The Literary Effects of Wordplay

By Gary A. Rendsburg

Published November 14, 2003, issue of November 14, 2003.
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Readers of the Bible approach the subject from a variety of perspectives. People with a historical bent use the text to reconstruct the history of ancient Israel. People with a theological bent use the text to understand ancient Jewish theology and/or to derive lessons of moral theology that speak to us still today. People with a cultural bent, armed with our current knowledge of other ancient Near Eastern societies, use the Bible to determine the unique aspects of ancient Israel vis-à-vis the other civilizations that surrounded it.

These three approaches — the historical, the theological and the cultural — have dominated scholarship since the enterprise known as modern biblical studies began in the 19th century. In recent decades a new perspective has developed: the literary approach. This approach to the Bible treats the text at its basic level. For before we can proceed to questions of history, theology and culture, we first must realize that the Bible is literature. Indeed, as the literary approach to the Bible has made very clear, the Bible is exquisite literature of a highly sophisticated nature.

This week’s portion affords us several excellent opportunities to see the literary nature of the Bible at work. Space prevents a presentation of all such examples, but at least two may be discussed in some detail.

One of the traits of all good literature is wordplay (it abounds, for example, in such diverse authors as Ovid and Shakespeare). The story of God’s messenger pleading with Lot to escape the destruction of Sodom contains an excellent illustration of this technique. In Genesis 19:17-22 we encounter five times the verbal root m-l-t (mem-lamed-tet) “escape,” which contains the same two consonants of Lot’s name l-t (lamed-tet). This is not a coincidence, rather it is intentionally placed in the text to stress the give-and-take between the messenger and Lot. Moreover, it serves to contrast the character of Lot with that of Abraham. With destruction facing the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham pleaded with God to save them for the sake of the innocent people who may reside there. Lot, by contrast, makes no such moves, rather he himself is barely saved when he becomes an “escapee,” a designation hinted at in his name and the wordplay on it.

Our second illustration concerns the manner in which characters are referred to in a story. As we read the story of Ishmael’s expulsion from the house of Abraham, we notice that he is referred to by three different terms: “son” (ben), “child” (yeled) and “boy” (na’ar). At first glance this might appear to be simply a stylistic change, to prevent the text from constantly utilizing the same word. But upon closer inspection we notice a deliberate choice is being made in each instance.

As the story unfolds, the main human characters in the story view Ishmael as a “son.” In Genesis 21:9 we read that “Sarah saw Hagar’s son”; she then demands that Abraham evict Hagar and “her son” (verse 10), and then we learn that “the matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son” (verse 11). By using the word “son” in these verses, the text emphasizes the family relationship.

When God speaks, He takes a dispassionate view of the subject and refers to Ishmael in a neutral fashion as “the boy” (verse 12). God instructs Abraham to heed Sarah’s word and to send Ishmael off. He does so, but now the designation “child” is used (verse 14). In other words, in Abraham’s eyes, Ishmael has been reduced from status of “son” to that of “child,” thus opening the way for Isaac’s position as the only son (a point made explicit in the ensuing story of the Akedah, see Genesis 22:2). Similarly, when the water supply of Hagar and Ishmael is exhausted, both the storyteller and Hagar speak of him as a “child” (verses 15-16). This word choice, it would seem, emphasizes the helplessness of the “child,” a point that would not be driven home if the word “son” or “boy” were used.

Finally, when God enters the story again and points the way to water, the word “boy” is used once more (verses 17-20). This word choice shows that the helpless condition has been relieved and once more it shows that God speaks of Ishmael in the neutral way of “boy.” In short, the text not only places into the mouths of the characters the different words “son,” “boy” and “child,” it also takes on the perspective of the characters in utilizing the appropriate word in third-person narration as well.

Throughout all of this shifting back and forth among “son,” “boy” and “child,” it is noteworthy that never in Genesis 21 is Ishmael referred to by name. The above designations are used, but the name “Ishmael” never occurs. This in itself is intentional, as the text directs the reader to understand that Ishmael will no longer have a role to play in the story. He is being removed from the scene, and in like fashion his name is removed from the narration.

These are but two illustrations of the literary character of biblical narrative. The Bible abounds in such techniques. A close reading of the text pays big dividends time and again.

Gary A. Rendsburg is the Paul and Berthe Hendrix memorial professor of Jewish studies at Cornell University.

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