Principle 3

The sounds of the words play a crucial role in bringing out frequently-missed ideas in the text. Connections between words are based on the sound of the words using assonance, alliteration and repetition.

EXAMPLE (Genesis 32:21-22):

The setting is the patriarch Yaakov (Jacob) returning home after being away for twenty years. He is terrified of his brother Esav, who had sworn to kill him for stealing his birthright and blessing:

In the run-up to their meeting, Jacob expresses his anxiety and comes up with a strategy. Compare the following two translations of this moment:

New English Bible:
For he thought, “I will appease him with the present that I have sent on ahead, and afterwards, when I come into his presence, he will perhaps receive me kindly.” So Jacob’s present went on ahead of him…

Five Books of Moses

For he said to himself:
I will wipe (the anger from) his face (phanav)
with the gift that goes ahead of my face (le-phanai)
afterward, when I see his face, (phanav)
perhaps he will lift up my face! (phanai)
The gift crossed over ahead of his face…(al panav)

This Hebrew text is built on variations of the word panim, whose basic meaning is “face,” although the Hebrew uses it idiomatically to encompass several different ideas.  If the text is translated with attention to sound, its quite striking oral character emerges. What does the reader gain by hearing the literalness of the Hebrew? And what is lost by the use of its idiomatic meaning? The text itself here seems to be mirroring something of significance. The motif of “face” (which might be interpreted as “facing” or confrontation) occurs at crucial points in the story. The night before his fateful meeting with Esav, as he is left to ponder the next day’s events, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious stranger—a divine being. After Jacob’s victory, the text reports (32:31):

Yaakov called the name of the place: Peniel/Face of God
for: I have seen God,
face to face,
and my life has been saved.

The repetition suggests a thematic link with what has gone before. One could interpret that once the hero has met and actually bested this divine being, his coming human confrontation is assured of success. Thus, upon meeting Esav at last, Yaakov says to him (33:10)

For I have, after all, seen your face, as one sees the face of God,
and you have been gracious to me.

The above interpretation depends entirely on sound. Once that focus is dropped, either because the text is not read aloud or a standard translation, the inner connections are simply lost and the reader is robbed of the opportunity to make these connections for himself.


Principle 4 »