The Samaritan Pentateuch

I started doing a lot of research into the Samaritans when working on a proposal to encode their writing system into Unicode. Yes, it turns out they're still around, still doing their thing (and more power to them). They preserve a unique perspective on the ancient underpinnings of Judaism (and therefore also Christianity and Islam, which both have roots in Judaism). There is plenty to be said about the Samaritans in general, but for this article I plan to focus on their Torah.

The Samaritan's Holy Writ consists only of the Pentateuch (the Five Books of Moses, the Torah), though they do seem to have some tradition of significance (but not sanctity) to the book of Joshua (or something very much like it). The Samaritans and the Jews parted ways all the way back in Biblical times, so most of our Prophets and Writings are not part of their history. Yet both have the Torah, both started out from the same place. But the Torahs they have are not exactly the same.

Plenty has been written about the differences among various versions of the Hebrew Scriptures, but of course the most striking thing about the differences is how few there are. A cantillation here, a vowel there, occasionally an actual consonantal difference, which is almost always just a matter of full vs. defective spelling, but for the most part the various sources for the Hebrew Scriptures are in agreement. This is because the Hebrew Scriptures were codified by the Jewish community (the Masoretes) and declared fixed and correct, and since then have been preserved with painstaking care and nitpicking detail by each successive generation of scribes. The schism with the Samaritans predates this canonization, though, and the Samaritans themselves never went through one like it, so their version of the Torah is more significantly different from the Masoretic text, and moreover, there are many, many more versions of their text (I read somewhere that estimates run over 6,000), with much more variation among them than is seen among the ancient Jewish sources. And of course, there are and were philosophical differences between the Jews and the Samaritans, which are sometimes reflected in their respective versions of the text.

I knew about some of this even before I started my research. I knew they had a version that differed from the Masoretic version, anyway. And I always wanted to see what the differences were, exactly. In the course of my research, I obtained a copy of a book showing just that: a comparative text of the Torah, with the Masoretic version on one side and the Samaritan version (or rather, one of the Samaritan versions) on the other side, with the differences highlighted. It was published in the sixties by Abraham and Ratson Tsedaka (father and uncle to my own contact in the Samaritan community, Benyamim Tsedaka), and is thus not widely available. And yet it was so interesting! Every page had a difference that made me think. It was too interesting to be so hard to find; I decided to make my own version of it.

The story of the creation of my Comparing Pentateuch is interesting and geeky in its own way, but I don't plan to tell it here. Get your own copy and tell me what you think! Or at least look at the preview.

There are many differences between the two versions, and many of them are as trivial as the ones between Masoretic versions: full vs. defective spellings, slightly different spellings, etc. But there are many differences that are more significant. Some of these can be categorized and generalized a little:

Consistency: This is probably the main distinguishing feature of the Samaritan version, and I suspect some of the other categories I discuss will be included in it. The Samaritan version shows much greater internal consistency than the Masoretic version. And by this I mean not that the plot hangs together better, but that when, for example, an event happens in the text which is then later recounted by someone also in the text, the re-telling and the event are often verbatim copies.

So, for example, one of the most consistent and noticeable differences in the Book of Exodus has to do with the warnings given to Pharoah. In the Masoretic text, we sometimes read “God said to Moses, ‘Say unto Pharoah thus and such....’” in preparation for a plague, and then the text skips ahead to the actual performance of the plague without recounting that Moses did, indeed, relay the message. Or conversely, we read of Moses delivering a warning to Pharoah about an upcoming plague without ever reading that he was commanded to do so by God. The Samaritan text is more consistent: when God tells Moses to relay a message, we then read that Moses relayed the message—in the same words—and then initiated the plague. When Moses warns Pharoah, we read beforehand that God had told him to give that very warning. When the Israelites say to Moses in Exodus 14:12, “Didn't we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’?” in the Samaritan version they did, indeed, say those exact words while still in Egypt, in Exodus chapter 6. The Masoretic version has them saying other things in a similar vein in Egypt, but never exactly that. And presumably if the Bible is considered infallible, how could it say that they said it if they didn't?

The Samaritan Torah is therefore longer, in terms of letter or word count, than the Masoretic version. Whenever a story is retold, whenever something is referred to in the past (e.g., the events of the desert being recounted in the book of Deuternomy), the Samaritan version consistently has the event and the retelling in harmony.

Grammar: This is a different kind of consistency. Samaritan Hebrew grammar is not quite the same as Masoretic Hebrew grammar, and their pronunciation and vocalization are totally different (though that's probably best saved for another article). The Samaritan version is often grammatically neater (and stylistically somewhat later in the development of the language) than the Masoretic version. Similarly, where the Masoretic version has verbs or adjectives in the wrong gender in many places, the Samaritan version has appropriate gender agreement. There are also consistent differences related to the grammatical differences between Samaritan Hebrew and Masoretic Hebrew. So some verbs are conjugated into different forms in the two versions (e.g. וישתחו, “and he bowed” is written וישתחוי in the Samaritan version; instead of צו it has צוי, and a few others. At least in the version I was working from; others have וישתחוה).

