Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Beast and the Fire

I had a Bible professor in college who picked on a student and asked him to translate into English the following from Exodus 22:4 (22:5 in Christian Bibles):

כי יבער איש שדה או כרם ושלח את בעירה ובער בשדה אחר מיטב שדהו ומיטב כרמו ישלם
The student translated it as sending fire into another's field, to which the professor responded by calling the student a Karaite. This was a professor who liked to stir things up, and this was just one of his tricks. His point was that the traditional Jewish translation of the verse is that בער refers to an animal and not fire. I think that his response should have been to call the student ignorant and not a Karaite because it seems to me that the simple reading of the verse is that בער does, indeed, refer to an animal (I have no idea what Karaite scholars had to say on this subject).

When looking at the context, i.e. the next verse, it seems clear to me that this verse cannot be referring to fire. Otherwise, the next verse seems redundant. Therefore, it seems most plausible that בער here is referring to an animal -- as in Numbers 20:4 אנחנו ובעירנו.

I looked through a number of translations -- Jewish and Christian, modern and ancient -- and they almost unanimously translated the verse as referring to an animal. This includes modern scholarly translations, such as the NRSV and NJPS, as well as Durnham's painfully inelegant (but scholarly) translation in the Word Biblical Commentary. None of these modern commentaries have a fealty to the Jewish oral tradition, nor does the King James Version which reads: "If a man shall cause a field or vineyard to be eaten, and shall put in his beast, and shall feed in another man's field; of the best of his own field, and of the best of his own vineyard, shall he make restitution." The NET Bible (Christian) translates it this way also but puts in a note that "some have suggested" reading the verse as referring to fire.

This is not, however, unanimous. You might recall my defending the New American Bible against Richard John Neuhaus' complaints. Well, it seem that the New American Bible translates the verse as: "When a man is burning over a field or a vineyard, if he lets the fire spread so that it burns in another's field, he must make restitution with the best produce of his own field or vineyard." Karaites! Similarly, there are exceptions to this even within Rabbinic literature. R. Menahem Kasher (Torah Shelemah, vol. 18 addenda ch. 6) quotes a few sources that seem to read this verse as referring to fire.

Despite this, the scholarly consensus seems to be that the peshat, the simple reading, of בער in this verse is that it is referring to animals.

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