LET’S STUDY ONKELOS PINCHAS

STUDY GUIDE
PINCHAS (CHAPTER 25:10–30:1)
SUMMARY OF THE TORAH PORTION

Phinehas is rewarded by God for his daring and courageous act with a covenantal
guarantee of a perpetual priesthood for his descendants; Moses is commanded to kill the
Midianites for attempting to undermine the Israelite nation by seducing them to commit
acts of sexual immorality and idolatry; a new census is conducted, by tribe and family,
thirty-nine years after the first one, in preparation of the Israelite war of conquest of
Canaan and the allocation of the land; the Levites are also counted, according to their
families; the daughters of Zelophehad, since their father had no sons, raise an inheritance
issue with Moses, for they also wanted to inherit a portion of the land; God informs Moses
that their demand is justified and the broader laws of inheritance are outlined; God
mandates that Joshua assume leadership of the Israelites after Moses, and Moses engages
in a public ceremony to signify the transfer of leadership; God prescribes special sacrifices,
in addition to the daily offerings, to be brought on the Sabbath, the new moon, the
pilgrimage festivals, and the days later called Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

THE TRANSFER OF LEADERSHIP FROM MOSES TO JOSHUA:
TARGUMIC COMMENTS
In chapter 27, verses 15-23 (pages 252-255),1 we find Moses’ request of God that He
appoint a replacement for him as leader of the Israelites. God recommends Joshua and asks

All page numbers refer to the Drazin-Wagner Onkelos on the Torah volumes.

Moses to publicly transfer leadership to him. This is done with the aid of Eleazar and the
use of the Urim.

The targumist does not stray from his focus on the literal meaning of the text, but makes
changes he feels necessary to conform with his literary style.
In verse 15, Onkelos (also Sifrei, Pseudo-Jonathan, and Sifrei Zuta) substitutes for “Moses
spoke to (or with) the Lord,” as he customarily does, “Moses spoke before the Lord” in
order to distance Moses from the deity, out of reverence and respect and to avoid the
possible misunderstanding that God has a physical nature and Moses can meet and speak
to him.

In verse 16, Moses beseeches: “Let the Lord God of the spirits of all flesh appoint a man
over the community.” This description of God is not clear and Onkelos does not clarify its
meaning, but simply translates the phrase into Aramaic. Midrash Tanchuma, Rashi, ibn
Ezra, Chazkunee, and others understand that the words do not describe the essence of God,
but only His ability to recognize people’s capacities, in this case the ability to discern which
human personality is worthy of leadership. However, Rashi sees the appointment as a
reward: Joshua was rewarded for his service, in that “he did not depart (from Moses’) tent.”
(Exodus 33:11).

In verse 17, Moses describes the responsibilities of the leader, such as conducting war
(Rashi, based on Sifrei), overseeing the affairs of government (Sforno), and delegating
responsibility (ibn Ezra). Genesis Rabbah provides an extraordinary Midrash that
embellishes Moses’ request. It is found in our appendix on pages 412-413:
Genesis Rabbah reads a drama into Moses’ pleas recorded in this passage. It states
that Moses’ situation was like that of a king who became enamored of a girl and
asked her to marry him. She refused, but he continued to woo her for seven days until
she consented. After some years of marriage, the king grew disenchanted and told
her that he was divorcing her. She, of course, had no say in the decision, but she
pleaded with him: “Remember that I was reluctant to be your wife, but I consented
after the seven days that you courted me. When I accepted, I understood that we
would stay married and that you would not divorce me. When you take a new wife,
do not treat her as you treated me.” The Midrash compares this parable to Moses. It
supposes that Moses is saying to God: “I accept Your decision that I will no longer
lead the people and that I cannot lead them to the Promised Land. But You should
remember that I did not want to accept this mission. You tried to convince me for
seven days (a number that is not found in the biblical text). When I finally accepted, I
assumed that I would be able to lead the Israelites to Canaan. Now You disappoint
me. Do not do this to my successor. Let him complete his mission and take the
Israelites to the Promised Land.”

