By Israel Drazin
We have been offering some unusual and controversial Bible interpretations that the Jewish iconoclast Arnold B. Ehrlich (1848-1919) placed in his book Mikra Ki-Pheshuto (The Bible According to its Literal Meaning) with the hope that whether readers agree with them or not they will provoke thought. We added some ideas by the Orthodox Jewish thinker Baruch Epstein (1860-1919) from his biblical commentary Torah Temimah (The Perfect Torah). He raises penetrating questions and rational solutions that are generally traditional. We included some interpretations by the famed Bible commentator Rashi (1040-1105) who unlike the other two fills his commentary with derash, homiletical interpretations that others are unable to see in the plain meaning of the biblical text. The parenthetical statements are mine, making the presentation a quartet of different sounds. The following are some comments on the biblical portion Shemot (Exodus 1:1 to 6:2).
- The second biblical book begins in Hebrew with the letter vav, which most people translate “and.” Actually, the letter also means “thus,” “then,” “so,” “because,” and the like; most biblical subjects begin with the letter; and ten of the eleven portions in Exodus (parshiot) start with it. Ignoring its ubiquitous nature and that it a common biblical style signifying nothing extraordinary, commentators who enjoy discovering homiletical lessons in the Torah text use it to teach lessons. Thus, Jacob ben Asher (c. 1269- c. 1340), known as Baal HaTurim, stated that this vav was intentionally placed at the outset of this book to attach it to what is in the former volume dealing with Joseph’s death. While Joseph changed his name to Zaphenath-paneach (Genesis 41:45), his brothers retained their Hebrew names, as indicated in the beginning of Exodus. This teaches, he says, that the Israelites were saved from extinction during their years of servitude because they did not relinquish their Hebrew names. (This, of course, is a non-sequitur, a practice that appears frequently in the commentaries of Baal HaTurim.) Rashi does not expound upon the vav here, but does so in 21:1 to teach that just as the Ten Commandments were revealed at Sinai, so were the laws in this biblical portion.
- Abraham ibn Ezra states that when Scripture states in 1:8 that a new king arose who did not know Joseph the new king was from a different dynasty, and this explains why he didn’t know about the great contributions Joseph made to Egypt. Ehrlich disagrees: Joseph’s status and esteem decreased very soon after the years of famine. It is natural that nations remember their military heroes but not those who made economic contributions to the nation’s survival.
- Pharaoh laments in 1:9, “Behold, the Israelite people are too many and too mighty for us.” Ehrlich: It is impossible that a group of 70 individuals should in this short period grow larger and stronger than the mighty Egyptian population and military. The Bible has many hyperbolic statements. Pharaoh meant: They are larger and stronger than we want them to be.
- Exodus’ opening chapter repeatedly refers to the Israelites in the singular, such as in verse 10, “Come let us deal shrewdly with him.” “Come” refers to the Egyptians and “him” to the Israelites, but both are singular in the Hebrew. Recognizing that the Bible frequently uses the singular when the plural is intended, and vice versa, the Aramaic translation called Onkelos pluralizes both terms, as well as the other singulars in the chapter. Rashi points out that the Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11a, understands the singular to refer to the individual who will try to deliver the Israelites from slavery. Ehrlich asks: What’s the problem? The verse is speaking of the Israelite nation which is singular. He explains that in the Bible nation is usually rendered in the plural, but not here.
- Pharaoh ordered the two meyaldot haibriyot (1:15), generally translated as “Hebrew midwives,” to kill all male children under their care. The Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11b, reports one view that one midwife was Yochebed and the other Miriam, mother and sister of Moses, a concept accepted by Rashi; and another idea that the second woman was Elisheba, Aaron’s wife. Epstein: Both views are impossible. Miriam was only about five years old at the time and Aaron, who was three, was unmarried. Perhaps the rabbis meant that they were helpers, although the plain meaning of the text is that they were the midwives. It is also possible that the midwives were Egyptian and the text should be read as if the word “of” is implied: “midwives of Hebrews.”
- 2:6 states that Pharaoh’s daughter recognized that the baby that Moses’ mother placed in the ark was a Hebrew. What made her conclude that he was a Hebrew? The Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 12b, explains that she saw he was circumcised. Ehrlich mocks the rabbis and writes that they didn’t know that the famed fifth century BCE Greek historian Herodotus, the “father of history,” visited Egypt and reported in 36:37 of his history that Egyptians circumcised their boys for health reasons.
- Ehrlich: While a cursory reading of 2:7 seems to indicate that Moses’ sister Miriam overheard Pharaoh’s daughter’s conversation with her attendants and rushed forward and offered to find a Hebrew midwife, such a reading isn’t plausible. Miriam must have stood far away from the princess, even as the Bible itself states, and could not overhear her conversation. Besides, it is unlikely that a female slave would run to a princess to offer advice. Also, if she did so, the princess would certainly realize that the slave girl was related to the baby. Thus we should understand that Miriam gave her advice on another occasion (such as when she was serving the princess in the palace).
- Ehrlich: Scripture frequently states that a certain child was given a name because of a certain reason; but we cannot rely on this being true. In 2:10, Pharaoh’s daughter gives Moses a Hebrew name, but she didn’t speak Hebrew. (However, since the Torah states that she knew the baby was a Hebrew, she may have consulted wise people to give the child a Hebrew name. Furthermore, Moses was most likely an Egyptian name; there were pharaohs called Tuthmosis.)
- 3:1 seems to be an anachronism. It describes Moses traveling to the “mountain of God.” Mount Sinai did not become the “mountain of God” until the Ten Commandments were revealed there. Ehrlich: Even before the Decalogue was revealed, the Israelites thought that this was God’s mountain because God lived there. (This is similar to the Greek notion that the gods dwelt on Olympus. Similarly, some scholars translate God’s name El Shaddai as “Mountain God,” referring to Sinai. El Shaddai was also the name of a Mesopotamian god.) Rashi: The Torah calls it “mountain of God” even though this name was only appropriate later, because it would be called so later. (By using the name now, Bible readers would understand the events better. This anachronistic usage is not unusual. It is in Genesis 22:2, “land of Moriah,” and elsewhere.)
- (3:15’s “this is my name forever” does not mean that God will not change his name. The Torah’s “name” frequently means “essence,” “nature,” “power,” and the like. God is saying: I will not change.)
- Ehrlich: In 3:22, Israelite women are told to borrow from Egyptians “that live in her house.” This seems impossible; Egyptians wouldn’t live with slaves, and if some did, they would be so poor that they would have nothing the Israelites wanted. Perhaps the Torah means borrow from people in whose houses you live as slaves, such as maids, cooks, and ground keepers.
- Ehrlich: Why did Moses’ wife circumcise their child with a flint knife instead of a sharper bronze blade (4:25)? The ancients used flint knives for circumcision before the Bronze Age and the Israelites wanted to continue the practice as their ancestors performed it. (Although flint knives are no longer used for circumcision for health and safety reasons, other ancient practices haven’t been updated. Candles, for instance, are preferred for lighting on Friday nights rather than electric bulbs; and synagogue Torahs are written on ancient parchment without vowels as of old, since books and vowels were introduced after the Torah was revealed.