Chronology: Ibn Ezra & Ramban


Ibn Ezra vs. Ramban

Interactive Learning Module

Ramban's Commentary (MS Parma 3255)

1. Introduction

  • לגרסה בעברית של יחידת לימוד זו, לחצו כאן.‏
  • The principle of "אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה", that the Torah does not always preserve chronological order, is well known.
  • Not all exegetes, however, apply the principle in the same way. This module will contrast the approaches of two commentators who often come head to head on the issue: Ibn Ezra and Ramban.
  • How does each exegete approach issues of order in Torah? How willing is each to suggest that Torah might sometimes veer from the historical order of events? What types of factors lead each to posit achronology and under what circumstances?

2. Declaration of Principles

  • In Parashat Korach, Ramban explicitly contrasts Ibn Ezra's approach to chronology with his own. Access his comments on Bemidbar 16:1 and scroll down to the paragraph beginning, "ואמר רבי אברהם כי זה הדבר היה במדבר סיני".
  • How does Ramban describe Ibn Ezra's application of the principle "אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה"? What does Ramban say about his own approach to Tanakh's ordering?
  • How is this difference of opinion expressed in their dating of Korach's rebellion?

3. Dating the Rebellion of Korach

  • Ramban notes that he and Ibn Ezra have opposing views on Torah's ordering. While Ibn Ezra posits achronology "at will", Ramban rarely does so, preferring to say that "all of Torah is in order".
  • This debate is reflected in their dating of Korach's rebellion. While Ramban asserts that it occurred in chronological order, after the story of the Spies, Ibn Ezra suggests that it took place in the aftermath of the choosing of the Levites (described in Bemidbar 3).
  • How does each exegete's position regarding the story's dating relate to their understanding of the main grievances which led to the rebellion? In which direction does the influence go: do the commentators' stances regarding the motivation for rebellion influence their dating or vice versa?
  • Are there any textual difficulties which might prompt one to posit achronology? Are there any verses which prove otherwise? If the story is achronological, why might it, nonetheless, be placed here?
  • Given your analysis, do you think there is sufficient textual or conceptual evidence to support a claim of achronology?

4. Broader Application

  • Let's now explore how each of Ibn Ezra and Ramban apply the principle of "אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה" throughout their commentaries.
  • Highlight the words "אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה" in Ramban's commentary and press "Search" from the dropdown options to see where else the term appears, or press here. [As the two commentators do not always use the term when discussing chronological issues, our results will not be exhaustive and should be viewed as only a starting point for discussion.]
  • In the database tree on the left side of the screen, press on the plus sign next to the words "מפרשי המקרא" to expand and see search results in individual commentators. Click on Ibn Ezra or Ramban to scroll to those results.
  • Scan the various results. [Click on the link next to each search result to see the full comment.]
  • When Ibn Ezra posits that a story is achronological, does he usually point to textual difficulties which might prompt the suggestion? How does he explain why the stories are not recounted in their proper place?
  • How often does Ramban quote the principle only to reject it? When he does apply it, what types of reasons does he provide for the achronology?

5. Case A: Dating the Command of "לֶךְ לְךָ"

  • Our quick survey shows that while Ibn Ezra is quite comfortable suggesting that a story might be out of order, Ramban does so only when achronology is explicit in the text. In such cases, Ramban tends to give literary explanations for Tanakh's reordering. Though at times Ibn Ezra does the same, often he does not give any explanation at all.
  • Let's now look in depth at three cases where the two exegetes explicitly argue with each other. We'll start with their dispute regarding the dating of Hashem's initial command to Avraham, "לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ".
  • Let's access the Mikraot Gedolot on Bereshit 11:31. Read to the end of the chapter, and then use the double arrow in the top red bar to continue to Chapter 12, scanning the first five verses there as well.
  • According to the simple reading of the chapter, when does Hashem command Avraham to head to Canaan? Is there anything in the verses which might lead someone to suggest that the events are not recorded chronologically?

