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B'Midbar/Numbers 27:6 And the L-rd said to Moshe, to say:
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Not, perhaps, the most intuitively valuable piece of Hebrew text. Two instances of the same speech verb - , to say - in the two most frequent forms: , the Qal 3ms prefix form with a vav-conversive, "and he said"; , the Qal infinitive construct, "to say" or more often in English translations, "saying".HaShem is the speaker and Moshe the receiver of the speech, but then in most of the Torah HaShem nearly always is speaking to Moshe. What makes this piece of commonplace narration text worth our focus this week? Alone among the major versions the CJB captures the essence of what is going on, rendering it "Adonai answered Moshe." Even the newer TLV goes for "and Adonai spoke to Moshe saying", which both misses the point and incorrectly translates as 'speak' rather than 'say'. To be fair to the other translations, doesn't literally mean 'answer'; we would expect , the Qal 3ms prefix form from the root for that, but the CJB has correctly interpreted the context and flow of the conversation at this point.
Let's step back and see what is going on and how we reached this point. The five daughters of Zelophehad have just appealed to "Moshe, Eleazar, the chiefs of the tribes and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting" (B'Midbar 27:2) for the right to inherit their father's putative ancestral land holding. He had no sons and, like the rest of the Exodus generation, has died in the wilderness. However, with the way things had so far been defined, without any sons, his land allocation would go to his brothers and so his name - the very fact that he had existed, lived and raised five daughters - would be lost; all the more so as he was himself a first-born son and so entitled to a double share of his father's estate. In the following verses, HaShem is about to agree that the girls are right and that they should be entitled to inherit their father's land rights; later on, in Parashat Masa'ei, chapter 36, the important rider will be added to this ruling that women who inherit land holdings must be restricted to marrying within their own tribe so that land-holdings are not lost permanently to other tribes and become split up around the country like a chequerboard.
However, that still doesn't explain why this text is so important. Or does it? It has no bearing on the legal case itself, but let's see it in relation to the previous verse, both in the CJB text:
5: Moshe brought their case before Adonai.
6: Adonai answered Moshe.
Can you see the juxtaposition between our text and the 'question' being set up in the previous verse? Both verses are quite short; neither is considered long enough for an atnakh 'half-way' accent, yet the Masoretic scholars gave both verses full pointing and the normal sof posuk end-of-verse accenture. Tradition holds these two verses in tension together. We will return to the significance of this later.
Modern and traditional commentators alike are completely uninterested in this verse. All the comments, such as they are, are framed in the wider context of the text block 27:1-11. TheBekhor Shor offers the somewhat bland summary that Moshe "brought their case before HaShem. He explained, 'They have argued thus and so.'" Don Abravanel suggests that Moshe "felt sorry for them and promised to argue their case before HaShem." Chizkuni refers to the larger legal case and claims that "Moshe knew perfectly well that daughters should inherit in this case; what he did not know was whether they had a claim to their father's double share as a first-born." Rabbi Hirsch explains that "inasmuch as the the following laws are introduced by and not by , it appears to be not the heading of a new set of laws but explanation of a canon which has already been given." Jacob Milgrom points out that "Moshe alone could bring the case before the L-rd, as implied in Shemot 18:19, exemplified in Vayikra 24:13 and B'Midbar 9:8-9 and 15:34-36 and confirmed, in this case, in Joshua 17:3-6."
PerhapsTargum Jonathan offers the most significant comment on our target verse couplet, praising Moshe since he thereby taught "the heads of the Sanhedrin of Israel that were destined to arise after him, that ... they should not be embarrassed to ask for assistance in cases too difficult for them. For even Moshe, who was Master of Israel, had to say, 'I have not understood.' Therefore Moshe brought their case before the L-rd." The modern Christian commentator Dennis Cole tells us that "the response begins with the precedent-setting divine formula, thus utilising an important thematic element of the book of Numbers. The structure provides a pre-cursor to the midrashic process whereby matters of legal consequence not explicitly addressed in Torah would be posed to the council of religious elders for dialogue and decision. Applicable Torah precedents were brought to bear on the discussion, then the council ruling was disseminated to the Jewish communities."1
Now let's go back to the text. Without the surrounding context, we can see that Moshe asks a question and HaShem responds. This is amazing: G-d is prepared to entertain questions! Plugging this into its context, Moshe raises the possibility that there is a hole in the Torah as it has been stated so far. "The girls do seem to have a point," he says, "You have stressed the importance of families, clans, genealogies, inheritance rights and knowing everyone by name - but here You seem to be taking that away again by losing their family name and line." G-d concedes: "The daughters of Zelophehad are right" (B'Midbar 27:7, ESV), and then goes on to make it a general rule, applying to all the tribes and families: "If a man dies and has no son, then you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter" (v. 8, ESV) and only if there is no daughter do the normal male inheritance rules apply. Not only is G-d prepared to entertain questions, this text shows that we can ask questions and expect to get a response - that HaShem is interested in a conversation, not a monologue.
