There are some chapters which invite interpretation, and some which practically scream for it. Chapter 15 is definitely one of the latter. As if desperate to break up the tediousness of lists of cities, a piece of narrative is inserted whose proper place, according to Rashi, is after Yehoshua’s death, in the book of Shoftim, where you will find this episode repeated verbatim. The story itself is bizarre and seemingly rather pointless. Inexplicably, Kalev, who was able to vanquish 3 giants, needs to enlist outside help to conquer Kiryat Sefer, aka Dvir, aka Kiryat Sana (see verse 49). As incentive, he offers the hand of his daughter Achsa in marriage. Otniel ben Knaz, referred to as Kalev’s brother, though they are the sons of different men (Knaz and Yefuneh), takes him up on the offer. When this deal is done, Achsa is said to “entice” Otniel to ask her father for a field, but then, after plunging off her donkey, she herself makes the request for ‘gulot’ of water (translated as ‘springs’). In response, he gives her both upper and lower ‘gulot‘.
Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction, and sometimes, pshat, the plain meaning of the text, is less plausible than drash, a homiletical reading. It seems almost inevitable that in any attempt at unraveling the mystery of these verses, the questions will be better than the answers. Perhaps, then, what these strange verses call for is an even stranger interpretation, and this is what rabbinic midrash offers us. According to the Talmud, Kalev is not seeking a warrior, but a scholar; he is not seeking conquest of territory, but of the ‘city of the book’, the recovery of the laws forgotten during the mourning period for Moshe’s death, which Otniel accomplishes by the strength of his logic. Thus, this curious episode, which raises difficult questions about authorship and redaction in the books of Yehoshua and Shoftim, comes to stand for a black hole of confusion left in the wake of Moshe’s death, and with him, the death of direct communication with the Divine, on the one hand. On the other hand, it also represents the capacity to reconstruct what was lost through human creativity and logic.
But the last word in the story belongs to Achsa, and here the rabbis’ subtle, brilliant sense of humor and irony shines through. They transform Achsa’s complaint about her land to a complaint about the husband to whom she was awarded. He may be a great scholar, but he’s dry! He has only Torah, and no way to sustain the family. If you’re going to promise me to someone without consulting me, at least it should be someone who can provide for me! For the rabbis, true heroism is displayed in the house of study and not on the battlefield. But, they admit– it doesn’t pay the bills.
This blog offers short reflections on the daily chapter of Tanach studied by the 929 project. Learn more at 929.org.il