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    The meaning of Dammesek Eliezer

    The following article by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple appeared in The Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol. 45, no. 3, July-September 2017.

    INTRODUCTION

    Depiction of Eliezer of Damascus, by William Dyce

    Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, is called in the Bible “Dammesek Eliezer”. What this appellation means exactly is not at all clear.

    Although identified with the servant of Abraham sent to find a wife for Issac in Genesis 24, Eliezer is only mentioned by name once, in Genesis 15. Abraham is ageing and fears that he will die without a natural heir, in which case all might go by default to the senior steward known as Dammesek Eliezer. The patriarch prays, “Lord God, what can You give me, seeing that I continue childless, and the one in charge of my household is Dammesek Eliezer… Since You have granted me no offspring, one of my household will be my heir” (Gen. 15:2-3). God assures him in reply, “That one shall not be your heir; none but your very own issue (literally, emerging from your loins) shall be your heir” (Gen. 15:4).

    SON OF MESEK

    An interesting but flawed interpretation is given in the Septuagint, which gives this version of Abraham’s expression of concern in Genesis 15:2, “O Master, what will you give me? And I, I am going away childless; as for the son of Masek, my female homebred, he is Damascus Eliezer.”[1] This understanding is also found in the Pseudepigrapha in the Book of Jubilees (14:2).[2] According to this understanding, the phrase ben-meshek beiti (Gen. 15:2), a unique phrase, does not mean “the one in charge of my household”, but rather “the son of Masek, my handmaid.” This would mean that Abraham had a concubine called Masek or Mesek, a maidservant by whom he had a son, i.e. Eliezer. Eliezer is thus not an outsider but a son of Abraham, one of the family, albeit the child of a servant or concubine. Abraham thus recognises the possibility that children of subsidiary wives are eligible to inherit. Dammesek Eliezer could indicate dam mesek, the blood (issue) of Mesek.

    This interpretation has a range of drawbacks. Firstly, no figure called Mesek appears in the Bible. Abraham’s child with the maidservant Hagar was extensively dealt with in the text, and it seems unusual that if there was another case of that happening it would not be noted. Furthermore, if indeed Abraham had a child by Mesek, why would Sarai have offered him Hagar (Gen. 16:2)? Additionally, Genesis 15:4 implies that Eliezer was not Abraham’s natural son, as God promises there that “none but your very own issue shall be your heir”. Linguistically, dam (blood) comes in the Torah in a literal (e.g. Gen. 37:31) and metaphorical sense (e.g. Lev. 20:9) but nowhere as “progeny”. And in any event, the phrase we would expect is not Dammesek Eliezer but Eliezer ben Mesek.

    The simple reading of the text presumes that Damascus Eliezer is not a real son but a servant, ben-beiti, “one of my household” (Gen. 15:3). The Nuzi tablets give ample evidence of a servant being adopted as a son who would care for the adoptive parents, give them a respectful burial, and inherit the property.[3] However, it is not certain whether in fact Eliezer was formally adopted by Abraham at some stage and thus became the heir, subsequently losing out when a natural son was eventually born, or whether Abraham is merely concerned with the thought of his property going to an heir who was not his actual child.

    FROM DAMASCUS

    If “Damascus” in the phrase Dammesek Eliezer really denotes a person from Damascus, it would certainly give Eliezer a cachet. Damascus is highly esteemed in biblical history as a prosperous city at the crossroads of trade routes and regarded as the oldest city in the world. It was even thought by the rabbis to be the gateway to the Garden of Eden (TB Eruvin 19a). It was known in Abraham’s time (Gen. 14:15) and Josephus reports a belief that the city was built by Abraham’s servants and was the patriarch’s headquarters for a time (Antiquities I:7:2).

    The traditional exegetes believe that Eliezer was a Damascene. Abraham may have acquired the young man from Damascus at some stage, possibly after the war of the four kings against the five (Gen. 14). Targum Yonatan (to Gen. 14:14) explains midrashically that Eliezer was the son or grandson of Nimrod and/or was originally Nimrod’s servant before being acquired by Abraham. It is also possible that it was not Eliezer himself who hailed from Damascus, but his father or both parents. Samson Raphael Hirsch thinks that what Abraham feared was “the Dammesek (relatives) of Eliezer”.[4] This implies that Dammesek is geographical and the name literally means “from Damascus”, and the Damascus relatives were greedy or unreliable. Maybe the problem was tribal politics, and Abraham was worried about outsiders alienating tribal property.

    The complication with this interpretation is that Dammesek Eliezer denoting “Eliezer from Damascus” is a phrase contrary to biblical Hebrew usage.[5] We would expect Eliezer mi-dammesek, “Eliezer from Damascus”. Onkelos, Saadia Gaon, Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Sforno all interpret the phrase as meaning “from Damascus”, despite the difficult Hebrew. Ibn Ezra explains that the term ben, “of”, which should have appeared before the word Damascus in the verse, was dropped, as the ben from the phrase “of my household” earlier in the verse was understood to apply to the term Dammesek Eliezer as well. Radak suggests that a letter yud was dropped from his title, and that originally he was called Eliezer Dammaski, “Eliezer the Damascene”.

