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Narrative Demarcation, Part I - "You Have Set and Inviolable Boundary"

  • 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 #15:

Narrative Demarcation, Part I

“You Have Set an Inviolable Boundary”





      One of the most basic components of analysis of biblical narrative is narrative demarcation – determining where the story begins and where it ends. As Yaira Amit puts it, "The topic of demarcation is a primary and basic issue with which every reader must contend when attempting to analyze any biblical narrative."[1]  


            Narrative demarcation is often accomplished in an intuitive way; in most cases, it is obvious to the reader where the plot begins and where it ends.  However, sometimes this activity is not simple at all, and deciding where the story begins and where it ends significantly influences the meaning of the narrative in its entirety. 


            In the context of this analysis, there is a clear distinction between hermetically sealed, stand-alone stories and those that are part of a broader cycle or series.  Since many biblical narratives are in fact part of a wider literary cycle (for example, the stories of Avraham, Yaakov, Yosef and his brothers, the Exodus from Egypt, the journey to the Plains of Moav, Shmuel, Sha'ul, David, etc.), the process of demarcation and analysis cannot be done with naiveté, as if the reader is aware only of the story currently being read.  The theme of an individual story is often tied to the theme of the wider narrative cycle. 


            Thus, the reader may (and indeed must) set the boundaries of the story of Yosef and Potifar's wife (Bereishit 39) and dissect the text as an independent story.  Nevertheless, appraising it as a lone story while ignoring what precedes it and what follows it does an injustice to the full theme of the story.  Similarly, the reader may analyze the encounter between Rut and Boaz in the latter’s field (Ruth 2) as a scene that stands on its own, with a unique theme. Despite this, it is clear that the full significance of the scene may only be grasped by relating to the entire story.  Therefore, despite the importance of the issue of narrative demarcation, in my humble opinion, its importance is often exaggerated. Most of the time, the reader can recognize the theme of the narrative without explicitly addressing the issue of setting the boundaries of the story at one point or another.[2]


            Professor Amos Frisch notes a primary and basic distinction in the context of the analysis of biblical narrative through the process of demarcation. Sometimes, the boundaries of a biblical narrative can be determined via an external analysis, “a technical, artificial delineation, which is set according to the needs of the researcher on a certain mission." On the other hand, sometimes the analysis is done internally, listening to the design of the narrative itself, "exposing the literary boundaries which already exist in the biblical text itself."[3]  We are interested, in our current discussion, in the nature of the second type of demarcation, which arises from the verses themselves, as we seek to track the ways of shaping the biblical narrative and their contribution to the messages hidden beneath the surface.


            First, we will describe the essential measures by which we can locate a narrative’s boundaries, and afterwards we will analyze the borderline and complex cases.  Naturally, dissecting ambiguous cases can often lead us directly to the hidden themes of the narrative.




            The question of narrative demarcation is tied to what is sometimes called the question of narrative unity – in other words, what turns a story into "one," a story that is distinct from that which comes before it and that which comes after it?


            A broad discussion of this issue emerges from the debate between Menachem Perry and Meir Sternberg on one side and Uriel Simon and Boaz Arpali on the other.  In light of a deep analysis of the story of David and Bat-Sheva by Perry and Sternberg,[4] Simon and Arpali attack them for only dissecting the story of the sin without addressing the rebuke of the prophet Natan (the parable of the poor man's sheep) and without considering David's repentance. According to Simon and Arpali, any analysis of the story that ignores the episode that closes it misses the point, as the punishment for the sin and David's repentance are essential parts of the theme of the narrative.


            Seeking to justify their omission of Natan’s parable and David’s reaction to it, Perry and Steinberg discuss the different techniques of narrative demarcation. The general thrust of their argument is:


The borders of the unit are dynamic. They are not determined a priori, once and forever; rather, they are determined again and again, reorganizing themselves according to the questions which [the narrative] wants to answer, according to the type of view with which it observes [the situation].[5]


Accordingly, the central criteria by which one can determine the boundaries of a literary unit in Tanakh are thematic unity, shifts in time, literary symmetry, techniques of transmission, and the natural, distinctive stages of storytelling. Yaira Amit adds another criterion, which she calls an “editorial expression,” such as "After these things," "And it was at that time," "And it was after that," etc.[6]  One may distinguish between the different parameters of the two basic spheres that shape the narrative – the plot elements on one hand and the verbal network on the other.


