A Biblical Treasure Hunt Part 7

June 1, 2010 by  


(From “A Biblical Treasure Hunt, by Philip Mandelker)

(d) Biblical Parallelism. The common Biblical literary form parallelism, may provide additional support for the conclusion that the reference to SHEMEN in the Song of Praise may well be to “rock” oil and not olive oil. The verse reads “suck honey out of the rock and oil [SHEMEN] out of the flinty rock.” Most of the medieval European exegetes of the Sephardic (Spanish) and Ashkenazic (Rhine Valley) traditions, including for example, Rashi (Rabbi Solomon bar Isaac) (11th century), Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century) and the Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel) (13th Century), understand the reference to “honey” and “oil” metaphorically as reference to date palms and olive trees both of which grow in abundance in the rocky Land of Israel.

This agriculturally based interpretation of the rabbinical scholars living in rich agricultural areas of Europe is understandable (Rashi owned vineyards and was a grower of grapes in the Champagne region of France); but is it appropriate? The question arises in light of the phrase introducing the reference to honey and oil: “made him suck” or in Hebrew “VA’YA’NI’KEIHU”. Literally, “YA’NI’KEIHU” means the sucking of milk out of a breast, but it also means generically to draw out or absorb. This hardly seems an apt metaphor for the growing of trees out of earth, even though it may be argued that the root systems of trees suck up ground water for sustenance, which in turn enables their fruit to grow, and ground water generally underlies even rocky surfaces. The term, however, might well be appropriate for use when referring to sucking or drawing or pumping liquids out of rock formations above or below ground, in caves or subterranean strata – from Tiamat’s breasts and womb: the “blessings of the breasts and of the womb” of Jacob’s Blessing.

Interestingly, in his translation into Arabic and his interpretation of the relevant verse in the Song of Praise, the great Sa’adia Gaon does not refer to “honey” as being the honey of sweet dates, though date palms certainly abounded in Iraq. Rather, for the sage, honey is literally the honey of bees which were known to build their hives in rock crevices and caves of the Middle East and Israel. (Rasag Commentaries, at p. 151 n. 10; see also Olam Ha’Tanach, vol. “Devarim” [Deuteronomy] 32:13, at p. 240 at “VA’YA’NI’KEIHU DEVASH MI’SELA”.) This is a phenomenon which is still well known in Israel today, where bees continue to build their hives in the burial caves of Beit Shearim on the north-east flank of Mt. Carmel (see “Ha’aretz”, June 30, 2005, at p. A-18.) Regrettably, Sa’adia Gaon does not appear to address the term “SHEMEN” as appears in the following clause of verse 13, other than by an unexplained reference to “HALAV” or “milk”, which of course is also sucked out of its natural container – the breast. (This use of “milk” and “honey” may be a reference to the preceding chapter of Deuteronomy in which the Land of Israel is described as the “land of milk and honey.”  Deuteronomy 31:20. And, interestingly, in his translation of Deuteronomy 32:13, R. Sa’adia Gaon does reverse the verse’s reference to “honey” and “oil” to read “milk” and “honey”.) Thus, from Sa’adia Gaon’s reading, the parallelism seen in verse 13 of the Song of Praise can lead to the conclusion that the reference to “SHEMEN” may well be a reference to “SHEMEN ADAMA” or “SHEMEN AVANIM” – earth oil or stone oil: As “DEVASH” or honey is deposited in crevices of surface rocks in the porous matrix of a bee-hive to be sucked or otherwise drawn out of the honey-comb by man for his use, so the “SHEMEN” in the context of “earth oil” is deposited in the porous matrix of subterranean rock strata, the breasts and womb of TEHOM, from there to be sucked or pumped out by man. – This interpretation is strengthened by the presence of black chert – “HALAMISH” – interbedded with bituminous chalk and oil shale – “PITZLEI SHEMEN” – deposits throughout Israel. (See footnote 7 above.)

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Thus, it would appear that, as well as giving us a geographical marker as to where the search for the treasure should begin, the Blessing of Asher, when read together with the Song of Praise, may also provide us with an indication concerning the nature of at least one of the “precious things” located under the north-western portion of the lands of Manasseh; an indication which points to the treasure’s being petroleum – “rock oil”, “stone oil”, or “earth oil”.

8 The similarities between and tendencies to confuse “rock oil” and the more common – at least for the ancients – olive oil is not new or limited to persons attempting to interpret the Song of Praise and Blessing of Asher, but go at least back to the Greeks and Romans. In his Petroleum in Antiquity, Forbes refers to similar confusion in the armies of Alexander the Great in connection with oil seepages in Turkmenistan near the river Oxus as reported by the Roman historian Plutarch (“The greasy oily liquor ‘Became perfectly clear, when the surface was taken off, and neither in taste or smell differed from real (Olive) oil nor was it inferior to it in smoothness and brightness, though there was no olive tree in that country.’”) and to confusion about the nature of the seeps near Agrigento in Sicily reported in the 1st Century BCE by the Greek physician Dioscorides (“’Bitumen is found in its liquid state near Acragantium in Sicily. It floats on the surface of springs and is used in lamps instead of (olive) oil. Those who call it Sicilian oil are mistaken for it is an established fact that it is a kind of liquid bitumen.’”), with Pliny and Aristotle making similar observations. Forbes, Petroleum in Antiquity, at pp. 28 and 30. – In this connection, in his Early Petroleum History, at p. 85, Forbes relates that in 1690 a local chemist analyzed a clear, white and thick waxy petroleum found in a well near Viterbo, Italy “and found it very much like olive oil, as it did not have the usual sulpherous smell.”

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2 Responses to “A Biblical Treasure Hunt Part 7”

  1. Dr. Simcha Baker on June 2nd, 2010 6:08 am

    Let’s take a very close look at the whole of Deuteronomy 33: 13-16. “To Joseph he said: His land is a blessing of G-d, with the sweetness (Meged in Hebrew, or ‘best’ or ‘seasons’) of the heaven’s dew, and the waters that lie below, the sweetness of the sun’s yield, the sweetness of the moon’s (‘of each month’s) crop, the best (or ‘top’) of the ancient mountains, the sweetness of the eternal hills, the sweetness of the land and its fulness, and the favor of the One who dwells in the thornbush (or He who dwells in heaven; or ‘favor even {in areas} inhabited by thornbushes {wastelands}). It shall come upon Joseph’s head, on the brow of the elect of his brothers.

    No matter what you do to the Hebrew, our Sages tell us that the blessing to Joseph was WATER (surface or subsurface). However, if the L-rd wishes to bless Zion with your interpretation, more power to Zion and you for deserving His blessing. It would be better (reducing the risk of failure) and more convincing if some of the ‘supporting’ science was released to the general public. Even pure luck can find oil if one happens to drill in the right place for the wrong (or no) reason.

  2. admin on June 18th, 2010 12:44 pm

    Dr. Baker,
    One Hebrew scholar may beg to differ. Have you read “A Biblical Treasure Hunt” by Philip Mandelker? http://www.oilinisrael.net/resources/biblical-treasure-hunt-free-pdf

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