Narrative Demarcation, Part II

  • 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 #16a:

Narrative Demarcation, Part II


            Generally, biblical narratives can easily be differentiated from one another; upon first reading a narrative, a reader can usually figure out the boundaries of the unit intuitively. Nevertheless, there are cases in which this work is problematic to a great extent.  Moreover, sometimes one must view the flexibility of the boundaries of the unit as playing a literary role of its own. In this sense, Scripture can play with readers and thereby make a substantial contribution to the hidden meaning of the story. 


            In our current discussion, we will examine boundary markers essential to identifying a separate story. Although they may be indistinct or ambivalent, they allude to the fact that the narrative is not as independent and discrete as it may appear upon first reading it. 




            This issue is particularly prominent in narrative cycles, in which each story stands on its own but is tied thematically to the stories surrounding it.


            For example, in Shoftim, we find more than a dozen separate episodes of different judges in different eras. Nevertheless, a new passage is often introduced with the formula “And they resumed,” as in “And the Israelites resumed doing evil in the eyes of God (Shoftim 3:12, 4:1, 10:6, 13:1). This verb naturally broadcasts continuity,[1] despite the fact that it serves as the opening of a new narrative.  Polzin appropriately notes this ambivalent formula, observing that using this verb reinforces the reader’s feeling of circularity throughout the entire book, a cycle of sin-cry-salvation: the Israelites sin before God, they cry out under foreign oppression, and God sends a savior.[2] 


            Similarly, we find descriptions of chronology in at the beginning of many stories in Tanakh, such as “After these things” or “At that time,” as well as “And it was after this” (II Shmuel 13:1). As we have already pointed out, these vague formulas send conflicting messages: each opens a new unit, but each also ties that episode to what has transpired beforehand.[3] We must also take note of formulas that link two stories with an explicit chronology – for example, “And it was at the end of two years, and Pharaoh dreamt” (Bereishit 41:1); “And it was after two full years, and they were shearing for Avshalom in Baal Chatzor” (II Shmuel 13:23). 


            In these cases, the verse wants to hint to the reader that despite the fact that it is beginning a new story, which is separate from its antecedents, the new episode must carry out something of a dialogue with the preceding stories. Sometimes this is self-evident in the very continuity of the plot (these are the concatenate structures discussed by Perry and Sternberg), but sometimes this can surprise the reader and allude to the reading that resides beneath the surface.  For example, the story of the Binding of Yitzchak opens with the heading, “After these things.” This alludes to the fact that one should read the story in light of what precedes it, despite the fact that in the first reading it is difficult to see the immediate link between the Binding of Yitzchak and the relationship between Avraham and Avimelekh (described before the Binding in Bereishit 20-21). The Rashbam addresses this opening, and he brings additional examples to buttress his claim that a heading such as this ties the story to what precedes it:


Wherever it says, “After these things,” it is attached to the passage above it.  “After these things” — i.e., Avraham’s killing the kings — God says to him, “Do not fear, Avram” these nations (Bereishit 15:1).

“And it was after these things” that Yitzchak is born, “And it was told to Avraham… ‘And Betuel fathered Rivka’” (Ibid., 22:20-23). 

Similarly, “After these things,” that Mordekhai informs on Bigtan and Teresh, “King Achashverosh advanced Haman” who wants to kill Mordekhai, and it is only [Mordekhai’s] saving of the king which helps him and leads to Haman being hanged (Esther 3:1).


            It appears that the Rashbam is preempting his potential opponents by countering their presumptive counterexamples. In other words, the cases which the Rashbam cites are the ones which are less salient; nevertheless, the Rashbam argues that the rule which he cites is relevant and applicable. In light of this assumption, the Rashbam continues and explains what the connection is, in his view, between the test of the Binding of Yitzchak and the covenant that Avraham makes with Avimelekh in the end of chapter 21.   


It is the same here: “After these things,” that Avraham makes a covenant with Avimelekh — “to me, to my son and to my grandson” — and gives him seven lambs, God becomes angry about this, because the land of the Philistines is in the boundary of Israel and God commands concerning them, “Do not let a soul live” (Devarim 20:16)…  

Thus, “And God tested” — He rebuked him and pained him.  [This term is used in the same sense elsewhere,] as it says: “If someone tests you with a word, will you be impatient?” (Iyov 4:2); “He named the place Massa U-mriva… for their testing God" (Shemot 17:7); “Try me and test me” (Tehillim 26:2).  

It is as if God is saying [to Avraham]: You are prideful about the child that I have given you, making a covenant between you and their children. Now go and bring him up as an offering, and see whether making your covenant helps you!


            This audacious approach of the Rashbam — which views the Binding of Yitzchak as a punishment for Avraham’s making a covenant with Avimelekh regarding the land that had been promised to him and his seed — depends in its entirety on the opening “After these things,” which directs the reader to interpret the story of the Binding of Yitzchak against the background of the previous literary unit.  


