Narrative Demarcation, Part IV - Dynamic Boundaries

  • 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 #17:

Narrative Demarcation, Part IV

Dynamic Boundaries



            In this lecture, our final lecture on narrative demarcation in Tanakh, we will confront an intriguing variation on this theme.  Despite the clear sense that every narrative has its natural boundaries, sometimes Scripture may play with these borders.  I do not refer to the phenomenon analyzed by Perry and Sternberg, in which the boundaries of the unit are dynamic and change in light of the reader’s seeking out different subjects through which the narrative may then be organized in different ways. My intent is rather to examine cases in which the subject of the narrative is agreed-upon and obvious, but nevertheless a number of parallel demarcations are tenable, and all of them are encouraged by the verses themselves. 


            In order to examine this phenomenon, we will analyze the story of the theft of the blessings in (and possibly around) Bereishit 27.  This is a narrative that, in my humble opinion, allows the reader to recognize how Scripture creates different demarcations, significantly influencing one’s assessment of the characters within the narrative.[1]


            Before we begin this analysis, we must note that the narrative of the theft of the blessings has many facets, and it is not feasible in the current framework to dissect it in a comprehensive way.  My intent here is not to present a close reading of the narrative, but to present certain facets that are uncovered by the determination of the story’s boundaries, thereby outlining a general approach only.




            The question of character assessment in a narrative is an extremely gripping question, particularly when the narrator shies away from any direct judgment. As Avishur puts it:


In a story this dramatic, the narrator succeeds in maintaining maximum objectivity and does not reveal a position: does the narrator condemn the actions by Rivka and Yaakov or praise them?[2]


            What are the boundaries of the unit under discussion? There is a general consensus that the end of the story is Yaakov’s departure from his house (character dispersal) and Esav’s marriage to Yishmael’s daughter (28:9).[3] As we have already noted (see Lecture 15), Langton, in his division of the chapters, feels that Yitzchak’s sending Yaakov to Charan is the beginning of a new story. However, his approach is difficult, because Yitzchak’s summons and command (28:1) are both presented by the narrative as direct responses to Rivka’s desperate declaration to Yitzchak in the immediately preceding verse (27:46): “‘I am disgusted with my life because of Hittite women.’” This statement is in turn informed by her concern about Esav’s desire to kill Yaakov (27:42-45), so that it is difficult to disassociate Yitzchak’s words to Yaakov from the natural chain of the development of the plot (concatenate structure).[4]  


            Thus, most commentators and critics agree that the story does not end until 28:9. But where does it begin? Unlike the conclusion of the narrative, its starting point is a matter of contention and divergent views.


The Minimalist Reading (27:1-28:9)


            The minimalist reading sees the beginning of the story at the start of chapter 27, namely with the description of time at its opening: “And it was (Va-yehi) when Yitzchak grew old” (v. 1). This is a classic introductory formula for a new unit, alluding to the possibility that a great deal of time may have passed since the previous episode — in this case, Esav’s marriage to two Hittite women at age forty.[5] Furthermore, at first glance, Esav’s nuptials seem to be divorced from the plot of the theft of the blessings. In this aspect, Langton and the Masoretic text are in accord, as Esav’s marriage is in a different chapter as well as a different paragraph, so that “Va-yehi” opens a fresh narrative. 


            According to this demarcation, Esav (just like Yitzchak) is presented as a tragic figure whose mother and brother lead him down the garden path. While he is fulfilling his father’s command, his brother stealthily steals the blessing that his father had designated for him. The verse does not allude to a special impetus for the theft of the blessings, and the reader has no choice but to feel that Rivka’s preference for her younger son is tied to her unique love for him (in light of 25:28). A reading such as this naturally judges Rivka and Yaakov harshly.


            There are additional foundations in the narrative to support this approach. Consider the lack of a dialogue between Rivka and Yitzchak about the intended recipient of the blessings and Yaakov’s concern that the ruse will be uncovered, resulting in a curse for him instead of a blessing (27:11-12) — and his lack of concern about the ruse itself.


            These facts are integrated into the negative assessment of Rivka and Yaakov, while on the other side the reader finds the “old” man Yitzchak and the “older son” Esav, the characters who are led astray.[6] The language of Esav (e.g., “Here I am;” 27:1) and his marriage to Yishmael’s daughter in order to appease his father encourage a positive assessment of the character and identification with his pain. This reading is buttressed, naturally, by the description of Yitzchak when he uncovers the ruse, “And Yitzchak trembled with an exceedingly great trembling” (27:33), and the description of Esav in this scene, “And Esav cried an exceedingly great and bitter cry” (27:34).


