Sermon 25th Nov 2023 – Parasha Va-yeitzei – Leslie Wheeler

I’d like to address the theme of my sermon today by reading to you those well known lyrics from the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” where Tevye, a middle-aged milkman with 5 daughters, asks his wife Golde the following question – “Do you love me?” Golde replies “you’re a fool” Tevye asks again “but do you love me?” to which Golde’s responds: “Do I love you? For 25 years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children and milked the cow. After 25 years, why talk about love right now?”

The musical Fiddler on theRoof describes many of the customs that would have been commonplace in Jewish life at the turn of the 20th century in a settlement of Imperial Russia.

Marriage had very little to do with love affection and companionship that we all expect today and everything to do with procreation and suitability as determined by the father under guidance of the matchmaker.

One of the main reasons that Torah is often misunderstood is the fact that we are totally unfamiliar with the ways of our distant ancestors particularly when viewed through a 21st Century lens.

Today Parasha Va-yeitzei took place some five and a half thousand years ago in the land of Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). At the time of the Patriarchs the customs concerning marriage were far more stringent than those portrayed by the musical Fiddler on the Roof.

Although the story of Jacob makes exciting reading, how can we in the 21st Century realistically relate to a story that took place so long ago?

Fortunately we are able to obtain a much more detailed insight into the ways and cultures of our ancestors thanks to the findings of many ancient documents discovered by archaeologists. Among these discoveries were thousands of Babylonian clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform text.

My interest in cuneiform tablets stemmed from a conversation I had some time back with David Abulafia. I had given a sermon concerning Noah’s Ark and the flood in which I had discussed the close relationship between the story of Noah to that of the Babylonian flood story. David suggested I should read a book by Irving Finkel “The Ark Before Noah” this suggestion was to spark my interest in cuneiform tablets. So Thank you David for introducing me to the fascinating world of Assyriology.

First a brief introduction to cuneiform.

Cuneiform is the Worlds oldest system of writing first introduced by the ancient Sumerians around 3,500 BCE.

In its infancy clay tablets consisted of drawn pictures describing the items the scribes wished to record. Known as pictograms. These early pictographs were quite similar to the Egyptian hieroglyphics.

An example is shown in the image below:

As an example the Sumerian pictographs representing a slave man and a slave woman would have been composed of the following symbols:

MAN + MOUNTAIN and WOMAN + MOUNTAIN respectively indicating to the Sumerian reader that the mountains East of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley was populated by hostile barbarian tribes and were raided for slaves.

We find early evidence of scribes using cuneiform as a bookkeeping tool to keep records of beer and bread rations, these records were represented by depicting a vessel with a pointed base (representing beer) alongside the head of a man eating from a bowl (representing a ration). With time cuneiform spread across the whole of the Middle East and was continually in use for more than 3,000 years up to and including the first century CE. It was the forerunner of our modern day literature. First the Phoenician – then the Greek – followed by Latin alphabets.

Due to its complexity the pictographs were replaced by phonograms (cuneiform) and the picture word was replaced by symbols made up of wedge shaped strokes

Examples of these are shown in the two images below:

The name cuneiform comes from the Latin word cuneus meaning wedge owing to the wedge-shaped style of writing. Text were written by pressing the cut edge of a reed into slightly moist clay. These wedge shaped strokes produced between 600 and a 1000 different characters.

Two examples can be found in the images below.  This first image is a screen shot of The Flood Tablet. Fragment of a clay tablet with part of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Assyrian, 7th century BCE described in “The Ark Before Noah”. Irving Finkel.

The image below describes the cuneiform code chart by Irving Finkle and Jonathan Taylor (from the British Museum).

The cuneiform tablets of particular interest with respect to today’s Parasha are those dating back to the 15th century BCE found at the ancient site of Nuzi in northeast Iraq.

It is unclear that these cuneiform records of Nuzi practices replicate the practices of the Patriarchs but certainly provide many common parallels in describing ways of living that may be considered close to the time and place of the Patriarchs

Haran is situated in northern Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), and it is here that much of our Biblical history originated. Abraham lived there for many years before moving on to Canaan. Many of his relatives remained in Haran. Rebekah was brought from Haran to marry Isaac. Jacob fled to the home of his uncle Laban in Haran and spent 20 years there.

Nuzians who had produced these cuneiform archives were Hur-ri-ans, the long-lost Horites we read of in Genesis 14:6 and 36:20. Although Nuzi is far to the East of Haran, both cities were a part of the region occupied by the Hurrians and these discovered archives I would suggest closely reflect many of the customs, laws and ways of living practiced by the Patriarchs.

