Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael be-Ḥodesh (Yitro), parasha 8

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The four kingdoms

Date: 
3d CE
Place: 
Syria Palaestina
Language: 
Hebrew and Aramaic
Category: 
Jewish
Literary genre: 
Midrash
Title of work: 
Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael
Reference: 
be-Ḥodesh (Yitro), parasha 8
Commentary: 

These passages are located within a larger midrashic unit that discusses the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and expresses praise for the people of Israel. The immediate context of our selection is a midrash attributed to Rabbi Nathan, a fourth-generation tanna who was active during the second century, especially after the Bar Kokhba revolt. Based on the biblical description of the Covenant of the Pieces (Genesis 15:7-21), Rabbi Nathan states that God showed Abraham aspects of the created world and future events: Gehenna; the giving of the Torah; the splitting of the Red Sea; and, the Temple with its order of sacrifices. It is unclear whether Section A is part of the material attributed to Rabbi Nathan or is attached to it. These teachings (A+B) draw on Genesis 15:12: “As the sun was setting, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a terrifying (lit. fear; eyma), great darkness falls upon him” (based on NRSV) to present four kingdoms, modeled after the vision in Daniel:

“(2) I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, (3) and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. (4) The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then, as I watched, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a human being; and a human mind was given to it. (5) Another beast appeared, a second one, that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, had three tusks in its mouth among its teeth and was told, “Arise, devour many bodies!” (6) After this, as I watched, another appeared, like a leopard. The beast had four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and dominion was given to it. (7) After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it … (Daniel 7:2-7, NRSV).

According to this vision, the fourth kingdom will be the harshest oppressor, but also the last, for deliverance will follow its demise. It is not clear when the final beast in Daniel, which originally signified the Hellenistic kingdoms, became a symbol of Rome. This identification is implied by Josephus (Jewish Antiquities X.210); on that basis, Israel Ben-Shalom has posited that this association was prevalent among Jews in Judea by the first century (The School of Shammai, p. 277; on other non-rabbinic sources which mention this scheme, see Kaplan, “Imperial Dominion,” p. 191, note 6). Our passage is significant as one of the first mentions of this model of the four kingdoms in rabbinic literature. Other early examples include Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael Va-yehi (be-Shalaḥ), parasha 1 (Horovitz-Rabin edition, p. 87) and Mekhilta de Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai 14:5 (also third-century). A more elaborate presentation of this theme appears in the fifth-century midrash Leviticus Rabbah 13:5 (see part one, part two, part three). It is also noteworthy that this teaching (A+B) is part of a composition dated to the third century, and one section (A) is attributed to (or attached to material by) a second-century sage.

Section A is built according to four words in Genesis 15:12, with one kingdom associated with each one, presented chronologically, following their order within the verse. This passage provides little reasoning for the identification of each empire: “A terrifying” (eyma) symbolizes Babylonia; “darkness” represents Media; “great” is associated with Greece; and, “[she] falls” is linked to the fourth kingdom, whose name is not spelled out. The omission of the final name is significant, for this fourth kingdom – that follows Greece, which embodies the Hellenistic kingdoms – can only be Rome. In certain manuscripts, the Aramaic phrase: “Rome the guilty” (Romi ḥayyavta) appears in this position, an explanation that was presumably inserted by a later scribe (see also Raviv, “The Talmudic Formulation,” p. 6, note 20). Indeed, the term “Rome” does not appear in the Mekhilta, with the exception of that addition and its inclusion in a botanical name (ezov romi). Despite the absence of its name, this teaching emphasizes that Rome is destined to fall. This prediction is not only based on the model of four kingdoms, which states that the fourth will be the last, but also on the word “[She] falls” (nofelet), which is interpreted as a signal of Rome’s ultimate collapse. If the attribution of this teaching to Rabbi Nathan is authentic, it probably dates to the period after the Jewish defeat in the Bar Kokhba revolt.

While Section A presents the empires according to their historical order and the word-order of Genesis 15:12, Section B inverts the order of associations:

 

Babylonia

Media

Greece

Rome

A

(Attributed to Rabbi Nathan?)

“A terrifying” (eyma)

“Darkness”

“Great”

“[She] falls” (nofelet)

B

“[She] falls upon” (nofelet)

“Great”

“Darkness”

“A terrifying” (eyma)

 

This section, which is not ascribed to a particular sage, offers clarifications for the identification of each empire with its corresponding biblical term. For Babylonia and Media, biblical verses are cited to support these associations. Regarding Greece, the midrash refers to its conduct toward Israel: “This is the Kingdom of Greece, for she darkened the eyes of Israel with affliction (or fasting).” The meaning of this explanation is not entirely clear (see Kaplan, “Imperial Dominion,” p. 195, note 22 for a possible reading). According to a midrashic parallel in Leviticus Rabbah 13:5, Greece inflicted darkness through its decrees and pressure which pressured Israel to deny God. The phrase “darkened the eyes” echoes Lamentations 5:17: “Because of these things our eyes have darkened” in relation to Israel’s sorrow in response to the destruction of the Temple; yet the Mekhilta does not provide any explanation. In Section B, the description of the fourth kingdom is supported by Daniel 7:7:

“After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, dreadful and terrifying (eymtani) and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it …” (NSRV)

Some scholars have viewed the model of the four empires as a framework that enabled Jews to better understand their status under Rome while offering hope with predictions of its inevitable defeat. Rivka Raviv explains that this schema suggests that God did not reject his people and Roman subjugation was an element of the divine plan that was revealed to Daniel and implied in other biblical passages. Just as the earlier empires vanished, so too would Rome come to an end (“The Talmudic Formulation,” p. 14). However, whereas Section A emphasizes the power of Rome and its eventual fall, Section B describes Rome as “dreadful and terrifying,” thus emphasizing the fear that Jews experienced and its parallels to the distress experienced by Daniel and Abraham. 

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Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael be-Ḥodesh (Yitro), parasha 8
Author(s) of this publication: Yael Wilfand
Publishing date: Fri, 11/02/2018 - 09:55
URL: http://www.judaism-and-rome.org/mekhilta-de-rabbi-ishmael-be-%E1%B8%A5odesh-yitro-parasha-8
Visited: Mon, 04/06/2020 - 17:44

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