A colleague of mine who specializes in the study of ancient Jewish preaching
likes to remind me that in Talmudic society the synagogue sermon functioned as
the central form of entertainment for a Jewish community that was deprived of
television or cinema, and was discouraged from attending the theatre or circus.
This desire to spice instruction with amusement accounts for some of the more
poetic, as well as the bizarre and sensational elements, that find their way
into works of "aggadic midrash," a literary genre that is composed largely of
snippets from ancient sermons. Not all of our contemporary preachers have
proven as skillful in packaging their words in such an attractive form.
The recent screening of a festival of James Bond thrillers on cable television
got me to pondering how well the ancient rabbis would have succeeded in
competing with such exciting fare. Predictably, it did not take me long to come
to the conclusion that the standard 007 format was in fact invented by the
ancient Jewish sages, and examples of it are found in the pages of the
If you find this claim difficult to accept, allow me to cite in evidence the
following story. It is translated almost verbatim from the Babylonian Talmud
(Sanhedrin 95a), in a story that is in itself an expansion of two verses in the
Bible (2 Samuel 21:16-17). Other than a few words of my own enlightening
commentary, all that I have added are some headings to call your attention to
basic ingredients of what will later be regarded as the standard formula for a
James Bond thriller. The swashbuckling hero of the Talmudic adventure is none
other than King David.
Element #1: The formidable villain:
This role is filled by the
Philistine Ishbi-benob, brother of the notorious (and deceased) Goliath. Ishbi
possesses a horrendous arsenal of destructive weaponry (2 Samuel 21:16: "the
weight of his spear weighed three hundred shekels of brass in weight, he being
girded with a new sword"), and is determined to wreak vengeance upon his
Element #2: The hero's briefing with his Superior Officer:
Since this is
a Bible story, David gets his orders not from a mortal "M," but from the
Supreme Commander, the Almighty himself. The session begins with a chastising
of David for the recklessness that has led to unnecessary loss of life. His
present mission: to penetrate the headquarters of Ishbi-benob.
Element #3: Getting all those neat gadgets from "Q":
Well, this is not
actually described in the midrash, but from later episodes we can deduce that
David has been issued a number of astounding bits of high-tech (or miraculous)
weaponry. These include:
- A miniature earth remover.
- A secret communications system to signal his accomplice.
- A warp-speed mule.
- An anti-gravity device.
Element #4: Getting captured by the arch-villain:
David is inadvertently
drawn to the headquarters of the Philistine enemy while tailing what he
believes to be a simple deer. It is in fact, none other than Satan in
Element #5: Hero is cruelly imprisoned, rather than killed, by the villain:
Ishbi binds David and buries him in the earth under a heavy olive-press
beam. Painful death is so certain that Ishbi does not make allowances for:
Element #6: Hero's last-minute escape from death, using gadget #1:
Miraculously (literally), David is able to dig himself out of his earthy grave.
He makes an appropriately wry comment (predictably, a quotation from the book
of Psalms [18:37]): "Thou dost enlarge my steps under me and my feet have not
Element #7: He calls in reinforcements, with the help of gadget #2:
sidekick here is David's cousin, Abishai ben Zeruiah. The red-alert is
communicated through one of the following two coded signals:
The impetuous Abishai immediately speeds to David's rescue, but his pace is
slowed by the stuffed-shirts bureaucrats. He wishes to drive on David's
super-fast mule (gadget #3 above), but first needs official permission from the
rabbis for this extraordinary use of His Majesty's property. Once the
permission has been approved, he zips over to Ishbi-benob's lair, to discover
- by injecting bloodstains into Abishai's hair-conditioner.
- by having a distressed dove appear before Abishai.
Element #8: The villain's exotic hit-man:
In this case, it is a
hit-woman, Ishbi's mother Orpah, to be exact. He meets her as she is, in
apparent innocence, spinning away at the spinning-wheel. Quickly he realizes
that her spindles are in reality deadly weapons that she can hurl at her
victims with great agility.
Element #9: Villains always miss. Heroes hit their mark on the very first
Her first needle misses him. She asks Abishai to return it, but he
takes advantage of her error to throw it at her head, killing her instantly.
Realizing that he is now outnumbered, Ishbi plots certain death for King David.
He throws him up in the air (remember that he is Goliath's brother), and plants
a sharp spear in the ground to skewer him on his descent.
Element #10: When the situation seems hopeless, the hero is saved in the
nick of time by his partner:
Abishai employs Gadget #4, the anti-gravity
trick, to suspend David in mid-air.
Element #11: The heroes escape from the villain's stronghold:
hot on their heels, David and Abishai flee (after letting the king alight
safely to earth, of course).
Element #12: Each stage of the struggle is accompanied by ironic humour:
In the present tale, the heroes employ puns based on the names of the villages
through which they pass on their way out of Philistine country. At Kubé
they say to each other "Kum beh"--Stand up to him! At "Be-Trei" they quip "With
two [be-trei] whelps they killed the lion."
Finally the two take advantage of the villain's weakness, his love for his
belligerent mother. In the midst of the struggle they invite him to join Mom in
the grave. In that moment of emotional frailty, David and Abishai are able to
overcome and execute him.
That is the story, pretty much as it appears in the Talmud. I believed that my
contention is irrefutably demonstrated, that it contains the original prototype
for the classic James Bond formula.
Nevertheless, I am sure that there are some among you who are not entirely
satisfied. There is still something missing:
Element #13: The gorgeous women:
Folks, remember with whom we are
dealing here. This is King David, paramour of Bathsheba; a monarch whose
romantic escapades rivaled even those of an American President!
No doubt, such stories succeeded in drawing large audiences into the
synagogues, even as their current imitations fill the contemporary cinemas.
Return to Index
- First Publication:
- JFP, February 12, 1998, pp. 8-9.