The relationship of Jacob to Laban

One such tablet found at Nuzi (G 51) describes the Nuzi adoption record of citizens: Wullu and Nashwi.

“Nashwi” who has no son of his own adopts “Wullu” and providing “Nashwi” does not produce a son then “Wullu” (the adopted son) will inherit all of “Nashwi’s“ estate and gods. As a condition “Wullu” is to marry “Nashwi’s” daughter. “Wullu” is further forbidden to marry any other woman under penalty of forfeiting all of “Nashwi’s” estate. But if “Nashwi” should produce a son at some time in the future then that son and “Wullu” (the adopted son) are to share the inheritance but only “Nashwi’s” begotten son will inherit “Nashwi’s” gods.

Jacob arrives in Haran where he becomes Laban’s son-in-law by marrying Leah and Rebecca. It is not until Genesis 31:1 do we first hear of Laban’s sons.

It would appear that at some time during the 20 years Jacob had worked for Laban, Laban had sired his own sons.

From the Nuzi record we can certainly visualise close parallels to the experiences recorded in the Jacob and Laban story, however nowhere in the Parasha does it indicate an adoption of Jacob by Laban.

My view of a plausible scenario would be that Jacob became an indentured man servant to Laban whereby he served 14 years of service as a herdsmen to fund the bride price or bride dowery expected by Laban in order for Jacob to marry Laban’s daughters.

Jacob has become indebted to Laban for 7 years of labour for each of his wives. This debt indentureship by Jacob is in compliance with the Biblical law as referred to in Ex 21:2-4

When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve you 6 years and in the 7th year he shall go free, without debt.

If he comes single he shall leave single; if he had a wife, his wife shall leave with him.

If the master gave him a wife and she bore him children, the wife and the children shall belong to the master, and he shall leave alone.

Labans remarks to Jacob in Genesis 31:43 “The daughters are my daughters and the sons are my sons and the flocks are my flocks and whatever thou seest is mine”. To address Jacob in this manner would suggest that Jacob was indeed Laban’s man servant and not simply his son-in-law!

This is further substantiated by Laban insisting that Rachel and Leah were not free to leave their father’s household. Under normal circumstances married woman belong to their husbands. By Laban stating that the daughters are his daughters, once  again suggests that Jacob status was indeed that of an indentured man servant!

Teraphim/Idols/Household Gods

The reference to household gods must have been extremely puzzling before the discovery of the Nuzi cuneiform records. Prior to the discovery of the Nuzi records scholars must have felt uncomfortable at finding references to household gods in the Torah. As already mentioned these Nuzi records show that according to Hurrian custom, if a man desired to appoint a principal heir he would hand him his household gods. After the man’s death, the heir’s appearance in court in possession of the household gods would be accepted as legal proof of his position as head of the family. The deceased man’s estate would then be allotted to his children.

It should be noted that ownership of these household gods did not ensue total inheritance of the estate left by the deceased but whoever held these household gods would be legally accepted as head the family.

So why did Rachel steal Laban’s household gods? Laban’s desire was that at his death, the whole of his estate should go to his own sons and not be taken away from them by Jacob. But as Jacob had already amassed considerable wealth, he would not have needed Laban’s estate.

Considering Rachel had lived all her life in her father’s home in Haran she would have been particularly nervous at travelling with Jacob to a distant land especially knowing that Jacob’s brother Esau was intent on killing her husband Jacob. Having been accustomed to witnessing her father praying to his household gods for protection and guidance, she took them in order to provide her and her family with protection during the hazardous journey they were about to embark on.

Female Infertility in Mesopotamia

Nuzi tablets further describe records where when a wife fails to bear children she presents her husband with a handmaid exactly as we read in Genesis 16:2 “And Sarai said to Abram, “Look the Lord has kept me from Bearing. Consort with my maid (Hagar); perhaps I shall have a son through her.” And Abram heeded Sarai’s request.

Moving forward two generations we have Rachel who is envious of her sister Leah because she cannot have children of her own saying to Jacob “Here is my maid Bilhah. Consort with her, that she may bear on my knees and that through her I too may have children.”

Conclusions

To conclude, during my research into this sermon I came across two very interesting facts that I had previously been unaware of:

That my favourite tipple “a glass of beer” has remained a favourite for over 5,000 years! Stella lager remains the best selling alcoholic beer in the UK.

Even more amazing was to find that the Sumerian numerical system was based on 60 hence 5,000 years later we have 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour. So when you consider your next new car and question its rate of acceleration, e.g. 0-60mph in 10 seconds, give a thought to the ancient Sumerians whose numerical system engineers have used to calculate your cars rate of acceleration.