    There is another possibility, that Dammesek Eliezer is a nickname, or a double-barreled personal name, such as Tubal-Cain (Gen. 4:22). Radak suggests, as a second option, that the servant’s name was Dammesek, but Abraham gave him a Hebrew name, Eliezer. At times Abraham used the full name Dammesek-Eliezer in order to make it clear that the young man was a foreigner and not one of the family.

    Bereishit Rabbah 44:9 explains that during Abraham’s campaign to recapture Lot (Gen. 14:12-16), Eliezer performed a memorable deed, and so he became known as “Eliezer who distinguished himself at Damascus”.[6]

    ALTERNATIVE ETYMOLOGIES FOR DAMMESEK

    Could “Damascus” be a confused or jumbled version of a different phrase? Rashi proposes that the word meshek, here translated as “household”, is related to the root shin-kuf-kuf, to run about, as in Genesis 41:40, v’al picha yishak kol ammi, “by your command shall all my people be directed”. This suggests a person who goes anywhere and everywhere to manage and check out the estate. A notional alternative is a three-letter root mem-shin-kuf, “to acquire, to possess”, giving meshek the meaning of “property”. Whatever the linguistic source, ben meshek indicates an administrator, steward, comptroller or manager. Rashi calls the ben meshek an apotropos (from Greek), trustee or trusted agent. It is possible that the title Dammesek was given to Eliezer because of his job as the manager of the household.

    Another option is that the word dammesek was originally adam esek, “man of business”. But again it is difficult. Esek really only gains the meaning of “business” in the Mishnah (e.g. Avot 4:10). We would also probably expect ish esek, not adam. Nonetheless, it is attractive to regard the opening or beginning of Dammesek as adam, i.e. inserting an alef which subsequently dropped out. In this case the name bears no geographical connotation at all but was wrongly read as having one. The original phrase could be adam meshek (shelli), “Eliezer my man of business (steward, manager, major domo)”.

    The rabbis made a homiletical suggestion, using the letters dalet-mem-shin-kuf, that Dammesek hints at Eliezer’s loyalty to Abraham. He was doleh umashkeh – literally, “one who draws (water) and gives (others) to drink”, i.e. he “drew out and disseminated Abraham’s tenets” (TB Yoma 28b).[7]

    CONCLUSION

    The term Dammesek Eliezer does not lend itself to an unequivocal interpretation. The most reasonable, and the traditional view, is that the name refers to Damascus, probably where Eliezer came from. Although the grammatical form is somewhat unusual if this is the case, appellations do not always adhere to strict grammatical principles, especially if the name and title are imported from another language and culture.

    The unnamed servant who is sent by Abraham to find a wife for Isaac in Genesis 24 is traditionally identified with Eliezer. His task was done when he brought Rebekah home to Isaac. In this way he fulfilled the meaning of his name Eliezer, “God helps me”, for God answered his prayers and helped him find a suitable wife for Issac (Gen. 24:12). The precise meaning of Dammesek remains a mystery.

    NOTES

    1. Albert Pietersma and Benjamin Wright, A New English Translation of the Septuagint (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 14.
    2. James Kugel, A Walk Through Jubilees (Leiden: Brill, 2012), p. 95.
    3. Robert Paulissian, “Adoption in Ancient Assyria and Babylonia”, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, vol. 13:2, November 1999. On the effect of adoption on inheritance: EA Speiser (ed.), The Anchor Bible: Genesis (New York: Doubleday, 1978), pp.112, 119-120. Nuzi (Nuzu) is near Kirkuk, Turkey.
    4. The Pentateuch translated and explained by Samson Raphael Hirsch, rendered into English by Isaac Levy, vol. 1 (London: 1965), p. 270.
    5. Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary – Genesis (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p. 382. Speiser, op. cit., p. 111.
    6. See also Yehuda Kiel, Da’at Mikra – B’reishit (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1997), vol. 1, p. 400.
    7. Midrashic material about Eliezer is summarised in Chaim Eisen, “Unmasking Abraham’s Slave”, in Jewish Thought: A Journal of Torah Scholarship 1:1, Elul, 5750.

    Other articles by Rabbi Apple in the Jewish Bible Quarterly:
    Shirat HaYam: Miriam’s Song?
    The problem of theodicy in Psalms
    Addenda to Psalm 145
    Rewarding a Mitzvah: The Etymology of Issachar
    Arami Oved Avi (Deut. 26:5): P’shat and D’rash
    Pillars of the Temple
    Psalms of the Day
    Onkelos on the Torah: Understanding the Bible Text (Book Review)
    Sinai upside-down: The theological message of a Midrash
    Matrilineality – letter to the editor of the JBQ
    Magdil & Migdol – liturgical responses to textual variants
    The happy man of Psalm 1
    The two wise women of proverbs chapter 31

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