Sifre Deuteronomy 343 (part one)

Rome is identified as Esau and Seir
3d CE
Syria Palaestina
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Sifre Deuteronomy

This selection from the third-century midrash Sifre Deuteronomy expounds on a verse from Moses’s final blessing to Israel: “And he said: ‘The Lord came from Sinai, And dawned on them from Seir; He shone forth from Mount Paran, And He came with ten thousands of saints; From His right hand came a fiery law for them’” (Deuteronomy 33:2; NKJV). The sages read this verse as a reference to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai (see also Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael beḤodesh (Yitro), Parashah 3 and 5 [Horovitz-Rabin edition, p. 214, 221]). This source is important since it uses the names Seir and Esau to symbolize Rome. While this link is common in amoraic texts, especially fifth-century midrashim, scholars have debated the initial appearance of this association (for a survey of views on the dating of this identification, see Berthelot, “The Paradoxical Similarities,” p. 95-99, who cites our text as evidence for the third century). This passage is also significant on account of both its claim for the supremacy of Jewish law (the Torah) and its description of Rome having a murderous character. Sections A and B could be read as separate units that may have existed independently; however, the editorial choice to place them in juxtaposition to one another in this midrash requires us to consider them in a single context.

Section A divides Deuteronomy 33:2 into four phrases, with each representing a specific language, to prove that God gave the Torah in four tongues, not only Hebrew. First, the midrash interprets “He said: The Lord from Sinai came” to indicate Hebrew. Second, “And dawned from Seir” is associated with the language of Rome – Latin. Seir is the dwelling place of Esau in several biblical passages: for example, in Genesis 36:8 we read: “So Esau settled in the hill country of Seir; Esau is Edom” (NRSV). This link of Seir-Esau-Edom can readily be traced to tannaitic midrashim (see alsoBerthelot, “The Paradoxical Similarities,” p. 98-99). Third, Mount Paran signals Arabic since Arabs are considered the sons of Ishmael who, according to Genesis 21:21, “lived in the wilderness of Paran” (NRSV). The identification of the Ishmaelites as Arabs goes back to Josephus, (Jewish Antiquities II.32; Millar, “Hagar, Ishmael,” p. 32). Finally, “He came (ata) from myriads of holy ones” points to Aramaic, for the Aramaic word ata appears here rather than a Hebrew term. It is noteworthy that Greek is not included among the languages of revelation to Israel listed in this text (cf. Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 88b, which states that the Torah was given in seventy languages). The depiction of a king or a ruler issuing an edict in multiple languages has precedence in the Tanakh (see Esther 1:22). By emphasizing that the Torah was transmitted in several languages rather than Hebrew alone, this midrash may be communicating a universal message; however, this passage also asserts that God gave the Torah to Israel in four languages (see Hirshman, Torah for the Entire World, p. 99). Moreover, the next section (B) elaborates on three groups that refused to accept the Torah: the sons of Esau the sons of Ammon and Moab, who presumably speak Aramaic; and, the sons of Ishmael, who speak Arabic. Thus, although Section B begins with “another thing” – davar aḥer – which typically marks a transition to a new textual segment, by placing these two traditions (A and B) sequentially, the editor seems to suggests that those nations’ rejection of the Torah was not related to a breakdown in communication due to the lack of a shared language.

Section B, which also has a parallel in Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael beḤodesh (Yitro), Parashah 5, (Horovitz-Rabin edition, p. 221), presents an a detailed narrative on the giving of the Torah (see Hirshman, Torah for the Entire World, p. 93-98 for a discussion of this passage). This midrash claims that God offered the Torah to all nations, but each one refused it. However, as noted above, three of those exchanges are presented here: the sons of Esau (Rome), the sons of Ammon and Moab, and the sons of Ishmael. First, God approaches the sons of Esau, asking if they are willing to receive the Torah. They inquire about its contents but, upon learning that it includes a prohibition against murder, they explain that bloodshed is their patriarch’s essence, which fulfills Isaac’s blessing: “By your sword you shall live” (Genesis 27:40, NRSV). In the parallel from the Mekhilta, “the sons of Esau the wicked” answer: “This is the inheritance (yerushah) that our father bequeathed (horish) to us: ‘By your sword you shall live’ (Genesis 27:40, NRSV).” Killing is therefore an intrinsic aspect of Rome’s character and heritage. This Roman legacy thus conflicts with God’s law, the Torah, which they therefore cannot accept. In a similar vein, when offered the Torah, Ammon and Moab refuse it when they learn that it prohibits adultery and the sons of Ishmael reject it when they hear that it forbids robbery. These three prohibitions come from a single verse, in this order of presentation: “You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:12, verses 13-15 in NRSV). Interestingly, for Rome, the stated obstacle to accepting the Torah is the requirement to refrain from murder. This example, along with adultery and robbery, are not distinct to Israelite religion; to the contrary, these actions are forbidden in many legal systems. Yet this midrash claims that these nations could not adhere to the most basic moral requirements. Thus, this source presents the divinely authored Torah, as the most ethical law, whose standards exceeded those upheld by the other nations, including the Romans.

This midrash further states that God unsuccessfully tried to persuade all nations to receive the Torah, describing him approaching each nation in turn, in hopes that they would agree to accept his law. Marc Hirshman notes that the parallel in the Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael does not include this universal search; in that version, only the sons of Esau (Rome), Ammon and Moab, and Ishmael declined to receive the Torah, not all nations. Hirshman considers this part of the Sifre to be an addition which corresponds with this midrash’s view that the Torah belongs to Israel alone, since the other peoples each rejected it (Torah for the Entire World, p. 100-101).

This midrash concludes that the other nations were incapable of observing even the seven mitzvot (commandments) that the sons of Noah accepted; thus, they gave these to Israel too. The concept of seven universal mitzvot, sometimes called “The Seven Laws of Noah” or “The Noahide Laws,” appears in several tannaitic texts; these seven statues are enumerated in Tosefta Avodah Zarah 9:4:

על שבע מצות נצטוו בני נח. על הדינין ועל ע'ז ועל קללת השם ועל גלוי עריות ועל שפיכות דמים ועל הגזל ועל אבר מהחי.

On seven mitzvot (commandments) were the sons of Noah commanded. Regarding [establishing] courts (dinin, lit. “laws”), [and prohibitions against:] idolatry, cursing the name [of God] (committing blasphemy), adultery, shedding blood, robbery, and [consuming] the limb of a living animal.

Significantly, the three commandments mentioned in Section B are on this list: adultery (the sons of Ammon and Moab), bloodshed (the sons of Esau), robbery (the sons of Ishmael; for more on the Noahide Laws, see, Rakover, Law and the Noahides; Novak, The Image). The Sifre therefore emphasizes that all nations rejected the Torah, even the laws that are widely regarded as fundamental tenets of morality.

In general, our midrash assumes the superiority of the Torah as divine law and the inability of the nations of the world, including Rome, to follow it. This position should be read within a Roman context and, especially, in relation to Roman imperial ideology, which lauds its unparalleled body of law that was being spread throughout the empire.

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