Month: January 2017

From the Midwives to Carchemish

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Carchemish wallpaper.jpg
Battle of Carchemish. Photo by: Klaus-Peter Simon – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

In honor of this week’s weekly Torah portion – Shemot – I offer two ideas which can be shared and used in the classroom. The first one – namely the one below, can be applied for roughly 5th grade and up. The second is best suited for high school and up.

For the sake of brevity I will assume the reader’s familiarity with the French medieval Biblical and Talmudic commentator Rashi, or Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (1040 – 1105), and with a commonly known concept called “mida k’neged mida” – or “measure for measure” (which is not “an eye for an eye”).

Translations are from (Tanach, Holy Scriptures, JTS edition), with added suggestions.

Part 1: The Midwives and The Great House

The story we know goes as follows: A new Pharaoh rose to power, one who did not recognize Joseph (Exodus 1:8-11), and so he schemed to enslave the Hebrews. That was not working too well for him, as they were still increasing in population. He therefore devised a more cunning plan: The midwives should kill the males at birth, faking their deaths, thereby controlling the population growth (ibid, 15-21).

Both ideas shared here deal with this part of the story.

The midwives of course feared God. At great risk to their own lives they did not obey Pharaoh’s command, and were rewarded for this in a very unusual way.

And God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and increased greatly.

And because the midwives feared God, He established households for them. (ibid, 20-21)

At face value, it seems like a fair reward, or measure (mida k’neged mida). The midwives risked their own lives to sustain the households of their people, and God rewarded them in kind with having households of their own.

The Talmud, however, looks at this differently. Rashi presents the Talmudic approach as follows:

Houses (dynasties) of the priesthood and the Levites and of royalty are all termed בתים. “Houses”, as it is said, (I Kings 9:1) “and Solomon built the house of the Lord and the house of the king”: “the house of the Lord” i. e. a dynasty of priests and Levites — from Jochebed (Shifrah); and “the house of the king”, i. e. a royal dynasty — from Miriam (Puah), just as it is stated in Tractate Sotah 11b.

This is all very nice, and from a midrashic point of view, this correlation can be made. But is there a p’shat, or simple reading of the text, that can allow for this “measure for measure”? One that would make sense intuitively, perhaps, to a Hebrew reading this text in the generation of the Exodus?

It appears that there might be one, and this is entirely my own suggestion. Feel free to reject it.


The measure for measure attribute of God’s reward is implicit in the source of the command to kill the newborn boys: Pharaoh himself. As you can see above (just do a search for “Pharaoh Etymology”), the word Pharaoh comes from the Egyptian pr-aa or pr-’o. During an online course on Ancient Egypt I heard this explained by David P. Silverman, Ph.D (Eckley Brinton Coxe, Jr. Professor of Egyptology, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Curator of the Egyptian Section, University of Pennsylvania Museum), as the equivalent of saying “Speaker of The House” or “The Kremlin”.

That is to say, the midwives were disobeying “The Great House” – which is dynastic royalty and government. The great risk that they took was rewarded by them having their own Great House – dynasties of kings, priests and levites.

To summarize:

In an effort to explore the simple reading of the text, archaeology and linguistics help us uncover another layer of understanding which was hitherto perceived as purely midrashic.

Part 2: Carchemish and the Evil Scheme

This article is more appropriate for high school students. Its primary focus is textual analysis, in conjunction with history and archaeology.

The Scheme

The scheme to subjugate the Hebrews all started, ostensibly, out of fear of the rapid growth of their population:

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.

And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us.

Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground/land. (ibid, 8-11)

Without getting into the complicated discussion of who were the Hebrews in Egypt, and the possible understandings of this saga in light of archaeological evidence, I would like to just discuss three words (or more, in other languages):

ועלה מן הארץ

“And rise from/above/over the ground/land”

The ambiguity of the translation shows how difficult it is to understand what the primary concern was, as demonstrated by several commentaries. Nachmanides (ibid, 1:10) sees a correlation with Nebuchadnezzar’s taking control over the cities of Judah, rising “over all the fortified cities in Judah”, or Rezin king of Aram “rising overJerusalem”.

Others suggest it means that the Israelites shall leave Egypt “against our will”. (Rashi, and others)

Whatever it means, it is not good for Egyptian interests of that time.


Fast forward to a later Pharaoh: Necho II.

Pharaoh Necho is famous for his involvement in the death and appointment of two Kings of Judah (II Kings 23:27-37). In that sense, Necho II plays an important role in Jewish History.

Statuette of Necho II in the Brooklyn Museum

While the motives of King Josiah’s opposition of Necho II’s passing through Judah – against the warning of the prophet Jeremiah – are very important to understand, this article is focused on Necho himself, and who he is going to battle.

