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The Book of Judges relates a story of the founding of a northern settlement by the tribe of Dan, in which the Danites conquer a defenseless town and set up an idolatrous shrine there. The priest at this altar is a a young Levite named Jonathan, identified by most translators as the grandson of Moses, but sometimes as the grandson of Manasseh. The latter is supported by a literal reading of the text:

a scribal oddity... presents the name of Manasseh as מנשה, with the "נ" superscripted, which does not occur elsewhere in the Bible; the correct reading may be Moses (Hebrew: משה, Moshe), and Rashi and other sages suspected as much, arguing that the name was changed to Manasseh to avoid scandalising Moses.

Whether based on this explanation or not, most translators agree that Jonathan's father was Gershom the son of Moses.

Various ideas have been put forth regarding who this Gershom really was. A novel theory is proposed in a scholarly article by Josiah Derby in the Jewish Bible Quarterly. He first summarizes the arguments for the historicity of "son of Manasseh" and "son of Moses" and dismisses them both. His conclusion, however, is that "son of Moses" is the correct reading, but it is not historical. Instead it is a fiction created during the reign of Jeroboam I to give legitimacy to the shrine at Dan. (Not that Jeroboam would agree that the shine was idolatrous, only that it was founded by a grandson of Moses).

By associating the sanctuary at Dan with Moses, he [Jeroboam] hoped that it would acquire a sufficient degree of sanctity to lure the people away from Jerusalem. These two cities [Dan and Bethel] could compete with Jerusalem for the religious loyalty of the people because at that early stage in the history of Jerusalem as an Israelite city it had not yet attained the holiness it acquired in the course of time.

Given these and any other data available, who really was Jonathan, grandson of Moses (or Manasseh) identified in Judges 18 as the father of the founder the Israelite shrine at Dan?

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Undisputed Facts:

Here is what is definitely known -

  • Both Greek (LXX - see Rahlfs) and Hebrew manuscripts are divided between the reading "son of Manasseh" and "son of Moses".
  • The difference in the Hebrew is the presence or absence of the letter "n".
  • Those that do have the "n" all appear to have written it in a way that appears to have it added. This is widely known as "nun thaīûyah" (n suspended).

Disputed Facts:

This is where the debate lies:

  • Was the "n" inserted to preserve the reputation of Moses?
  • Modern translations are divided.

Ellicott advances the notion, along with many other similar conservative commentators, that the "n" (nun in the Hebrew) was a later insertion.

The extreme reluctance to admit this fact—the disgrace involved against the memory of Moses by this rapid and total degeneracy of his grandson—is probably the reason why up to this point in the narrative the name has been withheld. There can, however, be no doubt that Jonathan was the young Levite who has all along been spoken of. The reading of MANASSEH for MOSES is by the confession of the Jews themselves due to the same cause. Moses is in Hebrew מֹשֶׁה‎, Manasseh is מְנַשֶּׁה. It will thus be seen that (without the points) the names only differ by the letter n (נ). But in what is called the Masoretic text—i.e., the text edited by the Jewish scribes—the נ is not boldly inserted, but is timidly and furtively suspended—thus MSSH—and is called nun thaīûyah (n suspended). This was done to conceal from the uninitiated the painful fact. It was known to St. Jerome, and accordingly the Vulg. reads “son of Moses,” which is also found in some MSS. of the LXX. Theodoret has “son of Manasseh, son of Gershom, son of Moses.” The Jews distinguish between the “text” (Kethib “written”) and the margin (Keri “read”), and Rabbi Tanchum admits that here “Moses” is written, though “Manasseh” is read. The Talmud says that he was grandson of Moses; but “because he did the deeds of Manasseh” (the idolatrous king, 2 Kings 21), “the Scripture assigns him to the family of Manasseh” (Babha Bathra, f. 109, 2); and on this a later Rabbi remarks that “the prophet”—i.e., the sacred author—“studiously avoided calling Gershom the son of Moses, because it would have been ignominious to Moses to have had an ungodly son; but he calls him the son of Manasseh, suspending the n above the line to show that he was the son of Manasseh (in a metaphorical sense) by imitating his impiety, though a son of Moses by descent.”

