Epiphora

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman

 

LITERARY STUDY OF BIBLICAL NARRATIVE

By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman

 

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In loving memory of Channa Schreiber (Channa Rivka bat Yosef ve-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.

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Lecture #10b:

Epiphora

 

 

Epiphora, repeating a term at the end of a number of sentences — just like anophora, repeating a term at the beginning, which we discussed in our previous lecture — emphasizes that word or expression in the reader's consciousness.  Admittedly, this repetition sometimes serves as a literary accoutrement, without carrying unique significance within it. Nevertheless, paying attention to the verse's linguistic emphases can at times uncover an integral substrate of the hidden meaning and direction of the narrative. We will examine this phenomenon through the story of Avraham and Sara (then known as Avram and Sarai) in Egypt (Bereishit 12), which interweaves both anaphora and epiphora.

 

Avraham, Sara, and Pharaoh

 

The Ramban directs serious criticism towards Avraham for his actions in this passage, both for his initial decision to go down to Egypt because of the famine and his misidentification of Sara as his sister, even to the point of abandoning her to the tender mercies of Pharaoh. 

 

The Abarbanel, on the other hand, disputes this reading and sets out a totally different one, a reading which, in my humble opinion, is supported by the structural design of the narrative. According to the Abarbanel, Avraham's original intent is for all the Egyptians to view Sara as his sister and seek her hand in marriage from him. This would allow Avraham to demand an exorbitant price for her, forestalling his consent until they would have a chance to flee. Accordingly, Avraham never considered giving Sara to any Egyptian who might desire her. 

 

Indeed, Avraham mentions specifically "the Egyptians" when he describes his concern:

 

Behold, please, I know that you are a woman of beautiful appearance.  And it will be, when the Egyptians see you, and they will say, “This is his wife,” then they will kill me and let you live. (Bereishit 12:11-12)

 

Obviously, Avraham did not think for a moment that his royal majesty, Pharaoh himself, would desire his wife. That would be utterly illogical; Avraham and Sara were nomads, travelers with no royal lineage and no aristocratic blood. Indeed, when Avraham and Sara arrived in Egypt, Avraham's concern proves true, and the Egyptian commoners noticed the woman: "And it was when Avram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw the woman, that she was very beautiful" (v. 14).  However — and this is the great surprise of the story — there is another “seeing” in the narrative for which Avraham and Sara had not prepared themselves: "And Pharaoh's officers saw her and praised her to Pharaoh, and the woman was taken to Pharaoh's house" (15). In the Hebrew text, both verses begin with the verb “vayiru,” “and they saw.” This anaphora allows the reader to easily understand the two actions of “seeing” in the narrative:

 

The Egyptians saw (vayiru) the woman, that she was very beautiful.

And Pharaoh's officers saw (vayiru) her.

 

Avraham and Sara had prepared for the first seeing, but what can they do about the second seeing? How could Avraham negotiate with the king over Sara's price? How could he deny his proposal? Consequently, "the woman was taken to Pharaoh's house."[1] With the unexpected interpolation of the monarch into the narrative (a surprise for Avraham and Sara, as well as for the reader!), the verse utilizes epiphora that stresses "Pharaoh:"

 

And Pharaoh's officers saw her (sarei Pharaoh)

And praised her to Pharaoh, (le-Pharaoh)

And the woman was taken to Pharaoh's house (beit Pharaoh)

 

Three consecutive times the verse returns to Pharaoh — in the Hebrew original, there are three four-word clauses, each of which ends with "Pharaoh" — not allowing the reader to ignore the shocking introduction of this character into the story. In this case, paying attention to the epiphora is extremely important, because this is how the verse alludes to the unexpected turning point in the narrative. The narrative abruptly shifts from the progress of Avraham and Sara's careful premeditation to the wild card that changes the game. At this point, Avraham and Sara have no one on whom to rely but God himself, Who indeed saves them from their adversary. It appears that the stylistic techniques of the narrative prove that the Abarbanel's reading is correct, while the Ramban's criticism of Avraham is unjustified. 

