Who’s my grandfather?

“And the people of Dan set up the carved image for themselves, and Jonathan the son of Gershom, son of Moses, and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the day of the captivity of the land.” (Jdg 18:30 ESV)

“Then the children of Dan set up for themselves the carved image; and Jonathan the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh, and his sons were priests to the tribe of Dan until the day of the captivity of the land.” (Jdg 18:30 NKJV)

In Judges 18:30, bible versions are divided on the question of the identity of Jonathan’s grandfather. Many versions, like the ESV, NIV, NLT, NRSV, HCSB, and others have translated this as Moses but a few versions, like the NJKV, KJV, JPS, Geneva, have translated this as Manasseh. When we look at the Hebrew text, the question becomes more perplexing because the Hebrew text clearly says Manasseh but the majority of translations say Moses. What’s going on?


Figure 1

In order to understand what is happening here, it will be helpful to look at the Hebrew text. While these names are spelled very differently in English, in Hebrew there is only a one letter difference between these names. This can clearly be seen in Figure 1. There are several theories about why the nun might have been inserted into the name. Tov, in “Textual Criticism, 57” suggests that “the insertion of the nun not only resolves a difficult theological issue but also links this account specifically with the name of a person who, more than any other, sponsored and promoted apostasy in Israel/Judah (c.f. 2 Kgs 21:1-18).” While this is a creative resolution, I do not think it is the best resolution to this problem.


Where do we begin?

When we seek to resolve textual questions like this, the first question we must ask is “Is there evidence to support the idea that the spelling has changed?” In this case we have several pieces of evidence that suggest that that the nun is likely an addition to the text. Let’s take a look at some of those pieces of evidence.

  1. In two other genealogies (Exodus 2 and 18) we are told that Moses is the father of Gershom.
  2. fig. 2

    fig. 2

    In several Hebrew Manuscripts, including the Leningrad Codex, the nun is super-scripted. This is reproduced in the text of the BHS which uses the Leningrad codex as its base text. (Here is the a photo of this portion of the BHS text). Super-scripting letters (fig. 2), like was done here, is very unusual and indicates that there was some doubt about the legitimacy of the nun in this name.

  3. While most ancient manuscripts have the name Manasseh, the BHS identifies a copy of the LXX and a copy of the Vulgate that that use the name Moses rather than Manasseh, indicating that questions about the spelling of this name have a very early origin.


A possible resolution to this problem.

Hebrew originally had almost no indication of vowels (and even today it is most frequently written without vowels). Without vowels, correctly pronouncing Hebrew words requires one to understand the grammar and context so that the reader can insert the correct vowel sounds when reading aloud. The pronunciation of a Hebrew word does affect its meaning. After the captivity, the Jewish people began to adopt Aramaic as their primary spoken language and the knowledge of correct Hebrew pronunciation began to be lost. To help resolve this issue, two Hebrew letters that frequently double as vowels, i.e. yohd for ‘ee’ sounds, and vav for the long ‘o’ sound, began to be inserted into words to aid in their pronunciation. It is common to see two different manuscripts where the insertion of these letters is present in one manuscript and absent in another (or even in different instances of the same word in the same manuscript). The addition of these letters into the spelling of a word does not change its meaning or pronunciation but it does enable the reader to more easily identify the correct pronunciation.

figure 3

figure 3

In Ecclesiastes, we have an example that demonstrates this kind of spelling change. Looking at figure 3, we can see that in vs. 8:5 shomer (in red) is spelled with addition of the vav, and in Eccl. 11:4 we see shomer spelled without the vav. Both of these words are pronounced identically but the long ‘o’ sound is much more easily identified by the presence of the vav in vs. 8:5. Expanding the spelling of words in Hebrew to aid in their pronunciation is a very common feature of the language.


Figure 4

Hebrew was not always written in the script that is used today. Prior to the captivity, Hebrew was written in a Paleo Hebraic script, but after the captivity the Jewish people adopted both the language and the script that had been used by their captors. It is very possible that the same scribes who were transcribing Hebrew from its original script to the Aramaic script used today, were the same scribes that were also expanding the spellings of words to aid in their pronunciation. It just so happens that the shape of vav that is frequently inserted into words to indicate the long ‘o’ sound is very similar to the shape of nun that is questioned in the spelling of this name. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how a transcription error, or just the slightest slip of the pen, could create the spelling error that we see in the text today (see figure 4).

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