LITERARY STUDY OF BIBLICAL NARRATIVE
By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman
memory of Channa Schreiber (Channa Rivka bat Yosef v' Yocheved) z"l,
with wishes for consolation and comfort to her dear children
Yossi and Mona, Yitzchak and Carmit, and their families,
along with all who mourn for Tzion and Yerushalayim.
Repetition of Sounds
In the previous lectures, we observed that every word has a unique contribution
to the story beyond its conceptual meaning and its dictionary definition. In the
second stage of our investigation of the individual word's contribution to the
hidden reading of the narrative, I will attempt to track the contribution of
repeated words, examining how they are integrated in the story and how they grab
the attention of the reader.
Before we proceed to our analysis of repeated words, I will devote this lecture
to the similar phenomenon found with syllables and consonants, the repeated
sound. Sometimes, a repeated sound occurs in the same sentence, capturing the
attention of the reader and influencing his or her reading. Naturally, there is
not always some obscure meaning behind this wordplay, but sometimes the
narrative employs it to give the reader clues to a hidden reading.
We find the Torah's use of this sort of wordplay in the story of the brass
serpent (nechash nechoshet) in Bamidbar 21. After the people
complain about their food (21:5), we read:
God sent fiery serpents (ha-nechashim
ha-serafim) among the people, and they
bit (va-yenashekhu) the people; and
many people of Israel
The people came to Moshe, and said, "We have sinned, because we have spoken
against God and against you. Pray to God, that He take away the serpents from
us." Moshe prayed for the people.
God said to Moshe, "Make a fiery serpent (saraf),
and set it on a standard; and it shall happen that everyone who is bitten, when
he sees it, shall live."
Moshe made a serpent (nachash) of
brass (nechoshet), and set it on the
standard; and it happened that if a serpent had bitten (nashakh) any man, when he looked to the serpent of brass, he lived.
There is already some wordplay between the
root of "to bite," "nashakh," and the “nachash.”
Indeed, v. 9 makes this clearer in the
phrase "nashakh ha-nachash."
However the wordplay is even clearer in Moshe's action. In order to heal the people, Moshe is
commanded to make a "fiery serpent" (saraf) and to put it on a pole. When Moshe fulfills this command, he
makes a "nachash" — but to our
surprise, he makes it out of "nechoshet"!
Why doe Moshe decide to make the nachash
out of nechoshet? Note that the verse specifically
emphasizes the substance out of which the serpent is made: "When he looked to
the serpent of brass, he lived;" this is clearly not an insignificant
detail in the manufacturing of the device.
Rashi answers this question promptly by
building on the wordplay between nachash
Moshe was not told to make it of nechoshet,
but he said, "God called it a nachash,
so I will make it out of nechoshet, a
homophonic pun (lashon nofel al lashon)."
According to Rashi's reading, the literary
wordplay in this case influences the real-life action; Moshe chooses
nechoshet specifically in order to realize the
paronomastic wordplay of
How should we understand this literary phenomenon? The Ramban takes the logical
position that this cannot be only aural wordplay for its own sake. Rather, the
homophonic punning employed here alludes to the inner connection between the
danger of the nachash and the curative
power of its image of nechoshet:
It appears to me that there is a secret in this matter, for this is the way of
the Torah, which in all of its aspects is a miracle within a miracle. It removes
the damage with the damager and cures the infection with the infector... It is common medical knowledge that
the condition of the victim of a venomous creature's bite will worsen if the
victim sees it or its likeness. This is why those bitten by rabid dogs and other
rabid animals will die if they look at the water and see a reflection of the dog
or other damager... and this is a fact of the wondrous powers of the soul. Since
all of this is true, it would have been appropriate for those Israelites bitten
by the fiery serpents that they should neither see a serpent nor recall it nor
consider it at all, yet God commands Moshe to make the form of a
saraf, which is killing them... The
principle is that God directs [Moshe] to heal using the nature of the lethal
damager, making something in its image and its name, so that when the person
looks intently at the nechash
nechoshet, which is totally in the form of the damager, he will live! This
lets them know that God is the one who kills or resuscitates.
The words of the Ramban indicate that this repetition of sounds teaches a
conceptual message – we are clearly not talking about natural healing in this
context, as according to normative medical procedure, it is appropriate for a
sick person to be distanced from the source of his illness, even mentally. (The
Ramban, a practicing physician, even refers to "the wondrous powers of the soul"
—psychology!) In order to stress that God "kills or resuscitates," Moshe
specifically makes an image of a nachash,
and specifically out of nechoshet, so
that even the material out of which the image is made continues to remind one of
the nachash. Despite this, it cures!
The Significance of Sounds
This example suffices to establish that this sort of wordplay exists in
Tanakh. In fact, it is enough to recall the hermeneutics of names in
Scripture in order to realize how common this phenomenon truly is.
