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David Frankel





Lechu Neranena: From the Story of the Spies to the Return of the Judahite Exiles



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David Frankel





Lechu Neranena: From the Story of the Spies to the Return of the Judahite Exiles






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Lechu Neranena: From the Story of the Spies to the Return of the Judahite Exiles

A New Reading of Psalm 95


Lechu Neranena: From the Story of the Spies to the Return of the Judahite Exiles

Jerusalem from the west; Jaffa Gate and the Citadel (detail). Artist: Vasily Polenov 1882

The לכו נרננה Psalm (95) that opens Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday nights concludes by recounting God’s attitude toward the Israelites in the wilderness (in God’s own voice):

צה:ח אַל־תַּקְשׁ֣וּ לְ֭בַבְכֶם כִּמְרִיבָ֑ה
כְּי֥וֹם מַ֝סָּ֗ה בַּמִּדְבָּֽר:
95:8 Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
צה:ט אֲשֶׁ֣ר נִ֭סּוּנִי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶ֑ם
גַּם־רָא֥וּ פָעֳלִֽי:
95:9 when your ancestors tested me,
and put me to the proof,
though they had seen my work.
צה:י אַרְבָּ֮עִ֤ים שָׁנָ֨ה׀ אָ֮ק֤וּט בְּד֗וֹר
וָאֹמַ֗ר עַ֤ם תֹּעֵ֣י לֵבָ֣ב הֵ֑ם
וְ֝הֵ֗ם לֹא־יָדְע֥וּ דְרָכָֽי:
95:10 For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they do not regard my ways.”
צה:יא אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֥עְתִּי בְאַפִּ֑י
אִם־יְ֝בֹא֗וּן אֶל־מְנוּחָתִֽי:
95:11 Therefore in my anger I swore,
“They shall not enter my rest.”

The reference to Massah and Merivah may seem to be a straightforward reference to traditions found in the Torah, but this is not so clear, and various explanations of this reference have been offered.

Suggestion 1 – The Massah and Meribah Water Story as it Appears in Exodus 17

Most traditional Jewish commentators, such as Radak and Meiri, interpret the reference to “Merivah” and “Massah” in verse 8 as an allusion to the story of מסה ומריבה of Exodus 17:1-7. In this story, the Israelites “quarrel” with Moses (וירב העם עם משה) and demand water. Moses famously hits the rock and the water comes gushing out. Verse 7 tells us that the name of the place was מסה ומריבה “because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested God saying, ‘Is the Lord in our midst or not?’”[1]

This interpretation, however, is problematic. Why, of all the incidents in the wilderness, would God refer specifically to this one in Psalm 95? Were there not more severe instances of rebellion that God could have recalled? This incident did not even include a punishment! More importantly, the continuation of God’s words in verse 10 of the psalm seems to imply that Merivah was connected to the punishment of the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. This punishment, however, is nowhere else related to the provision of water from the rock.

Suggestion 2 – A Lost Version of the Massah and Merivah Story?

Because of this problem, Samuel Loewenstamm, the late professor of Bible from Hebrew University, came to the conclusion that our psalm refers to an earlier version of the story of מסה ומריבה, no longer preserved in the Torah.[2] In this version, right after Moses hits the rock and provides water for the people, God decrees that the Israelites will have to wander in the wilderness for forty years.

This, in my view, seems quite unlikely. It is unreasonable to assume that a story would have depicted God punishing the people so severely for what must be regarded as an ultimately legitimate demand – that they be provided with water for their survival!

Suggestion 3 – Massah and Merivah as a Reference to the Spies Story

I suggest that the psalm refers to the Spies Story. This story speaks of the divine punishment of the wilderness wandering. The punishment indeed fits the crime here—since the people sinfully rejected the land, they were not allowed to enter the land. The names Massah and Merivah are a problem however, since they are associated with the story of water from the rock.

Ibn Ezra’s Suggestion

The idea that Massah and Merivah of Psalm 95 refer to the story of the spies was suggested by Ibn Ezra, who suggested that this incident was referred to by the Psalmist as “Massah” because God states וינסו אתי זה עשר פעמים ולא שמעו בקלי, “they tested me ten times and refused to listen to my voice” (Numbers 14:22).[3] This connection is indeed apt, particularly in light of the fact that the divine speech in our psalm is introduced with the words, אם בקלו תשמעו, “if you heed his voice” (verse 7) and then states, אשר נסוני אבותיכם, “when your ancestors tested me” (verse 9).

Ibn Ezra, however, does not provide an adequate connection between the Spies story and the name “Merivah.” His suggestion, that it is related to the fact that the Israelites said to one another נתנה ראש ונשובה מצרימה, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt” (Numbers 14:4), is clearly weak.

I would like to suggest an alternative explanation for using Merivah to refer to the Spies Story, but to do so, I need to take a step back and review the basic contours of an argument I made elsewhere.

