Questions on the Literal Meaning of Prophecy
1. Question: Were Promises of becoming a great multitude literary hyperbole?
One of the signs claimed by "Ephraimites" concerning the Lost Ten Tribes involves the promise that descendants of Israel would be exceeding numerous. Perhaps Scripture was merely using expressions of exaggeration for large numbers of people in a relative sense? i.e. compare the following criticism of "Brit-Am Ephramite" type beliefs:
'Another major cornerstone of this teaching is that social-historical Israel, as it is traditionally perceived, cannot possibly fulfill the promises of physical multiplicity that was to equal "the sand of the sea," "the dust of the earth," or the "stars of the sky." Such a hyper-literalist reading of these phrases, which rules out their common-sense interpretation, ignores the scriptural record. For 2 Chron 1:9 states clearly that the people over whom King Solomon reigned [Israel] were "a people as numerous as the dust of the earth." Isa 10:22 also refers to the people of Israel being "as the sand of the sea" in number.'
Are these and similar expressions merely "rhetorical conventions used by the biblical writers". Is the promise of a great multitude merely Biblical hyperbole?
Answer: An Immense multitude by universal standards of Israelites was Prophesied and Literally Intended!
The protagonists are trying to say here that the promises to the Patriarchs that their seed would be "the sand of the sea," "the dust of the earth," or the "stars of the sky" could be fulfilled through the present-day Jews (whom they refer to as "social-historical Israel, as it is traditionally perceived") who number at present around 13 million which in the eyes of the Patriarchs would have been considered an immense number.
Two verses are selected also as examples of hyperbole (exaggeration) as if to show us that other prophecies referring to the multiplicity of Israelites in the future do not have to be taken literally. Even if the verses chosen as exaggerations were pertinent it would not necessarily prove anything. First (a) we will look at the verses in question.
AFTER THAT (b) we will look below at the at the question "How Many Israelites Will There Be?
and the relevant verses that predict a great multitude. We will see that the simple meaning of the verses DOES REQUIRE an immense number of people by existing world standards. This is taking the verses on their own. When however the verses concerning multitude are taken together with other verses predicting that Israel will be the most powerful, richest, and far-reaching of all the nations of the world then the simple straightforward understanding that an immense multitude by world-wide standards is intended becomes even more obvious. The same applies concerning all other Biblical proofs used to determine the present-day identity of the Lost Tribes of Israel.
(a) Concerning the verses that were chosen to represent "hyperbole":
Solomon prayed for help from the Almighty mentioning that he ruled over a people as numerous as the "dust of the earth"
[2-Chronicles 1:8] AND SOLOMON SAID UNTO GOD, THOU HAST SHEWED GREAT MERCY UNTO DAVID MY FATHER, AND HAST MADE ME TO REIGN IN HIS STEAD.
[2-Chronicles 1:9] NOW, O LORD GOD, LET THY PROMISE UNTO DAVID MY FATHER BE ESTABLISHED: FOR THOU HAST MADE ME KING OVER A PEOPLE LIKE THE DUST OF THE EARTH IN MULTITUDE.
It may well be that the Israelites whom Solomon ruled over really did number several millions which would have been considered an enormous number at the time.
Isaiah prophesied a calamity that would come on Israel leaving only a comparatively few survivors out of the multitude that once existed:
[Isaiah 10:22] FOR THOUGH YOUR PEOPLE ISRAEL BE AS THE SAND OF THE SEA, ONLY A REMNANT OF THEM WILL RETURN. DESTRUCTION IS DECREED, OVERFLOWING WITH RIGHTEOUSNESS.
[Isaiah 10:23] FOR THE LORD, THE LORD OF HOSTS, WILL MAKE A FULL END, AS DECREED, IN THE MIDST OF ALL THE EARTH.
[Isaiah 10:24] THEREFORE THUS SAYS THE LORD, THE LORD OF HOSTS: O MY PEOPLE, WHO DWELL IN ZION, BE NOT AFRAID OF THE ASSYRIANS WHEN THEY SMITE WITH THE ROD AND LIFT UP THEIR STAFF AGAINST YOU AS THE EGYPTIANS DID.
