Textual Criticism of Translations: Context

Posted by on Jun 13, 2021

In previous studies in the matter of textual criticism, we have already pointed out how the incorrect capitalization and punctuation (neither present in Hebrew) have altered and modified (intentionally or not) the Scriptural context.

In this study, we will take the occasion to explain how the proper context can mend the incorrect punctuation in the script. Otherwise, the suggested punctuation below would be a matter of a personal opinion.

As we stated previously, such examples of incorrect capitalization and punctuation are not uncommon in both Tanak and the Apostolic Writings.

When did the Israelites leave Egypt? The Exodus story is well known but the answer may not be so apparent as it seems to be when reading translations.

In Egypt, Mosheh said to the people,

Remember this day in which you went out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. … Today you are going out, in the month of the Aviv. (Exo 13:3-4)

That day the children of Ya’akov-Israel left the land of bondage and headed for the mountain of YHVH.

Forty years later, at the threshold of the Promised Land, Mosheh commanded the new generation to observe the law of Pesach.

Observe the month of Abib, and keep the passover unto the LORD thy God: for in the month of Abib the LORD thy God brought thee forth out of Egypt by night. (Deu 16:1 KJV)

From this verse we understand that Israel went out of Egypt at night. Since during the night [of the last plague] Pharaoh gave them permission to leave, as it is said in Exo 12:31, Then he called for Mosheh and Aharon at night and said, “Rise up, go out from among my people”, therefore, here it says at night: the night of the fifteenth day of the month.

However, six verses later on we read that they left Egypt at the going down of the sun, i.e. at sunset,

But at the place which the LORD thy God shall choose to place his name in, there thou shalt sacrifice the passover at even, at the going down of the sun, at the season that thou camest forth out of Egypt. (Deu 16:6 KJV)

Surprisingly, the JPS (Jewish Publication Society) translation does not do any better basically stating the same,

but at the place which the LORD thy God shall choose to cause His name to dwell in, there thou shalt sacrifice the passover- offering at even, at the going down of the sun, at the season that thou camest forth out of Egypt. (Deu 16:6 JPS)

So, according to Deu 16:6, it seems that Israel went out of Egypt at sunset (at the going down of the sun). But which sunset: of the fourteenth or of the fifteenth of the month? (We should remember that a day begins at sunset, when it is completely dark, and a sunset belongs to the outgoing day).

To make it even more complicated, Num 33:3 states that the Israelites left Egypt by day, as it is said, on the morrow of the pesach the children of Israel went out. (We should also remember that pesach, or passover, is the lamb slaughtered in Egypt, whose blood was put on the doorposts, not a name of a holiday).

Here however, it is stated that Israel’s exodus took place on the next day, in the morning: the morning of the fifteenth. The apparent contradiction to other verses is resolved by suggesting that the punctuation is misleading. And if we want to understand what took place at that time we must pay attention to the proper context of the Exodus.

In Deuteronomy 16, Mosheh prescribed a new condition with reference to the keeping of the Passover in the land of Kana’an to suit the new circumstances.

In Egypt, when Israel was not yet raised into the status of nation of YHVH, and had no sanctuary and altar, the Pesach lambs were slaughtered at sunset of the outgoing day of the fourteenth in the houses of the Israelites. The Scripture used the term “between the evenings” for sunset. That was the first Pesach.

The second time the Israelites performed the Pesach was at Sinai (Num 9:1-5). In the Wilderness of Sinai, on the fourteenth day of the first month of the second year after they had come out of Egypt, the children of Ya’akov-Israel perform the slaughter of the Pesach at its appointed time, according to all its laws. That was the first Passover after the Exodus.

The burnt summit of the real Mount Sinai in Arabia where Torah was given on Shavuot.

The burnt summit of the real Mount Sinai in Arabia where Torah was given on Shavuot.

As we explained in 38 Contentious Years of Israel in Arabia, that was the only time that the Israelites slaughtered the Pesach during all the forty years they were in the desert. Similarly, Amos 5:25 speaks of this in criticism: “Did you bring to Me sacrifices and offerings in the wilderness those forty years?”

