When Biblical Names Tell a Story

When Biblical Names Tell a Story

The Bible frequently talks about the Children of Israel (or ‘Israelites’ as the old English translators would have it). In only two places does it refer to an ‘Israeli’. The Book of Samuel (II Sam 17,25), speaks of a certain Yitra the Israeli, but elsewhere he is called an Ishmaelite (1 Chronicles 2,17), so we probably can’t read too much into that. The only reliable mention of ‘Israelis’ is in Leviticus 24, in the intriguing 3-verse passage where the son of an ‘Egyptian man’ and an ‘Israeli woman’ gets into a fight with an ‘Israeli man’.

The passage is unusual not just for its use of the word ‘Israeli’. It is one of only three instances in the Torah where laws were clarified in response to specific events. The others are the case of the man who gathered sticks on Shabbat, and the limited rights of women to inherit land. Continue reading

Atonement- A Made Up Word with an Impossible Meaning

When, in 1530, William Tyndale translated the Pentateuch, an offence against the Church for which he would pay with his life, he found there were certain Hebrew words that had no direct equivalent in English. Tyndale, who had already translated the Christian Bible into English from Greek had known no Hebrew before he started his project. He must have doubted his grasp of the language when he came across words that, as far as he could tell, had no meaning in English.

But Tyndale was both imaginative and brave, he could hardly have dared defy Henry VIII and the Bishops otherwise. If he came across a Hebrew word he couldn’t translate, he invented a new English word to explain it. Among the new words that appear for the first time in Tyndale’s Bible are network, thanksgiving, Passover, circumcised, birthright and whoremonger.

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Noah, a priest and an outcast walk into the Bible

Among the many inspirational passages in the Bible there are some, quite a few in fact, that seem to be exceedingly dull. Chapter 14 of Leviticus appears to be about as uninspiring as any. It deals with the purification ritual for someone diagnosed with the disease we erroneously translate as leprosy. The previous chapter described how the sufferer was declared unclean and quarantined outside the camp; chapter 14 describes the ceremony they undergo, once cured, to allow them home.

But dull as it might sound, the chapter has hidden depths. It contains several motifs which, occurring elsewhere in the Torah, draw our attention to similarities between different passages. If we could only understand them properly, these similarities might lead us to identify a complex web of connections linking all the symbolism in the Torah into a literary whole. Continue reading

A Spiritual Disease

The skin condition which is poorly translated as leprosy in English versions of the Bible is no ordinary disease. Sufferers from the disease are not only quarantined, as we might expect; they are also declared spiritually unclean- tamei in biblical Hebrew.

Spiritual uncleanness can occur in many ways, for example contact with a corpse or a bodily emission. But there are no other examples of spiritual uncleanness in the bible where physical isolation is also required. Continue reading

Aaron’s Sons- Evidence of an Ancient Folk Tradition?

One of the most difficult incidents to understand in the whole Bible is the death of Aaron’s two eldest sons, at the ceremony of dedication for the Tabernacle. It was supposed to be a joyous occasion. The portable sanctuary that the Israelites had constructed in the wilderness was finally finished and Aaron was being consecrated as its priest when suddenly fire came out of heaven and consumed Nadav and Avihu (Leviticus 10,2). Their offence was that they had offered ‘strange fire’ in their censers. This is usually understood to mean that they had used their own recipe to make the incense they were burning, instead of sticking to the divinely sanctioned formula.

Immediately after the event, Moses turned to Aaron, telling him that God had already warned that he would be sanctified through those who draw close to him, and that would be honoured before all the people. It is not at all clear what Moses meant and the later Jewish commentators struggle to understand it. The consensus, which is difficult for us to accept, is that somehow Nadav and Avihu were greatly privileged by being chosen to die;  the dedication of the tabernacle was such a tremendous event that it could only be fully sanctified by the death of the most righteous of all people. Moses thought that he and Aaron would be the ones to die, but it turned out that Nadav and Avihu were more deserving.

Needless to say, this explanation is not satisfying to modern sensibilities. The idea that God is appeased or even pleased by the death of people puts us in mind of horrors like child sacrifice, that the Bible itself rails against. Continue reading

Ideas That Lie Beneath the Surface

The Book of Leviticus discussing sacrifices far more widely than any other section of the Bible. Most of us do not find the idea of sacrifices stimulating, indeed many people are repelled by the thought of them. But if you believe that it is possible to find ideas and insights below the surface text of the Bible, then it is instructive to try to investigate what we may be able to learn from the lengthy and complex descriptions of sacrifices. Particularly since sacrifice does not necessarily mean slaughtering animals. A sacrifice is the giving of something one values, or of oneself, for a higher purpose, for reconciliation or propitiation.

One of the most intriguing concepts in the whole sacrificial system is the concept of piggul. It is introduced in Leviticus 7,18 where we read that if someone delays eating eats their sacrificial meal until its allotted time has passed, the sacrifice will not be accepted, it has become piggul. Continue reading

What Shall We Do With The Recalcitrant Witness?

“And should a person offend when he hears a voice in adjuration, he being a witness, or has seen or known, if he does not tell, he shall bear his punishment” (Leviticus 5,1, Robert Alter translation).

This is a strange verse, not only in its language, but in the idea that lies behind it. The word that Robert Alter translates as punishment is could equally be expressed as ‘guilt’, because although the Bible specifies actions to be taken by the offender, they are not a punishment. The word translated as ‘adjuration’ is more usually rendered to mean a curse or an oath.

The verse is discussing someone who has been called to testify in court and who fails to go. The summons they received came in the form of an oath or a curse, which would take effect if they did not heed the call. Continue reading

Why Biblical Words Matter

The final section of Exodus begins with a tally of the materials used in the construction of the Tabernacle, an enterprise which has been described in detail during the previous fourteen chapters, over one third of the book. The chapter is introduced with the words ‘these are the accounts of the Tabernacle…’

The English word ‘account’ has a dual meaning, it can refer either to a tale or to a statement about finance. The Hebrew word that is translated here as ‘account’ has many more meanings. Coming from the verbal root pkd it is one of those multi-purpose words that can be used in different ways that often seem to be unrelated, or very loosely so at best. Continue reading

Evidence of Deliberate Literary Structure in the Book of Exodus

There is a clear literary structure to the Book of Exodus. It runs far deeper than just the bare outline of the tale, opening with the enslaved Israelites being forced to build pyramids for Pharaoh and ending with them liberated, voluntarily constructing a tabernacle for God. The details of the plot, and the very choice of vocabulary itself indicates a deliberate contrast between the first and second halves of the book. Continue reading

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