LITERARY STUDY OF BIBLICAL NARRATIVE
By Rav Dr.
This series is dedicated to the refuah sheleimah of
our dear mother
òèì øçì áú ôòøàì
by Frieda and Dovid Wadler
Narrative Demarcation, Part II
Generally, biblical narratives can easily be differentiated from one
another; upon first reading a narrative, a reader can usually figure out the
boundaries of the unit intuitively. Nevertheless, there are cases in which this
work is problematic to a great extent.
Moreover, sometimes one must view the flexibility of the boundaries of
the unit as playing a literary role of its own. In this sense, Scripture can
play with readers and thereby make a substantial contribution to the hidden
meaning of the story.
In our current discussion, we will examine boundary markers essential to
identifying a separate story. Although they may be indistinct or ambivalent,
they allude to the fact that the narrative is not as independent and discrete as
it may appear upon first reading it.
This issue is particularly prominent in narrative cycles, in which each
story stands on its own but is tied thematically to the stories surrounding it.
For example, in Shoftim, we find more than a dozen separate
episodes of different judges in different eras. Nevertheless, a new passage is
often introduced with the formula “And they resumed,” as in “And the Israelites
resumed doing evil in the eyes of God (Shoftim 3:12, 4:1, 10:6, 13:1).
This verb naturally broadcasts continuity, despite
the fact that it serves as the opening of a new narrative. Polzin appropriately notes this
ambivalent formula, observing that using this verb reinforces the reader’s
feeling of circularity throughout the entire book, a cycle of sin-cry-salvation:
the Israelites sin before God, they cry out under foreign oppression, and God
sends a savior.
Similarly, we find descriptions of chronology in at the beginning of many
stories in Tanakh, such as “After these things” or “At that time,” as
well as “And it was after this” (II Shmuel 13:1). As we have already
pointed out, these vague formulas send conflicting messages: each opens a new
unit, but each also ties that episode to what has transpired beforehand. We must
also take note of formulas that link two stories with an explicit chronology –
for example, “And it was at the end of two years, and Pharaoh dreamt” (Bereishit
41:1); “And it was after two full years, and they were shearing for Avshalom in
Baal Chatzor” (II Shmuel 13:23).
In these cases, the verse wants to hint to the reader that despite the
fact that it is beginning a new story, which is separate from its antecedents,
the new episode must carry out something of a dialogue with the preceding
stories. Sometimes this is self-evident in the very continuity of the plot
(these are the concatenate structures discussed by Perry and Sternberg), but
sometimes this can surprise the reader and allude to the reading that resides
beneath the surface. For example,
the story of the Binding of Yitzchak opens with the heading, “After these
things.” This alludes to the fact that one should read the story in light of
what precedes it, despite the fact that in the first reading it is difficult to
see the immediate link between the Binding of Yitzchak and the relationship
between Avraham and Avimelekh (described before the Binding in Bereishit
20-21). The Rashbam addresses this opening, and he brings additional examples to
buttress his claim that a heading such as this ties the story to what precedes
Wherever it says, “After these things,” it is
attached to the passage above it.
“After these things” — i.e., Avraham’s killing the kings — God says to him, “Do
not fear, Avram” these nations (Bereishit 15:1).
“And it was after these things” that Yitzchak is
born, “And it was told to Avraham… ‘And Betuel fathered Rivka’” (Ibid.,
Similarly, “After these things,” that Mordekhai
informs on Bigtan and Teresh, “King Achashverosh advanced Haman” who wants to
kill Mordekhai, and it is only [Mordekhai’s] saving of the king which helps him
and leads to Haman being hanged (Esther 3:1).
It appears that the Rashbam is preempting his potential opponents by
countering their presumptive counterexamples. In other words, the cases which
the Rashbam cites are the ones which are less salient; nevertheless, the Rashbam
argues that the rule which he cites is relevant and applicable. In light of this
assumption, the Rashbam continues and explains what the connection is, in his
view, between the test of the Binding of Yitzchak and the covenant that Avraham
makes with Avimelekh in the end of chapter 21.
