Monday, January 05, 2009

70 isn't 70. Is it?

Last week, I wrote:

In a furious post, I mean comment, the Ramban eviscerates the ibn Ezra's view on hidden miracles in general, and the identity of the seventy persons who went down to Egypt, in particular. The philosophical ramifications of their argument are too long to recount in this format, so perhaps a post after shabbos.
Promise kept. Here it is:

The Torah says seventy* people went down to Egypt with Jacob, yet provides the names of only 69 of them. Ibn Ezra says the seventieth was Jacob himself. The Midrash, followed by Rashi and the Ramban, says the seventieth person was Yocheved, mother of Moshe, who was born "between the walls", ie, just as the family entered Egypt.

In his discussion of the identity of the seventy members of Jacob's family who emigrated to Egypt, ibn Ezra makes two points. The first was answered by the Ramban in a blistering post, while the other was ignored. Here's my summary:

First argument:
Yocheved could not be one of the seventy emigrants, for if she born when the family arrived in Egypt, her age at her son Moshe's birth would be 130, a miracle left unmentioned by the Torah. Argues the ibn Ezra: What was so special about Sarah having a child at 90, if Yocheved did it at 130? Therefore, she had to have been born long after the arrival in Egypt, and can't be counted among the 70.

The Ramban replies that (1) Setting Yocheved's birth later in the exile solves nothing. If you insist that Yocheved was younger than Sarah at Moshe's birth, the math and known chronology force you to say that her father Levi was older than Avraham at Yocheved's birth. So either way, you're left with a very old person having children (either Yocheved or Levi) which is something the ibn Ezra said he was is unwilling to recognize (2) Many people had children at extremely old ages. Salmon, Oved and Yishai are given as examples (3) The birth of Isaac was miraculous not simply because his parents were old, but because his mother had previously been infertile, and had already reached menopause.

The Ramban also sets forth his view that (1) The whole world runs on hidden miracles and (2) the only miracles expressly recorded in the Torah are those carried out by divine agents, or by prophets who've previously promised to perform them. Hidden miracles are a different matter, and can be done by God at any time for any reason. From the Ramban's reply, and from what we know about the general thrust of the ibn Ezra's commentary, as well as the thoughts of his Spanish coevals on miracles and midrashim, it seems reasonable to conclude that the ibn Ezra believed that he was required to accept only those miracles expressly recorded in scripture; otherwise it was preferable to provide explanations and readings that did not rely on supernatural activity.

Second argument
The ibn Ezra, it seems, was content to believe that "seventy" was a figure of speech, or a euphemism of some kind. This is because including Jacob in the seventy isn't a neat solution: The verse (Ex: 1:5) says that seventy* of Jacob's descendants came to Egype, and how can Jacob be his own descendant? Answering his own objection, the ibn Ezra reminds his readers that after listing all of Jacob's sons, the verse ( Gen 35:26) says "These were the sons of Jacob, who were born to him in Paddan Aram" - only Benjamin was not born in Paddan Aram! Also, another verse (Gen 46:27) says "the members of Jacob's family, which went to Egypt, were seventy* in all" -- only Ephraim and Menashe - who everyone includes in the 70 - never "went" to Egypt: both were born there!

It seems clear to me from the way in which these verses are put in service of the argument that the ibn Ezra is willing to accept a fair amount of imprecision from the Torah. More specifically, he seems to be thinking like those modern bible critics who believe that "70", as it is used here, is just a formula number, one used to represent fullness and completeness (10 times magic 7) and not an actual number of people. The Torah's original audience, likely, would have understood this, and though none, alas, occur to me right now, there are many other examples like this. (Lurker? Josh?)

*LXX says 75.

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