            Even if one explains the meaning of the connection between these units in a different way than the Rashbam’s thesis, it indeed appears that the verse refers in additional ways to the connection between the story of the Binding of Yitzchak and the relationship between Avraham and Avimelekh.[4] In this sense, it is an innocent heading — the main thrust of which is to introduce a new unit — which carries within it an extremely significant, hidden message for understanding the aim of the narrative as a whole.




            In some situations, the opening of the narrative does not suffice with alluding to the previous story, but rather creates a true concatenation between two separate stories. In other words, there is a small unit that concludes one narrative and at the same time opens the succeeding story. It appears that this is the way we should understand Yaakov’s encounter with the angels at Machanayim (literally, “pair of camps”) in Bereishit 32:1-2. The ambivalence of the narrative demarcation is immediately noticeable here, as these two verses are the first two verses of chapter 32, while they are the last two of Parashat Vayeitzei — which is not only a single Torah portion, but a single paragraph as well. Thus, according to the traditional Jewish division, Yaakov’s encounter with the angels forms the conclusion of the story of his exile in Charan, while Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton’s chapter division portray this small unit as the opening to the coming story — the encounter of Yaakov and Esav.[5]       


            It appears that the structure of the encounter between Yaakov and the angels and its textual position actually encourage both readings simultaneously. On the one hand, this encounter is the closing of a circle (inclusio), evoking Yaakov’s departure in exile (the dream of the ladder), as seen in the similar language.


Departure to Charan (28:11-19)

Return from Charan (32:1-2)

And he came upon the place, and he spent the night there

And they came upon him

And behold, God’s angels

God’s angels

And he said… “This can be only God’s house (beit Elohim)”

And Yaakov said when he saw them, “This is God’s camp (machaneh Elohim)”

And he named that place Beit El

And he named that place Machanayim


            Indeed, Rashi responds to this literary connection and its meaning in the framework that it creates for the story of Yaakov’s exile. He draws a distinction between the Land of Israel and outside it (chutza la-aretz). This is what he writes about the dream of the ladder (28:12):


“Ascending and descending” — first ascending, and afterwards descending. The angels who accompanied him in the land could not go chutza la-aretz, so they ascended to heaven, and the angels of chutza la-aretz descended to accompany him.   


Rashi further explains Yaakov’s encounter with the angels at Machanayim (32:1): “‘And God’s angels came upon him’ — the angels of the Land of Israel came to greet him to accompany him to the land.”    


            From this perspective, the traditional Jewish division is justified. Parashat Vayeitzei begins and ends with angelic peregrinations, and one should view the story of Machanayim as a scene that concludes the story of Yaakov’s exile in Charan. 


            On the other hand, it appears that Langton is justified in dividing the chapters, and one may view this scene as the opening of the story of the encounter between Yaakov and Esav. This emerges first and foremost from the guiding words unique to the encounter between Yaakov and Esav, among them “camp” and even “two camps.” This term is mentioned when Yaakov encounters the angels at Machanayim (“This is God’s camp”), and it is stressed because of the naming of this place on the basis of this event, and in plural (Machanayim). This forms a link with the story of the encounter between Yaakov and Esav, apparently serving as an introduction.[6]


            This connection also emerges from the use of the term “malakhim,” which can mean angels or messengers. In the beginning of the story of the encounter between Yaakov and Esav, we read: “And Yaakov sent messengers before him to Esav his brother, to the land of Se'ir, the field of Edom" (32:3).[7] The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 74:17) highlights this point:


How many angels were dancing and prancing before our patriarch Yaakov when he entered the land? 

R. Huna in the name of R. Aivu said: 600,000 were dancing before our patriarch Yaakov when he entered the Land, and thus it is said, “And Yaakov said when he saw them, ‘This is God’s camp,’ and the Presence does not rest on fewer than 600,000.

The Rabbis say: 1,200,000 [angels]: “And he named that place Machanayim” —a camp is 600,000, so two camps [Machanayim] is 1,200,000.

R. Yudan said: He took from these and from those and he sent before him, and thus it is said, “And Yaakov sent messengers before him.”


            In fact, Yaakov’s encounter with the angels in Machanayim is also tied to his encounter with Esav in terms of the plot elements. The angels whom Yaakov encounters appear to be warriors (“This is God’s camp”), and the chapter ultimately ends with Yaakov’s encounter-struggle with the angel (ish) at Yabbok Ford, in the midst of the story of Yaakov’s encounter with his brother Esav. It may even be that the violence of the encounter is foreshadowed by the terminology used at Machanayim: “And God’s angels came upon him (va-yifgeu). Both pegisha and pegia are biblical terms for an encounter, but the latter frequently carries a violent, confrontational connotation. It may be that using “pegia” at Machanayim prepares the reader for the actual pegia which will happen at Yabbok Ford.[8]


            Thus, it seems that both the division of portions and that of the chapters are justified; Yaakov’s encounter with angels at Machanayim constitutes a conclusion to the story of the exile in Charan, but at the same time, it is the introduction to the encounter of Yaakov with Esav. Thus, we can describe this unit as a concatenate unit.[9]


            What is the thematic contribution of the integration and intertwining of these two narratives? The feeling that arises is that as the story of Yaakov and Lavan is ending, the story of Yaakov and Esav is just beginning. In other words, the verse alludes that although the episode of Yaakov’s encounter with Esav is a story that stands on its own, one should read it as the natural sequel to the narrative of Yaakov and Lavan.


