By Israel Drazin


The following are more surprising interpretations of the biblical portion Shelach (Numbers 13:1-15:41) that raise interesting ideas concerning interpreting the Torah.


Why does the Bible change people’s names?

Why does the Bible state that Moses changed Hosea’s name to Yehoshua, the only change in Hebrew is an introductory letter yud? Ehrlich, who did not believe in the divine origin of the Torah, contends that we know that names change over time; a name popular in one age is varied slightly or radically in a future age.[1] He suggests that some people knew that the name Hosea was an old version of the name Yehoshua and might wonder how the man could have been called Yehoshua in the early biblical period, so the Torah states that Moses changed his name. The name Yehoshua was changed again during the days of Nehemiah, fifth century BCE,[2] to Yeshua. Ehrlich does not say so, but this name later became Jesus.


Why is the English version of Yehoshua spelt Joshua and Yeshua spelt Jesus with a J in English? Scholars changed how they transliterated Hebrew letters to English. At one time, they transliterated the Hebrew letter yud with a J. This is also why Yerushalayim became Jerusalem, Yehuda became Judah, and Yehudim (Judeans) became Jews.


Where the Israelites enslaved in Egypt?

Ehrlich did not believe that the Israelites were ever slaves in Egypt. He felt that he could support his view with: (1) None of the prophets, except Micah 6:5, mention the enslavement. (2) Micah 6:5 has a different version than the Five Books of Moses. It states that God sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to redeem the Israelites. The Five Books state that only Moses was sent and Miriam had no role in the redemption other than gathering the women to sing praises that the Israelites were saved at the Red Sea. (3) Scholars say that the song in Deuteronomy 32 is a very old composition. In this version, in 32:40, God found the Israelites in the desert. Thus, Ehrlich feels that the original Israelites were desert nomads who conquered parts of Canaan, settled it, forgot their origin after some generations, and invented a legend that they were saved by God from slavery and brought to Canaan.[3]


The Institute for Biblical and Scientific Studies seems to confirm Ehrlich’s view in its article Biblical Archeology:

                   Therefore the best explanation for all of the archaeological evidence seems to be that Israel is a confederation of Hapiru tribes in the hill country of Canaan, that formed the nation of Israel in the Iron Age. Originally, Abraham was part of an Amorite migration south into Canaan from Mesopotamia which continued down to Egypt climaxing in the Hyksos rule. The exodus is to be identified with the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt by Ahmose (1570-50 BC; Frerichs and Lesko, 1997, 82, 96). Then they wandered in the wilderness being included among the Shasu, and caused the fall of MBIIIC cities in Canaan (the conquest). The Conquest was not total but just in the highlands for Egypt controlled the lower lands and coast. They were called Hapiru (from which the name Hebrew originates) in the Amarna period (time of the judges) until their league was consolidated into 12 tribes which became the nation of Israel in the Iron Age.


The Oral Law

Many Jews are convinced that the “oral law” are interpretations and additions to what is written in the Torah and that both were revealed by God to the Israelites at Mount Sinai through Moses. Numbers 15:32-36 as well as many other biblical sources show that this is not true. This section tells that the Israelites found “a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day.” Moses had to enquire of God “because it had not been declared (when the Sabbath laws were promulgated) what should be done to him.”[4] Rashi quotes the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 40a, that they knew that he is punished by death but did not know “by which kind of death he should die.” It is clear that not all laws or details about laws were mentioned at Sinai. What then is the meaning of “the oral law was given at Sinai”? The oral law is so important that it is as if it had been revealed at Sinai.[5]


[1] A good example is Jews who were first called Hebrews, then Israelites (often mistranslated as children of Israel), then after the split between the northern country of Israel, the southern people were named Judeans because most of them were descendant of the tribe Judah. Judeans was latter shortened to Jews.

[2] See Nehemiah 8:17.

[3] The fact that the Egyptian slavery is not mentioned in the prophets is similar to the absence of any mention of the Torah and the observance of the Torah commands in the early books of the prophets until the book II Kings during the religious reforms of King Josiah who reigned from 641-609 BCE (II Kings 22).

[4] This is one of three instances where the Bible states that Moses had to ask God what the law is. See also Numbers 27:5 and the Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 119a-120 a, and Shabbat 96b, about whether the daughters of Zelophehad could inherit. See Numbers 9:8 where Moses needs to ask God how to treat the men who could not observe the Pascal sacrifice on time.

[5] Oral laws are additions to and modifications of Torah laws that were developed during the post-biblical period by the rabbis at different times to address the changed needs of the post-biblical periods. The oral law is the basis of rabbinic Judaism and is in contrast to Torah Judaism, which takes the Bible literally. Sadducees during the second temple period and Karaites that began in the Middle Ages took the Bible literally. Pharisees and later rabbis did not. An example is “eye for an eye” which literally means that if a person took out an eye of another person he is punished by losing an eye. The rabbis changed the law to monetary compensation which is the value of the injured eye. Another example of oral law is “prozbul.” The Torah states that all debts are canceled during the Sabbatical year that occurs every seventh year. Noticing that this cancellation had a detrimental effect upon commerce, the sage Hillel developed a procedure during the beginning of the Common Era that debts symbolically assigned to a court would not be cancelled.