Thus, the smearing of the doorposts with the blood of the lambs was no longer possible and required, and the blood was to be sprinkled upon the altar as it had been at Sinai. 

But when Israel entered and settled in the Land, the slaying and eating of the Pesach lambs were both to take place at the Tabernacle and later at the Temple in Jerusalem before the Lord. 

So, how can we reconcile all these seemingly controversial but otherwise truthful statements? Israel left Egypt at night, at sunset, or at morning?

These verses require analysis and may best be explained in their proper context.

The sequence of the events of the Exodus is, as follows:

(1) The Pesach lamb was slaughtered at twilight on the fourteenth of the month of the aviv (Deu 16:6).

(2) They ate the Pesach with unleavened bread that night, on the fifteenth, which later would become the first day of the Festival of the Unleavened Breads.

(3) At night on the fifteenth, Pharaoh permitted the Israelites to leave Egypt (Exo 12:31).

(4) Israel left Egypt on the morrow (that is, the next day, as related to the slaughtering of the Pesach on the fourteenth (Num 33:3).

Please, read what we have written in the book The Reckoning of Time concerning the chronology of the Exodus.

This is the context. How can the context help us mend the punctuation?

As we said in the heading, there are no punctuation marks (full stops, commas, etc.) in Hebrew, nor is there capitalization and any other editing of the text we use today. All these are much later inventions. In a Hebrew script the narrative flows smoothly and the context and textual sense show the proper syntaxes. The ancients did not need punctuation to separate one sentence from the other, nor did they need capitalization to know whether Elohim or human speaks—the context does both.

With that already said, we are fairly convinced that if we replace in Deu 16:6 the comma between the phrases at the going down of the sun and at the appointed time with a full stop (or even remove all punctuation marks and read the script in its proper context), at the going down of the sun and at the appointed time become two different statements.

Let us now approach our verses and read anew thus,

You are not allowed to slaughter the Pesach within any of your gates which YHVH your Elohim gives you, but at the place where YHVH your Elohim chooses to make His Name dwell, there you slaughter the Pesach in the evening, at the going down of the sun.

At the appointed time, you came out of Egypt.

And you shall roast and eat it in the place which Yehovah your Elohim chooses, and in the morning you shall turn and go to your tents. (Deu 16:5-7)

And what Mosheh was saying is this: You are not allowed to slaughter the Pesach within any of your gates like it was in Egypt, but in Jerusalem only, the place YHVH chose to make His Name dwell. The slaughter of the Pesach is to be done at a specific time frame: at the sunset of the outgoing fourteenth day of the first month. [… a time gap …]

Then the narrative is taking us back in the land of Egypt, to tell us that at the appointed time, Israel came out of Egypt, namely on the fifteenth.

And after the Pesach was slaughtered and roasted, it was to be eaten at the Temple, and in the morning they should return to their places.

The time-travel, Mosheh used, was necessary in order to invoke the Exodus of the fathers from Egypt in the minds of their children.

For this reason only, the Pesach lambs were to be slaughtered at the Temple in Jerusalem at the sunset of the fourteenth, as a commemoration; because at sunset Israelites slaughtered their lambs in Egypt, so should their children do in the Land.

And because in the morning of the fifteenth the fathers left Egypt, so should their children commemorate the Exodus as a sign between YHVH Elohim who brought them out and the future generations.

Knowing what we have learned so far, it should not come as a surprise that the incorrect punctuation alters the meaning of the text: something that should not have been done in the first place.

Having now completed our exposition in detail, this seems quite astounding as to why did the translators and/or editors feel it was necessary to punctuate our verses in this particular way. It was not. But what is necessary is that we should know how to employ textual criticism and critical thinking when reading translations.

For further knowledge on the matter, the reader may do well to read what we have written in our commentary on textual criticism about similar constructions in Hebrew Study.


May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.