The literary genius of Torah is cloaked in a single word

“God works through great concealment”- R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Daas Tevunos 146
joseph_and_potiphars_wife_1
׳Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife’ by Guido Reni (1631)

Immortal literary works by mortals reveal a density of play with themes, images, words, sounds, hidden meanings and interconnections that leave us in awe of their genius even as they strike to our hearts and arouse our passions. But the Torah involves all this and more. It recruits individual letters in its significance, and even letters as numbers (gematria), to create skeins of arithmetic-semantic puns, while hinting at mysteries and depths beyond our ken. It is so complex, even a skeptic would call it divinely inspired.

Most people when they read the Bible see that its epic stories don’t fit modern standards of artistic coherence. Great dramas are interrupted by anticlimactic lists of genealogies. Completely disparate segments are roped together or interrupt each other without apparent rhyme or reason. In the middle of a gripping biography of a major figure, we get distracted by jarring digressions and non-sequiturs. All this feeds more intense scrutiny by textual and linguistic scholars, especially over the last century or so, who note changes in tone, inconsistencies in lexicon, even names for God. They have theorized that the Five Books of Moses is a concatenation of texts redacted – put together – by several editors over centuries. These authors had other axes to grind, such as laying claim to Israel as the Promised Land or affirming the political power of the priests in the Temple. Collectively, this challenge to the belief that Moses wrote the Torah as a transcription of God’s revelation to him is called the Documentary Hypothesis.

On the other hand, as centuries of explication uncloak the Torah’s hidden meanings, thematic, even transcendent, integrity come into view. It has yielded its secrets slowly. Themes continue to emerge over centuries of interpretation with an intensity and and subtlety that cannot be simply explained away as the projections of eager scholars over-scrutinizing and over-interpreting a text like Shakespeare’s plays. Subtleties ripple backward and forward across the whole text of the Bible and tie the whole text together. They are cloaked so well, so deeply buried, and it has taken so many centuries to unearth them, that it is hard to believe they were placed there by human authors seeking to score political or rhetorical points. Even today, the Torah, especially in its original Hebrew, continues to reveal a poetry, a literary depth, and an integrity or coherence that almost demands we acknowledge a single intelligence at work keeping  all parts in mind from beginning to end. At the same time, the cross-references and layers of meaning seems so complex and layered, that it seems to speak of a talent beyond what seems possible from a mortal mind, however inspired.

Eight hundred years after Moses putatively wrote it, the Torah was divided into fifty-four weekly parshiot (segments, singular = parsha, not to be confused with numbered chapters used in all Bibles today) during the Babylonian exile (586-538 BCE). Keepers of the faith worried the Jews were losing touch with the story of their peoplehood and nation, and so instituted weekly public readings. But we can thank them, because the chapters often focus the reader’s attention on themes that we otherwise might miss. One of these deeply buried bits of linguistic archeology lies buried in the chapter Vayyeshev – “And He Settled” (Genesis 37:1-40:23).

Joseph’s story

Vayyeshev tells the biography of Joseph from the time he lived with his eleven brothers, the sons of Jacob (later named Israel). It’s a kind of familiar picaresque tale or bildungsroman, like Tom Jones, about a boy of hidden noble birth who is orphaned into the world, claws his way out of adverse circumstances, and rises to heroic adulthood.

Jealous of the fact that he is Jacob’s favorite (he gets a multi-colored coat), and worse, a “dreamer,” they throw Joseph in a pit, consider murdering him, and instead sell him into slavery to the Ishmaelites. He is carried to Egypt and sold again. His new owner, Potiphar, recognizes Joseph is blessed in everything he does and elevates him to his CEO. Unfortunately, Joseph catches the eye of Potiphar’s wife. She grabs at his coat and begs him for sex. He refuses. As revenge, she gets him thrown in jail, claiming he tried to rape her. He gets out by interpreting the dreams of his cellmates, Pharaoh’s butler and baker, in prophetic manner.

This neat story has all the makings of a beautifully coherent literary gem. We can see the movie version spun out on a big screen. However, there’s a problem: the tale is interrupted for no apparent reason by a lurid digression about one of Joseph’s brothers, Judah. [1]

Judah and Tamar

Judah has three sons. The eldest marries Tamar but dies. The second, Onan, fulfills his legal obligation to marry his brother’s widow, but because he knows any children will not be counted as his, he “spills his seed,” for which God also kills him. The third son, Shelah, is too young for marriage. Judah tells Tamar to stay in the household only until Shelah grows up and then she must leave. Judah is worried that if Tamar marries Shelah, his last son will also die.

But Tamar seeks to right this wrong, being deprived of a levirate marriage that will save her honor and status. She disguises herself as a whore, snares Judah on a trip, and gets pregnant. She confronts him with a signet and a staff he gave her as collateral for her services. He admits his responsibility and praises Tamar for seeking justice.

This is also a nice story, but what’s it doing here? It could make a cool movie, too, maybe shorter than Joseph’s, but a neat romcom. It even has a happy ending.

Veyyeshev’s literary coherence

On closer inspection, the literary eye is caught by a remarkable oddity. The Torah is notoriously frugal with its description and gives few extraneous details. Because there’s so little other color, when props are brought on stage, they get our attention. In fact they unavoidably seem like metaphors or symbols of … something else.

The single prop that stands out in the first part of Joseph’s story is his coat. It is the object of his brothers’ envy and symbolizes everything they think is wrong with Joseph.  (And yes, as if to prove the metonymic point, it even becomes the title of a Broadway musical, and then movie, “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”) After they’re rid of Joseph, they dip his torn coat in goat’s blood and present it to their father, Jacob, to prove that Joseph has been eaten by wild beasts. Jacob responds by tearing his own garment (which becomes the sign of wordless Jewish bereavement forever after). [2]

The props that stand out in the detour to Tamar and Judah are also wardrobe items. Judah’s signet and staff are accessories that might be found in any good Canaanite clothing department, but then there’s Tamar’s disguise. The Torah takes the time to tell us Tamar “takes off her widow’s clothing” in order to don a prostitute’s costume and veil. She puts her widow’s garb back on to testify against Judah.

Beged, the macguffin

The Torah returns to the second part of Joseph’s story. Again, the prop for the story – what screenwriters call a MacGuffin,” an object used to advance the plot (like the titular black statue in the 1941 movie, “The Maltese Falcon”)  –  is an article of clothing. Potiphar’s wife lusts after Joseph so much she “grasps at Joseph’s coat.” He flees so quickly, he leaves it in her grasp. Again, like any good plot device, the coat returns as she stages it for Potiphar, arranging it by her bedside, proof of her claims Joseph tried to rape her.  We can’t help but notice the episode mirrors Tamar’s ruse in the preceding story. But where Tamar has justice on her side. Potiphar’s wife’s trick is a treacherous lie. Yet it also works. Joseph lands in jail. And somewhere in there we have a allegory of justice perverted. Hold that thought. We will return to it later.

As we unpack its imagery, Vayyeshev starts looking like a vaudeville trunk: open it, stand it on its side, and you get a whole wardrobe of costumes.

One of the Hebrew words for clothing is beged [בגד – B-G-D]. It rings like a bell through the chapter. Jacob tears his beged (Gen 37:31-32). Tamar takes off her widow’s beged (Gen 38:14) to play the whore and then puts it on again to testify against Judah. Potiphar’s wife tears Joseph’s beged off him in lust as he flees, then arrays it next to her bed when she plays the injured party to prove Joseph’s guilt. In all, Beged recurs six times just in this part of the chapter (Gen 39:12-18), and twelve times throughout Vayyeshev. As words go, it’s a real lexical macguffin.

Sure enough, lurking inside it lies the key to a transcendent understanding of the Torah’s intention: beged means both ‘clothing’ and ‘treachery’ (as in ‘cloaked motives’, ‘deceit’). As the word rings through these verses, it explains why the interruption about Judah and Tamar, far from being a mere digression from the story of Joseph, may actually explain it.

Once we see it, the theme of treachery ripples out to embrace and tie together larger swaths of the chapter. Joseph’s brothers commit an act of terrible treachery when they first consider murdering Joseph, then sell their brother into slavery. They then heartlessly deceive their father into thinking his favorite son is dead.

Judah cheats Tamar by shielding Shelah from marrying her. She repays him by deceiving him.

Potiphar’s wife is doubly treacherous, too. She first begs Joseph to commit adultery and then lands him in jail on false charges.

In each incident, the occurrence of the word beged signifies both an article of clothing and its metaphorical twin, deceit. In fact, the word beged is self-referential: it exemplifies the capacity of a word to veil, cloak, disguise, or hide another meaning. It’s a pun, squared. [3]

Once we tug at this thread, we unravel entanglements with other double meanings that weave the text together:

So she took off her widow’s garb, covered her face with a veil, and, wrapping herself up, sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him as wife. (Genesis 38:14)

What article of clothing implies disguise and deceit? A veil. What does “the entrance to Enaim” mean? Literally, ‘the opening of the eyes’. [4] There’s a poem about appearances here.

