Who is Mighty?

  • Rav Alex Israel

 

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

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This shiur is sponsored by Larry and Maureen Eisenberg
in memory of Devora Leah (Lillian) Grossman

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PARASHAT NOACH

 

WHO IS MIGHTY....? (AVOT 3:1)

 

by Rabbi Alex Israel

 

 

            This week, we will study a lesser known figure of the post-flood landscape.  This person is Nimrod.  We will study the short Torah passage which describes this interesting personality and we will examine the views of the classic commentators showing how they are radically split as to how to relate to him.

 

NIMROD IN THE MIDRASH

 

            Before we even turn to the text, we should be aware that in the midrashic-rabbinic tradition, Nimrod is truly one of the most frightening of characters.  According to the midrash, he is the epitome of evil.

 

            It was Nimrod who organized the Tower of Bavel with the aim of confronting God.  It was Nimrod who sought to dispose of the first believer, Avraham, by throwing him into the heat of an enormous furnace.  In later history, Nimrod's heir is the other 'hunter' - Esav (25:28).  According to the midrash, it was Esav who stalked and killed Nimrod, taking with him his magical hunting camouflage.  Esav and Nimrod.  A fearful combination.

 

            Nimrod, then, is a violent man and we might suggest that his name personifies his life's mission.  The name Nimrod is from the root MRD - mered - rebellion.  We may ask, how can a warlord and emperor rebel?  He is the king!  He has no-one against whom to rebel, he is in control!  Against whom can he rebel?

 

            The only 'thing' against which he can rebel is to resist and oppose that which could stand in his way.  That 'thing' is God.  Nimrod the rebel, rebels against the only power which can possibly oppose him.  He wages a war against God.  He makes God his enemy.

 

[Sources for midrashim: Nimrod and the Tower of Bavel: Avot de-Rabi Natan #24.  Nimrod and Avraham: Bereishit Rabba (BR) ch. 38.  Esav killing Nimrod: BR 65:16 and see also another version of the midrash: BR 63:32.]

 

            This is the midrashic tradition.  But is this impression justified?  Let us examine the verses ourselves and come to our own conclusions.

 

A HUNTER IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD

 

"Kush fathered Nimrod. He was the first man of might on earth. He was a mighty hunter before God; hence the saying 'Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.'  And the beginning of his kingdom was Bavel, Erekh, Akkad and Khalneh in the land of Shinar.  From that land emerged Ashur who built Nineveh and Rechovot-Ir and Kalach.  Resen was between Nineveh and Kalach.  This was the Great City." (Genesis 10:8-12)

 

            A casual reader of these few lines would not bat an eyelash at this description.  It all seems very normal, harmless, benign.  A mighty king, ruling over an expansive kingdom.  Where is the evil, the rebellion, the heresy?  Nimrod seems quite likable!

 

            In this text, the phrase which tells us of Nimrod's hunting "before God" opens the door to a very different reading from that of the midrash.  This reading, taking the text at face value, turns our midrashic impression of Nimrod on its head.  It is Ibn Ezra who translates this phrase as meaning "in the presence of God."  This translation radically affects the way we view Nimrod.

 

            Let us read the Ibn Ezra in his own words:

 

"Don't pay too much attention to a name (Nimrod - mered - rebellion) if its meaning is not expressly pointed out in the biblical text.  Nimrod was the first to show mankind's might over the animals for he was a 'mighty hunter.'  The phrase 'before God' tells us that Nimrod would build altars to God and sacrifice the animals that he caught to God.  This is the straightforward reading of the text (derekh ha-peshat); however, the midrash chooses a different reading."

 

            Suddenly, we picture Nimrod as a God-fearing king who controls wild animals who might have instilled fear into the population of Shinar.  Nimrod catches these beasts, dedicating the animals to God.  Here is a monarch leading his nation in the direction of God.  What image could be more positive; what could be more inspirational to a God-centered worldview than Ibn Ezra's vision of the Nimrodian Empire?

 

NIMROD - REBEL

 

            Rashi following the Rabbis of the midrash, disagrees with the Ibn Ezra.  He chooses to view Nimrod in a negative manner.  We will examine his perspective; however, in the light of Ibn Ezra's comments, he is going to have to justify himself.

 

            According to Rashi, Nimrod tries to sow the seeds of a rejection of God - a religious rebellion - throughout the world.  Nimrod is the instigator of the Tower of Bavel.  In addition he is:

 

"A MIGHTY HUNTER - He would snare people’s minds with his powerful rhetoric influencing them to rebel against God.  BEFORE GOD lit. in the face of God - He wanted to anger God in a direct confrontation.  HENCE THE SAYING 'LIKE NIMROD A MIGHTY HUNTER BEFORE THE LORD' - whenever we see an evil arrogant person who knows of God but freely chooses, brazenly, to reject His authority, we proclaim him to be 'like Nimrod - a mighty incitor in direct confrontation with the Lord.'"

 

            It is quite astounding to see Rashi and Ibn Ezra sitting side by side in the Chumash.  We could not have more contrasting readings of this verse nor could we imagine more diametrically opposed impressions of Nimrod as a person.

 

            The central phrase which is being read with very different meanings is the phrase: "Gibor tzayid lifnei Hashem" (in verse 9).  Rashi reads it as "the arch-persuader confronting God."  The Ibn Ezra reads it as "a mighty hunter in God's presence."

 

            Clearly they are coming from completely different angles.

 

UNDERSTANDING RASHI

 

            But does not RASHI read too much into the text?  It would seem that the Ibn Ezra is correct.  He has a more straightforward reading of the text.  Rashi comes over as being a little contrived.  Why does Rashi not take the verse at face value?

 

            Apparently, Rashi feels that these verses tell only half of the story.  The other half lies elsewhere.

 

THE TOWER OF BAVEL

 

"Everyone on earth had the same language and the same ideas.  As they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there.  They said to one another "Come let us make bricks, and burn them hard" - Brick served them as an artificial replacement for stone and bitumen served them as mortar.  And they said, "Come, let us build a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and let us make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered over all the world."  The Lord came down to look at the city and tower that man had built.  And the Lord said "If as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing they may propose to do will be out of their reach...  ...it was called Bavel because there the Lord confounded the speech of the whole earth and from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth." (11:1-9)

 

            Rashi tells us that the Tower of Bavel was Nimrod's masterpiece.  That episode is described in the very next chapter - chapter 11.  It is a cryptic story where more is hinted at by the text than is revealed explicitly.  But what emerges as clear from the story is that God is forced to intervene in worldly events to split up a powerful society before it leads itself to greater evil.  It could be that God had to intervene before things got out of hand and He would have had to pronounce an edict of total destruction.

 

            A vital detail is the geographical location of this happening.  It is Shinar (11:2), the very Shinar where Nimrod begins his rule.  It is also called Bavel (11:9) which is, once again, the place of Nimrod's beginnings.  A close reading leads us to think that this might all be one unit, a single story.  Let us look into the story of the Tower of Bavel.

 

            We are told that we have a very united society (11:1) who decides to use its technologically advanced construction skills to build a massive tower and a city (11:3-4).  The motif of the Tower of Bavel is "Let us make for ourselves a name" (11:4).  This is a society which wants to express and broadcast its invincibility and power.  Its ideology lies in the creativity and strength of mankind.  Bricks and power are the focus of this society.  It is a civilization which believes that man and man alone can secure himself from the elements.  God is eclipsed.  (Read R. Shimshon Rafael Hirsch for greater elaboration.)

 

            The idea of building a tower "with its top in the heavens" is not a primitive desire to reach God.  It is rather a deliberate expression of Man's supremacy.  Even today, the skyscraper (with "its top in the heavens") is an awe-inspiring monument to the advanced technological achievement of the human race and is designed to give precisely that impression.  He who sits on top of the tower looking down at the ant-like people at its base, looks down from the clouds, and those on the ground will view him as if in the heavens.

 

            If Nimrod is leading this enterprise, it is Nimrod who is setting himself up as the leader to sit on the top of the tower.  He is playing God.  As many leaders have done in the course of world history, he is seeing himself as God and therefore as a replacement for God.

 

            Rashi finds it difficult to follow Ibn Ezra's line that a man whose life is animal-hunting would also want to be the city builder that we see in the text.  Rashi prefers to see Nimrod as opposing God by setting himself up as king.  Nimrod rebels against God because he wants to see mankind as king of the universe, and since he, Nimrod, is the king of men, he is also the king of kings.

 

            Rashi's first connection is based on the geographical assumption that Nimrod's kingdom corresponds to the Tower of Bavel.  Once we assume that they are in fact the selfsame story, the leap to all his other conclusions is not so great.

