Friday, March 20, 2009

Wordplay in Numbers 5:1 - "God and Moses" busting male binaries

David Ker has made quite a stir with his post the LORD makes me crazy. Two dozen responses at last count, mostly only men (if no women at all) commenting.

But far fewer noticed when Rachel Barenblat read with us "one paragraph from the Sefat Emet" during "the lead-up to Purim" to begin accepting "the highest Torah." Let's ask: who paid attention to "the facility with quotations, the wordplay and punnery; . . . the richness of these texts, how words become hyperlinks connecting one idea with another. . . to spiritually connect ourselves with the spice of revelation in order to rise to a level of spiritual discernment where binaries cease to exist because everything is Go(o)d."?

Do we get that?! Where binaries cease to exist?! Where the Velveteen Rabbi herself is playing with the word(s), "Go(o)d"?!

And does anyone else care about that "instruction" of hers this week, in which she points us to "a tiny bit of wordplay which may not be immediately obvious: in Hebrew, the name most commonly used for the presence of God (Shekhinah) shares a root with the word for neighborhood (shekhunah / שְׁכוּנָה)"?!

So we're looking at and listening to allusions to God. And I'd like us to extend that to Numbers 5, especially verses 1, 5, and 11 (aka א
and ה and יא). Each of these verses is the following thrice repeated sentence:

וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר.

Actually, the exact sentence shows up in the Torah first in Exodus 6:10. (But then not again until Exodus 13:1, then 14:1, then 16:11. Then not again until Leviticus 4:1, then 5:14, then 6:1 and 6:8 and 6:19 and 6:24, then 7:22 and 7:28, then 8:1 and 10:8 and 12:1 and 14:1 and 17:1 and 18:1 and 19:1 and 20:1 and 21:16 and 22:1 and 22:17 and 22:26 and 23:1 and 23:9 and 23:23 and 23:26 and 23:33 and 24:1 and 24:13 and 25:1 and 27:1, then Numbers 3:1 and 3:5 and 3:44 and 4:21 - until we come back to Numbers 5:1, 5:5, and 5:11. In general, these are discourse or narrative section markers or markers of the intensification of the climax of a story. Pedantic stuff, but maybe interesting to translators sensitive to stuff above the sentence level. Certainly it should validate the decisions of the traditional chapter and verse number-ers; and it should unnerve the documentary hypothesizers with their J.E.P.D.).


There are several binaries that get busted by this single sentence. Let's begin trying to work through some of the binaries here. And we'll look at the wordplay. We should look at these binaries at least:

the orality / literacy binary
the God talking / Moses writing binary
the God's un-speakable name / God's actually-written name binary
the emic insider's viewpoint / etic outsider's viewpoint binary
the original text / translated text binary
the male origin / fe-male origin binary

We are suspicious of binaries. And we are suspicious not because binaries cannot or do not exist in nature. But we are suspicious of binaries because the binary is the fundamental structure of patriarchy. The would-be pure and precise division of the binary helps and has helped and will continue to help males to be dominant over fe-males. In contrast, there's feminine discourse, which tends not to be reduced to the "either / or" but, rather, tends to be "both and" and "more." In linguistic terms, Kenneth Pike called this "the N-dimensionality of language" in which the person speaking, the person writing, the person listening, and the person reading all have agency over "logic" and "formalism." The most brilliant astrophysicist can choose many ways (and is not constrained by any one way) of looking at and talking about "light": light is a particle; light is a wave; light is in relation to time or space or its observer.

So we come back to the story of Moses in Exodus (in chapter 6 particularly). Orality seems primary and sharply different from literacy. Ostensibly, this story was told before it was written. And God speaks with Moses. He tells his name to Moses, saying it in a way that Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob never heard. He says:


וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב--בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.

The Jewish Publication Society has translated that into English as this:

I am the LORD;

and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name YHWH I made Me not known to them.

The JPS translation finds some of the meaning but loses much too by not showing the wordplay. The funny thing here is what God says to Moses is that he tells his name (at the end of verse 2) before actually telling his name (again, in the middle of verse 3). We get that as an artifact of writing primarily, but not so much as a product of God's speaking orally first. This is especially true today when, for centuries now, the name of God, to the Jews, is not to be spoken orally, and is intended not to be pronounced aloud. But these are the scriptures meant to be read (aloud too) after all. Which has primacy, the oral tradition of the Torah or the literate tradition? And don't both orality and literacy have overlapping dimensions for listeners and readers? Does the wordplay of the Hebrew support or play down the orality / literacy binary?

So we move on to more wordplay in the first sentence of Numbers 5. More disruption of another binary: the supposed God talking / Moses writing binary. Who's really talking here? Is it God to Moses? But isn't Moses allegedly writing all of this down, as if God were talking? So it's Moses' God talking with Moses' Moses (the way Plato's Socrates speaks with the other characters in his dialogues)? Or has God, in the end and at the beginning too, inspired the whole story: God's Moses being talked to by the story-inspiring story-telling God himself? These questions remind me a little of how Alan Lightman has to get around his being a science writer / but a novelist too. Lightman claims scientists write to name (and "use their heads" to understand), which artists write ("using their stomachs and hearts") to ring true in their story telling. Lightman also confessed (when I asked him as he visited the campus where I work): he wants the translators of his novels - translated already into 30 some languages - to be both scientists (understanding the science of language) and artists too (understanding the art of telling a believable story). It's not either God speaking or Moses writing, is it? And a good translator will show how the Hebrew plays that way. And haven't we already discussed enough the binary of either God's un-speakable name / or God's actually-written name?

