Skip to main content

Introduction (I) On the Subtextual Reading of Biblical Narratives

Prof. Yonatan Grossman

     The fact that biblical texts, which have been analyzed for millennia, still yield new meanings in each and every generation proves, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that there are many themes latent in the biblical narrative that readers cannot discover during an initial survey.  All students of literature, including students of biblical literature, know that a literary text can be examined at different levels and different depths of meaning.  Almost thirty years ago, S. Yizhar set out his "model for reading literature," in which he enumerates four levels of reading a story.[1]

A simple textual reading analyzes the facts presented in the story as representing reality and reflecting a given event or series of events, while more sophisticated subtextual readings allow one to lay the narrative bare and to find in its details another world of symbolism beyond its plot elements. 

Fabula and Sujet

Discussions of literary theory distinguish between fabula (the sequence of events) and sujet (the setting of these events in a concrete literary text).  The sequence of the event is the skeleton of the plot in chronological order, while the sujet (essentially, the prose) is the story as it is placed before the readers, the text which they encounter.  It sometimes seems that the main thrust of the story is the fabula — whatever, in the final analysis, actually happens — making it less important whether the plot is expressed through the use of, say, the noun "present" or "gift."  Indeed, in some forms of writing — e.g. journalistic or technical writing, in which the main goal is to inform the readers of some fact or another – the essence is found in the fabula.  However, in higher forms of literature, it often seems that it is through the sujet that the power of the story, and sometimes even its themes, are expressed.  This idea is particularly cogent when one approaches biblical narrative, which in its great concision, places its most subtle messages below the surface.  These messages can be exposed only after an exacting dissection – a dissection which takes note of different details and stylistic elements.

In the course of this series, we will discuss the narrative portion of Tanakh, emphasizing its design, form and structure, not its discrete plot elements.  We will seek to examine the concrete realization of a given story, and in this way, to understand the messages that may lie beneath the events described in the narrative. 

Advantages of Hiding the Message

The fact that there are messages which lie beneath the surface in the biblical narrative may seem surprising, as biblical narratives have a didactic purpose, and it would seem that hiding the messages would make the task of educating the readers more difficult.[2]

However, hiding the message of the story has some clear advantages.  As a preface to a serious analysis, let us discuss two of them.  One applies to the process of reading, and the other touches on the significance of the story.[3]

  1. Hiding the message in a story allows the readers to become full partners in the process of interpreting the narrative and in bringing out its meaning.  Feeling that they have uncovered the secrets of the story impacts significantly on the readers' identification with it, so that the message of the narrative imprints itself more deeply on the readers' souls than if the moral had been stated openly.  On the contrary, in the case of obvious moral instruction, the readers become defensive, feeling that they are being preached to.  Incorporating the readers in the process of interpreting the story turns them into "active readers" or readers who "create the text" — concepts discussed a great deal in recent literary theory and criticism.  This activation of the readers deepens and concretizes the connection they feel to the story and its messages.[4]
  2. More important than this is the ideology which is at the basis of this subtextual method.  The idea that a sequence of events can be explained on different levels, that it is possible not only to tell a story in its own right, but to accompany it with subtle concepts, carries within it a religious message which is intimately connected to the meaning of the narrative: that reality, in and of itself, demands explication and thoughtful analysis because real events may have a significance beyond what is readily apparent.[5]

Conscious and Subconscious Concealment

As we begin our discussion of biblical subtext, we must distinguish between two forms of subtextual writing: the conscious and the subconscious.  Since the days of Sigmund Freud and the development of psychoanalysis, many thinkers have claimed that every story contains subliminal levels and meanings, hidden from the conscious awareness of the writer.  A fine example of this is the exchange of correspondence between the author S.Y. Agnon and the literary critic Baruch Kurzweil.  On January 23, 1946, Kurzweil wrote to Agnon about how much he enjoyed his story "Temol Shilshom," but he was left with a question:

I read the story three times or so, and I took many notes, but I am unsure about Balak [the name of the dog in the story].  There is no consistent symbolism...  Though I am aware that a literary commentator should not seek explanations from a poet, I would be eternally grateful were you to give me a hint.

