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Shlomi Efrati

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Balaam Sets His Face Towards the Calf—A Targum Tradition

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Shlomi Efrati

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Balaam Sets His Face Towards the Calf—A Targum Tradition

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Balaam Sets His Face Towards the Calf—A Targum Tradition

Targum Onqelos usually offers a straightforward Aramaic rendering of the biblical verse. The Palestinian Targums (=Targum Yerushalmi), in contrast, offer more expansive, midrashic renderings of the verse. Numbers 24:1, in which Balaam looks to the wilderness, offers us a further glimpse into a world with multiple Targumic traditions.

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Balaam Sets His Face Towards the Calf—A Targum Tradition

Add MS 9404 (14th cent.), f. 133v, British Library. The manuscript includes the Pentateuch and the haftarot. Targum Onqelos appears after the Hebrew text, verse by verse.

The Jewish Aramaic renderings of the Hebrew Bible, collectively known as “Targum”—the Hebrew/Aramaic word for both “interpretation” and “translation”—were composed over several centuries, in various places and for different purposes. While the earliest Targums for the Pentateuch and the Prophets, known as Onqelos and Jonathan respectively, were presumably composed during the first centuries of the common era in an Aramaic speaking environment,[1] the latest Targums—for (most of) the books of the Writings—were probably composed sometime towards the end of the first millennium C.E., in a place and time where Aramaic was no longer a spoken language.[2]

Unlike biblical translations into most other languages, which simply became “the Bible” for their respective communities, the Targums have always accompanied, but never replaced, the (Hebrew) Bible.[3] This may partly explain why the Targums are both more, and less, than simply translations. Less—because in many cases they fail to offer a straightforward rendering of the Hebrew text; More—because they tend to interpret, paraphrase, or expand the Hebrew text in various ways.[4]

How, why, and for what reason(s) these interpretative renderings originally came into being is not altogether clear, and it is likely that different answers apply to different Targums. At any rate, the earliest rabbinic sources (dating from the beginning of the 3rd century C.E.) attest to—and attempt to regulate—the liturgical reading of Targums. Furthermore, throughout rabbinic literature various Targums are quoted and discussed—not always approvingly—as objects of study. Both these functions—the liturgical and literary-intellectual—continue to be relevant (in varying degrees) until this very day.

Targum Onqelos

The plurality of Targums is perhaps most apparent in the Targums for the Pentateuch. First there is Targum Onqelos (hereafter simply Onqelos), which offers a complete, continuous, and relatively literal translation for the whole Pentateuch. Onqelos’ Aramaic has close affinities to the “international” or “official” Aramaic dialect, which was in use across the Near East during the last centuries B.C.E.

Some version of Onqelos served as the standard Targum for the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud (roughly 3rd–5th centuries C.E.), who also preserved—or created—the tradition that a certain proselyte named Onqelos translated the Pentateuch (though in fact the Babylonian Talmud never refers to this Targum as “Targum Onqelos”).[5] The Babylonian Geonim, during the last centuries of the first millennium CE, referred to Onqelos as “the Targum of our Rabbis” (תרגומא דרבנן), and for most medieval Jewish communities Onqelos was the common—and in many cases the only—Targum, thus simply referred to as “The Targum.”

Onqelos was (and still is) widely read, studied and copied, and its text is remarkably uniform throughout its many manifestations. It is preserved in more than 450 relatively complete manuscripts (mostly dating from the 13th–15th centuries),[6] which differ mainly in matters of orthography or occasional scribal mistakes. Only rarely and sporadically do revisions or additions appear, and even these usually concern single words or very short phrases.

The Palestinian Targums (“Targum Yerushalmi”)

Another branch of Targum to the Pentateuch is, or more accurately are, the Palestinian Targums (also collectively referred to as Targum Yerushalmi). These Targums were composed in an Aramaic dialect similar to that of both the Palestinian Talmud and the midrashic and poetic literature of the rabbis from Byzantine Palestine (about the 3rd–7th centuries CE). They tend to be far more interpretative in nature, and contain many expansions of various types, such as exegetical, narratival, and even poetic.

The Palestinian Targums are attested in only a handful of manuscripts, which vary greatly in both form and content. Some manuscripts offer a continuous Targum text.[7] Others contain excerpts of Targum—for single words, phrases, or verses—and are thus called “Fragment Targums.”[8] A third group, which preserves small selections of Targum expansions, is commonly referred to as “Tosefta” (literally—“addition”).[9] Lastly, there also exists another complete Pentateuchal Targum—apparently representing a late compilation,[10] which among other sources also made extensive use of the Palestinian Targums—commonly known today as Targum pseudo-Jonathan.[11]

Among these various sources, textual variation is the norm, not the exception. Though they do seem to have a common textual basis, in many cases it is a base for changes, such as rephrasing, reordering, additions, omissions, and so on.

