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Benjamin D. Sommer





YHWH’s Simulated Speech: The Priestly Interpretation of Prophecy



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Benjamin D. Sommer





YHWH’s Simulated Speech: The Priestly Interpretation of Prophecy






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YHWH’s Simulated Speech: The Priestly Interpretation of Prophecy

The use of the unusual verb מִדַּבֵּר, middabber in Numbers 7:89 suggests that YHWH does not speak to Moses in the literal and simple sense.


YHWH’s Simulated Speech: The Priestly Interpretation of Prophecy

Ark of the Covenant, Jan Luyken, 1683. Rijksmuseum

After a long, repetitive passage (Num 7) describing the identical gifts presented by the twelve tribal chieftains at the Tabernacle in the wilderness, readers may miss the important final verse of the chapter.

במדבר ז:פט וּבְבֹא מֹשֶׁה אֶל־אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ וַיִּשְׁמַע אֶת־הַקּוֹל מִדַּבֵּר אֵלָיו מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל־אֲרֹן הָעֵדֻת מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים וַיְדַבֵּר אֵלָיו.
Num 7:89 When Moses came to the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he heard the voice middabber to him from above the covering that was on top of the Ark of the Covenant, from between the two cherubim, and He spoke to him.

This verse describes what happens each time Moses approaches the Tent of Meeting to receive communications from YHWH: The Presence of YHWH sits on the throne created by the outstretched wings of the cherubs (golden statues of sphinx-like creatures with wings) that are located above the ark in the Holy of Holies, and Moses hears the divine voice middabber-ing.[1] (The meaning of this word will be discussed below.)

A Broader Context for Numbers 7:89

Numbers 7:89 comes from the Torah's Priestly Document (P). It relates to the opening verse of Leviticus, which is also from P:

ויקרא א:א וַיִּקְרָא אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הוָה אֵלָיו מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר.
Lev 1:1 YHWH called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying…

This connection was made already by the medieval commentator, Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167 C.E.):

וטעם ובבא משה – יתכן שתחלת הדבור, שהוא ויקרא אל משה (ויקרא א:א), היה כאשר נשלמה החנוכה.
The meaning of “when Moses came to”—It is likely that the beginning of God’s word to Moses [in the Tabernacle], which is that to which “And the Lord called unto Moses” (Lev 1:1) refers, was uttered when the dedication of the tabernacle was completed.[2]

Numbers 7:89 explains what precisely happens on that first occasion of divine speech from the Tent, and on all the subsequent occasions as well. These two verses bookend this part of the Priestly Torah, recounting what happens once Moses and the Israelites set up the Tabernacle at the foot of Mount Sinai. Over a period of seven weeks, this section explains, YHWH speaks repeatedly from within the Tabernacle to convey a wide variety of laws, while the Israelites perform a series of rituals to dedicate the Tabernacle and to prepare it for daily use as a portable temple.[3]

Numbers 7:89 represents the P’s own commentary on its earlier statement in Leviticus 1:1, as well as on another earlier verse in P, Exodus 25:22. There YHWH commands Moses to set up cherubs to cover the Ark, so that YHWH will communicate with him from a spot between the cherubs:

שמות כה:כב וְנוֹעַדְתִּי לְךָ שָׁם וְדִבַּרְתִּי אִתְּךָ מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים אֲשֶׁר עַל אֲרוֹן הָעֵדֻת אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּה אוֹתְךָ אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Exod 25:22 There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.[4]

What stands out in Numbers 7:89’s elaboration of the verses from Leviticus and Exodus is its use of the rare verb middabber to describe YHWH’s speech. It appears that the author is attempting to clarify the nature of the divine speech that Moses hears each time YHWH speaks with him, but what is the verse trying to say?

The Grammar of Middabber

The root of middabber, ד.ב.ר “to speak,” is ubiquitous in the Bible. Its consonants are the same as the present participle piʿel for, medabber “speaking,” a fairly common form. Middabber, however, shows up only twice more in the Bible for certain, in Ezekiel 2:2 and 43:6, which also describe communication between YHWH and a prophet, and possibly once more in 2 Samuel 14:13 (though the form of the verb in this last verse is a source of ongoing debate).

