This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

A Seder with Solomon*

There is no Jewish community or generation that has not made its own contributions to the understanding of the Passover saga. Of the innumerable interpretations that have been proposed over our long history, some have achieved greater acceptance than others, whether because of their inherent interest or because they were preserved in more authoritative religious documents. Some commentaries, on the other hand, have been consigned to historical obscurity because the communities that produced them lay outside the Jewish mainstream--or, what was worse, they were written in languages that were not widely known among Jews.

Such was the unfortunate fate of the book known as The Wisdom of Solomon. Notwithstanding its pseudepigraphic attribution to the wise king from the Bible, most scholars believe that Wisdom was actually composed in Greek by a Jew living in Alexandria, Egypt, during the first century C.E. It forms part of the corpus known as the Apocrypha; that is to say: it was included in the Greek Bible that was used by the Alexandrian Jewish community, though it was never incorporated into the official corpus of Hebrew scripture.

The Wisdom of Solomon deals with a variety of important topics, such as divine justice and the afterlife. It gives special prominence to an exposition of the Exodus story and its significance. One is tempted to speculate that this discussion originated in the learned table talk that took place at an ancient seder.

What I believe to be a unique feature of Wisdom of Solomon's version of the Exodus story is the consistent symmetry that the author posits between the Egyptian plagues and the blessings that were subsequently bestowed upon the Israelites during their sojourn in the desert. In most instances, he is able to demonstrate a threefold correspondence: (1) God chose each plague to punish the Egyptian oppressors for a particular sin. (2) Later, when the Israelites were traveling through the Sinai desert, the same natural force was used benevolently to assist them. (3) Ultimately, the experience served to impress upon the consciousness of both the Israelites and the Egyptians that the master of the universe can utilize his supreme control over nature in order to benefit the righteous and to chastise the wicked.

By way of illustration, we may observe how (1) the first plague was inflicted by means of water when the Nile was transformed into blood; (2) The same element was later utilized in a miracle that benefited the Israelites, when water was extracted from a rock in order to quench their thirst. The Egyptians, on the other hand, were stricken by water in retaliation for their plot to drown the Hebrew infants; (3) In this manner, both sides would recognize how nature itself serves as an instrument in the hands of the God of justice, to be applied in the appropriate ways for the righteous or the wicked.

The same symmetrical approach is applied to Wisdom of Solomon's interpretations of the animal-related plagues. The fact that God chose to strike Egypt with these was a fitting response to the Egyptian inclination to worship deities in animal form. The pernicious impact of the animal plagues on the opressors is contrasted with the divine generosity that was extended to the Israelites in the wilderness, where they were provided with quails to satisfy their hunger. Here too, it was God's wish that the Hebrews and the Egyptians should each draw the appropriate theological and moral lessons that were implicit in their contrasting treatments.

True to this pattern, the Egyptians were sorely afflicted by creepy-crawlers like locusts and flies, whereas the Israelites were later healed by beholding a bronze serpent. The Egyptians were attacked by fiery hail hurled from the sky, as distinct from the Israelites who were nourished with manna from heaven. Wisdom of Solomon envisions a parallelism between the fierce mixture of opposing natural forces, ice and fire, that was unleashed destructively on the Egyptians, and the frost-like manna that was gently melted by the rays of the sun.

Of course, if you take a careful look at the original biblical stories, you will soon realize that the Wisdom of Solomon has taken some daring liberties with the original narratives. Most of the episodes that it cites as illustrations of divine kindness to the righteous Hebrews were, in reality, discomforting incidents in which God was provoked to anger because of the people's whining and lack of faith. To cite one conspicuous example, the wondrous procurement of the water was produced in response to the people's impatient complaints; and eventually, Moses himself was reprimanded for his failure to sanctify God's name in that affair.

A similar observation can be made with regard to the episode of the bronze serpent: the only reason why it was needed in the first place was in order to heal the people from the bites of venomous snakes that were sent to attack them in consequence of their murmurings. Even the convenience of manna delivered from the heavens was associated in the Torah with a case of Israelite faithlessness, as some of the people did not believe that God would withhold the supply on the Sabbath. When God provided the quail, it was in response to the people's insufferable carping over the monotony of the manna, and in the rather spiteful expectation that they would become sick of the meat until it was coming out of their noses.

None of these awkward details were mentioned in the Wisdom of Solomon's version of the exodus story. In that account, the Israelites were depicted consistently as righteous. Whatever hardships the miracles were supposed to remedy, they did not amount to more than temporary and moderate irritations whose purpose was to provide the Hebrews with a symbolic appreciation of the profound catastrophes that had been inflicted on their enemies.

In his determination to create a polar contrast between the fates of the Egyptians and of the Israelites, our author made some additional assumptions that are contradicted by the biblical narrative. It served his interests to claim that several of the plagues brought widespread death to the Egyptians. In reality, neither of these claims is quite accurate--or, at least, they are not stated explicitly in scripture. The transformation of the Nile to blood might well have resulted in somedeaths by thirst or dehydration, but this is not emphasized in the Torah. The Torah stresses the damage caused by other plagues to the Egyptian crops and beasts, but not to the human populace.

Clearly, the author's intention here was not to offer us an impartial retelling of the exodus story. He was making selective and creative use of materials from the Bible in order to send a message to his audience. His simplistic division of the world between virtuous Israelites and iniquitous heathens is similar in spirit to midrashic preaching. Scholars have suggested that Wisdom of Solomon might have been responding to specific local manifestations of antisemitic persecution, such as the attempts by the mad Roman Emperor Caligula to impose the worship of himself on all his subjects, or one of the recurrent ethnic riots that flared up in Alexandria.

Whatever the author's motives, the Wisdom of Solomon's message is, on the whole, an encouraging one, an assurance that the world is under the control of a just and all-powerful deity who will ultimately give both the righteous and the wicked what they deserve.

This insight can still resonate with us two millennia later, thereby confirming that the ancient Hellenistic document need not be dismissed as being so much Greek to us.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

published by

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

 

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