The Opening of the Non-Priestly Spies Story

The story of the spies in Numbers 13-14 is composite, comprised of a Priestly and a non-Priestly version. Scholars have long assumed that the opening of the non-P version has been deleted by the editor; the extant version opens in the middle of the story, with Moses’ command to the Israelites (Num 13:17b): ויאמר אליהם עלו זה בנגב ועליתם את ההר…, “He said to them, go up the Negev and ascend the mountain…” Clearly, something must have preceded this.[4]

In my, “The Grain and Pomegranates of Mei Merivah (מי מריבה),” (2015) I reconstructed the opening of the non-Priestly Spies Story from a few of the non-P verses from the story of מי מריבה in Numbers 20.

במדבר כ:אb וַיֵּשֶׁב הָעָם בְּקָדֵשׁ וַתָּמָת שָׁם מִרְיָם וַתִּקָּבֵר שָׁם. כ:גa וַיָּרֶב הָעָם עִם מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמְרוּ כ:ה לָמָה הֶעֱלִי[תָ]נוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם לְהָבִיא אֹתָנוּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הָרָע הַזֶּה? לֹא מְקוֹם זֶרַע וּתְאֵנָה וְגֶפֶן וְרִמּוֹן. במדבר יג:יזbוַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, עֲלוּ זֶה בַּנֶּגֶב, וַעֲלִיתֶם אֶת הָהָר. יג:יח וּרְאִיתֶם אֶת הָאָרֶץ מַה הִוא…
Num 20:1b The people dwelled at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. 20:3a The people quarreled with Moses, and they said, 20:5 “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? Num 13:17b So he said to them, “Go up to the Negev and ascend the mountain, 13:18 and see how the land is…

In this reconstruction, Moses’ command to the people to go up and see the land is actually a response to the Israelites, who arrived at Kadesh and complained that the land appeared to be barren. Since Kadesh is considered part of the Promised Land, the Israelites assume that what they saw there was characteristic of the land as a whole. Moses, in response, tells them to go through the Negev so that they could see the fertile sections of the hill country. The Israelites then obey Moses and bring back grapes, figs and pomegranates (Numbers 17:23), precisely the fruit that they thought the land was lacking in Numbers 20:5. The people nevertheless refuse to conquer the land, and God punishes them with the years of wandering.

Merivah as Another Name for Kadesh

I believe that my suggestion that the grain and pomegranate fragment (Numbers 20:1b, 3a and 5) belongs to the Spies Story bolsters Ibn Ezra’s interpretation of Psalm 95 and explains why this story was referred to as Merivah. This story began with a complaint that was characterized with the words וירב העם עם משה, “the Israelites quarreled with Moses.” These words are precisely the same words that appear in Exodus 17:2, at the beginning of the story the Torah calls מסה ומריבה (verse 7).

This may indicate that Merivah was a traditional name for the place of quarrel concerning entering the land, and was known as such to the Psalmist. Significantly, Numbers 20:1b notes that the “quarrel” of the Spies Story occurs at Kadesh, which is associated with the name Merivah elsewhere in the Bible, specifically as מי מריבת קדש (Numbers 27:14; Deuteronomy 32:51; Ezekiel 48:28) or just as מי מריבה (compare Numbers 20:1 and 13).[5]

The name מי מריבה, Waters of Merivah, is not relevant to the Spies Story, since water plays no role there, but Psalm 95 speaks only of Masah and Merivah and makes no mention of מי מריבה. Thus, the name מסה ומריבה, which is applied in Exodus 17:7 to the water from the rock story could also be applied to a non-water story.

Massah as a Poetic Parallel for Merivah

In the stories of the Torah, the “Massah” part of the place name is interpreted in terms of “testing.” In Exodus 17:7 “Massah” is related to Israel’s testing of God concerning the water and in Psalm 95:8-9 it is related to Israel’s testing of God by refusing to take up the conquest. In another tradition, “Massah” seems to be related to God’s testing of the Levites (see Deuteronomy 33:8-9). In all of these instances a parallel is presented between “quarreling,” Merivah, and “testing,” Massah.

The twinning of “quarreling” and “testing” is reasonable. I would suggest, however, that originally, “Massah” was related to the name Merivah in a more direct way. The anonymous prophet declares in Isaiah 58:4: הן לריב ומצה תצומו, “You fast only in order to quarrel and fight,” using ריב and מצה as parallel terms for conflict. And in Isaiah 41, אנשי ריבך “they who strive with you” (v. 11) parallels אנשי מצתך “they who struggle with you” (v. 12).