The grammatical construction of middabber is known as the hitpaʿel form, with the tav infix (*mitdabber) assimilating into the dalet that immediately follows it, producing the double dalet noted in the Masoretic text by a dagesh chazak dot (מִדַּבֵּר) in the dalet.[5]

The hitpaʿel construction carries several distinct types of meaning. These various meanings are not mutually exclusive; it is possible that Numbers 7:89 conveys more than one of them at once.

1. Reciprocal Action

The hitpaʿel can describe a reciprocal action—that is, action that goes back and forth between two parties. (In modern Hebrew, the verb mitkattev, “correspond, exchange mail,” is an example of this use of the hitpaʿel verb.) If middabber conveys that sort of meaning in our verse, then it refers to communication that moves back and forth between YHWH and Moses. The Priestly author of our verse may be telling us that the revelation of the law was not just a top-down affair; it involved some degree of dialogue between YHWH and Moses.

This conception of revelation fits well with other Priestly passages in the Torah, in which Moses and the Israelites present requests to YHWH for clarification on specific points of law.[6] In these texts, YHWH responds by producing new legislation that answers the questions they ask. In three of these cases, the requests clearly hint at the answer the questioners hope to receive, and YHWH in fact provides that answer. [7]

This Priestly picture of lawgiving as being at least in part dialogical, as involving some sort of human input and not just divine decree, may be indicated in our verse through its hitpaʿel verb.

2. Ongoing Action

The hitpaʿel construction can also convey ongoing action. This is the case with the verb הִתְהַלֵּך, (from the root ה.ל.כ, “walk”), which in its frequent contexts in the Bible means not simply to walk, or to go from one place to another and then to stop, but rather to walk around, to wander, to walk and walk and walk some more (see Genesis 3:8, Job 1:7, 2:2, Psalm 26:3).[8] Applied, to our verb, this would mean that YHWH was “continuously speaking to him,”[9] as the modern biblical scholars, Baruch Levine and Everett Fox both understand and translate the verb.

3. Reflexive Action

The hitpaʿel construction often conveys a reflexive meaning—that is, it describes an action that people do to themselves. One sees this commonly in rabbinic and modern Hebrew, for instance, in the verb הִתְלַבֵּשׁ (from the root ל.ב.שׁ, “wear”), with the meaning “to clothe oneself, to put on clothing.” Similarly, whereas in biblical Hebrew the piʿel verb חִטֵּא (ḥiṭṭeʾ) means “to purify, to remove a stain,” the hitpaʿel verb הִתְחַטֵּא (ḥiṭṭeʾ) means “to cleanse oneself” (see Numbers 8:21, 19:12–13, 19:20, 31:19, 31:20, 31:23). This possibility leads Rashi to comment (ad loc.):

כבודו של מעלה לומר כן, מִדַבֵּר בינו לבין עצמו, ומשה שומע מאיליו.
For the honor of the Deity (literally “up-high”) it speaks this way. [God] is speaking to Godself, and Moses is listening on his own.

That is, at the Tent, Moses somehow attained access to YHWH’s own ruminations.

Unique Divine Speech

By choosing this rare verb to explain what took place when YHWH communicated with Moses at the Tent, our text suggests that this communication was not a simple matter of speaking in the way that humans speak. A voice that entails both giving and taking information, or one that allows for continuous rather than punctual communication, or for overhearing God’s personal dialogue with Godself, is not a voice speaking in any normal sense of the word.

The fact that our verse applies to all the times YHWH communicated laws to Moses according to P suggests that whatever communication transpired when Moses went to the Tent differs from what happens when one human talks to another human. This is even clearer in the Septuagint translation of the verb וידבר at the end of Numbers 7:89, ἐλάλει, an imperfect verb that conveys ongoing, repeated action (rather than the aorist or past tense verb the Septuagint usually uses when translating וידבר).

