Structuralism and Form Criticism

  • 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 #20:

Structuralism and Form Criticism




            In the previous lecture, we dealt with the structure and flow of the plot. In order to continue this discussion, I would like to take note of an additional way to track the plot of the narrative and its structure, a method that relies on the fundamental themes of the narrative and is usually described as “deep structure.” 


            The proponents of the structuralist view as a tool of literary analysis claim that in every narrative there is a basic conflict which becomes clear through the process of telling the story. The reader must distinguish what, on the fundamental and ideal level, is the source of the tension.  The narrative and its structure can then be analyzed in terms of the process the reader must undergo in following this conflict. The deep structure will not always describe the development of the narrative and the plot in it according to the chronological order of the story. On the contrary, according to this approach, the reader must disconnect from the concreteness of the test and seek out its true underlying structure.  In Rimmon-Kenan’s words:


Deep structure is paradigmatic, and based on static, logical connections among the elements. Therefore, deep structures — even though they are an abstraction of the sequence of events — are not stories in themselves.[1]


            Harold Fisch expresses this idea more sharply, saying of the synchronistic order which structuralism seeks out:


We have no truck with a chain of events. Practically, there is no concept of before and after here, but rather a network of opposites which cut across all of the stories and impart a unitary significance. This significance reveals itself in a form akin to a mathematical equation. It is totally abstract, a “model in logic,” according to the words of Levi-Strauss. On the other hand, the isolated concrete stories are revealed as transformations of this model.[2]


            In fact, the structuralist approach rests upon the concrete narrative and seeks to locate an essential, shared tension of different stories.[3] However, there is a value in the approach of following the structure of the lone narrative, as one may describe the order of the organization of facts in the narrative against the background of antithesis that the narrative clarifies. This is, as we have said, the significant contribution of the structuralist school of thought to the investigation of the theory of literature; as we shall see later on, one may analyze the structure of biblical narrative as well in light of these basic assumptions.[4]


The Story of the Complaint of the Mitavim


            Many commentators and critics have struggled with the order and structure of the story of the Mitavim (Bamidbar 11) — literally, “the desirers,” who complain about the manna and demand meat (and whose demise lends the location of the story its name: Kivrot Ha-Taava, Graves of Desire). On its face, this story contains two axes, but the link between them is not sufficiently clear. On the one hand, the narrative describes the complaint of the Mitavim and the response, in the form of the quails which are dumped on the camp. On the other hand, we also find in this narrative a complaint from Moshe about his stiff-necked charges, and the solution takes the form of seventy elders who take on leadership under Moshe in the Tent of Meeting, with a side-note about Eldad and Meidad, who prophesy inappropriately in the camp.  Among contemporary critics, conventional wisdom is that these two angles or axes are in fact two discrete and unrelated stories that have been forced into one narrative. Thus, for example, Jacob Licht writes:


Essentially, the passage is constructed in a very simple way, a story within a story. The basic story is about Kivrot Ha-Taava, and it is a characteristic tale of rebellion… but within it is integrated a story dealing with a different subject entirely: the issue of Moshe’s prophecy and the imparting of his power to the rest of the prophets. In order for the narrative of inspiration to align with the story of Kivrot Ha-Taava, the narrator develops a transitional section, in which Moshe complains about the burden of leadership, and in which God tells him that He will lighten the load upon him by imparting the spirit [to others] and that He will also feed the nation.[5]


            Is there, in fact, a characteristic link between these two elements or is their conjunction actually only a circumstantial and technical arrangement of convenience? 


            Before we discuss the analysis of the narrative, I wish to mention briefly the view of David Jobling, who seeks to read the narrative while searching for its deep structure.[6] According to him, the two essential fundamentals which come into conflict in this story are the fulfillment of the essential plan, which is to bring the people to the land of Canaan as quickly as possible, and the obstacles which threaten to undo this — the people’s demand for meat and Moshe’s desire to cast off the yoke of leadership. 


            Jobling argues that in light of this, one may take note of the set structure of the narrative: while God appears to give in to the demands, desires, and delays, He instead circumvents and counteracts them.  Moshe challenges his sole leadership, and therefore God takes some of his spirit and grants it to the seventy elders, but it immediately becomes clear that “they did not continue” (25) to prophesy, so that Moshe is left alone again.[7] Similarly, the people ask for meat, and therefore God causes the quail to come to them; but it becomes clear while the meat is “still between their teeth” (33) that they will not enjoy it for very long, as God’s anger is kindled against the people and He strikes a grievous blow against them.