Cross-Pollination

Onqelos and the Palestinian Targums are radically different in their language, transmission, and reception. And yet, they are also interrelated in several ways, starting with their earliest stages of composition throughout their transmission and reception in various medieval communities. One of the manifestations of this complex relationship are additions to Onqelos which have close parallels in the Palestinian Targums.[12]

Such additions can be, and many times are, easily discarded as mere interpolations. Seen as secondary to the fuller Palestinian Targum versions, and foreign to the “real” Onqelos, they tend to be considered of little value for the study of either Onqelos or the Palestinian Targum tradition. Yet this issue is both more complex and more intriguing.

Balaam Sets His Face Toward the Wilderness

One of the most widely attested additions to Onqelos appears in the story of Balaam’s oracles (Numbers 22–24). According to the biblical narrative, when the Israelites came near Moab towards the end of their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, Balak king of Moab got worried and hired Balaam to curse them. Yet—as Balaam expressly informed the king—he was only able to pronounce the words God put in his mouth (Numbers 22:38), and so he ended up blessing Israel rather than cursing them. Numbers 24:1 reports that, after having offered two oracles full of blessings and praise to Israel,

במדבר כד:א וַיַּרְא בִּלְעָם כִּי טוֹב בְּעֵינֵי יְ־הוָה לְבָרֵךְ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא הָלַךְ כְּפַעַם בְּפַעַם לִקְרַאת נְחָשִׁים וַיָּשֶׁת אֶל הַמִּדְבָּר פָּנָיו.
Numbers 24:1 Balaam saw that it pleased YHWH to bless Israel. So he did not go, as previous times, to look for omens(?),[13] but set his face toward the wilderness.

Why Balaam decided to turn to the wilderness remains unexplained in the biblical narrative.

Balaam Sets His Face Toward the Calf: Onqelos

Following its usual manner, Onqelos faithfully renders the Hebrew text וישת אל המדבר פניו into the Aramaic ושוי למדברא אפוהי “and he set his face toward the wilderness”—a simple, literal translation. This translation, which can be found in common modern editions of the Pentateuch with Onqelos, is also attested in multiple early and reliable manuscripts. Yet this is not the only version of Onqelos to be found. Numerous manuscripts (over 90 in my current database),[14] as well as some early printed editions, preserve an expanded version of Onqelos:

ושוי לקבל עגלא דעבדו ישראל במדברא אפוהי
He set his face towards the Calf that the Israelites made in the wilderness.

According to this version, “the wilderness” in the biblical text refers to the infamous incident of the Golden Calf.[15] Yet the link between Balaam and the Calf remains rather vague. It is not clear if Balaam intended to evoke Israel’s sinfulness, in the hope of kindling God’s anger at them and thus allowing him to harm them with his curses; or alternatively, if he was trying to employ some malignant power symbolised by, or residing in, the Golden Calf itself.[16]

Last but not least, as the incident of Balaam takes place almost forty years after the Golden Calf is destroyed, having Balaam “set his face toward the (actual) Calf” is puzzling. Perhaps what is meant is that Balaam set his face in the direction where the Calf once stood and the sinful act took place, though there are simpler ways to convey this meaning.[17]

Be that as it may, this awkward phrasing seems to reflect the secondary nature of the expanded version, as the phrase “he set his face” was left unaltered even when the expansion regarding the Calf was inserted.

Onqelos, Rashi, and Ramban

Secondary though it may be, the expansion concerning the Calf was integrated into Onqelos’ text at a relatively early stage—much earlier, in fact, than most Onqelos manuscripts at our disposal. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, France, latter half of the 11th century) commented on the opaque phrase “(he set his face) to the wilderness” simply by adding a single word: כתרגומו “according to its Targum.” This is Rashi’s usual way to refer to Onqelos, as he quite extensively does.[18]

However, such a reference would not make much sense if Rashi had the (presumably) original text of Onqelos in front of him, which does not add any interpretation or clarification to the biblical text. It is far more likely that Rashi is referring here to the expanded version of Onqelos, and—following that version—considered Balaam’s act to be somehow related to the incident of the Golden Calf.[19] Thus, already by Rashi’s time this expanded version was both common and well known, so that Rashi could refer to it simply as “its Targum” without having to add any further clarification or qualification.

Several generations later, and in a different geographical and cultural setting, Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman, Spain, mid-13th century) offered a more critical evaluation of both Rashi’s interpretation and the Targum he referred to:

כי היה הרב מתרגם בו "ושוי למדברא דעבדו ביה בני ישראל עגלא אנפוהי." ואין בנוסחאות מדוקדקות מתרגומו של אונקלוס כן, אבל הוא כתוב בקצתן שהוגה בהן מן התרגום הירושלמי.
For the Master (Rashi) had for this verse the Targum: “And he set his face toward the wilderness, where the Israelites had made the calf.” But accurate copies of Onqelos do not contain this, yet it is written in a few of them, in which it was glossed from Targum Yerushalmi.

Ramban quotes in full the expanded version of Onqelos, which Rashi only hinted to,[20] and further asserts that the expansion concerning the Calf was derived from “Targum Yerushalmi,” and is thus not genuine to Onqelos (and hence, by implication, also unreliable). In his literary-critical analysis—and to some extent also in his dismissive attitude—Ramban predates much of the modern scholarship regarding “Palestinian”(-like) additions to Onqelos.

Balaam Causes the Sin of the Calf to be Remembered: Palestinian Targums

Although Ramban does not bring further evidence to support his claim regarding the expansion to Onqelos being derived from “Targum Yerushalmi,” an examination of the Palestinian Targum sources at our disposal seems to affirm his observation. With some variations, these Targums offer the following expanded rendering for Numbers 24:1:[21]

ושוי למדברה אפוי והוה מדכר להון עבדה דעגלה
He set his face toward the wilderness and was causing the deed of the calf to be remembered against them.

Like the expanded version of Onqelos, the Palestinian Targum also paraphrases the Hebrew text, linking “the wilderness” to the sin of the Golden Calf. However, these versions are not identical in content or in form:

Onqelos

ושוי למדברא אפוהי
He set his face toward the wilderness.

Expanded Onqelos

ושוי לקבל עגלא דעבדו ישראל במדברא אפוהי
He set his face toward the Calf that the Israelites made in the wilderness.

Palestinian Targum

ושוי למדברה אפוי והוה מדכר להון עבדה דעגלה
He set his face toward the wilderness and was causing the deed of the calf to be remembered against them.

The table above demonstrates, first and foremost, the formal differences between the two versions: though their content is similar, each uses different words and is structured in a different manner. These formal differences are consistent: none of the (few) Palestinian Targum sources we possess presents the version found in Onqelos’ manuscripts, while the additions to Onqelos never seem to adopt the versions found in the Palestinian Targums. Hence it could be concluded that the numerous manuscripts attesting the addition to Onqelos represent a self-standing, independent line of transmission, rather than recurring cases of copying from direct sources of Palestinian Targum.

Of course, it is still possible that the addition to Onqelos was derived from a certain Palestinian Targum early on and continued to be transmitted separately. However, a careful examination of the content of both versions shows that a direct dependence between them is unlikely. Whereas the expanded version of Onqelos states that Balaam “set his face towards the Calf” itself—even though it was destroyed almost forty years earlier—the Palestinian Targum version explains that Balaam looked toward the wilderness to evoke the sin of Israel, and thus, presumably, turn God against them.

In this way, this version manages to avoid the “anachronism” of directly linking Balaam and the Calf, while explaining in which manner Balaam intended to employ the Calf. And this is precisely the reason why it seems unlikely that this version is the direct source of the expanded version of Onqelos, which neither removed the “anachronism” nor bothered clarifying the function of the Calf.

As I mentioned above, the expanded version of Onqelos allows for the possibility that Balaam intended to employ some magical or demonic power associated with the Calf. In the Palestinian Targum version such an interpretation is impossible. Thus, while from a literary point of view the expanded version of Onqelos may seem inferior to the version of the Palestinian Targums, this does not mean it is secondary or corrupt. Quite the contrary. It might imply that the addition to Onqelos represents a less developed—and thus, perhaps, more rudimentary—form of the expansion than that which is found in the Palestinian Targums we have at hand.

The Many Faces of a Targum Tradition

The formal differences and change in content suggest that the expanded version of Onqelos is not (directly) derived from the Palestinian Targum sources known today. Rather, it seems that both the expanded version of Onqelos and the Palestinian Targum sources preserve parallel, yet distinct, versions of an expansion concerning the Calf. Put differently, the expansion to Onqelos on one hand, and the Palestinian Targum sources on the other, represent different versions of the same tradition, though what was the nature of this tradition is difficult to say.

It could have been an isolated elaboration on this specific verse, which was incorporated, in slightly different forms, in both textual traditions. Or it might have been derived from an alternative (complete) Palestinian Targum. Either way, the addition to Onqelos could offer a glimpse into the diverse nature of the Palestinian Targum tradition, whose currently available sources—divergent as they might be—still represent only one of its various, now all but lost, manifestations. Therefore, the addition to Onqelos in Numbers 24:1 may very well be derived from the Palestinian Targum tradition—but, I would argue, not the specific Palestinian Targum sources currently known to us.

Published

July 14, 2022

|

Last Updated

November 13, 2022

Footnotes

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Dr. Shlomi Efrati is a postdoctoral researcher in the ERC funded project ‘TEXTEVOLVE’ for the study of Targum at KU Leuven. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. from the department of Talmud and Halakhah in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 2019, he joined the Scripta Qumranica Electronica project at the University of Haifa as a postdoctoral research associate, participating in the preparation of a new edition of the Qumran wisdom composition Instruction. Since 2021 he has taken part in the preparation of a new edition of the Aramaic writings from Qumran, directed by Prof. Elisha Qimron. He collaborated with Prof. Michael Stone in the publication of an early Armenian Commentary on Genesis: The Genesis Commentary by Step‘anos of Siwnik‘ (DUB.) [CSCO 695, Scriptores Armeniaci 32], Louvain: Peeters, 2021).

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