The sounds צ and ס/שׂ are very close, and these letters may interchange. Thus, we can find the name ישׂחק in place of the usual יצחק (see Amos 7:9, 16; Jeremiah 33:26; Psalms 105:9). Similarly one may express the idea of rejoicing with עלץ (Psalm 68:4), עלז (Psalm 96:12) or עלס (Job 20:18). In light of this, the name מסה would appear to be related to מצה and refer together with מריבה to a place of conflict and contention. This connection between Massah and Merivah seems to be more natural than the connection between quarreling and testing.

This interpretation is confirmed, I believe, by yet another name for Kadesh, which appears in Genesis 14:7, which describes how the army of the four kings marched against the Transjordan:

וַ֠יָּשֻׁבוּ וַיָּבֹ֜אוּ אֶל־עֵ֤ין מִשְׁפָּט֙ הִ֣וא קָדֵ֔שׁ
On their way back they came to Ein-mishpat, which is Kadesh…

The Hebrew appellation עין משפט, “the well of judgment,” hints to another probably older association with the town of Kadesh relating to the settling of legal disputes. A מצה=) ריב) in biblical Hebrew means a dispute, and the name Massah and Merivah may originally reflect the same point as Ein Mishpat, i.e. that Kadesh is a place to settle disputes and receive judgment. I suggest that only later did Israelite scribes “derash” the name as a place where the Israelites “contended” with Moses and “tested” God,[6] attaching it to etiological stories such the Spies Story or the Water-from-a-Rock Story.

Thus, it seems that the use of the name מסה ומריבה in Psalm 95 to allude the contention between Moses and the Israelites in the Spies Story of Kadesh does not reflect the earliest meaning of this name. Only secondarily was it attached to the Spies incident and the hitting of the rock story.

The Meaning of the Psalm: A Reproof to the Babylonian Exiles

How does the interpretation offered here affect our understanding of Psalm 95? A divine reproof to the people in verses 8-11 not to repeat the national sin of the spies is highly significant: This sin was the refusal to go up and settle the land, which would not be relevant if the nation was living in the land, but would be extremely relevant if addressed to the Babylonian exiles at the time of the fall of Babylon. The Israelites that are hardening their hearts are those exiles who refuse to return to the land, preferring the comforts of exilic life.

Many of the exiles at this time indeed preferred to stay put. The prophet referred to as “Second Isaiah” continually urged them, צאו מבבל ברחו מכשדים “Go out of Babylon, flee the Chaldeans” (Isaiah 48:20), סורו סורו צאו משם “Turn, turn, get out of there” (Isaiah 52:11), but with only limited success. The entire book of Esther, situated in the Persian period, testifies to the continued presence of Diaspora Jews, none of whom seem interested in returning to the homeland. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah testify to a small, poor and struggling community in the province known as Yehud. The same difficult picture emerges from Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.

This interpretation solves yet another key problem with the psalm, namely that it appears to consist of two different strands.

  1. The first part of Psalm 95 (verses 1-7a) is positive in tone and reflects a speaker’s call to Israelites to make pilgrimage to the temple with thanksgiving offerings (נקדמה פניו בתודה). This section appears to be pre-exilic.
  2. The second section of the Psalm (verses 7b-11) is threatening in tone. God addresses the people directly, warning them not to be like their ancestors in the wilderness, and is a later, exilic addition.

This later section presents the Judahite exiles with an ominous threat. The supplement works by implicitly reinterpreting the call of verse 6, בֹּ֭אוּ נִשְׁתַּחֲוֶ֣ה וְנִכְרָ֑עָה נִ֝בְרְכָ֗ה לִֽפְנֵי יְהֹוָ֥ה עֹשֵֽׂנוּ, “Come, let us bow and prostrate, let us kneel before the Lord our maker” as being not about local pilgrimage to the Temple but as a call to go up to the land, where the rebuilt Temple was located.

This call, however, was not open-ended. Those who refused the divine call in the past met with God’s wrath and were barred from entering the land (verse 11). When they eventually did decide to heed the call and enter the land it was too late (cf. Numbers 14:39-45). The person who added this supplement, creating a new psalm with a new meaning, was stating that his generation must also enter the land immediately, before it is too late.

Through this supplement, the assurance that once formed the original ending of the psalm, "He is our God and we the people of his pasture (כִּ֮י ה֤וּא אֱלֹהֵ֗ינוּ וַאֲנַ֤חְנוּ עַ֣ם מַ֭רְעִיתוֹ וְצֹ֣אן יָד֑וֹ) (Psalm 95:7a)," became conditional. It is only true, "if today, you (quickly) heed His call (הַ֝יּ֗וֹם אִֽם־בְּקֹל֥וֹ תִשְׁמָֽעוּ) (Ps 95:7b)." Those who harden their hearts and procrastinate, as did their ancestors, may soon discover that, like their ancestors, they will be excluded from the fold.


July 24, 2015


Last Updated

March 31, 2024


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Prof. Rabbi David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches M.A. and rabbinical students. He did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, and is the author or The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns).