Take the 2-minute tour ×
Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professors, theologians, and those interested in exegetical analysis of biblical texts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Continuing the response to the meta call for contradiction.

The following contradiction is invisible in English. It appears in the Hebrew of Exodus 4:29.

וַיֵּלֶךְ מֹשֶׁה, וְאַהֲרֹן; וַיַּאַסְפוּ, אֶת-כָּל-זִקְנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

And Moses and Aaron went and gathered all the elder sons of Israel.

This is actually a mistranslation. The verb "go" is singular, so it says "And Moses will go (alone), and Aaron, and (they) will gather all the Elders..." The future tense is normal Biblical Hebrew, but the singular tense is weird. It is partially mitigated by the comma (not present in the original of course), which makes it an ellipsis:

"And Moses did go, and Aaron (did go), and they gathered..."

But the ellipsis is strange in context. Compare with the Hebrew of Exodus 5:1

וְאַחַר, בָּאוּ מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, אֶל-פַּרְעֹה: כֹּה-אָמַר יְהוָה, אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, שַׁלַּח אֶת-עַמִּי, וְיָחֹגּוּ לִי בַּמִּדְבָּר.

And afterwards, Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh: "Thus said Yahweh, the God of Israel: Send my people off, and they will celebrate to me in the desert."

In this case "ba-u" is plural, although it appears in the same exact position relative to Moses and Aaron.

Here is 5:4, plural correct:

וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם, לָמָּה מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן, תַּפְרִיעוּ אֶת-הָעָם מִמַּעֲשָׂיו; לְכוּ, לְסִבְלֹתֵיכֶם.

And the king of Egypt said to them "Why, Moses and Aaron, will you disturb the people from its doings, go to your own troubles."

Here is Exodus 10:3, plural nonexistent:

וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן, אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו כֹּה-אָמַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי הָעִבְרִים, עַד-מָתַי מֵאַנְתָּ לֵעָנֹת מִפָּנָי; שַׁלַּח עַמִּי, וְיַעַבְדֻנִי.

And Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh, and said to him: Thus said Yahweh the God of the Hebrews, "Til when will you keep from answer to my presence? Send my people, and they will serve me

In Hebrew, the verb "come" is "yavo", or "He will come". It is in a future tense, standard Biblical tense, but the plural of the verb is "yavo-u", and "yavo" is singular. But Moses is going with Aaron, so this is either a grammar error, a singular verb is used to describe the going of both Moses and Aaron, or a terrible ellipsis.

Again, the same thing happens in Chapter 16:6

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן, אֶל-כָּל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: עֶרֶב--וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי יְהוָה הוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.

And Moses and Aaron said to all the sons of Israel: "come evening, you will know that Yahweh took you out of the land of Egypt."

The verb "said" is singular. This time, even the Masoretic version does not make the comma between Moses and Aaron to make it ellipsis, because this ellipsis would split what they said from the actual saying verb. It would be just like the following false ellipsis:

John says, and Mary, "Hello"

The Hebrew is just as wrong (unfortunately English doesn't distinguish between plural and singular third-person verbs in other than present tense).

In Chapter 11:10, we find a proper conjugation for Moses and Aaron:

וּמֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן, עָשׂוּ אֶת-כָּל-הַמֹּפְתִים הָאֵלֶּה--לִפְנֵי פַרְעֹה; וַיְחַזֵּק יְהוָה אֶת-לֵב פַּרְעֹה, וְלֹא-שִׁלַּח אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאַרְצוֹ.

And Moses and Aaron made all these feats, before pharaoh; and Yahweh tightened Pharaoh's heart, and he did not send the sons of Israel from his land.

In this case, the verb is "made" in "made all these feats" is "'asu", which is the proper plural. Singular is "'asa".

The last occurence I will mention is the smoking gun, Exodus 6:27:

הֵם, הַמְדַבְּרִים אֶל-פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ-מִצְרַיִם, לְהוֹצִיא אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִמִּצְרָיִם; הוּא מֹשֶׁה, וְאַהֲרֹן.

