How Hebrew Addresses Delicate Matters-2
Hebrew language being set-apart from all other languages has no particular names for the terms of intimate relation between man and woman. Torah highly regards intimacy and carefully choose Hebrew words to describe things in a figurative manner to completely avoid vulgar language.
In the following article, we will continue what we have started in the earlier article How Hebrew Addresses Delicate Matters and explain words and passages which have either been misunderstood or avoided on account of their delicateness or complexity.
The issue of a mutilated male
Deu 23:1-2 states that if man is injured in his private parts, “he does not enter into the assembly of the LORD” (JPS). But why and how his injury disqualifies him we are not told.
The other prohibition is similar: a bastard is also excluded from the assembly. But what would be his sin of having been born in adultery?
He that is crushed or maimed in his privy parts shall not enter into the assembly of the LORD. A bastard shall not enter into the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation shall none of his enter into the assembly of the LORD. (Deu 23:2-3 JPS)
Thus, it is clear to the reader that the perception of delicate issue is expressed by the words “his privy parts” and “bastard”. What should give us pause, however, is that any person in this category is excluded from entering the assembly of YHVH. Can we rethink this?
Below is the literal translation of these verses. For the sake of emphasis and further explanation we have separated these two verses intentionally and we will explain why.
He who is wounded … bruised … and shophkah cut off, shall not enter into the community of Yehovah. (Deu 23:1)
A mamzer shall not enter the community of Yehovah, even a tenth generation of his shall not enter the community of Yehovah. (Deu 23:2)
The words in question above “wounded” and “bruised” are the Hebrew words פָּצַע patsa and דַּכָּה dakkah, respectively.
The word פָּצַע patsa, is a primitive verb and means to split (open), like to open a wound. It is used only in two places in 1Ki 20:37 and Son 5:7. The noun is פֶּצַע petsa, a wound, as a wound is a split-open flesh.
The second word דַּכָּה dakkah, is derived from the verb דָּכָה or דָּכָא and means to crumble, to bruise (literally or figuratively), to beat to pieces, break in pieces, to crush; hence, דַּכָּה dakkah, in Deu 23:1-2, is accepted to mean “crushed”.
The third word in question is שָׁפְכָה shophkah. This Hebrew word literally means something used for pouring forth, for example wine. It is a feminine of the primitive root שָׁפַךְ shaphak, which means to spill forth any liquid (blood, a libation, liquid metal), to gush out (1Ki 18:28), pour out, shed blood (Gen 9:6), or even a solid, like grain.
Because shophkah is scarcely used (only in our verse), it is difficult to determine its literal meaning.
Admittedly, the ambiguity of the text makes the first verse sound strange enough. What we read is that one who is wounded, bruised, and his shophkah cut off, will not enter into the community of YHVH. This is the literal reading of the text, but what does it really mean? Anyone who is mutilated is rejected by the society?
The ambiguity comes from the expression in the statement whose meaning cannot be determined from its context, and its unclearness comes by virtue of having more than one meaning.
When a word has been used in only one place, it is difficult to derive its meaning from a single use of it, as opposed to when a word is used in many different contexts. The use of dictionaries does not help much, since we would face the same problem.
In such a case of a single us of Hebrew word, its rendering is a pure speculation and at best a personal opinion. And there is not much to do about it especially when the word’s meaning has been lost. The present author is not an exception, as he also faces the same challenge.
Putting aside the translations and the preconceived ideas they have created, a close reading of the text suggests that there are missing words in the text. From the concise language of the Torah, we do not understand what exactly is wounded and bruised, and what is shophkah in the first place.
For the reason of ambiguity in the text, the translations have decided to supply the “missing” words into the text as they saw fit to make it understandable for the reader. For instance, KJV reads thus: “He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, etc.”, while JPS is more faithful to Hebrew but still supplies a “missing” word: “He that is crushed or maimed in his privy parts“. These translations are easy to read, nonetheless they are speculations.
But reading the plain Hebrew text will show us that the supplied words “stones” and “privy parts” are just not there. So, why have the translators decided to “fix” the text for the reader? Because they have faced the same problem we have, namely, conciseness and ambiguity of Hebrew in combination.
But on account of its function, namely, something that serves for pouring or gushing out liquids, שָׁפְכָה shophkah has been likened by the JPS translators to a pipe or spout. Hence, the translators have delicately rendered shophkah “privy parts”.
Does mamzer mean a bastard?
We meet similar difficulties with the next Hebrew word in question מַמְזֵר mamzer, whose meaning in Hebrew is uncertain. Mamzer is accepted in Judaism to mean “bastard”, i.e., one begotten in incest or adultery, a bastard, or born of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother (in Rabbinic Judaism, one is considered Jewish only if the mother is Jewish).
There is no obvious connection between these two words, and as we will prove below, מַמְזֵר mamzer does not mean “bastard”. This word is from an unused root meaning to alienate, a mongrel, and its etymology is obscure. In all probability it may derive from the root מָזַר mazar, synonymous with the Arabic word “to be corrupt”. Or perhaps, מַמְזֵר mamzer comes from the root זֵר zer, alien, as a contraction of the words מום זר, “a blemish making him an outsider”.
The only other place in which this word occurs is in Zechariah’s prophecy concerning Gaza. We read thus,
And a mamzer shall settle in Ashdod. So, I shall cut off the pride of the Philistines, and shall take away his blood from his mouth, and the abominations from between his teeth. And he shall remain, even he, to our Elohim, and he shall be like a leader in Judah, and Ekron like a Yebusite. (Zec 9:6-7)
Those who say that “mamzer” refers to “bastard” (see JPS and KJV) are giving the word a meaning it does not have in the context.
