What Do Genealogies Teach Us About Torah?
It is not easy to find the genealogies in the Torah engaging, after all what can one possibly learn from a list of “names”? But it turns out that genealogies actually provide some important insights into Torah. In this week’s torah portion as part of the final preparation to enter Israel, God instructs Moses to count the Israelites. Included in the census are the names of the families of the twelve tribes. Surprisingly, the genealogies are often inconsistent with other lists in the Torah.
Take, for example, the tribe of Simeon, in our parsha (Num. 26:12-13), the list of sons is:
1) Nemuel, 2) Yamin, 3) Yachin, 4) Zerach 5) Saul.
However, in Genesis (46:10) the list is a little different:
1) Yemuel, 2)Yamin, 3) Ohad, 4) Yachin, 5) Tzochar, 6) Saul.
Instead of Nemuel we have Yemuel, and the list in Numbers has someone named Zerach, but no Ohad or Tzochar. Even the number of sons is different—6 versus 5. How can this be explained?
Modern scholarship would suggest that these two lists reflect separate sources, one which had Zerach and a second which had Ohad and Tzochar. While Yemuel/Nemuel, probably reflects a scribal error, where the older list had either Yemuel or Nemuel and it was miscopied or misremembered. It is likely that the original was Yemuel since the switch to Nemuel could have been caused by the name Nemuel appearing only three verses earlier (Num. 26:9) in the list of Reuven’s descendants.
Possibly more interesting than the academic solution for the discrepancies themselves, (which are not uncommon in the Torah) is how the Sages went about trying to explain them – teaching us an important perspective on what the very exercise of Torah study is about –finding meaning in every nuance of Torah even in what may be a simple discrepancy.
The Midrash Tanchuma (Pinchas 5) suggests that the families of Ohad and Tzochar had been destroyed in the plague that came upon Israel because of their sin with the Midianite women. That is why they are not listed. Although for some reason the midrash does not explain the appearance of Zerach.
Rashi (Num. 26:13) also tries to solve this problem. He agrees that the family of Ohad was destroyed but suggests that the family of Tzochar had not been destroyed but that it changed its name to Zerach. Rashi points out that Tzochar sounds like Tzohar which means light, and Zerach means shine, so the names are related. Although Rashi does not offer an explanation ‘why’ the family changed its name or for that matter why Yemuel was changed Nemuel.
Rabbi David Kimchi (Radak, 1 Chron. 4:24) suggest that people simply didn’t care about perfect accuracy in names and wouldn’t mind if it shifted by a letter or so. Although this doesn’t explain all of the discrepancies, the suggestion itself is worth noting for being quite daring from a traditional perspective.
An answer using a fairly common practice that is used today, comes from Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel Wisser, known as Malbim. He suggests that having watched so many of his brethren die, including the entire family of Ohad, some of the surviving families—in this case Yemuel and Tzochar—decided to change their names, since “שינוי שם מבטל את הגזרה”, a name change can remove the decree of God.
All in all, it is hard to argue that the traditional approach is about knowledge or finding “the” answer but rather the study of Torah is about finding meaning in the text-sometimes in line with peshat and sometimes derash. Either way, Torah study is about challenging us to think and search for meaning.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
July 16, 2014
November 9, 2022
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Essays on Related Topics: