A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to Sodom

In: Journal for the Study of Judaism

As an illustration of the phenomena of “filtered absorption” or “controlled incorporation” of Greek and Roman culture into late classical Judaism, this article focuses on the depiction of Abraham’s servant, identified as Eliezer, in a passage in b. Sanh 109b, which consists largely of confrontations—several of them of a decidedly humorous or satirical nature—with the perverse laws, judges, and citizens of biblical Sodom. The manner in which Eliezer’s midrashic personality and role were fashioned by the rabbis evokes a familiar character from classical literature, namely the “clever slave” [servus callidus], a figure that was cultivated most famously by Plautus and which became a popular stock character in Roman theater. The article tries to reconstruct how the midrashic homilist adapted the Latin dramatic conventions for Jewish religious and exegetical purposes.Special attention is paid to the Talmud’s incorporation of the well-known motif of the “Procrustean bed”; noting the methodological and textual obstacles that plague our attempts to identify exactly which versions of that legend were being used by the Talmudic authors.

  • 3

    Daniel Boyarin, “The Talmud as a Fat Rabbi: A Novel Approach,” Text & Talk 28 (2008): 603-19; Boyarin, Socrates and the Fat Rabbis (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), 133-49; and Boyarin, “Hellenism in Jewish Babylonia,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature (ed. Charlotte E. Fonrobert and Martin S. Jaffee; Cambridge Companions to Religion; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 336-64.

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  • 4

    Kristen H. Lindbeck, Elijah and the Rabbis: Story and Theology (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 74-84.

  • 6

    See Michael Sokoloff, A Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic of the Talmudic and Geonic Periods (Ramat Gan and Baltimore: Bar Ilan University Press and Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 888.

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  • 15

    Usually a wedding; see Sokoloff, Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, 378.

  • 17

    Sokoloff, Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, 963. The clause “they had a punishment etc.” is also found in the marginal addition to ms Munich, but not in any other witnesses. The printed editions (since the 1497 Soncino-Barko printing) have: “Eliezer showed up there and they did not give him any bread . . .”

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  • 18

    Sokoloff, Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, 859.

  • 25

    Ibid., 212 and 506 n. 123: “The central active figure, that of Eliezer, servant of Abraham, fits cleanly into the category of protagonist known as the ‘trickster.’ ”

  • 27

    C. Stace, “The Slaves of Plautus,” Greece & Rome 15 (1968): 64-77, observes (at 66) that “there is no Roman Comedy without a slave.” The question has been complicated by the fact that Plautus’s main source was Menander, most of whose oeuvre has not survived, though the surviving corpus continued to be enlarged by discoveries of texts through much of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The scholarly camp that denies the existence of the servus callidus in Greek comedy includes A. W. Gomme, Essays in Greek History and Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 1937), 186-87; L. A. Post, “Aristotle and Menander,” tapa 69 (1938): 1-42, esp. 37; Sander M. Goldberg, The Making of Menander’s Comedy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 38-40. On the other hand, Philip W. Harsh, “The Intriguing Slave in Greek Comedy,” tapa 86 (1955): 135-42, makes a strong case that intriguing slaves were a key feature in Menander and some other Greek playwrights, and that they make even better sense in the Greek social milieu than the Roman. See also George Eckel Duckworth, The Nature of Roman Comedy: A Study in Popular Entertainment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952), 249-53, 291; Eduard Fraenkel, Plautine Elements in Plautus: (Plautinisches Im Plautus) (trans. Tomas Drevikovsky and Frances Muecke; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 159-72; Kathleen McCarthy, Slaves, Masters, and the Art of Authority in Plautine Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 20-29. There is considerable scholarly discussion about whether the conduct of Abraham’s servant when seeking a bride for Isaac should be characterized as “tricks”; see Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (The Indiana Literary Biblical Series; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 145; Teugels, Bible and Midrash, 117; Teugels, “Counter-Stories in the Bible,” 277.

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  • 33

    Epstein-Halevi, Sha’arei ha-aggadah, 45. The religious or quasi-religious virtue of hospitality was crucial to guaranteeing the safety of travelers in a world that could not be efficiently policed. See Ladislaus J. Bolchazy, Hospitality in Early Rome: Livy’s Concept of Its Humanizing Force (Chicago: Ares, 1977); Bolchazy, “From Xenophobia to Altruism: Homeric and Roman Hospitality,” The Ancient World 1 (1978): 45-64; Andrew E. Arterbury, Entertaining Angels: Early Christian Hospitality in Its Mediterranean Setting (New Testament Monographs 8; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2005), 1-132. On the related virtue of escorting guests out of town see Epstein-Halevi, ʻOlamah shel ha-agadah, 66-68. We must bear in mind that according to rabbinic texts, and especially in the Babylonian Talmud, the foremost sin of the Sodomites was not homosexuality (though they are accused of general promiscuity) but injustice, inhospitality, and mistreatment of strangers. See Steven Greenberg, Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), 64-73.

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  • 42

    See John Wight Duff, Roman Satire: Its Outlook on Social Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1936), 84-105; Michael Coffey, Roman Satire (2nd ed.; Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1989), 149-206; Joel C. Relihan, “On the Origin of ‘Menippean Satire’ as the Name of a Literary Genre,” Classical Philology 79 (1984): 226-29; Relihan, Ancient Menippean Satire (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993). Boyarin, Socrates and the Fat Rabbis, 212-22 (and elsewhere), has argued strongly that the authors of the Babylonian Talmud—in his view, even more so than their colleagues in Roman Palestine—were intimately aware of the conventions of Menippean satire and were applying it to features of rabbinic academic culture.

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  • 57

    See also Carl Robert, “Theseus und Meleagros bei Bakchylides,” Hermes 33 (1898): 130-59, esp. 148-49; Jebb, Bacchylides, 244-45. Ovid, Ib. 407, seems to be identifying Procrustes as the son of Polypemon.

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  • 66

    See Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, 386-88; Saul Lieberman, Yemenite Midrashim: A Lecture on the Yemenite Midrashim, Their Character and Value (Jerusalem: Wahrmann, 1970), 1-7 [Hebrew]; Joseph Tobi, “Ha-midrash ha-gadol: meḳorotaṿ u-mivnehu” (Ph.D. diss., The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1993) [Hebrew]; Sabato, Yemenite Manuscript, 31-39.

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  • 68

    Sokoloff, Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, 98, 774.

  • 72

    Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 163.

  • 75

    Boyarin, Socrates and the Fat Rabbis, 135-36. An extensive statement of his case, with a review of previous literature, may be found on pp. 133-40.

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  • 76

    Ibid., 134.

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