Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” and the Miracle of Arnon

Tranquil Sleep

Credit: Leah Caroline / Chabad.org (You could see more of Leah Caroline’s work at www.Leahcaroline.com)

By Yonatan Gordon

READ THE PRESS RELEASE VERSION HERE

The obvious question is how we can write something light-filled, about a novel so extraordinarily dark. To be sure, we would prefer not to write about the new book by Neil Gaiman at all.

So we set for ourselves a very simple guideline. The novel, “Ocean at the End of the Lane” is set to be released Tuesday, June 18th (10 Tammuz), or the third aliyah (reading) of the Torah portion of Balak. If we could find a clear correspondence between this book and the third aliyah, then we would venture forth to write this article. Otherwise, like many other things in popular culture, we would simply wait until the buzz transitioned over to something else. Being as we are now writing this article, we found the correspondence, and the relationship is quite striking.

Besides the fact that Balak and his Moabite dignitaries were into all forms of magic (Numbers 22:7 and Rashi there), something which is forbidden according to Jewish law but present throughout the novel, our source sentence is as follows:

“When Balak [King of Moab] heard that Bil’am was coming, he went out to meet him to the city of Moab, which is on the boundary of Arnon, at the very edge of the boundary.” (Numbers 22:36)

For most of the Torah portion, Balak is trying to get Bil’am to curse the Jewish people. But as God repeatedly refuses to allow it, each attempt leads to a failed result. In this sentence then, the intention behind meeting Bil’am at Moab, was to show Bil’am that the Jewish people are also trying to uproot this most prominent city of Moab (Rashi).

As we will explain, this sentence though can be viewed as Balak’s attempt to show Bil’am ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane.’”

The Miracle of Arnon

The Amorites, knowing that the Jewish people would have to pass through the valley of Arnon, assembled in innumerable multitudes. Some of them hid in the many caves on the slopes of the mountain, while another group of them awaited the Jewish people in the valley below, hoping to attack and destroy them unexpectedly from above and from below as they passed through the valley.

God, however, arranged that the Jewish people did not go down into the valley at all, but stayed above. He sent an instruction to the mountains, and the protrusions of one mountain entered the caves of the other, and all the people hiding there died.

Then, the well water went down through the valley and, becoming stronger in force, destroyed all the people that were there, like the Egyptians who were destroyed by the sea.

Since the Jewish people had passed over the mountains, they were not aware of all these miracles, so God said, “I’m going to make it known how many people I destroyed for them!” Thus, the well water went into the caves, washing so many skulls, arms, and feet that they could not be counted. And when the Jewish people returned, they found the well shining like the moon within the valley that was full of limbs (Tanchuma 20; Bamidbar Rabbah 19:25).

Sourcing the Story

As mentioned in the beginning, we would have preferred not to write this article at all. But since we are, we will try to cite the correspondences without explicitly making mention to the grim details of Gaiman’s story.

For one, the concluding line from the Midrash, “And when the Jewish people returned, they found the well shining like the moon within the valley that was full of limbs” seems indicative of the cover of Gaiman’s book, and the childhood remembrances of the seven year old boy in the story.

What requires some more explanation, though, is the statement from the neighborhood girl in the story. Behind her ramshackle old farmhouse, she had a pond that she claimed was an ocean. The ocean in the title of the book, is actuality a pond. This is a very important nuance in the writing.

Washing Away the Enemies

As we began, our source for this discussion comes from the sentence where Balak goes out to meet Bil’am on the boundary of Arnon. But the fact that the meeting occurred at the border, connotes a transition between the big world metropolis of Moab, and the silent miracle of Arnon. To be sure, the flood of memories only occur to the narrator in Gaiman’s tale after he returns to his childhood home after forty years. The other implication is that these waters are filled with blood and bones. Just instead of the rendering given by Gaiman, we can now say these are the remains of the Amorite enemies of Israel.

The way in which this “pond” becomes an “ocean” then is a direct result of the miracles done for the Jewish people. This once tranquil well, is now an ocean flowing with the remains of the enemies of the Jewish people.

Effortless War

The remarkable quality of the miracle of Arnon, in which it surpassed even the splitting of the Reed Sea, is that God eliminated the enemies at Arnon without requiring effort on the part of the Jewish people. But not only did they not have to fight, they were not even aware that the miracle had taken place in the first place! Thus God performed a further miracle, by bringing the blood and limbs of the Amorites through the well water, so that the Jewish people should know what had occurred.

The factor that made our pond or well into an “ocean” then, was the spilling of the blood of the Amorites (Numbers 21:15). Once the Jewish people saw the remains of the defeated enemy passing through the well water, they burst out in song and praise to God (Numbers 17:20).

The hope behind turning wells (or ponds) into oceans then can be traced back to this idea. That even when the enemies seem insurmountable, by the very fact that you have an ocean before you, maybe God has already washed all your enemies away!

Memories and Battles

The main construct behind Gaiman’s novel then is the duality between memories and battles. Overcoming one’s enemies, while being able to reflect on those silent miracles of everyday life. Unfortunately, as with Balak’s city of Moab, Gaiman’s tale is also filled with references to forbidden practices. But as he himself thought at first to maybe write this as a children’s book, there is still a glimmer of light and hope strung throughout this otherwise gloomy tale.

While we referenced the title itself to the “very edge of the boundary” of Arnon, there is a seven year old in each of us that would like to see our enemies vanquished as well. The challenge then is to distance ourselves from the noise of the metropolis around us, while tuning into the silent miracles being performed for us on a daily basis.

In addition to the audible clamor of city life, there is also the clamor that confuses our spiritual senses (God forbid). The path of the protagonist in our rendition of the story then, would then lead him away from all forms of magic, in order to become sensitive to the silent miracles that God enacts continuously within everyday life.

With help from “The Concealed Miracle of Arnon” on Chabad.org.

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