Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday, 2 January 2012

Guest Post - On Teaching Ancient Near East Monarchs

By Rav Ben Hecht, president, founder and sole-executive leader of Nishma

Torah’s Perspective of the Historical Timeline
In speaking with Lord Ironheart about his post “Questions Aren’t Fatal, But Stupid Answers Are” I mentioned to him that the real problem with the presentation by Rabbi Shafran was that he didn’t really fully understand the extent of the issue with which he was dealing. Garnel asked me to expand on my thoughts for a guest post on his site…so here it is.
The problem for Rabbi Shafran was the claim by historians that, since the Code of Hammurabi, which predated the Torah, contained ideas similar to the Torah, it must be that the Mosaic Code simply copied aspects of the earlier Babylonian Code. Such an assertion, in Rabbi Shafran’s mind, would challenge the uniqueness and even Revelational quality of the Torah and, as such, could not be tolerated. Rabbi Shafran needed an explanation. The explanation that Rabbi Shafran accepted to explain this phenomenon yet retain his allegiance to Torah was that, in fact, the Code of Hammurabi was actually a product of the Torah which this king was taught by Avraham Avinu. We all know that Avraham learned and followed Torah – although he pre-dated Sinai – and it was aspects of this knowledge that was transmitted, by our forefather, to Hammurabi and from which the latter developed his Code. To Rabbi Shafran, problem solved. To Garnel, though, this answer was, in itself, an even greater problem. Where, for example, did Rabbi Shafran – or, more correctly, Rabbi Weinberg -- get this from? It may be true that, in a simplistic way, this answer solved Rabbi Shafran’s dilemma but there was no further consideration or investigation of what this answer truly meant or implied. What evidence was there to support it? To Garnel, the greater problem was such, as he defined them, stupid answers.
Under direct investigation, Rabbi Shafran’s theory actually already presented problems. As Bob Miller commenting on Garnel’s post pointed out, Hammurabi is generally understood to be the evil Nimrod, who threw Avraham into the furnace. It would seem to be a stretch to argue that Nimrod then learned Torah from Avraham. In truth, there would seem to be some Midrashim that do contend that there was a further relationship between Avraham and Nimrod and even that the latter did teshuva but the general tone of the literature does not seem to support this. There is also a strong opinion that Nimrod was also Amraphel, one of the 4 kings who attacked the 5 kings as reported in Bereishit, Chapter 14. (According to T.B. Eruvin 53a, the debate between Rav and Shmuel was not whether Nimrod and Amraphel was one and the same person but which name was his real name.) According to much midrashic thought, at least part of the plan of the war was also to destroy Avraham. So it would seem that both before Avraham left for Canaan and afterwards, there was bad blood between Nimrod and Avraham – so how could one even contend that Avraham taught aspects of this pre-Sinai Torah to such an evil idolater? One of the goals in throwing Avraham into the furnace was also to limit the very effect of his teachings to the masses; the Nimrod himself adopts these teachings? It’s nice to present answers but what do these answers truly mean? Under scrutiny, it doesn’t seem to add up. If one wishes to present an opinion of what happened in history, one has to consider all the consequences and ramifications of this opinion arriving at conclusions that consider the history of the time period as a whole. This, Rabbi Shafran did not seem to do.
It was also within this context that Garnel truly laid his challenge of Rabbi Shafran. There was much going on; societies developed aside from, it would seem, the direction of Torah law. The very charge against Sodom was not an evil of anarchy but that it possessed an evil legal system. There was a dynamic in the world that involved the movement of humanity into societies with laws and included in Garnel’s challenge was that Rabbi Shafran did not consider the reality of this dynamic in his consideration of what was occurring within this time period. Yibum is a perfect case on point. There was a practice of this type that pre-dated Sinai as evidenced by the story of Yehuda and Tamar (Bereishit, Chapter 38) but this practice clearly was different than that legislated by the Torah which only applied to the brother of a childless man and no other close relative (Chinuch, Mitzvah 598). If one contends that yibum was a lesson from Torah perhaps taught by the Avot, this could not be for its practice did not follow the Torah parameters. If it was a practice that developed within the workings of the ancient societies, though, does that take away from its value as a Torah mitzvah? Rabbi Shafran’s approach is clearly much too simplistic.