            This analysis is very interesting, but it is difficult to free oneself from the feeling that many elements in the narrative are unmoored by this description, without being integrated in the proposed structure. An alternative approach to the narrative — in my opinion, a very convincing one – is taken by Harold Fisch.[8] First, he raises the issue of the artistic structure of the narrative, which jumps from issue to issue (the question of meat and the question of leadership) in a set way, so that there is a latticed structure:


4-10: The desire for meat

                  11-17: The question of leadership

18-24: The desire for meat

                  24-30: The question of leadership

31-33: The desire for meat


            Based on this, Fisch claims that the basic tension that becomes clear in the narrative is the between “good order” and “disorder and chaos.” This confrontation is set out in the narrative in two different contexts, the context of physical nourishment and the context of spiritual nourishment:


Before us, however, is one binary contrast, which is demonstrated by the two viewpoints (or the two paradigms) — one from the realm of food and one from the realm of leadership.[9]


            In the alimentary sphere, one may follow the abovementioned tension in the emphasis on the relationship between the manna and the quail, both of which descend from the heavens.  The manna is collected by Israel at the rate of “an omer per capita” (Shemot 16:16) — fixed and measured. On the other hand, the quail is dumped around the camp in large quantities, and each collects according to his or her heart’s desire (31-32):


And there went forth a wind from God, and it brought across quails from the sea.  It brought them down all around the camp to about two cubits upon the ground, as far as a day’s walk in any direction.  All that day and night and all the next day the people went out and gathered quail.  No one gathered less than ten homers.[10] Then they spread them out all around the camp. 


            The contrast between the orderly falling of the manna and the wild dumping of the quail is expressed also in their appearance.  The manna comes down with the dew (9): “When the dew came down on the camp at night, the manna came down on it.”  The dew, according to Fisch, “symbolizes a regular, tranquil blessing,” while the arrival of the quail is associated with wind, ruach, “which symbolizes the sudden and the extreme.”[11]


            Similarly, when it comes to the question of authority and prophecy, the Torah makes clear the tension between the organized, orderly leadership and chaotic rule-breaking. According to Fisch, the seventy elders symbolize orderly leadership.  Moshe passes on some of his prophetic spirit in a disciplined manner, in a context which represents the spiritual establishment — the Tent of Meeting.  About the elders it is said “and they prophesied and they did not continue” — in other words, they experienced a one-time prophetic experience.  (As we have noted in a footnote, this is the first explanation mentioned by Rashi, following the Sifrei).  In this process, something is taken from the spirit of the main leader, Moshe, into the souls of the elders, who now prophesy by Moshe’s power.  In this way, the hierarchy that is imperative for organized leadership is maintained. In clear opposition to the seventy elders, the verse describes Eldad and Meidad, who remain in the camp.  The camp — unlike the Tent of Meeting — represents the populace, the hoi polloi, the masses.[12] In the camp, these two men prophesy, and they are mentioned by name because they do not utter their prophecies by the power of the organized leadership, but rather on their own authority — “and they are in the writings” (26). 

            Unlike the elders who experience one-time prophecy, Scripture never states explicitly that they stop prophesying, so that the reader is naturally concludes that they continued to prophesy. As R. Yosef Bekhor Shor puts it (ibid. following Bamidbar Rabba 15:19):


Because they minimized themselves, God added greatness upon their greatness; the others prophesied and stopped, because their prophecy came from the power of Moshe, but they prophesied and did not stop, because their prophecy came from God.[13]


            Thus, one may describe the prophecy of Eldad and Meidad as a challenge to the established organized leadership, that of the Tent of Meeting, presenting alternative popular leadership of the masses in the camp.  How does the establishment respond to popular prophecies such as these, which are not integrated in the established tradition?  Yehoshua — “minister of Moshe” — indeed is riled up and tries to protect his master’s honor, suggesting (28), “‘My lord Moshe, shut them in!’”  However, Moshe, in his great humility, embraces popular prophecy as well, even if it may undermine the ordered establishment.[14]


            Fisch himself prefers to view Moshe as the balance between the elders, on the one hand, and Eldad and Meidad on the other:


He belongs to both sides of the equation at the same time. He is perhaps the common denominator between them. He is the ultimate charismatic leader, but he is also the source of regulative authority…  He is found in the Tent, but he is also found at times in the camp.  He brings the announcement of the appearance of the manna and the quail as one. He constitutes the third thread of the tapestry.[15]


            In my view, it is easier to present Moshe as the representative of established authority who, in his great humility, allows alternative leadership to raise its head and seeks to bring them close to the divine spirit. 


