad, which, in the Hebrew Bible, is an Israelite tribe in the Transjordan.  See Mesha Stele – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  Mesha king of Moab boasts: The man of Gad had dwelt in Ataroth from of old; and the king of Israel built Ataroth for him. But I fought against the city and took it. And I slew all the people [and] the city became the property of Kemosh and Moab.  The ABD states regarding Ataroth: A fortified town captured by the tribe of Gad (Num 32:3) from Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan, on the E side of the Jordan; it was rebuilt for cattle and sheep (Num 32:34).  There may be a contradiction between the Mesha Stele and the Bible in that the Mesha Stele states that the king of Israel built Ataroth for Gad, whereas Numbers says that the Gadites built it before the monarchy.  Moreover, the Mesha Stele affirms that the Gadites dwelt in Ataroth “from of old.”  How long is that?  If the Stele is from the ninth century, and Saul (Israel’s first king) reigned in the eleventh century, then the Gadites lived in Ataroth for two centuries, at the most.  This is if we believe that the earliest king of Israel gave Ataroth to Gad, as we read the Mesha Stele in light of the Bible.  Is two centuries really “of old”?  But, then again, the 1800’s strike me as the “old days”!

That’s not the only time when there appears to be a conflict between the Bible and ancient Near Eastern documents, for Assyrian documents call Jehu the son of Omri, even though (in the Bible) Jehu overthrew the Omride dynasty.  But ancient Near Eastern writings can be inaccurate.  But, minimalists would contend, so can the Bible.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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