Monday, December 20, 2010

A blessing for Yosef, or for his sons?

Summary: Rumors of a popular variant have been greatly exaggerated. And in fact, context can support a blessing for Yosef alone.

Post: In parashat Vaychi, we read:

15. And he blessed Joseph and said, "God, before Whom my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, walked, God Who sustained me as long as I am alive, until this day,טו. וַיְבָרֶךְ אֶת יוֹסֵף וַיֹּאמַר הָאֱ־לֹהִים אֲשֶׁר הִתְהַלְּכוּ אֲבֹתַי לְפָנָיו אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק הָאֱ־לֹהִים הָרֹעֶה אֹתִי מֵעוֹדִי עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה:
16. may the angel who redeemed me from all harm bless the youths, and may they be called by my name and the name of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, and may they multiply abundantly like fish, in the midst of the land."טז. הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל רָע יְבָרֵךְ אֶת הַנְּעָרִים וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי וְשֵׁם אֲבֹתַי אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק וְיִדְגּוּ לָרֹב בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ:

Basing myself on DovBear on the Parsha for Vayichee --
For 48:15 the MT gives "ויברך את־יוסף ויאמר האלהים אשר התהלכו אבתי לפניו אברהם ויצחק האלהים הרעה אתי מעודי עד־היום הזה׃" The context does not support a blessing for Joseph alone, and other ancient texts (the Peshita and the LXX among them) give and "he blessed them" instead.
Though he does not explicitly state it here, he has explicitly stated the argument elsewhere, that when a number of ancient texts (from different rescensions) are in accord, and solve a problem, this should be taken as evidence that this was the original text, against the Masoretic text. I am not persuaded by this argument, in the general case, and feel that I have greater experience in evaluating this sort of manuscript evidence.

The reason I point this out is that DovBear errs in claiming that the Peshitta supports this variant reading. In fact, it supports the Masoretic text. As does the Samaritan text. The Dead Sea Scrolls do NOT provide any evidence supporting this variant reading. In fact, the only text I find that supports this reading is the LXX, that is, the Septuagint. So one should not say "other ancient texts (the Peshita and the LXX among them)", which suggests this broad accord. This is not just a dispute about a single data point. There is an entire argument that hinges upon this. (Maybe other sources suggest this, but looking in Speiser in Anchor Bible Genesis, while adopting "blessed them" (or else suggesting the word bnei was initially present), he only attributes this reading of "them" to the LXX, and not to any other source.)

The Peshitta reads:

The Samaritan Torah reads

And thus has "he blessed Yosef" rather than "he blessed them".

The Dead Sea scrolls have the following:
The text is brackets is text which does NOT appear, but what they assume would appear there. Thus, there is no positive evidence from the DSS to Yosef in this pasuk, but on the other hand, there is no positive evidence the other way either.

The Septuagint has:

15 καὶ ηὐλόγησεν αὐτοὺς καὶ εἶπεν Ὁ θεός, ᾧ εὐηρέστησαν οἱ πατέρες μου ἐναντίον αὐτοῦ Αβρααμ καὶ Ισαακ, ὁ θεὸς ὁ τρέφων με ἐκ νεότητος ἕως τῆς ἡμέρας ταύτης

15 And he blessed them and said, The God in whose sight my fathers were well pleasing, [even] Abraam and Isaac, the God who continues to feed me from my youth until this day

Still, doesn't "he blessed them" work better? Absolutely, which is why one needs to watch out for it. There is a principle which Biblical scholars apply judiciously called lectio difficilior, that the more difficult word or phrase is more likely original. This can, of course be overused and abused. But at the least, it should give one pause. Since, given the context, one would expect to see "them", a careless scribe or translator might more readily write "Yosef" as "them", rather than carelessly write "Yosef" in place of "them".

What about the context. Can it truly not support "Yosef" here, or is it simply more difficult? I would posit the latter. After all, what exactly does this bracha entail. Is it one of personal material wealth? Is it to find a shidduch? To have personal success in battle? No. It is a blessing to the shevet of that person. Just as the blessing to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov, was that their descendants should succeed, the blessing to Yosef is that his descendants should succeed.

Now, Yosef's only immediate descendants were Ephraim and Menashe. Yosef had been cut of from his brothers, and had raised these sons in Egypt. Perhaps they would not be counted as members of Israel. What will be their destiny? The pasuk states:

8. Then Israel saw Joseph's sons, and he said, "Who are these?"ח. וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת בְּנֵי יוֹסֵף וַיֹּאמֶר מִי אֵלֶּה:

and Rashi, based on a midrash, explains:

ויאמר מי אלה: מהיכן יצאו אלו שאינן ראוין לברכה:

This is a midrash, and the peshat may well be something different. But thematically, this does appear to be a concern of the text. But, Yaakov says that Ephraim and Menashe will be to him as Reuven and Shimon. They will be shevatim. Does this mean shevatim in general, or does it mean a double-portion? Whichever one it means, this is a blessing not to Ephraim and Menasheh, but to the descendants of Ephraim and Menashe. In Yaakov's actual blessing, this is expressed as  וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי וְשֵׁם אֲבֹתַי אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק. But the descendants of Ephraim and Menashe are precisely the descendants of Yosef. So too, the blessing that in the midst of the land, they will multiply exceedingly -- וְיִדְגּוּ לָרֹב בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ. Do you really think this is a direct blessing to Ephraim and Menashe? Obviously not! It is a blessing to their descendants, and to their shevet.

Then, take וַיְבָרֶךְ אֶת יוֹסֵף as the shevet of Yosef. Or take it as Yosef, but the blessing to Yosef is via his two sons, with precisely the same end result. Is this more difficult? Absolutely. Is it impossible? I don't think so, and so I would not say that "the context does not support a blessing for Joseph alone."

Update: As DovBear clarifies in the comment section, he means that besides the Septuagint, there is the Vulgate translation of the Bible into Latin and some Syriac translation. DovBear is basing himself (justifiably) on Robert Alter, who is simply wrong in this case. On page 279 of The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary by Robert Alter, he writes:

Consideration of how Alter uses the term Syriac across his work, it seems that it is just another name for Peshitta. So Alter is just wrong in this case.

But in terms of the Vulgate, it seems to be sloppiness leading to error. The Vulgate has:
'benedixitque Ioseph filio suo et ait Deus in cuius conspectu ambulaverunt patres mei Abraham et Isaac Deus qui pascit me ab adulescentia mea usque in praesentem diem'
'And Jacob blessed the sons of Joseph, and said: God, in whose sight my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, God that feedeth me from my youth until this day:'
Thus, an insertion of sons of before Yosef, just as Speiser suggested above. I would not consider this to be a parallel text to the Septuagint, since it 'fixes' the problem in an entirely different way. Rather, this should suggest to use that translators were troubled by this difficulty we have seen and saw fit to 'fix' the text; and different translators fixed it in different ways.

So DovBear was incorrect about there being this broad accordance for "blessed them", but he was simply relying on (popular) scholarship which turned out to be erroneous.

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