            We thus see that one can describe the structure of the narrative as two parallel axes, each of which reveals a similar contrast between the organized, orderly basis and the chaotic violation of all boundaries. In the context of food, the manna is the opposite of the quail, and correspondingly, in the context of leadership, the seventy elders stand opposite Eldad and Meidad. It appears that one may take another step beyond Fisch’s proposal and claim that Scripture does not assess the question of violating boundaries equally in both topics under discussion. 


            When it comes to the prophecy which breaks the boundaries, the reader is naturally inclined to prefer Moshe’s judgment of Eldad and Meidad’s prophesying over Yehoshua’s judgment, as Moshe says (29): “‘Are you jealous for my sake?  Would that all God's people were prophets, that God would put His spirit upon them!’”  In this way, permission is granted to break down the barriers for everything that is connected to issues of ruach. 


            However, in the context of the flesh, the assessment is different.  There is no doubt that the Torah prefers the food which is given in the form of the manna to the nourishment in the form of the quail, because those who eat the quail are punished severely: “The meat was still between their teeth before it was cut off, and God’s anger flared against the people, and God struck the people a very great blow” (33).  


            Thus, tracing the deep structure of the narrative raises the significant (and hidden) messages beneath its surface: the gap between the spirit and the flesh, between the world of dedication and prophesying and the world of lust, desire and craving food. In the first domain, there is a place for breakthroughs, renewal, experimentation, even when they go beyond what is accepted in the established tradition.  However, in the second realm, the desire to eat, it is exactitude which is required, making do with less, reining in the desire which seeks in its very nature to spread and to remove the boundaries of custom and law.



            Alongside the structuralist approach, which describes the deep structure of the narrative, it is worth mentioning form criticism, which seeks to determine the literary genre of the narrative and in it to see a stable and set structure for the narrative.  The story of this school of biblical criticism starts with Hermann Gunkel, who claimed that one may distinguish different stories with have a common structure because they are the realizations of a common literary genre.


            In order to explain this, let us take the example of the wedding invitations which we often receive. Needless to say, there is much in common in the composition of these invitations (at least those common among the religious community). 


            Many of the invitations start with citing a verse (usually, “It will be heard again… in the cities of Judea and the streets of Jerusalem” — Yirmiyahu 33:10 — and usually in a semicircle at the top of the invitation).  After that, there is an almost set formula: “We are happy to invite you to share with us the joyous occasion of the nuptials of our beloved children,” followed by the names of the groom and the bride, which appear next to each other. The phrasing of the place and time is also generally consistent: “The chuppa will take place, God willing” — or “in its good and fortunate time” — “on X day at Y hall.” The parents sign at the bottom of the invitation, and under their names will be written: “Please RSVP by the following date…” or something of this sort. 


            How is it that all of the engaged couples think that this is the best way to invite people to their weddings?  The answer is self-evident — there is a set text for wedding invitations, and even if every couple changes this or that detail in a given invitation, the majority maintains the accepted formula. We may call this style “the literary genre of wedding invitations.” In fact, many types of writing take the form of set literary structures bearing a unified style or an identical technique of writing, and the reader can easily attribute one style of writing to journalists, another to academics, another to humorists, etc. 


            Gunkel’s claim is that in biblical narratives as well, one can distinguish different literary styles of writing. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that both the initial encounter of Yaakov and Rachel and the initial encounter of Moshe and Tzippora happen at a well, as the male hero draws water for the maiden’s flock, because the well is an element that belongs to the literary genre of matchmaking stories.  It also belongs to the genre of men helping women water their sheep.[16]


            According to this approach, these preordained structures influence the order of the narrative and elements stressed in it.[17] The awareness of these structures is particularly significant in a narrative that strays from the direction of the anticipated sequence of its genre. In these cases, it may be that the set order of elements actually changes.[18]


Narratives of Pekida


            We will demonstrate this with one short example.  The motif of the infertile couple is common in Tanakh, and the arrival of the long-awaited son is usually described with the term pekida — literally, taking account; God takes account or shows special regard to the mother and grants her a son.  Many critics take note of the literary genre which can be called “narratives of pekida of infertile women” or “narratives of the birth of saviors.”[19] In fact, one may distinguish between these two types, but for our purposes, it makes no difference one way or the other. The essential elements used to build the narrative and constitute its infrastructure are:


·         Describing the distress of the infertile woman

·         Response of the characters to this distress

·         Meriting a miracle (due to some good act or as a reaction to prayer)

·         Harbinger (prophecy from God; an angel or a prophet)

·         Prediction of the son’s birth

·         Description of the parent’s response to the announcement

·         Description of the miracle — pekida of the infertile woman

·         The naming of the newborn (with its explanation) and the gratitude of the parents


            In fact, not all of these elements are found in all of the stories, but the overwhelming majority of these different elements indeed “construct” the narrative of pekida of infertile women, including the pekida of Sara (Bereishit 17-18), the pekida of Rivka (ibid. 25), the pekida of Rachel (ibid. 30), the pekida of Manoach’s wife (Shoftim 13); the pekida of Channa (I Shmuel 1); and the pekida of the Shunamite woman (II Melakhim 4).


            When we examine the plot structure in the abovementioned stories, a number of specifics are noticeable that unify the particular narratives.  For the sake of our analysis, we will focus on the story of the pekida of Rachel, where the lack of dialogue between the characters and God is noticeable. There is no prophecy or harbinger angel telling Rachel ahead of time that she is destined to hold her own child in her arms, nor is there any prayer or request on the part of the characters (unlike in the case of Yitzchak, who prays, or Channa, who makes a vow). 


            This deficiency is felt mainly by the reader who expects to see an element such as this in the narrative, as expected in this literary genre. A lack of communication between God and the characters in the story of Rachel’s infertility is very noticeable in the allusion to God in Yaakov’s words to Rachel (30:2): “And Yaakov’s anger flared against Rachel, and he said, ‘Am I in God’s stead, who has held back from you fruit of the womb?’”  The mention of God in Yaakov’s words is jarring, alerting the reader to what is missing in the narrative — if indeed Yaakov is not like God, Who can give fruit of the womb to an infertile woman, why in truth is Rachel (or at least Yaakov her husband) not turning to God in prayer? It is logical that indeed a prayer such as this has occurred; however, the verse’s silence on this issue demands an explanation. In the framework of our current analysis, we cannot elaborate on the significance of this matter, and therefore we will point out the possible significance of the matter in general terms only.


            In the end, when Rachel is “taken account of,” she gives birth to Yosef. Yosef has an important role in the Book of Bereishit; at the level of the revealed plot, Yosef ultimately provides food for all of the people of the land and will provide for the family. In this sense, one may view Yosef as the leader of the family, who is concerned for its welfare. On the subliminal level, the issue of Yosef’s exceptionalism is even more striking; God reveals himself to the Patriarchs, but He does not reveal himself to Yosef.  The way in which God communicates with Yosef in the Book of Bereishit is via dreams — or, in fact, through reality itself. Yosef is the one who says to his brothers after he reveals his true identity to them: “‘And now, do not be upset, and do not be angry with yourselves because you have sold me here, for God has sent me before you to save life’” (Bereishit 45:5).  Yosef interprets even his brothers’ sin as part of God’s providence over the family, as essentially purposeful. In this sense, Yosef prepares the way for the era of exile, a time when the hidden providence of God’s hand is realized through reality itself, not a prophetic pronouncement that explains events. In a still deeper sense, it is worthwhile formulating this idea in the opposite way: Yosef prepares the ground specifically for the time of redemption, the time when “we were like dreamers” (Tehillim 126:1), the time that God’s hand is felt through reality itself as it is being redeemed. Reality will be the type of dream that requires interpretation; history itself will express its hidden significance through the dream-reality.


            It may be due to this that, already at Yosef’s birth, the element of open communication between the characters and God is absent. As it were, Yosef is born in the natural way. This is only “as it were,” because this is Yosef, whose very conception requires providence and divine intervention. The verse says this in an explicit way: “And God remembered Rachel, and God heard her, and He opened her womb” (30:22); however, no angel comes to Yosef’s parents and announces to them explicitly that they will hold a baby in their arms. The revealed speech disappears for Yosef’s birth, but the narrator emphasizes for the reader God’s providence over Rachel.


            With this, we complete our analysis of the plot structures.  The coming lectures will be dedicated, God willing, to the artistic structures of biblical narratives and the hidden messages to which they allude.


Translated by Rav Yoseif Bloch


[1]     Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Ha-poetica shel Ha-sifrut Be-yameinu, trans. H. Herzig (Tel Aviv, 1989), p. 19.

