The Strange Way the Book of Leviticus Begins

Posted by on Mar 15, 2022

The Book of Leviticus Vayikra begins with “And he called”, which has given the name of this book (Hebrew for “and he called”). This seems like an unusual way to begin a book with “And”. But, this is not the only book that begins in such a way. The books of Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Samuel 1&2, Kings 1&2, Ruth, Esther, and Ezra too begin with the Hebrew letter vav, “and”.

Who called to Mosheh in the very opening of Leviticus? According to many if not all translations, it was YHVH who called to Mosheh and spoke to him. King James’ version of the Bible seems very clear as to who called and spoke to Mosheh. We read,

And the LORD called unto Moses, and spake unto him out of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying, (Lev 1:1 KJV)

JPS [surprisingly] altogether omits “And” and simply reads: “The LORD called unto Moses and spoke unto him …” conveying the same idea. Thus, it is clear to the reader that the perception of the LORD doing both actions is expressed by placing the subject in the beginning of the sentence.

Regrettably, this translation, like most others, is easy to read nonetheless grammatically challengeable.

But the question “Who called to Mosheh” may not be so simple to answer, as it looks like, if we go to the Hebrew text of Leviticus. And if we go even deeper, as we will do in the following, the answer will become quite revealing to the reader.

The Aleppo Codex on display in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The Aleppo Codex on display in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

So, why does such a simple word in Hebrew like vav, “and”, make Leviticus so special?

The reversing vav

The sixth letter in the Hebrew alphabet vav is not only a conjunction word but also serves as a reversing word; it is also known as the “reversing vav“.

Hebrew usually indicates past actions with suffixed verbs, such as kara-ta, “you called”, where -ta indicates past, and future actions with prefixed verbs, such as ti-kra, “you will call”, where ti- indicates future.

However, the word yi-kra, with which Leviticus (Hebrew וַיִּקְרָא Vayikra) begins, clearly refers to the past, even though the verb itself refers to the future having the prefix yud, yi-, “he will call”. The same grammar rules apply to the second verb in the sentence: וַיְדַבֵּר vayidaber, “and he spoke”. With that being said, Hebrew literally reads,

And he called to Mosheh, and YHVH spoke to him from the Tent of Appointment, saying.

This raises the inevitable question: Who was “he” who first called to Mosheh, because afterwards YHVH spoke to him from the Tent?

Who called to and who spoke to Mosheh?

To begin with, we should notice the extra prefix va- in front of the both verbs: va-yikra “and he called” and va-yidaber “and he spoke”. The second thing we should notice in the Hebrew text is that the subject of the sentence (YHVH) is placed after the second verb וַיְדַבֵּר va-yidaber “spoke”, and not after the first verb וַיִּקְרָא va-yikra, as it should be, if YHVH had indeed spoken to Mosheh.

But this is not the only occurrence of such a construction. A similar construction is found in Exo 34:4, where we read: “He cut two tablets of stone, like the first, and Mosheh awoke early in the morning…” Most evidently, from the immediate context here, the subject of the sentence is Mosheh, who cut the two tablets and rose up.

Many translations however revise the order of the sentence to have the subject “YHVH” as part of the first clause: “And YHVH called to Mosheh and spoke with him”, as it appears in JPS, Syriac Peshitta, KJV, and others. It is easy to read and understand but grammatically not quite correct.

This oddity has been noticed by the sages, and their explanations are not in short. Traditional commentators offer various interpretations of the unusual way Leviticus opens.

Some say that indeed the sentence order is unusual, but there is nothing extraordinary. Or HaChaim says, “The reason that the Torah had to emphasize that G’d spoke only to Moses, i.e. that only Moses heard His voice, was to prevent misunderstandings”. In other words, he says that only Mosheh heard His voice, not Aharon and the other priests. This is the view of most of the Rabbis.

