LITERARY STUDY OF BIBLICAL NARRATIVE
By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman
As I noted in the end of the
previous lecture, attributing an allusive meaning to a word because of an
alternative reflected meaning puts the reader in the lexical-conceptual domain:
namely, interpreting a word which has dual meanings in Hebrew according to both
of its definitions (even if one of them is an "essential meaning" and the other
is only a "reflection"). The model
which we will now discuss is not built on words which have two parallel
meanings, but words or phrases which have an associative charge. Since one may
speak of a hypothetical "intended reader" to whom the biblical narrative is
directed, one may take into account the associative dimension of this reader.
Sometimes, these associations depend on biblical connotations, and sometimes
even on the unbridled imagination of the reader. However if one is accustomed to
Scriptural language, these imaginings have value as well.
An example of this may be
found in the description of the dove's return to Noah after it has been sent to
investigate whether the waters of the Deluge have receded:
But the dove found no place of
rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned to him to the ark, for the
waters were on the face of the whole earth; and he put forth his hand, and he
took her, and he brought her in to him into the ark. (Bereishit 8:9)
The conceptual significance of
the words in front of us is clear: since the dove could not find a resting
place, it returns to Noah, who extends his hand and brings it back into the ark.
However, beyond the essence of the plot, a sensitive reader will notice the
surprising association of conjugality that Scripture raises: "And he took her,
and he brought her in to him into the ark." This phraseology is found only in
the context of conjugality. For example, "And it was in the evening that he took
Leah his daughter, and he brought her in to him; and he went in to her" (ibid.
Nachmanides is aware of this
association. In his commentary, he writes: "Therefore, the dove could not find a
place of rest that would be good for it."
Nachmanides’ terminology is a paraphrase of Naomi's words to Ruth: "My
daughter, should I not seek for you a place of rest that would be good for you?"
(Ruth 3:1) This is the preface to
Naomi's proposal to Ruth of a conjugal relationship with Bo'az. Obviously, there
is no true conjugal relationship between Noach and the dove ("she" could easily
be translated "it"), but it is worthwhile to raise this association in the
reader's consciousness, in order to characterize the warm relationship between
Noah and the dove, as opposed to his relationship with the raven. Part of the
creation of this warm, convivial environment between Noach and the dove is the
selection of words designed to arouse associations of conjugality. There is more
to discuss regarding this issue, but this will suffice for now.
The associative dimension of
the reader takes a role in shaping the meaning of a given expression
specifically because it is done many times without the full consciousness or
control of the reader. It recalls what I termed the "collocative meaning" — the
identity of a word in terms of its belonging to a given domain, so that its use
reminds the reader of that context. Here, we are not speaking specifically of a
semantic domain, but rather the common use of a given word, so that the habitual
context is "dragged in" like a hump on the back of that word, and this
influences the reader.
Yaakov Greets Esav
In order to clarify this
phenomenon, let us turn to a statement which is very difficult to interpret
without the associative dimension. Can the associative meaning help us explicate
After Yaakov sends messengers
to his brother Esav, they return with following message: "We came to your
brother, to Esav, and also he comes to meet you, and four hundred men are with
him" (Bereishit 32:7). How should we
understand the words of Yaakov's messengers? Is Esav heading towards war, or is
he turning towards peace and reconciliation?
It is no coincidence that many
commentators grapple with this question.
Rashi adopts the view that Esav was indeed coming to meet Yaakov in
battle at first, but in light of the
gifts which he receives and in light of Yaakov's prostrations, Esav changes his
mind and decides in the end to kiss Yaakov and not to bite him. The Rashbam, on the other hand,
maintains that originally Esav has no intention of battling with Yaakov. He
brings along four hundred men in order to honor his younger brother. Yaakov himself "holds like
Rashi," as it were — he prepares himself for combat. It appears that he believes
(or at least suspects) that Esav intends to fight him.
In these cases, the
associative meaning that accompanies the words has even more significance,
because through it one may understand the allusive intent of the verse. In order
to describe Esav's motivations, does Scripture select words with a martial
association or words with a convivial association? We must keep in mind that we
have a variation of the children's game "Telephone" here: Esav himself is not
quoted, so that we must hear his intent in the words of Yaakov's messengers.
Their description of Esav may, understandably, be colored by their own
impression of his intentions. (Perhaps this is the reason that they neglect to
mention the gifts that Esav is bringing with him.) Also, Yaakov's reaction to
the messengers' words does not clearly demonstrate the original intent of Esav,
because it is not certain that Yaakov understands Esav's intentions correctly!
Thus, the reader reacts to the words of the messengers and to Yaakov's response
with the knowledge that this is in the absence of direct information about
Esav's own intentions.