 

"His Mother's Brother"

 

Let us examine another example of the epiphora taking a role in the subliminal message hiding beneath the surface. After Yaakov leaves Canaan and travels to Charan, the verse describes his encounter with Rachel by the well:

 

When Yaakov saw Rachel, daughter of Lavan, his mother's brother

And the sheep of Lavan, his mother's brother

Yaakov drew close...  and he watered the sheep of Lavan, his mother's brother.  (Bereishit 29:10)

 

Scripture notes no less than three times in one verse that Lavan is the brother of Yaakov's mother, Rivka. In the first case, this is in the context of identifying Rachel, while in the latter two, this relates to Lavan's sheep. Indeed, the connection between Rachel and the sheep is entrenched in the narrative. It will suffice to note that Rachel's very name has an ovine definition – a rachel is a ewe! Even more importantly, the two labor contracts that Yaakov enters into with Lavan relate to these two elements: the first contract is for Rachel's hand in marriage (and ultimately Leah's as well, due to Lavan's deception), while the second is for compensation in the form of sheep. The verses describes the overwhelming fecundity of Yaakov's wives (chapters 29-30), in parallel with the fecundity of Yaakov's sheep (chapter 30). (This, however, is not the occasion to delve into this at length.[2])

 

It may be that the epiphora appears in Yaakov's first encounter with Rachel because the verse seeks to allude to the relationship between Rachel and sheep; Lavan is "his mother's brother" in the context of both.[3] Yaakov is destined to get both his wives and his wealth from Lavan.

 

However, it appears that in the context of the story, the epiphora under discussion has an even more important role. Through this epiphora, the fact that Lavan is "his mother's brother" echoes in the reader's ears. Of course, this fact is indeed correct, but it is difficult to understand why it must be repeated. 

 

This emphasis is noticeable specifically when Yaakov tells Rachel (after kissing her) about their family connections. There, Yaakov mentions the appellation "brother," but not as describing the familial relationship between his mother and Lavan, but rather between himself and Lavan: "And Yaakov told Rachel that he was her father's brother and that he was the son of Rivka" (12).  After Scripture notes three times in one verse that Lavan is "his mother's brother," the reader is surprised to hear that Yaakov is "her father's brother." 

 

If so, why is Yaakov identified again as "the son of Rivka" during this encounter? In the concrete context of Yaakov's story, this emphasis is extremely important. Yaakov goes to Charan for two reasons. His mother tells him to flee to Charan because of his brother Esav, who wants to kill him – "And now, my son, listen to my voice: arise, flee for yourself to Lavan my brother, to Charan" (27:43). His father, on the other hand, asks him to go to Charan to find a wife from the family of Avraham – “Arise, go to Paddan Aram, to the house of Betuel, your mother's father, and take for yourself from there a wife from the daughters of Lavan, your mother's brother (28:2). It appears that Scripture refers to Yaakov's mother when he encounters Rachel in order to point out that Yaakov cannot be fulfilling his father's order, as he has not yet reached "the house of Betuel;" he is still on the way. His encounter with Rachel is a random meeting that occurs before Yaakov reaches the house of Betuel and Lavan. 

 

Indeed, at the end of the day, Yaakov is destined to marry two wives, and we may distinguish between the two relationships based on Yaakov's two aims in traveling to Charan. Rachel, whom he meets by accident and falls in love with at the well, is part of the story of his flight from Esav. Conversely, Leah, the older daughter, is the one who ultimately builds the better part of the House of Israel and the one who is buried by his side. Thus, she is the wife who is fit for Yaakov in terms of Yitzchak's mission to marry a woman from the family and to continue the blessing of Avraham. 

 

This reading requires a much broader analysis than our brief discussion allows,[4] but for the sake of our current topic, my intent is to stress that the threefold repetition of "his mother's brother" seeks to recall to the reader the image of Rivka and her command.

 

Order and Organization: The Story of Creation

 

Naturally, the use of anaphora and epiphora in the same unit allows one to order and organize the unit, giving the reader a feeling of deliberate and harmonious arrangement. This is very prominent, for example, in the story of Creation in chapter 1 of Bereishit. The order of creation in this chapter is very noticeable because of the division of Creation into different days. In our context, one must recall the set formula that concludes each day: "And it was evening, and it was morning, _____ day."  This formula — which one may see as a type of epiphora — creates a feeling of order and organization.

 

Still, it is not only this dominant formula that gives the reader a feeling of the order that characterizes the description of Creation. This narrative abounds with a unique repetition of sounds, consonants, and words.

 

Already in the opening words, we have alliteration; the first two words in the Torah, "Bereishit bara," begin with the same three letters: bet-reish-alef. At the end of this verse, flowing into the next, we find concatenation: "...the heavens and the land.  And the land was..."  The second verse continues with assonance (repetition of the same vowelization with different consonants): "tohu va-vohu."  In the next verse, the description of creation also expresses clear order and planning in God's words: "'Yehi or' — va-yehi or," "'Let there be light' — and there was light." A near-alliteration is seen as this verse ends and the next begins: "Va-yehi or" yields to "Va-yar." 

 

On the second day, the epiphora stresses the water: "'Let there be a sky in the midst of the water/ And it will be a separator between water and water" (v. 6), followed by another case of epiphora that stress the sky: "And God made the sky/ And He separated between the water which was below the sky/ And the water above the sky" (v. 7). 