Eyes open, we now see treacheries involving garments billow out to implicate other events, not just in this portion, but in the rest of Genesis. As a result of her tryst with Judah, Tamar gives birth to twins. She uses another article, a red string, to mark the twin that emerges first. It seems obvious she is trying to avert a repetition of the drama of contested twinship that lurks in their legacy from Jacob. But fate is stronger. Just as she ties the string to avoid getting entangled in God’s apparent script, the first twin is pulled back and the second twin emerges first, tangling things again. The Torah, to paraphrase Mark Twain about history, doesn’t quite repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

A tangled web of deception, disguise, and punning disguised in a word

The thread of beged brings the play between clothing, disguise, and treachery to center stage. It unlocks the deepest genealogy of the patriarchal family, and makes us look at a destiny that goes to the most complex moral paradoxes in the origin stories of the Hebrews. The treachery of brothers begins with the snake in the Garden of Eden. Cain slays Abel and denies it. Treachery runs through Noah’s family after the flood (his sons uncover his nakedness). It echoes in Abraham and Lot, and becomes the fulcrum of God’s history as He chooses Isaac over Ishmael. Laban tricks Jacob into laboring for him for twenty years so he can finally wed his true love, Rachel. Joseph’s brothers commit a terrible deception to wipe out the whole city of Shechem after its prince abducts and rapes their sister, Dina.

But the word first occurs in the Torah in the earlier drama between Jacob and Esau. This event originates the calculus of deception that seems to be working itself out like an algebraic proof through the generations after these twins.

Jacob is able to fool Isaac into cheating Esau of his blessing because Rebekah, their mother, has dressed Jacob for the part. She cooks Esau’s best recipes for venison for Jacob to bring his father and then disguises Jacob in Esau’s finest clothes: begado (Gen 27:15). To prove the deceit worked, when the real Esau comes too late to Isaac to get his blessing, the blind old man is inspired in that blessing by the smell of Esau’s clothing (begadiv). The Sages are alert to the duality of the word. “Read this not as ‘clothes’ but as ‘betrayers’.”[5]

In the end, though Jacob and Esau reconcile in an elaborate display of peacemaking, they are irreconcilable. They embrace, but must live far apart. This mutual exile leads to the first word of this chapter, Vayeishev: ‘and he settled’: The flavor of the original Hebrew implies that Joseph dwells in the land where his father had to live as a foreigner because he was avoiding Esau and all his descendants, the Edomites. whose elaborate tribal genealogy is recounted in the verses just before this chapter begins.

The evolution of beged and Design in the Torah

The cycles of deceit and family drama among Abraham’s seed don’t end until Moses takes the stage. It’s as if only receiving the Torah can heal the pathological family structure of the Hebrews. Whispering this transformation in its own small way, beged’s meaning change as it moves from Genesis to Exodus. When beged appears dozens of times throughout Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, it is only to signify the holy garments of Aaron and his priestly descendants, or garments that need to be washed to be holy or purified, or regal clothing signifying elevation, or garments with fringes on their corners (tzitzit) that Jews are commanded to wear in order to control lust (Recall Judah. Now recall Joseph’s restraint with Potiphar’s wife) and remind them of Torah. (Numbers 15:38). The word mysteriously simplifies by losing its alternative, cloaked meaning.

Beged’s other sense as ‘treachery ‘only occurs once more, soon after the events of Joseph, before it disappears forever.

“If she please not her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed: to sell her to a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he has dealt deceitfully with her.” (Exodus 21:8)

We are subtly being reminded of Vayyeshev. A man cheats a woman under his control out of what’s owed her by marital rights, as Judah did Tamar. The verse also singles out a pretty odd example of the many ways a husband might cheat a wife out of her due, by selling her to a foreign nation, which happens to be exactly what Joseph’s brothers did to him.

The word beged then does something even stranger: when we reach Deuteronomy, it seems to disappear entirely from the Five Books of Moses, with only one remarkable exception:

“You shall not pervert the justice due to the stranger, or to the fatherless; nor take the widow’s raiment as pledge (collateral).” (Deuternonomy 24:17)

The word calls out here, without prefix, suffix, or declension. It appears in its simple noun form without adornment. Beged. It has already shed its alternative meaning of ‘disguised motives’ or ‘treachery’. Now, though, it is transmuted, elevated to a symbol of justice. The Torah warns judges: apply justice evenhandedly, to the stranger and the orphan. Show mercy: don’t take collateral from the widow. “The widow’s raiment” calls back loudly and clearly to the story of that other widow from four books ago, Tamar

This one recurrence of the word, by its singularity, seems to trumpet a moral evolution through the other four Books of Moses. We have left the first family treacheries behind us way back there in the Book of Genesis. We have been instructed elaborately on the mechanics of holiness and purification, especially involving clothes, in three books that follow. And now, through a solitary instance in the final book, we understand the ultimate obligation is to activate those aspirations by connecting the divine to humanity through justice.

