(RNS) — This year’s Super Bowl pits the New England Patriots (again) against the Philadelphia Eagles. For many years, I’ve been using biblical and other Jewish sources to pick the winner, and I’m almost always right. Of course, being a lifelong Patriots fan kind of stacks the deck in my favor. Last year’s pick of 34-31, Patriots was almost spot-on.
At first glance, it would seem Philly might have a case. After all, in the Bible, the eagle is referenced over 20 times. In most cases, this majestic bird is seen as a warrior, swooping down on its prey (see Deuteronomy 28:49, Job 9:26 and Jeremiah 48:40, for a few examples). The eagle is also seen as unclean and detestable (Leviticus 11:13), maternal and protective (Deuteronomy 32:11 and, most famously, Exodus 19:4), youthful (Psalms 103:5), bald (Micah 1:16) and mysterious (Proverbs 30:19).
The Talmud emphasizes the eagle’s speed and agility, and its spread wings have come to symbolize arms outstretched in prayer. The Hebrew word for eagle is “Nesher,” which has also been an honorary title for a great person. Maimonides was called “ha-Nesher Hagadol,” the “Great Eagle.”
Although the eagle has its good side, it was primarily seen as the symbol of Israel’s enemies, most especially Rome. During Herod’s reign, a golden eagle perched above the Temple gates caused much consternation among the Jews living there, until it was eventually cut down. More recently, the eagle became the symbol of Poland and Prussia, and later Germany — all seen as foes of the Jews (somewhat offset by the American eagle).
So while there would seem to be plenty of evidence to suggest that the Eagles have divine support in their great quest next Sunday, the Patriots’ case is stronger.
Let’s start with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There is a clear etymological connection between “patriarchs” and “Patriots.” So we’ve got the fathers of monotheism on one hand, and the fathers of our country, on the other, an uncanny convergence. And they had a lot in common, not the least of which is that Patriot owner Bob Kraft’s brother is named Avram (Abraham, in Hebrew).
The patriot most noted for having left Boston to live in Philadelphia was Ben Franklin, whose footsteps were retraced by current Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, a Bostonian Jew who wandered from Chestnut Hill to Chestnut Street. Yet Franklin, Mr. Philly himself, is the one who most opposed the eagle as a symbol of America. Here’s an excerpt from Ben Franklin’s letter to his daughter on the subject.
“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.”
Patriots fans will note that the Pats have beaten three consecutive bird-teams for their most recent Lombardi trophies: the Eagles, Seahawks and Falcons. But Franklin would not have picked any of them as the nation’s standard. Among birds, Franklin preferred the turkey, a New England bird if there ever was one – and Plymouth Rock is only 38 miles from Foxborough, as the crow flies (if he is flying over the traffic on I-495).
Franklin actually proposed that the rattlesnake become the symbol of this country. Why? “She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.”
Hmm. Sounds much like the way the Patriots respond to trash-talking by their opponents. But there’s more:
“As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shown and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal. Conscious of this, she never wounds ’till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.”
This describes the Pats to a T: They never appear as lethal as they really are. They are always respectful of the enemy. They tend to fall behind in big games (28-3 last year, if you haven’t heard) and then overtake their opponents in the end.
And finally, this observation from Franklin about the rattler: “In winter, the warmth of a number together will preserve their lives, while singly, they would probably perish.”
Nothing defines the Patriots’ team concept better than that. Sixteen winters ago, when this dynasty began, they were the first to insist in being introduced at a Super Bowl together, as a team.
So, to summarize, Ben Franklin, the Patron Saint of Philly, did not pick the Eagles. He picked the rattlesnake — an animal that in Hebrew, by the way, is called a “Peten.” “Peten” sounds a lot like only one team currently alive in the NFL … and it ain’t the Panthers. Plus, the Patriots actually used to have a player whose name is David Patten.
Yes, even Ben Franklin would have picked the Pats.
The score? For that I turn to Proverbs 30:
“Three things are beyond me; four I can’t understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship at sea,
and the way of a man with a young woman.”
Although the Hebrew word for “snake” here is “nachash” and not “peten,” we can look at the order of the numbers: three comes before four, and eagle comes before snake. So the Eagles will score three and the Patriots four … touchdowns.
PATRIOTS, 28. EAGLES, 21.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., and the author of “thelordismyshepherd.com: Seeking God in Cyberspace.” The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service or Word&Way.