Does that pattern persist through Israelite history? Was it just a quirk of Moshe's unique relationship with HaShem? When the Israelites moved on from Jericho to the city of Ai, at their first attack they were routed. Appalled at the loss of life (and face) Joshua and the elders fall on their faces before HaShem and cry out to Him, asking what happened. The narrator goes on, "But the L-RD answered Joshua: 'Arise! Why do you lie prostrate?'" (Joshua 7:10, NJPS) and then details exactly what went wrong. That's very direct question and answer! After Joshua's time, the conversations seem to take place through an intermediary, a prophet. Deborah brings HaShem's instructions to Barak; Samuel speaks for HaShem to Saul and Nathan to David. After having fallen ill, king Hezekiah cries out to HaShem for healing and Isaiah brings him a positive reply. Hezekiah asks, "What is the sign that the L-RD will heal me and that I shall go up to the House of the LORD on the third day?" (2 Kings 20:8, NJPS) and is given a choice of the shadow going up or down ten steps. Ahaz is offered a sign that the Assyrians will not take Jerusalem - "Ask for a sign from the L-RD your G-d, anywhere down to Sheol or up to the sky" (Isaiah 7:11, NJPS) - but declines and is given one anyway: "Assuredly, my Lord will give you a sign of His own accord! Look, the young woman is with child and about to give birth to a son. Let her name him Immanuel" (v. 14, NJPS).
When we get to the gospels, we find Yeshua constantly answering questions. Now, to be sure, people may not have got an answer to the question they appeared to ask - rather the one they didn't really ask - but they always got an answer. Even those asking trick questions or demanding a sign received a response: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's" (Luke 20:25, ESV) or "the sign of the prophet Jonah" (Matthew 12:39, ESV). The only time Yeshua made no answer was before Herod; even Pilate and the Sanhedrin were eventually given something. Think of all the questions Yeshua did answer: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mark 10:17, ESV), "Who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29, ESV), "How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?" (John 4:9, ESV), "Why do you speak to them in parables?" (Matthew 13:10, ESV). Yeshua wants us to ask questions so that we can learn from Him; He wants to be able to quell our uncertainties and meet us when we are afraid or facing times of trial. Questions and answers are a key part of the dialogue that should be at the heart of our relationship with Yeshua.
Rav Sha'ul and the other apostolic writers also show that they are answering questions in their letters and addressing issues that have been the subject of previous letters or conversations. They make it clear that that responsibility devolves onto us today. Paul urges Timothy to, "be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching" (2 Timothy 4:2, ESV). This means: answering questions, fielding queries, responding to challenges - being there for people. This is so important in these days because Sha'ul warns that "the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions" (v. 3, ESV). If we don't answer their questions correctly and truthfully, from the Word of G-d, others will be more than ready to give them politically correct answers that will take people even further away from finding the real answers for their lives; they will "turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths" (v. 4, ESV).
Here's the truth that Moshe understood when he asked HaShem for a legal decision on this point: he was the leader and had a responsibility for all those who looked up to him. He knew that HaShem would reply and give him a definite and non-ambiguous answer that he could use and implement. And here - borrowing Rav Sha'ul's words - is what HaShem meant when He replied: "You must teach these things and encourage the believers to do them. You have the authority to correct them when necessary, so don't let anyone disregard what you say" (Titus 2:15, NLT). We stand in the shoes of Moshe and Sha'ul; we can be certain that when we ask G-d a question, He will provide an answer. Likewise, we follow the example of Yeshua - questions are good and we must answer them, just as Yeshua answers ours.
1. - R. Dennis Cole, Numbers The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), page 466.
Further Study: Colosians 4:6; 1 Peter 1:13-17
Application: What about you - how are you with questions? Do you listen carefully and try to make sure that the other person feels heard and understood before answering? Or are you uncomfortable with others' questions because they touch your own? Pursue the Heavenly Question Master today and get your questions answered, then you can help others. Even if you don't know the whole answer, you know the man who does!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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