Examining the Scriptural
associations and connotations that accompany the words of Yaakov's messengers,
the reader stumbles across another difficulty. This is because there is an
inherent ambivalence in the report of Yaakov's messengers. The messengers’ words
are split into two clauses: "And also he comes to meet you/ and four hundred men
are with him." Concerning the phrase "comes to meet," Amnon Shapira writes:
The phrase "comes to
meet" (halakh likrat) appears in Tanakh, aside from in our verse,
fourteen times, in three of which it has a martial connotation; but in eleven
cases, which are 78% of the references to this expression, it has a connotation
of peace. One must assume that this is the essential note that an ancient
Hebrew, with an ear attuned to the tones of Scriptural language, would hear in
the words "coming to meet".
I am not convinced that
calculating the percentages of the references of a certain expression is
decisive when it comes to the reader's awareness. It is logical that this
consciousness is influenced by the network of words which appear around a given
expression, more than the statistics of connotations which accompany the
expression. Therefore, in opposition to Shapira's view in terms of the
expression on its own, it is difficult to point to a
definitive connotation, in Sarna’s qualification of this expression, of
"amity or enmity."
is right that the eleven references in which it is used with a peaceful
connotation influence our case, in terms of the specific associations which the
narrator encourages and the verbal tapestry which is woven around the words of
Yaakov’s messengers open their
report in a seemingly innocuous way: "We came to your brother, to Esav." The
double description ("to your brother/ to Esav") creates a distinct emphasis on
these titles. The use of the term "your
brother" is prominent against the background of its absence in Yaakov's initial
words when he sends the messengers:
So shall you say to
my lord Esav: "So says
your servant Yaakov, 'I have dwelt with Laban, and I have delayed until now. And I have oxen and bulls, sheep,
servants and maids, and I have sent to inform
my lord, to find
favor in your eyes.'"
relationship in Yaakov's speech is, understandably, tied to the rhetorical
purpose of his words, which are designed to make clear to Esav his desire for
reconciliation while accepting his authority as the older brother. However, in the messenger's report,
there is a significant alteration; they speak of coming "to your brother, to
Esav." The Abarbanel writes (ibid.)
They thought that he was
coming to honor him, and because of this they returned to Yaakov and told him
that they came "to [his] brother, to Esav," as if to say: Why do you call
him "my lord"? He is no more than a loving, faithful brother. "And also, behold,
he comes out to meet you" — meaning: He does not suffice in accepting your
delegation; he himself is journeying and coming out to meet you and to greet
However, the second half of
the messengers' report arouses an alternative awareness, and this is also part
of the "associative meaning" that accompanies this expression. Why does Esav
come to this encounter accompanied by four hundred men? In the Scriptural
lexicon, "four hundred men" represents an attacking phalanx, an army battalion.
For example, this is the number of men who gather around David when he flees
from Saul ("about four hundred men"), and he is appointed "an officer over them"
(I Samuel 22:2). These four hundred
men (along with another two hundred who stay behind to guard the supplies) build
David's battalion, and with them he goes out to battle (ibid. 25:13, 30:10).
Naturally, the reader
encounters a problem when he tries to clarify the hidden motivations of Esav, as
the associative dimension of the words creates different levels of meaning. Perhaps, as R. Shlomo Efrayim
Luntschitz (the Keli Yakar) suggests, Yaakov's messengers themselves are
perplexed and unable to determine the motivation of Esav in coming to Yaakov:
"We came to your brother," who
presented himself in the spirit of brotherhood and love; however, at the same
time, we saw the opposite of this - "also he comes to meet you" - so that we are
confused about this.
Yaakov himself, in fact,
interprets the intent of Esav as evil; however, the ambivalence of the reader
remains unchanged. First, it is possible that Yaakov is wrong in his
understanding of Esav's aim; second, it may be that Yaakov acts "just to be
safe" — even if he is not convinced that Esav has violent intent, he prepares
himself for any trouble that might come along. Emanueli puts it well:
This obscure formulation,
which can be understood in either way, is the intent of the author, who does not
reveal to us the end — which is so well-known to the narrator. In this, the author raises the
tension and leaves the question open: does Yaakov err in his analysis, or had it
truly been the premeditated aim of Esav to attack him, but the impressive gift
changes his plans.
In fact, at the end of the
narrative, this question remains open.
