Dear Friends,
We were very happy to receive so many enthusiastic responses to the new newsletter series, dealing with ancient interpretations of the Bible. Today I would like to discuss one unique form of interpretation, which is found in the Qumran scrolls.

The people of Qumran, a dissident sect living far off in the Judean Desert and leading a secluded lifestyle, similar to that of hermits, left us a large and impressive library, written mostly on scrolls of parchment and found in eleven different caves near the village of Qumran, by the Dead Sea. Their writings include biblical books, extra-biblical books and also sectarian compositions. An important group of these sectarian compositions are the Pesharim, פְּשָׁרִים. In Biblical Hebrew, the literal meaning of the word פֶּשֶׁר, Pesher, is “interpretation”, usually in the context of the interpretation of dreams.

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Joseph’s Dream

However, at Qumran, the word bears a slightly different meaning: the Teacher of Righteousness, the spiritual leader of the group and his followers explain to the members what the true meaning of the biblical text is, in light of the events of their time. In this he gives a complex interpretation of the text, teaching and explaining it, while giving it a special relevant meaning for his day and for the various troubles the members of the group faced.

The Isaiah Scroll from Qumran, picture courtesy of Hebrew Wikipedia

The Pesharim give us important insight into the politics of the time. From reading them we can try to learn about the historical context in which they were written, and some events mentioned in the Pesharim are specifically identified (according to some scholars) and give us an exact date of when they were written. It is important to note that the language of the Pesharim is extremely difficult and the style is encoded, and therefore many issues concerning their content are in much debate. In addition, not all the scrolls on which the Pesharim are written remained in good condition, making it even more difficult to understand them.
The method used in the Pesharim is to cite a biblical passage and then bring its interpretation – its Pesher. There are two different kinds of compositions of Pesharim: Continuous and Thematic. In Continuous Pesharim, a biblical book is interpreted according to the order of scripture, quoting the verses from the book and explaining them as it progresses. In this case, the Pesharim are also useful in order to learn about the text of the biblical book at the time, and often teach us of variant readings that existed in the canon of the people of Qumran, some of which can also be found in the Septuagint version of the Bible. The second kind of Pesharim is the Thematic Pesharim, which deal with one eschatological idea and cite different biblical passages in order to teach the listeners about this concept. Both kinds of Pesharim have the same structure of biblical citation followed by sectarian Pesher.

Pesher Habakuk
One of the most famous Pesharim from Qumran is the continuous Pesher written on the Book of Habakkuk (one of the Minor Prophets, otherwise known as the Twelve Prophets). This scroll was one of the original scrolls first found at Qumran, and it is also one of the longest and most complete among the Pesharim. Based on Paleographic and other considerations, it is dated to the second half of the first century BCE.

A statue of the Prophet Habakuk, by Donatello

The Pesher contains different kinds of comments: some give a very elementary explanation of the actual text. It is important to note that the language of the Book of Habakkuk is difficult, thus requiring an elementary explanation. In addition, there are also important contextual interpretations of scripture. A good example of a mixture of these two types of interpretation is found in Habakkuk 1:6:
כִּי הִנְנִי מֵקִים אֶת הַכַּשְׂדִּים הַגּוֹי הַמַּר וְהַנִּמְהָר
Translation: For behold, I shall raise up the Chaldeans, the bitter and impetuous nation
The word נִמְהָר, nimhar, translated here as “impetuous”, is derived from the root מה"ר – meaning “fast”.
In the Pesher in Column 2 lines 12-15, we find the following interpretation (complete reconstructions are in square brackets. Some additional letters are questionable readings. Those interested can refer to the official publication):
פשרו על הכתיאים א[שר המ]ה קלים וגבורים
במלחמה לאבד ר[ב]ים [אשר ילחמו] בממשלת
הכתיאים ורש[עים אשר ימאסו בברי]ת ולוא יאמינו
בחוקי [אל]

“It’s Pesher is concerning the Kittim who are swift and brave
In war to destroy many who shall fight against the rule
Of the Kittim and sinners who shall defile the covenant and not believe
In the laws of God”
We clearly see here, first of all, that the word נִמְהָר is explained by the use of a synonym: קלים, kalim, “swift”. In addition, we learn that the Chaldeans of the biblical Book of Habakkuk are given a new identity – the Kittim. Who are these people? Based on other Qumran writings, we know that they are the Romans! Thus, the understanding of the interpretation helps us give a date for the writing of the Pesher – the Roman occupation of Israel began in 63 BCE. However, many more considerations, including allusions to inner-Israel affairs, some of which date to the second century BCE, have created much debate over the dating of the scroll.
Reading through the Pesher teaches us a lot about those who wrote it and their beliefs. They believed that their spiritual leader, the teacher of righteousness, was inspired by God to properly understand that words of the prophets. Therefore, the only correct understanding can be through his teaching. We learn of how other Jews led by the “wicked priest” and “the man of the lie”, apparently those of what is usually referred to as mainstream-Judaism (Temple-centered), rejected the teachings of the teacher of righteousness. The teacher of righteousness was also personally attacked on the Day of Atonement, thus hinting at the dispute between the Qumran sect and mainstream Judaism concerning the Calendar.

Have a great week!
The Biblical Hebrew Online Team

Recommended Reading
An excellent source for information about the Pesharim, which I also used as sources for this newsletter, is the Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Edited by Lawrence H. Schiffman and James C. VanderKam, Oxford University Press).
An interesting attempt to use the historical clues in the Pesharim and learn about historical events they describe was published in 2008 by the prominent Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Hanan Eshel. His groundbreaking book, “The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Hasmonean State” (Yad Ben-Zvi Press), is highly recommended.
In addition, many fascinating articles about the Pesharim and other issues in the Dead Sea Scrolls literature can be found in the volume celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of the scrolls, The Dead Sea Scrolls: Fifty Years After their Discovery 1947-1997; Proceedings of the Jerusalem Congress, July 20-25, 1997 (edited by Emanuel Tov and James C. VanderKam).

Weekly Biblical Hebrew Words

Transcription: Zedek
Literal Meaning: righteousness

Transcription: Rasha
Literal Meaning: wicked
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