How to Read a Text

Vayetzei By :  Walter Herzberg Assistant Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Bible and Its Interpretation and Professional Pastoral Skills Posted On Nov 28, 2009 / 5770 | Main Commentary

Michael Fishbane’s book Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology is a scholarly work that I find compelling, especially in those instances where the author places emphasis on experiencing the act of biblical interpretation, which “is understood to foster diverse modes of attention to textual details, which in turn cultivate correlative forms of attention to the world, and divine reality.” In other words, paying close attention to the details in the Torah is the path to deriving meaning from the Torah.

As it happens, Dr. Steven Kepnes (Murray W. and Mildred K. Finard Professor in Jewish Studies and Religion at Colgate University) and I are currently writing a book on reading and interpretation, the working title of which is How to Read the Bible for Meaning. In this work we are proposing a simple three-stage reading model: (1) identifying the textual question(s), (2) examining different interpretive solutions to the textual question(s), and consequently, (3) deriving and articulating moral and/or theological possibilities. Through a close reading and analysis of a recurring phrase in this week’s Torah portion (Gen. 29:10), I will attempt to demonstrate the method.

Jacob heeds his mother Rebekah’s request to “flee” to “Laban my brother” (Gen. 27:44) in order to escape the wrath of his brother Esau, and his father Isaac’s directive that he “go” to his mother’s family and find himself a wife from among the daughters of “Laban his mother’s brother” (Gen. 28:2).

When Jacob approaches his destination, he encounters a group of shepherds congregating at a well (Gen. 29:3), waiting for the assistance of another group of shepherds in removing the large stone sealing the well so that they might water their flocks. Jacob inquires about his uncle Laban and is told by the waiting shepherds that Rachel, Laban’s daughter, is actually “approaching with the sheep.”

Gen. 29:10 And it happened when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother that he stepped forward and rolled the stone from the mouth of the well and watered the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother.

:11 And Jacob kissed Rachel and lifted up his voice and wept.

:12 And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s kin, and that he was Rebekah’s son, and she ran and told her father.

Stage One: Identifying the textual question(s)

Commentators and close readers throughout the ages have been intrigued by the occurrence of the phrase “Laban his mother’s brother” three times in the space of one verse.

Primary question: Why is the phrase “Laban his mother’s brother” repeated when one mention would have been more than sufficient? We are well aware that Laban is indeed Jacob’s mother’s brother.

Additional question: Why does Jacob kiss his cousin Rachel (Gen. 29:11) before he introduces himself (Gen. 29:12)? Would it not have been more appropriate to first mention that Laban, her father, was his mother’s brother?

Stage Two: Examining different interpretive solutions to the question(s)

Or Hahayim (R. Hayim Ben Attar, 1696–1743) directly addresses our question, noting that the text mentions the phrase “his mother’s brother” three times without apparent justification because Jacob wished to allay the suspicions of the shepherds that he was assisting Rachel because of some ulterior motive. The repetition, according to Or Hahayim, represents the words spoken when Jacob saw Rachel, and when he removed the stone, and (for the third time) when he watered the flock. In other words, Jacob mentions his family connection to Rachel and Laban three times “to remove any suspicion” of impropriety. Therefore, continues Or Hahayim, there was no need for Jacob to announce that he is Rachel’s relative before kissing her.

Rabbeinnu Bahye (R. Bahye ben Asher, c.1255–1340) also speaks to our question, noting that the text mentions the phrase “Laban his mother’s brother” a few times to indicate that Jacob’s helping Rachel—by removing the stone from the well and then watering her flock—was not done for Laban’s sake, but “rather for his mother’s honor.” “Therefore,” R. Bahye continues, “Each time the text mentions Laban’s name . . . it mentions [that he is] his mother’s brother, because “in his heart [Jacob] remembered that it was his mother’s love for him that caused her to advise him to go to Laban” (Gen. 27:43).

Stage Three: Deriving meaning from the text

Interestingly, both Or Hahayim and R. Bahye anticipate the same technique of modern literary analysis: reading the details of a seemingly objective narrative description of events from the subjective perspective of one of the characters. They both understand the threefold narrative repetition of the phrase “his mother’s brother” from Jacob’s perspective. Or Hahayim insists that the repetition represents the words that Jacob had actually uttered, while Bahye proposes that it represents Jacob’s inner voice, his unspoken words. Or Hahayim sees Jacob motivated by his keen sense of awareness that a stranger or newcomer must be especially cognizant of the effect that his behavior (proffering assistance to a woman he does not know) may have upon others. Bahye, on the other hand, sees Jacob motivated to help Rachel, Laban’s daughter, and Laban’s sheep because the young woman and her father are related to his mother. In essence, Jacob is honoring his beloved mother Rebekah by assisting her brother’s daughter and her brother’s flock. Or Hahyim’s Jacob is concerned with the propriety of his actions, and how it will reflect upon him and might affect him. Bahye’s Jacob is more concerned with selflessly assisting members of his family. Clearly, their understanding of Jacob’s motivations is very different.

We have seen how paying close attention to textual details can help us uncover the possible motivations of a character in the Torah text. As Dr. Fishbane suggests, we have examined “diverse modes of attention to textual details,” thereby “experiencing the act of biblical interpretation.” However, he also opines that this close attention to the details “cultivates correlative attention to the world . . . ” Using Dr. Fishbane’s terminology (pp. 44–45), how can this hermeneutical theology of close reading lead to a transformative theology? The following is an attempt to respond to that challenge:

Perhaps, based on our analysis of the text and subsequently Jacob’s motivations, we too might be propelled to honestly consider our own motivations in analogous situations. Are we acting out of self interest (Or Hahayim’s Jacob) or are we acting altruistically (Bahye’s Jacob)? Or, alternatively, what is the value of learning to protect ourselves from our own behavior (Or Hahayim’s Jacob) or contemplating both the positive and negative aspects of behavior based on family loyalty and honor (Bahye’s Jacob)?