What the Anti-missionaries did not tell you.
WHAT THE ANTI-MISSIONARIES DIDN’T TELL YOU Part 1
PART ONE: RABBI MICHAEL SKOBAC AND “THE FIRES OF THE LORD”
by Michael L. Brown, Ph.D.
On the Jews for Judaism website,1 Rabbi Michael Skobac responded to this question that was submitted to him:
“What does Leviticus 5:11-13 actually say in Hebrew, as I had a missionary present to me the following Christian translation of the verse and it appears that the flour offering of atonement was laid on top of the other (animal) sacrificial offerings?”
Leviticus 5:11-12 is then cited in the New Revised Standard Version: “But if you cannot afford two turtledoves or two pigeons, you shall bring as your offering for the sin that you have committed one-tenth of an ephah of choice flour for a sin offering; you shall not put oil on it or lay frankincense on it, for it is a sin offering. You shall bring it to the priest, and the priest shall scoop up a handful of it as its memorial portion, and turn this into smoke on the altar, with the offerings by fire to the Lord; it is a sin offering.”
In response, Rabbi Skobac wrote:
I’ve checked a number of Christian translations of the Hebrew scriptures, and they all make a similar error in translating verse 12. The phrase in question is “ee’shay Hashem”, which most render as ‘the offerings of fire to the L-rd’. This, in fact, is an editorial expansion of the actual phrase. The word “ee’shay” is the construct form of the word “aish” (which means fire), therefore, the correct translation is “fire(s) of Hashem (the L-rd)”. The meaning is that the flour is placed on the top of the altar and will be consumed by the fire that is lit on the top of the altar. The phrase does not indicate that the flour is placed on animal sacrifices that were already burning on the altar. First of all, there weren't always animals burning on top of the altar. Even if there were, the altar top was large enough to place the flour elsewhere - not necessarily on top of the animals. Furthermore, most Christian missionaries also make an unwarranted assumption here. Even if they are correct in assuming that the flour is put on top of animals that have already been offered on the altar, there is no reason to assume, as they do, that it is the remnant blood from those sacrifices that gives efficacy to the flour. This is not indicated by the text, which simply says that the flour is the sin offering.
Is this response accurate? Actually, all of the major points made by Rabbi Skobac are incorrect.
#1) Are Christian translations guilty of making an error of translation in Lev 5:12? Absolutely not. In fact, the very translation that Rabbi Skobac rejects, speaking of “offerings of fire to the LORD” (as opposed to “fires of the LORD,” which Rabbi Skobac proposes) is reflected in the oldest Jewish translations of Leviticus. Both Targum Onkelos and Targum Pseudo-Jonathan rendered the Hebrew word ’ishshey with qorbanaya’ “the offerings.” And remember: The Targums are rabbinic translations, not Christian translations. Note also that the Septuagint, which is the oldest recorded, Jewish translation of the Torah into Greek, rendered the Hebrew with “whole burnt offerings.” This means that the ancient, major Jewish translations do not follow Rabbi Skobac’s understanding. Among modern Jewish translations, the New Jewish Version (also called The Tanakh), renders with “the LORD’s offerings by fire,” while D. Mandel’s translation of the Tanakh, included in the Judaica Classics Library, renders with “the offerings made by fire to the Lord.” To reiterate: The Christian translations are in harmony with the ancient Jewish translations, along with some modern Jewish translations, in understanding the Hebrew word ’ishshey to refer to “offerings made by fire” and not “fires.” So, in every context where the form ’ishshey is found in the Torah (16 times total), it always means “offerings made by fire.” Check out these references and see for yourself (I placed Lev 5:12 at the end so you would check that one last): Lev 2:3, 10; 4:35; 6:10-11; 7:30, 35; 10:12-13, 15; 21:6, 21; 24:9; Num 28:2; Deut 18:1; Lev 5:12.2 In keeping with this understanding, the ArtScroll Siddur (p. 111), translates ’ishshey with “fire-offerings” and not “fires” (the context there is the last benediction of the Shemoneh Esreh prayers). Why? Because that is what the Hebrew word means.
