“Abraham and Alchemy”
Genesis: 12.1 – 17.27
In part one, we discussed that, even in modern times, the earth is considered to be a school and in universities a commonly heard question is: “What is your field of study?” Accordingly, since we also discussed the connection between seeds, fruit and knowledge, we concluded that Abram had been “transferred” from the Babylonian School of Knowledge to the Canaanite/Hittite School. What we see in this week’s Torah portion is that God informs Abram that his descendants shall be slaves in Egypt for four hundred years, which suggests that the descendants of Abraham must obtain even more information from the Egyptian culture than Abram was able to obtain during his brief sojourn there with Sarai and Lot.
Another important theme we discussed in part one was the metaphorical connection between sex and prayer. If a man represents a priest and a woman his spiritual medium to God, then a baby, particularly a first born son, would represent an answer from God. Thus we mentioned in previous articles the connection between first fruits of the field, first born sons and the word of God which is suggested with the celebration of the holy day of Shavout. Accordingly, the statement by God: “I called my son out of Egypt” is a metaphorical reference meaning that parts of the belief systems of the Hebrews were based on the belief systems of the Egyptians. This would then explain why there are so many parallels between the two religions and, later on, between the religion of the Egyptians and Christianity. Hence, the commonalities found in the beliefs of the Babylonians, Egyptians and the Judaic/Christian religions does not “prove” that all religion is nonsense and a bunch of lies, but rather that all three groups, as well as many others, had all recognized certain spiritual truths which were represented in a commonly accepted , international language of metaphors.
In Lech Lecha the number four is quite significant because in one place we are told Abram’s descendants will be in Egypt for four hundred years and in a second reference we are told they will be there for four generations.
Basically, we have several references to the number four: 1) Judah is the fourth son of Leah and we are told that his name means to praise God. 2) In the story about the burial of Sarah we are told that Kiryat Arba, which is Hebrew for fourth city, is nearby the city of Hebron which in English means: alliance. 3) In the same story about Sarah’s burial, we are told that Abraham (his new name) purchases a field and a cave for her final resting place and pays four hundred shekels in silver for this land. 4) In the story of Noah we saw that it rained for forty days and forty nights and then, later on, we shall see that the Israelites will be forced to wander in the desert for forty years. 5) When Esau comes to meet his brother Jacob and invite him to live in the new lands where he has settled, he brings with him four hundred men. 6) When David attacks the Amalikites in order to recapture his goods and people, four hundred Amalikites escape on camels.
Briefly then, it is my conclusion from all these references is that the number four has to do with worshiping God as well as combining religious beliefs with other peoples by eliminating or washing away previous ideas. We have already discussed that a field represents a school. In the commentary Chayai Sarah we shall discuss in more depth how the burial of Sarah represents the giving up of certain previously held beliefs, represented by Sarah herself, and the adoption of certain Hittite beliefs, represented by the name Hebron/alliance and the purchase of the field/school. Thus, even in modern times, the verb “to buy” is associated with the acceptance or rejection of new ideas (For example: When rejecting someone’s version of past events we might say: “I don’t buy it”).
In a previous article we spoke about the number ten being associated with the name Asher (the second son of the maid servant of Jacob’s first wife) whose name means happiness and the number ten. We also noted that the number ten is associated with the Ten Commandments and the ten plagues, which in Hebrew are called hits. Thus we might conclude: happy is the person who can distinguish between good and evil.
As we shall shortly see, also in a future Torah portion, Abraham will be one hundred years old when Isaac is born and we are told several times in this narrative that this birth should be associated with happiness and laughter. Although many rabbinical scholars believe that laughter in the Torah is a metaphor for sex, it is my personal opinion that laughter is a metaphor for receiving inspirational messages from God. The reason I believe this is that later we shall see that Sarah was furious with Ishmael, the son of her maid servant and Abram, because he was laughing with Isaac. If we are talking about a sexual act, this suggests that Ishmael and Isaac were in engaged in some sort of homosexual activity. Sarah’s comment on the matter was that Ishmael, the son of a slave, would not share the inheritance of Isaac and, as a result, she expelled him from the camp.
