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
The Presentation of Facts in the Narrative, Part IV
BROAD OR NARROW INTERPRETATION
In this, our penultimate lecture in this series, we will conclude our
analysis of the presentation of facts in biblical narrative. In the past
lessons, we have stressed the importance of the point at which each detail is
revealed. An apparently innocent fact may have unique significance because of
its textual location.
This phenomenon is found in every narrative. Naturally, in each context,
some readers will seek to expand upon this fact, while others will seek to limit
its impact. The latter camp will claim that the very fact that the narrator
seeks to transmit certain facts requires that these facts are found near each
other; not every case of the juxtaposition of facts expresses a hidden reading
that the author has consciously inserted in the narrative.
Let us consider the example of Naomi’s lament when she returns to Beit
Lechem (Ruth 1:20-21). Playing off the terms na’im (pleasant) and
mar (bitter), she declares:
Do not call me Naomi,
Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life
I went away full,
But God has brought me back empty-handed.
Why call me Naomi?
God has afflicted me; the Almighty has treated me
This lament is quite poignant, delivered in the first person by a
character mired in suffering, and one can feel in it the great pain of Naomi’s
situation. Nevertheless, the verse hints that she accepts God’s verdict, tying
her tragedies to God’s providence — real, direct providence. It is God who
treats her bitterly and harshly; it is God who brings her back empty-handed. A
reader may recall the grievance of Elifaz the Temanite against Iyov when the
former says, “You have sent away widows empty-handed” (22:9), but there the
complaint is against Iyov (even if it is not justified), while here the widow
herself is the one who is stating that God has sent her away empty-handed. Immediately
after this lament, the narrator summarizes and says (Ruth 1:22): “So
Naomi came back, and Rut the Moabitess her daughter-in-law with her, who came
back from the Fields of Moab; and they came to Beit Lechem in the beginning of
As we have already said, the hidden reading alluded to through the order
of the arrangement of facts is characterized by the style of “innocence” — the
narrator does not say things explicitly, but based on the very fact of placing
one fact next to another, the reader is invited to form the conclusion that the
In our context, it may be that in these concluding words, there is an
allusive response to Naomi’s lament, in which she neglects a vital point (even
if, at this stage of the narrative, the reader cannot understand it fully):
while Naomi claims that she has returned “empty-handed” the narrator stresses
immediately that she returns with “Rut the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law.” In the language of the verse, there
is stress on the term shuv — to return, to come back, to bring back: “So
Naomi came back, and Rut… who came back from the Fields of Moab.” It may be that this verb is stressed
in order to constitute a response to the words of Naomi: “God has brought me
back empty-handed.” Even the term
“with her” underscores their joint widowhood and their joint journey to Beit
Lechem. One may thus hear in this ostensibly neutral summary God’s response (or
at least the narrator’s reservations), alluding to the fact that Naomi is not
actually alone. It is not correct to say that she returns empty-handed — Rut her
daughter-in-law returns with her, and through this partnership, Naomi is
destined to be redeemed from the catastrophes which have befallen her family.
Not coincidentally, the term “empty-handed” reappears in the
continuation of the book, stressing for the reader and for Naomi that she is not
isolated at all. When Rut returns
from the silo, she says to Naomi (3:17): “He gave me these six measures of
barley, saying, ‘Do not go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.’”
One can justifiably claim that I am overloading the verses. The summation of scenes in biblical
narrative is not uncommon, and this verse closes the description that begins
with the women’s departure from Moab.
In the meanwhile, we have read the long dialogue along the way, which
prompts Orpa to return to Moab and Rut to cling to Naomi; we have also followed
their arrival Beit Lechem and their emotionally loaded encounter with the women
of the town. It is only natural for the
verse to distill the essence of the entire passage — the two women have returned
from Moab and are now residing in Beit Lechem.
