This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Prophets, Protests and Pepper-Spray*

News Item:

Vancouver, November 1997: The Canadian Government was accused of employing excessive violence to stifle protesters at the Asia Pacific Economic Summit in Vancouver. In order to avoid a diplomatic embarrassment to the Canadian government, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were authorized to spray pepper-spray in the eyes of protesters demonstrating against Indonesian tyrant Suharto who attended the conference.

The city was being honoured by a delegation of distinguished visitors. However, not all the citizens were enthusiastic in welcoming the guests. Led on by their impassioned youth, the townspeople crowded together in a mob in front of the place where the visitors were lodging. The throng was becoming more and more unruly.

The host tried to defend his charges, arguing to the crowd that such behaviour would violate civilized standards of hospitality; but the demonstrators responded with insults and indignation. Before long the mood became even uglier, and the horde began to press against the entrance threatening the guests with violence and molestation.

At this point the imperiled visitors could be protected only be quick action. In a moment, the disorderly mob was stricken with temporary blindness, rendering them unable to reach the entrance. In this way disaster was averted.

Such was the story narrated in the book of Genesis about the two angelic beings who visited Abraham's nephew Lot in the depraved city of Sodom. When the crowd tried to break down the doors to do harm to Lot's guests they were afflicted with a sudden and mysterious blindness.

The Bible does not provide us with a detail description of this supernatural marvel, which is expressed through a very rare Hebrew word: "sanverim." Most of the traditional commentators translate the passage as I did above, as denoting a state of temporary, but complete, loss of eyesight.

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra adds that the plague may also have included "blindness of the heart"; i.e., a loss of mental faculties. Rashi characterizes the affliction as "when one can see but does not realize what it is that one is seeing." As a later exegete observed, Rashi's interpretation is supported by the fact that that the mob were unable to find their bearings even by means of their sense of touch.

Modern research has called our attention to the affinity between "sanverim" and the Akkadian word "shunwurum" that has the meaning "having extraordinary brightness"; this suggests that the assailants were suddenly blinded by a dazzling light.

Nevertheless, I would not entirely rule out the possibility that archeologists excavating the remains of Sodom might unearth the remains of some very ancient pepper spray.

The rare word "sanverim" appears in only one other place in the Bible, in a story about that master miracle-worker Elisha the prophet.

In the exploit related in the Book of Kings, the king of Syria had been informed that Elisha was somehow using his prophetic abilities to tap into his most clandestine military plans. The king was assured by his advisors that Elisha presented such a formidable security threat that he could, if he wanted, "tell the king of Israel the words that thou speakest in thy bedchambre." Upon hearing this, the Syrian ruler sent a military force to capture this dangerous intelligence agent. By nightfall, well-armed troops were surrounding Elisha's village.

When the predicament became apparent, Elisha's servant was understandably distressed. The prophet, however, remained inexplicably unperturbed. Just like Lot's guests, Elisha was being approached by a throng with the most hostile of intentions.

And indeed, like the angels in Sodom, Elisha called upon the Almighty to smite the entire enemy army with sanverim. In their helpless state, it was a simple matter to lead the Syrian soldiers to the Israelite capital in Samaria where they were now at the mercy of the Israelite king.

This stratagem of inducing temporary blindness seemed so effective that the rabbis of the midrash were wont to introduce it into several stories where the Bible did not mention it. For example, a suspenseful midrashic legend had it that Moses was put on trial by Pharaoh for killing the Egyptian taskmaster, and was actually at the stage of execution when one of those opportunely ubiquitous angels arrived to inflict blindness upon Pharaoh's retinue.

Another Jewish legend, speaking of events during the time of the Biblical Book of Judges, relates that Kenaz, father of Othniel, ventured alone against a host of Amorite foes. Kenaz's heroism and military prowess were supplemented by assistance from the angel Gabriel who showed up conveniently to strike the Amorites blind, so that they would begin massacring their own comrades and leave the Israelites in peace.

A similar tradition about the same era tells how the wicked judge Jair attempted to compel seven righteous men to worship Baal. When Jair's servants were about to have the men burned alive for blaspheming their idol, the Almighty sent down an angel to extinguish the flames, and to strike all those present with sudden blindness, so that the good guys could make an easy escape.

From all these stories we may deduce that the inflicting of sudden blindness can be a most effective means to control hostile crowds and armies.

This is information that might someday prove useful to our government or to the RCMP.

This article and many others are now included in the book

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University of Calgary Press

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press,March 11 1999, p. 12.

  • Bibliography:

    • Ginzberg, Louis. 1909-39. The Legends of the Jews. Translated by H. Szold. 7 vols. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America.

    • Speiser, E. A. 1964. Genesis. Edited by W. F. Albright and D. N. Freedman, The Anchor Bible. Garden City: Doubleday.