The Song of the Ark – Numbers 10:35–36
The book of Numbers describes how the Israelites leave Mount Sinai, travelling towards Canaan. The MT’s version reads (not the placement of the indented passage):
במדבר י:לג וַיִּסְעוּ מֵהַר יְ־הוָה דֶּרֶךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים וַאֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְ־הוָה נֹסֵעַ לִפְנֵיהֶם דֶּרֶךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים לָתוּר לָהֶם מְנוּחָה. י:לד וַעֲנַן יְ־הוָה עֲלֵיהֶם יוֹמָם בְּנָסְעָם מִן הַמַּחֲנֶה.
Num 10:33 They marched from the mountain of YHWH a distance of three days. The Ark of the Covenant of YHWH traveled in front of them on that three days’ journey to seek out a resting place for them; 10:34 and YHWH’s cloud kept above them by day, as they moved on from camp.
י:לה ׆ וַיְהִי בִּנְסֹעַ הָאָרֹן וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה קוּמָה יְ־הוָה וְיָפֻצוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ וְיָנֻסוּ מְשַׂנְאֶיךָ מִפָּנֶיךָ. י:לו וּבְנֻחֹה [נ"ש: ובמנוחה] יֹאמַר שׁוּבָה יְ־הוָה רִבְבוֹת אַלְפֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. ׆
Num 10:35 ׆ When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: “Advance, O YHWH! May Your enemies be scattered and may Your foes flee before You!” 36And when it halted, he would say: “Return, O YHWH, You who are Israel’s myriads of thousands!” ׆
LXX has the same verses, but in a different sequence (note again the placement of the indented passage):
Num 10:33 And they set out from the mountain of the Lord on a journey of three days, and the ark of the covenant of the Lord went ahead before them on a three days’ journey, to seek out for them rest.
10:34 [MT 10:35] And it happened when the ark set out, then Moses said, “Be aroused, O Lord, let Your enemies be scattered; let all those who hate You flee!” 10:35 [MT 10:36] And when it came to rest he said, “Turn, O Lord, the thousands, the myriads in Israel.”
10:36 [MT 10:34] And the cloud came, overshadowing them by day, when they set out from the camp.
The LXX sequence makes more sense (though it is still problematic, see below), since verse 33 refers to the ark of the covenant being on the move, and v. 34 of the LXX (v. 35 of MT) comes to explain what Moses would say when this would happen. That the MT passage is in the wrong place helps explain a unique feature of the MT text, namely, the inverted nunim found in all manuscripts and printed editions around verses 35–36.
The medieval Masoretic Text contains an apparatus of vowels, accentuation, and Masorah. While this apparatus is medieval, almost all its paratextual notations (notations beyond the words in the text) are based on scribal traditions known from the Dead Sea Scrolls (except for the Ketiv–Qere notations). The inverted nunim here are one such example.
Rabbinic midrash suggested that these inverted nunim mark off this text as its own book, forming a small unit:
בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) סד בר קפרא עבד מן ראשית דספר וידבר ועד גבי ויהי בנסע הארן ויאמר משה (במדבר י:כה) ספר בפני עצמו, ויהי בנסע הארון ודבתריה ספר בפני עצמו, מן תמן ועד סופיה דספרא ספר בפני עצמו.
Genesis Rabbah §64 Bar Kappara made the beginning of the book of Numbers until “when the ark set out, Moses would say” as one scroll, “When the ark set out” and what follows as its own scroll, and from there until the end of the book one scroll.
This midrash thus recognizes that MT vv. 35–36 are not organically connected to the previous verses.
Comparative evidence shows that the inverted nunim derive from the forms of the Greek letters sigma [Ϲ] and its reversed shape antisigma [Ͻ], known from the Alexandrian scribal tradition and the Qumran scrolls as parenthesis signs. The inverted nunim represented the closest forms to the letters sigma and antisigma that were unknown in the Jewish scribal tradition.
In this case, the scribes who included these signs were likely communicating to later readers that these verses are in the wrong place. This seems to be how the 2nd century C.E. Tanna, Rabban Shimon ben Gamilel understood the signs as well:
אבות דרבי נתן א פרק לד רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר עתידה פרשה זו שתעקר ממקומה ותכתב במקום אחר:
Fathers According to R. Nathan A ch. 34 Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: “In the future, this passage will be removed from its place and written in a different spot.”
How did the MT passage come to have the verses in the wrong place? The passage is almost certainly a later addition to the book of Numbers. Indeed, the passage doesn’t fit the context even in the LXX tradition, since it is about bringing the ark to war while the journey in Numbers 10:33 is not military.
It seems, therefore, that the passage was an independent text or was once part of some other text. At some early period, a scribe wishing to include this passage in the book of Numbers wrote it in the margins, i.e., on the side or the bottom of a scroll. The scribe who copied the scroll that eventually served as the Hebrew Vorlage for the LXX translation copied the passage into the main text in the intended spot, but the scribe who copied the scroll that eventually served as Proto-MT’s Vorlage copied it in the wrong place.
Either the scribe who first copied this passage here or a later scribe set the inverted nunim to communicate to the next readers that the passage was in the wrong place. However, by the time the text was copied, the Masoretic practices of precise reproduction had been put in place. Thus, instead of moving the passage to right place as intended, the scribal marks were just copied as is, to be forever part of the MT Bible.
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Prof. Emanuel Tov is J. L. Magnes Professor of Bible (emeritus) in the Dept. of Bible at the Hebrew University, where he received his Ph.D. in Biblical Studies. He was the editor of 33 volumes of Discoveries in the Judean Desert. Among his many publications are, Scribal Practices and Approaches Reflected in the Texts Found in the Judean Desert, Textual Criticism of the Bible: An Introduction, The Biblical Encyclopaedia Library 31 and The Text-Critical Use of the Septuagint in Biblical Research.
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