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PESHER (Heb. פֵּשֶׁר), word meaning "interpretation." It occurs only once in the Hebrew Bible: "Who is as the wise man? and who knoweth the interpretation of a thing?" (Eccl. 8:1). However, the Aramaic word peshar occurs 31 times in the Aramaic portion of Daniel, where it mainly refers to dream interpretation.

In Qumran texts, it usually occurs after a biblical quotation, introducing its interpretation. As such it refers to a particular technique of interpretation which may be paralleled to midrashic exegesis.

What is distinctive of Qumran is both the systematic application of such a technique to a given prophetic work and its specific purpose. On the one hand, it had the result of creating a fixed literary structure, mostly known from the "continuous" pesharim. Those works quote one "prophetic" book verse by verse, each verse being followed by its interpretation, aiming at giving the plain meaning of the Prophet's words as a whole. On the other hand, their aim is to read historical and eschatological events into the biblical prophecies, understanding them as describing their own sect's situation on the verge of the eschaton.

Such an attitude to the biblical text (i.e., God's words) is already exemplified by the book of Daniel, where the term peshar is linked to the noun of Iranian origin raz, which appears nine times in the Aramaic portion of Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar's dream of the great image of four metals is a raz which cannot be understood until the pesher is supplied. Both the raz and the peshar are given by divine revelation; the raz is the first stage of the revelation, but it remains a mystery until the second stage, the peshar, is forthcoming.

Raz and Pesher

Both raz and pesher are common terms in the Qumran texts. Repeatedly in the *Thanksgiving Psalms God is praised because He enabled the psalmist to understand His wonderful mysteries (razim), by which His eschatological purposes seem especially to be meant. In the Qumran commentaries on various biblical books or parts of books this pesher pattern is particularly manifest. The first stage of divine revelation was imparted to the biblical writer, but it remained a mystery (raz) until the second stage, the interpretation (pesher), was imparted to the Teacher of Righteousness (and by him to his disciples). Thus, in the Habakkuk Commentary, it says that "God commanded Habakkuk to write the things that were coming on the last generation, but the fulfillment of the epoch He did not make known to him. And as for the words, that a man may read it swiftly; their interpretation (pesher) concerns the Teacher of Righteousness, to whom God made known all the mysteries (razei) of the words of His servant the prophets" (1Qp Hab. 7:1–5, on Hab. 2:1ff.). This is completely in accordance with the statement at the beginning of the Damascus document, that God raised up for the righteous remnant "a Teacher of Righteousness to lead them in the way of his heart, that he might make known to the last generations what he was going to do to the last generation" (CD 1:10–12). Not until the two parts of the revelation, the raz and pesher, are brought together is its meaning made plain. The revelation, moreover, is predominantly concerned with the time of the end, the last generation of the current epoch. Three basic principles of Qumran interpretation have already shown themselves:

(1) God revealed His purpose to the prophets, but did not reveal to them the time when His purpose would be fulfilled; this further revelation was first communicated to the Teacher of Righteousness.

(2) All the words of the prophets had reference to the time of the end.

(3) The time of the end is at hand.

Contemporary Interpretation

Much then of what the prophets had to say was believed to be in a kind of code; it could only be decoded when the Teacher of Righteousness was provided with the key. Knowledge of the context of the prophet's own day, which a modern exegete would regard as indispensable for understanding his message, was irrelevant; the historical context which made his words intelligible was the interpreter's own situation and that of the period immediately following. Isaiah might prophesy the downfall of the Assyrian, Ezekiel might foretell the rise and fall of "Gog, of the land of Magog," Habakkuk might describe the invasion of his land by the Chaldeans; but in these and other instances the reference is not to enemies of Israel in the respective prophets' days but to the great gentile power which would oppress the people of God at the end-time, regularly designated the *Kittim in the Qumran texts. For example, in a commentary on Isaiah (4QpIsa), the advance and overthrow of the Assyrians in Isaiah 10:24ff., are interpreted as the eschatological "war of the Kittim." The leader of the Kittim (or so it appears, for the manuscript is badly mutilated) goes up from the plain of Acre to the approaches of Jerusalem. This is followed by the quotation of Isaiah 11:1–4 which is properly interpreted as the "shoot of David" who is to arise in the latter days to rule all the gentiles, including "Magog," but takes his directions from the priests. (This is in line with the Qumran picture of the age to come, in which the priesthood, and especially the "Messiah of Aaron," will take precedence over the Davidic Messiah, whose main function is to lead his followers to victory in battle.) In line with the interpretation of the Assyrians as the Kittim in this commentary is the quotation of Isaiah 31:8 in the *War Scroll (1QM 11:11ff.) with references to the destruction of the Kittim ("Then shall Asshur fall with the sword, not of man, and the sword, not of man, shall devour him").