            It is difficult not to feel the narrator’s sympathy for these tragic figures. The reader is drawn at this point to an evident negative evaluation of Yaakov’s acts; although it is said by Yitzchak, it leaves a great impression: “Your brother came with guile, and he took your blessing” (27:35).[7]


            Thus, the inevitable conclusion of the reader is that “the guileless, innocent Yitzchak and Esav are the ones who touch our hearts here, not the guileful Rivka and Yaakov, who succeed in their malfeasance.”[8]


The Expansive Reading (26:34-28:9)


            Although both the chapter and paragraph divisions point to Yitzchak’s advanced age as signaling the opening of the story, it appears that the narrative structure of the unit points to Esav’s marriage to Hittite women as the starting point.[9] The issue arises because of the inclusio created here: Esav’s marriage (to Hittite women) introduces the tale, and in the end, the issue of Esav’s marriage (to Yishmael’s daughter) resurfaces.[10]


            Moreover, it may be that this literary envelope is only the shell of a fuller chiastic structure:[11]


A.  Marriage of Esav to Hittites (26:34-35)

B.  Yitzchak sends Esav to the field and wants to bless him (27:1-4)

C.  Rivka hears of Yitzchak’s desire and commands Yaakov to act and trick Yitzchak (“And now, my son, listen to my voice”) (27:5-17)

D.  Yaakov, disguised as Esav, comes to his father to receive the blessing (“I am your firstborn Esav”) and is blessed (27:18-29)

D1.  Esav comes to his father to receive the blessing (“I am your son, your firstborn Esav”) and is blessed (27:30-41)

C1.  Rivka hears of Esav’s desire to kill Yaakov and commands Yaakov to act (“And now, my son, listen to my voice”) (27:42-46)

B1.  Yitzchak sends Yaakov to Paddan Aram and blesses him (28:1-5)

A1.  Marriage of Esav to Yishmael’s daughter (28:6-9)


            Indeed, within the story, there is a utilization of the fact of Esav’s marriage to Hittite women as justification for Rivka’s desire to send Yaakov to Paddan Aram (27:46): “I am disgusted with my life because of Hittite women; if Yaakov takes a wife from Hittite women such as these, from the women of the land, what good is my life to me?”


            According to this demarcation, one must view Esav’s marriage to Hittite women as the background of the story of stealing the blessings. These marriages have an obviously negative evaluation, even if it stated from the point of view Yitzchak and Rivka: “And they embittered the spirit of Yitzchak and of Rivka” (26:35). As we have said, Rivka restates this as the plot progresses.


            Beginning the narrative at this point encourages the reader to view Esav as a son unworthy of blessing. Coupled with the fact mentioned immediately afterward — Yitzchak’s failing vision — the reader is drawn to a metaphor of willful blindness: despite Esav’s marriage to the Hittites, Yitzchak still wants to bless him. As the Abarbanel (ibid.) states: 


Love breaks all the rules…  Perhaps for this reason it says, “And his eyes were too dim to see” — the “eyes” of his intellect and intuition were dimmed, and he did not observe or perceive his actions appropriately.[12]


            A fact mentioned in the introduction to the narrative is very important, and in our context, the reader can determine (in light of the marriage of Esav to the Hittite women) the reason for Rivka’s actions. Thus, this small paragraph leavens our negative assessment of Rivka in the narrative, alluding to the possibility that indeed Esav does not deserve Yitzchak’s blessing.


The Maximalist Reading: The Story as Part of a Narrative Cycle (25:19-28:9)


            There is an additional reading of which the reader must be aware as well. Zakovitch stresses that after one determines the boundaries of the narrative, one must clarify if “it is an independent literary unit… or perhaps the narrative is written as part of a wider framework on which it sheds light and which sheds light on it.”[13]


            This is realized in full in the narrative before us. In the narrative of the theft of the blessings, there are hints to preexisting frameworks in the story, and the reader is compelled to take them into account as well:


1.    In response to the revelation that his brother has stolen the blessing intended for him, Esav declares (27:36): “Indeed, he was named Yaakov, for he has deceived me (va-yakeveni) these two times: he took my birthright, and now, behold, he has taken my blessing!”  Esav refers to the scene of selling the birthright (bekhora) (25:29-34).  There is also a literary link between the two scenes: in both of them, the status of firstborn is determined in the context of eating and drinking, and in both of them, the day of death is mentioned as an impetus for the action. At the selling of the birthright, Esav says: “Behold, I am going to die, and what good is a birthright to me?” (25:32); in the story of the blessings, Yitzchak says: “Behold, I have grown old; I do not know the day of my death” (27:2).[14] In addition, the similarity between bekhorati (my birthright) and birkhati (my blessing) stresses in a unique way the relationship between the two frameworks.[15]

