September 27, 2012
Reading is only powerful with interpretation, and for this reason, interpreters have power. The authors of Numbers Rabbah understood the significant influence of their biblical commentary on the Jewish reception of the bible. Benjamin Sommer writes, “Exegesis … necessarily and primarily involves an attempt at helping the reader recognize elements in the older text and offering suggestions regarding its interpretation.” (18) While these motivations of helpful explanation are true of Numbers Rabbah 13:18, this exegetical text also hopes to emphasize and influence specific religious lifestyle ideas to its studying audience.
Numbers Rabbah 13:18 begins with a clarification of a biblical phrase that references “incense” in the context of a Reubenite offering (Numbers 7:32). Citing another use of the word “incense” in a different place in the bible as evidence, the author of Numbers Rabbah offers a credible claim that, in this verse, “prayer is compared to incense.” From this explanation, readers learn that Reubenites are not just offering a sacrifice, but are indeed praying to God. The author pushes his interpretation another step forward by asserting the reason for Reuben’s prayer. Numbers Rabbah believes that Reuben was praying for atonement for his committed sin with Bilhah, his father’s concubine. Here, the text offers no citation for this belief. One can only guess Reuben’s reason for praying, but this rabbi is confident in his assertion. Numbers Rabbah 13:18 alludes to Genesis 35:21-26, the story of Reuben and Bilhah, with no connector other than Reuben himself. It is obvious that the author is taking steps further and further away from the original text. First, he infers that “incense” implies prayer, and then he grabs onto a story written books beforehand in order to justify the motivation for this prayer. Why is it necessary to make this interpretative leap? Why does the author of Numbers Rabbah find it important to expose to readers Reuben’s prayers for atonement?
Since his inferences are not explicitly explained or supported in biblical text, the rabbi obviously has a motivation for his interpretations. First, Numbers Rabbah is asserting that Reuben did indeed commit the sin of the “Bilhah affair,” as it is called. Other exegetical texts argue that Reuben did not sin, but Numbers Rabbah confirms that there exists no ambiguity in the story of Genesis 35:21-26. This confirmation allows the rabbi to more easily explain other parts of the bible and teach the lessons important to him. To continue, the rabbi’s explanation that Reuben is praying “to atone for the ‘Bilhah affair’” is in fact a technique to demonstrate a value that he wishes to instill in readers. Reuben sins and then prays to God for forgiveness. Numbers Rabbah is illustrating the proper formula for sin and repentance that he believes all Jews should follow. Rather than spending much time addressing the sin, the text mostly focuses on Reuben’s prayer—his fasting, his clothing, and his plea to God for pardon. The emphasis on Reuben’s repentance is evidence that the rabbi wants readers to understand the seriousness and necessity of the atonement of sin. Without reading Numbers Rabbah 13:18, people most likely would not understand from the bible that Reuben repented for the Bilhah affair. We would not respect Reuben as righteous without this knowledge. The author of Numbers Rabbah stressed Reuben’s respected repentance, in order to defend his honor and to set an example for readers to seek the same atonement in their own lives.
The last part of Numbers Rabbah 13:18 explains that Reuben was punished for his sin, as he was “excluded from being numbered with his brothers on account of the ‘Bilhah affair.’” Reuben’s punishment was never explicitly stated in the bible, so, again, the rabbi has only inferred this claim. The textual evidence he uses to support his argument is the “interruption” of the Bilhah narrative. The interruption to which is referenced is the abrupt shift of voice from the story of Reuben laying with Bilhah to the archival list of Jacob’s twelve sons. Numbers Rabbah understands this shift as intentional and symbolic “to teach that [Reuben] was estranged [from God]” and “excluded from being numbered with his brothers.” While most readers would not immediately assume that the change in voice in the original text has a specific meaning at all, this rabbi wants to ensure that everyone understands the deliberate conveyance of Reuben’s punishment for his sin. Again, why is it mandatory for readers to read the bible in this way? Why must we know that God punished Reuben for his sin?
Numbers Rabbah 13:18 guides its readers to an understanding of sin and repentance that the author believes is correct. By pointing out Reuben’s punishment for his sin, Numbers Rabbah teaches that all who sin will be punished. Readers are threatened with “[estrangement] from God” as a result of sinning. It is imperative for the author to include the serious and daunting outcome of sin, because ultimately the audience learns that even with honorable repentance, a sin still affects one’s relationship with others and with God. The Bilhah affair caused Reuben to be excluded both from his family and from God. The negative effects from sin are inevitable, and therefore all must pray to God for atonement. The education of this knowledge and reality is the true motivation for writing Numbers Rabbah 13:18.
Through this analysis, we can learn of the values that were important to the author at the time the text was written, which has been estimated to be sometime between the 11th and 12th century. Clearly, the rabbi or rabbis who wrote Numbers Rabbah felt that the audience needed to learn the grave stakes of sin and the proper religious action to take after sinning. Reuben’s story of Bilhah was an opportunity to teach these lessons, and the rabbi sought out appropriate interpretations and evidence in order to do so.
While it is also important for a reader to better comprehend a biblical story, it is more crucial to understand the religious values and lifestyle that a story teaches. Numbers Rabbah 13:18 exposes its audience to the lessons that would otherwise have been overlooked–and in this reality lays the power of the interpreter.
By Lucille Marshall
Written for History of Biblical Reception with Rabbi Robbie Harris at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America