Temporary Meaning

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman


By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman


Lecture #07:

Temporary Meaning



As we have already said in previous lectures, the meaning of a linguistic expression within a narrative is not set and stable. In the terminology of deconstruction, a linguistic expression is described as "dynamic." In other words, the reader can understand the meaning of the language in a certain way at one stage of the reading, and at a later point, the reader may return and give a new meaning to the expression.[1]


This "later point" may come only with the conclusion of the unit, in the continuation of the narrative, or even within the same sentence. In these situations, the narrative uses two different meanings of a certain word or expression, but the two meanings are not realized simultaneously. At first, the reader thinks that the term has one particular meaning, and only later does the reader understand the error, go back, and “plug in” a different meaning for that verbal expression.


A Ruach from God


Let us focus our analysis on the temporary meaning which manages to exist for a few seconds alone. Even in these moments, this meaning serves a purpose in shaping the literary unit and in the process of reading it.  Consider the verse which describes God's response to the Israelites' craving for meat in the desert after leaving Mount Sinai: "And there went forth a wind (ruach) from God, and it brought across quails from the sea" (Bamidbar 11:31).


The word ruach (plural: ruchot) appears in Tanakh with a number of different senses and meanings.[2] The main three definitions are:


1.    A movement of air, as in Shemot 10:13: "And Moshe stretched forth his rod over the land of Egypt, and God brought an east wind (ruach) upon the land."

2.    Soul or spirit, as in Bereishit 7:15: "And they came in to Noach, into the ark, two and two of all flesh having a living soul (ruach)."

3.    Prophecy (essentially an expansion of the second meaning, as applied to God), as in I Melakhim 22:24: "Which way went God's spirit (ruach) from me to speak to you?"


There is no doubt that that the simple meaning of ruach in our verse is the first definition. Other sources in Tanakh[3] speak of this concept - the movement of air being the mass transportation system from the sea to dry land and vice versa - and this is how one must interpret this verse: God sends a strong wind, which brings on its currents quails from the sea. However, a more delicate reading suggests that the verse is more complex — or perhaps we should say more "dynamic." 


This narrative has two themes woven into it - the people's craving for meat and the appointment of a broader leadership of seventy elders by God - and much has been written about the two topics intertwined in this narrative. In the context of our analysis, I would like to point out an ironic transition in the narrative between the two topics, which is sharply expressed by the term ruach which we are analyzing. The appointment of new leadership requires the departure of the elders from the camp to the Ohel Mo'ed,[4] where they all prophesy, inspired by Moshe's power. However, Eldad and Medad, who were supposed to go out with the elders to the Ohel Mo'ed, remain in the camp and prophesy there. This so confounds Yehoshua that he comes to his master Moshe and demands a harsh punishment: "And Yehoshua the son of Nun, the minister of Moshe from his youth up, answered and said: 'My lord Moshe, shut them in!'" (v. 28). However, Moshe belays this proposal, saying on the contrary: "Are you jealous for my sake?  Would that all God's people were prophets, that God would put His spirit upon them!' (v. 29).


If so, this episode is sealed with the generous statement of Moshe, who would be prepared to waive his special status as long as God would grant His ruach to the entire nation. Almost immediately after this, the reader encounters the ruach of God which indeed is coming to the entire nation: "And there went forth a wind (ruach) from God, and it brought across quails from the sea."


The juxtaposition of these ruchot cannot be coincidental, and it appears that the verse encourages the reader's confusion. Is God really sending His ruach so that the entire nation will start prophesying, as Moshe has prayed?  The proximity of the verses and the double use of the term ruach creates a conscious link between them, and the reader is inclined to identify God's actual ruach in v.31 with God's potential ruach in v.29.  Obviously, even if at the beginning of the reading, the reader thinks that Moshe' wish is being fulfilled and that God is about to rest His prophecy on the entire nation, the reader is swiftly disappointed, as it becomes clear that it is not the ruach of God, not prophecy, but an actual air current that is bringing meat.[5]


Some suggest that this shared terminology stresses the connection between the two ruchot: "The ruach of God has solved the leadership problem; now the ruach of God brings a solution to the problem of food."[6] However, in my humble opinion, the similarity of these ruchot does not allow one to equate them; on the contrary, we have a rather ironic contrast. By tricking the reader, the verse alludes to the conflict between the ruach which brings prophecy and the ruach which brings meat. While Moshe is overjoyed at the thought of "all God's people" sharing his gift of prophecy, the people are ecstatic about sharing the gift of fowl!


In fact, the confusion which grips the reader for a brief period is tied to the structure of the entire unit. Through the length of the narrative, the word ruach comes up a half-dozen times, and all of those instances — except for the final one, which we are now analyzing — appear in the narrative of the appointment of the seventy elders, referring the ruach of God which brings them to prophesy:


1.    "And I will take of the spirit which is upon you" (v. 17)

2.    "And He took of the spirit that was upon him" (v. 25)

3.    "When the spirit rested upon them" (ibid.)

4.    "And the spirit rested upon them" (v. 26)

5.    "God would put His spirit upon them!" (v. 29)

6.    "And there went forth a wind from God" (v. 31)


Naturally, the meaning of ruach in our verse, which is focused on air movement, breaks the common definition throughout the length of the narrative, and therefore the surprise of this meaning only grows. Consequently, the struggle of the reader — even if it lasts only a few seconds — serves an important role in the shaping of the surprise and the irony in this scene. The shifting meaning of the term ruach highlights the opposition between the ruach of prophecy and the ruach that transports meat, between Moshe's hope for public prophesying and the practical result of an orgy of meat consumption.


"And the Men Sent Forth Their Hands"


An additional example of a temporary meaning that has a very short lifespan may be seen in the description of the confrontation between the men of Sedom and Lot at the entrance to his house, in which the angels are concealed (Bereishit 19). Throughout the narrative, there are two groups described as "the men" — the angelic guests who have come to Lot (5, 8, 12, 16) and the men of the city of Sedom (4, 11). However, in the context of the narrative, it is easy to determine which group Scripture is talking about in each reference - except for v.10, where it appears that the verse intentionally puts the reader in a trap. At first, the men of Sedom are described as rejecting Lot's request to leave his guests alone, so that they draw near to break the door down in order to grab his guests: "They pressed in upon the man, upon Lot, a great deal, and they drew close to break down the door" (v.9).  Immediately, the reader continues and encounters — apparently — the commencement of their violent acts: "And the men sent forth their hands" (10) — that is, at first the men of Sedom draw close in order to break down the door, and now they are already reaching out to realize their plans. As the subject of the sentence has not been explicitly altered, there is no reason to think that another subject stands behind this verb. 


Moreover, a clear majority of the times that this expression, “shelichat yad,” sending forth one's hand, is mentioned in Tanakh is in contexts of struggle and attack. For example, "And I will send forth my hand and I will strike Egypt" (Shemot 3:20); "And to the Israelite nobles He did not send forth his hand" (ibid.  24:11); "But the king's servants would not consent to send forth their hands, to strike down God's priests" (I Shemuel 22:17); "And David said to him: 'How were you not afraid to send forth your hand to destroy God's anointed?'" (II Shemuel 1:14).[7] Naturally, the associative contexts which accompany this expression encourage the reading, who interprets that the men who send forth their hands are the men of Sedom, who are about to attack Lot and his guests. 


Only in the continuation of the verse ("and they brought Lot into the house, to them") does it become clear to the reader that, in fact, this shelichat yad is done by the angels inside the house, not the men of Sedom who stand outside. In fact, this shelichat yad is not offensive, but rather defensive.