#2) Is the Hebrew word ’ishshey (transliterated as ee’shay by Rabbi Skobac) to be understood as the construct plural of the word ’esh, “fire”? Again, the answer is absolutely not. Rather, ’ishshey is to be derived from the noun ’ishsheh, which occurs frequently in the Torah and always means “offering made by fire.” This is recognized by virtually every major Hebrew lexicon, including both standard scholarly dictionaries and comprehensive, modern Israeli dictionaries. In fact, not only do all these Hebrew dictionaries derive the construct plural form ’ishshey from the noun ’ishsheh, but none of these dictionaries even recognize a plural form for the noun ’esh, “fire” (transliterated as aish by Rabbi Skobac) in the Tanakh. In other words, the plural of ’esh, fire, is not found a single time in the Hebrew Bible!3
#3) Did the flour have atoning power in and of itself? To quote Rabbi Skobac again, “Even if [Christian missionaries] are correct in assuming that the flour is put on top of animals that have already been offered on the altar, there is no reason to assume, as they do, that it is the remnant blood from those sacrifices that gives efficacy to the flour. This is not indicated by the text, which simply says that the flour is the sin offering.” Of course, it is true that the flour offering is identified as a sin offering in Lev 5:13, but it is equally true that the flour, in and of itself, is never associated with atoning power, which is why it had to be joined with the blood offerings on the altar, the altar that Moses Maimonides rightly called “the altar of atonement” (mizbah kapparah). In fact, Rabbi Skobac’s whole point was that the Hebrew word ’ishshey meant “fires” rather than “offerings made by fire,” and we have seen that he was completely wrong on this point. Thus, the Hebrew text is quite clear: The flour was put on the blood offerings that were on the altar, and there is not the slightest indication in the Torah that flour offerings, in and of themselves, had any atoning power or could be offered up by themselves in order to procure atonement. As I wrote in Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 2, 113:
According to verse 12, the priest will “take a handful of it [i.e., the flour] as a memorial portion, and burn it on the altar on top of the offerings made to the Lord by fire.” Then (verse 13) “the priest will make atonement for him.” In other words, the priest, in his capacity as mediator for the people, and having mingled the flour with the blood sacrifices that were already upon the altar, would make atonement for his fellow Israelite.
Nowhere is it written that “the flour will make atonement” (!) or that “the life of a creature is in the flour.” Rather, the whole basis for atonement was in the sacrificial blood on the altar, and through a flour offering, even poor Israelites could participate in the atoning power of the altar. But there is not a single verse in the Bible that would even hint that flour, in and of itself, had any atoning power, and the rabbis never suggested that, in the absence of the Temple, flour could be substituted for sacrifices. Absolutely not. Without the atoning altar and its sacrifices, the flour had no power at all.
In summary: 1) Rabbi Skobac was wrong in claiming that the Christian translations misinterpreted the Hebrew; 2) his own translation is in conflict with both the oldest Jewish translations and the best Hebrew scholarship; 3) his explanation of the atoning power of flour is totally without biblical support. Since I believe Rabbi Skobac to be a man of integrity, I assume that these were honest errors and that he had no intention to mislead. With this, however, the record is set straight.
1 http://www.jewsforjudaism.org/web//responsa/r0002.php; I have corrected some English typos as well as incorrect references cited in the original.
2The Orthodox Jewish Stone translation, which, like Rabbi Skobac, translates with “fires of the LORD” demonstrates its inconsistency by translating this exact same phrase in identical contexts with “fire-offerings.” Just look at Stone’s translation of the plural form ’ishshey in Leviticus. Twelve times it correctly translates with “fire-offerings”; only twice does it render with “fires” (Lev 4:35 and 5:12) – even though the context is quite similar and the meaning of the word is obviously the same.
3Interestingly, the one possible occurrence of a plural form of the noun ’esh, fire, is found in the Hebrew original of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus) 48:3 – except the form is feminine (’-sh-w-t)! This is in keeping with a feminine parsing of ’esh, which can be either feminine or masculine, in a number of biblical verses (see, e.g., Num 3:4; Exod 24:17; Deut 4:24).