“All of Jacob’s Descendants Numbered Seventy-Five”: The Opening of Exodus in the Dead Sea Scrolls
It is remarkable that even though Jews disagree on almost everything, Jews of all denominations agree on the text of the Bible. Imagine how this happened even before the invention of the movable type in the fifteenth century! This accomplishment is even more noteworthy given the evidence that we now have from the Dead Sea Scrolls, which indicates a pluriformity, rather than a uniformity of biblical texts. And a particularly clear piece of such evidence comes from the beginning of Parashat Shemot.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls come from Qumran, (northwest of the Dead Sea), where beginning in 1947 thousands of fragments of biblical and other works were discovered. All these date from the third century BCE through 68 CE, when the Romans destroyed Qumran as part of the Great Revolt. In addition, a much smaller number of scrolls were found in a variety of other sites around the Dead Sea that were destroyed during the Bar Kochba revolt in 132-135 CE.
The Dead Sea Scrolls offer us remarkable insight into the biblical text in the pre-Talmudic period. Sixteen copies of Shemot were discovered at Qumran—all are fragmentary, and several are part of scrolls that copied Genesis and Exodus together. Unlike Isaiah, where we have a complete copy of the book that may be seen as the centerpiece of the Shrine of the Book in Israel, only small parts of Shemot have been preserved.
All of the Dead Sea Scrolls lack vowel points and cantillation marks (trope, טעמים). It is now certain that these were developed at a later period, in approximately the eighth century, when Judaism felt endangered as a result of the Arab conquests, and various scholars, called Masoretes (בעלי מסורה), developed systems to record the proper reading tradition.
A Fragment with a Different Text
4QExb, one manuscript fragment from 4Q, the fourth of the eleven main Qumran scrolls, the cave where the most biblical manuscripts were found, reads:
...את יעקוב אביהם איש...
...יששכר זבולון יוסף ובני...
...חמש ושבעים נפש וימת...
…with Jacob their father, each one…
…Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, Benj[amin]…
…five and seventy people. He died….”
Clearly, this reflects the beginning of Shemot—but in a version that is not identical to our version. For these verses, the Masoretic text reads:
שמות א:א וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה אֵ֣ת יַעֲקֹ֔ב אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵית֖וֹ בָּֽאוּ: א:ב רְאוּבֵ֣ן שִׁמְע֔וֹן לֵוִ֖י וִיהוּדָֽה: א:ג יִשָּׂשכָ֥ר זְבוּלֻ֖ן וּבִנְיָמִֽן: א:ד דָּ֥ן וְנַפְתָּלִ֖י גָּ֥ד וְאָשֵֽׁר: א:ה וַֽיְהִ֗י כָּל־נֶ֛פֶשׁ יֹצְאֵ֥י יֶֽרֶךְ־יַעֲקֹ֖ב שִׁבְעִ֣ים נָ֑פֶשׁ וְיוֹסֵ֖ף הָיָ֥ה בְמִצְרָֽיִם: א:ו וַיָּ֤מָת יוֹסֵף֙ וְכָל־אֶחָ֔יו וְכֹ֖ל הַדּ֥וֹר הַהֽוּא:
Exod. 1:1 These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: 1:2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; 1:3 Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; 1:4 Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. 1:5 The total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy, Joseph being already in Egypt. 1:6 Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation (NJPS).
A careful comparison reveals several differences of different types:
1. Spelling differences – The Qumran fragment writes יעקוב, with a w, while the Masoretic texts writes יעקב. This does not affect meaning, though many rabbinic drashot are based on the absence or presence of a w or y or another similar letter, called a vowel letter (Hebrew אם קריאה). Such writings with an extra w or y, called מלא (“full” or “plene,”) reflect the way that Hebrew was written in the Second Temple period.
2. Extra words – The Qumran fragment contains the word אביהם, “their father,” which is lacking in the Masoretic Text. The word has no impact on meaning; a rabbinic derasha might be based on the presence of such an extra word, but the larger meaning is unaffected.
The next two examples do affect the meaning of the text.
3. The Number of Jacob’s Descendants: 70 or 75 – The number of descendants listed is 75 instead of 70. Indeed, it is difficult to figure out precisely the origin of the number 70, and whether it is meant to be a precise number or a symbolic, typological number. In any case, it seems that different traditions existed concerning this matter in antiquity.
4. Listing Joseph – In the Qumran fragment, Joseph is included among the children of Jacob who descend to Egypt, and is named right before his full-brother, Benjamin, and the half verse found in the Masoretic Text, ויוסף היה במצרים, is missing. It is as if this version has no knowledge of the end of Sefer Bereishit, and the entire Joseph story!
Support for 75 from Other Sources
An immediate inclination might be to say that this Dead Sea Scroll is wrong. But another fragment, also from the beginning of Shemot, after a break in the parchment, contains the words וחמש נפש, “and five people”—almost certainly a remnant of the number seventy-five as well (שבעים וחמש נפש). Another support for this reading comes from the Septuagint, which also reads “seventy-five.” Philo of Alexandria (Egypt) active in the first century CE, considered to be the first Jewish philosopher, also uses the number seventy-five in one of his works. Finally, the Book of Acts, the fifth book of the New Testament, reads: “Then Joseph sent and invited his father Jacob and all his relatives to come to him, seventy-five in all.”
Putting all of this evidence together, it is thus relatively certain that in the first century of the common era, several forms of the Sefer Shemot circulated, and in one version 70 descended to Egypt, while in another 75 did. The text of the Torah existed in more than one version in that period.
Given this diversity in texts from Qumran, all from 68 CE or earlier, it is quite remarkable that the texts from 132-135, not even seventy years later, represent the consonantal texts found in the Masoretic Text. This raises the intriguing possibilities that the text of the Bible established at the very end of the Second Temple period, or more likely, as a reaction to the destruction of the Second Temple, soon thereafter. Thus, by the period of the rabbis, by and large, a single biblical text was known.
This particular example is one of hundreds. The difference between 70 and 75 children of Jacob is not so great, but the principle that stands behind this difference is. We have always known that the rabbinic period was one of great differences of interpretation, and we might have thought that “Jewish differences” began there. But this evidence suggests that if anything, the previous period had even bigger differences—not “merely” of how various texts should be interpreted, but of what the biblical text itself was!
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January 5, 2015
March 23, 2020
Professor Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author, most recently, of How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and co-author of The Bible and the Believer. Brettler is cofounder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) – TheTorah.com.
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