Deceptive Resolution

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman



By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman



This series is dedicated to the refuah sheleimah of

our dear mother

עטל רחל בת פעראל

by Frieda and Dovid Wadler



Lecture #18:

Deceptive Resolution


            The issue of narrative demarcation, which we have discussed in the past few lectures, has a number of ancillary phenomena. The most important of them relate to the significance of the order and organization of facts in the narrative and to the significance of the literary structure, and to these we will dedicate the lectures that follow the present one. In today’s lecture, I wish to draw the reader’s attention to an interesting phenomenon that is not particularly common in Scripture but is nevertheless important in the context of the hidden reading of the story. 


            In the domain of music, we speak of deceptive cadence and irregular resolution; in the domain of literature, we may speak of a “deceptive resolution.” This device indicates a point at which the narrative seems to end — but does not. (There may also be a deceptive introduction.) In other words, on the surface, it appears to the reader that the narrative begins or ends at a certain point, but in fact these are only imaginary beginnings or endings. 


            This is not a trivial matter. Narrative demarcation is one of the fundamentals that contribute to the stability of the reading. If the reader lacks knowledge of where to start reading and where to finish, he loses confidence in the narrative, in the process of reading and determining its significance. Even so, and perhaps specifically because of this, challenging the boundaries can allude to hidden interpretations that reflect the dynamic process of reading.


The Book of Yehoshua


            A good example of this is the Book of Yehoshua which, as Daniel Hawk writes, “tries to conclude but does not succeed.”[1]  According to Hawk’s view, the story of the altar built on the East Bank of the Jordan (ch. 22) constitutes an appropriate closing for the book, at the beginning of which the East Bank tribes (Gad, Reuven, and half of Menasheh) are also mentioned (1:12-18), creating a sort of inclusio.[2] 


            Hawk even suggests (based on the commentary of Polzin and Jobling) that one should view the conflict regarding the two-and-a-half tribes’ altar as the response to one of the basic questions of the book: who is in and who is out? Throughout the length of the book, this question comes up in relationship to the obligation “Do not let any soul live” (Devarim 20:16), contrasted with the fact that so many Canaanites remain; it is deeply involved in stories of Rachav and the Givonim. However, up until this point, the question arises only as regards the feasibility (or lack thereof) of people not from the seed of Israel remaining within its territory. At this point, as a closing, the question is asked from the opposite direction — are the tribes of Israel who inherit on the East Bank of the Jordan going outside?[3]


            Naturally, it would have been appropriate to conclude the book at this point. However, immediately after the description of the two-and-a-half tribes’ altar, the reader encounters an additional story — Yehoshua’s farewell speech (ch. 23). This chapter also has a dimension of resolution and summation, as this is a speech that represents the essential hero of the book, the leader who seals the era. However, to the reader’s surprise, the book does not conclude here either, and immediately after Yehoshua’s speech another story appears — the covenant in Shekhem (ch. 24). 


            In Hawk’s view, one should see the triple conclusion of this book as a literary tool wielded intentionally, reflecting the inability to overcome the “national disintegration” and insubordination, until there is a need for an additional inspirational speech and an additional covenant even after the main story has in fact ended.  Thus, we have two consecutive deceptive resolutions at the end of the Book of Yehoshua.


The Book of Esther


            In a similar way, the Book of Esther clearly has two conclusions.  After Mordekhai’s letters are sent, the classic concluding verses follow:


Therefore these days were called Purim, from the word pur, because of everything written in this letter and because of what they had seen and what had happened to them. The Jews took it upon themselves to establish the custom that they and their seed and all who join them should without fail observe these two days every year, in the way prescribed and at the time appointed.  These days should be remembered and observed in every generation by every family, and in every province, and in every city.  And these days of Purim should never cease to be celebrated by the Jews, nor should the memory of them die out among their seed.


            At this stage of reading, it is clear to the reader that the narrative ends with the people’s consent to Mordekhai’s request to celebrate the days of Purim; indeed, this is how the holiday is celebrated in every place and location and in each and every generation.


            However, to the reader’s surprise, the book does not conclude at this stage, and surprisingly the reader is finds additional letters being sent by Esther and Mordekhai (9:29 ff.): “So Queen Ester, daughter of Avichayil, along with Mordecai the Jew, wrote with full authority to confirm this second letter of Purim.” The narrator alludes to the surprise in sending this letter, calling it “this second letter of Purim” — in other words, Mordekhai and Esther once again send letters establishing this holiday.