As we have said, in my humble opinion the verse does indeed allude to
the delicate tension between Naomi’s words about her “empty-handed” homecoming
and the fact of her returning with Rut. However, since we have no choice but to
rely on the connections of the facts that are mentioned one after another, it is
very difficult to prove this supposition. At the end of the day, there is no
choice for the narrator but to set out before the reader all of the plot
elements and narrative details, and willy-nilly, they will be presented in a
certain order — whether the hidden reading is alluded to through the order
chosen or not.
This reservation is important, and as we have mentioned a number of
times throughout our different analyses, one must evaluate whether the proposed
allusive reading dovetails with the other literary devices and with the general
aim of the narrative.
The analysis has, until this point, focused on the organization of the
facts in a small unit. As we have already pointed out, the subject of the
arrangement of facts is intimately connected to the subject of the arrangement
of passages and full narratives. Narrative details may receive their meaning in
light of their location — mostly, in light of the previous narrative, but
sometimes in light of the narrative that comes afterwards as well. In these
cases, the hidden reading accompanies the more revealed, prominent reading;
every small unit has its specific significance, but their placement moves them
in new directions and gives the dialogue between them a unique significance.
In this lecture, I would like to examine
this phenomenon, but for once we will turn from biblical narrative to a
different style: legal, halakhic codes.
Paragraph breaks are the only divisions to be found within each of the
books in a Torah scroll, and a weekly Torah portion may consist of anywhere
between one and several dozen of these paragraphs. The paragraph of the “woman
of beautiful form” (eshet yefat to’ar) appears in the Torah at the
beginning of Parashat Ki Teitzei (Devarim 21:10-14). This innocent
fact is the result of the dramatic decision of those who divided the weekly
Torah portions; it would have been possible, relatively easily, to conclude the
previous portion, Parashat Shofetim, with the law of
eshet yefat to’ar.
In order to clarify this matter, let us recall the laws that precede the
paragraph of the eshet yefat to’ar:
20:1-9: The speech
of the war-anointed priest before combat
20:10-18: The offer
of peace before besieging or attacking a city
20:19-20: The laws
of besieging a city
The procedure of the egla arufa, the heifer which
has its neck broken in order to atone for an unsolved murder
21:10-14: The law of
those captured in battle, particularly the
eshet yefat to’ar
With the exception of the paragraph of egla arufa (the fourth
paragraph), all of these sections deal with laws of the war. Furthermore, the style of the opening
law of the eshet yefat to’ar ties it
strongly to the preceding paragraph (21:10-11): “When
you go out to war against your enemies… If
you see among the captives a woman of beautiful form…” The first unit of war, the paragraph
of the war-anointed priest, opens similarly: “When you go out to war against
your enemies and you see horses and chariots, a nation greater than you” (20:1). Furthermore, it appears that the
paragraphs of war are arranged in a cogent chronological order:
First to appear are
the speeches of the priest and the marshals.
Despite the words of encouragement and inspiration, it becomes clear in
these declamations who the fighters who are about to engage in combat are and
who will return to home. Only at the end of this paragraph is it stated: “And it
will be when the marshals finish speaking to the people that they will appoint
army commanders at the head of the people” (20:9).
After the fighters
are organized, they are ready to engage in combat, but there is a preceding
obligation to offer peace to the city.
If the city surrenders, the war is not waged, and the citizens must pay
tribute to Israel.
If the city does not
surrender, the battle begins. The
first stage, as becomes clear in the third paragraph, is the siege, because this
is a stage that opens the war, before combat itself.
[We would expect to
see the actual laws of combat; in place of this, the law of
egla arufa appears.]
At the end of the
successful battle, captives and booty are taken; naturally, this is the place to
talk about the law of eshet yefat to’ar.
Furthermore, beyond the fact that the style of the paragraph of the
eshet yefat to’ar is tied to the laws
of war that precede it, and beyond the fact that this paragraph constitutes the
next appropriate stage from a chronological point of view, it appears that this
paragraph relates directly to the paragraph of war which precede it, and the
matter is tied to the structure of the entire passage.
At first, the speeches preceding combat are mentioned. As we have said, these speeches are
an internal Israelite process, before the first encounter with the enemy.