Yet there was one challenge I presented to Garnel in his presentation which I felt he overlooked and which needed to be stated. It is important within this consideration of what occurred in ancient history that one continue to recognize a significant distinction between the secular view of what transpired and a Torah view. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 1:1 attacks this issue in explaining how idolatry developed. From a secular perspective, humanity first considered idolatry, with a study of history attempting to explain how monotheism developed. From a Torah perspective, knowledge of the One God was existent; the need would be to explain how idolatry developed which is what Rambam undertakes in this section of his Code. The complex dynamic of history cannot be simplified but there is a key issue of how to understand the underlying background of this dynamic.
This is the point here. Within the secular perspective, the development of ancient legal systems is recorded based upon the perceived dates of the uncovered legislation. In this respect, the Code of Hammurabi is defined as a most significant historical point in this development. Given that the Mosaic Code is dated to have been formulated at a later date, there is already a preconceived interest in seeing how this latter code was similar to and/or deviated from the earlier Babylonian system. Rabbi Shafran would seem to have problems with this and so tries to develop an answer that ignores the movement of history: i.e. Hammurabi simply knew Torah.
From the Torah perspective, though, there was also a dynamic but of a different nature as the starting point was different. Humanity knew of God but moved towards idolatry. In the same way, humanity also knew of certain societal laws – the Seven Laws on Noach – and moved from there. Hammurabi emerged from a past of a certain perspective. It is clear that he did something new but what exactly was this newness may be a matter of debate based upon how one answers what came before hand. If lawlessness existed prior to Hammurabi, then one can look at his Code from one perspective. If some type of legal perspective, though, existed prior to this pronouncement of his Code, the dynamic that existed would have to be understood from a different perspective. From a Torah perspective, the world of Hammurabi did come out of a vacuum of law but of a pre-existing legal structure of the Seven Laws of Noach. This may provide another reason for similarity -- but it is not simplistic. This recognition causes us to look at ancient history from a very different perspective but it does not ignore the significant dynamic that existed. It does not necessarily simplify it or lessen our challenge in attempting to comprehend it.
The real problem with Rabbi Shafran’s answer is that he seems to maintain with his answer that he has solved all the issues. What he does not recognize is that while he actually may have provided some insight into one problem, at the same time he may have created many more. Clearly, it would seem, for example, from many midrashic sources that Avraham Avinu attempted to affect the ancient world and was successful in this to some extent. But what actually was this effect on the ancient world and what were the further consequences of it? If Shem, Cham and Yafet all experienced the Flood and thereby had no doubt about the existence of God, how could Cham’s very grandson, Nimrod, throw Avraham into a furnace for maintaining this belief? We could also wonder how this knowledge of God could be so lost that Avraham did not know anything of this until he found it on his own. We may also wonder, according to the Torah time line, how the Babel story connects with Avraham being 48 when it occurred. Yet, pursuant to this time line, it would also not be so surprising that this same Nimrod-Hammurabi would have some knowledge of the remains of the Noachide legal system so that he would incorporate it within his Code. This approach does not simplify history but it does recognize that maintaining a Torah perspective in looking at history goes beyond the question of specific details. The issue is the total view of ancient history – and that is not an easy issue. Where Hammurabi’s Code came from is just one minor issue amongst many others that need to be worked out even according to the Torah perspective of the time line. This is the real challenge and complexity that Rabbi Shafran ignores.


Adam Zur said...

the rambam's theory about avarham avinu from the Guide needs more attention. i would write a little about it here but it is so starkly different than what people think the rambam said that it would be laughed at. You have to actually see it inside to even believe the rambam could write it.

Bob Miller said...

There's a difference between these:

1. Giving enough of a response to a question to put many in one's own circle at ease.

2. Responding to the question accurately and in depth after a thorough investigation.

Today's blogs and magazines lend themselves to Type 1 off-the-cuff answers, but what we really need nowadays is more of Type 2.

Anonymous said...

Broken link on top.