Monday, June 13, 2011

Explaining Onkelos on the Cushite Woman

Thanks to Oldest Member for inspiring this.

Here's how Onkelos translates Numbers 12:1:
ומללת מרים ואהרן במשה על עסק אתתא שפרתא די נסיב ארי אתתא שפרתא דנסיב רחיק.

Loosly, this means:

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moshe on the matter of the beautiful woman he married, the beautiful woman he married that he kept at a distance.

The Hebrew, of course, reads as follows:
וַתְּדַבֵּ֨ר מִרְיָ֤ם וְאַהֲרֹן֙ בְּמֹשֶׁ֔ה עַל־ אֹדֹ֛ות הָאִשָּׁ֥ה הַכֻּשִׁ֖ית אֲשֶׁ֣ר לָקָ֑ח כִּֽי־ אִשָּׁ֥ה כֻשִׁ֖ית לָקָֽח׃

KJV translates it this way:
And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman.

The question: Is Onkelos deviating from the plain meaning of the text?

On the surface it would seem he is. Notably, the words "he kept at distance" do not appear in the original text. Also, the text says Cushite women, and Onkles renders it "beautiful".

However, I think this line of reasoning indicates a fundemental misunderstanding of what Onkelos is doing here.

First, it seems clear to me that Onkelos thinks "Chushite" is a figure of speech. I say this because elsewhere in his comemntary he translates the word as something other than "Ethiopian" or "dark skinned"; in fact he, and the other Aramaic Targums,  consistently takes the word as meaning something noble or upstanding. Some have suggested this is because the Aramaic speakers link Cushite with cusherta which means something like "good" or "proper", but I don't think this explanation is necessary. Rather it seems most straightforward to suggest that he simply sees "Cushite" as a figure of speech in the way English speakers use "cool" as a figure of speech. Just as it would be deviating from the plain meanign to translate "he's so cool" as something other than an expression of admiration, Onkleos believes the plain meaning of "Cushite" is something positive.

Second, the last three words of the sentence Ki isha Cushis lakach are (arguablly) in the past perfect.

Explanation: The Past Perfect expresses the idea that something occurred before another action in the past. It can also show that something happened before a specific time in the past. []

If you take the phrase Ki isha Cushis lakach as being in the past perfect, the plain meaning is "He took her in the past before another action occured" ie not at this moment in the narrative.

If you think the verse is in the past perfect Miriam and Aaron can't be talking about the fact that Moshe took her. Their complain has to be about something else, something that occured AFTER Moshe took her. Onkelos fills in the blank, but his speculation does no damage at all to the "plain meaning" if, like Onkelos, you think the words Ki isha Cushis lakach are past perfect.

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