What author had the wit to devise this complex and subtle web of signification woven across so many chapters? How did that author layer so many puns, echoes, cross-references, intertextual reflections, and doubled meanings on one word? Or hide so many clues so deeply that they may never have had any hope of being discovered without a concordance and a computer? When every fragment of a whole seems to contain all the information of that whole, we call it a hologram. How did that author show such great artistry, to grow and alter the meaning of the word itself, to lose its furtive duality, to evolve its significance in parallel with the much broader arc of the Children of Israel as they evolve from idolatrous Hebrew nomads to a holy nation? Who devised this hologram? Why does one word seem to multiply across Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, but then seem to be forgotten in Deuteronomy except for one, exquisitely resonant occasion that ripples back and colors all its predecessors?

Are these all signs of inconsistency, proving the Torah was stitched together by many authors across centuries? Or is it proof of such incredible subtlety, integrity, and transcendent coherence in the Torah that only a single Author could possibly have held it in His mind?


ENDNOTES

[1] Rashi, among many other commentators, flags this intrusion, “Why is this section placed here thus interrupting the section dealing with the history of Joseph?” (Genesis Rabbah, 85:2).

[2] The sages *almost* make the connection that Joseph’s torn clothing makes between parts 1 and 2 of the Joseph story: “A savage beast devoured him. This is a reference to Potiphar’s wife, who would attempt to seduce him.” Midrash Rabbah 84:19.

[3] The technical word for this is “paronomasia.”

[4] Rashi on Torah.

[5] Midrash Rabbah Bereishit,


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I am grateful, again, to my neighbors Michael Morazadeh, Jonathan Choslovsky, and Ron Kardos, members of my informal chavrusa, who challenged me to take a hard look at the Documentary Hypothesis (that the Torah was written by many authors across several centuries instead of by God and Moses). This blog and several before and after were inspired by their challenge. I am also grateful to Rabbi Yale Spalter of Chabad Northern Peninsula for noting what some of the sages had to say about these matters.

The direct inspiration for this treatment of beged came during a celebration of the 19th of Kislev at Chabad of Palo Alto (where I was also accompanied by R. Spalter and Messrs. M, C, & K.). Rabbi Menacham Landa of the Novato Chabad was darshening about Joseph’s incident with Potiphar’s wife and it occurred to me that Joseph seemed to have a habit of losing his clothing in dramatic circumstances. Rabbi Levin of Chabad Palo Alto said, almost off the cuff, that the word beged had a weighty meaning worth looking into.


AUTHOR’S NOTE

It is hard to believe a set of authors across the centuries BCE posited by the various Documentary Hypotheses could have anticipated a tool like Strong’s Concordance of the Bible, or the potent combination of the computer, Internet and hypertext. These open the entire text of the Torah and all its commentaries to inspection, cross-reference and explication, especially via the genius of Sefaria.org.  And only this level of inspection enables us to completely appreciate the depth and number of layers of meaning in, and coherence of. the Torah. Why would human authors have embedded and hidden these intertextual gems if they had no conception of how those connections might have been unearthed and appreciated, if at all? This is my way of saying I’m grateful to these tools and their authors.

It will take another prolix blog to explain why I am biased against the Documentary Hypothesis from the get-go and then expose the many holes in it. I will only say here it offends my literary sensibilities to suggest that disparate human authors, writing in a committee separated by centuries, cultural contexts, and goals could achieve such artistic complexity and coherence in a text. It also insults whatever rationality I have left, inculcated by decades of scholarship and an MIT education. The number of symbols, meanings, metaphors and cross-references that exist in the text of the Torah is so exponential, it suggests an intellect vaster than anything humanly comprehensible was at work composing it. The whole DH affair seems a desultory, cynical and arrogant attempt to sacrifice the inspired poetry of the original Hebrew on the altar of what passes for scholarship and so called philological science. Not to mention, suck the spiritual life out of it.

I also think rejecting Divine Authorship of the Bible dooms Jews – or any culture or civilization – to drift and inevitable extinction. It’s a bad business model for any religion to suggest that moral behavior comes solely from human judgements and imperatives. It leads ultimately to moral relativism and chaos. We humans, unmoored from any allegiance to an Authority beyond our ken, inevitably fall to bickering over the meaning and application of terms like justice.

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