            It appears that the reading of Yaakov and Esav’s encounter as a continuation of the story of Lavan implies a criticism of Yaakov and his capitulation before Esav. Before Lavan, Yaakov assumes a position of strength, lobbing severe accusations at him and even emphasizing God’s protection and providence:


Yaakov was angry and fought with Lavan. “What is my crime?” he asked Lavan.  “What sin have I committed that you hunt me down? 

“Had the God of my father, the God of Avraham and the Fear of Yitzchak, not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty-handed.  But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands, and last night he rebuked you.” (Bereishit 31:36, 42)


            Following these words, Yaakov makes a covenant with Lavan, and although they part ways, they do so on good terms. After Lavan’s departure, Yaakov encounters a camp of angels. In other words, this scene closes the story of exile while stressing that God’s angels are accompanying Yaakov on his way, just as he has said to Lavan that the God of his fathers accompanies and watches him.


            However, as we have said, this scene also opens the encounter with his brother Esav. God’s angels accompany Yaakov as he approaches this encounter as well. To the reader’s great disappointment, the steadfast position of Yaakov before Lavan disappears totally in Yaakov’s encounter with Esav. God’s malakhim no longer serve as escorts and guards for Yaakov, but Yaakov’s malakhim are mentioned as bearing a gift and wanting to appease Esav!


            The concatenation of these two stories raises the expectation that Yaakov will treat his brother the way he has treated his uncle.  The expectation is that the continuity of the stories will represent some continuity in Yaakov’s personality, but this is not realized.  Yaakov ultimately reconciles with Esav as well, but to achieve this he must genuflect and lavish him with gifts.


            The concatenation of units is far more common in Tanakh than most people think. Every time that two stories are intertwined in this way, the verse seeks to designate an ambivalent boundary: while a new unit does indeed begin, one must read it as the continuation of the previous episode, and examine the theme of the new unit in light of it.


            In our next lecture, we will examine a different type of narrative boundary: a permeable one. This will reveal a new technique of narrative demarcation. 


[Translated by Rav Yoseif Bloch]


[1]     Compare, for example, “And the nation, the men of Israel, strengthened themselves, and they resumed waging war in the place that they had waged it on the first day” (Shofetim 20:22).

[2]     R. Polzin, Moses and the Deuteronomist: A Literary Study of the Deuteronomic History (New York, 1980), pp. 156-7.

[3]     The Rashbam already points this out in his commentary to the story of the Binding of Yitzchak (Bereishit 22:1); see below. Among the bible critics, some have claimed that there is no need to include formulas that tie one story to another in a cycle of stories, because the stories are placed sided by side naturally. Consequently, one must see in these connective formulas a clear indication that these stories were written at first individually, and only later integrated in sequential narrative cycles. (This is Claus Westermann’s claim in his commentary to Bereishit 15:1.) I would argue, however, that these connective formulas have a literary role, not merely an editorial one. Even if the stories were written in this order, there would still be good reason to use these formulas, as these headings compel one to read one episode in light of another, which one would not do were they merely adjacent. (See, for example, Bereishit 15:1 and 22:1, etc.)    

[4]     R. Yoel Bin-Nun demonstrates this in “Parshiyot Yitzchak,” Megadim 25 (5756), pp. 44-53.

[5]     In some versions, ch. 32 opens with Lavan’s departure, while in others (mainly English translations), the chapter opens with what we have before us as v. 2 — Yaakov’s encounter with the angels. This distinction reflects an additional point of contention: even if the passage of appeasing Esav opens with the encounter with the angels, should we view Lavan’s departure as the opening of that story, or should we separate it from the narrative and open with the description of Yaakov’s encounter with the angels?

[6]     For example, see E. A. Speiser, Genesis (AB, New York, 1962), p. 254; G. J. Wenham, Genesis 16-50 (WBC, Waco, TX, 1994), p. 296.

[7]     Thus, for example, Speiser also demarcates the story and sees the encounter with the angels as part of the narrative of Yaakov’s encounter with Esav (ibid. p. 252).

[8]     In Lecture 6, we discussed the significance of pegisha and pegia.

[9]     In fact, this phenomenon is the equivalent of Janus parallelism, in which a word receives two parallel definitions: one according to what is written before it and an alternative based on what is written after it. While Janus parallelism describes this phenomenon in terms of a lone word, we are dealing now with a small unit.