In the seventh chapter of his classic Theologico-Political Treatise, Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza takes issue with the reliability of the Masoretic version of the Bible - the official version that we all use today - and in particular with the way we vowelize the text. He points out that, in the original Hebrew, vowels are not indicated, and that this leaves the meaning of some words ambiguous. We rely upon tradition to provide us with the proper rendition of these terms, but, in Spinoza's opinion, this tradition is really nothing more than a later rabbinic interpretation and may not represent the true intent of the Biblical authors. By way of illustration, he cites a verse in this week's Parasha, Vayehi (Genesis 47:31):
And he [Yaaqov] said, "Swear to me", and he [Yosef] swore to him; and Yaaqov bowed on the head of the bed (Heb. "ha-mita").
Spinoza, drawing support from allusions to this verse in the New Testament, suggests that the Masoretic reading of "ha-mita" ("the bed") is actually a corruption of "ha-mateh" ("the staff"). Without vowelization, the spelling of these words in Hebrew is identical - both are written heh-mem-tet-heh - so neither pronounciation would be ruled out by the Torah's text alone. Thus, according to Spinoza's interpretation, the verse should be read, "And Yaaqov bowed upon the head of his staff", which seems like a reasonable thing for an elderly man to do.
Interestingly, the New Testament verse that Spinoza cites as evidence for this interpretation is Hebrews 11:21, where two different Biblical passages are obviously confused. The author of Hebrews mentions that Jacob blessed the two sons of Joseph while leaning on his staff. Spinoza takes this as an indication that the author read "ha-mita" as "the staff" and understood Genesis 47:31 to mean that Yaaqov leaned/bowed upon his staff.
The difficulty is that the verse Spinoza discusses (Genesis 47:31), which seems to be the source for the assertion in Hebrews that Yaaqov "leaned" or "bowed" on his staff, is not part of the narrative in which Yaaqov blesses his grandsons. It is instead found at the conclusion of a discussion between Yaaqov and Yosef regarding Yaaqov's eventual burial in the Land of Israel. Yaaqov bows "on the head of the bed/staff" to express his gratitude to Yosef for the latter's promise to bury him in the location of his choice. By contrast, when Yaaqov blesses Yosef's sons in the next segment of the Parasha, no mention is made of his using any staff/bed to support his body. He is only described as sitting on the bed (Gen. 48:2).
So if Spinoza is correct in his assumption that Hebrews 11:21 is based on Genesis 47:31, then we can see immediately that the author of Hebrews committed an egregious blunder, mixing up Genesis 47:31 and Genesis 48:2. Uncharacteristically, Spinoza overlooks this glaring error in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Moreover, he relies upon it in his critique of the Masoretic reading of Genesis 47:31!
The fact is, though, that there is a more basic problem with Spinoza's approach to the verse that makes it completely untenable. As we have noted, the very next paragraph in the Torah uses the term "ha-mita" again. From the context, we must assume that this is a reference to the same "ha-mita" that Yaaqov used for bowing only three verses earlier. Yet this time the Torah can only be describing a bed:
And [someone] told Yaaqov, and said - "Behold, your son Yosef is coming to you" - and Yaaqov strengthened himself, and sat up on the bed (Heb. ha-mitah).
Spinoza's interpretation would have Yaaqov sitting down on his staff. Ouch!