Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Parshat Shelach

Biblical Conversation

In the haftara of this week's parsha, Yehoshua sends spies to Jericho. We have discussed previously why Moshe's spies failed in their mission while Yehoshua's spies were successful (see link at the end of this blog).

Yehoshua's spies knew they would be successful when Rahav, the Canaanite woman who protected them declared: "Your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land have melted away because of you" (Yehoshua 2:9).

This English translation unfortunately does not capture the brevity and the beauty of the words she used: "וְכִי נָפְלָה אֵימַתְכֶם עָלֵינוּ וְכִי נָמֹגוּ כָּל יֹשְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ מִפְּנֵיכֶם".

What is amazing about these words is that they are poetry, not words used in prose, certainly not by a harlot and certainly not by a non-Hebrew speaker.

Furthermore, these words are actually a minor reworking of the "Song at Sea" that Israel sang when they left Egypt (see Shemot 15:16). Could Rahav really have known the song and then repeated it to them?

Maybe, but it is very unlikely. Their conversation probably took place in a Canaanite dialect and not Hebrew (see Bereshit 42:23, where Yospeh and his brothers are speaking to each other via an interpreter, with Yoseph speaking in ancient Egyptian).

Therefore, was the Bible being honest when it quoted Rahav?

It is obvious that the Torah does not bring the characters' conversations in their entirety. Dialogue must have included greetings, protocol statements and possibly even small talk. The Torah is not interested in all this. It has a message it wants to teach and so it brings a summary of the conversation.

Indeed, the Daat Mikra explains that only when the Torah uses the word: "לאמר" – "the following" is an actual quote being recorded.

Nevertheless, the Bible is still being honest when it quoted Rahav. She probably said something about how scared the whole country was. However, when the spies heard her, they were reminded of the Song at Sea. The author of Sefer Yehoshua wants us, the reader, to understand the impact that Rahav's words had the spies.

We would have missed this point had a plain translation of Rahav's words been recorded. Therefore, the author replaced those words with replicated poetry from the Song at Sea, so that we should understand the impact that Rahav's words had on the spies.

Therefore, even though the quote might not be accurate, it is truthful.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Shelach, entitled: "The Giants and the Nephilim – Who were They and Where are They Now?" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Shelach, entitled: "The Spies" appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat Shelach, entitled: "The Spies, Challa and Tzitzit" appears at

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Anonymous Hebrew Student said...

Shalom Moshe, Thanks for your post on the Hebrew used in this passage. You assume that Rahav might have been quoting the Song of the Sea... Or could it not have been the other way round? Maybe the beautiful Hebrew words spoken really were what Rahav said, and they made such a profound impression on everyone that they were afterwards put to music and song. Is that not possible?

6:39 PM  
Blogger Moshe Abelesz said...

My assumption was that a Cannanite harlot could not have known Hebrew poetry. To suggest that not only did she speak Hebrew and that she was a student of Hebrew poetry, but that she actually spoke creative Hebrew poetry in her prose, I find highly unlikely.

To further suggest that the Song at Sea was written forty years after the event and inspired by Rahav, I find even more unlikely.

If all your original assumptions are correct then at best, her words would have gone into a Jericho victory song.

10:48 AM  

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