Zechariah here speaks of the messianic era. Therefore, what the prophet says is that in the messianic era a people called mamzer will dwell in the city of Ashdod.
In the context of the prophecy, the word mamzer can hardly be translated as “bastard” since it makes no sense that “an army of bastards” (see verse 8) would fight against the Philistines to settle in Ashdod.
Note: Upon the conquest of the Promised Land, Ashdod was allotted to the Tribe of Judah (Jos 15:21-47). But by the time of 1Sa 6:17, Ashdod was still among the principal Philistine cities. Ashdod became, along with all the kingdom of Philistia, a part of the Kingdom of Israel in the reign of King David. In Neh 13:23-24, residents of Jerusalem are said to have married women from Ashdod, and half of the children of these unions were reportedly unable to understand Hebrew; instead, they spoke “the language of Ashdod”.
We may glean a better understanding of the subject when reading the word mamzer in its language context. Mamzer appears to be a collective word for a group of people, which probably means “corrupt” in a sense of a mixed breed or “mongrel people”. This group of people is one of the tribes in Negev desert, as identified in Zec 9:3-6, which will replace the Philistines. The settling of mixed breed people in Ashdod evidently expresses the deep degradation of Philistia.
In other words, the prophecy simply says that the city has lost its native citizens and character and has been resettled by mixed-breed people. And if mamzer refers to fallen people, then the prophet is saying that such people will dwell in Ashdod when the Messiah comes.
To whom the exclusions refer
So, are people, who are begotten in incest or adultery, or born of a non-Jewish mother, banned in the community of YHVH? And what would be their fault of having been born?
And what would be the fault of a person, who was either forcibly castrated, accidentally mutilated, or born with a birth defect, that would disqualify him for the community of YHVH?
For lack of an alternative interpretation, the reader is led to apply the same mode of interpretation of both cases in Deuteronomy 23.
Every person native or non-native is to be incorporated into the covenant nation by the terms of the Covenant (by faith and observance of the laws), not by the terms of their physical condition on account of mutilation. Common sense does not allow us to say that Torah puts such restrictions on anyone, who desires to become a member of the commonwealth of Israel.
It is the opinion of the present author that the translators and theologians have wrongly assumed that the reason for banning mamzer in verse 2 is the same as in the case of mutilated person in verse 1, namely, their “straying” from the nature of man as created by Elohim.
Some may also argue that for the same reason no Ammonite or Moabite was to be received, not even in the tenth generation (verse 3), because their forefathers were begotten in incest, as that assumption will be very easy to make. Torah however states that no Ammonite or Moabite was to be received not on account of incest but on account of their hostility towards Israel’s attempt to enter the Land.
On the other hand, had the Torah meant to forbid marriage outright for mutilated people (as the rabbis claim), it would have written: “he who is mutilated shall not marry a woman”. Now that the Torah prohibited only the entry into the community of YHVH, it is clear that marriage is permitted, and such a person is a part of Israel.
But we have the strong argument to make that the reason for the exclusion of such persons from “the congregation of YHVH”, is exclusion merely from office of the Levitical priesthood (even though not explicitly stated in Deu 23:1 but in Leviticus 21), not exclusion from admission into the covenant fellowship of Israel with YHVH. Such an admission into the Covenant cannot be possibly based on outward appearance or physical disability (see 1Sa 16:7). And besides, that would create a category of “second-class citizens”.
In support of this statement, we may invoke what YHVH spoke to Mosheh,
Speak to Aharon, saying, “No man of your offspring throughout their generations, who has any defect, is to draw near to bring the bread of his Elohim. For any man who has a defect is not to draw near: a man blind or one lame or disfigured or deformed, a man who has a broken foot or broken hand, or is a hunchback or a dwarf, or a man who has a defect in his eye, or eczema or scab, or has his stones crushed. (Lev 21:16-20)
If we are correct in our reasoning, then we may conclude most logically that the exclusion refers only to the priests who serve in the Temple, not to ordinary people, as this verse has been misunderstood.
But why should outward appearance of a priest affect whether he may or may not serve in the Temple? It has everything to do with the human mind. When a human body is afflicted or disfigured, it is natural for man to be overwhelmed with the physical and too hard to focus on the spiritual things.
As Maimonides said, one cannot give his or her mind to meditating on spiritual things, when he or she is hungry, thirsty, homeless, or sick.
Therefore, a priest being a mere human is also a representative of YHVH and must be a perfect representation in his service. Thus, just as an animal with a blemish does not fit as an offering to YHVH, so does a Levite with a blemish not fit for presenting it (see Lev 21:21); higher standards are set before the members of this tribe. These restrictions set by YHVH in Leviticus 21 Mosheh expressed in concise form in Deu 23:1 as he did to the entire Torah.
A Levite may have a birth defect or become injured one way or the other, he is still a Levite and can serve YHVH but not in the Temple presenting the offerings of the people. One can serve YHVH in many ways, but a Levite is chosen to serve in a particular way.
So, with all that considered, we may conclude that a Levite is excluded from the community of priests of YHVH, if he is wounded and bruised in his member. The other conclusion we made is that the ban on mamzer is for morally corrupted and degraded people, not on one begotten in incest or adultery, or born of non-Jewish parent.
As we said in the earlier article, Torah is very delicate when dealing with the matter of privacy to such an extent that it avoids mentioning certain words.
For further knowledge on the matter, the reader may do well to read what we have written in our commentary on “eunuchs” in Isa 56:4-5.
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May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days!