Even if, at the end of the day, there is no violent encounter between the
two brothers, there is no way of knowing what the original intent of Esav had
been. Does the battalion which Esav brings to this encounter return to
Se'ir disappointed at not
seeing any action? Perhaps their mission ab initio was to honor Yaakov, which
The obscurity of Esav's
motivations in the narrative serves two different purposes in the design of the
story. First of all, in this way Scripture focuses the attention of the reader
on Yaakov, on his suspicions and his point of view of the events. It is not
important, the narrative hints to its readers, whether these suspicions are
justified or not. One must examine the mental processes that Yaakov passes
through in this narrative; from this perspective, on the contrary, the ambiguity
of Esav's motivations dovetails with the obscurity and the lack of knowledge in
which Yaakov finds himself. In this way, it is easy for the reader to identify
with the hero of the story.
Second (and in this context,
we will not examine this point at length), the question of Esav's intent
influences Yaakov's judgment in the narrative. Does he succeed in appeasing his
brother through his sophisticated actions (the gift and the prostrations), or
does Yaakov perhaps suspect the innocent - Esav from the start wants only to hug
his younger brother? It is this scene, in which the brothers are reacquainted,
that ultimately closes the book on the theft of the blessings, the source of the
tension between them. In both instances, the reader has questions about Yaakov's
judgment. Leaving Esav's intent ambiguous allows the reader to have some
ambivalence about Yaakov's actions and the soundness of his judgment.
Symbolism and Ancillary Associations
Sometimes, the associative
dimension that accompanies the word adds something significant to the symbolism
of the narrative. This issue applies mostly to motifs that are stressed in the
narrative, such as dress, food, etc. In these cases, paying attention to the
associative meaning is so imperative that without doing so the reader may miss
the primary significance of the verse.
In order to clarify this
issue, we will turn to an ancient example of biblical analysis with which the
Sages of the Talmud have already struggled. After Hagar flees from her
mistress's house, the angel encounters her and asks her to return to her there,
despite the fact that her humiliation and affliction will continue. In
compensation for this, the angel promises Hagar various things, among them that
she will give birth to a son to be named Yishma'el ("God will hear"), because
God has heard her humiliation. In addition to this promise,
the angel adds that her son "will be a wild (pere) man" (Bereishit 16:12).
The dictionary definition of “pere” is "a wild donkey, a
desert-dwelling animal from the horse family."
According to this, when the
angel compares Yishma'el to a pere, his intention is that he will dwell in the desert, as indeed
happens later on (ibid. 21:20-21). However, it appears that the word
pere has certain connotations in
Tanakh, which the reader can hear when encountering this metaphor. The
symbolism of the pere is most
prominent in Iyov's words:
Who let the
wild donkey (pere) go free?
I gave him
the wasteland as his home,
flats as his habitat.
He laughs at
the commotion in the town;
he does not
hear a driver’s shout.
He ranges the
hills for his pasture
for any green thing. (Iyov 39:5-8)
Iyov describes the
pere as a free animal, unbound by
chains, ropes or fetters, roaming the world.
The pere derides the hunter's
victorious cries when he returns to his city, because the
pere can never be caught or tamed. In
other words, the association — and naturally, the symbol — that accompanies the
pere is freedom. In light of this, the
essential intent of the angel becomes clear: Hagar is asked to return to being
Sara's maid, but her unborn son will be as free as a desert
pere; he will not tolerate any further
Associations and Character Evaluations
Another facet of the
associative dimension that accompanies a word is its great influence on
character evaluation. This phenomenon is very broad, and here I will only
highlight it briefly.
I assume that every reader
feels great empathy towards Hagar at the time that she is forced to disengage
from her son because he is about to die.
Hagar distances herself from her son, sits down "opposite him," and
raises her voice to cry. Despite this identification with the deep pain of
Hagar, the verse alludes in a number of ways to a hidden criticism of her for
leaving her son Yishma'el alone.
First, the verse emphasizes that Hagar cries loudly - "And she sat opposite him
and raised her voice and cried" (Bereishit
21:16) - but immediately after this we find that "God has heard" — not her
voice, but rather "the voice of the boy."
Immediately, the angel who appears to Hagar from the heavens stresses
that "God has heard the voice of the boy
as he is there," as if
the angel is saying to Hagar: You indeed have distanced yourself from your son,
but God has heard his voice — in the very place where you abandoned him. Indeed,
the immediate imperative which the angel gives to Hagar is focused on the
renewal of intimacy between mother and child: "Rise, lift up the boy and take
him by the hand" (v. 18).
It may be that the alluded
criticism of Hagar is expressed by the mention of the bow in the narrative. The
verse chooses to characterize Hagar's distance from her son the in a unique way:
"And she went and sat down opposite him, about a bowshot away" (v. 16). In other
words, Hagar sits at the distance of an arrow's flight from Yishma'el. Indeed,
at the end of the story, the verse returns to this phrase when it describes the
mature Yishma'el: "And he resided in the desert, and he became an archer" (v.