The Brit-Am Commentary explained these verses as saying:
BE AS THE SAND OF THE SEA they will be exceedingly numerous towards the end times.
DESTRUCTION- a great calamity may take place. Only a few may survive. Our survival or the survival of our descendants is dependent on our deeds and intentions. We should endeavor to improve ourselves and influence for good those we can.
It is true that the simple meaning of the verse in Isaiah concerns the nation of Israel prior to the depredations of Assyria that occurred by conventional reckoning ca. 730-720 BCE.
This however was the style of Isaiah who (similarly to the other prophets) took contemporary events and used them as prototypes concerning the distant future.
See our note on Protypical Prophecy
Scripture itself suggests this explanation and it is consistent with the view of the Rabbinical Sages.
(b) In Regards to other verses of Scripture about an immense multitude, the intention was that these
verses should be taken literally!
See the question How Many Israelites Will There Be?
2. When and When Not is Scripture to be
Handbook of Jewish Thought
by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Israel 1979, p.145
7:74 The Torah must be studied as a
whole, since one ambiguous passage may be clarified by another.178
One must be careful to take an overall view, and not interpret any scripture out
7:75 There are times when the Torah speaks in allegory and metaphor.180
There are four conditions under which there is a tradition that the Torah is
not to be taken according to its literal meaning:181
1. Where the plain meaning is rejected by common experience.
2. Where it is repudiated by obvious logic.182
3.Where it is contradicted by obvious scripture.
4. Where it is opposed by clear Talmudic tradition.183
7:76 Where none of these conditions hold, the scripture must be taken literally,
and not rejected on the basis of mere prejudice.184 In such a case, even when a
passage is also interpreted allegorically, the literal meaning must still be
178. BaMidbar Rabbah 19:17; Tanchuma, Chukath 23. Cf. Yerushalmi, Rosh
HaShanah 3:5 (17a); Tosafoth, Kerithoth 14a, s.v. Elah; Sedey Chemed, P'ath
HaSadeh, Dalet 24 (2:134).
179. Rambam, Iggereth Teimon (in Iggereth HaRambam), p. 19. Cf. Berakhoth
10a; Rashi ad loc. s.v. Shapil.
180. Moreh Nevukhim, Introduction, from Hosea 12:11.
181. Emunoth VeDeyoth 7:2 (83a).
182. As in the cases of anthropomorphisms; Moreh Nevukhim 2:25. See above,
183. Cf. Minchath Chinukh 232:4; and Zohar 3:85a; Minchath Pittim, Orach
Chaim 156; Makor Chesed on Sefer Chasidim 673:1.
184. Emunoth VeDeyoth 7:2.
185. Shabbath 63a; Yevamoth iib, 24a; Teshuvoth Rashbam 415; Rashbam to
Genesis 1:1, Ramban on Sefer HaMitzvoth, Shoresh 2 (19b); Maharatz Chajas,
Shabbath 63a, Megillah 13a, Yevamoth 79a; HaMikra VeHaMesorah 16. It is for this
reason that the Torah is called a "witness;" lkkarim 3:21.
The Literal Meaning of Scripture Must be Accepted
Saadiah ben Yosef Gaon (b. Egypt 882/892, d. Baghdad 942)
Translated by Yair Davidiy
We, all the Children
of Israel, believe that everything in the Prophets has the literal meaning of
the written words.
There may be exceptions if the apparent simple meaning fits one of four
1. It contradicts common experience as in the case of Eve who was described as
the Mother of all Living Creatures (Genesis 3:20).
2. It contradicts common sense as when God is described as a Devouring Fire
3. It contradicts another part of Scripture, as when Malachi (3:10) tells us to
test God whereas we have already been told (Deuteronomy 6:17) not to test the
LORD your God.
4.It contradicts what our forerunners [the Sages] received as where it says
FORTY STRIPES HE MAY GIVE HIM, AND NOT EXCEED [Deuteronomy 25:3] and our Sages
said that no more than 39 stripes may be administered.