Rabbeinu Bahya sees the verse in the context of the preceding book. He says,

The fact that the subject of who was speaking i.e., the Lord, was not mentioned indicates that although the Book of Leviticus is a Book in its own right, it is an integral part of what came before it; the entire Torah is one continuous document, a single structure. The word ויקרא (vayikra) is simply a reference to the attribute of כבוד (that is kavod, “glory”) which was last mentioned in Exo 40:35, when the Torah wrote that this attribute filled the Tabernacle. Leviticus 1:1 with Rabbeinu Bahya

Chizkuni holds this reading as well but also adds: “This is also how the Jerusalem Targum translates this verse” (see Leviticus 1:1 with Chizkuni).

Other sages suggest that the calling was done by a messenger, and afterwards YHVH spoke with him. Their argument, with which we have agreed, is that the kingdom of earth is like the kingdom of heaven: when a king wants to speak with someone, he calls to the person through a messenger, an ambassador.

We have already explained in various occasions and articles that YHVH had indeed spoken to the prophets through the mediation of messengers, and more particularly, through His Messenger, who is called in Isaiah: “The Messenger of His Face”.

So, who called to Mosheh out of the Tabernacle?

The continuance of the Torah hinted in Vayikra

According to the Rabbis, the approach to solve the issue of who called to Mosheh is to connect the end of Exodus (when for the first time that the Glory of YHVH descended and entered the Tent filling it with the fiery cloud to sanctify it) with the beginning of Leviticus (when Mosheh was outside of the Tent waiting for instructions from YHVH). We read,

The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Glory of YHVH filled the Tabernacle. Mosheh could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Glory of YHVH filled the Tabernacle (Exo 40:34-35) … and he called to Mosheh(Lev 1:1)

Although this may appear surprising, a conclusion follows naturally from the plain words of the text.

If this approach is correct, with the Book of Leviticus, the Torah continues precisely where the Book of Exodus ends. Thus, we read that Kavod of YHVH, the visible, earthly manifestation of His Presence, descended from the top of Mount Sinai and immediately filled the Tabernacle.

Then, the Glory of YHVH (Kavod), His Presence, called to Mosheh from inside speaking with a voice emanating from between the two keruvim, audible to Moses, in an actual speech.

Thus, the reversing letter vav reversed not only the order of the sentence, as it is traditionally translated, but the order how we understand the Torah.

We have also explained in other studies how inappropriate and misleading to the reader is the division of the Scripture in chapters. But the division of the Scripture in books is altogether different case. Exodus and Leviticus are two different scrolls, yet they are connected.

The end of the Book of Exodus tells that when the construction of the Tabernacle was concluded, Mosheh could not enter the tabernacle because the Glory of YHVH filled it. Leviticus picks up where Exodus ends and tells us, “And YHVH called to Mosheh and spoke to him from the Tent of Appointment”; He invited him inside. Mosheh could not enter the Tabernacle without first having obtained permission to do so.

The Glory of YHVH was on the other side of the curtain of the Most Set-apart place, and Mosheh entered there. That was the first call that came to Mosheh from the innermost part of the Tabernacle.

The manner YHVH spoke to Mosheh

Still more striking is the relation between the Glory of YHVH and manner YHVH spoke to Mosheh. In Num 7:89, we read,

And when Mosheh went into the Tent of Appointment to speak with Him, he heard the voice of One speaking to him from above the lid of atonement that was on the Ark of the Witness, from between the two keruvim. Thus, He spoke to him. (Num 7:89)

The principal reason for this verse is to inform us the audible voice that emanated from between the keruvim: “Thus, He spoke to him”.

The Sages have noticed the letter ה hey, “the”, at the beginning of the word הקול, ha-col, “the voice”. They interpret it to mean that this was the same voice that had spoken to Mosheh at Mount Sinai; he recognized it as such.

We have to interpret the verse in accordance with what we have written in The Messenger of His Face and How Torah was Given to Israel – Time of Reckoning Ministry.