[2]     Harold Fisch, “Gisha Structuralistit Le-sippurei Rut U-Voaz,” Beit Mikra 24 (5739), pp. 260-5 (the quotation is from p. 261). In his essay, Fisch traces three stories: Lot and his daughters; Yehuda and Tamar; and Boaz and Rut, arguing that there is a similar basic tension (a common deep structure) that is expressed in each of them.

[3]     This, as we have noted, is Fisch’s approach in his abovementioned article (“Gisha Structuralistit Le-sippurei Rut U-Voaz”).

[4]     There have been a number of interesting attempts to apply the structuralist view in reading biblical narrative. See, for example, the collection edited by Roland Barthes (and others), Structural Analysis and Biblical Exegesis: Interpretational Essay (Pittsburgh, 1974). Robert Culley claims that the researcher must accept the text as it is, even if it is the end result of various reinterpretations; the contradictions in the body of the text may be interpreted, according to him, via the structuralist approach (R. Culley, Studies in the Structure of Hebrew Narrative [Montana, 1976]).

[5]     J. Licht, Peirush al Sefer Bamidbar [11-22] (Jerusalem, 5751), pp. 13-14. Many modern critics hold this opinion. See, for example, G. W. Coats, Rebellion in the Wilderness (New York, 1968), p. 98.

[6]     D. Jobling, The Sense of Biblical Narrative: Three Structural Analyses in the Old Testament (Sheffield, 1978), vol. 1.

[7]     The term “ve-lo yasafu” is somewhat ambiguous, since sof means “end,” while hosafa is “addition.” Thus, the phrase could mean “and they did not continue,” but it could also mean “and they did not cease.” Jobling takes the former meaning, in accordance with the first explanation brought by Rashi (following the Sifrei), and not the latter, which is the second explanation that Rashi brings (following Onkelos).

[8]     H. Fisch, “‘Eldad U-Meidad Mitnabbim Ba-machaneh’: Iyun Structuralisti Be-Bamidbar 11,” Iyunei Mikra U-farshanut 2 (5746), pp. 45-55.

[9]     Fisch, Eldad U-meidad, p. 50.

[10]    Translator’s note: A homer is a unit of biblical measurement equal to ten ephahs, while an omer is one-tenth of an ephah. An ephah is itself is about one bushel or 36 liters. Thus, the minimum amount of quail would be one thousand times the allotted per-capita amount of manna. 

[11]    Fisch, Eldad U-Meidad, p. 51. My previous analysis of the term ruach (meaning both “spirit” and “wind”) in this story may be found in Lecture #7.

[12]    Compare this to the view of R. S.R. Hirsch in his commentary ibid. and Jobling’s words ibid. p. 51.

[13]    Jobling also relates to this point, but from his perspective, one should see in their continuing prophecy something which endangers Moshe’s status even more than the prophecy of the seventy elders, which is only temporary (ibid. p. 46).

[14]    The undermining of Moshe’s leadership expressed in the prophecy of Eldad and Meidad, who “did not go out to the tent,” is strongly expressed in the Sages’ view of the content of the prophecy of Eldad and Meidad, as Rashi cites ibid.: “They were prophesying: ‘Moshe will die, and Yehoshua will bring Israel into the land.’”

[15]    Fisch, Eldad U-Meidad, p. 53.

[16]    As with every literary theory, not all of its proponents are identical, and in the search for literary genres, there are different voices. Expansive analysis of the issue may be found in a collection of essays dedicated to this theory: M. A. Sweeney and E. Ben Zvi (eds.), The Changing Face of Form Criticism for the Twenty-First Century (Grand Rapids, 2003).

[17]    The problematic nature of this approach is clear: there is a tendency to ignore the concrete questions of the narrative and an inclination to take a wide view — and consequently, the narrative may lose its uniqueness. On this, see: M. Globinsky, “Ha-Genre Ha-sifruti U-va’ayot Ha-poetica Ha-historit,” Ha-sifrut 2 (1969), pp. 14-25.

[18]    On this, see R. Knierim, "Old Testament Form Criticism Reconsidered," Interpretation 27 (1973), pp. 435-68.

[19]    See, for example, Y. Zakovitch, Sippurei Shimshon (Jerusalem, 5742); U. Simon, “Sippur Holadat Shmuel,” Iyunei Mikra U-farshanut (5746), pp. 57-110 (especially 93-110); J. S. Ackerman, "The Literary Context of the Moses Birth Story," in K.R.R. Gros Louis (et. al., eds.), Literary Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Nashville, 1974), pp. 74-119.