In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses will say that the teachings of God are the inheritance of the Children of Israel. Since Sarah has clearly linked the laughing together with Isaac’s inheritance, what this then suggests to me is that Isaac and Ishmael were “playing” at being priests or that they might have actually been performing a religious ritual. Sarah wanted Isaac to be recognized as the sole voice of the descendants of Abraham, thus this role playing by the two boys was a clear portent of the potential dangers and future rivalries. Using these short explanations as our base, we can then turn to the dream of Abraham and the prophecy that his descendants will be slaves in Egypt for four hundred years or four generations (Later, we shall also discuss the concept of doubt and how this is related to both laughter and the expulsion of Ishmael)
The most crucial aspect to my interpretation of Abram’s dream is that in Hebrew the word for earth and land is the same and even in modern times we still say “the earth is a school”. The second most important element is that the names in Hebrew given to various peoples in the Old Testament are not always the names these people used to describe themselves. So, while the Old Testament does refer to Egypt as “The Black Land”, generally speaking it is pronounced: Mitz-rim in Hebrew. The Egyptians, however, called their land “Chem” and this indeed does mean “The Black Land”. Thus, the Greek name “Alchemy” can best be translated as “Arts of the Black Land” or “The Black Arts”. What must be understood here, however, is that black is not necessarily a reference to evil. Originally, the term black was a reference to the black soil of Egypt which was black and fertile after the annual flooding of the Nile. It has been suggested by some nutritionists that one of the reasons Alexander the Great entered Egypt was to secure its wheat harvest, because it was generally understood in ancient times that the wheat of Egypt had a higher mineral content and thus was vital to the health and energy levels of his soldiers.
Regardless, on You Tube there are many videos about alchemy and the one I found to be the best over-all summary of the subject is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3eancQx5pI
For our purposes here, however, I would just like to focus on two aspects of alchemy which, I believe, are relevant to Lech Lecha. The first is the idea that in order to obtain a higher understanding of the teachings of the Egyptians one must first purge away all previous beliefs. Later, in the Old Testament, God will describe Egypt as a fiery furnace and we have already touched upon the connection between the number forty and cleansing away unwanted beliefs. The second idea is that after this purging of beliefs one is then capable of experiencing what the Greek’s described as “The Eureka Moment”. This is a reference to Archimedes who, during a flash of inspiration while taking a bath, discovered the principle of using water displacement to verify the density of golden object cast into an irregular shape. Upon realizing the solution, tradition says he ran naked thru the streets of the city screaming “eureka, eureka”, which means “I found it”.
It is my humble opinion that this “eureka moment” is the desired objective of resting on the Sabbath (hence Archimedes achieved his break through moment while resting in a hot bath). Interestingly, Leo Szilard, the man most responsible for developing the process that produced the nuclear bomb and who probably was the true author of the famous letter sent to President Roosevelt by Einstein, also made his discovery while relaxing in a hot bath.
Up until now we have discussed the theme of fruit, children and knowledge, as well as the theme of land, plowing a field, and planting vineyards. According, “workers” are students and “slaves” as we discussed in the story of Ham, is a metaphor for people who are forced to study a subject through compulsion, which is similar to the Communist indoctrination forced upon Eastern Europe after the Second World War. If this logic is sound, then the wages paid to a worker represents the lessons or teachings he received in the school represented by the field or the vineyard. Therefore, the four hundred pieces of silver which Abraham paid for the burial field and cave of Sarah represents “an entrance examination” into the religious schools of the Hittites. One thing that is absolutely essential to understand about the Hittites is that the names of the few individuals we are told about all have something to do with light, the universal symbol for understanding. Thus the Hittites explained the philosophy of their religious schools and Abraham “bought into it” and merged their ideas with some of the teachings he brought with him from Babylonians/Chaldees. So, as we mentioned, the story takes place in the city of Hebron which means “alliance”.
In conclusion then, the four hundred years of slavery represents learning the Egyptian concept of “purging the soul of impurities” and this is why God describes the experience as “being impoverished” which is the exact same term used to describe what must be done on the holiest of Jewish days: Yom Kippur and which has so inaccurately been translated into English as: “fasting”. Since we have already discussed the meaning of Yom Kippur in a previous article, there is no need to repeat the material here, but, as also discussed, the main theme of the Torah is the teachings of men versus the teachings of God. As the six days of work clearly indicate, it is absolutely essential that men study in religious schools and obtain knowledge about God, but, as the Sabbath shows and the concept of purging away previous knowledge demonstrates, man must acknowledge the limits of teaching himself and turn to inspirational “eureka moments” sent by God if he ever hopes to obtain true understanding and wisdom…..
Dror Ben Ami is the author of the book: THE MISUNDERSTANDING: An Introduction to Metaphors, Images and Symbols Found in the Old and New Testaments.