Fox Tales: Parashat Mishpatim — The Rhetoric of Law

This week’s reading largely consists of a long enumeration (three chapters) of what modern society would see as civil, criminal, and religious laws. Embedded in that list is a remarkable passage, Exodus 22:21-23, that deals with a category of people typically understood to be in need of protection in the ancient Near East:

You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed
their outcry as soon as they cry out to me, and my anger shall blaze forth and I
will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your
children orphans… (New Jewish Publication Society Version, 1985)

The emotional tone here is unusual; from the Hammurabi Code down to our own day, laws, sometimes including biblical ones, usually do not go out of their way to elaborate on the victims’ feelings, nor is the punishment for violation typically clothed in such passionate language. But in the Hebrew, the text turns up the rhetoric, by use of a construction known to grammarians by the inelegant term “paronomastic infinitive absolute,” and which appears in other ancient Near Eastern languages. This describes a verb presented first in abstract form (like “dying”), followed by a normal verbal form in the same root (like “you shall die”). The effect appears to intensify the idea being put forth. Thus, when God warns the first man in the Garden of Eden not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, we hear mot tamut–usually translated as “you shall surely die.”

But the effect of sound in the Bible is important, and even though in this week’s case we are dealing with law and not poetry, it must not be ignored. Chapters 21-23 are full of this construction, whether it has to do with describing a situation or punishment, and one might wonder whether such language is a legal convention of some kind. But vv. 21-23 display a triple occurrence of the emphatic form: ‘anneh te’anneh…tza’ok yitz’ak…shamo’a eshma, which definitely engages the hearer’s attention.

In their German Bible translation, Buber and Rosezweig sought to echo this pattern, and I have endeavored to do the same in my Five Books of Moses, sometimes adding “yes” for rhythmical reasons:

Any widow or orphan you are not to afflict.
Oh, if you afflict, afflict them…!
For they will cry out, cry out to me,
and I will hearken, yes, hearken to their voice;
my anger will flare up
and I will kill you with the sword,
so that your wives become widows, and your children, orphans!

The repeated use of an emphatic form here puts these particular thoughts front and center, highlighting their importance even beyond the surrounding laws. And it paves the way for the next rule (vv. 26-7), in which a person who gives his cloak as collateral for a loan needs it back at night as a blanket. The paragraph uses some of the same forms and words, and emotional force, as the passage above:

If you take-in-pledge, yes, pledge, the cloak of your neighbor,
before the sun comes in, return it to him,
for it is his only clothing,
it is the cloak for his skin —
in what shall he lie down?
Now it will be that if he cries out to me,
I will hearken,
for a Compassionate One am I!

As mentioned above, the widow and the orphan, and the poor, command special notice in the Bible and surrounding societies. Embedded in a long list of cases and situations, our text clearly wishes to single them out, and so uses rhetorical tools to make its case.

A final key category of the oppressed, the “sojourner” (non-citizen or resident alien), occurring in the next chapter (23:9), similarly utilizes both emotional appeal and another kind of poetic rhythm, word repetition, through which to express it:

A sojourner, you are not to oppress;
you yourselves know the feelings of the sojourner,
for sojourners were you in the land of Egypt.

In this manner, the Torah elevates major points for our consideration, whether in narrative, law, ritual, or poetry. It is the audience’s job to pick up on the signals, using our ears as well as our eyes.

About the Author
I'm the Allen M. Glick Professor of Judaic and Biblical Studies at Clark University, Worcester, MA. I've published translations of The Five Books of Moses and The Early Prophets.
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