Saturday, October 31, 2009

Genesis Rabbah I.I: The Pre-Existent Torah

Here is the text, my translation, and a discussion of the second half of Genesis Rabbah I.I (first half here). Finally, we’ll find out what ‘amon means and what Proverbs 8 has to do with Genesis 1:1!

ד׳א] אמון אומן התורה אומרת אני הייתי כלי אומנתו שלהקב״ה, בנוהג שבעולם מלך בשר ודם בונה פלטין ואינו בונה אותה מדעת עצמו אלא מדעת אומן, והאומן אינו בונה אות מדעתו אלא דיפטראות ופינקסות יש לו לידע היאך הוא עושה חדרים ופשפשים, כך היה הקב״ה מביט בתורה ובורא העולם, והתורה א׳ בראשית ברא אלהים ואין ראשית אלא תורה היך מה דאת אמר י״י קנני ראשית דרכו וגו׳׃


Another interpretation: ‘amon means artisan (‘uman – Jastrow 27). The Torah says, “ I was the skilled tool of the Holy One, blessed be He” (Aramaic paraphrase of Prov 8:30). In the way of the world, [when] a king of flesh and blood builds a palace (Jastrow 1180, Gk loan word), he does not build it from his own knowledge but from the expertise of an artisan. And the artisan himself builds it not from his expertise alone but through plans (“documents” Jastrow 304, Gk loan word under alt. spelling)  and  descriptions (“tablets” Jastrow 1165-66, Gk loan word) in order that he might know how to make the rooms and doorways (“wickets” Jastrow 1248). Thus, the Holy One, blessed be He, looked in the Torah and created the world, for the Torah says, “In the beginning, God created” (Gen 1:1a), and there is no “beginning” except the Torah, as it is written, “The Lord made me, the beginning of his way, etc.” (Prov. 8:22).

The discussion of the potential meaning of ‘amon continues in the same vein – trying out words that have a similar consonant pattern. There is an entry for ‘umannu in Aramaic in Jastrow, so I think Brooke’s (Anumma) comment on this earlier post about the potential Akkadian connection is possible. Based on the only other biblical occurrence of this word in Jer 52:15, I think “master-workman”, “artisan”, or “architect” give the best sense for ‘amon which fits nicely with the meaning the rabbis want to give Prov 8:30. However, the sense seems odd in the context of Prov 8:30: “I was beside him like a master workman, and I was his delight daily, rejoicing in his presence all the time.”

The importance of Proverbs 8 is that the speaker is Wisdom personified. She seems to be simultaneously depicted as a pre-existent co-creator of the world AND a little child playing in the sand while Yahweh does the heavy lifting. When I used to teach this passage to undergrads for Intro to Judaism, some of them had a hard time wrapping their minds around the rabbinic logic.

Here are the steps (or leaps, if you will):

1. Prov 8:22 and Gen 1:1 both use the same word for “beginning” ראשית.

2. Wisdom = beginning in Prov 8.

3. Therefore, beginning = wisdom in Gen 1. (i.e., With Wisdom, God created . . . )

4. Wisdom = Torah. I’m not sure if there’s a precise trigger for this connection. Perhaps it was intuitive. Perhaps Ps. 119 helped facilitate the connection by applying some of the ideals of Proverbs to the study of Torah. Ps 119:77 could create that connection - “Your Torah is my delight” – using the same word for “delight” as Prov 8:30. Key words are important connectors in midrashic exegesis, especially a relatively rare word like שעשעים that occurs only 9 times in the Hebrew Bible (5x in Ps 119 and 2x here in Prov 8:30-31). The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced of the role Ps 119 must have in making this equation, even though it isn’t explicitly cited in this passage.

5. Therefore, “With the Torah, God created.”

What’s really amazing is how these connections are assumed and expected to be understood. This type of intertextual reading of the Torah seems almost intuitive to the rabbis. This is definitely an “insider” text – written by elites for other elites. Complete knowledge of the Torah and the oral tradition is safely assumed.

From the moment Prov 8:30 was invoked by R. Hoshea, the end goal of the exegesis was this one unified point: God created the world using the Torah. What seemed at first glance to be an odd way to begin exegesis of Gen 1:1 flowed back into a main point that underscored the rabbis’ own authority and connected it to the creation of the world. Saying that God used the Torah to create puts God in the role of the ultimate Torah sage. In some way (though I doubt they would explicitly say this), God is subject to the terms of the Torah and must abide by the rules of interpretation. This is significant because the rabbis were establishing themselves as the final arbiters of the interpretation of Torah. They controlled access to the divine now.

The story of the oven of Aknai underscores this tension between divine revelation and human interpretation. “The Torah is not in heaven” (Deut 30:12). But that’s a story for another time . . .

P.S. If you think this rabbinic logic is too easy, try to wrap your mind around the way the Zohar (a medieval kabbalah text) reads Gen 1:1 as a depiction of the emanation of the Sefirot (symbols of divine energy) from heaven to earth. “With Hokhmah (wisdom, the 2nd sefirah), Ein Sof (the ineffable unnameable, utterly transcendent divine source) created Elohim (the 3rd sefirah). Fun stuff.

P.P.S. Prov 8 also plays into Christian interpretations of a pre-existent Christ. Wisdom = the Logos = Christ (cf. John 1). It gets more complicated, but this post was about Genesis Rabbah.

P.P.P.S. Hebrew text is from J. Theodor and Ch. Albeck, 1965, Midrash Bereshit Rabba: Critical Edition with Notes and Commentary, Jerusalem: Wahrmann. Scribal errors are possible. I caught one instance of parablepsis myself. Scribal errors are much easier to understand once you’ve caught yourself caught yourself making them.


  1. Wisdom = Torah. I’m not sure if there’s a precise trigger for this connection

    ...except for Sirach's entire book, You mean?...

  2. Doug, You might find my article in JBL worth looking at.
    Here's a link (see p. 705).

  3. Lucian, yes, but where did he get it? I guess he's the first to explicitly make the connection. I was looking for a textual connection in the Hebrew Bible. I think the seeds of the concept are there prior to Sirach. Ps 119 is probably the best example.

    Alan, thanks for the link. I'd looked at your article some time ago, but I'd forgotten about it when I was preparing this post. I'll give it a closer read as it looks very relevant to what I'm working on.

  4. 4. Wisdom = Torah. I’m not sure if there’s a precise trigger for this connection

    Deuteronomy 4:6.

    Complete knowledge of the Torah and the oral tradition is safely assumed.

    Oh yes. The amazing thing is that they make it look easy and painless.

  5. thanks, joe. I hadn't thought of that Deut passage.

  6. The idea came when Jews (Law) got in contact with Greeks (philosophy)
    Alexander Macedon. 300 BC. The Maccabees-Hasmoneans. The solomonic sapiential books. -- That's why it becomes so obvious in Sirach, and it's already a traditional approach by talmudic times (200-500 AD).

    If You're looking for biblical passages where "wis*" and "law*", or "wis*" and "command*" appear not too many verses apart (0, 1, 2 verses), install a bible-software on your computer, like the free Theophilos Bible software, for instance, so that you'll be able to do the search yourself. :-) -- I already did, and there're many of them (though none of them super-famous, but they are enough there to make the link between the two "usual", slowly creeping in, but generally going unnoticed).

  7. I'm returning late. Deut is probably one of the root passages, but one should also recall that "wisdom" and "instruction/law" are traditionally associated in the ANE. The connection isn't that amazing; it's the way the connection gets presented and reworked.