Harry Freedman
Writing on Jewish history, Jewish books, Jewish ideas

Why Biblical Words Matter

The final section of Exodus begins with a tally of the materials used in the construction of the Tabernacle, an enterprise which has been described in detail during the previous fourteen chapters, over one third of the book. The chapter is introduced with the words ‘these are the accounts of the Tabernacle…’

The English word ‘account’ has a dual meaning, it can refer either to a tale or to a statement about finance. The Hebrew word that is translated here as ‘account’ has many more meanings. Coming from the verbal root pkd it is one of those multi-purpose words that can be used in different ways that often seem to be unrelated, or very loosely so at best.

Many passages in the Bible have key words, linguistic roots that are repeated several times to indicate the underlying theme of the passage; a theme that is not always obvious from a plain reading of the text.  The root pkd occurs four times in the opening sentences of our section, suggesting that it is one of these thematic words.

Apart from meaning tally, or account, pkd is also used in the sense of appointing, designating, remembering, recording or visiting. It can mean an officer, a tally (as in our passage), a task, census, magistrate, deposit and so on. The concept that links these various ideas is not easy to identify but probably has something to do with specifying and designating. When Sarah became pregnant with Isaac, as God had promised, the Bible tells us that he had remembered her. But it doesn’t use the regular Hebrew word for remember, instead it uses the root pkd.  God had said that Sarah would give birth exactly one year after he made the promise, his remembering of Sarah took place at the specified, designated time. It was not so much a remembering as an appointment.

It is this sense of appointment that may explain why the root pkd is so dominant in our chapter. Genesis records (50,24) that when the patriarch Joseph was about to die in Egypt, he told his brothers that God ‘will surely remember you and bring you up from this land’ He used the root pkd twice in this sentence, and twice also in the following sentence- pakod yipkod. Then, when Moses is at the Burning Bush (Exodus 3,16), God sends him to tell the Israelites that he has ‘surely remembered them’, using exactly the same form of words as Joseph has used, pakod yipkod, with the double use of the root pkd. Later when the Israelites realise that God has remembered them, the root pkd occurs again. (Exodus 4,31).

A midrashic tradition (PIrkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 48) recounts that when the elders of Israel saw Moses and Aaron perform miracles, as instructed by God, they didn’t know whether to believe them. Had they genuinely been sent by the Almighty to redeem the nation, or were they perhaps just particularly good Egyptian magicians, pretending to be divine emissaries? They went to find Serach, daughter of Asher, granddaughter of Jacob. She was the oldest woman in the community, she had been born just as Jacob and his family arrived in Egypt. If anybody knew how to test whether Moses and Aaron were genuine, it would be her.

She told the elders that she knew an ancient tradition that Israel’s true redeemer would make himself known by using the exact words, ‘God has surely remembered you’, pakod yipkod, with the double root pkd. Moses, she assured them, was genuine, redemption was at hand.

Much had to happen before the redemption was complete. There were the plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, the giving of the Torah, the miracle of Manna. The final act in the redemption drama was the building of the Tabernacle, so that the nation could worship freely.

This may explain why the concluding section of Exodus, that rounds off the Tabernacle narrative, is introduced by the root pkd. From the death of Joseph, through the Exodus to the redemption is one long, integrated narrative. The key wpord, the word that makes us recognise the unity of the theme is the root pkd. It is the signifier that draws it all together.

Harry Freedman’s latest book , Kabbalah, Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul is available in bookshops, on Amazon or through www.harryfreedmanbooks.com

About the Author
My new book is Kabbalah: Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul, published by Bloomsbury. Bloomsbury also published my previous books The Talmud: A Biography in February 2014 and The Murderous History of Bible translations in 2016. I wrote Kabbalah: Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul to try to give some context to contemporary attitudes to Kabbalah. Kabbalah became fashionable at the end of the 20th Century, largely due to the interest shown in it by Hollywood celebrities and rock stars, the most famous being Madonna. But Kabbalah's history goes back two thousand years and its story is far more interesting and profound than some of things written about it in the popular media. You can find out more about my books and why I write them at www.harryfreedmanbooks.com
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