The ambiguity of this reading is clear among the translators, who feel a bit of discomfort leaving the verse as it is written. Indeed, they seek to prevent the initial misunderstanding. Hertz does this delicately, translating, "But the men put forth their hand."[8] Adding this word at the beginning of v.10 indicates to the reader that the plot of the men of the city will not come to fruition, and naturally the reader is prepared for the angel's involvement. Speiser and Fisch do this even more prominently, translating, "But the men put out their hand, and pulled Lot into the house to them."[9]  In addition to the conjunction, they explain that the angels "put out their hand," alluding to the fact that we are talking about the men who are inside the house (the angels), not the men who are outside (the men of Sedom).[10] Davidson goes even further, translating, "But the two men inside reached out, pulled Lot in, and closed the door."[11] He feels that even after the "but," one must stress explicitly that the verse is now talking about the second group identified as "the men," and so he adds "the two men inside."


What possible benefit does the narrator see in confusing the reader? First of all, this temporary meaning ratchets up the tension. The reader anticipates the men of Sedom reaching out to break down the door; consequently, the reader feels surprise when the angels take action by reaching out to grab Lot and rescue him (and themselves).  At this point in the narrative, after Lot has failed to protect his guests, the men of Sedom draw close to break down the door of his house, and it is only the action of the angels which reverses the polarity of this shelichat yad: not a violent act, but an act of rescue. This moment is a moment of reversal in the story, and the verse wants to savor every last drop of it. The intentionally misleading terminology increases the feeling of helplessness before the men of Sedom, and as the reader understands the mistake, the reader experiences the sudden shift in the narrative on a gut level.


However, it appears that the confusion of "the men" is part of a larger trend in the story. It seems that the verse is contrasting the two groups, the angels versus the men of the city:


1.       When Lot tries to convince the strangers to become his guests, the verse (v.3) notes, "He pressed in upon them a great deal." Conversely, the men of Sedom try to convince Lot to eject these strangers: "They pressed in upon the man, upon Lot, a great deal" (v.9).

2.       While the men of Sedom "drew close to break down the door" (ibid.), we read that the angels "shut the door" (v.10).

3.       Both the men of Sedom and the angels make a similar demand. The men of Sedom shout, "Bring them out to us and we will know them" (v.5), while the angels cry, "Whom else do you have here? Your son-in-law, your sons, your daughters and whatever you have in the city, bring out of this place" (v.12). This analogy becomes stronger as the story continues. In light of the demand of the men of Sedom, the verse states of Lot: "And Lot went out to the entrance...  and he said, 'Please, my brothers, do not do this evil. I have two daughters who have known no man! I will bring them out to you'" (vv.6-8). In light of the demand of the angels, "Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, his daughters' husbands, and he said, 'Rise, go out of this place'" (v.14).

4.       Paralleling the request of Lot from the men of Sedom, "'No, please, my brothers, do not do this evil.  I have two daughters...,'" we read the request of the angels, "And Lot said to them: 'No, please, my lords.  Behold, please, your servant has found favor in your eyes'" (vv.18-19).


This analogy between the angels and the men of Sedom, between the destroyers of the city and the destroyed (or between Lot's standing before the men of Sedom and his standing before the angels) stresses the idea of the overturning of Sedom as a fitting punishment, as a justified recompense built on the principle of reciprocity.  The design of the narrative stresses the action of the angels as a response to the behavior of the men of Sedom and as done against the background of their crime - the men of the city try to attack the angels, and this seals their decree, so that the angels must destroy the city with all of its citizens.  The critical moment in the narrative is the very place where the meaning of "the men" rapidly shifts, first understood to be the men of Sedom and only afterwards to be the angels. Similarly, the ideological conflict between these two groups focuses on an internal point in the story, a point that serves as the critical point in the narrative.[12]  Although the reader may struggle for a moment, a sublime idea is expressed with this misleading terminology. It also introduces another fact of the identity of the angels - the instruments of Lot's salvation.  Lot stands at the door of his house, defying the men of Sedom, in order to save the men inside his home — who ultimately save Lot and his family inside the house from the destruction being levied on the men outside the house.[13]


An Order and its Execution


The reader often encounters a polysemous expression of this sort, in which one meaning is understood at first but is soon replaced by an alternative meaning, in the context of a command which is given to a character in the story and the execution of this command. There are numerous stories in which the recipient of the order does not execute it, but the reader's first impression is that the order is indeed being carried out.  In these cases, the reader has a growing, gnawing feeling of disappointment at the thwarted command.  We will mention briefly two examples of this phenomenon. 


