A biblical story retold

The relic, which is currently on display, is part of the Genesis Apocryphon, which contains a description, in Aramaic, of the lives of Noah, Abraham, Enoch and Lamech.

The Samson family just after making aliya in 1996The Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition has attracted millions of visitors over the past half century (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Samson family just after making aliya in 1996The Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition has attracted millions of visitors over the past half century
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In case you hadn’t noticed – perhaps you are a recent arrival to these shores, or are simply a little naive – whether you like it or not, everything, yes everything, in this country has a political tint to it.
That is definitely the case when it comes to anything of a religious nature. That counts doubly when the subject matter in question happens to be a 2,000-year-old piece of leather that forms part of the world-renowned Dead Sea Scrolls housed at the Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book.
The relic, which is currently on display, is part of the Genesis Apocryphon, which contains a description, in Aramaic, of the lives of Noah, Abraham, Enoch and Lamech. Intriguingly, the text is written in the first person, as though the aforementioned folk from Genesis had jotted down their own memoirs, which were left in a jar, in a cave near Qumran, to be eventually discovered by a couple of Beduin shepherds in 1947.
The worse-for-the-weather fragment in the current “Genesis Retold – An Exceptional Dead Sea Scroll” exhibition, which will be on display only until June 15, before returning to the museum vaults, relates some of the events that took place after Noah’s ark settled on a peak of Mount Ararat, in modern-day Turkey. It tells how Noah offered up sacrifices and, in so doing, “atoned for all the earth in its entirety.”
EXHIBITION CO-CURATOR Dr. Adolfo Roitman – he shares the role with Hagit Maoz – believes the diminutive exhibit’s importance far exceeds its size.
Roitman, who is an ordained Conservative rabbi and has authored several tomes about the Dead Sea Scrolls, feels we should take a more empathetic and inclusive line on Judaism and, as a consequence, on Israeli society in general.
“My contribution as a curator, either through research work, exhibitions or teaching, is to expose the material, and cultural and religious diversity, and the range of options that the Jewish people created through the generations,” he posits. “That can help us, today in contemporary Israel, to appreciate that our reality is just another glorious chapter of this variegated history.”
I suggest that there is nothing new in that multichannel ethos. After all, the Talmud itself is just one debate after another, with all manner of learned rabbis proffering different takes on the Torah.
“That’s true but, even if there are arguments between scholars, that’s still something that takes place within a certain [religious] paradigm,” Roitman observes.
“But I am saying that, beyond that, there are other debates which, in practice, contradict the rabbis but are still within the wider domain of the Jewish world. That’s why I say that this little exhibition offers a different approach to the story of Noah as we have seen it thus far.”
Then again, the curator says there is nothing new in taking a parallel view of biblical events. “This is a tradition with which we are familiar from the Sages [of the Mishna and Talmud].”
The exhibit provides corporeal evidence of the time-honored custom. “If you take column 10 of the scroll and compare it with the corresponding text [in the Bible], which is Chapter 8 of Genesis, you see that not only are there details which have changed, he [the author of the scroll] adds details which don’t feature in the original.”
Roitman cites a poignant example. “According to the order of events in the Torah, after the ark landed on one of the hills of Ararat, God commanded Noah to leave the ark. He goes out, builds an altar and offers up sacrifices from the clean animals and fowl.
But according to the order of events in the extract I am showing at the museum, Noah offers up the sacrifices before he leaves the ark. In the scroll, he makes the sacrifices in column 10, but he only leaves the ark in column 11.”
There’s more to the alternative take. “The significance of the sacrifices [Noah makes] is that they are sacrifices of thanks, to God, that Noah and his family have been saved,” Roitman continues. “In the scroll – it is written in the first person, not in the third person like in the Torah – Noah says, in fact, that the sacrifice is an atonement. He says to himself, I’ve atoned for the whole world. That is completely different from a sacrifice of gratitude.”
The scroll plot thickens. Roitman also notes the added information about the sacrificial process, in the Dead Sea parchment, which does not appear in the Genesis storyline.
“There is a long list [in the scroll], around four or five lines, with details about the sacrifices, which are not at all connected with what we see in Genesis, but they are connected to the tradition of sacrifices with which we are familiar from the Book of Leviticus. For example, he [Noah] adds salt to the sacrifices. We know that happens. That is an instruction in the Torah. But there is no mention of that in Genesis.”
SO, IS the scroll writer leaning heavily on the fanciful side? Is this more a work of fiction? As jazz musicians, for instance, are wont to do, did the author just use the better-known biblical passage as a base on which to extemporize? Roitman likens the scroll rendition to something along the lines of the work of a playwright rendering historical events in an entertaining and theatrical format. “He takes a particular view of the character of Noah. He sees him as a kohen [priest]. And, as a kohen, he can offer up an atonement sacrifice, he can make blessings and can make sacrifices in the manner in which they are portrayed in Leviticus.”
That still sounds an awful lot like a playwright’s creative line of storytelling, I reiterate. Roitman comes back at me with a surprising observation.
“The whole of the story of Noah is imaginary,” he states.
“I am not setting the historical figure opposite the fictional one.” The biblical account of the Flood, which is said to have encompassed the whole of terra firma, is not necessarily meant to be taken literally, Roitman says.
“The flood is connected to various traditions which date back to ancient times. Noah is basically just an Israelite version of a traditional story which we know about from Mesopotamian cultures.”
Roitman cites, for example, the tale of Ziusudra, the last king of Sumer from the 17th century BCE, who, like Noah, was forewarned by a deity to construct a large boat as a deluge is on its way.
“Our Noah is just a later version of characters we know about from earlier times,” the curator continues. “So we should really be asking whether all the stories about a flood have their roots in a real catastrophic event. That almost definitely didn’t happen in Israel, because we hardly have any water here, but in Mesopotamia. The answer is that there probably was a flood, although not a deluge which destroyed the whole world. But, in the collective memory of those days, that was portrayed as something close to a cosmic event.”
At the end of the day, myth or actual history, Roitman feels we have much to learn from the scrap of leather from the desert cave. “You can extract from it very important information for the study of literature and Jewish society of 2,000 years ago.”
By the way, if you are planning to get yourself over to the Shrine of the Book to get an eyeful of the tattered scroll, you should be ready to grab the chance while it lasts, and not just because the exhibit will vanish from the public eye two months from now, with no date set for a possible reappearance.
In the interest of protecting the delicate scroll fragment from the elements, it is preserved in the tailor-made “smart glass” show cabinet. When you press a button, the opaque white glass becomes transparent for 30 seconds, offering a brief view of the treasure, before the glass clouds over again.
Naturally, Roitman believes the museum patrons will be suitably impressed with the exhibition, as long as they relate more to the content of the scroll rather than to its basic aesthetics.
“It is not exactly a painting by Caravaggio,” he chuckles, referencing the feted Italian Baroque artist. “The parameters are different here.”
For more information: www.imj.org.il