The Plot


Unity of the Plot


            Often, the reader senses where the plot begins and where it ends based on the consecutive nature of the plot and the procession of events until the plot is resolved.  In the above-mentioned response of Perry and Sternberg to the claims of Simon and Arpali, they claim that one may talk about the unity of the plot in three contexts:


  1. Concatenate structures are based on the consecutive nature of the plot.  This is clearly the easiest method of narrative demarcation, and in most cases, it is intuitive and self-evident. As part of narrative continuity, it is also worth noting the gathering of characters (sometimes concluding with character dispersal, as in Shemot 18 and Bamidbar 24-25) and the unity of time or place.  
  2. Joint structures are based on thematic continuity. As long as the story deals with a particular issue, we can view it as part of the organic Scriptural unit dissecting the subject under discussion. The problematic nature of this definition is clear: the one who defines the subject is the reader himself or herself.  What is the subject of the story of David and Bat-Sheva?  "David and his sin"?  "Crime and punishment"?  "Absolute power corrupts absolutely"?  Each definition of the subject will suggest different boundaries for the narrative. Indeed, as Perry and Sternberg noted, “The borders of the unit are dynamic…They are determined again and again, reorganizing themselves according to the questions which [the narrative] wants to answer, according to the type of view with which it observes [the situation].”
  3. Comparative structures create a clear analogy (for points of comparison or contrast) in the literary unit, housing the two sides of the analogy beneath one roof.


            While these three methods are distinct, any two or all three may work together.  Let us take the example of the description of Shabbat at the beginning of the second chapter of Bereishit. Unlike the division of the Torah into 54 weekly portions and 669 paragraphs, which is of Jewish origin, the division of Scripture into chapters is of Christian origin. It was Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton who divided the chapters in 1205 (although the division was soon adopted by Jews as well). Langton clearly severs the paragraph of Shabbat from the preceding days of Creation, putting it with the story of the Garden of Eden in chapter 2. Nevertheless, the structure of the plot compels the reader to view the description of Shabbat as an integral part of the story of Creation. This arises from the narrative concatenation – it is impossible to speak of "the seventh day" without the six days preceding it – as well as from the joint theme – the subject of Creation, which comes to its conclusion specifically with rest.  Moreover, in a certain sense, we may point to a comparative element as well – the expression of a confrontation between the six days and the seventh day. As a result, a chorus appears in the short description of the seventh day; "the work which He had done" appears three times in three verses![7]


Verbal Network


            Sometimes, it is not the plot and its structure that helps the reader with narrative demarcation, but rather the tapestry of words in the text, which alerts one to the termini of the story.


  1. Standard formulations make the work of demarcation much easier.  There are boilerplate formulas for the introduction (e.g., "After these things") and the conclusion (e.g., the etiological "Therefore, it is named...  until this very day," naming a place because of the event, etc.; or an editorial summation, such as "And the land was quiet for forty years"). However, one must pay careful attention to the choice of the formulas that open and close the narratives.  "And there was once a man" (Shoftim 13:2, I Shmuel 1:1) gives a feeling of a totally fresh subject; on the other hand, while "At that time" or "After these things" introduce a new unit, they indicate that this new unit is tied to that which precedes it.  (The Rashbam points this out in his comments to the beginning of the story of the Binding of Yitzchak, Bereishit 22:1.)
  2. A mila mancha (guiding word) or unifying semantic field can help the reader find the narrative’s borders. (Polak refers to this as a “structural contribution” of the mila mancha, as we already discussed in the analysis of the mila mancha.) 


            We can demonstrate the importance of verbal demarcation through the story of the theft of Yitzchak’s blessings (Bereishit 27). Langton clearly believes that the story ends with Rivka’s sending Yaakov to Charan, and the final verse of the chapter (46) reports her words to Yitzchak justifying Yaakov’s departure. Yitzchak then blesses Yaakov and formally sends him to Charan to find a wife, and Langton views this as the opening of the next literary unit. The logic behind this distinction is clear: the subject of the theft of the blessings logically should end with Rivka's begging Yaakov to flee to Charan to save himself from Esav, who is trying to kill him because of the theft.  Yitzchak's words to Yaakov are not tied to the theft, and one can thus view them as the introduction to a new scene.[8] 


            However, the reader must note that from the beginning of chapter 28, one encounters many descriptions of family relations:


Arise, go to Paddan Aram, to the house of Betuel, your mother’s father, and take from there a wife, from the daughters of Lavan, your mother’s brother… (2)

And he went to Paddan Aram to Lavan, son of Betuel the Aramean, the brother of Rivka, mother of Yaakov and Esav… (5)

And Esav saw that the daughters of Canaan were evil in the eyes of Yitzchak his father. (8)


These familial terms are common in particular throughout the story of the theft of the blessings, and one may view them as a semantic field that unifies the story of the theft of the blessings (chapter 27). This ties the episode of Yitzchak’s sending Yaakov to Charan with the entire preceding story, a connection implied by the rabbinic division of the portions (the parasha of Toledot concludes with 28:9), as opposed to the division of the chapters.