After David fails to convince Uriya to go to his house on his first evening back from the battlefield, the king summons his soldier, feeds him, gives him drink, and gets him drunk — with the anticipation that Uriya will go down to his house this time and sleep with his wife, Bat Sheva. Scripture describes it thus: "David called to him and he ate before him and drank, and he got him drunk; and he went out at evening to sleep in his bed" (II Shemuel 11:13). The reader stops reading for a moment at this penultimate phrase, struck by the impression that David's plan has succeeded, as Uriya is going out "at evening to sleep in his bed." As Meir Sternberg points out, the simple meaning of "his bed" is the private bedroom of Uriya, just as in the beginning of the story it is said of David, "And it was at evening time, and David rose from his bed" (ibid. 2), where the intended meaning is, naturally, that David gets up from his private bedchamber in the palace. 


Thus, the reader believes at this stage that Uriya has gone to his permanent bed, and David's plan has succeeded.  There is no need to say that immediately, with the conclusion of the verse, the reader discovers the error: "And he went out at evening to sleep in his bed with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house." The narrator does not suffice with noting that "his bed" was "with the servants of his lord," but he adds the explicit, unquestionable clause, "but he did not go down to his house."[14] Shimon Bar-Efrat notes this surprise, writing:


Indeed, with Uriya in an alcoholic haze, "he went out at evening to sleep in his bed."  However, this time as well, David's plan does not work, because "his bed" here is only his temporary arrangement "with the servants of his lord."[15]


It is also interesting in this case to see that some of the translators have tried to make it easier for the reader, but in so doing they have nullified the temporary meaning which is meant here. The Septuagint (L) already does so, and McCarter, for example, follows it: "He became drunk, but in the evening he went out and slept in a bed with his master's servants".[16]


With these two small alterations, the reader is prevented from enjoying this temporary meaning and, along with it, the surprise of Uriya's not going down to his house. First, he opens the description of Uriya's actions with the term "but," and naturally the reader understand that David's plan is not succeeding.  Secondly, he drops the pronoun, changing "his bed" to "a bed."  McCarter does this in order to make it easier for the reader, as he feels that the Masoretic text might confuse the reader; but this difficulty is nothing but a part of the literary design of the narrative, which emphasizes the surprise of Uriya's refusal to go down to his bed in his house.  With the help of this surprise, the reader is invited to identify with David's surprise; he believes that Uriya will go down to his house and sleep in his bed, but Uriya goes to sleep in the king's courtyard with David's servants.


A similar phenomenon is found in the description of Yona's flight after God has instructed him to go to Nineveh.  The language of the command is, "Rise, go to Nineveh, the great city, and call upon it, for their evil has come up before Me" (Yona 1:2).  After hearing this command, Scripture continues to describe Yona's actions, opening with the verb which God uses in his words to Yona.  "And Yona arose" (v.3) parallels God's command, "Rise."  Naturally, the meaning of this verb in the context of the verse is tied to the fulfillment of God's command.  Apparently, the reader thinks, Yona is arising as one who is fulfilling the command of his Creator, Who has ordered him to go to Nineveh.  However, it immediately becomes clear that the reader has erred, because the verse continues, "And Yona arose to flee to Tarshish from before God."[17] Now it becomes clear to the reader that Yona indeed arises, but not to fulfill God's word.  He is not arising to travel eastward, "to Nineveh, the great city," but rather he is arising to flee westward — to Tarshish! As Allen notes, "And Yona arose and went to Nineveh" does indeed appear later (3:3), but the fact that it does not appear here is dissonant and a shock to the reader's system.[18]


With this, we conclude our list of the meanings that a single word or expression can bear within it.  In order to summarize this topic, I will demonstrate in the next lecture how to dissect one small verse from Shir Ha-Shirim, and we will see how the awareness of these ancillary meanings can allude to the hidden depths of seemingly simple words.


