Genesis Rabbah 23:1

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Cities named in honor of wicked rulers
5th CE
Syria Palaestina
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Genesis Rabbah



This passage from Genesis Rabbah cites an interpretation on Psalms 49:12 (verse 11 in most Christian Bibles) that is attributed to Rabbi Yudan, a fourth-generation amora who was active in the fourth century CE. In its biblical context, this verse is usually translated in reference to graves, reading qivram (their graves) rather than qirbam (within them): “Their gravesare their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they named lands their own” (Psalms 49:11, NRSV). Or, in the JPS version: “Their grave is their eternal home, the dwelling-place for all generations of those once famous on earth” (Psalms 49:12). Rabbi Yodan explains that the wicked think that they will live forever in the memory of all generations by naming cities in their own honor. He mentions three examples: Tiberias, located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, which is named for Tiberius; Alexandria, the Egyptian city named for Alexander the Great; and, Antioch, named for Antiochus (probably refers to Antioch on the Orontes, today Antakya, Turkey). This selection is noteworthy, for Rabbi Yudan deems all three rulers to be wicked. Whereas Tiberias and Alexandria are known to have been named to honor Tiberius and Alexander, respectively, in the case of Antioch, Rabbi Yudan seems to refer to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who is considered wicked in Jewish literature for his role in religious persecutions during the second century BCE (see 1 and 2 Maccabees). However, Antioch was not named for Antiochus IV Epiphanes (although he did expand this city, much like his predecessors); rather, this city was founded in the late fourth century BCE by the first Seleucid ruler, Seleucus I Nicator, to honor his father Antiochus. Moreover, Antiochus is rarely mentioned in rabbinic texts prior to this passage in Genesis Rabbah (he appears once in Megillat Ta‘anit, known as an early text, and in Seder Olam, whose time of composition is debated).

The choice of Tiberius is also puzzling since rabbinic texts mention other emperors who were seen as particularly malevolent for whom cites were named. For example, Jerusalem was re-named Aelia Capitolina to honor Hadrian, who is portrayed as evil in several rabbinic sources (for example, Jerusalem Talmud Peah 7:1, 20a and Ta‘anit 4:6, 69a, where he is called “Hadrian the wicked”). Perhaps, for later generations, the connection between Aelia Capitolina and Hadrian was less accessible than Tiberias and Tiberius. Like Antiochus IV Epiphanes, Tiberius is not mentioned in earlier rabbinic literature (I found no prior references; later, the Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 6a, offers a Hebrew meaning for the name Tiberias, without mention of a link to the Roman emperor Tiberius).

This midrash also seems to present further evidence of the Jerusalem Talmud’s tendency to view Alexander negatively (see, Jerusalem Talmud Baba Metzi‘a 2:4, 8c and Jerusalem Talmud, Avodah Zarah 3:1, 42c [1]). Moreover, this grouping of two Hellenistic kings and a Roman emperor further supports claims that rabbinic texts often associated Rome with Hellenistic kingdoms. In this passage, a Roman emperor is cast with Alexander and Antiochus IV Epiphanes as one in a wicked trio who repeat a single pattern: each believes that having a city named after him will ensure the preservation of his memory.

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Genesis Rabbah 23:1
Author(s) of this publication: Yael Wilfand
Publishing date: Sat, 11/10/2018 - 21:30
Visited: Wed, 04/24/2024 - 14:36

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