  1. Inclusion is the technique of creating a literary envelope by using similar words at the beginning of the story and at its end, thereby delineating the boundaries of the story. 

            This can be seen in the story of Yosef and Potifar’s wife (Bereishit 39). The episode both opens (vv. 2-4) and closes (vv. 21-23) with Yosef’s success in the house of an Egyptian master:


And God was with Yosef, and he was a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master.  And his master saw that God was with him; and everything which he did, God made successful in his hand.  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.


            The story ends with a parallel phrase, this time referring to Yosef’s success in prison:


And God was with Yosef, and He treated him kindly, and He made the warden 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.


  1. Inversion is similar to the previous technique, but instead of the opening and closing reflecting a similar state, the conclusion reverses the situation at the opening of the story. The story opens with a certain fact, and within the process of the story, the situation reverses itself, so that in the end the reader confronts the results of this turnabout.[9] 


            For example, in the story of the Tower of Bavel (Bereishit 11:1-9), the introduction (vv. 1-2) mentions two facts: unity of language and unity of place:


And it was (Va-yehi) that the whole world had one language and a common speech. And it was (Va-yehi) when they moved eastward that they found a plain in Shinar and dwelled there.[10]


            In the end of the story (v. 9), the two facts return with a noticeable inversion: no more unity of language or unity of place, but rather a multiplicity of language and a scattering people:


That is why it was named Bavel — because there the Lord confused (balal) the language of the whole world, and from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole world.[11]


            The technique of inversion is also apparent in the opening of the story of Naaman: “And Naaman, chief of the army of the king of Aram… and the man was a mighty man of valor, but a leper” (II Melakhim 5:1), which concludes with a reversal of fortune when Geichazi is told: “‘Naaman’s leprosy will cling to you and your seed forever!’ And he left, leprous as snow” (ibid. 27).[12]  Zakovitch writes of this reversal:


Geichazi’s leprosy is more severe than that of Naaman: concerning Naaman, it is said in the exposition that he is “a leper,” while Geichazi is now described as “leprous as snow”…  Our verse nevertheless completes the cycle – Naaman is healed, while Geichazi becomes a leper. Naaman recognizes, in light of his healing, the hierarchy of our world, while Geichazi becomes a leper because he does not recognize this order, in light of the revelation of his dishonesty and fraud.[13]


  1. Literary structure can be based not on plot elements, but the words in the text themselves. This does not necessarily imply a verbal network, as the structure can spring from the plot and not from the language. Nevertheless, I bring this technique as the final element of our discussion of the role of the verbal tapestry in narrative demarcation to distinguish this type from demarcation based solely on the plot elements. Indeed, in relying on the literary structure of the story for the sake of its demarcation there is some circularity, because the demarcation itself influences the determination of the structure of the story, and it makes sense that sometimes the structure is what determines the elusive demarcation. 


            An example of this may be seen in the struggle of the commentators and critics to determine the boundaries of the story of Yitzchak’s birth and Yishmael’s banishment (Bereishit 21). Langton makes one unit of the two episodes – the great rejoicing at the birth of Yitzchak (vv. 1-8) and the desperation of the banishment of Hagar and Yishmael (vv. 9-21) – as he includes the two halves in the same chapter. This is also the demarcation that arises from the paragraph divisions. On the other hand, some critics claim that in fact there is no connection between the description of Yitzchak’s birth and the description of the banishment of Yishmael.[14]  


            Following the literary structure of the unit can resolve the debate. There is a sense that the narrative is designed as two parallel parts in a chiastic structure, with the response of Avraham to Sara’s proposal to banish Yishmael being the focal point and pivot of the story. (This is sometimes described as a concentric structure.[15])




God’s blessing: the birth of Yitzchak, Avraham’s son



Sara and her son: “God has made laughter for me; whoever hears will laugh for me” / “Sara nurses children!”



Avraham and his son: “a great feast” in honor of his son’s entering the house. [16]



Sara asks Avraham to banish Yishmael.



The reaction of Avraham: “This matter was very bad, in the eyes of Avraham, for his son.”



God joins Sara’s request to banish Yishmael



Avraham and his son: banishment from the house with bread and a bottle of water.



