By Israel Drazin


The biblical portion Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1) offers an opportunity to discuss possible errors in the Torah.


Bible critics

The Talmud and Midrashim in the beginning of the first millennium explain apparent mistakes and inconsistencies in the Hebrew Bible that people might notice. Later, the Bible commentator Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-c.1167) noted verses which he felt must have been composed after Moses death, such as the story of Moses death and burial.[1] Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) called ibn Ezra the first Bible critic and he added to ibn Ezra’s list.[2] The following are some problems in the portion Pinchas.


Chapter divisions

Pinchas begins in the middle of chapter 25, during the tale of Pinchas’ reaction to idol worship by a tribal leader. As I pointed out in the past, chapter divisions were made by Christians, and Jews had a different view when sections should start. In Genesis 2:1-3, for instance, the description of God’s creation on the seventh day belongs in Genesis’ first chapter, although Christians placed it in chapter 2. Here Jewish tradition divided Pinchas’ actions and God’s reaction, placing the first in the prior biblical portion.


Mistake in the Torah text?

Pinchas’ name in 25:11 is spelt with a small Hebrew letter yud. There are many instances in the Torah where there are large or small letters. There are two theories explaining them. Many rabbis say that the change alerts readers to a lesson. Leviticus opens with a small aleph in its first word vayikra and rabbis offer a homiletical solution: The Torah uses vayikar for God’s appearance to the pagan prophet Balaam in 23:4. God told Moses what letters to place in the Torah and said write vayikra in Leviticus 1:1 with an ending aleph. However Moses was humble and didn’t want to boast that he was superior to Balaam, so he inserted the aleph as God commanded, but made it small.[3] Scholars explain that a scribe made a mistake while copying the Torah and left out the aleph in vayikra and yud in Pinchas. When he reviewed his work, he noticed his error, realized he didn’t have sufficient space to insert the letters, and drew small ones over the incorrect words.


A verse cut in two

Numbers 26:1 is split in half with the Hebrew letter pie, placed in the middle. “Now it happened after the plague [space] that the Lord said to Moses etc.” A pie and a samech[4] along with other marks such as vowels were placed in books of the Torah by Masorites[5] to inform readers how to read the Torah. They didn’t insert these new marks into the Torah parchment scrolls because they wanted to maintain the ancient tradition in which the Torah lacked these marks.[6] Why did they divide this sentence? The thirteenth century French Bible commentator Chazkunee believes the spacing is proper. He thinks the half statement about the plague ends the episode that took forty-two thousand Israelite lives (25:9). However, it is possible that a scribe misplaced the mark which really belongs just before chapter 26 begins.[7]


Contradictory verses?

Numbers 26:11 reveals that Korach’s children did not die when God killed the group that rebelled against Moses and Aaron. Yet, Numbers 16:32 states: “The earth opened her mouth and swallowed them up, their households, all the people belonging to Korach, and all their goods.” This could be a contradiction, but it is more likely that it shows two biblical writing styles. The Hebrew Bible has many hyperbolic statements. For example when it states “all Israelites,” it means some of them. Thus when Scripture says “all the people” in 16:32, it means some or many of them. Also, as ibn Ezra explains:[8] whenever Scripture repeats an event it seems to change what was previously stated, but it is actually supplementing and explaining it.


It never happened

Numbers 27:15-23 tells how God instructed Moses to select Joshua to succeed him. While Moses was able to speak to God directly, God advises Moses to have Eleazar use the Urim to communicate with God whenever Joshua and the Israelites “go out.” Yet, there is no indication that either Joshua or Eleazar used the Urim in the book of Joshua.[9]


My story about mistakes in scripture

An astute award-winning scholar wrote that the Torah was miraculously revealed by God to Moses just as ancient tradition states but then God ceased interfering with nature. However, as time passed the Israelites did not maintain the Torah text, errors crept into it, and parts were lost. This accounts for discrepancies and other problems in the Torah. I visited him and questioned his thesis. I said it doesn’t seem reasonable to me. If God thought that the Torah content is so important that he interfered with nature and produced a miracle of revelation, why didn’t he produce a second miracle that the text would remain in the form he dictated? The scholar had no answer.


Assuming that the scholar is correct, one could say that God knew that humans would treat the Torah negligently even as they treat all of nature. But he also knew that even with “errors,” the Torah is still a magnificent document with many important lessons.

[1] He called it the secret of the twelve. See his commentary to the Bible’s last chapter.

[2] In Theologico-Political Treatise.

[3] This teaches us to also be humble.

[4] A pie and samech are like paragraph and chapter endings, respectively.

[5] These were various families of experts in understanding the Torah who worked to determine the correct Torah text, because errors had crept into texts. Among other contributions they placed different kinds of marks in the text to give readers information. Maimonides evaluated the different Masoretic versions and determined that the one later called The Aleppo Text is the correct one. This text was kept in a secure place in Aleppo in Syria until it was partially destroyed by Arabs in 1948 who were upset about the establishment of Israel.

[6] Keeping the Torah in its ancient form is also the reason why Jews read from Torah parchment scrolls in synagogues and not a book, which was a later invention.

[7] Support for the view that the placement of the pie is an error is that the sentence has the cantillation mark etnachta where the separation occurs, one of the marks inserted by the Masorites to indicate the middle of a verse.

[8] In his commentary to Exodus 20:1.

[9] The Urim and Thummim were placed in the folds of the choshen, a garment worn by the high priest. It contained the name of God and was used by the High Priest to consult with God on matters requiring divine guidance (Numbers 27:21). Scripture does not reveal exactly what it looks like, or of what materials it was made of, or exactly how it is used. There is a tradition that the letters on it (in Jacob’s sons’ names) would light up and the High Priest, by means of divine inspiration, would interpret their message. The Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 73a–b, states that they are called Urim and Thummim because they bring light (Hebrew: or) and are perfect (Hebrew: tam). Although the Urim is mentioned six times in the Torah (Exodus 28:30, Leviticus 8:8, Numbers 27:21, I Samuel 28:6, Ezekiel 2:63, and Nehemiah 7:65), we have no evidence that it was ever used. Arguably, this does not prove that the authors of post-Pentateuch books knew nothing about the Urim or that the Israelites never used it because this is “an argument from silence.”