Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Parashat VaYera

A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Vayera 5759/1998

Parshat Va-Yera

An Ancient Commentary from Qumran on the Sodomites' Retribution

Gaby Barzilai

Department of Bible

Qumran document[1] 4Q252, recently published under the title "Commentaries on Genesis,"[2] is a collection of ancient commentaries on various passages and stories in the Book of Genesis. These commentaries are unique and important insofar as they date to the Second Temple Period, which means they were written several centuries before the redaction of existing midrashic anthologies. In a leading article on the scroll at hand,[3] Moshe Bernstein detailed the various exegetical questions with which this document deals, describing them as "concerning the plain sense of the text(peshat)." Bernstein, however, had not dealt with the third column of this document, since its preservation was so poor. Nevertheless, despite the large gaps in this column, it seems to me that parts of it can be reconstructed, revealing the exegetical question at issue in one of the passages in this column.

Only the beginning of fourteen lines and the end of seven lines have survived from the third column. Line 1 and the beginning of line 2 are about "twelve people." Since the end of the previous line is missing, it is extremely difficult to know what it meant. Beginning with the end of line 6, the text introduces the subject of the binding of Isaac: "Abraham reached out his hand,..." Lines 2-6 deal with Abraham's exchange of words with G-d over the fate of Sodom (Gen. 18:23-33). The commentary which we have here rewrites the story, citing verses from Chapter 18, from the law on a subverted city (Deut. 13:13-18), and from the law on despoiling Canaanite cities (Deut. 20:15-18).[4] The partial reconstruction presented below is based on these sources, for the most part following the official publication of this scroll, but with several words added according to my own understanding:

1/ As it is written [ ] two /

2/ and ten people [ Sodom and Gomo]ra and also/

3/ this city [ ten] righteous/

4/ I shall not [destroy the entire city but the sinners] alone shall be condemned/

5/ and if one not find there [ten righteous people, I shall condemn

the city and all the people] in it and its spoil/

6/ and its children and the rest [of its animals and it shall remain a ruin] for all time.

And he sent/...

Now, I believe, one can identify the exegetical subject of the text. The issue is not the "plain sense" of the verses but how the plain sense in Genesis 18 matches the worldview of the commentator and his contemporaries regarding reward and punishment. This view rests on principles that appear in the Prophets and had become common heritage in the Second Temple period.

The problem addressed in column 3 is the fate of the sinners in Sodom, should Abraham succeed in his attempts to save the city, persuading G-d to forgive it by virtue of ten righteous people that might be found there. When G-d said, "I will forgive the whole place for their sake" (Gen. 18:26) and "I will not destroy, for the sake of the ten" (Gen. 18:32), could this conceivably have meant that the wicked would also be saved, thus a sinner rewarded?

On the face of it, that appears to be the sense of the biblical text, but the commentary at hand explains differently. If ten righteous are found in Sodom, the city will be saved, but the sinners will each be punished separately: "but the sinners alone shall be condemned [line 4]." If there are not even ten righteous in the city, the entire place will be destroyed and its fate will be like that which the Torah commands the Israelites to do regarding a city entirely given over to pagan worship: destruction and condemnation.

The plain sense of the text does not relate at all to the sinners in Sodom, because the fate of the wicked is not the main point of the biblical story; Abraham's argument with God is about the fate of the city/place, assuming that some innocent beings surely live there: children, women, and livestock. The story only relates to the wicked incidentally: "Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty, ... so that innocent and guilty fare alike?" Abraham does not dispute that the wicked must be punished, that they must perish; nevertheless, he does not deal with the nature or timing of this punishment. Abraham, according to the plain sense, tries to separate the deeds of the wicked as individuals from the fate of the city as a whole.

The commentator of 4Q252 holds that the fate of the wicked is precisely the issue that deserves greatest attention. The way Scripture ignores the fate of the wicked is unacceptable in the commentator's view of the world, therefore he adds material pertaining to this issue.The commentator's main source of material on reward and punishment is from Ezekiel 14:12-20, in which chapter the prophet sets forth his principles of retribution: in a city where most of the inhabitants are sinners, the small handful of righteous in the city--be they even as righteous as Noah, Job, and Daniel[5]--will only succeed in delivering themselves, but not the rest of their city, nor even their own children. There is no automatic absolution of sinners, and each receives retribution according to his deeds.[6] According to the prophet, one can no longer obtain deliverance on the merits of one's ancestors or other righteous, even though in the time of Abraham, Job, Noah and Daniel this had been possible.[7] The commentary which we saw here emerged in a society that believed in the strictest measure of justice and therefore could not ignore the fate of the wicked in Sodom. Even if G-d forgives the city as a whole, the commentator says, we must remember and remind others that the wicked shall perish.

[1] Each document of Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran is labeled first by the number of the cave in which it was found, in this case 4Q, followed by a serial number, in this case 252. Some documents are also given a name. This document was formerly called Pesher Bereshit (4QpGen), meaning "Interpretation of Genesis," but this name was found unsuitable and hence was changed.

[2] G. J. Brooke, "4Q Commentary on Genesis A", in G. J. Brooke and others, in Consolation [SIC] with J. VanderKam, Qumran Cave 4 XVIII: Parabiblical Texts, Part 3 (DJD XXII), Oxford - Clarendon, 1996, pp. 185-202.

[3] M. J. Bernstein, "4Q252: From Re-Written Bible to Biblical Commentary," JJS, 45 (1994), pp. 1-27.

[4] The scroll has a total of six columns, preserved to varying degrees in six fragments, one containing dozens of lines of text and another containing a few isolated words.

[5] The reference is apparently to Dan'el the judge in the Ugaritic epic of Eqhat, and not to Daniel in the Book of Daniel. Thus, all three righteous people mentioned in this verse are righteous gentiles who succeeded in saving their children from the bitter fate of death by virtue of their righteousness. Cf. Y. Klein, Y. Avishur, "Noah, Dan'el and Job," M. Haran et al. (eds.), Encyclopedia of the Biblical World - Ezekiel, Tel Aviv, 1983, pp. 66-67(Hebrew edition).

[6] See Ezekiel 18.

[7] The notion that the merit of our ancestors no longer pertains and that Israel will no longer be pardoned and her punishment commuted first appears in Amos 7:7-9.