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Why the Key Biblical Text in the Haggadah is an Alleged Attempt to Kill Jacob

, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב.
‘A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.

The Haggadah identifies the wandering Aramean, Jacob, contrasting his father-in-law Laban unfavorably with Pharaoh, midrashically mistranslating  אֹבֵד אָבִי as “wanted to destroy my father”, implying that the verse is recording that Laban tried to kill Jacob—midrashically of course.

Here is a new explanation for this midrashic misidentification.

Exodus 18:11 states that Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, explains why God punished the Egyptians in events that led to the exodus of the Israelites and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the Reed Sea, by stating

שׁמות יח:יא עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי גָדוֹל יְ־הוָה מִכָּל הָאֱלֹהִים כִּי בַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר זָדוּ עֲלֵיהֶם. Exod 18:11 Now I know that YHWH is greater than all gods, for by the result of the way they (the Egyptians) schemed against them.

Ishay Rosen-Zvi, a professor of Jewish Philosophy at Tel-Aviv University, explains that Jethro attributes the defeat of Pharaoh to the principle of  מידה כנגד מידה “measure for measure,” pointing out that this interpretation of Exod.18:11 was published as early as the Septuagint. Among many catastrophes that befell Pharaoh, this interpretation implies that the reason his army was drowned in the Reed Sea, a catastrophe hyperbolically described in the Haggadah by three rabbis, Yossi Hagelili, Eliezer and Aqiba, was many times greater than the Ten Plagues; it is that it was measure-for-measure retribution for his fortunately unfulfilled command to drown all baby boys born to the Israelites.

I suggest that this interpretation of Exod. 18:11 alludes obliquely to the midrashic interpretation of Deut. 26:5 that is mentioned in the Haggadah, implying that the Jethro story links God’s measure-for-measure punishment of Pharaoh with Laban’s measure-for-measure punishment of Jacob for compelling his totally famished older twin brother, Esau, to barter his birthright for ּנְזִיד עֲדָשִׁים—-translated in the King James Version of Genesis  as “pottage of lentils.”  Gen. 25:34 states:

לד  וְיַעֲקֹב נָתַן לְעֵשָׂו, לֶחֶם וּנְזִיד עֲדָשִׁים, וַיֹּאכַל וַיֵּשְׁתְּ, וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלַךְ; וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו, אֶת-הַבְּכֹרָה.  {פ}        34 And Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way. So Esau despised his birthright. {P}

The word ּנְזִיד, pottage, resonates with זָדוּ, schemed, in Exod. 18:11. It is as if the נְזִיד עֲדָשִׁים, pottage of lentils, was the quid pro quo in the scheme that enabled Jacob to deprive Esau of his birthright, and led to the measure-for-measure punishment that Laban tried to inflict on him.

This new explanation of Exod. 18:11, linking it to the midrashically-alleged attempt of Laban to kill Jacob, is one that Moses perhaps never understood before he was taught by Jethro, a gentile priest who was an outsider and unrelated to Moses except by marriage, and who was therefore able to understand the problems of both Jacob and Pharaoh. Indeed, he understood the problems of the outsider Israelites better than they themselves may have done, being a gentile. It is as if the KJV “pottage of lentils” could only be properly comprehended by Jethro, a priest of the gentiles.

About the Author
Gershon Hepner is a poet who has written over 25,000 poems on subjects ranging from music to literature, politics to Torah. He grew up in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1976. Using his varied interests and experiences, he has authored dozens of papers in medical and academic journals, and authored "Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel." He can be reached at gershonhepner@gmail.com.
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