Copyright 2009 by Gary Konecky, 2010  by and Gary Konecky, and 2011 by Gary Konecky

In the last installment, I started to introduce you the way the written Hebrew Bible is interpreted.  We worked through an example of how the oral tradition modifies the written text to clarify the meaning of the written text.  In this installment, we will look at some of the other tools we have available to help us understand the Hebrew Bible.

Having previously learned about the oral tradition, we now turn to the text itself.  The first problem we encounter is the problem of translation.  Some words do not have English equivalents.  Some words have much more nuanced meanings than their English equivalents.  Some words in Hebrew also have very specific meanings, while the English word does not.  For instance, Hebrew has multiple names for G-d, each one referring to a specific attribute of G-d.  In English, we have no such reference system for understanding G-d when His name appears in Scripture.  The problem of translation is summarized in the Talmud (Kiddushin 49a) as follows:  “But it was taught: R. Judah said: If one translates a verse literally, he is a liar; if he adds thereto, he is a blasphemer and a libeller.” (note 1)   Our interpretation of the Christian Bible will also have to deal with translation issues.

As if translation issues were not enough, when studying the Hebrew Bible, one needs to look at the context.  What verses are before and after the verse in question?  Is the sequence of events in chronological order or is it out of chronological order to make a point?  Are the subjects related?  How are they related?  If they are juxtaposed, why are they juxtaposed?

Then there is the impact language has.  Hebrew is composed of root words (typically two or three constants).  Vowels, prefixes, and suffixes are added to make additional words.  Therefore, one looks to the root word and then compares the word in question to other words with the same root to derive the meaning of the text. 

For example, the Hebrew word commonly translated as holy is actually the word for separate.  How does this help us to understand holiness?  A sizable part of the Book of Leviticus deals with holiness.  The commandments in those verses govern how the Jewish people will conduct themselves; what they will wear, what they can eat, how men shave, that Jews cannot have tattoos, what sexual relations are permitted and so on.  No other nation has these rules. 

What do these rules accomplish?  G-d said that the Jewish people would serve Him as a nation of priests.  In order to protect them from corrupting influences (remember everyone around them worshipped idols and engaged in fertility rites as well as incest, adultery, etc.) G-d gave them a series of commandments that separated them from everyone else.  If you cannot eat what everyone else eats, your dinner dates are limited.  If you cannot dress in immodest attire, you are less likely to have an inappropriate sexual relationship.  If you are told that you can only have sexual relations with people of your religious beliefs, then you are less likely to be lead astray.

An example of this can be found in Numbers 24:14, when the evil sorcerer Balaam explains to the Moabite king Balak how to arouse G-d’s wrath against the Israelites (Jewish people).  We see the results of that advice in Numbers 25:1-9 when the Moabite and Midianite women seduce the Israelite men, thereby using a sexual relationship to con the Israelite men into idol worship. 

The above shows us what can happen when holy is not kept separate.  We now have an example of why the law in Leviticus spends so much time on prohibitions designed to separate the Jewish people.  Separate and holy reinforce each other. 

Additionally, the same word is looked at in the other places it appears to see if those verses can shed additional light on the meaning of the word or verse in question.

Furthermore, words that have the same root letters in a different sequence are also looked at in an effort to understand the meaning of the text.

In addition, unlike English (where vowels are letters), in Hebrew they are closer to punctuation marks (sort of like dots and dashes for want of a better description).  Because of this feature, variations in spelling also add meaning to the text.  For example, the letter Vav ו  functions as a v sound.  It also functions as a vowel if it is written with a dot.  The location of the dot determines which vowel, o וֹ or oo/u וּ  is pronounced.  The dots signifying the o ֹא or oo/u Hebrew word neum vowel can also be written without the Vav.  Therefore, if the vav is present when it would ordinarily not be present, its presence imparts meaning to the text. Additionally, the vav not being present when it ordinarily would be present, also imparts meaning to the text.

An example of this would be the variation in spelling of the Hebrew word for wall used in Exodus 14:22 and 14:29.  In both these verses, the same word is used.  In one verse, the Vav is written and in the other case, the Vav is omitted.  As this word is usually spelled with the Vav, its absence imparts meaning to the text. (note 2)  As this grammatical device does not have an equivalent in English, there is no way to convey this meaning when the Hebrew is translated into English.