6. Ibn Ezra's Read of "לֶךְ לְךָ"

  • Let's return to Bereshit 11:31 to see how Ibn Ezra, in his first commentary, reads the verses. According to him, when did Hashem command Avraham to go to Canaan – while still in Ur Kasdim, or only after he arrived in Charan?
  • Which word in Hashem's command might be motivating him to say so? How do the words "לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן" in 11:31 further buttress his claim?
  • Though Ibn Ezra does not mention it here, in Bereshit 15:7, he notes a third textual motivation for the achronology. [Click here, or use the book icon from the top red bar to choose the chapter and verse.] How does this verse support his position?
  • If Hashem's command is indeed recorded out of place, how might we explain why the Torah chose to do so?

7. Ramban's Read of "לֶךְ לְךָ"

  • Let's compare Ramban's reading of the verse. As expected, in contrast to Ibn Ezra, he asserts that the command took place where written, in Bereshit 12:1, after Avraham had arrived in Charan.
  • Let's return to Bereshit 12:1 to look at his arguments. We'll start with the paragraph that begins, "ורבי אברהם פירש".
  • Ramban argues against Ibn Ezra from Bereshit 11:31, Bereshit 24:4-10, and Yehoshua 24:3. How does each of these verses pose a challenge to Ibn Ezra's stance? How might he respond?
  • How might Ramban, in turn, explain why Hashem later says, "אֲנִי ה' אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים"?
  • On the whole, whose arguments do you find more convincing, those of Ibn Ezra or Ramban?

8. A Double Problem: מולדת

  • One of the points of dispute between Ibn Ezra and Ramban revolves around the usage of the word "וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ" found in Hashem's directive to Avraham (Bereshit 12:1).
  • At first glance the word supports Ibn Ezra's position, for it seems from Bereshit 11:27-32 that Ur Kasdim is Avraham's birthplace and, if so, Hashem's command came to him while he was still living there.
  • However, Ramban notes that in Bereshit 24:4-10, when Avraham sends his servant "אֶל אַרְצִי וְאֶל מוֹלַדְתִּי", he heads to Charan. This leads Ramban to conclude that Avraham must have been born in Charan, and it was there that Hashem first spoke to him.
  • According to this, though, it is difficult to understand why Avraham is found in Ur Kasdim in Bereshit 11:27-32.
  • The word's usage, thus, presents a question for both sides. While Ibn Ezra must explain Bereshit 24:10, Ramban must explain Bereshit 11:31.

9. Concordance Work: מולדת

  • Let's look at the usage of the noun "מוֹלֶדֶת" throughout Tanakh. A deeper understanding of its usage might allow for new readings of each of the verses which present challenges for Ibn Ezra and Ramban.
  • Click on the word "וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ" in Bereshit 12:1 to open the One Click Concordance.
  • Scan the verses in which the root appears. What might the root mean in Bereshit 43:7 (#8), Bereshit 48:6 (#9), or Esther 8:6 (#22)? See Shadal on Bereshit 12:1 who explicitly mentions this definition.
  • How might this meaning be applied to either Bereshit 12:1 or Bereshit 24:4-10 to obviate the problems raised by the verses for each of Ibn Ezra and Ramban?
  • For further discussion of the larger debate and its ramifications for understanding the Avraham narratives, see: Avraham's Aliyah.

10. Case B: Moshe's Prayer in Shemot 32

  • Let's now turn to an additional dispute between Ibn Ezra and Ramban, this one related to Moshe's prayer after the nation sins with the Golden Calf, recorded in Shemot 32:11-14.
  • From the verses in Sefer Shemot, Moshe appears to pray on behalf of the nation immediately upon hearing of the sin, while he is still on Mt. Sinai.
  • Look at Ibn Ezra's second commentary on verse 11 where he disagrees, claiming that Moshe actually beseeched Hashem only after destroying the Calf.
  • What textual support does he bring for his claims? What conceptual argument does he make?

11. Comparing Prayers

  • Ibn Ezra identifies Moshe's prayer in Shemot with that described in Devarim 9:25-29 and alluded to in Shemot 32:30-32, the prayer Moshe uttered when he ascended the mountains for a second set of forty days.
  • Let's access the Tanakh Lab to easily compare the two prayers.
  • Only some of the linguistic parallels are highlighted. To color others that you find, click on the desired phrase, and from the dropdown menu choose either "Highlight Instances" or "Color".
  • To what degree are the two prayers linguistically similar? How does their content compare?
  • Does this prove Ibn Ezra's theory?
  • If the prayers are one and the same, and relayed only after destroying the calf, why is it not mentioned in its proper place, in Shemot 32:31? What does Ibn Ezra suggest? [Return to the Mikraot Gedolot here.]

12. Moshe's Prayer: Ramban

  • Let's now see how Ramban reads the verses. We'll start from the paragraph beginning, "ודעת ר"א כי משה לא התפלל".
  • Why does Ramban reject the possibility that the prayer mentioned in verses 11-14 is really part of Moshe's plea in Shemot 32:30-32?
  • Conceptually, why does he think it is logical that Moshe did not wait before praying?
  • How does Ramban explain the similarity to the prayer in Devarim? If the two prayers are one and the same, how can Ramban account for the fact that Devarim implies that it was said during the second ascent and not immediately when Moshe was told of the sin?
  • Why might Ramban be more comfortable suggesting that there is achronology in the account in Devarim than in the story in Shemot?

13. On Prayers and Apologies

  • Besides the textual and methodological differences of opinion between Ibn Ezra and Ramban, their two positions have important lessons regarding prayer, requests for forgiveness, and leadership.
  • What does Ibn Ezra say about the need to accompany a request for forgiveness with repentance and clear effort to change one's ways?
  • Why does Ramban think that Moshe's prayer was nonetheless effective?
  • What does Ramban suggest about the need for leaders to intervene on behalf of their people, even when they sin?
  • What might one learn from him about the dangers of procrastination?

14. Case C: Yitro's Arrival

  • Another famous disagreement between Ibn Ezra and Ramban has its roots already in the dispute found in Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael Shemot 18:1 about whether Yitro arrived at the Israelite camp before or after the Revelation at Sinai
  • Scan Shemot 18 on your own, looking for verses which might support either side of the debate.
  • Afterwards, compare the approaches of Ibn Ezra and Ramban in their comments to Shemot 18:1.

15. Yitro's Arrival: Commentary

  • What arguments for achronology does Ibn Ezra bring in his first commentary on Shemot 18:1? When does he assume that Yitro arrived?
  • Why is the story mentioned here if it only took place later? Ibn Ezra elaborates on this point at the end of his second commentary on the verse. [See also Yitro and Amalek for a discussion of the points of contact between the two stories.]
  • What is Ramban's primary question on Ibn Ezra's position?
  • How does he attempt to rebut each of his arguments and resolve the various difficulties raised by the verses?

16. Ramifications

  • The two positions regarding the timing of Yitro's arrival have ramifications for a number of issues:
  • According to each opinion, what might have motivated Yitro to arrive when he did? See Yitro's Visit – Its Purpose and Significance.
  • Were there laws and statutes in place already before the giving of the Decalogue? How many and which laws were the people given in Marah? See Miracles and Mitzvot at Marah.
  • What is the relationship between Yitro mentioned here and Chovav mentioned in Bemidbar 10? See Yitro – Names.
  • What is the relationship between the account of the appointing of judges here and in Devraim 1? Do they speak of the same event? See Appointing Moshe's Assistants.
  • Did Yitro or Moshe's children participate in the revelation at Sinai?
  • For elaboration on each of Ibn Ezra and Ramban's positions and for other opinions regarding the chronology of the various events of the chapter, see Chronology – Shemot 18.

17. Conclusions

  • We have explored Ibn Ezra and Ramban's opposing views on Torah's chronology through a number of different stories.
  • While textual or conceptual questions often lead Ibn Ezra to conclude that a story is written out of place, Ramban prefers to maintain Tanakh's ordering and find other solutions to such issues.
  • At times, Ibn Ezra suggests that the Torah's choice to reorder events is due to thematic or homiletic concerns, but often he does not give any explanation at all. In contrast, in the rare cases where Ramban admits that there is achronology, as when the change in order is explicit in the text, he consistently attributes it to literary considerations.
  • It is possible that the two exegetes' different approaches to chronology relates to the general character of their commentaries. Ibn Ezra is very local in his outlook, often commenting about individual verses or words, where chronology is irrelevant. Ramban's commentary, in contrast, has a much broader scope, making achronology much more troubling.
  • Pitting the two approaches one against each other when learning any given story aids the reader to read more carefully. Though we often think of chronological debates as being technical in nature, as we have seen, they often have far reaching ramifications for how one understands both individual stories and characters and Tanakh's messages as a whole.

18. Additional Reading