Abstract

The Biblical Hebrew word פללים is rare and cryptic. Various readings have been offered for it in its long reception history. Ancient readers of Scripture read פללים in Exod 21:22 in two distinct ways. Some read it as “judges,” whereas others associated פללים with requests, pleas, petitions, and prayers. This latter understanding of the word is found at Qumran, in the Samaritan Targum, and in several late-ancient translations of the Greek Bible. It is reflected in the Mishnah, perhaps in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and in the writing of the sixth-century Christian scholar John Philoponus. Academic scholars of the Hebrew Bible, however, were not aware of the reading of פללים as “request” or “petition.” Scholars of later interpretive traditions often attempted to impose the “correct” reading of the word, “judges,” on ancient readers who read it to mean “request.” These different interpretations offer diverging understandings of the verse and the legal remedy it prescribes. The history of this reading tradition is a case study in moving beyond the important questions of Vorlage and historical linguistics to the long and usually unsung history of how biblical words were read by the many diverse communities that made them their own. Finally, these two readings offer different visions for how the Covenant Code was meant to function: Is it meant to be applied by judges, or are individual adherents meant to use it to solve disputes themselves?

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