It is the same here: “After these things,” that
Avraham makes a covenant with Avimelekh — “to me, to my son and to my grandson”
— and gives him seven lambs, God becomes angry about this, because the land of
the Philistines is in the boundary of Israel and God commands concerning them,
“Do not let a soul live” (Devarim 20:16)…
Thus, “And God tested” — He rebuked him and pained
him. [This term is used in the same
sense elsewhere,] as it says: “If someone tests you with a word, will you be
impatient?” (Iyov 4:2); “He named the place Massa U-mriva… for their
testing God" (Shemot
17:7); “Try me and test me” (Tehillim 26:2).
It is as if God is saying [to Avraham]: You are
prideful about the child that I have given you, making a covenant between you
and their children. Now go and bring him up as an offering, and see whether
making your covenant helps you!
This audacious approach of the Rashbam — which views the Binding of
Yitzchak as a punishment for Avraham’s making a covenant with Avimelekh
regarding the land that had been promised to him and his seed — depends in its
entirety on the opening “After these things,” which directs the reader to
interpret the story of the Binding of Yitzchak against the background of the
previous literary unit.
Even if one explains the meaning of the connection between these units in
a different way than the Rashbam’s thesis, it indeed appears that the verse
refers in additional ways to the connection between the story of the Binding of
Yitzchak and the relationship between Avraham and Avimelekh. In this
sense, it is an innocent heading — the main thrust of which is to introduce a
new unit — which carries within it an extremely significant, hidden message for
understanding the aim of the narrative as a whole.
In some situations, the opening of the narrative does not suffice with
alluding to the previous story, but rather creates a true concatenation between
two separate stories. In other words, there is a small unit that concludes one
narrative and at the same time opens the succeeding story. It appears that this
is the way we should understand Yaakov’s encounter with the angels at Machanayim
(literally, “pair of camps”) in Bereishit 32:1-2. The ambivalence of the
narrative demarcation is immediately noticeable here, as these two verses are
the first two verses of chapter 32, while they are the last two of Parashat
Vayeitzei — which is not only a single Torah portion, but a single paragraph
as well. Thus, according to the traditional Jewish division, Yaakov’s encounter
with the angels forms the conclusion of the story of his exile in Charan, while
Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton’s chapter division portray this small
unit as the opening to the coming story — the encounter of Yaakov and Esav.
It appears that the structure of the encounter between Yaakov and the
angels and its textual position actually encourage both readings simultaneously.
On the one hand, this encounter is the closing of a circle (inclusio), evoking
Yaakov’s departure in exile (the dream of the ladder), as seen in the similar
Departure to Charan (28:11-19)
Return from Charan (32:1-2)
And he came upon the place, and he spent the night there
And they came upon him
And behold, God’s angels
And he said… “This can be only God’s house (beit Elohim)”
And Yaakov said when he saw them, “This is God’s camp (machaneh Elohim)”
And he named that place Beit El
And he named that place Machanayim
Indeed, Rashi responds to this literary connection and its meaning in the
framework that it creates for the story of Yaakov’s exile. He draws a
distinction between the Land of Israel and outside it (chutza la-aretz).
This is what he writes about the dream of the ladder (28:12):
“Ascending and descending” — first ascending, and
afterwards descending. The angels who accompanied him in the land could not go
chutza la-aretz, so they ascended to heaven, and the angels of chutza
la-aretz descended to accompany him.
Rashi further explains Yaakov’s encounter with the angels at Machanayim
(32:1): “‘And God’s angels came upon him’ — the angels of the Land of Israel
came to greet him to accompany him to the land.”
From this perspective, the traditional Jewish division is justified.
Parashat Vayeitzei begins and ends with angelic peregrinations, and one
should view the story of Machanayim as a scene that concludes the story of
Yaakov’s exile in Charan.
On the other hand, it appears that Langton is justified in dividing the
chapters, and one may view this scene as the opening of the story of the
encounter between Yaakov and Esav. This emerges first and foremost from the
guiding words unique to the encounter between Yaakov and Esav, among them “camp”
and even “two camps.” This term is mentioned when Yaakov encounters the angels
at Machanayim (“This is God’s camp”), and it is stressed because of the naming
of this place on the basis of this event, and in plural (Machanayim). This forms
a link with the story of the encounter between Yaakov and Esav, apparently
serving as an introduction.
