A Divine Integration

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The implication is, someone who serves you for a period of time must not be released without means. God saw to it that Jacob would not go away “empty-handed,” but the treacherous Laban would have done so. The moral principle is spelled out in the Book of Deuteronomy’s injunction on the release of slaves: when you release a slave after a fixed period of service, “you must not release him (or her) empty-handed” (reiqam; 15:13). You must provide him (or her) with sheep, grain, and wine—just as God did when God redeemed you from servitude in Egypt (verses 14-15)!  The apparent “exploitation” of the Egyptians by the fleeing Israelites is not, then, what it seems. In the larger context of the Torah, it is a divinely arranged accommodation of the released Israelite slaves. Pharaoh would not do the right thing, so God would have to see that it is done.

According to the documentary theory of the Torah’s composition, each of the three passages featuring the term “empty-handed” derives from a different source—Exodus 3 from E, Genesis 31 from J, and Deuteronomy 15 from D. They each belong to a different stage of development or school of thought. For Buber and Rosenzweig—as well as for the traditionalist and for the literary reader of today—the three passages are not to be interpreted individually. They are linked by a single theme: no slave is to be set free without resources. The unity of the passages is the product of R, the redactor-author and teacher, the mind who shaped the materials of the Torah into the form in which it became the sacred text of the Jewish community, the repository of revelation.

The sources of the Torah (which exist only hypothetically) may or may not be revealed; but the final form of the Torah, the work of R, is the complex text in which the Jewish people has heard the voice of God, has found revelation. The Torah as we find it is revealed and sacred, even though its origins may be diverse. Revelation, from Buber and Rosenzweig’s perspective, is the perception that one encounters the voice and personality of God—in this case in the text of the Torah. That encounter assumes the full meaning achieved by relating to the full Torah—and not to only a part of it.

The Torah’s teachings of creation, for example, cannot be drawn from reading the story of Genesis 1:1-2:4 (the P version) alone; nor from reading the account in the Garden of Eden story (Genesis 2-3—J or JE) alone. The Torah’s concept of creation involves the tensions between the cosmological view of the first story and the anthropological view of the second along with our efforts to try to resolve some of the tensions (Rosenzweig). The Torah’s teaching is neither in the story of an orderly and apparently harmonious creation, such as we find in Genesis 1, nor in the story of human corruption that we find in Genesis 2-3. It is in the struggle between the two.

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Edward L. Greenstein is professor of Bible at Tel Aviv University and author of Reader Responsibility: The Making of Meaning in Biblical Narrative.