Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Mercy (part 3)

“Moses, when tending [his father-in-law] Jethro’s flock in the wilderness, proved himself a tender shepherd. He was not above carrying a little lamb that ran away in its search for water on his shoulder back to the flock. God said, ‘This tender shepherd of man's flock shall be the shepherd of my own flock.’” (Exodus Rabbah 2, 2)

This biographical sketch of Moses the shepherd is found in a collection of classical midrashim, or legends, written in the 9th-11th centuries. When I read Yasmina’s post about the Prophet Mohammed, this story immediately came to mind. In particular, the verse of Quran describing Mohammed himself as “a mercy to all creatures” struck me as so similar to the rabbinic sages’ description of Moses’ compassion toward the lamb. How can a prophet or leader, a teacher or parent, relate to God’s creatures except with mercy and lovingkindness? Without these qualities, he or she would surely fail. One of the 99 names of God that I have studied with Yasmina is ‘Al Rabb, the Master, Lord, Nurturer or Sustainer. God nurtures His creatures through eloquent guidance and educational discipline, signs and tests. Similarly, God nurtured Moses, offering divine guidance and signs, as well as discipline and tests, including the test of the runaway lamb described in this legend. The etymology of ‘Al Rabb is akin that of the Hebrew word HaRav, the master or teacher, an honorific that the rabbis bestow upon Moses. A striking parallel in our religious traditions is the extent to which our prophets are a shining reflection of the divine attribute of mercy.


  1. Katherine here.

    I enjoy all your thought-provoking posts, but I do struggle, a lot, with the language of parallelism (as distinguished from the language of commonality) I see used. Could you expand on that facet of your correspondence?

    (I am going to leave out a lot of thinking about non-essentialist theology, but I struggle with the essentialism, too!)

  2. Katherine,
    Thank you for your comment, and I would like to expand on the issue you raise. In order to do so, I am going to need you to give some specific examples for me to address. Personally, I find many parallels (not merely commonalities)in Jewish biblical/rabbinic texts and Quran/Hadith texts. There are also some interesting parallel texts in the Talmud and Christian Bible (New Testament), such as the Lord's Prayer and numerous parables. As a student of rabbinic texts, I am often more interested in the specific parallel texts than in general commonalities of belief, etc.

    I'm also intrigued by your use of the word "struggle" with regard to parallelism and essentialism. If you want to continue the conversation via email, please don't hesitate to contact me at