            It may very well be that the deceptive resolution in this situation represents the development of reality, in terms of both plot and history, and that we are not talking about a simple literary game.  In other words, it may be that the story of Esther indeed concludes with Mordekhai’s letters, but after a number of years, it became clear that the first letters were not enough. Many of the people did not celebrate the days of Purim (or celebrate only the fourteenth of Adar), and Mordekhai and Esther were therefore compelled to send another, conciliatory letter — “words of peace and truth” (9:30).  Even if we are talking about a literary technique, the aim is similar: creating the impression that the holiday was not easily accepted.  After the reader believes that the narrative has concluded with the holiday’s acceptance by the Jews of the Diaspora (and even in the Land of Israel!), the reader is surprised to learn that this is not the case; additional efforts were required, with much due diligence, to convince world Jewry to accept the holiday.


            It may be that beyond the double conclusion, the reader is invited to look into the hidden tension between the Jewish center in Shushan and the Jewish center in the Land of Israel. The latter apparently found it difficult to celebrate and commemorate a special day (the fifteenth of Adar) for the salvation of the Jews of Shushan, those who did not immigrate to Israel and chose to remain in exile.[4]


Yosef and Potifar’s Wife


            The phenomenon of deceptive resolution or deceptive introduction is also found in lone stories, not just in full books (such as Yehoshua and Esther).


            For example, in the story of Yosef and Potifar’s wife, the common opening formula of the Book of Bereishit appears: “After these things” (Bereishit 39:7). Wherever this heading appears in Tanakh, it introduces a new unit, but not here; here, the heading brings the reader from the stage of exposition to the stage of action. By integrating this opening formula within the narrative, not at the beginning of the literary unit, the narrator turns what is described in the first stage (in the case before us, in the exposition) to an independent story, which must be judged on its own. In other words, the presentation of Yosef’s success in the house of his Egyptian master does not come only in order to prepare the ground for the essence of the plot (Yosef’s withstanding the enticement of Potifar’s wife and his ending up in prison as a result). Rather, one should see the description of Yosef’s success as a unit of inherent significance that contributes to the narrative of Yosef in Egypt.


            Let us examine the verses of the exposition (39:1-6) as standing on their own. First, a verse (39:1) is brought that brings the reader back to the continuity of the plot, after it has been cut off with the story of Yehuda and Tamar (Ch. 38):


And Yosef was brought down to Egypt, and Potifar, Pharaoh’s official, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian man, bought him from the hand of Ishmaelites who brought him down there.


            After this, the verse describes at great length the success of Yosef in Potifar’s house. This description is composed of three parts: first, Yosef’s success is described from the point of view of the narrator (A-B-C, the objective description); after that, this success is described from the point of view of Potifar (A1-B1-C1); and finally, God’s blessing for Yosef spreads even to Potifar and to his house (A2-B2-C2):


A. And God was with Yosef,

B. And he was a successful man

C. And he was in the house of his Egyptian master.

A1. And his master saw that God was with him;

B1. And everything which he did, God made successful in his hand.

C1. Yosef found favor in his eyes, and he served him, and he appointed him over his house, and he put in his hand everything he had.

And it was, from the time he appointed him in his house and over everything he had,

A2. God blessed the Egyptian's house on Yosef's behalf;

B2. God's blessing was in everything he had, in the house and in the field

C2. So he left in Yosef’s hand everything he had; and he knew nothing of what he did except the bread that he ate.

And Yosef was of beautiful form and beautiful appearance.


            First, we must note that these verses obviously constitute an exposition for the continuation of the narrative. It is significant that the last fact noted is “And Yosef was of beautiful form and beautiful appearance,” a fact that prepares the ground for the desire of Potifar’s wife to sleep with Yosef. Beyond this, the use of the term “hand” as a leitwort in these verses (“made successful in his hand… he put in his hand… so he left in Yosef’s hand everything he had”) echoes through the continuation of the story, when Yosef leaves his garment “in her hand” (v. 12) —the hand of Potifar’s wife — when he flees her advances. Furthermore, the description of Yosef’s success given to the reader in the exposition is repeated in the continuation of the narrative by Yosef himself when he protests to Potifar’s wife (vv. 8-9).


            Thus, as we have said, these verses have an independent meaning and importance for the development of the plot of Yosef, well beyond their purpose as the exposition of the entire story. First and foremost, one should mention the unique stress placed by Scripture on the fact that God is with Yosef. This is noted by the narrator (“And God was with Yosef… God blessed the Egyptian's house on Yosef's behalf; God's blessing was in everything he had, in the house and in the field”) and by Potifar (“And his master saw that God was with him; And everything which he did, God made successful in his hand.”)  This fact is critical for understanding Yosef’s story, because until this moment, the reader has no way of knowing whether Providence will accompany Yosef. Perhaps his sale to Egypt and his disconnection from the family and the land of Canaan constitute a severing from the continuity of the family of Avraham (just as Esav is disconnected by going to Edom). Perhaps Yosef has been cut from God’s special providence as well.