If the verse is expressing that Divine speech is different than normal human speech, then this verse intimates that the more regular verb used elsewhere to report YHWH’s speech to Moses in the piʿel form means something different when YHWH is its subject.[10]

In its own subtle and allusive way, Numbers 7:89 makes a significant theological claim similar to one that Maimonides would later expound in great detail in the most important work of Jewish philosophy, The Guide of the Perplexed: YHWH does not literally speak, and whenever the Torah refers to YHWH as “speaking,” we need to understand that something much more complex and mysterious is occurring, something that does not involve the sound waves and specific words used when people talk to each other.[11]

4. “As If” Speaking

A more radical understanding of the hitpaʿel verb here is that it denotes simulation—that is, the subject of the verb acts as if he were doing something. If our verse employs this sense of the hitpaʿel construction, then our narrative is indicating that “speaking” is not something that the deity really does, and whenever the narrator attaches the verb “speak” to the subject “YHWH,” it intends something different from that verb’s usual meaning.

An example of such a use can be found in 2 Samuel 13:5, where the hitpaʿel form of ח.ל.ה/י “to be sick” means “pretend to be sick”:

שׁמואל ב יג:ה וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ יְהוֹנָדָב שְׁכַב עַל־מִשְׁכָּבְךָ וְהִתְחָל וּבָא אָבִיךָ לִרְאוֹתֶךָ וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו תָּבֹא נָא תָמָר אֲחוֹתִי וְתַבְרֵנִי לֶחֶם וְעָשְׂתָה לְעֵינַי אֶת־הַבִּרְיָה לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֶרְאֶה וְאָכַלְתִּי מִיָּדָהּ.
2 Sam 13:5 Jonadab said to him, “Lie down in your bed and pretend you are sick. When your father comes to see you, say to him, ‘Let my sister Tamar come and give me something to eat. Let her prepare the food in front of me, so that I may look on, and let her serve it to me.’”

Similarly, in Gen 42:7, the verb yitnakker means “act like a stranger”:[12]

בראשׁית מב:ז וַיַּרְא יוֹסֵף אֶת־אֶחָיו וַיַּכִּרֵם וַיִּתְנַכֵּר אֲלֵיהֶם וַיְדַבֵּר אִתָּם קָשׁוֹת וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם מֵאַיִן בָּאתֶם וַיֹּאמְרוּ מֵאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן לִשְׁבָּר־אֹכֶל.
Gen 42:7 When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them. He asked them, “Where do you come from?” And they said, “From the land of Canaan, to procure food.”

If this is the meaning in our verse, then YHWH’s speech is not speech at all; instead, YHWH communicates with Moses as if God were speaking to him.

Prophecy as Opposed to Speech: Describing the Indescribable

YHWH’s “speaking” is something that only a prophet has experienced, and therefore something for which no word exists among us non-prophets who make up the narrative’s audience. My use of quotes in the previous sentence, in fact, may be exactly what the Priestly authors of our passage intend when they use the strange hitpaʿel form of this verb: it reminds us that YHWH’s “speaking” is not really speaking at all.

In that case, mattan Torah or lawgiving does not involve YHWH literally pronouncing or writing the words we find in the Torah. YHWH’s commands to Moses are not conveyed in language, and one of the most important roles played by Moses, by the prophets who came after him, and by the sages who succeeded them has been to translate YHWH’s communications into human terms.

The process of parshanut or interpretation, then, did not begin after the revelation of the Torah. Instead, interpretation was part of the ongoing, dialogical process of revelation itself. Interpretation is not only an activity that is performed on the Torah; interpretation helped to create the Torah.


May 26, 2021


Last Updated

August 14, 2021


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Prof. Benjamin Sommer is Professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Senior Fellow at the Kogod Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He holds an M.A. in Bible and Ancient Near East from Brandeis University and a Ph.D. in Religion/Biblical Studies from the University of Chicago. Sommer is the author of Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition (Yale, 2015), The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (Cambridge, 2009), and A Prophet Reads Scripture: Allusion in Isaiah 40–66 (Stanford, 1998). The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz described Sommer as “a traditionalist and yet an iconoclast – he shatters idols and prejudices in order to nurture Jewish tradition and its applicability today.”