Afterwards, in the paragraph of offering peace, which must precede combat, the
verse describes the development of all of the events — from the offer of peace
through the battle itself — and it appears that the two paragraphs of war that
come after that spell out what is said in a general way in this paragraph. In
order to clarify this point, we will look at the generalized paragraph (the call
for peace), and we will then follow the development and expansion of these
points in the following paragraphs:
The Paragraph Opening the Battle
When you draw close to a city to make war upon it,
you shall offer it peace. If it
responds peacefully to you and opens up for you, all the people in it shall do
your tasks and serve you.
If it does not make peace with you and makes war
upon you, you shall besiege it.
When Lord your God delivers it into your hand, you shall put to
the sword all the men in it. As for
the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the
city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder Lord your
God gives you from your enemies.
This is how you are to treat all the cities that are
at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby. However, in the cities of those
nations which Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not leave
alive anything that breathes…
point, the Torah speaks in detail, expanding in two brief paragraphs on the
themes that are mentioned generally in this lengthy paragraph.
The second paragraph (20:19-20) expands on the law of the siege, the second part of the law
When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against
it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them. Because you eat their fruit, you
shall not cut them down. Is a tree
of the field a man to come before you in the siege?However, you may cut down
trees that you know are not fruit trees and use them to build siege works until
the city at war with you falls.
and fifth paragraph in the continuation of the laws of war — the paragraph of
the eshet yefat to’ar — specifies the
law of taking women captive, i.e., the third clause of the above-mentioned law:
When you go out to war against your enemies, Lord
your God will deliver them into your hands and you will take captives.
If you see among the captives a woman
of beautiful form and you are attracted to her, you may take her as a wife…
Naturally, it appears that the law of the
eshet yefat to’ar indeed closes the laws of war. Accordingly, it would have
been appropriate for it to come as the summation of the preceding unit —
concluding Parashat Shofetim and its sundry laws of war. Why, if so, is the paragraph of the
eshet yefat to’ar placed as part of
the following unit, the family laws that appear at the beginning of Parashat
to clarify this matter, let us turn to the paragraph that we have ignored up
until this point: the egla arufa
paragraph. The location of this paragraph in the midst of the laws of war seems
profoundly bizarre. As we have said,
it cuts off the sequence of detailing the laws of war first stated in the
generalized paragraph of war, and on its face, it belongs in chapter 19, where
the laws of murder and manslaughter are discussed.
critics see this as a “textual accident,” and argue that this is only an error:
This law, which
deals with an unsolved homicide, is a continuation of the laws of murder in
chapter 19. It makes sense that due
to this textual accident, the law of egla
arufa was moved from its original place and woven into the laws of war.
as often happens, in the very instances in which it appears that we are
bystanders to some editorial mishap, we are in fact witnesses to a clever
literary technique that seeks to allude to a delicate, hidden reading.
Naturally, in cases such as these, one must examine the text that appears to be
inserted in the wrong place as well as the texts around it. In other words, what happens to the
passage of the egla arufa when it is
put in its proper place amongst the laws of homicide, and what happens to the
laws of war when the egla arufa
passage suddenly pops up in their midst? In particular, I would like to focus on
the law of the eshet yefat to’ar,
which appears after the egla arufa
connection between the egla arufa law
and the laws of war is prominent in the verbal framework of the law: the verse
speaks of a chalal, “a slain person… whose assailant is unknown.” This is
not a case of death by natural causes along the road, but someone who has been
killed by human hands. The term chalal appears regularly in passages
dealing with war, and in fact, the verses sometimes even distinguishes between a
chalal (killed by human hands) and meit (the body of a person who
has died, regardless of the circumstances). For example, in the law of impurity
of the dead, the Torah states: “Whoever touches, upon the field, one slain by a
sword (chalal cherev) or a dead person (meit) or a human bone or a
grave will be impure for seven days” (Bamidbar 19:16). We see that the
Torah distinguishes between chalal and meit. Thus, the
egla arufa passage is tied in its
language to the general atmosphere of the laws of war, because it also talks
about those who kill and those who are killed. However, it turns from the
battlefield and focuses on the home front, the borders of Israel.
have already said, the commandment of egla
arufa entwines with the specific laws of war, and it parallels the stage in
which we would have expected to hear the laws of battle itself. This passage
clarifies the relationship of the Jewish nation to the slain, and this is an
idea that would have been very complementary to the laws of combat itself;
however, the verse does not deal with one killed on the battlefield, but one
found within the borders of the land of Israel.