The Habbakuk Commentary

The best-preserved of the Qumran commentaries is that on Habakkuk from Cave 1, and it provides the largest number of examples of this pesher-interpretation. The description of the Chaldeans in Habakkuk 1:6–17 is applied almost clause by clause to the Kittim. The Kittim, in their swift advance, overthrow all who stand in their way, and subdue them to their own dominion. They take possession of many lands and plunder their cities, "to possess dwelling places that are not theirs." Nor do they rely on military power alone to accomplish their ends: "With deliberate counsel all their device is to do evil, and with cunning and deceit they proceed with all the nations." "They trample the earth with their horses and their beasts; they come from afar, from the islands of the sea, to devour all the nations like vultures, and they are never satisfied… With wrath and anger, with hot passion and fury, they speak to all the nations." They impose heavy tribute on the nations, to be paid year by year, and thus they denude the lands of their wealth. In war they are completely ruthless; their sword regards neither age nor sex. Yet, as the prophet says, they are the agents of divine judgment against the ungodly; in particular, they are sent to punish the wicked priesthood of Jerusalem, who oppressed the godly and plundered the poor; they will deprive these priests of their ill-gotten gain and afflict them as they had afflicted others. Other parts of the Qumran commentary on Habakkuk apply the prophet's words to internal conflicts in Judea – especially to the conflict between the *Teacher of Righteousness and the *Wicked Priest, with some reference to other groups and leaders active at the same time as these. It rarely happens that the prophet's words lend themselves so literally to the commentator's purpose as do Habakkuk's words about the Chaldeans. Elsewhere the text is atomized to serve that purpose; one variant will be preferred to another on the same principle. Where other procedures fail, the text is allegorized: if in Habakkuk 2:17 mention is made of the Chaldeans' cutting down the cedars of Lebanon for military equipment and depriving the beasts there of their natural shelter, "Lebanon" is the council of the community and the "beasts" are "the simple ones of Judah, the doers of the law," while their devastator is the Wicked Priest.

Other Examples

Another example of allegorization appears in the commentary on Micah from Cave 1, where the words of Micah 1:5b ("What are the high places of Judah? Are they not Jerusalem?") are interpreted as "the Teacher of Righteousness, who teaches the law to his council and to all who offer themselves for enrollment among the elect of God." Several instances of pesher-interpretation are found in the Damascus document: once the actual term is used, where the pesher of Isaiah 24:17, "Terror (paḥad) and the pit (paḥat) and the trap (paḥ) are upon thee," is said to be "the three nets of Belial… in which he catches Israel by making them look like three kinds of righteousness – namely fornication, wealth, and pollution of the sanctuary" (CD 4:12–19). The document called 4Q Testimonia quotes three passages from the Torah (Ex. 20:21, Samaritan text; Num. 24:15–17 and Deut. 33:8–11) with apparent reference to the eschatological prophet, prince, and priest respectively, and then quotes Joshua's curse on the rebuilder of Jericho with reference to a son of Belial and his two sons; the text, unfortunately, is so fragmentary and allusive that the identity of the "son of Belial" remains in doubt: almost every member of the Hasmonean dynasty from Mattathias to Aristobulus II has been suggested, as have also Antipater, Herod, and even Vespasian. Alongside 4Q Testimonia the documents called 4Q Florilegium and 4Q Patriarchal Blessings provide examples of messianic interpretation. To those who had grasped the basic principles of the pesher received and taught by the Teacher of Righteousness, the sacred text was luminous; those who tried to understand it otherwise still groped in darkness.

The Historical Implication of the Pesharim

As already suggested above, the authors of the pesharim believed that the Prophets (including Moses and David) actually described the sect's own times as being the end of days (or at the least, the last days before the end). As a result, they aimed at ascribing every feature derived from the biblical text to figures and groups that were their contemporaries.

Thus it is of the utmost importance to succeed in identifying these groups and figures. Unfortunately, they are recalled not by names but by sobriquets. And the most secure identifications are the vaguest from the chronological point of view. Hence, the "Yaḥad" is called Judah, while Ephraim points to the Pharisees and Manassseh to the Sadducees. The Chaldeans recalled in the book of Habakkuk are said to be the "Kittim." The only exception is the "Lion of Wrath" mentioned by Nahum: from the historical event alluded to, it may be securely inferred that this figure is Alexander *Yannai having his opponents crucified, in 88 B.C.E. However, the pesher provides no further indication about the involvement of the "Lion of Wrath" in the history of the sect.

As a whole, the Teacher of Righteousness lived in the time of the Wicked Priest who persecuted him, and the sectaries saw the domination of the world by the Kittim as a sign of the coming of the end (cf. Nb 24:24). If we only knew who were the Kittim and who was the Wicked Priest, we would be able to reconstruct the history of the sect. Most scholars think the noun Kittim is a sobriquet for Romans (especially in Nahum), but they nevertheless usually assume that the sect was founded before Roman times. The Wicked Priest is variously identified with one Hasmonean ruler or another, if not with Herod, Jesus, or Paul. As a result, the Teacher of Righteousness' time variously is ascribed to the 2nd century B.C.E.–1st century C.E.


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Stern, "Thrakidas – about Alexander Jannaeus' Nickname in Josephus Flavius' Writings and Syncellus' Ones," in: Tarbiz, 29 (1960), 207–9 (Heb.); J.D. Amusin, "Ephraïm et Manassé dans le Pesher Nahum," in: RQ, 4 (1963), 386–96; A. Dupont-Sommer, "Le commentaire de Nahum découvert près de la mer Morte (4Qp Nah): Traduction et Notes," in: Semitica, 13 (1963), 55–88; S.B. Hoenig, "Dorshé Halaqot in the Pesher Nahum Scrolls," in: JBL, 83 (1964), 119–38; A. Dupont-Sommer, "Lumières nouvelles sur l'arrière-plan historique des écrits de Qumran," in: Eretz Israel, 8 (1967), E.L. Sukenik Memorial Volume, 25*–36*; D. Flusser, "The Pesher of Isaiah and the Twelves Apostles," in: Eretz Israel, 8 (E.L. Sukenik Volume; 1967), 52–62 (Heb.); J.M. Allegro, Qumran Cave 4: I (4Q158–4Q186), Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, 5 (1968); D. Flusser, "Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes in Pesher Nahum," in: G. Alon Memorial Volume (Tel Aviv, 1970), 133–68; J. 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(eds.), Qumran: Wege der Forschung (1981), 121–66; J.M. Baumgarten, "Hanging and Treason in Qumran and Roman Law," in: Eretz-Israel, 16 (1982), 7–16; W.H. Brownley, "The Wicked Priest, the Man of Lies and the Righteous Teacher – The Problem of Identity," in: JQR, 73 (1982), 1–37; D. Dimant, "Qumran Sectarian Literature," in: Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period (CRINT II. 2, 1984), 505–8; I. Fröhlich, "Le genre littéraire des Pesharim de Qumrân," in: RQ, 47:12 (1986), 383–98; M. Kister, "Concerning the History of the Essenes. A Study of the Animal Apocalypse, the Book of Jubilees and the Damascus Covenant," in: Tarbiz, 56 (1986), 1–18 (Heb.); B. Nitzan, Megillat Pesher Habakkuk (1986); M. Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (1988); idem, "Use, Authority and Interpretation of Mikra at Qumran," in: M.J. Mulder and H. Sysling (eds.), Mikra, Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity (1988), 339–78; S. 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Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.