“Can That Number Be Right?” “Yes!”
Written by the rabbi
There are p’sukim throughout Tanach that deal with the order of events and other chronological matters. One of the not uncommon phenomena in this regard is that these p’sukim do not always seem to work out in a manner we can understand at first glance. This week’s parasha includes one such example.
"The inhabitance that Bnei Yisrael lived in Egypt lasted 430 years." (Shemot 12: 40). Every educated day school student knows (based on Chazal’s calculations) that Bnei Yisrael spent only a little more than two centuries in Egypt. One also has to contrast this pasuk with the prophecy that Avraham received that his offspring would be in a foreign land for 400 years (Bereishit 15:13).
Let us take a look at a few more cases of problematic chronology in Tanach. The Torah says that Avraham was 75 years old when he left Charan to go to Eretz Yisrael. Yet, the calculations of Chazal are that Avraham was only 70 during the Brit Bein Habetarim, which took place when Avraham was already in the Land. A more obvious age problem is the pasuk in Shmuel (I, 13:1): "Shaul was a year old when he became king, and he ruled over Israel for two years." That certainly seems difficult to accept at face value.
In Melachim (II:15:1) it says: "In the 27th year of the reign of Yeravam, King of Israel, Azarya ben Amatzya ruled in Yehuda." The author of Seder Olam asks: "Is it possible to say that? Didn’t they rule at the same time?" (This question is based on the determination of this Talmudic-time work that Azarya is the same person as Uziyah and that Uziyah and Yeravam (the Second) started their reigns at the same time.) A final problem we will share is from Divrei Hayamim. "Achazyahu was 42 when he assumed the crown, and he was king in Yerushalayim for one year" (II:22:2). Yet his father Yehoram was 32 years old when he ascended to the throne and reigned for 8 years, meaning that Yehoram was 40 when he died. How, then, could Yehoram’s son have been 42 at the time that the father was 40?
There are a few explanations for the phenomenon of problematic dating. One is that the issue is Tanach’s way to proclaim that it is not written to serve as a historical work in the classic sense. Tanach is Hashem’s tool of revelation, and since Hashem is beyond time, time as we relate to it is not of relevance. That is why one of the strongest rules in Rabbinic interpretation of Tanach is, "There is no early or late in the Torah" (Pesachim 8b). There is an important corollary to this thesis. The Torah uses these p’sukim as a tool to teach us deep spiritual ideas that hide behind the obvious questions they raise: "Can this be?" The answer is: "Yes, it can be" – if you understand the picture in sufficiently broad terms. In this context we do not have enough space to bring all the details of how it can be and what is learned from this form of reality. We hope to soon share many of these ideas in our upcoming sefer "Tzofnat Eliyahu."
May we always have the ability to understand Tanach deeply and always be able to answer "Yes."
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