So we come to another binary and more wordplay. We get to "the emic insider's viewpoint / etic outsider's viewpoint binary." I think we might as well begin talking also more about the "the original text / translated text binary" as well as "the male origin / fe-male origin binary." Or we could be here all day.

I want us to go back to Egypt again. Who's an outsider and who's the insider. The story of Moses is Egypt confuses these two things. In fact, there's an animated DreamWorks film called "The Prince of Egypt" that helps suggest (even by its title) that Moses is more of an insider to Egypt. The book of Exodus, in the Hebrew language, suggests that the name of Moses is perhaps Egyptian. There is the suggestion that the daughter of the Egyptian king used an Egyptian play on words that the Hebrews (namely Moses) borrowed right into the Hebrew language:

וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמֹו מֹשֶׁה וַתֹּאמֶר כִּי מִן־הַמַּיִם מְשִׁיתִֽהוּ

"And she called his name Moses, and said: 'Because I delivered him out of the water [of the Nile].'"

She also claims him as her own son. The Hebrew baby becomes an Egyptian; delivered out of a Hebrew basket in the Egyptian river, his playful Egyptian name gets drawn back into Hebrew. In fact, he's the very one to deliver the Hebrews out of Egypt. Funny stuff, ironic, not very "either / or" binary.

Some centuries later, there are Jews back in Egypt, living under an Egyptian King, who is set in place by a Hellene conqueror, Alexander the Great, once a pupil of Aristotle. According to legend, that Egyptian King wanted an insider copy the Hebrew scriptures. Here's from a blurb from the New Encyclopedia of Judaism:
According to the "Letter of Aristeas," it was composed in Alexandria. Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 BCE), who was a bibliophile, heard from his librarian, Demetrius, that the Jewish Bible was worth translating for the king's archives. The king wrote to the High Priest in Jerusalem, asking him to send scholars who would be able to translate the Pentateuch into Greek. The High Priest sent 72 wise men, whom the king lodged in a building on the island of Pharos, near Alexandria. Each translated only a part of the Pentateuch and after 72 days, at the conclusion of the work, the Greek translations were read before the Jewish community and before the king. All lauded the Jewish Bible and its wisdom and praised the work of the translators.
A humorous thing here is that the translators seem to write their Greek as outsiders to the "Exodus paradigm" and as outsiders to the aristotelian "Alexandrian paradigm" but as insiders to the "Homeric paradigm" (and this, according to University of Tel Aviv Historian Sylvie Honigman in her history of the "Letter of Aristeas"). This is funny because it seems the Jews, back in Egypt under an Egyptian king, are playing with language, as if trying to keep themselves out of Egypt.

So it's worth now comparing Numbers 5:1, 5, & 11 in Hebrew and in translated Greek:

וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמֹו מֹשֶׁה וַתֹּאמֶר כִּי מִן־הַמַּיִם מְשִׁיתִֽהוּ

καὶ ἐλάλησεν κύριος πρὸς Μωυσῆν λέγων

The translation is nearly equivalent Hebrew-to-Hellene -- and even the name "Moses" sounds the same. In other words, the translators were very careful to make משה /Mo-sheh/ transliterated so that it is pronounced alike in Greek Μωυσῆς as /Mou-ses/. Perhaps this is still an Egyptian word meaning "Delivered," and serves as a reminder to Greek readers in Egypt who also speak Egyptian that this is the hero of the Hebrews who delivered them out of Egypt, a sort of Trojan Horse job from the insider of Egypt himself, the one delivered out of the Nile by the daughter of the king of Egypt herself. Funny stuff.

But the translation appears to break down with the use of κύριος for that unspeakable name of God written as יהוה. The Greek word κύριος /kurios/ is the same word the translators use for Potiphar, the official of the Egyptian king, who was the "master" of Joseph, when he was a "slave" in Egypt. Greek readers of the Hebrew scriptures in Egypt will know that the God of the Jews is to be called "master." He, and not any Egyptian king or king's official or king's conqueror called Great Alexander, is the "master" of Moses and the "Master" of all masters.

So which text is primary? The "original" Hebrew or this quite original Greek version (including the Ex-Odys, the Odys-sey of the Jews) -- a text also targeting the Hellene conquerors and the Egyptian monarchy?

And are the males really first in the story? Moses is named by a woman, by a daughter, by an Egyptianness. She delivers him and conspires with other daughters and mothers to save him, to save them, male and fe-male.

(And the God who names himself seems to be interested in the motherly birth of himself. But we've gone on far too long for one post to talk about the Greek translation of the Hebrew of Numbers 5:3, where the translators hint at an incarnation, a translation of the deity into a mortal human birth: "ἀπὸ ἀρσενικοῦ ἕως θηλυκοῦ... ἐν οἷς ἐγὼ καταγίνομαι ἐν αὐτοῖς." But it's either god / or human, and the human either male / or fe-male, right?)

What I've wanted us to do in this post is to begin to look at and to listen in on the ways the Hebrews in Egypt (whether the original Moses in the masoretic text or the translators by their Hellene "original" text) engaged in productive, generative word play. And the binaries we all know so well, the unmarked male borders and boundaries, get blurred.

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