Hagar and her son: “The water in the bottle was spent, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs"



God’s blessing: the survival of Yishmael, son of Avraham.


            This structure is certainly not unequivocal, mainly because there is no joint verbal network binding the parallel parts. However, if it is intentional, this is a deciding vote for the view of the dividers of both the chapters and the paragraphs that one must view the birth of Yitzchak and the banishment of Yishmael as one story. This reading makes the banishment of Yishmael a clear result of the birth of Yitzchak – the selection of one son and the rejection of the other.


            These are the central criteria that aid demarcation of the boundaries of a literary unit.  There are a number of things that make demarcating the story easier, and we will enumerate them at a later point. In order to do so, however, we must first open a wider analysis of borderline cases, cases in which Scripture plays with the boundaries of the unit and in this way assimilates the hidden messages of the narrative. This will be the subject of the next lecture.

[1]     Y. Amit, Likro Sippur Mikra'i (Universita Meshuderet, Misrad Ha-Bitachon, 5760), p. 25.  Compare this to the words of Yair Zakovitch in Gavoah Mei-Al Gavoah: Nittuach Sifruti shel Melakhim Bet, Perek 5 (Tel Aviv 5745), p. 15, who defines the work of narrative demarcation as constituting "the first stage of consciousness in an analysis of literary-biblical creation."

[2]     Nevertheless, it is appropriate to point out even at this point that the question of demarcation significantly affects the question of order and organization of the facts in the narrative, as well as the issue of the literary structure of the narrative. We will relate to this point in the coming lectures.

[3]     A. Frisch, Pirkei Malkhut Shelomo Be-Sefer Melakhim (Doctoral thesis, Bar-Ilan University: Ramat Gan, 5746), p. 12.

[4]     M. Perry and M. Sternberg, "Ha-Melekh Be-Mabbat Ironi," Ha-Sifrut 1: 2 (5728-5729), pp. 263-92.

[5]     M. Perry and M. Sternberg, "Zehirut, Sifrut! Le-Ba’ayot Ha-Interpretatzia Ve-Hapoetika shel Ha-Sippur Ha-Mikra'I," Ha-Sifrut 2 (5730), pp. 608-63 (esp. pp. 633-7).

[6]     Amit, Likro Sippur Mikra'i, p. 29.

[7]     The verbal network seems to support the proposed division, because God's name as mentioned on the seventh day is simply "God" (as opposed to “Lord God,” which is used throughout the next chapters). 

[8]     In fact, it is surprising that the Rivka's words to Yitzchak, "I am disgusted with my life because of the Hittite women," are viewed by Langton as the final verse of chapter 27 (the theft of the blessings) and not the opening of chapter 28 (Yaakov’s leaving home to find a wife).  It may be that because of the centrality of Rivka in this verse, Langton prefers to include it in the story of the theft, in which Rivka is the main instigator.

[9] Examples of inversion can be found in U. Simon’s Keria Sifrutit Ba-Mikra: Sippurei Nevi’im (Jerusalem-Ramat Gan, 5757), pp. 1-2 – I Shmuel 1-2: Holadat Shmuel; p. 84 – I Shmuel 28: Shaul U-Va’alat Ha-Ov; p. 113 – I Shmuel 10-12: David U-Vat Sheva); and p. 274 – I Melakhim 18-19: Berichat Eliyahu Le-Chorev. 

[10]    The anaphora “Va-yehi” makes it easier for the reader to identify the double introduction to the narrative.

[11]    In this conclusion, the anaphora of “there” and the epiphora of “all the land” are intertwined, which makes it easier for the reader to identify the double conclusions.  As for the envelope structure, see, for example, J. P. Fokkelman’s Narrative Art in Genesis (Assen and Amsterdam, 1975), pp. 13-23.

[12]    Translator’s note: For convenience’s sake, we use the terms “leper” and “leprosy” for metzora and tzara’at respectively, despite the fact that in Tanakh, tzara’at is a physical manifestation of spiritual infirmity, not a bacterial disease.

[13]    Zakovitch, Gavoah Mei-Al Gavoah, p. 121.

[14] This is how Westermann and Hamilton approach the story: C. Westermann, Genesis 12-36: A Commentary (Minneapolis, 1985), p. 330, 336; V. P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50 (NICOT, Grand Rapids, 1995), p. 75.

[15] Compare this view to that of E. Samet in Iyunim Be-Farashat Ha-Shavua, Parashat Vayera.

[16]    Weaning was viewed in the ancient world as the stage at which the child was separated from its mother and became a member of the household.