 

PROBLEMS

 

            Of course, there are problems with Rashi's theory.  The most prominent fault is that these are two separate stories in the text.  In addition, the linkage of the two stories is problematic in that they really are very different.  The story of the Tower of Bavel talks of a society working together, no leaders are mentioned at all.  Nimrod's Bavel would seem to be a very different scene.

 

            The Ramban too, finds it difficult to accept both Rashi and the Ibn Ezra.  He rejects the Ibn Ezra because of his traditional leanings: "How can he be correct!?  He makes the rasha into a tzaddik!  Our sages know from the earliest tradition that Nimrod was evil."  The Ramban will not accept a positive view of Nimrod on principle.

 

            He rejects Rashi too.  Maybe he rejects the connection with the Tower of Bavel, for the reasons we have listed above.  In addition, the Ramban has problems with Rashi's understanding that Nimrod's sin was his opposition to God.  Our text indicates that Nimrod began something new.  But people had opposed God previously (Enosh 4:26).  The Torah cannot claim that he began a new trend if there was someone before him.

 

VIOLENCE AND SUBJUGATION

 

            Instead the Ramban adopts a new approach:

 

"In my opinion, he was the first to begin ruling over others through sheer might and brute force.  He was the first monarch.  Up until this point, there had been no wars and no king ruled until Nimrod used his strength to become king over Bavel.  He then set out on a conquest of Ashur and expanded his empire building fortified cities in his might and power."

 

            The Radak expresses this in a more forceful way: "He began to show his might, to conquer one or more nations, becoming king over them.  For till he arose, no man had aspired to rule over a people.  This is the force of the words "in the land" (v.8).  The text records the boundaries of his kingdom and the cities he conquered, since, until he arose there was no king, and each nation simply had its own judges and leaders."

 

            In that case Nimrod is the first conqueror.  The first human being to see himself as master of nations and conqueror of lands.  The first person to vanquish, oppress and capture.

 

PUTTING NIMROD INTO CONTEXT

 

            The context of our parasha is the creation of the kaleidoscope of peoples.  Chapter 10 sees the description of the development of a world of seventy nations:

 

"These are the groupings of Noach's descendants, according to their origins, by their nations; and from these the nations branched out over the entire earth after the Flood." (10:32)

 

            Umberto Cassutto, (1883-1951 Italian Bible scholar who made aliya and became a professor at Hebrew University, wrote the book "From Noah to Abraham" from which this is taken), points out that the entire chapter 10 does not simply intend to teach us genealogy.  We don't need the Torah to tell us that sort of data.  Rather, it aims to show us that:

 

"The new race of mankind that emerged after the Flood was a unity....  It sprang wholly from one couple and all the peoples were brothers to each other.  This outlook serves as the foundation for the prophetic latter day messages that "no nation shall lift up sword against nation and neither learn the arts of war any more."

 

            Against this harmonious backdrop of a world, growing in all its diversity of language and geographical location, we are told about a regime.  One man establishes a kingdom which begins in one place but later expands.  It begins in Bavel but very soon stretches to wider regions.  How is this great empire built?  It is built by "the first man of might on earth... a mighty hunter."  Why would he have to be a hunter, a man of might, if his aim is peace and promotion of harmony between people.  It looks very innocent on the outside but is this merely a false impression?  Read between the lines!

 

WHO IS MIGHTY?

 

            Nimrod may be the embodiment of evil precisely because of this point.  He was the first person to use force in such a grandiose way; in the direction of subjugating and conquering entire cities, whole nations.  This sin has a human dimension AND a Godly dimension.

 

            In human terms, oppression of others, controlling their destiny, is an affront to the basic state of man as a free being.  Man is born to be in control of his own life.  Capture and enslavement is taking that which is not yours, and it is the taking of the commodity most dear to us: our freedom.  Which human being dares to restrict the freedom of his fellow man?

 

            But we cannot ignore the Godly dimension.  By setting himself up as a controller of men, Nimrod puts himself in the place of God.  Men are not supposed to live in servitude to a man.  They are meant to serve God (see Vayikra 25:55 and Rashi there).  Which human being sees himself so godly that he may lord over other men?

 

            In our Jewish tradition, human might is expressed inwardly.  The true mighty man is a person who is in control of himself and his passions, not a controller of others.

 

"Who is mighty ? - He who controls his desires" (Mishna Avot 3:1)