A week later, S.Y. Agnon wrote Kurzweil a detailed letter.  Among other things, he addressed the question of the place of the dog Balak in the story and Kurzweil's questions:

I do not see myself as a person to whom the mysteries of life have been revealed; however, frightful reality does reveal something of itself to me from time to time.  As much as possible, I try to emphasize it and sweeten it, but here all I could do was tell it.  Perhaps you will have the opportunity — if not now, then at a later point — to explain it to the both of us.[6]

Remarkably, the author is looking to his critics for explanations of the symbolism inherent in his story!

Despite the inherent interest in these levels of reading and writing, we will focus in the coming lessons on consciously subtextual writing, in which the author of the story buries messages and only alludes to them, without explicit statements.  An example of classical writing on this level is the Book of Shir Ha-shirim.  Those commentators who see the book as a complex parable describing the relationship between the believer and God, or the relationship between the entire Jewish nation and God, argue that even if the book does not say so explicitly, this allegory is its actual meaning; consequently, whoever reads the book without being aware of this subtextual level will be akin to someone who reads a parable as if it is a historical account — i.e., the reader will miss the essential aim of the composition.

However, this example emphasizes the danger of subtextual writing.  It is no coincidence that in the case of Shir Ha-shirim, many modern critics argue that we must see in it purely secular poetry, and as the Talmudic debates make clear, this claim has been sounded for millennia[7].

Herein lies the main difficulty of one who composes a work with a subtextual aim. On the one hand, the author is trying to hide the deeper messages and meanings by burying them in the narrative. On the other hand, the writer must leave guideposts for the readers so that they will pay attention to the subliminal elements of the composition.

This is similar to the children's game of hide-and-go-seek: the winner is the one who finds the best hiding place, the one who succeeds in avoiding detection; however, if the hiding place is too good, one is likely to stay in it for quite a while after the game ends.

Because of this, not every hidden meaning which may be unearthed in the language of the narrative necessarily represents a subtextual level in the story.  For example, let us turn to the Kabbalistic reading of biblical verses.  According to this approach, many words allude to the various sefirot (divine "attributes") of Kabbala.  For example, the word be'er (well) alludes to the sefira of kingship; the words shalom and berit allude to the sefira of foundation, etc.  Can we see in this reading, as well as in other exegetical exercises, an understanding which draws out both the hidden intent and the surface meaning of the story?  It is highly doubtful, as the Kabbalistic reading imposes upon the text a lexicon which is foreign to it.  In the story itself, there is no hint to decoding words in such a manner; this form of reading inevitably requires the prior acceptance of a system of rules and norms of reading which do not flow from the text itself and are not alluded to in it.

In order to uncover a meaning which the author has consciously hidden, the readers must take a "subversive" position as they pay careful attention to the following questions: What is the story concealing from us?  What does the author really think, and what is the author not saying explicitly?  Where do we find clues to decipher the full meaning of the story?  Therefore, there is value to defining this as our starting point in approaching a text, so that it will guide us in the reading process and in decoding the narrative’s messages. 

Subtextual Readings in Life

It is fitting to note that sometimes subtextual writing may be polemical or addressed to a certain person, in which case the writer is not interested in others understanding the message.  Many letters sent from the Soviet Union in the era of the Iron Curtain to relatives in Western countries constitute a good illustration of this sort of writing.  Yaira Amit recalls a relevant example:

My mother would receive from time to time... letters from family members who were exiled to Siberia...  If the writer would repeatedly mention the fact that they were not cold despite the harsh, frigid winter, the adult listeners around me would immediately understand that our relatives were indeed very cold, and they would begin planning to send a package to Siberia, in distant Russia...  As for my question as to how they knew this, they would answer that it was because the writer repeatedly raised the issue of the cold, or because the writer noted that it was not particularly cold for the family.[8]

In fact, subtextual readings are an integral part of daily life, not merely in the world of literature, but in the most basic levels of communication.  We all may recall running into an acquaintance and being compelled by the laws of polite society to remark, "Oh, it's been so long since I've seen you! I'm so happy to run into you," while we are in fact thinking, "I'm in such a rush.  Let's hope that this doesn't take too long..."  This is the subtext which accompanies all human communication, and in this sense, literature fully imitates life.

The Relationship between the Revealed Meaning and the Hidden Meaning

The hidden meaning of the text can form a complex and varied relationship with the revealed, simple meaning of the text.

Generally, we can discuss three ways in which these two readings, the textual and the subtextual, can relate; as we will establish, we can find all of them in biblical narratives.