Those that speak to Pharaoh king of Egypt to take out the sons of Israel from Egypt, he is Moses, and Aaron.

This time, I can render the grammatical horror in English properly. It is identical to the Hebrew grammatical horror. He is Moses, and Aaron. This time, it is a singular pronoun that is matched to Moses and Aaron.

These follow a definite pattern. Why this repeating grammatical horror? Was Aaron doing stuff, or just Moses?

Just for completeness sake

Here are all the rest of the "and Aaron" weirdnesses. Here is Exodus 7:6

וַיַּעַשׂ מֹשֶׁה, וְאַהֲרֹן--כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה אֹתָם, כֵּן עָשׂוּ.

And Moses and Aaron did as Yahweh commanded them, so they did.

Singular first "did" (remember the example of Exodus 5:1 where the plural is correct--- I am not misinterpreting the subject/verb matching). Here is Exodus 7:10

וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן, אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, וַיַּעֲשׂוּ כֵן, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה; וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ אַהֲרֹן אֶת-מַטֵּהוּ, לִפְנֵי פַרְעֹה וְלִפְנֵי עֲבָדָיו--וַיְהִי לְתַנִּין

And Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh, and they did as Yahweh commanded, and Aaron cast his staff before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a crocodile.

Singular "came". Here is Exodus 7:20

וַיַּעֲשׂוּ-כֵן מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה, וַיָּרֶם בַּמַּטֶּה וַיַּךְ אֶת-הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר בַּיְאֹר, לְעֵינֵי פַרְעֹה, וּלְעֵינֵי עֲבָדָיו; וַיֵּהָפְכוּ כָּל-הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר-בַּיְאֹר, לְדָם.

And Moses and Aaron did so as Yahweh commanded, and lifted the staff, and struck the water which is in the Nile to Pharaoh's eyes and to the eyes of his servants; and all the water which is in the Nile turned to blood.

Correct plural for "did so". Here is Exodus 8:8

וַיֵּצֵא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן, מֵעִם פַּרְעֹה; וַיִּצְעַק מֹשֶׁה אֶל-יְהוָה, עַל-דְּבַר הַצְפַרְדְּעִים אֲשֶׁר-שָׂם לְפַרְעֹה.

And Moses and Aaron went away from pharaoh's company, and Moses shouted to Yahweh, about the frogs which he put to Pharaoh.

Singular "went". Here is Exodus 8:21

וַיִּקְרָא פַרְעֹה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וּלְאַהֲרֹן; וַיֹּאמֶר, לְכוּ זִבְחוּ לֵאלֹהֵיכֶם--בָּאָרֶץ.

And Pharaoh called to Moses and Aaron, and said "Go, sacrifice to your God in the land."

The verb subject matching is irrelevant here, because Moses and Aaron are objects of the verb "to call", but in this case, Pharaoh is calling "el Moshe" and "le-Aaron". The mismatch is extremely notable, because it is a rare non-parallel construction in a case that allows a parallel. It should be "el Moshe we el-Aaron". Modern Hebrew allows both, but ancient Hebrew demands parallel constructions in all good writing.

Compare to Exodus 9:27

וַיִּשְׁלַח פַּרְעֹה, וַיִּקְרָא לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְאַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, חָטָאתִי הַפָּעַם: יְהוָה, הַצַּדִּיק, וַאֲנִי וְעַמִּי, הָרְשָׁעִים.

And Pharaoh sent and called for Moses and Aaron, and he said to them: "This time I have sinned: Yahweh is the righteous one, and I and my nation the wicked ones.

This time it's "le-Moshe" and "le-Aaron", consistent and parallel. It's the exact same verb as before, with the exact same subject, Pharaoh.

share|improve this question
add comment

2 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Gesenius in his Hebrew Grammar (Kautzsch/Cowley edition, commonly GKC) spends several pages on "Agreement between Members of a Sentence, especially between Subject and Predicate in respect of Gender and Number." He gives many examples of when the number of the verb and the noun disagree. This is section 145 of the book. In my edition, this is page 462-467. He says:

As in other languages, so also in Hebrew, the predicate in general conforms to the subject in gender and number (even when it is a pronoun, e.g. אתו לברית this is my covenant Genesis 17:19). There are, however, exceptions to this fundamental rule. These are due partly to the constructio ad sensum (where attention is paid to the meaning rather than the grammatical form; see b-l below), partly to the position of the predicate (regarded as being without gender) before the subject.