The Talmudists account for the distasteful fact by saying that the degeneracy was due to the wife of Moses, who was a Midianite, so that there was a taint in the blood of the family. It is not, however, the sacred author who is guilty of this “pious fraud,” but the Masoretic editors.

The rarity of the name Gershom (which means “a stranger there,” Exodus 2:22) would alone be sufficient to betray the secret. The extravagant and superstitious letter-worship of the scribes did not suffice to prevent them from tampering with the letter, any more than it prevented the Rabbis from entirely explaining away the obvious spirit of the Law which they professed to adore. The only uncertainty in the matter is whether this wandering Levite, this young Jonathan who for less than thirty shillings a year becomes the priest of an idolatrous worship, was the actual grandson, or only a later descendant of Moses, since the Jews often omit steps in their genealogies.

There is, however, no reason why he should not have been the actual grandson, since he is contemporary with Phinehas (Judges 20:28), who was, without any question, the actual grandson of Aaron. This rapid degeneracy may perhaps account for the obscuration of the family of Moses, which never seems to have subsequently risen into any importance, and of which no more names are preserved. Jonathan’s name is excluded, perhaps deliberately, from 1Chronicles 23:15-16. Or is he indeed Shebuel, as St. Jerome avers, probably from Jewish tradition?—and has his name been purposely altered? It is probably from a similar dislike to reveal the disgrace which thus fell on the family of the great law-giver that Josephus entirely omits the story. It is impossible that he should not have been perfectly acquainted with it. The identity of Jonathan with Shebuel in 1Chronicles 23:16 is asserted in the Targum, which says that “Shebuel, that is, Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Moses, returned to the fear of Jehovah, and when David saw that he was skilful in money matters, he appointed him chief over the treasures.”

The Pulpit commentary is similar:

And Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh. The Hebrew text really has the son of Moses. But a little n is written above the line between the M and the S of Moses (Mosheh), so as to be read Manasseh, as thus: MSH; so that they avoided the pain of reading aloud that the grandson or descendant of Moses was an idolatrous priest, without actually altering the written text. It is indeed most sad that it should have been so, though like examples are not wanting, as, e.g., the sons of Eli and of Samuel. For Gershom the son of Moses see Exodus 2:22; Exodus 18:3; 1 Chronicles 23:14-16.

There is no need to identify the "captivity of the land" as this is fraught with difficulties because of the several possibilities:

  • one of the several captivities described in the book of Judges (which covers almost 400 years)
  • the captivity of the northern kingdom by Assyria in 722 BC
  • the captivity of Judah by Babylonia/Chalea in 586 BC

Conclusion

If one chooses the last of these and accepts that the text was edited into its current form after the Babylonian captivity (as appears most likely), then it is entirely possible that the suspended "nun" (turning Moses into Manasseh) was an attempt by a pious scribe to leave the original "Moses" but suggest that, in spirit", this Jonathon was more like the much later king Manasseh (son of Hezekiah) for introducing idol worship.

That is, the scribe was making a comment without changing the historical facts.

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The Majority Text reading of this verse in Hebrew has the following:

וַיָּקִ֧ימוּ לָהֶ֛ם בְּנֵי־דָ֖ן אֶת־הַפָּ֑סֶל וִ֠יהֹונָתָן בֶּן־גֵּרְשֹׁ֨ם בֶּן־מְנַשֶּׁ֜ה ה֣וּא וּבָנָ֗יו הָי֤וּ כֹהֲנִים֙ לְשֵׁ֣בֶט הַדָּנִ֔י עַד־יֹ֖ום גְּלֹ֥ות הָאָֽרֶץ׃ (Judges 18:30, TR)

The keyword here is "מְנַשֶּׁ֜ה" which properly translates to "Manasseh." This word has the mem, nun, and shin root letters in Hebrew, to which is added the final heh which serves as a vowel, not a consonant.

