Monday, January 01, 2007

Spinoza on the Parasha

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!

10 comments:

B. Spinoza said...

>From the perspective of context, we must assume that this is a reference to the same "ha-mita" that Yaaqov used for bowing only three verses earlier.

I don't know how you can make that inference. The next episode could have taken place hours or even days later. There is no reason to think it's referring to the same thing.

47:31 is translated as leaning on his staff by Shmuel ben Chofni Gaon and the Septuagint

Admit it, you just liked the punchline. :)

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Thanks for the input...I will look up those sources. But you must admit that Hebrews committed a major blunder, and Spinoza looked the other way!

Even according to regular Hebrew idiom, "bowing on the head of his staff" is cumbersome. Furthermore, the text indicates that Yosef came to Yaaqov and he was nearing death, so it is reasonable to assume that he was in bed and not standing supported by a staff (although this is not absolutely certain, of course).

The definite article "ha" in both cases makes the inference that they are the same pretty compelling too.

I won't deny that I found the punch line attractive...

B. Spinoza said...

>Thanks for the input

sure, no problem

>But you must admit that Hebrews committed a major blunder

I'll take your word for it, since I didn't see it inside

>Even according to regular Hebrew idiom, "bowing on the head of his staff" is cumbersome.

leaning on his staff would be a better way of saying it and bowing to the head of his bed makes even less sense.

>Furthermore, the text indicates that Yosef came to Yaaqov and he was nearing death, so it is reasonable to assume that he was in bed and not standing supported by a staff

actually Spinoza addressed that point:

"Now as in this narrative it is Jacob's age only that is in question, and not his illness, which is not touched on till the next chapter, it seems more likely that the historian intended to say that Jacob bent over the head of his staff (a thing commonly used by men of advanced age for their support) than that he bowed himself at the head of his bed, especially as for the former reading no substitution of letters is required"

As I mentioned above there is no reason to think that the two narratives happened at the same time. In the first narrative Yakov may have been old but relatively healthy.

>The definite article "ha" in both cases makes the inference that they are the same pretty compelling too.

I'm not sure I agree with that. But I don't know Hebrew well enough to argue the point

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

I realize that Spinoza tries to account for the difference, but I am not sure he makes a good case. Even in the first story, Yaaqov is described as nearing death and summoning Yosef to make funeral arrangements.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

You are right that neither on the head of the bead nor on the head of the staff is smooth. But bowing on a bed I can understand. Bowing on a staff, at least in the way I think the term hishtachavaya is normally used in Tanach (prostration of the body) as opposed to the Biblical term keriya (bending), sounds odd.

littlefoxling said...

The following is not extremely compelling, but I'll give my two cents anyway

1. The proximity of the two verses, even without the "ha" part, would be reason to suggest the word has the same meaning in the two. The bed comes up a third time in 49:32. It seems to be a repeating motif, and a logical one, as Yaakov is dieing here.

2. Many people bow in the Bible. Never is a staff mentioned. Why here? But, if Yaakov was sick, we understand why he is in bed.

3. The word “ha” is a little out of place either way. It’s not so bad, as the existence of the staff or bed, could be assumed, but it’s a little bad. But, I think it’s better with the bed than the staff. If we do assume that Yaakov is nearing his death here, the bed is assumed because the image in the reader’s mind is of Yaakov in bed. Although it was not mentioned, it’s the subtext of the story. But, if it’s a staff, I see no reason that the reader should be aware of its existence before this point.

B. Spinoza said...

keep in mind that Spinoza was not primarily interested in pshat in the Torah. His point was to inform the non Hebrew speaker that Hebrew has no vowels and therefore makes Bible interpretation to be tricky at times. Our whole discussion emphasizes his point

B. Spinoza said...

>But you must admit that Hebrews committed a major blunder, and Spinoza looked the other way!


Having thought about this some more, I'll ask why do you think the Hebrews blundered? It sounds to me like they just had a different tradition. I think this may show your bias towards the rabbinic tradition that's it's necessarily authoritative. but why should a Christian agree?

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

His point was to inform the non Hebrew speaker that Hebrew has no vowels and therefore makes Bible interpretation to be tricky at times.

No doubt he was right about this point. I was only commenting on the specific illustration he uses.

Having thought about this some more, I'll ask why do you think the Hebrews blundered? It sounds to me like they just had a different tradition.

The gospels were written long, long after the Tanach was canonized. They were composed for the most part by Jews with a traditional, vague familiarity with Tanach but not necessarily rigorous knowledge of its details. So their references to Tanach are oftentimes just slightly off, like a person quoting a text he has read without looking it up to double-check on the specifics.

Errors like this abound in the New Testament, and there is no evidence that they had "alternate sources" to rely on - on the contrary, they were communicating to mainstream Jews in terms of the sources they thought those Jews would be familiar with. That was the whole point of much of their writing.

And the Christian community of course accepted the Jewish canon as its basis, not an alternate version of Tanach that harmonized with the gospels. This suggests that they weren't using such an alternate version to begin with.

tsi said...

How many years after the event was the Mishnah, Talmud etc written down?