 

A similar case of epiphora confronts the reader in the description of day three: "The land produced vegetation – plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds."[5]

 

Even on the fourth day, we cannot avoid the repetitions of words. When God discusses the purpose of the heavenly bodies, the anaphora is prominent and emphasized:

 

And they will be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years.

And they will be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the land. 

 

Complementing the assonance that opens the story (tohu va-vohu), it is worth mentioning the assonance in the blessing that appears twice at the end – "Peru u-revu," "Be fruitful and multiply" (1:22, 28), as well as the assonance in the idea of creating man "be-tzalmenu ki-dmutenu," "in our form, like our image" (1:26). The language of the blessing to Adam has unique solemnity because of the double description of the speaker in the introduction: "And God blessed them/ And God said to them" (1:28).

 

Indeed, the creation of the sixth day is characterized by these sorts of repetition:

 

God made the wild animals according to their kinds,

The livestock according to their kinds,

And all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. (1:25)

 

The same is true of the description of the first humans' vegetarian diet:

 

I give you every seed-bearing plant...  They will be yours for food.

And to all the beasts of the land and to all the birds of the heavens... I give every green plant for food. (1:29-30)

 

These repetitions are not omitted even from the summation of the seventh day, which is constructed in triplicate:

 

Thus the heavens and the land were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had completed the work He had done; so on the seventh day He rested from all his work which He had done.  And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He rested from all the work which God had created to do. (2:1-3)

 

These verses are deserving of a broad analysis (in particular the last verse's restatement of "had done" as "had created to do"). For our purposes, it is enough for us to pay attention to the unique solemnity that accompanies this special day because of the repetition of words and whole expressions. 

 

The literary structure here is not mere artifice; the echoing words, consonants, and vowels in this story are connected to the Torah's theme – the Creation of the Universe is an ordered, planned, and organized process. This is not a circumstantial creation that is the result of battles among gods and demigods (as found in the creation narratives of many ancient peoples). The Torah presents the universe as created as an expression of God's free will, and the reality in this chapter appears to be an elaborate, deliberate reality. In this case, I do not believe that each and every case of epiphora or anaphora is a unique contribution. On the contrary, the significance of each can be derived only by considering the whole, the linguistic totality of the entire unit. The many repetitions add to the orderly design of this chapter; an all-encompassing overview allows us to feel their significance and their contributions to this story.

 

One can take note of cases of anaphora and epiphora easily because of the ordered structure of these phenomena. Since this repetition is tied to the beginning or end of each sentence or clause in a series, it is noticeable to the reader's eye. This is not so is the phenomenon of the keyword, in which one particular word or phrase is interwoven throughout the length of the narrative. The keyword does not always jump out at the reader in an initial survey. God willing, we will dedicate our next lecture to this phenomenon.

 

(Translated by Yoseif Bloch)



[1] G. J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, WBC (Waco, TX, 1987), p. 289, points out that the verb "taking" in this verse indicates some delicate wordplay. This word has different meanings in Tanakh; sometimes, it denotes physically taking hold of something, but sometimes it denotes marriage, as in, "When a man will take a woman" (Devarim 22:13, 24:1). How should we understand the word here?

[2] The structure of this story explores the relationship between the marriage contract and the ranching contract, as R. E. Samet has pointed out (Iyunim Be-Parashat Ha-Shavua, 1st ed. (Jerusalem, 5762), pp. 75-88.

[3] This connection arises in an additional case of wordplay: "Yaakov drew close and rolled the stone off of the mouth of the well, and he watered (va-yashk) the sheep of Lavan, his mother's brother. And Yaakov kissed (va-yishak) Rachel" (vv. 10-11). This pair of homographs — with different roots and vowelization, but spelled exactly the same (v-y-sh-k) in the Torah scroll — forces the reader to consider Yaakov's actions together – what he does to the sheep and what he does to Rachel.

[4] For more on this matter, see my thorough article: "'Et Asher Tiddor Shallem' — Le-Mashma'ut Ma’avak Yaakov Ve-Hamalakh," Megadim 26 (5756), pp. 9-26. For a different reading, according to which the encounter between Yaakov and Rachel is connected specifically to the mission of Yitzchak, see the article by Y. Feintuch, "Ha-Sullam Ve-Ha-Be'er — Iyun Be-Parshiyot Yaakov", Megadim 39 (5764), pp. 9-32.

[5] This verse is cited by Frank Polak as an example of epiphora in biblical narrative (F. Polak, Ha-Sippur Ba-Mikra, p. 35).