The way to resolve
all these [apparent contradictions] is to seek a linguistic parallel where the
words are used in such a way as to accord with how we interpret them and not
The mother of all living creatures [concerning Eve, Genesis 3:20] may also be
understood to mean the mother of all human beings.
FOR THE LORD THY GOD IS A CONSUMING FIRE [Deuteronomy 4:24] is a simile and
approximation since HIS punishments are like a consuming fire that burns quickly
as its says, FOR A FIRE IS KINDLED IN MINE ANGER [Deuteronomy 32:22].
So too, we find it says,
PROVE ME NOW HEREWITH [Malachi 3:10] after having already said,
YE SHALL NOT TEMPT [Hebrew: "tinasu"
i.e. test] THE LORD YOUR GOD [Deuteronomy 6:16].
The solution is that a proving-test may have two applications:
One is to test whether the Creator can do something or not. This is forbidden as
it says AND THEY TEMPTED GOD IN THEIR HEART BY ASKING MEAT FOR THEIR LUST. YEA,
AGAINST GOD; THEY SAID, CAN GOD FURNISH A TABLE IN THE WILDERNESS? [Psalms
The second way of
testing involves the situation of the individual in the eyes of the Creator as
to whether he has an elevated status or not. The
already admits that God can do the thing. This is permitted, as we find with
[Judges 6:36] AND GIDEON SAID UNTO GOD, IF THOU WILT SAVE ISRAEL BY MINE HAND,
AS THOU HAST SAID,
[Judges 6:37] BEHOLD, I WILL PUT A FLEECE OF WOOL IN THE FLOOR; AND IF THE DEW
BE ON THE FLEECE ONLY,
AND IT BE DRY UPON ALL THE EARTH BESIDE, THEN SHALL I KNOW THAT THOU WILT SAVE
ISRAEL BY MINE HAND, AS THOU HAST SAID.
This test [of the Almighty by Gideon] is in the same category as PROVE ME NOW
HEREWITH [Malachi 3:10].
We find that FORTY
STRIPES HE MAY GIVE HIM, AND NOT EXCEED [Deuteronomy 25:3] is interpreted by our
Rabbis to mean thirty-nine. [The number forty may be considered] to be a
rounding-off of 39 just as the forty years of wandering in the Wilderness was
actually only 39 rounded off to forty as it says,
AFTER THE NUMBER OF THE DAYS IN WHICH YE SEARCHED THE LAND, EVEN FORTY DAYS,
EACH DAY FOR A YEAR, SHALL YE BEAR YOUR INIQUITIES, EVEN FORTY
14:34]. In this case the first year had already passed by without them bearing
In like manner [we seek] similar resolutions to apparent difficulties whenever
we come across one of the four contradictions mentioned above.
[Numbers 14:34] AFTER THE NUMBER OF THE DAYS IN WHICH YE
SEARCHED THE LAND, EVEN FORTY DAYS, EACH DAY FOR A YEAR, SHALL YE BEAR YOUR
INIQUITIES, EVEN FORTY YEARS, AND YE SHALL KNOW MY BREACH OF
[Deuteronomy 4:24] FOR THE LORD THY GOD IS A CONSUMING FIRE, EVEN A JEALOUS GOD.
[Deuteronomy 6:15] (FOR THE LORD THY GOD IS A JEALOUS GOD AMONG YOU) LEST THE
ANGER OF THE LORD THY GOD BE KINDLED AGAINST THEE, AND DESTROY THEE FROM OFF
THE FACE OF THE EARTH.
[Malachi 3:10] BRING YE ALL THE TITHES INTO THE STOREHOUSE, THAT THERE MAY BE
MEAT IN MINE HOUSE, AND PROVE ME NOW HEREWITH, SAITH THE LORD OF HOSTS, IF I
WILL NOT OPEN YOU THE WINDOWS OF HEAVEN, AND POUR YOU OUT A BLESSING, THAT THERE
SHALL NOT BE ROOM ENOUGH TO RECEIVE IT.
[Deuteronomy 6:16] YE SHALL NOT TEMPT THE LORD YOUR GOD, AS YE TEMPTED HIM IN
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