20). I will propose a symbolic-psychological reading. The adult Yishmael seeks
constantly to bridge the gap between him and his mother. I would be so bold as
to suggest, in modern parlance, that the only way for Yishma'el to overcomes his
fear of abandonment by his mother — a fear which accompanies him all of his life
— is through firing arrows that may reach that place where his mother sat,
weeping, after abandoning him at death's door.
(Perhaps, in firing these arrows, there is also a repressed violence
directed towards the mother who remains "opposite him, about a bowshot away"?)
For the purposes of our
analysis, the criticism of Hagar is realized in the associative dimension, which
accompanies the verb used by the verse to describe the separation between mother
and son: "The water in the bottle was spent, and she cast the child under one of
the shrubs" (v. 15). This choice of verb is very surprising. In Tanakh, it is generally objects
which are "cast." Consider the example of Moses’ staff: "And He said, ‘Cast it
to the ground,' and he cast it to the ground, and it became a serpent" (Exodus
4:3); or the law of tzara'at of a house: "They will extract the stones in
which the plague is, and they will cast them outside the city, to an impure
place" (Leviticus 14:40); and many others.
Sometimes, the act of casting relates to people, but in such a case, it
is accompanied by violence. Consider Joseph's ordeal at the hands of his
brothers: "And they took him and cast him into the pit" (Bereishit 37:24). Naturally, when a
verse seeks to describe the desecration of a corpse, this verb, which refers to
casting a worthless object away, is used: "And the king of Ai... they took his
body down from the tree, and cast it at the entrance of the gate of the city"
(Joshua 8:29); "They took Avshalom and cast him into a deep pit in the forest
and erected over him a very great heap of stones" (II Samuel 18:17). Thus, using
this verb to describe Hagar's act arouses in the reader the feeling that Hagar
"casts" her son like an object. The verb "to place" would have been more
befitting, as we see, for example, in the case of Levi’s daughter, who is
compelled to separate from her son Moses on the edge of the
But when she could hide him no
longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then
she placed the child in it and placed it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. (Exodus 2:3)
It appears that the verse
chooses the verb "and she cast" on purpose, because of the associations which
accompany it and which add to the critical judgment of Hagar in her
disengagement from her son.
As this lecture has already
exceeded the usual length, I will mention very briefly one additional example,
which Yisrael Rosenson has dealt with thoroughly.
The question of evaluation of King Yehu is an extremely
complex issue. It is sufficient to mention the multifaceted epitaph for his
And God said to Yehu: "Because
you have done well in executing that which is right in My eyes, and you have
done to the house of Achav according to all that was in My heart, your sons of
the fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel."
But Yehu took no heed to walk
in the law of Lord, God of Israel, with all his heart; he departed not from the
sins of Yeravam, by which he caused Israel to sin. (II Kings 10:30-31)
Two "hearts" are mentioned
consecutively and in absolute opposition - "according to all that was in My
heart," followed by, "Yehu took no heed to walk in the law of Lord, God of
Israel, with all his heart."
This topic, as we have noted,
is extremely complex, and perhaps we will return to it when we dissect character
evaluation in the biblical narrative. For the sake of our analysis today, I
would like to talk about one scene of Yehu's revolution, the killing of the
family of Achazya, King of Judea:
Yehu met with the brethren of
Achazya king of Judea, and said: "Who are you?"
And they answered: "We are the
brethren of Achazya; and we go down to salute the children of the king and the
children of the queen."
And he said: "Take them
alive." And they took them alive, and he
slaughtered them at the pit of the shearing-house, forty-two men, leaving not
one man alive. (II Kings 10:13-14)
Let us set aside the question
of whether Yehu has to kill these Judean aristocrats, the kin of Achazya, when
his struggle is directed against the House of Achav, the royal family of
Israel. Even if we may justify the killings as
a necessary component of the revolution (which was itself initiated by prophetic
command), the verb that the narrator chooses to describe their killing is
surprising: "and he slaughtered them at the pit of the shearing-house."
It appears that in selecting this verb,
Scripture succeeds in broadcasting the bitterness of spirit in Yehu's actions.
Slaughtering people seems to be a barbaric act. It would have been sufficient
if the verse would have used the verb "and he killed them" to avoid these
associations. Clearly, the verse wants to arouse a feeling of discomfort and
disgust in the reader with the account of the killing-slaughtering of Achazya's
For those who are beginning to
lose their patience, I will note that we will deal in the next lecture with the
final ancillary meaning, "temporary meaning," and with this we will conclude our
analysis of the many types of peripheral connotations of words and expressions
in the biblical narrative.