Gesenius followed the documentary hypothesis but he never lists that out as a reason for subject/verb disagreement in number. Indeed, it happens so often throughout scripture that it cannot be the sign of a single redactor's "mistake." It can be seen in Genesis 1:1,3 where a plural noun has a singular verb (this is the normal way to refer to God in the Old Testament, Elohim is a plural noun but used with singular verbs. There are only a few exceptions, one in a conversation with heathens Genesis 20:13.

Gesenius addresses situations such as those in the question in section 145.l

Moreover, the plural of persons (especially in the participle) is sometimes construed with the singular of the predicate, when instead of the whole class of individual, each severally is to be represented as affected by the statement. Undoubted examples of this distributive singular are Genesis 27:29 (Numbers 24:9) those that curse thee, cursed be every one of them, and those that bless thee, blessed be every one of them; Exodus 31:14, Leviticus 17:14 and 19:8 (in both places the Samaritan has 'oklu); Isaiah 3:12 unless nogsaw is to be regarded as a pluralis maiestatis according to section 124 k; Proverbs 3:18, 35 (?), 18:21 (?), 21:27b, 27:16, 28:1b, 28:16 (see the Kethib).

Section 146, "Construction of Compound Subjects," also adds to this conversation showing yet more places where the subject and verb disagree in numbers. And he also lays out rules for when we should expect the disagreement (e.g. compound subjects in the construct with a following genitive will often have the verb agree with the genitive instead of with the nomen regens).

[Added on edit]

This is GKC 146 f-h, which is directly analogous to the situation of Moses and Aaron having a singular verb.

(b) The predicate preceding two or more subjects may likewise be used in the plural (Genesis 40:1, Job 3:5, &c.); not infrequently, however, it agrees in gender and number with the first, as being the subject nearest to it. Thus the predicate is put in the singular masculine before several masculines singular in Genesis 9:23, 11:29, 21:32, 24:50, 34:20, Judges 14:5; before a masculine and a feminine singular, e.g. Genesis 3:8, 24:55 then said (וַיּאֹ֫מֶר‎) her brother and her mother; 33:7; before a masculine singular and a plural, e.g. Genesis 7:7 וַיָּבֹא נֹחַ וּבָנָיו‎ and Noah went in, and his sons, &c.; Genesis 8:18 (where feminines plural also follow); 44:14, Exodus 15:1, 2 Samuel 5:21; before collectives feminine and masculine, 2 Samuel 12:2.

Similarly, the feminine singular occurs before several feminines singular, e.g. Genesis 31:14 וַתַּ֫עַן רָחֵל וְלֵאָה‎ then answered Rachel and Leah; before a feminine singular and a feminine plural, e.g. Genesis 24:61; before a feminine singular and a masculine singular, Numbers 12:1 וַתְּדַבֵּר מִרְיָם וְאַֽהֲרוֹן‎ then spake Miriam and Aaron; Judges 5:1; before a feminine singular and a masculine plural, e.g. Genesis 33:7 (cf., on the other hand, Psalm 75:4 נְמֹגִים אֶ֫רֶץ וְכָל־יֽשְׁבֶ֫יהָ‎ dissolved are the earth and all the inhabitants thereof). The plural feminine occurs before a plural feminine and a plural masculine in Amos 8:13.—In Jeremiah 44:25 for אַתֶּם וּנְשֵׁיכֶם‎ read אַתֶּם הַנָּשִׁים‎ with the LXX, and cf. verse 19.

(c) When other predicates follow after the subjects have been mentioned, they are necessarily put in the plural; cf. Genesis 21:32, 24:61, 31:14, 33:7, &c., and §145s.

[Bold added. Italics in original. Abbreviated book names spelled out.]

Some of the verses which Gesenius cites but doesn't quote follow:

Genesis 9:23 Shem and Japheth took the garment...

