By Israel Drazin


This biblical portion raises questions for which there are answers that will not satisfy all readers.


Inconsistent names and numbers

The biblical portion Maasei lists forty places that Israelites visited during their forty-year desert journey. As happens frequently, there are missing names and differences in spelling. The portion lists forty places and omits sites such as tav’eirah, masah, chatzeirot that are included in the list of Exodus 15:22-16:1; Numbers 21:10-13, 18-20; and Deuteronomy 10:6, 7. The order of the places is different. Additionally there are minor spelling differences, the absence or addition of the letters such as yud, vav, and hay. Chapter 33 contains references to nine events during the desert trip, but some significant events are absent such as the revelation at Sinai or the battle with Amalek or the story of the spies that caused the Israelites to be punished and remain in the desert for forty years. We do not know the reason for the differences. It is possible that one list is on the route taken, but the Israelites did not settle in the place, while another list is the sites where they camped.


Settling in Canaan

The portion contains many details about how Canaan is to be divided among the twelve tribes and how the Israelites must drive out the Canaanite people from the land. None of this ever happened. The tribes captured some lands but were unable to defeat the Canaanites in many places. The Israelites did not drive the Canaanites from the land and settled among them with the result that they had many conflicts with the prior inhabitants of the land that are described in the biblical books Judges, Samuel, and Kings.

It is possible that we are informed that the commands in the Pentateuch were the ideal which the Israelites could not accomplish. But are they ideal? Is it right to drive out people who have lived in the land for many generations? Is it right to destroy the religious implements of a people because one is convinced that their concept of gods, their idols, are wrong, and because of fear that the Israelites may adopt their practices? Does the fact that many Israelites did adopt the practices proof that driving the inhabitants from Canaan was justified?


Levitical cities

35:4 states that the cities given to the tribe Levy should be surrounded by fields of “a thousand cubits round about,” but verse 5 states that the measure is two thousand cubits. The thirteenth century Spanish sage Nachmanides suggests that the extra thousand in verse 5 is land used for cattle. Yet this is not explicit in the text.


Cities of refuge

35:9-34 describe cities that must be established in Canaan where people who unintentionally killed someone can live in safety without fear of a relative of the dead person taking revenge. However, there is no indication in any post-Pentateuch book that these cities were ever used. Is it reasonable to say: This is an argument from silence; Scripture doesn’t have to list everything?

There were three cities of refuge in Canaan and three in Trans-Jordan even though the vast majority of Israelites, nine and a half of the twelve tribes, resided in Canaan. Why did Canaan have more such cities? Rashi explains that three in Canaan were enough, but Trans-Jordan needed three despite its smaller population because there were many homicides in Trans-Jordan. Is this a good answer? The cities were not used for intentional murders, but only for deaths caused by negligence. Is it reasonable to argue that trans-Jordan citizens were more negligent? Also, the numbers were established before the areas were populated.

The negligent killer must remain in the city until the death of the high priest (35:28). Since the escape to the city of refuge is designed to protect the negligent person from vigilante revenge, should the negligent killer remain until the family’s feelings for revenge ends? The Mishna[1] explains that the high priest’s death atones for the negligent killing. Is this reasonable?


The saga of Zelophehad’s daughters

Chapter 27:1-11 tells the story of the daughters of Zelophehad questioning the biblical inheritance law that only males inherit. God rules that daughters can inherit if the dead father had no sons. There is no mention in chapter 27 concerning what would occur if daughters married a man outside the tribe. Since husbands take control over their wives’ property, this could result in tribal land belonging to non-tribal families.   After a separation of eight chapters, chapter 36 raises this problem. God rules that daughters who inherit their father’s land must marry within the tribe.


Two questions: Why is the end of the story separated from its beginning by eight chapters? Why is there no indication that this law was ever implemented after the Israelites entered Canaan?

[1] Makkot 2:6.