There are some grammar differences in the pronouns, some of which affect the spellings of other words. For example, in Samaritan pronunciation, the third-person plural masculine pronoun הם is pronounced imma, and so the Masoretic spelling המה would be redundant, and is not found in the Samaritan version. And the dreadfully confusing spelling of the feminine pronoun היא in the Masoretic text, (sometimes) spelling it identically with the masculine pronoun הוא, is not also found in the Samaritan text (thus providing another example of the consistency of the Samaritan text). The second-person feminine singular past tense conjugation and pronoun in the Samaritan pronunciation preserve the old Hebrew -i ending (found in a few places even in Masoretic texts), and so are sometimes spelled with a final י. This can occasionally be confusing, since it might look at first glance like a first-person singular verb!

Naming Details: There are a few somewhat consistently different names used between the two versions. Probably the most striking is the spelling of one of the tribes of Israel, which is Binyamin בנימין in the Masoretic version and Binyamim בנימים in the Samaritan version, both consistently throughout (and that makes sense: for “the son of one's old age”, as he is called in Genesis 44:20, calling him בן ימים is perfectly sensible: the son of [my many] days). Another one is the spelling of הר גריזים, which is two words in the Masoretic version, but one word, הרגריזים, in at least some Samaritan versions. I'm not sure what the significance of this is. Obviously Mt. Gerizim is of great significance to Samaritans (see below), but I don't understand why spelling it as one word somehow shows more respect or whatever. Maybe that isn't even relevant. The city of “Luz” לוז mentioned in Genesis 28:19 (of the Masoretic version) is consistently “Luzah” לוזה in the Samaritan version, and indeed that is what they call their town on the slopes of Mt. Gerizim (which of course is where the events of Genesis 28 took place according to their tradition) even today.

Philosophical Differences: Some of the distinctions seem to be motivated by (or reflect) the actual philosophical differences between Judaism and Samaritanism. Some of these are glaringly obvious, like the inclusion of a passage in the Samaritan version of the Ten Commandments restating the command to build of an altar on Mt. Gerizim, and stating plainly that Mt. Gerizim is the site at which all future sacrifices are to be offered. Since the location of God's holy site is probably the central original difference between Judaism and Samaritanism, it makes sense that this passage should be in one version and not the other. Along the same lines, wherever the Masoretic text speaks of “the place the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name” (Deut. 12:11), the Samaritan text has it in the past tense: “the place the LORD your God has chosen....”

Some of the philosophical differences are a little less central. For example, the Samaritan version shows much less anthropomorphism than the Masoretic version. Exodus 15:3 in the Masoretic version reads “The LORD is a warrior,” or more literally the Hebrew says “the LORD is a man of war,” whereas the Samaritan version does not call God a “man,” but says that God is “a hero of war” or “mighty in war.” Perhaps this is also the reason behind the difference of reading in Genesis 48:16, which reads in the Masoretic version המלאך הגאל אתי (“the angel who redeemed me”), while the Samaritan version has המלך instead (“the king who redeemed me”), thus putting the focus on God and not an angel.

When describing the curtains of the Tabernacle, saying they are joined “one to another,” the Masoretic version a rather anthropomorphic idiom for “each other,” saying literally “a woman to her sister” (this sounds less weird in the masculine, like in “between a man and his brother,” but the curtains are grammatically feminine). The Samaritan version here, too, doesn't show the anthropomorphism, but simply says they are joined “one to one.”

Sometimes it just seems to be a matter of clarity. In Exodus 21, where the Masoretic version talks about an ox goring someone the Samaritan version is more inclusive, specifically speaking “an ox or any animal striking” someone.

Non-Consonantal Differences: This really is not a category parallel to the others listed above, but a supercategory containing instances of all of them and others besides—but which I'm not going to deal with in much detail. Naturally, the distinctions shown in my comparing text are only those which are present in the consonantal spelling. And there's a lot more to understanding a text than its consonants, particularly in Hebrew. The Masoretic and Samaritan dialects of Hebrew are not exactly corresponding in the first place, and there are plenty of places where the texts use different grammatical forms from each other. Moreover, there are many words in the Pentateuch whose exact meaning and even whose basic root is not completely obvious, so the interpretation depends greatly on the translation tradition. This leads off into a big discussion on Biblical translation; a discussion I'm not going to have right now. Suffice to say, the Samaritan tradition makes for many significant differences in meaning that are not necessarily reflected in the consonantal text. I am not really qualified to discuss these in detail; maybe I'll write up a few that I happen to know about. I know that there is a comparative English translation in the works, showing the difference between traditional Masoretic/Septuagint translation and Samaritan tradition. I don't yet know when this will be available.

Please note that I have tried to avoid phrasing things in terms of one version or another “adding” or “omitting” things. I am not trying to imply that either version is more authentic than the other. I also believe that this sort of comparison is interesting and worthwhile no matter what one believes (or what is true) about the origins of the Bible. There is no denying that the Bible is probably the most influential text in Western culture, no matter its origin. And it has to be interesting to see how different branches of culture saw fit to preserve it, and the differences that were introduced by the different ways of preserving it.