The arrogance of Rome
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This brief passage is a side comment within a longer discussion on the conditions experienced by Israel when encamped at Shittim (“While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab” Numbers 25:1, NRSV). Our source emphasizes that Rome’s arrogance was without merit since it had subdued four major cities in comparison to Israel, who defeated Siḥon and Og, which included sixty cities that were strong enough to be “eligible for kingship (malkhut),” according to Deuteronomy 3:1-7 (particularly verse 4):
“(1)When we headed up the road to Bashan, King Og of Bashan came out against us, he and all his people, for battle at Edrei. (2) The Lord said to me, “Do not fear him, for I have handed him over to you, along with his people and his land. Do to him as you did to King Sihon of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon.” (3) So the Lord our God also handed over to us King Og of Bashan and all his people. We struck him down until not a single survivor was left. (4) At that time we captured all his towns; there was no citadel that we did not take from them—sixty towns, the whole region of Argob, the kingdom of Og in Bashan. (5) All these were fortress towns with high walls, double gates, and bars, besides a great many villages. (6) And we utterly destroyed them, as we had done to King Sihon of Heshbon, in each city utterly destroying men, women, and children. (7) But all the livestock and the plunder of the towns we kept as spoil for ourselves” (NRSV).
In contrast to these kings, Rome defeated only four cities that are “eligible for kingship (malkhut).” Menahem Kahana clarifies that such cities are relatively prominent and, like Rome, have a royal residence, so they may serve as a capital (Sifre, vol. 5, p. 1093). Although medinot (sing. medinah) signifies “provinces,” “large towns” or “capitals” (Jastrow, A Dictionary, p. 734), here this term seems to denote “cities” or “large towns,” for the four Roman medinot are compared to the sixty cities mentioned in Deuteronomy. This midrash does not explain why these four municipalities were selected for this list or what they have in common. While Alexandria, Carthage, and Antioch are among the best known and most populated cities in the Roman empire, the name Akhia is less clear. Menahem Kahana notes that it probably refers to Achaea (Achaia; Αχαΐα) in Greece, although further investigation is needed (Sifre, vol. 5, p. 1093). These cites all seem to be identified with major victories in establishing the Roman empire: Carthage, Macedon (Akhia?; Philip V), the Seleucid empire (Antioch), and the Ptolemaic kingdom (Alexandria; Augustus). This source compares Rome and Israel by commenting on the military conquests that contributed to forming their kingdoms: Rome defeated four cities but Israel overcame sixty; thus, Rome’s arrogance is unfounded.
The description of Rome as an empire that “boasts and brags” (mitga’ah; mishtaḥetzet) also appears in the fifth-century midrash Leviticus Rabbah 7:6:
מלכות הרשעה על ידי שנתגאה ומשתחצת ואומרת. "מי לי בשמים ועמך לא חפצתי בארץ". עתידה שתידון באש. ה' ה' ד' "חזה הוית עד די קטילת חיו' והובד גשמא ויהיבת ליקדת אש". אבל ישראל על ידי שהן נבזין ושפלים בעו' הזה אין מתנחמין אל' באש. ה' ה' ד' "ואני איהיה לה נאום י'י חומת אש ולכבוד אהיה בתוכה".
This kingdom is evil (lit. evil kingdom) because it (lit. she) boasts and brags, saying: “Whom do I have in heaven? And I do not desire [any connection] with you on earth” (Psalms 73:25); it (lit. she) is destined to be judged by fire, as it is written [in Scripture]: “I watched till the beast was slain, and its body destroyed and given to the burning flame” (Daniel 7:11, NKJV). But Israel, because they are despised (nivzin) and humbled (lit. lowered) in this world, they will be consoled only by fire, as it is written [in Scripture]: “And I Myself – declares the Lord – will be a wall of fire [all] around [her], and I will be the glory within her” (Zechariah 2:9, adapted from JPS). (Text cited from MS London, as appears in MA'AGARIM The Hebrew Language Historical Dictionary Project; the translation is my own).
This passage is located within a section that discusses arrogant biblical individuals and peoples that were punished for their transgressions, including: the flood generation, the Sodomites, Pharaoh, and Sennacherib; this list concludes with Rome, that is called “the evil kingdom,” whose ultimate demise is predicted and explained as a response to its denial of God’s might. In its original context, the psalmist states: “Whom have I in heaven [but you]? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you” (Psalms 73:25, NRSV); however, the midrash ascribes this quotation to Rome, as evidence of its arrogance: “Whom do I have in heaven? And I do not desire [any connection] with you on earth.” In this interpretation, Rome neither seeks God’s support nor acknowledges God’s power, which will lead to its punishment by fire. To affirm this claim, Rome is identified as the fourth kingdom mentioned in Daniel 7, that will be destroyed by fire (for more on Rome as the fourth kingdom, see Leviticus Rabbah 13:5 (part one), where Rome is also described boasting). Leviticus Rabbah 7:6, teaches that God will ultimately return Israel from its state of scorn and humiliation, including comfort with fire, as Zechariah 2:9 envisions. Indeed, this verse appears in the Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 4:3, 8a; Taanit 2:2, 65c, in a prayer for the restoration of the Temple. For Leviticus Rabbah, therefore, the current diminishment of Israel’s standing promises future reward.
Significantly, various rabbinic texts characterize Rome as arrogant. In this selection from Sifre Numbers, this description is a passing remark. This source downplays Roman power by focusing on the hollowness of its boasts by comparison with Israel’s defeat of two great biblical kings.