2.    An additional framework referred to in the narrative is the prophecy that Rivka received when she went to seek God while pregnant (25:22-24). Both in the blessing that Yitzchak gives to Yaakov and the blessing that, at the end of the day, Yitzchak gives to Esav, servitude is mentioned (27:29, 40) “Nations will serve you;” “And you will serve your brother.” Due to this proximity, it is logical that the verse alludes to the prophecy that Rivka has received, which deals with these two brothers: “And the older will serve the younger” (25:23).   


            These two episodes take the reader out of this unit and allude to its place within the greater whole of the entire narrative cycle. In terms of E. M. Forster’s literary distinctions, we have a coherent literary plot before us, and the reader must interpret every stage in the development of the plot in light of the previous stages.  As Aharoni puts it:


Many words and verses in this narrative of ours receive a deeper significance only with the completion of an analytical reading of all three acts. This is because every scene in the narrative sheds light on the others, demystifying and clarifying vague and obscure points in its subsections.[16]


            Indeed, there is clear thematic continuity between the narrative of the theft of the blessing, the prophecy to Rivka, and the sale of the birthright, as all of them are dealing with the question of the birthright and the struggle between the brothers.


            We should note that at the beginning of Yaakov’s narrative cycle, the verse states: “And Yitzchak was forty years old when he took Rivka, daughter of Betuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram, the sister of Lavan the Aramean, for himself as a wife” (25:20). It is logical that, as the Abarbanel (ibid.) already points out, Lavan’s identity as Rivka’s brother is an expositional fact that will receive its full meaning only when Yaakov flees to Charan, to “Lavan, his mother’s brother.”  This fact serves as another proof that Scripture views all of these acts and scenes as one continuous story, and the reader is required to read one small unit against the backdrop of its adjacent passages.


            In an expansive reading such as this, the negative assessment of Rivka and Yaakov is noticeably reserved, as each of them has hidden motives. Rivka acts in light of the prophecy she has received, and her preference for the younger son thus receives a stamp of divine approval. Yaakov similarly acts in light of the birthright that he purchased from Esav. Moreover, the reading of Esav’s words accusing his brother Yaakov can even arouse some measured criticism of Esav, in light of the sale of the birthright: 


When he says “I am your son, your firstborn Esav” (32) he denies his absolute relinquishment and forswearing of the birthright (25:33), and he does not have any foundation to indict Yaakov for taking the birthright by deceit (36) because he sells his birthright with full knowledge![17]


The Dual Assessment


            As each of these readings is textually and thematically valid, it makes sense that the verses itself encourages a number of parallel demarcations of the same narrative, in which each narrative carries within it a different assessment of the characters acting in it. What is the contribution of the dual assessment in this story? Why do the verses demand that the reader judge Rivka and Yaakov harshly for the very act of stealing the blessing and then lighten this negative assessment in light of the expansive story?


            It appears to me that Buber anticipated this question with his analysis of the greater context.


In the narrative of the Book of Bereishit, the essential purpose is to explain the development of the generations of Israel according to their previous selection; this selection must be repeated and reiterated in every generation. Here too, it was ordained to present the distancing of the firstborn as an act of Divine Providence; naturally, this could not be spoken of as injustice…  Nevertheless, one cannot deny the quintessence of the secret of theology and biblical history, which says that the divine direction leaves some freedom for human actions and responsibility for those actions.[18]  


In other words, Scripture presents the selection of Yaakov as a divine selection; however, at the same time, it wants to intimate some criticism of his methods in acquiring the blessing. The ambivalent message is tied here to the view (which can be found in the evaluation of King Yehu as well) that the end does not justify the means; a man — even if chosen by God — will be forced to pay the piper for his immoral acts (even if in these acts he is realizing the divine decree).


            Naturally, it is not surprising that the reader is destined to return to this story through the continuation of the reading of Yaakov’s narrative cycle, which assimilates much subliminal criticism of Yaakov’s acts.[19] The reader may be frustrated by this. As Aharoni puts it:


At times, one is struck dumb upon witnessing the emotional and sometimes physical devastation that God’s ways bring upon the heroes woven into the tapestry of His plans. But, as it is said, God’s ways are hidden, His thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways.[20] 


            With this, we have almost completed our analysis of narrative demarcation. The next lecture will be dedicated to what is called the “imaginary conclusion,” and with this we will conclude our analysis of this issue.