            Moreover, in terms of the general structure and development of Yosef’s story in Egypt, his success in the house of Potifar has even greater significance.[5]


            Responsibility for the house is one of the central motifs that accompany Yosef. After his disconnection from his house in the land of Canaan, Yosef passes through three houses; in each of them, he receives the reins of control and rule. First, as we have noted, in the house of Potifar, the “hand” of Yosef, into which the control of the “house” is given, is stressed. At the end of this scene, Yosef is brought to the prison-house, and there he receives responsibility and authority; once again, the “hand” of Yosef receives power of over the “house:” 


And Yosef’s master took him and he put him in the prison-house, the place that the king’s prisoners were imprisoned, and he was there, in the prison-house. And God was with Yosef, and He treated him kindly, and He made the warden[6] view him with favor.  And the warden put in the hand of Yosef all of the prisoners who were in the prison-house, and everything which they did there, he would do. The warden did not look at anything in his hand, because God was with him; and whatever he did, God made successful.


            After he leaves this house, Yosef rolls along to another house — to the royal palace. Lo and behold, there Yosef once again receives authority and dominion (41:40-44):


You will be over my house, and by your mouth my entire nation will be provided for; only the throne will I make greater than you…  And Pharaoh removed his ring from upon his hand and he put it open Yosef’s hand  And Pharaoh said to Yosef, “I am Pharaoh, and without you, no man will raise his hand or his foot in all of the land of Egypt.”


            It is no coincidence that hands are also mentioned in this scene — at first, the ring that is on Pharaoh’s hand passes to Yosef’s hand, and at the end it is even stressed that no one in Egypt will be able to raise his hand without Yosef’s approval.


            If so, it makes sense that aside from the test that Yosef withstands in light of Potifar’s words in these opening verses, the scene in which Yosef gets responsibility for Potifar’s house has significance as part of the broader process that Yosef is undergoing.  Authority over the three houses prepares Yosef for authority over the house of Israel. From this point of view, the verse seeks to hint to the reader that one cannot see the greatness of Yosef in Potifar’s house only as a preparation for the continuation of the small unit of the story of Yosef and Potifar’s wife; it is a scene with independent status. The narrative of the seduction is thus “after these things,” a separate episode that is mentioned after another passage that stands on its own merit.


            Accordingly, it is absolutely clear that the main purpose of these verses is to open the story of Yosef and Potifar’s wife, and it is difficult to view v. 7 as the opening of the narrative. We therefore should relate to the opening of v. 7 as a deceptive introduction, hinting that, from a certain point of view, one should divide the two parts into two separate units, even if the simple reading and the essential level of the plot indicate that we are talking about one story.[7]




            In Tanakh, deceptive resolutions are more common than deceptive introductions, and we will focus this phenomenon here. After Shimshon kills a thousand Philistines with a donkey’s jaw (lechi), we read (Shoftim 15:16-17):


And Shimshon said: “With the jaw of a donkey, heaps upon heaps; with the jaw of a donkey have I struck down a thousand men.”  And it was, when was done speaking, that he cast the jaw from his hand; and he named that place Ramat Lechi. 


            These verses give the feeling of a conclusion of the story from two perspectives. From the point of view of the plot, the narrative has reached its conclusion. After the men of Yehuda bind Shimshon and turn him over to the Philistines, God’s spirit rests upon him, he tears the ropes that bind his hands, and he strikes down a thousand Philistines with the donkey’s jaw that he finds on the spot. The reader anticipates the comfort at the end of the narrative: the struggle has been resolved with Shimshon’s defeat of his enemies.  Moreover, beyond this, naming the place in many contexts constitutes a conclusion for the narrative (“etiological conclusion”). Thus, when the reader reaches the stage of the narrative in which the location is named because of the event (Ramat Lechi), he feels that the end of the narrative has arrived.


            Despite this, however, the narrative does not end at this point; there is a new wrinkle in the plot (ibid. vv. 18-19):


And he was exceedingly thirsty, and called on God, and said: “You have given this great salvation by the hand of Your servant; and now shall I die of thirst, and I will fall into the hand of the uncircumcised?”


But God split the crater which is in Lechi, and water came out from there; and when he had drunk, his spirit came back, and he was revived; that is why it was named Ein Ha-Korei, which is in Lechi until this day. 