  1. Confirmation: This is perhaps the most common relationship between the different levels of reading.  The subtextual reading echoes the theme of the revealed story and strengthens it.  If, for example, the textual reading is critical of a given character, subtextual clues scattered throughout the story may amplify this view. 
  2. Contradiction: This is a very surprising tendency, but it is also present in Scripture.  According to this model, the subtextual reading stands in opposition to what arises from the textual reading.  It may be, for example, that the textual reading seems to judge King Yehu (II Melakhim 9-10) and his revolution positively, but if we listen to the subtextual reading, we will notice sharp criticism of him.  Naturally, the readers must decode the significance of the incongruity between what the text reveals to the outside world and what hides beneath its surface.
  3. Contrast: Sometimes, the subtextual reading brings up from beneath the surface of the text new themes which are not even addressed in the textual reading.  For example, let us take Ya'akov's dream in Beit El (Bereishit 28). The textual reading clearly ties it to his covenant with God, but the subtextual reading of the story yields a polemic against the Babylonian view that Babylonia was "the gate of God."  This controversy can be tied to the revealed aim of the story (indeed, Ya'akov is travelling to Mesopotamia).  However, the Torah may want to deliver an additional, allusive message which does not deal directly with the simple meaning of the story.

Throughout this essay, I have sought to trace the different literary tools with which we can open windows and shed light on the meaning of biblical narrative – especially the aspects which are hidden from the readers as they first encounter the story.  In fact, the coming lessons will be divided according to the different literary tools. However, in order to form a sound subtextual reading, we must consider all of these literary tools together, and it is only their use in concert which allows us to establish the subtextual reading – to which, even though it is hidden, Scripture has left us clues and hints.

(Translated by Yoseif Bloch)


[1] Likro Sippur (Tel Aviv: 1982), pp. 206-o221.

[2] In another context, Uriel Simon has raised a similar point, disagreeing with Perry and Sternberg, who claim that in the story of David and Bat Sheva, there are lacunae unresolved (e.g., did Uriah suspect the king?) and that the reader must fill in these gaps in various ways.  See U. Simon, "Sippur Mikra'i Bi-tfisa Ironit — Al Ha-interpretatzia Shel Sippur David U-Vat Sheva," Ha-sifrut (1970), pp. 598-607.

[3] In this essay, I will not address the intentional esoterism of some philosophical writing.  In this genre, the author seeks to hide the truth from the simple reader, directing his or her writing only to the cognoscenti.  Some striking examples of this sort of writing are: the Rambam's Moreh Ha-nevukhim (see particularly his Introduction, Principle #7, in which he explains the reason apparent contradictions in his work); and the Ramban's Commentary on the Torah, in which he uses the code words "al derekh ha-emet" (by way of truth) and obscure allusions so that the reader not well-versed in Kabbala will not understand (see his Introduction).

[4] Eco gave this idea its most extreme expression thirty years ago (Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts, Bloomington and London: 1979).  Eco is not alone in this approach, which is progressively spreading in literary criticism.  We should mention in this context three dominant names: Michael Riffateere (1966), Stanley Fish (1970) and Roland Barthes (1970). 

[5] Incidentally, we must note that sometimes the deepest themes of a story are connected to questions of text and subtext.  In these cases, the subtextual writing integrates with the practical moral of the story itself.  In other words, esoteric writing is not only a literary tool; it may direct the reader to the theme of the story itself.  This, for example, is the situation in the story of Yosef and in the Book of Esther. 

[6]  L. Dabby-Goury (Editor), Kurzweil, Agnon, A.Z.G. – Chillufei Iggerot, Bar-Ilan University (1987), pp. 18-20.

[7] See for example, E.E. Urbach, "Derashot Chazal U-feirushei Origanes Le-shir Ha-shirim Ve-ha-vikkuach Ha-Yehudi Notzeri," Tarbiz 30 (1971), pp. 148-170; G.D. Cohen, "Shir Ha-shirim Be-aspaklarya Ha-Yehudit," in A. Shapira (Editor), Torah Nidreshet: Chibburim Bi-she’elot Yesod Be-olamo Shel Ha-Mikra (Tel Aviv: 1984), pp. 89-108.

[8] Y. Amit, Galui Ve-nistar Ba-Mikra (Tel Aviv: 2003), p. 11.

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!