In verse 18, God reveals his choice of Joshua (Rashi, based on Tanchuma, has Moses
hoping that one or both of his sons would be appointed), and Moses is told: “kach lecha et
Yehoshua bin Nun ish asher ruach bo,” “Take Joshua the son of Nun a man who has spirit.”
The targumist always regards the addition of the word lecha as idiomatic, as in lech lecha

(Genesis 12:1), shelach lecha (Numbers 13:2), and elsewhere. Exegetes, on the other hand,
always find a homiletic reason for the addition of the word. In this verse, as in verse 22,
Onkelos changes “take,” which it regards as somewhat disrespectful, and substitutes “lead,”
as it almost always does, and renders lecha literally. Rashi, on the other hand, ignores that
lecha is an idiom and reads it homiletically: “take for yourself; take someone you know and
tested.”
In this verse, the targumist also adds a word to clarify the biblical description of Joshua
as a person “who has spirit.” Onkelos (and Pseudo-Jonathan) adds, “the spirit of prophecy.”
Others suggest, “holiness” (Neophyti); “God” (Sifrei); “the ability to go against the desires of
others (Rashi). (Contrast Genesis 4:38 and Deuteronomy 34:9, where Scripture mentions
“spirit of God” and “sprit of wisdom,” respectively.)

In verse 19, God instructs Moses to “give (Joshua) the charge,” without suggesting the
nature of the charge. The targumist would never fill in the gap by suggesting what it might
be. He is a translator, after all, whose deviations from the biblical text have a very particular
and consistent pattern. However, his methodology did not prevent Rashi (based on Sifrei)
from suggesting that Moses was to charge Joshua by telling him what a troublesome and
rebellious people he was being called upon to lead, and to accept the appointment with this
in mind. Nachmanides and Sforno disagree and state that since the transfer of leadership
was to be done publicly, Moses would never have uttered this criticism of the Israelites.
In another typical targumic change, Onkelos, in verse 20, changes the word “listen” in
the phrase “so that the entire community will listen (yishme’u) to him,” to “accept him,”
because “listen” is clearly a figure of speech meaning “accept.” This is the same in English:
“listen to me” can mean “accept what I am telling you.”
Finally, we note in verse 21 that Eleazar is to use the Urim in directing Joshua in his role
as leader of the people. The function of the Urim and Thummim and the manner in which
they were to be used (see Exodus 28:15-30 and Leviticus 8:8) is unclear. All suggestions are
speculative. The targumist certainly does not attempt to provide his readers with opinions
since this would be beyond his purview.

ADDITIONAL DISCUSSIONS

ON ONKELOS
The Torah states that there was a spoken exchange between God and Moses concerning
the transfer of leadership. Let us consider the nature of this communication. In our
appendix (page 374), we have a reference to the problem of God “speaking”:
Exodus 25:22 promises Moses that “There (before the ark) I will meet with you, and I
will speak with you (“ve’dibarti”) from above the ark cover, from between the two
cherubim that are on the Ark of the Testimony.” This promise is fulfilled in verse 89.
However, verse 89 uses the unusual term “midabeir” for “speaking.”

The Hebrew does not explicitly state that it is God who is “speaking,” but it is implied
in “he (Moses) heard the voice speaking to him.”
The Greek Septuagint translation adds that it was the Lord’s voice, and it explains the
Hebrew “midabeir” as “speaking with oneself.” This rendition seems to imply that
Moses did not hear God addressing him, but that he overheard a divine conversation.
Some scholars think that the Masorites, who lived during the first millennium CE and
who fixed the Torah text, purposely refused to punctuate “medabeir” with a “sheva”
instead of a “chirik,” to minimize the possibility that people might suppose that the
“voice” was a divine being separate from God, a polytheistic notion, and this “other
god” was communicating to Moses.

