This selection from the tannaitic midrash Sifre Deuteronomy expounds on two verses from the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32:1-43). Our passage systematically comments on Deuteronomy 32:13-14:
“(13) He set him [Israel] atop the heights of the land, and fed him with produce of the field; he nursed him with honey from the crags, with oil from flinty rock; (14) curds from the herd, and milk from the flock, with fat of lambs and rams; Bashan bulls and goats together with the choicest wheat—you drank fine wine from the blood of grapes” (NRSV: most biblical translations are from or based on this translation; unascribed biblical translations are mine and reflect alternative readings presented or implied in the midrash).
This midrash opens with a general statement on Israel’s circumstances in “this world” (in contrast to “the world to come”), then presents segments of these verses sequentially, each accompanied by an allegorical interpretation that focuses on Jewish life under Roman rule, specifically matching each one with an agent of Roman domination over the province. Both sections conclude with an optimistic prospect: Israel will ultimately inherit the possessions of these Romans.
Section A expounds on Deuteronomy 32:13. This passage is particularly significant since some scholars have seen it as the earliest rabbinic source to identify a boar or pig with Rome. This symbolism is explicitly articulated in fifth-century midrasim: Genesis Rabbah 65:1 and Leviticus Rabbah 13:5 (see part 1, part 2, part 3). If our passage indeed presents this connection, it should be dated no later than the late third century CE (for this opinion, see Har-Peled, The Dialogical Beast, p. 173-174). Adiel Schremer suggests that this symbolism may be implicitly conveyed in our source (Schremer, Brother Estranged, p. 174-175, note 175; cf. Herr, Roman Rule, p. 128, n. 99 and Hadas-Lebel, Jerusalem against Rome, p. 517-521 who both date this identification to the second century without citing our passage; for more on the boar and the pig in relation to Rome, see the commentary on Leviticus Rabbah 13:5 [part 1]).
This debate over when the boar and the pig came to symbolize Rome also relates to rabbinic interpretations of Psalms 80:14: “The boar (ḥazir) from the forest ate (lit. nibbled) at it (lit. her)” since Leviticus Rabbah 13:5 reads this appearance of “the boar” as a reference to Rome (see Har-Peled, The Dialogical Beast, p. 173 for a possible connection between Psalms 80:14 and Deuteronomy 32:13). The question therefore is: Does our tannaitic passage convey this meaning? In my opinion, it is difficult to confirm this reading in Sifre Deuteronomy. Section A. I. seems to discuss “this world,” thus referring to dominion over Israel in general terms. It even mentions the four kingdoms, following the famous vision in the book of Daniel (7:2-7; more on this biblical model in the commentary on Leviticus Rabbah 13:5 [part 1]). Thus, it is questionable whether – without knowledge of the use of Psalm 80:14 in Genesis Rabbah and Leviticus Rabbah – scholars would read “the boar” in this passage (A. I.) as symbol for Rome (although most of this source addresses Rome, this opening section mentions “this world” and the “four kingdoms”).
Section A. II. discusses metziqin (sometimes mesiqin in other rabbinic texts), rendered here as “oppressors.” This term appears in several tannaitic compositions: Mishnah Baba Qamma 10:5 speaks of mesiqin seizing a field. Tosefta Ohalot 16:13 and Miqwaʾot 6:2 each present a narrative about a particular metziq. Sifre Deuteronomy 357 also portrays metziqin seizing portions of the Land of Israel as well as destroying the Temple (Finkelstein edition, p. 425); further on, metziqey Israel are said to be:
כגון אילו הבלשים הדרין עם המלכות ועתידין לאבוד עמהם.
“Like those investigators (balashim) who reside with the government (malkhut) and are destined to be lost with it (lit. them)” (Finkelstein edition, p. 427).
In these sources, therefore, it seems that metziqin (or mesiqin) are Romans. Indeed, Moshe Gil claims that mesiqin are Roman veterans who received lands in Syria Palaestina. He suggests that the Greek term missikos (from the Latin missicii or missicus, meaning “discharged from military service”), which appears in several documents and refers to soldiers who served an additional four-to-five years; therefore, they completed an honesta missione. Thus he traces the origin of the term mesiqin, which was modified to metziqin in some rabbinic texts, building on the Hebrew meaning “oppressors” (from the root tz-w-q, see Jastrow, A Dictionary, p. 826, 1270; Gil, “Mesīqīn,” p. 36-37; And the Roman, p. 104; see also Safrai, Tractate Demai, p. 168-169). We may conclude that passage A. II. portrays these metziqin, probably Roman veterans, as seizing portions of the Land of Israel. However, the midrash promises that “tomorrow” (meaning “in the future”), Israel will once again hold these lands. While Section A. I. broadly addresses Israel’s state of submission, A. II. describes the metziqin, one aspect of Roman rule that directly affected the daily lives of the midrashic authors. As we shall see, Section B is entirely dedicated to this subject.
Section B expounds on Deuteronomy 32:14, interpreting each term in reference to an official rank – using both Greek and Latin terms – according to the Roman hierarchy (in descending order of authority), concluding with matrons. This order of presentation is purposely crafted, much as another passage from this midrash which demonstrates a similar knowledge of this hierarchy (Sifre Deuteronomy 309, Finkelstein edition, p. 348). In our midrash, the ordering is:
1) Consuls (hapiqtin, from the Greek hupatikos: a consul, consular) and governors (hagmonin, from the Greek hēgemōn: provincial governor).
2) Commanders of a thousand (kli-riqin, from the Greek χιλίαρχος/xiliarxos: a tribunus militum).
3) Privileged soldiers (or, those who performed services for higher officers; benifoqrin, from the Latin beneficiarii).
4) The centurions (qotrinon, from the Latin centurionus).
5) These are their advisors (sarqnirqin or sanoqlitin, from the Greek sugklētikos or sugklētos).
Whereas this list primarily consists of Roman officials, it ends with matrons, an interesting indication that they too were viewed as agents of Roman control in the Land of Israel. Each of these positions is presented negatively, for their property will ultimately be inherited by Israel.
This midrash is significant as a record of rabbinic perspectives on Roman rule. Rome is presented taking by force lands that belong to Israel by right, thereby exercising a comprehensive mechanism of control. According to this text, however, the Torah conveys a divine promise that, despite its current prominence, Rome will eventually fall and Israel will be the beneficiary.
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