The word "Moses," on the other hand, lacks the nun consonant.

The New International Version has the following footnote connected to its usage of "Moses":

An ancient Hebrew scribal tradition, some Septuagint manuscripts and Vulgate; Masoretic Text Manasseh

The interesting thing about this footnote is that it also serves as an admission that even some Septuagint manuscripts do not have this as Moses.

Essentially, the manuscripts that have "Moses" here are by far in the minority, and even some copies of those, i.e. of the same line, have "Manasseh" as do virtually all of the Hebrew manuscripts, such as the well-regarded Masoretic Text.

The name "Gershom" is an interesting study in this context.

In addition to the son of Manasseh, Gershom is the name given to:

  • a son of Moses (Exodus 2:-21-22; 1 Chronicles 23:15; 1 Chronicles 26:24)
  • a son of Levi (1 Chronicles 6:16; 1 Chronicles 6:43)
  • a son of Phineas (Ezra 8:2)

The word "Gershom" can also be spelled as "Gershon." Consider:

And the sons of Levi; Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. (Genesis 46:11, KJV)

And these were the sons of Levi by their names; Gershon, and Kohath, and Merari. (Numbers 3:17, KJV)

The sons of Levi; Gershom, Kohath, and Merari. (1 Chronicles 6:16, KJV)

The son of Jahath, the son of Gershom, the son of Levi. (1 Chronicles 6:43, KJV)

With respect to Manasseh's sons, none but the firstborn is named prior to this record in Judges. However, the fact that the word "firstborn" is expressly used for Machir, Manasseh's firstborn, implies he had other sons as well.

For example:

There was also a lot for the tribe of Manasseh; for he was the firstborn of Joseph; to wit, for Machir the firstborn of Manasseh, the father of Gilead: because he was a man of war, therefore he had Gilead and Bashan. (Joshua 17:1, KJV)

It may be that Manasseh had but two sons, Machir and Jonathan, because when the tribes are later apportioned with their inheritances in the land of Canaan, Manasseh gets split into two halves, with half the tribe inheriting one portion, and the other half getting a separate portion. No text seems to indicate, however, exactly how many sons Manasseh had, so this is just (a logical) conjecture.

My conclusion would be that Judges 18:30 speaks of a grandson of Manasseh, just as the manuscripts generally indicate. However, I do not think it is worth quibbling over: it makes little difference who it was--it is common for children to choose a different course from that of their parents.

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  • It was the Aaronic priests who controlled the transmission of the text for the most part. But here we may get a hint of a priesthood of Moses. If there was a grandson of Moses who served as a Levite priest at Dan, this opens a major question about the relationship between the Aaronic priests and the Levites. So I don't consider this quibbling. Jun 21, 2023 at 20:11
  • If Jonathan was the grandson of Manasseh, who was the son of Joseph, how would he be called a Levite? Jun 21, 2023 at 21:01
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    @Vincent and Dan, the Gershom mentioned in Judges 18:30 is not called a Levite. The text says he and his sons served as "priests" (כֹהֲנִים֙/kohanim) to the tribe of Dan, but this does not mean they did so legitimately. It's clear enough from the context and from later history that priests were not always selected according to God's order. Consider Jeroboam, who put out idols to be worshiped in Dan and in Bethel (see 1 Kings 12:29): "And he made an house of high places, and made priests of the lowest of the people, which were not of the sons of Levi." (1 Kings 12:31)
    – Biblasia
    Jun 21, 2023 at 21:42
  • @Biblasia - this is problematic, for the priest of Micah called himself a Levite (Judge 17:9) unless he was not the same person in Judges 18:30 Jun 22, 2023 at 3:14
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    @VincentWong And I think you have suggested the correct answer in your own assessment there that he was not the same person.
    – Biblasia
    Jun 22, 2023 at 3:53
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I consulted 3 Bible commentaries. One point I noted is the difficulty of getting a firm date for "the captivity of the land" when this man and his sons were priests for the tribe of Dan (vs 30). When there is no absolute date available, ancestral chronology might have a bit of a question-mark over it.

