Anyone who reads the biblical story of the binding of Isaac in the original Hebrew will encounter a small but troubling linguistic problem.
According to the text, after an angel intervenes at the last minute to prevent Isaac from being sacrificed by his father, Abraham, a ram appears to replace Isaac on the altar. “And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns” (Genesis 22:13).
But the Hebrew text has an extra word, “ahar,” after the word “ram” that doesn’t fit in the sentence. Traditional commentators have interpreted it as meaning “after” and attached it to the latter half of the sentence, meaning that Abraham saw the ram after it got caught in the thicket.
But another possibility makes the sentence read better in Hebrew. Adding a tiny extra stroke to the final “resh” (the Hebrew letter for “r”) would turn it into a “dalet” (the equivalent of a “d”). That would turn “ahar” into “ehad,” the word for “one,” making the phrase read, “and behold behind him one ram caught in the thicket.”
This version of the text actually existed in early versions of the Bible. And now it has been discovered again – albeit erased – in one of the two most important biblical manuscripts, the Leningrad Codex.
Scholars from the Academy of the Hebrew Language who have been analyzing the codex discovered that it contains hundreds of corrections meant to bring it into line with the familiar biblical text we know today. The changes were made by erasing, altering or adding letters and vocalization marks.
These changes show that back when the Leningrad Codex was written, roughly a millennium ago, the Jewish bookshelf contained several different versions of the biblical text.
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The Leningrad Codex was written in Cairo in 1008 or 1009 C.E. It stayed in Egypt for hundreds of years, but it was discovered in Russia in the 19th century. Today, it is housed in the National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg.
The codex is considered the oldest and most complete version of the Bible in existence, and as such, it has been used to produce both scholarly and popular editions. For instance, the Israel Defense Forces’ edition of the Bible, which is distributed to soldiers, is based on the Leningrad Codex.
In terms of importance, the Leningrad Codex is second only to the Aleppo Codex. But the latter is missing pages, mainly from the first five books of the Bible.
As part of a historical dictionary project organized by the Academy of the Hebrew Language, scholars have been analyzing Hebrew texts from before 1050 C.E., as well as selected texts written later. Each word is entered into a database that essentially maps the development of the Hebrew language.
When these scholars began studying the Leningrad Codex, they discovered erasures and alterations in some words. These changes tell us quite a bit about both the codex and the variations in the biblical text over the generations until the accepted, authoritative text was finalized.
The example of the ram from the story of the binding of Isaac is just one of many. But it’s particularly interesting because the phrase “one ram” is familiar to scholars from other early sources, including the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) and writings of the Samaritans. In other words, it’s reasonable to think that this wasn’t just an error by the scribe who wrote the codex, but an alternate version of the text that somebody later took the trouble to correct.
“Our guess is that someone wrote the letters, someone else put in the vocalization marks and after that, a third person corrected the manuscript based on the tradition,” said Dr. Alexey Yuditsky, who heads the ancient literature section of the academy’s historical dictionary project. “He corrected it, but didn’t always succeed; there are still some discrepancies. But what’s important is that at the beginning of the 11th century, there were apparently all kinds of versions going around.”
Another notable example of a correction is in the word “naked” – “arumim” in Hebrew – in the verse “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25). The “u” sound in “arumim” can be written either with the Hebrew letter “vav” or with a vocalization mark, and the scribe who wrote the codex chose the latter option.
But whoever corrected the text noticed that elsewhere in the Masoretic authoritative text, the word is written with a “vav,” so he managed, with difficulty, to squeeze a “vav” into the space between the “resh” and the “mem” (the Hebrew letters equivalent to “r” and “m”). He also added a comment on the side explaining that in two other places in the Bible, the word is written with a “vav.”
In another case, in the phrase “that thy brother may live with thee” (Leviticus 25:36), the spelling of “with thee” – which is one word in Hebrew – was changed from alef-mem-khaf to ayin-mem-khaf. In this case, Prof. Yosef Ofer of Bar-Ilan University’s Bible Department, who also is a member of the academy, says the original spelling was probably a mistake, because it would make no sense in Hebrew (the word “alef-mem” can mean either “mother” or “if,” depending on the vocalization, while the suffix “khaf” means “you” or “your”).
In most places, the corrections were made by gently scraping the parchment and adding letters or vocalization marks.
“Ninety-nine percent of people think that what’s written in the printed Bible is the known, accepted version that reached us 1,500 or 3,000 years ago,” Ofer said. “But the truth is that it’s a manuscript, meaning there was a scribe who sat and wrote it out and sometimes made mistakes. I’m not getting into the question of why he made mistakes; what’s interesting is that there are corrections.”
The historical dictionary’s database will include both the original words and the corrections, in the hope that they will be of use to future scholars.
“The academy wants to reflect this codex accurately,” Ofer said. “We’re trying to record and document it, regardless of whether it reflects an older version or a scribe’s error.”
The corrections in the Leningrad Codex reveal another stage in the development of the Masoretic text, a process that continued for hundreds of years. Early on, during the first centuries of the Common Era, there are still changes in entire sentences. Later, the changes are limited to individual words, and finally merely to vocalization marks and cantillation notes.