There are different types of aural wordplay in literature, such as rhyming,
assonance, alliteration, homophonic punning, and concatenation. Since our
analysis is dedicated to the hidden meaning of biblical narrative, we will not
focus on the different ways in which the wordplay is expressed, but rather on
the hidden meanings accompanying them.
First, it is worth mentioning that some maintain that there are sounds that
carry a distinct meaning in their very enunciation. At the very least, they
direct the listener towards certain feelings. There are two different models
that serve as a basis for the interaction between the sound of the word and the
reality it denotes.
The first model is that of onomatopoeia. In this case, the sound imitates
the reality that the word denotes. Some examples of this in Hebrew are:
tzartzar (cricket), bakbuk (bottle), rishrush (murmur), and
zimzum (buzz). In Tanakh, we encounter this phenomenon in complete
sentences as well. For example:
"Your lips drip (titofena) as the honeycomb (nofet), bride"
(Shir Ha-shirim 4:11). The very
terminology used reminds one of the sound of dripping honey.
The second model is that of high and low notes, which shape the reader's
emotion. Some high or sibilant notes create tension, while other low, calm notes
project tranquility and equanimity.
This was proven in a fascinating experiment in which subjects were given full
sentences that were not built out of meaningful words, but merely on phonemes.
The subjects were asked to describe their emotional reaction to these sentences.
It became clear that there was a remarkably consistent reaction among the
subjects. Many pointed to the sentences with sibilant consonants and high notes
as expressing harshness, as opposed to the sentences which had softer
consonants, which the subjects saw as giving a feeling of relaxation and calm.
This experiment is quite interesting, but its great advantage is also its
disadvantage. The experiment indeed succeeded in isolating the sounds from the
structure of the word, checking the reader's or listener's reaction to sounds
that stand on their own. But there is a deficiency in this experiment; in the
process of reading a narrative, a reader encounters words that do, in fact, have
meaning. Can we respond to a word’s
sounds detached from its meaning? Does the word rasha (villain) broadcast
tranquility because of its low-pitched vowelization, while the word tzedek
(justice) broadcasts harshness because of its sibilant and velar consonants? It
seems to me that the opposite is true – the definition of the words is what
influences the reader much more than the sounds. In other words, even if this
theory of vowels and consonants is interesting, it is very difficult to apply it
as the same time that we are discussing words that have meanings integrated into
the narrative. The reader must respond to the sense of the word along with the
sound, and it is very difficult to separate between these two elements. It is
more logical to say that the interaction of these sounds is tied in every place
to the general content expressed in the sentence.
Sounds and Content
Thus, repeating a sound stresses something, but the emphasized segment is
connected to the general content of what is being said in the narrative. For
example, the consonance of the "sh" sound throughout a sentence can create
different and varied feelings. Repeating the consonant may bring a feeling of
comfort and love, as in the opening verses of Shir Ha-shirim (1:1-2): "Shir ha-shirim asher li-Shlomo. Yishakeni mi-neshikot..."
In the first six words of this book, the consonant "sh" appears a half-dozen
times (and in the first three words, it is paired with an "r"). In this case,
the consonant "sh" arouses positive emotions in the context of the sentence. (I
might even dare to suggest that to form the sound "sh," one must purse one's
lips in a gesture reminiscent of a kiss.) On the other hand, in the verse "Va-tomer
ha-isha, ha-nachash hishiani" (Bereishit 3:13),
in which Chava blames the serpent for her partaking of the Tree of Knowledge,
the repetition of the consonant "sh" imitates the serpent, and the "sh" and "s"
sounds in the accusation leveled against Moshe, "Mi
sar ve-shofet aleinu?",
"Who made you and officer or a judge over us?" (Shemot 2:14), broadcast enmity and
These alterations need not to bother us, because the emphasis of the consonant
is tied intimately to the content of the sentence. As we have said, these
repetitions may arouse an emotion in the reader's heart, but it would be very
difficult to distinguish between an emotion aroused by sounds and an emotion
aroused by the meaning of the word, and it seems to me that it would be
appropriate to say that these two parameters integrate with each other.
Gidon: Rulership and Requisition
After Gidon's success in battle, having saved the Israelites from Midianite
harassment, the Israelites suggest that Gidon rule over them:
over us – you, your son, and your grandson – because you have saved us from the
hand of Midian" (Shoftim 8:22). Gidon refuses with a clear declaration of
faith: "God will rule over you" (8:23). Instead, he makes an ephod, which
he displays in his city, Ofra. What is the relationship between the proposal of
rulership by the people and Gidon's collection of rings and making of an
This question is very broad and many
commentators discuss it. The straightforward impression emerging from these
verses is that there is a link between the refusal to rule and the idea of
setting up an ephod because both are part of an ongoing dialogue. If so,
what is the connection between the two parts of the narrative? The Malbim sees
both of these passages as narratives of praise for Gidon:
After it tells us that he did not run after power, it tells us that he contemns
profit, for by law he could have taken half of the booty; but he does not take
anything more than a small amount, given as a gift.