Starting with the oldest commentary (that of Matthew Henry who died over 300 years ago), here are his relevant observations:

"Their Levite, who officiated as priest, is at length named here - Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh. The word Manasseh, in the original, has the letter n, set over the head, which, some of the Jewish rabbin say, is an intimation that it should be left out, and then Manasseh will be Moses, and this Levite, they say, was grandson to the famous Moses, who indeed had a son named Gershom; but say they: the historian, in honour of Moses, by a half interposition of that letter, turned the name into Manasseh. The vulgar Latin reads it Moses... But the learned bishop Patrick takes this to be an idle conceit of the rabbin, and supposes this Jonathan to be of some other family of the Levites." Matthew Henry's Commentary [in 1 volume] p.290, columns 1 & 2

The next source was published in 1987:

"Jonathan. The Levite is here identified as Jonathan son of Gershom, the son of Moses (Ex.2:22; 18:3; 1 Cn23:14-15). In an effort to prevent desecration of the name of Moses, later scribes modified the name slightly, making it read 'Manasseh'. An ancient Hebrew scribal tradition, some Septuagint manuscripts and Vulgate; Masoretic Text Manasseh. If Jonathan was the grandson of Moses, the events in this chapter must have occurred early in the period of the judges. Captivity of the land. The date of this captivity has not been determined." The NIV Study Bible, p.352

The third commentary was published in 2008:

"The wandering Levite [17:7 to 18:4] is now called Jonathan; he was a descendant of Moses through Gershom (Exod.2:21-22). *Son of Moses: as in an ancient Hebrew tradition, some Greek manuscripts, and Latin Vulgate; Masoretic text reads son of Manasseh. Later Hebrew scribes inserted a letter 'n' into the Hebrew text, changing Moses to Manasseh, probably to preserve Moses' memory by distancing him from Jonathan's behavior." NLT Study Bible, p.451,

Perhaps the best way of knowing "Who was Jonathan" in Judges chapter 19 would be to read of this "wandering Levite from Bethlehem" in chapters 17 and 18. He stopped at Micah's house and ended up staying as a paid personal priest (despite Micah having already appointed one of his own sons to that role.) As for this Jonathan's ancestry, the commentators I have consulted seem to think it most likely that he was a grandson of Moses. This assumes that there is only one Moses in the frame, and the one family line from him and his son Manasseh. Could there really only ever have been one person named Moses in Israel's history, up to that point? I would not be too keen to assume there only ever was one Jewish family line with a Moses in it. Yet if the Moses in question was the famous Moses from Egypt, of Exodus fame, and this Jonathan was indeed a grandson of his, so be it. Every new generation has to take its own stand for the Lord, but most don't, Israel's history being replete with backsliders within one or two generations. There is no reason to conclude that the account in Judges is a fiction, and not historical. Other options are available.

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  • Many Jews were named for Moses but not in the OT... It would be a strange coincidence of the only other Moses in the Bible also happened to have a son name Gershom. The tradition that this was Gershom son of Manasseh at least has a textual basis. Jun 21, 2023 at 19:57
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    @Dan Fefferman Yes, there is textual basis for saying this was Gershom son of Manasseh, but you wrote, "A novel theory is proposed in a scholarly article by Josiah Derby..." with the suggestion of some bits in Judges being a fiction, and not historical. Biblasia's answer and comments put the matter very well, I think. Whoever Jonathan's grandfather was, is not actually the point of the account.
    – Anne
    Jun 22, 2023 at 9:38

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