By Israel Drazin


Numbers 26:3 and 4 seem to have lost words. They state: “Moses and Eleazar the priest spoke with them in the plains of Moab by the Jordan of Jericho saying …from twenty years and upward; as the Lord commanded Moses and the Israelites that exited the land of Egypt.” Borrowing from the late fourth century Aramaic translation Onkelos, Rashi supplies the implied missing material: They said to them: “You must count.”


This is not a unique occurrence in the Torah. The classical example is the incident of Cain murdering his brother Abel in Genesis 4:8: “Cain said to his brother Abel…and it happened that when they were in the field, Cain rose against Abel and killed him.” The verse does not reveal what Cain said and Bible translators and commentators could only speculate about it. Onkelos does not guess what Cain said. Saadiah wrote that Cain approached Abel by speaking to him. Rashi conjectures that Cain started an argument with his brother. Ibn Ezra thinks that Cain revealed to Abel what God told him, a communication recorded in the prior verse. Midrash Genesis Rabbah has the brothers discuss dividing the world between them. The Greek translation Septuagint, Samaritan Bible,[1] and the Aramaic translations Pseudo-Jonathan and Neophyti insert Cain’s implied statement, “Come, let’s go outside.”


How should we understand the phenomenon of absent words and phrases? There are essentially four approaches and readers can select the one they like. (1) Events and utterances were intentionally omitted to create obscurities that allow readers to participate and decide how they want to understand the episode; for all good literature contains obscurities and ambiguities. (2) Lost speeches and occurrences were in the original text, copyist negligently passed over them, and no one caught the mistakes. (3) Some texts were intentionally written with absent remarks and others were errors. (4) Translate words in different ways. Genesis’ “said” could mean “spoke” or “talked,” suggesting that the brothers spoke to one another before Cain struck Abel. Number’s “spoke” could be understood as “related”: Moses and Eleazar did not tell the leaders to count the people, but informed them of the results of the count.


[1][1][1] The Samaritan Bible is in Hebrew, but it has many differences from the Masoretic text used by Jews today. Scholars speculate about the reason for the differences. Some go so far as to say that the Septuagint, Masoretic text, and Samaritan Bible are three different strands based on an original, no longer existing Bible. I think that the Septuagint and Samaritan Bible contain changes made to meet the needs of the people in the communities of the writers. Most of the Septuagint alterations were designed to clarify the text and many of the Samaritan changes focused on their concept of Judaism.