            These verses give the impression that this epilogue is related to the main part of the narrative; Shimshon relates in his words to “the uncircumcised,” clearly to referring to the Philistines mentioned in the main part of the narrative, and Lechi is also mentioned in this appendix (“the crater which is in Lechi”). In fact, the mention of the word “hand” associates the appendix with the main part of the narrative. It is evident that the hands of Shimshon are a focus of the narrative, as his hands are bound by the men of Yehuda, and freeing his hands from the ropes is the beginning of the story of salvation: “And his bonds melted off his hands”. However, beyond this, it appears that this term (“hand”) constitutes a guiding motif through the length of the story: 


A.  The words of the men of Yehuda to Shimshon: “‘To bind you we have come down, to put you in the hand of the Philistines’” (12); “‘For we will certainly bind you and we will put you in their hand’”(13).

B.  The beginning of the salvation: “And his bonds melted off his hands” (14).

C.  The revenge of Shimshon upon the Philistines: “And he found a fresh donkey’s jaw, and he sent forth his hand and he took it; and he struck down with it a thousand men” (15). 

C1.  The conclusion of Shimshon’s revenge: “And he cast the jaw from his hand and he named that place Ramat Lechi.” 

B1.  Shimshon’s prayer at the time of his distress: “‘You have given this great salvation by the hand of Your servant…’”

A1.  “‘… and I will fall into the hand of the uncircumcised?’”


            Following the appearances of the word “hand” in the narrative spreads before us all of its stages, and it may be that this motif is arranged in a chiastic structure. At first, Shimshon is meant to be handed over into Philistine hands; to the reader’s surprise (and apparently the verse wants to allude that this is to Shimshon’s surprise as well), at the end of the narrative, after the stage of respite after miraculous salvation, the complications arise anew — to the degree that it now seems that Shimshon may be handed back “into the hand of the uncircumcised.”[8]


            With the assistance of the framework (A-A1), Shimshon’s dependence upon God is noticeable.  Even after the act of salvation — which is by dint of Shimshon’s strength — the narrative does not end, and the danger of the hand of the Philistines still hovers above him. 


            The metaphor of the hand is prominent in the scene of Shimshon’s salvation. As we have said, the reader first notices it when Shimshon uses his strength to free his hands from their bonds (2), and it may be that this (or, at least, this as well) is Shimshon’s intention at the beginning of his prayer, when he mentions this salvation (B1).  In this sense, one may view the words of Shimshon “You have given this great salvation by the hand of Your servant” not only as a metaphorical description, but a realistic description, because the salvation is related to Shimshon’s hands. 


            In the main action of the story of salvation, Shimshon’s hand is described not only as the instrument of freedom, but the instrument of violence, striking a great blow against the Philistines (C-C1).[9] Thus, in terms of the structure of the narrative and its guiding motifs as well, the story of thirst is tied deeply to the story of Shimshon’s revenge upon the Philistines with the donkey’s jaw.  Naturally, the true end of the story is not the first naming of the place, after Shimshon is saved from the hands of the Philistines, but in the second naming of the place (“Ein Ha-Korei”, the Wellspring of the Caller), which expresses Shimshon’s salvation from the thirst in which he finds himself.


            What is the contribution of the deceptive resolution in this case?  Boling argues that the point is the contrast between Shimshon’s strength, which is expressed in the story of the lechi, and his weakness and need for God’s mercies, which is expressed in the scene of his thirst.[10] Yair Zakovitch points out that this is the one scene in Shimshon’s stories in which “an act of strength is not the focus.”  This scene carries within it a certain criticism of Shimshon’s pride, as it presents his confrontation with his fatal flaw:


Shimshon, who ignores the divine character of his salvation, is struck by thirst.  Once he recognizes, in his prayer, the great salvation which God has wrought for him — by the power of God’s spirit — then, and only then, does his spirit return to him.[11]


            This serves to underline the aim of the deceptive resolution at the end of the first scene, in which Shimshon is delivered from the hands of the Philistines.  Here, indeed, the main part of the story concludes with salvation that springs from the physical strength of Shimshon.  However, Shimshon himself must go through an educational process and internalize that his salvation comes from God.  For this purpose, the appendix of the story gives us a new danger, and Shimshon must reach a spiritual place in which he can pray to God and declare that the salvation comes from Him.  Only at this point does the ultimate conclusion of the narrative appear.


            With the issue of narrative demarcations resolved, we will turn in the next lecture to the overall question of literary structure and its role in expressing the themes and morals of narratives in Tanakh.