Bible commentators and thinkers as recently as 1972 (Rabbi Shlomo Rothenberg in his book Toledot Am Olam – though maybe historically inaccurate and perplexing, is recent enough to demonstrate what we are trying to show here), and as early as the Middle Ages (Rabbi David Kimhi or Radak, 1160–1235), understood the enemy to be Assyria.

In his days, Pharaoh Neco, king of Egypt, marched over/up towards/againstthe king of Assyria to the River Euphrates; (II Kings 23:29)

After all this, when Josiah had prepared the temple, Neco king of Egypt went up to fight against (or: in) Carchemish by the Euphrates; and Josiah went out against him. (II Chronicles 25:20)

Image below: Carchemish, at the apex of the fertile crescent. Necho ventures north to Carchemish, passing through the coastline without getting close toe Jerusalem. Josiah challenges Necho as he passes Megiddo, where he thought he had the advantage. Necho kills Josiah, and goes to battler in Carchemish. On his way back, the newly appointed Jehoahaz rebels, Necho exiles him to Egypt and appoints Jehoiakim.

Disclaimer: This map is only to display the ebb and flow of the battle, and not chronology. The battle of Carchemish is commonly accepted to be at 605 BCE.

Image source:

Is there precedent to assuming that Egypt was going to fight Assyria? Of course! They were mortal enemies. And ever since the Kushite 25th Dynasty’s alliance with King Hezekiah against Assyrian King Sennacherib, and their consequent invasion by Esarhaddon, they have been destroyed by, and vassals to, Assyria.

A simple reading of the text only encourages this interpretation. The verse from this week’s Torah portion is one of the several examples which make it plausible to suggest this.

However, as history and archaeology teach us, this is not the case.

In its death throes, Assyria makes a desperate alliance with its mortal enemy: Egypt.

Necho II, following Psamtik I, was part of an alliance with its mortal enemy – Assyria – in a campaign to defeat the uprising of the Neo-Babylonian empire. They were defeated in the famous Battle of Carchemish, by the crown prince, Nebuchadnezzar II, future emperor.

To summarize:

A simple reading of a verse, supported by similar examples and common knowledge, lead us to make assumptions about the meaning of a text. Archaeology can sometimes surprise us, making us revisit what we thought we knew, and see a fresh angle.


Seal the Deal

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Middle School students learning about ancient alphabets

This article is intended to share the sort of work I did with my 5-7th grade students in New Jersey. It combines art, archaeology, grammar, Bible Studies and Jewish History.

Where to begin?

I think it’s best to begin with the City of David, since their motto is “Where it all began”. The Old City of Jerusalem is also my hometown, so I am always excited to share experiences about the special place I was privileged to grow up in.

During several archaeological digs on the site, several dozen bullae have been unearthed in what must have been an administrative structure. Bullae are clay impressions of seals, which would typically enclose a document. The significance of these seals is tremendous: They are all from the period of the First Temple in Jerusalem, and several of them have names which correspond to biblical figures who were instrumental to the saga of the pending destruction of Jerusalem. One of these can be seen in this video (subtitles included):

The video is set to start at the point relevant to this article, and you are free to watch the whole thing if you like. For the Hebrew speakers, here is a video by Tamar Shiloh about the dramatic story of their discovery.

More and more bullae are being discovered, and they are shedding light on important details relevant to understanding the Biblical stories. A famous example of these is King Ezekiah’s seal, which has been found just recently. It is discussed in my article about Hezekiah, Taharqa and Sennacherib. This past year (2016), a seal with the name of a woman was found, and more and more are being discovered.

My students have been learning about a range of topics, from the Biblical studies and Hebrew grammar to the development of the alphabet in Mesopotamia. As we learned about Ancient Hebrew (from Proto Canaanite to Paleo Hebrew and even Phoenician alphabets), we summarized what we learned in an art project: Make your personal seal.

Students saw several examples of ancient seals and ornaments with inscriptions on them, and then made their own. They had to be written in Ancient Hebrew, and in reverse, so that each student may make their own bulla.

Below is an example of seals that were made by the students. The material is Fimo – a colorful clay, easy to bake at home. The first one is my own, reading “[belonging] to Nachliel Selavan” with a faint impression of a sheep (Se-lavan in Hebrew means “white sheep”). Since I have a fascination with Egyptian Scarab Seals, I fashioned mine as a scarab (second image below).

These seals and ornaments are of several students, and their corresponding bullae. The bullae are from fresh clay, which has not been baked yet.

And finally – what a beautiful idea: My 5th grade student wrote her mother a letter, and sealed it with her own personal seal. Isn’t that sweet!


To summarize.

This is a middle school art project (which can be executed on other levels as well), which summarizes grammar (this bears explanation, which I hope to share in another article), History (Ancient Hebrew) and Bible Studies. When you put it all together like this, the students will surely come out with a long lasting impression!

Bonus: Watch the making of impression seals!