This in itself may allude to the fact that, regardless of the combatants’
feelings, on the battlefield they cannot act with sensitivity towards an enemy
who threatens to kill them, and thus there is no need for a killer to make
atonement. However, specifically because of this, the concern that arises
immediately is that this insensitivity may influence their conduct within the
Land of Israel. Combatants returning
from the battlefield can lose something of the sensitivity appropriate for human
life. The egla arufa paragraph brings
back the unique biblical sensitivity towards human life and the defilement of
the land that can result from unpunished murder.
humble opinion, the main thrust of the
egla arufa paragraph does not aim to teach us sensitivity towards human
life, but it is tied to the expansive biblical view according to which the
ground of Israel is defiled by incidents of murder; for the sake of atonement,
one must spill the blood-spiller’s blood — i.e., execute the murderer. In the cases in which the “assailant
is unknown,” one must follow the procedure detailed in this paragraph, and this
will effect atonement for the people and the land. Despite this, the appearance
of this paragraph in this place specifically raises this section to the
moral-instructional level — the education of Israel, mainly the education of the
combatants, underscores the unique significance that human life has and the
sensitivity that every person must adopt when standing before one whose life has
been cut short.
progress one additional step. Rashi, as is known, brings (in the footsteps of
the Sages) an explanation of the requirement to take a “a heifer (egla)
that has never been worked and has never worn a yoke” and to break its neck in
“a mighty stream, by which one may neither plow nor sow” (Devarim
God said: Let a
yearling heifer, which has not been fruitful, have its neck broken in a place
which is not fruitful, in order to atone for the killing of this one, who was
not left to be fruitful.
be an exaggeration to say that the Sages, in this reading, respond to the
location of the paragraph, coming after the prohibition to destroy fruit trees?
As we recall, in the law of the siege, the Torah (20:19-20) distinguishes
between cutting down fruit trees and cutting down trees not bearing fruit:
When you lay siege
to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, you shall not
destroy its trees by putting an ax to them.
Because you eat their fruit, you shall not cut them down. Is a tree of the field a man to come
before you in the siege?However, you may cut
down trees that you know are not fruit trees and use them to build siege works
until the city at war with you falls.
the heat of battle, the Torah demands that the combatants demonstrate
sensitivity to trees — but only to fruit trees.
Reading the egla arufa passage
in the light of the preceding passage, in light of the prohibition to destroy
fruit trees, conveys the biblical repudiation of taking human life. It gives us
an a fortiori argument: the Torah shows compassion to even to fruit-bearing
trees, so certainly one must be shocked when faced with a murder victim who
cannot be fruitful (have children). It may be that the exegete had this in mind
when employing the semantics of fructification: a heifer has not borne fruit
from its womb; the stream (“mighty” — with the potential to be a fecund place!)
has not been sown or borne fruit.
Together, these symbolize the murder victim, who also had not succeeded in
bearing fruit and has been struck down before his or her time, something that is
unacceptable even when done to trees.
The arrangement of the paragraphs, if so, influences the law of the
egla arufa, but it also influences the
law of the eshet yefat to’ar that
comes immediately after the paragraph of the
egla arufa. By inserting the
egla arufa paragraph after the law of
the siege, the reader feels that the rules of war have come to an end; suddenly,
the verse comes back and analyzes the laws of killing within the boundaries of
Israel. Naturally, Scripture returns to clarify the issue of taking an
attractive female captive only later, giving this paragraph an internal
Israelite character, and not only the character of the laws of war. Indeed, the
eshet yefat to’ar paragraph transports
the reader from the battlefield to the private home of each man: “You may bring
her into your house… After she has lived
in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month…”
This law is indeed connected to laws of
war, but the scope is once again within the boundaries of Israel, the private
home of the individual.
