The Presentation of Facts in the Narrative, Part IV Complete Units

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman

 

LITERARY STUDY OF BIBLICAL NARRATIVE

By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman

 

****************************************************************

This series is dedicated to the refuah sheleimah of

our dear mother

עטל רחל בת פעראל

by Frieda and Dovid Wadler

****************************************************************

 

 

Lecture #29:

The Presentation of Facts in the Narrative, Part IV

Complete Units

 

 

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 very bitter. 

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 harshly.

 

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 barley-harvest.”[1]

 

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 narrator encourages. 

 

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.[2]  

 

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.

 

ENTIRE PASSAGES

 

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.[3]  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.[4]

 

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:

 

1.            20:1-9: The speech of the war-anointed priest before combat

2.            20:10-18: The offer of peace before besieging or attacking a city

3.            20:19-20: The laws of besieging a city

4.            21:1-9: The procedure of the egla arufa, the heifer which has its neck broken in order to atone for an unsolved murder

5.            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:

 

1.            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). 

2.            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.

3.            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.

4.            [We would expect to see the actual laws of combat; in place of this, the law of egla arufa appears.]

5.            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 (20:10-18):

 

1.            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. 

2.            If it does not make peace with you and makes war upon you, you shall besiege it. 

3.            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. 

4.            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…

 

At this 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 mentioned above:

 

2.            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 final 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:

 

3.            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 Ki Teitzei?

 

In order 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. 

 

Modern 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.[5] 

 

However, 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 paragraph. 

 

The 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.[6] 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.

 

As we 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.

 

In my 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.   

 

We may 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 21:3-4):

 

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.     

 

Would it 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.

 

Even in 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 person (20:1):  

 

When you 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): 

 

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 give you tribute 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…

 

Here as well, the second person turns to Israel as a collective, and the same applies to the third paragraph (the siege 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 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.

 

The 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.

 

Rashi, following in the footsteps of the Sages, indeed sees the eshet yefat to’ar paragraph as opening the series of family laws that follow:

 

“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.

 

Arranging 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.

 

I opened 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.

 

There are 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.



[1]     In my view, this sentence summarizes the return of Naomi and Rut to Beit Lechem, i.e., the closing of chapter 1.  Feivel Meltzer, Rut, Da’at Mikra (Jerusalem, 5750), p. 13, proposes seeing in this verse an introduction of the following scene — the encounter of Rut and Boaz in the field (chapter 2): “Since the verses interrupted with a dialogue between the women of the city and Naomi, the verse recapitulates: Naomi came back.  Therefore, one should see this verse as an opening of the next unit, not the end of the previous unit.”  This reading is also feasible. 

[2]     Similar points have been suggested by E. J. Hamlin in Ruth: Surely There Is a Future (Edinburgh, 1996), p. 23.

[3]     In connection to the juxtaposition of narrative, see Yair Zakovitch’s interesting analysis of the story of Elisha and the bears: Y. Zakovitch, “‘Aleh kere’ach, aleh kere’ach’: Maggelei Parshanut Ba-sippur Ha-Mikra’I,” Mechkerei Yerushalayim Be-sifrut Ivrit 8 (5745), pp. 7-23.

[4] Readers interested in an additional example of this phenomenon are welcome to read the essay I dedicated to the dialogue created between the small units that constitute the collection of narratives and laws appearing immediately after the Pinchas incident: "Divine Command and Human Initiative: A Literary View on Numbers 25-31," Biblical Interpretation 15, 1 (2007), pp. 54-79.

[5]     A. Rof?, Mavo Le-Sefer Devarim (Jerusalem), p. 130. Other critics believe the same — for example, Driver ad loc. in the ICC series.

[6]     Similarly, see BDB, p. 319.