The Sages are in agreement that the “speaking” of YHVH from between the two keruvim was not a human-like speech. The word translated as “speaking” in Numbers 7:89 is vocalized not in the normal way medaber, but rather in the reflexive form: מִדַּבֵּר midaber, “speaking to itself”.

The medieval Tanak commentator Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040 – 1105) comments the grammar of this verse to mean that מִדַּבֵּר midaber, “speaking to itself” is the same as מתדבר (it is the Hitphael form with assimilated ת). And he translates the phrase in question thus: “He heard the Voice uttering itself”. What does it mean?

Sforno makes the same commentary explaining, however, what “He heard the Voice uttering itself” means,

Having said this you will understand that the translation of G’d “speaking to Himself,” i.e., being both at the receiving end and at the initiating end at the same time is not a contradiction in terms. Numbers 7:89 with Sforno

Which ends is Sforno referring to? We will have more to say regarding this later on. At present, however, we are interested in the question: Who called to Mosheh?

As in Lev 1:1, in Ezekiel too the subject of the sentence (YHVH) should have gone together with “and he called”, if YHVH and His Glory are identical. But as it is in the case of Exo 40:34-35 and Lev 1:1 joined in one continuance, the verse in Ezekiel refers to the Glory of YHVH that called to the man from the Tent. Let us read Exodus-Leviticus and Ezekiel in parallel.

The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Glory of YHVH filled the Tabernacle. Mosheh could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Glory of YHVH filled the Tabernacle (Exo 40:34-35) and he called to Mosheh and YHVH spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying. (Lev 1:1)

And the Glory of the Elohim of Israel had moved from the keruv, on which it had rested, to the platform of the House. And he called to the man clothed in linen with the writing case at his waist, and YHVH said to him(Eze 9:3)

We must view these verses as telling us that with the identical settings and with the appearance of the same sentence construction in Ezekiel as it is in Leviticus, a distinction is clearly made between the manifested Presence in the finite world, that is, the Kavod of YHVH, and YHVH Himself.

The manifested Presence spoke to Mosheh from above the Ark of the Covenant to give him the instructions covering all areas of life which Israel was to do for all time: the sacrifices (Leviticus 1–7), for the priests (Leviticus 10), the Kosher animals (Leviticus 11), the bodily impurities of men and women (Leviticus 12–15), the appointed times (Leviticus 23), the observance of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years (Leviticus 25), etc.

“With him I speak mouth to mouth”

YHVH came down in the column of cloud and stood in the door of the Tent and called Aharon and Miryam. And He said,

Hear, please, My words: If your prophet is of Yehovah, I make Myself known to him in a vision, and I speak to him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he sees the likeness of YHVH(Num 12:6-8)

YHVH told Israel that they would have prophets to whom He would speak in visions and dreams, but Mosheh was different, unique among all of them; no prophet would be like him to whom He spoke face to face and mouth to mouth. YHVH spoke to Mosheh like friend to friend (see also Exo 33:11). Yet Mosheh were unable to see the Face of his friend, for no man does see Him and live (Exo 33:20).

When we read the statement “With him I speak mouth to mouth”, it implies that the words which YHVH spoke to Mosheh are the words He “breathed” into him, i.e., the words that emanated or radiated from Him Mosheh perceived in a direct manner. The opposite is also true; when Mosheh spoke the words of YHVH, he spoke what was given to him to speak: nothing more and nothing less.

Now, if the words “With him I speak mouth to mouth” are literal, then the remainder of the same verse “he sees the likeness of YHVH” must also be literal. Because there is little in the verse that would suggest anything beyond the literal interpretation.

And if “he sees the likeness of YHVH” is also to be taken literally, we should note here that Mosheh was seeing the likeness or similitude of YHVH but not His face.

How is that possible? Did YHVH Himself not say He spoke with Mosheh, His friend, face to face and mouth to mouth, yet Mosheh was unable to see His face? Since these two statements are obviously contradictory, how can they be reconciled? As we will see later on, there is no contradiction.

