Monday, May 08, 2006

Footnote Blessings

I've been reading through The Five Books of Moses, a translation of the Pentateuch by Robert Alter. Publishers Weekly said of this translation that "it points to the ways a single Hebrew word can make all the difference in our understanding of the text." And today I experienced that very thing.

I'm in Exodus, and this morning I read chapter 9, which is right in the midst of the account of the Ten Plagues.

And the LORD said to Moses, "Come into Pharaoh and you shall speak to him, 'Thus said the LORD, God of the Hebrews: Send off My people, that they may worship Me. But if you refuse to send them off and you still hold on to them, look, the hand of the LORD is about to be against your livestock which is in the field. against the horses, against the donkeys, against the camels, against the cattle, and against the sheep--a very heavy pestilence.'"

Alter's commentary on the text appears as footnotes at the bottom of each page, often taking up at least half of the page. I'm in the habit of reading the corresponding footnotes as I go through the chapter--though a few of the notes are quite technical, the majority of his comments contribute to a richer understanding of the text. And today, his comment on verse 3 broadened my understanding of God as the I Am.

Here is his footnote:

3. the hand of the Lord is about to be against your livestock.

The Hebrew verb here has a spine-tingling effect for which there is no obvious English equivalent. The verb "to be" in Hebrew is not supposed to have a participial, or present, tense. At this ominous and supernatural juncture, however, that verbal stem "h-y-h" yields an anomalous "hoyah," rendered in this translation as "about to be." This strange usage involves a kind of fearsome pun on the divine name YHWH that was mysteriously highlighted in the Burning Bush episode. God's instrinsic and unique capacity for being, we are made to see, is not just a matter of static condition but an awesome power of action--the hand that is "about to be" against all the livestock of Egypt.

I checked other versions to see how this verb is rendered. The KJV says "the hand of the Lord is upon thy cattle," the NIV says, "the hand of the Lord will bring a terrible plague," the NASB says, "the hand of the Lord will come with a very severe pestilence," and the ESV says "the hand of the Lord will fall with a very severe plague." The NASB is the only one of those versions (at least, in my copies of those versions) with a note by the verb stating, "literally, will be."

Alter has made me more aware than ever before of the concentrated amount of punning that occurs in these early books of the Bible. And so I found this pun on the name of God to be fascinating. I tend to think of "I Am" as a statement more about who God is--it is His state of being; He is the self-existent One. But today I began to think of this title as a statement not simply describing who God is, but what He does. In Exodus 9, the I Am, Defender of His people and Opposer of Pharaoh, is about "to be." And so, no wonder Alter describes this strange verb as "spine-tingling" and "ominous."

Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.
~ Psalm 20:7

3 Comments:

Blogger Jeff said...

That's fascinating. R.C. Sproul is currently doing a series on the names of God in his Renewing Your Mind radio show, and the two-part lecture on "Yahweh" was amazing. I think you can find them on Ligonier's web site.

9:48 PM  
Blogger Andrea said...

I will have to check those out. Thanks for the recommendation!

10:36 PM  
Blogger javajeb said...

From my seminary days, I recall a pun in the Samson story. As a Nazarite, he was forbidden to touch anything dead, a woman, or the fruit of the vine. It may be foreshadowing, in Judges 13 - he finds his wife in a vineyard. In Judges 16, he finds Delilah. From what my OT Prof said, Delilah is a dimunitive form of a jug, one specifically used for holding wine. So, in the episode with Delilah, Sampson was enticed by a little jug - Delilah, a woman, but there's a play on words as well relating to the fruit of the vine.

So, that said, there is a lot of punning out there.

12:00 PM  

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