[1]     What appears below is a summary of my doctoral thesis. Readers interested in delving into this matter are welcome to read it: "Kefel Mashma'ut Be-Sippur Ha-Mikra'i U-Terumato Le-Itzuv Ha-Sippur” (Bar-Ilan University, 5766).

[2]     Y. Avishur, Bereishit (Olam Ha-Tanakh; Tel Aviv, 1993), p. 171.

[3]     See, for example, J. P. Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative: An Introductory Guide (Leiderdrop, 1999), p. 47

[4]     As we have already pointed out, there is also a common semantic field in the narrative of the theft of the blessing and Yitzchak’s sending Yaakov to Charan.

[5]     It may be that a case of inclusio exists according to this demarcation, because the narrative opens with Yitzchak’s eyes — “And it was when Yitzchak grew old, and his eyes were too dim to see” (27:1) — and ends with them as well — “And Esav saw that the daughters of Canaan were evil in the eyes of Yitzchak his father” (28:8). However, I have my doubts about this.

[6]     Zakovitch is justified in his claim that there is unique effort on the part of the verse to “salvage Yaakov’s honor” and to put the main responsibility for the theft of the blessings on Rivka’s shoulders; see Y. Zakovitch, “Akbat Yaakov,” in B.Z. Luria (ed.), Sefer Dr. Baruch Ben-Yehuda (Tel Aviv, 5741), p. 131. Despite this, for the purposes of our analysis, I seek to focus on the question of the assessment of the two parties in the household: Yitzchak and Esav on one side Rivka and Yaakov on the other.

[7]     This is particularly notable because the idea of guile (mirma) shows up again in the narrative cycle, when Yaakov complains that Lavan has tricked him (Bereishit 29:25).

[8]     Z. Adar, Sefer Bereishit — Mavo Le-Olam Ha-Mikra’i (Tel Aviv, 5727), p. 77.

[9]     Dillmann already points this out; see A. Dillmann, Genesis: Critical and Exegetically Expounded, trans. B. Stevenson (Edinburgh, 1897), vol. 2, p. 210. This is particularly prominent in his subtitle for this unit: “He is blessed by Isaac: Ch. xxvi, 34 – xxviii, 9."

[10]    The fact that the description of Esav’s marriage opens with the word “Va-yehi” further encourages this reading.

[11]    Fokkelman and Fishbane discuss the chiastic structure of the narrative; however, they demarcate the narrative using the minimalist option, so that the narrative is structured to open with Yitzchak’s command to his older son to go out to the field and to close with Yitzchak’s command to his younger son to go out to Charan. J. P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis (Assen and Amsterdam, 1975), p. 98; M. Fishbane, Text and Texture: Close Reading of Selected Biblical Text (New York, 1979), p. 49.

[12]    Rashi, who (following the midrash) ties the blindness of Yitzchak to the idolatrous smoke of the Hittite wives, is responding practically to the expansive demarcation. He is seeking to interpret the significance of the blindness in light of this preceding fact.

[13]    Y. Zakovitch, Mavo Le-Farshanut Penim Mikra’it (Even-Yehuda, 1992), p. 57.

[14]    See Zakovitch, n.6 above, pp. 130-1.

[15]    Translator’s note: This link and its implications are discussed in Lecture #09. As we noted there, although "birthright" is probably the best translation of bekhora, it is directly related to the term "bekhor," which refers to the male firstborn of the family.

[16]    R. Aharoni, “Yaakov Ve-Esav: Machazeh Be-Shalosh Ma’arakhot,” Beit Mikra 23 (5738), p. 327.

[17]    Zakovitch, n.6 above, p. 132. There are other approaches to understanding the selling of the birthright. See, for example, the Ramban (ad loc.), who maintains that the sale revolves around the issue of inheriting the father’s status only, not the issue of receiving the blessing.

[18]    M. Buber, Darko shel Mikra (Jerusalem, 5724), p. 291.

[19]    This is already mentioned in Midrashic sources (e.g., Tanchuma Yashan, Parashat Vayeitzei, 11). See N. Leibowitz, Iyunim Be-Sefer Bereishit (Jerusalem, 5727), pp. 224-5.

[20]    Aharoni, n.15 above, p. 340, paraphrasing Yeshayahu 40:27 and 55:8.