Pseudo-Jonathan understood the verse in this way. It reads, “he (Moses) heard the
voice of the spirit (“ruach”) that was speaking (“mitmaleil”) with him, descending
from the highest heaven, above the Ark of the Testimony between the two cherubim:
and from there the “dibbura” (word) was speaking with him.” Thus, this targumist
seems to say that a “voice of the spirit (‘ruach’)” descended from heaven and it (now
called “dibbura”) spoke to Moses. This “dibbura” is used by Pseudo-Jonathan to
suggest a divine “word” or “wisdom” or “command,” similar to “memra,” with the
exact same meaning and implication, but “dibbura” never appears in Onkelos,
possibly because the Onkelos targumist felt that it might suggest a divine being apart
from God, the very idea that the translator wanted to avoid.

Numbers Rabbah understands “midabeir” as suggesting that God never spoke to
Aaron, just to Moses, and when Aaron needed to know what God said, Moses would
tell him.

The form “midabeir” appears again in Ezekiel 2:2 and 43:6 and in II Samuel 14:13.
The Ezekiel targumist renders “midabeir” in the same manner as Onkelos here.
However, the Samuel targumist treats “midabeir” as if it were the “piel” form
“u’memaleil,” “and he spoke,” because “midabeir” in II Samuel describes the human
king speaking.

This discussion focuses upon the problem that various commentators and translators
had with God “speaking.” Some focus on the unusual word midabeir. Others are concerned
that the word suggests to them that God created a separate word, a new being, that
communicated with Moses. This raises the problem of polytheism. Still others are bothered
that speaking seems to be an anthropomorphic activity. People speak because they have
vocal cords. Since God lacks vocal cords, God cannot speak. It is significant that the Torah
has over a hundred instances where it indicates that God “spoke.” While our targumist
generally avoids anthropomorphisms, he does not change these many statements. We
contend that he did not do so because such an alteration would radically change the biblical
text, and our targumist, despite abhorring anthropomorphic depictions of the deity, did not
want to make multiple radical alterations.

Do these anthropomorphic depictions of God speaking make you feel uncomfortable?

Do they suggest that God has vocal cords, like a human being? How would God otherwise
communicate with Moses or any of the prophets? Did the prophets hear divine speech? If
not, what did they hear?

GENERAL DISCUSSION
We noted that Rashi suggested that Moses hoped that God would select either one or
both of his sons to replace him as leader of the Israelites. But Scripture does not justify
Moses’ hope in any way. We do not find any references to the sons of Moses during the
Israelite forty-year sojourn in the wilderness as displaying any leadership or playing any
role of importance. If Moses groomed them for leadership, we have no record to
substantiate this claim. However, it is not uncommon for offspring of great personalities to
be unable to follow in the footsteps of their parents. Why is this so? What factors are
responsible for the inability of outstanding leaders to transmit effectively the qualities of
leadership to their children?

What qualities are most valuable to a leader that will insure his or her success? If
among these qualities are charisma, oratory skills, independence, and experience, how is it
that Moses was selected by God for this important mission? What qualities did Moses
possess that made him worthy to help create and lead the nation of Israel? Do we see him
exhibiting these qualities before God chose him as a leader?

Scripture uses the metaphor of a shepherd and his flock to describe the relationship
between a leader and his followers (27:17). Indeed, Moses was a shepherd in Midian and
King David was also a shepherd, and God, according to a Midrash, tested both of them as
shepherds before assigning them their missions. God Himself is also described as a
Shepherd in Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” and elsewhere. What is significant in this
metaphor and how does it represent an ideal relationship between a leader and his
followers? Do you think that an ability to handle animals shows an ability to handle
humans? If not, what is the Psalm and Midrash saying?

FOR FURTHER STUDY
1. See 25:18 and commentary, “TROUBLE” (page 239). The targumist explains God’s
charge to Moses concerning the Midianites.
2. See 28:17 and commentary, “UNLEAVENED BREAD” (page 258). Why does Onkelos
convert the biblical matzot (in the plural) to the singular?
3. See 28:26 and commentary, “ATZERET” (page 261,