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In the Torah we have a very familiar story with the following plot line: A famine strikes the land of Canaan, forcing an extended Hebrew family to relocate to Egypt. God had promised the patriarch of this family that his seed would grow into a “great nation,” the patriarch’s name was even changed to reflect this promise, but during the family’s sojourn in Egypt, God’s promises were jeopardized by Pharaoh. As a result, Pharaoh is stricken with great plagues. Afflicted by the plagues, Pharaoh drives the Hebrews out, and when they leave they depart with considerable wealth. Of course, this is the story of Moses and the plagues of the Exodus—but is it really? In fact, it is the story of Avram and Sarai’s journey to Egypt in Genesis 12:10–20. The core of the Exodus-plague story comprises the entire plot of the Avram-in-Egypt story. But the similarity of these two stories—that of the Exodus story and that of Avram’s—has convinced scholars that the Exodus story must have inspired the Genesis one told of Avram and Sarai.
This is a example of the flexibility of the Torah’s storytelling and how the themes of its stories can be molded to fit many different historical, or even mythical, events. We know how ancient storytellers used various tools and techniques to weave their tales and the varied use of well known plots was one such powerful tool. The idea of a husband passing his wife off as his sister was so powerful a plot image that it’s used in the book of Genesis no less than three times! We find it once in today’s parashah involving Avram and Pharaoh, a second time in next week’s reading with Abraham and Avimelekh, and a third time three weeks from now where Isaac confronts Avimelekh, possibly the same person.
Storytelling is an ancient art. Before the time of widespread written literacy, storytellers acted as both entertainers as well as transmitters of history. For their stories to be remembered, the telling had to be entertaining as well as memorable. Frequently tales became so popular that they became well known to their listeners, but the enjoyment of hearing the story yet again was enhanced by the listeners’ ability to participate in its retelling—the storyteller actively “involved” his audience.
The importance of involvement of a listener is attested to by a proverb attributed to Confucius: “Tell me and I will forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand.” By involving his audience, the raconteur was able to ensure that the memory of his story would remain with his listeners. We see the legacy of storytelling involvement in the use of the refrain, a repeating set of verses, in poetry and song lyrics; audiences still sing the refrain with the performer in many venues.
Repetition is a common device that storytellers of ancient times used and its use was intended to involve the audience. Certainly it is obvious that through repetition, a story becomes familiar and memorable. Repetition can be accomplished in various ways, some simple, some complex. Simple repetition is straightforward; one simply repeats a tale with or without changes or embellishments. Let’s look at some examples.
In this sidra, Lekh L’kha, and its sequel, Vayera, which comprise the story of Abraham, there are two examples of simple repetition. I mentioned the first one where Avram risks Sarai’s chastity in Egypt by passing her off as his sister to save his life. This story repeats in Gen. 20:1–18, this time involving Avimelekh, and yet again later with Isaac, Rebekah, and Avimelekh. Another instance of repetition tells of the exile of Hagar (Gen. 16:1–16 and again at Gen. 21:9–21).
A less obvious and far more complex method of repetition that was used by ancient storytellers is called “chiasm”—symmetry. This is an interesting structural device that’s used very frequently in the Bible. To illustrate a chiastic structure, consider this simple one:
He went to New York;
To Los Angeles went she.
A diagram of this structure looks like this: AB-B'A', and one can find many instances of exactly this structure in the Bible. While there are numerous instances of chiasmus in the Abraham story,1 in today’s and next week’s readings there is a chiastic structure of grand proportions. Hinted at first (as best as I can determine) by Martin Buber2 and refined by Paul Borgman,3 the structure extends throughout the two parashot about Abraham. Its theme centers around Abraham’s encounters with God and it’s an example of a perfect literary chiasm. There is a total of seven of these encounters where, in each, God offers Abraham a challenge and a promise.
Abraham’s first encounter with God is at the beginning of the parashah where he is introduced to us: “Lekh l’kha...” says God, “Take yourself from your country….” His last encounter with God that the Torah relates is phrased, “Now take for yourself (lekh l’kha) your son....” This is the preface to the Akeida, the Binding of Isaac. Let me point out that the use of this reflexive grammatical form is uncommon in the Torah and is a clue to listeners of the story to watch for more hints about an evolving story structure.
Diagraming the chiasm’s structure gives this result: ABC-D-C'B'A' where the doublets A-A', B-B', and C-C' possess corresponding characteristics balanced around the central encounter, D, which forms the “pivot” of the chiasm.
A: “Go forth from your native land… to a land I will show you.” (12:1–6)
B: Avram builds an altar, acknowledging a response to God’s promise. (12:7–9)
C: “Walk about the land… for I give it to you.” (13:14–18)
D: “Fear not, Avram.” Avram remonstrates, sacrifices (15:1ff)
C': “Walk in my ways and be blameless.” (17:1–3)
B': Abraham initiates a dialog with God and again responds to God’s promise. (18:1–15)
A': “Now take your son… and go to the land… I will point out to you.” (22:1–19)
The background of the chiasm, indeed, of the entire Abraham story, is Abraham’s search for a “name,” i.e., a self-identity, as he moves through a hostile world that threatens his existence. He fears both for his life and for his lack of progeny, and the chiasm is based on these ideas. At the heart of the chiasm, in fact, God tells Avram not to be afraid, and in subsequent meetings with God we see Abraham’s development into a prophet and master statesman.
This grand chiasm is itself framed by two genealogies—those of Noach and Terach—forming yet another chiasm.
A common characteristic of the chiastic structure occurs in the repetition of an element. When the element is restated, it can be given a “twist,” an elaboration or an additional complexity, at times involving some form of reversal. We see this technique used here; in each of God’s visits, the test Abraham faces becomes increasingly challenging until he is asked to sacrifice his son.
One can see how effective this storytelling device can be when used by an expert raconteur. Furthermore, ancient ears were attuned to such devices and listeners quickly picked up on the presence of a repeating structure and could anticipate their appearance. This allowed the audience to become immersed in the tale as it unfolded, allowing them to become fully involved in the storytelling.
Looking at the structure of this and many other chiasms in translation, we can miss clues to its existence, but in the Hebrew they are much more apparent. While readers of the English translations totally miss most signs of the appearance of many chiastic structures, Hebrew readers generally don’t; this is because the author is right out there waving flags that say “Look! I’m a chiasm!” by framing a story using the same words (like lekh l’kha above), using words or phrases employed in unexpected or unusual ways, or using homonyms that form very clear puns to give a twist to the story when it’s completed. Many chiasms work best aurally—said out loud—and this is a major sign that the story was composed for performance rather than reading.
There’s so much to discover when you read the Torah. As rabbi Ben Bag-Bag (one of the tannaim) said about it, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don't turn from it, for nothing is better than it” (Pirkei Avot 5:22). Following his advice is how we keep finding the secrets buried in the Torah text.
1. See a list here: http://www.valdes.titech.ac.jp/~h_murai/bible/01_Genesis_pericope_e.html
2. Buber, Martin. “Abraham the Seer” in On the Bible, Schocken, 1968, p. 25
3. Borgman, Paul. Genesis: The Story We Haven’t Heard, Intervarsity Press, 2001, p.58-9.
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