Biblical Discontinuity

Isaac Hirshbein of La Mesa, Calif., wants to know why, in all English translations of the Bible, four of the Five Books of Moses, or Pentateuch, have Greek names — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy — while a fifth bears the English name of Numbers. “Why the break in continuity?” he asks. “And what is done in other languages, such as French, Russian, and German?”

The answer to Mr. Hirshbein’s question starts with the Septuagint, the earliest Bible translation in history. A third-century BCE rendition of the Bible in Greek for the benefit of the Jews of Alexandria, the Septuagint derives its name from the legend that it had 70 different translators — each working on his own, yet miraculously arriving at the exact same results as did the 69 others. To this day, the Septuagint’s wording has had, indirectly, a great impact on Bible translations all over the world, inasmuch as it greatly affected the fourth-century C.E. Latin Vulgate, which served as the basis for the translation of the Bible into European languages during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, from which in turn the Bible has been translated into thousands of other languages in modern times.

Legend aside, the Septuagint’s translators had to decide, when it came to naming the five books of the Pentateuch, whether or not to follow the Hebrew practice of naming each book after the initial word or words of its initial verse. Thus, the first book of Moses is known in Hebrew as Bereshit, “In the beginning,” from its opening verse, Bereshit bara elohim et ha-shamayim ve-ha-aretz, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” The second book is Shemot, “Names,” because it starts Ve-eleh shemot b’nei yisra’el ha-ba’im mitsrayma, “And these are the names of the Children of Israel who came to Egypt.” The third is Vayikra, “And He Called,” because it begins, “And He [God] called to Moses.” The fourth is Bamidbar, “In the Desert,” from “And He [God] spoke to Moses in the desert,” and the fifth, Devarim, “Words,” from “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel.”

The choice made by the Septuagint’s translators was not to adopt this method, which would have given them five volumes with the Greek names of En Arkhei, Onomata, Kai Anakaleisei, En Te Eremo and Logoi. Rather, they gave each book a descriptive title based on its contents or on a part of them. And so Bereshit, which begins with the origins of the human race, was called by them Genesis, “origin” or “descent.” Shemot, which tells of Israel’s bondage in Egypt and release from it, became Exodos, “Going Out.” Vayikra was Levitikon, because it deals with the laws of the priests from the tribe of Levi. Bamidbar, several chapters of which concerned Moses’ census of the tribes of Israel, was Arithmoi, “Numbers.” And last, Devarim, though the fifth book, was named, for reasons I will get back to, Deuteronomion, from deutero, “second,” and nomos, “law.”

I don’t know why, but when the Christian church father Jerome rendered the Bible into the Latin version known as “the Vulgate” (from Latin vulgata editio, “the popular [i.e., readable by the general public] edition”), he kept unchanged, except for their grammatical endings, all the Greek names of the books of the Pentateuch except for Arithmoi, which he translated by its Latin equivalent of Numerorum, “Of Numbers.” Whatever his reasoning was, however, English followed him, keeping the Greek names for the first, second, third and fifth book of the Pentateuch and translating the fourth book as “Numbers.” French, which has Genèse, Exode, Lévitique, Nombres and Deutéronome, did the same, while Martin Luther’s German Bible has simply Das erste Buch Mose (“The First Book of Moses”), Das zweite Buch Mose (“The Second Book of Moses”) and so forth. Russian, on the other hand, translated the names of all the books, giving us B’it, Yeskhod, Levit, Chesla and Vtorozakonye, from vtoro, “second,” and zakon, “law,” like Greek Deuteronomion.

And why was the last book of the Pentateuch called “the second law” by the Septuagint? The reason is that, in ancient rabbinic sources, too, we find Deuteronomy called not only Devarim but also Mishneh Torah, based on the verse in Deuteronomy 17:18 that tells us, in describing the duties of a future king of Israel: “And it shall be, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a [second] copy of this law [mishneh ha-torah ha-zot] in a book, according to that [i.e., the original copy] which belongs to the priests of Levi.”

Biblical scholars have long considered this a reference to the story in Kings II about how, in the days of the seventh-century BCE monotheistic reformer King Josiah, a “book of the Law,” apparently Deuteronomy, was “found” (or, as the case may be, newly composed) in the Temple by the high priest Hilkiah and brought to the king, who then read it aloud to his subjects. Deuteronomy, the fifth book of Moses, was thus a kind of second part to the Pentateuch — and indeed, the word mishneh, translated in Deuteronomy 17:18 as “copy,” can also mean “second to.” Hence, the Septuagint’s “second law,” which, like Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, has had different fates in the different languages Mr. Hirshbein asks about.

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Biblical Discontinuity

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