Rashi comments Num 12:8 thus: “One might, however, think that it refers to the “appearance of the Shechinah” (i.e. that he saw God)! It, however, states, “You cannot see My face” (Exo 33:20). This refers to beholding the after-effects of God’s Providence, just as it is stated in Exo 33:22-23: “And it shall be when My glory passes by you shall see what is behind Me” (Sifrei Bamidmar 103).

In Sifrei Beha’alothecha 1:42:8, Tanchuma Tzav 13, the sages interpret the phrase “and he sees the likeness of the Lord” to refer to the vision of the “back” as it says, “and you will see My back” (Exo 33:23).

Note: It is the present author’s opinion that Rashi better translates the verse as “you will see what is behind Me”, rather than “You will see My back”, as commonly translated. For more insight of what in fact Mosheh saw, the reader will do well to refer to what we have written on the matter in To Foresee Yeshua the Messiah.

With all that said, this teaches us to distinguish between YHVH’s presence, which is everywhere at all times, and His manifested presence, His Glory, which is made evident locally in various ways at His will. This manifested presence, which the Scripture calls “the Glory of YHVH”, spoke to Mosheh from between the keruvim. And it was the same presence Mosheh saw at the cleft of the rock.

Again, how was it possible that YHVH and Mosheh spoke face to face, yet Mosheh was unable to see His face?

Both statements are true. The statement “no man does see Me and live” is exclusive; it means what it says. This is simple. The statements “With him I speak mouth to mouth” and “Thus, Yehovah spoke to Mosheh face to face” are actually one.

When two statements seemingly contradict themselves, a third statement comes to explain them:

The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Glory of YHVH filled the Tabernacle. Mosheh could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Glory of YHVH filled the Tabernacle (Exo 40:34-35) … and he called to Mosheh(Lev 1:1)

Mosheh saw YHVH’s manifested presence, His Glory, which was made evident to him in the Most Set-apart place where the Ark of the Covenant was.

And when Sforno commented Num 7:89 to mean that Mosheh heard the Voice “speaking to Himself” from above the Ark, i.e., “being both at the receiving end and at the initiating end at the same time”, we interpret this to mean the following.

When a king speaks to someone, he speaks through his ambassador, who acts as a mediator. Since the ambassador has no his own personal agenda but to represent his king, he speaks exactly what the king has told him to speak.

The communication between the king and the ambassador is like “speaking to himself”: as if the king is at the both ends at the same time. This is what Rashi and Sforno referred to.

Likewise, the communication between YHVH and Mosheh. The Glory of YHVH filled the Tabernacle and called to Mosheh, then YHVH spoke to him (Mosheh). And Mosheh heard the voice of one (the mediator) speaking to him the words YHVH had told him to speak. And to make it clear to us that this was the way of communication between YHVH and Mosheh, the Torah says it simply: “Thus, He spoke to him”.

The heavenly being, whom YHVH Himself called in Isaiah “the Messenger of His Face, was the mediator between YHVH and Mosheh. This heavenly being is also the Glory of YHVH manifested among the people.

If that explanation is accepted, then this solves the question we had posed about the peculiar wording in Lev 1:1.

In conclusion, from all the above we learn that the Hebrew word “speak” when applied to YHVH is a manner of expressing something of which we have absolutely no knowledge; nor do we have knowledge of the manner YHVH spoke to His Glory, except for what has already been written in the Scripture.

The Book of Leviticus opens up in a peculiar way with a call to Mosheh by the Glory of YHVH and the audible voice emanated from above the Ark. We may now understand why it is customary for the Jewish children to begin studying the Torah with “And he called” (Vayikra) rather than “In the beginning (Bereishit)?

Suggested readings:

Which is the Most Important Book in the Bible?

Why Leviticus is the Most Important Book in the Bible?

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