When in Egypt, the Israelites did not change their names or their language, did not slander, or have prohibited sexual relations – the significance of these practice for Jewish life under Roman rule
This midrash presents four practices that it associates with Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. All of them are related to the people of Israel’s ability to preserve their distinct identity as a minority in Egypt, which also pertained to Jewish life in the Greco-Roman world. While a parallel tradition appears in several rabbinic texts, including the third-century midrash Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael Pisḥa, (Bo), parasha 5, this version from Leviticus Rabbah is more detailed.
Section A presents a tradition from Bar Qapara, who was active in the early third century CE, which is cited by Rabbi Ḥunah (several sages had this name; this text probably refers to the fourth-century amora). In Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, a similar teaching is cited by Rabbi Eleazar Haqapar, a fifth-generation tanna who was active in the final third of the second century. Some scholars posit that Bar Qapara and Eleazer Haqapar are names for the same sage, or that they are relatives. Bar Qapara’s teaching lists four “things” (“mitzvot” in the Mekhilta) that led Israel to be delivered from Egypt (A), and the following sections each (B to E) provide an explanation for one of them; with the exception of Section B, at least one biblical reference is quoted to support each of these Israelite observances in Egypt.
Section B expounds on the assertion that the people of Israel “did not change their names” in Egypt. The midrash states that “‘Reuben’ and ‘Shimon’ [are the ones] who go down [to Egypt], [and] Reuben and Shimon [are the ones] who go up [to the land of Israel].” By detailing that the names of Jacob’s sons were not altered during their generations of enslavement, this text emphasizes that the Israelites retained their Hebrew names in Egypt. In the Greco-Roman world, the choice of whether to use Hebrew names was quite relevant, for many Jews adopted non-Jewish names. This passage then provides examples of Latin and Greek names that were used as substitutes for Hebrew names: Rufus rather than Reuven, Luliana (Iulianus or Lollianus) for Yehudah, Listes (perhaps Iustus?) for Yosef, and Alexander for Benyamin (for more on these names, see Moshe David Herr, “External Influences,” p. 95-98). In contrast with the Mekhilta, that cites verses which underscore the connection between preserving Hebrew names and maintaining Israelite lineage with biblical citations that join these two subjects, our midrash omits this link and offers choices of Roman and Greek names, making the message explicit for its contemporaneous audience: Hebrew names signal Israelite identity. Names also appear as an indicator of identity in Apollonius of Tyana, Letter 71, where he rebukes Ionians for failing to retain their Greek names: “Your names used once to be those of heroes, admirals, and lawgivers, but now are those of a Lucullus, a Fabricius, a Lucanius, the lucky people!” (translation by C.P. Jones, Philostratus, vol. 3, p. 67).Interestingly, Horace, Odes III.5.1-56 (verses 5-12) states that Crassus’s Roman troops, who were captured by the Parthians after being defeated at Carrhae in 53 BCE, forgot their Roman names and married foreign women. This description (with several other elements) indicates that they abandoned all that had defined them as Romans. Thus, our midrash considers the preservation of Hebrew names to be a virtue.
Section C proves that Israel “did not change their language (lit. their tongue; leshonam)” by presenting three biblical quotations to show that they continued to speak Hebrew in Egypt. At times, the Israelites are called Hebrews; for example, “Abram the Hebrew” (Genesis 14:13, NRSV) demonstrates that one who speaks Hebrew is called a Hebrew. In Exodus 5:3, Moses and Aaron tell Pharaoh: “The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us” (NRSV). Once more, the midrash links the appellation “Hebrews” with their language. Finally, in Genesis 45:12, Joseph speaks with his brothers in Hebrew while in Egypt. Much like names, language is a sign of identity and, according to this midrash, by speaking Hebrew, Israel merited God’s deliverance from Egypt (for more on Hebrew as a spoken language in this era, see the commentary on Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael Pisḥa, Bo, parasha 5).
Section D demonstrates that the Israelites in Egypt “did not utter evil speech (lit. evil tongue; lashon ha-ra‘).” This midrash asserts that the people of Israel knew that they would take valuable objects from the Egyptians twelve months before their departure, yet no one divulged their plan. Our passage cites Exodus 11:2, which instructs Moses to “tell the people [that every man is to ask his neighbor and every woman is to ask her neighbor for objects of silver and gold]” (NRSV). Although this instruction was given immediately before the final plague, this section assumes that the people of Israel were informed of this plan long before, since God revealed it to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:22). The understanding that there were no informants among the Israelites relies on this interpretation. Thus, this source considers it sinful to reveal incriminating evidence about fellow Israelites, while guarding such confidential information is praiseworthy.
Section E provides evidence that the people of Israel did not commit “forbidden sexual acts.” This sin is among the three most egregious offenses in rabbinic texts. According to Jerusalem Talmud Shevuot4:2, 35a, a Jew may violate any law in the Torah to avoid being killed, with the exception of idolatry, forbidden sexual relations, and shedding blood (see also Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 3:3, 21b; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 74a). Whereas the Bible lists many prohibited relationships (for example, in Leviticus 20:10-19), including various incestuous possibilities and a married woman who commits adultery, the verses cited here (Leviticus 24:10-11) detail that a certain man had an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father. Thus, this text focuses on Israelites with exogamous familial bonds. The midrash highlights the Israelites in Egypt who – but for this single woman – refrained from sexual involvement with outsiders and, thus, adhered to this commandment. In the Roman milieu, intercourse and even marriage between Jews and non-Jews were common enough that rabbinic texts discuss several aspects related to the offspring of such interactions. In that context, avoiding such engagement is considered a virtue.
This midrash enumerates four observances that Israelites upheld in Egypt. Each contributes to maintaining a minority identity in the diaspora or under foreign rule, specifically, Jewish identity under Roman rule: preserving both Hebrew names and language; condemnation of informants who share incriminating information with outsiders; and, avoiding intercourse or marriage beyond the Israelite community. This text encourages its audience to adhere to these standards and, thereby, to be worthy of God’s deliverance, as their biblical forebears had been.
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