וַיִּקַּח שֵׁם וָיֶפֶת אֶת-הַשִּׂמְלָה, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עַל-שְׁכֶם שְׁנֵיהֶם, וַיֵּלְכוּ אֲחֹרַנִּית, וַיְכַסּוּ אֵת עֶרְוַת

Genesis 11:29 And Abram and Nahor took wives for themselves...

וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם וְנָחוֹר לָהֶם, נָשִׁים: שֵׁם אֵשֶׁת-אַבְרָם, שָׂרָי, וְשֵׁם אֵשֶׁת-נָחוֹר מִלְכָּה,.

Judges 14:5 Then went Samson down, and his father and his mother, to Timnath...

וַיֵּרֶד שִׁמְשׁוֹן וְאָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ, תִּמְנָתָה; וַיָּבֹאוּ, עַד-כַּרְמֵי תִמְנָתָה,.

All of these are the same setup as Moses and Aaron with a singular verb from the question. They have a singular, masculine verb preceding a compound subject.

You will note that the examples are from all divisions of the Hebrew Bible (Torah, Writings, and Prophets). It is not a grammar error to have disagreement in number and/or gender between compound subjects and their verb. Doing so is well-attested when the predicate comes first (which is the standard word order in Biblical Hebrew).

share|improve this answer
    
These cases are interesting +1, but not analogous. The plural looking singular word for God "Elohim" is an irrelevant special case. The other cases are of the form "And of those plural folks that X-do, Y-do to him." Or "Of all those plural things that are X, do Y to that." This is a fine construction, it is interpreted as "Each that X, do Y to", and it is not parallel to the Moses Aaron number mismatch that I am pointing out. Look in my examples: this reads like an error, this looks like an error (and I just did the exact same number mismatch your talking about in English, it's not the same). –  Ron Maimon Oct 25 '12 at 16:25
    
GKC is on wikisource! Section 146 has many examples of subject verb disagreement in compound sentences. –  Frank Luke Oct 25 '12 at 18:06
1  
@RonMaimon, read the edit where I added section 146. The examples from section 146 are exactly of the same type as your examples. "Moses and Aaron" is a compound subject where the predicate is first. Genesis 9:23, 11:29, 21:32, 24:50, 34:20, and Judges 14:5 all have singular masculine verbs preceding several singular masculine subjects (such as "Abram and Nahor took wives for themselves" and "Shem and Japeth took the garment."). There is no difference between your examples and those. –  Frank Luke Oct 26 '12 at 1:33
2  
Thank you for the examples, you are right, I accepted, and deleted my answer! I am surprised I missed those examples on reading, although there are only a handful, I should have noticed. It's an odd thing that the number verb mismatch happens in these cases, but I understand now that it is a genuine parallel construction which is absent in modern Hebrew. –  Ron Maimon Oct 26 '12 at 16:55
1  
I added the Hebrew text to your examples, to make the answer self-contained, I hope this is ok. –  Ron Maimon Oct 26 '12 at 17:33
show 5 more comments

I believe the simplest explanation is that God sent Moses to be His mouthpiece, but Moses complained he couldn't do it, so God added his older brother Aaron to the equation.

The two were joined into one mouthpiece:

He shall speak for you to the people, and he shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him.

Using the singular verb forms, then, is a logical way to address and describe Moses and Aaron.

share|improve this answer
1  
There are other situations in the Hebrew Bible with what we would call subject/verb number disagreement. However, they are not. When a group acts in unity, the singular verb is likely to be used. –  Frank Luke Oct 24 '12 at 20:22
3  
I think of it similarly: Moshe is primary, and Aharon is tacked on. Sort of like "I went out to run errands, and my kid too" -- the kid got dragged along, but it's about me. Same with Moshe; Aharon at this point is not central, unlike later. –  Gone Quiet Oct 25 '12 at 13:19
2  
@MonicaCellio, might this be similar to the practice of a messenger delivering a message being seen as the person giving the message himself? Just a thought I had this morning. –  Frank Luke Oct 25 '12 at 14:42
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.