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Reading Midrash -
Lesson 18

Between Prophets and Prophets

Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

Vayikra Rabba 1:13 is an extended meditation on the difference between Jewish and Gentile prophets. The passage opens:


What difference is there between the prophets of Israel and the prophets of the nations of the world?


This discussion does not arise in a vacuum. The question of the relationship between the Gentiles and the institution of prophecy has been raised in previous passages discussing the significance of the divine revelation in the Mishkan at the beginning of Vayikra. Thus far, the Midrash has raised two possible approaches regarding prophecy and the nations of the world. The first is that Gentiles have no connection to prophecy whatsoever, as they are constitutionally incapable of receiving the divine word.  Indeed, one of the purposes of the Mishkan is to insulate the nations of the world from God’s voice. The second midrashic possibility is that indeed there were Gentile prophets, but they ceased to function with the erection of the Mishkan and the establishment of a truly exclusive relationship between Israel and the Divine Word. The only exception to this is Bil’am, whose prophecies are for the sake of Israel.


Both of these interpretations seek to severely limit, if not eliminate, the institution of Gentile prophecy. Our current passage, by and large, takes a more moderate tack. It takes for granted the existence of non-Jewish prophets. However, the Midrash argues that Gentile prophecy is inherently inferior to Jewish prophecy. This inferiority is a result of the fact that Gentiles in general are not as close to God as are the Jews.


Our passage opens with a dispute between two rabbis:


R. Chama b. Chanina and R. Yissakhar of Kefar Mandi [both gave explanations].


R. Chama b. Chanina said: The Holy One, blessed be He, reveals Himself to the nations of the world by an incomplete form of address,

even as it is said, “And the Lord called (va-yikar) to Bil’am” (Numbers 23:16),

whereas to the prophets of Israel He reveals Himself in a complete form of address,

as it is said: AND THE LORD CALLED (va-yikra) TO MOSES.


The discussion in the midrash centers around the word “va-yikar” in the story of Bil’am. In the verse “va-yikar Hashem el Bil’am" (And the Lord called to Bil’am), the term “va-yikar” is most unusual. JPS translates it as “manifest." R. Chama b. Chanina, however, understands this term as being a shortened form of “va-yikra." This allows for a neat opposition between Bil’am, the archetypal Gentile prophet and Moshe, the archetypal Jewish prophet. God calls Bil’am using the word “va-yikar” and He calls Moshe using the word “va-yikra."  For R. Chama, the fact that the Torah uses the incomplete form with regard to Bil’am suggests that there was something lacking in Bil’am’s prophecy. Nevertheless, there can be no question that Bil’am was a full-fledged prophet who received real prophecy, even if it was of an inferior nature.


In contrast, R. Yissakhar of Kefar Mandi cannot accept the idea that there is any commonality between Bil’am and Moshe and between Gentile and Jewish prophecy:


R. Issachar of Kefar Mandi said: Shall such be their reward?

[No], 'va-yikar' is an expression denoting uncleanness,

 as it is said, “That is not clean, by that which chances (mikreh) by night” (Deut. 22:11),

but [with regard to divine speech to] the prophets of Israel, the expression used is one of holiness, an expression of purity, a clear expression, an expression used by the ministering angels in praising the Holy One, blessed be He,

even as you say, “And one called (kara) to another and said: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” (Isa. 6:3).


According to R. Yissakhar there is no connection between the va-yikar of Bil’am and the va-yikra of Moshe. So too, there is almost nothing in common between Israelite and Gentile prophecy. Bil’am’s va-yikar does not come from the root meaning “to call” but from the phrase “mikreh layla” or “keri” which refers to a seminal emission.  In R. Yissakhar’s opinion, Gentile prophecy is a disgusting and negligible thing. It cannot be compared to Jewish prophecy which is expressed using the most exalted, pure and, indeed, angelic of language. Moshe’s va-yikra should not be compared to Bil’am’s va-yikar but rather to the “ve-kara zeh el zeh” of the angels.


