Thursday, October 10, 2013

WHO WAS ABRAHAM’S MOTHER? And what does she have to do with Job, the rape of Dina... and Zeus?

Looking at the Torah and Judaism with liberated eyes #1

WHO WAS ABRAHAM’S MOTHER? And what does she have to do with Job, Dina, Haman... and Zeus?

If you are looking for a great resource for Torah study, I highly recommend the new website “,” whose mission is to energize the Jewish people by integrating the study of Torah with the disciplines and findings of academic biblical scholarship.   As of now, there is no other Jewish website or organization dedicated to modern biblical scholarship and there are there few divrei torah that incorporate critical scholarship in a constructive, religiously meaningful way. This is the kind of website that could easily have been created by the Conservative movement and that would, until recently, have been considered heretical by the Orthodox.  But some branches of modern Orthodoxy have edged closer to accepting biblical criticism, even as the more extreme groups still contend that the Bible is meant to be taken literally. 

As the creators of the site proclaim:

For many Jews, the ability of academic biblical scholarship to uncover earlier meanings in the text is very powerful. Reading the Torah through the eyes of an ancient Israelite can connect us to our ancestors in a unique way, bringing us back to the time when the Torah first gained its position as the sacred book of Israel. More importantly, understanding what the Torah meant in its ancient Israelite context, and then seeing how that meaning has been adapted over time, gives us a glimpse of the multifarious and complex ways God has communicated with Israel over time, and how that communication has been understood and recorded.

We say this not to make a case for replacing traditional Torah interpretation with academic-style interpretation; rather we believe that by supplementing classical parshanut with academic methodologies, those who study the Torah will have access to yet another sliver of the multifaceted and infinitely complex divine work that is the Torah.

Solomon Schechter couldn’t have put it better himself.

For this week’s portion of Lech Lecha, an essay focuses on the curious case of Abraham’s mother, whose name is not mentioned in the Torah itself - no surprise there, as very few women’s names are mentioned. But what is fascinating is how Talmudic authorities felt compelled to fill in this gap in patriarchal history (after all, we do know the names of Isaac and Jacob’s mothers) because of challenges from unnamed heretics.

Here is the Talmud’s answer:

 R. Hanan b. Raba further stated in the name of Rav: [The name of] the mother of Abraham [was] Amatlai the daughter of Karnebo; [the name of] the mother of Haman was Amatlai, the daughter of ‘Orabti; and your mnemonic [may be], ‘unclean [to] unclean, clean [to] clean’. The mother of David was named Nizbeth the daughter of Adael. The mother of Samson [was named] Zlelponith, and his sister, Nashyan.[1] In what [respect] do [these names] matter? In respect of a reply to the heretics (based on Sonc. Trans.).[2

The essay addresses some of the issues raised by this passage; in particular, what is the significance of the name Amatlai.  For those of us who love to trace cross cultural influences, the response is fascinating:

To begin with, the Talmud’s answer is not the only answer suggested in Jewish tradition. The book of Jubilees (11:13), compiled 700 years earlier than the Talmud, gives Abraham’s mother the name of Ednah. Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 26) gives her the name was עתדיי - Atudai.[4]

Even ignoring these alternative versions, the Talmud’s suggestion alone merits a number of observations. Firstly, it is rather odd that Abraham’s mother ca. 2000 B.C.E. living in Ur, a Sumerian and Akkadian city, would have the same name as Haman’s mother living in Persia 500 B.C.E.

Secondly, and more importantly, the name Amatlai is most likely a version of the Greek name Amalthea, meaning “tender goddess.” In Greek mythology, Amalthea was a goat that nursed the infant god Zeus with her milk. The association of Abraham’s mother with this name may have originated with the midrash  found in Sefer HaYashar (on parashat Noah) that has many similarities to the story of Zeus.

In this story, King Nimrod’s stargazers tell him that Terach’s newly-bom son would one day be a danger to his throne. Nimrod orders Terach to send him the baby to be put to death, but Terach outwitted the king. Instead of sending his real son to the king, he sent the baby of a slave, which Nimrod killed with his own hands.[5] Meanwhile, the baby Abraham, with his mother and nurse hid in a cave for ten years.

Amatlai’s mother’s name, Karnebo, is probably a corruption of the name of Job’s daughter, Keren Happuch; which the Septuagint translates as “Amalthea’s Horn.” In other words, naming Abraham’s mother Amatlai daughter of Karnebo (=Keren Happuch) is tantamount to naming her Amalthea daughter of Amalthea’s horn - a double emphasis on the legend of the goat. Alternatively, the “daughter of” may be a mistake, with a copyist not understanding the phrase Amatlai Karnebo, and assuming that the second name was the name of her parent. Either way, Rav Hanan seems to be suggesting that Terach married the daughter or granddaughter of Job. (The associating of Abraham with Job is highlighted in a number of places in the Talmud;  see for example b. Baba Batra 15b-16b). [6] 

How are we to understand the Talmud in light of these observation? The list of names were probably based on early homiletical interpretations of the verses and preserved over time and collected by R. Hanan b. Raba. But by the time they were recorded in the Talmud the significance of these names were forgotten or no longer seen as relevant. For this reason the Talmud offers, almost as an afterthought, that knowing these names is helpful in debating heretics, who see the lack of mention of these characters’ names as a sign of the Bible’s lack of authenticity. However, the Bible’s silence about the name of these women-heretics’ big “kasha”(question)-does not really seem all that problematic. Indeed modern scholarship would not see the omission of Abraham’s mother as a historical problem, the Torah never records names of women unless there is some reason for it.

For more, including the Dina and kabbalistic connections, continue here.

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