[1]     L. D. Hawk, Every Promise Fulfilled: Contesting Plots in Joshua (Louisville, 1991), p. 117.

[2]     See, for example, Yehoshua’s words to the two-and-a-half tribes (22:5) and compare them to God’s words at the beginning of the book (1:7) (Hawk, ibid. p. 119).  Similar ideas have been raised by Shmuel Ahituv, Yehoshua (Mikra Le-yisrael; Jerusalem, 5756), p. 348. Also see the broad analysis of Yehoshua Reiss, Omanut Ha-arikha Be-sefer Yehoshua (Doctoral thesis, Bar-Ilan University, 5768), pp. 272-277.

[3]     Hawk, ibid., pp. 120-1.

[4]     I have expanded on this point in my lecture series on the Book of Esther (Lecture #24).

[5]     In fact, this scene echoes the sale of Yosef to Egypt. Potifar’s preference of Yosef reminds the reader of Yaakov’s preference of Yosef, and just as Yosef’s garment remains in the hand of Potifar’s wife as Yosef is thrown into the pit of prison, so his garment remains in the hand of his brothers at the time they throw him into the (literal) pit. See R. Yaakov Medan’s “Bi-makom She-baalei Teshuva Omedim (Parashat Yosef Ve-echav),” Megadim 2 (5747), p.56; G. Eldad, “Maaseh Adam Ve-tachbulotav — Be-ikvot Benei Yaakov Be-darkam Mitzraima,” Megadim 39 (5764), pp.33-39.

[6] Translator’s note: “Prison-house” is beit ha-sohar in the original Hebrew; “warden” is sar beit ha-sohar (literally, officer of the prison-house).

[7]     This example is also mentioned by Uriel Simon as a an example of a deceptive resolution (U. Simon, Keria Sifrutit Ba-mikra: Sippurei Nevi’im [Jerusalem-Ramat Gan, 5757], p.117, n.4). Simon cites another example of a deceptive resolution: the conclusion of the story of David and Bat Sheva (II Shmuel 11:26-27) gives the feeling of a conclusion when David succeeds in hiding his sin: “Thus the reader is made, almost against his will, a party to David’s delusion that the path of those sins, with the power to hide their actions, leads to success” (Simon, ibid. p. 115). Simon even stresses that the feeling of the conclusion becomes stronger in light of “the diametric opposition between the sinful act, which is done so discreetly and suddenly at the beginning of the story, and that same act which is now done in a legal, open, and perpetual way” (referring to 11:4 and 11:28.) Indeed, Simon stresses, everything erupts at one time in the description of the narrator, who says, “And the thing which David had done was evil in God’s eyes.” The heroes indeed do not feel this yet, but the reader is directed toward the coming events. “This is a conclusion which raises one’s hopes, concluding a secondary unit with the core of the one which comes after it.” Its purpose here is not only ratcheting up the tension, “but to announce a theological proclamation — this resolution can only be deceptive, because the story cannot end thus!” (ibid. pp. 116-117).

[8]     This term, referring to the Philistines, is used by Shimshon’s father and mother when they oppose his marriage to the Philistine girl. Perhaps the narrator is mocking Shimshon: had he listened to his father and mother originally, he would never have been in this danger.

[9]     Similarly, compare “And he sent forth (va-yishlach) his hand and he took it,” which indicates the beginning of the revenge, with “And he cast (va-yashlekh) the jaw from his hand,” which indicates the end of this scene (Y. Zakovitch, Chayei Shimshon — Nittuach Sifruti-Bikoreti [Jerusalem, 5742], p. 144).

[10]    R. G. Boling, Judges (AB, New York, 1981), p. 239.

[11] See Zakovitch’s Shimshon, pp. 148-149 (as well as Zakovitch, 5741, p. 15).  Josephus Flavius expresses a similar idea in Antiquities of the Jews, Book V, 8-9.  We may buttress this reading by pointing to the frequent use of a pair of antonyms in the story: aliya and yerida, ascent and descent. “And the Philistines came up and they camped in Yehuda…  And the men of Yehuda said, “Why have you come up to us?”  And they said, “To bind Shimshon we have come up” And three thousand men of Yehuda came down… and they said to him, “To bind you we have come down, to put you in the hand of the Philistines…”  And they brought him up from the rock” (15:9-13). Since the motif of aliya and yerida is already stressed at the outset of the narrative, it has a great influence on the reader’s interpretation of the entire story. It may be that the pair of verbs seeks to serve a metaphorical role, signifying the spiritual and emotional aliya and yerida of Shimshon himself, as expressed in the relationship between the story of salvation and the story of thirst.