R. Yissakhar’s position falls just short of denying outright the existence of Gentile prophets. In this sense, it is radical by the standards of this passage, which tends to assume that Gentiles do receive real prophecy, even if it is of inferior quality.  Nevertheless, R. Yissakhar’s position does advance our passage’s thematic development in an important way.  In citing the phrase mikreh layla, “chance in the night," R. Yissakhar introduces the notion that Gentile prophecy is connected to the nighttime. This motif will gain increasing significance as the passage continues.


The midrash now suggests another distinction between Gentile and Jewish prophecy:


Said R. Il'ai b. Menachem:

It is written, “The Lord is far from the wicked” (Prov. 25:29),

and it is [further] written, “But He hears the prayer of the righteous."

“The Lord is far from the wicked” alludes to the prophets of the nations of the world,

whereas the “righteous” are the prophets of Israel.

You find that the Holy One, blessed be He, appears to the nations of the world only as one who comes from a distant land, even as it is said, “They came from a far country “(Isa. 39: 3);

but to the prophets of Israel He either appeared or called directly.


This section is an extended interpretation of the verse from Proverbs, “The Lord is far from the wicked but He hears the prayer of the righteous.”  This verse does not discuss Jews and Gentiles. It talks about the “righteous” and the “wicked."  These are categories that transcend national boundaries. There are both righteous and wicked among the Jews and among the Gentiles. Yet the midrash abandons Proverbs’ universalism, and insists that the term “righteous” here actually refers to the Jews and “wicked” refers to the Gentiles. This reflects a nationalist agenda in our midrash. Throughout Tanakh and Chazal, there is a constant tension between universalistic and particularistic approaches. On the one hand, we have sources that suggest that all humans have potential for good and evil, regardless of their lineage. On the other hand, there are sources that suggest that Jews are inherently good and that Gentiles are inherently evil. Here the midrash transforms a universalistic source from the Bible into a prooftext for a particularistic claim.


The midrash transforms this verse in another way was well. According to the peshat, the verse clearly is not referring to prophecy but, rather, to prayer. In using a verse about prayer to talk about prophecy, the midrash establishes a link between these two institutions. They are, after all, mirror images of each other. Through prayer we speak to God; through prophecy, God speaks to us.


In sum, according to R. Ilai, the verse from Proverbs teaches us that God is “far” from the Gentile prophets, but “close” to the Jewish prophets. In what sense is God “far” from the Gentile prophets and “close” to Jewish prophets? R. Ilai compares prophecy to receiving a message from an individual. The Gentile prophets receive the message as if it were transmitted from a far away land, just as Chizkiya received messengers from the king of Babylon in the verse cited from Isaiah. While the Gentile prophets do receive a message, there is no connection with the Sender. Jewish prophets, in contrast, hear the word of God directly from Him. They not only receive the message from God, they have a direct relationship with Him.


The midrash now presents its final distinction between Gentile and Jewish prophets:


R. Yose said:

The Holy One, blessed be He, appears to the nations of the world only at night, at a time when men are separated one from another,

as it is written, “When men are alone, from the visions of the night, when deep sleep falls on men” (Job 4:13),

“And now a word was secretly brought to me, etc.” (ib. 12).


The midrash declares that God only appears to Gentile prophets in the nighttime. In and of itself, such a statement is not necessarily a negative assessment of the nature of non-Jewish prophecy. However, the midrash is clear about the pejorative nature of this claim. Night is not a time for normal human relations.  At night people stay at home and do not interact with one another. Similarly, a prophet’s relationship with God is somehow limited or impaired if it takes place at night. Once again, the midrash argues that Gentile prophets lack a direct relationship with God.


This point is illustrated by the verses cited from Job. In these lines, Eliphaz, a Gentile, tells of how he received a prophecy at night.  In the verses that follow, Eliphaz emphasizes the fear and loneliness of nighttime. The night is not simply the chronological moment of the revelation; it characterizes the very nature of the prophecy as a dark and terrifying experience.


The midrash now presents a pair a meshalim which illustrate the difference between the direct relationship with God enjoyed by Jewish prophets and the indirect relationship that non-Jewish prophets have with God.  The first mashal comes down to us in two different versions: a shorter version found in the manuscripts and a longer version found in the standard printed editions. The manuscripts read as follows:


R. Chanina b. Papa and the Rabbis [each gave a parable].

R. Chanina b. Papa said:

This may be compared to a king who was together with his friend in a hall, with a curtain between them.