Nor is the Vav the only letter that is used this way.  In II Samuel 22;29, the Hebrew word neiri (my lamp) is spelled with the Hebrew letter yud (a Hebrew letter with a y sound) between the first two letters.  This is the only time in all of Hebrew scripture that this word is spelled this way, and the yud’s unique presence imparts a meaning to the text that cannot be translated into English (as English does not have this language feature).

Furthermore, some words in the Hebrew bible have letters of a different size, or have words with dots over them.  These features also impart meaning to the written text.  Sometimes, the word written is not read, but another word is substituted when reading the Hebrew bible.  Scripture usually does this to allude to something it is not mentioning.  In every instance where this occurs, there is a specific meaning and reason associated with this.

An example of this concerns the mandatory Passover offering.  According to the Hebrew bible, the Passover sacrifice must be eaten in a state of ritual purity.  However, if one is fulfilling the commandment of burying the dead, one becomes ritually impure and is consequently ineligible to partake of the mandatory Passover sacrifice.  Therefore, Numbers 9:10 offers these people a second chance to partake of the Passover sacrifice during what is called Pesach Sheni, a second Passover.  This second Passover is only available to those who were unable to partake of the Passover offering because they were ritually impure, or on a distant journey.  Numbers 9:10 commands these people concerning their obligation to observe Pesach Sheni.  Numbers 9:10 states:  Speak to the children of Israel saying, Any person who becomes unclean from [contact with] the dead, or is on a distant journey, whether among you or in future generations, he shall make a Passover sacrifice for the Lord.”  (note 3)  This seems straightforward, yet the Hebrew word for journey has a dot over it.  Why?  What is the dot teaching us? 

The dot is there to modify the meaning of the word journey and to properly understand what this unwritten modification is we must turn to the oral Torah.  The meaning of the word journey as used in this verse is discussed in the oral Torah in the Mishnah (Pesachim 9:1 and 9:2) as well as in the Talmud (Pesachim 93b).  Strikingly, none of this is mentioned in the English translation of this verse, and once again we find that the meaning of a crucial word was omitted in translation.  We also see, yet again, that the oral law (as expressed in the Mishnah and Talmud) is critical to our proper interpretation of written scripture.

We also have another interesting issue.  The splitting of the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, as well as the system of chapters and verses in the bible is not of Jewish origin.  It was invented by Christians.  Its adoption by Jews was the result of Christian persecution of Jews during the Middle Ages.  (note 4) 

Jewish divisions of the text (for want of a better term I’ll use the term chapters) are based upon the way the text is written.  Jewish teaching holds both the black (of the letters) and the white (of the blank parchment) impart meaning to the text, for a midrash holds the Torah was written in black fire upon white fire (note 5).  An example of this is the verse Exodus 12:51, which Jewish tradition considers to be an entire chapter of the weekly Torah portion known as Bo.  Bo consists of Exodus 10:1 – 13:16.  What Christians consider to be less than four complete chapters of scripture, Jewish teaching considerers to be 14 chapters.

Another example of this is critical to our understanding of Genesis 35:22.  According to Jewish teaching, this verse is split into two different chapters.  This division into two chapters is significant because a plain reading of the text as a single verse (the Christian division of the text) would indicate that Reuben raped Bilhah.  Yet owing to the way this verse is split into two chapters when written in the Torah, we know that Reuben did not rape Bilhah.  There is also additional evidence in scripture to support the view that Reuben did not rape Bilhah.  (note 6)  With this example, we see how easy it is to misunderstand what we are reading by looking only at a single verse, by failing to put that verse in the proper context, and by failing to study that verse’s full meaning.

In addition, Hebrew letters also function as numbers; hence, every word adds up to a numerical value.  Therefore, one can look at words with the same numerical value and see how they can contribute meaning to the text you are studying. 

Furthermore, every word and every letter in the written Torah has meaning; nothing is superfluous.  If a letter or word appears to be superfluous, the Jewish sages would work out its meaning.  In short, nothing can be left out, or overlooked, if one is to understand Divine intent.

Based upon their exhaustive study of the oral and written Torah, Jewish sages developed a huge body of literature including; the Mishnah, the Talmud, Aggadah (including midrash), commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, and other rabbinic literature.  In our search to understand the meaning of the Hebrew Bible, we will need to draw on these texts as well.

