This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Lady of the Flies *

The Torah is not very informative when it comes to explaining the role of the angels who were going up and down the ladder in Jacob’s famous dream. Most rabbinic interpreters understood that they were there to provide protection or reassurance Jacob as he fled alone from his brother’s wrath. However, in some midrashic texts we encounter a different approach one that depicts those angels in a negative light and contrasts their role in the story to that of the Almighty.

It was in this spirit that the Midrash Genesis Rabbah discussed an apparent inconsistency in the narrative, as from one verse to the next the angels disappear and the stage is taken over by God. Rabbi Abbahu explained the transition by resorting to an odd parable: It is analogous, he expounded, “to a king’s child who was asleep in a cradle with flies on him. When his nurse arrived, she bent down over him to nurse him, which caused them to flee from him.”

This audacious analogy compares the angels on the ladder to a swarm of tormenting insects! Indeed there are some interpretations in the midrash that depict the angels as taunting Jacob, or as celestial representations of the heathen empires who, as they rise and fall through history, will oppress Jacob’s descendants until the final redemption.

Whatever it was that was motivating the angels’ behavior, Rabbi Abbahu understood that they were irritating Jacob, and that he required divine intervention to fend off the swarm of supernatural nuisances. For that reason, God’s entry onto the narrative stage coincided with the angels’ withdrawal. God, as it were, swatted or waved them away out of solicitude for his beloved Jacob.

Rabbi Abbahu, as it happens, did not invent the simile of the baby and the flies. It was a very well-known image that made its first appearance in Homer’s epic of the Trojan war, the Iliad. The Greek bard used it to describe how Athena deflected an arrow that had been fired by the Trojan Pandarus while it was on its trajectory to kill Menelaus. When the goddess of wisdom intervened to redirect the arrow to a less vulnerable part of Menelaus’s body, Homer wrote that she was behaving "even as a mother sweeps a fly from her child when he lies in sweet slumber.”

Rabbi Abbahu, a resident of the hellenized city of Caesarea in the fourth century, was well-known for his intimate acquaintance with Greek language and culture, so it is not at all surprising to find that he was familiar with this quote.

There are actually some differences between Homer's simile and Rabbi Abbahu's, though it is not obvious how significant they are. For example, The midrashic child is the son of a king, whereas the one in the Iliad is not (though King Menelaus of Sparta was of royal blood). There might be a good theological reason for the rabbis to stress that Jacob (symbolized by the infant) was a prince, especially if we understand the angels to represent empires who will deny Israel's sovereignty. On the other hand, since the vast majority of rabbinic parables are about kings (referring of course to the supreme sovereign of the universe), it might well be nothing more than a rhetorical cliché.

A similar interpretation of the episode is brought in the Babylonian Talmud: “...They [the angels] wished to do him harm—when ‘behold, the Lord stood beside him’! Rabbi Simeon ben Laḳish said: Were this not written explicitly in the scripture, we would not have dared to utter such a thing: he [God] was like a man who was fanning his son with his hand.”

The very outrageousness of the scenario of God performing menial tasks like waving or fanning for the comfort of an infant makes it rather hard to suppose that the two statements (Rabbi Abbahu’s in Genesis Rabbah and Rabbi Simeon ben Laḳish’s in the Talmud) arose independently of one another. If the authors or editors the two parables were familiar with each other’s versions, then it is possible that they sensed something problematic that they wanted to correct by proposing a different analogy.

A likely suspect for the problematic element is Rabbi Abbahu’s depiction of God in a quintessentially female role, a phenomenon that has few parallels in ancient rabbinic literature. After all, that humble wet-nurse served as a poignant poetic link between the Greek goddess of wisdom and the paternal God of the Bible.

On further reflection, however, when we take into account the broader cultural and religious contexts of Judaism at that time, it is not too difficult to come up with a number of alternative explanations for why someone could have wanted to find a replacement for Rabbi Abbahu’s analogy of the wet-nurse.

For one thing, wet-nursing was a domestic function that in Hellenistic and Roman society was frequently performed by slaves; and in spite of the rabbis’ occasional assurances that the Lord is ready to forego his majesty to minister to the needs of his creatures, our sages lived in a world that took social class very seriously. Hence the attribution to him of a menial function that was so far beneath his dignity might well have exceeded the bounds of theological propriety.

The symbolism also involved some thorny religious questions that emerged from the ongoing rivalries between Judaism and paganism. Cults whose imagery depicted goddesses nursing their children enjoyed much popularity in the Roman empire. The best known of these was the Egyptian Isis cult whose icons showed her holding her son Horus at her bosom. These cults were well known to the Jewish sages and objects portraying their cultic images were prohibited by rabbinic law.

Moreover, since Egypt’s empress Cleopatra VII declared herself to be the reincarnation of the goddess Isis, that cult took on an additional negative dimension as a form of emperor-worship. This distasteful mixture of politics and religion provoked the rabbis’ vehement opposition even though they might have been inclined to feel less threatened by other vestiges of traditional mythological polytheism.

We see, then, that there was no dearth of adequate religious and political factors that would warrant the removal of the wet-nurse from Rabbi Abbahu’s parable, without requiring us to assume that the rabbis were objecting to the use of a feminine image to describe God’s treatment of Jacob and the angels.

In any case, the texts of the Midrash and Talmud contain no indication that anyone was particularly bothered by Rabbi Abbahu’s exposition, neither by the feminine imagery itself nor by the use of Homer’s Iliad in a Jewish religious homily.

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, November 23, 2012, p. 16.
  • For further reading:
    • Bacher, Wilhelm. Agadat Amoraʼe Erets-Yisraʼel. Translated by Alexander Siskind Rabinovitz. Vol. 1. 3 vols. Tel-Aviv: Dvir, 1925.
    • ———. Die Agada der palästinensischen Amoräer. 3 vols. Strassburg i. E: K. J. Trübner, 1892.
    • Lieberman, Saul. Hellenism in Jewish Palestine: Studies in the Literary Transmission, Beliefs and Manners of Palestine in the I Century B. C. E.-IV Century C. E. Texts and Studies of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America v. 18. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1950.
    • Sperber, Daniel. Greek in Talmudic Palestine. Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2012.
    • Ulmer, Rivka. Egyptian Cultural Icons in Midrash. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009.
    • Urbach, Efraim Elimelech. “The Rabbinical Laws of Idolatry in the Second and Third Centuries in the Light of Archaeological and Historical Facts.” Israel Exploration Journal 9, no. 3 (1959): 149–165.