Thus, according to the Malbim, this
narrative closes its discussion of Gidon's era with great praise: he avoids
power and he avoids money.
On the other hand, some, such as Eliyahu
Asis, have proposed that the image of the ephod is described as a
contradiction to the image of Gidon's refusal to take the throne:
Gidon refuses to accept on himself the role of the king because he sees this as
impinging on God's sovereignty, but he contradicts himself in the next breath,
immediately initiating the construction of an ephod which impinges on
Indeed, it appears that in the
construction of the ephod, Gidon is acting as a king! The verse stresses that Gidon sets up
the ephod in his city. He appears to be erecting a monument, as kings do
when they return from their military victories.
Building a monument in the capital city of the victorious king is designated to
focus around them the great attention and approbation of their subjects. Erecting a monument in Ofra, Gidon
turns Ofra into a pilgrimage site to commemorate his name, and this is the
reality reflected in the sentence: "All Israel prostituted themselves by
It appears to me that we may support this
latter reading by paying
attention to the aural wordplay in this short passage. It is easy to follow the
consonance of the root “to rule” (mashal) throughout the length of the
scene, both in its first part (offering the throne to Gidon) and its second
(manufacturing the ephod):
Israelites said to Gidon, "Rule (meshal) over us – you, your son,
and your grandson – because you have saved us from the hand of Midian."
But Gidon told them, "I
will not rule (emshol) over you, nor will my son rule (yimshol)
over you. God will rule over you."
And he said,
"I make a request (eshala she'ela) of you, that each of you give
me an earring of your plunder (nezem shelalo)." It was the
custom of the Ishmaelites (Yishme'elim) to wear gold earrings.
answered, "We will be glad to give them." So they spread out a garment (simla),
and they cast (va-yashlikhu) onto it (shamma)
each man a ring from his plunder (ish nezem shelalo). The
weight of the gold rings (mishkal nizmei ha-zahav)
he asked for (asher sha'al) came to seventeen
hundred shekels, aside from the
cresents (saharonim), the pendants, and the garments
of purple worn by the kings of Midian (argaman she-al
malkhei Midyan) and aside from (u-lvad min)
the chains that were on their camels’ necks. Gidon made the gold into an
ephod, which he placed in Ofra, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there (sham),
and it became a snare (le-mokesh) to Gidon and his
consonance here, extending beyond the context of formal kingship, strengthens
the unity of the two parts and creates a strong feeling that even the scene of
erecting the ephod is part of the question of Gidon's authority. In other
words, we have a complex character here – or perhaps we should say that the
Scriptural judgment of him is complex. On the one hand, Gidon refuses to rule
because of his impressive religious claim that only God is the rightful king;
but on the other hand, Gidon performs royal acts and glories in his victory over
Midian. He refuses the throne, but
below the surface, the trappings of rulership continue to accompany him.
Birthright and Blessing
example is the contribution to the theme of the narrative made by the words of
Esav when he reveals that Yaakov his brother has stolen the blessing designated
for him. He bitterly declares, "Indeed, he was named Yaakov, for he has deceived
me (va-ya’akveni) these two times: he took my birthright, and now,
behold, he has taken my blessing!" (Bereishit 27:36). Esav avails himself
of linguistic artifice when he expounds the name of Yaakov as an expression of
deceit and trickery. By Esav's logic, Yaakov did not receive this name for no
reason, as he had already tricked him twice: first taking his
bekhora (birthright) for a lentil
stew and again taking his berakha
(blessing). It is logical that Esav chooses the verb "lakach" (to take) deliberately in
order to describe the transfer of both the
bekhora and the berakha. One might have claimed that Yaakov legally bought the
paying for it with the stew he prepared, but Esav uses an identical
verb to create a link between the two events, thus emphasizing that even the
transfer of the bekhora should be seen
in the context of deceit, just like the unambiguous theft of the
there is another link in Esav's words, an aural link of paronomasia between
berakha. Esav himself is interested in this connection in order to
magnify Yaakov's consistent malfeasance; at the same time, however, Esav recalls
to the reader (and even Yitzchak?) the decades-old incident in which Yaakov
bought the bekhora from Esav. Now the
reader asks himself – who really deserves Yitzchak's
berakha? Is it really Esav? Perhaps it is Yaakov, who purchased the
bekhora so long ago?
is alluded to by the Midrash Tanchuma, which Rashi cites:
"What sin is there of mine that caused me to bless the younger son before the
older son, changing the order of lineage?"
crying, "He has deceived me these two times."
said to him, "What did he do you?"
