Oh irony of ironies. Here we have a verse that speaks of corruption and/or imperfection that is and of itself corrupt and imperfect.
The text of the first half of Deuteronomy 32:5 has been a puzzle to scholars for millennia. As it appears in the Masoretic text of the Torah, it doesn’t really make any sense. The grammar is all wrong. Scholars have posited all sorts of scribal errors as being responsible for the now (obviously, for them) corrupt text.
שִׁחֵת ל֛וֹ לֹא בָּנָיו מוּמָם
Literally translated it reads:
He has dealt corruptly with him, not his sons their blemish.
Makes no sense in or out of context. Verbs, nouns and modifiers don’t agree.
The Masoretes themselves certainly understood just how “wrong” this piece of text was. This begs the question – why didn’t they edit or revise it in a way that it made sense. There’s clear evidence the Masoretes did this elsewhere, so why not here?
The committee that edited the most recent JPS translation decided upon:
“Children unworthy of Him (sic)”
It seems to work within the general flow of the text, but it’s not perfect.
Other translations largely depend on reconstructing the text, imagining it as it may have been before scribal errors crept in. Some translations require changing word order, or changing look-a-like letters, or adding or dropping letters. Vorlage, the scholars call it, from the German word for template. Translating the text from an attempted re-creation of what the original textual template might have been before it became corrupted somehow. Yes, this requires the application of a great deal of scholarship, and I won’t begrudge any scholar the attempt. Nevertheless, it seems like pretty shaky ground-even if scholars are using other extant translations (like the Septuagint) to bolster their recreation of the vorlage. Yet this is the sort of thing that a lot of biblical scholarship is based on. Sort of akin to a criticism I often raise about archaeology, which, from a fraction of a fraction of the detritus of a civilization attempts to extrapolate all it can about that society-how it lived, worked, ate, worshipped, etc. That’s not a put down. I love archaeology, and I have great admiration for those who do the work, just as I have great admiration for biblical scholars. At best, I’m, an amateur in both areas. Yet I accept that often the work is like building a house of cards. I know this is just as true as my own biblical exegesis-and I’m willing to live with that reality. It won’t stop me from studying and commenting.
So here we have this document, which, according to some, was directly given to Moses at Sinai by G”d. So maybe G”d understands Hebrew differently? Surely, G”d would not be guilty of using bad grammar?
According to others, we have a Torah which is clearly a work of human creation, and it bears all the signs and hallmarks of having been edited and redacted, and having suffered scribal and other errors that have been perpetuated in subsequent handing downs.
Neither viewpoint makes complete sense. At the same time, both arguments have some merit. Being created by G”d does not mean the text has to be perfect – that’s just an understanding superimposed on the text through the lens of a particular way of understanding G”d. That the text has imperfections is no proof that it is of only human origin. I once again also ask why the Masoretes didn’t seek to fix this particular error in the text?
Perhaps they didn’t bother because they weren’t troubled by it. Not that they didn’t realize something was wrong with that-they couldn’t help but notice. They simply chose to overlook it, they didn’t let it bother them.
Soon we will be beginning another yearly cycle of reading the Torah. We’ll encounter it all again – warts and all. That, my friends, is what it is all about. Here is our Torah, warts and all. We can accept it, warts and all, as Divine. We can reject it because it has imperfections. We can embrace it despite its imperfections. Or we can embrace it because of its imperfections. I think you know that I fall in that last camp. I hope you enjoy Torah’s imperfections as much as I enjoy them, and that they compel you to continue to read, study, and learn.
Shabbat Shalom and Gm’ar Chatima Tovah,
©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester