Ibn Ezra: Strange Interpretations




Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164) was a brilliant thinker and had views about the Bible that are quite different than most people have today; some ideas were rational, others, as I will show, were not. The following are some of his understandings of the second book of the Hebrew Bible, Exodus.


Ibn Ezra wrote that the Bible included some apparently inaccurate biblical statements because it was composed for people and had to focus on what they could understand with their often primitive mind-set. Thus, for example, the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:3 states, “You shall have no other gods before me,” which could suggest the existence of more than a single deity, because the masses mistakenly believed in the existence of other gods. Also, the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:2 explains that God brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt and doesn’t mention the loftier concept of the divine creation of the world because the masses who were just freed from slavery would understand this fact better. Maimonides (1138-1204) said the same thing. For example, he explained in his Guide of the Perplexed 1:26 that the Bible describes God in human terms even though God has no human features because of the primitive understanding of the people it was addressing. Thus, he clarified that the phrase “written by the finger of God” should be understood as “by the word of God or by the will of God,” for God has no fingers.


Contrary to the traditional teaching that every biblical word was dictated by God to Moses, ibn Ezra apparently believed that there was an editor, or redactor, who arranged the order of biblical verses. In his commentary to Exodus 6:28, he states: “we are surprised at the editor: why did he connect this verse with those that follow.”


But ibn Ezra also had notions that many people would consider base superstitions. He believed that astrology was a true science. He used it to explain Exodus 8:15’s statement that Pharaoh’s Egyptian advisers informed him that the plague of lice was the “finger of God,” which ibn Ezra understood meant that the lice were not produced by Moses and Aaron but were an astrological phenomenon. Thus, the advisers urged Pharaoh not to be concerned about Moses and Aaron’s apparent miracle. They didn’t create the lice, so you don’t have to comply with their demand.


Contrary to the view of Maimonides and others, he informs us repeatedly that the land of Israel is uniquely holy. Ownership of land in Israel is like having a portion in the world-to-come (Genesis 33:19).  Behavior that was allowed outside of it was not permitted in holy Israel. Thus, Jacob, required his family to “put away the strange gods” before entering Israel (Genesis 35:2), Jacob could marry two sisters (Genesis 29) and Amram, Moses’ father, his aunt (Exodus 2:1), although this is contrary to Torah law, because they were not living in the holy land. Nachmanides expressed the same view in his commentaries to Genesis 26:5 and Leviticus 18:25. However, Nachmanides (about 1089-1164) adds the rather strange notion that God caused Jacob’s wife Rachel to die when she entered the holy land to avoid causing Jacob to sin by living with two sisters.


Ibn Ezra also had a rather restrictive position as to whether Jews are allowed to use physicians. Exodus 21:19 states “and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed.” The Talmud (b. Bava Kamma 85a) reports that the school of R. Ishmael derived from this verse that the Torah allows Jews to be healed by physicians. Ibn Ezra states in his long commentary to this verse (he also wrote a short commentary) that permission to use a physician is restricted to external wounds, but internal wounds must be left to God to heal. Tov Elam, in Zophnat Paneach (on this verse) explains that ibn Ezra interprets the passage to allow only the healing of wounds, not illnesses. In ibn Ezra’s short commentary to this verse and his long commentary to Exodus 23:25, 26, he is more restrictive.  He states that the talmudic view is the opinion of a single individual. The truth, in his opinion, is that Jews, or at least Torah-observant Jews, should never use physicians but they should rely only on God. For Exodus 15:26 states: “I, the Lord, am your doctor” and Exodus 23:25 promises health to the observant.