He said to
him, "He took my birthright."
He said, "How
distressed and trembling was I, thinking that perhaps I had violated the
rightful order of things! But now that I have blessed the firstborn – may he
also be blessed."
creation of the aural link between berakha
and bekhora ultimately serves as a
defense of Yaakov. Although Esav wishes to express harsh criticism of Yaakov, he
ends up advocating for his younger brother. Through his words, we learn that
Yaakov is in fact the legal bekhor (firstborn), and he deserves the
Savior or Rescuer?
interesting and unique instance of wordplay is found in the description of Moshe
and his deliverance of the daughters of Re'uel. Scripture describes Moshe's
actions from the third-person perspective: "Moshe arose and saved them" (Shemot
2:17) – in other words, Moshe is a savior (moshia). On the other hand, when the
daughters of Re'uel give their first-person account to their patriarch, they use
a different description of him, as well as a different verb): "And they said,
‘An Egyptian man rescued us from the hands of the shepherds'" (2:19). In other
words, the Egyptian (Mitzri) is a
rescuer (matzil). It is likely that
the intent of the narrative is to teach us how fully Moshe is defined by his
moral compass. Whatever name or
title is given to him, the compassion and the hunger for justice remain the
same, whether it is Moshe the
moshia or the matzil
Mitzri. It is worth noting the use of these two dramatic verbs, which
have such a deep emotional resonance, in a scene that ultimately deals with
helping some sheep get their water! This prepares the reader for the latter part
of the narrative, in which Moshe will be deputized to save and rescue the
Israelites from their Egyptian servitude.
We find aural
wordplay even when the character analysis is negative. For example, the verse
describes "benei Eli" (Eli's sons) as "benei veliyaal" (worthless
men). This anagram underscores the despicable, unredeemable character of Eli's
Yaakov blesses Yehuda, "Yehuda atta yodukha achekha
yadekha be-oref oyevekha," "Yehuda, your brothers will praise you, your
hand is on the neck of your enemies" (Bereishit 49:8). These blessings,
the reader feels, are not mere wishes, but appropriate praise and encouragement
for Yehuda, whose name alludes to his character traits.
the repetition of sounds serves the speaker, and one must view it as part of his
rhetoric. A good example of this is when Yonatan is caught eating the honey, and
he confesses and says, "Ta'om ta’amti bi-ktzeh ha-matteh
asher be-yadi me'at devash – hineni amut," "Indeed, I tasted
with the tip of the staff a bit of honey in my hand – behold, I will die" (I
Shmuel 14:43). Despite the fact that the first words use the letters
tet, while the final word uses the
letters alef and
tav, in light of the fourfold repetition of "ta’am",
the very aurally similar "amut" must
be seen as part of the series. Apparently, the aural wordplay here contrasts the
insignificance of the sin (a taste, a tip, a bit) with the immense immutability
of the punishment: "I will die"!
reader may often notice the aural wordplay in biblical narrative, it is not
always easy to understand its contribution. The verse describes Yaakov's secret
departure from Lavan's house: "Va-yignov Yaakov et lev Lavan" (Bereishit 31:20),
literally, "Yaakov stole Lavan's heart." This is a noticeable instance of
consonance, but what is it trying to teach us? Can it be that this linguistic
wordplay is meant only for the aesthetics of the reading?
example may be found in the story of Moshe at the inn, where his wife Tzippora
circumcises her son and saves her husband: "Va-tikkach Tzippora
tzor," "And Tzippora took a flint" (Shemot 4:25). It may be that
there is an aural link between Tzippora and tzor, but is there any great
hidden significance in this?
Similarly, David commands his officers not to harm Avshalom, "Le'at
li la-na’ar le-Avshalom," "Deal gently with the boy,
Avshalom, for my sake" (II Shmuel 18:5), and David Yellin argues that
this is an intentional use of alliteration.
But is there a hidden meaning here?
Bush argues that when the verse describes Na'ami's discovery that the famine has
ended in Beit Lechem, there is another case of alliteration: Na'ami hears "that
God had taken account of His people, to give them bread (la-tet
lahem lechem)" (Ruth 1:6). This makes sense, but does the
clear play on the name of the city, Beit Lechem (House of Bread), allude to a
certain hidden reading?
difficult to reach a conclusion in these instances, as well as in many other
similar cases. It may very well be that something is alluded to in this
wordplay, even if it is not clear to the reader. On the other hand, perhaps
there is not always some great hidden meaning every time we hear paronomasia.
explained at the beginning, the phenomenon of literary repetition which is the
broadest and most significant is the repetition of a whole word. We will
dedicate our next lecture to this issue.
(Translated by Yoseif Bloch)