When he conversed with his friend, he folded the curtain and spoke with him.


The basic gist of this mashal is clear. There is a barrier which separates most people, including Gentile prophets, from God.  God removes this barrier when he speaks to His Jewish prophets. This image complements the previous descriptions of Gentiles receiving prophecy as if from a great distance or only under cover of night. In all of these cases Gentiles lack direct connection to God.


There are, however, two subtle complications. First, unlike the previous discussions, the main focus of this mashal is on the special nature of Jewish prophecy. The Gentiles are not even mentioned directly. The second is the fact that the exact nature of the symbolism of the curtain remains unclear.


I believe that the significance of these issues becomes clear when we examine the longer version of the mashal as it appears in the printed editions:


R. Chanina b. Papa said:

This may be compared to a king who was together with his friend in a hall, with a curtain between them.

When he conversed with his friend, he folded the curtain so that he saw him face to face;

but with others he did not do so, but conversed with them while the separating curtain was drawn across, and they were unable to see him.


As is often the case, the version found in the printed editions is more developed and fleshed out than the one found in manuscripts. Here, the comparison between Gentile and Jewish prophets is made clear.  However, the most striking aspect of the passage is the fact that it emphasizes that the king sees his friend “face to face." This phrase inevitably recalls the Torah’s description of Moshe, and only Moshe, speaking to God “face to face."


On the strength of this usage I would like to suggest that the parable before us originally illustrated the special nature of Moshe’s prophecy and not the difference between Gentile and Jewish prophecy. This is the simplest explanation of the image of the folded back curtain and the curious term “face to face." This is why the manuscript emphasizes only the king’s friend and not the other people. This is why the printed editions emphasize the fact that the king speaks “face to face” with his friend. The editors of our midrash appropriated this mashal and applied it to another question. The Midrash thus brings together the two main concerns of the end of the first parasha of Vayikra Rabba - the difference between Moshe and other prophets and the difference between Jewish and Gentile prophets.


The next mashal returns to the image of Gentiles receiving prophecy only at night:


The Rabbis said:

This may be compared to a king who has a wife and a concubine;

when he goes to his wife he goes openly,

but when he goes to his concubine he goes secretly.

So, too, does the Holy One, blessed be He, appear to the nations of the world only at night.


This mashal illustrates these issues in explicitly sexual terms. The Jewish and Gentile prophets are compared to two women competing for the attention of the same man. This recalls the interpretations of the verse from Song of Songs discussed in the previous lecture. There, too, the prophetic relationship is described as if it were a sexual relationship. However, in that case it was an exclusive relationship. The verse there is cited to demonstrate that there are no Gentile prophets. Their existence would undermine the special relationship between God and Israel.


This mashal portrays a more ambiguous world in which the King does indeed have relationships with multiple women. The existence of Gentile prophets is taken for granted.  However, the mashal insists that there is a qualitative difference between the two relationships. Only the relationship with the wife can be carried out in broad daylight. The relationship with the concubine must be kept secret. The implication is that there is something unsavory, if not illicit, about the King’s relationship with his concubine. This would appear to be an implicit critique of God for allowing Gentile prophets.


The midrash sums up this mashal, and the entire passage, with a series of verses:


as it is said,

“But God came to Avimelekh in a dream of the night” (Gen. 20:3),

“And God came to Lavan the Aramean in a dream of the night” (ib. 22: 24),

“And God came to Bil’am at night” (Num. 22:20).

To the prophets of Israel, however, [He appeared] by day,

as it is said,

“And the Lord appeared unto Avraham... as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day” (Gen. 23:1),

“And it came to pass on the day when the Lord spoke to Moses” (Ex. 6:28),

“Now these are the generations of Aharon and Moses

in the day that the Lord spoke with Moses in Mount Sinai” (Num. 3:1).


The midrash now establishes that the above discussion of Jewish versus Gentile prophecy is not simply an abstract theological discussion but is rooted in a careful reading of the biblical text. The Torah consistently refers to Gentiles receiving prophecy at night and to Jews receiving prophecy in the daytime. 


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