You have to do more than just play the notes. In music, you must pay attention to structure, phrasing, and recurring motifs and melodies. These things are also germane to reading the Hebrew Bible. The biblical text, like all great art, follows its own internal rules. Our job as readers and listeners is to discover those rules and follow how they convey the messages of the text. In this week’s reading, which covers the first half and more of Moshe’s life, one particular technique stands out. Martin Buber called it the “leading word” approach, and it applies to a large number of biblical narrative texts, including some of the most famous them such as the Yaakov stories, the Bil’am episode, and the tale of David and Batsheva.
The basic premise is that a repeating Hebrew word or word root, if carefully noted, can unlock important clues to a text’s meaning. Such a word threads through smaller and larger blocs of text, holding the whole together by grabbing our attention. And it may undergo transformation, inviting us to think about multiple ideas. For a translator such as myself, there is an added imperative: to try and bring out this kind of approach in another language, focusing on its repetition.
The example I want to present here is typical in that it uses a simple, common word to work its magic: the Hebrew root r-‘-h, “see,” which, although it can also mean “perceive,” “look at,” and “choose,” among other meanings, needs to be reflected by one English word in translation in this case. In chapters 2 and 3 of Exodus, it serves to tie all the strands of Moshe’s early life together. First, it describes the circumstances of his birth and infancy:
A man from the house of Levi went and took-in-marriage a daughter of Levi.
The woman became pregnant and bore a son.
When she saw him—that he was goodly,
she hid him, for three months. (2:1-2)
The mother, of course, in order to give her baby a chance at life, sets him adrift in the Nile in a “little-ark,” under the watchful eye of his sister. Then, using well-known folklore motif, the baby is miraculously found and raised by another:
Pharaoh’s daughter went down to bathe at the Nile,
while her girls were walking along the Nile.
She saw the little-ark among the reeds
and sent her maid, and she fetched it.
She opened it and saw him, the child—
here, a boy weeping! (2:5-6)
Thus, in these opening stories, the act of seeing provides the impetus for the child’s survival. As is typical in the Bible, Moshe’s childhood is then skipped over, and the text zeroes in on an early moment in his adulthood:
Now it was some years later, when Moshe grew up,
that he went out to his brothers and saw their burdens.
He saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, of his brothers;
he turned this way and that way, and saw that there was no man,
so he struck down the Egyptian
and buried him in the sand. (2:11-12)
The seeing is now done by Moshe himself (note that the Hebrew construction r-‘-h b- indicates sympathy). But his act of liberation is unsuccessful, in that Moshe’s fledgling leadership is rejected. He is forced to flee into the desert, where he takes on a new life as a shepherd and family man. At this point (v. 25) the narrative mentions God, who has taken note of the Israelites’ oppressed state with, among other verbs, r-’-h: “God saw [the Children of Israel].”
Now the stage is set for the great scene at the Burning Bush, in chap. 3, which contains our verb in spades:
And YHWH’s messenger was seen by him
in the flame of a fire out of the midst of a bush.
here, the bush was burning with fire,
but the bush was not consumed!
Now let me turn aside and see this great sight–
why is the bush not burning up?
YHWH saw that he had turned aside to see,
so God called to him out of the midst of the bush… (3:2-4)
At this point, “seeing” has become the hook, as it were, for setting up the “call” of Moshe. All that remains is for God, in the opening speech at the bush, to make the pregnant connection between Moshe’s life up to this point, saturated with this crucial verb, and his new mission to lead the Israelites out of bondage:
I have seen, yes, seen the affliction of my people that is in Egypt,
their cry have I heard in the face of their slave-drivers;
indeed, I know their sufferings!…
here, the cry of the Children of Israel has come to me,
and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. (3:7, 9)
In this manner, spurred by verbal repetition, a series of seemingly separate stories featuring Moshe—his birth, rescue, intervention, and calling—are woven together. And there is a final, added implication. “Seeing” in the Bible is a term used often for prophecy (I Sam. 9:9: …“for a prophet today was formerly called a seer”). So in the early narratives about Moshe, whom the Bible considers the greatest of Israel’s prophets, man and mission come together as one, thanks to a simple device of storytelling.