(Translated by Yoseif Bloch)

[1] This basic thought serves an important role in interpreting the full meaning and theme of a given narrative, and this topic will arise once again when we deal with the sequence of events in a narrative.

[2] BDB, pp. 924-926

[3] In addition to the verse mentioned above, see Shemot 10:19: "So God shifted the wind to a very strong west wind, which took up the locusts and drove them into the Red Sea; not one locust was left in all the territory of Egypt."

[4] The term "ohel mo'ed" literally means "tent of meeting," and it generally refers to the Sanctuary of the Tabernacle (i.e., the covered part). However, the popular view among the modern commentators is that we are talking about the other Ohel Mo'ed, the one Moshe sets up outside the camp after the sin of the Golden Calf, mentioned in Shemot 33:7-11 (e.g., G. B. A. Gray, Bamidbar [ICC, Edinburgh, 1903], pp. 114-116). Nevertheless, some dispute this and claim that one may "go out" to the Ohel Mo'ed in the center of the camp from the camp itself (e.g., T. R. Ashley, The Book of Numbers [NICOT, Grand Rapids, 1993], p. 215). This appears to be the explanation of Rashi as well.

[5] Ashley, p. 217.

[6] These two expressions form a pair of keywords in the story. See E. Samet, Iyunim Be-Farashat Ha-Shavua (Jerusalem, 5762), Parashat Beha'alotekha.

[7] See also Shemot 9:15; I Shemuel 24:6, 26:11, 23; Esther 2:21, 3:6, 6:2, 8:7, 9:2; Iyov 1:12.

[8] J. H. Hertz, The Pentateuch (London, 1952), p. 67.

[9] E. A. Speiser, Genesis (AB, New York, 1962), p. 136; H. Fisch, The Holy Scriptures (Jerusalem, 1977), p. 18.

[10] This is a classic example of the translation trying to be faithful to the content at the expense of the form.

[11] R. Davidson, Genesis 12-50 (CBC, Cambridge, 1979), p. 71.  

[12] Rachman opines that the confusion felt amidst the reader's inability to identify "the men" in the narrative (as the angels or as the men of Sedom) is fatiguing, and "the effect of weariness is a theatrical effect, and it allows the narrator to create in the depths of the reader's brain and in his perceptions the illusion of the encounter with the angels." See Y. Rachman, "Efekt Ha-Havakha Be-Sippur al Sedom Ve-Amora (Bereishit 18-19)" in Y. Hoffman and F. Polak (eds.), Or Le-Yaakov (Jerusalem, 5757), p. 191.

[13] "At the end of the day, the one who tried to save his guests is saved by his guests," writes V. P. Hamilton, The Book of Bereishit, Chapters 18-50 (Michigan, 1995), p. 37. It appears that the verse alludes that Lot is saved both because of his connections to Avraham (19:29) and because of his deeds - his hospitality and his defense of his guests.

[14] M. Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (Bloomington, 1987), pp. 200-201. Sternberg himself believes that on the occasion of Uriya's second evening in Jerusalem, the author uses this technique to create a commensurate surprise. This approach dates back to his classic analysis of the narrative: M. Perry and M. Sternberg, "Ha-Melekh Be-Mabbat Ironi," Ha-Sifrut 1 [2] (5728-5729), pp. 263-292.

[15] S. Bar-Efrat, Shemu'el Bet in Mikra Le-Yisrael (Tel Aviv, 5756), p. 112.

[16] P. K. McCarter, II Samuel (AB, New York, 1984), p. 278.

[17] B. Gesundheit, "Iyunim Be-Sefer Yona" in Be-Yom Tzom Kippur Yechatemun, (Alon Shevut, 5765), p. 161.

[18] L. C. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah (NICOT, Grand Rapids, 1976), pp. 203-204.