Furthermore, the Hebrew and Christian Bibles are ancient texts.  They come from a place that is very different than the world we live in.  Our livelihoods, clothes, mores, social customs, the status of women, and some of our male-male relationships are all different than when these texts were written.  These differences matter and we need to keep in mind what society was like when these texts were written.

As we can see, the interpretation of the Bible is an incredibly complex task requiring a working knowledge of many different texts, historical background, language skills, analytical skills, and so on.  It is not a matter of taking things at face value, but it is a labor of digging as deep as you can in search of the truth.  When one digs that deep, one finds buried treasure and one learns that things are not what always what they appear. 

Note 1:  The Soncino Talmud, Judaic Classics by David Kantrowitz, Version 3.0.8, Copyright 1991-2004, Davka Corporation.

Note 2:  Page 209 of The Torah Anthology / Me’Am Lo’Ez, Volume 5, Exodus II, Redemption by Rabbi Yaakov Culi, translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Moznaim Publishing Corp., copyright 1979.

Note 3:  Source for the translation of Numbers 9:10 is 

In 1,542 BCE, Joseph died.  Thus begins the battle over Joseph’s remains, a battle that continues to this day. 

It is important to remember that Egypt became the world’s leading economic power during the time Joseph served as viceroy in Egypt.   Therefore, the Egyptians feel it is very important to their continued prosperity for Joseph’s body to remain buried in Egypt.  Additionally, the Egyptians are aware of the prediction that the Israelites will eventually leave Egypt and that the Israelites have promised to take Joseph’s remains with them.  To insure that Joseph’s body stays in Egypt, the Egyptians bury Joseph where they think the Israelites will be unable to recover his remains and take them with them when they leave Egypt.  

In 1,313 BCE, the Israelites leave Egypt taking the Joseph’s body with them.  The incident recounted in Numbers refers to the men who were carrying Joseph’s body through the desert.  It is important to note that escorting the dead, the very act these men were doing, is a Torah commandment.  As a result of fulfilling this Torah commandment, they became ritually impure from contact with the dead and unable to fulfill another Torah commandment, the commandment regarding the Passover sacrifice.  Please note that ritual impurity has nothing to do with sin, which is a common misconception. 

 When the Israelites entered the Land of Israel, they buried Joseph in the Holy Land.  In October 2000, (3,313 years after the Israelites left Egypt with Joseph’s body) the Israeli government handed Joseph’s Tomb over to the Palestinian Authority (formerly the PLO).  The Palestinian Authority had previously signed a treaty with Israel that guaranteed the safety and freedom of worship of Jewish holy sites within their territory.  Within hours of the tomb being handed over to the Palestinian Authority, Muslims destroyed the tomb and declared it a Muslim holy site and mosque.  In subsequent years, Jews have repeatedly restored the tomb only to have Muslims repeatedly destroy it.

Nor is this situation unique, as the Islamic Republic of Iraq has destroyed or is planning to destroy the tomb of Ezekiel the prophet, and possibly other Jewish holy sites.  Additionally, the Muslim Taliban destroyed ancient Buddhist statues in Pakistan. 

There is also the ongoing Muslim desecration and destruction of antiquities on the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism.

Additional information concerning key dates in Jewish history (such as those cited here for Joseph’s death and the exodus from Egypt) can be found in Codex Judaica, Chronolgical Index of Jewish History, by Rabbi Mattis Kantor, Zichron Press, copyright 2005.

An excellent biography about Jewish biblical figures (including Joseph) can be found in the Encyclopedia of Biblical Personalities, Anthologized from the Talmudic, Midrashic, and Rabbinic Writings by Yishai Chasidah, Shaar Press, copyright 1994

Note 4:  Page vi of The Torah Anthology / Me’Am Lo’Ex, The Book of I Kings, by Rabbi Shmuel Yerushalmi, translated and adapted by Rabbi Nathan Bushwick, Moznaim Publishing corp., copyright 1994

Note 5:  Rashi’s commentary on Deuteronomy 33:2

Note 6:  Pages 199-200 of The Torah Anthology / Me’Am Lo’Ez, Volume 3a, Genesis III, The Twelve Tribes by Rabbi Yaakov Culi, translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Moznaim Publishing Corp., copyright 1990.

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