This is particularly noticeable due to the use of the second person,
which is common throughout the passages of war.
The first paragraph (that of the war-anointed priest) opens in the second
go out to war against your enemies
and you see horses and chariots, a
nation greater than you, you
shall not fear them, for Lord
your God is with
you, who brought you from the
land of Egypt.
It is clear that this second-person singular language takes in the
entirety of the Jewish nation, and the whole community is characterized as a
collective. The same applies also to
the second law of war (the offer of peace before battle):
you draw close to a city to make war
upon it, you shall offer it peace. If it responds peacefully to
you and opens up for
you, all the people in it give
you tribute and serve
If it does not make peace with you
and makes war upon you,
you shall besiege it. When Lord
your God delivers it into
you shall put to the sword all the men in it…
well, the second person turns to Israel as a collective, and the same applies to
the third paragraph (the siege law):
you lay siege to a city for a long
time, fighting against it to capture it,
you shall not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them. Because
you eat their fruit,
you shall not cut them down. Is a tree of the field a man to come
before you in the siege?However, you may destroy and
you may cut down trees that you
know are not fruit trees and use them to build siege works until the city at war
with you falls.
Apparently, the eshet yefat to’ar
paragraph adopts this format as well, because it also turns to the second
person; however, this use subtly breaks the sequence, because here the verse is
turning to a private citizen of Israel:
If you see
among the captives a woman of beautiful form, and you are attracted to
her, you may take her as a wife. You may bring her into your
house… afterwards you may come to her and you may marry her, and
she will be your wife. If
you do not desire her, you
must send her out on her own; you certainly may not sell her for money;
you may not trade her, after you have humbled her.
second person in this case does not describe the community as a whole; rather,
it talks about a private combatant who sees a captive woman and is attracted to
her. Thus, while this is one of the laws of war, it is also separate from these
laws and is also tied to the rules of the following unit: the laws of the
family, the laws of the home.
following in the footsteps of the Sages, indeed sees the
eshet yefat to’ar paragraph as opening the series of family laws that
“You may take her as
a wife” (21:11) — the Torah is only contending with the evil inclination; were
God not to allow it, he would marry her in a forbidden way. Nevertheless, if he does marry her,
in the end he will hate her, as it says “When a man will have [two wives, one
loved and one hated]” (ibid. v. 15), and in the end she will bear him a turning
and rebellious son (ibid. v. 18).
This is why these paragraphs are adjacent.
the paragraphs in this way, according to which the
egla arufa paragraph splits up the laws of war, the reader first gets
the impression that the Torah is done with war. This alludes to the fact that
indeed the eshet yefat to’ar paragraph
which comes afterwards extrudes from the general rules of war, introducing the
family laws that emerge from the rules of war.
by saying that the eshet yefat to’ar
paragraph introduces Parashat Ki Teitzei, and we have seen that this
reflects a decision that is not self-evident.
Through the arrangement of the laws in the unit before us, it makes
senses that indeed one may open the laws of family (Parashat Ki Teitzei)
with this paragraph, even if one may logically conclude the previous portion
with this law as well. There are two
faces to the eshet yefat to’ar
paragraph, and those who divided the Torah portions apparently preferred to
stress the more hidden aspect of the paragraph — its familial character — over
its military nature.
many more examples to bring of how the arrangement of the paragraphs and
passages in Tanakh contribute to their meaning, but we will suffice with
that which is written above. With
this, we conclude our analysis of the presentation of facts in the narrative; in
fact, we have concluded our analysis of the literary design of the biblical
narrative and its contribution to subtle readings of the text. Our next lecture
will be our final one, in which we will summarize the significance of the hidden
readings of biblical narrative.