This connection also emerges from the use of the term “malakhim,”
which can mean angels or messengers. In the beginning of the story of the
encounter between Yaakov and Esav, we read: “And Yaakov sent messengers before
him to Esav his brother, to the
land of Se'ir, the field of Edom" (32:3). The
Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 74:17)
highlights this point:
How many angels were dancing and prancing before our
patriarch Yaakov when he entered the land?
R. Huna in the name of R. Aivu said: 600,000 were
dancing before our patriarch Yaakov when he entered the Land, and thus it is
said, “And Yaakov said when he saw them, ‘This is God’s camp,’ and the Presence
does not rest on fewer than 600,000.
The Rabbis say: 1,200,000 [angels]: “And he named
that place Machanayim” —a camp is 600,000, so two camps [Machanayim] is
R. Yudan said: He took from these and from those and
he sent before him, and thus it is said, “And Yaakov sent messengers before
In fact, Yaakov’s encounter with the angels in Machanayim is also tied to
his encounter with Esav in terms of the plot elements. The angels whom Yaakov
encounters appear to be warriors (“This is God’s camp”), and the chapter
ultimately ends with Yaakov’s encounter-struggle with the angel (ish) at
Yabbok Ford, in the midst of the story of Yaakov’s encounter with his brother
Esav. It may even be that the violence of the encounter is foreshadowed by the
terminology used at Machanayim: “And God’s angels came upon him (va-yifgeu).”
Both pegisha and pegia are
biblical terms for an encounter, but the latter frequently carries a violent,
confrontational connotation. It may be that using “pegia” at Machanayim
prepares the reader for the actual pegia which will happen at Yabbok
Thus, it seems that both the division of portions and that of the
chapters are justified; Yaakov’s encounter with angels at Machanayim constitutes
a conclusion to the story of the exile in Charan, but at the same time, it is
the introduction to the encounter of Yaakov with Esav. Thus, we can describe
this unit as a concatenate unit.
What is the thematic contribution of the integration and intertwining of
these two narratives? The feeling that arises is that as the story of Yaakov and
Lavan is ending, the story of Yaakov and Esav is just beginning. In other words,
the verse alludes that although the episode of Yaakov’s encounter with Esav is a
story that stands on its own, one should read it as the natural sequel to the
narrative of Yaakov and Lavan.
It appears that the reading of Yaakov and Esav’s encounter as a
continuation of the story of Lavan implies a criticism of Yaakov and his
capitulation before Esav. Before Lavan, Yaakov assumes a position of strength,
lobbing severe accusations at him and even emphasizing God’s protection and
Yaakov was angry and
fought with Lavan. “What is my crime?” he asked Lavan. “What sin have I committed that you
hunt me down?
“Had the God of my
father, the God of Avraham and the Fear of Yitzchak, not been with me, you would
surely have sent me away empty-handed.
But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands, and last night he
rebuked you.” (Bereishit 31:36, 42)
Following these words, Yaakov makes a covenant with Lavan, and although
they part ways, they do so on good terms. After Lavan’s departure, Yaakov
encounters a camp of angels. In other words, this scene closes the story of
exile while stressing that God’s angels are accompanying Yaakov on his way, just
as he has said to Lavan that the God of his fathers accompanies and watches him.
However, as we have said, this scene also opens the encounter with his
brother Esav. God’s angels accompany Yaakov as he approaches this encounter as
well. To the reader’s great disappointment, the steadfast position of Yaakov
before Lavan disappears totally in Yaakov’s encounter with Esav. God’s
malakhim no longer serve as escorts and guards for Yaakov, but Yaakov’s
malakhim are mentioned as bearing a gift and wanting to appease Esav!
The concatenation of these two stories raises the expectation that Yaakov
will treat his brother the way he has treated his uncle. The expectation is that the
continuity of the stories will represent some continuity in Yaakov’s
personality, but this is not realized.
Yaakov ultimately reconciles with Esav as well, but to achieve this he
must genuflect and lavish him with gifts.
The concatenation of units is far more common in Tanakh than most
people think. Every time that two stories are intertwined in this way, the verse
seeks to designate an ambivalent boundary: while a new unit does indeed begin,
one must read it as the continuation of the previous episode, and examine the
theme of the new unit in light of it.
In our next lecture, we will examine a different type of narrative
boundary: a permeable one. This will reveal a new technique of narrative
[Translated by Rav Yoseif Bloch]